Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 5

Now I'm getting into the groove--2 movies a night, every night.

Last Monday was the night of strange religion, with a documentary and a horror film.

First up, the documentary THE OVERNIGHTERS. Set in the Oil fracking boomtown of Williston, North Dakota, it documents the struggles of the people from all over the country who come there looking for work. A lot has been written/said/filmed about the environmental impact of fracking (hydraulic fracturing.) This movie emphatically does not add to that volume. Instead it looks at the impact of the massive influx of outsiders into this tiny town. And it looks at it mostly through the eyes of the outsiders and especially through the eyes of Pastor Jay Reinke of Concordia Lutheran Church. Defying his neighbors and many in his own congregation, he gives them a place to sleep...at least, as much as he can. He's not exactly slow to kick people out if they're causing a problem, but he does his best to do what he sees as his Christian duty to help these people. Even if some of them have...ahem..."colorful" pasts. Or if they just look funny--one of the best lines is when he's trying to convince a man that he would be more welcome by the neighbors if he cut his hair. The man asks if Jesus had short hair, and Reinke responds, "Jesus didn't have our neighbors."

Now, I was talking to people afterwards who thought the movie had 'too much religion' in it. And I make no secret that I am not a religious man. But I also don't think it would make any sense to downplay the religious angle of the movie. It is exactly why Pastor Reinke does what he does. And as a non-believer I can't exactly say he's doing God's work, but he's certainly doing good work. Not that it helps with his struggles with the town. The paper catches wind that he has welcomed a registered sex offender into his home, and...well, things kind of spiral out of control for him. And then there's a twist at the end that kind of comes out of left field. And I don't want to say more about that, best to leave it as a surprise. I'll just end by saying that it offers a heck of a lot of questions about what really makes a community.

And then for the horror film, THE SACRAMENT. Taking the Jonestown massacre as the clear inspiration (despite the standard "any similarity to actual events or people is purely coincidental" disclaimer at the end) it treats the story as a found-footage horror film. Starring a gaggle of mumblecore stars--Joe Swanberg, Kentucker Audley, Kate Lynn Shell, Amy Seimetz, and AJ Bowen--in a decidedly non-mumblecore film, it starts out promising enough setting the story in modern times with reporters for Vice Media going to the remote Eden Parish to investigate what has happened to their friend's sister. Once there, they meet...a lot of very friendly people. And they meet Father, played with morbid geniality by Gene Jones (certainly he wasn't cast just because his name was so close to Jim Jones.) But just a few people reach out to them with pleas for help, and...well, things deteriorate quickly. And so does my interest. Because it's exactly by-the-numbers the Jonestown story. I just kept wishing they'd change something, not make it so darned on-the-nose obvious. Have a different take on it. But no, this is the Jonestown story, and not much more.

Now, if Joe Swanberg, playing the cameraman Jake, looked out over the vast expanse of dead and dying people and said, "Oh no! Not again!" this movie would have been great.

Total Running Time: 195 minutes
My Total Minutes: 360,827

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 4

So I've gotten off to a slow start this SFIFF. It will pick up, I promise. But Saturday I skipped the festival to cheer on my Quakes for the first time this year (and they got their first win of the year...coincidence?) And then for most of Sunday I was filling it at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

So I only made it to one movie on Sunday, but at least I made it count by choosing a 4+ hour one (with no intermission,) Lav Diaz's NORTE: THE END OF HISTORY. Over the past few years, I've become quite a fan of 4+ hour movies, on the supposition that if someone makes a really long movie, and someone else thinks it's a good idea to show it, then it's usually pretty amazing. And while I'll confess to checking my watch several times throughout the film (it's a leisurely 4+ hours) I am still of the opinion that epic-length movies are awesome.

