The temperature today at the Mill Valley Film Festival reached 90 degrees, and the locals that I talked to could not recall a hotter Autumn in the festival’s history. When you consider that the nicest suit most locals wear outside is a bicycle jersey, it could have been a lot worse, but it was still unseasonably miserable. So what better time to watch a couple of films that expose mankind’s essential awfulness, and another film that exposes its own essential awfulness to mankind?
I opened the day back at the Sequoia Theater in downtown Mill Valley, which was less packed and less sweltering for the 11 a.m. show of A Wolf at the Door, the debut feature from Brazilian writer-director Fernando Coimbra. The story unfolds with deceptive simplicity – a mother goes to pick up her child from school, only to find that the girl was already sent off with an unknown “family friend.” At first, no one seems particularly concerned about the girl’s safety, not even the cops conducting the investigation, but Coimbra slowly and carefully pulls leaves off of the artichoke until he reaches its rotting heart. It’s often a difficult film, deliberate and vicious, but there is a command of character and narrative that points to huge things ahead for Coimbra.
An even more promising debut feature is ’71, from British TV and music video director Yann Demange. ’71 takes place over the course of one night in Belfast during “The Troubles,” when the city was split into Catholic/IRA and Protestant factions that were warring even within themselves. Demange’s film follows a British soldier trapped behind “enemy lines” after a riot separates him from his platoon, and while that provides the film with a gut-seizing, action-thriller hook, Demange makes it clear that everyone here is trapped in the crossfire. The violence is sudden and devastating and immediate – you feel it – and although the characters are often a little light, Demange navigates us through this urban war zone with an intensity and clarity that I don’t recall ever seeing in any other film about this period.
Easily the worst major film that I have screened at the festival so far is Morten Tyldum’s insipid The Imitation Game, a hoary biopic about British genius Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch, OK but overly mannered), who broke the Nazi’s Enigma code but was later imprisoned for homosexuality. To break the Nazi code, Turing basically had to construct the world’s first computer, and it feels like the script for The Imitation Game could have been spit out by just such a machine. ALAN RUFFLES STUFFED SHIRTS *bleep-blop* BUT ONLY BECAUSE OF A TORTURED PAST THAT DIRECTLY FEEDS INTO EVERY STORY BEAT *blip-bleep* GIRLS CAN BE JUST AS SMART AS BOYS *blop-bloop* SO WHY MUST ALAN EXPLAIN THINGS TO HIS FEMALE COLLEAGUE THAT SHE ALREADY KNOWS? *Does not compute! Does not compute!* Seriously, though, this shameless crowdpleaser is doltish, sentimental and easy. Therefore, it will probably win ten thousand Oscars.