Wednesday, October 2, 2019

MVFF42 2019

The biggest cinema celebration in the Bay Area turns 42 this year, with a spectacular line-up of movies I'm salivating to see. Running from October 3 to 13, Mill Valley Film Festival expands its traditional North Bay horizons by adding Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive as a venue. That's dynamite news for those of us dependent on public transit. Auto-less cinephiles now have a second MVFF option (in addition to the Rafael Film Center) that's easy to reach with a loaded Clipper Card. This is my 13th year blogging about MVFF and as always, I present a subjective take on what excites me among the 116 feature films on offer. Since no one can see everything at a festival, I've indicated upcoming theatrical and VOD release dates where known.

MVFF built its reputation as the first prominent autumn festival to launch "awards buzz" movies direct from the late-summer triumvirate of Venice, Telluride and Toronto. That tradition continues with the festival's 2019 "Big Night" selections. Kicking things off will be Destin Daniel Cretton's Just Mercy, the true story of a lawyer (Michael B. Jordon) attempting to free a wrongly convicted African American death row inmate (Jamie Foxx). Actors Rob Morgan, Karan Kendrick and Foxx are expected to attend opening night festivities. A second option for that evening is The King, the latest from Animal Kingdom director David Michôd. Timothée Chalamet has drawn rave notices for his Henry V portrayal, and is supported by Joel Edgerton (who co-wrote the screenplay) as Falstaff. The King will have a limited theatrical release on October 11, before hitting Netflix on November 1.

Fest attendees have dual choices on closing night as well. James Mangold's Ford vs. Ferrari stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale in a true tale of Ford Motor Company and its hell-bent determination to beat Ferrari at Le Mans speedway in 1966. In the neo-Noir Motherless Brooklyn, director-actor Edward Norton stars as a Tourette syndrome-afflicted detective in the 1950's. The film has been compared to Chinatown, exchanging that movie's L.A. water wars for the racist agenda of real-life New York city planner Robert Moses. Mangold and Norton are expected to attend their respective screenings. For this year's Centerpiece presentation, filmmaker Trey Edward Shults (Krisha, It Comes at Night) will present Waves, an African-American familial drama that has garnered unanimously ecstatic reviews.

While festivals like Cannes have recently eschewed Netflix product, MVFF exhibits no such reticence. Receiving an elevated presentation at this year's fest will be Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, an anguished tale of marital dissolution starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. Some critics are calling the film a career-high for Baumbach, who will receive a MVFF Award on behalf of the movie's ensemble cast. The director shares the stage with supporting actors Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty and Laura Dern, the latter of whom hosts a master class earlier in the day. Marriage Story gets a limited theatrical release on November 6 before surfacing on Netflix exactly one month later. 

The Two Popes and Dolemite is My Name are also Netflix titles. Popes is essentially a two-hander speculating on the machinations behind Pope Benedict's (Anthony Hopkins) resignation and Pope Francis' (Jonathan Pryce) ascension. The movie's Oscar-nominated director, Fernando Meirelles (City of God) is an expected festival guest. The Two Popes hits theaters on November 27 before popping up on Netflix December 20. Dolemite is My Name delivers the outlandish tale of how flailing African American comedian Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) invented his Dolemite character and came to make the eponymous 1975 Blaxploitation cult classic. It was written by the team that scribed Hollywood biopics Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon and Big Eyes, and is directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan). Dolemite is My Name rolls into theaters and onto Netflix October 4 and 25 respectively.

Two high-profile biopics were among the crop of summer festival premieres. Seberg stars Kristen Stewart as American actress Jean Seberg (Breathless, Paint Your Wagon) and focuses on the F.B.I.'s "concern" over her Black Panther support. Stewart will accompany the film at an in-person MVFF Spotlight tribute on October 7. Seberg is being distributed by Amazon, but no release date is imminent. The near-mythical saga of American slave liberator Harriet Tubman is the subject of Harriet, which has gathered critical praise for Cynthia Erivo's lead performance but less enthusiasm for its conventional storytelling. Director Kasi Lemmons will attend the festival and the film's release date is November 1. Although not a biopic per se, The Aeronauts recounts the mostly-true story of a record-breaking 1862 hot air balloon journey, reuniting The Theory of Everything cast members Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne. Look for that one on December 6, with VOD availability on Amazon shortly thereafter.

