FILM FESTIVALS ARE BACK BUT DIFFERENT

By Gary Meyer

This year the 44th Mill Valley Film Festival has created a true hybrid with a full schedule of movies showing at the Rafael in San Rafael, Sequoia in Mill Valley and BAMPFA in Berkeley through Sunday, October 17.

40 of the programs will be streaming in your home via several platforms.

 

Audiences are starting to feel somewhat comfortable returning to movie theaters. The blockbuster action movies like SHANG-CHI, VENOM, and NO TIME TO DIE are bringing crowds to the cinemas but so far the loyal fans of smaller and specialized films are taking their time to return.

During the pandemic art cinemas and film festivals found ways to stay relevant to their patrons by going virtual, with mixed results. The festivals tended to do better as they create a focus and celebration of movies. Last year we saw festivals offering a few films in their own pop-up drive-ins and everything else streaming.

You can view and download the MVFF Program Book online. And there are various ways to look at the program via the pull-down menu under “Program” starting with an alphabetical listing with links to descriptions and show schedule. You might want to explore various strands to build your own series of movies.

Many of the in-person and streaming showings will be followed with filmmaker conversations. There are also a variety of special events, excellent programs of short films and movies for families and youth.

Here are mini-reviews (with program note links) for the films I have seen at virtual Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca Festivals or via press screeners for MVFF. There will be a follow-up with reviews of several high-profile movies to be released in the coming months and some surprises that I see during the Festival.

Make some discoveries yourself.

BECOMING COUSTEAU is not the underwater documentary you might expect with the subject being Jacques Cousteau, but a film that follows the life of the world’s most famous explorer of the deep blue. Liz Garbus once again creates a fascinating look at someone we think we know but it turns out there is much more. I was surprised to learn how he first found inner peace underwater and that his passionate concerns for the environment partially come from what he learned while working for an oil company. His personal life had challenges while he combined his love of adventure and discovery with the creation of numerous related inventions and award-winning filmmaking that started a new genre bringing the wonders of the ocean and messages warning about the warming seas and their impact on the planet. Glimpses of his undersea work will make you want to see more but few of Cousteau’s films are available to stream. Some can be found on DVD and VHS—check your library.

 

BERNSTEIN’S WALL is the newest documentary about the great conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein that takes us into his world of creating and presenting  music while being politically committed. He was passionate about educating people and his desire to live a full life is clear, even when it results in personal insecurities. It is thrilling to see the archival footage that help present a full picture of the man.

I am anxious to see another new documentary, The Conductor about Marin Alsop who saw Bernstein conduct when she was nine years old and knew what she wanted to be…and was told “girls can’t do that.”

BOILING POINT offers multiple meanings for that term as we literally become an observer in a busy restaurant where tensions build between the owner/chef, his kitchen staff, and front of house team on a night when the patrons include an influential food media personality and a group of jerks. The film is made with a single camera shot that is on the move for 92 minutes. It successfully pulls us in so we don’t think “how did they do that?” until after when one realizes the amount of rehearsal that must have been as intense as the story it tells. There is humor and tenderness too. A few plot turns are predictable, but we swiftly move on to the next unpredictable twist. Stephen Graham leads the superb cast.

 

CLARA SOLA, the first feature by Nathalie Álvarez Mesén, is a stunning tale of a 40-year-old virgin living in a remote part of Costa Rica, sheltered by her religious mother who claims and exploits Clara’s supposed connection to the Blessed Virgin that allows her to “heal” the locals. Clara feels her strongest connection with a white mare her mother rents to local tourist guides. Dancer Wendy Chinchilla Araya is powerful leading a cast of non-actors. Her mother dresses Clara in white with a corset to hide a curvature of the spine (which can be corrected by insurance covered surgery). She tells the doctor, “God gave her to me like this. She stays like this.” When Santiago, an attractive tour company guide, arrives, both Clara and her young niece are attracted to him and Clara’s confused sexual awakening changes everything. Her sensual attraction to nature contributes to a magical realism that builds to an unexpected climax in this hypnotic film that reminded me of both Brian DePalma’s Carrie and Claudia Llosa’s haunting but underseen Peruvian drama, The Milk of Sorrow.

 

COURTROOM 3H is a Family Court in Tallahasee, Florida specializing in cases involving minors, the only one in the U.S. concerned with issues around parental and child rights, juvenile delinquency, abandonment, negligence, and abuse. Director Antonio Mendez Esparza moves from his award-winning fiction films (Life And Nothing More; Aqui y Alla) to documentary easily, retaining his strong storytelling ability. He and his crew (mostly students) capture a flow of powerful moments as the judge attempts to reunite families. The film starts with public hearings—the children’s faces are blurred to protect them—and then focuses on two different trials, usually closed hearings but the judge allowed access. Just as the attorneys try to stay detached—they cannot help but become emotionally involved— so will the viewer be affected.

DROVER’S WIFE: THE LEGEND OF MOLLY JOHNSON is one of two “westerns” from down under in the festival (the other being Jane Campion’s THE POWER OF THE DOG). Aboriginal-Australian writer, director, and actor Leah Purcell has adapted Henry Lawson’s 1892 short story for film, previously for stage and expanded it to a novel with her own spin. She stars as Molly Johnson whose husband is often far away for work so she must defend the home and her children. When a wanted criminal appears, she takes him in and feeds him in exchange for work. A plutonic friendship grows. There are flashbacks to fill us in on stories. The children are taken away to live safely in town and various threats face Molly. Purcell gives a powerful performance but the beautifully shot film lacked an emotional punch for me. There are some odd continuity issues about just how long it takes to get from town to her ranch that took me out of the story.

INDIA SWEETS AND SPICES brings UCLA sophomore Alia Kapur home for summer break in the affluent Ruby Hill, an affluent suburb of New Jersey. A lot happens as she learns there are secrets about her seemingly proper family and friends. A scandal involving her parents will soon upset the neighborhood. She also becomes romantically involved with the son of shopkeepers not considered acceptable by the high society group, offering us a modest criticism of the between classes in the Indian-American community. The teenagers are more ready to merge the two cultures while Alia feels trapped between them. It is a lightweight piece that offers thoughtful escapist entertainment. The film is colorful and has a nice balance of humor and drama—sweets and spices.

LAST FILM SHOW is a love letter to cinema as a young Indian boy skips school so he can fall under the spell of the movies at The Galaxy. Samy befriends the projectionist who lets him watch movies every day in exchange for his lunch box. As the boy learns more about how movies work he and his friends create their own cinema with junk they find and scraps of film being tossed as digital projection is installed at The Galaxy. The film opens with “Gratitude for illuminating the path…” and a short list of film heroes: the Lumière brothers, Eadweard Muybridge, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Each is paid a tribute during the movie. Director Pan Nalin grew up in the Indian state of Gujarat where the semi-autobiographical story is set. I can’t wait to see it again.

A perfect short to accompany this feature is playing in the superb family shorts program “Finding Where You Belong,” CINEMA REX is an animated story of a Jewish boy and an Arab girl who meet in the 1938 cinema and discover their love of movies. The theater was the only theater co-owned by an Arab and a Jew. The filmmakers are developing it into  feature with a larger cast of kids living on the seam line in Jerusalem.

We’ll be back with more reviews.

 

 

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