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AIFF15: No Spoilers

Monday 13 April 2015

Usually, I’d be writing about the Ashland Independent Film Festival as it unfolds during each Festival in early April.

I didn’t do that this year.

I don’t have a good reason why, really. Herself wanted to do this year’s AIFF in a more low-key way. We’ve often done 20, 22, even 24 film slots during prior Festivals. For a festival with five slots a day Friday through Monday and four on Thursday, that means films pretty much all day for 15 hours a day, with meals and sleep snatched in between. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also a big time commitment.

This year, we had a warm up at the Seattle Cinerama, which was showing Lawrence of Arabia on their super-big screen on the Saturday before Easter (so, the Saturday before AIFF). That’s a reasonable warm-up for a film festival (or a double-feature at OSF).

The other thing was the list of films this year. We have a way of choosing films that tries to balance what we each want, or are willing, to see. It’s a four-point rating scale: 0 is “no, please no!”, 1 is “eh, if you insist”, 2 is “this could be good”, and 3 is “oh, my, yes!”. Add the scores for each film and you’ve got a plan. Way too many films were coming in at a total score of 2 or less (out of a max of 6), so we picked the few that hit the higher values.

The upside of this is that what we saw was generally excellent; no really stinkers. The downside is that if something was amazing but low on our list, we missed it. Oh well.

Here’s what we saw, and how they stacked up:

Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey  Actor Hal Holbrook has been doing his one-man Mark Twain show on and off for over 60 years: it was his first professional gig, in 1954, and he’s still doing it to this day (we saw it a couple of months ago). He’s performed the show, which changes from day-to-day, over 2,250 times. This movie is a biography that covers a little of his personal life and a lot about how he created and performs as Twain.

I’ve seen the Holbrook/Twain live performance at least a couple of times; it’s a funny and thoughtful reflection on American society and politics. The movie does a good job of blending Holbrook’s personal life and the production of the Twain show.

Highly recommended.

Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation  I had been anticipating this film, as The Nation has always been a favorite publication, and there was the promise of a historical look at the magazine and the stories it had covered.

Sadly, while there was some history of the magazine, and the back story about the interns was interesting, there was way, way too much fluff. I don’t need yet another establishing shot to tell me that we’re back in NYC when the next shot is the interior of the magazine’s offices. Similarly, the closing section about the cruise, and just about all the follow shots of the magazine’s editor were superfluous. Some of the history of the magazine was interesting.

It’s not in the “there’s two hours of my life I’m never getting bad” level of bad, but if someone else wants to watch it while I’m there, I’ll go read the magazine instead.

Wildlike  Here’s another one we had been anticipating: a new feature starring Bruce Greenwood (“Nowhere Man”, Star Trek (2009), Flight) about a “troubled teen” who takes off into the Alaskan wilds.

Mr. Greenwood is a fine actor; his counterpart, played by Ella Purnell (MaleficentTarzan) and the rest of the cast are also no lightweights, so success is not a surprise.

What was a surprise was the extent to which the writer, director and cast avoided any Hollywood-ization of the story. Rene (Mr. Greenwood) is a mature adult, but he is neither all-wise nor tragically flawed; he has his own problems, but they are normal and well within the scope of believability. Similarly, Mackenzie (Ms. Purnell) has problems that are (unfortunately) too possible without being overwhelming; her actions are believable and human without descending into maudlin.

I really loved that all of the actions and reactions were normal. There was no exceptional heroism, nor exceptional villainy. The creators avoid using music to push emotion; the visuals of the Alaskan wilderness were beautiful without pushing into glorious. Comedy was used as it would naturally occur, not forced into the script to elicit a reaction.

One of the best feature films I’ve seen in years. Highly recommended.

Proud Citizen  A Bulgarian playwright wins second place in a playwriting contest; her reward is production of her work in Frankfort, Kentucky.

It’s almost a Mamet-like film; you start in one place, and after a series of twists and turns, all of which are small in individual scope and believable in context, you wind up with the lead character at a place you didn’t expect.

Acting and production are spot on for a film that feels by turns like a feature and a documentary. At one point Herself said she wondered why the cameraman didn’t answer a question, and then remembered oh yeah, it’s not a documentary. None of the actors felt overly polished; the naturalness of the performances was outstanding.

