Sunday, May 13, 2018

Jason goes to CAAMFest--Day 3

The first big weekend kicks off, and I started it by revisiting a classic, EAT A BOWL OF TEA. Actually, "revisiting" is the wrong word, since I had never actually seen this 1989 Wayne Wang film, although I'm familiar with some of Wang's work through previous festivals (back when it was SFIAFF, not CAAMFest. For the record, my favorite was LIFE IS CHEAP, BUT TOILET PAPER IS EXPENSIVE.)

Anyway, EAT A BOWL OF TEA starts with a brief explanation of the Chinese Exclusion Act (CAAM produced an excellent documentary about it, which I saw on closing night last yer.) The Act was lifted after WWII, when we had fought alongside the Chinese, and when many brave Chinese American soldiers served with valor. One of those soldiers is Ben Loy (Russell Wong, in a very early role) whose father Wah Gay (the always excellent Victor Wong) pressures him to get married. So he goes back to China, visits his mother for the first time since he was little, finds a beautiful girl (Cora Miao, wife of Wayne Wang,) and brings her back with him to New York. They've got a life set up for them, but the pressures of immigrant life, family expectations, and Ben's new job managing a restaurant...it all leaves him with not enough energy to fulfill his father's next request--give him a grandchild. Oh yeah, this is a story of impotence, as a metaphor for the struggles of an outsider in America and the struggles of a son trying to live up to his father's expectations. The title refers to the bitterness of the experience, but also to a traditional herbal remedy for the condition. Very funny, if the acting is a bit uneven in places. All in all, I'm very glad to have seen it. And in the Q&A, Wang talked about changes he had made since the initial release (because he sees flaws in all of his films.) In particular, apparently the originally ending was unambiguously happy, instead of the hopeful but uncertain ending presented in this version. I think it's one worth revisiting, so maybe when I have time I'll seek out the original version.

Next up was a pretty surprising documentary, NAILED IT. I normally wouldn't be too interested in a documentary about nail salons, but it fit into my schedule well, and ended up really impressing me. The stereotype of the Asian nail salon is pretty true. The majority of nail salons in the U.S. are actually not just owned by Asian Americans, but specifically by Vietnamese Americans. And why that is...well that's pretty interesting. It was definitely a post Vietnam War thing, as Vietnamese refugees flooded into the U.S. But why did they go into nail salons in particular? That wasn't a big business in Vietnam, it wasn't something they knew already. It's something that's pretty easy to learn and run as a small cash business, so it's a good way to make money. But the reason they chose that really comes down to two words--Tippi Hedren. Yeah, the star of THE BIRDS was also a humanitarian who took an interest in the Vietnamese refugees, visited them in Northern California, and helped send 20 of them to beauty school. And then that absolutely took off, because it's also the story of how nail salons became a thing not just in trendy upscale spas, but in the inner cities. Because that's where they could afford space, and they could partner with the local community and become a part of it. It's also a story of how it became a glutted market, and how the cost pressure from competition pushed to some unsanitary practices and gave Asian nail salons a bad reputation. That has been cleaned up, but now the big fight is on safe conditions for the workers. The chemicals in a lot of these products are pretty toxic. Not bad once they dry, and not bad for the short time a customer is in there, but really, really bad for the workers (which I know I had seen in another documentary, I just can't remember where or when.) So now safe salons are the things to look for. Obviously it makes no difference where I never get my nails done. But the next time you're looking for a salon, please check with the Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative.

