Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Jason goes to Jewfest South--Saturday October 26th

This was the first time SVJFF has been at its new venue, the Century 24 on Winchester. And to inaugurate this venue, they played a couple of films that took us to New York City.

First up was PUTZEL, taking place exclusively in the Upper West Side...since the title character has a phobia about leaving the neighborhood. There his grandfather opened a lox store that is currently run by his uncle and he hopes will some day be his. That might not seem like a great goal, but that's all Walter (aka, the titular Putzel) ever wanted. Turns out that's kind of because he had a messed up childhood, but that's getting ahead of ourselves. His plans become derailed first when his uncle announces that he has on offer from someone who wants to buy the store. After begging him to reconsider, a second complication comes up--his uncle has decided not to retire. He's going to stay and continue to manage the store for at least another 5, 10, 20 years. And that has everything to do with the mysterious women who just moved into town (Melanie Lynskey, it's always nice to see her.) It's pretty obvious she's set up to be Putzel's love interest, but first she becomes the uncle's love interest...or rather, obsession. It actually gets pretty creepy and there's a near attempted rape scene that's kind of out of place in this light comedy. Other than that (and the dubious premise of a man who is afraid to cross either 59th or 110th street--something I couldn't quite buy into) it's a good romantic comedy and a coming-of-age story about a man who doesn't quite come of age until his mid-30s.

And then a very different, musical look at NY in DOWNTOWN EXPRESS. Sasha (Philippe Quint), his father, and his cousin are Russian Jews living in Brighton Beach and make a living playing classical music in the subway. Sasha in particular is a master violinist with a scholarship to Juilliard. While he works on a possible career-making recital, he's also keenly interested in the vast array of "street music" in the city. Particularly when, at tryouts for Music Underground, he sees and hears Downtown Express, an eclectic group led by the pretty Ramona (Nellie McKay). He tracks them down and asks for a tryout to join the group. Not that violin meshes obviously with their sound, but...they actually make it work. The obstensible plot is about how Sasha is stretched between two worlds--classical and experimental/avant-garde--which is as much about the logistics and scheduling as it is about culture clash. But really the heart of the movie is a celebration of the infinite possibilities of music, and it definitely helps that the actors are accomplished musicians as well.

Total Running Time: 176 minutes
My Total Minutes: 340,249

Friday, October 25, 2013

Jason slips into a Vortex and meets a POOR DEVIL

But first a couple of martinis and a couple of beers. Then POOR DEVIL (1973) a TV pilot for a proposed sitcom starring Sammy Davis Jr. as a perpetual loser doomed to shovel coal in the 8000 degree furnace of hell. Christopher Lee co-stars as the devil, and in the pilot Jack Klugman stars as a miserable loser accountant at a trendy San Francisco department store. Oh, and Adam West stars as his boss, nice.

Sammy (his character's name is also Sammy) is a loser because in over 700 years in hell he's never been able to actually convince someone to sell his soul. But Burnett J. Emerson (Klugman) is a good prospect. He's worked at the store for 25 years and is still a junior accountant. They didn't even recognize his work anniversary and give him the standard gold watch. So in desperation, he mumbles something about selling his soul to the devil. Boom, Sammy appears and wackiness ensues. Funky 70's kitsch, plus they make some hay out of San Francisco being full of people who have sold their souls. There's even a mentioned to the Church of Satan down the street. And not coincidentally, Sammy Davis Jr. got an invitation to join shortly after this aired.

Anyway, it was pretty funny and kinda makes me wish that the series had been picked up. On the other hand, I can see the joke getting stretched pretty thin and there's only so many places they can go every week.

Oh yeah, and this was actually shown on a 16 mm film print obtained from the estate of Sammy Davis Jr. himself. Pretty freakin' cool, daddy-o!

Running Time: 73 minutes
My Total Minutes: 340,073

Jason goes to Jewfest South and sees GOD'S NEIGHBORS

I was back at the Oshman Family JCC last Monday for just one film, and it was an interesting one. GOD'S NEIGHBORS starts with a young, religious Israeli man studying the Torah. Some Arabs stop by and start playing loud, annoying music right outside his window. Then some other young devout religious Jews come by, and promptly beat the crap out of them. These religious vigilantes are the core of the story, particularly Avi who lays down some sick praise-to-G-d beats in his studio and leads the trio keeping their neighborhood  of Bat Yam pious (they also smoke quite a bit of weed, but that's not forbidden in the Torah so apparently that's okay.) They chase out a video seller who is hawking pornographic movies. They hassle a man who worked a little late and kept his store open just a few minutes after sundown on the Sabbath. And most importantly, they turn their attention to a young secular woman who just moved into town and in their opinion isn't dressing modestly enough. The stairwell encounter with her has a very creepy, rape-y vibe. But that's where Avi draws the line. He lets his guys know that she got the message and they should let her go. And then he decides he wants to get to know her better. And that's the real story, the tension of the secular and the devout in their attraction to each other. Several great performances, not just in the two leads but also the charismatic young rabbi who does his best to steer Avi and his gang onto a path that is righteous without dishing out some righteous beatings.

GOD'S NEIGHBORS plays again this Sunday, October 27th, at 5:30 pm at the Century 24 in San Jose. For tickets and info click here.

