Friday, February 29, 2008

Jason goes to Cinequest--day 2

I know, most people count opening night as "day 0", so this would be "day 1" (first full day of the festival). Well, I'm not most people, dammit! I'm Jason freakin' Wiener! Let's get to the movies!

My day job is...frustrating right now. And I couldn't sneak away in time to catch the start of Shorts Program #2: Temptations. But I have it planned so I can catch up on the first 30-40 minutes of it Saturday night. I'm not sure which film was playing when I snuck it, but it was visually arresting, seemed to jump around a lot, and ended with a woman stuck in a cave. Possibly all that jumping around was her life flashing before her eyes. It looked pretty awesome, hopefully I'll get to see the beginning of it tomorrow. As for the films I saw in their entirety:

"Just Make Believe"--A story of lonely romantics. He's an artist pretending to have money. She's a real estate agent pretending to have a baby. They meet, are perfect for each other, but are both gigantic liars. Pretty engaging, funny, but sad story. Here's a pic of director Jadrien Steele:

"White Vans"--revenge against bicycle thieves would be sooooo sweet!
"Waves"--surprisingly dark events transpire on a bright day at the beach.
"Flash Lesson"--It's surprisingly easy to be an artist. Step 1: wear all black. Step 2: ??? Step 3: profit.
"Can You Wave Bye-Bye?"--A single mother realizes she's not responsible enough to take care of a dog, much less a baby. She can't even think of a name for her. Better to give her up for adoption.
Next up was Swedish film, "Bitter Sweetheart" ("Linas Kvällsbok"). Of all the underage sex comedies I've seen, this one featured the most vomit! Lina is an average 15 year old girl. She wants to lose her virginity, but hasn't found the right guy. A friend sets her up with Danne, the hunky hockey star who's not really her type. But she goes with him for a while, gives him many handjobs, fakes many orgasms, and eventually goes all the way for his birthday present (I know it's early to start noticing themes, but both features I've seen so far feature birthdays. I guess you can also argue that "Can You Wave Bye-Bye?" featured a birth?). Of course, she's not really into him, but she does like Ivar, the new boy in class. Or rather, in the class 2 years younger than her. Because if 15 year old sex isn't funny enough, try 15 on 13 (which clearly violates the your age/2 + 7 years minimum creepiness rule). But there's a serious moral in here about overcoming peer pressure, being yourself, and chasing your dream. Even if that dream is to nail a 13 year old boy....
And finally, the third show of the night was the Mexican soap opera-esque story of a Mexican soap opera, "It's Better if Gabriela Doesn't Die". Miguel is a writer with big dreams, but currently collecting a paycheck for his work on a third-rate but popular soap opera, "Destiny of Love". One night he's pulled over by a corrupt cop, Bracho, who hassles him about his license being expired and the two girls smoking pot in his car. But when Miguel tells Bracho that he writes "Destiny of Love", Bracho is star struck. He loves the show, and demands an inside scoop so he can brag to all his friends. So Miguel tells him the plan for the end of the season--Gabriela will marry Domenico. And that was the plan. Trouble is, the director Gustavo keeps hitting on Ana, the star who plays Gabriela. She quits in a huff, and the producers decide to just kill off her character (after all, market research indicates viewership rises during a terminal illness). When that plotline unfolds on the show, Bracho looks like a fool and a liar to everyone who bragged to. So he hunts down Miguel and threatens him. A fast paced, hilarious send-up of Mexican pop culture and the notion that writers control anything. It comes complete with a Deus ex Machina ending, followed by an absolutely bizarre absurdist ending (all movies should end with a random filthy guy showing up with an injured bird on his arm).
And that was day 2 of Cinequest. Up tonight, I'm planning to check out "Miscalculation", "Young People Fucking" (oh yeah!), and "The Art of Travel".

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Jason goes to Cinequest--opening night

Yay, my favorite extended party in the South Bay started last night! I got there about an hour and a half early to hang out with my CQ friends and have a couple little drinks before the official opening night began (but not enough to get hammered, I didn't want to pass out during the movies).

Here's the view, from front row center, of the organist playing as we all filed into the fabulous California Theater:

The opening night film was the comedy "Eden Court" starring Thomas Lennon ("Reno 911!") and Stephnie Weir ("MadTV", and I was surprised to only realize now that she spells her name without an A). Thomas Lennon stars as Schroeder Duncan, and it all takes place on his 30th birthday. In high school, he had everything going for him--a 100 mph fastball, pros scouting him, and sex with the prom queen! Then he injured his shoulder, and now turning 30 (having a "quarter-life crisis") he's a groundskeeper for the local minor league team. He cuts grass, and is miserable. But he has a plan. He's going to live the American running away to Australia and starting over. He just needs a little money, a CB radio in his van, and the guts to tell his wife. Oh yeah, he married the prom queen(Kimberly Williams), and she's still hot! It's got a lot of good laughs (especially the toe in the lawnmower scene) on it's way to a pretty obvious conclusion about happiness not being a product of getting what you want, but wanting what you get. All in all, a good crowd-pleaser to start off the festival on a cheerful note and get me excited about watching lots and lots of movies.

Here's director Paul Leuer introducing "Eden Court"

Then it was off to the after party, a mad dash up the street (including, for me, an embarrassing and painful fall in the middle of the street. I'm still feeling that a little, although I had too much adrenaline to feel it then). Drinky drinky drink, hang out with filmmakers and my fellow fans, and a good time was had by all.

And there's 11 more days of that!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Jason Watches "Around the Bay"

Okay, I almost never, ever do this--review a movie I watched on DVD. But director Alejandro Adams contacted me and offered me a screener of his movie, premiering at Cinequest this weekend (March 1, 7:45 pm, at the San Jose Rep. After party at Hotel DeAnza. Follow-up screenings March 4, 4:15 at the Camera 12 and March 8, 7:45 at the San Jose Rep). I then dutifully let the DVD collect dust for about a month while I was running around at the movies. And then last night I popped the DVD in my player and checked it out. I was pretty impressed.

The story is relatively simple. Wyatt, a Los Gatos businessman has a big house (with a pool), a 5 year old son named Noah, and a girlfriend Noreen. Obsessed with his commercial real estate deals, he all but ignores the last two. When he loses his girlfriend and job at the same time, he's far to stoic to admit that his life is in shambles. Instead he calls his 21 year old daughter from a previous marriage (Daisy, whom he hasn't seen since she was 10), and convinces her to move out and take care of Noah while he tries to get his business deals up and working again. Two things really impressed me about this movie. First, for a movie that's made up so much of people talking at each other, the story really takes place in what isn't said. Example, right in the beginning. Wyatt goes out leaving Noah alone at home. He tells Noah, "You're in charge of the house", but what's really said is "I don't have time for you, you take care of yourself even though you're only five" (and there's a point early on where I was afraid Noah would drown in the pool, but this movie is much subtler than that). The other thing I really liked is that Noah is a real kid, not a precocious voice of innocent wisdom. He hardly ever says anything smart, he says stuff that's annoying, rambunctious, or just funny--you know, just like a five year old kid. Nothing throws a cinematic cliche into focus like breaking it, and now I'm not sure if I can watch another precocious-child-teaches-everyone-a-lesson movie without focusing on how unrealistic it is. I don't know if Connor Maselli is a child actor or just a child being a child. If the former, he's very talented at acting natural. If the latter, Alejandro Adams was smart to not cast an actor.

So there it is. Go see "Around the Bay" at Cinequest. Tell them Jason sent you. You won't get anything, but it'll make me look good.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Jason writes and obligatory Oscar post

I remember back when I had more time to do this. Anyway, here it is Oscar morning and I haven't announced my picks. To start out with, here are the Oscar nominated movies I have not seen, not even on DVD or illegal download:

August Rush--nominated for best song. I missed it in the theaters, and it's not out on DVD yet. I suppose I could find a download, but a) I don't like doing that, and b) it's too late anyway. Besides, it's just best song, so I could hear it during the ceremony and make my call then.

Norbit--nominated for best makeup. No way! No fucking way!

The Contenders, Beaufort, Mongol, Katyn, and 12--all the foreign nominees. The industry has been particularly bad about making these unavailable for the general public this year. This are the only misses that really bother me. Beaufort will play at Cinequest in a week. The Contenders is out in limited release now. The other three, I have no idea. I especially want to see Mongol. Whatever

War/Dance--I could've seen this at the Kabuki during the free slate of Oscar docs. But I missed it. Oops.

Funny thing is, by Monday morning I won't give a crap about any of these movies. Is it insanity if I do the same thing every year and already know it won't mean a thing?

