Sometimes the title says it all. “A Happening of Monumental Proportions” -- that’s a title that intrigues me. The synopsis sold me. The story is about a man who gets fired right before he is about to give a presentation at career day at his daughter’s school. Oh and there was a dead body found on the school campus that morning, but the administrators are doing everything in their power to make sure the parents coming in for career day don’t know about it.
Everything in this story unfolds in one day. You meet this ragtag group of characters and you wonder how they are all going to meet up in the end. And when they do it is in a shockingly absurd fashion that left me with my mouth hanging open.
I was constantly surprised by Judy Greer’s directorial debut. The movie made me laugh, it made my heart ache and it made me fall in love with this incredible cast, lead by Common, Allison Janney and Bradley Whitford. There are so many wonderful surprises in this film that I can’t say much more than that, but I was entirely charmed by the experience.
As I watched, I kept thinking “What have I gotten myself in to?” but at the same time I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to see this story unspool slowly so that I could drink in every beautiful detail. This film shoots to the top of my list as favorite film of the festival and it’s going to be tough to beat. This film left a warm feeling in my heart that my all-time favorites like “Juno” and “Garden State” also left. I know it’s early to say it’s the best thing I’ll see all weekend, but I was pleasantly surprised by the entire experience.
The best thing about the Napa Valley Film Festival is that you often get to chat with the creative forces behind the films after the credits roll. I’m surprised to see so many people bailing out before the lights come on. This is your chance to ask an actor, writer or director (sometimes all three): why did you do that? What were you thinking? What’s the process? Or it’s an opportunity to say, wow the music you picked in this film rocked, how did you put together the soundtrack?
Greer was available for Q&A after the screening of “A Happening of Monumental Proportions” and it was so exciting to see an actress I've loved for years talk about directing her first movie. She was as delightful as I’d hoped she’d be. I was genuinely impressed with the direction of the film. It all looked so effortless and even more amazing when she said they shot the film in 20 days.
You see that a lot in the films that show in the festival. These films don’t have blockbuster budgets, so they are made at a rapid pace, pinching every penny along the way.
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“Coup d’Etat” , which will be released next year as “Dear Dictator” because no one knows how to say coup d’etat or knows what it means, according to the directors, was shot in 19 days. This movie is quirky if not absurd. Michael Caine plays the dictator of an island nation who begins a pen pal relationship with a high school girl in the United States. When revolutionaries oust him from power, he goes stateside to seek refuge with the teen and her mother. The concept is so far fetched, but the odd couple relationship between the teen and tyrant is the glue of the film.
During the Q&A, directors Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse discussed how their project began 10 years ago and kept evolving over time as they struggled to get their film made. Originally, Jimmy Smits was the dictator, then Alfred Molina, then Robert DeNiro was attached for a a few years before Anthony Hopkins scored the gig. But when Hopkins was called away for reshoots on his show “Westworld”, Addario and Syracuse found themselves without a lead actor nearly a week before filming was scheduled to begin. They got a copy of the script to Caine who read it and agreed to step in, saving the project.
These little stories that you get to hear at the Q&As add such depth to the film experience. You get insider info about what it takes to make a movie. And the common theme is funding. Each director and producer talks about the struggle to find funding for these brilliant little films, and you have to wonder how many gems have been trapped under bootheels because there isn’t enough cash to turn a dream into a reality.
What’s cool about the Napa Valley Film Festival is that it presents an opportunity for these little films to find an audience and get a much-needed word of mouth boost so that you might actually get to recommend these films to your friends when they are released in theaters nationwide.
But there is still a chance to catch these films this weekend. “Coup d’Etat” will be screened Friday, Nov. 10, at Native Sons Hall in St. Helena at 10 a.m., and Saturday, Nov. 11 at Jam Ballroom Cellars in Napa at 4 p.m.
“A Happening of Monumental Proportions” -- which I highly recommend you see -- screens Friday at Native Sons Hall at 1:30 p.m. and Saturday at Jam Cellars Ballroom at 10 p.m.