Mill Valley Film Festival 39, Weekend 2

Christine (2016)

A rainy weekend in Northern California put a damper on my MVFF39 weekend plans, so we’ll keep this final installment short and sweet.  Simon Killer director Antonio Campos’ Christine (GRADE: B) tells the tragic story of Florida anchorwoman Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall, in a perfectly mannered performance), who committed suicide on the air in 1974.  But rather than dour and pitying, the film is airless, occasionally chipper (1970s AM radio bubblegum pop dominates the soundtrack) and often inappropriately glib.  And yet I was captivated, most of all by Hall’s skin-crawling social awkwardness, but also by Campos’ chilly reserve, his odd version of empathy.

Another Best Actress dark horse – Sonia Braga as a retired music critic and breast cancer survivor in Aquarius (GRADE: B+), the latest film from Neighboring Sounds director Kleber Mendonça Filho.  Braga’s independent widower Clara lives alone in an apartment building slated for renovation, the lone holdout after her neighbors surrendered to gentrification years ago.  There’s very little in the way of traditional narrative beats here, as Filho is more interested in getting lost in the album grooves of Clara’s life than getting tied up in story threads.  Filho and Braga create a fully rounded portrait of a strong, proud, sensual, complex woman – a sequence where Clara recalls a previous encounter with a male prostitute as something both erotic and dangerous is a master class in visual storytelling.

Speaking of masterful visual storytelling, I finally caught up with Bong Joon-Ho’s wacky yet unsettling 2003 genre-blaster Memories of Murder this year, although the film is already notorious enough to warrant a Chinese knockoff.  Set in 1991, Yichun Wang’s What’s in the Darkness (GRADE: C+) mimics a lot of the same story elements and tonal shifts of Memories of Murder, right down to the decades-past setting and the backhanded, era-specific political commentary.  But the film plays as pudgy and slow, moony and monotonous where Bong Joon-Ho’s movie never stopped reinventing itself.

Director and star James Franco called in every favor he was ever owed to fill the cast of his adaptation of John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle (GRADE: C), especially since this dully literal film feels like a low-budget, heart-on-sleeve vanity project.  Franco and Nat Wolff play union representatives working undercover to foment strike among Central Valley fruit pickers, while the likes of Robert Duvall, Selena Gomez, Ed Harris, Bryan Cranston, Vincent D’Onofrio, Sam Shepard and Josh Hutcherson lend thankless support.  It’s a little better than Franco’s MVFF38 entry Yosemite, but then the bar doesn’t get much lower than that.

For a much more vital take on the plight of the poor and desperate, check out Gianfranco Rosi’s stunning Neo-Realist documentary Fire at Sea  (GRADE: B+).  A strikingly beautiful movie about modern horror, Fire at Sea contrasts the immigrant crisis on the Italian island of Lampedusa (thousands of poor African refugees in unsafe boats wash up on this launching point into Europe every year) with the relatively sleepy day-to-day lives of the residents.  Seek this one out when it comes to Bay Area theaters in November.

In all, I’ve screened 23 of the films that played during the festival.  Here are my top 5:

  1. The Salesman
  2. Do Not Resist
  3. Fire at Sea
  4. Aquarius
  5. The Bacchus Lady

You can check out my entire MVFF 39 Power Rankings on Letterboxd, and read my MVFF39 Weekend 1 coverage HERE and my MVFF39 Weekdays coverage HERE (you can also read my MVFF37 coverage HERE and my MVFF38 coverage HERE).  See you next year!

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