Mill Valley Film Festival On the Way

The kids are back in school. The sun is setting a little earlier. The big-budget special effects extravaganzas are giving way to the occasional thoughtful film. You know what that means. This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival can’t be far behind.

This is the other big general film festival for Bay Area cinephiles, after the San Francisco International one. (A general film festival isn’t geared to a particular type of person or type of movie.) While not as centrally located as San Francisco, Mill Valley has a distinct calendar advantage. Coming on the heals of Telluride and Toronto, it gives Bay Area cinephiles our first chance to see the major Indiewood titles that will compete for this year’s Oscar. (For instance, last year’s festival opened with The King’s Speech.

But that raises an interesting question: Do you really want to spend your festival time and cash seeing a picture that will be playing in your local multiplex (or at least your local Landmark Theater) in a few weeks? It may make more sense to save those for later, and concentrate on films you may never get to see again.

I missed yesterday’s press conference, which means my information is limited. But here are a few things I can tell you:

  • There will be two opening night films, Albert Nobbs and Jeff Who Lives at Home.
  • It will close with The Artist, a silent film about silent films which has been getting rave reviews.
  • All three of those films are expected to get a theatrical release after the festival. Others include Girlfriend, The Sacred Science, and Ralph Fiennes’ production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.
  • On the other hand, My Week with Marilyn, starring Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, does not appear to be getting a theatrical release.
  • The festival will host tributes to Glenn Close, Michelle Yeoh, and Gaston Kaboré.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark will get a special screening at the Century Cinema in Corte Madera. I suspect this will be the same digital presentation that was shown at the Castro last Sunday.

Wings of Defeat

I wrote this review in 2008, after previewing this documentary before its screening at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival. I held back the full-length review for the film’s planned theatrical release. I feel now that I’ve held it back long enough, so I’m posting it now. Unfortunately, Wings of Defeat isn’t available in any form.

Historical Documentary

  • Directed by Risa Morimoto and Linda Hoaglund

What makes a man (and it’s pretty much always a man) give up his life for his country? Not just risk his life, going into a battle from which he may not return, but go there with absolute certainty to his death. It takes a combination of patriotism, peer pressure, camaraderie, and a fascist government in complete control of the schools and media.

That’s what we learn in Risa Morimoto and Linda Hoaglund’s documentary about the Kamikaze pilots of World War II.

The issue is personal for Morimoto, a Japanese-American who grew up in New York. One of her uncles was a Kamikaze pilot. He survived the war (which ended before he was called to die), but he died before Morimoto could ask him about his experiences and try to reconcile her American stereotype of wild-eyed suicide bombers with her easy-going uncle.

So she went to Japan and interviewed other surviving Kamikaze pilots (yes, that sounds like an oxymoron; how these men survived is part of their tales). In addition, she interviews historians, visits museums and shrines, and tells us plenty about brave pilots whose government treated like tissue paper.

The suicide bomber idea came out of late-war desperation. By the fall of 1944, everyone high enough or smart enough to not believe government propaganda knew that defeat was only a matter of time. The Japanese were running out of both essential resources and the factories to turn those resources into weapons. It was easier to build planes that didn’t need to come home. In fact, some Kamikaze planes had bamboo gas tanks.

One of the experts interviewed suggests that the general in charge of the operation conceived of suicide bombers in hopes that inherent horror of the idea would force the Emperor to seek peace. Instead, some 4,000 pilots died in a strategy that sunk only 40 American ships. After the war, the surviving Kamikaze–who had been celebrated as living gods while awaiting their deaths–preferred not to talk about their now-embarrassing past.

Wings of Defeat avoids the visual banality of so many talking-head documentaries. Morimoto and Hoaglund keep the film lively with battle footage, propaganda (including English translations of actual newspaper headlines), and simple animation that resembles low-budget manga.

