Doc Stories festival opens with Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Quick note: Yes, I’ve been changing Bayflicks’ design a lot lately. Hopefully this one will last.

Growing up with famous parents can’t be easy–especially if your father left home for Elizabeth Taylor, and your relentlessly upbeat mother insisted that you follow in her footsteps. And then, decades later, a bunch of documentarians invade your privacy to record your troubled family.

The Doc Stories film festival opened Thursday night at the Castro with Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, a look at the mother and daughter who starred (separately) in Singin’ in the Rain
and Star Wars.

Evening shows almost always start with an organ concert at the Castro. Appropriately, the organist last night stuck to songs Reynolds sang in her many movies–mostly tunes from Singin in the Rain. But the organist didn’t honor her famous daughter with John Williams’ famous Star Wars score.

San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan started the show proper, bringing up directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, as well as producer Todd Fisher. The family relationships may get a little complicated here. Todd Fisher is Debbie Reynolds’ son and Carrie Fisher’s kid brother. In addition to producing the movie, he’s one of the subjects, and the documentary shows us his home, his wife, and his wife’s pet chicken. Co-director Fisher Stevens isn’t related.

After brief comments, they screened Bright Lights.

Debbie Reynolds was an MGM contract player in the 1940s, and when this documentary was shot, she was still doing a one-woman live show. Her daughter, Carrie Fisher, struggled with mental issues and drug addiction, became an icon with Star Wars, and has a remarkable wit. Daughter Carrie worries that her mother is pushing herself too hard.

While largely sympathetic, this documentary doesn’t flinch from its portrait of a barely functional family. We learn about Fisher’s father issues, Reynolds’ obsession with looks and perceived optimism, and the strange circumstances of how Fisher lost her virginity (her mother wanted to supervise).

The movie is at times breezy, funny, touching, and sad. I give it a B.

Last night was probably the film’s only theatrical screening in the Bay Area. It will have theatrical runs in Los Angeles and New York later this year–presumably for Oscar eligibility. It will run on HBO in March.

After the film, Cowan, Bloom, Stevens, and Todd Fisher came on stage again. Debbie Reynolds appeared briefly via Skype. When Todd asked his mother what had happened since they finished shooting the movie, she responded “I’m still here.”

Carrie Fisher was not able to attend.

A Q&A followed the Skype discussion. Some highlights, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • There’s a battle going on about what she can do. In August, she had a stroke. But like Molly Brown, she’s unsinkable.
  • Debbie wanted to know her lines when the camera was on her. “I know what a documentary is, but what do I say?”
  • We filmed for about a year, year and a half. We had a monumental amount of footage. The editors deserve massive credit.
  • She [Reynolds] always knew where the camera was. The challenge was to get her off of that. She never looks terrible. She doesn’t wake up messy like you and me.
  • Todd Fisher: My grandmother wasn’t funny at all, and was very critical of my mother [Reynolds]. Grandfather had a sense of humor. But Carrie is like no other; she just sees the world very differently. That’s part of her disorder.

Doc Stories runs through Sunday.

Mill Valley Film Festival and Oscar Predictions

If past is prologue, hundreds of Mill Valley Film Festival attendants have now seen this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner. In every year since 2010, that coveted award went to a film that had its Bay Area premiere at Marin’s big festival.

Whatever it will be, I haven’t yet seen this year’s winner. Although I’ve seen 17 feature films shown at the Festival, I was not able to catch any of the big titles. I didn’t see Loving, La La Land, or Arrival. American Pastoral eluded me. And I failed to catch Bleed for This.

On the other hand, there’s a good chance that I’ve seen the Best Foreign Language winner. My pick of what I’ve seen would be Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman. But Farhadi’s A Separation won four years ago, so he might not get it this time. But I’d be happy to see Julieta, Toni Erdmann, or A Man Called Ove win the subtitled Oscar.

A Separation

Despite my not having seen it, I’m now going to predict this year’s Best Picture winner: It will be Mill Valley’s closing film, Loving.

Since I haven’t yet seen the movie, I can’t say that it should win. I want to see it, and I want it to be good enough to earn the statue I believe it will get. Here’s why I think it will win:

Remember @OscarSoWhite? Last year, the Academy embarrassed the whole industry by its overwhelmingly Euro-American selection of nominees. So this year, they’ll go for something that will tell the world that Hollywood isn’t racist (which, of course, it is).


But which African-American film should they celebrate? Birth of a Nation? There’s that rape controversy. Moonlight? I loved it, but everyone in it is black and the lead character is gay. That’s a little too tolerant for the Academy.

But Loving is perfect. It has white and black leads. It’s about the horrors of segregation. It’s set in the 1960s, which is just barely far enough away for us to feel superior. And we know going in that it has a feel-good, we’re-no-longer-a-racist-country happy ending.

