Friday, October 31, 2008

Jason wins the Halloween costume contest at work

Not that I had the winning, I was the winning costume. The winner was the guy who came dressed up as me. He got the hair, beard, lab coat (stolen from me), he even made a San Jose Earthquakes shirt (when he couldn't find any in the stores). It's that attention to detail that is simultaneously flattering and scary. Thank you Robert!

BTW, in the above picture I'm the guy in the orange prison jumpsuit.

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 14

It finally San Francisco! Just a week left in Berkeley.

The closing night special film was "Operation Filmmaker", by Nina Davenport.  In 2004, MTV did a show about young people living in Iraq, and showed Muthana Mohmed, a film student whose school was bombed.  He talked about wanting to go to America, become a filmmaker, and meet Angelina Jolie.  Actor Liev Schreiber saw this while he was putting together a crew for his directorial debut, "Everything is Illuminated" (starring Elijah Wood, based on the book by Jonathon Safron Foer).  He decides it would be a great thing to invite Muthana to Prague, where they're shooting the movie, and make him an intern on the movie.  And it would be even better to have Nina Davenport follow him around and document his first experience on a major motion picture set.  Well, things start out well, but it turns out Muthana doesn't really have the discipline or temperament to work on a film crew.  He hates getting coffee, he doesn't make himself useful to much of anyone, he stays out late partying with friends, and doesn't get his work done.  Muthana has his dreams, but he came from an upper class family where he was used to having things done for him, and I get the sense that he doesn't like (or doesn't know how) to be the servant now.  Beyond his professional life, he doesn't even know how to take care of his personal life.  As "Everything Is Illuminated" is wrapping up, his visa is also expiring.  He wants to stay and work on "Doom", but he doesn't even know how to extend his visa.  He gets a lot of help (and a lot of money) from the filmmakers, and eventually does stay on and work on "Doom" (BTW, there's a brilliant shot of carnage in the streets of Baghdad transitioning seamlessly into the fake carnage on the "Doom" set that actually fooled me for a few seconds).  He even makes friends with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who even gives him money to attend a film school in London.  I mentioned a few posts back about a running theme in this festival--the theme of people trying to change their lives.  Particularly, there's a theme that when people try to consciously change their lives (or in this case, the life of someone else), they tend to fail--it's the small changes, not the big changes that work.  This film fits humorously, tragically, and perfectly into that theme.

And finally, the last movie in San Francisco was "When Clouds Clear", a touching look at the small Ecuadorean mountain town of Junin.  They've lived peacefully in the clouds for generations, but recently valuable minerals (particularly, copper) have been found in the mountains, and various foreign mining companies are moving in.  This creates opportunities for a few, and tragedies for many.  It destroys their land and their way of life (and polluted their river), so this small village fought back and burned down the mining camp.  That is, after they tried and failed to bring their plight to the attention of Ecuadorean authorities.  Now they're a radical band of fighters, doing whatever it takes to keep The Company out (whichever company is now trying to drive them out).  It's obviously a pretty biased film, told totally from the point of view of the villagers, but it's hard to imagine an unbiased version of the story that wouldn't sympathize with them.  Here's a case where sympathizing with one side is clearly correct.

And that's the end of the festival in San Francisco.  But it continues until next Thursday in Berkeley.

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 13

Two more shows...when was this...last Wednesday?

First up was a pretty strange movie, an Israeli documentary thriller "Over My Dad's Body".  Taliya Finkel grew up not knowing if her uncle really was her uncle, or a look-alike planted by the KGB to spy on her father.  That was her father's theory.  He swore his brother wasn't the same man when he came out of prison.  He was always asking strange questions that he should know, his birthmark was gone, etc.  But then again, he was also diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Five years afther her father died (murdered?) she decided to investigate her own uncle, hiring private eyes and documenting the whole journey.  She travels back to the Ukraine to find prison records from when her uncle was in prison, but the records have long been lost or destroyed.  She searches for evidence of the KGB program in the prison, but no luck.  It's a fascinating movie, a fascinating story, but I don't know what to make of it.  I'm pretty convinced that her father was just schizophrenic and was telling wild stories.  She seems to lean towards believing her father, but is very skeptical and doesn't really know what to believe.  This movie may end up haunting me for a while.

Then we moved on to something I'm far more familiar with--arsonists from Cal Tech (full disclosure, I'm from Cal Tech, and was a member of Ricketts Hovse, which were famous for playing with fire up until a guy got burned--after I had left--and fire was essentially banned).  Anyway, that's not really party of the short film "Standard Deviation".  Rather it's about Billy Cottrell, who by all accounts was a brilliant young physicist.  He didn't do well in grade school or high school, because he was often bored, acted out, and pulled all sorts of capers (spray painting a wall with "Fight vandalism in your school" was particularly funny).  But he managed to get into the University of Chicago, where he excelled at physics (he talked as a kid about there being only 9 truly great physicists in the world at any time, and he would be one of them).  And so he won a top doctoral spot in theoretical physics (string theory) at Cal Tech.  And there he became an eco-terrorist, joining (or co-opting the name) of the ELF (Earth Liberation Front), and vandalized and burned a bunch of Hummers.  Then when the police picked up someone else for the crime, he started e-mailing them taunting notes until they did catch him.  I've known quite a few Cal Tech crazyfuckers in my time (I've even been called one myself), but this guy is in a whole different league.  

And that was just the short leading into "The People's Advocate: The Life and Times of Charles R. Garry".  Charles Garry was possibly the most notorious defense attorney of the civil rights movement.  He defended Black Panthers Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.  He pioneered the practice of jury selection, often spending days eliminating prospective jurors from trials.  He was aggressive at challenging the testimony of policemen and other authorities, who up to that point had been given a free ride on their testimony.  Later in life, he represented The People's Temple (of Jim Jones fame), and was actually locked inside a house in Jonestown as the members drank the infamous poisoned Kool-Aid outside (he could hear but didn't know exactly what was going on).  Afterwards, he was never the same, and in 1991 he died of a stroke.  This movie does a good job of introducing the man--faults and virtues--and showing his profound contributions to the legal, political, and social world we live in today.

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 12

Just one movie last Tuesday, that was my easy night, when I actually got home at a reasonable hour and got some sleep.

So I need to explain the theme I've found in this festival.  I'm not sure if it's intentional or not, maybe it's just a common theme for documentaries in general, but there's been a theme of people trying to accomplish that one thing that will change their life.  The interesting thing, though, is that when people consciously try to change their life it doesn't really work.  Stuff like 'If I could only walk across the country, or win one Elvis impersonation contest, everything will be alright' fails.  When you do the small things, like practice jump rope or learn to twist balloon animals, they really are changing their lives.  I find that very interesting.

So the Tuesday movie was perhaps the clearest example of this phenomenon.  In "Enlighten Up", director Kate Churchill has been doing yoga nearly as long as she's been making documentaries (which is nearly 10 years).  She believes that finding the right yoga practice can change anyone's life.  So she looks for a willing volunteer, and finds Nick Rosen, a skeptical journalist who's between jobs and therefore has a lot of free time.  He's game, but as I said, skeptical.  He's not a spiritual man, so he has a very strong inclination to approach it purely from a workout perspective and ignore or question the spiritual aspects.  He also visits several different studios and meets several different yogis, from masters like BKS Iyengar and Pattahbi Jois to former wrestler Diamond Dallas Page (inventor of Yoga for regular guys, and who's unabashedly not in it for "Namaste" as much as for "T&A").  He travels from New York to LA, to Hawaii, and finally India.  He finds practices so disparate that he questions what Yoga means at all (which is interesting, because the contemporary practice of yoga is only ~100 years old, and historically a yogi was an wizard who was to be feared when he came to town).  Practices range from hard-core twisting yourself into a pretzel to a guy who teaches a class of people just standing around laughing.  Of course, his skepticism is causing Kate's experiment to fail, and sooner or later that friction becomes the conflict of the movie, which just makes it funnier.  There are some weird dream sequences that maybe point to yoga breaking through his skepticism, and by the end maybe there's a little movement, but it's certainly not the transformation that is looked for in the film.  But it was fun.  Here's director Kate Churchill and star/subject Nick Rosen at the Q&A:

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 11

I'm so far behind in my blogging...