So that means I saw quite a lot of nominees. In my last three posts I quickly did all the shorts (docs, animated, and live-action). So here's my quick take at the rest:

Best Actor: I'm very happy Johnny Depp got nominated, but he hasn't a chance (and he doesn't care). When Tommy Lee Jones was nominated for In the Valley of Elah, I was confused as to why he wasn't nominated for No Country for Old Men. Then I watched Elah, and he's awesome in it. George Clooney hasn't a chance. It's gonna be Daniel Day-Lewis, for screaming his way through There Will Be Blood, but I'd be happier with it going to either Tommy Lee Jones or Viggo Mortensen.

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett gets one of her two nominations for reprising her role as Queen Elizabeth. Whatever. There are a lot of great performances in this category. If enough people saw it, Marion Cotillard will probably win for La Vie En Rose, but my heart is going with Ellen Page as Juno.

Supporting Actor:
It's appropriate that Casey Affleck was nominated as a supporting actor. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is more about Robert Ford (Affleck), then Jesse James (Brad Pitt), but just like in real life Robert Ford gets second billing. I loved Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson's War. But really it's a waste of time to debate this. Javier Bardem has this locked up for No Country for Old Men.

Supporting Actress:
Cate Blanchett gets nominated in a male role, while notoriously androgynous Tilda Swinton also picks up a nomination. This means nothing, except they're both great actresses and almost interchangeable in my mind. Cate Blanchett wins.

Original Screenplay: This might be the one Oscar Michael Clayton will win. I liked the movie, and am happy it got nominated, but I don't see it competing much. In fact, I don't even see it winning this category. I'm pulling for Juno. Should I be disturbed that I'm such a fan of a movie about a pregnant teenager?

Adapted Screenplay: This is a very, very strong category. Hard to make a call here. With that said, why wasn't Into the Wild nominated? I'm pulling for There Will Be Blood, but I think No Country for Old Men will win. This will be a theme of the night, I think.

Cinematography: Again, why no Into the Wild? Jesse James and No Country have cinematography by god. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly use the cinematography to great effect to put you in the eyes of a man who's body no longer works, but it's also painful and frustrating to watch. I'm going for There Will Be Blood.

What the heck is the uber-shaky Bourne Ultimatum doing here? That's f'ed up, man! I'm going for No Country for Old Men here.

Art Direction: Okay, now we're getting into the categories I don't really know much about. But why isn't Across the Universe in here? For all it's flaws, it looked beautiful. Maybe people aren't going for over the top this year? But then, I'm casting my vote (not that I have one) for Sweeney Todd.

Costume Design:
And Across the Universe is in here...okay. Again, I don't care so I'll just vote for the movie I preferred--Sweeney Todd.

This category should be abolished, retroactively. Not that I don't appreciate the hard work of makeup artists, but I don't want to live in a world where Norbit is an Oscar nominee. There should be a global veto rule, where the Academy president can eliminate a category for one year if utter crap is nominated. I'm not making a call here.

Best Score: If you notice the score, it failed. Atonement is the only one I noticed. So it'll probably win (yay typewriters as musical instruments!)

Best Song: Way to split the vote, Enchanted. As I said, I haven't seen August Rush so I can't actually make a call. Still, I'm calling Once, because Enchanted annoyed me so much.

Sound: No clue, how about No Country For Old Men.

Sound Editing:
What, exactly, is the difference? I'll go with There Will Be Blood.

Visual Effects:
You can thank the best makeup award for keeping this category from being the biggest crap-fest of the Oscars. Still, it's close. Of the three, I'll go for Pirates.

Animated Film:
I have a love/hate relationship with this category. I love that animation is recognized, but I hate that it's ghetto-ized. Persepolis can stand with any of the best picture nominees, and it's obviously my choice. Ratatouille is also good, but Surf's Up? I mean, it wasn't awful, but one of the best three animated films of the year? What about The Simpsons Movie? Or Paprika? Whatever.

Foreign Language Film: Fuck that Academy and the rules that incentivize distributors to not release these films to the general public. You see, unlike other categories you can only vote for this if you've seen them all. They hold special Academy screenings, but if you have a film that might only appeal to the people who make it to those screenings, you're better off not letting everyone else see it.

Documentary Feature: I haven't seen War/Dance, but I'm voting for Taxi to the Dark Side. But Sicko will probably win.

Best Director/Best Picture: I don't know why there's ever a split here. I wouldn't know how to justify splitting my vote. In any case, both of these come down to No Country For Old Men or There Will Be Blood for me. I think No Country will win, but Blood should win.

And that's my obligatory Oscar post. In about 4.5 hours, I'll see how well I did. Cheers!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Jason watches all the Oscar Nominated Live-Action Shorts

Here we go:

"Om Natten (At Night)"--A Danish film about chicks with cancer. It went on forever. I don't know the cutoff for "short" films, but this clocked in at just under 40 minutes, and by the end I couldn't wait for them to die. This is just the sort of thing the Academy is likely to pick.

"Il Supplente (The Substitute)"--My choice for the Oscar. A crazy substitute teacher really shakes up the class. Just my sense of humor, and a nice message about keeping a child-like sense of fun.

"Tanghi Argentini"--A nerdy guy strikes up an internet romance around tango. Problem is, he can't really dance, so he gets his lonely co-worker to teach him. A very good movie.

"Le Mozart des Pickpockets (The Mozart of Pickpockets)"--Two not-too-bright pickpockets happen upon some great luck in the form of a little mute orphan who's truly gifted at thievery. Wacky hijinx ensue.

"The Tonto Woman"--This is my second choice for the Oscar. Based on a story by Elmore Leonard, it's about a cattle-rustling drifter, a rich rancher, and the rancher's wife. She was kidnapped by Indians, and rescued only after being tattooed in her face. The rancher keeps her hidden in a house out in the prairie. But the rustler finds her beautiful, cleans up, and tries to woo her. A showdown ensues. Very nicely done.

Jason watches all the Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts

Thanks to the Landmark Theaters and Magnolia pictures for putting on this program. Here we go:

"Même les Pigeons vont au Paradis (Even Pigeons Go To Heaven)"--this is my choice, a funny French computer-animated flick about an old man and a huckster who sells a machine that will fly him to heaven.

Here are the other ones, quickly:

"My Love (Moya Lyubov)"--A Russian boy in the 19th century, he's looking for love and finds himself pulled into a class-system love triangle.

"Madame Tutli-Putli"--From Canada, the computer-animated story of a timid woman on a big scary train.

"Peter and the Wolf"--A classic, well-known story. Classic, well-known music. Rendered with a great sense of humor.

"I Met the Walrus"--My other favorite of the set. When he was 14, Jerry Levitan interviewed John Lennon with his old reel-to-reel tape recorder. Now that interview, with all the humor and insight, is set to animation, in funny and surprising ways.

Jason watches all the Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts

Thanks to the SF Documentary Film Institute and the Kabuki Theaters for showing all the Oscar nominated short and feature-length documentaries over three days (ensuring everything shows both as a matinée and an evening screening), and for free! You just have to reserve your seats early, and you can only do that in person at the box office, not online.

Anyway, I only had time for the shorts program, but it was pretty cool, and there was one filmmaker there; Amanda Micheli, director of "La Corona". Her film was first, and followed the competition behind a beauty pageant in Columbia. Specifically, a beauty pageant in a women's prison in Columbia. It's an interesting story, but the inmates put it together themselves and it's a break in the dreary routine of prison. A fascinating character driven documentary, with no real agenda other than introducing us to some interesting people (for example, there's no judgment on why they're in prison or whether the beauty pageant is a good or bad thing). Here's a pic of Amanda Micheli:

At the Q&A, she revealed she also made the feature "Double Dare" about stuntwomen (especially Zoe Bell), which is one of my favorite documentaries. So I'm now declaring her a great documentarian, definitely someone to watch, and I'm rooting for her at the Oscars.

There were also three competing films. Here they are:

"Salim Baba"--a film very much about film. Salim Muhammad owns an ancient (1897) hand-cranked film projector, and lets his neighbors in the slums of Kolkata, India view little scraps of film in it. He could be rich if he sold the thing to a collector, but it's his prized possession and the only way most of his neighbors could ever see any film. So he holds on to it.

"Sari's Mother"--Sari is a ten year old Iraqi boy. Sari has AIDS. It's hard enough getting treatment there, and the American occupation has only made things worse. Very, very sad.

