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.

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.

Anna Magnani, Vittorio De Sica, Teresa Venerdì, and screwball comedy at the Pacific Film Archive

Saturday night, I visited the Pacific Film Archive to see Teresa Venerdì, a 1941 screwball comedy directed by and starring Vittorio De Sica. (When the film was finally released in the USA in 1951, it was renamed Doctor, Beware.)

If the phrase “screwball comedy directed by and starring Vittorio De Sica” makes your head want to explode, calm down. De Sica is remembered today primarily for such serious dramas as Bicycle Thieves and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. But he started his career as a handsome leading man. And as a director, he made far more comedies than dramas. (The first film of his I ever saw was After the Fox, a 1966 Peter Sellers vehicle written by Neil Simon.)

Saturday’s screening launched the PFA’s new series, Anna Magnani: Eternal Soul of Italian Cinema. It struck me as a strange choice for opening a series on the great Italian actress. She has a small role–I doubt she’s on screen for 20 minutes. On the other hand, when she’s on screen, she’s hilarious. She plays the star of a song-and-dance act who rehearses as if she’s bored out of her mind.

Most of the comedy centers around De Sica’s character, a doctor who gets far more visits from creditors than from patients. And of course he has woman problems. His jealous mistress (Magnani’s bored showgirl) is getting suspicious. He gets engaged to the daughter of a rich man in hopes of a big dowry. And a sweet orphan girl–just now old enough to leave the orphanage and brimming with romantic fantasies–falls madly in love with him.

De Sica and his collaborators found a great deal of madcap action for the story. When the three creditors come to the doctor’s home (which they plan to repossess), they fight over the one comfortable chair. And the doctor’s remarkably inept servant adds slapstick with his vacuum cleaner troubles.

By American standards, Teresa Venerdì seems slow for a screwball comedy–especially in the first half. But the zany atmosphere and funny characters earn it a B+ in my book.

This is not the sort of film one would expect from a Fascist country at war (which Italy most certainly was in 1941). It’s risqué and funny. There’s no hint of war anywhere. And like all good comedies, it thumbs its nose at authority figures–in this case the rich, the creditors, and the women running the orphanage. I don’t know how much freedom Mussolini gave his filmmakers. Perhaps I should look into that.

The PFA screened Teresa Venerdì off of an English-subtitled 35mm print imported from Italy. The print had its problems, but for the most part they weren’t serious. There was one point, however, where I felt that a scene had been chopped off too soon–as if there was some missing footage.

The Anna Magnani series will run over the next two months. I’m looking forward to more of it.

Strauss, Powell, Leone, and Eastwood: Sunday evening at the Pacific Film Archive

I really wish the Pacific Film Archive allowed eating. When you go to two movies, the first starting at 5:00, hunger can become a problem.

And yet I managed it Sunday afternoon/evening. I saw two very different movies, both by filmmakers I respect. Both were in scope, and presented in 35mm prints.

Other than that, they were entirely different.


This is an Archer production, meaning it was written and directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell. Their work includes Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, and one of my all-time favorites, The Third Man, you know what I’m talking about.

But this is as far from Carol Reed’s location-shot, noir Vienna as Goodfellas is to Singin’ in the Rain. Oh…Rosalinda was shot entirely on London soundstages, and makes no attempt to look realistic. The sets often appear to be from a stage production.

And that’s absolutely appropriate for this light-as-a-feather musical comedy about adultery and mistaken identity. Yes, the movie entertains, but the absolute refusal to take anything seriously has an alienating effect. Sometimes doing something new and daring doesn’t work.

This was Pressburger and Powell’s first widescreen movie, shot in Cinemascope. They clearly had fun with the wide aspect ratio, but that’s pretty much all they do with it. They rarely use it to tell us something about the place or characters.

I give it a B.

The PFA screened a rare, imported 35mm print in very good condition. With the beautiful music, I often wished that they could have presented it with the original four-track stereo mix (a standard for Cinemescope in 1955). Alas, even if such a print survives, I doubt the PFA had the out-of-date equipment to play it.

Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby introduced the film. She told us that next Saturday, David Thomson (who curated the Vienna series) will give a 4:30 lecture before the 5:30 screening of Lola Montez, that the Stanford will soon have its own Thomson-involved Vienna series, and that the PFA has a Pressberger/Powell coming up later this year.

A Fistful of Dollars

I first saw Sergio Leone’s rip-off of Yojimbo on Laserdisc in the early 1990’s. I thought it was a weak Xerox copy of the original. Now that I have seen it again, this time in 35mm on the big screen, my opinion has changed. It’s a pretty good but inferior variation of the original.

This was Leone’s second film as a director, and his first western. More than any other individual movie, it created the so-called spaghetti western trend.

