Mill Valley Film Festival 2006

Dennis Harvey October 5, 2006

By the youth-rhetoric standards of another era, this is the last year we can trust the Mill Valley Film Festival: Next year, it turns 30.

Tragic though that prospect may be, there is every reason to put a lot of trust in what it’s got to offer at 29. This other, second-longest-running Bay Area international festival, which opens today and runs through Oct. 15th, continues to provide a tasty sampler of: The best in new films from B.F.D. top-shelf festivals like Toronto and Cannes; world-premiering Amerindies and docs, especially those with a local focus; movies about world beat and old rock music, Tibet, counterculture flashbacks, and more of what Marin likes.

And oh yes, children’s movies from all around the world. Which I am not knocking, by the way. (If I were a parent, I’d sure be glad for any Russian animation feature or Dutch live-action fantasy that might separate beloved-spawn-of-my-loins from the usual Disney product for five minutes. I mean really — Mommy and Daddy need a freakin’ break from “Circle of Life” now and then, don’t they?)

All the above-noted are major recurrent MVFF elements, and treasured ones. But they alone aren’t responsible for annum 29 looking so fab on paper, and no doubt on the screen as well. The programmers have cherry-picked an exceptionally tantalizing selection of some 231 titles (104 being features) from 43 countries this year. The unknowns (including 13 world premieres and 18 U.S. ones) appear quite as intriguing in description as many of the movies we’re already salivating over since they debuted at Cannes or Toronto.

Let me count the ways. Well, a few of the ways — we don’t have space to count them all here.


Actually, this isn’t a total wonder at Mill Valley this year, if only because I have a thing against tributes that don’t include retrospective screenings. A live appearance, Q&A, and career-highlight clipshow is only “feh” in my book.
Nonetheless, the 2006 tributees are a testimony to somebody’s very good taste: There is one to two-time Oscar nominee, “Prime Suspect” sleuth, and perpetual Sexy Older Actress Helen Mirren (Sat/7, 6:30 pm). Her latest, Stephen Frears-directed film “The Queen” has her playing the present one (Queen of England, that is) — and has people talking Oscar yet again. There’s Mexican scenarist-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Amores Perros,” “21 Grams”), whose new globe-trotting, multi-strand crisis drama “Babel” likewise has people talking about a possible little-golden-men — and saying that Brad Pitt finally, y’know, acts! His trib, with “Babel” screening, is Sun/8 at 4 pm.
Then there’s the tribute to Tim Robbins (Wed/11 6:30 pm), who has every qualification for a classic Marin left-coast Dad type except still mucks about in experimental theatre sometimes, and is maybe just too restlessly, artistically active to live in any less of a cultural nerve-center than NYC. Will his interest in direction (“Bob Roberts” good, “Dead Man Walking” very good, “Cradle Will Rock” not so good) turn into more than an occasional hobby? Will he ever look like a dedicated-enough industry player to get the Oscar he’s deserved several times over (“The Player,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” et al.)? More importantly, will he bring common-law-wife Susan Sarandon along? Robbins’ new acting vehicle “Catch a Fire,” a U.S.-produced drama from Australian director Philip Noyce (“Rabbit-Proof Fence”) about a real-life hero of the anti-Apartheid movement, screens separately from his tribute.

We read about them and were enviously impatient, but not enough to actually fly out of the country just to see a movie

You love movies. You love movies you haven’t seen, in fact may never see, and that only makes your love urgent, anxious even. Still, you’re not nuts. You’re not going to fly to Toronto or endure the horrible attitude of service people just in the hopes of registering amongst the first three-digit viewers of a film whose ecstatic reviews mean it will soon become a virtual slut in terms of profligate festival exposure. Possibly even theatrical distribution!

Fortunately the Mill Valley Fest has done the traveling for you and gathered together many of the best movies from other, more hectic recent festivals where access is privileged, parking impossible, and French people love to ignore your desperate sign-language requests for a sandwich. Any sandwich! Here are a few such already-lauded titles, which may or may not soon be opening at a Landmark Cinema near you:

“After the Wedding”
Great Dane Susanne Bier (“Brothers,” “Open Hearts”) delivers a neat sort of “Dogme Lite” drama in which a jerk-turned-humanitarian (the indelible Mads Mikkelson) is forced to return from charity work in India to the scene of his previous crimes in Copenhagen.

“Black Gold”
15 million impoverished Ethiopians survive — barely — so you can enjoy a cuppa joe, aka their profit-robbed export mainstay, coffee. A reportedly eye-opening documentary. (In a similar vein, there’s locally-based Micha Peled’s “China Blue,” a fine, surreptitiously-shot look at the toil of teenage sweatshop girls cranking out Western-market jeans in today’s “capitalist boom” China.)

