Real-life hero lawyer Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), and an advocate for death row inmates and others unfairly incarcerated, comes to life on the big screen in “Just Mercy.” Adapted from Stevenson’s memoir of the same title, it is a depiction of one of the pivotal cases he took on at the onset of his legal career. When Stevenson, who is from Philadelphia, went to Harvard Law School on a scholarship, he hadn’t planned to relocate to Alabama afterwards, let alone work on death row cases. Like many of his classmates, he assumed a lucrative profession in corporate law lay before him, but fate had other plans. After a summer internship in the late 80s of working Civil Rights cases and meeting several death row inmates who were victims of abject racism and unfairly incarcerated, bonds were made and an activist was born. Stevenson did a U-turn back to the deep south upon graduation to the fear and disappointment of his mother. It was almost just as hard to develop a law firm dedicated to this cause as it was taking on cases of this kind. To say it was an uphill battle is an understatement.
It is at this point of Stevenson’s life and legal practice that writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton begins the adaptation. He smartly puts acclaimed actor Michael B. Jordan (“Creed,” “Fruitvale Station”) in the lead role of Civil Rights attorney, Stevenson. Not surprising, Stevenson’s Harvard degree, professional persona and attire, and good intentions couldn’t shield himself from being a victim of racism as well as anyone he represented. Early on in his arrival in Alabama, he meets Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) a young white wife and mother who is dedicated to Stevenson’s cause. She and her husband welcome him into their home while he settles in. After helping him set up the office and law practice, she naturally falls into the role of legal assistant, even at the risk of her family’s safety. One of their first cases is appealing the conviction of Walter McMillian (Jamie Fox) who is wrongfully convicted of killing a white young woman despite an avalanche of evidence proving his innocence. The audience is ushered into and through a true human story and legal drama.
Jordan portrays Stevenson appropriately as a naive, earnest and quiet young attorney. Much of his performance is in being restraint, communicating more in his demeanor and expressions than words or outrage. By contrast, Ansley in real life and in the hands of Larson, is tough and brash. It’s a good role for Larson and likable and impressive performance. Although Fox is in a supporting role and surrounded by a stellar cast, he as Walter is the standout performance. His portrayal is a deeply moving combination of anger and fear, mixed with a bit of optimism as he begins to trust Stevenson and hangs on to hope. Playing the part with soul and conviction, it is Fox’s best performance since “Ray.”
Unlike the movie, Stevenson’s memoir is set up as vignettes of numerous cases he took on at the same time as Walter’s and after. The adaptation narrows the focus to just the one case. For fans of the book that may come as a surprise and/or disappointment, but it makes sense within the movies’ time limitations. Also, if there was just one of Stevenson’s laudable cases to portray, this is the best choice. It ended up being his most high profile, changing trajectory of his practice, and launching the EJI. Beyond that, there is nothing else for followers of Stevenson or fans of the book to bemoan because "Just Mercy” the movie is solidly good adaptation and a compelling drama. It will bring a tear to your eye, but more importantly, shine a light on an honorable man, admirable causes and a little-known case.
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Writers: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Fox, Brie Larson
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 136 min.
1917 - This is by far the best war movie ever made and absolutely be experienced on the big screen! How such a large movie can be so intimate is testament to the superb writing and cinematography that makes "1917" an incredible feat of filmmaking. It is as much a thriller as it is a war movie or period film, in large part due to how it was shot/edited in one take and in real time. Sometimes creative techniques and technology elevate a movie to something very special. Such is the case here, with the film being edited as if in one continuous shot. Plus, we all need an occasional good hard look at the atrocities and realities of war.
Parasite - Exquisitely shot, great ensemble cast, off the charts creative, stunning, disturbing and poignant. In a word … MASTERPIECE!
Les Miserables- Strap in and get ready for a wild ride from the slums of Paris, with a heavy dose of social injustice and blatant racism. This is what happens when burnt out bad cops are left to their own devices and in urban neighborhoods unfortunately riddled with crime. “Les Miserables” is fantastic entry into American audiences for relatively newish director, Ladj Ly.
Joker - Wow, this is as dark, grim and violent (at end) as it gets, but undeniably fantastic. The Joker is an excellent origin story, of the famed villain from "Batman," with a significant side of social commentary. Joaquin Phoenix's performance is outstanding and director Todd Phillips' chronicling of the making of a killer is haunting, captivating and actually poetic. No wonder he's been said to be a lock for all the awards from the day the movie released.
Just Mercy - I loved the book the movie is based on, and appreciate the film adaptation (although pretty different, so please do read the book!) Real-life hero lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who advocates for death row inmates and others unfairly incarcerated, comes to life on the big screen with this depiction of his career and one of the pivotal cases he took on and won. Jamie Fox should get an Oscar nod for this excellent supporting role performance.
Us - This may not quite be the cinematic revelation “Get Out” was when it came out two years earlier, but as a follow-up, Jordan Peele does not disappoint. There is a wonderful genre mix of Twighlight Zone eeriness and uncertainty, with Hitchcock level cinematography and story structure.
Knock Down the House- I loved re-wathching and re-living AOC’s 2018 path to victory, along with several other agents of change who didn’t quite make it but gave it a great try. It gives hope for the 2020 election … and we all need a bit of hope.
The Great Hack- Anybody who has a computer or engages in social media of any kind (in other words, everybody), should watch this informative and striking documentary about the Cambridge Analytica scandal and key persons impacted by it.
