Monday, October 2, 2017

Berlin & Cannes @ MVFF40 2017

The Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) turns 40 this year and will celebrate that milestone with a program that could be its biggest and best yet. Running from October 5 to 15, MVFF40 boasts yet another spectacular docket of filmmakers (Richard Linklater, Todd Haynes, Dee Rees, Sean Baker, Greta Gerwig) and actors (Holly Hunter, Andrew Garfield, Sean Penn, Kristin Scott Thomas) ready to make a Northern California pilgrimage to promote their autumn Awards Season projects. In total, the line-up encompasses nearly 120 features and 90 shorts from 52 countries – an impressive 43 percent of which were helmed by women filmmakers.

This year's festival is so chock-full of tributes, spotlights, sections, sidebars, panels, workshops and music programs – there's even a Cannabis Culture focus in anticipation of 2018's legalization of recreational weed – that it would be a fool's errand to try and survey it all in one preview. For me, the most exciting thing about MVFF is finally catching the wealth of new films that premiered earlier in the year at major international festivals like Berlin, Cannes and to a lesser extent, Sundance. What follows is a festival-by-festival glance at which movies I'm most hotly anticipating at MVFF40.


By the time MVFF rolls around, most of Sundance's prestige titles have already played the Bay Area or, as is often the case these days, gone directly to Netflix streaming. The exceptions tend to be films with massive critical acclaim, which prompts their distributors to squirrel them away for awards season roll-out. One such movie is Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name, an Italian-set, coming-of-age drama starring Armie Hammer as a 24-year-old doctoral student who sets off on a love affair with his employer's 17-year-old son. It's one of the best-reviewed flicks of 2017, with James Ivory's screenplay being singled out for special praise. Unfortunately, the film recently became the target of a hypocritical homophobic tweet by actor James Woods. Call Me By Your Name opens in Bay Area theatres on November 24.

Another title lauded at Sundance was Dee Rees' Mudbound, a gritty familial drama about racism in post-WWII Mississippi. Rees' previous works include 2011's lesbian coming-out tale Pariah and HBO's Bessie Smith biopic. Both Rees and Mudbound will be the subjecy of a special MVFF Spotlight program on October 7 and the movie begins streaming on Netflix beginning November 17. It remains unclear if it will also receive a local theatrical release, meaning MVFF could be our only opportunity to experience Mudbound on the big screen. A third Sundance title I'm excited about is the Georgian film My Happy Family, from the same directors as 2013's magnificent In Bloom.

While the 2017 Golden Bear winner On Body and Soul remains curiously M.I.A., nearly every other Berlin prizewinner earned a slot at MVFF40. A Fantastic Woman is Chilean director Sebastián Lelio's follow-up to his international hit Gloria, for which Paulina Garcia won Berlin's 2013 best actress prize. Leilo's tale of a transgender woman dealing with the family of her recently deceased partner won awards for best screenplay, as well as the Teddy Award for best narrative feature – arguably the world's most prestigious prize for LGBT cinema. Berlin's 2017 best actress prize went to Kim Min-hee for her performance in Hong Sang-soo's On the Beach at Night Alone. The film was inspired by Kim's real-life relationship with the married director Hong, which caused a huge public scandal in their home country South Korea. Hong is currently Asia's most prolific arthouse filmmaker, with On the Beach being just one of three movies he's released this year.

Alain Gomis' Félicité was chosen for Berlin's second highest award, the Grand Jury Prize. This music-filled drama centers around a Senegalese bar singer who's attempting to raise money after her son is injured in a car accident. The festival's singular Alfred Bauer Prize, awarded each year to a film that "opens new perspectives on cinematic art," was given to Agnieszka Holland's Spoor. Three of the Polish director's previous films have been nominated for Oscars and this Fargo-like murder mystery set in a wintry mountain village could possibly become her fourth.

I had the chance to preview, and heartily recommend two Berlin titles dealing with the Syrian crisis in radically different ways. Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki won the festival's best director prize for The Other Side of Hope, in which an asylum-seeking Syrian mechanic finds refuge working in an oddball restaurant. The director's immediately recognizable style is in full effect, with its acute humanism, deadpan humor, candy-colored cinematography and retro art direction and music. I was somewhat perplexed by its aloof ending. In sharp contrast, Philippe Van Leeuw's intense and at times unbearably brutal In Syria gives viewers a front row seat to that country's civil war horrors. Incomparable Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (The Lemon Tree, The Visitor) stars as the matriarch of the last family to remain in a Damascus apartment building under blockade. The film is set during a 24-hour period and the action never leaves the building's confines. Best known as a cinematographer (he shot Bruno Dumont's The Life of Jesus), this is only Van Leeuw's second outing as writer/director. In Syria won the Audience Award in Berlin's Panorama sidebar and was easily my favorite of the MVFF40 films I previewed. If you miss it at MVFF, the film screens twice at this month's Arab Film Festival.

