MVFF: Pierrot Le Fou (B+)

Not the normal film-festival fare, Pierrot Le Fou is a Jean-Luc Godard film from 1965. It was at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival because the lead actress (the terrific and stunning Anna Karina) was supposed to be here. Unfortunately, she recently broke her foot so the best she could do was phone in her greetings from Paris. Luckily, we knew that in advance.

Wikipedia says this is a great example of postmodern film, which translates into a movie that is (a) often surrealistically confusing, and (b) highly inventive and entertaining so long as you just go with it. I quickly gave up trying to comprehend the big picture and just sat back and enjoyed the filmmaking. My wife, on the other hand, insisted on understanding as much as possible with the result that she didn’t enjoy it as much as I did.

Some of the metaphors are awkward, but it’s a 44-year old film, after all. It’s also Jean-Paul Belmondo at his best. For 110 minutes of fun and ’60s Godard nostalgia, rent Pierrot Le Fou.

MVFF: Storm (B+)

I guess you’d call Storm a German international war-crimes prosecution thriller. Kerry Fox is superb as Hanna, an extremely confident prosecutor trying to land a conviction of a former Yugoslavian National Army commander. She’s got interference coming from all directions including trouble with her boss and co-workers, problems with witnesses and issues with the court in the Hague.

The rest of the cast was also good. I particularly liked Rolf Lassgård who played Jonas, Hanna’s ambassador boyfriend. (He was also terrific in a great 2006 Danish/Swedish film, After the Wedding.)

Storm is a high-production value film (ie, healthy budget), but has way too much hand-held camera work. C’mon, guys. Either shoot the whole film hand-held or use the technique for effect. But what’s the point of filing 75% in that style? (Maybe it was less than 75%, but it became annoying.) There were good dolly and locked-down shots, too, and the lighting was fine, so I really don’t get what they were trying to do.

Unfortunately, there were some projection and audio problems at the usually excellent 700-seat Corte Madera Cinema, and they were very distracting as well. I think this was shot in good-quality digital video but the projection was dark, and the majority of the audio was coming from the right side-of-house speakers. That’s a problem with film festivals: There’s so little time to set things up and check them. Oh, and there were people carrying on conversations on both sides of us tonight. Who knows how I might have rated this film if I’d been able to see and hear the whole damn thing.

Storm is a 2009 German film, but it’s mostly in English with a few subtitled scenes in other languages. It won the Amnesty International Film Prize (and others) at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival.

MVFF: La Nana/The Maid (B+)

A Chilean/Mexican feature, La Nana (The Maid) is one that’s still growing on me, a few hours after the screening.

Raquel has been the live-in do-everything maid for an upper-class Chilean family for 23 years. For that matter, it’s really the only family or relationships she’s ever had, and that’s why things have gotten a bit weird around the house.

La Nana keeps us on the uncomfortable edge of not knowing if we’re supposed to be afraid of Raquel or for her. It’s hard to tell if she’s a good guy, bad guy or both. It’s not even clear whether we’ll ever really understand what makes her tick, but we want to and the plot and character keep moving, so we don’t give up.

If that sounds unpleasant, it’s actually an engrossing comedy with undertones that occasionally border on even the horror-film genre. (How’s that for a confusing description?) Writer/director Sebastian Silva weaves his way through the personality of this very complex character played brilliantly by Catalina Saavedra. And you’ll love Sonia, a cameo role played by Anita Reeves. The film deservedly won a Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Saavedra won a Special Jury Prize for her performance.Don’t go too far out of your way to find La Nana, but if it’s showing nearby by all means see it.

MVFF: Tapped (C+)

(Yes, today was a three-documentary day.) Okay, so here’s another one of those liberal expose films — this time, all about the sins of bottled water. And being a good liberal, I was all set to be shocked and called to action. But Tapped just didn’t work for me.

Good topical/social-issue documentaries are essentially journalism. The consistently best are probably the shows from WGBH’s Frontline series. You might not agree, but I’d put An Inconvenient Truth in that category, too.But Tapped isn’t in that league.

The issues surrounding bottled water — e.g., we pay more per gallon for it than we do for gasoline — are legitimate, and one could make a legitimately journalistic film that gets people all riled up. Unfortunately, Tapped forgoes real journalism. Even Michael Moore’s films are more honest than this. Tapped makes its cases mostly by implications. As a trivial example, there are repeated shots of a dirty plastic water bottle sinking slowly in a tropical ocean. Did the filmmakers just happen to get that shot time after time, or was there a diver positioning ot over and over again. Okay, that’s a silly example, but its typical.

After it convinces us of how evil the Nestlé company is for stealing the water of Newfield, Maine, the film jumps to references of cancer and other awful diseases. No explanation. No connection, at least at first. Just innuendo and association. Never any real facts that connect bottled water (and the plants that manufacture the bottles) to cancer. Yeah, they do eventually get there, but it’s all so implicit and not very good science. Again, I’m sure the manufacture of plastic water bottles is poisoning people who live nearby and good science on this exists, but Tapped doesn’t bring this to that conversation.

The film is also overproduced. Too slick. Too much doom-and-gloom music. Why can’t they trust the content to stand on its own? You’ll get the idea by visiting the film’s web site, but you may not want to. Not only does it have a Flash splash page, it also maximizes your browser to full screen. That alone is an unforgivable faux paux and just shows how over the top this project is. Stop buying water in plastic bottles, but skip this movie, too.

