Thursday, May 28, 2009

Errol Morris you god amongst men, and IVAN THE TERRIBLE PT. 1 (88)

I'm in sort of depressed, disgusted, amazed haze after sitting through Errol Morris' most recent documentary Standard Operating Procedure, a sort of blow-by-blow account of the horrors (and jiminy Christmas do I mean horrors) of the U.S. military's Abu Ghraib. I'm not kidding here, Errol Morris has managed to bring together all of the non-incarcerated perpetrators from this absolutely mind-bogglingly horrible situation and has them pretty much go through each and every photo that bludgeoned the American public not so long ago and explain what happened and why.

This of course is a loose account an amazing film put together as only the master of documentaries, Errol Morris can. Yes, this is a film about a horrible terrible situation and the vile things wrought upon human beings by other human beings, but it's also just so much more than. It's a film about how we take what's presented to us by the media at face value. It's a story about a group of broken people (broken by what? who knows) pushed and pulled and generally blindsided in to doing the dirty work of a corrupt military. It's about the way any human being can reason out the most terrible of act if it can take the weight of said act off their shoulders. It's a film about anger, love, lust, and a bevy of other emotions that drove a handful of "normal" people (those quotations exist only to denote the fact that no one, not a single one of us is "normal") to perpetrate acts that had my lunch of falafel shwerma roiling and toiling.

It's a painful, yet brilliant film and I urge you folk who have to inkling to challenge the paradigms of what is set before you to check it out. Hell, if that's your inkling you should check out any and all films by the amazing, brilliant, fantastic Errol Morris. The man has an ability, a shocking ability to take subjects and turn them in to a sort of real life poetry. Documentaries have never been so beautiful in any other's hand.

Start with The Thin Blue Line and go from there.

These are the notes I wrote down during my marathon digestion of both Ivan the Terrible Pt. 1 & 2 (88). Yes, you read that right, I watched both films today in one sort of creepy, near delightful binge of Russian historic melodrama. These are my notes and my explanations, only for the first film. That's how it is guys, it's only one Criterion film a day, no matter how badly I want to bury these films in the back of my mind forever and ever and ever and ever.

Here we go:

1. Great beards: yes, Russians and especially the Medieval Russians of these two films have brilliant, flowing, stomach length beards. Some are triangular, some are just bushes of beardness, and others are indescribable in their glory.

2. Images: even though I found it pretty painful to sit through nearly six hours of Sergei Eisenstein in the last three days, I've got to say, the man is a genius when it comes to imagery. His usage of shadow and light is breath-taking and on most occasions you'll find yourself staring at a deftly complicated, near perfectly composed shot featuring twenty people. You'll just stare and stare and wonder to yourself, "How is it that even though I'm this bored, I'm still fascinated by the huge shadow of that man's head?" You will.

3. Rise/fall of Ivan: that's what the first film is about, Ivan (not yet terrible) wants to be Tsar of Russia, but not a divided Russia, the whole damn thing and no one's happy, and a lot of backstabbing goes on and beautiful, flowing-haired Ivan is forced pretty much out of power and in to hiding and there's a huge parade of people and a giant shadow of Ivan's head stretched out across a globe. It was a weird movie.

That's what I wrote for the first film. But I've got a nice solid list for the second as well ... which you can read about on Monday.

With that, I step away from this blasted computer for the first time in hours.

Monday: Ivan the Terrible Pt. 2 (88)

I'm trying hard to be brief and IVAN THE TERRIBLE PT. 1 (88)

I was talking with Alex last night about this idea I've been having of changing the format of old Criterion Quest to make it a little more light-hearted, a little more humorous (humor always comes in to play when I'm slogging through Russian classics) and most importantly, a little more brief. I come to the end of some of these posts and I look back and just see mile after mile after mile of text billowing out behind my not-so-blinking cursor. It daunts me sometimes, worrying about you sweet readers, trudging through my verbosity.

But, seriously, I can't help this shit.

In the moments where I try to be brief I nearly always find myself paragraphs deep in text, just rambling on some tangent that's poked its way through my gray matter. The times where I try to be a little more long-winded? Jesus, it's like I'm writing The Bible or something, except Jesus is gone and in its place is just my breathless exhale of filmic goo.

When talking to Alex, I discussed making this more of a bullet point sort of blog, just rail off a few ideas (again bullet points always come in to play when I'm thinking about how best to get past old Russian films) and then move on - a daily bump of Criterion Quest to get you moving throughout the day. But Alex, sage that she is, made a solid point: my inability to be brief is part of my writing. I mean seriously, I'm currently on paragraph five of a post about my own verbosity and I don't even feel bad about it, just plodding along, filling the page with words. This is how I am, literally, I'm hard-wired from birth with a daunting inability on page and in life to not just chatter. Looking back, I've been happy with my output in terms of this blog, and I think people are enjoying it, so guess what verbosity haters, you're going to have to find a new pond to float in.

Anyone else have any thoughts on this matter? Didn't think so.