Another Berlin entry I can recommend is Élise Girard's Strange Birds, which builds on a recent mini-trend in French cinema for self-contained, enigmatic films that are barely feature length (e.g. Nights With Theodore, A World Without Women, Vincent). Lolita Chammah stars as Mavie, a reticent young woman from the provinces who tumbles into a job at a Parisian bookstore. The owner is Georges, a mysterious misanthrope (veteran Jean Sorel, Belle de Jour), who seems to have plenty of money despite a complete absence of customers. When his shady past comes home to roost, Georges goes on the lam, leaving Mavie to strike up a friendship with Roman (Pascal Cervo, 4 Days in France), a possible anti-nuclear terrorist she meets at a screening of Satyajit Ray's Charulata. All of this so-called "action" is rendered in a wistful, tongue-in-cheek fashion. Directorial flourishes run the gamut from voiceover conversations that may or may not be imaginary, to iris shots employed for scene transitions and a running gag of dead sea gulls falling out of the sky. Paris itself is lovingly rendered by cinematographer Renato Berta. Franco-cinephiles probably know that Lolita Chammah is the daughter is Isabelle Huppert and producer/director Ronald Chammah. The latter makes a rare on-screen appearance in Strange Birds as a dead body being dragged out of George's bookstore.

Despite receiving mixed reviews at Berlin, I'm very much looking forward to catching The Party, Sally Potter's first new film in five years. Shot in B&W and in "real/reel" time, this acidic black comedy set during a chic London dinner party boasts a ridiculously beguiling cast that includes Kristin Scott Thomas, Bruno Ganz, Timothy Spall, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Patricia Clarkson and Cherry Jones. It was announced at the festival press conference that Ms. Thomas, who'll be in town for the October 6 Opening Night screening of Darkest Hour (where she plays Mrs. Winston Churchill), plus her own MVFF tribute on October 7, will stick around one extra day so that she can attend the October 8 showing of The Party. Rounding out MVFF40's line-up from Berlin are a pair of promising films from its Panorama sidebar, Song Chuan's Ciao Ciao from China, and Brazilian entry Vazante from director Daniela Thomas.

The Cannes Film Festival's top three prizes are the Palme d'Or, the Grand Prix and the Prix du Jury. Amazingly, MVFF40 managed to score all three. This year's Palme went to Ruben Östlund's The Square. I was a huge fan of his previous film, 2014's Force Majeure, and am therefore keen to catch this provocative satire centered around a Stockholm art museum director. The Square is also scheduled to open at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on November 10. The festival's second highest honor was awarded to Robin Campillo's exuberant BPM (Beats Per Minute), which is set during the AIDS crisis in 1989 and deals with the rise of Paris' ACT UP chapter. The film also won the festival's FIPRESCI prize and Queer Palm. Although Campillo is best known for co-writing most of Laurent Cantet's screenplays, including 2008's Palme d'Or winner The Class, his two previous directorial efforts They Came Back and Eastern Boys are well worth seeking out. For those who miss BPM at MVFF40, it opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinemas on October 27. Lastly we have jury prize winner Loveless from Oscar-nominated director Andrey Zvyagintsev (2014's Leviathan). Zvyagintsev is possibly Russian's greatest contemporary filmmaker (along with Sergei Loznitsa) and his new work focuses on an acrimonious divorce and the disappearance of a couple's 12-year-old son. It's worth noting that The Square, BPM and Loveless are all 2018 Oscar submissions from their respective countries of origin.

From elsewhere in Cannes' main competition, MVFF40 has programmed In the Fade from noted German-Turkish director Fatih Akin (Head On, The Edge of Heaven). Mixed reviews didn't stop the festival from awarding its Best Actress prize to Diane Kruger, who plays a woman seeking revenge against the neo-Nazis that killed her husband and son. Cannes' Palm Dog Award was initiated in 2001 for the year's best canine performance and 2017's winner was Einstein, for his role as "Bruno" in Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories. Baumbach's latest work unites Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson as a dysfunctional NYC family. The film opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinemas on October 13, the same day it begins streaming on Netflix. The remaining Cannes prizewinner making its local debut is Ecumenical Jury Award recipient Radiance. The new age-y, sentimental-borderline-maudlin films of Japanese director Naomi Kawase are an acquired taste I've yet to acquire.

