Thank you, thank you, Roger Ebert

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I’d like to share some of my personal memories with Roger Ebert upon hearing of his passing this morning:

• Witnessing a slightly tipsy Roger break out into a broadway song medley at the piano during the close of one of his Ebertfests. Thank you, Roger, for inviting me to take part of your personal movie extravaganza that you shared with your fans.

• Sharing a conversation on the beach with him in Bahamas while on his “Ebert & Roeper Sea Cruise”. He seemed a fantastic, loving step-grandfather and babysitter to his rambunctious grandkids. Chaz was wearing our bright orange “FRESH” tomato t-shirt and said it was her favorite and most comfortable shirt. 🙂

• Sharing an afternoon with Roger in Seattle the week before the debilitating surgery that would take away him away from the TV screen. While we never did get to complete our partnership deal that would have provided spotlights of the Tomatometer and Roger’s reviews on our respective web sites, he remained hopeful and supportive of the possibilities of our online media.

• I messaged him with a photo of his face emblazoned on a big billboard in the middle of a very busy intersection in Beijing which he found unbelievable and wished he could have explored China more.

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• And, of course, my childhood memories of my favorite “Siskel & Ebert” moments, particularly he brawl over Eddie Murphy “Raw” (sorry, Roger, I agree with Gene on this one), “The Untouchables” (again, agree with Gene), “Hoop Dreams”, “My Dinner with Andre”, and “Dark City”.

It’s not often that you get to meet your childhood hero and I feel blessed for having met and received frequent words of support from a hero of mine.

Thank you, Roger. I watched you and Gene every weekend during my childhood and you inspired me and many of my generation with your enthusiasm and eloquence, elevating not just film criticism, but of all of film.

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My favorite films of 2012

 

 

 

Stephen's Favorite Films of 2012

Update (April 3, 2013): I’ve had a chance to go back and watch many additional films that were formerly on my “must watch” list. I’m so happy to discover some surprisingly good gems which I’ve now added to my Favorites of 2012 list.

I’ve tried to keep a personal list of favorite films every year. Unfortunately, the last three years in Beijing made it difficult to get access to some films (not available on BT, therefore not available in DVD stores). One of the benefits of returning to live in Hong Kong (since August) has been much better access to a greater variety of films. Unfortunately, many of these films get released many months after their initial releases in the States and sometimes (in the case of “Wreck-It Ralph”) even after their release in mainland China.

In any case, here are my Top Ten Films of 2012. Let me know what you agree or don’t agree with.

1. Beasts of the Southern Wild 

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Film-wise for me, most of 2012’s films were pretty disappointing. There was not a single film that I could  wholeheartedly embrace… that is until I saw “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and fell in-love with magical filmmaking again. I haven’t been as excited about the power of film since the last gem that moved me so much, “Blue Valentine” in 2011. With only a slight nod to traditional narrative filmmaking (kind of a “hero’s journey” tale), but with dreamy visuals and striking natural acting and characters that defy anything that you’ve seen before, it’s the kind of surprise film that only a first-time filmmaker who hasn’t been tied down to big budgets, script notes, and the mundanity of the film factory system can make. I’ve watched it twice on my sofa now, but, even though it’s filmed in 16mm, I’m looking forward to watching it on the big screen when it’s shown here in Hong Kong next month.

The Oscar nomination for 9 year-old actress Quvenzhane Wallis is no gimmick. If anything, she is really rightfully should be nominated for “Best Leading Actress” as the film is told through her viewpoint, she remains on-screen for the entire movie, and she creates of the most unique and memorable characters (along with first-time actor Dwight Henry as her complex, charismatic, tough, but loving father) I’ve seen in a long while.

