Friday, March 30, 2012

Jason watches THE HUNGER GAMES

Let me begin by addressing the two biggest criticisms I've heard about THE HUNGER GAMES. First, it's a ripoff of BATTLE ROYALE. Second, it spends too much on the pageantry of the games, and glosses over the whole 'kids killing kids' part.

By the way, if you take these two criticisms together, they add up to 'It's a BATTLE ROYALE ripoff that is too different from BATTLE ROYALE.'

So lets take the first one. I love BATTLE ROYALE, and certainly the concept is very, very similar. But I hadn't actually seen it since shortly after it first came out in 2000, so I dug up my old DVD and watched it again. And on further THE HUNGER games is different enough to not be a ripoff. That actually pains me to write this, because it would be so easy to write a scathing 'nothing but a ripoff!!!!' review. Now I have to do more work, like explaining the key ways they're different. But let's start first with how they're the same: kids are forced to kill kids for the entertainment of the general population and to keep society in line somehow. Now, the idea of killing as public entertainment goes at least back to gladiators in the Roman Coliseum (and Rome is pretty heavily referenced in THE HUNGER GAMES, not so much in BATTLE ROYALE.) As far as movies about people killing each other for televised entertainment, that goes at least as far back as THE 10TH VICTIM in 1965, and probably further. Also, I should mention SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS which came out the year after BATTLE ROYALE and really played up the reality show angle.

So how is BATTLE ROYALE different? First of all, in the reason they set up the game and the rules of the game. In THE HUNGER GAMES, there was an uprising that was put down 74 years ago. As part of the treaty that ended the uprising, every year each of the 12 districts must put up two people--one male, one female--between the ages of 12 and 18 as "tribute." These tributes fight to the death in the titular Hunger Games. In BATTLE ROYALE, at the end of the millennium society broke down and the adults passed the Battle Royale act out of fear of the children. Each year, one high school class is chosen by a random lottery and forced to fight to the death. So in BATTLE ROYALE, every combatant knows each other, they've been classmates for some time. In THE HUNGER GAMES, the tributes are mostly strangers, unless a pair from the same district new each other previously. THE HUNGER GAMES is about how fear, a little hope, and mostly crass entertainment keeps the populace in line. BATTLE ROYALE is about out-of-control Japanese kids, and the adults who fear them. Also, very importantly, BATTLE ROYALE does not take place too long after the Battle Royale act. It's not specified exactly how long ago the act was passed, but we are told "the millennium" is when society broke down. Presumably, the millennium is year 2000, and the technology in the movie is not advanced at all from that time, so it seems logical to say we're still in the first few years of the act (it's not the first Battle Royale, as there is footage of the previous year's winner.) In THE HUNGER GAMES, they repeatedly talk about the 74th annual games, and I'll have more to say about that later. The important bit is, there are enough differences, particularly in the main point of the movie, that THE HUNGER GAMES is not a rip off.

As for the second criticism, that it focuses on the pageantry over the kids killing kids...well, I suppose that's kind of fair. It's true, there's a lot of ridiculous pageantry there. But that is intentional and it makes you think about how the populace cares more about their entertainment than the lose of human life. It's kind of the point of the movie. So if you want a different movie that has more kids killing kids, well...just watch BATTLE ROYALE. Or better yet, make your own damn movie.

Now, on to my criticisms. I will start by saying it's a pretty consistently entertaining, exciting story, and it's well made. I enjoyed it quite a lot most of the time I was watching it, and of course I was rooting for Katniss the whole time. I also must admit I've never read the books and so I don't know how faithful the adaptation is, or if many of my nagging doubts are covered in the book. Now on to those nagging doubts: I don't believe this society, not one bit. And what's really bugging me is that it's the 74th annual games. Societies aren't so stagnant that they still have the same single entertainment event 74 years later, particularly when that event was thought up as a punishment for traitors. Consider 74 years ago in America--we were still 3 years away from fighting a World War against two nations who are now two of our closest allies. In the intervening years, one of those countries split into two and then reintegrated. 74 years ago Russia was part of a Soviet Union that doesn't exist anymore. China was not yet communist 74 years ago, neither was Cuba. A lot of things happen in 74 years, and generally each generation wants to believe they are more civilized than their predecessors. Certainly someone would have pointed out by now that they are punishing children who were born between 56 and 62 years after the uprising, and maybe they should find something less lethal to do.

For that matter, if all the tributes are 12-18 years old, what do they do with 19 year-olds? Is the presumption that once they're 19 they've had all the life and fight beaten out of them and they'll automatically be compliant drones? Once you're 19, you know longer care about making the world a better place? This would make more sense if this were the 7th Hunger Games instead of 74th, and it was 13-30 year-olds in the competition. By 30, if you've survived, I can believe most often the fight has been beaten out of you.

And finally, why do they refer to what happened 74 years ago as an "uprising?" That's a term that engenders sympathy for the uprisers. Call them terrorists, or rebels...heck even call it a civil war, just not something that's positive spin for the people you've conquered. It all puzzled me quite a bit. I'm neither a sociologist nor a psychologist, but I got the sense that whoever envisioned this universe has no grasp of how societies or human psychology works. But again, maybe it's all handled better in the books. Given all that, I'm kind of surprised how much I enjoyed the movie without buying into its central premise.

Running Time: 142 minutes
My Total Minutes: 275,601

Monday, March 26, 2012

Jason goes to Bad Movie Night and watches RED DAWN

So after the awe-inspiring NAPOLEON, I knew whatever I saw next would suffer in comparison. Thank god for Bad Movie Night (perhaps the only time those words have ever been used in that order.)

Eh, it's the anniversary show, so for like the seventh or eighth time they played the first Bad Movie Night movie ever--RED DAWN. Let's see, I'm sure I've done this before. Let me see. Oh yeah, for my review go here.

Well that's a pretty lazy way to review something. Especially consider my previous review was short and lazy. And when you think about it, isn't laziness what America is best at? American laziness, Fuck Yeah! Now I'm going to go take a nap, or watch TV, or something.

Running Time: 114 minutes
My Total Minutes: 275,448

Jason watche NAPOLEON with live orchestra and Polyvision

Wow, wow, wow wow wow wow!

