Mad Men and Mad Max

I attended two screenings in movie theaters so far this week. I thought I’d share them with you.

Mad Men Finale at the New Parkway

My wife and I have been following Mad Men for some years now–without cable or satellite. We binge-watched the first three seasons on disc, and season four on Netflix. We paid to see the last three seasons on Hulu, where each episode became available the day after its broadcast.

But we wanted something special for the big series finale on Sunday. So we went to the New Parkway, where they had been screening the last few episodes live for a paying audience. At $6 a head, it seemed like a bargain.

The presentation leaved a lot to be desired. The houselights stayed on for several minutes after the show started. They finally came down, but they went back up again before the show ended. And we had to sit through the commercials, which weren’t even muted.

On the other hand, the audience was wonderful. Some were costumed as Don, Betty, Joan, and Peggy. The crowd laughed and cheered at appropriate places, and called out encouragement for the characters on screen. That made the problems worthwhile.

So much has been written about the show and the finale that I don’t feel a need to discuss my reactions. But it did make me think about what real separates a happy ending from sad one. It’s all about where you stop telling the story.

Mad Max: Fury Road in 3D at Berkeley’s California Theater

After the San Francisco International Film Festival, I like to cleanse my palate with a big, Hollywood action movie. This year, it took me almost two weeks to get around to that ritual. But I waited for the right movie.

I caught the new Mad Max in the big, downstairs auditorium in Berkeley’s California Theatre. I had to skip out of work early to see it in 3D. For some odd reason, they were showing it flat version–in the same auditorium–for the prime-time 7:00 screening.

You have to understand three things about this movie:

  1. It’s basically one long motor vehicle chase broken up with a few dialog scenes.
  2. It’s surprisingly feminist for this sort of movie. It’s about a woman warrior rescuing a tyrant’s enslaved harem.
  3. Mad Max isn’t the main hero.

Charlize Theron plays the real hero–the woman warrior mentioned above. She’s strong, smart, determined, and ethical. She’s putting her life on the line and burning all of her bridges for a completely altruistic motive. She’s freeing slaves.

Max, by comparison, is just along for the ride. He’s the central character in the way that Dr. Watson is the central character in a Sherlock Holmes story–we see the story primarily through his point of view. Unlike Watson, he has to find his moral center. At first he cares only for his own survival. Slowly, he becomes a valuable part of the team bringing these women to freedom. But he never becomes the team’s leader.

Tom Hardy plays Max. I guess Mel Gibson is too old and too anti-Semitic.

But all of that moral and character stuff is just an appetizer. The main course is the chase, filled with crashes, weapons, hand-to-hand combat, acts of courage, close calls, and fatal errors. It’s fast, brutal, and for the most part very well-choreographed. The film makes effective use of 3D, and should be seen that way.

Occasionally, the action got repetitious, and even briefly tedious. Director/co-writer George Miller could have cut out 20 minutes and made a better movie for it.

Miller does a good job creating a dystopian future Australia (and yes, I know he’s done it before). He gives us a barren landscape presumably savaged by climate change, populated by a handful of desperate people living on shrinking resources and the remnants of a dead civilization.

But one thing bothered me about Miller’s vision. Whatever destroyed the environment apparently killed off everyone who wasn’t white. When you consider that Theron’s character seems based on Margaret Tubman, it would have been nice to cast a black woman in the role.

You’ve probably read about reactionary men’s groups objecting to the film. Think about the reaction if Zoe Saldana had Theron’s role.

I give Mad Max: Fury Road a B+.

The A+ List and The Adventures of Robin Hood

I’m embarking on a journey through my all-time favorite films–the ones that I’ve awarded an A+.

For a film to earn that grade, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for years if not decades.

I started giving my favorite films the A+ grade in 2009. The list currently has 56 films, although it may grow before I’m finished. I strongly suspect that Fargo will make the list next year.

I plan to go through the list roughly in alphabetical order, but I won’t stick to that. I’ve written about many of these films extensively before; for those, I’ll just include a link.

