Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Jason goes to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival--Sunday, July 28

I'm not going quite as all-out crazy as I have in the past at this festival. In fact, it opened last Thursday night but I didn't get up to the city to see anything until Sunday. But at least I had a full day of five films.

I started with AN AMERICAN TAIL, Don Bluth's 1986 animated film about the immigrant experience, set in the world of mice. This movie came out when I was 12, and it was a big part of my childhood. I must have watched it dozens of times on video with my brothers and sisters. Oddly enough I never saw any of the sequels. Or maybe not so odd, since when Fievel went west (as promised at the end of the first movie) in 1991 I was 17, and had undoubtedly outgrown such childish entertainment. I didn't even know there were two more direct-to-video sequels and a short lived (one season) TV show until I looked it up on IMDb just now. If I decide to become obsessed, I could spend a lot of time immersing myself in the adventures of Fievel Mousekewitz. Or perhaps the sequels could become part of a future SFJFF? They do want more family programming....

Anyway, back on topic. While I had seen it so many times as a child, I don't think I really ever paid much attention or cared about the Jewish content. I just knew it was a story about American immigration, and I guess I knew in the back of my mind that they were fleeing a pogrom in Russia. I don't know why that didn't resonate more with me at the time, since one side of my family does go back to Russian Jews who immigrated to America. It sure resonates now. I also didn't think too much about what it had to say about the American immigrant experience. I was still naively believing that America is the Land of Opportunity™ and saw Fievel's struggle--getting separated from his family, preyed upon by crooks, captured by cats, etc.--as just the drama necessary for a good story. Looking at it now, it has a lot to say about the over-hyped promise of America (they sing a whole song about how there are no cats in America,) how short it falls from that promise (spoiler alert: There are cats in America,) and how America really is still the Land of Opportunity. It's just not a land where success is easy, but if you stick to and never say never, you will succeed here. Darn it, this movie might just make a patriot out of me yet.

Next up, and sticking with the theme of the Jewish American immigrant story being the story of America, I saw BROADWAY MUSICALS: A JEWISH LEGACY. This film has already played on PBS and is available online, but it was so much more fun to see it on the big Castro screen with a community of like-minded people (whether that community is Jews, movie fans, musical fans, or whatever.) It opens with David Hyde Pierce singing a song from Spamalot "You Won't Succeed On Broadway" (if you don't have any Jews.) That's the tone of the movie--light, funny, self-mocking,...lots of fun. But it also makes a pretty interesting and insightful argument. That Musical Theater is a uniquely American art form. That Jewish artists thrived there (and still do.) That their perspective--as outsiders in the melting pot of America--informs a great deal of their stories, even when there's no overt Jewish content. And that a whole lot of Jewish musical influences--klezmer and cantorial--hidden in musicals. I'm pretty dumb about music in general (now my sister, she's the master musician,) but I got a kick out of learning that the line "It Ain't Necessarily So" in PORGY & BESS is to a tune lifted from a common chant in Jewish worship. Or pointing out how "Rhapsody in Blue" starts with a klezmer clarinet, and mergers classical, jazz, klezmer, and blues beautifully. Or how the biggest exception to the rule--Cole Porter--had meager success starting out until he figured out he had to write "Jew music" (meaning more minor chords.) Or how the first draft of WEST SIDE STORY was actually EAST SIDE STORY and about Jews and Catholics instead of Puerto Ricans. Or, finally, the runaway success of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (by the way, I know it's kind of poor form to promote another festival in this coverage, but check this out!) Plus clips from CABARET, THE PRODUCERS (playing at the SFJFF a week from Sunday.) Plus how could I forget about Irving Berlin, the Jewish immigrant who wrote "God Bless America" as well as one of the most beloved Christmas song ("White Christmas") and Easter Song ("Easter Parade")--if that's not a success story of immigration and assimilation, I don't know what is. And there's tons more, I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot of important contributors, but I only have so much time to write, and you shouldn't be wasting so much time reading this anyway. Go online or turn on PBS and just watch the movie.

Next we got into some serious fare, with HANNAH ARENDT (opening Friday at the Opera Plaza and Shattuck theaters.) In a flashback scene, Hannah asks her mentor/lover Martin Heidegger to teach her to think. He responds by warning her that "thinking is a very lonely business." And that is certainly true, but doesn't stop her from becoming one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. The loneliness probably started after Heidegger joined the Nazi party, but the movie takes place much later, after she escaped to France, was put in an internment camp, escaped, and moved to New York. In fact, it takes place in 1961, during and immediately after the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Hannah, now a respected professor and famous for her book "The Origins of Totalitarianism" offers her services to the New Yorker to cover Eichmann's trial (shown in news footage, I don't think they ever use an actor to play Eichmann, which is an interesting choice that works very well.) The editorial scenes at the New Yorker offer some comic relief, as they debate over whether she should have come begging to write for the New Yorker, like everyone else. But she goes, she observes the trial, she is restless over what she saw, and finally writes her piece, where she famously coined the phrase "the banality of evil." That Eichmann was evil not because of some sinister demon, but because he abdicated his responsibility to think. I'm sure I'm doing a bad job of explaining it. And an equally important part is her criticism of some Jewish leaders during the Holocaust. Well, her writing sparked an enormous backlash against her, which is the backbone of the movie. It's really a remarkable achievement, making a nearly 2-hour movie that's all about thinking. And it doesn't back away from it--sure there's human emotion and drama, but at it's core it really is about her ideas and about the power of thinking--and thoughtlessness. Thinking might be a lonely business, but not thinking is pure evil in its most banal form.

Next up we had a pretty cool event. We were introduced to Gideon Raff, the creator of the Israeli TV show, PRISONERS OF WAR (HATUFIM.) He also adapted that show into an American TV show--you might have heard of it, it's called HOMELAND.

