Friday, July 24, 2015

Mr. Holmes in the Tri-Valley

Once again, I had a two day meeting in the Tri-Valley.  This appears as though it will be an annual occurrence.  I took the opportunity to visit the Vine Cinema & Alehouse for the second time to see Mr. Holmes which screened at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival.

Mr. Holmes starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney & Milo Parker; directed by Bill Condon; (2015) - Official Website

Remembering last year's visit, I skipped food service at the Vine.  I had enough time to explore the downtown area which is about four blocks from the Vine.  I ended up at Spanky's Dog House more because I ran out of time than I wanted a hot dog.  I briefly considered taking the Atomic Chili Cheese Dog Challenge but figured I'm getting to old for that kind of stuff.

More befitting a man of my age, I selected the Reuben Dog with Bavarian Bratwurst instead of the hot dog.  A Saag's sausage with a more than generous amount of sauerkraut, 1000 Island Dressing and cheese was served.  It was so much that I couldn't eat it with my hands.  I had to use a knife and fork and left a fair amount of cheese on the plate.

I'm not sure if I would recommend the bare bones Spanky's to everyone but a more than adequate sausage combined with their perennial sponsorship of local Little League teams and cheeky merchandise is enough to draw me back if I am again in the vicinity.

There was a fair amount of people in the audience for Mr. Holmes.  I caught a 7 PM weekday screening and there was some sort of group event in the other screening room which drew a large crowd.  It seems as though the Vine is thriving.

Ian McKellen is an actor I'm not too familiar with.  Looking at his filmography, he has experienced considerable box office success with The X-Men and Hobbit film franchises.  I have not seen any films from those franchises in their entirety or at a theater.  I've long wanted to see Gods and Monsters.  Mr. Holmes is a reunion for McKellen and Gods and Monsters' director Bill Condon. 

My primary familiarity with McKellen is from his well known stage collaboration and friendship with Patrick Stewart and a memorable appearance on Saturday Night Live.  Earlier this week, I heard McKellan on NPR telling an amusing story of how he had to ask a straight man to draw him a diagram of heterosexual coitus as research for his role in Scandal (1989) opposite Joanne Whalley-Kilmer.

Mr. Holmes tells the story of Sherlock Holmes as a nonagenerian in the post-WWII years.  Not only is Holmes in his twilight years but he is suffering from advanced dementia.  No longer does Holmes live with Watson at 221B Baker St. (in this film they never did live at that address).  Instead he lives in a remote cottage on the English Channel (within walking distance of the White Cliffs of Dover).  All the other familiar characters are dead - Mycroft, John Watson & Mrs. Hudson.  Holmes now has Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) as a his housekeeper.  The widow Munro has a young son Roger (Milo Parker) whom she is overprotective of due to her husband's death during the war.

The film weaves together three plot lines.  Holmes can no longer remember the circumstances that lead to his self-imposed exile.  He recalls the case which forced him into retirement but not the details.  When he reads Watson's story about the case, he knows something is off but can't recall exactly.  As Holmes struggles to put his memories of the case to paper, he strikes up a friendship born out of necessity with Roger.  Holmes still has his beloved bees and apiary but needs help caring for them.  His last mystery to solve is the Case of Dying Bees.  Seeing Roger's innate intelligence, Holmes encourages the boy's curiosity.  Mrs. Munro is leery of the developing bond between Holmes & her son since she knows how fragile Holmes' health is.

Much of the film switches back and forth between Holmes investigating a case of a distraught wife and her obsession with a glass harmonica in pre-WWI London and the interactions with the Munros in post-WWII Dover.  The third plot line involves Holmes' recent trip to Hiroshima to find a prickly ash plant.  In this version of the Holmes mythos, the bees provide Royal jelly and the prickly ash is ground into a paste as both are reputed to have memory enhancing abilities.

McKellan's Holmes is a sad sight.  He must write the names of close acquaintances on his shirtsleeve cuffs.  Aware of his failing memory and health, Holmes still flashes the extraordinary powers of deduction which Watson has made famous.  In this version, Holmes does not wear a deerstalker hat or smoke a calabash pipe as those were fictional affectations created by Watson.  Much of the film deals with Holmes dealing with people's expectations of him which are based on fictionalized writings of the late Dr. Watson.

The plot is sufficient to sustain interest.  It deals with Holmes recalling the circumstances of the old case and his guilt/regret at his behavior.  He attempts to assuage his conscience with acts of kindness towards the Munros and his Japanese host in Hiroshima.

McKellen is given enough room to showcase his acting talents.  His interactions with Milo Parker are particularly rewarding although Linney holds her own as the dour Mrs. Munro.  All three of these characters are emotionally stunted and are looking for ways to connect with each other.

The plot gives a few sops to casual fans of Holmes.  It creates an interesting alternate biography of Holmes and Watson's face is always obscured to create mystery.  Ultimately, this is the story of an old man whose failing memory inconveniently does not allow him to forget his sense guilt and regret.

By any objective standard, I would rate this film as slightly above average but the story has some added resonance with me as it reminds me slightly of certain circumstances in my life at present.

Monday, July 13, 2015

2015 New Filipino Cinema

The 2015 New Filipino Cinema series ran from June 11 to 21 at the YBCA.  As in previous years, they tacked on a rump session.  This year, they screened Lav Diaz's film From What is Before (2014) which ran 338 minutes with a 40 minute intermission on June 27 & 28.  I passed on the Lav Diaz films so I could go to the Sacramento French Film Festival.

I saw four films at this year's New Filipino Cinema series.

Reptilia in Suburbia; directed by Timmy Harm; Tagalog with subtitles; (2013)
T-Bird at Ako starring Nora Aunor & Vilma Santos; directed by Danny Zialcita; Tagalog with subtitles; (1982)
Esprit de Corps; directed by Kanakan-Balintagos; Tagalog with subtitles; (2014) - Official Facebook
Dynamite Fishing; directed by Chito Roño; Tagalog with subtitles; (2013)

I listed the films in the order I saw them but it turned out to be reverse order of preference too.

Dynamite Fishing is a cryptic title.  The literal translation of the Tagalog title Badil, is Casualties.  I should note that Joel Shepard of the YBCA & Philbert Ortiz Dy, a film reviewer in the Philippines have been the co-curators of the New Filipino Cinema for the past few years.  The took turns introducing the films.  I believe Dy introduced Dynamite Fishing and explained the term was slang in the Philippines for fixing an election.  The reference is foreign to me but after watching the film, I suspect it refers to a sense of overkill as when you use dynamite to stun/kill the fish in a lake or pond.

Dynamite Fishing is the story of Lando (Jhong Hilario), the son of the political boss in a small village.  When his father has a stroke, Lando is forced to assume some of his father's typical duties in the upcoming mayoral election.  Sensing weakness, his candidate's opponents launch a counteroffensive.  Some shady characters from a different island show up and villagers get paid to not vote.

