Saturday, October 28, 2017

Jason...takes a hiatus

Some might notice I basically already have. Anyway, it was just about a year ago today that I rebooted, because 2016 just...broke me. Turns out this year has been just as hard. So I'm not even rebooting. I apologize to the remainder of Docfest, to the day I spent at Frameline (especially Julie Sokolow's excellent WOMAN ON FIRE,) to the Niles Film Museum, both for Charlie Chaplin Days (featuring the excellent insights and entertainment of Dan Kamin, the guy who taught Robert Downey, Jr. to play Chaplin) and for the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival.

I especially apologize to my friends who made the hilarious webseries Doucheaholics. I had a great time at the premiere and after party, and if I can find some time in my hectic life, I really want to be part of season 2.

I apologize to the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival and to Another Hole in the Head, both playing right now and for the next couple of weeks. In fact, I'm emceeing Another Hole in the Head, so please come out and watch some horror films with me. And I'll be back at SVJFF for the end, just as soon as Holehead is over.

And I apologize to my readers (I hesitate to imagine I actually have fans) because I'm sure you were just dying to hear my insights about all these festivals as well as some feature films like SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (very good, but missing a scene where the people of New York come to the rescue, which were the best parts of previouse Spider-Man movies) or WONDER WOMAN (awesome!!!!) or MOTHER! (yikes! Darren Aronofsky hates God, and isn't afraid to say it!) or BLADE RUNNER 2049 (Gorgeous, liked it, still processing what it's "about"--much like the first BLADE RUNNER.)

Anyway, this time I'm not even up for a reboot. This is a hiatus. I'm officially giving myself permission to walk away from this blog...until the New Year. See you in 2018. If something strikes me as especially noteworthy, I'll write about it on my Facebook and/or Twitter.

Of course, I'm still counting the minutes I spend watching movies.

My Total Minutes: 434,109

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 11

A big five-film Saturday, so let's jump right in, starting with THE SURROUNDING GAME, all about the game of Go. We get a brief tutorial on the rules and history of the game, and how the very simple rules lead to all sorts of complicated emergent properties. But the drama is about three young Americans attempting to become the first professional players from the West. They're interesting people, a bit maniacal in their pursuits. In fact, that's something that really struck me. I had never played, but I had heard about how it's a beautiful game and even if you lose there's a zen-like appreciation for the beautiful patterns that are created while playing. In fact, the competitors seem to be the least appreciative of the beauty (and it's alluded to in the movie that that's not just an American quirk, the professionals in Asia are all about winning, not beauty.) The people who appreciate the beauty are all the craftsmen. The people who hand craft the game boards and pieces, they're chill. The players...well they live or die based on victories. They aren't supposed to be openly demonstrative, but they say and you can tell that they are ecstatic when they win and crushed when they lose. You know, just like any other sport. 

Oh, and only recently did an AI beat the undisputed human champion in Go. So much of the movie is spent insisting that despite the simple rules it's actually so much more complicated than chess that only the human mind can play it well. And then that's all thrown out at the end. Not in the movie, but in the Q and A, we also learned that some of the AI's winning moves are low level simple stuff that high level masters would mock a student for trying.

Next up was a bit of political campaign docs, starting with the short ELECTION NIGHT. That would be the 2016 American Presidential election night, as seen by nervous patrons and workers in a pub in London. 2 of them were happy with the result.

And that was the lead-in for the feature, NAT BATES FOR MAYOR. Richmond, California is a Bay Area city and home to a huge Chevron refinery. In fact, as a resident of the Bay Area, I only know it as the town around that Chevron refinery (where there was a major fire and shelter-in-place emergency a few years back) that you have to drive through if you want to get to Marin County from the East Bay. Nat Bates is a longtime city council member, and he ran for mayor in 2014. And he supported Chevron. And Chevron supported him--to the tune of $3 million. Allegedly. Unofficially. These were political action committees that can't work directly with the candidate. But his opponent, Tom Butt, isn't exactly squeaky clean, either. He's not in the pocket of Chevron, but he is the old white guy who has a history (alleged) of not taking care of his black or poor constituents. But he is supported by the Richmond Progressive Alliance. But are they the solution, or are they out of touch do-gooders (who hold fundraisers in Berkeley, not even in Richmond) who just want to dictate to Richmond's working class black residents. After all, Chevron does provide a heck of a lot of good jobs, and ~40% of the city's tax revenue...

