Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for LEAP YEAR

First a couple of shorts:

POOL SHARKS (1915): W.C. Fields, much more famous as an early talkie star (with the unforgettable voice and catchphrases like, "My Little Chickadee...") did make the leap from vaudeville to silent films and had a pretty good career there but was just about washed up when the talkies made him huge again. POOL SHARKS was apparently based on one of his more popular vaudeville routines. And in the film he and a rival settle a romantic quarrel with a most bizarre game of pool, that ultimately ends in fisticuffs. Some funny stop-motion animation of the pool sequences, but ultimately it's not a master comic at the top of his game. It's a soon-to-be master comic in the beginning of his career.

ROUGHEST AFRICA (1923): Stan Laurel, before he teamed up with Oliver Hardy, leads a brave documentary crew through the wilds of Africa, all the way from Hollywood to Los Angeles (yup, they're right there on a map of Africa). He encounters monkeys, bears (huh?), ostriches, lions, etc. And he gets into all kinds of trouble, usually to the glee of his cameraman Jim Finlayson (longtime foil of Laurel and Hardy, both before and after they were a team). Pretty funny.

Then after intermission, our feature film:

LEAP YEAR (1921): Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle had this film in the can but it hadn't been released before his disastrous Labor Day party in San Francisco. Even after he was acquitted, he was too tarnished by his scandal, so this is only the second confirmed time this film has played in the Bay Area (it played once at the Pacific Film Archives back in the 90's). In it, Fatty plays the wealthy heir to a fortune, and he has a horrible stuttering problem when he gets excited. The thing that most excites him is his uncle's nurse. But his uncle hates women, and disapproves of how Fatty falls for every girl he meets. He swears to his beloved nurse that's not true. In fact, it's the women who can't help falling for him, and like clockwork within one day he is accidentally engaged to three different women. And now the wacky hijinx have to ensue. Hilarious, and a showcase for one of the top comics of his time (at the time, only Chaplin was competition for the title). It's a shame the scandal brought him down (after three trials he was found innocent, and in fact the jury took the remarkable step of writing an apology to him saying there was never enough evidence to even bring him to trial).

Total Running Time: 100 minutes
My Total Minutes: 247,565

Jason slips into a Vortex for SOMETHING WILD

My friend Ira took over the Vortex room again last Thursday for a Walk on the Wild Side double feature. I couldn't stay for the late screening of Scorsese's AFTER HOURS (which I've seen before anyway), but I did see the first show--SOMETHING WILD.

Corporate player Jeff Daniels meets exciting wild girl Melanie Griffith, who kidnaps him and takes him on a crazy sexual adventure. But when she takes him home to meet her mother, things start to take an odd turn. Suddenly her character has more depth to it. It's not he who is making a change and becoming wild, but she who seems to want to become more conventional. And when her ex (Ray Liotta) shows up, you can kinda see why. He a psycho who just got out of prison, and wants her back.

Funny movie, and you get to see Melanie Griffith naked back when that meant something. Oh, and years later Jeff Daniels made DUMB AND DUMBER with Jim Carrey. There's a scene in that film where they walk out of a restaurant without paying by tricking the guy who's chasing them into picking up the check. Jim Carrey's character (I think, it's been a while since I saw it) says he saw the trick in a movie. Well, that movie might just have been SOMETHING WILD.

Running Time: 114 minutes
My Total Minutes: 247,465

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jason goes to Bad Movie Night and watches GHOST RIDER

God damn this movie sucks. I...I don't have to explain more, right? By my count, it took about 3 hours for Nic Cage to even change into Ghost Rider, while the villains walk around in a much better movie. Then it ends, and I curse whatever power of the universe convinced me to waste that chunk of my life.

Running Time: 114 minutes
My Total Minutes: 247,351

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Jason watches LOVE EXPOSURE

So normally I don't have the time or inclination to watch films on DVD (something about going to the theater and removing all other distractions just works better for me), and so I'd just wait for the chance to see this on the big screen. But this is an exception, because A) It opens at the Roxie while I'm away at Burning Man. It only plays for two nights after I'm back and I might be too busy/tired to see it there. And B) it's just so damn good I want to let everyone know about it before (I couldn't in good conscience tease you about this great movie after it plays).

Anyway, Sion Sono's epic is a star-crossed romance of Shakespearean proportions, plus some religious nutcases, panty-peeking perverts, drag queens, lesbian romance, and triumphant, miraculous erections. I could probably stop right there, because if that doesn't make you want to see it nothing will (except maybe everyone I've ever known who has seen it raves about it).

