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Catching Up on Fall’s Best at Mill Valley Film Festival

Catching Up on Fall's Best at Mill Valley Film Festival

Despite a healthy drive time from Berkeley, the Mill Valley Film Festival is irresistible: a haimishe event managing to tempt its Bay Area audience with films geared to appeal to all ages, as well as music-themed evenings and industry panels. Its position in the run-up to the Academy Awards and location, in an area with probably the largest concentration of Academy members after LA and NYC, and less than an hour’s flight from LA, attracts screenings of glitzy Awards hopefuls, complete with attendees:  this year Opening Night alone featured Jason Reitman and Kaitlyn Dever from “Men, Women & Children,” and Hilary Swank with Tommy Lee Jones western “The Homesman.” (Last year Steve McQueen, Lupita Nyong’o, and Chiwetel Ejiofor were there with “12 Years a Slave,” Bruce Dern appeared with “Nebraska,” and Jared Leto with “Dallas Buyers Club,” among others.) 
Its autumnal position in the calendar allows it to cherry-pick titles from as early as January’s Sundance and May’s Cannes and as recent as Labor Day’s Telluride and September’s Toronto film festivals. Many contenders from those fests were on hand: “The Imitation Game,” “’71,” “Mr. Turner,” “Clouds of Sils Maria,” “Foxcatcher,” “Whiplash,” “Wild,” and “Two Days, One Night.”    
“Men, Women & Children” played in one of the Bay Area’s last remaining single-screen movie theaters, the Century Cinema, not long for this world as there’s already a proposal out for a development with 31 single-family homes and townhouses on its two-acre lot. Reitman introduced the film, briefly — alluding to its screening not all that far from Silicon Valley, the putative source of a lot of the apps and media his onscreen characters were addicted to.  Afterwards he sat down for a Q & A, accompanied by Dever (who was appearing in another MVFF film that night, “Laggies,” which had premiered at Sundance).

Reitman, whose best films — “Juno,” “Up in the Air” — explore the zeitgeist, tells us how they created the Internet world of instant messages, websites, and games that swirl around the men, women, and children in inescapable popup graphics that imprison them more than they encourage communication. It’s not exactly new news, but it’s nice to see the ensemble of actors — Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Jennifer Garner — work out.  And to hear the peerless, plummy, intelligent voice of Emma Thompson, a reliable narrator if there ever was one.

The next day I took my father to two movies: an afternoon screening of “Laggies,” from director Lynn Shelton, a story of a young woman (Keira Knightley) who refuses to grow up, a promising premise, peopled by such excellent actors as Sam Rockwell and Chloe Grace Moretz, but somewhat spoiled by its standard, breathless rom-com ending.  I drew comparisons while watching: preferred Shelton’s arthouse favorite “Your Sister’s Sister,” Chloe Grace Moretz was better in “Clouds of Sils Maria,” Keira Knightley MUCH better in “The Imitation Game,” Sam Rockwell better in nearly everything.

Afterwards we segued to “The Judge,” a predictable but still engrossing and enjoyable family/courtroom drama, produced by and starring Robert Downey Jr., as a hotshot lawyer locked in Oedipal battle with his father, the redoubtable Robert Duvall, as the judge of the title.  There’s plenty of scenery chewed between the two lions, but still enough room among the edges to tuck in lots of plot and decent turns by Vera Farmiga (her face a bit plumped-up), Vincent D’Onofrio, and Billy Bob Thornton, enjoying a role as prosecutor rather than prosecuted. My father enjoys it more than he did “Laggies” — also predictably.

On my own the next day, I run into Geoff Gilmore, of Tribeca and Sundance, here for a State of the Industry panel discussion. The “3-D Sideshow” starts late; it’s a complicated presentation of “depth-defying” shorts, including snippets of George Melies and Harold Lloyd, as well as adorable shorts by the presenter, a 3-D enthusiast named Robert Bloomberg, witty music videos featuring OK Go, “The Longest Daycare,” Maggie Simpson vs. the Ayn Rand School for Tots, and the new faux-historic “Get a Horse!”, starring Mickey Mouse, with assorted other treats.  It’s the kind of program I could watch all day long.

With “Que Caramba es la Vida,” a well-meaning but superficial look at the mariachis of Plaza Garibaldi in Mexico City, German director Doris Dorrie is trying to make a point about the male domination of the music, by featuring both young and old female mariachis. But in the end what I really enjoy is the heartfelt, dramatic music — something of a surprise, since I never thought much of it before.

Next up, “Dying to Know: Ram Dass & Leary,” a documentary about the professional and personal interactions between the erstwhile Richard Alpert and LSD pioneer Timothy Leary, who became friends again (thanks in part to the request of the filmmakers for a dual interview) near the end of Leary’s life.  Director/producer Gay Dillingham spent over 20 years working on the film, and she’s joined onstage by producer Michael Donnelly, who joined the production late and helped her whip it into shape.  It’s both over-cut and over-psychedelicized, as well as a bit worshipful of the two men, especially the beatific Ram Dass, who, in a special surprise, joins os onscreen via Skype from Hawaii.  It’s a lovely gesture, marred slightly by the fact that the communication is imperfect, but kisses are blown all around. Ms. Dillingham opines that her movie is “very different from what a boomer would have made — I was born in ’65.” But boomers are born in-between 1946 and 1964. What a difference a year makes.

