Monday, March 30, 2009

Jason watches AGAINST THE TIDE

Last week I saw a special presentation courtesy of the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. A presentation of the Wiesenthal Center's Moriah Films division's latest work, AGAINST THE TIDE, directed by Richard Trank and narrated by Dustin Hoffman.

AGAINST THE TIDE is the story of Peter Bergson (born Hillel Kook), a Lithuanian who moved to America and worked on Zionist causes. When the first reports came in about the Jews in the Nazi death camps, he dropped everything else and started working full time petitioning the government and leading Jewish groups to engage in rescue efforts. The strange and tragic thing was how much resistance he faced. The standard wisdom was the only goal (and the best way to save the Jews of Europe) was to win the war, and anything that distracted from that was counter-productive. More importantly, there was a definite fear among the mainstream Jewish communities that being too vocal would make WWII "the Jew's war" and weaken support overall. So Bergson and his group launched a populist propaganda campaign, taking out controversial ads in the newspaper, and lining up a surprising amount of followers in the entertainment industry and in congress (most surprising is how many of his best allies were non-Jews).

The movie does a great job of mixing his struggle with the struggle of the Jews in the concentration camps. There are some really amazing stories, mostly courtesy of a group of Polish Jews who worked to document as much as they could in the camps, and buried their records (only 2 of the 3 caches were ever recovered). The deaths are, of course, included. But there's also some amazing stories, like the unbelievable courage and faith required to play a smuggled Shofar in Auschwitz on Rosh Hashanah. Or baking matzoh for Passover (and yes, there's only one oven available, but you do what you must). Or the extraordinary story of Denmark, who rose up en masse and challenged the Nazis, smuggling their small Jewish population by fishing boats to Sweden (which was neutral). In the process they completely exposed the lie that rescue operations don't work.

It's sometimes excruciating to watch. Although you know how it ends, I kept waiting for the one small victory, the small group of Jews that the Bergson saved. Or if only Winston Churchill's order to bomb the tracks leading to Auschwitz hadn't been intercepted and killed (by an American officer, as they were really running the war by then). There are a small number, mere thousands near the end of the war, that rescue efforts saved, and while every life is important you can't help but think too little, too late. Bergson's vindication really comes from history, where A) we can acknowledge that he was right when it was hard to be right, and B) when his "radical" tactics are used by pretty much all activist groups.

As always, Moriah films and Richard Trank make an engaging movie about a near-forgotten aspect of a story that must never be forgotten.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Jason goes to SFIAAFF--Closing Night

Finally, the last day of the festival, and I'm only blogging it 3 days after the fact. I'm exhausted.

First up was ADELA, a tearjerker from the slums of the Philippines. The title character is an old widow, well known and loved in her poor community, but still essentially alone. It follows her travels through the trash dump of a community (literally, trash piled everywhere) on her 80th birthday party. She helps birth a child, she sings with some friends at a bar (a combination celebration for the newborn and her 80th birthday). She watches corrupt politicians hustle for votes, young thieves hustle for money, and generally a world of decay and degradation. She watches over it as sort of a respected but ignored elder statesman, and the world is so pitiful and cruel you can almost see her begging for the sweet release of death with every long gaze. A deeply moving look at a deeply impoverished world.

Mix Tape 4: The MSG Addict
LOBSTER SCHMOBSTER: Hilarious sketch animation of a lobster caught in a trap and escaping a kitchen.
GOOD NIGHT: Cool Psychological sci-fi thriller of a man who had his ability to sleep surgically removed to get ahead.
SON OF GOLEM: Post-apocalyptic zombie just won't shut the fuck up.
SELF-ABSORBED: A vain woman puts on a necklace and turns into a giant blue mop. That's her super power.
PARTY HATS ON, PLEASE: An escalation of schoolkid violence, at a little girl's birthday party.
LITTLE PHOENIX AND THE REIGN OF FISTS: Chick fight! Chick fight! Chick fight! Chick fight! Chick fight! Chick fight! Chick fight! Chick fight! Awesome!
STILL FOR NOW: Never buy a house if the previous owner, Gregor Samsa, is nowhere to be found. He might just be inside the walls.
SYNCHRONICITY SERIES: Cool stop motion animation of real people. Damn lab coats can do anything.
GOOD LUCK COUNTING SHEEP: Dolly the cloned sheep in a coffee shop, giving away Celine Dion tickets?
THE OTHERS: Lou Diamond Philips! Lou Diamond Philips! Lou Diamond Philips! Lou Diamond Philips! Lou Diamond Philips! Lou Diamond Philips! Lou Diamond Philips! Awesome!

Next up was the jury winner for best documentary, MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN: ISLAM AND FEMINISM IN WEST VIRGINIA. Asra Nomani is a respected journalist, a Wall Street Journal correspondent who reported from Pakistan shortly after 9/11 (incidentally, she was a good friend of Daniel Pearl, and currently leads the Pearl Project at Georgetown University). Upon returning to her childhood hometown of Morgantown, WV, she discovers that the only mosque in town is run by what she considers an extremist old boys club. So she sets out to change that, making headlines in 2003 by insisting on walking through the front door and praying in the main hall (instead of the segregated room or balcony where the women pray). The movie walks a fine line being hero worship/advocacy and balance. Director Brittany Huckabee is definitely on Nomani's side, but there's really no story without an explanation of the other side. At the extreme, there are people who believe that Islam decrees women to be subservient to men. A little more moderate are those who simply point out that the way Muslims bow in prayer sticks their butts up in the air, and it's not that good for women's modesty to mix them in with men. Others completely agree with Nomani, but think her tactics are too in-your-face, and that she should be more patient and work to change things slowly (basically that her problem isn't what she wants, but how quickly she wants it. Also that she is too demanding and doesn't work within community channels). It could be the influence of the movie, or it could by my good old liberal white male guilt, but I'm completely on her side. The most interesting part was just how difficult (impossible) it is to put together an active (to say nothing of activist) moderate movement. We are left, even here in America, with a mosque populated by moderates but run by extremists, because moderates can't come together and work for a common goal. Fascinating and more than a little disturbing.

Then from a dramatic documentary we moved on to a romantic comedy with KARMA CALLING. Opening with the voice of Tony Sirico as the Hindu god Ganesha (aka "G"), we know this is going to be something different. G quickly introduces us (in an animated opening sequence) to the main characters. The Raj family are Americans, living in Hoboken (so it makes sense their god is voiced by Tony Sirico). Dad Ram drives a taxi, but is falling deeper in debt every day. His wife Bebe keeps everything together while working in a lingerie store (appropriately named the Busy Lady). Their eldest son Shyam thinks he's a gangsta rapper, their eldest daughter Sonal is a college grad now working a lousy job in a company that makes artificial plants. And their youngest daughter Jamuna just wants a Bat Mitzvah like all her friends (Jews, represent!) Then we throw in some more characters. Mausi (I think Ram's mother) moves in and immediately tells them all they're doing wrong (like eating meat, being wasteful, being too American and not Indian enough). Radha is a young lady who is arranged to marry a dollar store manager who's a total zero. She needs a hero, like...Shyam? The Hindu gangsta rapper who wrote "Hapa means weed in Japanese"? Yeah, that's perfect for her. Meanwhile Sonal is carrying on a romance with a call center operator who she thinks is in Connecticut, but really "Rob Roy" is in India. If this sounds like a setup for wacky're right. If you think it's too complicated to pull it all together, don't worry so much. Sit back, enjoy the jokes, and trust that G will work it all out in his own way. Maybe giving him a little milk wouldn't hurt, though.

My only regret is that I couldn't stay for the Q&A because I had to rush out to catch the final film of the night, the brutal Korean action flick, THE CHASER. A cat and mouse game with an ex-cop turned pimp and the serial killer (played by Jung-woo Ha of MY DEAR ENEMY, the opening night film) who is taking his girls. At first the pimp (Kim Jung-ho, played by Yun-seok Kim) thinks his girls are either running away or are being stolen and sold by a rival. When he sends one of his girls, single mother Mi-jin Kim (Yeong-hie Seo) to a number that he belatedly recognizes as the last number all his missing girls went to, the chase is on. And I can't say anything else, because I don't want to spoil anything. Police get involved, but poo flung at the mayor of Seoul becomes a huge distraction. It's a tight, tense, brutal thriller that I could throw any number of cliches at ("edge of my seat", etc.) But I'll just end by saying it kept me surprised and a little shocked all through to the end.

And so ends the 2009 edition of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. Awesome, now I'll go get some sleep.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Jason goes to SFIAAFF--Day 10

One final weekend for the festival in San Jose.

First up was a political documentary double feature, starting with the longish short (~30 minutes) A SONG FOR OURSELVES, about Chris Iijima. Chris Iijima was an activist, a folk singer, and an inspiration for a generation of Asian Americans, pioneering a vision of a politically and culturally powerful Asian American identity. The movie's a solid tribute to him, interviewing friends and family to get a brief look at the man.