Let's see, I can't get away with just repeating "wow" a thousand times for a blog post, can I?

Let me start by saying there are two more screenings, tomorrow (Saturday) and Sunday, March 31 and April 1. Get tickets if you can. If you can't, just go there early, beat someone up in line and steal his ticket. Wait, don't do that, I'm just kidding. But it would be worth it (including the jail time.)

Okay, so I got there and I had my normal seat, front row center. Actually, slightly off-center, as the center of the Paramount is an aisle. I should've brought a folding chair and actually sat in the center, but I was just to the right instead. I was about an arms length away from Carl Davis conducting the Oakland East Bay Symphony, and that was pretty amazing. The orchestra was fantastic, and I suppose decorum should prevent me from mentioning the hot bassoonist I ogled occasionally. (To be fair, my unnamed friend ogled her more, and he was there with his girlfriend)

Let's get on with the movie, shall we? It's an amazing epic, the faster 5 1/2 hours I've ever spent, which is amazing because with three intermissions and a dinner break, it was actually 8 1/4 hours. The story opens with Napoleon as a little child, at school in France. He shows budding battlefield tactical expertise and an iron will as he leads his rag-tag army of only 10 children in a victorious snowball fight against an army of 40. Still, neither the students nor the teachers really respect him. His foes he vanquished on the field of snowy battle break in and release his beloved pet eagle. I really, really want a pet eagle now. But not one I keep in a cage, one that flies free but returns to me at dramatically appropriate times!

As a grown man, he returns to his home in Corsica [Author's note: An earlier version said Sicily, which is because I'm an idiot who confuses islands...also, I'm perpetually drunk] where he finds the island is torn by political forces who want to align with England, Spain, Italy, or France. Napoleon, of course, is the champion of the French cause. He barely escapes the turmoil in Corsica, and joins the French army in the artillery. And then let me not get bogged down in details of the plot. We see his struggles and triumphs during the Revolution. The director Abel Gance appears as Saint-Just, the most feared figure of The Terror. Then a bunny shows up randomly. It was really weird to be sitting in the beautiful Paramount, watching such a great film, and then reflexively shout-whisper, "bunny!" and have my friends (who know my little bunny obsession) stifle their giggles. If anyone else heard that and was annoyed, I'm really really sorry. I just have a thing about bunnies.

Anyway, we see Napoleon almost sent to the guillotine (same for Josephine.) We see him go from that to becoming the hero of France. We see his obsession for Josephine. And we see him go off and conquer Italy. And that we see in Polyvision. Two side screens open up (there's a gasp and then cheer from the audience) and we see three synchronized projectors show the final 20 minutes in an amazing, awesome technical achievement that pre-dates Cinerama by a quarter century. And then, just to crown everything perfectly, his eagle returns once more! The end.

Oh yeah, it ends with his victory in Italy, none of the rest of his life. Nothing more of Josephine. No Elba. No Waterloo. Dammit, I want a sequel, this 5 1/2 hour movie wasn't long enough!

As a side note, I know a lot of people who say they'll wait and see it when it comes to Los Angeles or New York or...wherever else they are. I'd never say never, but I think I have about as much of a chance of seeing zombie Abel Gance direct a sequel to Napoleon as you have of seeing this somewhere else. I know it's last-minute, but just get a ticket, fly the red-eye into OAK, and go see it. You won't regret it.

So that's the story, and I haven't even talked about the technical brilliance of the film, other than Polyvision and some hints about the recurring eagle. Well, here goes. Abel Gance's use of multiple exposures was masterful--all throughout the movie but particularly when the ghosts in parliament appear to Napoleon and plead with him to be the hero of France. Same with his rapid editing and early use of handheld cameras. Napoleon is cast perfectly, both as a child (Vladimir Roudenko) and an adult (Albert Dieudonné.) In particular, their iron-willed stares are excellent. My friends and eye ended up joking about "eagle-facing" each other during the dinner break.

Now, just a couple of hints for people who are planning to see it this weekend:
  1. During the 20 minute intermissions, have a plan of action. You can go to the concession stand and get a drink and/or snack. Or you can buy a souvenir (poster, larger program guide) and maybe get it signed. Or you can go to the bathroom. You won't have time to do more than one, the lines will be too long.
  2. Related, the concession stands to serve alcohol, and you are allowed to bring it back to your seat. So if you want to have a bit of bubbly to aid in the French-ness of the day, you can.
  3. During the dinner break, have reservations at a nearby restaurant already. It might be too late, and all of them are booked now. We had reservations and it still took nearly an hour and a half to get there, order, eat, pay, and return to the theater. If we had to wait 20 minutes for a table somewhere, we would've been screwed.
  4. Just enjoy. Don't be afraid of the long running time. Seriously, it's the quickest 5 1/2 hours of your life.
Running Time: 330 minutes (that really throws off my average minutes/movie)
My Total Minutes: 275,330

Jason slips into a Vortex and steps in some DEEP SHAT

Oh yeah, my favorite underground film club did an all-night event for William Shatner's birthday. Lots of clips, commercials, weirdness. Lots and lots of Shatner "singing." An all-Shatner version of SEVEN. And some pretty weird Shatner TV guest-starring moments.

First up, Shatner guest stars on "The Six Million Dollar Man" as an astronaut who is exposed to an electrical field that gives him amazing mental powers, including the ability to talk to dolphins. But the best part is when he tells Steve Austin that with his (Steve Austin's) bionics and his (Shatner's) brain, they're like the start of a new race. I'm pretty sure the subtext was Shatner asking Lee Majors to make babies with him. more clips and weirdness, and then the Shatner episode of "Mission: Impossible." Shatner plays the right-hand man to a coke-smuggling kingpin. Of course, the good guys turn him all around, make him double cross his boss, and take everyone down.

Then more weirdness, and then the Shatner episode of "Columbo." Shatner plays, of all things, a TV star. But not just any star, the star of the most popular detective show on TV. Of course, Columbo is a big fan. And it's pretty bizarre to watch Shatner "in character" as a detective deduce that it must have been himself (the actor) who murdered his own manager (and former lover.)