"Freeheld"--If "La Corona" doesn't win, I sure hope this does. In New Jersey, each county is administered by a council of "freeholders". The state has granted every county the right to decide whether or not employee health benefits extend to same-sex partners. Many counties have decided yes. But Ocean County has said no. That's a pity for Laurel Hester, a long-serving police detective who's now dying of cancer. Her story galvanizes the community so that every freeholder meeting is full of protesters demanding they change their policy. Even when neighboring counties change their policy based on her story, they still hold firm. They're slammed every day in the press, and finally a call from the governor sets them on the right path. It's an emotional race against death.

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 12

...of an 11 day festival? C'mon, closing night was day 11, this should be over by now! But instead, there were 4 bonus days, and I needed to use 1 of them to finish seeing absolutely everything. Three last programs:

First up was "Electric Heart: Don Ellis". I didn't really know who he was, but I recognize his theme from "The French Connection". He was an accomplished jazz musician who is called the most innovative musician of his time (tragically cut short in 1978, he was 44). Most of that innovation was in the field of electronic music. This movie is chock-full of performances, to the point where it feels more like a concert film than a documentary. His music is pretty cool, and I liked being introduced to it, but I also would've liked to know more about the man himself. I don't know, it's worth it if you want to hear a 90 minute compilation of his music. If you're looking for insight into his life, you'll probably get more from his wikipedia page.

Next up was a British spy flick, "Jetsam". A woman washes up on the beach, remembering nothing. She gets chased by a man who washes up next to her. She doesn't know what's going on, but she runs for her life. While fleeing from him, bits of her memory come back, and her story is slowly built in flashbacks. But the flashbacks keep changing point of view, until it's not clear if she's who she remembers being or if she's the agent who was spying on the girl she thinks she is, or what. An exciting use of POV and flashbacks, and I give it much credit for assuming I have the patience to figure it out. Still, I would've liked more science. As it was, the fabulous scientific marvel was just a maguffin.

And finally, the last show of the night (and the last show of my Indiefest) was a co-presentation with the Arab American Film Festival. First the short, "My Name is Ahmed Ahmed", follows comedian Ahmed Ahmed ("I can't get on any airplane!") as he does his stand-up and talks about life as an Arab-American comic. I've seen him before on Comedy Central and the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, and he's appearing in "Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show". He's a pretty funny guy, so in that respect this short didn't tell me anything I didn't already know. But it was fun.

And finally, there was "Driving to Zigzigland". It's based on the true adventures of Bashar, a Palestinian actor who came to L.A. to be famous. Of course, he's only given terrorist roles, which he refuses to take. So he makes a meager living driving a cab (and living off his hot American wife). He hates the conversation he has to have when people find out he's Palestinian, so when they ask he says he's from Zigzigland. Surprisingly, most people accept that. Americans know we're dumb about geography, so we assume it's a real country we've never heard of. This movie takes place over one long day and night when he needs to make $300 to pay the utility bill. Along the way, he meets all kinds of cheats, has a ton of bizarre conversations, is visited by the FBI, and has to pick up his cousin at LAX. Meanwhile, the insanity of L.A. (and the U.S. in general) makes him homesick for his little theater in Ramallah. It's a funny movie, and a great look at a different point of view.

And that was it Indiefest is over. Normally I'd do a rundown on my favorites ("Stuck", "Paranormal Activity") and my "reward for seeing everything ("Sliding Liberia"), and themes (bunnies, places). But I'm tired and still need to finish watching/writing as much as I can for the Oscars, and then prepare for Cinequest and the Asian American Film Festival. An addicts work is never done....

Friday, February 22, 2008

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 11

Okay, two last days of Indiefest to write up. 7 last movies. And if I don't finish this before Cinequest, I'm screwed--I'd never catch up. So I'll just power through this.

This is last Sunday, the so-called "Closing Night"...although Indiefest went on for 4 extra days.

First up was the short "Cave Flower". Another movie set in a very specific location ("place" has been a interesting theme of the festival), this time New York. In particular, the fringes of society. A young man lives in an abandoned building and works operating a freight elevator (that's plastered in his and other's lifetime assortment of posters). When the building's main elevator is broken, the "haves" have to take the "have not's" elevator instead, and he gets to meet the rich people who don't even talk to him. But he tries to get up the nerve to talk to the attractive woman who rides his elevator. Pretty good.

Then there was one of the most puzzling movies I've ever seen, "La Trinchera Luminosa del Presidente Gonzalo" (The Shining Trench of President Gonzalo). I thought this was a documentary, but in reading the press kit, I discovered that it is in fact a complete recreation in the day in the life of a group of communist radical prisoners in Peru. I feel a little cheated knowing it's a recreation, because I totally fell for the cinema-verite style. However, feeling cheated is better than the bored/confounded feeling I had while watching it. Part of it might be my fault. It opens with an establishing shot explaining the setting is (or was) a prison in the 1980's. Then it follows the uniformed female members of a communist movement as they go through their day, marching, singing, having grand arguments. So at first I made the leap that while this was a prison in the 80's, it's now empty and become the headquarters of this radical communist group. You see, there's never a shot of a prison guard or anything establishing a prison life. They act like they're free (except bound by dogma). It's only about halfway through that they mention prison, or crimes they've committed, or cellblocks, and I start to realize that they're actually in prison. And then they start saying things so crazy that I think maybe the prison has been converted to a mental asylum. Either way, it's a pretty confusing experience.

And so from that, I went to an absolutely delightful, hilarious experience, starting with the short "Billy and Sally Go Bionic". Billy and Sally are dolls who have fun little adventures. In this one, they get run over by a car, get rebuilt bigger, stronger, and faster, and then get revenge on all their enemies. It's awesome!

And then there was "Finding Kraftland". Richard Kraft is, for lack of a better description, a professional child. Actually, to make money he's a Hollywood talent agent, particularly for movie soundtracks (he reps Danny Elfman and Alan Mencken, among others), and he's probably the only agent who came to the industry as an obsessive fan first. He's also an obsessive collector, a kind of an annoying nutcase, and a weirdly loving father. Not that he was at first, when his son Nicky was born, he split from his wife and she and Nicky went to live in rural Oregon. Later, when Nicky was a teenager, Richard suddenly discovered that Nicky is the most interesting person in the world--probably because they're about the same age emotionally. They start off on an around-the-world trip to find the best roller coasters. This movie started out as a birthday gift (Richard and Nicky's birthdays are just a couple days apart, so they have a giant dual party every year), and they hired Stacey J. Aswad to host after watching her hosting a "top 7 attractions" show at Disney World. Along the way director Adam Shell adds to the story by explaining how Richard's brother died, how Richard devotes himself to a charity to find a cure to that disease (I'm sorry I forget what the disease is). And this gives a very likable face to a weirdly obsessive tribute to American consumerism. Anyway, here's a pic of the filmmakers both of "Finding Kraftland" and "Billy and Sally Go Bionic". The big guy in the middle is Richard, the girl in a white top next to him is Stacey. That must mean the guy on the far left is Adam Shell, and the two on the right (he's in the shadows) are the "Billy and Sally" directors Courtney Branch and Keith Allen?

Next up was a double bill of Americans-in-Afghanistan documentaries, but other than setting they couldn't be more different. "American Hero" is about Greg Shade, entrepreneur and somewhat crazy civilian who travels the world attempting to capture the bad guys. He's in Afghanistan, looking for Bin Laden, and dreaming of the day when he can show up the US government with his catch. Mostly he runs around to villages and hands out wanted posters and t-shirts with Bin Laden's face in the crosshairs. Ummm...dude, you're doing it wrong! He's a cowboy, and an idiot. He was not successful.

On the other side of the spectrum, "A Life in Hashistan" follows Chris Turner over several decades as he visits Afghanistan. He visited first in 1967, as a young wild guy looking for adventures (and drugs). Hash was a main draw there, and over several trips (pun not intended) he documents the life and culture of the Hashshashins (root of the word "assassin", as they were/are legendary mercenaries, and getting high is part of their preparation). He follows these people--the world's largest group of nomads--through the Soviet invasion, the Taliban, and post 9/11 world. And it's interesting how they cling to their traditions (the keeper of the hash is a high religious post) and how he's become a welcome member of their society--once you're invited into their home, they are honor bound to protect you forever (part of why the search for terrorists is so difficult). A fascinating story. Here's a pic of "American Hero" director Daniel Gorman and "A Life in Hashistan" director Tonya Dreher:

And finally, the "closing night" film was Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park". Gus Van Sant was/is actually in town shooting his Harvey Milk biopic with Sean Penn, but couldn't make it over for the screening (we were hoping for him until the last minute, but didn't really expect it). So instead, we only got to watch a really good movie. Van Sant, when he wants to, is one of the most meditative American filmmakers working today (or ever), and this is a prime example. It's the story of skateboarders, and takes place sort of on the borderlines between disillusioned youth and dangerous criminal youth. Alex is a skateboarding kid, from a broken home but generally a good kid. He goes to the local skate park, colloquially known as Paranoid Park, with his friend Jared. That's where all the hard-core punk criminals hang out, much more dangerous than his usual crowd. But he's drawn to them, and one night goes on his own and gets involved in the accidental death of a security guard at a train yard. The movie actually starts with the investigation, and jumps back and forth in time. It's also not so much about the incident as about Alex's feelings of guilt and fear, and how he deals with them. He doesn't want to go to jail, but he wants to unburden himself somehow. And the movie is really the story he tells to unburden himself. As I said, it's a very contemplative, meditative film. And as such, it's a much more powerful character study from the inside out. If it were a straightforward, linear action film, it would be much less interesting.

