Tuesday, September 28, 2010
At the press conference announcing the 33rd Mill Valley Film Festival (MFFF) line-up, Founder/Executive Director Mark Fishkin referred to a "programming sensibility" that has evolved at MVFF over the course of three decades. That sensibility has become an extremely successful formula – one that inspired indieWIRE to name it one of the world's 50 leading film festivals. There's little arguing with success, and as evidenced by the 143 films and programs in this year's selection, MVFF33 will be adhering to the tried and true.
The bedrock of the festival's success is its position as THE post-Venice/Toronto/Telluride launching pad for autumn prestige films expected to figure prominently during Awards Season. If you want to see tomorrow's big movies today, as well as ogle the stars that come with them, MVFF is the Bay Area's place to be as amenable celebs make the trek to Marin County. Among this year's attendees will be Annette Bening, currently riding a 10-year career high with The Kids Are All Right. She won't be plugging a film, but will instead be feted with a clips, conversation and Q&A tribute. Also getting the MVFF tribute treatment this year is Edward Norton. He'll be there with Stone, playing a convicted arsonist who uses his wife (Milla Jovovich) to manipulate an early prison release from an about-to-retire parole officer (Robert De Niro). Bay Area native Sam Rockwell will be at the fest on Opening Night. He's accompanying Conviction, in which he plays a convict whose sister (Hilary Swank) is hellbent on proving his innocence. Last but not least, we'll get a gander at fellow Bay Area boy James Franco, who's getting raves for his portrayal of extreme mountain-climber Aron Ralston in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire follow-up, 127 Hours.
If famous directors are more your thing, MVFF33 features several prominent ones live and in person. In 2006 the fest did a Spotlight on Alejandro González Iñarritu with Babel. That Spotlight is turned back on in 2010 as the noted Mexican director returns with Biutiful, for which Javier Bardem won a Best Actor prize at Cannes. Meanwhile, artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel occupies MVFF33's Centerpiece slot with his latest work, Miral. This drama set in the middle-East is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Rula Jebreal (also expected to attend) and stars Hiam Abbass (Lemon Tree, The Visitor) and Slumdog Millionaire heroine Freida Pinto. Closing out MVFF33 on October 17 will be The Debt, to be attended by its director, John Madden (Shakespeare in Love). The Debt stars Helen Mirren as an Israeli Mossad agent being forced out of retirement.
Among the other upcoming fall releases appearing at Mill Valley we have - yes, Helen Mirren again – this time starring as Prospera in Julie Taymor's (Frida, Across the Universe) sure-to-be strange adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Sharing the Opening Night duties with the aforementioned Conviction is Tom Hooper's The King's Speech. Fresh from its Audience Award win at Toronto, the film stars Colin Firth as a stammering King George VI who's aided by an unorthodox speech therapist played by Geoffrey Rush. For those who can't wait for the October 29 release of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the third filmed installment of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy" will be shown once at the festival on October 13. Marin-ite Sean Penn is represented at MVFF33 by Doug Liman's Fair Game, in which he plays the husband of outed undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts). Finally, in what is sure to be a huge crowd pleaser, Sally Hawkins leads a strike of women auto-factory workers in Nigel Cole's Made in Dagenham. (Personally, the thought of watching the actress who played Happy Go Lucky's obnoxious optimist Poppy, channeling Norma Rae in a film by the guy who directed Calendar Girls is the very stuff of nightmares.)
Another area in which MFFF stakes its reputation is the Valley of the Docs section. I probably watch over 50 documentary features each year and I'm always impressed how many of the best come from MVFF. There are exactly two dozen in this year's line-up, and here's a handful that are of interest to me. At the top of the list is The Two Horses of Genghis Khan, another Mongolian docu-fiction hybrid from the director of The Story of the Weeping Camel and The Cave of the Yellow Dog. I have high hopes for Queen of the Sun, a doc about the frightening phenomenon of honeybee CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder), which has got to be better than the pointless film Colony that screened at this year' SF International Film Festival. Every film enthusiast should want to see Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, a study of the enormous talent who shot The Red Shoes and The African Queen (and who only passed away last year). Docs about the counterculture are a MVFF mainstay, and this year I'm eyeing Ed Hardy 'Tattoo the World' and Space, Land and Time: Underground Adventures with Ant Farm. Most Valuable Players sounds like fun, as it takes a peek at the Freddy Awards (the Tonys of local high school musical productions). Finally, at the press conference Fishkin highly recommended Stefan Jarl's Submission, in which the acclaimed Swedish documentarian has his blood analyzed and discovers it contains several hundred types of industrial chemicals.
