The Handmaiden: Too long for its own good

B- Erotic noir
Written by Seo-Kyung Chung and Chan-wook Park, from the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Directed by Chan-wook Park

Some films really do need to run well over two hours; others don’t. The Handmaiden falls into the latter category. At 80 or 90 minutes, this would have been a really fun movie. But at 144, you spend a lot of time waiting for something worth watching.

Luckily, the waiting is rewarded. For every scene of pointless glances, needless detours, and failed attempts at atmosphere, there are two providing dark entertainment filled with lies, double crosses, surprise plot twists, and a lot of sex–much of it quite kinky.

At the very beginning, we’re told that the subtitles are color-coded. If the printed words are yellow, they’re Japanese. If they’re white, Korean. Set in both countries in the early 20th century, when Japan controlled Korea, the languages being spoken are important. Several of the characters are passing as Japanese.

The handmaiden of the title (Kim Tae-ri) is a young Korean woman who gets a job caring for a Japanese lady living in a large estate (the house is a strange mix of Japanese and British styles). Not that she really intends to help her charge. An accomplished pickpocket, she’s working with an accomplice on a plan for larceny.

Soon she and her lady/intended victim become lovers. This confuses things considerably. How confusing? I can’t tell you anymore without spoiling the story.

I will say this: You can’t be entirely sure of what you’re watching in The Handmaiden. Scenes you’ve already seen come back again from a different angle. Or maybe from the same angle, but this time you have more information, and therefore know who is conning who.

Or…maybe you still don’t know.

Everyone in this movie seems to be obsessed with sex. There’s the lesbian angle, of course. But there’s also the dirty old man with the huge selection of erotic art and books. He invites friends over for readings and sadomasochistic shows.

There’s also one, completely gratuitous, scene of extremely gruesome torture. A young man gets…never mind.

The Handmaiden is being released without a rating…probably to avoid an NC-17.

If you enjoy stories of con artists changing alliances and trying to outwit each other, as well as unique cinematic eroticism, the good scenes in The Handmaiden are probably worth wading through the bad ones. But this could have been a much better movie.

Moonlight shines new light on the inner city

Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney; based on his play
Directed by Barry Jenkins

Moonlight is the best new American film I’ve seen this year.

With the advantages of a white skin, it’s easy to assume certain stereotypes of those on the margins–especially African Americans living in what is now called the inner city. Writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and director Barry Jenkins find human truth behind those stereotypes in this remarkable film.

This is Jenkins’ first feature film since 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy. He’s made a huge improvement over that interesting yet flawed first try.

McCraney sets the story in three distinct chapters, each one focusing on a different time in the protagonist’s life. Jenkins uses three different actors to play the main character. In the first section, Little, Alex R. Hibbert plays him as a child, caught between his troubled, single mother and the drug dealer who becomes his surrogate father. Ashton Sanders plays him as a teenager, and a target for bullies, in Chiron. Trevante Rhodes, muscle-bound and dripping with gold, plays the adult. A drug dealer by trade, he looks like the stereotypical scary thug. But he’s really a shy, confused, lonely, gay man deep inside the closet.

Only Naomie Harris, as Chiron’s mother, appears in all three sections.

Mahershala Ali (one of the most interesting actors around today; you’ll probably recognize him from Game of Thrones) carries the first section as the head of a drug-dealing operation. That defines him clearly as a villain by normal Hollywood standards. But to the young Chiron, he’s a gentle, kind man who recognizes that this child needs more parenting than his mother can give. Among other things, he takes Chiron to the beach and teaches him to swim.

In one scene, Chiron asks about the word faggot. His surrogate father tells him that it’s word people use to make gay people feel bad. He also assures the confused child that if he turns out to be gay, that’s fine.

Only one brief line suggests a violent side to the drug kingpin’s line of work. But even there, it’s about self-defense.

The bullying Chiron suffers in the first two sections make a prologue for what he is in the third. At first glance, he’s the super-macho gangsta that no one will mess with. But on the inside, he’s still the scared and lonely little boy.

Jenkins and composer Nicholas Britell avoid the musical clichés of “in the ‘hood” movies. Rap pops up only briefly in the third act. Most of the music is rich and symphonic, with some recognizable classical pieces.

This isn’t a story of tough dudes in the ghetto. It’s the story of a confused young man trying to make his way in a scary world.

The Best of the Marx Brothers in one Blu-ray Box

The Marx Brothers used comedy to deflate the pompous and tear down the establishment. They turned respectable, upper-class society into anarchy and surrealism. They also made us laugh.

