Pivoting is still the name of the game for the film industry in general and film festivals specifically. The Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF) is no exception or stranger to that. While last year they were able to successfully pivot to drive-in theaters and streaming platforms for its audience where many other festivals had to cancel altogether, this year they find themselves still adjusting to not a completely, post-Covid world. It is worth noting that Marin County in Northern California, where the MVFF hails from, has an extremely high vaccination rate. Zoe Elton has been with MVFF since its inception, and is the Director of Programming for much of that period. She is also the Founder of the festival's Mind the Gap, gender equality initiative.
The MVFF, going into its 44 year and a division of the CA Film Institute, has an impressive track record of launching new films and new filmmakers, and has earned a reputation as a filmmakers’ festival by celebrating the best in American independent and foreign films, along side high-profile and prestigious award contenders. Each year the festival usually welcomes more than 200 filmmakers, representing more than 50 countries. Screening sections include World Cinema; US Cinema; Valley of the Docs; Children’s FilmFest; a daily shorts program; and Active Cinema.
Last year, MVFF, unlike many film festivals did take place, but they had to pivot to drive-in and streaming only. Once again, for this year, they are gearing up for adapting to county health department guidelines while balancing the audience’s desires and expectations. I talked to Ms. Elton about the changes and expectations for this year’s festival.
PF: “MVFF 2020 was able to take place albeit in a different way due to Covid. How is it different, yet again, for this year?”
ZE: “It’s different this year because this year is actually different. It’ not like 2020, but it’s not 2019 either. Last year there was Covid, without vaccinations, plus the area was dealing with a lot of fires. It was crazy! Last year we had a limited offerings divided between online and even more limited drive-in screens. This year is a whole different thing again.”
For the organizers and staff, our muscle memory is that of last year, but yet we’re working with more. We’re doing in-theater and some online. On top of that, we’re all still working from home, so that frenetic energy of everyone working together in a busy office, is just not happening. And then what will next year bring? Probably a whole new set of unknowns. It’s all very weird, but yet we are excited about the films available this year and that the audiences are seemingly wanting to get back to the theaters.”
PF: “With limited independent, foreign and studio offerings, how many of your usual 200 films are you able to present?”
ZE: We have about 75 films this year. Of those, the movie studios were really pushing for screening in-theaters as much as possible this year, but because other festivals were delayed and our staff wasn’t traveling as much, we ended up with new layers of I-don’t-knows.
PF: “As a moviegoer and a film journalist who’s covered several festivals, I’ve always appreciated the unique feel of MVFF. It’s both big, yet community oriented and easy to navigate.”
ZE: “Wherever you go in Marin County, you see the mountains, Mt. Tamalpais, and there are Redwoods. The fact that we’re not in an urban metropolis and that the weather is great and you can be outdoors a lot, really makes a difference in the experience for patrons, festival staff and journalists. We are also unique in that we do not have film competitions. We have audience awards and we pay tribute to certain actors or filmmakers every year, but we don’t set up competitions, and I think that sets a more relaxed tone to the festival. We’re there to celebrate the art.”
While most of the festival is taking place in several Marin County venues, organizer’s are partnering for the second time with BAMPFA in Berkeley.
ZE: “Yeah, it’s kind of great to partner with a venue that is associated with the arts- the art museum, the University of Berkeley- so to select film titles that are most fitting for that specific venue is special. The flagship theater for the festival is the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, with the Sequoia Theater in Mill Valley as secondary. This is mostly due to the fact that The Rafael is bigger, with three screens and stages, and it’s the most secure for navigating Covid protocols.”
