Saturday, October 29, 2011

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum and sees THE MAN WHO LAUGHS

But of course, first some shorts, in the packed Halloween weekend program.

THE FORTUNE TELLER (1923): The first of two Koko the Clown shorts tonight. Koko and his creator Max Fleischer mix it up with a gypsy fortune teller who tells them they are both haunted by evil spirits. For Koko, it's the ghost in a deck of cards who haunts him.

THE OUIJA BOARD (1920): The other Koko the Clown short. This time while Max Fleischer torments Koko with a haunted house, his assistants play with a Ouija board. But when Koko jumps off the page and hides under the Ouija marker, he scares the bejeezus out of them.

HER BRIDAL NIGHT-MARE (1920): Coleen Moore in a comic love triangle. She is engaged, but her unsuccessful suitor has a plan to break up the marriage. Ultimately her fiancee is arrested, she's left at the altar, all the presents are stolen, and more wacky hijinx ensue. Mistaken identity, costumes, lots of physical comedy and running around, and ultimately the bad guys lose and love conquers all. Nice.

Then the intermission, and the feature presentation.

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928): I'd never seen this classic Paul Leni directed Conrad Veidt starring film. It's an adaptation of a lesser-known Victor Hugo (Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) novel. And it's a shockingly grim story, even for today (it's especially bleak for the audiences of 1928, it didn't do well on the initial release). Gwynplaine is the son of a nobleman who has displeased King James II. So while his father is sentenced to death in the Iron Lady, Gwynplaine is surgically altered so his face is in a permanent grin--as the king say, "So he will always be laughing at his fool of a father." He's abandoned, and in his wanderings in the snow he encounters hanged corpses in a rather shockingly grim scene (oh yeah, it's a very German expressionist style) and then he comes across the corpse of a mother with a baby girl in her arms. The baby is still alive, so Gwynplaine rescues her, and eventually finds himself at the home of the philosopher (i.e., playwright/mountebank) Ursus. There we find out the little girl (who they name Dea) is blind. Years later they are travelling performers, and Gwynplaine (now played by Conrad Veidt) is known as The Man Who Laughs. It's a very popular show, and he and Dea are falling in love. And then his noble birth becomes known, and he's drawn into palace intrigue with the Queen (King James' heir), the seductive Duchess Josiana (who is living in his rightful family home), and especially the evil jester/power behind the throne Barkilphedro. Amazing story, very melodramatic and dark. And just an amazing movie.

Oh yeah, and a lot has been made about Conrad Veidt's performance being at least part of the inspiration of The Joker in the Batman comics. This might or might not be true, allegedly there are no accounts of Batman creator Bob Kane ever claiming this. Maybe it's true, maybe the coincidence is just so striking that it's impossible to believe there's no connection. Certainly, the similarities are absolutely there, and it's become enough of Batman lore that if the original connection wasn't there it's certainly been put in there since. But while we're comparing him to famous pop culture characters, with his angular nose and covering his mouth with a scarf so often, I also saw a bit of The Shadow in him.

Total Running Time (estimated): 148 minutes
My Total Minutes: 253,719

Jason finishes Doctoberfest

I wasn't sure I was going to make it, but I saw everything. And here's the last two.

First, FIRST POSITION. An inspirational and sometimes funny look at young ballet dancers. We follow several young dancers as they compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, the largest youth ballet competition in the world. At stake are not just prizes, but scholarships and (for the older dancers) job offers in dance companies. Through mangled feet, injuries, and somewhat lost childhoods, these kids make magic onstage and hopefully launch a career. We meet Aran, a talented young dancer in a military family (his dad chose a tour in Iraq rather than uproot the family away from any dance school). We meet Gaya, a young girl from Israel who sort of becomes Aran's girlfriend (the scenes of them watching each other dance are really cute). Michaela is an orphan from Sierra Leone, who has to counter racist attitudes that black dancers are all about strength and power with no grace. Joan traveled from Columbia to New York to pursue his dream. Rebecca, the oldest of the main character (a ripe age of 17) is looking to turn pro, just needs a job offer from this competition. And my favorite pair, JJ and Miko, a brother-sister team from Palo Alto. Miko, as her teacher explains, is an excellent student. JJ, on the other hand...well, in his words he's really good at smiling. He's definitely the one who isn't going to continue dancing and won't be competitive, but will have a ton of fun at whatever he does (never lose that, JJ!) We spend most of the moving getting into these kids' lives and setting us up to really care about them. And then the competition. High pressure, and the film builds up the tension just right. We want all of them to win, and the great thing is with multiple age groups and multiple possible positive outcomes (prizes, scholarships, or job offers), it's possible that they all could win, in their own way. But no spoilers here, I won't tell you if they did.

And finally, I ended the festival with a real oddity, BERLIN IN NOVEMBER. This might be the first movie I've seen that isn't actually about anything. Or, at most, it's about how much fun it is to make a movie with all your cool friends. Other people in the audience were grumbling about it afterwards (along the "what was the point?" angle), so it's definitely not for everyone. I think I loved it the moment a train passed in front of the camera and the filmmakers reveled in how you could see their reflections in the train window. The thing is, it's not like the train interrupted the shot, they weren't shooting anything else, it seems the whole point of the shot was to show the reflection of the camera and crew. There are interviews, performances, etc. with friends and apparently strangers on the street. Okay, I don't know who any of these people are, except for Dani Levy (GO FOR ZUCKER, MY FÜHRER), and it doesn't really matter. I guess they talk about Berlin, November, food, annoying tourists (one of the best things about Berlin in November is that there aren't as many tourists). It's really hard to letter to a city? Bunch of friends just screwing around with a camera? I don't know. I'm pretty sure I liked it, even though it kind of dragged on (I dozed off at one point, and don't think I missed anything important). In any case, it was a great oddity to end the fest.

Total Running Time: 183 minutes
My Total Minutes: 253,571

Jason goes to Doctoberfest--Day 13

Two more shows on the penultimate night of the fest:

First up, the short THE YODEL WITHIN. Matthew Rice is inspired by a video on Youtube of Yodel King Franzl Lang. So he goes on a journey to find this man (inspired by Yodeling Joe Commin's similar quest). And instead, he comes to find his own inner taking a yodeling class. Pretty funny.

By the way, I've been very impressed how well the shorts and features were matched in this year's festival. In fact, this was the first show where they didn't really naturally go together, but then what could go with a short, comic yodeling doc?

Anyway, the feature was PEEP CULTURE. The star is writer Hal Niedzviecki, who has written about what he calls "peep culture"--the willing destruction of privacy in our modern society, from reality shows to online oversharing. It even goes so far as "lifecasting"--putting cameras and microphones everywhere and putting every moment of your life online. And the central point of the movie is that Hal does this to himself (to the consternation of his wife). Prior he was a fairly private person--no Facebook, no Twitter, not even a cell phone. And he explores the larger culture by inspecting how this experiment affects him. I assume his book is good, it seems to have been well received. The movie, however, left me flat and provided no insight I could discern. So there are a lot of people in the world who are unhappy with their boring life and think they would be happier if other people watched them (either online or on reality TV)? But if your life doesn't even interest you, why should I watch you? Look, I have my online presence--this blog, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ (which reminds me, I haven't checked that in a while). And if you follow all of it, you might think you know me. You don't, despite how it looks I'm actually somewhat careful about what I do and don't share online. And I don't feel any pressure to share more or be entertaining--something that Hal claimed he felt. Hell, I feel more pressure to be entertaining in real life. Now here's something the movie never explored--in real life you see the same people at work, school, etc. on a regular basis, and if your personality changes people ask what's wrong. Online, I can post about an important cause I care about and make a juvenile dick joke just minutes apart, and people accept that as a normal part of the fractured nature of an online presence. Now that might not be some deep insight, it might not even be true for many people. But it's more of an insight than this movie had.

And then the second show of the night, an amazing and inspirational story of BOB AND THE MONSTER. Bob is Bob Forrest, and the monster is...well a lot of things. It could be his band, Thelonious Monster. It could be his struggle with drug addiction. It could be--after he got cleaned and dedicated his life to helping other musicians get clean--the medical industrial complex that doesn't treat addiction well and resists his attempts to change the game just because...well, he's not a doctor. But man, he's had some life experience. He grew up idolizing Lenny Bruce, and actually claims he wanted to become a heroin addict. Thelonious Monster's success certainly enabled him to fulfill that dream, nearly at the expense of his life. And the archival/home video footage is scary, to say the least. But he survived...somehow. And he got clean, and started helping other musicians and attending addiction recovery seminars. His old friend Dr. Drew Pinsky (Loveline, Celebrity Rehab) recognized him asking all sorts of intelligent probing questions at one of these seminars. Honestly, Dr. Drew had assumed Bob had died, he was so bad off. Instead Bob, with the help of Dr. Drew, became a highly effective addiction counselor. He also became a highly controversial counselor, because he refuses to follow a lot of the accepted wisdom that always struck him as bullshit and didn't work for him when he was recovering. Many of his musician friends show up to offer testimonials of how much he has done to save their lives. And oh yeah, the band's back together, still kicking out great music--turned out he learned he could do that sober. Just a great, real, dramatic, and inspiring true life story.

