Tuesday, October 4, 2011

34th Mill Valley Film Festival 2011

The 34th Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) gets underway this Thursday, October 6 with Glenn Close's gender-bending turn as a 19th century Irish butler in Albert Nobbs. Close will attend the screening with director Rodrigo Garcia, and then reappear the following night for her own festival tribute and reception. Sharing opening night duties at a separate venue will be Jay and Mark Duplass' Jeff Who Lives at Home (see review below), starring Jason Segel and Susan Sarandon. The film is scheduled for a March, 2012 release, making it an unusual choice for a MVFF opener. Both Duplass brothers are confirmed guests. Closing out the fest on Sunday, October 16 will be the film I'm most anticipating this autumn, Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist. This silent, B&W French homage to 1927 Hollywood won a Best Actor prize at Cannes for Jean Dujardin, best known in these parts for his lead performances in Hazanavicius' OSS117 spy spoofs. It's recently been confirmed that Dujardin, along with co-star Berenice Berjo (who is also the director's wife), will be joining Hazanavicius for the evening's festivities. It kills me that I'll have to miss it.

In addition to Glenn Close, MFFF34 hosts a tribute to Burkina Faso's director Gaston Kaboré, one of the greats of African cinema. His debut film, 1982's Wend Kuuni (God's Gift) will screen at the tribute, and 1997's Buud Yam will be shown two days later. Three actors get the MVFF Spotlight treatment this year, most notably Hong Kong actress Michelle Yeoh. She'll be here along with French action director Luc Besson, both promoting The Lady, which examines the life of Burmese prodemocracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. The remaining Spotlights are for young actors Ezra Miller (Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin co-starring Tilda Swinton) and Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene). MVFF34's Centerpiece Film will be Simon Curtis' My Week with Marilyn (starring Michelle Williams as Monroe) and for the fest's Special Premiere they'll be screening Stephan Elliott's (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) latest, A Few Best Men. Both directors are confirmed to attend their respective screenings.

Regrettably, I'll be out of town for most of this year's festival. Were I around, here are some films I'd be making an effort to see (none were available to preview on DVD screener). At the top is Gerardo Naranjo's Miss Bala, which eyes Mexico's drug wars from the perspective of a kidnapped beauty pageant contestant. The film was highly praised when it premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar and it's just been chosen as Mexico's 2011 Oscar® submission. Also from Cannes, but from the main competition, is The Conquest (La conquête), a thinly veiled look at the political machinations of French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Making its U.S. premiere at MVFF34 is actor Ralph Fiennes' directorial debut Coriolanus, which resets Shakespeare's play in war-torn Bosnia. Shame, director Steve McQueen's acclaimed follow-up to 2008's Hunger, once again stars Michael Fassbender, this time as a Manhattan sex addict. Albania-set The Forgiveness of Blood comes from the same American director as 2004's Maria, Full of Grace. This tale of a Balkan blood feud has, with some controversy, been submitted as Albania's 2011 Oscar® submission. Speaking of Oscar®, Germany has entered Pina into the race, Wim Wenders' 3-D look at legendary choreographer Pina Bausch. This is one of more than two dozen feature documentaries contained in MVFF34's Valley of the Docs sidebar.

Below are capsule reviews of ten MVFF34 films I have had the chance to preview, all on DVD screener except where noted.

