Round XXVI - My Continuing Adventures As A San Francisco Entertainment Journalist    

This month: The 26th Annual Mill Valley Film Festival!

Seasons Greetings, SF Herald entertainment hounds! I want to begin with a disclaimer: the political views expressed by some of the other writers/artists of this paper do not necessarily reflect my own. So don't hold it against me! Thank you.

Now here it is, the moment you've waited for all year: my coverage of the Mill Valley Film Festival, where I mix and mingle with the haves and have some mores! This was my third time at bat, and they haven't kicked me out yet, so I guess I struck Gold instead of out. (Gawd, that was lame…)

This year, thanks to the “Goddess of Publicists” Pam Hamilton, of Hamilton Ink PR 415-381-8198, the gracious festival publicist Rama Dunayevich, the fabulous Events Coordinator Dave Tureaud and his exceptional assistant Juliet Lanfried, I had the opportunity to wear a couple of distinctively different hats: my usual “journalist” one for the films/events I covered, and my “singer/songwriter chick” one on the nights when I was the featured entertainment in the Outdoor Garden Club. I was worried it would compromise my journalistic integrity   (as if!), but as Director of Programming Zoe Elton re-assured me, “it's all storytelling now, isn't it?” Now let's goooo onnn with the showwwwww….

At the pre-festival press conference on September 10, we were treated to a screening of The Barbarian Invasions, directed by French/Canadian director Denys Arcand. Picking up the same story from his 1986 film, Decline of the American Empire, it is a truly moving and at times hilarious portrayal of terminal illness, friendship, family and the Canadian health care system, with French subtitles. High point: a small role played by the guy who played “Michael” in the now-sadly defunct La Femme Nikita on USA, of which I was a rabid fan. Ooh la la!

Programming director Zoe Elton said, “We're getting back to our roots, as well as embracing our international family of filmmakers. We've upped the ante.”

Opening Night Film and Gala – Thursday, October 2nd

The three opening night films were The Station Agent, starring a dwarf (Peter Dinklage – any relation to Dirk Diggler?), Out of Time, and Casa De Los Babys. Hoping to choose substance over the hunk factor (Denzel Washington in the thriller Out Of Time), and a real story over weird characters, I opted for the more indie-friendly Casa De Los Babys, directed by John Sayles with an ensemble cast chock full of indie-babes including Lili Taylor, Marcia Gay Harden, Daryl Hannah and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Detailing the lives of childless American women who go down to Mexico to try and adopt Mexican babies, each character was more self-obsessed and obnoxiously unlikable than the last, and the dialogue sounded like monologues from audition scenes in acting class. I wouldn't have given to a kid to any of these whining, wanna-be-moms from hell. (Saving grace: Rita Moreno as a snobby hotel owner.) Shoulda gone with the Dwarf or Denzel…

The opening night party, held at the Mill Valley Community Center, was your usual “see-and-wanna-be-seen” affair of only fair cuisine from Chef de Cuisine Catering, good wine, and bad dancing to canned music. Dave Tureaud and the lovely Juliet were on hand once again to insure all the parties went off without a hitch. High point: great margaritas, served up by the highly entertaining Giovanni, the Margarita King 415-885-0442   As the liquor flowed, so did the singles on the prowl, looking for some opening night action. At one point, our illustrious publisher ran up to us and hid behind me, whispering, “Save me!”, claiming some babe was trying to feed him her white chocolate mousse…Also on hand throughout the festival, the King of All Rugs (the ones under your feet, not on your head), Richard Habib, owner of Alexander's Decorative Rugs ( two locations in San Francisco and Mill Valley 415-626-8430/415-3833908 and also a sponsor of the festival. Joining him at most of the events was another sponsor, the lovely Lynda Najarian, owner of Judy's Breadsticks (415-388-3274, a delicious staple at all the films/parties I attended. You have got to hear this woman laugh – her laugh could stop the fighting in the Middle East, or cure cancer. Delighful!

