Thursday, December 24, 2015

Jason Watches STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS...twice

First in Mountain View on the opening Saturday morning, then again in Anchorage with my family (at least, my parents, brother, and niece.)

And I'll try to be spoiler-free.

I'll start by saying that knowing J.J. Abrams I was expecting one thing and hoping for another thing.

I was expecting a ton of fan service call-backs and references to the original films. We got plenty of that.

I was hoping he would put enough effort into the new characters that I would care about them for the ensuing movies instead of making them all about the older versions of the old characters. Wow, did he knock that one out of the park! Before the first old character shows up, I had 4 new heroes (Finn, Poe, Rey, and of course BB-8) who I immediately loved, and a villain who can certainly strike fear (Kylo Ren.) That villain becomes more nuanced throughout the movie (check out this twitter feed for some laughs--after you've seen the movie) and there's an Emperor surrogate in Supreme Leader Snoke who so far is only shown in hologram (no big deal, it took us three movies to see Emperor Palpatine in real life.)

The action, acting, cinematography...all top notch. And my 11 year old niece can attest to the fact that you don't need to have seen the original movies to enjoy what's going on (she knows about the characters, just hasn't seen all of the originals.)

The near-consensus seems to be that this is the third best STAR WARS movie. Better (obviously) than the prequels, better than RETURN OF THE JEDI, but not quite at the level of the original STAR WARS or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

I beg to differ. THE FORCE AWAKENS is might be the best yet. No, it can never be the groundbreaking invention of the first one. And EMPIRE is excellent. But those movies have the benefit of 3-4 decades of...not just nostalgia but of repetition. There's a love that comes with knowing every beat of a movie. Even knowing where to laugh at a stormtrooper bonking his head on the ceiling (complete with sound effect) or to laugh-cringe at Leia kissing Luke. I crossed out "is" above and wrote "might be" because we won't know for sure how this movie holds up with 30 years of nostalgic repetition behind it, but I just know I loved it as much as any of the originals the first time I saw it, and it holds up to a repeat screening very well. I'll let you know soon enough how it holds up to a third, fourth, and more screenings.

Running Time: 135 minutes (x2)
My Total Minutes: 413,253

Jason goes to Midnites for Maniacs for a "Family Matters" double bill

And no, I don't mean that Urkel TV show. Movies about family.

MRS DOUBTFIRE (1993): I wasn't all that excited to see this. Not that it's a bad movie, it's just that I've seen it so many times. But it was the first time I saw it in San Francisco, and it's a very San Francisco movie, in many ways. It's also the first time I saw it with Jess Ficks introducing it, and he has a knack for making me see movies in a different light. Like this time, I didn't watch it as a screwball comedy (I knew all the jokes by heart anyway) but watched it as a very real, heartfelt, heartwarming, and heartbreaking family drama. As much as it's about a guy pretending to be an old woman, it's about a man distraught over losing his marriage and his kids. You can see something of the pain of life that Robin Williams knew far too well. And it's weird to think of how he was only loved when he was pretending to be someone else. I've read this Cracked article many times since Williams' suicide, and I wouldn't pretend to know what was going on in his head and in his life when he killed himself, but reading that article...makes a lot of sense to me. I can't write any more about this.

THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999): And then David Lynch's most overlooked film. In a career known for strangeness and violence, perhaps his strangest film is this G-rated movie released by Disney and based on a true story. Also, strangely, it stars a man who killed himself (shortly after the movie was made.) Richard Farnsworth is brilliant as Alvin Straight. He's an old man, stubborn, self-reliant, living with his special-needs daughter (Sissy Spacek, who is also great.) When he hears that his brother had a stroke, he sets out to visit him. One problem--he has no fact no driver's license because his eyes are so bad. So he puts his stubbornness to use and comes up with a plan--he'll drive there (some 250 miles) on his riding mower. Of course, he has some trouble on the way, but he also meets some nice people. And ruminates on aging, on life, on old wounds, stubbornness, and brothers who haven't spoken in years. And that ending...when I first saw it I didn't think much of it. After his long journey, he and his brother (Harry Dean Stanton) just lie outside and look at the stars, like they did when they were kids. But this time I noticed something strange about the stars. They were moving slowly towards and past the camera. Like this wasn't just a view of people watching the stars from Earth. They...or their souls...ascended out into the stars, and through them. Maybe far through them. Perhaps even to a galaxy far, far, away....

