Sunday, January 29, 2017

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 9

The penultimate day. Four films on Saturday

CHARLEY VARRICK (1973): We start with Walter Matthau as the titular character, originally intended for Clint Eastwood (and there's a little inside joke in the movie about that.) He's a small time crook. A former stunt pilot and semi-current cropduster, he's "The Last of the Independents" (which was the working title of the movie) until big pesticide companies forced him out. So he robs small banks for a few thousand at a time to get by. And he's got a small gang of professionals working with him. But not everything goes right on the job that opens the film. First, his wife gets shot and doesn't survive. Which gives us a chance to see how even when he's heartbroken Charley never stops being smart. Rather than shed a tear he just thinks a moment, and burns her body with the getaway car (burning the car was always part of the plan.) And when he and his surviving partner make it home to his trailer, they realize they made a pretty big score. For some reason, the small bank is Tres Cruces had over $750,000 in it. But Charley's smart. He figures out pretty quick why they had so much money--it was a drop off of mob money before they launder it overseas. So they've got a big problem, and it's not that the cops are after them. Charley is smart, but I won't say if he's smart enough to escape both the law and the cosa nostra. Interestingly, Clint Eastwood turned the role down because he said the character had no redeeming features. Perhaps it's just Matthau's friendly face, but I think he brings something redeeming to the role.

THE BRINK'S JOB (1978): Perhaps the only guy who can be as lovable a crook as Walter Matthau is Peter Falk. And he plays Tony Pino, a small-time crook in Boston who, with the help of a few fellow small-time crooks (including Peter Boyle, Warren Oates, and Paul Sorvino) pulls of the "Crime of the Century." Based on real events, after hilariously screwing up a caper in a gumball factory--a sequence that establishes these guys as certifiable morons--they take a look at the Brink's warehouse and armored trucks. And the brilliant thing he notices is that their security is actually kinda shitty. They've been coasting on their reputation. They're security is lax because it's never tested because nobody would be idiotic enough to try to rob Brink's. But Tony's gang is just idiotic enough. Wonderfully silly, hilarious, near slapstick film noir in the vein of BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET.

Oh, one thing of note, both of the first two movies included scenes of the main characters (Matthau and Falk) drinking milk. Once you start noticing stuff like that, you just can't stop.

SEXY BEAST (2000): Now we jump ahead a couple of decades, I assume because there was just nothing worth playing from the 80s and 90s. But you can't argue that SEXY BEAST doesn't belong. Ray Winstone is Gal, an old English mobster who is happily retired in Spain. And then he gets a call from Don Logan, an insistent and menacing Ben Kingsley. He's got a job for him, and he can't say no. Oh, he spends over half the movie saying no, but Don Logan just won't let him. Seems like  their old friend the even-more-menacing Teddy Bass (Ian McShane) knows of a vault with state of the art security and a whole load of valuables that are just begging to be liberated. Plus he's kind of got a personal beef with the bank manager, a cocky son-of-a-bitch he met at an orgy. Logan might just be convincing enough to pull Gal out of retirement. Great menacing performances, bloody violence, and a vicious caper. 

I'm going to pause for a moment and note that while earlier in the week we were safely ensconced in a world where the bad guys never got away with it in the end, we're now well into the era where sometimes they do. That's part of what makes surveying a genre over the decades so interesting.

THE AURA (EL AURA) (2005): And finally, we ended the night with this Argentinian piece of brilliance. Ricardo Darin plays a taxidermist with wild ideas for heists he never puts into action. He also has a photographic memory, and is prone to seizures. And, although he enjoys taxidermy, he hates blood. Which makes a hunting trip with his friend a really odd choice. And things turn pretty bad when he accidentally shoots Dietrich, their guide. Nobody else knows, they just think Dietrich has gone away. And our taxidermist hero does a little poking around and discovers that Dietrich was planning the perfect crime--robbing the armored truck carrying the profits from a local casino. And he meets Dietrich's partners in crime. And being a quick-witted bullshitter, he puts himself into the caper as Dietrich's confidant, leading the perfect crime he's always wanted to pull. Too bad he doesn't know what the heck he's doing. And he's followed everywhere by Dietrich's dog, who has the most accusatory face I've ever seen on a dog. Director Fabián Bielinsky tragically passed away of a heart attack after making just NINE QUEENS and this movie. I'll have to go find and watch that one, and then I can fully, properly mourn the loss of such potential.

Total Running Time: 438 minutes
My Total Minutes: 415,547

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 8

Eddie described this double bill as the ugliest films in this year's Noir City. I prefer the term "gritty" but the point is well taken. With few exceptions, you're not watching these movies for aesthetic pleasure.

