Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Longtime readers know I'm kind of a sucker for time travel movies. And I can enjoy a good quirky-meets-quirky-and-falls-in-love flick, which is what this really is. It's based on an ad for a time-travel companion originally published in Backwoods Home Magazine (the writer of the ad, John Silveira, is credited as "time travel consultant" on the film.) Three magazine writers (actually, one writer and two interns) from Seattle travel to the small town where the ad was published, looking for the guy who wrote it so they can do a story about him. And the one female intern, Darius (Aubrey Plaza) meets the guy, Kenneth (Mark Duplass, who with his brother Jay served as executive producer.) While she's out "training for the mission" and learning about Kenneth (and getting to like him) her boss Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) is really there to hook up with his old high school girlfriend (oh yeah, he grew up in this town.) And the second intern, an Indian biology major and total nerd named Arnau (Karan Soni)...well he doesn't have much to do until Jeff decides to take him out, get him drunk, and get him laid.

Oh yeah, and there's a time travel plot...kinda. The title, SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, is actually about the dangers of falling in love, not time travel. And, of course, it's kind of based on a true story and time travel isn't real. But that didn't keep me from rooting for it to work in the end. Even in its cheesy moments (especially the ending) I was on board (although I suspect that's when it would lose most people.)

Running Time: 86 minutes
My Total Minutes: 294,948

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 10

Another day up at the Roda Theatre in Berkeley, two more shows.

The first started with a short, THE RABBI AND CESAR CHAVEZ. Director Daniel Robin is the son of a rabbi. And, in fact, his father was a rabbi in Bakersfield who supported César Chávez and even learned about and warned him of a credible plot against his life. Pretty interesting stuff.

And then the feature, PAPIROSEN. It's more of a collection of family movies than a real narrative or traditional documentary. And oftentimes it doesn't really explain what's going on. Director Gaston Solnicki made this film about his family, and mostly about his father Victor, born right at the end of WWII. His (Gaston's) grandmother narrates part of it, and in particular the pain of his father's (Victor's father, Gaston's grandfather) suicide. Or, as he explains to Gaston's nephew Mateo, "he died of sadness." But for most of the movie, I was just confused and bored by what I was seeing. Maybe if I knew the family (and if I saw it a few more times maybe I would) I would be interested. But as it was, this was the first film in the festival where I couldn't find at least some thread to hold onto and carry me through the film.

Then the second film I saw was BROKEN, a drama about troubled schoolkids in a low-income, predominantly African or Muslim neighborhood outside Paris, and the young, brave Jewish teacher who hopes to make a difference in their lives. But this is not the story of the bright teacher who inspires her students. This is a story of a system that is so broken that it can't really help the kids and all the teachers can do is hope to survive. Anna Kagan is the new history teacher in the school. Her class has a number of problem kids, especially Moussa, a black "kid" whose easily the largest person in the film, has anger problems, and is 17 (although this is a third grade class.) The most promising student is Lakdar--or rather was Lakdar. He had a gift for drawing, enough that he saw a way out of poverty by becoming a cartoonist. Problem is, his hand was broken and the overworked doctor in the ER (who happens to be Jewish) set the plaster too tight, resulting in permanent damage. Anna has difficulty gaining the kids respect, trouble in the neighborhood leads to riots. You keep expecting a breakthrough and some epiphany that there is still a way to succeed. But this isn't a fairy tale story, this is the far too common reality. Well acted and well written...and tragic.

Total Running Time: 200 minutes
My Total Minutes: 294,861

Monday, July 30, 2012

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 9

Two more movies yesterday (Sunday) evening. I've been using this week to catch up on things I missed at the Castro (or a few films that didn't play there.)

First up, a kind of unsettling Israeli drama, INVISIBLE, based on actual events that happened in the 1970's. Nira (Evgenia Dodina) is an editor for a documentary about the Israel-Palestine conflict. She's reviewing footage of IDF soldiers evicting Palestinians from their olive grove. Settlers are demanding they leave, while activists are trying to defend them. And suddenly, she recognizes one of the activists. It takes a while, but she finally remembers from where. Lily (Ronit Elkabetz) and her met at a police lineup decades ago, identifying the serial rapist who attacked them both (known in the media as "The Polite Rapist.") It's not a very nice reason to form a bond, but they become friends and in the process reveal old psychological wounds that had become invisible, which shakes up both of their private lives. It's unsettling, sometimes difficult to watch, and often just plain slow. But it is nice to see two of the greatest Israeli actresses practicing their craft together.

And then the last movie of the night was a bit happier. HELLO, I MUST BE GOING stars Melanie Lynskey (HEAVENLY CREATURES, which in my opinion is still Peter Jackson's finest movie) as a recently divorced woman who has moved back in with her parents. She's depressed and unmotivated, always wears the same ratty t-shirt and sweatpants, and just watches old Marx Brothers movies (the title is a Marx Brothers reference.) Her parents do force her to clean up for a dinner party they're throwing for an important potential client--one who could allow her dad to finally retire and for them to take their "gallivanting the globe" world tour. Instead, at the party, she meets the potential client's 19 year old son and aspiring actor. And they have a bit of a romance, although they have to keep it secret from everyone (she sneaks off in the night claiming to be out renewing her prescription for anti-depressants.) Wacky hijinks ensue, of course, especially because everyone thought the young actor was gay. It's not overtly Jewish, but it's definitely a neurotic, East coast Jewish family. And it's a funny crowd-pleaser, enough to be the opening night film of Sundance.

Total Running Time: 185 minutes
My Total Minutes: 294,661

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day...8?

I think...it's easy to lose count by this time. Anyway, it was Saturday and the first day in Berkeley/Palo Alto/JCCSF. I was in Palo Alto at the Cinearts for two shows.

First up, the documentary SIX MILLION AND ONE, a holocaust documentary and a family documentary at the same time. It starts with the death of director David Fisher's father, and the discovery of the journal he kept while in Gusen labor camp. A place where the average survival time of a Jew was less than two weeks, he survived over 10 months. It was one of the last camps liberated (a good 4-5 months after Auschwitz,) and he was one of the last to be released. And, like most survivors, he didn't talk about it much, and his own children didn't know the full extent of the horror.

You know, over the years at Jewish Film Festivals and elsewhere I've seen many, many holocaust documentaries, but I'm still surprised by the capacity to shock and horrify me. What really struck me in hearing the descriptions of the torture and death at the camp was how perversely creative they were, as opposed to the stereotype you often get about the efficient, emotionless death machines. Fisher also meets the soldiers who liberated the camp, and hears their horror stories of finding so many people starving they were practically living skeletons (the saddest part is the soldiers gave them food, only to see them immediately die when their stomachs couldn't take it.) And perhaps the most moving part is when Fisher brings his brother and sister to the camp with him and they have a unique opportunity to tour the tunnels (it was an underground aircraft fuselage manufacturing plant) and discover a new appreciation for their father who couldn't say the right words in life but in his diaries revealed to them that even in their happiest moments a part of him was always there (in Gusen.)

Next up was another documentary, again with some Nazi-era sadness, but ultimately a story of a triumphant life of a true mensch. GLICKMAN is the story of Marty Glickman, a New York high school track star who went on to Syracuse and was one of only two Jews on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. In case you forgot, 1936 was the Berlin Olympics, overseen by Hitler. And most people remember Jesse Owens embarrassing Hitler by winning 4 gold medals. But what I didn't realize before was that Owens was originally entered in only 3 events. The day before the 4x100 meter relay--where the Americans were so heavily favored the only way they could lose was by dropping the baton--Glickman and Sam Stoller (the other Jew on the team) were dropped and replaced by Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. For the record, Owens protested the move, which Glickman always appreciated, but it was a time and environment when the coach said to do something a black athlete couldn't really defy him. There's a lot of speculation about what was really behind it. The story within the team was there was a rumor that Germany was holding back its best runners to compete in the relay and embarrass the Americans (the Germans finished 4th) so they had to put their best runners in. USOC head Avery Brundage claimed that Glickman and Stoller were only alternates from the start, and never expected to compete (Brundage was a supporter of Hitler's regime, and instrumental in preventing a boycott by convincing the USOC that Germany did, indeed, allow Jews to compete on their team. This, of course, was a lie.)

Anyway, the important thing in this movie is not actually the injustice done to him at the 1936 Olympics. In fact, it's a story of what happens when you pull the rug out from under an 18 year old kid's dreams (of course, with the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Olympics, 1936 turned out to be his only shot.) Many would become bitter and angry at it. Marty went on to have a fine career at Syracuse, was a local celebrity, and became a broadcaster. Nowadays, it seems pretty natural for athletic stars to go into sports broadcasting, but Marty was the first. Before him, sportscasters were broadcasters who happened to broadcast sports, but he was the first jock who understood the games and could call them as if he was playing along. Apparently if you grew up in New York at the right time, he was ubiquitous, but I honestly hadn't heard of him before this movie. He was the voice of the New York football Giants for years, before a contract dispute with the station forced him over to the Jets. He was the voice of the Knicks--really, the voice of the fledgling and struggling NBA for years. He invented much of the terminology--baseline, lane, key, "swish!"--and mentored a young Marv Albert. And that was a big part of his career, too--mentoring the young guys. And that's pretty remarkable in a competitive field with only so many plum jobs, usually an established guy doesn't want to give a hand to some young go-getter who might replace him. He was also great at encouraging kids in youth sports, broadcasting his high school game of the week. He finally got on national TV on HBO, which I never knew actually started out as a predominantly sports-themed station.

And all this time, he called the games but never said much about his playing days or what happened in 1936. It was only some 50 years later when he returned to Berlin and to the Olympic Stadium and he was overcome with all this anger that he had held inside (later, on a third trip to Berlin, he sat in Hitler's box and reveled in the fact that, "I was there and he wasn't." He also came to terms with the fact that compared to what happened to so many other Jews, what happened to him was nothing.)

And that was last Saturday at Jewfest North.

Total Running Time: 177 minutes
My Total Minutes: 294,476

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Jason watches the Thrillpeddlers do Marat/Sade

I've been a fan of the Thrillpeddlers since back when they were doing their Shocktoberfest show at the old Odeon Bar at the intersection of Mission and Valencia (yes, go down far enough and these parallel streets meet.) I was thrilled when they got their own space--The Hypnodrome, a cozy little place under the freeway for their Grand Guignol and Theatre of the Absurd happenings. But lately they're shows have been so popular that while it's still relatively easy to get tickets you do have to plan in advance. It's not so easy to just show up on the day of the show and get a ticket.

So I'm extra thrilled that their latest show (only one more performance on Sunday evening--last chance everyone!) is in the much larger and beautiful Brava Theater. And I'm extra impressed that they had a pretty full house last Friday (not quite sold out, but pretty darn full.)

And the show certainly deserved such a large crowd. It's their take on Peter Weiss' MARAT/SADE (English translation by Geoffrey Skelton,) full title: The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. 

