MVFF: I Catch a Terrible Cat (C+)

Not every movie at a film festival is a winner. My wife and I go out of our way to find films that are unusual, quirky, foreign and very likely not to be widely distributed. We take our chances, and if, at the end of the festival, we can say that half of the films we saw were “good”, then we’re satisfied. Unfortunately, the North American premiere of I Catch a Terrible Cat fell well into the bottom half of this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival.

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MVFF: The Book Thief (A)

Opening night at the Mill Valley Film Festival featured a pre-release — actually, the first-ever public screening — of The Book Thief, based on the novel by Markus Zusak. I referred to it as a romantic treatment of a story we’ve seen before: WWII Germany, Nazis, Jews and (atypically) regular German citizens. It’s not romantic in the sense of romantic love, but rather “a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life.” In this case it’s everyday people in very difficult circumstances.

Wow, what a way to start the festival. A superb film in just about every way. Terrific screenplay by Michael Petroni. Likewise the direction by Brian Percival, who previously directed a half-dozen episodes of Downton Abbey. This is his first feature. Geoffrey Rush is great, as usual, but the knockout performance is by a young French-Canadian actress, Sophie Nélisse. The cut we saw tonight isn’t the final mix, and I hope they tone down a few of the big-swell John Williams music moments, but that’s about the only flaw. For the most part, Williams’ score is great. It was filmed in Berlin and other than the leads, the rest of the cast are German. Everyone  — seriously, everyone — is spot on. Terrific cinematography and editing, too. So we started the 36th #MillValleyFilmFestival with an A. The Book Thief will have a few premieres on November 8, then open in New York and Los Angeles on November 15. Look for it elsewhere at the end of the year or in early 2014. Highly recommended. #MVFF

MVFF: A Somewhat Gentle Man (A-)

What is it about Scandinavian cinema? Even in comedy, they manage to show us only the “gritty underbelly” of their countries. In the case of A Somewhat Gentle Man from Norway, the setup comes in the first few moments. Ulrick, played by the marvelous and ubiquitous Stellan Skarsgård, walks out of prison after serving 12 years for murder, only to find a world that’s at least as bleak as the one he’s leaving behind. This is the story of Ulrick’s reintroduction to society: getting a job, making contact with his family, considering revenge for those responsible for his incarceration and making up for twelve years without female contact.

That’s the stage for this utterly hilarious but absolutely deadpan movie. Maybe it was the exhaustion after 18 films over the past 11 days, but we laughed louder and harder than at any other time during the 33rd Mill Valley Film Festival. The entire cast of deeply real characters is terrific.

In searching for a trailer to include below, I decided to embed the one without subtitles. Somehow I think it captures the spirit of this great film even better. Distributed by Strand Releasing, if this movie plays near you, go see it. You’ll have a lot of fun.

MVFF: Tiny Furniture (A-)

You’re going to hear a lot about filmmaker Lena Dunham in the next few years. Her Tiny Furniture is a great film, and truly extraordinary when you consider it’s a first feature for which she is writer, director and lead actress. On one hand Tiny Furniture is a very personal autobiographical film. Dunham’s sister and mother play her character’s sister and mother in the movie and it was shot in their own house for only $25,000 ($45,000 total after post-production). But this film isn’t handicapped as a low-budget picture. It’s as good in every respect as any high-budget drama/comedy.

Dunham’s character, Aura, returns home fresh out of college not quite knowing what to do with herself. Her boyfriend of two years decided to head to Colorado. She has plans to share an apartment with a female college friend, but for now she’s going to live with her artist-at-home mother and teenage sister. Men? Jobs? Friends? Family? It’s all up for grabs, and we watch Aura test the limits in all categories in her first few weeks back home.

The script is brilliant. It’s on a par with Michael Arndt’s Little Miss Sunshine. The dialog is as taught and realistic as Diablo Cody’s Juno. During Q&A I asked Dunham if she ever considered casting someone else in the lead role, but as she explained, since the mother was played by her mother and the sister by her sister, that probably wouldn’t work. Ultimately Dunham is going to have to make a choice. I don’t think she’ll be able to write/direct forever. Her directorial skills are clearly strong enough that she’s likely to go in that direction. It’s too bad she can’t just clone herself, because her writing skills are every bit as good. Her acting performance was also terrific in this film, but you can only go so far playing roles that are so autobiographical.

Keep your eye open for this one. It’s worth going out of your way to see. BTW, the film is much more energetic than the rather lethargic trailer embedded below. Tiny Furniture was picked up by IFC First Take and will have theatrical openings in New York in mid-November and L.A. in early December. Lena Dunham is already at work on new projects including one for HBO Films.

Tiny Furniture Trailer from Lena Dunham on Vimeo.

MVFF: Submission (B)

Submission, from Sweeden, is this year’s An Inconvenient Truth. And if the filmmakers and interviewees are to be believed, the threat of industrial chemicals accumulating in our bodies may well seal the fate of the human race (and others) well before global warming destroys the planet. The film is accurately described as more of an essay than a documentary. These screenings at the Mill Valley Film Festival were the film’s North American premiere.

The film begins with  veteran filmmaker Stefan Jarl deciding to have his own blood tested for foreign substances. He finds more than 200. It then proceeds through intercut interviews with credible scientists from around the world on what it all means. In parallel, Jarl recruits pregnant actress Eva Röse for a similar experiment, ultimately to make the case that most of these chemicals are passed from mothers to their children through the placenta, even before birth, and breast milk.

The movie is designed to scare us, and it’s quite successful. For me, the big takeaways are (a) this is a remarkably recent phenomenon affecting us (cumulatively) for only the past three generations, (b) because many of the substances are global, persistent and bioaccumulative, we’re on course for a devastating impact on our entire race in just the next two or three generations, and (c) unlike global warming, virtually nothing is being done to address the problem.

Jarl makes his case quite skillfully, building the intensity of dire consequences over the course of 87 minutes. By the end, you may agree that this is one of the most depressing films you’ve seen. That’s in part because unlike An Inconvenient Truth, which convinced us to trade in our Jeep Cherokee for a Prius, the film doesn’t give us much hope or offer a call to action. Although most of the interviews aren’t in English (but are subtitled), this is an important film, which I do recommend.