SFIFF Review: Counting

(The 59th San Francisco International Film Festival ran April 21-May 5.)

counbtingCounting is a difficult film to pin down. But that’s precisely what makes it so engaging. All films are art to some extent (for better or worse). But typically, the narrative is the main focus. In Jem Cohen’s latest film, the art is the focus, made all the more so by the lack of narrative and the frequently incongruent audio. Shot primarily in New York City, Moscow, Istanbul, and Sharja, Counting often feels like a travel diary wherein the traveler is the camera itself and Cohen is a ghost who pops up from time to time.

The film is broken into 15 parts, each beginning with a title and ending with the date and city in which the footage was shot. Sometimes the segment has a postscript such as in part 2: “A Day is Long”… “But a lifetime is short.” The titles are a mantra – something on which to ruminate or puzzle over during the segment. You begin to notice recurring motifs such as travel (planes, trains and automobiles) – but always with the camera trained out the window to catch the passing scenery; frequent shots of new construction contrast with neglected buildings and sidewalks; people hustle and bustle through the streets, passing static vagrants and paying them no mind; nature pushes through concrete, fighting for the right to exist; cats abound…

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Hammer to Nail Review: Restoration

posterrestorationHorror fans (myself included) know that it’s tough to keep the water in the well fresh. We tend to be very forgiving about this, however, because our love for the genre is pure. Zach Ward’s feature directing debut, Restoration, is built with a familiar framework. A young couple buys a house, which turns out to be haunted by the ghost of a little girl who perished under mysterious circumstances. But Ward is clearly studied. He understands, and utilizes, that winning formula. And then he makes it his own by adding a few twists and turns and spending some time on character development, so that you really feel for the protagonists by the time you reach the heart-pounding third act.

Becca (Emily O’Brien) and Todd (Adrian Gaeta) have just moved to town for Becca’s residency at the local hospital. Something our presidential candidates have failed to address during their campaigns is the fact that lower-income people are always stuck buying the haunted fixer-uppers. Fortunately, Todd is handy, so he takes it upon himself to make the place livable while Becca goes off to work the most stressful job in the universe, dealing with trauma patients. One day, Todd finds the world’s creepiest teddy bear hidden inside one of the walls, and hidden inside that is the 30-year-old diary once belonging to a little girl named Katie…

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Hammer to Nail Review: Pop Meets the Void

newpopWilliam Cusick wrote, directed, and starred in Pop Meets the Void, a genre-bending feature about a musician who constantly floats between fantasy realms and alternate realities. At least, I think that’s what is happening. The true reality of the protagonist is never explicit. He could be a slovenly, bearded man recording demos in his squalid basement apartment. Or he could be a clean-shaven office drone with half-hearted musical aspirations, a daughter trying to break into acting, and an existentially conflicted wife. He could instead be an international musical sensation, longing to return to a life of obscurity. Or possibly all of these versions of himself exist only in the mind of a man trapped in a sort of musical purgatory, attempting various methods of suicide when he’s not, NOT composing.

Pop Meets the Void is not as confusing as it sounds, but it definitely leaves much open to interpretation. The narrative takes a backseat to the visuals and satirical dialogue. Each realm has a distinct look (and not just because of changing facial hair), but they’re all tied together with ever-present rainbow fractal motion graphics. Sometimes the graphics accentuate the background. Other times they take over the entire frame. It’s more than eye candy but less than a feast; A snack for the eyes, if you will…

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Hammer to Nail Review: Before the Sun Explodes

beforesun “Nobody means to be horrible. They just are horrible.” This observation by a minor character could be the thesis of Debra Eisenstadt’s emotionally challenging third feature, Before the Sun Explodes.

