Pilgramages

MVFF40 Wrap-Up

In recent years, I have spent the first two weeks of October covering the Mill Valley Film Festival (check out my MVFF37 coverage HERE, my MVFF38 coverage HERE and my MVFF39 coverage HERE).  The festival celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, honoring the gamut of independent film, from star-heavy productions with awards in their sights (Sean Penn,  Greta Gerwig and Andrew Garfield were among the celebs who passed through town) to low-budget local productions that might never screen publicly again.

I intended to cover this year’s festival in the usual copious detail, but quality screeners were especially scarce this year, and my plans to visit Mill Valley/San Rafael were waylaid first by work and later by my reluctance to travel into the fire zone (donate to fire victims HERE).  But I did screen a handful of films before my plans collapsed, so I’ll talk about them in this space.

In many respects, writer-director Jessica M. Thompson’s debut feature The Light of the Moon (GRADE: B-) is the sort of movie that you attend film festivals to discover.  It tells the story of Bonnie (Stephanie Beatriz), a successful New Yorker who gets raped while walking home one night, deeply affecting her personal and professional relationships.  The production values are low and the performances are amateurish, but the film is thoughtful and detailed and non-exploitative, and Thompson is clearly one to watch.

A less delicate but more striking discovery comes in the form of Alain Gomis’ Félicité (GRADE: B), a Kinshasa-set hybrid of kitchen sink drama and dreamy musical.  Molten-lava newcomer Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu stars in the title role, playing a bar singer scraping for money after her hooligan son gets in a motorcycle accident.  Save for the rhythms, this could be a Dardenne Brothers production.

Swiss director Petra Volpe is another up-and-coming auteur, and the arthouse-ready The Divine Order (GRADE: B-) shows a potential for making smart movies for the indie mainstream.  A fictionalized story about the 1971 referendum to allow Swiss women the right to vote, the film follows Nora (a wonderful Marie Leuenberger), a prim housewife unleashing her inner feminist.  There are few surprises here, and the manipulative third-act twist is unnecessary, but Volpe and her star keep the film relatively grounded and humane.

Old-school auteurs also came out in droves for Mill Valley.  I’ve only seen a handful of pictures by the Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki, but he strikes me as the sort of international director who has been making endless versions of the same movie for decades.  The dour comedic tone and discarded protagonists of The Other Side of Hope (GRADE: C+) feel very familiar, and the film comes off as a forgettable chapter in a long book. 

French director/adorable woodland creature Agnès Varda, on the other hand, remains a restless fountain of creative reinvention, even as she approaches her 90th birthday.  Her latest film is Visages, Villages (GRADE: B), a collaboration with French artist JR that sees the duo traveling the countryside, bringing art to small villages while playfully examining their creative approaches.  Jean-Luc Godard makes the perfect cameo by refusing to make a cameo.

Barbet Schroeder’s stomach-turning documentary The Venerable W. (GRADE: B) continues the Iranian-born Swiss director’s profiles of evil, this time focusing on Wirathru, a Myanmar monk who became famous by vilifying the country’s Muslim minority.  This is just as pungently intimate a portrayal of evil as Schroeder’s career-defining 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada.  The most disturbing part: how easily Wirathru’s invective could be re-worded for the mouths of conservative American politicians.

Sorry to say, but for all of the strong independent visions at Mill Valley, the best festival film I’ve screened so far is Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (GRADE: B+), a Netflix production that debuted on the service the same day it was released in theaters.  Wah-wah.  This is more acridly intellectual extended-family comedy from the director of The Squid and the Whale, and a powerful reminder that Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler are wasting their best years on crap.

In addition to screening those films, I joined some of my San Francisco Film Critics Circle colleagues in selecting an award for the best documentary with Bay Area ties that played the festival.  Nine films were eligible for the award, but only a few of them are worth talking about.

