Friday, July 29, 2011

Jason watches CARS 2

Well, Pixar has finally disappointed me. For quite a few years now, they've released trailers that I figured could never deliver a good film, much less a 'Pixar magic' film. I didn't think going back to the TOY STORY well would be worth it, but part 2 was good and part 3 was excellent. WALL-E didn't look like it could be much, and is probably my most favoritest animated film ever (and there are times when it's my favorite film, period). The story about a flying house looked stupid as heck, and blew me away (in no small part because I recognized the plateau from THE LOST WORLD). Even going back to the first CARS, I didn't think that would work and it did (although I'm still uneasy about how they fit a story about the simple pleasures of quiet, old-fashioned life into the most sophisticated animation format of the time. I still think it would've worked better with hand-drawn animation). Each time I've been ready to declare a Pixar flop, and each time they've just been too damn good to let me.

Well, CARS 2 is a flop. The first CARS the hero was Lightning McQueen, but we were mostly amused by the wacky little denizens of Radiator Springs and touched by Doc Hudson (voiced by the late Paul Newman, in his final role). A small dose of Larry the Cable Guy as Tow Mater was fine, even fun.

CARS 2 is the Tow Mater story, not a Lightning McQueen story. And his antics drag on as he's mistaken for a spy and brought into a world of intrigue with Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, doing a spot-on Michael Caine impression) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). And the whole caper rides on the dubious premise that if one alternative fuel is shown to fail, everyone will give up on alternative fuels altogether.

Aside from the lame plot and too much attention on Tow Mater, it's got some things going for it. The panorama's of cities around the world are very well done. And there are the typical movie in jokes, including a drive in playing THE INCREDIMOBILES, a RATATOUILLE reference with the restaurant "Gas Tow's" and an ad for Lasse-tyres (John Lasseter directed the film). So there was enough to amuse me and make me not mad that I saw this. Just not enough to make me really glad I saw it.

Running Time: 106 minutes
My Total Minutes: 245,550


And I left right after the teaser trailer for THE AVENGERS.

Ha ha, of course the joke is that THE AVENGERS trailer is right after the end credits for CAPTAIN AMERICA.

It's a fun, patriotic action romp, Chris Evans is compelling both as scrawny Steve Rogers, 4F'd five times, and as the super-serum enhanced Captain America. In a nice twist, the army (in the person of Tommy Lee Jones as Col. Philips) isn't ready to use one super soldier to fight a war, but they love him as a recruiting tool. So even when he's super strong at first he tours the country in a ridiculous outfit selling war bonds (and, in a move that I think makes the world fold upon itself, Captain America comic books), which makes him an even bigger joke to the troops. In fact, he has to go AWOL to save his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and about 100 other soldiers. And only then does the army recognize what they have and lets him put together the stereotypical rag-tag team of fighters to go take on Hydra.

Oh yeah, the villains aren't just Nazis, they're a renegade group of Nazis aiming even higher than Hitler's goals. They're led by Johann Schmidt aka Red Skull, the recipient of an earlier version of the super serum which enhanced not just his muscles but his psychosis. Hugo Weaving does as excellently as I've come to expect from him, playing Red Skull with the right amount of evil glee.

And that's that, it's a fun movie. And as much as there are a few lines about him being a soldier for the whole world (I don't want to kill anyone, I just hate bullies whoever they are), he is a quintessentially American hero, and that patriotism felt really good.

Running Time: 124 minutes
My Total Minutes: 245,444

Jason slips into a Vortex and votes for LINDA LOVELACE FOR PRESIDENT

What a weird decade the 70's must have been, if this seemed like a logical way to follow up on the popularity of porn hit DEEP THROAT.

A camp of diverse freaks (including a Nazi) form a political party for some reason, but then have no agreement on who their candidate should be, until someone suggests either Jesus Christ or Linda Lovelace. The choice is clear, because a movie with Jesus running for President on a platform of bad oral sex puns just wouldn't make any sense (but would likely be more fun than this film). We're then treated to a series of jokes about how Lovelace is the only candidate who can make the whole country come together. Oh, and we're treated to a cameo from Mickey Dolenz demonstrating how hard it was to get work post-Monkees.

Granted, I did doze off through a large chunk of the movie, so maybe I missed the brilliant parts of it. I was four manhattans to the wind, but dammit those were tasty manhattans and I sure as shit couldn't watch this film sober. It's not something you watch for fun, it's something you get a group of friends together and inflict on them.

Running Time: 95 minutes
My Total Minutes: 245,320

Jason goes to Jewfest--Day 7

I just saw one movie last Thursday, the final night of the festival at the Castro (it continues at the SF Jewish Community Center as well as in Berkeley and Palo Alto, before wrapping up in San Rafael).

Anyway, the one film I saw was perhaps the one I've been most eager to see, BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, made locally and internationally by festival founder Deborah Kaufman and her partner Alan Snitow. It uses as its starting point and infamous screening of RACHEL two years ago. RACHEL, a documentary about an activist who was run over by an Israeli bulldozer, triggered an outcry decrying it as Anti-Semitic/Anti-Israel, and moves to boycott/defund the festival. And it led to a near riot in the theater, and I was there. And yes, I'm in the crowd footage in the movie. They do show me smiling at a witticism Peter Stein made to start of the event, but what they don't capture (and I'm glad they didn't) was my personal feeling of dismay and discomfort as the atmosphere devolved into a shouting match where neither side was allowed to state their case.

So let me break from the film review and just recount some of my feelings being there. First, I wasn't paying attention so I didn't know there was a controversy, much less a near-riot brewing. I was there as a movie fan, and really it just fit in my schedule so I'd see it no matter what it was about. So I was blindsided more than anyone in that theater--thank G-d I wasn't a target of the outcry. And while I have my opinions about the political question (which I'll keep to myself for now), I like to think no matter which side of the debate I came down on I would still be dismayed at the lack of civility and respect on both sides.

I would like to echo the words of this year's Freedom of Expression honoree Kirk Douglas, who said freedom of expression is the most important thing in a democracy. I'll go one step further--freedom of expression is the most important thing in life (Yes, more important than food, or love, or shelter. If you are free to express yourself and have any skills whatsoever, you'll find a way to get everything else).

But as much as the near-riot at RACHEL dismayed me, I am careful to always remember that the festival in 2009 also featured two excellent documentaries about free speech crusaders--WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE and SHOUTING FIRE: STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF FREE SPEECH. And this speaks to the strength of the festival--that if there's one movie (or in this case, one audience) that disturbs me, there are two others ready to affirm and inspire me. Even in 2009, free speech at the festival was alive, well, and celebrated.

Okay, back to this film. While it uses the screening of RACHEL as a jumping off point (and points out that there is always a controversial film or two in the festival--they were truly surprised that the outrage was so much louder than usual this time), it goes many places from there. It goes to the Wiesenthal Center and it's mission at the Museum of Tolerance in L.A. It also goes to their planned Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem--built on the grounds of the largest Arab cemetery in the region. Talk about missing the point of tolerance! (On the other hand, I'm tempted to not comment because I don't know what other sites--if any--were considered, and how hard it would be to find another suitable site). It also shows a brilliantly passionate debate in the UC Berkeley senate talking about divestment from Israel (refusing to do business with any company that provides arms to Israel or any other support for the occupation). And the filmmakers use their personal stories to also explore the meaning and inherent conflicts in Jewish identity. She is the daughter of a proud Zionist. She was politically rebellious, but not as much as her sister who converted to Islam. He is the son of an ex-communist who admitted she could dance on McCarthy's grave. A wonderful film that explores Jewish conflict through stories of personal and global significance. And--I can't stress this enough--I'm in it for a few seconds! (Oh yeah, and it opens at the Roxie in another week)

After the film there was a roundtable discussion hosted by Michael Krasny of KQED Forum (our local NPR station). Both filmmakers were there, as well as a panel of scholars and community leaders. But easily the standout who really resonated with me was Rabbi Irwin Kula. He also spoke before the film about how conflict and debate has always been a part of Judaism and really Jewish continuity is the art of passing down not just the customs but this conflict. And most importantly he spoke about the art of debating fiercely but gracefully. A couple of pearls of wisdom he passed on, that I hope I haven't mangled too badly:

  • Always try to see the partial truth present in the opinion you find most repugnant.
  • It's easy to compare your best argument with your opponent's worst. Try to consider how your worst compares to their best.
Okay, that's enough for now.

Running Time: 70 minutes
My Total Minutes: 245,225

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Jason goes to Jewfest--Day 6

Another day, two more movies.

