Sunday, May 31, 2015

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 3

As promised, a huge day of films on Saturday. Five in a row, with minimal breaks in between for drinking, eating, and blogging (in that order.)

SPEEDY (1928): We started bright and early at 10 am with Harold Lloyd's last silent film. This time Harold Lloyd is in New York (nearly all of his films were shot--and set--in southern California.) But the formula is familiar--Harold has trouble holding a job, and that's his big obstacle for getting the girl (Ann Christy.) Her father owns the last horse-drawn rail line in the city, and other intra-city railroad tycoons are trying to buy him out. Or, failing that, force him out. Harold has to romance the girl, save the day, and oh, by the way, get Babe Ruth (really him, in a cameo) to Yankee Stadium on time. Lloyd's comic timing is at it's usual best, and he's clearly having a great time shooting on location in--and all over--New York.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra did another typically fantastic job accompanying. (and I realize I forgot to put links to the musicians in my previous posts. I suppose a professional would go back and fix that...)

VISAGES D'ENFANTS (1925): Next up was this Jacques Feyder masterpiece from France, introduced by Serge Bromberg (who did his famous burning nitrate demonstration.) 11 year old Jean is the emotional heart of the film, and Jean Forest does a great job as a child actor. His mother has just passed away, and he is distraught. His little sister Pierette doesn't understand, and plays around before asking where mommy has gone. While Jean is still dealing with his grief, his father remarries, so now he has a new mother and a new sister Arlette. Jean does not like this. He gets into fights with both his stepmom and his stepsister, and the emotional turmoil of a child dealing with the grief of his lost mother is brilliantly depicted. It all comes to a head in back-to-back life and death scenes, and eventually there is a positive resolution. In fact, it all wraps up maybe a little too neatly. But up until that point, it's a startling portrayal of child emotions that still rings true today, and has rarely been put on screen so well.

The amazing Stephen Horne did a great job accompanying.

THE DONOVAN AFFAIR (1929): This was a bit of a departure for the Silent Film Festival--a Frank Capra talkie...kind of. This comic murder mystery was shot entirely as a talkie, with the soundtrack on discs. But all copies of those discs are lost, so it's an "accidental" silent. Problem is that means no intertitles. And it's a very dialogue heavy film--no way you could understand it without the words. No problem, Bruce Goldstein and the Gower Gulch Players stepped in and reconstructed the script via such sources as unreliable censor's transcripts, lip-reading, and guesswork. And then the entire script--including sound effects and music--was performed live. The end result is pretty wacky, mostly because the original material is wacky. Notorious gambler Jack Donovan is killed at a dinner party. Pretty much everyone had a reason--he owed gambling debts to one, he was blackmailing another, he had stolen a mysterious glowing ring from a third...the list goes on. So it's up to Inspector Jack Killian and his numbskull cop Carney to crack the case. Which they eventually do, but not before another guest gets bumped off. If I wasn't told, I wouldn't have guessed this was a Frank Capra movie. This is screwier and more half-baked than most of his work. But it's interesting to see what he created when he first started playing with sound. He got much more sophisticated, of course. But this still has its charm.

FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1926): Then we saw the classic that turned Greta Garbo into a star and kicked off her romance with John Gilbert. And while Garbo is a force of nature (or maybe even supernatural) in this movie, the story is really a love story between two men--friends since childhood Leo and Ulrich (Gilbert and Lars Hanson.) They're in the service together, cover for each other, get punished together, go home on leave together. Ulrich's little sister has the hots for Leo, and hopes they'll get married someday. But his eyes fall on Felicitas (Garbo) and from that moment he's doomed. Oh sure, they have a nice little affair...until her husband comes home. This leads to a duel, which leads to Leo killing the husband, which leads to him having to leave overseas for a few years. Trusting Ulrich, he asks him to take care of Felicitas while he's gone. Well, Ulrich does more than that, he marries her! And then things get really interesting. If there's anything that can break up a long time friendship between two guys, it's a girl. And when that girl isn't just any girl but Greta Garbo at her vampiest best, then there's no hope. After all, if the devil can't get to you through the spirit, he'll get to you through the flesh.

Since both Garbo and Hanson were Swedish imports, we had our own favorite Swedes, The Matti Bye Ensemble, accompany. And of course they were brilliant.

PAN (1922): And then we ended the night with a Norwegian oddity, more mood poem than narrative, and based on Nobel Prize-winning author Knut Hamsun’s novel of the same name. Ex-soldier Lieutenant Thomas Glahn lives alone in a forest hut with his dog Cora. He narrates the story of his previous dog, Aesop, to her. At least, that's the framing device of the film. But it's really the story of his bewildering romance with Edvarda. When they first meet, there's a strong attraction. But they don't understand each other, and things quickly fall apart. Trying to understand the narrative is nearly pointless. But appreciating the atmosphere, in all its bizarreness, is...also a challenge. But a rewarding one...I think. It's just a very strange film, about as strange as you can get without being purely avante-garde experimental. Also (spoiler alert) with the epilogue it might also be one of the first films told first-person by a living narrator who ends up dead at the end. I'm sure there are other examples, but it's still pretty weird how it was done.

And Guenter Buchwald was our excellent musical guide through the Norwegian (anti-) romantic weirdness--even when it took us all the way to Algeria.

[Update: PAN was easily the most talked about film the next day, and since my little not-very-serious theory had been getting traction, I want to put it out here to take some credit/ridicule. So the perplexing/fascinating thing about the story is that the actions seem almost completely disconnected from motivation. I didn't get into details about that, but things like Glahn stealing Edvarda's shoe and tossing it into the water. Well, you have to remember it's a story that he's telling to his dog. So either he's not elaborating on motivations because a dog just wouldn't get it, or (and this is the theory that intrigues me enough to watch it again to see how well it holds up) the whole story is being filtered through a dog's understanding. I.e., the entire movie (up to the epilogue) is what a dog is trying to understand as his human is telling a story. Enjoy!]

