Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 5

Another night, another two movies. We're getting into the 'long slog' part of SFIFF. At least, it's a long slog when you're also holding down a regular job. When you're unemployed or take vacation for a festival, it's a breeze.

My first film of the night was COLD WAR, a Hong Kong police action-drama in the classic 80s/90s model, directed by a pair of first-time directors, Longman Leung (who has experience as an art director) and Sunny Luk (who has experience as an assistant director.) They have a high powered cast including Aaron Kwok and Tony Leung Ka-fai as the leads. And as I alluded to before, it has the feel of an 80s or 90s HK police action drama (except that it explicitly takes place well after the 1997 handover to China.) Meaning it has some thrilling and inventive action scenes, a convoluted conspiracy plot that's impossible to understand, and the parts I do understand are kind of ridiculous. Hong Kong in the movie bills itself as "Asia's Safest City" and it's the police who are charged with keeping it that way. So things start bad for them right away with a bombing, followed by the kidnapping of 5 officers and a high tech van full of police equipment. A botched ransom sting and ensuing car chase leaves an officer dead and the bad guys free, but miraculously the 5 kidnapped officers are retrieved unharmed. And then it turns not into a hunt for the kidnappers but an internal drama as the anti-corruption investigators (what in America we call internal affairs) goes looking for a mole in the police department. It pits the Operations Department--under the command of deputy commissioner Lee (Tony Leung Ka-fai)--against the Management Department--under the command of deputy commissioner Lau (Aaron Kwok.) Various theories as to why either of them--or anyone in their command--might be the mole are floated, and it all kind of makes my head spin. Along the way, there are more action piece fireworks (literally, in a turn on the classic bit of trivia that gunpowder was invented in China but only used for fireworks instead of weapons, fireworks are turned into weapons.) Ridiculous and confusing, the only thing I was sure of at the end was that Hong Kong is in serious danger of losing its "Asia's Safest City" title.

And then, after a couple of beers in the festival lounge, it was time for some music, performance, and perversion with PEACHES DOES HERSELF. I vaguely knew of Peaches (not to be confused with San Francisco's own Peaches Christ) before, but I'm not anyone who can be considered a fan (not that I dislike her, I just never really followed her career.) The film itself opens with a serious looking German man reading an academic account of her career--a serious lecture in Peaches study. At least, that's what I think he's doing. It's in German with no subtitles so to me it's mostly gibberish punctuated by titles of Peaches' songs like "Diddle My Skittle", "Fatherfucker", or "Fuck the Pain Away", which elicited good laughs from the crowd. He is then quickly drowned out by "Rock Show," which leads into the rest of Peaches' weird, kinky, fun, and surprisingly moving live show. Her songs tell a story of a young girl in her room exploring her sexuality, getting more and more perverse until she meets her true love (a fully nude hermaphrodite with tits and dick on full display.) But her true love is stolen by another (Sandi Kane the Naked Cowgirl) leaving her a broken shell of a...person?

Oops, I guess I got pretty damn spoiler-y there. But that arc doesn't really capture the true draw--the sheer fun of wallowing in perversion and pushing the envelope. And, oddly, the important word in that is "fun." It's so easy to focus on the perversion and the envelope pushing and forget that it's all about having fun. It's one thing to work "labia majora" into a song, but when you rhyme it with "dance the hora" then you have my full attention.

Peaches will be doing a live show at Mezzanine tomorrow night (Wednesday, May 1.) Your ticket to either the screening last night or the second screening on Thursday at 9:15 (with Peaches in attendance) can get you into the Mezzanine show on a first-come, first-served basis (and apparently there are still some shows left.)

Total Running Time:182 minutes
My Total Minutes: 325,935

Monday, April 29, 2013

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 4

The big first weekend wraps up and I only saw three movies on Sunday. Granted, one of them was a 5 hour marathon, but 3 is a little light for me on a weekend.

I started the day with the adorably charming French animated children's movie ERNEST & CELESTINE. I knew nothing about the series of French children's books that this film is based on, but I know trust that they are as charming and delightful as the film. Celestine is a little mouse living in an orphanage. Every night, they tell her the story of the big, bad bear. Ernest is a bear. He's awakening from his hibernation, and he isn't bad, he's just hungry. He doesn't want to eat mice, he wants to eat candy. Celestine, meanwhile, is charged with the task of collecting teeth from the bear cubs. See, all of mouse civilization is based on their ability to gnaw, so dentistry is an important profession and replacement teeth are in high demand. Well, Ernest and Celestine meet, and through a series of wacky adventures become friends. Although they face prejudice (and are fugitives from justice) they manage to overturn society and teach kids important lessons like follow your dreams, fight against prejudice, overthrow the class system, and break through the fear that society has taught you to feel. Lessons that are somehow perfect for children and dangerous for adults. These adorable little anarchists will show us all the way to freedom and happiness.

Then I actually had enough time between films for an actually sit-down meal (Pizza Inferno, delicious food an an impressive selection of craft beers.) That was a nice little bonus in my schedule.

And then my next film was LEVIATHAN, one of the most highly-touted films in the festival, at least in my circle of cinephile friends. I want to say to everyone who recommended this film to me...you suck! I didn't just hate this film, I was violently, viscerally bored by everything in it.

So let me explain what I think the draw is, what's supposed to make this film so interesting. It's a look at life and work on a commercial fishing boat off the coast of Massachusetts. They took a collection of small, durable digital cameras and they in turn put them...everywhere. On the deck, skimming across the water, up on top of the mast, in with the fish, etc. And so they get some impressive shots and unique perspectives.

