Monday, October 02, 2006

Mill Valley Film Festival - Preview and Recommendation

Seeing as the Mill Valley Film Festival opens THIS WEEK, I've decided to report on the highlights of the films I've seen during the past couple of weeks of press previews. As I stated earlier, I think I've seen Helen Mirren and Peter O'Toole give their long overdue Oscar performances in "The Queen" and "Venus", respectively. However, Forest Whitaker gives one of the most powerful performances I've seen in a long time and may just swipe the statue away from Mr. O'Toole. These three performances alone justify visits to Marin, if not demand them!

"The Last King of Scotland" (dir. Kevin MacDonald, UK, 2006, 121 mins.) This is the opening night film for the Mill Valley Film Festival and will be screened with Forest Whitaker present. His portrayal of the Ugandan dictator/president Idi Amin is one of the most exciting, explosive and complicated screen performances I think I have ever seen. His ability to let us glimpse at the psychotic underneath all that charisma is simply brilliant. His entrance in the film is comparable to Eva Peron's balcony scene. And that is just the beginning of his performance! The dangerous atmosphere that Whitaker is able to exude pervade the scenes in which he doesn't even appear. In fact, he does not appear in the harrowing climax, yet there is no doubt that it is Amin who has driven that scene into the darkness.

Director Kevin MacDonald has chosen a fairly violent cinematic and editing style, very reminiscent of Fernando Meirelles' "City of God". However, it didn't feel justified and was actually sort of annoying, until THAT CLIMAX! The audience I saw it with left the theatre in stunned silence. This thing is INTENSE! And the response to Forest Whitaker when he takes the stage after the screening in Mill Valley should be spine tingling!

So should Helen Mirren's reception be as equally thunderous as she will be present for "The Queen" (dir. Stephen Frears, UK, 2006, 97 mins.) Coincidentally, she plays a head of state, too: Queen Elizabeth II. The plot revolves around the political and regal mechanisations surrounding the death and funeral of Princess Diana. The script by Peter Morgan is sufficient, though it does tread perilously close to something made-for-tv. It is Mirren's minimal, technical and uncanny resemblance and performance of ER that lifts the film to event-like proportions. Her opening title moment is nearly shocking in that she seems to DARE the audience to believe she is anyone BUT the Queen! Her stillness draws even more attention to her eyes and mind as we can actually see her think through the dilemma that the situation presented to her.

Her supporting cast featuring James Cromwell, Michael Sheen and Alex Jennings as Prince Philip, Tony Blair and Prince Charles, respectively, are given almost too much script to deliver. It is as if the screenplay didn't trust Mirren to deliver us the complexities of the situation without the other characters commenting upon them. The glorious exception to this group is Sylvia Syms as the Queen Mother! Syms and Mirren play off each other with such synchronicity that one would believe that they had lived together for their entire lives.

When Ms. Mirren ascends the stage after the screening, you will be able to hear the ovation from across the Golden Gate Bridge!

And my final over-the-top recommendation is for "Venus" (dir. Roger Michell, UK, 2006, 95 mins.) featuring Peter O'Toole in a variation on the typical "Death In Venice" motif. In fact, I thought the title might have been a play on words, but it plays a more significant symbol in the film. O'Toole performs with the technical skill of the veteran craftsman that he is. His ability to seduce the 20 year old object of his affection without turning lecherous and distasteful is something Woody Allen should study. His wit, charm and physical slapstick (Yes! He takes a pratfall!) are genuinely endearing and not disengaging at the least. His plight is ably commented upon by no one less than Vanessa Redgrave, playing his ex-wife, and Leslie Phillips and Richard Griffiths as a pair of his oldest and closest friends. The trio of O'Toole, Phillips and Griffiths is truly remarkable in their comaraderie and chemistry. Of course, Redgrave could play opposite to a fern and still be brilliant, so there is no wonder that her performance with O'Toole here is her standard brilliant quality. Newcomer Jodie Whittaker as the 20 year old object of his affection, has her work cut out for her amongst these titans. She holds her own fairly well, given that the script requires her to fight against her blossoming emotions towards the old man. But then again, 'the old man' IS Peter O'Toole, so how difficult could that be?

Had O'Toole been scheduled to appear at the Festival, then this would be a week demanding flights from around the country! As it is, these three films should ensure a more than successful festival for the Valley with the Mill...


Maxxxxx said...

re "The Last King of Scotland": "Time for shower!"
re "The Queen": "Cranky Bird!"
re "Venus": "Such a pretty bird!"

JimmyD said...

I'd swim across the bay to see Peter O.

Reel Fanatic said...

The Last King of Scotland is definitely high on my list of must-see movies for th rest of this year ... Despite your justifiable complaints about the filmmaking style, I'm still psyched to see what Forest can do with this truly evil man