Friday, May 31, 2013


Dang, I'm like a week and a half behind in my blogging. I actually saw this last week Tuesday. Anyway, it's a beautiful little anime from Studio Ghibli about teens in Yokohama banding together to save their building. That is, to save the students' "Latin Quarter" building where all of the most interesting students live or at least hang out. It's set for demolition so that Japan can show a clean, modern look when they host the Olympics (oh yeah, this is in 1964.) One girl leads the fight, but she's really doing it to spend more time with a cute boy who just might be connected to her father who died in the war. Oh yeah, it gets pretty soap-opera for a bit. But overall it shows the gentleness, cuteness, and humor characteristics of Hayao Miyazaki's studio, this time under the direction of his son, Goro.

For more Studio Ghibli fun there's a whole series coming up at the Pacific Film Archives. Info here.

Running Time: 91 minutes
My Total Minutes: 328,477

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Jason goes to Midnites for Maniacs to see som Dirty Little Munchkins

Last Friday. At the Castro. A triple-bill of movies about kids. Kids doing bad things.

THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1976): Man, there's really some wisdom in this very adult movie that just happens to star kids. It's way more than just a "buncha Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eatin' moron!" It's about a big "Fuck you!" to polite society. It's about challenging authority--not just Walter Matthau's Coach Buttermaker saying "Fuck you!" to the league authorities, but the kids saying "Fuck you!" to Buttermaker,...and to the other kids,...and to each other. But it's also about who your friends are. It's about sticking up for a booger-eating moron because dammit, he's your booger-eating moron. And ultimately, it's about that moment when you finally get a grudging but sincere token of respect from polite society...and you tell them to stick it up their ass. There's a lot of fuckin' wisdom in this fuckin' movie.

GUMMO (1997): Harmony Korine's bizarre and disturbing homage to his own middle America upbringing is the only film of the night I had actually seen before. Still don't know what to make of it. Killing cats, selling their corpses and spending the money on glue to sniff. A kid walking around with bunny ears (look! a Bunny Boy!) A midget. Tons more horribly dysfunctional people. And a kid eating spaghetti in a filthy bathtub while his mother washes his hair. Of all of it, that was the scene that creeped me out the most.

I believe--from interviews and anecdotes I've heard--that Harmony Korine has true affection for these characters and isn't making a movie to mock or exploit these people. I want to believe the movie accomplished that, too. I'm just not sure it was successful. If it is, it's the modern equivalent of FREAKS, which is one of my favorite movies ever.

THE GARBAGE PAIL KIDS MOVIE (1987):  And finally, a movie I've been curious to see for a while. I wasn't all that into the Garbage Pail Kids cards when I was a kid (I was more of a Madballs kid, which came out a couple of years later.) But back in 2008 I happened to see a movie called CAN HEIRONYMOUS MERKIN EVER FORGET MERCY HUMPPE AND FIND TRUE HAPPINESS? and I learned about Anthony Newley, who was a big star and basically destroyed his marriage and career by making a mockingly semi-autobiographical movie. One of the trailers they showed before the movie--to showcase what became of his later career--was THE GARBAGE PAIL KIDS MOVIE. So our host Jesse Hawthorne Ficks was a bit surprised when so many people showed up for a midnight screening of the movie without ever having seen it before. He was puzzled why anyone would show up. I don't know about anyone else's reason, but for me it was morbid curiosity about Anthony Newley. Newley plays Captain Manzini, the genial and eccentric owner of an antique and curiosity shop. He actually does his best to class up the movie, being the mentor to young Dodger (Mackenzie Austin), who has a crush on Tangerine (Katie Barberi) which gets him into frequent trouble with the gang she rolls with. Some of that trouble results in a magic garbage can in Manzini's shop tipping over, green goo oozing out, and the Garbage Pail Kids appearing. Or, at least, Greaser Greg, Messy Tessie, Windy Winston (recurring fart joke), Valerie Vomit, Ali Gator, Foul Phil, and Nat Nerd (apparently pissing yourself is a common nerd trait according to the filmmakers.) They decide to "help" Dodger. And somehow we learn that the other Garbage Pail Kids were locked up in the Home For the Ugly (or something like that. Incidentally, Santa Claus is locked up there, too, for being too old.) So the plot changes to trying to rescue them, along with the new Garbage Pail Kids who get picked up by the ugly patrol. They rescue the new kids, but at some point they just mention they were too late for the other kids and they had already got trash compacted. I understand if they didn't have the budget to make the other kids, but they just sort of mention they were all killed and...nothing? And that...happened.

This movie fails in many ways. The plot is slapdash and full of bizarre holes. The kids are clunky puppets that aren't very expressive (the original plan was for them to be animated and interacting with live-action humans, like in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, which came out the next year.) And the kids actually aren't gross enough. But the biggest failure is a failure on it's promise. There's a germ of a good (well, not horrible) idea here. There's a moral about beauty coming from within, and about sticking up for your friends (a theme of the night) and a nice closing line slamming the shallow, superficial beauty of Tangerine and her gang. But it's lost in the ineptitude of everything else. This would actually be a prime candidate for a remake (or to use the Hollywood jargon of the moment, a "reboot.") I can't imagine anybody would actually want to do that, but if someone tried to crowdfund that, I'd pitch in.

The next Midnites for Maniacs is coming up on Friday, June 7th. For Johnny Depp's 50th Birthday (Holy crap, no wonder he's hiding his face under tons of makeup these days!) We'll be treated to three of my favorite Johnny Depp movies--BENNY AND JOON, WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE, and John Waters' CRY-BABY (and since John Waters is known to hang around in the Castro, maybe someone can kidnap him and make him show up for it!)

Total Running Time: 291
My Total Minutes: 328,386

Monday, May 20, 2013

Jason goes to the Roxie for an Arch Oboler double feature

I've only made it to one night of the Roxie's current Film Noir series: I Wake Up Dreaming 2013. I've just been tired and/or busy elsewhere. But I was up there for a little Arch Oboler weirdness. A few years ago I saw his movie THE TWONKY and so I was interested in seeing more.