Total Running Time: 160 minutes
My Total Minutes: 253,388

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Jason goes to Doctoberfest--Day 12

We're coming down to the final stretch, two more shows last Tuesday, starting with the shorts program The Business of Living:

IRMA: It started slow and dragged on for way too long, showing this old-ish woman working out, etc. And then you learn she's a former wrestling champion and singer. A really cool second half, if you just fast-forward through the first half.

DYING FAITH: The life reflections of an old Buddhist nun in Singapore.

SUNSHINE: The most engaging of the series, the story of an ad man (although he wanted to be a serious artistic filmmaker) who travels to China to make ads for McDonald's. Reflections on his life, China turning capitalist, and what it means to be "sunshine"--what the Chinese say to describe someone who has that right demeanor/look/quality for their commercial. Something akin to having "It."

MAURICE: A look at the life and work of Maurice, who runs the Beverley Cinema--a porno theater in Paris. It was so appropriate to see this in the Roxie--the oldest continually operating cinema in San Francisco--since it survived in the late '60s/early '70s as a porno theater.

GAZA SHIELD: A look at a Lebanese artists who design a game in response to an offensive game that promotes violence in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I applaud their efforts and goals, but I couldn't help being struck by how amateurish both their game and (especially) the game they're responding to looks. And what's really missing is that the original game was apparently meant as satire.

0,39: Note, this means 39 cents (euro cents, to be precise), not thirty-nine seconds as listed in the festival online guide. Spanish fishermen work all day, only to get 0.39 euro-cents per pound (or was it kilogram, I forget). Oh yeah, and the comma instead of a decimal point in the title is intentional. That's just how they do it in Europe.

And then the second show of the night was a delightful gaming doc ECSTASY OF ORDER: THE TETRIS MASTERS. It's a funny look at people who are way too good at Tetris. Specifically, classic NES Tetris. People who obsess over the holy grails--maxing out the scoreboard or (especially) beating level 29--the mythical "kill screen" and seeing level 30. They post videos or pictures of their accomplishments, and now are getting ready for the first world Tetris championship. And through it all there's a legendary character. Thor Aackerlund, champion of the Nintendo World Championship in 1990. That's right, there's a player with a whole mythos built around him and his name is Thor! He claims, but has no proof, that he has not only maxed out the scoreboard (something that a few players have done) but beaten level 29 and seen level 30 (which, allegedly, shows up as level 00). But he doesn't have proof. And he's something of a recluse. They're trying to get him for the championship competition. But for the longest time he won't commit. Then he'll make an appearance but not compete. Then he will compete. And then we finally meet him. And...I don't want to give away spoilers, but the twist in the movie is all about him. I will just say that there's a scene where he talks about the difficulties of life but then points out that's a lot like Tetris--sometimes you have a drought where nothing but shitty blocks fall. I loved that scene. I also loved the scene where a player shows how he plays Super Mario Brothers but never beats it--he always commits suicide right at the end because all games should end in death--just like Tetris, and just like life. Awesome!

Total Running Time: 166 minutes
My Total Minutes: 253,228

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Jason goes to Doctoberfest--Day 11

On the home stretch, it'll all be over Thursday.

We start with the shorts program A Matter of Body and Mind. A program of personal and somewhat experimental documentary shorts:

VIVID DREAMS: That's one of the possible side effects of the anti-malarial drug mefloquine. The subject (and director's wife) was on it in the Peace Corps, and had to come home because of it. It was also blamed for some soldiers returning from Afghanistan and murdering their wives.

SIMPLY ROB: Elegant and powerful poetry by and about Rob, a black gay man in New York. His terrible past, with meth and AIDS, and how his poetry and spoken performances have turned him around.

DANCING WITH THE MOON: Narrated from a newborn's point of view, a cute animated short telling about his mother's struggle to conceive.

MOTHERSBANE: Reminiscences as a child of a disfigured mother (her legs don't work so well), and as an adult caring for her, overcoming the fear of her surgery scars, and coming to terms with their relationship. Finding there's more strength in insisting on walking rather than resigning to life in a wheelchair, even if it will only break you again.

THE LAYING ON OF HANDS: A comic look at faith healing and karate. Might not be exactly literally true.

CROOKED BEAUTY: A long tone poem about the balance between sanity and creativity. Beautiful images, haunting words...but it dragged on a bit.

Speaking of dragging on a bit, SCENES OF A CRIME. Not the film, it was excellent. But the interrogation in the film--10 hours trying to get a guy to say he killed his baby son. In the words of Nice Guy Eddie, "If you...beat this [person] long enough, he'll tell you he started the [gosh darn] Chicago fire, now that don't necessarily make!" Okay, so he wasn't physically beaten, but I just needed to put that RESERVOIR DOGS quote in there, and it's still appropriate. Of course, a psychologically coerced confession is still coerced, and this movie makes a pretty strong case that his was. 10 hours of interrogation, 9 hours of proclaiming innocence, 10 hours of police lies, claiming that if he just confesses (with mitigating circumstances) that he'll go free. And then [spoiler alert] 25 to life in prison. Near the end, they do interview two of the jurors, who come off looking rather bad (and at least one looks pretty racist). However, having been on a jury I know that they're shown (and not shown) what is put in front of them, and I trust them to make the best judgement they can based on that. While I, watching the movie, had the psychology of interrogation (i.e., how you can get someone to confess to something he didn't do) explained to me, the jurors didn't get that. I don't know if the jurors were shown the entire 10 hours of video, or if it was edited/excerpted for them. I'm sure I saw a different edit than what they saw. I don't know how the forensic evidence was presented to them (prosecutions' examiner/autopsy concluded the child was abused, based on an incorrect original diagnosis of a fractured skull. Defense experts showed that an infection was the true cause of death). I'm convinced, based on this film, that he's innocent. And there's just so much to be angry about, and so much to take away. I've chosen to take away a little wisdom about interrogation. Going back to Nice Guy Eddie's point, don't trust a "confession" unless it results in new information (i.e., that the interrogator didn't feed him) that can be independently corroborated.

Total Running Time: 167 minutes
My Total Minutes: 253,062

Monday, October 24, 2011

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 10

Or as I'm calling it now, Doctoberfest! 5 more movies on Sunday.

First up, a bit of comedy with TELL YOUR FRIENDS! THE CONCERT FILM. The operative word here is "concert." Although there are interviews and musings on comedy, small clubs, and the "alternative" comedy scene, this is primarily a recording of a show. Director Producer Liam McEneaney [correction, Liam is an executive producer. The director is actually Victor Varnado. My mistake] is a comedian himself, and the creator of Tell Your Friends! The title could have a double meaning, both as how they get people to show up, and what they do there. The comics generally talk about how they find it easier and more comfortable to work up new bits in these smaller indie clubs, and as a result while the show is frequently hilarious some bits drag (Kurt Braunholer and Kristen Schaal's bit about Pocohantas and John Smith having phone sex could be tightened by about half). While it was fun, I couldn't help concluding that it's probably more fun to actually be there, and a lot of that energy just wasn't captured on film. Oh yeah, and Reggie Watts, who I think of more as an Andy Kauffman-esque performance artist than a comedian, was a brilliant end to the show.

Then Docfest took a very serious turn, with WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM. The three soldiers they follow all come from Michigan's upper peninsula. Childhood friends who joined the National Guard for a little extra money, and then they're called up to Afghanistan. Their unit sweeps the roads for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), and the filmmakers get some incredible access to both their work and their personal moments. One of the most brilliant moments in the movie comes while the soldiers are joking about the hippies who go to film festivals and how they prefer, "good movies." All funny, and kind of at the audience's expense, and then and IED goes off. This is not the first or last, and in fact their unit all got awarded for the number of IED attacks they sustained. Another poignant moment comes as they're getting ready to leave and one kid confesses that he hates everything about Afghanistan--the people, the language, the customs, the terrain, the government. He says flat-out, "I have become a racist American" and it's all because of his time there.

And then they come home, to a heroes' welcome, and it feels like that's the end, finally their war is over and so is the movie. But really, that's where it gets interesting, as they've all changed from that, and they spend months trying to adapt back to the civilian world. Now they get irritable, maybe suffering from either Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). It's tough on their parents, friends, girlfriends. A lot of this is left unresolved, while they watch expressionless while Obama announce a 30,000 troop surge in Afghanistan. Ultimately, the film had to end, but I would love to see how these guys are doing five years down the line.

