Saturday, October 18, 2008

Conversations Overheard in a Public Restroom

The title of this post sounds like a John Cassavetes film. "They are having a Cassavetes retrospective at the Roxie next month. They are screening A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Conversations Overheard in a Public Restroom."

Anyway, during one of the Dead Channels screenings, I went to the bathroom during the film. The men's room at the Roxie is adjacent to the sidewalk and there is a small window high on the wall that is left open. As I was doing my business, I heard festival founder Bruce Fletcher outside on the sidewalk. He was speaking to what seemed to be a couple that was scanning the film posters or festival guide. Fletcher was engaging them in small talk about his festival when they mentioned they attend Noir City every year at the Castro Theater. BTW, Noir City will be January 23 to February 1, 2009 at the Castro.

When Fletcher heard this, he told the couple that the Castro Theater was turning into a "regular theater" starting November 1. That jolted me as I've heard that the Castro is not doing so well financially and some of the screenings I've been to have been sparsely attended. I recalled this SF Chronicle article on fading rep houses from February.

"Regular theater" could mean many things but I interpreted Fletcher's statement to mean that the Castro was going to show traditional cineplex offerings like they did this summer with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I thought the Castro was switching programming to shore up finances but that didn't really add up. My observation is the that Castro packs them in for film festival, special film events (like Romeo and Juliet or Midnite for Maniacs) and various live events like the annual San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus performance every December.

Furthermore, there are a lot of Hollywood films that bomb at the box office so unless the Castro could program a hit like Indiana Jones every time, why not just stick with the current model and avoid the public outcry if they tried to change programming?

According to the Castro's calendar, nothing seems amiss starting November 1. November is filed with Tony Curtis films, a Bette Davis double feature, the revival of Lola Mont├Ęs and the 2008 San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival (otherwise known as the Third I).

Then I noticed that the Castro is screening Milk with Sean Penn for first 23 days of December but followed by a Sing Along Sound of Music and a Joy Behar performance on New Year's Eve. Knowing the Castro is hosting Noir City for the last nine days in January, it would seem that the Castro is not turning into a "regular theater."

Still the extended Milk run (pun intended) is identical to the programming of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull earlier this year. Given the programming to date, the Chronicle article, the declining movie audience and general economic conditions, maybe the Castro is planning a change in programming. Only the future will tell.

For my own part, I enjoy the Castro programming. Festival screenings excluded, I see more films at the Castro than any other theater. Including film festivals, I probably see more films at the Roxie because SF IndieFest and Dead Channels use their facilities primarily.

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Speaking of IndieFest, their documentary film festival (DocFest) opened last night at the Roxie. It runs until October 30 at the Roxie and then October 31 to November 6 at the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley (within walking distance of the Downtown Berkeley BART). I wasn't sure if I was going to buy a festival pass but I was in Las Vegas recently and hit a 200 to 1 jackpot on a video poker machine at the airport. I spent the winnings on a DocFest pass.

A few films that interest me:

Toots - a film about New York club owner Toots Shor. This film screened at the SF International Film Festival earlier this year.

Bigfoot: A Beast on the Run - I'm Sasquatch believer or at least I want to believe.

Neshoba - a modern day exploration of a Klansman prosecuted for the 1964 Mississippi Burning murders.

Fatman Walking - a 400 pound man decides to walk from San Diego to New York.

Jump - chronicles five teams pursuing the World Jump Rope Championship.

Over My Dad's Body - Israeli woman investigates her father's claim that her uncle is a Soviet undercover spy in Israel.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Changing Channels

I have some free time to riff on some of the 2008 Dead Channels films.

Far and away, the best film of the festival was the Swedish language Let the Right One In. The film is based on a 2004 novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. I have not read the novel but the film (directed by Tomas Alfredson) seems to be set in the 1970's for some reason. There was a quick mention of Leonid Brezhnev which confused me. Sweden (where the film is set) was not under Soviet control during that time.

