Friday, April 30, 2010

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 8

2 more movies last Thursday, on my first (and maybe only) night at the PFA. Simple reason that I've gone to the Kabuki for most shows--the festival lounge (and free happy hour beer) is there.

But you couldn't keep me away from the PFA and a chance to see the restored print of Luchino Visconti's SENSO. I'm a fan of film restoration in general, and adore the look of 3 strip Technicolor, and a chance to see a restored master work (that originally played at SFIFF well before my time) was too much to pass up. And it totally delivers. It's a vibrant, passionate love/lust story set during Garibaldi's war of Independence in the 1860's. It's a scandalously adulterous affair between a fiercely nationalist Italian Countess and an apolitical soldier in the occupying Austrian army. At first she approaches him to prevent a duel between him and her even more partisan cousin, but soon his reputation with the ladies is shown to be entirely deserved. Unfortunately, there's a war. And more unfortunately, his reputation is more than just deserved. And so, as in all thing love and/or war, people get badly hurt. The film beautifully colored (the Italian flag features the reddest reds, whitest whites, and greenest greens I've ever seen--enough to almost turn me partisan even without a drop of Italian blood in me)

And then I stayed at the PFA for WOMAN ON FIRE LOOKS FOR WATER. An odd Malaysian film set in a tiny little fishing village. Warning: much of the film shows graphic processing of seafood. Most is no big deal, but there is a scene early on when the hero cuts the head off a live frog with a pair of scissors (and in a later scene, several goats are burnt in a bonfire). That hero is Ah-fei, and he sells frogs as food. He's got a sorta-girlfriend, but she says she can't marry him until he makes enough money, or at least writes her a poem. One day coming home he rescues an old woman stuck in the mud. Out of gratitude they invite him and his father to a meal, which turns out is all a setup to get him to meet their daughter (unclear whether getting stuck in the mud was part of the plot or if the old woman just does it habitually). Meanwhile, his father is nearing the end of his life, and decides to try to hook up with the proverbial 'one that got away.' Beautiful in an entirely different way, and fascinating for it's contrast between the shy manner in which matters of love are handled and the brutal, direct manner in which the slaughter of animals is handled (and shot).

And that was Thursday. About time to start another big weekend.

Total Running Time: 215 minutes
My Total Minutes: 183,238

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 7

The midpoint of the festival. Two more movies last Wednesday night, and an on-stage event.

That on-stage event would be the Founder's Directing Award, given this year to Walter Salles (CENTRAL STATION, THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES). After a brief highlight reel and an introduction, he appeared on stage to be interviewed by none other than Alejandro González Iñárritu (AMORES PERROS, 21 GRAMS, BABEL). With two Latinos onstage, Iñárritu made a joke about how they needed extra security and how they'd put their guns away now. To be honest, that joke didn't go over too well in overly sensitive San Francisco. And when he prefaced his first question about how Salles home country of Brazil is isolated as the only Portuguese speaking country in the Americas, someone from the audience called out in protest. But I didn't care, I think Iñárritu and Salles were great together, and the conversation was deep, playful, and insightful, and in many places explored how Salles made "road" movies. As Salles explained, "cinema is the art of movement" and obviously his childhood travels (his father was a diplomat) greatly influenced him, although he always preferred the lively streets of Brazil to say, Paris.

All this talk of road movies led perfectly into the feature presentation, Salles' ~60-minute work-in-progress (and maybe never to be completed) documentary IN SEARCH OF ON THE ROAD. Jack Kerouac's famous beat novel (which I am currently reading in fits and starts) has been attempted by filmmakers before, notably last years directing award winner Francis Ford Coppola. Walter Salles is attempting it now, set to start filming this summer. Well, this quickly edited collection of interviews, news clips, auditions, and Salles' voice-over musings is a pleasant little meditation on what "On the Road" means to so many people and why it's been so impossible to film until now (hopefully his production isn't doomed, too). It's a remarkable one-off event I was lucky to experience.

Only problem is, the program ran long so I had to dash out just as the closing credits rolled so I could catch my next film, COLD WEATHER. Aaron Katz, you can tell everyone I walked out on seeing two giants of world cinema finish talking to each other and I don't regret it one bit.

I'd seen Katz's DANCE PARTY U.S.A at Indiefest a few years back (my review here) and at the time wrote about his part in a "new wave of American filmmaking." This was before the term "mumblecore" was coined, or at least before I heard of it. So since he was one of the mumblecore filmmakers, it seems obligatory to mention that. So...mumblecore mumblecore mumblecore.

Okay, I admit that after the movie I spoke excitedly with a few people about how he used mumblecore techniques--no-budget aesthetic, naturalistic dialogue, etc.--to make a decidedly quirky and very entertaining amateur detective flick. But then after thinking about it for a day, I realize that looking at COLD WEATHER through a mumblecore lens makes as much sense as looking at Lars Von Trier's ANTI-CHRIST through its relation to Dogme 95. It's not applicable, and who cares anyway?

So, with that as way too much of a lead-in, here's what COLD WEATHER is about: Doug is a loser who works in an ice factory. He dropped out of college where he studied forensic science because he's such a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes. His ex-girlfriend (they're on good terms) comes to town, kinda hits it off with his friend from the ice factory (who DJs on the side). And then...disappears. And then the movie turns into a mystery. There's a secret code, a briefcase, bad guys, porn, a really cheesy cowboy hat--all the great things in crime stories. There's also Doug thinking that getting a pipe will make him think more like Sherlock Holmes, but only being able to afford a cheap corncob pipe (side note: if he was really such a Sherlock Holmes fan, he would've done a 9% solution of coke). And there's a sly sense of humor where neither the good guys nor the bad guys are all that impressive, and it completely defies and subverts genre cliches. And it had me chuckling the whole time. Very well done.