The last three movies of the day were all in one way or another hero-worship films. And we start with the least well know hero, Gene Sharp in HOW TO START A REVOLUTION. He's an academic and probably the Albert Einstein of non-violent overthrow of regimes. So it's appropriate that he does his work from the Albert Einstein Institute (which seems to be just him and his assistant Jamila Raqib, who was in town for the screening and will be talking at the TED X conference in San Francisco this week). Sharp published From Dictatorship to Democracy, and detailed 198 non-violent methods for fighting oppression. Things like protests, mockery and comic skits, boycotts, hunger know, ineffective hippie bullcrap. Except, of course, they work. This isn't pie-in-the sky wishful thinking, this is serious research. And of course not all 198 will be appropriate in every situation (and Gene is very humble, insisting when asked for advice he doesn't know the details of any individual situation. The origin is his 'Aha!' moment, when he realized that every dictator is propped up by various pillars (police, popular will, the media, etc.) and those pillars depend on people playing along. Weaken (or better, convert) those pillars and the regime will crumble without a shot. In fact, shooting is usually the worst thing you can do. Almost universally, the one advantage dictators have over their subject is they are better armed. Why fight an enemy in the one way he has the greatest advantage? And his theories have worked in Burma, Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine...and more recently Tunisia and Egypt. He's regarded as a danger to many dictatorships. Owning his writings have gotten people thrown in jail. The Iranian government even made a movie asserting he's a CIA operative (trust me, if you saw his tiny East Boston office/home, you would know he's not that well funded). Truly an inspirational man, sitting at his desk, researching how to help people free themselves, and changing the world with his writings.

The next hero to worship is the awesome indie animator Bill Plympton. But first, a short film INGRID PITT: BEYOND THE FOREST, made by ten year old animator Perry Chen. Ingrid Pitt went on to be a famous actress (she was in the only version of THE WICKER MAN that I acknowledge to exist), but when she was ten she was a Holocaust survivor. She and her family were marched into the woods to be shot, but an Allied air strike scattered the Germans and saved her. This retelling, in her own voice, is the last film she made before she passed away.

And then, a twisted comic trip ADVENTURES IN PLYMPTOONS. Indiefest is a huge Bill Plympton fan, he even appeared with HAIR HIGH several years back. When director Alexia Anastasio first met Bill, he showed her his novelty tie that had a normal pattern on the front but a picture of a naked lady hidden in the back. That's the kind of sly, wicked humor in both Bill and this documentary. Full of clips of his work and interviewees who seem to take delight in poking fun (Terry Gilliam insists he sees the bill--how much he'll be paid--before he talks about Bill). It shows this talented kid from Oregon who blazes his own trail, works hard, stays independent (he turned down an offer of $1 million to animate the genie in Alladin), and makes it big...or at least biggish. Cult big, let's say. It's a feel good story with gratuitous sex and violence. And that's pretty awesome. I don't know if this movie would appeal much to people who aren't already Plymptoon fans. But if you aren't what's wrong with you? Go see his work, become a fan, and then enjoy this film.

Oh yeah, and Alexia funded this project (at least in part), with the indie filmmakers new best friend, Kickstarter. If you liked this and particularly the sense of humor as much as I did, consider backing her new project, GINGER GIRLS.

And finally, we end with the hero-worshippiest film of them all, about a man who gave us a metric s**t-ton of heroes to worship, WITH GREAT POWER: THE STAN LEE STORY. It's a pretty straightforward story of an ambitious kid who sort of fell into managing a comics department, but while he was there he put all his energy into making it as good as possible and some 70 years later he's got an empire, tons of fans, and still somehow more energy than me. His great idea, of course, was focusing on the men (and women) behind the costumes, showing their normal life problems and grounding them in the real world (e.g., New York instead of Gotham or Metropolis). Not all times were great, of course. The comics code nearly broke his spirit. He was ready to quit when his wife told him to try making just one the way he wanted to, so he could get it out of his system and move on. So the Fantastic Four was created (specifically showing the tensions and fights within the team), and the rest is history. Oh yeah, and his wife Joan Lee is a big part of the movie and the scenes with her are some of the most poignant, funniest, and most human in the movie. I'm sure Stan gets told everywhere he goes how awesome he is, and it's great to see her (lovingly, of course) taking him down a peg or two. The rest of the film is breezy entertainment about a guy who pretty much lucked into the greatest job in the world. Probably only appropriate for his fans, but he's got a ton of them so that's no problem at all.

Total Running Time: 432 minutes
My Total Minutes: 252,895

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 9

I think that's right, 9. Anyway, it's the start of the second big weekend.

First up, THE WOODMANS, and interesting look at a family of artists. The focus is Francesca Woodman, and apparently if you're into photography you should know about her. I didn't, so this was my introduction. She took provocative photos and videos, often of herself nude, but with amazing rich and inventive compositions. Her parents are both artists (mom does pottery, dad was an abstract artist who turned to photography later), and even they (or at least dad) admitted that her work was so good that it made their work look kind of silly in comparison. The operative word in that sentence is, "was." They keep talking about her in the past sense, so it's clear something has happened to her. So for the whole film I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. Of course, I could have saved myself the tension by either reading the program notes or spending one minute googling her. So spoiler alert: yes, she's dead. She committed suicide. That was in 1981. And the movie is as much about how her family (parents and brother) deal with that, how their art changes as part of the coping/grieving process, and how she still gets more recognition than they do (which, as her father says, would be a problem if it wasn't so deserved).

So next up, we take a bit lighter look at CIRCUS DREAMS. A very entertaining film about young circus performers and Circus Smirkus, one of the (if not the) largest youth circus organizations in the world. They teach circus to promising kids, but they're also (primarily) a performing circus. Auditions are tough and some kids are cut. Then there are four days rotating through whatever classes you want, and some kids don't get to perform what they want to perform. And then the show is put together. And less than a month later they're on tour. And we follow the troupe through one season and all the exhausting hard work it entails. The title could easily refer to both the kids' dreams of being circus performers and Smirkus' organizers' dream of making just enough money that they can do this next year. This keeps cropping up. As we go through injuries, triumphant performance, blazing weather, storms, good times, difficult times...then the money man pops up again and reminds us if we're on schedule just to break even. They really build that tension up well, and I won't give away any spoilers here. There's no way you could, say...look up Circus Smirkus and see if they are still in business.

So we stuck with the uplifting kids theme with BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER'S JOURNEY. Okay, confession: I grew up on Sesame Street when Elmo didn't exist. I was an Oscar, Cookie Monster, Grover, Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, Snuffalupagus kind of kid. And when--much later than I should still care--I learned there was this little red Muppet who refers to himself in the third person and loved everyone, I was annoyed. Well, this movie kind of changed my mind (I'm still annoyed there isn't enough Oscar the Grouch...not that I still watch Sesame Street). It's not even a story of Elmo so much as a story of Kevin Clash, the big black guy operating him. It's the story of young Kevin, who grew up obsessed with Captain Kangaroo and then absolutely entranced with Sesame Street (he was 9 when it premiered, and to him Bert and Ernie talking to him directly through the TV was magic). He started making his own puppets and doing shows for the kids at his mom's daycare business she ran out of their Baltimore home. He got discovered by the local Channel 2, and the guy there kept talking him up to all his friends. So much so that he was hired away by Bob Keeshan--Captain Kangaroo himself. That's childhood idol number 1 he worked for. But of course the Muppets were the big time. His first Muppet gig was as Cookie Monster on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float. THE MUPPET MOVIE had just come out, so they had a float, too, and they needed extra puppeteers and called on Kevin. He got his chance to meet Jim Henson (introduced by Kermit Love, Henson's master Muppet builder), and was offered a job on THE DARK CRYSTAL. Wow...I can't believe he turned it down. He was working too series jobs then--Captain Kangaroo and The Great Space Coaster--and those were steady jobs while a movie ends, so it was the safer job move. Of course, both series ended and he was looking for work...just in time to be a puppeteer on Labyrinth. And finally, ultimately, to Sesame Street. And the amazing break when veteran Muppeteer Richard Hunt just couldn't do anything with this little red guy and threw it to Kevin to see if he could figure something out. First thing, Kevin made the voice high and squeaky. And then he studies Elmo until he decided, "Elmo is love." And things exploded. It's kind of hilarious to see him shaking his head at a Tickle Me Elmo doll (they got it totally wrong, Elmo never uses pronouns, it should have been a "Tickle Elmo" doll). And when so many Make-A-Wish kids want to meet Elmo as their dying wish, it's just amazing. And it's really amazing that he insists on doing all of that himself (to the point where his own daughter starts to feel left out). And all through this, he insists he's really a shy person. As his parents, friends, and colleagues keep telling us, Kevin's real personality comes to life through Elmo. And I couldn't help but be swept up in the inspirational adorableness of it all.

But they still need to show Oscar the Grouch more...and what's up with this "cookies are a sometimes food" bullcrap?

Okay, on to the next program, starting with the local short PLASTICITY. It's a brief look unique uses of space in San Francisco. A beekeeper on the roof. A sidewalk pizza oven. A moving restaurant (inside other restaurants). San Francisco is a beautifully inventive place.

