Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Jason watches Tim Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Hey, I have a gap between festivals so I can see some mainstream blockbusters.

I...didn't hate this movie. But I wish Tim Burton would write his own stuff. Adaptations of other's works have been spotty--and more so of late (starting I think with PLANET OF THE APES and peaking with CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, although I did love BIG FISH). His original stories (EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, etc.) are much better in my opinion.

Anyway, ALICE IN WONDERLAND has the expected visual flair, a fairly (in fact, probably too) linear story with a beginning, middle, end, good guys and bad guys. And in embracing the "only the best people are crazy" ethos, it's as much or more Tim Burton than Lewis Carroll.

Oh, and there's an uncomfortably tacked-on resolution scene at the very end. It's so unrelated to most everything else that I debate whether describing it would count as a spoiler. Oh, what the hell--Alice ends up opening trade routes to China. Huh?

Anyway, I don't want to spend more time writing about this movie. There are hundreds of reviews you can read anywhere for more information. I'd rather spend my time looking forward to FRANKENWEENIE (written and directed by Tim Burton, based on his old short film) next year.

Jason goes to Bad Movie night and sees RED DAWN

Happy 5th birthday Bad Movie Night! We celebrated last Sunday with the totally plausible jingoistic epic of Soviets invading middle America (I guessed they skipped over Fake America figuring they're already communist) and the rag-tag team of patriot high school football stars who resisted them. The acting was so great, I only hope the upcoming remake (with Chinese invaders) is even half as good. Then it will be 1/1,000,000 of a good movie.

America! Fuck, Yeah!


Ummm...I don't have much to add, the title pretty much says it all. That and a few Vortex martinis (vortinis?) and I was a happy camper last Thursday night.

They also played WHEN WOMEN HAD TAILS, but I slept through that. Apparently it was even worse. Anyway, I'm not counting it as a movie I saw.

Running Time: 71 minutes
My Total Minutes: 179,537

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Jason goes to Asianfest--Day 11

And the final day of SFIAFF 2010, and the final day of Chi-hui Yang being the man in charge. Looking forward to seeing him as a fan next year, and I'm curious who will step in and how the festival will hold up going forward. Anyway, I'm only about a week and a half late with this, so here's the last five movies:

First up, the shorts program Wandering, Wondering. Shorts about loneliness and connections (often with cell phones):
JUST A LITTLE RUN: A couple of children run away in Taipei. If only they knew the bus system better.
ONE DAY: From Korea, a woman follows her husband to a love hotel. Bad man!
LOVERS: Also from Korea, a gay story of a love and disappearance when and old man's much younger lover goes missing.
TALL ENOUGH: A black woman and an Asia-American man form a cute couple in Brooklyn. Yes, she assures here mother on the phone, he's tall enough.
YES, YESTERDAY: Yesterday really meaning "many years ago" in this story of old lovers reunited in New York's Chinatown on the Fourth of July. Fireworks will ensue?
WORKS OF ART: Art is a Korean-American actor. Art has trouble getting work. Art's best friend gives him a gig--playing him on an arranged date.

Next up was a TALENTIME. It was a sweet little teenage comedy/drama from Malaysia. The local school is holding a Talentime (Talent Show) for the students. And there are some talented students (and some goofy teachers, but their drag act is ultimately cancelled). Melur is a English/Malaysian girl with a beautiful voice and who writes her own very short poems. Like all competing students, she is assigned a chauffeur--a fellow student with a motorbike to transport her to and from practice and the final competition. Her chauffeur is Mahesh, who is quite handsome and might be her new boyfriend. Too bad he's so rude--he never speaks or reacts to anything she says. It's almost as if he's deaf. Oh, wait, he is deaf. Meanwhile Hafiz is the main competition, both in the Talentime and for her affections. He's the ultimate good guy, splitting time between the competition (where he's a virtuoso at the guitar) and taking care of his dying mother, while still maintaining high marks at school. And he's even a gentleman in his love of Melur, simply pining for her from afar. I believe he was actually the one who told her Mahesh was deaf. The end result was an ultimately sweet but multi-layered complex story of teenage love, family, and talent.

Then the first of an accidental (maybe?) double feature on identity (they were separate programs, but worked so perfectly together). FOG is a drama from Hong Kong about amnesia. Wai (Terence Yin) is an amnesiac recently released from the hospital and trying to piece together the pieces of his life against the backdrop of the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China. He goes out with friends who tell him stories of himself that he doesn't remember. He gets drunk a lot, he wanders through his old school recognizing nothing. But gradually he picks up pieces of himself. Especially about an old girlfriend, and eventually the huge shock that he has a daughter who doesn't know him (for some unspecified reason they broke up either before she was born or when she was too young to remember). The reunion is more than a little uncomfortable, as his ex is still angry about something he can't remember. But to their daughter, he's cool uncle Wai. It's an interesting day-in-the-life snapshot of a man who literally lives in the present--because he knows nothing about his past or his future.

Then the second movie on identity was an amazing documentary, IN THE MATTER OF CHA JUNG HEE. I missed Deann Borshay Liem's previous documentary, FIRST PERSON PLURAL, although it will play on PBS's POV series paired with this follow-up. Deann is a Korean-American adoptee. A war orphan originally named Cha Jung Hee. Problem is, she was never Cha Jung Hee. Jung Hee was an orphan, and the Borshay's (her adoptive parents) corresponded with the Korean orphanage and arranged to adopt Cha Jung Hee. Problem is, Jung Hee's family had already come to claim her, so the orphanage passed off a different girl (Kang Ok Jin) as Cha Jung Hee and she flew to America, was adopted, and became Deann Borshay. Apparently in FIRST PERSON PLURAL Deann Borshay/Cha Jung Hee/Kang Ok Jin learned this and uncovered her past. 10 years later, this muddled identity is still haunting her, so she goes to Korea to find Cha Jung Hee--the real Cha Jung Hee. Armed with a name, a picture from 1964, and very little else (the name and location of the orphanage), she sets out on her quest. She meets several Cha Jung Hees, including on that might (she decides is) the real one. But she also uncovers more secrets (a third Cha Jung Hee?) as well as a perspective of what her life would've been life if she stayed in Korea (different, but likely not that bad) and some startling statistics on adoption (despite having grown to a modern, technologically advanced nation, South Korea still adopts out many children overseas--a holdover from the postwar period). Excellent film.

And finally, SFIAAFF has a strong tradition of ending the San Jose weekend with a strong, energetic, blockbuster (last year it was THE CHASER, a few years back it was Chan Wook Park's OLDBOY) and this year was no exception with THE MESSAGE. A cool, stylized suspense thriller of China during the Japanese occupation of WWII. There's a puppet Chinese collaborationist government set up by the invading Japanese. But there's also a wave of assassinations from the underground resistance. After torturing a prisoner (there's a lot of rather inventive torture in the movie) they learn how messages are transported through codes, and learn that the messages are coming from within the puppet regime from a source codenamed Phantom. Through a message about a fake meeting, they narrow down the suspects, and then invite them all to a top-secret meeting in an isolated castle, where the fun begins. They're all under suspicion, they're all bugged, and whoever the Phantom is now knows that the fake meeting is really a trap to catch the leader of the resistance, and they must get a message out. Mistrust escalates, everyone fights with everyone else and accusations fly. It's thrilling, but complicated enough that I'd have to see it again to give anything like a coherent plot description.

And how Asianfest 2010 ended.

Total Running Time: 480 minutes
My Total Minutes: 179,466

Friday, March 26, 2010

Jason goes to Asianfest--Day 10

A full Saturday of movies, I'm only about a week late writing them up, let's go:

First up, a comedy/melodrama from Japan, DEAR DOCTOR. Told in flashbacks, after the cops show up at a small town to investigate a death and a missing doctor. The story comes from the brash young intern who shows up in town and immediately becomes the Doctor Ino's protege. Although the intern has plenty of book learning, the doctor has the pulse of the whole town, knows everyone by name and knows how to take care of them in the way that best suits them. And for that, he is celebrated as a hero, even when he doesn't do much. He "saves" one old man who comes back to life after coughing out a bit of sushi he was choking on--throw a party for the doctor! Cracks start to show in the facade, as it becomes clear he relies on his head nurse (who used to work in an emergency room) more than he probably should. And things really get dicey when he an an old woman agree to keep her illness a secret from her family, even though her daughter is a doctor in the city. The cops' investigation uncovers secrets that raise questions about his place in the community, but ultimately, even when he's gone the village rallies around his memory. (spoiler: He's not really a doctor, he was a medical device salesman who just spent so much time in hospitals he picked up the basics of medicine)

Next up was a documentary about a fairly interesting subject, but it just wasn't executed well. AOKI is about Richard Aoki, a Japanese American activist and famously the Asian guy who was one of the founders of the Black Panthers. He died last year, and the movie is a combination of archival footage with footage from the last 5 years of his life. It's an interesting story, starting with his first time incarcerated as a political prisoner--he was 2 and shipped off to the Japanese-American internment camps during WWII. His youth in West Oakland clearly paved the way for both his gangster temperament and his political activism. And then the movie goes over his Black Panther years (including footage of a recent reunion) and ultimately his time afterward when he became a professor and a mentor to a new generation of activists. So what frustrated me about the movie? First, the editing was badly choppy, to the point that after a question is posed the answer will be cut from multiple interviews, often less than a full sentence from each one. It's jarring. Second, they spent way too long on his Black Panther years, and it was repetitive as hell. Rookie mistake, having a half-dozen interview subjects say the same thing about him. They could have cut out about half and had a fine short documentary. Third (especially if you want to keep it feature length), there wasn't enough on his post-Panther years. I thought his childhood was really the most interesting part--'How do you become a militant activist (as opposed to a peaceful activist)?' Conversely, the question of 'How do you go from a militant activist to a college professor?' is equally interesting, and totally missed. Compared to those two questions, 'What is it like to be a militant activist?' isn't really that interesting. Anyway, fascinating subject, missed opportunity.