Total Running Time: 490 minutes
My Total Minutes: 397,980

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 2

Well, really evening 2, since I had to work during the day, but I was up for one excellent film and one very weird film

THE LAST LAUGH (1924): Emil Jannings stars in this F. W. Murnau film, and just dropping those two names you know it will be brilliant. And, of course, it is. Jannings plays a doorman at the prestigious Atlantic Hotel. His flashy uniform with his bright buttons is an enormous source of pride, especially when he's around his poor neighbors. So it's a huge blow when he's demoted to washroom attendant, ostensibly on account of his age and frailty. But he refuses to lose face in front of his neighbors, so he steals back his uniform and continues as if nothing happens. Of course, this can't last and he has to suffer tons of humiliation. There is a final reel, forced upon Murnau by the production company UFA, which gives Jannings a grand happy ending. And,'s easy to dismiss it and tune out of the film at the down ending if you want. But Murnau did pull it off in grand style, giving Jannings the real last laugh. Murnau had definitely established a visual and directorial style, grandly displaying inner psyches through outward actions, and he and Jannings are masterful at it here.

The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra made its SFSFF debut accompanying this film, and their score--composed, conducted, and played by students--was magnificent (if I wasn't told, I'd never guess they were students.) The only nitpick I have is that having a conductor standing on a podium blocks a significant bit of the bottom of the screen, so I had difficulty leaning from side to side to read the subtitles around them (oh yes, them, there were multiple conductor, as each student had scored one real of film--based on a common theme--and each passed off the baton to the next to conduct their reel.) Something to think about when (not if) they are invited back. Either block off the seats that have a bad view, or play something with English intertitles so I don't have to read subtitles on the bottom of the screen, or--like they did with the next film--have someone read the English translation of the intertitles.

THE GHOST TRAIN (1927): This odd English/German co-production only exists in French, hence the translation intertitles read by Paul McGann. It's a visually interesting and very funny movie based on a hugely popular play by Arnold Ridley. Six strangers are on a train, making a connection in the not-ominously-named-at-all Hellbridge to continue on to London. There are the newlyweds cooing over each other, the married-for-one-year couple bickering constantly, the uptight woman on her way to a temperance meeting, and a darned fool. Well, the fool goes and loses his hat out the window and pulls the emergency break, causing everyone to miss the connecting train to London and have to spend the night in Hellbridge. And when they're there, the station agent warns them of the haunted ghost train that comes through at midnight. So it's a spooky, goofy night-in-a-haunted house, except the haunted house is a train station. And it's got a sensibility that could've come right out of Scooby-Doo (yes, even down to the twist ending) if it didn't predate it by over 40 years. Pretty awesome. Especially when temperance lady gets drunk and starts dancing.

And speaking of awesome Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius did the musical accompaniment, with an upbeat dash of goofiness that perfectly matched the film.

And that's the start of the big weekend. Looking forward to 5 films tomorrow! (technically, today, as it's a little past midnight. Better go get some sleep.)

Total Running Time: 179 minutes
My Total Minutes: 397,491

Friday, May 29, 2015

Jason goes to Silentfest--Opening Night

The most intense weekend of film in the bay area film festival calendar kicked off last night, and of course I was there. The SF Silent Film Festival has expanded one more day, ending on Monday instead of Sunday night. I have my day job, so I'll be missing the Friday and Monday matinees, but I'll be glued to front row second row center (have to leave room for the musicians) for the as much as I can.

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930): We started with this Academy Award winner--well, the talkie version, shot concurrently, won the Academy Award. And now I'd really like to see both of them back to back (I just bought the blu-ray that contains both) Because the silent version is magnificent. Staying pretty close to Erich Maria Remarque's book (yay, I can pretend to be literary because I had to read it in high school!) it tells the story of German schoolboys becoming soldiers and going off to fight in WWI. Tomfoolery and antics gives way to military discipline, which gives way to absolute terror in the trenches. The war scenes are impressive in their unflinching depiction of graphic violence (including disembodied hands of a dead soldier still gripping a line of barbed wire--a scene I remember vividly from the book.) And are equally impressive in their realism, including hundreds of extras in the fighting scenes. It's a pretty bleak story, of course, but very well told. And as important as the bleak, depressing, realistic depictions of war are the very funny scenes of camaraderie that develops among the soldiers (at least, the ones who survive.) The film also features Raymond Griffith in his final role (as a French soldier who dies in a foxhole with the German protagonist Paul (Lew Ayres) watching over him and freaking out over the horrors of war. Griffith was a huge silent star (almost entirely in comedies,) but a casualty of the talkie era because a childhood illness left him unable to speak above a whisper. So a dying soldier unable to speak was a perfect cameo role for him.

The Mont Alto Orchestra accompanied and was brilliant, of course. And it also featured live Foley at times, particularly in the war scenes. In fact, some of the most effective scenes were when the music stopped and the sound effects took over. All in all, magnificent!

Running Time: 130 minutes
My Total Minutes: 397,312

Thursday, May 28, 2015


More like Age of Ultra-Awesome, amiright?

Or wait, is the Internet not too impressed? In that case, more like Age of Ultra-Lame, amiright?

Whatever. It was entertainment. I enjoyed it. But at this point I'm mostly just watching them so I won't be confused by the next one. Hey CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR sounds like it will be awesome, right?