And I’ll start, alphabetically, with what is arguably the most shallow, silly, and entertaining movie on the list.

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Not every masterpiece needs to provide a deep understanding of the human condition; some are just plain fun. And none more so than this 1938 Errol Flynn swashbuckler. For 102 minutes, you get to live in a world where virtue–graceful, witty, rebellious, good-looking, and wholeheartedly romantic virtue–triumphs completely over grim-faced tyranny. Flynn was no actor, but no one could match him for handling a sword, a beautiful woman, or a witty line, all while wearing tights.

If you look at it logically, everything about The Adventures of Robin Hood fails utterly. Robin Hood, the famous mythological rebel and defender of the weak, spends much of the film defending the monarchy. Much of the film, from the quiver that never runs out of arrows to Maid Marian’s idiotic way of hiding incriminating evidence, makes no sense whatsoever.

And the film makes violence look fun and helpful. There is a lot of action in the movie, and Robin and his men kill quite a few bad guys. But not a single good guy–not even an extra–dies.

And I won’t even mention historical inaccuracy.

And yet, when we watch it, we not only can but must forgive everything. We gladly accept this tale of medieval Europe not as it was, but as we want it to be. We imagine ourselves leaping about, fighting with sword, bow, and staff, making heroic speeches, and righting all wrongs by killing those who need to be killed.

This is, quite simply, the perfect swashbuckler.

A lot of people deserve credit for this masterpiece. It came off the Warner Brothers assembly line with two credited directors (one was taken off the film). You can’t call this an auteur film.

But here are the movie’s three best assets:

Errol Flynn

You don’t need to be a good actor to be a great movie star–Errol Flynn proves that beyond a doubt. His acting range was limited. But no one could buckle a swash like Flynn, and this was the movie he was born to make.

First of all, at this time in his life, he looked great; women swooned over him. He was not an acrobat (if you look closely, you’ll notice a lot of stunt doubling in Robin Hood), but he had an easy, natural and athletic grace, especially when he was leaping onto tables or fighting with a sword. And he spoke his lines with a simple conviction that made you believe the most outrageous lines. Consider this scene early in the film.

The movie gives Flynn not one, but three big entrances. With an audience, it’s almost impossible to not applaud for each one of them.

I recently wrote about Burt Lancaster’s swashbucklers. Lancaster was every bit as handsome as Flynn. He was an excellent actor. And unlike Flynn, he was an expert acrobat, thrilling audiences with his own impressive stunts. But he couldn’t quite pull off the dashing, devil-may-care personality that was Flynn’s stock and trade. When Lancaster gives a speech to his men, he comes off as human being (The Flame and the Arrow) or an actor trying too hard (The Crimson Pirate). Flynn comes off as the embodiment of graceful heroics.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold

The Adventures of Robin Hood easily has the best musical score of any action flick I’ve heard. It’s rousing, majestic, epic, exciting, and joyful. The fight theme matches the flavor of a graceful swordfight without trying to synchronize with it. And the score is beautiful in its own right.

Robin Hood not only earned Korngold his only Oscar; it also saved his life. A Viennese Jew and a respected Opera composer, Korngold just happened to be Hollywood, working on this film when Hitler took over Austria. Had he been home, he would probably have been swept up in the Holocaust.

Perhaps Korngold’s appreciation for the assignment helped him create this great and influential score.

Technicolor

Today we take color movies for granted, but in 1938, they were something special. And the people who made Adventures of Robin Hood went overboard to make it especially special–in a good way.

Warner Brothers shot Adventures in the three-strip Technicolor process, which was just six years old in 1938. Only a handful of previous features had been shot in it, and none of them seemed to delight in the new technology the way Robin Hood did.

The movie is a blast of color. Bright greens and reds flow through it. Aside from one scene where Robin is tossed into a dungeon, there’s always something bright and colorful, usually a costume or an ornament, on the screen.

That super-saturated Technicolor look, amped up by Carl Jules Weyl’s art direction and Milo Anderson’s costumes, help create the feeling of a storybook without ever pressing the point.

