Mifune documentary enjoyable and enlightening

B+ Documentary
Directed by Steven Okazaki

If you have any interest at all in Japanese cinema, you’re bound to enjoy Mifune: The Last Samurai, a love letter to the legendary movie star. Even if you already know a great deal about Toshiro Mifune, you’ll probably learn something new. For instance, I discovered through this film that shooting Throne of Bloods climax was even more dangerous than I’d otherwise believed.

Steven Okazaki’s biographical documentary concentrates on the actor’s samurai movies–especially those directed by Akira Kurosawa. Aside from Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy, no non-Kurosawa films get significant coverage. The same goes for Kurosawa’s contemporarily-set movies. Even Drunken Angel, their first collaboration and the film that made Mifune a star, gets passed over quickly.

The documentary begins with the birth of the Japanese film industry, long before Mifune ever stepped in front of a movie camera. We learn about samurai films of the silent era, where the hero never gets the girl and seldom survives. From there the film hops to World War II, and Mifune’s role in the military, training kamikaze pilots.

According to legend, Toshiro Mifune became an actor by mistake. After the war, he went to the Toho studio searching for a job as a camera assistant, but he got into the wrong line and ended up making a screen test. Drunken Angel was his third film.

Okazaki identifies the 1950s and early 60s as the golden age of Japanese film–an opinion I generally agree with. The documentary examines such Kurosawa classics as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo, with an emphasis on Mifune’s character and performance.

After Red Beard
(1965), Mifune and Kurosawa went their separate ways, ending what was arguably the greatest collaboration of actor and auteur in film history (my opinion, anyway). No one knows for sure why they stopped working together. Martin Scorsese, interviewed in the film, offers the best theory: Collaborators grow apart, and find they can’t work together anymore. (I couldn’t help wondering if he was thinking of his own professional relationship with Robert De Niro when he said it.)

Mifune struggled without Kurosawa. He created his own production company, but that became an albatross around his neck. He was caught up in a sex scandal. He died of Alzheimer’s at the age of 77.

Stylistically, Mifune: The Last Samurai looks like any other documentary about recent history. It has newsreel clips, scenes from movies, stills from other movies, and interviews with people who knew the man. His son Shiro does a great deal of the talking (the film is narrated by Keanu Reeves). Other actors and crew members who worked with Mifune, as well as Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, add their own memories and opinions.

When you see the movie, stay through the closing credits. You’ll be rewarded.

Doc Stories festival opens with Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Quick note: Yes, I’ve been changing Bayflicks’ design a lot lately. Hopefully this one will last.

Growing up with famous parents can’t be easy–especially if your father left home for Elizabeth Taylor, and your relentlessly upbeat mother insisted that you follow in her footsteps. And then, decades later, a bunch of documentarians invade your privacy to record your troubled family.

The Doc Stories film festival opened Thursday night at the Castro with Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, a look at the mother and daughter who starred (separately) in Singin’ in the Rain
and Star Wars.

Evening shows almost always start with an organ concert at the Castro. Appropriately, the organist last night stuck to songs Reynolds sang in her many movies–mostly tunes from Singin in the Rain. But the organist didn’t honor her famous daughter with John Williams’ famous Star Wars score.

San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan started the show proper, bringing up directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, as well as producer Todd Fisher. The family relationships may get a little complicated here. Todd Fisher is Debbie Reynolds’ son and Carrie Fisher’s kid brother. In addition to producing the movie, he’s one of the subjects, and the documentary shows us his home, his wife, and his wife’s pet chicken. Co-director Fisher Stevens isn’t related.

After brief comments, they screened Bright Lights.

Debbie Reynolds was an MGM contract player in the 1940s, and when this documentary was shot, she was still doing a one-woman live show. Her daughter, Carrie Fisher, struggled with mental issues and drug addiction, became an icon with Star Wars, and has a remarkable wit. Daughter Carrie worries that her mother is pushing herself too hard.

While largely sympathetic, this documentary doesn’t flinch from its portrait of a barely functional family. We learn about Fisher’s father issues, Reynolds’ obsession with looks and perceived optimism, and the strange circumstances of how Fisher lost her virginity (her mother wanted to supervise).

The movie is at times breezy, funny, touching, and sad. I give it a B.

Last night was probably the film’s only theatrical screening in the Bay Area. It will have theatrical runs in Los Angeles and New York later this year–presumably for Oscar eligibility. It will run on HBO in March.

After the film, Cowan, Bloom, Stevens, and Todd Fisher came on stage again. Debbie Reynolds appeared briefly via Skype. When Todd asked his mother what had happened since they finished shooting the movie, she responded “I’m still here.”

Carrie Fisher was not able to attend.

A Q&A followed the Skype discussion. Some highlights, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • There’s a battle going on about what she can do. In August, she had a stroke. But like Molly Brown, she’s unsinkable.
  • Debbie wanted to know her lines when the camera was on her. “I know what a documentary is, but what do I say?”
  • We filmed for about a year, year and a half. We had a monumental amount of footage. The editors deserve massive credit.
  • She [Reynolds] always knew where the camera was. The challenge was to get her off of that. She never looks terrible. She doesn’t wake up messy like you and me.
  • Todd Fisher: My grandmother wasn’t funny at all, and was very critical of my mother [Reynolds]. Grandfather had a sense of humor. But Carrie is like no other; she just sees the world very differently. That’s part of her disorder.