1917 - Sometimes creative techniques and technology elevate a movie to something very special. Such is the case here, with the film being edited as if in one continuous shot. Plus, we all need an occasional good hard look at the atrocities and realities of war.
Pain and Glory- Pedro Almadovar directs Antonio Banderas in the best role/performance of his career as a deeply personal send up to Almadovar’s career.
Booksmart- Clever, outrageous and wickedly funny. It’s the female version of “Super Bad,” but better. Kudos to actress-turned-director, Oliva Wilde!
- HONORABLE MENTION -
The Report - Can we say waterboarding, even suspected terrorists, is immoral and illegal?!! Yes, America! What can I say, I’m a sucker for a good political thriller, and when you add reality/based on actual events, even better!
Yesterday - I didn’t think anything could make me appreciate the Beatle’s anthology more than I always have, but this film did just that. Along the way, I was wildly entertained by this wholly unique script of a musician who, through a freak event, is the only one in the world that knows the Beatles’ songs and struggles with the ethics of taking advantage of that.
This decade of film has had years that were lean, where it was a stretch to pull ten exceptional for the “Best Of” list. But then there were glorious years, brimming with examples of excellence. Overall, it was hard to capsulate all the choices to just ten, with much deliberation taking place if only in my mind. Below is my conclusion (in alphabetical order), and I hope, standing the test of time.
“Boyhood” (2014) by Richard Linklater - This was my top pick for best movie the year it came out, and holds up as one of the best of the decade. An absolutely special and wholly unique movie because of the subject and how it was created and crafted. As the first of its kind, it was shot in real time with the same actors and non-actors in the case of the children, literally taking place over twelve years in the life of a boy from age six to eighteen. The film chronicles a family- a young divorced mom and dad and their two children- through the eyes of the son, Mason. They, like all of us, are all impacted by divorce, re-marriage, re-location and simply, life. There was no wowing by slick dialogue, beautiful cinematography or contrived performances. The sensibility of the project seemed completely organic and true. It was utterly fascinating to witness the cast aging and changing over the twelve year period while sitting in the theater for three hours. By movie’s end you didn’t know if you wanted to clap or cry. Most did both.
“Call Me By Your Name” ( 2017) by Luca Guadagnino This is a deeply moving coming-of-age film and love story of two young men trapped by the times they live in and unable to take their love beyond the summer of 1984. Elio, an archeology professor’s teen son, becomes smitten with the older charming, attractive and seemingly womanizing, Oliver, (Armie Hammer), a visiting grad student. Although Elio is sexually experimental with a first girlfriend of sorts that summer, he is undeniably (and understandably) drawn to Oliver. The performances by Chalamet and Hammer are seamless and effective, but just as impressive is the supporting role of Michael Stuhlbarg who plays Elio’s dad and Oliver’s professor. As such, he delivers the film’s most poignant speech in support of the love between the two young men he has keenly observed. Between the film’s setting of a rustically charming home in an Italian village, and Guadagnino’s mesmerizing small story depicting a strong and true love that starts but cannot continue, “Call Me By Your Name” will haunt you long after the credits roll.
“Get Out” ( 2017) by Jordan Peele - What a revelation this film was, taking movie audiences by storm in early 2017. When a young black man goes to visit his white girlfriend’s seemingly liberal parents in Upstate New York, things start off innocently enough, but soon take a disturbing twist on many levels. More than just story of intrigue and scares, this cinematic journey is layered with messages of race and racism. Fresh on the heels of the director’s retirement from being the second half of the dynamic comedy duo Key and Peele for their self-titled TV show, he surprised Hollywood and fans alike. No one expected in the heart of a small screen funny man, lie a great horror movie writer/director. He put a fresh and socially relevant spin on what some might call somewhat stale, over populated genre.
“Moonlight” (2016) by Barry Jenkins - Moonlight is both intense and sometimes hard to watch, as well as brilliant, haunting and not to be missed. This Oscar-winning film by Barry Jenkins is a coming of age story of sorts about a young, black, gay boy, Chiron, growing up in the South surrounded by abject poverty and raised by a drug-addicted single mother. But beyond what this film is about, is how the story is told. It is poetic and lyrical, subtle and minimal. It unfolds like a 3-part opera, showing the stages of the main character’s life – boyhood, teen, young adult. Each chapter, complete with brief musical interludes, has a title, based on the name he is commonly referred to at the time. Also, at each stage he gets a slightly stronger awareness of his homosexuality, whether he accepts it and lives that truth or not. Supporting each actor as Chiron is a strong supporting cast made up of Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris.
“The Revenant” (2015) by Alejandro G. Iñárritu - This period film of of a 1820s frontiersman left for dead in the wild was a definite departure from Iñárritu’s previous films and such a risk for any filmmaker. It was a bit of an experiment - working mostly outdoors and only with natural light, not to mention a bear rape scene- but it paid off. From the onset, the film garnered much acclaim and ultimately, Oscar gold. In so many ways this is a harsh film, made up of almost an entirely male cast, with little dialogue and lots of violence. Despite that, there is an undeniable beauty to it in the man versus man; man versus nature simplicity. What stands out most is the cinematography of a stark backdrop of a bitter cold mountainous frontier, along with a seamless per usual performance by Tom Hardy as the murderous villain and an outstanding gritty performance by Leonardo Di Caprio as the embattled and embittered protagonist determined to exact revenge on his fellow hunters. This is more than a movie, it’s an experience and filmmaking at its finest and grandest.