Running Time: 141 minutes
My Total Minutes: 397,182

Jason Watches MAD MAX: FURY ROAD in 3D

And it's freakin' awesome, despite the frequent abuses of Jason's Rule of 3-D*

We open with Max, his iconic hair, and his iconic car. He steps on a lizard and eats it. He's gone even more mad than the last time we saw him (30 years ago!) He's a wild animal. Within minutes his car is destroyed, he's captured, and his iconic mane is cut off (and, of course, he is now Tom Hardy instead of Mel Gibson.) Within a few more minutes, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has stolen/rescued the "wives" (a.k.a sex slaves) of Immortan Joe, the despotic ruler of the Citadel, and the only source of water in the apocalyptic wasteland (don't worry, and don't even try to keep up.) Max is strapped to the front of the lead chase car to supply blood for the driver, a bred-and-trained fighter. And then it's a two hour long batshit crazy chase. A bleak descent into sanity in an insane world. It's literally so frantic that the first time the soundtrack turns to peaceful music is when the chase has entered a fucking electrical dust storm that kills anyone who is outside and not covered up (of course, Max is on the outside of the car and not covered up, but still chained to his driver.) And it gets crazier from there. Just fucking watch it, it's an action film masterpiece. A MASTERPIECE I tell you!

Now for the elephant in the room, the butt-hurt from Men's Rights Activists over how sissified Max is because there are strong human females in this film. First of all, being a rabid animal is not sissified. Max is still bad-ass, and while the women are on the road for their freedom, Max is on the road for his sanity. He is, in some ways, playing second-fiddle in his own movie. But that's fine, it works for the story. As for any feminist agenda, George Miller insists the film doesn't have one, it just happens to have women who are treated as humans. And their journey from sex slaves to freedom doesn't work if they're stolen from one man by another man--that would just be creepy (which I suspect would be fine by the MRAs.) They have their journey, Max has his, and there are parallels. But if you want to read a feminist message into it, a repeated question/rallying cry is "Who killed the world?" And if you want to read between the lines, the answer could be "Men did. (and women will fix it.)" But you can just as easily read "Greed did. (and freedom will fix it.)" Or any of a number of similar readings.

Running Time: 120 minutes
My Total Minutes: 397,041

*Depth into the screen is good. Throwing stuff out of the screen to make the audience jump is gimmicky bullcrap.

Jason Watches EX MACHINA

This is an excellent, intimate sci-fi thriller. Caleb, a programmer, wins a competition to work with the big boss on super-secret project in his remote mountain home/fortress. There he finds everything controlled by computers, and his boss Nathan is a hard-drinking "bro-grammer" with an intense, controlling personality. He quickly reveals that the project is A.I., and Caleb is there to administer the Turing Test to his latest creation, an android named Ava. Their pleasant, even playful conversations take on a dark edge when Ava warns Caleb not to trust Nathan (which seems kind of obvious from the get-go, he's definitely got his secrets and his ulterior motives.) So a cat and mouse game, wait, there's three people involved, so a cat, mouse, and other cat? Cat, mouse, and other mouse? I don't know. Since his job is evaluating whether Ava is really intelligent or just fooling him, Caleb's conversations with Nathan tend to run towards the mechanics of manipulation (e.g., Ava's femininity could be a deliberate distraction, much like the magician's hot assistant) which of course mirrors what's going on in the film, just not in the way you might expect. As far as special effects...Ava is the special effect, and incredibly well done, with a see-through lower torso revealing her inner workings. But it really isn't a special-effects driven movie. It's a smart, story-and-character-based sci-fi thriller. Pretty awesome.

Also, minor spoiler (and probably unwarranted social commentary): the movie could work as a metaphor for the current state of the tech industry, where it's ruled by an aggressive, bro-grammer douchebag, there's one nice-but-powerless guy, and all the women are literally objects.

Running Time: 108 minutes
My Total Minutes: 396,921

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Jason goes to a Midnites for Maniacs tribute to Penelope Spheeris

As soon as I was done with SFIFF, the very next night I was back at the Castro for a triple-feature, because I'm a movie masochist!

Penelope Spheeris--along with her daughter--was in the house for a Midnites for Maniacs very special evening. I had first seen her way back in 2002 when her Ozzfest documentary WE SOLD OUR SOULS FOR ROCK 'N ROLL played at Indiefest. That was, believe it or not, my first time at a film festival. So in a way my film-watching career has been connected to Spheeris from the get go. So it was a treat to see her and hear the discussion. Particularly moving when Jesse Ficks credited Spheeris with saving his life through her movies (although we didn't get into personal details of why.) And equally moving when Penelope credited her daughter with saving her life, because she gave up drugs when she found out she was pregnant (after passing out on set and waking up to Richard Pryor saying, "This bitch is pregnant!" She's had an interesting life.)

Anyway, on to the films!

DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981): Opening with a montage of performers at the microphone reading her release statement, mocking it, and tearing it up, the audience is immediately thrown into the 1980 L.A. punk scene. With bands like Alice Bag Band, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, Circle Jerks, Fear, Germs, and X (some of those I heard of before, I swear.) We get the feel of the performances, the danger in the venues, the boozing and hard-living life of everybody involved. Remember back when movies could actually spark riots? Well, I'm not sure if you can blame the film itself or just the fact that screening it in L.A. got so many punks together that fights were bound to break out. But the riot at the L.A. premiere forced the chief of police to swear it would never be played in L.A. again. It recently got a 30th anniversary gala screening there. Stick to your artistic vision, kids.

