Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Jason updates you on that earthquake I mentioned

Magnitude 5.6, about 13.4 miles SE of my place. No damage here, it's inland in the hills away from houses. I don't know any other news, though. Pretty freakin' cool!

Jason goes to a legitimate theater and sees "Avenue Q"

best described as "Muppets on crack", with beautiful life-affirming songs like "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and "The Internet is for porn", a bunch of puppets sing about post-college malaise, fears, and bad ideas (courtesy of the Bad Idea Bears) along with their human friends Brian, his Japanese fiance Christmas Eve, and landlord Gary Coleman. Hilarious

Anyway, I'm back from Houston. I saw this show just before flying home. I went with my friend (okay, my sister's friend, we'd met once before) Rebecca, pictured here...just look to the right...further to the right...stop staring at the giant fuzzy hooters, she's to the right of them:

By the way, as I was writing this, the earth started shaking, and all I could think of was "Go Quakes!"
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Jason gives away a fee DVD!

So I was expecting this to happen sooner or later, but Film Movement, the DVD-of-the-month club of all festival award-winning movies finally sent me a DVD of a movie I've not only already seen, but liked enough that I already got an import DVD of it. The movie in question is "Adam's Apples", which after a lengthy festival run featured at the 1st annual Wiener Family Film Festival last December and actually made a brief theatrical run in art-house theaters in this area.

So anyway, I have an extra DVD of a movie I already own, so I'm giving it away. Here are the rules: It's a contest of how well you remember every damn thing I've written--or of how well you can use the search box at the top of the page. "Adam's Apples" is a Danish film starring a famous Danish actor whom I'm a big fan of. Just leave a comment in this post stating:
  1. The name of the actor--spelled correctly!
  2. The titles of at least two movies he has starred in--other than "Adam's Apples" which I have seen on the big screen. (Note that it's not enough to look up his filmography on IMDb, you must list two movies I've seen on the big screen, not just two movies he's done.)
The winning entry will get to choose between my old Swedish version of the DVD (with English subtitles, but you need a code-free DVD player) or the Film Movement version, which also contains the short "Clara" from Australia, directed by Van Sowerwine. Ummm...actually I haven't seen the short. Okay, the Film Movement version will probably be unwrapped and viewed once, so I can see that short first.

Oh yeah, and if no one even tries, I'll be really depressed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Jason feels paranoid!

Someone from a computer on US House of Representatives network has been googling me!

I don't know why the gubmint is interested in me, but now might be as good time as any to say how much I love my crazy atheist Congressman. Yep, the guy who said that Bush sent kids to Iraq to get their heads blown off for his amusement is my Representative! I've voted for him before, and I'll vote for him again. Suck it, sanity!

Jason urges you to do your part to cure Futbolitis!

After all, this could've easily been me!

Actually, I know this guy. His name is...Guy. In fact, I would've shared my personal struggle with futbolitis with the makers of the PSA, but I was too busy feeding my movie addiction.

You can see more tragic stories like this at

Fortunately, a cure is coming soon.

Jason goes to the Arab Film Festival--October 22 and 23

Okay, I'm a couple of movies behind in my updates, and I'm leaving for Houston tomorrow to attend a friend's wedding, so I'll try to make this quick.

Monday night I went up to the Roxie to see the Egyptian youth comedy/drama "Leisure Time". A surprise box office hit back in Egypt, it features mostly unknown actors (very unknown here, but unknown even back in Egypt) and a 19 year old writer. It follows a meandering slacker group of Cairo University students, who should be studying and planning careers but instead drink, smoke pot, and chase girls. Sort of a multi-threaded Egyptian slacker story with funny and somewhat pathetic characters who are recognizable in any culture. Even tragedies of different scales can't bring them to get their lives on track, and without giving anything away the closing scene is a perfect metaphor for their go-nowhere lives. Also, it features a really kick-ass pimped-out car.

And then Tuesday night I went up to see "Why, O Sea?", a non-linear semi-amateur (as far as the acting) Moroccan film about a group of fishermen. For them, the sea is a magical force--the source of their livelihood but also a constant threat. It's a meandering, non-linear barely narrative meditation on their relation to the sea. The story is difficult to follow at times, and really the closing monologue--unrelated in all but theme from the rest of the movie--is more powerful than anything else that happens in the movie (and director Hakim Belabbes was there and admitted as much). Perhaps the rest of the movie is necessary to put you in the right frame of mind for the monologue from a widow who lost her husband and two out of three sons to the sea, but really I think that monologue alone would make a great 10 minute short.

And that was my time at the Arab Film Festival for 2007. The festival continues through the weekend, and then for the first time ever plays for a half-week in Los Angeles. But I'm out of town starting tomorrow, and I'll miss the rest of it.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Jason goes to SJJFF--Sunday, Oct. 21

That's the San Jose Jewish Film Festival, as opposed to the SF Jewfest, which I also attended. Three movies last Sunday, all of which were pretty darn good.

First up was the documentary "Blues on the Beach". In 2003 New York documentary filmmaker Jack Baxter went to Israel looking for a story. He thought at first he'd do a story on a terrorist who was going to trial. In the past he had worked closely with Israeli peace activists, and he thought there was a story about how he turned to terrorism instead. But after meeting with families of the victims, Jack decided that this terrorist was not a good hero for his film, and decided to pack it in and go home early. Walking on the beach that night, he heard Blues music and found Mike's Place, a friendly neighborhood bar and restaurant with live Blues on the beach in Tel Aviv. He decided this was his story. Getting help from local filmmaker Joshua Faudem (who is credited as director) and his girlfriend Pavla Fleishcer (who just recently moved with him to Israel from Prague) he sets about documenting the wonderful, friendly, colorful people who work and hang out there. It's a non-political place, an Anglo-friendly place (even if you order in Hebrew, the waiters will answer in English), and a place where Israeli Jews, Arabs, Christians, atheists, foreigners, whatever hang out and enjoy life. Because, I thought to myself, if there's one thing people of all faiths can agree on, it's stealing Black people's music.

Now I'll have to give a major spoiler, but it's really the whole point of the movie. So if you don't like spoilers skip this paragraph and just continue thinking it's a nice documentary about a cool blues bar in Tel Aviv. Okay, everybody gone? Here we go. Suddenly a suicide bomb attack rips through the bar. The movie is suddenly about that attack and the aftermath. I've seen plenty of movies--fictional and documentary--about terrorist attacks, not to mention all the news coverage. I've never seen anything that captures the absolute shocking suddenness and devastation of an attack. One minute everyone is dancing, the next moment everyone is bloody and three people are dead. I've also never seen a movie that lets you fall so much in love with the victims before the attack. I'm still a little broken up about Dom, the waitress who'd moved there just months ago from Paris and died in the attack--and I'd only known her (on film) for about 20 minutes. Or the friendly doorman who apparently prevented a much worse attack by turning the terrorist away and preventing him from detonating in the middle of the crowd (he survived, but was in critical condition for a long time). The filmmakers are by no means immune. They all survive but Baxter is in the hospital for a long time. Joshua and Pavla break up in the stress of the aftermath, and she returns to Prague. But through it all, there's also a spirit of survival, as Mike's Place works to re-open (despite finding new bits of human flesh in the nooks and crannies every few days) and finally does. Security is of course tighter now, but it's still the popular hangout and inclusive escape from the outside world. An excellent movie, but tough to watch.

Next up was the award-winning Israeli film "Aviva, My Love". The title character is your typical busy woman, torn among roles as mother (to her variously troubled children), daughter (to her crazy mother), sister (to her wild sister), hotel chef, and aspiring writer. Writer is what she really wants to be, what she should be, but what she has no time and no self-confidence to be. Her sister finds a great solution, when an established writer friend of hers agrees to help read Aviva's writing. At first it's a good coaching relationship, but eventually ulterior motives creep in. Seems he hasn't written anything in a while, and has lost inspiration. He proposes that he re-writes Aviva's stories, publishes them as his work, and gives her some ambiguous "stories by" credit. It's a story of a woman being pulled in all directions at once, and the compromises she makes for her family and for herself. Assi Levy completely earns the Ophir (Israeli Oscar) she won for her work. This movie also won several more Ophirs, including sharing Best Picture with "Sweet Mud", which plays later in the festival.

And the final movie of the night was "Olga", a biopic on Olga Benário, the German Jewish communist in the 30's who fell in love with the Brazilian communist rebel Luís Carlos Prestes (while serving as his bodyguard on a circuitous trip from Moscow to Rio de Janeiro), became his common-law wife, and helped him lead an unsuccessful revolution attempt. When the revolution failed, President Getúlio Vargas deported her to Germany, where she died Ravensbrück concentration camp, but not after giving birth to a daughter in prison (a daughter whom she never knew was actually adopted by her mother-in-law). This is a sprawling epic biography, 2 hours and 20 minutes long, but it's surprisingly good at maintaining energy. And it wisely lets the politics of communism fall into the background and focuses on the humanitarian side. Communism might be bad, but gassing people is much, much worse (and deporting someone to a country where you know they'll be executed is just as bad).

