Sunday, April 15, 2018

Jason goes to SFFILM--Day 4

Four films on Saturday, to kick off the big first weekend of the festival.

I started with a real treat, the Mr. Rogers documentary WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR. I really hadn't thought much of Mr. Rogers--other than parodies and dumb urban myths about him being a sniper (untrue, nor did he wear sweaters to cover up his tattoos)--since I was the age of his target demographic. But this gave me a new and better perspective on him, and a greater appreciation for the depth and intelligence of his show. Fred Rogers started out as a seminarian, was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, and was supposed to lead his flock. But his deep faith, love of children, and fascination with this new-ish communication tool of television caused him to go into a wider (and not overtly religious) form of ministry. One built on the idea that children's feelings are just as valid and just as powerful as adult feelings, and sometimes kids need help understanding them. I don't recall as a kid his showing dealing with current events (probably because I didn't know what current events were) but I was surprised to find out that in his first year on the air--1968--when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, he did a segment on that. Not using the event at all but teaching the word "assassination" and talking through the grief and anger around it. It was also a show that celebrated silence and quiet moments--the complete opposite of normal children's television. There's a wonderful scene comparing frenetic children's cartoons of the time (yeah, I grew up on Transformers) with Fred watching a turtle walk across the floor.

The film also deals with some of the silliness around his persona. Like the urban myths. Like the parodies (he had a great sense of humor and liked the Eddie Murphy one. Others that mocked the underlying values not so much. I don't think he liked Jim Carrey portraying him as a sleazeball in a porn shop on In Living Color.) And the baffling backlash that his show--with the "you're all special" attitude--raised a generation of entitled millennials. He actually addressed that point in a commencement speech he gave. His message was never about being entitled. It was about the dignity of everyone, and the simple fact that you don't have accomplish something amazing in order to be loved. That's a pretty good lesson for kids. Maybe a good lesson for adults, too.

And then I saw a bunch of shorts, starting with Shorts 3: Animation. Hooray for cartoons!
CARLOTTA'S FACE: A fascinating examination of a woman who is face blind, but learned to draw faces (in particular, her own) through her sense of touch.
DROP BY DROP: Simple black-and-white story of a Portuguese village, and its history that clings to the place.
HYBRIDS: Hybrids of trash and sea life. Fish made out of oil drums, sharks out of boats, etc. Really imaginative and dirtily beautiful.
ICEBERGS: We only see the tip of the icebergs. In fact, these stop motion scenes of daily life hint at much bigger stories underneath.
NEGATIVE SPACE: A father's lesson on how to pack a suitcase. But it really means a whole lot more.
OH HI ANNE: Voice mail messages from underground film icon George Kuchar to his student, colleague, and director of this film, Anne McGuire.) Very simply animated.
73 QUESTIONS: Some old-timer San Francisco advice, during a walk from the Tenderloin to the Mission.
WEEKENDS: Shuttling back and forth between mom and dad, as everyone moves on with new relationships and the kid is taking it all in.

Then more shorts, with Shorts 4: New Visions. Hooray for exciting views from around the world.
.TV: It does not stand for television, actually. In fact, it's a country code, for Tuvalu. This small island nation lucked out when people wanted that domain suffix, and now licensing it out is its main source of income. Too bad it's going to disappear from climate change. But at least we can still watch streaming videos online, right?
ATOMKRAFTWERK ZWENTENDORF: A look at the history and current use of a nuclear power plant in Austria. Due to popular opposition, it's the only nuclear plant in the world that was commissioned and then never brought on line. Now it's part museum and part training facility.
FAIR GROUNDS: Quick edits show us some young men, their ancestry, and their path to the future. 
HANEMUN HONEYMOON: Animators Maya Erdelyi and Daniel Rowe got married, went to Japan on their honeymoon, and used a microscope camera to take up-close looks at various things they saw there. Fun.
MAHOGANY TOO: A short homage/re-envisioning of the cult classic film MAHOGANY.
RAMS 23 BLUE BEARS 21: The (alleged) first film ever made by the Lumiére Brothers was of workers exiting their factory. A static camera, as people walk past. This is the same idea here, but with fans exiting a high school football stadium.
THE CLIMATE: Jem Cohen examines the life of New York. The Stock Exchange, the people, etc. Not just about the global climate (i.e., weather patterns) but about the mental and emotional climate of the people. It's not positive.