WAYNE'S WORLD (1992): Still the best SNL movie ever. And the movie that transformed Spheeris from a struggling independent director (with some friends like Lorne Michaels) into a millionaire. And it's still fuckin' hilarious. And I don't think that's just because I was at the right age when it came out and I'm now watching it ironically. It still fucking works. Perhaps some of the meta-humor has aged, but the jokes about movie cliches and the plot about corrupting influences in the entertainment business are still perfectly relevant. Maybe even more so.

DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART 2: THE METAL YEARS (1988): Here's a little trivia for you, Penelope Spheeris turned down an opportunity to direct THIS IS SPINAL TAP to make this movie. She's a rock 'n roll gal, and rock music has been an important part of her life forever. So rather than make a movie mocking heavy metal music, she made one celebrating it. And in kinda looks like it's mocking it anyway. She starts in the same way, with people reading and trashing the release papers, and then we get to the acts--KISS, Alice Cooper, Poison, Ozzy Osbourne, Megadeath...and Odin? Okay, a lot of those were the soundtrack to my youth, so I was much more interested than in part 1. But also...these acts were a lot sillier. With part 1, you felt there was something real in the anger in the music. With part 2, it's about sex, drugs (alcohol is a drug, right?) and rock 'n that order. Okay, put showmanship on top, because that's what this time in music was about--big, garish, outlandish stuff that you can look back at 27 years later and point and laugh. But also remember how important it was back at the time...and how we kids took it a lot more seriously than a lot of the artists. Damn, that was fun.

Total Running Time: 287 minutes
My Total Minutes: 396,812

P.S. Back in 2002, Penelope also had the greatest Q and A exchange I've ever seen, but I didn't want to clutter the start of this post. WE SOLD OUR SOULS FOR ROCK 'N ROLL featured a sideshow act called The Reverend B. Dangerous, who is (or was) an Oakland-based performance artist who would do stuff like stick skewers though his cheeks. He was there for the Q and A as well. So a woman got up in the audience afterwards and praised Penelope and the film, and then said, "As a mother I have to ask--how do you avoid infection?" The thing is, nobody in the theater could tell she was addressing the Reverend B. Dangerous, everyone though she was addressing Penelope. So she answered, "How do I avoid infection? I don't sleep with the roadies!" Wise words from an incredible woman!

Jason goes to SFIFF--Closing Night

Okay, finally it's finished. The closing night gala, after numerous thank-yous and congratulations, was EXPERIMENTER. It's a playful and engaging take on Stanley Milgram, of the infamous obedience experiments. In brief, it's an experiment where one person is chosen as a "teacher" and one as a "learner." The experiment is supposed to be about using pain (in the form of electric shocks) to increase learning. The learner is in a different room, and as the "teacher" quizzes him from a set of simple memory questions, if the learner gets it wrong the teacher shocks him. The thing is, there is no actual shock. The learner is a researcher, and the teacher is the subject of the experiment. Almost always, the teacher will increase the strength of the shocks beyond a marked dangerous line and while hearing the learner scream in pain. Not because he's a psychopath, not because he's mean. But because a man in a lab coat asked politely.

Obviously the elephant in the room (literally visualized as an elephant walking around the room behind Milgram) is that this is how the Nazis committed such horrors. But the movie goes beyond that to explore the man Milgram himself. While he's most famous for the obedience study (and gives a thorough defense of his methods in many of the breaking-the-fourth-wall interludes) it's really the portrait of a clever and inventive experimenter. Before the obedience study, he did envelope-drop studies. Drop envelopes with postage paid and addressed to either random names or places like the Communist Party of America. People will mail the random named ones, but not the communist ones...proving that Americans don't like commies. He expanded that to include dropping ones addressed to Black organizations in white neighborhoods and white supremacist ones in black neighborhoods. No surprise, people were not eager to help out their perceived opponents. And that's the thing about the obedience experiments. It follows in a line of interesting and clever experiments he performed, but all of the others had the expected results. This one was thoroughly unexpected and dramatically changed how we understand how humans respond to authority.

Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as Milgram, and Winona Ryder likewise as his wife. And director Michael Almereyda keeps it all moving along briskly with surprising moves (like the literal manifestation of the elephant in the room, along with other clever formal tricks.) In a way, I feel like Almereyda sees something of a kindred spirit in Milgram--a man who uses clever tricks to reveal something about humanity. And in a way EXPERIMENTER is an experimental film. But just as importantly, it's a fantastically entertaining look at a fascinating man.

And then it was all over except the drinking at the after party. And there was plenty of that, but I don't think I need to get into that.

Woo hoo, SFIFF 2015 is finally over!!!

Running Time: 98 minutes
My Total Minutes: 396,526

Jason goes to SFIFF--The Penultimate Day

Two more movies three weeks ago Wednesday, starting with what ended up being my favorite film of SFIFF 2015, WHEN ANIMALS DREAM. A Danish film that has been picked up by The Weinstein Company (so hopefully it will get a release soon) it will be described by everyone as a werewolf film. And it has all the genre trappings of one.'s not really a werewolf film. Sure, it's a monstrous transformation film. But she's not a werewolf. Marie has a sick mother and a job in a male-dominated fish processing plant. There her co-workers (except for one nice guy) play cruel pranks on her and basically make her life hell. Until eventually she transforms into a monster--becoming a hairy killer. But this isn't full body fur like a wolf, it's wispy hair on her arms, chest, back, and face. She's a were-male. The lead actress, Sonia Suhl, is even somewhat androgynous with small breasts. And knowing it's all a big metaphor for women being powerful enough to take on a traditional male role--and how that frightens most men--it's just perfect. Especially the scene where we see her mother, horribly "ill" to the point that she can barely walk, speak, or keep her head up...but all because of the tranquilizers the doctor has her on because of the fear of a powerful woman. Let it be said, powerful women are awesome, and male fear of powerful women is hilarious (unfortunately, it's also destructive.)

