37th Mill Valley Film Festival Reviews

by on October 13, 2020

37th Mill Valley Film Festival opener Ariel Winograd’s “The Heist Of The Century” inventively entertains and brings out a viewer’s vicarious miscreant.  It recreates the planning and execution of the 2006 Banco Rio bank robbery, a Buenos Aires caper that netted its participants a possible $25 million payday.  Set to a slickly jazzy soundtrack and displaying humorous ingenuity, the film will make the viewer respect and cheer on the men who committed this incredibly audacious robbery.

***

If pigeonholes are needed, “Babenco: Tell Me When I Die” might be called a meditative documentary about the late noted Brazilian director Hector Babenco.  The winner of the Venice Film Festival’s Best Documentary On Film award was shot by Babenco’s wife, actress Barbara Paz.  Rather than enslaving the viewer’s attention to the yoke of the late filmmaker’s declining health, the resulting film becomes instead an endearing mix of whimsies, memories, and even a mirror of Babenco’s cinematic oeuvre.

Key to approaching the film is the understanding that Paz has taken her late husband’s advice on selecting and assembling the footage she’s shot.  This film synthesizes such themes as Babenco the director, Babenco the playful husband, and Babenco the man on borrowed time.  Paz’s late husband will be happy the resulting film moves at a nice clip rather than drown in the slow detail of a TV docuseries.

Paz makes a couple of intriguing aesthetic choices that keep the viewer focused on Babenco the man rather than Babenco the famed director.  The more obvious one is to have the entire film, even the excerpts from Babenco’s films, in black and white.  Paz’s creative choice says of both Babenco’s cinematic oeuvre and his illness that yes, they are aspects of who this film’s subject is…but they do not define the whole of her husband.  The less obvious decision is not to identify the clips from Babenco’s films appearing in Paz’s documentary.  The specific films matter less than what the clips show about how common themes in Babenco’s work offer keys to understanding Babenco as an individual.

In “Babenco: Tell Me When I Die,” the late director becomes a cinematic Billy Pilgrim, shuttling back and forth in time.  He’s captured at various stages of health, from clowning around doing Fred Astaire’s “Cheek To Cheek” in a hospital room to being unable to move thanks to increasing moments of physical weakness.  Thankfully, there is no footage in the film of Babenco’s death.

Instead, a montage of moments from Babenco’s films show a common theme of death nipping at various characters’ heels.  The scenes include that of a bare-breasted woman trying to run away from two men with guns as well as a man trying to outrun a burning river of gasoline nearly catching up to him.  Babenco’s personal version of that experience is being told by a Dr. Drauzio that his cancer diagnosis meant he only had four to six months left to live.  That prognosis was made decades before Babenco finally succumbed to the disease.

Babenco’s friends may have jokingly described him as a continually reborn phoenix because of his frequent trips to and returns from the hospital.  But Paz’s film subject knows better.  He sees his life as being on borrowed time.  The disease may not be continually wracking his body, but he’s aware of death’s presence.   A particularly horrific nightmare of Babenco’s involves a portable cooler containing his medical records.

Rather than succumb to despair or worry, Babenco shows creative ways of living with his cancer.  There’s behind the scenes footage of the shooting of a semi-autobiographical film. Willem Dafoe takes on the Babenco character and Paz herself playfully does a “Singing In The Rain” dance in a transparent negligee.  The Brazilian director even envisages how his passing should be marked.  The elements of that occasion involve roast beef, caprinhas, and a walk on Hong Kong’s streets.

Babenco’s awareness of death explains his continued fascination with outcasts of various stripes in his films.  To the late director, not only were outcasts closer to God, but their lifestyles constantly courted their demise.

Paz’s subject’s love of outcasts also comes from self-identification.  As a Jew, Babenco had constant awareness of his not belonging anywhere and his being born nowhere.  As an anarchist, he had little love for the confining life of fixed working hours and a boss-begrudged salary.  His inability to think like a Brazilian makes it hard for his countrymen to accept him.

Fortunately, that self-identification does not appear to translate into cynicism in Babenco’s cinema.  His empathy for the socially marginalized created the masterful “Pixote.”  Viewers wanting to see that film should check out the new edition of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project from The Criterion Collection.  Included among the offerings is a restoration of Babenco’s international breakout.

***

Zoe Wittock’s heartfelt and magical urban fantasy “Jumbo” celebrates loving who you love regardless of society’s disapproval.  Introverted Jeanne (an endearing Noemie Merlant) serves as an amusement park night custodian.  Jumbo, Jeanne’s nickname for the park’s new tilt-a-whirl ride, sparks the custodian’s emotional blossoming by returning her affections.  But not everyone in Jeanne’s life supports her love.  Emmanuelle Bercot’s performance as Jeanne’s mother and Wittock’s occasional surreal moments deliver effective contributions to this touching fable of first love.