Ivan the Terrible Pt. 1 (88) is currently blaring through my headphones right now, a similar one inch by one inch box of black and white Russian film floating at the edge of my vision. I mentioned earlier that Russian films make me want to be funnier (as they're so damn bleak) and briefer (because they're so painfully long) and Ivan the Terrible Pt. 1 (88) isn't changing that much. I'm going to rattle off some bullet points and let you good people get back to, uh, doing what you do:

- If Alexander Nevsky (87) was Eisenstein's ode to the people, the fighters, the love of Mother Russia, then Ivan the Terrible Pt. 1 (88) is Eisenstein's subversive portrait of both Stalin and the feeble-minded royalty of Russia in the past and the then-present. There isn't a character in the film, Stalin, er, Ivan included, that isn't some sort of ninnying twit. There's a scene at the beginning where Ivan declares himelf the Tsar of a combined Russia, and Eisenstein's camera dances close to the faces of the gathered onlookers (various royalty from various clans) and in each eye you see some look of subterfuge of murder of betrayal. And the rest of the film follows suit, with Ivan trying to find ways to squish down his visible opponents while exposing those who pose as his friends.

- I'm damn sure Eisenstein made this film in almost constant fear. Making a movie about a shady dictator in the shadow of Stalin must've left him with a pair of soiled knickers each and every night before he retired. Seriously, this is pretty much Stalin the Terrible, and I can only imagine the literal bullets Eisenstein had to dodge in making this and the sequel.

- This is a dark, weird film. Ivan the Terrible, Tsar of all Mother Russia, spends the entirety of the second half of the movie, faking his death in classic melodrama fashion to expose the undermining evil of one of his minions. He just lies there, fake dead, while his cohorts jostle for his new throne. Before this Ivan goes from pretty boy up-and-coming Tsar to long-haired Disney villain - hell, I guess being a Tsar isn't so nice on the skin and fu manchu beard. Nonetheless, Russians of the 16th century, not to be trusted.

It's still playing in the background, taunting me with its stern language and darkened corners, and after this I'm powering on to Ivan the Terrible Pt. 2 (88). Wish me luck, oh so much luck.

Friday: Ivan the Terrible Pt. 2 (88)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Maybe I'm not that great of a film dork and ALEXANDER NEVSKY (87)

I'm at the beginning of a trilogy of Russian films by the supposed Russian master Sergei Eisenstein right now, and I'll be very honest, I could care less about them. Sure, in a lot of film circles Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin is one of the great films of all time. And again, I could care less. These films are stodgy, boring, at times painful films to watch and though I appreciate the effort and time put in to each and everyone of Criterion's releases, I can barely bring myself to slog through these films.

And it brings a question to my mind: am I really that big of a film dork? Am I really up to the task of watching each and every one of these films? Am I even the right person to be taking up this Criterion Quest?

I mean there's people out there who have not only sat through these coma-inducing Russian films but have sat through them multiple times and have enjoyed them, have spent hours in coffee shops dissecting the symbolism of a hat or a camera angle with their bespectacled friends. I'm not, ever, going to do that with these films. But does this really effect my status as a film dork? Should I really be loving each and every film I watch or at least showering these "classics" with a sort of fawning adoration blindly given to all "classic" films by a certain echelon of film geeks?

I, personally, don't think so. I'm a film dork, that's quite certain, I'm just a film dork who doesn't like dreary Russian melodrama from the late-30s, early 40s. I'm just a film dork who prefers sci-fi, fantasy, and modern cinema to Olivier's Shakespearean work. I'm just a film dork who's slowly starting to form a filmic identity in terms of what he watches and what he likes. And sure, I may not be the most scholarly of film dorks (and I don't believe you are either if you've been reading my last 135 posts) but hell, I know a lot and I love watching movies more than most. Thus, I think I am the right person for this quest, a sort of bumbling everyman trying to figure out just what a classic film is, just what makes a movie so beloved.

That's all I can offer, and I hope you're enjoying it so far.

And that said, I could barely stomach Alexander Nevsky (87). This is big, plodding, Russian period drama in a way that's so overwrought with costumes and flowery speeches and sped-up battle scenes and snow-driven fields, and I couldn't keep my eyes awake. I returned this gem of a film four days to late to the local video store having watched it almost entirely out of the corner of my eye, a one inch by one inch screen jammed in to the corner of my vision.

Here are my, exceptionally, brief thoughts on the film:

- The Russians made films just soaked with symbolism. There isn't a character in the film who doesn't seem to have some sort of Stalinist counterpart. The "Germans" in the film are white-cloaked bearers of Christian death, hate-mongering representatives of everything the Russian people were supposed to hate. Alexander Nevsky is a famous Russian figure, and this whole film is pretty much just propaganda about how amazing the Russian people are and how amazing they are in the face of crisis. Seriously, there's a battle scene in the middle of the film where the jovial, salt-of-the-Earth Russians literally stop to pass a chalice and play a few flute bits. It's strange, but it gets at Eisenstein's point here: the Russians aren't a showy people, they aren't from royalty, they're just good solid people, looking to protect the Motherland from those who might avoid. It's really Ivan the Terrible Part 1 & II (88) that showcase Eisenstein's dislike for the rich and powerful.

- Again, this film bored the tar out of me. Period pieces always have.

