Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Jason goes to Docfest--Friday, June 10

Two more, including one of my favorites and one I wish I had missed.

THE TWO DOLLAR BILL DOCUMENTARY was awesome. It's a sharing of stories and history of that amazingly quirky bit of currency. People think $2 bills aren't made anymore (some have even spent some time in jail for trying to spend them.) But in fact they're quite common...sort of. They're not much in circulation, simply because people think they're rare, so if they get one they hold onto it. And they become--to casual collectors, at least--emotionally valuable. You have fond memories of where you got it--even if it's a strip club (oh yeah, I'd heard--but never confirmed--that's a good place to get them. And that does make it into the film.) Another good place to get them in Monticello, since Jefferson enthusiasts have a yen for the $2. We meet people who love spending the $2 bill, and other than the semi-rare moments where the authenticity is questioned, people generally love it. Then we meet the serious collectors. So a regular $2 bill is worth...about $2. But there are some rare ones. Misprints..."star" series...amusing serial numbers...actually, we get a pretty good look at how all our paper money is made, but just focusing on the $2. And then there's the really old, really rare money. Like I had never actually known the difference between a Federal Reserve Note and a United States Note. I even won a $2 bill in the Q&A, for having a sharp eye to notice a 6 1/4 cent (half a "bit"--as in "2 bits, 4 bits, 6 bits, a dollar!") note. And guess what--it's a 1963 United States Note, crisp--that might be worth slightly more than $2. But to me, it's priceless, because it contains the memory of this movie.

And then the second show started with a short,

DISAMBIGUATION is seven minutes of experimental film about the BP oil spill of 2010.

And then the feature THE GREAT WALL is a study in borders. As a voice reads Franz Kafka's "The Great Wall of China" we see footage of walls...and fences...and anything else that separates people. And it just goes on and on for 74 freakin' minutes. And with how exhausted I was, and how desperately I wanted a nap, it's like this movie cursed me and wouldn't let me just peacefully drift off. I shoulda left. What the hell?

Total Running Time: 184 minutes
My Total Minutes: 431,793

Jason goes to Docfest--Thursday, June 9

A couple more films last week Thursday.

KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE was the Centerpiece feature about actress Kate Lynn Sheil preparing for and shooting a movie about Florida newscaster Christine Chubbuck, who in 1974 killed herself live on air with a bullet to the back of her head. It shows Sheil's preparation and process, and is pretty interesting. But it really should be called KATE PLAYS KATE PLAYING CHRISTINE, as it becomes clear that the existence of the documentary crew is changing the reality of how she (pretends to) prepare. I'm torn as to whether that's a detriment or not, but moments where she breaks from talking about the role to talking about how she really would prepare end up more interesting than when she's interviewing people who are tangentially connected to the shooting (i.e., people who work at the station now, or people who work at the gun store where she bought her weapon, or psychologists and other experts in suicide.) It picks up emotionally when she actually finds and talks to people who knew Christine, and the final scene is pretty powerful. But mostly I was just kind of exhausted by that time. It's another one of those films that desperately needs some editing.

Then the second program was 3 shorts and a short-ish (60 minute) feature.

JOSHUA TREE: THREATENED WONDERLAND is a gorgeously shot look at Joshua Tree National Park and the trees that give it its name. The trees, the rocks, the landscapes have given inspiration to several artists, but environmentalists warn that with air pollution, fires, and global warming the iconic trees might all be dead in less than a century. They're just not growing back at the rate they're dying, and that's sad.

CALIFORNIA DRYING is a short meditation on the years-long drought that has been affecting California, featuring some excellent aerial photography. I've certainly known the drought and have cut back on water, but honestly where I live in the Bay Area it hasn't really affected me much.

THE CROSSING is the reflections of a crossing guard in Silicon Valley, where the Caltrain tracks are a way too popular choice for teen suicide attempts. Pretty sobering.

And then the feature, EAST LA INTERCHANGE, narrated by Danny Trejo, is the story of urban planning cutting up the poorer neighborhood of Boyle Heights while leaving the more affluent neighborhoods spared. The neighborhood was (and still is, to some extent) home to a mix of Latinos, Jews, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and lower class whites (who admit to being "rednecks.) With no political power, their neighborhoods were carved up to put in the freeway interchange of the 5, 10, 101, and 60. An interesting story of what is done to the politically powerless in the name of "progress." I kinda wish I had been more awake for it.

Total Running Time: 200 minutes
My Total Minutes: 431,609

Jason goes to Docfest--Wednesday, June 8

Way behind. Two more. Quickie updates

ART OF THE PRANK is the story of Joey Skaggs, performance artist and professional media hoaxer. Sort of a spiritual successor to Alan Abel but with a more politically-minded bent (also a predecessor of The Yes Men, but with a less political bent.) Skaggs has joyfully trolled the media with a Celebrity Sperm Bank (which happened to get robbed just before the press conference) and a Cathouse for Dogs. He set up a mobile confessional booth on the back of his tricycle as a "Portofess."
The movie serves as a good overview of his career and his methods (he's a big fan of revealing the joke when it goes far enough) and features a good mix of archival hits and new interviews, as he is still working diligently to get his message out in the funniest ways he can.
THE MILLION DOLLAR DUCK is mostly about a different, and more serious, form of art (although of course my favorite guy in it is a prankster.) You might remember a side plot from FARGO about painting a duck for an art contest. That contest is for the Duck Stamp, needed for hunting licenses and used to raise money for U.S. government conservation efforts. And wildlife artists (and one impressive art prankster) compete every year to create the painting that will be featured on that year's Duck Stamp. And these are incredibly talented artists. To my untrained eye, any one of the entries we see could win. But when it gets down to the judging--three rounds of it--it's absolutely brutal. The film follows several artists, and I'm happy to say the person I was rooting for (other than the prankster) won it all. But in the interest of spoilers, I won't tell you who that is.
Total Running Time: 156 minutes
My Total Minutes: 431,409

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Jason goes to Docfest--Tuesday, June 7

Two movies a week ago Tuesday.

