Thursday, July 4, 2013

2013 San Francisco International Film Festival (3 of 2)

In the 2 months since the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) wrapped, a number of its film selection have been generally or limited released.  I was aware that several of the films were getting theatrical releases so I skipped a number of films figuring I would catch them when played elsewhere.  The "3 of 2" in the title refers to realization that I've watched so many of the SFIFF films in the two months since the festival closed that is almost like another 3 or 4 days of the festival.

Among the 2013 SFIFF films that I have seen since the festival:

Frances Ha starring Greta Gerwig; directed by Noah Baumbach; (2012) - Official Website
Venus and Serena; documentary; directed by Maiken Baird & Michelle Major; (2012) - Official Website
The East starring Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Toby Kebbell & Ellen Page; with Julia Ormond & Patricia Clarkson; directed by Zal Batmanglij; (2013) - Official Website
What Maisie Knew starring Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan & Onata Aprile; with Alexander Skarsgård & Joanna Vanderham; directed by Scott McGehee & David Siegel; (2012) - Official Website
A Hijacking starring Søren Malling, Pilou Asbæk & Abdihakin Asgar; directed by Tobias Lindholm; Danish, Swedish & English with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
Much Ado About Nothing starring Amy Acker & Alexis Denisof; with Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond, Jillian Morgese & Fran Kranz; directed by Joss Whedon; (2012) - Official Website

I saw Frances Ha, The East and A Hijacking at the Landmark Embarcadero.  I saw Venus and Serena and What Maisie Knew at the Landmark Opera Plaza.  I saw Much Ado About Nothing at the Stonestown Cinema.  I saw A Hijacking on Wednesday, June 26, the day before the Embarcadero Cinema closed for renovations.  The Embarcadero Center Cinema will be closed until early November if all goes according to plan.  I had really started to see quite a few films at the Embarcadero this year.  It's the closest movie theater to my workplace.

On Tuesday afternoons, Rubio's sells their delicious Original Fish Tacos® for $1.50.  I can attest to their tastiness.  On many Tuesdays, I have gone to Rubio's (Four Embarcadero Center, Street Level) after work for an early dinner consisting of three (sometimes four) Original Fish Tacos® and then to Embarcadero Cinema (One Embarcadero Center, Promenade Level) to catch a movie during the 7 O'clock hour.  I'll miss the Embaradero CInema because I won't have an excuse to go to Rubio's.

I will likely see more films at the Landmark Opera Plaza while the Embarcadero Cinema is closed.  I don't like the Opera Plaza theater very much.  There are some sketchy characters on the walk from Civic Center BART/Muni to Opera Plaza.  I have to add time to account for Muni and the walk from the station to the theater.  One nice thing is the theater is close A Clean Well Lighted Bookstore (Hemingway reference) or whatever the place is called now.  I also recall reading that the McDonald's across the street designed their building differently to get the local permits.  It certainly doesn't look like the standard McDonald's building design.


Frances Ha has been likened to Annie Hall.  Greta Gerwig plays the titular character whose full name is Frances Halladay.  At 27 years old, Frances is having trouble adjusting to post-collegiate life.  Now that seems a little late in life to be encountering these issues but Frances is an "artist" and lives in NYC.  Having never lived in NYC, I don't know how it "really" is but in the movies it seems as though artistic types can scrape by because there are so many outlets for arts and entertainment.  I'm reminded of quote from Indiefest where a director said (paraphrasing) that Mumblecore started with a bunch of overeducated, underemployed people in New York.  In Frances' case, she is a dancer and graduate of Vassar College.

Technically, Frances is not a professional dancer.  She is part of the auxiliary or some non-paid position.  Frances' life consists of quirky confusion about the trajectory of her life and money troubles.  In fact, it's unclear how Frances makes money.  What is clear is that she and her best friend from college are drifting apart.  As the film starts, they are living together (they even sleep in the same bed sometimes) but Sophie (Mickey Sumner) soon moves out to live with her boyfriend which hits Frances hard.  This seemed very true to life as I have known women who develop intense friendships which are strained when one becomes serious with her boyfriend or gets married.

In addition to the unraveling of her most valued friendship, Frances is beginning to realize that a dancing career is not in the cards for her.  In fact, the director of her dancing troupe urges her to take a job as a secretary in the company.  Finally, Frances must deal with friends and family who are moving on with their lives and achieving traditional signs of success.  An awkward dinner party makes clear how out-of-step Frances is with some of her peers.

There is a bittersweet undercurrent running throughout Frances Ha which I interpreted as the end of her youth.  As portrayed by Gerwig, Frances has an ebullient nature which makes you want to root for her despite (or perhaps because of) her insecurities.  A running gag throughout the film is Frances' numerous changes of address.  Each chapter of the film is titled by her address.  In the final section, Frances is writing her name on the slip of paper for her mailbox and can't fit it in.  So she folds the paper so it will fit and hence "Frances Ha."

Frances Ha was also filmed in black & white which gives it a unique look and style.  I very much enjoyed Frances Ha.


Venus and Serena is not a hagiography but fails to ask the really tough questions of its subjects.  I have a passing knowledge of the Williams sisters so much of the film was not new to me.  In fact, I wonder if the best subject of a documentary would be Richard Williams - Venus and Serena's controversial father.  At one point, Serena is informed that a young man accompanying her father is, in fact, Richard's son or her half-brother.  She seems unaware that she has a half-brother and frankly, it doesn't really seem phase her much.

