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Thread: SFFS CINEMA BY THE BAY Nov. 22-24, 2013

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    SFFS CINEMA BY THE BAY Nov. 22-24, 2013



    The San Francisco Film Society's series, Cinema by the Bay, comprises new films made in the San Francisco area or by filmmakers from the area. I will review some this year.

    General Film Forum link and discussion thread for the series is HERE.

    Holy Ghost People
    Mitchell Altieri
    Mitch Altieri, one half of directing duo the Butcher Brothers, presents this unnerving descent into a cult tucked away in the Appalachian mountains. Charlotte is bent on finding her missing sister and believes that she has joined a church that includes snake handling ceremonies and speaking in tongues. She receives the help of alcoholic veteran Wayne in infiltrating the group, as they pose as initiates in order to gain information on Charlotte's sister's possible whereabouts. As they sink deeper into the social structure of the church, stakes, dangers and suspicions are continuously ratcheted up, making for exquisitely tension-filled viewing. Friday, November 22, 7:00 and 9:30, Roxie Theater

    The Genius of Marian
    Banker White, Anna Fitch
    In this personal ode to familial ties and legacy, Banker White (Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars) chronicles his mother Pam's struggle with progressive dementia, and the result is a moving portrait of memory and loss. When Pam is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's and it becomes too difficult to continue writing a memoir about her artist mother -- Marian Williams Steele, who herself suffered from Alzheimer's -- White films her remembrances as a way to keep her working on the project. Working with codirector Anna Fitch, White has crafted an intimate documentary that is an exploration not only of the devastating effects of illness, but also of two influential and compelling women. Eebuted at Tribeca April 2013. Saturday, November 23, 12:00, Roxie Theater, 86 mins.

    Redemption Trail
    Britta Sjogren (USA 2013)
    In this new film by local filmmaker Britta Sjogren, two powerful yet troubled women flee a past that haunts them. Debuted 6 October 2013 at Mill Valley Film Festival. Saturday, November 23, 2:15 pm, Roxie Theater

    American Vagabond
    Susanna Helke (Finland/Denmark 2013)
    The burgeoning community of homeless gay youths in San Francisco is dramatically brought to life in Susanna Helke’s poetic and evocative documentary. " American Vagabond [shows that] homosexuality is still so demonized in some communities that some parents are ready to abandon their children over it. One out of every four young people who are coming out to their parents is kicked out of the house. 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth are estimated to belong to sexual minorities in the United States" (IMDb blurb for the film). Saturday, November 23, 4:30 pm, Roxie Theater

    Along the Roadside
    Zoran Lisinac (Pored Puta, USA and Serbia 2013)
    In this modern road movie, a San Francisco–based graphic designer flees his stable life and career when his girlfriend reveals to him that she is pregnant, and crosses paths with an untethered German tourist as he makes his way out of town towards southern California. "Road movie about two young people from different parts of the world, their vastly different cultures and their journey of self-discovery during the drive to the largest music festival in California" (IMDb blurb). Saturday, November 23, 6:45 pm, Roxie Theater, 108 mins.

    Street Smarts: YAK Films’ Dance Then and Now
    YAK Films is an international media production team whose work with urban dance began with the legendary Turf Feinz crew in Oakland, CA, innovators of the Turf dancing style. This shorts program will trace YAK’s origins in the Bay Area and present some of their newest, unseen international works. Saturday, November 23, 9:30 pm, Roxie Theater

    The SF State of Cinema: Shorts from SFSU Alumni
    The Cinema Department at SFSU is an enduring educational institution that has played a critical role in defining the history of cinema in the Bay Area. This program of short films made by SFSU alumni barely scratches the surface of the great work being fostered amidst the fog at the end of 19th Avenue. Sunday, November 24, 12:00 pm, Roxie Theater

    The Other Side of the Mountain
    In Hak Jang (North Korea and USA 2012)
    "A North Korean nurse and a South Korean soldier fall in love during a tumultuous time of the Korean War, and experience lifetimes of consequences, separation and pain, with the hope of reuniting one day" (IMDb blurb). "The first U.S./North Korea coproduction ever, this film is a dazzling, epic melodrama depicting the relationship between a South Korean man and a North Korean woman separated by political conflict (SFFS blurb). Sunday, November 24, 2:15 pm, Roxie Theater

    The Illness and the Odyssey
    Berry Minott (USA, 2013)
    Local filmmaker Berry Minott takes us on an epic journey to find the cause -- and perhaps the cure -- of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS and other neurological disorders. Her investigation begins on the Pacific island of Guam, where following the end of WWII, the indigenous Chamorro people were afflicted with Alzheimer's -- like symptoms from a disease called Lytico-Bodig. For years renowned scientists descended on this small village to detect the source of this mysterious illness-was it hereditary, environmental or dietary? This engaging and edifying documentary features rare archival footage and candid interviews with author/neurologist Oliver Sacks, New Yorker columnist Jonathan Weiner and many other noted scientists. Sunday, November 24, 7:00 pm, Roxie Theater, 108 mins.