The brothers honed their comedy in vaudeville, jumped to Broadway, and made the leap to Hollywood at the height of the talkie revolution. They made their first five films at Paramount–the earliest surviving records of Marxist comedy that show them in their purist form.

Universal, which owns most Paramount films from that era, has restored these films and released them in a Blu-ray boxed set: The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection.

Finally, these films get the home treatment they deserve.

All five movies provide a wonderful female foil for Groucho. Margaret Dumont, the greatest straight man (actually a woman) of all time takes that role In The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, and Duck Soup. In Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, the beautiful and talented comedienne Thelma Todd spars with Groucho.

The Cocoanuts

Their first film–an amateurish effort with occasional scenes of brilliance–only hints at the laughs to come. But It’s fascinating to watch, if only for historical perspective.

The Marx Brothers first tried a long-form, story-based show in 1925 with the Broadway musical The Cocoanuts. In 1929, the Brothers filmed the play in a Queens studio during the day, while performing their second play, Animal Crackers, on Broadway at night. This is a very early talkie; the opening credits brag that you’re about to see “A Paramount Sound Picture.”

Cocoanuts suffers from the bad audio, static staging, and utilitarian photography of the transitional period–despite a few attempts at visual flair. The movie spends too much time on the stupid jewel-thieve plot and on the songs–none of which are song by the Marx Brothers (Harpo and Chico do get to play their harp and piano solos). Groucho’s usually brilliant timing fails him often in this movie; perhaps he wasn’t yet comfortable performing for a group of technicians trying desperately not to laugh.

But the non-speaking Harpo–the only member of the cast who didn’t have to worry about standing near a hidden microphone–gives his best screen performance. Whether he’s drinking ink, stealing handkerchiefs, or “swimming” across a perfectly dry room, he’s both hilarious and transcendent.

Animal Crackers

Like The Cocoanuts, the Marx Brother’s second movie is a crude adaption of a Broadway play. And yet it’s a vastly superior film, and one of their best.

For one thing, it’s a better play. Set in a big high-society party, Animal Crackers understands what Marxist humor is all about: taking all that is respectable and turning it upside down.

Technically, it’s nowhere near as crude as The Cocoanuts, with considerably better sound. And all four Marx Brothers now seem comfortable on a soundstage. Their timing is impeccable.

The new restoration brings back almost two minutes of previously missing footage–mostly risqué dialog removed by the Hayes Office years after the movie’s original release. It’s great to have it back.

Monkey Business

The first Marx Brother film not based on a stage play starts off as one of their best. But it fails to maintain momentum.

Here the Brothers play stowaways on an ocean liner. While the crew chase the stowaways, Groucho and Chico break into the captain’s cabin and insult him while they eat his lunch.

There’s a plot involving rival, good and bad gangsters. The bad gangster is married to Thelma Todd, which doesn’t stop Groucho’s flirtations. “Young lady, you’re making history. In fact, you’re making me, and I wish you’d keep my hands to yourself.”

But the movie slows down when everyone makes it to dry land and high society. Too many characters onscreen seem to enjoy the Brothers’ antics, which makes them less funny for the audience. On the upside, Groucho and Todd have another wonderful scene together. But the ending is a complete loss.

Horse Feathers

At Huxley College, the professors are pompous windbags with beards and mortarboards, while the students care only about football. But with Groucho running the college, nothing can be taken seriously. This is one of their funniest.

For the first time in a Marx Brothers movie, the plot doesn’t interfere with the fun. Necessary exposition runs by quickly and efficiently.

Horse Feathers does something unique musically for a Marx Brothers film. Each brother gets to perform their own rendition of the film’s romantic song, Everyone Says I Love You.

Unfortunately, some footage was lost over the decades. Jump cuts and lost words interfere with one of the movie’s best sequences, ruining the precision timing. Perhaps one day a complete version of this scene will turn up. Let’s hope so.

Duck Soup

The Marx Brothers’ masterpiece takes place high in the government of the mythical country of Freedonia. Could there be a better setting for attacking the self-important and pompous?

The film has no romance, little exposition, and even lacks the piano and harp solos in every other Marx Brothers movie. I won’t go into details on this one. I’ve already written about it.

How They Look

These films are over 80 years old, and for the most part they have not been well preserved. Universal presents all five movies in 1080p, pillarboxed to about 1.33×1.

Animal Crackers, restored from a duplicate negative found in England,
looks breathtakingly beautiful from start to finish. The other four movies vary in quality. Some scenes look great; others look horrible. Most of the time, they’re acceptable but not extraordinary.

How They Sound

Universal presents these movies in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono.

