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

Monday, March 31, 2014

Jason goes to CAAMFest--Friday, March 21

Just one show last week Friday, and it was a shorts program Provocateurs. I think the name says it all.

H7N3: C. S. Lee (the pervy colleague on DEXTER) is a travelling field doctor trying to take a mouth swab from a sick little girl. Perhaps it's just knowing him from DEXTER but I thought it got a little creepy when he talked about "just the tip" and I got a real rape culture vibe from it. Which made the ending pretty cool.
THE HOLE: A recently released convict witnesses a grisly murder of a little girl. So he digs a grave and buries her. And then digs her up, then buries her again. He appears to be torn between doing the right thing and being afraid that he'll be blamed for her death.
KILL OF THE NIGHT: When a cop pulls over a beautiful young woman, he hears noises in her trunk and is about to arrest her for a serious crime. But it turns out it's just a kinky game, so the most he has is a traffic violation--driving without a seat belt. Or not.
MILKYBOY: A child commercial star is all grown up, and now works in advertising. But he can't escape his Milkyboy past, no matter how much he wants to. But then, every once in a while it helps to have a bit of a superhero in you.
SEWING WOMAN: A creepy, grisly animated look at one theory of what happens after you die.
SUKIYAKI WITH LOVE: A young husband is so beaten down by his nagging wife that he has already had an affair and is now considering asking for divorce. But when he comes home, his wife is all sweetness and love. She even made him his favorite--Sukiyaki...with a special ingredient.
THINKING ABOUT THINKING: Experimental, black and white exploration of people's varying opinions about mortality.
WHAT REMAINS: Bad memories leave ghosts in a woman's old childhood home.

And that was that. A really cool shorts program.

Running Time: 84 minutes
My Total Minutes: 358,848

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Jason goes to CAAMFest--Thursday, March 20

Just one film a week ago Thursday. But it was an awesome one. It even says so in the title--AWESOME ASIAN BAD GUYS. Made as a web series by the National Film Society (Patrick Epino & Stephen Dypiangco) as a parody and loving homage to all the awesome Asian bad guys of the 80's. Tamlyn Tomita (Kumiko from KARATE KID II) comes to the NFS for help both protecting herself and avenging the murder of her sister Pamlyn. So they assemble the heroes of their youth--first and foremost Al Leong, who cannot be killed. Then they try to find Jet Li, only to find out that George Cheung daughter was named after his ex-wife's favorite Asian actor--Jet Li. Luckily, she still kicks butt. Yuji Okumoto (Chozen in KARATE KID II) still has some moves, and for some reason comedian Randall Park rounds out the cast. And they all go do what they do best--kick butt, take names, and get laughs. That was lots of fun.

Running Time: 52 minutes
My Total Minutes: 358,764

Jason goes to CAAMFest--Wednesday March 19

Just one show last week Wednesday, one of the few movies I actually missed at Indiefest.

But first, the short GRACE. A ballet dancer and a prostitute, in parallel action. Set to the sound of Amazing Grace.

And that was the lead-in to KARAOKE GIRL, a semi-documentary about Sa Sittijun. With flashbacks to her parents meager subsistence in rural Thailand, Sa works in the nightclubs of Bangkok. It's not hard to figure out that she does more than sing for a living. She's a sex worker, and it's not the least bit glamorous. Nor is it all that compelling. At least not to me, not in my state of exhaustion. I spent most of the movie struggling to stay awake. I'd apologize, but all my friends who saw it at Indiefest told me the same thing. So that's that.

Running Time: 85 minutes
My Total Minutes: 358,713

Jason goes to CAAMFest--Tuesday, March 18

I gave myself one day of rest after Cinequest, and I was back in festival mode with CAAMFest (formerly SFIAAFF, what I always called Asianfest.) It actually started on Thursday, so I missed all of the big first weekend. This seems to happen every other year or so, so hopefully next year they won't overlap. And now, over a week later, I finally have a little time to write about it.

Anyway, I was up in Japantown for two shows a week ago Tuesday (I guess that would be day 6 of the festival.)

