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

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview, Part 1

Over the course of this last week, I caught six films that will enjoy their Bay Area premieres at the Mill Valley Film Festival. I list them here from best to worst.

None of them are really bad, and most of them are very good. All six will have theatrical releases after the Festival, so if you miss them in Marin, you can catch them later.

A The Salesman

An intruder assaults a woman in her home. As she recovers physically and emotionally, her husband’s obsession with finding the perpetrator makes things worse. Meanwhile, both husband and wife are acting in a production of Death of a Salesman. As you’d expect from Asghar Farhadi, all points of view, and all emotional reactions, are understandable and believable–even when they go over the line. You may not like every character, but you’ll understand them.

  • Rafael, Friday, October 7, 7:30
  • Rafael, Wednesday, October 12, 12:00 noon

A Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy follows an resident of the inner city from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, examining three stages of his life. Three different actors play Chiron, a young man unsure of his sexuality who must learn to at least appear macho to survive in the tough streets. Mahershala Ali from Game of Thrones carries the first act as drug-dealer who is also a gentle and kind father figure.

  • Sequoia, Monday, October 10, 7:45
  • Rafael, Thursday, October 13, 11:30am

A Julieta

Middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suárez) runs into an old friend of the daughter that disappeared from her life ages ago. And so she starts writing a long letter to her missing daughter. That letter, and the film, will reveal the deep, dark secrets of her past in Pedro Almodovar’s sad yet sexy tale of love, lust, and loss; of having what you want and losing what you care about most.

A- Toni Erdmann

Imagine a Marx Brothers movie weaved into a reasonably realistic family comedy/drama running almost three hours. And for the most part, it works. An incorrigible practical joker tries to reconnect with his estranged, very successful, uptight, and corporate daughter. She’s clearly unhappy, and his slovenly dress and inappropriate remarks embarrass her at every turn. Toni Erdmann contains what may be cinema’s funniest nude scene. But at 162 minutes, it could use some trimming.

  • Rafael, Saturday, October 8, 7:45
  • Rafael, Thursday, October 13, 3:15

B- Elle

As you’d expect from Paul Verhoeven, Elle is silly, tasteless, and unbelievable, and yet it somehow succeeds as entertainment. Isabelle Huppert gives a strong, gutsy, courageous performance as a strangely matter-of-fact rape victim. Perhaps she likes it? But then, her father was a mass murderer, her mother is addicted to botox, and her son can’t possibly be her grandchild’s biological parent. Like I said, silly, tasteless, and unbelievable. But fun.

  • Sequoia, Friday, October 7, 9:00
  • Sequoia, Wednesday, October 12, 12:00 noon

B- The Eagle Huntress

Otto Bell’s documentary about a Mongolian girl who proves she’s better than any man tells an interesting and inspiring story. Thirteen-year-old Aisholpan wants to be an eagle hunter, just like her father. That’s fine with him, and the rest of her family, despite traditions that insist that only men can hunt with eagles. But much about the film feels staged, leaving me wondering if it really should be considered a documentary.

  • Sequoia, Sunday, October 9, 11:15 am
  • Rafael, Monday, October 10, 12:45

Mill Valley Film Festival program announced

Monday night, the California Film Institute introduced this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival–the 39th edition. Now comes your chance to see this year’s Oscar bait early–and probably with the filmmakers ready to answer questions.

I mean it about Oscar bait. Since 2010, every Best Picture Oscar winner (whether it deserved it or not) had its Bay Area premiere at Mill Valley. But the Festival also screens little-known films that will probably never get a theatrical run. It’s good to catch those ones, too.

The Mill Valley Film Festival isn’t really centered in Mill Valley, and would more accurately be called the Marin County Film Festival. Many of the biggest events happen in San Rafael, where the Festival has three screens compared to Mill Valley’s two. Larkspur and Corte Madera will also host screenings.

This is the last year where MVFF will use the magnificent Corte Madera Century Cinema–a single-screen theater with a huge, curved screen that’s perfect for immersive cinema. No longer profitable, the Corte Madera’s days as a theater are numbered. The Festival will close the theater out in style, with a marathon screening of the original Star Wars trilogy. Unfortunately, it won’t be the original version of the original trilogy.

The festival opens Thursday October 6 with the musical La La Land in Mill Valley and the drama Arrival in Corte Madera. It ends on October 16 with the historical drama Loving, about the lawsuit that legalized racially-mixed marriage in all 50 states. In between these you can enjoy a whole lot of movies, live music, and Yom Kippur. I won’t be attending that day.

The Festival will honor various filmmakers with tributes, including Julie Dash, Gael García Bernal, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. Kidman and McGregor will be screening their newest movies, but the festival will also screen Moulin Rouge! from 2001, in which they both star.

