Thursday, October 4, 2018
For most of its life, the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) was best recognized for showcasing domestic Awards Season contenders, documentaries, shorts and world cinema "discoveries." Now with its 41st edition (October 4 – 14), the fest continues along a trajectory that began a half dozen years ago, with greater emphasis on prize winners and buzzed-about titles from the world's major festivals. When it comes to turning Bay Area audiences on to new works by significant international narrative filmmakers, MVFF is currently where it's at.
Although I recently moved from the Bay Area and won't experience 2018's event in person, I couldn't help but share my excitement with the line-up. What follows is a subjective festival-by-festival stroll through MVFF41's terrific roster, with thoughts on a few titles I was able to preview.
By the time autumn rolls around, most Sundance films have already played the Bay Area, with the lion's share debuting locally at the SFFILM Festival. Each year, however, there is one Sundance film that is so critically acclaimed, its release is postponed for maximum Awards Season exposure. Last year that film was Call Me By Your Name. This year it's actor Paul Dano's directorial debut, Wild Life, a familial drama set in 1960's Montana starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal. The film receives a Spotlight presentation at MVFF41, with Dano and Mulligan in attendance, and will open in local Landmark Theatres on October 26. Another Sundance holdout getting the Mill Valley Spotlight treatment is The Kindergarten Teacher, accompanied by its star Maggie Gyllenhaal. The movie is a remake of Nadav Lapid's acclaimed 2014 Israeli drama about a teacher's obsession with a boy who composes alarmingly sophisticated poetry. Director Sara Colangelo won a Sundance Directing Award for her reinterpretation. The Kindergarten Teacher is scheduled to open at Bay Area Landmark Theatres on October 12, the very day it also becomes available to stream on Netflix.
Premiering in Sundance's World Cinema dramatic competition this year was Babis Makridis' Pity, which I had the chance to preview. This bone-dry, absurdist film fits squarely within the Greek Weird Wave movement, unsurprising given its script was co-written by frequent Yorgos "Dogtooth" Lanthimos co-conspirator Efthymis Filippou. Yannis Drakopoulos (Chevalier) plays a middle-aged Greek lawyer who festishistically wallows in the pity afforded him by merit of having a comatose wife. When she miraculously recovers, we witness the extremes to which the lawyer goes in order to keep his pity party going, such as setting off a tear gas canister to forcibly kick-start a crying jag. Although rigidly formalist – with minimal camera movement or non-ambient music, deadpan dialogue delivery, lethargic pacing and intertitles expressing the protagonist's inner thoughts – there are several moments of gut-busting hilarity. This is a movie that requires much patience, for which the viewer is ultimately rewarded.
While MVFF chose not to program Touch Me Not, the divisive recipient of this year's Golden Bear, it nabbed a number of other Berlin prizewinners. The festival's Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize (aka 2nd place) went to Mug, director Malgorzata Szumowska's fable-esque satire of life in rural Poland. Her film concerns the prejudices faced by a young man who undergoes a facial transplant, following a work-related accident constructing a hillside, Rio-sized Jesus statue. The best screenplay prize at Berlin was awarded to Museo, Alonso Ruizpalacios' impressive follow-up to 2014's Gueros, which I had the good fortune to preview. Based on true events, this rollicking and enormously entertaining heist/road movie combo stars Gael García Bernal as one-half of a duo who rob Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology on Christmas Eve in 1985. The film's manic second half follows its anti-heroes as they face the impossibility of fencing hot antiquities. Director Ruizpalacios is expected to attend the festival, and his film will open at San Francisco's Roxie Theatre on November 2.
A second Ibero-American film that won a Berlin prize is The Silence of Others, which was executive produced by brothers Augustín and Pedro Almodóvar. This documentary about the victims of General Franco's 40-year fascist dictatorship in Spain garnered the audience award in the festival's Panorama sidebar. Its co-director Robert Bahar will attend the film's MVFF screenings.
Three additional Berlin premieres I had the opportunity to preview were all women-directed films centered on rebellious female characters. I would ordinarily have zero interest in a movie about the early life of the Swedish writer who created Pippi Longstocking, but a rave review in Variety convinced me otherwise. Pernille Fischer Christensen's Becoming Astrid is indeed notches above your standard biopic – a low-key, heartfelt, gorgeously filmed wide-screen portrait tracing writer Astrid Lindgren's journey from restive farm girl with journalistic aspirations to a single mother tempered by hard knocks on the cusp of literary fame. In When the Trees Fall, Marysia Nikitiuk's alternately gritty and fanciful story of amour fou, the life of a rural Ukrainian beauty spills into tumult over her passion for a handsome, smalltime thug. I was particularly struck by the film's contrasts – sensual agrarian landscapes vs. ugly Soviet-era apartment blocks, semi-explicit sex and violence vs. flights of magical realist fantasy. The latter element plays into what could be the most memorable end of a film I've experienced this year. Director Nikitiuk is expected to accompany both MVFF showings of When the Trees Fall.