More movies last Monday, starting with "Elvis in East Peoria", one of the strangest 'is this real?' movies in the festival (up there with "Anvil"...something about offbeat musician docs?).  It's the story of a struggling, broke Elvis impersonator, the woman who takes him home to let him live with her (while she manages his career), her accepting husband (who is really accepting that their marriage has been over for a long time), and her daughter (who is either jealous of or a target of Elvis' affection).  The Elvis impersonator is Jimmy, and he's the most believable person in this movie.  I guess they should all be believable, since it is a documentary.  Donna is the woman/fan who brings him in and lets him freeload off her.  She books some (poorly attended) shows, and he's actually not that bad.  Many audience members really do like the show, and former Elvis impersonators and judges give him compliments.  His voice is okay, he's mostly hampered by age and injuries so he can't do all the moves right.  They enter competition after competition, and he never makes the cut, and never makes any money off it.  Which, of course, strains their relationship horribly (although by the end of the movie she's divorced and they're dating).  A very funny tragedy.  Director Eric Burdett wasn't at the screening, although I heard he was at the previous screening and is actually Donna's nephew, which is how he got such great home movie footage.  The closing credits gag reel of Donna screaming over and over again, "Eric, shut that camera off!" is hilarious.  Especially considering what he left in, I have to wonder what was too embarrassing for her that she didn't want filmed.

Next up was a short and a feature, which farkers will recognize the common theme.  The short was "Song of a Sperm Donor".  Jeffrey lives in a trailer in southern California, loves his doggies, and hangs out on the beach a lot.  In the past, he made a good bit of money donating to the California Cryobank.  Then one day he reads a newspaper article about sperm donor babies who are looking for their genetic fathers, and he recognizes his donor number!  So he comes out, announces he's the donor a group of girls are looking for, and meets with them.  Very interesting, particularly the economic and philosophical differences between his lifestyle and theirs. 

So then the feature was about killing kittens.  "Here Kitty Kitty" chronicles the 2005 debate in Wisconson over legalizing the killing of feral cats.  These aren't like bobcats or lynx or anything, just standard domestic cats that haven't been tamed and are running wild.  Apparently Wisconsin had (and still has) a problem with feral cat overpopulation.  They piss everywhere, and are really annoying, so why not shoot them all?  So there's a heated debate, both sides receive death threats, questions of killing vs. spaying (which is more economical), debates over how many birds feral cats kill every year, etc.  It's all filmed with a sense of bemused detachment, and really the whole debate seems so silly (and Wisonsinites want to chime in and tell me why it isn't silly?)  There are many great quotes from the debates, like "I've heard a lot of people say how feral cats aren't native to Wisconsin.  I'd like to point out that neither are white people!"  But my favorite comes from one of the anti-cat killing advocates, who explains how cats are an important part of what makes Wisconsin what it know, with all the cheese.  I had to ask people afterwards if I heard that right, and everyone heard it.  I believe he claimed that cheese comes from feral cats.  New ad campaign for California cheese--Good cheese comes from happy cows.  Wisconsin cheese comes from feral cats?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 10

Five more movies last Sunday, plus a few shorts.

First up was "Bunnyland". That title is a semi non-sequitur, in that Bunnyland is a small part of it. A more descriptive title would be "Johnny Tesar is Fucking Insane". But "Bunnyland" is a fine title, because...I love bunnies! Johnny Tesar describes himself as "the last Indian put on the Trail of Tears" (we take his word that he's really an Indian). He lives (or lived, he's moved out of the area) near a small mountain town of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. He's an amateur archeologist, amassing a giant collection of "artifacts" (maybe just rocks) showing a long lost culture in the area, including evidence of elephants (rocks carved to look like elephants--or maybe just a big coincidence). He had the great idea to create Bunnyland golf course--a mini golf course with bunnies hopping (and pooping?) all over it. His business partner screwed him out of his half, and the next season 73 (out of ~100) bunnies turned up dead. Johnny suspects dogs, because dogs were always a problem there. His ex-partner suspects Johnny, because they were beaten with a baseball bat. He was never convicted (or even tried), but he's the only suspect in some peoples' minds. I should mention at this point that the movie interviews a lot of people who defend Johnny and swears he's a sweet, kind man. So I don't really know what to believe. Anyway, Johnny went on to build rental cabins. But not entirely to code--he snatched the ends of logs used when making log cabins and glued them together with spray foam. They were fully furnished, including washer and dryer. But again, not up to code. So when one of them caught on fire and killed the woman living in it, he was pretty screwed. Lost all his land (which the owners now claim they can't sell because it was worthless for building on in the first place), and has since moved away from town. His newest business--making and selling Gun-Tees, t-shirts with graphics of a shoulder holster with a gun in them. I don't know who freakin' buys them. But there, I might drive a little business to his site.

Here's the man who started out researching the legend he heard about the bunny mini-golf and all the dead bunnies, but ended up meeting Johnny Tesar, director Brett Hanover:

Next up was the political conscience program, starting with the short film "So the Wind Won't Blow it All Away". This is a sad and touching short about Katrina. But specifically about an overlooked demographic of victims--children who lost their parents in Katrina. Some live with extended family (aunts, uncles, grandparents), some high school students have become the de facto heads of households, taking care of their little siblings. Very sad.

Then the feature was a mix of comedy and activism, "Considering Democracy: 8 Things to Ask Your Representative". Keya Lea Horiuchi traveled the world, asking people what they thought of America. What do they like about us, what don't they. Is freedom and democracy really sprouting all over the world. Do people really want American-style democracy? She gets a wide range of responses, and edits it together with supporting statistics showing how our lifestyle, health care, tax system, etc. differs from the rest of the world. It's all done very playfully, and the end result is a bit of fun that also makes you think. Just one quibble--in world maps she highlights the US in red (and sometimes other countries if they share something in common with America). I don't have a complaint about the color, I have a complaint that Alaska isn't colored the same way. But maybe the AIP will like that.

Keya Lea Horiuchi was at the screening, and the Q&A was very engaging, but for some reason I don't have one of my signature blurry filmmaker photos of her. Maybe the light was actually so bad I decided I couldn't get the shot. Anyway, thank you to Keya for making the movie and being there for the screening.

The next program started with another short (this was sort of the day for movies with shorts before them. There aren't many in the program, but I seemed to see the most last Sunday). That short was "The Good Mother of Abangoh", a wonderful triumphant story of Jane Mankaa, a poor girl in Cameroon who decided she wanted to help the homeless children. So she joined the convent, became a nun, and opened an orphanage that is wildly successful and gives so many poor children a chance at a better life. She's an inspiring person, and is doing great work

Then there was "This Dust of Words", by director Bill Rose. A few years back Rose directed a similar documentary about the loss of genius, called "The Loss of Nameless Things". I saw it at Cinequest in 2004, and here's what I wrote about it back then:

25 years ago, Oakley "Tad" Hall III was an up andcoming playwright on the verge of greatness running a community theater inLexington, NY. Then a mysterious fall from a bridge and the resultingmassive head injuries destroyed his carreer, and for all intents andpurposes, the man he was. His IQ went from over 200 to 6 (he has sinceworked it up to a modestly respectable 75). No one knows what exactly happened on the bridge except Oakley, who is too brain-damaged to remember, and the mysterious man from Seattle who showed up that summer, ran to the barn/theater to announce that "Oakley's gone off the bridge!"and disappeared the next morning, never to be seen again (some suspectfoul play). The director, Bill Rose, spends the first 1/2 of the moviefocusing on Oakley's once-promising career, interviewing those who knewhim best, mostly actors from his Lexington Community Theater troup. Thenext 1/4 of the movie is dedicated to the events after his fall, and hisstruggles to even make a living and to learn to be a writer again. And it's only at about the 3/4 point that he brings out the interviews with Oakley from today. An interesting directorial choice, but I think appropriate. There are so many ways this story could've gotten off onto tangents, and Bill Rose does an admirable job of keeping the story focused and the narrative moving forward. As I said, Oakley today has an IQ of around 75, which means he's functional, but nowhere near the genius he was. At the same time, there's been renewed interested in his last play,"Grinder's Stand", based on the last days of Merriweather Lewis. SoOakley gets to witness his last great work finally get performed, and getthe recognition he deserves, even if he's no longer the man who wrote it. As a final note, Oakley still writes, or tries to. And it's that unquenchable artistic drive that's the most powerful part of the movie. He gets up and writes every day, even when finishing a single sentence isa challenge. Even when he has to read what he wrote yesterday before hestarts because he can't remember it. His current work-in-progress isbased on the life of Alfred Jarry, an obscure absurdist French playwrightwith whom Oakley identified both before and after the accident (after the accident, he also identifies with Jarry's lead idiot king, Ubu).
It's called "Alf and Me, and auto/biography of Alfred Jarry".

