MVFF: My Brothers (C)

My Brothers is a good try, but in the end just doesn’t make it. It’s an Irish film about three brothers who’s father is dying. It’s a combination road-trip and coming-of-age film, although the ages of the brothers are roughly seven through 18. The actors are superb, but I just never got into the film. IT was just too slow and self-aware. The cinematography was self-indulgent and the music was driving me crazy. I’m sitting here trying to figure out what would have saved this movie that really does have potential. Maybe it could have been saved in the cutting room. I wish I could recommend this one, but I can’t.

MVFF: Miral (D)

We got to see the US premiere of Miral, the true story of four Muslim women in Jerusalem from the creation of Israel in 1948 through recent times. In addition to their personal stories, there’s a strong political context of the argument for a fully integrated Israel versus a two-state “solution.” I fully expected Julian Schnabel’s Miral to be one of the hits of the Mill Valley Film Festival. But Wow, what a shocker! Instead, I’d say it was the worst of the ten films we’ve seen so far this year. So disappointing.

It’s a mess of a film. The the script is stilted and awkward. The dialogue is at once simplistic and heavy-handed. All of the performances sub-par, which suggests that the direction is to blame. Even the actors’ accents are awful. Some of the most important characters are nothing more than superficial. Schnabel did an amazing job with Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but as he admitted during the Q&A, he’s a painter, not a filmmaker. Perhaps part of the problem is that he’s way too close to the material. He’s a compassionate two-state-fan Jew. This film isn’t art for him. It’s more literal than that. His mother was the first president of Hadassah. He filmed many of the scenes in their actual locations in Jerusalem. I don’t think he had anyone on the team in a position to tell him it’s just not a good movie. Great story, okay. But it’s got to work as a film.

I probably don’t need to mention this after such a pan, but the production values were also weak. Schnabel kept switching in and out of visual styles such as a 1950 color-negative look, but there was no discernable thematic reason for doing so. Editing, music and sound were likewise poor. Need I say it? Skip this one even if it ends up getting huge sentimental popularity.

MVFF: Precious Life (A-)

There have been many documentaries about the Jewish/Palestinian conflict in Gaza, and quite a few of them have appeared at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Precious Life is perhaps the best. Jewish filmmaker Shlomi Eldar has been an Israeli war correspondent for two decades, but in this film he’s become part of the story. A Palestinian baby is born with no immune system in Gaza. Normally the baby would die not long after birth. But under incredible circumstances, Eldar manages to get the baby and his parents through the checkpoint to an Israeli hospital. Together with the Jewish doctor, they manage to raise $55,000 for a bone-marrow transplant procedure from an anonymous Jewish donor who lost his own son in the war. The baby’s parents are in complete disbelief. They’ve been raised to believe that the Jews were monsters. That’s just the setup. The true-life story just gets better from there.

The reason I particularly life this film is that more than any other film, it helped me understand how the people on either side of this conflict see one another. It also shows how deeply one needs to dig into their own beliefs to truly understand people of other cultures and religions. Just believing you’re tolerant and not prejudiced isn’t enough. You have to work hard at it.

MVFF: Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone (B+)

Everyday Sunshine is the story of the black/rock band Fishbone that was created by a half-dozen kids who met in a San Fernando Valley high school, all of them bussed in from Watts, South Central LA, etc., during those forced integration years of the ’70s. Fishbone is one of those musicians’-musicians bands that those who really know what’s happening in the music world always know. (I admit that I didn’t know them. I had to ask my bassist son about them.) The band was (and to some extent still is) extraordinary. It’s clear that co-founder Norwood Fisher is not only an awesome musician, but has strongly influenced Flea, Les Claypool and other great rock bassists. Flea, Claypool and a handful of other top musicians appear in interviews that are far more interesting than the usual: “Oh yeah, those guys were great!”

The problems for Fishbone were that they were an amazing live-performance band. Their music just doesn’t work well on audio CD. The band is outrageously talented with an over-the-top eclectic style. They seem so out of control, but everything is musically very tight. An audio recording probably misses the point entirely. The music industry just couldn’t deal with them. The were a punk band, but they were black. They weren’t R&B, they were rock. But it wasn’t the usual blues-based rock. The music is rich, complex and rewarding. Much of it sounds almost Zydeco to me.

Co-directors Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler, both of whom answered questions after the screening, spent years tracking down old footage and old band members. At one point in their history guitarist Kendall Jones left the band to join a cult-like group here in Marin County. The other band members and Kendall’s ex-girlfriend attempted to physically intervene and get him out of there. They were charged with kidnapping and ultimately found not guilty. It’s just part of the wild story of this band’s history, and Anderson and Metzler cover it all.

It’s one of the best rockumentaries I’ve seen. One reason is how brilliantly Anderson and Metzler have pieced it together so non-linearly. It’s not in chronological order. It’s not even in a theme-oriented order. I can’t tell you after just one screening what the sequence of the film is based on, but it works and it works really well. It just flows. And of course, the music is great. You get neither too much music nor too little. It’s just right.

Cessna rated this only a C, so I’d say it’s probably only for those who are musicians (I’m not) or those who are particularly interested in documentary filmmaking. Or if you’re a Fishbone fan, in which it’s obviously a must-see.

MVFF: Kawasaki’s Rose (A-)

This 2009 film from the Czech Republic is a marvelous part-drama, part-thriller about family secrets and Communist-era Czechoslovakia conspiracies. I want to call the movie “charming” but that makes it sound like something cute and fluffy, and it’s definitely not that. The cast are universally superb are all of the technical filmmaking elements. Director Jan Hrebejk is masterful at how he reveals both the background (with thankfully little exposition) as well as the unfolding plot. This one has a lot of twists and turns, and Hrebejk delivers them in that way that’s so satisfying and rewarding to experience. I came out of Kawasaki’s Rose thinking “B”, but the more I thought about it, the better it felt. Try to find this one if you can.

MVFF: The Reverse (B)

The best thing about the Mill Valley Film Festival (and other festivals) is getting to see those foreign or domestic small films that you just know will never be in theaters. And the best of these are often in the “quirky” category. The Reverse is a stylized black-and-white Polish film set in Stalinist Warsaw. I guess you’d call it a black comedy. It’s black in that there are sinister goings on. It’s a comedy in that the characters and plot are absolutely  zany. The prim-and-proper female lead starts off terrified that she’s going to be arrested for owning a single gold coin. (Holding gold was apparently illegal at this time in Poland.) She shares an apartment with her mother and grandmother, both of whom are trying to find her a husband. Her suitors are not only very odd, they also drive the plot into entirely unexpected territories of secret police, crimes and cover ups in an almost farcical (but yet dark!) style. Recommended.

MVFF: Biutiful (A)

Mexican-born Alejandro González Iñárritu is clearly one of the best directors, worldwide. Consider Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. His new film, Biutiful is his first film in four years and may be his best yet. It is stunning in every way. If you ever doubted the acting skill of Javier Bardem, this will put an end to you concerns. He’s terrific, as is everyone else in the film. The cinematography, sound and editing are also near perfect. Iñárritu was here for a long Q&A session, during which he accurately described Biutiful as a visual poem. It’s about a relatively regular man who is put into situations that require him to be (or at least try to be) quite heroic. Not in the big-hero kind of way, but just how he tries to save or rescue others in his life. The film takes place in a gritty area of Barcelona that tourists and even the natives rarely see, and this sets the stage for the moral and ethical challenges Bardem’s character must face. I’m writing this review about half-way through the Mill Valley Film Festival, and this is the one film so far that I think you should go out of your way to see.

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