Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mill Valley Film Festival 2010 Preview

The 33rd edition of the 33rd Mill Valley Film Festival (MFFF) gets going this Thursday, October 7 and continues through Sunday, October 17. Since posting my overview of the line-up last week, the festival has filled one its TBA slots with Rabbit Hole, the latest project from John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus). The film was well received at its Toronto world premiere last month, and stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as parents grappling with the recent death of a young son.

I've attended MVFF every year since 2004, which is when vehicle-less me discovered the ease of reaching the San Rafael Film Center by Golden Gate Transit bus. (The festival's Mill Valley venues, however, remain all but impossible to reach by public transit, except during weekday commute hours). But it looks like I'll be giving the fest a pass this year. Between the vagaries of my own work schedule and the festival schedule, I just couldn't find two films playing San Rafael on the same day that warranted the trip north. I even missed all the press screenings in San Francisco. So for this year's MVFF preview, I'm offering only eight capsules of films I watched on DVD screener. Happily, they were all very much worth a look.

Black Field (Greece, dir. Vardis Marinakis)
In 17th century Greece, a severely wounded Turkish janissary is found outside an imposing stone convent. He's put in chains and nursed back to health by two nuns, one of whom has a secret between her legs. As a young boy, "she" was disguised as a girl by the mother superior in order to keep "him" from being kidnapped and turned into a janissary. Once the opportunity presents itself, the janissary and nun escape into the surrounding forest, where their initial enmity transforms into a begrudging tolerance for each other. Following a capture and second escape, their relationship goes even deeper. This transfixing and visually arresting film marks a strong feature debut by director Marinakis. It plays out almost like a fairy tale and is one of the most intriguing stories about gender identity I've ever seen.

Kawasaki's Rose (Czech Republic, dir. Jan Hrebejk)
For his 10th feature, prolific social satirist and MVFF mainstay Hrebejk makes his most overtly political work yet – the first Czech film to raise the issue of cooperation with the country's communist-era secret police. An esteemed psychology professor and former dissident is about to receive a national award for service to the nation. To mark the occasion, a TV crew that includes the professor's resentful son-in-law is making a documentary. In the process they uncover a terrible secret that might destroy a reputation and a family. It's a compelling story, with dashes of humor and sharply drawn characters. The film does lose steam once the secret has been revealed, but rallies with a heart wrenching final act at the awards ceremony. I think it's Hrebejk's – and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Petr Jarchovský's – finest work since 2004's Up and Down. It's also the Czech Republic's submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Moloch Tropical (Haiti/France dir. Raoul Peck)
Filmmaker/activist/ex-Haitian Minister of Culture Peck (
Lumumba) has cooked up a fascinating, absurdist satire about the final 24 hours in the presidency of a desperate Haitian despot. President Théogène (perfectly cast Zinedine Soualem) begins the day by stepping on broken glass and spends the rest of it limping from crisis to crisis. The populace is in revolt, the journalist he's torturing in the dungeon won't talk and the maid refuses to have sex with him. Worse still, that day's meticulously planned celebration of Haiti's 200th birthday promises to implode. It's enough to render a demagogue gaga. Set almost entirely within the walls of a luxurious mountaintop stone citadel, Peck's film moves at a brisk pace with purposeful camera movements and succinct editing, which is almost enough to counterbalance its somewhat overstuffed screenplay. Best of all is a hilarious rendering of the song "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue."

Queen of the Sun (USA, dir. Taggart Siegel)
I've been fascinated by the disturbing phenomenon of honeybee CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) since reading about it two years ago. At this year's SF International Film Festival there was a feeble documentary called
Colony, which was less an investigation into CCD than a portrait of a bible-thumping, Mennonite beekeeping family. Fortunately, Queen of the Sun is everything Colony wasn't – a highly informative, passionate, visually striking look at something that should be of grave concern to everyone, considering that bees pollinate 40% of what we eat. Director Siegel (The Real Dirt of Farmer John) engages charismatic apiarists from around the world, who look at the 10,000 year-old symbiotic relationship between bees and man before considering the possible causes of CCD (the most likely culprits being monoculture, pesticides, genetically engineered crops and mechanized, migratory beekeeping). He ends on an optimistic note, focusing on urban rooftop beekeeping (especially the fight to make it legal in NYC) and the emergence of honeybee sanctuaries. Interestingly, a third documentary about CCD, titled Vanishing of the Bees, will screen at this year's SF DocFest.