Total Running Time: 156 minutes
My Total Minutes: 183,023

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 6

Two more movies for Tuesday night.

First up, CONSTANTIN AND ELENA. The titular characters have been married for 54 years, they're funny, charming, occasionally befuddled (by things like a can of Pepsi), and they happen to be director Andrei Dascalescu's grandparents (more on that later). The movie is a year in the life of a simple and simply charming old couple. They smoke sausages, she weaves beautiful rugs, they sing folk songs and bake tons of desserts for the holidays. The joke about death with an practical air of dignity--not fearing death but sad that their time together is running out. The type of people anyone would be happy and proud to have as grandparents. In fact, this movie reminded me of how much I love my grandparents (they've been on my mind a lot lately, but that's a different story). While the director is their grandson, he studiously kept himself out of the movie, adhering to a strict observational style with long takes and a fixed camera that lets you look wherever you want--putting the onus of observation on the audience (which is something I really appreciated).

Okay, and I said there would be more on the director. Andrei Dascalescu didn't intend to be a documentary filmmaker. He was an assistant editor working for Walter Murch on Francis Ford Coppola's YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH. He told them all about his grandparents, and gave Murch, Coppola, and others gifts of rugs woven by his grandmother. At the last minute he decided it would be nice to show them who these people were so he filmed them a little bit, edited it together, and gave (at least Walter Murch) the footage as a going away present. Walter Murch (who was there for the screening and both introduced the film and did the Q&A with Andrei) told Andrei how much he liked the short movie about his grandparents. Andrei protested that it wasn't really a movie, just some stuff he shot, but Murch told him no, it really is a movie. And I guess when Walter Murch tells you what you've made is a movie, then you've made a movie. Well, then he shot more (for a year) and created what we saw at the festival.

So then, in a rather odd counterbalance, I saw Johnnie To's new action flick VENGEANCE. A couple (French wife, Chinese husband, and their two kids) are gunned down in an opening scene that is brutal and shocking. She survives--barely--and her father Francois Costello (Johnny Hallyday) visits her, gets what details he can, and vows to avenge her. He's a chef with a past that makes him plenty deadly. But he doesn't know Macau. Enter Johnnie To's stalwart Anthony Wong and his crew. Francois witnesses them carrying out a mob hit. So he follows them, and hires them to find his daughter's killer and help him get vengeance. The action scenes are plenty powerful (a climax with rolling cubes of garbage is pretty awesome), but Johnnie To has always really excelled in the moments between action. The easy camaraderie of the crew, the dark humor, questions of loyalty--especially, I won't give away spoilers. Although I will call attention to a major plot twist where Francois loses his memory but the quest for vengeance continues (because, after all, Wong and his crew were hired for a job). Can vengeance exist without memory? Doesn't matter, because I don't want to (or think I can) forget this movie.

BTW, I've seen quite a few Johnnie To films (at least a half-dozen or so), but had no idea he was so prolific. I guess I've only scratched the surface of his filmography.

Total Running Time: 210 minutes
My Total Minutes: 182,867

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 5

Back to the normal weekday grind. Working my regular job (that has nothing to do with movies) and zipping up to the city for a couple of movies.

First up, a charming and hilarious German comedy SOUL KITCHEN. Zinos is a Greek-German who owns and operates the greasy low-class titular restaurant in what appears to be an abandoned factory. He's a nice guy, but things don't generally turn his way. His girlfriend's going to Shanghai for her job. His restaurant is a dump that's not up to code. He owes back taxes. Oh yeah, and his jailbird brother is out on parole and needs a job. Add to that a new gourmet chef "The Traveler" who's brilliant but volatile, an old school chum who wants to steal the restaurant out from under him and sell it to a developer (Udo Kier in a cameo). But just when things are getting to be too much, the new chef becomes a hit and his little greasy pub becomes the hottest spot in town. They finally have money to fix up the kitchen, pay off his taxes, and clean the place up. But he's still got that issue of the girlfriend in Shanghai, so now that he has the money he buys a ticket and leaves his brother in control of the restaurant. Both turn out to be bad ideas, but seeing this movie was not.

So then I went back to the festival lounge for more than a few beers in order to get ready for A DRUNKEN EVENING WITH DEREK WATERS AND WOLPHIN. Lots of funny shorts that originally played online, including of course some of the Drunk History series (specifically: the Frederick Douglas one starring Don Cheadle and Will Ferrel, the Nikola Tesla one starring John C. Reilly and Crispin Glover, and the Oney Judge one). Also some other shorts, like Bob Odenkirk as Riff Sweetwater talking about "street surfboarding" or Derek and Simon (Helberg, from "The Big Bang Theory") in THE PITY CARD, about taking a girlfriend to the Holocaust Museum on a date (worst part, she hadn't heard of the Holocaust).

In between shorts, Derek Waters and Wolphin editor Brent Hoff came out on stage, did little bits (Derek did the opening dance from "Blossom") and generally got drunker and drunker as the night went on. That was the only problem. The balcony had drinks (you get there through a bar in the theater) but down in front row center I was sobering up. Although I started with a good drunk going on, by the end of the night I was losing my buzz. I should have known to schedule enough time to go to a convenience store to get some drinks to smuggle in. It's not like I've never done that that very a previous SFIFF.

Anyway that was Monday.