So moving along from militant activism to a sex farce with THE PEOPLE I'VE SLEPT WITH. I grudgingly admit this was laugh out loud funny most of the time, despite having plenty of points that I thought were way too cheesy. Angela Yang is proud to admit she's a slut--that is, once she realized that "a slut is just a woman who thinks like a man" (side note: I would like to disagree with that and say men don't think about sex nearly as much as she does, but the creepy ex-con I met on the light rail heading home at the end of the night proved me wrong). She keeps pictures of all her lovers with some note to remember them, a huge stack of what she calls her 'postcards.' Problem, she's pregnant. And so she's off on a series of wacky adventures commiserating with her flamingly gay best friend and tracking down the 4 guys she had unprotected sex with in the possible time window. It's down to either the super-fast Latino guy, the Mr. Hottie who likes getting reamed up the butt with a dildo while he masturbates, the Nice-But-Boring guy (who goes way over the top when he finds out he might be a dad. Another one of the points I thought was just a little off), and the Mystery Man who won't say what he does for a living. Turns out, Mystery Man is the most interesting. His real name is Jefferson, and his secret is that he's a politician. And he might just be the guy she can settle down with and marry. 75% hilarious, 25% cheesy or just tonally inconsistent.

Then I saw a good old psychological (and perhaps supernatural) horror film about shamans and new American immigrants, MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME. Sookhy is the daughter of a powerful Korean shaman, but that is not her path (even though superstition has it that she who has the shaman's gift and doesn't use it will see all her loved ones suffer and die). Instead, she marries a Korean-American and moves to America. There she lives in the suburbs with her husband and domineering mother-in-law. And the neighbors, John and Julie. She becomes a little enamored with Julie--so much so that she takes Julie as her American name. And then the deaths start. And she becomes oddly manipulative and possibly downright evil. Or maybe she's just a very friendly neighbor. It's a very odd movie, with familiar horror tropes but an odd tone I can't quite put my finger on. And the ending is either supernatural or a psychological break with reality.

And finally, I ended the night with a movie about early postwar Taiwan, PRINCE OF TEARS. In the early years after Mao forced Chiang Kai-shek and his followers onto the island, they counted themselves as almost like royalty in paradise. They being Little Zhou and her big sister Li, happily playing and going to school. But there are forbidden parts of the island, especially the coast, where just being there will get you targeted as a communist spy and executed. Just what happens to their kind, caring, and handsome art teacher early on. Life goes on, and although they've seen death now, they still live with their handsome air force pilot father and their beautiful mother. And their parents' best friend, uncle Ding. Ding has a badly scarred face, but is kind and their father reminds them not to judge him based on his looks. See, he was scarred in an act of great heroism. But what invades their fairy tale life is the increasing number of anti-communist purges. The purges eventually even sweep up their father. It seems despite being a decorated officer he also went on an unexplained trip to the mainland many years ago. It's a pretty good story, lushly photographed from a child's perspective where reality and imagination clash.

Total Running Time: 533
My Total Minutes: 178,986

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Jason goes to Asianfest--Day 9

Although SFIAAFF had its closing night party on Thursday, there were really three more days left down in San Jose (where I often see the best films of the festival, just because I plan my SJ weekend before I figure out what I'll see in SF)

Opening night was the quirky romantic comedy/gangster flick/adventure AU REVOIR TAPEI. Kai is lovestruck, but his girlfriend is studying in France. So he spends his nights at a bookstore, reading a french textbook. There he catches the eye of sweet and helpful Susie, the bookstore clerk. There's also a gang of real estate agents/small time thugs, a mob boss who agrees to buy Kai a ticket to Paris if he just picks up one little package, a guy who's in love with the girl he works with at a convenience store, a cuckolded cop, and public dancing. And then it gets weird. And it was a lot of fun.

So was the after party, where there was plenty of free booze. Yay, booze!

Running Time: 80 minutes

My Total Minutes: 178,543

Monday, March 22, 2010

Jason slips into the Vortex for some CANDY

So last Thursday, rather than head to the SFIAAFF SF Closing Night Party, I went to my favorite underground movie hangout and caught a truly bizarre and beautiful flick, CANDY.

I got there just a few minutes late, apparently I missed the outer space opening (anyone who has seen it, confirm?) Anyway, when I walked in Candy Christian (Ewa Aulin) was listening to Welsh poet MacPhisto (Richard Burton!), whom she then takes home, where he tries to rape her. Then their Mexican gardener Emmanuel (Ringo Starr! I can't make this shit up) tries to rape her, even though "Emmanuel is a good boy!" (truly, he's a credit to the Mexican race). Then her stodgy father and wild uncle (John Astin, in a dual role) barge in and rescue her. They escape on a near-perpetually airborne U.S. military troop transport under the command of Gen. R.A. Smight (Walter Matthau), who also tries to rape her. And then it gets weird. Marlon Brando shows up as some guru, I think he tries to rape her, too (by this point I was pretty drunk), and James Coburn plays a famous hotshot brain surgeon who operates on her father (oh yeah, he sustained a head injury back during the scuffle with Emmanuel) and then tries to bed her on her father's recovery bed. The only thing crazier than the plot is that they somehow got this cast. Wow.

Running Time: 115 minutes (and although I missed the beginning, I decided I deserve every last one of those minutes)
My Total Minutes: 178,373

Jason goes to Asianfest--Day 8

Yeah, I skipped last Wednesday, too. And for the San Francisco closing night I just caught one film, the shorts program Futurestates. The idea, from ITVS, is to commission young filmmakers to examine issues of today by looking at them in the future. You can actually catch them all (more than played at the festival) online here, but here are the ones I saw:

FALLOUT: In the future, love makes you stupid and radiation can be bombed out of existence.
MISTER GREEN: In the future, the only way to get environmental is to become a plant.
THE OTHER SIDE: In the future, desperate people will still cross the border illegally in search of a better life.
PIA: In the future, true love will even survive reincarnation as an android.
SILVER SLING: In the future, you can have your babies by surrogate in just 3 months. Well, that's a time-saver!

Running Time: 75 minutes
My Total Minutes: 178,258

Jason goes to Asianfest--Day 6

Yeah, I skipped Day 5. Sorry, I was at a work-related brainstorming session (i.e., drinking beer and coming up with new ideas). You'll just have to live without my brilliant insights into...whatever I would've seen on Monday.

Anyway, I caught two movies on Tuesday (which turned out to be documentary night) starting with the documentary on the history and statehood of Hawai'i, STAE OF ALOHA. It starts with the bare facts--the date that Hawai'i became a state, the celebrations, and the memories of that day by prominent Hawaiians (including Senators Inouye and Akaka) Those in power now look back on the day with great pride and joy, and I'll confess I felt it vicariously through them. I've always felt the greatest pride in my country when I meet a new citizen, and I'm not old enough to have welcomed an entire new state in (get on it, Puerto Rico!) But really, who'd want to watch 77 minutes of how cool it is that Hawai'i became a state--that's just propaganda! When the movie really takes off is when it challenges the narrative, and although there's not really a serious movement against statehood (not like Alaska, where the Alaska Independence Party is political force--but that's not a story) there is an interesting story of how the islands got to the point where statehood really was the best (possibly only) option. It starts with the days as a sovereign kingdom, and traces how the post-gold rush Americans moved there and started sugar cane plantations, up to its use as a military base, Pearl Harbor, and systematic class separations (even suppression of the native Hawai'ian language) to the point where by 1959 statehood really was the logical next step. At 77 minutes, it's barely more than a primer into the history of Hawai'i. But the filmmakers were there to talk about how their main goal is getting it shown in schools and including a whole study guide. As a starting point for discussion, it does a great job.

And then I saw some pure propaganda, HANA, DUL, SED... is the story of the North Korean women's soccer team. Actually, I say it's propaganda, but really only is as much as steadfastly refuses to take a political stance in a nation who's very regime is such a global issue. Instead, they focus on the women and the soccer, and their dedication feels no different than the dedication of any professional athlete. When the team wins the Asian Championship in 2003, they're hailed as heroes of the people and are treated to the privileges thereof. It's more than a little off-putting to see them afforded such great luxuries in a country that I know is full of poverty and human rights abuses, but again the movie doesn't look at that. Rather they look at their subsequent run to the World Cup in the United States, their ballyhooed match, the hostile environment, and their eventual 3-0 loss to the United States, their return to the DPRK. Ultimately, there's a lot of turnover in the team, the players all go their own way, although they remain friends and at least one works as a coach now. They simply had to make way for younger players, who by the way are now ranked 5th in the world. But that's another story. According to the program notes, this was an Austrian production, and I really wish director Brigitte Weich or any of the crew were there, I had so many questions about how they got so much access to North Korea and what they left out.