And my reaction to all of it was, "So what?" So now let's get into a little bit of Film Theory 101 (note: I've never taken a film theory class, I read one book on it about a decade ago, and I'm way out of my depth. But this was the easiest way for me to understand what pissed me off so much about this film.) There is a classic theory of film editing that says the action is really moved forward not by what's on screen but by what's off screen. That is, competent editing will make the audience curious about what's off screen, then reward that curiosity. Think of the classic (cliche) Western scene. You see boots outside the door to a saloon, the swinging doors open, the music stops. You see everyone in the saloon look up, and then look nervous. This has all built up your curiosity. The one thing you're thinking about--Who is that man who just walked in?--is the one thing that hasn't been shown. And just when your curiosity is properly piqued, it's rewarded--the man is revealed to be a notorious criminal (or lawman, or preacher, or the guy they left for dead, or whatever.) As it goes, the theory is that all classic cinematic storytelling follows some variation on this formula. I don't necessarily subscribe to this theory, or at least I think this theory is neither universal nor complete. And I actually love it when films contradict or subvert this theory. For example, the entire genre of horror films can be seen as a subversion of this. In the gory torture-porn ones, it piques your interest and then punishes instead of rewarding it. In the more suspenseful ones, maybe instead of piquing your curiosity, it makes you afraid to see what's off-screen, and then respects your fear by not showing it, or only showing the reaction to it, thereby increasing your fear.

Well, that brings me back to LEVIATHAN. This film doesn't pique my interest in what's going on off-screen. Nor does it make me fear it. And then it moves on to another scene with no motivation. It's not rewarding the audience's curiosity, nor is it punishing it. It's not acknowledging the audience's existence. And as an audience, I will not have my existence denied like that. Yes, there are occasional individual shots that are impressive, but there's nothing to tie it to the previous or next shot. Cinematically, that's no more interesting than stringing together every explosion Michael Bay has ever committed to film (and as much as I hate his movies, I have to admit they contain some impressive shots of explosions.) Come to think of it, that might be better than anything Michael Bay has ever made, but that doesn't mean it would be worthwhile. But it would be no less worth my time than LEVIATHAN.

And finally, I ended my day with a 5 hour masterpiece from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, PENANCE. Originally made as a 5-part TV series, it opens in grade school. Emili is the new girl in school, and one day, while she's playing volleyball with her friends, a strange man comes and asks for her help reaching a tight place in a duct he's working on. An hour passes, her four friends wonder what's become of her, they walk into the school, and they find her dead body. The killer isn't found, and although all four girls got a good (but brief) look at his face, they can't remember anything. Emili's mother, Asako, is angry at them, and swears that if they can't identify the killer than she will--sometime in the future--force them all to do a penance that she approves of. Cut to 15 years later, the killer still isn't found, the girls are all grown up, and Asako returns to their lives. Each episode focuses on the life of one of the girls, with the fifth about Asako herself. Each girl has been affected by the killing in a different way. One completely eschews contact, becoming more of a porcelain doll than a person. One has become a teacher and taken up martial arts so she can be a protector. One has completely lost her humanity, saying instead she is a bear (this encounter takes place in prison.) And one has become selfish, living happily for herself and rejecting the very idea that she has to perform a penance. Issues of revenge, fear, sibling rivalry, sibling protectiveness, family, loss, etc. deeply affect everyone. And in the final episode, the very idea of penance is turned on its ear. If I were to be pithy, the two aphorisms that sum it up best are "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind" and "Living well is the best revenge." But I prefer Kurosawa's careful, nuanced, and detailed 5-hour explanation to any pithiness.

Total Running Time: 467 minutes
My Total Minutes: 325,753

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 3

5 more movies on the big first Saturday of the festival. No time for dilly-dallying (well, maybe just time enough for dillying, but no dallying) let's get right to the movies

First up was a really cool, really funny switched-lives comedy from Japan, KEY OF LIFE. Kimura is so forlorn he tries to kill himself. Failing even at that, he goes to a bath house (because the attempt made him all sweaty) where in a series of wacky events a perfect stranger Kondo ends up in the hospital with a severe head injury and amnesia. So Kimura kinda...switches lives with him. But little does he know (and soon enough he finds out) that Kondo is actually a legendary hitman-for-hire in the yakuza underworld. So Kimura hilariously tries to fill Kondo's obligations while Kondo in his natural meticulous manner pieces together the life he must have been living as Kimura. Hilarious and delightful, with some excellent twist surprises.

The one unwelcome surprise was the fire alarm that went off with about 15 minutes left in the film. We all had to exit the theater, wait for the fire department to get there and check everything out (kudos to the SFFD for their amazingly rapid response!) and then get everyone back inside to finish the film. Of course, all films in the Kabuki theater were delayed. But my next film was just up the street at the New People Center, and they didn't delay that. So I had to do something I hate--walk out of a movie right when the end credits start. And I know that's not done in Japan (the credits are considered part of the movie), and so usually I'll sit through credits of a Japanese movie even if I'm just thinking 'I don't understand the words on screen or the song that's playing.' Anyway, that's a long way of offering my apologies to director Kenji Uchida for walking out early at the end of his film. You made a wonderful movie, and deserved better than having it interrupted like that, and I'm sorry but I just had another movie I had to run off and see.

