An exuberant community event rather than an industry marketplace, the annual Mill Valley Film Festival never forgets its target audience: well-educated filmgoers partial to mainstream art house crowd pleasers, American indies, topical documentaries, a sampling of tasty world cinema (especially from the African continent) and the latest crop of docs and features by homegrown Bay Area talent.
The festival kicks off October 7 with two opening night films showing at different venues. At the Smith Rafael Film Center: The King’s Speech, a period drama that took the top audience prize at the Toronto Film Festival and stars Colin Firth, who's already generating Oscar buzz in his role as King George VI, a royal with a severe speech impediment that undermines his confidence. Better known as “Bertie” (and as the father of Elizabeth II), the monarch conquers an embarrassing stammer with the aid of a miracle worker speech therapist, played by the reliably quirky Geoffrey Rush. At the Sequoia: Conviction, with Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell, a film based on the true story of two down-on-their-luck siblings. Swank has made feisty blue color heroines something of a specialty and, here, true-to-form, she’s a single mom and high school dropout who goes back to school and dedicates 15 years to overturning what she believes is her brother’s unjust murder conviction. The films are followed by a gala launch party at the Mill Valley Community Center.
This year’s special events include a tribute to Annette Bening, an alumnus of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater who, despite scant pickings for actresses over 40, has maintained a steady screen presence, moving with alacrity between indies and studio projects. She’ll receive the Mill Valley Award and participate in an onstage conversation featuring clips from credits that range from a career making performance as a hard-edged, nasty piece of work in The Grifters and a gangster’s tough cookie paramour in Bugsy (Bening met future husband Warren Beatty on the set) through her latest turn in the critically praised dramedy The Kids Are All Right.
Spotlights shine on an array of honorees. Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, the Mexican director of the globe-trotting Babel and Amores Perros, returns to the fest with Biutiful, starring the smoldering, cosmopolitan Spanish hunk du jour, Javier Bardem, who won best actor at Cannes for this portrayal of a conflicted underworld heavy confronting mortality and the unsavory acts he committed in his ignominious past.
Tributee Edward Norton imprinted himself on the American psyche when, fresh out of drama school at Yale, he made a memorable debut in Primal Fear as a young, homicidal con man utilizing a convenient multiple personality disorder to work the justice system. Since then, in independent films such as 25th Hour, American History X, Fight Club and a number of forgettable heist movies, he has shown himself to be a versatile actor embarked on an adventurous if uneven career trajectory. The event includes the screening of Stone, a duel of wits between a convict (Norton) and his corrections officer (Robert De Niro.)
The austere, visually poetic The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, would seem a difficult act to follow but director Julian Schnabel, a painter and intuitive filmmaker with ego to spare and an undeniable flair for rapturous imagery, attempts to do just that. Representing a marked changed of pace, his latest film, Miral, is an adaptation of Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal’s semi-autobiographical novel, which interweaves the stories of four women set against the backdrop of war, grievance and bottomless rage; the toll of years of tribal conflict. (Schnabel and screenwriter Jebreal will attend the screening and reception.)
On Closing Night, Palo Alto’s James Franco takes center stage for a conversation with program director Zoe Elton and a screening of his latest outing, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours. Franco has been having quite a ride, appearing in a succession of wildly varied roles, from the tortured poet/intellectual Allen Ginsberg in Howl and Julia Roberts’ boy-toy fling in Eat Pray Love to the perpetually stoned dope dealer in Pineapple Express. In 127 Hours, he carries the film virtually single-handedly and, according to early reviews, gives a tour de force performance.
Boyle, capitalizing on the success of Slumdog Millionaire, gathers many members of the same team and trains his attention on a vastly different scenario here, the harrowing tale of climber Aron Ralston. One part self-sufficient loner, two parts reckless cowboy, Ralston hiked down a steep canyon in Utah and unearthed a boulder that pinned his arm to the ground. Hidden from sight, unable to move and with no apparent means of escape, he was forced to make an untenable choice.
Mill Valley has a longstanding tradition of rolling out the welcome mat for Bay Area filmmakers and this year is no exception. Among the offerings on tap: Tim Hittle’s Jay Clay Trilogy, a trio of animated stop motion shorts showcasing the exploits of Jay Clay and Blue; Taggart Siegel's Queen of the Sun, a documentary on the mysterious disappearance of those Olympic pollinators, honeybees; Tom Ropelewski's Child of Giants; My Journey with Maynard Dixon & Dorothea Lange, a documentary that proves, once again, that famous artists don’t make the best parents; and, Philip Neel and David H. Jeffery’s Lesson Plan: The Story of the Third Wave, which chronicles a young Palo Alto high school teacher’s controversial 1967 experiment in fascism and the perils of absolute power.
Getting an early glimpse of prestige fall releases gives MVFF audiences a leg up on the general public. Case in point, the Swedish adaptation of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the final installment of Stieg Larsson’s phenomenally successful Milennium Trilogy, which opens theatrically later this month and before the unnecessary American remakes land in theaters next year. Yes, the series is packed with graphic depictions of sensational violence and sordid subplots but they’re worth seeing for the sheer joy of Noomi Rapace’s kickass portrayal of Lisbeth Salander, the Goth, bisexual, tattooed-body pierced computer hacker. Self reliant, plagued by intimacy issues, contemptuous of convention and blessed with an aptitude for innovative modes of revenge, she’s a wounded warrior woman for our times.
Topping the must-see short list is Julie Taymor’s feminist interpretation of Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, in which the sorcerer Prospero is imagined as a woman, embodied by the formidable Helen Mirren. Renamed Prospera, she plays tricks, engineers a shipwreck on a deserted island, wreaks havoc on best laid plans and has her fun exacting revenge on those who thwarted her. The gender reversal is an inspired touch that helps reconfigure Shakespeare’s tale into a provocative examination of class and power. Taymor, who brings arresting visuals and a wealth of brilliantly inventive theatre experience to the table, has assembled a crackerjack cast that includes David Strathairn, Chris Cooper, Alan Cumming, Alfred Molina and a dash of the outrageous Russell Brand for comic relief.
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