Mind the Gap is an initiative that launched in 2015. It’s dedicated to achieving gender equity in the film industry. The same year, the California Film Institute (CFI) began expanding the Mind the Gap initiative across the entire organization in order to provide an inclusive platform to showcase female-forward contributions in all aspects of the film industry, celebrate the dynamic achievements of women in film, and empower future filmmakers. Since its inception, Mind the Gap has embraced the intersectionality of its filmmakers and conversations within the fight for gender equity and the importance of intersectional perspectives and gender’s indisociable connections to other identity traits has become a cornerstone of the platform’s focus. (California Film Institute)
PF: “I’ve covered several festivals personally I’m impressed with the programming of the festival beyond films, that very involved not only in film community, but local Bay Area community. Things related to music, Bay Area films and filmmakers, and of course, there is Mind the Gap, a gender equity initiative with an initial goal of 50/50 by 2020. What was the inspiration for this lofty festival goal?”
ZE: “We started this initiative in 2015 when we realized that the needle in Hollywood in terms of the percentage of women that they hire as directors, and by extension, writers, producers, etc., was not moving at all. That put us in a soul searching moment, asking ourselves, what could we do? As a result, we committed to getting to 50-50 by 2020. While the pandemic upstaged us, nonetheless, we got to 57% women directors across all the MVFF programs in 2020. We proved that it can be done!”
PF: “This initiative goes beyond just gender gaps but am I right in that there is also a commitment to diversity?”
ZE: “As we program for the festival, we look out for filmmakers of color. While 50-50 is a great benchmark. It’s a great thing to maintain, but we want to take this concept and initiative to another level. We want to offer things that can be more palpable. To that end, we will be releasing information about the Mind the Gap Creation Prize, which is $10,000 grant going to a female filmmaker. This year’s recipient is a Black director.”
Mind the Gap this year embraces the topical theme of reconnecting with community. 2021Mind the Gap Award recipients are Nina Yang Bongiovi, “Producer of the Year” for Passing, and Jane Campion, “Innovative Artist of the Year.” Her film is The Power of the Dog. MVFF 44 starts October 7 and goes through October 17. Some of this year’s most anticipated selected films include Belfast, Bergman Island, The Lost Daughter, Queen of Glory, and Parallel Mothers. The prestigious opening night film is Cyrano by Joe Wright; the Centerpiece film is C’mon, C’mon by Mike Mills, and closing out the festival is The French Dispatch, the latest colorful and wildly creative installment from Wes Anderson.
Go to mvff.com for programming and ticketing information.
California’s 13th District representative to congress is rightfully feeling vindicated about now with all the issues swirling around the United States stand on Afghanistan. This is because in 2001 she was the lone congress member to vote against going into war there. This aspect of her career also makes the release of documentary about her career all the more timely. Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power is an intimate portrait of the strong and inspiring politician who has represented her district, that includes Oakland and Berkeley, since 1998. The film presents her long and impressive tenure as an outspoken advocate for racial and economic justice, and one who is willing to take on unpopular, possibly career-ending stands such as opposing the war, post the 9-11 attacks. To confirm her political impact, the film includes appearances and talking points from Representative John Lewis, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Senator Corey Booker, and CNN commentator Van Jones. They effectively drive home the point of Ms. Lee’s impact in the Black community, among all her constituents, and within the often volatile halls of congress.
As the highest ranking African-American woman in congress, with such a unique and stalwart reputation, it is not surprising that Ms. Lee would be the topic of a documentary, and done so by director Abby Ginzberg (And Then They Came, Soft Vengeance) who has a portfolio of documentaries focusing on politics and agents of change. That said, while Lee makes an understandable subject of interest, the actual film presentation does not rise above a charming portrayal. And that may be enough … for certain audiences and definitely to justify its creation. For those looking for something more politically charged, complex and engaging, this may be too tepid, but as a legitimate way for general audiences beyond the Bay Area to become more aware of Lee, her crusades, and what will be her legacy, Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power should definitely be in your cue.