The winner, thank God, was Richard O’Connell and Annelise Wunderlich’s powerful The Corridor (GRADE: B), about Bay Area convicts enrolled in a GED program, a groundbreaking rehabilitation program initiated by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department.  Intimate yet epic, compassionate yet unflinching and filled with raw and honest emotion, The Corridor is one of the top documentaries of the year so far.  This film desperately deserves exposure.

Narrated by Ralph Fiennes, André: The Voice of Wine (GRADE: B-) tells the story of André Tchelistcheff, a Russian immigrant who helped create the Napa Valley wine scene.  The film was directed by Mark Tchelistcheff, André’s grand-nephew, which allows for access to a treasure trove of archival material but also makes the film uncritical and purposefully vague in places.

Finally, Kim Swims (GRADE: C+) follows New Zealand open-water swimmer Kim Chambers as she prepares for one of her greatest challenges: swimming the 30-mile, shark-infested span between the Farallon Islands and the Golden Gate Bridge.  Director Kate Webber keeps the film focused on the process rather than the personalities, but I was left with unanswered questions for a woman who seems hellbent on torturing her body for no reason.  Questions like, “Why?” and “What the fuck, why?”  and “Dear God, why?”

That’s all I’ve got.  See you next year, I hope!

MVFF39, Weekend 2

rsz_christineA rainy weekend in Northern California put a damper on my MVFF39 weekend plans, so we’ll keep this final installment short and sweet.  Simon Killer director Antonio Campos’ Christine (GRADE: B) tells the tragic story of Florida anchorwoman Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall, in a perfectly mannered performance), who committed suicide on the air in 1974.  But rather than dour and pitying, the film is airless, occasionally chipper (1970s AM radio bubblegum pop dominates the soundtrack) and often inappropriately glib.  And yet I was captivated, most of all by Hall’s skin-crawling social awkwardness, but also by Campos’ chilly reserve, his own version of empathy.

Another Best Actress dark horse – Sonia Braga as a retired music critic and breast cancer survivor in Aquarius (GRADE: B+), the latest film from Neighboring Sounds director Kleber Mendonça Filho.  Braga’s independent widower Clara lives alone in an apartment building slated for renovation, the lone holdout after her neighbors surrendered to gentrification years ago.  There’s very little in the way of traditional narrative beats here, as Filho is more interested in getting lost in the album grooves of Clara’s life than getting tied up in story threads.  Filho and Braga create a fully rounded portrait of a strong, proud, sensual, complex woman – a sequence where Clara recalls a previous encounter with a male prostitute as something both erotic and dangerous is a master class in visual storytelling.rsz_97478899aquariusculture-large_trans-ek9vkm18v_rkiph9w2gmnpphkrvugymkltqq96r_vp8

Speaking of masterful visual storytelling, I finally caught up with Bong Joon-Ho’s wacky yet unsettling 2003 genre-blaster Memories of Murder this year, although the film is apparently already notorious enough to warrant a Chinese knockoff.  Set in 1991, Yichun Wang’s What’s in the Darkness (GRADE: C+) mimics a lot of the same story elements and tonal shifts of Memories of Murder, right down to the decades-past setting and the backhanded, era-specific political commentary.  But the film plays as pudgy and slow, moon-y and monotonous where Bong Joon-Ho’s movie never stopped reinventing itself.

Director and star James Franco apparently called in every favor he was ever owed to fill the cast of his adaptation of John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle (GRADE: C), especially since this dully literal film feels like a low-budget, heart-on-sleeve vanity project.  Franco and Nat Wolff play union representatives working undercover to foment strike among Central Valley fruit pickers, while the likes of Robert Duvall, Selena Gomez, Ed Harris, Bryan Cranston, Vincent D’Onofrio, Sam Shepard and Josh Hutcherson lend thankless support.  It’s a little better than Franco’s MVFF38 entry Yosemite, but then the bar doesn’t get much lower than that.

rsz_fireatsea_curzonFor a much more vital take on the plight of the poor and desperate, check out Gianfranco Rosi’s stunning Neo-Realist documentary Fire at Sea  (GRADE: B+).  A strikingly beautiful movie about a modern horror, Fire at Sea contrasts the immigrant crisis on the Italian island of Lampedusa (thousands of poor African refugees in unsafe boats wash up on this launching point into Europe every year) with the relatively sleepy day-to-day lives of the residents.  Seek this one out when it comes to Bay Area theaters in November.

