Mill Valley Film Festival 38, The Weekdays

Mill Valley Film Festival Jafar Panahi Taxi

By Daniel Barnes

I’ve reached the point of #MVFF38 where the buffet line of cinematic options that once seemed so appetizing has come to feel more like an indigestible eating challenge. Going into the final weekend of the festival, I have screened eighteen #MVFF38 films, and it feels like between 90 and 100% of them centered on murdered, molested, or otherwise abused children (and I haven’t even seen Spotlight or Beasts of No Nation yet!). My plate runneth over with misery, to the point that the terrible has become almost indistinguishable from the merely mediocre.

Thank God then for Jafar Panahi, whose masterfully flexible Taxi drives to the rescue as the unquestionable highlight of my festival so far. Taxi is the third film that Panahi has made since the Iranian government banned him from making films, so good job on that one Iranian government. Panahi stars here as himself, but the lines between documentary and drama and biography become so blurred that they’re practically irrelevant. Panahi’s film is “sordid realism” at its most bittersweet, urgent and sly, a street-level commute through the lives of Tehran, a touching meditation on artistic powerlessness in an age of omnipresent cameras, and a prankster’s ode to the creative spirit. Don’t miss this one – it screens again on Saturday night in Larkspur, then opens throughout the Bay Area on October 30.

Meanwhile, the Colombian drama Alias Maria swims through that aforementioned sea of baby tears, telling the story of a girl guerrilla tasked with escorting her commander’s infant son to safety, all the while protecting the secret of her unplanned pregnancy. Like a lot of these films, Alias Maria builds slowly and quietly, using simple camera setups, long takes, long silences, and occasional bursts of violence to convey the helplessness of its characters. It’s striking and admirable but only intermittently compelling as entertainment, and a smattering of intense scenes can’t overcome the overall air of apathy.

Much more sustained wallowing comes in writer-director Batin Ghobadi’s nearly unwatchable Mardan, a Kurdish-language crawler about a policeman whose haunted past affects his handling of a missing person case. While investigating the disappearance of a worker who never made it home with his pay, corrupt police officer Kak Mardan dredges up memories of a childhood sexual assault, but still finds it challenging to do the right thing. Most of the film consists of lead actor Hossein Hasan staring meaningfully into an off-camera middle distance, his baggy-eyed gaze almost comically gloomy. It’s as though someone adapted coverage shots from Only God Forgives into a separate feature-length film.

We go from rape to incest in The Automatic Hate, Justin Lerner’s curious dramedy about a struggling chef who falls for his long-lost first cousin. Lerner takes a yucky-cute premise and almost makes it work, somehow finding a feasible tone but never making a substantial impact. The film gets a massive lift from seasoned character actors Ricky Jay and Richard Schiff, playing estranged brothers protecting a very predictable family secret. Another likable near-miss: the rigorously deadpan Icelandic film Virgin Mountain, which takes the Apatow-ian premise of an overgrown virgin stoner and depletes it of any self-congratulatory cuteness.

Debbie Tucker Green’s Second Coming might be the most punishing film of this bunch, if only for its utter refusal to engage the audience. A middle-aged British woman (Nadine Marshall) appears strangely ambivalent about her unplanned pregnancy, keeping it a secret from her husband (Idris Elba) and adolescent son for as long as she can. Second Coming is a resolutely observational and non-narrative film, and yet you still get smacked with all the leaden symbolism you can handle. Tucker Green uses some shock cuts and sudden silences to break up the monotony, but while a third-act reveal briefly pulled me back in, this one barely connected at all.

The brooding continues in the divisive The Assassin, a languorous wuxia deconstruction from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flowers of Shanghai; Flight of the Red Balloon). Embarrassing admission alert: this is the first Hou Hsiao-hsien film that I’ve seen, so I’m open to believing that The Assassin is just the wrong place to start. Aside from a few lovely compositions, this never felt like more than an indifferent experiment. Notions of a decipherable narrative are eschewed (somewhat ironically, since the central conflict gets directly explained several times) in favor of an all-encompassing narcoleptic dread, as a trained female assassin contemplates killing her cousin and former intended husband (more cousin love!).

By comparison, Kent Jones’ spry but minor documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut feels like an exuberant musical comedy. The film is an adaptation of Truffaut’s legendary book of Hitchcock interviews, fleshed out with audio recordings from their sessions and given credibility by the appearance of auteur acolytes like David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, and Olivier Assayas. It’s a film of questionable necessity, but it’s also pretty irresistibly entertaining, and this week in Mill Valley that was good enough.

Read more of Daniel’s reviews at Dare Daniel and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to Daniel on the Dare Daniel podcast.

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