Director: Abby Ginzberg
Stars: Barbara Lee, Corey Booker, Van Jones
Country: United States
MPAA Rating: None
Run Time: 1 h 22 min
Official Site/Trailer - https://speakingtruthtopowermovie.com/
Pre-purgatory and an Oddly Beautiful Life-Affirming Film
No one would blame you for entering the movie, “Nine Days,” based on the cast alone because it is a fine cast, headed up with Winston Duke (“Black Panther,” “Us”) Zazie Beetz (“Atlanta” TV, series, “Joker”) Benedict Wong (“Dr. Strange”) and Tony Hale (“VEEP” TV series). Likewise for the cinematography because Wyatt Garfield has created a stark, yet beautiful work of art within a very narrow landscape and a limited set. But stay for the film’s themes, creative premise and effective, moody aesthetic. “Nine Days” is a story of a somewhat nerdy and definitely reclusive man named Will, who is tasked with selecting one fortunate soul to be born and begin his or hers new earthly existence. There are five souls (in adult human form) vying for the coveted opportunity and being taken through a rigorous interview process and tests conducted by Will and his assistant, Kyo. Part of the process includes watching video of already existing humans navigating through life’s challenges and triumphs. Afterwards, Will fires questions at the “contestants” based on what they viewed, and establishes a series of hypothetical scenarios. Each of them have varying personalities and responses. One in particular, Emma (Beetz), continuously perplexes Will. In the end, the one chosen will be rewarded with an opportunity to become a newborn in the real world, while the others will cease to exist. It’s like purgatory in reverse.
Is “Nine Days” highly existential and metaphorical? Yes, indeed, but not annoyingly so or without merit. These such elements that can distract and detract from many films, our finely reigned in here, thanks in large part to a well constructed script by writer-director Edson Oda, and compelling performances by the ensemble cast. This heady, fantasy-like fare was no doubt a risk for a first-time director. Although it is quiet and slow, and sometimes does not consistently hold your attention, a character or a carefully crafted and delivered line draws you back in. “Nine Days” is also wildly imaginative and quirky in some of the best ways possible. Oda clearly does not believe in playing it safe and the risk paid off in this thought provoking, life affirming film about life, death and something in between.
Director: Edson Oda
Writer: Edson Oda
Stars: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong
MPAA Rating: R
Run Time: 2h 4m
Production Site/Trailer - https://www.sonyclassics.com/film/ninedays
In The Sunmer of Soul ( … Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised) by first time filmmaker, Questlove, is a feature documentary about a legendary concert series promoting Black culture and pride during the summer of 1969 in Harlem. In it, he tries to right a wrong in which yet again, Black history had been erased from American minds and archives. A virtual cornucopia of Black music and comedy talent took to the stage over a 6-weekend period, with thousands in attendance. It was taped, but soon after the stage was cleared and summer long gone, the tapes were put in a vault never to see the light of day until now and thanks to the determination of Questlove. Interwoven with the footage, are several current day interviews with Harlem residents who attended the concert, and musical participants, such as Mavis Staples, Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis and Gladys Knight.
More than a concert or music documentary, The Summer of Soul shines a light on the importance of history to our emotional and cultural well being, and stands as a testament to the healing power of music during times of unrest. It also served as a catalyst to bring Black and brown communities together, with Puerto Rican residents in attendance and Afro-Latino performers sharing stage time. The feature includes never-before-seen concert performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension and many more. Highlighting the concerts’ importance to the community in historical context is a key film theme as residents had been beaten down by poor housing conditions, drugs and racism, as well as coming on the heels of the deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Likewise, the reasons for the concert being overlooked are explored. The obvious is white supremacy and the need to repress Black excellence, but also theorized is the fact that another big, multi-act concert was taking place at the same time one state over- Woodstock. Whatever the reasons, it is a relevant and appreciated that the concert footage has been unearth, restored and available for all to enjoy in-theaters and streaming on Hulu.