One of the most anticipated premieres at Venice and Toronto was The Truth, director Hirokazu Kore-eda's follow-up to last year's Palme d'Or-winning Shoplifters. Working for the first time outside Japan, his film stars Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche as opposing sides of a tempestuous mother-daughter relationship. MVFF screens the film twice – at a "special U.S. premiere" on October 11 and a "regular screening" the following day – with a curious $45/$16 ticket price differential. MVFF also affords an early look at two surefire Toronto crowd-pleasers before they hit local multiplexes. Critics had a rapturous response to Knives Out, an old-fashioned who-dunnit in the vein of Murder on the Orient Express, with an all-star cast headed by Toni Collette. Opinions were more divided on Jojo Rabbit, which won the festival's audience award. The WWII dramedy concerns a young German boy whose imaginary friend is none other than Hitler (played by the film's director, Taika Waititi). I'm a big fan of Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows), but comparisons to Holocaust-era "comedies" like Life is Beautiful give me pause. Jojo Rabbit and Knives Out arrive in theaters October 18 and November 27 respectively.

Several dozen documentaries premiere at Telluride, Venice and Toronto each year. Five that caught my attention are featured at MVFF42. British director Michael Apted receives a festival tribute accompanied by a screening of 63 Up. This marks the ninth installment of his "Up" series, wherein the same group of UK citizens were filmed at seven year intervals since 1964. It's slated for a December 13 Bay Area release and will return for February's Mostly British fest. Two docs tackle the infamous lives of Roy Cohn and Imelda Marcos. Where's My Roy Cohn? delves into the career of a self-hating gay lawyer and right-hand man to assholes Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump. It's directed by Matt Tyrnauer (Studio 54, Citizen Jane) and opens at Landmark's Clay Theatre on October 18. The Kingmaker profiles the Philippines ex-first lady and is the perfect subject for director Laura Greenfield. Her previous films The Queen of Versailles and Generation Wealth examined the nauseating excesses of the one percent. Another pair of docs take on Middle Eastern concerns. Feras Fayyad's resoundingly praised The Cave looks at life in a war-torn subterranean Syrian hospital that's mostly run by women. "Studious" has been used to describe Taghi Amirani's nine-years-in-the-making Coup 53, a deep dive into the 1953 US/UK-orchestrated coup against Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister. It no doubt benefits greatly from the skills of acclaimed Bay Area film editor Walter Murch. The directors of these five docs, save for Roy Cohn's Matt Tyrnauer, are expected to attend the festival.

I'd like to highlight two Venice premieres from Chile making their way to MVFF42. While both debuted to mixed reviews, the talent involved, combined with the unlikelihood of their ever getting another Bay Area big screen showcase, make them personal must-sees. Ema is the latest from Pablo Larraín, whose three previous films – Jackie, Neruda and The Club – all played Mill Valley. Set in the Chilean port city of Valparaiso, Ema has been tagged as a borderline-experimental, psycho-sexual melodrama. Gael García Bernal stars as a choreographer whose marriage to his lead dancer really goes off the rails. The Prince marks the feature debut of filmmaker Sebastián Muñoz. This homo-erotic, Cocteau-flavored fantasy is set in a Chilean prison circa 1970. It won Venice's Queer Lion prize and stars the incomparable Alfredo Castro (Tony Manero, From Afar), whose presence is sufficient reason to see any film. Both movies are U.S. premieres.

Now for a gander at what MVFF programmed from 2019's pre-summer festivals. By the time Mill Valley rolls around, the important Sundance films have already come and gone from the Bay Area. There are three notable exceptions this year. Alfre Woodard will receive a MVFF42 tribute, accompanied by a screening of Clemency. The beloved actress plays a maximum-security prison warden in charge of executions. The film won Sundance's Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. dramatic competition for director Chinonye Chukwu, who will also attend Woodard's tribute. Clemency will be released around Christmastime. Another Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner – this one for "vision and craft" – is Alma Har'el's Honey Boy. Written by Shia Labeouf, the film is a meta-cinema-as-therapy narrative about the actor's hardscrabble childhood and abusive relationship with his father. Labeouf portrays his own dad, with Lucas Hedges inhabiting the adult Labeouf. Amazon releases this one in theaters on November 8. The third Sundance title is Scott Z. Burns' The Report. Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, the Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) staffer who uncovered shocking secrets about the C.I.A.'s post-9/11 torture program. Both director Burns and Daniel Jones are expected in person. The Report will have a limited release November 15, followed by Amazon Prime availability two weeks later.

Berlin is the next important festival to follow Sundance. MVFF has programmed a half dozen Berlinale titles I'm hot to see, including some top prize winners. This year's Golden Bear was awarded to Synonyms by Israeli director Nadav Lapid (The Policeman, The Kindergarten Teacher). In his frantic new socio-dramedy, an ex-soldier moves to Paris in a desperate attempt to expunge his Israeli identity. Berlin's Silver Bear (aka the Grand Jury Prize) went to By the Grace of God, François Ozon's heartbreaking and methodical recounting of how three real-life adult Frenchmen sought justice against the Lyon priest who molested them as children. I had a chance to preview this one on screener and it's outstanding, especially the lead performances by Melvil Poupaud, Denis Ménochet and Swann Arlaud. It's a very different type of film for Ozon and he succeeds magnificently. By the Grace of God and Synonyms arrive in Bay Area cinemas on November 1 and 8 respectively.

