October 19, 2004

MVFF at 27.

Mill Valley Film Festival Jonathan Marlow looks back on the Mill Valley Film Festival, which wrapped on Sunday.

The younger, smarter sibling of the San Francisco International Film Festival, Mill Valley was a distinguished affair in its latest installment. Excellent films and high-profile guests have continued to raise the respect of the annual event. Even unexpected acts of nature (which forced the exchange of the out-of-commission CinéArts Sequoia for the middle-of-nowhere Century Regency) failed to produce a noticeable set-back for the fest and its able staff.

Admittedly, regular evening trips to Mill Valley are less than ideal,l but with a program that included the latest from Kiarostami, Kore-eda, Godard and Sembene, along with tributes to Gena Rowlands, Albert Maysles and Mike Leigh, skipping the festival wasn't really an option. That stated, let's presume for a moment that you didn't attend MVFF. Given that the Daily's readership is worldwide, this is a distinct possibility. Which films should you see or skip when they find their way to your neighborhood?

Tarnation - With a meteoric rise since its premiere at Sundance earlier this year and presented at MVFF mere days before a theatrical release from Wellspring, what is to be made of this oddity? Overrated. If turning your family story into a disjointed series of music videos is a display of genius, US cinema is in a much more sorry state than I suspected. Director Jonathan Caouette and I share a similar background: born a few years apart; an entirely absent father; a younger brother; a theatrical youth; teenage years spent in the "club scene." For Caouette, these details, combined with his mother's troubled time in and out of mental institutions, is enough to base a feature film. Unfortunately, it's thirty minutes of material stretched into an 88-minute movie. It does, however, include some remarkable moments (such as role-playing footage of the director as a battered young woman or the initial photo montage of his mother and her brief modeling career). The film might also single-handedly usher in a whole new genre - the narcissistic pseudo-doc.

Our Music - Unlike most Americans, I look forward to new Jean-Luc Godard films. In fact, his last theatrically released feature, In Praise of Love, marked the end of a rather productive decade of wonderful work: Germany Year 90 Nine-Zero, Hélas pour moi, JLG/JLG and the ambitious Histoire(s) du cinéma. Our Music will not likely win over any new fans. In fact, even existing enthusiasts will find little to react favourably to. Much like his earlier Keep Your Right Up!, the film fares best when Godard appears on screen as a hapless version of himself. These moments are clever and compelling, unlike the inconsequential details that surround them. Ultimately, the film could nearly be created using a template of his last few features. Add original footage and audio and, at the press of a button, out come jump cuts, overlapping dialogue, abruptly truncated music and documentary footage inserted at odd intersections.


Mondovino  -  Outside of the nauseating, shaky camera work, Jonathan Nossiter's fascinating (if overly long) documentary about contemporary wine culture is a must-see. Much like the territory covered in the book The Accidental Connoisseur by Lawrence Osborne (in which Nossiter is referenced), Mondovino deals with the revolutionary changes that have occurred in the wine business thanks to three primary players - the "success through superior taste conformity" of Robert Mondavi, the unnatural influence of critic Robert Parker and the "consulting" (where "micro-oxygenate" is the ready solution) of Michel Rolland to make all wines worldwide taste the same (and appeal to his friend Parker). As if that weren't bad enough, we have new critics (like the aptly names James Suckling, prepared to proclaim Italy as "the new France" among tastemakers) and new producers, the Napa-based Staglin family among them, who prove that money does not necessarily favor the brightest among us. One individual in the film notes that Parker's reviews favor American wine producers, not in the sense of a conspiracy but in a typically American "support your own" fashion. Nossiter takes another yet just as typically American tact - elevate all things outside of our borders (particularly European) at the expense of anything domestic. The implication by omission is that there are no unique wines in this country. I disagree (although the French still make the best wine in the world). I would argue that there are a handful of American wines that display a sense of terroir. Even comparing small production wines from Stags Leap and Rutherford, two districts geographically quite close to each other, would indicate a distinction to even the casual palate. Supposedly, Nossiter is now cutting together a ten-part series from his 500 hours of footage, potentially making my argument moot.

Moolaadé - Ousmane Sembene's latest miraculously finds humorous situations to lighten the serious tone of a film largely about the difficulty of changing traditions. Even when those traditions are wrong, change comes with a price. In this case, "wrong" is female circumcision and efforts to resist the practice lead to death, spousal beatings and burned radios. If you've ever seen a Sembene film before, you know what to expect - an enlightening and entertaining evening at the cinema. If you've never seen one of his films, what are you waiting for?

A Tale of Two Sisters

A Tale of Two Sisters - In a festival light on genre pictures (none of the usual fascination with Takashi Miike, for instance), the inclusion of this Korean horror film might seem, on the surface, an odd choice. Regardless, the programmers picked a real winner. I've spoken highly of Two Sisters since I caught it in Canada last year. Have you ever seen the Robert Mulligan film, The Other? A Tale of Two Sisters is like that, only much creepier. The film deserves to be seen in a theatre, surrounded by a full house, if only to hear an entire audience scream in unison. Repeatedly. Plus, on a completely irrelevant note, it features my favorite South Korean actress, Jung-ah Yum.

Bookmark and Share

Posted by dwhudson at October 19, 2004 9:00 AM