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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Mill Valley Film Fest dances onto screens,...

Screen Grabs: Mill Valley Film Fest dances onto screens, with mighty big features

Starpower and highly anticipated new releases fuel the 46th edition. Plus: Gialloween, 'Hello Dankness,' and fighting Monsanto

The Mill Valley Film Festival has long prided itself as a bellwether for the year’s eventual leading awards-winners, coming as it does on the heels of internationally renowned events—notably the Toronto, Venice and Telluride events—whose big winners it can cherry-pick from. This year all reports suggested those festivals’ premieres were unusually stellar, despite any issues raised by COVID-slowed production, or the absence of red carpet celebrities due to Hollywood strikes. And MVFF’s 46th edition, which opens this Thu/5, will certainly reap the benefits of that bounty.

It commences with Jack Huston’s Day of the Fight, a B&W boxing drama sure to evoke such past pugilistic greats as Raging Bull and Body and Soul. It officially ends 10 nights later on Oct. 15 with director/co-writer Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, in which he also stars as the late great composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein. (The festival’s streaming access for select titles will continue through October 16.) In between, there’s a huge selection of features that 2023 is likely to be remembered for, at least outside the realm of franchise mall flicks.

To give you just an inkling of the already-acclaimed films on tap, there’s Sofia Coppola’s biopic Priscilla, about Mr. and Mrs. Presley; Jonathan Glazer’s Auschwitz-set The Zone of Interest, based on the late Martin Amis’ novel; Justin Triet’s French mystery Anatomy of a Fall, a top prize-winner at Cannes; Cord Jefferson’s publishing-industry dissection American Fiction; anime master Hayao Miyazaki’s apparent swansong The Boy and the Heron; Jeff Nichols’ 1960s motorcycle gang epic The BikeridersDrive My Car director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s new Evil Does Not ExistThe Holdover, a reunion for the Sideways team of Alexander Payne and star Paul Giamatti; Maryam Keshavarz’s comedic Sundance hit The Persian Version; and Nikolaj Arcel’s sprawling Scandinavian historical tale The Promised Land, with Mads Mikkelsen.

Plus there’s the latest from established auteurs Wim Wenders (Perfect Days) Francois Ozon (The Crime Is Mine), Errol Morris (The Pigeon Tunnel), Aki Kaurismaki (Fallen Leaves), Tran Anh Hung (The Taste of Things), Marco Bellocchio (Kidnapped), Alice Rohrwacher (La chimera) and Hirokazu Kore-eda (Monster). One Oscar-winning documentary team, SF’s own Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, contribute an ode to Cuban cultural exchange in Musica!; another, Free Solo’s Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai, make their narrative debut with Nyad, a fact-based tale of long-distance swimming starring no less than Annette Bening and Jodie Foster. The nearly 150 titles in this year’s festival represent over forty countries, including features from Chile (The Settlers), Sudan (Goodbye Julia), Denmark (Rosa and the Stone Troll), North Macedonia (Housekeeping for Beginners), Nicaragua (Patrol), Iran (Terrestrial Verses).

In-person tributes this year pay homage to famed stage-turned-film director George C. Wolfe (whose new Rustin stars former Bay Area stage actor Colman Domingo as civil right movement leader Bayard R.); Promising Young Woman writer-director Emerald Fennell (with new satire Saltburn); longtime collaborators Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon (May December), and Lynn Hershman Leeson, the veteran Bay Area multimedia artist whose shorts program Cyborgian Rhapsody shows her having playfully critiqued the uses and abuses of computer technology for decades.

There’s plenty more in the program of local interest, including Finn Taylor’s Avenue of the Giants, which stars Stephen Lang as a real-life late Marin resident who’d been a Holocaust survivor, and Imran J. Khan’s 1990s Silicon Valley flashback Moustache. There are also documentary portraits of several very different Bay Area activists: The 9 Lives of Barbara Dane (about the genre-hopping singer), Carol Doda Topless at the Condor (remembering one of the Sexual Revolution’s most famous torchbearers), A Double Life (lawyer Stephen Bingham, accused of abetting a 1971 San Quentin prison break) and The Right to Read (in which the NAACP’s Oakland-based Kareem Weaver leads attempts to improve literacy instruction nationwide).

World premieres lean in the non-fiction direction as well, but also encompass the likes of Philip Noyce’s Fast Charlie, which sinks hitman Pierce Brosnan into luridly colorful criminal intrigue in the Deep South, and Swiss director Jeanne Waltz’s equally twisty (if less bullet-riddled) The Fortunate Ones, about the havoc that ensues when a wealthy matriarch leaves her Portuguese coastal mansion to a mentally unstable young relative.

As ever, Mill Valley’s schedule includes a lot of music both on- and offscreen, running a gamut from the venerable archival-clip Hi Di Ho Show to a documentary exhumation of Milli Vanilli. There are also special programmatic emphases on activism (Active Cinema), inclusivity (Mind the Gap) and Latin representation (Viva el cine!) and family films/fun. Plus panels, workshops and master classes with media professionals, addressing topics from AI to animation. The primary screening venues will once again be the Sequoias (in Mill Valley) and Smith Rafael Film Center (in San Rafael), but be sure to check the festival website for the full range of events, locations, and ticket access.