Then just a bit more weirdness, and finally the movie PRAY FOR THE WILDCATS. Shatner as a washed up ad executive, going on a motorcycle trip to Baja with one last client. That client--a slightly psychotic Andy Griffith. Wow!

And after all that, it was about 3:30 am, so I just waited a little longer, had another drink, and caught the first early morning BART home at 4:19. And engaged in the greatest philosophical conundrum of our age--if Robert Mitchum had been cast as Captain Kirk instead of William Shatner, who then would play Spock? (Okay, we were all pretty wasted by then.)

Total Running Time: 330 minutes (with no breaks, although of course I got up to get more drinks a few times)
My Total Minutes: 274,942

Jason watches KILL LIST

Which was playing at the SFFS screen last week. I actually saw it last month at Indiefest, but I kinda dozed off in parts of it. Plus, as it turns out, it's a film that rewards multiple viewings.

First, I realized that I didn't actually sleep through too much last time. But there is still so much more I noticed a second time. In particular, how much of the shocking final action is mirrored in seemingly innocent early scenes. I want to avoid spoilers, so no details but I will say it's pretty incredible. Also, I completely forgot to mention last time how all the victims on the kill list thank the assassins before they do their work. And I understand the cult better now, and I think I have an explanation for why. But again, I can't get into that without spoilers. If you want to talk more about it, just e-mail me or find me at a local (SF Bay Area) film festival and talk to me.

Running Time: 95 minutes
My Total Minutes: 274,627

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Jason goes to Asianfest--Closing Night

The real closing night in San Jose, not the one with the party in San Francisco. Anyway, I missed Saturday because I went up to the city and watched a kinda boring soccer double-header at AT&T Park. 1-0 Houston Dynamo over the San Jose Earthquakes, then 2-1 Mexico over Senegal...all goals on PKs. But my seat (just over the dugout) was pretty awesome, it was cool to see all my Quakes tailgating friends again, and I got really really really drunk. That was fun.

And then on to Sunday, and my last four movies of Asianfest.

I started the day with YES, WE'RE OPEN, the newest film from longtime festival favorite Richard Wong (COLMA: THE MUSICAL.) It's a comedy of sex, marriage, fidelity, and what it takes to be a good modern couple in San Francisco. My personal favorite moment comes early on, in a very awkward wedding toast when writer and frequent collaborator H.P. Mendoza is singled out as a gay man who unfairly can't get married. Later he confronts the guy who gave the toast and explains that he's not actually gay. That's a little inside joke, since he played a gay man in COLMA as well as FRUIT FLY, so he's gotten a bit typecast (at least, he's typecast by the audiences at Asianfest who've actually seen his work.) Anyway, the guy giving the toast is Luke (Parry Shen) who's in a committed relationship with Sylvia (Lynn Chen.) And they kind of look down on their friends for entering into the outdated institution of marriage. After all, they're a very modern couple. And then they meet an even more modern couple, Elena and Ronald (Sheetal Sheth and Kerry McCrohan) who prove to be (as per the festival theme) a disruptive influence. In particular, they challenge Luke and Sylvia's sexual boundaries and monogamy--even the notion that a "modern" couple should be monogamous. Vary funny, and also makes some interesting observations about monogamy and the personal politics of being liberal enough to be cool in San Francisco.

Unfortunately, I had to skip the Q&A because I had precious little time between that and my next show, a documentary double-bill which started with the short RING LAILA. Laila of the title refers to Laila Ali, an icon to women boxers the world over. Or at least an icon to the young women from the slums of Kolkata who have taken up boxing as a way to bring themselves out of poverty or at least give themselves a sense of purpose and confidence.

That was the lead-in to MRS. JUDO: BE STRONG, BE GENTLE, BE BEAUTIFUL. I never realized that Judo was a relatively new discipline. New enough, at least, that there is still one person alive who studied under its founder, Jigoro Kano. That person is a woman--Keiko Fukuda, who is about to turn 99 in April and is the highest ranking woman in the history of judo. She holds the rank of 9th dan by the Kodokan in Japan but the 10th dan by USA Judo. There's a bit of gender politics there, as she has always been moved up just after the three men above her were moved even higher (e.g., she couldn't be 9th dan until they were all 10th.) But regardless of the politics, she's a remarkable woman, a pioneer in bringing women to the sport and bringing the sport to America and all over the world. The movie is brief (just under an hour) but a pretty comprehensive look at her life and her teachings--the "Be Strong, Be Gentle [meaning be flexible], Be Beautiful" of the title is her motto. And she's just a very remarkable person. And she's local, and she was there at the screening. She's mostly confined to wheelchair now, and she's had a pretty tiring week with a previous screening up in San Francisco. So she didn't really talk much, but it was still pretty cool to just be in her presence.

Next up was VIETTE, a pretty shocking family/relationship drama from first time director Mye Hoang (who also starred and wrote the story based somewhat on her own life.) She's a young Vietnamese woman, living at home with her very strict parents (her father in particular is frightening.) She's terrified to tell them about her white boyfriend. And for good reason, she knows they would disown her. In fact (SPOILER ALERT) that's exactly what happens. And it turns out her boyfriend (who becomes her fiance) is not such a great provider, either. It's a fairly traumatic story, and you really feel for her plight. And it was also very well made (and bravely made.) The one quirk I could point out with the filmmaking is that the story takes place over several years (basically from her senior year of high school through college and beyond) but there's not the typical 'N years later' text to let you know. You just have to pick that up through bits of the conversations, and it can actually be a little tough to follow. But mostly, I'll just remember how freakin' scary her father was (Chi Pham, from ALL ABOUT DAD in Cinequest a few years back.)

And finally, I ended the festival with the Korean War drama, THE FRONTLINE. It's all about the final months of the war, and about an intelligence officer sent to the front line to investigate an incident. It seems that a North Korean soldier managed to get a letter into the South Korean military mail service. It was to his family in the south, and...well, it's unclear if there was any hidden message or if it was innocuous. In any case, Lieutenant Kang is sent to investigate, and when he's there he finds a strange world where death is commonplace and even the normal rules of war have no meaning. It seems that "alligator" company takes a certain strategic hill every week or so, then the North Koreans take it back, and they all go back and forth. And this absurd, repetitive back-and-forth has led to a sort of unofficial relationship between the opposing forces. What was most striking (if not exactly original) is how little the generals well behind the lines understand any of this. Somehow they don't see the absurdity of every week sending hundreds of men for their death to take a hill they will lose the next week. And they certainly don't see what the protracted war has done to their soldiers. Formerly timid men are now ruthless killers. One of their greatest leaders is a morphine addict. And there's something horrible in the past that haunts them all (even more than the present hell.) It's a pretty amazing movie, and I can see why it was Korea's official entry into the 2012 Academy Awards.