Okay, I'm not going to pretend I understand the local politics of Richmond. I do know that the filmmakers do an excellent job of neither judging nor praising any candidate. Everyone has their flaws, everyone comes off looking a little dirty. It's kind of the opposite of sausages. The end result might be somewhat unappetizing, but it's pretty interesting watching it get made.

Then for a bit of weirdness with CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER. A joyful tribute to the typewriter, a machine that is supposed to be made obsolete with computers and word processing. But it still has it's devotees, and maybe it's here to stay. There are celebrity fans, most notably and charmingly Tom Hanks. And there's a repair shop in Berkeley that'll keep your machine working (and it gave the film it's name.) There's an artist who re-purposes typewriter parts into beautiful sculptures. There are writers and musician who write their plays or lyrics exclusively on typewriters, and talk about how it is so much better for their creativity. And there are collectors, especially one who collects antique typewriters, including the early designs that didn't work out (hey, if anyone out there knows of a Sholes and Glidden that the owner is willing to part with, let him know!) And it's all bookended with the very strange story of the Royal Road Test. Chucking a Royal typewriter out of a speeding car and documenting the scattered pieces. Damn, this was a fun movie. Makes me wish I had written this review on a typewriter, then scanned it in and posted the photo rather than this boring, boring text. Best I can do on short notice is use the somewhat typewriter-ish Courier font.

Next up was ALL THE RAGE, the intensely personal story of the work of Dr Sarno. Co-director Michael Galinsky has suffered from back pain on and off for many years. So did his father. So do many people. It's a verifiable epidemic. And many people are getting surgery, taking pills, etc. to deal with it. But Dr Sarno has been treating it for years, as a psychosomatic disease. Of course, first he does search for a physical cause--a muscle tear, a tumor, etc. But unless he finds something, his diagnosis is TMS. From my layman's understanding, the idea is that the unconscious mind creates pain in the body so your conscious mind will focus on that rather than the unpalatable emotions. The treatment is knowledge. Patients swear by it, including such celebrities as Larry David and Howard Stern. It has personally help Galinsky. But the medical establishment dismisses it. Although it's pretty interesting how that might be changing. See, this production, which was started over a decade ago, was put on hold as funding was scarce and other projects took priority. But when stresses caught up with Galinsky and his back pain returned with a vengeance, he returned to Dr Sarno, not just as a patient but to finish the movie. And he found...well, not the establishment embracing him, but a for more allies than he had just a decade ago. And research in the mind-body connection is a hot topic, at least in psychology circles if not in the larger medical community. (The film presents a brief timeline of how thinking about the mind and body got disconnected in the Western world--short version is historically it was a resolution of a power struggle between the church and science.) I'm not qualified to judge the scientific merits of Dr Sarno's theories, although I will say I find them plausible (for what that's worth) and the movie does an excellent job of making the case.

And then I finished the day with ON A KNIFE EDGE. Five years in the life of a proud teenage Lakota, George Dull Knife, as he becomes a young activist in AIM--the American Indian Movement. There's not a lot of hope on the reservation. Jobs are scarce, income is minuscule, liquor is prevalent despite a ban on liquor stores on the reservation (instead, there is a town just outside with--I shit you not--a population of 10 people and 4 liquor stores.) He holds fast to his proud Lakota warrior tradition. But it's tough to stay optimistic. He nearly gets arrested and his truck impounded at a protest (they literally have to pay off the cops, under the guise of paying the tow truck driver who was already on his way to turn around.) And when peaceful means to life up and educate his people fall short, there is a period of disillusionment. It's a remarkable coming of age story, where he is definitely more of a man at the end for dealing with difficult, complicated, desperate issues with spirit and honor. A great movie and a testament to not just a smart young man, but a community that was so welcoming to outsiders to give them such complete access.

