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.

The final day at the Mill Valley (San Rafael) Film Festival

Sunday was the last day of this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. I spent the day at the Rafael, but I didn’t stay long enough to catch any of the official closing films or the closing party.

Here’s what I caught:

B Truth
I kind of wish I was new to the theater. I would have loved to have asked a volunteer “Where do I go for Truth.”

As the 2004 presidential election came to its climax, CBS’ 60 Minutes news program covered a story that should have ruined George W. Bush’s chance of re-election. But an important piece of evidence turned out to be fake, turning the exposé into a mediascandal that helped Bush and destroyed several journalism careers, including Dan Rather’s. Writer/director James Vanderbilt gives us a slick, entertaining, but unexceptional movie about TV journalism in the early 21st century. It has one very big casting flaw (Robert Redford as Rather). But it tells a story that we should all know and remember.

There was no filmmaker Q&A.

This was, of course, the festival’s last screening of Truth (but hopefully not their last truthful screening). There was no Q&A after the film. It opens in theaters soon.

Panel – The Future of Film Technology
How will digital technology, immersive games, and other innovations change the nature of cinema. Angela Watercutter of Wired Magazine chaired a discussion on where we are going.

The panelists, going from left to right, were:

  • Tiffany Shlain: Emmy-nominated filmmaker and Webby Award founder
  • Christopher Coppola: Filmmaker and teacher and member of a famous cinema family
  • Shane Hurlbut: Cinematographer
  • John Gaeta: Lucasfilm designer
  • Jess Lee: InVisage president and CEO

Lee was the only one there promoting a product–a new camera technology called QuantumFilm. He screened a short film shot on a smartphone using his company’s system. The image looked soft and out of focus. He also showed some us-vs.-them comparison images, but I never trust demos done by people who have something to sell.

A few highlights from the discussion. There may be a few errors in the quotes, but none of them are substantial.

Shlain: The most exciting new advance was when they added the “photograph yourself” feature to cellphones. It’s so empowering. There’s no camera crew to intimidate you.

Coppola: Pity the artist who blames the equipment.

Hurlbut: I try to read the story, listen to what the characters say. The story will tell you what to shoot it on; what lens. You have to read the subtext.

Hurlbut: What I’m finding is the way I’m moving the camera is changing because of the physical size. I find that very exciting. Something that used to be 60 or 70 pounds is now a six-pound box.

Coppola: When you say “cut” using film, you stop everything. You can keep going and improvise with digital. Actors love that. [Coppola also claimed that he showed digital camera tests to the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who “liked what he saw.”]

Hurlbut: There will always be artists who stick with film; they like the look and feel of it. But what I’m not liking is the look and feel of the budgets.

Shlain: It’s changing how you create. There’s pros and cons. You can do so much on the fly now. It’s like when they were first able to move the camera; that was so radical.

Hurlbut: The quality of television has gone through the roof. I remember when you couldn’t get a famous actor on TV. But now the scripts are so good.

On the theatrical experience:

Hurlbut: Is the movie-going experience dying?

Coppola: For my seven-year-old, it already has. There’s this multi-tasking thing.

Hurlbut: It’s still my favorite way to sit in a darkened theater. That’s something I’m going to hold onto.

Gaeta: Along with church, it’s one of two places where you disconnect from Twitter and Facebook.

Shlain: People still like theater experience.

The Saga of Ingrid Bergman
This isn’t a movie, but a museum-like exhibit around the corner from the Rafael, celebrating the great actress and movie star.

I enjoyed it. Most of it was mounted photos, many of them movie stills. Captions helped outline her life and career–mostly her career. I found one error: A caption credited Alfred Hitchcock for writing and directing Notorious. He directed it, but Ben Hecht wrote it. in addition to the photos, three video screens offered mini-documentaries about stages in her life.

The exhibition runs through Thursday at 1020 B Street, San Rafael. It’s connected to the Rafael’s current Ingrid Bergman Retrospective.