Total Running Time: 175 minutes
My Total Minutes:178,183

Monday, March 15, 2010

Jason goes to Asianfest--Day 4

Saturday night/Sunday morning was Daylight Savings time change--spring ahead. I don't know if anyone forget and ended up an hour late for their first film of the day. For my part I remembered to set my clocks ahead, but also forgot my first film was at 1:00 pm, not noon. I realized my error when I was on the BART, and had to laugh at myself for being the only doofus to be an hour early on Sunday. So I didn't even catch a bus from the BART. I had a leisurely stroll, stopped for some Thai food at a restaurant called (no kidding) Thai Stick (it wasn't very good), and was still at the Clay theater about 45 minutes early. I ended up spending the whole day at the Clay, and it was a pretty good day.

First up, a shorts program What We Talk About When.... It was a program of medium length shorts by well established filmmakers. They were universally beautiful in the cinematography, and also tended to require patience and attention (for you haters out there, that means "slow" or "boring"):
A LETTER TO UNCLE BOONMEE (dir. Apitchatpong Weerasthekul): Repetition is used to evoke reincarnation in this beautiful and poetic letter that is as much to the residents of Nabua, Thailand as it is to Uncle Boonmee.
MADAM BUTTERFLY (dir. Tsai Ming-Liang): Pearly Chua plays a Madam Butterfly who is trapped in a bus station in Kuala Lumpur. Without enough cash for a bus ticket (although everyone says she can ride even though she's a little short), she tries to call her boyfriend to come pick her up. This was largely improvised and was Tsai's entry into the 20 Puccini film project (20 films on Puccini commissioned by the Lucca Film Festival)
CRY ME A RIVER (dir. Jia Zhang-ke): College friends reunite for their professor's birthday party.
LOST IN THE MOUNTAINS (dir. Hong Sang-soo): Hong Sang-soo (who also directed the feature LIKE YOU KNOW IT ALL, which was my last film of the night) always has a sly sense of humor, even when telling a story of the unpleasantness that happens when young woman Misook travels to Jeonju alone to meet her friend and her former lover.

Next up was the Freida Lee Mock show, featuring her new documentary LT. WATADA. But first, a bonus short from her daughter Jessica Sanders, GEORGE AND BRAD IN BED. In the brief time that gay marriage was legal in California, one of the highest profile newlyweds were George Takei and his partner of over 2 decades, Brad Altman. Jessica interviews the newlyweds in bed in an homage to the John and Yoko "bed-in". They're a lovely couple.

And then LT. WATADA, a 40 minute long-ish but officially "short" documentary (it sort of exists in the nebulous range where it's not really short but not feature-length either). Lt. Ehren Watada gained fame (and in some circles, infamy) as the only active-duty officer to refuse to deploy to Iraq, publicly announcing that he believed the war was entered into on fraudulent grounds and is illegal. He begged to sent to Afghanistan instead. Many denounced him as a coward (although he refused an essentially safe desk job in Iraq) and a traitor while the anti-war crowd hailed him as a hero with the courage to stand up for what's right (and they point to the Geneva conventions and Nuremberg rulings to point out that he has a duty to refuse orders which are illegal. After all, he never swore an oath to the President, he swore an oath to the Constitution to protect the nation against all enemies--external and internal). It's pretty easy to tell the allegiances of the film, although that could also be attributed to the fact that Freida Lee Mock had almost unlimited access to Lt. Watada and very little access to the opposing views. His attackers are mostly shown as sound-bite flag-wavers rallying outside his court martial. While he makes reasoned debate for his position, the opposition is shown holding signs that say "Honk for our troops. Fart for Watada." Not the most intellectual argument, and it's a shame because I'm sure there are well-reasoned arguments against him. But I'll admit I'm against the war, and I see him as a hero. So a hero piece on him fit me just fine.

Afterwards there was an extended interview of Freida Lee Mock by outgoing festival director Chi-hui Yang. She was an engaging, feisty interview. The best part is when they were talking about how she does her research before an interview and then she showed off that research by turning the tables and interviewing Chi-hui. In fact, she asked the question I'd been meaning to ask him--after becoming the youngest festival director ever and serving for a decade, why was he leaving? And in fact, she already knew the answer--he's taking time off to write a book about Asian American cinema. Which sounds pretty interesting.

Then we returned to the recurring festival theme of food (especially Indian food) with COOKING WITH STELLA. It's a mostly enjoyable comedy about Canadian diplomats in India with quite a few curve-balls in it. The first twist is that the Indian-Canadian wife Maya (Lisa Ray) actually knows very little about Indian culture and is very firmly Canadian, while her husband Michael (Don McKellar) is fascinated by the culture and wants to get out from the confines of the embassy grounds. Second twist--she's the diplomat, he's the stay-at-home (with their baby daughter) husband. In fact, he has put his cooking career on hold for her, but while he's here he's determined to absorb the local flavor and bring it back home with him. Enter the house maid/cook, Stella (Seema Biswas). She's loyal in her own way--in that she takes care of the family while stealing from them. That's what she does for every family. But when Michael takes an interest in the kitchen and asks Stella to be his guru, it puts everything in a spin. Worse yet, they decide they need a nanny for their baby, so they hire Tannu (Shriya Saran). It's her first job, earning money for her sick father, and she's actually honest, which totally screws up Stella's plans. And that's the third (and most confounding) twist. Stella's likable, despite being a thief. Tannu is likewise likable, and so when Stella schemes to bring Tannu into her little operation, it's hard to tell who you're supposed to root for. I suppose it's not giving too much away to say it doesn't end quite the way I expected, and I'm still thinking about whether I like how it ended. Oh yeah, there's also a major romantic subplot that was a little too perfect.

And finally, I ended the night on the hilarious LIKE YOU KNOW IT ALL. It's easy to accuse Hong Sang-soo of being ironically, mockingly auto-biographical (he has a habit of making his main characters film directors). And in fact it's hard not to see LIKE YOU KNOW IT ALL that way. Koo Gyung-nam is an arthouse director with a following in Southeast Asia and some film festival credentials. He's famous enough that he is asked to be on the jury for the Jecheon International Film Festival (which is a real festival) he arrives and immediately causes problems. He sleeps through the films he should be judging, he stays up late drinking, he is openly (drunkenly) jealous of a colleague's success, and he (drunkenly) hits on a famous actress. Barely escaping the festival with his dignity (somewhat) intact, he heads to Jeju island to be a guest at the college where a friend is teaching film. And there...he does the exact same thing (parallel or repeated action is another trademark of Hong Sang-soo). He drinks a lot (there's even a repeated line "I didn't want to say anything, but since we're all drinking..."), he covets his friend's wife (his former lover) and creates all sorts of problems. In less gifted hands, this movie would be nothing but painful awkwardness or slapstick silliness. But in the master's hands, it's funny and incisive, the deconstruction of the drinking thinker (the "alcollectual"?)

Total Running Time: 368 minutes
My Total Minutes: 178,008

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Jason goes to Asianfest--Day 3

Big Saturday. All on ~4 hours sleep and no caffeine until the final show. Because I am a freakin' bad-ass.

First up, one of the traditionally best shorts program of the festival, but surprisingly under-attended in this screening, the 3rd i South Asian Shorts:
NARMEEN: Somewhat experimental mood piece about Partition, Muslim-Sikh violence, and a grieving mother bridging the cultures.
CLAP CLAP: Stylish neo-noir about a gun dealer and his true love. Who was it who said all you needed for a movie is a girl and a gun?
ANJALI: Indian-American girl clashes with her parents, learns her father is a total hypocrite.
KAVI: Powerful drama about modern slavery (including child slavery) in a brick-making plant in India. Kavi has to choose to trust the only authority he has ever known, or the strange men who promise to rescue him and find his parents.
A DAY'S WORK: Mexican day laborers helping a white family move have a violent incident. And if you're wondering what that's doing in SFIAAFF and particularly in the 3rd i program, it was directed by Rajeev Dassani. See, the festival promotes the work of Asian and Asian-American filmmakers even if there's no Asian or Asian-American content.
WINDOWS VISTA: PREDATOR EDITION: Hilarious spoof of outsourced tech support and American military aggression. Sometimes a tech support job really, really sucks.