“Roma” (2018) by Alfonso Cuarón - Set in 1970 in Cuarón’s homeland of Mexico, specifically a section of Mexico City, the film is a loving homage to his childhood home, his community and his family, made up of a stay-at-home mother, a father who is a doctor, a maternal grandmother, four small children and the family’s domestic help. The thinly veiled story is from the perspective of the family’s housekeeper, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young, hardworking kind soul who notices everything, cares for everyone, but judges no one. Cleo puts the kids to bed, wakes them in the morning and accompanies them to school each day. She empathizes with the mother as she is crushed by her husband’s decision to walk away from the family, leaving them with little money to maintain their somewhat affluent lifestyle. In between caring for the family, Cleo endures her own personal drama of falling in love and suffering loss. The dialogue is sparse, the story line is minimal, yet this film seems to convey volumes. It manages to be intimate while also epic; simple, yet complex; covering multiple classes of people, social issues and political upheaval, and all while navigating various physical landscapes.
“Searching for Sugar Man” (2012) by Malik Bendjelloul - This is a great example of a documentary that feels more like a good movie than just a documentary. This is the real life story of Rodriquez, a little-known, but hugely talented musician from the 70s who faded quickly into obscurity. Decades later, when one of his songs became an anthem of sorts for many South Africans during the anti-apartheid movement, it rose up the charts there and sparked an interest to find him by two fans. Early in their research, they heard many tall tales of Rodriquez’s whereabouts, including that he had committed suicide.
The movie starts at the recounting of their search, then develops into a story of Rodriquez’s background as a failed musician-turned struggling carpenter in Detroit. It comes to a wonderful crescendo when the fans from South Africa find their musical hero, fly him in to perform, showering him with the accolades he never received in the States. “Searching for Sugar Man” begins as a mystery and unfolds as a heartwarming human story. I defy anyone to watch this movie only once and not download the soundtrack. You too will become a Rodriquez fan.
“Sicario” (2015) by Denis Villeneuve - I’d like to say I experienced this movie on the big screen when it was first released, but like for most, “Sicario” fell under the radar and was discovered afterwards through word of mouth and On Demand TV a few months later. No matter, when or how the buzz about this small, sophisticated thriller ignited, ignited it did, and for good reason. The story revolves around the combined efforts of a special CIA task force going a bit rogue, and the FBI as they are assigned to take on a Mexican drug cartel. That all sounds like a pretty standard good versus evil set up, but in the hands of Villeneuve and excellent writing newcomer, Taylor Sheridan, it’s anything but. There ends up being as much, if not more tension between the law enforcement factions than with the cartel. The chameleon-like Emily Blunt is pitch perfect as the suspicious and nervous, yet resilient young FBI agent Kate. She’s recruited to work along with the task force headed up by a quietly brooding Alejandro, played by Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin is as convincing as ever as the brash and opportunistic Matt. Rounding out the stellar cast is Daniel Kaluuya as Kate’s sidekick. Between the taut script, superb casting/performances and impeccable pacing, you’ll have to remember to take a breath.
“Social Network” (2010) by David Fincher - The cinematic union of famed and acclaimed writer Aaron Sorkin and Fincher for this their first collaboration is brilliant, especially given that in theory it could have had every reason not to work. Sorkin, creator and writer of television masterpiece, The West Wing, among other things, is known for words, and a lot of them, spoken very rapidly by intelligent characters in heady situations. Fincher is known for being a slow moving, visual director, creating worlds in which dialogue can take a back seat to images, expressions and mood setting. In this movie about questionable provenance of Facebook and its awkward creator Mark Zuckerberg, their artistic worlds collide deftly.
Although a work of fiction, Sorkin defends his sources and the inspiration for the characterizations, including accessing the book, Accidental Billionaire by Ben Mezrich. Zuckerberg, who is depicted as unquestionably tech smart, but brooding, bitter and downright unlikable, may have opted to distance himself from the project, others involved in the subsequent lawsuits did not.To be sure, the “real” story, along with the ensemble cast and their performances standout. Careers such as Rooney Mara, Army Hammer and Andrew Garfield, were launched with this stunning film, while Jessie Eisenberg, perfection as Zuckerberg, and Justin Timberlake, a wonderful surprise supporting role as Napster founder Sean Parker had their movie careers solidified. But they all take a backseat to the real stars of this 2010 stunner- the script, the look, and oh that pitch perfect, keep-you-on-the-edge-of-your-seat brisk pacing, which was masterfully maintained throughout.
“Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) by Kathryn Bigelow - Last but definitely not least is this political/war drama based on real events leading up to the historic capture and kill of 9-11 mastermind, Osama Bin Laden. The film chronicles the desperate many years pursuit for Bin Laden and his cohorts, headed up by the relentless Maya, a CIA operative. Throughout, not only did she take on the terrorist enemies, but what she saw as the enemies within that made excuses, dropped the ball and let politics and policy take precedence over the ultimate and important goal. Jessica Chastain embodied Maya heart and soul, portraying her as book smart, tactical savvy and tough as nails, even when surrounded by political and military heavyweights and challenged by her CIA superiors. Behind the camera, Bigelow, like with her earlier film, “The Hurt Locker,” proved to be in her element, but on a much bigger scale. With both films, she displayed aplomb in handling the small budget and intimate movie, as well as the grand. Despite differences in size and budget, both films were somewhat quiet. thoughtful and piercing. Kudos for her not backing away from the controversy of U.S. military tactic of prisoner tortures, such as waterboarding. It may have cost her wins during award season, but years later, her intel was proven accurate.