And that was Saturday at Docfest. Just about time for 5 more movies today (Sunday.)

Total Running Time: 468 minutes
My Total Minutes: 430,748

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 10

An excellent double bill on Friday, with two films that are so different I wouldn't necessarily expect to work well together.

The first program started with the short MOTHER'S DAY. A charity buses children to visit their mothers in prison (they do a similar service on Father's Day, but his film is about Mother's Day.) A look at the toll that incarceration takes on the children (1 in 10 California children have a parent in prison) by looking at the one day they get to have a family for a little while.
That was the lead-in to the Centerpiece presentation, THE WORK. A remarkable program, Inside Circle, matches troubled men with inmates--many of them lifers--in a 4 day group therapy retreat in Folsom prison (there are other circles, but the film focuses on the one in Folsom.) This isn't some "scared straight" bullshit. This is a team of men, inmates, and professional facilitators who get to the root of their troubles. Their feelings of betrayal, their fears, their machismo. They tear down barriers, they fight, they cry. It's so goddamn liberating for men to cry, and to not be ashamed of it. I don't think anything I can write will come off as anything but hokey. But it's not, the movie should just be seen, not read about. Or better yet, the experience should be lived. It was really fucking powerful just watching it. And dudes, we all got frustrations. One of my favorite parts was the guy who didn't look like he was there because he was in any sort of danger with his lifestyle, he was just kind of...aimless in life. 20-something, and doesn't know what he wants to be. Not the sort of thing you'd think convicts would help with. But they do. Turns out although his father wasn't abusive or anything, he just never got the praise and acknowledgement he wanted, so he grew up thinking he wasn't good at anything. And extremely common, almost mundane problem, but he makes a breakthrough as much as anyone else. Powerful, powerful stuff.

And then the next film, at first couldn't seem more different. And in tone, it certainly is. But while THE WORK is about how men deal with the pressures of being men, TAKE MY NOSE, PLEASE! is a comedic look at how women deal with the pressures of being women. Especially how female comedians take on cosmetic surgery--because they're the only ones allowed to be honest about it. Director Joan Kron, an 89 year old woman who has written about cosmetic surgery for decades, knocks it out of the park in her directorial debut (see, it's never too late to make your movie!) She's got humor and pacing, telling the history of cosmetic surgery (starting with face peels on Egyptian men in the age of the pharaohs) all the way through modern times. And how that history became a fact of life for women in entertainment--starting with Fanny Brice and a nose job from someone who turned out to not actually be a licensed doctor. And of course there's the Catch-22, where if you get work done, you're not aging gracefully but if you actually age gracefully, you can't be seen in public, much less work! And so dramatic or glamorous actresses lie about the work they get done, while comedians are the only ones who can speak openly. Even when their homely looks are part of their humor, like Phyllis Diller, they aren't immune to...wanting to look a little better (or as she put it, getting tired of the dog dragging her outside and burying her.) One interesting common procedure is getting the nose done, specifically to not look so Jewish. Hey, the movie doesn't judge, so neither will I. We also get to follow a couple of comedians as they get some minor work done, like youngster Emily Askin and the veteran Jackie Hoffman. And holy cow, I know I had seen her in bit parts before, but she's freakin' hilarious. How was I not a bigger fan of hers before?

Just a final thought, that wasn't in the movie but I was thinking it on the way home. Cosmetic surgery is kind of like CGI in movies. We think it looks bad, because we only notice when it looks bad. If it's well done, you don't even notice it.