Most people would not put much credence on a relationship that begins in a club, even worse when one or both parties are drunk. Depending on your perspective at the end of “Monday,” a romantic drama by Argyris Papadimitropoulos (“Suntan,” “Wasted Youth”) that advice to avoid bar hook-ups will either be confirmed or re-evaluated. The packed party scene in an Athens night club full of a combination of work weary locals and free-spirited tourists is vibrant and sexually charged. Helping to create and perpetuate the atmosphere is American DJ, Mickey, played by Sebastian Stan. As he spins and scratches the tunes, he notices a vivacious and attractive woman dancing with no one in particular. It doesn’t take long for his friend, Argyris, to step in as matchmaker, pulling Mickey off the DJ stand and introducing him to Chloe (Denise Gough), the beguiling American woman that captured Mickey’s attention. Within seconds, a clearly drunk Chloe engulfs Mickey in a passionate embrace and kiss. Setting off sparks, the two instantly ditch the club for a nearby beach. Their naked nighttime romp lands them in a police station the next morning as clothes were not optional.
Although Chloe, who is an immigration attorney, has sobered up and declares that their one-night-stand needs to stay as just that, their are signs of weakness. Mickey is unabashedly smitten and not having it, enticing her away from a pre-scheduled flight back to America and convincing her to let their weekend romance become a relationship. Their Friday night and weekend of fun and frivolity becomes a metaphor for the magic of initial attraction. Likewise, the soberness of Monday mornings becomes its own relationship metaphor. After some time goes by, they move in, meet friends and exes, and experience each other’s flaws and phobias. This is especially true for Chloe who notices Mickey has commitment and maturity issues, in addition to a bit of a self-sabotaging nature when it comes to relationships and happiness. Are these red flags to take heed of and run from, or normal shortcomings to deal with and forge ahead?
While “Monday” is not quite as deep as other films exploring the woes and triumphs of coupledom, like old classics such as “Scenes From a Marriage” or Kramer vs. Kramer, or more recent contenders like, “Marriage Story” or the chatty Richard Linklater trilogy (“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” “Before Midnight”), it is an enjoyable, believable and a somewhat fresh take on the genre. Writer-director Papadimitropoulos maybe doesn’t get all the aspects right of his American characters and he doesn’t flesh out a couple key scenarios, he does successfully capture a mood and mindset common between lovers. He also nails the casting. Gough and Stan have chemistry for days (or many weekends) and the two together or separately are worth the price of admission. Although Stan has a bit more notoriety than his female counterpart, neither is well-known or a celebrity, and that works in the film’s favor, lending to the authentic feel. Both are undeniably captivating in their own way and “Monday” is good enough to make for a sizzling weekend viewing.
MONDAY Opens in Select Theaters, on Digital Platforms and VOD on April 16th
Director: Argyris Papadimitropoulos
Writers: Argyris Papadimitropoulos, Rob Hayes
Stars: Denise Gough, Sebastian Stan
Language: English/ Greek
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 116 min.
Production Page: https://press.amcnetworks.com/ifc-films/shows/monday/
“Together Together” is a respectable attempt at understated comedy (or is it quirky comedy or dramaedy?), but woefully falls short. Instead, it is a film in search of a genre as much as a purpose. Anna (Patti Harrison) is a 20-something gestational surrogate for middle-aged, single Matt, played by Ed Helms ("The Hangover"). While Matt is excited at the prospects for fatherhood, and by nature is a kind and friendly average guy that works in tech, Anna has more of an aloof personality and decidedly unimpressed with the whole surrogacy process. Much of the film is a reflection of these opposite personalities responding, or not, to this major life adjustment. Matt sees the pregnancy as a wonderful opportunity not only to become a father, but also to develop a new friendship with his surrogate. Anna views the whole situation as a job to be completed before she goes to grad school, not an experience, and Matt as a bit of a nuisance.
