Mill Valley Film Festival Preview, Part II

Since I wrote Part 1, I’ve managed to see three additional movies that will screen at the upcoming Mill Valley Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them, in order of best to worst.

A Hide and Seek 
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Four young adults, two women and two men, move into a large and remote country house, intent on a life of self-discovery and sex. Mostly sex. That sounds like a wild fling, but everything is oddly planned and organized. For instance, they have a schedule defining who will sleep with who each night. Of course, things won’t stay that organized. For a drama and character study, Hide and Seek is unusually upbeat, and has surprisingly little dialog. Much goes unexplained–finances, for instance. And yet, through looks, gestures, and some well-chosen words, we come to know these four extremely well–and not only because we see a lot of them with their clothes off. A remarkable work, and a pretty explicit one.

  • Sequoia, Saturday October 4, 3:00
  • Rafael, Monday, October 6, 3:30

B- For Those About to Rock: The Story of Rodrigo y Gabriela
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For the first two thirds of its 84-minute runtime, this is yet another music documentary woefully lacking in music. We watch and hear Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintera talk about their music and their struggles to get recognized. We learn how they developed their unique style–which I’d describe as instrumental, acoustic heavy metal with a Latin flare–in their native Mexico City, and how they found fame in Ireland. But you only hear the music itself in brief snatches, much of it as basic movie background music. You never hear a song all the way through, and get only quick glimpses of what makes these two worth being the subject of a documentary. But then, almost an hour into the movie, it becomes the concert film it should always have been, and thus becomes exciting and magical.

  • Rafael, Sunday, October 5, 8:00
  • Rafael, Tuesday, October 7, 2:15

C Tu Dors Nicole
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Like its main character, this low-key French-Canadian comedy/drama seems to make a point of going nowhere. That would be fine if it was already in an interesting place. The protagonist is a young woman sharing in her parent’s comfortable home (while they’re out of town) with her brother and his band. Early on, writer/director Stéphane Lafleur shows a nice touch for quiet, off-beat humor, with an awkward end to a one-night-stand and a 10-year-old boy with the baritone voice of a large man. But the humor dries up soon, and then there’s nothing left but characters who–aside from some occasional moments–are neither deep nor interesting.

  • Rafael, Friday, October 10, 3:45
  • Sequoia, Saturday, October 11, 8:45

Kubrick in digital and on film

Digital or film? For cinephiles, that’s the great controversy of our age. And the arguments get particularly agitated when talking about classic pictures made at a time when digital projection wasn’t an option.

But in the coming weeks, you get your chance to watch two Stanley Kubrick classics on 35mm film, and then again on DCP–the digital format used for professional theater projection. The films are Dr. Strangelove and The Shining.

This Sunday, September 28, the Roxie will screen both films as a double bill. Then, as part of their ongoing series, Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick, the Pacific Film Archive will screen Dr. Strangelove on Sunday, October 4. On Friday, October 24, they’ll screen The Shining. Both pictures will be screened off DCPs.

What motivated their decisions?

PFA programmer Steve Seid told me that that when he requested the films from Warner Brothers, and "they said only Eyes Wide Shut was on film." In other words, he had no choice about The Shining.  I neglected to ask him about Strangelove, which is not owned by Warner.

And what about the Roxie? Seid, who’s on the Roxie board, told me that they don’t have the DCI-compliant projector needed for DCPs. The best they can do, digitally, is Blu-ray. That can look very good on a theater screen, but not as good as a 35mm print.

The Roxie double bill is in conjunction with the Spoke Art gallery, which is running a Kubrick tribute art show which, unfortunately, closes today. Art Spoke’s owner, Ken Harman, provided the prints for the Roxie. Harman told me that "The choice to go 35mm was mostly an aesthetic one, I’m by no means a ‘purist’ and appreciate DCP, however being able to view films in 35mm is getting more and more rare…"

Harmen did not tell me where he got the prints. Seid assumes "that the Roxie found either archival or private prints." In that case, those prints should really be a treat.

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.

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