    Dear Sidewalk
    Jake Oelman (USA 2013)
    Gardner, a 24-year old mailman, adheres to the comfort of his routine, rigidly cultivating obsessions that keep him in his small-but-safe world. This changes when he meets Paige, a newly relocated divorcee on his route, and Gardner's quarter-life crisis collides with Paige's mid-life one. Sunday, November 24, 9:15 pm, Roxie Theater
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-02-2015 at 04:23 PM.

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    THE GENIUS OF MARIAN (Banker White, Anna Fitch 2013)

    BANKER WHITE, ANNA FITCH: THE GENIUS OF MARIAN (2013)


    Pam White in The Genius of Marian

    Kindness, good humor and material comfort in the portrait of a mother with Alzheimer's

    Banker White, a filmmaker based in San Francisco, and his girlfriend, later wife, Anna Fitch, have made a very personal, familial documentary about his mother's Alzheimer's that may serve as a softer, warmer, more intimate and feminine appendix to Alan Berliner's searching, detailed study of the long mental decline of his relative, the brilliant writer and intellectual Edwin Honig, First Cousin, Once Removed (NYFF 2012). This is about three years, from 2009 to 2012, in the life of Pam Steele White, Banker White's mother. In 2008 Pam began to write a memoir, "The Genius of Marian," about her mother Marian Steele, an accomplished painter, especially of family portraits and scenes of the Massachusetts coast where she lived. But in 2009, at 61, Pam's writing project was put in serious jeopardy when she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's, a disease that had also afflicted her mother. Banker comes to stay in his parents' big house, to assist in caring for Pam, if possible to help her complete the book; he has been close to his grandmother, and identified with her as a fellow artist. He began filming his talks with his mother. Eventually this documentary developed.

    Banker White uses Marian's paintings, of which he had been compiling a digital file, and of family home movie footage, to evoke Pam's own early life. The intercutting between them at times may be a bit too fancy, but they also let the film breathe and save it from being just conversations and a record of daily chores becoming more difficult. This is a portrait of two women and of a family. It's a soft picture -- it doesn't take us to the grim, incapacitated end -- which may be some years off -- but Pam's good cheer and relative clarity when not befuddled seen genuine, as does the White family's connectedness. The film shows how, at least for a family with both love and material comfort, this disease can be mitigated by family togetherness and cooperation.

    Genius of Marian is a picture of slow devolution, if less dramatic than Alan Berliner's. But it also seems to show consistency. Pam of course becomes increasingly befuddled, though she rejects that word. On a visit to a Boston neurologist with her husband Ed (they have been married 40 years), she can't come up with the word "comb" or identify a drawing of a bench; she has no idea what year it is. But she still has the warmth, the smile, and the humor she always had; she can use them to hide the growing blanks. We learn more of her active, accomplished life. She grew up living in a hotel owned by her father, a strange life, she says, but a good one. She was pretty. One of her closest female friends says when she first saw her she said, "This is a movie star." When young Pam had a period as an actress and model, but she went on to become a Boston University-trained counselor and social worker, and carried on full time with her job while raising her three children. Family has been everything for her, she says. A friend says she was always the brightest, most cheerful, most supportive in their circle. Even though she goes through denial and depression about Alzheimer's and goes through a stage of being disturbed, hostile, and combative, for which she's given medication for anxiety that she at first resists taking, she also never stops smiling.

    The family is well off. The New England-style house, wherever it is (Gloucester is mentioned) is big and beautiful, with three floors of rooms and a generous sweep of lawn all around it, a striking sight whether amid summer greenery or framed by snow. The family is close. Banker and Anna have comfortably moved in. For quite a while as her ability to function on her own fades Pam's husband is the one who gets her up and dresses her and is with her every minute of the day. Banker's younger brother, Luke White, is a resident in psychiatry at Columbia, who is also sometimes present. Luke has since worked toward using this film to open dialogues about Alzheimer's and lessen its stigma.

