Friday, August 22, 2014

Jason goes to Jewfest North--August 3rd

My one day at the Castro, and my last day at the festival. There were a lot of good movies at Jewfest this year, and I managed to see a fair number, but nowhere near the amount I usually see.

SALOMEA'S NOSE: This autobiograph-ish short tells the story of a family's "day of tragedy" when baby Salomea's brothers were playing around and accidentally broke her nose. And then in hiding from it, ended up injuring themselves as well. Life-long injuries to everyone all on the same day.

THE STURGEON QUEENS: That short was the lead in to this delightful documentary about multiple generations of famed New York smoked fish shop Russ & Daughters. Now I'm not a New Yorker, so I didn't know about this place in advance. But when the opening shot of the movie is Justice Ginsberg talking about her favorite fish from Russ & Daughters, I sit up and take notice. This place is apparently an institution there, surviving all the changes to the neighborhood. What in retrospect might seem like a forward thinking progressive step in naming the fish shop after the daughters (when everyone else was bringing their sons into the business and naming their shops as such) was really just a pragmatic business choice. Russ had no sons, and his daughters cut fish well (the standard, of course, is if you can read the New York Times through the lox.) That pragmatism carries through to the days where they hire a Latino to cut fish for their still predominantly Jewish customers. Two of the original daughters--100-year-old Hattie Russ Gold and 92-year-old Anne Russ Federman, the original "Sturgeon Queens"--are still alive and are absolutely adorable in the movie, as their grandchildren are now running the shop (and expanding into a cafe.) It seems every generation of Russes tries their hand at something else--lawyer, businessman, whatever--but they always seem to be drawn back to the store by some genetic magnet. And that continuity, even as the world changes, and they change along with it, is pretty cool. Although it's unthinkable that the original store would sell something called a Heebster Sandwich, I gotta say it sounds pretty damn delicious and the next time I'm in New York I'll have to try it out.

SOME VACATION: The next show started with this short, a funny, animated, autobiographical story of a father who combines a family vacation with his traveling salesman job.

HAVANA CURVEBALL: And the feature was a cool movie about charity, a mitzvah, and learning about other cultures and international politics. Bar Mitzvah boy Mica has a great idea. He heard about how poor Cubans were, and how much they loved baseball. He loves baseball too, and is dismayed to hear they don't have proper baseball gear there. So he organizes a drive to collect gear--bats, balls, gloves, etc.--and send them to a charity in Cuba. But he quickly learns it's not that easy. It's illegal to mail anything to Cuba from the United States. So his family takes a roadtrip to Canada. And he ships out the package...and he hears nothing from it. Now I have to stop and say his parents are filmmakers and this is their film, so maybe all of this doesn't happen if he didn't have such engaged parents who could recognize a great story. Anyway, it's a struggle to get any news from the Canadian mail, but he sticks with it. This is his project, and he'll see it through even if it means going to Cuba himself. Spoiler alert, he goes to Cuba. He meets his baseball-loving contemporaries there. He sees how they fight over the gear he brings. And it's beautiful...and confusing...and sometimes difficult. It's a great story of cross-cultural learning and coming-of-age at the same time.

EL CRITICO: Then it was time for a little clever light comedy. VĂ­ctor Tellez is a jaded film critic who especially despises the cliches of romantic comedy. So of course he falls in love and starts living all those ridiculous rom-com cliches--even a ridiculous run through the rain in a pretty hilarious climax. I also particularly liked how his reviews start going soft and he praises things that his colleagues would never like and so they tease him horribly. That's maybe a little too on the nose, but I can attest it's absolutely true.

LITTLE HORRIBLES: MINIBAR: And the final show started with this short, wherein our heroine has no self-control and bribes her little sister into taking blame for ransacking the minibar at the hotel where they're staying on vacation.

LITTLE WHITE LIE: And then the day ended with a really remarkable true-life oddity. Lacey Schwartz never questioned her identity growing up. She was a white, Jewish daughter of white, Jewish parents. It didn't really matter that her skin was dark. That was just because of her Sicilian great-grandfather, right? The thing is...she's pretty obviously black to look at her. And everyone treated her as black. And when she applied to Georgetown she was questioning it enough that she didn't check a box next to any race but sent a picture...so they admitted her as a black student. Sure enough, when she confronts her mom (after she and her father were divorced) she admitted to an affair with a black family friend who was undoubtedly her father. That's a good 45 minutes into the movie (ummm...I guess I should've said SPOILER ALERT!) Anyway, it's a fascinating story of race, identity, and most of all a family that really, really, has a hard time communicating.