First up was IN CALIFORNIA, a ridiculously self-indulgent troubled romance between the director Charles Redon and his ballerina girlfriend / fiancé / wife (sorry, SPOILER ALERT) Mathilde. She's a ballerina, and he opens the movie with their breakup. Then they go back to them meeting, her struggles to make it in ballet, her job offer from San Francisco, and them moving there. Then it gets to him being bored and playing with a selfie stick, while he realizes more and more that she has her life outside of him. So he starts pushing her away and being a jerk. It gets really weird as he gets into some S&M stuff, sees a dominatrix, and buys a leather dog mask. But it doesn't feel like some breakthrough or growth, he's just as unlikeable before and after. In fact, the whole movie feels like something that should be a breakthrough and somehow isn't. So instead it's just a story of an unlikeable person and the woman he successfully stalks.

Then for a little comedy, with EAR BUDS: THE PODCASTING DOCUMENTARY. Comedy Film Nerds Chris Mancini and Graham Elwood created this documentary about podcasts. Specifically (I assume just because that's what they know) about comedy podcasts. And about how the format lets them be a little more raw, a little more experimental, and a lot more direct with fans. That's the heart of this--what makes podcasting so special is the community of fans that keep in contact even between shows, and make connections based on more than just 'I like this comedian.' The film even takes us to Japan in the wake of the tsunami, or to the middle of the Australian outback, just to meet fans and connect. And it's a good deal of fun, but it desperately needed an editor. I swear there were more than half a dozen times when the music was swelling and the narration was making some profound-ish point and I expected that to be the conclusion and credits...but instead it went on to the next story.

Total Running Time: 193 minutes
My Total Minutes: 431,253

Jason goes to Docfest--Monday, June 6

Well, the festival is almost over, so I might as well start writing about it.

I missed the whole first weekend due to Silentfest, but now it's time to hit the documentaries hard. Two programs a week ago Monday.

First up a shorts program, Cool Old Guys. Cool!
ROLLIN' FOR MILES: David Miles Jr. is cool for roller skating, dressing up, and founding the Church of 8 wheels.
A PASSION OF GOLD AND FIRE: This guy is cool for keeping bees. Bees!
BOB SWANN: Bob Swann is cool for...lots of shit. Being a bail bondsman. Having a huge collection of clocks. Shellacking roaches. Anything, really.
BORN FIGHTER: I had previously seen this at Cinequest, But Johnnie Gray is still cool for running his East Palo Alto boxing gym.
DAVID FAIR IS THE KING: David Fair is cool for being the co-founder of the band Half Japanese. Now he's cool for keeping up with art in daily life however he can.
EMORY DOUGLAS: THE ART OF THE BLACK PANTHERS: Emory Douglas is cool for... ummm... being an artist for the Black Panthers. I guess the title gave that away. In fact, he was their Minister of Culture, and the film is a cool look at art as a weapon.
PHIL'S CAMINO: Phil is cool for using walking and faith as a tool in his fight against caner. Not being Catholic, I had actually never known about the Camino de Santiago, but he sets up the equivalent in his backyard, and when his cancer is in remission, he goes on the real thing.
ROBIN BROWN: Robin is cool for being an athlete, a body builder, a model, a darling of the Parisian social classes. Until MS robbed him of all of that. But you know what, he's still cool.

And then a feature, THE DWARVENAUT. Stefan Pokorny is an artist, entrepreneur, and D&D (Dungeons and Dragons, in case anyone didn't know) enthusiast. He builds exquisitely detailed models of dungeons and cities for his fellow gamers to enjoy (at a cost, of course.) It probably helps to be a D&D fan, but it's definitely not necessary to enjoy this movie. It's more the story of a hungry artist living his dream and trying to make a living off his passion. It also gets a bit into some of the trauma in his childhood, but steers away from that before it gets too dark, focusing instead on a fairly anticlimactic Kickstarter campaign and his life at conventions (particularly drinking too much with Gary Gygax's son.)

Total Running Time: 161 minutes
My Total Minutes: 431,060

Friday, June 10, 2016

Jason goes to Silentfest--The Finale

And I've fallen about a week behind, all while I've been attending Docfest. So I hate doing this, but this'll be a super-quick abbreviated update.

The first program, bright and early, was on Fantasia of Color in Early Films. I'm not going to describe all of the movies, but for the record they were:
THE MILLS (1913)

And it was a beautiful program, reveling in the fact that color was around from the very beginning of film. Even well before Technicolor and other photo-realistic color systems, the art of hand painting, stencils, tinting (soaking the developed positive prints in a color bath, so the whites got colored,) and toning (a chemical process during developing the negatives, to give color to the black parts of the black and white film) brought the joys of color to the earliest films. And it's really cool to see, and to hear Donald Sosin playing for it.