    Pam's "Genius of Marian" memoir, which Banker hoped to enable, is a project that can't be completed, but it plays a part throughout the film. By the end of the three years Pam can no longer read anything. But Banker keeps on questioning his mother about Marian. Their conversations suggest the memoir project may have partly come from a need to come to terms with a mother whose parenting was not her long suit. Pam says that "Nana," as they all call Marian, was too involved in her art to be a good mother. Pam may have determined early on not to repeat that mistake. Later we learn that "Nana" also did some strange, sexy, and abstract work not on view in the family house, work Pam doesn't like. Banker finds it interesting, a relief from the slick conventionality of most of his grandmother's paintings. We keep getting glimpses of Marian's art and of Marian herself throughout the film.

    Eventually Claire, a stylish young (Caribbean?) caregiver, comes on the scene and begins being the one who gets Pam up, dresses her, and serves her breakfast in the mornings. Ed's long dedication has been extraordinarily patient and loving, but there were rough patches (not actually shown in detail). Pam's daughter says giving up the rest of his life to care for Pam has taken a toll on him. After the arrival of Claire, Ed can work upstairs in his office on the third floor again some days.

    Pam no longer knows where that office is; what the third floor is. Yet her speech still makes perfect sense, despite the many lacunae in her knowledge. Ed tries to take Pam out in a boat several times, and it doesn't go very well, a motor breakdown and high winds spoiling the fishing outings, Ed growing angry at Pam's resistance to boarding the boat, saying, "Okay, we can just go back and sit on our asses!" And he weeps when he thinks of Pam's situation, but his patience and undying affection are what mostly emerge, his recognition of the wonderful long life together he owes to her.

    By September 2012 (more such timelines might have helped) Pam's confusion is plangently illustrated by her question: "Is Nana here too?" In the summer of 2013, Pam and Ed are still living in their house, and Ed is shown watching Pam in a video -- no date given, but doubtless post-diagnosis -- that gives a sharp and honest, but typically upbeat, description of her situation. She has said that she fought it at first, but now accepts it, and that everything is really the same. And when Banker and Anna have a baby girl, Pam can follow the pregnancy and still come to the hospital in Boston and hold the baby. In fact Ed and Pam came for this film's debut at Tribeca.

    Banker White previously made an award-winning documentary about African musicians, Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars. This is his first collaboration with producer Anna Fitch.

    The Genius of Marian, 86 mins., which has a lot of nice music, including some songs composed specially, debuted at Tribeca. It was screened for this review as a part of the San Francisco Film Society's Cinema by the Bay series, November 22-25, 2013.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-02-2015 at 04:43 PM.

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    AMERICAN VAGABOND (Susanna Helke 2013)

    SUSANNA HELKE: AMERICAN VAGABOND (2013)


    Tyler Johnson and James Temple in American Vagabond

    San Francisco more hell than paradise for homeless young gays

    This documentary about the plight of gay runaways focuses on James Temple, the narrator, who when not yet 18 or barely, runs away (not for the first time) from his home in Chico, California with his boyfriend Tyler Johnson. Inspired by naive, small-minded and thoroughly homophobic "Christian" attitudes, James's father has all along reacted to the realization that his son is gay with nothing but hostility. When he threatens to get the 18-year-old Tyler sent to jail because he's had sex with slightly under 18 James, that's the last straw. James and Tyler flee together to that gay mecca, San Francisco. But it's no mecca for them. It's expensive and jobs are scarce. The gay men in the Castro look down on the scruffy, penniless, hungry boys. They mostly sleep in Golden Gate Park where they hide from the police with other gay vagabonds, feeling like it's Germany and they are Jews, as James tells it. James, whose voice-over runs through this film, eventually decides San Francisco is a gray city, of gray people, gray skies, and "gray souls everywhere."

    The screen is pretty dark a lot of the time during Finnish filmmaker Susanna Helke's coverage of James and Tyler, loving and inseparable at first, trying to sleep furtively in the park. They have spent one night in a nice hotel and had one good meal, James recounts, and then are broke. The film's crude but heartfelt editing with its moody, poetic pans of garbage, bushes, and dark grass and the insistent use of Somuli Kosminen's portentious, droning music could come right out of one of gay auteur Toby Ross's artiest 70's porn films -- except there's no sex, only hugging. (Interspersed home-movie style images of a young boy playing seem inappropriate for a documentary, but add to the Toby Ross feel.) As James' narration continues there are scenes of panhandling, a homeless center where they get haircuts and their laundry done, eating in cheap cafes, talking to other gay homeless youths. But Helke doesn't recreate a street youth society the way Martin Bell did, working with his wife Mary Ellen Mark, in their classic 1984 documentary of Seattle kids, Streetwise.