A Tikkun
The last film I saw at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival turned out to be the best. But I’m not sure how much a non-Jew would appreciate this fantasy drama set in Jerusalem’s strictest Orthodox community.

A young, male Chasid, extremely religious and prone to accidents, survives a near-death experience. He comes out of it changed in slight but (for his family) frightening ways. He doesn’t need his glasses. He refuses to eat meat. He hitchhikes late at night as a way to study the world outside his enclosed community. He even visits a brothel. Sometimes he seems holier than the more conventional Chasids; other times, blasphemous. Shot in widescreen black and white, with no background music, this very odd film is unlike anything you may ever see.

I find it to be a strange, spiritual experience. But after the movie, the man sitting next to me enthusiastically called it the best anti-religion film he’d ever seen. I guess people see what they want to see in it.

There was no filmmaker Q&A.

Will you get a chance to see it? Maybe. An American release is possible, but as far as I know, not yet confirmed.

Pride, decency, nationalism, and the Bridge of Spies (also the Mill Valley Film Festival screening in Corte Madera)

A- Espionage drama

Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Two superpowers, each hating and fearing the other as a military and ideological enemy, face each other off. Neither wants to back down. Neither wants to give an inch. But both know full well that if their cold war ever got hot, it would be the end of both of them–and probably the end of civilization.

Such is the setting of Steven Spielberg’s complex and cerebral espionage drama, Bridge of Spies. Note that I said drama, not thriller. There’s very little conventional suspense or action in this picture. The film concentrates on court rooms and international negotiations. Some minor characters face imprisonment or execution, but the protagonist is only briefly in danger.

That protagonist is a New York lawyer named James Donovan (Tom Hanks). As the film begins in 1957, he’s asked to defend Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). He’s not particularly happy about defending a “commie,” but he realizes that everyone deserves a fair trial. In fact, he seems to be the only person in America who realizes that.

Rylance, Spielberg, and his screenwriters (who include the Coen Brothers) turn this spy into a very nice, and even admirable guy. Quiet, self-effacing, and resigned, he spends his time painting cityscapes and self-portraits. When arrested, he refuses to become a turncoat and help the American government–the exact response we’d hope to get from an American spy. Donovan respects Abel’s courage and the two begin an uneasy friendship.

But the film isn’t really about Abel’s trial, or even about the way that trial turns Donovan into one of the most hated men in America. The bulk of the story concerns Donovan’s trip to Berlin in the early 1960s to arrange a spy swap: Abel for Gary Powers–an American spy-plane pilot whose plane was shot down by the Russians.

Meanwhile, the East Germans are holding an American student, and Donovan decides to free him, as well. The East Germans have their own agenda–they want to be seen in the West as a real country, not a Russian puppet.

A handful of scenes are in German. Unfortunately, those scenes lack subtitles. I don’t know why. I’m hoping it was a problem with the pre-release DCP.

A title card at the very beginning tells us that the picture is “inspired by a true story.” I don’t know how much of it is truth, and how much is inspiration, but I like that word inspired. Too many narrative films based on actual events claim that they stick close to the facts. Sometimes they even do what they claim, which usually results in a bad movie.

Bridge of Spies takes you into the early Mad Men era, but without the glamourous clothes. It captures the fear and paranoia on both sides at the very moment when the Berlin Wall was going up. much of it is dark and unsettling, especially in Berlin.

Tom Hanks plays his patented decent American guy (yeah, I know, James Steward actually owns the patent). His Donovan appears to be a reasonably good lawyer who turns, through experience, into a great negotiator. But he has little faith in his own abilities. In his own eyes, he’s a lost American with no overcoat and a bad cold, stumbling in the dark as he faces more skilled adversaries. Hanks doesn’t give us a great performance, but he gives us everything we need, including a star that we’re used to rooting for.