The Cocoanuts suffers from a lot of noise and an extremely small dynamic range. But what can you expect from a 1929 talkie.

The other movies sound as good as one could reasonably expect, considering their vintage.

And the Extras

  • Resume feature: When you insert one of the three discs a second time, you have an option to return to where you left off.
  • Booklet: The Marx Brothers from Vaudeville to Hollywood: Adapted from Robert S. Bader’s book, Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage. The article sticks mostly to money matters.
  • The Cocoanuts commentary: Anthony Slide talks quite a bit about director Robert Florey, whom he obviously reveres. But he also discusses the play, the movie, and the Brothers.
  • Animal Crackers commentary: Jeffrey Vance offers some interesting facts, but sometimes goes off topic.
  • Monkey Business commentary: Robert S. Bader and Bill Marx (Harpo’s son) talk about the Brothers’ stage work and how that effected the Paramount movies. Other topics include the Brothers’ personal lives, and Zeppo’s unusually large part in Monkey Business.
  • Horse Feathers commentary: F. X. Feeney offers some interesting bits of knowledge. But he also sits quietly for much of the time. I also noted some errors (the name Chico is pronounced chick-oh, not cheek-oh).
  • Duck Soup commentary: Leonard Maltin and Robert S. Bader provide excellent commentary about every aspect of the movie.
  • The Marx Brothers: Hollywood’s Kings of Chaos: 1080p; 80 minutes. This entertaining and informative documentary feature was made for this box set.
  • Inside the NBC Vault-The Today Show Interviews: 480i; 17 minutes. Not all that illuminating, but you get to see older versions of Groucho and Harpo, and quiver at the sexism in 1960s TV talk shows.

What’s Screening: October 21 – 27

Harry Potter, Nightmare on Elm Street, My Fair Lady, and six film festivals in this week’s Bay Area screenings.


Promising events

The Battle of Algiers, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, opens Friday

I haven’t seen Gillo Pontecorvo’s powerful story of oppression and resistance–a narrative feature designed to look like a documentary–in decades, so I’m not going to give it a grade. But if memory serves, I’d probably give it an A. The film has just received a 4K restoration, so it should look better than ever. But I don’t understand why Rialto Pictures, which is distributing the rerelease, is advertising the film with a still that makes it look like West Side Story.

Carnival of Souls, Friday, 8:30, Phyllis Wattis Theater at SFMOMA

I haven’t yet seen this low-budget horror film from 1962. It’s acquired quite a reputation. Unfortunately, I have other plans for Friday night. Part of Modern Cinema‘s Haunted Cinema.

All Eight Harry Potter Movies, New Mission, Friday through Sunday

The eight Harry Potter movies don’t quite come up to the quality of the books. How could they? The books’ success pretty much forced the filmmakers to stay as close to the originals as possible, which is never a good way to adapt a novel. But they’re still a lot of fun. But be warned: You must buy a separate ticket for each film.

Nightmare on Elm Street Marathon, New Mission, Sunday, noon

Believe it or not, I’ve never seen any of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. I was never that big on slasher flicks. Anyway, if you don’t share my opinion, you can see all seven of them in one long day and night. Unlike the Potter films above, one $35 ticket buys you entrance to the whole marathon.

Recommended revivals

A Shadow of a Doubt, Stanford, Thursday and next Friday

In Alfred Hitchcock’s first great American film, a small-town girl begins to suspect that her beloved, newly-arrived Uncle Charlie is a notorious serial killer (Joseph Cotton at his most charming). Then he begins to suspect that she suspects. Cotton’s performance makes the movie; most of the time he’s warm, friendly, and relaxed, but he can quickly turn dark and say something frightening. Written in part by Our Town playwright Thorton Wilder. The locations were shot in Santa Rosa. On a double bill with Waltzes from Vienna, which Hitchcock considered amongst his worst.

B+ Halloween, Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55 PM (just before midnight)

John Carpenter made a very good low-budget thriller that started a very bad genre: the slasher movie–also known as the dead teenager flick. In the original Halloween, an escaped psycho racks up a number of victims on the scariest night of the year. Yes, the story is absurd–the guy seems capable of getting into any place and sneaking up on anyone–but Carpenter and co-screenwriter Debra Hill take the time to let us know these particular teenagers, and that makes all the difference. By the time he goes after the mature, responsible one (Jamie Lee Curtis), you’re really scared.