First up, JOANNA, part of the spotlight on Poland, and also part of a theme I've noticed of children in the Holocaust. It's a great drama about a brave woman (the titular Joanna) in Warsaw who hides a little Jewish girl during the occupation. Little seven year old Rose is told by her mother to wait in the church, but she never returns. Joanna went in to see if there was any news about her husband who is a soldier at the front. She makes a fateful decision to help Rose, and becomes (eventually) her second mother. But no good deed goes unpunished, as she faces harassment not just by the occupying Germans but by the local resistance, who thinks a German officer is spending too much time at her place--a pretty good demonstration of how war is not full of moral absolutes but is in fact messy, complicated, and fraught with moral mistakes. Urszula Grabowska does a great job (and can truly be described as a trouper) as Joanna and Sara Knothe is absolutely adorable as little Rose.

And the late show was the highly THE QUEEN HAS NO CROWN, by festival regular Tomer Heymann. The title is an adaptation of a lyric from a song his father made him and all his brothers learn when they were little. Tomer uses decades of home movie footage to tell the story of growing up in Israel, coming out to his family, and all of his brothers at one time or another leaving Israel and (usually) coming back. It's a very personal story about a gay Jewish man in Israel. It's also a story about family, and about Israel, and the complicated, messy relationship of both. I'm kind of a sucker for these very personal documentaries. Somehow I find something very brave in allowing a movie to be made with all those little, personal, true moments that we normally try to keep hidden from the outside. And while Tomer is a personal documentary filmmaker and is no stranger to sharing his life, I'm even more impressed with his extended family and how much they share with the audience.

Total Running Time: 190 minutes
My Total Minutes: 245,155

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Jason goes to Jewfest--Day 5

Another night, another two films

First up, the Centerpiece presentation of LITTLE ROSE. It's a thriller of espionage, free expression, and anti-semitism, set in late 1960's Warsaw. It's a solid spy thriller and a love triangle, centered on Kamila Sakowicz, codename
"Rózyczka" ("Little Rose"). She's the girlfriend of police officer Roman Rozek, who is hunting suspected dissidents. His main target is writer and professor (and suspected Zionist) Adam Warczewski, and Kamila is the perfect bait to inform on him. She gets close to him first as a student and then as a lover. And this is when it moves from spy thriller to love triangle, as her affection for Adam genuinely grows, as does Roman's jealousy. Well acted and sexy, but I feel I know too little about the political repression in late 1967 Poland to really get into it. I guess the important thing to know is there's a constant air of repression and paranoia.

And then the emotional French tearjerker THE ROUNDUP, about the roundup of French Jews in 1942. There are some scenes of political intrigue (French officials talking about how they can turn over their foreign national Jews, but don't break up families and no French citizen Jews), and there are some good opening scenes showing Jews living non-violently but uneasily wearing the star. And then the roundup happens, and over 13,000 Jews are rounded up and sent to the Velodrome (incidentally, the Germans asked for 24,000--over 10,000 were rescued and hidden by brave Parisian heroes. We only get a bare glimpse of that.) And then the heart of the story meets--the Jewish children, the only doctor (Jewish, of course) in the entire Velodrome (played by Jean Reno) who has 100 colleagues waiting to be let in, but the Germans prevent it. And a Christian nurse (Melanie Laurent from INGLORIOUS BASTERDS) who comes to help and ends up staying, even going with them to the camps and nearly working herself to death. Laurent makes a saintly heroine (some may object that her saintliness is a little overplayed, I thought it was appropriate), and focusing on the lives of the children is a good approach. Perhaps the most insightful observation is how children use play to process their world. There's something unnerving and yet adorable about children in the camp running around playing "roundup" ("I get to be the gendarme this time!")

Total Running Time: 238
My Total Minutes: 244,965

Monday, July 25, 2011

Jason goes to Jewfest--Day 4

It's Comedy Night, woo hoo!

But first, I wanted to add a little something I forgot to write about Kirk Douglas. He had a second Bar Mitzvah at age 83. And he promised if he lives another 13 years--to age 96--he'd have a third. He is currently two years away, and looks spry enough he could make it. And that, at least from what I've been able to find on Google, would be a world record (I found articles about a WWII veteran who had a Bar Mitzvah at age 91). But the coolest part about that is my grandfather. He has always promised if he lived to 113 he would have a second Bar Mitzvah, which would shatter the old record. He's got a bit further to go, but I love the fact that my grandfather and Kirk Douglas are in competition (although neither of them know it) to become the oldest Bar Mitzvah boy in history. Awesome!

Okay, on to the movies:

First up, a compilations of Jews in Toons. Three of the funniest cartoons on TV today, showcasing Jewish themed episodes.

Family Guy: "When You Wish Upon a Weinstein" was controversial enough Fox didn't show it during the original run, it was a DVD extra (it has since aired on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, at least). Peter gets a Jew to help him with his money and then decides to convert and get Chris a Bar Mitzvah in Vegas so he will be smart. I really don't see the controversy, they're actually making fun of some of the most positive stereotypes of Jews (whether they're true or not is another subject). And Seth McFarlane consulted a rabbi on the episode who approved the script because "Peter learns the right lesson in the end."

South Park: "The Passion of the Jew" the infamous episode where Cartman goes all Hitler after seeing THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, while Kyle is moved to apologize and Stan and Kenny just think the movie sucks and track down batshit-crazy Mel Gibson for a refund. Like the ADL said, perhaps the sharpest critique of THE PASSION ever.

The Simpsons: "Like Father, Like Clown" was a very touching episode where the Simpsons learn Krusty is Jewish (real name, Herschel Krustofsky) and Bart and Lisa reunite him with his father (Jackie Mason). I still tear up a bit when they sing, "Oh, My Papa" at the end.

And let me say, seeing them with a big audience, roaring with laughter (particularly at the Jewish content) was quite a treat.

Then we had a talk from writer and producer Mike Reiss (The Simpsons, The Critic, Queer Duck). Despite opening by explaining he's a comedy writer, not a comedian (like the difference between real sex and phone sex), he essentially did about 20 minutes of stand-up comedy with some clips from The Simpsons, The Critic, and Queer Duck (who did a musical number about coming out at his bar mitzvah). Hilarious man.

Oh, and let me also take this opportunity to say I like the festival's trailer, starring Queer Duck.

Then the next program started with the short GRANDPA LOOKED LIKE WILLIAM POWELL. A poignant and funny animated short about the director's grandfather, set on the pages of his autograph album.

Then the feature, with previous Freedom of Expression winner Dani Levy (GO FOR ZUCKER! and MY FUHRER: THE TRULY, TRUEST TRUTH ABOUT ADOLF HITLER) back with LIFE IS TOO LONG. I shall start by saying I love Levy's previous work. But this is too self-indulgent to be interesting too anyone who isn't actually Dani Levy. He puts up an alter-ego, Alfred "Alfi" Seliger, and if that sounds suspiciously close to Woody Allen's ANNIE HALL character Alvy Singer...well, the similarities don't stop there. It's an odd choice, because I've never thought Levy was anything like Woody Allen, but his alter-ego is a total Allenesque nebbish film director (with one hit to his credit). In the beginning of the movie, he suffers a fall from a window that leaves him limping around with a crutch and his arm and foot in casts. His children hate him, his wife is having an affair, he's trying to get a comedy made about the caricatures of Mohamed (working title: MO-HA-HA-MED), which everyone takes as either a bold move or a suicide attempt. Turns out, the later is closer to reality, but during a coma from an overdose he makes an important discovery: director Dani Levy is hiding behind the scenes, directing the movie. And the rest of the film is a muddled mess of him attempting to confront the director and/or convince everyone else they're in a movie. This could be an intriguing premise (and has been in past films), but he just uses it for vague and unfocused navel-gazing. I've loved Dani Levi films in the past, and I wanted to give this a chance, but it was so idiosyncratically self-indulgent that I just couldn't get into it. Which is a shame.

On a barely related not, years ago I heard that Levy was making a film about the Ritchie Boys (Jews who escaped Germany and joined the U.S. Army as spies). I hope he's still making that movie, he could be good at that. There's just enough dark absurdity (with limited English and thick German accents, they were in as much danger of being captured and killed by Allies as by Germans) to suit his sensibilities.

Total Running Time: 160 minutes
My Total Minutes: 244,727

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Jason goes to the Hypnodrome to see VICE PALACE

The Thrillpeddlers' are now down to their final weekend of their latest outrageous Cockettes musical, and I'm so glad I managed to make time for it.

