Saturday, October 25, 2014

Jason goes to the SF Silent Film Festival's Silent Autumn

More data dump trying to catch up on my blog. Way back last...September 20, was the SF Silent Film Festival's autumn event. So here we go.

We started with some classic Laurel and Hardy Shorts:
SHOULD MARRIED MEN GO HOME? (1928): Laurel comes by to convince Hardy to go golfing with him, over the objections of his wife (and despite the fact that he insists he's the master of his home.) Once finally on the links, they get into hilarious trouble, ending with a climactic mud-fight.
TWO TARS (1928): Although the title refers to their characters as two sailors on leave, they spend zero seconds of this film on water. In fact, they spend almost all of it in a traffic jam in their rental car with a couple of girls they picked up. And of course, they get in slapstick confrontations with everyone else who is stuck in line.
BIG BUSINESS (1929): A classic, one of their funniest films. They play Christmas tree salesmen. Jim Finlayson wants none of that, but innocent misunderstandings turn into rude encounters and eventually the destruction of his house and their car. A classic "tit for tat" film where one party stands and watches while the other destroys something (while never actually try to stop them) and then the first party destroys something while the second party watches. If you think about it too much, it doesn't make much sense, so don't think and just enjoy the mayhem.

Donald Sosin was brilliant as always accompanying on the piano.

SON OF THE SHEIK (1926): Rudolph Valentino reprising his role from THE SHEIK and also playing his own son. Romance, love, betrayal, revenge, and the revelation that the original betrayal was actually a frame-job. Um....wow, I think I summed that up surprisingly well in very few words. But it's also a great, classic film.

And the Alloy Orchestra (whom, as an aside, were missed at the big Silent Festival back in May) were awesome as always.

Next up was A Night At the Cinema in 1914, celebrating the centennial of...1914, I guess. This program of 1914 films was put together by the BFI, and it was pretty cool,
Looping the Loop at Hendon (March 1914): Movies and flight were emerging technologies at the same time, so early films often had a fascination with flight. Especially with stunt flying.
Palace Pandemonium (May 1914): Footage of Emmeline Pankhurst, a leading suffragette, causing a bit of a stir outside of Buckingham Palace as she delivers a petition to the king.
Austrian Tragedy (July 1914): Footage of the Austro-Hungarian royal family, including the heir to Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination precipitated WWI.
Dogs for the Antarctic (August 1914): Shackleton preparing for his expedition, picking out dogs for the sled teams.
Daisy Doodad’s Dial: "Dial" here refers to her face. Florence Turner is Daisy Doodad, a cheerful gal who plans to win the funny face contest. But too much practicing in public gets her arrested.
Egypt and Her Defenders: The British Consul General reviewing the troops and seeing Egypt's famous sights. In tinted color.
Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine: A hilarious little no-budget comedy about a submarine and foreign spies.
Scouts’ Valuable Aid (August 1914): Footage of Sea Scouts keeping lookout from the clifftops for invading foreign ships.
German Occupation of Historic Louvain (September 1914): A historic Belgian city was invaded by the Germans, who destroyed the University library, which provoked international anger. 
General French’s Contemptible Little Army: Fast-sketching and animation makes for soem pretty amusing war propaganda. 
Christmas at the Front (December 1914): More news footage, showing troops being well fed before returning to the trenches.
The Perils of Pauline: An entry in the classic danger serial, this one featuring a balloon ride and an escape from a burnign building.
The Rollicking Rajah: People don't necessarily know that synchronized sound with film was attempted from the very earliest days, well before THE JAZZ SINGER. The sound disc for this one is lost, so instead we were treated to Donald Sosin singing the song about an Indian prince with great riches and a taste for fun that the ladies all adore. 
A Film Johnnie: 1914 was Charlie Chaplin's first year in the movies, working for Keystone studios. In this film, the newcomer to the Keystone sets runs about trying to meet all his favorite stars, but of course reating chaos instead. 

Donald Sosin was great as always accompanying on the piano, and singing The Rollicking Rajah.

THE GENERAL (1926): Buster Keaton's classic! No need, really, to describe it. If you haven't seen it, just go see it. But I will tell you instead about the first time I saw it on the big screen. Which was at the Castro. And with the Alloy Orchestra. This was at the San Francisco International Film Festival in...I think 2004. I had seen a few silent films before, but mostly on DVD at home and it might have been my first experience seeing a silent film in a theater with live music. At the very least, it was the first time I really appreciated what the big screen, enthusiastic audience, and live music can do for a film. It was then that I realized you haven't necessarily "seen" a silent film if you only watched it alone at home. It was a complete revelation, and still one of my favorite film events ever. And it definitely holds up to multiple viewings.

Then I was too tired to stick around for THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI so that was it for me

Total Running Time: 301 minutes
My Total Minutes: 370,316

Jason goes to Niles for a Laurel and Hardy afternoon with THE SONS OF THE DESERT

Ugh. I've officially fallen more than a month and a half behind on my blog. So...here's a data dump.