Two thoughts. That's all I have. Maybe the next films in this trek through the black and whites of Russian medieval history will peak my interest, but I highly highly doubt it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A night of old favorites and PYGMALION (85)

For whatever reason last night (I blame my hatred of Alexander Nevsky (87) and the sizable breakdown of a six year old girl) I ended up watching all of Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory and a good chunk of Jurassic Park. In the past these have been two of my favorite films (I saw JP like five times in the theatre ... when I was ten) and watching them again shed light on a few things I just didn't realize.

These thoughts I will share with you:

- Jurassic Park has to be the only multi-million dollar making blockbuster to feature the glowing star power of, hah, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern, and Sam Neill. No, I actually know that this is the only multi-million dollar film to ever star this trio of sheenless B-actors. And it's a testament to how great of an action picture this is, that it still reverberates in pop culture and has allowed Steven Spielberg to have his face power blasted over George Washington's on Mt. Rushmore. The Beard, he strikes again!

- I don't know if it's just my lifelong love for this film and dinosaurs, but I was still pretty taken up in JP's magic. I still smiled when Alan Grant (Sam Neill) stumbles across the brontosaurus, when they first land on Isla Nublar, when Dr. Sadler (Laura Dern) is geeking out over the leaves. This film touches upon some inherent child love of huge reptiles with giant teeth and I still give it a glowing four star rating. Any one who disagrees, well, obviously you didn't wait in line for four hours at Northgate Mall to sit in the front row with Austin Stickney and nearly wet yourself in fear. And perhaps those who don't love this film as a classic, also didn't have to play the "Jurassic Park Suite" on clarinet in band in 7th grade and still find themselves humming the sung, off-key at inopportune moments. Just saying.

- Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and in real life (or at least the extra features seem to say) is one cool sumbitch. Alex and I were weirdly fawning over him in his interview segment and it's inspired not only to watch all of his films again (come on, who hasn't seen See No Evil, Hear No Evil?) and to name my new plant, Genius Wilder, after him. A comic actor who truly understood the craft. My question: what ever happened to this guy?

- You know what happens to little children actors who survive the filming of Willy Wonka? Seemingly they all become horse vets and accountants. No seriously, every one of those kids, aside from Veruca Salt, is either a horse vet or an accountant. The making of that film must've scarred the shit out of them.

These things said, I still love both these movies and I'm seriously thinking about pursuing a new feature on the site, "Movies I Once Loved" to see which of my childhood favorites still hold up. But we'll talk about that after I start doing interviews, signing on new writers and watching all of Woody Allen's films. Lets set the deadline at, "near future".

Pygmalion (85) has been the second old, black and white film about romance in this Criterion Collection that I've been totally swept away by. Pygmalion (85) is based on a play by George Bernard Shaw about a bet between a linguist and a general about turning a common "bedraggled gutter snipe" in to a proper lady, just by teaching her how. You may recognize this plot from the painfully beloved Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle She's The One.

Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard (also the incredible star of the film) are renowned in Britain and if Pygmalion (85) is any indication of their talent, I can most definitely see why, this film, though slightly stage-y feeling, is a brilliant, subversive send-up of the rich and powerful. The sheer idea of using a human being as a bet is a disgusting one, and Leslie Howard (playing Dr. Higgins in the film) seems to revel in it. He's a hyper intelligent ass in the film, always one step ahead of everyone else, and you literally laugh and shudder at his treatment of Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller - of shocking resemblance to Maggie Gyllenhal).

What's brilliant about Pygmalion (85) is the way the audience never knows if you should be laughing or grimacing or just plan turned off by the way the rich folk in the film not only act but react to the newfound grace of Eliza Doolittle. Even when she's awkward the social climbers in the group can't help but jump at the chance to make acquaintances with the newest gem in the social hierarchy. What no one notices, not even Dr. Higgins, is how this experiment, this bet effects the person Eliza actually is. Higgins and Colonel Pickering make statements about protecting her best interests but at one point in the film Higgins literally buys Eliza off her father (Dr. Doolittle, seemingly a huge influence on Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow character) for five pounds, smiling all the way.

It was made in 1938 so a lot of the darker aspects of this theme of a self-fulfilling prophecy (tell someone their amazing for long enough, they'll do something amazing) fall to the wayside, but that's okay, they still exist and with a cast as strong as this, with directors as able, it's still a great, truly classic film.

On a side note, Wikipedia does a nice job of summing up the actual concept of the "pygmalion effect" as it's seen in a modern light. I'd suggest checking it out here.

Wednesday: Sigh, Alexander Nevsky (87)

Friday, May 22, 2009

It's Friday.

And it's 3:21, what are you doing right now?

I'll tell you one thing I'm not doing - writing my blog post for the day.

It's beautiful in SF and hopefully beautiful in whatever paradise you're nestled in.

Get out there and enjoy it.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


I haven't seen a big budget, modern-day Hollywood flick in the theaters in a few months. Yes, I've been to theater, but I'm surrounded by a bunch of art-house cathedrals here in The Mission, and if I have a choice I'd rather be watching bizarre French films in The Castro, then The Punisher in AMC Downtown 900 or whatever they're being called these days. Thus, a lot of the big name flicks that have been marching in and out of the theater have gone directly over my head.

