Friday, April 24, 2015

Jason goes to SFIFF--Opening Night

The biggest film festival in the Bay Area--and longest running one in the Americas--kicked off last night, and of course I was there. Got up there nice and early, hugged a bunch of my 2-weeks-a-year friends, grabbed my tickets, grabbed my press pass, grabbed a burger and a beer next door, and settled into my front row (slightly-off) center seat (a lovely couple I see at the festival every year got there first and grabbed the absolute center seats.)

Then the obligatory introductions and thank-yous to all the sponsors (big news: there's a new sponsor beer this year, Fort Point Beer Co., which I tried at the after party and is delicious! Although I will miss the resealable tops on the Grolsch bottles, which allowed one to theoretically sneak beer from the lounge into the movies. Not that I would ever do that.) And finally we got to the opening night film.

And that film was Alex Gibney's newest doc, STEVE JOBS: THE MAN IN THE MACHINE. I've been a fan of Gibney's work ever since TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE (DocFest 2007) and I've always been impressed with his ability to take complicated issues and make them understandable and entertaining. And then with Jobs being such an iconic and controversial figure--all over the world but especially in Silicon Valley--this was just too promising to pass up. And it's well made and entertaining, but with Steve Jobs I'm afraid Alex Gibney has finally run up against an enigma he just can't fully explain. It starts with footage of a young, nervous Steve Jobs prepping for a TV interview (I assume if not his first, at least very close to it) reminding us that he wasn't always the confident tech giant he turned out to be. Then we cut to his death, and the outpouring of grief and memorials from so many people who had never actually met the guy. Gibney expresses puzzlement at this. Obviously his devices made such a profound impact on people's lives. But still...these are people who never actually met him. And for those who've been paying at least a little attention, the guy was kind of an asshole. And the film definitely shows that side of him. It starts at the very beginning creating Breakout at Atari with Woz (who was working on it on the side, not actually employed at Atari) and telling him that their $7,000 bonus was just $700, and giving him just $350. It's just a weird sort of intense desire to win, that he would screw over a friend who was happy to work just for the challenge of the work--Woz insisted that if Jobs had simply said he needed the money he would've let him keep all of it. And there's a pattern that runs through his behavior--when he's giving IBM the finger in the early days, he looks like a rebel upstart taking on Goliath. But once Apple becomes Goliath, he's still giving the finger to...well, it's no longer clear. To whatever rules there are. Silly things like leasing cars for 6 months at a time so he never needs to get license plates (it was legendary that a silver Mercedes without a license plate meant it was Steve Jobs' car.) Or more troubling issues like the whole Foxconn working conditions thing. Or just weird, troubling anecdotes from people who left Apple to work elsewhere--which eventually became a class-action suit against several companies for colluding to not recruit each other's employees. And then the fact that he explicitly rejected the idea that he should use any of his fortune for charitable work (contrast to Bill Gates, thought of as the evil one when Microsoft was the giant, but now seems to be using his fortune on a personal mission to save the world.)

But this movie isn't all about how evil Jobs was. It's about the enigma. There are plenty of testimonials about how he was a brilliant, personable, charismatic man. There is, of course, mention of his "reality distortion field" (e.g., that if he told you the sky was green, you would start to believe it.) And wrapped into that puzzle was his zen practice and love of Japan. Which is never really resolved, beyond the observation that he had the focus of a monk with none of the compassion of one. That he somehow had a brilliant mind that achieved some form of personal "enlightenment" but definitely without freeing himself from his own ego. And so in the end, that question--why were so many people grieving a man they never met because of the gadgets he created? Well, it's never really answered--at least not to my satisfaction (confession, and I probably should've revealed this sooner--I'm not part of the Apple cult, I proudly own an Android phone, never owned a Mac, never even owned an iPod. So there's clearly something there that I just don't get) And it ends with an interesting observation that perhaps the enigma of his life is reflected in his devices--that these clever devices that connect us with the world also isolate us from the ones we're setting next to. That there's amazing promise but something lacking on the human side--just like Jobs. But you know what...that's true of my Android phone, too. And I just can't imagine people reacting the same way if any of the Google founders pass away. It's still just a puzzle.

But speaking of the human element, we were then off to the party to hobnob with big-wigs and high muckety-mucks at Madame Tussaud's wax museum on Fisherman's wharf. Drinks, a few snacks (apparently I missed more food on the second floor, as I went straight to the third floor VIP section) greetings of friends and more drinks. Then I had to take off early to catch BART back home.

And now the festival really starts.

Running Time: 127 minutes
My Total Minutes: 392,862

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Jason goes to Midnites for Maniacs for a Macho Maestros double feature

Screw your fancy art-house cinema, these are some serious guys' flicks. And it's time to give them their due.