Running Time: 98 minutes
My total Minutes: 340,000

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Jason goes to Jewfest South--Sunday, Oct 20

It was a big, full day of Jewish film last Sunday, and it started with an early brunch for the patrons (I'm one, of course) at the Netflix headquarters and screening room in Los Gatos. Topol was there to greet everyone, and since I forgot to put this in my opening night post, let me say this now. His latest venture (in partnership with Paul Newman) is a vacation camp in Israel for children with life-threatening or chronic diseases--Jordan River Village. Looks like a great charity, so please go here and click on "Donate Now."

The brunch also included a movie screening, and remember how in my opening night post I mentioned Topol's early movie SALLAH SHABATI that I just had to see? Well, that was patron movie, so I had to wait less than 24 hours to see it. We open with a plane landing in Israel, and first we see wealthy (presumably American) tourists getting off. Then we see the immigrants. Although I didn't pick up on this, the IMDb description says that Sallah's family in from Yemen and they were brought in on Operation Magic Carpet, which brought a lot of Jews from Arab nations into Israel. What I did get was a comical sense of fish out of water desperation mixed with a bit of "it's all in G-d's hands, may he be praised" attitude. That and a little righteous satire of the government system. Sallah and his family (and an elderly woman who might or might not be part of his family) are moved into a settlement camp near a kibbutz. They're building housing for them, but it's slow going. And while the housing is free, the piece of paper that gets them in costs 1,000 shekels. And he can only make so much from hustling his neighbor at backgammon. He can make more by selling his vote in the local elections--selling it to every party. And he does various jobs on the kibbutz--one of the best and funniest scenes (and the one they showed opening night) is the tree-planting scene. Since all the wealthy American donors want a forest in the honor, they simply bring them in and show them the forest and the sign declaring it's theirs. When they leave, they take down the sign, put up a new one, and bring the next wealthy donor in. Very funny, and actually changed official policy so now all the signs are put in concrete.  (Note: they just did this as what they thought was a funny joke, not because this was a widespread problem with the forest-planting programs.) Anyway, the movie is very funny, and pretty episodic. You can tell it grew out of several short skits. And you can tell why this is so popular still in Israel. And finally, you can see a very young Topol (in his 20s at this point) becoming typecast as playing an older man.

Then back up to the festival proper, back the the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center for the highlight of the day--the sing-along to FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. Topol was there again to introduce it, tell a few stories about making it, and make another plea for donations to Jordan River Village. He and his family didn't stick around for the movie, though, because they were doing a similar introduction to a sing-along at the Castro Theater later that day, and had to get up there. Honestly, if it wasn't for the fact that I was staying for two more movies and already had my pass, I would've liked to see it at the Castro instead. No offense intended, but the Castro is a magnificent movie palace, and the OFJCC theater is...small...digital...and not even the best resolution digital. They're still wonderful hosts for the festival (even better now that I work in Palo Alto) but they can't compete with the mighty Castro.

Anyway, the movie is still fantastic, still hilarious in the first half, and still heartbreaking in the second half. And although I'm no singer (I know those who claim anyone could be trained to carry a tune with enough practice--so far I've proven them all wrong) I gamely joined in. Interesting thing, when you sing along the emotions really are heightened. I was literally getting choked up more than a couple of times during the movie. What a brilliant, hilarious, sad story. I.e., pure Sholom Aleichem. And watching it again for the first time in...several years...I don't know when I last saw it. Well...I think I have a greater understanding of the subtleties of tradition and how it's threatened (or rightfully overturned) through forces both internal and external. That's something that anyone with any cultural legacy can appreciate. As Topol said in his introduction--over a billion people have watched Fiddler (either the film or on stage) so they can't all have been Jewish.

Next up was a lighthearted French romantic comedy PARIS-MANHATTAN. Alice saw her first Woody Allen movie as a young girl, and has been obsessed ever since. She keeps a giant Woody Allen poster on her wall, and it speaks to her in lines from his movies. Not surprisingly, she has trouble finding the right guy. Well, our prospective Mr. Right, Victor, has never seen a Woody Allen movie. But he's a nice guy who has his little security business making oddly dangerous alarm systems. Like, alarms that give you a 3000V shock. Or ones that release a spray of chloroform and knock everyone out. Well, it progresses as a light French comedy that would be pleasant but largely forgettable except...there's a wonderful extended cameo by Woody Allen himself at the end. Sorry for the spoiler, and I'm not going to go into detail about it (and the festival program already mentions it) but in my opinion that's the reason to watch this--that's when the movie has real energy.

And finally, I ended the night with BALLAD OF THE WEEPING SPRING. Now I know next to nothing about music, particularly the sort of middle eastern music featured in this movie. But I know a good story, and this movie has it. In particular, it has a great way of setting up mystery and slowly revealing it. A stranger walks into a bar and asks to see Jossef Tawila. Tawila is a bit of a loner and doesn't want to talk to anyone, but when he pulls out a...okay, I don't know my middle eastern musical instruments, but he starts playing a song that Tawila recognizes. Turns out the stranger is Amram, son of Avram Mufradi, former bandmate of Tawila. Their band was the Turquoise Ensemble, and now that Avram is dying of cancer Amram has set out to track down the surviving band members, get them back together, get the best possible replacements for the ones who aren't around anymore, and play a final tribute performance of the titular Ballad of the Weeping Spring--a masterpiece they wrote but never got the chance to perform. Every step of the way, every new band member they meet is a new step in the mystery and opens up more and more of their history. I won't give away the spoilers like the IMDb summary does, but I'll say Tawila was responsible for the band breaking up, and the story is more about revealing and coming to terms with that history than it is about the music. Oh, but what music. If you just watch (and listen) to this as a musical journey, it would be enough. And as a bonus, there's a lot more.