BEWITCHED (1945): Definitely a product of its time, and comes off as more than a little cheesy today. Joan Ellis is a good girl, and is celebrating her engagement. But she hears voices. In particular, the voice of a woman named Karen. Karen is a distinct and separate personality from Joan, but the voice is coming from inside her own head. And Karen torments Joan to the point of committing murder. While Joan sits on death row, Dr. Bergson desperately has to try to convince the governor that it's possible for two personalities--two actual, different people--to live in the same body! Yeah, split personality plots are cliche nowadays, but I guess in 1945 it was an unusual enough concept that it had to be explained to an incredulous audience.

FIVE (1951): One of the earliest (possibly the earliest?) movie to explore a post-nuclear apocalypse world. The Five of the title refer to the last five survivors (at least, the last five in that part of California). It opens on a woman walking down the street.  She's pregnant and survived the fallout because she was in an x-ray room at the time (um...that's not exactly safe for a pregnant woman, but I guess it was in the 50s.) She's rescued by a poet living in a house in the mountains. In due time, two more people show up in a car--a black man and a banker who was saved because he was in the vault at the time. They begin to make a life, but as her pregnancy starts showing the old banker is starting to show signs of radiation poisoning. They take him to the beach, where they find the fifth survivor. He survived because he was climbing Mt. Everest at the time (or so he says.) He's certainly proud of his survivalist skills and physical prowess. He's just not too thrilled that one of his fellow survivors is black. Lots of tension, fighting, danger. It's not so much plot-driven as character driven, and at that it's pretty engrossing.

Much like BEWITCHED, Oboler is treading on ground that will later be tread to the point of cliche. But while BEWITCHED has become cheesy and naive over time, FIVE shines with the freshness of the dawn of nuclear paranoia.

Total Running Time: 155 minutes
My Total Minutes: 328,095

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Jason Watches IRON MAN 3 in 3-D

A wacky self-referential meta-comedy about a billionaire playboy superhero who is having a nervous breakdown about  the "events" of New York (ostensibly about the fight in THE AVENGERS, but designed to make you think 9/11). Adorable moppet sidekick, remote controlled suits (although he spends the bulk of the movie without a working suit), old girlfriend, old enemy, wacky and inexplicable twists, a flashback voice-over narration that director Shane Black used to much greater effect in KISS KISS BANG BANG.... And a hero who frequently freaks out--is reduced to a quivering lump--by any mention of New York or the events that happened there.

If this sounds schizophrenic, it is. But more than that, it's a movie about schizophrenia. In the opening scene, Tony Stark is at a 1999/2000 New Year's Eve party wearing a name tag that says, "You know who I am." The thing is, he doesn't. Or at least, once he becomes Iron Man the line between Tony Stark and the suit gets blurred. Multiple times the suit is walking (or flying) around for minutes before the big reveal that nobody is actually inside it. And as I've already mentioned, Tony spends a huge chunk of the movie without a working suit. In fact, in the end where he finally says, "I am Iron Man" he's not wearing a suit and (SPOILER, except that it was kinda revealed in the trailer) his entire inventory is destroyed. The only obvious conclusion--the Iron in Iron Man isn't the stuff of the suit, it's the stuff of his heart. Or...he's secretly building new suits so that there can be yet more Iron Man/Avengers sequels.

Oh, and as for the 3-D. I don't care. I've become so inured to it that it neither impresses nor annoys. It just looks like a movie. Of course, 2-D movies look just fine to me, too, so there's a big "what's the point" angle there. Now I've been told by a friend that THE GREAT GATSBY has some of the best 3-D he's seen, so I suppose I'll have to see that.

Running Time: 130 minutes
My Total Minutes: 327,940

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for a Laurel and Hardy (and Our Gang) Mother's Show.

The second Sunday of every month is Laurel and Hardy day at the Niles Film Museum, even if it's Mother's Day. But they didn't actually do a mothers themed show (for one thing, while Our Gang had a lot of motherly influence, Laurel and Hardy almost never referenced their mothers in their movies). Instead, since it's the only time this year (other than the train of lights in December) that the Niles Canyon Railway was running a train on the second Sunday of the month (they've cut back to only the first and third weekends every month), they did a train-based show instead.

CHOO-CHOO (1932): Our Gang wants to take a train ride. So they trade places with a group of orphans. And wacky hijinx ensue as Dell Henderson (the adult in charge of the orphans) tries in vain to regain some control. Very funny.

BERTH MARKS (1929): Laurel and Hardy as traveling musicians attempting to get to a show. They have trouble meeting in the station, lose their sheet music, nearly lose their cello (which Hardy calls a "big fiddle,") barely make the train, and then cause a bit of havoc before attempting to get into their sleeping berth. By the end the entire train is in disarray and they're just about ready for a nap when they pull into their station. Hilarious stuff.

Then, after a brief intermission...

RAILROADIN' (1929): Our Gang learns the dangers of playing around on a train without supervision when Joe Cobb learns how to make the train go but not how to stop. More of a train thrill picture than a real comedy, but it's pretty well done at that (the scene where Farina has a foot stuck in the tracks and the train goes right over him repeatedly is pretty amazing.) Of course, it's all trick photography, no one would put those kids in actual danger just to make a movie...right? (Answer: Yes. Of course, don't be crazy!)

GOING BYE-BYE (1934): So Laurel and Hardy didn't really make any train movie other than BERTH MARKS, so this is kind of a stretch. They're preparing for a trip. They're preparing because they just gave the evidence to put the vicious Butch (Walter Long) away for good. But he escapes (in keeping with the theme, he escapes from the train that is taking him to prison). So they have to be smart, quick, and strong to avoid his vengeance. Spoiler alert: they're not smart, quick, nor strong. But they are funny.

Total Running Time: 78 minutes
My Total Minutes: 327,810

Jason goes to SFIFF--The End

Okay, SFIFF ended a week ago, and I've finally gotten a little rest and it's time to finish this up. I skipped the closing night gala of BEFORE MIDNIGHT. Not only is it coming out soon, but I haven't seen the previous films in the series (BEFORE SUNRISE and BEFORE SUNSET). I was assured that seeing the first two was not necessary, but I'm kind of hoping one of the awesome theaters in the Bay Area will do a marathon of all three. That seems like the right way to see them.

