Thursday, March 07, 2013

A Belated Cinequest Post

Yesterday was a short day of movie watching as I made my way to SF for the evening.

I caught one feature film and part of a collection of shorts. The feature film - The Playback Singer - was a close look at the lives of an Indian woman, her father, and her husband in a story all too familiar to Indian Americans. Every character was flawed, well developed, and the story was enjoyable. But it didn't strike me in the same way as some of the other films in the festival. The performances were strong, but the story felt a little bit predictable. Stubborn and previously absent Indian father is filled of good intent and callous actions, his daughter is a lawyer who despite being the primary breadwinner of the family, falls into the submissive Indian daughter when he arrives, and her white husband trying to both understand this as well as figure out his own career as a freelance designer and builder. It plays out much like I expected it would - but in a well done way. Worth seeing - but maybe wait til Netflix?

And then I moved into a shorts collection - which thanks to the number of films I'm not going to go into much detail on. I will say Priests (Preti) was by far the highlight. A young priest on a work programs joins an older priest and in the course of this humorous short asks many questions of the faith and tradition. Irreverent and yet not disrespectful. Snarky and smart. And very simplistic on the visual style.

Meanwhile my afternoon in SF was partly cloudy in a very dramatic way which I had to capture from Twin Peaks where I went for a quick hike prior to the rain coming down. One of the more dramatic light shots from Twin Peaks, which I tend to shoot on sunnier days.

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Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Third Time's the Charm

On my third day of actually seeing films I finally seemed to get it right. I took today easy on the film side due to that whole it's a weekday and I should be an adult and do professional things. But I took the time to catch two films and I finally chose a selection that left me satisfied and BOTH films could finally pass the Bechdel test. (Gadzooks! Other odd exclamations of shock and surprise!) This was probably aided by the fact that the first film was directed by a woman, and the second was co-written by a woman. See what having women in the conceptualization does to a film? It makes the women actually worth watching! Sigh of relief.

Alright let's dive in.

I started the evening with Sweet Talk. This was an unconventional story and romance. Within the first 3 minutes it had already passed the Bechdel test and I sighed in relief that I wouldn't have to spend the whole movie looking for a well crafted female character, after all, there she is! The protagonist. Delilah arrives at work - answering a phone sex line. And Samson, is a frustrated writer seeking inspiration when he calls her. Delicately crafted as they let their imaginations run wild, confront their limitations, and create an encounter that keeps you glued to the screen well past when the lights turn on. Go see it. And if it doesn't make it to a theater near you - pester Netflix to get it on a small screen for you. It's the sort of film that inspires conversation, and feels almost European despite being filmed in LA. (I mean this as a compliment... Sorry LA.)

I followed up with City Baby. This film felt like a cross between a mid-twenties/thirties coming of age story and an awkward love letter to the city of Portland, youth, insecurities, and the process of accepting one's self. The best compliment I can offer this film is it feels real. Set against the backdrop of the Portland music scene we see Cloey, as she deals with love life, best friend's plans to move away, and the challenges of supporting herself and figuring out her life. We see the boy who never grew up still playing in his band, the professional who lives large, the indie actress, the hairdresser, the mechanic, the awkward family dynamics - it feels like a more elegant sexy version of daily life. Folks in the Mission - this is your kind of film. It hasn't sold out, it's smart, but still well constructed. And the performances are well worth watching.


However to be frank - my favorite part was something beyond the film - the audience's reaction. At one point in the film, our protagonist models for a female photographer, and has a one night stand with her while avoiding thinking of her ex and the rebound. This scene was well done in that it didn't make a big deal of gender at all - it was just a hook up like any other hook up might happen. And the audience didn't make a big deal of the fact that the protagonist could now be read as bi or fluid - it was just part of her and no big deal.

This is something that shouldn't be a big deal. But to see bisexuality in a film as just normal, and not being made into an exotic performance or a falling into sin or other huge plot point is so damn rare I wanted to applaud the film makers and audience for just being cool. Seriously. Go audience at Cinequest! Thank you. That made my night. And for that alone - I want people to watch this. Go watch a film where sexuality is done in an honest way and oh by the way it's a film you should see anyways.