And that was last Sunday at the SJ Jewfest.

Jason slips into a Vortex and sees "The Car"

So after a few Arab Film Festival screenings, I ran over to the Vortex for their Saturday night party/screening. I downed a couple of martinis and settled in to watch James Brolin battle a psychotic demon automobile. I'd never seen it, and from the opening quote by Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, I was hooked. I could go on about the excellent desert landscape cinematography, the enigmatic nature of the titular devil car, how its restraint in hinting at the carnage makes it better, etc. But really I was there to get drunk, watch people get hit by a car, and laugh at jokes about shoving french horns up your butt so far you'll fart music for a year. And I was not disappointed. That was just what I needed.

Jason goes to the Arab Film Festival--Saturday, Oct 20

3 programs on Saturday, and despite a few technical glitches, I had a good time.

First up was a music program, starting with "Heart and Spirit". It's a documentary about a popular Tunisian group that performs a traditional Islamic chant called Hezb Al-latif. The Hezb Al-latif is traditionally performed to dedicate any new project (a new home, etc.). So when a new recording studio wanted to dedicate their space, they brought in sheik Ahmed Jelman to perform the chant with his group. And hey, why not record it? That recording became incredibly popular, and so did the group. And Ahmed is a fine example of staying grounded while balancing his faith, his art, and his success.

Next up was "Qater al Nada", about a Palestinian Dabka dance group. They live in the only remaining Palestinian neighborhood in West Jerusalem, and while other dance groups compete internationally under the Israeli flag, they are adamant about being Palestinian, not Israeli. I'll just skip over the politics and say they're really good dancers.

And the third movie was "El Tanbura, Capturing a Vanishing Spirit", and unfortunately this one was plagued with technical problems. It's the story of a group reviving traditional music and folklore in Port Said, Egypt. Unfortunately, there were multiple audio glitches and the DVD froze up a few times. I could still follow the story somewhat through the subtitles, but when the real draw is the music, audio glitches are very bad. It was a shame.

Anyway, the next show was the children's program, starting with "Carthage Castaways". It was obviously originally a TV cartoon show, about a group of time-travelling adventurers from Carthage. The movie version was three half-hour episodes crammed awkwardly together, but if you consider it a sampler of the show rather than a 90 minute narrative film, it's okay. Actually, the show looks pretty good, although much heavier on history than would appeal to American kids. But that's not a bad thing. Most Americans wouldn't get a reference to the library of Alexandria, but I really, really wish they would. And of course shows like this could change that.

Then the next technical glitch was that they couldn't get the short "The Magic Crop" to play, so they replaced it with "Kemo Sabe", the story of an Arab-American kid who really wants to play on the cowboy side in the game of cowboys and Indians (of course, all the ethnic kids are the Indians). It's a touching story with no easy happy ending.

And then the third program of the night, featuring the first ever Lebanese vampire movie. But first the excellent short, "Garbage". It's a story of sexual obsession and frustration, as the hero steals the neighbor woman's garbage and uses it to learn all about her, having a surrogate relationship with her. And for those who think Arabs culture is all conservative, this movie has a man humping a bag of garbage. There's something I haven't seen in an American movie.

Then finally the movie I was most eager to see, "The Last Man" is billed as the first Lebanese vampire movie, and is a very strange vampire movie at that. It opens with a shot of waves crashing against a sea wall shot in a manner that makes Beirut look really Gothic. In fact, the camera work throughout the movie does an excellent job of portraying the city as a mysterious, foreboding force. It then launches into a fragmented, non-linear story of a murderous monster killing people and sucking their blood. Mild-mannered doctor and scuba enthusiast Khalil Shams (Carlos Chahine) is afraid he might be the vampire, as his eyes become increasingly sensitive to sunlight. The movie jumps around in time and place, with no scene flowing directly into the next. The overall effect is jarring and surreal, and over time the visual echoes give a sense of history continuously repeating itself. I can appreciate the movie for these elements, but I fear I'm missing the key knowledge needed--an understanding of what it's like to live in Beirut. I feel this is very much a Beirut film, about Beirut and for residents of Beirut. And as much as I liked this movie, it certainly doesn't make Beirut look inviting enough for me to spend time there to understand the movie better.

And that was my day at the Arab Film Festival.

Jason goes to the Arab Film Festival--Opening Night

This is my second year of going to the Arab Film Festival (formerly Cinemayaat), and the opening night movie was "Making Of". A Tunisian film about a suicide bomber. I'm actually somewhat grateful that I didn't write about this movie right away (opening night was last Thursday, 3 days ago), because a little time has given me more perspective on it. My initial reaction was that if it weren't for a particular conceit this movie uses, it would be a well-made but fairly standard troubled-youth-becomes-suicide-bomber movie. Now that I've told that to a few people, I have to stop myself and marvel at how jaded I am that I believes there's a standard formulaic suicide bomber movie. But as to that conceit--occasionally Bahta, the main character, breaks character and becomes lead actor Lofti Abdelli. He launches into arguments with director Nouri Bouzid, and multiple times threatens to quit the movie. What you have to realize is these scenes aren't staged, they're completely real. He didn't even know Nouri Bouzid decided to put them in the movie until he saw it himself. In this way the movie contains a debate about itself, which is pretty cool. It also gives the title a double meaning--the making of a terrorist and the making of the movie. But this is why I'm glad I waited to do this review--at first I was ambivalent as to whether the breaking the 4th wall scenes really enhanced the movie, or just apologized for the movie (or inoculated itself against the same criticisms Lofti makes). But after a few days, I'm convinced they work and enhance the movie.

Oh yeah, and I was struck by how much sexual frustration led to him becoming a suicide bomber. To the point where when he first tries on his dynamite vest he grabs a handful of dynamite and shoves it down his pants, so he has a half-dozen big red explosive cocks sticking out. Perhaps I'm completely missing the point, but that's comedy!

And the star Lofti Abdelli was there for the screening (after having some trouble at the airport--surprise!) Here he was at the Q&A, where he was charming and hilarious:

Then I meant to go to the after party, but the bus was late (had to go from the Clay theater to Medjool in the Mission District, a little far to walk). So after waiting over 30 minutes, I walked down to Geary, met a bunch of drunkards leaving a Jimmy Buffet concert at the Filmore, and took the bus down to the BART station and then home. Sorry I missed the after party, last year they had great food.

And that's the beginning of the Arab film festival this year. I went and saw 3 more shows Saturday. But I don't have time to write about that now, I gotta head off to the San Jose Jewish Film Festival now.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Jason goes to the San Jose Jewish Film Festival and sees "Brother's Shadow"

This is the movie that Judd Hirsch was in town for last Sunday. I've finally seen it, and it's good. Scott Cohen stars as Jake Groden, and opens the movie harvesting salmon eggs in Alaska. When he's canned for drinking and tossing the fish eggs back into the ocean, we learn that he's an ex-con out on parole. Further, we learn that his parole is being transferred back to New York, sponsored by his brother Mike (twin brother, we learn quickly). He gets there just in time to be rebuffed by his father (Judd Hirsch) and then walk in on the family gathering for his brother's funeral. Oops. Well, he has nowhere else to turn and what he's really good at is making furniture, so he (over some objections) takes over the family furniture business. He's really an artist with amazing furniture designs (his table supported by just one end is amazing). Problem is, nobody wants a Jake Groden piece, they want a Mike Groden piece, even though they're machine made and not very innovative. He just doesn't have the name...but he does have the face, and customers who don't know that Mike is dead. Well...you can see where that will go. But instead of falling into a slapstick mistaken-identity comedy, it remains a solid drama about staying true to your own identity and the pitfalls of being someone else. Particularly when he tries to live Mike's life, with Mike's wife (with whom he has a history) and Mike's son (who thinks he's cool until he turns into Mike). Anyway, great acting, great script, interesting ideas. All around a great movie.

Here's director Todd Yellin (San Jose native) at the Q&A afterwards (and he was a pretty interesting guy, too):

Jason watches "The Kingdom"

Or as I like to call it, "Cowboys and Arabians". It's just sad how a movie that I assume had some serious ambition fell back on cliches of heroic Americans and evil Arabs. I mean, even the "good" Arabs are either stupid, corrupt, or violent...or they get killed. Whatever. There's more insight in the opening credits--a promising 1-minute history of modern Saudi Arabia--than there is in the rest of the movie. I have nothing more to say. I hope this final movie was the result of studio interference forcing them to water down their message, because it feels like director Peter Berg had something more intelligent in mind. But even if that's the case, I don't think it can be saved with a director's cut. The smarter version of this movie is a completely different movie.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Jason watches "Into the Wild"

And while walking to the theater, I ran into Cinequest icon Chris Garcia, who informed me that I am "The Man!" I'm sure there's a story behind that, but he had to leave without telling me. Anyway, I'm the man and I don't know why (there are so many possibilities!)