Over the nine months of their “togetherness,” there is a shift in their relationship and a special connection prevails. The shift is done subtlety and sweetly, with no broad comedy tactics enlisted or multiple major pop music montages. While on one hand it is commendable that writer/director Nicole Beckwith uses restraint, on the other hand, it is almost too subtle. In the end, platonic love and alternative families win, but the journey there is underwhelming. This in large part due to the sweet, yet awkward performances by Helms and Harrison, both working with a lackluster script. Despite that and not surprising, “Together Together” was the indie darling at the Sundance Film Festival (2021), so no doubt it will find its audience beyond film festival “gem stone”- charming some, boring others, but offending no one. Let’s face it, during these pandemic days of dwindling content, we’re all looking and hoping for film connections of any kind.
Writer/Director: Nicole Beckwith
Stars: Ed Helms, Patti Harrison
MPAA Rating: R
Run Time: 90 min
Website:https://bleeckerstreetmedia.com/; Trailer: https://bleeckerstreetmedia.com/together-together/
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 both 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, Zeller’s take on the subject seems unique in its approach and execution. For movies, like “Still Alice” and others like it, they 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. “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, making for a very trippy and confusing audience viewing … 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? Throughout and despite the purposeful unreliable narrator aspect of the film, Ann seems to be a genuinely kind daughter who clearly loves her father and is trying to navigate is medical and housing situation seemingly as gingerly as possible. Although she is often frustrated and stressed, she is never angered when provoked. Her fiancé, Paul, played by Rufus Sewell believes her a pushover for her dad and unfairly neglectful of their relationship and his needs. As such, Paul takes advantage when he is alone with Anthony, to let him know his feelings be known. Between the demands of the two men in Ann’s life, it is hard for the audience to not see her as more of a victim than mean-spirited, ailing father.
The movie’s best features are the unusual point of view, coupled with these deeply moving performances, including smaller supporting characters portrayed by Olivia Williams (“Rushmore”), Imogen Poohs (“Jane Eyre,” “That Awkward Moment”) and Rufus Sewell (“The Illusionist,” “Judy,” “Victoria” TV series). Although they have little screen time, comparatively, the roles are pivotal and the performances are searing. While the cinematography is rich and beautiful, it is purposefully shot very narrowly, taking place in just two indoor settings. In that, along with one point of view and limited casting, it feels like a play. Unless you have an aversion to play-to-screen adaptations that is not necessarily a detractor, but rather a descriptor. “The Father” has an intimate feel and tells an important story of aging and loss of identity and control for both the victim of this dreaded disease and their caretakers.
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.
Production Page and Trailer: https://www.sonyclassics.com/film/thefather
An Exhilarating Ride & Sober Story ... Not to be Missed.
Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg) - It may be cliche to say this is an intoxicating ride of a movie, but it's true. Although the premise of four middle-aged men testing a theory to maintain a certain daily blood alcohol level to improve their disposition, sounds a bit odd, even off-putting and definitely destined to failure, instead it soars with creativity, poignancy and delight. The drinking and the drinking culture of Denmark is in the foreground or the catalyst for the film’s deeper meaning and goals which are the importance of one to reclaim life’s purpose and passions by more healthier and traditional methods, such as communicating, therapy, etc.. Leading the ensemble cast is the tremendously talented, Mads Mikkelsen (“The Hunt,” “Hannibal”) who plays Martin, a lifeless history teacher and out-of-touch husband and father who initially takes apathy to a new low.
He handles the character’s large arch and various stages of depression and inebriation with aplomb. What is most alluring about this specific character study goes beyond the drink and the drunk, but rather a man grappling with the loss of connection to his career, family, wife, and appetite for life. What should make this film a lock for foreign category awards, is that it is an absolute window into the culture it is portraying. This includes the characters, the music, and even the exterior and interior settings of waterways and boats; modern, minimal Danish furniture and households. Writer/director Thomas Vinterberg, forever known for his stunning directorial debut, “A Celebration” (1998), affirms his unique talent in focusing on a singular, seemingly simple story and masterfully building on life’s complexities.
