Old Stone finds drama and violence from society’s inhumanity

B Drama turned thriller
Written and directed by Johnny Ma

Intended as a critique of Chinese society, Johnny Ma’s first feature shows us a man economically trapped for committing a good deed. But Old Stone loses its way in the third act, when it shifts from serious social drama to attempted thriller.

In the confusing aftermath of a traffic accident, a taxi driver (Chen Gang) makes a crucial decision that saves the life of the man his cab hit. When the ambulance failed to materialize, the cabbie drove the unconscious victim to the hospital. The doctor assured him that in doing so, he saved a man’s life.

But that’s not how the cab company sees it–or the insurance agency. By not calling his employer first and then waiting for the ambulance, the taxi driver broke protocol. He’s now personally liable for the victim’s medical expenses. (“Communist” China apparently doesn’t have universal healthcare.)

The accident wasn’t entirely the cabbie’s fault; a drunk passenger grabbed the driver’s arm and forced the car to swerve. But everyone insists that the cabbie take all of the responsibility. He loses his job. His savings dwindle until his wife takes what’s left to protect herself and their daughter. The accident victim is in a coma, and the hospital bills pile up.

The driver takes to wandering through the city, often drunk. Cinematographer Ming-Kai Leung uses long lenses to emphasize both the crowding of the city and the protagonist’s emotional isolation. Ma paints modern urban China as a place where people only connect at a superficial level. When the cabbie falls down a long staircase, witnesses just stare. People constantly give each other cigarettes to break the near-impenetrable social ice.

In the final act, desperation drives the taxi driver toward murder. After all, if the patient dies, the hospital bills stop. And after nearly an hour of excellent cinema, the film falters. Certainly the cabbie must realize that if the patient dies, the man forced by law to pay the medical bills will be the number one suspect. Worse, this situation provides an excuse to end the film with a badly-staged, poorly-motivated, and confusing action sequence where the audience has no rooting interest.

Old Stone takes a serious look at the price of humane behavior in an inhumane society. But the ending is all wrong.

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.

To Pixar and Beyond: Animating the business end of filmmaking

You’d expect a book on the history of Pixar to include lots of drawings, models, and frame blowups. But you’ll find only words in Lawrence Levy’s To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History.

But then, To Pixar and Beyond is not about animation, design, or storytelling. It’s not even about technology. It’s about money, and its arguably evil twin–the stock market. And yet, if you’re interested in animation, technology, or the movie industry, it’s worth reading.

Levy, a lawyer and a businessman, became the animation company’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) early in 1995. Steve Jobs, exiled from Apple and the sole owner of Pixar, picked Levy for the job of making the company profitable. The book doesn’t discuss how Pixar creates movies, but Levy clearly respects what he describes as “a level of creative and technical wizardry that I could never have imagined.”

1995 was an important year for Pixar, then a 16-year-old company breaking down barriers but losing money. They were busy finishing their first feature, Toy Story, due for release Thanksgiving week. But their contract with Disney, which financed the film, made future profits almost impossible. Levy’s job was to learn Hollywood’s financial structure, re-negotiate Disney’s contract, and set up an initial public offering (IPO).

Most of the book covers that important year. While Toy Story director John Lasseter and his team struggle to get the movie ready, Levy prepares the IPO. Neither task was easy. Toy Story was the first feature-length computer-animated picture; no one knew if audiences would accept a new type of movie.

Jobs pushed Levy to make the IPO happen as soon as possible. The book paints a surprisingly positive portrait of Jobs, with whom Levy developed a close friendship. Levy acknowledges the sociopathic Jobs that other employees knew; it just wasn’t his experience. On his first day at the studio, an employee told him that “Pixar lives in fear of Steve.”

Steve Jobs, from Alex Gibney’s documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

Levy may be a lawyer, but he doesn’t write like one. His clear, easy-to-read prose help explain a lot about how money works. He describes IPOs, stock options, contract details, and the market in general in ways that make it clear to people who can barely balance a checkbook. He has an entertaining gift for metaphor, telling us that a Disney executive “was handing me a lifeline, and apologizing because it wasn’t in my favorite color.”

Toy Story made its Thanksgiving deadline, and the IPO happened the same week. That was fortuitous. The movie was an immediate hit of huge proportions, and everyone wanted a piece of Pixar. It was that IPO, and not Apple, that made Steve Jobs a billionaire.

Toy Story

The simultaneous premiere and IPO also gives the book a spectacular happy ending–only two thirds of the way through. Then we follow Levy as he helps Pixar mature. He arranges a new contract with Disney, gives Lasseter and the rest of the creative team artistic freedom, and eventually sells Pixar in a way that makes everybody happy.

Yes, it’s definitely Levy’s version of the story.

Levy goes off the deep end in the last three chapters, telling us about his discovery of Eastern spiritual practices. I have nothing against his religion, but it seemed out of place in this book.

I write about technology and cinema, and To Pixar and Beyond didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about either of these subjects. But it taught me a considerable amount about the finances that make technology and cinema possible. I enjoyed the book. And yet…as I read about IPOs and contract negotiations, I kept wanting to sneak into another room and watch Lasseter finish the final touches to Toy Story.

Warren Beatty plays Howard Hughes for laughs in Rules Don’t Apply

B+ Romantic comedy
Written and directed by Warren Beatty
Story by Beatty and Bo Goldman

Don’t be fooled by the posters. Rules Don’t Apply isn’t a thriller. It’s a romantic comedy.

Warren Beatty returns to the director’s chair for the first time this century, wringing laughs out of billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. (He also returns to the producer and writer chairs.) Pushing 80, Beatty wisely let a much younger man, Alden Ehrenreich, do the chore of falling in love.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll miss Beatty’s on-screen presence in Rules Don’t Apply. While Ehrenreich and Lily Collins carry the love story, Beatty gets most of the laughs as the aging Hughes. Demanding and oblivious, his eccentricities drive his employees crazy.