    Sometimes James and Tyler are so hungry they can't sleep. The boys continue, existing uncertainly from day to day, wearing their day-packs, Tyler wheeling his suitcase everywhere. Tyler applies for some jobs promising he checks his email several times a day. Life gets harder. They begin to fight, but they can't break up, James says. They refuse gay men who come to the park promising showers, warmth and food in exchange for sex, but once they are so desperate they do have sex with a man who contacts them on the Internet -- for fifty dollars. They adopt a dog they call Money and it gives them hope to care for it, but it "gets a dog disease" and dies, and after that James and Tyler's relationship suffers further

    They give up and return to Chico. In phone conversations, James' mother has softened toward him, and she welcomes him back, but Tyler can't come there, so James chooses to be elsewhere. Suddenly, James' mom is talking to him in jail. Ironically, considering his father's earlier threat, he has had sex with a 16-year-old gay boy whose father and stepfather subsequently press charges. James has gone into protective custody awaiting trial as a sex offender. As the film ends, he is serving a three-year sentence in state prison. The only positive aspect is that James' mother cares about him a great deal now, and his sweet letters from jail have even changed his father, who now weeps for him. James says in a letter that he hopes he can go hunting with his father when he gets out -- something that, when he was a boy, he didn't like. But he will be forced to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life -- for sex with a willing partner two or three years younger than him.

    On his blog First Impressions, José Arroyo concludes his review of this film, which he watched in Vilnius, Lithuania in July 2013, by saying that "The film is crude, unsophisticated and lacks texture: but it sure does the job." That seems about right. These slices of unlucky life are raw and hard to digest. There is also the moral question of how you can film people in dire distress and not help them, but in their way, Helke and her crew have been faithful observers. An IMDb summary for this film claims that one out of four young people who come out to their parents are kicked out of the house and that "20 to 40 percent" of homeless youth in the US may be part of a sexual minority.

    American Vagabond, 85 mins, debuted 27 Feb. 2013 at DocPoint Film Festival; has shown at half a dozen other international festivals. It was photographed by Marko Luukkonen, edited by Niels Pagh Andersen and produced by the Finnish Film Foundation. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film Society's series, Cinema by the Bay, Nov. 22-24, 2013.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-02-2015 at 04:43 PM.

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    ALONG THE ROADSIDE (Zoran Lisinac 2013)

    ZORAN LISNIAC: ALONG THE ROADSIDE (2013)


    Angelina Häntsch and Iman Crosson in Along the Roadside

    Road riffs

    In a moment of panic, Varnie (Iman Crosson), a San Francisco–based branding specialist, flees his stable life and career when his girlfriend reveals to him that she is pregnant. As he makes his way out of town towards southern California, he crosses paths with Nena (Angelina Häntsch), an untethered German tourist who has just missed seeing her favorite band, Blonde Priest, live. When she learns that their next show will be down south, Varnie, who's met Nena on the street, casually offers to take her along. It's a while before he drops his hostility and begins to like her.

    The producer of this film, Cal/Coast News tells us, "is 2005 Cal Poly international business graduate and former [6'9"] basketball star Vladimir Lisinac, 31. . . .Lisinac co-founded Metakwon Filmworks, the film’s production company, in 2007 with his brother and business partner Zoran Lisinac of Los Angeles who also serves as the director and screenwriter of the indie film."

    These two Serbian brothers transplanted to America may be expressing a unique Slavic sensibility in their quirky road movie, but that's not entirely clear. Things move along a bit unevenly and the tone isn't always consistent. But one of their best shticks is by the great Serbian actor Lazar Ristovski (Underground, King of Thieves), who tows Varnie's BMW convertible when it breaks down on the road and takes over the scene, When Ristowski holds forth while sitting at the wheel of his truck, with Crosson on the other side and Häntsch in the middle, Crosson suddenly shrinks and seems like a boy -- not an unappealing effect. This is one of several brief glimpses of the possibility tht Crosson, made gruff and unappealing here, might be winning in another role.

    Zoran Lisinac's busy, inexplicable dialogue, especially in the first half, tries much too hard.

    "You're kind of a glitch in the system, like young Republicans or under-hung black guys."

    "We did a demo, it's not very good quality, but all of our friends like it."

    "Yeah, but that's like deaf and dumb parents applauding their kids."