Next up, a really fascinating documentary, VILLAGE CALLED VERSAILLES. Be honest, when Katrina hit New Orleans, how many of you were thinking of the welfare of the Vietnamese community? How many new there was a sizable Vietnamese community in East New Orleans (a community the locals call Versailles after the first few low-income housing projects set up there)? I didn't. But this movie briefly takes you through their history--refugees from North Vietnam who fled to the south, then refugees again when they fled to America, and finally refugees a third time (at least, the elders were) when they fled the flood waters. But in strange ways, Katrina galvanized the community, bringing youth and elders together. And the surprising thing (and something I confess I'll probably never fully understand) is how connected they are to the land. It's odd for a thrice-refugee community to be so connected to their latest spot of earth, but the Vietnamese have a saying about the land where you bury your placenta (I assume it translates as more meaningful and less gross in the original intent). So when they could return and rebuild, they did. And when the city unilaterally declared they would create a new landfill--without the proper environmental controls--to hold about 1/3 of the post-Katrina debris near the community, the community protested. After a generation of being the quiet, timid, immigrant village, they were ready to be American and make their voices heard. And it's a beautiful thing. Best scene in the film: when they're protesting outside of the landfill and a landfill worker tells them they can't be there because "This isn't Vietnamese (sic), this is America." Everybody immediately recognized she got that backwards--this is America where you do have the right to protest.

My only note on VILLAGE CALLED VERSAILLES would be that its running time--a lean 68 minutes--feels too short. But it's just as well, because if it were any longer it wouldn't have fit perfectly in my schedule, leaving me just enough time to run up to the Clay for an afternoon conversation with Aasif Mandvi. I got there with 5 minutes to spare and settled into my traditional front row seat, about 3 feet from where Festival Director Chi-hui Yang would interview Aasif. The program started with a short reel of Mr. Mandvi's work. Of course there's the Daily Show, and the opening night film TODAY'S SPECIAL. But I had forgotten he had a small role in Spider-Man 2, and I knew nothing about his cameo as a (Greek!?) tech support guy in SEX AND THE CITY. But most important, I must now check out THE MYSTIC MASSEUR, which I've heard of but never saw.

Then for the interview itself, Chi-hui and Aasif talked about his life (born in India. Grew up in working-class industrial town of Branford in the north of England. Moved to Tampa, FL as a teenager, eventually settled on drama and won an Obie for his one-man show that eventually became TODAY'S SPECIAL). They talked about his career, his balance of drama and comedy, and what it's like to be a non-specific "brown" actor. He can play (and has played) Indian, Middle Eastern, Greek, etc., which can be a blessing and a curse. And he has lost roles because producer's thought he didn't look Indian enough. Personally, I'm of the opinion that the best actor for the job might not necessarily be the same ethnicity as the character. So long as the character is still believable, that's just a skill called acting (although the believability also depends on the writing).

Where was I? Oh yeah, Aasif was engaging and funny, he took about 20-30 minutes of questions from the audience, and at the end I got to shake his hand, thank him, and tell him I enjoyed TODAY'S SPECIAL. That was cool.

So then I wandered back down to Post Street to visit VIZ cinema for the first time and catch the program of Classic Filipino American Shorts:
WINTER: Experimental animation of hand-burned, etched, and spray-painted film, set to Vivaldi's Winter Suite. Normally I don't go for such abstract work, but this was interesting in how it hinted at motion.
DIARY OF A GANGSTA SUCKA: A hard-ass Filipino American gangsta let's a filmmaker see all his gang activity, even though his mom doesn't even believe he's in a gang.
MAHAL MEANS LOVE & EXPENSIVE: Sex, politics, Catholicism, and Hollywood (the last two seem to be recurring themes in Filipino culture). Beautiful cinematography, evocative and provocative mood.
WHITE CHRISTMAS: After 400 years in a convent and 50 years under Hollywood, the Philippines knows how to celebrate Christmas with a heaping shovelful of razzle-dazzle. Michael Magnaye returns after 5 years in America, and comments on how the spectacle has become even bigger. Love the parade of Mary, Joseph, and 30 piece brass band.
BACK TO BATAAN BEACH: Just like he said he would, Gen. MacArthur returns, and it's time for a Beach Party, dudes! Babes, boys, and boards!
MARITESS VS. THE SUPERFRIENDS: Someone has to keep the Hall of Justice clean in this hilarious animation of Rex Navarette's stand-up comedy bit.
BALIKBAYAN: Based on a true story, circulated via e-mail. A recently deceased woman's body is sent back to the Philippines for burial. Inside, the daughter has stuffed the coffin with goods for the whole family.
THE APL SONG--BLACK EYED PEAS: A music video about Black Eyed Peas member and his childhood journey from the Philippines to America and his adult journey back. Really cool.

And then I ended the night with a visually stunning but sort of slow Thai film AGRARIAN UTOPIA. It might be better to go in believing it's a documentary. It's not, it's completely scripted, but there's such a great verite feel that I'd be fooled if you told me it's a documentary, and it plays very well as one. The film follows farmers as they work the land, interspersed with political rallies that for all the noise never seem to deliver much. As one farmer notes, "They tell us to vote for the good men, but once they go to Parliament, they become corrupt and don't do anything to help us." Global forces have controlled the price of fertilizer and rice to the point where the farmers can't make a living off their small rice paddies alone. So instead, they are connected enough to see the other gifts the land gives them--frogs, mushrooms, honeycomb, etc. And despite the dire straights, there is a sense of joy and peace in being so connected. Little boys frolic in the water, families work and play together, and even the poorest people can afford a smile, and that is beautiful.

So then I caught the 22 bus down to the 16th St Mission BART, but since the Festival Social Club was just down the block at SOM, I decided to pop in for a couple of drinks. This was my first time at the Fest social, and it was loud, crowded, and overpriced. But at least I got a couple of drinks before I had to catch the last BART home, so that was cool.

And that was Saturday at Asianfest (aka SFIAAFF)

Total Runing Time: 358 minutes
My Total Minutes: 177,640

Jason goes to Asianfest--Day 2

A three movie Friday. After a full day at worked (actually getting basic training in First Aid/CPR), I raced up to the city (through rain and awful traffic) to sprint into the Kabuki just as the first film started.

And that film was YOU HAVE BEEN WEIGHED AND FOUND WANTING, part of the Lino Brocka retrospective in the festival, which itself is part of a larger focus on Filipino cinema. Released in 1974 (just like me!), it's a vibrant and powerful melodrama on class bigotry. It opens in very grainy footage of a woman (we learn later her name is Kuala) giving birth to a baby that ends up still born. We see her running around, and then switch to present day and she's wandering through town crazy. She's well known there, and everyone makes fun of her.

We then meet the wealthy citizens of town--the gossips and backstabbers. The most important of these are the womanizing ex-mayoral candidate Cesar and his son Junior. The kids of town are only interested in partying and having a good time, even to the point of skipping the wake of a town bigwig (at least, enough of a bigwig that everyone wants their picture taken next to the casket) to go to a party. But Junior is different--he's more sensitive and realizes the hurt that the teasing and gossip causes.

Finally we meet Berto, a leper who works hard but can't even get the ugliest prostitute in town with his money. But he meets Kuala (passed out after the town kids got her drunk), and takes her to his shack and cleans her up. What starts as lust grows to love, and they are happy in their way. And although the kids tease them, Junior befriends them and learns important lessons (as the other kids point out, he talks like an adult now).

It's an excellent movie with a striking ending that I won't spoil since I've already given away half the plot.

Anyway, then I ran up to the Clay for RASPBERRY MAGIC, which I specifically passed over at Cinequest to see it here (Cinequest and SFIAAFF always have one or two high profile films in common--GOD IS D_AD also plays at both). It opens with one of my favorite things--a child doing science (but don't look for rigor, it's RASPBERRY MAGIC, not RASPBERRY SCIENCE). In this case, Monica Shah (Lily Javaherpour) is doing an experiment on therapeutic touch making raspberry plants grow faster. But you know there's more than just scientific curiosity at play here, she reflects on the raspberries that used to grow in their backyard but don't anymore. The vines are still there, thorns and all, but no fruit. Sort of like her parents' marriage. Dad is a failing game programmer (failing because he invented a really dull math game that no kid would want to play). Mom is a cook (like opening night, there's a cooking theme) with a book in the works on Indian-American fusion cooking. After one big fight, dad moves out. Shortly after mom's book deal falls through and she falls into a depression. So it's sort of up to Monica to hold the household together (with the help of her little sister). And now her science project--proving that human contact promotes growth--takes on new symbolic importance. The ending is predictable, even though it's not very realistic (but remember, it's magic not science), and overall it's a movie that mixes the sweet and sour in the same proportions as a raspberry.

So enough of that mushy stuff, I ended the night with a midnight screening of a graphically twisted Indonesian horror flick, THE FORBIDDEN DOOR. We start with an artist who does sculptures of pregnant women. The show is financially successful, but he overhears people talking about how his life cast method is not "real" art. Then it gets weird. Switch to a distorted TV feed of a young boy getting thrown against a table. Back to that artist. His girlfriend is pregnant now, but doesn't want the baby, so off to the abortion clinic. There he meets an old man who talks about all the abortions his wife got--the seventh one killed her but she kept coming back. His girlfriend gets an abortion, which they bring back home in a bag. After an argument, he realizes that putting dead fetuses (feti?) In his sculptures give them that extra life, so he starts getting takeout from the abortion clinic. Then it gets really weird. A club where they watch TV feeds of a family (and that kid I mentioned) getting tortured. The words "save me" show up everywhere. Turns out the artist's girlfriend is cheating on him, so it all culminates in the ultimate bloody revenge dinner. Only problem, after a huge buildup of weirdness, there's the ultimate (and ultimately predictable) cop-out ending which I won't spoil. But the ride getting there is incredible.