And then it was finally time for the late show, REVENGE. A rape-and-revenge superhero origin story that totally delivers on its bloody promise, despite being ridiculously unrealistic. It's interesting that the director is a woman (Coralie Fargeat.) Jen goes on a romantic getaway with her rich (and married) boyfriend (they take a helicopter in to his remote hunting lodge/mansion) and his buddies show up for a hunting trip. And that first night, they drink, party, have a little fun, but she of course goes to bed with her man, teasing his two friends. And you can see the influence of a female director--there's no moral judgment against her. And when the rape occurs the next day, it's just as much about the guy who walks out of the room and lets it happen. Or about her boyfriend who blames her for it afterward and beats her rather than calling the helicopter to get her out of there liked she asked. Big mistake, because when they try to kill her and she survives, she'll be back for revenge. Oh yeah, did I say that this is a superhero origin story? It is. I mean, technically her only power is...not dying even though she sheds about 50 person's worth of blood. And she makes the men shed their blood too. Enough to very literally paint a mansion. Watch it as a superhero movie, that way it's easier to get over the ludicrousness of it all and just enjoy it.

And now I'll just note how I started the day with Mr. Rogers and ended it in a freakin' bloodbath, and say that I love film festivals!

Total Running Time: 341 minutes
My Total Minutes: 475,827

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Jason goes to SFFILM--Day 3

Three more films on Friday, racing around the city through the rain.

First up, I just barely made it to the Children's Creativity Museum for HAL, a loving tribute to Hal Ashby. Normally I don't much care for hero-worship docs, but in this case he fucking deserved it. His wit, his spirit, his fierce passion for peace, love, and artistic freedom. His fights with producers and studio heads. The way he made every actor--heck, everyone on the set--feel like they were the most important person and the person he liked best. He was a genius, who was kind of destroyed by Hollywood. His best films were in the 70s--the wild, crazy times. But in the 80s...he tried to keep working, but studio consolidation and increased interference from executives. Well, as is acknowledged in the film, most people make their bad movies in the beginning, when they're still learning. He jumped right in with masterpieces, and made his bad films late in his career, when studio heads fucked with him too much.

Then I had just a small break, to hang in the lounge, have one beer, and then make my way over to the magnificent Dolby Cinema (not a regular theater, a lab where Dolby is creating the newest technology for the most amazing cinema experiences to date. If you have a chance, I would recommend literally anything playing there.)

I was there to see the world premiere of WRESTLE, a beautiful and gripping documentary about a poor high school in Alabama--on their list of failing schools (in fact, it has since been shut down) where they have a remarkable wrestling program. Not necessarily remarkable for their titles, but for the fact that they have one at all, and they have a few talented wrestlers. I can't lie, I'm not really into wrestling, don't know much about the sport. But the way it's shot, I got into the drama of every match, cheering their victories and lamenting their losses. But it's not just about the sport, it's about how they wrestle with other issues in their lives. Drugs, school, teenage pregnancy, run-ins with the police (deserved or not.) And even their coach, he's no perfect inspiration, just a guy trying to do some good (they were all there for the Q&A, and he said how he definitely broke the stereotype of both the white savior and the inspirational perfect teacher.) The filmmakers (Suzannah Herbert and Lauren Belfer) got absolutely amazing access to these kids' lives (and their parents and coach) and it makes for a powerful, beautiful movie, and a rare chance for kids who are often invisible to get their stories told.

If I had skipped out on the Q&A, it would've been easy to make the late show, but I just couldn't do that, so I was once again rushed to make it to the Roxie for BEAST, a pretty remarkable first feature British filmmaker Michael Pearce.) Set on the island of Jersey (where he grew up) it's the story of Moll, a young woman who feels constrained by the limitations of the island. In an interior monologue, she likens herself to a killer whale, who in nature travel hundreds of miles a day, but in captivity go deaf from the echos off their walls and often go insane. In fact, she bails on her own birthday party to go dancing, and the next morning meets a handsome man named Pascal. He's got blood on his hands--from hunting rabbits (which is illegal, but he's that kind of free spirit)--and he gives her a ride home. It's also the story of a serial killer on the island, one who kidnaps and kills teenage girls. And Pascal is a prime suspect. But Moll is also totally drawn to him, they become lovers. She's sure of his innocence, even as the town closes ranks against him, and her by association. There are twists and turns aplenty in the end. There's definitely a moment where it could've ended kind of predictably, and I'm so glad it kept going and turned my expectations on end at least a couple more times. Pretty great.

Total Running Time: 293 minutes
My Total Minutes: 475,487

Jason goes to SFFILM--Day 2

Two more films on Thursday. Also, I think this festival is trying to give me a heart attack, having me run all over town between films (and from the lounge to the films,) and scheduling very little time to do it.

