Sunday, April 16, 2017

Jason goes to SFFILM--Day 11

A four movie Saturday, as the final weekend is half over. Let's jump right in.

My first show started with a short, FAJR, a beautifully shot, very stylized sunrise and morning call to prayer. Figures in silhouette, as the light grows the desert reveals some mysteries...mostly mysteries about how it was shot.

And that was the lead-in to the feature THE CHALLENGE. The film is nominally about falconry, and a competition in the Arabian desert. But don't expect to learn much about falconry. Instead, prepare to immerse yourself visually into a world of opulence, with gold-plated Harley Davidsons, a pet cheetah in a Lamborghini, and opulent bidding (in the near 100,000...but I didn't catch the currency) on a single prize falcon. There are scenes here that are as beautiful as anything I've seen in a movie (especially speeding across the dunes in souped-up SUVs.) And then there are lo-res cell phone videos that totally take me out of the film. It makes a lot more sense when you realize director Yuri Ancarani is known more as a visual artist, not a  traditional filmmaker. So think of it as spending 70 minutes in a visual art installation, more than watching a traditional documentary. Most of all, don't expect to learn much about falconry (which is a shame, because I really wanted to learn about falconry.)

Then I made my way over to the Alamo Drafthouse for I LOVE DICK. A sneak preview of a new Amazon Studios show from the creators of TRANSPARENT. Griffin Dunne plays Sylvere, a writer and scholar, working on a new take on the Holocaust, and recently awarded a fellowship at a small institute in Marfa, Texas. His wife Chris (Kathryn Hahn) is a Brooklyn filmmaker whose newest film was accepted to the Venice film festival...until it wasn't. Seems she didn't get rights for some of the music in it. So they move their passionless marriage to Marfa, where they meet the charismatic leader of the institute, artist and teacher Dick (Kevin Bacon.) And she immediately becomes obsessed with him, even when he dismisses her art, and to some extent all female artists. In fact, that kind of makes her more obsessed. And that obsession also affects Sylvere. In fact, their loveless dry spell is broken in spectacular fashion. We got a sneak preview of the first two episodes, and it looks pretty good. Definitely something to check out when it comes out later. We were also treated to a discussion with write Sarah Gubbins (oh yeah, behind the scenes, it's an all-female writer's room) and stars Griffin Dunne and Kevin Bacon. Without giving too much away, they talked about the free, almost experimental process of making the series, and how an all female-written show still has a heck of a lot of male energy in it. Also, getting naked episode after episode after episode. Also, how funny it is, it's sexy and downright silly at times.

Then I stayed at the Alamo, had a delicious beer from their menu--a Laughing Monk Evening Vespers Dubbel--and was transported to Ireland for A DATE FOR MAD MARY. Mary (Seána Kerslake) is just out of prison--she did six months for a bar fight--and doesn't have a whole lot of time to prepare to be her best friend's Charlene's (Charleigh Bailey) maid of honor. She's got the speech (Charlene wrote it for her) and the dress. What she needs most is a plus-one, to show that she's got something of a life and is grown up and isn't still the wild child they both were in school. There's a bit of a dating montage, but nothing is working right. One bloke seems like a fine choice--he needs a date for his brother's wedding, too, so they can make it a sort of business arrangement--but he splits when she asks him to dial down the "camp." Seems the only person she can even stand to be around is Jess, the videographer she hired to shoot the wedding. But it would be pretty scandalous to show up with a lesbian date for the wedding, wouldn't it?

In the hands of a less subtle team, this would just be a silly rom-com, good for a few laughs but ultimately forgettable. But the writing-directing team (brothers Colin and Darren Thornton) and especially the actresses do a fantastic job of getting into the characters and showing us something real.

Interesting, if I LOVE DICK is remarkable for women writers telling a story with lots of male energy, A DATE FOR MAD MARY reverses that, with male writers telling an excellent story through females characters. But most importantly, through interesting characters.

And then I ended the day at the Roxie with HEADSHOT, a brilliant, brutal action thriller. It opens with a super-violent prison escape, and a young man (Iko Uwais from THE RAID) washing up on the beach with no memory of his past. He's rescued by the beautiful medical student Ailin (Chelsea Islan,) who names him Ishmael (she's a fan of Moby Dick.) But they're not going to get to enjoy a peaceful life, because crime boss Lee (Sunny Pang) is looking for him--and looking to end him. And so there will be fight after fight after fight as Ishmael has to defend himself. And then when Ailin is kidnapped, he has to fight a horde of bad guys--and one exceptionally bad girl Rika (Julie Estelle)--to find his way to Lee, learn his own past, and kill him. Not an especially complicated plot, but the fight choreography is some of the best ever. A lot of fun, a great way to end the night, and a great cap to all the fantastic Dark Wave films in the festival.

