Wednesday, October 03, 2012

MVFF35 2012: OVERVIEW—By Michael Hawley

The 35th Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF35) opens this Thursday night and for my money, it's the best line-up they've had since I began paying attention in 2004. That's the year auto-less me anxiously boarded my first Golden Gate Transit bus and headed north for a do-or-die MVFF screening of Ousmane Sembene's Moolaadé. What excites me about 2012's lineup is the presence of fewer unknown "discoveries" and post-Toronto "prestige" movies and a lot more of the noisemakers from top 2012 festivals like Cannes and Berlin. Meanwhile, MVFF's eye-popping list of expected festival guests continues to have no equal in Northern California, with this year's red carpet getting stepped on by the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Ben Affleck, Ken Burns, Billy Bob Thornton, Ang Lee, Walter Salles, Mira Nair, John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, David O. Russell, Bradley Cooper, Martin McDonagh, Sam Rockwell and Allison Anders.

So let's begin this line-up overview with Cannes. Whereas past MVFF editions have featured one or two films from Cannes' main competition, this year boasts a whopping seven, including many of the prize winners. Taking it from the top, you've got Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or-winning Amour (a late entry you won't find in the fest catalog) and Reality, Matteo Garrone's second consecutive film to earn Cannes' Grand Prix (following 2008's Gomorrah). Then there's Beyond the Hills, Cristian Mungiu's follow-up to 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, which copped prizes for its screenplay and lead actresses. MVFF35's co-opening night film will be Walter Salles' screen adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, said to have been considerably re-edited since its Cannes world premiere. Master Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami is represented by his latest, the Japan-set Like Someone in Love, and Holy Motors is the first feature film in 13 years from outré French director Leos Carax. The latter is said to be wonderfully weird and a possible career-high for Carax.

The only one of the seven I've previewed (on DVD screener, as with all MVFF35 films sampled) is Hong Sang-soo's In Another Country. For years I found Hong's films obnoxious, but the relative mellow-ness of recent works like Hahaha and The Day He Arrives has brought me around. In Another Country has the added bonus of starring my favorite game-for-anything actress, Isabelle Huppert, playing three different French women in three interlocked stories, all set in the same South Korean beach town. Seeing Huppert operate within Hong's insular world is charmingly incongruous, as she's three times pursued by a hunky young lifeguard and three times drunk on soju—this being a Hong Sang-soo film. Now the question is, which brave Bay Area programmer will bring us 2012's other Huppert-starring Asian film, Brilliante Mendoza's Captive, which bowed at Berlin?

While Captive may elude us for the moment, a number of films from the Berlin Film Festival have made it to MVFF35, including a boatload of prize winners. Veteran Italian directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (The Night of the Shooting Stars, Padre Padrone) won the fest's top award, the Golden Bear, for Caesar Must Die, a stylized documentary in which maximum security prisoners stage a production of "Julius Caesar." The film I'm anticipating more than any other in the festival is Miguel Gomes' Tabu, which took Berlin's FIPRESCI Prize and the prestigious Alfred Bauer Award (given to a movie which "opens new perspectives in film art.") I was wowed by the Portuguese director's previous effort, Our Beloved Month of August, and by all accounts Tabu is said to be even more amazing.

Berlin's Best Actress prize went to newcomer Rachel Mwanza for her riveting performance as an African child soldier in Kim Nguyen's War Witch. Mwanza is in virtually every frame of this haunting and brutal (but not unbearably so) road movie, which begins with an act of forced parricide and ends with a poignant return home. War Witch also won prizes at Tribeca for Best Narrative Feature and Best Actress, and was just announced as Canada's Foreign Language Film submission for the Oscars®. A second worthy Africa-set film I previewed from Berlin's competition is Tey, a poetic and disquieting allegory about mortality from French-Senegalese director Alain Gomis.

