Mill Valley Film Festival Preview, Part 1

Over the course of this last week, I caught six films that will enjoy their Bay Area premieres at the Mill Valley Film Festival. I list them here from best to worst.

None of them are really bad, and most of them are very good. All six will have theatrical releases after the Festival, so if you miss them in Marin, you can catch them later.

A The Salesman

An intruder assaults a woman in her home. As she recovers physically and emotionally, her husband’s obsession with finding the perpetrator makes things worse. Meanwhile, both husband and wife are acting in a production of Death of a Salesman. As you’d expect from Asghar Farhadi, all points of view, and all emotional reactions, are understandable and believable–even when they go over the line. You may not like every character, but you’ll understand them.

  • Rafael, Friday, October 7, 7:30
  • Rafael, Wednesday, October 12, 12:00 noon

A Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy follows an resident of the inner city from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, examining three stages of his life. Three different actors play Chiron, a young man unsure of his sexuality who must learn to at least appear macho to survive in the tough streets. Mahershala Ali from Game of Thrones carries the first act as drug-dealer who is also a gentle and kind father figure.

  • Sequoia, Monday, October 10, 7:45
  • Rafael, Thursday, October 13, 11:30am

A Julieta

Middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suárez) runs into an old friend of the daughter that disappeared from her life ages ago. And so she starts writing a long letter to her missing daughter. That letter, and the film, will reveal the deep, dark secrets of her past in Pedro Almodovar’s sad yet sexy tale of love, lust, and loss; of having what you want and losing what you care about most.

A- Toni Erdmann

Imagine a Marx Brothers movie weaved into a reasonably realistic family comedy/drama running almost three hours. And for the most part, it works. An incorrigible practical joker tries to reconnect with his estranged, very successful, uptight, and corporate daughter. She’s clearly unhappy, and his slovenly dress and inappropriate remarks embarrass her at every turn. Toni Erdmann contains what may be cinema’s funniest nude scene. But at 162 minutes, it could use some trimming.

  • Rafael, Saturday, October 8, 7:45
  • Rafael, Thursday, October 13, 3:15

B- Elle

As you’d expect from Paul Verhoeven, Elle is silly, tasteless, and unbelievable, and yet it somehow succeeds as entertainment. Isabelle Huppert gives a strong, gutsy, courageous performance as a strangely matter-of-fact rape victim. Perhaps she likes it? But then, her father was a mass murderer, her mother is addicted to botox, and her son can’t possibly be her grandchild’s biological parent. Like I said, silly, tasteless, and unbelievable. But fun.

  • Sequoia, Friday, October 7, 9:00
  • Sequoia, Wednesday, October 12, 12:00 noon

B- The Eagle Huntress

Otto Bell’s documentary about a Mongolian girl who proves she’s better than any man tells an interesting and inspiring story. Thirteen-year-old Aisholpan wants to be an eagle hunter, just like her father. That’s fine with him, and the rest of her family, despite traditions that insist that only men can hunt with eagles. But much about the film feels staged, leaving me wondering if it really should be considered a documentary.

  • Sequoia, Sunday, October 9, 11:15 am
  • Rafael, Monday, October 10, 12:45

New haunted series at SFMOMA

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) recently gave its Phyllis Wattis Theater an upgrade. And now they’re combining forces with the San Francisco Film Society for a three-weekend series of Modern Cinema, with an emphasis on films both haunted and haunting.

SFMOMA and SFFS aren’t the only organizations involved. The festival will focus on films preserved and made available by Janus Films and the Criterion Collection. And the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul joins the mix, with a weekend dedicated to his work and the films that have inspired him.

Although neither organization is using the word festival, I’m counting the series as one because each weekend provides enough cinema to become an intensive experience.

The first section, Haunted by Cinema, runs Friday, October 7 through Sunday the 9th. Despite the name, these are not necessarily scary movies. They’re films that “have haunted the creative world since they were first screened—the works whose influence can be felt in all the films that followed.” They include such well-known classics as Rashomon, The Seventh Seal, and L’Avventura. But they also include lesser but still influential works like Mysterious Object at Noon and Black Girl.