Based on Poe's The Masque of the Red Death, but spiked with a huge dose of outrageousness, it's a musical revue that takes place in the mansion of Divina. While a plague sweeps the city (there's blood on the piazza), Divina invites all her beautiful, intelligent, trendy friends to her sealed mansion, where they can ride out the plague in safety. To amuse them, she has a series of colored rooms--yellow, green, white, blue, purple...but not red! There she and her staff put on a series of amusing diversions. One esteemed guest is the famed filmmaker Federico Fellatio. He has a grand dream to film real life, which to him means the plague. So to counteract the seduction of his camera, Divina's diversions get increasingly outrageous, up to sci-fi number "A Crab on Uranus (Means You're Loved)," to "Just a Lonely Little Turd," and Federico's own production of "Flesh Ballet." Oh yes, there's nudity (although maybe not quite as much as some previous shows), but mostly it's about the outrageous, hilarious music, ranging from "No-Nose Nanook" to "Song of Abdul the Camel Trainer" (A dromedary camel has one hump / While a bactrian camel has two)

A hilarious, outrageous night. I'm so glad I caught this while I could. They did tape the performance, so that might be available sometime soon, no promises. But I can say that their Shocktoberfest (#13!) is coming up in a couple of months. They'll be doing Fear Over Frisco, with plays by the Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller! I can't wait!

Jason goes to Jewfest--Day 3

Only two more films Sunday. I guess I'm taking it easy this year.

First up, the award winning documentary IN HEAVEN UNDERGROUND: THE WEISSENSEE JEWISH CEMETERY. Let me start with the obligatory statement: of course you wouldn't think a documentary about a cemetery would be at all interesting--but you'd be wrong. It's really about a peaceful, beautiful park that happens to have dead people buried there. And it's about the extraordinary history--the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, it sits in East Berlin, near the Polish border, and it has been constantly tended by the local Jewish community for 130 years. Yes, even during the Holocaust, it was allowed to operate. And most of all, it's about the site's relationship with the living--the caretakers, the landmark preservationists who restore the (sometimes gaudy) mausoleums, the family that lives in the old caretaker's apartment (I couldn't help but think they'll be screwed in the zombie apocalypse), and the families of the dearly departed. Really, when the dead are mentioned it's almost always in the context of 'Why should I find it creepy? They're dead, what can they do?' So it all adds up to a pleasantly surprising and surprisingly pleasant stroll through the beautiful, peaceful, wooded park--with dead people. And I'd be remiss if I didn't especially mention the music. It would be so easy to play funeral dirges, but the music was constantly peaceful, pastoral, but pleasant and life-affirming. Very nice.

Then, we had a special gala for the Freedom of Expression award, given this year to Issur Danielovitch, better known as Kirk Douglas. Actor, humanitarian, Jew, and blacklist-breaker (with his insistence on giving screenplay credit on SPARTACUS to Dalton Trumbo), he was there to say a few words. Of course, his voice is not completely back from his stroke, but he's actually very spry for a 94 year old, bounding up the steps and blowing kisses to the crowd (and getting three standing ovations). Some of the highlights:

About Freedom of Expression: It's the most important part of democracy, it's what all the people in the middle east are fighting for.
About humor: If it wasn't for laughter, we Jews wouldn't have survived.
About pronouncing Ahmedinijad: My speech therapist would be so proud!
About insisting on giving Dalton Trumbo screenwriting credit for SPARTACUS: Everyone agreed all the other scripts sucked. Dalton thanked me for giving him his name back.
Final words: I'd love to stay, but I've already seen the picture. It's good, you'll love it!

And boy was he right! I'm going to assume you don't need me to tell you about SPARTACUS and how great it is. I will say it was my first time seeing it on the big screen after many times on video, and it was event more awesome on the Castro's screen. And I had forgotten both how funny and how political it was. And I had never noticed how many times Spartacus asks people their names. Especially after the interview, it was striking how important names are in the movie. And, of course, the scene where everyone stands up to be recognized as Spartacus can still bring a tear to my eye, not to mention Varinia (Jean Simmons) showing the crucified Spartacus his free baby son. They don't make 'em like that anymore, and they might have never made 'em like that before. Truly a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

And let me end with a joke Kirk Douglas told us (I apologize if I got the details wrong, I think this is what he said): Abraham and Sarah were walking down the street when they saw a Catholic church with a sign offering $50 to convert. Sarah says, "wait here Abraham, I'm going to check this out" and she goes inside. About a half hour later she comes out and Abraham asks, "Did you get the $50?" And Sarah replies, "What, don't you Jews ever think about anything besides money?"

And that's that. I skipped CRIME AFTER CRIME because I saw it at SFIFF (if you haven't seen it, it's excellent, look for it to come to a theater near you). And I missed Eytan Fox's MARY LOU to see our homegrown drag musical, the Thrillpeddlers' Vice Palace. But that's another story...

Total Running Time: 285 minutes
My Total Minutes: 244,567

Jason goes to Jewfest--Day 2

SFJFF always takes off Friday night (so you can enjoy sabbath dinner with your loved ones) and then Saturday early I was volunteering at Niles, but I was back up for the final two shows. Here we go:

We start with comedy about fitting in, starting with the animated short DON'T TELL SANTA YOU'RE JEWISH. A little girl, at the urging of her mother, goes to the mall to get a present from Santa. "But what if he knows I'm Jewish?" "Don't be meshugana, just don't tell him!" Santa understands.

That led in to the sexy French feature comedy, THE NAMES OF LOVE. Arthur Martin is the most popular name in France, but the particular Arthur Martin is a secular half-Jew, going about his work inspecting dead waterfowl for signs of disease outbreaks. His family doesn't talk about the holocaust, or anything that could possibly bring the conversation to his grandparents, who died in Auschwitz. He feels so guilty that when he finds out in school that saying his grandparents were deported Jews gets him female attention, he quickly backpedals and claims it was just a joke.

On the opposite end is Baya Benhamoud--the only woman with that name in all of France. The daughter of an Algerian immigrant and an ultra-left-wing mother. She takes pride in her Arab roots, although with her light skin and first name that's constantly mistaken for Brazilian, she never really faced racism. In good liberal French fashion, she bemoans that she was never subjected to war or racism, but luckily she was molested by her piano teacher. Now she seduces right-wing fascists (in her world, there are a lot of fascists) and converts them. And she has her sights on Arthur.

The thing is, Arthur is actually left-wing, even voting socialist. So instead of a quick fuck and conversion, they actually hit it off and start a relationship. A relationship fraught with hilarious minefields once they actually meet each others parents. While it's definitely a comedy (and a very funny one at that), it also makes some astute points about politics, pop culture, and the lives of mixed couples. And I was particularly struck by the idea--when they have dinner with his parents and Baya trips over references to trains, and camp, and the oven--that obsessing over the past is almost as bad as forgetting it. It provides as much food for thought as food for the funny bone.

And then the late show showcased a good Jewish boy gone bad in Chicago,POLISH BAR. Reuben Horowitz (Vincent Piazza from "Boardwalk Empire") has a dream, a dream of music. And he's got the skills, although so far he can only show them in a skeezy strip club (run by Meatloaf). But during the day he works in his Uncle Sol's (Judd Hirsch) jewelry shop. Uncle Sol is the family member who defends him when everyone else says he's no good. Well, Uncle Sol is wrong, as Reuben is dealing drugs and getting into all kinds of trouble taking shortcuts to raise money to get his music career off the ground (seems like he'll do anything other than just working on his music and earning his chops). The movie takes us in many places--family (including his mom's new mensch of a boyfriend, played by Richard Belzer), sex, drugs, religion (his orthodox cousin Moises moves in with him for a while), and the stereotype of the good Jewish boy (he could never be a gangster). But Reuben isn't dumb--he knows a bit of Talmud, and he knows music theory. In fact, his flaw is that he thinks he's smart enough to fool everyone. And for a while, he does (all but his cousin Moises, that is). But you know it has to come crashing down, and when it does he'll have precious few friends to help him piece it back together. Very well done, real, raw story anchored by stellar performances from the whole cast.

Total Running Time: 202 minutes
My Total Minutes: 244,282

Saturday, July 23, 2011


There, it's over. And I have little interest in being the millionth person to write about it, so I'll just say it's good--exciting, moving, and most ended.

I'll also say, as someone who never read the books (I have no excuse, I was just interested in reading other things), that Snapes' redemption was nice, but pretty much expected. But Neville's heroism was really, really cool. Showing it's heart, not skill, that makes one a hero, his speech rallying the troops and resurrecting Harry (because, as Dumbledore says, "Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic.") was great, and watching him wield the sword of Gryffindor was awesome.

Okay, that's all.

Running Time: 130 minutes
My Total Minutes: 244,080

Friday, July 22, 2011

Jason says farewell to the Red Vic by seeing HAROLD AND MAUDE

So of course I feel guilty about not going to the Red Vic Movie House more, now that it's in its final swansong. In fact, this was only my second time there. Sure, I live in Fremont and that's a heck of a schlep, but that hasn't stopped me from patronizing the Roxie or Castro (I haven't done the Balboa much, and now that its future is uncertain I feel guilty/determined to go there more). In any case, thank you to a San Francisco institution, best of luck to the proprietors in their future endeavors, and best of luck to the remaining arthouse theaters in the Bay Area (and to my local readers, if you don't want them to die, obviously you have to give them your business).

