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Eat, Drink and Be Merry: Food, Wine and Film at Sonoma International Film Festival, Liotta Talks ‘Iceman’

Eat, Drink and Be Merry: Food, Wine and Film at Sonoma International Film Festival, Liotta Talks 'Iceman'

I was aware, living in Northern California, that there was a
film festival in Sonoma — a region almost
as famous for its wine as its fabled neighbor, the Napa Valley. But I never
included it in my film-going schedule, even in fantasy. I thought that it was
too far away to run up and back, even for a whole day of movies, and that its
epicurean bent — it’s self-described as “an intimate celebration of
unforgettable cinema, world-class food, and fine wine on Sonoma’s historic
plaza” —  wasn’t quite the thing
for a serious film scholar such as myself. But after all, my other avocation is food critic.

I’m getting sybaritic in my old age, I think, as I drive up
through preserved wetlands and manicured grape vineyards on a glorious spring
day. Reading the catalogue for the 16th iteration of the festival, the
descriptions of exactly what one can eat at the various venues — “pasta
with…delicious sauces and salad for lunch and dinner screenings,” “a
variety of complimentary rum drinks,” “grab and go breakfast
buffet,” “pub food and drinks” — had charmed and intrigued me.
I remembered being shocked in movie theaters when neighboring patrons unveiled
takeout Chinese food and aromatic pastrami sandwiches, but wasn’t I just
jealous?  Hadn’t I smuggled an assortment
of tea sandwiches from the excellent Nijiya Market into a screening of “The Place Beyond the Pines” at the Sundance
Kabuki yesterday? Wasn’t the democracy of everybody being able to access
upscale food and drink appealing — and, hey, pasta was going to be quieter
than popcorn, no?

Even just picking up my pass, I was surrounded by bountiful
arrays of not just the ubiquitous PopChips and energy bars, but a glamorous,
magazine-ready spread of cheeses, crudites, and baked goods catered by The
Epicurean Connection, the very establishment that I’d considered picking up a
cheese sandwich at when walking along the historic park square that anchors
Sonoma’s downtown. I improved the volunteers’ opinion of the Fourth Estate by
picking up all four varieties of Cocoa Planet bars: salted caramel, chocolate
olive, vanilla espresso, and mandarin orange, yum. I saw that my usual festival
diet of coffee and Goobers was going by the wayside.

The opening reception at MacArthur Place, set among charming
gardens whimsically adorned with sculptures, featured free-flowing local wines
and beers, as well as more cheeses and crudites, and — when I arrived, not
wanting to look too eager to attack the buffet — the memory of shrimp. I was
not surprised, when introduced to the Festival’s Executive Director, Kevin
McNeely, to find that he had been a restaurateur and was a bon vivant —
reminiscing about the founding of the festival, he said that he and his friends
had wanted “an excuse to throw a big party on a Saturday night.” And
now, after 16 years — when they started, he said, they had no connections in
the international film world — he was happy that the Festival could attract
world-class movies.

I moved closer to where trays of grilled beef skewers dabbed
with horseradish and tiny onion tarts were issuing from the kitchen. Just as I
had that desperate opening-party feeling that I knew no one in the room, I was
accosted by the worldly Tom Davia, who I’d last seen strolling along the river
in Karlovy Vary. He’s serving on the festival’s documentary jury. He introduces
me to Vanessa McMahon and Lincoln Forrest Phipps, who looks familiar. It turns
out that both of his films, “Tropicalia” and “Hollywood Don’t
Surf!,” premiered at Telluride, and that I stood in line for half-an-hour
for “Hollywood Don’t Surf” at the Backlot and didn’t get in. I told
him that he owes me a DVD.

I watch as Ariel Vromen and Ray Liotta, the director and one
of the stars of “The Iceman,” the opening night film, enter the room
and are politely swarmed. Liotta belies his scary filmic persona by cheerfully
submitting to a constant barrage of picture requests, posing with all and
sundry.

As Kevin McNeely says when ebulliently introducing the
opening film, 80% of the films in the festival have filmmakers in attendance:
“Why wouldn’t they want to come to Sonoma? They’re certainly going to get
enough to eat and drink!” He introduces the mayor of Sonoma, Ken Brown,
who is wearing a black Netflix t-shirt, black pants, and has a braided ponytail
down his back: he looks like an aging grad student, except an aging grad
student would probably be wearing shoes. “We love that you spend
money,” he says candidly to the audience.

The intros are blessedly brief. I’m even entranced by the
festival promo film, an odd but beguiling mash-up of a CG robot who writes down
a Jack London quote about Sonoma — “The afternoon sun smolders in the
drowsy sky. I have everything to make me glad I am alive. I am all sun and air
and sparkles…” — before donning Charlie Chaplin attire and walking off
through the vineyards.  And also an
adorable promo for Mia’s Kitchen, full of pasta-eating babies and toddlers,
that surprises with its credit: made by the students of the Sonoma Valley High
School Media Arts Program. The romantic Oscar-winning animated short
“Paperman” screens before the feature, something of an odd tonal
choice with “The Iceman.”

I saw “The Iceman,” back in September, also in
Telluride, when it was starting its festival career, and was impressed with its
uniformly excellent cast, especially the wonderful Michael Shannon in the title
role as the hit man who tells his loving and clueless family that he’s in the
currency business. It’s fun to see it again, in a sold-out house that’s hanging
on every word. This time I’m more impressed with the production design and
costumes — the film covers a twenty-year period, from the 60s to the 80s
—  and cinematography by the prolific,
gifted Bobby Bukowski, as well as performances from Liotta, Winona Ryder, James
Franco, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi, and a nearly unrecognizable and decidedly
unsuperheroic Chris Evans.

Afterwards there’s a spirited q-and-a. Liotta, who’s just
finished his second Muppet movie — “me and Danny Trejo singing and
dancing” —  allows as how he’d like
to vary his usually intense fare with a romantic lead: “I’d like to kiss
the girl without having to choke her first.” Vromen says he cast Liotta
because he needed someone who could be as dangerous as Shannon — citing a
scene in which Liotta pushed a gun into Shannon’s cheek so forcefully that you
can see the mark it left when he pulls the gun away. We learn that the New York
and New Jersey-set film was actually shot in Shreveport, Louisiana, thanks to
tax incentives. And that Chris Evans,who plays Shannon’s partner in crime,
switched roles with James Franco at the last minute, after Franco’s father died
and he couldn’t make the schedule. Liotta says that he used to do more
preparation and research for his roles, but after a while you just realize it’s
pretend, and the most important thing is the script, to which you just submit.
Vromen just received a text, at dinner, from the wife of the character Shannon
portrayed, with whom he didn’t have contact during the filmmaking — she’s just
seen the movie and liked it, and she and her two daughters will attend the
upcoming New York premiere to support the film.

I could use a drink, and luckily there’s an afterparty at
The General’s Daughter, an event space housed in an 1864 house once the home
of, yes, the daughter of General Vallejo, who presided over California’s
transition from a Mexican district to an American state, and her husband, who
founded California’s first winery. Wine is flowing, but I choose an
expertly-made Old-Fashioned, because — wait for it — I’m an old-fashioned
girl.

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