Also highly recommended.

Animation Shorts  This has always been one of our favorite blocks, but it has been slipping in the last few years. This year, all but one of the films were foreign, so not in competition; the one in competition was a Plympton film that I swear we saw at AIFF last year.

The films were good, many very dark and dealing with dark subjects (depression, suicide, loss). But I’m not looking for AIFF to merely re-project films that can be found elsewhere; I want AIFF to show films that are novel and are not just re-runs of what’s been selected by other festivals.

There were a few good films. The best was probably one about a therapy session called Through the Hawthorn. That film is Highly Recommended.

Man from Reno  A weird film. Almost a live-action Japanese anime-like film noir. A pretty and reclusive author, a dead guy, and a local sheriff collide in a weird tale about…well, watch it and find out. It’s a little on the long side (could use some editing), but it’s a weirdly interesting film. Recommended.

Barge  One of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, anywhere. “Real” without being artificially gritty. Individuals whose stories are normal and interesting, without being maudlin or over-dramatic. A situation (life on a river barge) that is an iconic part of the history of the country (c.f. Holbrook/Twain, above). A movie paced in a deliberate and reflective manner that avoids become a snooze-fest, or something only the blue-hairs would enjoy. A team effort, without over-the-top sacrifices (nobody dies, no one is even injured). Ordinary troubles that remind us that everyone can fit in to society. Highly Recommended.


That’s it! So few blocks, but such high quality. Now we nap.


Four for Four

Friday 27 February 2015

As of tonight’s Pericles preview, the score is OSF, 4; everyone else in the world, 0.

To recap, we’ve been watching (on a LARGE screen with a really good sound system, to be as fair as possible) what are regarded as some of the best (or only) filmed/taped versions the stories OSF is producing this year: Much AdoGuys and DollsFingersmith, and Pericles.

The filmed versions we’ve seen recently are:

  • Much Ado About Nothing, 1973, 1993, and 2012 film and TV productions;
  • Fingersmith, 2005 BBC production;
  • Guys and Dolls, 1955 film;
  • Pericles, 1984 BBC production

Some of the filmed productions were just awful: totally dry, way to self-important, or just not engaging. Some of the performances were flat, the singing was dull and uninspired, or the staging was amateurish. Some were fine, even good. None made us say “I need to see that again!”

A common trait of all of the OSF productions is that they have a healthy dose of comedy in each. Let’s be real, three hours of straight drama with no action or comedy is a long slog. Drama used only because the director or adapter can’t think of anything better, or because they have beatified Shakespeare in their own mind, or (worse) they have beatified themselves, makes for a dull experience.

Pericles was the show tonight, and was the one that had all of us who had seen the 1984 BBC production wondering how OSF would make it at least marginally palatable.

Two words: musical comedy.

It’s not that the OSF Pericles is a send-up of the original; it’s more that the OSF production team apparently has realized, over many decades of productions (8 and counting) , that it doesn’t matter how relevant, eternal, or otherwise fabulous the central message of a show is; if they can’t keep the audience in their seats, the message will be lost. So when a scene can be played for comedy or drama with no loss to the story, why not let loose the flying monkeys of comedy for a scene or two?

The other factor is music. A song can convey as much emotion as spoken dialogue, and it adds an additional dimension to the work, and, let’s be honest, a long stretch of dialogue can be taxing. Changing a monologue into a song is a two-fer, breaking up the dialogue into easy-to-swallow pieces and adding music to salve the hearing.

OSF’s current productions have all taken this as far as they can: Fingersmith and Much Ado use lots of comedy to relieve the tension inherent in the stories; Pericles adds a generous dose of music and song, and an almost lyrical delivery by Gower; Guys and Dolls already has lots of music and comedy, but uses the right cast members at the right time to maximize the comedic and dramatic effects.

I’m a little concerned about Long Day’s Journey, which is next on the list. It’s a story that seems unsuited to much music or comedy, so it’s a straight-up knife fight between OSF’s production, starring Michael Winters as James Sr., and Stratford’s 1994 production with William Hutt. No matter which way it goes, I think that both productions will be top-notch.