And that, finally, is the end of Asianfest 2012. I only finished writing it up about a week later.

Total Running Time: 394 minutes
My Total Minutes: 274,532

Jason goes to Asianfest--Day 9

Last Friday was the San Jose opening gala, and of course I was there.

First the movie, KNOTS, all about...mawwiage. Mawwiage, that bwessed awwangement, that dweam within a dweam...

Sorry, I slipped into a bit of PRINCESS BRIDE there. Actually, it's about three sisters and their mother who runs a wedding planning business in Hawaii. Writer-producer Kimberly-Rose Wolter plays the eldest daughter, Lily. She's strictly against marriage, so when her boyfriend proposes in a very public manner she freaks out and runs away. In fact, she runs back home to her family, where in festival-theme fashion she becomes a disruptive influence. She meddles in the business, actually ending up coordinating a wedding despite hating the whole institution. But most of all she meets up again with her old high school boyfriend. And sparks are still there. Big complication, though, he's dating Lily's youngest sister Hoku. Oh, and through it all the middle sister Twinny is pregnant and her husband seems pretty darn absent all the time. So there's a bit of cloak and dagger work to find out exactly where he's sneaking off to. It all adds up to a sweet and funny story that certainly believes in love even if it doesn't believe in marriage.

Oh yeah, and then the after party. I braved a torrential downpour to walk over to the San Jose Museum of Art. I drank a bit. I tried a sake margarita but I'm not really a fan of sake and margaritas are just okay, so I just stuck with beer for the rest of the night. And I checked out some of the art. I liked a lot of their Renegade Humor exhibit, but I was really thrilled to learn that To Hell and Back: Sandow Birk's Divine Comedy is there until September. His movie version of DANTE'S INFERNO played at Indiefest years ago, and was one of my favorites. It was really cool to see he had also made lithographs for Purgatorio and Paradiso as well.

Running Time: 77 minutes
My Total Minutes: 274,137

Friday, March 16, 2012

Jason goes to Asianfest--Day 8

Wow, I'm falling way behind in my writing. Time to catch up. I was up at the PFA on the (San Francisco) Closing Night of the festival, for two more shows.

First up was the short KEAO, a mostly dialogue free (or was it completely dialogue-free? I don't actually remember) about a hula dancer returning to her cultural roots.

That was the lead in to THERE ONCE WAS AN ISLAND. I've decided that the theme of the festival is "disruptive influences." Something comes from outside and completely changes the way of life for everyone. That was present in NIGHT MARKET HERO, THE CATCH, DELHI IN A DAY, and more films I saw (but I'd be getting ahead of myself) and it's certainly the case here. In this case, the disruptive influence is global warming, and the change is that this small island off the coast of Papua New Guinea is slowly disappearing. The Taku live there, and do to isolation (they're connected to the mainland only by intermittent and irregular boat service) their culture has been largely unchanged for centuries. But already the adults can point to spots of their coastline where they used to play on sandy beaches that are now submerged as the waves come right up to their houses. Saltwater has ruined a giant taro garden. The changes are literally undeniable. What to do about it, given that they (and Papua New Guinea) is very poor, is another matter. Their choices really boil down to moving further from the coast to the center of the island and hope it isn't completely submerged eventually, or move to the mainland. In fact, the government (although it doesn't really have the funds for it) is committed to moving all the islanders to the mainland. But that would essentially destroy their culture. There is also an engineering solution, building seawalls off shore that allow gentle waves to deposit new sound on the beach. This is outlined by a scientist who comes to visit, but is then quickly dismissed as too expensive. This kind of bugged me. I understand that it probably really is too expensive, but they don't even estimate the cost (or at least that's not in the movie.) It seems like it might be a good charity fundraiser project that not only saves their island but gives even more attention to the reality of global warming.

Then the second show was a bizarre little comedy, RYANG-KANG-DO MERRY CHRISTMAS NORTH. In this film, the disruptive influence is a Christmas present. In the opening scene we see South Korean children celebrating Christmas and sending a balloon with a sack full of presents over the border to the children of the north. Of course, most balloons are shot down but one makes it through and lands in the hands of little Jong-soo. He's the small kid in class and constantly picked on, but now that he has a real working security robot, he's suddenly the popular one. He learns about Christmas and "Comrade Jesus Christ" from his grandfather, and lords over all the other schoolkids in his Santa Claus coat and hat (complete with blinking lights.) He's also quite the natural capitalist, as he charges fees for viewing his robot (of course, before he had the robot the popular class leader was charging fees to view a chicken, so there's really nothing new there.) It's a pretty bizarre, funny story that satirizes and challenges all preconceived notions of North Korea. And I suppose it's pretty important to add that the script writer Sung-San Jung is a North Korean defector, so he is probably writing from what he knows.

And that was Thursday at Asianfest. Just the San Jose weekend to write up now.

Total Running Time: 163 minutes
My Total Minutes: 274,065

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Jason goes to Asianfest--Day 7

Wednesday night was shorts night for me, starting with the documentary program Roots and Reality:

TWO SECONDS AFTER LAUGHTER: And experimental piece about dance, Indonesia, America, and--of course--laughter.
MAKING NOISE IN SILENCE: Okay, this is the third documentary I've seen about deaf people in 3 different festivals all withing one month. It's like the universe is telling me to puncture my eardrums...or at least learn sign language. The cool thing with this one is it takes place at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, which is literally right across the street from me.
TREASURE OF THE LISU: Specifically, the treasure of the indigenous stringed instrument--the Chiben--they play, as told by master and grandfather Ah-Cheng. There aren't a lot of Lisu left, much less Chiben players/crafters. So if his grandchildren don't pick it up, he might be the last Chiben player in his village.
ROOTS OF LOVE: Stories of Sikhs, the tradition of uncut hair and turbans, and the societal pressures from the larger outside society for them to cut their hair.
WINDOW CLEANING SHANGHAI: Exactly what it sounds like, very short, and some amazing images that really trigger my acrophobia.