Next up was a cool gender-bending double feature listed in the program as Girls Will Be Boys

I DON'T WANT TO BE A MAN (1918): Ernst Lubitsch makes a delightful comedy in which Ossi Oswalda is a young woman who likes to smoke, drink, and play cards. But her gender keeps her from going to the coolest clubs. But not if she dresses up like a man. And she passes pretty well as a clean shaven dandy-ish young man. And she learns how rough men are, and how rude women are. And she makes a new best friend. In fact, the film features their "bromance" blossoming into something really special (she kisses him, as a man.) Excellent.

WHAT'S THE WORLD COMING TO? (1926): A Hal Roach production, starring Jim Finlayson as a husband 100 years in the future, when women wield all the power and men are the weaker, meeker sex. Featuring "blushing grooms" and handsome, tuxedoed brides.

And featuring the music of Maud Nelissen and Frank Bockius accompanying.

Then I finally got a chance to check out a movie I've always heard of, but never actually seen, NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922): The first "documentary" despite its questionable claims of authenticity, is still an engaging story with a likeable character and his family. That it plays fast and loose with the facts is both undeniable and important. But also the fact that it's a sensitive portrayal of a way of life that used to be, even if it's long gone by the time the movie was made, is also important. As is the fact that this movie kind of set the mold for how documentaries are done--for good or for bad.

And of course, if it's set in a cold environment, the Matti Bye Ensemble has to provide the music. And they were fantastic.

And then one of the great revelations of the festival, DESTINY (DER MÜDE TOD) (1921): Fritz Lang's grand, epic battle of Love vs. Death. A mysterious stranger moves to town, buys up the land by the cemetery, and builds a giant wall with no doors or gates. This is death, and only he can take you through the walls--and no one can come back out. But when he robs a young bride of her groom, she attempts suicide to join him. The sympathetic portrayal of death--a spirit hated by all, just for doing God's will--is very powerful. And in his sympathy he makes her a deal. 4 candles are about to go out--the candles representing the life of a person. If she can keep just one of them from going out, he will let her live and give her her husband back. And so the story travels to ancient Persia. And to Venice. And to Imperial China. And is exquisite and daring and bold and powerful each and every time. But no (spoiler alert) Love cannot conquer Death. But it can willingly join it.

And the Stephen Horne Ensemble--Stephen Horne, Frank Bockius, Guenter Buchwald, and Brian Collins (of the Mont Alto Orchestra)--were magnificent in providing the music.

Next up was LES DEUX TIMIDES (1928): René Clair with another of his unique little comedies. We start with a bumbling, timid young lawyer bungling his very first case and getting his client sentenced to the maximum for (allegedly) beating his wife (the flashback scenes of both the prosecution and defense describing his domestic behavior is pretty fantastic.) Later, he and his client are rivals for the hand of a beautiful young lady. She loves him, but he's too timid to even talk to her father. Her father is likewise timid, and gives in to the ruffians demands to marry his daughter against her will, unless the timid young man can save the day. The middle part starts to drag a lot--since it's the story of timid people, much of the action is hemming and hawing and refusing to take action. But the ending is excellent as all hell breaks loose.

And the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra was likewise excellent providing the score.

And then the grand finale, WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (1919): Douglas Fairbanks, in one of his social comedies before becoming a swashbuckler (although he still finds plenty of opportunity to show off his athletic talents.) He also wrote the story, about a mad scientist who is intent on driving a person crazy to prove he can drive him to kill himself. His poor victim is Fairbanks himself, a pleasant but superstitious young man, who always seems to screw up. His butler (in the employ of the scientist) feeds him disagreeable food late at night, giving him nightmares. That makes him late for work, where his uncle has to fire him. But things turn around when he meets a nice, equally superstitious girl and falls in love. But the scientist just ups his evil plot with this new wrinkle, and an oil land swindle that's...not worth sweating the details. The most powerful part of it--and something I've been thinking about ever since--is near the end. And I have to get a bit spoiler-y about that. Fairbanks is driven to the brink, and we get a look inside his mind as the queen of reason is shaken off her throne by paranoia, fear, despair... And just at the critical moment, it's the heroic jester--sense of humor--who defeats the evil forces and returns reason to her throne. And that idea--that a sense of humor is our most powerful weapon to protect our sanity--is still true, and still profound today. I love it.

And Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius sent us off in style. And finally, Silentfest 2016 is in the books.

Total Running Time: 458 minutes
My Total Minutes: 430,899

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 3

Another huge day at SFSFF, starting with a show of Comedy restorations courtesy of Lobster Films.

BATTLE OF THE CENTURY (1927): This was the headliner, discovered recently by Jon Mirsalis (who also accompanied all the films on the piano) the famous lost second reel of this legendary Laurel and Hardy film, featuring an epic pie fight. The two reels oddly pretty much stand on their own as separate films, with Stan as a prize fighter and Ollie as his coach in the first reel, and the second reel starting with them walking down the street after buying some accident insurance. Then some hijinx with a banana peel, and we're off to the pie fights. You'd think the gag of hitting people with pies would grow old...and you'd be wrong. It was fantastic.