Anyway, this review will by necessity contain minor spoilers, but in the next paragraph. And I assume not much that's not in the John Krakauer book. Anyway, in a nutshell this movie is excellent and deserves the praise it's getting. Particularly the acting of Emile Hirsch as the main character Chris McCandless (aka Alex Supertramp), who wandered into the Alaskan wilderness and starved to death in 1992. The cinematography was also excellent, both the scenery provided by nature and how Sean Penn uses it (and how he uses Hirsch's physicality). Also, Jena Malone was excellent as his sister--the voice of someone who felt most deeply betrayed by his disappearance.

However, since I saw the documentary "Call of the Wild", also about Chris McCandless (and with footage of Sean Penn shooting his movie) I am burdened with extra knowledge, and you will be too if you keep reading this. When I see him poisoned by the wrong wild potatoes, I'm burdened with the knowledge that the biologist form UAF who preliminarily called it plausible has since proven there were no toxins--he simply starved to death. When I see Chris rail against money, I'm burdened with the knowledge that he had $300 in his wallet when he died. When I see him struggle without ID, I'm burdened by knowing that same wallet contained 8 forms of ID. When I see him finally write his real name--not Alex Supertramp--in his final goodbye note, I'm burdened with the knowledge that the AK state troopers struggled for two weeks to identify him, finally sending for dental records from his parents (don't ask how they missed the wallet hidden in a secret pocket in his backpack. For that matter, don't ask how they missed the backpack). To his credit, Penn steers clear of the purposeful suicide interpretation, insisting that Chris always attempted to come back later in the summer and rejoin civilization.

When I get over the "that isn't how it happened" aspect, the lasting effect is still a great movie, and one that makes a specific moral and philosophical point. But it also makes Penn's Chris McCandless a very different person from Ron Lamothe's Chris McCandless. Penn's is a bright, strong kid with too much idealism about nature and solitude, who finds out too late that happiness is only worthwhile if you have someone to share it with. Lamothe's is much more ambiguous, a character who maybe wasn't so idealistic as just adventurous. Someone who didn't want to leave society as much as test himself. And more importantly, maybe someone who didn't really shun his Chris McCandless identity as much as he just liked being Alex Supertramp.

Anyway, I'll just say these are both great movies, but they work better if you watch them in the right order--"Into the Wild" first, and "Call of the Wild" second. I won't say it's unfortunate that I saw them in the wrong order, because I still enjoyed them both. but I'll acknowledge that there is a right order.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Jason goes to the San Jose Jewish Film Festival and sees Judd Hirsch

And apparently I'm old or something, because I'm impressed by that. So many of my younger friends don't even know who he is. Well, dammit, he's a fine actor (both dramatic and comedic), a very entertaining human being, and he's a freakin' physicist! At least, he has a degree in physics from CCNY. More people should be fans of his. I'd be depressed, but I had too much fun there.

So he was in town to present his new film, "Brother's Shadow" by local San Jose director Todd S. Yellin. However, yesterday's screening was sold out, so I'll see the second showing next Wednesday. That ticket came free with my ticket to the champagne reception with Mr. Hirsch at the fancy Fairmont Hotel. We all got to hang out, drink champagne, eat hors d'oeuvres, and chat with Judd Hirsch, Todd Yellin, and our fellow film fans. Then SF Film Critic Jan Wahl interviewed him. Here's a little sneaky pic from the front row:

Mr. Hirsch was a very funny interview, especially talking about his parents and digressing into "Independence Day" (he claimed it's the silliest movie he's ever done). Then a little more champagne. I shook his hand and told him I'm a physicist, too. And then it wrapped up and I left for home. It was cool.

The festival begins in earnest for me Wednesday. It's an oddly scheduled festival, playing only Wednesday evenings and Sunday all day for a month.
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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Jason slips into the Vortex and sees "Queen of Blood"

So the good people behind Dead Channels and Cosmic Hex also run The Vortex Room, and they're hosting a series of screenings all month leading up to Halloween. Doors at 9, movies at 10, sliding scale $5-10.

So last night I went to the first screening, the laughably god-awful 60's sci-fi craptacular, "Queen of Blood". Released in 1966 (but re-using the special effects scenes from a 1960 Russian film), it tells of the terrifying future of 1990 (to their credit, they totally nailed the cafeteria trays we'd use in the future--eerie!), when an alien vampire queen attacks and Basil Rathbone, John Saxon, and a really, really young Dennis Hopper have to save the world. It takes waaay too long for the Queen of Blood to actually do anything, and by that time I was waaaay to drunk to care.

In other words, I had a blast! Next week is James Brolin in "The Car", can't wait!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Jason goes to the closing night of Docfest

And I saw just about the craziest fucking thing ever! I swear, I still don't really believe this wasn't a mockumentary, because this can't actually be real. It was called "Audience of One".

Richard Gazowsky, the pastor of the Voice of Pentecost Church in San Francisco, hadn't ever seen a movie until he was 40 (although it's not revealed in this movie, I have the inside scoop that the movie that popped his cinema-cherry was "The Lion King"). Later he received a message from God, calling him to a very special mission. That mission is to make the greatest movie ever: "Gravity", an epic sci-fi adaptation of the story of Joseph and the coat of many colors. So he forms a film company, Christian WYSIWYG Studios. He knows nothing about making a movie, but knows he wants to make "the Rolls Royce" of movies--quality all the way, no expense spared. So instead of getting a good digital video camera, he insists on shooting in 65 mm (just for reference, nobody has actually successfully shot an entire feature in 65 mm since Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet" in 1996. Terrence Mallick did shoot most of "The New World" in 65 mm back in 2005). Given that he has no one who actually knows how to load the film, you can tell he's pretty doomed. Still, the early production concept art looks pretty cool, and it's just audacious enough that I'm hoping he succeeds and I'll get to see "Gravity" someday. I totally start out hoping this is an inspirational movie of a naive dreamer who succeeds through sheer determination and a bit of divine help. And when they go to Italy to start shooting, I'm actually optimistic. He's got some backing and although his wife and daughter are doing the costumes and are way behind, he's got a cast (volunteers from the church), Italian extras, a crew, a crane, a dolly track. This looks like a film. Sure, the film jams for every shot they attempt in Italy, and they go back kind of licking their wounds. But they rent studio space on Treasure Island and get right back to work. Or sit around and just get paranoid about security at the studio (he's convinced a spy from Warner Bros. broke in there). San Francisco sues them for non-payment, their investors never come through with cash (at one point he's insisted Deutsche Bank said they'll put $50 million into it), and it looks like the dream is over. But despite having completed exactly 2 shots in 2 years, he's still pursuing his mission. And I won't give too much away, but the closing sermon with his 8 point "arrows that smite the ground" (or something like that) plan to turn everything around really drives home how over the top he's gone. Just a little teaser, the first point is "We'll produce 47 feature films a year" and it gets crazier from there.

Here's a pic of "Audience of One" director
Michael Jacobs:

So then it was all over but a few hours of drinking and hanging out at the bar next door with Docfesters, fellow fans, and filmmakers. And now it's all over but the memories.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 12

Aka, the penultimate night. And for those paying attention, that's right I didn't go to Docfest day 11. I'd already seen the movies playing Monday so I stayed home, wrote up some of my reviews, and got a good night's sleep.

First up was the music doc program, starting with "A Skin Too Few" about British cult musician Nick Drake. This movie uses his music, interviews of family and colleagues, and long, lyrical shots of the English countryside to tell the story of his short, depressed life. Honestly, I didn't know anything about him beforehand, and to some extent he comes off as a spoiled, sensitive kid who OD'ed on his antidepressant medication (officially ruled a suicide, though some of the interviewees question that interpretation). I can't say that the movie made me any more interested in him or his music, but I do think it was well done and I especially was impressed with the cinematography.

This played with the concert film, "Building a Broken Mousetrap". The EX is a band from Holland who make unusual noises on their instruments--drumming on the double bass that's part of their act, or playing the guitar with a nail or a transistor radio. I'm sure there's an interesting story to be told about them, but this is just a concert film with no such perspective. It's interesting how they make their unusual sounds, but as a result they're purposefully unmusical and at a full hour it was more than could keep my interest.