So Loving will win the Oscar. Unless, of course, I’m wrong.

Closing the Mill Valley Film Festival with 3D and Disney Animation

Yes, I know. This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival closes with several screenings of Loving. But I’m not able to attend any of them. So I finished my Mill Valley Film Festival with two special presentations at the Rafael.

Both events were family friendly, and had quite a few children present.

The 3D Sideshow

As he did two years ago, Robert Bloomberg presented a collection of 3D shorts and (and a couple of trailers) from the early days of steroscopic movies to the present.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • The documentary Hidden Worlds starts with a history of recording and presenting images stereoscopically. Then it went on to show us some very beautiful images.
  • Hidden Stereo Treasures claims to be an old, educational film about rare 3D cameras. But you soon realize that its intentions are comical.
  • One short film, whose name I didn’t get (probably because it was in Russian), showed a remarkable juggling act. Juggling works really well in 3D. I saw this same film five years ago when Serge Bromberg received his Mel Novikoff Award.
  • If you’ve seen Finding Dory, you’ve seen Piper, the Pixar short that preceded it. It’s funny and adorable.


After the screenings, Pixar’s Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer came on stage to answer questions. Some highlights, edited for clarity:

  • Does 3D make animation more difficult? It’s a two-step process. You create it in 2D, then do it again in 3D. There are slight differences.
  • A film is never finished. It’s done when a producer tells you it’s done.
  • Short films are meant to test the technology.
  • Animators are actors who don’t want to go on stage.

PANEL: Disney Animation Technistas

What does it take to create the fantasy worlds of computer animation? And are women welcome on the technical side of the equation? This panel discussion was meant to answer those questions.

Five women, all doing technical work at Disney Animation, discussed how they created ways to animate fur, clothing, and water for Zootropia and the upcoming Moana. The women were Sara Drakeley (general technical director), Heather Pritchett (also general technical director), Erin Ramos (effects animator), Michelle Robinson (character look supervisor), and Maryann Simmons (senior software engineer).

Variety’s Steven Gaydos moderated the talk.

I wasn’t allowed to take notes for this discussion, so there’s not much more I can say about it. But I can say one thing: The women talked about their work, and not about being women in a male-oriented business.

Near the end, Gaydos brought up the subject. He asked if the number of women in animation are growing. Pritchett said they very much are. She had always seen other women working in animation. But now, she sees teams that are about half and half.

Good to know there’s progress.

Diani and Devine Meet the Apocalypse at the Mill Valley Film Festival

Saturday afternoon, my wife and I drove across the Bay to the Lark for a Mill Valley Film Festival screening of the thoroughly outrageous comedy Diani and Devine Meet the Apocalypse.

We arrived at the Lark just as the rain started falling. People think that a rainy day is perfect for movie going, but that’s not the case when you have to wait outside in a line without cover. Luckily, a kindly festival volunteer moved us to the sidewalk, where we could stand beneath awnings. They also let us in about 10 minutes earlier than they originally promised.

Now then, about the movie:

Stand-up comedy duo and romantic couple Gabriel Diani and Etta Devine play themselves in this utterly absurd dark comedy that they also wrote and directed. After civilization collapses, they go off into the desert, carrying their pets, searching for food, drinkable water, and safety. It soon becomes clear that working nightclubs didn’t provide them with the right survival skills. It’s a very funny film, with cannibals, violent hippies, Mad Max types, and song and dance.

I give it an A-.

The movie screens one more time at the Festival–Sunday, October 16, 11:15AM, at the Sequoia. I hope you read this in time to catch it.

Gabriel Diani attended the screening, and did a Q&A. Etta Devine, who couldn’t be there, pitched in over the phone. Some highlights, edited for clarity:

  • On the difficulty of developing a project with your partner: It’s really easy. We had to make up stuff to have some conflict in the movie. [Note: He was joking.]
  • There’s so much that’s autobiographical in this apocalypse movie.
  • On finding locations: The desert is free production design. We did a lot of scouting in the Los Angeles area. You drive a bit and you’ll find something.
  • Scripted or improvised: The script was pretty much locked down. We didn’t have time to not know what we were doing. But there’s definitely some improvisation in there.
  • On the animals: They’re our pets. We wrote the parts to their strengths.
  • Any deleted scenes: There were some really terrible scenes that were cut out.

Mifune and The Handmaiden at the Mill Valley Film Festival

Quick notes on two films screening at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Both films have one more screening at the festival, and both will soon get a theatrical release.