But for a few reasons, Star Trek wasn't going to be one of them. I grew up on Star Trek. I remember watching reruns, my legs splayed on the cold linoleum of my TV room, my dad on the couch behind me. I remember sitting in my friend Tim's room beneath a mobile of the Star Trek Enterprise, chatting about Klingons, Romulans and the whole slew of races that populated the Federation. Most of all I remember the Star Trek Episode guide my mom bought me for my birthday one year. Even before I'd seen every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation I'd read a synopsis in that beautiful book. I'd sit for hours on top of my bed, perusing the episodes I hadn't seen yet, mouth wide in anticipation.

And then, then I got older and started to realize that the culture that surrounded my beloved Star Trek wasn't a culture I was fond of. These were hardcore, oft-times mean, nit-picky dorks that shunned those who sat on the edge of their tight knit groups. I worked at a comic book store in high school, and the Star Trek geeks were always the most belligerent, the most locked on to their continuities and their knowledge. Any wrong aimed at their universe was tantamount to a photon torpedo to their hull-covered hearts.

So, I stopped caring. I only really liked Star Trek: The Next Generation, and as new series after new series hit the boobtube, I just couldn't muster myself to care. I think I watched my last episode of Star Trek ten, eleven years ago and haven't thought to watch another since. That is until J.J. Abrams got involved in the new Star Trek prequel. Abrams is Lost, Abrams is Fringe, Abrams is the frontrunner for a huge amount of the most popular shows out there right now. Sure, his Mission Impossible III wasn't amazing, but his light genre touch had the makings to change Star Trek as we know it.

And he has.

Very succinctly, J.J. Abrams has done what's always been needed, he's wrestled the Star Trek universe out of the hands of the obsessed and placed it back where it needed to be, where everyone can enjoy it. Sure, this film has the geeky aspects to the nine (it's a film about space travel involving a character named Spock and green-skinned alien women) but due to a delightful plot twist and a really on-point cast, Star Trek shines like a brand new sort of gem. Abrams has in effect, excised the ability of nerds the world round to crap on this movie for a host of continuity issues. Nope, those are gone, and with them Abrams has not only opened up a new Star Trek universe, but opened up a new platform for a new generation of fans to stand upon. It's a beautiful trick and I left, sigh, The Metreon on Monday with a gigantic smile plastered on my face.

This a great action flick. A beautiful, wonderful, well-done movie that even if you've spent the last few years of your life hiding in fear of the Trekkies waiting in line at the theater, you'll enjoy. I promise.

Thanks J.J. Abrams, you've given me back a little piece of my childhood I thought I'd left to the wolves.

Friday: Pygmalion (85)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What's In Store #5!

I've been to my local video store twice in the last week (Lost Weekend you are a heavenly respite) once with JM and once with Alex, almost entirely just to wander the aisles and geek out over what movies I haven't seen and what movies I'll soon be watching.

I forced JM to stand next to me while I perused each and every Criterion film in Lost Weekend's Criterion section. I pulled out different covers to show which ones I liked the best, marveled films I'd never even heard of, and generally exclaimed excited things as JM stared idly in to the distance.

Five days later I brought Alex to Lost Weekend and did the same thing. Just totally geeking out, nit-picking, showing her movies I was excited about, generally just embracing my movie dorkness in all its glory. And this is what I love about my friends, this city, and Alex: that's the norm around here. My obsession with movies is pretty standard for a city where people are obsessed with hippopatomus, kinetic steam inventions, shift dresses, weekly thrifting, pinball, pirates, animal bones, and the list goes on and on and on. I sat in Lost Weekend last night, and talked to the front store clerk about Star Trek, and the upcoming The Prisoner mini-series, and J.J Abrams and just all the filmic things I love to talk about. And walking back down Valencia with Alex, it struck me as it often times does in SF: I'm very very happy here.

Alright, there's a new chunk of films barreling down the shotgun that is Criterion, so lets hash out what I might be talking about next.

#85 Pygmalion dir. Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard

I'll be honest, I watched this film last week in a brief respite from panic, overwhelming emotions, and a load of data entry unknown to man before this week. I'll have a full review, but let me say this, I was expecting to be bored stiff by a film based on a play made in the late 30s, but was pleasantly surprised by so much of this film. It's a good start.

#86 - 88 Eisenstein: The Sound Years dir. Sergei Eisenstein

This set of films features Alexander Nevsky (87), and both Ivan the Terrible (88) films and I couldn't be in a greater state of dread over my next three or four years of bushwacking a trail through these old school Russian films. Eisenstein is certainly a master, but a master in the sense that Prometheus Bound is a classic play - meaning, it isn't a terribly enjoyable process dragging oneself through either. I was literally standing in Lost Weekend last night, head pointed at the ceiling, moaning in annoyance.

#89 Sisters dir. Brian DePalma

Another reason to love Criterion. Just when you think they've hit the rock bottom of pretensious boring film (I'm looking at you Eisenstein), they drop a pulpy, bizarre Brian DePalma flick in the mix. I love DePalma (well, some DePalma) and have heard only stunning remarks about his early work, so this film has me very excited. If I can still hear and see by the time I'm finished with Eisenstein, I'm going to enjoy the shit out of this film.