And then I saw QUITTERS, a locally made film about a teenager with a drug-addicted mother. I have to admit I don't remember much else. Shoot. Well, it was three weeks ago and I was pretty exhausted at the time. So...swing and a miss. Maybe I'll get a chance to see it again.

Total Running Time: 179 minutes
My Total Minutes: 396,428

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 13

It was an evening of shorts last three weeks ago Tuesday.

Shorts 2:
BIG HEAD: An artist and his big ol' doggie.
CAILLEACH: Morag, 86 years young...okay, let's admit it, she's old. After all the, title means "old woman" in Gaelic. Morag reflects on her life and connection to her remote island home.
DAVID HOCKNEY IN THE NOW: A portrait of the artist as who lives "in the now."
OF THE UNKNOWN: A look at the neglected poor in the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong.
RAIN: I see this is as the best metaphor for depression ever. A woman spends her day with a rain cloud literally pouring on her, but she tries to pretend like nothing is happening, even as she is getting drenched.
TERRITORY: A sheepherder finds there are things more worrisome than paratroopers.
TRADESMAN’S EXIT: Damn...I really wish I remembered this one (I think I might've dozed off.) Oh well, looks like it's playing at Frameline, maybe I can catch it there.

Shorts 1:
ART: Alternate title--how to convince 19-year-old girls to get naked for your film.
THE BAD BOY OF BOWLING: A portrait of Pete Weber, the legendary (“Who do you think you are? I am!”) bad boy bowler. Particularly interesting is his relationship with his father, who was a legendary (and legendarily nice) bowler.
THE CHICKEN: A little girl and her chicken.
HOTEL 22: I saw this before at Cinequest. The VTA bus route 22 is the only 24 hour bus service in the Silicon Valley. And at night, for $2, the homeless and destitute can sleep for an hour or two. A sad look at the poorest people living in one of the richest parts of the world.
PLAMEN: A portrait of construction worker/artist/activist Plamen Goranov, who drew attention to Bulgaria's political corruption by taking drastic actions. Don't click on this link if you don't want to know what the action was.
SORMEH: During the 1979 revolution, a woman has to make a quick decision regarding a rebel hiding in her building.
TIME QUEST: Don't fuck with the past. Literally.

Total Running Time: 200 minutes
My Total Minutes: 396,249

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 12

SFIFF is all over but the writing. And after a weekend three weeks of catching up on sleep, two more shows on Monday, May 4, starting with the boxing documentary T-REX. That's the nickname of Claressa Shields from Flint, Michigan (finally they can boast of a celebrity other than Michael Moore) who became the first Olympic Gold Medalist in women's boxing. That was 2012, and the movie had unprecedented access to her quest. But it's what happens afterwards that's even more interesting. Namely, that she doesn't get the fame and endorsements that she expected. Sure, she gets a big welcome bag in Flint, but she doesn't find herself doing commercials or getting sponsorships. Instead she finds herself pondering whether to go pro (she hasn't, specifically so she can defend her gold medal in 2016) and whether to stay with her coach or with her boyfriend (yeah, that's actually a f'ed up decision she has to make.) Claressa was actually there for the screening, and she was a cool, personable, likeable hero, which comes through both in the movie and in real life. So I might be cheering for her in the Olympics in 2016.

And then Shorts 4: New Visions, the program of experimental shorts. You will simply have to forgive me if I can't quite remember all of these.
ARROWED: A swinging light illuminates one side and then another of a role-play/dance.
ATLANTIS: A meditation on watery utopia.
BLACKOUT: JOHN BURRIS SPEAKS: Turning racist police brutality into an evocative type of modern dance with a powerful speech over it.
THE BOOMBOX COLLECTION: BOOTS RILEY: The philosophy and activism of one of the OGs of hip hop.
BUS NUT: A recreation based on the actual words of a press conference by the most famous bus rider in history--Rosa Pars.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: The funniest Power Point presentation I've ever seen.
A LONG WAY FROM HOME: Jesus, on distressed and degraded celluloid.
NO ID: Okay, I had to look up its website. Too bad I don't remember it, because it looks pretty awesome.
PICTURE PARTICLES: Literally scraps of film. Watch it here.
SOUNDPRINT: The visualization of sound, in many forms. Or heck, I don't know. Watch it yourself.
THE STREAM 5: Water flowing with algae. Beautiful?

Total Running Time: 169 minutes
My Total Minutes: 396,049

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 11

Only three movies on Sunday, but that started with a 3 hour, 40 minute silent film, so that was cool.

The lead in to that was the presentation of the Mel Novikoff Award--named after the legendary San Francisco exhibitor and bestowed upon an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema--to Lenny Borger. Mr. Borger is a film translator, historian, scholar, and hunter of "lost" films. He's also a funny man, who tells stories about how difficult most archivists are to work with. Or about how he learned French because he watched French movies with subtitles and wanted to know what the songs said too (now I'm paying attention to songs in foreign films and whether or not they are subtitled.) And my favorite part, where he talked about film translation bloopers, like in a war film where an American soldiers points to an advancing battalion on the horizon and yells "Tanks!" and the French subtitle reads "Merci!" Awesome.