COPS (1922): A Keaton classic. Buster accidentally steals a wallet (from a cop) and "buys" a truckload of furniture to prove he's a good businessman and win his girl. But wacky hijinx ensue (including a particularly famous boxing glove gag, and a reference to "goat glands" treatments.) And it culminates in all of the L.A.P.D. chasing him all over town. Hilarious.

THE BALLOONATIC (1923): Buster Keaton again, with the sort of wacky hijinx only possible in cartoons (or in Buster Keaton's world.) Surprisingly, very little ballooning occurs in the movie, mostly serving to transport Buster from his crazy mishaps in an amusement park to the wilderness where he tries to survive and romance Phyllis Haver. Then it shows up again in a gag at the very end. It's not a very coherent story, even by silent short comedy standards, but it's a good collection of gags that makes your head spin.

THE DANCING PIG (1907): Completely bizarre. A pig invites a girl to dance. She strips him naked and dances with him. And then it gets weird. Those eyes...that tongue...that mouth.

Okay, I needed a break and a palate cleanser after that pig, so it was time to go to Sweden with THE STRONGEST (DEN STARKASTE) (1929.) The stark nature vistas are a character in themselves in this film. Skipper Olsen of the hunting ship Viking has a beautiful daughter, and a farmhand Ole who's sweet on her. But his son-in-law must be strong enough to take over as captain of the Viking some day. So next spring, he takes on with a rival ship, Maud, and becomes their best gunner, hunting seals. But an accident leaves him stranded on an ice floe where the Viking picks him up and rescues him. It turns out his rival for the daughter is there, and he must prove he's not just the strongest but also an honorable, good man to win the hunt and win the daughter. Some scenes of hunting (seals and polar bears) which appear to feature real animal kills tend to upset modern audiences, but I thought overall the film was magnificent and amazing.

Matti Bye Ensemble provided the soundtrack, which played as the tense heartbeat of the film. I'm running out of superlatives for the musicians.

Next up was SHOOTING STARS, a back-lot comedy-drama from England. Mae Feather (Annette Benson) and Julian Gordon (Brian Aherne) are a married acting team. Andy Wilkes (Donald Calthrop) is the studio's bushy-mustached comedy star. Unbeknownst to Julian, Mae no longer loves him and has been having an affair with Andy. So when they all get invited to make films in America, she is eager to go there with Andy, but not as much with Julian. The middle part drags somewhat...or maybe it was just me succumbing to exhaustion. But it ends with a surprising shift in tone, as the more comic tone of the first half gives way to a deadly serious dramatic turn, and a post-script that's a downright depressing statement on the fickleness of fame.

Stephen Horne was a one-man band on piano, flute, and accordion providing an excellent score for the film.

Next up was WITHIN OUR GATES (1920,) the oldest known surviving film made by an African American director (Oscar Micheaux) and something of a direct reaction to BIRTH OF A NATION (1915.) A complex and unflinching look at race in both the American south and the north, where the hatred isn't as prevalent but lynchings are not unheard of. It's a complicated plot going back and forth from the north to the small southern town of Piney Woods, where Sylvia tries to help a reverend keep his school for black children open. Actually, that part of the story is pretty straightforward. But it's complicated by her mysterious past, an anti-negro politician, his Uncle-Tom servant, a philanthropist, a murder, a frame-up, a lynching, etc. I need to watch this again with a little more rest, so I can follow all the threads. It's a smart, multi-layered movie with good and bad characters of all skin tones.

The excellent accompaniment was courtesy of a new score by Adolphus Hailstork, performed by Oakland Symphony musicians and members of the Oakland Symphony Chorus, conducted by Michael Morgan. The music was beautiful, and I was most impressed with the frequent use of silence, like the music made you feel, but this is a film that also requires some quiet moments to think, as well.

And then it was time for a comedy masterpiece, THE ITALIAN STRAW HAT (1928.) Building comedy layer-upon-layer based mostly on how articles of clothing can fail you. Cravats slip, shoes are too tight, pins stick in your back, an ear trumpet gets clogged, and then there's the business of the titular hat. A groom is on his way home to get married, when he drops his riding crop. While he fetches it, his horse wanders off and takes a big bite out of a rare hat made of Italian straw hanging from a nearby tree. It turns out that belongs to a woman who is just off in the woods with her boyfriend...who is not her husband. And if she comes home with the straw hat destroyed, her husband will know something is up. And the boyfriend--who is also a soldier--will do what it takes to make sure that doesn't happen. So the groom has to sneak away from his own wedding and find a replacement hat. And wacky hijinx ensue. What's so wonderful about this is the setup is ripe for slapstick zaniness, but director René Clair imbues it with subtle playfulness instead, with little side jokes that whimsically build on each other, so that it all feels like a perfectly natural, elegant comedy of errors and manners.

And the Guenter Buchwald Ensemble did a fantastic job complementing the comedy, after Guenter himself introduced the film.