Regardless, the film could have been set in any time period because the plot successfully melds two genres - the vampire lore and lonely boy/first crush film. The plot centers around a Oskar, 12 year old boy who is bullied at school. If well told, that story always interests me because it can veer off any which way - nice guy ignores the bullies, nice guy gets a mentor to deal with the bullies, nice guy turn introverted and goes postal, etc.

Let the Right One In melds Oskar's tribulations with his first crush on his new next door neighbor (Eli). I thought the character of Eli was perfectly cast with Lina Leandersson. She looked like a 12 year old girl, she was a little tomboyish and she exhibited the awkwardness that can be prevalent at that age. Of course, Eli's age and cause of her awkwardness are not what they appear. Eli is actually a 200 year old vampire frozen in a 12 year old body. I thought that Kirsten Dunst's similiar role in Interview with the Vampire was a compelling storyline in that film. Leandersson's interpretation of a vampire trapped in a child's body is more understated and sympathetic.

The result is a film that treats the relationship between the two prepubescent with tenderness and humor while allowing Eli and her minion the standard allotment of vampire related blood and gore. I can't say enough about Lina Leandersson's performance. She captures the weariness and desperation of her existence while retaining some humanity in her relationship with Oskar.

Bruce Fletcher said the film will be remade ("crappified" was the exact quote) by the director of Cloverfield. I never saw that film so I don't know how bad that can be. I can only imagine that Eli will be cast as an older girl with definite sex appeal which changes the audience's reaction to Eli. Most studio films are crap anyway so I don't know if I'll ever see the American version of Let the Right One In.

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The other film I was impressed with was Who is K.K. Downey? which is a spoof of the JT Leroy hoax from a few years back. The two leads (Darren Curtis as Terrance/KK and Matt Silver as Theo Huxtable) deliver outstanding comedic performance. Curtis' Southern drawl makes me smiles (who knew "nachos" was pronounced differently with a Southern accent?).

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Viscera and the Incubus was hosted by Shannon Lark - director, actress, Viscera Film Festival founder, Chain Saw Mafia Production Company CEO, Living Dead Girlz manager and probably much more. I found tremendously appealing; she was very friendly and atriculate. She is the type of person that would probably be successful in any career although my impression is that she likes the limelight so some occupations wouldn't suit her.

The Viscera Film Festival is not a film festival like most. It's an on-line festival and since my internet connection is on a small notebook computer, I don't watch much streaming video. Based on the 2007 selections, I may have keep an eye out for it.

Three short films from Viscera stood out. Wretched with Joe Bob Briggs (I read his movie reviews in high school) and Jaime Andrews portray a dysfunctional married couple at a diner. Joe Bob (aka John Bloom) is a jerk and his wife copes by binging and purging between dinner courses in the restaurant women's room. There was a scene where she vomits copious amounts blood but I thought this film would have worked without that scene.

The Cleaner feels vaguely derivative but I can't identify which film I'm thinking of. Regardless, it was enjoyable. It's the story of a clean freak woman who lets her obsessive compulsive disorder ruin her marriage and job. After being fired, she comes home to find his wife in flagrante delicto (with Shannon Lark!). The wife gets her revenge by forcing industrial cleaning solvent down Shannon throat.

Brains is an extended music video - Valley Girl meets Zombies (and it was directed by Shannon Lark!).

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I had high hopes for A Visit From the Incubus directed by and starring Anna Biller. Let me preface my statement by saying I am a big fan of Viva. Her 2007 feature film played at last year's IndieFest. A Visit From the Incubus (28 minutes and made in 2001) hints that Biller is an auteur or one-trick pony if you are less polite. Both films had similarities - Biller likes musical numbers and audacious costumes. It appears as though she likes period pieces too. Biller likes to coordinate colors on screen, e.g. her red dress matches the red curtains.

There is nothing wrong or distracting with these traits. In fact, I like musicals and noticing details like the colors on screen. However, Biller also stars in her films and her performances (for the two I have seen) are nearly identical. Biller delivers her lines with a halting cadence. She seems to orate sarcastically more than act. Her facial expressions frequently seem to extend beyond the fourth wall into the audience with a "wink wink" undertone. Now that worked fine in Viva and it could have worked in A Visit From the Incubus (after all the plot revolves around the Incubus singing in a cowboy saloon). However, having seen Viva, I was expecting something different or "more" but instead I saw Biller channel Viva from the 1970s to 1880s or whatever Old West setting that was.