Next was the longer documentary (~60 minutes), PATSY MINK: AHEAD OF THE MAJORITY. Patsy Takemoto Mink was elected to Congress in 1964 and was the first woman of color in Congress. She spoke out against the Vietnam War, and worked on a lot of civil and gender rights legislation, most notably Title IX. The movie traces her early life, frequent discrimination, eventual triumphs, her failed Presidential bid (nominated by an Oregon grass-roots group), her years out of politics, and her return to Congress in the 1990's. Patsy is definitely an inspiring character, and a true original. But the movie is a less inspiring simple PBS biography, with an unfortunate overuse of voice-over narration. I've seen narration used well and narration used poorly, and this is sadly one of the latter examples. One clear example of unnecessary narration is when she graduates from college as pre-med, but can't get into Medical school because none of them will take women. The voice over narration goes on to explain that she faced gender discrimination. No duh! If you believe you had to spell that out, you must not think much of your audience.

Anyway, I had to skip out on the last few minutes of PATSY MINK because I made a horrible miscalculation on time (maybe because A SONG FOR OURSELVES wasn't originally listed in the program?) I hate it when I do that, but I skipped over to the other screen to walk into THE EQUATION OF LOVE AND DEATH about 10 minutes late. I came in just in time to see two men talking to a guy with long hair sitting on the railway of a highway overpass. Suddenly he jumps off to his death, landing on a car. The driver gets out, and looks up at the men looking down at him. Suddenly one of the men accidentally drops a magazine. The driver picks it up, and it's fully of pictures of himself clipped inside. So he chases them to find out WTF is going on. And it gets weirder still. The two men get into a cab (I figured out later they were originally in the cab, and stole the magazine from the driver) and escape. The older, dominant one complains of a stomachache and goes to sleep after taking a few pills. The younger one starts going on about the girl he's looking for. The cab driver (oh yeah, who is played by the lovely Li Mi) thinks based on the description he might be looking for a waitress at a restaurant she frequents. He's overjoyed. Meanwhile, his partner wakes up, starts ranting about something, and a knife falls out of his pocket. It becomes clear that they're criminals, and suddenly the cab drive turns into a kidnapping. And it gets weirder still. This is the fast-paced, exciting, dangerous, and also romantic world of THE EQUATION OF LOVE AND DEATH. It's a movie that kept me intrigued from the get-go, and kept surprising me with each new reveal. Absolutely awesome.

Next up was the winner of the special jury award for narrative feature, CHILDREN OF INVENTION. Based on director Tze Chun's true life childhood, it's the story of a single mother and her two children Raymond and Tina (another family picture) are struggling to survive in the Boston suburbs. She works a variety of odd jobs, mostly in direct marketing, but still can't make the payments on their house. Their father has left them, and although he claims to be in Providence RI, he's really in Hong Kong (and doesn't pay hardly any of his court-ordered child support). Nearly homeless, they move into a model home run by a friend of hers. They can live there rent free, as long as they're not discovered. They still go to school, and she goes to a number of odd jobs, but they are forced to live in secret. Things just get worse when the mother joins a marketing company that is obviously a pyramid scheme (worse still, a scheme that targets new immigrants). It could be a wrenching tragedy, but Tze Chun has a unique sense of humor that can wring some laughs out of children left to fend for themselves. The title comes from a series of inventions Raymond has created (e.g., a handheld electric fan + plastic fork + tape = spaghetti spinner), and when mom is gone for a long time they decide they have to make and sell these inventions in order to survive. Very well done.

CHILDREN OF INVENTION is currently playing at many festivals, and they're self-releasing on DVD, selling it after their screenings. I've picked up my DVD ($20), which includes Tze Chun's precursor short, WINDOWBREAKER (which I could've sworn I've seen, but looking back at my archives I didn't. At least not when it played at SFIAAFF 2007)

And finally, the last film I saw Saturday night was Deepa Mehta's HEAVEN ON EARTH. The title is ironic, to say the least, and not just because it takes place in Canada. Chand is moving from India to Toronto for her arranged marriage. However, she doesn't realize she's moving into a family where her mother-in-law berates her, her husband beats her (not so subtly, he's named Rocky), she's responsible for earning a living (with her paycheck deposited directly into her husband's account) and for cooking and serving the whole family. And then it takes a weird magic realism fantasy turn, as a love potion a Jamaican friend gives her to slip into Rocky's drink first nearly kills him and then awakens a giant cobra in the yard. The cobra can take human form, and takes the form of Rocky, but a tender, loving Rocky. The fantasy element is interesting...but just weird. Mostly it's about a woman who gets beaten a lot and can't do much about it. And I'm tired of watching those stories. Overall, this was a big disappointment.

And that was Saturday. Just one last day (5 movies) left to write up.

Jason goes to SFIAAFF--Day 9

And now the festival moves to San Jose, for its second opening night party.

The film was WHITE ON RICE, which was the flat-out funniest film in the festival. Hiroshi Watanabe plays Jimmy, a Japanese man-child and former film extra who has moved to America to stay with his sister and brother-in-law while trying to get back on his feet. His wife has left him and he really doesn't know how to take care of himself. Seriously, she left him 3 months of pre-cooked food, and when he ran out he starved for a while and then came to America. His sister Aiko is extremely (overly?) patient with him, but his brother-in-law Tak wants him out...or dead, either way is pretty good. He does get along pretty well with Bob, his 10 year old nephew (who's a child genius, but ignored in all the pandemonium that Jimmy causes). That's good, since they share a bunk bed. Things will only improve when he gets a new wife. And he has the perfect target--Tak's beautiful neice Ramona (I guess she's only a neice-in-law to him, so it's not that creepy? Okay, it is). Hilarity most definitely ensues. Very hilarious.

Most of the cast was there, as was writer/director Dave Boyle. The Q&A was cool, and then over to the after party at the San Jose Museum of Art. A few drinks, some delicious food (love that guava cake!) and finally I had to hop on the bus home.

Jason goes to SFIAAFF--Day 8

Last Thursday was the (San Francisco) closing night gala, even though I was only 2/3 of the way through with the festival.

First they announced the jury award winners:
Best Narrative Feature: HALF-LIFE (and I agree wholeheartedly!)
Narrative Feature Special Jury Award: CHILDREN OF INVENTION (which I saw later in San Jose, and was also great)

Best Documentary Feature: A MOSQUE IN MORGANTOWN (which I saw later in San Jose, and I agree)
Documentary Special Jury Award: DIRTY HANDS: THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF DAVID CHOE (which I missed, and am bummed I missed)

Then on to the closing night film, the Korean movie, TREELESS MOUNTAIN. Another family story, although this one is a family without a father, and pretty quickly without a mother. Jin is 6 years old, and lives with her mom and little sister Bin. Dad is gone, and when things get too difficult mom leaves the girls with Big Auntie to go look for dad. They have a piggy bank, and Auntie promises that every day they're good they get a coin. When the piggy bank is full, mommy will return. The movie stays solidly in the children's' point of view, especially Jin, who has to grow up very quickly. Thing is, Auntie likes to drink and doesn't like to take care of children, so Jin has to take responsibility for herself and for Bin. A big burden to lay on a 6 year old who doesn't quite know what's going on. The movie is quiet, deep, and sentimental without being sappy. And it has some amazing performances by the two child actors (which is also a bit of a theme in the festival--see CHILDREN OF INVENTION, which I haven't written about yet).

Jason goes to SFIAAFF--Day 7

My only day of SFIAAFF at the PFA this year, and it was also the last of the Kiyoshi Kurosawa mini-retrospective, and another double feature of revenge movies.

THE REVENGE: A VISIT FROM FATE is probably Kurosawa's most clearly straightforward genre picture (at least of this retrospective). It opens with two yakuza coming into a house and murdering an entire family. Or most of a family, the youngest son hides upstairs. One of the yakuza finds him, but he's the timid and doesn't want to kill, so he lets the kid live. That kid grows up to be a policeman, played by the inimitable Sho Aikawa (best thing about the Kurosawa retrospective: it has made me a Sho Aikawa fan). He's a good cop, but never carries his gun. Not because he's a pacifist, but because he's afraid of what he'll do with it. He's also a loving husband, but when the yakuza he's after go after his wife, he boils over, quits the force, and he gets his revenge (and of course, it involves the yakuza who killed his family in the beginning). Hard core, straight-faced violence.

