Documentary, not rated, 90 minutes, in English and Korean with subtitles, 3.5 chiles
According to Frank Lantz, director of the NYU Game Center, playing Go “is like putting your hand on the third rail of the universe.” Go is a board game for two players. It’s contemplative, takes concentration, and is the Chinese answer to chess, only older (the game, invented more than 2,500 years ago, is the world’s oldest continuously played board game). But director Greg Kohs’ documentary on the classic game of strategy is less about the game itself or the people who play it than it is about artificial intelligence. Go is considered the ultimate test for AI, since, in the modern age, games and computers go hand in hand.
The game, whose players devote hours on end to obsessive competition, is simple in theory. It’s played with small black-and-white stones. Points are gained by surrounding your opponent’s stones and removing them to obtain more territory for yourself. The person with the most territory at the game’s end wins. But its simplicity is deceptive. It’s been notoriously difficult for techies to program computers to play it, because it has far more possible moves and a seemingly endless number of possible board configurations (more than there are atoms in the universe, states one programmer in the film) when compared with other games.
The answer for the programmers at DeepMind, a company owned by Google, was to design a system that taught itself how to play, rather than have humans try to teach it. The result is successful and the AI machine AlphaGo was born. Fan Hui, a champion Go player, goes against it in a tournament and loses every game. This leads to skepticism about his abilities, so Lee Sedol, a young South Korean player considered to be among the world’s top-tier Go strategists, tries his hand with the program in what turns out to be an intriguing, disconcerting, but excitingly told story about the possibilities for AI. The question at the film’s heart is what it means for the future of humankind when computers can outsmart us. But the documentary also waxes philosophical on what it actually means to be human. — Michael Abatemarco
Violet Crown, 11 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 19; 11 a.m. Oct. 22.
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Documentary, not rated, 97 minutes, 4 chiles
The film opens in black and white. Young soldiers are at work, arranging slender mannequins in a home, taking care to straighten a shirt and place others into bed. The soldiers leave. Then there is the flash of an atomic bomb and the house, alone in the desert, rips apart and turns to ash.
The scene is a haunting beginning for director Rebecca Cammisa’s documentary about a St. Louis community living on the edge of a nuclear waste dump. The dump holds hundreds of thousands of tons of uranium tailings and toxic chemicals left over from the Manhattan Project. In recent years, an underground fire began to simmer inside of it, releasing noxious smells that force residents to go indoors and stuff towels along doors and window frames.
The government transferred this waste into the hands of a private company, Republic Services, owned in part by Bill Gates. The company maintains that the dump is safe and did not disclose its contents to home buyers. The Environmental Protection Agency claims that the radioactive particles emitted from it are contained and don’t reach an “action” level. But illness is prolific in West Lake/Bridgeton and the areas surrounding Coldwater Creek. Children grew up playing in streams and playgrounds flush with radioactive particles, which even made it inside some homes. Parents bury young children alongside their grandparents. They point to neighbors’ homes and list the dead. Dogs sprout tumors like strawberries along their fur. Still, the EPA, the state, and the company have done little to protect residents.
For New Mexicans, this story is all too familiar. The state holds vast stores of radioactive waste — much of it the result of the Manhattan Project and the Cold War — in extensive pits that bump up against, or reside beneath, the communities of Los Alamos, Albuquerque, and Carlsbad. The Department of Energy plans to leave much of the waste below ground, stating that it will take decades to clean up the rest. Still, the government wants Los Alamos National Laboratory to produce more atomic weapons, which will lead to a growing surplus of waste. And Eddy and Lea counties want to create a temporary site for high-level waste from nuclear power plants, and have floated the idea of changing the law to bring more waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
But as Atomic Homefront illustrates, when it comes to nuclear waste and weapons, the idea of safety can become merely lip service. The nuclear industry is defined by power and money, not by human lives. This is a crucial film for New Mexicans to see as we consider our future. It’s also set to air on HBO, which helped fund the documentary, with a release date to be announced. — Rebecca Moss
Violet Crown, 7:20 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19; 1 p.m. Oct. 20.