Well, "This Dust of Words" has a similar theme, in that it's about a brilliant young person who somehow goes wrong and doesn't live up to her promise. Elizabeth Wiltsee had an IQ of 200, she learned to read (English) by age 4, and learned to read Greek by age 10. She was an exceptional student at Stanford, where she studied English under professor John Feltsiner (the movie title comes from her thesis). And then...she disappeared, went crazy, and ended up homeless in Watsonville, CA. And then this movie turns into a story not just about her, but about the town, and how it rallied around the poor homeless (and sometimes mute) woman, taking care of her in the two places she was most comfortable--the church, and the library (which now has the Elizabeth Wiltsee memorial reading room). In 1999, as she appeared to be getting better, she abruptly told people she was "going home" and walked away. 60 miles away and 7 months later, her body was found in the San Luis Reservoir. It's unknown if it was a suicide or accident (there was no evidence of foul play). A tragic end to a promising but tragic life.

Here's a pic of director Bill Rose and professor John Feltsiner, who came up from Stanford for the show:

Next up was the gleefully goofy road trip movie, "Head Trip", starring and co-directed by Burning Man co-founder and general weirdo John Law. He and co-director Fletcher Feudjohn are part of the Cyclecide travelling bicycle rodeo. They and a gang of fellow SF artists travel from San Francisco to New York in a bus towing three doggie heads from the defunct SF chain of Doggie Diners (the first love of Zippy the Pinhead). In between mechanical breakdowns (which are excuses to do impromptu acts of random weirdness) they visit odd roadside attractions along the way--like Cadillac Ranch or the guy who makes gigantic recycled metal sculptures. In New York, they do a show and parade down the street with the doggie heads. A fun time is had by all. I don't know what it means, and who really cares? Here's John Law and Fletcher Feudjohn at the Q&A after the film:

And here are the doggie diner heads outside the Roxie. I'm proud to say I rubbed their noses for luck (mostly luck in not getting run over in the street while rubbing their noses):

And the final movie was another road trip film, but first a couple of shorts. "Aunty Betelnut" is a quick, funny interview with a group of Papua New Guinean women, living in Sydney, chewing betelnut. Betelnuts are mild narcotics, creating a sense of euphoria, and responsible for a charming, funny film. The second short was "Sunlight and Babies", an interesting look at the trucking industry and truck stop culture, reaching well beyond the stereotypes, and talking about the importance of trucking in our economy. Particularly interesting use of anonymous CB radio "dialogue".

Then the feature was "The Long Haul", the road trip of Martha and her wife Lavonne as the pack up their Airstream trailer and head out from the east coast to their new life in Sacramento, CA. There's really not much of a story. They freak out about the drive, they drink, they bicker, they drink, they freak out about camping in the south, they drink (I could really go for a drink after this movie). But they're a hilarious, enjoyable couple, and the movie moves along briskly (a lot of the footage is shot from a camera strapped to the passenger side window). A nice, fun way to end a long day of movies.

Here are Martha and Lavonne (and I apologize, I don't remember which is which) and director Liz Welch Tirrell (far right) at the Q&A:

And one last thing, since this was a day with lots of shorts before the features, I looked back and realized there's one short I saw earlier and forgot to blog about (other than all the Current TV shorts):

"I'm Like This Every Day" played before "Bigfoot: A Beast on the Run". It's a wild, funny, kinda scary look at horror fan and metal musician from Georgia, Peter Stubb. If I were like him every day, I'd probably die.
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Monday, October 27, 2008

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 9

This Docfest thing just keeps going forever. The day started with a chat with Melody Gilbert, the recipient of the first filmmaker tribute award ever in the history of all things Indiefest (Indiefest, Holehead, or Docfest. Previously they only gave awards to individual films, and then only the audience balloting awards). She received the "Someone to Watch" Award, and for the first time ever Indiefest gave out a physical award (instead of just the right to put laurels and the Indiefest name on their poster/DVD art/etc.). For the whole weekend, Melody was showing off the medal Jeff Ross gave her. Anyway, at 12:30 Saturday, we were treated to an extended chat with Melody, where she showed clips from all her film. Starting with her earliest one, "Married to the Mall". Then her freaky medical oddity duo, "Whole" and "Life Without Pain" (more on that one later). Then "Urban Explorers" (which I saw at Cinequest last year), and finally into the ones I hadn't seen yet. "Disconnected" was one she made with her students at Carleton College (again, more on that later) which she executive produced rather than directed. "Fritz" is the documentary she made about Walter Mondale, which is so new that Docfest didn't have a chance to program it. Between each film we talked briefly about the subject and what it was like to make it. Then we ended with a special sneak preview of the rough cut of her newest film. I can't really tell you much about it, not even the title (which might change anyway). I can tell you she once again executive produced rather than directed. And I can say it's about the pharmaceutical industry and one man's journey to transition off of prescription antidepressants. It's powerful, emotional, and I can't say anything else. Look for it to come out soon. It was also an interesting experience to see a film in the process of being completed, and share critiques with the filmmaker.

Melody Gilbert weekend continued with her third film, "A Life Without Pain". I'd seen this a few years back at a previous Docfest (I think it played at Docfest, not the general Indiefest), and was impressed. But in looking through my archives I find that was from a time before I wrote about every single movie I see, so I don't have an old review to fall back on (like you might have noticed I did for "Whole"). Well, "A Life Without Pain" is an interesting companion piece to "Whole", only in as much as it's about an odd and incredibly rare medical affliction. The title is pretty straightforward--people born without the ability to feel pain. They can feel touch, pressure, pleasure, etc. But the pain nerves don't work (or the brain doesn't process the pain signals right--there are actually two forms of the disease but the movie doesn't get into that). Melody follows around three little girls (all girls sort of by coincidence, although more girls have this disease than boys--the opposite of "Whole"). And until you think about it, you'd think this wouldn't be a big deal, it might even be easier to live if you didn't feel pain. Oh, boy, would you be wrong! How do you learn not to touch the stove or chew on your own tongue if it doesn't hurt? Children learning to walk tend to hit the ground pretty hard, and will stop and rest when they start to get sore. Well, not these kids. Melody follows around the difficulties children and families have dealing with this disease and keeping the little girls safe when the pain response doesn't work for them. I remember when I saw it years ago it was a fascinating movie. But I had forgotten how scary and traumatic it could be. I realized watching it again that this is a very empathic movie. Every time 3-year old Gabby runs headfirst into a table, I feel all the pain she can't feel.

Here's a pic of Melody Gilbert. I'm not sure which Q&A I snapped this at:

Next was yet another Melody Gilbert screening, but first things first: "First ____" is a short by Indiefest alum Dave Laden (winner of the Audience Award for best short in Indiefest 2007 for "The One").  Here he interviews a series of people about their first...whatever.  First name, first pet, first love, first sexual experience, first car (I think).  But he doesn't always let the audience know what the question was, and you have to figure it out.  Pretty clever, with some funny, interesting results.  Here's Dave Laden taking questions after the movie:

And the feature film was one Melody executive produced, but was really directed by her students at Carleton College (in Northfield, MN).  "Disconnected" follows the story of three college students as they attempt to go a full term (or at least three weeks) without using a computer.  An interesting experiment, because I actually rarely used a computer in college (certainly didn't blog or surf the Internet, I probably just used it a few hours a week for work).  So much has changed, and it's mean to make me feel this old.  But at least as an old guy, I can take some solace in the fact that the young generation is a bunch of idiots who don't even know how to work a typewriter!  (sigh...I really am old)   Anyway, the three volunteers (Andrew, Caitlin, and Chel) first encounter boredom, then frustration (as so many services and required tasks are online now).  They do learn some lessons about changing work habits (Caitlin talks about organizing her paper much better in advance since she can't use a word processor), and appreciating different things in life (although I can't help but think of this xkcd cartoon).  Ways they "cheat" (or rationalize cheating) are funny.  And the final moments when each decides when he or she will turn back on the computer are oddly dramatic (and not just the competition of who has more e-mail piled up).  All of them agree that while computers are good, they'll probably spend less time on them now.  Very interesting.

