SFIFF Report: Alps

Today, things are crazy at the Kabuki. Japantown is hosting not only the San Francisco International Film Festival, but also the Cherry Blossom Festival. The crowds are insane.

But I’ve managed to get through the crowds and catch a movie:

B Alps
I’m not exactly sure what to make of Alps. It has just enough continuity to make you try and follow the story, but there’s no story to follow. Many of the characters (primarily the female ones) seem sympathetic, yet their motivations and actions are usually entirely opaque. There’s absolutely no mention of politics or government, yet I think it was about totalitarianism. It’s often boring, yet for most of the time its utterly compelling and strangely funny.

You have another chance to see Alps and make up your own mind. Tuesday, 6:30, at the Kabuki. It may get a theatrical release at some point; the Festival has placed it on a list (given to press) of films that “have secured U.S. distribution or are in negotiations with a U.S distributor.”

17 Girls

Note: Last September, I screened and reviewed this French film prior to its upcoming Bay Area threatrical release. That release never happened, and my review remained unpublished. I just discovered that the film is  available streaming on Netflix, so I’m posting my review.

B+ Adolescent drama

  • Written and directed by Delphine & Muriel Coulin

17 Girls gets off to a bad start. After a few very quiet minutes, a teenage girl plugged in her earbuds and turned on her iPod. The soundtrack burst into loud rock, and I said to myself “Here come the opening credits.”

But I’m glad to say that this is the only cliché in a film that could easily have been buried in them. Movies about teenage angst are more common that superhero sequels, but few besides this French drama captures the raw energy, misdirected rebellion, and camaraderie tinged with peer pressure that so defines adolescence .

The story would seem absurd if it wasn’t based on an actual incident. Camille, the leader of a pack of high school girls, confides in her friends that she’s pregnant. It17girls was a “condom accident,” but she’s leaning towards keeping the baby. Soon the lean becomes a definite stance, and she’s looking forward to having someone who will always love her “unconditionally.” It doesn’t occur to her that her child may one day hate her as much as she hates her own mom. Before long, other girls are getting pregnant on purpose.

These girls live in a fantasy world. They imagine that they’ll all live together in a big house where their parents can’t bother them. They’ll stay in school, help each other, and live happily ever after. The real difficulties ahead of them don’t fit into their plans.

The adults know better, of course. “Even your goldfish went belly up,” Camille’s mother points out. But she’s a grown up and, worse, a mother, which makes her wrong by default and probably an idiot.

Not that 17 Girls treats the adults as sages. No one in authority knows how to deal with what can best be described as a pregnancy epidemic. At a meeting of parents and school staff, everyone concentrates on blaming others. Some argue for more homework and some for morality, while the nurse reminds everyone that she fought for a condom dispenser.

Boys here are treated as little more than devices for delivering sperm

But the picture focuses almost entirely on the girls. They fight. They lie. They pressure each other into doing stupid things. One who hasn’t succeeded in getting pregnant fakes it to remain popular. Unlike American teenage movies, nothing here is played for laughs.

The film remains serious because it’s almost entirely told from the girls’ point of view, and teenagers seldom see what’s funny in their own behavior. These pregnancies are clearly a rebellious act, and the girls enjoy shocking their parents and other authority figures. They believe that becoming parents at an early age with make them adult, respectable, and free.

Boy, are they wrong.

The simple, utilitarian camerawork and editing help keep the focus on the characters as believable people. The filmmakers also eschew a conventional score; the only music on the soundtrack is the mostly hard rock that’s the background of the girls’ own lives–heard only when they realistically would be hearing it.

We see a lot of girls in the film, but we only get to know a couple of them. There are only so many characters you can develop in a feature film, but I wish the filmmakers had found ways to quickly flesh out a few of the others.

As I mentioned above, 17 Girls was based on a true story. However, the original story happened in Massachusetts, not France. Although the change in locale was an understandable decision (this is, after all, a French film), I suspect that it may have reduced some of the story’s tension. I imagine that the French are probably less puritanical about this sort of thing.

My original response to 17 Girls was negative. But before long, the film’s honesty and realism won me over.

SFIFF Report: The Fourth Dimension

I hit the jackpot for my second and last movie on Friday. First, they were giving out free popcorn and free beer. But the beer was only allowed in the balcony (this was in the  Kabuki’s big Theater 1). I don’t like watching movies from the balcony, so I skipped the beer.

I also hit the jackpot with the movie:

A The Fourth Dimension
Not a real feature, this is an anthology of three short films made by different directors in different countries, all of them in some way about the fourth dimension. It was conceived as a "Creative Brief" by producer Eddy Moretti. The brief contains a lot of rules, many of which were broken by the filmmakers.

The problem with anthology movies is that one is always better than the others. That’s true here, but none of them were really bad. In fact, I don’t think I’d give any of them a lower grade than B+.

Actually, I might have given the first one a low grade if it had been longer, but for 30 minutes it was just fine. The American entry, it starred Val Kilmer as a self-help guru named Val Kilmer. Take that with a grain of salt. Much of the short consists of Kilmer throwing out the most bizarre and funny pearls of alleged wisdom while his audience cheered. Best line: "Velvet killed Elvis." Believe me, the way he says it, it’s funny.

The second, Russian section was the test. It concerned a brilliant scientist who’s fourthdimensioncreated a time machine. You can’t travel in the time machine, but you can view the past.. You can pick the day and general location you’ll view, but not who’s eyes you’ll see past through. The problem: Most people’s eyes are looking in the wrong direction.

The final, Polish section followed four irresponsible young adults wandering through a disserted town.  Slowly, we learn the reason for the lack of others. A huge flood is on the way. At first, they’re just having a fun time with no one to stop their petty theft and vandalism. Slowly, they see their responsibilities.

The Fourth Dimension will also screen at the Kabuki tomorrow (Saturday) night at 10:00. It may be your last ever chance to see it.

There was Q&A with all of the filmmakers afterwards.

SFIFF Report: Robot & Frank

Got off to a bad start with my first movie of the festival: Robot and Frank. They didn’t let people into the theater until 5 minutes before the movie was supposed to start. Then they rushed us in and started the film quickly.

As far as the movie was concerned

C+ Robot & Frank, This moderately entertaining comedy, set in an easily-recognizable near future, stars Frank Langella as an aging cat burglar robot_and_franksinking into dementia. His worried son brings him a servant robot to care for him. Dad is, of course, unhappy about this. That he will grow to like the robot is obvious; it’s a movie. The twist is what makes Frank like his robot:  the realization that the robot has no scruples about stealing if he does it for his owner. It’s entertaining, and reasonably (but not exceptionally) funny. Both Frank and the audience tend to anthropomorphize the robot, which is to be expected. But it’s nice that the robot occasionally reminds Frank that, although he sometimes appears to have emotions, he really doesn’t have any. Inconsequential and forgettable.

The director was available for Q&A after the movie, but I didn’t stay for it.