Circus Columbia (Cirkus Columbia) (Bosnia/Herzegovina, dir Danis Tanovic)
Nearly 10 years after snatching the Golden Globe and Oscar® right out of Amélie's hands with No Man's Land, Danis Tanovic returns with this near-perfect yarn about one town's drift toward civil war. After earning his fortune abroad, prodigal husband and father Divko returns to his Bosnian birthplace with new mistress in tow, promptly evicting his wife and teenage son from the family domicile. Divko's redemption drives this bittersweet, rollicking film. But in the background, hints of a dark future intensify, culminating in Tanovic's unforgettable final shot which announces the start of war. Reviews from last year's Venice Film Festival were very mixed, but the director's impeccable pacing, balance of conflicting tones and direction of actors, all convinced me I was in the hands of a master filmmaker. Certain to be one of my Ten Favorite Films of 2011. As seen at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Hello! How Are You? (Buna! Se faci?) (Romania, dir Alexandru Maftei)
We've had almost five years of admiring Romania's prodigious output of dour, bleakly funny human dramas. What we haven't seen is a Romanian rom-com, which is what we get with this genial comedy of errors. Gabi and Gabi are husband and wife in a loving, but lackluster marriage. One day they spring to life after simultaneously engaging in clandestine correspondence with an online admirer (and you can certainly guess who those admirers will turn out to be). While the film initially struggles to make this tired premise fresh, the director gradually steps up his game and scores some original moves. It doesn't hurt that the main subplot follows their hunky son as he auditions for porn and constantly updates an audio diary of his sexploits. The fun, tropicalia-flavored music score is a revelation. As seen at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Silence of Love (Tous les soleils) (France, dir Philippe Claudel)
Director Claudel follows his 2008 psychological shocker I've Loved You So Long with something completely different – a gently humorous portrait of a single Italian-French father opening himself to the possibilities of love. Stefano Accorsi (Ferzan Ozpetek's Saturn in Opposition and His Secret Life) stars as a Strasbourg music professor who lives with a smart, rebellious teenage daughter he overprotects, and an agoraphobic, anarchist brother. While it gets a bit corny in places and the screaming, emotive Italian stereotypes can wear thin, the film is overall quite winning. Anouk Aimée shows up in a memorable supporting role and Strasbourg looks even lovelier than it did in José Luis Guerín's In the City of Sylvia. For what it's worth, I doubt the distributor could have come up with a lousier English title than Silence of Love.

The Mosque (A Jamaâ) (Morocco, dir Daoud Aoulad-Syad)
In 2007's Waiting for Pasolini (which opened our 2008 Arab Film Festival), giddy chaos overtook a Moroccan village with the arrival of an Italian film crew. Now Pasolini's director has made a sequel of sorts, whereby a poor farmer is forbidden from dismantling the film's fake mosque, which sits on his land and has been appropriated as a real place of worship. Unable to support his family, he's told by the mosque's fake imam that his rewards lie in the next life. While initially a tad plodding and one-note, The Mosque improves as complex layers are added to the farmer's predicament. The result is a worthy allegory assailing religious hypocrisy, corruption and authoritarianism.

Busong (Palawan Fate) (Palawan Destin) (Philippines, dir Auraeus Solito)
Director Solito, best known for his LGBT-themed films like The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros and Boy, returns to his southern Philippines roots. In this dreamy meditation steeped in Palawan island culture, indigenous folklore and healing arts are revealed to us through a half dozen loosely connected storylines. In the costumes and art direction, Busong maintains a timelessness into which modernity only occasionally intrudes – the distant sound of a chainsaw, a wisp of poisonous smoke from a nickel mine, and a somewhat heavy-handed story of a fisherman's humiliating encounter with a white landowner. All of this – the pristine beaches, jungles, unending skies and underwater life – is sumptuously photographed. Solito's now familiar homoerotic gaze is also in full evidence.

Beyond the Road (Por el camino) (Brazil/Uruguay, dir Charly Braun)
A youngish, Argentine ex-investment banker arrives in Montevideo, Uruguay and sets off to see some rural property left by his deceased parents. Along for the ride is a Belgian tourist, with whom he begins an uneasy fling. Considerably more interesting than their oscillating relationship are the stops they make en route; from a chic Punta del Este art gallery to a country horse fair, and from a rich uncle's estancia to a hippie commune in the boonies. First-time director Braun's talent lies in conveying a rich sense of place and populating his film with compellingly watchable "real" types. Even Naomi Campbell has a wistful cameo that's not out of place in this charmingly meandering, melancholy journey. Director Braun will attend both MVFF screenings.

The Prize (El premio) (Mexico, dir Paula Markovitch)
At the height of Argentina's Dirty War, a mother and 7-year-old daughter hide from authorities in a remote, ramshackle beach hut. Their tenuously safe existence is threatened when the girl starts school and enters an essay contest meant to extol the virtues of the country's military. Markovich is best known as co-screenwriter of Fernando Eimbcke's Duck Season and Lake Tahoe, but her feature directorial debut contains none of the absurdist humor of those remarkable films. Her subject matter is certainly vital (and from what I've read, closely autobiographical), but the film is sabotaged by extremely slow pacing. Scenes of wind-whipped beach wandering alternate with long stretches of mother and daughter cooped up in their shack (where oddly enough, we never once observe them cooking or eating), to the point of grossly overstating the characters' anxiety, boredom and isolation. This dampens the potency of an otherwise absorbing work containing superb performances and distinctive mise-en-scène. Director Markovitch will attend the October 16 MVFF screening.