Next up was a very different kind of movie, "Fat Man Walking".  Steve Vaught was a broken man.  An ex-marine, now a tow truck driver in north San Diego County.  A few years back he got into a bad car accident and killed a pedestrian.  He fell into (more of a) depression, and ballooned up to 400+ pounds.  Then one day, he decided he needed to get his life together, chase away his demons, and make a fresh start.  So he decided to walk from Oceanside, CA to New York City.  And he eventually did it, over the course of 13 months (with a break to fly back to LA for a little training).  Along the way, he became famous, signed a book deal, signed a vitamin endorsement deal, made this movie, lost his wife, fell to pieces many times over, and...well, you can't tell from this movie whether he chased off any demons or turned his life around.  While there's a clear narrative, this movie nearly abandons it and instead plays like an extended nightmare hallucination of his anger and frustration not just with the walk, but with his life before, during, and after the walk.  There are scenes of him screaming at his wife (and later of her packing up all his stuff and moving it into storage).  There are scenes of him obsessing over hate mail on his blog (  There are scenes of him complaining about the pain, exhaustion, and how long it was taking (original plan was ~3 months or so).  But there are also scenes of the people he inspired, and the hope he brought.  He was actually at the screening, and did assure the audience that while fortune never really materialized, he has learned (somewhat) to concentrate on the 80,000+ people who wrote nice things, and not obsess over the dozen who wrote mean things (who knew people were nasty, cynical assholes on the Internet?).  Fascinating, and a little scary.  

Here's P. J. Bagley (Producer/Director/Editor/Cameraman), Steve Vaught (the Fat Man himself), and David Mollering (Producer/Cameraman) at the Q&A after the movie:

And finally, the last movie of the night was "Toots", about the legendary Manhattan saloonkeeper Toots Shor.  Toots was a unique man in a unique period, ruling over the hottest, hippest bar in Manhattan, serving with equal honest charm Supreme Court justices, gangsters (there's a legend of Earl Warren and Frank Costello on opposite sides of the bar on the same night), singers (Sinatra was a regular), and sports heroes (DiMaggio, Frank Gifford).  And they weren't just clients, they were friends (whom he'd often greet with good-natured profanity or jocular racial epithets).  Not bad for a Jewish hustler bum from south Philly.  This movie was made by his granddaughter, and is full of charming anecdotes and great footage, all tied together in a pretty picture.  This is a very standard homage film.  I don't think they included any negative stories of Toots (or if there were, they were examples of his outrageous behavior).  If you're interested in the man, or in the time and place (and the two are pretty inseparable), it's an interesting movie.  If you've never heard of him, and couldn't care less about mid 20th century Manhattan, there's probably not much here for you.

And that was last Saturday at Docfest.  I'm catching up slowly.
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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 8

Just one program last Friday, and then I had to go to Scotchtoberfest (but that's a different story, and one I don't remember that well.  I remember everyone liked the Scotch I brought, I remember blurting out "I never knew I loved 12-year olds before tonight" (pretty sure I was referring to 12 year old scotches).  And I remember arguing with a Filipina lady who was convinced that Jews eat the foreskin after a bris.)

Anyway, let's talk about the movies instead.  This kicked off Melody Gilbert weekend at the festival.  Melody is a talented, accomplished filmmaker, and now Indiefest's only award winner, as she was given the first ever Someone to Watch Award.

The program was a double-bill of her first two independently made documentaries (previously she was a TV journalist), starting with her first, "Married at the Mall".  The Mall refers to the Mall of America, the giant Mall in the suburbs of Minneapolis/St. Paul (Melody is from Minnesota).  You know, the famous mall with the roller coaster inside, etc.?  Well, it's also go the Chapel of Love where you can get married in the mall.  The movie follows around the workers and a half dozen couples as they plan and celebrate their marriage.  The couples range from truck drivers to a Russian bride getting married to a fireman who holds the world land-speed truck record.  There's the soldier getting married right after 9/11 before he ships off on tour (he's Navy, she was in the Air Force, that's how they met).  There was even one odd moment when a chapel director said that the people she sees coming in there were a cross-section of "the real America".  Of course, in our current political climate, in SF, that was met by hisses (we don't boo in SF, we hiss), and I just had to shake my head and say "That's not what she meant!  She's not Sarah Palin!"  Anyway, it was all a lot of fun.

But then "Married in the Mall" was overshadowed by the movie that had introduced me to Melody's work back at Indiefest in 2004, "Whole".  Here's what I wrote about it back then:
Next up there was a documentary about amputee wannabes called "Whole".  That's right, amputee wannabes--people who want to have a limb amputated.  In all cases in the movie, it happened to be legs they wanted amputated (which is the case 90% of the time). And it happened to be men (again, true 90% of the time). Why do the want it? Nobody knows. They can't explain it, other than the feeling that the limb doesn't belong to them.  And it's very specific. One guy who successfully convinced a doctor to amputate his leg after freezing it in dry ice showed how actually the doctor had cut a little too much off in one spot and left a little too much on in another spot (although he didn't try to fix it, it was close enough). Another guy shot his leg off with a shotgun, several people have died trying to do this. They also interviewed some wannabes who hadn't tried anything yet. One who was thinking of doing it, and the only thing
that kept him from it was that his wife said she'd leave him. Another from Holland who ties his leg behind him and walks around on crutches.  Interestingly enough, his wife supports him completely. And that became one of the most interesting things about the movie (the director, Melody Gilbert, talked about this). If your significant other wanted to get an amputation, would you stand by him/her? They also interviewed a psychologist who's trying to get this studied better (as it is, the condition doesn't even have a name), and a doctor from Scotland who performed two voluntary amputations and caused quite a scandal.  Absolutely fascinating.
Yes, still fascinating.  The second time watching it I was also struck by how eloquent, intelligent, and rational the subjects were about their desire and their decisions.

I just want to end this post by saying that people often ask me what the best movie in a festival is.  I usually tell them a few that made a good first impression on me, but I almost always follow it up by saying, "I don't really know yet.  I'll know a couple of weeks after the festival, when I see which ones are still stuck in my head."  "Whole" was the perfect example of this.  I was fairly impressed when I first saw it, but then in the subsequent weeks or months I found that various comments or observations would bring me back to the subject and I'd tell people, "I recently saw this great documentary about these people who want to be amputees!"  I was surprised that years later (now 4 years on and still going) I would still be reminded of it (often for no reason), and have to tell people about it.  Well, since Melody was there selling DVDs, now I can tell people I saw this great documentary and then loan them the DVD.  You can find links to all her films and buy her DVDs at her website,   

Friday, October 24, 2008

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 7

Two movies last night, one funny, one really scary. Let's do this quickly.

The first movie (the funny one) was about a guy named Ryan. It was called "Hi, My Name is Ryan". Ryan Avery is a pudgy, hormonally unbalanced kid from Phoenix. He's also one of the strangest creative artists in Phoenix. He fronts several varieties of punk bands/performance art troupes. He's a comedian, a milk and cookies connoisseur, a fake mustache fanatic, a helmet fanatic, a photobooth artist/model, and...he could be just about whatever. His bands are often angry punk noise, but from a funny side, like Father's Day, where he and three friends perform as stereotypical bad fathers (his family life and trauma is touched on, but exactly how dark it goes is uncertain). He often takes pride in pissing off/confusing his audience, breaking shit, and being more punk than the "real" punk rockers, all the while with a cherubic big baby face that makes it impossible to take seriously. At the same time, he did the incredibly confessional solo projects Silverchair, which morphed into Hi My Name is Ryan. And two years ago she stopped it all to go on a mission to Portland for his Mormon Church. Just another little conflicting bit of information to try to understand about this odd guy. But I can totally respect (and relate to) how he doesn't enforce any sort of arbitrary consistency on his life/performances/interests. If you can't understand how he can be a punk rocker and a Mormon missionary, that's your problem, not his.