I am aware that Bigelow is the only female director represented on this "official" top ten list, but know there were several others that are worthy, and with a longer list, I would have been included rock star filmmakers such as Ava DuVernay, Lisa Cholodenko, Greta Gerwig. As it is though, Bigelow is representing brightly and greatly.
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Honorable Mention, aka, if I expanded my list beyond 10 (alpha order), and since this is my website, unlike Culture Vulture, I can!
20 Feet from Stardom (2013) by Morgan Neville - Where most films would center around the headliners and stars, this one focuses on the little-known back-up singers for some of rock n rolls biggest and brightest. These singers are tremendously talented and hard working, but fame always seem to elude them. Who are they and why are they out of the spotlight? This documentary explores their situations in an alluring and humane way.
Bridesmaids (2011) by Paul Fieg, starring Kristin Wiig (written by) Maya Rudolph, and Rose Byrne. This comedy of bridesmaids competing for best-friend-to-the-bride status was unexpected and mad fun.
Human Flow (2017) by Ai Wei Wei - A stunning and necessary documentary by artist/activist, Wei Wei, regarding the plight of global refugee crisis and how countries and leader are, or are not, handling it. See my full review here - http://www.paulafarmer.com/film-blog/human-flow-by-ai-weiwei
The Kids are All Right (2010) by Lisa Cholodenko
La La Land (2016) by Damien Chazelle, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. To say this was a fresh take on an old and forgotten genre, is in understatement and you knew it from the opening musical number. Read full review here - http://www.paulafarmer.com/film-blog/la-la-land
Parasite (2019) by Bong Joon Ho - Wow, I came so close to including this in the Top Ten, and still wonder if I shouldn’t have. It’s an amazing film on so many levels, appreciated and understood even more after a second viewing. Read full review here - http://www.paulafarmer.com/film-blog/parasite-movie-review
Selma (2014) by Ava DuVernay - With this small but truly powerful and important historical film about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s crusade to secure voting rights for all, Ms. DuVernay went from obscurity to a filmmaker in demand.
“Parasite” is Both Bizarre and Brilliant ... and Not to be Missed
For fans and followers of director Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Mother,” “Snowpiercer”), you are truly in for a treat with his latest feature, and for those new to this creative genius, welcome to the wonderful creative world of this critically acclaimed filmmaker. “Parasite,” which just completed its festival run at the Mill Valley Film Festival 42 and won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a dark comedy thriller that is as peculiar and startling, as it is well-crafted and intriguing. The story revolves around an impoverished family of four, living in small, dirty and cluttered basement apartment in a South Korean neighborhood. The parents are unemployed and their twenty something children, a younger smart son, and crafty and cynical daughter, drift from school and piecing together odd jobs to keep the family afloat. Despite their circumstances, they have easy-going dispositions and a strong sense of camaraderie. But they are broke and desperate. As such, when the son, Kim Ki-woo (Woo- sis Choi) is given the opportunity to be an English tutor to the high school daughter of an affluent family, he reinvents himself, doctors his resume, and lands the job.
Early on in his tenure, he endears himself to the well-meaning, slightly neurotic stay-at-home mom, Park Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), convincing her that her young son needs an art therapist to develop his talent and calm him down. He recommends his sister, Ki-jung (So-dam Park) without identifying her as such. Ki-jung has zero qualifications as a therapist, but like her brother, she cons her way into the Park family employment. Through series of situations, mostly created by the siblings, the entire Kim family is soon integrated into the unsuspecting rich family’s life. The father chauffeuring the husband who is a successful and insensitive businessman, and Mrs. Kim is cunningly put in place as the new maid. None though are known as family to their employers. As far as the rich family is concerned, the new employees are relatively strangers to one another. The Park family is, for the most part, grateful for each new hire, and the Kims can hardly believe their sudden windfall. Although they are convinced, the best is yet to come, their ill-gotten gains may turn on them.
How the stealthy Kim clan scheme their way into the Park household and secure new-found finances is only a portion of what makes up this one-of-a-kind drama. The second half of the film takes a decidedly dark turn, stirring up social issues along the way. Between the haves and have nots, almost no character is endearing or redeeming. In fact, most are despicable. While this would normally make it hard for audiences to connect within any other film, it works for “Parasite.” You may not sympathize with anyone, but you are invested in all characters and each plot point. Between the Kims and the Parks, the performances from every actor is precise, believable and absorbing. As to the script, at every turn there is a revelation. How Bong subtly explores cultural dynamics and weaves social issues along the way defies explanation. This is yet another example of him deftly mixing genres, while also developing fully realized characters to tell complex and rich stories. While “Parasite” makes perfect sense as part of his repertoire of the absurd- the look, the feel, the characters- it somehow manages to stand out. Just when you thought a Bong Joon- ho movie couldn’t get more weird or wonderful, he delivers a masterpiece.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Writers: Jin Won Han, Bong Joon-ho
Stars: Kang-ho Song, Yeo-Yeo-jong Jo, So-dam Park
Country: South Korea
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 132 min
Pedro Almodóvar Explores the Pain & Glory of a Filmmaker’s Past & Present
The maestro of Spanish cinema, Pedro Almodóvar, known for quirky characters, bold themes and daring aesthetics, delivers a quieter more sublime story in his latest film of memory and loss. “Pain and Glory” focuses on his film alter ego, aging film director Salvador Mallo, as he navigates his past and possibly non-existent future. He obsessively grapples with the loss of inspiration and a body riddled with pain due to multiple medical issues. Mallo, played brilliantly by Antonio Banderas, hits a career milestone as he enters the 40 year anniversary as a filmmaker. Unfortunately, it’s not a celebratory time for the director who seems to have come to a halt in his creativity and loss of appetite for life. As such, he reaches out to Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), a lead actor from a project some 20 years earlier, with an infamous reputation for drug use- on and off the set.
