42nd Mill Valley Film Festival covers all the age bases

Top-notch actors comprise the eight-person ensemble cast of “Blackbird.”

Mill Valley Film Festival organizers can rightly claim that this year’s 42nd variation offered good choices for all segments of the age spectrum.

“Blackbird,” a superb, sensitive, beautiful movie about assisted suicide, had the most impact on me, possibly because I’d just learned within the week before the screening that two ex-pat friends living in Vancouver had died on the same day, apparently by choice.

The two-hanky, hour-and-a-half tearjerker, exquisitely acted by an ensemble cast of eight, is an exceptionally moving drama despite being a bit formulaic, by far the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.

One reason I adored it was because it’s ultimately life-affirming, the flip side of “Ordinary People,” the Mary Tyler Moore wonder that focused on the deterioration of a family.

“Blackbird” is an intelligent, artsy film geared for thinking adults rather than those who get off on Avengers-type comic book superhero action blockbusters.

A remake of a 2014 Danish film, it’s about an affluent family Belvedere or Woodside residents could relate to — with just enough gallows humor and dashes of slapstick to make its difficult theme tolerable.

In a Q&A conversation after the screening at the CinéArts Sequoia in Mill Valley, director  Roger Mitchell, who’d previously helmed “Notting Hill” and “My Cousin Rachel,” noted that “euthanasia is a prism through which we unpeel this family.”

Susan Sarandon (Lily), who heads the family, is a control-freak facing loss of body control because of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Among the top-notch supporting cast is Kate Winslet, slightly frumpy and bitchy, recognizable as elder daughter Jennifer but unrecognizable as Kate Winslet, and Rainn Wilson in a role unlike the wide-eyed comic he usually plays.

Another festival winner geared for geezers like me — especially those who may worry more than a little about losing their memory — was “The Artist’s Wife.”

Bruce Dern is at his best ever portraying a painter who’s being robbed of his dignity by Alzheimer’s. But Lena Olin, as his ultra-supportive spouse, is better yet — loving, understanding, frustrated, angry, real.

After the screening at the Rafael Film Center, she and director/writer Tom Dolby (who became interested in the subject because his father was ravaged by dementia) engaged in a compassionate, insightful conversation, followed by a Q&A with the audience.

They enthralled me — and my wife, who for years watched her mother going round and round through the revolving mental door of the disease, left the theater mumbling:

“That was an amazing film, an amazing film.”

Turning to the young side of the age spectrum at the festival, I, an 82-year-old, and my 12-year-old granddaughter, caught two family presentations at the Century Larkspur Landing complex — “As the World Toons,” an anthology of cartoons about critters and their place in the world, and “Fresh & Fearless,” a visual compendium of shorts (some animated, some live-action) about girls and empowerment.

The latter collection, with overflowing positive messaging that personified the festival’s “Mind the Gap” gender equality initiative stressing women filmmakers, included such screenings as “Clemency” (along with a tribute to Alfre Woodard) and “The Conductor,” a glimpse of the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic.

The pre-teen loved all the shorts, by the way, and was not at all her usual squirmy self during most movies and live shows.

I loved ‘em, too.

Arms of preteen and grandmother sport temporary henna tattoos at “The Hoopla!” — an adjunct event of the Mill Valley Film Festival. Photo by Woody Weingarten.

Between the screenings, we scooted across the street to Marin Country Mart and “The Hoopla!” — a two-hour free food and drink, free games and balloons, free music and henna affair.

The pre-teen loved ‘em all — and  I loved that she loved ‘em.

Throughout the 11-day festival, people packed the seats at its major films, especially those with A-list stars like Jamie Foxx, Edward Norton, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in attendance. Even the first rows were jammed, and, surprisingly, zero complaints of neck pains were heard afterwards.

One of the many sold-out events was a tribute to director Michael Apted.

Since I’d relished every other documentary in his “Seven Up!” series, which has followed a group of Brits from childhood to old age in a new film every seven years, I had great expectations for “63 Up.”

I was only mildly disappointed in this ninth chapter, which focused, naturally, on the aging process.