I'm dreading this lot of celluloid more than just about any, only because of the presence of the Russian Iron Fist dead center in the group. They're stodgy, stoic and altogether snoozers, but I do this because I love it. Russia here I come!

Thursday: My review of Star Trek

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Excuses pt. 2, and GOOD MORNING (84)

Alright, a list of excuses as to why I've been completely absent from this blog over the course of the last week or so:

1. Bay 2 Breakers. Don't know what that is? It's basically a drunken parade of costumed wasted people who march from one side of the seven-square mile peninsula that is San Francisco to the other. There are people dressed like life-sized vaginas, tiki-bars on wheels, the most graphic dry humping I've ever seen, house parties like you haven't seen since your days in a fraternity, obnoxious half-naked women, endearingly naked old drunken people, puke/piss/shit all over the place, trash piles, police piles, me dressed like a 1970s Hanoi tourist half-cocked peeing on a tree in front of more than one family, and seriously, everything else you can imagine. I'll be quite honest, I felt a little bit out of place at the event as I was drunk, but could still move/remember/think but there's a lot of good to be had in this sort of burst of intoxicated revelry. I think I'll take a different, more enjoyable tact next year, but I'll say this: any city that allows this occur on a yearly basis is pretty fucking amazing. I recovered from this event all Monday, waking up at 11 and only leaving the house to see Star Trek (my review later this week) and to eat 12 bites of 12 different cookies.

2. Friends. Good, good friends were in town, and even if I didn't see them as much as I wanted, it was nice to have them here. For whatever reason if anyone is ever visiting, my mind automatically shuts down in terms of any sort of responsibility I might have. All of sudden I'm tossing caution to the wind and just not doing jack shit. Some people might call this laziness, I call it loyalty.

3. Work. Who would've thought that going to bed two nights in a row after drinking myself in to a slumber at 1 in the morning and then waking up four hours later to serve coffee to hundreds of slack-jawed yoke-heads would make me pass in to a deep slumber every afternoon? Smart people, that's who.

So there, excuses. I know you were dying for reasons.

What I've learned about Japan from the film Good Morning (84):

1. Japanese children fart in tiny whistles, seemingly only when pressed lightly upon the forehead.

2. Japanese male adults seeming fart in a way that only their spouses can hear, and when they do so, their wives mystically appear, worried about their health and well-being.

3. Japanese travelling salesmen are a cunning lot of tricksters and schemers who hang in tightly knit groups and meet in bars to discuss the newest way to scam their unwilling customers.

4. The only way to combat these cunning bastards is to arm your elderly, slightly belligerent mother with a long sharp knife and place them in front of the door. This causes the salesmen to retreat quickly, sharpened pencils tucked in to their strange boxes.

To say the least, I didn't really get this film. It was a slight film, a silly sort of look in to post-war Japan, but, and I'm sad to say, I just didn't get it. It felt like a film made in the aftermath of a terrible war, which it was, and it seemed to ape some of the strangely sit-com family shows of America's 1950s. There was a Father Knows Best sort of feeling to the whole proceeding that threw me off. Was I supposed to be laughing at this film? Sad at this film? Or just sort of jollily plopped in front of it, eyes watery, mouth agape?

It makes me wonder: maybe I can't do happy films? You know? Maybe I need something serious to sink my teeth in to or I'm just not as good at dissecting a film. Maybe this little triffle of a Technicolor Japan film wasn't enough for me to grab on to and it just slipped through the gaping cracks in my brain. Maybe I can only process in any sort of thoughtful way films that discuss serious things like romantic affairs and death and anything German.

Or maybe, maybe this highly acclaimed classic just didn't fit my mood.

Who knows.

Wednesday: What's Next!

Monday, May 18, 2009


Alright, it's been a few days. I've barely posted. I know. The guilt it runs rampant.

It's been internet problems.

It's been drunken parades through the streets of SF.

It's been three of my good friends and a whole lot of celebration.

So, I'll be back tomorrow, Japan-love blasting.

Forgive me or forget me.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


This city is full of odd folk. And yes, every city is full of odd folk, but I swear to God, San Francisco, California has more nuts per square mile than other spot in America that doesn't have padded walls and wooden baton wielding nurses. Over the course of the last month or so I've encountered a few and I thought, hell, why not introduce you folk at least to small bit of my city. The excessively weird bit:

1. Yesterday, I'm walking home from Duc Loi, the super-cheap Asian grocery store nestled directly behind my house, and as I'm walking I step past a churning pile of pigeons gorging themselves on feed. This isn't a rare sight, especially in The Mission, so I keep walking. I take the corner though and feel a breeze whip over my head, look up and the entire pile 'o' pigeons is dive bombing over my head, intent on another pile of unknown edibles. I'm a little baffled, so I look around to see why this flock of pigeons are migrating down the street and what do I see? A sketchy woman peering across a car, her hand full of bird food, tempting the pigeons down the street. Now I don't know if she was looking for a tasty dinner of stringy pigeon meat or just wanted to bring home some friends, but yeesh, if this didn't push me in to the house a little quicker than usual.

