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42nd Mill Valley Film Festival Preview

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Among fall Bay Area film festivals, the Mill Valley Film Festival (hereafter MVFF) has long been considered the biggest one around.  MVFF’s 42nd edition, which runs from October 3-13 this year, brings to eager arthouse and indie films audiences 215 features and short films from the US and the rest of the world.  Fans of film festival gender parity will appreciate MVFF’s commitment to the 50/50 By 2020 pledge because 48% of the films in this year’s festival are directed by women. On the other hand, urging Broke-Ass readers to make the trek up to San Rafael, Larkspur, and Mill Valley may understandably feel like a big ask.  Going to Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive, which will be showing selected MVFF films, is comparatively more doable yet provides only a taste of the full festival. What reasons are there to head up north to San Rafael et al.?

Dolemite Is My Name

Bragging rights may seem like a great motivation.  MVFF is screening such highly buzzed-about films as “Pain And Glory,” “Parasite,” “Dolemite Is My Name,” “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” and “Jojo Rabbit.”  However, quite a few Broke-Ass readers may prefer waiting a few weeks for the films’ theatrical or streaming release.  On the other hand, celebrity-minded viewers will note that the screening of “The Lighthouse” will be accompanied by the in-person appearance of star Robert Pattinson. 


The star of “High Life” will not be the only Hollywood celebrity present at a MVFF screening.  Oscar winner Jamie Foxx will appear in person for the Opening Night screening of “Just Mercy.”  If you loved “Booksmart,” actress turned director Olivia Wilde will talk about the other creative hats she wears.  Veteran character actor Danny Trejo’s personal appearance with the wonderful anecdote-filled biography “Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo” will hopefully mean his giving further details about some of the stories mentioned in the film.


For potential attendees who are more musically inclined, the Sweetwater Music Hall will offer musical performances connected with several films showing at MVFF.  “Johnny & June Forever” offers a tribute to the music of Johnny Cash and June Carter in connection with the new documentary “The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash.”  Or attendees can see the reunion of the original line-up of the first all-female rock band Ace Of Cups if they liked the documentary “You Say You Want A Revolution?”  For those with more offbeat musical tastes, how about a band that mixes Japanese pop with 1960s go-go sounds? The band pulling this off is called Gaijin A Go-Go, and their founder Petra Hanson tells her story in the short “Xmas Cake – This American Shelf Life.”

The members of Ace Of Cups

MVFF also offers several free events.  Henry Selick’s creepy charming stop-motion animation adaptation of the Neil Gaiman classic “Coraline” gets a 10th anniversary outdoor screening.  In the marking of another anniversary, “Fire In Paradise” looks at the Camp Fire disaster.  Or for those who want to hang with filmmakers and other film lovers, how about the “Networking In Nature” 3.5 mile hike to the Pacific Ocean? 


MVFF offers other things besides what’s already been mentioned, such as panel discussions and a 4K restoration of the powerful indie historical drama “Thousand Pieces Of Gold.”  Yet the sheer amount of choices can feel overwhelming.  Fortunately, MVFF helpfully breaks down their offerings into such obvious interest groups as “Queerish,” “Valley of the Docs,” “World Cinema,” “Family Films,” and “5@5 Shorts.”


Still, it couldn’t hurt to get a bit more helpful winnowing.  So here are some suggestions for MVFF films to catch:


63 Up–The “Up” documentary series began back in 1964.  A group of 14 7-year-olds of various socioeconomic backgrounds were interviewed about their dreams and hopes for the future.  Every 7 years after that initial film, director Michael Apted went back to his subjects to see how their lives had changed in the interval.  For viewers around the world, the resulting films were a magical exercise in seeing these individuals figuratively grow up on screen. This new film is the 9th installment in the series.  While it’s true that the film will probably be commercially released, this screening features an appearance by Apted himself, who’s receiving a MVFF award.  