Now I have to confess I've never seen HOMELAND. I've heard it's great, and now I do want to see it, but I just don't watch a lot of TV, I'm too busy watching movies in my free time. But we did get to watch the first episode of PRISONERS OF WAR on the big screen, and it was pretty cool. It starts with a deal, mediated in Germany, to release 3 (2 alive, 1 dead) Israeli POWs. This is a major difference in the American version, as Gideon explained--Israel does negotiate the release of their captured soldiers, America doesn't, so it had to open with a military operation to free them. Outside the airport, there is cheering and celebrating and waving of "Bring Them Home" banners. Inside they briefly meet the Prime Minister and then are reunited with their family in a quiet, emotional visit. They are told that soon they will be taken to a facility to get reprogrammed and re-assimilated into society after 17 years of captivity, but tonight they get to spend with their families. And this is just the start--nightmares, confusion, a daughter who is disrespectful after growing up without a father. A wonderful and intriguing start of something that I can already assume will be more about the lasting emotional  turmoil of captivity than the action-thriller genre elements. I'd definitely like to see more of that.

Then, as I alluded to above, we had a discussion with Gideon about adapting PRISONERS OF WAR to HOMELAND, and that discussion featured side-by-side clips of similar scenes from each show. It was very interesting, and clearly wasn't just a matter of setting the dialogue in Israel or America. There are many differences--subtle and unsubtle--between the two versions (as there are differences between the two countries.) A very interesting talk, and it gives me two new shows I should check out.

And finally, I ended the night with the film that puts the "-ish" in Jewish. One can argue the Jewish content of THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI (there isn't much) or whether it belongs in a festival simply on the merit of director Bill Siegel being a self-described "Husker Du Jew" (if I spelled that right. I have no idea what it means.) I don't care, it's a good movie about a fascinating man and how society changed around him. It opens with Ron Suskind on TV telling Muhammad Ali (via satellite) that he's a felon (for declaring himself a conscientious objector and refusing to be drafted to Vietnam) and then quickly cuts to Ali receiving the Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in 2005. We sure have changed around him. He's gone from a time when stubborn sports writers and broadcasters would still call him Cassius Clay despite his constant objections to his "slave name" to a time when kids might ask "Who was Cassius Clay?" But everyone knows Muhammad Ali. We've gone from a time when the Nation of Islam was seen as a radical branch and traditional Islam was seen as peaceful to a time when the Nation of Islam is seen as the more peaceful, Americanized version of Islam, not the version the "terrorists" practice. This movie is about us--the society that changed around (and because of?) Muhammad Ali--more than it is about him. But it's also still very much about him. And particularly, the "trials" alluded to in the title--from him embracing the Nation of Islam (and the ensuing criticism,) his name change, and especially his refusal to fight in Vietnam. How he held firm while he was stripped of his title and banned from boxing. How to survive he learned to be a public speaker (considering he was almost as famous for his mouth as his punch, it's really interesting to see footage of his early, awkward attempts at public speaking.) And the narrow legal ruling where the Supreme Court eventually exonerated him and granted him conscientious objector status--well, that was pretty laughable. A fascinating story, especially from a young-ish (hell, if this movie is Jewish, I'm youngish!) guy who only knew Muhammad Ali as an icon and role model, and didn't know the time when he was hated and feared.

THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI has been picked up by Kino Lorber for a theatrical run in the fall, so watch for it! Then watch for it to come to Independent Lens on PBS.

And that was it. I initially planned on seeing a sixth show, LIES IN THE CLOSET with the short SUMMER VACATION but I was just physically beat. And I knew I had to get up early for work on Monday, and staying would mean the difference between getting home to San Jose around 11:00 pm or 1:00 am. So I'm sure I missed a couple of great movies--probably the best in the festival--and I almost never do this, but I was beat and I made the right decision for myself.

Total Running Time: 437 minutes
My Total Minutes: 335,365

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Jason watches PACIFIC RIM in 3D

What the shit was that crap?! I don't mean the giant robots fighting sea monsters--that was the whole point, and was cheesy, stupid fun. I don't mean the gobbledygook about "drifting" (i.e., mind-melding) or the trans-dimensional breach, that at least was pseudo-science nonsense that served the plot (what little there was.) And I don't mind the 3-D, which alternated between unnecessary and annoying violations of Jason's rule. I mean what the shit was up with Anchorage being a city of 2 million people?!

Okay, this takes place in the near-ish future. I forget the exact years, but within this century. Giant monsters rise up from a trans-dimensional breach in the Pacific. Cities on the Pacific Rim are decimated, starting with San Francisco (before the opening credits.) So as the population of Pacific coast cities are destroyed either through monster attacks or through the completely rational act of fleeing the areas that are prone to giant monster attacks. And yet, in all of that, Anchorage's population increases by an order of magnitude?

I repeat--what the shit was that crap!?

Running Time: 131 minutes
My Total Minutes: 334,929

Monday, July 22, 2013

Jason goes to Silentfest--The End

And Jason is freakin' exhausted, so excuse me if I'm not blogging with my usual energy.

After a good 4 hours of sleep, I was back bright and early at the Castro for some breakfast at Orphan Andy's and a 10:00 am program of The Kings of Silent Comedy. The program was introduced by a mainstay of the festival, Mr. Leonard Maltin...on video from L.A. For the first time in something like 8 years he wasn't there in person at the festival. But that didn't keep the rest of us from having a good time.
FELIX GOES WEST (1924): Maltin made a great case for Felix not just being a cartoon star, but a true comedy pantomime star, rivaling the likes of Chaplin. In this one a hungry Felix catches a trip out west, to the land of opportunity. There he gets into a bit of a scrape with the Indians and a bear. Pretty funny, but with the jumps in this I have a feeling we saw a print with missing scenes.
MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE (1925): My favorite of the lesser-known silent comedians, Charley Chase brought the house down with this story of an ugly, buck-toothed husband (Chase) and his equally ugly big-nosed wife (Vivien Oakland.) Unbeknownst to each other, they each get work done to fix their imperfections, and actually look quite nice. So nice when they meet they don't recognize each other and start an affair where they have to sneak around their spouses to see each other. Confusing? Only the way I described it. On screen it made perfect sense and was absolutely hilarious. Maybe my new favorite short comedy ever.
THE LOVE NEST (1922): Buster Keaton's final short film before moving on to features, and one of his darkest and most surreal ones. Since his sweetheart broke off their engagement, he has decided not to marry her. Instead, he'll set out in a tiny boat to sail around the world. He's picked up by a whaling ship with a fearsome captain who tosses anyone who displeases him overboard. Wacky hijinx ensue, ending with Buster on a naval practice target. Weird and funny.
THE IMMIGRANT (1917): Chaplin, his leading lady Edna Purviance, and his classic giant foil Eric Campbell. Chaplin's little tramp comes to America and gets into all sorts of trouble. Most notably with the difficulty of trying to pay for a meal at a restaurant (Campbell plays the surly waiter demanding he cough up for the bill.) Classic Chaplin, very funny.