Laura Bispuri's Daughter of Mine was probably my favorite of all the MVFF films I previewed, a surprise considering my tepid feelings for her previous work, Sworn Virgin. In this emotionally complex, empathetic story of motherhood and forgiveness, a young Sardinian girl gradually learns that her real mother is not the benevolent woman who raised her, but the mercurial town slut whom is she is beginning to physically resemble. Bispuri employs handheld camera and succinct editing to convey the urgency of the two mothers' power struggle, and is aided by a trio of unforgettable performances (including Sworn Virgin star Alba Rohrwacher). The great cult actor Udo Kier is largely wasted in a nondescript supporting role.
I was also greatly taken with Transit, from eminent German filmmaker Christian Petzold. His latest is a knotty, formalist melodrama set in Marseilles during the early advance of German troops through WWII France. Actor Franz Rogowski plays a concentration camp survivor awaiting the transit visas that will allow him safe passage to Mexico. The fact that he has assumed the identity of a dead writer whose estranged wife drifts in and out of the story adds layer upon layer to the film's intrigue. Petzold's extremely bold conceit with Transit is that no effort was made to give the film a period look. The art direction and costumes are all contemporary, with modern day cars traversing Marseille's graffiti-lined streets (cell phones and other technology, however, remain unseen). There's even a spoken reference to a "film in which zombies besiege a shopping mall." The director's clear and quite brilliant intent in all this is to show us how close we are to repeating history.
One could arguably have a sublime MVFF41 experience just by catching the 14 titles culled from this year's Cannes Film Festival, including seven that screened in the main competition. Starting at the top, there's Hirokazu Koreeda's Shoplifters, which won the fest's 2018 Palme d'Or. The supremely humanist director's latest centers on a family living on the economic fringes of modern day Japan. Cannes' third-place Prix du Jury was awarded to Nadine Labaki's Capernaum, a Lebanon-set contemporary fable about a young boy who files a lawsuit against his parents. One of the most anticipated films of the year is Cold War, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski's follow-up to his 2013 Oscar winner, Ida. The filmmaker won Cannes' Best Director prize for this elliptical, trans-European B&W saga of star-crossed love between a singer and a jazz musician, loosely based on Pawlikowski's parents. Cold War will screen just once at the festival, accompanied by an on-stage conversation with the director and presentation of this year's MVFF Award.
If there was a scandal in the distribution of main competition prizes at Cannes this year, it was that Lee Chang-dong's unanimously rave-reviewed Burning left empty handed. In a redress of sorts, the festival's FIPRESCI jury awarded Lee's first film since 2010's Poetry its top prize. Burning is scheduled to open at local Landmark Theatres on November 16. The remaining Cannes' competition titles scheduled for MVFF include Ash is Purest White, the latest from "Sixth Generation" Chinese auteur Jia Zhengke, 3 Faces, the fourth clandestine film to be directed by Iranian master Jafar Panahi since his 2010 arrest and subsequent ban from movie-making, and Yomeddine, a road movie and first feature from Egyptian director A.B. Shawsky in which a leper and an orphan search for their respective families. Yomeddine will also screen locally at this month's Arab Film Festival. Although it didn't play in competition, this is as good a place as any to mention Cannes' 2018 opening night film, Asghar Farhadi's Everybody Knows. The Iranian director's follow-up to 2016's Oscar-winning The Salesman is a Spain-set kidnapping drama starring Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Ricardo Darin. Although it received extremely mixed reviews, it's admirable of MVFF to afford local audiences the opportunity to judge for themselves.
In addition to the seven competition titles, MVFF has programmed some of the most talked about films from Cannes' various sidebars. Opening up the Directors' Fortnight line-up this year was Ciro Guerra's Birds of Passage. The Columbian director's follow-up to his phenomenal 2015 Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent is a familial drug-war drama set amongst that country's indigenous Wayúu tribe. Also hailing from Directors' Fortnight is Benedikt Erlingsson's rave-reviewed Woman at War, an Icelandic social drama about an environmental activist which is also tinged with comedy and music. Anyone who saw Erlingsson's singular 2013 film Of Horses and Men will know to expect the unexpected.