Total Running Time: 194 minutes
My Total Minutes: 430,281

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 9

Two more shows on Thurday. First up was a shorts program and part of the program on Nonfiction Vanguard honoree Jamie Meltzer. Meltzer is a teacher at Stanford, and Stanford Smorgasbord is a selection of his students' work.
(ALMOST) FREEDOM: An examination of what it's like to live with an electronic anklet for monitoring your house arrest.
BISONHEAD: A view of the marginalization of Native Americans, through the lens of a controversial buffalo hunt in Yellowstone. Are they exercising their native treaty hunting rights, or is this an outdated and unnecessary practice?
JANUARY: Three generations of women, family intimacy, and clutter. Nobody really talks about the clutter, but I think someone is kind of a hoarder.
LAPS: Popular enough at Indiefest, they brought it back for Docfest. A look at runners in San Quentin Prison, and how running helps them out in life.
PELICULA DE MI PADRE: A daughter's love and worship for her father, who to her was Elvis.
POWDER FRESH: Talcum powder. Great for that fresh, dry, clean feeling. Also great for giving you cancer. And great for marketing to black people. Yikes! I didn't grow up with baby powder being for anything other than...babies (I'm white) so this was quite an eye-opener.
SCRAP: Collecting junk. Selling the metal. Cool.
THE SHIFT: Late night 911 operators in San Francisco. A unique view of the city.
UNHEARD: Singing through the pain of a son lost to police violence. Powerful.

And then the second show was a wonderful film geek meditation, BLUE VELVET REVISITED. When David Lynch made BLUE VELVET, he invited along a young German filmmaker Peter Braatz to do the making-of documentary. That film, NO FRANK IN LUMBERTON, was apparently never released commercially and had very limited distribution. But Braatz still had all the footage, and 70% of it wasn't used. So he went back to the footage, and rather than make a straightforward making-of documentary, he made a meditation on it. Now heavy on nostalgia (it's so weird to see such a young David Lynch) it plays out like a melodic and visual poem. As a sleep-deprived maniac, I can tell you it's an excellent film to drift in and out of consciousness to, and there are wonderful moments with Lynch talking about stuff like how great it is to be on a low-budget film again, or how he doesn't trust radiation because it's invisible. I really hope this gets released, or I have another chance to see it. And for that matter, now I'm curious about NO FRANK IN LUMBERTON. Perhaps a triple bill with BLUE VELVET itself?

Total Running Time: 167 minutes
My Total Minutes: 430,087

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 8

Two great features last Wednesday.

First up was CHARGED, a story of survival and recovery that is beyond inspirational. Eduardo Garcia was hiking though the Montana wilderness when he found a metal box with a dead bear inside it. He didn't realize it was a poorly maintained, still live electrical junction box. And he got zapped with 2400 volts. He nearly died. But he survived, made it to the road, and was medivac'ed to a specialist burn center in Salt Lake City. He lost a hand, a few ribs, and a lot of muscle mass. And his recovery was long and difficult, but he survived. Not just that, he re-learned his proffession and passion--being a chef (that requires a lot of hand work, so relearning that with a hook was quite a trick.) But I said it's beyond inspirational, because it's not just about that. Sure, he has his triumphant TV tour where he's the toast of all these talk shows. Oooh, wait, "toast" is probably a bad choice of words. But I think Eduardo would be fine with it, because one thing that came across strong in the film--and even stronger in the Q&A--is his sense of humor. And I'm 100% certain that his sense of humor saved his life. The ability to laugh at yourself keeps you from giving up. I know this, I've felt it. But here's the thing I learned about that--humor works right up until the moment it stops working. And this movie gets into that, too. It's not just about triumph and the joy of being alive. It's about the toll it takes on yourself and your loved ones. It's about the days when things get so overwhelming that humor isn't enough anymore, and what you do then. And for that, I think Eduardo had an interesting source of strength--having a shady past of drug and alcohol abuse, hurting people he cared about, cheating on his girlfriend (who later became his best friend and business partner, and was making most of his medical decisions in recovery. So when it came time that they had to amputate a testicle...it was the girlfriend who he cheated on who got to make that decision.) But also realizing (multiple times in the past) that his behavior was hurting not just himself but the people he loved, and having the strength of character to get help and pull himself out of that...twice (okay, so maybe the first time didn't stick 100%, but he never quit.) An inspiring man, and inspiring (and beautifully shot) film that shows the warts-and-all reality behind the inspiring story.

