Mifune and The Handmaiden at the Mill Valley Film Festival

Quick notes on two films screening at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Both films have one more screening at the festival, and both will soon get a theatrical release.

Mifune: The Last Samurai

I caught this documentary at the Lark Friday night. Director Steven Okazaki introduced the film, describing his first Mifune experience: The Seven Samurai, projected off a 16mm print onto a bedsheet that was not secured at the bottom. When someone opened the door, wind fluttered the sheet, and everyone complained.

Fortunately, the screen at the Lark is properly mounted, and we had no such problems.

As the title suggests, this biography of Toshiro Mifune concentrates on his samurai films, especially those he made with Akira Kurosawa (arguably cinema’s greatest collaboration between auteur and actor). If you have any interest in Japanese films, you’re going to enjoy this movie. And you’ll probably learn a few things about them, as well–including information about the earliest sword-fighting silents. Interview subjects include Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.

I give Mifune: The Last Samurai a B+.

After the film, Okazaki came back on stage for Q&A. Some highpoints, lightly edited for clarity:

  • I wanted to do a history of samurai movies, but my producer told me that that was impossible [because of rights issues].
  • On the breakup of the Kurosawa/Mifune relationship: People want one clear explanation, such as Mifune getting mad because the beard Kurosawa made him grow for Red Beard
    kept him from making other films. In reality, I don’t think there was ever a moment when Mifune didn’t want to work with Kurosawa.
  • He never stopped smoking.
  • Despite Mifune’s impressively athletic physique, he insisted he never worked out.

Mifune: The Last Samurai will screen again this Sunday, October 16, at 2:15, at the Century Larkspur. According to Okazaki, it will play at Bay Area theaters in November.

The Handmaiden

I saw this erotic noir recently at a press screening, not realizing that it was also playing at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

This atmospheric Korean thriller boils over with lies, double crosses, larceny, surprise plot twists, and a lot of sex–much of it quite kinky. At 90 minutes, it would be a great entertainment, but at its actual length of 144, it often drags. The handmaiden of the title works for a young Japanese lady she plans to rob. Things get messy. Overall, the good scenes in The Handmaiden are worth wading through the bad ones.

I give The Handmaiden a B-.

The film has one more Festival screening, tonight, at the Lark, at 8:15. It opens in Bay Area theaters on October 28.

The Phantom Boy doesn’t quite come together

C+ Animated family-oriented fantasy crime thriller

Written by Alain Gagnol

Directed by Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli

Eleven-year-old Leo is very sick. He’s in the hospital, will be for months, and he may not survive. But he has a superpower. His spirit can leave his body, fly through walls, and see and hear everything around him.

Meanwhile, an evil villain demands a billion dollars or else he will destroy New York City’s power and data networks. Need I mention that he has two bumbling assistants?

Then there’s the often brilliant and athletic, but occasionally clumsy police detective. He’s got a sidekick of sorts–a pretty newspaper reporter who’s obviously in love with him.

All of these parts don’t quite come together in this moderately entertaining movie. Yes, it has thrills and laughs, but neither the suspense nor the humor ratchet up enough to make The Phantom Boy really worth seeing.

The detective breaks a leg early on, and is confined to the same hospital as Leo. Once the cop recognizes Leo’s powers, they become a team to protect the journalist (AKA, the damsel in distress) and save the city. Leo can follow the reporter, flying all over the place, sticking his head through walls, all without being seen. When he talks, the sound doesn’t come out of his disembodied spirit, but from his physical body back in the detective’s room in the hospital. Then the detective can give the reporter instructions via cellphone.

Another thing we learn early about Leo’s powers: If he stays out of his body long enough, his disembodied hands and then feet begin to fade away. If he stays out too long, he will never be able to return to his body. Nothing like a painfully obvious plot point.

Leo’s mortality is the movie’s biggest problem. When the hero is a dying kid, there are only two possible endings. Either Leo dies, which is way too sad for such a light piece of entertainment. Or he recovers, which is predictable and mawkish.

Despite the New York setting, The Phantom Boy is a French film, and in the subtitled version that I reviewed, everyone speaks French. That’s kind of funny at first, but I got used to it. Theaters will be screening both subtitled and dubbed versions.

Newspapers and signage are all in English.

As old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation goes, The Phantom Boy isn’t particularly original, clever, or beautiful. It can’t hold a candle to another recent, feature-length French cartoon, April and the Extraordinary World.