So the actors have the chaotically free experience of playing insane people playing roles in a play (complete with an on-stage audience of the director of the asylum and two lovely high society ladies.) Marat is played by a paranoiac, his assassin Charlotte Corday is played by a narcoleptic, her completely platonic friend is played by a sex addict. And various other inmates make up the supporting cast and band. And, of course, it's all overseen by the infamous Marquis de Sade. 

Of course, the premise of insanity allows the inmates to freely deviate from the script and spout their own banned opinions, while the asylum director runs on stage to protest such indecency and force the proceedings back on track. 

Never lost is the fact that modern day questions of revolution, human rights, the plight of the poor, and class conflicts are really behind everything. Although never mentioned in the play, the set design is full of references to modern American politics, including Paul Ryan, Gingrich, the Tea Party, and Obamacare. And so little bon mots like, "My patriotism is bigger than yours" ring true to life today. Or even, "You can't have a revolution without a little general copulation" (leading into the orgy scene featuring plenty of nudity.) And the final call to take a side and take action is easily applicable to modern life. Heck, I want my rights and I don't care how. Give me the revolution...NOW!

One more chance for you all to see this. Tickets here.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 7

Just four movies on the Castro closing night. But the festival is far from over--it continues another weekend in San Francisco (at the JCCSF,) a full week in Berkeley (Roda Theatre) and Palo Alto (CineArts,) an extra weekend in San Rafael (Rafael Film Center), and for the first time an extra bonus Monday in Oakland (Piedmont Theater.)

My day started with a loving look at a Florida retirement community, KING'S POINT. Five Jewish seniors, most (if not all?) from New York, pontificating on life, love, friendship, and aging.

By the way, I don't want to say this festival has an elderly population, but when they asked everyone who's on Facebook to stand up, I was the only one.

I also don't want to say this festival has an elderly population, but it's the only festival I know that asks you to remember them in your will.

Those weren't jokes, they were absolutely true.

Okay, back to the movies with WHITE: A MEMOIR IN COLOR, a new self-exploration documentary by Joel Katz (who made the excellent STRANGE FRUIT which played at the festival in 2002.) This time, he's making a very personal exploration of race issues in his life, from the point of view of a white man. Of course, he is Jewish and in some places at some times that wouldn't have counted as "white" but he's pale-skinned, doesn't look too Jewish, and it's present day America, so Jew = White. His wife Leah, while from a very similar Jewish background, is more olive-skinned. But again, she passes as white. His father was actually one of the few white professors at Howard University (he started the Chemical Engineering department) and was there during the Civil Rights movement. He supported Civil Rights (part of the reason he went to teach at Howard,) but it still became kind of uncomfortable when a lot of the rhetoric turned in the "blame whitey" direction...and he was the only whitey on campus. Now back to modern days--Joel and Leah are looking to adopt, and the application gets very specific on questions of race. Which is unsettling, but it makes sense. You have to understand that two white parents with a black child will get looks when they're out in public. And there's the question of can white parents provide a black child with a connection to his or her heritage? And how important is that? Is Curious George a slave allegory and is it appropriate for a white parent to read it to a black child? This is the jumping off point, and the movie asks more questions than it can answer. The most interesting point is how "color blindness"--which was the goal when I was a kid--also blinds a white person (like myself) to the advantages afforded them on the basis of his whiteness. Even if official opportunities are equal, white people are more likely to be born in better circumstances where it's easier to take advantage of those opportunities. Even if you weren't born rich but were in the middle class, would your parents have made as much money--even with the same skills--if they were black? If they did, on the same income could they have purchased a home for the same price and got a mortgage with the same low interest rate if they weren't white? While (according to the movie, I didn't independently look up the statistics) the income gap between whites and blacks has closed somewhat, the wealth gap is still pretty big--on the order of 10 to 1, meaning the average white baby is born into 10 times the wealth of the average black baby.

My big takeaway is this: That while color blindness was the goal of my generation when we were growing up, it's not enough. And yes, that means the goalposts have changed and that can be frustrating to some people. But when your goal is to constantly improve, you have to keep changing the goalposts. Otherwise, you don't keep moving. That's how continual improvement works.

Next up was another personal family documentary, this time a detective story looking into the past. THE FLAT starts with director Arnon Goldfinger cleaning out his recently deceased grandmother's flat in Tel Aviv. In it, he discovers some old copies of Der Angriff, one of the worst Nazi propaganda newspapers of the day. Specifically, the were copies that featured the travelogue of Baron von Mildenstein, and his pro-Zionist series on "A Nazi Visits Palestine." He was the leader of the 1930's Nazi support for Zionism (well, they wanted to get rid of the Jews, and sending them to Palestine was an okay solution.) And his companion on those journeys were a Jewish couple named Kurt and Gerda Tuchler. And they happen to be Arnon's grandparents. This bit of the family history had been kept secret before, but Arnon delves in and makes some remarkable finds. He meets Mildenstein's daughter, he delves into the official records, and he discovers there's more to the story even than she knows. I won't go into details, but it plays out like a riveting detective story but also works as an exploration of the importance of the past, and whether it is best to leave some details forgotten.

Then next up was a narrative (oddly, the only non-documentary of the day,) SHARQIYA. It's a story of Bedouin life, and particularly Kamel and his family. Kamel is a proud Israeli Bedouin. He served his time in the army, he works as a security guard in a bus station. He's also a self-taught electrician who fixes TV's and DVD players for his little village, where he lives with his brother Khaled and sister-in-law Nadia. It's a tough life, but he's getting by. Only problem is, they didn't have an official government permit to build on the land (even though his grandfather lived there since before statehood) so the government puts a demolition order on their house (really just a simple shack of wood and corrugated aluminum siding.) It's a subtle and moving story, with excellent acting (by all non-professional actors) and does a great job of showing the uneasy tension between Israel and its Bedouin citizens.

And finally, one more documentary, and another music movie (Jews and Tunes, a theme of the festival.) Did you know that "Save the Last Dance For Me" was written by a guy who couldn't dance. That was Doc Pomus, a pudgy Brooklyn Jew crippled by polio. And the movie  A.K.A. DOC POMUS speeds through his remarkable life and the remarkable list of songs (more than 1,000) that he wrote. It's just one of those stories that seems too weird to be true (I can't say too "good" because there's a lot of sadness in it.) Crippled by polio, he found a life through music. First he was a blues singer (where he surprised a lot of people that a white Jewish kid could sing the blues so well) and then a song writer...in fact, a verified hitmaker. He was royalty in the famed Brill Building, until the singer-songwriters of the 60's sort of killed that industry (oddly, Bob Dylan much later came to him for help writing a song.) He was a hitmaker for Elvis Presley, particularly in his movies years (not only did he write "Save the Last Dance For Me" without being able to dance, he wrote "Viva Las Vegas" without ever visiting Vegas.) And...well, I don't want to spoil too much of the movie. I'll just say I had never heard of Doc Pomus before, and learning about him and his tragic but triumphant life was a treat.

And as a bonus treat, we got a brief concert of Doc Pomus fans by local Bay Area musicians. I honestly don't know the music scene very well, but they were Andy Cabic (who admitted he was named after Andy William--Doc Pomus wrote his hit "Can't Get Used to Losing You,") Eric D. Johnson, Kelly Stoltz, and Sonny Smith. And they did a fantastic job with his biggest hits, of course ending on "Save the Last Dance For Me."

And that was it for Jewfest North at the Castro. I'll be splitting time between Berkeley and Palo Alto, just catching up on stuff I missed or stuff that didn't play at the Castro.

Total Running Time: 367 minutes
My Total Minutes: 294,300

Friday, July 27, 2012

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 6

5 more shows on Wednesday, including lots of shorts, so here we go:

First up was the shorts program The Best of Tel Aviv University. Student films from Israel's oldest and largest film school. Here's the lineup:
TASNIM: Coffee, Bedouins, a stubborn girl, a father, and the prospect of a second wife.
BARBIE BLUES: A dead critter in the pool, a helpful neighbor, and one thing leads to another...
STUDIO VAROUJ: The last days of a famed Jerusalem photo studio. Would've been a good companion piece to LIFE IN STILLS, too.
AUDITION: Coffee, and an Arab actor auditioning for a female Israeli director. The audition maybe goes one step too far...
STITCHES: The stitches are from a recent c-section (with complications,) as a young lesbian couple enters into motherhood.

The next show was a longish short followed by a shortish feature. MY NEIGHBORHOOD is the story of an Arab-Israeli neighborhood in East Jerusalem where the families who have been there for decades (if not generations) are faced with eviction based on a court ruling and an unjust law (in a nutshell, if settler groups can produce a deed--ranging back to the days of the Ottoman Empire--to the property showing it belonged to a Jewish family at one time, the law says it's Jewish land. Arabs with similar deeds have no standing under the law.) It's also the story of the conscientious Jews who protest to stop the evictions (for now the evictions have stopped due to public pressure, but the families are still living under the threat of eviction at any time.) For more information, visit Just Vision.

That was the lead in to the feature AMEER GOT HIS GUN. In Israel, military service at age 18 in mandatory, with a few exceptions. There are the normal medical exceptions, of course. And Arab Israeli citizens don't have to serve, because they might be a security threat. Nevertheless, every year about 20 Arab Israelis volunteer for military service, and this narrative documentary follows one--Ameer Abu Ria. He comes from a long line of military men, and wants to continue the tradition. The movie follows him through boot camp and his first assignment as a border policeman. Of course, he gets it from both side. Arabs calling him a traitor, Jews not trusting him. Some pretty tense conversations with his fellow soldiers (more than once you here something along the lines of 'Wipe them all out...except for Ameer and his family.' It's even followed by a 'just don't breed too much, like you people do. Two or three children are enough.') He does earn quite a bit of respect when it turns out he's good at his job and catches a guy trying to sneak a knife across the border. Catching a knife is kind of a feather in the cap of a border policeman. And it's a nice moment of respect from his peers. But mostly, the movie is about the difficult position of an Arab in the Israeli military, and the uniquely strong character it takes to deal with that.

Next up was another short and feature pairing. The short, SEVEN MINUTES IN THE WARSAW GHETTO was one of the most amazing pieces of art I've ever seen. It's a stop-motion animated piece about a child living in the ghetto, searching for food. And it's based on a true story. I don't want to give away the ending, but I will say the entire audience gasped at it. And just a bit of technical information about it--the eyes on the puppets were real human eyes digitally added to the puppets (who otherwise were very  obviously and intentionally shown to be puppets--even showing the joints in the puppets.) Director Johan Oettinger (from Denmark, and he was big enough to dwarf program director Jay Rosenblatt on stage) talked about the interesting challenges and opportunities of directing eye-only actors.

