Comedy Weekdays at the Mill Valley Film Festival

I saw one Mill Valley Film Festival screening on Monday, and another two on Wednesday. Oddly, not a single documentary. Even odder, all three movies were comedies – a genre generally considered too frivolous for film festivals.

In the order I saw them:

A- Seder Masochism

Nina Paley created this blasphemous and hilarious adult animation about the Exodus and the Passover Sedar, with a nod to the pagan Goddess. Behind the humor, there’s a serious point to be made about the cruelty and violence done in the name of religion. It’s also a musical, using well-known songs and recordings; Paley didn’t get permission to use them, and insists she’s protected by fair use. She did all the animating herself, using inventive design in lieu of assistants and expensive technology.

Paley answered questions after the screening. Here are some highlights, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • On picking this topic: I thought that would be awesome. This story is foundational to all three the Mosaic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
  • I was raised by atheist Jews.
  • I use whatever music will help the film. I try to cleanse copyright from my mind.
  • This film is either illegal or legal, based on fair use. The only way we can find out is if I get sued. Hopefully it will never happen.
  • On doing animation all by yourself: It’s not that hard with today’s computers.

There are no more Mill Valley Film Festival screenings of this film. Because of copyright issues, it will almost certainly never get a theatrical run anywhere in the world.

A Sergio and Sergei

I was shocked, in a good way, that a Cuban comedy could satirize the surveillance state. But that’s only part of this movie’s pleasures. Set as the Soviet Union collapses, the movie follows two men in very different circumstances. Sergio is a Marxist college professor and amateur ham radio enthusiast living in Havana (remember that this is pre-Internet 1991). He connects with and befriends Sergei, a cosmonaut stuck in a space station while the country that put him there is falling into chaos. Meanwhile, an exceptionally idiotic government agent spies on Sergio’s transmissions with very funny results. Ron Perlman plays an American writing improbable books about NASA.

Hector Noas, the Cuban actor who played the Russian Sergei, answered questions after the screening. He spoke through an interpreter. The following highlights are edited for clarity and brevity.

  • I thought [director Ernesto Daranas] wanted me to play the Cuban. I told him I don’t speak Russian. He said, “You can study.”
  • I had to simulate zero-gravity all the time. That meant three 40-hour weeks in a harness hanging from poles.
  • How the government reacted to the satire: I think they might not have liked it much. But we didn’t have any kind of censorship. It got the Audience Award at the Havana Film Festival. Then it became a big commercial hit in Cuba.
  • It’s a very tough economic time for Cuban cinema. We hardly get any money as actors. The space scenes [which were almost as good as those in Gravity] were shot in Spain.

I saw the last Mill Valley Film Festival screening of this movie. As far as I know, there’s no American theatrical release on the horizon – which is a real shame.

B Swimming with Men

A very conventional, predictable, but also entertaining British comedy in the Full Monty tradition, filled with a lot of vaguely recognizable English actors. Accountant Eric (Rob Brydon) is deeply unhappy in his job and worries that his politician wife is cheating on him. Then he joins a synchronized swimming team made up of middle-aged, mostly out-of-shape men. Then they set their sights for the world championship competition. Highly unbelievable, it has such common clichés as the pep talk, the exercise montage, and the outrageously happy ending. But most important, it has enough laughs to make it worth seeing.

You have another chance to see Swimming with Men at the Festival on Friday, October 12, at 3:15. But the movie will likely get an American theatrical release.