Now this movie could be like any of a number of documentaries about eccentrics--interviews with friends and the subject followed by footage of performances. But this movie has one thing that makes it really pop like none other. Not just a solid protagonist, it has a bona fide antagonist. Wayne Michael Reich is an established "serious" artist on the Phoenix scene, and has run into Ryan on several occasions. Ryan's punk performances (in the group Night Wolf), have disrupted Wayne's shows on multiple occasions, and he has no patience for the "no-talent idiot" and his cronies. Wayne is on camera extensively bitching about Ryan, and looks like a conceited redneck David Cross (seriously, if this wasn't a documentary festival, I'd believe David Cross is pulling a joke on us all). He makes an excellent villain, and makes this an excellent, hilarious film.

Not so hilarious was "Silhouette City", a meditation on the rise of the religious right in America. From survivalist camps in the 70's to a modern stranglehold on the Republican party, the "end times" believers have moved from a fringe group that is mocked (if thought of at all) to a driving force in public policy (not that I'm anti-Israel, but it's frightening to see how many right-wingers are pro-Israel because they believe a Jewish state in Israel is a pre-condition to the second coming of Jesus). The movie uses a combination of archival footage, propaganda material, and interviews to...scare the ever-loving crap out of me. Yeah, I know and fear James Dobson (Focus on the Family), Ted Haggard (preach about Jesus and then sneak off to do meth with gay hookers), and the like. But 90 minutes of seeing them all together and pulling the controls of power is frightening. Now I call this movie a "meditation" because it presents stories, images, even statistics in a melodic, meandering way with no narration or a protagonist voice. I don't want to say it doesn't have a point of view (it definitely does, and it's anti-extremist), but it doesn't have a sense of someone asking a question and looking for an answer, if that makes any sense (maybe I was just tired when I saw it). I think that would have helped me to relate to it a lot more. There was a very interesting guy speaking near the end of the movie (and I apologize for not remembering his name), but he spoke about how something like 40 years ago his divinity teacher (at Harvard?) warned the class that a top threat in the coming century is the rise of religious fascism (and as a survivor of Germany in the 30's, he didn't throw words like "fascism" around lightly). This guy was a practicing, devoted Christian, and was afraid of what the political face of his religion was doing. That's the sort of character who would make an excellent protagonist for the movie (basically I wanted to hear more from him and see less of James Dobson).

And that's day 7. Tonight I might make it up for Melody Gilbert's fantastic movie "Whole" (which I saw at Indiefest a few years back, and I recommend all my SF readers go see). But then I've got a Scotchtoberfest party tonight, so I'll be drinking fine Scotch instead of watching movies most of the night.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 6

Yup, day 6, and no end in sight.  Or at least, the end is too far off to see.  Anyway, two more movies last night, both of them fun, light treats.

First up was "Twisted: A Balloonamentary".  Yup, an hour and a half of balloon animals and other incredible sculptures, and stories of how learning three simple twists (to create a balloon doggy) can change your life.  There's a brief, animated history of balloon twisting--which predates balloons (it started with animal bladders, etc.)--narrated by Jon Stewart.  Then it launches into the personal stories.  There's an equal mix of personal stories and incredible balloon art, each of which is fascinating in it's own right.  Probably the most poignant story is Vera, a 20-something woman who grew up impoverished living in a trailer park.  A kind neighbor loaned her $60 to take a class in balloon art, and within a couple of weeks working kid's parties she payed him back, and is now putting herself through med school.  Yeah, you can make a lot of money (6 figures, if you work at it) twisting balloons, just ask Michele, who runs several balloon twisters out of Las Vegas (she's the one who really seemed a smart businesswoman as well as an artist).  There's also John, the ex-felon, abused as a child, who is now a balloon twisting evangelist who tears up as he describes the joy of making a Jesus on the cross out of balloons (I kid you not.  At twisting conventions like "Twist and Shout", the 11 pm hour is dedicated to two classes--Christian balloon twisting, and adult balloon twisting.)  There's James "Mr. Me", an African American grandfather who brings his positive message to the poor streets of Atlanta.  And then there's the competitive twisters like the Great Wandini or David Grist (widely thought of as the nicest star in the balloon twisting world).  There's even true love, Don "Buster Balloon" and Laura "Annie Banannie", who met twisting balloons, fell in love, and got married.  She wore a wedding dress made of balloons, the best man gave him a safety pin as a gift.

While the people are interesting, the sculptures themselves are amazing.  It all starts with a little doggy, but from there it goes anywhere and everywhere.  Giant Trojan horses, haunted houses, full-size furniture, giant sharks, racecars, whatever.  Words can't do it justice, just go see it.  If you're in the bay area, it plays again at the festival Wednesdsay, Nov. 5 at 9:30 pm in Berkeley.  If you're not in the bay area, or can't make it out, there's a link to purchase the DVD on the film's website.

Afterwards, Brian Asman from Balloons Equal Fun (who had small cameos in the movie) was there to talk about balloon twisting and teach us how to make a simple three-twist balloon doggy. Here's your proud blogger/film fanatic with my new pet, Col. Squeakypuppy:

And the second movie was one that maybe was supposed to be a little more serious, but I and the rest of the audience found it pretty hilarious (the director even mentioned he never saw his film get more laughs).  "Break Up Date" is a look at the world of dating, breaking up, stupid things people do, cuddle parties, and why so many people are single.  They interview a series of people (some average people, some relationship experts) as they describe their worst break-ups, worst dates, hopes, fears, and ideas on love and life.  They follow them through various activities (most of which the characters bravely volunteer to try for the movie) like online dating, speed-dating, nerd meet-ups, cuddle parties (non-sexual, pajama-clad touching), etc.  Most of the characters have a good sense of humor about it all, even when describing really painful events.  And of course, I had to laugh and cheer when one of the authors of "The Rules" got divorced.

Okay, a little note about San Francisco.  Director Collin Souter mentioned that he'd never seen his film get so many laughs.  Well, recently a survey found that the SF area had the highest proportion of single people in the country.  My theory, we're jaded and "too cool" to couple up.  Screw the stupid conformists who need other "sheeple" to make their lives worthwhile.  At least, that's why I laughed.  Any other SF Bay Area-ites (Bay Areans just doesn't sound right) want to comment/disagree?

Okay, that was day 6 at Docfest.  I'm all caught up on blogging, so it's about time to head out for more movies tonight.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 5

Two more movies last Tuesday. The theme--non-mainstream sports competition movies.

First up was the exciting world of competitive jump-rope, with "Jump!"  Yeah, everyone knows how to jump rope, but few people know how to do it like this.  There's speed jumping, solo freestyle, tandem freestyle, double dutch, pairs double dutch, and all (except for speed competitions) featuring some crazy freakin' gymnastic tricks.  The movie follows some of the most impressive jumpers in the country, from 12 year old Tori (the up-and-coming star of American jumprope, and definitely the star of this movie), to old veteran vanguard teams like Razz Ma Tazz and Summerwind Skippers.  They follow these teams in practice and competition from regionals to the national championships to the world championship (and if there's one complaint I'd have, it's that the world championship is tacked on too abruptly at the end, with no buildup or explanation of how the national teams are formed).  The jumping is amazing, the characters are engaging, the movie is fun and sometimes funny (and sometimes painful, there's one big crash in the movie, and a badly flawed routine at the national championship that is painful to watch).  I've never heard of competitive jump rope, and with an introduction like this, I'll never make fun of it.

And that was followed up by a sport I have heard of (and made fun of), "Sync or Swim" follows the U.S. Olympic Synchronized Swimming team through the trials and practice leading up to and including the 2004 Athens games.  I will just apologize in advance and admit that as much as I know they are incredibly dedicated athletes who will never really strike it rich from their sport, I still think it looks freakin' silly.  But this movie let me get to know the women who do it, and care about them as people (and I'm sure it looks less silly when it's your friend, sister, daughter, mother, wife, etc. doing it).  The friendships and quick bonds that form are touching.  The grueling practice days under their tough, opinionated coach are fascinating to watch.  The tragedy when team member Tammy Crow lost control of her vehicle (actually, her friend's SUV), broke her arm, and killed her two passengers is devestating.  Then there's the subsequent media storm, as she's charged with vehicular manslaughter (allegations of drinking the night before, speeding on a slick mountain road), pleads no contest (which she later regrets), and is sentenced to 90 days, starting after the Olympics (which is a widely criticized, controversial decision).  That threatens to become the plot of the movie, but thankfully director Cheryl Furjanic chooses to keep it about the swimming (not that Crow's incident is not important, it deserves attention and could very well be the subject of a different movie, just not this one).  The end result, despite ups and downs, is a fun, entertaining movie about dedication, passion, and athleticism.  Plus it's got a cameo by the grand dame of synchronized swimming (originally "water ballet"), Esther Williams.  