That was the lead in to 78 DAYS: A TREE PLANTING DOCUMENTARY. This is not your grandmother's tree planting. This is large scale reforestation contracts on tree farms. Millions of trees planted--by hand. Young Canadians running around planting several trees a minute, trying to do about 6,000-7,000 a day, all while avoiding the dreaded "J root" (If the root bends up in a J, it won't grow well). Or at least, they try to avoid getting caught with J roots, sometimes if the ground is hard your shovel doesn't go in deep enough in one strike. And when you're only paid 10 cents (Canadian) per tree, you don't want to spend a whole lot of time on it. But while the work is exhausting, the real challenges seem to be mental. Planters talk about good days when they zoned out so well they did two or three boxes (270 trees/box) without even noticing. The worst you can do is focus on why you're doing this miserable job. The answer, by the way, is because in just a couple of months (the 78 days in the title is actually a season going long by a couple of weeks) you can make enough to support your lifestyle the rest of the year--nothing lavish, but you can be a surf bum/photographer, you can be a ski bum all winter, you can...basically do what you want (on a budget of $20-30,000) and only work a couple of months. But man, while you're working it sure looks miserable. And director Jason Nardella should know, he's a veteran planter (retired) himself, that's how he got access to all the planters, they were mostly his friends from previous seasons.

And finally, the night ended with PATAGONIA RISING. Docfest alum Brian Lilla (GHETTO FABULOUS, which I missed in 2005; and A TALE OF TWO BONDAGE MODELS, which I saw in 2007) returns with his "important" film from Chile about water resources, big dams, and the locals who live by the rivers of Patagonia (Southern tip of Chile/Argentina). The ice fields of Patagonia are the worlds' third largest fresh water reservoir, and they feed the rivers of Patagonia. A power company wants to big two large dams to make hydroelectric power and transmit it to Santiago (some 2,000 km away). And this movie goes into great detail about why that would be a bad idea. Displacement of locals, of course (as a side note, I took one anthropology class back when I was at Caltech, and the professor was an expert on displaced populations, particularly by dam projects. So I was well indoctrinated in this subject Protip: they always turn out bad for those displaced). Also the environmental devastation. You're stopping the flow of nutrient rich sediment, you're basically segmenting the rivers so there is no longer a natural flow, flooding out some lands while starving others of nutrients. As another aside, I grew up in Northwest Washington, where I toured the Grand Coulee Dam and was indoctrinated into how hydroelectric power was environmental. We didn't use the term "green" back then, but it was certainly cleaner than burning fossil fuels. I really haven't kept up on my environmentalism, if I don't know that dams are bad. Ultimately, the dams haven't been built (yet), and it's encouraging to see the locals with solar panels (for their CB radios to talk to each other) and wind power taking off. Perhaps there's still hope for a green revolution in Chile.

And that's it. Saturday is over. Bring on Sunday!

Total Running Time: 395 minutes
My Total Minutes: 252,463

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 8

Yet two more movies, as the second week of the fest begins (lots of new movies this week).

First up a trip to Egypt and a family of belly-dancers in AT NIGHT, THEY DANCE. Reda is the matriarch of the clan, mother of seven (with a bun in the oven), and former dancer herself. Three daughters also dance for a living at raucous all-male parties (it's weird to see old Egyptian men "make it rain"). In the day (with the blazing Cairo sun overhead) they argue about life, love, the dangers of their business. But at night they dance. Great cinematography and the characters are interesting, but I needed more of a narrative or explanation to lead me in. It takes cinema verite to the extreme, not telling me why they dance or what other options they might have, or maybe a bit of the history of belly-dancing and how it used to be a more respected art (now it feels like they're treated just one step above prostitutes, but maybe I'm misreading that).

And the second film of the night was OIL CITY CONFIDENTIAL. Oil City being Canvey Island, UK. And the confidential being the story of Dr. Feelgood, a blues-infused pub rock band that came from there and took at least the UK by storm, even if they imploded just as they were breaking out in America. Sadly, lead singer Lee Brilleaux passed away in the '90s, but the film takes a look at both the history (from kids in jug bands to psychotic rockers) and a 'where-are-they-now' look at the surviving members. The focus is on wild-eyed Wilko Johnson, Lee's counterpoint onstage (and ultimately, antagonist offstage), who still has the wild, he-might-kill-you look he had when he was mimicking machine gun fire with his guitar. Everyone else seems to have grown a bit mild with age, and even Wilko's antics are more comical than frightening, but damn if he doesn't still know how to entertain. Interesting side note, Wilko was the only one in the band who didn't drink alcohol--while the rest were at the pub getting trashed, Wilko was apparently off on harder stuff.

Total Running Time: 184 minutes
My Total Minutes: 252,068

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 7

Two more movies last Thursday, let's jump right in.

We start with my favorite type of doc, the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story. HOLY ROLLERS is the story of a team of card counters. Okay, that's not unusual. But a team of devout Christian card counters? Maybe that's a bit unusual. How about a card counting team of devout Christians who trust each other so much that their business model relies on mutual trust (remember, counting cards is cheating...)? Well, that's the church team, and in their brief run (blackjack teams don't last long, as casinos start to recognize the players) they were one of the biggest teams in existence, and took something in the neighborhood of $5 million from casinos (if my memory serves).

Now the first thought when you put "Christian" and "card counter" (or even "gambler") together is "hypocrisy." But they've clearly thought about that conflict enough that it's more appropriate to call them "master rationalizers." There's the argument that it's not really gambling because they have the advantage. There's the argument that they're taking money from casinos, who are evil. My favorite argument is that it's actually the casinos who are hypocrites, because they advertise a chance to win big and then kicks them out for doing just that. And of course, there's the classic 'ends justify the means' that they're putting this money into good, Godly works for their various churches.

As I alluded to earlier, the team business is based on mutual trust. There are three levels--investors (and most members are also investors), team managers (who train, test, and deploy the players), and the actual players. And anyone could steal from all the others--it's trivial for a player to say he played for an hour and lost $1,000 when he really played for 2 hours and won a bit. They rely on trust, but that trust gets stretched and tested when A) they bring a non-Christian on to the team (unfortunately, he declined to be interviewed), and B) they start losing. Now losing is normal--when counting cards you're win probability goes up to 55%, so you still lose 45% of the time, and having long losing streaks is entirely possible (random, independent events tend to "clump" more than you expect, psychologically you expect random events to self-correct, when in fact they just average out over time). But when they run the numbers they find they have started losing more than random chance can account for. So they start retesting, and find that lots of players are making mistakes...

Personally, while it was dramatic, I think the filmmakers pushed the 'agony of losing' angle a bit hard. While it was certainly satisfying (I didn't like much of the characters, so it's fun to see some measure of comeuppance), it's undercut by the fact that ultimately when they ended the team it was still a wildly successful enterprise, and in fact the team managers who started the whole thing teach card counting now. Oh, and since I've sort of been on editing watch this festival (I don't know why, but this year I've been pickier about editing of documentaries), I'm please to say this was a well-edited, well structured, enjoyably brisk-moving film.

Next up was THE FURIOUS FORCE OF RHYMES, a hip-hop globetrotting adventure from 1970's Bronx to modern day...everywhere. It starts from hip hop's roots in 1970's Bronx, and explores how this form of music has inspired and been adopted by the oppressed classes from Europe to the Middle East to Cuba to Africa (and I think we can safely assume pretty much everywhere else). Anywhere anger and frustration needs to be expressed with style, humor, and creativity, it seems to be there. As for the film itself, it's got some beautiful cinematography, that's unfortunately hard to appreciate while trying to also read the subtitles. Damn, hip-hop is fast, and it's hard to keep up when it's not in your native language. Still, even though I'd estimate I only caught about 70% of the movie because of this, the part I caught was very good. Oh yeah, and my favorite song in it was from Africa--now I have "Vagina" running through my head.

Total Running Time: 176 minutes
My Total Minutes: 251,884

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 6

Two more movies last night.

First a short and feature pairing of semi-humorous political activism/police state movies. First the short, THE LOVE POLICE: SOCIAL CONTROLS, about two guys, Charlie and Danny, who call themselves the Love Police and use comedy and bullhorns to expose and ridicule the law. Anywhere from holding a sign saying, "Everything is okay" to getting into arguments over the exact boundaries of public space on the sidewalk (over here is public, but one meter over here is private and you can't film). Or anywhere from celebrating the 1,000th death in Iraq "for freedom" to hugging police officers (protip: no one they've hugged has ever arrested them).

That was the lead in to the feature, THE AFTER PARTY (aka THE LAST PARTY 3). Funny in a very different way, and much scarier, it uses the story of director Michael Schiller at the 2004 Republican convention in New York as a jumping off point to examine police spying and mass arrests of protesters. He was working as a cinematographer for a get-out-the-youth-vote (not necessarily partisan) documentary starring Andre 3000 Benjamin. And he was swept up in a mass arrest of marchers. His videotape actually proved that the cops were inconsistent with their orders, saying the march could go on despite lacking a permit, so long as it didn't get out of hand (and by the footage, it seemed it only got out of hand when the police started wrapping huge groups up in nets. As a matter of fact, everyone on that tape who was arrested subsequently had their cases dropped by the D.A. But still, he spent 48 hours in custody, and that pretty much sucks. In the ensuing lawsuit he filed for false arrest, he learned that the NYPD had secret surveillance data on him and other protesters, but to date the exact nature of that surveillance has not been made public. So he made this movie telling not just his story but exploring the use of police surveillance across the country. It made me both laugh and shit my pants in terror.