Instead I went to the Kabuki for two films, staring with THE KILL TEAM, the winner for Best Bay Area Documentary Feature. A troubling account of a rogue (or is it typical? There are allegations but no details) platoon in Afghanistan. It focuses on Adam Winfield, a bright-eyed all-American kid who wanted to join up and serve his country. He found himself serving with a sergeant who kept a necklace of fingers as war trophies, and he certainly didn't expect to get used to that. Turns out his platoon has a bit of a thing for capturing and killing Afghans...maybe without really finding out if they're actually enemy combatants or not. As Adam is going to trial, interviews with himself, his family, and other members of the platoon (not the sergeant, unfortunately. But then what would he say other than insisting they were legitimate enemy combatants?) bring up the question of whether he was an active participant, a reluctant participant who gave into peer pressure, or a whistle-blower who is being unfairly punished. The movie--or rather Adam and his parents--make a compelling case for the latter. But there's more to it than that. Could he have done something to stop it or report it earlier? There's plenty of evidence--or at least belief--that if he had there would have been retaliation up to even the possibility of him 'accidentally' being killed while out on maneuvers. But is his fear of retaliation evidence of cowardice that warrants a court-martial? That's eventually what he plea-bargained to. And the movie...leaves that a little unresolved. In fact, as much as it focuses on Adam it actually shows more about the military culture, and how little we really understand of it.

And that reminds me of something I've said before. I will never understand what it's like to be a soldier. I haven't been one, and I don't want to. I respect the people who volunteer to fight so I don't have to. I admire them. And the one thing I think they truly deserve--my understanding--is something they will never get. This all still holds true. But please guys, stop being dicks, so I can at least still have respect and admiration for you.

And finally, I ended the festival with BYZANTIUM, a late-added program of Neil Jordan's (INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE) new vampire flick, told from a woman's perspective. Young Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and her older companion Clara (Gemma Arterton) are vampires. In fact, while Eleanor looks 16 and Clara looks just old enough to be her mother (spoiler aler: because she is) they've actually been around for 200 years, hiding from the patriarchal vampiric authorities (it's a strict brotherhood, no females allowed). It's kind of hard to conceive of how exactly they survived so long, since they have a bit of a habit of making huge messes (like burning up their flat). Mother/daughter strife (apparently although they've had 200 years together they have only just begun working on their relationship issues), survival, romance, etc. It's about 80% tedious, with flashes of brilliant, beautiful scenes. Although the biggest, most beautiful scene is re-used so often that by the end I was just thinking 'Oh, this again. Whatever.' Anyway, a bit of a disappointment for the ending of the festival, although that's probably only because my hopes were so high (I do love me a kick-ass lady vampire flick.)

Total Running Time: 192 minutes
My Total Minutes: 327,732

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 13

Just one film last night (Tuesday*), and it was the annual SFIFF presentation of a silent film with live music. I haven't seen the silent films at SFIFF since 2010 and the Stephin Merrit 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA atrocity.

Well, this was the German expressionist classic WAXWORKS (1924), in a print with French intertitles (with English translations superimposed from a second projector), which they got from Italy, of course. A rather simple tale of a writer (Wilhelm Dieterle) who takes a job writing back-stories for the figures in a wax museum--the caliph Harun al Raschid (Emil Jannings), Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt), and Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss.) He inserts himself and the museum owner's beautiful daughter (Olga Belajeff) into the stories. The Caliph story is a comedy, the Ivan the Terrible is more of a dark drama, and the Ivan the Terrible story is a horror nightmare.

The accompanists were Mike Patton (from Faith No More) and percussionists Scott Amendola, Matthias Bossi, and William Winant. So I knew going in that it was going to be a bit of a percussive cacophony, and I expected it. I just hoped that they would do a good job of complementing the film--let the action in the film lead the soundtrack, and don't fight with it. Unfortunately, for the most part it didn't. Some parts were good (the climactic chase scene in the Caliph sequence, especially). But for the most part, it was a concert that happened to have a film playing in the background. It's good as a concert (and from the standing ovation they got from ~1/2 the crowd, I'd say Patton's fans sure loved it), but I'm there as a movie fan and wanted the movie to be forefront, not the music.

I guess I should just give up on the experimental music/silent film pairings at SFIFF. Plenty of people love it, but it's just not my cup of tea. I'm not an absolute traditionalist (I don't insist on always hearing the original score, although I always appreciate it) but I at least want a film-first, complementary-music it experience. And I have plenty of opportunities for that. There's the big SF Silent Film Festival in July, along with their other programs throughout the year (like the upcoming Hitchcock Nine.) Or there are the silent programs every year at Cinequest, which always feature the masterful Dennis James. Or the semi-regular silent programs at the Stanford. Or at the PFA (if you can't make the Hitchcock Nine at the Castro, they're bringing them all to the PFA in August, with the excellent Judith Rosenberg on the piano.) Judy's also one of the regular pianists at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum where you can see silent films with live music every Saturday Night (and for only $5). You can also tour the museum noon-4 pm on Saturdays and Sundays, and if you're lucky you might even find me there giving tours.

So yeah, I have no shortage of excellent silent film experiences here in the Bay Area. I'm not going to fret about a more experimental take on it that I didn't really dig. Especially when so many other people did enjoy it. I'll just avoid these in the future (unless, of course, they bring in someone with a real, established record of accompanying silent films the way I like.)

Running Time: 71 minutes
My Total Minutes: 327,540

*Daily obligatory sleep-deprivation correction. Yesterday was Tuesday, not Thursday as originally stated. But then, it was probably Thursday somewhere in the world, just not here. I don't know how time zones work.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 12

Two more movies on Monday, starting with the late addition to the festival, THE SPECTACULAR NOW. First, a comment on the added programs. The festival has done, in general, a pretty poor job of publicizing the added programs and the added screenings of existing programs. For your elucidation, the added programs can be seen here. If you wanted to find that yourself, you'd go to the film list, click on the drop-down list of Categories, and select Added Programs. Yeah, you have to think of added programs as a "category" in the festival, similar to documentaries, new directors, world cinema, etc. Now to find the added far as I know, you're S.O.L. I have heard there are flyers on the festival information desk at the Kabuki, I have also heard that they weren't initially available when they first added screenings. For the most part, the way I've heard them communicated (other than just appearing unceremoniously online) is to tell people who attend the earlier, previously programmed screenings. So, for example, if you were in an earlier screening of LEVIATHAN, you would be told they've added a screening on Thursday, May 9th at 5:30. I guess you could get some word-of-mouth dissemination of the information, but is the best primary target for this information really people who are already about to see the movie? That seems a little...dumb.