 

2. Searching for Sugar Man

I was able to catch this documentary weeks after I initially wrote my first version of the list. It’s too bad that documentaries get separated into their own category at the Oscars, because this film easily qualifies for me as one of the best of the year. The film starts with profiling how a talented, but undiscovered musician in the 70s grows to become the sound of a generation of South African freedom-fighting youth. This falls in line with “truth is stranger than fiction” that only a select few documentary films can provide, but besides the fascinating sociological  study of apartheid South Africa and a fantastic story arch, the film also is blessed with a truly memorable and compelling documentary subject in the form of the enigmatic singer Rodriguez. Like “Hoop Dreams”, my favorite documentary of all-time, this film brings together important social themes, a compelling main character, and a miracle story that unfolds quite naturally on-screen. I hope everyone has a chance to watch this under-the-radar film.

3. Lincoln

Lincoln

Spielberg and many of the technical artists behind-the-scenes probably expended a tremendous amount of time making this film historically accurate, but the marvel of this film is the artistic liberties that Daniel Day-Lewis takes to create a unique, fully-realized character from the most analysed historical figure of all-time. Cunning and impatient, but built of a strong moral compass, the character could be extracted from Lincoln and removed from all historical relevancy and still be a marvel to watch on-screen. For this, I think Daniel Day-Lewis is deserving of the Best Actor Oscar for the best acting portrayal on-screen in 2012. Criticism of the film for it’s occasional sentimental chords and the lack of a strong African-American viewpoint are on-track, in my opinion, but Daniel Day-Lewis’ unique portrayal uplifts what would be a less memorable, more mediocre film like “Seabiscuit”.

4. Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom

Unlike many film fans of my generation, I’ve withheld my embrace for Wes Anderson. I’ve enjoyed the style and soundtrack to his films, but I’ve always felt that he lacked full maturity as a filmmaker. It’s felt like to me that he always needed a couple more productions to elevate his story-telling abilities to match his brilliance in production craft.

“Moonrise Kingdom” is the first Wes Anderson film where I feel he has finally reached his full potential as an artist. For me, the story and tempo are as well-honed as the production itself.

5. Wreck-It Ralph

Wreck-It Ralph

This is the first Disney CG-animated film under John Lassiter’s reign where I feel they finally getting close to matching Pixar’s story-telling abilities and the voice-over actors aren’t filled by stunt-casting big-named celebrities at the expense of quality voice-over. There are so many jokes so well-aimed at people of my Atari/Nintendo/Halo generation, that it was a delight for me (but probably not anyone much older than me) to watch.

6. Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Although it has a natural appeal to foodies everywhere, this film is much more about the certain professionalism, almost neurotic-level obsession with craft that the subject has with sushi. It’s strength is the slightly tragic undertone that underlies the story: While we marvel at the mastery of detail that Jiro has perfected with sushi, we also sympathize for the lost attention and humanity when it comes to his two sons who, as sushi masters in their own right, have been partial sacrificial lambs to Jiro’s obsession. This is what makes the documentary a fascinating character study rather than just an exploration of food.

7. Arbitrage

I’m not usually a fan of either Richard Gere nor financial thrillers so I put off watching this film until after I had initially assembled my first draft of my Favorites list. However, this swiftly, well-acted film surprised and delighted me with it’s complex and adult-targeted story. Many lauds should go to Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon on their masterful performances.

8. Django Unchained

Django Unchained

I loved the first two-thirds of the film and was pretty let down by the remaining third. All of Tarantino’s energy and brilliance are included, but the real standout for me was Christoph Waltz’s performance. I hope he wins Best Supporting Actor at the Oscar’s this year.

9. Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty

It’s thrilling and chock full of small details that a news junkie like me can get pore over. The media coverage has concentrated on “Act I” where scenes of torture will likely have many moviegoers covering their eyes, but “Act II” remains the best part of the film for me. Obama’s declaration to end “enhanced interrogation” and the CIA actors to finally button-down and do more traditional detective work and spycraft to nail down UBL provides the most interesting part of the film.

10. Flight

Denzel Washington is still my favorite working actor, a leading man in the most compelling sense. Neither a character actor working in a single vein nor a master chameleon actor like Gary Oldman, he still puts together a memorable, varied performance with every film.

11. Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook

Another film where the first two-thirds of the story I feel were let down by the cutesy final third. With two interesting performance by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence and an outstanding performance by Robert DeNiro (possibly his best in over a decade), the film is ultimate sabotaged in my opinion by an “end-cute”. If a “meet-cute” is an overused romantic comedy convention from films like “While You Were Sleeping”, the “end-cute”, to me, is an equally overused Sundance film convention starting from “Little Miss Sunshine” and continuing through to “Silver Linings Playbook”.

12. Chronicle

Chronicle

An overlooked film from 2012 because it’s sci-fi high school teenagers, but I felt that it should have been nominated for best original screenplay (although, like “Looper”, plot points and imagery are obviously heavily-lifted from “Akira”). I’m not a fan of Max Landis in interviews, but this doesn’t draw back from the fact that “Chronicle” is a great piece of screenwriting.

13. Looper

Looper

Along with “Chronicle”, “Looper” is the true emergence of young new screenwriting talent who are as equally influenced by animé visuals and story telling as they are from American comic books and Twilight Zone episodes. It’s great to see more mid-budget films like these that place an emphasis on ideas and story first rather than explosions and F/X gimmicks. I’m hugely interested in seeing what other stories director Rian Johnson has up his sleeve.

Honorable mentions: Perks of Being a Wallflower, Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers, Life of Pi, ParaNorman, Argo. Unfortunately, none of these films would do better than 7/10 for me … like I said, besides “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, I felt this was a pretty mediocre movie year. Nonetheless, I fully expect that “Argo” will be taking home “Best Picture” at the Oscars this year.

Still Need to Watch:

  • Amour
  • End of Watch
  • Holy Motors
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An inspiring story from Pixar’s Oren Jacob

A great story on Techcrunch today regarding Oren Jacob, a former CTO of one of my favorite companies in the world, Pixar:

“… In the winter of 1991, Pixar had some major layoffs and the company shrank to less than 40 people. Oren was still an intern at the time and had attended both the “you’re being laid off” meeting and the “you are the few who are staying” meeting and decided he liked the latter one better. He went home for the rest of the week, didn’t attend any exit interviews, didn’t turn in any keycards and just showed up for work the next week to a company that was now focused solely on animation.

The guy who dealt with keycards never deactivated his key. Oren kept showing up. Folks were surprised to see him in the hallway, but he played it cool and nobody raised a fuss. Many months later, paychecks started showing up in his box again and continued for 20+ years. Over those 20 years Oren worked obsessively hard and rose through the ranks of the company to CTO.”

Here’s a guy who is passionate and won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. The story of how he got INTO Pixar is equally amusing. Plus, he was inspired to get into animation and join Pixar at the SAME “Spike and Mike’s” animation festival screening of Pixar’s early short “Tin Toy” that my middle brother and I attended way back in 1988. My brother has gone on to do movies … I’m equally passionate (if not more) about movies as I am about online startups but I guess I took a different fork in the road than he did when I went to college…

Incidentally, way back in the very early days of Rotten Tomatoes, we used to monitor our incoming traffic on movie release days to see if we had any online visits from the studios. This was even before Rotten Tomatoes was a real company and was just a hobby site that our partner Senh was working on and I helped to host and provide technical assistance. One of my fond memories was during the release of “A Bug’s Life” when we noticed a flood of visitors with Internet IP addresses from Pixar visiting the site. What was funny would be that we could see these same visitors would continually hit “refresh” on the Rotten Tomatoes reviews page for “A Bug’s Life” meaning that they were even more obsessed about the Tomatometer score than we were. What a thrill for our “newborn” web site. At the time Senh, who came up with the idea for Rotten Tomatoes, was pulling all-nighters just to keep the site up-to-date with the latest reviews, but we were all pretty excited when we saw the Pixar visits. Being huge Pixar fans, we had bought tickets in advance to see the film on opening night at Oakland’s Jack London Square AMC theater. I guess the excitement was too much for Senh because he fell asleep right in the middle of the movie — not an indicator of the quality of the movie… he was just was too tired from pulling an all-nighter collecting reviews for the movie the night before.