***

  1. When do right-wing Americans do their best imitation of Jon Snow from “Game Of Thrones?”
  2. When they publicly show they know nothing of the motivations of people whose views they disagree with.

Case in point: the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students who became political activists determined to stop future school shootings.  The right-wing media types trying to belittle or dismiss these students’ political efforts trotted out every canard from the “somebody put them up to it” to the “they’re just attention seekers” to “they faked seeing their friends die in front of them.”  Aside from the spectacular unoriginality of these idiot claims (one of them dates back to the Civil Rights Movement), they’re also spectacularly wrong.

A far truer (and certainly more rousing) portrait of these young activists can be seen in Kim A. Snyder’s documentary “Us Kids.”  Snyder’s film records in telling detail how these high school students marching for their lives possess an agency that way too many adults refuse to see.

“Us Kids”’ subjects turn out to be avatars for a generation tired of being expected to accept that maintaining the political status quo mattered more than denying kids like them a future.  Emma Gonazalez’ b.s. detector turns out to be properly tuned when she calls out the  offering of “thoughts and prayers” as politician speak for policy inaction.  Snyder provides devastating support with a montage of Republican politicians demonstrating the utter meaningless of that phrase.  Meanwhile, the alleged watchdogs of the public interest known as the Fourth Estate seem more invested in tamping down the disturbing implications of the Parkland shooting.  “60 Minutes” prefers to broadcast footage of Gonzalez’ emotional devastation rather than her pointed queries about the shooting’s causes.  Moderation of a CNN Town Hall putting the Parkland students in the same room as Florida politicians seems more geared towards avoidance of publicly embarrassing the politicians who appeared at the event.

Snyder’s film shows that the transformation of the Parkland students’ righteous anger into effective political action bears a strong resemblance to playing in the biggest game of chance ever.  The student activists themselves were uncertain who would participate in a National School Walkout or be part of a nationwide march to Washington D.C. to protest gun violence in schools. As it would turn out, the March For Our Lives inspired 800 affiliated events on every continent in the world except for Antarctica.

The footage from the Washington D.C. march seen in the film covers the dual nature of the event’s impact.  Inspiration comes from an 11-year-old who will not let a waiting period of seven years before he can vote deter him from being politically active now.  Sadness comes from seeing film subject Sam Fuentes vomiting from stress on stage while recounting the killing of her boyfriend Nick.

To Snyder’s credit, Fuentes’ PTSD and survivor’s guilt does not get the “60 Minutes” treatment.  The survivor turned activist’s tale isn’t rendered as some melodramatic triumph over a traumatic incident.  Instead, the emotional struggles Fuentes mentions throughout the film don’t get neatly resolved.  She needs to live with reflexive searches for exits in a crowded room as well as an inability to fully trust people.  Her relationship with her dead boyfriend’s brother Alex does provide some grounding for her.  But it’s clear in small behavioral tics like wearing a hoodie in 90-degree weather that the boy has his own traumas from the shooting that killed his brother.

Fuentes’ emotional journey through “Us Kids” also makes the viewer appreciate the emotional strength displayed by more prominent Parkland activists Gonzalez and David Hogg.   Gonzalez isn’t sure whether her activism is rooted in bravery or hard-headedness.  But her emotional intelligence and personality does energize Hogg.  In his turn, Hogg’s accepted that his life has taken a different direction from his xenobotanical dreams for Mars.  He gives his all to this new direction, as evidenced by his having enough energy to have three different meetings in one hour.  But his streak of curiosity comes out in his wanting to have conversations with protesters strongly attached to their firearms.

Milwaukee teen Bria Smith’s presence winds up expanding the scope of the Parkland teens’ summer bus tour for political activism.  Fatal shootings of children were an unfortunately frequent occurrence in the black community long before Parkland happened.  Her message that racial unity needs to be part of the effort to end gun violence leads to several powerful moments in Snyder’s film.  One such moment comes when Smith speaks in tandem with a white speaker to underscore the value of political unity.

Snyder’s footage of the Parkland teens’ public events and behind the scenes work shows that their movement is far from the image of adult sock puppetry peddled by their opponents.  These teens have paid their dues in keeping insane activism hours, organizing large events, mobilizing their demographic cohort, and even getting a few NRA political lickspittles unemployed.

“Us Kids” ultimately shows that the Parkland teens deserve kudos or at least respect for their response to that tragic mass shooting.  Their anger and grief got transformed into productive political action.  This metamorphosis is more impressive when the viewer realizes they had to handle their psychological traumas in the public eye.  For example, Parkland student activist Cameron Kasky has nothing to be ashamed of in finding the limits of his ability to give his last full measure against future gun violence.  He spoke up and refused to let stand a political status quo that enriched the NRA’s coffers.  That fact makes him morally superior to the politicians willing to continually suckle the NRA’s monetary teat.

(Thanks to the partially online nature of this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, streaming access within California to the films discussed here is still available until October 18.  For further information about the films reviewed here and to order screening access codes, go to www.mvff.com .)

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