Then we had an extra treat with a home movie of Stan Laurel at home with his lifetime achievement Oscar and his marionettes of himself and Oliver Hardy. In some ways it's weird to see this star aged, but when he pulls that classic Stan Laurel smile, it was delightful.

And speaking of delightful, Günther Buchwald did an excellent job accompanying on the piano and violin.

THE OUTLAW AND HIS WIFE (1918): A tradition of the festival for about as long as I've been going has been to play a Swedish film, and this year it was Victor Sjöström's (known in Hollywood as Victor Seastrom) dark epic from Iceland. Sjöström stars as the titular outlaw, a stranger who appears in a village and takes work on Halla's (Edith Erastoff, the future Mrs. Sjöström) farm. Jealous rivals accuse him of being a thief, and while in this case he's innocent, it's true that he has a history. He is the infamous Eyvind, known as "Mountain" Eyvind, a notorious thief (although, to be fair, he only started stealing to keep his parents and siblings from starving to death. He and Halla run away and become one of Iceland's many mountain outlaws. They live the for a few years, even have a daughter together. But all has to come to a tragic end, if not at the hands of the villagers searching for them, but at the hands of a cruel, harsh, and uncaring nature. SPOILER ALERT: there's a controversial scene where to keep their daughter from being captured and raised by the villagers, Halla tosses her off a cliff to her death. A powerful and shocking scene, but also made me lose all sympathy for her.

The Matti Bye Ensemble accompanied and did an excellent job as always. 

THE LAST EDITION (1925): Then we got some local SF flavor with this story set in the San Francisco Chronicle. This wasn't a lost film so much as a forgotten film, and while it's not the most artistically polished or innovative film in the festival, it's a solid story well told. Tom McDonald works in the printing press for the Chronicle (the film showcases the entire printing process, which was fascinating.) He lives by and preaches a simple code of truth, love, and duty. His son has just become a lawyer and he couldn't be more proud. But when an investigation into a notorious bootlegger leads to his son being framed, McDonald has a moral crisis. Chases in San Francisco, a crime thriller and newspaper drama rolled into one. Heck, forget what I said about this not being artistically polished or innovative. It's just a darn good story and I loved it.

Stephen Horne accompanied, and after that performance he's officially an honorary San Franciscan. I guess he can go back to England when he wants to, but we own a part of him.

THE WEAVERS (1927): Then this film was, in my opinion, the sleeper hit of the festival. Set in 1844 Silesia (a region that overlaps Poland, The Czech Republic, and a little bit of Germany,) and based on an 1892 play by Gerhart Hauptman, this tells the story of the uprising of cotton weavers. They have been kept in poverty by the villainous Dreisiger family, the lords of the region who control the cloth trade. They alone get to decide who gets work weaving cloth and how much they get paid. People are starving to death, taking the family dog to the butcher so they can eat one more day (what the hell, the dog would've died of starvation anyway.) There is hope, in the beginning they make a big deal of the Knights of the Order of the Swan, an order specifically set up to eliminate poverty. After little debate they come to a grand conclusion--they must go to Africa and bring Christianity to the negro race (hey, their words, not mine!) Eventually it just gets too much, and in a glorious (and timely) explosion of revolutionary rage, the weavers march on the Dreisigers, storm their home, and destroy everything (but don't set it on fire, then the insurance will pay out--the point is to make the Dreisigers as poor as the weavers.)

Günther Buchwald accompanied on the piano and sang the weaver's anthem, and I have to say he's a wonderful addition to the festival. Welcome to the SFSFF team, Günther!

SAFETY LAST (1923): And finally we ended the festival on a high note (after a couple of nights of long, depressing films to end the night, it's good to send the crowd home happy.) I was actually not that excited to see it. I have seen it so many times (including just last March at Cinequest, with Dennis James rocking the might Wurlitzer at the California Theatre in San Jose.) Plus it wasn't going to be on 35 mm film, but a 2K (not even 4K) DCP (Digital Cinema Package.) And I have to admit the first few seconds of title cards I was annoyed it was DCP. And then I heard the rest of the audience reacting. There were so many people seeing it for the first time. And what a glorious venue for that. Hoots of laughter, gasps of fright at Lloyd's death-defying climb up the building. I remembered a few things. First, this movie still works. No matter how many times I see it it's still hilarious and I'm still thrilled to the point of trembling at the famous climb. Second, nobody around today saw the original premiere in 1923--everybody has a first time seeing it and I shouldn't look down on anyone who hadn't seen it before. In fact, if anything I should envy them, getting the chance to discover it for the first time. And I would, if I wasn't too busy enjoying it like it was my first time, too.

And it was a premiere of a sort, it was the first time the Mont Alto Orchestra's score was played for an audience. And they were amazing!

The whole darn festival was amazing!

I'm so exhausted...and now time to get to work.

Total Running Time: 425 minutes
My Total Minutes: 334,798

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Jason goes to SilentFest--Day 3

A huge marathon Saturday, with 6 shows and very quick turnarounds between them all.

First up a was a program on the life and art of Winsor McCay, particularly his animated films. Partially a lecture on the man and his amazing pioneering animation work (although he would brag about inventing animated film, he didn't quite do that, but he did quite a lot in terms of meticulous attention to detail of movement.) The lecture and slideshow were  by John Canemaker (author of this amazing book) and it segued easily into 4 of McCay's surviving films.

LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND (1911): The character of Little Nemo, based on Winsor McCay's son Robert, was already a huge hit in the comics before McCay made this his first experiment in animation. I had seen the animation before, but this time it was framed with live action showing Winsor bragging how he could bring Little Nemo to life in 4,000 hand-drawn frames, his colleagues at the studio betting he can't, and him showing them wrong. Pretty cool.

HOW A MOSQUITO OPERATES (1912): Excellent motion in this humorous piece about a mosquito bothering a sleeping man, gradually sucking more and more blood until she pops (yeah, it's not in the movie, but only the female mosquito sucks blood.)

GERTIE THE DINOSAUR (1914): This is the classic, and I had seen it before as the vaudeville act where a dinosaur trainer (originally Winsor McCay himself played the role on stage) with a bullwhip coaxes Gertie out, trains her, then ducks behind the screen only to appear in the movie and ride off on Gertie. This time John Canemaker explained the premise and the whole audience played the role of coaxing Gertie into action. Very fun.

SINKING OF THE LUSITANIA (1918): And finally a mature, ahead-of-its time animation of a tragedy. The sinking of the Lusitania was the 9/11 of its time. There were no cameras, so McCay worked with the reporter who collected survivors' accounts and recreated in stunning detail the incident. Unfortunately, it was too unsettling for people of the time (I can understand a cartoon of 9/11 would still be shocking now) but looking back it was some amazing work.

All the films were brilliantly accompanied by Stephen Horne

THE HALF-BREED (1916): Next up was an early Douglas Fairbanks feature, directed by Alan Dwan (who directed Fairbanks in many films, most famously ROBIN HOOD.) Fairbanks plays the orphaned son of a Native American woman and  a white man who left her alone and pregnant. When he was just an infant, his mother left him with a kindly naturist to raise as a white man. Cut to him as an adult acting very Indian-like, first seen from behind in nothing but a loincloth (which I'm sure pleased the members of the audience who like that sort of thing.) After his caregiver passes away, he has to try to get along in the white man's racist world. Things do not go well. He catches the eye of the pastor's daughter (who has caught the eye of practically every man in town) and that just leads to gossip, slander, attempted murder, the forest burned down, etc. What it doesn't have is Fairbanks being his usual effervescent, charismatic self. Instead he plays his role as a stoic Indian with arms crossed. As a result, it was kind of a box office failure. But for my money, I like seeing him try something new. 

Speaking of something new, Günter Buchwald accompanied on the Wurlitzer organ and violin (yes, he played both, he's giving Stephen a run for his money as the resident one-man-band of the festival) and he did a great job. 

But that does bring me to a sensitive subject. This was the first SF Silent Film Fest screening I've seen where someone other than Dennis James played the Wurlitzer. I love Dennis James and I've heard various stories/rumors/theories about why he's not playing in this festival. And I won't repeat them here because that's not what this blog is about. But I'll just say that I hope they patch up their differences and Dennis is back soon.

By the way, for all you local Douglas Fairbanks fans out there, next weekend the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum will be playing THE BLACK PIRATE (1926.) I don't know if it will be the Technicolor version or the black and white print, but either way it's a heck of a good swashbuckler.

LEGONG: DANCE OF THE VIRGINS (1935): Speaking of Technicolor, this was a real treat. A simple love triangle story (there have been a lot of those this festival) set in Bali. Shot in Bali (hence silent well after the talkie change-over--they didn't want to bring all the sound equipment.) Using all real natives as actors and actresses. In their native dress. Which means a whole lot of exposed titties! Can I take a moment and say I don't think I'll ever get tired of looking at boobs. They are two of my favorite things. Even if they're not displayed for erotic purposes, they are simply aesthetically wonderful features. And the lead actress had some very nice ones. Anyway, back to the story. It opens with some text bemoaning the fate of any maiden of Bali who falls in love, for if her love isn't requited the Gods will be angry and sorrow will follow her. So that, of course, is exactly what happens. Anyway, back to the boobies. This restoration was pieced together from three heavily edited prints--an American one, British one, and Canadian one. Interestingly, they were each edited differently. The British one took out all the violence, while the American one took out all the nudity...which must have made it about a 10 minute short. I just want to lodge a formal complaint with the Universe on behalf of America--how come we get the violence but not the titties!?

Seriously, this was actually a beautiful film that provides a brilliant Technicolor look at Bali of nearly 80 years ago. And it was magnificently accompanied by The Club Foot Orchestra and Gamelan Sekar Jaya (a local group of traditional Balinese musicians,) making possibly the largest accompanying group in the history of the SF Silent Film Festival (at least their festival proper, other events like NAPOLEON had full orchestras)

GRIBICHE (196): And then an odd piece of social class drama from France. Gribiche is a nice kid, son of a war widow. Such a nice, polite boy that when he sees a high-class woman drop her purse in a store, he picks it up, chases her to her car, and returns it to her. Even refuses a reward. Later, the woman tracks him down and volunteers to adopt him so he can get a good education. Not that his real mother was doing a bad job, but he overheard her talking to her boyfriend about how he complicates plans for them to get married. So he goes off and lives with this woman, who makes him her showcase specimen of the poor unfortunate whom she saved (how her story of meeting him changes is one of the film's funniest moments.) Of course, he's miserable, and her whole effort to rescue him fails. Cute kid, and well shot, but the story was kind of blah. I don't know, it just really didn't do it for me. 

But at least the Mont Alto Orchestra was brilliant as always. 

THE HOUSE ON TRUBNAYA SQUARE (1928): Now you want to talk about oddities, how about a Soviet comedy? Okay, I know intellectually they must have had comedies, but I always think of Soviet cinema as serious, ponderously intellectual work. Director Boris Barnet is sometimes called the father of Soviet cinematic comedy, and he employs a plethora of clever camera moves in telling the funny story of a simple country girl who goes to Moscow with her pet duck, gets work as a maid in a housing project, and works her freakin' ass off. I thought there were a lot of great set pieces and hilarious sequences (the bit near the beginning where she's asking for directions all over Moscow is awesome) but the story doesn't quite fit together. Or at least, I had trouble following what the heck was going on. Maybe it's just a different time and different place, but I was confused. Especially with the major question I heard everyone asking afterwards--what the heck happened to the duck?