BLUE COLLAR (1978): Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, and an outspoken Richard Pryor star as a trio of blue collar auto workers. They work hard, and are squeezed by both management and the union--although they are loyal union men. Seems they barely have time, money, or energy for the occasional coke-and-hooker party. And it seems that's by design. Those in power want you to fight each other, not work together to better yourselves. Anyway, they come up with a plan to rob the safe at the union local safe. It's a good plan, and not hard to execute, as security is nearly non-existent. Problem is, they don't find much cash. But they do find evidence of wrongdoing, which they turn into blackmail material. Paul Schrader (the writer of TAXI DRIVE) made his directing debut with this explosive, uncompromising, working class political thriller that's still relevant today. And it shows the kind of dark, uncompromising vision that's kept him from being more commercial and has made Hollywood kind of a difficult place for him (as evidenced by his work on THE CANYONS)

STRAIGHT TIME (1978): And then Dustin Hoffman plays Max Dembo, an ex-con who just wants a job, an apartment, a girlfriend, a chance. But his parole officer (M. Emmett Walsh) gives him a hard time, just because he got a hotel instead of going straight to the halfway house. He's convinced to let him stay in an apartment if he can find a job before the end of the week. An he does, looks like Max might actually have a fine future. He even has a girlfriend--Jenny (Theresa Russell) a girl from the employment agency who hooked him up with a job. But the parole officer still gives him a hard time. Although Max is clean, his friend Willy (Gary Busey) had shot up in his room, and when he finds evidence he locks Max in jail and leaves him there for days because he's just "too busy." So as he's driving Max back to the halfway house, Max snaps, steals the car, strips the officer and handcuffs him to the side of the road. And then just goes on crime spree, dragging Jenny along (completely willingly) and getting his friends involved in bad, bad way. It's a powerful view of how humiliation and the fragile male ego is the root of him slipping back into crime. He was ready to go straight, as long as people let him have his dignity. But once he's crossed, and insulted, he goes off. And he knows he's doing the wrong thing, and he does it anyway. And that's the functional definition of noir, even if it's noir in the 70s.

Total Running Time: 228 minutes
My Total Minutes: 415,109

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 7

We've moved on to the 70s. Further from classic "noir" territory, but still great heist films.

THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (1974): I can't believe I'd never seen this before. This film is amazing. I don't think there's ever been a better match of humor and tension in the history of cinema. It's the kind of movie that could only work in New York. Walter Matthau plays transit policeman Zachary Garber in a frankly ridiculous but now iconic plaid shirt and yellow tie. With an attitude I can only describe as "New Yorkish" he makes his way through his job, Shows a visiting Japanese contingent around, and generally keeps things running smoothly. That is, until a gang led by "Mr Blue" (Robert Shaw) hijacks a train (the titular Pelham 123) and holds the passengers for ransom. I love how Garber handles the situation over the radio, relaying information to and from multiple parties. This is a man who knows how to handle a gun, but also knows that words are his best tools. And as tense as the situation is, he knows blowing up will destroy that best tool. So while everyone else is shitting their pants, he's the calm in the eye of the storm. I see a bit of Buster Keaton's great stone face in that (if the great stone face had kindly jowls, and didn't rely on physical comedy.) The mayor (Lee Wallace, adding more comedy) agrees to pay, but how will the robbers get away. It's not like there are a lot of ways to escape via subway train? Well, they've got that figured out, too. But Garber and the NYPD are pretty smart as well. And the ending scene, once again comedy and tension come together perfectly.

THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974): And then for unconventional buddy movie pairings, how about Jeff Bridges and Clint Eastwood? The directing debut of  Michael Cimino (DEER HUNTER, HEAVEN'S GATE) is a weird, weird heist film. Bridges is Lightfoot, a long-haired goofy drifter, who steals a car from a dealership and almost runs over Clint Eastwood's character, an old criminal who was posing as a preacher before one of his gang tracked him down and tried to kill him. Later in the movie he'll get the nickname Thunderbolt when he tells Lightfoot of his old gang and how they robbed the Montana armory with a 20mm cannon with armor-piercing shells. It was in the papers, and they had dubbed the robber "Thunderbolt." Anyway, his old gang thinks he crossed them and took all the money. Fact is, it was hidden in a small one-room schoolhouse. And the site of that is now a new, modern schoolhouse and he has no idea where the money is. So when the old gang gets back together (especially George Kennedy as Red Leary) they're kind of upset. It's Lightfoot who has the crazy idea to just rob the armory again, using the exact same plan--hell, it worked before? A weird, weird heist film, with some strange characters and a lot of homoerotic subtext. Oh yeah, as part of the heist they need Lightfoot to get in drag and seduce a guard. Very funny, and a very, very odd ending.

Total Running Time: 219 minutes
My Total Minutes: 414,881

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 6

I skipped Tuesday to be at the Cinequest media launch, but I was back at it on Wednesday for a couple of Alain Delon flicks.

ONCE A THIEF (1965): Delon, in his first English language role, plays Eddie Pedak, an ex-con who is now living straight with his loving wife (Ann-Margret) and their daughter. But a Chinatown store was robbed with his m.o.--the same model car, same sheepskin jacket, even the same gun that he shot a cop with way back when (allegedly, the case was dropped for lack of evidence.) So that same cop, Mike Vido (Van Heflin) busts him. But then Eddie walks when the witness doesn't identify him. Seems like a frame job. And sure enough, enter Eddie's big brother Walt (Jack freakin' Palance!) and a couple of his no-good friends. They want Eddie to help them with a job. Specifically, a job to rob the warehouse where he works as a truck driver (or worked...he was let go after Vido arrested him in front of his boss.) So Eddie's trapped between his brother and the cops. And like they say, once a thief, always a thief. Ann-Margeret is always lovely, but not given much more to do than be the hysterical wife, especially when their daughter is in danger. Oh yeah, and it's all shot in San Francisco, which just makes it extra cool.