Yu is the good Catholic boy searching for his true love (his Maria) by taking surreptitious panty shots. Yoko is his Maria, but she hates men (she has her reasons), but falls for his drag character Miss Scorpion. Complication--Yoko's mom is marrying Yu's dad. Meanwhile Koike is an operative in the cult Zero Church, and has a sinister plan to convert all of Yu's family (a major coup, since Yu's father is a priest) and keep Yu for herself. And things get pretty damn crazy.

So I mentioned I don't watch a lot of films on DVD. Late last Friday I popped this screener in knowing it's four hours, but hoping there would be a nice break point where I could stop, get some sleep, and finish it Saturday. Indeed, it's conveniently broken into chapters so that would probably be possible. And then I ended up staying up until 2:45 watching it, because it was too good to turn off.

LOVE EXPOSURE starts at the Roxie on September 2.

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for Harold Lloyd Evening

Last Saturday was more than the normal Saturday night films in Niles. It was a packed house for a special presentation of Harold Lloyd films with author John Bengston talking about his research discovering old Hollywood through the films of Harold Lloyd (he's also done the same for the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton). You can get more out of the talk if you know the territory of Los Angeles and the environs today (I really don't), but it's still pretty interesting, showing what corners show up in multiple movies. Showing a chase down a street that's really shot both ways on the same street. Or how Lloyd got the dizzying skyscraper scenes by filming on a set he built on top of Court Hill.

Which brings me to the first film, NEVER WEAKEN (1921). Lloyd drums up business for his girlfriend's boss's business. Enough that they can get married. But he overhears her talking to someone else about getting married (turns out it's her brother, fresh from the seminary and ready to preside over the ceremony) and so he resolves to end his life. Doesn't quite succeed, but he does end up on the girders of an skyscraper in the process of being built. Wackiness undoubtedly ensues. I've seen this several times, and this thrill comedy always gets my sense of agoraphobia. Awesome.

Then an intermission, and on to the feature film, GIRL SHY (1924). Lloyd plays a shy young man, who has studied females from afar and the more he has learned the more afraid he has become. But that hasn't stopped his fantasies, in fact he's written a book on "How to Make Love" (that meant something different back then--just wooing, not "woo-hoo"-ing). On the train to the big city to meet a publisher he ends up meeting a girl he can actually talk to! He should latch on to her and never let go, of course, but as it happens there are plenty of obstacles to overcome and wacky hijinx must ensue before he gets the girl (Harold Lloyd always gets the girl). Very funny.

Total Running Time: 99 minutes
My Total Minutes: 247,237

Jason watches the San Joes 48 Hour Film Project

So I've seen a few "Best Of" presentations of 48 hour film project films before at film festivals. It always sounded like an interesting idea. Teams of filmmakers compete. At the start, they're told some required elements--a character, a prop, a line they must use. Then they all draw from a hat to find what genre they have to use. Basically it complicates things just enough that they can't have an idea all scripted out to start. Then 48 hours later they turn in their completed film. I've never actually made a film (okay, I've shown up on screen a couple of times, but I've never been behind the camera), but I've met enough independent filmmakers to know just getting a film completed (and making it somewhat watchable) is a challenge. Add the required elements and a deadline and it sounds impossible. Nevertheless, the "Best Of" films I've seen have turned out pretty good, easily on par with short films I've seen in festivals where filmmakers spent months or even years getting everything together.

But I'd never seen the whole presentation before. Sure, the best films are pretty good, but I was sure there had to be a lot of garbage to wade through to get to the good stuff. So for the first time I went to see the whole section of 48 hour films...and I was blown away by the quality of (almost) all of them. Now this was the San Jose competition, with the complete films playing last Thursday at the Camera 12. There's a different San Francisco competition (many teams compete in both), and competitions in 90 cities around the world. Winners of this competition go on to compete with winners from other cities.

The rules this year in San Jose: Required character was Ian or Ilene Jeffers, a "recycling expert" (it was really amusing how some teams interpreted this rather liberally). Required prop was a chair (some teams chose to feature the chair as a plot point, most teams simply had a scene where a character sits down). And the required line was, "Give me some kind of sign" (again, most teams were pretty straightforward with this line--either an exhortation to God or pleading with a person who may be unresponsive, but some got pretty creative).