First up was AMERICAN ARAB, a personal and political documentary by Arab-American director Usama Alshaibi. He opens with the death of his own brother--overdosed on heroin, leading to an exploration of the phenomenon of "too much freedom" in America. He then explores many other examples of the Arab American experience, from his own life and the lives of others. A woman in a hijab attacked in a grocery store. He has his own racially-motivated attack. And the more benign incidents...like the Arab-American kids asked to explain what they thought of 9/11, or just the average every day racial epithets. In a scant 60 minutes, he explores a lot of complexity of identity. Oddly, none cut through the complexity more clearly than the Arab American punk rock band, who rebel against both establishment America and Islam, forming an identity that's neither American, nor Arab, but totally individual. And that's really what everyone is looking for--to be treated as an individual. Very cool.

Then I caught the shorts program A Modern Family. Shorts about family, in all its straightforward complexity.
GRAND CANAL: Canal sailors in China, as director Johnny Ma remembers his father.
HAPPY DANCE: Experimental animated dancing toys, inspired by director Crisanta Deguzman's autistic son.
HER PRIZE: A rubber ducky, and a funny father. Very cute.
MAKATO: OR, HONESTY: The last days of director Christopher Makoto Yogi's father, as remembered by his mother and grandmother.
MALAYSIAN MEMORIES: Director Celeste Chan’s father remembers growing up in Malaysia in poverty and desperation.
MANDEVILLA: In Koreatown, a young man can hear fighting in the apartment next to him. And he struggles with what to do about it.
MEI: Memories of Hong Kong, and director Margaret To's old caretaker. A clever, partly animated short.
SWEET CORN: Corn rots on the stalks while father and son fight over the direction of the farm.

Total Running Time: 142 minutes
My Total Minutes: 358,628

Friday, March 21, 2014

Jason goes to Cinequest--Closing Night

Breakfast was at 9:00 am. And I had a beer (or several) with that breakfast. Then I left to my room to actually do a little bit of my day job before I had to check out. As a result, I missed hanging out more with Matthew Modine, who showed up just as I was leaving. Oh, well.

Anyway, I was back to the lounge soon enough for a little bit of a rest more drinking as I skipped the first showings of Encore Day (the one film I had not seen in the first time slot was EAST SIDE SUSHI, which I heard great things about but I'm already planning to see at CAAMFest)

And I had a drink with my final filmmaker of Cinequest. That is, the final time I applied my "drink with me and I will see your movie" (and the third time this rule forced me to miss out on the Patrick Stewart starring HUNTING ELEPHANTS) The winning filmmaker was a producer of SLINGSHOT, so I saw this excellent documentary on the life and work (mostly the work) of Dean Kamen. If that name is familiar at all, you likely recognize him as the inventor of the Segway. But he's been an inventor for a long time, with big, big ideas. While the Segway became the butt of several jokes, he's actually still pretty proud of it (I've never actually ridden one, so maybe it is actually really cool.) He also invented the iBOT mobility wheelchair. And he founded FIRST--For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology--to get kids interested in science. And his most important project right now--and the title of the movie--is the Slingshot, a water purification device based on vapor compression distillation (i.e., evaporate water and make it rain in a tank.) The name comes from the story of David and Goliath, with the Slingshot delivering the blow that takes down either the Goliath of large government/corporate control of potable water or the Goliath of water-borne pathogens being responsible for half the illnesses in the world. Bill Clinton, incidentally, seems pretty fond of telling the story of how Dean filtered the dirtiest water he had ever seen through the Slingshot, and he enjoyed the pure, delicious water out the other end. It's a really cool story of an inspiring guy and the persistence of fighting for his invention for 15 years (and counting.) It's also a story of how corporate partnership (in this case, Coca-Cola) can sometimes work well to get things done. Now I know that Coca-Cola has not had a great record in the past with managing water resourced, particularly in their third world bottling plants. But if it comes down to a choice between partnering with an 'Evil Corporation(tm)' or not distributing your life-saving devices, I'm on Dean Kamen's side. Partner with whoever can get the job done.

Anyway, then it was time for more drinking. So I went back to the lounge and discovered that the VIP Soiree at Gordon Biersch was moved up to 4:00 (normally they start at 5:00.) So...it was more drinking their beers instead of Stella Artois (and actually, drinking margaritas was more the order of the day.)

Then finally the closing night event. I have to say, I kind of miss something they did in past years, which was to bring all of the filmmakers who were still in attendance up on stage for a standing ovation. That was back when they announced the award winners there, but this year they did that the previous evening. I can dig wanting to get to the film as quickly as possible, but this was something I always looked forward to. Anyway, I did get called out by board member Carlso Montalvo, so that was pretty awesome!

