Thursday, May 6, 2010

SFIFF: Get Low and Robert Duvall Tribute

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

The line for the Robert Duvall tribute and screening of Get Low at the Castro on Friday night started about 90 minutes before showtime, and was around the block shortly thereafter. After scarfing down some pizza at Marcello's across the street, I grabbed a spot in line, and once inside headed straight for the balcony, knowing most of the good seats on the ground floor would be cordoned off for movie types, as is the case with many of these events. As luck would have it, I was one of the first in the balcony, and got a nice seat front row center. Alas, I think the seats up there have been around since the theater's opening, as they are not the cushiest. My bum was numb by the end of the three hour night.

I learned it's pretty easy to spot movie industry folks away from their SoCal stomping grounds. The women were better dressed than any of the regular ticket holders, and the men all sported meticulously unshaven faces and wore blazers. Eventually, they were joined by someone I recognized, but couldn't name until I realized, while watching the movie, that it was actor Bill Cobbs.

A little after showtime, an introduction to the evening was made, and a brief retrospective video of some of Robert Duvall's best roles was presented. It included a lot from The Godfather movies, and not nearly enough from The Great Santini.

Following that, Robert Duvall came onstage for an interview with David D'Arcy. Duvall looked dapper, in jeans and some tan boots, and was a little shorter than I thought he'd be. The talk started with a discussion of his early acting days in New York, barely getting by, and living in such a crappy apartment that he once woke up and had to "literally flick a cockroach off [his] teeth."

D'Arcy, in what I imagine was an attempt to keep the conversation local, asked a lot of questions about the making of THX 1138, part of which was filmed in the then under construction BART tunnels. Duvall spoke highly of George Lucas' abilities as a director (I guess he hasn't seen any of the Star Wars prequels?), and called him a real innovator, which yeah, is undeniably true. Duvall had initially met Lucas when he was doing The Rain People with Francis Ford Coppola, and that's what ultimately lead to his role in The Godfather.

The on-stage portion of the interview didn't actually go on that long before it was opened it up to questions from the audience, which is always a risky endeavor. And yes, there were some questions that were actually just declarations of love, including the bringing of flowers and a love letter to the stage.

One actual question was about his role in The Road, which was really just a cameo, and Duvall was very critical of the handling of the movie saying, "the Weinsteins trashed it! They didn't do anything with that movie. They didn't do publicity or anything." He was also asked what his all-time favorite character to play was, and he was quick to say Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove, likening the role to the American equivalent of Shakespeare.

One of the final questions was whether he'd ever consider, with his love of Argentine tango, doing "Dancing With the Stars." He replied "that's too much work!" and was also critical of the version of the Argentine tango they do on the show, saying it's not authentic, and it takes years to learn. I say, get in there and teach them a thing or two, Bobby!

Following the Q&A was a screening of his new film Get Low. (Which is just a terrible title. In trying to remember it, it inevitably gets misquoted as "Low Down," or worse, "Down Low.")

Duvall plays Felix Bush, an old hermit in 1930s Tennessee, who decides to throw a funeral while he's still alive so he can hear all the stories people would tell about him. It sounds kind of grim, but it's actually quite funny, owing in large part to the presence of Bill Murray, who plays the funeral parlor owner who agrees to put on the "Funeral Party."

Lucas Black, who I know best for his childhood role in the short-lived TV series "American Gothic," is all grown up and hunky now, and co-stars as Murray's partner at the funeral home. His southern drawl is, thankfully, still in tact. Sissy Spacek also has a supporting role as a woman who knew Felix in younger days, and the aforementioned Bill Cobbs is great in his role as a preacher.

Director Aaron Schneider, who began as a cinematographer, has a keen eye for period detail, and the small town, 1930s setting looks absolutely authentic without feeling fussy. The story itself has some overly melodramatic moments, but Duvall saves it from falling completely down the maudlin trap in a speech near the film's end that, in the hands of a lesser actor, could easily have been overplayed and obvious. Duvall's delivery in that scene brought tears to my eyes.

After the film, Duvall and director Schneider took the stage once again to take questions from the audience, most of which were variations on, "Congratulations on the movie. You were great in it!" Bill Cobbs was also brought on stage, and spoke of the instant rapport he felt with Duvall upon meeting him on the film set. He also said it was the first time he had watched the movie in its entirety, and when asked what he thought of it, he jokingly shrugged his shoulders and said, "Ehhhh."

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