Thursday, July 30, 2015

Jason goes to SFJFF--Day 4

Let's finish up last weekend before next weekend starts. Another full day in Palo Alto on Sunday.

First up, FAMOUS NATHAN, a story of a titan of hot dog industry, and also a story of a man, his friends, his employees, and his family, all told by his grandson Lloyd Handwerker. He uses a mix of archival footage, home video (sometimes not in the greatest condition) and new interviews to tell the rags-to-riches story of a near-illiterate immigrant who worked hard; sold hot dogs; cared about price, quality, and most of all people; and through that built an empire. It's also the story of sibling rivalry, as one brother continues in the business but the other (the director's father) leaves and actually runs a competing Snack Time restaurant for a while. It's a bit of a roller coaster ride at times (appropriate for Coney Island, I suppose) and in the end I really, really wanted a hot dog. BTW, for theater concession food, the hot dogs at the Cinearts Palo Alto are not too bad.

Next up was a great documentary (on a side note, I was recounting my favorite movies of the festival a few days ago to a work friend, and I stopped and realized I was just rattling off all the documentaries. So good job with the documentary selections this year!) AUTISM IN LOVE follows the lives of 4 people who are on the autism spectrum ranging from Rain Man-esque to sort of awkward Aspies (call back to the other autistic-person-seeks-romantic-partner movie I saw this year) who are in various different stages of romance. There's the frustrated guy who just wants to fit in. There's the loving, devoted husband who is dealing with his wife dying of cancer, but can't express himself right. And then there's the couple who have put up with their quirks for several years and might just be ready to take it to the next level. What struck me is that their romantic troubles aren't a whole lot different from mine (well, I've never dealt with a dying spouse, but the others...) Far from being oddballs, I thought their troubles were so relatable by the end I started wondering if maybe I'm on the spectrum but just haven't been diagnosed. It's my understanding that that fact that I empathized so well probably means I'm not...

Anyway, up next was a nice little crowd-pleaser, DOUGH. Nat (Jonathan Pryce) is an English kosher baker who runs the little bakery that his father and grandfather ran before him. His son doesn't want the business, though, he's a successful lawyer. And the big chain store across the street wants to buy him out--and the whole block. But he stands firm, even though he needs a little help. that help comes in the form of his cleaner's son Ayyash, a Muslim immigrant from Darfur. Of course there's mistrust, and of course that mistrust thaws. But Ayyash is also a small-time pot dealer (smart enough not to smoke his own, he's just looking for some money) and wacky hijinx ensue when he accidentally stashes his pot in the dough...and the resulting baked goods are a huge hit. A funny, reasonably charming film that's not too heavy and doesn't challenge you to think too much. I'm not surprised this was the San Francisco opening night film.

Next up was PAPA WAS NOT A ROLLING STONE, an autobiographical narrative film from French director Sylvie Ohayon. With a nice mix of comedy and drama, the story is all about Stéphanie “Fifi” Mortier, a high school student who lives in one of the poor suburbs where French Jews and Muslims co-inhabit apartment buildings. At least Fifi is a good student, so she has some options. Maybe dance. Maybe go to university. Maybe just have fun sexy times with her boyfriend all the time... After all, getting impregnated by a Muslim is kind of a family tradition that led to...her existing. Meanwhile she has to deal with her flaky mother and abusive step-father. It all adds up to a pretty good coming of age film, with an excellent mix of drama and comedy.

And finally I ended the night and the weekend with RED LEAVES, a fascinating and well-made fictional look into the lives of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Patriarch Meseganio Tadela (Debebe Eshetu) makes a fateful decision--he sells his apartment and instead of buying a new one he announces that he will simply live with his children. All of them, in their different apartments, shuttling back and forth. After all, he's the patriarch, isn't that his right? Well, his children aren't quite as pleased with his plan as he is. They all have their lives, families, and more of an Israeli lifestyle than an Ethiopian one. The movie isn't narrative driven, it's more of a slice-of-life (which I know bored some of my friends) but just look at the Eshetu's expressive, weary face and director Bazi Gete's probing, documentary-style direction and feel the loss of culture that Meseganio feels.

And that was the end of the first weekend of SFJFF.

Total Running Time: 445
My Total Minutes: 404,516

Monday, July 27, 2015

Jason goes to SFJFF--Day 3

A full day of movies in beautiful (and easier for me to get to) Palo Alto. Let's jump right in.

First up WELCOME TO LEITH, a very tense documentary about a  town of 24 in North Dakota. And then a new guy moves in. He's an old man, seems kind of lonely. His name is Craig Cobb, and he started buying up lots of land all over Leith. And then people learned what he's up to. He's an infamous white supremacist and he plans to get enough like-minded people to move to Leith and take over, completely democratically. And then the town reacts. Filmmakers Michael Nichols and Christopher Walker get remarkable access to people and town proceedings, getting very candid interviews on both sides, as well anti-racist activists (like the Southern Poverty Law Center, who've had a file on him for a long time.) Tensions are clearly at a boiling point for a long time, and you just wait for something to explode, wondering who will do something really stupid and dangerous first. A fascinating story about how to react to open racism in a land that also values free speech.