Well, that was the lead-in to ROMAN POLANSKI: A FILM MEMOIR. Polanski is one of the most interesting filmmakers with one of the most controversial private lives in the world today. The film was mostly shot as a conversation during his house arrest in Switzerland between himself and his friend and producer Andrew Braunsberg. It's an interesting look at his life and juxtaposes scenes from his movies very well to show how often he's being autobiographical. Especially in THE PIANIST, in which many scenes are based on his memories as a child surviving the Holocaust (his mother wasn't so lucky.) With that, and his very pregnant wife Sharon Tate murdered by the Manson family, you realize the reason for his exile from the U.S. might not even make the list of top 5 most dramatic moments of his life. But I have to talk about it, because that's what makes him controversial to this day, and it's the biggest weakness of the film. In 1977 Polanski was arrested for multiple counts relating to sex with a minor. Now, Polanski did strike a plea deal to plead guilty to unlawful sex with a minor in exchange for a lighter sentence. Problem was, the sentence became a moving target. And ultimately (according to the interview,) it was only when the judge was threatening him with an indefinite amount of jail time (basically he gets out when the judge finally decides to let him out...which I didn't even know was legal) followed by deportation that he decided to skip the country. Well...fair enough, but this is the problem with being interviewed by a friend (along with the fact that Andrew often finished Roman's answers.) There's no attempt to tell the judge's side of the story, or how his rulings might make sense. Judging from this movie, the judge was simply madly bent on punishing Polanski despite what everyone else asked for. And more importantly, it doesn't go at all into what he did to the girl. It just leaves you with "unlawful sex with a minor." Well, does "minor" mean a 17 year old (when the age of consent in California is 18) or younger? (A: she was 13.) Was the sex "unlawful" just because she was under age but still consensual? (A: he allegedly drugged her and then violated every hole, each time with her saying, "no.") And even with the victim now saying to just let it go...well, this is still what makes me so conflicted about the man. Perhaps if he had done his time legally (I'm not going to argue that he hasn't been punished) and it was officially cleared off the books, we could move on. And maybe the judge made the process unbearable and he was rational to run away. But ultimately it's his fault that this is still hanging over him, and is the forefront of any conversation about him.

One final note, just in fairness to the film. The overly friendly tone would be inappropriate if it was supposed to be a hard-hitting interview. But Andrew reveals right away that he's Roman's friend, and describes the project as sitting down for a conversation. Roman even reveals that he's never had much time for himself and that he is treating his house arrest as a "monastic retreat." And that in itself was very interesting.

Next up was a feature narrative about young people on opposite sides of the Israel/Palestine wall learning to understand a bit more about each other. Like the spotlight feature THE OTHER SON, the feature A BOTTLE IN THE GAZA SEA is a French-Israeli production, and stars Mahmoud Shalabi (who played Yacine's older brother Bilal in THE OTHER SON.) He plays Naim, who is living in Gaza and finds a bottle with a message in it on the beach. It's from an Israeli girl who recently moved with her family from France. Her name is Tal and she recently witnessed a suicide bombing and wanted to ask anyone in Gaza how someone could do such a thing. Naive question, to be sure, and Naim's original response (she provides an e-mail address) is bitter and sarcastic. But she keeps on, and eventually they become something of pen pals (or e-pen pals? I'm showing my age with that term, aren't I?) Anyway, there relationship starts pretty tense, and even after they are on friendly terms, there's still difficulty with their situation. There's a bit when Hamas soldiers suspect Naim is an informant, and he has to stay quiet for a while (although they start e-mailing in French and he claims she's his French teacher.) The moments when there are bombings on either side and the e-mail with worry for each other are pretty nice. Ultimately, it's a story of people who are geographically close (Jerusalem and Gaza are 73 km away) but separated by much much more and trying to break down that separation. And without giving too much away, the ending expertly underlines that.

And finally, we ended the night with Henry Jaglom's paean to actors, actresses, and the families with the strength to not disown them. JUST 45 MINUTES FROM BROADWAY is an adaptation of his play of the same name (complete with curtain effects) about a family of actors--descendants of the Yiddish stage--and their Passover weekend in their secluded wooded home. The elder daughter Betsy (Julie Davis)--the only one to reject the life of an actress and embrace "civilian" life--brings home her fiancee (Judd Nelson, the only member of the cast who wasn't in the original play.) And, of course, everyone has to be incredibly dramatic around him. In fact, melodramatic is a better word, and to the point where it's often kind of annoying (but I assume that's kind of the point. Or at least it's the point for certain audience members.) And no one is more melodramatic than the younger sister and appropriately named Pandora (frequent Jaglom collaborator Tanna Frederick.) I won't get into the plot details, but needless to say everyone creates the necessary drama they need to feel...I guess "right" if not comfortable. And the point (underlined both by a monologue and by the structure of a play-within-a-film-based-on-the-play) is that the line between real life and acting is blurry to say the least. After all, if someone gives you sad news about their life that doesn't affect you directly, do you express sadness because you're really sad or because social convention teaches you to act sad in that moment?

Oh, and as an aside, I normally don't say too much about this, but it was shot on digital video and it was interesting how the aesthetics of digital vs. film worked well. It gave it more of an immediacy that worked well with it's origins as a play. It was like a play with very realistic production values (so you don't actually see the stage, just the house, trees, etc.) and this was the performance they decided to videotape for posterity.

Both Henry Jaglom and Tanna Frederick were there for a Q&A afterwards. The most interesting parts were:
1. Henry Jaglom admitted that most actors and actresses he knows come from "civilian" families and they're the only dramatic ones. So he wrote it from the idea of reversing that dynamic.
2. Tanna Frederick revealed that she considered her role (and all her roles in Jaglom's films) as a way of her playing Henry--or at least Henry's inner girl. He had never heard this before.

Total Running Time: 481 minutes
My Total Minutes: 293,933

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 5

Four more shows on Tuesday, here we go.

We started with a documentary, GOD'S FIDDLER about the brilliant violinist Jascha Heifetz. It's a fairly standard hero worship movie, which is fine when the hero is so accomplished. He was a prodigy, born in Russia, debuted at age seven, and played Carnegie Hall by age 17. As the movie itself says, "that's all there is to say." Of course, it goes on to say quite a lot more. It uses home movies and concert footage to showcase the talent, and interviews to try to get to the soul of the man--and eventually teacher. The big recurring theme was the criticism that he was a "cold" player. On stage his face was inexpressive, but his fiddle spoke volumes. At one point, an interviewee suggests you just close your eyes and listen instead of looking at his face. Well, I was plenty exhausted so that was easy, I was doing that a lot. Luckily, this is the sort of music-filled movie (BTW, Jews in Tunes is an official theme of the festival) that is just as enjoyable to watch with your eyes closed. I also liked the stories of his humor, although admittedly a lot of the humor relied on the fact it was the "cold" Heifetz being silly. And my favorite story was actually about him in WWII, playing for the troops. One day there was a horrible rainstorm and they suggested cancelling his concert, but he insisted unless he was really ill he would not cancel a performance. So he ended up playing for one soldier  sitting under an umbrella, and he said it was his finest performance ever.

The next show started with a short, and kept with the musical theme. MUSIC MAN MURRAY is the life story of Murray Gershenz, an avid music collector (everything from CD's to Edison wax cylinders) who owns a record shop in L.A. He's getting on in years, and is looking to unload his multi-million dollar collection, but so far no takers. It's an endearing portrait of a life and a passion. And the whole time I was thinking, 'this guy looks really familiar.' And then in the end, they reveal he's also a character actor who has been in THE HANGOVER and THE SARAH SILVERMAN PROGRAM. Oddly enough, this is the first of two times this happened to me on Tuesday.

That was the lead in to LIFE IN STILLS, a feature that plays on similar themes of a life's work. In this case, the life is 96 year-old Miriam Weissenstein, the widow of Rudi Weissenstein. Rudi was a photographer, and in fact an official photographer of the Israeli Declaration of Independence and a visual chronicler of daily and political life in Israel for decades (until he passed away in 1992.) He opened a studio in Tel Aviv, and Miriam still runs it with her grandson Ben. Or she did. The city wants to tear down the studio to make way for a new high rise. So the movie takes on a sad tone as such a rich legacy is threatened with destruction. And even if the prints and negatives survive in a new location, it's just sad to see the past not treated with respect.

Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier I was pretty exhausted and had trouble keeping my eyes open. That's not much of a problem when you're dealing with music documentaries and you can still listen with your eyes closed, but I feel I missed quite a bit of this movie by struggling to keep awake.

So I loaded up with a large, caffeine-rich soda and settled in for the spotlight screening.

And the spotlight presentation was THE OTHER SON, a switched-at-birth drama-comedy set in Israel and Palestine. Joseph Silberg is turning 18, and it's time for his military service. He wants to be a paratrooper for a few years, and then get on with his dream of being a musician. But something odd shows up in the physical--his blood is A+, while both his parents are A-. After a bit of suspicion that his mother was unfaithful, an investigation reveals that he was switched at birth. See, he was born during the Gulf War, and a scud missile threat triggered an evacuation. In the chaos, he was switched with another baby born at the same hospital and the same time. And that baby grew up to be Yacine Al-Bezaaz. For those who don't recognize names, that's a Palestinian name. His biological parents live in the West Bank, and his biological mother was visiting her cousin in Haifa when he was born early.

So switched-at-birth stories are usually screwball comedies, but of course this situation is a little more serious. There's a lot of conflict to resolve. Joseph is dismayed to find he now has to convert to Judaism, while technically Yacine is automatically Jewish. Yacine isn't too thrilled to discover he's actually one of the hated occupiers (and his brother Bilal is even more angry.) Both fathers have a hard time with it. But I loved how the mothers took a look at each other and with no words passed you can tell they immediately knew how each other was feeling. Our differences may be great, but motherhood is pretty universal. My immediate reaction was, 'well, they'll all have to become one weirdly extended family now.' And without giving too much away...something like that happens. In the Q&A, Jules Sitruk (who plays Joseph) mentioned that while the film has been well received both in Israel and Palestine, it has gotten some criticism for being naive. I like to think that by making it a human, family story instead of an overtly political story it earns the right to be so naive and still believable.

And finally, we ended the night with yet another music documentary...kinda. BEN LEE: CATCH MY DISEASE is the story of Ben Lee (of course!) He's a nice Jewish boy from Sydney, Australia who became a rock star at age 14. He was actually there to introduce the movie, and since it follows him from when he was about 19 through to the birth of his daughter (when he was 30) he warned us how awkward it is to watch yourself in your late teens/early twenties. Of course, when a lot of those years involve making out with Claire Danes, it's probably a little less awkward than most. Yeah, they had quite a romance, but they eventually broke up. And that left Ben a little broken. A lot of the movie is his evolution from a "precocious little cunt" to a rock star to a pop star to a spiritual seeker in India. And it seems like he's found a happy life now, not trying to become a rock star but just trying to become himself. Oh, and remember how I mentioned earlier about how twice today I saw a movie that made me think, 'I've seen that guy before?' Well, Ben was also the star of THE RAGE IN PLACID LAKE. I loved that movie! Awesome! And he was there for a brief Q&A afterwards with his wife Ione Skye (oddly, while he's not really a practicing Jew anymore, he did marry a Jew, so that made his mom happy.)