So on to the movie, MONTE CRISTO (1929): I have to confess, I've never actually read the Dumas story, nor (now that I think about it) have I seen any of the screen adaptations. Yet somehow it's just such a part of the ether that it feels familiar. Man is wrongly imprisoned. In prison he learns of a fortune. He escapes, finds the fortune, and returns under a different identity to aid his friends and get revenge on his enemies. And this adaptation is full of grandiose splendor from the apex of the silent era. Massive sets, great acting (Jean Angelo as the hero, Gaston Modot as the villain, Lil Dagover as the love least at first) and a lavish running time split with an intermission. Director Henri Fescourt had previously made LES MISERABLES as a ~6 hour serial, and the intention was to do the same with this story, but public tastes required it be "cut down" to a two parter, 218 minutes in total. And it was awesome (although to be honest, if I were to watch it all in one sitting, it would be a bit exhausting. It's not quite the masterpiece of NAPOLEON)

As Lenny Borger is still working on the subtitles for an eventual English language release, we got to see this with French intertitles and him reading his English translations from offstage. Which for the most part worked pretty well. But he is getting up there in years, and by the end it was clear he was pretty tired. And just as his voice was fading, the score was reaching the triumphant climax and drowned out his voice. Kind of a shame, but it was still easy to follow the action and I enjoyed it nonetheless. Looking forward to owning this one with English subtitles.

Then after a beer or two, I made my way up to the Clay theater for ADVANTAGEOUS. Made with local talent and set in the near future, it's an exploration of advantage, who has it, and what they're willing to do to keep it. Jacqueline Kim plays Gwen Koh, a single mother and the face of Center for Advanced Health and Living, a company specializing in "safe" and "non-invasive" alternatives to plastic surgery. She's been a huge asset to the company and is looking for a raise, but she is getting on in years (I checked Kim's IMDb page and was shocked to learn she had just turned 50, I would've guessed she was in her 30s) and marketing is looking for a new, younger face to attract a more desirable demographic. This causes major problems in getting her daughter Jules (Samantha Kim) into the best school. That's the main thrust of the film, and a risky procedure might give her the chance to get everything for her girl. And while that's a great story in and of itself, it's the smaller parts of world-building that I really enjoyed. Jules casual knowledge that due to...I forget what in the atmosphere, her eggs will die before she's 20 and she'll be infertile. No problem, she can just adopt from a less advantaged region. Or the homeless person lying in the bushes and urging her to take whatever opportunity she can--clearly the back story is she was once successful herself. Or the occasional bomb explosion in one of the corporate mega-structures. This is a dystopian future hellscape, but shown from the point of view of someone living at the top. Or rather, near enough to the top to be comfortable, but no high up enough to be secure. I.e., like the entire freakin' middle class right now.

And then I ended the night, and the weekend, with a very, very strange film (I seem to be saying that a lot this festival,) MAGICAL GIRL. It's an intricate, multi-layered story, but focuses on a little Spanish girl who is suffering from leukemia. She and her friends are into anime, and one of her great wishes is to have a Magical Girl dress from her favorite show. But it's too expensive for her father, who is desperate to get the money to give his dying girl her wish. Meanwhile, a disturbed married woman is torturing herself, cracking a mirror with her forehead, and making her husband (if I recall correctly, he's a psychiatrist) miserable. And then there's an older man who...looks after her, in his own way. Their paths cross, and dark, violent, sexual twists ensue. I've made it seem like there's a linear narrative here, and there is. But it's an incredibly complex and surprising one. This really is a movie where I can say I couldn't guess what would happen next. And even when I didn't agree with some of the twists, I could say the constant surprises were engaging and beautiful.

And that's the last of the final weekend of SFIFF. Just four days left to go.

Total Running Time: 442 minutes
My Total Minutes: 395,880

Monday, May 4, 2015

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 10

Saturday was a big day, starting with the Members surprise screening at 10:00 am. That movie was I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, starring Blythe Danner in an absolutely terrific role. In the opening scenes, her old dog is ailing and has to be put down (and he looks way too much like a male version of Amber, our dog we had to put down a year and a half ago. So that was kind of a freaky start.) Blythe plays Carol, an older woman who lives her independent life with not much going on except for playing cards with her friends (June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, and Mary Kay Place.) They're trying to convince her to move into the retirement home where they all live, but she likes having her own place. She does strike up a friendship with the pool boy, over an attempt to catch a rat that's taken up residence in her home. That and wine...this movie was made on a shoestring budget, but it had to have a healthy wine budget. Then when a gentleman Bill (Sam Elliott) takes a shine to her she gets back into a romantic life. There is a point near the end where it's obvious how a Hollywood happy ending would play out, but thankfully that's not this movie. There's still a happy ending of a sort, but one that is more realistic and ultimately more rewarding. Perfect for a smart, charming, funny film that pulls on your emotions without resorting to sappy sentimentality. Compared to the last couple of members screenings, which did get into unbelievably sappy territory, this was a refreshing improvement. I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS will be coming out later this month, so keep an eye out for it.

The next program was a double-bill of short-ish documentaries about local Bay Area film legends. ED AND PAULINE celebrates the partnership (romantic and otherwise) of Cinema Guild founder Ed Landberg and iconic film critic (and daughter of Jewish Petaluma chicken farmers) Pauline Kael. Featuring reminiscences from current Bay Area film exhibition icons, it's a cinematic ode to a couple of people that created the local film culture, by the people who are working to keep it alive and vibrant.

Then it was HOW TO SMELL A ROSE: A VISIT WITH RICKY LEACOCK IN NORMANDY. Recently deceased Les Blank, another Bay Area icon, had left this love letter to his friend Ricky Leacock unfinished, and it was up to Gina Leibrecht, his his associate and partner, to finish it. In Blank's beautifully human style, talking about cooking is as important as talking about food (and only slightly less important than the twin acts of preparing and enjoying delicious food.) Leacock was a filmmaker with a career that spanned working with the father of documentary film Robert J. Flaherty to working with handheld digital video. From his parents Canary Island banana plantation to documenting the 1960 Presidential primaries to interviewing Louise Brooks to...well, his resume is on IMDb. He was a giant, and his career connected generations of filmmakers, and he was a master of them all. But again, since it's a Les Blank film, enjoying a good meal is more important than any of that.