And then I needed something a little lighter, so the next program delivered, starting with the short YIDLIFE CRISIS: BREAKING THE FAST. An episode of a web series, this one is about Yom Kippur in Montreal, and the struggle of poutine vs piety.

That was the lead-in to THE MUSES OF ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER. I haven't read Singer since I was a child, and even then we were more of a Shalom Aleichem family. But I know him as a comical Jewish writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, (one of the) only Yiddish writers to win. Of course, what I've read of him I read in English, and this documentary is the story of his translators. After Saul Bellow translated his Gimpel the Fool, he was worried it was so good that people would give Bellow the credit instead of him. So he chose to direct the translations himself--and collected what he called a "harem of translators" to do it. All women, all fairly young and pretty. And he clearly enjoyed it. Yeah, he was kind of a dirty man...or maybe that's just his legend. Many translators were sure he slept with all of them but her, and of course they can't all be right. Beyond that what I found most fascinating is how he worked closely on the English translations but intentionally changed things--not just idioms, but entire endings are different in the Yiddish and English versions. He knew in Yiddish he was writing for a Jewish audience and in English he was reaching out to a non-Jewish audience. Which makes it even more interesting that for translations to other languages (even Hebrew) he wanted the translators to start with the English version. A fascinating and funny look at the man, his translators, and the act of translation. Kind of makes me want to read (or re-read) some of his stories.

And then the next film was ONCE IN A LIFETIME. Umm...due to a scheduling goof of mine, I ended up watching this two days in a row. And it holds up to multiple screenings. Here's what I said just the day before:
And then ONCE IN A LIFETIME is a fresh take on the "inspiring teacher" genre. Madame Guégen has taught for 20 years, and for some reason she still likes it, despite an uncontrollable class who can bring a substitute teacher to tears. So she challenges them to take on an after-school project, to enter the annual contest about World War II and the Shoah sponsored by the French education ministry. The subject is the experience of children and adolescents in Nazi concentration camps. And her students don't know where to begin. Many are Muslim, and have a very different opinion of Jews, almost all are afraid of failure, and none of them work well with others. But sure enough, her persistence, patience, encouragement, and a little discipline transforms the kids. Which would all be kind of cliche, except that it's portrayed with such realism and sincerity. It definitely helps that Ahmed Dramé, who plays one of the students, actually lived this. The story is based on his experience, and it fosters a reality that makes it all work. It means that when they visit a Holocaust memorial or speak to a survivor, or are shocked by pictures they find...it's not just triggers for an emotional response in the audience, it's the reality of kids who haven't thought much about this history to wake up. Seeing a kid get angry when he finds out the French could've saved their Jewish children (the Germans really didn't want them) but didn't carries an intensity that probably wouldn't have worked as well if it didn't earn the realism by then. A very good film.
All I'll add is that Ahmed played Malik, who is sort of the class clown. And his transformation is perhaps the best of all (no surprise, since he co-wrote it.)

And then next up was RAISE THE ROOF, a really amazing documentary about learning, architecture, building, history, art, culture, and Jewish history in Poland. Professor Rick Brown runs Handshouse studios, where he's a big proponent in learning by doing. And his "doing" is building historical creations using traditional tools and techniques, so learning isn't just learning how to build, but learning about the life, techniques, and cultures of builders from the past. He--with his students and his wife--has built Egyptian obelisks, human-powered medieval cranes, and bushnell submarines. And now their goal is a traditional Polish wooden synagogue, with a multi-tiered roof and a beautiful, colorfully painted ceiling. All of them in existence were destroyed by the Nazis, so all they have to go on is pictures and notes from scholars at the time. Meanwhile, in Warsaw another group is building a museum dedicated to the history of Polish Jews (after all, despite waves of pogroms, prior to the Nazis they had been an integral part of society for a thousand years, and it would be a shame if all they're remembered for is their end.) So a multi-year project is launched to build the roof structure, learn the paint dye techniques of the time, practice, learn, practice, learn, and eventually...created incredible beauty. Which you can see if you happen to be in Poland and go to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. But Rick and his wife Laura were there for the Q and A afterwards, and mentioned that they'd love to build another one, this time in America. So hopefully that will happen. Better yet, take their class and help build it yourself (note: I have no idea when/if that will happen. I guess follow their website for details?)

