Mill Valley Film Festival Report

It’s called the Mill Valley Film Festival, but many of its best events happen in San Rafael. I went to two of them last Sunday.

Left to right: Moderator An Tran and cinematographers Daryn Okada, Judy Irola, M. David Mullen, and Elliot Davis
photo by Linda Wilkie

First there was the Cinematographer Style seminar. Four cinematographers, known primarily for their work on independent and indiewood films (although most had some Hollywood credits), spoke about their work and answered questions. Journalist An Tran moderated.

Topics ranged from how their families reacted to their career choice (the white-haired Elliot Davis reported that his parents “still don’t know what I do”) to a preference for independent productions. Daryn Okada felt that “Art and commerce can work together, but one shouldn’t overshadow the other.” Judy Irola talked about the importance of pre-production planning and politics, recommending that we “be nice to the 1st AD (Assistant Director), Production Designer, and Costumer,” and that the “lower the budget, the more time [the cinematographer should spend] in pre-production.”

Aleandro González Iárritu
photo by Alicia Williams

Next I attended the Spotlight presentation for Director Aleandro González Iárritu, which included a screening of his new film, Babel. Iárritu came off as an open, unassuming, likeable man well younger than his 43 years. Acknowledging that Babel is only his third feature, he admitted that he was “too young, I think,” for this type of award (his previous films were Amores Perros and 21 Grams). Before the screening, he told us that his three films so far comprise a trilogy about parents and children, and that the nearly one-year process of shooting Babel in four countries was life-transforming (“The most dangerous borders are the ones we create within ourselves.”). He also pointed out that, despite the big stars (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Kôji Yakusho), the bulk of Babel’s cast were non-actors. “That was an accident,” a fortuitous one in his opinion, caused by casting difficulties.

A stupid act, committed by a boy too young to understand its consequences, puts Babel’s complex plot into motion, sending shockwaves around the world that effect the lives of an American tourist couple in Morocco, a Mexican nanny in the United States, her family in Mexico, an alienated deaf-mute teenager in Japan, and the boy’s own family. Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga weave a complex, four-strand tale of love, tragedy, parental responsibility, and the borders–political, economic, linguistic, and emotional–that separate us all. In the end, Babel (an appropriate title for a film told in Arabic, English, Spanish, Japanese, and Japanese sign language) hails the incredible human ability to heal. Babel is easily the best new movie I’ve seen this year.

Babel opens in theaters next month. If you can’t wait, here are some films playing this week:

Recommended: Overlord, Pacific Film Archive, Friday and Saturday. An award-winner from 1975, Stuart Cooper’s 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 war. Basic training proves a dehumanizing experience, but it can’t quite remove the human being inside the soldier. 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.

Recommended: The Iron Giant, Phyllis Wattis Theater, SFMOMA, Sunday, 12:00 noon. The young hero of Brad (The Incredibles) Bird’s first feature befriends a massively-huge robot from outer space. Hey, Steven Spielberg’s Elliot only had to hide the diminutive ET. The robot seems friendly enough, but there’s good reason to believe he was built as a weapon of mass destruction. Using old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation with plenty of sharp angles, Bird creates a stylized view of small-town American life circa 1958 that straddles satire and nostalgia, and treats most of its inhabitants with warmth and affection. A great movie for all but the youngest kids. The last film in the Animation Showcase.

Recommended: Army of Shadows, Red Vic, Sunday through Tuesday. Resistance is a dirty and almost inevitably deadly job, but in Nazi-occupied France, someone had to do it. Jean-Pierre Melville’s dark 1969 adventure, recently restored and playing for the first time on American screens, occasionally confuses those who don’t know the history (or the geography). But the rewards are well worth the effort. The suspense set pieces, including a night-time novice parachute jump and a rescue attempt by ambulance, are nerve-wracking, but not nearly so much as the protagonists’ constant moral dilemmas. Nothing gets romanticized in this spy story.

Recommended: The Departed, Presidio, ongoing. Alfred Hitchcock once said he didn’t mind plot holes as long as they went unnoticed until the audience was driving home. That’s exactly how my wife and I reacted to Martin Scorsese’s all-star remake of the Hong Kong police thriller Infernal Affairs. As long we were in the theater, Scorsese’s intense police thriller about two undercover moles–one a cop pretending to be a gangster, the other a gangster pretending to be a cop–riveted our eyes to the screen. Talking about the movie on the way home, the problems kept coming up. But Hitchcock was right. The Departed carries you along like a river, offering fascinating characters portrayed by some of the biggest and most talented male stars around, moral ambiguity, graphic violence, and a complete lack of predictability to heighten the suspense. So what if it’s full of holes. This is Scorsese’s least ambitious, and his best, film in years.