Now the movie--HAROLD AND MAUDE is the perfect sendoff. I heard a rumor this was the first movie they showed, but it's appropriate thematically, too.

I will now assume any reader has already seen HAROLD AND MAUDE, so I might get spoilery below. If you haven't seen it, go see it right away. I'll wait.


There, wasn't that awesome!?

More importantly, it occurs to me that the story of aged but vivacious Maude teaching young, rich, death-obsessed Harold how to embrace life is a nice metaphor for the Red Vic closing. The Red Vic is Maude, who brings so much joy to life and teaches us to embrace, defy, and sing out. We, the audience, are Harold (except for being rich). Maybe we aren't always obsessed with death, but right now we are obsessed with the death of our beloved cinema institutions. Maybe the Red Vic, unlike Maude, didn't choose the time and manner of her death, but by approaching it with dignity and imploring us to patronize the remaining arthouse theaters, we and the Red Vic echo the scene where Harold, realizing Maude is dying, says, "But I love you!" And Maude/The Red Vic replies, "Oh, that's wonderful! Go love some more."

Also, although this is about the 5th or 6th time I've seen it, this is the first time I remembered going in that Maude is a Holocaust survivor. This is revealed in one brief scene, near the end, where we see a close up of Maude's arm with a number tattoo. This colors all her scenes in retrospect, but none more than when she's reminiscing about a garden party in the Viennese palace. She describes how fun it was, how she thought then she would marry a soldier, and then she gets quiet, tears up, and mumbles something about that being "before..." It's the first hint that as joyful as she is, she has painful memories. Clearly, these are memories of the Holocaust.

She was a little girl at the party, and given that she's turning 80 and the movie was released (and I'm presuming takes place) in 1971, that means she was born in 1891. Presumably the party she refers to took place just prior to WWI (started in 1914, when she was 23). The soldiers at the party would be Austrians or Germans, and if they survived and stayed on the side of power in Germany and progressed in rank, would be fairly high ranking Nazi officials during WWII. Perhaps at that party or some other time she even met a struggling artist in Vienna who would go on to become a decorated WWI soldier and ultimately Der Fuhrer. That's right, I went there, imagining a Maude/Hitler fan fiction romance. Now try to sleep at night!

Running Time: 91 minutes
My Total Minutes: 243,950

Jason goes to Jewfest--Opening Night

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, or SFJFF, or Jewfest North (to distinguish it from Jewfest South and East), or just Jewfest (by virtue of its seniority and size, it's the reigning Jewish Film Festival in the Bay Area/world)...well, its 2011 version (31st edition) started last night. And of course I was back up at the Castro for it.

It started off with the opening night thanks and introductions, with the highlight being the special thanks to Executive Director Peter Stein, who is stepping down after this festival to pursue other projects. On a personal note, I'm a big fan of Stein's, and was honored to join in the standing ovation he received. This is his 8th year in charge, which is most of my tenure as an audience member. So for me SFJFF has practically always been a Peter Stein affair, and whether we've celebrated crowd-pleasers or gutted our way through controversial screenings, he has always been professional, intelligent, and the sweetest guy in the world. Here's to you, Peter, and best of luck in your endeavors.

Okay, on to the movies:

We kicked off with a stellar family drama MABUL (THE FLOOD). While 12 year old Yoni Yoshko practices for his Bar Mitzvah, his entire family is steeped in sin. His mom--a preschool teacher--is having an affair, his dad--a grounded crop-dusting pilot--is too stoned to notice, and Yoni himself is selling homework to his classmates. Enter into this already broken dynamic Topher, his older, developmentally disabled brother, and you figure things will fall apart. And they kind of do. Yoni, not yet even a man, finds himself taking care of Topher more and more often--not what he wants to do. Add to that a threat of expulsion, harassment by bullies, and young love and Yoni hardly has time to concentrate on his Torah portion. He's practicing to read the story of Noah, and Topher repeats his chanting like a parrot, and starts taking the Noah story to heart. And like the Noah and the flood story, he might just provide the right sort of cataclysmic upheaval to wash away the old sins and give everyone a new start. Solid, multi-faceted drama

And then the late show (a new thing for opening night) was an exclusive screening of the first Israeli horror film (at least that's how it's being marketed), RABIES. It starts as if we're already halfway into a horror film, with a girl trapped in a box underground and a man (we find out shortly he's her brother) trying to rescue her, failing, and running off for help. Enter a car full of young people (2 guys, 2 girls) out for some fun, who run into the frantic brother. The two guys follow him to try to rescue the sister while the two girls call for the cops. Enter two cops--one a sadistic rapist and the other two wrapped up in his failing marriage and partner loyalty to stop him. And now sit back and watch nearly everyone die in brutal, genre classic manners. And the fun of the movie is admiring it's genre chops, clearly a result of love of not just horror classics, but cult/camp classics. It's got the comedy and the gore. The story maybe tries to go too many places (when romantic jealousy trumps survival instincts it lost me momentarily), but the horror elements are always enjoyable. And without giving anything away, it ends on a comic note I loved, although it was abrupt and wrapped up nothing. It felt like walking into a good horror film about 20 minutes too late, and leaving just as early. But with this talent, I'm eager to see what director Aharon Keshales does next.

Total Running Time: 187 minutes
My Total Minutes: 243,859

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Jason analyzes the box office returns of THE UNDEFEATED

I don't know why I'm doing this. I generally try to keep politics out of my blog, and there is little that bores me more than talking about box office totals. But I read this analysis, and my love of correcting people took over.

Let me first acknowledge that getting a film in theaters at all, let alone 10 screens, is a huge accomplishment. I know enough independent filmmakers that I know most of them get a screening at a few film festivals and maybe go to DVD (often self-distributed), so kudos for getting in theaters at all.

Second, let's acknowledge that, Big Hollywood, and the author of the article, John Nolte are right wing--at least compared to the "mainstream media" (as much as I hate that term). Whether you believe that they're on the fringe or it's really the rest of the media that's radically left-wing and their centrism just looks right-wing in comparison, it doesn't matter. The important thing is I want to acknowledge that they have at least an emotional interest in making THE UNDEFEATED look as good as possible. Nothing wrong with that, as long as their analysis is factual and relevant. So let's look at their claims.

Claim 1:

“The Undefeated” ranks as #15 in the all-time highest grossing debut category (and this includes Michael Moore’s unique hold on this category). However — and this is a mighty important however – nine of the films ranked above the Palin doc opened on more screens — in some cases, hundreds more.

They are correct about the #15 rank, at least based on the chart from Box Office Mojo. That's kind of hard to mess up, since BOM did the work for them. I will point out that while the article shows the top 30, the BOM chart shows 93 movies in the category of political documentary. That actually makes the #15 showing a little more impressive.

As for the rest of the commentary on this claim, I'm not sure what "Michael Moore's unique hold on this category" is supposed to mean. Because he makes popular, wildly successful movies (two of which--ROGER AND ME and BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE--made more on opening weekend than THE UNDEFEATED while playing on fewer screens) his shouldn't be counted? And while 9 of the films opened on more screens (and I don't know why they didn't point out that not just some, but 8 of those 9 opened on > 100 screens), it's just as true that 5 of those films opened on fewer screens. Of those 5, I haven't seen THE U.S. VS. JOHN LENNON, so I don't exactly know it's political bent, but the other 4 are clearly left-leaning or hard left-wing (depending on your point of view) films. Judging by the title alone, I suspect the John Lennon movie is as well.

Upshot, for this narrow category, in which films generally don't make much money, THE UNDEFEATED had a respectably successful opening overall.

Claim #2:
On a comparative number of screens (less than 10), “The Undefeated” enjoyed the fifth highest-grossing debut in the history of political documentaries.
Well, first off, if you're looking at less than 10 screens, THE UNDEFEATED doesn't show up at all. You see, it opened on 10 screens, and 10 is not less than 10. But I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant less than or equal to 10. But there's a bigger problem with this claim, as seen in this chart (click for bigger):

I've double and triple-checked with BOM's chart, and I'm sure this is right. This is the top of the list of political documentaries that opened on 10 screens or less, ordered by opening weekend total. THE UNDEFEATED is sixth, not fifth. This is a really puzzling error. Counting to 6 is not hard. So we've determined that Mr. Nolte is either sloppy or:
  • He doesn't know the difference between "less than" and "less than or equal to." And...
  • He doesn't know how to count to 6.
BTW, it's worth noting that the full list of political documentaries opening on 10 screens or less (from BOM's chart) contains 78 films. Granted, many of those were on 1, 2, or 3 screens so 10 screens is a bit of an advantage, but 6th place is still bragging rights. Which makes it odd to claim 5th place when it's clearly not true.