And then the program XXX Shorts, which wasn't hard core porn, it was a program of more confrontational shorts to celebrate SFIAFF's 3oth (i.e., XXX) year.
LOOKING FOR JIRO: A campy music video about the one documented gay man in the Japanese-American internment camps during WWII. Not much is known about him other than he worked in the mess hall and liked muscular men. I was a little puzzled when he started braiding challah, and even more confused when he put them on his arms to simulate muscles.
FORTUNE COOKIE MAGIC TRICKS: A funny mash up of styles and genres. It's a musical...and a romance...and a coming-out family drama...and a zombie flick? Wow!
GREEN PLASTIC SANDALS: The ghost of her dad haunts a woman who is about to enter into a mixed marriage.
38-39 (DEGREES CELSIUS): A cool animated story/dream of a man in a public bathhouse.
DOWN UNDER: A really, really terrifying portrayal of torture (I'm a guy who watches a lot of horror, and I had to cover my eyes at times) with an amazing twist at the end. It's from Australia, and about the racism against Indians there (that I had never heard of.)
BLEACHED: A Filipino-American high school girl and her overbearing beauty queen mother who wants her to bleach her skin. Of course, it turns out to be a very, very bad idea.
THE ARRIVAL: A satirical take on a local Asian-American church that opens its doors to the LGBT community.
NISA: The great escape of a Thai sex worker. Lovely ending.
MODERN FAMILY: Nobody brings the creepy murderous weirdness like the Koreans. Nobody.
WHY I WRITE: Kosal Khiev delivers a powerful take on his life as an Khmer-American who got mixed up in gang violence and was deported to Cambodia, a country he had never seen. Excellent use of black and white and spot colors.

Total Running Time: 191 minutes
My Total Minutes: 273,910

Jason goes to Asianfest--Day 6

Two more movies last Tuesday, let's jump right in

First up was a war drama CATCH, from highly regarded Cambodian directory Rithy Panh. It's based on a story that was originally set in WWII, but he has updated it to Cambodia in the Vietnam war. An American pilot crashes and is captured by a group of local boys, led by orphan Pang (also known as "The Bastard.") The local Khmer Rouge is impressed, and leave the boys in charge of guarding him. Pang also very explicitly finds a new family as they tell him, "From now on, Angkar is your only family." They keep a very tight watch on the pilot, at first keeping him in a well and laughing as he refuses to eat a fish head. Eventually, some lines of friendships form, but of course they are always tenuous. It's a pretty powerful portrayal of war, particularly from a child's perspective. And I was left with the point that war is hell not because of what others do to you, but because of what it can make you do to others.

So after that, how about a bit of a light comedy? I got that with DELHI IN A DAY, the story of a wealthy family living in a mansion in Delhi and their English friend Jasper (the son of the father's friend and boss) who comes for a brief visit. Jasper has cashed out his savings and taken a trip to India to find...something. Something spiritual, he thinks. He wants to see the 'real India,' not just the world of his father's colleagues. So instead of being picked up by a servant in a car, he takes a taxi (that takes way too long and overcharges him.) When he's there, he's not exactly rude to their hospitality but he's way more interested in the lives of the servants (especially the lovely Rohini.) But his very presence upsets the household dynamics, and a bit of tragedy strikes. Ultimately, while he's looking for something 'spiritual' or 'real' he finds that India is just as complicated and contradictory as a nation of a billion people naturally would be.

Total Running Time: 181
My Total Minutes: 273,720

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Jason goes to Asianfest--Day 5

It started on a Thursday, right? Anyway, I missed the whole first weekend because I was still rocking Cinequest as hard as possible. But the day after it was over, I was up at the Kabuki for a couple of films and an Arrogant Bastard Ale in the Kabuki bar between films (keeping alive my streak of giving up sobriety for Lent.) Let's jump right in.

I started with the short WHAT'S UP IN THE FUTURE? a short doc about two old friends looking through a health and wellness catalog and deciding what products might be nice and what ones they'd rather die than use. My favorite line was something along the lines of 'only if I get Alzheimers, so I forget how embarrassing this is.'

And that was the lead in to THE SPACE IN BACK OF YOU, a documentary about dancer/choreographer Suzushi Hanayagi. She was classically trained in Japanese dance, then took up modern dance in New York, and ultimately fused the two. The film is heavy on archival footage (which is not always of great quality, but very interesting to see.) It also uses her own quotes and interviews with contemporaries and collaborators. These include dancers who I had never heard of, but are apparently quite avant garde. The one guy I recognized was David Byrne. And the most important interviewee is her long-time collaborator (they joke that it was as if they were married) Robert Wilson. Of course, all the interviewees had nothing but praise for her. I couldn't help but think that if I were versed in the world of modern dance, I would have gotten a lot more out of this. As it was, it was pretty nice to get a little introduction to her life and her work.

And then the late show of the night was NIGHT MARKET HERO. It's described in the guide as a "paean to the kinetic insanity of the mid-90s Hong Kong comedy films" but to me it also had a bit of a mid-80s American 'ragtag group of misfits save their special place (camp, rec center, home, etc.) from an evil developer' comedy feel to it. In fact, it has quite a lot of this, as that's ultimately the plot of the movie. But before that, we meet the colorful gang of characters who work at 888 Night Market in Taiwan. Au Hua is most accurately the hero of the title, the union leader who looks after everyone, keeps the gangs out, and officiates disputes between Happy Chicken Fillet Lady and Mrs. Steak. But the corrupt developers come in. And they have at their disposal a corrupt city councilman (who had past ties to Au Hua) and a violent street gang. Lots of fun, and damn I could go for either a Happy Chicken Fillet or a Steak. They both looked so delicious.

And that was my first night at Asianfest 2012. Sorry I'm behind, I'm trying to catch up before the big San Jose weekend.