And that next movie was DOM: A RUSSIAN FAMILY, continuing the festival's focus on gangster films. Set on an isolated farmhouse on the grand steppes, in the opening scene we see a sharpshooter taking out a she-wolf who has been harassing the farm. This is a bad omen, and it looks like things won't bode well for the patriarch's 100th birthday party. The whole clan is coming in, many of them haven't seen each other for years, but Grigori is determined that his father's party will go off well (his father, for his part, is wheelchair bound, stays in his room, and can barely even speak.) Once the family arrives bickering starts right away. The only cool head seems to be the eldest son, Viktor (Sergei Garmash who won the Nika Award for Best Actor for this role. The Nika is the Russian equivalent of the Oscar.) But Viktor is so cool because he's actually the head of an organized crime outfit. He has been away for 25 years, and is actually out at the party kind of hiding from a revenge killing. Of course, after many days of bickering and backstabbing, the guys looking for Viktor show up, and all hell breaks loose in one of the most gorgeously shot extended gun battles I've ever seen. The whole last 30 minutes or so is just awesome!

Then to the lounge for a quick beer (thank you Grolsch, my official favorite beer during the festival). And then I caught a guilty pleasure, Joss Whedon's light, hilarious, and modern take on Shakespeare's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. I call it a "guilty pleasure" simply because it has a release date (June 7th in limited release, which will include the Bay Area) and I usually avoid those at film festivals in favor of movies I'll never have another chance to see. But I also always seem to stick a couple of these guilty pleasures in my schedule, so this is just one of them this year. Before the show the stars Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof introduced the film, and called Joss on a cell phone to let him make a few comments. His first comment was how much he hated San Francisco, then when Alexis told him he was on speaker phone with the whole audience he quickly switched and said he meant San Diego. I have no idea if that was scripted (I kinda suspect it was planned a little bit) but it was still pretty funny. Of course, they didn't call Shakespeare because the director always gets the glory and the writer is usually forgotten.

So this film was a quick little side project that Joss Whedon shot in his home. Making it a modern party and letting references to "princes" and "wars" just roll by without explanation (making this less of a "modern" update than an "alternate universe" update--an alternate universe where Southern California is ruled by a prince and there's some unexplained war going on.) But that's what it takes to be true to Shakespeare's words. Although more important than getting the words exactly right, they totally got the fact that it's supposed to be a comedy, and actually made it funny for modern audiences (as much as I like Kenneth Branagh, his version of the same play has more of a feel of "this is what audiences at the time would think is funny.") I forget where I heard it, but I once heard an actor in an interview say that the important word is "play"--when you're doing a play (or I suppose, even a screenplay) you're supposed to be having fun. And that's clearly what's happening here. It can maybe best be described as "Joss Whedon and a bunch of his friends fool around with Shakespeare and it actually works!" Oh yeah, and Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, the inept chief of the watch absolutely nailed the comic relief (importantly, in the part of the play where the story actually gets pretty bleak and could easily veer into tragedy.) About a million times better than Michael Keaton in Kenneth Branagh's version (sorry, Mr. Keaton, I love you but you kinda sucked in that role.) And there's just something that tickles me pink to be able to say, "Nathan Fillion, who has acted in Shakespeare..." Lot's of fun all around.

So then back to the lounge for a couple of beers and back for the excellent and fascinating documentary THE ACT OF KILLING. In the mid 1960s Indonesia underwent a violent revolution, which included death squads exterminating all communists. Of course, you didn't have to believe in communism to be labeled a communist--just cross the wrong guys, be a farmer who doesn't own his own land, be ethnic Chinese, whatever. It was a pretty horrible genocide. And yet, when the filmmakers met some old men who had been executioners at the time, they saw no remorse. Instead, they saw people who were kind of eager to speak shamelessly--if not proudly--of their deeds. And they were heavily influenced by American gangster movies in their execution methods (wire around the neck was a favorite.) So director Joshua Oppenheimer and his crew took them on a bit of an adventure. They would reenact the killings, sometimes changing roles so the executioner would be executed, and record not just the process but the outcome of the process.

So I was warned before I saw it that this is probably the most disturbing film in the festival. But when I saw it...I wasn't disturbed, I was fascinated. Fascinated by how many people were so willing and eager to make a movie, even a movie about horrible events. Fascinated by how the lead executioner was so sure this would be the best movie ever because the fake executions were being done by real executioners. Fascinated by the blurring of reality and fiction, which leaves children crying and executioners comforting them. Fascinated by the breakthrough, when the executioner feels what it was like to be strangled by a wire and ends up throwing up while trying to describe his reactions. I don't know that it gives any profound insight into how men kill. And perhaps that's the disturbing part--there is no answer, there is no monster within. Some people, for whatever reasons, end up killing. And then life goes on (except, I guess, for the victims.)

And finally, speaking of killing, I ended the night with YOU'RE NEXT. Adam Wingard's (POP SKULL, A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE) foray into hopefully actually making some money making horror films. A family gathers in a secluded house in the woods to celebrate the parent's 35th anniversary and the father's retirement. Many of the children haven't seen each other in years, and don't exactly get along. They're really horrible, selfish people. So absorbed in their own squabbles that when a crossbow dart flies through the window and into one's skull, it takes them more than a few seconds to notice. And then, quickly enough all hell breaks loose in the form of a gang of animal-mask wearing psychos who are apparently out for a little thrill-killing. I don't want to spoil anything, but I will say there is a motivation behind simple thrill-killing, and one of the characters turns out to be a survivalist. Ah hell, I'll even spoil that the survivalist is a female. Just because I love strong females who can fight back in a horror film. Chicks who kick ass...uhh...kick ass! And so does this movie.

