Clive, live: Clive Owen (center, with critic/personality Jan Wahl, director Scott Hicks, left, and California Film Institute Director Mark Fishkin, far left) brought out smiles with the Mill Valley Film Festival opening night screening of The Boys are Back.

Mill Valley Film Festival's 32nd

Dennis Harvey October 9, 2009

The Mill Valley Film Festival’s 2009 program features, as ever, a bounty of local work, U.S. independent features and docs, international festival favorites and children’s flicks, as well as live events and more. But what it also offers is a surprisingly potent mainstream industry presence: The headlining tribute programs offer opportunities to get a close look at A-list types more frequently seen at the multiplex than at the art house. And you know what? We approve.

That’s because the 32-year-old festival’s 2009 tributees are the kinds of starry talents that give Hollywood a good name: famous mid-career actors with depth and range, a writer-director who’s actually succeeded by appealing to the audience’s grownup intelligence, not its inner (or actual) 14-year-old Tweeting fanboy. These are the good guys. We can’t even hate them because they’re beautiful.

Or "brutally handsome," as that Eagles song snarked. Which is one way of describing Clive Owen, whose atypical nice-guy turn as a struggling single dad in Shine director Scott Hicks’ seriocomedy The Boys Are Back was one of MVFF’s three opening gala features last night. (The other two opening nighters were Precious and The Road, acclaimed adaptations of powerfully harsh respective novels by Sapphire and Cormac McCarthy.) It’s interesting to see this suave Englishman stretch in that direction, though we do like him on the chilly side, as in Closer, Gosford Park or Croupier, the 1998 Mike Hodges feature that "made" him after its belated U.S. theatrical release—and which will be shown at his Friday night tribute

Owen is the kind of spiky, deft, emotions-held-in-check (until they’re suddenly, shockingly not) actor one admires; he doesn’t ask to be "loved." But who doesn’t love MVFF’s other two-star honorees this year?

One is Uma Thurman. Even a non-heterosexual male may be permitted to sigh at the very name. But beautiful as she undeniably is, Thurman has never seemed mere cheesecake. Indeed, it could be argued those looks have obscured appreciation of a very fine and resourceful actress with adventuresome taste in material. Beyond her famous gigs for Tarantino, Terry Gilliam and others lie striking turns in otherwise somewhat notoriously off films (Batman and Robin, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues), and terrific work in good ones few saw (i.e., Tape).

She’ll be interviewed onstage and entertain audience questions this Saturday before screening of Diggers director Katherine Dieckmann’s new Motherhood, which got a mixed Sundance reception but offers the lure of seeing Uma in screwball-comedy form a la The Truth About Cats and Dogs.

Another actor we love is Woody Harrelson, who on October 15 will assume the Rafael hotseat (alongside director Oren Moverman and costar Ben Foster) in support of military-themed drama The Messenger. He’s got a lot going at present, much on the lighter side: He rocks current wide release Zombieland, excelled as a delusional "superhero" in acclaimed Toronto premiere Defendor, and has a major role in Roland Emmerich’s imminent latest global disaster 2012. No prima donna, he still gladly accepts small parts in interesting movies (No Country for Old Men, for one) rather than chasing superstar paydays. Plus he’s a hemp advocate. What’s not to like?

The other A-lister is Jason Reitman of Thank You for Smoking and Juno, whose heavily buzzed new satire Up in the Air with George Clooney he’ll screen and discuss on October 14.

None of which is to slight the importance of MVFF’s showcasing of the intimate, independent and local.

Bay Area makers present and/or premiere a host of feature docs. Among them are Peter Esmonde’s avant-garde musician portrait TRIMPIN: the sound of invention, Niall McKay’s jazz bio The Bass Player: A Song for Dad, Tom Weidlinger’s sportive Jim Thorpe: The World’s Greatest Athlete, Geralyn Pezanoski’s post-Katrina New Orleans pet evacuation scrutiny MINE, John Sorenson’s international query Project Happiness, Vicki Abeles’ investigation of hard-driving U.S. education efforts Race to Nowhere, and Peter Sorcher’s sungazer portrait Eat the Sun. Already acclaimed on the festival circuit is Rick Goldsmith and Judy Ehrlich’s Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.

Bay Area narrative features include at least three focusing on the City’s vivid, less tourist-friendly neighborhoods. Dia Sokol’s Sorry, Thanks sets troubled young-love travails in the Mission District, where they belong. Michael Anderson’s Tenderloin puts that salty setting to multi-character-dramatic use. MVFF perennial and Amerindie pioneer Rob Nilsson’s latest, Imbued, promises raw emotional displays in an interaction between youthful call girl (Liz Sklar) and complicated old soul (historied festival guest Stacy Keach).

On the short-to-midlength level are nonfiction efforts by fellow locals John Korty (Miracle in a Box: A Piano Reborn), John Knoop and Karina Epperlein (Awakening from Sorrow: Buenos Aires 1997), Steve Quirt and Ellie Rilla (Hidden Bounty of Marin: Farm Families in Transition).

MVFF generally likes to mix it up with live musical events, and several this year are in conjunction with programmed docs. Saturday, the fabled Five Blind Boys of Alabama will sing before Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s Soundtrack for a Revolution, about the role of music in the ’60s Civil Rights Movement. This Sunday, contemporary instrumental virtuosos including Rob Wasserman and Will Bernard jam in support of doc Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense.

A week later, esteemed local avant-garde pianist/popularist Sarah Cahill plays a Sweetwater program of antiwar-themed commissioned works with original video contributions from John Sanborn. Her composers include Meredith Monk (profiled in MVFF doc Inner Voice), Terry Riley and the Residents—cause for major excitement if those names mean anything to you. Since they do to me, I’ll be first in line.

What else? There’s a whole lot to pick from in MVFF’s expansive schedule, not least on/off-screen spotlights on local legends like Wavy Gravy and the S.F. Mime Troupe. Seminars throughout embrace everything from activist cinema to digital-cinema "girl geeks" to surviving a tough specialty-film distribution climate.

On the international level, especially recommended are several features like Sebastian Silva’s Chilean/Mexico Sundance prizewinner The Maid, Rebecca Miller’s quirky all-star U.S. charmer The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (starring Marin resident Robin Wright-Penn in a career highlight), John Woo’s purportedly stunning Hong Kong return Red Cliff, the excellent period South African drama Skin, and veteran expat Soviet animator Andrey Khrzanovsky’s marvelous, unclassifiable Room and a Half.

Closing shop for MVFF on Sunday, October 18, is an interestingly programmed diptych of contemporary British cinema representing both time-tested Angry Young Man grit and sumptuous Merchant Ivory-style costume drama. Ken Loach’s new comedy (?!) Looking for Eric plays alongside historical romance The Young Victoria, with latter’s star Emily Blunt promised as a live guest.

Canceled due to personal injury is ’60s Godard goddess Anna Karina’s October 16 tribute, though Victoria (her first directorial feature in 35 years) will screen as planned.

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