So next I went next door to the Little Roxie for a short and a feature of extreme behavior (at least, that's what I came up with to link them). "Day of Fire" is about the sugar fields of Florida, where the large sugar companies burn the fields as part of the harvest process, to scare all the wildlife out. Locals (most of whom are impoverished), take the opportunity to hunt the fleeing animals. Specifically, they hunt bunny rabbits with sticks. This could be an interesting look at the harsh circle of life and what people do to survive and our primitive hunting nature. Instead there was just way too much of thumping bunnies with sticks and squeezing their guts out. It made me sad, then just queasy. I can take it once, but I don't need to see it a dozen times. Come to think of it, slaughtering animals is a bit of a theme in the festival. At least, I can think of this, "Off the Grid" and "Living Goddess" as featuring graphic animal slaughter scenes.

Then a hilarious but kind of confusing feature, "Cowboys and Communists". In an apartment block in East Berlin, the bottom floor had been a restaurant but was then empty for a while. Then Wally Potts, a chef and artist from LA rented it, opened White Trash Fast Food and served cheap food and drinks from 9 pm to 6 am. This obviously upset Horst, an old East German man who has lived upstairs for decades. So a war started, with Horst trying to get them to either move out or at least keep the freakin' noise down. The director Jessica Feast was actually a waitress at White Trash, but gained close access to Horst and his neighbors (and obviously had access to the crowd at White Trash). The interesting thing is how your loyalties shift throughout the movie. It seems easy to sympathize with Horst, but occasionally he'll say some rather bizarre pro-communism things that just made me shake my head, like his defense of the Stasi as a "necessary evil". Then the White Trash people will actually make articulate statements that frame it as a legitimate fight for freedom against oppression (it's particularly interesting how many Americans feel freer in Berlin than in America). But then you realize their actually arrogant jerks who don't give a fuck about anyone else, and all sympathy disappears (dude, pissing on the columns of the building is not fuckin' cool!) But the really confusing thing is why would they let this stay in an apartment building? It seems like a great place, but it should be in it's own non-residential building. There's an easy solution! And, sorry for the spoiler, but after the movie that's exactly what they did. I'm just confused why no one in the movie talked about that as a possibility. Anyway, the place still exists, in a new location, but according to their website the hours have changed to midnight-noon.

And the third show of the night was "A Walk Into The Sea: The Danny Williams story". Danny Williams was a Harvard grad and award-winning film editor when he joined Andy Warhol's factory, becoming the main lighting man and Andy's lover. Then he disappeared. His car was found by a rocky New England beach, and speculation is he walked into the sea--perhaps to commit suicide, perhaps just a refreshing midnight swim, and was washed away. There are problems with that theory (there's a >90% recovery rate for bodies at that beach, it doesn't wash bodies away), but no one has a better idea. Danny's niece Esther Robinson made this movie as an homage to him, interviewing various people who were at The Factory at that time. She also makes use of the few films Danny Williams shot at the factory (including some fascinating footage of Warhol) which were all in black and white and made an interesting use of editing and shadows. Pretty interesting.

And that was almost all of Docfest. Just one more to go.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 10

Aka, the kinda stupid and incredibly exhausting 14 movies straight with no sleep--part 3!

First, I'd just like to say that I absolutely advise against doing this. If you ever want to see 14 movies in one day--do it at a theater or theaters that is/are within walking/public transit of you. Do not drive after being awake for 28 straight hours and having seen 10 movies. Do what I say, not what I do, I'm an idiot!

So I got back to the Roxie in time to order 2 cups of coffee, a bag of popcorn (gotta settle the stomach) and sit back and watch "Ghosts and Numbers". In Thailand, recent financial collapse has created a paradoxical boom in the lottery. People don't just play the lottery, they invest in it. There are ticket resellers who buy lucky tickets and resell them. People consult mediums to get advice from dead relatives on what numbers to play. This film takes a dreamy wander through the streets of Bangkok looking at lottery resellers, lottery players, and TV show hosts who interview people about the lottery, and of course the anti-imperial chicken. It's all narrated by a voice that might just be a ghost herself. The movie sets you up for a pretty odd experience by rating its reality to fiction ratio at (as best I can remember) 8/3 and its cultural accuracy at 74.89%. I now think every documentary should come with those numbers. Here's a pic of director Alan Klima with Docfest programmer Fay Dearborn:

After that, we stayed in Asia, moving from Thailand to Nepal for "Living Goddess", a look at the lives of a young girl who is worshipped as a living goddess--at least until she hits puberty. There are a number of living goddesses in Nepal, and kings traditionally use them to shore up the legitimacy of their rule. This starts as a promising and fascinating look at the system. A little girl who plays with Barbie and blesses her worshippers, set against the background of pro-democracy riots. It's a fascinating 45 minute movie. Unfortunately, it's 90 minutes long. Eventually it just runs out of things to say, and just repeats itself. The juxtaposition of the riots outside with the serenity of the temple is fascinating, but I don't need to see it a hundred times. I don't really need to see a sacrificial goat beheaded at all, but I understand why it's there. But if you show me one goat beheaded, I'll believe you when you say 108 goats were sacrificed. You don't need to show me all of them (okay, it was only about 10 or so, but still that was literally overkill).

At this point I'd like to thank my front-row friend and fellow everything-watcher Maria for confirming that all that repetition was in fact real and not just a sleep-deprived hallucination that got stuck on repeat.

At this point I was pretty loopy, but I made it next door to the little Roxie for a short and a feature. The short was "Ride of the Mergansers", which I saw at the SFIFF. Still adorable!

Then the feature, "Eat at Bills". I was really afraid of this, I had doubts that a feature film about an organic grocery store could keep me awake in my sleep deprived state. Happily, I was wrong. I had no idea how fascinating organic groceries could be, and it's all from the charisma of Bill Fujimoto, the owner of Monterey Market in Berkeley, CA. Bill has long been a proponent of of organic (and delicious) fruits and vegetables, inspiring chefs at local restaurants (including Chez Panisse, which really has the reputation for promoting organic foods. Their head chef credits Bill in the movie). Interviews with Bill and his employees amid the chaos of the market, chefs who shop there, and farmers who wouldn't survive (or wouldn't have gotten a start) without him, paint a lively story of a Berkeley institution. And since it's October and it would be in season, I wanna go climb the mountain of pumpkins there.

And finally, "Hell on Wheels" had the unenviable task of keeping me away after 37 consecutive hours and 13 movies. And this story of the creation of an all-girl Roller Derby league in Austin, TX (theme notice!) had no problem doing that. It's equal parts smashmouth girl (on skates)-on-girl action and backroom politics, as the skaters revolt against what they see as incompetent/uncaring management mistakes (in their defense, the managers are skater or ex-skater "She-EO's" who really have more passion than necessary business acumen). The bonfire showdown alone is (depending on your perspective) either high drama or high theatre. In any case, everyone involved wants all girl Roller Derby to survive somehow, and I'm happy to give the minor spoiler that there are now two viable Roller Derby leagues in Austin (one on a banked track, one skater-owned on a flat track), as well as numerous leagues around the country, including the local BAD (Bay Area Derby) Girls. Many of them were in attendance, and I just have to give a quick thank you to them. Movies are more fun with an enthusiastic audience, and their presence alone made this movie better. I'll look to catch one of their upcoming meets soon. I missed their meet in San Jose last Friday because I was at the movies, of course. Here's a pic of director Bob Ray and producer Werner Campbell:

I ordinarily would've stayed for a beer and to chat with the filmmakers, but I was understandably exhausted. By some miracle I managed to not fall asleep on the BART and I made it home safely. Then about 5 hours of sleep and I was back awake at 6 am and heading to work.

And that's Docfest last Sunday. And that's the end of my kinda stupid and incredibly exhausting 14 movies straight with no sleep. And that's also the end of my 10 feature-length movie programs in one day--both new personal records!

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Jason goes to the Santa Cruz Secret Film Festival

Aka, the kinda stupid and incredibly exhausting 14 movies straight with no sleep--part 2!

So the fabulous Del Mar theater in Santa Cruz has done an amazing event for the past three years--a movie marathon of secret never-shown-in-Santa Cruz (but possibly in SF and elsewhere in the bay area) movies. I missed the first year, but last year was awesome. This year they've added a sixth movie so it's midnight to noon. Here was the rundown:

First up was "Lars and the Real Girl", starring Ryan Gosling, who after "Half Nelson" is one of the most interesting young actors around today. Here he plays the title role (Lars, not the real girl) a sweet natured but shy young man in a small Canadian town. He lives in the converted garage of his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer), and only comes out for work (where co-worker Margo, played by Kelli Garner, has an obvious crush on him) or church (where Margo can't keep her eyes off him from the choir). One day at work a co-worker shows him the Real Doll website (NSFW). So he orders one, but when it arrives things get weird. He doesn't have sex with it, he tells his Gus and Karin that he has a visitor from out of town whom he met on the Internet. They're both very religious and so could she sleep in the house instead of the garage? When they meet "Bianca", they're a bit taken aback. But they convince Lars to take "her" to the hospital to get a checkup. The doctor (Patricia Clarkson) sees nothing wrong with Bianca except maybe low blood pressure, and she should come over for medicine every few days. While she's there, resting for an hour after she takes her medicine, Lars and the doctor should talk. In the meantime, the doctor advises everyone else to play along, because this is how Lars is dealing with his issues (later we learn that human touch is psychosomatically painful to him, and it has something to do with his mom dying giving birth to him and his father being distant at best as a result). The doctor's advice might well be given to the audience, because as Bianca becomes a pillar of the society--volunteering at the hospital, joining clubs, etc., if you don't go along with this main premise then the characters will just seem painfully dumb. But if you go along with it, there's real humor, romance, and pathos. Very sweet, and a little sad.