Total Running Time: 169 Minutes
My Total Minutes: 182,657

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 4

So even after staying up way past my bedtime for THE VIOLENT KIND, I managed to drag myself back up to the city by 10 am for another day of 5 films, starting with the kid's shorts Flights of Fancy. Here's the rundown on the lineup:
LEONARDO: Da Vinci, that is. His attempts to fly, in clean, simple sketches.
JOSEPH'S SNAILS: A shy boy plays with his snails and gives new meaning to navel-gazing in this claymation short from France.
VEETI AND THE BEANSTALK: A Finnish tale of a father's death and a family that nearly drowns in tears. Beautiful and touching.
PIGEON: IMPOSSIBLE: If you work for the CIA, it's better to just give your bagel to a pigeon than accidentally start WWIII.
MR. MACK'S KITCHEN: A hero documentary about a chef who teaches kids to cook and serve the old folk's home next door.
CRAZY HAIR DAY: Even if you get the wrong day, true friends will help you pull through.
Q&A: For Storycorps, a son with Asperger's interviews his mother, asking some tough questions about parenthood. I actually remember this playing on the radio, and it's just as powerful with the animation.
CHERRY ON THE CAKE: When you're ignored on your birthday, it can make you feel really small.
THE MOUSE THAT SOARED: A circus sensation, a flying mouse reminisces on the surrogate parents (birds) that raised him.

The best thing about the kid's program is the Q&A afterwards, asking funny questions to Lucas Martell (PIGEON: IMPOSSIBLE) and offering their theories on the message of the movie. But I was especially impressed by the little genius a few seats over from me in the front row. When the moderator asked if anyone knew how many pictures it takes to make 1 second of film, I knew the answer was 24. One kid guessed 6, but then this kid answered "usually 24, but sometimes 30." Freakin' kid one-upped me!

Anyway, then I saw a Chines banking epic EMPIRE OF SILVER. Actually, make that banking, Boxer Rebellions, family soap-opera melodrama, wealth, power, death, and more family. It's beautifully shot, and an audaciously-scoped story that on mulitple viewings may be it's greatest strength but with one viewing is it's greatest frustration. There's just so many storylines I can't wrap my head around it in one viewing. The Kang family has amassed a banking fortune, starting with thirty pieces of silver that their ancestor received in exchange for giving a starving man his last bowl of porridge. Generations later, the family is ruled by a powerful patriarch and his four sons. The fourth son is off on his honeymoon when his bride is kidnapped. Alright, I though, this is where the action starts. But 10 minutes later his wife is dead, the culprit (a prostitute blackmailing the family) is revealed and killed, and the fourth brother has a nervous breakdown. In the incident another brother (who had consorted with the prostitute) hangs himself, another goes down on an accident with his horse, so it's all down to the patriarch and the third master (Aaron Kwok). He has his own issues, as he has a past with the family matriarch--his stepmother and former English tutor. Oh yeah, and Jennifer Tilly shows up as a missionary's wife and confidant of Madam Kang. Third master fights with his father over business practices, trying to do well by their customers, avoiding/handling runs on the bank, and shepherding the family legacy through the turbulent times in their country.

Whew! I think I just convinced myself that it is possible to cram this whole movie into my brain, it'll just take another viewing. So here's hoping it gets released, since I won't be able to make it to the other festival screening (May 1, 9:00 at the Kabuki)

Next up, I caught FRONTIER BLUES, from the Iran/Turkmenistan border region. I've written before about how Iranian films tend to bore me (using Hitchcock's famous 'slice of life/slice of cake' quote). In the past couple of years, I believe I've begun to get Iranian film (or this is an atypical Iranian film), because I found it pretty funny. It's still a collection of characters and their daily lives (the term "tableau vivant" came up in the Q&A), but I could recognize and laugh at and with the characters. Hassan wears thick, goofy glasses and takes his donkey with him everywhere. He's sort of the village idiot but insists he has a lot of things going on. Alam works in a chicken farm wear he's always tearing his overalls, but dreams of getting out of there. To facilitate that dream, he tries to learn English on tape but just keeps repeating "My name is Alam" and "Everything is fine." And there's the photographer (director Babak Jalali admitted the character was a parody of himself) who is doing a book on Turkmen and gets a local minstrel to pose in native costume in various (completely unrealistic) situations. One of the funniest scenes is when he's photographing traditional Turkmen wrestling and constantly telling them to stop and hold a pose. All in all, I suppose it's still a slice of life, but it's nearly as sweet as cake.

So then, after a couple of free beers at the Festival Lounge (being press is good!) I caught the animated shorts program The High Line:

VOICE ON THE LINE: A funny little conspiracy about the government training early telephone operators and recording the calls.
ALMA: A girl walks by a store and sees a doll that looks just like her, so she's lured inside.
LOGORAMA: The Oscar winner for best animated shorts is a hilarious action comedy starring corporate symbols. Perfect for anyone who has wanted to see Ronald McDonald take Big Boy hostage and get into a shoot-out with the Michelin Man.
TUSSILAGO: In 1977 Norbert Kröcher was arrested for plotting the assassination of a German politician. This movie explores the role of his ex-girlfriend, still traumatized by the aftermath.
ELECTRIC LITERATURE: A single-sentence animation, with a three-legged dog and woman missing a breast.
INCIDENT AT TOWER 37: Don't hoard the water, fish need it too!
VIVE LA ROSE: Through the ever changing contents of a drawers, we see the story of a love, death, and fishing.
AFTERIMAGE: A study of motion in chromadepth 3-D (glasses that push blues to the back and reds to the front). Interesting, but grew tiresome at it's 13 minute length.

So then I was back to the festival lounge for a couple more beers (after 8:30 is becomes a cash bar, so $3 beers, not free ones) before I was back for an astounding live cinema event.

UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS is a live movie, music, and spoken word documentary performance by Sam Green and Dave Cerf. Okay, first the technical aspects--what does this mean? Dave Cerf did a live sound mix while Sam Green was on stage narrating a Keynote presentation (think PowerPoint, but don't think your last corporate PowerPoint presentation). On stage with him was the Brooklyn-based band The Quavers, consisting of a baritone guitar, a violin, and a trumpet.

As for the content, I had heard of Utopia before, but I hadn't known one of the key elements of it--that it's a play on words meaning No Place. It is essentially an ideal that does not exist, and the performance played a lot with that notion. It's an ideal, it doesn't exist, but it's still worth striving for. And it's an ideal that's completely wrapped up in the 20th century. The century started with no shortage of Utopian plans. This was the modern age, and modern technology would overcome all our problems. Here, looking at the 20th century in the rear-view mirror, Utopia is seen as a naive, failed idea. A term tossed around as a pejorative to squelch big ideas.

So what about the four movements: First, Esperanto. The universal language based on the strongly Utopian vision that if only everyone spoke the same language, we'd end all wars (ask the former Yugoslavia if that's true). But there are still large conventions of Esperanto speakers from all over the world. Heck, William Shatner even made a movie (THE INCUBUS) in Esperanto.

Second, Revolution. Grand schemes to re-make society. And yes, in the 20th century this mostly means communism. And yes, this led to horrors. Which leads to an interesting counterpoint to Utopia--the forensic anthropologist. Scientists to uncover mass, anonymous graves and carefully study and identify as many remains as they can. A sobering, tragic profession that is also based on the Utopian ideal that every person is valuable, every person deserves to be recognized and treated properly.

And now I have to confess that exhaustion and a little drunkenness caught up with me so I dozed off for a bit at the end of Movement 2 and beginning of Movement 3 (Sam, if you recognized me I was the guy with the big hair in the front row who was struggling to stay awake then). From what I gleaned when I woke up, Movement 3 was about malls. Specifically, I woke up during a bit about the largest mall in the world--in China--and how it's practically empty. And how the inventor of the mall at the end of his life regretted his creation and what became of it.

And finally, the fourth Movement was a Requiem for the 20th Century. Recapping the hopefulness, the failures, and the ideals of Utopia. And the essential paradox of Utopia--that it's all about hope in something that by it's very name doesn't exist. And yet, it ends on a hopeful note, that in the community fairs, the farmer's markets, the corner stores there are (especially in San Francisco) mini-Utopias all around us. Perhaps the era of the Big Idea is gone, but perhaps it can give way to the small Utopias, and through them we can retain hope. Because ultimately, Hope is what Utopia is about, far more than reality.

Okay, enough waxing philosophical. It was an amazing performance, and the live aspect of it worked very well (I can't imagine it as a fully recorded piece now).

Total Running Time: 480 minutes
My Total Minutes: 182,488

Monday, April 26, 2010

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 3

First weekend, now the festival gets rolling in earnest, with me seeing 6 films on Saturday. Let's jump right in:

First up, a youth shorts program Talkin' 'bout My Generation. An interesting mix of serious drama and wacky comedy.
ESCARGOTS: A funny retelling of the story of two rival chefs and the invention of serving snail meat.
THE STAND: Some people are made to be businesswomen, some are just looking to have fun, and some are all about love and hydration.
BLINK ANOTHER DAY (PART 1): It's Bond...James Bond...with Legos.
WHAT IS GREEN?: A documentary/political advertisement on the green (and green jobs) movement in Oakland.
WHERE I COME FROM: Chicago is a really tough place for black kids to grow up. But in the film-poem, where the narrator comes from is not where she's going.
ALISHA: An overweight black girl finally rises up against her abusive father.
PORTRAIT: A San Francisco teen who is just a little different. Ashamed and uncomfortable at her posh private school, she crosses streets just as the light changes on the off chance a drunk hipster will run her over--ending both lives.
TINY PILLOWS: A snow poem. I like snow.
SPARKS IN THE NIGHT: A noir parody, detective Leon Sparks takes on the criminal gang of Jay Walker, the Speeder Brothers, and more.
BLINK ANOTHER DAY (PART 2): More Bond, more Legos, and a crazy genius who wants to blow up the world. See the rest by going to Youtube and looking for Blink Another Day.
MOON-SHOES: A loser finds some ridiculous yellow tennies in the trash that make all his dreams come true.
THE TAKER: He stops time...he takes stuff.
EVENING OF PASSION (UNE SOIREE DE PASSION): A French meal (and game of Jenga) is ruined by a roach, but saved by the handsome exterminator.

Then I had literally no time to run to MY DOG TULIP (so sorry to the filmmakers that I skipped out on the Q&A). Luckily, it was right in the screen next door (screen 3 to screen 4), so I didn't miss anything but I did have to sit in the front row way off center. Anyway, it's an adorable film based on the memoirs by J.R. Ackerly. It's the story of an old man (and BBC correspondent) and his late-in-life discovery of his soul-mate. The film opens with him leaving his job interviewing such luminaries as Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, and George Bernard Shaw and rushing home because he'd rather be with his dog. He never owned a dog until he was fifty, and then only adopted Tulip (who in real life was Queenie, but he changed the name for his novel) on a whim. It turned out to be a life-changing whim for both of them, as he rescued the 18 month old "Alsatian bitch" from an abusive home and made her princess of his flat. The film takes us through their life together with Ackerly's dry wit, describing embarrassments (usually involving bowel movements), a battle with his sister over dominance, the search for a good vet, and attempts to mate Tulip. So many attempts to mate...(apparently at least three mating attempts were cut from the film). Oh yeah, and I haven't said a word about the style of the film. It's entirely hand-animated by Paul Fierlinger, who drew every frame and a computer tablet. The style is always rough, yet expressive, ranging from bare scratches of sketches on notepaper (odd, since this was a paperless film) to detailed full color scenes. The animation style perfectly complements Ackerly's dry wit, and the end result appeals (I've been told) to more than just dog people (I wouldn't know, I love dogs although I don't currently own one).