And that was yet another day at Jewfest North.

Total Running Time: 359 minutes
My Total Minutes: 293,452

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 4

A big day, 5 movies. So let's cut the chitchat and jump right in.

First up was a fascinating semi-experimental documentary KINGDOM OF SURVIVAL. The Jewishness of the movie is marginal, but it has Noam Chomsky so I guess that's good enough. In fact, he's the first step on director M.A. Littler's journey to learn more about freedom, capitalism, anarchy, survival, and attempting to make the world a better place. Particularly, how to make the world a better place by challenging authority. He visits a series of radical thinkers and throws so much radical thought and split-screen visuals at you that I'm not sure if it really answers anything (which is something Littler confesses near the end of the film.) I do know it overloaded my brain and I'd have to watch it again to unravel the points I agree and disagree with. But I do know my favorite part was the visual juxtaposition of people wearing gas masks and 3-d movie glasses while talking about Huxley's idea that concentration camps of the future will be voluntary. That kind of has the potential of re-contextualizing my entire adult life.

Next up was a very moving documentary from Israel and South Africa, ONE DAY AFTER PEACE. It's the story of Robi Damelin, a mother in Israel who's son was killed 10 years ago by a Palestinian sniper. He was fulfilling his military service at a checkpoint and when the sniper fired he raced out to try to protect others. Now ten years later, the sniper has been caught and is serving consecutive life terms in prison. And she decides she wants to contact him and try to start a dialogue, perhaps find the capacity to forgive within herself, and work towards peace. This is where the South Africa part comes in. You see, Robi was born in South Africa and moved to Israel when it was still under Apartheid. Returning to South Africa the movie examines the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was set up to move the country forward. The obvious question, of course, is whether this is a possible model for Israel, a way to break generations of revenge. Well, the movie leaves that answer to the audience, although for myself I'm pretty much a fan (although I think there would need to be a state of peace before such a system could be implemented in Israel and Palestine.) Of course, when talking about atrocities no system is going to erase all of the pain. We see a former South African police commander who applies for amnesty and apologizes, but people still think his apology was "too glib." (important point, the TRC does not require an expression of remorse. Just a confession and all the relevant details and you get amnesty.) But we also see him delivering food to the mother of one of his victims, and it's pretty clear that actions speak louder than words. We also see a white South African mother meet with the men who planned the bombing that killed her daughter (who herself was against Apartheid, so they actually killed someone who could've been a friend and ally.) Ultimately (spoiler alert) Robi has not yet met with her son's killer, and she is very honest about her conflicting emotions. But it makes for an interesting and moving exploration of what it takes to forgive.

Next up, another documentary, GYPSY DAVY, a personal journey by director Rachael Leah Jones about her father and famous flamenco guitarist David Serva Jones. See, he left her and her mother when she was just a baby. And in this movie we discover that he did this to a series of families (he's on his fifth wife and child, if I remember correctly. And all of them admit they thought it would last forever.) Well, he's apparently  a very charming man, although when confronted with his past families he gets a little evasive/glib. He truly was in love with each of the women in turn. He just has a wandering heart, or as Rachael puts it, "[His] true love is the flamenco, and his favorite child is his guitar." But over the many years of making this movie (it feels like it kind of grew out of home movies) we get a good look at a man...and ultimately a father who we can accept even if we find it hard to respect him (or, as Rachael said in the Q&A, a large percentage of the women in the audience probably fell in love with him, even given the rather negative view the movie gives of him.) Oh, and maybe most importantly there's a lot of great flamenco music.

Next up was the drama RESTORATION, which I had forgotten I had seen last year at Jewfest South (aka Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival.) Here's what I wrote back then:
Next up, a rather difficult drama RESTORATION. The title refers to furniture restoration, but maybe also to restoration of family and life. When Max dies, that's bad news for his friend and business partner Yaakov. Even worse, he finds that their furniture restoration shop is in bad financial shape. Worse yet, Max has bequeathed his half of the business not to Yaakov, but to Yaakov's estranged son, an ambitious attorney with no interest in the shop. But when an antique Steinway is discovered, it might just be the key to saving everything. Or not. It's a tricky, subtle thing, and honestly I was so tired I struggled to stay awake. The acting, cinematography, score, etc. were all well done (especially acting), but I'm just not sure I "got" the film. Perhaps if I saw it again when I wasn't exhausted (like that will ever happen) I can get more out of it.
Wow, ask and ye shall receive. Not that I wasn't exhausted last night (it was the fourth of five movies, after all) but I was definitely more engaged. I completely forgot to mention Yakov's recently hired assistant Anton, or Noah's (Yakov's son--the lawyer) very pregnant wife. Or, without giving away spoilers, how the ending that confused me the first time made perfect sense and was beautiful this time. I can now proudly say I "get" this film.

And finally, I ended the night with another repeat screening, one I liked the first time but still won't swear that I really get, THE EXCHANGE. Here's what I wrote when I saw it at SFIFF earlier this year:
And finally, I ended the day with THE EXCHANGE. I loved that this movie opens with a brief reference to E.P.R. and that non-scientists have read way too much into it regarding objective reality. There's never any explanation of what E.P.R. is, so it's a reference only physicists will get. And how many physicists would watch a movie like this? It might only be...me! Has he (director Eran Kolirin) really made a movie for me and me alone?
 Then I get into an explanation of EPR that I won't bore you with here but I encourage you to read. I continue...

Oh yeah, back to the movie, how does all this EPR rambling tie in to the movie? Well, I really wish I had seen it when Eran Kolirin was still here, because I would've loved to quiz him about it. But I can say that festival programmer Rod Armstrong introduced the movie by saying in previous Q&A's some audience members wanted to ascribe mental health issues (anything from depression to schizophrenia) to the protagonist, and Eran was adamant that he's not crazy in any way. Well, that's easy for me--he's not crazy, he's just a physicist. And his class ends one day when he's right in the middle of discussing EPR. So he goes home with all this at the front of his mind, keenly aware he's collapsing Wave Functions all around him. Well, as a guy, what's the one thing that is most profound to collapse by observing. That's right, his own penis. So he takes a second, whips it out, and looks at it in the mirror. Then he notices another guy watching him. And wacky hijinx ensue.
So the movie is an examination of how by observing the world around you, you create it (or at least change it.) But that's not to say the world is subjective. There is an objective reality to it, and it is described by the Wave Function. Sure, you can collapse the Wave Function, but that collapse is the same for everyone. You can't collapse it one way at the same time as someone else collapses it another way (i.e., you can't get around the Uncertainty Principle by measuring a particle's position at the same time as someone else measures its momentum. The collapse of the Wave Function happens the same for everyone.) It's a subtle distinction between subjective reality and objective reality that you are a part of and influence.
At least that's what I got out of it. I don't know what the heck other people could get from it.
Okay, a few corrections the second time through. He doesn't whip out his penis and look at it immediately after his EPR lecture. And actually, that's not where the weirdness begins. It begins when he goes home during the day to get a binder he left at home and he sees his apartment in a new light (and his wife, as she's sleeping.) He then becomes obsessed with observing the world in different ways than before. Also, the man he meets after whipping his dick out and looking at it in the mirror is into similar sorts of observational weirdness (and is even interested in popular science) so they become sort of partners in crime. Often one will observe while the other does something to annoy or harass someone the observer knows. It actually becomes pretty cruel. I still maintain he's not crazy, he's just a physicist. But seeing it again I can see what non-physicists could get out of it, too.

Oh yeah, and I liked how every time the protagonist enters his apartment, either the camera angle or the lighting is dramatically different, like he's stepping into a different space each time. It really emphasizes the theme of looking at the world in different ways.

And that was my day at Jewfest North. I'm off soon for another four movies today.

Total Running Time: 475 minutes
My Total Minutes: 293,093

Monday, July 23, 2012

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 3

Okay, three movies last night (Sunday) so here we go.

First up I saw the first ever adaptation of a Judy Blume book, TIGER EYES. And she was there along with the film's director (and her son) Lawrence Blume. Now I have to confess that while I've always known about her work, I don't think I've actually read any Judy Blume. But I can say that if the movie is any indication then the reputation she has of being able to tell a very realistic story from a young person's point of view is entirely deserved. It's the story of Davey Wexler (Willa Holland,) a high school girl in Atlantic City whose father just passed away. Her mom can't cope, so they (she, her mom, and her brother) go to live with her aunt and uncle in Los Alamos (where her uncle is a world class physicist...off topic, but I've noticed physicists are a recurring theme in the festival so far...like G-d is telling me to get back in the physics game.) So she is simultaneously dealing with the loss of her beloved father and the culture shock of moving to a place where the atomic bomb wasn't just built but is a centerpiece of civic pride and the economy is still based on weapons research there (just to underline the death theme more.) It brilliantly captures that difficult time in a young persons life when adults can't seem to understand (or at least convince you they understand) at the best of times, much less in times of great trauma. In fact, her best comfort is a Native boy (Tatanka Means) who calls himself Wolf (she, in response, names herself Tiger, leading to the title) and helps her really just by letting her know she's not alone. Plus, he's got a scholarship to Caltech, go Beavers! Anyway, no need for plot elaboration, I'll just say that all the acting was pretty great, the story was compelling, and I'm still impressed at how well it got into Davey's point of view.

Next up was the international premiere of the third season of ARAB LABOR (specifically episodes 1, 2, and 4.) I was a little worried because I had missed seasons 1 and 2 (although season 1 is now on it's way from Amazon.com.) But no worries, it was pretty easy to jump in. The bumbling hero of the series is Amjad, a Palestinian living in Jewish neighborhood in Israel. In the first episode of season 3, he learns that his mere presence is driving property values down. He's determined to change attitudes towards Arabs the only way he knows how--by going on the Israeli version of Big Brother. But his first challenge is to try to pass as a Jew, and hilarity ensues. The rest of the season trades on his new found nationwide fame, and in episode 2 he gets into trouble from all sides. Seems like if he's popular in the Israeli media, he's hated in the Arab village where his parents live. But a series of incidents that mix politics and urine keep changing the national view of him. Oh, and he has a new grandson (from his daughter and her Jewish husband) and the question of his circumcision is also forefront. Not whether to do it or not (since it's both a Jewish and Muslim tradition) but what ceremony to use and who makes the cut. And finally, in episode 4 the BBC comes to interview him for a piece on the difficulties of an Arab living in Jerusalem, but with his fame all he can give them is a perceived insult from an overpriced cookie shop. Really funny, and made me want to eat cookies (but then, most things make me want to eat cookies.)