Next up was a short and a feature. The feature was Wes Anderson's new brothers-finding-themselves rail movie, "The Darjeeling Limited", and the short was a prequel to it, "Hotel Chevalier", which is apparently available online and feature Natalie Portman naked (that oughta boost the hits on this blog! For the record, nice ass, nice side-boob, but needs a sammich. I only want to see that many ribs if their on my plate slathered in BBQ sauce). The shorts a simple little story of a man (Jason Schwartzman) living in a hotel in Paris. His ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman) tracks him down and spends one day with him, having sex with him no matter how cruel he is to her. It's a fine example of Wes Anderson's scene-crafting ability, and exemplifies exactly what I love about "The Darjeeling Limited". Namely, I love that this wasn't in the feature film. Wes Anderson has always had a talent for crafting scenes, but I've always thought his films meander with too many excellent stand-alone scenes that don't really move anything forward--they're just there to spend a few more minutes with the characters. Before "The Darjeeling Limited", I though "Rushmore" came the closest to actually telling a story without a lot of unneeded scenes. Fans of "The Royal Tenenbaums" or "The LIfe Aquatic with Steve Zissou" might find "The Darjeeling Limited" light, but I liked the fact that every scene moves the movie forward and there's nothing that doesn't need to be there. You should see "Hotel Chevalier" before "The Darjeeling Limited", because you'll notice a handful of inside jokes that wouldn't mean anything (but also wouldn't distract) without it. It also makes Portman's half-second of screen time meaningful. Anyway, I loved this movie and I think it marks the change of Wes Anderson from an undisciplined wunderkind to an accomplished filmmaker. Oh, and setting it in India makes the recurring Kumar Pallana cameos pretty seemless--he's just a guy on a train. Oh, and I guess I should say something about the plot. Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, and Owen Wilson are brothers who haven't spoken since their father's funeral. Owen Wilson convinces them to go on this trip to "find themselves" and reconnect. But he has an ulterior motive--finding the mother who abandoned them.

Oh yeah, and this was my 365th movie of the year. No matter what else happens, I've officially averaged over one movie a day for the year.

Next up was "The Signal", which I had already seen at the SF International Film Festival (scroll to the bottom, it was the late movie). I'll pretty much stand by my review, but add that somehow I was more awake for this screening and got more out of it (thanks a lot, free Stella Artois!) Specifically, I really keyed in on the fact that although everyone is going crazy and killing each other, each person thinks himself sane. If everyone else has gone crazy and is likely to kill you, it's sane to kill them first. Very interesting.

And then the west coast premiere of Richard Kelly's eagerly awaited "Southland Tales" (as in, it was supposed to be released a year ago, but tanked at Cannes and the distributor didn't know what to do with it). It's coming out on November 7th, and I'm predicting it will tank here. It's a bloated, mess, but a hilarious mess. I don't know if I can judge it until I've read the graphic novels (oh yeah, they had a raffle at the end but no one would take the "Southland Tales" merchandise, so I got the graphic novels and a poster for free), seen the movie a few more times, and watched Richard Kelly's next five movies to see how it fits into his obsessions. It's a frantic mish-mash of nonsensical intersecting stories taking place over 3 apocalyptic days around Los Angeles. It's 2008, and the terrorist nuking of Texas two years ago has created a Republican majority and an expansion of the Patriot Act. The election will come down to California, where the Republicans are counting on the popularity of action star and presidential candidate's son-in-law Boxer Santoros (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson). Problem is, he's missing. Or he's shacking up with ex porn-star turned talk show pundit and recording artist Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Ummm...Justin Timberlake watches over everything from a gun turret mounted on the Santa Monica Pier (and facing the city, not the sea). Sean William Scott is twins, one of whom is a cop and one of whom is with the opposition--the neo-Marxists. There's sci-fi, political blather (although there's not really a political point beyond 'everyone is selfish and stupid on both sides'), time travel, super powers, inside jokes, etc. Basically it's 2.5 hours of Richard Kelly masturbating in your face. I just haven't decided yet if that's a bad thing. Probably it is, but I see this movie's one hope as being rediscovered as a "lost cult classic" 20 years from now, provided Richard Kelly has made movies more often than every 5 years, and provided some of them are more approachable and he becomes a cult director with a David Cronenberg/David Lynch type oeuvre. At that point, someone will look back at "Southland Tales" and say "I get it now!" For now, I'll just hope this colossal mess doesn't doom the chance of that happening. I am still eagerly anticipating "The Box".

Next up was "Fido", which I've seen twice. It's still awesome!

And finally, the bonus never-done-before sixth movie was a Hong Kong action flick, "Exiled" by Johnny To. I have to confess, I dozed off a bit at the start, so I didn't quite follow the setup, but I'm pretty sure this will end up in my DVD collection. It takes place on Macau where there are rival gangs shooting at each other (and a completely ineffectual cop who drops by for comic relief). There's a lot of impressive gunfights and blood spray. There's a character who has tried to get out of crime and lives with his wife and baby, and there are hit men sent to take him out, and others who try to stop them. It ends with a robbery of a ton of gold (although none of the gangsters know how much a ton is), and a final showdown with the wife and baby. Pretty good, but I was pretty freakin' tired.

Of course, that didn't stop me, as I drove back up to Fremont, fighting exhaustion, hallucinations, nausea, and traffic to make it to the BART in time to get back to Docfest. But that's a story for another post.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. I noticed three of the movies ("Lars and the Real Girl", "The Darjeeling Limited", and "Fido") featured parent figures who were either absent (or dead) or unreliable. I wonder if Scott, who chose the movies for this and midnight movies at the Del Mar, has some sort of mommy and/or daddy issues.

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 9

Aka, the kinda stupid and incredibly exhausting 14 movies straight with no sleep--part 1.

Let's jump right in. First off I saw a short and feature about people living in makeshift communities far from civilization. This isn't even small town, it's no town. First up was "The Legend of Rosalie", a loving tribute to the hard partying, beautiful soul who built a library in her trailer, brightened everyone's life, and then sadly died of breast cancer. But even up to the end, she wasn't sad about dying, she was sad that her post-mastectomy boob job was so botched--all lumpy and irregular. It would've been better in her mind to have no tits.

And then the feature, "Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa", an in-depth look at the eccentric characters who've chosen to live in the middle of the desert so that they can be free. If there's an economy at all there, it's selling pot. But mostly they hunt and farm what they can, and scrape by as best they can. It's a refuge for old hippies, ex-soldiers who've become disillusioned with the society that's willingly given up the freedom they fought for, and of course teenage runaways. One runaway in particular--a young girl who stays on the Mesa for a while (with a kindly old farmer who takes in all kinds of strays--human or animal)...then leaves...then dates a 35 year old guy in town...then gets hooked on crack...then gets pregnant, would be particularly tragic if she weren't so stupid and annoying. But the real drama comes in the form of a series of robberies committed by a gang of teenage runaways living nearby (but who declined to be on camera). Several of the ex-soldier types want to hunt them down and shoot them, cuz that's the law out here and they were stealing from the mouths of babies. As one resident says, "We don't dial 911, we dial .357!" Without giving anything away, the situation is resolved. At times it's a chilling look at the fringes of society, but ultimately I see it as a society with about as much freedom as you can have without an anarchic implosion. In many ways, it reminds me of Burning Man back when guns were allowed (or shortly after they were banned), when people really came for the freedom instead of the braindead hippie bullshit rally it's become.

Speaking of hippies, the next program was a short and feature about developmentally disabled individuals. "Cross Your Eyes Keep Them Wide" is about Creativity Explored, a San Francisco arts institute for the disabled. The artists describe their work and their methods in their own words, and as someone who probably knows less about art than they do, it's pretty interesting.