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Cosmic Hex sponsored Colossus: The Forbin Project. This film was a Who's Who of televions actors. It stars Eric Braeden as Dr. Forbin. When I was a kid, I watch repeats of The Rat Patrol. Braeden was the Nazi nemesis in that show. Although not a fan, Braeden has been on The Young and the Restless for 20 years. Also in the film were Susan Clark (Webster), Marion Ross (Happy Days), Georg Stanford Brown(Roots) and Dolph Sweet (Gimme a Break!) had supporting roles. Hannibal Chew (James Hong) had a non-speaking role.

The film was badly dated but at least now I know the inspiration for the Cylon voices in the 1970's Battlestar Galactica. The films stretches the imagination and even more so when you wonder how a 1970 mainframe (with about as much computing power as modern PC) could have acheived sentience and subjugated humanity. Still, Colossus: The Forbin Project is the cinematic nexus between HAL from Space Odyssey 2001 and Skynet from The Terminator. I'm glad for the opportunity to see it.

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Bad Biology was directed by Frank Henenlotter. Henenlotter has a special place in my cinematic education. His Frankenhooker (1990) was one of the first cult films I saw. My friend's reaction to the film led me to realize my tastes in films are not mainstream and that there are alternatives to the summer studio blockbuster.

In hindsight, Frankenhooker isn't really that great but like a character from a Henenlotter might say, "it wasn't that great but it was available."

That reminds me that festival programmer Bruce Fletcher seems to have a penis fixation. Last year, he programmed The Secret Life of Sarah Sheldon and Welcome Home Brother Charles. Now he programs Bad Biology. There are only so many times you can go to that well. You see one animatronic penis, you've seen them all.

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Golgotha was oddly effective for a low budget film - the costumes looked a little silly and the dragon was most certainly not animatronic or CGI. I don't know if director Karla Jean Davis really has a keen interest in German Expressionist films or made judicious use of her budget. She shot in black and white which is probably cheaper film stock (I believe the movie was shot on film). She also filmed a lot of scenes in shadows and darkened rooms which saved on lighting. By making much of the film silent (particularly the outdoor scenes), she didn't have to wory about sound quality.

In many instances, independent directors cannot effectively make a film in this manner. Rather than DIY, it looks cheap. To Davis' credit she adequately conveyed the silent film feel. I rather enjoyed the film and wish I could have caught the showing where she field questions from the audience.

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Another short film that deserves a mention is Dead Bones. Ken Foree from the original Dawn of the Dead (1978) is the most recognizable actor. The film is about a bounty hunter in the Old West. He rides into town looking for two escapees but he soons finds out that the townfolk are cannibals. The rest of the film is him and one prisoner escaping. The film was ok but what impressed me was that they had a scene or two with galloping horses which I don't recall seeing in small budget films. It must be difficult to film and to find actors with equestrian skills. I also wondered where the exteriors were shot and was surprised to discover that it was filmed in Spain.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Taking Inventory as of October 8

I've had a very crowded film schedule over the past two weeks. Since September 28, I've seen 20 films and a play.

Dead Channels Film Festival

The feature programs were

From Inside - Animated; (2008) - Official Website
Let the Right One In - Swedish with subtitles; (2008)
Bad Biology; (2008) - Official Website
Reality Bleed-Through; (2008) - Official Website
Plague Town; (2008) - Official Website
Colossus: the Forbin Project; (1970)
Who is K.K. Downey; (2008) - Official Website
Puffball; (2007)
A Gothic Tale; (2008) - Official Website
The Disappeared; (2008) - Official Website
Epitaph - Korean with subtitles; (2007)
Cut-Throats Nine; (1972)
Golgotha; (2008) - Official Website
Retardead; (2008) - Official Website
 