Stephen Horne accompanied on the piano, accordion, and I don't know what else. 

THE JOYLESS STREET (1925): And finally, we ended the night with the movie that put G. W. Pabst on the map. So you know it's gonna be dark and depressing. In fact, it shocked post WWI audiences with it's stark depictions of the struggles of the poor and opulence of the rich. While the lecherous butcher trades meat for sex, the rich plot to rig the price of coal to make millions. Caught in the middle, a bank clerk desperately trying to win his way into rich society gets framed for murder. Poor women have to sell themselves as "showgirls" at a club...who are we kidding, they become prostitutes. And two American Red Cross volunteers are shocked by it all. Lots of powerful scenes, but overall the movie was too damn long. At two and a half hours, as the last movie of the night, when I had been watching movies since 10:00 am...it was just too much. Especially to end the night with something so depressing. Maybe if it was two and a half hours of laughs...

Anyway, The Matti Bye Ensemble--the go to guys for the dark and serious films--did a fantastic job as always. 

And that was the big Saturday at the Silent Film Fest. One more day, 5 more shows to go!

Total Running Time: 518 minutes
My Total Minutes: 334,373

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Jason goes to SilentFest--Day 2

I had a long day of work on Friday, but I finally got out in time to make it to the 7:00 show. Now I'm at silent films all weekend. No more thinking about work until Monday...then it'll be a hellacious work week, just in time for Jewfest. But anyway, on to the movies!

THE PATSY (1928): The first movie I saw was a delightful comedy that takes me back to my first experience at the SF Silent Film Festival back in 2008. Let's see what I wrote then (scroll down to the bottom, I put the entire festival in one post):
And the final feature, the comedy "The Patsy" starring Marion Davies and directed by King Vidor. Marion is Patricia Harrington, the little sister of the Harrington family, ruled by a domineering mother (Marie Dressler, also awesome) who clearly prefers her big sister Grace. Pat is more of a daddy's girl, problem is daddy can't stand up to ma. Pat has eyes for Grace's boyfriend, who doesn't even know she exists. Grace is a big flirt and starts canoodling with the local rich playboy, leaving her former beau in the dust. Eventually he actually figures out that Pat is interested, but not before wacky hijinx and uncomfortable mix-ups. And loads of tom-foolery by Davies, including a famous scene of her impersonating other famous female screen legends of the time, that had the house roaring with laughter. An excellent way to end the festival on a high note.
Well, that's a pretty good recapping of the plot (oh yeah, should've come with a SPOILER ALERT!) But it doesn't capture how absolutely hilarious it is. Especially given that Marion Davies is mostly known as Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, unfairly maligned by proxy in CITIZEN KANE, and mostly used in period dramas by Hearst. In fact, she was freakin' hilarious.

And complementing her comedic talents (and those of her co-stars and director King Vidor) was the excellent Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, with a snappy, funny, upbeat score that perfectly matched the tone of the movie.

THE GOLDEN CLOWN (KLOVNEN) (1926): Then we ended the night switching from comedy to tragedy in this Danish production, introduced by Czar of Noir Eddie Muller. Gösta Ekman stars as the clown, and was a famous Swedish actor and singer of the time. Oddly, his singing talents play a major role in this silent film. He plays a clown for a small, travelling country theater. He was found as a baby and the note with him was in English so they decided his name was Joe Higgins. He's sweet on the circus princess Daisy, and when he's discovered by a famous Parisian and becomes a star, he finally has the money to marry her. Things look to be great (and for the first 45 minutes or so it looked like it might be a feel-good story about nice circus folk finding the good life.) But instead he and his wife get into a love triangle with a fashion editor who woos her while he's too busy working on his act. She falls for the cad, he falls to drinking, and everyone's life gets destroyed. A real downer of a story, but a magnificently told story (featuring a spectacularly staged "Tower of Clowns" by Danish director A. W. Sandberg.

And the careful balance of circus antics and tragic noir melodrama was accompanied brilliantly by The Matti Bye Ensemble.

Now time for a little rest, I've got 6 shows to see tomorrow, starting with Winsor McKay at 10:00 am.

Total Running Time: 206 minutes
My Total Minutes: 333,855

Friday, July 19, 2013

Jason goes to SilentFest--Opening Night

The most intense cinephile long weekend of the year in San Francisco started, and I was at the Castro for it. The 18th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival kicked off in high style with my favorite--Louise Brooks.

PRIXE DE BEAUTÉ (1930): Louise Brooks' final starring role in a feature, right on the cusp of the sound era. There was a sound and silent version released, as was common for features in that transitional period. It would be wrong for me to declare a favorite, since I haven't seen the sound version, but the silent version is undoubtedly better. Lulu plays Lucienne, a typist in a French newspaper. On a lark--and over the objections of her boyfriend--she enters a beauty contest. And, of course, she wins (Incidentally, the contest is judged by the audience's applause, and in a moment that encapsulates everything I love about SFSFF audiences, when the on-screen audience was clapping for her, the Castro audience clapped as well.) That puts her in the running for Miss France, which she wins, and subsequently becomes Miss Europe (which is an alternate title the movie was released under.) Fame, glamour, rich (or at least faux-rich) suitors...but this is a Louise Brooks film, so it can't end happily. Like so many of her movies--and her life--there's a dark side to the adoration her beauty brings her. On the one side she has glamour but tons of leering, kinda slimy suitors. On the other side is her boyfriend who just wants her to come home, marry him, and lead the simple life they had planned before. Not to give too much away, but one choice leads to misery, the other to tragedy. Gorgeous star, excellent cinematography, and a sad, sad ending. That's a Louise Brooks movie all right.

The amazing Stephen Horne accompanied on the piano, flute, accordion,...and I think he might have invented a few new musical instruments in the meantime.