And then I caught an interesting experimental documentary, THE ROAD MOVIE. Made entirely of Russian dashboard camera footage, it could play like an extended Youtube playlist, but a very, very well made one. It's the art of content curation and editing. as we alternate between pants-shitting terror and surreal hilarity. In fact, it reminds me of a term from the Grand Guignol--the "Scottish Shower." That is, to alternate hot and cold. In the Grand Guignol it was alternating between gore and sex comedies. Here it's alternating between crashes, break-ins, floods, a horse-drawn sleigh, a crazy guy jumping on the windshield, a drive through a forest fire, etc. There's no narrative arc (which is great if you're sleep deprive, you can doze through a few without missing the zeitgeist) and it's brilliant, hilarious, and terrifying. I want to come out with the conclusion that Russian drivers are just insane. But I wonder what would happen if dashcams were as ubiquitous in America as they are in Russia. Oh yeah, this isn't in the movie but a friend of mine was telling me how practically every car there is equipped with one. In fact, (according to my friend) insurance companies typically won't pay out if you don't have the dashcam footage proving you weren't at fault.

Total Running Time: 158 minutes
My Total Minutes: 429,920

Jason goes to Docfest--Day 7

Two more shows on Tuesday, starting with the shorts program Bay Area Voices. Hooray for local filmmakers!
ARRESTED (AGAIN): Karen Topakian, protester extraordinaire, talks about her life and many, many arrests.
BUMP AND SPIKE: The brief period of professional volleyball with the IPVA. Founded by Hollywood moguls, featuring the skill and athleticism of a post-NBA Wilt Chamberlain, it was an incredible party for 1 year. Then collapsed amidst a pot smuggling scandal by the owners of the Denver team.
THE EXTRACTIGATORS: French broom infests the hillsides of Marin County, choking out the other plant life. A small group mostly elderly residents get together once a week and pull up as much as they can. They're the small time heroes the community needs.
EYE, CAMERA: As in a prosthetic eye, with an tiny camera inside. The result of a horrific accident becomes an adventure in wearable tech.
NO VACANCY: It was already hard enough for artists to afford rent in the Bay Area. Then the Ghost Ship fire...
VIRTUAL REALITY: A TECH UPRISING: A brief exploration of what some people believe is the future of entertainment.
VOICES FROM THE KAW THOO LEI: With over 10,000 photos fading in and out over each other, it creates an abstract visual to focus your rational mind on the words of Karen People of Burma, whose homeland has suffered from a civil war that's been going on for over six decades without many people taking much notice.
WHO KILLED PARK MERCED?: An investigation into just one example of the SF Bay Area housing crisis. Well before most people were talking about the general housing crisis, the Park Merced community was told they were getting evicted and their homes would be torn down for a new development. A harbinger of things to come, if we don't get some solid housing policy.

Then for the next show, I traveled to Australia by way of Finland. Or at least two Finnish girls who need work, and get worked over at HOTEL COOLGARDIE. Lina and Steph are traveling though Australia. They just got there from Bali, where their credit cards were stolen. So, they're keeping their travels going, but they need some work. And the employment office has set them up to be barmaids in a pub in Coolgardie, a tiny dot on the map near a mining town in the outback. And you meet the locals and immediately realize you're just watching in horror and waiting until one or both of them get raped. Not that the guys are violent or criminal-looking, but they definitely objectify women, they're all trying to get to the "fresh meat" (a direct quote from the movie.) They don't give off an overtly threatening 'I will knock you out, drag you into the bushes, and have my way' vibe, but definitely a 'I will get you drunk and refuse to leave your apartment no matter how much you insist' vibe. And I guess I shouldn't spoil anything, but it is pretty terrible the...endurance test these girls are put through (one far more than the other.) Oh, and I learned that the Finns have a word--morkkis--that translates to "drinker's remorse" but is described in the movie as that feeling the morning after drinking a lot when you don't quite remember what happened but you want to dig a hole in the ground and bury yourself.