Rashomon

Unfortunately, that first weekend will conflict with the Mill Valley Film Festival. It’s hard to find a film festival-free weekend in the fall.

The second section, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, concentrates on the filmmaker, his films, and the films that inspired him. It starts with An Evening with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, where he’ll talk and screen shorts. In addition to Weerasethakul’s work, the weekend will include The Spirit of the Beehive, Knife in the Water, The River, and Viridiana. This section runs from Thursday, October 13 through Sunday the 16th.

The River

The final section, Haunted Cinema, is the fun one. It runs Friday, October 21 through Sunday the 23rd--as Halloween in approaching. The movies include Picnic at Hanging Rock, Ugetsu and Carnival of Souls.

The newly improved Phyllis Wattis Theater sports two 35mm projectors (for archival prints), a 4K DCP-compatible digital projector, Meyer Sound, and its own entrance separate from the Museum proper.

Carnival of Souls

It also has drink holders. At the press conference I attended, they kept talking about the drink holders. But they also showed us a digital clip from Carnival of Souls; it looked fantastic.

Twelve of the films will be screened in 35mm. The remaining 14 will be digital. They’ll be showing The River on film; I hope it’s the same 1952 dye-transfer print I saw last year.

Mill Valley Film Festival program announced

Monday night, the California Film Institute introduced this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival–the 39th edition. Now comes your chance to see this year’s Oscar bait early–and probably with the filmmakers ready to answer questions.

I mean it about Oscar bait. Since 2010, every Best Picture Oscar winner (whether it deserved it or not) had its Bay Area premiere at Mill Valley. But the Festival also screens little-known films that will probably never get a theatrical run. It’s good to catch those ones, too.

The Mill Valley Film Festival isn’t really centered in Mill Valley, and would more accurately be called the Marin County Film Festival. Many of the biggest events happen in San Rafael, where the Festival has three screens compared to Mill Valley’s two. Larkspur and Corte Madera will also host screenings.

This is the last year where MVFF will use the magnificent Corte Madera Century Cinema–a single-screen theater with a huge, curved screen that’s perfect for immersive cinema. No longer profitable, the Corte Madera’s days as a theater are numbered. The Festival will close the theater out in style, with a marathon screening of the original Star Wars trilogy. Unfortunately, it won’t be the original version of the original trilogy.

The festival opens Thursday October 6 with the musical La La Land in Mill Valley and the drama Arrival in Corte Madera. It ends on October 16 with the historical drama Loving, about the lawsuit that legalized racially-mixed marriage in all 50 states. In between these you can enjoy a whole lot of movies, live music, and Yom Kippur. I won’t be attending that day.

The Festival will honor various filmmakers with tributes, including Julie Dash, Gael García Bernal, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. Kidman and McGregor will be screening their newest movies, but the festival will also screen Moulin Rouge! from 2001, in which they both star.

Mill Valley generally picks a few spotlights, showing several films with a similar theme. This year, they’re spotlighting Cannabis, inspired by Proposition 64 on the November ballot, and Culinary Cinema, which just might have been inspired by researching cannabis (it wasn’t).

This will be the first Mill Valley Film Festival without any physical film being projected. Everything will be digital. I know many people object to that. I don’t.

I’ve already started previewing some of the films. I’ll be reporting the good and the bad soon.

Coming Attractions: What you can soon see in Bay Area Theaters

As you probably know, Gene Wilder passed away Tuesday. I didn’t love every movie he made, but I always loved his performance.

Now the good news: On Friday, September 23, the Balboa will host a three-movie Madeline Kahn-a-thon. It will include Gene Winder in Blazing Saddles.

Here’s some other good news:

Castro

The really big day at the Castro will be Sunday, September 11–although you’ll have to buy two tickets to get all of it. First up, at 1:30, they’ll screen The Big Parade, the first great war movie. It’s a spectacular story of a young man who enthusiastically signs up to fight “the Hun,” and is then dropped into the hellish reality. They’re screening this 1925 silent classic off a DCP, with live organ accompaniment by Bruce Loeb.

