Monday, December 8, 2014

2014 Mill Valley Film Festival

The 2014 Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) was held form October 2 to 14.  I saw five films.

The Little House starring Haru Kuroki, Takako Matsu & Hidetaka Yoshioka; directed by Yôji Yamada; Japanese with subtitles; (2014)
I Can Quit Whenever I Want starring Edoardo Leo & Valeria Solarino; directed by Sydney Sibilia; Italian with subtitles; (2014)
'71 starring Jack O'Connell; directed by Yann Demange; (2014)
Two Days, One Night starring Marion Cotillard; directed by Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne; French with subtitles; (2014) - Official Facebook
In Order of Disappearance starring Stellan Skarsgård & Bruno Ganz; directed by Hans Petter Moland; Norwegian, Swedish & Serbian with subtitles; (2014)

I saw The Little House at the Smith Rafael in San Rafael.  I saw I Can Quit Whenever I Want, Two Days, One Night & In Order of Disappearance at the Sequoia in Mill Valley.  I saw '71 at the Lark in Larkspur.  It was the first time I've been to the Lark in a few years.

It was unusually hot on the days I went to the festival.  I remember after seeing '71 at the Lark, I returned to my car which was parked on the street during the late afternoon.  The steering wheel was too hot to handle.  I had to drive with one hand.  As it would become too uncomfortable to handle the wheel with one hand, I would switch to the other hand.  I repeated that for quite a while until I decided to pull over and park in the shade.  It reminded me of Texas.  You don't see it so much out here but in Texas, everyone has car shades which are made of folded cardboard or rolled foam.  If you parked your car in the sun, you would put your car shade on the dashboard.  If you didn't, your dashboard would eventually crack from the expansion and contraction of the dash due to exposure to the hot sun.  In addition, the metal on the seatbelt buckles could cause a slight burn if it touched your skin.  The steering wheel would also be intolerably hot.

Before I forget, I stopped in for coffee at a small cafe in Mill Valley. It's called Beth's Community Kitchen.  The sign on the doors says something like Beth's Community Kitchen and Bakery Atelier.  I had to look that word up.  Atelier - an artist's or designer's studio or workroom.

On the day I stopped in, there was a film crew making a documentary there about Beth.  The director/cameraman had an old school 16 mm camera with a spring wound motor.  Maybe we'll see a documentary about Beth at a local film festival.  Maybe I'll be in the background.


If I recall correctly, it was announced before the screening of The Little House that it was the only "film" being screened with a 35 mm print; everything else at the 2014 MVFF was digital.  For reasons not explained, this meant that there were one or two breaks in the action while they changed reels.  I'm not sure why that would be.  If it was changeover projection, there should be no breaks.  If it was a platter, the film was short enough that it should have been able to fit on one platter.

The Little House was directed by Yôji Yamada whose career had been defined by his Otoko wa Tsurai yo (It's Tough Being a Man)  or Tora-san series.  The series spanned 48 feature films and 26 years.  Yamada directed 46 of the films.  Actor Kiyoshi Atsumi starred in all 48 films.

More recently, Yamada's Twilight Samurai series has garnered attention.  My favorite Yamada film is The Yellow Handkerchief (1977).

The Little House is like many of Yamada's films - sentimental; sometimes overly so.  Told in flashback, a young man reads his late grandmother's memoirs.  What he discovers is that his grannie was in the middle of a love triangle (maybe 2) during the middle of WWII.

Haru Kuroki plays Taki, a young woman who comes to Tokyo to work as a maid.  After a brief stint in the household of an older couple, she is placed with their niece Tokiko (Takako Matsu) who is married and has a son.  Taki forms a close & loyal relationship to the family, in particular Tokiko.  The titular house reflects Tokiko's Western influence.  It's a Western style house more at home in a Norman Rockwell painting than 1940s Tokyo.  Early into the film, Tokiko is introduced to Shoji (Hidetaka Yoshioka), one of her husband's co-workers.

The main plotline of the film is the affair which Tokiko has with Shoji and Taki's complicity in enabling the affair.  Adultery & its consequences is a rich vein to tap but Yamada has placed the film in Taki's point of view which seems a stretch.  In other words, the maid had quite an influence in that household which I guess is the point of the film.

I won't give away the ending but will say that the consequences of losing WWII intervene before the consequences of Tokiko's infidelity become apparent. There is a postscript where Taki's grandson seeks out Tokiko's son in modern day Japan which seemed unnecessary and slightly cruel to me.