Here's a pic of director Cheryl Furjanic doing the Q&A after the movie:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 4

Monday night, Docfest teamed up with the United Nations Association Film Festival for a night of shows. Their festival is currently playing through Sunday at Stanford, and of course I'll miss it because I'll still be at Docfest, but I'd encourage my South Bay/peninsula readers to check it out, and let me know how it is.

As for the movies last night, they were kind of a mixed bag. The night started with "Belonging", an ardent screed about pollution and the necessity for humanity to find a proper balance with the world (i.e., to realize that we belong to the world, it doesn't belong to us). Look, I'm sympathetic, I agree, and some of the scenes were well shot (although I'm puzzled why the French Canadians weren't subtitled). But the science was just so simplistic, it will be insulting to anyone who has seen "An Inconvenient Truth" or passed a junior high science class. I was going along just slightly unimpressed--why not acknowledge opposing viewpoints, especially so that you can explain why they're wrong? Then it actually stated that the major source of energy in the galaxy is the sun, and I laughed out loud and completely tuned out. Please, filmmakers, go back and learn the difference between "galaxy" and "solar system". You might not think it's important, but it's important to your credibility. I generally try not to let stuff like this bug me so much, but this time you just fucking lost me.

In contrast, "San Francisco: Still Wild at Heart" was an entertaining, insteresting, and smart film. It's a charming, beautiful, and respectful look at wildlife in San Francisco. In particular, it's about the coyotes who are returning to San Francisco. And particularly in particular, it's about a coyote who moved into Bernal Hill. For those who don't know SF geography, Bernal Hill is a small, isolated spot of green surrounded by city, so it's pretty freakin' remarkable for any wild creature to make a trek from who-knows-where (actually, genetic testing showed that it came from Marin County--over the Golden Gate Bridge!) into the park. People are interviewed who sighted the coyote, wildlife experts track the coyotes and try to educate people about not leaving trash (or cats) out and other advice about how to deal with coyotes. Other animals are mentioned and shown (like the parrots of telegraph hill, stars of the film "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill). But the star are the coyotes. And coyotes are cool. That is all.

And the final movie of the night was "Megalopolis", the epic marathon of one day in giant cities all over the world--New York, LA, Shenzhen (China), Tokyo, Cairo, Karachi (Pakistan), Sao Paulo (Brazil), and I think (but don't remember) others. It jumps around with little narration beyond the words of famous sci-fi writers like Phillip K. Dick and William Gibson, then lets the people (mostly poor people) and their lives speak for themselves. This could have been a grand epic poem if A) it wasn't so long, B) I wasn't so tired, and C) I wasn't under time pressure to catch the last BART home. As it was, I was just exhausted by how looooong it was. And then I looked it up on IMDb, and learned this was actually an edited down version from the 300 minute, 6-episode TV mini-series. It's probably more digestible broken down into hour-long chunks.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 3

5 more movies on Sunday, let's jump right in.

First up was "The Bird's Nest: Herzog and De Meuron in China", a documentary about the Swiss architect team who built the iconic Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics. Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron are famous architects in Switzerland. One of their recent big projects was a stadium--the stadium in Munich built for the 2006 World Cup (I've been there--but not inside--and it's a cool looking stadium). They were one of several teams bidding on the contract to build the main stadium for the Beijing Olympics, and of course they were the winners. The movies an interesting look at the process, which starts with them talking about how they've lost contracts in foreign countries before by not understanding the local culture. So they teamed with Chinese artists, ambassadors, etc. to really understand what would work well there. It's interesting that they didn't actually have a bird's nest in mind at first, they just wanted a chaotic structure on the outside moving to order on the inside. It was the press who dubbed it the Bird's Nest (and the press loved the design, which is largely responsible for it getting chosen). The movie bogs down somewhat as it gets to the budget details and minutiae of construction, although it's still interesting seeing how the grand design was actually pared down from an even grander design (e.g., it was originally going to have the largest retractable roof in the world, but in the end it just became an open-air stadium). But the most interesting character is Ai Weiwei. He's a Chinese artist and architect, and was their main partner on the project. He's actually a subversive artist, and they showed one of his works was a series of pictures of his middle finger (I believe shot against a green screen) aimed at various landmarks around the world (he's flipping of the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, etc.) He talks about how he doesn't give a damn about the Olympics, because it's just a bunch of nationalism, which he hates. Unfortunately, he's barely on screen. This was a moderately interesting movie, but there were hints of a much, much more interesting story, about the subversive, anti-nationalist artist who helps create a grand, enduring monument of national pride. I know this movie was Herzog and de Meuron in China, but someone please make a movie about Ai Weiwei and the Bird's Nest. That's the story I want to know.

Then I made a last-minute change of plans to see "Neshoba" (originally, I planned to see it on Saturday, Nov. 1, but that will semi-conflict with a wine tasting event. Now I'll either see "Chasing the Devil" on Nov. 1 at 5, or get really drunk and miss it altogether). And I was so glad I saw it, because "Neshoba" is a great film. The title refers to a county in Mississippi, a rural area that saw quite a lot of violence during the civil rights period of the 60's and 70's. One of the most famous murders in the region was committed over 40 years ago. In 1964 the three civil rights workers were brutally murdered by the KKK and buried in an earthen dam (by the way, the reason this case is famous is because two of them were white, dozens, if not hundreds of black people were murdered and practically forgotten). At the time, the state didn't pursue murder charges. The federal government pursued a civil rights case, and some of the conspirators spent a few years in prison. But the ringleader, the Rev. Edgar Ray Killen, walked free because one juror refused to convict a preacher. In 2005, 40+ years later, the state AG is pushing to finally bring murder charges against the surviving conspirators. This documentary follows the case, the people involved, and the impact bringing up old wounds has on the community. Many people want the past to remain the past. I can understand them, it's a painful process. Many want justice, finally, not just for the victims but as a cleansing of the sins of the community. Some of the stories of people dragging themselves out from a lifetime and culture of racism are truly inspiring and a cause for hope. I'm gratified to see so many people who want the right thing done. And finally, there are still unrepentant racists, including Edgar Ray Killen, who believe there never was a crime and those trouble-makers got what they deserved. Although it's distressing to see, the most fascinating part of the movie is the unfettered access they got to Killen, and some of the vile things that come from his mouth. Without him, the movie would be much less interesting, but without him the world would be much better. I normally don't give out spoilers, but since the information is free and easy to find, Killen is eventually convicted of 3 counts of manslaughter (not murder), and sentenced to 3 consecutive 20 year terms in prison (i.e., a life sentence for a man of his age). A well made, powerful movie.

Here's a pic of director Micki Dickoff:

And co-director Tony Pagano:

So from chasing down one monster who escaped the authorities for decades, we moved on to another, a much funnier look at "Bigfoot: Beast on the Run". Okay, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest (Bellingham, WA!) where Bigfoot/Sasquatch legends were taught in grade school, from the perspective that he probably exists (or at least he might). I became a little more incredulous later on, but he's still a fun legend, probably one I want to believe in more than space aliens or God. But I'll spoil this right now--the filmmakers did not find him (or did they? No, they didn't.) What they did find was an odd collection of weirdos who search for him. Frankly, if these people were hunting me, I'd stay as hidden as possible, too. Actually, in fairness there are some interesting people, who range from serious to ridiculous. On the serious side, there's the scientists who talk about footprints, bone structure in the foot, and the metatarsal ridge. Equally serious, but a bit on the strange side is a mysterious audio recording. Then there's the crazy rednecks tearing through the woods on ATVs swearing they'll catch Bigfoot (who won't hear them coming?) or the guy trying to lure Bigfoot into his backyard and trap him, or the guy who photographed a mysterious glowing "Bigfoot orb". Yeah, this movie isn't about Bigfoot, it's about the nuts who hunt him. And it's pretty hilarious.