Doc Stories runs through Sunday.

The Eagle Huntress: Just a little too slick

C+ Documentary
Directed by Otto Bell

We all know that documentaries can lie to us far worse than narratives–which we go into knowing they’re false. Otto Bell’s doc, about a Mongolian girl who proves she’s better than any man, entertains and inspires. But it feels false. Parts of the story are difficult to believe. And almost all of it looks staged. I can’t help wondering if it’s really a documentary.

Thirteen-year-old Aisholpan wants to be an eagle hunter, just like her father. That’s fine with him and the rest of the family, despite traditions that insist that only men can go on a hunt.

And no, they’re not hunting eagles. An eagle hunter uses a trained eagle on the hunt the way a western hunter would use a dog. As far as I know, no eagles were harmed making this film. Sheep, rabbits, and foxes weren’t so lucky.

The Eagle Huntress is at its best when it explores an ancient culture that’s also part of our modernized world. Aisholpan’s family lives in a yurt. But they have a radio, factory-made clothing (as well as homemade), and solar panels. They travel on horseback, but also by truck and a motorcycle.

And they hunt with eagles. They steal a fledgling from its nest while the mother is hunting elsewhere. They raise and train the bird, keeping it essentially as an unnamed pet. Then, after eight years of “service,” they set the bird free.

This is one beautiful film to look at. The scenery is magnificent. Considering the location, how could it not be? But the gorgeous aerial photography and crane shots suggest the type of carefully-planned production you can do with actors, but not when you’re trying to capture real life on the fly.

The too-well-shot-for-a-documentary problem isn’t confined to beautiful scenery. A discussion over dinner is covered by multiple setups as it would be in a narrative film. A shot of Aisholpan leaving school and walking to her Dad’s motorcycle appears to have been lined up very carefully.

I’m also not convinced that Aisholpan faced as much sexist backlash as parts of the film suggest (and that the story requires). Daisy Ridley’s narration suggests the chauvinism is serious. And two montages of angry old men show us the conservative resistance. But when Aisholpan turns up at the eagle hunter festival with her bird, she gets nothing worse than a few surprised looks. The judges are open-minded enough to give her first place.

Another issue: I have no trouble believing that a teenaged girl could be a great eagle hunter. But according to the narration, the festival comes only four weeks after she grabbed her eagle out of its mother’s nest. If you can learn this skill and train your bird in a month, why bother with a festival? Anyone could do it.

I enjoyed the movie. Aisholpan makes a likeable protagonist. The culture is strange and fascinating to most westerners (including me). The scene where she steals the eagle is exceptional and suspenseful.

But I didn’t believe it.

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 Lovers and The Despot

B- Documentary

Directed by Rob Cannan and Ross Adam

I don’t think you could find a stranger story in the history of cinema. Shin Sang-ok was one of South Korea’s top filmmakers–a respected director married to movie star Choi Eun-hee. They disappeared in 1978, and five years later turned up making movies in North Korea.

Rob Cannan and Ross Adam tell Shin and Choi’s story in this entertaining documentary, but their own storytelling capabilities leave something to be desired. While the narrative and interviews were always clear, I often found myself wondering what I was looking at and why it was being shown.

They certainly had a good story to work with. Shin had been a top director, and Choi a top star, throughout the 50s and 60s. Shin had his own production company, and the glamorous couple won prizes and attended international film festivals.

In the 1970s, Kim Jong-il–then North Korea’s heir apparent and now the deceased father of current North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un–took notice of Shin’s work. Wanting to improve North Korean movies, he kidnapped first Choi and then Shin in 1978. After five years in prison, they agreed to make movies for the dictator-in-training.

As their North Korean films gained recognition, they were occasionally allowed to attend international film festivals. In 1986, while attending one in Vienna, they escaped their handlers, ran to the American embassy, and defected.

Not everyone in South Korea believes the kidnapping story. By the mid-70s, financial and political problems had destroyed Shin’s career. The Kim Jong il gave him a studio, huge budgets, and a surprising amount of artistic freedom.

On the other hand, the couple secretly recorded their discussions with Kim. Those tapes make it completely clear that they didn’t willingly move North.

The Lovers and The Despot tells its story through interviews with the people involved–primarily Choi Eun-hee (Shin Sang-ok died in 2006). Other interview subjects include their son (still in South Korea) and US government officials involved in the case. Occasional intertitles fill in more information.

To keep The Lovers and The Despot visually interesting, the filmmakers use clips from Korean films–presumably those made by Shin–and what I assume are reenactments for the camera. But I can’t be sure. I often found myself wondering what I was actually looking at–not a good feeling when watching a documentary. A few words at the bottom of the screen would have solved this problem.