I will also note that there is slight but distinct theme of homosexuality in the film.  Taki, after initially being flustered, seems to be in love with Tokiko; at time she seems to be competing with Shoji for her attention.  Tokiko seems to enjoy the attention from both Taki & Shoji.  Shoji is vaguely effeminate and I began to wonder about the true reasons for his repeated refusals to marry.

The Little House is a middling film.  It's too sentimental for my taste but Yamada has a flare for these family melodramas.  Playing it out against the backdrop of WWII was also a bold choice.  No matter what happens with the characters, you know that the war is coming and then the defeat is coming.  It puts their concerns of love & honor in different perspective.


I Can Quit Whenever I Want went on to screen at the San Francisco Film Society's New Italian Cinema series a month after it screened at MVFF.  ICQWIW is about over-educated, under-employed Italians who have no avenues to make a living.  They resort to manufacturing and selling designer party drugs.  It's like Breaking Bad but played as a farce.  It's intricately plotted and the comedy is one of "fish out of water."  It was amusing while I watched it but not particularly memorable.

'71 was set in Northern Ireland during "The Troubles" in (you guessed it) 1971 which was the peak period of the strife.  Jack O'Connell is Gary Hook, a young British soldier in Belfast who is separated from his unit during a mission.  He is forced to make his way from the Catholic area to the Protestant area.  Along the way, he experiences hostility and kindness from expected & unexpected quarters.  The film did a good job in portraying the fear of retribution which normal citizens must have experienced as well as the betrayals and violence fomented by double agents who infiltrated both sides.  Two months after seeing the film, I can't quite recall the plot but instead remember specific scenes for their intensity.  The double crosses complicated the simple tale of rescuing Gary Hook.  The ending in particular made it appear as though the British wanted Hook to be murdered in order to create a martyr and justify their heavy-handed measures.

The Scandinavians make good action/revenge films and I've seen more than one at MVFF.  I saw Hellsinki in 2009, A Somewhat Gentle Man in 2010 and In Order of Disappearance this year.  Not quite as memorable as the previous two film, IOoD features Stellan Skarsgård as a snow-plough driver who takes revenge on a drug cartel for killing his son.  The premise is ridiculous and the violence is ridiculously over-the-top (the title refers to each person Skarsgård dispatches to the afterlife).  It reminded me of Point Blank where the killer seeks revenge by working his way up the criminal organization. Skarsgård is solid in every role he plays and this one is not different.  It's not quite as memorable as Hellsinki but IOoD continues a tradition of dark comedies masquerading as action films.


Two Days, One Night went on to screen at the SFFS' French Cinema Now a few weeks after the MVFF screening.  It was my favorite film of the five I saw at this year's MVFF.

The premise of the film is inspired.  Marion Cotillard is Sandra, a wife & mother who has been on disability leave at her job (I believe the company assembled solar panels).  It's not stated in the film but Sandra's leave was likely for stress or mental health reasons.  She is the high-strung type.

Anyway, when she is ready to return to work, she is informed that they got along fine without her and her job has been eliminated.  I can't recall how many workers were at her company; 16 is the number in my head.  Management found out there was too much work for 16 but not enough for 17; better to pay overtime sometimes than a 17th salary all the time.  Sandra complains and they offer a no-win solution.  They'll put Sandra's job to a vote among her peers.  They can vote to reinstate her to her job or they can vote for an annual bonus; it's one or the other.  She needs a majority, a tie will result in not being hired back and everyone getting their bonus.  They tell Sandra about this late in the afternoon on Friday.  She has to spend the weekend (the titular two days, one night) tracking down her former co-workers and asking them to vote for her to get her job back.

Naturally disinclined to beg her co-workers to hire her back, she is pushed by her husband and best friend.  However, it is the people that she encounters that make the film memorable and thought provoking.  Some are immediately for or against her.  Other people are sympathetic but need the money.  Some resent being put in a position to make the decision.  She encounters the full gamut of responses.

I won't reveal the ending but it shows that Sandra has learned to deal with stress much better than at the end of the film.

The reason I liked the film was because it made me think about my own workplace.  If I was approached with such a request, how would I vote?  The answer is "It depends on who is asking."  I think some people are qualified to their job so if asked to hire them back and forgo a bonus, I'd decline.  Then I thought that that position sounded harsh.  I think even if I voted no and got the bonus, I would be resentful that management put me in that position.

I fully empathized with Sandra and several of her co-workers during the film which served to make the film more personal.  In addition, Sandra is counting votes so there is the suspense as to whether or not she'll get 9 votes.  Two Days, One Night is an outstanding film; one of my favorites of 2014.

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