Anyway, I'm not going to go into detail on the individual films (at least not in this post). As an audience member, I did have a job that night. For each program (there were two programs, each with about a dozen or more films) choose your three favorites. Don't rank them, just mark three on your ballot. Three shall be the number of the counting and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out....

Oops, sorry, I slipped into something there. Anyway, for each program I had to choose my three favorites...and I couldn't. I didn't turn in an audience award ballot, it was just too hard. I really don't envy the job the judges have in store for them.

In other news, I've been invited to be a judge (hence not describing all the films, lest I signal my preference for any). So I have two screener DVD's of all the films (minus the ones that were turned in after the deadline, although those did show Thursday night). I'm working through them very critically and will turn in my judge's scorecard. Awards night is September 8th, and you can all find out who won then.

Total Running Time (estimated): 210 minutes
My Total Minutes: 247,138

Monday, August 15, 2011

Jason goes to Bad Movie Night and watches KNOWING

It's not the movie where Nicolas Cage knows the's the other movie where Nicolas Cage knows the future. Whatever, the movie is completely forgettable, and I'm not just saying that because I'm a black-out drunk. At least the crowd was good and rowdy. I'm pretty sure was all got Caged!

Running Time: 121 minutes
My Total Minutes: 246,928


This sequel-in-name-only to Franco's 2005 indie project and Cinequest feature THE APE amps up the special effects and the high concept, and loses all the charm of the original. Instead of a writer on the verge of a mental breakdown, apparently Franco's character has pulled himself together and become a scientist. He still has an affinity for simian roommates, though. But this time rather than wearing a Hawaiian shirt and making obnoxious chauvinist wisecracks, his new roommate Caesar wears a simple ensemble of jeans and a sweater and is a chimp of few words. Come to think of it, the name of Franco's character even changed (from Harry Walker to...ah, who cares? Harry Walker was the best name ever for a character in an Ape movie!) Anyway, it seems like the filmmakers would just as soon you forget the first film and pretend it all started over with this one. Fair enough, all I cared about was watching San Francisco get destroyed. It got...pretty destroyed, but I could've done with more.

Running Time: 105 minutes
My Total Minutes: 246,807

And yes, I am fucking with you.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Jason goes to the Stanford Theatre to see Buster Keaton's ONE WEEK and THE GENERAL

Every other Friday for the rest of the current calendar (i.e., at least until mid-September), the Stanford is doing double features of Buster Keaton classics with the magnificent Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ.

Sure, I've seen both of these many times, even multiple times on the big screen, even multiple times with live music. I know them pretty darn well. So I'm not even going to bother summarizing them. But I just couldn't pass up a chance to see Keaton on screen with Dennis James accompanying. Ummm...please ignore the fact that I turned up the chance to do just that twice already in this series. In my defense, the first time was during the SF Silent Film Festival, so I was up watching silents at the Castro. And the second time...I just flat out forgot.

Oh, I will say Dennis James always does a great job giving a little introduction to the film--interesting facts, contemporary reviews, etc. I never knew before that THE GENERAL is loosely based on a true story of Union spies who hijacked a train and went on a spree before being captured. Keaton's big change was telling it from the point of view of the South, and particularly one plucky southerner Johnnie Gray (Keaton) who despite his slight stature manages to outwit them all. Now who's up for a road-trip to Cottage Grove, Oregon to see where this was shot?

Total Running Time: 126 minutes
My Total Minutes: 246,702

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Jason goes to Jewfest--Sunday, August 7

That's it, it's over. Or it was, for me, last Sunday. I'm finally writing this on Thursday. But in fairness I've been in Cleveland, and there'

The last two movies, both excellent, fascinating documentaries:

First, PRECIOUS LIFE by journalist Shlomi Eldar. Shlomi had covered Gaza up until Hamas came to power and Gaza was essentially closed. One of the few remaining connections to Gaza are the hospitals--if a Palestinian in Gaza is sick enough, they will let him through to an Israeli hospital on humanitarian grounds. And that's how he met Mohammad, an immune-compromised infant whose desperate mother takes him to the hospital and tries to raise money for a bone marrow transplant. Shlomi goes on TV with the story and a mysterious anonymous donor offers up all the money needed. Now they just need to find a matching donor. None of Mohammad's siblings are a match, so they have to try to get cousins into Israel, which is no easy feat. There's a really moving comparison with the efforts to save one baby and the military operations that destroy so many people. It's a powerful reminder that when you look into innocent, dying eyes you can't help but see how precious life it. At the same time, conversations about martyrdom, and the family's struggle with scorn back in Gaza underscore how little we truly understand each other.