Total Running Time: 342 minutes
My Total Minutes: 426,840

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Jason goes to SFFILM--Day 10

After playing hooky for just one little film, I was back at the festival for 3 more films on Friday.

First off I was at the Alamo Drafthouse for HEAVEN SENT, a Lebanese absurdist comedy. Omar is a bodyguard. And he has his dream job, protecting a beautiful singer who is getting into politics. Meanwhile, a man arrives to town, after walking over snow-capped mountains, is loaded into the back of a truck, and is dumped on the street outside the club where Omar's singer is performing. He tries to get in, and is pushed away a few times, until Omar finally knocks him out cold with a head-butt. Then Omar takes him home and takes care of him, because it turns out the mystery man is Omar's brother. He's been lost, and presumed dead, since the 90's. But he was a great soldier in the civil war. And why he's back is not entirely clear, except perhaps to teach Omar a lesson. But as absurd as that setup is, it's the small details where the humor comes from. The dad ranting about all the invaders that Lebanon has cut to pieces over the centuries. The feud with the neighbor across the street who plays his TV too loud. Or bodyguards discussing whether a white shirt or a black shirt (under their black coats) is better. Very funny stuff, even before the rocket launcher comes into play.

Then I made my way over to the Roxie for PARK. In 2004, Athens hosted the Olympics, and it was a grand spectacle. Now, the venues are abandoned and rundown. They've become modern Greek ruins. And they're inhabited by youth with nothing better to do and no parents in the picture. They play, their play gets kind of dangerous (it gets very dangerous to a dog, one of the unfortunate themes of the day was violence against animals) but mostly they're just aimless kids without much in the way of a hopeful future. The cast is mostly amateurs, bringing to mind some of Harmony Korine's films. The default main character is an older teenager who is kind of a leader and has a fumbling relationship with the only girl in their circle. A fascinating, real movie showing a snapshot of disaffected youth.

And finally, I ended the night with the dark wave show, MRS. K. The titular Mrs. K (Kara Wai) looks like the sweet housewife to a successful doctor, and a doting mother to her daughter. But early on, when some thieves posing as delivery men confront her, we find out that she can kick a serious amount of ass. Meanwhile, three bad guys are offed in succession, and we learn that a vengeful madman is behind it all. And he has a connection to Mrs. K and her past. Something about a casino heist, but who cares...this is all about the dizzying, bone-splitting action sequences. And they totally freakin' deliver. Especially when the daughter is kidnapped and Mrs. K has to go full rampaging vengeance mode. Awesome.

Total Running Time: 267 minutes
My Total Minutes: 426,498

Jason watches RAW

I had Friday off as a holiday at work, so I planned on 4 films at SFIFF. But when I got there, turns out that press tickets were all distributed for all the 3:00 shows. I could've gone to the venues I tried for rush tickets. Or I could've hung out in the lounge for a few hours. But instead, with a few hours to kill, I looked at what other movies were playing, then made my way to the Landmark Theaters in Embarcardero Center to check this out.

And it's a damn funny cannibal movie. Justine is a young woman who has grown up in a strict vegetarian family. She's off to veterinary school, just like her big sister Alex. Alex is quite the party girl at school, and it's quite a party school. And as a "rookie" (don't know if that's a different term or an odd translation of "freshman") she's going to be subject to a lot of hazing. And one bit of that hazing is eating a raw rabbit kidney (hey, Bunny!) She objects as a vegetarian, but Alex doesn't back her up. And so she goes through with it. And...she develops a taste for meat. Worse yet, she develops a taste for raw flesh. Worstest yet, she develops a taste for raw human flesh. And so wacky hijinx ensue. Oh, there's plenty of blood and gore, and it's all played very seriously, so I'm sure some people will object to me classifying it as a comedy. But this is definitely funny. A comedy about shambling heaps of flesh who have fucked-up relations to other flesh--shambling heaps or otherwise.

