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44th Mill Valley Film Festival Preview

Updated: Sep 18, 2021 09:36
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It’s time for the return of the fall season’s biggest Bay Area film festival.  The Mill Valley Film Festival (hereafter “MVFF”)  returns for its 44th edition.  From October 7-17, 2021, festival goers will have opportunities either in-theater or online to enjoy a program filled with a mix of recent festival award-winners and new films featuring well-known stars.

Get ready to see over the course of this year’s MVFF films starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Tessa Thompson, Kristen Stewart, Joaquin Phoenix, Dame Judi Dench, Peter Dinklage, Olivia Colman, and Tilda Swinton among others.

MVFF44 – Official Trailer

Now that tickets have gone on sale to the general public (as of 4pm on 9/16), Broke-Ass viewers have several options for catching MVFF films.  Online streaming will set you back $8 per stream.  It’s available only to California residents, and the films which can be streamed generally lack name talent.

For those who prefer In-Theater screenings, Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive is showing a few MVFF offerings, and it’s geographically closer to San Francisco.  However, proof of vaccination will be required and a screening ticket costs you $16.50.

Those who want to have a chance to see lots more MVFF offerings In-Theater will need to trek to Mill Valley with their vaccination proof and go to such places as the Smith Rafael Film Center and the CineArts Sequoia.  Tickets start at $16.50 and go up to $55 for event screenings such as the Closing Night Film.  The first part of Denis Villeneuve’s hotly-anticipated adaptation of “Dune” falls into the Special Event category, especially since Villeneuve will appear in person.

Directors Kenneth Branagh and Jane Campion will also make personal appearances as they are the subjects of MVFF tributes.  Branagh brings his remembrance of a 1960s childhood in his new film “Belfast.”  Campion brings “The Power of the Dog,” a foray into Westerns that earned her a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

The In-Theater screenings’ Opening Night film is Joe Wright’s “Cyrano,” a musical adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s classic stage play “Cyrano de Bergerac.”  Rock band The National provides both the score and the songs.  Peter Dinklage, best known as dwarfish Tyrion Lannister on “Game Of Thrones,” shines as the titular poet and duelist.  His unrequited love for the beautiful Roxanne (Haley Bennett) translates into the love letters to her he ghostwrites on behalf of the tongue-tied Christian.


The Online Opening Night selection is “The Last Bus.”  Timothy Spall stars as elderly widower Tom, who sets out taking various public buses to get from John o’Groats in Northern Scotland to Land’s End, Cornwall.  The desire to fulfill a mysterious promise while he’s still able means his journey runs some 600 miles.

Films for families have been a big part of MVFF over the years. This year’s Family Film Online opener is cartoonist Lorenzo Mattioti’s debut feature “The Bears’ Famous Invasion.”  It’s an animated adaptation of the classic Italian children’s book of the same name.  King Leonce leads his bear clan into “the valley of men ” to find his lost son.  But that search eventually results in a clash between bears and men.

A far different sort of parent-child relationship is at the heart of “Parallel Mothers,” the new Pedro Almodovar film.  Janis (Penelope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit) are two women going into labor at the same time in the same hospital.  These two women may be of different ages and of different minds regarding the prospect of parenthood.  Yet their futures wind up being bound by the few words they exchange with each other in the hospital. Cruz won a Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival for her performance.

Parallel Mothers

Providing an unfortunately timely look at exercising reproductive rights in a conservative society is Chadian director Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s social realist drama “Lingui, The Sacred Bonds.”  Independent single mother Amina was exiled by her family for getting pregnant as a teenager.  When Amina’s teen daughter Maria gets expelled from school for being pregnant, her mother is determined to stop history from repeating itself.  She supports Maria’s efforts to get an abortion, even if the procedure is both socially and legally disapproved of in Chadian society.

Lingui, The Sacred Bonds

Speaking of second chances, MVFF offers another opportunity to catch the crowd pleasing fourth wall breaking tale “Women Is Losers.”  Lissette Feliciano’s tale is set in 1960s-1970s San Francisco.  When strong-willed Catholic high-schooler Celina accidentally gets pregnant, seeing a botched back alley abortion frightens her into having the baby.  Can this young unmarried mother make her own way in a world where the odds are culturally stacked against women like her?  Simu Liu has a pre-”Shang Chi” role as a far less heroic character. 