Then they shows, THE REVENGE: THE SCAR THAT NEVER FADES, same characters, several years later. Sho Aikawa's character is now deep undercover in the yakuza. Or maybe he's really a yakuza now. All records that he was ever a cop have been destroyed, and he's working his way up the yakuza ladder to take out the head. He's now gone full bad-ass mode, with revenge his only motivation. His quest is complicated both by the multiple layers of yakuza hierarchy, and by the policeman who's trying to find him. But nothing can stop him. He doesn't want revenge, he needs revenge like a junkie needs his fix. Kurosawa said this is his first full expression of his directorial style, and it's hard to argue. Pretty awesome.

Jason goes to SFIAAFF--Day 6

Tuesday night started with the jury award winner for best narrative, and I agree with the jury.

HALF-LIFE is Jennifer Phang's feature film directorial debut, and it's a wild near-future, near-apocalyptic adventure. It takes place in a Diablo Valley town (oh yeah, it's kind of local to the Bay Area, too, so that was extra cool), and in a future where global flooding, solar flares, and chainsaw suicides are common news fodder. The story is about a family. The father is gone, lost in an accident (maybe?) while piloting an airplane. Daughter Pam sweeps out the airplane hangar and tries to fly herself--by jumping off the roof. Her little brother Tim is even stranger, and is developing telekinetic powers. Their mom spends all day with her live-in leech of boyfriend, who hits on Pam when mom's not around (makes sense, he's closer to her age. But still, gross!). Weird stuff, of course, happens. There are even splashes of animation in there. A thoroughly ambitious debut, that meets its ambitions fully.

Next up was ALL AROUND US, a Japanese modern romantic epic. Kanao and Shoko love each other, and so they get married. They get pregnant, but their infant daughter dies, and Shoko falls into depression. Kanao quits his job as a shoe salesman and gets a job as a courtroom sketch artist. Somehow his laid-back, unflappable demeanor is perfect for both documenting some horribly perverse criminals, and for working in the high-stress, fast-paced job in the news business. But all the time, he's thinking more of poor Shoko. He's the unflappable anchor for her nervous perfectionism, and over the years (several, several years), and through all types of troubles they grow to love each other more and more. At times it's funny (slapstick and dark, grisly humor) and at other times sweet, romantic drama (even melodrama). But it's also very long (140 minutes) and I was very tired, and dozed off a bit at the end. Good news, I can find it on Japanese DVD. Bad news, it's $55. I'll have to think about whether I want to spend that much...I probably do.

Jason goes to SFIAAFF--Day 5

Okay, I'm slowly catching up. 2 movies last Monday.

First up was THE FORGOTTEN WOMEN, a companion piece to Deepa Mehta's WATER. I saw WATER at the closing night of Cinequest 2006. Here's what I wrote about it then:
Directed by Deepa Mehta, this is the third chapter in her "elements" trilogy (the first two being "Fire" and "Earth", which I haven't seen but now want to see). The movie takes place in 1938 India (during the rise of Ghandi for those of you who are history semi-illiterate like me) in a house for widows. In some Hindu traditions, it is believed that husband and wife become one and if a husband dies, the wife is half-dead. She becomes unclean and must remain faithful to her dead husband for the rest of her life. Mix that with arranged marriage at a young age and you can end up with 8 year old widows being stuck in a widow house to beg and starve for their entire lives. And that's exactly what happens to young Chuyia at the start of the film. Although horribly traumatized, her naturally sweet and innocent nature brings some life to the widow house. This does not please the morbidly obese head widow of the house, who rules with a mixture of fear, shame, and pimping out the younger widows so the house will have money for food (so much for remaining faithful to your dead husband!). The twenty-something widow-prostitute Kalyani (the beautiful Lisa Ray) quickly befriends Chuyia (who's the only one not afraid to go to her room where she, as a prostitute, is even more unclean than a typical widow and must be kept away from the other good widows). Meanwhile, in the outside world Ghandi is doing his thing and bringing in new ideas, including ending the apalling treatment of widows. A young man who is a follower of Ghandi catches Kalyani's eye, and she his. And, of course, this can only lead to trouble. A powerful film which was so controversial the production was kicked out of India (where it's officially banned) and had to finish in Sri Lanka.
Well, THE FORGOTTEN WOMEN is directed by Deepa's brother, the Dilip Mehta, who is an accomplished photographer. It's the documentary companion piece to WATER, and looks at the lives of abandoned Indian widows today. It shows their poverty, the homes they live in, some of the people who work hard to make better homes for them, and some of the people (all men) who still believe they should be abandoned. The subject is compelling, of course. And Dilip being a photographer of course it's very well filmed (I wouldn't say it looks good, because the point is it often looks painful, but the cinematography is top-notch). But I felt it lacked a certain direction. It was like Dilip threw all the images he could at the screen, but didn't have enough of narrative focus to keep it moving forward. Instead, it was a sprawling, rambling mess. The ramblings were very important, but it was almost like you could've walked in and out of the movie at any point and still gotten the same experience.

Next up was THE SPEED OF LIFE, a wonderful little mixed-format (video, 16mm, super-8) New York story. The story revolves around Sammer. His father's (supposedly) in Alaska working on the fishing boats, his big brother's in prison, and his brother's probation officer, Frank, is a big fat jerk with anger control issues. Sammer and his friends steal video cameras from tourists and play back the tapes in a room full of monitors. When Frank asks Sammer to spy on a weird old homeless man (in exchange for going easy on his brother), Sammer is confused, but agrees to do it anyway. And when that old man goes to the top floor of an office building and jumps out a window, things get really strange. This movie boasts a visual ingenuity that matches it's narrative invention, and kept me slightly confused (although all is explained in the end) intrigued, and entertained throughout. Excellent.

Jason goes to SFIAAFF--Day 4

Sunday, Asianfest continues, starting with YOU DON'T KNOW JACK: THE JACK SOO STORY. If you remember "Barney Miller" on TV (and I barely do), you may remember Jack Soo as the deadpan Sgt. Nick Yemana. Well, here's some things you might not know about Jack. He was born Goro Suzuki (yes, that's a Japanese name). He started entertaining at a young age, and was an exceptional singer. He was put in internment camps during WWII, where he often emceed entertainment nights (learned a lot about live performance there). When he was offered an entertainment job in Cleveland, he had to change his name to Jack Soo so it would sound Chinese, not Japanese. He honed a lot of his comic timing working with Jack Benny. His big break was in "Flower Drum Song" on Broadway (and eventually in the movie version). He wanted to change his name back to Suzuki, but by then he was known as Jack Soo, and since FLOWER DRUM SONG is a Chinese-American story and they already had too many Japanese names in the credits (including a Suzuki), the name Jack Soo stuck. This movie was interesting, illuminating, and funny. But at one hour, it was pretty brief. I can't help but think there's more to be said about Jack.

But as it is, one hour was perfect because I had to run out during the credits (so sorry I missed the Q&A), to catch the next program.

That next program was the shorts program "Family Portraits." I've mentioned before that family seems to play a larger role this year in SFIAAFF than it has been in previous years:
GRAND TETON: Julia Kim Smith, with her mother and sister, recreates a family portrait taken 35 years ago.
DIDA REEMA ANJANA: Three generations of Indian women, living (or trying to live) their dreams, sometimes clashing with tradition.
WET SEASON: Stop-motion daddy issues. With a skeleton.
KATONG FUGUE: I...don't remember this at all. I remember there was one short that was scheduled but didn't play. I can't remember which program, or which short. Maybe this was it?
ONE FOR THREE: I...don't remember this one, either. Obviously I shouldn't be waiting a week (and 20-some movies) before I write up my reviews. I'm so sorry.
WANDA & MILES: It's difficult moving all the time. Especially if the worry makes you scratch a big scabby hole in your head.
DIM SUM AND THE RACETRACK: Suilma Rodriguez looks through her late father's possessions, remembering the times he took them to Dim Sum and the times he too often spent gambling away all their money.
A GREEN MOUNTAIN IN THE DRAWER: Dreamlike (very dreamlike) story of an old woman getting a letter, going back to Korea, and remembering the war. And forgetting her family in America (they hardly ever visit her, anyway).

Next up was the Sikh-Canadian-American story, OCEAN OF PEARLS. Dr. Amrit Singh is apparently a genius, because despite his young age he's the premier transplant specialist in the world. He works at a hospital in Toronto, but is recruited by a hospital in Detroit that's looking to start it's own state-of-the-art transplant center. He's very successful, very smart, but still has to deal with prejudice because he wears a turban, as is Sikh custom. This means he's always pulled aside for extra checks at the airport, he's hassled by idiot racists who don't know that Sikhs are not Muslims and had nothing to do with 9/11 (not that harassing innocent Muslims is a good thing, either. But harassing Sikhs is way, way off the mark). Even in the hospital, where he's widely respected, he has to compete for the chief's job against a Senator's son who's a "better face" to show prospective investors. So his life is a tightrope act between his goals and his traditions, and that conflict drives the story. The story itself is fairly predictable, with some painful cliches (an almost affair with a board member of the hospital could be completely cut). As a Sikh movie...well, it feels like you could adapt the story to any group that faces discrimination and a conflict between assimilation and tradition. Sikh was just the flavor they dropped on this movie. It's more or less competently made, but it's something you've seen time and time again, just with different faces on it.

