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.

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=9749563&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=1&color=&fullscreen=1&autoplay=0&loop=0

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.

MVFF: The Most Important Thing in Life is Not Being Dead (A-)

This is what a good film festival is all about. About 100  of us were treated to the U.S. premiere of Lo Más Importante de la Vida es No Haber Muerto, a great first feature from a trio of young directors (Olivier Pictet, Pablo Martin Torrado and Marc Recuenco) who have worked on shorter projects in their nine years since film school in Barcelona. It’s a mix of classic Buñuel surrealism, Ricky Gervais comedy and Eternal Sunshine impressionism.

The story is of Jacobo (played  marvelously by Spanish star Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) a third-generation piano tuner who, in his senior years, questions the mystical and existential aspects of his own life when he admits to his doctor that most of the pianos seem to have been tuning themselves. (Imagine catching a glimpse of Santa Claus in your living room. Was it real or were you dreaming?) Okay, so that doesn’t give you a clue what this movie is really all about. But this is one of the most original and creative scripts to appear in the past few years. Producer Saskia Vischer, who was at the screening along with the three directors and editor Jordi J.Recort, deserves a lot of the credit for helping the script make it to the screen pretty much as originally envisioned.

The film is beautifully shot, 95% in film-noir B&W and much in an angular Buñuel style. The original score, mostly of solo cello, piano and occasional string quartet is excellent. The opening animated title sequence, while gorgeous, is self-indulgently long and inappropriate for the body of the film. Cessna thought it was a bit long, but I think 17 films (so far) in 10 days may be catching up with her. This isn’t a mainstream movie. It’s definitely for foreign-language film buffs, but if that’s you, keep an eye out for this one. I don’t think it has distribution outside of one or two EU countries yet.

And for once, this trailer does give a reasonably accurate portrayal of the film itself.

MVFF: The Housemaid (B)

The Housemaid, from South Korea, was a big hit a this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Jeon Do-yeon won the Best Actress award there, and she along with two other women in this film really are quite good. The film also received a lot of attention there for some very racy scenes. It’s a remake of a 1960 South Korean film. Lat night was the U.S. premiere.

At first I graded this a C or C-. But like some films do, it has grown on me. Cessna and I found we had more to talk about after this film than any, and that’s usually a good sign.

It’s an Upstairs/Downstairs story about a young housemaid employed in an over-the-top wealthy household. The aristocratic family are supposed to be creepy and scary, but for the first half of the film they’re just posing. Not just the actors, but the director keeps giving us visual tableaus to show off their Hearst Castle of a home. It’s unnecessary and boring, hence my original low score. But just when I was ready to give up, a new character (played brilliantly by Park Ji-young) enters and the creepiness begins in earnest. From that midpoint on, things get satisfyingly stranger and stranger. It’s becomes less superficial and more deeply psychological. Yoon Yeo-jeong, as the older servant is terrific throughout.

I found myself wishing I understood how this film would be perceived in the context of South Korean culture, about which I know nothing. Given the attention it received at Cannes and the fact that it has been picked up by IFC Films, I’m sure it will be talked about quite a bit. An unusual number of viewers were turned off by the overt sex and walked out. If that doesn’t bother you, this is a film worth seeing if you’re willing to wait until the second half for the best performances and story.

By the way, the trailer below is quite misleading. There’s no English-language song in the film like that in the trailer. You’re better off watching it without sound.

MVFF: Cast Me If You Can (C-)

Going to this film was a gamble for us. Unfortunately, it was a gamble that didn’t pay off. We’re generally fans of Japanese cinema and television, everything from Kawasaki masterpieces to taiga dramas and TV serials. Cast Me If You Can was accurately billed as a romantic comedy. It’s just not a good one.

Director Atsushi Ogata was there for Q&A and explained the genesis of this film. He’s obviously a talented guy, and he pulled together an impressive cast including some of Japan’s most popular actors. But Ogata gets very poor performances from the cast.  It’s just a very weak script, painfully awkward pacing and aimless direction that make for a rather boring 97 minutes. Ogata’s previous films are all shorts, and this one feels like it should have been a short as well.

If you’re not a fan of Japanese TV, stay away. Even if you like JTV, I’d still say skip it, but keep your eye out for better films from Ogata in the future.

MVFF: Red Hill (A-)

I loved this movie. It’s a modern-day “kangaroo western” (yes, from Australia) in an updated Sergio Leone style. I’m generally not a fan of westerns, but I have the feeling that if I were, I would have caught all sorts of references to other films. The lead character is a rookie deputy named Shane, if that’s a clue.

If you like the films of Tarantino and Rodriquez, this is one for you. Not only is it hilarious — think Pulp Fiction on horseback — but it is one of the most gorgeously photographed films I’ve seen in recent years. Every shot is a work of art, and I mean that: every one. The music and sound are also superb as are the actors. I don’t know how wide a U.S. release Red Hill will get, but this is one that’s worth going out of your way to see. Fun and great filmmaking.

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.