And then the movie, SMALL TIME. Al Klein (Christopher Meloni) owns a used car lot with his friend Ash Martini (Dean Norris.) He is also the proud father of a recent college graduate, Freddy (Devon Bostick.) Freddy lives with his mother (Bridget Moynahan) who is divorced from Al. And rather than go to college, Freddy wants to come work for Al at the car lot. Which for a guy who constantly feels inferior to his kid's stepfather (Xander Berkeley) that's pretty cool. And Freddy is actually pretty good at selling cars. In fact...too good. He kind of reminds the audience (and Al) of all the bad stereotypes of used car salesmen. And looking in the mirror like that, seeing your son becoming you, seeing a side of yourself you have kind of buried...that forces Al to take a tough look at himself and make some tough decisions. More importantly, this is a comedy. It's funny, especially the scenes where All and Ash are bullshitting with their friends (where Kevin Nealon has a small role) or the tricks they use to lure in a buyer. But beyond the comedy is a pretty serious and poignant story.

And then more drink. The closing party was simultaneously at neighboring bars The Farmer's Union and La Pinata. Drink drink drink, hug so many filmmakers, staff, friends. And that was finally that. I'll just end on these final words:

BEST CINEQUEST EVER!!!!

(until next year, when I'll find a way to make Cinequest 25 top it!)

Total Running Time: 192 minutes
My Total Minutes: 358,486

Jason goes to Cinequest--Day 12

It was the final Saturday, and despite staying up until 4:00 paying with friends and filmmakers (redundant, filmmakers are my friends) I was still in the lounge when it opened at 10:00 for the first beer of the day. I think I was more Stella Artois than man at this point. There were a lot of other people in the lounge Saturday morning for some presentation about 4K video. I wasn't paying attention, and I feel just slightly guilty about that. But later I drank with the presenter, so it's all good now.

Anyway, maybe I had just a bit too much to drink, or maybe GO DOWN DEATH is just a very strange movie, because I had quite a bit of trouble following it/ staying awake. Folklorist Jonathan Mallory Sinus (a fictitious creation of the movie?) left a body of work that spanned a total of 6 pages. So some extrapolation was necessary for this movie. Prostitute with a syphilitic client. Soldiers wandering in the woods. A card game in a saloon...stuff happens. I keep being told that if I like David Lynch and Guy Maddin (which I do...a lot!) than GO DOWN DEATH should be right up my alley. Maybe it will be if and when I see it again when I'm well rested. As it is...at the end of the festival...operating on no sleep...and more beer than human...I struggled with it.

Then I had all the best intentions to get a little rest, maybe do a little work before seeing THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK. Instead I drank more beer and went to get Mexican food with some of my friends.

The upside was that I didn't have to rush out of the credits to see Matthew Modine accept the Maverick Innovator Award. He was getting it for the iPad app version of his Full Metal Jacket Diary. The hardcover version (limited printing, complete with a full metal jacket) has become quite a collector's item and fetches a pretty high price. I want it! And his iPad version...that might actually convince me to go buy an iPad. Basically since he was playing a military journalist, Stanley Kubrick encouraged him to keep a journal during filming. So this isn't some memory decades after the fact, this is what Modine wrote at the time. And it's really cool. Stories of Kubrick, growing tensions with Vincent D'Onofrio, etc. And to not spoil everything, he left quite a lot for you to see and hear (oh yeah, the app has audio and video segments that you can't really do in even the fanciest book) but I do love his reflections on his one time rivalry with Val Kilmer.

Then it was off for the VIP Soiree and Awards Ceremony at San Pedro Square Garage (food courtesy of Little Chef Counter.) Om nom, glug glug!  And somewhere the award winners are listed. But I can't seem to find them. And who really cares? All the Cinequest finds are awesome! 

Speaking of which, then I made my way to the California theater for my next show, which started with the short SHIFT. An excellent sci-fi story of a man who invents a device that lets him jump through space. Just a short, fixed distance, but enough that with careful planning he can rob a bank. Very cool.