When did elections in Third World countries start using indelible purple ink on the index finger to denote a voter had cast a ballot?  I don't remember it before a few years ago and now it seems ubiquitous.  Anyway, in Dynamite Fishing, the payoff is to have one's finger dipped in the ink prior to the election.  That way, it looks like one voted when in fact they didn't.  This allows the villagers to double dip on payoffs.  Once from Lando's father's machine and once from the outsiders.

Heretofore rather unambitious, Lando earnestly tries to step into his father's shoes as the election seems to be tilting towards his opponents.  Lando's actions have fatal consequences which Lando will long regret.

Not quite as gritty as some of Brillante Mendoza's films, Dynamite Fishing captures the casual and deep-rooted corruption in the Philippines that is Mendoza's stock-in-trade.  There are some tense moments and Lando looks like he is in over his head throughout the film.  The film is an indictment of Filipino society in that it is easier for a decent man like Lando to purposely and inadvertently perpetuate the corruption than to fight against it.  The corruption is also insidious.  It seems like a way of life until the machine is threatened and fights back with deadly force.

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Esprit de Corps was based on a play and it felt like a play that had been adapted for the cinema.  Much of the film takes place in a sparsely furnished armory room.  Director  Kanakan-Balintagos (a nom de plume for Auraeus Solito) was in attendance for the film and introduced the film.  He mentioned that he was among the last cohort of men who had to serve compulsory military service.

The setting of the film was confusing to me.  I believe it was set at a military academy or ROTC equivalent organization.  The major plot line is a triangle between two cadets named Cain & Abel and their commanding officer, another cadet named Lt. Mac Favila.  Cain & Abel are among the candidates being considered to succeed Favila as commanding officer for the next semester. The selection process includes a one-on-one interview/interrogation with Favila in the aforementioned armory room.  These interactions (which are extended scenes) form the crux of the film.

As depicted, the scenes begin like so many military films.  The subordinate assumes a subordinate position but slowly the necessary tensions and conflicts come to the surface.  In Esprit de Corps, Favila adds a decidedly "civilian" aspect to the interactions.  In addition to the verbal abuse and displays of physical fitness, Favila has an unusual criteria in determining his successor.  At one point, he orders Abel to kiss him.  Taken aback, Abel eventually manages a peck on the cheek.  Favila is unimpressed and shows Abel the proper way military personnel of the same gender kiss each other.  Ever obsequious, Abel compliments his superior officer on his kissing abilities.

For several scenes, the film veers to the unbelievable but I guess it represents Solito's experience in the military or perhaps exaggerates it.  The gist of the films is that homosexual tendencies come to the forefront in the cloistered, hypermasculine atmosphere of the military.  In Esprit de Corps, the homosexuality is not just at the forefront but it's tacitly approved by military superiors and understood to be necessary in the promotion process.  In fact, one of the implications is that the homosexuality is inculcated in the troops or at least, any latent desires are brought to fruition.

It was an interesting film; too doctrinaire to be concerned with plot.  Solito also uses non-linear story techniques which can be confusing.  The distinction between Cain & Abel (starting with their names) was too obvious for my tastes.  The finale takes place in the hollow of a tree and reminded me of two things - first is the mental image I have of the Garden of Eden when Eve accepted the apple (which is probably based on some Renaissance painting) and a scene from John Boorman's Excalibur between Lancelot & Guenevere.

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Like Dynamite Fishing, I wonder what the T-Bird in T-Bird at Ako referred to.  Apparently it is a slang term for lesbians in the Phillipines.  I wasn't sure if it referred to all lesbians or just the bull dyke variety.

I am not a devotee of 1980s Filipino cinema but apparently the two biggest female stars of the era were Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos. Aunor still acts (she was in Brillante Mendoza's ThyWomb in 2012).  Santos has been a politician since 1998; first as a mayor and since 2007 as a governor in the Phillipines.  Apparently, the actresses or at least their fans had quite a rivalry back in the day.  None of that is relevant to the film although I suppose it could affect the viewing experience.

One piece of trivia - Lando's father in Dynamite Fishing is played by Dick Israel.  In T-Bird at Ako (32 years before Dynamite Fishing) Israel plays a rapist whose death kicks off the film.

In T-Bird, Aunor plays a criminal defense lawyer who gets involved in a murder case.  The defendant is Santos who plays a cabaret dancer accused of murdering her rapist.  The highlight of the film is Santos dancing to a preposterously simple song while she seduces Aunor in the audience.  I have to admit that Santos certainly swayed her hips effectively.  Aunor's character is repressing her bi-curious thoughts and she is unable to withstand the charms of her client.

The courtroom scenes are a hoot as well since the prosecutor can barely contain his contempt for the filthy lesbians.

Ultimately, T-Bird is an example of a time and society that I'm unfamiliar with.  Rather than having universal & timeless appeal, the films appears dated and provincial.  I couldn't tell if the parts I found funny were intentionally funny.  T-Bird is an interesting diversion but I'm too far removed from it to give its proper due.

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Reptilia in Suburbia is best described as an experimental film.  There are scenes set in the 1980s at a family dinner table.  There are scenes in some prison/dungeon with a bound person/mad scientist.  I can't recall the film to be honest.  Within 20 minutes, the film lost my attention and it's easy for me to tune out subtitled films because there are no verbal cues to refocus my attention.  Perhaps there was more to the film but it lost me at the beginning and never caught my attention again.

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The director Lav Diaz appeared on screen in Lorna which won this year's Audience Favorite Award.  The film was directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo who made Anita’s Last Cha-Cha which screened at last year's New Filipino Cinema and Frameline.  I was on the fence about Lorna but now I regret missing the film.

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Friday, July 10, 2015

2015 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival

The 2015 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival (SF DocFest) ran from June 4 to 18 at various locations.  I saw 10 films at the Roxie but they also screened films at the Vogue and Brava Theaters.

Due to various reasons, I wasn't able to attend many films at this year's DocFest although I think I skipped the festival completely last year.  Originally, I had only planned on attending the opening weekend but I was able to clear some time later in the festival.  Still, 10 films in 15 days is not a film viewing pace any self-respecting cinephile should be proud of.

As the name of the festival implies; all the films were documentaries.

The Desk; directed by Andrew Goldman; (2015) - Official Website
20 Years of Madness; directed by Jeremy Royce; (2015) - Official Website
The Barge; directed by Ben Powell; (2015) - Official Website
Pervert Park; directed by Frida Barkfors & Lasse Barkfors; (2014)
The Sandwich Nazi; directed by Lewis Bennett; (2015) - Official Website
GTFO: Get The Fuck Out; directed by Shannon Sun-Higginson; (2015) - Official Website
Top Spin; directed by Sara Newens & Mina T. Son; (2014) - Official Website
Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile; directed by Norah Shapiro; Tibetan & English with subtitles; (2014) - Official Website
For Grace; directed by Mark Helenowski & Kevin Pang; (2015) - Official Website
The Decent One; directed by Vanessa Lapa; German with subtitles; (2014)

I saw five short films during the festival.