Lest you think this is just some sort of misogynistic horror show, there are many excellent qualities to this film. It's well shot, and most of the locals tend more to the crude-and-don't-know-how-to-talk-to-women personality than rapists. Or there's their boss, who isn't sexually abusive so much as ridiculing their bartending abilities...which are kind of shitty. Early on he does say that if they're gorgeous they can make up for it, but if they're average looking they better have a lot of experience and be excellent bartenders. Well, in my opinion they're pretty enough, but not good enough bartenders.

But the best part of the movie is Can Man (I didn't realize until the end of the film that his real name wasn't actually Canman, they just call him that because he takes all the empty cans to the recycling center for a little extra beer money.) He's the ugliest guy there. I don't know if he lived in his car but his dogs definitely did, so when he takes the girls for a ride the smell is overwhelming and ends with a bit of vomiting. But he's also patient with the girls, helps them in the bar, tells them where and how to get the drinks, and is never rude to them. He ends up being the sweetest, nicest guy in the film (made me root that he'd reunite with his estranged daughter.) So there's about 10% of a lesson about not judging a book by its cover. But it's kind of overshadowed by the lesson about beware of obvious rape traps, because they often lead to someone getting raped.

Total Running Time: 171 minutes
My Total Minutes: 429,762

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Jason goes to Docfest, Day...6, I think

I missed all weekend--days 2 through 5--for Silentfest, but I was back at Docfest full time starting Monday.

First up was the shorts block WTF Literally! Truth is stranger than fiction.
THE AFGHAN BRUCE LEE: Exactly what it sounds like, a profile of an Afghan dude who practices karate and wants to be an action start. He even sorta looks like him.
THE DUEL: A father's mental breakdown is retold in this stylized reenactment.
HAFE: THE STORY BEHIND: The totally real and medically document phenomenon of High Altitude Flatus Expulsion. You know, when the lower pressure at high altitude makes you fart.
INERTIA: Earth + Space Shuttle Endeavor are true loves. Ah, how sweet!
PHENOMENALITY: The life of Ric Friar, surfer, big wave pioneer, a man who risked death to find his life. He also dated Twiggy, made a fortune in manure as the "King of Poo" and just had an amazing, crazy, creative life.
THE SANDMAN: When he arrives, people go to sleep. He's a doctor who, while personally opposing the death penalty, attends and participates in executions as the overseeing physician. An interesting portrait of a man with a strange calling. Although often I want to shake him and scream, "what are you doing!?" the fact is I think his views on capital punishment mirror a lot of my own. I'd rather it not exist, but if it exists I'd rather it's administration--through all levels--be dealt with by people who have serious moral objections to it. The alternative is a death penalty administered by people who think executions are cool.
THE WIZARD OZ: Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, wizard, unicorn rancher, mermaid investigator, and next door neighbor to a serial killer. That's a pretty odd life.
THE YOWIE: The search for...basically Australia's version of Bigfoot? They claim to have found him. I couldn't see it. But they're pretty fun.

Then the next show started with the short THE COLLECTION. That collection is the mother lode of printing plates for movie advertisements in newspaper. And it's awesome. Just as a movie fan, it's a sight to behold. 

And then the feature, a very different sort of sight to behold, TOKYO IDOLS. Young Japanese girls who are pop music and Internet stars, and the adult men who spend way too much to follow them around. Ri Ri makes an interesting heroine, a teenage girl who never really wanted to be an idol, but saw it as a way of getting started in a music career (I don't know if something is lost in translation, but the distinction she makes between "idol" and "singer" says just about all you need to know about the industry.) Then there's the men who have given up salaried careers and blown way too much money just to follow their favorite idol. Oh, and I learned that for at least some Japanese men, a handshake is a deeply sexual experience. Interesting, and well photographed. But this is an example of what I call a "feature length short." In that it was interesting enough for about a 20 minute short, but not enough for a feature length film. Really, this should've been a short and THE COLLECTION should've been expanded to feature length.

Total Running Time:193 minutes
My Total Minutes: 429,591