Mill Valley Film Festival Preview, Part 1

Here are three movies that I’ve been able to preview for this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. I’ve listed them in order of best to worst. There will be more to come.

A- Two Days, One Night

The boss gives his employees a choice: Either Sandra (Marion Cotillard) keeps her job, or everyone else receives a large bonus. Over the weekend, Sandra must visit 16 workers and convince a majority to sacrifice €1,000 for her sake. To make matters worse, Sandra is recovering from severe depression and has become dependent on pills. This latest film from the Dardenne brothers gives us modern capitalism in a nutshell. Workers, who would naturally be allies, are forced to fight over the limited resources available to pay non-management employees. But it never feels like a political tract. It feels like a very real situation, where everyone must make a difficult decision that will inevitably result in moral compromise.

  • Sequoia, Saturday, October 11, 5:4
  • Rafael, Sunday, October 12, 2:00

B+ Clouds of Sils Maria
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A great actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a part in a revival of the play that made her famous, but this time, she’ll be playing a different, older character. To prepare for the role, the actress and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) take up residence in a remote house located in an astonishingly beautiful part of the Swiss Alps. As they run lines, they almost unconsciously work through their own complicated relationship, which slightly echoes play’s characters, but not enough (thankfully) to become an allegory. This isn’t quite a two-person film, but Binoche and Stewart truly carry the picture.

  • Sequoia, Friday, October 3, 8:45. Sold out. Rush tickets may be available at showtime.
  • Rafael, Monday, October 6, 1:00.

D Soul of a Banquet
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In his first documentary, the usually reliable Wayne Wang appears to have missed the point. He suggests that his subject, restaurateur Cecilia Chiang, led a fascinating and exciting life. But he gives us little information, and spends most of the picture just showing us food. The biographical first third offers tantalizing hints at Chiang’s history and her importance in the development of Chinese-American cuisine, but Wang doesn’t give us enough information to prove his argument. The following two thirds is just food porn, with close-ups of succulent dishes being prepared, served, and eaten.

  • Rafael,  Sunday, October 5, 5:00. Director Wayne Wang and subject Cecilia Chiang in attendance.
  • Sequoia, Tuesday, October 7, 2:15.

This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival announced

The California Film Institute today announced the 37th annual Mill Valley Film Festival–which, as usual, doesn’t stay in Mill Valley. Major events will take place in San Rafael and Corte Madera.

This festival provides the Bay Area with our first look at this year’s Oscar bait. Consider this: For the last four years in a row, the Best Picture winner had its local premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival. That’s The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, and 12 Year a Slave.

The festival runs in early October, from the 2nd to the 12th of that month. Those are problematic dates for practicing Jews like myself. Yom Kippur will make the first two full days of the festival impossible. It also interferes with the festival of Sukkot. But for most people, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Some highlights:

  • Following Mill Valley tradition, the festival will launch with two opening night films in different theaters. The Homesman is an "anti-western" written and directed by Tommy Lee Jones and starring Hilary Swank. The other opening night film, Men, Women and Children, has an ensemble cast and was directed by Jason Reitman.
  • Amongst the performers and filmmakers being celebrated with spotlights and honors are Eddie Redmayne (who plays a young Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything), Elle Fanning (although, in my opinion, a 16-year-old is a little young for a life achievement award), the talented documentarian and clip editor Chuck Workman, and the late Robin Williams (that event will be free, but tickets will still be required).
  • Classic movies will include The Empire Strikes Back and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Both of these will be screened at the Century Cinema Corte Madera, which has one of the largest screens in the Bay Area.
  • The Centerpiece film will be Mike Binder’s Black and White. It’s about race, not photography.
  • Technology and cinema come together in the Amazing 4K Film Showcase, a competition of short films shot in ultra-high definition. These will screen at the CinéArts@Sequoia, since the Rafael does not yet have 4K projection.
  • As always, the Festival offers selections of films built around a genre or theme. This year, they’re calling one such focus Humor – In the Jocular Vein (as I write this, that link is dead, but hopefully it won’t be for long). This will include What We Do in the Shadows, a vampire comedy from New Zealand, and the Croatian comedy Cowboys,
  • Only one picture, the Japanese drama The Little House, will be screened in 35mm. Everything else will be digital.
  • The festival will end with Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who will be in attendance. It was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who made The Dallas Buyers Club.