Bacarau–This Cannes Jury Prize winning ensemble drama is co-directed by Kleber Mendonca Filho (“Aquarius”).  It’s the story of what befalls a rural Brazilian village after it vanishes from GPS trackers. What starts out as a lament on being cut off from civilization eventually turns into a struggle between greedy outsiders and determined locals.  The film mixes together elements of thrillers, science fiction, and westerns plus a few Spandau Ballet tunes. But above all else, this drama is monumentally pissed off at the “progress = wiping out indigenous people” mentality.


Coup 53–Wonder why Iranians feel they have reason to give the American government  the side-eye? Deliberately toppling a government democratically elected by the Iranian people provides a very good reason for distrust.  Mohammad Mosaddegh would have presided over the largest Middle Eastern democracy at the time. However, “national interest” as defined by the United States and the United Kingdom governments led them to arrange the overthrow of Mossadegh’s government and replacing it with the more amenable despotic rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi aka the Shah of Iran.  This previously told story gets supplemented here by secrets revealed after 60 years thanks to documents and films obtained from the British Film Institute. (Also screens at the Pacific Film Archive)


Ema–Director Pablo Larrain reunites with star Gael Garcia Bernal for this melodrama in which the reggaeton dance sequences tell important parts of the story.  A dance company choreographer (Bernal) is married to a schoolteacher by day/self-possessed dancer by night (newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo). But after an adoption goes badly, their marriage starts to unravel.  Nicolas Jaar’s amazing score provides a great supplement to the onscreen drama. 


Frankie–The renowned Isabelle Huppert plays the title character, famed movie and TV star Francoise “Frankie” Cremont.  A terminal illness diagnosis spurs Frankie to bring together friends and family to the Portugese resort of Sintra.  Aside from having a last get-together, the actress hopes in the course of one day to have amends made and personal closure obtained.  Acclaimed director Ira Sachs (“Little Men”) helms this drama.

The Gift: The Journey Of Johnny Cash

The Gift: The Journey Of Johnny Cash–If you thought Johnny Cash’s story ended at the same time as the end of his biopic “Walk The Line,” then you need to watch this documentary.  It traces the years of Cash’s life that followed the events of that biopic. On the creative front, the Man In Black continually sought ways to reinvent himself while allowing space for innovation and spirituality to intersect.  In this timeframe, Cash’s famed Folsom Prison concert occurred. But it was also the time when the singer protested the Vietnam War and championed Native American rights.   


The Irishman–The highly anticipated Martin Scorsese crime drama reunites the director with star Robert De Niro for the first time in a couple of decades.  The title refers to the nickname given mob hitman Frank Sheeran (De Niro). Scorsese’s film recreates Sheeran’s confessions regarding his post-WWII criminal activities.  The hitman particularly recalls his involvement with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) of the notorious Bufalino crime family and his role in the disappearance of controversial labor organizer Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).  


Journeys Beyond The Cosmodrome–When you’ve lived much of your life being a neighbor to a symbolic gateway to the future, what do your dreams of tomorrow look like?  Nine Kazakh teens are about to leave the orphanage that’s provided both home and family to head into unknown futures. The orphanage’s neighbor happens to be the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world’s largest operational space launch facility. Filmmakers Jeanne C. Finley and Lyazzat Khanim decide to film the teens imagining onscreen what their own personal journeys into the  future will be like.   


Les Miserables–This Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize award-winner offers a modern-day take on Victor Hugo’s classic novel.  Stephane, Chris, and Gwada are three cops whose beat is the poverty-stricken and racially divided Parisian district of Montfermeil (also the setting of Hugo’s novel).  When the local Muslim Brotherhood is accused of stealing a lion cub from a traveling Roma circus, the three cops must find the kidnapped cub and return it to its rightful owner.  However, the police investigation winds up setting off simmering tensions in the neighborhood, with destructive results.