    Nena: "I'd like three kids. One of each."

    Silicon Valley culture blogger Clinton Stark thinks Michael Madsen in a sharp white suit and red sunglasses, in his cameo two thirds of the way through, "looks just as you’d expect a high profile actor to look like in a small indie comeback role (think Mickey Rourke in Spun)."

    Ah, well, Spun. Can you remember Mickey Rourke in Spun (2002)? See the video entitled "Mickey Rourke's toucjhng scene in Spun" on YouTuube. Unfortunately, it's one of this wildly manic little drug picture's tritest and fakest bits of dialogue. Spun, which I reviewed, is a cool speed freak trip trip. Along the Roadside (not a promising title, by the way) could use some funer, more manic moments. It could maybe use some drugs (it's got cigarettes). Its references to Sartre and Camus are naive. It's without much focus and, perhaps rightly, with no real climax. Fortunately, the casting of Häntsch and Crosson has an oddball edge. Do they have much chemistry? Hard to say. But each of them has a reasonably strong presence. The trouble is the much more experienced actors sprinkled through the story to add flavor are featured over Häntsch and Crosson when the cast is listed, and fit's not right for the protagonists be placed in the background of their own picture.

    Beware a movie that has a montage in the first ten minutes. Roadside gets better later, once it gets past its introductions -- way past them. But for much of the time it has way too much to say and too little to do.

    "You know what the new religion is? Green. Environmentally friendly. Organic shit.. . ." says Varnie.

    Cousin Cliff (Rhomeyn Johnson): "Just ignore him."

    Yes, ignore him. This script has verbal diarrhea. But it has moments. An hour in, when the actor comes pretending to be a racist cop and abuses Varnie and Cousin Cliff, and then they all go to a party, and Nena quiets down, it becomes fun. "Did you ever notice that the Acura symbol looks just like a pussy, but it's just upside down?" asks Cousin Cliff. As Ciff, Johnson is amusing and at ease. Unfortunately he comes and goes, like everybody else but Varnie and Nena. . And Varnie and Nena don't change much.

    The actor, as they enter the party: "I'm all over it. You push, I'll deal. Or you can deal -- whatever you're feeling. You complete me." His riff on "mathod" acting is amusing.

    Michal Madsen indeed brings a potent menace and unpleasantness into the film, but the mood passes. The couple, as they are now, for the moment anyway, go on to the concert by Blonde Priest that Nena has come from Europe to see. Online notes say that "Singer-songwriter Cole Bonner has written and performed the songs for the elusive band (Blonde Priest) that Nena (colorblind girl from Germany played by Angelina Häntsch) has come see perform at the concert in the US. The songs serve as a Greek Chorus explaining the story of Along the Roadside as well as addressing the audience and the characters alike." But isn't that usually the case? Anyway, the songs are pleasant, and raise the tone of the film, which some find a delightful form of indie quirk. It could do fine on DVD or downloads. In a theater, nix. If Mike D'Angelo were watching it, he'd have a hard time making it to two reels, and it would be a W/O. The best moment was when they came into the party. There was expectation.

    Along the Roadside, 108 mins., debuted at Belgrade 23 Feb. 2013. The producer/brother/basketball player was hoping to enter all the big festivals, Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Venice. That didn't happen. It has been shown at half a dozen smaller festivals in the US. It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Cinema by the Bay series, Nov. 2013. This one could be called "Cinema Away from the Bay," because that's the story's direction.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-02-2015 at 04:44 PM.

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    REDEMPTION TRAIL (Britta Sjogren 2013)

    BRITTA SJOGREN: REDEMPTION TRAIL (2013)


    Lily Rave and Lisagay Hamilton in Redemption Trail

    Unresolved drama of two ladies with traumas in their past

    Reclusive farm manager Tess (vet black actress LisaGay Hamilton) meets whit medical doctor Anna (Lily Rabe, coming up in Hunger Games 3) when out of the blue Anna tries to hang herself from a tree in California's Sonoma County. She's trespassed onto the farm Tess maintains for absent English investment tycoon John Stubbs (Jake Weber), who comes from NYC once a year with his daughter Juliet (Juliette Stubbs). Anna is riddled with guilt over the recent death of her 8-year-old daughter Ruby (Asta Sjogren-Uyehara), killed when a horse bolted. Anna had pushed the riding lessons a bit. Tess has long pursued a life of active solitude. She nurses pain from older traumas, having done serious jail time for violent interactions with cops as part of the Oakland Black Panthers. Anna comes from Oakland too, currently anyway, having left behind a glamorous house in the Oakland hills where she lived with Ruby and left-leaning UC Berkeley professor husband David (Hamish Linklater, of Miranda July's The Future). The two women bond in reclusiveness, but men intervene, or try to. Redemption Trail doesn't particularly live up to its title, since there's not much resolution. Or after a slow progression it's got us on the trail, but we haven't gotten there.