ROCKY IV (1985): Widely mocked as a weird bit of Cold War propaganda (and winner of the Razzie Award,) this movie actually has a bit more going for it than you might expect. For no reason in particular, I had seen this movie more than any other Rocky film, but hadn't really considered its merits until Jesse Ficks (aka, the Maniac of Midnites for Maniacs) starting talking about it. So I watched it with new eyes, and noticed some things about it. Like while it's about the Cold War, it's not really Cold War pro-U.S. propaganda, if anything it's anti-Cold War propaganda. It's about nationalism, but it isn't nationalistic. In fact, the crazy, over-the-top nationalism that accompanies Apollo Creed into the ring in the first match comes crashing down with his death (this move is 30 years old, spoilers are okay, right?) Consider that as the image of the prevailing 80s attitude of America #1, we're unbeatable! And Stallone intentionally kills it. And then Rocky steps up, with the weight of his nation on his back (along with all those logs!) and goes and trains in the wilderness. The training montage is secretly brilliant. I think in the 80s everyone read it as a contrast of the American individual spirit vs. the Soviet state machine. But watch it again, seriously. What comes out isn't the contrast, but the similarity--shot for shot they're doing the exact same thing just with different trappings around them.

So then we get to the actual fight, and what is still the least plausible part of the film. When Rocky starts winning the crowd over, and they start chanting his name. It still kind of strikes me as silly Hollywood wishful thinking/happy ending. But for the first time I watched it not as Rocky winning them over to America, but as Rocky winning them over with his sheer humanity. Perhaps the beating he is taking resonates with something about their experiences under their political system, and the fact that he keeps getting up and keeps punching gives them hope for themselves. And then the real turning point--when Drago turns on the party official and declares that he is fighting for himself. Finally even the supposed villain embraces his humanity and proclaims himself an individual fighting for himself. At that point, I don't even think it matters anymore who wins the fight (of course Rocky has to.) Because it's not a story about America winning the Cold War, it's a story about individuals transcending the Cold War and embracing their shared humanity. And it's secretly great.

Or it's a rah-rah "go 'Murica!" boxing flick. I could always be wrong.

THE ROCK (1996): And then we watched this film, which has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. Even I will point to this and say Michael Bay has made a damn good movie.  (And I did dismiss TRANSFORMERS by saying there's not enough venereal disease in the world to make Michael Bay pissing on my childhood hurt for him as much as it does for me.) Nicolas Cage brought his Nouveau Shamanic acting style to action flicks for the first time in this one, and a 65 year old Sean Connery brings total badassdom to his role. Ed Harris brings gravitas as the noble villain, and it all comes together in a great mix of comedy, action, and drama. And I've actually been known to use my favorite line from the movie--"Your 'best!' Losers always whine about their best! Winners go home and fuck the prom queen!"--in conversation...when I can get away with it. Damn, I don't think I've watched it since it came out, and I was in college, and it was a staple flick among me and my friends. That was quite a trip back in time and a joy to realize the film still fuckin' works!

Total Running Time: 227 minutes
My Total Minutes: 392,735

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Jason watches the death of Bad Movie Night with RED DAWN and RED DAWN

Yeah, both of them. But I was really there just to make sure Bad Movie Night was really, really finished.

RED DAWN (1984): It sucked. And I've seen it too many times.

RED DAWN (2012): It sucked. I've only seen it once now, and that's too many times.

Bad Movie Night: It's over!!!!

Total Running Time: 392,508

Jason goes to Niles to see THE MIDNIGHT GIRL

But of course, first a couple of shorts:

AT FIRST SIGHT (1924): One of Charley Chase's "Jimmy Jump" comedies. Hilarious sight gags like his hat gets set on fire and he gets drenched in a storm trying to help a young lady with her convertible. Then it becomes a wacky romantic comedy as he tries to impress the girl but doesn't have enough money for a nice suit. So his kind boss lets him borrow one of his. But then it turns out the girl isn't a fancy society lady, but just the maid. And there are more twists and more hijinx, and it's a sweet and funny film.

FEARLESS HARRY (1926): Little know Earl McCarthy as "Hairbreadth Harry" based on an old comic strip. Harry has to rescue Beautiful Belinda (so warm-hearted, she has to wear asbestos lingerie) from the diabolical Relentless Rudolph. Hilariously over the top gags that really look like they came straight out of a comic strip. Very cool.

Then intermission, and on to the feature program.

THE MIDNIGHT GIRL (1925): Bela Lugosi in an early silent role. He plays a creepy opera patron, infamous for casting his girlfriends over more talented singers. In fact, his latest girlfriend is destroying the opera. His son calls him on it, and decides to leave and forge his own path, forgoing his father's financial support. But he actually has talent as a musician, and grooms a lovely young lady as a star in the local nightclub. When she's accomplished enough, he takes her to meet his father in hopes of turning her into a star and maybe even reconciling with him. But instead, a really creepy love triangle ensues. Actually, that's not right. She doesn't love the father, he just tries to take advantage of her, and it's really creepy. Damn, Bela Lugosi has that creepy look down, even before he was Dracula. And there's even a point in the sexual assault scene where I swear it looks like he was about to bite her neck. That was really weird, as is this movie. But it was fun to watch.