For most of the film, Spielberg avoids the smooth camera movements, the Spielberg Face, and the other tricks that tend to drown many of his films in sentimentality. But when Donovan comes home to his loving family, the sentimentality is laid on thick. There’s even an absurdly convenient TV news broadcast. The movie would have ended much better if it had ended ten minutes sooner. (Maybe five minutes sooner, but it felt like ten.)

I saw the film Tuesday at a Mill Valley Film Festival screening at the Corte Madera Century Cinema. None of the filmmakers were in attendance, and there was no Q&A.

The Corte Madera is a rarity in today’s world: A single-screen first-run theater. But that single screen is one of the best in the Bay Area–huge and curved and perfect for immersive cinema. Amongst the films I saw there in first run were The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home–all in 70mm. (Bridge of Spies isn’t particularly immersive, and didn’t really need that screen.)

Cars, Queens, and Eye Surgery: Saturday at the Mill Valley Film Festival

This event should really be called the Marin Film Festival. It uses theaters all over the county.

But I really did spend Saturday in Mill Valley, a town that I’ve never quite figured out geographically. I caught three films there.

B- Havana Motor Club

I’m not really a fan of car racing, which may affect my review. People who really love cars will probably enjoy it far more than I did.

Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt’s documentary looks at how this especially loud sport plays in Cuba–a country where racing cars has been outlawed for more than half a century. The film focuses on the struggle of a few enthusiasts–many of whom have been racing illegally in the streets for years–to bring it back. The film’s best scenes show how the racers and mechanics (often the same people) creatively customize American cars from the 1950s, not only to keep them running but to make them run faster than was ever intended. But when the government finally allows an open race, you can only root for its existence; you don’t really care who wins.

I was unable to stay for the Q&A with the director.

The film will screen again this coming Monday, the 12th, at 12:30 at the Sequoia.

B The Girl King
This Swedish (but English-language) historical epic focuses on Queen Kristina, a young yet intellectual monarch holding onto her power in a men’s world, while religious wars ravage Europe. She tries to bring peace, improve her subjects’ lot, and–for various reasons–avoid marriage. Malin Buska anchors the film in her sublime performance in the title role. Director Mika Kaurismäki marshals an all-around good cast and provides the appropriate atmosphere. But the film lacks a strong story arc, and the complex court politics often felt complex and confusing. I suspect that screenwriter Michel Marc Bouchard stuck too close to actual history.

After the film, we were treated to a Q&A with Kaurismäki and Buska. Some highlights:

  • How did Buska prepare for the role? “I tried to find as many books as I could. That was very difficult, but I got a bunch of them. I stayed in a cottage for half a year. I didn’t have any Internet. I was learning horseback riding and sword fighting.”
  • Was Descartes really poisoned? (The film suggests he was.) “He wasn’t used to the cold climate, and they said it was pneumonia. But when they moved his body back to Paris, they discovered poison in him.
  • Why was this Swedish film, set in Sweden, made in English? “English is now the world language. In those days, the court spoke French, not Swedish.”
  • The greatest challenge in making the film: “Shooting it in 37 days, which was not enough. I think in Hollywood it would have been 100. The costume and makeup changes took hours. I ended up shooting only three or four hours a day. Every day was a fight.

This screening was The Girl King’s the US premiere. It will play at the festival one more time: Thursday, October 15, 2:00, at the Sequoia. But don’t fret if you miss it. It will have an American release in December.

Open Your Eyes

This event was more than a movie. It had to be; the movie itself ran only 34 minutes. It was also a celebration for bettering the world, and for the Seva Foundation, which works to eradicate blindness in the developing world.

Full disclosure: I occasionally donate money to Seva.

After introductions by director Irene Taylor Brodsky and producer Larry Brilliant, we were treated to a concert by the film’s composer, Salman Ahmad. The music was meditative and haunting–I just closed my eyes and drifted with it. Very pleasant.