In all, I’ve screened 23 of the films that played during the festival.  Here are my top 5:

  1. The Salesman
  2. Do Not Resist
  3. Fire at Sea
  4. Aquarius
  5. The Bacchus Lady

You can check out my entire MVFF 39 Power Rankings on Letterboxd, and read my MVFF39 Weekend 1 coverage HERE and my MVFF39 Weekdays coverage HERE (you can also read my MVFF37 coverage HERE and my MVFF38 coverage HERE).  See you next year!

MVFF39, The Weekdays (M-Th)

rsz_neruda-2Hard-working director Pablo Larraín, who showed The Club at last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, traveled to the Bay Area again this year to debut two new movies – tomorrow’s closing night selection Jackie, an English-language biopic about Jackie Kennedy set in the immediate aftermath of the 1963 assassination that is generating Oscar buzz for star Natalie Portman; and the Chilean Oscar submission Neruda (GRADE: B-), a dreamily ambitious but largely baffling biopic about the poet and politician’s escape from his own government.  Gael Garcia Bernal gives a strong supporting performance in Neruda as a pursuing government stooge who turns out to be a fictional creation of Neruda’s, but the various wisps of the story never adhere into anything, and the film often seems to be at war with itself.

Another name familiar to MVFF attendees is Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, who screened Like Father, Like Son at the festival in 2013, and now returns with After the Storm (GRADE: B), another sedate and familiar but surprisingly prickly and smartly constructed domestic dramedy.  Hiroshi Abe plays Shinoda, a once-promising writer who frittered his family and talent away to become a corrupt private detective, and now pins his hopes on an encroaching monsoon to bring the brood closer together.  It’s resolutely unremarkable and generally lacking in memorable sequences, but it also teems with Koreeda’s trademark observational humanity and genre-subverting introspection.rsz_6b2ee282-4e5c-11e6-ba91-9b331c0ddad9_1280x720

Like Neruda, Francisco Márquez and Andrea Testa’s Argentinean drama The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis (GRADE: B-) tells a human drama amidst a cultural climate of pervasive paranoia.  Set in 1977 during the military dictatorship of Videla, the film concerns a middle-aged, middle-class, mild-mannered family man provided with information about two people who will be imminently abducted by the government, and follows his long-dark-night-of-the-soul debate about whether or not to stick his neck out.  The film is bone-dry and a little sleepy but it’s also an admirably compact thriller, with a palpable sense of over-your-shoulder fear.

More foreign-language austerity comes in the form of Samuel Collardey’s Land Legs (GRADE: C+), a heartfelt but overly familiar French docu-narrative about a career sailor fighting to keep his family together, a quest made more difficult by his teenage daughter’s unplanned pregnancy.  It certainly feels lived-in – the Lebornes, a real-life maritime family from western France, essentially star as themselves in this scripted drama based on Collardey’s year-long observations of the family.  Unfortunately, a documentary about the making of Land Legs would be more interesting than this stylistically wishy-washy sludge.

rsz_la_larga_noche_de_fransico_sanctis2_h_2016Guillaume Senez’s domestic drama Keeper (GRADE: C+) shares a lot of that same stylistic and narrative DNA, setting its story of unplanned teen pregnancy in a Belgian high school, as young lovers Maxime and Mélanie contemplate the abyss of their futures when a baby comes into the picture.  It’s a Dardennes-style emotional wrencher, as the couple vacillates between pragmatic self-interest and a passionate but immature desire to fully realize their love, but once again there’s very little that distinguishes the film besides conviction and restraint.