And that was the first Saturday at SFIFF 2013.

Total Running Time: 557 minutes
My Total Minutes: 325,285

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 2

The first full day of the SF International begins, and with it the first big weekend. On Friday I snuck out of work early, checked into my hotel for the weekend, grabbed my press badge, sucked down a couple of the free beers (cheers to Grolsch, the official beer of the festival. Lighter than my usual tastes, but for the next two weeks it's officially my favorite beer) and headed off to my first of three movies.

First up was THE KINGS OF SUMMER, a really cool and very funny coming-of-age comedy. Joe (Nick Robinson) and Patrick (Gabriel Basso) are best friends, and both hate their family. In Joe's case, that's his acerbic, sarcastic, lonely, widower father Frank (Nick Offerman). In Patrick's case, it's his clueless, chipper, must-appear-perfect parents (Megan Mulally and Marc Evan Jackson). And so, at the end of their freshman year in high school, they decide to run away and live on their own in the woods. Joe has found the perfect hidden spot, and they'll just build a house themselves (the quality of craftsmanship is foreshadowed by the crappy birdhouse he turns in--late--for a class assignment). They're joined by a super-weird kid Biaggio (Moises Arias, who steals the show) and things start off great. They actually cobble together something kinda cool out of stolen pieces from construction sites (best site gag--their front door is stolen from an outhouse.) But, like all idyllic male-only paradises, things turn bad when a girl enters the mix. Specifically, cute Kelly (Erin Moriarty) who pretty quickly creates love-triangle tension. They learn a lot in their month in the woods, and perhaps nothing more important than the delicate balance of bros vs. hos. Actually...I don't want to end on that note, so let me say instead they learn a lot about being men and when (SPOILER ALERT: they do return to society their respective families treat them with a bit more respect.)

Next up was certainly the best titled film of the festival, THE PERVERT'S GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY. Philosopher/cineaste Slavoj Žižek and director Sophie Fiennes team up to a follow up to their PERVERT'S GUIDE TO CINEMA (which I haven't seen, but I've now ordered from the Pervert's Guide site.) We open with a shot from the classic THEY LIVE, and then Slavoj inserts himself into the movie set and starts discussing it as one of the best Hollywood movies about ideology (and noting that the act of putting on glasses to see the truth behind ideology is backwards from how we normally think--usually it's the act of removing the glasses of ideology where we finally see truth.) He continues to take us on a mind-spinning excursion through several movies--A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, FULL METAL JACKET (apparently Kubrick had some insights into ideology, or maybe Slavoj is just a fan--and who can blame him?), THE SOUND OF MUSIC, TITANIC, THE SEARCHERS, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, as well as some more obscure movies, Soviet propaganda, footage of 9/11, etc. It's more than enough to make my head spin, and I consider myself a pretty clever guy. And some of Slavoj's personal tics can wear on you (he sniffs and rubs his nose way too much). But then there are ideas that stick in my mind and won't let go, like his explication (set to THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST) about how Christianity is actually more atheistic than Atheism (I simply can't do his argument justice, so if you're intrigued you should just watch it yourself.) Definitely worth a second look (after THE PERVERT'S GUIDE TO CINEMA) to study his philosophy more. Or better yet, it's worth a second third Nth look at THEY LIVE. I love that movie!

Oh yeah, and what did any of that have to do with perverts? Fuck if I know.

And finally, instead of just going to bed early I stayed up for the abysmally boring OUTRAGE BEYOND. I like Beat Takeshi, and I liked OUTRAGE, even when I couldn't completely follow all the twists. But this follow up just went too far. Not too far in the violence (I have a pretty high threshold for that) just too far in having nothing but violence with brief interruptions for some opaque dialogue setting up the next spate of violence. The only way I can possibly appreciate this film (oh yeah, and the film didn't come so we watched a watermarked DVD screener instead) is on a philosophical meta-critical level. A constant criticism of action flicks is that by making violence entertaining it robs violence of the ability to shock and horrify us. Well, Takeshi has made the logical counterpoint, robbing violence of it's ability to entertain.

Either that or I was too tired to appreciate it. But I swear I didn't really feel that tired until this movie started.

Total Running Time: 349 minutes
My Total Minutes: 324,728

Friday, April 26, 2013

Jason goes to SFIFF--Opening Night

The oldest film festival in all of the Americas kicked off its 56th iteration last night, and the first with new festival director Ted Hope (here's hoping he'll be a great director and stay on for many years--pun intended.) He kept his introductory remarks mercifully brief (I've been to a lot of festival opening nights, and they can get pretty long-winded) but the highlight was the announcement of the recipient of the Peter J. Owens acting award. It's...Harrison Ford! That gives him two Bay Area film festival awards in two months. No word yet on when his special night will be, and what movie they'll play (typically they do an on-stage interview followed by a screening of one of the honoree's classic films. There are so many you could choose from, but here's my dark horse pick--THE MOSQUITO COAST)

Anyway, we then got to the movie pretty quickly, which was WHAT MAISIE KNEW. I haven't read the Henry James novel this film is (apparently loosely) based on, I can't compare them. But I did find it interesting in the Q&A when one of the co-directors (I don't know if it was Scott McGehee or David Siegel) pointed out that James wrote it in 1897 after hearing at a dinner party about a couple who were going through a divorce and decided to share custody of their children. He thought that was the most ridiculous thing ever, and wrote a broad satire about it. Now it's the most normal thing in the world, and so adapting the story to the modern world is quite the challenge. But they do it with wit, grace, and characters that are believable despite being more than a little repugnant.