So let's move on to his claim #3:
Opening on a comparative number of screens (5 to 25), “The Undefeated” enjoyed the sixth highest per-screen average in the history of political documentaries.
Well, given the previous claim, I didn't know if "5 to 25" was inclusive or not. None of the films opened on exactly 25 screens, but 2 opened on exactly 5. I've chosen to include them. The full list is below:

Surprise, surprise, it's seventh, not sixth. Now I'm beginning to think Nolte really doesn't know how to count. Or perhaps he counts the number of films above THE UNDEFEATED and uses that as the place. Only six films did better, it's in sixth place! Of course, this is as wrong as saying, "Only one person beat me in this race, so I'm first!" (If this is the math used, then suddenly calling it THE UNDEFEATED makes sense).

BTW, this is not a shortened list, this is the total list, from BOM's chart, of political documentaries that opened on 5-25 theaters. There are 20 total, THE UNDEFEATED was number 7. Above average, but hardly the top. You could reasonable call it the high end of the middle of the pack or the bottom of the top tier. Nothing to be ashamed of, but hardly indicative of a runaway success. Nor is it "kicking all kinds of box-office ass when compared to its counterparts" as Nolte claims.

The other numerical claim, in the ADDED paragraph:
In the comments someone compares the per screen of “The Undefeated” to EVERY political documentary released on fewer than 10 screens, all the way down to one, two, and three screens. This is not apples-to-apples when you’re talking about a film released on ten screens. But even with that apples-to-oranges comparison, the Palin doc comes in at #11 ALL-TIME.
I'll get to the "apples-to-apples" comparison in a moment, but the numerical claim is #11 all time. I have no idea where he gets this. Here are all 78 political docs released on 10 screens or less, ordered by per-screen average, according to BOM (click to see big):

THE UNDEFEATED is not #11, it's #32. 11 ≠ 32. That's 32 out of 78, again above average, nothing to be ashamed of, but not kicking all kinds of ass.

Another claim:
Had the film’s roll-out been scheduled in just a few targeted markets instead of ten, obviously this would’ve resulted in a higher per screen average.
That claim is impossible to know for sure. There are plenty of movies on that list that opened in 1, 2, or 3 theaters and flopped. Of course, if THE UNDEFEATED had opened only on the highest grossing screens last weekend, it would've had a better per screen average. But in the same vein if it had only opened on the worst screens, it would've done worse. The claim that fewer screens = higher average seems to imply that screens were cannibalizing each other's business--people didn't see it on one screen because it was playing on another screen instead. I don't have the breakdown of exactly where all the screens were, but with 10 screens spread across the country (I've heard Georgia and California), I find it unlikely there was much audience cannibalization.

More importantly, the claim implies--nay, practically states, that the release markets were not "targeted." Baloney! When I see the traditional big markets of L.A. and N.Y. eschewed in favor of highly conservative Orange, CA, I'm pretty sure they did target conservative, Palin-loving markets. They hardly threw darts at the map and decided to open there.

And in that case, this release is fairly similar to a one screen release in a targeted market. Maybe not identical--nothing is--but comparing all releases of 10 screens or less is closer to apples-to-apples than apples-to-rhinoceroses. It's a common dilemma of balancing a desire for a large sample size with the need for the samples to be relevant. If you choose any two movies on BOM's list, I'm sure you could find reasons why comparing their box office take is not valid. But we compare anyway, because without comparison we just have the raw numbers and no context on if they're good or bad. So acknowledging that no comparison is completely valid, what does changing the sample size do?

When changing from 5-25 screens to 10 screens or less, the breakdown changes like this:
  • 6 films (all with lower per-screen average than THE UNDEFEATED) are dropped from the list.
  • 25 films with higher per-screen average are added to the list.
  • 39 films with lower per-screen average are added to the list.
End result, as explained above, we go from 7th out of 20 (~top 35%) to 32nd out of 78 (~top 41%). Not a huge difference. I'd say it's a reasonable comparison. Better than comparing against all releases, certainly. Claiming you should narrow the sample size and then pointing out it has a higher rank on a smaller list is intellectually dishonest.

BTW, at the opposite extreme you could compare only those releases on exactly 10 screens. In that case, there are only 2 and THE UNDEFEATED is number 1! (by < $400 per screen, but still...). Obviously that would be a case of narrowing the samples too low to be relevant, and to Nolte's credit he didn't do anything that ridiculous.

Another (frankly, odd) claim:
“The Undefeated” has no cinematic hook whatsoever.
I disagree, Sarah Palin attracts attention wherever she goes and whatever she does. Some attention from fans, some from detractors, and I'm not in the business (nor am I interested) in judging whether the attention is fair or not. But I think she is definitely a "hook." In fact, for a film opening in only 10 theaters, it has received an inordinate amount of attention in both traditional media and online. Saying it has not hook is baloney.

Final analysis: THE UNDEFEATED was targeted to its audience, and generally found it. Its performance--for a film of its kind--was pretty good (in the top 35-40% of films of its kind), but claiming it's kicking box office ass is at least as dishonest as the MSM calling it "tepid" or a "flop."

Now maybe there's more details someone could dig into. Did THE UNDEFEATED open on screens with lower-than-average capacity? Maybe the box office take vs. theoretical maximum possible (if everything was a sellout) looks great (if that measure is even relevant)? On the other hand, perhaps if you compare its box office vs. the amount of media coverage it got pre-release, it might look worse (or better, I don't know, and I don't have the tools to get those numbers).

Oh yeah, and so far (12 reviews) it still has a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


And it's really funny, does a great job of catching on to a ubiquitous fantasy (killing your awful, awful boss), blowing it up way out of proportion, and having tons of fun with it. But I'm tired and don't feel like writing more.

Running Time: 98 minutes
My Total Minutes: 243,672

Monday, July 18, 2011

Jason goes to Silentfest--Closing Night

Hard to believe it's already over. It was a weekend of total, exhausting immersion, now I'm starting to climb back into real life. But first, a full program Sunday:

We start out with Amazing Tales from the Archives II: Kevin Brownlow tells the backstory to the Cinema Event of a Lifetime (or at least next spring)--the restoration of NAPOLEON (I have my tickets, do you?). He spins a truly amazing life story of love of this one movie, searching for every copy available, becoming persona non grata at the Cinematheque, becoming good friends with Abel Gance, and finally prevailing. And it all culminates in the only 4 shows in North America currently scheduled--and they're all in Oakland. Lucky, lucky us!

Now on to the movies, starting with the orphan film TRIBUNE-AMERICAN DREAM PICTURE (1924), which I saw two years ago back in Niles. Here's what I wrote then:
A contest by the Oakland Tribune had people write in with their strange dreams for a chance at a cash prize and having their dream turned into a movie. Mabel Nicholson had a strange dream where she went on a picnic to Marin with her husband and baby. But in San Francisco, they realize the baby basket is empty so they take the ferry back to Oakland (assuming he's still in the car). He's not just in the car, he's driving away.
Damn, I was really bad at just giving away the whole film back then. Here's what I'd say today:

This film comes from a contest by the Oakland Tribune wherein people would write in stories of their strange dream for the chance to win money and have their dream turned into a movie. Mabel Nicholson won with this funny dream about a trip from Oakland to San Francisco and back, with a frantic search for her missing baby!

There, much better.

Anyway, that was the lead-in to the feature, SHOES (1916): A social issue drama by the amazing Lois Weber, America's first big female film director, and one of the best of either gender in any time. Although this film is strident and passionate in its social stance, its greatness comes from the humanity and drama of the characters and the story. Mary MacLaren stars as Eva Meyer, a poor shopgirl supporting her mother, siblings, and ne'er-do-well father on her measly wages. A cabaret singer with clearly impure intentions hangs around the shop, trying to get girls to come top the nightclub and see him. Eva resists, like a good moral woman (or like anyone who doesn't want a life of sexual servitude just to support herself). But her shoes are falling apart, and have been resoled so often they can't take another one. She treads through soaking rainstorms, and endures constant delays in her mother's promise to buy her shoes and her father's promise to get a job. Finally, she has to make a fateful and heartbreaking choice. As I said, the moralizing gets a bit thick, but it's still anchored by excellent drama and a performance that tugs the sympathies effortlessly. And it's a valuable window into the social issues of the day (not that they aren't still relevant in this day).

And of course, Dennis James was awesome on the mighty Wurlitzer organ.