Look, I don't want to turn this into a rant about the festival. I know there has been a lot of turmoil over the untimely deaths of two executive directors in quick succession (gives new meaning to "Keep Hope Alive") and other turnover in festival management. And I really have had a fantastic time at the festival. It's just frustrating to see an organization not execute it's centerpiece in the best way possible...especially when you've seen them do it in the past. I'm giving them some leeway this year, but I expect some organizational and communications improvements next year. At the same time, I promise to be vigilant against myself just becoming a grumpy old fuddy-duddy who simply objects because "it's not the way they did it in the past!" (with that said, please don't get rid of the printed program guide! In fact, bring back the larger guide, even if you only give it Cinevisas or sell it for $5 or something!)

Okay, on to the movie, THE SPECTACULAR NOW, which played to a much smaller audience than it should have. It's a teen drama/comedy/romance that is 90% excellent and realistic and 10% over-written. Let's get the over-written part out of the way first. It's just isolated lines and scenes, and might get a little spoiler-y. Lines like "Get away from me, can't you tell I'm bad for you!" Or the exchange, "I suppose if I were your father this is where I'd give you a lecture." / "If you were my father, you wouldn't need to." Or the framing device of a college essay where the protagonist eventually writes about how his poor decisions have been the toughest obstacles in his life. These are fleeting moments, that momentarily take me out of the movie before I get sucked right back in (they're also similar to complaints I made about SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and not only was it nearly universally loved, it was nominated for several Oscars including Best Writing, so I'm usually on the minority dissenting side of these thing.)

Now on to the excellent stuff. The lead character Sutter Kelly (Miles Teller) is an unusually fully realized and recognizable high school character. He's the life of the party, a funny, charismatic guy who gets carried away with the drinking way too often. The awkwardness of teenage friendship and romance is very well depicted. The love scene is one of the most tender, awkward, and erotic scenes ever put on film. And almost every time it had a chance to veer into melodramatic cliche (There will be a love triangle with his ex, they're going to be in a terrible car accident, etc.) it pulls back--so that actually the one huge dramatic shock packs a heck of punch. Seriously, there's a scene that made the whole audience jump and knocked the breath out of me, it was amazing! This is easily more than enough to counterweight the handful of over-written scenes, and make it a highly memorable--and highly recommendable--movie.

And then I ended the night with a personal treat, DECEPTIVE PRACTICE: THE MYSTERIES AND MENTORS OF RICKY JAY. I love Ricky Jay, I remember in college watching more than a few David Mamet movies on VHS in the lounge, and always noticing that big, bearded guy who had a supporting role. In one (and I can't remember which, it was many movies ago) he says something like "I can't do that, I'm not a magician!"* Then a friend pointed out this was an inside joke, because he's actually one of the most highly regarded sleight-of-hand magicians in the world. Shortly after that I saw his TV special (I don't remember the title) where he threw cards all over the theater and even into the hard outer rind of a watermelon. He was funny and amazing, and I was a fan, if not quite a rabid one. And now this documentary, which at times tries to be hero worship, but Ricky is quick to deflect a lot of that. Nor will you learn a darn thing about how he does any of his tricks. Instead, you'll get amazing profiles of his mentors and a history of magic going well back into the 19th century (and at times, much further back). His grandfather, the amateur magician Max Katz. Masters that amazed him in his childhood, like Cardini, Slydini and Al Flosso ("The Coney Island Fakir" who played at young Richard Jay Potash's bar mitzvah.) His later mentors--Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller--both of whom Ricky regards as mythical senseis in the art of magic (interestingly, he seems reluctant to accept the same role for himself.) And there's a lot of talk about the magicians' code--but it's not so much that you never reveal your tricks, you just reveal them slowly, over the course of select students...and only when they're ready. What great fun. I want to see Ricky Jay live now. But as he himself points out, the best magic isn't on stage, it's spontaneous, when you least expect it.

And that was Monday at SFIFF 2013. I'll be seeing a silent film (WAXWORKS) with live music tonight (Tuesday). I'm actually skipping the festival on Wednesday to see a SJ Earthquakes game. And then two more movies on closing night (I'm skipping the closing night special at the Castro to see KILL TEAM** and BYZANTIUM at the Kabuki). So I'm down to my last three screenings. Looks like I'll survive after all.

Total Running Time: 187 minutes
My Total Minutes: 327,469

*Update: Chalk this one up to an incredibly faulty memory. In poking around for the movie quote where Ricky Jay says, "I'm not a magician!" It turns out I was completely wrong. It wasn't a David Mamet movie, it was the 1999 (after I was out of college) superhero parody MYSTERY MEN. Ricky plays Captain Amazing's (Greg Kinnear) publicist. And I was the one who pointed out the inside joke to my friends, not vice-versa. That's odd, because usually my faulty memory makes me look more awesome, not less.

**Due to a brain fart, I originally wrote KILL LIST instead of KILL TEAM. KILL LIST is an excellent British horror film by Ben Wheatley. I've seen it twice (once while fully awake) and own a DVD of it. I kind of want to see it again now. But on Thursday, I will be watching KILL TEAM, not KILL LIST.

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 11

The second big weekend of SFIFF is over. I saw only three movies on Sunday. But one was a 5 hour, 16 minute masterpiece of Finnish cinema, so I think I get extra points for that. Yes, I give myself an extra 2 points for that (note: "points" are something I just invented on the spot and have no value--monetary or otherwise--whatsoever. In fact, I'll probably never speak of them again.)