Hans Petter Moland's Out Stealing Horses nabbed a Berlin prize for Outstanding Artistic Achievement, awarded to cinematographer Rasmus Videbæk. Moland is best known for 2014's Norwegian revenge thriller In Order of Disappearance. (He also directed that film's 2019 Liam Neeson-starring remake, Cold Pursuit.) Moland is expected to attend Horse's North American premiere at MVFF42, along with star Stellan Skarsgård. Another Berlin selection making its N.A. premiere at Mill Valley is Mongolian filmmaker Quan'an Wang's Öndög (Egg). Wang made a splash on the international arthouse circuit in 2006 with Tuya's Marriage, a Golden Bear winner from that year's Berlinale.

The most anticipated Berlin selection at Mill Valley could be Varda by Agnès. It's the final film from venerated filmmaker Agnès Varda, the French New Wave icon and 2018 Honorary Oscar recipient who passed in March at age 90. You should try and catch this at Mill Valley – Janus Films is distributing the film domestically, but there doesn’t appear to be a theatrical release plan. The final Berlin film I'm excited about is Marighella, a sprawling biopic about the writer-politician-revolutionary who was murdered by Brazil's military dictatorship in 1969. Carlos Marighella is played by musician Seu Jorge, best known to movie audiences as the Portuguese interpreter of David Bowie songs in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Marighella marks the directorial debut of popular Brazilian actor Wagner Moura (Elite Squad, Narcos) and it's anticipated he'll attend the movie's MVFF screenings.

Five months after this year's Cannes Film Festival, only Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die have surfaced in the Bay Area. MVFF42 had a plentitude of Cannes films from various competitions and sidebars to choose from and their 17 selections don't disappoint. The festival brings us a whopping 11 titles from the main competition alone, including Bong Joon-ho's Palme d'Or-winning Parasite. Described by Variety's Jessica Kiang as a "tick fat with the blood of class rage," the latest from genre filmmaker Bong (The Host, Memories of Murder) reps the first Korean win for art cinema's highest accolade. Parasite arrives in Bay Area theaters October 18.

Although MVFF either could not, or chose not, to procure Cannes' Grand Prix winner Atlantics (available on Netflix November 29), they did secure the two films which tied for the Prix du Jury (or 3rd place). Bacurau is the latest from Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius), who has emerged as Brazil's most important new cinematic voice. His new work (co-directed by Juliano Dornelles) is described as a dystopian genre exercise in which rural villagers find themselves the target of American game hunters (lead by the inimitable Udo Kier!). Prix du Jury co-winner Les Misérables is not yet another adaptation of Hugo's novel, but a contemporary "street thriller" pitting Parisian cops against the city's suburban underclass. France has chosen Malian-born director Ladj Ly's feature debut as its 2020 Oscar submission, which Ly adapted from his same-titled 2017 short. 

Both Cannes acting awards are on display at MVFF42. Antonio Banderas took Best Actor for Pedro Almodóvar's meta-autobiographical Pain and Glory. Here the star of many early Almodóvar joints (Law of Desire, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) portrays a creatively blocked filmmaker visiting his past via Fellini-esque vignettes. It's worth noting Pain and Glory opens in Bay Area theaters while the festival is still in session. Cannes' Best Actress prize was awarded to Emily Beecham for her role in Little Joe, the English-language debut of Austrian director Jessica Hausner (Amour Fou, Lourdes). Beecham plays a scientific plant breeder in a film Variety's Owen Gleiberman calls "an Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the age of antidepressants." Little Joe won't show up in local theaters until late 2019. Two additional competition prizes were handed to Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The director won Best Screenplay for her story about an 18th century countess' daughter (the beguiling Adéle Haenel) who falls for the female artist hired to paint her portrait. The film, which comes to U.S. theaters in early December, also won Cannes' Queer Palm.

From among the non-prize winners, I'm most looking forward to Ira Sach's Frankie. Isabelle Huppert heads an all-star cast in this dramedy about a dying movie star vacationing with family in Portugal. Despite some mixed reviews, the combo of Huppert and Sachs (Love is Strange, Little Men) renders this unmissable. Sachs will be on hand for the October 6 screening and the film opens in the Bay Area November 1. I also find myself, somewhat surprisingly, looking forward to Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life, starring August Diehl (The Young Karl Marx) as a WWII German conscientious objector. Ever since 2011's Palme d'Or-winning The Tree of Life, I've found Malick's copious output either disappointing or insufferable. But I'm optimistic about A Hidden Life and look forward to its mid-December release.

