There is more to the Mill Valley Film Festival than spotlighting splashy Oscar bait and handing out lifetime achievement awards to teenagers. The festival is also a great opportunity to watch under-the-radar independent and foreign fare, movies without release dates or distribution deals, movies you might never have a chance to see again. Many of the “smaller” MVFF37 films have DVDs and/or links available for the press, and that has allowed me to fill in some of the cracks in my viewing schedule, especially since I spent half the festival in Sacramento.
I plan to give Volker Schlondorff’s WWII chamber drama Diplomacy a full review here on E Street when it opens in San Francisco on October 24 (ditto for James Marsh’s Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything when it drops next month), so for now I’ll just direct you to my MVFF37 Power Rankings and let you figure it out for yourself.
Malik Vitthal’s debut feature Imperial Dreams won the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and while this story of a Watts ex-con returning to his old neighborhood to care for his young son has the dreadful earnestness and inspirational bleakness that Sundance audiences crave, it also yacks up more “‘hood movie” cliches than Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice N the Hood. Late in the film, one character exclaims, “Everything is going to work out!” And then, spoiler alert, it doesn’t.
Erica Jordan’s In Plain Sight is even more stridently earnest, and far more timid, to the point of doing a disservice to a cause (the fight to expose global slavery) that the film yearns to imbue with valor. Jordan is far too concerned with cozying up to and “protecting” her subject, photographer Lisa Kristine (whose pictures are the film’s only source of power), than with making a documentary of any validity or penetration.
Frank Whaley’s Like Sunday, Like Rain has a premise that echoes another MVFF37 entry, Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent. Both films are about precocious and bullied private school kids with a shambling screw-up for a nanny. But St. Vincent had the wonderfully acerbic Bill Murray for its babysitter, while Like Sunday, Like Rain thrusts Leighton Meester into its barely written lead role. Nothing rings true here, especially the movie-cynical, movie-smart, movie-wise music prodigy who becomes Meester’s charge. Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day pops up in a few scenes as Meester’s no-good boyfriend, and of his performance, I can only say: Adam Levine, I apologize.
The duo of Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s Stockholm makes for a far more compelling onscreen pair, if only because we never quite know who either of them really is. A boy comes on to a girl at a party, professing an instant love she doesn’t believe, and he projects an oozy charm even as he follows her home through the streets of Madrid. That setup should sound fairly familiar to Linklater fans, but the post-coital anguish and confusion of the film’s second half turn that moonlit romanticism on its head. Some of the big third act turns seem more suited to the stage than the screen, but the lead actors are both strong in demanding roles, and Sorogoyen imbues the final minutes with just enough Antonioni-style alienation to put it over.