And that was Friday at SFIAAFF

Total Running Time: 325 minutes
My Total Minutes: 177,282

Jason slips into the Vortex to see QUEENS OF EVIL

So rather than going to the opening night party at Asianfest, I decided to stop by The Vortex Room to catch the second half of their Vortex Seduction double feature. I did get there just in time to catch the tail end of THE VELVET VAMPIRE, which looked cool what with lesbians and vampires. But I didn't really pay attention, I just went to the bar and got a martini.

Then an intermission, another martini, a little live burlesque (nice!) And the second feature, QUEENS OF EVIL. Less said the better. A biker has an odd encounter with a man who needs his tire changed. Then he continues on, camps out at an old ostensibly abandoned house, and is woken up to be seduced by three weird sisters. And I was bored. But at least I got to drink a lot.

Running Time: 85 minutes
My Total Minutes: 176,957

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Jason goes to Asianfest--Opening Night

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF, aka Asianfest) started last Thursday. I wasn't quite as prepared as I've been in past years, and I had trouble ordering tickets online, but thanks to some much appreciated help, I've got my schedule and tickets taken care of now.

Only problem, the opening night film was listed as Rush Only online, so I went all the way up to the city not knowing if I'd be successful or not. Well, first off it wasn't rush, there were plenty of tickets available. Second, I ran into a friend (who I won't name in case this gets him in trouble) who got me into the VIP pre-party. Free snacks and drinks before the movie! Damn it's good to be awesome!

Okay, then the film itself. TODAY'S SPECIAL stars and was co-written by Aasif Mandvi (star of the Cinequest 2009 short THE RESPONSE and also some every-day show on TV). He stars as Samir, a sous-chef in a fancy restaurant in Manhattan. He runs a tight, efficient ship, but his recipes lack a certain spirit--he's too by-the-book with no creativity. And so when he's passed over for the head chef position at his boss's new restaurant, he throws a bit of a fit and quits.

He's equally unlucky in love, although that will clearly change with the introduction of Carrie (Jess Weixler from TEETH). I like her and she does a great job here, but in large part the romantic subplot feels a little tacked on. I don't know how to do it better, but I wish it were better integrated. I think the biggest problem is it never seemed like Samir was looking for love. He went on dates because his mother forced him to, and they inevitably failed. When he and Carrie meet, I don't feel the motivation for either of them to form a relationship.

Anyway, Samir is now out of work, but has a plan to move to Paris and apprentice for a famous chef. The last thing he wants to do is cook Indian food, especially the greasy slop in his dad's restaurant--Tandoori Palace in Jackson Heights. But his dad's heart attack leaves him with little choice, and with the help of Bollywood star Naseerudin Shah as a mystic chef turned cabbie turned back to chef, he learns not just how to cook today's special ("trust me") but he learns that today is special.

Funny movie, with a great supporting cast (I haven't even mentioned Wes Anderson regular Kumar Pullana or famed Indian actress/chef Madhur Jaffrey as Samir's mother--oddly enough, she was not used as a cooking consultant)

Oh yeah, and I should mention that director David Kaplan's previous feature--YEAR OF THE FISH--was also a brilliant charmer as Asianfest '07. Welcome back, Mr. Kaplan!

Running Time: 99 minutes
My Total Minutes: 176,872

Monday, March 8, 2010

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 13

Fooled you, Cinequest didn't end on closing night. We had a post-ultimate day. That's right, closing night was Saturday but they added another day for encore screenings of the award winners. I caught two movies and then the VIP Oscar party.

First up, LOST PERSONS AREA, A slowly beautiful family drama. To explain how great this movie is, all I should have to do is say that it was 2 weeks since I had anything approaching a good night's sleep, I had been up until 3 am the night before, and I only had 1 cup of coffee (at the VIP lounge) and didn't nod off or reach for caffeine for the whole movie. There are much faster paced movies where I was taking 5 minute naps by the end of the festival, but this one captured my interest perfectly. In the middle of nowhere (according to the program notes, in Belgium) big, imposing Marcus lives maintaining high tension power line towers. He lives there with his wife Bettina and adorable daughter Tessa. While he works high up in the dangerous world of the towers, Bettina runs the local cantina, and Tessa...well, she occasionally makes it to school, but mostly she wanders off by herself, and collects and organizes random bits of stuff she picks up. That's actually one of the most mesmerizing parts of the movie, probably because I did a lot of that as a kid (my coin-stacking architecture was legendary). I always assumed I did it because I was bored, but seeing it again (and especially the ending which I won't spoil) now I see it as a way to understand and/or control your small part of the world. It's hard to write up what is so wonderful about the movie. I've heard it said over and over again throughout the festival that LOST PERSONS AREA is either 'too slow' or 'the slowest movie you'll ever love.' Put me firmly in the latter camp.

And then I saw what is really, truly my last Cinequest 20 film: APPLAUSE. It's a movie that's all about a Tour de Force performance by Paprika Steen. She plays Thea, a boozing, obnoxious, famous actress. In the play within a movie, she plays a reflection of herself--a forlorn alcoholic woman who has lost her husband. In real life, not only has she lost her husband, but she's lost the custody of her two little sons. She wants nothing more than to get them back, although she's at her best playing with her sons as equals rather than being a mother. You know, that was another theme of the festival--childish adults, or adults who have a hard time being traditional adults. Thea is not the type of person I'd want to meet, but Paprika plays her with such a fearlessness that I'm in awe.

And that's really the last movie I saw in Cinequest.

But the partying wasn't quite over. There was still a VIP Oscar party. Great food, lots of free drink, and a bunch of my Cinequest buddies making snarky comments. By the end, we devolved into coming up with porn parody titles of the nominees, and we were very happy that the female ejaculation movie THE SQUIRT LOCKER beat out the cockney prostitution epic 'AVE A TART.

And I think that shall be the last thought I leave you with for Cinequest 20.

Total Running Time: 194 minutes
My Total Minutes: 176,773

Jason goes to Cinequest--Closing Night

4 movies and the closing party on Saturday. Here we go:

First up, a silly, trivial, and very very funny mockumentary--or should I say "hock-umentary" (answer: I should not)--PUCK HOGS. Taking the thesis that hockey is the soul of Canada, the filmmakers follow a team from a very minor league. The Puck Hogs are perennial losers, and are now so old that league controller Irv Mason (Colin Mochrie in a striped and polka-dotted bow tie) is retiring the team at the end of the season. Unless, of course, they actually win the championship. But of course that won't happen, because the evil Ice Holes have won for 4 years running. So of course now you know what will happen. But there's plenty of good drunken, gross out fun on the way, including a urinal cake eating contest (best line: "I shouldn't have had that second one!"). The scrappy losers never really "come together" like in a traditional sports movie, they just sort of bumble their way through the season, getting into the playoffs on a 3-way tie, and bumbling their way through winning by default (seems one team can't hold their urinal cakes). And the team captain and one good player (other than the fiery Russian goalie) learns a lesson about life and what's important, but who gives a crap about that? Oh yeah, and the worst hockey player ever of course gets his redemption and learns to overcome his fear of corners. Very funny, if you like intentionally dumb funny.

Then it was time to go to Finland for a much smarter and almost as funny comedy, THE HOUSE OF BRANCHING LOVE. Juhani and Tuula are getting a divorce (ironic because he's a family therapist). But they do have a wonderful house, so they decide to share. They just need a few rules, and most important is the rule about not bringing over "guests". But they both break that law, in horrible and horribly funny ways. And it gets kind of dark, as Tuula's estranged mother runs a brothel where Nina (the lovely Anna Easteden, who was there for the screening) has run away and is hiding out with--of all people--Juhani's brother. And when Juhani hires her to be his pretend girlfriend (no sex, just to make Tuula jealous) and then they actually do fall in love, things get even more hectic. And when the gangsters looking for her track her to the house things really break loose. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the cops trailing the gangsters who are convinced Juhani is somehow involved in the mob. Hilarious movie of adult subjects played by very childish adults.

And then for a lead-in to the big closing night gala screening, I chose another romantic comedy, ANYONE YOU WANT. The film opens on a young, businessman talking on his cellphone. From the corner of his eye he sees a disheveled but pretty homeless girl eating an apple core out of the trash. He follows her, sees her steal a book, and tries to give her money, but she refuses it because he "doesn't really want it." Something is off here. She's homeless, but well versed in literature to the point that he admits she's smarter than he is. Anyway, we learn his name is Stirling and her name is Amy, and they will magically meet up again tomorrow (although their names will change). And each time they meet, they go to a costume/vintage clothing shop and get new costumes and play out new fantasy scenes. But as little bits of reality enter in--mostly in the form of the nursing home calling about his dying father--we start to learn some things about the true nature of their relationship, and especially that he's the way more fucked up one. I won't ruin it with spoilers, but it's an engaging, funny movie that draws you in to a couple's fantasy world and then takes a huge turn about 2/3 of the way in.

