Sunday, May 1, 2016

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 10

The big second weekend was in full swing, with a 5 film Saturday.

First up was the documentary NOTES ON BLINDNESS. I have to confess I had never heard of John Hull before (I saw this movie only because I had a drink with directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney in the festival lounge the prior evening.) John Hull was a professor of theology in Birmingham, England. His eyesight had failed for years, and in 1983, after surgeries to correct his eyes were unsuccessful, he was totally blind. And so he began an audio diary to understand his blindness. How it affected him, his work (actually, not much, he adapted there pretty easily,) and his family (in particular, explaining to his son who was born as he was almost completely blind, so he knows almost nothing about what he looks like.) All the dialogue in the movie is directly from either Hull's audio diary or from interviews with him and his family, with actors lip-synching along. The visuals they pair with it are beautiful--sometimes obscuring vision to get a sense of impending blindness, sometimes absolutely stunning images whose beauty underscores the depth of his loss of sight. And it keeping his authentic audio recordings the primary source for the film, they really make it a project that belongs to Hull (who passed away just last year) almost more than Middleton and Spinney themselves. A fascinating look at the onset of blindness in general, and the particular journey of one man to maintain his humanity in the face of blindness.

Then I raced over to the Victoria theater for THE FREE WORLD. It's a fairly exciting thriller featuring characters I wanted to sympathize with, but found myself not really understanding. Our hero is Mo (nee Martin, but changed to Muhammed in prison) an exonerated ex-con who is just trying to live a peaceful life working in an animal shelter. One day, a man comes in with a beaten up dog (and, in his truck, a beaten up girlfriend.) Turns out this man knows Mo, because he's a cop and knows what Mo was in lockup for (even though the courts eventually found him innocent) and the damage he did fighting in lockup (the first hint we get that Mo has a much darker, violent side.) Anyway, the dog doesn't make it, and a short time later the girlfriend shows up, covered in blood and hysterical. Instead of calling 911 (which would've made this a very short film, but I guess he was afraid to call the cops, since they have it out for him.) Mo takes her home, cleans her up, and takes care of her until a tentative friendship forms. Well, pretty soon the cops are hounding him anyway, and it goes from a story of somewhat puzzling motivations to a completely off-the-rails run from the law. It's plenty exciting the whole time, but it stretched credibility quite a lot, trying to be a Hollywood blockbuster when it's more effective charms are the character studies of lost Louisiana souls. 

And then a really strange treat, UNDER THE SUN. Ukrainian director Vitaly Mansky was hired by the DPRK to film a documentary of a year in the life of a typical North Korean family as their daughter Lee Zin-mi joins the Children's Union. The government liaisons were very helpful in shuttling Vitaly from on pre-approved shoot to another, and Vitaly obliges by filming exactly how helpful they are. Rehearsing dinner conversation, setting up the parents in jobs at exemplary factories, reminding everyone to show more joy and patriotism. I have to assume this cut of the film isn't the one delivered to the North Korean authorities. But the version we get hilariously shows the cracks in the propaganda as children and adults alike strain under the exhaustion of proving how perfect their life and their country are. A fascinating and entertaining way to get a sense of the real North Korean life by seeing how fake the portrayed life is.

And then from fake lives to some very intensely real ones, I kept up with THE JONESES. We start with the life of Jerry Jones--not the Dallas Cowboys owners, but the hairdresser, father, divorcee, and now transgendered 70-something matriarch of her unique Mississippi family. She's fabulous and she knows it.Also, she spells her name Jheri now. Two of her four sons live with her in her trailer home, and while they might fuss and fight they clearly love each other. All four of her sons--and her two grandchildren--are featured in the movie, and in fact explaining to the grandchildren why they've never heard anything about their grandpa is a major part of the film, and a solid grounding that this isn't just Jheri's amazing life story--it's an ongoing story that isn't finished yet. Pretty much everyone in this family has some...oddities--some more severe than others. But director Moby Longinotto treats them all with love and respect, echoing the underlying love of this remarkable family. So many scenes are so amazingly intense that I wasn't just emotionally spent by the end, I was physically exhausted and just in awe of the amazingly powerful story I just saw. 

There's one more screening of THE JONESES in the festival (tonight--Sunday night at the PFA in Berkeley) but it will also be coming to Frameline in June. I highly recommend it. And if you're as lucky as I was, Jheri will be in attendance to talk about the film and her life afterward.

