The 36th Mill Valley Film Festival opened last night and runs through Oct. 13, filling the North Bay's travel-worthy venues (the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center is the main one) with must-see films. Check out our recs here, and read on for short takes on Hollywood's offerings, including the season's must-see sci-fi film.
Blind Detective Johnnie To's latest makes its local debut as part of the San Francisco Film Society's "Hong Kong Cinema" series, hot on the heels of his Drug War, which had a theatrical run earlier this year. Blind Detective shares Drug War's crime theme and moody palette, but it also has — whimsy alert! — an accordion-inflected score. The cute quotient is further upped by Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng, who've been frequently paired in To's lighter fare (perhaps most memorably in 2001's Love on a Diet, which attired its attractive stars in fat suits). Lau plays a former cop who left the force after losing his vision, yet continues to solve crimes (in pursuit of reward money) using, among other unorthodox methods, his superior sense of smell. Cheng plays a scrappy policewoman who admires his investigative skills and asks him to track down a long-lost childhood friend. He agrees, but not before slyly tricking her into helping him pursue lucrative paydays on unrelated cases. Lau's wannabe-Sherlock antics and Cheng's lovelorn flailings wear thin after two-plus hours, but Blind Detective still manages to entertain despite its odd blend of broad comedy and serial-killer thrills. (2:10) Vogue. (Cheryl Eddy)
Gravity "Life in space is impossible," begins Gravity, the latest from Alfonso Cuarón (2006's Children of Men). Egghead Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is well aware of her precarious situation after a mangled satellite slams into her ship, then proceeds to demolition-derby everything (including the International Space Station) in its path. It's not long before she's utterly, terrifyingly alone, and forced to unearth near-superhuman reserves of physical and mental strength to survive. Bullock's performance would be enough to recommend Gravity, but there's more to praise, like the film's tense pacing, spare-yet-layered script (Cuarón co-wrote with his son, Jonás), and spectacular 3D photography — not to mention George Clooney's warm supporting turn as a career astronaut who loves country music almost as much as he loves telling stories about his misadventures. (1:31) (Cheryl Eddy)
The Institute In 2008, mysterious flyers began popping up around San Francisco that touted esoteric inventions such as “Poliwater” and the “Vital-Orbit Human Force Field” and included a phone number for the curiously-monikered Jejuene Institute. On the other side of the phone line, a recording would direct callers to a Financial District office building where they would undergo a mysterious induction process, embarking on an epic, multi-stage, years-long alternate reality game, designed primarily to reveal the magic in the mundane. In Spencer McCall’s documentary The Institute, viewers are introduced to the game in much the same way as prospective inductees, with few clues as to what lies in store ahead. A handful of seemingly random interviewees offer a play-by-play recap of their own experiences exploring rival game entities the Jejune Institute and Elsewhere Public Works Agency — while video footage of them dancing in the streets, warding off ninjas, befriending Sasquatches, spelunking sewers, and haunting iconic Bay Area edifices gives the viewer a taste of the wonders that lay in store for the intrepid few (out of 10,000 inductees) who made it all the way to the end of the storyline. Frustratingly, however, at least for this former inductee, McCall’s documentary focuses on fleshing out the fictions of the game, barely scratching the surface of what must surely be an even more intriguing set of facts. How did a group of scrappy East Bay artists manage to commandeer an office in the Financial District for so long in the first place? Who were the artists behind the art? And where am I supposed to cash in these wooden “hobo coins” now? (1:32) New Parkway, Roxie. (Nicole Gluckstern)
Parkland Timed to tie in with the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, writer-director Peter Landesman's sprawling ensemble drama takes that tragedy as its starting point and spirals outward, highlighting ordinary folks who were caught up in the drama's aftermath by virtue of their jobs or circumstance. There's a lot going on here, with a huge cast of mostly-recognizable faces (Billy Bob Thornton as Secret Service Agent Forest Sorrells; Paul Giamatti as amateur filmmaker Abraham Zapruder; Ron Livingston as an FBI agent; hey, there's Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden in two scenes as a stern nurse!), but the events depicted are so familiar that the plot never becomes confusing. Landesman — who favors scenes of breakneck-paced action punctuated by solemn moments of emotion — might've done better to narrow his focus a bit, perhaps keeping just to the law-enforcement characters or to Lee Harvey Oswald's family (James Badge Dale plays his shell-shocked brother, while Jackie Weaver hams it up as his eccentric mother). But paired with 2006's Bobby, Parkland — named for the hospital where both JFK and Oswald died — named for the hospital where both JFK and Oswald died — could make for an interesting, speculative-history double-feature for Camelot buffs. That said, Oliver Stone fans take note: Parkland is strictly Team Lone Gunman. (1:33) (Cheryl Eddy)