Oscar-winning filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino goes heavily autobiographical in his new film “The Hand Of God.”  In 1980s Naples, an awkward teen feels his family life and future is a mess.  Things seem to look up when soccer great Diego Maradona comes to play for Naples.  But it’s the presence of a legendary film director doing a Naples shoot that truly affects our hero’s life.  Sorrentino’s film took a Grand Jury Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Acclaimed Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s newest film “A Hero” won this year’s Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix.  An unpaid debt landed Rahim in prison.  When Rahim’s girlfriend accidentally stumbles upon a bag of gold coins, it seems the prisoner can now pay what he owes.  But Rahim’s plans to use the found money runs into complications…which is when he takes an unexpected course of action.  Farhadi’s film winds up mixing a moral dilemma into a look at peoples’ relationship with folk heroes.

Suzanne Joe Kai’s documentary profile “Like A Rolling Stone: The Life And Times Of Ben Fong-Torres” does discuss legendary Bay Area counterculture journalist Ben Fong-Torres’ work on Rolling Stone magazine.  But it also covers the journalist’s time on the Chinatown newspaper East-West, his philosophy of journalism as social activism, and his mentorship of generations of journalists and writers.  Cameron Crowe paid tribute to Fong-Torres by making him a character in “Almost Famous.”

In “Bergman Island,” acclaimed director Mia Hansen-Love goes heavy on the autobiography.  Faro, the titular island, served as both the home of iconic film director Ingmar Bergman and the setting of some of his greatest films.  Writer-director Chris (Vicky Krieps) has come to Faro with more established filmmaker husband Tony (Tim Roth) for a working vacation.  But while Tony alternates between working and getting his Bergman fanboy on, Chris struggles to develop her own creative voice.

Those who are piqued enough by MVFF’s films to want to know more about the craft and business of cinema should check out the “Behind The Screens” and the “Mind The Gap” panel discussions.  Among the panel topics for this year are the benefits of opening up the filmmaking process to input from minority communities, how to navigate the film industry after your film’s done, and even an ode to popcorn.

“Fish Tank” director Andrea Arnold makes her first foray into documentary filmmaking with “Cow.”  Luma is the name of the titular English dairy bovine.  Arnold’s film follows the work life cycle of this animal primarily from the cow’s perspective.


Director Apichatpong Weersethakul’s new film “Memoria” may be set in Colombia, but it once again explores the thin barrier between the material world and the spirit world.  Recently widowed botanist Jessica (Tilda Swinton) seems to be the only one who can hear a recurring loud banging.  Her quest to find the banging’s source will take her from the halls of Ciudad Universitaria de Bogota to the green wilderness.

Gloria Pancrazi and Elena Jean’s documentary “Coextinction” shows why humans really should be worried about the shrinking numbers of Pacific Northwest salmon and Southern Resident orcas. Tribal fisheries may be the first victims of this shrinkage, but humanity as a whole will be the ultimate victims.  The good news is there are some common-sense ways to reverse the salmon and orca shrinkage. The bad news is ineffectual legislators and greedy businesses stand in the way of implementing these measures.

Get ready to say “dawww….” a lot while watching MV44’s Centerpiece Film.  It’s the new Mike Mills family drama “C’mon C’mon.”  Joaquin Phoenix stars as a radio journalist who travels around the US to interview kids about the future of the world.  He also has to keep his eye on his 8-year-old nephew while his parents are dealing with a mental health crisis.  Toss in some really cute kid non-actors, and get ready for some warm fuzzies.

Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal didn’t take the easy route for her directorial debut.  Her “The Lost Daughter” adapts the Elena Ferrante novel of the same name.  Academy Award winner Olivia Colman plays Lena, a professor vacationing solo in Greece, whose concern for a young mother she encounters triggers memories of her own imperfect efforts at motherhood.  How do you balance the desire for erotic fulfillment with the resposibility of raising children?  “The Lost Daughter” is being awarded a MVFF Ensemble Award.  It’s already won a Best Screenplay award at the Venice Film Festival.

A road trip provides the spine for acclaimed Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s new film “Drive My Car.”  Yusuke’s an acclaimed actor and director who’s been invited to direct an international production of “Uncle Vanya” at a Hiroshima theater,   Having the taciturn young Misaki drive him may not have been something Yusuke wanted.  But his reeling from a string of familial tragedies doesn’t make him a good driver either.  As it turns out, Misaki has her own personal baggage…and the trip allows her and Yusuke to share their personal traumas.  Winner of the Best Screenplay award at Cannes.