Sons of the Desert is the name of the official Laurel and Hardy Film Appreciation Society (don't call it a fan club, but the express wishes of Stan Laurel they do not have a fan club) and the title of the feature last September 14. But, as always, a few shorts first.

MIDNIGHT PATROL (1933): Which happens to be the name of the local "tent" of the Sons of the Desert (all local chapters are "tents" and all are named after L and H films.) Stan and Ollie were chased by the cops in so many of their films, this is kind of a change of pace--now they are cops! They of course still get in plenty of trouble, accidentally helping a jewel thief and harassing the chief of police. Very funny.

SOMETHING SIMPLE (1934): Charley Chase in a beautifully convoluted plot, where he suffers from dizzy spells. So he goes to the doctor, but little does he know he's actually seeing an escaped mental patient who's posing as a doctor. He advises Charley to sit down, relax, and recite something simple like a nursery rhyme. Unfortunately publicly reciting nursery rhymes is the sure sign of the escaped mental patient that everyone is looking for. Obviously, wacky hijinx ensue.

Then intermission, and the feature.

SONS OF THE DESERT (1933): In the interest of time/effort, I'll reuse what I wrote the last time I saw it:
Laurel and Hardy are in a fraternal organization and take an oath to join the national convention in Chicago. Now they just need their wives's permission. Or failing that, they need to get there without their wives knowing. Hilarious, and a great supporting role by under-appreciated comic Charley Chase.
Total Running Time: 108
My Total Minutes: 370,015



Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Jason goes to Niles for a little jazz-age fun with CHICAGO

Not the recent musical, the silent classic, of course. But first a couple of shorts:

THE BIG SWIM (1926): Mutt and Jeff swim across the Atlantic, with the sort of wacky hijinx only possible in cartoons. Very funny.

THE BALLOONATIC (1923): Buster Keaton...also 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.

Then a brief intermission, and on with the feature.

CHICAGO (1927): Hey, remember Phyllis Haver from THE BALLOONATIC. Well know she stars as the infamous Roxie Hart in the first film version based on the true-life story (from 1924, it had already been made into a stage play.) In this version her doting husband Amos (Victor Varconi) is much more of a sympathetic, driving force. First trying to take the blame for murder, claiming self-defense, even though Roxie shot the sugar-daddy she was cheating with. Then when the prosecutor tricks her into a confession, he contracts the shadiest, most expensive defense lawyer he can, even committing a bit of larceny to pay him. And for all his trouble...well [SPOILER ALERT: He actually does get a happy ending, while Roxie has to suffer the humiliation of being yesterday's news.] A really good, fun story. And there's something weirdly comforting in knowing that tabloid "trial of the century" trash was going on 90 years ago pretty much the same as tody.

Total Running Time: 138 minutes
My Total Minutes: 369,907



Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Jason watches GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

Well that was fun. In fact, I suspect Marvel Studios engineers their films to be as fun as possible, so people don't notice plot holes or things that just make no sense. And that's a good thing, these films are supposed to be fun.

That's it. I've got nothing else to say. If you want more details, look at any of the thousands of reviews on the Internet.

Running Time: 121 minutes
My Total Minutes:369,769

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Jason experiences the madness of William Lustig with a 2-day, 6 movie marathon

This weekend deserves a better write-up than I can give it, but I'm still crawling back to only being a month behind on my blog. 2 days, 6 crazy fucking movies, and Mr. Lustig himself to talk about all of them (even the one he hates!) So let's jump right in.

MANIAC: Joe Spinell (who also wrote) stars as the titular maniac. And it's an ultra-low-budget, ultra sleazy story of a crazy man who both misses and despises his whore (literally, she was an abusive prostitute) mother who died in a car crash. So he kills beautiful young women, scalps them, and makes wigs for his mannequins. It's a pretty fucked-up premise, with grisly execution (pun intended) including an infamous Tom Savini exploding head scene (which caused Gene Siskel to walk out of the movie and declare it "unredeemable.") Low budget exploitation Grand Guignol guerrilla film-making at its best/worst. Also, apparently the actual original inspiration behind the song "Maniac" from FLASHDANCE.

VIGILANTE: A classic "take back the streets" story of a vigilante group led by Nick (Fred Williamson) who is ridding their town of pimps, gangs, and drug dealers.) His co-worker Eddie (Robert Forster) is sympathetic but doesn't want any part of it. Even when his wife and kid are murdered by a gang, he prefers to let the justice system do its work...but it doesn't. The gang leader is let off lightly by a corrupt cop, and Eddie snaps, leading to jail time for himself. And when he gets out, Eddie is the vigilantiest vigilante ever, killing everyone in the entire fucking gang. Robert Forster does an excellent descent-into-hell slow burn, and his revenge is as satisfying as it is gruesome.