Jeff Who Lives at Home (USA, dir Jay and Mark Duplass)
The Duplass brothers deliver their most mainstream film to date, which could put off fans of edgier works like Baghead and Cyrus. Jason Segel plays Jeff, a stoner whose begrudging errand for Mom (Susan Sarandon) sets off a day-long, follow-your-bliss-y search for signs of life in the universe. A cleverly crafted story rubs uncomfortably against too much strained poignancy. Still, highly recommended for those who think Segel is the most adorable schlub in the universe. As seen at a MVFF34 press screening.

Pegasus (Pégase) (Morocco, dir Mohamed Mouftakir)
Somewhere in a vague dystopia, a crazy woman raves about "The Lord of the Horse" who's coming to get her. It's up to comely mental institution psychologist Zineb to get to the bottom of it all. I won't elaborate further on the plot, which rolls insanity, rape, transexualism, incest and creepy folklore into one big convoluted and culturally abstruse psycho-thriller. Still, the film is extremely well made, with arresting imagery and shifting color palettes matching the temperament of any given scene. Amazingly, Pegasus was the top prize winner at this year's FESPACO, Africa's most important film festival. Popular Moroccan actor Anas El Baz (Casanegra) will attend both MVFF screenings.

Holidays by the Sea (Ni à vendre ni à louer) (France, dir Pascal Rabaté)
Graphic novelist turned film director Rabaté updates Jacques Tati with this homage to 1953's beloved comedy, Mr. Hulot's Holiday. Once again we're at a seaside resort, observing the droll antics of tourists and year-round denizens alike. But this isn't your grandfather's Tati, with subplots involving BDSM and a nudist camp. Rabaté conjures a few interesting visual ideas, but overall the film lacks cohesion and punch. And while comic mileage will always vary, this not painfully-unfunny frolic failed to elicit a single laugh out me. Points are given for top-notch production design, a cast of recognizable French character actors (including Jean-Pierre Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon) and an effectively whimsical, Theremin-heavy score (the film contains no dialogue to speak of).


Frako said...

Thanks for the caps, Michael. I'm looking forward to BUSONG, MISS BALA, THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD (good buzz at Telluride), BEYOND THE ROAD, SHAME, THE PRIZE (which sounds like it might be a letdown)--and I'll miss CIRKUS COLUMBIA again unfortunately. I'll miss you too!

Michael Hawley said...

Sounds good, Frako. You're seeing some things I really want to see (that weren't on screener). CIRKUS COLUMBIA is being distributed by Strand Releasing, so you will have the chance to see it someday, on DVD if nothing else. Have a great fest!

Anonymous said...

Just saw PEGASUS today and think I liked it more than you, Michael -- connected to complex psychological puzzle emotionally, liked that it is open to more than a few interpretations. The handsome young actor was a multi-lingual charmer, noted that he & director resolved to work together when they both named David Lynch as their fave director. Also appreciate 1st features that have high aspirations! And it did indeed look and sound great -- as opposed to dismal screening of otherwise charming THE MOSQUE which appeared to be blown up from bad videotape, ugh! (I note MVFF does not list screening format in guide, thought they did in the past?) Carole

Adam & Nick said...

Hey Michael,

Just saw Holidays At Sea today and somebody three or four rows behind me was laughing so hard at the two drunk golfers during the diner scene that one of them farted causing the entire theater, mostly made up of seniors to start laughing.

It's been a long time since I was at a screening where I was surrounded by so much happiness.

I guess fart jokes never stop being funny no matter how old you get.

Going to see Shame tomorrow. Oh joy:)

Michael Hawley said...

Carole and Adam (or is it Nick?) thanks so much for these reports, especially appreciated since I didn't make it to MVFF at all this year.