Total Running Time: 302 minutes
My Total Minutes: 369,044

Jason watches HAPPY CHRISTMAS

Indie cinema luminary and longtime Roxie/Indiefest favorite Joe Swanberg has a new film out. And it's a sweet, loving story of siblings, love, family, and growing up. Joe plays Jeff, an independent filmmaker (if he's not careful, he might get typecast) with a lovely writer wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and a young son Jude (played by Joe's real-life son Jude.) When his sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) breaks up with her boyfriend, she moves in temporarily, at least long enough to spend the holidays with them. But she's also kind of a drunken fuck-up party girl who puts a bit of strain on Joe and Kelly's quiet family life. Swanberg's movies are often not so much about story as about creating some sort of emotional truth to his scenes. And he's definitely got that here, not just emotional truth but emotional maturity which is very nice (not that I didn't like his more gonzo early films, but it's just cool to see this guy consistently mature as both a filmmaker and human being.)

And afterwards, we had a brief Q&A with Joe via Skype, and then next door to the bar for a fond farewell to Mike Keegan at the Roxie (Keegan will still be a vital part of the SF Cinema scene, just not as a member of the Roxie staff.)

Running Time: 88 minutes
My Total Minutes: 368,742

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Thursday, July 31st

A LIFE IN DIRTY MOVIES. Ah, yeah, some good old porn made by a nice Jewish boy. Joe Sarno is sometimes called the Ingmar Bergman of porn. Switching between archival footage of his early films and a contemporary story of him trying to get a new film off the ground, it takes a very sympathetic view of this Sarno as a serious filmmaker who happened to have an interest in making movies about sex. Particularly interesting is how he focuses on female desires in his films--something that porn nowadays almost totally ignores. I haven't seen his films, and I'm not about to rush out to get them, but this film makes a solid and compelling case for their artistic merit.

COMEDY WARRIORS. Now this was kind of a treat. Injured Iraq/Afghanistan veterans who deal with their pain through comedy and are trained by standup comedians (Bob Saget, Louis Black, and others are featured) to be standup comedians for a show. This is therapy, but it's also genuinely funny. A common refrain from the professional comedians is how easily these guys have stage presence and make them look stupid for spending so many years honing their craft when these "amateurs" take to it right away. Of course they joke about their injuries (most of them dealt with their injuries through humor from the beginning, which is how they were picked for the program) and in the live show that is the climax of the movie, they all--to borrow an inappropriate term--kill. No pity laughs from the audience, they were genuine, and same goes for the movie.

MAGIC MEN. And finally I ended the night with a comedy about an atheist Holocaust survivor and his devout orthodox rapper son who travel to Greece for an important business trip. It's not quite the screwball comedy it sounds like, but it is very funny and poignant. See, the dad is not just there for business, he also wants to look up the man who hid him from the Nazis, and taught him magic tricks (which he, in turn, taught his son.) And so we take a journey through a beautiful Greece (with its crumbling economy) along with a nice...woman of the evening...who he meets in the hotel. And a good time is had.

Total Running Time: 255 minutes
My Total Minutes: 368,654

Jason watches THE DANCE OF REALITY

Ah...Alejandro Jodorowsky, being his Jodorowskiest. Making it a whole family affair, he casts his own son as his overbearing, Stalin-worshiping father (and his other sons as an Anarchist and a Theosophist.) He creates a surreal auto-biography full of allegory, religion, politics, vivid visuals, pornography, child abuse, and dick jokes. Jodorowsky has often said he tries to achieve through cinema what most people achieve through recreational drugs. I think he has succeeded here, but it might also be a movie that only appeals to die-hard Jodorowsky fans.