Guaranteed to get certain types of racist white people hyperventilating is “Who We Are: A Chronicle Of Racism In America.”  Sisters Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s documentary adapts legal activist Jeffrey Robinson’s famed Juneteenth 2018 presentation on the nature of America at New York City’s Town Hall.  Robinson argues that America is simultaneously a great country…and a racist one.  While the film fleshes out Robinson’s thesis with interviews and deep dives into the history books, don’t hold your breath waiting for Faux News’ racist audience to give Robinson’s views a fair hearing.  

Remember when Joe Biden was publicly razzed for being too old to run for POTUS?  Well, ex-Senator Mike Gravel was 89 when he made his presidential run.  Skye Wallin’s documentary “American Gadfly” recounts how a bunch of social media savvy New York high schoolers got Gravel to agree to run.  The high schoolers weren’t interested in winning the election as much as building a public platform to draw attention to national issues of concern to their generation.  But beyond crushing encounters with the political day-to-day, these students succeeded in ways they didn’t expect. 

Is it possible to say something fresh about Diana Spencer, the late Princess of Wales?  Pablo Larrain’s “Spencer” answers that question with a firm yes, thanks to the presence of Kristen Stewart as the titular royal.  It’s 1991, and Lady Diana is spending a suffocating Christmas with the royal family at the Sandringham grounds in Norfolk.  Mix in elements of “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and the result is far different from the usual biopic.


Who else but the man who gave moviegoers multiple Bob Dylans (“I’m Not There”) and one of the great glamrock movies (“Velvet Goldmine”) could be entrusted to tell the story of “The Velvet Underground?”  Todd Haynes’ first feature documentary tells both the story of the Warhol Factory band that became a musical legend and the times they lived in.  But straight “just the facts” filmmaking is for weenies.  Haynes relies on avant garde filmmaking styles to trace the V.U.’s history. 

Don’t forget the Shorts programs.  This annual MVFF feature is an opportunity to see films in a wide variety of styles and subjects from possible future film stars.  The program titles don’t always give clues to the collected shorts’ themes.  “Pale Blue Eyes,” for example, presents documentary shorts from Bay Area filmmakers.  So check out the individual programs and see what sounds interesting.  Some of the short films offered this year include “Too Many Buddhas,” “Bolt Cutters Make Great Friends,” and “Matilda And The Spare Head.” 

Sean Baker’s new film “Red Rocket” takes place in Texas during the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  Mikey (Simon Rex in an engrossing yet repellent performance) has returned home from Los Angeles after failing to make it as a porn actor.  His failed career hasn’t stopped him from selling himself to others back home as a bigger success than he really was, which sounds an awful lot like a certain ex-president.  Will Mikey’s hustling pay off at least with a bedroom encounter with a flirtatious teen?

Andres Alegria and Abel Sanchez’ documentary “Song For Cesar” shows how music inspired by Cesar Chavez’ struggle for Latino farmworkers proved an important tool in the 1960s Chicano Movement.  Aside from remembering such songs as “El Bracero” and “Viva La Huelga,” the film has interviews with such icons as Carlos Santana, Cheech Marin, and Maya Angelou among others.  Remember these words of wisdom from playwright Luis Valdez: “Beware of a movement that sings.”

French street artist JR first came to film lovers’ attention with “Faces Places,” his delightful collaboration with the late Agnes Varda.  Now he returns to MVFF with his new documentary “Paper And Glue.”  The new film follows JR as he makes his signature giant photographic blowups at such places as a Texas maximum security prison and a Rio favela.  These blowups nudge the viewer to recognize the humanity of people they’d otherwise ignore.

The French Dispatch

Closing out MVFF 44 is the new hotly awaited Wes Anderson film “The French Dispatch.”  The title refers to an American magazine published in the French town of Ennui-sur-Blase.  When the magazine’s beloved editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. passes away, the writing staff decides to dedicate the magazine’s final issue to stories about Howitzer.  The all-star cast includes Benicio del Toro, Tilda Swinton, Timothee Chalamet, Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric, and of course Anderson regular Bill Murray.

Obviously, a Broke-Ass viewer cannot see every MVFF film mentioned in this preview or even ones that haven’t been mentioned here.  But the hope is that the MVFF’s programming will impress such a viewer enough to make a return visit to the 45th MVFF and beyond. 

Mill Valley Film Festival Programing and Tickets Here.

This sponsored post was brought to you by Mill Valley Film Festival, our favorite Film Festival in Mill Valley!

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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.

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