THE SICILIAN CLAN (1969): Hey, one of the nice things about Noir City drifting into the 60s and 70s is you can start to see some nudity in these films. And Delon seduces his way through a number of fine ladies. He's Roger Sartet, a young mobster who is taken in by the titular Sicilian clan, in an opening escape caper that was brilliant and humorously executed. Lino Ventura plays the policeman chasing him. And that chase goes from Paris, to Rome, to New York. But he's got the mob looking out for him, so the cops never really get close. Meanwhile, they plan an elaborate jewel heist, culminating in the hijacking of a transcontinental airliner. And (as is the noticeable pattern in these heist films) they pull it off. They get away with it. Except for one little error. See, I said that Sartet likes the ladies. Well, if one of those ladies is the mob patriarch's wife.... Sartet soon finds himself in New York with no backup, and has to return to Sicily... At just over 2 hours, this is a movie that takes its time in between tense and explosive scenes.

Total Running Time: 229 minutes
My Total Minutes; 414,662

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 4

I had a very early meeting on Tuesday, so I only stuck around for one film on Monday. But I can't say no to Kubrick, so I had to see...

THE KILLING (1956): Early Kubrick, already showing a mastery and vision that helped him redefine what is possible in cinema. Sterling Hayden plays the lead--the leader of gang of thieves who plan a daring robbery of a racetrack. A narrator explains the complicated chronology, as this movie jumps around in time and repeat scenes. Most notably, in the grand, complicated heist itself, that day is repeated from the view of all the main players in the heist. Which is an excellent way to give the audience an omniscient perspective one little piece at a time, and without some forced scene of the crooks around the table explaining the plan. It also allows it to be carried off with grace and comedy. But as exquisitely as everything is planned, there are always little pieces you can't account for. Like a meddling wife, or a little yapping dog. Like in practically all these movies, pulling off the heist is one thing, but escaping with the loot proves impossible. And in this case, in one of the most beautifully cinematic "fail" moments ever.

Running Time: 85 minutes
My Total Minutes: 414,433

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 3

Two movies on Sunday. I caught the early show so I could go home and get a good night's sleep. I must be getting old

RIFIFI (1955): It means fisticuffs. It means tough-guy posturing. It means trouble. And it has become synonymous with perfect heist films. Heavily influenced by THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, it was quite a treat to watch these two takes on a very similar story play out just days apart. Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais) is recently out of prison. He meets up with some old friends, who try to convince him to come in on a quick smash-and-grab job for jewelry in the show window of the famous jeweler Mappin and Webb. But he's got a better idea--go for the safe. And they pull it off, in a brilliantly tense 32 minutes with neither music nor dialogue (and people don't believe me when I say silent movies are actually still being made all the time, you just don't realize it because they're in between all that talking.) But their still human, and humans make mistakes. In this case, the safe-cracker Cesar (played by director Jules Dassin when the original actor dropped out due to contract problems) has a weakness for women, and that gets the whole thing blown. And the ending...another magnificently tense scene featuring a car chase and a little

THE BIG RISK (CLASSE TOUS RISQUES) (1960): Abel Davos (Lino Ventura) is a wanted man in Italy. So he makes plans to escape back to France with his wife and children. To raise funds for this adventure, he and his partner commit one more brazen theft, one in which a few people die. And once in France, he starts calling on old friends and asking for favors. But his friends aren't all that trustworthy, and he's already living on the edge, so as friends drop out, he's backed further and further into a corner. His motto is "never give ground" but eventually something has to give. I loved the increasing tension as you watch how increasingly desperate he gets while trying not to lose his cool.

Total Running Time: 230 minutes
My Total Minutes: 414,348

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 2

Four movies on Saturday, so let's jump right in.

KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952): We start with the perfect crime. 3 thugs (Neville Brand, Jack Elam, and a very tan young Lee Van Cleef,) none of whom know each other. In fact, they've never seen each other without masks. Only the boss knows them, they don't know the boss or each other. Their caper--rob an armored car disguised in a flower delivery truck, framing the actual, innocent delivery man (John Payne.) And they get away with it, but then have to lay low until the heat is off and split the loot much later. So they all go their separate ways while the patsy takes the fall. And he's roughed up by the cops, but won't confess (because, of course, he's innocent.) Eventually the second delivery truck is found and he's released, but as an ex-con and former soldier, he's determined to find the guys who framed him. A great story, with a cool twist at the end.

VIOLENT SATURDAY (1955): Then we opened up the screen for a little Cinemascope. 

Now I have to pause for a moment and comment on the format of the festival this year. Because purists will want their noir to be from in or near the 50's, and in black and white, and American, etc. Eddie Muller has put together a program that starts there, but progresses on so that by the end of the festival we'll be watching modern films, still in the heist genre. And I love it! When I work at my local silent fim museum and have to defend the importance of silent film, I tell people there's a more-than-century old conversation that's been happening around the world on film, and if you don't go back to the beginning you're like a child who wanders into the middle of a conversation and demands to know what's going on. Well, the reverse is true if you don't watch newer films--you've checked out of the conversation and pretended it's over, when there's still more to be said. And Eddie has given us all a rare opportunity to follow one thread of that grand conversation over more than 6 decades. I hope you all appreciate that.