And then I thought more about it afterwards, because while I'm pretty law-abiding and not quite an activist I've given to some organizations and haven't really made my politics secret. So am I on a list somewhere? Am I a surveillance target? Well, if I am they haven't acted on it (yet). And while surveillance is easy (as a spy store owner explains), as a scientist I know how easy it can be to obtain a ton of data that you simply can never sift through. And I have a feeling that's what our law enforcement agencies are faced with. Not just more data than they need or should have, but more data than they can ever use. If I recall correctly (which is a big if), one of the statistics in the movie is that some 200,000 Americans are on lists for increased scrutiny. That sounds like a lot, but really that's less than 0.1% of us. Certainly there's something law abiding (and relatively benign) that the rest of us (assuming I'm not one of the 0.1%) can do to get on watch lists. If enough of us do that, the job of spying on us all will become overwhelming. That's right, we can whelm them more than they can stand to be whelmed! So does anyone have a good idea? This movie might have made me paranoid, but I'm pretty sure I'm on a watch list now just for suggesting this.

So let's bring it down a bit and center our chakras (or whatever) with YOGAWOMAN. As the name suggests, it's about yoga and women. I never knew that originally yoga was a male-only pursuit and women were forbidden. They were even considered unclean and obstacles on the path to yogic enlightenment. I'm not at all suggesting that's right, but to me it was far and away the most fascinating part of the film. And that's how the movie opened. So if you'll pardon me an overly masculine metaphor, it kinda shot its load in the first few minutes (hey, it happens to all of us). What's left after that is still somewhat interesting. Various looks through the history of yoga, how in the U.S. it came to be dominated by women (85% of students, if not teachers), and the various health benefits. It's well structured and edited (something I can't say for many documentaries this year) and entertaining even though it's something of a 90 minute advertisement for yoga. Now for me, personally, I'm not that interested in yoga and I'm still not tempted to try it. I've got a feeling in my balls that I just wasn't the target audience.

Total Running Time: 162
My Total Minutes: 251,708

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 5

And Docfest got high last night.

First up, DIRTY PICTURES, a repeat of the opening night gala, and the Roxie was packed to meet (on film, not in person) the godfather of MDMA. Dr. Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin is a chemist. His lab is in his home in California. He made his way from a 15 year old Harvard student to the Navy to Dow Chemicals (where he created a powerfully potent pesticide) to studying psychedelic drugs. When Dow no longer supported his research, he took his lab home. He didn't invent MDMA (street name Ecstasy, which he hates), that was German chemists who didn't know what they had. Passed off by the Pentagon as a 'love drug' useless for warfare, he rediscovered it and tested it...on himself. Along with hundreds of other drugs--he turned himself into the ultimate lab animal. Along with his wife (who is more into the spiritual aspects of psychedelics) he has maintained his small, cluttered lab (DEA licensed) in his home. The movie focuses on him, and a lot of the history of psychedelic use (MDMA was originally used by psychiatrists as Empathy, with the claim of doing years of therapy in a few hours) as well as other figures in psychedelic research. But the most interesting character (other than Sasha himself) is Bob Sager, a former DEA agent who looks back on his career with a sense of wistful regret. He talks about how all his agents thought they were doing good, but lost their way somewhere. As he's travelling by train, you get the feeling he knows Sasha and has some secret to reveal. The film holds back until the very end when you learn he and Sasha are now old friends, and that he in fact suffered from depression and was treated with MDMA. A well made, entertaining movie that gives both science and drug culture its due. Oh yeah, and in case you're totally clueless, the scenes that take place "somewhere in the desert" were at Burning Man. Sorry if that's supposed to be a secret.

The second show started with the short POT COUNTRY, a peek into Humboldt County. It shows a bit of the history--small logging companies succumbing to big corporate logging and a decline in the industry just at the same time back-to-nature hippies were moving in. The hippies didn't come there to grow pot, but when they found it grew well and there was a market the industry took off. In the 80's, it was a hot spot in the War on Drugs, but since California approved medical marijuana in 1996, it hasn't been as bad. Now (i.e., back in 2010), there's a ballot initiative to legalize commercial growing. And the growers are conflicted. On the one hand, it would be nice to be a little more within the law (it's still a federal crime, of course) but it could/would also open up way more competition and drive prices down. And then enter the most bizarre character of all--the cannabis lobbyist. I swear, you couldn't cast this guy as a lobbyist, he's too much of a stereotype, what with the pressed suit, slick hair, flag lapel pin, cell phone etc. I swear I felt that was a setup. But he's real, and for the record the proposition failed but overproduction led to a price crash anyway. This story continues.

Humboldt county has a lot in common with Northeast Washington, as we see in BACK TO THE GARDEN. It starts in 1988, well after the hippie heyday, when filmmaker Kevin Tomlinson found and interviewed a group of back-to-the-land hippies. At the time, he didn't turn it into a movie (not knowing how it would turn out), but 20 years later seemed like the right time for a 'where are they now?' movie. And the short answer is...they're pretty much all still hippies. Most live off the land (one works for Microsoft but still returns to the land). No one has had an easy life, although no one really says they would give up their self-determined freedom for a little more luxury. Although the filmmakers ideals obviously mirror the subjects, they do a good job of letting the subjects speak for themselves. And for the most part, they're very eloquent. They make their case, but freely admit that sticking to their ideals and lifestyle is not easy and not for everyone (often times it's not for their children). So fair warning, while the movie isn't preachy, if you're turned off by hippies you'll get plenty annoyed. And of course, because it's drug night there's plenty of talk of pot. But what isn't talked about, but revealed by Mr. Tomlinson in the Q&A, is that the inspiration for back-to-nature often came from psychedelic drugs--after their first trip on LSD, peyote, mushrooms, etc. they saw something in nature they hadn't seen before (or had forgotten) and decided to return. Very interesting characters in a fascinating story of idealism.

Total Running Time: 185 minutes
My Total Minutes: 251,546

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 4

Get ready for this refrain all week--two more movies last night.

First up, and absolutely gorgeous look at South African artists in THE CREATORS. On a personal note, I was in South Africa last year for the World Cup, and had an amazing time there. And although I didn't spend much time in the poor areas, the economic disparities (and yes, they go along race lines) are immediately obvious and unavoidable. But I was very impressed by the spirit and outright cheerfulness of everyone there, and these artists, despite living in sometimes horrendous circumstances, still embody that. We've got Faith47, a mother and graffiti artist who uses the ANC Freedom Charter (once considered evidence of terrorism under Apartheid) in her murals. We've got her son, who is a talented comic artist in his own right and uses the violence he sees around him to influence his drawings. We've got Ongx, a young Afro-pop/blues singer who won (of all things) a gospel contest that came with a recording contract. When the contract never panned out (he recorded, but no album was released), he joined with his friend Wara to for Warongx, playing on the streets and in trains (in a wild train performance they end up getting so caught up in the music they miss their stop). We've got Mthetho (my personal favorite), with a scar across his face and the voice of an angel, he sings opera like Pavarotti. Okay, I don't know opera, and apparently he needs years of training and refinement, but I think he sounds freakin' awesome. And judging by the applause in the audience, I wasn't the only one. We've got Blag Pearl, a poet and performer whose brother was a hip hop artist murdered in gang warfare. We've got Emile, the b-boy, MC, and positive activist who takes his message to the schools and put together Africa's first b-boy competition that sent a team to the world competition in Germany (and has freakin' awesome hair. Mine is growing back!) And finally we have Sweat.x, a bizarre bi-racial duo of singers/performance artists who are probably the funniest of the bunch. And put it all together you have a movie that doesn't shy away from the painful past or present, but also looks with hope and energy at a brighter future. Destruction is passe, creation is the order of the day.

Oh yeah, and I love the quote that opened the movie, although I forgot who it was attributed to (and might have the words slightly wrong): If you want to know about hell, ask an artist. If you can't find and artist, you're already there.

Oh, and buy the DVD. 75% of the proceeds go directly to the artists.

Then the second film, which made a really interesting double bill with THE CREATORS, was SCRAPPER. Also about people on the margins of society, but a totally opposite tone from the first. While THE CREATORS was hopeful and bright, SCRAPPER is downright scary--and it's in America. In the foothills of Chocolate Mountain, just east of the Salton Sea in California there is a U.S. military bombing range. And around that range is a community of meth-addicted crazy people to scavenge for scrap metal to sell for a living. Let me say this again, just so you're clear--people run around live bombing ranges, risking getting blown up by unexploded ordnance, to make a living selling scrap metal. Or maybe they don't do it for a living, they do it for the adrenaline rush. I don't know, I just know that they're crazy, I would never want to meet them in real life, but it was a total thrill and treat to meet them on screen. Wow! I don't think this is a movie I can even describe. I can't do it justice, it just has to be experienced. And according to the filmmakers who were there (including Adam Edwards, the narrator whose voice I can't get out of my head) they filmed just a tiny fraction of the crazy stuff they witnessed (e.g., no meth was actually shown, only a law enforcement officer talking about how all the scrappers are on meth).