Recommended, with Reservations: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. Howard Hawks’ musical battle of the sexes contains a handful of wonderful dance numbers and some good comic moments, but there are too many weak scenes to wholeheartedly recommend it. The real surprise is in the stars. Gentlemen helped turn Marilyn Monroe into a major name, yet co-star Jane Russell blows her out of the water. In this film, at least, Russell is funnier and sexier. On a double bill with Monroe’s other big hit of 1953, How to Marry a Millionaire (see below).

Noteworthy: How to Marry a Millionaire, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. This lavish 1953 romantic comedy is neither romantic nor funny, despite the talents of Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe (who had only just achieved star status). But How to Marry a Millionaire was one of the first two films shot in Cinemascope, and the first with an intimate, contemporary, character-and-dialog driven story. That alone gives it historical interest. On a double bill with the non-widescreen but much better Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (see above).

Recommended, with Reservations: Kiss Me Kate, Castro, Wednesday. Perhaps I’m damning it with faint praise, but this musical is my all-time favorite 3D movie. Okay, it’s not the best MGM musical””or even the best from 1953″”but the dancing is fantastic, especially in three dimensions. Part of the Castro’s Dual System 3-D Series.

Noteworthy: Robot Monster, Castro, Tuesday, 8:40. Few images in our culture cry “So bad it’s funny” like an overweight man in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet over his head. That’s the title character in this weirdly preachy end-of-the-world epic that appears to have been made on a smaller budget than a modest bar mitzvah. The story is meant to be depressing, but like everything else in Robot Monster, it’s just laughable. On a double bill with Gorilla at Large. Part of the Castro’s Dual System 3-D Series.

Recommended: Catch a Fire, Sequoia, Saturday, 6:45. Police arrest an innocent man on suspicion of terrorist activity, torture him, then release him, having now turned him into a full-fledged militant. No, it’s not ripped from today’s headlines, but 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. But don’t sweat if you miss Fire at the Mill Valley Film Festival; it will soon be at a theater near you.

Recommended: Half Nelson, Elmwood, opening Friday. Half Nelson is about drug addiction the way Citizen Kane is about journalism. The drug addict in question (Ryan Gosling in one of the year’s best performances) teaches history in an inner-city middle school, and teaches it well. But when school is out, he consumes as much cocaine as he can buy, smoking crack when he can’t afford the expensive stuff. His drug-fueled life is coming apart at the seams, but he can’t step outside his destructive path. And one student whose difficult life may be turned around by his teaching (Shareeka Epps) discovers his habit and finds herself tempted by the business end of the drug economy. Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have created a work about high ideals and low achievements that avoids clichés, melodrama (even the drug dealer is sympathetic), and easy answers.

Noteworthy: Jesus Camp and Al Franken: God Spoke double bill, Balboa, opening Friday. I haven’t seen either of these movies, so I can’t give a definitive recommendation, but I nevertheless suspect that this is a terrific double-bill. How often do you get two political/religious documentaries for one admission price? (Okay, I don’t know if there’s anything religious about the Al Franken picture aside from the name.)

Recommended, with Reservations: 3 Needles, Sequoia, Friday, 7:15 and Sunday, 12:15. Thom Fitzgerald tells three stories about AIDS and poverty, set in China, Fitzgerald’s native Canada, and South Africa. But the farther Fitzgerald gets from Western Civilization, the less sure his storytelling becomes. The Chinese section is a complete washout, confusing as pure narrative and lacking any emotional punch beyond the simplest of manipulations. The South African tale improves on that one, but it largely misses the point by focusing on white missionaries. But Fitzgerald scores a home run in the Canadian story of a porn actor (Shawn Ashmore) hiding his HIV-positive status from his co-workers, and the moral dilemmas his actions thrust upon his religious mother (Stockard Channing). Screening as part of the Mill Valley Film Festival, 3 Needles will receive a full theatrical release soon.

Recommended: This Film is Not Yet Rated, Rafael, Monday through Thursday. Who decides which films get an R rating and which have their chances for commercial success blown by an NC-17? Kirby Dick sets out to find the answer in a documentary clearly inspired by Michael Moore (in other words, it’s funny, the director is the central character, and it’s unabashedly partisan). Dick hired a private detective to discover the raters’ identities (which the MPAA doesn’t disclose), and cuts between the sleuthing story and interviews with filmmakers who’ve tangled with the rating system. There’s plenty to chew on here, and it all goes down easily with plenty of comedy–plus steamy sex scenes cut from other movies. But the effect is diluted by a strong bias and factual errors.