Mill Valley generally picks a few spotlights, showing several films with a similar theme. This year, they’re spotlighting Cannabis, inspired by Proposition 64 on the November ballot, and Culinary Cinema, which just might have been inspired by researching cannabis (it wasn’t).

This will be the first Mill Valley Film Festival without any physical film being projected. Everything will be digital. I know many people object to that. I don’t.

I’ve already started previewing some of the films. I’ll be reporting the good and the bad soon.

San Francisco portion of Jewish Festival ends with Mr. Spock

Sunday night I attended the last screening at the Castro Theatre for this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The festival itself will continue in other Bay Area locations.

The film was For The Love of Spock, Adam Nimoy’s loving tribute to his father, Leonard, and the character that made his father famous.

Adam Nimoy, an entertainment lawyer turned television director (he directed his father in a 1995 Outer Limits episode), gave a surprisingly long introduction to his documentary. He pointed out that this screening was the film’s west coast premiere. Because this was a Jewish film festival, he discussed his father’s connection to Jewish tradition. Born to orthodox parents, he was a frequent donor to Jewish charities and he created audiobooks of Jewish and Yiddish short stories.

He also discussed how this film came about. “We had made a short film together about his growing up. it was such a great bonding experience that i wanted to replicate that…Leonard was immediately enthusiastic about it. ”

Originally, they were going to make a documentary about Mr. Spock. After the elder Nimoy passed away, Adam decided that the film had to also cover his father’s life, and their loving but sometimes difficult relationship.

So what did I think of the film itself?

Adam Nimoy splits this feature documentary about evenly between his father Leonard and his Star Trek character, Mr. Spock. He tells us how the character developed, and then became one of the last century’s most important cultural icons. But he also shows us how his father developed, from a struggling actor to a star to a director, how he struggled with family conflicts and with alcohol. It’s a loving tribute, but also an honest one.

I give For the Love of Spock a B+. I’ll publish a longer review next month, when the film opens in theaters.

After the screening, Nimoy and three other people involved with the film or with Star Trek came on stage for a Q&A. A few highlights:

  • We broke all crowdfunding records for a documentary.
  • The one word that characterized your dad is passion.
  • If you’re not passionate, you don’t belong in this industry.
  • [Leonard Nimoy] grew up in a shtetl. It happened to be in Boston, but it was a shtetl.

For the Love of Spock screens again tonight (Monday), 8:30 at Berkeley’s Roda Theater. And as I mentioned above, it will open in theaters and on VOD September 9.

Sunday Docs at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

I went to the Castro Sunday afternoon to catch two documentaries screening at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

It wasn’t until Monday before I realized what they had in common. Both centered on a very old person.

A German Life

Brunhilde Pomsel, 103 when she was interviewed for this film, worked as a secretary and stenographer for Joseph Goebbels during World War II. She did not believe in Nazi ideology, but she joined the party in 1933 because it seemed good for her career. At that time, her best friend was Jewish. After the war, she spent five years in a Soviet prison.

Clearly, she carries a lot of guilt. But she also carries a lot of denial.

The film’s four directors shot these interviews in black and white extreme close-up, against a black background. The audience is not allowed to see anything except her wrinkled face. We never hear the voices of the people interviewing her.

The documentary doesn’t always show her face. It often cuts to clips and outtakes from American, German, and Soviet propaganda films–including some of the most horrifying Holocaust footage I’ve ever seen.

I found the film troubling and frightening. With its story of a people giving up their freedom and basic humanity for a demigod, I couldn’t get thoughts of Donald Trump out of my mind.

I give it an A-.

After the film, two of the four directors came on stage for Q&A. Some highlights, paraphrased from my notes:

  • When you made the film, did you know how timely it would be? (This question got huge applause.) Europe is shifting to the right, and it’s happening here as well.
  • Because of her age, we never knew how long we could interview her.
  • Was she truthful? Yes. She stuck to her own experiences. For instance, she didn’t tell us how Goebel’s children died (they were poisoned by their mother), she told us how she found out about it.
  • Is she still alive, and has she seen the film? She’s still alive at 105. She saw the film. She found it interesting to “look at your life and see all the things you did wrong.”
  • During the interview, she went through her whole life, and it triggered something every day. We repeated a lot of questions over and over. In the end she gave completely different answers. There was a process in her.
  • It’s not so much about her personal guilt, but about human nature.
  • Do you think she’s a criminal? She’s guilty, yes, of course.

A German Life will play one more time in the Festival, at Oakland’s Piedmont Theatre, Sunday, August 7, at 2:15.

Freedom of Speech Award: Norman Lear

Every year, the Jewish Film Festival hands out an award to someone who has fought for our First Amendment rights. This year, the Freedom of Speech Award went to television producer Norman Lear.