It’s impossible to not be intrigued by the story of Shin Sang-ok, Choi Eun-hee, and the future dictator that controlled their lives for many years. But I would have liked some more information.

For the Love of Spock (and Leonard Nimoy)

B+ Documentary

Directed by Adam Nimoy

When Leonard Nimoy died earlier this year, he was working with his son Adam on a documentary about the character that made the elder Nimoy famous–Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock. After his father’s death, Adam changed his mind and made the film about both Spock and the actor who played him. He also used it to explore the sometimes troubled, sometimes loving relationship he had with his father.

When Star Trek premiered in 1966, NBC didn’t like Spock, and worried about “the Martian” on their new show. Yes, that seems laughable in retrospect. The pointed-eared alien holding his emotions in check became a sensation, and made the show a hit. Fifty years later (almost to the day), he’s still an iconic figure in our culture.

Spock represents much of what’s best in a human being–even if he isn’t one. A scientist, he’s rational and logical. He puts what’s best for everyone above what’s best for himself. He’s not quite a pacifist, but he abhors violence.

He’s also a deeply lonely individual. Half human and half Vulcan, Spock doesn’t quite fit in either culture. Like a good Vulcan, he tries to master his emotions, but the human side of him makes that difficult.

Adam Nimoy paints his father as a hard worker and a practical man. Born to Orthodox Jewish parents early in the great depression, he learned to do things for himself. He was the sort of father who could repair your bike or build a brick fence around the house.

He also believed in the importance of finding your passion and pursuing it. His parents didn’t approve of his decision to study acting, and refused to pay his way through college unless he picked a more practical major. So he left home and worked his way through acting school. And he struggled for years in menial jobs between bit parts to support his family until Star Trek changed his life.

The documentary doesn’t entirely paint Leonard as the perfect father. He was often away, and had a drinking problem. Father and son became estranged for several years. Eventually they reconciled.

Adam managed to get a fair amount of interview footage of his father before Leonard died. Other interview subjects include the remaining four surviving members of the original cast, stars of the new Star Trek reboot movies (new actors playing the original characters), friends and relatives, and famous people who just love Star Trek (Jason Alexander does a great Shatner impression). We learn about other roles Leonard played in movies, TV, and the live theater, but the film doesn’t even mention Zombies of the Stratosphere, a laughably bad 1952 serial where Nimoy first played an alien (if you’re curious, it’s on Fandor).

Breezy and enjoyable, For the Love of Spock provides a loving view of the man behind the Vulcan, and the character that launched a still-loved franchise. It also tells us quite a bit about Adam Nimoy himself.

Lo and Behold! Werner Herzog brings us the Internet


Directed by Werner Herzog

Even those of us who grew up, married, and had kids before dial-up modems were common now take the Internet for granted. We socialize, work, play, read, find restaurants, and enjoy movies and music through this decentralized network.

Werner Herzog tries–and to some extent succeeds–in providing an overview of the technical and sociological entity that has pretty much taken over civilization. Organized into ten clearly-marked chapters, Lo and Behold starts with early tests on the Berkeley campus in the late 1960s and ends with predictions of the future.

For the first half hour or so, Lo and Behold feels like a puff piece. Everything about the Internet seems wonderful. In the most upbeat moment, a medical researcher describes how the behavior of certain molecules–needed to be understood for medical purposes–were cracked by thousands of gamers.

But then we come to a chapter called “The Dark Side.” We meet a family that lost a daughter in a traffic accident. Photos of the beheaded girl went viral, and people of the worst sort emailed them to her parents with insulting messages. When the mother calls the Internet “the Anti-Christ,” you may not agree, but you’ll certainly understand her feelings.

Herzog rightfully spares us the gory pictures in that sequence, but in other scenes I wished he used more pictorial aids. Visually, Lo and Behold relies heavily on people talking. Many of the concepts they discuss would have been easier to understand with simple animation.

And sometimes I wished he would dig deeper into the research. One sequence involves people living away from the Internet–and not always by choice. These folks explain to Herzog’s camera that they’re sensitive to the electro-magnetic waves emitted from all of our technology. Their suffering is clearly real, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was psychosomatic. An interview with a doctor or two would have helped.

Of course Herzog covers security concerns, centering on hacking the big fish–government and corporations. He covers the very real threat of cyber warfare (which strikes me as less scary than the real thing). He points out that the weak point in any system will almost certainly be a human, not a piece of technology. In one amazing sequence, a hacker explains how a few phone calls got him some very important corporate code.

Oddly, he barely scrapes into issues of personal privacy. He doesn’t seem worried that corporations and governments know a frightening amount of information about us. One person he never interviews, or even mentions, is Edward Snowden.

Yet he examines some technologies that are only vaguely involved with the Internet, but are still fascinating. These include robots, Elon Musk‘s plans for Martian colonies, and driverless cars (which really need their own feature-length documentary).

There’s very little in Lo and Behold that I didn’t already know. But then, I’ve been writing about the Internet since it first became a thing. People who merely use it may find the movie much more informative.