By contrast to those two unformed visions, Swedish writer-director Hannes Holm’s cuddly dark comedy A Man Called Ove (GRADE: B-) feels like contrived Hollywood corn, or at the least the sort of reheated, quasi-inspiring corn that would win awards and inspire next-best-thing hosannas at Sundance.  Rolf Lassgård thunders across the screen in the title role, playing a grumpy and depressed widower whose attempted suicide is repeatedly delayed by nosy neighbors, as well as his own compulsion to strictly enforce the rules of his housing complex.  The result is predictable but palatable syrup.

rsz_land-legsA far less digestible helping of syrup, Jonathan Parker’s The Architect (GRADE: D) was easily the worst MVFF39 film I watched all the way through (I’ll remain coy about the switch-offs, since they’re both highly unlikely to ever get a commercial release).  Punishingly tedious, stylistically insipid and larded with the most nauseating cliches possible, The Architect stars Parker Posey and Eric McCormack as an emotionally distant married couple who hire a daffy architect with big ideas to renovate their dream house.  There is hardly a second of this film that doesn’t feel false.

For a diametrically opposite approach to filmmaking, check out Katy Grannan and Hannah Hughes’ gutsy documentary The Nine (GRADE: B-), a film devoutly devoted to the truth of its subjects, occasionally to its own detriment.  With very little in the way of context or narration, The Nine documents homeless addicts and prostitutes living on Ninth Street in Modesto, a dumping ground for society’s most vulnerable and unwanted.  The closest thing to a protagonist here is Kiki, a spirited but delusional woman with a horrifying family backstory, and the film concludes with a brutally long, heart-exploding confessional from Kiki that would have been infinitely more effective with some judicious edits.  The Nine refuses to edit or even judge, and in a festival full of films prone to artificial representations of pain and anguish, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Follow my consistently updated MVFF 39 Power Rankings on Letterboxd, and check out my MVFF39 Weekend 1 coverage HERE (you can also read my MVFF37 coverage HERE and my MVFF38 coverage HERE). Check back on Monday for more MVFF39 coverage, including capsule reviews of Sonia Braga in Aquarius, Rebecca Hall in Christine and James Franco directing himself in an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle.

MVFF39, Weekend 1

rsz_a-quiet-passion-3Once again this year, the Mill Valley Film Festival got off to a splashy, star-heavy start, with west coast premieres of Arrival and La La Land attended by their respective stars Amy Adams and Emma Stone.  My august colleagues in the San Francisco Film Critics Circle even hobnobbed with Stone and La La Land writer-director Damien Chazelle prior to the film’s Thursday night screening (move your awards lines accordingly, Vegas sports books).  I haven’t seen either film, but they’re both serious awards players, so I’ll have every opportunity to watch them before my lists and nominees are finalized in early December.

Much better to loiter over the sumptuous anti-sumptuousness of Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion (GRADE: B), a meticulous yet ethereal biopic of 19th century poet Emily Dickinson (a possessed Cynthia Nixon).  It’s slated for an early 2017 release, robbing Nixon of any awards momentum, but after this one and James White, it’s time to acknowledge that she’s doing world-class work, no matter what her trophy case looks like.  Similar to Davies’ recent Sunset Song, A Quiet Passion revels in the language and manners of a bygone era while also recognizing the restrictions of those times, especially as they relate to outspoken women.  It’s exquisite but still just a little too rigid and bloodless for my taste, and it’s hard to shake the thought that Mike Leigh’s MVFF37 alum Mr. Turner did this already, only better.rsz_the-salesman-shahab-hosseini-and-taraneh-alidoosti

A more substantial auteur entry comes in the form of Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (GRADE: A-), an almost sickeningly elegant moral tale from the director of A Separation and The Past.  After their building literally gets ripped out from under them in a semi-apocalyptic opening scene, married actors Emad and Rama move into a new apartment, where an unexpected intruder terrifies Rama and shoves Emad into a spiderweb of shame and rage.  It culminates in a long, emotionally devastating final sequence, one where every word and gesture is so tightly wound around a sense of world-crumbling dread that I could barely breathe.