An after just a little time at the VIP Soiree, I headed off to the California for the closing night gala. Lots of words, award winners were announced, but my favorite part as always was all the filmmakers getting on stage and getting a standing ovation. And then finally a movie.

MOTHER is a thriller drama from Korea. It opens with an old, sad-looking woman in a field. Suddenly she starts dancing (still with a sad look on her face). Flashback to her with her mildly retarded adult son. He has always had trouble, but has always been a good kid. So it's a surprise when a local girl is found murdered and all signs (e.g., a golf ball with his name on it) point to him. To the authorities it's an open-and-shut case, but she won't accept it. So she sets out for a little amateur sleuthing and uncovers secrets about everyone in town--and he remembers secrets about her. A puzzling but mesmerizing opening, a mystery, some shocking scenes of violence, and a bizarre ending that explains that opening scene. In other words, it's a very Korean movie. And it's a pretty good movie, but at 128 minutes it's too long for an audience that's really thinking about getting plastered at the closing party. Would've worked a lot better midway through the festival.

So, speaking of getting plastered at the closing party, I stayed at the party (at South First Billiards Club) until I was kicked out at 2 am. Highlights of the party--drinks, meat on stick, drinks, hanging out with Kurt Kuenne (DEAR ZACHARY and some shorts that have played at Cinequest. He didn't have a movie in Cinequest this year, but he was around visiting for a day), drinks, posing on a motorcycle with Chris Garcia, drinks, finally finding the back room where the cool kids were hanging out at a table about a half hour before closing, drinks, somehow getting free pizza, drinks, and all the alcohol.

Here's a picture of me on that motorcycle. We inspire envy because we are total fucking bad-ass mavericks. Or rather, I'm a total fucking bad-ass maverick and he's a proud daddy teaching me to ride my first motorcycle without training wheels. That kind of destroys the bad-ass maverick vibe:

Total Running Time: 406 minutes
My Total Minutes: 176,579

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 11

Aka, the penultimate night. It's all over now except for the writeups. 10 movies to finish reviewing, starting with these 4 Friday night, and a little popcorn related chaos.

I showed up a good 10 minutes early for WILL YOU MARRY US? And just before entering the theater, the fire alarm went off (apparently over burning popcorn oil). So it was delayed nearly an hour. Luckily everything I saw last Friday was at the Camera 12, so the delay affected everything and I didn't have to miss anything (if I had planned screenings at the California, the Rep, or the Camera 3 I might've been S.O.L). But it meant there was very little time between screenings as they tried to make up time on the turn-around, so I didn't have time to run out to the Soiree or Maverick meet-up to grab a drink. Make a note, dear readers, Friday was my sober night at Cinequest. But at the same time, kudos to the staff at Cinequest for turning everything around quickly and getting nearly back on schedule in just two movies.

Anyway, first up was a hilarious romantic comedy from Switzerland, WILL YOU MARRY US? Rahel is a civil registrar in a small town...think sort of a justice of the peace who only does marriages, not something we really have in America. Long ago she was in a band called Raben (Raven) with her good friend Ben (Rahel + Ben = Raben, get it?) They had one hit, then she got pregnant (from her current husband) and he went on to great fame. And now he's back in town, just for a relaxing time with his famous actress girlfriend. And he runs into Rahel, they have a good time reconnecting and she meets his girlfriend. They're all friends now, so they ask Rahel to marry them. Only problem, Rahel is realizing she has long-buried feelings for Ben. Worse yet, Ben has feelings for her. And everything gets either more complicated or less complicated when Rahel catches her husband cheating on her. It's a comedy of manners and social obligations trumping following your heart. And most importantly, it's just really funny.

And then we traveled back in time to 1981 to watch...1981 (that's the title of the movie). A very explicitly autobiographical film by French-Canadian (by way of Italy) director Ricardo Trogi aka Ricardo "Crunchy" (I think that pun must work better in French). They move to a small town in Quebec when he is 11, and immediately has trouble fitting in. So to get in with the right gang, he promises them he has as stash of Playboys and will share them...eventually. Plus he also develops a crush on Anne, the smartest and prettiest girl in class, who brushed his arm in class one day--an obvious sign. It's a great comedy about the lies we tell to be popular when growing up (and everyone tells lies). Oh, and it's steeped in 1981 style, but my favorite part was the Star Wars bedsheets he has. I had those exact same ones growing up. Not just similar sheets, not just Star Wars sheets, but that exact design. And that took me back.

Next up was the agoraphobia thriller, SOLITARY, which went on to win the New Visions jury award at the end of the festival in what everyone I talked to agreed was the worst award choice. I don't want to say it was a really bad movie, it was capably done and engaging in places, but I saw the ending coming from a long way away and there were others in the category that I thought were better (7 DAYS, FrICTION, and LIFE IN ONE DAY were easily more deserving, and cases could be made for a lot more of them)

Anyway, SOLITARY is the story of Sara Ballard, who is going insane from agoraphobia and has locked herself in her house. Anytime she ventures just a little bit outside, she has a seizure and has to be brought back in. Her husband doesn't seem to help much, and in fact kind of makes things worse. Her estranged sister is brought in, huge gaps of time are skipped in a blink, and psychiatrist Dr. Reznik appears to offer some advice but mostly hints about and finally reveals the big twist ending (which, as I said, was telegraphed from well in advance). Good acting and competent camera work, I just wasn't that impressed with the story.

And finally, the night ended with a midnight screening of the strangest vampire story I've ever seen, STRIGOI. It takes place in a small Romanian village, although it was an English production and as such contains one of my biggest pet peeves--badly accented English filling in for a foreign language. I have no problem with suspending disbelief and letting English stand in Romanian. It's just if you do that, why do you need the thick accents? I'm already suspending disbelief, so let them just speak normal English.

Okay, as for the story, I said it's the strangest vampire movie I've ever seen. It's not scary, it's kind of funny, but mostly it's just strange. In the opening scenes, the hated town master Constantin and his wife are murdered. But when young Vlad comes back to town, he swears he can see Constantin walking around at night. Meanwhile another man is dead, and the locals are keeping watch over the body. Tradition says to watch it for 3 (or was that 5?) days, too make sure it doesn't come back to life. Too bad the locals really use the wake as an excuse to drink over the body, and don't quite watch it enough. That and Vlad wakes up with his dad (or was it granddad, I forget) sucking his blood while patting him and saying "it's all right, it's all right..." Seems there are (un)dead strigoi and living strigoi, and none of them make sense. Just really, really, really weird.

Total Running Time: 419 minutes
My Total Minutes: 176,173

Friday, March 5, 2010

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 10

Nearing the final weekend. Here's what I did last Thursday night. Guess what, I saw three more movies!

First, to Denmark for THE ESCAPE (FLUGTEN). I wonder if something is lost in translation, like it should be "ESCAPES" because there's certainly more than one. Rikke Lyngvig is a Danish journalist in Afghanistan. She's interviewing her translator about the dangers of working there, when they are attacked. She is kidnapped, he (we learn later) is killed alongside his entire family. She is forced to read a statement on camera calling for all Danish coalition forces to leave Afghanistan immediately, or she will be killed. Her captor is Nazir, a young man with soulful blue eyes whose father was killed in an altercation with American troops. He's not actually cut out to be a terrorist, and his dad opposed the Taliban, but his uncle insists he restore the family honor. So he does his best to mistreat her, and cuts off her pinkie finger (and immediately runs outside to throw up). But in the nick of time, he helps her escape. His only condition, never tell anyone he helped her or he will die. That's escape number one. Escape number 2 comes when Nazir escapes from the Taliban and hides in a truck all the way to Denmark. There he's put in a holding house while his asylum request is processed. And there he meets a lovely Iraqi refugee and they sort of hit it off. Trouble reappears when immigration police show up to deport all the Iraqis. So it's time for another escape. They get separated, Nazir is alone, and the only person he knows to contact is Rikke. In the meantime, she's written a best-selling book about her ordeal, and of course kept him safe by claiming she escaped on her own. But now it suddenly looks like she's palling around with a terrorist. The one part I didn't quite by is why she wouldn't come forward and explain everything right away, but a rival journalist who crucifies her in the press provides the argument against that (still, I believe in sunlight as the best disinfectant--be open and people will understand). So this calls for a few more escapes. An exciting thriller with great performances, perhaps the greatest escape is from the stereotypes about what makes a terrorist.

Next up was a road trip film about the 80's, new friendship, loyalty, and D&D--GOD IS D_AD. Tim is a Korean-American comic book clerk and dungeon master, and the movie features fantasy scenes that were shot in Korea (the country) and in Korean (the language). Tim has a plan to win the big regional D&D convention in Chicago (and then go on to the nationals in New York), and so he puts an ad in the paper for road trip buddies. And he gets out of it a cinematically appropriate team of misfits--the girl, the born-again ex-homo, the weirdo horndog best friend, and the mildly retarded kid with money (both came from a car accident)--all of whom have their own (secret) reasons for coming along. There are funny bits, and a pretty good story, and a lesson about loyalty, responsibility, and choices (delivered by a weird sound-alike cameo).