HIT LIST: Rip Torn as a mob boss, Lance Henriksen as a deadly hit man, and Jan-Michael Vincent as...well, to hear Lustig tell it, as a drunk who could barely stand up straight. Seriously, when you watch it notice how many times Vincent is leaning on something. Anyway, Rip Torn's character is being brought up on charges, so he has Lance Henriksen kill all the witnesses the feds have lined up. Except on the last one, he gets the wrong house and kills Jan-Michael Vincent's wife and kidnaps his kid instead. The cops actually think this is good--Luca doesn't know he has the wrong kid--which is kind of fucked up because they're sacrificing an innocent kid to put this mobster away. But JMV escapes custody and goes after the bad guys on his own. Unfortunately, the film ran long so I had to run off and catch the last BART out of the city before it ended, so I missed the last 10 minutes or so of the ending. But it was getting pretty damn exciting before then (and Lance Henriksen appears to be unkillable.)


Then the next day was the world premiere of the MANIAC COP trilogy back-to-back-to-back.

MANIAC COP: Shot between VIGILANTE and HIT LIST, a story of a muscular giant in a police uniform who is killing random people in New York. Bruce Campbell stars as a young officer who is having an affair, and in true film noir style his dalliance gets him into untold trouble when he is framed as the Maniac Cop. But eventually the truth comes out and he has to find and defeat the real killer--an ex-cop, a legend on the force who was disgraced by charges of abuse and allegedly killed in prison by all the criminals he put away. Turns out he's alive...and badly brain damaged.

MANIAC COP 2: William Lustig claims this is his favorite film of his. The Maniac Cop is back from the grave and deadlier than ever. This time he's supernatural, not just brain-damaged. He's also far deadlier, and the stunts are bigger and badder than before. And you have to remember this is 1990, back when people did actual stunts, it wasn't all CGI. If there's one thing you should take away from this trilogy, it's the amazing work of stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos (who has had quite a career, which is still going strong.) Everything about this film is bigger, better, and more awesome than the original (even if Bruce Campbell dies early on...oops, spoiler!)

MANIAC COP 3: BADGE OF SILENCE: And this final film of the trilogy (although there's allegedly a prequel in the works) is one that William Lustig hates. And having heard about that--how the entire story had to be badly re-written to get funding from Japanese investors who didn't like the original racial-tinged voodoo story, how he was disgusted with the romantic subplot, etc...I can understand his point of view. What intrigued me the most was how it completely changed the Maniac Cop's backstory--instead of a "supercop" who actually was too abusive, now evidence emerges that he was actually framed for the abuses and was a good guy all along (at least until the maniac-creating brain damage.) That...changes everything in the previous movies. It's no longer about criminally abusive police behavior (by coincidence, I saw this trilogy right when Ferguson, MO was blowing up over the Michael Brown shooting) but about good cops being accused of brutality and railroaded by a corrupt system. And that is...unsettling. Or maybe I'm thinking too much. The stunts are still fantastic. Allegedly Lustig turned the entire last reel over to Spiro Razatos to direct, and he once again takes it even further over-the-top. That, at least, is awesome, even if Lustig himself hates this film.

Total Running Time: 524 minutes
My Total Minutes: 369,648

Jason goes to Niles for a Laurel and Hardy Afternoon

So...I said for a while that I will not fall more than a month behind in my blog. Turns out that was a lie. This is from August 10th, and so with no fanfare:

PUPS IS PUPS (1930): An Our Gang short, after Farina gets a job as a page for a local pet show, all the kids have dreams of their pets winning. Except for Dorothy, she just keeps jumping in a mud puddle and ruining her clean dress. Kids, animals, and mud...that's funny.

THEM THAR HILLS (1934): Laurel and Hardy take a vacation in the mountains. Little do they know that bootleggers have dumped their moonshine down the well. And when Charley Hall shows up with his wife (Mae Busch) he figures it's safe to leave her with them while he re-fuels his car. A little bit of what they think is water from the well turns it into a rather rowdy, chaotic affair and Mr. Hall is none too happy when he returns.

Then a brief intermission and we continued.

THE REAL MCCOY (1930): Charley Chase (have I mentioned how I love that they've added Charley Chase to the schedule?) is a city slicker who poses as a country man (the last of the McCoys) to win the heart of the country schoolteacher. When he's mistaken for an undercover cop and the moonshiners are after him, hilarious hijinx ensue.

TIT FOR TAT (1935): In Laurel and Hardy's only sequel, they have opened an electrical appliance store, coincidentally right next to Mr. Hall's (from THEM THAR HILLS) grocery store. Other than one mention, and Mr. Hall being suspicious that Ollie is having an affair with his wife, there's very little connection. In classic L&H style ("tit for tat" could easily be the title of dozens of their films) they take turns destroying each other's businesses out of petty--and funny--revenge.

Total Running Time: 80 minutes
My Total Minutes: 369,124

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