Mad Men and Mad Max

I attended two screenings in movie theaters so far this week. I thought I’d share them with you.

Mad Men Finale at the New Parkway

My wife and I have been following Mad Men for some years now–without cable or satellite. We binge-watched the first three seasons on disc, and season four on Netflix. We paid to see the last three seasons on Hulu, where each episode became available the day after its broadcast.

But we wanted something special for the big series finale on Sunday. So we went to the New Parkway, where they had been screening the last few episodes live for a paying audience. At $6 a head, it seemed like a bargain.

The presentation leaved a lot to be desired. The houselights stayed on for several minutes after the show started. They finally came down, but they went back up again before the show ended. And we had to sit through the commercials, which weren’t even muted.

On the other hand, the audience was wonderful. Some were costumed as Don, Betty, Joan, and Peggy. The crowd laughed and cheered at appropriate places, and called out encouragement for the characters on screen. That made the problems worthwhile.

So much has been written about the show and the finale that I don’t feel a need to discuss my reactions. But it did make me think about what real separates a happy ending from sad one. It’s all about where you stop telling the story.

Mad Max: Fury Road in 3D at Berkeley’s California Theater

After the San Francisco International Film Festival, I like to cleanse my palate with a big, Hollywood action movie. This year, it took me almost two weeks to get around to that ritual. But I waited for the right movie.

I caught the new Mad Max in the big, downstairs auditorium in Berkeley’s California Theatre. I had to skip out of work early to see it in 3D. For some odd reason, they were showing it flat version–in the same auditorium–for the prime-time 7:00 screening.

You have to understand three things about this movie:

  1. It’s basically one long motor vehicle chase broken up with a few dialog scenes.
  2. It’s surprisingly feminist for this sort of movie. It’s about a woman warrior rescuing a tyrant’s enslaved harem.
  3. Mad Max isn’t the main hero.

Charlize Theron plays the real hero–the woman warrior mentioned above. She’s strong, smart, determined, and ethical. She’s putting her life on the line and burning all of her bridges for a completely altruistic motive. She’s freeing slaves.

Max, by comparison, is just along for the ride. He’s the central character in the way that Dr. Watson is the central character in a Sherlock Holmes story–we see the story primarily through his point of view. Unlike Watson, he has to find his moral center. At first he cares only for his own survival. Slowly, he becomes a valuable part of the team bringing these women to freedom. But he never becomes the team’s leader.

Tom Hardy plays Max. I guess Mel Gibson is too old and too anti-Semitic.

But all of that moral and character stuff is just an appetizer. The main course is the chase, filled with crashes, weapons, hand-to-hand combat, acts of courage, close calls, and fatal errors. It’s fast, brutal, and for the most part very well-choreographed. The film makes effective use of 3D, and should be seen that way.

Occasionally, the action got repetitious, and even briefly tedious. Director/co-writer George Miller could have cut out 20 minutes and made a better movie for it.

Miller does a good job creating a dystopian future Australia (and yes, I know he’s done it before). He gives us a barren landscape presumably savaged by climate change, populated by a handful of desperate people living on shrinking resources and the remnants of a dead civilization.

But one thing bothered me about Miller’s vision. Whatever destroyed the environment apparently killed off everyone who wasn’t white. When you consider that Theron’s character seems based on Margaret Tubman, it would have been nice to cast a black woman in the role.

You’ve probably read about reactionary men’s groups objecting to the film. Think about the reaction if Zoe Saldana had Theron’s role.

I give Mad Max: Fury Road a B+.

Experimenter and Closing Night at the San Francisco International Film Festival

This year’s San Francisco International Film Festival closed Thursday night with the local premiere of Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter–a biopic about social psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose controversial experiments examined how we react when our empathy conflicts with our obedience to authority.

Speaking of authority figures, when we entered the Castro Theatre, we found almost all of the seats had "Reserved" signs on them, as they had on opening night. Only a few rows at the front and back of the theater were available for regular people.

