Wednesday, October 2, 2013

36th Mill Valley Film Festival 2013

The 36th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) kicks off this Thursday and as usual, the parade of A-list actors and directors scheduled to walk its red carpet outshines all other Northern California flick fests combined. Cozying up to all that glamour isn't cheap, however, with "film only" tickets for most special events ranging from $40 to $60. I guess that's pocket change for many people around here these days – as of this writing, 95 programs and screenings are already at rush or close to it. What follows is a biased overview of this year's line-up, plus thoughts on seven films I previewed via DVD screener.

Once again MVFF has secured some of the top films from Cannes, including five from the main competition. For those unable to wait for its November 1 local theatrical release, there's Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color, an explicit, 3-hour young-lesbians-in-love drama that won the Palme d'Or, plus an honorary Palme for its two lead actresses. What has overshadowed the film's success, however, is a controversy resulting from bitter public infighting between its director, actresses and writer of the original novel. I love Kechiche's films (though I didn't see his most recent, the generally dismissed Black Venus), so until I see Blue I'll be giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Cannes' 2013 Grand Prix went to the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis and I'm sure MVFF tried their damndest to program it. Alas, we in the Bay Area must now wait for its December 20 theatrical release. The festival did happily secure this year's Jury Prize winner, Hirokazu Koreeda's wonderful Like Father, Like Son, as well as both films that received acting prizes. Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) won Best Actress for her performance in The Past (opening locally December 27), Asghar Fahadi's much-anticipated follow-up to his Oscar-winning A Separation. Cannes Best Actor winner Bruce Dern will be present on Opening Night, accompanied by co-star Will Forte. The two play an estranged father and son on a road trip in Alexander Payne's Nebraska (opening November 22). Also showing from Cannes' main competition is Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Grigris, with the acclaimed African director scheduled to be on hand. Rounding out MVFF36's roster of Cannes winners is Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture, which copped the top award in the festival's Un Certain Regard sidebar.

Two veteran auteurs being singled out for MVFF36 veneration are Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing, Music Box) and Jan Troell (The Emigrants, The New Land, Everlasting Moments). This could possibly be Costa-Gavras' first visit to the Bay Area since The Ax opened the SF International Film Festival in 2003. That film was never heard from again and the director's next release, 2009's Eden is West, has never played the Bay Area. The Costa-Gavras tribute will feature an on-stage interview with actor/activist Peter Coyote and a screening of his newest work Capital, an espionage thriller set in the financial world. Swedish director Troell was in the Bay Area as recently as July, when he accompanied The Last Sentence to the SF Jewish Film Festival. That same film will unspool at Mill Valley, along with A Close Scrutiny, a 40-minute doc portrait of Troell shot by his daughter Johanna during the making of The Last Sentence. Several recent shorts by Jan Troell will be included in that program.

One of the hottest tickets at MVFF36 will be the screening of 12 Years a Slave, with director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Kinky Boots) in an on-stage conversation. Other bona-fide celebrity guests this year include Geoffrey Rush, who stars in the co-Opening Night film The Book Thief, and Dakota Fanning, who'll be feted at a screening of Effie Gray (she appears in MVFF36 selection The Motel Life as well). Ben Stiller heads up this year's Closing Night festivities with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the first adaption of James Thurbers' classic short story to appear since the 1947 Danny Kaye classic and it's a film Stiller wrote, produced, directed and stars in. Jared Leto, actor and sometime rockstar, comes to town after a five-year filmmaking hiatus with his portrayal of a transsexual AIDS activist in Jean-Marc Vallée's Dallas Buyers Club. Last but not least, Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga will accompany the film At Middleton and Sean Penn will speak at screenings of the documentary The Human Experiment, for which he served as narrator.