The festival frequently pairs a music documentary with a live performance event. Following the October 15 screening of Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone – a Laurence Fishburne-narrated doc about the influential L.A. based ska-punk band – Fishbone itself will perform live at The Woods Music Hall in Mill Valley. (The previous evening, Everyday Sunshine opens SF DocFest and Fishbone will play that fest's Opening Night Bash at the DNA Lounge).
The biggest part of MVFF is always the World Cinema section, which clocks in with 40 films this year. As usual, the Mill Valley programmers have marched to their own drummer in assembling 2010's international line-up. So if you're hoping to catch the more acclaimed/discussed films from this year's major film festivals, MVFF might disappoint – perhaps this year more than in the past. I'm pretty obsessive about tracking these things and at first glance I drew a blank on all but a handful of titles. Apart from some films I mentioned earlier, only three rang a bell. Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid is a slick re-imagining of Kim Ki-young's 1960 cult shocker, in which a man's extramarital affair has horrific repercussions for his family. (The SF International Asian American Film Fest screened the original version last spring.) In an admitted attempt to entice a younger demographic to MVFF, they've programmed French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats, a follow-up to last year's wildly acclaimed I Killed My Mother. Dolan once again directs himself, this time as a guy competing with his female best friend for the attentions of a dim Adonis. Then in Sam Taylor-wood's Nowhere Boy, Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass) serves up a portrait of the teen-aged John Lennon. October 9 will be Lennon's 70th birthday and to celebrate (albeit one day early) MVFF will have a live music event featuring vintage Fab Four video clips and a performance by cover band Rubber Souldiers. Nowhere Boy opens in theaters on October 15.
Closer scrutiny of the World Cinema section revealed some familiar names. MVFF-regular Jan Hrebejk is currently the Czech Republic's most prominent director, and his latest film Kawasaki's Rose is about a revered political dissident with a shameful secret. The film was just named that country's 2010 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar submission. A new film from director/political activist Raoul Peck (Lumumba) is always welcome. His satirical Moloch Tropical follows the final 24 hours of a Haitian autocrat's presidency. Peck should know from whence he speaks, having once served as Haiti's Minister of Culture. Veteran French director Alain Corneau (who died one month ago) is in MVFF33 with Love Crime, a tale of corporate intrigue starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludvine Sagnier. Also from France we have none other than Gerard Dépardieu having a go at "The Three Musketeers" writer Alexandre Dumas, in Safy Nebbou's Dumas. Another veteran director in the line-up is Japan's Yôji Yamada, best known for his Tora-San comedies. I adored his recent samurai trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, Love and Honor), but scathing reviews have put me off his latest, About Her Brother.
There are more intriguing possibilities in World Cinema. Feo Aladag's When We Leave won the top prize at Tribeca and was just named Germany's 2010 Oscar submission. It stars Sibel Kekilli (Fatih Akin's Head On) as a mother fleeing an abusive husband in Istanbul. Another German-language film, Switzerland's Julia's Disappearance, features the estimable Bruno Ganz. These two movies will respectively serve as Centerpiece and Closing Night films during October's revamped Berlin & Beyond festival at the Castro Theater. From the SF-based Global Film Initiative's 2010 Global Lens series, MVFF has programmed Adrift from Vietnam and Becloud from Mexico. The entire 10-film 2010 GFI series will play the Rafael Film Center following the festival, from October 18 to 28. From Argentina I'm reading good things about Puzzle, which stars The Headless Woman's Maria Onetto. Set in 1963, Italy's Cosmonauta is about a teen-aged girl's obsession with the Soviet space program. It received two small prizes at last year's Venice Film Festival. Desert Flower is the true story of Somali supermodel Waris Dirie and recreates her "transformation from starving runaway to fashion icon to human rights activist and U.N. Special Ambassador dedicated to the fight against Female Genital Mutilation." Set in the Transylvanian countryside, Katalin Varga follows a woman's quest to avenge a rape that occurred in her past. Then in Black Field, a 17th century Turkish janissary joins forces with a Greek nun who possesses a "little something extra" (hint, hint – the film is co-presented by Frameline). Finally, who can resist a title like The Most Important Thing in Life is Not Being Dead?