And finally, I ended with EICHMANN'S END: LOVE, BETRAYAL, DEATH, a fascinating documentary that relies very heavily on historical reenactment (note: some would say that makes it some sort of hybrid drama with documentary elements. I have no problem calling this a documentary). After WWII, Holocaust architect and war criminal Adolf Eichmann escaped to Argentina. In 1960 Mossad agents "tracked him down" and brought him to justice. But there's a really weird, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story behind all that. It's the story of Lothar Hermann, a blind Jewish Holocaust survivor determined to track down all Nazi criminals and particularly Eichmann. It's the story of his daughter Silvia. And it's the story of the young man she falls for--Nick Eichmann, Adolf's son. And it's also the story of dogged prosecutors and political players who would rather bury the past. And it's a story of Eichmann himself and his damning interviews with a journalist writing a book on him (wherein he expresses wishes that he had finished the job of the Holocaust). But the emotional core really is Silvia and her conflict and courage in betraying Nick to bring his father to justice. And that's just an amazing, fascinating, gripping story.

And that's it. It's over. Bring on the next festival...

Total Running Time: 176 minutes
My Total Minutes: 246,576

Friday, August 5, 2011

Jason slips into a Vortex and has the infamous Double Bummer

Ah yeah! My friend Ira finally put together the double bill of bleak, dystopian classic sci-fi he has talked about for months--SOYLENT GREEN and SILENT RUNNING. And people actually showed up, which was awesome!

Weird confession for a film geek, but I hadn't seen either of these. Of course, I'd seen so many parodies/references that I knew the shocking ending of SOYLENT GREEN (spoiler alert: It's made of people!) But I was even more impressed with the totally dystopian, overpopulated future world they created (40 million people on Manhattan, people sleeping in piles in stairwells). At least, for parts of it. There were also empty streets in Manhattan, which was weird. There are rumors of a remake in development, maybe it will never happen, but here are my thoughts.
  1. Ramp up the crowding: Not only are the stairwells full, so are the elevators, so are the sidewalks, so is nearly everywhere (except the rich people's world). But...
  2. Make the dystopia less clear. Sure, it's crowded and miserable if you ever go outside, but for the 50% or so who have an apartment, life is pretty okay. Your apartment is a box just barely big enough to sleep, eat, and work in, but it's yours and there's never a reason to go outside. Most people work online from home. Food deliveries come straight to your apartment (through some network of tubes), so only homeless people have to riot at the food depots. Basically, on the surface everything works--for just enough people to keep the regime in power. See, my main issue with the movie is that everything is so bleak that I'd think learning Soylent Green was recycled dead people would be met mostly by indifference, perhaps even appreciation of the efficiency (it is, truly, a "green" solution). Create a world that works just well enough that the conscience can still be socked by cannibalism.
And then SILENT RUNNING, which was simply brilliant. In the distant future, all forests on earth are gone. The only forests (complete with adorable bunnies!) left are tended in space by Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), who is thought of as sort of the pansy science nerd of the ship and is picked on by his fellow astronauts (even though he can kick their ass at poker). But when they get the orders to jettison and nuke the forests and return to commercial work, Lowell kinda snaps, murders the rest of the crew and sets out alone with just the drone robots as company (after he reprograms them to do what he needs). Things don't go well for long.

Total Running Time: 186 minutes
My Total Minutes: 246,400

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Jason watches WORLD ON A WIRE

Who the hell knew, Rainer Werner Fassbinder made THE MATRIX a good 26 years earlier. In 1973 this 3 1/2 hour 16 mm epic appeared as a two-parter on German television. Now it's doing a limited run, including playing at the Roxie (tonight's the last showing, but I hear it's also coming to the PFA, but the schedule isn't online yet) and it's still brilliant today.

When Dr. Henry Vollmer, head of the Simulacron project (which is essentially virtual reality, although the term is never used) dies under mysterious circumstances, his second in command Fred Stiller takes over. And Stiller starts experiencing odd circumstances. Most odd is that Guenther Lause, head of security, disappears during a party. It makes the front page news, and then systematically everyone starts forgetting the Lause ever existed. Even more mysterious, when Stiller goes into the Simulacron to talk to Einstein (the "contact unit"--the only one who knows the Simulacron isn't real, he catches a glimpse of none other than Lause). I won't give anymore away. It's a wild sci-fi adventure from the time when sci-fi was about ideas instead of special effects. And it's just very, very cool.

