ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

The 45th Mill Valley Film Festival starts Thursday—what to watch

Still of M.F.K. Fisher from Gregory Bezat’s documentary, “The Art of Eating: The Life of M.F.K. Fisher,” which has its world premiere Tuesday, October 11, at MVFF. Fisher,”Mary Frances,” to her family and friends, wrote thirteen books during twenty-one years of residence in her “Last House,” in Glen Ellen which was built for her by Bouverie Preserve landowner and architect David Pleydell-Bouverie. It was there, between 1971 and 1992. that she welcomed friends such as Julia Child, James Beard, and Maya Angelou for conversations at the table. Photo: courtesy Gregory Bezat.

The forty-fifth Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF45) kicks off Thursday evening (Oct 6) with Rian Johnson’s all-new whodunnit, “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” with plenty of talent on stage in conversation, followed by the always wonderful Opening Night Gala at Marin Country Mart Larkspur. Screenings start full force Friday and run for 10 days with a line-up of 145 films representing 34 countries, including 49 premieres (four of them world premieres), 74 features, and 71 shorts.  Big Nights (Spotlights/Tributes/Centerpiece/Special awards) were covered in my previous article (read it here).  Here are films from the standard line-up that stand out for their exceptional storytelling and relevance. Many of these have guests in attendance and brief engaging discussions will follow most screenings. 

ARThound’s top flicks:

“The Art of Eating: The Life of MFK Fisher,” world premiere Tuesday, Oct 11, 7pm, Smith Rafael Film Center & Thursday, October 13, 2pm, CinéArts Sequoia

M.F.K Fisher in Whittier, CA, January 4, 1938. Image: courtesy Gregory Bezat.

Steeped in beauty, Gregory Bezat’s sumptuous documentary is a must-see, exploring the life and legacy of M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992), one of America’s most influential writers who spent the last decades of her life in the Wine Country. The film pieces together Fisher’s life over three-quarters of a century: from her upper middle-class childhood in Whittier, CA, through her marriage and move to Dijon, France, her divorce and return to the US, her remarriage and young widowhood, and her emergent role in shaping our ever-evolving relationship with what we eat and how we live. She was best known for her incisive gastronomic writings in hundreds of magazine articles and thirty-three books including “Consider the Oyster,” “How to Cook a Wolf,” “An Alphabet for Gourmets,” “Map of Another Town,” “With Bold Knife and Fork,” and “The Story of Wine in California.” When Fisher settled in Napa Valley, it was 1952, and a local food revolution was underway, with chefs and activists intent on supplanting industrialized food with a cuisine based on simple, fresh, local ingredients. Over time, she took her place as the patron saint of this new movement. With thoughtful comments by Alice Waters, Anne Lamont, Ruth Reichl, Clark Wolf, Jacques Pépin, and Michele Anna Jordan, all of whom considered her a friend, this is a finely-crafted homage to a woman whose humor and appetite for life inspired millions. The visuals are stunning: instead of a simple pastiche of old photos, the camera gazes directly at certain photos for extended periods, frequently returning to shots of her at her typewriter or to glamorous Hollywood-style shots that capture her beauty and verve—especially her miraculous eyebrows whose unruly arches were as individualistic as she was. Like the nourishing dishes that Fisher wrote about, thrown together from the bounty on hand and to suit one’s mood, I can imagine watching this film once a month forever and never growing tired of it.

¡Viva el cine!

MVFF’s ¡Viva el Cine! series has captured my heart and I’ve been a devotee for its nine years of programming. This year, it offers 11 award-winning Latin American and Spanish language feature films from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Spain, the US and Uruguay. Curated by MVFF programmer João Federici, the series’ spellbinding storytelling and special guests make it an increasingly influential forum for the exploration of Latin American and indigenous history/justice, culture and identity and an increasingly important anchor for the festival.

“Argentina, 1985” Monday, Oct 10, 6:45 pm & Tuesday, Oct 11, 11 am, both Smith Rafael Film Center.  (Santiago Mitre, 2022, Argentina/US, 140 min, Spanish with English subtitles)   

Ricardo Darín as prosecutor Julio Strassera in a still from Santiago Mitre’s “Argentina: 1985,” Argentina’s 2023 Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film.