Total Running Time: 170 minutes
My Total Minutes: 251,361

Monday, October 17, 2011

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 3

And the big first weekend of Docfest is over.

First up, a program of Native American interest, starting with the short SMOKE SONGS. It's a look at the Native American punk rock group Blackfire. A sibling team that mixes traditional Native music with punk. Passionate, angry, political, and funny. The movie gives us the briefest introduction to them, and leaves us (or at least me) wanting more.

And that was the lead in to the feature GRAB. It's a window into a rather unique celebration in the Laguna Pueblo tribe. It's a mix of traditional prayer of thanks and feasting and western influences. In fact, it's born out of their struggle and resistance to forced conversion to Catholicism. On your Saint's Day, you stand on your roof and throw food and water to the crowd below. Originally, of course, it was homegrown food but in modern times with poverty rampant families will shop for cheap food for months in advance. It's really a fascinating tradition, and seems a lot of fun. And the movie builds up to it very well. In fact, perhaps there's a bit too much build up and tradition. I grew frustrated that it kept teasing me with "1 month before the throw", "3 days before the throw",.... Imagine, if you will, a documentary about Christmas that doesn't show a Christmas tree, Santa Claus, presents, or stockings until the end credits. Kind of an odd choice, but it works.

Then the next show was a program of Your Legal Shorts. Three shorts focusing on interesting legal issues:
ARGUING THREE STRIKES: California's "Three Strikes" law is possibly the harshest mandatory sentencing law in the country. Originally passed in response to high profile cases where multiple recidivists committed horrible crimes, it was written and applied so broadly that a guy can be put away for 25 to life for stealing a slice of pizza on a dare. Depending on how cynical/conspiracy minded you are, this is either a horrible case of unintended consequences or a case of horribly unconscionable intended consequences. The movie shows not just the victims/opponents of the law, but the backers of the law, who frankly seem badly out of touch (or afraid of looking weak on crime) when they talk about how fair the system is.

ANGEL FOR HIRE: A look at the tricky legal issues around surrogate mothers. They sign contracts allowing their body to be used in a certain way, and depending on complications (how to you balance the risk to the surrogate mother vs. the risk to the baby?) things can get pretty tricky. The film both explores the history, starting with lawyer Noel Keane who wrote up the first surrogate contract in Dearborn, Michigan. And it shows a modern story with surrogate Angel (hence the title) carrying her second surrogate baby (for the same couple), while dealing with the medical issues involved and with her own family (best moment: how her husband likes to tell strangers, "it's not my baby" and walk away leaving her to explain "it's not mine, either!")

POLICE TAPE: And local journalist/filmmaker Josh Wolf made this movie exploring the videotaping of police. He starts with the Rodney King video as a jumping off point, but also of course explores the Oscar Grant shooting at the Fruitvale BART station. The Oakland PD has recently started issuing small cameras to be worn on the uniform. And Wolf scored a ride-along with one of the first officers to use one. But still, the main question is will the videos be available to the public? Will it really result in improved police behavior or will any video of misbehavior be conveniently "lost"? Okay, the movie isn't quite as sarcastic as my last sentence. It's an important question, and explored in a thoughtful, intelligent manner. And he doesn't just stay in the Bay Area, he explores questions of police videotaping (and even does some of his own taping) around the country. Spoiler alert, did you know it's illegal to videotape a police officer in Illinois?

Next up was a nostalgia program, starting with the short THE DINER. A charming black and white tribute to the St. Francis Fountain and it's loyal patron of several decades, Frank Gonzalez.

And then Docfest went to summer camp with BEAVERBROOK. Director Matthew Callahan was a camper and counselor at Beaverbrook, in the shadow of Cobb Mountain in Lake County, California (local enough that several Beaverbrook alums were at the screening). So he made this movie from a place of affection and sometimes wistful nostalgia for the bygone days, before the skyrocketing cost of insurance ended the practice of letting kids roll around in the mud, do gymnastics on horseback without helmets, and generally get into all sorts of outdoor trouble. In some ways, this film is a little too insider to be widely appreciated (many Beaverbods in the audience were laughing at bits I could tell they appreciated at another level than I did). But it was impossible to watch without thinking of my own times at Boy Scout Camp (Camp Black Mountain in Northwest Washington, and Camp Gorsuch in Alaska), and getting a bit nostalgic about how we used to play out of doors. You know, I don't really know if kids today are lazier and spend more time indoors, I hear that complaint a lot. But I do know that I'm lazier and spend more time indoors, and maybe I should change that (right after I watch a ton more movies). Oh, and I also want to mention how funny it was the Beaverbrook was intentionally rundown, strange, and didn't work quite right (somehow a dug out hole full of water is more charming than an actual natural pond or a professional swimming pool).

Anyway, next up was the social documentary about Filipino kids abandoned by their American Navy fathers, LEFT BY THE SHIP. For Amerasian kids in any other country, they would be granted American citizenship by birthright, but for some unexplained reason (not just unexplained in this movie, but unexplained anywhere), the Philippines was an exception. For those kids, the father has to acknowledge the child is his for it to get citizenship (and good luck if you wait and grow up before trying that). Of course, it's obvious to all their full Filipino classmates that these kids are different, and they won't fit in at home (especially, unfortunately if the father was black). We meet four of these cases, primarily Robert (who writes a blog about the film and the issues it raises) and while they all have compelling stories, I can't help but feel the film could've used more of a narrative or better editing to get their stories across. I felt it was more 'These are some people, they all deal with this same issue in their lives' when it could've/should've been more 'Here is how this situation came about that impacted their lives, this is what they're trying to do to better it, and (most importantly) this is what you can do to help.'

And finally, the night ended with DONOR UNKNOWN, a fascinating and funny look at sperm bank babies finally meeting their father. Donor father, that is, who is pretty far from a "real" father. JoEllen Marsh was a donor baby, and when she became a young adult she wanted to meet her possible donor siblings and maybe even the donor father (really, it starts with interest in the siblings). So she went on the online donor sibling registry, knowing little more than her donor father is Donor 150 of the California Cryobank. Eventually she finds a half-sister in New York, they meet, and the New York Times picks up the story.

Meanwhile, in Venice, California, a van-dwelling, dog-owning, pigeon-owning beach bum named Jeffrey picks up the front page of the New York Times (out of the trash) and sees a headline about two girls who met because they were both fathered by Donor 150. At first he thinks, 'No Way! It's gotta be a different sperm bank!' But sure enough, reading the article he sees "California Cryobank" and realizes those are his offspring. And so while JoEllen is meeting more and more half-siblings, and joking and marveling over shared traits (even down to how they all brush their hair behind their ear in the same way), Jeffrey decides to come out and reveal that he is Donor 150. There are serious issues involved, of course, but possibly due to the personalities involved the story plays out as a fun and funny curiosity. It certainly would've been much different if Donor 150 wanted to remain anonymous while the children were torn up with wondering who he was. But what we end up with isn't a tense drama, but a fun comedy (dramedy, maybe), and that's fine by me.

As an aside, although Jeffrey is a colorful character and fun to watch in a movie, I would be horrified to learn he was my father. But that's just me.

Total running Time: 470 minutes
My Total Minutes: 251,191

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 2

The big first weekend begins, starting with GENERAL ORDERS NO. 9. Wow, I don't know what this movie is about. I don't know what the title means, I don't know what the pipe-smoking rabbit on the poster means (although the tagline is "One last trip down the rabbit hole before it's paved over."), and I don't know if this is really a documentary. In fact, I'd characterize it more as a tone poem than a documentary (or even a movie). I do know it's very experimental, using a lot of signs and repetition to drive home the statement that "Deer trail becomes Indian trail becomes county road." It's about Georgia, and about progress, history, and what has been lost. It's got striking cinematography, a hypnotic voiceover, and music that lulled me to sleep a bit too often (at least in the first third). Ultimately, I have absolutely no idea if I even liked it. But I was certainly impressed. A friend mentioned to me that this is exactly what she is afraid TREE OF LIFE would be like (she hasn't seen it). While ultimately I came to like TREE OF LIFE, it was only after thinking about it for a few days. Unfortunately, with the hectic festival pace, I won't be able to do the same for this film. Perhaps this is one to revisit in the hypothetical chance that I have some slow time.

The next show started with the short ROOTS AND HOLLERS, a story of ginseng spanning China to Kentucky. Ginseng is a root that's popular in Chinese culture as a medicine/aphrodisiac. Most ginseng is farmed (oddly enough in Wisconsin), but wild ginseng is far more valuable, currently ~$550/lb (for American ginseng). In China, there's not a lot of wild ginseng left because it has been over-harvested. In America, ginseng grows in Appalachia, and that brings the film to Kentucky. We meet the locals who supplement their income finding and selling (either to local wholesalers, or direct once they get their export license) wild ginseng. For a moment, I confess their southern accent made me think 'redneck hicks' but it quickly becomes clear that these are sharp people who know their business. It's interesting to see how too very different cultures revere this fragile little plant for very different reasons. And before you say "of course, the Americans only revere it for the money" realize that this is supplemental income for people who
love the outdoors and want to make a living on what the land can provide (in the rest of the year they hunt and trap). The big money is in strip mining, which destroys whole mountains of ginseng (and everything else the land can provide).