Anyway, I made it to the Castro just in time for I HATE KIDS. It's an okay comedy, in a sort of old-school screwball way. Pleasing enough, but nothing special, at least for a film festival. I can't help but wonder how I'd react if I saw it in a regular theater. I'd have different expectations, and probably like it more.

Tom Everett Scott plays Nick Pearson, a famous writer and asshole who wrote the bestseller "I Hate Kids." And he's about to get married to a woman who equally hates kids. Okay, if you push them they don't really hate kids, they just have a different life plan and say it kind of tongue in cheek. Well, at their rehearsal dinner, who shows up but the son he never knew he had. And the psychic--The Amazing Fabular--who found him. At first he laughs it off as an obvious joke, but the kid has a DNA test to prove it. And he doesn't want a father, he wants help finding his mother who put him up for adoption. So just days before the wedding, Nick, his son, and The Amazing Fabular go on a road trip from angry ex to angry ex (including one particularly crazy ex) trying to find his mother. Oh yeah, and keep it from his bride-to-be. And, of course, to learn some life-changing lessons along the way.

Then I had to rush over the the Victoria just in time for AMERICAN ANIMALS. This is the first film in the festival that I can say totally fucking blew me away (hey, and only three films in--not bad!) As the opening text says, it's not based on a true story, it is a true story. But it emphasizes the "story" part more than the "true" part, calling attention to intentional storytelling techniques and how memories differ and change. It takes place in Transylvania University in Kentucky, and is about the great rare book heist of 2004. Four friends--Warren, Spencer, Chas, and Eric--plot this heist, once they know the library's rare book collection includes first editions of Audubon's "Birds of America" and Darwin's "Origin of the Species" (among others, but these are the big prizes.) The movie blends documentary and narrative, with the real people involved appearing and narrating the action or offering their recollections (and they're actually credited as actors, playing their "real" selves, just to add to the jumble.) At one point the real Warren appears on screen with the actor playing Warren, while his character asks the real guy if this is how he remembers it (it's not, because that scene was based on Spencer's memory.) Anyway, they plot the heist basically based on watching heist films, and of course it goes wrong--the moment it goes from playing heist to actually trying to pull it off. Turns out, they're kind of morons who don't know the first thing about how to pull off a daring heist, and they get caught pretty quickly. What's most interesting is there's a through line about how the money is only part of their goal. What they really want is a kind of transformative experience. And they kind of get it--they are all transformed into criminals. But they're also all out now (after spending about 8 years each in federal prison) and all getting on with their lives in different ways.

Total Running Time: 206 minutes
My Total Minutes: 475,193

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Jason goes to SFFILM--Opening Night

SFFILM started up again last night. I am completely unprepared, just gonna have to wing it, and with my busy day job, I'm not sure how much I'll be able to do (I'm definitely limited to nights and weekends, and not necessarily every night.) But I'll make the most of it, as best as I can

After the obligatory introductions and thank-yous to the sponsors, we got our opening film.

A KID LIKE JAKE is a smart story about a little boy who doesn't follow traditional gender norms. I believe the term is "gender expansive." He likes fairy tales, especially about Disney princesses. And he likes playing dress-up, especially as Disney princesses. But he's also a brilliant little boy, scoring in the 96th percentile (as much as you can really test toddler intelligence.

And it's about his parents (played Claire Danes and Jim Parsons) who are liberal New Yorkers but still crack under various pressures. Especially the pressure to get into a good private or magnet school. At first, his gender expansiveness is actually seen as a positive trait. His preschool teacher (the fantastic Octavia Spencer) points out that schools want diversity, and with his intelligence he'd be a good diversity addition. But kids are kids, and they will pick on him. And he doesn't want to change, no matter who pressures him. So comments like "stubborn" and "acting out" start showing up on his evaluations. And the way all the adults kind of dance around the issue doesn't make it easier (nor does facing it directly, actually.) It's definitely a thought-provoking and conversation-starting film (although this being San Francisco, everyone is pretty much on the same page in the conversation.) 

Then off to the after party, where I had a few beers and caught up with some of my SF film friends. And back home for an early-ish night (got home just after midnight, which is early for me during a festival.)

Here's looking forward to a great two weeks of film, as much as I can fit in my schedule!

Running Time: 92 minutes
My Total Minutes: 474,987

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Jason watches DEATH OF STALIN

And it's freakin' hilarious.

