Tuesday, November 3, 2009

2009 Mill Valley Film Festival Review

I was able to get up to Marin County for four films 2009 Mill Valley Film Festival. The festival ran from October 8 to 18. I saw two films in Mill Valley & two films in San Rafael.

The four films I saw were:

Dark and Stormy Night; directed by Larry Blamire; (2009)
Jim Thorpe, The World's Greatest Athlete; documentary; (2009) - Official Website
Hellsinki (Rööperi); Finnish with English subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Red Cliff starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai & Takeshi Kaneshiro; directed by John Woo; Mandarin with Engish subtitles; (2009) - Official Website


Dark and Stormy Night was a spoof of the "dark house" thrillers of the 1930's. You know the type of film - an Agatha Christie (or ripoff) story about people in an isolated mansion who are being killed one by one. Dark and Stormy Night also riffed on His Girl Friday and some Frankenstein films. All the bases are touched - fast-talking banter, crazy old woman roaming dark halls, the scream queen, slutty wife, weak-willed husband, great White hunter and a gorilla. The film's reach exceeded its grasp. The dialog was forced and flat; the humor was lacking. Even the cheesy special effects failed to amuse me. The films was supposed to be a loving pastiche but I thought it was an amateurish throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks. The audience lapped it up but I think there was a local connection for director Larry Blamire. I did discover that Marvin Kaplan from the 1970's television series Alice is still alive and "acting."


Jim Thorpe, The World's Greatest Athlete is a very entertaining documentary on the famous Native American athlete. Named the Greatest Athlete of the Half Century in 1950, Jim Thorpe did it all - played pro baseball & football, won gold medals at the Olympics in the pentathlon and decathlon and was a stuntman in Hollywood films. He was also an alcoholic, stripped of his Olympic medals and spent most of his life in poverty. Thorpe's life intersected with Pop Warner (his football & track coach), Dwight Eisenhower (his football adversary) and John Magraw (his baseball manager). I knew some of this before seeing film as I recall reading some on Thorpe. As an aside, maybe the time is right to make a documentary or biopic on Thorpe's female counterpart - Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Given her alleged sexual orientation, I'm sure it would be a huge success in the Bay Area.

Anyway, Jim Thorpe looks destined for a PBS broadcast. That's not a pejorative but simply an observation of where good documentaries end up (March of the Penguins notwithstanding). I did learn from the Q&A that Jim Thorpe, PA was named after Thorpe's death. Thorpe's widow needed money so agreed to bury her husband in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania in exchange for some money and changing the town's name. Thorpe may have never step foot in Mauch Chunk; regardless Jim Thorpe (the town) held now special meaning to Jim Thorpe (the man).


Hellsinki was an absolute masterpiece in the guilty pleasure/crime genre. Mixing humor with violence and some funky 70's costumes, Hellsinki held my attention for two hours. Telling the rise and fall of three men in Helsinki who go from bootlegging to crime lords and their descent into death and prison, Hellsinki is ripe for an American remake. There no explanation about the misspelled titled although the allusions to damnation are apt. This film has a piece of dialog which has to be one of the best ever spoken (of course, I read it in subtitled) - "I fell in love with you the first time we fucked."

The plot involves three men from a rough neighborhood in Helsinki. All three grew up without fathers. Krisu pointed out his father's hiding place as a young boy. It resulted in his father being killed to settle a gambling debt. Krisu coped by killing his father's murderer and wearing the killer's ring for the rest of his life. Krisu ends up hooked on heroin and is killed by a loan shark.

I can't remember why Tom's father was absent; it may have had something to do with his alcoholic mother. Tom achieves some normalcy by marrying an attractive blonde who insists on him going legit. He satisfies this condition by opening a porn shop which ultimately makes him wealthy. His wife's miscarriage destroys their marriage and leads to her suicide.

Kari father died when he was young I believe. Close to his mother, Kari is useless after her death. He feels happier in prison than on the outside so he commits crimes with the intention of getting caught.

There also a old-school cop that is the closest thing to a friend the three have and a young turk (technically, I believe his character was Estonian) that muscles in on Tom's territory. The main plot involves Tom watching his friends and family die (literally or spiritually). Throughout the ordeal, Tom's spirit is indomitable. I won't dwell on the plot details except to say the film feels like a muscular Tarantino film with less dialogue and more subtle humor.

I highly recommend Hellsinki.


John Woo's Red Cliff was notable for the director's attendance at the screening. The most expensive Chinese film ever made, Red Cliff has a lot of spectacular battle scenes and pyrotechnics. The last half hour of 2.5 hour film involved a extended navy battle where everything is burning. The version screened at MVFF is the western version. The Chinese version was released in two parts with a total run time of over 6 hours.

Certainly an epic in the Hollywood sense of the word, I found the film less than compelling. Some of the action sequences went on too long. Not versed in the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history, I found the panoply of heroes to be difficult to keep track of. I still don't know what constitutes the "turtle defense."

Regardless, there are some interesting (vaguely homoerotic) scenes between Tony Leung Chiu Wai & Takeshi Kaneshiro. What was up the dueling Chinese zithers?

I'm probably being too picky. I'm glad I saw Red Cliff; if for no other reason to say I did.

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