Next up, we were treated to an interview with Elliot Gould, the winner of this year's Freedom of Expression award at the festival. He talked at length and with humor about his career, his process, and his ambitions (in my favorite part, he said his greatest ambition was to be a great-great-grandfather, but so far he's happy just to be a grandfather and we'll see how far he can take it.)

Well, all that was a lead up to his new film DORFMAN, where he plays a widower and father of two. The elder is his son Daniel, who owns an accounting firm, is married, is trying to have a child, and seems to have his life together. His daughter Deb, on the other hand, is a work in progress. She works for Daniel at the firm, helps out everyone (including living with and feeding her depressed father) but doesn't really have herself together. When her best friend (and secret crush) goes on assignment to Kabul (he's a journalist/vlogger) she volunteers to look after his cat and fix up his new downtown L.A. loft (he just moved in and everything is in boxes.) Once there, she meets a very helpful/sexy/womanizing Egyptian neighbor Cookie who helps show her around "D-town" and helps set up the loft. And the process of making over the loft leads to a makeover in herself, a sexy new look and attitude. She changes from a frumpy valley girl to a sexy D-town chick, and even her father moving in and discoveries about her brother's...imperfections barely get in her way. Okay, they get in her way a lot, with humorous results. And that's really the most important thing--it's funny. And once you have that, you can tie in the themes of renewal and learning to live your life. But most important, it's funny.

And that's Day 3 of SFJFF, 2012 edition.

Total Running Time: 264
My Total Minutes: 292,618

Jason Watches ROCK OF AGES at the Cinedome 7 Newark

Again, it's my favorite local run-down discount theater. $2 for a movie, they still show on film, and for the first time that I've seen, they actually played three whole trailers before the feature. But I did have to suffer through a spotty sound system, which was kind of annoying.

And unfortunately, I don't think the movie was worth my $2 anyway. The story is flat, but let's be honest this is nothing more than an excuse to revel in 80's rock anthems. Problem is, the songs made me cringe more often than they made me sing along. I know this is the soundtrack to my youth, problem is I have a pretty ambivalent love/hate relationship with my youth. And somehow seeing Alec Baldwin and Russel Brand as gay lovers doesn't help. The only line I liked was this (between the female and male leads, after they've been apart for a while and are meeting again):

Sherrie: I'm a stripper at the Venus club.
Drew: I'm in a boy band.
Sherrie: You win.

Basically, if I want to revel in some 80's music I prefer SF Indiefest's traditional Valentine's Day Power Ballad Sing-along "Love Bites." It's not that the music is any better, but the audience is better and I'm way drunker.

Running Time: 123 minutes
My Total Minutes: 191,353

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 2

I just saw 2 movies last night (Saturday.) Here we go:

First up was THE DAY I SAW YOUR HEART, a French comedy starring Melanie Laurent and Michael Blanc as daughter and father Justine and Eli Dhrey, respectively. Justine already has one sister, and surprisingly she's about to get another sibling. But Eli is more interested in the technology of 3-D ultrasound than the miracle of life in his wife's womb. That's just the sort of selfish eccentric Eli is, and of course that has a tendency to ruin the lives around him. Justine is just as eccentric, and expresses that through massively unethical/illegal artistic uses of the x-ray machines where she works as a technologist. Actually, as a former medical imaging manufacturer, I couldn't help but think about how much trouble she would be in if she did that in real life. It's one thing to x-ray objects, even animals, but to give multiple doses of ionizing radiation to humans just for an art project...she could end up in jail for that.

But I digress. Given that they're both selfish eccentrics, it's a surprise Justine and Eli don't get along that well. In fact, Eli seems to get along better with Justine's ex-boyfriends than he does with her. Perhaps that's all part of being destructively selfish. But in bittersweet French comedy fashion, they do find a connection in the end.

And the late show of the night was a modern Israeli noir film, NAOMI. Melanie Peres is beautiful as the too-young wife of a famous physics professor Ilan Ben-Natan (like, actually famous--he's on TV.) But the brilliant physicist is perhaps too doting and paranoid of a husband. When she's not home until late and has left her cell phone at home he gets a little worried. And the next day, his worries are confirmed. But I don't want to give away spoilers, so I'll leave the plot there. I will say that the characters are well drawn, and the moral crises and twists kept me interested the whole time, even when the pace kind of lagged and the digital cinematography was kind of on the cheap/indie side (normally I don't gripe about digital movies, even when the resolution is sub-optimal. But the combination of seeing beautiful film/digital prints recently at the silent film festival and having the word "noir" summon images of black and white film from the 50's and cinematography heavy on the shadows...well, it made me notice how this film wasn't shot like that.)

Anyway, at least the characters were excellent. I especially liked the very Jewish touch of Ilan's number one confidant being his mother (his number two is his childhood friend Anton, who is now a police officer.)

And that was my second day at Jewfest North 2012. We're just getting started.

Total Running Time: 200 minutes
My Total Minutes: 292,229


Chris Nolan has already set the bar for superhero movies really damn high, and he has once again set it higher. I'll try to avoid spoilers, so this will be brief. Bane is a wonderfully frightening villain who really tests Batman's limits, both physical and mental. This is also an older Batman, who has shut himself inside his mansion for years, and walks with a cane. But now he has to overcome his pain (emotional and physical) and come out of retirement. Oh yeah, the theme of this movie is pain, and it's played very well.

Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (who is never actually explicitly called Catwoman) is pretty good, although I think her character was underdeveloped. Mostly it's a movie for the regulars to shine--Christian Bale as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as commissioner Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and a surprisingly larger role for Joseph Gorden Levitt as Detective Blake. Which reminds me--I love the ending. Not to give away details, but it wraps stuff up neatly while still leaving it wide open for a sequel. I get the sense that Nolan is done with the series, but someone willing to stick to the sensibility could still carry it forward.

Now for the things that have bugged me all through the series, and continue here. First and foremost, I've said before that I miss Tim Burton's sense of fun in his Batman movies (I don't, however, miss Joel Schumacher's sense of crap-tacularity.) I think what I loved most about Heath Ledger's Joker was that for all the menace he portrayed there was a nasty sense of humor behind it. There's no humor in the rest of Nolan's Batman world. Second, I never liked the Batman growl Christain Bale did. I understand part of the disguise would be changing his voice, but I just didn't like his Batman voice.

And finally, one thing to note about this movie is it's really an epic. It takes place over several months (about half a year, in fact,) and that's kind of surprising for a superhero movie. We're used to maybe an extended origins sequence, but the main battle takes place in a compressed time period. Not here, and that took some getting used to.

Well, that's it. More a collection of random thoughts than a coherent review. But I'm sure there are thousands of reviews out on the Internets now, so I don't feel the need to contribute yet another one.

Running Time: 164 minutes
My Total Minutes: 292,029

Saturday, July 21, 2012


I was nearly the only one for the late show of this little mindbender at the Roxie last Friday night (about 4 other people showed up at the last minute.) But the select few were treated to either a delightful hallucinatory trip or a pile of pretension. It takes place at the Arboria Institute, founded by doctor Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands,) a 1980's guru of happiness. But the institute is run by his assistant Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers,) who has some sinister motives. Or even if his motive--the chemical key to happiness--isn't sinister, his methods are. That method involves the systematic interrogation of a young girl (Eva Allen) and the story--as much as there is--is the story of her escape. But narrative isn't what this movie is about. It's about the visuals. And as far as they go--well, I don't think I've ever seen a movie that is more self-consciously intended to be watched on acid. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but for the most part I enjoyed it even when I was making fun of it in my head (You know what this movie needs? More close-ups of eyeballs.) First time write/director Panos Cosmatos certainly has a stylistic flair, and I'm definitely interested to see what he'll come up with next. It kind of feels like a student film from a cult director like Cronenberg or Lynch, where if he goes off and has the same kind of career people will look back and see the primordial forms of his ideas in this (come to think of it, that's the feeling I get whenever I watch a Richard Kelly movie, I'm just waiting for him to have a career that makes it worth revisiting SOUTHLAND TALES.)

Running Time: 110 minutes
My Total Minutes: 291,865

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Opening Night

Last Thursday the biggest and firstest Jewish film festival in the world started up for the 32nd time. I call it Jewfest North because it's actually one of three Jewish film festivals in the SF Bay Area. There's also the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival, aka Jewfest South, which I attend regularly, and the East Bay Jewish Film Festival, aka Jewfest East, which tends to conflict with Cinequest or SFIAFF so I've never been (but I'm sure they have a great program, too.) Anyway, as I said Jewfest North is the first and biggest, so if any one deserves the "Jewfest" moniker without any modifier, it's this one (sorry, Jewfest South! I'm still a fan!) But, on the other hand, I like including the moniker, so I'll continue to call it Jewfest North.

Anyway, we started with some opening remarks from Program Director Jay Rosenblatt and the new Executive Director Lexi Leban. The remarks were pretty standard, maybe even a little short for opening night, but they made kind of a running gag about how they're just going to say a little more and then the movie will start. When the film's director Roberta Grossman got up briefly she mentioned she just wanted to thank all the hundreds of individual backers of the film, and that got a good laugh.

Of course, Jewfest North also has probably the most opinionated and politically involved audience, so when they thanked presenting sponsor Wells Fargo (who is a long time sponsor of many, many film festivals) it got a mix of applause and hisses from an Occupy-friendly crowd. Somehow, it just made me feel like the festival is really starting.

And the festival started with a delightful little documentary, HAVA NAGILA, the story of the most Jewish of all Jewish songs. It takes a playful look back on the origins of the song as a way for Jews of today (and especially American Jews) to connect with their own origins. It goes back to the town in the Ukraine where it all started as a wordless prayer (a Hasidic tradition was to pray with a song, because words were insufficient for communicating with G-d.) Originally it was conveyed more of a sense of longing than the pure joy it conveys today, and actually my favorite rendition in the film was near the end when a rabbi demonstrated that original version. In the early days of Israel, the tune was adapted, made more cheerful, words were added (the quickie translation: Rejoice! [repeat until everyone is done dancing the hora]) and it became an unofficial anthem of Israel. American Jews, who had been assimilating very well, suddenly wanted a connection to this Jewish nation, and the Hava became that connection. But it also grew into a world music hit, outside of the Jewish population. And more than anyone that was the work of Harry Belafonte, who loved to sing it. Belafonte is interviewed in the movie along with plenty of other celebrities, both Jewish (Leonard Nimoy, who admits that the Vulcan V hand gesture came from his memory of rabbis holding their hands like that during a certain prayer) and not (Connie Francis, who had one of the most successful records of Jewish music despite only being, "10% Jewish on [her] manager's side.") The movie even follows it to the eventual parodies, when American Jewry was ready to lampoon itself with the likes of Mel Brooks or Allan Sherman (who made his parody "Harvey and Sheila") And it continues to the eventual Hava haters, who I see as the hipsters of the Jewish music scene who complain that people only know Hava Nagila and have ignored the rest of Jewish musical tradition. In short, instead of the Hava being a gateway to Jewish music, it's been a cul-de-sac--leading nowhere. Personally, while I understand complaining is kind of the Jewish sport, that's far too much thought about a song that's really just about having fun.