That Finnish epic was EIGHT DEADLY SHOTS, originally shot in 1972 on 16 mm film and shown as a 4-part series on Finnish television. It was edited into a ~2 hour film, which allegedly isn't that good. This was actually the U.S. premiere of the full 5+ hour cut. It was inspired by an actual incident, although the opening of every episode takes great pains to emphasize it's fictional and not based on any specific case. In that incident, a farmer--drunk--killed 4 policemen with eight rifle shots (he made sure to get them all twice, I guess.) And the film opens with those shots. After a few minutes of the stark winter of the Finnish countryside, we hear those shots before we see a single person on screen. And that person is the farmer, Pasi (played by director Mikko Niskanen, who has said it was such a difficult role he couldn't ask anyone else to play it.) We see the funerals of the cops, and we see Pasi sitting, remorsefully, in jail. And then we go back one year, we see the last year of Pasi's life, leading up to that moment and leaving us--some five hours later--in a position where if we don't approve of his actions we at least sympathize with his plight.

Each episode is introduced with text about how alcohol was the root of all evil (I don't recall the exact text, or I would quote it.) And that's certainly a huge part of it. Pasi is a moonshiner who drinks a bit too much of his own product. As his wife notes, if it was just a little bit now and then, it would be okay. But he definitely drinks to excess far too often. But there's a lot more than that. When he has work, he's a hard, diligent worker. "When he has work" is the important part. And this is something that would have been lost without Peter von Bagh's introduction. Finland in the 70s--particularly rural Finland in the 70s--was the fastest declining region in all of Europe. People were leaving either for the cities or for Sweden. Those who stayed found it increasingly difficult to make a living on their small single-family farms or with the occasional part-time work offered by the employment office. So he supplements what little he gets from his farm by taking on odd jobs, clearing forests to sell firewood, but mostly through moonshining. The rest of the village is in a similar dire situation, particularly his neighbor and partner-in-moonshine Reiska. The pressure, the poverty, and yes the drink weighs on him--on more than one occasion his wife and children flee from his drunken rages into the cold Finnish night (something he had to do as a child when his own father came home drunk and angry.) Add to that a heart condition that incapacitates him from time to time.

But I don't want it to sound like everything is bad. He has periods where he's clean, he's working hard, and he gets along with his wife and children. It's that journey, the multiple cycles of hope and despair--with increasing pressure from the authorities--that has to be done over 5 hours (it could've been drawn over even more episodes, in my opinion.) I can't imagine taking that journey in only 2 hours. Maybe you could've told the story, but you couldn't have taken the emotional journey. Cutting this down would be the equivalent of saying you've visited Finland because you changed planes in the Helsinki airport once.

Then I finished the night with two very engaging and very different documentaries, starting with GOOGLE AND THE WORLD BRAIN. The world brain--a library of all human knowledge accessible to everyone--was a Utopian vision of H.G. Wells. But the idea of a library of all knowledge is much older--dating back to the Library of Alexandria in the 3rd century BCE. Now, with the power of the Internet, it's possible...but with complications. Google is not the only one trying to do this, but they are the biggest and most ambitious. And this isn't about search, it's about book scanning. After all, there's no bar to what gets put on the Internet (trust me on that), but what we put in books--at least, books with a real publisher instead of self-published--has at least a minimal standard. But who are the interested parties. Google, of course, who has sunk billions into the world's most ambitious book-scanning project. Libraries, many of which have partnered with Google, whose mission is to share as much information as possible. And copyright holders...ah, there's the rub. What to do with copyrighted works? Well, Google made deals with some publishers, for sure. But what about "orphaned books"--not in the public domain, still under copyright, but out of print? Sometimes you can't even find the author to ask for his permission. Well, long story short Google's initial strategy was to offer snippets. You could search on keywords and see a few lines of the book for each keyword found. Some people had a problem with that. First, if you searched for enough keywords you could piece together most if not all of a copyrighted book. Second, the mere act of copying a copyrighted work, even if you never show it to anyone, is a violation of copyright law...maybe...or maybe not. Look, I'm not a lawyer, and as far as I know this is still under litigation (it was at the time of the film, at least.) An initial settlement proposal gave  Google the rights to publish "orphaned" books and give the copyright holders a substantial cut. But this suddenly changed Google from a library to a bookstore, and the library partners objected. The movie provides several competing views (anywhere from 'Google has a secret nefarious plan to control the world's information' to 'copyright is obsolete in the modern age and Google is doing a good thing') but it still definitely has its opinion. Which is that Google is not malicious but has played fast-and-loose with the project and has crossed lines that companies with a more conservative legal department would not have crossed. And fighting the court battles has become huge. In fact, to hear some subjects talk about the potential cost per copyrighted work, this could be a bet-the-entire-company move. For what it's worth...I want a universal library. I want a World Brain. I don't have any particular stake in whether Google owns/manages/controls access to that World Brain or not. Maybe it's better that it be taken out of the hands of a for-profit company and be acknowledged as a public good. But if that's the case, who's going to fund it? Anyway, ideas and opinions aside this was a very engaging, well-made movie that certainly doesn't suffer from either a deficit of balance or a deficit of opinion.

And then a very different, almost experimental documentary LET THE FIRE BURN. The MOVE organization in Philadelphia in the 70s and 80s was a controversial and confrontational organization founded by John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart). They were liberation, back-to-nature,...okay, maybe they had a more explainable philosophy but at least in this movie all you get is a frustrating and elusive 'follow the teachings of John Africa.' What are his teachings? The truth! What truth? The truth about the lie of the system! What is the system? gets frustrating. Here's the important thing--on May 13, 1985, a raid on their row-house headquarters ended in an inferno that left 11 people dead and several houses (not just theirs, but neighboring houses) destroyed. There's more, of course. They were a public nuisance and a thorn in the sides of the local Philadelphia authorities (and their own neighbors) for years beforehand. The authorities wanted to evict them a long time ago. And blame...well, blame is a tricky thing. Or, in the words of William Richmond (Philadelphia Fire Commissioner at the time), "Blame is a broad brush." And this movie attempts to untangle the incident--and the history of Philadelphia's confrontations with MOVE, solely by using archival footage. New interviews with some key subjects were done for the movie, but discarded (perhaps they'll resurface as DVD extras?) in favor of using footage from the time. Most prominently, public hearings in the aftermath of the May 13, 1985 incident. And those hearings, news reports, and an interview with a little boy who grew up in MOVE are...chilling. MOVE seemed at best an unpleasant, angry place (maybe some members were loving internally, but externally obnoxious at best. At worst, it was an organization that engaged in child abuse and stockpiled weapons.) Still, that doesn't seem to justify what is at best excessive force and at worst murder-by-arson on the part of the police. A powerful movie that is a difficult and painful look at a difficult and painful incident in American history.