2. Weeks ago, I stumble, boozy and exhausted on to the 14 to the Ferry Building where I work. I'm surrounded by geriatric Asian women and angered that for whatever reason this bus stops every single street. No joke, once a block, like clockwork. Somewhere between 10th and 5th, a twenty-something woman gets on the bus, disheveled and wearing what might be the fakest wig I've ever seen. But she isn't wearing it as a joke, or as a costume, she's wearing this nappy weave as if it's her real hair. She just sort of stares at me hungover and staring at her hair and gets off at the next stop. Pretty much made my morning.

3. Three days ago. It's ten 'o' clock or so and I'm walking to the video store to drop off a finished Criterion film and pick up whatever's next (sadly I think it's Hamlet (82)). I'm talking to my brother on the phone and not paying attention when I look up to see a man wearing only a white leather tiger striped vest, white leather pants, a pair of white sunglasses, and white leather boots, holding a white guitar case and singing at the top of his lungs. As I walk past he pulls out a pair of drum sticks waves them in the air and yells something completely unintelligible. I walk faster. On my return trip, he's gone. Lord knows where.

That's just three I pulled off the top of my head. God I love living in a city.

Everyone in the whole world who loves a good movie should see The French Connection. I know, I'm supposed to be writing about Criterion movies, but Alex and I abandoned Ozu last night in favor of William Friedkin's beloved modern classic and I couldn't have been happier. You've seen clips from this film. You've seen Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) standing the street, staring up at the train line, a look of such rabid determination flashing across his face you're almost fearful of what he'll do next. You've seen the shooting on the stares. You've seen all this because this is a famous, famous film from the 1970s.

And I can't believe it took me this long to watch it.

I'm almost happy it took me this long, because watching it as a pseudo-adult I think I saw the greater issues at hand in the film. On the surface, this is a crime film, a story of two police officers and their obsessive quest to find out why a Frenchie, a low-rent Italian hood, and a whole host of hoods are collaborating in the seediest era of New York City. At it's heart though this is the story of Popeye Doyle, a man obsessed with solving a crime, solving a crime by any means necessary. There's illegal shakedowns, shoot-outs in broad daylight, stunning car chases (and I mean this, this is one of the great car scenes you'll ever see in a movie, riveting and frightening all at the same time), and of course Gene Hackman just chewing the scenery like a seasoned pro. What's great about this movie is it doesn't pander to a stupid action-flick audience. We know almost nothing about Popeye Doyle and his partner Cloudy Russo (Rod Schneider), just that they love to drink, seemingly have no families, and for some unknown reason NEED to solve this case. And that's all we get, two obsessed detectives burying the hurt of their lives beneath a need to solve crime.

It's a beautiful, tragic film, and it deserved all the awards it won. I sat their last night, mouth agape at how good this film was 'till the very last frame. The ending, bleak and disturbing, brings this film home exactly the way I wanted. Afterwards, inspired, Alex and I looked up what the real French Connection was and have already put the John Frankenheimer sequel on the Netflix queue.

You haven't seen this film yet? Get the hell off the computer! Get out there, rent this film!

Wednesday: Good Morning (84)

Monday, May 11, 2009

My clumsiness and THE HARDER THEY COME (83)

I've never thought of myself as clumsy. Sure, on many occasions I've managed to break/hurt myself in a way that completely baffles me, but I always just chalked it up to karmic punishment for a slew of misdeeds I committed in the late '70s. Since my arrival in San Francisco though, it's come to my attention that in general, I'm excessively clumsy. This isn't standard clumsiness, I think, rather it's a sort of magnetic connection to me running in to things, or pulling things off shelves with my elbow, or any other number of accidental collisions/injuries.

Seriously, this isn't a once in a while thing, I'm a full-blooded clutz and I have no idea where this stemmed from. I look over my shoulder sometimes after bobbling a sharp object or tripping over some infinitesimal crack in the sidewalk, and Alex is literally cringing, hands up in defense as who knows where this bundle of flailing limbs might end up.

I wanted to just give a list of the clumsy things I've done in the last three or four days, just to prove my point, and hell, I think, on most occasions, that my bumbling persona is almost endearing and always comical:

1. While trying to eat a chip at my favorite pupusa shop in San Francisco I stopped paying attention briefly and managed to misjudge the chip's trajectory slamming it in to the upper part of my lip, spraying my face with salsa.

2. While joking playing around with a kid's soccer ball at Alex's work, I, again, stopped paying attention, misjudged the power of my kick and smashed the soccer ball in to the back of the chair sending it caromming around the room.

3. Minutes before I had, sigh, misjudged the stability of a table and while trying to talk to Alex's boss, had leaned too heavily on said table, sending shooting out from under me. Luckily I'm used to this sort of misjudgement, so I caught myself and the table.

4. While riding my bike, I attempted to push my dented glasses up on my face, but instead soundly slapped myself in the eye area with a bike-grease covered hand, leaving one side of my hide smarting and imprinted with a disgusting hand print of grease .