The story is loosely based on Dostoyevsky’s "Crime and Punishment" it's the story of a law school dropout having an existential crisis. It opens with him and his friends discussing philosophy and politics, and him going on a rant about the need to destroy all immorality. He...pretty much fails at that. So now I have to confess I had a bit to drink before the movie and struggled to stay away through the first 30 minutes, so details are hazy. But the point is he brutally murders a woman and her young daughter. But he's not even a suspect, the guy who owed her money and was fighting with her just hours before is...and he goes to jail for it. And he suffers in jail for a long time, while his wife struggles to make ends meet and his daughter grows up without a father. Meanwhile, that law student...he disappears for a while. Then reappears, tries to make things better (without actually...you know...confessing) before...I've gotten spoilery enough already. So let me pivot and say that the acting is great, and the running time...well, as I said it's a leisurely 4+ hours, but it doesn't feel bloated, it's just a long story that takes time to tell. And the cinematography is great. If I were up to another viewing, I think there are secrets to unlock by studying when the camera is static and when it moves--particularly when it flits over anonymous settings like a restless spirit.

Running Time: 250 minutes
My Total Minutes: 360,632

Monday, April 28, 2014

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 2

I skipped opening night, so my San Francisco International Film Festival started on Friday with two movies. This is also the first time I'm really taking advantage of my press pass. In the past I just got a CineVisa to see whatever I want/can, and just used the press pass to hang out in the festival lounge (which means free beer every evening, so I got plenty of use out of it.) This year I'm doing it all on press comps, which means I'm not necessarily guaranteed to get everything I want (tickets are released 1 hour prior to showtime, and if you're not right there they can run out.) But so far I'm 2 for 2, so it seems like a good strategy.

My festival officially kicked off with HELLION, a dark coming-of-age/absentee father drama directed by Kat Candler and starring Aaron Paul (as the absentee father Hollis Wilson) and a couple of excellent child actors in Josh Wiggins (playing 13 year old Jacob) and Deke Garner (playing 10 year old Wes.) All three of them are dealing with the death of Jacob and Wes's mother. Hollis by drinking a lot, Jacob and Wes by acting out--as kids do--with their friends. And acting out in increasingly dangerous and destructive ways. Aaron Paul builds on his work from BREAKING BAD to bring sympathy to another fundamentally unlikable character. And the kids...well, this features some of the finest child acting I've ever seen. While the story is often uncomfortable, it gives a very real and moving portrait of a broken family trying to hold it together. The line of the movie: Jacob tells Wes "I know, I miss mom, too." and Wes replies, "I miss dad." That pretty much sums it all up.

And then I caught a cool treat, COHERENCE, a low-budget, semi-improvised sci-fi mindbender. A group of friends meets for a party. And...weird things happen. I'm going to just struggle to avoid spoilers, but on a night when a comet is brilliantly visible in the sky...cell phone screens crack, power goes out...except for on house, and...people are not necessarily what they appear to be. Yeah, that's as close as I'm going to get to a spoiler. So instead I'll just speak in very general terms about how the performances are excellent and apparently the actors didn't have any idea what was going on in the greater, mind-bending story. And that's pretty cool. The actors are just as confused as the characters who are just as confused as the audience (although it is pretty much explained by the end...I think...I might need to rewatch it to make sure.)

And with that, my SFIFF57 officially started.

Total Running Time: 182 minutes
My Total Minutes: 360,382

Friday, April 25, 2014


Courtesy of the Los Altos Stage Company, a mere ~10 minutes away from my work.

I love the movie HAROLD AND MAUDE, and I'm very pleased that the stage adaptation is very faithful to the movie, and uses (but doesn't overuse) pre-filmed projected content for the scenes they can't pull off on stage. Oh, and my friend Ray played Father Finnegan, which is how I knew about this in the first place.

It's faithful to the movie, and the acting is great. That's pretty much all you need to know to run out to see it now. But I will add that they kept my favorite, subtle part of the movie--that Maude is a Holocaust survivor. They even set it in the right time so that my bizarre Maude/Hitler hypothesis could still work (this is the main reason why a modern update would never work for me.) And they kept it just as subtle--no explicit mention of it, just a number tattooed on her arm. Nicely done.