Anyways, Pixar was in Richmond at the time and would eventually move to become our neighbors in Emeryville and we would go over there to visit our friends and ex-coworkers there on occasion. The most memorable visit was to award Brad Bird the Golden Tomato award for “The Incredibles“.

Go Pixar!

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My Top Films of 2010

Below is my list of my favorite films of 2010. The list is all over the place (reflecting my diverse taste in films). Unfortunately, I didn’t really watch any Chinese films this year that caught my fancy.

My guess for which film will get Best Picture at the Oscars tonight? “Black Swan”

I know a lot of people are pulling for “The Social Network” to win, but in my estimation, the subject matter is not very appealing to the aging Academy voters (don’t forget, 50%+ are over the age of 60). On the other hand, I can also imagine “The King’s Speech” and “Black Swan” splitting the older voter’s vote and “The Social Network” being the choice of the younger voters. Also, “The King’s Speech” won the PGA Award which is a pretty predictable indicator of who will win the Oscars. Okay, I admit, I really don’t know who is going to win.

Nonetheless, take a moment and glance at my personal list of favorites:

  1. [amazon_link id=”B0036TGTDO” target=”_blank” ]Blue Valentine [Blu-ray][/amazon_link] Blue Valentine (Tomatometer: 88%): It’s a pity that this small, but beautifully acted, shot, directed, and edited film didn’t get more acclaim. It’s a simple film chronicling the travails of a relationship, but done in such a novel and well-acted way.
  2. [amazon_link id=”B0042KZJIM” target=”_blank” ]Restrepo [Blu-ray][/amazon_link] Restrepo (Tomatometer: 96%): More gripping and moving than any action film this year. This documentary following the peril of a U.S. army battalion in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley is a must-see.
  3. [amazon_link id=”B0041KKYEW” target=”_blank” ]Black Swan [Blu-ray][/amazon_link] Black Swan (Tomatometer: 88%): I loved The Wrestler, but more for Mickey Rourke’s acting than for any directorial skill. I feel like Arronfsky has finally achieved the directorial promise that he had shown, but not fulfilled in his prior films.
  4. [amazon_link id=”B00275EHJQ” target=”_blank” ]Toy Story 3 [Blu-ray][/amazon_link] Toy Story 3 (Tomatometer: 99%)
  5. [amazon_link id=”B003L20ICO” target=”_blank” ]The Kids Are All Right [Blu-ray][/amazon_link] The Kids Are All Right (Tomatometer: 94%)
  6. [amazon_link id=”B002ZG981E” target=”_blank” ]Inception (Two-Disc Edition) [Blu-ray][/amazon_link] Inception (Tomatometer: 86%)
  7. [amazon_link id=”B0034G4P7Q” target=”_blank” ]The Social Network (Two-Disc Collector's Edition) [Blu-ray][/amazon_link] The Social Network (Tomatometer: 96%)
  8. [amazon_link id=”B003UESJHY” target=”_blank” ]The Fighter (Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)[/amazon_link] The Fighter (Tomatometer: 90%)
  9. [amazon_link id=”B003UESJFG” target=”_blank” ]Megamind (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)[/amazon_link] Megamind (Tomatometer: 72%)
  10. [amazon_link id=”B002ZG99NG” target=”_blank” ]The Town (Extended Cut) [Blu-ray][/amazon_link] The Town (Tomatometer: 94%)

Still need to see: Winter’s Bone (Tomatometer: 95%), Biutiful (Tomatometer: 66%), Rabbit Hole (Tomatometer: 86%), Exit Through the Gift Shop (Tomatometer: 98%), Daddy Longlegs (Tomatometer: 86%)

My picks for:

Best Director: Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan

Best Leading Actor: Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine (but I’d really vote for Christian Bale in The Fighter)

Best Leading Actress: (Tie) Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right; Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Best Cinematography: Matthew Libatique, Black Swan

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Best “lean startup” book is not about startups at all!