Total Running Time: 194 minutes
My Total Minutes: 273,542

Monday, March 12, 2012

Jason hosts Bad Movie Night--UNDER SIEGE

Gather 'round children, and I'll tell you a story of long ago. The year was 1989, Erika Eleniak was hot as hell (and in the pages of Playboy) but there was no Internet to speak of. So if you wanted to see her magnificent titties, you couldn't just do a Google Image search of "Erika Eleniak Under Siege Cake Scene" (be sure to turn off the safe search filter in the settings.) No, you either had to buy a paper copy of Playboy (always a danger that the parents would discover it) or you had to watch a ridiculous action movie starring Steven Seagal, Gary Busey, and Tommy Lee Jones (trivia: one of these guys actually went on to become an actor!) That's right, back then action movies weren't about plot or characters or anything like that, they were stupid things you had to sit through an watch 90 minutes of crap to see 3 seconds of some chick's boobs.

Of course, I was fifteen back then, and I've never, ever regretted seeing UNDER SIEGE. Until now. Goddamn that was painful. Granted, I was sleep deprived from Cinequest and I was a little drunk, but I didn't "host" so much as "survived" that dog turd. Now excuse me, I've got some googling to do. And then some sleep.

Running Time: 103 minutes
My Total Minutes: 273,348

Jason goes to Cinequest--Encore Day

After that epic after party the night before, I'm surprised I woke up for anything, but I made it to three more Cinequest movies

I started with the jury award winner for best comedy, COME AS YOU ARE (HASTA LA VISTA), which was an excellent, bittersweet treat. It's a road trip comedy about three disabled friends (two wheelchair bound, one blind) from Belgium who run away from their parents (whom they've always relied on) to travel to Spain. See, one of them has a friend who lost his legs in a war, and told him of this amazing place in Spain--a brothel that specifically caters to disabled clients. Of course, all road trips need some obstacles, and that starts right away when one of them gets bad news from a doctor. So instead of taking a completely sanctioned road trip with a reputable caregiver (with their parents knowing everything except the ultimate goal) they decide it's all or nothing and sneak away with a less reputable caregiver (a gruff, heavyset woman) in a much less fancy van. That's just the first of their problems, as things never really go according to plan. One of the delights (although it can be awkward to watch) is seeing disabled people being just as selfish jerks as anyone. That shouldn't be a surprise, but somehow the disabled are always portrayed as somehow gaining righteousness through their disabilities. Not here--they are just as big of jerks as anyone (well, at least one guy really is.) And on one last note, the disabled acting was spot on, if it weren't for one magical scene at the end I'd have believed they actually got disabled actors. Come to think of it, that scene could've been CGI, I guess...?

Then I had a bit of time for a snack at the array of food trucks they had parked on 1st street outside the California. Cinequest actually shut down the whole block for it, and it was pretty cool. I had a Ricky Ricardo at Babaloo, and it was pretty delicious. Perhaps more importantly, it provided a social gathering space for the day. While I liked encore day last year, one of the things I noticed is it was much lower energy. Just the die hard, a bit tired and maybe hungover from the previous night's party, shambling from film to film. With the food trucks, there was more of a party atmosphere immediately. Of course, I still had the VIP lounge and some more free Stella Artois, which was also nice.

My second film of encore day was WORTH THE WEIGHT, and I'd like to say it was worth the wait, but ultimately I felt it was lacking something. Robbie Kaller plays Sam Roberts, a former college football star who blew out his knee and since has become a >400 lb loser working in a bowling alley. His best friend (and fellow bowling alley employee) gives him awful, awful advice--particularly about women. He does join a gym, determined to lose some weight and get back into shape (actually, the sad thing is he can jog better than I can) and falls for his trainer Cassie. She, meanwhile, likes him but has an off-again, on-again relationship with a totally pretentious douchebag. And you can probably guess where this is going, and you'd probably be more or less correct. And there's really nothing wrong with this sweet romantic comedy, I just felt it lacked much energy. I don't know, your mileage may vary.

And then in the next time slot I had already seen everything that was playing, so I ended my Cinequest 22 with a second helping of my favorite of the festival, Kurt Kuenne's SHUFFLE. Still beautiful and it can still make me tear up at the right moments. Having seen it before, I noticed a few call-backs to his previous work--The SLOW sign from SLOW is displayed on a wall and David Bagby's (Zachary's grandfather from the heartbreaking DEAR ZACHARY) name is on Lovell Milo's cell phone. I also payed more attention to the religious elements of the movie. It's rare in this cynical age to actually see a character get down on his knees and pray, but Lovell actually does it twice, once in church and once in a classic scene on the street in the rain. And it works both times, but is never really in your face of annoying like "this is a movie about GOD!" (and I say this as an atheist--the religious scenes in this movie worked.) And ultimately, having seen it before I didn't have to worry about "figuring out" the gimmick, and instead could see how well arranged (or rearranged) his life scenes were as an evolving, illuminating theme. Really, really well done.

And that's it, with that my Cinequest 22 was done. By the numbers, I saw 54 screenings at Cinequest, including doubling up on SHUFFLE (so 53 different movie programs.) That was a total of 5,194 minutes of different movies (5,276 if you count SHUFFLE twice) or 60.9% of the 8,529 total minutes worth of movies in the festival. Not bad...not bad at all.

And then I would have gotten some sleep, but I still had to host Bad Movie Night that night.

Total Running Time: 283 minutes
My Total Minutes: 273,244

Jason goes to Cinequest--Closing Night

4 more movies, on the "Closing Night" of Cinequest (which is the real penultimate night, as there is still one more encore day.)

I started the morning with CHEAP FUN, a movie about an all-night party (appropriate foreshadowing for my own life, perhaps?) A group of college friends in Anytown, U.S.A. (but shot in San Jose) get together and smoke and drink at Ian's house. But eventually Ian gets tired of the routine and convinces them all to go out and do something...anything. Turns out that's a really bad idea. They look up an old friend, drive way too drunk, relationships fall apart, and people end up in bad places (I want to avoid spoilers, but examples of bad places to end up after a night of partying might be...jail...or the hospital?) Nice ensemble cast, funny story with touching moments as well. And a good message--if you're gonna get high/drunk, for god's sake just stay at home like always.