    Tess finds out Anna's husband is looking for her in nearby Petaluma (and so are the cops), yet surprisingly, given her hatred of police and parole situation and her leathery toughness, she consents to having Anna remain in hiding on the farm. How exactly did ex-con Tess get this plum job in the first place, maintaining a beautiful farm with horses and grapes? What is happening during all this to Anna's busy medical practice? What leads David to come up to Sonoma County to look for Anna?

    When John comes from New York with Juliet, he immediately finds a crumpled handbill on the seat of the tractor and learns who Anna is. His call brings David, who departs angrily when Anna refuses to return with him. It seems Tess isn't just John's employee, though she says, "I'm not your girlfriend." Maybe, maybe not. A secondary plot of pregnant Hispanic women and local bad men involving a number of characters and scenes in Spanish isn't well developed though somehow, not quite clearly, both Anna and Tess become involved in it, the latter to avenge a rape.

    Viewers who want to admire nice photography of golden NorCal hills and sweeping grass (contrasted with a set of equally handsome quick opening shots of Oakland and the UC Berkeley campus) may enjoy this slow-mover, whose exploration of emotional wounds happens in impossibly glamorous and beautiful settings. But despite its polish and good acting and some scenes of almost painful intimacy, the film seems lacking in urgency as well as plausibility. Redemption Trail's audience award when it debuted suggests further festival possibilities, but theatrical release seems doubtful.

    Redemption Trail, 92 mins., debuted at Mill Valley, where it won an audience award. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Cinema by the Bay series, showing Saturday, November 23, 2:15 pm at the Roxie Theater. Sjogren teaches film at San Francisco State University and this is her third feature. This film seems much changed from an earlier draft described on the SF State site, but the bringing together of two women and their seeing each other in their dreams remains.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-02-2015 at 04:44 PM.

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    THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN (In Hak Jang 2102)

    IN HAK JANG: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN (2012)


    Kim Hyak Suk and Kim Ryung in The Other Side of the Mountain

    North Korean film financed from the US is trite, but a remarkable effort

    Korean Grindhouse says North Korean director In Hak Jang's first film, My Look in the Distant Future (1997), has a screenplay that "is supposed to be about an over-aged slacker whose lust for a revolutionary girl transforms him into a model citizen in the Communist party," but primarily shows how superpatriotic conviction trumps sex. It was ten years before Jang got to make his second film, A Schoolgirl's Diary, an unsexy-sounding tale of a young woman's difficulties in becoming a scientist. Jang's third feature is 2012's Other Side of the Mountain, a saccharine North-South Korean wartime romance (and, surprisingly, a US collaboration) that is at the same time a propaganda film, extolling the bravery of North Koreans during the Fifties war, demonizing the Yanks (who are seen to bomb and massacre their South Korean allies) and advocating the reunification of the two Koreas. These ideas may please the North Koreans, but the script belongs to 76-year-old Joon Bai, a North Korean-born businessman resident in the US since the Fifties who has been involved in humanitarian aid to North Korea since 1997.

    Everyone pines for their mom in this picture, which features remarkable wartime scenes for a low budget production and ravishing winter landscapes, and lots of trite, uninteresting dialogue. In Seoul, Il Gyo (Kim Ryung) is torn away from his mother when hoping to emigrate and instead brutally kidnapped on the street by soldiers (while calling for his mother) and put into the South Korean Army. He's wounded in the small town of Chunmri in North Korea and, fed up with the brutality of war, rips off his uniform. Rescued and cared for by cloyingly selfless local nurse Soon Ah (Kim Hyang Suk), Il Gyo is taken in and cared for by her and her mountain hunter dad (she's motherless). Their love grows through a winter as he rests and recovers and the pair enjoy platonic idylls in the snow.

    This is an odd and unsophisticated film, full of long simpering looks and half-stifled sobs. Every so often we get a small lecture. After a while it's hardly surprising to see Soon Ah and the villagers on hand break into patriotic song, with Il Gyo joining in, or for everybody to cheer and jump for joy at a stilted-sounding radio broadcast announcing a North Korean victory. There is continuity problem, so there's already been mention between the lovers of Il Gyo's mother in Seoul before the bigger scene were he clumsily confesses to her that he's really from the other side. Gentle Soon Ah grabs a knife and then a rifle as if to shoot the man she clearly loves by now. But her dad intervenes with a philosophical speech.