And these are just the ones I can remember. I mean literally, I thought about writing every single clumsy act I performed over the last few days but there is only so much paper in the world. But you get the point, I'm a clumsy, clumsy man.

If you've any interest in music history or reggae or just classic albums from the 1970s you've probably heard the soundtrack for The Harder They Come (83), the Jimmy Cliff-starring tale of reggae-artist-turned-outlaw-folk-hero in Jamaica. This is where Toots and The Maytalls premiered "Pressure Drop", this is where "The Harder They Come" first appeared, literally this is one of the corner stones of why reggae is still being blasted from every thick-headed frat boys room. This film made Jimmy Cliff a star, and made reggae a new genre for America to steal from.

The Harder They Come (83)
isn't a bad film by any means. It's entertaining in that sort of cheap-o, exploitive, 1970s cult-film way that has created pedestals for so many decent films. The story of Ivan his rise to moderate success as a reggae star and then his steady downturn in to crime is a classic one, just pushed through a miniscule budget, and made more intense by the grainy camera work and ad hoc editing.

I'll be very honest, I had to turn the subtitles on at some point in this film because I couldn't understand a single fucking thing these thickly accented gentlemen/ladies were saying. For some reason when I have to turn subtitles on in an English speaking movie I always feel vaguely racist, as if I'm just not global teen enough to be able to decipher the almost pidgeon-English of a culture like Jamaica. But, I pushed past my reservations and found myself understanding what was going on far more. Also it's hilarious to see a subtitle that says [indecipherable] or [water pipe being smoked].

This is an exploitation film, rife with violence and music and gratuitous nudity and though I liked that aspect of it, it made the film seem almost too cheap. Sure, the soundtrack is as famous as any out there, but when every song from said soundtrack is played in the first thirty minutes of the film you wonder, "What will they play next?" After hearing "The Harder They Come" seven times and "Pressure Drop" for the fifth time, it becomes quite clear, they'll just play the soundtrack over and over again. And it will, even with its sunny ganja-laced disposition, grate on you.

I watched this film with a smile on my face, enjoying it a decent amount, really enjoying Jimmy Cliff's dark-hearted anti-hero Ivan. But I couldn't get past the fact that the film tried to portray Ivan as a hero to the people of Jamaica, but all I could see was an exceptionally screwed up man, thrust in to the spotlight because of his violent activities. A celebrity in the mold of today, infamous, but nonetheless a household name.

For you reggae kids, this will probably float your boat down the mighty Mississippi, I just wasn't that impressed.

Tuesday: Good Morning (84)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

A hair caterpillar and HAMLET (82)

I currently have this on my face:

I've been working on this beautiful little hair caterpillar for a good few months now, and when I decided finally to knock off my oversized neck-beard, I thought, "Hell, everyone needs to have a mustache for a little while."

Since making this decision, a few key thoughts have popped to mind. I thought I'd share:

1. Having a mustache involves having an amazing girlfriend. I'm sure of it. "Why?" you might ask. First off, a two inch line of long, tickly hair scrawled across the upper lip is surprisingly not attractive to a fair number of women. Something about the old lipper just doesn't do it for some, and those, those I look down upon. Secondly, at least in my case, those who live with someone (me) who has a mustache has to hear comments about the mustache many, many times a day, for weeks and weeks on end. When I first shaved this sultry fellow it was self-conscious comments, "Are you sure you're still attracted to me?" Followed quickly by purely observational comments, "Wow, I look so much like a 70s porn-star right now" (Alex actually spent a day introducing me to her friends by saying, "Oh I brought a 70s porn-star with me today." Alex = keeper). These were then followed by hours of me just rubbing my mustache against the side of her face whenever the opportunity presented itself. And all of these comments have now funneled in to a sort of smarmy set of thoughts where I'll say things like, "Hah, everybody loves a mustache" or "That girl was staring at my mustache, I'm positive." You'd think she'd tired of this, and maybe she does, but she just smiles and loves me.

2. Mustaches are pretty much just giant hairy sponges. This is a thought I've had to learn slowly as each item of food I consume becomes a new experiment in what exactly is going to end up stuck in the hair above my lip. Coffee, and other foamy beverages, are quite a problem as I find myself literally sucking on the tips of my hairy lip to sap the foam from it's new resting place. A caramel donut proved to be pretty dangerous. Sauces and dips, boom, stuck right up there. Some might say ew, I say, "learning process."

3. I really do believe that having a mustache on your face draws stares of either admiration or disgust from passerbyers on the street. In crowded BART vehicles, I find people looking at my mustache. Just staring at this collection of brown hair resting gently on my mouth. Sometimes it's mothers with children, and they're staring in fear and holding their child a little bit closer. Sometimes it's other mustache bearers and they're checking it out, sizing it up, looking for ideas. Often times it's just a curious on-looker, distracted by this impressive beast.

I have no idea how long this mustache will last, but I'm enjoying it pretty thoroughly right now.

