Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Johnny Cash, the KKK, Scottish Nationalism, Australian Exploitation, LA Gangs and Indiefest

I've seen five movies in the past week.

At Noise Pop, I saw Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (2008). The venue was the Roxie. The documentary lacked focus but I enjoyed the soundtrack and learned that Cash plagiarized the lyrics to Folsom Prison Blue. Google "Crescent City Blues Gordon Jenkins" for more information.

On February 27 I went down to San Jose to see The Birth of a Nation at the California Theater. The 1915 silent film was directed by D.W. Griffith and starred Lillian Gish. The film featured live accompaniment by Dennis James on the Wurlitzer. The film was screened as part of the Cinequest Film Festival.

The next night I saw Not Quite Hollywood (2008) at the Vogue Theater. The documentary was part of the Mostly British Film Series. It's the first time I've been to the Vogue since it was taken over by the Neighborhood Theater Foundation. The theater was slated to be converted to condos but was saved by the Neighborhood Theater Foundation. The film was a documentary about "Ozploitation" films - 1970's and 80's vintage films that exploited Australian stereotypes and showcased naked women, raunchy humor, violence, blood and post-apocalyptic gangs of leathermen terrorizing travelers in the Outback

On March 2, I saw the matinee screening of Stone of Destiny (2008) at the Mostly British Film Series. The film was directed by Charles Martin Smith (The Untouchables) and starred Kate Mara (We Are Marshall) and Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty). The film was based on the true story of four Scottish college students that broke into Westminster Abbey on Christmas Eve 1950. They stole the Stone of Destiny from under the throne used to coronate every British monarch since the 1700's. The students stole the stone in the name of Scottish nationalism.

On March 3, I took advantage of the Roxie's $5 Monday special and saw Crips and Bloods: Made in America. One of the producers of this 2008 documentary on the infamous Los Angeles street gangs was Baron Davis, the professional basketball player.


While they are still relatively fresh in my mind, I want to write a little about some of the Indiefest films. The audience award winners were announced.

Best Narrative Feature: Harrison Montgomery
Best Documentary Feature: Automorphosis
Best Narrative Short: Treevenge
Best Documentary Short: No Strings Attached
Best Animation: Descendants

In my last post, I only mentioned No Strings Attached. I saw Harrison Montgomery but was not as impressed with it as other audience members apparently were. I did not see the other films.

Actually, Harrison Montgomery was filmed locally so its audience award may have been a case of homers stuffing the ballot box. Harrison Montgomery is in-joke. Harrison Montgomery are the names of two major streets in San Francisco.

No Strings Attached was a very entertaining ~30 minute documentary about burlesque dancers. It was also filmed locally. The main subjects were the Scenic Sisters, two real-life sisters that are popular burlesque dancers based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Much of the film takes place at Tease-O-Rama, a burlesque convention held at Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco.

The film did a good job of portraying the subjects as human beings instead of pieces of meat. Indeed, the performances were tame by strip club standards and the focus was on the dance movements and costumes.

My favorite short was Burr as in Aaron Burr. The narrative was set in the contemporary American Southwest and involved an innovative solution to the age-old scourge of teenage bullying. The boy is pushed to his limit and considers shooting his tormentors à la Columbine. His best friend is the grandson of the last legal duel in the state so he leverages his grandfather's knowledge to set up a old-fashioned duel.

I was also entertained by Side Effect, a short horror film involving prescription medication and an urban legend involving a roasted turkey and an infant.

From the feature films, my favorite was I'll Come Running. Filmed in Austin and Denmark, the story involves the unlikely romance between a Danish tourist in a Texas and the Hispanic waitress (Melonie Diaz in a great performance) he crosses paths with. The film is a love story about people from different cultures and each half of the couple visits the other's home with increasingly absurd and ironic results. I don't want to give too much of the plot away because there is a plot twist that I didn't see coming. The key performance is delivered by Diaz who plays a strong woman who is confused by her emotions and behaves in contradictory ways.

Melonie Diaz

Skills Like This is an absurdest comedy about a writer who finds his greatest talents may be as a thief/robber. He develops a romantic relationship with the bank teller he robs. Writer and star Spencer Berger delivers an effective performance as sad sack Max, a failed writer with an enormous JewFro. The film also featured an outstanding soundtrack with alternative/folk music.

Spencer Berger

Another film in which the writer starred was Leaving Barstow. The film has Steven Culp in a supporting role but features Kevin Sheridan as a high school senior with a codependent mother. Weighed down by his mother's needs and his own ennui, Sheridan's character is on the precipice. If he stays true to his mother and stays in town, he'll probably end up in a dead-end job and an unfulfilling marriage. With the help of his best friend and buoyed by his first romantic relationship with a young waitress who works at the same restaurant as his mother, Sheridan hurtles towards a life altering decision. I like how the interracial relationship between Sheridan and Ryan Michelle Bathe was treated as something that required no commentary.


As I mentioned, I saw The Birth of a Nation in Downtown San Jose. The screening was extremely rare due to the racist plot in which the KKK are heroes. The NAACP still protests the film. Given the controversial nature of the film, it was quite a treat to see the film on the big screen with live accompaniment. The experience was made even more special by screening the film in the California Theater, an 1,100 seat theater opened in 1927 and renovated in 2004. The Spanish Colonial themed theater is beautiful. Sadly, the audience was small. I doubt there were more than 300 people in the audience. Given the crowds at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screenings, I was expecting a sell-out. Apparently, the film was not well publicized, people weren't willing to travel to San Jose or the nature of the film was enough to keep people away.


I also read that the San Francisco Chronicle is seeking a buyer or will close. I'm of the generation that still buys newspapers with the emphasis on the paper. Many people may think the closure of a paper is no great loss because they get their news on-line. However in San Francisco, the most popular on-line news portal (SF Gate) is run by the SF Chronicle. According to reports, the SF Gate can't exist without the newspaper because the Chronicle provides content for the SF Gate. I'm not a newspaper or on-line media expert so I won't say much except that local sources of news (held to journalist standards) are important for the health of a community. Whether the sources is newsprint or an internet is a matter of preference.

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