So let's start with the repugnant characters--the divorced parents. Julianne Moore plays Susanna, the mother. In the opening scenes she's actually very tender to her daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile, who was just as adorable live in the Q&A as she was on screen) singing her a lullaby instead of one of "her songs" like Maisie wants. See, Susanna is a semi-successful rock star. Over the course of the movie, she becomes more  monstrous...unhinged...cracking under the pressure of trying to actually make a living touring while still being there for Maisie. Yeah, she doesn't exactly find that balance but I absolutely believed her sincerity when she says Maisie is the most important thing in her life--she just doesn't always succeed at demonstrating that.

Then the father, Beale (Steve Coogan.) Other than a brief scene of pizza dinner at his place, the first introduction we get of him is when he's angrily banging on Susanna's door in the middle of the night demanding to see his daughter. At first, you think he's the beast and totally sympathize with Susanna. But soon you do see how he's at least a fun father--when he has the time for her. He's an art dealer who is constantly traveling the world making deals. And he's pretty darn slick. One audience member in the Q&A commented that he was a little less monstrous than Susanna, but I actually think he's just as monstrous (if not more), he's just usually better at playing the game of pretending to be a good parent. No wonder he wins shared custody. Without being told their past, I can totally understand their relationship. When they met, they were already both pretty selfish, career-oriented people. And that was fine when it was just them. They could both focus on their work, and in their downtime enjoy each other's company. But when a baby entered the picture, as much as they loved their daughter it necessarily forces you to be unselfish. And neither one of them adapted correctly to that, and the marriage broke apart. Nobody's fault...or both people's fault.

Oh yeah, Beale is also sleeping with their nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham.) She's a young, pretty blond and she loves taking care of Maisie so it actually is set to work out okay. At one point she seems to be the only character who actually cares about Maisie. So it makes sense that she and Beale get married (with Maisie as the flower girl.) But soon enough she gets burned by Beale's selfishness.

Meanwhile, more to keep up with Beale than anything else, Susanna marries her friend Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) a sort of aimless bartender who has never really had any priorities in his life. So there are your four adult leads--A mother who is more focused on her career than her daughter, a father who is likewise focused on his career, a nanny/stepmother whose career is taking care of Maisie, and a stepfather who hasn't had any focus in his life...until he met Maisie. Seeing him open up and really come alive with Maisie easily makes him the most likable of all of them (although in the Q&A Onata was very diplomatic and said she liked them all.)

Oh, and Onata as Maisie, she anchored everything beautifully. She really has a naturalness, innocence, and beauty only a child can possess. It would be so easy for her character to fall into the cliches of 'I don't like mommy/daddy, she/he yells at me!' but instead she genuinely loves all four of her parent figures (although it takes a moment for her to warm up to Lincoln.)

I think I've actually gone on way too long in this review. I've probably given too many spoilers. So now I'll be intentionally opaque about how it all plays out. Let me just say there was a point when I thought to myself, 'Well, this can all work out nicely if just this happens.' Then I kind of quickly dismissed that thought as too forced and cheesy. And ultimately, they pulled it off without it being forced or cheesy. Nicely done!

Running Time: 93 minutes
My Total Minutes: 324,379

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Jason watches ROOM 237

Stanley Kubrick was legendary for being absolutely meticulous with everything in his films. And so things that might be random or tiny, nearly imperceptible goofs in anyone else's films are imbued with secret meanings in his films. And in no film has that been taken to such a degree as THE SHINING (1980). Where everyone else sees a pantry that just happens to include a can of Calumet baking powder, a few viewers (well, one in particular) might see significance in the Indian head logo and the fact that "calumet" means "peace pipe."  And so you can read messages into whether the logo is seen head on or obliquely (spoiler alert: THE SHINING is actually about the genocide of the Native Americans by the European settlers.) Or you can read it as a metaphor for the atrocities of Nazi Germany. Or you can see it as an exploration of the entirety of human history--even the philosophical concept of living with the past (which really only "exists" in the minds of people in the presence--maybe even only in your own mind.) Or it's a coded confession that Kubrick faked the Apollo 11 footage, using 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY as a test run of the techniques he eventually used (this theorist stresses that he actually believes we meant to the moon, he just believes the footage we all saw was faked.) Or maybe Jack Torrance is a secret homosexual who has been sexually molesting his son (there's allegedly a scene where he's reading a copy of Playgirl which has an article about incest in it.) One thing that's certain, the architecture of the Overlook Hotel is physically impossible (although this movie doesn't get into how that was discovered by attempting to build a custom video game level based on it.)

