Mill Valley Film Festival 39, The Weekdays (M-Th)

Neruda Gael Garcia Bernal

Hard-working director Pablo Larraín, who showed The Club at last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival, traveled to the Bay Area again this year to debut two new movies. There is tomorrow’s closing night selection Jackie, an English-language biopic about Jackie Kennedy set in the immediate aftermath of the 1963 assassination that is generating Oscar buzz for star Natalie Portman. Then there is the Chilean Oscar submission Neruda (GRADE: B-), a dreamily ambitious but baffling biopic about the poet and politician’s escape from his government.  Gael Garcia Bernal gives a strong supporting performance in Neruda as a pursuing government stooge who turns out to be a fictional creation of Neruda’s, but the various wisps of the story never adhere into anything, and the film often seems to be at war with itself.

Another name familiar to MVFF attendees is Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, who screened Like Father, Like Son at the festival in 2013, and now returns with After the Storm (GRADE: B), another sedate and familiar but surprisingly prickly and smartly constructed domestic dramedy.  Hiroshi Abe plays Shinoda, a once-promising writer who frittered his family and talent away to become a corrupt private detective and now pins his hopes on an encroaching monsoon to bring the brood closer together.  It’s resolutely unremarkable and generally lacking in memorable sequences, but it also teems with Koreeda’s trademark observational humanity and genre-subverting introspection.

Like Neruda, Francisco Márquez and Andrea Testa’s Argentinean drama The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis (GRADE: B-) tells a human drama amidst a cultural climate of pervasive paranoia.  Set in 1977 during the military dictatorship of Videla, the film concerns a middle-aged, middle-class, mild-mannered family man provided with information about two people who will be imminently abducted by the government, and follows his long-dark-night-of-the-soul debate about whether or not to stick his neck out.  The film is bone-dry and a little sleepy, but it’s also an admirably compact thriller, with a palpable sense of over-your-shoulder fear.

More foreign-language austerity comes in the form of Samuel Collardey’s Land Legs (GRADE: C+), a heartfelt but overly familiar French docu-narrative about a career sailor fighting to keep his family together, a quest made more difficult by his teenage daughter’s unplanned pregnancy.  It certainly feels lived-in – the Lebornes, a real-life maritime family from western France, essentially star as themselves in this scripted drama based on Collardey’s year-long observations of the family.  Unfortunately, a documentary about the making of Land Legs would be more exciting than this stylistically wishy-washy sludge.

Guillaume Senez’s domestic drama Keeper (GRADE: C+) shares a lot of that same stylistic and narrative DNA, setting its story of unplanned teen pregnancy in a Belgian high school, as young lovers Maxime and Mélanie contemplate the abyss of their futures when a baby comes into the picture.  It’s a Dardennes-style emotional wrencher, as the couple vacillates between pragmatic self-interest and a passionate but immature desire to fully realize their love, but once again there’s very little that distinguishes the film besides conviction and restraint.

By contrast to those two unformed visions, Swedish writer-director Hannes Holm’s cuddly dark comedy A Man Called Ove (GRADE: B-) feels like contrived Hollywood corn, or at the least the sort of reheated, quasi-inspiring corn that would win awards and inspire next-best-thing hosannas at Sundance.  Rolf Lassgård thunders across the screen in the title role, playing a grumpy and depressed widower whose attempted suicide gets repeatedly delayed by nosy neighbors, as well as his compulsion to strictly enforce the rules of his housing complex.  The result is predictable but palatable syrup.

A far less digestible helping of syrup, Jonathan Parker’s The Architect (GRADE: D) was easily the worst MVFF39 film I watched all the way through (I’ll remain coy about the switch-offs since they’re both highly unlikely to ever get a commercial release).  Punishingly tedious, stylistically insipid and larded with the most nauseating cliches possible, The Architect stars Parker Posey and Eric McCormack as an emotionally distant married couple who hire a daffy architect with big ideas to renovate their dream house.  There is hardly a second of this film that doesn’t feel false.

For a diametrically opposite approach to filmmaking, check out Katy Grannan and Hannah Hughes’ gutsy documentary The Nine (GRADE: B-), a film devoutly devoted to the truth of its subjects, occasionally to its detriment.  With very little in the way of context or narration, The Nine documents homeless addicts and prostitutes living on Ninth Street in Modesto, a dumping ground for society’s most vulnerable and unwanted.  The closest thing to a protagonist here is Kiki, a spirited but delusional woman with a horrifying family backstory, and the film concludes with a brutally long, heart-exploding confessional from Kiki that would have been infinitely more effective with some judicious edits.  The Nine refuses to edit or even judge, and in a festival full of films prone to false representations of pain and anguish, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Follow my consistently updated MVFF39 Power Rankings on Letterboxd, and check out my MVFF39 Weekend 1 coverage HERE (you can also read my MVFF37 coverage HERE and my MVFF38 coverage HERE). Check back on Monday for more MVFF39 coverage, including capsule reviews of Sonia Braga in Aquarius, Rebecca Hall in Christine and James Franco directing himself in an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle.

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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