There were three short films that proceeded some of the features.
Far Out; (2007)
Latchkey's Lament; (2007) - Official Website
Peekers; (2008)
 
Fantastic Short Films - Short film program
       Mr. Video; (2008)
       Augu; (2006)
       Foet; (2002)
       The Horribly Slow Murder with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon; (2008)
       Mina; (2008) - Official Website
       Ending the Eternal; (2008) - Official Website
       Dead Bones; (2008) - Official Website
 
Viscera & the Incubus - Short film program; all films are 2007 Viscera Film Festival Official Selections except A Visit From the Incubus.
       Out of Print
       I'm a Little Teapot
       It's My Birthday
       Wretched - Official Website
       When Sally Met Frank - Official Website
       The Cleaner - Official Website
       Snake Pit
       Brains
       A Visit From the Incubus starring & directed by Anna Biller; (2001) - Official Website


All the aforementioned Dead Channel films were screened at the Big Roxie. The festival ends today but I had to travel out of town so I am missing the final night. All told, I saw 16 programs which means I made my $150 festival pass cost effective.

Im addition to the Dead Channel films, I saw two Godard films the night before the festival began and a Kurosawa film on Saturday of the festival.

At the PFA, I saw:

Masculine-Feminine directed by Jean-Luc Godard; French with subtitles; (1966)
A Woman is a Woman starring Anna Karina and Jean Paul Belmondo; directed by Jean-Luc Godard; French with subtitles; (1961)

At the Castro, I saw:

Kagemusha directed by Akira Kurosawa; Japanese with subtitles; (1980)
Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean and Natalie Wood; directed by Nicholas Ray; (1955)

In addition to these films, I saw Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll at American Conservatory Theater.

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Regarding Dead Channels, I am ambivalent. I saw 16 of the 21 programs at this year's festival. I saw a 17th film Tokyo Gore Police at Hole in the Head in June. Of those 17 programs, I would recommend five of them. Far and away, the best was Let the Right One In which also played at the more prestigious Mill Valley Film Festival (final screening October 10).

I was also impressed with Who is K.K. Downey which had several laugh out loud moments. Tokyo Gore Police is worth a look for horror fans.

The two short film programs were outstanding. I notice that short films are typically of higher quality than feature lengths at most festivals. I think it is easier to maintain a plot and budget with the confines of the short film format. I particularly enjoyed Wretched, The Horribly Slow Murder with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon, Foet, The Cleaner and Brains.

An Honorable Mention goes to Retardead which was shot in San Francisco (I recognized several locations) for $15,000.

Another positive development is that there were only two films I considered walking out on. A Gothic Tale and Reality Bleed-Through should be avoided at all costs. Both films are amateurish, convoluted and derivative horror films. From Inside showed more skill but was self-indulgent at 71 minutes. Based on a graphic novel, I think From Inside could have been serialized into four or five 10 minute short films which would have made its bleak, post-apocalyptic plot more palatable. Maybe some festival programmer can run with that idea. Have a serialized set of short films play at a festival before different (even random) feature films. Maybe word of mouth would get people to buy a ticket to see the short film.

The rest of the films were mediocre. They met my (rather low) expectations but I can't believe any self-respecting horror film afficianado would get very excited about these films and I am far from being a "fantastic film" buff.

Maybe I hold Dead Channels (along with SF Indiefest's various festivals) to a higher standard because I typically purchase festival passes. However, I purchase passes to Noir City and the SF Silent Film Festival and feel more satisfied by those festivals. Of course, a casual inspection of my film viewing shows I have a bias towards older films.

Regardless, nothing Dead Channels did this year would dissuade me from purchasing another festival pass next year. I thought attendance was off this year. Last year, Dead Channels' opening night was at the Castro Theater. This year, it was at the Vortex Room. Many of the screenings were lightly attended. None of the 16 programs I went to came close to being sold out.

As I cravenly joked with a co-worker, what I'm seeing on Wall Street and the fast declining value of my stock portfolio is scarier than anything I saw at Dead Channels.