Then, at 5:00, they’ll run a Merchant Ivory double bill of Remains of the Day and Howard’s End. Remains will be off a 35mm print (too bad they couldn’t show a 70mm one; that’s how I first saw it). Howards End has just received a 4K restoration, and will be projected digitally.

Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, one of the most visually beautiful films ever shot, will screen Thursday, September 8 (read my essay). This is another film I first saw in 70mm; I hope the DCP does it justice. It’s on a double bill with a more recent Malick work, Knight of Cups.

On the very next day, Friday the 9th, they’ll screen Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. I saw this bizarre, spiritual, and sexually explicit film around 1974 at a Los Angeles film festival. I remember little of it, but I remember that it was strange. On a double bill with Zardoz.

On September 24, the Castro will screen five films starring the great Italian actress Anna Magnani in a mammoth Magnani marathon.

Pacific Film Archive

If you want to see those Anna Magnani movies, but not all in one day, you’ve got another option. Those five and many more will screen at the PFA from late September into early December.

Two great directors will get their own PFA series on the coming months, although both of these series concentrate on a particular part of their careers. Contemplative Cinema: Ozu’s Late Films looks at the quiet family dramas that dominated the great Japanese director’s final years. And Something To Do with Death: Sergio Leone sticks with the four classic westerns with which he redefined the genre.

Stanley Kubrick everywhere

The New Mission continues its Jewish Contemporary Museum-connected series Kubrick in Color. And the Balboa is also getting into the act, going all Kubrick in their September Thursday night classic series.

Roxie

It’s about time a local theater gave us a Samuel Fuller retrospective. Samuel Fuller: A Fuller Life packs ten films into a weekend of tough talk, tough people, and full-throttle liberal humanism.

Fuller wrote and directed a string of low-budget, impressive genre films from the late 40’s to the early 60’s. His pictures were bold, direct, and in-your-face, and utterly lacking in subtlety. Yet they’re also marked with a strong, open-minded humanism, a hatred of violence, and sympathy for those on society’s margins. You can read my previous article.

The event starts Friday, September 23 with the documentary A Fuller Life. Amongst the best films to be screened: Pick Up On South Street, The Steel Helmet (above), Underworld USA, and Forty Guns.

Jewish Film Festival Preview, Part 1

Here are four films I’ve already seen that are coming to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

A Indignation

Already screened at San Francisco International Film Festival.
Most coming of age movies are essentially optimistic. You know that the protagonist will come out alright. But in Indignation, you slowly begin to realize that, in the early 1950s, Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) just might not find happiness. He has no good options, only bad ones. And he lacks the maturity to find the lesser evil. The son of a New Jersey kosher butcher, he does well academically but not socially in a Christian college in Ohio. And if he leaves college, the draft and the Korean War await. Based on a novel by Phillip Roth.

  • Rafael, Friday, August 5, 6:30. The film will also open a regular engagement in San Francisco the same day.

B+ The Last Laugh

Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary asks an interesting and difficult question: Can we joke about the Holocaust? Quick answer: Yes, if you’re Jewish, and if the joke is very funny. The professional comics interviewed include Sarah Silverman, Carl Reiner, his son Rob Reiner, David Steinberg, and Mel Brooks–the creator of The Producers has a lot to say on the subject. Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone, not a professional but with a healthy sense of humor, deservedly gets more screen time than anyone else. Intriguing and funny while bringing up questions of remembrance, respect, and censorship.

The film has no connection to F. W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece, The Last Laugh.

  • Roda, Saturday, July 30, 7:10
  • Castro, Sunday, July 31, 2:55

B The Freedom to Marry

Already screened at Frameline. This documentary follows the struggle for marriage equality in both the courts and public opinion. As one would expect considering the outcome that we all know, it’s upbeat and inspiring. The problem is that it sticks almost exclusively to the last weeks before the Supreme Court decision. The years of struggle that preceded the big Washington moment are walked over quickly and without depth.