Lili Taylor Tribute: Screening of A Slipping Down Life Dinner reception at Frantoio Ristorante –Saturday, October 4

Held at the Rafael Theater in San Rafael, A Slipping Down Life is exactly the kind of quirky, weird-slice-of-life little movie that the indie world adores and actress Lili Taylor (best known for her work on HBO's Six Feet Under) is the reigning queen of.   Adapted from the Anne Tyler novel and directed by Toni Kalem (an impressive directorial debut), it is the story of Evie, a strange, small-town girl whose life is a series of dull and depressing nothingness until she becomes enamored with the local Jim Morrison-esque wanna-be rock star, “Drumstrings Casey”, played by Guy “Cheekbones” Pearce. So caught up in actually feeling something for the first time in her life, one night Evie carves the name “Casey” into her forehead with a piece of glass (yuk!) after watching him play at a club. This brings her local fame and helps her snag her man. (Hey, maybe I should try that. Not!) There are some funny moments, but that carving stuff was just a little too weird for me to care about what happened to these star-carved, I mean crossed lovers.

At the Q&A after, hosted by SF comedian Mark Pitta, the soft–spoken Ms. Taylor admitted she doesn't like to watch her own films (maybe it was the blood gushing from her forehead?). She loved working with directors John Sayles and Toni Kalem, but has no “burning desire” of her own to direct. She prefers the spirit and freedom of working in “indie” films as opposed to big budget movies like The Haunting. “You know the people really want to be there,” she said. She likened her experience playing “Lisa” on HBO's Six Feet Under to an indie film with a wonderful cast, and claims she's never had such an intense reaction to a character. “People would come up to me on the street and yell, “I hate you!” Taylor said.

This was Taylor's virgin experience attending the Mill Valley Film Festival. “This feels like we're celebrating film, instead of just trying to get distribution,” she observed.

The reception at Frantoio Ristorante (415-289-5777 ) proved once again to be the high culinary point of the festival. The buffet of salads, pastas, fish, meats, deserts and that famous oil to dip that wonderful bread in were all second to none. Delicioso! Superb wine was supplied from Geyser Peak Winery to wash it all down with.

Lili Taylor and Toni Kalem were in attendance, and happily took two of my CDs, after I told them “Sycamore Street” could have been “Evie's theme song”. Sean Penn made an appearance with his wife Robin Wright Penn, whose film The Singing Detective screened that night, as well. Mr. Penn kept stepping outside every five minutes to smoke, and managed to escape the press (yours truly).  

Peter Coyote Tribute/Reception at The Depot, Mill Valley - Thursday, October 9

Back at the Rafael, literary luminary Ben Fong-Torres picked the brain of actor Peter Coyote, while showing clips of his many films, such as Jagged Edge, E.T, and Erin Brockavich. Mr. Coyote was very animated looked quite dashing, enjoying this attention immensely. He spoke of his early days with the NY “Life Acting” theater company in the ‘60s. Grateful for his celebrity voice-over work, he credits it to keeping him out of bad films. Coyote has written several screenplays, none of which have found a home yet.

When asked about his tasteful, yet sensual love scenes with Greta Schacci in A Man in Love, Coyote replied, “What really moves people is intimacy. If you want to see people fucking, watch porno. A real connection is more exciting than seeing my schlong.”

Fong-Torres steered the conversation from the aliens in E.T. to Ahhhnold Schwartzenegger and Coyote commented that our now governor elect has met with Ken Lay from Enron, which troubles him, and that Republicans “aren't known for their support of the arts”, but made sure to denounce both political parties, accusing them of “the same bullshit”.

Sean Penn wandered in mid-interview and hunkered down in one of the seats, eating between smoke breaks and nail biting. The man likes to lurk in and out.   At the end of the Q&A, audience member Bonnie Raitt stood up and thanked Coyote for “not just your acting, but your life and work as a human being.”