Running Time: 99 minutes
My Total Minutes: 426,231

Friday, April 14, 2017

Jason goes to SFFILM--Day9

I'm always cautious of the silent films with live music events at the festival. I've been burned before, and tend to boycott them for a few years. But this one was too good to pass up, and I was right to see DeVotchKa accompany (that's the critical word, accompany, not do a concert in front of) Dziga Vertov's THE MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA.

When I last saw this film, at the SF Silent Film Festival back in...wow, 2010, has it been that long?...I described it as a hallucination. It still kind of is. But more importantly, it's a wall-breaking film that invites the audience into the process of making the film, and invites the film into the process of making an audience. It has no intertitles. It's very explicitly attempting to invent a new language--a language of moving images that it uniquely cinematic and universal. And it shows the mechanics of film-making, but at the same time creating intentionally artificial images. If it has succeeded in creating a language of film, it's created a language where it's easy to convincingly lie, and a literate audience must be aware of that. Last time I saw it, I thought of INCEPTION (or the trailer to it) and that's even more resonant now, as INCEPTION was based on layers upon layers of artificial worlds until you literally don't know if any are true (INCEPTION was also based on shared dreaming... which is what films are.) I'm certain Chris Nolan has studied THE MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA. If not, he has at least been subconsciously influenced by other works who were influenced by it.

And DeVotchKa...they were amazing. Keeping it high-energy and fun. Accompanying the film, but recognizing it as a very very playful film. There are big ideas in there, but it's ultimately about a man playing with a movie camera. And their standing ovation was well deserved, and their encore was greatly appreciated.

Running Time: 67 of the best damn minutes ever!
My Total Minutes: 426,132

Jason goes to SFFILM--Day 8

Another movie on Wednesday. This time the YouTube documentary of a YouTube star, THIS IS EVERYTHING: GIGI GORGEOUS. Born Gregory Allan Lazzarato, he was an outgoing boy (when he was a boy) and a champion diver. He was also a gender non-conformist, who did makeup tutorials online as Gregory Gorgeous. He didn't really surprise any of his family when he came out as gay. He did terribly confuse his dad David for a few seconds when he later announced he's not gay...then she explained she was transgender. And she started on the medical path to become Gigi Gorgeous.

I have to pause and give a shout-out to David Lazzarato, who is a very traditional, conservative father and if very open about his surprise at how Gigi's life as turned out, but has always been there to love and support her (even when he screws up and calls her Greg or uses male pronouns.) I don't have kids of my own, but he did make me think about how I'd feel if I were in his shoes. In my mind it came down to, 'Would I rather have a happy daughter or a miserable son?' And that answer was easy, and I suspect, without him saying it, that it was part of his thought process, too.

Anyway, back to Gigi, she's a woman now, and a celebrity. And good for her. She's vivacious, entertaining, and endlessly upbeat. She really appears to love her life (and own it...those are probably related.) That celebrity aspect is the other really fascinating aspect. Because in the past, people were celebrities for playing a role. Actors, of course. But even sports stars were famous for one skill they had, which hardly defines their entire character. So if you tell someone you met a celebrity, the first question they tend to ask is "What is she really like?" Well, with the YouTube generation, it's possible to become a celebrity for being yourself. I knew hardly anything about Gigi before seeing this movie. But I know enough that I can answer the question. What is she really like? Exactly what you see on YouTube.

Running Time: 92 minutes
My Total Minutes: 426,065

Jason goes to SFFILM--Day 7

Just one event last Tuesday, but it was a great one. I made my way to the Castro for Asian Dub Foundation performing their live score to George Lucas' art film sci-fi THX 1138. It had been nearly two decades since I had watched THX 1138. And I remembered it being good, and fascinating, and very sterile and cerebral. It's a dystopian sci-fi in a world built for efficiency where people are administered drugs to keep them calm and compliant and individual thought--and especially love--are strictly forbidden. Well, THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) goes off his drugs and escapes to the surface (sorry...spoiler alert...if you can say that for a movie that 46 years old.)

What Asian Dub Foundation gave it was a beating heart and turned it into something that hit me in the gut as much as in the mind. And I suddenly realized how very, very funny this movie is. THX's big crime is...drug evasion. He frequently stops for confession at state-run kiosks ("mass for the masses") which give pre-recorded encouragement that barely matches what he confesses. And the best joke, at the very end he escapes because...the pursuing police run out of budget. The world is so devoted to efficiency that it ends up being more efficient to just let him go. And then the ending...he's just standing on the surface, out of focus, with the setting sun behind him. A gorgeous scene, but leaves you wondering if he actually won anything.