And finally, I ended the night with A LA VIE. The story starts in Auschwitz--specifically, the evacuation of Auschwitz. There Hélène is a survivor, and so is her best friend, the Dutch girl Lili. Sadly their friend Rose didn't make it. Back in Paris, she marries her old sweetheart, despite him being impotent from Nazi medical experiments. But she keeps putting ads in Yiddish international papers hoping to find Lili. And finally, one day it works. So they arrange for a weekend getaway at Berck-sur-Mer by the sea to catch up and party. And who should join them, to the surprise of Hélène, but Rose, not dead after all (in fact, living in Montreal with a pretty wealthy husband!) The brief holiday is full of surprises, drama, love, friendship, and... Hélène catches the eye of a handsome young man who works at Club Mickey, a Disney-themed seaside park for the kids. And after all, having an impotent husband, as nice as he is, has gotten to her...A sweet story about recovering from the childhood trauma of the Holocaust and finding a way to once again celebrate life.

And that was the start of the big first weekend of SFJFF for me.

Total Running Time: 456 minutes
My Total Minutes: 404,071

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Day 2

I suppose I should be a little more professional (I do get press tickets here after all) and call it by its right name--the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Okay, this will be the only time I call it by my nickname for it. 

So anyway, I skipped opening night to catch the Thrillpeddlers' Club Inferno (and because the opening film will be playing later at a time that's convenient for me) but I was up at the Castro for a couple of films Friday night (ummmm...yeah, instead of Seder. I remember when this festival didn't play anything on Friday night, but that's beside the point.) A couple of good French films last Friday night.

THE ART DEALER is a story about art stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis prior to and during WWII. But it tells the story as a sort of crime thriller, with intrigue, mystery, and political obstruction. Esther's husband is an art dealer. He brings home a beautiful painting to research and appraise it. By sheer coincidence, her father is there and reacts to it. A little searching, and she finds out that this beautiful (and expensive) painting used to belong to her grandparents. And her searching leads to much more. Up to 200 paintings that were...well, maybe stolen, maybe (semi-)legally transferred to her great-uncle. The intrigue gets a little complicated, but it involves Nazis (of course) but also collaborators, and a French government that's unwilling and uninterested in settling the accounts and returning stolen art to the rightful heirs (in no small part because that art has ended up in some pretty famous museums.) As Esther digs further, sinister forces close around her, and threatens her family, career, sanity, and maybe even her life. A cool, neo-noir take on a fascinating issue of injustices long left unresolved.

And then ONCE IN A LIFETIME is a fresh take on the "inspiring teacher" genre. Madame Guégen has taught for 20 years, and for some reason she still likes it, despite an uncontrollable class who can bring a substitute teacher to tears. So she challenges them to take on an after-school project, to enter the annual contest about World War II and the Shoah sponsored by the French education ministry. The subject is the experience of children and adolescents in Nazi concentration camps. And her students don't know where to begin. Many are Muslim, and have a very different opinion of Jews, almost all are afraid of failure, and none of them work well with others. But sure enough, her persistence, patience, encouragement, and a little discipline transforms the kids. Which would all be kind of cliche, except that it's portrayed with such realism and sincerity. It definitely helps that Ahmed Dramé, who plays one of the students, actually lived this. The story is based on his experience, and it fosters a reality that makes it all work. It means that when they visit a Holocaust memorial or speak to a survivor, or are shocked by pictures they find...it's not just triggers for an emotional response in the audience, it's the reality of kids who haven't thought much about this history to wake up. Seeing a kid get angry when he finds out the French could've saved their Jewish children (the Germans really didn't want them) but didn't carries an intensity that probably wouldn't have worked as well if it didn't earn the realism by then. A very good film.

Total Running Time: 200 minutes
My Total Minutes: 403,616

Friday, July 24, 2015

Jason goes to the Hypnodrome and sees Club Inferno

About 15 years ago, when I read Dante's Inferno (I actually read the entire Divine Comedy) along with the copious notes explaining all the characters, I thought, 'This is pretty cool, but it would be awesome if someone did a modern update with references a modern audience can get.' And now the Thrillpeddlers have done just that, in about the most outrageous way possible, in reviving a play that was written...15 years ago, about the time I read the Inferno! Whoooaaah!

Anyway, this glam-rock musical version is a crazy trip, breezily taking you through all 9 circles courtesy of the Hellavator. Xaron is the guide for knocked-out nightclub singer Dante and her new-found friend Virgil. The dead characters range all over history and pop culture, from Cleopatra to the lesbian couple of Mama Cass and Karen Carpenter (opposites attract?) From Lucrecia Borgia to Joan of Arc to Aimee Semple MacPherson (look it up.) All the time with wild costumes (or...parts of costumes) and comedic songs. All the while they're plagued by Furies and Demons, and like any good Thrillpeddlers show, they get right up into the audience (even to play with one's luxurious hair.) What fun.

And if their publicist hasn't announced it yet, let me get the scoop and tell you all that it's run (which was supposed to end soon) has been extended through September 12th! Awesome!