The film is set in in 1950s and early 1960s, with digitally-enhanced old footage to place us in the time. The movie tells us right up front that it’s more myth than history.

The young lovers, for instance, are entirely fictitious characters. Collins plays a would-be movie star who comes to Hollywood on Hughes’ dime; she’s been promised a screen test. (Hughes ran RKO–very badly–at that point in the time.) Ehrenreich plays a Hughes employee whose jobs include chauffeuring this young would-be actress.

Neither of them are typical Hollywood folk. Both are small-town religious Christians, with little or no experience with sex or alcohol. As they spend time together, they build a friendship that turns slowly but inevitably in the direction of romance. But that’s not going to be easy. He’s already engaged, and their contracts with Hughes explicitly ban sexual or romantic entanglements with other company employees.

Their doubly-forbidden love and shared discomfort with tinsel town’s free ways provide warm, human-level comedy. Beatty’s performance as Hughes produce the broader laughs. He dines with an actress on frozen dinners. He hates kids and watches old movies constantly. He still loves to fly airplanes, but his passengers don’t enjoy the experience.

It seems as if everyone in Hollywood wanted to be in Beatty’s new movie. Paul Sorvino, Candice Bergen, Ed Harris, and others turn up in small, thankless roles that fail to show off their talents. On the other hand, Oliver Platt manages a very funny turn as a frustrated banker. Beatty’s wife, Annette Bening, plays the ingénue’s watchful but supportive mother.

Rules Don’t Apply lacks the political punch of such Beatty-created films as Reds and Bulworth, although it finds some fun with puritan ethics and the extremes of capitalism. But overall, it’s just well-made escapist entertainment. And that’s not something to look down on.

I saw Rules Don’t Apply at a special screening at the Castro, presented by the San Francisco Film Society. After the film, Director or Programming Rachel Rosen conducted a Q&A session with Beatty and Collins.

Beatty proved to be a witty, amiable, and fun interview subject–keeping the audience laughing through most of the session. Collins was also funny, but Beatty did most of the talking (after all, he wrote, produced, and directed the movie).

Here are a few highlights, edited for length and clarity:

  • Beatty on his career: You know you’ve got the right job if you don’t know if you’re working or playing.
  • On directing a movie for the first time in 18 years: Making a movie is like vomiting…I thought I’d just go ahead and throw up.
  • On casting Collins and Ehrenreich: I thought they had the intelligence and wit. They are not ugly. But I don’t want to diminish the guy who played Howard Hughes.
  • On Hughes: He stood for a level of power and capital in that time. I never met him. I like to say I’ve met everyone who met him. Everything we do in this movie about Hughes was based on something I was told.
  • On how the screenplay came together: I don’t know. Things happen. And you go back and forth and back and forth. and then you cast.
  • On Hughes: Everybody thought he was a nice guy.

Rules Don’t Apply opens Wednesday.

Elle: Very much a Paul Verhoeven movie

B- Mystery/drama
Written by David Birke; from the novel by Philippe Djian
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven’s new film, Elle, is silly, tasteless, and unbelievable. And kind of fun to watch. But then, that’s what you should expect from the man who made Basic Instinct, Total Recall, and Showgirls. Paul Verhoeven makes strange, violent, disturbingly sexual films that can’t really be taken seriously–even when he probably wants you to take them seriously.

And that’s true whether the Dutch director is making a big-budget Hollywood movie or, as in this case, a medium-budget French art film. Elle stars the great Isabelle Huppert, who also has a reputation for making films that go over the edge.

Elle offers two main pleasures. First, Huppert gives a strong, gutsy, courageous performance. I don’t think she’s capable of anything else. Second, it’s fun to see how ridiculous the movie can get. And it gets very ridiculous.

It begins with a brutal rape. A man in a ski mask is having his way with the title character on her expensive living room floor, now scattered with broken wine glasses.

Once he leaves, does she call the police? No. She takes a bubble bath. A small patch of blood rises from her groin region to surface in the suds. She doesn’t seem particularly upset.

And the rapist keeps coming back. At least two other times (not including flashbacks and fantasies) he breaks into her house and rapes her again. He also harasses her over the Internet. She tells her friends and co-workers about it, and they’re shocked that she’s so mater-of-fact about it.

In a normal film, one would assume she was suffering from PTSD. But in this one…who knows? Perhaps she likes it.

But then, Elle has a pretty strange history with violence. Her father is a mass murderer in prison for life. People still recognize her as the murderer’s daughter, and treat her as guilty by association. (Her severely botoxed mother, ugly through countless plastic surgeries, has a young hunk of a lover.)

Elle’s job also deals in violence. She runs a video game company specializing in extremely violent games–and rape is a common theme. Soon after her own experience, she tells her employees that a rape scene has to be more graphic, more violent, and sexier.

She’s one of two women running the company, filled almost entirely with male employees. Most of them hate her.

Elle has a klutzy grown son with a pregnant girlfriend. When the baby is born, the son refuses to see that he can’t possibly be the biological father.

Meanwhile, Elle’s having an affair with her business partner’s husband. She also sets her sights on a neighbor with a very religious wife and children.

To some extent, Elle works as a mystery. She tries to find the man who’s continually attacking her. (I guessed who it was early, but I was wrong. My wife guessed right.) I’m not sure if she wants his identity so she can turn him in, or so she can start an affair.

If you like weird, amoral, but well-made sleaze, you’ll probably enjoy Elle. I did. But I wouldn’t want a constant diet of this sort of thing.

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.

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.