Mr. Acebo’s Wild Ride

Sunday 22 February 2015

So Fingersmith looks destined to become a huge hit for OSF this season. If you’ve seen the BBC version, this is not that; it’s more Sondheim “Sweeney Todd” (without the music) than “String of Pearls” (yeah, I’m torturing the metaphor. Deal.) I’m calling it a dark comedy; Herself is calling it more of a drama with comedic elements. Whatevs. It was a hoot of a show, with enough asides through the fourth wall and slight alterations to the plot to make the ending plausible instead of not so.

The whole cast is super. Sara Bruner and Erica Sullivan are well-cast as the leads, but Kate Mulligan captures the audience every time she’s onstage.

One of the main characters you’ll see is the staging: it’s a bit of Victorian ironmongery with some high-tech additions to round out the scene. But there’s a big mechanical feature that, hand to God, reminded me of nothing so much as part of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland.

Go see it!

Hero, Defined

Saturday 21 February 2015

In most productions of Much Ado About Nothing, the Hero character is anything but: shy and retiring, swept along by the events and other (mostly male) characters, and with about as much character development as a scrim.

OSF: fixed that.

Much Ado occupies what we like to call a “family crowd-pleaser” slot in this, the Festival’s 80th season. That’s a show that is usually a little more “accessible”, has lots of comedy, and is pretty safe for all ages. Last year it was The Cocoanuts.

The production that previewed tonight, already amazing due to the standout performances by veterans Danforth Comins, Jack Willis, and and Cristofer Jean, and Christiana Clark in her second season, is raised to a new level by the fact that Hero is a real person and not a cardboard cut-out to be chased, chastised, killed, and then propped back up for the final scene: Claudio’s girlfriend, Leonato’s daughter, the dead chick, and finally, the bride.

OSF newbie Leah Anderson brings actual fire and passion to the role, making Hero stronger and more alive than is often (usually) the case. Yes, she still has to “die”, but before and after that, she’s a presence onstage right up there with the other major characters.

This is an epochal production; if you think you’ve seen Much Ado too many times to enjoy a new production, you need to see this one.

Cinnamon, the Anti-Spice

Friday 23 January 2015

A big part of food is anticipation. You know (or think you know) what you’re about to eat, you look at it, smell it, and then, finally taste it. Your entire life to that point tells your brain “this is what it’s gonna be like”.

And then there’s cinnamon, lurking in a dish like the spoiler in a movie review, waiting for the unsuspecting eater to bite…and be disappointed. You wanted sweet! Or savory! Or umami! Anything but this nasty, acrid, don’t-want-it-in-my-mouth tree bark that may be the cause for 92% of holiday season stress. Think of it: you’re anticipating sweets and happiness and all things good going into the winter, and BAM! Cinnamon, the evil step-spice of the culinary world, comes back for its annual attack on our taste buds.

Thank goodness, ten more months until That Spice becomes fashionable again.


The Return of Monday Fried Chicken

Monday 12 January 2015

When last we met–really, the last post before the hiatus–our favorite Monday restaurant in Ashland (Larks) had removed their quite good fried chicken from their lunch menu. This was cause for wailing and gnashing of teeth (without even good fried chicken on which to gnash!), so we stopped going there, which probably wasn’t a hugely bad idea anyway.

Several months later they came to their senses and re-instated the fried chicken at lunch, which Herself again orders, although now as a Caesar salad with fried chicken on top–call it the Atkins version of Portlandia’s Put A Bird On It. I am going for the house salad, which involves not-so-bitter greens, hazelnuts, dried cranberries, and a slightly sweet vinaigrette. With some grilled chicken, it’s three courses in a single bowl.

But now we are spending a bunch more time in PDX. I wrote about this
several times before, but we have been staying up in the great rainy northern end of the state even more since then. Let’s say that the transition from the Bay Area to Ashland full-time was a little more of a unit step function that we had anticipated, and the ringing after the impulse was causing settling problems. PDX is a forty minute flight from Ashland, so we were singing “only forty-five minutes from Nordstrom” faster than you can say TSA Pre√.

We carry our traditions with us. Eastern Europeans brought bialy and bagels, Chinese railroad laborers brought what they thought was mom’s home cooking, barbecue has its meaty tendrils all the way back to Neanderthals.