Lear isn’t quite as old as Brunhilde Pomsel, but he’s turning 94 this week, and is still working. He’s recently completed his memoirs, and is working on a new TV show for Netflix.

Before bringing Lear up on stage for an interview, we were treated to a screening of the new documentary, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. The film is on the Festival’s Hold Review List, which means for the time being, I have to keep my review short. Here it goes:

In the 1970s, Norman Lear changed the face of television with controversial sitcoms like All in the Family and The Jeffersons, then became a full-time political activist creating the organization People for the American Way. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have created a warm, sympathetic, and funny documentary about Lear. Of course it’s funny; comedy is his lifelong trade. But parts of the story felt incomplete, such as a happy marriage hits trouble and then…he was married to someone else.

I give it a B+.

After the film, Lear and former SFJFF Executive Director Peter Stein came on stage for an interview. Some paraphrased highlights:

  • What is it like to watch a form of you in this documentary? All my life I’ve been an audience member. I sit down to what I’m watching and say “Take me. I’m yours.”
  • I think of Donald Trump as the middle finger of America’s right hand. What I mean is that the man is the fool he is, the asshole he is, and I believe that the American people understand this.

This was followed by an audience Q&A. Unfortunately, as soon as Lear answered an audience question, Stein would ask another, related question, eating up time that should have been used for more audience participation.

  • How did you get Sammy Davis Jr. on All in the Family? I met him when I worked with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. He begged to be on the show.
  • How you get your sense of comedy? If your father goes to jail when you’re nine years of age, and a guy is buying your father’s favorite chair, and the guy says “Well Norman, you’re the man of the house now,” you understand the foolishness of the human condition.
  • Shooting sitcoms in front of a live audience? I love performing with a live audience. If the audience didn’t laugh, that was it. We didn’t use a laugh track.
  • I created Archie Bunker on paper, but I never saw the real Archie Bunker until I saw Carroll O’Connor. Nobody could write the Archie-isms like he could speak them.
  • On Jean Stapleton: She was always where she was. We’d ask What would Jesus do. That’s how we wrote Edith.

For some strange reason, the Festival had placed a painting on a stand on the stage. Near the end of the Q&A, it collapsed. Lear proclaimed “Now that’s funny!” He got a big laugh on that one.

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You will screen one more time in the Festival, at the Rafael, Sunday, August 7, at 2:10. But it will screen three more times at the Rafael that week–not connected with the Festival. PBS will eventually broadcast it as part of the American Masters series.

Jewish Film Festival Preview, Part 2

Since I last wrote about this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, I’ve seen five more films and a TV show that will screen at this year’s festival. Here’s what I thought of them, in order from best to worst:

A The Settlers

I found this documentary extremely difficult to watch, but also desperately important to experience. It tells the history of the West Bank settlements, mostly through the words of determined, militant, racist, religious fanatics with a worthat’s at odds with basic human decency. It leaves you feeling that there’s no hope for a just peace–probably because there really isn’t any hope. You won’t get this one out of your system easily.

A- Natasha

This coming-of-age drama deals with cultural conflicts and the side effects of sexual exploitation. Mark is 16, lives in a suburb of Toronto, and doesn’t know what to do with his life. Then members of his extended family arrive from Russia. One of them, Natasha, is 14 years old, sexually experienced, and has just become his cousin by marriage. She’s sullen whenever her mother is around, but loosens up (maybe too much) when free of maternal contact. The two teenagers soon become lovers, but that clearly can’t last. A very touching film.

What makes this a Jewish film? The characters are all ethnically Jewish, but their Russian identities seem far more important to the story than their Jewish ones.

B+ Germans and Jews

How do today’s German’s deal with the horrible crimes committed by their parents and grandparents? How can they face their own prejudices in a country with almost no Jews? And how do modern Jews relate to modern Germans? Janina Quint points her camera and microphone at several thoughtful and intelligent Germans and Jews, and gets insightful and fascinating answers. One Israeli-raised Jew claims he feels safer in Germany than in Israel. As I watched this conventionally-made documentary, I couldn’t help wishing that the USA would face its own crimes as well as the Germans have faced theirs.

B+ Song of Songs

Most films about shtetl life give it a nostalgic glow, with only the anti-Semites outside causing real trouble. But this story of a 10-year-old boy with a wild imagination barely mentions pogroms. His problems stem from a sadistically stern teacher and a crush on a beautiful orphan girl living with his family. The simple story is slow, low-key, and touching. If for no other reason, see Song of Songs for the photography, which appears to have been inspired by Vermeer.

