Thursday, October 6, 2016

MVFF39 2016

Round about five years ago, the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) began expanding its well-established mix of Awards Season contenders, docs and programmers' discoveries to include a sizable number of prize-winners and big buzz films from Cannes and Berlin. To witness, the fest's 39th edition boasts an unprecedented nine selections from Cannes' competition as well as an autograph collector's wet dream of celebrated actors and filmmakers set to stroll its red carpet. In my ten years of covering MVFF for this blog, I've never seen it so chock full of films I'm hot to see. Here's an overview of what's got me excited, with brief thoughts on some films I've previewed. (San Francisco theatrical release dates are noted where known.)

Spanning 114 features and 88 shorts from 37 countries, the Bay Area's second largest film festival takes off on Thursday, October 6 with dueling opening night presentations. Over at the CinéArts Sequoia in Mill Valley, Toronto audience winner La La Land stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in a roundly raved-about modern musical. I wasn't taken with director Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, so color me hopeful, yet skeptical about this early Best Picture Oscar contender. Stone and Chazelle are expected to attend. The evening's other viewing opportunity is Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, which plays the Century Cinema in Corte Madera. Special festival guest Amy Adams stars as a linguistics professor called upon to communicate with newly-arrived space aliens. It'll be a bittersweet night for the Century Cinema, as Marin County's largest single-screen cinema prepares to close its doors and make way for a Scandinavian Designs store. The beloved movie house will also host a Star Wars Trilogy Event on Saturday, October 8 and then close for good after Sunday night's Nicole Kidman tribute, featuring an on-stage conversation with the actress and screening of her new film, Lion

MVFF concludes 11 days later with Jeff Nichol's Loving, which premiered in competition at Cannes. Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton star as Mildred and Richard Loving, the real-life couple whose interracial marriage in Virginia lead to the Supreme Court decision banning all anti-miscegenation statutes. The director and both stars will be on hand for a Q&A. The film also opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on November 11. Giving Loving some stiff competition on closing night will be a just-announced screening of Pablo Larraín's Jackie at the Century Larkspur. Critics are calling Natalie Portman's turn as Jackie O in the days following JFK's assassination as the performance to beat for this year's Best Actress Oscar. It's the Chilean filmmaker's first English-language film and it follows his string of darkly comic arthouse movies that includes Tony Manero, The Club (MVFF38) and 2012's Oscar-nominated No. Larraín will attend the Jackie screening and be presented with the Variety International Director of the Year Award.

MVFF also showcases Neruda, Pablo Larraín's other biopic-of-sorts from 2016. It premiered in the Director's Fortnight sidebar at Cannes and arrives at MVFF as a part of a Spotlight on Gael Garcia Bernal. The Mexican actor (and sometime director) will take part in an on-stage conversation before Larraín's fanciful, yet politically pointed film set in Chile immediately after WWII. It's perhaps Bernal's most challenging role to date, wherein he plays an imaginary police inspector in dogged pursuit of the communist poet who's been reluctantly forced underground. The actor makes an additional festival appearance in the Mexican rom-com You're Killing Me, Susanna.

¡Viva el Cine! is the MVFF39 sidebar where we encounter Pedro Almodóvar's Julieta and Kleber Mendonça Filho's Aquarius, both of which competed at Cannes. While Kleber's Aquarius isn't as audaciously inventive as his 2012 debut, Neighboring Sounds, it takes on the same issues of race and class in contemporary Brazil. The film contains one of the year's great cinematic character studies in Sonia Braga's Clara, a retired Recife writer battling developers who want to tear down the beachfront apartment building where she's the last remaining resident. Aquarius is perhaps overlong at 142 minutes, but a powerfully gratifying denouement makes the slow journey worthwhile. Unfortunately, the film became embroiled in a nasty political controversy, which prevented it from becoming Brazil's Oscar submission. (Chile on the other hand, has proudly submitted Neruda). Aquarius opens at Landmark Theatres Clay Theatre on October 28, with Braga appearing in person at select Bay Area screenings. Almodóvar's Julieta also hits the Clay on January 6.