Runner Runner Launching his tale with a ripped-from-the-headlines montage of news reports and concerned-anchor sound bites, director Brad Furman (2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer) attempts to argue his online-gambling action thriller’s topicality, but not even Anderson Cooper can make a persuasive case for Runner Runner’s cultural relevance. Justin Timberlake plays Richie Furst, a post-2008 Wall Street casualty turned Princeton master’s candidate, who is putting himself through his finance program via the morally threadbare freelance gig of introducing his fellow students to Internet gambling. Perhaps in the service of supplying our unsympathetic protagonist with a psychological root, we are given a knocked-together scene reuniting Richie with his estranged gambling addict dad (John Heard). By the time we’ve digested this, plus the image of Justin Timberlake in the guise of a grad student with a TAship, Richie has blown through all his savings and, in a bewildering turn of events, made his way into the orbit of Ben Affleck’s Ivan Block, a shady online-gambling mogul taking shelter from an FBI investigation in Costa Rica, along with his lovely adjutant, Rebecca (Gemma Arterton). Richie’s rise through the ranks of Ivan’s dodgy empire is somewhat mysterious, partly a function of the plot and partly a function of the plot being piecemeal and incoherent. The dialogue and the deliveries are also unconvincing, possibly because we’re dealing with a pack of con artists and possibly because the players were dumbfounded by the script, which is clotted with lines we've heard before, from other brash FBI agents, other sketchily drawn temptresses, other derelict, regretful fathers, and other unscrupulous kingpins. (1:31) (Lynn Rapoport)
We Are What We Are The title of Jim Mickle's latest film sums up the attitude of the Parker family: We Are What We Are. We eat people. Our human-flesh cravings go back generations. Over the years, our dietary habits have become our religion. And that's just the way it is — until teen sisters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) start to have some doubts. As We Are (a remake of Mexican director Jorge Michel Grau's 2010 film) begins, the girls' mother has suddenly died amid a punishing rainstorm — and their grief-stricken Dad (Bill Sage) has become awfully twitchy. As the local police, a suspicious doctor (Michael Parks), and a curious neighbor (Kelly McGillis) begin to poke into their business, the Parkers prep for "Lambs Day," a feast that most definitely involves whoever is chained up in the basement. Though not all of the dots connect in the Parkers' elaborate backstory (how do Mom and Dad have an obscure variation on mad-cow disease if they're only eating man-meat once a year?), We Are still offers a refreshing change from indie horror's most recent common denominators — no found-footage tricks here. The last-act dinner scene is required viewing for any self-respecting cannibal-flick connoisseur. Check out my interview with director Mickle here. (1:45) (Cheryl Eddy)
When Comedy Went to School This scattershot documentary by Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya is about two big subjects — the Catskill Mountains resorts that launched a couple generations of beloved Jewish entertainers, and mid-to-late 20th century Jewish comedians in general. There's a lot of overlap between them, but the directors (and writer Lawrence Richards) can't seem to find any organizing focus, so their film wanders all over the place, from the roles of resort social directors and busboys to clips from History of the World Part I (1981) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971) to the entirely irrelevant likes of Larry King. That said, there's entertaining vintage performance footage (of Totie Fields, Woody Allen, etc.) and interview input from the still-kicking likes of Sid Ceasar, Jackie Mason, Mort Sahl, Jerry Stiller, and Jerry Lewis. For some this will be a welcome if not particularly well crafted nostalgic wallow. For others, though, the pandering tone set by one Lisa Dawn Miller's (wife of Sandy Hackett, who's son of Buddy) cringe-worthy opening rendition of "Make 'Em Laugh" — to say nothing of her "Send in the Clowns" at the close — will sum up the pedestrian mindset that makes this doc a missed opportunity. (1:23) (Dennis Harvey)