This year's fest blows up with 80 features, dazzling tributes, a drive-in, and the addition of Doclands.
By Dennis Harvey
Our superspreader POTUS may have somehow missed the memo he got at least two months earlier than the rest of us, yet film festivals have miraculously figured out how to function safely within COVID World by now. Thus it’s practically business as usual for the Mill Valley Film Festival, which is taking place right on schedule this Thurs/8 through Sun/18. Of course, Marin County’s leading annual cinematic blowout will be largely (but not at all entirely) a “virtual” event this year, and its 43rd edition also provides some consolidation by encompassing the DocLands Documentary Film Festival, which had been postponed from its original dates earlier in the year.
Still, even in this virally-safeguarded form, MVFF is close to full-scale, with about 80 features and nearly as many shorts in its expansive program. There will also be tributes to stars Kate Winslet, Judi Dench, Viola Davis, Sophia Loren, Delroy Lindo and Clare Dunne; plus directors Frieda Lee Mock (whose latest is documentary Ruth: Justice Ginsburg In Her Own Words), Regina King (the actress who’s turned director with One Night in Miami) and Aaron Sorkin (the screenwriter doing likewise with The Trial of the Chicago 7).
There are panels, workshops, and special sections training focus on family films, among other genres. As ever, Mill Valley remains particularly friendly to music-related features, this time including period jazz drama Sylvie’s Love, singer-songwriter flashback Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time, and our particular most-awaited-title, Frank Marshall’s new documentary The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart. There’s also plenty of work from local filmmakers, including documentary features Belly of the Beast, The Boys Who Said NO!, Take Me to the River New Orleans, Los Hermanos, Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story, Citizen Penn and Playing For Keeps.
The festivities officially begin Thursday night with the unveiling of a 52-foot outdoor screen in San Rafael’s Lagoon Park that comes complete with 4K projection and Dolby 5.1/7/1 sound. This MFFF43 Drive-In, whose programming runs through the 17th, kicks off with two nights of Blithe Spirit, the latest film (there have been several) of Noel Coward’s perennial 1941 supernatural comedy. Edward Hall’s version stars Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher, Leslie Man, and Dame Judi Dench in the favorite role of quack medium Madame Arcati. Later al fresco highlights will include Gia Coppola’s sophomore directorial effort Mainstream, the already much-laureled Nomadland from Chloe Zhao of The Rider, and a 40th anniversary screening of The Empire Strikes Back—still the best Star Wars movie, as well as the only one generally liked by people who in general don’t like Star Wars.
You can go through the full program yourself at www.mvff.com. (Note: Some online selections are available only to viewers within California.) But here are just few particularly recommended programs among films we were able to see in advance:
This first directorial feature for French playwright Florian Zellner adapts his highly successful play, and while one can easily imagine it working well on stage, the translation to a different medium is strikingly successful. Anthony Hopkins plays an elderly man living in a voluminous London apartment, tended by his exasperated daughter (Olivia Colman). Though she’d like to move to Paris, dad can’t be left alone—and he chases away the caregivers she hires. But wait a minute, does she actually want to move? Is she divorced, remarried, or still married? Is this even dad’s apartment, or hers, or somewhere else entirely?
This ingenious scenario puts us in the mindset of a (presumed) Alzheimer’s sufferer, whose most combative characteristics are frequently brought out by the confusion and fear he experiences at having reality constantly assume new forms. He’s certain people are tricking him, stealing from him, strangers invading his space—while those people (also including characters played by Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, and Olivia Williams) patiently try to assure him otherwise. It’s a fascinating drama, arguably a better one on the subject than such prior awards-magnets as Afterglow or Still Alice.
The Truffle Hunters
Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary may be classic “Italy travelogue porn” on one level, with its beautiful photography of gorgeous scenery, and fond regard for eccentric village types. Yet it’s also about a high-ticket business sufficiently cutthroat that competitors might actually set out traps to poison each another’s keen-nosed dogs. This is the world of white truffle hunting in the northwestern Italian region of Piedmonte, where a handful of aging locals remain infuriatingly expert at locating the buried fungi prized by gourmands—something agricultural science has so far failed to enable the standardized cultivation of.
Thus these crusty old men hold the keys to a kingdom, and they aren’t giving them away—in fact, they seem quite content to die with the secrets of their favorite spots unshared. They’re charming geezers with trigger tempers, well aware they’ve got the upper hand in a viciously competitive trade. The Truffle Hunters is very pretty and entertaining, but by the end you may be surprised none of its octogenarian protagonists have gotten killed (or killed one another) yet.
