Monday, November 26, 2012

2012 Mill Valley Film Festival

I bought tickets to seven screenings at the 2012 Mill Valley Film Festival but only saw six.  I was double booked on the evening of October 4.  I skipped the screening of Starlet and went to the Berkeley Rep's production of Chinglish which I greatly enjoyed.

I've noticed a pattern recently. It seems like I been reading books (Girlvert by Oriana Small), attending events (Femina Potens ASKEW at YBCA) and watching films (Danland at DocFest) where porn or porn performers are the focus.  The titular character in Starlet, the film I skipped at MVFF, is "Jane, a newbie to the San Fernando Valley porn industry who spends most of her plentiful free time shiftlessly getting high and partying. It’s not until she meets Sadie, a taciturn, lonely old woman who just wants to be left in peace, that Jane’s life takes a deeper, unexpected turn."  I also recently rediscovered my love of the film Body Double (a future post on this blog), a Brian De Palma work set in the world of porn.  Don't know what the implies about me.

MVFF ran from October 4 to 14.  The six films I saw were:

Yoyo starring & directed by Pierre Étaix; French with subtitles; (1965)
Thursday Till Sunday starring Santi Ahumada; directed by Dominga Sotomayor; Spanish with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
Holy Motors starring Denis Lavant; directed by Leos Carax; French with subtitles; (2012) - Official Website
The Slut starring & directed by Hagar Ben-Asher; Hebrew with subtitles; (2011)
Like Someone in Love starring Rin Takanashi & Tadashi Okuno; directed by Abbas Kiarostami; Japanese with subtitles; (2012)
Rent-a-Cat starring Mikako Ichikawa; directed by Naoko Ogigami; Japanese with subtitles; (2012)  - Official Website

I saw Yoyo, The Slut, Like Someone In Love and Rent-a-Cat at the Smith Rafael.  I saw Thursday Till Sunday at 142 Throckmorton Theater in Mill Valley & Holy Motors at Cinearts Sequoia.

I cannot recall the last time I was in San Rafael which did not involve a trip to the Smith Rafael Film Center.  While driving there, I always notice a line of people at Sol Food at Lincoln and 3rd Street.  Sol Food is a well reviewed, well regarded Puerto Rican restaurant.  I took a day off from work and made a day of it in San Rafael.  Over two meals, I had the Jamon, Queso y Huevo sandwich, the Cubano sandwich, the Maduros (fried sweet plantains), the Tostones con Mojo (fried green plantains) and a side order of pork ribs.  I would have gone back for a third meal but I had to drive back to SF to catch the 9:30 PM screening of Din Tao at Taiwan Film Days.  Perhaps my critical review of Din Tao was influenced by the knowledge that I had skipped a third meal at Sol Food for it.


Yoyo was one of a series of comedy films made by Pierre Étaix in the 1960s.  An assistant to Jacques Tati, Étaix borrowed from him as well as Chaplin, Keaton and other silent film comedians.  Long scenes with no dialogue punctuate Yoyo.  Yoyo lacks the poignancy and sadness of Tati, et al.  The result is that Yoyo is more clever than heartfelt.  A great comedy has to have a certain amount of sadness underlying it or it lacks the emotional heft to be meaningful

Although I was expecting more from Yoyo, I may see more works by Étaix.  The Smith Rafael is screening five of his films in December.  In addition to Yoyo, the series consists of Le Grand Amour, The Suitor, As Long As You're Healthy and Land of Milk and Honey.  "Clever" is better than nothing and I have to believe that someone with a reputation of Étaix had to earn it somehow.


Holy Motors starred Denis Levant (who was terrific in Claire Denis' Beau travail).  In Holy Motors, Levant plays Oscar, an actor who rides around in the back of white stretch limousine.  The passenger compartment is a mobile dressing room filled with costumes, props and make-up accessories.  All day and into the night, with Edith Scob as the chauffeur, the limo travels around Paris delivering Levant to various locations where he performs as a character in real-life situations.  He plays a white-haired businessman, a beggar woman, a dying old man,  a crazy homeless man, a man having simulated sex while wearing a black body suit studded with motion-capture balls, etc.  It ends with him playing a chimpanzee father returning home to his nuclear chimpanzee family.  Along the way, Eva Mendes & Kylie Minogue show up.

Holy Motors is a frustratingly surreal film.  I'm unsure what the message is.  In fact, I don't think there was one.  It was like some dadaist film experiment.  Leos Carax blurs the traditional narrative structure which film audiences have been conditioned to accept.  During the interludes between jobs, Levant & Scob share superficially trite conversations which I listened to carefully searching for clues to unlock the mystery.  Ultimately, I decided to abandon all hope and simply watched the film with a sense of acceptance wondering what character Oscar would next become.