Next up was MARIACHI GRINGO, which was my surprise hit of the festival, meaning it was one that I thought would be kind of silly and some light fun, but it turns out I liked it a lot more than I expected. It stars Shawn Ashmore (Iceman in X2 and X-MEN: THE LAST STAND) as a small-town Kansas boy who dreams of being a mariachi. He always wants to eat at the local Mexican restaurant (conveniently named El Mariachi) and is a fan of all things Mexico. He even insists that Mexicans invented corn (bear in mind, he has the cojones to say this in Kansas...not quite Nebraska, but a fairly corn-filled state in its own right.) He's friends with an old man who was a real mariachi, and he heads off to Mexico (Guadalajara, to be precise) to pursue his dream of being a "simple mariachi of the people." There he gets quite a bit of help from love interest Lilia (Martha Higareda.) He's admittedly got some chops on the guitar, and has quite a bit of flair, but he hasn't spent a lifetime learning the hundreds of songs mariachis have to know and be able to to play on request. So he learns the songs, and learns some life lessons, too. I think what I really loved about this movie is it best exemplified this year's Cinequest theme of "Never Ending Passion." Really, a sweet, funny movie that's different...but good.

Then we got into some free-spirited wackiness with DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR. I have to admit, at first I thought the title might refer to the cast having delusions that they know how to act. But I got over that pretty quickly and it just won me over with its spirit. It's the story of Rocio, a young, sexually experimental (at least, with socks, tape, and condoms) lady who goes off her medication and moves from her small northern Californian town to live in San Francisco. There she moves in with transgender drug-addict Illusion (at least, she's addicted to her favorite drug--her hormones.) She gets a job at a local coffee shop, where she's rude to the customers. She is convinced that the lady who sells flowers outside is her mother (at least, she's the spitting image of her mother from when she was little.) And she has lots of wacky adventures with sex and drugs. And lots of cool San Francisco locations (I loved the joke about "South Vanessa Street.") And it even included my home away from home, the Roxie (just a shot of the exterior, but I always love seeing that.)

Then it was finally time for the big closing night gala. We had the traditional moment where all the filmmakers who are still present got up on stage. We had the announcement of the award winners (my favorite has to be SHUFFLE winning the New Visions category. Second favorite would be KING CURLING winning the audience award.)

And then the big closing night film, director Terence Davies came on stage for an interview and to accept the Maverick Spirit award (wand he was so giddy he almost left the award on stage.) He was very funny, and even regaled the audience with poetry. I cannot confirm this, but I heard a rumor that he had quite a bit to drink before the interview. If he did, he still carried himself well. And who could blame him, I'd been drunk on Cinequest love (and alcohol) for the past two weeks (and, as you can see, it wasn't about to stop.)

Anyway, the closing night film THE DEEP BLUE SEA is an acting tour-de-force for star Rachel Weisz. She plays Hester Collyer, wife of (much older) judge William Collyer. The movie opens at the ending, with her attempted suicide, and we work backwards to learn the story behind it. Specificially, we learn about her love affair with Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston,) an RAF pilot and WWII hero. And, of course, this affair cannot possibly end well (which we already know from the beginning.) It's magnificently shot and acted, and a pretty solid dramatic story. It's really a very good movie, I just happen to prefer my closing night (or, for that matter, opening night) galas to be light and fun.

Anyway, after that there was an epic after party at the Tech Museum. Allegedly it was catered by Restaurant O, but I don't actually remember food. I probably ate, I definitely drank (usually two-fisted,) and I definitely partied the night away until they cut off the beer and hurried us out at about 1 am. Then a big bunch of us--fans, filmmakers, etc. were contemplating where the after hours party room was. Turns out, it was in the room adjoining mine and we had a shared door that turned it into the party double-room. I didn't get to sleep until about 5:30 am. My sense of decorum forbids me from actually revealing what went on. Or who, in fact, the owners of the party room were. In fact, I refuse to even reveal their nationality for fear of being labelled racist against Irishmen.

And that's how Cinequest almost ended. I still have encore day to write up.

Total Running Time: 391 minutes
My Total Minutes: 272,963

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 11

Aka, the penultim-ish day ("Closing Night" is Saturday, but there's an encore day so there are really 2 days left.) It was a good ol' 6-movie Saturday, so let's get to it.

First, after a couple of warm-up Stella Artois (official sponsor beer of Cinequest. Sponsor beer always tastes better.) I was over to the Camera 12 for my first movie.

We started with my new favorite short, ZOLTAN, THE HUNGARIAN GANGSTER OF LOVE. I have a hard time deciding what my favorite part of it was. It was either when he went to the barber who looked like Hitler, or when the big fight was going to happen and I thought to myself, 'I hope it's a dance-off' and then (SPOILER ALERT) it totally was! I wanna be a Hungarian gangster of love. In fact, I even tweeted that in real time.

So I was tweeting in a theater--against all my sense of decency--because the feature encouraged that. It was the documentary TWITTAMENTARY. Let me just list some of the tweets I made with some added commentary.

Ready to tweet the shit out of at

[Clearly I'm off to a rousing start.]

There are millions of people who trust twitter? Really? I don't know any of them.

Great, we start by tweeting what you eat...

Apparently, Twitter lives in Grand Central Station?
[Sorry I forgot the hashtags on that one.]

Stop subtitling English in English.
[I got into a mini-debate over whether those were subtitles or tweets displayed on screen. Both were happening, but there was quite clearly a lot of times when people were speaking in real life (not just reading tweets) and they were subtitled. I shouldn't let this bother me as much as it does...but it does.]

As someone who is famous for his hugs, I have to correct you, a Tweet is not a hug.

[Ask around at Cinequest. I'm not just bragging, I'm a world-class hugger.]

I wonder if they'll ever get to the birthplace of Twitter--SF.

[Answer: No. Which if the rest of the movie was better wouldn't have bothered me. Twitter exists all over the world, so no reason to elevate one city above others. But they did elevate two cities--New York and Los Angeles.]

Are you kidding me, the one part they don't subtitle is when the wind is blowing and you can't hear the audio?

So the kids behind me weren't allowed to watch ZOLTAN, but can see Mika Tan?