Mifune: The Last Samurai

I caught this documentary at the Lark Friday night. Director Steven Okazaki introduced the film, describing his first Mifune experience: The Seven Samurai, projected off a 16mm print onto a bedsheet that was not secured at the bottom. When someone opened the door, wind fluttered the sheet, and everyone complained.

Fortunately, the screen at the Lark is properly mounted, and we had no such problems.

As the title suggests, this biography of Toshiro Mifune concentrates on his samurai films, especially those he made with Akira Kurosawa (arguably cinema’s greatest collaboration between auteur and actor). If you have any interest in Japanese films, you’re going to enjoy this movie. And you’ll probably learn a few things about them, as well–including information about the earliest sword-fighting silents. Interview subjects include Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.

I give Mifune: The Last Samurai a B+.

After the film, Okazaki came back on stage for Q&A. Some highpoints, lightly edited for clarity:

  • I wanted to do a history of samurai movies, but my producer told me that that was impossible [because of rights issues].
  • On the breakup of the Kurosawa/Mifune relationship: People want one clear explanation, such as Mifune getting mad because the beard Kurosawa made him grow for Red Beard
    kept him from making other films. In reality, I don’t think there was ever a moment when Mifune didn’t want to work with Kurosawa.
  • He never stopped smoking.
  • Despite Mifune’s impressively athletic physique, he insisted he never worked out.

Mifune: The Last Samurai will screen again this Sunday, October 16, at 2:15, at the Century Larkspur. According to Okazaki, it will play at Bay Area theaters in November.

The Handmaiden

I saw this erotic noir recently at a press screening, not realizing that it was also playing at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

This atmospheric Korean thriller boils over with lies, double crosses, larceny, surprise plot twists, and a lot of sex–much of it quite kinky. At 90 minutes, it would be a great entertainment, but at its actual length of 144, it often drags. The handmaiden of the title works for a young Japanese lady she plans to rob. Things get messy. Overall, the good scenes in The Handmaiden are worth wading through the bad ones.

I give The Handmaiden a B-.

The film has one more Festival screening, tonight, at the Lark, at 8:15. It opens in Bay Area theaters on October 28.

Saturday at the Mill Valley Film Festival

I spent Saturday at the Sequoia, where I caught three films in the Mill Valley Film Festival.

They were all very good, and each was better than the one before it.

She Started It

We all know about tech industry sexism. Nora Poggi and Insiyah Saeed’s documentary follows five young women (concentrating on two of them) struggling to create new companies in a competitive world run almost entirely by men. Consider Vietnamese immigrant Thuy Truong, whose company creates a popular iOS app but can’t attract financing. Since this is a documentary, there’s no guaranteed happy ending. But there is a sense that Thuy, and the other subjects, will succeed.

I give She Started It a B+.

After the screening, a full ten people–filmmakers and subjects–stood up for Q&A. Some highlights (edited for brevity and clarity):

  • Choosing these five: We chose people with enough business traction so that there would likely be a story.
  • On why so much was centered on two of the five: Part of it is the access you get. We wanted to show the struggle. It’s really hard for an entrepreneur to show that. Brienne was so successful there was nothing to say.
  • Making the film was very much like creating a startup. The filmmakers had to raise money and sleep on other people’s floors. “They’re living the movie.”

She Started It will screen one more time as the Festival: Wednesday, October 12, 10:00am. It may get a theatrical or television release in the future.

Green Is Gold

A 13-year-old pothead moves in with his adult brother, who lives in the backwoods and grows pot for a living. Clearly not the best way to raise a troubled adolescent, but they bond and the older brother teaches the younger one a lucrative yet dangerous trade. A funny, touching, suspenseful story about victimless crime. The shaky, handheld photography seems annoying at first, but eventually makes sense as you realize the instability of their life together.

I give Green is Gold an A-.

After the screening, writer/director/editor/star Ryon Baxter led a group of his collaborators in a Q&A. Among the filmmakers were his real-life kid brother, Jimmy Baxter, who played the fictitious kid brother in the movie.

  • On conceiving the story: I was inspired by someone I shared a jail cell with–for a non-violent, marijuana-related crime.
  • We’re the only actors we could afford.
  • On the use a handheld camera: That’s what we could afford. The camera had to be either locked down or handheld. We couldn’t afford a Steadicam.
  • Producer Anthony Burns on the size of the budget: Less than a million dollars and more than a dollar.

There’s one final screening of Green is Gold at the Festival, but you’ll have to act fast. It’s today, Sunday, at the Rafael, at 6:30. It’s sold out, but tickets may be available at rush.

However, the film has been picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films, so it will probably get a theatrical release.

Katie Says Goodbye

Olivia Cooke gives a stellar performance in this bleak small-town drama. Only 21 when the film was shot, she finds reservoirs of emotion and character subtleties that would be impressive in an actor twice her age. I think she’s going to be the Michelle Williams of her generation.