As I write this, I’ve seen one new film screening at the festival, Two Days, One Night. I’ll tell you about it, and about other films I can preview, before the festival opens.

How I lost my love for Stanley Kubrick

45 years ago, when I was a teenager enthralled by 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick was not only the greatest living filmmaker, but the greatest filmmaker of all time (I didn’t know much film history back then). Today, I see him as a flawed genius–a brilliant visual artist lacking the warmth and empathy needed to be a great auteur.

With a complete retrospective about to open at the Pacific Film Archive, it seemed like a good time to discuss his checkered career and my reactions to it..

The first Stanley Kubrick film I ever saw was Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (the title links in this article point to the webpages for the films’ upcoming PFA screenings). I must have been about ten, and I didn’t know it was a Stanley Kubrick film; I didn’t know what director was back then. I but liked this dark satire about the cold war and the fear of nuclear Armageddon very much. I still do. I discussed the movie in more detail last year.

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I was not quite 14 when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Warner Cinerama on Hollywood Blvd. On the huge, deeply-curved screen, it blew me away. I felt like I was in space. This was my first confrontation with film as a serious art form. I instantly became a ardent fan of Stanley Kubrick (and screenplay collaborator Arthur C. Clarke).

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But over the years, with each new long-awaited release, I lost my affection for Kubrick’s work. A Clockwork Orange was interesting, but flawed. Barry Lyndon was an unbearable bore. I didn’t bother to see The Shining, despite–or perhaps because–I loved Stephen King’s novel so much. The book worked because King made you care deeply about Jack and his family. By 1980, I had realized that Kubrick didn’t care, and didn’t want you to care, about any of his characters.

Sometimes, not caring about the characters helped the film. If we had cared about anyone in Strangelove, we wouldn’t have laughed. And the shallow, barely-emotional astronauts of 2001 suggested a dehumanized future.

Kubrick’s best work, in my opinion, came early in his career, before the coldness really took hold. His first Hollywood film, The Killing–easily one of his best–is cool, but not too cold. A brilliant noir about a complex robbery, it’s precise and distant, like much of Kubrick’s work. But the movie seems to like its ill-fated crooks, especially Sterling Hayden as the brains behind the heist.

His next, Paths of Glory, is to my mind his absolute best. A brilliant war and anti-war film, it shows not only the hell of battle but the corruption and heartlessness at the top. But now, for the first time, Kubrick had a really big star–Kirk Douglas. Douglas wasn’t about to play someone that the audience wouldn’t root for, and Kubrick had to alter his screenplay to make the star’s character more of a conventional movie hero. Yes, this was Hollywood commercialism, but in this case, it worked for the quality of the picture.

Kubrick’s other collaboration with Douglas, Spartacus, is easily his warmest work. It doesn’t feel at all like a Stanley Kubrick film. And that’s not surprising, because it really wasn’t one. It wasn’t Kubrick’s idea. He came in a week into production to replace a fired director. He had no say in the screenplay or the casting. At the risk of offending hardcore auteurists, Spartacus was directed by Stanley Kubrick, but it is not a Stanley Kubrick film. And frankly, I think it’s all the better for it.

In the late 1950s, Stanley Kubrick was a brilliant, young, promising filmmaker. But a decade later, he seemed to have lost his touch with humanity. He had become a photographer.

