“The San Francisco Bay Area is an incredibly vibrant place,” said Zoe Elton, director of programming for the Mill Valley Film Festival.
It’s hard to disagree. The regions boasts the third largest theater market in the U.S., a world-class arts culture that is mind-blowingly creative, and a wicked live music scene. On any given day or evening, I’m not surprised to see our calendar double and triple booked. And did I mention Napa?
I spent day three of the festival in San Rafael, underneath a most agreeable Marin sun, taking in some first rate programming. In between screenings we strolled the charming downtown–lined with shops and boutiques–sipped lattes like Starbucks zombies, and, of course, talked film.
For the first time in years, I broke down and bought a bag of Skittles. Normally we talk about wine pairings here, but take this one to the bank: Diet Coke and Skittles.
MVFF is spread over three locations: the San Rafael Film Center, CinéArts@Sequoia and the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley. A shuttle bus makes regular runs among them so film-goers don’t need to worry about parking and navigating the always entertaining Bay Area roads. The experience so far has been first rate. I’ve found it easy to navigate the schedule thanks to the grid in the rear of the guide, and the (surprisingly) useful iPhone app. Volunteers have come out en force, and are seemingly an arms length away at any given time ready with a quick smile, and helpful information.
On this day we watched The King’s Speech, Opal, and Stone. Read-on for initial impressions, thoughts and a quick celebrity appearance scorecard. Two of these films are on the hold for review list, so we can’t publish full reviews until they’re theatrically available (which for Stone, at least, could be a while).
The King’s Speech (UK/AUSTRALIA 2009) – Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter, director: Tom Hooper
This is the best film I’ve seen in years. It’s my pick of the festival so far; and who knew that a story about King George VI and his speech therapist could be so entertaining? I had already seen it once a few weeks back at a press screening at Dolby Labs in San Francisco, but told Loni, my doey-eyed date, that she absolutely needed to see it.
The cinematography is exquisite, as are the framing of many of the shots. That it’s a period piece probably means it won’t ever reach a mainstream U.S. audience. Too bad, there are some hysterical scenes here, and the language is not always… uhhh… shall we say, Royal.
Opal (US 2010) – Nayeli Adorador-Knudsen, George Maguire, director: Dina Ciraulo
How can you not get an adrenaline rush watching a film while the cast and filmmakers hoot and holler during the credits? That Opal is the brainchild of Bay Area native Dina Ciraulo (who wrote and directed) is icing on the cake. It took four years to make, and required every ounce of indie film ingenuity and gusto. There are many familiar Bay Area locales here including the Montalvo Arts Center — “My mom found a lot of good locations for us,” said Dina later during a Q&A.
As for the film’s subject matter, Opan Whiteley, yes she’s an eccentric enigma, but I don’t find her story all that compelling. A “self-taught” naturalist, she rose to fame when Atlantic Monthly published her fantastical childhood diaries. Later, her facts were questioned, including her ancestry. She fell hard and faded to obscurity.
Considering its budget the film has a wonderful cinematic quality with sweeping outdoor shots, and costumes (according to the credits some were rented from A.C.T.). The acting is respectable, and Dina Ciraulo did a wonderful job extracting as much performance value as possible from the cast. One technical weakness: the audio. There is a lot of echo suggesting that perhaps a boom mike was not properly placed, and there is discontinuity from scene to scene. Still these are nitpicks. Both Loni and I enjoyed this film from beginning to end. It was challenging material, and the filmmakers did a commendable job brining a quirky individual’s world to life.
Stone (US 2010) – Edward Norton, Robert De Niro, director: John Curran
This one has all the right ingredients, but the finished product delivers far less than its promise. With a $22M budget, the prospects are not looking good, and I wonder if the producers are in salvage mode with this one. Acting is not an issue here. You have Ed Norton in another as-expected solid performance. Nothing new mind you, but nuanced and gritty. Unfortunately the story is a massive let down. It’s slow, tedious, and doesn’t quite deliver the anticipated payoff. Mila Jovovich is actually the standout in an edgy turn as a delusional sex kitten. Robert De Niro is understated, but unfortunately spends most of his time behind a desk scribbling notes. Are his best box-office and movies behind him? I don’t think so, but the lustre and magnetism of one of the greatest living actors of our time is wanting. There is a religious message here that is not fully realized and occasionally feels like a cut rate Dead Man Walking. And the cornrows? We learned during Ed Norton’s interview at the tribute that it was very possibly just a homage to Elvis…
Conviction (US 2010) – Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, director: Tony Goldwyn
Another jailhouse story. Another convict trying to recover his life. Conviction is very good, if not predictable. Based on a true story, Hilary Swank plays Bette Anne Waters who puts herself through law school to defend her brother, who is wrongfully (or is he?) accused of murder. Sam Rockwell looks part Al Pacino and part Sean Penn as he ages in prison, his discontent almost boiling over at times; an exceptional actor. In a small role, though, Juliette Lewis steals the film. It’s so wild and trailer-trashy, that it’s hard to imagine this is the same actor that burst onto the scene in Cape Fear with Robert De Niro.
MVFF organizers were able to land A-listers to the festival that demonstrates its increasing influence in the world of the film, and also that even celebrities can’t resist the allure of the San Francisco Bay Area.
For Sam Rockwell, who made an appearance at the opening night pre-reception party at the Open Art Center, it was a home coming of sorts. Originally from Daly City, he attended Loma Verde Elementary School. Laid back and with an easy-going demeanor, he was incredibly generous with his time, readily hugging organizers, colleagues. He also spent significant time with press (and it’s not beyond me that this all in the name of promotion) in a small room where he fielded questions, kibitzed, and talked about the Bay Area and Conviction. I also liked that he was able to get Loni’s sense of humor and was more than willing to spend time with us on the Stark Insider segment.
Edward Norton was also gracious, although somewhat less engaging with those at the festival. No autographs were allowed. I still think he should’ve at least signed that one fan’s poster. I mean, come on, after all this is a tribute and there were only a few autograph seekers at the premiere. Odd I thought that he told some photographers and fans on the red carpet, “Hey guys let’s try to keep it civil.” To my eyes it was very civil.
I know he’s road weary having just arrived form Chicago–and these road tours no doubt are a pain. There’s no obligation to interact with fans, but for a UN Ambassador I think just a tad more people orientation would be appreciated. Still, he was very generous with us, giving us time for three or four questions. Although I don’t think he’ll be confused with the raconteur himself Colin Firth (according to director Tom Hooper, he had to impose a 30-second anecdote limit on the set of The King’s Speech), he does come across as intelligent, level-headed and extremely committed to his job–and at the end of the day this is what really counts.