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The opening talks lasted a little under half an hour. Festival Executive Director Noah Cowan, Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, and the film’s writer/director, Michael Almereyda, came up in turns and thanked companies, organizations, and people. And then the movie began.

Experimenter is slated for a theatrical release, so I can only give you a paragraph about the movie.

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In the early ’60s, Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) ran tests that tricked subjects into thinking they were torturing someone. He wanted to see how many would stop when ordered to keep going. His methods were extremely controversial. Almereyda, who clearly sides with Milgram in the controversy, finds unique and entertaining ways to tell the story, such ashaving Sarsgaard talk directly to the camera, and occasionally using obviously fake backgrounds. The acting is mostly excellent, and the subject matter is just plain fascinating. Winona Ryder plays Milgram’s wife.

I’m giving it an A-.

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After the movie, Rosen lead a Q&A with Almereyda, Ryder, and Alan Elms, a researcher who worked with Milgram on his experiments (Harley Ware plays him in the movie). Some highlights:

  • On how Milgram’s book insired Almereyda to make the movie: "The dialog [in the book] was complicated and profound. As you read it, you realize the depth of his interest."
  • Almereyda admitted that Elms "corrected some really stupid mistakes" in the script, including having to remind the auteur that Milgram didn’t smoke.
  • On his unusual narration technique: "The whole idea of talking to the camera didn’t come from House of Cards, but from [Milgram’s] own movies."
  • Ryder, when asked about playing someone who is still alive: "It was important for this particular story and Michael’s vision [that we] get approval. i was quite nervous, but as soon as I met her she has such an incredible grace."
  • I asked about two scenes where, for no apparent reason, an elephant walked behind Sarsgaard as he talked to the camera. Almereyda  and Ryder told us the elephant’s name, and that she made every one on the set happy. But they didn’t give me a serious answer.
  • "We had 20 days to shoot this movie. we didn’t have time for fooling around."

After the Q&A, I went to the Closing Night Party at the Mezzanine. The music was enjoyable and loud, but not too loud. I could wander comfortably and talk to people. I had a good time.

Music, Sex, and Novelists: Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

Here’s what I saw Saturday:

B+ Beats of the Antonov
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This documentary about the current Sudanese civil war starts with a plane dropping bombs on civilians—from the civilian’s point of view. Then, when the bombing is over, laughter breaks out on the soundtrack. In this situation, you need to find something to be happy about. They’re happy that no one was hurt.

Believe it or not, this is largely a movie about music–how it helps bring people together and increases morale. But it’s also a film about the need for multiculturalism. According to filmmaker Hajooj Kuka, the Arabs ruling the country want to force their language and their culture on everyone else–even on other Muslims. (Kuka makes it clear that not all Arabs feel that way, but the ones in power do.)

The film is didactic, and completely accepts the rebel’s idealism. But mostly it shows the resilience of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation.

After the film, first-time director Kuka came onstage for Q&A. Some highlights:

  • "Music is the reason I made the film. It inspired me, and it’s better to make a film when you’re inspired."
  • "On the religion of the people in the film: Muslims are the majority. Then Christians, then other, although there are fewer other. You find the other rituals seeping into Islam and Christianity."
  • "In Nuba [the part of the Sudan where the film was shot], you’ll find Christians and Muslims in the same family. There’s total tolerance. It’s not acceptance, it’s tolerance. They don’t see a reason for thinking that way [opposing other religions]. That’s beautiful."
  • "On where the rebels’ weapons come from: "Its amazingly easy to fund an army in Africa…they’re getting help from people who love to fund African wars."

Unfortunately, I had to leave before the Q&A was over.

You have one more chance to see Beats of the Antonov at the festival. It’s screening Monday evening, 6:30, at the Pacific Film Archive.

B Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey
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First things first: The sex scenes are the best scenes in this relationship drama, set mostly on a freighter in the high seas. Alice (Ariane Labed), leaves her passionate lover behind as she often has to do. She’s a sailor, and the only woman in the Fidelio’s crew. She has some harassment troubles, but mainly she enjoys the attention. I think the movie is supposed to be about the difficulty of staying loyal to your lover when your job takes you away for long periods of time. But Alice doesn’t try that hard to be loyal.

There was no Q&A after the film.

I saw the final festival screening of Fidelio. However, it’s on the festival’s list of films likely to receive a theatrical release (which is why I wrote such a short review), so you might be able to see it eventually.

A The End of the Tour
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Every year, the festival designates one movie as its Centerpiece. It’s usually an upcoming Indiewood feature, often with recognizable stars. It screens the second Saturday night of the festival. Then there’s a party at some club.

This year, the Centerpiece was The End of the Tour. Because the film will get a theatrical release, I can only give you a one-paragraph review. Here it is:

Based on a true story about the meeting of two brilliant minds, this film provides something rare in movies–intellectual discussion. In 1996, journalist and budding novelist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) spent several days interviewing suddenly respected novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). They bond, sort of, but Lipsky wants access to Wallace’s private thoughts, and Wallace is reluctant to open up. Segel turns Wallace into a fascinating character–deeply troubled and, despite his fame, deeply insecure. Excellent film.

After the film, Segel, director James Ponsoldt, screenwriter Donald Margulies, and two other filmmakers whose names I didn’t get came onstage for Q&A. Some highlights:

  • Ponsoldt: "I had read Infinite Jest (Wallace’s breakout novel) in college. Everyone was trying to read it. It was four or five months of a really intense relationship. Even at my wedding, I had some of his writing read."
  • On creating a narrative film based on actual events: "If the audience had to know [the true story], then we failed. It’s a relationship story and a platonic love story…I don’t like biopics."
  • "I had a strong desire to not make it just be two smart guys talking to each other."
  • Segel on preparing for the part: "I tried to focus on the parts of me that are the same as him."

After the show, I went to the Centerpiece party at Monarch, a club on 6th St. and Mission. Despite some excellent lentil soup, I didn’t stay long. I needed my sleep.

SFIFF Thursday: Japanese teenagers and Chinese Brothers (but not really)

I left work early Thursday to catch some movies at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I only had time for two.

C+ Wonderful World End
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I’m really not sure what to make of this Japanese teenage drama. Seventeen-year-old Shiori lives with her theater-oriented boyfriend and enjoys some modest fame from her video blog. Then a 13-year-old ardent fan worms into her life and begins to mess things up. But before you can say “teenage All About Eve,” the film takes a very strange turn. And then another, and another.

I have to admit that I had a hard time following the story. Perhaps it’s my ignorance of current Japanese youth culture. Or the fact that a lot of on-screen written text wasn’t translated into English. Or maybe it was just incoherent.

But the film had enough good scenes, and a couple of very good ones, to keep it from being a total loss.

The movie will screen two more times in the festival, both at the Kabuki. Today (Friday) at 8:45, and Saturday at 4:45. Tonight’s screening is sold out, but there may be rush tickets available.

B 7 Chinese Brothers
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Larry (Jason Schwartzman) doesn’t amount to much. He drinks an awful lot. He can’t keep a job. He thinks he’s funny. He’s attracted to women, but he won’t lift a finger to connect with one emotionally or physically. He has a loyal, ugly-cute dog. While technically a comedy, 7 Chinese Brothers doesn’t try to be extremely funny. Writer/director Bob Byington seems more interested in examining Larry and his world than delivering laughs. But the laughs it gets are heart-felt, and the story doesn’t really need laughs. The title comes from the REM song.

This one will also screen today and tomorrow at the Kabuki. Friday at 3:30 and Saturday at 9:30. Today’s screening is sold out, so the only tickets available will be rush tickets.

7 Chinese Brothers will likely get an American theatrical release.

Marlon Brando at the PFA (and the SFIFF)

Monday night I decided to attend the San Francisco International Film Festival without crossing the Bay to San Francisco. So I caught Listen to Me Marlon at the Pacific Film Archive.