MVFF isn’t even the only filmic festival happening in Marin this week: There’s also the firsttime No. Cal. appearance of the Cinelounge Film Festival, a hitherto Los Angeles-only event that Fri/6-Sat/7 also occupies that independent exhibitor’s newish Tiburon “lounge.” The selection of shorts and features ranges from the international to the very local, including Mill Valley resident Nicholas Tomnay’s neo-noir thriller What You Wish For and absurdist mid-length fantasy The Divine Toad. Admission to all shows is free. More info here.

Can’t wait that long? There are several further recommended local screenings of films new and old (in one case sorta both) happening mid-week:

Hello Dankness

The Trump era—which is by no means over—remains such a clusterfuck that our nation (not to mention media) consciousness has gotten ADD, no longer able to see the forest fire for the trees newly aflame every day. Assuming we survive it all, who will be able to put it all in a big-picture context, and how soon? Rather surprisingly, a startling encapsulation of this soul-death-of-a-thousand-idiotic-cuts emerges in the least likely form at the Roxie on Thu/5 night, for one show only.

This latest from the NYC-based Australian sampling duo known as Soda Jerk combines excerpted elements from over 500 audiovisual sources to create a “political fable” charting the American consciousness’s descent into madness from the 2016 Presidential election through the 2021 “re-establishment of corporate liberalism”…however still-threatened by creeping fascism.

This is no talking-head documentary, however, but a prankish assemblage of clips primarily from mainstream Hollywood features of the Reagan era onward. Their surface stylistic similarity blends into a surprisingly seamless pseudo-narrative in which the American dream of suburban prosperity (as illustrated by American BeautyWayne’s WorldThe Burbs, et al.) turns increasingly apocalyptic and surreal.

How did we get from It’s a Wonderful Life to Qanon? Hard to describe, but making an indelible impression, this ingenious construct becomes a devastating indictment of a corrupt system, societal complacency, and the persuasive con artist’s illusion of change. Soda Jerk will appear in person to converse with local collage luminary Craig Baldwin at the 7pm sole Roxie screening (more info here).

Gialloween V

One of the most welcome occurrences of October is the annual return of the Roxie’s mini-festival celebrating the giallo—a subgenre of mostly Italian violent thrillers that flourished from the late 1960s to the early 80s. Often boasting international casts, popularly exported in dubbed form to many foreign markets, these lurid but oft-stylish films were largely dismissed as tasteless commercial trash at the time. They’ve gradually acquired critical stature and influence on younger directors since, for their idiosyncratic, subversive elements.

This year’s selected quartet are all from the giallo’s peak in the early 1970s. Among those who most firmly established its signature peculiarities at their most extreme (in terms of both plot incoherence and enigmatic visual motifs) was director Sergio Martino, though 1971’s The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (playing Wed/4) is one of his more restrained exercises, relatively speaking. It’s got Ida Galli aka Evelyn Stewart as a newly widowed heiress whom seemingly everyone wants to kill. Its trailer bizarrely compared this expert potboiler to “masterpieces of violence” like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Bunuel’s L’age d’or, and Fritz Lang’s M.

Luciano Ercoli’s Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (Wed/9) from the prior year has Dagmar Lassander as another wealthy damsel in distress, blackmailed and terrorized by a mystery man. Emilio Miraglia’s 1972 The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (Thurs/12) finds murder stalking those attached to a supposedly “cursed” family at their ancestral manse.

Least characteristic of the genre amongst this lot is Luigi Bazzoni’s 1975 Footprints on the Moon (Thurs/5), an unclassifiable artflick-cum-paranoid-thriller that’s like a Borges story directed by Antonioni. Florinda Bolkan plays a neurotic professional translator whose sojourn to a Turkish island resort only heightens her sense of mysterious persecution. With Klaus Kinski as an astronaut (!) plus exceptional photography by Bernardo Bertolucci’s usual collaborator Vittorio Storaro, it’s a singular mix of psychological suspense, sci-fi and scrambled-narrative puzzle. For info on the entire series, go here.

Into the Weeds

Real-life horror is infuriatingly tangible in this documentary by Jennifer Baichwal, which is playing theaters in a one-night-only Fathom Events presentation this Tues/3. (Participating Bay Area venues include SF’s Metreon, Century 20 Daly City, and AMC Bay Street in Emeryville.) It is a whistleblowing exercise directed at the ever-popular agrochemical giant Monsanto, which—though now owned by yet another multinational corporate behemoth, Bayer—continues to deny any link between its popular herbicide Roundup and cancer.

Tell that to the tens of thousands of cancer patients who’ve sued the company after mostly on-the-job exposure seemingly had a direct, dire, sometimes fatal effect on their health. The bald-faced official denialism is eerily reminiscent of Big Tobacco’s “Who, us?!?” posture not so long ago, when they continued to trot out phony in-house “science” and unconvincing official ingenuousness as a bottom-line-preserving dodge—often with the help of politicians they’d paid off. (One maddening factor exposed here is how often our own government’s Environmental Protection Agency “really works for the industry it was created to protect us from…[and which] they regulate,” as one observer here puts it.)

With plenty of both on-the-ground human interest and executive-suite skullduggery on tap, this is a highly engrossing muckrake. It’s worth noting that when I reviewed Into the Weeds out of the Sundance Festival for a trade publication about twenty months ago, there was an almost immediate request from a certain “corporate communications team” that the piece be “updated” with an statement affirming “the safety and non-carcinogenicity of Roundup.” (My editor’s response: “It’s nuts that they think we would run this.”) Make Monsanto’s day and be sure to see Weeds; all venues nationwide can be found here.

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