Next up was a beautifully shot, fascinating, but excruciatingly tedious documentary, "Dust".  I missed this one at SF International, but lucky me I got a second chance at 90 minutes of teeny tiny particles.  I'll grant that it's surprisingly fascinating for a movie entirely about dust.  The eccentric artist who collects bits of dust fluff is weird.  Mixing paint starting with pigment dust is interesting.  Scientists talking about it's harmful effects or the creation of the universe, that's cool.  The illnesses from dust inhalation after 9/11 is an odd look at a terrible tragedy.  There are individual moments that are fascinating, but it just doesn't hold together for the whole thing.  I think it could work very well broken up into a series of vignettes on dust.  Give me 5 minutes on paint dust.  5 minutes on artistic dust.  5 minutes on 9/11 dust.  Ironically enough, "Dust" would work better broken into smaller pieces, instead of one big chunk.

And finally, the night ended with the flaming fashion documentary, "Eleven Minutes".  I've never seen "Project Runway", but the first season's winner is an outrageous guy named Jay McCarrol.  It's been a couple of years, and despite winning he's never had his own fashion show.  Until now--he's booked a tent at New York's Fashion Week in the fall.  This documentary follows him for nearly a year leading up to the show.  I couldn't give a crap about fashion, but for what it's worth his show was called "Transport", and it was inspired by some art movement that featured a lot of hot air balloons.  It was also sponsored by the Humane Society, who applauded him for being a no-fur designer.  So fashionistas might be interested in the clothes, I was left with just the characters, and of course it starts and ends with Jay.  He's outrageous, flaming, and often more annoying than funny.  But he makes me laugh a lot (especially when he jokes about doing a show based entirely on diarrhea and vaginal discharge).  As it gets closer and things are running into a deadline (e.g., the shoes don't show up until the day of the show), I can't really get into the panic he feels, because after all, it's just an 11 minute show (hence the title) featuring ridiculous clothes I'd never wear.  But it made me laugh many times, so even if I didn't care, it was still a good time.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Jason goes to Docfest--day 2

5 movies last Saturday, a sort of movie marathon.  Which, appropriately enough, started with "Spirit of the Marathon", a documentary about the vast array of marathon runners.  Runners range from old men taking it slow, to first timers, to elite runners who are in it to win the prize money.  It raises an interesting thought, is there any other athletic event where amateurs run the same course, at the same time (but for much longer) than the champions?  Probably, but I can't think of one.  A marathon is the ideal test of human endurance--long enough so that it isn't easy for anyone, but possible for almost anyone willing to put the time and effort in to train for it.  Hell, even as out of shape as I am, I feel I could run a marathon.  I'd just have to stop watching movies for a while so I'd have time to there's no fucking way that's happening.  Anyway, the movie itself is very entertaining, especially considering that out of necessity it has to show people running for the majority of its (no pun intended) running time.  They get some great shots (the sweeping crane shot of the start of the Chicago marathon is breathtaking), and they do a good job of mixing the personal stories (elite runners trying to finally win one, novices just trying to finish, the intermediate guy trying to break 3:11:00 and qualify for the Boston marathon) with historical anecdotes.  It goes over the historical battle of Marathon, and shows how the first competitive marathon started with the modern Olympics.  How the 385 yards were tacked on to the 26 miles so that English royalty could see the start from Windsor castle.  It shows how women were banned for many years (they have an interview with Katherine Switzer, who entered the Boston marathon with just the initial K, and finished it even after race officials tried to tackle her).  In fact, in many ways the female perspective is the most interesting, and they were there when Deena Kastor (bronze medalist in Athens) won her first marathon (Chicago 2005).  It even presents an interesting perspective that women have more endurance than men and are in general better adapted to run a marathon.  All in all, an interesting movie, and it was a bit shocking after the 104 minute running time when the credits announced that in the time it took to watch this movie, an elite runner would be 20 miles into a marathon.

Next up was "Lucio", the story of a man and a life so unbelievable, if you made a narrative film based on his life no one would believe it.  Lucio Uturbia was, by all outwards accounts, a simple Spanish brick and tile layer.  He opposed Franco, so he assumed he was a communist.  Until he talked more to people and they told him he opposed everyone in power--he was an anarchist!  He was also a skilled smuggler, a skill he learned in the military sneaking supplies out in the trash cans.  But his true gift was forgery.  He forged CitiBank traveler's checks (this was in a time before ubiquitous ATMs and worldwide credit cards, when traveler's checks were the choice for currency when travelling overseas.  They were also reputedly harder to counterfeit than the US dollar).  He brought CitiBank to its knees, to the point where there were so many forged checks that European banks stopped accepting CitiBank checks over $10.  But here's the strangest part--he didn't get rich doing this.  The money went to the cause and social activism.  He still lived as a simple brick layer, just a brick layer with oddly powerful friends.  The movie moves fast (you have to read subtitle fast to keep up), and clips along at an exciting engaging pace that almost makes it an action film (and re-enactments make it feel more narrative).  This was the first movie in the festival that sort of blew my mind.  This is what makes documentaries so great--when truth is stranger than fiction.

Next up was another unusual character, nature loving curmudgeon Jim Stiles, in "Brave New West".  Jim Stiles moved to Moab, Utah, inspired by the writings of Edward Abbey.  He worked as a seasonal park ranger, and instinctively protested against construction projects, including the damming of the local river.   As this movie starts out, he seems like another garden-variety anti-progress tree-hugging hippie.  I love nature, and grew up as a Boy Scout in the Pacific Northwest, but anti-progress types tend to annoy me with their simplistic single-mindedness.  So at first, I didn't think I'd like him.  But it turns out he's a clever cartoonist with a pretty wicked sense of humor, and he totally grew on me.  He used his combination of politics and art to create The Canyon Country Zephyr (a zephyr is a warm breeze, which he suggests might mean he's full of hot air), a self-published newspaper about local happenings and opinions (his and others).  Over the course of the film, I found I grew more and more respect for him.  He starts as a man with whom I'd sympathize, but I wouldn't go to his extreme.  But he shows himself to have an excellent sense of humor (about himself as well), and a willingness to admit when he's wrong and make friends with the other side.  Some of the letters to the Zephyr provide some of the greatest humor, as longtime fans become pissed off by one article, life long haters write in just to vent, and people of all mindsets write in to disagree but acknowledge he's a funny and talented guy.  So by the end, I can count myself as a casual fan.  I'll probably start reading the Zephyr online, at least to check it out for a while.  

Next up was the comical show of the festival so far, starting with the short "A Stiff Upper Lip".  Dave Hill is an Englishman with a fairly impressive mustache.  So he finally decides to take the plunge into competitive facial hair.  That's right, the 2007 World Beard and Moustache Championships.  He's sorely underestimated the competition (which is hilarious), but a wild, wacky time is had by all.

By the way, speaking of shorts I have to give a shout out to Current TV.  For the first time ever, DocFest has a sponsor, and they're it.  I haven't been reviewing these, but Current TV has curated shorts to play with every movie, and they've been doing a fantastic job.  They must have an endless collection of ~3 minute shorts by viewers all over the world, because they seem to always find one to match.  For "Chelsea on the Rocks" they found a similar artists community in Denmark (I think it was Denmark).  For "Spirit of the Marathon" they had one about exercise addicts.  For "Brave New West" they had one about a young cowboy poet.  For "Anvil" (later in this post) they had one about a hard rockin' monk.  I haven't been reviewing them because frankly I can't remember them all, but they've been a lot of fun.  But here's just one big applause for Current.

Anyway, from one silly competition to another, the feature program was the world premiere of "Come on Down! the Road to 'The Price is Right'"  On a personal side, when I was a kid and got sick and stayed home from school, I would lie on the couch and watch daytime TV.  The one show I always remembered was "The Price is Right".  It was entertaining, but I'm not sure if being sick is a positive association for the show.  In any case, it's the only one I've got.  As for the film, directors Jeruschka White and Caryn Capotosto found and followed dozens of die-hard TPIR fans as they try to a) get tickets for the show, then b) get called to "Come on down!", and c) actually win something!  Starting from the wacky obsessed fans, it's a fun, silly romp the whole way.  No game show has ever inspired such a bizarre, fanatic following.  There's a hotel near the studio which gives nightly (free) workshops on how to make it on the show.  There's a family whose Christmas Eve tradition is having their own homemade TPIR contest.  There's a hard rock band who made a tribute song to the show.  And, of course, there is (or was) Bob Barker(now replaced by Drew Carey) and the legions of fans who want to kiss him.  I don't know what to say to or about them, other than it was fun to watch.  And in all likelihood, that's really the key to the success of the show--they know how to pick the most entertaining fans to be contestants.