Ken (Bill Dawes) is a middle-aged stay-at-home parent and stand-up comedian who had a taste of notoriety in the 90’s and has been struggling to reclaim it ever since. Diana (Christine Woods), his wife and the family breadwinner, has given up on him. And it’s hard to blame her, since he’s still peddling the same tired, misogynistic material he used when he was single. His b.j. jokes do not land anymore; even the crickets remain awkwardly silent when he’s on stage. He barely even believes in himself, as he argues with Diana about following his dreams of pitching a TV show based on his stage persona. So when Diana kicks him out of the house in a drunken rage, he’s completely at a loss about what to do…

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Hammer to Nail Review: The Art of the Prank

Artist, Joey Skaggs, has been orchestrating elaborate pranks since the 1970’s. But the difference between what he does and, say, the people who post bogus articles on Facebook, is that exposing the truth is a crucial part of Skaggs’ mission. In this way, he is able to shed some light on social issues and, more importantly, embarrass the media for failing to do their due diligence. He’s always known exactly what elements he needs to include for baiting big news outlets like CNN, the Village Voice, and the Huffington Post. Director Andrea Marini profiles Skaggs in his fascinating new documentary, The Art of the Prank. Marini crosscuts to the greatest hits of Skaggs’ past and back to the present as plans for his latest prank unfold.

Skaggs conceived his life’s work after the local news misinterpreted a Vietnam protest he organized as merely a gathering of littering hippies. He was dismayed that they had gotten it so wrong. He wondered how outlandish a story had to be before they would actually do any investigation, so he decided to test his theory. What he does aren’t merely April Fools jokes. Usually there’s a social message behind the deception. The main one being, don’t believe everything that you hear. Someone isn’t necessarily an authority simply because they present themselves as such. The media manipulates us all the time. Why not manipulate them back?…

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Hammer to Nail Review: Foreveryone.net

(The 2016 Sundance Film Festival is in full swing and we have boots on the ground as well as eyes on screener links for the whole festival! Stay tuned to Hammer to Nail as reviews start rolling in…)

I don’t think I need to explain how essential the World Wide Web is to our daily lives. And yet, as evidenced by the opening of Jessica Yu’s short film, Foreveryone.net, very few people know who is behind it all. That person was a humble genius named Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and he’s perfectly content living in obscurity because he didn’t invent it for notoriety and profit. He did it because it was the right thing to do.

Foreveryone.net tells the story of Berners-Lee and how he came to create something that changed the landscape of the world forever. But it also goes beyond his story, making a strong case for the magnitude of Net Neutrality – that is, keeping the internet free and accessible to everyone in the world, regardless of location or socio-economic status. Berners-Lee knew that the only way to do this was to limit, if not outright avoid, regulation of the Web…

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Hammer to Nail Review: How to Plan an Orgy in a Small Town

(The 2016 Slamdance Film Festival is in full swing and we have boots on the ground as well as eyes on screener links for the whole festival! Stay tuned to Hammer to Nail as reviews start rolling in…)

Writer/Director Jeremy LaLonde (Sex After Kids) returns below the belt with his second feature, a bit of good, dirty fun called, How to Plan an Orgy in a Small TownAs the result of a humiliating sexual encounter, teenager Cassie Cranston (Jewel Staite, TV’s Firefly) is almost literally run out of her small Canadian hometown of Beaver’s Ridge. Twelve years later, she reluctantly returns to tie up loose ends after her estranged mother’s funeral and finds that her former peers still hold a grudge. You see, following her exit, Cassie moved to the Big City, and published a scathing piece, exposing Beaver’s Ridge as a wretched hive of wasps and repression. Her article went viral thanks to a literary connection with the town, drawn by her mother, an “Ann of Green Gables” type author, who erroneously depicted the place as wholesome and idyllic. In the years that followed, Cassie gained more notoriety as a sex columnist, further mortifying the conservative townspeople.

What her former peers don’t know, is that Cassie isn’t quite as sexually adventurous as she lets on. And what Cassie doesn’t know, is that the people she grew up around are capable of more open-mindedness than she gave them credit for. Alice (Katharine Isabelle, Ginger Snaps), Cassie’s former best friend, is in the process of exploring her sexuality as she tries to wrap up a divorce with her reluctant husband, Bruce (Mark O’Brien). Heather (Lauren Lee Smith, TVs The L Word) wants to get pregnant ASAP so that she can catch up with the rest of the housewives, and treats her sad-sack husband, Adam (Ennis Esmer), like little more than a baby batter dispenser. And Chester (Jonas Chernick), just finds it difficult to get laid when he feels like he already knows everyone around him. So, for various reasons, they all agree to plan the titular orgy, with Cassie as their guide. She, in turn, will make it the subject of the contractually obligated book she is long overdue writing…

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