But enough about THE SHINING. This is actually about ROOM 237, a movie about THE SHINING, and specifically all the various theories about its hidden meanings. He has many people talking about their theories, but this isn't a talking heads movie. In fact, none of the theorists/analysts/investigators/students of the film (call them what you will) are ever seen on screen. Their names are flashed once when you first hear their voices, which makes it a little difficult to keep track of who's who just based on their voices. But what you see on screen is all clips (sometimes modified) from other movies, including nearly all of Kubrick's films. And they've all (well, except for maybe the ones from THE SHINING itself) been repurposed to change their original meaning. So when in the opening scenes Tom Cruise is outside a theater (I think from a scene in EYES WIDE SHUT, I haven't committed that movie to memory) the scene becomes a reference to our first reviewers experience of watching THE SHINING for the first time. And this goes on throughout the entire film. In fact, director Rodney Ascher has created a movie entirely out of clips taken out of context in order to change their meaning. I love that! And I love that I can't tell if he's doing that to emphasize the theme of hidden meanings, or to mock it! Maybe both--some theories aren't worth more than a scoff (for my money, I can't see Kubrick's face in a cloud in the opening credits, and the experiment of playing it overlaid forwards and backwards to see what lines up just illustrates how much Kubrick framed his characters in the center of the screen) but some really make you stop and think--maybe it is about the Native Americans...or about the Nazis...or about countless atrocities in human history.

In the end, I'm convinced THE SHINING is pretty much a Rorschach test. You see in it want you want to see. So for my money, I'm a fan of the theory that Kubrick is doing many things, but most of all kind of fucking with us. There are definitely odd, morbid visual jokes in there (the car that's a few feet away from hitting everyone as they cross the parking lot disappears in the opposite-angle shot.) I don't believe Kubrick faked the moon landing footage because...I believe our astronauts went to the moon and brought a camera there. But I also know that moon landing conspiracy theories were around in the mid 1970s, well before he made THE SHINING. So why not fuck with the conspiracy theorists and plant a fake, coded "confession" in an completely unrelated film. That's what I would do if I were genius enough to make a movie anywhere near as good as THE SHINING. But then, that's just me.

ROOM 237 plays at the Roxie for at least one more week, and there will be a one-night-only double feature of ROOM 237 and THE SHINING at the New Parkway on May 10th.

Running Time: 102 minutes
My Total Minutes: 324,286

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for Comedy Shorts Night

A nice program of comedy shorts for a full house at the Niles Film Museum last Saturday. Even though I had seen all of these films before (I think I've finally been coming there enough that it's the first time that has happened) it was a really fun night.

THE VAGABOND (1916): Charlie Chaplin in his famous Tramp character. He's a street violinist who is upstaged by a German band but manages to take their intended donations anyway. Then he runs off to the country where a beautiful girl (Edna Purviance) is being held hostage by a gang of gypsies (led by Chaplin's #1 foil of the time--the giant and villainous Eric Campbell.) He rescues her and they seem to be starting a life together when a handsome young artist steps into the picture and gets in the way of their love. Fun movie, odd ending (which was redone after the studio thought the original was too much of a downer.) And the face-washing scene is probably my favorite Chaplin/Purviance scene ever.

THE LOVE NEST (1923): Buster Keaton looks to forget about his lost love by setting out to sea. In a surreal adventure, he runs afoul of an ill-tempered whaling captain before ending up stranded on the targets of a naval firing range. This was Keaton's final short before moving on to exclusively feature films. And, of course, he's masterful in it.

Then a brief intermission, and back for the final two movies.

BAD BODY (1925): Charley Chase, our favorite under-appreciated silent era comedian, is torn between the dreams his parents have for him. His father wants to be tough enough to take over his steel business, so puts him to work at the lowest, toughest levels of manual labor. His mother prefers his dainty, creative side, especially his dancing...which she forces him to showcase at a society party she's throwing. It all culminates in a local tough-guy dance hall where he pretends to be an infamous gangster before he's found out and wacky hijinx (i.e., an all-out brawl) ensues.

SAILORS, BEWARE! (1927): A Laurel and Hardy short, before they were officially a team. Hardy is a steward on a cruise ship, who's more interested in flirting with the ladies than doing his job. Laurel is a taxi driver who is accidentally loaded onto the ship and agrees to work as a steward instead of being executed as a stowaway (the captain employs a harsh form of maritime law, I guess.) They cause a remarkable amount of havoc, of course. And they even foil a con artist who's midget husband (Harry Earles of FREAKS...and a member of the Lollipop Guild) dresses as a baby as part of the con. He's definitely the weirdest part of the movie. This wasn't the first time Laurel and Hardy appeared in the same movie together, but one of the first times they really had a lot of scenes together. Hal Roach had certainly seen something in them by this time (if not a little earlier) and soon started making movies with them as an official team (i.e., friends and colleagues from way back.)

Total Running Time: 98 minutes
My Total Minutes: 324,184

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Jason goes to Midnites for Maniacs--the Sadie Hawkin's tribute.

Last Friday night at the Castro, our cinema-church celebrated female empowerment with a trio of films. So let's jump right in.

ROMY AND MICHELLE'S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION (1997): This is actually the one film of the night I was looking forward to/dreading the most. Looking forward to it because it was the one I hadn't seen before. Dreading it because I remember why I avoided it 15 years ago. I had--and still have--little interest in watching the dumb adventures of dumb L.A. bleach blonds, and that's all it was marketed as. So I could blame the marketing for the fact that I had never seen it, but in truth if I want to call myself a true cinephile I should be willing to avoid the marketing and take a chance at an odd looking movie. Because the thing is, ROMY AND MICHELLE is secretly a modern pop fantasy surrealist masterpiece. Yes, they're ditzy blonds, and that's still the part of the movie I don't care much for. And it took a while for me to get into it, but the dream sequence (oh yeah, sorry, I'm going to get spoiler-y now--it's a 15 year old movie so if you haven't seen it yet it's your fault) was just awesome. They played with the convention, tipping off that it's a dream sequence (a dream sequence while driving in a car, no less) but then dragging it on to a ridiculous length (like 70 years later!) And then the dance sequence! Okay, my new goal in life is to convince two lovely ladies to recreate the dance scene from ROMY AND MICHELLE'S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION with me (level of difficulty, I have to dance Mira Sorvino's part.) Oh, not to mention how good Janeane Garofalo is at playing a bitter, angry bitch--but has a redemptive moment when she realizes there was someone whom she made miserable in high school! Dammit, this movie was actually good!