I don't know, it all seemed just a little bit short of a great film. I normally forgive low budget films even when they look low budget (and am quick to praise when they don't), but I was tired, the festival is near an end, and I just didn't have the patience needed...mostly for the bad acting in this movie. I liked the fantasy Korean scenes better than the "real life" road trip.

GOD IS D_AD plays again on 3/6 at 4:15 pm, and also at the upcoming SF International Asian American Film Festival.

And I ended the night with an absolutely charming film, PRIMA PRIMAVERA. Gabor is a middle-aged, mildly retarded man-child with an amazing eye and ability to draw perfectly. He's at the bank with his mother when the place is robbed. In a scene that makes it look like he doesn't know what's going on, he fights the robber and rips off his mask, but the robber shoots his (Gabor's) mother. Tragic, and Gabor has trouble taking care of himself, but he's also the only eye-witness who got a look at the robber's face (he's a really creepy Dutch guy who calls himself a lawyer). Meanwhile Joli is a prostitute who drove the getaway car in the robbery, but is afraid of the Dutchman, especially when it's clear he plans to kill at least Gabor and probably her. So she befriends Gabor and the Gabor's grandmother's house in Serbia. Oh yeah, and he buys a chandelier on the way because he thinks his grandmother would like it (she died in the 50's, if I recall correctly). The movie is equal parts romantic comedy and dangerous crime thriller, and it's surprisingly successful on both counts. It's just excellent.

PRIMA PRIMAVERA plays again 3/6 at 9:00 pm. I don't know how the "closing night" gala film MOTHER will play (since I haven't seen it yet), but I wouldn't be surprised if you're actually better off catching this one instead (it's pretty hard to beat).

Total Running Time: 299 minutes
My Total Minutes: 175,754

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 9

Wednesday...I should say something clever about Wednesday...but I won't. Just tell you about three more movies I saw.

First up, PARABLE. Nebraska, in George Bush's America. Part 1: Road trip, blind date, butt rape, gunshot. Part 2: Red man enslaves Blue woman. Lots of knot tying (reminds me of Boy Scouts). Cowboy rapist (in white) reappears, rapes blue woman. Everyone teams up to kill the cowboy. Leaves him face down in a barn stall, I hope choking on cow shit. It's a metaphor.

I'm not sure I loved this or hated it. Or if I was confused or if was really simple. I do know it hasn't left me the way most movies do. It was a lot of symbols, metaphors, a parable (although I'd point out that most parables are meant to enlighten and clarify, not confound and confuse. If you "read whatever you want" into it, it's not a very good parable). Oh yeah, and it's about George Bush. And I can't form another coherent thought about it.

Next up was what I believe might be a breakthrough film for Cinequest veteran and singular visionary Alejandro Adams (AROUND THE BAY, CANARY), BABNIK. In his previous film, CANARY, Adams started with 10 minutes of banal Russian dialogue with no subtitles. This time he's still directing in Russian (which he does not speak) but at least he's putting in subtitles (when they're important). Misha and Sasha run a modeling company, where they provide beautiful girls with fancy clothes and discounts on vitamin supplements (which they're obliged to take). And they shepherd them into a life of sexual slavery (not shown). Meanwhile immigrant Artem is fired from his job at a telemarketing company. He tried to impress his bosses by coming in on the weekends, instead that just creeped them out. So he goes to work as an enforcer for Misha and Sasha. Meanwhile a destitute girl is dragged into the whole "modeling" world. The FBI (or an elaborate hoax) gets involved at the end. And while I left some things out to avoid spoilers, this is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. And if you've seen Adams' work before, that should shock you. And this is why I predict BABNIK might be his breakthrough. Mainstream audiences might still be confused and lost in his world--in CANARY he made a horror film with no blood, now he's made a sexploitation film with no sex. Power is shown in little ways (the repeated "you need to take vitamin supplements...we'll get them for you at a discount" conversation is one of the least subtle power plays there). His camera still comes from strange angles, peeking over shoulders or around walls and focusing on unconventional places. And there's a peculiar style to his performers that loses and disorients me. One of my favorite scene was dominated by a laughing prostitute. I have no idea why she was laughing (maybe she was high?), but I believed it and can't forget it. Oh yeah, and at the Q&A, we learned the title BABNIK means "womanizer" in Russian slang (think beat:beatnik::babe:babnik). I was glad to learn that (and apparently if I read the guide I would've known it already), but after the fact it turns out the title is the least interesting part of the movie.

And then I ended the night with LOVE LIFE OF A GENTLE COWARD. A Croatian film about food, love, writing, courage, and politics. Saša is an aspiring writer, but in the meantime makes a living as a food critic for the local (Zagreb) newspaper. And he's a coward. Rather than saying food is good or bad he writes essays on the nature of eggplant. He sees his son rarely, and is intimidated by his ex-wife and her new lover. And to make everything worse, his back is freaking killing him. So he goes to the local sports center and gets a massage. The masseuse is the lovely and strong-willed Ines. They hit it off, and start to date (although that's forbidden by sports center rules). And some of her courage rubs off on him. He writes a scathing review of a local restaurant. Too bad it was politically connected and now he's got thugs out to teach him a lesson. But he survives, more wacky hijinx ensue, and as is explained in the opening and closing frames, if you survive the Zagreb fall and winter, by spring you will know who you are and will be ready for some cheer.

Now I really want to go back and watch TRESETA, director Pavo Marinković's Cinequest film from 2006.

And that was Wednesday at Cinequest.

Total Running Time: 243 minutes
My Total Minutes: 175,455

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 8

Three more movies on Tuesday. Let's go:

First, a trip through the night in Mexico City with ONE FOR THE ROAD. A beautiful opening shot zooming over the city takes us from the disheveled slums up to the wealthy parts of town. Then a group of well-to-do friends take a trip to sample the night life in the...less safe neighborhoods. They get separated, and they each have their own adventures. One ends up picking up a stripper, getting into a fight with a mariachi, and has to convince the stripper that he's really a good guy. One has an overprotective mother who actually sends a bodyguard to spy on him. He sneaks out, and ends up on a bus at the end of the night and spends the night with the sexy bus driver. And one gets dragged into the local hoods and is robbed. Most importantly, a watch he picked up as a birthday gift is stolen, and he has to spend the rest of the night--and risk his safety many times--to get it back. It's a visually and musically engaging film, and mixes just the right balance of humor with a revealing look at Mexico City's less popular districts. And it's a cautionary tale about white boys (there's an epithet thrown around through the movie that they didn't translate until near the end, and translated as "white boy") and poverty tourism.

The next show started with a short, GRAND DAME, a wild performance piece of a trans-gendered star and his/her long love affair with Bill Shakespeare. Includes an Encore--his/her funeral.

That led into THE SONOSOPHER: ALEX CALDIERO IN LIFE...IN SOUND. Alex Caldiero is a beatnik, a Mormon, and a self-described "sonosopher". That is, he plays with sounds. Not necessarily music (although he is very musical), not necessarily poetry (although he can write beautiful poetry), not necessarily even words. Sonosophy is a celebration of the sound of...sound. In a way it's pure. In another way, it's pure bullshit. But as Alex said in the Q&A, he even takes his bullshit seriously. He's a fascinating guy, and it's a lot of fun spending a little over an hour with him. I don't know how fun it would be to spend much more time with him.

Oh yeah, and on another note, by this time in the festival I'm so exhausted I'm nearly dozing off in just about every film. This is a perfect film to take a 5 minute catnap during, because as long as you can still subconsciously hear everything, you get the most important part of the experience.

And I ended the night with the excellent thriller THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. My only complaint--it's opening at the Camera Cinemas in 2 weeks, so I didn't need to see it here. I should've seen the animated shorts instead. But I must look to the positive, don't mourn the films you missed but celebrate the films you did see. If the worst thing that happened last Tuesday night is I saw a great film, I'll count myself blessed.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is based on a Swedish novel which I haven't read. But in talking to other fans I can report it was faithful to the novel and people are relieved that a "good, Swedish" version came out before the inevitable American remake. Michael Blomkvist is a journalist caught up in a libel case. He's just lost, and his career and the magazine he helped create ("Millenium") is in ruins. So he takes a leave of absence, and is soon contacted by the patriarch of the Vanger family. 40 years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared. Her uncle is convinced she was murdered, and hires Blomkvist to solve the mystery. He knows he's a ruthless, meticulous investigator, and he also knows he's clean, because he had Lisbeth Salander check on him. Lisbeth is a computer hacker, a really tough chick, and the titular girl with a dragon tattoo (all down her back, and very hot). At first Blomkvist is wary, but she quickly proves an invaluable ally, and their investigation shows a string of murders that appear to be connected, and connected to the family. An exciting adventure thriller, although as I said it's opening in regular release soon (and so I could've/should've seen something else) it's exactly the tonic I needed at the time.