And finally, I ended the night with a Hong Kong thriller, TRIVISA. A throwback to the great HK action flicks of the 80s and 90s, it's the story of 3 master criminals. One is laying low after being caught on camera in a shootout with police. Another is planing one last great heist. And the most colorful one is bored with his kidnapping schemes and wants another great challenge. And on the eve of the handover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese, they might just manage to get together and pull off the greatest heist ever. That is, if they can survive both the police looking for them and the enemies they've made in their line of work. I admit it was so late after such a long day that I had trouble following the plot exactly, but it was fun to watch for the classic Hong Kong gangster flick style. Still cool after all these years.

Total Running Time: 473 minutes
My Total Minutes: 428,160

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 9

We're at the halfway point. The big second weekend has started. 3 more films on Friday.

First up was DEAD SLOW AHEAD. I admit, I only saw this because it kinda fit perfectly as filler in my schedule. And I ended up being very surprised by how much I liked it. Even more surprising be it reminded me the most--at least superficially--of LEVIATHAN (SFIFF 2013) which I absolutely hated. Superficially, they're both mostly wordless, observational films about the life on a boat. And it would be really interesting to play these side by side as a demonstration of what (for me) makes a film enjoyable or unwatchable. In a word, it's cinematography. While LEVIATHAN intentionally removed the eye behind the camera, in DEAD SLOW AHEAD, director Mauro Herce--who is most famous as a cinematographer--very intentionally chooses beautiful angles, and scenes that capture both the human interest and technological wonder of a giant cargo ship on the sea. When a leak threatens their cargo (wheat) the crew springs into action to save what they can. And that's about all that comes up in terms of a narrative story. Instead, it's all about Herce's choice of camera placement, and the beautiful, intriguing, sometimes surreal or hypnotic images he captures. I could follow him pointing his camera at stuff all day.

And then I saw a film that was truly nuts...called NUTS! I had heard (from being a silent film fan) about the old "goat glands" treatment--that a crazy quack doctor was implanting bits of goat testicles into men to cure anything--especially impotence, but also lethargy, dementia, malaise... In fact, there's an industry term for early talkie scenes added into otherwise silent films--they're called "goat glands scenes." Well, this is a mostly-animated (there are a few talking heads for authority) about Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, the man who invented the goat glands treatment, and made a fortune on it as well as several other "alternative" medical cures. In a genius move, most of the movie is adapted from Brinkley's authorized biography, which casts him as a genius hero set upon by the lesser, narrow-minded men of the AMA, especially Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the AMA. Not just a pioneer in medicine quackery, Brinkley was also a pioneer in radio, getting his message to the masses. And in politics, when both his medical and broadcasting licenses were revoked, he ran a write-in campaign for Governor of Kansas, which would've been successful were it not for illegal dirty tricks (i.e., "John Brinkley" or "Dr. JR Brinkley" were not considered valid write-in votes. It had to be "J. R. Brinkley"--periods and all, even "J R Brinkley" was invalid.) There's an abrupt twist--much like in his life--at a trial pitting him and Fishbein against each other. His patients weren't allowed to testify, only doctors could give expert advice. So of course that stacked the deck against him. Also...the fact that he was a quack sticking goat nuts inside mens' nutsacks and selling them water with blue dye as a cure-all didn't help his case one bit. This was a beautiful, hilarious, incredible film. Perhaps my favorite of the festival so far. 

And then I ended the night with the Dark Wave show, UNDER THE SHADOW. Set in a Tehran apartment during the Iran-Iraq war, it's the story of Shideh and her daughter Dorsa. In the opening scene, Shideh is told she cannot continue her medical studies (a combination of being a woman and being a naive leftist during the revolution.) When her husband (who is already a doctor) is drafted to the front lines, they're alone in their apartment. Frequent air raid sirens usher them into the basement, but Dorsa won't go without her favorite dolly. After a missile strikes but doesn't blow up, strange things start happening. I.e., ghostly hauntings, Dorsa sees them first, but pretty soon so does everyone else. It's a wonderful slow burn, dramatic, and truly frightening. Iranian cinema has been greatly respected for years, and I have to confess I haven't been all that into it, mostly because it focuses on "slice of life" storytelling that tends to bore me (Alfred Hitchcock was fond of saying he wants his movies to be a "slice of cake" instead of "slice of life" and I tend to agree.) So it's thrilling for me to see an Iranian genre film, taking a lot of that slice-of-life aesthetic and using it in a slice-of-cake horror flick.