The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers; directed by Michael T. Vollmann; (2015) - Official Website
Boxeadora; directed by Meg Smaker; Spanish with subtitles; (2015) - Official Website
Calls to Okies: The Park Grubbs Story; directed by Bradley Beesley & Ben Steinbauer; (2015)
Dukha in Summer; directed by Cameo Wood; Mongolian with subtitles; (2014)
Read Chuna; directed by Micro Documentaries; Nepali with subtitles; (2014) - Official Website

The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers preceded GTFO: Get The Fuck Out.  Boxedora preceded Top SpinCalls to Okies: The Park Grubbs Story preceded The Sandwich NaziDukha in Summer & Read Chuna preceded Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile.

The 10 films I caught were pretty solid this year.  In roughly the order of my preference:

Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile - the story of a young Tibetan woman living in Minnesota.  Feeling disconnected from her Tibetan roots, she enters a Tibetan beauty pageant in Dharamsala. Ostensibly about learning Tibetan history and values, she eventually becomes embroiled in a controversy about the crowning of Miss Tibet.  Although, Tenzin Khecheo espoused Buddhist principles throughout the pageant, when the winner was crowned she joined the revolt against the organizer.  The flamboyant organizer, Lobsang Wangyal, is worthy of his own documentary.  Somehow, the film made the mystery of the results of a beauty pageant with six contestants interesting.  You see, there was a secret criteria that judges used to declare the winner.  Also, the judges' ballots went missing the day after the pageant.

The Sandwich Nazi - the life and times of Salam Kahil, a foul mouthed Lebanese sandwich shop owner in Vancouver, BC.  Although he exhibits some similarities to the infamous Soup Nazi from Seinfeld, Kahil talks a lot about his penis, his sexual experiences, his time as a male escort, his brother molesting him, etc.  Oddly sympathetic, during the making of the film, Kahil has two serious car accidents, closes his shop and returns to Lebanon for an emotional family reunion..

GTFO: Get The Fuck Out - a look at the hypermasculinized culture of video gaming.  The film went into some detail about the root causes of the misogyny but I can't recall the potential solutions.  I'm not sure if my latent sexism is being exposed but the stories of sexual harassment and threats of violence were the most memorable parts of the film.

Top Spin - I can't find it on this blog but somewhere I saw a film or short film about Ariel Hsing and/or Lily Zhang.  Hsing & Zhang are female table tennis players from the Bay Area who represented the US at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.  Michael Landers from Long Island was favored to qualify on the men's side for the US but didn't make the cut.  The film treats its subject with kid gloves but two things were clear to me.  The film foreshadowed Landers' failure to qualify.  That may be the result of skillful editing.  The second theme was that Zhang is intimidated by Hsing.  One year younger than Hsing, Zhang is less self-confident.  Perhaps it is because Hsing refers to Warren Buffet and Bill Gates as Uncles Warren  & Bill.  Regardless, there is an unstated but perceptible sense that Zhang chafes in the shadow of Hsing although both seem like perfectly pleasant young women.  There was short but very telling scene where Zhang & Hsing are sitting next to each other.  The voice off camera asks about their previous match.  The voice asks who won.  Hsing lets out some nervous laughter and says she won.  Zhang is silent and looks humiliated.

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The Barge - a barebones documentary that follows a barge crew trip down the Mississippi River.  At times, it reminded me of Deadliest Catch on Discovery in that it mixed personal conflict amongst the crew with the operations of the barge.

Pervert Park - an unusual & unique trailer park exists in Florida.  Due to laws in many communities, registered sex offenders are not allowed to live in certain areas.  This trailer park (started by a woman whose son was an RSO and couldn't find a place to live) consists solely of residents who are RSOs.  Many of the residents seems like "normal" people and elicit empathy or even sympathy although there is one chilling scene where a man describes (in a matter-of-fact tone of voice) how he had an argument with his wife/girlfriend, drove to Mexico, abducted a 7 year old girl off the streets and raped her.

For Grace - a surprisingly uninspiring documentary about Curtis Duffy's long struggle to open his own restaurant in his quest for three Michelin stars.  The restaurant (named Grace) eventually opens towards the end of the film but I felt as exhausted as Duffy by the long process.  Some tragedies from Duffy's life are shared.  Duffy seems to cope by being emotionally distant.  There is one memorable scene where Duffy attempts to have a meal at Charlie Trotter's restaurant before it closes but Trotter bars him from entering due to a class action lawsuit Duffy was a part of.  Duffy claims not to remember signing on to the lawsuit.

The Decent One - another surprisingly unengaging film about Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi SS.  Based on Himmler's letters, diaries and home films which were allegedly captured by Allied soldier but not turned over to authorities.  Much of the film consists of actors reading Himmler's letters.  I seem to recall some of them in English but I cannot be sure.  As a young man, Himmler seems a bit of a whiner.  Later in life, Himmler either has an incredible capacity to deflect responsibility or is intentionally downplaying his activities for the recipient's benefit (frequently his allegedly apolitical wife).

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The Desk - not quite a documentary as director and former NY Times columnist Andrew Goldman includes scenes from his short film which features controversial New Zealand television personality Paul Henry and an actor portraying Goldman.  The subject was mildly interesting although Goldman was shocked (absolutely shocked) to learn that the line between advertising and editorial contents is not so distinct at the NYT when he runs afoul of former editor Jill Abramson & fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg.

20 Years of Madness - the alumni of a public access television show in Detroit reunite 20 years later.  Some of the old rivalries and animosities come to the forefront.  The original show (made when the subjects were teenagers) didn't seem that funny to me so I was hard pressed to get excited about the reunion.  You can view the original shows (called 30 Minutes of Madness) on-line.  Having seen Wayne's World a few weeks earlier, I thought the show was a real world example of what would have happened to Wayne & Garth after the film ends.

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As for the short films, The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers was my favorite.  It tells the story of a group of teenagers and young men in the early 1980s who hacked into Los Alamos National Laboratory among others.  Seemingly inspired by War Games, the hackers were among the first to be targetted by the FBI.  The title refers to the area code in Milwaukee where the hackers lived.


Boxeadora profiled Namibia, a Cuban woman who dreams of representing Cuba in the Olympics.  I didn't know that female boxing was an Olympic sport.  Apparently, neither does the Cuban government whose sexist policies have long denied Namibia and all Cuban female boxers a spot in the Olympics.


Calls to Okies: The Park Grubbs Story is about some glorified prank calls.  If the film is to be believed, a bunch of teenage boys in the 1980s were an underground sensation.  They would prank call people and record the calls onto cassette tapes.  The tapes would get copied and passed around.  That is how the legend of Park Grubbs started.  I wouldn't be surprised if this was a mocumentary as a woman allegedly recalls a prank call she received 30 years previously.