Actually, what's striking is how the story could be played completely straight as a political thriller. But they played it up for laughs by emphasizing the ludicrousness of the machinations for power after Stalin's death. And as an extra bonus, they play it in English, with casual, modern vernacular to emphasize how this ludicrousness fits in perfectly well with the politics of today. Ah, shit, now I made myself sad by realizing how today's politics is just like a bunch of Russian commie elites jockeying for power and killing each other over it.

Running Time: 107 minutes
My Total Minutes: 474,895

Jason finishes Cinequest

And it almost finished me, but I survived.

Again, I was up bright and early for drinks in the lounge. Lots of them. I just drank until it was time to see Ben Manciewicz get his Maverick Spirit Award. So...I'm sure he had a lot of cool things to say. And I'm 85% sure I was awake for them. But memory fades, right?

And then Mr. Manciewicz's selection, PEOPLE WILL TALK (1951) which is somehow an absolute masterpiece that I haven't heard of. Cary Grant stars as Dr. Noah Praetorius, a renowned gynecologist, an equally beloved professor, and the conductor of the student orchestra. Finlay Currie plays his constant companion, a mysterious Mr. Shunderson, a man of few words and a mysterious backstory. The good doctor's favorite student nurse/patient is Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain.) He discovers she's pregnant, even though she's not married. Worse yet, her ex-boyfriend is a soldier who has been called up to the Korean War conflict. But Noah finds himself in love with her, marrying her, and prepared to raise her child as his own. Well, this is all in the context of an inquisition by Professor Ewell (Hume Cronyn) who accuses him of unorthodox medical practices (like, relying on faith and humanity as much pills, serums, and knives.) Secrets will be revealed, scandals will erupt, but at the center Cary Grant is a hero we need as much today as ever--someone with a moral center focused on the human element, and isn't afraid to put his career on the line for it (and it helps that he's so charismatic that of course he'll win.)

Then I caught a cool thriller with BERLIN FALLING, a story of terrorism and a man pushed to his limits. Frank is having a really shitty day. His ex-wife is mad at him, and he's supposed to meet her and his daughter at the train station in Berlin. But things get worse when he meets a hitchhiker, Andreas, who has a plan for him. Andreas seems to know everything about him, and his daughter, and has spies with eyes on her all the time (yeah, it's an omnipotent villain flick, which can be cool when done right. And this one is done right.) Andreas' master plan is more than a match for Frank's military background, and the twists and turns all the way up to the climax are masterful. Just a fun ride, smart suspense, and maybe a revealing political angle.

Then finally the closing night gala was BROTHERS IN ARMS. I'll confess I haven't seen PLATOON since...well, at least pretty close to its release in 1986. I really need to revisit it, because this documentary, directed by one of the actors (Paul Sanchez, Doc,) is all about the experience of acting in the film, starting with the (then) unique "boot camp" style training. They were all hungry actors at the time, they all worked incredibly hard, they were all in their own way put through the wringer. And while they will all stress that what they went through is nothing compared to the actual soldiers, they all became incredibly close. No greater evidence is needed than how many actors were quick to participate in this documentary, a good 30 years after the fact (although Forest Whitaker was unavailable, but that was just a scheduling issue.) But Charlie Sheen (who also narrated,) Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, John McGinley, Tom Berenger, and many others participated enthusiastically. Oh, and Richard Edson, who hasn't had quite as big of a career as the others, but who proved to be a wild and hilarious storyteller. The whole thing was just a joy and a thrilling ride. But I think my favorite revelation is how it was all shot in sequence, and when a character died that actor flew home (from the Philippines) within a day. So after they became this tight knit group, the survivors kinda felt the absence of their fallen comrades, so their feelings of loss and missing their buddies were real.

Then off to the after party, more drinks and revelry!

Then we kept it going back in the Fairmont lounge area. And the last few diehards keep it going in my suite.

And finally, Cinequest 2018 was over. It's hard to believe, but true.

Total Running Time: 282 minutes
My Total Minutes: 474,788

Jason catches up on Cinequest--day 12

The penultimate day. Even after keeping the party going until something like 4 am the previous night, I was still in the lounge bright and early for a wake-me-up drink. But just one, because I had to run over to the first film really quick.

First the short, PLASTIC GIRLS. From Korea, the practice of animatronic girls beckoning customers into shops. A meditation on the sexualization of public spaces. Not gonna lie, it's kinda hot.