MVFF also presents four films from Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar, including two prize winners. The section's top award was given to Ali Abbasi's Border. A Nordic Noir with supernatural elements, Border's main character is a facially disfigured Danish customs agent possessed of the ability to (literally) sniff out transgressors. Un Certain Regard's screenplay award was given to Sofia, whose writer/director Meryem Benm'Berek will attend MVFF. Her film details the plight of a young Moroccan woman who clandestinely gives birth, and is then given 24 hours to name a father or face prison time. Luis Ortega's El Angel is a fictionalized portrait of Argentina's infamous baby-faced serial killer "Carlitos" Puch, who committed over 40 thefts and 11 homicides before his 1972 capture at age 20. (Still in custody today, he is the longest serving prisoner in that country's history). El Angel arrives in Bay Area Landmark Theatres on November 16.
Rounding out MVFF's wide variety of movies from Un Certain Regard is Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki, the lone Cannes selection I was able to preview. In this rare example of African LGBT-themed cinema, a middle-class Kenyan tomboy with aspirations of becoming a nurse becomes involved with a sensual town beauty. The catch is that both their fathers are running for the same political office. While Rafiki (which means "friend" in Swahili) isn't particularly compelling in terms of cinematic achievement, it is nonetheless chock full of cultural interest, with solid performances and a gallery of interesting secondary characters. It's also mostly in English, which is might be a good selling point for those who are subtitle-averse.
I'm lumping the triumvirate of Venice, Toronto and Telluride into one category because most of the movies up for Awards Seasons consideration hail from one or more of these late summer festivals. Exhibiting awards contenders, more often than not accompanied by their respective actors and directors, has been MVFF's longtime forte. That tradition continues into the fest's 41st edition, starting with the opening night presentation of Green Book. The title refers to "The Negro Motorist Green Book," a guide for African American travelers wishing to avoid racial discrimination along America's highways and bi-ways, which was in print from 1936 to 1966. The film Green Book recounts a 1962 concert tour taken by composer/pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), accompanied by his racist, Italian-American chauffeur and bodyguard Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen carrying 30 extra pounds). This Driving Miss Daisy in reverse was directed by Peter Farrelly (yes, one-half of the Farrelly Brothers who gave us Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary, etc.) Fresh from its Audience Award win at Toronto, MVFF's opening night will feature director Farrelly and star Mahershala Ali in person. Speaking of Ali, the festival's closing night film will be If Beale Street Could Talk, the latest from Moonlight director Barry Jenkins. The filmmaker's follow-up to his 2016 Best Picture Oscar winner is an adaptation of James Baldwin's 1974 novel. Jenkins will attend the screening, accompanied by its star, actress Kiki Layne.
Two of the most prominent films of this Awards Season, as these things sometimes happen, both contain "boy" in their two-word titles. Beautiful Boy is an adaptation of David and Nic Sheff's best-selling father/son memoirs detailing their family's years-long struggle with addiction, relapse and recovery. The film is directed by Felix Van Groeningun (Oscar-nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown) and stars Timothée Chalamet, Steve Carell and Amy Ryan. The filmmaker and all three actors will be on hand for the screening. The other "boy" film is Boy Erased, in which a gay teen (Manchester by the Sea's Lucas Hedges) is forced into a gay conversion therapy program by his Baptist preacher father (Russell Crowe) and mother (Nicole Kidman). Boy Erased reps actor/filmmaker Joel Edgerton's directorial follow-up to 2016's Loving (he also plays the conversion program's head therapist) and the movie's intriguing supporting cast includes French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan and Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist Flea. The film is part of a MVFF Spotlight on Joel Edgerton, with the actor/director in attendance. Beautiful Boy and Boy Erased are scheduled to arrive at Bay Area Landmark Theatres on October 19 and November 2 respectively.
One much-anticipated film that played all three festivals is Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, which went on to win the top prize (Golden Lion) at Venice. Cuaron's first film since 2015's Gravity is a semi-autobiographical B&W meditation on the director's early 1970's Mexico City childhood, with particular focus bestowed upon the family maid, Cleo. Mexico has chosen Roma as its 2018 Oscar submission, and it's not inconceivable the film could end up being nominated in both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film categories. Cuaron will be at MVFF to introduce the film personally, where it screens as the festival's Centerpiece.
Other MVFF selections by high-profile auteurs I can't wait to see include Paul Greengrass' 22 July (an English-language recreation of Norway's bloody 2011 domestic terrorist attack, which opens in local Landmark Theatres and Netflix streaming on October 10), Yorgos Lanthimos' first period piece The Favourite (which won a Best Actress prize at Venice for lead Olivia Colman), Olivier Assayas' Non-Fiction (working once again with Juliet Binoche), Mike Leigh's historical epic Peterloo, and Widows, Steve McQueen's long awaited follow-up to 12 Years a Slave (starring Viola Davis as a crime widow making good on her deceased husband's heist plans).