I'm going to be very honest right now about my recent week long excursion through Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (82): I watched the film as a background. I worked and I worked and I chatted with Alex and I cleaned my room and Hamlet and Laertes and Polonious chattered on in the background, completely oblivious to my lack of attention paid. I've heard before that Laurence Olivier didn't edit a single word from the original text to make this film, and goddamn if you can't tell. The film clocks in at just about three hours, and I had to watch it in fifteen minute spits. Little bursts of Laurence Olivier staring in to the camera pontificating on his madness and his country and his evil family. To say the least, the film, like all of Olivier's Shakespeare works, bored the hell out of me.

That said, there were some good things that came out of the film for me. This is by far the best Olivier Shakespeare I've seen. Hamlet is a fucked up play full of murder, incest, madness, insanity, assassination plots, pirate attacks, spousal abuse, mother abuse, Polonious-stabbing and to Olivier's credit he does not shy away from this. His Hamlet is an obsessed loonie and he's relentless in making those who he feels have spited him know his feelings. Laurence Olivier impresses me in the moments where he lets his guard down, where he stops preening and trying to be something amazing and just exposes the wounded, and very fucked up, soul of Hamlet. There's a decent ratio of preen to loon in this film though and it made it very close to fully watcheable.

What also helped was the beautiful camera work and the amazing set-design. There's a real sense of loneliness in this film given off by every character and Olivier (director and star) creates a Danish castle huge almost to excess. There are moments in the film where the characters are literally engulfed by space, huge hallways and monstrous atriums and these tiny people barely existing within. It gives the impression of a group of people completely distanced from each other, lost within their own sins. Couple that with a light design more akin to film noir then Willy S's tragedies and you've got a film that's at least nice to look at. Seriously, Hamlet's father's ghost was pretty freaky to look at, all face gristle and gloomy robes.

At the end of the day though, I dread Laurence Olivier's Shakespeare films, each and all. No worries though, only four more left in the collection. Yuh-eesh.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

What's the matter with tourists and VARIETY LIGHTS (81)

I beg the question: why are tourists so goddamn moronic?

I work at a job that deals pretty extensively with tourists at a locale wildly overhyped by the various guide books I imagine a certain type of ilk pay attention to. Thus, on a daily basis, I stand behind a bar and peer down the long shambling line of blotchy faced tourists, both national and from further abroad. They bitch and they complain and they make shitty jokes and they treat me like a speck of dust. And I wonder, where do these people come from? Why are they like this? And most terrifyingly, why are they so damn mobile?

I always assumed that if you were a blob of asshole that frequent my workplace, that you'd spend the majority of your time at home, watching local news, licking grease from your fingers, and petting your neurotic cat Mitzy. But, no, this is not true. For whatever reasons, the majority of tourists in America, from what I can tell, are these types of people. These pink SF hat and sweatshirt buying, fanny-pack wearing, peering over the tops of their glasses at you folk are the main stays in terms of the tourist contingent and I'm absolutely baffled.

Baffled and sad that America, and maybe everywhere (I've seen some poor examples of Dutch tourists in my day), are represented by these types who wander the Saturday Farmer's Market, greasy hands clutching bags of Boudin bread and Ghiradelli chocolate. It's no wonder that our country has such a poor image in the outside world. It's not just George W. Bush's lasting legacy, oh no, it's the stream of jackasses we pump in the more and more disgusting tourist locales of countries all over the world. I'd hate us too, hell I kind of do hate us in some ways, all of which are represented in the small minds and stingy wallets of the people I get to spend four days a week catering too.

Mark this one up as a rant, because I've got no solution and no end-point, just vitrolic rage.
Which does not translate over to Variety Lights (81). This is the Italian master of cinema Federico Fellini's very first film (though co-directed) and it was impressive to see the very beginnings of an artist who would grow to become one of the great filmmakers of all time. I came in to the film, the story of a dopey theatre troupe director and his obsession with an attractive ingenue, not knowing where this fell in the Fellini filmography and, at first, I was a bit disappointed.

I'm not trying to sound like Mr. Movie Man, but I've seen a bunch of Fellini, and a decent amount of Italian cinema in general and I like my Italian neo-realism slashed through with a healthy dose of surrealism, as only the man, Fellini, can do. Variety Lights (82) is certainly a good film, a strong, comic, sort of sad look at what we try and do to achieve the things we want in life, and how in doing so we miss out on what we already have, but a fairly simple one. The symbolism and imagery so vibrant in films like Amarcord (4) (a giant talking marriage wreath) or Nights of Cabiria (49) (the misty swirl of the camera around Cabiria's last walk) is missing. Instead we have a good, solid film that doesn't stand out above most films from the 1940s and 1950s. It reminded me of classic Hollywood in a way I didn't ever really associate with Fellini - Simple scenarios, strong sort of dated-acting, and a very smooth, but non-complex camera.

It felt like Fellini-light and though it wasn't my favorite film of his, it's amazing to see where a director of his stature now came from. And hell, maybe you folk who've never seen a Fellini film, but are daunted by his persona, can start here, and just figure out if a jaunt through Fellini-town is worth your while.

Sorry for the lack of posting these last three days, friends were in town, things were to be dealt with and I just had to put it off for a bit. I haven't forgotten you beautiful people though, oh no, not a bit.

Thursday: Hamlet (82)