Mill Valley Film Festival Spotlights

by Carrie Kahn on October 1, 2013

Film fans can relish eclectic offerings at 36th MVFF

There's something for everyone at the MVFF opening Thursday.

There’s something for everyone at the MVFF, which opens on Thursday.

The 36th Mill Valley Film Festival opens this Thursday, October 3, and runs until Sunday, October 13. The Festival is featuring early views of some hotly anticipated fall films, including August: Osage County, Nebraska (opening night film), Dallas Buyers Club, 12 Years a Slave, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, among others. Here at Spinning Platters, though, we thought we’d spotlight some of the lower profile films that may not be getting as much attention. Full schedule, tickets, and more information available at:

Beside Still Waters
(USA 2013, 76 min)

The cast of Beside Still Waters is big chillin'.

Big chillin’: The cast of Beside Still Waters.

Actor turned writer/director Chris Lowell’s debut film is being called The Big Chill for the millennial generation. It’s easy to shrug off publicity descriptions, but here the comparison is not just apt, but so dead on that the film borders on being an outright rip off of the 1983 classic. As in that film, exactly seven friends and exactly one outsider gather after a death (here the deceased is not a classmate, but the parents of the hosting friend), the only difference being that these friends didn’t meet in college, but grew up together. From the TV star in a cheesy show (Tom Berenger in TBC/Brett Dalton here), to the slightly annoying friend hoping to hook up (Jeff Goldblum/Jessy Hodges), to the stranger bringing an outsider’s perspective (Meg Tilly/Reid Scott), the movie often steals entire scenes and dialogue from the earlier film. Lowell may have been trying for an homage or an update, but, unfortunately, he ends up with a pale substitute that feels derivative at best, and pretentious at worst. The film alludes to the friends’ histories, lingering jealousies, and alliances, but with its short running time, it can only explore these issues superficially, leaving us with just a vague sense of seven self-absorbed young people. An emotionally honest conversation at the picture’s end between Daniel (Ryan Eggold, as the bereaved son), and Henry (Reid Scott), the outsider, redeems the film slightly. The cinematography is also well done, especially the artful use of black and white flashbacks.

– Saturday, October 12, 6:30pm, Cinéarts Sequoia Theater, Mill Valley
– Sunday, October 13, 2:15pm, Rafael Film Center, San Rafael

The Pretty One
(USA 2013, 94 min)

Zoe Kazan is Laurel and Zoe Kazan plays Audrey in The Pretty One.

Zoe Kazan is Audrey and Zoe Kazan plays Laurel in The Pretty One.

In her first feature-length film, writer/director Jenée LaMarque has crafted a truly unique picture that successfully blends elements of black comedy, psychological drama, and compelling character study to absolutely riveting effect. Some reviews and synopses have gone into detail about the film’s plot, but I would advise against reading those if possible, and, instead, to go somewhat blind into the film to best appreciate the unfolding of its distinctive story. It’s enough to know that Zoe Kazan plays a dual role – Audrey and Laurel, twins in their early twenties, who, while genetically identical, couldn’t be more different in terms of personality and life choices. Laurel is somewhat sheltered, living in her small town home with her eccentric artist father, and still mourning her mother’s death. Audrey, on the other hand, is more sophisticated, having moved to the big city, where she owns a duplex and has a job as a real estate agent, as well as a complicated romantic life. With terrific supporting performances from Jake Johnson as Audrey’s tenant, Ron Livingston as Audrey’s boyfriend (both actors coincidentally co-starred in this summer’s likeable Drinking Buddies), and John Carroll Lynch as the twins’ father, The Pretty One explores issues of family obligations, life choices, and identity in a moving way that never feels heavy-handed, but always nuanced, truthful, and charming. If this remarkable film is an accurate representation of Jenée LaMarque’s talent, then she is indeed a filmmaker to follow.

– Friday, October 11, 6:15pm, Cinéarts Sequoia Theater, Mill Valley
– Sunday, October 13, 5:15pm, Rafael Film Center, San Rafael

Spooks and Spirits
Iceland 2013, 92 min; Icelandic with English subtitles)

Where are Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd when you need them?

Where are Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd when you need them?

Most Americans know little of Iceland besides Bjork, volcanoes, and its recent financial crisis, but this film will allow you insight into normal Reykjavik life… if normal includes ghosts. American movies about the dead returning to the land of living typically include extended scenes of characters having to be convinced of the phenomenon, but the interesting thing about Icelandic director/writer Agust Gudmundsson’s picture is that the characters barely bat an eye when recently deceased Olfeig makes an appearance. Father to adult children Anna and Mani, Olfeig comes back to haunt the family home, which Anna, Mani, and Anna’s boyfriend Ingi are considering selling, much to Olfeig’s dismay. Icelanders are known to have a strong affinity for stories about magic, elves, fairies, and ghosts, so I suppose they just roll with a film like this one. And if you can put skepticism aside and do the same, you will be richly rewarded with a charming, quirky film that combines elements of Ghost, Beetlejuice, Ghostbusters, and even The Exorcist. The story is by turns silly (in a fun way), funny, and sweet, and, as an added bonus, the scenes of Reykjavik and its surrounding country side will give you a glimpse into a country that few ever see on film – or in real life, for that matter.