Speaking of documentaries, non-fiction works are always a hefty part of the MVFF roster and this year over two dozen doc features appear its Valley of the Docs sidebar. In addition to your customary socio-political "issue" films, music-oriented documentaries are a recurring MVFF specialty. 2013's slate looks at a famed blues guitarist (Sweet Blues: A Film About Mike Bloomfield), American roots music label Arhoolie Records (This Ain't No Mouse Music) and a legendary bluegrass musician (The Tao of Bluegrass: A Portrait of Peter Rowan). I'm especially intrigued by The Invisible Lighthouse by directed by musician Thomas Dolby ("She Blinded Me With Science"), who will provide live accompaniment to the film along with musician/producer Don Was, film composer Mark Isham, local luminary Dan Hicks and others. Also of note in the fest's Doc Valley are bio-docs Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton (a big hit at this year's Frameline LGBT festival) and the doc I'm most anticipating, Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley

Three MVFF36 films have recently been named their respective nation's Oscar® submission for Best Foreign Language Film. Topping the list in terms of critical acclaim is Sebastián Lelio's Gloria from Chile, said to be an honest look at mid-life crisis which won a Best Actress prize at the Berlin Film Festival for star Paulina Garcia. Next door neighbor Argentina has submitted The German Doctor (aka Wakolda), from director Lucía Puenzo (XXY, The Fish Child), an imaginary take on what happens when an Argentine family unknowingly befriends Josef Mengele. Unsurprisingly, Poland has submitted biopic Walesa, Man of Hope, from revered 87-year-old maestro Andrzej Wajda. Although it's not Italy's official Oscar® submission, The Best Offer from Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) did win five of the 12 Donatello Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Film and Director. The film stars Geoffrey Rush, who I imagine will hang around town long enough to appear at the film's first screening on Friday.

As mentioned in the intro, I had an advance look at seven MVFF36 titles on screener. My heartiest recommendation goes to Hirokazu Koreeda's Like Father, Like Son, an emotionally complex and life-affirming take on the timeworn narrative device of having babies of different economic classes switched at birth. It's a return to form for the acclaimed Japanese director of Still Walking, and follows the less substantive Air Doll and I Wish (although those films have their defenders). A less successful Japanese film about family is Yôji Yamada's Tokyo Family, a mostly uninspired and unnecessary updating of Yasujirô Ozu's 1953 classic Tokyo Story. Yamada, best known for the Tora-san series and more recently The Twilight Samurai trilogy, was an assistant director on the Ozu original. But here, directing his 81st film at age 82, he fails to create much that is fresh, apart from some minor plot/character deviations and clunky allusions to Fukushima and bullet trains. Despite bland casting and a plodding pace, there are still a number of very lovely moments contained in its 146 minutes, thanks to Yamada's artistry.

After Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Grigris received so-so reviews at Cannes, I had my doubts the film would ever make it to these parts. So thank you, MVFF. While it lacks some of the urgency and power of previous works like Dry Season and A Screaming Man, I found it worth a look. Haroun is aided by a charismatic performance from newcomer Souleymane Démé, playing a handicapped dancer and jack-of-all-trades who gets in over his head attempting to earn money for his father's hospital bills. Grigris is one of five films found in the MVFF36 sidebar L'Afrique, La France et L'Ecran (Africa, France and the Screen), from which I previewed two additional selections. In Françoise Charpiat's Cheba, Rachida Brakni plays an Arab Parisian struggling between her family's cultural traditions and the pull of modern womanhood, the latter of which includes a career in finance, her own apartment and a hot French lover. Her life is haunted by the memory of a grandmother whose singing career disgraced the family. Meanwhile, an unlikely alliance is formed with a pot-smoking, bongo-playing single mom who lives next door (Isabelle Carré). While resoundingly commercial and more than a bit contrived, Cheba does have its charms, particularly as a paean to female friendship and a celebration of North African culture in France. Lastly, in Newton I. Aduaka's One Man's Show, the director of 2007's far superior African child soldier film Teza, employs a non-linear narrative to explore a French-African actor's battle with mortality, while sorting out his complicated relations with women. Amongst the notes I jotted down while watching this film are words like artsy, obtuse, precious, ponderous, contemplative, moody, somber and dreadful.

The two remaining films previewed both get high recommendations. Those who remember seeing Russian director Boris Khlebnikov's strong debut Koktebel when it screened at the 2004 SF International Film Festival won't want to miss his latest, A Long and Happy Life. In this compelling social drama, a naïve young Siberian collective farm owner battles local government bureaucracy and land developers in order to keep his workers employed. Then in Mia Endberg's extraordinary, semi-autobiographical experimental docu-drama Belleville Baby, the Swedish director employs a variety of aural and visual cues – recorded phone conversations, archival footage, blank film leader, stills, a variety of film stocks – to reflect back on an affair she once had with a French drug dealer turned ex-con, who has called her out of the blue wanting help in recounting his life story. I've never seen anything quite like it and think it could be the true discovery of MVFF36.