And finally, we ended the night with THE LAST WARNING (1929.) I was tempted to skip this, as I had seen it recently back in Niles, but was intrigued by the new restoration by Universal. Here's what I wrong when I saw it last Halloween:
THE LAST WARNING (1929): Paul Leni's funny/scary backstage murder mystery, and much like his CAT AND THE CANARY established all the clichés for haunted house movies, this does the same for backstage murders (well, I guess Phantom of the Opera did a lot of that first, but still...) The opening scenes set the stage (pun intended) brilliantly. Famous actor John Woodford dies on stage during a performance of his play "The Snare." Chloroform poisoning seems to be the cause, murder is suspected, and the leading lady Miss Doris Terry (Laura La Plante) is the prime suspect. And then...the body mysteriously disappears before the coroner can conduct his autopsy. Flash forward five years, the theater has been closed, the cast has gone their separate ways. And now a new producer wants to open it up, putting on a new production of "The Snare" with the original cast (minus, of course, Woodford.) And soon after a phantom-like character appears to torment the cast with warnings and more. A nice mix of humor and suspense that Paul Leni was great at (too bad he died shortly after making this film) and an effective reveal at the end. Good film.
All still true, and still a great film. And the restoration is pretty clean, although I have it on good authority there was more source material (including a little color) that they could've used. Still, a great way to end a great and exhausting day at the festival.

Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius were the fantastic accompanists for the film.

Total Running Time: 535 minutes
My Total Minutes: 430,442

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 2

Friday started bright and early at 10:00 am with a SFSFF tradition, Amazing Tales From the Archives. It is...exactly what it sounds. A short series of presentations about what's going on in archives around the world.

First, from BFI, footage from Stoll studios in Cricklewood England. We get treated to some "behind the scenes" footage, everything from workers entering the studio, to auditions from women all over England, to lab footage showing how the film is made, from perforation to developing to positive prints and drying. And we end with a gala visit by Jackie Coogan. And the whole thing was accompanied by Stephen Horne on the piano.

Then Universal Studios did a presentation on their overall restoration/archival program, focusing on a sneak previews of scenes from THE LAST WARNING, playing Saturday night (by the time this is written, probably "tonight.") I was actually considering skipping that, just because I had seen it just last Halloween at Niles. But having seen a taste of the restoration, I'm going to have to see the whole thing.

And finally, Georges Mourier, who is currently overseeing a new restoration gave us the epic story of the epic reconstruction of the epic film, Abel Gance's NAPOLEON (have I mentioned it's pretty epic?) Most amazing is how many versions of this film exist/have existed. 4 versions by Gance himself: 2 silents--the Opera and Apollo versions (named after the theaters where they premiered) and 2 talkies, made decades later and with different actors in framing scenes as Napoleon. 5 different reconstructions (3 by Kevin Brownlow.) And finally the amazing discovery--the key to the film. That the ~4.5 hour Opera version and ~9 hour Apollo versions were from completely different negatives. They really were completely different films. Gance himself described seeing restorations mixing versions as like listening to a few bars of Debussy then a few bars of Brahms. Truly an amazing tale from archives all over the world. Now I can't wait to see the Mourier reconstruction.

Then after a brief break, A WOMAN OF THE WORLD (1925) starring Pola Negri as the beautiful and sophisticated Countess Elnora Natatorini. After being betrayed by the man she loved so much that she got his crest tattooed on her arm (scandalous!) she travels halfway around the world to visit her Midwest American cousin Sam Poore (Chester Conklin, in a wonderfully funny role.) The local D.A. Granger (Holmes Herbert) has it in for vice--dancing, women who smoke, etc. But it'll be hard to keep his resolve when the countess comes to town. After all, Pola Negri just doing what she does with her eyes while fondling a cigarette is damn near the sexiest thing I've ever seen...and I watch a lot of porn. But I digress. It's just a funny, funny movie. 

And Donald Sosin did a great job accompanying, as usual.

Then we traveled to Japan for a little Ozu with THAT NIGHT'S WIFE (1930.) A rarity for Ozu--a gangster picture. We start with a robbery, and only later we learn the reason--a father trying to save his sick daughter. But a cop tracks him down at home, and a tense standoff begins, with the wife holding the cop at gunpoint and trying not to fall asleep (it's either unfortunate or appropriate that I was having a similar struggle with exhaustion at this point.) The crime thriller turns into a tense family drama, as the father feels remorse for his crime and the cop doesn't want the daughter to die. So at least wait until the doctor can treat her before anything regrettable happens. A simple little drama, that showcases (especially with background posters) Ozu's inspiration from American cinema, and his ability to  make it his own.

Silentfest newcomer Maud Nelissen accompanied on the piano, with a score that was beautifully understated.

Next up was MOTHERS OF MEN (1917) or EVERY WOMAN'S PROBLEM (1921 re-release title) Shot in Santa Cruz, it's a suffragette picture, but rather than an earnest plea for women's suffrage, it takes place in the "near future" when women already have the vote and are entering the world of politics. In particular, Clara Madison (Dorothy Davenport) who has just been elected superior court judge in an unspecified western state despite having the local muck-raking newspaper totally against her (strangely, California, where it was shot, still hasn't had a female governor nearly 100 years later.) It makes it awkward when her husband actually argues a case before her (um...were there not recusal rules back then?) Anyway, even when she rules against her husband's client and the way the newspaper wanted her to, they still write biased editorials that she only did it to misdirect the public about all the corruption and graft she's gonna pull. Now...while this film might be friendly to gender equality, it's not so friendly to race...particularly Italians. Who hatch a ludicrous plot to blow up the newspaper and frame her husband...right when she's running for governor. And even when she wins, and they have a baby on the way, she can't pardon him because...reasons? Really, because it would show women are ruled by emotions rather than a stern sense of justice that's needed in a political leader, so if she did it no woman would ever be elected again. I really, really wanted to like this movie more, and it's heart is in the right place...but by now it's pretty corny and dated. Not that some issues of sexism in the media aren't still totally valid.