[amazon_link id=”0452271878″ target=”_blank” ]Rebel without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker With $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player[/amazon_link]

The internet start-up community can be pretty insular, so sometimes it requires ideas and memes from outside this small group of very driven, goal-oriented people.

My original passion has always been films (even more so than technology) and amongst my favorite directors is Robert Rodriguez, the entrepreneurial, DIY director of El Mariachi, Sin City, Spy Kids and more. While my opinions about his movies vary widely, his book chronicling the crazy pursuit he made to make his first independent feature film, the wild and raucous El Mariachi, reads better than any “tech start-up” tale. The tale inspired me to open my first start-up in college, Go! Designs.

“Rebel Without a Crew” is Rodriguez’s entertaining retelling about how he sold his body to medicine, hustled/fought/stole his way to making an excellent independent film and I believe that the spirit is definitely akin to the lean startup spirit that surrounded the early days of the dotcom revolution.

Rodriguez has a list of “rules for independent filmmaking” at the end of his book which I feel like could be easily transported and used for tech entrepreneurs.

If you’re thinking of a doing a startup, or if you’re an entrepreneur now and are seeking an injection of true inspiration and motivation, pick up this fascinating book.

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The Gap enters China: Wing Shya + Annie Leibovitz take over Beijing

Wing Shya + Annie Leibovitz photograph ads for The Gap's entry into China
Covering the walls of the Wangfujing subway station in Beijing. Wing Shya + Annie Leibovitz photograph ads for The Gap's entry into China. Each of the photos pair a Chinese artist with a Western artist.

Yesterday was my first day returning to my Beijing office after a long break away for the Chinese New Year. Leaving work and entering the subway station, I came across a welcome surprise. San Francisco apparel store icon The Gap has finally arrived in mainland China. I still claim to be from the San Francisco Bay Area (hence, the name of my blog “Sino Francisco”), so I’m glad to see the iconic brand make it’s way into China, although possibly too late after the wildly successful launches by Zara and H&M several years ago.

More interestingly, though, was that the launch ad campaign, which is currently saturating Beijing, was shot by alivenotdead artist and Hong Kong’s celebrated photographer Wing Shya 永康 along with Annie Leibovitz. What a combination! Both are noted for their celebrity portraits so the combination just makes sense.

The campaign pairs a Chinese artist with a Western artist; besides Wing and Annie Lebovitz, it also features prominent Beijing DJ and frequent Sam Lee 李璨琛/DJ Becareful collaborator, DJ Wordy, and personal favorite Beijing actress Zhou Xun 周迅.

Wing Shya featured in one of our Alive Not Dead promotional flyers

Wing Shya has been the most sought after photographer by celebrities here in China and Hong Kong for many years for his ability to capture seemingly naturalistic, unaffected essences of his subjects. He especially came to prominence as the stills photographer/creative marketing designer for many of director Wong Kar Wai‘s films. Alivenotdead collaborated with Wing for our very first event in Hong Kong, a retrospective of his work along with an epic concert upstair by several alivenotdead musical acts.

Diesel and alivenotdead collaborated in 2007 for a retrospective of Wing Shya's work. Afterwards was an epic, rocking concert upstairs by several indie hip-hop acts.

Check out this wrap-up and photos of the event by Hong Kong Hustle. Such great memories of the awesome event.

My favorite of Wing’s work, however, has to be “Prevation”, a “live-action” manga he shot with additional design by Alvin Goh and featuring my buddy and fellow alivenotdead partner Terence Yin in a teddy bear suit.

Wing extended his reach last year as co-director of the hit Chinese romantic comedy Hot Summer Days 全城热恋 that introduced the world to the currently red hot Angelababy. Being a fan of both Wing and the enchanting Zhou Xun 周迅, I also really enjoy this recent photoshoot video that Wing recorded for i-D magazine:

Or watch a HD version of the video on Vimeo if you’re not blocked in China.

In any case, congrats to Wing Shya and it’s great to see him and his work so prominently displayed around Beijing.

Annie Leibovitz and Wing Shya featured in the new The Gap ad campaign in Beijing
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