Jason watches ANT-MAN

Okay, I've figured out the rules for Marvel movies. If you want to see fairly interesting, funny, enjoyable movies, see the new character stand-alone films. If you want to see something that moves the universe forward, see a Captain America film. If you want to see bloated fan service, see an Avengers film.

I thought it was interesting to actually make the origin film be the origin of the second Ant-Man (um...I guess spoiler?) but it works really well. Paul Rudd makes an appealing hero as Scott Lang, once you make the leap to believe him as a jailbird (recently released and swearing to go legit.) Michael Douglas makes an excellent mentor as Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man (explained a bit in exposition and flashback scenes.) The action is good, the comic parts work, and there's fun to be had exploring the tiny, tiny world. And the conflict is refreshingly small-scale...kind of. I mean, there's the part of the plot where Hydra might get their hands on shrinking technology and that would be a disastrous weapon if they had it. But that has much less emotional weight than Scott fighting to protect his daughter.

A final note, it seems like there's an awful lot of movies that take place in San Francisco nowadays (even TERMINATOR GENISYS, in a series that has always been in L.A., had to move it to San Francisco and make sure that ground zero for the machine invasion is Oakland.) And that's cool. But kudos for the restraint in not using the cliche of destroying the Golden Gate Bridge.

Running Time: 117 minutes
My Total Minutes: 403,416

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for a Leonard Nimoy tribute

What does he have to do with silent film? Why did we do this?

Nothing. And because we can

First up was a veritable smorgasbord (love that word) of clips from Creature Features, interviews, Star Trek bloopers, etc. all courtesy of local historical documentary filmmaker and friend of the museum Tom Wyrsch (look for a couple of his shows coming to the museum in October!) They're all edited together in a clever and playful way that allows Leonard Nimoy to basically tell the story of his career. Very cool.

And then a brief intermission, a costume contest (where everyone knew the Klingon had to win) and the feature film.

KID MONK BARONI (1952): Nimoy's first starring role, and in the first scenes he's nearly unrecognizable, not just because he's so young (he was about 20 at the time) but because his face is partially hidden under a ridiculously bent up nose. This makes him a fighter, the tough leader of a Little Italy street gang. When they're caught tearing apart a banister for firewood, local priest Father Callahan (Richard Rober) takes him under his wing and teaches him how to box. He finds a home in the church with friends and perhaps a nice girl. And boxing teaches him discipline and a little respect. And he's good enough that he starts winning some amateur bouts and is looking to go pro. But insecurities over his looks lead him to make bad decisions. And when he gets plastic surgery and becomes a younger version of that handsome Vulcan we all know (seriously, on a side note, Zachary Quinto does really look like a young Leonard Nimoy)...that doesn't help him with his psychological issues. In fact, fear of messing up his face actually makes him a worse boxer. A good story well told, and a solid morality tale that still works, mostly.

Total Running Time: 158 minutes
My Total Minutes: 403,299

Jason watches TRAINWRECK

And yup, it's pretty darn funny. Amy Schumer, who I think is smart enough and has worked at it long enough to be more than a flash-in-the-pan hottest comedian of the moment, is hilarious. But it's the supporting cast that makes it work. Colin Quinn is her kinda racist, definitely philandering father who teaches her (at way too young of an age) that monogamy isn't normal. Bill Hader has great chemistry as her partner, although except for one surgery-on-no-sleep scene his wackier comic skills are kept in check for him to play a very appealing straight man. Dave Attell has what amounts to a recurring cameo as a wise-cracking homeless man outside her building. Vanessa Bayer is her best friend who is just as into pro-drinking and pro-hookup as she is. Probably the best supporting character is the surprisingly hilarious John Cena as her somewhat serious, possibly gay boyfriend. Oh, and Tilda Swinton almost unrecognizable as her acerbic boss. And lots of others, what I'm saying is kudos to the casting. Oh, and Lebron James, hilarious as Lebron James.

As for the story, it feels like a formula rom-com, but on deeper reflection it subverts the formula nicely. Despite the title, Amy isn't really damaged. She has a good career. She's promiscuous, but despite the occasional walk-of-shame she's not really slut-shamed, she's 100% sex-positive. Maybe more importantly, when she meets Bill Hader's handsome sports doctor character, there isn't an instant hate that has to fester over the entire movie until they realize they love each other (seriously, something like 90% of ostensible rom-coms are actually hate-fuck flicks.) Instead, they seem attracted to immediately. And they even go ahead and say it pretty early on. And they start dating. Because that part is easy. It's not complicated to go from hating someone to liking them (it's often idiotic, but it's not complicated.) What's complicated is going from liking someone to being willing to make significant life changes for them. And that's what the movie's about. And nails it mostly perfectly.

Running Time: 125 minutes
My Total Minutes: 403,141