As an aside, the eponymous Park Grubbs (a pseudonym for the prank calls) was based in Bartlesville, OK.  Bartlesville was/is the headquarters for Phillips Petroleum who owned the Phillips 66 gas stations.  I had a job offer to work in Bartlesville in the 1990s but thankfully declined the offer.

Monday, July 6, 2015

2015 Sacramento French Film Festival

I saw 11 films at the 2015 Sacramento French Film Festival (SFFF).  That's a personal record for me.  I guess that is appropriate since SFFF screened 18 feature length films (a record too).  I actually went up to Sacramento for two weekends.  Typically, I only go up for one weekend.  I spent a total of three days at the festival.  I drove up and back on June 21.  I drove up again on June 27, spent the night and watched a full day of films on June 28.

All films screened at the Crest Theater.

That Man from Rio starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Françoise Dorléac & Jean Servais; directed by Philippe de Broca; French with subtitles; (1964)
Love At First Fight starring Adèle Haenel & Kévin Azaïs; directed by Tomas Cailley; French with subtitles; (2014)
The Chef's Wife starring Karin Viard, Emmanuelle Devos & Roschdy Zem; directed by Anne Le Ny; French with subtitles; (2014)
Party Girl starring Angélique Litzenburger & Joseph Bour; directed by Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger & Samuel Theis; French with subtitles; (2014)
In the Courtyard starring Catherine Deneuve & Gustave Kervern; directed by Pierre Salvadori; French with subtitles; (2014) - Official Facebook
Girlhood starring Karidja Touré; with  Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh & Mariétou Touré; directed by Céline Sciamma; French with subtitles; (2014)
The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq starring Michel Houellebecq; directed by Guillaume Nicloux; French with subtitles; (2014)
Beauty and the Devil starring Michel Simon & Gérard Philipe; directed by René Clair; French with subtitles; (1950)
Number One Fan starring Sandrine Kiberlain & Laurent Lafitte; directed by Jeanne Henry; French with subtitles; (2014)
Hippocrates starring Vincent Lacoste & Reda Kateb; directed by Thomas Lilti; French with subtitles; (2014)
Timbuktu starring Ibrahim Ahmed; directed by Abderrahmane Sissako; French, Arabic, Bambara  , English & Songhay with subtitles; (2014) - Official Website

Hippocrates has an alternate and longer title of Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor.

This year's festival seemed to have a number of films which have screened at Bay Area festivals & venues.  In addition to the 11 films I watched, I skipped two which I had already seen:  Gemma Bovery (2015 Cinequest) and The New Girlfriend (2015 San Francisco International Film Festival).

I easily could have seen at least four more films at previous film festivals in the Bay Area.

Love at First Fight and Girlhood were screened at the San Francisco Film Society's French Cinema Now series in November 2014.  Timbuktu screened at the 2014 Mill Valley Film Festival in October.  Jacky in the Kingdom of Women screened at the 2015 IndieFest in February.  Some of the other films may have screened at Bay Area festivals too but I can't remember them.

Each feature film was preceded by a short film at SFFF so that means I saw 11 short films.

Une bonne affaire; directed by Laurent Ardoint & Stéphane Duprat; French with subtitles; (2014)
Foudroyés; directed by Bibo Bergeron;  French with subtitles; (2015)
Qui de nous deux?; directed by Benjamin Bouhana; French with subtitles; (2014)
J'ai pas envie qu'on se quitte maintenant; directed by Joachim Cohen; French with subtitles; (2013)
La Tête de l'emploi; directed by Wilfried Méance; French with subtitles; (2014)
Coach; directed by Ben Adler; (2014)
L'Ascenseur; directed by Agnès Doolaeghe; French with subtitles; (2014)
Une odeur de pique-nique; directed by Luc Serrano; French with subtitles; (2014)
Jumble Up!; directed by Léo Karman; French with subtitles; (2015)
L'Enfer me meant; directed by Gérald Portenart; French with subtitles; (2014)
Sous tes doigts; animated; directed by Marie-Christine Courtès; French with subtitles; (2014)

The order I listed the short films corresponds to the listing of the feature films.

Jumble Up! & Sous tes doigts had minimal perhaps even zero dialog so "French with subtitles" may not be accurate.  Coach had English language dialog.

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The area around the Crest Theater is bereft of places to eat on the weekends.  SFFF schedules about 20 minutes between screenings so there isn't much time to go anywhere.  I was looking forward to dining at Empress Tavern which will be in the basement of the Crest Theater although accessible from a separate entrance.  The restaurant seems to have been on the verge of opening for the past six months.  It was not open as of June 28.

I stayed at the Hyatt on the night of June 27.  The people in the room next to me got in around 2:30 AM (after the bars close) and made a racket.  I couldn't get to sleep until 4 AM.  I dozed on and off for the first film of June 28 (Beauty and the Beast).  The Midtown area of Sacramento is really popular now.  Maybe it always has been but I noticed it more on the evening of June 27 when I looked for a place to eat.  There were a lot of people club hopping.

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The lineup at SFFF was pretty strong this year.  I'm not sure I can pick a favorite this year.  Among my favorites are Party Girl, Girlhood, Number One Fan & Hippocrates.

Party Girl is an interesting film but when you realize that the co-writer and co-director of the film is the son of the lead "actress" and that the story is semi-autobiographical of her life, the film becomes a brutal piece of cinéma vérité at the most intimate of levels.

The eponymous party girl is sixtysomething Angelique Litzenburger (played by Angelique Litzenburger), who is essentially a bargirl or B-girl working in a strip club.  Portrayed as manipulative drunk and dressed in garish clothes and makeup.  Her character is truly grotesque and during portions of the film I wondered if Angelique was being portrayed by a male actor in drag.

Not surprisingly, Angelique doesn't get a lot of business.  She goes to the house of Michel (Joseph Bour) one of former regulars (or most likely her only) to find out why he doesn't come to the club anymore.  Michel says that he began to feel uncomfortable with their relationship.  He didn't like the feeling that he had to pay for her friendship and proposes that they see each other outside the club.  She has her reservations since she appears to view Michel as a source of steady income instead of a potential boyfriend.  Seeing that she has to do something in order to get Michel back to the club, she agrees to see him outside the club.

Their first date ends with them back at the club with Michel buying champagne and Angelique almost triumphant as she shows her co-workers that she can still reel one in.  However, Michel doesn't waste anytime and after bringing Angelique to meet some of his friends, he quickly proposes marriage.

Now you would think that a woman with Angelique's prospects would jump at the chance to escape her life with a retired miner with his own house & steady pension.  Instead, she tentatively goes along with the engagement...half-heartedly at each step in the process.

First, she introduces Michel to her two children who live in the same town.  Then she informs her eldest son in Paris with whom she seems to desire a codependency.  Finally she informs her youngest child, a daughter who lives far away with a foster family.  Just that brief description of her family hints at a turbulent past which has torn the family apart.