And then I went to the closing night party and drank myself silly. It was good.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 10

It's (sorta) all over but the writing now. I'm exhausted, and 3 days behind, but here we go, with 5 movies last Saturday:

First up was a musical documentary program. These traditionally have been a staple of Indiefest, but surprisingly this was one of only two such programs this year. Anyway, it started with the local short, "The New Grass", about the bluegrass and roots music scene in San Francisco. Of course, in San Francisco everything is new, hybrid, and breaks the rules. So this movie gives you a sampler of some groups that have some roots in bluegrass, but really are using it to do their own thing. Pretty cool, I especially like the Pine Box Boys.

And then, speaking of weird new hybrids breaking the rules and doing their own thing, it was "Sleepwalking Through The Mekong". This is a documentary about Dengue Fever, who are, if you believe it, a hybrid surf-music and Cambodian pop cover band. This doc amounts to part road movie, part concert film as it follows them on a tour of Cambodia. I should mention, the founders and all the members except for the lead singer are not Cambodian. Which for me, who missed the Cambodian pop music craze of the 60's (or 70's? I said I missed it!), gives this whole thing a huge WTF feeling. But hey, their music isn't bad (although I freely admit I don't freakin' get it), they're fun people, and they're doing good work in Cambodia, a place that could surely use it. And seeing lead singer (and only Cambodian member) Chhom Nimol reconnect with her homeland is pretty cool, too. Here's a photo of director John Pirozzi and Dengue Fever members Senon Williams (bass) and Zac Holtzman (guitar):

Next up was a documentary of human endurance, "Row Hard, No Excuses". John Zeigler and Tom Mailhot decided to compete as a team in one of the most grueling races ever--a race across the Atlantic a rowboat! This is actually an annual thing, although they only did it once. Director Luke Wolbach gave them a camera, and then sort of lucked into footage from several other competitors (thank god for the Spaniards, the only ones who seem to be having fun the whole time). They start out optimistic, but eventually poor currents, reality, age (they're 51 and 41), rashes, and the horrible grueling misery of the journey catch up with them (except, again, for the Spaniards who had a great time even though they finished near the end). A pretty amazing story, and there's one line where they talk about "rabbiting" past a competitor, so that keeps up the bunny theme of the fest.

Then I took a good long look at women's shorts with the program "Real Women Have Nerve"
"Robin Williams Has No Top Lip"--Another vote winner, a recreation of an overheard conversation. The title is a direct line from that conversation. Makes you wonder how you'd speak if you knew someone was recording you.
"The Red Ace Cola Project"--1950's flavor science and feminist workplace politics. Pretty funny.
"How to Be Popular"--Based on a magazine article, a quick mockumentary about the most popular girls in junior high.
"Like a Ship in the Night"--A tragic documentary about Irish women traveling to England to get abortions. Not only is it illegal to get an abortion in Ireland (north or south), it's even illegal to give them any information about how to get one in England. The law is changing somewhat, but so far just baby steps (ummm...pun not intended)
"Sky"--A really cool action short about a Latina who gets involved with some pretty bad drug dealers. Sort of an audition for a feature the filmmakers want to make, and one that I'd like to see.
"Kuna Ni Nanang (My Mother Said)"--Jessica Sison made this documentary about the life and opinions of her 99 year old (at the time, this is year old) grandmother. She's pretty wise, but honestly when I hear a 99 year old woman say "Everyone is gonna die!" is sounds less like the philosophical point that it was intended to be and more like a threat. And that makes me laugh, inappropriately.
"Die Flugbegleterin (The Stewardess)"--A really gross German film (dude, what the fuck is wrong with German people?) about a morbidly obese woman who's fired from her job, then gets liposuction to look hot. And I don't want to tell you where the fat goes.... Too bad it had no subtitles. On the other hand, maybe it's good it had no subtitles.

Anyway, I'm not even going to attempt to name them all, but there were a ton of filmmakers from this program. Here they are:

Next up was one of the craziest fucking things I've ever seen. But first, the short "The Storytellers". It's about the cast of a repertory theater in Oregon. It's kinda interesting, but also goes on too long. And there's an actor named Peter who compares himself to other famous Peters--Peter O'toole, Peter Lorre, Peter Cottontail--hey, another bunny reference!

Okay, now for the craziest fucking thing I've ever seen. "Urim and Thummim" Todd Walker lays tile in Kentucky. Todd Walker likes to collect bits of junk from the Goodwill store. One time, he picks up this little trinket that looks maybe like a bent up incense burner for 69 cents. He takes it home, and sees that depending on how he looks in it, he can see different visions. He consults various scholars, and eventually comes to the conclusion that he has obtained the biblical relic the Urim and Thummim, a prophetic stone worn under the Jewish high priest's breastplate. Originally it belonged to Aaron (Moses' brother), and is sort of a conduit for receiving messages from G-d. At one point, it's described as a holy magic 8-ball. I don't freakin' believe it. Nor does the director Dub Cornett. But Todd believes it, and so does his brother in law and a small following. The film teases you, never getting a quality shot inside the artifact. Instead they let Todd and his followers tell their story. We might be seeing the start of a cult, but so far it's a cult of nice people who don't really mean any harm.

Apparently this played in Amsterdam where there was a huge argument over whether or not this was a "Borat"-style mockumentary. No less a genius than Werner Herzog stated (and I paraphrase hearsay from Dub Cornett), "All film is a lie. All film is true. All religion is a lie. All religion is true. It's what you bring to it. If you don't understand that, you're retarded!" Now I want to make it a life goal to have Werner Herzog call me retarded. Oh yeah, and I want to look into the Urim and Thummim...and steal it! Here's a pic of Dub Cornett at the Q&A:

Then, for the first time in 3 years, I made it to the Big Lebowski party. It was crowded, but I at least got to have a couple of white russians and hang out with geeks in costume.

Then it was back to the Roxie for "Paranormal Activity". This movie is fucking awesome! On the surface, it's a simple ghost story. A young couple moves into a new house (in San Diego, but that's not really important). All was well until the wife Katie believes the house is haunted, possibly by the same spirits that haunted her as a kid. To assuage her fears, her husband Micah sets up a video camera in their bedroom to watch them while they sleep. This movie is all made of their home videos (new trend hitting the mainstream, what with "Cloverfield" and "Diary of the Dead"?) And it's a slow buildup. There's a good 30 minutes before the first "scare", and that's a door moving 2 inches back and forth. Could be the wind, but all the windows were closed! But the sloooooow buildup continues, and without giving anything away I'll say by the end it was kicking everyone's ass. The slow build is absolutely vital for building up the realism, and although 30 minutes of not much happening might sound boring, it's absolutely vital. I haven't heard real screams like this in a theater in quite a while, and this is a jaded Indiefest midnight audience. Wow!