MVFF33 also has several American indies of note. Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture won the jury award for Best Narrative Feature at SXSW, and what would MVFF be without a new film from prolific local director Rob Nilsson (Sand)? In addition to 127 Hours, James Franco stars in Jay Anania's existentialist neo-noir William Vincent. The October 17 screening of William Vincent begins a half hour before Franco's Spotlight tribute at the Rafael, so it's not unthinkable to hope he'll drop by to do a personal intro. Elsewhere in MVFF33 you'll find the 5@5 Shorts Programs (five programs of five shorts each screening weekdays at 5:00), a Children's FilmFest (now in its 17th year), special panels and lastly, a 30th anniversary screening of The Empire Strikes Back. It can all be found on the festival's website, along with many more narrative features and documentaries I wasn't able to mention here.
Cross-published on The Evening Class and Twitch.
Monday, September 13, 2010
The Bay Area's annual avalanche of autumnal film festivals gets rolling this Thursday, September 16 with Cine + Mas' 2nd San Francisco Latino Film Festival (SFLFF). Cine + Mas – an organization of former volunteers and contractors from Sylvia Perel's behemothic and now defunct Latino Film Festival – came on the scene last November with a debut fest that screened some worthy films but was woefully under-attended. This year the organization has made two smart moves. First, they've taken their event out of November (a month overstuffed with festivals) and moved it to September where they'll be the only game in town. Second, the principal venue has been changed from Landmark's Lumiere Theater to the Mission District's Roxie Theater, putting the fest closer to its core audience. Let's hope it's a strategy that works, because the Bay Area really does need a festival exclusively dedicated to Latin American cinema. (Sylvia Perel's three-day Redwood City Latino Film Festival makes it fifth appearance November 5 to 7, with the line-up TBA).
SFLFF unofficially kicks off on Thursday with an "Exclusive Cine + Mas PreTheatrical Release" screening of Javier Fuentes-León's Undertow (Contracorriente) – the night before it opens at Landmark's Bridge Theater. If you've been kicking yourself for missing Undertow's sold-out Frameline Centerpiece screening back in June, where it won the Jury Award and according to many was robbed of the Audience Award, here's your chance to see it (or see it again) in a festival setting. Notably, Cine + Mas will be showing the film in 35mm, whereas Frameline's digital screening at the Castro left something to be desired. Director Fuentes-León is expected to attend.
The following evening, SFLFF gets underway with its two official opening night films, Florence Jaugey's La Yuma and Enrique Buchichio's Leo's Room (El cuarto de Leo) (El cuarto de Leo). La Yuma is the first narrative feature to come out of Nicaragua in 20 years and tells the story of a young woman seeking to escape her hardscrabble life through boxing. In Leo's Room, an indecisive Uruguayan grad student struggles with his sexuality, and is aided by a sympathetic therapist, a stoner couch-potato roommate and a grade-school ex-girlfriend whose problems are bigger than his own. In researching the festival's narrative features for this post – a difficult endeavor given that many films have only been written about in Spanish – it appears that Leo's Room is the most critically acclaimed of the bunch. In his rave review for Variety, Ronnie Schieb calls the film "an impressive debut" and a "delicately balanced mood piece" that "drifts in a laid-back dreamy way toward edgy subjects." He goes on to praise the director's "oblique approach to character (that) leaves nothing to stereotype" and the film's "limpid vision of a quasi-amniotic state of grace."
In addition to La Yuma, there are other SFLFF features with strong female protagonists. In Alberto Cortés' Heart of Time (Corazon del tiempo), a young Chiapas woman stirs controversy when she falls in love with a Zapatista revolutionary instead of the village boy to whom she's betrothed. Featuring a non-professional cast, Heart of Time screened in the World Cinema section at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and was one of three films nominated for Best Picture at the 2010 Ariel Awards (Mexico's Oscar). It received five Ariel nominations total, including Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Another film in which a young woman is forced to marry against her wishes is Teresa Constantini's 19th century Argentine historical saga, Felicitas. Set on the outskirts of Buenos Aires against a backdrop of war and plague, the titular heroine endures a marriage to a man 40 years her senior and emerges triumphant. The film's trailer resembles an overbaked bodice-buster, but the rich period detail and hunky male lead offer some promise. Then in Gerardo Tort's feminist road movie Round Trip (Viaje redondo), two Mexican women from different social classes discover they have much in common. Tort also directed the grim and gritty Streeters (De la calle), which really impressed me when it screened at the 2002 SF International Film Festival. Round Trip was also co-written by Beatriz Novaro, who along with sister María wrote the 1991 arthouse hit Danzón.