Two additional ¡Viva el Cine! selections I've previewed are recommended. In the searingly intense The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis, a family man must decide whether to risk his safety by warning two strangers of their imminent arrest in the days of Argentina's Dirty War. I'd love to hear what others think about the film's cryptic ending. In stark contrast, Icaros: A Vision is set in a laid-back ayahuasca retreat deep in the Peruvian Amazon. The film observes the spiritual journeys of several Western "passengers" seeking enlightenment via hallucinogens, as well as the plight of a shaman's assistant who's slowly losing his vision. It was a welcome surprise to find Italian actor Filippo Timi, best known for his portrayal of Mussolini in Vincere, among the film's cast.

In addition to Pablo Larraín and Gael Garcia Bernal, MVFF attendees can serve themselves double helpings of Jim Jarmusch and Isabelle Huppert. Jarmusch's well-received Cannes competition title Paterson stars Adam Driver as a low-key Paterson, NJ bus driver who writes poetry he shares with his wife, played by esteemed Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (About Elly). Cannes is also where the director premiered Gimme Danger, his documentary on punk progenitors Iggy Pop and The Stooges that will open at Landmark Theatre's Opera Plaza on November 4. Huppert turned in a pair of wildly acclaimed performances in 2016 and MVFF has both. Mia Hansen-Løve's Things to Come premiered at Berlin and stars Huppert as a slightly unmoored philosophy professor who begins discovering new life possibilities. The actress also commands the lead role in Elle, a rape-revenge psychological thriller which is the never-dull Paul Verhoeven's first feature since 2006's Black Book. Elle premiered in Cannes' competition and opens locally at Landmark Theatre's Embarcadero Cinema on November 18. It's also France's official Oscar submission.

MVFF is often the first opportunity for Bay Area cinephiles to catch Cannes' prize-winners. This year's Palme d'Or went to Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake, marking the second time the socially conscious British director has won international art cinema's top prize. The jury's choice was a controversial one, however, as the award had been fully expected to go to Maren Ade's German comedy Toni Erdmann. The director's first film since 2009's Everybody Else was hands down the most critically acclaimed movie at the festival, but the jury shockingly awarded it zilch. Toni Erdmann is the film I most eagerly anticipate at the fest and it opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on January 20 should I want to revisit it. The other Cannes prize winner on offer is Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman, which was awarded Best Actor and Best Screenplay. It's a startling familial drama that's every bit as compelling as the Iranian director's 2011 Oscar-winning A Separation. The story centers on the emotional fallout experienced by a married couple following a mistaken identity home invasion. While the movie's title derives from the fact that the couple are acting in a local theater production of Death of a Salesman, I couldn't make a connection with Arthur Miller's play much beyond that. The Salesman opens in the Bay Area on January 13, but I'd strongly recommend catching the October 7 MVFF screening where director Farhadi is expected to appear. Incidentally, Toni Erdmann and The Salesman are the respective 2016 Oscar submissions for Germany and Iran.

The final Cannes winner snagged for MVFF39 inclusion is The Red Turtle, which won a special prize in the festival's Un Certain Regard sidebar. This wordless, animated feature about a man shipwrecked on a deserted island marks the first time that venerated Japanese animation house, Studio Ghibli, has participated in an international co-production. Director Michael Dudok de Wit previously won an Oscar for his 2001 animated short, Father and Daughter, and The Red Turtle's screenplay was written by Pascale Ferran, director of the noted French features Lady Chatterley and Bird People. While I'm not much of an animation enthusiast, I did make sure to secure a ticket for this one.

MVFF39 has also gone out of its way to secure top prize winners from this year's Berlin Film Festival. The 2016 Golden Bear was awarded to Fire at Sea, Gianfranco Rosi's documentary portrait of Lampedusa, the Sicilian island which serves as ground zero for immigration from Africa to Europe. Rosi, who also won Venice's Golden Lion three years ago with the doc Sacro GRA, will attend both MVFF showings of Fire at Sea. The film is tentatively scheduled to open at the Roxie Theater on November 11. As an avid fan of Balkan director Danis Tanovic (Cirkus Columbia, the Oscar-winning No Man's Land), I was thrilled the fest booked his Silver Bear-awarded Death in Sarajevo. Tanovic's latest is a multi-character political satire set in a troubled grand hotel, where E.U. representatives are arriving to celebrate the centenary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination. Berlin awarded its Silver Bear for Best Director to the aforementioned Mia Hansen-Løve for Things to Come. Two other Berlin selections worth considering are Terence Davies' A Quiet Passion, starring Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson, and Doris Dörrie's Fukushima, Mon Amour, an alleged German "comedy" set within Japan's radioactive Exclusion Zone.