A different kind of agribiz—though equally bucolic and commercial—is the subject of this very Northern California story from the writing/directing team of Mario Furloni and Kate McLean. Krisha Fairchild (of Trey Edward Shults’ terrific 2015 drama also called Krisha) plays Devi, a Humboldt County pot grower whose solo operation has survived decades operating covertly, eluding the forces of the law. But her fragile, premium-grade operation may not survive the forces of market capitalism, as marijuana’s new legality suddenly make her prey to regulatory expenses and corporate competition somehow more risky than being flat-out felonious ever was.
Though a little underdeveloped as a narrative, Freeland nonetheless potently captures the character of both its pushing-70 heroine and her dying-out culture—the hippie dream (she first arrived in Humboldt as part of a communal experiment) now receding into history. Most of us have known people like Fairchild’s richly realized Devi, who’s grown tough by necessity yet still retains the Summer of Love’s stubborn idealism. The film’s considerable pathos derives from the sense that we may not meet her like again. Even (or especially) with her once-forbidden product now freely sold, there is no place left for the painstaking, solitary proprietor—big money requires a big machine, not a stubborn individualist.
Likewise making moolah in the open air is Ray (Dean Imperial), an unlikely such laborer whose prior idea of the Great Outdoors has seldom extended beyond pushing a lawnmower in Queens. But with his younger brother (Babe Howard) in need of treatment for a mysterious but widespread fatigue syndrome, schlubby, “Seventies mobster”-looking Ray needs extra cash. So he heeds the call of CBLR, one of several companies hiring independent contractors to lay cable in the woods. It’s a little like Uber—no benefits, no employee status, just the promise of big bucks in one’s “free time” that somehow always ends up being considerably less than economically-strapped participants had hoped.
That may sound bleak. But Noah Hutton’s slightly-sci-fi satire of “gig economy” work is in fact a bracingly original slice of absurdism, a woodsy slipping-white-middle-class companion piece to Boots Riley’s African-American urbanity in Sorry To Bother You, with a similar tenor of near-future whimsy. It’s a political critique ultimately as straightforwardly pro-worker as Norma Rae, yet as inspirationally silly as Woody Allen’s Sleeper.
Also awkwardly trekking from city to country are the protagonists in this rare directorial feature from Alan Ball, who’s better known as the creator of TV series Six Feet Under and True Blood, as well as American Beauty’s screenwriter. It’s a crowd-pleasing seriocomedy set in the early 70s, with Sophia Lillis as a brainy teen whose conservative, patriarchal South Carolina family provides few allies, save favorite uncle Frank (Paul Bettany). He’s “smart and funny and considerate”—qualities no one else hereabouts seems to appreciate, which is probably why he moved to NYC.
When she lands there as a freshman at NYU (where he teaches), she’s still naive enough to be shocked when a classmate points out that Uncle Frank is a big ol’ ‘mo. His alleged “wife” was just a ruse to cover the existence of an actual, rather flaming Saudi-emigre boyfriend (Peter Macdissi). Once the latter, Frank, and niece must return “home” due to a family death, the North/South sociocultural rift becomes painfully obvious. This combo coming-of-age/coming-out tale ultimately goes a bit over-the-top in terms of tearjerking melodrama. But it’s expertly done, with a fine performance from the reliable, underrated Bettany keeping things emotionally grounded.
Offered in tandem with MVFF this year, DocLands (which normally plays the Bay Area in spring) covers a wide range of nonfiction subjects in both feature and short form, from political activism to the beauties of nature. Very much encompassing both is David Garrett Byars’ new film about the battle to protect U.S. public lands (including parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, etc.) from commercial exploitation.
Folks like the Koch Brothers have long tried to chip away at the Federal government’s control over such valuable territory, and the Trump administration has bulldozed past much existing regulation to let the fossil fuel industries and other private concerns have free, ruinous access to those “protected” acres. Such enterprise is invariably sold as benefitting citizens, via jobs and cheap energy. Yet just as inevitably, the profits are short-term, don’t “trickle down” very far, and leave taxpayers with giant cleanup bills for destroyed environments. Public Trust is full of gorgeous landscapes, but get ‘em while you can—if policy trends continue at their current pace, those rapturous views and the wildlife they sustain won’t be around much longer.
The 43rd Mill Valley Film Festival takes place Thurs/8-Sun/18 in the CAFilm Streaming Room online virtual Cinema, and at the festival’s Drive-In Cinema in San Rafael’s Lagoon Park-Marin Center. For full program, ticket and other information, go to www.mvff.com and www.doclands.com