Total Running Time: 474 minutes
My Total Minutes: 339,902

Jason goes to Jewfest South--Opening Night

Okay, technically it's called the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival but I like highlighting that here in the Bay Area we actually have three different Jewish Film Festivals (and I think that's awesome!) which I call Jewfest North, Jewfest South, and Jewfest East (which I've never made it to because it always conflicts with Cinequest. The life of a Bay Area film fest maniac is hard.)

Anyway, we kicked off the festival this year not with a film, but with an outstanding on-stage interview and retrospective of the work of the original one-named star, Topol. Upon hearing that, you might have had the same reaction I (and a good many people I told about it)--"Topol? He's still alive?" For those who've forgotten, Topol is most famous as Tevye in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF--both on stage and the movie. And Tevye is already an older character, with 3 daughters of marrying age. Well, here's the secret--he was only 35 when he made the movie (so when he and Golde are talking about being married for 25 years, that means they were married when he was 10?) Which if you do the math means...well, he's 78 now. And a very spry, healthy-looking 78. Heck, he hopped up the stairs onto the stage faster than I would have.

Then we got into a retrospective of his life and acting career. Some highlights from the interview and clip show:

  • He originally wanted to be either a labor organizer or a kibbutznik. It was only in performing (first in the IDF and then on the kibbutz) that it became clear that was his calling.
  • He met his wife Galia (who was also in attendance, along with their children and grandchildren) when they served together in the IDF. They then went back to different kibbutzes. When she wrote him a letter saying how lonely she was in her kibbutz, he took the hint and asked the kibbutz officials when the next wedding opportunity was scheduled. They booked the date before he had even proposed to her. They had barely a month, and when he couldn't reach her on the phone he called her mother and asked her to call Galia and tell her they were getting married. Of course, they're still together today.
  • Before he was Tevye, he gained international acclaim and was a household name in Israel for starring in the title role in SALLAH SHABATI, the first Israeli film to be nominated for an Oscar. His first film festival award was at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It is still shown about 50 times a year on Israeli TV. The clip they showed from it was pretty hilarious, and I resolved right then that I must see it. 
  • Sallah started as skits he did on stage. With both Sallah and Tevye, he spoke about how rare and wonderful it was to get to rehearse so much and really get to know the character before making the movie. That's a nice counterpoint to actors who complain about getting tired of playing the same role over and over.
  • He initially turned down the role of Tevye in the Israeli production of Fiddler on the Roof. He saw a matinee starring Zero Mostel (who originated the role) and thought the humor was overly broad. He later saw Mostel in an evening show and he said it was brilliant (and has praised Mostel over and over again.) It was fortune that the actor (who was a friend of his) playing Tevye fell ill and so they started sharing the role. So when he auditioned for London's West End production, he already knew the role, he got it, and the rest is history.
  • As the interview was running long, they proposed skipping over the clips of him in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY and FLASH GORDON. But at the suggestion, there was a groan from the audience and so they (quickly) showed those clips without much comment. For how much film fest audiences can be a little snobbish and opinionated (especially Jewish film fest audiences), I love the fact that we're still fans of James Bond and Flash Gordon. And heck, he was still awesome in those flicks.
  • At the end, he was asked to sing us a song--anything he wanted. I'm sure the audience was expecting something from Fiddler, but instead he chose to sing "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" And it was brilliant--my eyes welled up with tears a little. And it fits nicely with the politics of his original dream of being a labor organizer. And it's appropriate for the times today. And it sucks that a depression-era anthem is so appropriate for the times today.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Jason goes to Midnites For Maniacs and learns that Movies Can Kill!

Another Midnites for Maniacs theater crawl. Starting at the Castro.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999): I remember seeing this movie when it came out in theaters. And I remember both the hype (super low budget, heavily promoted on the Internet back before that was a thing) and the backlash (people complaining that it wasn't scary, mainly because [spoiler!] it never actually showed the witch). But mostly I remember a coworker seeing it a few days before me, and just ripping on it constantly. Thing is, I really didn't like this guy, so I went in there determined to like it just to spite the guy. 14 years later, I'm convinced I was right. It's an effectively scary movie, not for the mystery as much as for the terror of being lost in the woods and friends turning on each other. And for you kids out there, this was before you could just whip out your smartphone and pull up a map with GPS to lead you out of there. Getting lost in the woods used to be a real thing. God damn I feel old.

RINGU (1998): The original Japanese version of THE RING, the terrifying story of a cursed VHS tape that kills you one week after you watch it. Kids, a VHS tape is...awww, what's the use? Now this one I saw originally in the best possible way. I ordered a set of bootleg VHS tapes off the Internet because A: there was one movie I wanted (I don't even remember what it was anymore) and B: it was a great price. Something like $25 for 6 tapes of J-horror (although I don't think we were calling Japanese horror movies J-horror yet). So I pop in RING--alone at home--and this story unfolds about a videotape that after you watch it the phone rings and you have one week left to live. And I swear to God, as soon as the movie was over, my phone rang! It was just a friend, and we had a good laugh over it. But for a split second...nah, I'll never admit to actually believing it. But it is still one of the best J-horror movies ever, if not the best (for my money the only competition is the Japanese version of DARK WATER.)