And with that, Sunday and the final weekend of SFIFF 2013 ended. We're on the final stretch now, leading up to the closing night on Thursday.

Total Running Time: 499 minutes
My Total Minutes: 327,282

Monday, May 6, 2013

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 10

I missed a good chunk of  Saturday at SFIFF in order to cheer for my San Jose Earthquakes. After going down 0-2, they stormed back and scored an exciting stoppage time equalizer! Exciting, but we've had too many ties lately, we need to start getting some wins.

Anyway, I did make it up to the city for the centerpiece presentation of INEQUALITY FOR ALL. But before I get to the movie, I have a gripe about how the festival staff handles rush tickets.

The majority of the screenings I've attended have been at rush, but almost all of them have had at least a few empty seats by the time the film plays. That's normal, they have to cut off pre-sales when there are still enough seats left for passholders--Cinevisas, filmmakers, sponsors, etc. I've always assumed there were seats left over at the end because everyone in line for rush tickets got them and there were still leftover seats. Now INEQUALITY FOR ALL was pretty full (including lots of reserved seats for VIPs--sponsors, board members, guests of the filmmakers, etc.) but from my vantage point in front row center there were at least a half-dozen seats available. This includes the seat next to me, and the one 3 seats from me (the guy two seats over had empty seats on both sides. I don't know why, he didn't smell that bad to me.) I assume there were other seats available throughout the theater. However, the staff simply declared it full and cut off rush sales. I know this because a friend of mine was at the front of the rush line when they did that, and they told her there were no more seats available. She was cool about it, but I will not be.

In every other festival I've been to--including previous years of SFIFF--when a screening is nearly full, they will make some announcements. They will ask everyone to move in to the center, making sure there are no empty seats in the center of a row that would be difficult for the late-arriving rush customers to get to. They ask people to raise their hands if they have an empty seat next to them. They ask people to please remove their belongings from neighboring seats unless they're saving it for someone who already has a ticket and is in the building (e.g., they're just at the concession stand or in the bathroom). None of this was done. They simply weren't interested in filling every seat.

Now I assume they didn't make the effort because they were more concerned with starting on time (or near that, almost every screening at every festival starts at least 5 minutes late). But that is misplaced priorities. First of all, it's pretty fuckin' rude to the people who waited for an hour or more in hopes of getting tickets. Maybe not everyone can get in, but they should be given the fair opportunity if there are still seats empty. Second, if the festival doesn't care about getting every dollar it can out of the rush customers, then why the fuck did they jack up the price of my Cinevisa!? Have I been forced to subsidize their ability to shit on the rush line?

Okay, enough griping, on to the movie. INEQUALITY FOR ALL is based on the writing, lectures, and other lessons of Robert Reich, the littlest giant (seriously, he's like 4'9" but packing a giant intellect) in economic matters. Using his UC Berkeley lecture on Wealth and Poverty as a framing mechanism, he answers three big questions--how much inequality is there? Why is there inequality? And is that bad? Spoiler Alert: A lot; many reasons, but mostly the vicious (instead of virtuous) cycle; and yes. Reich is a master at making very complex ideas understandable to the layperson, and his charisma as well as visually engaging graphics tell the story pretty well. Better than I can in my dry-ish text where I'd have to resort to numbers to try to explain it. (speaking of numbers, I could've sworn the scale was off on one of the graphs. They show a line that's supposed to be at 23%, and it was placed between the 20% and 25% divisions, but it looked closer to 20%. Like they graphed 22% and labeled it 23%. But I digress) They pepper his lectures and interviews with personal stories from his life, including how as a Rhodes scholar met the man who would later make his Secretary of Labor--Bill Clinton. He makes a compelling case that even the super-rich would be better off with a slightly smaller part of a rapidly increasing pie rather than a bigger part of a slowly increasing (or even decreasing) pie. To those who have heard Reich speak before (and my knowledge is basically limited to his regular, short pieces for NPR) there won't be a lot of really new ideas. But he does take some time to bemoan how he's been saying this for 30 years and nobody seems to be catching on. Perhaps this movie will change that.

Oh yeah, and after Reich the most interesting person was the multi-millionaire venture capitalist who comes in to echo a lot of Reich's points. One of the most interesting points is how one guy making $10 million doesn't generate nearly the same economic activity as 100 guys making $100,000 each. In the Q&A they mentioned they screened the film to a select audience of multi-millionaires, and the reception was remarkably positive. Perhaps there is still some hope of turning things around, if the so-called "job creators" start actually working in their long-term rather than short-sighted best self-interest. For more information ('s kinda a placeholder now) check out their website here.

After that, I caught a quite, contemplative, and spiritual (that is, if I believed in such things) short and feature pairing. First the short, HOME. A wordless examination of a house becoming a home. We see the inside of a pre-fabricated home. Doors open and clank shut. Perhaps it's haunted? Then, looking out a window, we suddenly see that it's moving. It is being moved on one of those giant trucks, over windy roads, while a brave cameraman stands inside shooting footage, until it is placed on a foundation, the cracks from the move are patched up, and a family moves in. Very cool.

And then the feature INORI. Let me start by saying it was a long, long day and I struggled (and ultimately failed) to stay awake. Not that I snoozed through the whole thing. I awoke fitfully throughout the course of the film, and my half-open eyes were always greeted by scenes of beauty. It starts with a dying goat shedding a single tear, transitioning into a mountain stream (was the stream fed by goat's tears?) We gradually meet the few remaining denizens of a near-empty village. Decaying institutions are being reclaimed by nature, and watched over by the graves of the past. I don't know what to make of it all, but the shot of cherry blossoms blowing over the water might be the most beautiful thing I've seen in the entire festival.

And that was Saturday. That totally happened.

Total Running Time: 168 minutes
My Total Minutes: 326,782

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 9

It's now Monday, the second big weekend is over and I can see the final stretch of films this week. Soon enough I'll be mourning that it's over (but not before a good night's sleep or two.) But first, to recap the weekend, starting with two films on Friday.