Goodnight all.

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Monday, March 04, 2013

Cinequest Continues

Yesterday evening at Cinequest I saw an incredibly powerful and well made film, an entertaining short, and a feature which was underdeveloped and all too predictable. Sadly I saw the films in that order - and so ended with the least inspiring film of the night...

To begin with I saw the feature We Were Children. This film tells the powerful and tragic story of a childhood marred by state sponsored abuse as it follows the stories of two Aboriginal children in Canada taken from their families to be placed in the Indian Residential School system where they are isolated from their cultures and placed in religious schools. This film is uniquely constructed with interviews and voice overs from Lyna Hart and Glen Anaquod each telling their personal stories combined with reenactments bringing the stories to life visually from their childhood perspectives.

The story is told in a harsh and honest way including beatings, sexual abuse, language isolation, malnourishment of the children, and how they preserved despite the suffering they were made to endure. The priests and nuns are shown both in moments of empathy as well as in their most despicable moments abusing those they are tasked with teaching. The vulnerability of the children and the knowledge that this abuse is not limited only to Canada, but is a much larger problem spanning churches and schools around the globe make this a very relevant film for all audiences. Furthermore the Indian Residential School system was abolished not even a decade ago, so the social effects of the discrimination and abuse endured for generations is an ongoing issue in Canada today.

You will likely not enjoy watching this film. It feels disgusting to acknowledge how perverse what these children were made to endure. But it is for that reason you should watch this film. It is a story that must be heard. I think it would be a very useful tool for teachers of history in high schools and universities as it provokes discussion and engagement in equal parts a very visceral way and an intellectual way (And for those who read my last post on cinequest - this passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.)

I then left Camera 12 to head to the San Jose Rep to watch a short film and a feature film.

The short, David Sedaris's The Learning Curve, was witty, enjoyable and fun much like the source material. Given it was a short and told from the point of view of a male protagonist, I'm not surprised at all that it failed to pass the Bechdel test, but it was a well done short with a good sense of pacing, well timed laughs, enough quirks to have it's own visual style and it was well acted.

However I ended the evening on a lesser note with Leave of Absence. This one just felt flat...

As Cinequest's guide described the film:
In a comedy where the mantra “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” plays true, the question is: Is it ever too late to “figure it all out”? Jason (Jason Thompson, General Hospital) is a thirty-something college graduate happily cohabitating with his girlfriend, but unhappily working as a waiter. When a doctor orders him to take a FMLA (Family Medical Leave of Absence) for thirty days, Jason finds himself with a newfound freedom – to slack. His loving and supportive girlfriend Heather (Heather Case Miller, American Pie: Band Camp) encourages him to find a new job but Jason instead lounges with his friends Acer and Clarke. As days tick by Jason must decide: what life does he want to live, and will Heather be there with him? – Terra Wood-Taylor
... And to be honest, that was all there was to it. It didn't develop much beyond that synopsis and it felt self indulgent for the male parts and the girl friend felt like a caricature of every nagging girlfriend stereotype. It was written, directed and produced by Jeff Prugh and Jason Thompson - and unlike Michael Ferrell of Twenty Million People - it wasn't pulled off successfully. I think they would have benefited immensely from outside feedback to help flesh it out because it was an idea that could have resonated well given how many in our current generation are facing the challenge of figuring out their lives in trying circumstances, but its execution didn't do much for the initial idea. Added strike against it - does not pass the Bechdel test. Boo.

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Saturday, March 02, 2013

Back to the Movies

It's that time of year again. And yesterday I spent the afternoon at Cinequest seeing several films and found - I'm less excited about it than last year.

To be fair - I'm comparing the net effect of last year's festival with only the beginning of this years - so ask me next week and I may be more favorable.

But we got off to a poor start. Cinequest makes a little festival promo piece that shows prior to every film and showcases their moto, "create, innovate, empower"

In this year's clip we see a young boy in park being told by an older woman, no creativity allowed. He looks at the 4 kids in the park (3 boys, 1 girl) get's a gleam in his eye, pulls out a magic wand, and turns the black and white scene into a colorful place, rendering the 2D cartoonish characters into 3D characters, turning the old lady into a colorful birds, a vulture becomes a dragon and they live happily ever after as the film festival flashes it's moto before the film.