Well, then it was time for the party at the Swedish American hall. A bit of nosh, some drinks, and a sinful amount of dessert. But my favorite thing was the pair of "Jewvision" glasses. They look like the cheap paper 3-D glasses, but they actually have diffraction gratings in a pattern to make any point source of light have a rainbow Star of David around them. Super awesome!

Running Time: 74 minutes
My Total Minutes: 291,755

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 4

The festival's over now. It's all done except the writing...and the catching up on sleep. And I've already done a few days of that (and a bit of drinking,) so now I'll just try to blast through these last films quickly.

Of course, if any on you Bay Area silent film buffs need a little pick-me-up to keep from going through silent film withdrawal, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is doing its thing every Saturday night. And every other Friday the Stanford Theatre is doing their summer silents series with Dennis James on the Wurlitzer.

Anyway, on to the last day full of movies.

We started early in the morning (well, 10:00 is early to people who stayed up late for THE OVERCOAT the previous night) for the swashbuckling classic THE MARK OF ZORRO (1920.) What's not to love about Douglas Fairbanks being heroic and athletic as Zorro and hilariously weak and foppish as his alter-ego Don Diego Vega. But what I didn't know before the introduction by Jeffrey Vance is how much of the iconic Zorro trademarks (especially the famous Z cut with his sword) actually originates with this movie and not the Johnston McCulley story (but then McCulley included it in the sequels he wrote after this movie.) I also knew that a young Bob Kane was a fan and based his most famous character on Fairbank's portrayal of Zorro. The mask, the double identity, even the hidden lair all came from Zorro and became iconic of Batman (so remember that when you watch THE DARK KNIGHT RISES next weekend.) And heck, this movie still totally delivers.

And, of course, helping with that delivery was the brilliant Dennis James rocking the Castro's mighty Wurlitzer organ.

Next up was THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK (1928) co-presented by the Film Noir Foundation and introduced by the Czar of Noir Eddie Muller. Josef von Sternberg directs a deceptively simple story about a "stoker" (the muscle-bound George Bancroft) who puts into port for one night, sees a girl (Better Compson) jumping into the water, saves her, and treats her to a wild night at the seedy local bar culminating in marriage. It's very atmospheric, and there is certainly the message that she has a shady past (although exactly what was so shady is never said.) But ultimately it's a sweet story (yeah, Josef von Sternberg made a romance) about a couple of souls who are maybe beyond redemption, but can redeem each other.

Donald Sosin accompanied on the grand piano, and of course was excellent.

Next up, EROTIKON (1920) which confused me a bit because I could've sworn they had played this movie just a couple of years ago at the festival. Here's what I said then:
Then the feature was a Czech classic, EROTIKON. (I's not quite what you think, but it is pretty darn frank). George (Olaf Fjord) has a train to catch, but the rain slows him down, so he spends the night at a local house (once the master of the house sees his fine brandy, he's a welcome guest). That leads to an encounter with the man's daughter, Andrea (Ita Rina). But the next day he's on his train, and although she never forgets him (thanks no doubt the the baby growing inside her), he's soon on his way to other conquests. These lead to no end of complications. Well, Andrea tracks him down to Prague, but their baby (really hers, since he knows nothing about it) is stillborn. Meanwhile he's in all sorts of romantic troubles, dallying about with married women. The plot gets pretty convoluted, but needless to say it does not end well for him (or anyone, but most importantly for him). Of course, the love scenes are nowhere near as explicit as modern film, but it more than makes up with it in evocative sensuality (a simple closeup of a raindrop on a windowpane is actually very impressive).
Wait, that's nothing like what I saw last Sunday! That was the 1929 Czech EROTIKON, not the 1920 Swedish EROTIKON. In fact, what I saw was a comic look at high society revolving around a clueless entomologist who knows more about the sex life of bugs than what his own wife is doing. Or rather, who is own wife is doing. But that doesn't really matter, because he's more interested in his niece (by marriage, his wife's sibling's daughter, not a blood relation, so [SPOILER ALERT! the incestuous ending is not quite as creepy as it could be. END SPOILER ALERT!]) It's an sex farce and high society farce showcasing the eminently practical Swedish high-society approach to affairs.

And The Mattie Bye Ensemble again did a magnificent job with the accompaniment.

Next up was a classic I'd heard so many things about and had never actually seen. STELLA DALLAS (1925) has been recommended to me as the saddest movie ever. And when Eddie Muller introduces it by describing how many "out there" movies he watches without being disturbed but how he can't make it through STELLA DALLAS without breaking down and tearing up a bit...well, that's making quite a statement.

And the movie is indeed very sad, but also an excellent story and character study. In fact, it's the only movie Samuel Goldwyn produced and then remade (in 1937, with Barbara Stanwyck--a version I now need to see.) Stella (Belle Bennett) is a small town girl who dreams of bigger things, and gets them when she marries Stephen Dallas (Ronald Colman.) Stephen is only in the small town to escape his father's scandal and suicide, he really loves Helen Morrison (Alice Joyce.) But while Stephen's away Helen marries another man so Stephen settles for Stella. Whew! This is already getting too complicated, and I haven't even introduced the most important relationship yet. That would be Stella and her daughter Laurel (Lois Moran.) See, Stella still has a lot of that ill-bred, small town girl spark in her, and that doesn't sit well with Stephen's society friends. In fact, just because she's friends (nothing explicit happens) with a rather vulgar Ed Munn (Jean Hersholt) she is shunned and Laurel is removed from her private school. Ultimately, the tragedy is all about the sacrifices a mother makes for her child. And it's pretty sad, but I have to admit I did not cry.

Here's the thing, I think the sadness was oversold. Maybe I'm just kind of a cynical bastard, but I'll admit when I cry at a movie. So I couldn't help but analyze why I didn't cry at STELLA DALLAS. And without giving too much away, I think it comes down to two things. First, giving the sacrificial choice she made, things worked out exactly as Stella wanted them to. So while the ended isn't all sad, it's bittersweet--her sacrificed worked. And second, her daughter didn't actually want her to make that sacrifice. Given the choice, Laurel would've stood by Stella (despite a moment of weakness earlier in the film.) Maybe I'm just selfish, and admittedly I've never been a mother, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have made such a sacrifice--especially not for a child who didn't want me to. But given all that, it's still a pretty sad story and it's pretty well told.

And it was expertly accompanied by Stephen Horne on the grand piano.

And finally, we got to the last show of the festival, which started with a short that was an absolute treat--the actual color version of Georges Méliès' A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902.) I've seen it many times before, and it was featured in HUGO last year, but only recently was a badly deteriorated hand tinted and toned color version found and painstakingly restored by Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films (the DVD, which I haven't watched yet, comes with an hour long documentary on the restoration which I've heard is pretty extraordinary.) Anyway, this is  Méliès' most famous film, a story of astronomers who travel to the moon in a shell fired out of an enormous cannon. They meet the moon men (who are brittle enough to destroy by smacking them with an umbrella) have a bit of a fight for escape, and finally return to earth with a moon man in chains to show off to everyone. The colors are excellent, and this show was also aided by Paul McGann reading the narration originally written for the movie by  Méliès himself.

And then we ended the night with the Buster Keaton classic THE CAMERAMAN (1928.) What can I say, this is Buster Keaton being a comic genius. It's also the first film he made for MGM, and the start of him losing control over his own films--something he later called his worst mistake in his life. But he's still great in this as a humble tin-type photographer who sees a pretty girl (Marceline Day,) finds out she works at an MGM newsreel office, and decides to clear out his savings account to buy movie camera, get the great footage, and really impress her. He just has a bit of a learning curve. But with his stone-faced gumption and a very clever monkey, he saves the day. It also includes a hilarious public pool sequence that is surprisingly risque for the time. Hilarious, and I just had to wonder how the cameramen on the movie felt about the scene showing a monkey could do their job.

And, of course, the accompaniment was excellent as always, this time once again from The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

And that's it, Silentfest 2012 is done! And I got it written up just in time, Jewfest North starts tonight.

Total Running Time: 465 minutes
My Total Minutes: 291,681

Monday, July 16, 2012

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 3

I was up bright and early again Saturday for a 10:00 am show. And we start with one of my favorites, Felix the Cat. Yay Saturday morning cartoons! Here's the lineup:
FELIX LOSES OUT (1924): Felix competes for the hand (paw) of Miss Kitty, against a rival who has a motor scooter.
FELIX THE CAT TRIPS THRU TOYLAND (1925): Felix rescues a doll from a doggy, and the doll takes him on a trip to Toyland where he has to rescue her from a villainous clown.
FELIX THE CAT IN BLUNDERLAND (1926): Felix searches for Wonderland, but a cop gives him confusing directions and he ends up in Blunderland. Wacky hijinx ensue.
FELIX THE CAT WEATHERS THE WEATHER (1926): Felix takes the wife and kitties out for a picnic but the rapidly changing weather ruins everything. So he has to conquer the weatherman and take control of the weather himself. You know, everyone complains about the weather but Felix actually did something about it! Complete with audience participation as the meowing kittens and making wind noises.
JUNGLE BUNGLES (1928): Felix sees a show of African jungle films and decides to shoot some jungle scenes himself. Lots of fun with the audience participation for animal noises. I don't mean to toot my own horn, but I'm kinda proud of my monkey screeches (I learned from the best--my daddy!)
ESKIMOTIVE (1928): Felix and his son take a trip via bubble to the great white north where they face Eskimos, darkness, a polar bear, and seals.
FELIX THE CAT FLIRTS WITH FATE (1926): Felix searches for true love, and finally finds it...on Mars. Then he teaches the Martians how to do the Charleston.

But you know, those one line descriptions don't do justice to the clever, surreal lunacy of Felix. He lives in a world where Felix's tail is removable for all sorts of schemes, where question marks appear over his head and then become physical objects for his manipulation. And it's a world where bubbles are a means of transportation. It's not yet a world where he carries a magic bag of tricks (that was an invention of his 1960's television resurgence) but it's pretty darn close.

Many thanks to the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Library of Congress, and George Eastman House for the beautiful 35 mm prints. And thanks to Donald Sosin and Toychestra (making their SF Silent Film Festival debut) for the accompaniment.

