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.

San Francisco portion of Jewish Festival ends with Mr. Spock

Sunday night I attended the last screening at the Castro Theatre for this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The festival itself will continue in other Bay Area locations.

The film was For The Love of Spock, Adam Nimoy’s loving tribute to his father, Leonard, and the character that made his father famous.

Adam Nimoy, an entertainment lawyer turned television director (he directed his father in a 1995 Outer Limits episode), gave a surprisingly long introduction to his documentary. He pointed out that this screening was the film’s west coast premiere. Because this was a Jewish film festival, he discussed his father’s connection to Jewish tradition. Born to orthodox parents, he was a frequent donor to Jewish charities and he created audiobooks of Jewish and Yiddish short stories.

He also discussed how this film came about. “We had made a short film together about his growing up. it was such a great bonding experience that i wanted to replicate that…Leonard was immediately enthusiastic about it. ”

Originally, they were going to make a documentary about Mr. Spock. After the elder Nimoy passed away, Adam decided that the film had to also cover his father’s life, and their loving but sometimes difficult relationship.

So what did I think of the film itself?

Adam Nimoy splits this feature documentary about evenly between his father Leonard and his Star Trek character, Mr. Spock. He tells us how the character developed, and then became one of the last century’s most important cultural icons. But he also shows us how his father developed, from a struggling actor to a star to a director, how he struggled with family conflicts and with alcohol. It’s a loving tribute, but also an honest one.

I give For the Love of Spock a B+. I’ll publish a longer review next month, when the film opens in theaters.

After the screening, Nimoy and three other people involved with the film or with Star Trek came on stage for a Q&A. A few highlights:

  • We broke all crowdfunding records for a documentary.
  • The one word that characterized your dad is passion.
  • If you’re not passionate, you don’t belong in this industry.
  • [Leonard Nimoy] grew up in a shtetl. It happened to be in Boston, but it was a shtetl.

For the Love of Spock screens again tonight (Monday), 8:30 at Berkeley’s Roda Theater. And as I mentioned above, it will open in theaters and on VOD September 9.

Russian Ark & Buena Vista Social Club: Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive

I saw Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark and Wim Wender’s Buena Vista Social Club Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive. The first film was part of the ongoing series Guided Tour: Museums in Cinema. The second one closed the long-running series Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road.

But they had an interesting thing in common. Both were shot digitally at a time when that was unusual, and when the arguments for sticking to 35mm were far more compelling than they are today.

Both films were projected digitally off of 2K DCPs. Considering the low resolutions of the cameras they were shot with, 4K would have been pointless.

Russian Ark

Sokurov’s 2002 dive into European art and Russian history is easy to admire but difficult to love. Technically speaking, it’s an astounding achievement. And while it’s often beautiful and exciting, it sometimes feels aimless and pointless.

I saw Russian Ark once before, on DVD, soon after it’s theatrical release. This was my first time seeing this big-screen movie on the big screen.

The film provides a tour of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, one of the largest museums in the world. The Winter Palace–the home of the Czars’–is just one of the Hermitage’s six main buildings. Sokurov creates a fantasy fiction around the complex. An unseen narrator (perhaps a ghost; certainly the camera’s eye) and an early 19th Italian diplomat walk not only through the museum’s space but through its time. As they move from one room to another, they find themselves in different centuries. They meet people in modern clothes (some playing themselves) and others in powdered wigs. The diplomat joyfully joins a 19th century waltz. The last Czar’s children play in their home, not knowing their horrible fate.

Sokurov shot the entire 96-minute film, minus the credits, in one unbroken take. The logistics must have been insane. The camera wanders through a gallery that looks like a modern museum, with students and tourists examining the art. Then it glides into a magnificent ballroom, with hundreds of costumed extras laughing and dancing. And then it glides on to something else. All those people had to be ready on cue. The lights had to be set up correctly. One mistake and the whole thing would have had to be shot again. The final film is actually the fourth take.

It’s hard to pace a single-shot film properly. Without editing, you can’t remove the slow parts. Russian Ark occasionally has its slow parts.

When things slow down, you can study the paintings, the sculptures, and the bright and uniquely costumed extras. But the best digital camera available in 2001 (when the film was shot) lacked the resolution and color depth needed for enjoying such spectacular eye candy. I suspect it would have been a better film if shot today. Shooting a single, 96-minute take on film is quite simply impossible.

Much as I admire Russian Ark, its flaws keep me from giving it a better grade than B. But that’s an upgrade. The last time I graded it, based only on a DVD, I gave it a B-.

The PFA will screen Russian Ark again today (Sunday), at 5:30.

Buena Vista Social Club

Too many recent music documentaries make the same mistake: They focus on the musicians and ignore the music. You’re lucky if you get one song played from beginning to end.

Wim Wenders didn’t make that mistake in 1999 with Buena Vista Social Club. He puts the songs front and center. You fall in love with the music, and thus become eager to meet the brilliant musicians who created it.

I saw the film theatrically soon after its release. So Saturday night was a revisit.

In 1998, Ry Cooder went to Cuba to find a group of musicians that had played brilliantly together in the 1940s. He brought them together, recorded an album, and eventually took them to Carnegie Hall. Fortunately, he brought Wenders with him to record all of these events.