Next up, after a bit of a break, was a Thai horror/love/nature film NYMPH. The cinematography is beautiful, especially when the camera is wafting through the jungle, evoking beauty and horror (there's something special going on when a tree is a monster just from how you photograph it). Oh yeah, and the opening shot (a chase, assault, and deadly aftermath in the forest, in one ethereal shot) is amazing! The plot is a bit slow, and I found myself nodding off a few times (I'm already in mid-festival form!) Nop and May have been married for a while, and their love life has gone cold. Nop buries himself in photography, May likewise buries herself in her work--or rather, her boss Korn--or rather, she let's her boss bury himself in her. Nop and May head out to the forest for a getaway, but Nop disappears. May blames a giant mysterious tree, which might not be far from the truth. But the local authorities, who are up to their necks in missing persons, aren't much help. So May goes home alone and terrified, until Nop surprisingly shows up none the worse for wear a few days later. However, he's changed--he drinks lots of water, is more interested in gardening than photography, and is all in all different. Oh, and Korn doesn't make the reunion any easier, leaving his wife for May. So it's back to the forest for everyone and for May to confront that tree. Beautiful, slow, and probably worth a second look when I'm better rested.

Next up was my first documentary feature of the festival, TRANSCENDING LYNCH. David Lynch is, of course, a brilliant filmmaker, but he's also a longtime proponent of transcendental meditation. This film follows him on a tour through Brazil talking to fans about his films (with which he's pretty taciturn) and TM (with which he's pretty verbose). It's lucky that Lynch is pretty transcendent on his own, because you won't learn much about TM from this film. Instead, you'll get a look at perhaps the happiest director of "dark" films ever. He eschews the religious aspect of TM in favor of a more practical "mental relaxation technique" take on it that leaves you with the idea that you don't have to give up the rest of your life and beliefs to practice TM, it just makes the rest of your life so much better. He also liberally sprinkles in some armchair theoretical physics, equating TM with the Unified Field Theory, which totally appeals to me as a physicist. Although the end result is much more about the man than about TM (nary a meditation scene in the whole film), he's still a man I enjoyed spending an hour and a half with. Oh yeah, and director Marcos Andrade is clearly a Lynch fan and sprinkled the movie with amusing cinematic references to Lynch's work and techniques--most obviously the backwards scene through the airport.

So then, after another break and a couple of beers, I was back for the experimental/weird-ass shorts program PIRATE UTOPIAS.

ONE AND ONE IS LIFE: Mirrors, Wonder Woman, and stop motion animation, Oh My!
RELEASE: The release of Al Capone, over and over again in an expanding, reflected stock footage shot.
FIDDLESTIX: Crazy magic monkey made me grow my eyelashes long and eat my grandma's ashes. Damn you, Fiddlestixx!
EMBRACE OF THE IRRATIONAL: A documentary expounds on the virtues of embracing nature over the attempts by humans to impose order. If only they can get their technical issues worked out. Hilarious.
SPIN: Spin, toy soldiers, spin...and dance, and create amusing kaleidoscopic patterns.
M: Bits of modern detritus--cell phones, etc.--fly about.
ZEF SIDE: A weird little band, and their weird, sexy video.
BLINK: A girl disguised as a boy, the object of her/his affection, drugs, video games, and a cardboard cutout of her dad, who's off fighting a war.
THE LITTLE WHITE CLOUD THAT CRIED!: Guy Maddin takes a weird, kinky, sexually explicit romp through transsexuals, stigmata, head-based radio towers, etc. Ahhh, stigmata and tits! Gotta love it.

And finally, the night ended with the local sickos The Butcher Brothers (THE HAMILTONS, 2006 Cinequest and Holehead) newest flick, THE VIOLENT KIND. Ex-con Cody and his biker crew were just about the toughest motherfuckers in Oakland, and they can still kick some serious ass--as evidenced by the opening scene. They head up to Cody's mom's cabin for a big biker party of drinking (PBR and Lagunitas IPA) and debauchery. Despite it being his mom's place, Cody's not quite welcome. Seems the deal gone bad that sent him to jail brought the heat down on a lot of them, and now they question both his loyalty and his toughness. And to make matters worse, long after the party has wound down, his ex-girlfriend Michelle returns covered in blood screaming for help. Oh yeah, and this is after all the cars and phones stopped working. And then the demonic greasers show up and it gets weird, hilarious, brutal, and might just end the whole fucking world. A bit of stylish hard-core ultra-violence that kept me cheering while I was scratching my head. Awesome.

Total Running Time: 518 minutes
My Total Minutes: 182,008

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 2

Two shows last Friday Night, but first I got to the theatre way early (but not early enough to catch another show) and so I had lots of time to hang out in the festival lounge, drink a few Stella Artois (yay sponsor beer!), have enough snacks to constitute dinner, and chat with lots of film fans, professionals, and my fellow press (I still think I'm fooling everyone by walking around with press credentials).

Then, when I was good and liquored up, I settled into the front row for the Persistence of Vision Award night for Don Hertzfeldt (who I'm now declaring "The Pride of Fremont"--he takes that title away from M.C. Hammer).

Mr. Hertzfeldt started the festivities with some reminiscences of life in Fremont--particularly the one art class he took in school, the girl who accidentally sliced off her fingertip in the paper cutter and had to be rushed to the nurse, and the gruff teacher who simply tossed her fingertip into the trash.