September at the Castro

Have you checked out the Castro‘s Coming Soon page? Here you’ll find the September schedule–sans links to more details. A few events worth noting:

  • The month begins with the end of a three-day run for Lawrence of Arabia, which should look wonderful with the Castro’s new 4K projector. August 30-September 1.
  • Not surprisingly, Robin Williams gets two double bills (the first two Sundays of the month, plus another mid-week appearance). The movies are Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Good Morning Vietnam, and The World According to Garp.
  • If…, a favorite from my youth, plays Wednesday, 9/10 on a double bill with The Chocolate War. I guess that works, but everyone who went to the movies in the 70s knows that If… belongs on a double bill with O Lucky Man, which is sort of a sequel.
  • The very next day, they’re screening the wonderful Dog Day Afternoon, with something called The Dog. Maybe they should bring in Rin Tin Tin.
  • Antonioni’s great study of pollution and madness, Red Desert, plays a double bill with Mickey One on Wednesday, September 24.
  • My favorite Samuel Fuller flick, Pickup on South Street, plays Sunday, 9/28, with Park Row and something called A Fuller Life.
  • Stepping into early October, we have Jaws 3-D. I’ve never seen it, and like all of the Jaws sequels, it has a horrible reputation. They shot it in 3D (very rare in those days) because back then calling a movie Title of a Past Hit 3 was considered a confession that it was a really lousy picture.

Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, and the Strange Case of the Stereotyped Detective

Racism clouds old Hollywood movies. Even films intended in their time to be progressive and tolerant can look shockingly bigoted today. Consider Charlie Chan at the Opera, which the Stanford will screen Thursday and Friday.

And that’s just the beginning. The theater will screen Charlie Chan mysteries every Thursday and Friday through October 10, each double-billed with a Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie. Most of these pictures were cheap B movies, running little more than an hour and intended to fill out the bottom half of a double bill.

The Stanford gives the series a good start this week with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and the aforementioned Charlie Chan at the Opera. I consider Adventures the best of the Rathbone/Bruce series. Opera–the only Charlie Chan movie I’ve yet seen–has a high reputation amongst fans of the series.

I want to talk primarily about Chan, but I’ll cover Holmes at the end of this article.

Charlie Chan at the Opera

Charlie Chan is a fictional Chinese-American police detective created by Earl Derr Biggers. He first appeared in novels, then made the leap to movies.

Charlie Chan at the Opera’s racism can shock modern movie-goers. The title character, an Asian, is played by the Swedish-born actor Warner Oland. His yellow-face makeup looks ridiculous, and he speaks with a Chinese accent that wouldn’t fool a cow. His stilted English dialog contains such gems as “Murderer always return to scene of crime,” “Be so kind to explain,” and “Confucius say ‘Luck happy combination of foolish accident.'”

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And yet, I can’t condemn the film entirely. Taken in context of its time (1936), it offers a surprisingly positive view of Chinese Americans.

After all, Chan is the hero. He’s not a Fu Manchu-type yellow horde villain. Nor is he a helpless victim or sidekick. He’s always the smartest, wisest, and most ethical person in the room.

Chan isn’t a sidekick, but he has one–his son Lee, played by actual Asian-American Keye Luke. Luke gives Lee Chan the slightest of Chinese accents, and plays him as a fashionable American young man of his time. He speaks in the youth vernacular of the 1930s. Although Chan famously refers to Lee as “Number One Son” (although I didn’t catch that phrase in Opera), Lee calls the detective not  “honorable father,” but “Pop.” Or even “Gee, Pop.”

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The result is a parent/child relationship that would have looked very familiar to a great many American families of the 1930s–including that of my light-skinned, blonde-haired mother. Immigrant parents struggled with the English language and kept one foot in the customs of the old country, while their American-raised kids assimilated into the surrounding culture. This is still happening now, of course, but was happening in greater numbers back then.

Charlie Chan at the Opera has a Lestrade character–the bumbling detective who gets everything wrong. But two things make this conventional mystery character particularly interesting. First, he’s played by the wonderful William Demarest, who would light up so much of Preston Sturges’ work in the next decade. Second, he’s a bigot who doesn’t like taking orders from “chop suey.” With this character, the film strongly suggests that bigotry and stupidity go hand and hand.