And the Mont Alto Orchestra did a typically excellent job accompanying.

Then there was VARIETÉ (1925) by E.A. Dupont and starring Emil Jannings and Lya de Putti. Damn, with Lousie Brooks, Pola Negri, and now Lya de Putti (who is pure sin poured into the shape of a woman) in two days, women of the silent screen have never been more alluring. Anyway, Jannings plays Boss, a retired trapeze artist. And de Putti plays a girl who seduces him out of retirement. He leaves his wife and young child to run away with her to Berlin, where they play in the carnival by the Wintergarten. There they are spotted by master of the trapeze Artinelli, whose brother has just broken his leg so he needs a new partner--or partners--for his act. And they are just the thing, until the little seductress might like him more than Jannings...

I won't say how it ends...but it starts with Jannings in prison, confessing to how he got there. And along the way there are all sorts of bawdy, silly, acrobatic, astounding acts.

Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, in their second year at the festival, again makes me run out of superlatives and marvel that they're still only students. The longest standing ovation I've seen at the festival since...I don't remember when.

And finally, we ended the long day and night with BEHIND THE DOOR (1919,) and oddity I had never heard of, and now doubt I'll ever forget. Hobart Bosworth (who I'll always remember in Captain January opposite Baby Peggy) stars as Captain Oscar Klug, a kindly taxidermist with an admittedly German name but American through-and-through. But he has to prove it with his fists when WWI is declared. And he does a fine job at that, beating the crap out of MacTavish until he's convinced and they're immediately best friends. Soon enough he enlists and is captaining an American ship, along with his new first mate MacTavish. Unfortunately, his girlfriend's father still doesn't like him. And especially doesn't like when they married just before he shipped out. So faced with the prospect of being kicked out of home, she stows away on her husband's ship. Which is only nice for a brief moment, until they're attacked by a U-boat with a dastardly crew of rapists. Yeah, this movie pulls no punches. And neither does Klug, when he survives, blows up the U-boat, and gets his revenge-bent hands on the captain.

Stephen Horne accompanied, bringing us full circle from the morning, and sending us off with...well, that's not a movie that ends with a smile. But sends us off impressed. I'm still not sure I really saw what I know I saw.

Total Running Time: 397 minutes
My Total Minutes: 429,907

Friday, June 3, 2016

Jason goes to Silentfest--Opening Night

The most intense weekend of film in the whole Bay Area kicked off last night, and despite the conflict with Docfest I was there (hey Docfest friends, I'll see you Monday)

After the standard thank-yous, we jumped right into the opening film, BEGGARS OF LIFE (1928,) starring Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen, and Wallace Beery. Arlen plays "The Boy" (who is actually referred to as "Jim" at one point in the movie) a tramp who happens upon a house where breakfast is laid out. He knocks, and enters, begging the man for a bite to eat, and promising he'll work for it. And then he finds the man is dead, shot through by his adopted daughter (Brooks) who is now dressed in boys' clothes. She explains how he tried to molest her and she defended herself, and soon they're on the run, at first just far enough for her to hop a train and him to hop one going in the opposite direction. But soon enough they end up together, sleeping under a haystack and eventually getting in with a gang of hoboes led by Oklahoma Red (Beery.) Director William Wellman (WINGS) is fantastic at playing the pathos, the comedy, the action in equal measures, as they struggle to survive the hobos (especially Red, who tries to claim her as his own) and the cops (or "dicks"...tee hee!) who are chasing her down for murder. It's a wonderful, exciting time, although the whole part where Red the attempted rapist turns out being not such a bad guy after all is a little...let's call it "outdated" for these times.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra did a typically fantastic job of providing the musical accompaniment, and the SFSFF is off to an excellent start to 2016!

Running Time: 81 minutes
My Total Minutes: 429,511

Thursday, June 2, 2016


The story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the self-trained Indian mathematician who was supposedly "personal friends" with ever positive integer. Dev Patel does a fine job, alongside such British iconic actors as Jeremy Irons, Toby Jones, and Stephen Fry (among others.) And his life story is certainly an interesting one. A powerful mind, intuitive with numbers, but died way too young of tuberculosis. They movie has a lot of interesting parts to it, and the acting was great, but I don't think the filmmakers ever decided what exactly it was about. Was it about the mathematics?'s there, but a movie that explored the mathematics more would've appealed to a very limited audience. Was it about his marriage? Now there's an interesting story (I don't know how true it is) where he went overseas to work at King's College leaving his wife behind, and his mother interfered with their communications. But that part is badly underdeveloped and often forgotten entirely for long stretches. Is it about his relationship with his mentor and ultimately friend G. H. Hardy? Mostly, but it doesn't commit fully to it. Is it about racism in WWI-era England? Partly, but again underdeveloped. I don't know, maybe he's just a man who lived so much in his brief years (less than 33) that it's impossible to focus on just one thing.