And then we got the Wild and Weird shorts program with the amazing Alloy Orchestra. Their DVD is available from Flicker Alley, and features even more than these shorts.
DREAMS OF A RAREBIT FIEND (1906): Edwin S. Porter (Edison's director, and maker of THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY) creates this live-action special effects piece based on the comic strip by Winsor McKay. Rarebit being a Welsh melted cheese dish, and the "rarebit fiend" being a man who loves it, even though it always gives him strange dreams (to the consternation of his wife).
RED SPECTRE (1907): a Pathé film, in the vein of Méliès, about a demonic magician who wraps up two young women in cloth and makes them disappear in a puff of smoke. But the good spirit comes and brings them back.
THE ACROBATIC FLY (1910): If you get past the animal cruelty of it, these extreme close-up shots of flies glued down by their wings and turning objects (e.g., tiny barbells) over with their feet is really, really cool.
THE THIEVING HAND (1908): A funny piece about a disembodied, kleptomaniac arm and the armless guy who gets it as a prosthetic. He's a good guy, it's just his hand that's evil. It only pre-visioned IDLE HANDS by 91 years.
PRINCESS NICOTINE (1909): The story of the two-lensed camera invented to make this short (shooting simultaneously 180 degrees apart, and superimposing the images) is as fascinating as the result. A smoker interacts with the tiny fairy that lives in his cigar box (and sometimes in a flower).
ARTHÈME SWALLOWS HIS CLARINET (1912): A pretty funny film that's exactly what it's about. Arthème is annoying everyone with his clarinet, and so some jokers drop a piano on him. He's fine, except that his clarinet is jammed into his mouth with the mouthpiece sticking out the back of his head. Yikes!
CAMERAMAN'S REVENGE (1912): An awesome story of romantic trysts, cheating spouses, and public humiliation. Oh yeah, and it's done entirely with stop-motion animated insects. Probably my favorite of the set.
DREAMS OF A RAREBIT FIEND: THE PET (1921): Another rarebit fiend dream, this one actually animated by Winsor McKay himself (by hand, the whole thing. This didn't use cel animation). The fiend dreams that his wife brought home a cute little pet, that starts eating everything until he's as big as the entire city.
FILMSTUDIE (1926): A beautiful, bizarre piece of pure dadaism. If I knew what it was about, that would miss the point. But there sure are a lot of eyes.
LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413, A HOLLYWOOD EXTRA (1928): A humorously dark story of a man dreaming of being a star, but is instead stamped with the number 9413 and is used as an extra until he dies.

Between every short were lantern slides of humorous messages (e.g., "remove your hat" or "the show is half over.") and of course the Alloy Orchestra were great doing new scores (not the ones you'll get on the DVD). After I got my DVD signed by the Alloy Orchestra and David Shepard of Flicker Alley.

The next show started with the final orphan, MADISON NEWS REEL (1932): A series of extremely brief news clips that made me wonder if this was a real newsreel, or some parody. Very odd.

And then we had our Soviet program. The Soviets did some amazing silent film work, and this pair showcased opposite extremes. First CHESS FEVER (1925) was hilarious, slapstick comedy about chess. There's a major tournament, and everyone is watching with great interest, even the kids. Meanwhile at home a man is suffering from Chess Fever, playing a game against himself (Pixar used this gag as the basis of GERI'S GAME some 72 years later). Well, he's so wrapped up in his game he forgets his date with his fiance. She loves him with all her heart, but is afraid he only loves chess. And she might be right. After all he has a few dozen chess books and mini chess sets on him at all times. When he sees a chess-patterned tile floor he walks across it in 2x1 steps (like a knight), etc. Thing is, everyone else loves chess, too. But for her, even if she has thrown him out, he can quit. Very funny.

And the other side of the spectrum is THE NAIL IN THE BOOT (1931): Made as a military film, it was censored by the Soviets and it was over eight years before Mikhail Kalatozov made another film. It was, in fact, criticized that “When making THE NAIL Kalatozov did not apply the revolutionary method of dialectical materialism to his theme, but proceeded from formalistic aestheticism.” More pedestrian criticism was that the plot confused the audience, but I don't really find that credible.

The film was made to promote the message that slipshod work is a danger to the homeland (indeed, the alternate title was THE HOMELAND IS IN DANGER), and tells the story of a soldier dispatched to march to headquarters and call for aid for an armored train under siege. On the way, he's injured by a nail sticking out of the sole of his boot, and doesn't make it in time. The second half is an absolutely fascinating courtroom inquisition where although he's found guilty on his own, he makes an impassioned and convincing plea that the guilt is shared with the workers in the factory who manufactured such a faulty boot.

Stephen Horne, of course, was masterful at both ends of the emotional spectrum.

And finally, we ended the festival with HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924): The incomparable Lon Chaney stars as Paul Beaumont, a young scientist working with the support of his friend, Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott). But on the day of his thesis, the Baron double-crosses him and presents Beaumont's work as his own. He objects, the baron calls him crazy and slaps him, eliciting howls of laughter from the normally stone-faced assembly of professors. Humiliated, he returns to the baron's estate to find his bride has left him for the baron. So he leaves the bitter life of scientific pursuits and joins the circus, becoming a highly celebrated clown. He calls himself HE, and his act involves all the other clowns slapping him--an act that has the audience in stitches. He finds his new life, and maybe even a new love in Consuelo (Norma Shearer), the bareback rider and daughter of Count Mancini (who has fallen on hard times). But Consuelo loves her costar Bezano (John Gilbert). And the baron reappears with eyes for Consuelo--a development that Count Mancini finds most favorable. But HE won't let that happen, and will do whatever it takes. For HE who laughs last, laughs best.

What a great way to end the festival. And of course, the Matti Bye Ensemble did an amazing job ending the festival on just the right note. And might I add that I was impressed with the cacophony of their circus scenes. Matti Bye is usually more reserved, letting the silence speak more. But they knew, of course, the right tone for a circus.

By the way, if you want to see more of Mattie Bye, they're playing with Jilly Tracy tomorrow (Tuesday) night at Disco Volante in Oakland.

Total Running Time: 296 minutes
My Total Minutes: 243,574

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 3

This is the big, packed Saturday of the festival

But first, a quick shout-out to my new breakfast spot of the festival--Orphan Andy's. All the food is delicious, the staff is friendly and hilarious. And the pancakes are soooo freakin' fluffy!

Anyway, on to the shows.

First up was a kids (and kids of all ages) program of Walt Disney's LAUGH-O-GRAMS. Before he made it big in Los Angeles, he was working in Kansas City making these cartoons out of a garage. So here we go, all of them were pretty hilarious.

NEWMAN LAUGH-O-GRAMS (1921): This was a reel he made to pitch the idea of Laugh-o-grams to local exhibitor Newman to stick into the newsreels. Some funny lightning sketches, where his hands draw advertising sketches, and then some local topical humor mocking the corruption of the streets and the police force in Kansas City.
THE FOUR MUSICIANS OF BREMEN (1922): A quartet of animals get thrown out of every venue they play, presumably for sucking. They're starving so they try to lure fish with music, but the fish are just too slippery.
CINDERELLA (1922): Pretty cool seeing the fairy godmother turning Cinderella into a flapper girl. Awesome, that was probably my favorite part of the whole series.
GOLDIE LOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS (1922): A rediscovered classic that was hiding in plain site. Once Disney became big, his early laugh-o-grams were re-released by opportunistic distributors, but the names were changed. This one was renamed THE PEROXIDE KID, and was just recently rediscovered as the supposedly lost film.
PUSS IN BOOTS (1922): The boy is trying to get the princess, and his pet cat is trying to get the royal cat, too. So they hatch a mutually beneficial plot that depends on the cat wearing boots.
JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1922): Another renamed, supposedly lost film, this one THE KO KID. Pretty funny the story Jack tells about the giants he defeated.
ALICE'S WONDERLAND (1923): Not technically a laugh-o-gram, but the precursor to Walt's Alice films. Virginia Davis, a 4 year old charmer, walks into the laugh-o-gram studios to see how cartoons are made. After witnessing the magic of Disney and his team, she goes home and dreams herself in cartoon-land. Adorable.

Most of the films were accompanied by Donald Sosin on piano, with percussionist assisting and two amazingly talented kids playing piano for Bremen and Jack the Giant Killer.

Next up was the panel discussion Variations on a Theme: Musicians on the Craft of Composing and Performing for Silent Film. But first the orphan film MUSIC FOR THE SILENT NEWSREELS (1930): Quite a departure for the festival, this was a talkie. But still appropriate. A man at a piano explains the art of Movietone music accompanying the newsreels.

And then moderator Jill Tracy started the event with 4 different interpretations of the same scene--Louise Dresser walking down the street with her Goose, a brief scene from THE GOOSE WOMAN. Donald Sosin played it upbeat. Stephen Horne played it as a dramatic chase. Dennis James played a sorrowful score on the organ. And finally the Alloy Orchestra played it as a weird surreal slapstick scene. Each one worked, and it was a pretty efficient demonstration of how music changes a scene.