There is one curious bit of design. The main villain has what is repeatedly described as a horribly disfigured face. A running gag keeps him from explaining the disaster that ruined his face. But judging from how he looks in the movie, he was apparently attacked by Pablo Picasso.

3 Views of America: What I saw in theaters this weekend

I saw three movies in theaters this weekend.

Free State of Jones at the Elmwood

Being a history buff, and particularly one interested in the Civil War and reconstruction, I couldn’t help rushing out to see Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones. I caught it at the Elmwood.

Matthew McConaughey stars as an actual historical figure, Newton Knight, a Confederate Army deserter who led a band of escaped slaves and other discontents. They fought the Confederacy and successfully held considerable land. After the war, he supported reconstruction and tried to help the freedmen gain their rightful place in society.

It’s an interesting piece of history, and one that Americans should know something about. What’s more, it makes for an exciting movie. (I don’t know to what degree the movie is historically accurate. I suspect not much.) It can’t help being something of a white savior movie, but that flaw really couldn’t be avoided in a story that really needed to be told.

I give it a B.

I’ve been to the Elmwood many times, but always for something showing in the theater’s big, downstairs auditorium. This time, Jones played in one of the two small, upstairs auditoriums. It was horrible. The front row was way too far back, and there was no way to get close enough to the screen.

Even worse, a low wall in front of the front row was much too close for comfort. I had to tuck my legs under the seat. My back was sore at the end of the movie. Some low chairs, or even bing bang chairs, in the front would help.

Next time something I want to see is at the Elmwood, I’ll make sure it’s screening downstairs before I go.

Scarlet Letter at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

Sunday was the last day of the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, and the 1926 version of The Scarlet Letter was the final movie of the day. I introduced the film, explaining how star Lillian Gish pushed to get the film made despite censorship issues.

In case you don’t remember reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel in High School, it’s set in 17th century Puritan Massachusetts. Hester Prynne, whose husband disappeared years ago, has a baby out of wedlock and suffers from religious intolerance.

The film, which is very much the MGM version, emphasizes the romance between Hester and her lover, the church minister Arthur Dimmesdale. But unlike the universally reviled Demi Moore version, MGM kept the tragic ending. It’s a powerful story, well-told. I give it an A-.

The 16mm print screened was washed out and fuzzy. As I have never seen a good print of this film; I suspect that nothing better is available.

Bruce Loeb did a wonderful job on piano. His music enhanced the emotions onscreen and deepened the story.

The Lusty Men at the Pacific Film Archive

Nicholas Ray examines masculinity in this modern western drama set in the world of the rodeo. The lusty men of the title are irresponsible, bad with money, and courageous to the point of stupidity. The women who love them suffer for it.

The Lusty Men is not, as I had assumed, about a love triangle. At least not in the traditional sense. Yes, it’s about two men and one woman, but the men don’t compete for the woman. It’s the wife who must compete against her husband’s new bromance.

Robert Mitchum stars as Jeff McCloud, a former star of the rodeo circuit with one too many injuries. He latches onto the happily-married Wes and Louise (Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward). Wes is a cowhand, working for someone else, and badly wanting enough to buy his own place. The rodeo promises quick, easy, yet dangerous cash, and Jeff offers to mender him. Wes eagerly jumps into the world of constant travel, heavy drinking, poker, bar fights, and the adrenaline rush of riding a wild horse or (much worse) bull. Louise is pulled into it far more reluctantly.

The rodeo industry clearly approved of this film’s production–although I can’t help wondering if they had read the script. The film contains a good deal of actual rodeo footage. Much of this footage, accompanied by on- and off-screen announcers, celebrate the real cowboys on the real horses and bulls we’re looking at. One problem: This real-live footage didn’t match well with the footage shot for the film. It was grainier and slightly out of focus.

I give The Lusty Men an A-.

The PFA screened a brand-new 35mm print (I’m delighted to know that Warner Brothers is still making them). For the most part, it was beautiful, and did service to Lee Garmes’ moody black and white photography. The occasional scratches were, I assume, from the source material.

John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home at the Pacific Film Archive

John Ford directed seven films in the three years preceding Pearl Harbor. That in itself wasn’t so remarkable in the days of studio assembly lines. But the quality of those seven show the power of a mature artist at his height. They include Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln, and How Green Was My Valley.

