Give my regards
to Mill Valley!
35th Mill Valley Film Festival highlights, week 1
by David Lamble
The 35th edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival (Oct. 4-14 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, Cinearts@Sequoia, the 142 Throckmorton Theatre, and the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley) is aiming for the sweet spot on your bat with a star lineup that includes Dustin Hoffman (his directing debut, Quartet), Billy Bob Thornton (Jayne Mansfield's Car), Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!), John Hawkes (The Sessions) and the team from DreamWorks Animation (Rise of the Guardians ).
On the Road On page 44 of the novel, Jack Kerouac's narrator/alter ego Sal Paradise observes his best buds Dean and Carlo sitting "on the bed cross-legged and [looking] straight at each other. They began with an abstract thought, discussed it; reminded each other of another abstract point forgotten in the rush of events.
"'We'll just have to sleep now. Let's stop the machine.'
"'You can't stop the machine!' yelled Carlo at the top of his voice.
"I walked out and took a trolley to my apartment, and Carlo Marx's papier-mache mountains grew red as the great sun rose from the eastward plains."
You don't have to venture far into this truly mind-bending American original to grasp how hard it will be to dumb this sucker down into a mere movie. Some of the best moments are Sal alone, incensed with himself for wearing a most impractical pair of shoes in a torrential downpour; and observing a Mississippi-born hobo tenderly mothering a mysterious blonde teen boy on the back of a truck hurtling through the night at 70 mph.
Director Walter Salles proved he was up to creating a road-buddy classic with Motorcycle Diaries. There, Gael Garcia Bernal escaped the cliches of the Che Guevara you loved for a long list of reasons. Here, Garrett Hedlund has to knock it out of the park as perhaps the 20th century's most irrepressible, irresponsible madman. (Rafael 1 & 2, 10/4)
Sabbatical As queer folks continue their seeming mass migration towards the altar, Glenn Kiser's short homecoming comedy introduces the notion that young men especially need timeouts from the tyranny of 24/7 cohabitation. Phillip and Sam have more than a few surprises in store for each other as one of them returns to the nest – a flat now stripped of couple photos and knickknacks – and trades a near-death experience for a sexual massage tryst with a hunky Aussie. Spiked with a few good Jewish mom jokes, Sabbatical should get a few after-film chats started in its cozy position in the I'm Not in Love 5@5 shorts program. (Rafael 3, 10/5; Sequoia, 10/11)
To Chris Marker, an Unsent Letter They say Marker watched Hitchcock's Vertigo 19 times before producing his 35-minute homage, La Jetee. Bay Area filmmaker Emiko Omori concocts a most affectionate tribute from the French filmmaker's wide circle of fiends – a film that rushes by with barely a glimpse of the notoriously camera-shy artist, but which has plenty of shots of his cat. Rian Johnson's new Joe Levitt science-fiction thriller Looper is also said to contain a loving tip of the hat to Chris Marker. (Sequoia 2, 10/6; Rafael 2, 10/8)
Road North Finnish director Mika Kaurismaki produces a hilarious spoof of useless dad/petulant son reunions in this very pretty peek at one of Europe's least viewed and most grouchy outposts. (Rafael 2, 10/5; Sequoia 1, 10/7)
The Central Park Five Ken Burns, the creator of meticulous oral-history chronicles on how race has impacted America's blood-drenched history (The Civil War, WWII, Jazz), zooms in on a terrible night in Gotham when race, a powerful elite's paranoia about "crime in the streets," a huge and publicly unaccountable criminal justice system, a cynical, racially insensitive mayor, and a bombastic tabloid media ganged up to concoct a "judicial lynching" of five multi-racial teens. Burns chillingly illustrates why innocent kids would "confess" to a crime they had no knowledge of – the brutal rape/near-homicide of a white female jogger – but even more insidiously, how even the introduction of exonerating DNA evidence has failed to set the record straight for a public addicted to getting news in "a New York minute." (Rafael, 10/6, 8)
Rebels with a Cause Nancy Kelly's documentary provides a witty crash course on how a precious greenbelt sprung up from the Presidio to Marin. Employing a mix of quirky archival footage and new chats with surviving green warriors, Kelly shows how a person with an idea that's truly ahead of the curve can leave an extraordinary legacy. In 1962, the late Rep. Clem Miller sponsored a bill to create a Point Reyes National Seashore. Then the ante was upped by Rep. Phil Burton, who used Congressional juice to expand the protected zone beyond all expectations. There ensues an almost slapstick-worthy tale of Greens outwitting, out-voting and outlasting the big bad developers, with even Richard Nixon playing a surprisingly helpful role, as pro-ecology Republicans created the Federal EPA. While noting that the Marin greenbelt indirectly led to some of the nation's priciest real estate, Kelly reminds us to thank our "tree-hugging" predecessors every time we bike across the Golden Gate Bridge for a little lung-expanding R&R. (Sequoia, 10/6; Rafael, 10/9)
The Sessions "Are you religious?"
"I'd find it absolutely intolerable not to have someone to blame for all this."
Blending explicit sexuality and transcendent spirituality on screen usually misses the mark, but this time the filmmakers Ben Lewin, Judi Levine, and Stephen Nemeth have been dealt a hand with all aces. Their story, in turns wickedly funny and subtly heartbreaking, is based on the memoir of (metaphorically speaking) a drowning man, Berkeley poet-journalist Mark O'Brien, who spent his adult life tethered to an iron lung. Career character actor John Hawkes encourages us to laugh and even squirm a little as his painfully skinny torso mimics O'Brien's polio state, crippled by childhood. Blessed with speech and an ability to write with a breathing tube, O'Brien's one remaining, albeit guilty, desire is to escape his hetero-virginity. His accomplices are a happily married sex surrogate – a career-topping Helen Hunt – and a remarkably progressive Catholic priest – a long-haired William H. Macy spinning moral conundrums as smoothly as an oldies DJ secreting the sponsor's message among the old platters. (Rafael, 10/6; Sequoia, 10/7)
Fat Kid Rules the World Fans of Matthew Lillard's 1991 breakout as a pissed-off Salt Lake City punk rocker SLC Punk will be glad to know he's tapped back into this shit-disturbing energy to channel two unlikely pals who trade turns saving each other's lives. We first spy Troy, 17, severely depressed, grossly overweight, as he's about to step in front of a Seattle bus. The transit-assisted suicide is interrupted by the desperate lunge of Marcus, a charming, supremely talented, entirely devious street musician. The boys bond over Marcus' scheme for a punk-band comeback, driving everyone around them a tad mad.
Fat Kid is performance-driven, from Jacob Wyssocki's deftly understated Troy, who discovers a loud, vibrant world beyond the fridge and the Internet; to Matt O'Leary's Kurt Cobain-influenced, couch-surfing trickster Marcus; to Billy Campbell's anguished ex-Marine dad; to Dylan Arnold's svelte, studious and oddly resentful kid brother. (Sequoia, 10/6; Rafael, 10/11)