Sunday at the Mill Valley Film Festival

If you’re wondering why I stopped covering the Mill Valley Film Festival before opening night, the reason was medical. I caught the mother of all colds, and didn’t want to ruin everyone else’s moviegoing with my coughing and hacking.

I was finally healthy enough to attend on Sunday, the very last day of the festival. I managed to catch three films at the Rafael, ranging from very good to excellent.

All three films will have theatrical runs in the near future.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

This is a typical, well-made British period piece – beautifully shot and acted, with plenty of stiff upper lips. That doesn’t make it bad, but it makes it conventional. World War 1 veteran A. A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) suffers from PTSD, which isn’t helped by his beautiful but cold wife (Margot Robbie). While playing with his son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), he creates Winnie-the-Pooh stories that the world would soon love. But fame falls hard on the young boy. The movie is touching and sad, and will make you think differently about these books you’ve probably loved from childhood.

I give it a B+.

After the film, director Simon Curtis came on stage for a Q&A. Some highlights, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • On casting a boy to play Christopher Robin: it’s scary to have to find a nine-year-old boy who can act. Will never acted before. He joined an acting class two days before his audition.
  • On directing a young boy: He was such a natural my job was to keep things from getting in his way. He wasn’t an actor pretending to play with the toys. He was just playing with the toys.
  • On location shooting: It’s amazing how much of England is still there.
  • On Christopher Robin’s adult life: He married and had a child. He ran a bookstore and donated the money he inherited from the Pooh books. He wrote a memoir.
  • On being raised by a nanny: The Milnes were parents of a particular time and particular class. For a whole generation of English men, their nannies were the great loves of their lives.

Lady Bird

As you would expect from Greta Gerwig, this coming-of-age film is both touching and funny. Every character seems real and worthy of our sympathy. And yet their foibles make us laugh. Christine, who prefers the nickname Lady Bird, is a senior in a Sacramento Catholic high school. She hates Sacramento, and hates her money-obsessed mother. Class issues play a major part here. Lady Bird’s family is on “the wrong side of the tracks,” while many of her friends and potential boyfriends live in mansions. The story is set in 2002, as America is about to invade Iraq.

I give the movie an A-.

The movie played simultaneously in all three screens at the Rafael. I was in one of the upstairs auditorium. We could only watch and listen to the Q&A with writer/director Gerwig; only people in the big theater could ask questions.

To make our situation worse, the sound went off in our auditorium.

Here’s some highlights of what I could hear of the Q&A, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • It’s hard to know when I start writing something because I’m writing all the time. My first version of the script was 350 pages. No one wants to watch that.
  • I wanted the movie to be a kaleidoscope of characters. The cast brought their own selves to their characters.
  • It’s important to remember that one person’s coming of age is another person’s letting go.
  • On casting mother and daughter: I wanted two actresses who punched the same weight class. When they get in ring together you just let them go. I keep using athletic analogies.
  • I didn’t go to film school. I learned on the job. When I started out I made tiny movies where everyone had to make everything. I was acting and writing and holding the boom.
  • Why was it set in 2002: It seems like the last time teenagers weren’t wedded to their phones. It felt like this was the moment when everything was changing and we didn’t know how.

The Shape of Water

Only Guillermo del Toro could make a grand and romantic, suspensefu, and horrifying sequel to The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Circa 1960, Sally Hawkins stars as a mute cleaning woman in a huge, highly secure research center. When a strange fish/man arrives for dissection, she senses its pain and sets out to free it. Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins play her eventual partners in crime, while Michael Shannon plays a wonderfully despicable villain. The creature looks very much like the one from the fifties movies, but far more expressive. Your heart goes out to him from the start.

I give this film an A.

There was no Q&A after the movie.