Ron Livingston (of the new Fox series “Standoff”) is Patrick, the impressively ambivalent “hero” of this striking first feature by writer-director Guy Moshe. He’s an expat American ne’er-do-well in current Cambodia — self-exiled for vague reasons — who seems intent on auto-destruction as a gambler, drinker and smuggler until chance hooks him up with forcibly prostituted 12-year-old Vietnamese girl Holly (Thuy Nguyen). OK, they don’t “hook up” — actually Patrick’s hitherto left-the-building moral backbone manifests itself for possibly the first time, prompting a brief friendship and subsequent obsessive rescue mission. “Holly” is grainy, richly atmospheric, transgressive in outline yet oddly not at all in effect. Other dramatic movies will be made about Far Asian sex tourism, but will any prove as touching or ambiguous? Even while casting Udo Kier as an unrepentant, reptilian Euro sex client? I think not.

Peter O’Toole as an aging actor besotted with an oblivious young thing, in a film directed by Roger Michell (“The Mother,” “Changing Lanes”), written by Hanif Kureishi (“My Beautiful Laundrette”), with Vanessa Redgrave in a key supporting role.

Valley of the Docs

This official MVFF sidebar offers more than the usual generous share of really alluring offerings this year. Among them:

“Cinematographer Style”
Director Jon Fauer lets 110 d.p.‘s (including such masters as Vittorio Storaro, Haskell Wexler and Gordon Willis) discuss their craft and contributions to some of the greatest films ever made. Yes, that really is one hundred and ten. In 86 minutes. Don’t ask me how — I haven’t seen it.

“Deliver Us From Evil”
Apparently the last icky documentary word (to date at least) on the priestly-sexual-abuse scandals, as director Amy Berg gains access to massive serial abuser Father Oliver O’Grady, now contentedly retired amidst the green hills o’Eire.

A documentary celebration of the “Marin County roots and global rise of mountain biking, a gonzo sport long favored by fearless iconoclasts.” From the catalog description, I fear this is an exclusively pro-cyclist film. Perhaps someday someone will make a movie about those gonzoids from the less-flattering perspective of Marin hikers, as obnoxious yuppie jocks oblivious to anyone else’s enjoyment of the outdoors, let alone safety. No offense intended, but: F—k those a———s.

Local and vocal

Significant Bay Area-made features showcased in MVFF-29 include “China Blue,” Micha Peled’s fine cinema-verité look at the lives of some teenaged factory girls at a jeans-producing sweatshop factory; “Drifting Elegant,” Amy Glazer’s adaptation of the Stephen Balbour drama whose premiere she directed at the Magic Theatre; “Read You Like a Book,” Robert N. Zagone’s comic fantasy set in a Berkeley bookshop, with former Berkeley Rep company member Tony Amendola, the ever-astonishing Karen Black, Danny Glover, and other luminaries;

Rob Nilsson

As loyal as he is prolific, the inexhaustible local indie maker is premiering two new features at his favored festival. One is “Opening,” a drama set in the Kansas City art world and its rapidly gentrifying downtown. It was created (within a three-day shooting schedule!) in collaboration with Kansas City Filmmakers. The other is “Pan,” latest (#7) in his fascinating “9@Night” series of S.F.-set movies created semi-improvisationally with the Tenderloin Y Group. That’s not all: Judy Irola’s documentary “Cine Manifest” chronicles the late radical Marxist-Reichian S.F. filmmaking collective she was once a part of, as was Nilsson. Among their achievements was his celebrated first feature “Northern Lights.”

Glamour, for those who need it

“Breaking and Entering”
The latest from Anthony Minghella (“The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Cold Mountain”) got a cold shoulder at Toronto. But with Jude Law as a London architect involved with both Juliette Binoche and Robin Wright Penn, how bad can it be? The Marin-residing latter thespian and producer Sydney Pollack are expected to attend this opening night gala presentation.

“The Last King of Scotland”
Early Oscar mumbling is on the rise around Forest Whitaker’s performance as that late lunatic tyrant, Idi Amin, in this drama of 1970s Uganda. The man himself (Forest, not Idi) may well show up, so ready your premature congratulations. It’s the other opening-night feature.

“The Astronaut Farmer”
This is a pretty exciting closing-night selection — the world premiere from those identical-twin Polish Brothers. Their David Lynch-ian movies to date have been uneven (“Twin Falls Idaho,” “Jackpot,” “North Fork”), but seem to be improving, and definitely earn points for offbeat-ness. This latest is a quirky comedy about a grounded former NASA astronaut who decides to build his own rocket ship on his Texas ranch. Four reasons to get psyched: Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Bruce Dern, Tim Blake Nelson. Four more: The first two stars, plus lanky fraternal filmmakers Michael and Mark Polish, will likely grace the premiere with their presence.