Cinematographers Tony Gaudio and Sol Polito also deserve credit.

And all the rest

But then, so did so many other people who worked on this film. Consider the supporting cast: Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone conspire and glower as the fun-to-hate villains. Olivia de Havilland makes a beautiful and love-struck Maid Marian. She comes closest to being a real person (not that close), largely because she gets to change her mind.

And then there’s Una O’Connor and Herbert Mundin as the second romantic couple, considerably older and homier than Flynn and de Havilland. They’re essentially comic characters, but Mundin’s merry man gets a couple of admirably heroic moments.

Finally, let’s not forget the exceptional fight choreography, done by swordsman Fred Cavens, director Michael Curtiz, and archer Howard Hill. The fights are graceful, exciting, thrilling, and not in the least bit believable.

But The Adventures of Robin Hood doesn’t earns its A+ by providing realism. It earns it by being fun.

Fashions and fighting: Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I only caught two films yesterday.

A- Iris

I started the day with Albert Maysles’ latest film, Iris. What fun! Here’s what I thought about it:

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Iris Apfel, a fixture in the New York fashion scene well in her 90s, dresses herself in loud, bright, and absurd clothes, augmented with even crazier accessories. And yet she looks great. Apfel still embraces her work with enthusiasm, and thus embraces life. Maysles follows her as she attends shows, shops in specialty stores in Harlem, shows off all of the absurd toys in her apartment, and treats her husband of more than 60 years to his 100th birthday party. And she’s almost always smiling.

Maysles died in March at the age of 88, so there was no Q&A with the director.

This was the last festival screening if Iris. But don’t despair, it opens in Bay Area theaters May 8.

B+ The Taking of Tiger Mountain

The bad news came as we were waiting to be let into the theater. Due to technical difficulties, this 3D movie would be screened in 2D. Oh, well. I was looking forward to seeing a 3D Chinese action epic directed by the great Tsui Hark.

Once inside, Festival Executive Director Noah Cowan MC’d the show, which was about far more than this one movie. He started with a clip from an earlier version of the story–a filmed record of a Cultural Revolution stage opera.

After the clip, Cowan brought on Hong Kong film producer Nansun Shi. They showed us clips from other Chinese and Hong Kong films, and discussed the history of Film Workshop, the company that Shi took over in 1981. Her other films films include A Chinese Ghost Story, A Better Tomorrow, and Once Upon A Time In China.

Then they screened The Taking of Tiger Mountain

Based, very loosely I suspect, on a 1946 battle, it’s a big, epic military adventure set in 1946. And it’s a lot of relatively mindless fun. A small band of devoted and virtuous soldiers set out to take a seemingly impregnable fortress from a much larger and better-equipped band of evil thugs. The story involves plenty of tried-and-true devices. It has the hero who goes undercover and manages to outwit the bad guys over and over again. It has the cute kid, traumatized by the bad guys, who slowly learns to trust the good guys. And it has several big, exciting battles, saving the best for last.

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The action sequences depended heavily on CGI, much of which looked fake. I miss the old, more realistic stunt work. On the other hand, I guess it’s good that performers don’t have to risk their lives.

Even in 2D, you can clearly see this is a 3D movie. The opening credits float. Objects fly at you. When a bullet hits a person, it’s accompanied by CGI bursts of blood clearly designed for their dimensionality.

Fun as it was, it left me wanting to revisit some of Hark’s earlier, better work–especially Once Upon a Time in China and Peking Opera Blues.

After the movie, Cowan and Shi came on stage to discuss more about Film Workshop and show additional clips.

Unfortunately, this film hasn’t been picked up for an American release. But it will play one more time at the festival, this coming Thursday, at 2:00, at the Kabuki. Hopefully, they’ll have the bugs worked out by then and will be able to show it in 3D.

Kevin Kline and Swashbucklers

I first saw Kevin Kline in the film version of the 1983 film version of The Pirates of Penzance. He played the Pirate King, and he was perfect for the part–handsome, graceful, athletic, and funny. It struck me that, if he had been born 50 years earlier, he could have been a great swashbuckling star, right up there with Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn.