Running Time: 108 minutes
My Total Minutes: 429,430


The Marvel Cinematic Universe rules still hold: For pure fun, see the new character introductions (ANT-MAN, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, etc.) For fan service, see the Avengers titles. And to actually move the universe forward, see the Captain America movies.

Also, it's becoming increasingly clear that as much fun as they are, the main motivation to see these movies has become fear of not knowing what's going on in the next one.

Now I want to make this clear: I enjoyed this movie. In many ways it's the bravest of the MCU, challenging the audience with political/philosophical questions about hero-hood, oversight and responsibility. And the new characters (Black Panther and Spider-ManBoy) are introduced well and given their time to shine. In fact, everyone is given their time to shine, in an even more balanced and interesting way than either Avengers movie.

But none of that can overcome the fact that the entire plot--the plot of the villain as well as the movie--relies on both Iron Man and Captain America acting completely out of character. It would make much more logical sense if Cap was willing to place oversight over the Avengers and Tony was the wild card who believed in himself above all. And they're given reasons--good reasons--to act as they do, but it still bugged me...if not in the moment then at least a couple of weeks later when I wrote this.

And I wrong to be somewhat underwhelmed by  the new Spider-Man? I'll wait for his stand-alone movie to come out. And I'm not saying Tom Holland was bad. But I'm just perplexed by people gushing over how we finally have a "good" Spider-Man. I'm not saying Andrew Garfield was great, but I did like Tobey least for two movies (I'll admit part 3 went off the rails.) I don't know, maybe that's just me.

Running Time: 147 minutes
My Total Minutes: 429,322

Jason goes to SFIFF--Closing Night

Yay, finally I'm finishing SFIFF! And that final film was THE BANDIT, a funny, engaging documentary about Burt Reynolds, Hal Needham, and their iconic film, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. But let's start with their friendship. Hal Needham was Burt's longtime stunt double, friend, and sometimes roommate. In many ways, Hal always wanted to be the star, and Burt wanted to be the stuntman--the ultimate in masculinity. So they got along great as a sort of mutual admiration society. The film rolls along with gusto exploring their friendship and the wacky hijinx making SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, starting with the original idea when they noticed the crew on GATOR were bringing in cases of Coor's beer to Georgia, which didn't have any. And taking the story all the way to the release, where Hollywood/New York critics hated it, but the intended southern outlaw audience loved it. Dammit, it's been so long since I've seen SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, I kinda want to see it again.

And then over to the party for a little snacks and a whole lot of booze, and finally...finally...SFIFF 2016 is in the books.

Running Time: 82 minutes
My Total Minutes: 429,174

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 14

The penultimate night, and just one film. I needed a little sleep before the big final party.

UNLOCKING THE CAGE is a fascinating documentary about animal rights. And not just in the philosophical, activist sense. In the legal sense, as in establishing some notion of legal "personhood" for at least some types of animals, and giving them legal rights. Steven Wise is a lawyer, and his clients are all animals. He's the council for the Non-Human Rights Project, and his cases are all (so far) about chimps being kept in captivity in inhumane conditions. Which seems like something that could be argued on an animal welfare basis, but he's specifically pushing for it to be about animal rights. The distinction is least to him. And leads to a fascinating, well-made documentary that raises some really interesting questions about where you draw the line on autonomy. Although to be clear, his goal isn't to set these chimps free entirely (they wouldn't survive in the wild) but to get them into a much better sanctuary than the roadside attractions they're kept in now. So even then, there is some limit to the freedoms they'd have.

Running Time: 91 minutes
My Total Minutes: 429,092

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 13

Almost finished with SFIFF...barely a month later.

MUSIC WITH STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE is a documentary Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. That is, a collection of world-renowned and highly adventurous musicians who collaborate to create...well, they start out not knowing what they'll create. But when you get creative people from around the world who are eager to not just share their style but to play with someone else's...the results are bound to be interesting. And it's really that love of music and experimentation that makes this such a joy. It could've been a 100% concert film, and the music performances are wonderful, but it's also the fun of the musicians talking to and about each other, and their mutual respect and admiration for each other. That was just really, really cool.

And then GOAT was something completely different--a narrative about frat hazing. A freshman suffers a mugging at the hand of some townies. He's vulnerable, and likes the idea of having a whole fraternity of brothers who will have his back in any incident. Meanwhile his actual older brother (played by Nick Jonas, who does a fine job transitioning from pop star to actor) is already in the frat, and having some misgivings about the hazing rituals. Physical abuse, alcohol abuse, pushing them father then ever. And while the pledges are called "goats" there's also a real goat that they have to...perform acts on. Or at least it's threatened. As the hazing abuse piles on, it gets really really creepy, and ends up being a condemnation of not just frat hazing specifically, but fucked-up notions of masculinity generally. But I'm not going to tell you if there's any actual goat-fucking.

Total Running Time: 198
My Total Minutes: 429,002

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 12

I have fallen way behind schedule again, so these will be brief review-dumps.

LIFE-ANIMATED is the inspiring and heartwarming story of Ron Suskind's son Owen. At the age of three, Owen became withdrawn. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed as autistic (Pervasive Developmental Disorder.) Unable to communicate, make friends, etc. He was pretty much doomed to live a pretty difficult, lonely life. Until they realized the gibberish he was supposedly speaking was actually his attempt to quote Disney cartoons, and that was how he was trying to communicate. And he built a life, and relationships, based on that. As a film fan, I gotta say it's really pretty cool to see this art form that has brought me so much joy--but which I still see as just an extreme hobby--bring so much more to something else. These aren't just telling stories...or rather, stories aren't just pastimes...they're bringing life. And that's awesome.

