I’ve now seen five films getting their local premiere at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. (Oddly enough, two of them come reasonably close to qualifying as silent films.) Here’s what I think of those five, plus one classic to be screened that I was already familiar with. I’ve listed the films from best to worst, although so far, they’re all pretty good.
Through a Glass Darkly, Rafael, Friday, October 10, 7:00. While on vacation on an island, a woman thought cured of her mental illness slides back into madness, and her family doesn’t know what to do about it. There are other family problems of course–difficulties with her husband and brother, for instance–but these are soon overshadowed by the pointless tragedy of insanity. Like so much of Bergman’s best work, Through a Glass Darkly illuminates a crisis of faith. A special Tribute to Harriet Andersson.
Idiots and Angels, Sequoia, Sunday, October 5, 2:45; Rafael, Tuesday, October 7, 7:15. Bill Plympton made a very bizarre, dark, and funny cartoon, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows his work. This story of a lonely, angry, and all-together rotten man (at one point he pushes a tear of empathy back into his eye) who inexplicitly sprouts angel wings will make you grimace as well as laugh. Dialog-free, Idiots and Angels reveals its characters by showing us their actions and their daydreams, which are mostly about money and undeserved glory. But no matter what their bearer may be thinking, the wings themselves insist on virtue. Plympton has created a dreadful world filled with dreadful people, yet allows something magical and wonderful to come out of it.
Lemon Tree, Sequoia, Sunday, October 12, 5:45. When the new Israeli Defense Minister moves next door to a Palestinian lemon grove, and his security people decide the grove must be destroyed, the widow who owns the grove (Hiam Abbass) takes the case to court. Filmmakers Eran Riklis and Suha Araf wisely avoid clichés in their Israel vs. Palestine drama, concentrating instead on how the struggle effects the lives of everyone involved. Lemon Tree will have a regular theatrical release after the festival; probably early in 2009.
Katyn, Sequoia, Saturday, October 4, 2:15; Rafael, Saturday, October 11, 9:30. In the spring of 1940, Soviet special forces massacred over 15,000 Polish prisoners of war, including the father of future filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. After the war, Stalin’s government insisted that the Nazis were to blame and suppressed the truth. Wajda tells the story of the crime and the cover-up through a handful of fictitious characters in this visually gorgeous yet emotionally shocking historical epic. The second half, set mostly after the war, sags through too many characters you haven’t really gotten to know, but it’s still an amazing recreation of a largely-forgotten atrocity.
Happy-Go-Lucky, Rafael, Tuesday, October 7, 6:30; Sequoia, Thursday, October 9, 9:30. There’s no excuse for Happy-Go-Lucky working as well as it does, and not only because the term “Mike Leigh comedy” sounds like an oxymoron. This movie has no real plot, no significant conflict, and not an overwhelming supply of laughs. But it has a bubbly, upbeat, outgoing, loving, caring and extremely happy protagonist named Poppy (Sally Hawkins in a glowing performance). Nothing truly horrible happens to her in the course of the entire film, aside from a few sessions with a truly obnoxious driving instructor (Eddie Marsan). Leigh’s films have always observed everyday life, and this one observes the everyday life of a very happy person. The Tuesday night screening is part of a special Spotlight on Sally Hawkins. Happy-Go-Lucky will receive a regular theatrical release after the festival.
Cumbia Connection, Rafael, Saturday, October 4, 9:00; Rafael, Sunday, October 5, 1:30. René Villarreal brings silent film (or almost silent film) into the 21st century with this vibrant, sexy tale of a love triangle in Monterrey, Mexico. A videographer falls in love with a beautiful woman and starts stalking her. She already has a boyfriend, but that doesn’t keep her from falling in love again. Cumbia songs dominate the almost dialog-free soundtrack. The sex scenes are as explicit as they can get without becoming hardcore, which isn’t a problem. What is a problem is that these scenes feel cold and mechanical, and lack the love and passion found elsewhere in the movie.
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