Jason watches UNDER THE SKIN

Me, for about 95% of the movie: "WTF am I watching?"
Me, during an important reveal near the end: "Oh, that explains it."
Me, after the important reveal: "Why TF did I watch this?"

Answer: Scarlett Johansson gets all kinds of nekkid in it.

Running Time: 108 minutes
My Total Minutes: 360,200


Surveillance is bad, so...Kaboom! Pow! Clang! Bang bang bang bang bang! Kaboom! There, now you can pretend you've seen it too.

Actually, it's pretty fuckin' cool, introduces some radical changes to the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the Winter Soldier reveal, while kinda telegraphed, sets up some intriguing possibilities for the next sequel.

Running Time: 136 minutes
My Total Minutes: 360,092

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for our annual Earthquake Memorial Show

For some reason, I get busier and busier every year and don't make it to as many of the shows at Niles as I would like. Still, somehow I always have free time for their earthquake show in April, so I've seen at least the shorts many times over.

A TRIP DOWN MARKET STREET (1906): A favorite here, in no small part because our own historian researched the origins of this film and was featured on 60 Minutes (note: at the very end of the piece I appear on screen for a split second.) It's always fun to see, and play the game of how-many-times-does-that-one-driver-in-a-bowler-hat-cross-the-screen (answer: six.)

THE DESTRUCTION OF SAN FRANCISCO (1906): Also standard for the earthquake show, Blackhawk films compiled footage from Edison, Pathe, Biograph, and others showing not just the destruction of San Francisco, but some of the rebuilding. Very interesting.

THE PENALTY (1920): And then I thought I had seen this before, but it turns out I was mistaking it for another Lon Chaney film, THE SHOCK, which was a staple of the earthquake show because it actually featured the earthquake as a plot point. But this one is just set in San Francisco, and stars Lon Chaney as the legless criminal mastermind Blizzard. He famously tied his legs back in braces that could only be worn for a few minutes at a time before the pain was intolerable, and suffered permanent muscle damage as a result. But the end result is remarkable, so here's to suffering for your art! The story is about him plotting an audacious crime spree to loot San Francisco while getting revenge on the quack doctor who amputated his legs when he was a child. Meanwhile an undercover cop (a woman, even!) infiltrates his organization and finds...that he actually has a sensitive side. At least, he likes classical music, and they spend many a pleasant hour together with him playing the piano...and her working the pedals. Although the ending is a little too tidy, it's still a great story and a brilliant turn by Chaney.

Total Running Time: 114 minutes
My Total Minutes: 359,955

Jason watches OCULUS

Director Mike Flanagan also made ABSENTIA, which I saw at Another Hole In The Head back in 2011. I loved it then and thought he had a great flair for story-based, supernatural, mysterious horror. And that talent is fully realized here, in this story about a brother-sister team setting out to prove a mirror is haunted. Based on his 2006 short (which I haven't seen, but am curious about) it opens with Tim Russell being released from a mental hospital. It's gradually revealed that years ago he committed a horrible crime, and so did his father. But his sister Kaylie believes it was all the fault of a haunted mirror deceiving people, and knows that Tim saw it too when he was young (the psychological angle of how our self-perception drives us mad is pretty evident.) So she sets up an experiment. Several cameras record their actions while they spend a night in the house with the mirror. She has done a lot of research, tracing the mirror's ownership throughout history and detailing the strange deaths associated with it. Tim is skeptical--years of psychiatry has taught him to be. But weird things start happening. It's great, frightening fun to question everything you see, and by the end Flanagan has shown a true mastery of the art of supernatural, psychological horror, and while he gets bloodier than he did with ABSENTIA, the strength of his film is still in focusing on the mental rather than visceral aspects of horror. Excellent.