And then Sunday ended with the Times of Departure shorts program:
BEIJING HAZE: I knew it, I did see this before. At Cinequest, last year. Still a pretty good movie.
THE DWELLING: Homeless dignity, with an amazing man living in Tokyo.
NOT HERE: Is it so hard to find a place to fuck?
HOMECOMING (KELUAR BARIS): I don't know, this was missing the English subtitles. A guy comes home, then has to go to war?
FLUTTER: Paper wings on his feet, he flies through different animated worlds.
CROCODILE: A paragon of quiet strength. Good role model for a boy living in a difficult home life.
SAVE ME: Korean Americans at church, talking about church, and why they go (and sometimes how they don't want to be there).
ANDHERI: Hey, I just saw this yesterday, in the 3rd I Shorts program. Still good.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Jason goes to SFIAAFF--Day 3

I'm way behind in my updates. In fact, I'm a full week behind, further behind than I've ever been. It's daunting. I think it's pretty much guaranteed that next Monday will be spent updating this blog. But in the meantime, I'll try to catch up a little bit.

Saturday morning, The Kiyoshi Kurosawa theme continued, starting with his short film SOUL DANCING, starring Tadanobu Asano (the coolest freakin' actor in all of Japan, if not the world). A weird little movie about a stranger who goes to a village, makes friends, takes them to the city. There's fighting, then there's friendship, then there's (more) dancing. Apparently commissioned by a drink company, the only requirement is that he show the drink label sometime in the movie (which he does in the opening and closing sequences). They got a lot more than they bargained for.

That was followed by the feature, LICENSE TO LIVE. The movie starts with a young man awakening from a coma. His name is Yoshi, he's 24 years old, and has been in a coma for 10 years. One of the first people to visit him is the man who put him in the coma (Yoshi was riding his bike when the man hit him with his car). He wants Yoshi to know that his life has been hell over it. Yoshi goes to find his family, only to discover his family has disintegrated. His parents have divorced and aren't talking to each other, and his sister has moved out. Although they come visit him, they have their own lives and aren't about to go out of their way to incorporate him into it. So he goes to work for an old family friend who has turned the old family dude ranch into a carp farm. Eventually, he decides he wants to reopen his father's dude ranch, starting with a pony ride. As he tries to build a life from what he has an what he remembers, weird things happen. All around, it's a weird movie, with scenes of slapstick absurd comedy and high melodrama. Interestingly, "family" has been a bit of a theme in the festival, especially broken families (okay, family is always important, but it seems this year it features in the festival even more prominently). But in LICENSE TO LIVE, family becomes the most important element by virtue of not existing. This is the strange world that Kiyoshi Kurosawa plays in.

Next up was the documentary, PROJECT KASHMIR. Two women--Senain Kheshgi and Geeta Patel--travel to the Kashmir region, where India and Pakistan are fighting for control (and have been practically since partition). Senain is a Muslim, Geeta a Hindu, but they've been friends in America for a long time. Now they travel to a world where that difference--which isn't normally important to them--means everything. Rather than attempting to make a comprehensive movie approaching the conflict from a political or military perspective, they make a very personal movie about their experiences there. They meet friends--journalists, activists, community leaders--who are trying to do something about the situation. And they interview ordinary people on the street (at least those who aren't afraid to speak to them). But there's something very strange about their approach (or about that region), that things are left unsaid and unexplained. The way the movie is edited emphasises the confusion, the end result feeling like a cinema verite dream sequence. In the Q&A afterwards, one of the directors (oh yeah, Senain and Geeta co-directed the movie) made a comment about "The kind of silence that makes you feel like there are explosions everywhere". And that pretty much sums up this odd but compelling movie.

Next up was a more conventional hero documentary, WHATEVER IT TAKES. Edward Tom is the principal of a high school in the South Bronx--the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics. The Bronx is one of the poorest school districts in the nation, and consistently has some of the lowest graduation rates. This is the first year for the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, and principal Tom, a Chinese-American in a predominantly African-American and Latino community, has his work cut out for him. But he's up for the task, with charisma and dedication (to the point where his wife is almost left taking care of their young children alone). The movie is definitely a bit of hero worship, but isn't afraid to show the failures, too. Like the student who drops out because of drug charges, or the teacher who leaves after one year. Of all the students, the most compelling (and the one they follow the most) is Sharifea. She's a bright student, but has trouble doing her schoolwork because her mom has...issues, and that forces her to take care of her younger siblings. She could get into a prestigious Dartmouth summer program (that would help her on her path to becoming a doctor), if only she can get her grades up. The movie itself, as I said, is some fairly conventional hero worship. But Edward Tom is worth a little hero worship.

And finally, I wrapped up last Saturday with the 3rd i South Asian Shorts program:

ANDHERI: An Indian servant girl runs away from home, meets an interesting Muslim lady on the bus. Then tragedy happens, and she returns home.
MIDNIGHT LOST AND FOUND: Love blossoms in the middle of the Mumbai night...between a prostitute and the pharmacist she buys her condoms from.
REWIND: Awesome, Russian Roulette played backwards with a blind man.
GUNS: A comedy about prop guns for a movie being mistaken for the real thing. At least, it's a comedy up until it becomes a tragedy.
LOVE STORY: A family story about a girl and her parents. A man explains to his daughter why he loves mommy. Turns out, he loves her a bit too much.
TALA: Another family story. Tala is a Bengali-Australian girl, who learns her mother is not quite faithful to her father, leading to a crisis of conscience.

And that was Saturday at Asianfest.

Jason goes to SFIAAFF--Day 2

Friday night was a Kiyoshi Kurosawa night, starting with his new film, TOKYO SONATA. This also played at Cinequest, but I specifically skipped it there so I could see it here, with Kurosawa in attendance (suck on that, everyone who isn't me!) Anyway, the movie is a sometimes subtle (and mostly pretty blatant) drama about fractured Japanese family life, built on deceit. It starts with the father getting laid off at his job (administrative work for a medical device company). Instead of admitting he's unemployed, he dutifully pretends to go to work, instead standing in line for free food. He meets a friend who's been unemployed for months, and knows all the tricks of maintaining appearances. This works for a while. Meanwhile the son Kenji is caught in school passing a manga book. He thinks it's unfair that he's the only one punished, so he calls out the teacher claiming he saw him reading porn on the bus. Kenji becomes a sort of hero at school, although that's not what he wanted at all. On the way home, he passes a piano lesson and becomes enchanted. He asks his parents if he can take piano lessons. Dad immediately says no, without explanation (the explanation, of course, is that he can't afford it--being unemployed and all). So Kenji starts sneaking to lessons on his own (using his lunch money). The deceit eventually comes to a head, but not after a very strange interlude where the mother is kidnapped by the world's least competent thief. Through it all, Kenji turns out to be something of a piano prodigy. The whole thing is a fascinating mix of drama, comedy, suffering, redemption (maybe) and ultimately about the strength of family. No matter how much the characters' actions tear the family apart, family is resilient.

So then I made my way over to the Castro for more Kurosawa films. This time a revenge double feature.

First up, THE SERPENT'S PATH, is the story of a man seeking revenge for his murdered (and sexually tortured) daughter. He and his accomplice (a surprisingly mild-mannered math teacher) kidnap a yakuza and chain him to a wall. The torture him while getting information on the next yakuza, and so on. Lots of black humor (some of the kidnappings are especially slapstick), and a lot of viciousness. Without giving away the big ending twist, I'll say that this film goes to some pretty extreme places, and it's perhaps not surprising that the script was written by Hiroshi Takahashi, the writer behind several J-horror stories, most notably RINGU/THE RING.

Shot at the same time, with just a rough draft of a script, EYES OF THE SPIDER is perhaps Kurosawa's more immediate testament on revenge and violence. It's unavoidable to call this is a companion piece to THE SERPENT'S PATH, even employing the same actor, Sho Aikawa, in a similar role of a father grieving his daughter's murder and then seeking revenge. But in this film, the revenge is over in maybe 20 minutes, and then he turns to his new family. A yakuza friend takes him in, gets him a boring desk job. The boring desk job turns into a hitman job, but is still just as boring. It becomes another hour or so of juxtaposing violence with the mundane, a commentary on the mundanity of violence (or the violence of mundanity). Definitely the harder of the two movies to watch, and not just because it was the more boring one or because it started at nearly midnight. It's hard to reconcile the visceral thrill of the first 20 minutes of revenge with the absolute mundane banality of violence the rest of the way. It's like Kurosawa wants you to watch violence and not be affected by it, but hopefully affected by it's lack of impact (at least, I was...once I thought about it for a day or so).