Which brings me to the next movie I saw...

Total Running Time: 237 minutes
My Total Minutes: 412,983

Jason goes to Noir City Xmas

Tickets and passes for Noir City 2016 are on sale now! I got mine at the Xmas event, and saw a couple of kick-ass noir flicks.

THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949): Joan Bennett is Lucia Harper, living in Balboa, near Los Angeles. Her daughter Bea, off in art school, is seeing a no-good man named Ted Darby. Lucia goes to confront him, and true to form he asks for money to leave Bea. That night Bea sneaks out to the boathouse to see Ted. They start to fight, and in a little accident he falls over the ledge and lands on an anchor, killing him. The next day, when Lucia finds his body and knows her daughter will be in trouble, she goes all super-mom and does whatever she can to protect her child. And then James Mason shows up as Martin Donnelly, a man with some prime blackmail material. So Lucia has to jump through hoop after hoop trying to raise blackmail money. A cool story, with a super cool cast.

KISS OF DEATH (1947): Victor Mature is Nick Bianco, a small-time hood who was busted trying to pull of a jewel heist. But the D.A. can see something's different about him. He's a family man (and not the mafia, I mean he has a wife and kids) so he has something worth staying out of jail for. But no dice, he's not a rat, and goes to jail, with assurances from his lawyer that his family will be taken care of. But that's not the case, as his wife commits suicide, and only then does he decide to turn informant. Which causes no small amount of complications, mostly in the form of Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) a smiling, cackling hit man who is chasing down anyone who informs on the gang. Another cool story with a great cast.

Man, I can't wait for Noir City when I get a full week of this!

Total Running Time: 180 minutes
My Total Minutes: 412,745


Well, it's finally over.

And (SPOILER ALERT) what was beaten into us for 3 1/2 movies--that President Snow must die!--is kind of turned on its ear in the end. Which weirdly, reminded me of the end of the MATRIX trilogy, when the relentless beat of Gnosticism was replaced with a synthesis of mind, body, and soul. It's kind of a cheat, but it also points to how complex the world is and how simple answers don't often work. Which is cool. And the action is cool, the love out in the end. The politics is...more complicated than we were led to believe (at least by the movies, I can't help but think it was laid out better in the book.) And Katniss does, in some way, earn her life of a champion. And the audience can move on to something else.

Running Time: 137 minutes
My Total Minutes: 412,566

Jason watches CREED

Catching up again, after falling behind on the old bloggin'

I have to give full credit to Jesse Hawthorne Ficks and his Midnites for Maniacs series for making me reexamine the Rocky series as good, heartfelt, even smart movies, and for reexamining Sylvester Stallone as actually an incredibly talented, heartfelt, and even smart actor.

There's a saying that great actors become their characters, while movie stars make their characters become them. By that standard, Stallone is certainly a movie star--there's never a movie where he is not Sly Stallone. But he actually goes beyond this, and becomes something even more. Let's call it an icon, if it needs a word, but the quality I've finally noticed in him is he's one of those rare stars whose body of work means something--there's a line of thought cutting through it that one can follow the same way one follows the developing ideas of one's favorite directors. For the vast majority of movie stars, the only overarching message their career communicates is "Look at me! I'm so cool! I'm a movie star!" But Stallone's career means something more. He says something about the struggle of life. The pain, the hardship...but how it's ultimately worth it. That's certainly the story of Rocky, and it's the story of Stallone's life. So it's no big surprise that it's also the story of his characters.

Anyway, CREED passes that struggle, and that triumph, to a new generation. Michael B. Jordan, as Apollo Creed's illegitimate son, takes up the mantle well. Ryan Coogler's accomplished directing (hey, check out that first legitimate fight, all shot in a single take!) moves the story along with all the tension, drama, and humanity to make it compelling. And if there's any justice, Stallone will finally get an Oscar as best supporting actor.