Besides the story, the shot cinematography and set design is amazing. Intricately composed, with plenty of 70's mod style, and features clashing non-parallel lines and mirrors. So many reflections that Fassbinder uses to create intricately impossible spaces (e.g., we see one character and the reflection of the other, so both are looking directly at the camera), and (spoiler alert!) an intense sense of artificiality. So brilliant!

Running Time: 212 minutes
My Total Minutes: 246,214

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Jason goes to Jewfest--August 1

I'm not going to figure out what day of the fest that is. Anyway, I missed the weekend programs because of soccer, Niles, catching some mainstream movies closer to me, and general drunkenness. But I was up in Berkeley Monday night for a couple more Jewish Films:

First up, a remarkable documentary BOBBY FISCHER AGAINST THE WORLD by Liz Garbus (who did the 2009 SFJFF film SHOUTING FIRE: STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF FREE SPEECH). Bobby Fischer is a fascinating character. Child prodigy, greatest chess master ever, crazy, recluse, Jew, anti-Semite, and more than anything a man who didn't get the psychiatric treatment he needed (or simple medical treatment, that ended his life prematurely in his 60s). He's such a famously private man, that it's almost jarring to see so much footage and so many brilliant photographs from his life--one of the most moving parts is right after winning the world championship he runs off to be alone in the mountains of Iceland, and there's a really poignant look on his face--like he's someone who is worshiped by the world but isn't connected to it. The center of the film is the famous 1972 World Champion match against Boris Spassky (and even if you already know the result, it is still unfolded with great tension and anticipation), and then delves into the "wilderness period" and the sad, jarring return to the spotlight. First as a diminished ex-champion (playing a meaningless rematch against Spassky) and then just being an occasional obnoxious and noxious commentator on world events (e.g., calling in to a TV show on 9/11 to say America got what was coming to it). And finally his exile in Iceland (the stage of his greatest triumph). It's easy to say that Bobby Fischer ended up against the whole world because of his own doing. But it's harder to put a finger on exactly why his particular brand of tortured genius (an insanity remarkably common among chess grand masters) drove him in that direction.

And then I stayed for the magic realist Israeli drama INTIMATE GRAMMAR. It centers on the life of little Aharon--an 11 year old boy who seems to stay 11 no matter how old he gets. Physically, he just doesn't grow, no matter how much he wants to. His sour-faced mom doesn't really help. Nor does his dad who is always doing odd jobs (saving a tree from worms, tearing down walls) for the pretty neighbor lady. Nor does his best friend, who is spending way to much time with the girl he (Aharon) likes. Nor the current political situation, that has his sister drafted into the IDF at a young age and all his friends (same age, but bigger) going off to youth camps to work at the kibbutzim. It's a well made, well acted, odd depiction of a slice of broken life, with an ending that I don't know what to make of.

Total Running Time: 202 minutes
My Total Minutes: 246,002

Monday, August 1, 2011

Jason goes to Bad Movie Night and watches LORD OF THE RINGS

Not the Peter Jackson version, the 1978 Ralph Bakshi animated version. You know, speaking of cartoons, have I mentioned recently how awesome WALL-E is? Seriously, best cartoon ever. So full of emotional impact I literally cried when I first saw it. I also cried when I watched this movie, but for different reasons. More along the lines of 'what awful choices did I make in life that I'm now reduced to this.' It's gotta be the second most unwatchable thing inspired by LOTR, right after Leonard Nimoy's Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.

Running Time: 132 minutes
My Total Minutes: 245,800


And it was enjoyable, fun genre-melding action, played completely straight despite the campy title. I enjoyed it quite a lot, but don't feel like writing too much about it. I'll just comment that most of the negative reviews have cited its uneven tone--that it doesn't know whether to be campy or serious. I would suggest instead that the it knows exactly what it is--a serious, straight faced, not-at-all campy (and well done) flick that happens to be a western with an alien invasion. The "campy" tone comes almost completely from the audience expectations. Go in expecting something that's both a straightforward western and straightforward sci-fi, and you'll like it. Expect a lot of tongue-in-cheek campy genre jokes and you'll be disappointed.

Running Time: 118 minutes
My Total Minutes: 245,668