Romanian auteur Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest, Police, Adjective) is another director whose early works thrilled me, but whose recent films literally put me to sleep. His latest is The Whistlers, a cops-vs-mafia comedic Noir that sounds nutty enough – a secret whistling language from the Canary Islands is a major plot component – that I can't help but be intrigued. The movie isn't slated for U.S. release until February 2020. Then there's The Traitor, a welcome new film from veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio (Fists in the Pocket, Vincere). The Traitor explores the real-life story of Tommaso Buscetta, the highest-ranking Mafia don to ever cooperate with authorities. November 27 is its targeted U.S. release date. The Whistlers and The Traitor are both 2020 Oscar submissions from their respective countries.

The only film from Cannes made available for press preview was Ken Loach's Sorry We Missed You. This new movie from the populist UK filmmaker – and two-time Palme d'Or winner – rightfully racked up euphoric reviews, but inexplicably left the festival prize-less. Here the director aims squarely at the horrors of the so-called 'gig economy', as we watch a formally middle-class family implode when the father becomes a 'self-employed' parcel deliveryman. Despite moments of fleeting optimism, the movie is often unbearably stressful to watch. Rack that up as a testament to Loach's imperative as a chronicler of working class struggles. If you miss Sorry to Miss You at Mill Valley, it reappears at February's Mostly British festival before an early March 2020 U.S. release.

Shifting gears to Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar, MVFF42 features three lauded works from the line-up. I'm really excited about seeing Karim Aïnouz's The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, which claimed the sidebar's top prize. I've admired the Brazilian filmmaker since his 2002 feature debut, Madame Satã. Described as a "tropical melodrama," Invisible Life unravels the fatalistic tale of two beloved Rio sisters who become separated by familial strictures. The Un Certain Regard prize for best director was handed to Russian filmmaker Kantemir Balagov for Beanpole. Balagov stirred controversy at Cannes two years ago, when his Un Certain Regard entry Closeness triggered walkouts (for including footage deemed an anti-Semitic snuff film). Beanpole, which depicts the struggles of two female hospital workers in post-siege Leningrad, was much better received and even secured U.S. distribution through Kino Lorber. (Closeness, meanwhile, was recently made available on streaming platform MUBI). Invisible Life and Beanpole have both been submitted for 2020 Oscar consideration. The third Un Certain Regard title gracing MVFF42 is The Swallows of Kabul, a tragic animated love story set during Taliban-era Afghanistan.

The biggest buzz emerging from Cannes' Directors' Fortnight sidebar was The Lighthouse, a hallucinatory Gothic yarn about a 19th century lighthouse keeper's (Wilem Dafoe) contentious relationship with his new assistant (Robert Pattinson). Director Robert Eggers (The Witch) shot the film in B&W, employing a 1:19:1 aspect ratio. MVFF screens the film just once, with Pattinson in person. Tickets, were they still available (they're not), would set you back a wallet-busting $95. I'll wait for the film's general release on October 18. Another Directors' Fortnight selection featuring monochrome cinematography and boxy aspect ratio is Melina León's Song Without a Name. In 1988 Peru, an indigenous woman enlists a gay journalist to investigate the disappearance of babies stolen from bogus birth clinics. A third title lifted from the DF sidebar is Levan Akin's And Then We Danced. Herein an aspiring male dancer with the National Georgian Ballet develops a same-sex attraction with a competitive new arrival. Oddly enough, the movie will be Sweden's 2020 Oscar submission. (Director Akin is Swedish and the film is a Swedish-Georgian-French co-production). Fortunately, both Song Without a Name and And Then We Danced commanded sufficient critical praise to acquire U.S. distribution, so chances are MVFF won't be our lone opportunity to experience them. The directors of both films are expected at the festival.

There's great stuff to catch at MVFF42 besides importations from other festivals. I'm especially thrilled to have a ticket for Martin Scorsese's hotly anticipated The Irishman, which arrives in theaters November 1 before its Netflix debut on November 27. I'll also be in the house for the fest's tribute to ubiquitous character actor and former San Quentin inmate Danny Trejo (Machete), featuring the U.S. premiere of the bio-doc Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo. Other notable in-person appearances include a spotlight on director Olivia Wilde (Booksmart) and a tribute to actress Barbara Rush. The 92-year-old Rush held down one of the most eclectic careers in film and television history. Credits range from 1953's It Came from Outer Space (for which she won a Golden Globe for "Most Promising Newcomer – Female") to 60's primetime soap Peyton Place to 1980 disco extravaganza Can't Stop the Music. Screenings of recent film restorations will also be accompanied by impressive in-person talent. Director Philip Kaufman and actress Lena Olin will be on hand for 1988's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, ditto filmmaker Nancy Kelly and actress Rosalind Chao with 1990's Thousand Pieces of Gold. Last but not least, rapper Snoop Dogg will DJ at the Sweetwater Music Hall on October 11, with proceeds benefitting the restoration of Mill Valley's Sequoia Theatre.