Now I'm actually a little relieved that I haven't had time to write for a week. You see, something has happened to this movie. It played at Slamdance, where it was bought up by Dreamworks--so they can remake it. With a remake in the works, they don't want people watching this version. It's already been pulled from Cinequest, and they tried to prevent Indiefest from seeing it. I was pissed, and more so after seeing this little buried masterpiece. I've now calmed down somewhat (partly because I know last Wednesday night's screening happened, with a Dreamworks rep in the house), and what I write now is addressed directly to the executives at Dreamworks:

Gentlemen, you've picked up a wonderful property, now please don't fuck it up! I'm not a hard-liner who's against remakes. Honestly, I'm curious to see how you will handle this material (I have a hard time believing a major studio will give the audience enough credit to go 30 minutes just to see a door move back and forth as the first "scare", but we'll see how it goes). I liked the original enough that nothing short of universally awful reviews will keep me from seeing your remake. With that said, please don't keep the original version hidden forever. I'm still displeased you got it pulled from Cinequest. I was looking forward to running around Cinequest telling everyone to see it, now I'll have to run around telling everyone how awesome it was and how they should cry because they don't get to see it. Anyway, I just want to beg you (seriously, I'm on my knees as I type this), please please please pleeeeease! After you've had fun with your remake, please release the original version in some form. Perhaps a special edition DVD with both versions? Because this movie is excellent, and if you hide this away the world of cinema will be missing a treasure. Thank you for listening to me.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 9

We're coming down to the end stretch. First up on Friday was the shorts program "Dead On". Obviously, the theme is death. Here's the rundown:

"I'm in the Mood for Death"--A simple but effective black comedy about suicide, and all the little annoying interruptions.
"Reaper"--The angel of death has a career ethics crisis. J.C. himself has to step in and clean up the mess. Pretty funny.
"Prisoner of War"--A German film, set in WWII, about soldiers, prisoners, and hunting.
"The Recordist"--A young lady meets an old woman with X-files theories about her. Seems she's an alien recording device sent to record some important event on earth. Or the old lady's just a kook.
"Morning Fall"--A guy wakes up from a motorcycle crash. He pulls himself together, and tries to get a ride to the hospital. Very effective, plus there's a bunny (that lives, that's a nice change!)
"Pivot"--An old man prepares for an important confrontation with a young guy. He happens to know that the kid is about to make a life-changing decision, and has to make sure he does it right.
Here's a pic of Zal Batmanglij ("The Recordist" director), Aaron Pont (the reaper in "The Reaper"), and Julius Ramsay (director of "Pivot"):

Next up was another nice surprise, "Most Likely To". The program write-up describes old friends getting together for a party, bedlam, and a fateful, shocking discovery. It also describes completely improvised dialogue, and semi-real time action. Those last two descriptors are code for something I've seen a lot recently--improvised "workshop" pieces that are a lot of talking, a lot of characters, and often hard to follow or get into. The last thing I expected is a lot of action, but this movie really cooks. There's plenty of humor, action, drama, and horror. Spontaneous Combustion, indeed.

Next up was a very New York specific program, "Liberty Kid" with the short "Covered Tracks". The short explores 50 blocks of subway tracks in the Freedom tunnel, which used to be home to an underground community. A facinating history, and a fascinating, dialogue-free exploration of the space. Here's a picture of director Nathan Kensinger and producer Meghan O'Hara:

And then, the feature "Liberty Kid". It appears there's finally been enough time since 9/11 that films can touch on the events of that day without it being the primary focus (this isn't even the first film in this festival that references 9/11). In this case, the story is about two young guys who work at the Statue of Liberty. After 9/11, the Statue is closed to tourists and they lose their jobs. Suddenly they have to survive more or less on the streets. Derrick is the responsible one, trying to earn his GED and go to college (although enlisting in the army might be the only way to pay for it). Meanwhile, he's got child support payments to make on his twin toddlers--who are absolutely adorable. And he's also got his best friend Tico, the less responsible one, who's out to make a quick buck by selling drugs or faking car accidents (in a pretty hilarious scene). And it seems every time they turn around, the army is trying to recruit them (no coincidence that Derrick is Dominican and Tico is black). A very well done look at surviving, particularly as a minority, after 9/11.

Then I had already seen the midnight show ("Never Belongs to Me", the midnight screening from the previous weekend), and I was really dragging, so I just caught the BART home and got something approximating a good night's sleep.
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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 8

Like always, I spend Valentine's Day with the ones I love. In this case, three film programs, starting with the shorts program "My American Legacy". Let's go:

"Another Word for Family". A meditation on the racial history of Mississippi. History is another word for family, and in Mississippi that family is a bit dysfunctional.

"El Otro Lado" ("The Other Side"). As in, the other side of the wall being built on the U.S. Mexico border. The camera slides across miles and miles of the wall as voices from either side speak to its meaning.

"Pilgrimage". It's surprising how few people know about the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Partly because the interned didn't like to talk about it. But inspired by the civil rights movement, they started to speak up, and a new generation is growing up learning about it. Now there's an annual pilgrimage to return to Manzanar, where there's a monument to that sad part of our history. Here's a picture of director Tadashi Nakamura.

"Massacre at Murambi". During the Rwandan genocide, hundreds were killed at a school in Murambi. It was one of the worst incidents in the whole bloody conflict. The American response was poor. Now there's genocide in Darfur. But this will be different, because we've committed to standing up against it. Right?

"My American Neighbor". Russian American filmmaker Irina Patkanian interviews Americans living abroad about their views on America, and compares that to her experiences moving from Russia to the U.S. Partly an examination of America, and partly a statement about how you sometimes need distance to see things clearly (says the guy who sits in the front row for everything). Two parts I particularly liked. First, she talked a lot about how Russians never smile (if you smile for no reason, they think you're retarded), while Americans are supposed to smile (it's the only nation in the world where the pursuit of happiness is a legally protected right). Second, I liked the contrast in the familial patriotic metaphors. Russians speak of "Mother Russia", while Americans speak of "Uncle Sam". I think that says something about the closeness of patriotic ties in each country. Anyway, it was a fascinating movie, and here's a picture of Irina Patkanian:

"What Do We Want, When Do We Want It". An examination of what goes into an activist protest movement, from the point of view of someone who has grown weary and is quitting the movement (although he still agrees with the cause, he's just weary of the activism part). Fascinating.

Next up was the bleak anti-Valentine's feature, "Frownland". It's an hour and a half of painfully awkward conversation, following the life of Keith Sontag, an awkward, stuttering, burbling loser. Pathetically, his job is going door to door asking for charity donations (I think the charity was for cerebral palsy, but I might be remembering it wrong. I know it was some disease). Obviously, if he can't speak well he won't do well at this job. He also doesn't deal well with his roommate or his suicidal friend. Basically he stumbles through a world that is equal parts uncaring and openly contemptuous. And it does it all with the 16mm aesthetic of a gritty 70's movie (George Romero's "Martin" was a direct influence on the look). I have to thank director Ronald Bronstein for introducing the movie well, and letting me know that it's okay to laugh. It's uncomfortable laughter, but it's there. Ultimately, the main character is sympathetic for 90 minutes, but if I met him in real life he'd probably be intolerable after about 5. Here's a pic of Ronald Bronstein:

And to round off the night, as an antidote for "Frownland" we had the cheesy, campy, silly "Sexina: Popstar P.I.". What can I say, it's stupid fun--with boobies! (sadly, they stay clothed, but they're still on display) Sexina is the world's hottest pop star, but at night she fights corruption in the music industry. The evil boss, played by Quahog mayor Adam West, kidnaps a scientist and forces him to make a set of super robots to become the greatest boy band ever, so he can rule the world! Obviously, it's up to Sexina to stop him, just after she makes an appearance at a high school to help an unpopular girl believe in herself--through the power of shopping! Yeah, it's that silly, but it's fun. Here's director Erik Sharkey:

And here's producer/editor Greg Boas and producer Charles Ricciardi (I think. I have in my notes that he's a producer):

Anyway, then I had time for just a couple beers, finally had some filmmakers to drink with (Irina, Ronald, and the Sexina guys were all at the bar), and then caught the BART home.

Now I'm only one day (three movies) behind in my posts, but now I have to go catch the BART back to the city for 5 more movies. Then 5 more tomorrow. And 3 on Monday. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 7

An actual short day at the festival, only 2 movies! Of course, I still had to get there by 5:00.

Oh, and first off, just an addition to my previous review of "La Creme". There was a brief scene showing a painting of a bunny in the background. That is all.

That 5:00 show was the bay area shorts program--4 medium-length shorts all made by local filmmakers.
First up was "The Trees That Survive", where a little boy describes the lives and histories of the trees in his backyard. Pretty adorable.

Then there was "High Heels". A lonely man named Gregory watches a TV psychology program. The psychologist explains how women are afraid when they're walking down the street and men follow them. But they're not afraid when women follow them. Gregory has a crush on a woman who works at the California Theater in Berkeley. He doesn't want to scare her, so he dresses up in women's clothing and follows her around. Ummm...dude, you're doing it wrong! Pretty funny.

Here's a pic of director (and California Theater manager) Dale Sophiea, with Indiefest programmer Anita Monga:

"Inertia". This is the story of four twenty-somethings going through their monotonous, dead-end lives. There's the telemarketer who idolizes the powerful and the successful. He's neither. In fact, he's about to be homeless. There's the homeless girl, addicted to drugs, can't get a break or even any respect. There's the woman who's days of freedom are at an end when she learns she's pregnant. And finally, there's a strange guy who seems to be the only one who sees life as an unending cycle that must be broken. A cataclysmic traffic accident will change all their lives. Very well done.