Then a brisk walk to Roxie, pop into a convenience store to grab a beer for the theater, and on to the midnight movie.

DEMONS (1985): Produced and co-written by Dario Argento, directed by Lamberto Bava, a brisk, funny, and actually scary story of a cursed/infected mask that unleashes a plague of demons/zombies/call 'em whatever you want inside a theater where the audience is watching...a silly, cheesy horror movie. This is a film about genre film making, and more importantly genre film watching. And it was a good 11 years before SCREAM came out and (eventually, through multiple sequels) wrung every last bit of cleverness out of that idea. But this is still a good, fun movie and some of the scenes mixing the parallel action in the theater and in the film-within-a-film are pretty damn smart. A really cool way to end the night.

Next month, on November 8th M4M brings you Acid Westerns with Johnny Depp in this year's THE LONE RANGER and DEAD MAN at the Castro, and a TBA midnight movie at the Roxie.

Total Running Time: 265 minutes
My Total Minutes: 339,428

Jason slips into a Vortex and comes face to face with THE UNDEAD

Back at my favorite underground-ish movie pad for more Satanic Rites of the Vortex. After a couple of martinis and some wacked-out trailers, on to the feature.

THE UNDEAD (1957): Ah, there's something about Roger Corman, how he can make a movie great even when it's lousy. For all the badly fake bats on strings and comical devils, there's always something there, some attention to a story point, that captures your interest (or at least mine.) Maybe it's Billy Barty rolling around as an imp. Or maybe it's realizing that INCEPTION fuckin' ripped off this movie. Maybe not exactly, but the idea of using electronic equipment to join someone in their hypnotic dream state is in there. Except the dream state is actually a past life, in a past time full of witchcraft and devilry. And [Spoiler Alert] if she survives in her past life, she'll never be born in the present one. Okay, not a lot of it makes literal sense, but nobody can come up with a bizarre story idea and pull it off quite like Roger Corman.

Running Time: 71 minutes
My Total Minutes: 339,163

Friday, October 18, 2013


This movie made quite a bit of news recently as 'The movie that was shot without permission, guerrilla-style, in Disneyworld' (to a lesser extent, it's also the movie that takes a bit of a conspiracy-theory swipe at Siemens, as the sponsor of Spaceship Earth in EPCOT.) Then as it rolled out, it became the target of a bit of backlash, as reviewers started lodging a few complaints, most notably:

  • It's not particularly incisive to note that Disney is full of shallow artifice, and so are the families that visit there.
  • It's super creepy to have the father (Roy Abramsohn) lusting after two underage French girls the whole movie.
  • The movie is just weird for the sake of being weird.
  • The movie just doesn't know what it's about.

These all--except maybe the last one--are valid to a greater or lesser extent. Yes, it's not particularly breaking news to point out that fake castles are fake. But you know what else is shallow, artificial, and uninteresting? Writing an entire article about how critiquing shallow artifice is uninteresting.

Yes (double yes!) that following the young French girls is super-creepy. But then again, well-crafted creepiness is rarely boring. Perhaps seeing this as a simple critique of shallow artifice is missing the point. Is it perhaps critiquing the ever-younger sexualization of girls (didn't Miley Cyrus start out as a Disney star?) Is it perhaps taking the idea of Disney as a 'place where dreams come true' to it's logical (and creepy) extreme? Is the Happiest Place on Earth in a stranger's snatch?

The movie is weird, I haven't gotten to the least of it. And at times it's clearly weird for the fun of it. But I don't think it's just that. I suspect there's more.

I suspect I (and most reviewers) can't get a solid handle on it. But just because I don't know entirely what it's about doesn't mean it doesn't know.

It's worth a look. Possibly worth several looks. But I can't guarantee you'll like all of what you see.

Running Time: 90 minutes
My Total Minutes: 339,092

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for comedy night--October 2013

Back at my favorite little silent film theater for a foursome of funny films.

ONE A.M. (1916): Before he was in films, Charlie Chaplin was in Music Hall (essentially the English version of Vaudeville) and his favorite act was the "inebriate" act. He reprises it here for the silver screen, taking a break from his Tramp character to play a well-to-do gentleman arriving home from a night of drinking. Other than a brief appearance by the cab driver who does nothing (Albert Austin) it's all Chaplin, struggling with his keys, his rugs, his spinning table, his stairs, his bed, his...whole darn house. And it's hilarious.

THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1921): Buster Keaton is a clumsy bank clerk. Counterfeiters have rigged up their hideout to seem like it's haunted to scare people away. But Buster and an awful cast of actors in costume for Faust have some wacky hijinx in there and end up foiling the crooks. Hilarious.

Then after a brief intermission, two more funny shots.

