Marilyn Monroe Mistake

This morning I received a blurb advertising the Mill Valley Film Festival’s Centerpiece presentation of My Week with Marilyn. Here’s how the blurb described the film’s historical setting:

In his memoir, The Prince, the Showgirl and Me, Colin Clark chronicled an epochal moment on the set with the legendary Laurence Olivier and luminous Marilyn Monroe, but gallantly omitted a whirlwind week he spent touring Great Britain with the American actress and icon. Director Simon Curtis lifts the curtain on this idyllic time, when the young Clark provided the star with a welcome reprieve from the limelight. In his charming feature debut, Curtis succeeds in capturing Monroe’s notorious vulnerability along with the incomparably radiant charisma that would soon catapult her to stardom in Some Like It Hot (1956).

I don’t know what Mr. Clark did for Ms. Monroe—newly married to playwright Arthur Miller at the time—aside from driving her around Britain. But I do know that Some Like It Hot did not catapult her to stardom in 1956.

First of all, Some Like It Hot came out in 1959, quite late in her all-too-short career. She would only complete two other features after it. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire made her a major star in 1953, years before she flew to England to work with Laurence Olivier.

That’s the sort of thing you’d expect a film festival to get right.

Looks like an interesting film, though.

Latino Cinema, a Kevin Smith Thriller, and Silent Films Before Live Theatre

Here’s a trio of current and upcoming events:

San Francisco Latino Film Festival

This film festival opened Friday, and I didn’t even know about it. My apologies. It runs in the City, Berkeley, Marin, and San Jose through the 25th. Check the web site to see what’s playing.

Kevin Smith’s Red State

Kevin Smith—the writer and director of cheerfully offensive (to some; not to me), dialog-heavy comedies like Clerks, Dogma, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno —has made a thriller. Well, why not? John Huston made a musical comedy. The story involves a trio of teenage boys who take a journey hoping for sex and find themselves prisoners of an evil group or Christian fanatics.

Smith is distributing the film himself, and part of the process will be simultaneous screening in multiple theaters on Sunday, September 25.  Locally, you can catch the event at the Balboa or the Camera 3. Smith will be on hand via live webcast to answer questions.

Once in a Lifetime (With Non-Talking Heads)

Starting this Thursday, the American Conservatory Theater will open a limited run of the George S. Kaufman/Moss Hart stage comedy Once in a Lifetime. Originally staged in 1930, Lifetime parodies the talkie revolution that had just changed Hollywood.  On the three Friday night’s of the run, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will screen silent short subjects before the live feature.

What’s Screening: September 16 – 22

The Santa Rosa International Film Festival continues through Tuesday.  From Britain with Love continues at the Rafael through Sunday. The Irish Film Festival opens Thursday.

B- Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology, Embarcadero, Shattuck,opens Friday. Tiffany Shlain had Tree-of-Life-level ambitions for her documentary about life, human evolution, networking, her father’s terminal cancer, and her own difficult pregnancy. She reached for profundity, but achieved only entertainment. Like most autobiographical documentaries, much ofConnected Connected comes off as self-centered. But more of it is Daddy-centered; the movie worships her father (surgeon and best-selling author Leonard Shlain) to the point of idolatry. While this is emotionally understandable—she made the film while he was dying—it’s not good filmmaking. When not dealing with family health problems, Connected looks at the networks human beings have created, and the essential connectedness of everything. In doing so, it offers no insights that a reasonably educated and curious person would not have found elsewhere. Some clever, informative, and often funny cartoons (animated by Stefan Nadelman) and some amusing old movie clips  make Connected enjoyable. Shlain in person at the Shattuck on Sunday, 3:15 and 5:30.

A Bringing Up Baby, Stanford, Saturday through next Friday. 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). On a double-bill with An Affair to Remember, which I saw long ago and didn’t care for.

A Psycho, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. Contrary to urban myth, Alfred Hitchcock didn’t really want people to stop taking showers. He was, however, inspired by the television show he was then producing to make a low-budget movie in black and white.

B+ Aliens, Castro, Friday, 7:00. Like most sequels, James Cameron’s first big-budget movie isn’t as good as the original Alien. Less of a horror film and more of an action picture (or, arguably, a war movie), it strands a platoon of marines on a barely hospitable planet infested with the big, egg-laying predators. Sigourney Weaver stars again. Unfortunately, the Castro will be screening the original, 137-minute cut. Cameron’s 154-minute director’s cut, which to my knowledge has never been shown theatrically, goes into far more character detail and is a much better film. On a triple bill with Starship Troopers and Dark Star.

C+ Fiddler on the Roof, Lark, Sunday, 4:00. When I first saw the last of the big Hollywood roadshows as a teenager, I hated the movie so much that my mother accused me of being a self-hating Jew. That was odd because I had loved the original stage play. (My objections were that the production values were too big, and the comic timing was off.) Revisiting it again decades later, I can appreciate what director Norman Jewison was trying to do. Rather than making a musical comedy with a period setting and a serious undertone, he attempted to turn it into a historical spectacle with songs. The result isn’t entirely satisfactory, but it has its moments.

On the Vitaphone: 1928-1930, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:00. When Warner Brothers went out on a limb and started making sound films 1926, Vitaphone shorts were an important part of the program. These were vaudeville acts, each about 10 minutes long, filmed simply with two or three cameras set very near each other. The picture for each short could be edited, but the sound could not. Today, these shorts provide both an important part of cinema’s most disruptive transition and an excellent record of authentic vaudeville. I’ve seen several Vitaphone shorts, but none of the ones on this presentation.

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.

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