There is a scene where Oscar dresses up like a crazy, homeless man and terrorizes people in a cemetery.  Eventually, he comes upon a fashion photo shoot (in the cemetery).  The photographer is intrigued by the strange and dishevelled man.  He sends his assistant to convince the man to be part of the shoot.  Oscar promptly bites her fingers off and slings the model (Mendes) over his shoulder.  He runs off to some subterranean crypt with her.  In a wordless scene, they share a mildly disturbing scene on a bench which ends Levant nude and fully erect I might add.  I can't blame the man as Mendes would likely have the same effect on me.

Carax and Levant teamed up to in Tokyo! (2008).  That film consisted of three unrelated short film, each directed by a different person.  Michael Gondry and Bong Joon-ho directed the other two segments.  Carax's segment was titled Merde and followed a dishevelled and crazy looking many who rises up from the sewers to wreak havocs on the citizens of Tokyo.  As IMDB confirms, it's the same character as in cemetery scene in Holy Motors.


I was ambivalent about Yoyo & Holy Motors, but the other four films were outstanding.

The provocatively named The Slut, was the brainchild of actor, director & screenwriter of Hagar Ben-Asher who played the eponymous character.  Tamar is a single mother of two daughters in a small rural community.  She sells fresh eggs for a living, but she believes in the barter system.  She trades sex for various services such a bicycle repair and physical labor.  She and the men in the town have come to an convenient understanding.  Far from being exploited, Tamar is able to satisfy her carnal needs in a mutually beneficial manner.  In a telling but understated scene, she punctures her bike tire on purpose so that she can engage in "bartering."

That's not to say her arrangement doesn't cause problems.  Her young daughters spy on her and seem to be developing unhealthy attitudes towards men and sexuality but overall they are fairly well adjusted.  It's not until Shai (Ishai Golan) returns to town that problems start.  A veterinarian and former resident of the town, Shai is back to treat an injured horse and clean out his late mother's house.  Acquainted with each other from their youths, Shai & Tamar quickly start a passionate relationship.

The relationship fulfills one of Tamar's desires which is a monogamous relationship to add stability to her daughters' lives.  As the females move into Shai's house to form a nuclear family, Tamar begins to feel ill at ease.  She senses the frustration in several men due to her monogamy but more troubling is the difficulties she is having adapting to it herself.  Eventually, she "barters" with the bicycle repair man and Shai discovers them.

Hurt by the betrayal, Shai engages in an act so shocking that I was left stunned during the screening.  Warning:  I will describe the act in this paragraph.  Tamar's elder daughter begins showing signs of puppy love towards Shai who is uncomfortable with it.  There is a scene where the two girls and Shai are watching TV on a couch.  The elder daughter lays her head on Shai's lap and falls asleep.  Conspicuously, Shai does not rest his hand/arm on her as would seem natural.  Aware of the elder daughter's feelings, Shai retaliates against Tamar by molesting the younger daughter which Tamar witnesses from outside their bedroom window.

This story plays out at a measured pace with little dialogue.  There is considerable latitude in assigning motivations to Tamar & Shai's action (in particular his choice for victim).  Even the ending ambiguous although I wonder how the two can stay together much less in that small town.  Provocative, shocking and ambiguous, The Slut is unlike anything I can recall seeing before.


Thursday Till Sunday was a comtemplative film about a couple's breakup from the viewpoint of their 10 year old daughter.  Set in Chile, Manuel and Ana set out on a road trip with Lucia (Santi Ahumada) and her younger brother.  Although they are civil towards each other, it is clear that there is tension between Manuel & Ana.  The younger brother is too young to understand what is going on but Lucia (and by extension the audience) can clearly pick up on the largely silent dissension between mother & father.    Both have ulterior motives.  What starts as a possible final reconciliation attempt becomes something else.  Manuel wants to visit his family's plot of land and show his son. Lucia wants to meet with the man by whom she is cuckolding Manuel.

Much of the film is set in the station wagon interior and we see the parents converse from Lucia's backseat point of view.  The confined settings leads to an intimacy with the characters.  There are no fireworks (even when Lucia realizes her mother is having an affair) but the accretive observations point a sad and damning portrait of the parents.  Not only does Lucia come realize her parents are likely getting divorced but she also realizes that they are flawed people and not the idealized parents she may have once imagined.

Paola Giannini as Ana is particularly effective.


On the day I did had my Sol Food Double Visit, I saw a pair of Japanese films.

Like Someone in Love is Japanese language with a Japanese cast and set in Japan but was directed by noted Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami.  I'm not sure if he is in exile from his native country but his last two films have been made in Europe and now Japan.  I wonder if Kiarostami speaks Japanese and if he doesn't how did he direct the actors.

Like Thursday Till Sunday & The Slut, still waters run deep in Like Someone in Love.  The film starts in a très chic jazz bar/lounge with Akiko (Rin Takanashi) on the phone with her boyfriend.  It's clear she is lying about her whereabouts.  After she gets off the phone, an older man sits at Akiko's table and tells her that he has arranged an appointment for her.  It is established early on that Akiko is a prostitute earning money to pay her way through college, a cliché but the film has many surprises later.