An enticing assortment of Asian films also awaits MVFF-goers, starting with Park Chan-wook's Cannes competition entry The Handmaiden. Based on a "sapphic Victorian potboiler" transposed to 1930's Japanese-occupied South Korea, Park's latest sees the director returning to the revenge genre of earlier films like 2003's Oldboy. Should you miss it at the fest, The Handmaiden opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on October 28. I had the good fortune to preview and heartily recommend Hirokazu Kore-eda's After the Storm, which premiered in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar. The humanist filmmaker's latest family drama is about a gambling-addicted novelist-turned-private detective who rides out a typhoon in his mother's apartment, accompanied by his adoring young son and bitter ex-wife. The film bears strong similarities to Kore-eda's 2008 masterpiece Still Walking, and not just because mother and adult son are once again played by Kirin Kiki and Hiroshi Abe.

I also suggest not missing Lee Je-yong's The Bacchus Lady, which spotlights the issue of elderly South Korean women who survive by prostitution. (The film takes on a second social issue as well, but it would be too much of a spoiler to reveal here – just don't seek out the movie's original Korean title). The Bacchus Lady stars Yoon Yeo-jeong, well known for her films by Im Sang-soo and Hong Sang-soo, appearing here as a caustic streetwalker who takes in an abandoned boy. Director Lee is best recognized for 2003's Untold Scandal. Finally, The Eagle Huntress tells the tale of a plucky 13-year-old Mongolian girl who becomes, yes, a champion eagle huntress. While uplifting and gorgeous to look at, it stretches the term docu-drama to extreme limits. Every frame feels like a re-enactment. The movie opens at Landmark's Clay Theatre on November 4.

There are 30 non-fiction features at MVFF39 and as usual there's a strong emphasis on social issue and music documentaries. Fitting squarely in the first category are Company Town and Do Not Resist, both of which I've previewed and recommend. Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow's Company Town bears witness to the recent heated supervisorial race for San Francisco's District 2, which encompasses Chinatown and North Beach. The campaign pitted moderate Julie Christensen, backed by Mayor Ed Lee and fat-cat tech money (especially Air B&B) against returning progressive firebrand Aaron Peskin, a match-up that perfectly encapsulates the class struggles of today's San Francisco. The movie's guiding soul is Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, a city native and current SF Examiner staff-writer whose own grandfather was evicted from his longtime Mission district home. Co-directors Kaufman and Snitow are scheduled to attend both MFVV screenings. Craig Atkinson's Do Not Resist effectively documents the grotesque and absurd militarization of America's local police departments and is expectedly alarming, heart-sickening and thoroughly essential viewing. Both docs show up again later this month at the Roxie Theatre, Do Not Resist on the 21st and Company Town on the 28th. I've also had a look at Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, a rich and all-encompassing survey of America's beloved poet, writer, dancer, performer and civil rights activist. While the film will ultimately show up on PBS (it was made for ITVS' American Masters series), it should be well worth seeing on a big screen with an audience. Following the MVFF screenings, it will see a local theatrical release at the AMC Van Ness 14 (of all places) on October 14.

Back in 2008 MVFF screened a terrific documentary called The Wrecking Crew, which chronicled the unsung L.A. studio musicians who played on zillions of 1960's pop hits. Due to the cost of securing music rights, the movie didn't see a theatrical release until 2015. This is my way of telling you, DO NOT MISS Bang: The Bert Burns Story when it plays this year's festival. For anyone with even a passing interest in 60's Pop and R&B music, this film is compulsory stuff. Born in the Bronx in 1929 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Bertrand Russell Berns would enter the music business at age 31 and almost single-handedly introduce Afro-Caribbean rhythms to American pop and R&B music. By the time he died in the final days of 1967 at age 38 (from lingering effects of adolescent rheumatic fever), he would write and/or produce 51 iconic chart singles. Indulge me while a list a few: "Twist and Shout," "A Little Bit of Soap," "Under the Boardwalk," "Tell Him," "Cry Baby," " Baby I'm Yours," "I Want Candy," "Hang On Sloopy," "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Piece of My Heart." When Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller left Atlantic Records in 1963, Berns signed on as house producer and parlayed his success into the creation of his own label, Atlantic subsidiary Bang Records. How Berns used his mob connections to wrest control of Bang from the extortionate demands of Atlantic VP Jerry Wexler is one of many memorable yarns spun in the film.

