39th Mill Valley Film Festival Preview

by on October 4, 2016


October brings autumn leaves and relatively colder weather to the Bay Area.  But the month also brings the annual return of the Mill Valley Film Festival (hereafter MVFF).  From October 6 to 16, 2016, cinephiles will receive ten days of programming including documentaries, feature films, and concerts.  Those willing to make the trek to the Rafael Film Center, the CineArts Sequoia, and other venues will need ideas on what to see to make the best use of their time.  Hopefully, this preview will provide a start.


Opening Night features two much buzzed-about films.  Director Damien Chazelle follows his emotionally grueling “Whiplash” with the far lighter follow-up film “La La Land.”  Take a flashback to the classic movie musical with two modern-day Hollywood dreamers.  Playing the leads are Emma Stone as an aspiring actress and Ryan Gosling as a jazz pianist.  “Sicario” director Denis Villenueve branches into science fiction with “Arrival.”  Amy Adams stars as a brilliant linguistics professor recruited for a top secret assignment.  Mysterious aliens have suddenly appeared in the skies above several major cities.  It’s up to Adams’ linguist to determine whether these aliens have peaceful intentions.

Documentary “The Ballad of Fred Hersch” delivers an intimate portrait of the talented jazz pianist.  Directors Charlotte Lagarde and Carrie Lozano follow the gay musician as he stages a multimedia performance inspired by his surviving a two-month long AIDS-related coma.

The life-threatening crisis faced by Sonia Braga’s retired music critic in “Aquarius” doesn’t come from disease.  Greedhead real estate developers want to remove her from an old apartment building in a rapidly redeveloping neighborhood.  Yet the joys of living in a space open to the sea breezes and the sun make the apartment something to hold on to.

Gentrification stresses are also the subject of “Company Town,” the new film from veteran documentarians Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow.  Last year’s Julie Christensen vs. Aaron Peskin supervisor race provides the film’s frame.   But the documentary’s wider scope encompasses the evils of the so-called sharing economy and the flood of new tech worker residents into San Francisco.

Ken Loach’s dramas often focus on those with tenuous at best grips on the socio-economic stick.  His Cannes Palme d’Or winner “I, Daniel Blake” brings together an unemployed carpenter denied benefits thanks to a heart attack and an economically precarious single mother with two kids.

“The Nine” refers to Modesto’s South Ninth Street neighborhood.  Director Katy Grannan visits this neighborhood trapped in the hell of drugs, prostitution, and terrible regrets.  Yet the people seen in The Nine haven’t lost their dreams.

James Franco shows once again he’s a modern day Orson Welles with his adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle.”  Franco directs and stars in this story of a Party member and a labor agitator who foment an apple pickers’ strike for better wages.  Needless to say, the landowners brutally retaliate.

Director Jim Jarmusch has two films screening at this year’s MVFF.  “Gimme Danger” delivers a documentary portrait of legendary punk rock singer Iggy Pop.  “Paterson” follows a poetry-writing bus driver over a week as he encounters small events yielding larger emotional insights.

Isabelle Huppert stars in films from two different directors.  In Mia Hansen-Love’s “Things To Come,” she’s a tough-minded philosophy professor caught in an unwanted crisis of confidence.  But in Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” she’s an emotionally traumatized woman seeking to reclaim her life after a rape.

A pair of relatively lighter films can be found in MVFF’s anime feature films.  Michael Dudok de Wit’s “The Red Turtle” is Studio Ghibli’s first international collaboration.  It’s the story of a castaway stuck on an island of dangerous animals.  “Miss Hokusai” tells the story of budding teenage artist O-Ei and her alternately thorny and reverent relationship with her work-obsessed father, famed 19th-century artist Hokusai.

Another Japanese legend, actor Toshiro Mifune, gets a documentary biography from renowned Steven Okazaki in “Mifune: The Last Samurai.”  Okazaki examines the versatility of Mifune’s career, his amazing collaborations with Akira Kurosawa, and the actor’s influence on such filmmakers as Sergio Leone and Steven Spielberg.

Kenneth Lonergan sports a shorter film resume compared to Mifune.  But it’s compensated by the quality of such films as his highly acclaimed “Manchester by the Sea.”  Casey Affleck plays a man whose guardianship of his recently orphaned teenage nephew requires his reluctant return to the titular chilly New England hometown.

A far different sort of parent-child relationship is covered in Maren Ade’s acclaimed comedy “Toni Erdmann.”  The title is the fake name taken by a prankster father who pretends to be a work colleague to reconnect to his heavily career-minded daughter.

Insane in a different way is director John Dower’s efforts to make a film about the secretive cult known as Scientology.  “My Scientology Movie,” Dower’s document of his efforts, is less expose and more a portrait of the group’s weirdness.

Weird in a tragic way is U.S. law enforcement’s abandonment of serving and protecting citizenry in favor of waging war or fighting terrorists.  Craig Atkinson’s chilling documentary “Do Not Resist” examines inappropriate police use of military technology against protesting U.S. citizens.

Barry Jenkins (“Medicine For Melancholy”) in his acclaimed “Moonlight” takes viewers back to Reagan era Miami.  There, young Chiron faces such challenges as school bullying, parental neglect, and understanding his own sexuality.

Jeff Nichols (“Midnight Special”) closes out MVFF 39 with “Loving.” This historical drama concerns interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving (played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), who   struggle to have their marriage legally recognized.  However, it’s a time when interracial marriages were “unacceptable.”

Other films not mentioned include new work from directors Hirokazu Kore-eda, Francois Ozon, Kelly Reichardt, Doris Dorrie, and Danis Tanovic.  Whether the reader chooses to catch a retrospective screening of Julie Dash’s seminal “Daughters of the Dust” or to take in a film-related concert, there will be something to tickle the attendee’s fancy.

(For further information about the 39th MVFF films described or to order advance tickets, go to www.mvff.com .)

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