Mill Valley Film Festival Preview

Getting ready for the Mill Valley Film Festival? Here are four films that I’ve been able to preview:

A The Central Park Five, Rafael, Saturday, October 6, 3:30; Monday, October 8, 3:15. In 1989, a white woman was brutally raped and left for dead in Central Park. New York’s finest arrested five black and Puerto Rican teenage boys, all of whom confessed under police interrogation, even though there was no physical evidence that they committed the crime and considerable evidence that they did not. Ken Burns sets aside his usual historical style to examine this far more recent story of five young men convicted of a horrible crime that they did not commit. Most Ken Burns documentaries help us understand how we, as Americans, got where we are. This one shows us exactly where that is.

B+ On the Road, Rafael, Thursday, October 4, 6:30 & 6:45 (in different auditoriums). Jose Rivera and Walter Salles came maddeningly close to making a great film out of Jack Kerouac’s highly-regarded novel. The sense of time and place are letter-perfect. The characters are rich, surprising, believable, and sexy. On the Road captures the dizzy and seductive joys of a drug-soaked and sexually wild youth, as well as the less joyful results of this lifestyle. The lead performers, Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, and Kristen Stewart (of Twilight fame) bring wild abandon, sexual urgency, and subtle characterization to their roles. But in trying to capture the full arc of the novel, it bogs down at times, and the picture is marred by stunt casting in the smaller roles.

B Last Man on Earth, Sequoia, Tuesday, October 9, 9:30; Rafael, Thursday, October 11, 7:15. For the first half of this unclassifiable Italian feature, the aliens arriving on Earth are just background noise. The film is far more concerned with Luca (Gabriele Spinelli), a repressed waiter who can barely talk to his co-workers and spies on an attractive female neighbor. Then the aliens start interacting with the Earthlings and things get really weird. The first two scenes lead you to believe that you’re about to watch a droll and very funny dark comedy, but the picture is serious to its core–examining homophobia and misogyny, and with one very disturbingly violent scene. All these conflicting styles and approaches never really come together as a whole. But the good scenes, and there are many, outweigh the weak ones.

C Jayne Mansfield’s Car, Rafael, Sunday, October 7, 6:30; Sequoia, October 14, 5:00. This southern gothic about the long-range mental effects of war provides little more than a chance to watch great actors struggle with a shallow script. Robert Duvall stars as Jim Caldwell, the aged, stern, remote, and possibly loving patriarch of a prosperous, small-town Alabama family. Two of his three sons, deep into middle age, still live with him–one of them with a wife and son. Then Jim’s ex-wife dies, and her second husband and his grown children arrive with mommy’s body in tow for a culture clash funeral. It’s like Death at a Funeral without the laughs. Thornton wanted to make a great drama about war and the 1960s (the film is set in 1969), but he didn’t succeed. Both shows sold out; rush tickets will be available at showtime.