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Mill Valley Film Fest Highlights: ‘Life of Pi,’ ‘Central Park Five,’ ‘In Another Country,’ ‘The Sessions,’ ‘Strutter,’ “Rent-a-Cat,’ ‘Starlet,’ ‘Quartet’

Mill Valley Film Fest Highlights: 'Life of Pi,' 'Central Park Five,' 'In Another Country,' 'The Sessions,' 'Strutter,' "Rent-a-Cat,' 'Starlet,' 'Quartet'

Despite the fact that it’s located less than an hour from my house in Berkeley, I have never actually attended the Mill Valley Film Festival in a serious fashion. 

But this year the Festival seemed unusually festive. Perhaps this was occasioned by its 35th anniversary.  Perhaps because, as we’ve noted before, film festivals are increasingly becoming the default method of distribution in an era when art houses are diminishing (San Francisco’s three-screen Lumiere, built in 1967 and operated by Landmark since 1991, just closed in September).  A film that does well at Mill Valley could be brought back for a regular run at the three-screen Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael or Cinemark’s two-screen Sequoia Theater in Mill Valley, the festival’s major locations.  Or it’s another stop on the award season train, trying to reach Bay Area Oscar voters.

Mill Valley would be more appealing to someone who hadn’t already sampled some of its big-ticket items at earlier fests. Festival favorites “Argo” (seemingly moments before its commercial opening, but with the added allure of the presence of Bryan Cranston and screenwriter Chris Terrio), “The Attack,” “Beyond the Hills,” “Caesar Must Die,” “The Deep,” “Holy Motors,” “The Impossible,” “Like Someone in Love,” “On the Road” (with producer Rebecca Yeldham), “Reality,” “Road North,” “A Royal Affair,” “The Sapphires,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “To Kill a Beaver,” all played in Mill Valley. 

I have a friend who is an entertainment reporter for Spain’s largest television network, who grades his impression of film festivals as to how much access he’s granted to movie stars and star directors.  This year at Mill Valley he could have interviewed Bradley Cooper, David O. Russell, Martin McDonagh, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, Ben Lewin, Mira Nair, Dustin Hoffman, Allison Anders, Ken Burns, Matthew Lillard, Billy Bob Thornton, Fisher Stevens, Stevie Nicks and Dave Stewart, among others. That’s a better haul than he made at Toronto. 

The biggest surprise for me was the unannounced onstage appearance of Ang Lee in San Rafael after the closing night film, his dazzling, rather astonishing 3-DLife of Pi.” (Apparently Mill Valley showed his first film, “Pushing Hands,” “after it was turned down by Sundance,” and the festival mounted a tribute to him in 2007, so they have a special relationship.) The fest told us that the version of “Life of Pi” that showed previously at the New York Film Festival was not “complete,” as this one was, but when asked afterwards what the differences were, we were told that technical difficulties with projection determined that the print showed in San Rafael was the same as the New York Film Festival one. And that the more complete version (“and you could only tell the difference if you worked at Industrial Light and Magic”) only screened in Mill Valley – a real head-scratcher, because to the untutored eye, the projection capabilities of the San Rafael theaters are better than those in Mill Valley.  Whatever.

Mill Valley provided an early look, often in the presence of filmmakers, of a number of movies that are set for distribution, including Ken Burns’ shocking miscarriage-of-justice doc “Central Park Five”  — I was living in New York at the time of the case, and remember first reading the heretofore-unknown-term “wilding,” being amazed at how quickly they found and arrested the suspects, especially since the victim was comatose – which in itself should have led me, as well as others, to distrust the narrative of the police. 

“The Sessions,” about the sexual education of a real-life polio victim mostly confined to an iron lung, was screened as part of a well-deserved tribute to John Hawkes, modest and diffident onstage, joined by the sassy, sexy, funny Helen Hunt (who gives an equally if not more amazing performance as his sex surrogate, whose real-life counterpart was in the audience), and Australian director Ben Lewin, also disabled by polio. 

Dustin Hoffman glowed with pleasure onstage after a screening of his enjoyable quintessentially English comedy set in a musical retirement home, “Quartet,” starring the redoubtable Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon – who had co-starred with Hoffman in David Milch’s TV series maudit “Luck” – and Billy Connolly. 