Okay, back to the film. It's set in a small town where everyone knows each other. Victor Mature will become the hero, but at the start he's a simple family man and copper mine operator. In fact, the fact that he didn't fight in the war--because mining copper was also important to the war effort--is a bit of a sore spot with his son and his friends. Well, as a lazy Friday goes by, and we meet the citizens of the town and their interweaving lives--the banker with a wandering eye, the alcoholic mine owner and his cheating wife, the three crooks from out of town planning a bank robbery...wait, what?! Well that's not even the strange part, that would be Ernest Borgnine as an Amish farmer. And if you push him too far, and hurt his family, he might just let that Amish part slip a bit and go totally Borgnine on your ass. Best mis-casting ever! Boy that was fun.

Then a leisurely break for dinner, and we were back at it, this time somehow in Italy, a country that knows a little something about heists. 

FOUR WAYS OUT (1951): The story opens with a soccer game. And while the fans are enjoying the game, 4 hoodlums are robbing the box office. They get away and split up, but the cops start methodically setting out their web to catch them. We follow each hoodlum on his own journey trying to make his getaway, and each in turn either ending up dead or in jail. In that way it's a rather methodical movie, but quite expertly done, and with care taken to let each character shine, from the ex-soccer star to the starving artist to the young boy barely out of school. Also features a small role by a young Gina Lollobrigida, and one of Federico Fellini's first co-writing credits.

BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET (1958): And finally, after so many heists have gone wrong we finally get one where...well, it still goes wrong, but hilariously. Finally time to break up the bleakness with a comedy. A man is caught trying to steal a car. While in jail, he hears of the perfect caper--a pawn shop next to an abandoned apartment and the wall in between is weak--very easy to knock down. He just needs to get out in time, so he needs a scapegoat to confess to his crime. Well, that sets of an increasingly hilarious series of setbacks, leading to the unlikeliest of criminal morons (including Marcello Mastroianni) in a screwball, slapstick caper that of course all goes completely wrong. And that's completely all right. It's freakin' hilarious.

Total Running Time: 369 minutes
My Total Minutes: 440,607

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Jason goes to Noir City--Opening Night

The best thing about Jan 20th, 2017 is that as far as I could tell, absolutely nothing happened in the world except for opening night of Noir City 15. In our gorgeous sanctuary cinema, in the hands of Czar of Noir Eddie Muller, starting 10 days of heist capers, I knew our biggest heist--stealing our sanity back from an insane world--would go off without a hitch. Especially starting with a couple of classics.

CRISS CROSS (1949): Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) has just blown back into town. Ostensibly to take care of his mom and the family home. But everybody knows he's looking to bump into his ex-wife Anna (Yvonne De Carlo.) And he does, and they're pleasant enough to each other. But she's on the arm of gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) and he's kind of the jealous type. Especially after they get married. But Steve will do anything just to be around her. Like planning a heist of the armored car company he works for. But like the title suggests, there's quite a bit of double-crossing, and this being during the production code era, no heist can ever be successful. Fantastic acting, great cinematography, just an absolute classic. 

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950): And then the prototypical heist classic. First, what a cast. Sterling Hayden as smarter-than-he-looks hooligan Dix Handley. Jean Hagen as his loyal girl Doll. Sam Jaffe as Doc Riedenschneider, aka "The Professor." Louis Calhern as wealthy lawyer Emmerich. Marilyn Monroe in a bit part as his girl on the side who is rapidly making him not so wealthy. And that's just the start. Doc is just out of prison, and he's got a fool-proof plan to rob a jewelry store. He knows the system, he knows how to defeat it. He just needs a safe-cracker, a driver, a hooligan, and a little bankroll to get it all started. Oh, and some luck. That's the part that's tricky. Everyone will need luck. The first time I saw this was at Noir City back in 2010, as part of a Marilyn Monroe double feature. So my review focused on Marilyn's small but absolutely stunning part. This time, set up as the beginning of a week and a half of heists, my attention focused more on Doc (although Dix Handley is still the main character.) I just loved Sam Jaffe's portrayal. A small man, but smart. He knows how to get things done, but he also knows when he's beat and how to surrender peacefully. He doesn't touch booze (okay, I can't get behind that) and he doesn't carry a gun. Because if you carry a gun, you might shoot a cop, and that's really bad. But if you're unarmed, you surrender and get a lighter sentence. Odd thinking for a career criminal, and that's why I like it.

Okay, now here's to 9 more days of heists!

Total Running Time: 200 minutes
My Total Minutes: 440,238

Friday, January 20, 2017

Jason goes to Midnites for Maniacs for a Tribute to Peter Bogdanovich

It took me way too long to get to my first movies on 2017. Working too much and moving into a new place will do that to you. But at least I started with a pair of great films.

Peter Bogdanovich was there in person to say a few words before the first film and chat with Jesse Ficks between films. And he's hilarious, just like these movies. Oh yeah, this was part of SF Sketchfest, so it had to be comedies.