The documentary itself was moving and joyful. It follows an elderly couple in Nepal, both all-but-completely blind, as they travel to a clinic where Seva workers restore their eyesight. We see their travel, their very quick operations (only one eye each; they’ll get the other eyes fixed four months later), and the amazement when they can see again. Then they return home and see their grandchildren for the first time.

The film was followed by a panel discussion. In addition to Brodsky and Brilliant, Indiewood producer Michael Shamberg (Pulp Fiction, Erin Brockovich), and Sandy Herz, Director of Global Partnerships for the Skoll Foundation sat in.

(Wouldn’t you love to have the last name Brilliant? You could legitimately introduce yourself with “Hello, I’m Brilliant.”)

A few comments:

Brilliant: “Seva projects and services have given sight to millions of people. You just saw the story of two of them. The intraocular lens [IOL; the implant that makes these surgeries possible] used to cost $500 dollars each. Seva purchased a manufacturing plant. Now IOLs cost $1.67.”

Brilliant and Shamberg worked together on the thriller Contagion, which they feel helped convince congress to not gut medical research.

Of all of her films, Brodsky is “most proud of this one. I was closer to it that most of my other films. I did all the filming myself.

The short will screen again on Saturday, October 17, 8:15, at the Lark, with another film called A Children’s Song. HBO will broadcast it next year.

Mill Valley Film Festival Preview

I’ve screened five films that will play at the upcoming Mill Valley Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them, from best to still pretty good.

A Here Is Harold

This very dark Norwegian comedy touches on issues of age, senility, parent/child relationships, big box stores and their effect on local businesses, and whether it’s wise to kidnap a wealthy capitalist when you have no idea what you’re doing. Harold (Bjørn Sundquist) loses everything when IKEA opens a monstrosity across the street from his 40-year-old furniture store, so he sets out to kidnap IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad (Björn Granath) and force him to confess that his products are badly-made junk. This is not a laugh-a-minute comedy, but the laughs that come are deep and satisfying, with a strong sense of the absurd. I may never listen to popping bubble wrap again without laughing. The big question: How did the filmmakers get IKEA and and the real Kamprad to cooperate?

  • Rafael, Sunday, October 11, 1:00
  • Sequoia, Tuesday, October 13, 8:30
  • Rafael, Thursday, October 15, 12:15

A- Dheepan

This story of Sri Lankan refugees resettling in France feels like two excellent films that don’t quite fit together. The main film is a social drama about three strangers pretending to be family while adjusting to Western civilization. In addition to learning a new language and surviving financially at the very lowest rung of the economic ladder, they must fake or create real relationships. The other film, which dominates the final act, is a well-made, effective, and extremely violent crime thriller. I loved Dheepan; but I would have loved it more without the big action finish.

  • Sequoia, Saturday, October 17, 5:30; Sold out; rush tickets may be available
  • Rafael, Sunday, October 18, 5:30; Sold out; rush tickets may be available
  • This film will likely receive a theatrical release after the festival

B+ Hitchcock/Truffaut

This is the movie version of a book about making movies. In the early 60s, François Truffaut interviewed Alfred Hitchcock and together they created one of the great books on filmmaking. Now documentarian Kent Jones has turned that book into a film. He rightly focuses on cinematic technique as he explains the creation of the book and what it taught filmmakers. Top directors, including Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and Martin Scorsese talk onscreen about Hitchcock’s work–how he used camera placement, editing, and other tools of the filmmaker’s art. I enjoyed the movie very much, but I’m biased.

  • Lark, Thursday, October 15, 8:00
  • Rafael, Saturday, October 17, 3:15; Sold out; rush tickets may be available
  • This film will likely receive a theatrical release after the festival

B Sacred Blood

Yet another hip vampire movie filled with punk music, stylish visuals, mortals who deserve to die, and bloodsucker angst. Circus manager Natia gets bitten by a vampire dog and joins the undead. She gets lessons from a more experienced vampire, befriends an innocent young man, and has no trouble cleaning human scum off the streets of San Francisco. The movie is quite often wonderful , especially when it goes way over the top. But the story is predictable and some of the acting is unpardonably bad.