Studio Ghibli is probably the closest we’ll ever get to an auteur studio, but although the pre-screening emcee opined that Hayao Miyazaki “has his hands all over” the French-Japanese co-production The Red Turtle (GRADE: B), it’s actually co-founder Isao Takahata (Only Yesterday) who gets credited as Artistic Producer on the film.  Dutch director Michael Dudok de Wit makes his feature debut with this dialogue-free parable about a castaway who forms a special relationship with the titular (and brother, do I mean…) red turtle.  It’s a visual marvel, with a Ghibli-esque spiritual connection to nature; the only Ghibli-esque standby it sorely lacks: a female character with some personality and agency.rsz_97479774redturtle-culture-xlarge_trans-gzjiubgp_ijo4bz83vfl2wk82trm0xi_n4x7uccy1vw

Meanwhile, agency over her situation is a luxury that the title character of Keiichi Hara’s Miss Hokusai (GRADE: B-) can only dream about.  The dutifully overshadowed daughter of a revered artist in 1814 Japan, O-Ei constantly puts her career on hold to serve her more famous father, while resisting the even more restrictive threat of matrimony.  A few era-defying, rock-and-roll needle drops aside, there’s a lot of thematic overlap between Miss Hokusai and A Quiet Passion.  If only the former boasted more of the latter’s intellectual rigor and intellectual wit; Miss Hokusai mostly gets by on atmosphere and attitude.

MVFF always stocks a full cupboard of documentaries, often at the expense of discriminatory taste, so I’ve learned to tread lightly and cut bait early.  Mitch Dickman’s Rolling Papers (GRADE: B-), a look at how The Denver Post covered the first year of marijuana legalization in Colorado, survived the cut – not a lot of meat on these bones, but it’s slick and entertaining nonetheless.  Keith Maitland’s Tower (GRADE: B) takes a less conventional approach, using rotoscope animation, photographs, footage and interviews to tell the story of Charles Whitman’s 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas at Austin – it’s powerful while remaining respectful, but there’s a certain glibness in the entire enterprise that leans too close to exploitation. 

rsz_3057790-slide-s-1-tower-documentary-transforms-live-action-to-stunning-rotoscoped-animationBest of the MVFF39 documentary slate so far: Craig Atkinson’s searing Do Not Resist (GRADE: B+), a stomach-punch look at the militarization of American police, and the disproportionately violent force exacted on black communities.  A Dr. Strangelove-ian sequence in which a respected police trainer rallies the ranks with promises of post-bust super-boners goes on our country’s collective nightmare reel.  It’s the duty of lazy film critics to remind their readers that every movie, even one decades in the making, is a point-blank commentary on whatever’s in the news this week.  So at the risk of joining their hollow ranks, I’ll insist that Do Not Resist is the most timely and necessary film of 2016.

Not so necessary: Mick Jackson’s 110-minute nap Denial (GRADE: C), a hopelessly bland courtroom drama/biopic about writer and historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), who was forced to defend the veracity of the Holocaust in court when egomaniacal denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) sued her for libel.  Beyond the gravity of the subject matter, and the pseudo-timeliness of the Irving-as-Trump analogue, there’s very little substance and conflict to the film, not even enough to fill an average episode of Law & Order.  More on this film in next week’s Sacramento News & Review.

rsz_208_20160317174139_3Also in denial: Love Twice (GRADE: C-) director Rob Nilsson, about so many things.  The end of the 1980s, the un-coolness of leather jackets, the noxious appeal of romanticizing whiskey-breathed self-immolation and so much more.  I could go on, but the guy’s an iconoclast and local legend, so what do I know.  Shine on, baby.  Nilsson won a Grand Jury Prize at one of the first iterations of the Sundance Film Festival for Heat and Sunlight, and Love Twice finds him tracing his finger over those same self-righteous scars, only with a nonsensical and exponentially annoying stories-within-stories structure.