What’s Screening: September 9 – 15

The Brainwash Movie Festival runs tonight and Saturday night. The Iranian Film Festival runs Saturday and Sunday.  From Britain with Love just keeps going at the Rafael. And the Santa Rosa International opens Wednesday.

B+ Shaolin, 4-Star, opens Friday. The Buddhist monks in Benny Chan’s new period piece hate bloodshed, but they still get to beat up a lot of bad guys. The story concerns a ruthless warlord (Andy Lau) who will do anything to gain and hold power. But when he’s betrayed and overthrown, he finds himself at the mercy of the monks in the Shaolin Temple, a holy place which he recently desecrated. Luckily, the monks are good at forgiveness…and at fighting. They help the general learn to be a decent, peaceful human being. They also help him fight the new—and even worse—warlord who has taken his place. With Jackie Chan providing comic relief. Read my full review.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, Castro, Sunday. Steven  Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. What else can I say? If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, you won’t see it anyway. If you don’t, you probably already love it. A new digital presentation.

B+ The Man Who Fell to Earth, Lumiere, Shattuck, opens Friday. Movies were pretty weird in the ‘70s, but they didn’t get much weirder than this—at least with a major director and stars. David Bowie plays an alien who comes to Earth in search of water, but who instead discovers capitalism, TV, and alcohol. (I’m tempted to say that I also discovers sex, but he left a wife and children behind on his native world.) At least that’s what I think it’s about, but it’s not entirely clear. Nicolas Roeg directed it, so you know that the movie won’t be about story. But the images are intriguing, the central characters are puzzles that cry out to be solved, and it has some very sexy scenes in it. If for no other reason, see it to be reminded what science fiction films could be like in the years between 2001 and Star Wars.

A+ Taxi Driver, Castro, Thursday. When I think of the 1970s as a golden age of Hollywood-financed serious cinema, I think of Robert De Niro walking the dark, mean streets of New York, slowly turning into a psychopath. Writer Paul taxidriver1Schrader and director Martin Scorsese put together this near-perfect study of loneliness as a disease. Travis Bickle isn’t lonely because he hasn’t found the right companion, or because society has failed him, or because he doesn’t want intimacy. He’s lonely because he’s mentally incapable of relating to other human beings. This is a sad and pathetic man, with a rage that will inevitably turn violent. Columbia Pictures has recently restored Taxi Driver, and if the Blu-ray release (see my review) is any indication, a theatrical presentation should look fantastic. On a double bill with something I’ve never heard of called Blast of Silence.

A Buster Keaton Double Bill: Steamboat Bill, Jr. & The Three Ages, Stanford, Friday, 7:30. These are the last and first features Keaton made as an independent filmmaker. They’re also one of his best combined with his very worst. The A goes to Steamboat Bill, Jr. Steamboat Billsteamboatbill (Ernest Torrence) already has his hands full, struggling to maintain his small business in the wake of a better-financed competitor. Then his long-lost son turns up, not as the he-man the very-macho Bill imagined, but as an urbane and somewhat effete Keaton. You can look at Steamboat Bill, Jr. as a riff on masculinity or a study of small-town life as an endangered species. Or you can just sit back and laugh. Keaton’s first feature, Three Ages, tells one story three times—in caveman days, imperial Rome, and modern times—intercutting between them. There’s a lot of forced anachronistic humor, and only occasional flashes of Keaton genius. See my Blu-ray review.

Shaolin

B+ Period action film

One expects monks—at least of the Buddhist variety—to abhor violence. Yet the Shaolin Temple is known as an important center of Kung Fu. The monks in Benny Chan’s new period piece hate bloodshed, but they still get to beat up a lot of bad guys.

The movie starts with a pacifistic statement. Monks search the remains of a battlefield for survivors. There aren’t many, and not all the victims were soldiers. The camera lingers on the dead hand of a young child, clutching a flower. Chan wants us to know without a doubt that the people who caused this massacre are very, very bad.