I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about movie stars. But I’ve never before seen one quite like this. Brando recorded his thoughts and feelings into tape recorders over the course of his life, and director Stevan Riley used these recordings in place of the usual voice-of-God narration. You won’t get as many facts in Listen to Me Marlon as you would in a conventional documentary, but you’ll get a far stronger sense of exactly who he was.

I give this film an A.

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After the film, Riley came up to the podium for Q&A with the audience. Some highlights:

  • The first question was actually an opinion, and a minority one: “For me the whole film was spoiled by the music. It was in your face the whole time and it was lousy music. I disliked every minute of it.” Riley responded very well: “That’s very kind of you to say…I’m surprised you’re still here.”
  • About Brando’s famous rewriting of his Apocalypse Now dialog: “There was a stack of tapes, several hours worth, where he was improvising in the role of Kurtz…he was looking into himself for the nature of good and evil.”
  • About clearing rights for film and TV clips: “That was a bit tricky…there was a big debate at the end about whether the budget could afford it…it was a real coup on the part of the producers, they started with Paramount for The Godfather. We got a real favorable deal on that.”

You have one more chance at the festival to see Listen to Me Marlon. It screens at the Kabuki this Wednesday at 8:30.

Fashions and fighting: Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I only caught two films yesterday.

A- Iris

I started the day with Albert Maysles’ latest film, Iris. What fun! Here’s what I thought about it:

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Iris Apfel, a fixture in the New York fashion scene well in her 90s, dresses herself in loud, bright, and absurd clothes, augmented with even crazier accessories. And yet she looks great. Apfel still embraces her work with enthusiasm, and thus embraces life. Maysles follows her as she attends shows, shops in specialty stores in Harlem, shows off all of the absurd toys in her apartment, and treats her husband of more than 60 years to his 100th birthday party. And she’s almost always smiling.

Maysles died in March at the age of 88, so there was no Q&A with the director.

This was the last festival screening if Iris. But don’t despair, it opens in Bay Area theaters May 8.

B+ The Taking of Tiger Mountain

The bad news came as we were waiting to be let into the theater. Due to technical difficulties, this 3D movie would be screened in 2D. Oh, well. I was looking forward to seeing a 3D Chinese action epic directed by the great Tsui Hark.

Once inside, Festival Executive Director Noah Cowan MC’d the show, which was about far more than this one movie. He started with a clip from an earlier version of the story–a filmed record of a Cultural Revolution stage opera.

After the clip, Cowan brought on Hong Kong film producer Nansun Shi. They showed us clips from other Chinese and Hong Kong films, and discussed the history of Film Workshop, the company that Shi took over in 1981. Her other films films include A Chinese Ghost Story, A Better Tomorrow, and Once Upon A Time In China.

Then they screened The Taking of Tiger Mountain

Based, very loosely I suspect, on a 1946 battle, it’s a big, epic military adventure set in 1946. And it’s a lot of relatively mindless fun. A small band of devoted and virtuous soldiers set out to take a seemingly impregnable fortress from a much larger and better-equipped band of evil thugs. The story involves plenty of tried-and-true devices. It has the hero who goes undercover and manages to outwit the bad guys over and over again. It has the cute kid, traumatized by the bad guys, who slowly learns to trust the good guys. And it has several big, exciting battles, saving the best for last.

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The action sequences depended heavily on CGI, much of which looked fake. I miss the old, more realistic stunt work. On the other hand, I guess it’s good that performers don’t have to risk their lives.

Even in 2D, you can clearly see this is a 3D movie. The opening credits float. Objects fly at you. When a bullet hits a person, it’s accompanied by CGI bursts of blood clearly designed for their dimensionality.

Fun as it was, it left me wanting to revisit some of Hark’s earlier, better work–especially Once Upon a Time in China and Peking Opera Blues.