Music takes up most of the film’s 105 minutes. We see the Club performing live. We see the musicians recording in a studio. When the music isn’t playing, the musicians tell us about themselves–the poverty they grew up in, how music saved them, and life in general. Their stories are moving and funny.

We see a fair amount of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, nearly 40 years after the revolution. But that’s only background. Wenders sticks to the music and the musicians.

The digital cameras Wenders used for this film were far inferior to the one that shot Russian Ark. In fact, it was standard definition–a pre-HD video signal blown up to a big theater screen. But for Buena Vista Social Club, that wasn’t really a serious problem.

This was my first screening in the new PFA theater that really showed off the new Meyer Sound audio system’s capabilities. It was excellent.

I give Buena Vista Social Club an A-.

Sunday Docs at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

I went to the Castro Sunday afternoon to catch two documentaries screening at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

It wasn’t until Monday before I realized what they had in common. Both centered on a very old person.

A German Life

Brunhilde Pomsel, 103 when she was interviewed for this film, worked as a secretary and stenographer for Joseph Goebbels during World War II. She did not believe in Nazi ideology, but she joined the party in 1933 because it seemed good for her career. At that time, her best friend was Jewish. After the war, she spent five years in a Soviet prison.

Clearly, she carries a lot of guilt. But she also carries a lot of denial.

The film’s four directors shot these interviews in black and white extreme close-up, against a black background. The audience is not allowed to see anything except her wrinkled face. We never hear the voices of the people interviewing her.

The documentary doesn’t always show her face. It often cuts to clips and outtakes from American, German, and Soviet propaganda films–including some of the most horrifying Holocaust footage I’ve ever seen.

I found the film troubling and frightening. With its story of a people giving up their freedom and basic humanity for a demigod, I couldn’t get thoughts of Donald Trump out of my mind.

I give it an A-.

After the film, two of the four directors came on stage for Q&A. Some highlights, paraphrased from my notes:

  • When you made the film, did you know how timely it would be? (This question got huge applause.) Europe is shifting to the right, and it’s happening here as well.
  • Because of her age, we never knew how long we could interview her.
  • Was she truthful? Yes. She stuck to her own experiences. For instance, she didn’t tell us how Goebel’s children died (they were poisoned by their mother), she told us how she found out about it.
  • Is she still alive, and has she seen the film? She’s still alive at 105. She saw the film. She found it interesting to “look at your life and see all the things you did wrong.”
  • During the interview, she went through her whole life, and it triggered something every day. We repeated a lot of questions over and over. In the end she gave completely different answers. There was a process in her.
  • It’s not so much about her personal guilt, but about human nature.
  • Do you think she’s a criminal? She’s guilty, yes, of course.

A German Life will play one more time in the Festival, at Oakland’s Piedmont Theatre, Sunday, August 7, at 2:15.

Freedom of Speech Award: Norman Lear

Every year, the Jewish Film Festival hands out an award to someone who has fought for our First Amendment rights. This year, the Freedom of Speech Award went to television producer Norman Lear.

Lear isn’t quite as old as Brunhilde Pomsel, but he’s turning 94 this week, and is still working. He’s recently completed his memoirs, and is working on a new TV show for Netflix.

Before bringing Lear up on stage for an interview, we were treated to a screening of the new documentary, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. The film is on the Festival’s Hold Review List, which means for the time being, I have to keep my review short. Here it goes:

In the 1970s, Norman Lear changed the face of television with controversial sitcoms like All in the Family and The Jeffersons, then became a full-time political activist creating the organization People for the American Way. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have created a warm, sympathetic, and funny documentary about Lear. Of course it’s funny; comedy is his lifelong trade. But parts of the story felt incomplete, such as a happy marriage hits trouble and then…he was married to someone else.

I give it a B+.

After the film, Lear and former SFJFF Executive Director Peter Stein came on stage for an interview. Some paraphrased highlights:

  • What is it like to watch a form of you in this documentary? All my life I’ve been an audience member. I sit down to what I’m watching and say “Take me. I’m yours.”
  • I think of Donald Trump as the middle finger of America’s right hand. What I mean is that the man is the fool he is, the asshole he is, and I believe that the American people understand this.

This was followed by an audience Q&A. Unfortunately, as soon as Lear answered an audience question, Stein would ask another, related question, eating up time that should have been used for more audience participation.

  • How did you get Sammy Davis Jr. on All in the Family? I met him when I worked with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. He begged to be on the show.
  • How you get your sense of comedy? If your father goes to jail when you’re nine years of age, and a guy is buying your father’s favorite chair, and the guy says “Well Norman, you’re the man of the house now,” you understand the foolishness of the human condition.
  • Shooting sitcoms in front of a live audience? I love performing with a live audience. If the audience didn’t laugh, that was it. We didn’t use a laugh track.
  • I created Archie Bunker on paper, but I never saw the real Archie Bunker until I saw Carroll O’Connor. Nobody could write the Archie-isms like he could speak them.
  • On Jean Stapleton: She was always where she was. We’d ask What would Jesus do. That’s how we wrote Edith.

For some strange reason, the Festival had placed a painting on a stand on the stage. Near the end of the Q&A, it collapsed. Lear proclaimed “Now that’s funny!” He got a big laugh on that one.

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You will screen one more time in the Festival, at the Rafael, Sunday, August 7, at 2:10. But it will screen three more times at the Rafael that week–not connected with the Festival. PBS will eventually broadcast it as part of the American Masters series.