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BECOMING WHO I WAS
Documentary, not rated, 75 minutes, in Hindi, Ladakhi, and Tibetan with subtitles, 3.5 chiles
Reincarnation is an integral part of Tibetan Buddhist spirituality. Signs and portents are believed to herald the rebirth of the sacred rinpoches, master teachers who come back of their own free will to help guide others on the path to enlightenment. Becoming Who I Was chooses to focus not on how the lamas found six-year-old Padma Angdu, whom they believe is the reincarnation of a respected monk from centuries past, although their initial discovery is mentioned. The acceptance with which filmmakers Moon Chang-Yong and Jeon Jin treat this belief offers insight, instead, into the deep spirituality that accompanies Buddhism in the remote, mountainous region of Ladakh, India, where Tibetan monks live in exile. Becoming Who I Was is a story of young Padma’s journey of self-discovery. It’s a moving look at the poignant relationship between a young man and an old man — the godfather he refers to as “Uncle” Urgain Rigzin, who serves as selfless parent and teacher, abandoning his own position as a lama and village doctor to guide the child rinpoche until he’s old enough to begin instruction at a monastery.
The documentary begins during a ceremony when Padma is already nine years old, trained in the ways of the Buddhist monks, and offering blessings to a congregation of worshippers. He is remarkably wise and well-spoken for a young boy. He tells how, in another life, he lived in Kham, Tibet, where he was a revered lama. At the age of six he still remembers it, fully accepting of both who he is and who he was. Although he plays with other boys his age with childlike delight, he stands out from the others in his village in his scarlet monk’s robes. His godfather is accepting, too, expressing gratitude for his role in serving Padma, who he calls “such an important reincarnate.”
Becoming Who I Was, which was filmed over the course of eight years, jumps back in forth in time, focusing in its first half on the life ways of the Ladakh village where Padma lives. But he longs to return to Kham, fully expecting his disciples there to come and bring him back — only they do not come.Urgain Rigzin considers taking him to Tibet himself, but China controls that border, making the crossing risky. Instead, Padma is sent to a monastery in India to receive proper instruction. In 2016, at the age of twelve, he’s reached a level of maturity that is rarely seen in an adolescent.
He eventually leaves again, this time accompanied by Urgain, to the monastery in Kham. It’s Padma who comforts his mother in her sadness before leaving, rather than the other way around. She knows it will be many years before she sees him again. Urgain and the boy make the crossing mostly by foot; it’s a perilous journey that offers opportunities for Urgain to impart lessons above and beyond anything Padma received in his traditional instruction. One almost forgets that this story is set in the present, so different are the life ways in this far corner of the world where time moves slowly, nearly standing still.
Padma, who is essentially without any trace of ego, takes a simple pleasure in living. Warm and companionable with an easygoing smile, he learns his lessons of love, compassion, and letting go better than most adults. One comes away from this film with the full conviction that he is who he says he is. And if he isn’t, it doesn’t seem to matter, because he may as well be. — Michael Abatemarco
Violet Crown, 5:15 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19; 12:50 p.m. Oct. 21
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Comedy, rated PG-13, 85 minutes, 3 chiles
John Waters’ classic good-girl-falls-for-bad-boy story keeps the laughs and music coming when Allison (Amy Locane) takes a shine to Cry-Baby (Johnny Depp), a tearful teenage greaser with a heart of gold in 1950s-era Baltimore. But Allison’s “proud to be square” boyfriend Baldwin (Stephen Mailer) does his best to undermine the budding romance. With plenty of homages to Elvis Presley, the days of drive-in trash cinema à la High School Big Shot and a memorable music score, Cry-Baby was Waters’ rockin’ 1990 follow-up to his 1988 musical Hairspray. Included are a veritable army of cult film favorites, musicians, and well-known performers including Iggy Pop, Joe Dallesandro, Willem Dafoe, Traci Lords, and Waters’ regular Mink Stole. Waters performs his one-man show, This Filthy World: Dirtier & Filthier, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Saturday, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m. (505-988-1234, www.ticketssantafe.org). — Michael Abatemarco
Violet Crown Cinema, 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19
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Drama, not rated, 104 minutes, 2.5 chiles
Suicide can be a savvy career move for a female poet. Both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were much more widely read after their deaths. The internationally famous poet Maya Dardel (Lena Olin), her best work decades behind her, is thinking along those lines when she tells National Public Radio of her imminent plans to do the deed. But first, she says on the radio, she is auditioning applicants to be her executor and heir, and the chosen one must be a young male poet. Women need not apply, as she dislikes their writing, with the possible exception of Emily Dickinson (”Some of it”) — or those who she deems to have actually been men, like Virginia Woolf and George Eliot — or Susan Sontag, with whom she, of course, once slept.
