Reviews From 39th Mill Valley Film Festival

by on October 6, 2016

“After The Storm” offers director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s take on a Wes Anderson-style flawed protagonist.  Once promising novelist Ryota is now creatively blocked and constantly scrounges for money.  A divorce hasn’t stopped his pining for his ex-wife and his son.  This man-child’s wry mother keeps viewer interest until Ryota’s relationship with son Shingo properly blooms.    The typhoon’s eventual arrival does not lead to the dramatic catharsis some viewers might expect.  But the storm suggestively washes away two characters’ self-deceptions.

***

Anime feature film “Miss Hokusai” encompasses art history, family drama, and the thin physical/spiritual world divide.  Keiichi Hara’s adaptation of the manga “Sarusuberi” centers on the thorny relationship between the talented but under-recognized artist O-Ei and her father, 19th century master painter Hokusai.  Blind sister O-Nao provides both a cute metaphor for the artist’s awareness and a source of O-Ei’s and Hokusai’s friction.  Hard rock music on the soundtrack proves jarring.  But  dragons flying in the night winds feels true.

***

Gael Garcia Bernal plays a police inspector tasked with arresting the Communist poet and Senator Pablo Neruda in “Neruda.”  Director Pablo Larrain isn’t interested in playing crime genre cat and mouse games.  Instead, his wildly entertaining film is equal parts celebration of Neruda’s political poetry, delirious bouts of hedonism, dark comedy, and even a tantalizing questioning of whether Bernal’s cop is actually his prey’s creation.  What “Neruda” lacks in historical fidelity is more than recompensed with its devastating emotional accuracy.

***

Keith Maitland’s gripping documentary “Tower” makes a doubly timely arrival.  Mass shootings in such places as Newtown, Orlando, and San Bernadino have become unfortunate news staples in recent years.  Maitland’s film offers a look back at the University of Texas-Austin mass shooting.  This horrific event was America’s first “mass murder in a public space” as Texas Monthly executive editor Pamela Colloff described it.  More importantly, “Tower” arrives at MVFF 50 years after the shootings happened on August 1, 1966.

The killings occurred when ex-Marine Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas at Austin Tower with half-a-dozen weapons and started shooting at pedestrians below.  Maitland’s film account will frustrate those viewers interested in such minutiae as the number of people shot and how Whitman’s rampage led to the creation of SWAT teams nationwide.  In fact, what little information “Tower” provides about Whitman feels almost like an afterthought.

The true focus of Maitland’s film is telling the stories of those on the receiving end of Whitman’s bloodlust.  As a reader of the book “Eyewitness To History” can tell you, the best personal accounts make history come alive.  Personal details mentioned in these accounts transform for readers seeming mental abstraction into living breathing happenings.  Hearing about the feel of bare legs on concrete heated to 100 degrees Fahrenheit by the sun or the life-saving aspect of a Jefferson Davis statue capture the terror and desperation people felt during the shooting.

Both rotoscoped and drawn animation add visual life to the recounted drama of the Austin mass shooting.  The animation does fill in moments that definitely wouldn’t have been captured on film, such as a lunch with friends or a life-saving conversation.  But these drawn sequences particularly shine in illuminating and expanding on the interviewees’ emotional states beyond their words.  Claire, one of the victims, talks about her relationship with the boyfriend murdered by Whitman in a bravura color-filled animated sequence that both captures her loss and suggestively evokes her survival instincts.

Maitland deliberately avoids identifying his interviewees in the film’s early parts.  This coyness subverts viewer tendencies to define “Tower”’s witnesses solely by their actions during the shooting.  At first, the viewer does mentally assign the interviewees such roles as news reporter, first victim, and officer on the scene.  But as the individual stories unfold and play off each other, the filmgoer wants to know if Claire will have a story to tell her child or Officer Mc Coy eventually forgives himself.

Later in the film, Maitland slowly brings in present-day footage of some of the storytellers.  It’s a nice visual reminder that these documentary subjects had lives that continued after the Austin shootings.  But the footage also underscores for the viewer that the animated sequences captured actual events that provided early warning of a terrible phenomenon.

Time’s prolonged passage and the attitude that silence about the day’s events will help reduce their later recurrence has an unfortunate consequence.  Some mysteries remain unsolved.  Rita, the stranger whose conversation provided the badly wounded Claire with an emotional lifeline, never recorded her story for posterity.  Whitman seemed prepared for close combat yet he apparently was surprised by the Austin policemen’s arrival.  An on-air editorial by legendary newsman Walter Cronkite about the shootings will make viewers wonder whether contemporary conversations about the Austin shootings would have prevented a Columbine shooting.

Maitland makes his point about an important lesson unlearned by Americans with footage of the Columbine, Aurora, and Charleston shootings.  Yet the film doesn’t mention Texas’ enactment of an Open Carry law for college campuses.  The law frankly promises more frequent mass shootings in the future sans towers.  Binge drinking, an Open Carry firearm, and a serious emotional grievance sound more like a recipe for fatality than a deterrent.

“Tower” ultimately testifies to humanity’s best emerging in the face of a common threat.

(“After The Storm” screens on October 7, 2016 at 12:00 PM at the CineArts Sequoia (25 Throckmorton Avenue, Mill Valley) and October 10, 2016 at 4:00 PM at the Lark Theatre (549 Magnolia Avenue, Larkspur).  “Miss Hokusai” screens on October 8, 2016 at 4:00 PM at the Lark Theatre.  “Neruda” screens on October 10, 2016 at 7:00 PM at the Smith Rafael Film Center (1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael).  “Tower” screens on October 8, 2016 at 4:45 PM and October 9, 2016 at 6:15 PM.  Both screenings take place at the Smith Rafael Film Center.

For further information about the films and to order advance screening tickets, go to www.mvff.com .)

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