While much has been said about the film's unexpected and thrilling last scene of the director capitalizing on Mikkelsen's professional moves by having Martin explode into dance, it's only the cherry on top. Come for the close, but enjoy the ride from beginning to end. Like the characters portrayed in the film, "Another Round" is initially perplexing and intriguing, then becomes dark and real, while closing on an exhilarating and life-affirming note. It is as fun and vibrant as it is sobering and compelling.
We’ll never know if this year’s list of the “Best Of”/ “Top Ten” Movies of 2020 are what they are because of the oddity of being a pandemic year, or in spite of it. There are plenty of movies that never got released due to theater closings or low attendance. Some of those will either be pushed to a theatrical release, post-pandemic, or come to a streaming outlet early this year. Still, there were many films that maybe normally would have gotten lost in the shuffle of a normal “theatrical release” year, that got noticed thanks to streaming availability.
Any way you slice it, 2020 was an especially challenging year for the film industry that lost millions, if not, billions of dollars, with theaters closed and audiences shying away from theaters even when they were briefly reopened. It was also an odd year for reviewers like myself. What qualifies as a movie-movie? Are short films or series part of that? Is anything on Amazon, Netflix and Hulu a legit contender? What can be considered for awards this year and is it really the “best of” the year, or the best under the circumstances?
Below is my list based on my criteria, coupled with the Academy’s considerations. For myself, I considered if the movie, on one hand, rose to the level of exceptionalism in several categories such as screenplay, cinematography, editing, performances, and come together with seamless execution (it’s not enough to just have an outstanding performance, but a mediocre script). On the other hand, did I also enjoy, appreciate and like or love the movie and its story, along with all the technical aspects? Did I finish it wanting more or wanting to re-watch it? Will it hold up beyond 2020? Based on all that, the following are my carefully considered selections in order of quality (#1 best, 2nd best, etc.)
Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)- 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. Coming soon to theaters and On Demand.
Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg) - It may be cliche to say this is an intoxicating ride of a movie, but it's true. Although the premise of four middle-aged men testing a theory to maintain a certain daily blood alcohol level to improve their disposition, sounds a bit odd, even off-putting and definitely destined to failure, instead it soars with creativity, poignancy and delight. The drinking and the drinking culture of Denmark is in the foreground or the catalyst for the film’s deeper meaning and goals which are the importance of one to reclaim life’s purpose and passions. Leading the ensemble cast is the tremendously talented, Mads Mikkelsen (“The Hunt,” “Hannibal”). He handles the character’s large arch and various stages of depression and inebriation with aplomb. What is most alluring about this specific character study goes beyond the drink and the drunk, but rather a man grappling with the loss of connection to his career, family, wife, and appetite for life. What should make this film a lock for foreign category awards, is that it is an absolute window into the culture it is portraying. This includes the characters, the music, and even the exterior and interior settings of waterways and boats; modern, minimal Danish furniture and households. Writer/director Thomas Vinterberg, forever known for his stunning directorial debut, “A Celebration” (1998), affirms his unique talent in focusing on a singular, seemingly simple story and masterfully building on life’s complexities. Like the characters portrayed in the film, "Another Round" is initially perplexing and intriguing, then becomes dark and real, while closing on an exhilarating and life-affirming note. While you On Demand
One Night in Miami (Regina King) - Go here for full review
Mank (David Fincher) - A young wunderkind filmmaker, Orson Welles, enlists the services of veteran screenwriter and social critic, Herman Mankiewicz to pen what would be his masterpiece movie, “Citizen Kane.” The problem is Mank is an alcoholic and recuperating from an injury. While resting his physical impairment, he is surrounded by a few characters tasked to keep him sober in order to finish the script. Along the process, he reevaluates his time in Hollywood and his associates. This isn’t the type of film subject one would expect from Hollywood heavyweight David Fincher (“The Social Network,” “Gone Girl,” “Zodiac Murders”), but working from a script of his late father’s, Jack Fincher, this departure is clearly a labor of love and it is imbued with imaginativeness, spectacular performances (Gary Oldman as Mank), old Hollywood charm and innocence, and packaged in glorious black and white imagery.