It turned out to be a long, long 2-hours and 18-minutes and came off a lot less dramatic than most of his previous docs despite it maximizing the role of death.

Noteworthy was Apted’s ability to continue his thematic propensity to emphasize the class system in Britain, how that society has changed in regard to women’s opportunities, and how the personality of each 7-year-old child — identified only by first name — foreshadowed the adult’s at every age.

The director, who was honored with a MVFF “lifetime achievement award,” quickly showed both his sense of humor and affability during an onstage tribute conversation with festival founder/director Mark Fishkin at the Sequoia.

I hope the 78-year-old Apted, who also directed  “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Gorillas in the Mist,” will present “70 Up” at the festival seven years down the road despite his hesitation to commit to another round.

Eddie Murphy portrays blaxploitation legend Rudy Ray Moore in “Dolemite Is My Name.”

For midlifers, Eddie Murphy’s “comeback” film, “Dolemite Is My Name,” drew a 1970s portrait of Rudy Ray Moore, a blaxploitation era cinema legend the actor/comic has long admired.

The film, after apparently trying to set a Guinness World Record for the most f-bombs dropped in the first few minutes, settled down to become a multi-gag, mega-costumed entertainment with superb performances by Murphy, Wesley Snipes and De’Vine Joy Randolph — fully appreciated even by its virtually all-white Marin audience.

The festival wasn’t glitch-free, though.

Opening night, technical difficulties delayed for nearly an hour the screening of “Just Mercy,” a real-life replica of a young public defender akin to fiction’s Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in one of the two theaters in which it was being shown.

One frustrated guy who’d left before it finally began loudly vented his irritation while quickly chugging two shots of whiskey at the gala for first-nighters. The delay, in fact, caused the Larkspur Landing Circle party to be practically deserted until 10 p.m., an hour after it started.

As usual, however, the gala ultimately attracted tons of filmgoers — some women dressed to the eights (wearing faux jewelry, that is, instead of the real stuff) and men in tuxes — who I suspected were there to be seen rather than enjoy the scene. More relaxed party animals included guys and gals in jeans and tennis shoes engaging in banter about the small flicks they planned to catch later in the festival.

A few folks were engaged in word-play.

Such as a bald, white-bearded fellow in line at the gate who said to his vastly younger wench-companion: “Maybe they’ll do strip searches.”

“I hope so,” his date replied instantly, grinning broadly if a bit enigmatically.

Many (even several in parkas) came close to hugging the tall heaters, commenting repeatedly about the outdoors chill while champagne servers offered a verbal garnish to the drinks: “This’ll warm you up.”

As in previous years, freebies at the food stations tended to pull crowds — although the ice cream stand didn’t draw many customers. In contrast, the line at the Equator Coffee booth was lengthy. Asked one wag, “Do you have hot Diet Pepsi?”

I smiled.

But later in the week, “Harriet,” a powerful fictionalized biopic of American abolitionist Harriet Tubman (and another “Mind the Gap” feature, made me weep (I tend to cry at sentimentality and anything “Rocky”-like).

Tubman, of course, is famed for making 13 trips from the South to Philadelphia while leading 70 slaves to freedom, following up with 19 missions as a “conductor” with the Underground Railroad that saved 300 more, and then working as a spy and leading an armed Union brigade during the Civil War that freed another 700.

The film doesn’t mention that Donald Trump reprehensibly delayed until 2016 having Tubman’s image substitute for Andrew Jackson on the U.S. $20 bill but it does provide British actress/singer Cynthia Erivo with a role that will probably earn her an Oscar nomination for onscreen glaring, chewing up the scenery and communing with God.

Because of PG&E’s dastardly electricity shutdowns, the festival screening was shifted at the last minute from Mill Valley’s Sequoia to the Larkspur movie house.

Despite horrific 101 traffic, I got there with about two minutes to spare.

Yes, the two-hour “Harriet” is presented like a melodramatic soap opera filled with brutality and man’s inhumanity to man, yet its depiction of heroism and perseverance gives me hope for tomorrow.

And, along with the other festival films I appreciated, clearly makes me look forward to MVFF43.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →