Reviews From 22nd San Francisco Independent Film Festival

by on January 28, 2020

Seth Ickerman’s extended music video “Blood Machines” would have worked far better as a silent film with intertitles.  The script may not be filled with half-baked moralizing about whether A.I.s can become human. Yet it doesn’t even offer any halfway decent quips as effective counterpoint to its visuals.  The actors’ performances merit an indifferent shrug at best.

“Blood Machines”’ real strength lies in its cinematic realization of “Metal Hurlant”’s sex and spaceships visual aesthetics.  The scene where Mima’s A.I. manifests itself as a beautiful naked woman with a glowing crucifix on her body is the most obvious example, especially given that Mima eventually turns out to not be the only A.I. adopting this form.  But that aesthetic also extends to the mercenary hunters’ flying crocodile skull with open sideways jaws ship.

Carpenter Brut’s pounding synth-heavy music does a great job of evoking the mind-blowing thrill of 1980s B-grade (and lower) sci-fi film.  Viewer qualms about logic or consistency get subsumed by the thrill of seeing what the filmmaking team’s imaginations come up with. That said, a viewer can easily imagine quite a few adolescent male imaginations being excited by seeing from below a naked woman flying through hyperspace.

That hyperspace pursuit is just one reason why “Blood Machines” should be regarded as space fantasy despite the presence of green energy bolt firing guns and a lived-in working spaceship.  Seeing the humanoid forms of these A.I.s matter more than explaining where and how raw materials were found for these forms.

But if Ickerman’s film prefers to handwave away the details of its setup, its dramatic theme is fairly clear.  It’s yet another tale of jerkwad men attempting to control and suppress women. Fortunately, “Blood Machines” provides more than enough musical and visual stimulation to distract viewers, particularly with a finale that’s a mix of space action and modern dance,

***

For a better blend of music, visuals, and substance, viewers need to turn to Julien Temple’s new documentary “Ibiza The Silent Movie.”  This year’s recipient of S.F. IndieFest’s Philo T. Farnsworth Award has created with Fatboy Slim what might be called a documentary about the history, beauty, and culture of the Spanish island renowned for its clubbing culture.  However, it is very likely that programming decision makers at some place like the History or Travel Channels would whip out the smelling salts or the crucifixes after seeing Temple’s film.

It’s not that Temple’s documentary is badly made.  It brings up fascinating tidbits about the island’s history and the sometimes unexpected connections between the past and the present.  The electronic dance music that provides the bulk of the film’s soundtrack will make an Indie Fest viewer hope that the Roxie sound system is good enough to do the music justice.  It re-purposes cheeseball-level historical film footage with wonderful wit. This writer can easily imagine right-wing outrage monkeys gibbering away at the moment Christopher Columbus is seen declaring that a joint he’s taken a puff of is “Good s__t.”  The artificial nature of documentary recreations even gets called out by a moment retained by Temple where tourists wander into the shot after a fake invading army storms by.

Nor does Temple’s film have a problem with the island of Ibiza itself.  The shots of the beautiful Ibiza sunsets look like moments worth witnessing in person.  Seeing the parts of Ibiza that haven’t been claimed by development conveys a feeling of being in a refuge where personal reinvention is conceivable.  Learning that the island’s name came from Bes, the Phoenician god of dance, makes it seem as if modern day clubbing would naturally honor Bes’ spirit.

But rather than celebrate Ibiza’s current round the clock partying culture, Temple’s documentary will make viewers consider wishing for a pox on the island’s 24/7 partying.  The island’s nightclubs have actively squelched attempts to go back to Ibiza’s free dance roots. Celebrity culture is tightly enforced to limit the hoi polloi’s presence in the clubs.   Rents on Ibiza have gotten so insane that the hotel and nightclub workers who cater to the partying crowds are forced to live in the island’s caves or their own cars. Water shortages have started becoming a recurring problem, particularly for the less fortunate.

Then again, given that the Spanish fascist dictator General Francisco Franco encouraged the growth of tourism and clubbing on the island, Ibiza’s primary industry boasts some spectacularly unsavory roots.  Franco may not have been a fan of the hedonism encouraged by tourism and clubbing. But seeing the incredible amounts of revenue tourism brought to the island did wonders for quieting down such moralistic misgivings.

In a foreshadowing of tourism’s potential for Ibiza, Abel and Juan Matutes built nightclubs on Ibiza’s coastal land.  The Matutes clan currently owns 10% of the island’s real estate and have their proverbial fingers in many of the island’s major industries.

Those who yearn for Ibiza’s return to some pre-development paradise overlook the island’s often sordid history.  The Romans used slave labor to mine the salt fields that gave Ibiza its nickname of the White Island. For centuries, Ibiza was left as the poorest region of Spain.  Nazis fleeing the aftermath of World War II found refuge on the island, sometimes for literal decades after the war’s end.

Yet if Temple gives a “quiet parts out loud” treatment to the nastier aspects of Ibiza’s history, it’s one delivered with a nicely ironic hand.  One shot fades from a Roman salt field slave fearing the blindness brought by Ibiza’s bright sun to an image of a modern day sunbather who can’t get enough of the island’s solar rays.  The Nazis who came to hide out on Ibiza were also the same group who purged the island of “undesirables” seeking refuge from the rise of fascism and Nazism.

The director also displays a wonderful cheekiness towards some of Ibiza’s more quirky bits of history.  The island’s first “nightclub” was based in a windmill where the 1933 “DJ” spun the 78s. Both explorer Christopher Columbus and Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten claim the island as their birthplace.

Film purists and those who prefer to keep the more unsavory aspects of tourism at a 10-foot pole distance will hate “Ibiza The Silent Film.”  Bits of spoken dialogue frequently pop up on the soundtrack of what’s nominally a silent film. Being reminded that your presence worsens the situation on Ibiza is not a message the pleasure-minded particularly want to hear.  But for those viewers who love great danceable music and an unblinkered but still hopeful view of a still beautiful island, Temple’s film is definitely worth adding to your Indie Fest viewing calendar.

***

Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder’s genial and weird comedy “The Planters” turns out to be the type of film S.F. Indie Fest exists to showcase.  The writers and directors also play the two quirky lead characters. There are four main onscreen speaking roles and a limited number of sets. But what makes “The Planters” a must see at Indie Fest is the film’s effective mixing in of telephone solicitations, multiple personality disorder, and religiously themed stop motion animation.

In a small desert town, Martha Plant (Kotcheff) cold calls people to try selling them air conditioners.  But her heart’s not in the job, and her boss demands she meets a big sales goal or else get fired. Martha’s more interested in shoplifting items from a curio store and leaving them for treasure hunters to find in return for nominal payment.  A chance encounter with the suddenly homeless weirdo Sadie Mayflower (Leder) sets off small life-changing events for Martha.

The film’s odd title doesn’t primarily refer to a well-known nut company.  It’s what Martha and Sadie are when they bury things for treasure hunters to discover.  But the nut allusion also turns out to reference Sadie. She used to be a mental hospital inmate until the facility closed thanks to sketchy financial issues.

Ironically, the two women turn out to be a perfect match.  Martha displays the personality traits of her surname. Her voice is flat and affectless, or wooden in lay terms.  Her regularly wearing green and brown clothing reinforces her “I belong to the vegetable kingdom” aesthetic. Sadie, on the other hand, has more than enough personality for both of them because she has multiple personality disorder.  The religiously obsessed Sadie shares her body with bratty 4-year-old Emma and hard drinking troublemaker Angie.

Exposure to Sadie’s different personas helps Martha’s more emotional aspects slowly emerge.  Angie becomes Martha’s confidante in misery. Sadie provides the cheerleading Martha needs to build her professional confidence.  When Martha laughs or impulsively kisses someone, those acts quickly move from quirky oddities to welcome examples of her re-engaging with the world.  Not a bad job for someone who first encountered Martha wearing a motorcycle helmet padlocked to her head.