So I was delighted, less than a decade later, when I found out that he’d been cast as Fairbanks in Richard Attenborough’s biopic, Chaplin. That movie disappointed me in many ways, but casting wasn’t one of them. Kline made a great Fairbanks.

And now, more than 20 years later, he’s playing Errol Flynn in The Last of Robin Hood. Of course, he’s playing an old Errol Flynn. About to turn 67, Kline could no longer play the Flynn who leaped with such grace in the 1930s.

On the other hand, Flynn died at 50, so Kline still has to play someone considerably younger than himself.

But then, on the other other hand,  Kline at 66 looks better than Flynn at 50. Errol Flynn did not take good care of himself.

Kline has appeared in a lot of excellent movies that had nothing to do with swashbuckling: Sophie’s Choice, The Big Chill, Silverado, Soapdish, The Ice Storm, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to name a few.

But it’s nice to see that his talent for swashbuckling has been recognized. He never got to star in a real swashbuckler, but twice now, he has starred as a real swashbuckler.

And unless it gets really horrible reviews, I plan to see The Last of Robin Hood.

Catching The Amazing Spider-Man 2 After the Festival

After two weeks watching dramas and documentaries (most of them with subtitles) at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I felt it was time to reconnect with another aspect of cinema. So I visited a multiplex and caught The Amazing Spider-Man 2–in 3D, no less.

This is the sort of summer movie that makes you forgive Hollywood for its current excesses. Sometimes, the excess is worth it.

I didn’t bother seeing The Amazing Spider-Man two years ago; bad reviews kept me away. But having seen all three films in the first Spider-Man franchise, plus knowing a few things about the original comic strip (my son is a huge Marvel fan), I felt I didn’t need to see the reboot movie first. Besides, the sequel has received much better reviews.

I made the right decision. I love this movie.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a big, splashy, fun, CGI-heavy action flick with a small, character-driven independent art film hidden inside. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a teenager in crisis. His parents deserted him when he was young.  His girlfriend is about to desert him. A now-powerful old friend is putting him in a moral dilemma . The widowed aunt who’s raising him (Sally Field) can barely make ends meet. And because he has superpowers, he feels responsible for stopping all the crime in New York City.

The film ties all of these conflicting emotional issues into a whiz-bang action ride. You never feel as if the personal story is just there to fill in the spots between special effects. Nor do you feel that director Marc Webb and his team of screenwriters reluctantly added action scenes to please the suits. All the pieces fit together. If you take away one action scene, or one quiet moment of reflection, everything would fall apart.

I can think of only one other superhero movie that balanced the personal and the spectacular so well: Spider-Man 2–the sequel to the first Spider-Man feature film. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence.

Interesting technical fact: The Amazing Spider-Man was shot digitally in 3D–pretty normal for a modern special effects action movie. But this sequel was shot on 35mm film, and artificially converted to 3D in post production. I don’t object to that the way I did when they converted Titanic and The Wizard of Oz. The picture was designed and shot with the intention of 3D conversion. Besides, the really impressive 3D effects weren’t "shot" in the normal sense of the word. They were all CGI.

But it does leave me wondering. In 1953, Hollywood was routinely shooting 3D movies on 35mm film. Why can’t they do that today?

Kurosawa has fun: My Blu-ray review of Hidden Fortress

In Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa used the samurai genre to examine the limits of human knowledge and objectivity. In Seven Samurai, he told an epic story of small-scale war and a feudal system in crisis. In Throne of Blood, he adapted Macbeth to meditate on fate. In The Hidden Fortress, he pretty much just had fun.

The first of three samurai action comedies he would make very close together, Hidden Fortress is easily his most entertaining movie. Some of his basic themes of humanism and charity sneak through, but this is really just a sit-back-and-enjoy popcorn movie. No surprise that it was a major influence on George Lucas’ first Star Wars flick.