And then the conversation began. Like last year, the big contentious issue is new compositions vs. Dennis James' purist historical sentiment that if it's available he'll play the original score and anything else is a departure from that. It's not a question that playing the original score or composing a new score is a stylistic choice. They aren't on the same level--really it should be the choice to play the original score or many different stylistic choices of departure from that. Dennis made the analogy of graffiti. People will talk about the "art" of graffiti, and oftentimes that is completely legitimate art. But they're no longer talking about the building. In the same way (if I understood his analogy correctly), a new score when the original is available isn't an enhancement to the filmmaker's vision--it's a violation and departure from the original vision, and that's true no matter how artistic that is. If you want new silent film scores so badly, why don't you just make new silent films? (To which I answer, I'd love to see new silent films made, and played at this festival. After all it's a silent film festival, not an antique film festival)

The counterpoint is essentially that doing whatever you want with the score is valid, so long as it complements instead of distracting from the film. In honesty, that's my opinion, and I still count myself as one of Dennis James' biggest fans. (By the way, every other Friday at the Stanford Theatre this summer you can see him accompanying Buster Keaton double features.)

It wasn't too surprising to see the discussion between James and Ken Winokur from Alloy Orchestra get heated. That happened last year, too, but was even more tense this year. What was surprising to see Dennis James and Giovanni Spinelli get along so well. Spinelli, of course, did the electric guitar soundtrack to SUNRISE on Thursday, and I don't even have to ask James to know he hated it. But Spinelli made several good points:
  1. He knew when he was commissioned to do this score (and solo electric guitar was not his idea, it came from a very well respected archivist) that it would be controversial. In his words, perhaps less of a SUNRISE to his career and more of a HE WHO GETS SLAPPED.
  2. His score does not destroy the original score. In that way the graffiti analogy is wrong--graffiti is difficult to remove. His score has existed once so far, and may never be played again. It's incredibly easy to forget it and see SUNRISE with the original score.
  3. Maybe he brought some new young people in with the promise of the score, and they got exposed to SUNRISE and now want to see it with the original score as well. In that way
Spinelli nailed it. And by giving James respect, he got respect back. You could've made millions betting on Dennis James + Giovanni Spinelli as the love connection of the festival.

Now more movies, starting with the orphan THE TRIBAL LAW (1912): Really just a fragment of a film. Pretty action packed, I wish the rest existed.

Then we moved to Sweden for THE BLIZZARD (1923): Also known as the Gunnar Hedes Saga, it's a wild romantic melodrama. Growing up, little Gunnar was intrigued by the painting of his grandfather. A poor violinist, he made a fortune herding reindeer and that's how they have the grand estate they do today. But that estate is in trouble, so grown up Gunnar goes herding reindeer to raise money just like his grandfather did. But things go horribly wrong, and he's dragged for miles by a reindeer (in a really impressive, kinda traumatic scene). And although they didn't have the term at the time, he's got a bad case of post traumatic stress disorder. Every animal looks like a reindeer and scares the hell out of him (even cats and dogs). He doesn't even recognize his mother. But maybe true love, and violin music, will bring him back. Ultimately it was the perfect thing to play after the Variations on a Theme program, since it was all about the power of music to move you.

And speaking of music moving you, The Matti Bye Ensemble (quickly becoming my favorite accompanists of the festival) absolutely blew me away with their score again.

Next up was THE GOOSE WOMAN (1925), which I realized a few minutes in I had scene before at Niles. Here's what I said at the time:
Louise Dresser stars as Marie de Nardi aka Mary Holmes aka The Goose Woman. In her youth, she was a famous and beloved opera singer. However, when her son was born she lost her voice. Missing the spotlight, she drowns her sorrows in alcohol, which makes her a pretty terrible mother to her now grown son (that and she doesn't hide the fact that she blames him for destroying her fame). But she sees an opportunity to get back in the spotlight when a murder occurs near her home and the police and the news converge on the neighborhood. She decides to become an important witness, but it turns out her story ends up implicating her son. Eventually (finally) maternal instincts do take over. A pretty wild melodrama.
Well, that's all true. But there's something missing in that. Like the comedy of the reporters, cops, and prosecutor. Or her son's love interest and how the victim was after the same woman. Or how great Stephen Horne's accompaniment was. Okay, that last one is new to this experience, and it was great.

The next show started with the orphan film CHUMMING WITH CHIPMUNKS (1921): Adorable footage of training chipmunks to take nuts from a string. Not much plot, but cute as a pile of cute cuties dipped in cuteness (shut up, it's late at night!)

And then the feature MR. FIX-IT (1918): Douglas Fairbanks! Fairbanks is my homie! And this is one from his pre-swashbuckling career in comedy. He plays Remington, a free-spirited university student in England. His roommate Reginald is American, but his family sent him to England because America is too democratic. Now he has a girlfriend whom he intends to marry, but his parents call him home to get married to the girl they found for him. But seeing as they haven't seen him in 15 years, Remington has a plan to fix it. He'll pretend to be Reginald and go to America, and using his powerful charisma he'll fix everything. And that's what I love about Douglas Fairbanks--he's always confident, in control, charming and athletic as hell. I love they throw in random stunts just to show off his agility (somersault into a bathtub? Jumping down a stairwell?) I love that he fixes not just his roommates dilemma, he fixes everyone's romantic dilemmas, saves a family of children, and pulls the giant stick out of Reginald's family's collective ass. He can fix anything but his own romantic life.

As if that wasn't great enough, Dennis James rocked the Mighty Wurlitzer the whole time.

And finally, the last show of the night, starting with Czar of Noir Eddie Mueller's introduction. He had a lot to say about the star of the last film, Marlene Dietrich. But I'll just leave it at the new word he learned and taught us all--'intrigante.' Meaning one (with the e at the end, specifically a woman) who intrigues. As opposed to a femme fatale who knowingly and intentionally uses her sexuality to destroy men, an intrigante is alluring whether she wants to be or not. And that's Marlene Dietrich...or would be, if her allure wasn't pretty intentional her whole life.
She is, after all, THE WOMAN MEN YEARN FOR (1929): Henry LeBlanc just got married. Not for love, for strategic money interests (i.e., to avoid family bankruptcy). On the train to their honeymoon, he catches a glimpse of Stascha (Dietrich) through a window. She's with an older male companion, but has a look of longing that intrigues Henry. And so he pursues her, even leaving his bride and entering a world of unknown danger. Excellent precursor to noir--hell, it is silent noir. And who really cares what the plot is as long as Marlene Dietrich is the object of men's desires. Just beautiful.

And beautiful as well was the score by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Ochestra.

And that was Saturday. I entered the Castro Theater at about 9:30 in the morning, and didn't leave until 10:30 at night. Not even briefly stepping outside. Instead I was in the mezzanine shopping. And if you're around for the final day of the festival, you should be in the mezzanine shopping, too!

Total Running Time: 378 minutes
My Total Minutes: 243,278

Friday, July 15, 2011

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 2

For the first time ever, I took a day off to see everything on Friday. So this will actually be my first time seeing absolutely everything at SFSFF (as if it wasn't exhausting enough already). Here we go with Friday.

But first, some additional thoughts on SUNRISE with the electric guitar score. It's been the talk of the festival today, in a heated, controversial way. And I'll go on record as saying I love that it's so controversial. What I'm not so enamored with is I've been held up as an example of someone who liked that score, and I've been drawn to defend it. I thought I gave a pretty conflicted, complex account of my reaction (which was, itself, conflicted and complex). But because I said I liked my new interpretation that it's a succubus story, I've been drawn in as the "pro" side of the debate. So let me be very clear. Even without having actually heard the original score, if I had to choose between the original score and Spinelli's electric guitar score, I'd choose the original. But more importantly, that's a false choice! The existence of this score doesn't overwrite the original score and blot it from history. If actually given that choice, I'd prefer to watch SUNRISE twice back to back, once with each score, so I can accurately judge them. But I will say it's a personal tragedy that I did not hear the original score first. I have that DVD ordered now.

Okay, on to Friday's programs.

First up, Amazing Tales From the Archives, Program I: The Archivist as Detective. A series of archivists presented some of their work in entertaining slide shows with some short movie clips (with accompaniment by the inimitable Stephen Horne). UCLA Film and Television archivist Jan-Christopher Horak, George Eastman House's Anthony L'Abbate and The Academy Film Archive's Melissa Levesque all spoke. We learned about tracking down typeface to recreate period accurate intertitles. We got a crash course in film identification--from reading edge codes to recognizing company logos to the vagaries of changing street light styles in New York City. And we learned of the impressive number of films from Lobster Films collection that the Academy has identified...and how they did it...and how many are still unidentified. Very cool.

Before I get to the next program, I forgot to mention the "orphaned film" that played before SUNRISE last night. Before several films the festival is playing orphaned films, short films or clips where the copyright has expired or the owner is unknown. Before SUNRISE we saw a 3 minute clip of F. W. Murnau and George O'brien getting in an airplane, leaving Paris for Berlin (from 1927).