Well, if that documentary surprised me, the next one blew my freakin' mind. THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF DESIRE is all about Chinese streaming video stars. Particularly on the platform YY, These are people with a webcam who do shows. Sing, talk, rant, whatever. All very PG rated, but nonetheless the world is totally creepy. See, beneath all the technology is a society that is broken and lonely, and they're trying to find some bit of comfort in the world, but the only people who are profiting in the long run are the ones running the platform. So there's the streamers, competing for popularity. Often playing up their common "poor loser" backgrounds. Then there are their fans, most of whom are poor losers themselves, but who nonetheless pay for "gifts" to the performers--virtual trinkets that aren't important, but some of the money goes to the streamers (60% to YY, 40% to the streamers...and their agency. More on that later.) So some streamers get legitimately rich. Then there are the patrons--rich people, often newly rich, and stereotypically without great taste. They're the ones who pay top thousands of dollars to become a duke or a king and get special access to the performers. But they also have the throng of fans wanting to talk to them. Again, they're lonely people, just lonely and rich, so they can conspicuously spend for fame and attention. Well, once a year there's a competition for the most popular streamers, and you better win that competition if you don't want to lose all your fans. And that's where the agencies come in. Patrons with enough money will start an agency. Agencies will promote streamers--for a cut of their 40%. But that's what it takes to win. And if you really want to win, streamers will pour their own profits back into buying "votes" (it's a literally cash-based competition.) So while streamers can make money for a while, they can also spend millions trying to win the competition, and end up losing anyway. It's a ruthless, lonely world, with all the misogyny and vileness of the Internet, and someone's making a shitload of money off of it. Fans might think it's the streamers, and that might be true for a while, but it's not true in the long run.

Well, I've done my best to try to explain the system of streaming. What I haven't told you about is the personalities themselves. We follow a couple of streamers--Big Li and Shen Man. To really get to know them you'll have to watch the documentary, I can't do them justice. What I found remarkable is they don't seem to have any great talent. Shen Man sings, Big Li talks. And mostly they just talk to their fans asking them to spend, spend, spend. It's utterly bizarre.

And then I ended the night with the Disoriented Comedy Show. Yeah, live stand-up comedy, taking a bit of a break from movies. Atsuko Okatsuka, Jenny Yang, and D'Lo are very funny, and...I just realize I have no idea how to review a stand-up comedy show (you may argue I don't know how to review movies, either.) I will say I laughed a lot, live comedy looks really fucking hard, and apparently stand-up comedians needs to check in frequently to make sure the audience knows what she or he means (know what I mean?) And I'll say that while the comedy is from a different perspective than we're used to--female, trans, Asian-American, etc.--it's inclusive. It's about the truths that bring us together. As one of the few white dudes in the audience, I can say I never felt attacked or ridiculed. And as a mediocre white man, I want them to have all the chances they need to be successful. So check them out...wherever they're playing next.

Total Running Time: 239 minutes
My Total Minutes: 478,709

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Jason goes to CAAMFest--Day 2

Two more movies last Friday night, as the first big weekend kicks off.

I started with some Filipino food porn with ULAM: MAIN DISH. Oh, and I went in knowing practically nothing about Filipino food, so I was like a virgin watching this food porn.

It's kind of a cliche to say a culture is embodied in its food. I mean, if there were any cultures who didn't really value food, they've probably died of starvation long ago. But the people in this documentary really, really take their Filipino food to heart. It's hard to get flavors across on screen (although it is explained that due to the warm, humid climate, there's a lot of sour, vinegary, and citrus flavors) so the story is told through the enthusiasm and frustrations of people trying to make Filipino cuisine the next big thing. It explores the central difficulty of attracting people to the food--people who like Filipino food get it at home, and nobody cooks better than your own lola (grandmother.) And for those who are unfamiliar with the food--well, chances are the first thing you learned about was balut, and you learned about it from Fear Factor (for the record, I have actually eaten balut. It's not that bad, but I'm not about to repeat it.) And it talks about micro-aggression of the Filipino culture, which is already kind of the bastard step-child of both the Hispanic and Asian worlds. But they have one big thing going for them--they have great cooks who know the restaurant business. They've just been working in the kitchens of Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants, Thai restaurants, French restaurants, etc. Oh yeah, Filipinos work a lot in the restaurant industry, at least here in America. And it's about time they step out and make an impact with their own cuisine.

There was an after party, where I probably could've sampled some Filipino food (at least lumpia,) but I had to go right back in the theater for the next show. So tasting Filipino food will be my low-key goal for the rest of the festival.

