Thursday, October 02, 2014

MVFF37 2014—David Robson: Four Preview Capsules

David Robson holds a degree in theatre from the University of Virginia. He is the editorial director at Jaman, a website that offers a smarter search for new movies to watch on line. David blogs irregularly at the House of Sparrows, but is often too busy seeing movies to write about them. The following quartet of preview capsules for the 37th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival constitutes his debut appearance here on The Evening Class. We're delighted to have him aboard.

Dracula vs. Frankenstein (dir. Al Adamson, 1971)—Many Z-grade genre movies have achieved a certain notoriety thanks to an ironic "so bad it's good" approach taken by audiences in the last three decades. But schlock auteur Al Adamson's curious body of work provides a consistence of vision, the strident, bold ineptness of which renders it quite unlike any other. Divulging plot details on this super-low-budget horror flick would risk making it sound conventional, so why bother? Adamson's opus boasts veteran horror actors J. Carrol Naish (doing his damnedest to do right by the dialogue's stabs at philosophy) and Lon Chaney, Jr. (stuck, again, in the role of a homicidal manchild) with lesser-knowns like the beautifully-named Zandor Vorkov (a unique Dracula, from his silly 'fro to the echo effect on his voice), and everyone commits wholeheartedly. Which only makes the plot that much more bewildering. (Frequent Welles collaborator Gary Graver's cinematography makes every shot look like stock footage, which only enhances the movie's timelostness.) Even more hilarious is that this is one of MVFF's most expensive tickets, thanks, probably, to the presence of Metallica's lead guitarist (and horror devotee) Kirk Hammett, who will be on hand to introduce this screening. Though it's unclear if he selected Dracula vs. Frankenstein for inclusion in the festival, if he did, you might ask him why.

Clouds of Sils Maria (dir. Olivier Assayas, 2014)—Juliette Binoche is Maria, a famous international actress offered a role in a new production of the play that launched her career. But the offer is fraught with complications for Maria, as it would have her playing a different character opposite a young, difficult Hollywood talent (Chloë Grace Moretz) in Maria's career- and life-defining role. Maria retreats to the Swiss Alps where, accompanied by her patient assistant (Kristen Stewart, a revelation here), she contemplates the role, her difficult relationship with the writer who created it, and the very passage of time. Writer-director Olivier Assayas has made a career out of examining social shifts through the prism of the creative process; in his newest state-of-the-earth address every exchange is weighted but graceful, with half the movie spent watching Binoche and Stewart in and around the Alps, their conversation taking in life and art, high- and low-brow, age and youth, time and space. The total experience is never less than bracing, plus there's an interlude on a spaceship that might make you wish Marvel would let Assayas have a crack at one of their movies (OUR VOTE: a Dr. Strange sequel, introducing Moretz as Clea).

Two Days, One Night / Deux Jours, Une Nuit (dirs. Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, 2014)—Brittle family woman Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has just been voted off of her job at a solar factory. When her supervisor admits that the process behind the decision was stacked against her, it buys her a weekend to get her co-workers to consider changing their vote to let her stay, and in the process give up their badly-needed bonuses. The new movie from France's Dardenne Brothers balances neo-realistic, documentarian storytelling with a quest that often feels mythic. Cotillard is the first veteran actor to appear in a Dardenne movie, and she's absolutely believable every second she's on; we feel her anguish and shame in every encounter with every co-worker, urging her silently from our seats to just keep it together, even as her noticeably frayed nerves and prescription drug use threaten to shatter her for good. It's as suspenseful and tightly constructed as any thriller, and it's probably happening in your neighborhood right now. Gripping.

ALLoT (A Long List of Things) (dir. John Sanborn, 2014)—The films of New York-bred, Berkeley-based video artist John Sanborn have been a staple at MVFF, and this, his latest, is among his most personal. Sanborn's 40th high school class reunion prompted him to interview his classmates for a video memoir, and Sanborn edits their reflections into a mix of anecdote, poetic and cinematic digressions, self-interrogations (via Sanborn and surrogate selves, played by Thais Schwab and daughter Miranda Sanborn) and some straight-up confessions to create a vivid portrait of a shared past as "a place that never existed, but is remembered fondly." The results are an absorbing, even moving, mix, and even when Sanborn ditches the mosaic for a painful autobiographic reflection in the final third, one remains engaged. Central to Sanborn's memoir is the notion that we all begin in the same place, "handed the same script." Sanborn so gently mixes the personal with the universal that one inevitably sees one's own life within his screens.

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