‘Relaxed’ Mill Valley Film Festival movies and parties please crowds

Gretel Wittke (in red wig) and Heidi Adler of Mill Valley don gag wigs, sunglasses and faux flowers at Photo Booth of MVFF’s opening party. Photo by Woody Weingarten.

They trickled in at first.

But by 10 p.m. Thursday, an hour after the 40th annual Mill Valley Film Festival opening night party’s starting time, hundreds and hundreds of bumper-to-bumper humans squeezed into Larkspur’s Marin Country Mart.

Most of the sardine simulators were casually dressed, but a few women were totally decked out, evidently believing it was opening night at the opera or symphony.

Small, white service pooches, none of which sported any bling, accompanied several of them.

Millennials with chartreuse hair, tattoos and nose rings obviously were partying elsewhere. But a few brave souls, females mostly, donned fright wigs and other paraphernalia for gag shots at the Photo Booth.

Food, as always, was bountiful — with the most crowded outdoor stops being stands run by Big Jim’s BBQ, Pizza Antica, Sol Food and Fiorello’s Italian Gelato. The new Wise Sons deli induced plenteous partygoers indoors with bagel bits topped with sundry schmears.

Champagne and beer flowed freely. And the sweet smell of weed hung low over the throng.

Rock ‘n’ roll cover band Wonder Bread 5 entertains at MVFF’s opening night party. Photo by Woody Weingarten.

Some, consequently, were mildly stoned, but virtually no one was stone-faced. Smiles and raucous laughter reproduced as the evening wore on, though none in the audience bounced as joyously or athletically as members Wonder Bread 5, a rock ‘n’ roll cover band that jammed at the center of the party.

It was a night to party hearty and escape the doldrums of daily life. So conversations were limited to incredibly small small talk.

Not much about the opening night films folks had just seen, not even much about the more than 100 upcoming festival films.

A tiny bit about some of the stars who’d appear at the upcoming tributes — Sean Penn, Holly Hunter, Andrew Garfield, Gerta Gerwig, Margot Robbie.

But almost no mention of Vegas, Puerto Rico, Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump.

Mitch Vaughn of Berkeley, box office manager who’s worked for the MVFF nine years, reveled in his having been able “to watch it grow into a world-class festival.”

And it wasn’t hard for me to find partygoers who agreed.

Documentary enthusiasts Joe Danielson and his wife Sara, of San Rafael, for example, told me they’d thoroughly enjoyed “Wait for Your Laugh,” one of the three opening night films (the others being “Loving Vincent,” a unique animated offering about famed painter Vincent Van Gogh that opened in Landmark theaters in Berkeley and San Francisco the next day, and “Darkest Hour,” a portrait of Winston Churchill’s rise to and use of power, with an in-person appearance by co-star Kristin Scott Thomas).

The Danielsons enjoyed the doc about comedienne Rose Marie, now 94, “a lot,” Joe informed me, “because I didn’t know her at all except for ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show.’”

Earlier, twentysomethings Stuart and Christine Watson waited patiently in a long, long line to see the Van Gogh biopic constructed from more than 60,000 hand-painted frames based on live-action footage.

They told me that despite living three blocks from the Smith Rafael Film Center, they’d never been to the theater — or the festival.

Why pick this particular film? “It seemed different from anything we’ve seen before,” said Christine.

It was.

Dave Berry of Belvedere, who in contrast has been coming to the MVFF for 20 years, half its existence, had a slightly different explanation: “It sounded cool.”

Frank Gaipa of Oakland, first in line, is a movie buff who attends multiple film festivals — including the “International in San Francisco, the Silent, the Japanese, Cinequest” and various others.

“The only competition for this one,” he told me, “is the International — and this one’s more relaxed.”

Fans inside Rafael Film Center wait for tribute to Holly Hunter to start. Photo by Woody Weingarten.

Also relaxed — a direct result of her having been a Tinseltown star for 35 years — was Holly Hunter, who was given an MVFF tribute at the Rafael three days later.

The event began with a clip reel spotlighting the sassy, earthy 59-year-old whose acting power vastly outweighs her petite body (she’s 5-foot-2) — and Mark Fishkin, MVFF founder and exec director, handing her a festival award.

That was followed by a 35-minute onstage conversation with Zoe Elton, festival director of programming, and another 35 minutes devoted to answering audience questions.

Hunter was charming, warm and articulate, displaying a superb sense of humor throughout.

The full house responded with a standing ovation — after she’d asserted she still loves her work (“It’s easier now than it was when I was younger”) and still enters a set with “fear and hope.”

Not only did I love her best-actress, Oscar-winning performance in “The Piano,” I’ve relished her roles in “Raising Arizona,” “Broadcast News,” “The Firm,” “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and, most recently, “The Big Sick.”

I’ve witnessed more than a few actresses in onstage chats. Hunter came off as one of the most authentic.

Contact Woody Weingarten at http://vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net

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