Of the two sisters, Serena is the better subject for a documentary.  The documentary was filmed well before Serena's comments in Rolling Stone about a teenage girl being raped and a competitor's boyfriend.  Acknowledging her mercurial nature and occasional temper tantrums, Serena doesn't seem to feel the need to control her behavior.  Being the top ranked player in the world has certain privileges.  At one point, John McEnroe urges Serena to apologize for her outburst at the US Open; Serena declines.  What does it say when John McEnroe is the voice of reason?

It's also clear that the two sisters have a very tight bond.  They share a house in Florida although they train separately.  It's understandable that the two would bond since the professional tennis tour can be stressful.  It also seems to point to something dysfunctional in the Williams family that they are still that close.


The East is a tense thriller about eco-terrorists.  Brit Marling (who co-wrote the script) is Sarah, a former FBI agent who is now working for a private security firm.  Her boss (Patricia Clarkson) sends her undercover to infiltrate the East, a shadowy anarchist group who is targetting the CEOs of companies they judge to have committed environmental crimes.  By infiltrating the group, Sarah's company can better sell their services since they will have advance intelligence on the targets.

With surprising ease, Sarah does indeed join the East.  The main members are Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) who is the leader, Doc (Toby Kebbell) and Izzy (Ellen Page) the most militant.  As Sarah begins to develop feelings for Benji, she becomes more sympathetic to the cause and the members of the East.  Izzy for example is the daugher of an industrialist.  They target his company because it regularly (as in 3 AM every morning) dumps industrial waste into a lake.  Izzy's commitment to the cause seems to be a cry for attention from her father.

Ultimately, Benji & Sarah have to confront each other and their true agendas.  There is more to Benji than meets the eye.


What Maisie Knew was the opening night film at the 2013 SFIFF.  Based on a Henry James novel, What Maisie Knew focuses on a young girl (Onata Aprile) whose parents (Julianne Moore & Steve Coogan) are getting divorced.  Becoming a pawn in her parents increasingly antagonistic relationship, Maisie is shuttled back and forth between the parents.  Moore plays a hot headed rock & roller who wants to recapture her past glory.  Coogan is an art dealer who constant travels and self-absorption pushes everyone away.  Coogan ends up marrying the nanny (Joanna Vanderham) and Moore marries a young bartender (Alexander Skarsgård looking much different than he did in The East).

The new spouses are drawn into Maisie's life and troubles as Moore & Coogan make clear that their marriages had to do with gaining custody of Maisie and not actually providing a good home for her.  As the film progresses, Maisie becomes attached to her step-parents and realizes the collateral damage that her parents' acrimony have inflicted on her and her new step-parents.  

The film was a heartbreaking exploration of how a little girl's life is thrown into turmoil by her parents' divorce.  The ending stretched credibility but is a) consistent with James' novel and b) heartwarming.  The cast was excellent; Onata Aprile (6 years old at the time of filming) delivered a performance that seemed well beyond her years.


A Hijacking was a tremendous film.  The plot is simple - a Danish cargo ship is captured by pirates and its crew held for ransom.  The film focuses on a few of the characters.  Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) is the ship's cook and becomes the go-between for the pirates because he speaks English as does the pirates.  Søren Malling is Peter, the CEO of the shipping company.  Abdihakin Asgar is Omar, the pirates' negotiator.

The film establishes early that Peter is supremely confident in his own negotiating skills.  Against the advice of his hijacking response consultant, Peter decides to negotiate with the pirates himself.  Several of the cast members are non-actors and have experience with ship hijackings.  This leads to palpable authenticity in the film.

These three men will be stressed in different ways the film proceeds.  Mikkel is obviously held captive but is subjected to death threats and other deprivations and humiliations.  Peter who begins the film as self-confident, has bitten off more than he can choose.  He must stay at the office around the clock to take the phone calls from the pirates.  In addition, to the personal sense of responsibility he has towards his employees on the ship, he also is getting pressure from his board of directors as the negotiations drag on for months.  Omar is presented not as a pirate but as a negotiator who is negotiating with both the pirates and Peter.

The stress of the situation takes it toll on all three which makes resolution of the problem slower to materialize.  To give some sense of the distance need to be bridged, the pirates initially demand $15 million and Peter's initial counteroffer is $250,000.  The consultant's suggestions have the effect of prolonging the negotiations and the crisis in an attempt to wear down the pirates but it also has the effect of wearing down Peter.  The scenes where Peter & the consultant strategize has an "inside baseball" feel to it which is understandable because the consultant was played by Gary Skjoldmose Porter, an actual hijacking response expert.

A Hijacking is one of my favorite films on the year.


Much Ado About Nothing marks my return to the Stonestown Cinema which is operated by Regal Entertainment.  I had not been there since 2011 despite it being the second closest movie theater to my residence.  I went to the 9:45 PM screening on June 28 and there were only 10 or so people in the cavernous auditorium (seating capacity equals 452 if I recall the placard correctly).

Much Ado About Nothing is a modern retelling of Shakespeare's play of the same name.  The actors recite the exact lines as Shakespeare wrote with little modification.  Despite its modern setting and modern costumes, the actors are reciting 15th century dialogue.  One problem I always have with Shakespeare is understanding the dialogue.  The phrasing and cadence is foreign to my modern experience.  I have to concentrate very intently to follow the plot of a Shakespeare play.  Such was the case with this film.  Fortunately, I have seen the play before and read a summary of it before attending this screening.

With that said, I thought the film could have used a little more retooling. There are curious plot points which are incongruous with modern day Southern California.  Putting that aside, I never lost myself in the film.  It felt like a chore to get in school when I had to read a book I didn't enjoy.

Much Ado About Nothing had a very nice soundtrack; it reminded me a little of Norah Jones at times.

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