One of the most significant legal trials in Argentina’s history is the basis for Argentinian director Santiago Mitre’s (“Paulina,” “The Summit”) riveting new feature, arriving at MVFF fresh from rave reviews at its Venice Film Festival world premiere. This compelling courtroom drama begins in 1983 when, after finally re-establishing democracy following decades of military coups, Argentine President Raúl Alfonsín authorizes prosecutors Julio Strassera (Ricardo Darín), Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), and their young legal team to try nine military leaders for crimes against humanity.  It’s an enthralling high-stakes David vs. Goliath battle. The team works under constant threat and roadblocks to gain justice for those estimated 9 to 30,000 citizens who were tortured, murdered or disappeared under the terror of Argentina’s right-wing dictatorship and its ruthless silencing of political opposition. The trial was the world’s first major war crimes trial since Nuremberg in 1945-46. Through courtroom testimony — adapted from original records — Mitre lays out the harrowing wake of the last junta whose impact still resonates in the country today.  Veteran actor Ricardo Darín’s psychologically charged portrayal of the uncompromising bulldog Strassera is a sight to behold.  As a foil to the heavy intensity of the courtroom, Mitre intersperses scenes from Strassera’s family life with his kids.

“Chile 1976,” US premiere, Oct 8, 7pm & Oct 13, 2pm, both Smith Rafael Film Center (Manuela Martelli, Chile, Argentina, Qatar, 2022, 95 min, Spanish w/ English subtitles)

Aline Kuppenhiem as Carmen in a still from Manurla Martelli’s debut film, “Chile: 1976.”

Chilean director Manuela Martelli’s debut feature is set during the country’s dreaded Pinochet era (1973-1990) when the country was ruled by a military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet,who seized power after the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in a U.S. backed coup d’état.  Pinochet’s systematic suppression of political parties and persecution of dissidents lead to thousands of deaths and thirty years later, the country is still reeling.  “Chile 1976” tells a powerful fictional story that delivers a sharply-focused snapshot of Chile’s sociological cosmos in this period.and that, by any stretch of the imagination, could be true. The elements are familiar to those devotees of Latin American cinema—a wealthy upper-middle class housewife, Carmen (Aline Kuppenheim) so ensconced in her cozy bourgeois lifestyle—renovating her elegant beach house—that she is unaware of what evil is transpiring in the country; an intermediary—local priest Father Sanchez (Hugo Medina); a victim—Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda), a young fugitive from the law who has been shot and urgently needs help and a hiding place.  Hardly cliches, these components/characters are masterfully deployed by Martelli. The idrama hinges on Kuppenheim’s acting and transformation into someone suddenly shaken into political awareness, who commits to helping and, in so doing, joins the fight to end the reign of terror. 

“Holy Spider” Bay Area premiere, Tuesday, Oct 11, 4pm, Smith Rafael Film Center (Ali Abbasi, Denmark 2022, 106 min, Iranian languages with English subtitles)

Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, winner Best Actress at Cannes 2022, in a still from Ali Abbasi’s thriller, “The Spider.” Image”

An Iranian film is a rare treat at MVFF.  Here’s a Cannes winner with a storyline about a female Iranian journalist hot on the trail of a serial killer who is murdering prostitutes in one of Iran’s holiest cities.  This thriller is Iran-born, Denmark-based director Ali Abbasi’s third feature, (“Border” MVFF41, Cannes’ Un Certain Regard Award winner and Oscar nominee) and he delivers a mesmerizing cat and mouse nail-biter based on the embellished true story of Iranian serial killer Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani). Nicknamed “Spider Killer,” he slew 16 prostitutes in 2000 and 2001 in the northeastern city of Mashad, Iran’s third largest city and a major Islamic pilgrimage site, dumping their bodies in plain sight.  After his conviction, Bajestani became a folk hero to the religious right for claiming to be on a holy mission to cleanse the city of prostitution.  Abbasi shot the film in Ahman Jordan and employs a violent murder mystery to deliver a critique of Iran’s punishing theocratic system, where women seem to always be guilty of something, even when they’re the victims of cold-blooded murder. The film takes artistic license in introducing a fictional investigative journalist from Tehran, Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi), who won Best Actress at Cannes 2022, where the film screened in competition), who shows up in Mashad eager to solve this long-running case.  When she teams up with a local reporter (Arash Ashtiani) who is in contact with the killer, they concoct a plan to use her as an undercover sex worker to lure the killer out.  What unfolds is a mesmerizing push-pull game between journalist and killer.