And that was Friday at Asianfest.

Note to longtime readers: You may notice I've once again changed the convention for movie titles. Now movie titles are all caps (instead of in quotes or underlined/italicized). This seems to be more standard. Exceptions will be made for rare titles that specify capitalization, such as adaptation. (all lower-case, with the period as part of the title). These cases I'll still underline to identify as a title (unless even that doesn't work, in which case I'll just struggle some more).

Friday, March 13, 2009

Jason goes to SFIAAFF--Opening Night

Yesterday was the beginning of the 2009 edition of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (abbreviated SFIAAFF, pronounced "Asianfest"). Always a big party, so here we go.

The night started with a good size crowd at the Castro. Nice to see that movies are still more or less recession-proof (I heard a theory that as times get tough, people give up "extravagant" entertainment in favor of a more modest ~$10 ticket to see a movie. So far this year, I think that's held up). After a few obligatory opening remarks (congratulations, thanks, sponsors, what else you should see in the festival) we settled in for the opening night movie.

That movie was a Korean anti-romantic comedy, My Dear Enemy, by director Lee Yoon-ki. Hee-su (Jeon Do-yeon, winner of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival best actress award for Secret Sunshine) is a young woman who goes to her ex-boyfriend Byeong-woon (Ha Jung-woo, who also stars in The Chaser which I'll end the fest with down in San Jose) to collect on an IOU for $35,000. Byeong-woon is a scamp, a rascal, a happy-go-lucky guy who never gets down, even when he's broke--like he is now. She finds him in a racetrack, broke (the assumption is he gambled away the money, but he swears he didn't). He's also very popular with the ladies, flirting with some who work there before heading out with Hee-su to find her money. Although he doesn't have any money to his name, he has plenty of friends he can call on, turning that single $35,000 IOU into several IOU's of a few hundred to a few thousand each. At first he seems appalling, an irresponsible leech. But as the day winds on, and he collects more an more, we (and Hee-su) learn that maybe's he's not such a bad guy. People are willing to help him out for a reason, and apparently in his better days he was very generous to his friends. It's a subtle, nuanced performance with some sly humor and well rounded characters.

So it's a good movie, maybe even a great movie, didn't feel like an 'Opening Night' movie. I'm going to try to make that distinction here, and I think film festival maniacs will already know what I mean. Festivals are full of smart, independent, challenging movies, but they almost always start off with a less challenging, more fun-with-a-capital-F movie. The idea is that the opening night gala should make me excited to see more films. The laughs should be easier, and maybe not challenge the audience so much--after all, many of us had a drink or two before the film (for the record, I waited for the after party to drink). Opening night films rarely win the audience award. I'd bet they typically get a lot of 4's but very few 5's (on a scale of 5), meaning people enjoy them as solid light entertainment, but are rarely wowed by them. At least, that's the sense I get. I guess what I'm driving at is My Dear Enemy felt like something I'd expect to see in the middle of a festival, not opening night, and that's not an insult. Maybe I've just gone to too many festivals if I'm noticing these things. But for the record, a lot of people I talked to at the after party said the same thing, and there were some rumors that this movie wasn't the original choice for opening night (but I can neither confirm nor deny that).

Anyway, afterwards I hopped a free Zip Car shuttle (sponsored by the festival and Toyota) to the Asian Art Museum for the after party. It was a pretty good party, and always attracts bigwigs from other local festivals (I saw Cinequest people and SF International people there). It did seem a little toned down from the last few years (maybe the economy is hitting their catering budget a bit), but was still a fun, crowded time. Best part, the Maker's Mark bartender who just assumed if you asked for a Manhattan, you meant a Perfect Manhattan (i.e., sweet and dry vermouth).

And that's opening night of Asianfest. Tonight I have a Kyoshi Kurosawa night--Tokyo Sonata plus a double feature of Serpent's Path and Eye of the Spider.

Oh yeah, and follow my tweets with the hash-tag #SFIAAFF09 to follow all my instant reaction to the festival. And remember, I'm an award winning Twit from Cinequest.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Jason does a final review on Cinequest 19

Other than the screeners I have and haven't watched yet...and the screeners I'm trying to get...okay, Cinequest will never really end for me.

First up, I still have heard no word from my travelling festival pass. I left my e-mail address on it, so I'm still hopeful. This experiment was successful at least up until last Friday morning. There's still a chance for success. Whoever has it please e-mail me!

Now, how about some lists. First, the Cinequest 19 movies that I have seen (either in the festival, on screeners, or elsewhere):
As Simple As That (Be hamin sadegi)
Audie & the Wolf
Billy Was a Deaf Kid
Bitter & Twisted
Corpse Run
Cut Loose (Los)
Dancers (Dansen)
Esther's Inheritance (Eszter hagyatéka)
First Person Singular
For My Father (Sof Shavua Be-Tel Aviv)
Garrison Keillor: The Man On the Radio in the Red Shoes
Gotta Dance
Historias Extraordinarias
How Am I Not Going to Love You? (Cómo No Te Voy A Querer)
How To Be...
Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison
Johnny Mad Dog
Killer Poet
Mommy is at the Hairdressers (Maman est chez le coiffeur)
New Brooklyn
Raging Grannies
Ramchand Pakistani
Rock Paper Scissors
Salute - The Peter Norman Story
Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf
Shorts 1
Shorts 2
Shorts 3
Shorts 4
Shorts 5
Shorts 6
Song from the Southern Seas (Pesn’ Juzhnykh Morej)
The Beautiful Blue Danube (Na Lepom Plavom Dunavu)
The Bet (Pari)
The Birth of a Nation
The Compassionate One
The Forest
The Friend (Der Freund)
The Investigator (A Nyomozó)
The Least Among You
The Market: A Tale of Trade (Pazar Bir Ticaret Masali)
The Nature of Existence
The Necessities of Life (Ce qu'il faut pour vivre)
The Response
The Skeptic
The Tour (Turneja)
Two Million Stupid Women
Witch Hunt

The movies I have screeners of but haven't watched yet:
The Caller
The Last Lullaby
Shorts 8: Ida y Vuelta (Round Trip)
Shorts 8: Thanksgiving
Another Man
(Note, I tried to play this screener the other day and it looks to be defective)

The movies I didn't watch because I already had a ticket to see it at the San Francisco Internation Asian American Film Festival (which starts today):
Tokyo Sonata
(As an aside, Cinequest and SFIAAFF always seem to have not just a film that plays both festivals, but is a very high profile film at one or the other. This year Tokyo Sonata is part of a SFIAAFF Kiyoshi Kurosawa tribute. Last year Amal was SFIAAFF's audience award winner and the San Jose opening night film. A few years back, Water was Cinequest's closing night gala, etc.)

The movies I didn't see (and am therefore hoping to get screeners of):
A Police Romance (Un Roman Policier)
All About Dad
Autumn (Sonbahar)
Blue Road
Camila JAM (Nome Proprio)
Crude Independence
Day of Light (Dia de Luz)
El Camino
Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman
Finnish Tango (Finnischer Tango)
Generic Thriller
Get Brunette
Heart of Stone
Life for a Child
Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders
Native Dancer (Baksy)
Night Train (Ye Che)
Ready? OK
Tandoori Love
The Gold Lunch
The Man Who Loved Yngve (Mannen som elsket Yngve)
The Photograph
When My Time Comes (Cuando Me Toque A Mi)
Whiz Kids
Why Am I Doing This?
Shorts 7
Shorts 8
(minus the two screeners mentioned above)

So in total I've seen or will see 64 Cinequest programs, and missed 29. So I saw/will see about 69% of Cinequest 19. Not bad, but I can do better. That number should be more like 100%

So how would I rank the movie I have seen? Well, in broad categories, like this:

The one that was my absolute favorite:

The ones that I really, really loved (if you asked me to name my favorites, these spring to mind first):
The Investigator (A Nyomozó)
The Tour (Turneja)
The Market: A Tale of Trade (Pazar Bir Ticaret Masali)
Historias Extraordinarias
Johnny Mad Dog
Salute - The Peter Norman Story
The Beautiful Blue Danube (Na Lepom Plavom Dunavu)
The Necessities of Life (Ce qu'il faut pour vivre)
Gotta Dance
For My Father (Sof Shavua Be-Tel Aviv)

The ones I liked (all good movies, just somehow didn't break into my top tier. Most movies fall into this category):
Audie & the Wolf
Billy Was a Deaf Kid
Bitter & Twisted
Corpse Run
Cut Loose (Los)
Dancers (Dansen)
Garrison Keillor: The Man On the Radio in the Red Shoes
How Am I Not Going to Love You? (Cómo No Te Voy A Querer)
Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison
Killer Poet
Mommy is at the Hairdressers (Maman est chez le coiffeur)
New Brooklyn
Raging Grannies
Ramchand Pakistani
Rock Paper Scissors
Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf
Song from the Southern Seas (Pesn’ Juzhnykh Morej)
The Compassionate One
The Forest
The Friend (Der Freund)
The Least Among You
The Nature of Existence
The Response
The Skeptic
Two Million Stupid Women
Witch Hunt

And the ones that for some reason or another just didn't do it for me:
First Person Singular
Esther's Inheritance (Eszter hagyatéka)
How To Be...
The Bet (Pari)

And the ones that I didn't consider in this ranking because they're in a category by themselves:
The Birth of a Nation

And you might notice I didn't rank the shorts. That's because this post is already long enough.

