Sonoma Valley Film Festival

Staff April 12, 2007

At many of the world’s larger film festivals, daily life is less like a stroll in the park than a pentathalon. People are forever rushing from one screening or event to another, not getting enough sleep, eating badly if at all. This isn’t exactly moviegoing for pleasure, rather something compulsive and demanding that you will later need time to recover from. You’d have to work pretty hard to achieve the same effect at Sonoma Valley Film Festival, which celebrates its tenth year this weekend, April 11-15. SVFF is all about the good life. Every screening is preceded by "gourmet food and wine pairings," winery excursions are offered, and "casual mingling with celebrity chefs and star winemakers" is billed right up there with the possibility of hoisting glass with some rising director or glamorous thespian.

Which is not to say all this wining and dining comes at the expense of a solid program. While there isn’t a lot in the way of world premieres here, let alone cutting-edge extreme cinema, Sonoma’s cherry-picking of U.S. and international titles from the festival circuit has gathered a batch that does its 10th anniversary schedule proud.

The starriest event on Sonoma’s plate this year is Sunday night’s salute to John Lasseter of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios. Along with clips and conversation with the two-time Oscar winner, the evening will feature guests including past cartoon voice talents Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Tony Shaloub and Cheech Marin, fellow animator Glen Keane, and scenarist Andrew Stanton of "Monsters Inc.," "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo."

There are two opening night films on Thursday the 12th, and they’re both winners. Suzanne Blier’s Danish "After the Wedding" stars Mads Mikkelsen — whom you might recall as chief villain and abuser of James Bond’s crotch in "Casino Royale" — as a man with a checkered past who’s found peace running a Bombay orphanage. He’s not at all happy when a dangled major donation drags him home to Denmark for the first time in years. He’s stunned to discover his potential millionaire benefactor not only has a hidden agenda, he’s about to marry the woman our protagonist abandoned years ago. This surprising, intelligent mix of black comedy and drama reveals (better than "Casino" did) why Mikkelsen is currently his country’s biggest star.

More of an acquired taste is "The Ten," which opens the "Mia’s Lounge" festival section of slightly edgier fare. Actually, this one is so edgy you could put an eye out with it — I’d bet my life there will be at least a few walkouts. I can also say "The Ten" was the funniest movie at Sundance this year, and I’d happily see it again. Made by the guys responsible for MTV sketch comedy series "The State" and the spotty but inspired teen-flick spoof "Wet Hot American Summer," this new effort serves up ten anarchic little episodes riffing on those Commandments Moses heffed down from the mountaintop. Not so much specifically blasphemous as just 360-degree tasteless, it is also consistently smart, surprising, and often flat-out hilarious. But really: Those easily (or even semi-easily) offended are advised to steer clear. Amongst eager participants in the film’s outre humor are such Paul Rudd, Oliver Platt, Gretchen Mol, Jessica Alba, and Winona Ryder as (trust me) you’ve never seen here before.

Elsewhere, the festival boasts a strong selection of disparate features. Within the "American Indies" department are two hard-luck family dramas: "Black Irish" starring Brendan Gleeson and Melissa Leo, and "Canvas" with Marcia Gay Harden and Joe Pantoliano. On a lighter note, there’s lounge singer vs. Mob comedy "Johnny Slade’s Greatest Hits."

Mia’s Lounge hosts an eclectic half-dozen including John Putch’s "Mohave Phone Booth," an omnibus of offbeat stories linked by one mysterious woman’s conversations with strangers; black-comedy vampire tale "Netherbeast Incorporated;" and the world premiere of "Voyeur," a perverse thriller about power politics at an Oregon TV station.

In the World Cinema section, the bone-dry absurdism of Corneliu Porumboiu’s "12:08 East of Bucharest" ponders what really happened when Romanian tyrant Ceausescu was toppled. Also recommended are thesp-turned-director Sarah Polley’s Canadian "Away from Her," with Julie Christie and Gordon Pinset as a longtime married couple wedged apart by Alzheimer’s; and "Once," a charming Irish feature with real-life Dublin singer-songwriters playing fictive ones. Unpreviewed but heavy on star power is the U.K.-produced, Canada-set "Snow Cake," featuring Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman and Carrie-Anne Moss.

Twelve features make the Documentary program this festival’s largest, and naturally it includes several efforts by No. Cal. filmmakers. Among them: Adrian Belic’s "Beyond the Call," about three charity-inclined American men who treat humanitarian missions like high adventure; James Dalessandro’s Peter Coyote-narrated "The Damnedest Finest Ruins," recalling the great SF ‘quake a century ago; Leslie Iwerks’ self-explanatory "The Pixar Story," and "Three Women and a Chateau," which charts the colorful history of a 98-room Hillsborough mansion that was long the largest private residence west of the Mississippi.

Also of local interest is "Harvest Young," Scott Hardie’s hour-long, Sonoma-made documentary about "young turks of the regional wine scene." It’s playing in the "Epicurean Cinema" sidebar, which otherwise consists of longtime foodie faves "Big Night" and "Like Water for Chocolate."

Closing night selection "Waitress" has a tragic backstory: During postproduction on her third directorial feature, Adrienne Shelley (best known as an actress in Hal Hartley’s early movies) was murdered in her NYC apartment. A happier coda arrived when "Waitress" proved by far the best of her behind-the-camera efforts, charming audiences and winning a fat distribution deal at its Sundance premiere this January. Keri Russell stars as the titular figure, a small-town diner employee whose secret plans to run away from her loutish, possessive husband (a scary-pathetic Jeremy Sisto) are complicated by not only unwanted pregnancy, but unplanned head-over-heels love with the new doctor in town (the delightful Nathan Fillion).

Our heroine may consider herself "just" a waitress, but her real talent lies in inventing the deliciously imaginative pies that enslave the diner’s loyal clientele (including Andy Griffith as its crusty owner). Matthew Irving’s scrumptious photography of these creations makes "Waitress" a perfect closing note for a festival that believes providing food for thought is hardly enough.