“Living” CA premiere, Monday Oct 9, 7pm & Tues 10/11, 2:30pm, both CinéArts Sequoia (Director: Oliver Hermanus, UK, 2022, 102 min)

Bill Nighy in a still from Oliver Harmanus’ period drama, “Living.”

Sometimes life offers you a second chance…it’s called tomorrow.  

In Oliver Harmanus’ beautiful period drama, “Living,” English actor Bill Nighy, gives a brilliant performance as a severely repressed career bureaucrat in a public works department in 1952 England.  His robotic, joyless paper-shuffling routine has earned him the nickname “Mr. Zombie” and, indeed, he seems hardly alive. When he learns he has six months left to live, he vows to make his final days meaningful.  But how? The rift between him and his only son and daughter-in-law is so wide that even his attempts to communicate about his diagnosis fail.  It is through a fortuitous conversation with a young kind co-worker (the sparkling Aimee Lou Wood), that he finds connection and hope.  He shifts his focus to bringing happiness to others through shepherding a small public works project and, in this generous act, is able to face death with peaceful acceptance.  Adapted by Nobel prize winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, this poignant remake of Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece “Ikiru,” which translates as “to live” in Japanese, finds its meaning in its name and message. Nighy’s mastery of every expression as a buttoned-up person who blooms briefly but so meaningfully is thoroughly inspiring.  The production design and period costumes are Oscar worthy. 

“Tukdam: Between Worlds” North American premiere, Wednesday Oct 12, 6:30 pm and Friday, Oct 14, 5pm, both Smith Rafael Film Center (Director: Donagh Coleman, Finland, Ireland, Estonia, 2022, 91 min)

A still from “Tukdam: Between Worlds” of a commemoration ceremony, prior to cremation, at the Benchen Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal. Image: Donagh Coleman.

In what Tibetans call “tukdam,” some advanced Buddhist practitioners who meditate at the deepest level of consciousness right before death, die but their bodies do not show the usual signs of death—rigor mortis, smelling/decomposition—for days or even weeks.  They remain slightly warm around their heart area with radiant skin and complexion and in the meditation position without their trunks collapsing.  According to Tibetan Buddhist tradition, consciousness is still present and they are between two worlds.  Director Donagh Coleman, who is currently working on his medical anthropology PhD at UC Berkeley, where his dissertation is on tukdam, tracks a team of forensic anthropologists at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds. He captures interviews with Western scientists, Tibetan medical professionals, the Dalai Lama, and respected bhikkhus in the U.S. and Tibetan refugee communities in Dharamshala and Chauntra, India, and in Kathmandu Nepal. This spellbinding documentary explores current research into tukdam, in which the cessation of brain function, breathing, and heart activity, all Western indications of death, are not necessarily life’s clear-cut end but instead a pliant threshold. Applying Western science to ancient traditions and belief systems proves there is more data to be mined.  Beware:  you will see lots of corpses, some in severe decomp.

Details:

MVFF45 is October 6-16, 2021.  Tickets: purchase online and in advance as most films will sell out. Most films are $16.50 general admission, $14 CFI members.  Special events, parties, and receptions are more.  Streaming pass (for CA residents only) allows access to all online films, programs, conversations. $145 general, $105 for CFI members.  Single streaming of film or event $8 general; $6 CFI members. Complete schedule and ticket purchase: https://www.mvff.com/.

Don’t despair if the film you want to see is “at rush.”  Check the film/program’s specific page on the MVFF website at noon on the day of the program you want to see.  Tickets may be released and available for immediate purchase online.  Rush tickets are also available 15 minutes before show time at the screening venue.  It’s first come, first serve, so join the line to wait about an hour before the screening.

Venues: Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael; CinéArts Sequoia, Mill Valley; Lark Theater, Larkspur; BAMPFA. Berkeley; The Roxie, San Francisco; Sweetwater Music Hall, Mill Valley; Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, San Francisco

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October 4, 2022 - Posted by | Film, Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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