Known as the "white soul brother," Berns seems to have been truly beloved by the R&B artists he produced, as evidenced by those who appear on camera testifying in his memory. A shortlist includes Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Ronald Isley, Wilson Picket and Cissy Houston of The Sweet Inspirations. The Exciters' lead singer Brenda Reid gives a glorious recounting of the recording session that produced the Berns-penned smash hit "Tell Him." Fellow songwriters Leiber and Stoller, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry and Jerry Ragovoy arrive with their own tales to tell, as do Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and Van Morrison. The most poignant memories, however, come from Berns' wife Ilene, a former go-go dancer who found herself a widow and mother of three at age 24. She maintained Bang Records for another 12 years and spent her life carrying on Bert Berns' legacy. The doc's narration by Steven Van Zandt was written by Bay Area music scribe Joel Selvin, based on his 2014 book, "Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of R&B." Berns' son Brett co-directed the film with established music doc maker Bob Sarles, both of whom will attend the festival. Following the October 11 screening, there will be a Bert Berns Tribute Concert at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley featuring the Flamin' Groovies and the great Betty Harris. (One of the film's most breathtaking sequences is actual footage of Harris' 1963 recording session of "It's Dark Outside," with Berns showing her exactly how he wants the acapella intro to be sung.)

MVFF's selection of new American films, representing both indie and indie-ish cinema, is where we find the bulk of the festival's eye-popping line-up of red carpet stars and filmmakers. Annette Bening, along with director Mike Mills and co-star Lucas Jade Zumann, appear at the Centerpiece screening of 20th Century Women, which arrives days after its NY Film Festival world premiere. Aaron Eckhart gets the MVFF Spotlight treatment for his latest Bleed for This, a boxing pic co-starring Miles Teller (Whiplash). Ewan McGregor comes to town with American Pastoral, an adaptation of Philip Roth's Pulitzer-winning novel that also marks the actor's directorial debut. (The film received truly awful reviews at Toronto and opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on October 28). In Dubious Battle reps another outing for James Franco as both actor and director, this time adapting John Steinbeck's Depression-era novel about a California fruit pickers strike. The Bay Area native is expected to appear at the film's October 9 screening.

Some of the most critically praised U.S. films of 2016 arrive at MVFF with their directors in tow. Kelly Reichardt will be present for the October 8 screening of Certain Women, her contemporary portrait of four intrepid Montana women. Starring Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Laura Dern and Lily Gladstone, the film also opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on October 28. Filmmaker Barry Jenkins has received ecstatic reviews for his haunting, semi-autobiographical Moonlight, a Miami-set meditation on black masculinity set in three different time periods of a young man's life. Jenkins will be on hand for the October 10 screening. Moonlight arrives at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on October 28. On October 14 MVFF pays tribute to director Julie Dash, whose seminal Daughters of the Dust was a key touchstone for Beyoncé's recent Lemonade project. The film has been completely restored for its 25th anniversary, and the festival's tribute will feature an on-stage conversation with Dash as well as a career-spanning clips reel. The restored Daughters of the Dust plays Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinema starting on December 2.

Although director Kenneth Lonergan won't be in attendance, MVFF39 also offers an early opportunity to see the critically acclaimed Manchester by the Sea, starring Casey Affleck as a troubled man who reluctantly takes on guardianship of his teenage nephew. Affleck is being roundly touted as having the lead on this year's Best Actor Oscar. There also won't be any talent present for MVFF screenings of Antonio Campos' Christine, but that shouldn't stop you from partaking in the best American film I've seen thus far in 2016. "Mind-blowing" is a cliché that aptly applies to Rebecca Hall's portrayal of Christine Chubbuck, the insecure and abrasive Florida TV news reporter who shot herself to death on live TV in 1974. With his assured direction, Campos leads us through the harrowing chain of events that caused her unhinging, and makes it all bearable with a welcome infusion of arch humor. He's aided by an amazing ensemble cast (particularly Michael C. Hall as the station's lead anchor upon whom Christine has a crush), a thoughtfully selected cheesy 70's pop soundtrack, and in-your-face art direction and costume design. Christine also works as a prescient look back at the dawn of TV news' devolvement into info-tainment, a notion Chubbuck was giving the finger to with her desperate final act.