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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Sizing up 'Cyrano' — and other Mill...

Screen Grabs: Sizing up ‘Cyrano’ — and other Mill Valley Film Fest highlights

Plus: New releases 'Pharma Bro' and 'Seyran Ates' present vastly differing takes on what makes a social pariah

This week brings the return of the Mill Valley Film Festival, which is another hybrid (part in-person, part online) event, but nonetheless is operating close enough to its usual scale that you might say things are back to normal … more or less. This 44th edition will see MVFF providing the local premiere of many movies sure to figure in year-end best lists and awards competitions, as ever. They include the opening night selection this Thu/7 of Cyrano, a new version of the classic swashbuckling romance with Peter Dinklage approaching the title role as a man unlucky in love due to height, rather than nose length. Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Darkest Hour) will attend the festivities, which encompass dual screenings at the Sequoia Theater (in Mill Valley) and Smith Rafael Film Center (in San Rafael.)

Other big tickets include Mike Mills’ acclaimed drama C’mon C’mon with Joaquin Phoenix; Kenneth Branaugh’s B&W flashback to 1960s Belfast; Kristin Stewart as the late Princess of Wales in Pablo Larrain’s Spencer; Denis Villeneuve’s eagerly awaited new version of the sci-fi epic Dune; Pedro Almodovar’s new Parallel Mothers; Red Rocket, from The Florida Project director Sean Baker; actress Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing; Thai master Apichathpong Weerasethakul’s Colombia-set Memoria; and as the closing night feature on Sun/17, Wes Anderson’s latest all-star whimsy, The French Dispatch

All the above-noted films (as well as numerous others) will be shown in theaters only. Other entries can be seen either at in-person screenings or via “virtual cinema” at home, including a wide array of documentary, foreign, and independent titles, plus several shorts programs. Among movies of particular local interest are Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez, about a leader in the Bay Area’s pioneering underground comics scene of fifty years ago; rock-critic biography Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres; the latest narrative feature from tirelessly prolific maverick Rob Nilsson, Center Divide; and 1960s SF-set drama Women Is Losers, from Mission-raised director Lissette Feliciano. 

There will be special spotlights and tributes to several notable talents including Italian veteran Paolo Sorrentino (who brings his new The Hand of God), actor-turned-director Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Lost Daughter), Dune’s Villeneuve, Branagh, leading New Zealand/Australia/global talent Jane Campion (The Piano, Top of the Lake), with new Montana period piece The Power of Dog; Simon Rex, an SF native who started performing in gay adult features, but whose “legit” screen career is said to enjoy a breakthrough with Red Rocket; and a 40th-anniversary screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark

In addition to Marin County venues and virtual screenings, MVFF44 will have nine programs at Berkeley’s BAMPFA Fri/8-Sun/17. Full program and ticket info available here.

Among regular streaming releases at present, nonfiction heroes and villains alike come larger-than-life, their fictive equivalents somewhat smaller:

MOST HATED: PHARMA BRO AND SEYRAN ATES

Two new documentaries train focus on a couple of individuals who are widely reviled, albeit for very different reasons. The one you’ve no doubt heard of is Martin Shkreli, the so-called Pharma Bro infamous for acquiring ownership of several long-extant prescription drugs, then wildly inflating their consumer costs—the medication Daraprim (a necessity for many people with toxoplasmosis, including AIDS patients) went from $13 to $750 per pill. Such price-gouging practices are not at all uncommon (or, sadly, illegal) in that industry. But Shkreli made himself the designated bogeyman for crass capitalism at its worst by refusing to strike any apologetic or defensive tone. Indeed, he buckled down on the persona of “The Most Hated Man in America,” goading his critics and smirking out a bored superiority even in the courtroom on criminal trial. 

He was prosecuted for something else entirely—Ponzi-scheme-type securities fraud from several years earlier—yet unbiased jurors were near-impossible to find, his ill-fame had grown so great. (Not helping was Shkreli’s $2 million purchase of a “single copy” Wu-Tang Clan album he gloated over refusing to let anyone else hear.) He also appeared addicted to live-streaming, making himself bizarrely accessible to a public of both creepy followers and would-be attackers, seemingly just for the pleasure of demonstrating how stupid he thinks they all are. 

“I am not a fuckin’ ‘nice person’” he says during one such session, so you’ve got to give him credit for self-awareness. It’s also notable that Shkreli really is a self-made man: Sheer drive and obvious intelligence pushed him up from a poor Brooklyn upbringing (his parents are Albanian-émigré janitors) to multi-millionaire status. Yet he reveled in creating a kind of cartoon supervillain image, repelling any sympathy when he did indeed get sent to prison. His personality fascinates because it seems so perversely self-defeating. 