Anyway, I was right back in the theater for the Altered States Shorts program. Hooray for weird-ass shorts!
ASWANG NEXT DOOR: The Aswang is a terrifying monster from Filipino folklore. And what if he were living next door, and looked perfectly human during the day. Except that he came over and warned you that he will probably shape-shift and kill you and eat the fetus right out of your womb. So...stay safe!
RUNNER: A woman in San Francisco is training for a run. A run for her life. A life in a post-apocalyptic world with a biohazard on its way up the coast. An intriguing and exciting mini-thriller.
SANZU NO KAWA: THE RIVER OF THREE CROSSINGS: Based on the Japanese Buddhist belief in a river crossing in the afterlife (similar to the Greek myth of the river Styx) a boy deals with the loss of his sister, and the memories of her.
SPACE BUTTHOLE: It seems every film festival is in love with David Chai's latest. I thought the string of poop jokes was pretty childish to begin with. But now I'm really getting tired of this shit.
THE TROUBLED TROUBADOUR: From South Korea, a wandering minstrel is proud to have peed in every ocean in the world. But his servant almost leaves without him, pushing the gondola on rails. Then they meet some little kid demons, who take him on a journey. Pretty freakin' weird!
A VACATION IN HOLLYWOOD: Some AirBnB rentals are nice. Some have strange things going on in them. With nifty nods to GHOSTBUSTERS and THE RING, among other horror film classics I'm sure.
YOUR HAND IN MINE: Relationships can be scary. Especially when your ex-boyfriend is not at the institute where he's supposed to be, but shows up in your home. You gotta shut that down fast.

Total Running Time: 162 minutes
My Total Minutes: 478,470 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Jason goes to CAAMFest--Opening Night

I am so happy that CAAMFest moved from it's previous dates in March to May! Of course, it's appropriate that it's in Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month, but more important to me, it no longer conflicts with Cinequest. So instead of just the final weekend, for the first time in quite a few years I can go all out for nearly the whole festival.

And the opening night film was a doozy. Of course, after the obligatory thank-yous and introductions, and an award presented by Mayor Willie Brown to the night's rock star celebrity Norm Mineta, we finally got down to the movie.

I was surprised when I checked my watch and the program guide and realized AN AMERICAN STORY: NORMAN MINETA AND HIS LEGACY is only a scant hour long. Because they cram a heck of a lot of information into that time. It starts with his father's journey from Japan to America (where he missed his intended stop in San Francisco and got off in Seattle instead, before making his way down to San Jose and starting a family. A big chunk of the story focuses on when Norman was a child, and his family was interned in Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming. Yup, he was a victim of a particularly shameful part of America's history. But rather than bitterness, he put his efforts into making America a better place--a place that wouldn't do anything like that again. In fact, I'm jumping a bit ahead, but George W. Bush credits the fact that Muslims weren't rounded up and put in internment camps after 9/11 to Mineta's inspiration--he didn't want America to do to Muslims what they did to Norm and his family. Oh yeah, Mineta, despite being a lifelong liberal Democrat, served as Bush's Transportation Secretary, after serving as Clinton's Commerce Secretary. Which I believe (and the movie asserts) makes him the only person ever appointed to a cabinet position by two Presidents of opposite parties (others have served across administrations until a new President has nominated a successor, but I believe he's the only one nominated by both Presidents.)

Anyway, the movie highlights all his accomplishments, but always grounding them in the lessons and persecution he received as a minority and child of immigrants. But the most important thing is the airport named after him in San Jose (he jokes that his grandchildren ask him if he owns that airport.) Which means I have flown several times on trips originating from and ending at airports named after people I have met (or at least, seen live and was within a dozen feet from.) The other one is Ted Stevens, who despite being the Alaskan of the Century (last century) is not quite the man Norm Mineta is. He also ended up convicted of corruption (although the charges were later dismissed) and ending up dying in a plane crash. So now whenever I fly into the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, I'm flying into an airport named after a crooked politician who died in a plane crash--my go to example of why you shouldn't name things after people who are still alive! So here's hoping that a similar fate won't befall Norman Mineta. After seeing the man and hearing him speak, I'm pretty confident his legacy will endure.