And then the bleakest film in the festival, THE TRIBE. There has been a lot of talk at the festival about how utterly remarkable this film is. It takes place in a boarding school for deaf Ukrainian youth. There's no spoken dialogue--only sign language. And it's Ukrainian sign language, so knowing ASL won't help. So it's a triumph of visual storytelling that you can understand what's going on at all. And that's without the film resorting to broad pantomime. And all the talk of how technically innovative it is and how it broadens the visual storytelling language of cinema...not a lot of people are talking about how fucking brutal it is. At best they'll talk about social Darwinism and the violent system and then get back to talking about how brilliant the filmmaking is. In a way, it reminds me of reviews of Nabokov's "Lolita" that talk about the beauty of the prose and how he pushes the boundaries of literature while skirting around the fact that it's a book about fucking a child! Well, THE TRIBE is a movie about violent gangs, prostitution, death, abortion, and murder. And because it's told all visually there can't be any off-screen suggestion of what's happening or explanations through expository dialogue. It is all shown. It's like this film creates something that has to be watched, then punishes the audience for watching. And it's fucking brilliant.

So then I decided to catch something a little closer to mainstream entertainment, with THE END OF THE TOUR. Jason Segal stars (and impresses) as acclaimed author David Foster Wallace. Jesse Eisenberg plays journalist David Lipsky, who convinces his bosses at Rolling Stone to let him follow Wallace on the final leg of his book tour and write a profile on him. Wallace seems affable enough at first, inviting Lipsky to stay in his guest room rather than in a cheap motel. They subsist on junk food, watch awful TV (something Wallace claims is his only real addiction) and talk. In some ways it's the most awkward road movie ever, as Lipsky has a job to do and Wallace...well he's Wallace. Now I have to confess...I've never read and David Foster Wallace. I'm tempted to try to tackle his 1,000+ page novel (for which he was touring in the film) "Infinite Jest." Maybe, someday. As for the movie, the acting is the best part. Jason Segal becomes a friendly but gruff and vaguely wounded everyman (it's no secret that Wallace killed himself in 2008.) The narrative really belongs to Eisenberg as Lipsky, who approaches Wallace with a mix of admiration and professional jealousy. And in their friendly moments it seems like he's living the dream of becoming pals with his idol. But he never quite makes it. His attempts to get some juicy dirt on Wallace sours their friendship (or maybe it was never there to begin with.) And his failure to get anything juicy on him leaves him with no story that Rolling Stone would actually publish. 

Oh, and in the opening scene Lipsky also has a dog that looks just like Amber. It was a weird day.

And finally I headed over to the Roxie for more free beer (I forgot to mention, much free beer in the lounge every day at 5:00, plus at all of the Dark Wave shows at the Roxie) and THE WORLD OF KANAKO. Uh...that mention of free beer is a way of apologizing for not remembering everything in the was a long fucking day. Akikazu Fujishima is a drunk and a former police detective (hey, that sounds like BLACK COAL, THIN ICE) whose estranged wife has called him telling him their daughter is missing. So he thinks if he can just find her he can get his life back in order. And so a bloody, twisted, confusing journey commences. And I can't get into the details, because I can't remember well enough. What I do remember was the style, which was wild and jumped insanely between comedy, tragedy, and...anime? It's a weird ass movie, quite a thing to experience while only half aware. It's probably even better if I watch it when I'm well rested and know what's going on.

And that was Saturday.

Total Running Time: 530 minutes
My Total Minutes: 395,438

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 9

Three movies last Friday as the big second weekend kicked off.

First up was UNEXPECTED, by Kris Swanberg, wife of acclaimed indie director Joe Swanberg (although refreshingly, this was never brought up in either the introduction or the Q and A. She has quite an accomplished career herself and while they're always collaborating, she shouldn't be known as just "Joe Swanberg's wife." I don't even know why I brought it up...)

Anyway, Kris played on her own experiences with this film--as a Chicago school teacher who got laid off at the same time she got pregnant with her and Joe's first kid. In the movie, Cobie Smulders plays the teacher Samantha Abbot, who learns she's pregnant shortly after learning the school will close over the summer and not reopen in the fall. But she does have a wonderful boyfriend John who marries her and promises to take care of her. Although the pregnancy does kind of mess with her chance at her dream job. While that's going on she learns her best student Jasmine (Gail Bean) is also pregnant. So they bond over that (pregnant yoga? Kris did say in the Q&A she never actually did anything like that.) But the emotional heart is Samantha trying to convince Jasmine that she still can (and should) go to a good college. Which ends up being a pretty interesting dynamic about different ideas of what's best for the baby, how to get ahead in life, etc. As a college-educated middle class white guy, I certainly think that college education is a good thing. But this movie shows--as Samantha learns a little bit--about a different kind of support structure people can have.

Then I caught the Japanese youth culture film, WONDERFUL WORLD END. Shiori is a popular vlogger (video-blogger) who showcases Gothic Lolita fashion. Ayumi is her biggest fan. Fandom turns into something like friendship when they meet and Shiori is flattered by the attention. And it turns into something way more complicated when Ayumi runs away from home and moves in with Shiori and her boyfriend. Jealousy and rivalry ensue. But really it's less about the story and more about exploring the style of teen life in Japan--full of emojis, consumerism, and cute fashions.