MVFF: Homegrown (C)

Tough call on Homegrown, a 52-minute documentary about the Dervaes family who grow 6,000 pounds of organic produce every year on their one-fifth acre parcel next to the 210 freeway in Los Angeles. I thought it would be one of those inspiring films, but I was disappointed. As a film, it was weak. And the family is weird — almost creepy. Jules has raised his now-adult three kids who (at least at the time of this film) still live at home and appear to be lacking in outside-home social activities. Hey, I’m into organic foods, environmentalism and all those liberal causes, something here isn’t quite right. Again, I’m probably in the minority on this one. Lots of other people leaving the film loved it. So check it out and make your own call. And let me know what you think.

MVFF: Hidden Bounty of Marin: Farm Families in Transition (B)

My recommendation for this 27-minute documentary is easy. If you live in Marin County or if you’re interested in organic farming and ranching, see it. Otherwise, you probably won’t be interested. And to make it easy, you can see Hidden Bounty of Marin: Farm Families in Transition in its entirety on YouTube. It’s probably not really a documentary, but more of a marketing piece for the farmers of Marin and GrownInMarin.org. I enjoyed it, but I live here and I know some of the farmers (from the local farmers’ markets) and the great CowGirl Creamery.

MVFF: Original (B+)

Original is one of the best Danish features I’ve seen in a while. It seems I often describe Danish films as quirky, and this one is no exception to that observation. Are Danes just naturally quirky by American standards?

As Kristine Kolton wrote in the Mill Valley Film Festival program, “If there’s one thing Henry has learned, it’s that reality is overrated. When his father dies bizarrely in a moose-hunting accident, Henry’s mother checks out of the real world for good.” Working from a highly inventive script, the cast are all excellent. The film is clever and very well paced but lightweight. Don’t expect a masterpiece here, just enjoy it. It’s just a lot of fun, and you’ll just grin your way through the whole thing.

MVFF: Miracle in a Box: A Piano Reborn (B)

This is one for geeks, musical or otherwise. Filmmaker John Korty (The Crazy Quilt, for those who are old enough to remember) spent two years documenting the rebuilding of a 1927 Steinway piano donated to U.C. Berkeley. In the mid-70s I built a Zuckermann harpsichord, and while that’s a lot simpler than a piano, I could truly relate to the craftsmen at Callahan Piano Service in Oakland who do this work. (Most of those in the film were at tonight’s screening along with Korty.)

The film is in Korty’s classic dry style. He just puts it out there. No glitter or gloss. The soundtrack includes parts of performances by the students who were competing to win the finished piano. It probably won’t bother most people, but I was distracted by the differences in audio between the close-mic’d interviews intercut with the distant-mic’d piano performances taped in Berkeley’s Hertz Hall. I’ve recorded there, and my guess is that they used just a pair of ceiling-hung mics. Nothing wrong with the quality. It just didn’t match the rest of the track.

I’m a Korty fan, but I wouldn’t recommend seeing Miracle in a Box: A Piano Reborn for the filmmaking. If you like machines, moving parts or musical instruments, see it for Callahan and the piano. You’ll probably have to track it down on DVD or watch the preview.

MVFF: Shadow & Light: The Life and Art of Elaine Badgley Arnoux (B+)

Shadow & Light is a charming 28-minute video documentary (William Farley, director) about a great Bay Area local artist, Elaine Badgley Arnoux. The film is good, but Arnoux (now 82) is great. Terrific art and an even more fascinating attitude. No distribution yet for the video, however. Rumor is that producer Mary Morrow is trying to get a PBS deal. You can see an 8-minute preview on YouTube. Minor aside: Farley, a respected local filmmaker uses, a bit of a fascinating technique to get a 3D-like effect from panned still images. I wanted to ask how he did that but didn’t have a chance.

MVFF: An Education (B-)

Coincidentally (?) we saw An Education here in Mill Valley on the same night it opened in New York and Los Angeles. I was surprised that the director, Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself — both great) was here and not at one of those major cities. But thank goodness she was, because her Q&A made me appreciate a lot more about this film. Unfortunately, others won’t have the benefit of hearing her insights. The early buzz on this film is hot, and by giving it a B- I’ll probably be in the minority.(I just read A.O. “Tony” Scott’s review in the NY Times. He loved it. Don’t read his review, as usual, unless you want to know most of the plot.)

Technically, it’s a coming-of-age film, but with a darker-than-usual twist. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16 year-old girl in London in the 1960s. David (Peter Sarsgaard) is the sleazy older man who pursues her. It takes a long time for us to understand just why David is sleazy, but we sense from the beginning that something isn’t right. The problem is that there’s no benefit to us, the audience, from waiting to learn what’s up. We just have to wait.

Mulligan is suddenly the new It girl, and she deserves the attention she’s getting for this role. She is terrific. This is actually her first major role, having made this film two years ago when she was 22. But the rest of the film isn’t at the level of her performance. Sarsgaard is just his usual placid self. Alfred Molina, playing Jenny’s father, is at first a buffoonish stereotype whom we later have trouble accepting as warm and sincere when the plot takes a turn. The music and editing are awkward. Cinematography just mediocre.

The film will get a lot of attention due to Mulligan’s great performance, and luckily she’s on screen in virtually every scene, but this is one that the more I think about it, the less I like it. I keep thinking of all the ways in which it could have been better. I loved Sherfig’s earlier films, so I have hope for her future. Maybe it’s because this is her first in English. Maybe it’s the larger budget. (Italian for Beginners was a dirt-cheap Dogme 95 film.) Let’s see what the audiences say. I’m expecting to take some flak for this one.