Jeruschka White and Caryn Capotosto:

And finally, the last movie of the night was "Anvil!  The Story of Anvil".  More than any movie so far, I was convinced this was at least partly a mockumentary.  Not that I can't believe they exist, but there's just too many obvious references in the movie to the greatest hard rock mockumentary of all time--"This is Spinal Tap".  In a way, it plays like a real life Spinal Tap.  Childhood friends Steven "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner (yes, nearly the same as "Spinal Tap" director Rob Reiner) made a pact to rock together forever.  35 years on, in their 50's, they're still trying to make it big.  Okay, just to get it out of the way, the other Spinal Tap references I caught (and I'm sure I'm forgetting one): Yes, Robb Reiner is the drummer.  There's a close-up shot of an amp being turned up to 11.  They visit Stonehenge.  It begins and ends with their only successful shows--of course in Japan!  That opening show was in the 1980's in a Heavy Metal tour with up-and-comers like Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer, Bon Jovi (actually, I can't remember if all of them were on the show).  And they rocked the house, with shocking antics like playing the guitar with a vibrating dildo.  Other touring rockers acknowledged that they were pushing the envelope, and the goal became to out-do Anvil.  Well, every other band on that tour ended up selling over a million albums.  But not Anvil.  35 years later, Steven and Robb are still best friends, although they fight all the time.  They work blue collar jobs around Toronto (Steven for a children's catering company, I forget what Robb does).  When they can book a tour, it's their vacation they pay for--it's not a money maker.  But when they do tour and run into other famous rockers, the rockers know and respect them.  They've made 12 albums ("Metal on Metal" was their one big "hit", and was influential on a lot of other band), but even they acknowledge most of them sucked.  They've suffered under bad or no management.  They've had poorly produced albums.  And when they're booked for a 10,000 seat show, only a few hundred show up.  I know, it seems like a joke, but the Internets swear it's true.  This follows their last big shot at fame (which might be this movie), as they take a tour through Europe, try to reconnect with the producer who made "Metal on Metal", and take one last stab at success in Japan.  It's funny, it's tragic, it's emotionally bare--it's heavy metal, Anvil style.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Jason watches "Chanbara Beauty"

So in addition to Docfest, Indiefest is putting on a month-long series of Midnight Circus shows (all Japanese cult films), and last night's film was "Chanbara Beauty", which is apparently based on a video game I've never heard of.  It's a dystopian future, a mad scientist has created a resurrection formula that turns people into zombies.  Whatever, plot's not important.  What is important is a Japanese babe clad in a fur bikini and cowboy hat rampages the countryside cutting down zombies, and eventually her sister (in a way too silly final showdown).  But let me reiterate--fur bikini clad cowgirl zombie assassin.  There's like no order you can put those words in that isn't awesome, even if the movie itself was pretty cheesy.  Oh yeah, and she has a fat cowardly sidekick as comic relief.  The end.

Jason goes to Docfest--opening night

The team at SF Indiefest has gone a little nuts with their biggest festival ever. It goes for three weeks, and it all started last night.

The opening night gala was Abel Ferrara's ode to New York's famous Chelsea Hotel, "Chelsea on the Rocks". Interesting trivia, Ferrara was originally supposed to be just one interview subject in the movie (as he's lived part time at the Chelsea), but he sort of took the project over. It starts with interviews of some of the eclectic personalities that live there--full time or part time. Some are famous like Dennis Hopper, Ethan Hawke, Milos Forman, or Robert Crumb. Some are unknowns, anonymous old ladies, drug dealers, painters, musicians, philosophers. Some are "archival footage" (at least, that's how they're credited, although it's really re-enactments) or Jerry Garcia, Andy Warhol, Sid Vicious, Nancy Spungen (Sid's girlfriend who died at the Chelsea--allegedly murdered by Sid), Janis Joplin, etc. None of them are introduced, and there's no words on screen identifying them--you either know who they are or it's not that important. But the one guy you have to learn about is Stanley Bard. For decades he's run the Chelsea, and run it his way. If he liked you, you were family. If he hated you (and allegedly, he hated Ferrara) it was a different story. But he did it his way, and created a sort of haven for...anything, I guess. The important thing--which if you (like me) didn't know you learn halfway through the movie--is that he's selling the Chelsea, it's the end of an era, and many of the longtime artist residents won't be able to live there anymore (for example, if you were family you didn't have to sign a lease, but that lease would be damn handy now). The chaos and turbulence of the moment (in the lives of people who can already run on the pretty chaotic and turbulent side of the spectrum) is the emotional heart of the movie, making the memories of past Chelsea residents (Mark Twain, Arthur Miller) all the more poignant. It's strange, I'm left with a feeling of nostalgia for a place I've never been.

Anyway, Abel couldn't (or just didn't) make it out for the screening, but producers Jen Gatien and David Wasserman were there for a Q&A:

Next up was the co-opening night film, "Kassim, the Dream". It's a remarkably narrative documentary about the life of and career of boxer Kassim Ouma. Born in war-torn Uganda, at a age 6, Kassim was kidnapped by rebels and forced to become a child soldier. Memories of those killings still haunt him. After the rebels seized power, he became an official army soldier, and learned to box in the army barracks. He took to it quickly, and became a champion in the army leagues, still as a teenager. The Ugandan team got visas to go to the U.S. for an international military boxing tournament, and he promptly deserted and defected to the U.S. He spoke nearly no English, but found a boxing gym, made friends, and worked his way up to Junior Middleweight Champion of the World (the film opens on his title-winning fight). He's now a brash, young American success story, who fights hard and parties equally hard (which causes him to lose at least one fight). But he still fights under both the American and Ugandan flags, and at age 27, he gets a visa to return to Uganda, get an official military discharge (so he's no longer wanted for desertion, which is a capital crime), and tour the country as a sports hero. There are new rebels fighting the current government, in a state of perpetual war with a new generation of child soldiers (although there happens to be a cease-fire during his visit). Suddenly, the brash, cocky American success story is an emotionally wrecked African boy, as he relives too much of his trauma through the new generation. A village that performs a memorial play of an attack is too much for him. And visiting his father's grave he collapses into a puddle of tears (his father was executed by the government after his desertion, and Kassim obviously blames himself). A very good, well told, and emotionally powerful movie.

And that's the start of Docfest, 2008.
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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Jason watches "Death Note II: the Last Name"

Thanks to Fathom Events, I got to see the sequel to the manga adaptation I saw at Asianfest.  First, a few notes.  First, it was projected on digital video instead of film.  Probably doesn't make much difference to most people, but there's a clear difference from the front row.  Not distracting, but a distinct step down in look from the film version I saw of part I.  Second, after the credits it included a special bonus making-of video, which wasn't really that special.  Fanboys will like it, but I was bored, tired, and just wanted to go home.  Third, it was dubbed instead of subtitled.  This was the only distracting part, as it had been so long since I've seen a dubbed movie (everything in film festivals is subtitled).  I have no idea if it was bad dubbing or good dubbing, but dubbing definitely made it cheesier. 

Okay, as for the story.  As we ended part 1, Light Yagami (Kira, the deadly force of justice with a death note) was just meeting and teaming up with L, the brilliant detective tasked with tracking down Kira.  Meanwhile, a second Death Note is given to Misa Amane, a young singer who witnessed her whole family die.  She's Kira's biggest fan, and starts killing not just criminals but anyone who criticizes Kira (and she goes by the name of Kira II).  She's also sold half her life in order to get Shirigami eyes, which let her see people's true names.  Light is horrified by her murders, but intrigued that if she can arrange for her to meet L, he can learn his true name and kill him.  So an intense cat-and-mouse game begins.  Surprising twists always (usually) kept me guessing, and it was really a brilliant, clever way to wrap everything up.   I'm definitely glad I saw it.  Although I haven't gotten around to reading the manga or seeing the anime yet.