The Two Horses of Genghis Khan (Germany, dir. Byambasuren Davaa)
From the director of
The Story of the Weeping Camel and The Cave of the Yellow Dog comes this third Mongolia-set docu-fiction hybrid. Urna is a singer from Inner Mongolia (a part of China) who travels to Outer Mongolia. She's promised her deceased grandmother to restore a violin that was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and track down the lyrics to an ancient song which is partially engraved on the violin's neck. The journey takes her from the big city (Ulan Bator) to the pastoral steppes, a sojourn which allows the film to raise issues of cultural identity-loss and the evils of modernity's encroachment. Two Horses is a more melancholy work than Weeping Camel and Yellow Dog, and lacks some of their charm and narrative drive. The climactic denouement feels particularly manipulated this time out. But it's an engaging story, with equally gorgeous scenery and singing – and it contains unforgettable advice on how to send a text message where there's no signal.

Dumas (France/Belgium dir. Safy Nebbou)
This film's distributors should have simply translated the French title,
L'autre Dumas (The Other Dumas), which correctly infers that this film is equally about Alexandre Dumas' collaborator, Auguste Maquet. Based on a 2003 stage play, Dumas is set at the dawn of the French Revolution of 1848, a time when the two writers were adapting "The Count of Monte Cristo" for the stage and writing the novel "The Viscount of Bragelonne." When a smitten Maquet finds himself impersonating Dumas in order to help a young woman whose father is languishing in prison, it sets off a plot thick with intrigue and pathos. Counter-balancing all that plot-i-ness is a nuanced tale of two writers unable to practice their craft in solitude. Gerard Dépardieu clearly has a grand time portraying the dynamic Dumas. And Benoît Poelvoorde, an actor with whom I'm unfamiliar, is equally adept at playing Dumas' opposite, the meek and sober Maquet. Also worth mentioning are Dominique Blanc as Dumas' wise administrative assistant/mistress, and gorgeous Mélanie Thierry as the object of Dumas' and Maquet's desire. The cinematography is alleged to be spectacular – something I couldn't tell from the murky screener I previewed. Dépardieu's casting was controversial in France, as Dumas was the descendent of a freed Haitian slave and Dépardieu appears in the film with darkened skin and wooly wig.

William Vincent (USA, dir. Jay Anania)
Fans of last year's quasi-experimental film
Erased James Franco will have an easier time digging this existentialist indie neo-noir than the Pineapple Express crowd. Here Franco plays William Vincent, which is a name he assumes after he misses a plane flight that crashes. WV floats like a phantom through NYC, living in a Chinatown storefront and working as an editor of nature documentaries when he isn't absentmindedly pick-pocketing strangers. That latter talent gets him noticed by a menacing gangster/dealer/pimp, sucking WV into in an increasingly violent realm. Steeped in atmosphere, with moody lighting and dialogue spoken in methodical half-whispers, William Vincent will either fascinate or try your patience. Or both.

Ed Hardy 'Tattoo the World' (USA, dir. Emiko Omori)
This serviceable doc traces the remarkable career of Donald Edward Talbot Hardy. As a kid in 1950's Corona del Mar, Hardy became obsessed with tattoos and hung out in the parlors of Long Beach's Nu-Pike Amusement Park. After obtaining a SF Art Institute printmaking degree, he operated a short-lived Vancouver shop before moving to San Diego, where he developed his craft inking umpteen sailors. Years of hard work on both coasts lead to his current stature as a master body artist and painter, one whose branding on everything from underwear to coffee cups generated $700 million in international sales by 2009. Over the course of this documentary, we learn about the evolution of Hardy's artistry and his influences, both cultural (customized car painting, Mexican poster art, Yakuza full-body tats) and personal (mentors like Sailor Jerry Collins and rock-star tattooist Lyle Tuttle). The film benefits from Hardy's genial on-screen articulacy and from the extensive examples we see of his vibrant, exquisitely photographed work. Perhaps less successful is the director's listless voiceover narration and peculiar decision to score the film with opera and classical music.

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