And then the feature, practically a home movie called "Extraordinary Measures". The Sutton family had 5 healthy, active sons (and some sort of thing about names that start with T) when their 6th, Thad was born. Thad was born with a deformity--a large portion of his skull was missing, and his brain grew in a giant bulb of skin and hair on the outside. His prognosis was not good--he was supposed to be dead in a week. But the family sent him to a hospital in San Antonio (satisfying the Texas theme of the festival), where his conditioned stabilized until they could take him home. They were warned that deformed babies often tear families apart--they require so much work and attention that the other children get jealous. But just the opposite happened. The family of wild boys who were running in all directions suddenly came together and all rallied around their disabled but loving and lovable baby brother. The parents were told they shouldn't have more children, since once you have a disabled child the chance of a subsequent one being disabled skyrockets (particularly for this specific defect). They went ahead and had 2 girls (finally) and twin boys. Then they stopped at 10. Growing up, they always took lots of home video (if I remember correctly, in the Q&A they said that their grandfather was actually the first guy in the neighborhood to own a home movie camera). Now 30 years later (and Thad is still alive), Travis (on of the twins) edits the home movies together and brings them all back together for interviews to make a movie about their extraordinary family. Just what he had already would've been a remarkable movie, but as he's putting it together they get a new tragedy--their father has a heart attack and is without oxygen for several minutes, resulting in some amount of brain damage. It's heart-wrenching, but in a way Thad has already taught them how to deal with this. For the record, although it's not in the film, their dad is fine now. A truly remarkable film. A couple of the Sutton boys came to present the film and do a short Q&A. I know the one on stage right (their left) is Travis, the director, and I believe the guy on the right is Todd, but I couldn't keep all the T names straight:

So then we moved from extraordinary measures to extraordinary accomplishments with "New Urban Cowboy". Michael E. Arth (that's his real given name, it's not a pun on "earth") is a writer, an artist, an architect, and a city designer. His passion is "new pedestrianism"--designing cities that encourage walking and discourage driving cars, creating a friendlier "town square" atmosphere. He was living in Santa Barbara and renting out mansions to celebrities (including Keanu Reeves) when a financial crisis forced him to move out to Florida (that's right, passing through Texas. In fact, I seem to remember he lived in Texas at one point. Or maybe I've started hallucinating Texas into every film). There he bought some nearly condemned buildings in the part of DeLand known as "Cracktown". Nothing but drug dealers and prostitutes there, the cops advised him to get a gun. So, in his words, he got a nail gun, a brad nail gun, and a staple gun--and set straight to work cleaning up the neighborhood and building his new pedestrian ideal city. The area is now known at the 'Historic Garden District', and is the jewel of DeLand. I have nothing more to say, his accomplishment is nothing sort of a miracle. He did it with hard work, courage, and a lot of luck (he likes to tell one story where he was going to confront some crack dealers who were hassling him. As he was walking up with no idea what to say, lightning struck right next to them and they all ran away without a word). Here's a picture of Micheal Arth (who's also credited as co-director) and co-director (and SF native) Blake Wiers:

And here they are again, taking a picture of the audience (I wonder if they got me with my cell phone camera in that shot?)

And my last film of the day was the "Manufacturing Dissent", about the movies, politics, and questionable practices of Michael Moore. The filmmakers Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine are actually fans of Michael's movies and his politics (Debbie's even Canadian), and so they set out to make a movie about him and the controversies surrounding the release of "Fahrenheit 9/11" and his 2004 Slacker Uprising Tour. But along the way, they started hearing some pretty disturbing things about Moore--about how he fabricates stories, treats his employees poorly, denies things he provably said on tape, etc. I've already given my opinion of Moore in my review of "Sicko"--great filmmaker, lousy propagandist (yeah, you got that right, it's the opposite of what most of his critics say). Well, this is a really good film that pretty much uncovers just that. People acknowledge that he's successful as a commercially successful, critically acclaimed, and highly influential filmmaker. But just about every issue he takes on becomes about him, and that's to the detriment of his arguments. To their credit, the filmmakers find friends of Michael who do say some very nice things about him (even a former employee who thought he was a great boss). I'll just say, I thought it was a great film and I'd highly recommend it. But the Q&A afterwards just left me shaking my head. So many people asking why they didn't attack Ralph Nader (my answer: that would be a different film, possibly called "An Unreasonable Man", but I haven't actually seen it). Why didn't they attack George W. Bush as the real divisive character? (answer: that's a different movie, called "Fahrenheit 9/11"). And many people attacking them for not including all the supporting data they had for the claims (two parts they pointed out: first, it wasn't their claims, it was the people they interviewed. Second, that would be a 4+ hour movie and not even Michael Moore wants to watch more than 4 hours about Michael Moore). At one point when someone said how important it was for Moore to be out there creating honest debate Rick actually looked at me in the front row and mouthed "honest debate?" I just had to shrug and shake my head. Anyway, here's a pic of Rick and the faint image of Debbie nearly lost in the shadows:

And that was my Saturday at Docfest, but not nearly the end of my movie marathon.
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Saturday, October 6, 2007

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 8

Two movies tonight, and the next time I'll have time to write, I'll have seen another 14, or I'll have failed miserably.

First up was possibly the best movie of the festival. Maybe the best, but not my favorite, as it deals with the extremely unpleasant subject of torture. "Taxi to the Dark Side" uses the story of Dilawar--an innocent Afghan taxi driver who was picked up by militia and turned over to American forces at Bagram prison--as a jumping off point to deconstruct the entire US policy on torture. Dilawar was tortured (they thought he was the getaway driver in a rocket attack) and died of his injuries just 5 days after entering Bagram. The movie interviews the dishonorably discharged soldiers who beat him, all of whom come off as contrite and disappointed in the leadership who gave them either unclear or illegal rules for torture (a point of view the movie adopts). It also follows the torture issues from Bagram to Abu Ghraib to Gitmo, and really takes the administration to task for it, cleverly together statements from Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfield that contradict either other statements or the plain facts on the screen. Director Alex Gibney ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room") and his team have put together another wonderful documentary, which untangles all the bits and half-truths and spin that the mainstream media give us. It's kind of a no-brainer to be "against torture", but this movie gets to the heart of what's really done (in our names), the rationale/rationalizing behind it, and the true ineffectiveness of it all. Most pointed moment in the movie, when a British national is released after years in Gitmo, the soldiers releasing him even admit, "If you weren't a terrorist before, you'll certainly have reason to be one now." Again, there's a lot of graphic, unpleasant footage, and it's a hard film to watch, but possibly the best film of the festival (so far).

After that I was ready for a good light-hearted movie--like an illegal pirated look at the Cuban sex trade. But first a couple of shorts, also about the sex trade. "Amazon Highway" is a humorous look at a female body builder (but not the grossly over-muscled type--she still has boobs) who travels around and wrestles men in her hotel room for money. As far as the movie shows, no sex takes place, although the men get off on it somehow. Oh yeah, and she's from Texas, so it fits the festival theme. Then there was "Overdue Conversation", where two gay friends/lovers, one of whom is a hustler, film each other having a conversation. Each one talks while filming the other, and the movie presents the conversation in split-screen (which is cool movie-wise, because you can see who has trouble keeping the camera steady, and what they're saying at the time). Anyway, not to give anything away, but the overdue conversation is about AIDS.

And finally the look at the Cuban sex trade in "Luchando". The word traditionally means "struggle" and was originally applied to the Cuban revolution, but these hustlers and prostitutes have co-opted it for themselves. There are moments of humor, pathos, and drama. This movie was shot in secret cinema-verite guerrilla-style, and it has the potential to be a close, intimate look at these people's lives and their predicament. However, there seemed to be almost no editing, and nothing to tie it together as a story. Adding a narrator or just a few words on screen to explain what's going on would make this movie a hundred times better. As it was, the brief where-are-they-now text at the end tells more of a story than the rest of the movie.

And that's Friday at Docfest.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 7

And this time I made it leisurely in plenty of time. Of course, the fact that I was only seeing one movie, and it was the 9:15 show, had something to do with it.

The movie was "Free Spirits", a first hand account of the Brotherhood of the Spirit, one of the most successful and most controversial late-60's communes (which actually lasted until the late 80's). The spiritual leader was Michael Metelica (later Michael Rapunzel), and the commune started as 9 friends in a tree house in the rural northeast. Eventually it grew into hundreds if not thousands, recorded an album, started a greeting card company, founded a church, and owned about half of a small Massachusetts town. And it became a microcosm of why communism doesn't work. Michael Rapunzel became a megalomaniacal, controlling, ill-tempered, alcoholic and cocaine addict (in the early days, all drugs were banned). Eventually he was kicked out in 1989, and for all intents and purposes the commune disbanded shortly thereafter (most of the members had left by then anyway). The history is told solely by the members--including archived interviews with Michael Rapunzel--and tells a story of idealism torn apart (except for Michael Rapunzel, who tells a story of how he was wrongly vilified). The first hand accounts are pretty fascinating, and there's some excellent first-hand footage--both photographs and home movies--from the time. Pretty interesting, and makes me glad I'm not some braindead hippie (no matter how many people think so just because of my hair).