    Soon Il Gyo heads off on foot for the South, his limp magically gone. He promises to come back with his mother to live with Soon Ah one day. She vows to wait, forever if need be. Obviously we're dealing with a plotline as sex-free as Jang's first film's, since there's been no hanky-panky up to now and of course it doesn't work out for Il Gyo to take his mom up to the North Korean hills to rejoin Soon Ah. The war may be long over but hostilities go on as the decades go by. Seoul has an economic miracle to carry out and Pyonyang has a dynasty of crazy dictators to support, leading to poverty and starvation that continues today. But the film doesn't get into all that. It merely offers a frame tale of an eventual, too late, return, as moody, saccharine, and message-laden as the scenes between Soon Ah and Il Gyo during the Korean war.

    The film offers little to the sophisticated Stateside audience, but it is an accomplishment by San Francisco-based writer/producer Joon Bai. As he explains in an interview, the film took six years to make, and is both the first US-DPRK film coproduction, shot entirely in North Korea with local actors, who worked with no pay under rugged conditions, and also the first synch sound feature made in the country.

    The Other Side of the Mountain, 103 mins., debuted in the US in October 2013 and has been in various small festivals, notably the annual Korean American Film Festival New York October 24-26, 2013 at Village East Cinema in NYC . It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Cinema by the Bay series, shown Sunday, November 24, 2:15 pm, Roxie Theater in San Francisco's Mission district.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-02-2015 at 04:44 PM.

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    THE ILLNESS AND THE ODYSSEY (Berry Minott 2013)

    BERRY MINOTT: THE ILLNESS AND THE ODYSSEY (2013)


    Dr. John Steele in The Illness and the Odyssey

    Tracing a frustrating search for the cause of a major cause of death

    One in four people die of one of a neurodegenerative disease, Berry Winott's straightforward documentary documentary tells us. The focus is on the Chamorro people on the island of Guam, particularly the inhabitants of the town of Umatac. Since the Fifties they've been studied, because they have had a very high proportion of their population dying of a neurodegeneratie disease, related to Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), which is called lytigo-bodig disease. There's no answer here. This is just a story of a sequence of theories that have one by one not borne fruit, and the controversy in the scientific community surrounding them. Various scientists, such as Dr. John Steele and Dr. Peter Spencer and their friend Oliver Sacks, narrate much of the story, with contributions from Jonathan Weiner, the science writer. There are several others. This is a clear and interesting little documentary, not very sexy, but perhaps all the better for not leading to a happy conclusion. Scientific research is often a long and frustrating process, with many false starts and wrong turns before a solution is found. The Illness and the Odyssey shows us that.

    First came the idea that since lytigo-bodig was inflicting families very heavily, its origins were genetic. But this was discarded when people who came to Guam later from other locations also died of lytigo-bodig. Next came the neurotoxin theory, because the Chamorros consume pastries made from flour made from cycads, a nut that contains the toxin called BMAA. Dr. Peter Spencer, a neurotoxicologist, worked on this possibility, and BMAA was found, through help from Miami University Brain Endowment Bank director Deborah Mash. This hypothesis was rejected for several reasons. The primate testing showed neurodegenerative disease symptoms right away, but the quantity administered was enormous. Whether small quantities over time would cause them was not shown, but long term primate testing was not possible.

    Dr. Steele moved onto a parasite theory based on the finding of retinal neuropathy in lytigo-bodig patients. Then along came Paul Cox, an ethnobotonist, with his bat theory, quickly dubbed, Oliver Sacks notes, as the "batty" theory. This was the theory that since the Chamorros consumed whole Pacific fruit bats in soup, they might ingest neurotoxins that way. The hypothesis at least was that the flesh of the fruit bats might contain a huge concentration of BMAA, far more than would come through cycads.