The only Cannes competition title offered for preview was Todd Haynes' Wonderstruck, which the festival was kind enough to screen at San Francisco's magnificent new Dolby Theatre. Based on a novel by Brian Selznick (who also wrote the screenplay), Wonderstruck marvelously conflates two storylines set 50 years apart, both concerning a hearing-impaired child who runs away to NYC. While a number of critics have disparaged the film as mawkish, I for one fell completely under its sway. At the very least, Wonderstruck's technical achievements are nothing short of sublime. The production design and art direction are to die for, especially the evocation of 1977 Manhattan and the NY Museum of Natural History in 1927. Sandy Powell's costumes will no doubt earn her a 12th Oscar nomination and Carter Burwell's electric guitar-flavored score is one of his best. Haynes' ongoing collaboration with cinematographer Ed Lachman continues to be one of the most fruitful in contemporary cinema, and Affonso Gonçalves' editing adroitly juggles the two parallel storylines. Wonderstruck screens once at MVFF40, as part of an in-person tribute to Haynes on October 13. The film's U.S. theatrical roll-out begins one week later.

Perhaps the best reviewed film at Cannes, with a current 100% Rotten Tomatoes freshness rating, was one that screened outside of any sidebar or competition. Faces Places links the talents of 89-year-old French auteur Agnès Varda and 34-year-old French photo-muralist JR as they travel the countryside producing outsized, outdoor photo murals of people they encounter. The film seems a shoe-in for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar nomination, which would be doubly sweet considering that AMPAS will be giving Varda an honorary Oscar this year. Faces Places opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinemas on October 27.

Another Cannes documentary that drew considerable praise is Barbet Schroeder's The Venerable W, which I had the chance to preview and strongly recommend. The film is a disturbing profile of Wirathru, the Myanmar monk whose racist, anti-Muslim views have exacerbated the country's genocide against its Rohingya Muslim minority. Schroeder has declared The Venerable W as the third part of a Trilogy of Evil, following 1974's General Idi Amin Dada and 2007's Terror's Advocate (the latter concerns Klaus Barbie/Carlos the Jackal/Khmer Rouge lawyer Jacques Vergès). It sadly and effectively demonstrates how Buddhism can be manipulated and used for fucked-up purposes just like any other religion on earth. In one telling birds-of-a-feather sequence, Wirathru warns that "in the U.S. if people want to maintain peace and security, they must choose Donald Trump." Given recent events in Myanmar, The Venerable W is even more urgent than when it premiered at Cannes back in May. Screenings of the film will be preceded by a 14-minute short, Where Are You At, Barbet Schroeder?, in which the director reflects on Myanmar's genocide through the filter of his own life-long dedication to Buddhism.

Moving on to Cannes' various sidebars, I'm super excited about Sean Baker's The Florida Project, which premiered in Director's Fortnight. Baker's previous film Tangerine was my second favorite movie of 2015, and his latest is said to be another empathetic valentine to America's marginalized. This time his focus is on the denizens of a run-down motel outside Orlando's Disney World wherein Willem Dafoe has garnered considerable praise for his portrayal of the motel's crustily benevolent manager. Happily, Sean Baker is expected at both MVFF40 screenings, which occur just days before its October 13 Bay Area theatrical debut at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinemas. Also hailing from Director Fortnight is Claire Denis' Let the Sunshine In, which was the sidebar's opening night film. Juliette Binoche stars in this wry comedy about a divorced woman seeking true love, and she's supported by an impressive cast that includes Gérard Depardieu, Nicholas Duvauchelle and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi. A third film culled from the DF roster is Jonas Carpignano's A Ciambra, which Italy has selected as its 2018 Oscar submission.

MVFF40 has also gathered three intriguing titles from Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar. The one with the biggest buzz and critical acclaim is Valeska Grisebach's Western, a culture clash drama that pits resistant local yokels against a group of boorish Germans brought to Bulgaria to build a water power plant. Then in Annarita Zambrano's After the War, a former Italian terrorist residing in France with his teenage daughter is forced into hiding in order to evade extradition back to Italy. The third UCR selection at MVFF40 is Cecilia Atan and Valeria Pivato's The Desert Bride, an Argentine film starring the terrific Paulina Garcia (Gloria, Little Men) as a cautious urbanite who discovers potential transformation in her new rural locale.