In this thoughtful, if murky, feature from first-time writer-directors Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak, a stream of handsome, fey, and arrogant young poets thus travel to Dardel’s secluded mountain home in Northern California to try out for the part. Dardel, who is mysterious, commanding, and both an academic and an extracurricular type of alluring, plays a protracted game of erotic cat-and-mouse with each, asking them to perform both poems and oral sex in elaborate question-and-answer sessions about art, poetry, and philosophy. The men come off as overeager, newly hatched hipster chicks in comparison to Olin’s gravel-voiced, witchy poetess. She gives a riveting tongue-in-cheek lecture on the nakedness of Artemis, her coal eyes boring into a boy as he shifts excitedly before her, that ends on a comment about “the final, brittle sex appeal of older women. If you were to see me naked, like Acataeon, you would have to die.” After one proudly states that he is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she says that she is, too, though she went there “back when everyone smoked cigarettes and before they got AIDS.”
That semi-ridiculous, hard-to-parse line is emblematic of these meandering, mostly pretentious but sometimes giggle-inducing conversations. The film picks up a bit when a sweet, talented contender (Nathan Keyes) is pitted against a brutal opportunist (Alexander Koch). But the plot, and also the poetry itself, become an afterthought, as focus is entirely pulled to the presence of Olin, who is searingly effective in this moody portrait of the artist as an aging woman. She’s lyrically melancholy, alternately a misogynist and a masochist, and it’s absorbing to ponder her motives.
Irreparably fractured by the disappointments of her life and career, Dardel is gentle with only one person, her loopy gun-nut neighbor Leonora (Rosanna Arquette, having a great time). It’s a hoot to see these two seasoned actresses drink absinthe in front of the fire while trading bohemian bon mots, and one wishes for a better script to further the wisdom in their chemistry, rather than the movie’s unfocused and unrewarding payoff. The film is beautifully shot, however, in the poet’s ethereal home in the mist-shrouded Los Gatos Mountains, its drifting blue interiors reminiscent of ’70s photos of the Laurel Canyon luxe-hippie retreat of another difficult poet of a certain age, Joni Mitchell. — Molly Boyle
Violet Crown, 3 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19
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Documentary, not rated, 82 minutes, 4 chiles
Do rats dream of a better future? If the people who kill them — with poison, with scientific inquiry, with aluminum baseball bats, with laser-scoped pellet rifles, with a gentle nudge into a pet snake’s mouth — knew they dreamed, would it make any difference? Rat Film, the excellent documentary from Theo Anthony, gives us an answer to the latter question: No. (And for the former? Yeah, actually.)
In its fascinating exploration of where humans and rats intersect, Rat Film provides ample reason to reconsider why we feel the way we do about rats. Anthony examines a major American city in the 20th century through the lens of the war that city has waged without mercy on its least-regarded inhabitants. Through the course of this story, he nudges the viewer: Examine what else we’ve misjudged here.
Baltimore is the scene; the players are an informal, disconnected society for whom rats are a going concern. (It speaks well of Rat Film’s sense of Baltimore that the viewer wonders afterward why The Wire never worked in a storyline from the city rats’ perspective.) There is a cheerful black man who works for the city’s rat control division. There is a giddy white dude in a trucker cap who keeps a collection of rat-killing artillery (“I can basically do headshots with this one,” he boasts of his laser-scoped piece; Chekhov’s rat rifle is later, of course, fulfilled). Figures from history filter in, like the scientist who stumbled upon the first formula for rat poison, first used in a black Baltimore slum before any government safety test had been conducted. There are his rivals who followed. There are those same slums, years later.
Anthony’s film is impeccably constructed, its arresting visual diction enhancing what would otherwise be sections of didactic essay about milestones in rat research and treatment (flatly narrated by Maureen Jones). These, and the rats’ reflections in the social stasis of still-segregated Baltimore, are spliced with interstitial abstractions — rats scuttling through a clear trapezoidal container lit from underneath with neon; indistinct audio; shots of a tubby white boy at an auto race — that have narrative bite.
Anthony’s thrust is primarily journalistic, his film speaking in an even tone that only hints at polemic, never quite raising its voice. Rats, he makes plain, have a story to tell. Turns out, it’s a story about us. — Tripp Stelnicki
Violet Crown, 1 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19; 5 p.m. Oct. 20; 3 p.m. Oct. 21