And that was Thursday at Docfest. Two more movies tonight, and then a marathon weekend. 4 movies Saturday, then down to Santa Cruz for a 6 movie midnight Secret Film Fest, then back up for another 4 docfest screenings--that's 14 movies without sleeping. Then I plan to die, if I have time.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 6

So I've already written about racing to the movies because of BART delays, and I've mentioned rushing to the movies because of work delays. On Wednesday, I got both!

I actually planned to see "A Skin Too Few" at 7 pm, but I was working until past 7 and it plays again next Tuesday at 5 and next Wednesday at 9:15, so I have more chances. Instead I put in a 12-hour day at work, go to the BART about 7:30, and got to the platform just in time to miss the 7:32 train. No big deal, that would've gotten me there at about 8:30, 45 minutes early anyway. There's another train in 20 minutes, and I'll be there 25 minutes early. That train was late, I missed my connection, and got to the station 5 minutes before showtime. Just enough time to race to the theater, find out the movie I was seeing had moved to the other screen, and race over there. This film fest is either going to kill me, or get me into shape--whichever's worse.

So the show was a short and a feature about the little guy. First was an oral history of classic San Francisco movie houses, called "Forgotten Palaces". I cried. I cry whenever I see an old theater marquee that's been turned to something useless, like a porno theater or a church. I'm surprised it didn't go further in time. It started with theaters from the 1920-1930 range, and I know they could continue to just a few years ago (the Roxie has almost made that list a few times just since I've lived here). But it's a good look at lost community icons.

And then there was the feature "If You Succeed", about Christian Dennery and his estranged wife Dolores Lagdameo, who own one restaurant in Brooklyn. They're raising money to open a second one, to be called "Bodegas". It's fairly apropos that in the opening minutes they point out the number of methadone clinics nearby, because addiction is a bit of a theme. Christian is a "deal junkie" who has grand schemes but not the resources to follow through (which has a lot to do why he and Dolores are estranged. They do stick together for their kids, though). The movie follows his optimistic comedy of errors, and watching him fall prey to contractors, debt, and possibly shady business partners can be painful. The movie, however, shares his optimism, no matter how misguided it may be. And, without giving away any spoilers, he does have his triumphs. A pretty interesting look at how far dreams alone (and a spreadsheet system of expenses and income) can take you.

And now, I'm caught up with Docfest!

Oh, one final note. I mentioned a few posts ago about Texas being a theme of the festival. Movies so far that at least have a passing mention of Texas (as best I can remember, I might be adding false Texas memories):
"What Would Jesus Buy?" I thought had something in Austin
"El Mechanico Loco" The guy's from Texas
"American Scary" Mentioned a horror host from Austin
"Shakey's Hill" When they returned from Vietnam, the unit was stationed at Ft. Hood
"When the Light's Red" Takes place in Austin
"The Blues According to Lightning Hopkins" He's from Texas
"A Well Spent Life" Also a bluesman from Texas
"Wiener Takes All" A brief mention that there's wiener dog racing in Austin
"Breaking Ranks" One of the AWOL soldiers was stationed in Ft. Hood

And I might've missed some. I also know that "Hell on Wheels" takes place in Texas.

As a pure coincidence, I'm going to Houston at the end of the month.

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 5

So I mentioned before that nearly every film festival where I take BART includes an incident where I have to run from BART to the theater. I already did it once on BART's fault. On Tuesday I did it again on my fault--or rather my work's fault. I had to leave early to get to the 5 pm show, and even though I warned everyone I had to leave early, they still kept asking me for stuff. Anyway, I sprinted in just at the intro to the first film.

First was the short "Absolute Zero". It's a little bit non-documentary, because it's all re-enactment. But it is possibly the most interesting story I've heard. In about the 1930's a train was travelling through the Australian desert. One of the cars was a refrigerated freezer car. A worker got trapped inside just before the long journey, and froze to death. During his long ordeal, he scrawled his dying thoughts on the walls, clearly documenting him succumbing to hypothermia. Now here's the kicker (spoiler alert, highlight to read): The refrigerator was broken. If he'd been in any other car, he'd have died of the heat, but his car was a comfortable 68F. He died of hypothermia because his brain thought he was dying of hypothermia. Here's an extra kicker--the autopsy report noted frostbite on his fingers and toes.

End spoiler.

That was followed by the feature, "Breaking Ranks", about American soldiers in Iraq who seek flee to Canada and seek asylum. Some would label them cowards but they claim that it's an act of conscience, that they're not opposed to war, just that this war and the atrocities they've seen (including one account of insurgent-head soccer) are unjust. Some volunteered for non-combat duty but were denied. All filed for conscientious objector status and were denied. This film definitely takes their side, and I certainly can't fault it for that. I know it's a sensitive subject, so here's my two cents: I have neither the moral authority nor the physical ability to force anyone to act in a way that is contrary to their conscience. So if their conscience tells them to not fight and flee to Canada instead, I can't stop them. However, their actions still have consequences that they must accept. If that means they can never return to the U.S., or if Canada denies their asylum claim they'll be wanted in the U.S. for desertion and in Canada for illegal immigration status, then they have to be ready for those consequences. And on the third hand, those consequences should be reasonable--but I'm not going to venture into what specifically that means. In any case, whether an individual claim truly is a matter of conscience or cowardice, I would hope that there is a refuge where they can escape, and Canada seems like a good choice.

Well, I don't know a good segue from the politics of war to kinky sex and body modification, but that's how the night went. First with the short "A Tale of Two Bondage Models". The two models are specifically Lorelei Lee and Princess Donna, who were in attendance but I didn't get a good picture of them (I'm sure if you're interested you can google them). I'm not actually into BDSM, but I've seen a number of movies (mostly documentaries) about it, so there was nothing too surprising or shocking to me. I guess I'm jaded. Still, it was pretty cool.

Now the feature really tested how jaded I am. "Flesh and Blood" is the story of Steve Haworth, a professional "body artist" who started out as a piercer and went on to invent 3-d body art. Surgical implants under the skin for various 3-d bumps, stars, patterns, etc. Bases on which he can screw metal spikes, just about anything. He does it all without administering anaesthesia so he doesn't cross the line to practicing medicine without a license. Pretty freaky shit, including some pretty graphic and bizarre genital alterations. Then things get really weird, when he and his friends get into "suspending"--hanging themselves from hooks stuck through their skin. For the most part it sticks to his point of view and shows him in a flattering if unconventional light. But in the last half hour or so cracks start forming in his perfectly bizarre life, and his girlfriend leaves him and his crazy group of friends start growing up and getting normal. All of a sudden the person whom the movie has tried to convince you isn't really that crazy turns out to be...really fuckin' crazy! And kinda self-centered. But still somehow grounded, as he's a single father of 2 children from previous relationships (children he never thought he'd have to take care of). One last thing I want to mention. There's a guy in the movie who was the first person to get implants to have metal spikes sticking out of his head--a kind of metal mohawk. In the end of the movie, he gets them taken out. He's interviewed and claims they got to be too much of a distraction, and he couldn't have a conversation about anything but the spikes. But the whole time he's being interviewed he's wearing an eye patch (and big lobe-stretching earrings, but that's not important). And the whole time I'm thinking, "he got rid of the spikes because they were a distraction to conversation, but he's wearing an eye patch. What's up with the eye patch?" It's never explained, but if I see someone with metal spikes sticking out of his head, I know there's only one real story behind that, and I don't need to hear it. But if I see someone with an eye patch, there's at least a hundred possible stories, and I have to know!

And finally, the last movie of Tuesday was "Sanctuary: Lisa Gerrard". I don't really follow music, so I didn't know who Lisa Gerrard is. Turns out she has an amazing ethereal voice with incredible range, and was in a band called Dead Can Dance. She also feels everything far more sensitively than you anyone else. That's certainly true for me, because I wasn't feeling this, and I kinda dozed off a bit in the middle of this 90 minute infomercial. I did perk up again when it got to her film scoring career because hey, I like movies and she's done scores for some great ones--"Whale Rider", "The Insider", etc. So overall, I don't know if it's a better movie if you're already a fan of hers (I talked to one fan who thought the movie sucked), but if you know nothing about her, this is a pretty rude introduction.

And that was Tuesday at Docfest.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Jason goes to Docfest--day 4

Two more shows last Monday, each with a short and a feature:

First up was the short "Aqui Comienzian los Estados Unidos", a look at the lives of Mexicans immigrating (sometimes legally, sometimes not) into the United States. This is, of course, quite a hot-button issue, but this short takes a more human, less overtly political look--and in doing so, falls on the pretty obvious political side.