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Aside from its racial undercurrent, Charlie Chan at the Opera succeeds in being exactly what it was intended to be–an unexceptional but entertaining short mystery feature. The presence of Demarest, and even more so of Boris Karloff as an escaped lunatic, raises Opera above other such movies.

I’d give it a C+.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

No racial issues in this film…unless, of course, you think about the fact that everyone in it is white. But I’ve covered that issue already.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was the second of 14 Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone as the famous detective and Nigel Bruce as his sidekick, Dr. Watson. It’s the last of the series shot on a decent budget and the last one made at 20th Century-Fox.

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It’s also set in Victorian times, which seems obvious today but was somewhat daring back then. As far as I know, every Sherlock Holmes movie made before Adventures’ predecessor, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was updated to the present. But Fox made Hound and Adventures as period pieces. At the time, this may have felt like setting a James Bond flick in the 1950s (which would actually be pretty cool).

Officially based on William Gillette’s 1899 stage play Sherlock Holmes, but very much an original story, Adventures pits Holmes and Watson against arch-villain Professor Moriarty (George Zucco). Holmes and Moriarty enjoy an interesting relationship in this film. They appear to admire and even like each other, even though they know that one of them must eventually destroy the other.

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The soundstage recreation of 19th-century London provides atmosphere, as do the supporting characters. And even though we’re told who the villain is from the start, it’s still a lot of fun. Besides, it has Ida Lupino.

Fox decided not to continue the series. But after Pearl Harbor, Universal picked it up again, updating the stories to the present so that Holmes could track down Nazi spies–although in most of these movies he goes after conventional criminals. Universal made 12 pictures before Rathbone called it quits in 1946. These movies were quickly written and quickly shot, and suffer from huge plot holes. But they’re all reasonably fun. None of them come up to the quality of the two Fox pictures.

Jewish Film Festival Preview

I’ve previewed five films that will screen at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them, in order from best to worst.

Curiously, the two best are also the least Jewish. I guess they were so good they had to be added anyway.

A Swim Little Fish Swim
Don’t let the funny, kind-of-kinky artist and model gag that opens this French/American film fool you. This is a serious drama, and an excellent one, about the conflicts of artistic dreams, political idealism, and the very real responsibilities of parenthood. Dustin Guy Defa plays a New York singer/songwriter who won’t take commercial work. In fact, he doesn’t do any work for money, much to the frustration of his frustrated wife. He takes care of their four-year-old daughter, but he’s more of a fun dad than a responsible one. Meanwhile, a beautiful, struggling French artist (Lola Bessis) needs a professional breakthrough to avoid deportation.This is the rare film about struggling artists and idealists that asks if the struggle is worth it–especially if you have young mouths to feed.

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So what makes this a Jewish film? In one extended sequence, Leeward and his family go to his parent’s home for Shabbat.

A- Comedy Warriors
Five severely disabled veterans go through a crash course in standup comedy in this upbeat documentary. Filmmaker John Wager takes the craft of comedy seriously. We get to watch successful mentors, including Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis, help these wounded newbies turn their frustrations and tragedies into effective punch lines. But the real stars of this movie are the five ex-soldiers, working hard to get laughs and putting their best feet forward–even when they’re missing feet. Best of all is the severely-burned Bobby Henline, who looks like a congenial, one-armed Frankenstein’s monster, yet always puts people at ease with his warmth and humor. In the last half hour, we see them perform for an audience; they learned their lessons well.

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And what makes this one a Jewish film? One of the five is a religious Jew. Also, although this is never discussed in the film, standup comedy is essentially a Jewish art honed in the Catskills. But that’s a bit of a stretch.

I’m glad to say that I don’t have to answer that question for the remaining three films.