Then a good walk to the after party at McCroskey Mattress Company. A good bit of free alcohol and generous portions of free food (which was good, since I had skipped dinner in my rush to the theater.) Catching up with the friends whom I only see at these events (my one-weekend-a-year best friends.) Then back home, get a little sleep, and back to work. I'm working during the day today (Friday) so I'll miss the matinee shows, but I'll be back at the Castro for THE PATSY at 7:00.

Total Running Time: 113 minutes
My Total Minutes: 333,649

Jason watches THE EAST

Damn, that's a pretty good movie, good characters, and especially strong female leads. Not that it's a "chick flick" but it definitely passes the Bechdel Test, early and often. Like...in the opening scene, and many times later. If this were its only good feature--that female characters hold their own dominate in a world of corporate intrigue, social activism, and radical anarchism--then the movie would deserve as much praise as the world deserves derision for making that seem like such a remarkable achievement. But there's a lot more to it. Sarah (Brit Marling) works for a secretive corporate intelligence firm. They specializing in "fixing" company's problems. A lot of them have recently had problems with a radical collectivist group called The East (as in, where the sun rises, their goal being to wake everyone up.) She's there to observe and collect intelligence on them. Their big thing is doing "jams"--expensive and dangerous pranks against corporate CEOs involving their own corporate evil-doing (in the opening scene we see an oil exec's house filled with oil.) Soon, Sarah starts to sympathize with them and realizes they aren't just angry rich kids attacking corporations because business is evil or profits are evil. These are companies that are doing real evil--poisoning the drinking water with their runoff, or selling pharmaceuticals that are known to be dangerous (and getting away with it because the possible side effects are listed in tiny print on the box.) That and there's a physical attraction to their charismatic leader Benji (Alexander Skarsgård.) A smart thriller that kept me guessing until the end, and thinking about it afterwards.

Running Time: 116 minutes
My Total Minutes: 333,536

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for a Laurel and Hardy afternoon

Last Sunday was the second Sunday of the month, and that means the monthly meeting of Midnight Patrol tent of the Sons of the Desert at the Niles Essanay Film Museum for a Laurel and Hardy talkie matinee. And, as usual, it's really a couple of L&H flicks and a couple of Our Gang flicks. Although they also hinted they'll be adding Charley Chase to the lineup, which just thrills me!

SCHOOL'S OUT (1930): Our Gang loves their teach, Mrs. Crabtree. So much so that they'd hate to lose her if she gets married. So they do everything possible to sabotage her boyfriend...except discovering that the man they're dissuading is actually her brother, not her boyfriend. Meanwhile, one of the kids is selling answers to a test...except that he got those answers out of a joke book. Oh, wait...let's not be politically correct here, we watch these movies as they were shown at the time--the "joke book" I mentioned is actually a book on minstrel show (i.e., blackface) bits.

BUSY BODIES (1933): A nearly plotless Laurel and Hardy short--Stan and Ollie get a job in a sawmill, and mayhem ensues. Very, very funny.

Then a brief intermission, and the third half of the show.

THE FIRST ROUND-UP (1934): Our gang goes camping. The littlest kids, who weren't even invited along, get along better than the big kids. Then night falls and things get scary--scarily funny!

THICKER THAN WATER (1935): Laurel and Hardy's final short film (they did exclusively features after, except for a cameo appearance in Charley Chase's ON THE WRONG TREK) and they're at the top of their game. Stan is a boarder in Ollie's home, but a mix-up with furniture money used to pay the rent gets them both in trouble. There are several clever camera tricks, where Laurel or Hardy drag the screen across during a "wipe" effect. But the real treat is the final scene, where after a botched blood transfusion they switch roles, with Laurel doing a Hardy impersonation and vice-versa. Awesome!

Total Running Time: 71 minutes
My Total Minutes: 333,420

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Jason watches DESPICABLE ME 2

I actually secretly love DESPICABLE ME. I gave it kind of a lukewarm review at the time, but I've grown to like it more and more over time. It's essentially about the childlike innocence of pure evil. Not the incidental evil that comes from a love of money, power, fame, etc. It's pure evil--evil for the love of being evil. It's not evil so much as id, and so of course it gets along well with children.

The thing is, by the end of the first movie Gru (Steve Carell) isn't evil anymore. And he's still not evil at the beginning of this sequel. In fact, he's so not evil that his longtime assistant Dr. Nefario  (Russell Brand) leaves for a more evil job. Meanwhile, agent  Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) of the AVL (Anti-Villain League) recruits him to help on an important case. Wait, the "despicable" title character starts out by helping to save the world? Whatever. There's a lot of great comic talent here, and for the most part the jokes are funny (especially the antics of the minions) and the story works. It's just missing that original spark of realizing the joy of pure evil.

Total Running Time: 98 minutes
My Total Minutes: 333,349

Jason watches MAN OF STEEL

You will believe that pixels can fly!

Okay, let's get this out first. I'm not a comic book geek, I'm a movie geek. I don't know if this take on Superman (and yes, despite his name not being in the title he does get nicknamed Superman by the end) is faithful to one or more storylines in the comic, but for me my Superman reference is Christopher Reeve, and this is a very, very different take.

In short, I liked it, I didn't love it, and I have a nagging feeling that if it were about a different human-looking super-powerful alien hero I might have liked it more, but it's unfortunately weighted down by my own preconceived notions of Superman, Krypton, and how humans view him.

The bulk of the plot is dedicated to the idea that if people knew the truth about Clark Kent/Kal-el (Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry as a child, Henry Cavill as an adult,) they would fear and reject him. And that's an interesting take...but one I stumble over. Superman for me was always, unquestionably, universally seen as good. This take just seems...wrong. Especially in how it's a fear instilled in him by his adopted father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner.) Without getting too spoiler-y, there's a critical flashback scene involving young Clak and his father that just bugged the crap out of me. Basically, he could have saved the day and witnesses could've attributed it to a combination of adrenaline and their faulty, confused senses. In any case, by the end everyone turns on a dime pretty quickly, abandons their fear of Kal-el, and embraces him as an ally.