“On Acting (and Life)”
A starry panel of actors including local resident Karen Black — who if past live appearances are any indication will totally steal the show — Olympia Dukakis, French Nouvelle Vague veteran Bernadette Lafont, and Sandra Oh (of “Sideways,” TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” and ambitious MVFF feature “Three Needles”) talk about life, work, and iving The Work. This Sat. Oct. 14 1:30 pm event is just one amongst several fascinating seminars. Others include the Polish Brothers explicating their “Declaration of Independent Filmmaking” manifesto, and several celebrated lensers holding forth on “The Art of Visual Storytelling: Cinematographer Style.”

Go see a movie, ya damn hippie

Things of special interest to middle-aged men with ponytails, women who once dressed like Stevie Nicks (or still kinda do), and possibly the rest of us:

“50 Watt Fuse”
Longtime “Saturday Night Live” house band-leader and guitarist, musicologist, guy with pony-tail, and more, G.E. Smith is profiled in this documentary that includes interviews and concert footage with Dylan, Jagger, Neil Young, Bowie, Hall & Oates and more. He’s also playing live with “surprise guests” on Sat. Oct. 7 at 142 Throckmorton.

“The Doors Going on 40: An Evening with Ray Manzarek and Ben Fong-Torres”
Likewise at the Throckmorton, this Sat., Oct. 14, 9 pm program of film clips, conversation, live music and additional guests (including Michael McClure and Rob Wasserman) will put unreconstructed Doors fans in seventh heaven. Perhaps it will finally answer that eternal mystery: Did Jim REALLY wave his dick at the entire audience that night he got arrested for indecent exposure?

If you were me, these would be your top 10 tickets

Of course, you are not. But here’s a rather random list of things I’m semi-inexplicably excited about, anyway.

1. “The Boy Who Turned Yellow”
This Children’s Filmfest entry is a real rarity — an hour-long 1972 British TV fantasy about a boy who gets turned a distinctive shade by space aliens. That’s nice, you say. But wait: It was the last original project of Powell and Pressburger, who made some of the greatest British films ever (“The Red Shoes,” “The Thief of Bagdad,” “Peeping Tom”).

2. “Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox”
A documentary about the liquid soap I use! And the rantingly philosophical, run-on-sentence-dominated packaging I read while I wash myself! And the “pure Castile soap” creator I always wondered about, figuring he must be a total freak! Apparently he is!!

3. “Figner: The End of a Silent Century”
Counting cabbages and old shoes amongst his tools of dramatic noise-making trade, Edgar Figner is a historied sound-effects technician for Lenfilm Studios, the onetime locus of U.S.S.R. film production. No doubt he’s got a LOT of stories to tell in this doc.

4. “Gretchen”
Billed as “the female ‘Napoleon Dynamite’.” Its protagonist is “drawn to bad boys that resemble Meatloaf.”

5. “Johnny Slade’s Greatest Hits”
John Fiore of “The Sopranos” stars as a loser of a crooner who rides a Faustian road to success. This is from Larry Blamire, the director of wonderful retro Z-grade sci-fi horror parody “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra,” so expectations are high.

6. “The Orange Thief”
From the catalog: “If Jim Jarmusch shot a Sicilian musical folktale—” Stop! I’m sold already.

7. “The Porcelain Boy”
Deadly school track competitions, government-sponsored revival of the dead, elderly refugees crossing from the brutal to the beatific — this trilogy of macabre fairy tales adapted from works by Ervin Lazar, directed by veteran Hungarian iconoclast Peter Gardos, promises to be a pearl of the bizarre.

8. “Severance”
English corporate types working for an international arms supplier are sent on a “team-building” weekend to a rural retreat in deepest, not-quite-pulled-from-the-Cold-War Far Eastern Europe. You will probably not be very sorry to learn that they are serially picked in gory fashion off by insane killers.

9. “Three Women and a Chateau”
Construction commenced in 1915 on “Chateau Carolands,” a 98-room Hillsborough ode to palatial elegance that its heiress owner abandoned unfinished when her marriage collapsed. Three decades later a Countess undertook its restoration/completion, but her resources failed her. Twenty years yet further, yet another woman became its new benefactor. This documentary promises lives of the locally rich ‘n’ famous just the way we like it: Looney.

10. “Wristcutters: A Love Story”
Despite the extremely off-putting title, this is by all accounts a very funny and whimsical tale of self-offed souls lost in an afterlife where jukeboxes only play songs by Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake, and other suicidal pop martyrs. I already like the soundtrack.