WHAT'S UP DOC? (1972): Bogdanovich said this was the only movie he ever made on a dare. When Barbara Streisand said she wanted to work with him after seeing THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, he was asked what he would do if he could make a movie with Streisand. He said, "a screwball comedy with a crazy girl and a stuffy professor." And so it came to be, and he didn't ruin San Francisco too much in the making of it. Ryan O'Neal plays a professor of musicology who has a theory that resonant igneous rocks were pre-historic man's first music. His domineering fiancé is played by Madeline Kahn (in her film debut! She didn't even know she was funny until she heard people laughing at her.) And Streisand plays...well, part Bugs Bunny and part a force of nature. She's been to school everywhere, and graduated nowhere. And now she's in San Francisco, scamming her way around, and making Ryan O'Neal's life miserable...while seducing him. Throw in 4 identical plaid overnight bags--holding everything from igneous rocks to precious jewels to the Pentagon Papers and wacky hijinx ensue. Oh boy, do they ever ensue. It's been a long time since I laughed that hard.

Then after a wonderful Q&A the laughs kept coming with...

NOISES OFF... (1992): Michael Caine narrates and stars as a director of a traveling theater troupe, making their Broadway debut after a disastrous tour. We then flashback to the dress (or is it tech?) rehearsal of their first performance. And the cast of Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve (underappreciated as a comic actor,) Denholm Elliott, Marilu Henner, Nicolette Sheridan, .... (I'm forgetting people, but the point is an amazing cast) stumble over their lines and each other with mere hours before opening night. But somehow it's a hit, pickled herrings and all. Flash forwards a few months in the tour to a disastrous matinee in Miami. There have been various hookups and breakups in the cast, and while backstage is now zanier and more calamitous than the screwball play itself. But the hijinx bleed over from backstage to front, and the show is a disaster. But they survive, even make it to Cleveland. And eventually Broadway. Where they will either finally crash and burn or have a rousing success. Michael Caine is too afraid to watch. Hilarious.

Total Running Time: 195 minutes
My Total Minutes: 440,038

Jason Watches ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY ... 3 times

Including 3-D and IMAX. So I guess I liked it.

This is not a regular Star Wars movie. And that's part of what I like about it. The opening scene, after no crawl, is a wedge of grey cutting across the sky. For a split second you think it might be an Imperial Star Destroyer, just like it all started back in 1977. But it's not, it's the rings to a planet. It's just these little cues that remind you you're in the Star Wars universe but it's not a typical Star Wars story. Things are uneasy here, tense. Hell, every hero in this movie might end up dying! (Spoiler Alert!)

Okay, I won't rehash the plot. I assume everyone knows it by now. It's the story of the Rebellion's first victory, stealing the Death Star plans and setting up the original STAR WARS (aka, Episode IV: A NEW HOPE.) But it's a grittier story that gives names and faces to the unnamed heroes who would've been receiving medals on Yavin if only they had survived. It's also a story that changes the pre-existing Star Wars universe in some pretty big ways.

For starters, while the Empire is still totally evil, the Rebel Alliance is no longer totally good. They are rebels--spies, murderers, and saboteurs who have sacrificed everything (including their morals) for the cause. Star Wars is no longer a totally black vs. totally white thing. There are shades of gray.

They also aren't super geniuses who discovered a fatal flaw in the Death Star. The flaw was designed in by the chief scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) who didn't want to build the thing in the first place. And the rebels were told of it, they just needed to figure out how to deliver a payload to it.

Despite Leia's pleas, Alderaan was not a peaceful planet with no weapons. It was the home to a major leader of the rebellion--her adopted father--who died after announcing "I trust her with my life."

All in all, I don't think I can ever watch the original STAR WARS in the same way again. And that's not bad, it makes it a richer, more nuanced experience. Except that STAR WARS is an experience from my childhood, where deep nuanced meaning is kind of irrelevant. Oh, well, you can't be a kid forever.

What else to comment on? Oh yeah, CGI Tarkin. I...liked it. Not necessary, a big pile of fan service, but fan service that was relevant to the plot (perhaps not having Tarkin, or having a different actor as Tarkin, would be more distracting.) CGI Leia a bit less so. That's pure fan service, but at least joyfully done.

Oh yeah, and we finally remember why Darth Vader was scary. He's a freakin' badass again! Especially that last sequence, the only time a light saber appears in the movie is when he's mowing down rebel troops on his way to recovering the plans. I know he's evil, but that scene was amazing!

I still think the first few acts jump around so quickly that it's a little difficult to know what to hang onto (on the second and third viewing, it's not so hard.) But the last act, the whole battle of Scarif was magnificent, breathtaking, heart-pounding fun. Every. Time.

Running Time: 134 minutes (x 3)
My Total Minutes: 439,746

Jason goes to a Day of Silents

We started with something a bit near and dear to my heart, a program of Chaplin at Essanay. This was his second studio, after one year at Keystone. And included a stint in the town of Niles, now part of Fremont, CA, where there is a silent film museum dedicated to the Essanay studio...and it happens to be my new hometown (I timed it, it's an 18 minute walk from my apartment to the museum!)