And finally, the awards are announced here:
I don't care much about awards, but I would like to call your attention to the audience awards for best feature. It's a tie between All About Dad and For My Father, because apparently the audiences at Cinequest love their daddies. But more importantly, it means I lost a dollar because I bet on Capers as the biggest crowd-pleaser. By now I should know that Cinequest audiences are more sophisticated than that. And finally, my friend Vijay Vanniarajan is "someone with more knowledge of films than [I]" for correctly predicting For My Father. I'll be at SFIAAFF through next weekend, Vijay. Find me and I'll give you a dollar.

And that's all from Cinequest 19 (until I watch more screeners and write about them).

Oh yeah, and I forgot, I won the twitter review contest! I'm not sure if there's actually a prize (rumor had it, $100 gift certificate to Camera Cinemas--a free weekend of movies! But I haven't heard anything more). Anyway, suck it all you twits who aren't me! And now the only question is, now that I'm an award-winning twitterer, does that make me a winner or a loser?

Jason watches The Wrestler

Everyone is raving about Mickey Rourke's performance, and I have nothing new to add (except maybe to point out that if you watch enough indie films, this wasn't a comeback at all. He's been around the whole time).

Instead let me talk about Darren Aronofsky. In a way, after the terrible box office of The Fountain (which I loved) he was more in need of a hit than Rourke. Off the top of my head I can't think of an auteur who has more command of the visual language of film without having a distinct visual style. We can talk about a film having a Soderbergh look, or a Scorsese look, or a David Fincher look, etc. If you didn't read the credits, you might not guess that the same director made Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and now The Wrestler. Every time out, it's like he reinvents a whole new visual language, borrowing heavily from the history of film but not necessarily his own filmography.

In The Wrestler the visuals are all about heaping pain and humiliation on Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson (nee Robin Ramsinsky). Just watch how many scenes follow Ram from behind, the camera's eye resting on his back like it's the weight of the world. That has just as much to do with the camera work as Rourke's ability to walk around with stooped shoulders. Look how his boss at his menial grocery store job is physically placed above him--on ladders or steps--so he can literally talk down to him. Ironically, the uplifting moments are when he's covered in blood after a match. That's his world, and that's where he thrives.

That's not to forgive Aronofsky for being one of the least subtle filmmakers out there. A scene where his stripper friend Cassidy/Pam (Marisa Tomei) compares him to Jesus in Passion of the Christ is a little overblown. The irony is that Ram does nothing to redeem himself or anyone else--his only similarity is his ability to take gobs and gobs of punishment. Does this make it a particularly anti-Christian, anti-spiritual movie, by reducing Jesus to the level of a beat-up steroid junkie deadbeat dad? Maybe, or maybe it's neither that clever nor that provocative.

If there is one consistency across Aronofsky's film, it's his penchant for parallel action. That's a story structure element--not a visual element--that he likes to use, so my previous statement that he's a visual language master with no distinctive visual style still holds. In The Wrestler the parallel action is between Ram/Robin and Cassidy/Pam. Each holds a stage name and a real name. Their names even sound nearly the same--Ram/Pam, Ramsinsky/Cassidy. Each gets up in front of people as a physical specimen for the audiences visceral enjoyment. In fact, the only time Ram is alive outside the ring is when he's dancing--a physical motion that bridges the gap between wrestling and stripping. The difference is that while Ram avoids his real life (he refuses to even let anyone call him Robin), Pam is only using her stage persona of Cassidy to create a real life for herself. She has a son, she's planning to stop stripping and move to a condo in a nice neighborhood with good schools. Even the parallel names show that--Ram is Rourke's character's stage name, Pam is Tomei's character's real name, and both are the names they'd rather go by.

So yeah, The Wrestler is a great movie, and Rourke fully deserves the credit he's getting. But its greatness goes far beyond him, to the entire cast and to director Darren Aronofsky.

Jason watches Coraline in 3D

And it's beautiful, ingenious, thrilling, magical, etc. Fully deserving of the 89% Tomatometer rating (as of this writing), if not more. In fact, I'm a little tempted to hunt down the critics who gave it a rotten review and do them some bodily harm.

So Coraline is a curious little girl whose parents have just moved out to the country. Although they write books on gardening, they actually hate getting their hands dirty and are too buried in work to pay attention to her. She finds a mysterious passageway to a magical land which parallels her world but where everything is perfect. Or almost perfect, the only difference is that people have buttons instead of eyes and if she wants to stay she'll have to give up her eyes and let her "other mother" sew buttons on her. This becomes a cautionary (and kinda obvious) 'be careful what you wish for' story, and Coraline comes through with bravery and intelligence, with the help of a lot of strange friends--a Russian trainer of dancing mice, old ex-showgirls, a chatterbox geeky friend, and a cat. It's darker and a little more PG than you might expect for a kids story. This one is aimed just as much for the adults.

Without the visual flair, the story wouldn't be quite as impressive (although I liked the story in itself). This is a team-up of Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and Neil Gaiman (MirrorMask), so it's gotta be good. Visuals are hard to put into words. Just go see it already.

Oh, and a final note. The 3D was good, but not really necessary. There's a few scenes where the 3D gags work, but mostly it would be just as enjoyable in 2D. Also, 3D is not kind to the front row, where I like to use my peripheral vision. If you see it in 3D, sit at least a few rows back.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 12

Finally, the last day. 4 films, and a closing night party

First up was the most sexually explicit film in the festival (and Dan and a Van included a lesbian gang-bang scene), The Beautiful Blue Danube. Tim Seyfi stars as your host on the Kriemhild, a pleasure cruise boat from Vienna to Belgrade on the titular river (as an aside, I spent the whole movie thinking, 'where have I seen him before', and just now looked him up on IMDb and realized that I remember him from Evet! I Do! from Berlin and Beyond back in January. He played Coskun, the Kurdish man madly in love with a Turkish woman--their parents don't approve). The passengers are Western Europeans--French, German, English, etc. The workers/performers are Eastern Europeans--Serbian, Polish, Romany, etc. It's an upstairs/downstairs thing, with the ruling and serving classes starkely separated by nationality. And, there's sex. Think of it as "Upstairs, Downstairs" with prostitution (come to think of it, I never saw that show, I'm just assuming there was no prostitution in it). That might sound like fun and games, and for a while it all is--at least on the surface. Of course you know something horrible is going to happen. And it does. And I don't want to spoil it, but it starts with R and ends with APE (and it isn't "Rhinoceros Escape"). I'll just say, the act itself isn't nearly as important as the reactions of the witnesses. A powerful, gorgeous, and kinda traumatic movie.

Next up was First Person Singular, which was preceded by an encore of Help Wanted from Shorts 4. Good to see that again, I like Ramon. The feature, however...probably suffered from late-in-the-festival fatigue. Seth Farber plays a depressed writer, haunted by the memories of his wife's suicide and the nagging guilt that he's to blame. That's not helped by the fact that her parents sort of blame him, want to take his apartment (which is in her name), and set up a foundation for mental health. He can't finish his novel, he can't even clean his apartment. Luckily his agent sends over a girl to clean, and she happens to be a writer, too. They sort of become friends, but he's still too depressed to do much of anything. He hopes to use her to finish his novel, she looks to him for ideas for her own writing. As I said, this is probably a better movie than I give it credit for, but on the 12th day with very little sleep, I couldn't concentrate on this one very well.

So then it was off to the California Theater for the penultimate screening of the festival, The Forest. A horror movie from India (that is, taking place in India, it's actually a British/US production, and mostly in English--with subtitles for some reason?), it's about Leopard attacks in the Jungle. Check that, it's about humans encroaching on the jungle, leading to the Leopard attacks, and it's about specific humans in a marital infidelity love triangle locking each other outside with a deadly man-eating leopard. Solidly shot, tense, and with some genuinely frightening moments. I really like this movie, I think it's one of the most underrated in the festival.

Then I had a couple of hours to kill before the closing night film and gala. So first I had some late lunch/early dinner with my friend Roy (say hi to everyone at the Niles Film Museum for me, I won't be back for a couple of weeks, what with SFIAAFF). Then I went for a quick beer at Cinebar, and then finally back to the California for the closing night film.