First up was JUVENILE OFFENDER, a drama from South Korea about (surprise) a juvenile offender. That would be sixteen year old Gi-ju, who lives with his ailing grandfather after both his parents abandoned him. So he spends most of his time getting into various shenanigans with his hoodlum friends, and landing in juvenile detention frequently. In his latest stay, his grandfather passes away and so the authorities look high and low and find his estranged mother. She had him when she was a teenager, and so she still looks young (and acts immature) enough to be his peer rather than his role model. But they try to make this work--she looks for a real job and an affordable apartment. He tries to not judge her too much. And then obvious parallels pop up when he finds out that his girlfriend had gotten pregnant (by him) and given up the baby for adoption. He claims to despise "irresponsible" people and wants to take responsibility, but she kinda doesn't want to have anything to do with him. It's more of a quiet character study than the title would suggest, but it becomes a subtle and unsentimental look at the difficulties of single mothers in Korea, and the lack of a social safety net (or even much sympathy.)

And then a real oddity from Japan, RENT A FAMILY INC, a new documentary from Kaspar Astrup Schröder (THE INVENTION OF DR. NAKAMATS). The "hero" of the movie is Ryuichi Ichinokawa, who lives in the Tokyo suburb of Kawama City. He operates an unusual business--he rents himself (and ~20-30 employees) out as "surrogates." They pretend to be friends, parents, spouses, etc. for various social obligations. In the opening scene, he's pretending to be a husband while he and his client negotiate with her ex-husband to give her access to the savings account he set up when their son was born. Ryuichi's life of duplicity extends even to his family--he keeps his work secret from them, although (spoiler alert: he does come clean during the course of the film.) This is in fact the heart of the movie, what starts out as an odd, humorous look at a weird profession becomes a touching and troubled family story. His family life, to put it lightly, is not good. He doesn't bring home enough money (his surrogate business is just one of his jobs) his children don't respect him, and he and his wife seem to only be staying together long enough to raise the kids.  At one point he admits he thinks about suicide every day (not so much anymore, the movie seems to have actually been a kind of therapy for him.) A really fascinating look at social desperation, both from the clients' and the service provider's point of view.

Total Running Time: 184 minutes
My Total Minutes: 326,615

Friday, May 3, 2013

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 8

Two more films last Thursday, on what I've dubbed "Mumblecore Night" at SFIFF.

First up was Noah Baumbauch's and Greta Gerwig's FRANCES HA. It's a sweet and funny story of best friends Frances and (Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner). They live together, mostly off Sophie's money--she's an editor. Frances is an apprentice dancer who can barely scrape together rent money. Of course, this is in New York, so that's quite a bit, and as one friend points out she's not really poor, that's an insult to actually poor people. They're like two people with different hair. Until, as happens, Sophie moves in with her boyfriend, leaving Frances to bounce from place to place, trying to keep her head above water and never resorting to demeaning "normal" jobs just to stay alive while she chases her dreams. One wouldn't be too far off the mark to dismiss this as "spoiled white hipster problems" but there's a charm, wit, and goofy grace to it (as much a product of Gerwig as Baumbach) that makes you root for her, even when a happy ending would just be taking a shitty office job and getting a shitty apartment.

And then (after a quick stop for another Grolsch at the festival lounge)...something really weird. COMPUTER CHESS is the latest from Andrew Bujalski, and he recreates the lo-fi look of the 1980s perfectly. Not just the fashions, or the clunky computers with fat CRTs, but he actually shot on analog video (using a camera from the 60s). Teams of computer chess nerds from universities (including my alma mater, Caltech, as the defending champions), industry, and one eccentric lone wolf meet in shabby hotel conference room for a competition. And things quickly veer away from chess--to love, the soul, artificial intelligence, etc. They're sharing the hotel with a strange relationship encounter group/cult who do stuff like jamming their hands in loaves of bread to feel...something? And that's before the drugs kick in. Weird, weird stuff, and maybe my favorite film in the festival.

And that was Thursday at SFIFF. About time to start the big second weekend (where I'll miss a chunk of Saturday so I can cheer on my beloved SJ Earthquakes) and the final stretch to closing night next Thursday.

Total Running Time: 177 minutes
My Total Minutes: 326,431

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 7

One week into the festival. Low on sleep, and we're only halfway through. This is the part where I begin to doubt myself. By midway through the weekend I'll see the light at the end of the tunnel. By this time next week I'll be sad that it's all over...but looking forward to the next big event. Maybe the noir films at the Roxie.

Anyway, two more shows last night, starting with a beautiful and emotional tribute to Les Blank. For those who don't know, Les Blank was a prolific and talented filmmaker who specialized in the sublime beauty of human joy and what inspires it (especially food, music, people, movies, etc.) Sadly, he passed away just under a month ago (on April 7th.) The film world, and the Bay Area have lost an essential voice. But we celebrated his career with this trio of rarely seen

CHRISTOPHER TREE (aka SPONTANEOUS SOUND, 1972...or maybe 1967? IMDb/the SFIFF website say something different than Blank's website): The closest thing to a conventional "experimental" film (I think there's a bit of experimentation in all of Blank's work, but this is closest to what people think of when they think of an experimental film) in the program. No narration, no explanation, no credits at all. Christopher makes music in the middle of a forest with a variety of instruments, but mostly with a huge collection of gongs. The camera maintains a distance, sometimes zooming in and sometimes pulling back behind the trees, to create a voyeuristic state of discovering a man performing to no audience.

CHICKEN REAL (1970): A commissioned industrial film for Holly Farms chicken. Focusing on two of Les Blank's passions--food and music. Hordes of people at a picnic downing mouthfuls of succulent chicken, before we go through the state-of-the-art (for 1970) process at the chicken hatchery all the way through to the "dis-assembly" line. They might have commissioned a standard industrial commercial film, but they got 100% Les Blank style.