Anyway, then there's the take on Lois Lane (Amy Adams.) She's good--very good--at her job. So good that (spoiler) she figures out that Clark Kent is a superpowered alien before they ever meet. Well, that changes their relationship quite a bit. Again, I'm bringing baggage from the Christopher Reeve/Margot Kidder movies with me, and actually I quite like Lois being a stronger character--more of a partner than damsel in distress.

Then there's Kryptonite...or rather, there isn't. Instead of rocks from his homeworld weakening him, it's something about the overall environment of Krypton. So being aboard a Krypton ship with a Krypton atmosphere would kill a human and weaken Superman (but not weaken other Kryptonians--it only weakens him because he grew up and adapted to Earth atmosphere.) So when Zod releases a "World Engine" to turn Earth into a new Krypton, being near that when it's in operation can also weaken him.

Ah, then there's Zod...and for that matter the whole Kryptonian plot. Michael Shannon plays him with excellent menace. I liked him as a villain. The rest of Krypton...whatever. Rather than the crystalline world of the Reeve (and for that matter, Brandon Routh) movies, Krypton is shown as a desolate, harsh world with a strictly regimented and controlled society. As fetuses in a gestation chamber, some are genetically engineered to be warriors (like Zod), some are engineered to be scientists (like Jor-el), some political leaders, and one--Kal-el--is born naturally, and granted the freedom to choose his own path in life. This...could be interesting and powerful if it wasn't handled so simplistically and perfunctorily.

And finally, there's the action. I have had some fun in the past hating on director Zack Snyder. But I will grant that he does action very well. So kudos for that.

So, to sum up, liked it, didn't love it, looking for more in the sequels.

Total Running Time: 143 minutes
My Total Minutes: 333,251

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Jason goes to the Broncho Billy Film Festival--Sunday

So I skipped Saturday to drink all afternoon and then see my Quakes make an amazing comeback in the California Clasico at Stanford Stadium. So I was dragging a little bit, and mightily hungover, but I was back at Niles for the third and final day of their big weekend, the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival.

First, a walking tour of historic buildings in Niles (and shooting locations for BRONCHO BILLY AND THE BANDIT'S SECRET.) Then it was back to the Edison Theater at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum for a pair of movies and a panel discussion

The first film was actually a documentary and a talkie! STUNT LOVE (2011) tells the story of one of the original Hollywood couples. Helen Holmes, the great stunt actress, and her husband and director J. P. McGowan. They didn't just collaborate on one of the most popular series of the silent era (Hazards of Helen,) but they were trailblazers who pioneered stunt work that future generations still admire (like Zoe Bell,  who shows up in the movie.)

Then we were treated to a STUNT COMPILATION REEL from Blackhawk Films. Lots of cool old silent film footage of jumps, riding, and train dodges. Very cool.

Then we had a panel discussion with Sprague Anderson, Diana Serra Cary (aka Baby Peggy), and Bob Birchard talking about the history of the stunt business. Of course, in Baby Peggy's time they didn't call it "stunts" they just called it "work," even when "work" meant finding your way out of a burning set when the "unfired" door did in fact catch on fire. A true professional, she found her way out without ruining the shot...and then the scene was left on the cutting room floor. Everybody had stories of stunt performers they knew (or knew of) and it may be a little morbid, but nearly every story involved someone dying in an accident. Very interesting.

Then a little break, and we finished with the final program of the festival.

First up, we enjoyed an encore presentation of the film produced by the museum, BRONCHO BILLY AND THE BANDIT'S SECRET (2013.) Still fun on a second viewing. Can't wait to see the final version with all the titles, credits, and balanced light levels.

CANINE SHERLOCK HOLMES (1912): Then we had a special unplanned treat. This comic short was added to the program. A very clever dog finds the robber's hideout and alerts the police.

SHERLOCK JR. (1924): And finally, we ended with this Buster Keaton classic. Keaton plays a projectionist (remember, the theme of the festival is movies about movies) but he dreams of--and is studying for--becoming a detective. He has a chance to put his skills to use when his girlfriend's father's pocketwatch is stolen. But his skills aren't that great--instead he gets framed. So he goes back--loveless--to his theater where he starts the movie, falls asleep, and walks right into the movie-within-the-movie. Pretty impressive special effects gags, as the scenes change but he stays the same. Eventually he (in the movie) becomes the famous detective Sherlock Jr. and solves the mystery. Very funny stuff.

And that was how the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, 2013 edition, ended. And I finally got home and slept off my hangover.

Total Running Time: 143 minutes
My Total Minutes: 333,108

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Jason goes to the Broncho Billy Silent Film Fest--Friday night

Last weekend was the biggest weekend of the year at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, their 16th annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival (and yes, for those of you who can do simple math and know that the physical museum building was opened in 2005, the film festival does predate the museum theater.)

After a meet-and-greet and some snacks, we started the festivities with BILLY MCGRATH ON BROADWAY (1913): I might as well just copy and paste what I wrote when I saw it a few years ago:
An Essanay production from the Chicago studio, Billy McGrathdecides to produce a Broadway play. Problem is, the actors walk out. No problem, the stage hands fill in, and wackiness ensues. Includes Augustus Carney, famous as Alkali Ike in Essanay westerns in Niles. He went to Chicago for a while but the tightly regimented schedule worked him too hard and he returned to Niles. Suck it, Chicago!
That pretty much says it all. Especially the "Suck it, Chicago!" line.

BRONCHO BILLY AND THE BANDIT'S SECRET (2013): Now this is the treat of the festival. A brand new silent film (formerly known as THE CANYON) produced by the museum, directed by our historian/projectionist David Kiehn using authentic ~100 year old cameras and genuine black-and-white 35 mm film. It was even edited by actually cutting and splicing film. This was actually a work print, the brightness hasn't been balanced on all the scenes (although they didn't really do that back in the day, so it's kind of more authentic this way) and they need a few more intertitles, but this was the mostly finished version (since everything is done in the camera, there are no special effects to add.)