Their relationship during the movie production was fraught with tension and resentment, leaving them parting on bad terms never to re-connect until now. “Pain and Glory” begins at their reunion, and although rocky at first, they soon forgive and forget and offer up an unhealthy partnership. While going down memory lane, Mallo, who’s always lived a drug-free life, asks Crespo to share his habit. Crespo obliges, but has a request of his own: To access Mallo’s neglected recent writings to make into a one-man show of his own.
The film takes place over a brief period of time, but in it, Almodóvar journeys the audience from Mallo’s boyhood past to the present. As a boy born to poor parents in the countryside, the prominent figure in his life was his strict, yet loving and ever-present mother portrayed soulfully by Penelope Cruz. The other key childhood character in Mallo’s life was a local teen handyman. His mother bartered her son’s tutorial skills for the handyman’s work around their house. Young Mallo was content with this arrangement and happy to attend the local school, but his world was shaken when his mom insisted he take advantage of a free education at an all-boys Catholic boarding school.
“Pain and Glory” is a personal, sad and poignant story that is, as always for an Almodovar film, shot beautifully with rich, vibrant tones, including the protagonist’s art-filled apartment. There is a visual bonus with a unique tech-type segment showcasing Mallo’s maladies. Just like Almodóvar found a creative and entertaining way to portray a questionable sexual encounter (rape) in “Talk to Her,” the medical segment here, is as visually inventive. The real standout of this film though is Banderas himself. This may be one of the best roles of his career, if not the best. His portrayal is subtle, yet complex, but that in itself is not enough to elevate the overall movie to masterpiece level as some are calling it. It is achingly too small, underwhelming and lacking energy. The script, penned by Almodóvar, doesn’t go deep enough to be considered either a great character study, nor a strong situational drama. While this is a laudable minor film worth seeing, in a pantheon of many great projects and at least two masterpieces (“All About My Mother” and “Talk to Her”), “Pain and Glory” for Almodóvar does not rise to the level of what 8 1/2 was for Fellini. Maybe like Mallo, the highly acclaimed Spanish filmmaker has lost his footing a bit. Despair not, for he is still young at heart with much more greatness to be tapped into.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Writer: Pedro Almodóvar
Stars: Antonio Bandares, Asier Etxeandia, Penelope Cruz
MPAA Rating: R
Run Time: 113 min
Mill Valley Film Festival 42- Dedicated to Women and a World of Diversity
While on the surface the 42nd Annual Mill Valley Film Festival may seem like global cinematic showcasing, per usual, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a festival that is as committed to the community and highlighting social issues as well as films and quality programming. And by community I mean more than just the town of Mill Valley and the county of Marin. Organizers are reaching out to and including the whole of the Bay Area and focused on a world of diversity.
Festival director and founder, Mark Fishkin, expounded on the ideal of diversity and its integral element to the festival. “The best hope for sustaining and growing a diverse climate for indie and arthouse films are festivals like Mill Valley, along with not-for-profit, mission-based community theaters. These are places that attract audiences hungry for a wide-ranging menu of films with ideas that express a strong viewpoint, that are art, that reflect diversity. By diversity, I don’t just mean race, ethnicity and gender, although that is, of course, part of it. But I also mean that film is a panorama and MVFF reflects that.”
Included in that panorama are over 100 films, falling into numerous categories such as American Indies and big Hollywood, world cinema/ subtitled foreign films, family friendly films, documentaries and much more. The latter listing are typical categories often found in film festivals, especially international ones such as MVFF. What is not so usual are sections like special free screenings curated for students from Marin, Oakland and San Francisco and the “Focus On” series. These feature screenings and programs include Focus l Queer-Queer-ish- diverse stories of queer representation found in a genre-twisting array of films, and Focus l Resist Revolt Reform- Rockin, raucous, and revealing reflections on society and culture, captured through the wide-angle and long lenses of established and emerging international filmmakers.
Equally important and ground-breaking is the festival’s gender equity initiative, Mind the Gap program, which “amplifies and champions work by women filmmakers.” Organizers launched the program five years ago with a goal of 50/50 by 2020. By this they mean to incorporate 50% of female directors across the festival categories by next year. Maybe to their own surprise they came close to securing that goal a year ahead. In 2019 they are already at 48%, putting them a mere 2% shy of their lofty, yet laudable commitment. Three years ago when the program launched at that year’s festival, it was on the heels of the Harvey Weinstein allegations. Last year during the festival start, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings were just getting underway. Now more than ever, there is no shortage of significant women’s stories and fabulous and fierce female directors’ works to showcase and pay tribute to.