Total Runing Time: 322 minutes
My Total Minutes: 175,212

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 7

Way behind in my reviews. Here's looking way back to Monday:

First up, THE FERRARI DINO GIRL, by Czech New Wave master Jan Nĕmec. In 1968 Soviet tanks invaded Prague. Nĕmec was there, grabbed his camera, and made ORATORIO FOR PRAGUE, which became a huge hit and arguably his most important footage every. 40 years later, he revisits the adventure behind that footage, and frames it around his attempt to get into the pants of a beautiful female travelling companion. The Ferrari Dino is a model of car that Enzo Ferrari made to mourn the death of his son. It's a very rare, very valuable model. And Nĕmec's travelling companion is that kind of girl. Too bad she's travelling with her boyfriend/fiance (or at least they pretend to be engaged because he's Italian and Italians can get out of the country easily). Ultimately they get to New York, where his his movie is the toast of the town, but he still never quite gets the girl. A beautifully composed movie, somehow charming in it's self-centeredness. There's something we can all recognize, that even in the midst of world-changing events, chasing girls and reveling in your fame are more immediately compelling.

The next show started with the short AMOKLOVE. A recounting of a brief affair that didn't really work out.

And that was the lead-in to COOKING HISTORY, a rather astonishingly playful documentary. In war many people die. Other people cook. And animals die so that cooks can feed the people who will die (or kill). Beautifully shot and choreographed with a sly sense of macabre humor, this is an amazing movie that is often painful to watch (because of the animal slaughter scenes, and I won't say much more about that). Covering 6 wars (WW II, Algeria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Balkans, and Chechnya), the film features cooks telling their stories, sharing their recipes (punctuating each segment and always ending with a "pinch of salt"). My personal favorites: the Jewish baker who served arsenic bread to Nazis, and the Serbian and Croatian cooks who insist on the purity of their cuisine (it's the same damn food, idiots!) Brilliant film, difficult to watch.

And continuing the theme of brilliant but difficult to watch, we traveled into the foothills of the West Virginia (Appalachia) for BLUE RIDGE. J.T. (well portrayed by Eric Sweeney) has some issues. He barely holds it together as the jack-of-all-trades handyman for the rural trailer park where he lives. His neighbor is an unpleasant, fat woman always harping on him to fix her satellite TV. His landlord is a creepy weirdo who tries to pick up girls by impersonating a police officer (and that's just the tip of his creepiness). Just about the only thing he's got going for him is Sara. A beautiful young lady who takes care of her old father (or grandfather, there seemed to be some inconsistency there and I'm not sure it wasn't intentional). Their brilliant plan to escape is to save up enough money to move away and buy a beach-side amusement park. But even his relationship with Sara--which should be a good thing--just adds to the pressure and you can see the cracks in his stoic facade. There is some weird foreshadowing, like J.T. shooting at roadkill or aiming his rifle at his neighbor (and her constantly yapping dog).

I thought it was a compelling story, very character-driven around J.T. A lot of the characters were very "out there" and I cringed sometimes thinking this is bad hillbilly stereotyping. But it's not like the characters were played for laughs, and I know director Vince Sweeney grew up in the area. So I'm really curious to hear opinions from southerners and especially people from that exact area (the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, which I forgot to mention are absolutely beautiful in some of the opening establishing shots) as to how fair those character depictions really are.

And that was Monday at Cinequest

Total Runing Time: 264 minutes
My Total Minutes: 174,890

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 6

Finishing up the first weekend with a 5 movie Sunday:

First up was a movie that I didn't know about until I met the filmmakers at a party. This was due to an error in the printed Cinequest guide (BTW, pick up the Metro for the latest updated guide and schedule). Networking works, filmmakers (and these guys did it well)!

Anyway, COST OF A SOUL is the interwoven story of two Iraq war vets who return home to Philadelphia, where different sources of violence continue to accost them. Tommy Donahue worked in the Irish mob. He joined the army to get away from that, and now he's back home with his wife and meeting 4 year old daughter for the first time. But the local mob boss pressures him back into working. Meanwhile DD has to deal with his older brother who has moved on from just selling a little weed to becoming the neighborhood drug kingpin. And DD is charged with protecting his mom and his little brother from that influence. Both DD and Tommy joined the military to escape exactly these conditions, and returning home they find very little has changed and their military experience doesn't necessarily prepare them for the different kind of war at home. It's a tight, thrilling story, and eventually Tommy and DD's worlds cross paths. And the acting is excellent.

COST OF A SOUL plays again 3/5 at 11:30 am

So after that dark drama, it was time for a little laughter with CUMMINGS FARM, or as I like to call it, MY BIG, AWKWARD, JEWISH ORGY. Three couples go to Cummings Farm for a night of consequence-free sex. But they're all weird and neurotic. Alan and Yasmine have just started dating, and Yasmine is more than a little controlling. Rachel and Gordon live together. Gordon is an alcoholic and casual drug user. Alan is secretly in love with Rachel. Tina (Laura Silverman, an actual star in this film) and Todd are married with children. Todd is batshit insane (when we first see him, he drinks his own pee), and the orgy was basically his idea. Add in a drug dealer (crap, now I can't remember if he was Lorenz or Lavar, and that's a running joke in the movie...) who is Gordon's hookup for Ecstasy but who scares the heck out of Alan (who points out that he's not afraid of all black guys, just that black guy). And so hilarity is bound to ensue. And for the first 75% or so, it is a wacky screwball (no pun intended) sex comedy. And then it takes an oddly dramatic turn as...well, I don't want to give away spoilers. It's pretty obvious early on that with this mix of neurotic vs. zany, no orgy is going to work out well. But it takes a very unexpected tonal shift in the end that is probably more rewarding than any screwball comedy ending would be.

CUMMINGS FARM plays again 3/5 at 1:30 pm

Next up was yet another movie that I saw based on chatting with the filmmakers, BUMMER SUMMER. I have to start by talking about the look of the film. It was shot on a digital camera. I can't remember the exact model, but it's a digital still camera that also has a movie mode. Basically the cheapest, low-rent camera this side of cell phones. And the movie looks amazing. Excellent use of black and white and very well composed shots. Cinematographer Nandan Rao deserves huge credit for this. As for the story itself, Isaac, his big brother Ben, and Ben's ex-girlfriend Lila go on a road trip to see a giant hedge maze they read about in a book of roadside attractions. Oh yeah, back up a little bit. Isaac just finished his senior year of high school, and his girlfriend breaks up with him. Oh, and on the way he realizes he's attracted to Lila, too, and so there's that awkwardness. And there's some deadpan humor. But mostly it's a whole lot of nothing happens. Still, the look and the performances were impressive.

BUMMER SUMMER plays again 3/3 at 12:15 pm. Holy crap, that's just a couple of hours away! Go now!

Then I saw the documentary TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: KA SHEN'S JOURNEY. Ka Shen is better known as Nancy Kwan, the beautiful Eurasian (Chinese father, English mother) star of THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG and FLOWER DRUM SONG. This movie is all about her, her turbulent childhood (fleeing from the invading Japanese), her sometimes difficult relationship to her parents (who separated at the time), her stage and film career, and her latest tragedy involving her son. Actually, that part I don't think is handled well. They start the movie by showing her at a temple dealing with "the loss of someone close to her." They don't even mention she has a son until very near the end of the film, and it's immediately clear he is who she's mourning. Other than that, it's a very engaging documentary. Probably better suited to die hard Nancy Kwan fans. I confess to very little knowledge of her, and only brief familiarity with her two big films. But now I want to see them, so I guess that's an endorsement.

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: KA SHEN'S JOURNEY is not scheduled to play again. Sorry.

And finally, I ended the night (and the first weekend of Cinequest 20) with a work-in-progress screening of SUPER HERO PARTY CLOWN, played to a very, very hometown audience. Produced at San Jose State, it's a comedy about comic-book geek Eugene Stimpson. He plays Arachnid-Man (the 70's version, not the fancy new version) at birthday parties. And while he's a hero when he's wearing the costume, in his normal identity he doesn't even have the courage to talk to Emily, the girl he's liked since...forever. To make matters worse, she's dating Todd, a total douche-bag who's also his nemesis at school. And when Emily shows the slightest interest in Arachnid Man (because her little brother is a huge fan), Todd gets a job playing a rival superhero. And so Eugene has to protect his secret identity (for needlessly complicated reasons, he doesn't want Emily to find out), while trying to sabotage Todd and win the girl. Oh, and I forgot the best part of the movie--sidekick/party clown Garth Gator (Zack Sutherland). He's really funny.

So the movie is definitely low budget, and as I said it's a work-in-progress screening. It's a rough cut without finished sound, etc, and could use some more editing to make it snappier. I'd really need to watch the final version with a more realistic audience before I can judge the film. Usually an enthusiastic audience is great, but when the cheers were so obviously out of proportion to the quality on screen, it's just disorienting. Still, it was fun, and I'll be ready to give it a fair chance when it's finished.

SUPER HERO PARTY CLOWN is not scheduled to play again. Sorry.

Total Running Time: 483 minutes
My Total Minutes: 174,626