At the party, a cake was brought out and everyone sang happy birthday to the Coyote man. BFT introduced us and we posed for a picture. When he told me he'd written songs too, I gave him a CD, which he promised to listen to. High point of the festival (for me): BFT introduced me to Bonnie Raitt   as “a journalist and a songwriter, with a really great song called ‘Sycamore Street'.”   Bonnie joked, “Hey, you can review yourself! Do you have a CD available? Would you please send it to me? My address is on my website.” Then her companion, Brent BacVar from the Chopak Center, gave me his card and told me to send it to him and he'd make sure she got it. Mensches, all of ‘em! Of course, God knows if I'll ever hear anything. But ya nevah know…

Screening of Off The Map/guest Sam Elliot/Centerpiece Party - Outdoor Garden Club, Mill Valley Friday, October 10

Once more at the Rafael, film lovers were treated to a moving, quirky (that “indie” word again!), sweet film with actor Sam Elliot on hand to discuss it afterwards. Directed by Campbell Scott and adapted by playwright Joan Ackerman, Off The Map takes place in Taos, New Mexico and the cinematography is breathtaking. It is the 1970's,   Elliot and Joan Allen play Charlie and Arlene Groden, the uber hippie parents of Bo (a breakout performance by first-time actress Valentina de Angelis), a precocious 12 year-old who dreams of running water, electricity, and a normal life. Charlie has succumbed to a mysterious, incapacitating depression, wandering around like a ghost, crying incessantly drinking gallons of water to replace the fluids he's lost. Sam Elliot gives the performance of his career, conveying the weight of Charley's quiet horror at his inability to shake this thing he doesn't understand – without a word or facial expression – it's all in his eyes and his body. A confused IRS man shows up to find out why the Grodens haven't paid taxes in seven years, falls in love with the family and the place, and never leaves. There is a magical surrealness, with enough humor to keep you engaged throughout.

During the Q&A, Elliot seemed bemused at all the attention and admitted this was his first film festival – ever. When asked about his acting technique, he drawled, “I just do what I do.” Why does Sam Elliot, a Sacramento native who now lives in Malibu, sound and look like he's a Marlboro Man   from Texas? He seemed puzzled when asked about how he prepared for this role, saying, “There are plenty of reasons in this world to be depressed. Just read the paper.” He is the anti-movie star. Refreshing!

At the party, Elliot arrived with his lovely wife, actress Katherine Ross. He was surrounded by media and well-wishers, and I chose not to harass, I mean approach him.

Outdoor Garden Club Party, Saturday, October 11

We tried to get into see Spin, by director/ screenwriter Jamie Redford (yes, son of that Redford), but alas, no passes were to be had that night. On several other nights, I was the “garden-variety musical entertainment”, but on this night the intriguing Gypsy Soul, who I reviewed in this column, took that spot. So we just came out to meet, greet, and eat. Sam Elliot, who was so subdued the night before, showed up alone, drinking martinis and shooting the breeze with anyone who approached him. He seemed to be having a good old time. The lovely Juliet introduced us, and Mr. Elliot was quite the charmer. Almost made me blush, that Sam! We talked about the film, and both agreed that a shot where the family sees young Bo gets on a bus to go off to school ,and in a moment of editing magic, a grown up Bo (played by Amy Brenneman) gets off that same bus to come visit her aging parents, was one of the coolest things we'd ever seen.

I gave him a copy of the Herald with Eva Cassidy on the cover and he seemed quite moved by her story. I also gave him a copy of my CD, which he seemed quite pleased by, until I noticed later he had left it on the bar. I marched up to him and said, “Hey Sam, I didn't leave your movie on the seat, how come you left my CD on the bar?” Sam said, “I didn't leave it, I knew where it was, and look, I still have this!” pulling the Herald out of the back of his trousers. “Give it back!” he said, sticking my CD and the Herald down the back of his pants – and gave me a kiss on the cheek. Oh my. When he saw me leaving with the illustrious publisher of this little newsrag and we said goodnight, he smiled and said, “Be careful.”

Before we left, we did meet screenwriter/director Jamie Redford, who more than resembles his dad and could not have been nicer. Cast members Stanley Tucci and Ryan Merriman were present as well, but Jamie was our man. We gave him a copy of the Herald, told him we'd come to the screening of Spin on closing night, and offered to put him on the cover. And of course, I gave him a copy of my CD. He seemed delighted by all of it.

