Oscar Season and the Mill Valley Film Festival

Just a quick note on the Mill Valley Film Festival; something I probably should have pointed out two weeks ago.

A large part of this festival’s significance comes from its early fall calendar position. For Bay Area film lovers, the MVFF is the beginning of the Oscar season– your first chance to see any of the likely contenders.

Oscar bait, that most unique and interesting of all Hollywood genres, comes in every year with the cold and drizzle. Oscar bait is as clear and distinct a genre as film noir or westerns, recognizable by a glow of prestige, an important but not too controversial subject, great actors in juicy roles, and a fourth-quarter release date. (Last year I named the genre Oscar hopefuls, but I’m officially changing the name. Oscar bait sounds better.)

The recently-completed Toronto Film Festival is the real starting gate for the Oscar season, but Mill Valley is the local event for becoming the first on your block to see The Queen, Catch a Fire, or Little Children. Of course, the movie will be just as good at your neighborhood theater in a few weeks, but you’re more likely to get a Q&A with the filmmakers at the festival. And there are plenty of non-bait movies at Mill Valley you may never get a chance to see again.

In other news, the Devil Music Ensemble is coming to town. I’ve never heard this group, but they’re building quite a reputation as silent film accompanists. They’re playing in two Bay Area screenings next week. Tuesday, they’ll perform at the Parkway for Nosferatu. Then Thursday it’s to the Balboa for the 1920, John Barrymore version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In and out of Mill Valley, with or without the Devil Music Ensemble, here’s what to catch and what to skip this week:

Recommended: Overlord, Balboa, opening Friday. Stuart Cooper’s award-winning 1975 study of World War II Britain finally comes to American screens. The story is simple: A young man (Brian Stirner) bids his parents farewell and goes off to basic training. Overlord shows us the dehumanizing process that turns him into a soldier but can’t quite remove the human being. As he and his mates are transferred from place to place, never told where they’re going or why, he strongly suspects that he’s to be part of the big landing on the European mainland and thus probably won’t live much longer. Cooper combines extensive and fascinating newsreel footage with his fictitious story (shot in black and white), creating an authentic picture of a time and place. The Balboa is showing a brand-new 35mm print. Cooper will appear in person for Friday and Saturday’s evening shows.

Recommended: Berkeley, Oaks Theater, Berkeley, Friday, 9:45 and Sunday, 6:45. I don’t know if anyone but a baby boomer can appreciate Bobby Roth’s look back at the radical end of the 1960’s; it may even require an East Bay Baby Boomer. But this particular East Bay Baby Boomer enjoyed the nostalgic feel of the first half very much; it’s fun to remember a time when we thought that sex, drugs, and revolution would change the world. But Berkeley progresses beyond nostalgia, examining the both the excitement and the shortcomings of youthful idealism. Part of the Berkeley Video & Film Festival. A Friday ticket also buys you more than an hour’s worth of shorts before the feature; Sunday’s screening is part of a 10+ hour, one-ticket marathon.

Recommended: Nosferatu, Parkway, Tues, 9:15. The first (and unauthorized) film version of Dracula, and you can forget about sexy vampires here. Max Schreck plays Count Orlok (renamed in a failed attempt to avoid lawsuits) as a reptilian predator in vaguely human form. This isn’t the scariest monster movie ever made, but it’s probably the creepiest. Not to be confused with Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake. The Devil Music Ensemble accompany this silent movie.

Recommended: The Big Buy: Tom Delay’s Stolen Congress, Oaks Theater, Berkeley, Saturday, 7:00. If you read the news, there’s little in this documentary you won’t already know. But Texas Prosecutor Ronnie Earle makes an engaging and entertaining hero. Put him alongside other Lone Star personalities like Jim Hightower and Molly Ivins (as directors Mark Birnbaum and Jim Schermbeck do here) and you get a witty description of Delay’s crimes against democracy. The wit doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mask the anger, and by the end of The Big Buy you’re burning with rage. Part of the Berkeley Video & Film Festival‘s 10+ hour Saturday marathon.

Recommended: Venus, Sequoia, Tuesday, 7:15; Cinema Corte Madera, Thursday, 6:45. Yet another film about an old person befriending a young one, but better than Mrs. Palfrey At the Claremont and Four Weeks in June. Peter O’Toole stars as an aging actor (not much of a stretch) whose sexual desires have outlived both his ability to attract women and his talents at pleasing them. The object of his attentions is a young woman (newcomer Jodi Whittaker) who tries to discourage his flirtations while latching on to him as a friend and, perhaps as a father figure. The resulting relationship burns with conflict and occasional minor violence, but also concern and genuine love. Funny, sad, and real. Part of the Mill Valley Film Festival, but it will have a regular release soon enough.

Recommended: Catch a Fire, Rafael, Tuesday, 7:00, and Wednesday, 6:30. Police arrest an innocent man suspicion of terrorist activity, torture, then release him, having now turned him into a true militant. No, it’s not ripped from today’s headlines. Catch a Fire is a period piece set in apartheid South Africa.. Director Phillip Noyce turns the story of actual ANC freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) into both a morality play and an effective thriller, without sacrificing the complexity of the situation. Six years ago, this movie would hardly have been controversial; today, it’s courageous. Part of the Mill Valley Film Festival and soon to be widely released. The Wednesday screening is part of a Tribute to Tim Robbins, who’s excellent as Chamusso police tormentor.

Recommended: All About Eve, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. You don’t succeed on Broadway (or in Hollywood) if you’re not willing to cut your mentor’s throat. Anne Baxter plays the title character, an apparently sweet and innocent actress whom aging diva Bette Davis takes under her wing. But Eve isn’t anywhere near as innocent as she appears. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride. On a double-bill with A Letter to Three Wives.

Recommended: Wallace & Gromit shorts, Castro, Sunday, 1:00. Before the were-rabbit and Chicken Run, the talented Brits at Aardman Animations made a trio of 30-minute television programs about the eccentric inventor and his loyal but long-suffering dog. These are just as funny as their later theatrical features. Part of the Canine Film Festival.

Recommended: Best in Show, Castro, Saturday, 7:30. Christopher Guest’s dog-show mockumentary has more than its share of hilarious moments. The rest of it is pretty funny, too. As part of the Canine Film Festival, the presentation will include cast members and Jan Wahl in person.

Recommended: Young Frankenstein, Dolores Park, Saturday, 8:00. Once upon a time, Mel Brooks was talented. And never more so than in this sweet-natured parody and tribute to the Universal horror films of the 1930’s (specifically the first three Frankenstein movies). Like all Film Night in the Park presentations, it will be on DVD.

Not Recommended: Cine Manifest, Rafael, Sunday, 6:00. The 1970’s Marxist film collective Cine Manifest spent far too much time in self-critical discussion. I know this because the former members who interviewed themselves and made this documentary spend far too much time discussing this bad habit of self-criticism. They should instead have asked each other how they could make the story interesting to anyone other than friends and family. Part of the Mill Valley Film Festival.