Here she plays Katie, living in a rundown trailer park and working as a waitress to support herself and her all-but-worthless mother. To make ends meet, she turns tricks on the side. Her only warm relationships are with her boss (the always wonderful Mary Steenburgen), and a fatherly truck driver who’s also one of her regular johns (Jim Belushi in the only likeable performance of his I’ve seen).

Then she falls in love with the new guy in town (Christopher Abbott). He’s strong, rarely talks, and is difficult to read emotionally. Her world is already on edge. With all of her secrets, true love can only make things worse.

I give this one an A.

After the film, writer/director Wayne Roberts, along with several of his collaborators (but not Cooke) stepped up for Q&A. Some highlights:

  • On a male filmmaker creating a story about a woman: I wanted to be moved. I find that hard with a male protagonist.
  • On working with Cooke: First of all, she’s brilliant. I gave her a very detailed backstory. We had a lot of discussion, but she’s very intuitive. We met three weeks before we got on the set.
  • On getting Mary Steenburgen: Mary’s agent loved the script.
  • On the size of the budget: Not nearly enough.
  • On the film’s bleakness: It was by intention. But ultimately, it’s about hope. Katie doesn’t need redemption. She doesn’t need anyone else.
  • On the trilogy:
    Katie Says Goodbye is the first film in a planned trilogy. I’m not exactly sure how that will work. The second film will be a dark comedy with no characters from the first. Katie will appear in the third film.

You have one more chance to see Katie Says Goodbye at the festival…maybe. It’s screening at the Rafael Monday, October 10, at 3:30. The presentation is sold out, but you may be able to buy tickets at rush.

As far as I know, no distributor has picked up this film. But I truly hope one of them does.

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview, Part 2

Here are five more films (mostly documentaries) that will screen at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. As usual, they’re in order from best to worst.

A Circus Kid

Lorenzo Pisoni grew up as part of the Pickle Family Circus–the son of Pickle founder and director Larry Pisoni. It was not a happy childhood. In this very personal documentary, Lorenzo (named after his father’s clown character) discusses his upbringing and interviews his family and other Pickle veterans. As I watched it, I found greater understanding about Buster Keaton’s similar childhood. A sad story about the difficult work of slapstick comedy.

A- A Man Called Ove

Here we have the cliché of the crotchety old man who hates everybody, and the good-hearted people melt his resistance and bring him back to the human race. Writer/director Hannes Holm makes this worn-out plot new by adding a deep understanding of the inevitable tragedy of human life, without losing the humor of the situation. Filled with comic suicide attempts and flashbacks of love and loss, A Man Called Ove manages to be both dark and heartwarming.

B Rolling Papers

Director Mitch Dickman found the perfect way to examine Colorado’s first year of recreational marijuana. As the Denver Post newspaper set up a team of writers and editors to cover the new pot industry, Dickman followed those intrepid (but often stoned) reporters as they followed their stories and reviewed the various strains of weed. The topics covered (or at least glanced at) include pothead parents, the taste and smell of the smoke, edibles with no discernable THC content, and Uruguay–the first country to legalize marijuana nationally. At times it gets too jokey and upbeat.

  • Sequoia, Saturday, October 8, 12:30. PANEL DISCUSSION AFTER THE SCREENING.
  • Sequoia, Monday, October 10, 2:15

C The Last Dalai Lama?

Don’t expect an objective examination of the 14th Dalai Lama or Tibetan Buddhism. Director Mickey Lemle clearly adores both of them. That’s not entirely bad; the current Dalai Lama has some wise lessons for the human race, and while just about everyone in the movie treats him like a living god, the man himself comes off as a humble mortal (although not humble enough to stop people from calling him “Your Holiness”). Follow his advice about forgiveness and compassion…if you can. But expect a movie that drags on with praise from all sorts of people, including George W. Bush.

  • Rafael, Saturday, October 8, 11:30AM
  • Lark, Sunday, October 9, 5:00

D+ Baden Baden

The movie opens well, in a long-running, very tight shot of Ana (Salomé Richard) messing up horribly on a job. After that, there’s little to recommend it. Ana visits her grandmother in the hospital. She has sex several times with a boy who’s supposed to be just a friend (he can’t always resist her advances). She takes on the chore of replacing her grandmother’s bathtub with the help of a man who knows only slightly more about this sort of work than she does. She doesn’t grow much. She doesn’t learn anything. And frankly, she’s not that interesting a person.

  • Sequoia, Sunday, October 9, 8:30
  • Rafael, Monday, October 10, 2:00
  • Rafael, Tuesday, October 11, 12:00 noon