HAUNTED SPOOKS (1920): Poor, down-on-his-luck Harold Lloyd is rescued from a suicide attempt by a lawyer who needs to find a groom for Mildred David (who actually did go on to marry Lloyd in real life.) See, she inherits a fortune--if she can live in the family mansion with her husband. Her greedy uncle tries to scare them away by pretending it's haunted. But some wacky coincidences end up with everyone thinking it's haunted, and getting the bejeezus hilariously scared out of them. This was also the film Lloyd was working on when he had his infamous accident with a prop bomb that turned out to be real, blowing his thumb and forefinger off his right hand.

HABEAS CORPUS (1921): And finally, The Boys, Laurel and Hardy are hired by a scientist to help with his experiments. Problem number one--the scientist is completely loony-tunes crazy. Problem number 2--he hired Laurel and Hardy to go dig up a corpse from the local cemetery. Maybe times were just different then, or maybe L&H are geniuses who can wring a heck of a lot of humor from such a macabre setup. In any case, it was hilarious.

Have I used that word, "hilarious" enough in this post? Well, they all were.

Total Running Time: 84 minutes
My Total Minutes: 339,002

Jason watches MACHETE KILLS

Here is everything you need to know: THERE ARE NOT BOOBIES IN MACHETE KILLS! WTF?! There are some funny gags, and plenty of violence, but no boobies! I wanted to love this movie (because of, not in spite of, it's obvious stealing from other movies) but it's just so, so, so wrong.

Here's hoping for a director's cut.

And here's hoping MACHETE KILLS AGAIN...IN SPACE gets made. And that it has some zero-G boobies.

Running Time: 107 minutes
My Total Minutes: 338,918

Jason slips into a Vortex and witnesses a battle of GOOD AGAINST EVIL

October is a month of Satanic Rites of the Vortex Room, and while I missed the first Thursday, I was there last week for a couple of martinis, a few goofy trailers, and then a cheesy movie. Despite the lurid DVD cover art (NSFW) shown on IMDb, this is a pretty tame, made-for-network-TV movie. Coming a few years after THE EXORCIST, it's clearly capitalizing on that success. A baby girl is born, she's promised to Satan, so she grows up and moves to San Francisco. But while there, she meets a nice, persistent young man who woos her away. But evil forces intervene, and eventually he has to team up with an exorcist and try to save her immortal soul in New Orleans. Besides featuring arguably the two most sinful American cities, it also features an honest to god demonic black cat. Kinda turns that it's-just-a-cat trope on it's ear.

Running Time: 84 minutes
My Total Minutes: 338,811

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


It took me way too long to see this dramatization of a local Bay Area tragedy that made national news. The movie opens with the infamous cell phone video footage. Young Oscar Grant III, in custody, handcuffed, and then shot and killed by police officer Johannes Mehserle. So there's already a chill when we go back to the previous morning--New Year's Eve of 2008/2009. Except for a few flashbacks--most notably to San Quentin prison--the movie follows Oscar (Michael B. Jordan...not that Michael Jordan) through his day. Starting with a fight with his girlfriend Sophina. Shopping for his mother's birthday party, helping a white girl pick out fish for a fish fry, meeting up with friends, taking care of his little daughter. And, most notably, struggling with money. He lost his job recently (and hasn't told Sophina) and needs to make rent. The easy solution is to sell some of his stash of weed. So...he dumps it in the Bay. He's getting ready for a new year, and trying hard to do right. Not that the movie shows him as a saint. It manages to respect and sympathize with him without romanticizing him. He's a young father trying to do right, but he's also an angry young man struggling with a history of violence that has put him in prison for most of his daughter's life (I should note at this point I'm strictly looking at the movie, with no attention to how accurately it portrays his real life or character.)

And this all leads up to the fateful incident. In the blink of an eye, celebrations on BART turn ugly. An ex-inmate who has it in for Oscar attacks him, there's a fight, the BART stops, cops board. Tellingly, all the black passengers involved in the fight are dragged off, but the white guy who started the fight is left alone. There's a lot of yelling, confusion, abuse...it would've been mistreatment even if it didn't end in death. As for Mehserle, he's depicted as...well, he's kind of a blank. That makes sense, it's not his story. At most he's shown as a young, scared, confused officer (especially compared to the big, loud lead officer yelling at everyone.) But the movie does show the tasers that he (according to his defense) mistook his gun for. I'll leave it to the audience to decide if the pistol grip is similar enough that it makes sense to confuse them, or if the blocky, yellow tasers are so different from a gun that the defense is bullshit.

All in all, it's a very well made movie about a horrible, unfortunate, racist incident. But the fact that the end is known in advance, and the fact that it's presented with such a careful, balanced feel makes it miss some of the emotional punch it could've had. Instead, it leaves you with something maybe far more valuable than anger or sorrow--it leaves you with the start of a serious conversation.

Running Time: 85 minutes
My Total Minutes: 338,727

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Jason watches GRAVITY in IMAX 3-D and then again in D-Box 3-D

And I am blown away. I think it's fair to say I watch a lot of movies, and I love a lot of movies. I haven't been blown away by a movie like this since...ever, maybe?

Expansively claustrophobic, epic, and stripped-down (only two actors appear on screen, and for most of the movie it's only one,) Alfonso Cuarón (who directed one of my other favorite movies, CHILDREN OF MEN) has invented a new kind of cinema. Astronauts are doing repairs on the Hubble telescope when the serenity of space is broken by word from Houston that a scuttled Russian satellite has triggered a chain reaction (this isn't said in the movie, but it's based on the theoretical Kessler effect) and debris is heading straight for them. The result is catastrophic, with only mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) surviving. And so, they begin a perilous journey in orbit around earth to try to get to the International Space Station and take a Soyuz module home.