Total Running Time: 237 minutes
My Total Minutes: 427,687

Friday, April 29, 2016

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 8

Just one more film last night (Thursday.) I was supposed to see a second one, but...well, when I get to it I'll tell the brief story. I don't want to dwell too much.

Anyway, I first caught a strange, inventive, visual pop-art project, SIXTY SIX. It's kind of a short film program, in that all the chapters were originally made as short films, using photographs and comic book art (including using a lightbox to see both sides of the comics page superimposed, which is really cool, and makes for some surprisingly scenes of The Flash.) But they are sequenced in a very particular order, that put together make...not a single narrative (most of the chapters aren't even narrative themselves) but a growing meditation on a theme. On a time. On a place. On a style. 1966 is before my time--director Lewis Klahr was 10, but I was negative-8--so for me it's a sense of weird nostalgia for a time before I was alive (I might be an "old soul," I frequently feel false nostalgia for times before I was born. Most noticeably with silent films.) Anyway, there's no way I can possibly tell you what this was all about. I'm not even sure I can tell you how I felt about it. I'm pretty sure I enjoyed it. But I'll have to mull on that for a while.

And then I got a ticket for RADIO DREAMS. And I walked over to the Victoria theater for the screening. And the place was a madhouse. I got inside, but every seat was taken. All the empty seats--they were all being saved by someone for their 2 or more friends who were totally in the theater. I believe them, because the aisles were too crammed for me to walk down to find any other seats. So after a few frustrating minutes of that, I panicked, gave up, walked out, and went home. I'm sure the movie was probably great. I'll never know.

Running Time: 90 minutes
My Total Minutes: 427,450

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 7

I only had time for one film on Wednesday, but it was a doozy. Once again, thank you SFIFF for bringing the weird.

GRANNY'S DANCING ON THE TABLE is a strange Swedish film about abuse and family history. In the present day, a young girl with a bloody nose tells her story, but the story really goes back to her grandmother. The backstory is told in crude stop-motion animation, and was apparently drawn from the stories Kickstarter backers told about their grandmothers, making for a wild, somewhat inconsistent character drawn from several sources. In any case, the broad stroke is that granny and her sister Lucia were homeless orphans who found work on a farm. Lucia ended up marrying the farmer, but granny ended up getting pregnant. And the farmer (i.e., the narrator girl's grandfather) ends up becoming abusive. Granny goes away to...make a living, as best she can. Lucia and the farmer raise the baby (the narrator girl's father) as their own, but like I said, the farmer is an abusive a-hole. Strange, dramatic, creepy, and matter-of-fact in a very Swedish way (decide for yourself what that means.)

Running Time: 89 minutes
My Total Minutes: 427,360

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 6

A couple more movies on Tuesday, both at the gorgeous Victoria Theatre.

SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU is the story of a first "date" (or non-date, depending on who you believe) between a young Chicago legal associate and her summer intern. She's afraid he might just be another "smooth-talking brother." And definitely afraid that anything other than a professional relationship would doom her reputation at the firm. But he invited her to a community meeting, and she used to do a lot of that kind of stuff before getting into trademark law, and she is interested in getting back into it--purely professionally. But...he is kind of a smooth brother, having planned to pick her up several hours before the meeting, take her to an afro-centric art exhibit, buy her lunch at the park, etc. Basically spend a day with her, whether or not she calls it a date. And it's really sweet to see their tentative friendship kind of blossom into a mutual acknowledgment of attraction...whether anything can actually happen or not. It's also really charming to see history happen, in a way that those involved don't know it's history. Oh, I think I forgot to mention that her name is Michelle Robinson, and he's her future husband...Barack Obama. A few times the movie gets a little too cute for its own good, when they speculate on the possibilities that he might be interested in getting into politics. But overall, it was beautiful and reminded me how certain I am that their relationship is a big part of their mutual success. I am absolutely convinced that Michelle and Barack have the kind of partnership that makes both of them better, both in their work and as human beings.

