Film festivals in the time of Corona Virus are varied and limited. Some festivals chose to cancel altogether for this year, while a few, like the New York Film Festival, went completely virtual. The Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) attempted the “best” of both by offering audiences mostly streaming options, but also a select few movies at a makeshift drive-in theater on the Civic Center grounds in San Rafael, California. Here are some of their samplings, which you can expect to come to a theater near you or through streaming options in the comfort of your home.
Ammonite – The most alluring aspect of this highly toted period drama is the casting of its stars, Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan who portray strangers that become unlikely friends- turned forbidden lovers. Taking place in 19th century England during an era when women could neither vote, let alone be taken serious in scientific circles of the day. As such, Anning (Winslet) was obliged to sell foraged fossils to support her groundbreaking research, her mother, and herself. While she excels at the research, foraging and academics of her discoveries, she gets little notice and hardly an income from it. When she is temporarily hired as a companion for Charlotte Murchison (Ronan), the young wife of a visiting geologist, she ignites a curiosity for the stones in Charlotte, and a mutual attraction quickly ensues.
While all this seems an interesting premise, the execution is anything but. Even the talents of these two acting heavyweights couldn’t elevate the lackluster script and overall execution. In fact, their characters, as well as any other characters of this film are detached, underwhelming and unappealing, making it impossible for audiences to connect. While it is fine to be a simple film, a quiet film, or a small film, you cannot be all of that and soulless as well. It was a missed opportunity to explore- as in dig deeper- provocative timeless themes. For a similar, but better option, please refer to last year’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
Director: Francis Lee
Writer: Francis Lee
Stars: Kate Winselt, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones
Country: UK, Australia, USA
MPAA Rating: R
Run Time: 120 min.
Banksy Most Wanted – This is one of several documentaries about the ever elusive, internationally popular street artist, and it probably won’t be the last. As long as he keeps creating brilliant and evocative art with political and social messaging, people will be intrigued. And as long he remains incognito, people will want to know who he is. It is just that mystery that is at the heart of this documentary directed by Laurent Richard and Seamus Haley. The film deftly combs through numerous theories as to the identity of Banksy, including interviewing investigators and journalists who are certain they’ve cracked the case. Beyond the possibility of discovering who is behind the stencils and spray paint, the film tracks the artist’s career, popularity and allure. It also asks the question, do we really want Banksy to be revealed? Although “Banksy Most Wanted” isn’t the best film of its kind, it is interesting and engaging while exploring the intersection of art and a real life mystery. For fans of the artist and his art, it’s a “must see.”
Director: Seamus Haley, Laurent Richard
Writer: Seamus Haley, Laurent Richard
Language: English, French
Runtime: 82 min.
The Father – This is a unique and interesting character study of Anthony, an elderly man in the throes of dementia who is in denial of his situation and resisting help from his daughter Ann. Adapted from Florian Zeller’s play titled, “Le Pere,” the ornery dad is portrayed brilliantly by Anthony Hopkins. Equally effective is Olivia Coleman as Ann who is equal parts worried about her father and hurt by his harsh edges as he takes out his dire situation on her. Although in recent history there have been several films with an Alzheimer theme, including “Still Alice,” which garnered Julianne Moore an Oscar for the title role. That film, and others like it, are mostly done from the perspective of the family or a family member deeply impacted from the health decline, or from both the perspective of family members and the victim. Where “The Father” differs is that it is almost entirely from the dementia patient’s point of view as he tries to make sense of what is happening. This makes for a very trippy and confusing audience viewing, but in an interesting way. For example, in one scene Ann comes to check up on her father in his apartment, and prepare him for his new home caretaker and for the fact that she will be moving to Paris to live with her fiancé. In subsequent scenes Ann is not Ann, as in Olivia Coleman, the apartment is actually Ann’s, not Anthony’s, and Ann is not moving from London to Paris. Which scene is the truth?
The movie’s best features are these deeply moving performances and the unusual point of view. While the cinematography is rich and beautiful, it is purposefully shot very narrowly, taking place in just two indoor settings. In that, it feels like a play, which is not necessarily a detractor, but rather a descriptor that this film has a very small, intimate feel, as plays-turned-movies often do. Like the way it was shot, “The Father” will most likely have a small audience, but get big notice for Anthony Hopkins come awards season.
Director: Florian Zeller
Writer: Christopher Hampton
Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Coleman, Olivia Williams, Rufus Swell
Country: UK/ France
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Run time: 97 min.
Nomadland – This haunting film is a great example of being minimal and quiet, yet full of heart and drawing viewers in from the start and through to the end. It is easy to understand why it won the MVFF “Audience Favorite” in two categories of the festival, and has much Oscar buzz already, with its star, Frances McDormand, said to be a frontrunner for “Best Actress.” Following the death of her husband and the loss of her job, Fern (McDormand) decides to leave her town in rural Nevada. Packing up her van, she hits the road, exploring a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad. Along the way, she meets others like herself, forging a new life on the road, looking for work here and there. Many of these roles are filled by actual nomads who know this lifestyle first hand.
The film is very slow moving and sparse, but incredibly engaging. There is an undeniable natural look and feel to it, with multiple rural and small town landscapes, some of which are ruggedly beautiful and cold. Although the lifestyle portrayed can seem sad and hard to witness, there is absolute audience sympathy and connection, especially for the affable and positive Fern. Even if this were not an unconventional movie year, with fewer than usual contenders, “Nomadland” would be on every “Best Of”/ “Must See” list.
Director: Chloé Zhao
Writer: Jessica Bruder (book), Chloé Zhao (screenplay)
Stars: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May
MPAA Rating: R
Run Time: 108 min
One Night in Miami – Fictionalizing an incredible night in 1964 when four friends, luminaries who later become legends, gathered to celebrate boxing’s biggest night. A young, up-and- coming athlete, Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) won the heavyweight champ title from Sonny Liston at the Miami Convention Center, and taking the world by storm. There to witness the victory and support their friend, were singing sensation, Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.), college football hall of famer, Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and a young social justice leader called Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir).
Being the year that it was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and Malcolm X being the dedicated Muslim and passionate activist that he was, the conversations between the four friends go from fun and frivolous, to heated, pointed and inspired. The fact that Clay would be using the national spotlight of his victory to announce his conversion to Muslim and changing his name to Muhammad Ali, increases the already heated exchanges between the characters. In all, they were faced with what would be their individual roles in the movement and for history. Their discussions from over 50 years ago, resonate today, with contemporary issues of race and systemic racism in America.
Based on a play by Kemp Powers who also adapted it for the screen, the movie has the look and feel of a play, which depending on your sensibilities, can either be a good thing or less appealing. For this, Oscar winning actress, Regina King delivers an impressive directorial debut. She keeps the focus narrow, in context of shots and angles, as well as regarding themes and dialogue. Most of the movie, rich in deep tones, takes place in a couple small interior locations, and the supporting cast is nominal but noticeable, including Beau Bridges. The performances throughout are believable and powerful. All four actors hold their own and then some, but Ben-Adir as Malcom X and Goree as Clay, are stand outs. Between the portrayals of these iconic figures, and the deeply moving dialogue, “One Night in Miami” is definitely worth a night of viewing for audiences of all ages.
Director: Regina King
Writer: Kemp Powers
Stars: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom, Jr., Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge
Runtime 110 min.
MPAA Rating: ?