“The Planters”’ best bits of visual weirdness are the stop motion animated sequences handled by Sam Barnett.  They’re off-kilter renditions of such familiar Christian staples as Jesus walking on the water or the Rapture.  The off-kilter part comes, a viewer suspects, from Sadie’s doubts about her religious fervor. She drowns while Jesus walks on the water’s surface.  Or instead of being one of the elect called to Heaven, Sadie gets left behind.

Kotcheff and Leder’s film may share David Lynch’s penchant for leaving certain plot elements unexplained, such as the reason for Martha’s planting obsession.  But unlike Lynch’s work, their film doesn’t try to find new ways to baffle people. “The Planters” prefers to be warm-hearted in its own way.

***

There’s nothing warm or fuzzy about Diao Yinan’s “The Wild Goose Lake.”  The new film from the director of the Berlinale-winning “Black Coal, Thin Ice” successfully transplants familiar film noir tropes into a Chinese rural setting.

The titular lake and the towns bordering it are where wounded anti-hero Zhou Zenong has wound up.  The ex-convict and gang leader’s evening may have innocuously begun with a motorbike thief convention aimed at brushing up on new theft techniques and dividing up of territory.  However, in a few hours, one of Zhou’s minions gets decapitated and the gang leader himself is on the run after accidentally killing a cop. A short time later, a substantial reward is offered for Zhou’s head.  The fugitive hatches a plan to ensure the wife and kid he abandoned years ago receive the reward. The success of that plan depends on Zhou’s staying one step ahead of the dragnet supervised by police captain Liu.  “Bathing beauty” Liu Aiai unexpectedly becomes key to Zhou’s plan. But between the determined cops’ pursuit and betrayals by gang members who want to claim the reward for themselves, it’s not clear Zhous plan will succeed.

Other reviews have noted Diao’s use of The Moment Where Everything Goes Wrong and the Man On The Run noir tropes to propel this film.  Yet “The Wild Goose Lake” employs these tropes as a starting point for its story. Zhou can’t rely on his minions for help. He operates under the assumption that he’ll eventually be captured or killed by the cops.

Yet Diao establishes his story’s set in the present day.  Zhou makes sure his seats in public places are in government CCTV blind spots.  He ditches his mobile phone quickly to make sure the cops can’t track him that way.

The film’s frequently near dark images may annoy viewers who’ve already complained about the cinematography of “Game of Thrones”’ “The Long Night” episode.  Yet that darkness underscores the difficulty of the police search. The unnamed town is a rural backwater where not everything is lit by electric lights. So the only night-time illumination might be the small circles of light from the pocket flashlights carried by the policemen.  That limitation pays off in such moments as a night time search in a zoo. Also, the film’s more gory moments of violence feel less shocking when kept in shadow,

The mechanics of claiming the reward create their own interesting set of complications.  A criminal can’t use their knowledge of Zhou’s whereabouts to claim the reward lest the authorities treat him or her as a “reformed informant” and deny paying out a single yuan.  Liu Aiai is what’s known in local slang as a prostitute who works lakeside visitors. Unless she has a plausible reason for coming forward, her reward claim might be rejected even if the police make use of the information.

Despite having oral sex with the fugitive at one point in the story, Liu Aiai can’t be called a femme fatale.  Her aiding Zhou begins as a job for her boss Huahua. Yet she never manipulates events to have things turn out in her favor.   As a police pursuit and shootout shows, her avoiding getting caught in the crossfire is more a matter of luck than skill.

“The Wild Goose Lake” is ultimately a must-see take on the noir genre.

(“Blood Machines” screens at 9:30 PM on January 31, 2020.  “Ibiza The Silent Movie” screens at 7:15 PM on February 8, 2020.  “The Planters” screens at 2:45 PM on February 2, 2020 and 9:15 PM on February 5, 2020.  “The Wild Goose Lake” screens at 9:30 PM on February 2, 2020 and 9:15 PM on February 11, 2020.  All screenings take place at the Roxie Theatre (3117-16th Street, SF). For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go to www.sfindie.com .)

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