HIS NEW JOB (1915): The main Essanay studio was actually Chicago, and this is the first movie Chaplin made for Essanay and the only one he made in Chicago (a combination of weather and the business demeanor of studio co-head George Spoor drove him back to California.) Starting out at Lockstone Studios (a sendup of his former employer, Keystone) Chaplin makes a typically hilarious mess of things backstage. It also features his first appearance with famous cross-eyed comedian Ben Turpin (allegedly the first person to ever take a pie in the face for comedy) and an early background appearance by Gloria Swanson (who auditioned for the female lead but was rejected by Chaplin.)

A NIGHT AT THE SHOW (1915): Chaplin plays dual roles, based on his pre-film days in the Fred Karno music hall troupe. As Mr. Pest, he's a well-to-do drunken lout, stumbling and annoying everyone. As Mr. Rowdy in the balcony, he's equally if not more drunk, and causing even more mayhem. Incidentally, Chaplin's "inebriate" acts were inspired by his own father, who died of alcoholism. Like many comedians, his comedy often came from a dark place. Anyway, as a parade of awful, awful acts come across the stage, Mr. Pest and Mr. Rowdy cause hilarious havoc on the performers, the audiences, and even each other.

THE CHAMPION (1915): Made right in Niles, this is Chapin's early boxing picture (way before CITY LIGHTS) where he uses the old horseshoe in the glove to go from a hungry tramp to knocking out the champ. It includes the pairing with his pet bulldog Quapaw Lord Orry and a cameo by G. M. Anderson (The "A" to Spoor's "S" that gives the studio the name Essanay, and most famous as Broncho Billy) as a fan ringside during the title fight. Excellent.

And the Day of Silents Continued...

SO THIS IS PARIS (1926): Ah, Ernst Lubitsch and the Lubitsch touch. Georgette lives in Paris with her effete actor husband Maurice. Across the street is the stuffy Dr. Paul Giraud and his wife Suzanne. Suzanne spends all day reading romance novels about Arabian sheiks. When she catches a glimpse of bare-chested Maurice in costume, she is smitten, but plays it off to Paul as being offended. When Paul goes over to give them a piece of his mind, he finds that Georgette is actually an old girlfriend. And so mutual affairs begin, each hiding from the other. Each finding proof of infidelity, but each unable to confront the other without exposing their own infidelity. A hilarious comedy of manners and cheating partners that nobody--nobody!--can do better than Lubitsch. It's exactly what he's famous for.

And the Day of Silents Continued...

STRIKE (1925): Just before he made BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, Sergei Eisenstein made this fiery political film about oppressed factory workers under czarist Russia. But not just the strike, it's about the underhanded spies working on behalf of management who sow discord and riots. The initial excitement over presenting communal demands grows into tiring starvation and infighting. It's not just a story of the excitement of revolution, but the exhausting, fractious work of keeping it going. Eisenstein was definitely a fan of the crowd as the hero, so to western audiences used to a singular protagonist, it can be a little hard to follow. But it's still fantastic.

And the Day of Silents Continued...

First up, Flashes of the Past: A review of historic events from 1910 to 1925. From Pathé News, it's exactly what it sounds like, a compilation of news stories spanning 15 years.

DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS (1919): This is a truly remarkable film, and a revelation. A pro-gay rights story from 1919. From the work of Prussian doctor Magnus Hirschfeld, it's a direct rebuke to Germany's Paragraph 175 law, which explicitly forbid male homosexual acts as well as other perceived sexual aberrations. Paul Körner (Conrad Veidt, just before he became an international star with THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI) is a famous violinist. His same-sex attractions are stirred by his new adoring student Kurt Sivers (Fritz Shulz.) Their relationship is chaste, but affectionate, and does not go unnoticed by Paul's former lover Franz Bollek (Reinhold Schünzel) who blackmails them to keep it a secret. Magnus Hirschfeld makes an appearance as a doctor and sexologist, imploring that their relationship is natural and nothing to be ashamed of or to punish them for. But that's not enough to stop this from being a sad, sad story.

And the Day of Silents Continued...

THE LAST COMMAND (1928): Josef von Sternberg, Emil Jannings, what more needs to be said? Jannings plays a former Russian general, now defeated and living in poverty in Hollywood trying to get work as a movie extra. His director (William Powell) happens to be a former revolutionary who defeated him. Powell recognizes him, but Jannings does not. And the film set will be a continuation of his torture, punishment, and humiliation. But will also lead to one of the most brilliant portrayals ever on film, even if it kills him.

And the Day of Silents Continued...

SADIE THOMPSON (1928): We started the day with a tiny cameo of Gloria Swanson, and ended with her in the starring role. Sadie is a prostitute, on the run from the law (from San Francisco, in fact!) and arriving in Pago-Pago to start a new life...or to continue her old one. She's of course popular with the local Marines, and especially with Sergeant Tim O’Hara (Raoul Walsh.) But she's less popular with the local missionary and reformer Davidson (Lionel Barrymore.) That is, until his hypocrisy reveals itself. Wonderful acting, and beautiful rain-drenched cinematography (it was based on Somerset Maugham's novella "Rain.") A great way to end the night!