The client Akiko meets is an elderly and widowed retired professor whose apartment is filled with books.  Akiko is exhausted by her day since it turns out her grandmother has been leaving voice messages on her phone all day.  The ominous part is that grandma is calling her work phone; i.e. the phone number she gives out to clients.  In a skillful piece of filmmaking, we hear Akiko retrieve the half dozen or so messages her grandmother has left.  We learn that she makes an unexpected trip to Tokyo to speak with Akiko, got number from the family of one of Akiko's childhood friend (and fellow prostitute) and finally sees a model on a flyer advertising escort services which looks suspiciously like Akiko.  Akiko decides to leave granny at the train station without contacting her.  As the taxi takes Akiko to the professor's house, we see forlorn looking old woman desperately scanning faces in a vain attempt to find her granddaughter.  Just listening to that woman's wavering voice is enough to make my eyes moist.

Once Akiko gets to Takashi's (Tadashi Okuno) place, she adroitly sidesteps the romantic dinner prepared for her, strips off her clothes and jumps into his bed.  She correctly surmises he is a gentleman and will not object.  The next morning, Takashi offers to drive Akiko back to Toyko.  We learn that his area of expertise is the same subject Akiko is studing (anthropology?).  Akiko begins share details of her life.  Her boyfriend is unaware of her profession, has a temper and is jealous.  Akiko is unsure about him but is not ready to end the relationship.

After being dropped off at the university (it's unclear if it is the same university he taught at), Takashi witnesses Akiko and her boyfriend (Ryo Kase) have an argument.  While waiting in the car for Akiko, the boyfriend approaches Takashi; curious about his identity.  He assume Takashi is Akiko's grandfather and Takashi, does not correct the mistaken assumption of his identity.  The boyfriend tells him he wants to marry Akiko but Takashi gives grandfatherly wisdom to the younger man which is humorous and decidedly self-serving given his actual relationship with the girl.

When Akiko returns to the car, she is disturbed to see her boyfriend and client having a conversation but decides to play along.  The boyfriend runs a garage and hearing Takashi's timing belt is off, insists that he bring the car in for immediate repair.  While at the garage, Takashi runs into a former student who is now a police detective.  This will eventually unravel the charade Takashi & Akiko have allowed to stand.  Eventually, the boyfriend discovers from the detective that Takashi is not Akiko's grandfather and what Akiko's profession is.  Taking refuge in Takashi's apartment, Takashi and Akiko listen to the boyfriend rage outside.

Like Someone in Love is full of hidden identities and mistaken identities.  Takashi has a nosy neighbor  who watches his comings and goings like sentry.  She assumed Akiko is Takashi's granddaughter and shares hilariously personal details.  It turns out she is/was in love with Takashi from their youth (apparently Takashi has lived there since a young professor).  When he got married, she accepted the situation although it's obvious she didn't put aside her feelings.  Little scenes like that abound in the film.

A simple story of a lonely old man paying for companionship with a pretty young woman spirals out to the two of having a little adventure together and allowing societal assumptions about them to stand uncorrected.  That people can be hurt by their actions is dealt with in humorous manner until the final climactic scene.  Like Someone in Love is a very satisfying film with a "less is more" style.  There was no "moral" to the film.  It just the story flow and like life, it was full of humor, heartbreak and moments of terror.


After seeing three Kiarostami-esque films, I ended MVFF on a different note.  Rent-a-cat is a comedy about Sayoko, a young woman who lives by herself...if you don't count the two dozen cats in the house. Sayoko's "job" is a rent-a-cat agency.  With a pullcart, she chants her come-on pitch, "Rent-a-neko, neko-neko."  Neko means cat in Japanese.  She finds more clients than one would think.  There is the old woman who doesn't want to get a new cat because she is afraid she'll die and the cat will be abandoned, the salaryman who is separated from his family and doesn't want a permanent cat because he could be reassigned to his hometown and his family doesn't like cats and an unfulfilled rental car clerk who I can't recall why she doesn't want to get a cat.

The film takes formulaically over three vignettes with a prologue.  Each segment starts with her using a bullhorn for her sing-song "Rent-a-neko" chant.  She is taunted by some schoolboys who make fun of the catlady but eventually finds a client.  After inspecting the client's home to ensure suitability, she offers the cat for a nominal fee which each client is shocked at.  She makes up a reason why she doesn't need to make money from her cat rental business (which is depicted on screen in a fantasy sequence).  She leaves the cat with the person and the cat affects a change for the better in the lives of the clients or the client's family.  There is strange neighbor woman (played by a male actor) who infuriates her and she prays at her grandmother's shrine while reciting al the things her grandmother taught her.

The plot is not important because this a delightful comedy with some serious issues such the emotional isolation of people in a society.  These issues are explored gently and the film never loses its fanciful whimsy or congeniality.  Mikako Ichikawa delivers a winning performance showing exceptional comedic skills and she captures some of the sadness which I thought Yoyo was lacking.  I doubt anyone will equate Rent-a-cat with Chaplin or Tati but it was a well-made little film which exceeded its seemingly modest expectations or at least, my modest expectations of it.

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