The best part of any film festival comes when you discover a new voice, even if it’s only new to you.  The Bacchus Lady (GRADE: B) is the eighth feature from South Korean director Je-yong Lee, but it’s the first that I’ve seen, and it’s clearly the work of a major filmmaker.  Aging prostitute So-young (Yeo-jeong Yoon) impulsively takes care of a strange boy when his mother gets arrested, exhuming long-buried memories in the process.  The set-up seems designed for smutty-cute drivel, but rather than serving up sex jokes and moral righteousness, Lee combines the observational rambunctiousness of Richard Linklater with the dark grace of the Dardennes.  I’ve seen the latest Hirokazu Koreeda hand-massager, and The Bacchus Lady is just as wise, only with dirtier nails and a quicker pulse.  A little more shape and it might have even been great.

Follow my consistently updated MVFF 39 Power Rankings on Letterboxd, and read my MVFF37 coverage HERE and my MVFF38 coverage HERE. Check back later this week for more MVFF39 coverage, including capsule reviews of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Pablo Larrain’s Neruda and more.

Pilgrimages – Tower of Youth Festival 2016

rsz_20th-logo-design_copyDr. William J. Bronston brings his Tower of Youth Festival, an all-day celebration of the best youth-made films in America and Canada, back to the Crest Theater tomorrow.  This is the 20th iteration of the Tower of Youth, and although Dr. Bronston remains as passionate as ever about the power of media to empower and transform, he claims that this year’s festival is also his last.  Dr. Bronston has assembled several past festival participants to join the festivities tomorrow, which should make for a proper sendoff.

Of course, the focus will remain on the films and young filmmakers, and Dr. Bronston has assembled another strong slate of shorts, with an especially eye-opening collection of documentaries.  Although the filmmaking is often prosaic and rarely slick, it’s powerful to watch these teenage directors document their worlds, crafting intimate cinematic dialogues about art (“Art for a Lifetime”) and family (“The Story of 3 Rings: A Memoir of Dana Schwartz”). There’s also a welcome emphasis on films that deal with issues surrounding race (“Fighting with Music”), gender (“Sticks and Stones”) trans youths (“Walking in their World”) and war (“Growing the Rose – Landmines in Cambodia”).  These films give a voice to the voiceless, and a power to the powerless.

*The 20th Annual North American All Youth Film and Education Day takes place Friday, October 7, from 9am to 5pm at the Crest Theater in Downtown Sacramento.  For more information, check out the Tower of Youth website and Facebook page.

Pilgrimages – UCLA Festival of Preservation 2016

rsz_large_white_zombie_blu-ray_09White Zombie (1932; Dir.: Victor Halperin)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*Plays Sunday, June 26 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley as part of the UCLA Festival of Preservation 2016.

From its first shot of a Haitian burial ceremony undulating under the opening credits, Victor Halperin’s 1932 indie horror film White Zombie establishes an eerie and unusual atmosphere.  The corpse in question is being buried in the middle of the road in order to discourage body snatchers, delaying and unnerving the passengers of a passing coach, a white-suited schmendrick (John Harron) and his platinum blonde fiancee (Madge Bellamy).  Bela Lugosi plays a creepy, black-hearted robber baron who uses an unfathomable charisma to hypnotize poor people (and his enemies) into zombies so that they’ll work around-the-clock shifts in his sugar mill and holy shit you guys, I think I just figured out Trump’s endgame.  Lugosi’s legendarily mesmeric glare is used to great effect here, but literally every other actor is a stiff, and the tone and pace are incredibly uneven.  For every entrancing use of shadows and era-appropriate special effects, such as the scene where the schmendrick sees his presumably dead wife in a pool of spilled booze, there is a scene that plays like a poorly blocked stage play.  White Zombie is all wizard and no brains, heart or courage.

*For showtimes and more information about the festival, visit the BAMPFA website. Check out our previous UCLA Fest reviews of The First Legion and Her Sister’s Secret.