B God’s Slave
A Islamist terrorist (César Troncoso) goes very deep undercover in 1994 Buenos Aires, becoming a respected doctor and a happily married husband, father, and Catholic. But when the call comes, he knows it’s time to strap a bomb to his body and die killing Jews. Meanwhile, an aging, obsessed, and ruthless Mossad agent (Vando Villamil) knows that a horrible act of terror is on the way, and will do anything to stop it. Troncoso carries the film as a man torn between his ideology and his basic humanity, but Villamil lacks the inner fire that his Mossad agent needs. The film contains one great, powerful, and suspenseful scene. But only one.

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C+ Anywhere Else
A graduate student in Berlin–stuck in academic and emotional crises–returns to her crazy Jewish family in Israel. Her German boyfriend soon follows. That sounds like a comedy, but it plays here as straight drama. That would be fine, except that too many of the characters are merely skin deep. There are, fortunately, exceptions. The lead character has moments of realistic angst. Her brother is a truly original, unpredictable joker with something eating him inside.  Her boyfriend, presumably raised to deplore his country’s Nazi past, finds the militarization of Israeli life frightening and disorienting. But you have to put that up against the stereotypical Jewish mother, the clueless father, and the angry sister who couldn’t keep her husband home. For too much of its runtime, Anywhere Else feels like a paint-by-the-numbers drama.

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C The Village of Peace
On one hand, this hour-long documentary opens a window into a fascinating Israeli sub-culture. On the other, it provides unchallenged cheerleading for a cult. Formed in Chicago in the 1960s, the African-Hebrew Israelites believe that African-Americans are the true decedents of ancient Israel. Soon after their formation, they settled in Israel and created a community, The Village of Peace. They’re vegan, health- and environmentally-conscious, polygamous, and patriarchal. Village rules ban not only meat and violence, but also democracy. The film consists almost entirely of sect members raving about their wonderful lives. It tells us very little about their relationship with Israeli society as a whole (their young adults do serve in the army) and nothing about their relationship with Palestinians. One interviewee admits that  some people leave the group, but we never meet these people or hear what they have to say.

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Note: I altered this article on July 23, corrected the time that The Village of Peace will play at the Castro on August 1.

This Year’s SF Jewish Film Fest Coming in July

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival claims to be the oldest and largest Jewish film festival in the world. And at 34, it may also be the oldest film festival geared to a particular ethnicity.

Since I am personally of that ethnicity, this festival catches my attention more than the others. Which explains why I’m not writing a similar article on the Japan Film Festival of San Francisco (although I’d do that too if I had the time).

Unfortunately, I was fighting a cold Tuesday (still am), so I missed the press conference. But I have various press releases in front of me, so I’ll try to give you an overview.

The Festival runs from July 24 through August 10 at various locations around the Bay Area. For instance, it runs in San Francisco from opening night to August 3rd, but plays Berkeley August 1 – 7. Other venues are in Oakland, Palo Alto, and San Rafael–eight theaters in all.

It will screen 49 features, more than half of them documentaries, as well as 18 shorts.

This year, the Freedom of Expression Award goes to actor (and, according to the press release, activist) Theodore Bikel. His award ceremony will include a screening of a new documentary, Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholem Aleichem.

Another of those documentaries, The Green Prince, opens the festival. It’s the story of a Palestinian fighter who is captured by the Israeli government and turned into a spy. From what I gather, it’s pretty much from the Israeli point of view, but I haven’t seen it so I’m not sure.

This year, there’s a spotlight on one of Judaism’s finest traditions: comedy. This includes two documentaries on the art of making people laugh: Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story and Comedy Warriors. Among the comic features is an Israeli military farce called Zero Motivation.

In fact, there seems to be an unofficial focus on the Israeli military. God’s Slave is a thriller involving an Islamic terrorist and a Mossad agent in Buenos Aires.

I’m hoping to preview some of these films before the Festival opens. Stay tuned.

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