    A further issue was that two nearby areas, in Japan and West Papua, New Guinea, with a considerable amount of neurodegenerative disease did or did not have cycads, and first a scientist researching this found there were no cycads in Japan, and then more recently it was found that in fact there definitely were. As often with intense searches for the sources of diseases, involving dynamic and volatile individuals, competition throughout all this was intense, with much debunking of rival theories. One of the speakers based on Guam is extremely negative in his comments on the National Institutes of Health, whose researchers were want to bypass him and his colleagues and claim that the lytigo-bodig research belonged to the NIH, and to nobody else. And so on. A pungent observer on the changing theories and the controversies is Dr. Kwang-Ming Chen, naurologist who moved to Guam in the Sixties, and worked with Nobel Prize winner Dr. Carleton Gajdusek, who worked on prions, rogue proteins that cause, among other things, mad cow disease. Gajdusek thought lytigo-bodeg was an infectious disease, not caused by toxins. After 20 years, he decided lytigo-bodeg was not a prion disease but, rejecting cycads, focused on toxins in the water, especially aluminum. That didn't pan out either. Dr. John Steele, who came to Guam in the Sixties, disproved it. Oliver Sacks came and made house calls with Dr. Steele and wrote a book about Guam. Dr. Spencer came, and returned to the cycad hypothesis.

    Another occasional commentator is Dr. Walter Bradley, emeritus chairman of Miami University's Department of Neurology and author of Treating the Brain.

    A further development was the realization that the BMAA in cycads is not generated by the cycads themselves but via algae that attach themselves to them -- algae similar to algae found virtually everywhere, and increasing in concentration due to global warming.

    Jonathan Weiner's article, "Tangles,", from 2005, focused on Paul Cox's work, led to a lot of interest in lytigo-bodig. Weiner speaks of the personal aspect of the story -- a close relative was suffering from a neurodegenerative disease as he wrote -- and the unresolved and controversial nature of all the Guam research, particularly the energetic, charismatic Cox's "batty" theory.

    It was hopeful that since the Nineties the role of lytigo-bodig in the deaths of the people of Guam has dropped markedly. Nobody knows why, but it shows that the incidence of neurodegenerative disease can drop.

    The search for a solution to the problem of neurodegenerative disease goes on, and the focus on Guam has by no means been abandoned. The latest is that researchers from the University of California San Francisco will be coming to Guam next year to conduct more research with 20 residents of Umatac.

    The Illness and the Odyssey, 70 mins., debuted October 5, 23013 at Mill Valley. It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Cinema by the Bay series, where it was shown Sunday, November 24, 7:00 pm, at the Roxie Theater.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-02-2015 at 04:48 PM.

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    DEAR SIDEWALK (Jake Oelman 2013)

    JAKE OELMAN: DEAR SIDEWALK (2013)


    Michelle Forbes and Joseph Mazello in Dear Sidewalk

    Tentative romance ends postal career

    Gardner (Joseph Mazzello), a 24-year old mailman in Austin Texas on the verge of his 25th birthday, meticulously goes his rounds every day except for daily stopovers to visit Trudy (Lana Dieterich) a feisty and wise-ass retired science teacher. This is where either credibility or the rules of US Post Office delivery begin jointly to be violated. The shock is greater when Gardner starts taking long times off during route to hang out with Paige (Michelle Forbes), a forty-something relocated divorcee with semi-abandoned pretensions to being a sculptor. Paige waffles between worldly-wise and clueless, and it's not quite certain if this is a confused lady or an uneven tone in the writing in Jake Limbert's script.

    Gardner gets fired for not delivering mail, but he seems to have overestimated Paige's interest in what he imagines as a romance and she may see merely as a pastime. It's all larky and meant to be on the order of a little Sundance charmer. This little movie does have some cute lines and some of the acting isn't bad, nor can one fault the cinematography: Oelman indeed has years of work experience as a photographer. But things go somewhat astray in the film midway due to some elements that detract from the main storyline. There is some dubious casting (some local) of secondary characters; some scenes simply don't work. The film needs further post-production to correct serious issues in the sound levels. Josh Fadem, an actor with a comedy background who plays Garner's brother Calvin, who did come from out of town (LA), has energy and flair, but it's hard to believe Fadem as a garage mechanic and he doesn't completely convince as Gardner's brother either. So I can't recommend this film, though the filmmaker may be worth following for future efforts.

    Not sure how this film is "By the Bay." Jame Oelman lives in LA and has worked for 15 years as a photographer. He has also made a documentary, Learning to See, about his father, Robert Oelman who lives in Colombia, South America, and makes photographs of insects, but this has not been completed yet. He is still raising money for that via Kickstarter. This could be a visually awesome film.

    Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Cinema by the Bay Series, presented Sunday, November 24, 9:15 pm, Roxie Theater. No other festival showings or release dates appear to be scheduled so far.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-02-2015 at 04:55 PM.

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