Then the feature THE GREENHORNS, about young people across the country who have chosen small-scale farming as their livelihood. We meet a lot of interesting people, but it seems to jump around without a whole lot of direction. And I was expecting more about the pitfalls and difficulties first time farmers face. Ultimately, director Severine von Tscharner Fleming tips her hand a bit late into the film, revealing that she is a farmer (and activist). Which confirms what I was fearing--that this is little more than an adulatory advertisement for this kind of lifestyle. Not that it's a bad lifestyle, while I've chosen a different way to make my living I like food and seek out local, organic, sustainable choices. And it's not a really bad movie, I just felt like a better editor could have put a better flowing structure on this and made it much better.

Then the third show of the day, starting with the short JASON MECIER DOES AMY SEDARIS. Jason Mecier is a local artist who does mosaics of celebrities using found/collected objects. His latest series actually invites celebrities to mail him the contents of their junk drawer and he uses that in their mosaic. And he just got Amy Sedaris' junk box, and we get a privileged and humorous look at his process, which ultimately results in this.

As an aside, I have to say that so far this year the shorts and features have been very well matched. And to match this short we have the feature UNLIKELY TREASURES, about collectors. And not just collectors of things that have a market value (coins, rare stamps) but people who feel compelled to collect "worthless" junk--ceramic E.T. figures, buttons, clothespins, staplers. Each collector becomes a curator of his own personal museum, and sometimes those museums get a public display at the City Reliquary in Brooklyn. While the movie doesn't go very far int his direction, there's also a distinct dark side, where collecting becomes problem-level hoarding. One collector mentions that friends who have given up their collections all claim to be much happier afterwards. One talks about how her husband created a spartan "Japanese Room" as a collection-free zone where he could escape. But for the most part, these people seem happy and more or less well adjusted. And who am I to judge? I'm a collector of movie experiences (who obsessively counts every minute he spends watching movies).

Next, Docfest started rocking out with the 25th anniversary screening of the cult classic HEAVY METAL PARKING LOT. Fans (some who look underage) whooping it up and drinking lots of beer in the parking lot before a Judas Priest concert. Wild antics that just look funny today, and Jeff Krulik was there to capture it on video. And while the editing is choppy, that perfectly captures the spirit of the time and place.

Unfortunately, Jeff Krulik's HEAVY METAL PICNIC really needs more editing. The Full Moon Jamboree was a farm party in Potomac Maryland that was so epic it ended up making the evening news. And much of it was recorded using a camcorder and a stolen CBS news microphone. Jeff Krulik and his crew go back to the place and track down a lot of the people who were there. So it becomes not just a look into the crazy metal scene of the 80's, it also becomes a self-conscious nostalgia piece, as people reminisce about how you had to be in the right crowd to get word-of-mouth news, rather than everything posted on Facebook or Twitter. But ultimately it drags on as the same scenes are shown over and over. Example: the CBS news microphone was stolen by a guy who was hired as a security guard. I guess they should have had a guard for him, right?...nice joke, but we don't need to hear it twice. When a bunch of the guys go back to the farm and reminisce, we can have a brief scene of one of them taking a leak. We don't need all of them taking a leak, that just gets tedious.

HEAVY METAL PARKING LOT was 16 minutes, and for what it was that's just the right running time. If you took that same vibe and added an equal amount of "where are they now" footage, you'd have a decent film at 32 minutes. HEAVY METAL PICNIC is 66 minutes, and I think it's about right to call it 50% filler.

And finally, we ended the night with not a documentary, but an 80's New Wave Sing-Along. Free cheap shit booze and a parade of music videos from Devo, The Cure, The Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, Frankie Goes To Hollywood... I drank 6 or 7 glasses of cheap shit whiskey, and sang and danced and shouted jackass comments like all the rest of the idiots in there. And it was great fun...and yes, I am hung over this morning, thanks for asking.

Total Running Time: 419 minutes (note, based on 120 minutes running time for the 80's sing-along, as listed on the festival website. I don't know if that's precise, but it was pretty darn close)
My Total Minutes: 250,721

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Jason goes to Docfest--Opening Night

But not the opening gala of DIRTY PICTURES, I'll catch that next week. I just got there for the late program of 2 shorts and a feature (a shortish feature) about dating and insecurity.

First up, the short UB2 by local filmmaker Dan Goldes. UB2 is a dating profile shorthand for "You be, too (also)" as in, "I'm clean and disease free, UB2." And the film is about that phrase "clean and disease free" meaning HIV negative. The insinuation, of course, being that HIV positive men are unclean and diseased. Several HIV positive humans talk about how that phrase and similar words make them feel. Short enough to really only start a conversation, but a conversation that's immediately poignant and worth having.

Next up, SOMETHING TO TELL YOU. Gary has been maintaining an online relationship, but has something to tell his lady friend before they meet. He has a physical condition that has kept in a wheelchair for the past several years. But his condition hasn't affected his mind or sense of humor, in fact it might have made him sharper. The movie has a voiceover of his e-mail to her while he gets ready for bed.

And finally, while Dan Goldes was the most local filmmaker, the director of the feature wins the prize for the furthest travel to the festival. TALIYA.DATE.COM is directed by and stars Taliya Finkel who also directed Docfest '08's OVER MY DAD'S BODY. In 2008 she didn't make the trip from Israel to here, but she made it this time. Her movie is a humorous look at dating, self-image, and poetry. She joins an online dating site and not only documents the dates (sometimes in reenactments, sometimes by bringing the original guys back for interviews) but she writes poems about each one. In fact, the original proeject was for a poetry class, and ended in a book. She weaves the dates in with advice from her gay friend, poems, and shockingly ugly self-portraits (cheer up Taliya, you look better than that). The project ultimately ends after date 45, but I'll avoid spoilers and not tell you why. But I will say the film she ends up with is pretty funny. In fact, funnier than your average romantic comedy, so chalk up a win for reality.

Total Running Time: 68 minutes
My Total Minutes: 250,302

Friday, October 14, 2011

Jason slips into a Vortex and sees THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH

Wow, what an awesome Roger Corman/Vincent Price movie! With Roger Corman you always think b-grade schlock, and he's done plenty of that, but this I swear is an actual art film. Vincent Price, of course, pours oodles of smarmy class on the proceedings, and is just perfect as Prince Prospero. But what really struck me is how the class warfare and Prospero's comeuppance somehow capture today's zeitgeist perfectly--pretty impressive for a flick from 1964. Just seeing how Prospero terrorizes the populace while living in luxury and throwing debauched parties with his wealthy friends, I was thinking, 'We should have an occupy Prospero's castle movement!' And, of course, making him a Satanist (in keeping with the month's theme) is just beautifully over-the-top.

Running Time: 89 minutes
My Total Minutes: 250,234

Monday, October 10, 2011

Jason watches THE DEAD

The Cinequest film is in theatrical release now. And even though I'd already seen it I went out with some friends (who had actually also seen it at Cinequest) to see it again, along with a couple who hadn't seen it, but were big zombie fans. So a little dinner and a lot of drinks at Billy Berk's before, sober up while watching some good gory zombie action, then a nightcap at Cinebar. Nice night. Here's what I said about THE DEAD back during Cinequest:
Next up, a totally kickass zombie movie that takes place in West Africa, THE DEAD. Gotta start with this--these are the classic, slow, Romero zombies. You know, correct zombies. American military engineer Lt. Brian Murphy fails to get out on the last evacuation flight, so he's left behind with hordes of shambling zombies and one other survivor--a local man, on a journey to a military base to find his son, who was evacuated.

Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING dead was groundbreaking in 1968 as one of the first horror films to have an African-American protagonist. So it's completely appropriate that the Ford brothers have brought the genre back to Africa, although a hole lot has changed in the meantime. There's also a standard Romero rule that "The zombies are us" and the real villains are the survivors who fail to work together. From that standpoint I could see THE DEAD as actually a remarkably optimistic movie--survivors work together very well, at least after some initial gun-pointing and confirming that no one's bit. A lot has changed since 1968, particularly in race relations, and so now you can make a movie with one white protagonist and hordes of black zombies and not have it be all about race. Instead, it's all about making a kick-ass, exciting genre flick.
I'll still stand by that review, although I didn't see it as quite as optimistic as before. It actually has a pretty down ending. But definitely it still kicks ass.