Running Time: 60 Minutes
My Total Minutes: 478,308

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Jason watches AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

I've had a rule about Marvel films for a while. For a fun ride, see the first of each character's solo films. To move the overall story forward, see a Captain America film. For bloated fan service, see an Avengers film. (The individual character sequels are hit and miss. And for the most fun possible, see a Taika Waititi film.)

Well, I'm gonna say that the pattern still holds.

"But Jason!" I can hear you screaming (because apparently I'm a psychic?) "This totally moved the world forward! Think about all the heroes who died, along with half the life in the universe! Surely that moves the universe forward!"

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. Fuck you! There will be SPOILERS!

But the thing is, if everyone dies but is still under contract for more movies, I don't for a second believe any of them are dead--and neither do you. And I know I'm just being a cranky old man here. I heard audible gasps in the theater for nearly all the deaths (Yeah, especially that one. And that other one, too.) But they have zero weight. Some magic will bring them back by the next movie. Maybe someone else will really, really die. But I still won't care because there will always be the ability to bring them back.

And I know, even though I don't read the comics, that dead characters returning is a common occurrence in the comics. But why would you want the most annoying thing about comic books to be transferred to the movies?

But that's just minor league crankiness. My real beef is with Thanos. He wants to "balance the universe." The world is overpopulated, so his plan is to kill half of all life in the universe. But dude...have you ever met life? It's really, really fucking (literally fucking) good at making more life, and it really enjoys doing it. You think you can control life with these sissy-ass half measures!? The next movie should start 1 year later, with Thanos checking in on how his balancing plan has worked, then screaming "Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck!!!! They've repopulated how much already!!!"

Now if he really wanted to tackle overpopulation, he would've snapped his fingers and turned half the universe sterile. Plus the audience would witness the heart-wrenching scene of Peter Parker saying, "Mr. Stark...my balls feel funny."

Anyway, the movie was a lot of fun, action-packed and did a great job juggling all those characters all over the universe. Can't wait for the next one!

Running Time: 149 minutes
My Total Minutes: 478,249

Jason goes to the Castro for a double bill of kick-ass spy ladies

A couple of recent spy lady flicks that I finally got around to watching, thanks to the Castro Theatre programming.

RED SPARROW: This movie, despite the anticipation of Jennifer Lawrence's nude scenes, has been more or less a box office flop. Personally, I blame the Internet for making it too easy to see stars naked without ever having to go to the movies. Anyway, if you actually watch the movie you'll see her boobs, and her ass, and if that guy just moved a foot to the left soooo much more. But you'll also see a pretty good spy thriller with revenge and double-crosses galore. In fact, all the promised sexiness--even between the characters who allegedly fall for each other--is just spy games. This should've been marketed as a kick-ass espionage thriller with a solid dose of violence. In fact, my only real disappointment is not enough violence. When J-Law has to kick someone's ass, she can do it very well. But it holds that back in favor of double-crossing and psychological violence. Which is cool, I guess....

Now ATOMIC BLONDE had no problem dialing up the violence. Charlize Theron kicks more ass here than she did as Furiosa. I won't even attempt to untangle the plot, which is secondary to the action and the cinematography. I will say they really drive home the point that this is all taking place in Berlin, as the Berlin Wall is about to fall. So there's this overwhelming sense that all of the espionage plots don't really matter (or won't in just a matter of days.) But the characters aren't going through the motions. It's like they have a desperate sense that what they're doing really, really matters (spoiler: it doesn't, but it's fun as hell to see that commitment.) Oh yeah, and in this one the sex scenes really are about sex. At least as much as about spycraft.

Total Running Time: 255 minutes
My Total Minutes: 478,099

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for the trains!

It was our great train weekend a couple of weekends ago in Niles.

THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903): I've seen this one many times. Arguably the first American narrative film, and featuring our patron saint Broncho Billy Anderson (before he was Broncho Billy) in a triple role. Although I've seen it many times (most recently last year at our Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival) for some reason the last time I actually wrote about it was at the Great Nickelodeon Show back in 2009 (either that or I'm really bad at searching my own blog.) In any case, it's still a great film, silly fakeness and all. They were inventing how to make movies back then, and this was a huge step in bringing it from a novelty to the world's dominant art form.

TEDDY AT THE THROTTLE (1917): Another one I've seen many times, and wrote about as recently as 2012. Back then I said:
TEDDY AT THE THROTTLE (1917): I'd seen this before, and I still don't understand the complicated will with the marriage clause any better. But the important thing is Gloria Dawn (Gloria Swanson) is engaged to her sweetheart Bobbie Knight (Bobby Vernon) but her evil guardian (Wallace Beery) is trying to break them up and have Bobbie marry his (Wallace Beery's) sister so they can keep control of his inheritance. And Teddy is a wonder dog who rescues them all, even after Wallace Beery does the ultimate villainy cliche of tying Gloria to the railroad tracks. Again, funny and high energy.
All still true. Especially the confusion about the will and the marriage clause. It's from a different time, I guess.

Then an intermission, and on to the feature.

THE GREAT K&A TRAIN ROBBERY (1926): Finally, one I hadn't seen before, and it's an action packed riot. Tom Mix is the real deal, with charm, humor, heroics, and stunt-work like crazy. Heck, he's introduced hanging on a rope over the end of a cliff, spying on the robbers, then slides down zipline-style and lands right on his horse. He's a detective who was hired by the head of the railroad to stop the gang that keeps robbing his train. But he quickly discovers that the railroad secretary--the boss's main confidante--is in cahoots with the robbers. So rather than reveal himself, he goes undercover and is chased as a robber. But he's still got the moves and the style to stop the robbers, win the girl, and catch the secretary. All in just under an hour. Lean, but action-packed--just like I like 'em!

Total Running Time: 90 minutes
My Total Minutes: 477,844

Jason goes to the Castro for a George Romero tribute

It was a NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) / DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) double feature. I don't need to recap either of those movies for you. They're classics, and if you haven't seen them, go fix that right now.

I've often said, in complete sincerity, that I understand the decades of American zeitgeist through George Romero's "Dead" series.

1960s - NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. This decade is about racial tensions.
1970s - DAWN OF THE DEAD. This decade is about mindless consumerism.
1980s - DAY OF THE DEAD. This decade is about out of control military buildup.
1990s - ...This is the decade I came of age. It should be the most important decade in my life. But I don't really understand what it was all about because George Romero didn't make a "...OF THE DEAD" movie.
2000s - Now things are getting complicated, with three movies.

In 2005, he makes LAND OF THE DEAD, possibly my favorite of the series. I know that's blasphemy (true cinephiles are supposed to prefer the classics!) but it's all about class warfare, plus Dennis Hopper being Dennis Hopper. And dammit, the 21st century has been all about class warfare so far.

Then two years later he follows it up with DIARY OF THE DEAD. Playing on the faux-documentary style that become so popular after THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, he adds another layer of media savviness by having his character point out how this "documentary" is edited and music is added to create tension. It's artificially trying to scare you, because you should be scared. And certainly audiences are much more savvy.

And finally in 2009 he releases SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD. I confess, I'm the least familiar with this one, and I really need to revisit it. At the time, I even admitted I didn't immediately get what it was about. In retrospect, I think it might be about hyper-partisanship. The "Us vs. Them" mentality that has become so ingrained we fight each other more than the common enemy that literally wants to kill us and eat our brains. It's a Hatfields vs. McCoys story. Or, in modern day, a Democrats vs. Republicans story.

Ya know what, I don't need to revisit SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD. I need to revisit them all. It was a joy to see the first two again, especially on the magnificent Castro screen. But that's only a third of story. I need to do a Marathon of the Dead--all six. Who's with me?

Total Running Time: 223 minutes
My Total Minutes: 477,754