A few other SFLFF narrative features caught my eye. From Bolivia there's Tonchi Antezana's Elephant Cemetery (El cementerio de los elefantes), about a 33-year-old alcoholic reflecting on his misspent life. Elephant Cemetery is a La Paz euphemism for an area where alcoholics go to drink themselves to death. Leftist Brazilian President Luiz Inacio 'Lula' da Silva gets the biopic treatment in Fábio Barreto's Lula, Son of Brazil (Lula, o Filho do Brasil). Starting with his birth in 1945, the film traces Lula's humble beginnings in rural Pernambuco state, his São Paulo childhood and his years as a union leader, ending just before his 1980 entry into politics. Barreto is the younger brother of renowned director Bruno Barreto (Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, Four Days in September, Last Stop 174) and reviews of this film, reportedly the most expensive ever made in Brazil, accuse it of being more than a bit hagiographic. From Cuba, SFLFF has programmed that country's 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar submission, Ernesto Daranas Serrano's Broken Gods (Los Dioses rotos), in which a university professor observes modern day prostitution through the mythos of legendary early 20th century pimp/politician Alberto Yarini Ponce de León. Finally, Jose Montesinos directs and stars in the San Francisco-set crime-drama, Owned.
Of course, there are a number of terrific-sounding documentary features in the fest as well. In the past ten years or so, perhaps no other nation's cuisine has exploded on the international food scene like that of Peru. Ernesto Ceballos' Cooking Up Dreams (De ollas y sueños) looks deep into that country's culinary movement and has chef Gastón Acurio of San Francisco's celebrated La Mar restaurant as one of its guides. Also at the top of my list of docs to see is Mercedes Sosa Singer, an Intimate Journey (Mercedes Sosa Cantora, un viaje intimo), which follows the iconic Argentine folksinger through the recording sessions of her final album. In another Argentine music documentary, Xavier Villaverde and Regina Álvarez' Gypsies in Buenos Aires (Gitanos de Buenos Aires), acclaimed flamenco artist David Amaya uncovers a community of Andalusian gypsies who fled to Argentina during the Spanish Civil War. The aftermath of that particular war is also touched upon in Lillian Lieberman's Visa to Paradise (Visa al Paraiso), which tells the incredible story of Gilberto Bosques, also known as the Mexican Schindler. Bosques was Mexico's Consul General in Marseilles from 1939 to 1943, during which time he issued over 40,000 visas to Jews and Spanish Republicans fleeing Hitler and Franco respectively. Perhaps Ilsa Lund and Victor Laszlo got to Casablanca on visas issued by Gilberto Bosques? Other political-themed docs in the fest include a look at the legacy of the Mexican Revolution (Ray Telles' The Storm That Swept Mexico), plus two dealing with the hot-button issue of U.S. immigration, Esaú Melédez' Immigration Nation: The Battle for a Dream and Ricardo A. Martinez' The Wall (La muralla).
Other special highlights of the festival include a Shorts Program and a Mexico-in-Film Sidebar featuring screenings of two classics: Julio Bracho's 1944 breakthrough urban drama Another Dawn (Distinto amanecer) and Fernando de Fuentes and Miguel M. Delgado's 1943 Doña Barbara. The latter is adapted from Romulo Gallegos' classic Venezuelan novel and stars the irrepressible Maria Félix as a despotic ranch owner.
In addition to the Roxie Theater and Mission Cultural Center, selections from the SFLFF will play at a half dozen other Bay Area venues through September 26. The festival website has links to all the films, with a trailer, film clip or link for each film. The complete schedule is here and you can download a PDF of the mini-guide here. The films scheduled to be screened in 35mm are Undertow, Felicitas, Heart of Time, Lula and La Yuma. Filmmakers are expected at attend screenings of Undertow, Lula, Mercedes Sosa, Owned, Heart of Time, The Storm That Swept Mexico, The Wall, Immigration Nation and the shorts Ebony Goddess, Imaginary Road, Legend and Gordita.