Here's a pic of Bo Heimleich, George Seamer, and Kyle Garrett, makers of "Inertia"

And finally, a retrospective screening of Jay Rosenblatt's "Human Remains" (1998). Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, and Mao Zedong are all shown in rare home movie footage, as first person narration describes the little details in their lives. Details like Hitler liked chamomile tea (both drinking it and enemas). Mussolini also liked chamomile, but only drinking it. Both Hitler and Mao had only one testicle (each, not one testicle shared between them, that'd be weird). Mostly it's a meditation on the banality of evil. When Hitler declared that he tries to control his weight, but he has a weakness for chocolate éclairs, I said, "wow, just like me!", and so I Godwinned myself. But what really struck me is that other than a few quirks (and a few million murders), the first four seemed like ordinary guys. Then Mao came on, and talked about how he never bathed, washed his teeth with tea, conducted all his business in bed in his pajamas, was famously constipated, etc. I actually knew most of this already from a movie called "The Passion of the Mao". But the juxtaposition of 'banal, banal, banal, banal, batshit insane' was pretty striking.

Next show was the feature, "Broke Sky". This is another strong contender for my "reward for watching everything" prize, but really it shouldn't have been in the running. I should've read "black comedy about roadkill removal" and been very excited about it (hence, it couldn't surprise me with how good it is). Anyway, Bucky and Earl work for the county cleaning up roadkill. One day their boss shows them a fancy new roadkill removal van that does it all automatically (kind of a street sweeper with a built in incinerator), hence making one of their jobs obsolete. Not good. Particularly not good for Earl, who's the older, lazier guy who makes young sensitive Bucky do all the work. Bucky, for his part, is just about the nicest guy possible, and if he could he'd give every single animal a proper burial (instead of throwing them all in the pit). Anyway, Earl hatches a plan to make themselves look good and the neighboring county (that's already using the new van) look bad. At night, they'll sneak over to the neighboring county and steal roadkill, adding to their total while subtracting from the other county's total. Things are going fine, until they're called in to retrieve an animal from the well of a creepy old man who lives on the outskirts of town. Instead they find human. In fact, a young sexy woman they had just met days earlier. Hijinx ensue, but not so much wacky as pitch black and kinda disgusting. Okay, I can't say much more without spoilers. But I will say there is a bunny scene, in fact, an extremely pivotal bunny-killing scene.

Okay, what's up with all the dead bunnies this past year? I know it's no one filmmaker's fault, but is there something in the air, in the zeitgeist that just makes this a good time to kill bunnies? It's like we've experienced an Elmer Fuddification of the global independent film community!

Okay, that was Wednesday at Indiefest. Just a few drinks at the Kilowatt, and I was back on the BART home. I actually got home before midnight!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Jason goes to Indiefest--Day 6.

Last Tuesday might just have been my best night at the festival this year.

First up was a pair of docs ostensibly about surfing, but really about much more. First the short, "Surfing Thru". As in, three women surfing through the pain of treatment for stage 4 cancer. It's not so much just about surfing (although there's plenty of that) as it is about clinging to what life you have left. And really, it's not about that as much as it's about clinging to as much enjoyment of life as you have left.

And then there was the feature, "Sliding Liberia". Every year, there's a movie that completely surprises me. I just skim through the schedule and figure out how to see everything, and maybe I'll go into a screening with a one sentence idea of what the movie's about. So often I'll go into a movie with low (or no) expectations, and the movie will just blow me away. I call this "my reward for seeing everything". These are the movies that keep me addicted to film in general and Indiefest in particular. Well, to make a long story short, "Sliding Liberia" is the early candidate for my reward for seeing everything. Again, it's ostensibly a surfing movie--and there is plenty of surfing footage--but there's also a lot more. The first thing you have to realize is this isn't about a bunch of crazy kids who want to surf strange lands where nobody's surfing now. Producer/star Nicholai Lidow was a volunteer for a peace organization in Ghana, where he met many Liberian refugees. After he returned home and the Liberian civil war ended, he kept in touch with some of them as they were returning to Liberia. So he decided to visit them, and happened to take his surfboard along. He's gone back for several years, and finally dragged his surfing buddies with him. So this sets it apart from your typical exotic surfing documentary, in that the reason to go to Liberia is not the waves, it's the people. The surfing is almost incidental, and most compelling in how it affects the lives of the local people. This is a war-torn, economically devestated, dirt-poor country, and the possibility of surf tourism gives them some hope. Far and away the breakout star is Alfred Lomax, the first black man to surf in Liberia. He was looking for food down at the harbor (he had found bags of rice the last two days), and found a bodyboard. He didn't know exactly what it was, but he took it home, and learned how to "slide" on the waves with it (they didn't know the word surfing). Not only does he enjoy it, he sees the possibility of an economic future based on surf tourism. That might or might not be realistic (Nicholai and director Britton Caillouette were there for the screening, and pointed out in the Q&A that while regular tourists wouldn't go to Liberia, surfers would). And by the end of the movie, when there's a whole beachful of natives surfing, you can believe that this could actually change their world. Incredible.
Here's a really blurry, dark pic of Nicholai and Britton at the Q&A:
Next up was a program that I knew I'd like, so no matter how much I liked it, it's automatically ineligible for my "reward for seeing everything" award. First up was the short "Dating in LA", by Sean Young. I had seen her just recently as the world's hottest robot in "Blade Runner". She's...significantly older now. And she makes fun of that, as she tries to find a young, sexy date online. They all gripe about how she doesn't look anything like her picture. Pretty funny, and pokes fun at the celebrity obsession with youth.
And then the feature, poking way more fun at celebrity obsession, was "Being Michael Madsen", a mockumentary that eats itself. Michael Madsen is the tough guy actor from several movies, most memorably the psychotic Mr. Blond in "Reservoir Dogs". His tough guy intensity makes him a target for the tabloids, and especially a really, really annoying paparazzo Billy Dant. Dant connects Madsen to the disappearence of a young starlet who was a background extra in a Madsen film, and starts accusing him of murder. Michael loses his defamation lawsuit, so he decides to turn the table and hire a documentary film crew to follow and harass Dant. This is a documentary about the events that took place around those documentarians (I'm not sure exactly how many levels of film-within-film this ends up going to, but it's at least three). It uses interviews from Madsen himself along with celebrity pals Darryl Hannah, David Carradine, Harry Dead Stanton (awesome!) and his sister Virginia Madsen (from "Sideways", and she steals the show). Eventually it all starts eating itself when it cuts to celebrity TV shows talking about the movie Michael Madsen is making about the whole mess (and editing up to the last minute) called "Being Michael Madsen". At this point I almost expected there to be hidden camera footage tacked to the end of the audience watching the start of the movie. Well, that doesn't happen, although it would've been awesome! But the movie's pretty darn awesome without it.

And finally, the last film is also my favorite so far, Stuart Gordon's "Stuck". You may remember a few years back there was a news story about a woman who up until that time was considered a very nice person. She was driving home drunk (and high) from a party when she hit a homeless man who got stuck in her windshield. Instead of taking him to a hospital, fearing the consequences she took him home, left him in the garage while she slept it off and he bled to death, and then got her boyfriend to take to car out of town and burn it. She's currently serving something like 50 years in prison. Well, this movie is "inspired" by those events, but take a big (and welcome) detour in the name of justice. I have to say, as much as I love "Re-Animator", it is a pretty schlocky horror comedy, and for a long time Stuart Gordon looked content to do well-made schlock. But with "Edmond" and now "Stuck" (not to mention his work on "Masters of Horror"), he's one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. I don't know if he got more interesting or if the times changed so that his sensibilities became more interesting, but now I really hope "House of Re-Animator" happens (one note that should get you excited, the "House" in the title is the White House).
In "Stuck", Mena Suvari plays Brandi, a nurse assistant drunk/high behind the wheel for the fateful incident. More ingeniously, the movie also focuses on the homeless man, Tom (Stephen Rea, with the perfect sad-sack face for it) and how he became homeless just that day. It's brutal, and has some pointed messages about how little we care about our fellow man. A recurring theme early on is "your choice". When he's evicted, he can leave (without his suit) or his landlord can call the cops--"your choice". When his appointment at the employment agency is lost, he can fill out the paperwork again or they can't do anything--"your choice". When the cops hassle him in the park, he can walk across town to the mission or he can be driven to the jail--"your choice". I could make some pointed conclusion about a cruel, uncaring culture that offers the unfortunate no help while masking it in the language of independent self-determination. For that matter, I could make a point about how the only person who tries to help him once he's stuck in the car is the child of an illegal immigrant. But heck, you should just see the movie, because Stuart Gordon says it much better than I do. Finally, once he's stuck in the car windshield and bleeding out, Tom makes the most important choice--to live. And this is really where reality leaves and justice enters, but justice is a welcome guest in this movie.
Now I want to direct the rest of this review directly to Stuart Gordon. So unless you are Stuart Gordon, please stop reading.
Okay, I think they're all gone.
Mr. Gordon, you are one sick motherfucker! How dare you make me laugh while watching such horror!? I love you, and I will never forgive you!
And that was day 6 of Indiefest.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Jason goes to Indiefest--day 5

So Monday was supposed to be my relaxing day, I didn't have to get to the theater until 7:15, watch 2 movies, and go home. But thanks to technical difficulties over the weekend, I had to get out of work early and catch the 5:00 show.