Running Time: 105 minutes
My Total Minutes: 250,145

Jason watches 50/50

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a guy who's such a straight arrow that not only does he not drink or smoke, he waits at the crosswalk for the walk signal even when there's nobody coming the other way. He's practically a caricature of the straight arrow, and of course the last guy you'd expect to get cancer. So, of course, he does (I don't think that's a spoiler, it's in all the trailers). Seth Rogen essentially plays himself as Adam's best friend Kyle. And he's got a seemingly devoted girlfriend, a mother who smothers him (while also taking care of his father, who has Alzheimer's), and you should have all the ingredients of a solid drama. But you have even more. You have a drama with laughs (or maybe a comedy with pathos). And you have a hero you can't hope but root for. You root for him to survive, you root for him to reconcile with his mother, and you root for him to (spoiler alert!) dump his girlfriend and end up with the right girl. It's an entertaining cancer movie (which is an oddity in itself) but also one that feels pretty real (except for maybe his mental breakdown in the car, but I even find it hard to find fault with that scene).

Running Time: 100 minutes
My Total Minutes: 250,040

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Jason watches SHEvil Dead

Way back in 2004, the Primitive Screwheads won my heart and soaked my undies (perhaps I should rephrase that...nah!) with their first show, Evil Dead Live, a comic adaptation of the famous horror/comedy trilogy. What they lacked in production value, they more than made up with using a combination of insanity and tons of fake blood, sprayed all over the audience. Over the years, that insanity has stayed, although a few of their shows have eschewed the blood. Seems it's getting harder and harder for them to actually rent a show space in the city--too many people know how much of a mess they make.

Well, after a bit of an absence, the blood is back! And they're back to their roots, once again going after the EVIL DEAD trilogy, but this time with an awesome, sexy twist--an all-female cast. An excellent excuse to have some fun with party girls alone in a cabin. They fight, they love, they make fun of Bruce Campbell. Julie Antti is just excellent as Ash(ley). And I don't mean to be a pervert, but her possessed hand scene was aaaawesome...definitely the best part that didn't involve me getting soaked with blood.

Oh, and as always, thank you for aiming at me as much as possible! I love you guys, too.

My only miscalculation is that I chose to see this last Friday night, which I didn't realize was the start of Yom Kippur. I'm not very Jewish (or even legally Jewish, as only my dad is Jewish), but for some reason I still fast on Yom Kippur (and break the fast with a big pile of bacon). So possibly for the first time ever I saw their show sober. I'm happy to confirm that their show still rocks sober. But I might have to make time to see it drunk, know just as a control experiment.

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for a night of action films

First, a word of warning, if you're planning to go to the Comedy Shorts Night next Saturday, be aware that a large tour group has already bought out nearly half the theater, and Comedy Shorts are always popular. So buy early. Tickets are available via the Paypal link on this page.

Now, to last night's movies.

LEATHER PUSHERS: ROUND 2 (1922): Reginald Denny in an episode of a boxing serial he did. Helpfully, his manager gets the entire audience up to speed. He was a college student and athlete, when his father fell on hard times and he quit college and took up boxing to raise money. But it hasn't quite worked out, as he has a bit of a feud with his former manager. Plus, he's trying to impress/afford his fiancee, although she doesn't like such brutish behavior. And now he's got a fight with the champ. Nice, fast paced action.

SWORD POINTS (1928): Lupino Lane...I really should watch more of Lupino Lane. Very funny, kind of surreal, very physical comedy. In this parody of the Three Musketeers, Lane is a swordsman who crosses some enemies of the king (including his brother Wallace Lupino. Some hectic hi-jinks in a wine cellar, and a discovery that the inn is full of secret passages move the comedy along, but it's always powered by Lupino Lane's amazing physical comedy. Hilarious.

Then after a brief intermission, our feature.

LET'S GO (1923): Richard Talmadge (no relation to the Talmadge sisters) stars and does all his own stunts (the title cards make that very clear) in this story of the some of a cement salesman sent to a small town to track down why the mayor hasn't paid for the paving supplies. Even getting there involves stunts escaping from the cops (who want him for speeding). He climbs and jumps off buildings, cars, trains, etc. And that's just to get the story started. Once he gets to town there's even more chasing and high jump stunts, as we discover the mayor is corrupt, and the kindly sheriff is in danger of losing his job. Of course, Talmadge will save the day (with yet more stunts) and set everything right. And lest you think this movie is nothing but stunts, there's plenty of comedy (especially with the bloodhounds) and a nice romance (with the sheriff's daughter). Lots of fun.

Total Running Time (estimated): 150 minutes
My Total Minutes: 249,940

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Jason slips into a Vortex and sees THE DEVIL'S RAIN

6 weeks of Satan at the Vortex, for $6.66. Kicked off last Thursday. Like usual, I didn't stick around for the late show because I had to catch BART home, but the opening film was insane enough. THE DEVIL'S RAIN.

William Shatner vs. a rural American Satantic cult led by Ernest Borgnine, 'nuf said? I hope it's 'nuf said, because I was four Manhattans to the wind and don't remember much beyond that. Oh yeah, the rain melted some people, and allegedly John Travolta was in there somewhere, too.

Running Time: 86 minutes
My Total Minutes: 249,790

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Jason watches THE LION KING in 3D

There's something about Disney bastardizing one of its greatest classics and trying to capitalize on the 3-D bandwagon that feels a little slimy. Slimy, but satisfying.

THE LION KING is arguably the apex of Disney's traditional (i.e., pre-Pixar) animation. I love this movie. So just seeing it again on the big screen was a treat. 'Nuf said.

The 3-D ranged from seamless to pointless. Yeah, it's well done. No, it doesn't add anything. And it often feels out of place with the inherently 2-D traditional animation. Yeah, I was curious to see how the 3-D would work, and I don't regret seeing it in 3-D. But I would've preferred seeing it in 2-D (but I think I knew that going in).

Running Time: 89 minutes
My Total Minutes: 249,704


I don't know what it is, but for some reason this year I've been really attracted to 4+ hour epics. Perhaps that's the closest I'll ever get to a long-term relationship.

Anyway, this movie is an adaptation of a novel, and is centered around Joao, an orphan raised by kindly father Dinis. He doesn't know his parents, but when his mother returns to town he learns he's the bastard child of an ill-fated romance of nobles. His father was noble but too poor to please his mother's father, and so they were forbidden to marry. But that's just the start of the story. Turns out nearly no one in the movie is what they appear to be, and their identities are always changing. A crude, belching assassin can turn into a nobleman, a gypsy can become a priest, etc. And like most long, leisurely stories, as much as anything it's about the simple joy of telling stories. Each character (or at least, each main character) gets a chance to tell his or her story. And they're told mostly in a playful, straight-forward, almost classical way. No special effects, just costumes, sets, dialogue, and acting putting the story front and center. If it weren't for the digital video, I could be convinced this was made 50 years ago.

And that brings me to my big gripe. Not that it was shot digitally, but that the projection where I saw it in the Camera 3 just wasn't up to the task. I know I handicap myself by sitting way up front, but the resolution was poor enough to be distracting, and far too often I caught myself counting pixels (the lines of the letters of the subtitles were only 3 pixels wide. I couldn't believe it). This is the sort of thing that I can normally forgive and look through. But it just seemed out of place here. Like the rest of the elements of the movie were so good, that it deserved a better projection. Maybe 5-10 years ago I would've forgiven it, but I've seen too many good digital projections since then and now the sad fact is it too often took me out of the movie.

Running Time: 272 minutes
My Total Minutes: 249,615

Monday, October 3, 2011

Jason goes to Bad Movie Night and watches NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 3-D

Zombie month begins. Ironically, this movie was totally lacking braaaains!

Supposedly both an homage and a re-imagining of Romero's classic, this movie instead shits all over the grave of the original NOTLD. And if there's one grave you don't want to shit all over, it's a zombie's grave. Even gratuitous nudity couldn't make this movie worthwhile. And if you're going to dim the audience's vision with those shitty glasses, why shoot the whole thing in darkness? You know what pitch blackness looks like in 3-D? The same thing it looks like in 2-D, pitch blackness!

Sid Haig is still cool, though.

Running Time: 80 minutes
My Total Minutes: 249,343

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Jason watches MONEYBALL

And while I can appreciate the good acting and interesting characters, I honestly have no idea what it's about.

Maybe it's living here in the Bay Area and being painfully aware that as much attention as the A's got in the early 2000's, they didn't win any championships. Maybe it's general disillusionment with the moneyball concept (or dilution--how well does it work when everyone does it). Perhaps it's the ham-fisted metaphor at the end that's supposed to show how even though Billy Beane never won he changed the game and can't even see how much of winner that makes him. Or perhaps it's the ridiculous postscript that the Red Sox won the World Series by adopting a lot of the moneyball principles. Hooray, moneyball allowed the team with the second highest payroll in baseball to beat the team with the highest payroll! (and if you don't know that's the Yankees, then just leave now).

But still, even if the central premise falls apart, it's an amusing movie with some interesting characters. And the contrast of "old baseball" (elderly scouts judging a player because his girlfriend is ugly, indicating lack of confidence) with the new guys using math and computer models to build a team around the most undervalued players is interesting. It's just that the drama happens to be hamstrung by reality. Which is kind of just as well, in all the movie the scenes that really slow it down are the actual baseball scenes. Leave it to baseball to make math and computer modeling look exciting.

Running Time: 133 minutes
My Total Minutes: 249,263