Yet Chan is going to make us care about and sympathize with the man most responsible. We’ll watch him fall from power, go into hiding, and find humility, peace, and redemption amongst the Shaolin monks.

But this is a big-budget crowd-pleaser, so Chan also throws in a lot of entertaining action, as well as some comedy .

Chan sets his story in the early 20th century, when China’s central government wasshaolin collapsing, western governments were looking to carve up the Chinese pie, and warlords fought ruthlessly over the spoils. General Hou Jie (Andy Lau) is one such warlord, and apparently a successful one. He’s just conquered Dengfeng with massive loss of life. He’s a loving father, husband, and older brother, but also a ruthless mass murderer.

But when he’s betrayed and overthrown, he finds himself at the mercy of the Shaolin Temple, a holy place which he had desecrated soon after his victory. Luckily, if there’s anything the monks are good at, it’s mercy.

They’re also good at fighting. For all its religious Zen posturing, Shaolin is first and foremost an action movie. Hou Jie must atone for his past life not merely with suffering and service, but with violence in the service of good, going up against the new—and even worse—warlord who has taken his place.

This time, the action scenes really do take second place to the story. They’re well choreographed and fun to watch, without the spatial incoherence common in so many current action movies. The cutting is fast, but not so confused that you lose track of who’s standing where and what they’re actually doing.

But the action scenes fall into other conventional traps, many specific to Hong Kong cinema. For instance, a villain who will do anything to get his way, completely at ease with mass murder, will holster his gun for some hand-to-hand combat. And for the big climactic fight, Chan and his five screenwriters (yes, you read that right) stretched both credibility and good storytelling pretty thin just to add explosions to the proceedings.

These failings, plus some painfully obvious symbolism at the ending, knock my grade for Shaolin down to a B+.

It probably would have been a flat B had Jackie Chan not turned up early in the shaolin_jcsecond act as the Temple’s cook. The character is simple but wise, and since he’s played by Chan, funny and loveable. Action stars often turn into character actors as they age, and Chan does it nicely, here.

Chan’s character says twice that he doesn’t know martial arts. Having Jackie Chan say that sets up some expectations. I’ll just say you won’t be disappointed—assuming you realize that Jackie Chan is now 57 and can’t do the sort of stunts that were once his trademark.

Speaking of stunts, there’s an early shot involving a horse that made me squirm. I couldn’t imagine how they could have shot it without crippling the poor beast. But at the end of the credits, the filmmakers assure us that no animals were harmed in making the film. Let’s hope that was true.

Two Forgotten Films From the Early 70’s

Friday night I attended the opening screenings in the Pacific Film Archive’s new series, The Outsiders: New Hollywood Cinema in the Seventies. These were not classics that everyone knows and loves, but movies of their time that few remember today: The Heartbreak Kid and The Landlord.

The Heartbreak Kid

When you think of the edgy “New Hollywood” born out of the success of The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, and Easy Rider, you don’t think about Neil Simon. Yet the famed Broadway playwright’s screenplay gets him the possessive credit (“Neil Simon’s The Heartbreak Kid”) for this dark comedy. In 1972, Simon’s name pretty much guaranteed that the picture wasn’t part of the new youth culture. And it wasn’t. This is a very conventionally shot and edited film, without the edginess that makes 70’s Hollywood so unique.

But that doesn’t make it a bad movie.

In last week’s Ask Mick LaSalle column, the Chronicle critic talked about the challenges of comic acting. “Karin Viard, one of the best comedians in Europe…said that drama was too easy for her because all she had to was find the right ‘river of emotion’ and follow it. Comedy required staying inside the moment while simultaneously being aware of the ‘rhythm you have to keep.’" May and her cast clearly understood that, and created a movie that keeps you laughing while you squirm with discomfort at the story’s unbearable reality.