And then a change of pace, with THE APOSTATE, a Spanish film about a young philosophy student (actually, he's failing philosophy) Gonzalo Tomayo (co-writer Álvaro Ogalla.) He's a stubborn young man, and decides that one thing he needs to do is leave the Catholic Church. But not just leave it, he needs to make it official. He needs to apostatize. And he needs his baptismal record removed. Well, the Catholic Church is equally stubborn, and a great deal of the movie is over whether the baptism record is a historical record (i.e., can't be changed) or is a database entry (i.e., can be updated, annotated, or even deleted.) This becomes a kind of proxy war for everything else in his life. Failing philosophy? Fight the Church! Arguing with your mother? Go fight the Church! Have a complicated love life? Fight the Church! It becomes a bit surreal and bizarre what lengths he will go to in his fight, and what lengths the Church goes to stop him. But he's a likeable, funny character, so seeing him tilt at his own special windmills is quite a lot of fun.

Total Running Time: 160 minutes
My Total Minutes: 427,271

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 5

Two movies last Monday, as we celebrate some of the few Latin American offerings in this festival (now that their home is in The Mission, here's hoping there's more.)
 
First up was the Mexican youth movie, LEAF BLOWER. Three friends are walking back from a soccer game. Walking through the park, there are big piles of leaves. One of them offers 10 pesos if another one jumps into a leaf pile. He does, they have a laugh, he stiffs him the 10 pesos (claiming he has no change on him at the moment.) And then the leaf jumper realizes he has lost his keys. It must be in the leaf pile. Which is a bummer, because he needs to go home and change for their friend's funeral (he died in a motorcycle accident.) Worse still, he had borrowed his girlfriend's car, and her key was on his key ring. She's gonna kill him. So the three of them spend all day coming up with brilliant plans to find the keys without actually doing much work looking for them. All the while, they tease each other with a sort of stereotypical young Latin machismo (not that this isn't common place in the U.S., either.) As their day progresses, the lack of effort in finding the keys becomes a kind of metaphor for their lack of effort in taking any sort of role in growing up. But by the end, they each take their own sort of tentative steps into maturity. Your enjoyment of the movie probably hinges on how much you'd enjoy hanging out with these three. I personally found them kind of dull and annoying (i.e., very believable as young men,) but know a lot of people who enjoyed the film.
 
And then I saw NEON BULL. As an aside, kudos to the festival for really bringing the weird stuff this year. So far, it's been a delightfully weird lot of films I've seen, and this one is right among the top. It takes place on the rodeo bull-wrangling circuit, with the protagonists being the behind-the scenes workers. A very macho world, but the main character is more interested in designing clothes than corralling the bulls. So much so that when he steals his colleagues nudie magazine, it's so he can draw his clothing designs on the naked women. He also designs sexy horse costumes for his female truck driver/boss to wear in dance routines at the end of the rodeo. Weird, erotic, gender- and genre-defying. Not just the sexy horse dances, but this whole darn movie. And it was fantastic. It'll also be coming to the Roxie right after the festival.
 
Total Running Time: 197 minutes
My Total Minutes: 427,111

Monday, April 25, 2016

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 4

Four more movies on Sunday
 
We started with a kid's cartoon from the team behind 2011's SFIFF hit, A CAT IN PARIS. Their latest is set in New York, and is called PHANTOM BOY. Leo is a good kid, smart, caring, and loves reading hero action stories to his little sister. He's also losing his hair--a side effect of the chemo treatment for his cancer. But his illness and treatment have a side effect. He can leave his body for a time and fly over the city (and through walls) as the titular phantom boy. He can't touch anyone until he's back in his body, but he can observe and report back (his otherwise comatose body speaks.) And he uses that power to help out an injured policeman and his journalist girlfriend who are chasing a disfigured madman who has held the city captive with the threat of a computer virus. It's like he's a hero in one of those stories he loves reading. A charming story full of heart and empathy, simple, moving, exciting, and beautiful.
 
And then it was off to New Zealand for Taika Waititi's (EAGLE VS. SHARK, WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, the upcoming THOR: RAGNAROK) latest, HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE, starring a scenery-chewing Sam Neill and youngster Julian Dennison. Julian plays Ricky Baker, a foster kid and a real "bad egg" who is currently placed in the home of kindly Auntie Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and gruff Hec (Neill.) And things are okay for a while, despite running away most nights, he's back in time for breakfast and Bella  is really nice to him. Too bad she passes away. And that means child protective services will have to come and get him. And that's his last chance, now it's juvenile incarceration for him. So he sets out to run away for real. And Hec tries to stop him, but some wacky hijinx lead to them being away too long and the authorities assuming the worst--that Hec has kidnapped Ricky, taken him into the woods, and is molesting him. So they just stay on the run, living in New Zealand bush for as long as they can, having increasingly bizarre adventures (when Psycho Sam shows up, it really goes beyond the bend.) But it's the relationship between Ricky and Hec--who are both in their own ways very ill-prepared for such an adventure--that's the heart of the movie. Waititi keeps it briskly moving for the most part, while still letting the story meander a bit to keep the audience guessing. A less confident storyteller might hang the plot on a "must get from A to B" conceit, but this story is more free-flowing and eccentric, which I really enjoyed.
 