Screening of Spin/Closing night party – Marin Osher Jewish Center – Sunday, October 12

Talk about saving the best for last…the screening of Spin at the Sequoia Theater in Mill Valley was the perfect way to end the festival. Making his debut as a director, screenwriter Jamie Redford has pulled off what few others in his line of work seem to capable of doing these days: making a heartfelt drama without a trace of the overused quirkiness, bizarre symbolism and ironic detachment that are generally hallmarks of the indie genre. Adapted from the novel by Don Axinn, it is a powerful period piece about loss, abandonment, abuse, and racial prejudice in the 1950's Southwest   - and finding redemption through love, with flying as the central theme. Spin tells the story of Eddie, who loses his parents in a plane crash when he is eight. He gets sent to live with his uncle (Stanley Tucci), who flies off in his own plane and leaves him to be raised by his kindly Mexican ranch hand and American wife (Ruben Blades and Dana Delaney). It is also the love story of Eddie and Francesca, who meet as children and are separated, reuniting as teenagers. Eddie's uncle returns to teach him to fly, and it takes a tragedy to snap the older Eddie (Ryan Merriman) out of his bitter restlessness to rescue Francesca (Paula Garces') and become a man.

Stanley Tucci, always spot on, delivers one of his best performances as the stoic uncle who gives Eddie the only thing he is able to give: his wings.   All the supporting players are top notch, particularly Ruben Blades as Ernesto, and Paula Garces' as the feisty and beautiful Francesca. But it is breakout star Ryan Merriman, who carries the film with that rare natural blend of vulnerability and leading man appeal, reminiscent of a young Tom Cruise.

The musical score by Todd Boekelheide subtly hit all the right notes, building toward moments and supporting the imagery, rather dominating it, like the music on all the 9000 Law & Order shows. Duh DAH!

The biggest tip of the hat goes to dual hat-wearer Redford, for maintaining the earnestness of the period while exploring some hard-hitting themes that are timeless. Not bad for a first flight off the runway.

At the Q&A, Redford thanked the author, Don Axinn, producer Elaine Rogers, star Ryan Merriman, composer Todd Boekelheide, and Bob Edwards from Skywalker Ranch, all of whom were in attendance. (Conspicuously absent: that other Bob). Redford, a truly humble, affable fellow, revealed the whole film was shot in 30 days in Arizona, and he still can't believe it. He credited the magic casting to “his intuition”, crediting Don Axinn and everyone involved for trusting his vision. A fan of old movies, he felt he needed to honor the time and innocence of the period. He agreed with an audience member, who remarked that his work was like his father's, saying “I'm not surprised by his influence.” But when someone asked the younger Redford why he never pursued acting, he quipped, “I gave up that idea after my wig fell off in my 8th grade play.”

When we approached him again after the Q&A, he exclaimed, “Oh, the SF Herald! You guys are lively! What a riot!” When I told him I'd like to interview him, he gave me his number and said to call him. What a mensch! The interview actually did happen, and I am saving it for a major film magazine, no offense Herald readers. James Redford is the survivor of two liver transplants, and he is the founder of the James Redford Institute for Transplant Awareness. No wonder he's such a helluva nice guy. At press time, Spin was still looking for distribution.   Stay tuned…

The closing night party at Osher Marin Jewish Community Center was rather anti-climactic. Last year the food was incredible; this year, alas, it was less than mediocre. The musical entertainment, the Rolando Morales Quintet, was fun, and we did our best to fake salsa dance, some of us more successfully than others.   Babes were hitting on our illustrious publisher right and left (Go, Gene!), so I cut the rug with congenial IJ writer (and excellent dancer!) Stan Sinberg.

Perfect closing night anecdote: a woman approached me and said, “Are you Kimberlye Gold?” “Why, yes!” I replied, feeling like the celebrity I almost am (not). Apparently, this woman was Sam Elliot's driver after the party the night before (good thing, after four martinis!) and he told her all about meeting me and showed her the SF Herald with Eva Cassidy on the cover. Well, it just so happened this lady driver was a big fan of Eva's and she had one of Eva's CDs in the car! “I played it for Sam and he was blown away,” she told me. “Today he had me take him to a record store and he bought one for himself!”   I swear, Eva is up there watching over us, like a guardian angel. Maybe she'll put in a good word for me one of these days…

Mill Valley Film Festival Founder and Executive director Mark Fishkin claimed this year's festival, with over 45, 000 attendees, was so successful because it focused on content and storytelling over entertainment. “After 9/11, expensive art might as well have something to say. They (the filmmakers) understand and we understand.”

All's well that ends well. Till next year, ladies and gentlemen…##