Next up was THE SPANISH DANCER (1923,) which so far has been my surprise hit of the festival [note: "so far" was written write after I saw it. Since I didn't post this until the end of the festival, I can tell you that it held up to the end as my surprise hit.] Apparently for years it had been unfairly derided as a lousy film that somehow mysteriously did well when it first came out but since had been seen as a stuffy costume melodrama with side plots that go nowhere. But, as described in the introduction by Rob Byrne, nobody had really seen the full version since it was first released. It had been badly cut up and only cut, degraded, and censored version had been seen. Now it has finally been restored to its former glory, and the most remarkable thing I can report is how funny it is. That's not surprising with Wallace Beery playing the King of Spain, but of course the star (and title character) is Pola Negri. She plays a gypsy singer, dancer, and fortune teller. She reads the fortune--and catches the eye--of Don Cesar de Bazan (Antonio Moreno, in a role originally written for Rudolph Valentino, but he plays it closer to a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler.) He's a nobleman but he hasn't been too smart with his money, and soon his creditors will leave him a penniless beggar. But there are three things he will always fight for--The Cross, The Crown, and the Heart. Well, through a wacky series of adventures (including an absolutely priceless execution sequence,) he ends up fighting for his heart against the crown. This is another in the festival theme of movies about women who inspire obsession in men--and this time both Don Cesar and King Philip become obsessed with her. And it all gets wrapped up in a court blackmail intrigue revolving around a treaty with France (where Queen Isabella is from.) Very funny (especially Wallace Beery in the final act) and exciting. 

And once again, Donald Sosin did an excellent job accompanying on the piano, this time with Jim Washburn and Greg Smith on guitar.

Next up was an interesting little film from our neighbors to the north, the uninterestingly titled THE CANADIAN (1926.) In a plot that's reminiscent of THE WIND (1928) but precedes it by two years, it's a story of Nora Marsh (Mona Palma,) a lady of London who out of financial desperation goes to live on her brother Ed's (Wyndham Standing) farm in Canada. She doesn't fit in at all, and especially clashes with Ed's wife Gertie (Dale Fuller.) In fact, they get into a confrontation so traumatic for her that she can't stand to live under the same roof anymore and offers to marry hired hand Frank Taylor (Thomas Meighan) just to move out. Now, the important thing about that deal is that Frank was talking at dinner about how he just wanted a wife to cook, clean, and sew...he doesn't mention anything else. But after a few months of co-habitation (with different bedrooms) he at least wants a little kiss. And this is where things get a little weird. There's an implied rape, and the next morning things are different...but over the harsh winter they actually grow to love each other, so much so that even when the crops fail she decides to stay with him out of love. I guess he had his way with her just the way she liked it? It's really a very simple story, but one that still left me scratching my head a bit.

Of course, one thing that was beyond doubt was how great Stephen Horne was accompanying on the grand piano/flute/accordion. 

Next up was SOUTH (1919), a documentary on the ill-fated yet heroic expedition of Ernest Shackleton. His expedition was shortly after Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to the South Pole and Robert Scott made it to the pole [only to find Amundsen's flag already planted there] but didn't survive the journey back (the subject of THE GREAT WHITE SILENCE (1924) which was my favorite film of the festival last year.) The only amazing Antarctic triumph left was to cross the southern continent from sea to sea, and Shackleon set out to do just that in 1914, with a crew that included filmmaker Frank Hurley. Unfortunately, their ship The Endurance got trapped in the ice and the crew had to survive over a year on Elephant Island while Shackleton made an 800-mile journey by lifeboat to get to civilization and rescue them. Miraculously (and through Shackleton's leadership and courage) every last man in the expedition survived! There is some great cinematography of the Endurance breaking its way through the ice as far as it can, and the extreme efforts of the men to push on. Then, of course, Frank Hurley didn't accompany Shackleton on his amazing lifeboat journey so there's no footage of that journey but to pass the time he filmed the wildlife and made a pretty remarkable nature documentary of the penguins, seals, etc. who live there.

I probably would have liked the movie better if it hadn't been for two things. First, I had been blown away by THE GREAT WHITE SILENCE (1924) last year, and it's still the superior Antarctic exploration movie. Second they projected it digitally and it just wasn't a pristine, high-resolution digital copy. It looked just okay, for the most part it wasn't too distracting but there were definitely digital artifacts that were noticeable (especially aliasing artifacts very noticeable in the rigging of the ship.) I certainly preferred that projection to not being able to see it at all. I know the festival is committed to showing the best possible version of the movie they can, so I'm sure there's a reason they didn't get either a film print or a better digital version. But I would be remiss if I didn't hold them to their own standards.

And once again, Stephen Horne did a great job accompanying, this time with the help of Paul McGann reading from Shackleton's actual writings. I wish I had written down the exact line he used at the end--something along the lines of "For speed and accuracy no one beats Amundsen, for bravery there's Robert Scott, but for rescue in the face of certain death, give me Shackleton!" 

So the next film was the masterpiece PANDORA'S BOX (1929) in an absolutely pristine print only seen by a couple of audiences before. This new restoration was funded by cinephile and Louise Brooks fan Hugh Hefner and overseen by David Ferguson, Angela Holm, and Vincent Pirozzi. The latter three were there to introduce the film, and they talked about the painstaking frame-by-frame digital reconstruction, since no negatives exist and most elements were the product of sub-par duplications. But they didn't go into too much detail because by that time we were already about an hour behind (not to go into details, but ironically the hardest thing about a silent film festival is managing the sound system.)

Anyway, it's a tour de force for Louise Brooks, for German expressionism, and for the art of film in general. It's a film that can make you wonder why people kept making movies after 1929. Couldn't they have just said, "Okay, that's a wrap, this art form has been perfected! Nobody needs to film anything else, we can just keep watching PANDORA'S BOX over and over again!"

It's the story of Lulu, a young showgirl in the infamously debauched Berlin of the 20's. And it's the story of the men (and one woman, the first explicitly lesbian character in film!) who are drawn to her. Expecially Dr. Schön, the editor of the paper who promotes her. But he couldn't possibly let their affair become public knowledge as it would be career suicide. Oops, it becomes knowledge anyway and now he has to marry her. But then he threatens her with a gun and in the struggle she shoots him. The trial is a sensation, and the plot to smuggle her out of the courtroom is both funny and an excellent example of the devotion she inspires. She goes on the lam with her coterie of admirers, and without laboring the plot I'll just say she ends up impoverished in London at just the time when a famous ripper is roaming the streets. Marvelous, just marvelous. Honestly I'm at a loss because anything I say can't live up to the film, so I'll just give up and say you have to see it yourself. (I couldn't find any news on if/when this restoration will be on DVD or Blu-Ray, but the previous Criterion release is pretty great, too.)

The Matti Bye Ensemble did an amazing job with a new score. In fact, while this restoration had only been seen a few times before, this was the world premiere of their new score, and it blew me away.

Meanwhile, while this is a little off topic, my beloved San Jose Earthquakes were opening a Pandora's Box of whoop-ass over Real Salt Lake. As a season ticket holder, I had a hard choice before the festival to see the game or see the movies today. It looks like I would've won either way, but I'm very happy with the choice I made.

And finally, we ended the night with the Russian oddity THE OVERCOAT (1926). I have to say I feel a little sorry for the Alloy Orchestra, who accompanied it. First, this is the only film they're accompanying in the festival. Second, the festival was running over an hour late for what was supposed to already be the late show, so only the die-hard film addicts like myself stayed. And third, they had to follow PANDORA'S BOX, which is a daunting challenge in itself. But given that, I think we got the perfect sort of weirdness that wouldn't compete in my mind with PANDORA'S BOX, but would find an entirely new an never-before-used part of my brain to live in. It's a bit hard to follow and it employs that exaggerated Russian style that would make the German expressionists say, "Dude, take it down a notch!" But the basic story is of a good and clever clerk who is deceived by conspirators with the help of An Unimportant Personage. As a result, his career never progresses and we find him an old man bent over with age still working as a clerk and with no friends. His overcoat is worn to rags, and that can mean his death in the frost of St. Petersburg. So he saves up his money until he can afford a brand new overcoat (150 rubles) and when he finally has enough it's the happiest day of his life. But he still has no friends, and within a day he is accosted and his overcoat is stolen. The local magistrate--an Important Person who used to be an Unimportant Personage is indifferent and throws him out for not going through his secretary. And soon enough, he dies and is buried in a plain pine coffin (he couldn't afford oak.) The end. It's grotesque, bizarre, tragic, social, and political. And I still don't know what to make of it. But damn if I didn't love the weirdness of it all.

Of course, as I said before The Alloy Orchestra accompanied, and did a fantastic job (unfortunately, for only a half full house, but those who stayed had a story to tell)

Total Running Time: 509 minutes
My Total Minutes: 291,216

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 2

This is where it gets exhausting, 11:00 am to near midnight in the amazing Castro Theatre with precious little time for a break. In fact, I never even exited the theater (although I did spend a good bit of time in the VIP lounge drinking some free wine and beer and noshing on some free food. It's good to be the press!)

Anyway, the morning started with their traditional Amazing Tales From The Archives program. This is where archivists/restorers give a little talk and show some clips of their work. This year we had Andrea Kalas from Paramount talking about the work to restore WINGS (oh yeah, I forgot to mention that opening night featured the gorgeous new restoration available now on DVD and Blu-Ray) and Grover Crisp from Sony (formerly Columbia) talking about the recent restoration of DR. STRANGELOVE and the upcoming work on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. The big theme of this year--which is different from previous years--is the digital aspect of the restoration work and how often the end product is a DCP (Digital Cinema Package, sometimes called a Digital Cinema Print) instead of or as well as the 35 mm film. For the record, Thursday night we saw WINGS in DCP, and actually I didn't even pay attention to the format until they brought it up today. And artistic director Anita Monga pointed out that they had the option of a somewhat scratched 35 mm film print or the DCP, and they chose the DCP because it looked better. For my money, it looked excellent.

But digital can be a tricky subject in the cinephilia world, especially with an audience like they have at this festival where pretty much everyone loves film--real film. And there were some questions/comments from the audience about how talking about a "digital print" or "digital film" is an oxymoron. So I suppose I should give my opinions on the digital vs. film.

First off, a pristine film print vs. a good DCP (and a good digital projector)--I think in general there's no difference. I know already that's controversial, and I don't care. I also think there are exceptions where some  movies look better on film and some look better on DCP. I also liked a comment that Grover Crisp made about the jitter in film projection that we've trained our eyes to see around, to the point where when a DCP is shown and it's perfectly stable it looks weird because we're used to the jitter. Well, your eyes can be quickly trained to see that as normal, and judging by the fact that I didn't even notice WINGS was a DCP, I'm already there.