The Long Voyage Home, the fifth film in that remarkable series, isn’t as well known as the four I listed above. But it should be. A story of a small, commercial freighter in the early months of World War II, it balances multiple characters while recreating a way of life that most of us will never experience.

The UCLA Film and Television Archive recently preserved The Long Voyage Home, creating a new preservation negative and at least one 35mm projection print. I saw that print projected Sunday at the Pacific Film Archive.

Like Stagecoach, The Long Voyage Home is an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle. And like Stagecoach, John Wayne and Thomas Mitchell carry much of the film’s story. Both films were produced by Walter Wanger.

Based on four short plays by Eugene O’Neill, and adapted for the screen by Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach), The Long Voyage Home starts by introducing us to the crew. They support each other, drink, and commit minor acts of rebellion against the officers. But it isn’t all comradeship; when drunk enough, they fight with each other.

And they talk about giving up the sea and finding a life on land. But they never make it. When a voyage is done and they get their pay, they drink themselves broke, and have to sign up on another ship. Thus the title. Once you go to sea, getting back is nearly impossible.

But it’s 1940, and they have to ship munitions from the neutral United States to besieged England. Their ship has become a powder keg, and German submarines are combing the Atlantic searching for prey.

The John Wayne of this film is far from the iconic hero he was already starting to become. Here he’s a young, sweet-natured Swedish seaman; not quite a greenhorn but not all that experienced, either. But this time, he’s determined to get back to his mother’s farm. If you think that John Wayne with a Swedish accent is laughable, you’re in for a big surprise. He sounds subtle and natural.

Wayne got top billing (although he had to share the card with three other actors), but Thomas Mitchell probably has more lines and screen time. He plays a philosophical Irishman who knows every pitfall a sailor can fall into, yet always manages to take the fall. The rest of the cast is filled out by Ford regulars such as Ward Bond, Barry Fitzgerald, and John Qualen.

Most seagoing movies of the studio era look horribly fake with their soundstage decks and tiny models. Not The Long Voyage Home. While watching the picture, you can easily to forget the film was shot almost entirely on soundstages. Ford and his film crew create a true sense of being out to sea.

Much of the credit for that success, I suspect, should go to the great cinematographer Gregg Toland; his next project would be Citizen Kane. As with Kane, Toland experimented with deep focus here. He also helped us see the textures of the ship, and the pieces of light and darkness inevitable when you’re living inside a machine.

As Welles did with Kane, Ford shared his credit with Toland, with director and photographer named together.

UCLA’s new print does Toland’s work justice. On my Sunday post, I described a 35mm print of Yumeji as “
a very strong argument for digital projection.” This new print of The Long Voyage Home provides an important corrective.

Big and shallow fun in Captain America: Civil War

After the San Francisco International Film Festival, I like to clear my palette with a totally escapist, Hollywood-style explosion movie. So Tuesday night, my wife and I saw Captain America: Civil War. And we even saw it in 3D.

I enjoyed it. Well, sort of. I’m giving it a B-.

In case you make a point of ignoring the biggest blockbusters, Marvel Comics has become the biggest studio in Hollywood, cranking out action-and-effects laden superhero movies that a large portion of our population can’t go without. This particular slice of what’s called The Marvel Universe involves The Avengers, a misfit group of superheroes (or “enhanced humans”) that fight evil together when they’re not arguing or fighting evil in their own movies.

While saving the world, The Avengers accidentally kill a few innocent bystanders (it’s really amazing that this doesn’t happen more often). So the governments of the world insist these loose cannons will now only fight evil when the United Nations asks them to. About half of them, led by Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), agree. But the other half, led by Captain America (Chris Evans) refuse.

Look at the movie’s title, and you’ll know what side the story falls on.

To the screenwriters’ credit (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, from a graphic novel by Mark Millar), Iron Man’s argument is treated fairly…up to a point. My own point of view: If there are individuals capable of creating mass destruction and are willing to do so for what they think is the greater good, I hope they’re supervised.

The conflict between heroes takes a lot of the fun out of the action sequences–and that’s the movie’s biggest weakness. When both sides are the good guys, there’s no rooting interest. All you can do is wish they would come to their senses and hope that no one gets hurt.