– Thursday, October 10, 5:15pm, Cinéarts Sequoia Theater, Mill Valley
– Friday, October 11, 9:15pm, Rafael Film Center, San Rafael

Toxic Hot Seat
USA 2013, 90 min)

Sweet dreams - or maybe not?

Sweet dreams – or maybe not?

There’s a chance you may be sitting on a sofa as you read this; if so, you may be unaware that, thanks to a 1975 California regulation called TB-117, you are relaxing on a piece of furniture filled with flame retarding chemicals. Filmmakers Kirby Walker and James Redford explore whether or not these chemicals actually do more harm than good in their new documentary. Often “issue” documentaries like this one can be polemical or – dare I say it – inflammatory – but here, Walker and Redford attempt a somewhat balanced discussion of the topic. They speak with a number of scientists (including the TB-117 author), lobbyists, firefighters, and politicians who all have compelling and varied thoughts on both the risk and benefits of flame retardants. Much screen time is also given to Chicago Tribune reporters who won a Pulitzer for an investigative piece on how and why flame retardants were first used, and why their use continues. The filmmakers similarly present a levelheaded exploration of the history of flame retardants as they try to understand if their continued use is justified. The film has a local angle, too; UC Berkeley chemist Arlene Blum, who in the 1970s authored a study that led to a ban on flame retardants in children’s pajamas, is interviewed, as are a number of San Francisco firefighters. Thought provoking and timely, this film is sure to stir lively discussion.

– Saturday, October 5, 5:00pm, Cinéarts Sequoia Theater, Mill Valley
– Saturday, October 12, 2:00pm, Rafael Film Center, San Rafael
(If you can’t make these screenings, the film will also premiere on HBO on November 25)

The Sea
Ireland 2013, 89 min)

Ciarán Hinds spends a lot of time gazing out at - you guessed it - the sea.

Ciarán Hinds spends a lot of time gazing out at – you guessed it – the sea.

Irish writer John Banville won the Booker Prize in 2005 for his novel The Sea, and he also wrote the screenplay for director Stephen Brown’s adaptation of the book. The resulting film is slow-paced and meditative, and definitely feels more like a story better suited to the page than the screen. The film concerns Max Morden (Ciarán Hinds), an elderly man, who, grieving his wife’s recent death, returns to the Irish seaside town where he vacationed as a boy. He spends a lot of time getting drunk and staring mournfully out at the sea (go figure), remembering his boyhood experiences with the well-heeled Grace family. In these sepia-toned flashbacks, we are introduced to a beautiful, vibrant young wife, a charismatic husband with a wandering eye, a sullen, humorless nanny, and her charges: a pair of creepy and unlikeable boy/girl twins who seem like they’ve stepped out of a low-budget horror movie to appear in this moody, somber, and ultimately dull drama. Strong performances from Hinds and Charlotte Rampling as the landlady who owns the rooming house in which Max nurses his melancholic reveries at least give the picture a bit of redeeming value, as does the picturesque Irish seascape. An ending that has a bit of a twist, albeit one that careful viewers will no doubt see coming, also adds a bit of pizazz to the otherwise dreary proceedings.

– Monday, October 7, 5:30pm, Rafael Film Center, San Rafael
– Tuesday, October 8, 9:00pm, Cinéarts Sequoia Theater, Mill Valley

The Human Experiment
USA 2013, 92 min)

Michael Potter of Eden Organics just says no to BPA in his company's canned foods.

Michael Potter of Eden Organics just says no to BPA in his company’s canned foods.

Similar to Toxic Hot Seat, Don Hardy and Dana Nachman’s documentary – produced and narrated by Sean Penn – explores the effects of ubiquitous chemicals in our environment. Unlike Toxic Hot Seat, however, which focuses only on flame retardants, this film takes on the entire American chemical industry, with a definite agenda. Toxic Hot Seat at least gives flame retardant proponents a chance to express their opinion to initiate a rational discourse, but here we are bombarded with the viewpoint that all chemicals are evil, and that the chemical industry exists solely to turn a profit and disregard consumer safety. The film makes some compelling points: as in the criminal justice system, chemicals in the U.S. are innocent until proven guilty, and, unlike in Europe, here safe chemical legislation has routinely been thwarted by chemical industry lobbyists. But the film flashes alarming statistics with no indication of their source, and presents a series of anecdotal human interest stories (breast cancer patients who previously were pillars of health; a young couple with fertility issues) as concrete evidence of toxic chemical exposure, with virtually no definitive proof of any exposure/disease connection. The film’s most engaging interview is with Michael Potter, President of Eden Organics, a canned food company that switched to BPA-free can linings. A hero to both the green movement and big business, Potter is a decent, thoughtful businessman who alleviated risk, yet made a profit. He brings credibility to a film that, unfortunately, too often just feels like a diatribe.

– Sunday, October 6, 8:30pm, Rafael Film Center, San Rafael
– Thursday, October 10, 3:30pm, Cinéarts Theater, Mill Valley















Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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