B+ My Fair Lady, Vogue, Sunday, 7:00

George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion brilliantly examined issues of class, culture, and gender roles in an intimate story deftly balanced between drama and comedy. The musical version adds spectacle, which is completely unnecessary but doesn’t really hurt the story. Rex Harrison makes a wonderful Henry Higgins–tyrannical, cruel, and yet slowly falling in love and not understanding why. Audrey Hepburn is miscast. Stanley Holloway steals the movie as Eliza’s happily slothful father; his two songs are the movie’s musical highlights. Read my essay. Part of the Vogue’s Audrey Hepburn Weekend.

Lebowskies (frequently-revived classics)

Mill Valley Film Festival and Oscar Predictions

If past is prologue, hundreds of Mill Valley Film Festival attendants have now seen this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner. In every year since 2010, that coveted award went to a film that had its Bay Area premiere at Marin’s big festival.

Whatever it will be, I haven’t yet seen this year’s winner. Although I’ve seen 17 feature films shown at the Festival, I was not able to catch any of the big titles. I didn’t see Loving, La La Land, or Arrival. American Pastoral eluded me. And I failed to catch Bleed for This.

On the other hand, there’s a good chance that I’ve seen the Best Foreign Language winner. My pick of what I’ve seen would be Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman. But Farhadi’s A Separation won four years ago, so he might not get it this time. But I’d be happy to see Julieta, Toni Erdmann, or A Man Called Ove win the subtitled Oscar.

A Separation

Despite my not having seen it, I’m now going to predict this year’s Best Picture winner: It will be Mill Valley’s closing film, Loving.

Since I haven’t yet seen the movie, I can’t say that it should win. I want to see it, and I want it to be good enough to earn the statue I believe it will get. Here’s why I think it will win:

Remember @OscarSoWhite? Last year, the Academy embarrassed the whole industry by its overwhelmingly Euro-American selection of nominees. So this year, they’ll go for something that will tell the world that Hollywood isn’t racist (which, of course, it is).


But which African-American film should they celebrate? Birth of a Nation? There’s that rape controversy. Moonlight? I loved it, but everyone in it is black and the lead character is gay. That’s a little too tolerant for the Academy.

But Loving is perfect. It has white and black leads. It’s about the horrors of segregation. It’s set in the 1960s, which is just barely far enough away for us to feel superior. And we know going in that it has a feel-good, we’re-no-longer-a-racist-country happy ending.

So Loving will win the Oscar. Unless, of course, I’m wrong.

Along time in the making: Boyhood on Blu-ray

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is such a unique and important experience that I had to make an exception. I usually limit my Blu-ray reviews to classic films. But when I discovered that Criterion was releasing a two-disc, supplement-filled Blu-ray release of Richard Linklater’s epic story of everyday life, I had to give it a good, long look.

We’ve watched movie series where the characters–and the actors playing them–aged from film to film, as in the Harry Potter series and Linklater’s own Before trilogy. And we’ve seen films, set over many years, with different actors playing the same person at different points of their life, such as Little Big Man and A Man Called Ove.

But Boyhood is different. Linklater shot the film, with an unchanging cast, in short increments, over a 12-year period. The central character, Mason, and the actor who played him, Ellar Coltrane, were both six when they started shooting; character and actor were both 18 when they finished. This gives the story a reality that’s rare in a film set in a span of years.

It also required a considerable gamble for the investors. You can’t contractually lock a six-year-old child into a twelve-year-old commitment. Luckily, everyone stuck to it and the movie got made.

Something else unique: The film has no conventional conflict-based plot. The things that happen to Mason and his family are, for the most part, things that happen all the time. With one exception, there’s no real drama of the sort we have come to expect as moviegoers. For the most part, the film avoids life’s big moments (first kiss, graduation, and so on), concentrating on everyday experiences.

But everyday experiences can be difficult. Mason’s parents, who became parents much too early, have already broken up when the story begins. Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette) struggles to make ends meet as she raises Mason and his older sister, Samatha (played by the director’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater). Mom tends to make poor choices in men. Their father (Ethan Hawke) has some growing up to do himself.

As I watched Boyhood for the third time, I became more impressed with the risks Linklater made in creating this work. Would a 2014 audience remember Sarah Palin’s daughter–discussed in a scene shot in 2008? How could he know that the six-year-old Coltrane would grow into such a good-looking teenager? I don’t know if Apple helped finance the film, but if you watch the props, you’ll see an evolution in the company’s consumer products.

As much as Boyhood captures Texas in the early 21st century, its story is universal. I saw a lot of my own youth (in LA in the 1960s and early 70s) in this story.

I reviewed Boyhood when it came out in 2014. You’ll find more about this exceptional film in that review.

How It Looks

Boyhood will probably be Linklater’s last film shot in 35mm. When he started shooting Boyhood in 2002, digital cameras couldn’t compete with physical film. He went digital with Bernie and Before Midnight, in between Boyhood shoots,
but for the sake of visual consistency, he stuck with film on the 12-year project.