This year’s Mind the Gap summit is titled The Money Issue: Money and Power, Money and Financing, Money and Pay Equity. It will feature all day intensive session of panels, presentations and networking. Closing out the program is a screening of the new documentary called “No Time To Waste” and award presentation to its subject, Betty Soskin-Reid, an author, composer, historian and public speaker. If all that weren’t enough, Reid still holds down a job she loves as a park ranger serving at the Rosie the Riveter World War 2 museum in Richmond, California.
At 98 years old, she is the oldest National Park Ranger in the United States. Her weekly talks there are legendary and usually booked months in advance. As someone who has witnessed her talks at the museum/National Park and elsewhere, read her autobiography, and had the honor of quality one-on-one time with this dynamo, I can attest to her kind demeanor, indomitable spirit and her impassioned message of equality. She is a treasure of the Bay Area, and very worthy recipient of the Mind the Gap Trailblazer of the Century Award. Also being honored is Laura Dern as Actor of the Year, and Anna Serner as Visionary Leader of the Year. Serner is the CEO of the Swedish Film Institute.
The programs highlighted above are but a few of many, many more that make up the ten day festival. Movie-goers have a plethora of cinematic options at the MVFF, with lots of screenings attended by the directors and talent. It is even known for being a hub for Academy Award campaigning due to its proximity to Los Angeles. Glitz and glamour aside, one has to wonder if the real stars of the MVFF isn’t the community.
An inordinate amount of drama happens within a week or two immediately after a wedding ceremony and celebration in the movie “After the Wedding” starring acting heavyweights Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore and Billy Crudup. Things start innocently and slowly enough as Isabel (Williams), an American manager of a struggling orphanage in Calcutta, learns that her non-profit may be the benefactor of large, ongoing donations from a corporation in New York. In order to seal the deal and secure the funding, the company explicitly needs Isabel to come in person for an interview. While Isabel is greatly relieved at the prospect of the much needed gift, she is reticent to leave her responsibilities at the orphanage, but the greater good prevails. Before long, she is in New York, put up in a swanky hotel and given an audience with the company’s CEO, Theresa (Moore) at the company’s headquarters.
From the time Isabel arrived in New York and back in Western clothing, you sense her discomfort with the setting and her situation. She clearly just wants to get in and out quickly, securing the generous grant money, and back to what has become her home and life. Being the seemingly demanding, powerful corporate executive that she is, Theresa makes it clear that she is in control of the situation, and she has other plans. Although their initial meeting is, in fact, quick, to Isabel’s dismay, it is only an initial meeting. Theresa fanes hesitancy to guarantee the orphanage’s selection, assuring Isabel that if she wants the money, she should expect a longer visit. Theresa seemingly wants to be convinced of the orphanage’s worthiness, while Isabel assumed it was a done deal. Isabel finds Theresa off-putting and demanding, questioning the true value of the grant juxtaposed against Theresa’s expectations. But until Theresa is available to meet on the matter again several days later, she insists Isabel come to her daughter’s wedding.
It is while sitting in the back at the wedding, Isabel is horrified at realization of who the father of the bride is, Oscar (Cruddup). When he sees her, after the ceremony, he too is shocked and upset. The two acknowledge each other privately, sharing succinct pleasantries and questions, initially without letting Theresa or their daughter, Grace (Abby Quinn), know of their familiarity. This spark of mystery and drama turns into a flame during the wedding reception when other connections and motives are realized.
Director Bart Freundich’s remake of the Danish film by the same name, switches up the gender roles in the American version, giving most of the heavy lifting to the female stars. Since Moore and Williams are two of the best actresses around, this proves to be a good choice. Seeing the two spar, so to speak, in one dramatic scene after another, proves to be the best, if not only, good aspect of the film. Williams maintains a taut unease and defiant, smoldering outrage throughout, while Moore is a more dynamic character due to unusual and unfortunate circumstances. Post-wedding, the mystery unravels rather quickly, but the pacing is achingly slow and the melodramatic twists and turns, not to mention, monologues and dialogues, are more tedious than necessarily intriguing.
Too many revelations within such a short time frame, combined with a lack of character development for any of the principals, make for almost absurd drama. The character of Theresa comes the closest to being somewhat sympathetic and interesting, but only just. Crudup and Williams on the other hand, play it flat pretty much throughout, and Grace is spoiled, annoying and truly an underdeveloped character. In other words, “After the Wedding” is a dramatic bore, with a misappropriation of great talent. This maybe would have been more appropriately adapted as a mini series, giving space for the story to breathe, characters to grow, and the audience to connect. Instead we’re left with an odd and unfortunate combination of too much, too little, too slow and too dull.
It’s More Light Entertainment than Character Study, Comedy or Mystery
Even just a light, entertaining summer movie, like the newly released, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” gets a bit elevated thanks to the chameleon-like actor Cate Blanchett in the lead. Per usual, Blanchett is a joy to watch perform, and in this movie, that fact is no exception, but it may not be enough to make the movie an indie darling on one hand, or commercial bait with wide appeal on the other. Adapted from the wildly popular novel of the same title by Maria Semple, producers are no doubt banking on the book’s built-in audience to translate to box office appeal. They might end up disappointed- the book fans and the producers. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” is about a quirky, reluctant, if not resentful, suburban housewife who relocated with her tech engineer husband to outer Seattle 20 year earlier. They transplanted from Los Angeles where Bernadette Fox thrived as young, cutting edge architect on the rise. But when she was undermined with her last residential project, it left her flailing. As such, the couple headed North, allowing her husband, Elgie, played by Billy Crudup, to take advantage of a prominent position with Microsoft. Once there, then suffering a series of miscarriages that took its emotional toll, Bernadette became a shell of her former self. Eventually, they were able to conceive. Now 12, Bee ( Emma Nelson) is Bernadette’s world and they each other’s best friend. But that is not enough to smooth Bernadette’s rough edges and deep seated resentment. Bernadette is oblivious to her increasingly trying attitudes, while her husband is decidedly not, and contemplating drastic changes.