That was the lead in to DOM HEMINGWAY, one of the very few of Cinequest's high profile studio films that I saw this year (really, it's this and the opening and closing night galas.) Jude Law stars as the titular anti-hero, a British gangster just released from prison after 12 years. First thing he does is strut through town, find his ex-wife's lover (and his daughter's stepfather) and bears the crap out of him. No particular reason, other than he hates him and he can. Second order of business, meeting with his associate and friend (Richard Grant, doing a spot-on English version of Christopher Walken) meet with their boss, and get the big pile of money due him. Things get a little tense, but Dom being Dom eventually everything is settled and they celebrate with an insane booze-drugs-and-hookers party all night, culminating in the most cinematic and hilarious car crash I've ever seen. It's tempting to call DOM HEMINGWAY an action-crime-comedy hybrid, but really it's a character study. And the character of Dom Hemingway is not just an angry, out-of-control maniac. He's a man with little impulse control, who feels everything in the moment waaaay too hard. When things are going well, they're the greatest they've ever been and he will push them to the edge. When he falls over the edge and things go poorly, he will feel that suffering more than anyone ever has, succumbing to the "Woe is me!" morass. And that suffering, while ostensibly about his money, is mostly about trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter. And that brings a surprising amount of heart into everything. 

Then the next show started with the PTP short DREAMING OF THE SWEET LIFE. A mother and daughter, homeless, remembering back to when they had everything--a roof over their heads, food on the table, and abusive husband and father.... Excellent touching performances in this short.

And then the feature was a mostly finished work-in-progress, THE PURPLE ONION. So first I have to confess that I kind of struggled to follow/stay awake in this movie. I did get that the title refers to a (now defunct) San Francisco comedy club. And that the hero Johnny Lee (actual stand-up comedian Edwin Li) is trying to launch a comedy career. And while some of his jokes land by the end, in the beginning he is not good. And there's a woman who shows up at his home to stay with him (there was confusion over whether she was mother, sister, friend) and a lot of the movie is about their relationship. But as I said this is a work in progress (particularly evident in transitions between scenes) and I struggled to follow it. So I will withhold judgment until I see the finished version (presumable at Cinequest next year?)

Anyway, then I made my way to the Maverick Meetup at SP2, where I ran into Matthew Modine, shook his hand, hugged him (because we hug here,) and chatted for just a little bit. he revealed that he was looking over at me to gauge whether or not he was losing the audience. I told him he shouldn't do that because I'm so exhausted by now I'm struggling to stay awake no matter what's going on. Ah, good times!

Short Program 5
BIOGRAPHER: A cool Russian long-ish short (30 minutes) about a guy who works in the Research Center for Personality Reconstruction. Basically he rewrites peoples back-story (and probabilistically predicts their future) in order to turn them into who they want to be. But he has some moral qualms about his work.
BOX: An experimental visual treat with various 3-D patterns projected onto a screen being moved about by robotic arms. All while a man stands in the middle. Very cool.
CARGO: A man makes a desperate trek with his baby daughter, hoping against hope to save her from the zombie apocalypse. Great little story.
A CONVERSATION ABOUT CHEATING WITH MY TIME TRAVELING FUTURE SELF: Ummm...it's exactly what it sounds like. A man meets his future self, who tells him that he must cheat on his girlfriend, right now! But there's way, way more to it than that. As a side note, there's a heck of a lot of time travel in this program.
GÖDEL INCOMPLETE: Kurt Gödel was weirdly obsessed with time travel. This story speculates why.
I'M 23 AND THERE'S A FUCKING MONSTER UNDER MY BED: The monster is real, and he needs a special lady friend to help him destroy it.
OVER THE MOON: A cool, mostly animated (with real faces inserted) story about the woman who landed on the moon first and the American dick-headed astronauts who found her there.
SHIFT: It's like I time traveled back to earlier in the day when I saw this excellent sci-fi story of a man who invents a device that lets him jump through space. Just a short, fixed distance, but enough that with careful planning he can rob a bank. Very cool.
SORRY ABOUT TOMORROW: A thriller about a time travelers and the authorities who are chasing him. Yup, there's definitely a theme in this program.
A STITCH IN TIME (FOR $9.99): Funny comedy about a low-tech time travel agency that will send you to take a look at your future for under $10. A client has a burning question--does her co-worker like her? But the results just get stranger and stranger (multiple trips can be dangerous.)

And then I went back up to my room, where the party was already going strong thanks to my wonderful girlfriend. And friends and filmmakers stayed up in my room until about 5:00 am. And I was still up for a special Cinequest 100 breakfast (and for me, beer) at 9:00.

Total Running Time: 369 minutes
My Total Minutes: 358,294