Bad start. Of our two women you have a choice between the villain or a token passive character, and for our men we of course have the hero or the normal kids. Obviously this is a short clip - with little time for development but it instantly irked me. If we're actually creating something new, if you're actually trying to innovate and empower, then why are the gender norms in your own promotional clip falling back on such tired stereotypes? Is there no room for women in creative, innovative and empowering places? (How ironic given the last word.)

Now this is by no means a trend limited to Cinequest. Look in most classics and you'll see even in stories with animals - almost always the ratio boils down to protagonist man, token female, crowd of "normal" characters (aka male) and women are much more likely to appear as villains. But this is how the festival kicked off for me. So what naturally occurred to  me was maybe Cinquest was being suggestive and asking us to notice the representations of women this festival.... or maybe not. But regardless I wanted to apply the Bechdel Rule to all the films I saw. (For those of you not familiar - 3 part rule... 1. Movie has to have more than 2 female characters, 2. They must talk to each other, 3. - about something that isn't men.)

So what films did I see yesterday?

To start with I saw Family Meals which was proceeded by Urban Outlaw.

Urban Outlaw was a fascinating story about a porche loving designer without a formal educational and his life in LA. Very interesting. But does not pass the Bechdel rule because the only female character was his wife, and she was shown only talking about her husband. Oh well... I still enjoyed this one as I feel like when doing a biography of one person, you can be excused for a lack of external diversity.

Family Meals is the story of one woman's coming out to her family, as told though conversations set over family meals as they reflect upon what it meant to the family. This one almost passes the Bechdel rule because the lesbian daughter talks to her mom about their own lives, cooking and coming out. However I say almost because this often includes men indirectly as well as directly as the source of conflict. The lack of men is continually mentioned in the conversations between these two women, or discussing her brother or father. It seemed as if her being a lesbian was more defined by NOT liking men than it was by loving women. I was less impressed with this piece as the story felt forced to me, and while the underlying story was much more interesting - the form it was presented in felt both slow and also abrupt when they did reach the more meaty topics.

Moving on - the next film I saw was Welcome Home.

Welcome Home is about a woman returning to Brussels after a 3 month journey. She meets a man on the bus who is visiting for the first time in 40 years and explores the city with him before returning to her own complicated relationship. For a film with a female protagonist it's rather sad that this could not pass the Bechdel rule. But she only speaks with men. And despite a very rich performance, at the end of the film I still had little clue into her own identity independent of the men around her. The film itself was interesting but not my cup of tea. The stories felt disjointed, and the segments didn't mesh together well enough to maintain flow.

Next was Twenty Million People which was proceeded by the short No Rest for the Wicked.

No Rest for the Wicked was fun but lost any shot of passing the Bechdel rule at step 1, have more than one female character. This was an action short with a street wise smart ass and smooth talking cat burglar as they rob plans for a time machine from a party. Entertaining, worth watching, but no women. 

And the last feature for the night, Twenty Million People. I really liked this movie, a cynical smart ass take on the romantic comedy which begins with a movie night and boy meets girl, boy says he doesn't believe in love and girl agrees, they happily trot off for a one night stand, and boy falls in love. Oops. The side kick friend is getting over a long term relationship that just ended, and the stars of the romantic comedy act as comedic relief as they advise our protagonists on how to actually give themselves a shot at romance. However - it also can't pass the Bechdel rule. To be fair, even the guys conversations didn't usually stray too far from girls, but the women in the film never talk to each other outside of talking about men - so alas. Enjoyable film, but not gonna pass. That being said, I really enjoyed the writing, the pacing, the acting and am very much looking forward to the next film to come from this talented group (and crossed fingers if it's not romance we'll see something that can actually pass the Bechdel rule.)

So all in all - I started the festival thinking about gender norms and promptly proceeded to see nothing that undid that bias as the lack of well developed women living without their lives being defined by men, well it was rather hard to overlook. That being said - the Festival goes on and tomorrow I'll see what else Cinequest has to offer.