I've already reviewed The Nature of Existence, and I mostly stand by that review. I do have to correct one thing. I reviewed a screener DVD, and the final version shown last Sunday night no longer had my favorite line--"Ask 3 Jews the same question, you'll get 5 different answers." I don't mind too much that it's gone, I still love the movie. But now it's made me look like a jerk on the Internet, talking about a line I love that's not there anymore. Thanks a lot, Roger Nygard!

Other comments. I still agree with the 7th grade girl more than anyone else. She got spontaneous applause at her scene, so I'm glad to see others agree. And finally, when I was at the Cinebar I talked to a kinda drunk guy named Tim about the movie. He made me promise to look for bias in the film, since everyone has bias. So this is for you, Tim. The Nature of Existence has a pro-comedy, pro-questioning, and pro-pancakes bias.

And then it was off to the closing night party. Drank a lot with filmmakers, fans, and staff at the E&O Trading company. When they kicked us out of there, I wandered back to Cinebar with Chris Garcia and a few of the filmmakers, including John Nijhawan, director of Dan and a Van and the drinkin'est filmmaker of Cinequest 19. We eventually were kicked out of the Cinebar at closing time when John and I caught a cab, and after dropping him at his hotel I went home for a well-deserved rest...and then back to my real job the next morning.

And that's Cinequest for 2009. Except for all the screeners I have. And all the ones I want to get still. I might do one final wrap-up soon. Oh yeah, and my traveling festival pass never made it back to me. I saw it as late as Friday morning, and it was full of comments. So if you have it, please e-mail me and we'll figure out how to get it back to me. Please, I'm not upset that you didn't give it to me at the after party. I'm not even upset if it didn't even make it to closing night. I just know that a lot of people wrote in it, and I want to get those notes and post them!

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 11

Well, it's all over (sort of), and I've had a day of rest, now it's time to get back to the reviews:

First up on Saturday was Shorts Program 4: Come Together. The lineup:
Help Wanted
: An old mechanic gets some help with cars and with a positive attitude from his new assistant.
Odd Shoe: You can't get into schoolboy shenanigans with shoes that are falling apart.
Palm Trees Down 3rd Street: Local San Francisco short about a girl looking for her father and finding her sister instead.
Ridge County Requiem: A death of a farmer, set against the death of the traditional farming life.
Slow: Ironically, the quickest moving (and funniest) short in the program. A traffic worker in Los Angeles is upset because accidental pictures of him travel the world more than he does. So he travels the world to find and destroy all pictures of him. By Kurt Kuenne, who had previous Cinequest shorts with The Phone Book and Validation and the saddest documentary ever, Dear Zachary.
Songs From the Shed: Experimental, weird, beautiful. And there are songs...and they're from a shed.
The Fading Light: A modern Vietnamese family, living between the two worlds.

Next up was the social conscience program, starting with the short, The Response. Based on transcripts from a Guantanamo Bay administrative hearing, Aasif Mandvi stars as a prisoner unjustly incarcerated for four years, and unable to get even the name of the Al Qaeda member he allegedly knows. Kate Mulgrew and Peter Riegert co-star as members of the administrative panel (it's not a trial, just a hearing to determine if he was properly classified as an enemy combatant).

And then the feature doc, Raging Grannies. I met these ladies at the kick-off party over a month ago, and I had to see their movie because...they kind of scare me. Activism mixed with street theater, these elderly ladies (technically there is no age limit, and you don't actually have to be a grandmother) dress up in granny dresses (with elaborate hats) and protest...many things. Repeal prop 8, end the Iraq War, environmental issues, whatever. The group was actually started in England in 1987 to protest nuclear submarines. Now they have over 60 "gaggles" around the world. Director Pam Walton follows the local gaggle around and the movie is very much cinema verite--let the video run and capture whatever happens. The grannies are the star, and they approach their protest events with passion and good humor, disarming their targets with their totally non-threatening appearance. Oh yeah, I was totally kidding earlier when I said they scared me. In fact, there might be a picture somewhere on the Internet of me dancing on a table with one of them. Thank you ladies! Great movie, and keep up the good work.

So then from local activism I traveled all the way to Kazakhstan for Song From the Southern Seas. A story of peaceful coexistence, a Russian couple and a Kazakh couple live side by side in piece and harmony. That is, until the Russian's son is born with distinctly dark skin. So he beats up his Kazakh friend, calls his wife a whore, and basically raises a big fuss. Then cut to 15 years later, they're still living side-by-side. Apparently this is a world where major insults are resolved by having a big fist fight, presumably getting drunk (actually he was drunk before his son was born), and then getting over it. Well, now his young son is getting into trouble as a horse thief, and feels caught between worlds. His father gets beaten up on his behalf, the wives get ferociously drunk together, and the Russian father goes on a trip to see his grandfather (after his clothes get stolen) and learns a little something about his roots. A simple world brought to life with humor, grace, and beauty, even if the story takes it's sweet time wandering around in that world.

Speaking of a guy who likes to take his sweet time and wander around through his world, the next film was the documentary, Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes. It plays out with the same tempo as his radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion". He tells stories, he travels the country doing his show at state fairs, etc. He talks about his roots, but for all I know is always lying (he tells a few different stories of where he grew up). Mostly, he's just a cool guy with a temperament that makes you want to listen, and then he surprises you with something completely off the wall. But what's really interesting is watching how much he writes. I've always thought of him as a voice artist, a variety show host, but he really does a lot of the writing himself. Watching him hold court with his team is really fun.

And from that gentle humor we turn a complete 180 degrees with Johnny Mad Dog. A brutal, fast-paced in-your-face story of Liberian child soldiers. Cutting a swatch to the capitol like Sherman marching to the see, this film never freakin' lets up. "General" Johnny Mad Dog and his soldiers rampage with automatic weapons while sporting outrageous names like No Good Advice and outrageous costumes like a wedding dress. Meanwhile, in Monrovia a young girl named Laokolé, a promising student, tries to avoid the violence while taking care of her crippled father and young brother. Of course, she gets caught in the destruction. Yeah, there's a typical narrative here, but the point is the brutal, matter-of-fact style that shoves the violence and destruction in your face until you want to vomit it back out. It would be absolutely wrong to say I "enjoyed" the movie, but I can say I loved it.

And finally, after all that I relaxed with the midnight program, Shorts Program 1: Dark Humor in the Dark.
Boutonniere: Preparing for prom, with an overly intrusive mother.
Dan and a Van: If you're a home-porn afficianado redneck hick, and you want to sell your van, make sure the buyer isn't a child molester before you sell it. Hilarious.
A Day in a Life: Interlinking events, everyone needs some money, some people try to steal it.
The Funeral: Make sure dad's dead before you bury him. You know, a lot of this program wouldn't exist if people just thought ahead.
A Heart Too Tender: Think of the possible consequences before you play a prank on striking screenwriters.
Kicking Sand in Your Face: Nice guy gets tired of being bullied. He starts working out, becomes buff, and then sees the bully again. He should think of the possible consequences before getting his revenge.
The Story of Sputnik: I bet the USSR didn't think of the eventual chain of events before launching the first...okay this is getting stupid. The movie was awesome, the lead actor is even awesomer. The line, "This page intentionally Les Blank" is awesomest.
Welgünzêr: I love time travel movies. And this one was hilarious, riddled with paradox, and murder/suicide?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 10

Entering the final stretch. Don't expect more blogging from me until Monday (I'll still tweet as much as I can)

Interesting question: is it a sign of addiction/mental disease if you have a screener of a movie, you've heard it's 'okay, not great', and you choose to get up early to see it on the big screen rather than get more than 3 hours sleep for the first time in a week? Because that's what I did, with Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. This documentary tells about Johnny Cash's work performing in prisons, especially Folsom, and his outreach to prisoners and work with prison reform. Although he never spent a night in prison, Cash wrote songs about sin, incarceration, and redemption that spoke to prisoners. The movie is put together in a brisk, playful fashion with interviews, archival pictures, and animation that keeps everything at least visually engaging. And they play plenty of his music, and that's good. But the standout for me was Glen Sherley. Glen was a prisoner in Folsom at Cash's famous 1968 concert/live recording there. He was in prison for armed robbery, but liked to play guitar and wrote his own song. One song was "Greystone Chapel", about the chapel in Folsom. Without telling Glen in advance, Cash played that song for the prisoners, and he was about the happiest man in the world right then. Cash worked very hard to get Glen freed, then to get him a career in music, bringing him along on tours. However, Glen didn't adjust well to the outside, and eventually took his own life. They interview his children and show archival clips of Glen, and it makes up about 1/3 of the movie. I was left wanting to know more about him. For me, the movie served as a 90 minute trailer for a Glen Sherley biopic/documentary that I'd really want to see.