That story involves a young man (Charles Grodin) who realizes on his wedding night that his marriage was a mistake. Before the honeymoon is over, he’s in love with another woman. Simon and May also play here with Jewish assimilation issues and fears. The newlyweds are unquestionably Jewish, and they marry in a Jewish ceremony. May cast her own daughter, Jeannie Berlin, who looks very Jewish, as the jilted bride. But the new love interest is played by Cybill Shepherd—the 70’s ideal of perfect shiksa beauty.

The Heartbreak Kid is worth checking out, if you can. It’s not available on Netflix. The Farrelly brothers remade the movie in 2007; I have no idea if their version is any good.

The Landlord

I saw The Landlord in first run in 1970. I don’t remember if I had to lie about my age to get into this R-rated film. At the time, I had no idea that its first-time director, Hal Ashby, would become one of the major filmmakers of the decade.

Beau Bridges stars as the 29-year-old, stay-at-home son of a very wealthy family. He buys an apartment house in a Brooklyn ghetto with the intention of evicting the residents, remodeling it, and moving in. Instead, he becomes involved with their lives.

Ashby and screenwriter Bill Gunn give The Landlord all the edginess lacking in The Heartbreak Kid, but that doesn’t make it a better picture. It’s shot with daring and put together with montages that bring attention to its technique. The music is loud and full of soul. But it doesn’t quite hang together. The scenes with Bridges’ rich family are played as broad, exaggerated farce, with Lee Grant as his mother saying outrageously ridiculous things.  Pearl Bailey, as one of the tenants, does the wise, ethnic mother figure who feeds people and sets them straight. Everything else in the film is dead serious. In the end, you get a lot of good scenes and a few near great ones, but it never jells into a single work.

You can buy The Landlord on DVD. The disc isn’t available on Netflix, but you can stream it from there.

New PFA Schedule

I recently realized that I could put together a pretty good series on Hollywood in the 70s from DVDs and Blu-ray discs in my home collection. Then I discovered that the Pacific Film Archive had a better one on the way using 35mm prints.

In other words, I only recently took a look at the new, September/October PFA schedule.

Unlike the hypothetical series I could show my friends, the PFA’s The Outsiders: New Hollywood Cinema in the Seventies mostly avoids the acknowledged classics. There’s no Easy Rider, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, or Dog Day Afternoon. Of the 17 films in the series, only Badlands and Mean Streets still have major reputations today. Other significant works in the series include Killer of Sheep, The Last Picture Show, and  Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Many of the films were independently financed and didn’t receive a major release at the time.

The new schedule also includes the UCLA Festival of Preservation, which started Thursday night with Cecil B. DeMille’s 1935 The Crusades. It also screens two noirs from the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, Robert Altman’s 1982 Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and three episodes of the old TV series This Is Your Life that focus on Holocaust survivors. Both Wanda (screening tonight) and Native Land take a semi-documentary, neo-realistic look at America. There’s also a new series of Vitaphone shorts.

Five recent music documentaries “demonstrate that music can be more about a relationship to the world than the ordering of tones or sounds” in the series Sounding Off: Portraits of Unusual Music. Two filmmakers, Yilmaz Güney and Dziga Vertov, get their own series.

What’s Screening: September 2 – 8

The very unusual Brainwash Movie Festival starts Saturday night, then doesn’t come back until next week. From Britain with Love continues at the Rafael.

It’s not really a festival, but the Castro is running a week-long Cary Grant celebration. I’m discussing four of those double bills, which I’m moving to the end of this newsletter.

A Bridesmaids, Castro, Wednesday. What do you expect from a Judd Apatow bridesmaidsmovie?  A lot of laughs. Raunch. Some gross-out humor. Close friendships tested. A reasonable quantity of heart. And a modern male point of view. Bridesmaids provides all but the last one, and you can thank screenwriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo for giving this Apatow-produced comedy a thoroughly feminine perspective. Wiig also stars as a maid-of-honor whose life seems to be going down the tubes, and taking her best friend’s wedding with it.

