We had high expectations for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a remake of the 1947 film starring Danny Kaye. The new version is directed by and stars Ben Stiller, who was present (along with an entourage of producers and 20th Century Fox executives) at the Mill Valley Film Festival closing-night screening. This was only the second time the film had been seen by the public, the first having been at the New York Film Festival.
In the end, we were disappointed. This is a major production, being heavily promoted for a Christmas release. It’s a “pretty good” movie, but left us feeling that it lacked a certain energy.
There are so many good films set in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it’s almost become a genre all its own. (One we loved was a documentary in 2010 called My Precious Life.) But because there have been so many, the bar has been set fairly high for new ones. Five years ago at the Mill Valley Film Festival, we were treated to director Eran Riklis‘s marvelous Lemon Tree. The producers of Zaytoun, (“olive” in Arabic) convinced Riklis to direct another film in this genre, and while it’s certainly a well-done film, it doesn’t quite measure up to his earlier work.
Last night we were treated to the North American premiere of Taru Mäkelä‘s new feature, August Fools. It turned out to be one of the very best films at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. Films from Finland are often some of our favorites, but they’re typically dark and gritty like the great 2009 Helsinki. Even the Finnish comedies tend to be on the dark side. August Fools skirts the edges of that tradition as a smart, uplifting comedy set in the dark context of the Cold War.
Writer/director/editor Hirokazu Koreeda‘s latest feature Like Father, Like Son (Japanese with English subtitles) won the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which primed us with high expectations. Many others at the screening just loved it. I found it to be a very competent and even satisfying film, but not one I’d suggest you go out of your way to see, particularly given how many truly terrific films we’ve already seen at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival.
This is the fourth film adaptation of Knut Hamsun‘s 1898 Norwegian novel, Victoria. The story is familiar: boy and girl from opposite sides of the tracks since childhood just can’t seem to overcome the social differences keeping them apart in young adulthood. But don’t let this seeming predictability keep you away. This is an excellent film — one of the best I’ve seen this year. (In Norwegian with English subtitles.)
One of my personal guidelines when selecting films to see at a festival is to avoid anything with “coming of age” in the description. Based on the glowing reviews for Farah Goes Bang at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival and the fact that it won the Nora Ephron Award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. I thought I’d take my chances. Fail. I think I’ll re-institute my policy next year.
Some films are almost impossible to categorize, and Imagine, written and directed by Andrzej Jakimowski, is one of them. It’s about a blind teacher, Ian (Edward Hogg) who brings controversial techniques to an institute for the blind. Instead of using canes to get around, he teaches echolocation, the use of sounds like heels on pavement and tongue clicks as a type of SONAR to identify objects and hazards. The kids and the management of the institute are quite skeptical of his techniques, but he persists.
One thing I love about film festivals is the opportunity to screen movies that are so low-budget that they’ll never get a distributor and therefore never appear in theaters. Some of the most creative work falls into this category. The Year and the Vineyard (El Año y la Viña) is such a film.
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.
Let me begin by saying that my wife did not like this film at all. Unfortunately, the woman who introduced The Best Offer said a bit too much about it, which caused my wife to be uneasy throughout the entire film. Don’t worry. There’s no need to be uneasy. Just enjoy this one. [Trailer video spoiler deleted from this post. It gives away too much about the plot.]