[Okay, this was my favorite thing about the screening. The second and third rows were reserved for a junior high class. But apparently the teachers decided ZOLTAN, THE HUNGARIAN GANGSTER OF LOVE would be inappropriate, so they seated them between the short and the feature. And then the film crew visits porn star/legal Bunny Ranch (Bunnies!) prostitute Mika Tan. They didn't show much of her work, but there were a lot of her in provocative, scantily clad poses, and one with a see-through top that was a bit nipply. Way more inappropriate than anything in ZOLTAN.]

And that was all my tweeting. Bottom line, it was a movie for people who don't know what Twitter is, and presented people who don't use Twitter anything like I use it. I think I'm fairly well versed in Twitter, but I prefer to use it for snarky comments instead of changing the world. Because if you're using Twitter to change the world you always have to worry that the next celebrity death/scandal will overtake you as a trending topic. I think the story of the homeless girl tweeting is pretty interesting, and from her following she has gotten help. But you know what could have helped her even more than a Twitter following? ALMOST ANY OTHER FORM OF HELP!!!!

I guess I was just hoping they'd show more of the cynical, sarcastic side of Twitter--the corner of the Twitterverse where I live.

Anyway, then I was off to a good documentary, starting with the short DEAF NOT DUMB. They turn off the sound and deaf ASL poets jam about...well, about how they are deaf, but not dumb. It would have made a good pairing with DEAF JAM from SF Indiefest (although maybe a little too on-the-nose.)

Then we got to JASON BECKER: NOT DEAD YET. Jason Becker was a rock guitar prodigy. He was a rapidly rising star, and was lined up for the gig to be David Lee Roth's new guitarist. And then he got ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease.) He was given 3-5 years to live. But now it's over 20 years later. He is confined to a wheelchair, communicates only through eye movements (but communicates well) and, most amazingly, still composes music. It's the sort of story that even if the filmmaking was crap, it would still be an amazing, compelling, and inspiring story. But first time feature director Jess Vile nailed it. He drew on a ton of home videos, interviews, and old news articles to tell the whole story of a rock star on the rise. If anything, his disease and fall come in too late, considering that the audience knows all along what's going to happen. But I think we can all be forgiven for wanting to spend a few more minutes living in the world when Jason Becker was still walking on stage and ripping off amazing guitar riffs. I think what amazed me the most is how Jason still has a wicked (and kind of childish) sense of humor. My favorite part was during the Q&A when he was asked how it felt to see his story on screen, and he responded, "It's about time, dammit!"

Oh yeah, I guess I should tell you that Jason Becker (who is a Bay Area native, from Richmond) and his whole family were there along with Jesse Vile. And it was just awesome to see him.

The only problem was I couldn't bring myself to miss the Q&A, so instead of catching MARIACHI GRINGO (which I will catch Saturday) I caught a later screening of FIVE HOURS SOUTH. Which wouldn't have been bad, except that FIVE HOURS SOUTH is the SAMUEL BLEAK of 2012 (look at my coverage of last year's Cinequest to understand how much I hated SAMUEL BLEAK.)

So FIVE HOURS SOUTH is based on a true story. When he was young, Luca saw his best friend gunned down because they were all involved in drug dealing. Now grown up, Luca is a policeman and his other surviving childhood friend is a nightclub owner who of course is still involved with drugs. Okay, this could be a kind of cliched story but two friends on opposite sides of the law can have a lot of drama. But you know what would be even more compelling? What if Luca quit his job to try out for a dance show? Really, of all the possible dramatic stories (I don't care about SPOILERS, but his friend ends up killed) that's the one you go with? And that's not even the problem, it's just poorly done all around. He has a powerful line about how he's "not a quitter!" after he just quit the police force. His main competition, Energy, must have been named ironically given how little he does. In the first day of practice, the instructor insists she will work them all really hard, then calls it a day about 2 minutes in. Oh, and it's almost all in English, despite being set in Italy. In fact, a few characters speak Italian sometimes, so I'm to believe this takes place in the part of Italy where people mainly speak English? Is that true? I don't know...and really, I don't care.

So luckily I followed it with an absolute masterpiece, F.W. Murnau's FAUST. Epic sets, costumes, cinematography, and story (and LOVE, I think Murnau is under-appreciated for the amorous elements of his films.) Dennis James shaking the house with the mighty Wurlitzer organ and the theremin. Mark Goldstein providing the devilish counterpoint with the Buchla Lightning Wands. That might have just been the greatest cinematic event I've ever witnessed (at least until NAPOLEON later this month.)

Also, as a complete aside, it was cool learning Dennis James is on Facebook, so I friended him right away to keep track of when he's in town.

Then I had to rush a bit from the California to the San Jose Rep just as the opening credits rolled for MIXED KEBAB. It was a really nice story of love and intolerance. Bram is a Belgian of Turkish descent, a Muslim, and a homosexual, although he is arranged to marry his cousin back in Turkey and bring her to Belgium. He keeps his sexual orientation secret from his family, of course, and especially from his brother who is kind of a no-good punk. But when he travels to Turkey to arrange the wedding, he brings his boyfriend Kevin along but still tries to keep their relationship a secret (I figured he clearly wanted to be outed.) I really liked the obvious parallels between prejudice against homosexuals and prejudice against Muslims in Belgian (which makes it all the more interesting that the Muslims in the movie were the worst homophobes.) And I have to say, without giving away too much of a spoiler, there is a fake-out ending that nearly ruined everything, just before the "good" ending.

Then I went over to the at Pagoda Restaurant and Bar at the Fairmont (proud member of the Cinequest Dining Circle) just for a few drinks before heading to the midnight movie.

So finally I ended the night with GEORGE THE HEDGEHOG, a sick, profane cartoon (think Fritz the Cat) from Poland. George is a hard-drinking womanizing hedgehog, and a hero to all. And then a mad scientist clones him, and shit goes absolutely crazy. And I was drunk enough that I'm pretty sure I was still laughing my ass off even when I was falling asleep. I know I was awake enough to make a comment during the "rapture" scene (my friend Roy can attest to that.) I also felt like these were all clearly pre-existing characters, like this was a TV show jumping to the big screen. I was close, it's a comic book series.

Total Running Time: 559 minutes
My Total Minutes: 272,571