Oh, and the best part is a lot of it was shot in the under-construction tunnels of the BART (which gets a thank-you in the credits) and then I hopped on BART home.

Running Time: 88 minutes
My Total Minutes: 425,973

Jason goes to SFFILM--Day 6

Most days, with my day job, I'll only be able to see one film per weeknight. But Monday was special. I wasn't going to miss the first show, BILL NYE THE SCIENCE GUY. Especially since Mr. Nye himself was there. Now most of the audience were fans of his show when they were kids. Or there were older fans whose kids were fans of his show. But I'm in the in-between generation where I was a fan because I watched his show in college--he had a pretty big following at Caltech. So I knew most of the science he was teaching, and either enjoyed his show ironically, or for the genuine entertainment value, or for just how freakin' cool it is that someone is pushing the meme that Science Rules!

Anyway, the movie mentions his show briefly, but quickly gets on to what he's been doing since then. He's the CEO of the Planetary Society  (I imagine him idolizing Carl Sagan the same way the next generation idolized him) and is making Sagan's dream of a solar sail a reality. He's brought in as an expert on news shows to talk about science, and that has gotten him into feuds. He famously debated evolution vs. creationism with young-earth creationist minister Ken Ham. And most recently, he's injected himself into the debate on global warming/climate change. Now, I don't remember years ago anyone particularly caring that Bill Nye didn't have a PhD. He was the "Science Guy" not the scientist (he's a mechanical engineer who studied a lot of physics.) But it seems once he got himself into political issues, speaking on behalf of the pro-science side, it's now a very important point to make sure everyone knows he's Mr. Nye, not Dr. Nye (because, of course, the difference between science being correct or incorrect hinges on the difference between a D and an M) Okay, enough editorializing, back to the film. A large part of the climate change section of the movie is devoted to his friendly duel with Joe Bastardi, meteorologist and outspoken skeptic of human-induced climate change. One of the funniest dynamics in the film is how Joe's son grew up as a big Bill Nye fan, and so he spends a lot of his screen time kind in amazement as his father argues with his 4th grade hero. It's very funny.

After the film, there was a brief panel discussion with Bill Nye; the filmmakers David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg; and Dr. Eugenie C. Scott, the former Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education. One of the most interesting points to come out is how public, moderated debates (like the one Nye had with Ham over creationism) are a pretty bad way at getting to scientific truth. Because debates are about scoring points and winning the debate, while science is about getting at truth. Also, because scientists are good at drilling into complicated subjects, but to win people over you need three things. A simple message...repeated...from a trusted source. Let me repeat that:
- A simple message
- Repeated
- From a trusted source

Scientists tend to be bad at the first one (but Bill Nye is great at it.) The second one anyone can do. And the third one is always tricky, because you tend to be trusted right up until you say something that your audience disagrees with. It's maintaining that trust that's hard.

I would've loved to stick around more, at least to shake Bill Nye's hand, but I had another movie to run off to, over at YBCA. I have to say, with a more spread out festival this year, I'm getting my exercise.

78/52 is an excellent documentary with an awful name that nobody understands. It refers to 78 set-ups and 52 cuts that make up the iconic shower scene in Hitchcock's PSYCHO. The circumstances in the world and in Hitchcock's career that led up to PSYCHO. The setup of the scene, and finally the scene itself. Dissected by directors, editors, actors, and the actual body double in the scene (who was hired for a 2-3 day job that went on for 7 days...just to get like 45 seconds of screen time.) How the shrieking strings make such an impact (which we had seen the day before in SCORE.) How, despite what everyone thinks, you never actually see any nudity (okay a little side-boob) or ever see the knife touch the skin (or do you? Hitchcock himself said it never happened, but the body double said that they pressed the knife against her belly, then pulled it away and ran the scene in reverse and you see it in the film.) Or how about the great sound effects of knife stabbing flesh (the key--casaba melons.) Director Alexandre O. Philippe seems to have lined up everyone in Hollywood eager to talk about the scene, then put them in a mock-up of the Bates Motel to do it, which is clever and funny wall-breaking that's appropriate for such an intense and film-geeky dissection of less than a minute of cinema.

Total Running Time: 181 minutes
My Total Minutes: 425,885