B- 45 Years

Andrew Haigh’s very British chamber drama about an aged married couple approaching their 45th anniversary sticks to a calm and even tone. That’s both its strength and its weakness. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay give excellent performances, and we can’t help sympathizing with their characters. But the movie suffers from an emotional monotone that gets dull after a while. The conflict, about a girlfriend of the husband’s who died years before he met his wife, feels a bit like a tempest in a teapot. But perhaps the wife’s deep insecurity is the point.

  • Sequoia, Friday, October 9, 5:30
  • Rafael, Monday, October 12, 2:30
  • This film will likely receive a theatrical release after the festival

This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival announced

Tuesday evening, the California Film Institute officially announced the 38th Mill Valley Film Festival. This is one of the two really big film festivals in the Bay Area (the other being the San Francisco International Film Festival). Because of the late summer/early fall dates, Mill Valley tends to get a lot of the better Indiewood films likely to be major Oscar contenders. In fact, for the last five years in a row, the Best Picture winner had its Bay Area premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

This year’s festival will run from Thursday, October 8 to Sunday, October 18. It will screen 107 feature films and 76 shorts on 13 different screens around Marin County (to my knowledge, only two screens will be in Mill Valley). Over 300 filmmakers will be in attendance.

A few promising screenings ,events, and series:

  • As is MVFF’s custom, the festival will open with two premieres: Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl
    (with Eddie Redmayne as transgender painter Lili Elbe) and Spotlight, about The Boston Globe uncovering child molestation in the Catholic Church.
  • Aretha Franklin is keeping the documentary Amazing Grace out of circulation, so the Festival will screen Mavis!, instead.
  • Amongst the panels I’m most eager to catch (which doesn’t mean I’ll be able to catch either of them) are The Future of Film Technology
    and The State of the Industry.
  • If you’re a fan of Green Day, you may want to catch the world premiere of Heart Like a Hand Grenade, a documentary about the making of the album American Idiot. This is the only festival that will screen this film.
  • A number of documentaries will cover every cinephile’s favorite subject: movies. These include Hitchcock/Truffaut, Ingrid Bergman—In Her Own Words, and Women He’s Undressed, about costume designer Orry-Kelly. (Interesting overlap here. Bergman worked with Kelly in Casablanca and with Hitchcock in four films, including Notorious.)
  • There’s even a Steven Spielberg movie, Bridge of Spies–co-written by the Coen Brothers..
  • The Spotlight program will be I Smile Back, a drama starring Sarah Silverman. The Festival is describing this as a “groundbreaking departure from her comedic roots,” but that’s a bit of an exaggeration. She played a serious, dramatic supporting role in Take This Waltz, and didn’t do so well in it (at least in my opinion).
  • The Centerpiece screening will be Barbet Schroeder’s Amnesia.
  • The great documentarian Marcel Ophuls will be honored with a screening of his new autobiographical doc, Ain’t Misbehavin’. The festival will also screen his four-hour, 1969 masterpiece, The Sorrow and the Pity.
    This will be one of two films screened off actual film.
  • Movies from the Middle East include Mardan, a crime thriller from Iraqi Kurdistan, and Tikkun, which is not about Michael Lerner’s magazine. According to Executive Director Mark Fishkin, this Israeli film “will be controversial. It’s an art film by every definition.” He promises that this story set in an ultra-orthodox community contains full-frontal male and female nudity, and necrophilia. “I think it’s a small masterpiece.”
  • As a last-minute addition, the festival will present a tribute to Ian McKellen. Details, and even a date and URL, will come later.
  • The Festival closes with Suffragette
    (about Britain’s struggle for voting rights). The cast includes Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep.

The Festival’s Twitter hashtag is #mvff38.