Pharma Bro tries to wrestle with that contradiction, though it doesn’t get very far, because director Brent Hodge inserts himself so aggressively and unnecessarily into the narrative. You might think nothing on Earth could make you feel sorry for Martin Shkreli. Yet at the end here, when Hodge (who actually moved into his quarry’s NYC building pre-incarceration to “get closer to him”) plays the role of “good neighbor,” gaining access to his prey’s apartment with a six-pack of beer while apparently secreting a camera, you can hardly help but think: Even Shkreli doesn’t deserve a freaking stalker. Does anyone? The documentary holds interest, because it has an interesting subject. But it ought to end with a restraining order being filed against its maker—he’s crossed a line, and it isn’t funny or pointed as it’s meant to be, just icky.

If Shkreli is the poster child for a certain kind of acquisitive selfishness, the person profiled in Seyran Ates: Sex, Revolution and Islam is loathed by many for the opposite: activist advocacy on behalf of whole multinational demographics. Raised in Berlin after her family emigrated from their poor Turkish village, Ales found herself frustrated from an early age at being denied the freedoms permitted her brothers—as well as girls in the surrounding German culture, whose relative independence made them (in her conservative parents’ view) “whores.” Running away from home at 17, she gradually became the bisexual feminist, lawyer, author, and imam she is today at age 58. Her status as a high-profile critic of patriarchal “political Islam” and founding of a liberal, LGBTQ-inclusive mosque has attracted myriad death threats from around the world, such that she’s needed police protection since 2006.  

It takes a strong personality to remain steadfast against fanatical opposition, and Ates clearly does not suffer fools gladly—not just religious fundamentalists, but also “liberal left-wingers” who criticize her for cultural insensitivity. She is very, very focused on the injustices wrought by misogyny, asking why women suffer suppression solely due to being “sexualized” by men, saying “I’m not fighting against Islam, I’m fighting against patriarchy.” Nefise Ozkal Lorentzen’s documentary has some mannered, staged elements that are an unnecessary distraction. But its content (which includes graphic footage of several terrorist attacks), and subject, have a galvanizing power nonetheless. 

Pharma Bro is available for rental or purchase on Digital platforms as of Tue/5. Seyran Ates opened theatrically Fri/1 in Los Angeles, and is expected to open in San Francisco, venue and dates TBA.

MEANWHILE, IN FEEL-GOODLAND: STOP AND GO AND FALLING FOR FIGARO

If those nonfiction portraits seem a little heavy for your needs at the moment, there are two new comedies of contrastingly featherweight impact. Ben Lewin’s UK production Falling for Figaro has Danielle MacDonald (Patti Cake$) as Millie, an American woman in London who’s got an adoring live-in beau (Shazad Latif) and a successful career in investments. Yet she’s unfulfilled, deciding that she will chuck it all for a year’s attempt at realizing her dream to be an opera singer. To that end, she manages to finagle a crash vocal training course from an imperious, retired star (Joanna Lumley) living in rural Scotland, in preparation for a high-profile annual competition. The diva’s only other pupil is a fellow competitor (Hugh Skinner) with whom Millie inevitably clashes, then just as inevitably sparks.

You know exactly what you’re going to get in this kind of wish-fulfillment romcom, and you get it in Figaro: The unrealistic take on the opera world, the old-school caricature of “artistic temperament” (Lumley’s teaching technique seems to consist of little more than throwing darts like “Well that was fucking awful”), the most-obvious-possible selection of arias heard, etc. It’s a well-crafted movie that is pleasant enough, but a bit bland, and entirely contrived.

Going from the formulaic to the under-formulated, there’s Mallory Everton and Stephen Meek’s Stop and Go. In this “COVID comedy,” sisters Blake (Everton) and Jamie (her co-scenarist Whitney Call) must break early-pandemic quarantine to rescue their grandmother (Anne Sward Hansen) from an unsafe nursing-home situation 20 hours’ drive away. Needless to say, there are misadventures en route. Not nearly enough, though—you can applaud filmmakers for managing to make a movie during shutdown, but they still need a freaking script. 

The writer-stars apparently thought that their comedic riffing would be enough to sustain 80 minutes. For the first 15 or so, they’re not wrong—these two women (who’ve apparently been besties since childhood, as closing-credits home movies evidence) have a naturally funny dynamic. But like listening to just about any talented but not-extraordinary comedians improvising, what’s amusing for a while becomes decreasingly so as it goes on and on, with no real story or action in sight. The material (which includes a wholesale rip from the underrated Paul Rudd-Jennifer Aniston vehicle Wanderlust) gets progressively weaker, wearing out our patience until it’s actively annoying. 

This is the kind of movie whose scale and pleasures are so small, and which it’s so easily to ignore for moments without missing anything, that it seems best suited for viewing on an iPhone or some such when you’re working out or doing chores. It would have been better as a series of YouTube or Instagram posts. Which is not to say I wouldn’t enjoy seeing Call and Everton again—just not in another stretched-to-the-breaking-point 80 minutes that they wrote themselves.

Both Falling for Figaro and Stop and Go are currently playing limited theaters nationwide, and are available On Demand.

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