The big centerpiece fight takes place on the tarmac of a large, international, and strangely empty airport. (Why is it empty? So that these powerful beings can destroy millions of dollars’ worth of property without hurting a single innocent bystander.) What makes this sequence fun, despite the lack of a side to root for, is the comedy. The filmmakers wisely added Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (newcomer Tom Holland) into this fight–and only this fight–to bring in some much-needed laughs.

Holland’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man is the best thing in this movie, and he has only two scenes. Holland plays the web-slinger as an awkward adolescent who doesn’t know when to shut up. While fighting with Captain America, he points out that the Captain’s shield ignores the laws of physics. Of course, so does almost everything in the movie. Marisa Tomei plays a surprisingly sexy Aunt May.

The much smaller final fight is basically Captain America and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) going up against Iron Man. It was painful to watch–and not in a good way.

Marvel inserted two hints for future films into the closing credits. One is an obvious sequel. The other promises a new Spider-Man reboot starring Holland. That’s the one I’m looking forward to.

We saw Civil War at the Grand Lake’s beautiful Theater 1. After the New Mission‘s downstairs theater, this is probably the best place to see a big, new 3D blockbuster (like the New Mission, it uses two separate digital projectors for 3D). And if you take price into consideration, it’s probably the best–especially on a Tuesday, when all movies, even those in 3D, cost only $5 a ticket.

Visiting North Korea and Afghanistan: Wednesday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

I’ve really come to hate the upstairs theaters at the New Mission. The number of decent seats are in the single digits–and for the festival, most of them are reserved. The front row is so close it can induce headaches–even for me. If you don’t want to sit that close, and you weren’t one of the first people in the theater, you have to sit way to the side and watch the screen at an extreme angle.

I saw two San Francisco International Film Festival movies Wednesday, both in upstairs theaters.

B+ Under the Sun

Associate Programmer Audrey Chang introduced the film. She explained that the North Korean government commissioned this documentary, intended to present the wonderful life of a “typical” family, complete with two adorable daughters. But the government didn’t have control over the editing, and was not happy with the final result.

The Ukrainian director, Vitaly Mansky, was not able to attend. There was no Q&A.

Under the Sun is on the Festival’s Hold Review list, which means that I must review it in 100 words or less. Here goes:

Of course the people of Pyongyang look happy and prosperous. The government controlled what the filmmakers could shoot and told the subjects what to say and how to say it. But once out of North Korea and into the editing room, Director Vitaly Mansky shows the fakery. He left in footage that shows how everything was staged. We see the government handler reminding people to smile broader. We see multiple takes–with people spouting increasingly higher made-up statistics. He changes people’s careers. But he makes the point too many times; the film could have been 15 minutes shorter.

It will screen again Thursday at the Pacific Film Archive, 6:30. There’s also a good chance that it will get a theatrical release.

B- Neither Heaven nor Earth

Another Hold Review film that I have to review in 100 words or less:

This war movie follows a small group of French soldiers trying to hold onto a piece of Afghanistan. They have a difficult, mutually suspicious relationship with the locals. But things get jumpy when two men disappear without clues or explanation. Then others disappear. The disappearances seem impossible, and particularly bother the commanding officer, who insists on bringing his soldiers back dead or alive. The action sequences are suspenseful and well-made. Some of the French characters are fleshed out (but not the Afghans). And the disappearance mystery is a real puzzle. But the ending is a complete fail.

There were no filmmakers available for Q&A, which was too bad, because the whole audience wanted to ask one very big question.

I saw the last screening at the festival, but it may get an American theatrical release.

Trains on Film Saturday report

I spent Saturday at the Rafael, where I caught three of the six movies in the Trains on Film mini-festival ending today (Sunday). I had seen all three films before, but this was a great way to see them. And not only because of the big screen and enthusiastic audience. Film historian David Thomson and poet/novelist Michael Ondaatje introduced each film, and then led a Q&A afterwards.

Early on in the lobby, I asked Thomson the question that had been eating me since I first saw the Trains on Film schedule. Why not The General?
He explained that there were hundreds of films he wanted to show, and there were issues of getting prints and so on.

Shanghai Express

Thomson continued that thought once we were in the auditorium, acknowledging that “whatever films we showed, you’d be infuriated by what we left out. So would we.”

To partially make up for missing favorites, they screened excerpts from other films. The first excerpt of the day was a song from one of MGM’s most forgettable musicals, Harvey Girls. They also screened a short film from the 1950s about toy trains.

