Mill Valley Film Fest: San Francisco Film Society Losses, Whoopi Goldberg's 'Moms Mabley,' 'Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,' and Foreign-Language Oscar Entries

by Meredith Brody
October 11, 2013 1:05 PM
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"Walesa: Man of Hope"

It now seems ironic that the first person I chatted with at the delightful opening night cocktail party of the Mill Valley Film Festival, just a week ago, was Ted Hope. The October 9 announcement that he was leaving his post as Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society, parent organization of the San Francisco International Film Festival raced through the Mill Valley Filmmaker's Lounge like wildfire. Blithely unaware of this impending news, I said, cheerfully, that I'd be seeing a lot of him this fall, given the upcoming lineup of the Film Society's mini-festivals devoted to films from Zurich, Taiwan, France, and Italy. I expected him to introduce each event with his trademark phrase "Hope is here."

He told me that he was wearing his natty dotted navy-blue bowtie in honor of James Schamus, Hope's erstwhile partner at Good Machine in the '90s, and himself recently deposed as head of Focus Features. 

The SFFS has had a rocky recent history with its leadership: the beloved long-time director, Graham Leggat, who had reinvigorated the Festival, died at 51 in 2011, and his successor, noted indie produce Bingham Ray, served for only ten weeks before unexpectedly dying of a stroke at 57 in 2012. A friend said told me that the SFFS "fell in love twice, and they're not ready to do it again."  Hope was seen as, well, a great hope: an extremely successful independent producer with stellar contacts and standing in the international film community. Clearly he found out that fund-raising was the crucial aspect of his new position.

In contrast, Mill Valley, smaller and more haimishe, seems fortunate in its continuity: its director, Mark Fishkin, founded the Festival in 1978. Mill Valley is also in some ways better positioned in the yearly film festival roundelay, coming five or six months after the Cannes juggernaut that begins the year, rather than just before it, as San Francisco does, when the press is already full of stories of the new movies debuting in the South of France. So Mill Valley can show such Cannes winners as "Blue is the Warmest Color," the Venice debutant "Philomena," and this year also benefits from the high profile of films also playing in the New York Film Festival, such as "12 Years a Slave," and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

"Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin' to Tell You"

Anyway, I've had an extremely pleasant and easy week, seeing far fewer movies than at Toronto, say -- two or three movies a day is the norm -- but happy with the lineup.  I was taken with the German television miniseries set during WW II, "Generation War," seen in a marathon viewing of 4 1/2 hours, but scheduled to be released in January as two separate movies; the surprising and elegant "Sarah Prefers to Run," a debut film from a young French canadian, Chloe Robichaud; and a strong series of biographical documentaries, "Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley," which will play on HBO starting November 18; the joyous "This Ain't No Mouse Music: The Story of Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records," a loving look at local (and international) hero Strachwitz, who has preserved New Orleans, Cajun, Mexican, and other kinds of indigenous music, filmed by longtime Les Blank collaborators Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling; and "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me," by Chiemi Karasawa, about the irascible, indomitable Broadway belter in her 87th year, looking back over her storied career.

Mysteriously gone missing from the line-up -- it was announced yesterday -- is the hotly anticipated (at least by me!) "Effie Gray," written by Emma Thompson and starring her as well as Dakota Fanning in the title role. It was pulled from the Festival due to amorphous legal issues -- presumably not the ones that were resolved in March, when the playwright of "The Countess," another work about Gray, who was briefly and scandalously married to the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, lost his suits against it.

But there's plenty left to see. Upcoming films include Iran's entry for the Foreign Language Oscar, "The Past," by Asghar Farhadi; the similarly Oscar-hopeful "Walesa, Man of Hope," by the venerable Andrzej Wajda; "Dallas Buyer's Club," with Oscar possibilities being suggested for both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto; "Le Week-end," starring Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan, from Roger "Notting Hill" Michell and Hanif Kureishi; "All is Lost," the Robert Redford one-hander; Rithy Pan's "The Missing Picture": and the closing night film, the aforementioned "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."  

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