By the way, prior to the show I spoke with a number of people who were going there just to support the POV award, and knew nothing about Don Hertzfeldt. I hoped they enjoyed the rare treat they got.

We then progressed to a clip reel of his work, starting with many I had seen before. In no particular order: his astronomical evolution epic THE MEANING OF LIFE. His classic (and Oscar nominated) tale of an artist gone mad in a commercial world REJECTED ("My spoon is tooooo big!" "My anus is bleeding!" His harrowing student film of a world where toys rebel against their children, BILLY'S BALLOON. INTERMISSION IN 3-D, part of the Animation Show he did with Mike Judge (one thing missing, we never talked about his Mike Judge collaboration).

We then moved on to his later work which I hadn't seen. EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY and the follow-up I AM SO PROUD OF YOU where Bill worries so much about his life (and crotch-level fruit) that he goes a bit mad.

Then it was time for the interview/Q&A section. Just a couple of questions in Don announced that he had one more clip to show, and he introduced it as as a 35mm film can found clutched in the hands of a corpse that was locked in an old rusted trunk in the attic of a distant relative's house in Sweden. Yeah, right, it was WISDOM TEETH, a sick little flick about a stitch that just won't end. Brilliant.

As for the interview, Don was funny, engaging, his mind wandered to some weird places. But I liked how he admitted silent films--especially the gags of Buster Keaton--were a big inspiration (BTW, anyone interested in silent films and animation should check out the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum's Roots of Animation show tonight). He talked about sneaking into front row center for a Monty Python reunion show (and being mistaken for Johnny Depp). And all around, he was a funny, engaging guy. I wasn't even perturbed that a guy two years younger than I was getting a lifetime achievement award (and I still consider myself a young guy).

Anyway, next up was the late show CARGO. A sci-fi epic of great ambition and intelligence, but relies a bit too much on plastic-looking CGI and some less-than-stellar acting and writing. In 2267, Earth in uninhabitable. People live like refugees in space stations, but there is one inhabitable planet--RHEA--that everyone strives to (afford to) live on. People will do anything to get to RHEA, and Dr. Laura Portman has joined the crew of a cargo ship to make the money and join her sister there. Should be uneventful--go into cryo-sleep, wake up at space station 42, collect a paycheck, go to RHEA. But of course things don't go as planned. Recent terrorist attacks have made a TSA agent on-board mandatory. And incidents happen--accidents (or murders?), a stowaway on board, maybe? But what is clear is the cargo is not just ordinary supplies. They pull out one crate and find a little girl inside. Alive, but in a cryo-sleep coma and with wires in her brain hooking her in to...they don't know what. The sci-fi lineage (ALIEN, THE MATRIX, SUNSHINE, even a bit of MOON from SFIFF 2009) is pretty clear, and the filmmakers are clearly fans of the genre. And they've put together a clever idea (and allegedly Switzerland's first sci-fi film), and should be commended for making it at a fraction of what a Hollywood studio would spend. But I do have to complain about the fake-looking CGI. There are some beautiful shots, but too often it created a world that the actors didn't fully inhabit, and that kept me from being fully drawn into the movie. Last year MOON succeeded so well in large part due to the quality of the practical effects. CARGO is a near miss (and a shame, given the smart script) for it's over-reliance on CGI. And it's not that I'm opposed to CGI, it's just that the difference between excellent (i.e., really expensive CGI) and bad CGI is so great, if you're going to rely on it so much you better do it much, much better.

Total Running Time: 194 Minutes (note, the time for the Don Hertzfeldt cartoons was estimated at 74 minutes, the interview time was not counted)
My Total Minutes: 181,490

Friday, April 23, 2010

Jason goes to SFIFF--Opening Night

The granddaddy of all Bay Area (and really, all The United States North America Western Hemisphere) film festivals is back, and I'm not the least bit ready. I've barely set my schedule through this Saturday, but that doesn't matter. I'll just wing it.

What does matter is the opening night film, and the best opener since I've started going to SFIFF Opening night (okay, only 3 years now, but still...)--Jean-Pierre Jeunet's MICMACS (don't tell the SFIFF staff it was the 'secret screening' at Cinequest, they're kinda protective of their 'premiere' status). Jeunet is of course the visual and inventive genius behind DELICATESSEN, CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, AMELIE, etc (and I'm even enough of a fan to like ALIEN RESURRECTION for it's own weird charm). MICMACS (the S is silent) means roughly "Shenanigans," which makes me like it more. It opens on a somber note, as a soldier is killed by a land mine. His son is heartbroken. 30 years later, he's a video store clerk when a shootout outside his store leaves him with a bullet in the head, alive but a little twisted. And his long recovery leaves him jobless and homeless, which ultimately leaves him with a rag-tag gang of lovable weirdos (including Jeunet staple Dominique Pinon) who live in a junkyard and live (and create wonderful things) out of salvaged scraps). He joins the group and enlists them in a hilariously convoluted (and deliriously and deliciously surprising) revenge against the arms company that built the mine that killed his father and the bullet that's stuck in his brain. Oh yeah, and he falls in love with the contortionist in the group, and it's all hilarious.

Jeunet revels in his playful and mischievous mis-en-scene. A recurring joke has billboards advertising the movie with the very scene taking place. An enormous explosion mocks action cliches followed shortly by a newscast announcing zero fatalities. And the rest of the style will be familiar and welcome to fans of DELICATESSEN or CITY OF LOST CHILDREN. And since I'm an admitted fan, I'll just end with this observation/confession: When rating an opening night film at SFIFF, I'll never give it a 5 (out of 5). Even if I love it, what do I do if I see something better later? Well, I gave MICMACS a 5.