Direct Phil Kaufman (The Right Stuff) was in the audience, and was invited to come on stage. He talked about the difficulties of recreating the inside of a train on a soundstage with rear-screen projectors in the windows (it’s easier today with digital effects). On The Unbearable Lightless of Being, “We shot a number of trains. Being on a train with Lena Olin, you realize just how sexy trains were.”

Before screening the feature film, Shanghai Express, Thompson called it “the best in the series,” and talked a bit about director Von Sternberg. This was the third and most successful of the six films he made with his muse, Marlene Dietrich.

This was my first time seeing Shanghai Express on the big screen, where I could really appreciate the stunning visuals. Von Sternberg created not only the train, but a real sense of China, all on the Paramount lot, and then added the most romantic lighting imaginable.

The story is something of a precursor to Stagecoach, following people of very different levels of society as they travel through war-torn country. But it’s not Stagecoach. The characters (aside from Dietrich) are thin, and the movie goes on way too long after the suspense is over.

But having finally seen it properly, I’m now bumping its grade up to a B+.

The 35mm print looked gorgeous.

The Lady Vanishes

The second session of the day started with the opening of Bad Day at Black Rock and the dining car scene from North by Northwest.

That last one was particularly appropriate. North by Northwest is, in my opinion, Alfred Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, deftly leavening the thrills with comedy. The Lady Vanishes is a close second. Shanghai Express may be David Thomson’s favorite of the six films in this series, but The Lady Vanishes is mine.

I won’t go into details about The Lady Vanishes here. I’ve already done so in my Blu-ray review.

The movie was digitally projected, probably from a DCP, and it looked and sounded great. It’s nice to see such a funny thriller with an audience. But I was disappointed with the meager applause for Hitchcock’s cameo.

After the movie, Thomson and Ondaatje came on stage for a discussion with the audience. They had done that with Shanghai Express, but this time, they had comfortable chairs and water bottles.

Thomson found this to be an “interesting look at the English Hitchcock. It’s so light, and he went on to make such dark films.” He felt that the film suggested a “moral failure of people who don’t speak English.” This led to a discussion of various British accents.

When they asked for questions and comments from the audience, I pointed out that the couple’s first meeting was a direct rip-off from the Astaire-Rogers classic, Top Hat.

Runaway Train

The excerpts before the final film of the day were from two movies as different as beloved classics can get: Tokyo Story
and The Wild Bunch. Thomson
apologized for the Tokyo Story clip; the train doesn’t come in until quite late. But even if you’re not looking for trains, the scene doesn’t really work outside of context.

I never cared much about The Wild Bunch, but this except was a great scene on its own, and all about a train.

Also before the feature, Michael Ondaatje read an excerpt from his book, Running in the Family, primarily about his alcoholic father and…of course…trains.

Runaway Train has a curious history. After making Red Beard, Akira Kurosawa wrote a screenplay for what was to be his first American, English-language film. The project fell through. Almost 20 years later, Golan-Globus Productions–an exploitation studio that made the occasional good movie–acquired the rights to Kurosawa’s script. Three other screenwriters rewrote the script, and the final movie has the odd credit “Based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa.”

The film came out in 1985. I rented it on Laserdisc in the early 90s, didn’t care for it much, and didn’t see it again until Saturday night.

I can see why I didn’t care for it on Laserdisc, but it’s a hell of a ride on the big screen. Sure, the dialog ix badly written and extremely corny. Some of the characters are broad enough to be unintentionally funny.

But I don’t think I could come up with a better thriller setup than three very different people on an out-of-control train building up speed while racing through an Alaskan winter. And the overdone dialog eventually gives the movie an epic quality.

I give it a B+.

They screened the film from a gorgeous 35mm print. I think this was the first time I’d heard an optical Dolby Stereo soundtrack in maybe 15 years. It’s not as good as today’s digital tracks, but it felt pleasantly nostalgic.

A technical problem with the Rafael’s 35mm projectors forced a short intermission. But that only happened once.

Afterwards, Thomson and Ondaatje discussed the film, how closing credits have gotten out of control (“If this film was made today, the credits would still be going on”), and the problematic career of the film’s star, John Voight.

One member of the audience pointed out that the train itself becomes a character here, and asked about other films where that happened. Thomson mentioned one: The General.