That 5:00 show started with the short, "The Combination". A guy plays the same lottery numbers every week for 20 years. Finally they pay off. You just know there's a catch. Allegedly based on real events. It's well done and pretty funny.

Then the feature was the very, very french comedy, "La Creme". The hero is a bit of a loser, a basically unemployed salesman who goes door to door hawking charity postcards as a scam--and a not very successful one at that. Meanwhile he's interviewing for a sales job, and is put in competition with one other candidate. The rules are that they have one week, and at the end of the week they must decide who gets the job. Basically if you can "sell" the other candidate on the idea that you should have the job, you win. He doesn't really have much of a chance. It's also Christmastime, and--through his wife's paycheck--he manages to scrape together a small pile of presents for his family (they have one young son). One of the things "Santa" brings him is a container of facial creme. He puts some on, and suddenly his postcards are selling like hotcakes. Turns out, when he's wearing the creme everyone thinks he's famous. He gets things for free, people ask for his autograph, and breathlessly tell him that they have all his albums (although he's never actually made one). Hijinx ensue, and of course they're wacky, but also very French with a dry wit and plenty of sex. Cool.

I then had a choice between killing some time--getting a real dinner, having a drink or two--or rewatching "The Road to Nod" (which was the replacement for the cancelled screening of "La Creme" last weekend. I thought "The Road to Nod" was okay the first time, but didn't really care to see it again. Still, I am an addict, so I watched it again (I also knew if I had too many drinks I'd fall asleep in the 9:30 show). Well, an amazing thing happen. The movie I thought was slow the first time was perfectly paced the second time. What I first thought was tons of driving and no action only had driving in the last 20 minutes or so (and yeah, it was still extended scenes of driving, but they worked this time). The music, which I liked even the first time, was even better. In other words, I totally got it the second time. Good choice! Go me!

And finally, the late show was a dose of bleak Japanese nihilism, "This World of Ours". Playing heavily on "A Clockwork Orange" (the 9th by Ludwig Van is featured), this movie is so bleak it starts with 9/11 as a point of optimism (I guess in that it wakes people from their malaise and apathy). Then we meet a host of peripherally related high school characters, from bullies to bullied (for a while it was playing out like it might be the Japanese "Ben X"). Everyone is miserable, nihilistic, callous, but damaged in some way. It goes just about everywhere, and I'll just say it's pretty fucked up.

And that's it for Monday. Now I'm only 5 movies behind in my posts.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Jason goes to Indy-fest, day 4

No, that title's not a typo. It'll all be clear soon.

Another nice night in the hotel Fusion, then I checked out of the hotel and took another pleasant walk to the Roxie to see the 12:30 show, the shorts program "Animation Amalgamation". Here's the rundown:
"Requiem for DRM"--DRM being "Digital Rights Management". This was a top ten short at, which sponsored the program. A clever little music video showing the history of music from birds to CD's, and the futility of trying to stop it from being shared.
"Children of Shadows"--Japenese charcoal drawings of children growing up and taking over their parents' roles. Plus it's got bunnies! In fact, it's got drips of pussy juice turning into bunnies. I like bunnies...and the Japanese are fucked up!
"A Letter to Colleen"--A very angry, sexual letter from the man who's been tormented by her since his 18th birthday.
"Flighty"--For the life of me, I don't remember this one. Did it actually play?
"Hope Springs Eternal"--The hilarious story of Mort, who's such a loser he can't even get suicide right. Can't wait to see more adventures of Mort. Here's a very blurry picture of director Ron Noble:

"Switch"--Computer animated metaphor on life choices. We're all running along with timers on our backs and different doors to choose.
"Einstein's Riddle"--You know, that one about neighboring houses and who lives in each one? Well, this is updated with smoking, drinking, and gratuitous nudity.
"Fault"--The road gets revenge on an aggressive driver.
"Teat Beat of Sex"--Important lessons, explicitly educational.
"Fantasie in Bubblewrap"--The poor souls, won't someone stop the slaughter!? On second thought, that was pretty cool.
"Running Seasons"--The journey of life, in stark black and white.
"The Cock Song"--Sing along: "I'm gonna grab my cock and go to the chicken fight..."
"Veterinarian"--His work is never done. Seems like for every animal he cures, he accidentally causes another one to get sick. I guess that's job security.

So next up was the amazing father/son documentary, "The Body Builder and I". Bryan Friedman has never really known his dad. His dad Bill left when Bryan was two. After a second failed marriage, Bill--now in his late 50's--took up body building. At 57 he won the world championship in his age group. At 58 he was dethroned. At 59 this is his last chance to recapture glory, and to connect with his filmmaking son. Bryan has the idea to film a documentary about his dad, and the end result is about equal parts a look at the strange world of geriatric body-building and a dysfunctional family drama. Bryan is very obviously completely embarrased by his dad strutting around on stage in tiny bikini shorts. And the fact that he doesn't much like his dad doesn't make it much easier. It's ultimately funny, touching, and a bit tough to watch. Obviously what the world of geriatric bodybuilding has needed is Superman doing the macarena. But in the end, there's at least hope for a reconciliation.

And then, Indiefest became Indy-fest with the mega-event, "Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation". This actually played at Indiefest before, in 2005. Reaching back into my pre-blogging archives, here's what I wrote about it back then:

When "Raiders of the Lost Ark" came out in 1981, this group of kids in Mississippi made it their life's mission to re-shoot it scene for scene starring themselves. 7 years later, they finished (mostly, they skipped the airplane fight scene). Then for 15 years it was mostly forgotten. Then Eli Roth (Cabin Fever) got a copy of it, and made it his life mission to get a copy to Steven Spielberg. He succeeded, and in the process made this epic fan project famous (famous enough that their childhood story has been
optioned to be made into a movie itself). Well, I had heard about it last year, and now I finally got to see it. It was amazing, a packed house cheering for every big scene, as
if they were seeing the original again. There are many levels on which you can
enjoy this movie, but not the technical quality (these were, after all, just kids with
camcorders). But you can enjoy it for the dedication, the love, and the real sense of
adventure. These aren't professionals cleverly tricking you into suspending disbelief and making you think they're having an adventure. These are kids actually going out and having an adventure. These kids are really running in front of giant boulders, jumping into rivers, and (most amazingly), being dragged behind moving trucks. I just gotta love film geeks this big.

Watching it a second time, I'll add this. You can enjoy it for the technical merits as well as the technical glitches. The strings are showing, but the strings are part of the fun. And what they accomplished is actually pretty amazing. Also, it's still an amazing audience event. They were just short of selling out the 500 seat Victoria theater, and everyone cheered at everything. And I think Kurt Zala is a new cult hero of everyone in the audience.

Here's a picture of Jayson Lamb (cameraman and special effects creator) and Chris Strompolos (producer and Indiana Jones):

So the Raiders show ran a little long, so I had to sprint to make it back to the Roxie for the next show. I missed the first few minutes of "Helldrivers". This is a documentary about Paul Riddell and the titular Helldrivers, a thrill show group that's been performing for generations. They travel North America doing some pretty amazing stunt driving shows. Paul himself is the undisputed master of two wheel driving. He's the only guy who takes passengers in his truck, turns it up on two wheels, and drives around the track (no one else takes passengers because it changes the center of gravity). His son, daughter, and wife are also in the show, standing on cars, doing drag and slides, exploding cars, etc. Or, I should say, they were in the show, because sadly it ends with Paul deciding to close the show and retire. The end of a way of life and a form of entertainment that just can't draw the crowds to pay for skyrocketing insurance and gas costs.