Then I decided to head to the Maverick Spirit Award event for Diablo Cody (writer of Juno), and it turned into the strangest, wildest interview I've ever seen, all thanks to the interviewer/moderator Lew Hunter. I understand Lew Hunter is something of a legend, and teaches screenwriting at UCLA. I respect that, but it seemed like he was trying to upstage Diablo through the whole event, starting with coming out on stage with a little doggie. That I actually thought was cute, and thought an eccentric would do the interview--cool. And then Diablo came out to wild applause, and we settled in for the interview session. And Lew started to go of on a long, rambling anecdote about a night when he was really, really drunk and ended up running around naked outside in the rain. WTF? The audience started revolting, shouting "Let Diablo talk!" And rightly they should. Lew may be a legend, and maybe in a fairer world he'd be getting an award instead of talking to a young writer who lucked out and struck it big with an Oscar her first time out. But this was a huge crowd--they actually had to move to a bigger venue--and not a single person there bought a ticket to see Lew Hunter. When Diablo got to talk, she was cool, funny, and got a few swipes in (when he incorrectly said her book Candy Girl included scenes with her current fiancee she sniped back, "No, ex-husband. Do your research, weirdo!"). Oh yeah, and she started her writing career as a blogger, so that means I'm halfway to an Oscar myself. When they did start taking questions from the audience, Lew had to stand up and walk to the edge of the stage, in front of Diablo so we couldn't see her (at least not from my angle. Lew designated our section the "ornery" section, and Diablo said she liked it). Best moment of the interview: Lew, without a hint of irony, asked a somewhat rambling question about how she deals with fools. She looks at the audience, raises her eyebrows like 'Are you thinking what I'm thinking?', and answers, "I must have the patience of a saint". Awesome! This will go down as a pretty legendary Maverick Award interview. People were complaining (I among them), but honestly I thought Diablo came out of it looking really cool. I'm going to have to put "The United States of Tara" on my DVR list now. And the highest compliment I can give--I went online on my phone and added her to my twitter follow list during the interview.

So then I had the option to run to see another movie but I just had to go to the VIP Soiree and dish about that interview. The Soiree was at Vault Ultralounge. Free wine, beer (including Phucket beer, featured in Audie and the Wolf), and food. And everyone was dishing about that interview. And then, just as I was leaving for the 7:00 silent cinema, Diablo Cody came into the party. I got to thank her, apologize for the interviewer (not that it was my fault, and she said it was actually fun). I got a couple of pictures taken with her (I need those e-mailed to me, Phil, Mike!). And most importantly, I Mavericked her. That is, I gave her a Maverick temporary tattoo. But we didn't have a wet cloth, so after an odd moment when I thought Diablo Cody asked me to spit on her (which is kind of a theme in the festival, most notably in Billy Was a Deaf Kid), she licked it onto her hand. Unfortunately, not quite enough saliva, and it ended up as "averick". But saying, "I 'avericked' Diablo Cody" would just make people think I'm weird. Anyway, I gave her an extra tattoo and then had to be on my way. By the way, another theme of the festival--I've managed to Maverick a lot of hot chicks just as I had to leave a bar. I have the worst timing.

So then I had to run down the street to the California Theater for the screening of Intolerance. Wow!! 4 stories (including the story of Christ), 4 different time periods, 3 hours, 18 minutes. Epic scale, sets, crowds. All about intolerance, hatred, fear, violence. This was his answer to the racism charges of Birth of a Nation, and I just can't describe it. Amazing. And Dennis James again did an amazing job on the mighty Wurlitzer.

And that was Friday at Cinequest. Just two more days (I think 10 movies) left.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 9

Approaching final weekend, but first, 5 more movies:

First up was Layover. It's a simple story--two old high school classmates haven't seen each other in 15 years. By pure coincidence, they run into each other in an airport in Bozeman, MT. She's leaving their small town of Grand Falls to go to LA. He's actually leaving LA, returning to Grand Falls. She recognizes him (he's actually partly her inspiration for leaving their small town and heading to LA), and since their flights are cancelled because of a storm, they spend the night catching up. A nice setup, two people at a crossroads both in their immediate journey and in their lives, talking about life and all the choices they've made (and disguises they've worn). Some people I've talked to complained that the lead actress had a very annoying accent. That was true for me at first, but eventually I got used to it and just went with it. What was more disturbing is I think Cinequest has given me magic psychic powers, because I knew every twist well before it happened. I don't want to give anything away, but during the movie I counted at least 5 times when I knew a big twist was coming and predicted it perfectly. It was actually pretty eerie. For the record, the bonus scene after the credits was my favorite part.

Then I saw a Belgian film,Cut Loose (Los), based on a 90% autobiographical novel by journalist Tom Naegels. Tom is working for small tabloid-ish newspaper in Antwerp, and is assigned all the strange stories--the nitwits of the week. But he's an idealist, and one of the stories he covers is an integration class for new immigrants. He's a good liberal, so of course he is all for this class. Hell, he's even planning on buying a house in an immigrant neighborhood with his long time girlfriend. At the class, he meets a beautiful Pakistani refugee, and is immediately attracted (remember, he has a long time girlfriend he lives with. This is important). He battles his own heart, his overtly racist grandfather, and the more subtly racist colleagues. When his grandfather falls badly ill and asks for a dignified death rather than wasting away in a hospital room wearing a diaper, he also has to battle his own beliefs on euthanasia. Mostly it's an exploration on the Belgian problems with racism and immigration. Debates quickly become very emotional, but in his work he learns many surprising facts and can approach the issues in a calm rational way. If only he could get anyone else to listen. Well, and if he could overcome his faults--like that whole long time girlfriend/new attraction thing.

Then next up was Shorts Program 6: The Hereafter. They are:

The Dreaming: A haunting dream of a man building a structure of sticks. Hard to understand why.
The Glasses: Two men are sent on an important mission, to find a pair of lost glasses belonging to a famous director.
Glory at Sea: Dead bodies underwater, one survivor struggles to shore. Boats built from wreckage of New Orleans. Death, religion, celebration, mourning. Confusing, surreal, beautiful.
James: Lonely schoolboy turns gay. I saw this one at Indiefest, too.
Last Thoughts: Just as the title suggests, the last thoughts of a dying man. Shot in San Francisco.
Skunks: The slang term for Morrocan kids who sneak across the border in the undercarriage of trucks leaving Tangiers.
The Stars Don't Twinkle in Outer Space: My favorite of the set (maybe of the festival). An 40's sci-fi style adventure of escape, played out by children. Turns out it's both an escape from the ship and an escape from reality.
Sunday Afternoon: It's really, really hot. Like burn to death hot. But one man has prophetic dreams that might save everyone. A little joke in the movie--he drinks the beer Fin du Monde (End of the World).

Next up was the inventor comedy Lightbulb. Sam and Matt are best friends since high school and co-owners of a novelty gift company. Matt is the inventor, Sam is the salesman. Their latest gadget is animated watches--a watch with a picture of a sleeping dog that dreams of different things as the seconds tick by, or a watch where you press a button and it gives you random numbers to play in the lottery. They're not having a great time of it. In fact, they're going under. But then, that has just as much to do with their gambling addiction. Matt's marriage is falling apart, they go out of business, and they have to take boring day jobs--Sam as a construction worker, Matt selling furniture. But Matt always has ideas (he goes up by the radio towers and hears voices). And finally he has the idea that could make them millionaires, resurrect their business, and get his wife back. This is all based on a true story. And if you read write-ups anywhere else, you can find out what it is. But you won't find out here.

Okay, just one hint. After Lightbulb I did have to go get a beer. For some reason, I kept thinking, 'Oh yeah! Time for a beer!'

But I didn't have too long to drink before I headed back for the final movie of the night, Mommy's at the Hairdresser's. It takes place over one lazy summer, telling a difficult but poignant family story. Three children, Elise and her two younger brothers Coco and Benoit have just gotten out of school for summer vacation. Looks to be a nice summer. Elise is exploring young love and learning to fish. Coco is working on his go-kart. And Benoit (the youngest, who is maybe a little slow) plays with his army men. There are hints of trouble when their parents suggest Elise must go to boarding school next year and Benoit might need psychiatric help. But things get really bad when it's discovered their father is having an affair. Their mother leaves (and whenever anyone asks, they say she's at the hairdresser's, hence the title). She's a journalist and leaves for a job in London, hoping to bring the children with her when she gets a big enough apartment. Their father can barely take care of them. Benoit especially takes it hard, and takes it out on his army men. Plotwise...things happen over the summer. Sometimes they play, sometimes they worry, and sometimes others worry about them. It was okay. I don't really know how to react to this film. Maybe I'm finally too tired, but for me it was just a bunch of stuff that happened.