Watching The Hidden Fortress again–this time on Blu-ray–I was struck by how conservatively it accepts the Japanese feudal class system–at least on the surface. The most high-ranking character in the story, Princess Yuki, is also the most noble in the positive sense of the word. She’s willing to sacrifice for others, shows tremendous courage and stamina, and can’t bear to see her people suffer.

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By comparison, the two comic peasants who bring us into the film and through whom we see much of the story, are petty, greedy, untrustworthy, and usually stupid. The only other significant lower-class character–a peasant girl who comes in about half-way through the movie, is a good and trustworthy person. But she’s totally subservient to her betters. When wounded in a battle, she begs to be left behind because she’s not worth saving.

This is a far cry from the topsy-turvy class system of The Seven Samurai.

Or is it? Princess Yuki ‘s compassion comes off as an exception, not the rule for the ruling class. And she brings out compassion in others, shaming them into being less proper and more caring. This is especially true with the film’s main hero, a loyal general played by the greatest action star of them all, Toshiro Mifune. imageStrong, determined, and graceful as a big cat (and just as deadly), he holds the camera whenever he’s onscreen. He uses his wits more than his sword on this journey–smuggling the princess and a fortune in gold out of enemy territory. But when violence is called for, he’s in complete control. In one sequence he furiously gallops a horse at full speed, with both hands holding his sword aloft for action. In a theater with a good audience, that scene never fails to bring cheers.

Overall, The Hidden Fortress is more suspense than action. The main characters–growing from two to five over the course of the story–must sneak passed checkpoints, disappear into crowds, and go unnoticed by soldiers looking for them…as they contend with their own conflicting motives.

For more on The Hidden Fortress, see Kurosawa Diary, Part 15: The Hidden Fortress.

First Impression

imageCriterion packages The Hidden Fortress in the company’s standard-sized transparent plastic box, with an illustration of Princess Yuki on the cover.

Inside, on the left, you’ll find a small booklet, taken up mostly with an article by Catherine Russell called “Three Good Men and a Princess.” The booklet also includes a few paragraphs on the transfer, and other information on the Blu-ray release.

On the right side, a Blu-ray disc and DVD are stacked together. You have to remove the Blu-ray to get to the DVD. Within the limits of the format, they contain the same content.

How It Looks

The Hidden Fortress was the first of six consecutive films Kurosawa shot in Toho Studio’s Cinemascope clone, TohoScope. (These six were also his last black and white films.) Kurosawa and cinematographer Ichio Yamazeki were clearly having fun with the new, wide frame. They place the two arguing peasants on opposite sides of the screen. Or they line all four or five main characters together. They’re enjoying the new toy and binging us in for the fun.

But they’re also using it to tell the story and create location. the wide screen emphasizes the setting, and The Hidden Fortress used it to bring us the deserts, forests, and river crossings that make the story so compelling. Apparently, no one told them that shooting deep focus was impossible with the anamorphic scope lens, so they went ahead and did it over and over.

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Criterion’s 2K transfer is very good, but not exceptional. Details are sharp and clear most of the time, but occasionally they’re soft. Contrast is acceptable.

How It Sounds

The Hidden Fortress was originally released in Perspecta Stereo–sometimes called Perspecta Sound because it wasn’t real stereo. It was a standard mono optical soundtrack with sub-audio cues that could turn each of the three front speakers on and off. In other words, you could have different sounds coming out of different speakers at different times, but not different sounds coming out of different speakers at the same time.

Most theatrical audiences, in Japan, the US, and elsewhere, have only heard it in mono.

This release contains both mono and restored Perspecta versions. On the Blu-ray, the mono version is presented in uncompressed PCM; the Perspecta in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. I listened to the opening credits music in both versions, and preferred the Perspecta, which sounded fuller and more impressive.

As near as I can tell, Kurosawa used the Perspecta’s fake stereo twice. In both cases, it was for an important sound effect off to the side.

Overall, the sound was very good for a Japanese film of this era.