Before the next program, there were two very short films:
MRS HARDING, "CAMERAMAN?" (1922), and COOLIDGE TRAPSHOOTING (1928), both of which are exactly what they sound like.

And then the feature, HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1920): A fairly faithful retelling of Mark Twain's famous story, made just a decade after his death. In fact, it's framed with an actor playing Mark Twain coming up with the idea and writing "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Great, naturalistic acting, especially by star Lewis Sargent as Huck. It's also nice to see an integrated cast, with George Reed as Jim in a time when black roles were often played by white actors in blackface. The faithfulness of the script is only betrayed at the end, when a happier Hollywood ending is tacked on. But you know what, it's still a heck of a lot of fun. Oh yeah, and the Duke and the King were excellent, too.

Donald Sosin, as always, did a fantastic job on the piano.

The next program started with another orphan film, ST. LOUIS TO CHICAGO AIRMAIL (1926), which is notable for the pilot, a then unknown Charles Lindbergh.

Then the feature, I WAS BORN, BUT… (1932): Ozu's adorable story of Japanese children. A family has moved into town, and the two brothers are the target of bullies. What unfolds is not so much a linear story as a slice of life movie. It touches on bullying, brotherhood, school, social status, and fatherhood. In fact, it does more than touch on it, it delves deeply into all of those subjects and more with a careful eye and affection for his characters (even the dog).

Stephen Horne accompanied, and for my money there's no one better if you want both flute and piano music from one guy.

Next up is my hit of the festival so far, THE GREAT WHITE SILENCE (1924): A documentary account of Captain Robert F. Scott's fateful expedition to the south pole in 1911-1912. Shot by the expedition's official photographer/cinematographer Herbert Ponting. Knowing the fateful end of that trip takes some of the suspense away, but it was still a total delight (and there was still some surprise in the very end). What's really interesting is that in the 106 minute running time, only about the last 30 minutes is spent on the race to the pole. Before that, they spent and entire winter and spring on the coast of Antarctica. But even before then we see them load the Terra Nova, steam around icebergs, break through an ice floe, and finally reach the continent. And then we get the penguins, and the seals. Lots of absolutely adorable wildlife footage. The scenes of penguins are cool, but the scenes of seals cutting the ice with their teeth to climb out of the water are totally worth the price of admission alone. And there are scenes of play, like dancing on the ship and a football (soccer) game on the ice. When the expedition actually takes off for the south pole there's a distinct change in tone. The hardships are intense, and when their ponies meet their "predestined fate" they're left hauling the sledges by themselves. Of course, they make the south pole, only to see Amundsen's Norwegian flag already planted. And on the trip back, they succumb to exhaustion and the elements. What I didn't know was they travelled 800 miles in, turned back and made it about halfway back and perished in a blizzard a scant 11 miles from the supply depot that would have saved them. Amazing movie, very moving, and absolutely beautiful cinematography.

Matti Bye Ensemble did a magnificent job accompanying the film. In fact, I'd be inclined to say their soundtrack is a huge part of making this my favorite film of the festival so far.

And finally, the last program started with the orphan ORIGIN OF BEETHOVEN'S "MOONLIGHT SONATA" (1909): Edison's recreation (complete with a cheesy backdrop of a painted Vienna street) of the story behind Beethoven's composition. That he did it for a blind friend, to let her see the beauty of the moonlight. Sweet, and Beethoven was cool, but as I mentioned the sets were pretty cheesy.

And finally, the night ended with IL FUOCO (1915): An Italian story of the fire of love--told in three sections: The Spark, The Blaze, and The Ashes. She's a famous poet, he's an unknown painter. They meet, and there's a spark, but pretty clearly she's in charge. She tells him that his love is like a lamp that burns slowly and faintly, but lasts a long time. But if she breaks the lamp the fire will burn bright and burn out quickly, like her love. But he's game, "Burn me! Burn me!" he implores. And boy does she. Briefly they're happy, and he paints a masterpiece of her reclining, barely clad figure. And then we learn she's not just a poet, she's a Duchess, and the Duke is coming back to town. Affair over. Early in the show, my friend Phil, knowing full well my take on SUNRISE, leaned over to me and said she's the real succubus. At the end, I turned back to him and said, "She's not a succubus, she's just a bitch."

Stephen Horne accompanied, and was excellent always. And in a last minute addition, Jill Tracy provided voice accompaniment as a Siren song. And there's no one better for that.

Total Running Time: 345 minutes
My Total Minutes: 242,900

Jason goes to Silentfest--Opening Night

The most intense 4 days for a Bay Area cinephile have begun--Silentfest, or the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, or SFSFF, or (SF)^2 Fest. Whatever you call it, I expect my eyeballs to be exhausted by the end of Sunday.

After a few opening words about preserving the opening films from an archive in New Zealand (with help from Peter Jackson's lab), we launched right into the first program.

WHY HUSBANDS CHEAT (1918): We start with a short by Al Christie, starring Dorothy Dane and Bobby Vernon. They're newlyweds, just six months. But it's hard for him to settle down after being such a "gay boy" so he feels the call of the wild and goes out looking for a good time. Too bad he finds his wife's old college chum, and wacky hijinx ensue. Pretty funny, and not just for the anachronistic usage of "gay boy," although that did get the biggest life.

UPSTREAM (1927): William Fox's cavalcade of wacky hijinx, set in theatrical boarding house. If life is a stage, a theatrical boarding house is positively burlesque. The house is full of zany, colorful, and constantly broke characters. But the main conflict is between knife thrower Juan Rodriguez (nee Jack Rogers) and young Brashingham, latest (and least) of a famous acting family. See, they both have their eye on the same girl, Rodriguez's partner in the knife act, but she's got eyes for Brashingham. A great stroke of luck comes in the form of an agent who is specifically looking for Brashingham. See, a company in London wants him his name to play Hamlet, and it doesn't matter that he's a terrible actor. But with a little help from an elder in the house, he actually does a good job and becomes a star. And is away building his fame just long enough to lose the girl and come back as a total insufferable jerk. Good story, nicely framed moral (that's an inside joke for those who know the final scene), and a wild cast of zany characters (especially Callahan and Callahan). And a great and humorous accompaniment by the Donald Sosin Ensemble.

After the show, there was a big announcement by Kevin Brownlow (a superhero in the silent film world) about a fantastic upcoming screening of Abel Gance's NAPOLEAN (1927) at the Paramount in Oakland next March 24, 25, 31, and April 1 (4 shows only). Restoring this film has been Kevin Brownlow's life work, and he'll be talking about it Sunday morning in the free Amazing Tales From The Archives program at 10 am. This screening will include a full orchestra score, and is described as the Cinema Event of a Lifetime, and I wouldn't disagree. I might just try to make all 4 screenings.

And then the second show of the night was SUNRISE (1927). I've seen this before, at the SF International years ago with a live soundtrack by Lambchop. Well, this time it couldn't be more different. In fact, no one has seen it like this before. Giovanni Spinelli was commissioned to write a score...a score that would consist of him, solo, on electric guitar. Purists may leave now.

So I'm not going to recap the plot of SUNRISE. I'll assume you've seen it, and if that's not true this won't interest you much anyway. Instead my review has to be about the soundtrack experience. I will start by saying that it took at least 10-20 minutes for it to not be distracting all the time. And even then it was always eerie, highlighting the supernatural, uneasy elements of what is essentially a very simple plot about a man torn between two loves. In fact, I have to take a bit of a detour now.

I love F.W. Murnau's NOSFERATU. Always have, as long as I can remember, from well before I was generally a silent film fan. So when SFIFF played SUNRISE and called it Murnau's masterpiece, I was intrigued--I knew him as the guy who made this amazing supernatural horror movie, and this simple story about a man tempted by a sinister love before he returns to his wife is his masterpiece? I recognized the amazing cinematography and set design (which still amazes), but I liked the supernatural horror more. Well, what I realized watching and listening to Spinelli's score is this: SUNRISE is a supernatural horror film. It's not a love triangle, it's a succubus story. At least, it was with this soundtrack, and I loved that. And realizing that, it suddenly seems obvious. When ghost images of the city girl haunt the man, that's not his memory or desire metaphorically haunting him, that's a sex demon literally haunting him. It's suddenly much more meaningful to me that his full recovery from the succubus comes in a church, watching a wedding. And there are a dozen other moments that fit the succubus story. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to watch this again and not see it as supernatural horror.

I just have to end by saying that I've now seen SUNRISE twice. Both times at the Castro theater with a live score, and to purists I've never seen it the "right" way (which I'd like to do). That's weird.

Total Running Time: 165 minutes
My Total Minutes: 242,555