Jeunet was there for a Q&A, where he was as funny as expected. It reminded me somewhat of the Q&A I saw with Tarantino, where the audience just asked "why are you so awesome?" questions, but he answered them well (admitting influences ranging from Tex Avery to A FISTFULL OF DOLLARS).

Then it was a bit of a walk (because I didn't want to pay for a cab and I needed the exercise to the Regency Center (Van Ness and Sutter) for the after party. It was crowded, but fun, what with the free drink and food and drink (I'm drafting this buzzed on the BART home). I have to say, it's nice to start recognizing (and being recognized by) more people at the party than past years. For a few years I felt like at Indiefest and Cinequest I was a big fish in a small pond but still too small to be known at the International. I think in the past year that's changed (and it should have, since I'm accredited press now).

Anyway, a great kickoff to what looks to be a great festival. I've only tentatively set my schedule through Saturday, so feel free to e-mail me with suggestions about what to see and when (bearing in mind I have a real job weekdays during the day).

Running Time: 105 minutes
My Total Minutes: 181,296

Monday, April 19, 2010

Jason celebrates the 104th anniversary of the 1906 SF Earthquake by going to the Castro and seeing SAN FRANCISCO

But first, a little champagne, a little period banjo concert...nice.

What can I say about the movie? It's a classic. Clark Gable as Blackie Norton, the toughest, atheist-est club owner on the Barbary Coast. His best friend from childhood is Father Mullin (Spencer Tracy). He fights for the affection of Mary Black (Jeanette MacDonald) with Jack Burley (Jack Holt). Oh, and Mary is an amazing singer and I finally heard the song San Francisco (which they play on the might Wurlitzer organ before nearly every Castro screening) in context. Oh, and spoiler alert--it ends with an earthquake! And it's awesome.

Running Time: 115 minutes
My Total Minutes: 180,951

Friday, April 16, 2010

Jason watches KICK-ASS

And I'll refrain from using the title as my review. That's just lazy. But I will say I liked it quite a lot. The story was engaging, the hero (a dweeb who decides to try to become a super-hero) is likable, the violence was insanely over the top, and Hit Girl is just awesome (and in a way I was more impressed by Nicolas Cage as her daddy, Big Daddy). There's an odd mix of cartoonishness with ultra-violence that...I liked. It might surprise or shock some people (odd that more controversy has been ginned up from the few times Hit Girl swears than all the violence). I like the way that super-heroing totally doesn't suit him. And I liked the subversive way they handled the "message" of the movie. The idea that people are so insulated and callous that they ignore the crimes happening around them--that it takes a crazy idealistic kid to do...anything about it. When his crime-fighting goes horribly awry, rather than calling for help people watch him online, or accidentally run over him and then drive away fast. In fact, as it turns out, he doesn't even follow his own moralizing. Without giving too much away, as soon as he has something better to do, he stops being Kick-Ass. And that's cynical, twisted, and true. And I loved it.

Now for the one bit I didn't like. Same problem I had with the similarly spirited ZOMBIELAND, and something I'm afraid is becoming too typical of action-comedies. I'm talking about gratuitous overuse of voice-over narration. It's lazy, it insults the audience's intelligence, and it's just annoying. There's even a moment in it where he calls extra attention to it by pointing out you shouldn't assume he survives just because he's talking to you, and he points out SUNSET BOULEVARD and AMERICAN BEAUTY as movies that use voice-over narration from deceased characters. A semi-clever film geek joke, but the problem is there would be no reason to point that out if they hadn't overused voice-over in the first place. And pointing out movies that used voice-over narration well (i.e., sparingly) just underlines how annoying it was.

But other than that, it was awesome.

Running Time: 117 Minutes
My Total Minutes: 180,836

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Jason watches HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (in 3-D)

And it's weird to admit it, but this kids movie is probably the best thing out in mainstream theaters right now. It's funny, exciting, the 3-D is good (but unnecessary), it's got a good ethos about seeing the world differently, and I simply have no complaints.

Oh, and to Jonah Goldberg, who claims this movie teaches (the wrong-headed liberal lesson that) there are no monsters, I'm going to have to type very slowly so you'll understand (and I'm sorry, but I'll have to give away spoilers): In fact (bigger spoiler) our little hero Hiccup teaches the Vikings to team up with the dragons and fight the bigger monster oppressing them. I wouldn't read it as deeply as this analysis (which I think is at least partially tongue-in-cheek), but the fact is if Jonah Goldberg thinks there are no "real" monsters in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, he must have had his head up his ass for the final 30 minutes (I could be nice and assume he just fell asleep, but I don't see how anyone could sleep through a movie this good).

Running Time: 98 minutes
My Total Minutes: 180,494

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for Comedy Shorts Night--April 2010

I love comedy shorts night, let's dive right in:

EASY STREET (1917): Charlie Chaplin has been chased by cops so many times, but this time he is a cop, and has to bring the giant Eric Campbell to justice. And of course, he does that in his own unique and hilarious way.

REMEMBER WHEN? (1925): Harry Langdon follows his heart, like many stupid young men. He runs away from the orphanage and years later is still looking for his lost love when his hobo antics get him a job in the circus. Turns out, his true love is the bearded lady. Pretty funny.

Then an intermission...we'll wait...

THE GOAT (1921): Buster Keaton gets mistaken for a serial killer in a truly inventive gag, and causes quite a bit of hilarity.

BACON GRABBERS (1929): And of course, we end with The Boys. Laurel and Hardy are debt collectors, repossessing a radio. Of course, much home destruction occurs. And it was hilarious. And I say that even though there was no actual bacon in the movie.

