Mill Valley Film Festival 40 Preview

by on October 3, 2017

Readers who have idly considered attending the Mill Valley Film Festival (hereafter MVFF) in past years might want to take the plunge and attend the 2017 festival in person.  It’s the 40th MVFF.  More importantly, from October 5 through 15, attendees can catch acclaimed new films from such directors as Agnes Varda, Noah Baumbach, and Guillermo del Toro.  Such familiar names as Sean Penn, Todd Haynes, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Greta Gerwig will appear in person for tributes or accompanying their newest films.

Given the plethora of cinematic delights available, here are some suggestions for films to catch.

This year’s MVFF program has three very strong titles of interest to LGBT viewers.  “Call Me By Your Name” from director Luca Guadagnino (“I Am Love”) tells the story of a romance between a precocious young intellectual and the doctoral student who’s come to assist his professor father.  Cannes Grand Prize winner “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” is set in 1989.  It follows both the activities of the Paris chapter of ACT-UP and the burgeoning romance between the HIV-negative Nathan and the slowly sickening Sean.  “A Fantastic Woman” boasts an incredible performance by transgender actor Daniela Vega as the titular character.   She’s a transwoman fighting social ostracism and challenges to her dignity so she can grieve for a recently deceased lover.

Familiar filmmaking names taking unexpected cinematic turns can also be found among MVFF 40’s offerings.  “Tangerine” director Sean Baker delivers “The Florida Project.”  It’s a drama set in an Orlando motel that’s a safety net for families on the verge of homelessness.  Cannes award winning documentary “Faces, Places” finds French New Wave auteur Agnes Varda collaborating with street muralist JR.  The duo tours the French countryside and talk about art as seen through the viewpoints of two different generations.  “Last Flag Standing” is Richard Linklater’s (“Boyhood”) adaptation of Daryl Ponsican’s sequel to “The Last Detail.”  In it, three formerly inseparable Vietnam vets reluctantly reunite on a road trip to identify the corpse of a soldier fallen in Iraq before performing one last mission.  Joachim Trier (“Louder Than Bombs”) steps into supernatural coming-of-age turf with “Thelma.”  The titular character goes to college to escape her repressive religious parents.  But besides the heavy drinking and the first stirrings of lesbian attraction, Thelma also starts having mysterious episodes heralding the awakening of some possibly uncontrollable power.   Comic actress Greta Gerwig closes out MVFF with her directorial debut “Lady Bird.”  Saoirse Ronan plays the title character, a Catholic high school senior bumbling through her last year.  She’s awkwardly trying to transition from the prison of Sacramento life to the liberation of an East Coast liberal arts college.

The above suggestions don’t mean that other well-known filmmakers have stepped into unfamiliar thematic territory.  Noah Baumbach’s Cannes hit “The Meyerowitz Stories” centers on a trio of dysfunctional siblings reluctantly forced to come together to celebrate their minor sculptor father’s life.  If you enjoyed Adam Sandler’s performance in “Punch Drunk Love,” this Baumbach film gives Sandler an equally juicy role.   The new Claire Denis film “Let The Sunshine In” stars Juliette Binoche as Isabelle, a divorced painter comically trying to find her happily ever after.  Viewers who associate Denis only with such dark films as “White Material” might have forgotten she also directed the charming one-night stand tale “Friday Night.”  Guillermo del Toro brings a gothic romance between a mute janitor and a captured swamp creature in “The Shape of Water.”  Before the reader asks, yes the film is not shy about showing human-Gill Man sex.

No self-respecting 40th anniversary festival would be complete without some retrospectives and revivals.  Just on the tail end of the Summer of Love celebrations, there’s a 40th anniversary screening of the famed rock documentary “Woodstock.”  The “70 Years of Polish Animation” shorts program offers a chance to check out some seminal shorts from this hotbed of animated film.

Fans of Wojciech Has’ adaptation of “The Saragossa Manuscript” will want to look at the digital restoration of Has’ “The Sandglass.”  This Eastern European cinema classic loosely adapts stories from Bruno Schulz’ short story collection “Sanatorium Under The Sign Of The Hourglass.”  Jozef travels to a distant sanatorium where time has been disconnected from reality.  There, he revisits key moments from his youth and relives his troubled relationship with his parents and his community.

A different sort of twisted confrontation with one’s past can be found in the new Hong Sang-Soo film “On The Beach At Night Alone.”  It’s the story of a heartbroken actress trying to recover from the breakup of her affair with a married filmmaker.  Any resemblance between this story and the actual affair between Hong and his female lead Kim Min-hee (“The Handmaiden”) might not be as coincidental as the viewer may think.

Those preferring their films with a clearer amount of facts should check out some of MVFF’s documentaries.  “The Human Flow” offers artist Ai Weiwei’s examination of large human migrations brought about by the threat of mass violence.  SXSW Audience Award winner “Dealt” offers a portrait of professional card mechanic Richard Turner.  Despite being legally blind, Turner constantly practices and trains to such a degree that he’s a legend in the magic community.  Particularly timely is the new Barbet Schroeder documentary “The Venerable W.”  The titular subject is a Myanmar Buddhist monk named Wirathru.  This religious leader has spent nearly two decades on a very public crusade to dehumanize the Muslim Rohingya as subhumans determined to destroy Buddhism.

Readers might want to top their MVFF experience with the indescribable “Snowy Bing Bongs Across The North Star Combat Zone” courtesy of the twisted folks behind “Swiss Army Man.”  Alternately, “Revolting Rhymes” delivers animated adaptations of Roald Dahl’s irreverent takes on such classic fairy tales as Cinderella and Red Riding Hood.

(The 40th Mill Valley Film Festival takes place at such venues as the Smith Rafael Film Center and the Century Larkspur.  For further information about these and other MVFF films, go to www.mvff.com .)

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