Cuarón never lets up, never leaves the astronauts to check in on mission control, or present flashbacks of their earlier lives. Only two actors, and space. We get a few voices through the intercom from Earth, most notably Ed Harris as mission control. But I'd also like to point out the amazing scene with the voice of Orto Ignatiussen as Aningaaq (and no, I had no idea who Orto was before.) The scene where Dr. Stone raises him on the radio is brilliant. He (and Sandra Bullock, of course) brought tears to the eyes of several in the audience just with him speaking...what language was it? Greenlandic? And his dogs barking, and baby crying...it was a rare quiet break in the action and it was positively heartbreaking.

The experience is immersive, and that's the whole point. It's also an emotional journey for rookie astronaut Dr. Stone to find the courage to survive, to press on through adversity and anguish. Kowalski, on the other hand, is cool as a cucumber. While he hasn't been in this exact situation before, he's obviously been through a lot, gathered a lot of stories in his days, and will either have another amazing story to tell or he'll die trying. The emotional arc is for Dr. Stone to get to that same state.

Can I sing the praises of Sandra Bullock for a minute? Does anyone remember when she was just the epitome of spunky-cute romantic action-comedy lead? Remember getting tired of that? (okay, maybe some people didn't, but I did.) I never saw THE BLIND SIDE in no small part because I wasn't that interested in a Sandra Bullock starring role. I apologize, profusely! She is a brilliant actress and she is put through the emotional and physical wringer here. Maybe it's early (and always pointless) to talk Oscars, but she shouldn't just be given the Oscar, she should be given one of those massive Oscar statues they display outside during the awards. That's how much more amazing her performance is than...anything. Okay, is that enough hyperbole?

Let me get back to that immersion again. That's why you'll hear so many people tell you that you have to see it in IMAX, and in 3-D, or whatever your favorite method is for cinematic immersion. And they're all right. I saw it first in IMAX 3-D. I know there are plenty of 3-D haters out there, and for the record in one scene that violates Jason's rule that 3-D should be used to put depth into the screen, not throw stuff out of it (and if you see it you'll know what scene it is.) Well, if you don't like 3-D then don't see it in 3-D. I'm confident the film itself is immersive enough that it will work in 2-D. But if you have any inkling at all that 3-D could work with the right movie, then see this in 3-D. Same goes for IMAX. The only objection I know to IMAX is paying the extra price for it. But it's absolutely worth it. Take a road trip to you nearest IMAX theater if you have to.

Then after seeing it in IMAX 3-D, and thinking about it all the next day, it struck me that I wanted to see it in a D-box seat. I know D-box is controversial, and it's anathema to cinema purists. I've only experienced D-box once and while it was fun, it wasn't something I cared to go back to. I have my way of immersing myself in a movie--sitting in the front row. My one D-box experience was 2 years ago, and I finally found a movie where I wanted to try it again. And at first, I wondered if I might regret it. Sitting so far back the screen looked small to me, at least smaller than it should have. But soon enough I was lost in the movie. And some of the best D-box effects were also the most subtle--very slight, slow floating motions during the quiet scenes. The thrill ride action scenes were also pretty cool, but D-box only move a few inches at most, it can't really throw you around as hard as the action on screen (there would be liability issues if it did.) So my take on D-box. If it's sounds like something you would just hate, avoid it. If you're at all curious, this is the movie to try it out with. If your choice is between IMAX and D-box...I'd recommend IMAX. Now if anyone knows of any theater in the world with IMAX and D-box, I'm up for a little road trip.

Running Time: 90 minutes x 2 = 180 minutes
My Total Minutes: 338,642

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


The Roxie is currently running a program of Fassbinder films, and then the program continues at the YBCA. This is the only one I've made it out to so far, and I don't know if I'll make any of the others. In any case, it's a powerful emotional story of a hard-luck gay carnival worker (um,...that is he's a gay man who works in a carnival, the carnival itself isn't gay...at least no gayer than your typical carnival) played by Fassbinder himself. He loses his job in the opening scenes (as his act is broken up by the police) and he has to run a scam just to get 10 measly marks. Which he promptly uses to play the lottery. In the next seen, we see him hob-nobbing with rich folk, as he has just won half a million marks. So he runs with a new crowd, takes a new lover, and...still doesn't fit in. On the one hand, money can't buy class. On the other hand, his new friends are a bunch of elitist pricks who are just sponging off his money until they bleed him dry. Nasty work, but brilliantly executed and pretty powerful.

Plus I like the idea that the Fox News show Fox and Friends is secretly an homage to this classic of queer cinema. I don't like it enough to actually watch Fox and Friends, but still...

I saw this at the end of a day that started with INTOLERANCE and THE WICKER MAN at the Castro. That was an interesting progression. INTOLERANCE is a strongly religious, Christian film, showcasing the inhumanity of man and presenting love--particularly the love of Jesus Christ--as the answer. THE WICKER MAN is a profoundly anti-religious film, declaring God to be dead and touting pagan worship and sexuality (after all, the naked pagan ladies are what first drew me to the WICKER MAN.) And then FOX AND HIS FRIENDS starts off with (gay) sex, showcases a lot of it, and ultimately is a bitter showcase of inhumanity. Nicely closed circle, don't you think?