And the Extras

  • Commentary by Stephen Prince: One of Prince’s best commentaries. He goes into depth about widescreen, Kurosawa’s use of short lenses as well as the long ones he’s associated with, the film’s influence on not only George Lucas but also Sergio Leone, John Ford’s influence on the film, and the themes and moral view of what’s clearly Kurosawa’s least moralistic movie. This is a new commentary recorded in 2013.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create: 40 minutes. Just about every Criterion Kurosawa release has the appropriate episode from this 2003 Japanese documentary mini-series. This episode has little about the story and the use of widescreen. But it has some amusing stories about horses.
  • George Lucas on Akira Kurosawa: 8 minutes. The creator of Star Wars, who turned the two comic peasants of The Hidden Fortress into C3PO and R2D2, talks about how he discovered Kurosawa in college, his use of the camera, and, of course, the influence on his work. From the earlier DVD release.
  • Trailer

The Hidden Fortress Blu-ray goes on sale today.

On the Moral Dilemma of Gladiator Movies

“Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”

I finally saw The Hunger Games a couple of nights ago. Pretty good for a modern Hollywood blockbuster.

It’s a gladiator movie, of course. Sure it’s all dressed up in science fiction hardware and leftwing economic attitudes. The story involves a television spectacle where 24 mostly unwilling teenagers are placed in a forest filled with hidden TV cameras and forced to fight to the death. Only one will come out alive. In other words, gladiatorial combat.

But gladiatorial combat produces some interesting problems for a commercial filmmaker. You’ve got an action movie, and that requires a hero–a good guy–who has to kill a lot of bad guys. But how can you have good guys and bad guys when everybody is a victim? image

The Hunger Games gets around this pretty well, but it’s not entirely honest. The heroine, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), only kills in self-defense or to defend someone else. This is admirable, of course, but in a kill-or-die situation, it’s not a survivable strategy.

There real villains, of course, are the ones running the government and the game, and the movie makes that clear. But there’s another set of villains within the gladiators. Four of the competitors comes from wealthy districts, and have all sorts of advantages. They’ve been trained in combat, and they have far better supplies. They team up together, act arrogantly, and are very enthusiastic about slaughtering their less-advantaged adversaries. They’re quite happy with their situation.

Which is kind of ridiculous. At best, three of the four will die. One assumes that they, like the poorer contestants, had no choice about entering the game. The Hunger Games slides into emotional dishonesty to give us people whose deaths we can cheer.

But The Hunger Games feels extremely honest compared to the 2000 Best Picture Oscar winner, Gladiator. I haven’t seen it since it was first in theaters, but I remember being quite shocked at its refusal to treat gladiatorial combat as anything bad.

This movie’s hero, Maximus (Russell Crowe), is a Roman general turned by bad luck and an angry emperor into a slave and then a gladiator. When he fights in the arena, his adversaries are characterless bad guys, existing simply so we can cheer their deaths. Gladiatorial combat here isn’t a horrible exploitation of human life, but a valorous way for our hero to reek vengeance, mostly on people forced to fight him, and prove his manly worth. image

In this strange version of human exploitation for the greater good, Maximus ends up leading a team of gladiators–his friends and comrades. Yet somehow, the evil emperor (Joaquin Phoenix), who is trying desperately to destroy our hero, never thinks to put him in the ring with one of his friends. Of course not. To do so would call into question the inherent virtue of forcing slaves to fight to the death.

When Gladiator won its much underserved Best Picture Oscar, one of the producers thanked the studio heads who supported it. “In those early days when it looked like all roads might lead…to ruin, you were gladiators.”

What the hell did that mean? Is he suggesting that the people who financed his movie was forced to do so against their will? Of course not. In his mind, gladiator had become something to aspire to–a pseudonym for hero.

The greatest gladiator movie, of course, was Spartacus (the original, not the TV show). Here the gladiators are unquestionably victims. They’re heroes too, but not for what they do in the arena. In rising up against their oppressors, and fighting the true villains who turn others into gladiators, they become heroes.

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Spartacus has only one scene of gladiatorial combat. But that scene says more about that evil than The Hunger Games and Gladiator combined. Check it out.

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