Running Time: 104 minutes
My Total Minutes: 359,841

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Jason goes to Midnites for Maniacs for a double dose of Kill or be Killed.

THE RUNNING MAN (1987) and BATTLE ROYALE (2000.) Let me just sum this up quickly. Back in 2012 when THE HUNGER GAMES came out, many people compared it to BATTLE ROYALE. I spent quite a bit in my review explaining how that comparison isn't apt. And watching Schwarzenegger's classic (possibly his best movie from the best part of his career) back to back with BATTLE ROYALE and having THE HUNGER GAMES buzzing around in the back of my brain...well, the better comparison is THE RUNNING MAN and HUNGER GAMES. No question about it...they're both about placating an unruly populace with crass, glitzy entertainment. BATTLE ROYALE, on the other hand...changes every time I see. I used to think it was about kids killing kids. Sure, they're forced, but some get into it and some don't. I.e., it's about out-of-control kids. This time, I saw it as more about adults punishing kids for their own failures. The most important part wasn't even any of the action on the island, but Takeshi Kitano's painful, awkward phone conversation with his daughter who hates him. Interesting. I wonder what it will be about the next time I see it.

Total Running Time: 215 minutes
My Total Minutes: 359,737

Jason slips into a Vortex and has a NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)

Not at all to be confused with shitty remakes. This is the original, the classic, the film that launched George Romero's career and the modern zombie genre. And these are--in all seriousness--the most important movies ever made. I understand the broad zeitgeist of the 60s (civil rights,) 70s (commercialism,) 80s (militarism) because of Romero's _______ OF THE DEAD movies. Even the 00s with their double dose of LAND OF THE DEAD (class warfare) and DIARY OF THE DEAD (new media, exemplified by Youtube) I understand via Romero. SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2009) gets a little murkier, although thinking back on it it might be about hyper-partisanship. I might have to go watch it again. Anyway, the point is I still don't understand the 90s because Romero didn't make a DEAD movie back then. And NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is still an amazing classic.

Running Time: 96 minutes
My Total Minutes: 359,522

Jason slips into a Vortex and sees THE NIGHT OF THE SORCERERS

Trying to clear my backlog of updates before SFIFF kicks off...tonight! (Yikes! But I won't be going to opening night anyway, too pricey of a ticket for something that will be released soon enough, I assume.)

Anyway...Vortex, martinis, friends, and NIGHT OF THE SORCERERS (1974.) A good bit of sleaze with African voodoo masters kidnapping white women, stripping them, whipping them, and beheading them. Then they come back as some crazy vampire panther women. With all that, do you need a plot? I hope not, because there isn't much of one.

Running Time: 80 minutes
My Total Minutes: 359,426


But first, it was preceded by a Pixar short PARTY CENTRAL. I never saw MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, and this is based in that world. It's pretty funny, the monsters in the lame frat use door portals to steal a party from the cool frat. And a good time is had by all.

And then the feature, which picks up right where MUPPETS left off. Literally, with them celebrating at the end of the movie, talking about how that's a wrap, etc...and then realizing the cameras are still rolling and launching into a musical number about how they must be in a sequel (with Dr. Bunsen Honeydew pointing out that it's actually their seventh sequel.) Which is easily the best part of the movie. The rest...a silly plot about an evil Kermit doppelganger with a plan to steal the crown jewels...is entertaining enough. I liked it, I just didn't have the amazing emotional resonance I had with the MUPPETS in 2011 (or going back and watching their first movie from 1979.) Back then I missed them. Now they're a part of my life again. And it's good to be in a Muppets world. It's just not as exciting as their big comeback. Or maybe it's just not as good of a movie. But it was still pretty fun for this Muppet of a man (or very manly Muppet?)