Despite all the warning signs that marrying the hooker/stripper/B-girl isn't the wisest choice, Michel barrels ahead.  On the evening before her wedding, Angelique confides to her eldest son Samuel Theis (portrayed by co-director Samuel Theis) that she doesn't love Michel.  Her son reminds her of her circumstances and advises her to give the marriage her full effort.  I won't give away the ending but will say it is consistent with Angelique's behavior throughout the film.

I wonder what the circumstances are of the real-life Angelique Litzenburger.  She plays herself and her four children play themselves but Michel is played by Joseph Bour.  Litzenburger is not a professional actress but she gives a strong performance.  Again, I wonder if she was performing or recreating parts of her life.  It takes some courage though to portray oneself as Litzenburger does.

The title implies that Angelique is a fun-loving but dysfunctional woman.  I viewed hers part of the demimonde (I've always wanted to use that word in a sentence).  Her lifestyle is as grotesque as her appearance.  Viewed from that perspective, I find the title bitterly ironic which makes for a more compelling film in my opinion.

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Girlhood seems as though its title could be play on word - girl 'hood.  Covering ground that seems more appropriate for South Central LA or the East End of London, Girlhood follows the formative period of a teenage girl's life.  Marieme (Karidja Touré) is a 16 year old girl living in a poor Paris housing project or banlieue.  I wonder about some of the stylistic choices made by director Céline Sciamma.  The film opens with Marieme and a group of girls playing football; not soccer but American football with pads, helmets, etc.  That seems an odd choice of sporting events.  I'm not aware of organized, female, tackle football in the US much less a Paris suburb.  Anyway, this opening scene serves to set the baseline for Marieme's innocence.

As the film progresses, the virginal, underachieving, solitary Marieme comes under the influence of a trio of girls who are looking for a 4th to round out their crew.  The leader is Lady (Assa Sylla) with Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) & Fily (Marietou Touré) filling out the gang.  Rechristened "Vic" (short of victory), Marieme quickly bonds to the girls.  It's not surprising given her hardworking mother is frequently absent and her older brother is physically abusive.  Relatively glamorous and tight-knit, the trio doesn't need to coax Marieme very much to assume her street persona of Vic.

Again, the environment doesn't quite ring true.  The girls are treated as an autonomous group rather than an adjunct to a male gang.  Despite being attractive, they guard their chastity like a Victorian Age maiden.  Their major form of partying involves renting a room at a hotel, dressing up in evening clothes, getting drunk & sleeping four to a bed...almost like a slumber party.

Despite these seemingly childish flourishes, the girls have real issues to deal with.  Lady has to face down a rival gang leader in a fight.  After she is beat, her position as leader of the foursome becomes tenuous.  Bemoaning the loss of street cred that has befell the foursome due to Lady's defeat, Vic decides to take on the rival who beat Lady.  After her victory, Vic's position within the foursome vastly improves as well as on the street and with her older brother.

Like Icarus, Vic soars a too close to the sun.  She loses her virginity to the guy she has been crushing on for year.  Her brother finds out and beats her up.  She gets involved with a real street criminal and start delivering drugs.  She intimidates her mother's supervisor into not offering her a job so she can have her nights free to hang with her homies.

I guess I should add that Vic, Lady, et al. are black which probably has the same stereotype in France as the US.  In fact, almost everyone in the film is black.  Vic lives in an insulated (or shunned) world.  I wondered what Marieme could have become under different circumstances which is part of the point of the film.  The film portrays the plight of a Vic as a tragedy although Vic is far from being blameless in the choices she makes.  Marieme/Vic is a complex character and Karidja Touré delivers a complex performances that highlights the nuances and contradictory aspects of the character.  Although the political and socioeconomic commentary can be inferred from the film, director Céline Sciamma does not directly comment on it.  Instead, she focuses the attention on the existential concerns of Marieme.

Girlhood was a tremendous film.  I quickly empathized with Marieme and was thoroughly drawn into her story.  The obvious comparison would be to American films such as Menace II Society or Boyz in the Hood.  Girlhood has a distinct voice; partly due to the gender of the protagonist and partly due to the different culture.  However, there was definitely parallels.  I highly recommend the film.

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Number One Fan is a contrived film but I notice the French can make highly entertaining films from contrived circumstances whereas Americans can take the same circumstances and make a hash out of it.

Sandrine Kiberlain plays Muriel, a 40something, divorced mother who works at a nail salon, is prone to outlandish stories and is the number one fan Vincent Lacroix (Laurent Lafitte), a popular French singer.  She goes to so many of his concerts that the security personnel know her and even allow her backstage if there aren't too many VIPs at the performance.  

The relationship between Lacroix & Muriel is not initially observed but it would appear to be one where Lacroix alternately ignores her and looks upon her with a polite acknowledgement.  Lacroix has more pressing issues at home.  His wife/live-in girlfriend is deeply unhappy with their relationship.  When she acts out during a friendly poker game, Lacroix confronts her afterwards.  They argue, she attacks him and he pushes her off of him which results in a heavy object falling off of a shelf.  The blow kills her and in a move right out of 1940s film noir, Lacroix decides to cover up the death instead of calling the police/ambulance.  The reasons are not explained but can be surmised.  Their previous argument could cast suspicion about the accidental nature of the death.  Regardless, the negative publicity would hurt his career.

Unsure of how to go about disposing of the body, Lacroix does the only logical thing (given his choice):  he enlists Muriel to help dispose of the body.  At this point in the film, I had a weird sense of disbelief and appreciation for the audacity of this particular plot device.  On the one hand, would you enlist a relative stranger into a criminal conspiracy of such magnitude?  You have to be supremely self-confident that you can control such a person and Lacroix has that confidence and Muriel appears to be the type of person who can be manipulated by her idol.  Part of the fun of this film is watching these assumptions fall apart and the relationship between Lacroix & Muriel evolve as the cover-up progresses.

Muriel is given specific instructions.  First, transfer the wrapped bundle from Lacroix's car trunk to her car's trunk.  Do not open the bundle.  Drive to Switzerland and give Lacroix's sister a letter.  Do not read the letter.  Lacroix's sister will take Muriel's car for a short period of time while Muriel waits at her house.  Upon her return, Muriel will drive her car back to Paris.  What can be simpler?

In films, nothing can ever be simple.  When Muriel arrives at the border crossing, she observes the immigration officers checking the trunks of cars crossing into Switzerland.  Suspecting the wrapped package in the trunk is something she doesn't want to be found by law enforcement, she turns around and drives to her mother's house which is in the opposite direction.

When Lacroix later checks in with Muriel, she lies to him and says everything went fine.  Lacroix's plan is predicated on the body never being found.  His sister owns a veterinary clinic with a crematory.  Lacroix believes his trusted sister has turned the body into ash so you can imagine his surprise when the police inform him that they have found the body buried in a shallow grave far from the Swiss border.  The police also have a lead.  They have been looking at the logs of his internet fan site.  They notice that Muriel is a frequent visitor and that Muriel grew up in the region where the body was found and that her mother still lives there.  The police ask Lacroix if he knows Muriel.

Lacroix is now panicked.  The police are now one step away from solving the crime.  To throw off the scent, Lacroix surreptitiously visits Muriel at her apartment.  He plants one of his wife's rings in the apartment.  When police find the ring, Muriel becomes the prime suspect.  It appears as though the case is closed.  However, Muriel is tougher than she appears.  Doubly so since the discovery of the ring leaves no doubt that Lacroix is trying to frame her for the crime.  She denies owning the ring and notes that it is a common ring that was sold in mass quantities.  

The cover-up is helped by the two police investigators (Olivia Côte & Pascal Demolon).  The two are dating but have recently broken up due to Côte's character being a "nymphomaniac."  Trying to reconcile while working a murder investigation puts them under a lot stress which leads to slipshod moments in the investigation.

Number One Fan is a dark comedy and feels a lot like a Hitchcock film.  Director Jeanne Henry adroitly mixes suspense and humor throughout the film.  Kiberlain who was nominated for a César Award for her performance shows a lot of acting range as the mousy Muriel transforms into a strong woman.  The perverse part is that the transformation results from Muriel's trial by fire during police interrogation.

It takes a certain type of person to be able to find humor in a murder investigation or to appreciate the finer points of a criminal conspiracy (albeit cinematic).  I am such a person and if the reader is too, he or she will greatly enjoy Number One Fan.

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Hippocrates feels familiar.  It's about an idealist but naive young doctor who learns that medicine is a business and can be a tough one at that.  Benjamin (Vincent Lacoste) is an intern at a Paris hospital.  I don't know much about the French health care system but the hospital Benjamin works at seems to be a private one; perhaps affiliated with a medical university.  The cocksure Benjamin is quickly humbled by his lack of experience.  He becomes friends with Abdel (Reda Kateb), an experienced Algerian doctor whose credentials are recognized in France.  Abdel is forced to take a position as an intern but is clearly more experienced (and more mature) than the other interns at the hospital.

Benjamin & Abdel are a study in contrasts.  Benjamin's choice of medicine seem to have been largely the result of following his father into the field.  In fact, his father holds a senior post at the hospital.  Benjamin isn't prepared for the emotional toll his patients can have on him.  Abdel is more compassionate towards his patients and his motivation is clear.  He wants to be a fully credentialed doctor to get a better job and bring his wife and children over from Algeria.

Their careers are altered by a patient dubbed Tsunami by the hospital staff.  A repeat patient with mental issues and an alcohol addiction, Tsunami's admission in the hospital is treated as a non-event.  On his first night, Tsunami develops unusual abdominal pain and the on-call physician is Benjamin.  He orders an ECG...or was it an EKG?  Whatever test it was, the machine is broken so the test never gets performed.  That's unfortunate because Tsunami dies that night.

Abdel, who also treated Tsunami, quickly picks up on the significance of the lack of ECG test results.  After confronting Benjamin, Abdel lets the matter drop.  The hospital staff are circling the wagons around Benjamin since the broken test equipment would reflect badly on management.

Although Benjamin is initially shaken up by Tsunami's death, he quickly moves past it.  However, an elderly patient with terminal cancer is admitted and her lingering illness is impossible for Benjamin to ignore.  Myriam (Carole Franck) likely has terminal cancer but her continued treatment is too expensive so the hospital admits her into Benjamin's wing with the end goal of having Myriam become well enough to go home.  Benjamin and the rest of the staff immediately recognize the absurdity of the notion and see through the cold cost-cutting measure.

Abdel orders a morphine drip for Myriam but the measure is overruled by higher-ups because of the cost of having Myriam indefinitely taking up bed space is too high.  Cutting to the chase, eventually Abdel & Benjamin essentially perform physician assisted suicide.  The less experienced (but more connected) Benjamin gets a slap on the wrist whereas Abdel gets a censure which guarantees he will not be able to advance beyond intern level.

I would rate Hippocrates a notch below the previous three films I have written about because the ending was a little too saccharine for me.  The hospital staff in Hippocrates are frequently watching the American TV show House.  I enjoyed House as much as the next guy but I think the American influence leaked into the plotline of Hippocrates.  In short, the ending of Hippocrates was straight out of an American "feel good" movie.

Hippocrates was a bit derivative although I'm not able to identify the films it reminds me of.  "Young doctor learns lessons of life from the cruel realities at the hospital" is not a original plot description.  Director & co-screenwriter Thomas Lilti was a doctor before becoming a film director.  I think his familiarity with the subject matter infused the film with sense of authenticity which enhanced the film beyond the plot and actors' performances.

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That Man from Rio, Love At First Fight, The Chef's Wife & Timbuktu were not quite as enjoyable or thought provoking but worthwhile nonetheless.

That Man from Rio - a rollicking action/adventure/comedy featuring Jean-Paul Belmondo as the hapless hero.  Françoise Dorléac is an archaeologist's daughter who is kidnapped and taken to Brazil.  Belmondo is her boyfriend who is on leave as a private in the Army.  He stows away to Rio save her.  Jean Servais is an archaeologist and friend to Dorléac's late father.  The three of them converge on an ancient secret which can unleash power beyond imagination.  I got the definite sense that Man from Rio inspired Lucas & Kaufman when the wrote the story for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Spielberg when he directed it.  The story is propelled by some great, pre-CGI action sequences, Dorléac's sexiness & Belmondo being Belmondo.

Love At First Fight - a romance masquerading underneath some youthful ennui.  Kévin Azaïs is an aimless young man who doesn't seem to know what he wants to do with his life.  He drifts along helping his brother at their late father's carpentry business.  The brothers get a job to build a pool-side gazebo at a residence.  At the home, Azaïs encounters Adèle Haenel, a young woman with anti-social tendencies and an ardent belief that a global collapse of civilization is near.  She has definite goal.  She wants to join an elite unit in the French Army to learn the survival skills which will be necessary when the apocalypse comes.  Smitten and with nothing better to do, Azaïs follows her to a summer training session sponsored by the Army.  To their mutual surprise, Azaïs turns out to be the better soldier.  Although a bit heavy handed on its use of imagery, characterizations and metaphors, Love At First Fight rises on the basis of the performances and chemistry of the two lead actors (Azaïs & Haenel)

The Chef's Wife - a screwball comedy about two women who are dissatisfied with their lives.  Karin Viard is a job placement specialist who helps unemployed people get jobs.   Emmanuelle Devos is the chef's wife who also functions as the restaurant manager.  On a whim, Devos stops in Viard's office looking to change careers.  Thus their lives become entwined.  Viard becomes infatuated with Devos' husband (Roschdy Zem) and for self-serving purposes encourages Devos' desires of starting a business and divorcing her husband.  Viard's character comes off badly at times but the laughs are frequent enough to recommend the film.