And that led into the feature, PURDAH, a documentary about Kaikasha Mirza, a Muslim girl in India who loves cricket. Like, she wants to play it professionally. Which is hard to do in a burka. I mean, it's pretty much impossible in a burka, which is why she plays without one. But her father isn't happy with it. After much pleading, he relents. She wears it to and from the match, and changes in the locker room. Meanwhile her sisters also have dreams, which are stifled by either tradition or poverty. Her older sister wants to be a model, and her younger sister either a fashion designer or a singer. The common thread is they all dream of careers that put them in the public eye. Which is extremely difficult in a society which (and a father who) believes that women should stay in the home and not have a career. An engaging and interesting true story.

Then back to the lounge, more drinking. Some evil Director of Programming and Associate Director (who shall remain nameless) might have kept plying me with shots of Tito's (I might have even turned into the Tito's Bandito at some time.) So I was nicely toasted for the next film.

THE MINER is the story of ...um...a miner. In Slovenia. Where the economy is shit, especially for miners. And he's sent in to work a mine and instead finds a pile of corpses. And...did I mention I was drunk? I don't remember a whole lot more than that.

But I wasn't as bad off as my friend who I ended up helping back to his hotel because he couldn't walk on his own. So with apologies I missed FROM BAGHDAD TO THE BAY, but getting him to a safe place to sleep it off was more important.

So my next program was Student Shorts.
CATHRIEL: A surprisingly cute animated short about an old holocaust survivor on the kibbutz where he lives.
HOME MADE: A woman's 50th birthday, but she ends up spending it not at her party, but with a couple of strangers in her restaurant.
IRON HANDS: The adventures of a young female weightlifter
THE LOST CITY OF TOMORROW: A super stylish sci-fi short. Androids, space archives, and of course the lost city.
RAINY NIGHT: Youth life at night in Rio de Janiero.
THE SHIFT: Late night 911 dispatchers in San Francisco. An interesting meditation on calmness in the midst of chaos.
TÊTE À TÊTE: A cute animated short about putting down your devices and talking face to face.
THE TRANSFER: Adventures of two Israeli soldiers transferring a prisoner.
UNDISCOVERED: A cute animated short about bigfoot, and why he can't be found.
WHERE MOTHBLOODS BLOOM: Sometimes it's better to share an awkward conversation with a trucker in a diner than stay with your druggie boyfriend.

Anyway, I told my super-drunk friend I would call and check on him, but there was no answer. So I walked back to his hotel, where he was fine, it's just his hotel room had no phone. So I'm not sure who I was calling who didn't pick up. Anyway, that's why I missed HUNTING LANDS. But I made sure he was okay and filled him up on San Jose's finest drunk food--La Victoria's burritos.

So our next show started with a short, MAN WITH BEARD. He's a man, and he has a beard. But so am I. But he's a work of art, and a voice of a generation. If only he knew it.

And then the feature, STATUS PENDING. Lizzie and Ryan make a cute couple. They've been together for six months, but keeping it casual. She's a baker and a social media darling. He's a world traveler (oh yeah, currently in New Zealand) who has a fledgling company that plans travel adventures. And Lizzie has an amazing opportunity to go on a trip with Ryan's company. But that means she'll be traveling for a year, and Ryan is just about ready to settle down and want more than a Tinder relationship. But she only has 24 hours to decide. So they make a list of things she wants to have accomplished in her life. They do (or simulate) as much as they can. They have a grand day, but they whole...relationship status...keeps butting in and imposing a sense of seriousness on their fun. It's a wonderfully charming romantic comedy of millennials, with a couple of extremely likable leads. Oh, and you get to see them naked right from the get go. Bonus!

And then I finally ended the night with ODDS ARE... (yes, the ellipsis is part of the title.) A horror film that is allegedly based on a true story, but is too unbelievable for me to...umm...believe. Tracy and Ryan are a college aged couple, out for a day at the beach with Ryan's best friend Kelly (that's a female Kelly, and of course there's a little tension and jealousy with her and Tracy.) They play a dare game, have a few laughs, Tracy is obviously less daring than the others, and we establish that Ryan can hold his breath for a really long time. Then on the way home, Kelly suggests one last dare, which ends up with her trying to gain entrance to a creepy man's house. Which she does...but doesn't come out. So Ryan and Tracy investigate, and find a night full of terror. It gets pretty ludicrous, but again they claim that it's a true story, so...I guess? The actors are all game enough, and it's a well made film. I just have a hard time overcoming how...thoroughly unbelievable it is. But again, it's based on a true story (allegedly.) Maybe it's exaggerated. Or maybe it's completely real, in which case it should be un-exaggerated, to make it believable.

And once again, the party continued in my room until 4 am again. Wait, there was also a time change, so the party went on until 5 am.

Total Running Time: 487 minutes
My Total Minutes: 474,506