Perhaps it was just lowered expectations, but I was quite charmed by Billy Bob Thornton's Jayne Mansfield's Car, which garnered very mixed reviews at Berlin. Thornton, who plays a soul-damaged WWII vet, will be at MVFF35 for an on-stage interview and screening of this movie he directed and co-wrote. Set in 1969 Alabama, it co-stars Robert Duvall as an irascible Southern patriarch whose recently deceased ex-wife is returning home for burial, with her "new" British family in tow. The film's highlight is a delightfully kinky relationship that evolves between Thornton and a British relative (a lovely performance by Frances O'Connor). I promise you'll never think of Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade" in the same way again. The rest of the cast is a treat, from Kevin Bacon's aging hippie and Katherine LaNasa's Southern sexpot housewife, to John Hurt as Duvall's Brit counterpart. Regrettably, things take a nosedive in the final act—or should I say drive under a tractor-trailer—with a chain of mawkish and clunky resolutions. When Duvall drinks the LSD-spiked iced tea, you may consider it your cue to leave.

Perhaps my biggest beef about Bay Area film programming is the lack of attention paid Latin American cinema, or at least the Latin American films deemed significant by international critics and festival juries. Could it really be that no local programmer considered it important to bring us Post Mortem, Pablo Larraín's acclaimed follow-up to Tony Manero (thankfully now available to stream on Netflix)? Or Pablo Giorgelli's intimate and heartbreaking Las Acacias, which won Cannes' 2011 Camera d'or for best first feature? Or in genre-crazy San Francisco, Alejandro Brugués' much-discussed Cuban political zombie flick, Juan of the Dead? I could go on and on, but for now I'll simply extend deserved kudos to MVFF35 for its fine selection of Latin American films, four of which I've previewed.

The must-see from the region is unquestionably Antonio Méndez Esparza's Here and There, which earned the top prize in Cannes' Critics Week sidebar. Set in a Mexican mountain village, this is a lyrical and melancholic document of a musician's time spent with family in between stints of working in El Norte. I was also taken by Dominga Sotomayor's quietly observed Thursday Till Sunday, in which a couple on the verge of breakup take a road trip with their kids to Chile's barren north. The film was co-winner of this year's Tiger Award at Rotterdam and its memorable cinematography is by one of South America's most accomplished DPs, Bárbara Álvarez (Whiskey, The Headless Woman). From Chile there's also Andrés Wood's Violeta Went to Heaven, a freewheeling biopic about Violeta Parra, the volatile and contradictory singer / composer / artist and national treasure who lived a fabulously messy life up until her 1967 suicide at age 50. Outside of Chile she's best known as the composer of "Gracias a la Vida," which curiously isn't heard until the end credits. The film won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema at Sundance this year and was also Chile's 2011 Oscar® submission. Another MVFF35 biopic is Cao Hamburger's Xingu, a straightforward drama about Brazil's Villas-Boas brothers and their decades-long struggle to establish a permanent homeland for indigenous peoples. While the film lacks artistic vision, it has heart and ably compensates with extremely high production values. During the festival proper, I'm hoping to catch the latest from favorite Argentine director Daniel Burman (All In) and a provocative-sounding Mexican entry, Kai Parlange's Richness of Internal Space.

As mentioned earlier, MVFF35 is a bit lighter in post-Toronto, Awards Season bait this year, but not by much. Along with On the Road, the festival opens Thursday with David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, which won Toronto's People's Choice Award. Conversely, Toronto's opening night film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, will screen as part of a MVFF Tribute to its director, Mira Nair. From actor / director Ben Affleck comes Argo, his well-reviewed thriller set during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Director Martin McDonagh follows 2008's massively popular In Bruges with an all-star cast of Seven Psychopaths. Sitting atop MVFF35's totem pole of celebrity guests is Dustin Hoffman, who'll receive the festival's 35th Anniversary Award in a tribute that will include career clips, a conversation with Variety's Steven Gaydos and a screening of Hoffman's directorial debut Quartet, starring Maggie Smith. Which is not to be confused with A Late Quartet, an 11th hour MVFF addition about the inner feuding of a long-established string quartet (with a fun-sounding cast that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener). Also screening direct from Toronto, albeit without an appearance from its director or stars is Juan Antonio Bayona's tsunami drama, The Impossible, with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor.