We being people who mostly eat bagels, not boil them; eat dim sum, not push the carts; eat barbecue, not…well, we do smoke a fair amount of pork shoulder…the point remains, we bring the tradition of what we eat with us and seek out the local variant. So we had to seek out a local version of Monday Fried Chicken Lunch.

PDX has a lot of fried chicken, almost all of it boneless, some of it quite good, so the problem came down more to choosing the best from the rest than separating the fowl from the foul (yeah, I really did that). Key criteria are close to downtown to minimize travel during the Monday lunch window, inside seating to avoid being rained on while eating, and a reasonable price.

After sending many chickens to their oily, crispy demise in the search, we finally settled on one winner: Vitaly Paley’s Imperial. Like Larks, this is a restaurant in a hotel, but being a Paley product, goes way beyond the usual diner-in-a-dorm. High-end full bar, amazing exec chef, and the occasional Russian-themed pop-up dinner set this apart from many hotel restaurants.

So here’s a picture of the same fried chicken, as served at the 2014 Portland Feast event this past September. It was served by Chef Paley himself, and was a reminder that sometimes the best things are the simplest.

Imperial also does a nice sausage du jour, made in house. Charcuterie and similar meat products are a big deal in PDX, where half of restaurant menus are vegan and the other half have bacon in everything (same restaurants, same menus; facing pages). Today’s was a really nice kielbasa, just a little spicy and properly smoky; somewhat of a departure from the watery, bland kielbasa I remember from my childhood, and much, much better.

Fried chicken at Imperial keeps us on familiar ground at the start of the week.

Stay dry.

Resuming course

Sunday 11 January 2015

So it’s been a while. I’d cite a busy work schedule, or fascinating personal life that so totally engrossed me that posting was impossible, but…nah.

So anyway…

I’m going to rant about LED Xmas lights. I have no problem with LEDs in general (full disclosure: I have a tiny amount of stock in Cree, a leading LED device maker) or even the general concept of LEDs for Xmas lights.

Xmas lights are A Big Deal in Ashland. People leave up strands of (usually) white lights and illuminate them all year. It’s A Thing that adds a beautiful element to Ashland’s residential neighborhoods.

I put up three strands of LED bulbs a couple of years ago to replace some incandescents that finally failed after a decade of service. I was thinking: LEDs should last forever (ask my TI watch from 1976); LEDs use less energy per lumen.


Come this season, all three strands had failures: long sections of each strand had bulbs that were out or unusually dim.

LED light strings and incandescent Xmas lights share some common failure points: the bulbs can loosen in the socket, an excess of moisture at the connector can cause a short, the wiring harness can fail at a connectors (plugs and sockets). So LED strings don’t have an advantage there.

Incandescent bulbs since Edison’s original require a pretty strong vacuum to work at all. No vacuum, the filament burns out instantly. This makes a broken bulb easy to spot on the assembly line. It also makes a bulb unlikely to test as working on the line, and then fail due to a bad seal on the filament leads after being installed outside. It’s what’s called “mechanically stable”.

LEDs can come from the manufacturer encased in resin so that the silicon die itself (the “filament”) is never exposed to the air. But the contacts and other electronics in the bulb may not be so well protected; they rely on the plastic bulb to keep out moisture.

So there’s the problem: on the testing line, where it’s relatively warm and dry, before the product is shipped, either kind of bulb is going to pass the final plug-and-glow test. Every incandescent bulb has to have a good vacuum, and that will also keep it from failing when exposed to moisture (like outside, in the rain or snow). But an LED bulb can pass even if it has no protection against moisture getting in and eventually ruining the bulb. So when you put them outside, the same bulb that has to protect the filament in the incandescent light is of necessity a lot more likely to be better at keeping out moisture than the plastic bulb of an LED light.

Testing LED bulbs to the same rigor that an incandescent bulb has to have by design is hard. You’d have to expose the bulbs to heat, cold, and wet for hours at a time, and no vendor is going to do that (very expensive gear). And the warranty is short enough that the return rate during the warranty must be low, so there’s no pressure on the manufacturers to make a product that will really last for years under harsh outdoor conditions.

So I’m still a big fan of LED lights–inside, where it’s warm and dry. Outside, I’m staying with incandescent.

Stay dry.