Running Time: 123 minutes
My Total Minutes: 338,462

Jason watches THE WICKER MAN (1973)

I don't know why I specified the year up there. I mean, there isn't any other version of THE WICKER MAN, right? Oh sure, there were horrible rumors of a remake, but that was only a cruel hoax perpetrated by people who should be stung repeatedly by killer bees.

Anyway, since this movie is older than I am, I'm gonna go ahead and not avoid spoilers in this review. Consider yourself warned.

I've seen THE WICKER MAN several times, but never before on the glorious Castro screen, and never in this fully restored definitive cut. The thing I find every time I see it, I'm drawn into the mystery again. I know how it will end, but credit Edward Woodward's amazing performance as Sgt. Howie along with the entire cast (especially Christopher Lee) and a brilliantly written slow reveal with keeping the mystery fresh every time. No matter how many times I see it, I never lift myself into the privileged omniscient view, I always see it from Sgt. Howie's point of view, as he's discovering the mystery. No matter how much I know that Britt Ekland dancing naked with just an easily-opened door between them, I always see it as a sinister seduction (like he does) instead of as his opportunity for survival (which of course I know it is, I just never feel it at the time.)

But what I finally picked up on this time was that Lord Summerisle (Lee) doesn't actually believe in the old gods. What I used to see as a bizarre 'fuck you!' to Christianity in favor of paganism, I appreciate more as a cynical ploy to bend religion to serve political power. See, I'm pretty sure Summerisle is an atheist. He so much as admits that his grandfather was--he was a scientist who used the old pagan religion to secure favor with the locals and depose the Christian missionaries so he plant his experimental crops on their island. His father carried on the tradition "out of love" so maybe he was a believer. But the current Lord Summerisle--he's a cynical manipulator. It's not about one religion being right or wrong. It's not about the Christian losing and receiving the gift of a martyr's death. It's about twisting a religion to hold on to political power at all costs--even if it means using that religion to convince your followers to commit murder. That's why I saw something that I hadn't really picked up on before: when Sgt. Howie makes his plea at the end, he asks Lord Summerisle to consider what will happen if their crops fail again next year. They'll need another human sacrifice, and nothing short of Summerisle himself would do at that point. He immediately responds that the crops "WON'T FAIL!" but just before that I detected a strong hint of fear in Lee's face.

It's a brilliant movie that keeps rewarding multiple viewings like that.

Running Time: 102 minutes
My Total Minutes: 338,339

Monday, October 7, 2013


The first time I saw INTOLERANCE (1916) at Cinequest in 2009 I was wowed by the scale of the sets, awed by the ambition behind the film, and of course loved Dennis James' live score on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ. But secretly, behind it all, there was a little doubt in my mind. I had actually enjoyed BIRTH OF A NATION much more (despite the racism and the pro-KKK plot). As a narrative, it just had a better structure and flowed better. In fact, just taking the narrative itself I couldn't help but notice it was ponderous, confusing, and kind of dull. Each of the four separate stories could have worked great on its own, but by switching between them I couldn't help but think Griffith gave all four of them short shrift and ended up confusing the audience.

So last Saturday I revisited it, on the Castro screen, in a beautiful new restoration (in digital, more on that later) and with a Carl Davis score. And...it's fantastic, a masterpiece. Maybe I was just better rested than the previous time (it played the final weekend of an exhausting festival). Maybe I'm just that much more studied in silent film and know how to watch it better. But I think the restoration is just much better than what I saw before. I still think many of the transitions between time periods were clumsy and jarring--Griffith was still in the process of inventing cinema at this time. But importantly, I can follow the stories now. Or rather, I can see it as one story--the contemporary (to 1916) story--punctuated with historical parallels turning it very explicitly into a timeless story. A young woman in undone through the intolerant machinations of others. Age-ism (particularly the elderly moral crusaders frowning upon the joys of youth), political machinations, religious intolerance, betrayal and double-crossing. These are all in the contemporary story of a young woman undone on one side by the modern pharisees and on the other side by her lover's criminal connections. And they are all more or less reflected in stories of 16th century France (political machinations leading to the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre), ancient Babylon (where a priest betrays the city to Cyrus and the Persians just because Ishtar was praised instead of his god, Bel), and the story of Jesus Christ (culminating in his crucifixion, but also showcasing the traditional Jewish wedding where he turned water to wine).

Carl Davis' score was magnificent. As a friend and silent film scholar pointed out when we discussed it afterwards, Carl Davis never had time to really develop a theme in his score, as the music had to jump between time periods along with the film, but he did a fantastic job and his score works perfectly.

It also looked fantastic. Now I know this gets controversial. I know lots of purists who would avoid this screening just because it was projected digitally instead of on film. And I tend to agree with them, I love the look and feel of film. And especially if the movie was shot on film, it's only right that it should be shown on film. And I've seen movies where digital projection rather than film kinda ruined the presentation.... But this wasn't one of those. This looked amazing. The same friend/silent film scholar I alluded to above pointed out that this probably looks better than it did at its 1916 premiere, what with simply higher-powered projectors, they can put more lumens (measure of visible light flux) on the screen. This presentation is the argument that Digital Cinema Package (DCP) has arrived, and traditionalist haters be damned (not that it isn't still possible to have a crappy digital projection, just that DCP has arrived at the point where it can look better than film.)