Then comes a special event, a screening of “Low Down,” with a MVFF Award presentation to Elle Fanning, the 16-year-old star, who arrives onstage in an over-the-the pale beige silk ball gown, charmingly giggly and unself-conscious.  The film, based on the memoirs of the young daughter of talented, self-destructive, junky jazz pianist Joe Albany, premiered at Sundance, the first feature directed by the gifted documentarian and cinematographer Jeff Preiss, who introduces the film by giving kudos to his swell cast, which includes John Hawkes, a previous MVFF awardee for “The Sessions,” and Glenn Close, also a MVFF awardee for “Albert Nobbs”: the MVFF trifecta. I was moved I was by the film and its uncanny you-are-there feeling.
The afterparty, at the Il Fornaio has tons of free food, for me anyway: others have paid $75 or $85 for the privilege.  But with overflowing platters of shrimp wrapped in prosciutto, fried calamari, little smoked-salmon sandwiches, and endless pizzas, it’s one of the more lavish events of this kind that I’ve seen. 
Wayne Wang’s delightful “Soul of a Banquet” is right up my alley, combining as it does two of my favorite preoccupations, food and film. It’s partly a portrait of venerable San Francisco restauranteur Cecelia Chang, and partly a document of a banquet she served in her home as part of the celebrations surrounding the 40-year anniversary of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. I’m pleased and surprised to see the wonderful Malaysian chef Alexander Wong, late of Betelnut, who’s one of the three chefs preparing the feast under Chang’s tutelage. When I email him congrats the next day, he’s surprised: he thought only his hands showed up in the film, in the act of preparation. 
I stay put and watch an intermittently moving documentary called “Allot” (A Long List of Things), by prolific Bay Area artist John Sanborn.  Touching and revelatory interviews with fellow classmates at his 40th high school reunion, about what they expected from life and what they got, are interspersed with jarring, over-the-top graphics and introspection from Sanborn that’s sometimes witty, sometimes not. The interviews could have gone on forever, as far as I’m concerned — I laughed, I cried. 
Only two movies the next day, too: a pretentious and naive botch called “Hide and Seek,” about polyamory among four young English people in a modest country house — but not Shakespeare’s punning “country pleasures,” not by a long shot, as you know nothing more about the four superficially-attractive but clueless group when the movie ends than you did at its start.  Much is made about how quickly and cheaply the movie was shot (and it does look nice, I’ll give you that), but only extreme politesse on my part kept me from pointing out that it costs nothing to write interesting things for people to say during the worshipful Q & A that ensued with one of the actresses and the actor/director afterwards. Politesse also held me back from saying, when the (American) actor/director said living as an expatriate in England removed him from everything that he knew, “Except a common language.”
Then the more conventional — and also more satisfying — “Like Sunday, Like Rain,” by Frank Whaley, more known to me as an actor (93 credits! and counting!), than as a director (4 credits, and his directorial debut earned him the Waldo Salt screenwriting award at the 1999 Sundance festival).  Leighton Meester is nanny to a 12-year-old prodigy, played by young discovery Julian Shatkin, and over a few months their lives intertwine.  There are brief appearances by Debra Messing (as the boy’s inattentive, largely absent mother), and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, as Leighton’s ex. Armstrong joined the funny, self-deprecating Whaley onstage, alongside the beautiful Meester. He was also the source of the best interaction I’ve seen at the festival all week: I watched from the sidewalk as a car behind a black SUV pulled over when the SUV was stopped at a red light.  Somebody ran out from the car with a guitar, ran up to the SUV, rapped on a window, and a spectral hand (which I later realized belonged to Billie Joe) emerged and signed the guitar.  Light changed. Guitar holder ran back to his car.
A twisty, moonlit drive to Tiburon for the afterparty at the Tiburon Tavern. Again, we’re greeted by overflowing platters of food, as well as swell glasses of Prosecco.  I’m so impressed by the abundance that it seems churlish of me to say that all the food not actually cooked by the place — Italian antipasto including marvelous prosciutto, mortadella, salamis, amazing cheeses, elegant condiments and breads — is perfect, and all the cooked stuff — cold pulled pork sliders, baby pizzas, gluey cheese gougeres — is rather a failure.  
I approach Mr. Whaley, walled off somewhat from the hoi polloi in a circle of low chairs. getting the fish-eyed stare from the security guy standing inches from him.  But I tell Whaley that I hope he gets the actors back together in a decade or so, a la Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, to see what time has wrote. “I’ve had LOTS of younger boyfriends,” I say, merrily, “and it’s worked out just fine!”  The boyish Whaley (I’m surprised when I look him up, later, and find he’s 51) says “I love that!  I’m going to steal it, and not give you credit!” Whaley tells me that he’s always loved Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel movies, further enlarging upon the idea, and introduces us to his adorable family, wife Heather Bucha (an actress-writer who has a small role in the film), and children Buster and Tallulah, who greet us cordially despite the late hour.
As we pull out of the parking lot in beautiful downtown Tiburon, a deer and her fawn trot across our headlights, lazily.  A forty-mile roundtrip and I’ll be back tomorrow for the second half of the festival.

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