And the Day of Silents...finally ended.

Total Running Time: 497 minutes
My Total Minutes: 439,166

Jason celebrates a Noir City Christmas

Ah Noir City! It starts tonight, but I'm just now finally getting around to writing up their special December show, in which they announce the program, say a bit about the theme (heist capers!,) and play a couple of movies.

CASH ON DEMAND (1961): Good old black and white, a very English bank heist, all manners and threats rather than shoot-outs. Peter Cushing plays a bank manager Harry Fordyce and André Morell plays Colonel Gore Hepburn. Under the guise of being a bank inspector, he weasels his way to being alone with Fordyce, and robs the bank using only a telephone. A telephone with Fordyce's terrified wife and child on the other end of the line. Fordyce must do everything he says, when he says them, or his associates won't get the signal to not kill his family. Tense, exciting, and top notch acting from the days when Peter Cushing was actual flesh and blood and not a CGI recreation!

THE ICE HARVEST (2005): Another theme of the festival, Czar of Noir Eddie Muller is taking us through a bit of tour through time, from the classic Noir of the late 40's and 50's right up through modern neo-noir. Of course that annoys some purist, but my film gluttony has always been far from pure, so I'm looking forward to it. Anyway, I actually remember being one of the few people to see THE ICE HARVEST when it first came out. And everyone once in a while I still think of the recurring graffiti "As falls Wichita, so falls Wichita Falls." But that's all that had stuck with me. Well damn, re-watching it I realize it has a lot more to offer. It starts with stolen mob money. We don't know how it was stolen, this is a heist film not about the heist, but about the getaway. Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) and Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton) have the money, and different plans on how to get away with it. So Charlie goes on to have the toughest night of his life trying to wrap up loose ends, survive, and escape. It's actually a great little film. And I really appreciated Oliver Platt playing a drunken loser but the only one who truly loves Charlie for Charlie, not for what he can get out of him. Sorry for the spoiler, but I found it wonderfully endearing that they end up escaping together.

Total Running Time: 176 minutes
My Total Minutes: 439,343


It's fun to be back in the Harry Potter universe...kind of. This is well before Harry Potter was born. And in America, not England. Eddie Redmayne makes an appealing enough hero. Although I prefer Dan Fogler as Kowalski the no-mag (ugh...hate that name, call him a muggle) who gets pulled along on the adventure. His sense of wonder makes him a perfect audience surrogate. And his goofiness is just fun. But let's be realistic--the heroes here are the fantastic beasts themselves. You don't need much of a story, but you get one, about an evil wizard, government investigations, danger, adventure. And a setup for sequels. Hooray!

Running Time: 133 minutes
My Total Minutes: 438,671

Jason goes to SVJFF--Closing Night

The 2016 Jewfest South program ended with a laugh, appropriately titled THE LAST LAUGH. A breezy, funny documentary exploring Jewish comedy and especially the question of "Can the Holocaust be funny?" Tons of material--interviews, film clips, archival footage, etc. attempt to answer the question. I think the answer is, "Maybe? If you're clever enough?" The most striking part is the debate over the film LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL. Suddenly all these comedians who are making a case for Nazi jokes hate this movie. But the critic from the Anti-Defamation League loves it and holds it up as an example of the right way to make fun of the Holocaust. I haven't seen it since it came out, and I remember being conflicted about it. Might be time to revisit it and see if it's as bad--or as good--as it seems. In any case, whatever the answer to "Can the Holocause be funny?" is, there's no doubt that THE LAST LAUGH is funny. And thought-provoking.

Running Time: 89 minutes
My Total Minutes: 438,538

Jason goes to SVJFF--November 19

Two more. Still blasting out quickie reviews.

RABIN, THE LAST DAY: Amos Gatai's latest explores the fateful day in 1995. I'll never forget that the closest we've ever been to an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal was cut short by a Jewish assassin's bullet killing a Jewish head of state. In this unblinking, terrifying docudrama, Gatai goes into extensive detail to show this not as the product of one lone angry Jew, but as a product of a long campaign of hate from religious and political extremists on the Israeli right. Powerful, and deeply depressing.

So after that, I needed a good laugh. Something light. And that light something was MR. PREDICTABLE, an Israeli romantic comedy about a good boy who always followed the rules, but when he gets a fatal prognosis (mistaken, of course) and meets a charming free-spirited woman, he starts getting out of his comfort zone and enjoying what life he has left. Predictable maybe, formulaic a bit. But it was fun, and that was what I needed after the first film.

Total Running Time: 259 minutes
My Total Minutes: 438,449

Jason watches DOCTOR STRANGE

I took a little break from Jewfest South to see the newest Marvel superhero. And it was fun. It holds to my rule of Marvel movies: To see the universe move forward, watch a Captain America movie. To have some plain-old fun, see the introduction to a new series (follow-ups are hit and miss.) To see a bunch of bloated fan service, watch an Avengers movie.

Benedict Cumberbatch is great, of course. The supporting cast is also great. I will acknowledge and not comment on the white-washing controversy over Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One (not because I don't care, but because I don't know the source comics well enough to voice an informed opinion other than, 'yeah, if that character was Asian in the comics, probably shoulda been Asian in the movie.')