Marriage Story–Director Noah Baumbach swears that this film is not autobiographical.  Then again, this film follows New York City theater director Charlie (Adam Driver) and LA-bound actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) as they’re getting divorced.  Both parents promise to keep the separation amicable for the sake of their young son (and themselves). However, hurtful admissions and nasty verbal fights soon make hash of those plans.  Baumbach will appear at the screening, along with cast members Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Julie Hagerty.

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire–In Celine Sciamma’s highly acclaimed historical drama, gifted painter Marianne travels to a remote island to perform a commission.  Her subject: Heloise, whose wedding portrait Marianne is painting in secret. To complete the commission, the painter needs to closely observe her unsuspecting subject’s many movements and moods.  But such intense observation has unexpected emotional consequences… Winner at the Cannes Film Festival of both a Best Screenplay award and the first ever Queer Palm awarded to a female director.


The Report–National security expert Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) gets an assignment from the U.S. Select Committee On Intelligence to study the use of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the War on Terror.  But Jones’ report concludes that little usable information was produced but a lot of human rights were violated. Certain government officials want Jones’ unflattering report buried. It’s up to Jones and ally Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening in an incredible performance) to make sure the general public knows about Jones’ findings.  Yes, this film is slated for eventual release. However, getting into the Rush screenings might be worth a try as the real-life Jones will appear in person.


Scheme Birds–This Tribeca Film Festival award-winning documentary takes viewers to the former Scottish steeltown known as Motherwell.  16-year-old Gemma is known in the town as one of its “scheme birds.” The term refers to housing development teen girls who can fight, drink, and smoke as well as the boys.  However, when the nihilistic Gemma gets pregnant, she realizes she has to build a future that’s a lot more than just dying in Motherwell.

Scheme Birds

Sorry We Missed You–Ken Loach’s (“I, Daniel Blake”) new drama dramatizes how screwing over workers is part of the gig economy’s DNA.  Central character Ricky leads a high-stress life. His retaining his delivery driver job depends on his meeting daily quotas.  Wife Abby’s getting stressed out from the demands of her eldercare job. And Ricky’s teenage son Seb has started amping up his rebelliousness at a capitalist system with no future. Needless to say, something’s going to give with very messy results.     


Synonyms–Yoav Lapid’s caustically funny follow-up to “The Kindergarten Teacher” took home the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.  Handsome Israeli ex-soldier Yoav arrives in Paris hoping to shed his language, heritage, and self for reasons unknown. However, the more the Israeli ex-soldier tries to reinvent himself as French, the more obvious it becomes he can’t escape the old identity he’s fleeing.


Varda By Agnes–Famed French New Wave pioneer Agnes Varda may have left this world earlier this year.  However, she created one last cinematic gift for her fans. It’s a genial and insightful retrospective on the films she’s made throughout her career, from “Cleo From 5 To 7” to “Vagabond” to “Faces Places.”  Along the way, Varda chats with such past collaborators as Sandrine Bonnaire, her “Vagabond” star. (Also screens at the Pacific Film Archive)


  Hopefully, this taste of MVFF 42’s offerings will inspire readers to check some of these films out, or at least look into other festival offerings.  For example, Swedish Film Institute CEO Anna Serner is being honored with a Mind The Gap Award for spearheading the 50/50 by 2020 gender parity initiative.   Or viewers who loved hearing Daniel Craig sporting a Southern accent in “Logan Lucky” can watch him do so again in Rian Johnson’s “murder in a wealthy family” mystery Knives Out.  But whatever the reader decides to trek to MVFF to try, err on the side of stepping out of the personal comfort zone.


(For further information about the MVFF offerings and to order advance tickets, go to )


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Peter Wong

Peter Wong

I've been reviewing films for quite a few years now, principally for the online publication Beyond Chron. My search for unique cinematic experiences and genre dips have taken me everywhere from old S.F. Chinatown movie theaters showing first-run Jackie Chan movies to the chilly slopes of Park City. Movies having cat pron instantly ping my radar.