Witnessing the arrival of another Sonoma International Film Festival – at least from the outside looking in – at times reminds us of the Rocky and Bullwinkle parody of the Perils of Pauline, with the fair damsel (SIFF) tied to the railroad tracks by the evil Snidely Whiplash while a train is heard coming, the sound of its whistle looming ever closer.
As outside observers begin to wonder if Dudley Do-Right will come galloping to the rescue, the clock is ticking and a solemn-voiced announcer intones melodramatic warnings about the fate of the damsel in distress.
The train, of course, is the impending arrival of more than 3,000 film festival fans along with 200 filmmakers, the preparation of eight screening venues and the coordination of more than 200 volunteers, all, it sometimes seems, scheduled to convene at the eleventh hour, plus 59 minutes and 59 seconds.
And yet, again and again, the damsel is delivered from disaster and the festival unfolds, the films are successfully screened and those 3,000-plus fans end up having a marvelous good time.
We were reassured, Sunday night, that Dudley Do-Right, or some reasonable facsimile, was in fact on the way, when festival organizers held a preview at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art of the coming cinematic treats. It was a marvelous menu.
Bookends for the festival include opening night features “Dom Hemingway” – a Jude Law vehicle with Demian Bichir (who charmed festival goers in person last year) that asks the question, how do you pay back a safecracker for sucking it up during 12 years in prison? – and “Beside Still Waters,” a “Big Chill” revisited, directed by actor Chris Lowell in his first stint behind the camera.
At the back-end of the festival is “Belle,” the historical tale of a mixed-race daughter fathered by a British naval officer and raised in the aristocratic surroundings of 18th-century London.
Sprinkled in between are numerous feature films, shorts and a large number of intriguing documentaries, including “Born in Chicago,” which traces the Muddy Waters/Howlin’ Wolf legacy carried on by next generation blues giants like Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield.
There are movies about hemp (“Bringing it Home”); the double nightmare of an Islamic rape victim (“Everything is Fine Here”); drive-in theaters (“Going Attractions”); Gore Vidal (“Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia”); extreme ski/base jumping (“McConkey”); the great Pacific gyre (“Plastic Paradise”); gay cowboys (“Queens & Cowboys: A Straight Year on the Gay Rodeo”); war crimes in Afghanistan (“The Kill Team”); toxic chemicals in the environment (“The Human Experiment”); and Sonoma Valley filmmaker Casey Beck’s farm-to-table paean to natural eating (“The Organic Life”).
The list goes on and on – there are 105 films, plus enough parties to keep Dudley Do-Right in perpetual motion – and then there’s the festival within the festival featuring Latino films, with four from Cuba.
The 17th annual iteration promises to pump Sonoma full of moving images and ideas for almost a week.