But the real start is the mind-bending visuals. Great job, taking what INCEPTION did a few years ago and going even further. Wow.

Running Time: 115 minutes
My Total Minutes: 438,189

Jason goes to SVJFF--November 16

More catching up, so still brief. Which is a shame because this one deserves more.

A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS: Based on Amos Oz's book, which in turn is based on Amos Oz's life, and the writing/directing debut for Natalie Portman, who also plays the role of his mother. It's beautifully told, with...well, like the title and darkness. It's about Amos's childhood, the early years of Israel, and his mother. And his mother's depression. Very moving.

Amos Oz was there for a reception before the movie and a Q and A session afterward. And as a secret bonus treat, the film was introduced by the director herself, Natalie Portman, who was fantastic. But she had to fly off right after and wasn't around for the Q and A.

Running Time: 97 minutes
My Total Minutes: 438,074

Jason goes to SVJFF--November 15

Still catching up, so still dumping way-too-brief capsule reviews.

First up was FEVER AT DAWN, which I had previously seen at Cinequest. So just read my review here. The one thing I'll add upon watching the movie a second time--the first time I thought Lili's jealous roommate who sabotages their affair was just a bitch. The second time, I felt more sympathy for her. See, she survived the Holocaust with Lili, and in some way their friendship was what kept her alive. She was still clinging to that, and terrified to death of losing Lili. For some reason, that resonated with me more the second time.

PARTNER WITH THE ENEMY: A great documentary about two women--one Israeli, one Palestinian--who start an import/export business to help get Palestinian goods across the border to customers in Israel. Of course they have to navigate the strict border controls, and authorities on both sides of the border. And they have to navigate being women in a traditionally male business. And when conflicts arise, they have to navigate the fact that they really are on opposite sides of the conflict, and struggle to keep their friendship and partnership intact. Very interesting.

Total Running Time: 170 minutes
My Total Minutes: 437,977

Jason goes to SVJFF--November 14

Still catching up, so still super-brief reviews.

COLLIDING DREAMS is the exhaustive and exhausting overview of the history of Zionism, from the early days of a dream to...well, not even to modern day. Way too huge to summarize. It might've actually worked better as a longer documentary mini-series, Ken Burns style. Best tidbit I learned: in 1903 the British offered Theodore Herzl and the World Zionist Congress their colony of Uganda as a Jewish state. There was much debate, but eventually the offer was rejected in favor of continuing to push for a Jewish state in Israel. But I like to speculate how history would be different if Uganda was the Jewish state.

Running Time: 134 minutes
My Total Minutes: 437,807

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Jason goes to SVJFF--November 13

More super-quick reviews attempting to clear my backlog.

REMEMBER: Atom Egoyan directs Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau in the story of an old, senile Holocaust survivor who escapes his nursing home to go on a quest to track down the surviving commandant of his old concentration camp and kill him. An exciting journey, which leaves you with some thoughts on the misguided nature of vengeance.

ROCK IN THE RED ZONE: A very personal documentary about life in Sderot. Near the border of the Gaza Strip, when Palestinian rockets head towards them, there are mere minutes to get to the bomb shelter. And yet in this stressful situation music flourishes. Especially that made by the director and her main subject...who over the course of the movie becomes her husband. Pretty cool.

Total Running Time: 187 minutes
My Total Minutes: 437,673

Jason goes to SVJFF--November 12

More overdue data dumps. I missed more than half of Jewfest South due to Holehead, but the ones I saw were pretty great, starting with Potsdam Revisited: Overture to the Cold War. The film was a short documentary THE RIFLEMAN'S VIOLIN about 19-year-old GI Stuart Canin who went off to WWII and ended up playing a private concert at the Potsdam conference for Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin. But the real treat of the night was 90-year old Canin and pianist Hélène Wickett recreating their concert for the audience at the Oshman Family JCC. Awesome!

Running Time: 15 minutes
My Total Minutes: 437,486

Jason goes to Holehead--Closing Night

Still doing an overdue data dump. So apologies for super-quick reviews.

DRUGS IN THE TENDERLOIN: This 1966 documentary gets down and dirty, but real and sympathetic with the denizens of the Tenderloin district of SF. And it was a pretty amazing little treat.

BEYOND THE GATES: A celebration of the bygone era of videotapes, and especially VCR board games, with a Jumanji-like twist. Two brothers meet at their missing father's video store. They play the game, they get sucked in, and adventure commences. With a special appearance by Barbara Crampton (THE RE-ANIMATOR) who was there in person to talk about the film afterwards. A pretty great way to end the 2016 version of Another Hole in the Head.

Total Running Time: 159 minutes
My Total Minutes: 437,472

Jason goes to Holehead--Day 13

Continuing my overdue data dump.

FEMALE WEREWOLF: It sucked. Some movies are painful to watch. Some movies are boring. This was so boring it was painful to watch. That's all.

DRACULA'S WIDOW: Chris Coppola was cool (and not as drunk as he was the last time he showed up at Holehead) and this 1988 movie of his was a freakin' load of fun. Pretty cool.

Total Running Time: 151 minutes
My Total Minutes: 437,313