Total Running Time: 96 minutes
My Total Minutes: 392,301

Jason watches WILD TALES

Even though Cinequest is over, it's never really over for me (which is a good time to brag about how Cinequest was voted the #1 film festival in the country!) This is one of the films I missed at Cinequest, and it was quite a treat.

Six vignettes, all hilarious, all pretty violent, most of them ending in death, tell the story of modern Argentina. I confess I don't know much about the culture, and I've read that these stories are very particular to different aspects of Argentinian culture or politics. If that's so, it's to writer/director Damián Szifron's credit that he has made them pretty universally acceptable. While the nuances of Argentinian life are lost on me, who doesn't understand revenge? (in an opening sequence that is hilarious but kind of eerie in the aftermath of the Germanwings crash.) Or wanting to poison the corrupt asshole who destroyed your family? Or road rage (in one of the funniest things I've seen, and the most scatological of the stories.) Or how about bureaucratic annoyances and petty local government extortion? Or, in a more serious story, the divide between the rich and the poor, and how the top 1% takes advantage to buy and sell poor people's lives. And, in the final vignette, there's the most violent act of all--love!

Goddamn, that was fun!

Running Time: 122 minutes
My Total Minutes: 392,205

Jason goes to CAAMFest--Day 10

I skipped Day 9 (Friday) but was at the New Parkway for a full day on Saturday, my final day of CAAMFest 2015 (at least the SF version. I might make it to the San Jose festival later this year, assuming they do it again.)

VERSES IN EXILE (EP 1 and 2): Kosal Khiev was a child refugee. Got involved in gang violence, and was deported back to Cambodia, the land his parents fled. And there he has become a renowned poet, with some unique insights on life, crime, and violence. This was the first two episodes of a 4-part web series.

TASHI'S TURBINE: In the Himalayan mountains, Tashi Bista and Jeevan are teaming up to build a small windmill and provide power to the little village of Namdok. At least, to the ones who live close enough to run a wire to it. It's a funny, engaging, sometimes uplifting, sometimes frustrating story of friendship, hope, and engineering challenges. But it's absolutely clear that these people are doing great work, improving Nepal one wind turbine at a time. Ironically, the biggest problem is it's too windy for their little turbine.

MAN UP: Then this funny, silly buddy comedy about a couple of teenage slackers nearing twenty and trying to become adults. Or, more often, trying not to become adults. Martin is ready for the summer after high school, relaxing at the beach and playing video games until...well, until he can't anymore. He certainly doesn't have plans for college. All his plans go out the window when his girlfriend announces she's pregnant. And when it's clear he's not father material she leaves him. So Martin and his best friend Randall decide to learn all about fatherhood (including taking childbirth classes together) so he'll be a great dad. It does not work. With all their enthusiasm, they're still total slacker deadbeat goofballs who can't--and probably shouldn't--grow up. At least not right now. Which is good, because they're so fun to watch as idiot goofballs.

ALL EYES AND EARS: And finally, I ended my festival with this fascinating documentary about U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and his family. Especially his adopted daughter Gracie Mei, returning to the land of her birth for the first time since her adoption. Woven into their story is the story of Chen Guangcheng, an activist and legal advocate who was placed under house arrest. He escaped with the help of local villagers and with the help of the U.S. embassy emigrated to the U.S. Oh, and he's blind. The movie explores the complicated diplomatic relations, and especially how Chen Guangcheng's case strained those relations at just the time Huntsman was trying to strengthen them. There are many facets to this documentary--family, human rights, activism, diplomacy, culture...it's a beautiful, powerful movie that is definitely worth an extra look.

And finally, my 2015 CAAMfest is over!

Total Running Time: 238 minutes
My Total Minutes: 392,083

Jason goes to CAAMFest--Day 8

Dammit, I've fallen well over a month behind on my stupid blog. Okay, prepare for a review dump.

FLOWING STORIES: This is a meditative documentary about family, place, and changing times for the Ho-Chung Village. Set during their 400 year old decadal festival, we see several generations of a family. Grandma reminisces about growing up in poverty, while the younger generations have moved to Europe and are trying to make a living there. But they come back for the festival. And for the place. It's really a movie about place, and what keeps drawing us back to...whatever place is special for us (usually where we grew up.)

RIVER OF EXPLODING DURIANS: And then this film, which at least has the best title in the festival. A factory upstream is poisoning all the fish--at least, that's the suspicion. It's simultaneously a story about teenage love and violent political activism, as students--and one idealistic young teacher--start protesting the plant. And then it goes further, gets a bit more violent, and it turns out that the teacher is the most radical of them all. A cool story, well told, and engaging. And apparently loosely inspired by a true story.

Total Running Time: 225 minutes
My Total Minutes: 391,845