After the movie, Cowan and Shi came on stage to discuss more about Film Workshop and show additional clips.

Unfortunately, this film hasn’t been picked up for an American release. But it will play one more time at the festival, this coming Thursday, at 2:00, at the Kabuki. Hopefully, they’ll have the bugs worked out by then and will be able to show it in 3D.

Bees, detectives, abortions, and more more bees: Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I caught three films, all narrative features, Saturday at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Two of them were by woman directors; that is, but shouldn’t be, unusual. Two of them were about beekeepers. which really is unusual.

B+ Mr. Holmes
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What a life! This weekend, I got to see the newest Sherlock Holmes feature film—which won’t get into theaters until summer. Then, in a few weeks, I get to see the first Sherlock Holmes feature film, which no paying audience has seen for almost 100 years.

The screening provided some excitement that wasn’t intended. About half an hour in, the movie was interrupted by a fire alarm. Everyone had to evacuate the Kabuki and wait outside until the fire department declared that the popcorn was done (or something of that nature). I think we lost about half an hour .

Now on with the movie:

Ian McKellen plays Sherlock Holmes as an old man and as a very old man—mostly the later—in this entertaining but not too deep drama. Retired from solving crimes, Holmes is now a 90ish beekeeper (the film is set in 1947–about 20 years after Doyle wrote his last Holmes story), living with a widowed housekeeper and her young son, who bonds with Holmes–the only man in his life. Holmes is in a race against time, trying to write down the true story of his last case—to correct Watson’s exaggerations—before senility sinks too deep. For Holmes fans, and I’m one of them, this is a wonderful gift. For everyone else, it’s still an enjoyable day at the movies.

After the film, we had Q&A with producer Anne Carey and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher, who spent 10 years getting this film off the ground. That’s considerably longer than director Bill Condon’s involvement. Some highlights:

  • What attracted them to the novel: “It provided a great part [for an actor], and a great setting. And the theme: Don’t wait too long before you go after what’s in your heart.”
  • On writing screenplays: “You can be a bit dry in how you write a scene because you know that the director and actors will add color.”
  • “The trick is to never push the audience to like the characters. Let it just happen.”

Mr. Holmes will play once more during the festival, Wednesday, May 5, at 2:00, also at the Kabuki. Miramax will release the film in theaters this summer.

B Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere
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This Vietnamese drama succeeds in producing an atmosphere, and makes us care about the main character. But her repeated poor choices can wear you down as you watch. The film follows the misfortunes of a young, immature, broke, single, pregnant college student who can’t seem to get around to having the abortion she says she wants. Her even less mature boyfriend has a good job, but he’s a gambling addict (cock fighting) and is totally unreliable. Her transgender roommate appears to be her only true friend.

If nothing else, the film is a surprising look at Vietnam today. Hanoi looks like a capitalist city. And I didn’t think that the government would allow a film about poverty, sex, and prostitution.

This is the first film I’ve seen at this year’s festival that didn’t have filmmaker Q&A.

A- The Wonders
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Mexican magical realism clearly influenced this Italian comic drama about a struggling family of farmers and beekeepers. Nothing happens that is physically impossible, but writer/director Alice Rohrwacher creates an atmosphere where you feel that anything can happen. Money is tight for this family, but the real problem comes from the short-tempered father, constantly screaming and rejecting anyone else’s idea. One gets the impression that he moved to the country to raise his family in the the peace and quiet of the simple life, and he’s NOT GOING TO LET ANYTHING GET IN THE WAY, DAMMIT!!!!

But it’s Maria Alexandra Lungu as the eldest daughter who really brings the magic. She’s so attuned to the bees that she lets them crawl on her face and even into her mouth.

There’s a television contest  involved, as well. And a boy working on parole.

You’ve got two other chances to see The Wonders. It plays at 1:00 Sunday afternoon at the  Kabuki (rush seats only) and Wednesday, 6:30, at the Pacific Film Archive.

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