This short was followed by the eco-political agitprop "The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil". When the Soviet Union fell, that decimated Cuba's economy. In particular, the price of oil skyrockets, making both fuel and petroleum-based fertilizers unaffordable. This is diplomatically referred to as the "special period", but the movie investigates the Cuban people's solutions to the crisis. Specifically smaller, organic and rooftop farming, carpooling (government vehicles are required to pick up anyone who needs a ride if they have room), public transit, alternative fuels, etc. It presents Cuba as a model for the peak oil crisis the rest of the world will eventually face. There are good ideas in this movie, but it's so laughably propaganda that those ideas will probably be lost on all but those who are already convinced. It's sad, but true. Small local farms, public transit, carpooling, alternative energy are all good ideas, but you're not going to convince anyone by saying, "that's how they do it in Cuba!"

Anyway, after that there was another program of Blues fest films, a short and a feature (but oddly, not in that order):

First was the feature (and boy did that screw me up, after 30 minutes I kept expecting it to end) "Sacred Steel". It's a really cool look at the pedal steel guitar, a sort of bench-top electric guitar played with a piece of metal instead of fingers to stop the strings. As a result, musicians get a sort of vocal tone to it. It's traditionally Hawaiian, and is used in worship ceremonies at the House of God church. Only recently have church musicians taken their music out of the church and into concerts (where secular audiences still dance around like they're possessed by the holy spirit). The sound is really cool, and the song about Roosevelt is alone worth the price of admission.

And finally, the short "A Well Spent Life" by local filmmaker Les Blank, who also did "The Blues According to Lightning Hopkins". In fact, those two films make good companion pieces, as this is again about a Texas bluesman (in fact, Texas has actually become the recurring theme of the festival). This time he interviews and profiles Mance Lipscombe. In particular, how his hard life actually made him appreciate what he has more.

And that was Monday at Docfest. I'm catching up slowly, but still have 4 more films to write up.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 3

Another 5 movies last Sunday. Here we go:

Most festivals (especially in SF when I take BART) include at least one show where I sprint like a madman to make it there. Sometimes it's my fault, but this time it was BART's fault, as the train leaving Fremont was late, I missed the transfer, and got to 16th and Mission at 12:29 instead of 12:09. So I sprinted to the Roxie just as the first movie was starting. As I walked in, I saw the meditating image of Abbot Phra Khru Bah Neua Chai Kositto (aka Khru Bah). the amazing subject of "Buddha's Lost Children". Khru Bah was a Thai boxer, but he gave up the sport to become a Buddhist monk, traveling to the remote northern province of Thailand most famous for impoverished hillside villages and brutal druglords. There he founded a temple and orphanage. He travels to all the local villages, adopting the most impoverished and/or sick children, battling drug smugglers, and spreading his message of peace and love. The filmmakers had amazing access, and captured some beautifully moving images. And just when I'm in awe of Khru Bah, my attention shifted to the children. 3 stories in particular touched me. Nehn Sukh has unknown parents, and although he starts out having trouble keeping up, he becomes sort of a leader of the novices (apprentice monks), and wants to be a monk his entire life. Yee starts out barely able to speak, but slowly comes out of his world and becomes a novice himself, changing his name to Pan Saen. And finally, Boontam is only 4 years old, the youngest of 5 children in a family too poor to take care of himself, much less his disease that has made his legs so weak. But he has a smile that could light the world. Khru Bah even believes he could be a Buddha, and the miracle these people need. As a follow-up, his legs are healthy now, and he travels back and forth from the village to the temple. When he becomes 7, he plans to formally become a novice, too.

Next up was "Call of the Wild", the documentary about Chris McCandless, the 20-something who went out into the Alaskan wilderness and died on an abandoned bus after about 3 months. It was made into a book called "Into the Wild", and Sean Penn directed a movie version of it that's out now. In fact, this documentary runs into Sean Penn twice, as they're both filming on location. I never read the book, but I knew something of McCandless. I had recently moved out of Alaska at the time, and still kept track of the news up there. I'm eager to see Sean Penn's take on the story (which I've heard is pretty faithful to the book), but in the meantime Ron Lamothe has made an incredibly fascinating rediscovery of the events, including new discoveries that the book got wrong. One of my favorite points is when the local guide shows Lamothe the McCandless' backpack--found in the bus but completely overlooked by the Alaska State Troopers. In a secret pouch is McCandless' wallet, including about 8 forms of ID. So the weeks spent trying to identify the body, the dental records sent from the east coast--that was all unnecessary. I also like the reactions of the locals in the bar in Healey. They're the only ones who are blunt about how he was a dumbass and his death was Darwinism in action. That's actually more or less my opinion, although I can sympathize with the idealism and romanticism that has surrounded his myth. This was one of my favorite movies of the festival, and makes me all the more eager for Sean Penn's movie. By the way, I think I also recognized Lamothe's friend Tom Borden and his movie "American Rash" in there, but that's another story.

Next up was a short and a feature. First the short "The Indypendent", a brief look at the independent, mostly-volunteer, New York newspaper of the same name. I'm sure they do great work, and there are a lot of dedicated people, and they've won many independent press awards, but the movie really plays as an extended commercial for the paper.

The feature was "WTF: an Okaymentary", about the online community okayplayer.com. Originally a site for Roots fans, ?uestlove put the url on an album and then called his web administrator and told her "you have to make this site!" I'd never heard of it before this movie, but it's grown into a fairly large online community that's not necessarily even all Roots fans anymore (though mostly it still is). The filmmakers are all on okayplayer, and made it as sort of a road trip with the intention of meeting all the people face to face who they already know online. In that way, it shares a lot in common with any online community, particularly the stories of how people are meaner online than in person. But overall, okayplayer seems like a friendlier site than most online communities I've seen. Pretty cool. Here's a pic of co-directors Leslye James and Tim Adkins:

Next up was the treat of the festival so far, the dogumentary "Wiener Takes All". They really rolled out the red carpet for the stars:

The premise is simple and hilarious--an in-depth look at the world of competitive wiener dogs (or dachshunds for you prudes). It delves into the cutthroat world of wiener dog racing, the waaay more cutthroat world of dog shows, and even into the history of wiener dogs--they actually go back to Egyptian hieroglyphics, which oddly show other dogs on leashes but wiener dogs unleashed. The racing, of course, is the best part, with the fierce rivalries of Noodles, Pretzel, Vinnie Barbarino, Baby Luv, Heidi Roo, etc. It also hits on some faux-scandalous elements, like allegations of doping or bribing dog show judges. And in a few moments, it touches on deadly serious elements. I don't want to give away spoilers, but I feel I should warn about three things, since they'd be likely to upset dog lovers who are otherwise the best audience for this film. First, there's a scandal in dog show world about double-dappled and piebald dachshunds. Both have a color that's unacceptable to the dog show world--white. Problem is, dappled or double-dappled is a genetic disorder that doesn't just affect pigment, but affects function--whatever is underneath the white spots doesn't work right. Piebald is a different kind of white coloration that is completely harmless. On the one hand, puppy mills will breed dapples to make double-dapples, because the ~10% of survivors are so cute. On the other hand, dog shows ban piebalds for no good reason (in fact, one doggie historian claims the original wiener dogs in Egypt were piebalds). The second disturbing episode--historical accounts of hate crimes against "German" dogs during WWI and WWII. Poor wiener dogs were killed just for being German, even if they were born in America (they were in fact temporarily renamed Liberty Pups). And the final disturbing bit--and the one that really got me--comes from the argument against wiener dog racing. Greyhound racing has become such a big industry that perfectly healthy losing dogs are often put to death. It's fine to note that as an abomination and a reason against letting the sport get that big, but this movie did show graphic footage. I understand why it's there and I don't want to say it shouldn't be seen. And normally I might not even say a word about it. But since the presumed audience is doggy enthusiasts, I think they oughta be forewarned. Especially since all the rest of the movie is silly and fun.

Here's a pic of director Shane MacDougall with Docfest programmer Fay Dearborn.

And here are stars Baby Luv and Bruno, with their humans. It was so cool to meet the athletes/movie stars in person. I even got a smooch on the nose from Baby Luv!

And then, the final movie of the weekend was the surrealist suburban joke, "Radiant City". I will now visibly struggle with the issue of spoilers:

Errrgh, ungh....umm....

Okay, I've decided not to give any spoilers, other than that there is a major spoiler and if you know that you'll probably get it while watching it. This documentary is about the suburbs, the sprawling, uniform, featureless zombie wasteland that stretches across North America (it's a Canadian film, but that's not the spoiler). They interview experts, activists, and families who live in the suburb. My personal favorite was author James Howard Kunstler ("Geography of Nowhere") with some rather biting criticisms. The scene of his musings while sitting on a "recreational" bench facing a chain link fence and the freeway is priceless. But they also interview a family of suburbanites. As the children show them around their neighborhood, the mother defends suburban living while the dad passive-aggressively tolerates it while putting on a local theater production of "Suburban: The Musical!" All in all, it's a pretty funny look at a way of living that's best described as the "first attempt" to build community architecture.

And that was Sunday at docfest.

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