The story is almost identical to Kurosawa’s original. A lone man, incredibly talented at killing, wanders into a small down in the middle of nowhere. The town is torn apart between rival gangs, so the lone man offers his services to one gang and then the other, playing them against each other. Most of the characters and many of the scenes have exact analogs in the original.

But this time, it’s set in northern Mexico. No one has a sword, and everybody has a gun. Eastwood’s Man with No Name shoots and kills four men in what feels like a second.

A Fistful of Dollars provides reasonable entertainment, mixing action, suspense and comedy. Leone doesn’t sermonize like Kurosawa, which may be a good thing.

The 35mm print has some specks—especially at the beginning and end of reels. It was quite grainy, and always has been. You have to expect that from a 1960s film shot in the small-frame/widescreen Techniscope format. But otherwise, it looked fine.

Chronologically, A Fistful of Dollars sits between the Kurosawa masterpiece that inspired it, and Leone’s later masterpieces. In quality, it sits well below either of them, but offers a promise of better work to come. I give it a B.

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.

Russian Ark & Buena Vista Social Club: Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive

I saw Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark and Wim Wender’s Buena Vista Social Club Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive. The first film was part of the ongoing series Guided Tour: Museums in Cinema. The second one closed the long-running series Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road.

But they had an interesting thing in common. Both were shot digitally at a time when that was unusual, and when the arguments for sticking to 35mm were far more compelling than they are today.

Both films were projected digitally off of 2K DCPs. Considering the low resolutions of the cameras they were shot with, 4K would have been pointless.

Russian Ark

Sokurov’s 2002 dive into European art and Russian history is easy to admire but difficult to love. Technically speaking, it’s an astounding achievement. And while it’s often beautiful and exciting, it sometimes feels aimless and pointless.

I saw Russian Ark once before, on DVD, soon after it’s theatrical release. This was my first time seeing this big-screen movie on the big screen.

The film provides a tour of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, one of the largest museums in the world. The Winter Palace–the home of the Czars’–is just one of the Hermitage’s six main buildings. Sokurov creates a fantasy fiction around the complex. An unseen narrator (perhaps a ghost; certainly the camera’s eye) and an early 19th Italian diplomat walk not only through the museum’s space but through its time. As they move from one room to another, they find themselves in different centuries. They meet people in modern clothes (some playing themselves) and others in powdered wigs. The diplomat joyfully joins a 19th century waltz. The last Czar’s children play in their home, not knowing their horrible fate.

Sokurov shot the entire 96-minute film, minus the credits, in one unbroken take. The logistics must have been insane. The camera wanders through a gallery that looks like a modern museum, with students and tourists examining the art. Then it glides into a magnificent ballroom, with hundreds of costumed extras laughing and dancing. And then it glides on to something else. All those people had to be ready on cue. The lights had to be set up correctly. One mistake and the whole thing would have had to be shot again. The final film is actually the fourth take.

It’s hard to pace a single-shot film properly. Without editing, you can’t remove the slow parts. Russian Ark occasionally has its slow parts.

When things slow down, you can study the paintings, the sculptures, and the bright and uniquely costumed extras. But the best digital camera available in 2001 (when the film was shot) lacked the resolution and color depth needed for enjoying such spectacular eye candy. I suspect it would have been a better film if shot today. Shooting a single, 96-minute take on film is quite simply impossible.

Much as I admire Russian Ark, its flaws keep me from giving it a better grade than B. But that’s an upgrade. The last time I graded it, based only on a DVD, I gave it a B-.

The PFA will screen Russian Ark again today (Sunday), at 5:30.

Buena Vista Social Club

Too many recent music documentaries make the same mistake: They focus on the musicians and ignore the music. You’re lucky if you get one song played from beginning to end.

Wim Wenders didn’t make that mistake in 1999 with Buena Vista Social Club. He puts the songs front and center. You fall in love with the music, and thus become eager to meet the brilliant musicians who created it.

I saw the film theatrically soon after its release. So Saturday night was a revisit.

In 1998, Ry Cooder went to Cuba to find a group of musicians that had played brilliantly together in the 1940s. He brought them together, recorded an album, and eventually took them to Carnegie Hall. Fortunately, he brought Wenders with him to record all of these events.

Music takes up most of the film’s 105 minutes. We see the Club performing live. We see the musicians recording in a studio. When the music isn’t playing, the musicians tell us about themselves–the poverty they grew up in, how music saved them, and life in general. Their stories are moving and funny.

We see a fair amount of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, nearly 40 years after the revolution. But that’s only background. Wenders sticks to the music and the musicians.

The digital cameras Wenders used for this film were far inferior to the one that shot Russian Ark. In fact, it was standard definition–a pre-HD video signal blown up to a big theater screen. But for Buena Vista Social Club, that wasn’t really a serious problem.

This was my first screening in the new PFA theater that really showed off the new Meyer Sound audio system’s capabilities. It was excellent.

I give Buena Vista Social Club an A-.