  • Castro, Wednesday, July 27, 12:00 noon
  • Roda, Wednesday, August 3, 2:05

B- How to Win Enemies

I can’t really call this Argentine crime mystery a thriller, but it has a likeable protagonist and a nice little puzzle of a story (even if I guessed the bad guy way too soon). Lucas, a young lawyer working in the family business and a fan of crime fiction, falls for a con and loses a lot of money. While everyone else insists that he was just a random mark, Lucas is certain that he was targeted by someone who knows him well. And thus a mystery must be solved.

What makes this a Jewish film? Lucas is Jewish, and the film uses his brother’s very Jewish wedding as a framing device.

C The Writer

The new TV show by Sayed Kashua is even more autobiographical than his hit Arab Labor. This time, his alter-ego protagonist is the creator or a sitcom called Arabic Work (I don’t know if the title difference is intentional or a subtitle error), and is so obviously Kashua it’s almost embarrassing. The Jew/Arab conflict barely appears here. The story of a commercially successful, desperately unhappy man blurs the line between fiction and autobiography a little too much.

You can also read my previous reviews of four other SFJFF films.

3 Views of America: What I saw in theaters this weekend

I saw three movies in theaters this weekend.

Free State of Jones at the Elmwood

Being a history buff, and particularly one interested in the Civil War and reconstruction, I couldn’t help rushing out to see Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones. I caught it at the Elmwood.

Matthew McConaughey stars as an actual historical figure, Newton Knight, a Confederate Army deserter who led a band of escaped slaves and other discontents. They fought the Confederacy and successfully held considerable land. After the war, he supported reconstruction and tried to help the freedmen gain their rightful place in society.

It’s an interesting piece of history, and one that Americans should know something about. What’s more, it makes for an exciting movie. (I don’t know to what degree the movie is historically accurate. I suspect not much.) It can’t help being something of a white savior movie, but that flaw really couldn’t be avoided in a story that really needed to be told.

I give it a B.

I’ve been to the Elmwood many times, but always for something showing in the theater’s big, downstairs auditorium. This time, Jones played in one of the two small, upstairs auditoriums. It was horrible. The front row was way too far back, and there was no way to get close enough to the screen.

Even worse, a low wall in front of the front row was much too close for comfort. I had to tuck my legs under the seat. My back was sore at the end of the movie. Some low chairs, or even bing bang chairs, in the front would help.

Next time something I want to see is at the Elmwood, I’ll make sure it’s screening downstairs before I go.

Scarlet Letter at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

Sunday was the last day of the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, and the 1926 version of The Scarlet Letter was the final movie of the day. I introduced the film, explaining how star Lillian Gish pushed to get the film made despite censorship issues.

In case you don’t remember reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel in High School, it’s set in 17th century Puritan Massachusetts. Hester Prynne, whose husband disappeared years ago, has a baby out of wedlock and suffers from religious intolerance.

The film, which is very much the MGM version, emphasizes the romance between Hester and her lover, the church minister Arthur Dimmesdale. But unlike the universally reviled Demi Moore version, MGM kept the tragic ending. It’s a powerful story, well-told. I give it an A-.

The 16mm print screened was washed out and fuzzy. As I have never seen a good print of this film; I suspect that nothing better is available.

Bruce Loeb did a wonderful job on piano. His music enhanced the emotions onscreen and deepened the story.

The Lusty Men at the Pacific Film Archive

Nicholas Ray examines masculinity in this modern western drama set in the world of the rodeo. The lusty men of the title are irresponsible, bad with money, and courageous to the point of stupidity. The women who love them suffer for it.

The Lusty Men is not, as I had assumed, about a love triangle. At least not in the traditional sense. Yes, it’s about two men and one woman, but the men don’t compete for the woman. It’s the wife who must compete against her husband’s new bromance.

Robert Mitchum stars as Jeff McCloud, a former star of the rodeo circuit with one too many injuries. He latches onto the happily-married Wes and Louise (Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward). Wes is a cowhand, working for someone else, and badly wanting enough to buy his own place. The rodeo promises quick, easy, yet dangerous cash, and Jeff offers to mender him. Wes eagerly jumps into the world of constant travel, heavy drinking, poker, bar fights, and the adrenaline rush of riding a wild horse or (much worse) bull. Louise is pulled into it far more reluctantly.

The rodeo industry clearly approved of this film’s production–although I can’t help wondering if they had read the script. The film contains a good deal of actual rodeo footage. Much of this footage, accompanied by on- and off-screen announcers, celebrate the real cowboys on the real horses and bulls we’re looking at. One problem: This real-live footage didn’t match well with the footage shot for the film. It was grainier and slightly out of focus.

I give The Lusty Men an A-.

The PFA screened a brand-new 35mm print (I’m delighted to know that Warner Brothers is still making them). For the most part, it was beautiful, and did service to Lee Garmes’ moody black and white photography. The occasional scratches were, I assume, from the source material.