Timbuktu - before the film started, Professor Kevin Elstob gave an introduction.  Elstob gave an introduction before all or most of the films I saw at the festival.  He also moderated a discussion group after each film.  Before Timbuktu, Elstob launched into a very long talk about the recent history of Mali (where Timbuktu is).  I was largely unaware of the events which have unfolded in Mali.  The short version is that Muslim fundamentalists have seized control over parts of the country and imposed sharia law.  Death by stoning & other forms of execution are not uncommon for offenses which would not be considered a crime in Western civilization.  There are a few parallel plots but the main one concerns a cattle rancher who confronts a fisherman who killed one of his cows.  They struggle, a gun goes off and the sentence is all but predetermined.  I'm not sure if an al-Qaeda offshoot can be portrayed impartially.  The Muslim fundamentalist come off pretty badly in the film which was pretty much my opinion before the film.  The film is definitely a sad commentary on life in Mali/Timbuktu but I didn't need a film to tell me that life under strictly enforced sharia law is miserable.  Cinematically, the film is a bit too measured in its pacing for my tastes.  Still it's hard not to be moved by the deplorable conditions under which the people in the film live.

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My least favorite films were In the Courtyard  & The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq.

In the Courtyard  was a long slog of a discourse on mental illness as both Catherine Deneuve as the apartment coop board member & Gustave Kervern as the apartment building's concierge exhibit signs of depression & mental illness.  I'm certainly not opposed to dark films but this film left me disinterested.

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq - Houellebecq is a well known novelist & political pundit in France.  During the leadup to his novel's release in 2011, Houellebecq went missing for several weeks.  The exact reason for his disappearance remains unclear.  The film is (presumably) a fictional recounting of the period where he is missing.  According to the film, Houellebecq was abducted by a bodybuilder and some other working class men.  The reason for the kidnapping is unclear or at least lost upon me.  Houellebecq portrays himself as an unassuming man who is nonplussed by his captivity, even gently criticizing his captors for their choice of reading matter or food preparation.  Like avante garde performance art, the film is all over the map and Houellebecq only has one gear - vaguely distinerested and chain smoking.  Maybe if I was French or in the right mood, the film would have held my interest but on a Saturday night after driving to Sacto, watching two films, exercising for an hour and not eating dinner, I became bored with the film.  I didn't fall asleep but there were extended stretches where I wasn't reading the subtitles.

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I have to Beauty and the Devil an incomplete.  After being kept awake until 4 AM and then forcing a workout session in, I couldn't keep my eyes awake for Beauty and the Devil.  I slept through most of it.  In fact, I slept so much that I was amazed afterwards.  When I fall asleep during a film, usually I am aware that I am sleeping at various points throughout the film.  I try to rouse myself; sometimes I am successful; sometimes I am not.  For Beauty and the Devil, I fell asleep at the beginning and the next thing I know, the audience was clapping as the ending credit rolled.  It was as deep a sleep as I have had in bed.

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Of the short films, my favorites were:

Qui de nous deux? was about a couple on their first date who go to extraordinary lengths to avoid paying the bill as they alternating paying for items.

Coach - the story of an English teenager and his father who travel to Paris to see a soccer match.  When their car breaks down they get a ride with coach bus filled with Engish soccer hooligans.

L'Ascenseur - a trippy story about a man who switches lives with one of his neighbors while riding an elevator.

Sous tes doigts - an animated film about a three generation of women who immigrate from French Indochina to France.  I was amazed at how much plot the director packed into 13 minutes with no dialog.  You see the Vietnamese woman being seduced by the French colonial official, their bi-racial child being born, her escape to France, their internment in a refugee camp, etc.  

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SFFF has announced their second annual mini fall festival.  It will be a one day event on Saturday, November 14 at the Crest.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's July 2015 Calendar

There doesn't appear to be a puzzle in the July calendar of the Castro Theatre.

The photo on July 4 is of Jack Nicholson from the closing moments of The Shining.

The Castro is closed on July 4, 6 and 20 but only July 4 has a photo.

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The July calendar is dominated by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival which has renamed itself the Jewish Film Institute.  The festival runs July 23 to August 2.

Among the non-SFJFF highlights:

July 2 - Gimme Shelter...a powerful Maysles brothers film about the infamous Altamont Speedway concert.
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July 7 - Ex Machina is my favorite film of 2015 (year-to-date)

July 8 - Hustle; a 1975 neo-noir starring Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve and directed by Robert Aldrich.

July 17 - The Hitcher; a favorite from my teenage years.  Rutger Hauer plays the hitchhiker from hell terrorizing C. Thomas Howell.  I haven't seen this film in 25 years.  The Hitcher is paired with Mad Max 2 and is presented by Midnites for Maniacs.

July 21 - Contempt is my favorite Jean-Luc Godard film.

For whatever reason, the Castro seems to have latched onto Blade Runner.  They're screening it July 13 & 14.  I believe that will be the 4th & 5th days which that film has screened at the theater within the last year.

Jaws is also a favorite of mine but the film has been screened at Hole in the Head in December and has been on TV quite a bit lately.

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Castro Theater Calendar - July 2015

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's June 2015 Calendar

I didn't do very well with the June calendar of the Castro Theater.

June 8 - I thought this was Ava Gardner but when I figured out the June 15 clue, I cheated by searching on line.  It turns out that the photo on June 8 is Gypsy Rose Lee.  I have heard of Gypsy Rose Lee and have even seen a few clips of her doing a fan dance but did not recognize her.  In my defense, whenever I see photos or film clips of Lee, my attention is not focused on her face.

June 15 - I did not know who this was.  I searched the internet and discovered it was Billy Rose, noted song lyricist, nightclub owner, theatrical producer as well as Fanny Brice's husband.  I don't know if I've ever seen a photo of him before.

June 29 - Rose Marie...who I recognized immediately from The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Although it has nothing to do with the puzzle, I find Mary Tyler Moore during her time on the show to be incredibly appealing.

Gypsy Rose Lee, Billy Rose & Rose Marie - I assume the puzzle is pointing to the June 4 screening of Rosemary's Baby which I missed.  I also know that June's Birth Flower is a rose.

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The June 30 screening of Contempt and Mulholland Drive has been rescheduled to July 21.  The films were bumped by an event that sounds like something from a film.  Kim Kardashian West is appearing at a Commonwealth Club event.  Kim Kardashian "in conversation with Judge LaDoris Cordell (ret), Independent Police Auditor, City of San Jose."  I wonder how that conversation went at the Commonwealth Club.

"Hey let's get Kim Kardashian to speak at one of our events."

"That's a great idea but who would interview her?"

"Let's get that 60something retired judge who is now the independent police auditor in San Jose!"

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The July 1 TBA has been announced.  It's a documentary called The Deepest Depths of the Burrow.  If you know what or who Nychos is, the film may appeal to you.

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Castro Theater Calendar - June 2015

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Artificial Intelligence in Two Films

I saw two films where artificial intelligence played a major role in the plot.