Total Running Time: 112 minutes
My Total Minutes: 359,346

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Jason goes to CAAMFest--Saturday, March 22

This was my last day at CAAMFest, as I was busy Sunday and didn't attend closing. It was also the only day I went all out, seeing 4 movies in one day. And it was awesome.

First up was the compilation project BEAUTIFUL 2013. Much like last year's BEAUTIFUL 2012, the Hong Kong Film Festival commissioned well-known Asian filmmakers to make ~20 minute shorts.
BEAUTIFUL NEW BAY AREA PROJECT: Kurosawa Kiyoshi's piece is an exciting story of an eclectic heir to a development company who tries to romance a beautiful dockworker but ends up unleashing a ton of kung-fu and revealing a strange conspiracy.
A NEW YEAR, THE SAME DAYS: Wu Nien-jen created this comi-tragic short about a beleaguered father who wants to leave his family and finally spend some time living for himself.
1 DIMENSION: Lu Yue presents a silhouette-animated story of a young prince and his teacher who go on a long journey to teach him to recognize good and evil. It's a test he must pass before he can rule.
INDIGO: And finally, Mabel Cheung delivers a touching story of a struggling mother (Elaine Jin) who sings in a nightclub to support her autistic son and daughter who is frustrated that he gets all the attention.

Next up was the father/son romantic comedy (that just sounds wrong) BRAHMIN BULLS. Sid is a young architect who hates his wife's cat. But that's the least of his problems. He and his wife are estranged. While he has creative ideas he has trouble at work and is demoted. And then his father shows up. They haven't spoken in years, and he wasn't supposed to come to town for a conference, but he saw his old flame (and former grad student) is speaking at the conference and wanted to get back in touch. Sid hasn't even told his dad that he and his wife have separated. So wacky hijinx ensue as Sid struggles with his father's surprises, and old wounds (that originally led to them not speaking anymore) resurface. Very funny, and a cast of excellent actors including Sendhil Ramamurthy, Roshan Seth, and Mary Steenburgen.

Then a real treat, the audience award winner at both Cinequest and CAAMFest, EAST SIDE SUSHI. I actually specifically missed it at Cinequest so I could see it here. Juana Martinez is an excellent cook at home and works hard to provide for her father and daughter. She clearly cares about the quality of her food, as evidenced in the care she takes with her little fruit cart in Oakland. Too bad a couple of thugs knock her out and rob her. Looking for something else, she answers a "help wanted" sign at a local Japanese restaurant. So begins a fish-out-of-water cross-cultural comedy, as she proves she has the skill and drive to learn to become a sushi chef (and romance the head sushi chef Aki.) Of course, the technical skill is easy, it's the overturning old traditions that's hard. For that true Japanese authenticity, only men can be sushi chefs. Plus the fact that she's not Japanese (not even Asian, as in one scene she humorously points out that their other sushi chefs are Chinese and Korean.) A fun and funny celebration of anyone who wants to break down cultural barriers and follow their dreams. I can see why it won the audience award at its first two festivals, and can predict that it will win many more.

And finally, INNOCENT BLOOD. Retired detective/college professor James Park (Jun-seong Kim) gets a horrible shock when his son is kidnapped. It's all about vengeance for a mishandled case years ago that sent an innocent man to jail (well, not entirely innocent, he was a vicious gangster, he just didn't commit the murder they pinned on him.) So the wronged man's brother Vincent (C.S. Lee) is on a path of revenge against anyone and everyone involved in the miscarriage of justice. And Vincent foolishly decides to pursue him alone rather than just going straight to the authorities. Which is pretty dumb, because his evasiveness gets the FBI suspecting him. It's a gripping, well-shot thriller but I get impatient when the hero makes baffling decisions like that. I know this is 20/20 hindsight, but ultimately just fessing up to the original mishandled case would have been far less painful.

And that, finally (only about 3 1/2 weeks later,) was the end of my CAAMFest 2014.

Total Running Time: 386 minutes
My Total Minutes: 359,234