Two other major MVFF35 events warrant special mention. Actor John Hawkes will be on hand for a MVFF Spotlight tribute, accompanied by a screening of The Sessions. Titled The Surrogate when it premiered at Sundance, the film won that festival's Audience Award for best U.S. drama and a special jury prize for ensemble acting. Hawkes stars as Berkeley writer Mark O'Brien, a man confined to an iron lung who seeks the help of a sex surrogate. (O'Brien was also the subject of Jessica Yu's 1996 Oscar®-winning documentary short, Breathing Lessons). The surrogate is played by Helen Hunt, who will be at the screening along with director / screenwriter Ben Lewin. On October 14, MVFF35 comes to a close with Ang Lee's much anticipated Life of Pi, fresh from its world premiere as the New York Film Festival's opening night selection.

Documentaries remain an important part of MVFF, as the two dozen selections in this year's Valley of the Docs sidebar attest. The one I'm most anticipating is Ken Burns' The Central Park Five, which concerns the five youths of color wrongly convicted of the 1989 "wilding" assault on a white female jogger. While most of the festival's docs seem focused on political and environmental issues, a number are aimed squarely at music fans. The most popular is certain to be In Your Dreams—Stevie Nicks, for which the ex-Fleetwood Mac singer is expected to make a personal appearance. Others include looks at guitarist John Fahey (In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey), singer Tony Bennett (The Zen of Bennett) and a valentine to Mill Valley's own beloved and legendary record store, Village Music (Village Music: The Last of the Great Record Stores).

While it would be impossible to mention all of the nearly 100 feature films in this year's festival, here are a final half dozen that caught my eye. Three appear on the recently compiled list of 2012 Foreign Language Academy Award submissions. Iceland has nominated The Deep, from that country's most celebrated director Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavik, Jar City). Kormákur is expected to attend the festival and I'm disappointed that I can't make it to either screening. Nikolaj Arcel's A Royal Affair, a piece of 18th century political intrigue starring Mads Mikkelsen, will be the Oscar® submission from Denmark, and Australia has nominated Cate Shortland's Lore, a drama set in post-WWII Germany. Another promising Australian film is Wayne Blair's The Sapphires, based on a true story about a 1960's Aboriginal girl group who performed for U.S. troops in Viet Nam. In Gilles Bourdos' Renoi, veteran actor Michel Bouquet plays painter Pierre-Auguste, and one of my favorite young French actors, Vincent Rottiers portrays his filmmaker-to-be son Jean. The story is set on the French Riviera during WWI and cinematography is by the incomparable Mark Lee Ping-bing. Lastly, I'm completely unfamiliar with the works of French actor / writer / director / comic Pierre Étaix and am grateful that MVFF35 is presenting a revival of his 1965 film, Yoyo, in a newly restored 35mm print from Janus Films.

Cross-published at film-415.

2 comments:

Steven Jenkins said...

Great overview, Michael. I joined the MVFF staff this year for a few short weeks and have since managed to see a handful of films at the fest this past week or so. I'm a huge fan of the mad genius Carax so had my highest hopes for Holy Motors. For the most part, it does not disappoint, yet for all its bravura strangeness I don't think--upon first viewing--that it hits the heights of his earlier work, which at its best (often at its most unhinged) is rapturously Romantic. The parachute sequence in Mauvais Sang, or Binoche waterskiing on the scene in Les Amants du Pont Neuf, or the Scott Walker cacophony in POLA X...these and so many other scenes are touched by a kind of crazy joy in the possibilities of cinema and a belief that life can--and should--be lived grandly at all moments. Holy Motors has a few such moments, but some scenes are surprisingly awkward, clumsy or go on too long. Again, quick thoughts on a first viewing, and I'll give it time to sink in further, but more than anything the film makes me want to rush back to Carax's previous four features once again. I'll be curious to hear your take on it. Cheers, Steve J.

Michael Hawley said...

Thanks for commenting, Steve. We were at the same screening of Holy Motors on Friday (and Beyond the Hills before that). While I loved many parts of Holy Motors, I wasn't taken by it as a whole. My favorite Carax is his contribution to 2008's "Tokyo" so I was thrilled to see Lavant's Merde character resurrected. I also loved spending time on the roof of Paris' iconic La Samaritaine department store. I actually nodded off during the old-man-in-the-hotel segment and woke up around the time Kylie Minogue started singing. Sleep would have been an impossibility during Mungiu's wholly riveting and masterful Beyond the Hills, easily one of my top films of the year.