Bernadette’s somewhat off-putting personality and constantly vocalized negative opinions are only outweighed by her aversion to people and somewhat abrasive manner. The notion of socializing with anyone beyond her family of three catapults her into anxiety and turmoil, and self-medication is a welcome option. She detests her fellow school mom’s and the community at large, most especially her uptight, annoying next door neighbor, a cliched character, played aptly by Kristen Wiig. They couldn’t be more opposite- to Bernadette’s give-a-shit attitude, Audrey throws herself wholly into school functions and the community, and she is obsessed with her house and yard. Both view each other as the bane of their existence. Audrey aside, there is no bigger target for Bernadette’s negativity than the city of Seattle itself, and the only thing neglected more than her marriage, is their monstrosity of a house. Although it was purchased many years ago when they moved to the area, it looks as though it hasn’t been touched for decades longer. The yard is full of weeds and overgrown berry vines, while the interior seems a hopelessly flawed and neglected as the exterior.
Through it all, the one bright spot in the couple’s life is Bee. It is Bee’s exceptional academics, precarious ways, and endearing personality that convinces her parents that a trip to Antartica over the holiday break is a promise to her they should keep. Bernadette is horrified at the prospect of such an adventure, not to mention having to interact with other travelers. As a result, she enlists the aid of what she assumes is a practical online assistant. Through a series of events, post the trip decision, and the threat that she may, in fact, not be going on the family vacation or it may not happen for any of them at all, Bernadette escapes her imploding life and goes to Antartica solo. Along the way, she faces her fears, while finally recognizing the source of her angst, realizing she has suppressed her creativity and passion for far too long. In searching for his wayward wife, Elgie has a few revelations of his own. “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” begins and ends with the same question posed to the protagonist- where are you going? This appropriately establishes it as a movie of self exploration and self discovery, but does not flesh out the character’s issues and insights, or the film’s theme, which should be layered and nuanced.
The movie is directed by Richard Linklater, but definitely not a Richard Linklater film. He is known for truly clever independent films with observational characters and witty banter, such as “Dazed and Confused” and “Slacker,” and dramatic, experimental-type films, like “Before Midnight” and 2014 “Boyhood,” which earned him several well-deserved Oscar nominations. While “Bernadette” is entertaining and charming enough, especially for this time of year, it misses opportunities to be categorized as a character study film of any depth.
In the West Village of New York, numerous blocks down from the uber trafficked and demonstratively commercialized Time Square/Mid-town area, and just before you get to the loud, busy Houston Street (pronounced hows-ton, not hue-ston, like the city), there is an idyllic two-block section called Carmine Street. Or, it used to be an idyllic, quintessential Village street, but like much of Manhattan, it too is slowly being absorbed by yuppies talking about amazing omelets with shaved fennel, over-priced restaurants and compact, but costly apartments. Fortunately, there are at least a couple stores there that are maintaining the standard of the two-block’s bygone era of quirky spaces and mom and pop shops. One such place is Carmine Street Guitars, and it is the subject of a recently released indie documentary of the same name. This is an intimate, week-in-the-life-of story focusing on a store, its owner and his community of talented musician customers.
The small shop, owned by Rick Kelly, has been in existence for decades, and it looks the same as it did when it opened lo these many, many years ago- a cozy too cramped space, covered in floor to ceiling wood, and packed with the one-of-a-kind merchandise he peddles, hand-made guitars. Rick is a sweet, quiet artisan, happily stuck in time. He could care less about cell phones and social media, reserving his energy and passions for his craft, salvaging wood from old New York buildings to use for the instruments, and his very impressive client roster. Sharing his work space and passion are two special people in his life, his 90-something-year-old mother and his young apprentice, Cindy Hulej. Rick’s mom lovingly and dutifully dusts the store photos and answers the phone. Cindy, who looks very punk rock-ish with her platinum blonde, spiked hair and all black attire, is learning and applying the guitar making techniques as handed down from Rick while putting her personal aesthetic to certain projects. Unlike Rick, she is social media savvy, curating artful photos, then regularly posting their latest creations on various platforms.
The business’s history and Rick’s craft is portrayed in the film through real-life encounters he has with regular professional musician clients that stop by to try out new guitars. These customers include Kirk Douglas of The Roots, singer-songwriter/actress, Eszter Balint, Nels Cline of Wilco, Stewart Hurwood who was a collaborator of Lou Reed’s, and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch who is also part of the “enthusiastically marginal” rock band, Squrl. They all, understandably, have an appreciation for Rick’s craft and long-time relationship with him and a shared history with the store. The relationships feel authentic albeit the conversations feel somewhat contrived. Interspersed throughout the film is the subtle implication that the building housing the storefront will be sold to the highest bidder, threatening the store’s very existence.The looming enemy is soaring Manhattan real estate prices. Like many businesses there, Carmine Street Guitars is a rental space in prime real estate territory. Cindy points out that the building next to them just sold for six million dollars, and soon afterwards a young, slick realtor drops in to introduce himself and inquire about the store. Despite that, Rick is resolute his landlord won’t budge and life and work as he knows it, will continue. The audience isn’t as convinced.