Oh, and one last point. CLOUD ATLAS is the modern equivalent of INTOLERANCE. It kind of bombed at the box office, but I still think it succeeded (and exceeded) in everything Griffith was trying to accomplish. So if you haven't seen it, go get it.

Running Time: 167 minutes
My Total Minutes: 338,237

Friday, October 4, 2013

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBURG

But first, of course, a couple of shorts

UNIVERSAL INTERNATIONAL NEWS VOL. 3 #24 (1921): That's right, we start with a newsreel, just to put us in a 1920s mood. Lots of little news snippets, including the launching of the USS Colorado.

HIS WOODEN WEDDING (1925): Charley Chase is one of my favorite lesser-known silent era comedians. In this one, he's about to get married, but the rejected suitor has a few tricks up his sleeve. He tricks Charley into thinking his bride-to-be has a wooden leg, and Charley calls off the wedding. Wackiness ensues, but I can't help but thinking Charley's kind of a jerk for rejecting her just for that. Also...okay, I know times were different back then, but did you really go so far as to get married without knowing what her legs are made of?

Then of course our standard intermission, and finally the feature film

THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBURG (1927): Ernst Lubitsch, the master of the romantic comedy, directs this charming and funny story about an Austrian prince (Ramon Navarro) who lives in a sheltered, highly disciplined life but watches the common folk frolic about and have fun. (A childhood scene--contrasting a group of boys playing with a ball and him playing ball with his three elderly caretakers--sums this up perfectly.) While the commoners (of different demographics each time) muse how it must be great to be a prince, he just wants to have some fun and adventure. And when he goes off to study in Heidelberg, he finally gets a taste of it. Drinking, camaraderie, and especially the beautiful barmaid Kathi (Norma Shearer.) He falls in love, she does too, but the difference in class and status is just too much to overcome. Or rather, his royal duties don't allow him to be with a lowly barmaid. It's good to be a prince (or a king)...sometimes. Or rather, the joys of royalty exist mostly in the heads of the commoners.

For the whole thing, the excellent Dr. Jon Mirsalis provided the music on his Kurzweil electric keyboard. And for the THE STUDENT PRINCE, he provided a brief introduction talking about the "Lubitsch Touch."

Total Running Time (estimated): 130 minutes
My Total Minutes: 338,069

Jason slips into a Vortex and faces some KILLER FISH

Only two martinis, then a beer, but I was exhausted for other reasons so I struggled to stay awake. In any case, I got that it was a story of treasure hunters searching for jewels in piranha infested waters. And I got that they're a bunch of of back-stabbing morons. And do you really need anything else?

Running Time: 101 minutes
My Total Minutes: 337,939

Jason watches WE ARE WHAT WE ARE

Thanks to Midnites 4 Maniacs, I got to see a special sneak preview of this slow-burn gothic drama-thriller-horror film. And I put them in that order. I think it's primarily a carefully crafted drama. The Parkers, led by father Frank (a wonderfully, quietly creepy Bill Sage) secretly live by "old customs." And they bury the...evidence of their customs in the woods near the creek that runs by their remote house. Daughters Rose and Iris (some flowers have thorns) are...conflicted about their customs.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. In the opening scenes we see the mother collapse in front of a grocery store. Frank never let her go to see a doctor, and he opposes an autopsy now, for reasons that become obvious soon enough. That and a torrential flood that unearths some incriminating evidence is going to threaten their old customs, and force Rose and Iris to take on responsibilities beyond their years.

There are plenty of gruesome horror elements, and a few frights that can actually make you jump. But the meat (sorry, I had to...that's not technically a spoiler, is it?) of the movie is the acting and the slow, steady, tense burn. A horror movie for thinkers...thinkers who like gore.

Update on October 8, 2013. Apparently I had actually seen the Mexican movie that this was based on, I just completely forgot about it. That was back at Indiefest 2011 and here's what I wrote about it at the time:
It's an earnest family drama, a story of grief and struggles after the father dies. Not that he was a great man, but he did provide. Now there are power struggles, mother vs. sons, sons vs. each other, a daughter who seems to be the only one with a solid head on her shoulders. It's also a story about coming out of the closet. Oh yeah, and it's got cannibalism, whores, inept cops, and (for some reason) lots and lots of clocks. But let's go back to the cannibalism and whores. If I described this as a movie about cannibals vs. prostitutes, it would be completely accurate and totally misleading. It isn't the exploitation elements that are the driving force behind the movie, it's the drama and the characters. And of course, that tricks you into caring about the cannibals for reasons completely unrelated to their rituals. Brilliantly done, and very funny.
Well, the obvious difference is that the American remake is gender reversed. It's the mother, not the father who dies in the beginning. It's daughters, not sons, who fight with each other and with their father (not mother.) Also the importance of clocks wasn't so prevalent. Same with whores. No whores in this one. And I'm not sure what I meant by "very funny." The remake is certainly not a comedy, and I kind of doubt the original was meant to be. That might be a product of my sick sense of humor, or maybe the American version is more of a tense drama and the Mexican version actually had some comic elements.

Running Time: 105 minutes
My Total Minutes: 337,838