A crank could criticize the movie as being derivative. It is, after all the Rocky story just with a new Rocky. But that's just because the Rocky story is fucking timeless, and we wouldn't want it to end.

Running Time: 133 minutes
My Total Minutes: 412,248

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Jason goes to the Silent Film Festival's Day of Silents

It was weird, in the wake of the Paris attacks, telling people I was going up to the city for a day of silent, and having them think I met "silence." In any case, a full day of silent films, including some gems I'd never seen before.

THE BLACK PIRATE (1926): This one I had seen before, most recently in 2009, when I wrote this:
And then Douglas Fairbanks wowed the crowd with his trademark daring-do--in Technicolor. That's right, all the way back in the silent days (THE BLACK PIRATE was made in 1926), there were some color films. Two-strip Technicolor was the new thing then, although it was very expensive and some projectionists had a hard time with it, so it was released in color and black-and-white prints. We got the color version.
Fairbanks plays the title role (of course), but he doesn't start as a pirate. He and his father are the only survivors of a pirate attack, and are marooned on an island. He swears revenge, and as luck would have it the pirates show up to hide their treasure. But instead of a straightforward attack, he uses his cunning. He joins the pirates, and kills their leader in a test of strength and skill with a sword. To most, he becomes the new leader, but there's a faction that is loyal to the old ways. He wins most over by taking a merchant vessel single-handed (a showcase of his acrobatics). But then when it's discovered that there's a beautiful young lady on the ship, he must protect her--both because of his sense of honor and because of love at first sight. And this leads to more cunning, more acrobatics, and more heroism.

Well, that's okay for a plot synopsis, but it doesn't convey how much fun the movie is. Douglas Fairbanks is still Superman in my book.

AROUND CHINA WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1900-1948): Now this was a fascinating compilation from the BFI's archives. See Shanghai as a major international city. See the gates of the Forbidden City in Beijing. And also see the variety of film techniques in the day (tinted film, static or moving shots...this is a quick argument against anyone who naively thinks all silent films are alike.) And at the end it features some mysterious footage that might just be the oldest film ever shot in China (possibly pre-1900.) Pretty cool.

THE GRIM GAME (1919): One thing I didn't know before getting into silent films was that Harry Houdini was, in fact, a movie star. This movie, like his others, is an excuse to put him in one ridiculous escape scenario after another. In this one he plays a newspaper reporter with rich, miserly uncle who hates him. Houdini comes up with a strange plan to increase newspaper sales--frame himself for his uncle's murder. Not only will it drive up sales, but when the uncle shows up alive after a vacation in the country, it will totally discredit the idea of "circumstantial evidence"--the paper's cause célèbre. Unfortunately his boss and his business associates have their own plans--actually kill the uncle, frame Houdini, and steal the money. So Houdini has to go through one daring escape after another--and even an airplane stunt--to prove his innocence and catch the bad guys. Not the most nuanced of plots, but as a device to get Houdini from one escape to another, it serves pretty well. And his charisma does come across on screen.

THE INHUMAN WOMAN (1924): The we got to the real major treat of the day, a movie I want to own more than any other (and will be coming courtesy of Lobster Films and Flicker Alley in February!) It's beautifully constructed, with wild expressionist sets and architecture that out-Metropolis METROPOLIS four years before it was made. The story centers around a famous singer and her parties that attract artistic and intellectual elites from around the world--really any important person must be invited to her parties at least once. Of course all the men try to woo her, but all are rebuffed. Most importantly, a young engineer and inventor, who after being rebuffed drives off in a hurry and crashes over a cliff into the sea. She is blamed for the suicide, but goes ahead with her next concert anyway (where the extras in the audience include Picasso, Man Ray, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound...not to be a name-dropper.) The story takes increasingly bizarre, fantastical, science-fiction turns, and is just an absolutely amazing masterpiece, which apparently caused quite a controversy when it was first released.