The story starts--much as G. M. Anderson did before he was Broncho Billy--with a great train robbery. Broncho Billy (our own Bruce Cates) is on the train but instead of running away he pays careful attention to the robbers. Enough that he--along with his crew at the Essanay Studio--can assist the sheriff in catching the bad guys. Lots of adventure, and when it's all over Anderson has a great idea for a movie and it all ends with a proud Anderson and an embarrassed sheriff watching the movie-within-a-movie (that is actually an actual Broncho Billy movie.)

By the way, did I mention that the theme of the festival was "Movies About Movies?" Well...it was.

Okay, then an intermission and our feature film.

SHOW PEOPLE (1928): Continuing the theme of movies about movies, Marion Davies stars as Peggy Pepper, a young actress who was the toast of her small town in Georgia so she came out to Hollywood to become a star. More than that--a serious actress. But it turns out she has a knack for comedy and has a bit of success at Comet Studio and makes a friend in Billy Boone (William Haines.) But soon enough she catches the eye of the big High Art Studio and is in the big time. She's even set to marry into (I assume not quite legitimate) royalty. A solid story, but what makes this movie so much fun is the send-up of Hollywood pretentiousness itself, and the parade of celebrity cameos as themselves. A cool way to end the first night of the festival.

Total Running Time: 122 minutes
My Total Minutes: 332,843

Jason slips into a Vortex and into THE FOG

Finally catching up on the blogging, and last Thursday I made it back to my favorite underground movie club, The Vortex Room. It had been too long, I missed nearly all of their Vortex Phenomena series--supernatural films. So I was jonesin' for a Vortini or three (the Vortini--or Vortex Martini--is a simple, classic gin-and-vermouth martini with an olive, but made with unparalleled excellence.) Then I settled in for the movie.

THE FOG is classic John Carpenter--small town (the fishing town of Antonio Bay, Near the California/Oregon border), creepy atmosphere, and an ancient curse. Every night the fog rolls in, and people die. Carpenter also reunites with his HALLOWEEN star Jamie Lee Curtis, and features her mother Janet Leigh. While this isn't the best remembered John Carpenter movie, it's a solid piece of atmospheric, serious supernatural horror. A good reminder of when Carpenter made honest-to-God scary movies, instead of the silly stuff he has put out recently.

Running Time: 89 minutes
My Total Minutes: 332,843

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Jason goes to Docfest--The End!

Finally, three days after closing night (and an extra week and a half later to write this,) it's really, really over. Four more movies a week ago Sunday in Santa Cruz. I'm so far behind on this blog, I apologize if my reviews will become very brief.

First up was GUT RENOVATION, Su Friedrich's personal take on the gentrification of the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn. She had lived there with her artist friends for decades, but now developers are coming in, declaring the neighborhood derelict, kicking the artists out, and building fancy condos and boring chain stores. At least, that's the premise, and while Friedrich gives a unique insider perspective that's closer to home movie than polished cinema, it's unlikely to convince anyone who isn't already convinced the developers are evil. An interesting perspective, but for a more polished, professional, and damning portrait (including political shenanigans) of developers destroying Brooklyn, check out BATTLE FOR BROOKLYN (from last year's Docfest.)

The next show started with the short THE KIDS OF 5114. The number 5114 refers to a donor number--sperm donor, to be precise. A bunch of half-siblings find each other on Facebook, and the reunion is funny and interesting.

That led into the feature, PERFECT STRANGERS, which was also about strangers meeting on line and medical procedures. But this time, it's kidney transplants. Ellie wants to give away her kidney. It's rare, but it does happen that people want to donate one of their spare organs to...whoever needs it. Most live organ donations are to family members, but she's willing to give it to anyone. And her first choice is Kathy, a woman on dialysis who might not have long to live without a transplant. The compatibility tests come back and...they're not a match. But they both stay in touch, they both (without giving too many spoilers away) complete their journey, and they were both there at the Q&A afterwards (I guess that's a bigger spoiler.) A fascinating and admirable story. I, for one, am more than happy to donate all my organs to medicine, science, ...cuisine (okay, not really,) or whatever after I die. Until then, call me selfish but I want to keep all the organs I'm using.

Next up was the shorts program Bold Docs. Think of "Bold" as "Experimental" or even "Artsy":
SKINNINGGROOVE: The title refers to a small English fishing village. Interesting people, mostly cut off from the outside world, and distrusting of strangers. But one photographer--Chris Killip--gained their trust and documented the town for years. This short film, starring Chris, showcases several of his unpublished photographs.
EVERY SPEED: Views of people getting around in different ways--with and without disabilities. Lots of scenes of wheelchairs.
ANIMATION HOTLINE: A very funny look at the results when an artist puts up a phone number where you can call him and leave a voicemail message that he will then animate. See them all (and find the voicemail number) here.
BUFFALO MUST DIE: Difficult to watch, but as a carnivore I felt I must. This movie shows ritual buffalo slaughters in Tana Toraja, Indonesia. Granted, I'm not from Indonesia and I don't eat (much) buffalo (that I know of) but still I feel like watching animals get butchered should be part of the carnivore experience.
UTC: A "found footage" look at Japan, through the lenses of many webcams.
NILE PERCH: Fisherman on Lake Victoria, Africa. Traditional life meets modernization and globalization, in meditative black-and-white 16 mm film.

And finally, speaking of fishing, I ended the night--and the festival--with THE LAST OCEAN. The Ross Sea in Antarctica is the closest thing on Earth that we have to a pristine marine environment. Basically the last place that humans haven't fucked up...yet. And the stunning cinematography used here really showcases its beauty. But the fishing boats are moving in, and the scientists and environmentalists are trying to fight back. And what could they possibly be fishing there? Well, it's the Antarctic Toothfish (a real ugly sucker!) And why would they fish that? Because they sell it as Chilean Sea Bass. So, long story short, our heroes are trying to get this fishing banned (or at least severely reduced through tougher regulations.) And in the meantime, don't buy/order Chilean Sea Bass unless you're sure it's sourced from waters other than the Ross Sea.

And that is all I wrote on Docfest 2013.

Total Running Time: 331 minutes
My Total Minutes: 332,754