And then I headed over to the Roxie for the late show, THE EDITOR. In the introduction, I was horrified to learn that it was made by Astron 6, the folks behind MANBORG (Indiefest 2011.) I gave them as charitable a review as I could back then (and yes, contemplating the "hell that would be watching MANBORG at home, on DVD, alone,...and sober." is charitable if you've seen the movie.) So I was ready for an awful parody of the giallo genre with maybe a few good jokes. But sometime in the last few years these guys actually learned to make a good film. They have the look and feel of the giallo down--saturated colors, bad dubbing, black-leather gloved killers hands, erotic fetishism and sleaze. Yeah, they got that. They're never making fun of the giallo genre, they're paying homage to it and then letting the humor come in by doing silly things inside of it. Rey Ciso is a film editor. He used to be a great one, until a freak accident took his fingers, leaving him with clumsy wooden prosthetic ones. Now he toils away on sleazy 1970s Italian films (oh yeah, the film takes place at the time when giallo films were at their peak.) When the cast and crew of his latest film starts dying one by one, he's a prime suspect, and wacky hijinx ensue. Good fun, and I'm still in a bit of shock that Astron 6 actually made a good film.

Total Running Time: 268 minutes
My Total Minutes: 394,908

Friday, May 1, 2015

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 8

Two more shows on Thursday, starting with the mix of live on stage action and movies, BOOMTOWN: REMAKING SAN FRANCISCO. Several artists created different pieces to explore the changing San Francisco, ranging from a PowerPoint presentation on housing issues to a documentary on the last lesbian bar in San Francisco (The Lexington, which closed that very night.) And a movie on Sutro Tower, the giant antenna on a hill that was a controversial eyesore when it was put up, and now is an iconic part of the skyline...or still a fucking eyesore, depending on who you ask. There was a demonstration of queer artists of color. A trailer for THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO (which you can back on Kickstarter right now.) And there was a section of ROYAL ROAD, which is also playing in the festival in it's entirety. The whole program was sort of a meditation on the issues of gentrification and the changing nature of San Francisco. There was no Q and A after, as the point was kind of to raise the questions but not give you any answers. And at that, it was a successful, fascinating, and entertaining presentation.

And then I caught what was described as the sexiest film in the festival, FIDELIO: ALICE'S JOURNEY. And it's certainly true that Arianne Labed as the titular Alice is fearless in portraying her sexuality. She has a happy and very healthy love life with her artist boyfriend Felix. But her job is as an engineer on the merchant marine ship Fidelio. There she's tough enough to hold her own with the crew of crass men. But complications arise when the captain of this cruise turns out to be an older lover from her cadet days. She tries to remain faithful--at first simply by avoiding him. But he has other ideas. And perhaps she does, too. Normally I don't really care much for these types of movies--the main character choosing between two lovers. I usually just want her to make a damn choice and stick to it (worse yet is when she's too tempted by an obviously wrong choice.) But this time, perhaps because of Labed's fine performance, I was interested the whole way through. It also doesn't hurt that she is pretty beautiful and often naked.

And that was last Thursday at SFIFF. Just one week left, starting with the big final weekend.

Total Running Time: 170 minutes
My Total Minutes: 394,640

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 7

Two movies last Wednesday night. Let's get right to it.

First up was the documentary 3 AND 1/2 MINUTES, 10 BULLETS (the "10 BULLETS was just added to the title. Probably because jackasses like myself kept making jokes about the running time.) In 2012, Michael Dunn pulled into a gas station in Jacksonvill, FL. While his fiance went in to buy a bottle of wine, he had an altercation with the four young black men in the SUV next to him. A fight over their loud music quickly escalated and Dunn fired 10 shots into the car, killing Jordan Davis. He then claimed self-defense under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. This was, of course, with the Trayvon Martin murder still fresh in people's memories. The filmmakers got amazing access to the court (their camera provided the main news shared footage for the trial) and take a very observational, "fly-on-the-wall" approach to filming. Interviews with Jordan's friends and family are cut with court scenes and the defense lawyer's...let's say "dedicated" approach to raising reasonable doubt. The results of the trial are public record, so I don't have to get into them. What's remarkable is how the film processes the events with an even hand that strives for the humanity in everyone, even Dunn. Easily the most chilling scenes of the movie are recordings of Dunn's calls from prison, where he maintains how ludicrous it is that he's even on trial when he clearly felt threatened by them. And that's what makes this more powerful than just a "scared racist (even subconsciously racist) guy opens fire" story. It's also a story where "Stand Your Ground" has become such a hallowed principle in our society that it's almost blasphemous to point out that retreating is a usually a damn good option (and BTW, nothing in Stand Your Ground laws says that you have to stand your ground.)

Afterwards there was a very moving, powerful discussion led by Noah Cowan and featuring Jordan's mother and a representative from Human Rights Watch, along with the filmmakers.

And then for a change of pace, I caught a Hong Kong police action film, BLACK COAL, THIN ICE. It opens with a particularly gruesome case of body parts cut apart, dispersed, and found in coal stacks all over a 100 mile region. Zhang (Liao Fan) is the lead investigator, and already not doing well as his wife divorces him in the opening scenes. Rather than catching the bad guy he catches a bullet (and two colleague die in the shootout) and we suddenly switch to 5 years later when he's a hopeless drunk and miserable failure as a cop. And then a new case crops up, with echoes of the coal case that destroyed him. And so he investigates, in his clumsy, drunken way. The plot is full of non-sequiturs (like his motorcycle gets randomly stolen...I don't think that was every resolved) including an insane scene of fireworks at the end. Or...I think they were non-sequiturs. I was tired and a bit drunk myself so maybe it didn't make sense because I missed a lot. or maybe it's just a weird, weird movie. In any happened.

Total Running Time: 204 minutes
My Total minutes: 394,470