This was the first half of a pair of documentaries about drivers. The second was "Alligator on the Zipper", a documentary about women truck drivers (as their tagline says, 7 women, 7 stories, 1.4 million trucking miles). It's an interesting premise and a series of interesting characters, with trucking experience ranging from a few months to over a decade. Some are on contract, some own their own truck. They all talk of the freedom of the road--except for one kind of annoying woman who only talks about her million dollar ideas that will make her rich, famous, and be on Oprah. A documentary like this succeeds or not based on the quality of the characters, and this succeeds about 6/7 of the time. The only thing I'd say is it switches so quickly from driver to driver that you never really get to settle in and get to know them one at a time. I would've preferred longer takes with one driver at a time, but maybe that's just me. I have a feeling that somewhere in all the footage, there's probably a little bit better movie that could be made.

Anyway, here's a pic of director Ivo Stainoff:

And here are two of the truckers (and bikers) Mercy and Stacey:

And finally, the last film of the night was, appropriately enough, "One Night". It starts out with a real attention grabber--a woman walks out onto the street in the morning, a guy in a red hoodie walks up behind her and calls her name. When she turns around, he pulls out a gun. Cut to 15 hours earlier...and it never really matches the energy of the opening (how could it). It's Friday night in New York, and 15 strangers are about to have a night of hookups (and breakups...and crackups). It's an interesting setup, but there were just too many characters for me to get to know too quickly. Perhaps I was just tired (this was the end of a 14 movie weekend), but I couldn't keep everyone straight and by the end it was just a blur of everyone hooking up and getting laid. Actually, I shouldn't say I couldn't keep everyone straight, I just didn't have the energy to care about 15 characters I'd just met. I could tell it was well made, and this has the feel of a movie that gets better with multiple viewings. But a single viewing, at the end of a 5 movie day and 14 movie weekend, just left me kinda flat.

So I grabbed a beer at the Kilowatt bar (official Indiefest hangout), talked a bit with the staff and filmmakers there, and headed home. I didn't even wait for the last BART home, I left with easily 30-45 minutes to spare. That's how tired I was/am.

Jason goes to Indiefest--day 3.

All right, this was the day that getting a hotel in the city payed off. I was well rested and took a leisurely stroll down to the Roxie for the first program, the shorts program "Who Loves Ya, Baby?" Let's jump right in. The shorts were:

"On a Tuesday"--a couple gets married midday on a Tuesday at city hall. Then he has to go back to work rather than honeymoon. It's a little flash of joy and love in an otherwise bitter, cynical world. Here's a pic of director David Scott Smith:

"Saturday Night Newtown Sunday Morning Enmore"--If you can't remember what you did to end up in bed with a stranger last night, just make up something really romantic.
"Antes y Despues de Besar a Maria" ("Before and After Kissing Maria")--A little boy obsesses about kissing the new neighbor girl Maria. This would've been a lot better with subtitles, but I could more or less follow it.
"Perfect to Begin"--A hilarious story from the UK about a guy who steals a camper trailer to go on a weird camping trip with his girlfriend and her daughter (he didn't initially plan on the daughter). This movie also features a dead bunny rabbit. Please, won't someone stop the bunny killings!
"Gimme Music, Gimme Shelter"--A guy shows up for a date, while the girl gets ready he judges her by her record collection. High marks on organizational skills, but low marks for taste. Particularly marked down for the Beatles and Britney Spears. HereÕs a blurry pic of director/star Shawn Telford (who doesn't actually hate the Beatles):

"I Hate Musicals"--A bitter, heartless insurance agent has a girlfriend who is making her debut as a musical actress. He shows up, but can't hide his disdain for musicals. A little magic dust cures him. Does it mean I'm getting old and bitter myself if I'd rather see him punished than redeemed? Well, he gets a little of both. Here's a pic of the filmmaker representative from "I Hate Musicals". However I have to admit that I did not note who he was. He might be writer/director Stewart Schill, or he might be one of the producers. Possibly Jeff Shapiro? For some reason I remember the name Jeff. But maybe I'm losing my mind:

"Copy"--if you don't have the guts to talk to that hot chick, just clone her with your clonamatic 6000. Program her to love you, just make sure you have the right DNA sample.
"The Art of Stalking"--There are very careful rules, and nothing distracts a stalker like a second stalker who doesn't follow the rules.

Next up was the Armenian comedy "A Big Story in a Small City", but first the short "Ground Floor Right". "Ground Floor Right" is the brief introduction of Fang. Fang is an old man with a long white beard, living in his small London flat with 100 birds. That place is a mess, but Fang is a pretty interesting guy. And where else could he live?

As for the feature, "A Big Story in a Small City", it was hilarious. This is exactly my type of slapstick dark comedy, which I find very typical of eastern Europe (I've noticed it particularly in the Balkan states, where I originally coined the term "abserbity" to describe it. Since then I've noticed it's not unique to Serbians). The story is narrated by Grigor Janoyan, who dies in a freak piano moving accident in the opening scene. His grieving family collects the body from the morgue, and sets him up in the house for the traditional viewing. But after most of the day, the daughter realizes that the body in their house is not actually their father. He's a dead ringer (pun intended) for their dad, but he has a small scar on the chin...oh yeah, and prison tattoos on his hands! So a wacky slapstick caper ensues wherein Hadyk, the eldest son, has to lead his brothers (and village idiot friend) to a) find their father's body, and b) swap it back, without c) everyone finding out. Of course, the mob gets involved. Excellent.

Then I was supposed to see "La Creme", but for the first time in Indiefest history, a screening had to be cancelled. Blame the French, who sent the wrong format tape. Fortunately, I'll be able to see it Monday afternoon at 5 pm (I'll just have to leave work early yet again). So instead, after some searching, they played "The Road to Nod". This is described as a "film noir road movie", which is pretty appropriate. Particularly the "road" part. Man there's a lot of driving in this movie. But more than that, there's a load of religious symbolism (Nod is the land that Cain was banished to after killing Abel). The hero is Parrish, who in the beginning of the movie is released from a Frankfurst prison. He goes to the bar and meets with his boss, the Reverend, who has a job for him. The next morning he's to meet for the job, but instead witnesses him getting gunned down by rivals. And so he flees, searching for sanctuary anywhere, and finally ending up in Ireland. For a crime action piece, it's amazingly slow and contemplative, and I'm not sure if I really "got" it. But it plays again tonight, so I might rewatch it and see if I get it better the second time.

Next up was a grafitti documentary, "Bomb It!" There's always been a sort of affinity for independent film and grafitti. I suppose it has something to do with the guerilla nature of the two art forms, but there are a lot of indie films made about grafitti (both documentaries and narratives). But this one is perhaps the most ambitious, starting from the roots in Philadelphia and exploding all over the world (London, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Capetown, and of course New York and Los Angeles). After it comes out theatrically this spring and DVD in May, the filmmakers are planning a 5 DVD set featuring individual cities. Anyway, I don't really know the grafitti world, but after seeing a number of films about it I believe I can kind of get it. And the debates about public space were interesting. They make a convincing argument that grafitti is a vital art form (although I'd object to grafitti on private property) and it's no less offensive than giant billboards telling you to buy the right kind of car so you'll get laid. At least the only thing taggers are advertising is the fact that they exist. And a lot of the grafitti art is really pretty beautiful. I can't really say the same about the tagging, but they make an interesting point that the elaborate artists start out as taggers so you really shouldn't discriminate between the two.

Here's a picture of director John Reiss at the Q&A:

Next up was a reel of Japanese experimental animation. "Tokyo Loop" was made a couple of years ago to celebrate the 100th anniversary of animation on film. Most of them are very experimental. A few are funny, and some just boring. I found it kind of a mixed bag, mostly the kind of experimental movies that appeal mostly to other filmmakers. But I do like some of them. The first one, with the man and dog represented by dots connected by lines--that one totally hit my math geek buttons. And there's the one with all the poo. And there are finally bunnies that don't die! Turns out the Japanese treat their bunnies nice--reaaaal nice.
And finally, the midnight movie "Pop Skull", a drug-addled horror movie. Daniel is a pill addict living in Alabama. He's got a really hard time keeping his life together, and it's made all the more difficult by the murderous ghosts (or something) in his home. Of course, this might all be his dream, as he admits early on that he's having difficult telling dream from reality, and they do no favors making it any easier to the audience. This is one part horror film, two parts drug film, and about 10 parts art film. But don't let that scare you off, there's plenty of visuals and creepy style to satisfy the horror fans, plus enough strobe effects to incapacitate a roomful of epileptics. All I can say is that while the similarity of the title to "popsicle" is a complete coincidence, it still gave me a beautifully nasty brain freeze.

Here's a picture of the filmmaking representatives, which I believe is the producing pair of Peter and Aron Katz. I hope I got that right, I was pretty tired by this time:

And that (after running down to Cell Space to catch the last 30 minutes of the after party) was day 3 of Indiefest.