Criterion’s Blu-ray, presents these film-based images in 1080p, with a very small letterbox to achieve the theatrical 1.85×1 aspect ratio. It was scanned at 2K from the original negative; I assume it’s the same scan used for the DCP-based theatrical release.

The results look great for the most part. Just one party scene, shot as a night exterior, showed too much contrast; I don’t remember noticing that when I saw it theatrically.

How It Sounds

The original 5.1 soundtrack is presented here in DTS-HD Master Audio. No complaints.

And the Extras

  • The package comes with a printed booklet, most of which is taken up by Jonathan Lathem’s essay, The Moment Seizes You. The booklet also includes credits for the film and the disc. (One interesting tidbit: The original title was 12 Years. The release of 12 Years a Slave forced them to pick a new title.)
  • Like all Criterion Blu-rays, the movie has a timeline where you can store bookmarks. It also remembers where you were when you last removed the disc, and offers to bring you back there when you reinsert it.
  • Commentary: Linklater and members of the cast and crew discuss the film. I was surprised to discover how much the film reflects Linklater’s own childhood. Occasionally dull be usually interesting.

The rest of the extras are on the second disc.

  • Twelve years: 1080i; 49 minutes. Like Boyhood itself, this making-of documentary was 12 years in the making. Linklater and major cast members talk during the long filming.
  • Memories of the Present: 1080p; 58 minutes. Conversation with Linklater, Arquette, and Contrane. Moderated by Variety’s John Pierson. They cover a lot of topics. Sometimes interesting, sometimes boring.
  • Always Now: 1080p; 30 minutes. Conversation with Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane. They talk about the experience of making and promoting the film. It gives you a sense of who these people are.
  • Time of Your Life: 1080p; 12 minutes. Video essay by Michael Koresky, narrated by Ellar Coltrane. Concentrates on Linklater’s use of time in his films.s Just okay.
  • Though the Years: 1080p. 24 minutes. Members of the cast and crew narrate their own experiences, accompanied by production photos by Matt Lankes. Partially promotion for Lankes’ book, this short shows the emotional experience of an off-and-on, 12-year movie shoot.

What’s missing? The trailer.

Closing the Mill Valley Film Festival with 3D and Disney Animation

Yes, I know. This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival closes with several screenings of Loving. But I’m not able to attend any of them. So I finished my Mill Valley Film Festival with two special presentations at the Rafael.

Both events were family friendly, and had quite a few children present.

The 3D Sideshow

As he did two years ago, Robert Bloomberg presented a collection of 3D shorts and (and a couple of trailers) from the early days of steroscopic movies to the present.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • The documentary Hidden Worlds starts with a history of recording and presenting images stereoscopically. Then it went on to show us some very beautiful images.
  • Hidden Stereo Treasures claims to be an old, educational film about rare 3D cameras. But you soon realize that its intentions are comical.
  • One short film, whose name I didn’t get (probably because it was in Russian), showed a remarkable juggling act. Juggling works really well in 3D. I saw this same film five years ago when Serge Bromberg received his Mel Novikoff Award.
  • If you’ve seen Finding Dory, you’ve seen Piper, the Pixar short that preceded it. It’s funny and adorable.


After the screenings, Pixar’s Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer came on stage to answer questions. Some highlights, edited for clarity:

  • Does 3D make animation more difficult? It’s a two-step process. You create it in 2D, then do it again in 3D. There are slight differences.
  • A film is never finished. It’s done when a producer tells you it’s done.
  • Short films are meant to test the technology.
  • Animators are actors who don’t want to go on stage.

PANEL: Disney Animation Technistas

What does it take to create the fantasy worlds of computer animation? And are women welcome on the technical side of the equation? This panel discussion was meant to answer those questions.

Five women, all doing technical work at Disney Animation, discussed how they created ways to animate fur, clothing, and water for Zootropia and the upcoming Moana. The women were Sara Drakeley (general technical director), Heather Pritchett (also general technical director), Erin Ramos (effects animator), Michelle Robinson (character look supervisor), and Maryann Simmons (senior software engineer).

Variety’s Steven Gaydos moderated the talk.

I wasn’t allowed to take notes for this discussion, so there’s not much more I can say about it. But I can say one thing: The women talked about their work, and not about being women in a male-oriented business.

Near the end, Gaydos brought up the subject. He asked if the number of women in animation are growing. Pritchett said they very much are. She had always seen other women working in animation. But now, she sees teams that are about half and half.

Good to know there’s progress.