SPEND IT ALL (1972...or 1971, another discrepancy on the year. Since Blank's website seems to list the earlier years, this might be the difference between when it was made and when it was first screened to the public): A beautiful, engaging, and loving look at the lives and passions of French-speaking Cajuns in the Louisiana bayou. Again, heavy on food and music, and it has that certain...Les Blankiness about it. He truly knew how to get people to reveal himself. He's never mocking people (even when they're funny.) He's never engaging in mindless hero worship (even when his subjects are freakin' awesome people!) He's getting them to tell their own stories, in a very warm and human way. They're a people who appreciate the enjoyment of life--they work hard enough to enjoy life, but not so hard that they make more money than they can spend--hence the title.

As a bonus, this opens with a very brief history lesson on how the Cajun people came to be. The original French settlers in the Americas set up a colony in what is now Novia Scotia, and called it Acadia (so they were Acadians.) When the English moved in on their territory, they gave the Acadians a choice--renounce their French Catholicism, join with the English, and help fight against England's enemies, or be driven from their territory. Those who agreed became the French speaking Novia Scotians, those who didn't were taken by slave ship to various ports along the coast from Boston to Georgia. They were pretty universally not accepted by the other settlers, and were driven from town to town until they settled in the bayou. "Acadian" became corrupted to "Cajun" and over 200 years they lived mostly in isolation, although their culture welcomed and was enhanced and enriched by other various outcasts--especially runaway slaves. They were very welcoming, and there's something very..."Prend moi tel que je suis" about it.

And then I continued the documentary night with the feature documentary BLACKFISH, about the mistreatment and violent incidents around orcas (killer whales) in captivity. The film opens with a chilling 911 call from SeaWorld Orlando with the words, "A whale has eaten one of the trainers." What follows is an exposé on the industry of orca shows that ultimately makes you sympathize with the orca in the incident. It shows how social, familial, and friendly orcas are in nature (there are no cases of orcas attacking humans in the wild--or so the movie claims). How families are torn apart so that the babies can be stolen for the shows (a simple matter of shipping costs, the babies are easier to ship). How non-family groups of orcas can often get violent with each other, leading to bloody "teeth-raking" attacks (and how the attacked orca can't leave the way-too-small tank and just go to another part of the ocean to avoid them). How the "trainers" are not really marine biologists, they just need to be good swimmers with the guts to get in the water with the orcas and the gutlessness to repeat the company line to the customers (example: They'll say orcas in the wild typically live up to 25-35 years, but ones in captivity live longer due to the great veterinary care. In fact, orcas in the wild have lifespans comparable to humans--up to 100 years for females, usually 50-60 years for males). That's probably the biggest takeaway I got--the "experts" at SeaWorld (and other aquatic parks) are lying to you in order to take your money without you noticing the cruelty. Look, I've seen the shows before. I didn't notice the cruelty before, I just noticed the beautiful, majestic creatures. I've also seen them in the wild, and let me tell you they're 1,000 times more majestic out there. Damn, and I always assumed FREE WILLY was just trite, sentimental claptrap. I might actually have to watch it and give it a chance now.

Total Running Time: 153 minutes
My Total Minutes: 326,254

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 6

Another night, another two movies. And little time in between, so I actually had no time for a drink. Meaning my one-sober-day-a-week streak for 2013 is still intact.

First up was the Experimental Shorts, and I really could have used a drink. These are experimental, so describing them can be difficult, but I'll give it my best shot.
THE NAME IS NOT THE THING NAMED: A stream, a tunnel, extreme darkness, extreme brightness. I...really don't know what to call this.
ARTIFICIAL PERSONS: P.T. Barnum's hoax remains of a 10 foot giant. And the continuing hoax that corporations are people, my friends.
A FEW EXTRA COPIES: On obsessive re-creation of Budd Dwyer's infamous final speech (Google it).
PIPE DREAM: The first Arab in space, Syrian cosmonaut Mohammed Fares, has a phone call with the late President Hafez El Assad. Connections with the current upheaval in Syria, as his statues are torn down (for safekeeping against vandalism).
LIFE IS AN OPINION, FIRE IS A FACT: Fragmented, partially animated look at a man who lights himself on fire. In protest? Out of despair? For the lulz? We don't know, but there is a doggy!
VERSES: Probably my favorite of the bunch. Old ledgers from an abandoned juvenile detention center. Flip the pages, and the dirt and decay become an animated Rorschach test.
THE INDESERIAN TABLETS: Okay, this one might actually be my favorite. Tablets of a mysterious language are translated, in increasingly surreal and absurd ways, until I finally realize it's all a joke.
VIEW FROM ACROPOLIS: From atop the actual hill, the view shows soldiers running drills, ruins, modern buildings, a changing landscape.
BLOOM: Oil fields, fire, flowers, and a woman throwing knives at a child. All set to multiple overlapping renditions of "Edelweiss." Taken from the Texas Archive of the Moving Image. The knife throwing scene alone was worth the rest of the movie. Heck, it was worth the rest of the entire program.

And then I caught the feature PEARBLOSSOM HIGHWAY, by Mike Ott (LITTLEROCK, which I thought I had seen when it played in 2010 but it turns out I haven't). Cory (who apparently was featured in LITTLEROCK and will be in Mike Ott's next film, LAKE LOS ANGELES, due out next year) is a weird looking, weirder-sounding vocalist for a shitty punk band in Lancaster, CA (about an hour north of L.A.) He does whippets of nitrous and has big dreams--like being a reality TV star. Really, his dreams are all about getting the heck out of Lancaster (the titular highway is the only road out of town.) His only friend is Atsuko, a girl who is desperate to raise money to visit her dying grandmother in Japan. Desperate enough to turn to prostitution. Meanwhile Cory's big brother Jeff returns from a stint in the Marines (don't call it the Army) and while he is there to take care of him he's also pretty fucking tired of Cory's shit. A road trip to meet his biological father ensues, taking them to San Francisco (yay, a shot of the Roxie! Which lately has kind of become the go-to shot for Indie films to establish they're in San Francisco. Even more so than the GG Bridge.) I found myself being both repulsed and fascinated by the characters, while mostly bored by the story. That doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, and I guess it isn't. But there's something to this film I can't quite put my finger on. As often as it makes me cringe, I still find myself drawn to it. Perhaps when his "Desert Trilogy" is completed with LAKE LOS ANGELES, I can watch all three in a row and see what it is I couldn't quite grasp this time.

Total Running Time: 166 minutes
My Total Minutes: 326,101