As a sort of video capsule of an important part of New York history, “Carmine Street Guitars” is sweet and simple, presenting a necessary message of embracing the arts, while supporting local and independent businesses. Although this is a “New York” story, it is an issue that plagues most mom and pops of urban areas. You don’t have to live there to appreciate what this type of neighborhood business has meant and should continue to mean to a community, as well as an industry of local musicians. As a documentary film, the story is as intimate as the cluttered, yet special store itself. While one can appreciate director Ron Mann and writer Len Blum’s successful exclusion of any talking heads and their obvious resistance to over-produce or over embellish. At moments, however, it feels a bit too spare and lacking energy, even by documentary standards. There is a sense that this could have been part of a more layered, fully realized story. As a result, it may only find a very small, niche audience of guitar enthusiasts and documentary aficionados. If you are among them, you are sure to be impressed by Rick’s unique talent and commitment to his craft. You will be touched by Cindy’s dedication to the old ways of doing things despite her youth, and you will be charmed by the artists coming in and sharing memories and strumming a song.
“Carmine Street Guitars” has limited screenings at various art house theaters throughout the country. It will have a one-night screening at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, CA on July 27th. Check local listings for times.
Director: Ron Mann; Writer: Len Blum;MPAA Rating: NR;Run Time: 80 min
What the film "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" lacks in writing and actually story and character development, it makes up for in look and feel. Well, not really because, sadly, its shortcomings are what is noticed early into the movie, and the last thing you remember as you walk out the theater. The film, directed and co-written by Joe Talbot, centers around a twenty-something-year-old Black lead character, Jimmy Fails, played by actor Jimmy Fails, who yearns to move back into his childhood house, a once grand Victorian in a historic neighborhood of San Francisco. Sadly, he and his family have long been displaced from the house and hood, replaced by more affluent white people who for some unexplained reason never manage to maintain the house or yard. While Jimmy’s father is apparently in a sort of group home or low income housing complex in a seedy part of the City, his aunt resides way out in another, more rural part of the Bay Area, Jimmy crashes with his friend, Jonathan (Montgomery Allen), a wanna-be artist and writer, and his friend’s blind father (Danny Glover) in the East Bay. Several dudes from the hood are permanent fixtures on Jonathan’s street, arguing, rapping and taunting Jimmy and Jonathan whenever they walk by. To the two of them, the group is an anomaly. They are too busy watching their movements and perplexed by their speech to really notice the insults they are constantly hurly their way. It’s as if they want to be like them or be apart of their clique, dysfunctional as it may be. Instinctively, they know with their sensitive, quiet, artistic demeanor, they would never be accepted or understood by the group. So instead, they quietly walk by them, looking and usually avoiding confrontations.
As close as Jimmy is to Jonathan, and as much as he appreciates a place to sleep, Jimmy is overwhelmed with nostalgia for what he considers his house, its history, and the city. He doesn’t want to live any place else. It is that obsession that drives Jimmy to regularly stop by there while the owners are out, peering into the windows, sweeping the steps or painting the trim while Jonathan is on the lookout for the couple that could return any minute. And they often do, with a vengeance. The wife is constantly furious with Jimmy, insisting he get off their property and threatening to call the police, while the husband is more compassionate, imploring for her to calm down. Eventually, the couple lose the house themselves due to family issues, vacating while things are in litigation. Jimmy seizes the opportunity to break in and squat until he can figure out a way to raise money to purchase it. A prospect doomed to failure given he barely works and is obviously financially strapped. If only principal, passion and persistence paved the way to ownership in America. In an effort to help Jimmy, Jonathan gleans information from a real estate agent who seemingly befriended them earlier, a slick yuppie character who is only loyal to his next big score. The information Jonathan retrieves is less about the logistics of possibly acquiring the house, and more about the true history of its ownership and Jimmy’s family. Therin lies the twist.
The movie implies that it’s about gentrification and racism, and it does touch on those themes, but it’s really more about a sad, neglected and technically homeless young man who is stuck in the past concerning his family and understandably frustrated with the transformation of his hometown. Jimmy is the best neighbor anyone could have in any city, but he is without house, home and city. His plight represents that of millions of others, but it sadly is not truly explored. I wanted this to have a stronger defined theme of gentrification and its impact on the usual minority victims of it. San Francisco, like New York, is the epitome of a city that has become accessible only to the rich. It once thrived in ethnic and economic diversity, now it is overwhelmingly home to the rich, young and white, thanks in large part to the tech industry.
While Jimmy and Jonathan are affable characters and they are lovingly and effectively portrayed by two impressive actors worthy of notice, the story from a writing perspective is undeniably lacking. It’s a movie giving the appearance of something special and begging to be more, but falling short. The pacing is achingly slow, without purpose, and the length is too long for its shortcomings. That being said, it is a respectable debut feature film project for director, Talbot who is a longtime friend of and collaborator with Falis. The standout aspect of the film is its look. If you only see the film for its cinematography, that would be understandable, encouraged, and you would not be disappointed. With stunningly gorgeous shots, Adam Newport-Berra greatly elevates what would otherwise be a mediocre movie.