Running Time: 130 minutes
My Total Minutes: 368,398

Jason watches LIFE ITSELF

Watching Roger Ebert's life...and death...unfold on screen is really pretty interesting. I have to admit I never really dug his taste in movies. But I always admired his passion for film. And the behind-the-scenes look at some of the very real friction between him and Siskel was pretty interesting (and for all their arguments, they turned out to be great friends.) And his embrace of new media--blogging and tweeting not just about movies but about...well, life itself was really great. I think I really found new appreciation for him as a writer reading his blog (especially as a blogger myself...but if he was  top-tier blogger I would be something like a...fifth tier blogger.) And he will always be my go-to example of the democratizing effect of social media. I was at a film festival, seeing something like my 3rd movie in a 5 movie day, when I checked Twitter on my phone between films and learned--from Roger Ebert--that the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) had been passed. That's pretty cool. And so is this film.


Running Time: 120 minutes
My Total Minutes: 368,268

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Tuesday, July 29

More catching up on my bloggery at Jewfest.

LITTLE HORRIBLES: ROAD RAGE. First up was this comic short about a woman stuck in traffic, how she passes the time, and how that makes the party she's going to very, very awkward.

QUALITY BALLS: THE DAVID STEINBERG STORY. So then the feature, about the very funny, prolific, and long-lasting comedian David Steinberg. From his early days cracking wise in yeshiva in Winnipeg, to his time with Second City, to his groundbreaking, censor-pushing work with the Smothers Brothers, this guy was brilliant. And then...somehow the performing bug didn't have enough of a pull on him and he very smoothly and happily transitioned to directing comedies. This guy really was a comic genius, and it's shown not just in his work but in the clear admiration of so many comedy giants (Martin Short does an impression of him, Jerry Seinfeld delivers the "quality balls" line that gives the movie its title, Larry David praises him...the list goes on and on.)

TRANSIT. And then a much more sobering film, a multi-part story of the difficulties of Filipino workers in Tel Aviv. The biggest difficulty being the harsh immigration laws that make any child under 5 subject to deportation. So while the parents travel around town doing odd jobs, they have to keep a close eye out for the cops and hide their young children away. And you have to understand this law to understand this movie. The problem is...this law makes no damn sense. Deporting children when their parents are in the country working legally is...not just wrong...not just stupid...but actually completely nonsensical. The kids only speak Hebrew, only know Israel as home, and are told they're not allowed there. So we get a story that is incredibly sad, based on a law that is incredibly cruel.

Total Running Time: 176 minutes
My Total Minutes: 368,149

Jason goes to Jewfest North--Monday, July 28th

I missed the opening weekend of this year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival due to other commitments, but I was in Palo Alto (just a block away from my job) for two films Monday evening.

ABOVE AND BEYOND: THE BIRTH OF THE ISRAELI AIR FORCE. This was a fascinating documentary about the early days of Israel, the Arab nations set to attack them, and the small rag-tag bunch of foreign volunteers--all of them WWII veterans--who formed the Israeli Air Force. Plots to smuggle planes into the country, planes fixed up practically by chewing gum and baling wire, and missions more dangerous than any they faced in the great war. This is just a really cool, exciting story, and the survivors are really engaging, wonderful people (especially the guy who swears all the time. He was definitely the star.)

THE SECRET LIFE OF URI GELLER: PSYCHIC SPY? So...this movie is completely tainted for me because I had recently seen AN HONEST LIAR: THE AMAZING RANDI STORY. And Randi spent a great deal of effort debunking Uri Geller. So for me, the question of whether Uri Geller was secretly a psychic spy working for the CIA (or Mossad, or both) is irrelevant--I already believe he's a fraud who was exposed by the Amazing Randi. In fact, I have no doubt that the CIA or Mossad approached him, and he did some "work" for him...I just think his work was bullshit. This movie even mentions Geller's infamous failure on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. They mention that the show hired a "stage magician" (Randi, of course, although IIRC he volunteered his services, the show didn't hire him.) who manipulated the props to stymie Geller. But the movie presents that as some sort of immoral chicanery on their part, not as pretty solid evidence that Geller is a fraud. But I suppose that's just the take of the movie--Geller is a very interesting character, and I doubt they could have gotten so many interviews with him if it was all about debunking him. Instead, we see Geller relish in the sort of 'I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you' moments. It's obvious that he's a great showman, loves being the center of attention, and that claiming to be authentic is a big part of fame. It's unfortunate that it's not as obvious that he's nothing more than a very gifted stage magician.

Total Running Time: 179 minutes
My Total Minutes: 367,973