What makes this film Jewish? Some of the most important leaders in the movement, and thus the heroes of the story, are Jewish.

  • Castro, Friday, July 29, 3:50
  • Roda, Wednesday, August 3, 8:35

C+ The Tenth Man

Opening Night!
Ariel, an accountant living in New York, returns to his Buenos Aires home to help his Orthodox father’s Jewish charity. But his father (who is only a voice on the phone) keeps sending him on strange errands and wild-goose chases. Meanwhile a beautiful redhead–an beautiful and very religious redhead–seems to be spending a lot of time with Ariel. That potentially funny plot never really gets off the ground in this badly-paced, occasionally funny comedy.

I’ll be previewing more of these movies in the near future.

The SF Jewish Film Festival turns 36 (double chai)

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival turns 36 this year with 68 films (more than 50 of them features) from 16 countries. The films and presentations include comedies from Argentina and California, several coming-of-age dramas–including one about an Iranian family in Israel, a new TV series from the creator of Arab Labor, a Freedom of Expression award for Norman Lear, and documentaries about Holocaust humor, gay marriage, Goebbels’ secretary, the Israeli peace movement, comedian Robert Klein, and Leonard Nimoy.

The number 36 is significant in Judaism, because it’s a double 18. The number 18 is significant in Judaism because it’s associated with the Hebrew word for life, chai. (It’s spelled, but not pronounced, like the Indian tea. The ch is pronounced as in Bach.)

I’m Jewish, which pretty much makes this my favorite of the Bay Area’s many identity film festivals. Here are some festival screenings and events that look intriguing to me:

  • Freedom of Expression Award: This year the award goes to television pioneer
    Norman Lear, the man who brought controversy to prime time as the
    creator of All in the Family. The event will include a screening of the documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.
  • The Writer: Sayed Kashua, the Israeli Arab creator of Arab Labor has a new TV series–this time a drama. As with his sitcom, it focuses on an Arab writer with an identity crisis.

  • The Last Laugh: Can we laugh at the holocaust? Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, and other Jewish comedians consider the topic.
  • Sand Storm: A family relationship drama set in a Bedouin village in Israel.
  • For The Love of Spock: Director Adam Nimoy examines the life of his father, who created one of the most iconic characters in TV history, Mr. Spock.
  • Origin of Violence: A historian studying the Holocaust comes upon a photo suggesting something hidden in his family’s history.

I’ll tell you more about movies I have seen after I’ve seen enough of them.

June Film Festivals

I don’t have to tell you about the San Francisco Silent Film Festival; I already have. But here are two other festivals coming up next month.

SF DocFest (June 2-16)

If you prefer your cinema without fiction, this is the festival for you. Here you’ll find documentaries about East LA, LSD, two-dollar bills, Internet sex workers, and, of course, music. I haven’t seen anything in this festival, so I have no opinions.

DocFest opens with a surfing documentary called It Ain’t Pretty. Don’t expect Frankie and Annette, or even bikinis. These are Northern California surfers, which means that they wear wetsuits. And they’re all women.

It Ain’t Pretty

The closing-night show, Silicon Cowboys, is about a piece of tech history that only old-timers like me remember: the fall of the once important Compaq Computers.

Frameline (June 16 -26)

Now in its 40th year, the world’s oldest LGBTQ film festival is not about a particular type of film, such as a documentary (although it certainly has plenty of them). It’s about a particular type of person—the sort who tends to throw North Carolina into a hissy fit.

Again, I haven’t seen anything in the festival. But here are some that intrigue me enough to make me want to catch them:

The Intervention: This American relationship comedy involves a group of friends trying to convince an unhappily married couple to divorce. But some of the interventionists need their own interventions.

Summertime: Politics and love intertwine in this French romance set in the 1970s. A closeted farm girl goes to Paris and falls in love with a feminist.

Summertime

The Freedom to Marry: A documentary that we all know has a happy ending.

Being 17: Another French film, about two very different teenage boys forced to live under the same roof. Thing’s get complicated.