More important, I think, is what happens when the projection is not perfect, either because of a bad print/low-res DCP or because of some projection error. My friend Lincoln Spector at Bayflicks is fond of saying that you're still at the mercy of the projectionist. A bad projectionist will screw up the viewing experience of a DCP, but he'll damage an actual film print. And that's all true, but I have a different/additional take on the differences between sub-perfect film and DCP viewing experiences. In film, print/projection errors--dust, scratches, (God forbid) a film jamming and burning through all remind me of the physical nature of the media--the actual film running through a projector. In digital, the issues--poor resolution, digital sampling artifacts, (God forbid) a dead pixel in the projector all remind me of the inherently artificial nature of what I'm watching. It reminds me that underneath it all I'm really seeing a very cleverly arranged and translated series of 1's and 0's. And that bugs me...a little bit (actually, dead pixels bug me a lot, because they'll always be there in the same spot no matter what movie is shown until the projector is fixed or replaced.) Given the choice between a sub-optimal film screening and an equivalently sub-optimal digital projection (whatever that means) I'd take the film artifacts over the digital ones.

As an aside, I also thought this program was interesting because it dealt with taking film elements that were still "pretty good" (eminently watchable, at least) and cleaning them up to make them as near-to-perfect as possible. This is a bit of a break from previous years, when this program often dealt more with the challenges of taking badly damaged films and make them watchable again, or putting together the best elements from several prints to make the best version possible.

Okay, enough of that, now on to the actual movies of the day, starting with the Chinese film LITTLE TOYS (1933).
I think there's an interesting aspect to mid-30's foreign (especially Asian) silent films, since they're after the time that American studios all transferred over to making talkies. See, from the beginning to the end of the 20's the story of the silent film industry was a story of constant progress, both technically and artistically in terms of the sophistication of the stories. And then the progress abruptly ended in America when everyone stopped making silent films. But in Asia (and Shanghai in particular) this is just when the silent era took off. Before, they simply couldn't compete with the Americans, who were making something like 80% of all silent films by the mid-to-late 20's (and it was trivial to cut out the English intertitles and put in Chinese ones.) But when Americans started making talkies the Chinese audience couldn't understand them, and so they went to the movies they could understand--the Chinese made silent films. And they kept progressing where the American silents left off--maybe not in terms of big budgets and special effects, but in terms of sophistication of story-telling. There's a language to silent film that was not done growing, and while it was cut down in its prime in America, it had a chance to progress further in Asia.

Anyway, enough of the generalities and theory, how about the actual movie. First, it was made by Linhua studios, the biggest studio in Shanghai at the time, directed by Sun Yu and starring the beautiful Ruan Lingyu. She plays Sister Ye, a clever and popular toymaker in her generally peaceful village. But her business is threatened by the mass-produced toys, which happen to typically be military themed. Hint: they're a metaphor for Japanese imperialism!  Anyway, Sister Ye moves to Shanghai with her daughter after her husband dies of an illness and her little son is kidnapped right out from under her nose (as she's attending to her husband who has collapsed in the street. Talk about a double whammy!) Well, in Shanghai she builds up the business again, but the new life she pieces together is threatened again--this time by actual invaders.

Now an aside, the Nationalist government at the time was officially pro-Japan (or at least anti-pissing off Japan,) so censors would not allow them to say the enemy was Japanese. They simply referred to invading forces as "the enemy" and reference "imperialism" (it could be British or American imperialism, it doesn't have to be Japanese!) .... Everyone knew it meant the Japanese...except for the censors, I guess.

Anyway, there's a good decades worth of suffering there, and without giving away too much of a spoiler it eventually drives her mad. It's kind of a heart-wrenching film, so it's hard to say it was really "fun" to watch, but it was very well made and Ruan Lingyu is a beautiful heroine. Incidentally, she's an icon of Chinese cinema, although she had her own tragic life story (Short version: suicide at age 24. Slightly longer version: apparently there's a cult around her like Elvis where people claim she faked her death and report seeing her in the strangest places.)

And of course I would be remiss if I didn't commend Donald Sosin for his fantastic score on the piano.

Next up was an epic that was actually a surprisingly simple love triangle. Or maybe it was a simple love triangle tragedy masquerading as a costume epic. Whatever it was, it was THE LOVES OF PHARAOH (1922) and it introduced itself as an epic in 6 parts.

What can I say, Ernst Lubitsch directed, so it's brilliant, weird, and funny in the not-quite-sure-if-I-should-be-laughing sort of way. Emil Jannings plays the Pharaoh Amenes. Paul Wegener (best known for THE GOLEM) plays Ethiopian king Samlak. Samlak intends to sign a peace pact with Egypt, and offers his daughter the princess to be Amenes' wife. But instead Amenes has eyes for Theonis (Dagny Servaes) the princess' Greek slave who was previously stolen by the Egyptian soldier Sothis (Albert Basserman.) Theonis loves Sothis, but can't disobey the Pharaoh. Meanwhile Samlak is pretty pissed off that A) the Pharaoh rejected his daughter, and more importantly B) the Pharaoh won't give back his slave Theonis. So the Pharaoh goes to war with Ethiopia over his love for Theonis, even though Theonis won't even put out for him because she's in love with Sothis (who has been sentenced to hard labor in the quarries.) Whew! Confused yet? Extra confusing (without giving away too many more spoilers) is how it almost has a happy, even triumphant ending, but then there's the sixth part of the epic that kind of doesn't make sense (I'm trying not to be spoilery, but someone who was supposed to be dead ends up alive) and makes it all end tragically. 

But the important this is that Dennis James absolutely rocked the Mighty Wurlitzer, and somehow made the whole thing work!

I do have one additional comment. This was a new restoration, and some bits were missing (filled in with text and still frames.) It was also shown as a DCP instead of film, but I still thought it looked good (for what it's worth, I did notice right away it was digital, not film. I'm not sure if that's because they mentioned it earlier in the day or the DCP just wasn't as high-quality as WINGS was opening night.) But that's neither here nor there. What I really wanted to comment on was the intertitles. Because they didn't have any surviving English intertitles, they had to translate them from German with the help of the script and contemporary accounts of the day. That's all fine, but they chose to put them in a very distracting blocky neon blue font, nothing like the intertitles of the day. Now I know there's a school of thought then when you're repairing/replacing a missing element you should make it clear it's a replacement and not the original. To make it look exactly like an intertitle from the day could be seen as fraudulent and more importantly convince people that you already have the original intertitles and there's no reason to keep searching for them. I just think you can do it in a way that isn't so jarring--copy the style of the day but leave something small in the corner or edges to let people know who constructed these intertitles and when. They way it was, the intertitles kept dragging me into the modern day so there was a constant sort of whiplash jumping between 1922 and 2012. Anyway, just my two cents as an audience member.

The next show started with an excerpt from a film that's kind of near and dear to my heart, TWIN PEAKS TUNNEL (1917.) It was restored by my good friends at The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum (a great place to watch silent films every Saturday night the 51 weeks of the year when this festival isn't going on) and shows the beginning of construction of the Twin Peaks Tunnel in San Francisco, the eastern end of which is at the corner of Castro and Market Streets, right across the street from the Theater where we watched it. A really remarkable look at the steam shovels, motor cars, and two-horse carts that started the tunnel on both ends (the middle had to be dug by hand.)

And then the next feature, MANTRAP (1926.) The last three features of the day all showcased the comedy and tragedy of obsessing over a woman, and this middle one kept it firmly in the realm of comedy and featured the woman I'd be most likely to obsess over, Clara Bow, super-flirt. Giant woodsman Joe Easter (Ernest Torrence, best known as Steamboat Bill, Sr. in Buster Keaton's STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.) travels from his quiet home on the Mantrap river in Canada to Minneapolis, remembering the wild time in his youth when he saw a woman's ankle there. Well, he meets lovely and bubbly manicurist Alverna (Bow) and next thing you know he's bringing her back home as his bride. Thing is, Mantrap is a little too quiet for her, and she likes to hold loud parties with the local trappers. Enter into the picture two friends--Ralph Prescott and E. Wesson Woodbury (Percy Marmont and Eugene Pallette) out for a bit of peace and quiet and communing with nature. Ralph, in particular, is a divorce lawyer and needs a break from the women who constantly hound him. Too bad they're not good campers and soon enough Joe has to separate them, and brings Ralph home to finish out his vacation with himself and Alverna. Ralph plays up the comic foil as the unlikely character of a man who can resist Clara Bow's charm for a very, very long time. A long time...but not forever. Director Victor Fleming (who had a very well-known affair with Clara Bow, starting with this movie) does an excellent job but Bow really steals the whole thing with her over-the-top bubbly flirtiness. In fact, it gets to the point where maybe it's a little too much, but without giving too much away let me just say the final line of the film redeems her character and allows the audience--who desperately wants to love her--to love her without guilt or fear.

And, of course, the master Stephen Horne did a wonderful job accompanying on the piano...and flute (often holding a conversation between Clara Bow as the flute and Ernest Torrence as the piano)...and accordion.

And finally the last film of the night was the traditional Director's Pick, and this year the director was San Francisco legend Philip Kaufman, and the pick was THE WONDERFUL LIE OF NINA PETROVNA (1929.) This time the woman who is the object of the men's desire is Brigitte Helm (METROPOLIS) as the title character. She is a kept woman of wealthy Colonel Beranoff (Warwick Ward) but has a wandering eye, and her first lie (the title is sometimes translated and THE WONDERFUL LIES OF NINA PETROVNA) involves a young, naive Lieutenant Michael Rostof (Francisc Lederer) she makes eyes at in the club. She tells the Colonel that he's an old childhood friend of hers (at this point there was some trouble with the subtitles, but fortunately Philip Kaufman had already revealed that plot element in his introductory remarks.) He laughs at her wonderful lie, but when she invites the Lieutenant over for a secret nighttime tryst (although he's so naive that nothing actually happens) he's a little less amused. She insists she loves Michael, so the Colonel sends her out of his villa--without his fancy furs or jewels. But she is content to live a much less lavish lifestyle, as long as she can be with Michael (why, beyond his naive good looks, is kind of a mystery. Especially given their one frustratingly chaste night together.) Well, without giving too much away eventually comedy gives way to tragedy. The Colonel's scheme to win Nina back works...up to a point. And we were all treated to a surprisingly powerful nearly forgotten film.

And, perhaps most importantly, we were treated to another excellent score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

And as one final note, since I mentioned problems with the subtitles before, I feel I should comment more. I want to make it very clear that I think the projectionist at the Castro does a wonderful job. And last night he had the additional job of projecting the subtitles digitally on top of the film print. And it seems the subtitles just didn't want to cooperate. Although he eventually got it to work, it seemed like it was something of a heroic struggle in the booth to do so. Some subtitles were missing, others were shown a bit too early or included a distracting horizontal line near the top of the frame. In any case, although it was noticeable it did not ruin the movie, and I just wanted to thank the projectionist for what must have been an incredibly stressful and difficult job. 

And that's Friday at the SFSFF. Two more days of equal intensity coming up. Here's hoping I survive!

Total Running Time: 421 minutes
My Total Minutes: 290,708