And then it was time for a bunch of shorts. I think all the shorts program are at the Roxie this year, which has certainly given me my exercise. The press office, where I have to check in to get tickets between each show, is near the Alamo Drafthouse, a good 5 long blocks from the Roxie. Also--and this is nothing to do with the festival, I just want to say something about it--there is a hunger strike going on outside the 17th street and Valencia SFPD station to protest police brutality/killings. I'm kind of surprised it hasn't gotten bigger news, but local outfits like Mission Local are covering it. I give them a little nod and fist bump of encouragement each time I pass by, and here's hoping they get more visibility (more than I can give them) and actually get their demands met.
 
Okay, back to the film festival.
 
Shorts 1
THE BOATMAN: An old couple, celebrating their 70th anniversary together on the Louisiana bayou. He hopes to finish building the boat in his yard, the one that was partially wrecked by hurricane Katrina. But it's looking tough, as he's losing his sight.
THE DREAM OF BOTTOM: A very strange film about a man following the tracks and finding his lost animal companion. Or...more companion than animal.
IN ATTLA'S TRACKS: George Attla was a native Alaskan hero and world champion sled dog musher. In the later years of his life, he used sled dog mushing to teach young natives about their culture and to take pride in it. Especially his grand-nephew, who is a young professional musher himself.
PEACE IN THE VALLEY: Eureka Springs, Arkansas. A fairly liberal town that passed an LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance. It's also home to a world-famous Passion Play, retelling the story of Jesus. Now there's a referendum on whether to repeal the anti-discrimination law. And people on both sides have strong opinions about it, but still manage to be neighborly, friendly, and respectful. It's like Bizarro-America.
SEIDE: In the Kyrgyzstan mountains, a young woman Seide is arranged to be married. As part of the tradition, her horse will be killed for the celebration. Of course, she does not like this.
SOMEONE IS HAPPY SOMEWHERE: A class divide is bridged and an odd encounter takes place, set against Brazil's devastating and embarrassing loss in the World Cup semifinals. And oddly moving film.
 
Shorts 1 plays again May 5th, 5:30 pm at the Roxie.
 
And finally, Shorts 3: Animation. Hooray, cartoons!
ALL ROT: An abstract, split-screen view of processed photography. I don't even know what it's supposed to be, but I loved the inherently physical, film look of it. Remembering that film is a chemical and physical medium, not just ones and zeros.
BOB DYLAN HATES ME: Caveh Zahedi, tells a couple of stories of when he was a young film student and had a couple of encounters with his idol.
DEER FLOWER: A Korean story of a young boy whose parents take him to an antler farm to drink antler blood to make him grow up strong. It doesn't agree with him.
EDMOND: A man regresses as he looks for love over and over again.
GLOVE: An astronaut's glove, lost in space. The astronaut contemplates how that glove was made, and where it's going on its adventures.
LIFE SMARTPHONE: A funny cartoon about the dangers of never looking up from your smart phone. A Chinese film, but a pretty universal message about paying attention to the moment.
MANOMAN: One of my favorite mindbenders from Cinequest. A man in a primal scream therapy gets in touch with him primal Id. And goes a little nuts with it.
THE ORCHESTRA: In a the Lo(v/n)ely Hearts retirement home, a man and his miniature band of musicians try to work up the courage to talk to a woman and her similar band. They could make such beautiful music together.
SPLOTCH: A coffee spill becomes swirling shapes, then a little more concrete as they take you back to a celebration of a coffee cup.
TRACK: In this cool Japanese art piece, streaks of light tell the story of the universe. And it's awesome.
 
Shorts 3 plays again May 3rd, 9:00 pm, at the Roxie.

And that was the end of the first weekend of SFIFF 2016.
 
Total Running Time: 349 minutes
My Total Minutes: 426,914