PRETTY IN PINK (1986): This was only my second time seeing PRETTY IN PINK. I can practically hear you all gasping! If you think that's shocking, brace yourself--I wasn't that impressed with it the first time I saw it, and I'm still not impressed. And I can't really identify why. The acting is great and the characters memorable--Molly Ringwald, Harry Dean Stanton, young Jon Cryer going nuts as Duckie, Annie Potts, James Spader, Andrew McCarthy. They all do great work here. Even Andrew Dice Clay's cameo as a bouncer is pretty amusing. And the story--high school angst and romance wrapped around a form of class warfare...well, it should be more interesting. But that's just it, as far as I can tell every element works in this movie, I'm just not interested in it. That's just the way it is. I'm sorry, I know Midnites for Maniacs is a judgement-free zone, but this blog isn't.

CARRIE (1976): And finally, this classic. Brian De Palma being sleazy, funny, and scary, in this first ever adaptation of a Stephen King novel to film. I fuckin' love this movie, probably my second favorite De Palma film (behind PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.)  It was an awesome treat to see it on the big screen, in 35 mm. And, like PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, I always manage to notice something new in it. This time our host Jesse Hawthorne Ficks alerted us to keep an eye out for Hitchcock references. I had noticed previously that the school was Bates High School (a reference to the main character in PSYCHO), but I somehow had never made the connection that they were called the Stingers (their mascot being a bee.) I guess the last time I saw CARRIE was so long ago that I didn't realize that "stinger" is a term for the piercing notes in a film score, most easily exemplified by the theme to PSYCHO (which is referenced heavily in CARRIE's soundtrack.) Well played, De Palma, well played!

Total Running Time: 286 minutes
My Total Minutes: 324,086

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Jason goes to Bad Movie Night and watches MISSION TO MARS

Brian De Palma took a break from imitating Hitchcock to make this imitation of Stanley Kubrick. And his result is absolutely Kubrickian--if 2001 had been sentimental claptrap. He tries so hard to recapture the style of 2001, and in many ways he does and I actually want to like MISSION TO MARS. But he hangs it all on this ridiculously maudlin story which boils down to 'get your ass to Mars because your wife is dead.'

Running Time: 114 minutes
My Total Minutes: 323,800

Jason watches UPSTREAM COLOR

Well, that was odd and unsettling. And it's been a week since I've seen it so my memory is a little fuzzy. But there are drugs, distilled from worms in the soil of flowers that have turned blue. And a woman gets drugged and kidnapped with it. But it's all part of a huge confusing cycle.

This movie attempts to be willfully confusing by daring us to fall for the illusion of linear time and space, then frustrating your expectations and ultimately puncturing the illusion. If you see the truth that all time, all space, and all people (maybe even all living creatures) are one and the same (or alternate holographic manifestations of the common meta-reality), then it makes sense. But it's that tension that comes from puncturing linear space, time, and individuality that makes UPSTREAM COLOR so fascinating and unsettling, whether or not it really amounts to anything in the end. To answer that question, I'm afraid I'm going to have to see it again.

Running Time: 96 minutes
My Total Minutes: 323,686


The Dark Room is continuing their tradition of adapting popular cult movies for their micro-stage (and micro-budget.) And GHOSTBUSTERS is perfect for their sensibility. So much of the fun is watching how they'll re-create the special effects on their cheaper scale. So I won't spoil it, but they do find a way to get slimed, show the ion streams catching a ghost, and even have the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (I will reveal, in case you're worried, they don't do it in a way that gets the audience, stage, or actors messy. This isn't like a Primitive Screwheads show) And they do a pretty faithful recreation of the entire story. But the funniest parts are when they deviate from the movie and make jokes about other movies and their other roles. Without those bits, a straight-forward recreation of the movie is about as fun as watching someone else play Ghostbusters.

Oh yeah, and a special shout-out for Adam Vogel in the Louis Tully (Rick Moranis in the movie) role. He absolutely nailed it and he was hilarious.

Jason slips into a Vortex and watches TNT JACKSON

Sorry I've been very lax at updating this blog. Too busy with other things. Anyway, a week ago last Thursday I made it up to the Vortex Room for a couple of martinis and a movie I was mostly conscious for. TNT Jackson. Black chick, karate expert, kicks a whole lot of ass hunting her brother's killers. Awesome. And the martinis were delicious, too. I've been away from the Vortex for too long.

Running Time: 72 minutes
My Total Minutes: 323,590

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Jason watches EVIL DEAD

As a fan of the original, there's no way I can judge this movie on its own merits. But I'll try.

