Sunday, April 29, 2007

Jason goes to SF International--day 3

I should start with a note about the new Kabuki theater. The longtime home of the festival used to be owned by AMC, but when they bought up the Metreon, anti-monopoly rules forced them to sell the Kabuki. And the buyer was Sundance, making it their first Sundance theater. They've remodeled all the auditoriums (except for the big screen #1) with stadium seating, and it still has that new theater smell. Nice. Anyway, although it's a bit far from home, and I'm typically only here for festivals, I'll be keeping an eye on how Sundance runs a theater. First thought, though, is stadium seating reduces the capacity, which might be okay normally (I don't know if it's usually full), but is a drawback during the festival.

Okay, on to the movies. First up was the challenging Portuguese movie "Colossal Youth". Pedro Costa's near-documentary on the slums of Lisbon. Shot with non-actors (and the third in a series of which I haven't seen the first two). The central character is "papa" Ventura, a resident of a nearly empty slum that's being torn down. He's being relocated to a nice, clean (sort of sterile) new apartment, but continues returning to his old slum, visiting with his "children" in both locations. It's a challenging film--2 1/2 hours with no real narrative. I found myself daydreaming on more than one occasion, but was quickly drawn back by his interesting compositions and use of light and shadows. It almost worked for me as a series of fascinating paintings (owing to his always static camera).

Then there was a distinct change of pace (for the better) with the samurai revenge comedy "Hana". Souza is a ronin (masterless samurai) in a time with no war, when samurai are generally worthless. However, he is on a revenge quest to kill the man who killed his father. Problem is, he's kind of an inept swordsman, better suited to teaching writing and abacus. Still, he finds his place in the country, meeting and befriending a nice widow and her eight year old son. So it kind of complicates things when the target of his revenge turns out to live in town. But, through a little cleverness, he manages to satisfy his revenge requirement and "make rice cakes out of shit"--which is the films central metaphor.

So after that, I had to run out of the credits to catch the Italian film "The Caiman". Both beginning and ending with a film-within-the-film, it's the comic-political story of Bruno, a film producer who's down on his luck. He hasn't made a film since his last action flop "Cataracts", which he made with his wife who now wants to separate. His Columbus epic is floundering, but his luck turns around when he's given a script by novice Teresa. The script is for "The Caiman", the story of a guy who gets a pile of money (billions of lira) literally dropped on him from the sky. Skimming through it, he sees it's a comic romp in which the lead starts a TV station, buys his own town, gets into politics, and gets into trouble when the authorities question where he got the money. But he doesn't read carefully enough to get that it's about Prime Minister Berlusconi. Suddenly he finds himself making the sort of lefty political film he's always avoided. He himself voted for Berlusconi, but the crew is dedicated and most would work for free. It's simultaneously a filmmaking satire and a political satire. And for me, as a novice in Italian politics (although I do know who Berlusconi is), the filmmaking part works best (not that I'm a filmmaker either, but I've met enough and seen enough movies about movies to know a bit). Still, even without knowing Italian politics, I found it hilarious.

And then, with barely a break, I saw "Jindabyne". This is actually being released by Sony Pictures Classics, so it's normally a film I'd avoid at a festival, but it worked best in my schedule. It's an Australian picture starring Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney. They're a married couple with a young son in a small Australian town of Jindabyne. He owns a service station and is a hard-working man. His one big vacation of the year is a fishing trip. But this year, they find something unexpected--the body of an aborigine woman. However, since they don't know her, it's too late for her, and they have no cell phone reception, they decide to finish the weekend of fishing rather than hike back to the road and report it immediately. This turns out to be a bad decision, as all the hatred that should be aimed at the unknown killer is instead aimed at them, and the racist implications tear the town apart. I mentioned the "unknown" killer, but in fact he's introduced early to the audience and is there through the whole movie as an ominous presence. But there's really where this deviates sharply from a Hollywood flick. It's never about finding the bad guy and bringing him to justice. That's too simplistic--black and white. Instead it's about finding the good and bad in a good guy who did a bad thing and bringing the community to resolution. It's an excellent drama, full of complex characters and great acting..

And then it was time to drink some free Stella Artois. Years ago the midnight movies used to be sponsored by Guinness (and used to all be at 11:30 or later, but that's another rant), and old-timers like me remember those days fondly. Nothing against Stella Artois, it just seems that Guinness, as a very dark beer, is more appropriate for the late shows. Anyway, as sponsor Stella Artois gets to run their commercial (tagline: "perfection has its price") before the movie. Friday night I got the brilliant idea to punctuate Stella's ad by shouting out the Guiness "brilliant!" It was a huge comic hit, and produced a few echoes in the audience. So Saturday I repeated it, and still got a laugh and a heckler calling out "you said that last night!" It still warmed the cockles of my heart. And if there's one thing I love more than movies, it's warm heart cockles.


The late show last night was "Ghost Train", a j-horror flick about a haunted subway tunnel. It throws just about every j-horror trick (creepy artifacts, close-ups on eyes, deformed photographs, grey-skinned ghosts jumping out of the shadows) at you, and what it might lack in creativity, it makes up for in energy and humor. It starts with a little boy finding a lost subway pass, then shortly thereafter being taken from the train by a ghost. Then a little girl, Noriko, finds the same pass, turns it in, and shortly thereafter goes missing. So her smart but awkward big sister Nana goes searching for her, and with the help of her new friend (who used to shun her, but is now trapped by a demonic bracelet found on the train) and a disgraced train driver (forced into office work for seeing demons on the tracks) she uncovers a horrible secret past to the tunnel. But not before the ghosts get their fair share of scares (and kills). Well done, showing there's still a little life left in j-horror.

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