I took my father to see “A Late Quartet,” which I’d enjoyed in Toronto, because I knew the story of the travails of a long-established and famed string quartet, exacerbated by the imminent departure of the cellist (the continually amazing Christopher Walken) and complicated romantic and professional relationships among the other three (Catherine Keener, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the Russia/Israeli actor Mark Ivanir) would get him where he lives. He told me, afterwards, that he knew after twenty minutes that he’d be seeing the movie again – which had been my reaction, a month earlier.

And David Chase’s “Not Fade Away,” a semi-autobiographical film about a fugitive from a 60s garage band who finds his way to Hollywood at the film’s close, will please not only his “Sopranos” fans – yes, Chase agreed onstage afterwards, it’s time for him to write a mother who’s not crazy – but anybody who thrills to the exciting juxtaposition of music and images. Chase estimated that a fifth of the film’s budget was spent on music rights, and it is money exceedingly well-spent.

My opening night choice was perfect. Its subject, “Village Music: Last of the Great Record Stores,” is the late-lamented store run by an eccentric and obsessive music fan named John Goddard, who revived more than a few music careers by dint of his passion, had occupied a modest storefront half-a-block up the hill from the Sequoia Theater it was unspooling in for its four-decade career. The theater was packed with tons of ex-employees (including Monroe Grisman, co-producer of the film with sister Gilian Grisman), patrons of the store, and musicians. The film I saw in the same theater right afterwards, Allison Anders and Kurt Voss’ Kickstarter-funded, black-and-white “Strutter,” set in rock-n-roll Los Angeles (and the informal third in a trilogy of their films including “Border Radio” and “Sugar Town”), seemed a perfect pairing.
Alas, most of the overflow crowd left for a Village Music-themed concert held at the Sweetwater Music Hall (Goddard-produced concerts held at Sweetwater’s previous incarnation had featured largely in “Village Music”).  But when Anders, Voss, and several of their “Strutter” colleagues, including Flannery Lunsford, took the stage for a Q-and-A afterwards, they seemed as thrilled by the audience’s response and appreciation as if it, too, had played to a packed house.

Over the next ten days I saw twenty-two more films, at the relaxed pace of two or three a day. Highlights included several small movies, especially the charming and currently not slated for distribution “Rent-a-Cat,” a tiny tale of a young woman who rents out cats to other lonely souls, by a young Japanese woman director, Naoko Ogigami, who I’d never heard of (she studied at USC, and this is her sixth feature). Accompanying her to the festival were her twin babies — proof, she told the delighted audience, that cat-loving young women did not necessarily lead solitary lives – and the star of “Rent-A-Cat,” Mikako Ichikawa, considerably less quirky in person (though her character’s colorful mismatched thriftshop wardrobe begged comparison with the print-mixing of Prada).  

I also enjoyed Bay Area filmmaker Emiko Omori’s very personal collage film “To Chris Marker, An Unsent Letter,” which might have seemed opaque to someone unfamiliar with Marker’s films  — I missed the first screening, when it was accompanied by Marker’s 28-minute “La Jetée” — but also could have the happy result of sending him or her in search of Marker – who even has his own Youtube Channel, as well as numerous other Youtube links. Afterwards I was sufficiently moved to buy two $5 posters of the movie.

Another unexpected pleasure was delivered by the entirely unaffected performance in “Starlet” of the young Dree Hemingway (Mariel’s daughter) as a fledging porn performer inexplicably drawn to a cranky old woman. The film also features another excellent performance by Stella Maeve as Dree’s roommate and fellow porn performer, and a believable glimpse into the underbelly of San Fernando Valley porn life.

I felt that more fun was being had by the actors (including Isabelle Huppert) in Hong-sang Soo’s In Another Country,” in which three succeeding stories, sharing the same setting and several recurring characters and themes, are being “written” by a young girl who’s stuck in the same sleepy seaside resort in which she sets her protagonists. (I blush to admit that I watched Kim Ki-duk’s Gold-Lion winning, gory, disturbing “Pieta” at Toronto for several minutes before I realized that Isabelle Huppert was not going to show up – more’s the pity.)

And I had a fine time, too. Not only at the movies – I sampled restaurants and shops. I can whole-heartedly recommend Pearl’s Phat Burger, also endorsed by Mill Valley local Tyler Florence on “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” around the corner from the Sequoia, although I prefer my cheeseburger without bacon, unlike him.  And I plan to return to Mill Valley en famille to try Florence’s steakhouse El Paseo, also on the same block. Hopefully before next year’s 36th Mill Valley Film Festival, which I also hope to attend. How nice to discover a gem in one’s own backyard.

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