Ex Machina starring Oscar Issac, Domhnall Gleeson & Alicia Vikander; directed by Alex Garland; (2015) - Official Website
Avengers:  Age of Ultron starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Rufalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner & James Spader; directed by Joss Whedon; (2015) - Official Website

I saw Ex Machina at the Vogue and Avengers at the Balboa.

The title of Ex Machina refers to the Latin phrase deus ex machina.  The literal translation means "gods from the machine" but it has come to refer to a plot device whereby a seemingly intractable problem is resolved by the introduction of a heretofore unmentioned character or unbelievable event which seems contrived.  An example would be one of the Superman films with Christopher Reeve.  I can't remember which one but Lois Lane is killed and Superman flies around the world in the opposite direction of the Earth's rotation.  He flies near the speed of light so that he can go back in time to the point when Lois is alive and thereby giving Superman time to save Lois.

That reference is a little strained with respect to the film but the film is open to quite a few interpretations.  Domhnall Gleeson is Caleb, a programmer at a Google like company that has over 90% of the internet search engine market.  He wins a lottery at work to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Issac), the reclusive CEO of Caleb's company.  When he arrives at the remote but high-tech estate, Caleb observes strange behavior from Nathan but ultimately his curiosity is too much.  After signing some unusually restrictive non-disclosure agreements, Caleb is informed that Nathan is working on an artificial intelligence (AI) project and that Caleb will administer the Turing Test.  The Turing Test is a test to see if a machine can exhibit sufficient evidence of intelligence to fool the tester into thinking it is human or more precisely, to cause the tester to be unable to distinguish between machine and human.

Caleb is well qualified for this because he studied AI in school.  He is surprised however when he administers the test.  He is allowed to see the AI entity which is housed in an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander).  Ava has a human face but the rest of her is obviously robotic.  Caleb questions the validity of the test if he knows Ava is a robot but Nathan assures him that Ava can pass the standard Turing Test and that the more challenging test will be if Caleb thinks of Ava as human even if he can see that she is not.

The film progresses in a series of vignettes:  Caleb administering the test, followed by a debriefing with Nathan who is exhibiting signs of mental instability.  Periodically, a silent Japanese woman named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) appears as a house servant and possibly Nathan's lover.  Her silence is explained by Nathan as being a byproduct of her inability to speak English.  That makes it easier for her to abide by the NDA terms.

Not only does Caleb begin to think of Ava as human but he falls in love with her.  She convinces him that Nathan is insane and dangerous.  Their interviews are recorded but Ava is able to reverse the flow of power into the compound which trips off the generator that supplies power.  During these outages, when the recording devices are inoperative, Ava confides her fears and concerns to Caleb who in turn withholds Ava's comments from Nathan.

The film has a claustrophobic feel because Nathan's compound is completely underground or at least has no windows.  Ava is kept a prisoner.  There is always a shatterproof piece of glass between Caleb and Ava.  She is also restricted to an area that Caleb cannot access.  Combined with a ominous soundtrack and Nathan's bizarre behavior, Caleb has reason to be concerned.  When Ava tells him not trust Nathan during one of the power outages, Caleb quickly complies.

Ex Machina raises many questions but for me the primary one is that if humans are unethical and imperfect, why would the AI systems we create not be unethical and imperfect.  You can talk about Asimov's Laws of Robotics but as they say, laws are made to be broken.  The film really hits its stride as the audience (at least me) starts to empathize with Ava...just like Caleb.  Of course, I know that I'm watching a film with an actress named Alicia Vikander playing the role of Ava but this was a film that was easy to suspend disbelief.  I quickly found myself identifying with Caleb's character and even wondering what I would do in his situation.

I won't give away the ending of the film but will say that I was surprised as I watched it but thinking about it afterwards, it was easily predicted.  I think I wanted to believe something was going to happen and when it didn't, it surprised me.  Ex Machina is one of my favorite films of the year.  Oscar Issac is developing quite a career since Inside Llewyn Davis which is about as far from the role Nathan as one can get.

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I wasn't very interested in seeing Avengers:  Age of Ultron but I was in the neighborhood of the Balboa & had some time.  As I wrote in 2012 about The Avengers, "My favorite parts of the film occurred when the superheroes bicker with each other which is another way of saying Robert Downey Jr's snarky Tony Stark is the best thing about the film."  I could say the same thing about Age of Ultron.

Actually, I think I liked Ultron more than the original film.  The Avengers still bicker but now they are a team.  The highlight of the film was a party where they drunkenly take turns trying to lift Thor's war hammer while playfully teasing each other.  The actors seem to have settled into their roles which isn't surprising since this is the 11th MCU film.  The screenwriters have added some touches to give the characters a little more depth.  Black Widow has a thing for Dr. Bruce Banner (aka Hulk).  We also learn that she is sterile because her original spymasters wanted to make sure she never had children which could test her loyalties. Hawkeye has a wife & kids that no one except the Black Widow knew about.  Thor & Captain America have a serious bromance going on.  They even fight their battles as if they were long-time basketball teammates running a fast break.

All this adds some texture to the film but at 141 minutes, Ultron (like its predecessor) can be quite a slog.  The final battle has Ultron lifting a chunk of a fictitious Eastern European city into the air with the end goal of dropping the asteroid size piece from such a height as to cause a cataclysmic, species ending event (like the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs).  This scene took forever and I was antsy to leave the theater before it was finished.  Also, as the franchise continues it becomes clear that a passing knowledge of Marvel Comics is necessary to fully appreciate the films.  At the end of the film, they introduced some "new Avengers" who, it appeared were well-established in the MCU.  The first film I saw in the series was Iron Man in 2008.  My enjoyment diminishes with every subsequent film I see in the series.  What the hell are Infinity Stones which I have heard described as the MCU McGuffin?

I should mention the AI angle in Ultron.  Stark & Banner create an AI entity which is really a trap laid out for the Avengers.  That AI entity is Ultron (nicely voiced by James Spader) who first seeks physical form as an Iron Man like machine and later forces a Korean doctor into giving it human form.  The Avengers capture the biological entity before it is fully developed and implant Stark's program (JARVIS) into it.  Thus the Vision (a new hybrid entity) is created.  By the way, the Vision can lift Thor's hammer with ease.  Actually, Captain America budged the hammer which I suppose has some significance.  I guess I should also note that the Vision is further enhanced because he has one of the Infinity Stones implanted in his forehead.  It's the one from Loki's scepter as if I can appreciate the difference between the stones.  This is all very tedious to keep track of and even more tedious to write.

Robert Downey Jr. still has the best part as Tony Stark.  I sense that Chris Hemsworth is also injecting some humor into Thor and he assumes this great, authoritative speech pattern with Thor's dialogue which can be played straight or for laughs.  Mark Rufalo attempts to give Bruce Banner some poignancy which although effective seems out of place in a film like Avengers.

With that, I will say that if I had it over to do again, I would have skipped Avengers:  Age of Ultron and gone home to get an early night's sleep.