WIENER-DOG is Todd Solondz's long-awaited sorta-sequel to WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (even after he killed off Dawn Wiener in PALINDROMES.) I gotta start by saying that as a Wiener myself, WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE--all about how much junior high sucks when your name is Wiener--is a very important movie to me. And while his humor is pitch-black (and still is) it's a bit more playful by now (like...maybe he's calmed down a bit and softened some of his roughest edges.) The main character is actually not Dawn Wiener, but a daschund, who goes through several stories spreading joy...or his succession of owners. Dawn Wiener does show up, all grown up now. And as appealing as Greta Gerwig is (and she does a fine job) Heater Matarazzo will always be my Dawn Wiener. But let's not dwell on the past too much.

Total Running Time: 181 minutes
My Total Minutes: 428,803

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 11 (plus one bonus film)

Sunday was a long, exhausting day. I might actually be getting too old for this. I'm starting to sympathize more with the people who go home early instead of staying up for the last show of the night. Maybe in another 10 years, that'll be me.
Anyway, I started bright and early at 10:00 a.m. with the special members' screening, A MONSTER WITH A THOUSAND HEADS. Taking a concept that would feel right at home in the U.S. a middle-aged Mexican woman's husband is gravely ill and the insurance company is blocking the necessary treatment to keep him alive. She tries to navigate the labyrinth of administrators who give her the runaround. But when that doesn't work, she takes the logical step of grabbing a gun and getting things done her own way. For a slow-build, tense thriller, it's remarkably short and efficient (74 minutes) and completely satisfying both as a dramatic social justice thriller and a melodramatic revenge fantasy. I'll admit I was a bit too sleepy that early in the morning, so I'm sure I missed some of the finer points of the film, but I'll be happy to watch it again when it gets released into general theatrical distribution (I don't know when that will be.)
And then I played hooky for one film. The film I've heard the most about isn't actually playing in the festival, but is playing at the new home of the festival--The Alamo Drafthouse New Mission. GREEN ROOM is the latest from Jeremy Saulnier (MURDER PARTY and BLUE RUIN...and I'm very happy we didn't need six years between features this time.) A punk band is on a not very successful tour. But through a friend they get booked into a pretty...unusual place. Specifically, a skinhead white supremacist bar. And they are ballsy and punk enough to sing a song that's entirely a "fuck you Nazis" message. But their show still goes...more or less okay. Until they kinda sorta accidentally witness a murder, and then are help captive. They're probably gonna be killed, but for the moment they're just held in check until the leader of the skinheads, Darcy (Patrick m-fuckin' Stewart!) decides what to do. Stewart is obviously relishing his chance to play an absolutely evil guy, and he's great at it. And once again, I'm very happy Saulnier has made a new film so shortly after his last one. Can't wait to see what he'll do next.
So then back to the festival, with AUDRIE & DAISY, a powerful hot-button documentary about schoolgirl sexual abuse, and the aftermath. Teens go to parties. Teens drink too much. Teen girls sometimes pass out. And, unfortunately, sometimes the boys who they thought were friends, take advantage of them. And, worse yet, sometimes that gets posted online, and the victim is re-victimized with cyber-bullying and slut-shaming. Sometimes this even drives them to suicide (that was the case with Audrie.) But lest you think this is a completely depressing film, let me assure you it's only mostly depressing. Because it also showcases the courage of survivors who do speak out (that's Daisy's story) and the support network that comes from that. If there's one big message I could give to anyone who has been in any sort of bullying situation (sexual or otherwise) it's this: it's not the taunts of your enemies that hurt, it's the silence of your friends. Actually that's especially directed and anyone who knows someone who has been bullied. Please keep that in mind.
Next up was a very different kind of documentary, PETER AND THE FARM. Peter Dunning is a very interesting man. He has a past that is...well, let's say it's "mixed." He now lives alone on a farm, with his animals. And at times it's like he's found his own slice of paradise. And at other times, he goes on about how this movie should climax with his suicide. He's a funny, prickly, philosophical man. Also a recovering alcoholic who suffers from depression and is convinced his now grown children wouldn't even pick up the phone if he called. He's also getting too old and frail to successfully operate his 187 acres at Mile Hill Farm, so even the one thing that brings him joy and peace is slowly slipping away. But don't mistake this for a depressing movie. He's still a quick-witted, funny guy and the movie is full of gorgeous shots of the farm and the surrounding wilderness. He just has a lot below the surface, and will freely let you know that, without telling you exactly what it is.
And finally, I ended the night and the weekend with VERY BIG SHOT, a Lebanese crime thriller comedy. Allegedly inspired by true events (namely, a coked-up filmmaker) it's the story of a small-time drug dealer in Beirut who learns from a director about an old legendary scam where they hid drugs in film cans to sneak them past customs. And so he becomes an independent film producer just to make this scam works. And it turns out...he's got a knack for filmmaking, and wacky hijinx ensue! What a cool way to finish the weekend.
Total Running Time:  463 minutes
My Total Minutes: 428,623