And that was last Saturday in Niles. Next Saturday, we celebrate (if that's the right word) the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, including A TRIP DOWN MARKET STREET shot just 4 days before the quake.

Total Running Time: 82 minutes
My Total Minutes: 180,396

Oh, and looking well into the future, the first weekend in June is the big Charlie Chaplin Days celebration in Niles. Come, check out the new town square (check it out sooner than that, in fact), see all the impersonators, watch shorts during the day and see THE GOLD RUSH at night. For more info, go here.


And I didn't bother with 3-D. You shouldn't either, it wasn't shot in 3-D. And if the characters and storyline are any indication, it was barely shot in 1-D. I guess this would count as eye candy for an ADD child who has never seen a movie with special effects before.

Running Time: 106 minutes
My Total Minutes: 180,314

Jason watches DATE NIGHT

Steve Carrell and Tina Fey are two of the funniest people on television. So why team them up in roles where they're a boring married couple, hamstringing their talent so the "comedy" can come from the wacky situations they find themselves in? And the situations aren't wacky so much as dangerous--the story doesn't no whether to be an crime-action-thriller or a slapstick comedy. There are sporadic scenes where their talent comes out--a repeated gag where they guess what other couples at the restaurant are saying, a truly screwball gag where they play hipsters to steal some crucial information, and a repeated gag about how a shirtless Mark Wahlberg makes Steve Carrell so uncomfortable. And the climax is pretty good. But these are far enough between that they only serve to offer glimpses of how much better this could have been.

Running Time: 88 minutes
My Total Minutes: 180,208

Monday, April 5, 2010

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for Lon Chaney's SHOCK (and a couple of shorts)

Finally back at my favorite local silent film cult.

The two shorts were as different as night and day:

DEATH'S MARATHON (1913): A D.W. Griffith drama that I have to admit I couldn't quite follow. It ended with a chase (of course, it's Griffith) to try to save a man from shooting himself.

SPLASH YOURSELF (1927): A wacky slapstick (and very funny) comedy starring Bobby Vernon as a Swedish immigrant who lands a job as a plumber's assistant and provides the precursor to the Three Stooges' A PLUMBIN' WE WILL GO. Hilarious.

And after the intermission...

The inimitable LON CHANEY actually shows his face (and his considerable acting talent) in THE SHOCK. He plays Wilse Darling, a crippled hood in Chinatown. On the orders of local boss Queen Ann he transfers to Fallbrook to lay low. Something in the clean country air makes him turn good. Or maybe it's the local beauty, Gertrude Hadley. But when his real orders come in, it leads to a dramatic finish with maybe just a touch of God's intervention (not a bad choice for Easter Eve). Good, engaging drama with excellent acting all around (but of course, especially Chaney).

Next week: Comedy Shorts night
The week after that: 1906 Earthquake night
Upcoming special event: CORKED! with Jeffrey Weissman (see my review here)
Looking way ahead to early June: Charlie Chaplin Days

Keep up to date on their website here.


Don't judge me.

Okay, I don't feel like writing much about the plot (pretty thin, with not very sympathetic characters) or the comedy (actually, a lot of it was pretty funny). But I do want to talk about the philosophy of time travel in this flick.

I know the point isn't to obsess over the rules of time travel, just let it go and enjoy the movie. I can't help it, I'm a physicist with a fondness for time travel movies. After all, I once reviewed a movie (scroll down to TIMECRIMES) by providing a Feynman diagram. In fact, I've been thinking for some time of doing a project of Feynman diagrams of famous time travel movies. I also ranted about how poor time travel logic ruined the suspense in TERMINATOR SALVATION, completely ignoring all the other elements that ruined it. Okay, I'm a time travel logic geek (saddest day of my life was figuring out BACK TO THE FUTURE was not really a time travel movie). So, completely ignoring the use of a hot tub as a time machine (silly, but no more ridiculous than a phone booth or a DeLorean), what's the logic when our heroes go back in time? Warning, there will be spoilers:

4 guys (3 old friends and one nephew) go back in time 24 years. To themselves, the 3 old guys look like their 40-something selves. But to other people (and in the mirror) they look like young versions of themselves (they feel young, too). This leads to the first problem--shouldn't the young guy not exist, or be a ghost only they can see, or something? They actually mention this once, then ignore it. But the logical inconsistencies start there. In the meantime, he flickers in and out of existence, a sign that something they do or do not do there will result in or prevent him being born.

Although the characters express the "Butterfly Effect" ethos--don't change anything or the future will be destroyed--they don't really stick to it much. However, there's a sort of force that makes plot-relevant events happen no matter what--John Cusack's character gets stabbed in the eye, Rob Corddry gets the crap beaten out of him, and it seems there's nothing they can do to stop it. However, other major things can and do change.

Then in the end, when Chevy Chase finally fixes the hot tub time machine, 3 of the characters go back and one stays behind. That--along with everything else they changed, drastically changes the future. That's fine, and it's fine that characters from the 80's remember them when they meet again in the 00's and recognize they've come back in time, although it would be a jarring change for them. The only thing that bugged me there is the characters who don't age in twenty years.

Again, I know I shouldn't care about any of this. I know it's a lazily scripted, silly little piece of fluff. But I can't help but notice the time travel logic is lazy, silly, and ultimately doesn't work, too.

Running Time: 100 minutes
My Total Minutes: 179,997

Jason watches SHUTTER ISLAND

It's good, but I don't feel much like writing about it. There are hundreds of reviews out there on the Internet. Geez, can't a guy just watch a movie and enjoy it without coming up with something to say about it?

Running Time: 138 minutes
My Total Minutes: 179,897