First off, it's bloody, very bloody. But not very scary. Mostly because every supposed fright is explicitly illustrated in the Book of the Dead just before it happens. So no suspense at all. There has got to be a word for attempted foreshadowing that is this blatant and clumsy. "Telegraphed" is almost right, but that implies it was supposed to be a surprise but there were accidental hints--this wasn't accidental. "Foretold"...kinda, but that implies something mystical, like a prophecy. I think the best word is fore...explicitly-illustrated-to-the-point-where-I-was-frustrated-that-I-practically-had-to-watch-every-damn-gore-scene-twice.

Anyway, how about the Book? It's never called The Necronomicon...that didn't bother me. It didn't have a face on it. That did bother me, the gnarly, sharp-toothed face on the cover is kinda iconic, I wanted to see it. It had English text scrawled all over the inside, written over the original (presumably Sumerian, but I assume gibberish) runes. That bugged me even more. The mystery and the occasional illustration worked so well in the original. I recall hearing a story about how Sam Raimi originally wanted to call his movie BOOK OF THE DEAD, but the distributor forced him to change the title so people wouldn't think they'd have to read a book for the whole movie. Well, putting so much English on the pages and referring back to the book so often results in a movie where the audience reads a book for the whole movie.

The addition of a heroin addiction plot...actually a nice touch, not perfectly pulled off. She doesn't look as skinny/strung out as a true heroin addict, but Hollywood has to have it's pretty actresses rather than realism (and how much can you complain about a lack of realism in this story about demons released by a book in a cabin in the middle of the Michigan woods?) What it does give them is a good reason to not leave the cabin ('We're not leaving until you're clean!') and a reason to not believe her when she starts telling stories of the haunted woods.

Okay, how about the tone. I've seen plenty of people complain that it's not funny like the original. And an approximately equal number of people claiming those complaints come from idiots--the original wasn't funny, it was the sequels EVIL DEAD II and ARMY OF DARKNESS that were funny. Well I know people will disagree and I don't care, but you're both wrong. The original was funny, just not in the broad slapstick manner of the sequels (please, now, trot out your quotes from Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell claiming the original EVIL DEAD was meant to be a serious, scary movie. I will point out that serious movies can still have funny scenes--it's called comic relief and there's plenty of it in the original.) And the remake is funny, too. And I don't mean unintentionally funny, like the original is dated or the remake has some puzzling silly elements. I mean both movies, while taking a serious approach, have a sense of humor (a subtle sense of humor, I guess? Must be for so many people to miss it.) In the original, the saying, "have the blood flow down the screen" is turned into a literal visual gag. In the remake (SPOILER ALERT) the same is done with the phrase "it will rain blood." (END SPOILER). In fact, the tone--including the sense of humor--is the one element that best matches the movie.

In the end, I can almost say that this movie is what Sam Raimi and his team would have made originally if they had the budget and SFX technology of the remake. Except that this fails at being scary, for reasons I explained in my first paragraph. The original kept you guessing, in this remake there is no guesswork involved.

Running Time: 91 minutes
My Total Minutes: 323,518

Friday, April 5, 2013

Jason goes to Bad Movie Night and watches RED DAWN

That would be the original. Not just the original version of RED DAWN, but the original Bad Movie Night movie. This is the eighth time they've done this, but mercifully only the third time I've been there for it. Which means I've already written about it twice before. So fuck it, it doesn't deserve any more words. Not even these words...or these...or these....

Running Time: 114 minutes
My Total Minutes: 323,427

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum and watches THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH

It's been too long since I've been at my favorite silent film museum, not that I'm complaining, I've just been way too busy at film festivals. Anyway, I was back there last Saturday night, and a good time was had by all...well, at least a good time was had by me. I can't speak for everyone else, but they seemed to have fun, too.

THE CURE (1924): On of the Koko the Clown Out of the Inkwell cartoons (where the Fleischer brothers invented rotoscoping). Koko the clown has a toothache, and coincidentally so does his animator Max Fleischer. Koko's bespectacled bunny rabbit pal manages to help out Koko, and then they turn their attentions to Max. Funny stuff, playing on a few dental-related visual puns (e.g., "bridge").

BE YOUR AGE (1926): On of our favorites at Niles, Charley Chase is a very shy clerk. To get the money necessary to help out with a hilariously long string of tragedies back home, he has to woo a wealthy widow. BTW, an odd quirk of the language at the time, sometimes the act of wooing, flirting, whispering sweet nothings, etc. was called, "making love." So the intertitles can seem much, much dirtier than intended to today's audiences. Anyway, beside that bit of unintended humor, the wacky hijinx are pretty funny on their own.

Then a brief intermission, and on to the feature film.

THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH (1926): Ronald Colman and Vilma Banky star in a drama of the desert and political/business intrigue surrounding irrigating the Imperial Valley of California. Gary Cooper co-stars in his breakout role (much of the plot is a love triangle between him, Vilma Banky, and Ronald Colman.) Gary Cooper looks really, really young (umm...because he was really, really young) but has a clear star presence on screen. But what interested me most was that it was shot in the Black Rock desert. For those not in the know, that's where the Burning Man festival is held every year, and where I've been every Labor Day week/weekend since 1998. So it was pretty cool to see "the playa" almost 90 years ago. A lot of it is pretty different, they shot in some of the few locations, near the edge of the vast alkali wasteland where there are a few scrub bushes growing. And, of course, with an old western town there it doesn't look quite the same. But when there are frequent shots of the flat expanse and the hills in the background, there's a nice little rush of familiarity that I liked. Oh, and the story and the acting were great, too.

Total Running Time: 124 minutes
My Total Minutes: 323,313