B+ The Bridge on the River Kwai, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. The longer it’s been since you’ve seen David Lean’s World War II adventure, the better it gets in your  memory. That’s because the brilliant story of an over-proud British bridgeriverkwaiPOW (Alec Guinness) sticks in the mind. But to see the actual movie again is to be reminded that the Col. Nicholson story is just a subplot (Guinness received third billing). The bulk of Kwai is a very well made but conventional action movie with some uncomfortably Hollywoodish elements. Remember the Burmese porters who all just happen to be beautiful young women? It’s kind of like sex: When it’s good, it’s fantastic, and when it’s bad, it’s at least entertaining. Read my Blu-ray review.

C+ Dial M for Murder, Cerrito, Thursday, 7:00. John Ford never made a 3D movie. Neither did Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles, or Charlie Chaplin. But Alfred Hitchcock did–the only great filmmaker to try the stereoscopic medium before the 21st century. Dial M isn’t great Hitchcock–it’s pretty much a straightforward adaptation of a stage play–but it’s a good play and Hitchcock knew what to do with it. Forced against his will to use the new-fangled double-lens camera, Hitchcock pretty much ignored the obvious 3D effects popular at the time. But when he finally throws something at the camera, he knows exactly what he’s doing. Unfortunately, the Cerrito will not present the movie in 3D. One of their Cerrito Classics.

A The Lady Vanishes, Stanford, Friday. The best (and second to last) film Alfred Hitchcock made in England before jumping the pond, The Lady Vanishes stands among his best. This is Hitchcock light–starting out as a gentle comedy and slowly building suspense, but never taking itself too seriously. Only North by Northwest is more enjoyable. On a double-bill with The 39 Steps, which I haven’t seen in too long a time.

Cary Grant: Definitive Star, at the Castro

notoriousA+ Notorious, Tuesday. One of Hitchcock’s best. In order to prove her patriotism, scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman seduces, beds, and marries Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist, while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Grant sent her on this deadly and humiliating mission, and she literally sleeps with the enemy on his orders. He reacts with blind jealousy. The Nazi, on the other hand, appears to truly love her. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. On a double bill with Suspicion, which never stood a chance of being great Hitchcock, but could have been passable if the studio hadn’t demanded another ending.

A Bringing Up Baby, Saturday and Sunday. Brand new 35mm print. How does one define a screwball comedy? You could say it’s a romantic comedy with glamorous movie stars behaving like broad, slapstick comedians. You could point out that screwballs are usually set amongst the excessively wealthy, and often explore class barriers. Or you could simply show Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, a frivolous and hilarious tale about a mild-mannered paleontologist (Cary Grant), a ditzy heiress (Katharine Hepburn), and a tame leopard (a tame leopard). As part of the Castro’s Cary Grant series, Baby will be double-billed Saturday with another Hawks screwball, 1952’s Monkey Business (not to be confused with the Marx Brothers movie with the same name). Sunday, the second feature will be I was a Male War Bride (also directed by Hawks, but I regret to say that the Marx Brothers never used that title).

A Double bill: His Girl Friday & Only Angels Have Wings, Monday. For His Girl Friday, director Howard Hawks turned the hit play The Front Page into a love triangle by making ace reporter Hildy Johnson a woman (Rosalind Russell), and scheming editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) her ex-husband. And thus was born one of the funniest screwball comedies of them all–with a bit of serious drama thrown in concerning an impending execution. In Only Angels Have Wings, Cary Grant heads a team of mail plane pilots in a remote corner of South America. There’s little plot here, just a study of men who routinely fly under very dangerous conditions, and how they cope with death as an every-day part of life.

A+ North by Northwest, Friday. Alfred Hitchcock’s nbnwlight masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s a murderer). And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side , he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint (danger has its rewards). On a double bill with Charade, which I saw long ago and found only so-so.

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