PICADILLY (1929): And finally, we ended the night with Anna May Wong at her finest. Wong is still a favorite, especially in the Asian-heavy demographics of the SF Bay Area. And after getting nothing more than stereotypical dragon-lady roles in Hollywood, she moved to England for this film. She plays Shosho, a scullery maid in a popular London club. There her dancing is distracting enough to cause problems--a dirty plate makes it to the restaurant table. She's fired, but shortly after so is the club's star dance attraction. So the club manager finds her and decides a little exotic charm might be just what the club needs. Multiple love triangles ensue, and since she comes from the tough part of town (the Limehouse district) you just know someone's gonna ended up all murdered. Wong is perfect as a femme fatale with childlike sweetness...if you treat her right. A character straight out of the best of film noir, and this movie serves as a great bit of proto-noir.

And that was the Day of Silents. Looking forward to the whole long weekend of silents back at the Castro next June!

Total Running Time: 439 minutes
My Total Minutes: 412,295

Jason watches THE NIGHT BEFORE

Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, and Joseph Godon-Levitt made a Christmas drug comedy that doesn't know if it wants to shock and amuse or if it wants to tug at your heart strings. Ultimately it does a little bit of both, and packs in a ton of celebrity cameos, tacks it to a tenuous "A Christmas Carol" based plot, and never really commits to any one tone. It was mostly fun, but ultimately forgettable. Unless it's secretly one of those movies you can watch over and over again and find all the little hidden nuances. It's quite possible the team behind it was smart enough to do that, but for now I'm not sensing this as being a film I'll have much desire to revisit.

Running Time: 101 minutes
My Total Minutes: 411,857

Jason goes to Midnites for Maniacs for a tribute to Arnold and Sly

Call it COM-RAMBO night. And call me a sucker for some mid-80s tough guy action flicks. Or call it time to reexamine these films, and find something new in them.

COMMANDO (1985): Okay, first up is Arnold, at the top of his muscle-bound, wise-cracking, ass-kicking game. Although it starts with a common theme of the night--soldiers who don't really want to fight anymore. But that all goes out the window when he is blackmailed into doing the bad guy's dirty work or risk his daughter's life (Alyssa Milano, in nearly her first role ever.) Of course he fights back, in an escalating series of incredible action pieces, obligatory detective work, and snappy one-liners. This isn't his most famous film, but this might be Arnold at his most Arnold-iness, and it's some damn good fun.

Between the movies, our host Jesse Ficks expounded on his theory of Arnold and Stallone being the Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin of action flicks. And darn it, the theory actually works. Arnold is Keaton--if not the Great Stone Face, at least the cool, clever calm in the center of the storm. Stallone, on the other hand, is the Tramp, the emotive character who is often down on his luck and wears his heart on his sleeve. Which brings us to...

RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985): It's accepted wisdom that FIRST BLOOD (1982) is a good dramatic movie that devolved into mindless violence with its sequel. And it's time to revisit that, with first acknowledging one simple fact--Rambo doesn't want to fight. In fact, that's largely an over-arching theme to Stallone's career (spoiler alert for my upcoming CREED review)--that life is a brutal struggle that's not necessarily of your own making, but there's dignity and honor in that struggle. Rambo is now plucked from prison for a simple reconnaissance mission, and double-crossed and left for dead. But of course, he doesn't die. In fact, he finally wins the Vietnam War and beats the Russians (don't think too hard about what the Russians were doing in Vietnam, it was the 80s, Russians were everywhere.) At least, that's the Cold-War-Fantasy interpretation of the movies, that it's post-Vietnam military wish fulfillment. And that interpretation simply overlooks glaring plot points like how the U.S. military brass are the bad guys in the film and Rambo only fights to rescue abandoned POWs. For an alleged pro-USA military fantasy, this is a pretty anti-American plot. At least, anti-American leadership. It might be time to reexamine the entire Rambo series as much more complicated and nuanced than I remember them.

Total Running Time: 186 minutes
My Total Minutes: 411,756