The Fight (Elie B. Despres, Josh Kriegman) Go here for full review -
Palm Springs ( Max Barbakow) - Wow, I didn’t see this one coming. What a wholly enjoyable surprise this film that mixes fantasy/time travel with comedy is. When the two main characters, Nyles and Sarah, played by Andy Sandberg and Cristin Milioti connect by chance at Sarah’s sister’s wedding in Palm Springs, one thing leads to another and they find that they can’t leave the day … ever. This is “Groundhog Day” but better. Hulu
Soul (Peter Docter, Kemp Powers)- It’s rare that I watch animation and even more rare that animation lands on my “Top Ten” list. This is not for lack of appreciation of the genre, but more attributed to a lack of interest. That said, there are a select few exceptions, and this is definitely and most appropriately one. When music teacher-wanna-be-professional-jazz-musician, Joe, gets what should be his big break to play with a musical legend in a NYC club, he ends up falling through a manhole and lands in between life and the sweet hereafter. In trying to get his soul back to his earthly body, he is enlisted to mentor a young soul called 22 (Tina Fey). 22 needs assistance in finding her passion and purpose before she is allowed to go to earth. At first Joe is only focused on his determination to avoid death and make his gig on earth, but along the way he learns from his young mentee, connecting with the real meaning of life and reassessing his priorities. Throughout, the audience is treated to Pixar at its best. Prepare to laugh, cry and become a part of the journey of life. Joe is voiced by Jamie Fox, and the music is largely attributed to Jon Baptiste. Batiste is perhaps best known as the bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, releasing a Grammy-nominated album in 2019 and serving as Co-Artistic Director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. In addition to writing music for Soul, Batiste acted as a cultural consultant on the film. (Disney +
40-Year-Old-Version (Rhoda Blank) - Washed up New York playwright, Rhoda, teaches theater to tough and cynical high school students in order to pay the bills while struggling to get her new play produced. Haunting her endeavors are the thoughts centered on an upcoming significant birthday, and her recently passed mother, who was also a struggling artist. To compensate, Rhoda explores a new dream of being a rapper. The film was shot in black and white to evoke the music videos of the rappers from the 80s and 90s. That aesthetic actually had added value, helping to create an intimate feel. It is a small story, taking place over a few short weeks, a personal, somewhat autobiographical story, and it is filled with a fun supporting cast, and great observations and humorous lines from Rhoda. In some ways “40-Year-old-Version” is very New York and seemingly could limit it’s audience and appeal, but Blank makes a personal story universal, relatable and oh so enjoyable. It’s a great example of what a debut should be- writing what you know, not over-reaching but succeeding wonderfully. Where have you been Rhoda Blank?! Now that we discovered you, we need more, more, more. (Netflix)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)- Who knew that in 2020 it could still be a struggle for some young women to obtain an abortion or for a teenage girl to feel safe in what should be an innocent relationship? This movie follows soft-spoken, broken-hearted Autumn who is from a small working-class town in Pennsylvania as she finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy and feeling unable to reach out to her parents for help. Initially, she goes to a local clinic that gives her misinformation and attempts to dissuade her decision to abort by showing her videos. As a result, she and her cousin skip out on what they thought would one day of school and one night of work as grocery store check out clerks to go to a clinic in New York City. Because Autumn was misinformed regarding her due date, she is referred to another clinic to go to the next day. Once there, she is made aware of needing a medical procedure that will take two days. The girls’ planned overnight excursion, is now stretched to several more, with not enough money to cover their needs and their parents unaware of their whereabouts.
The scene between Autumn and the kind intake nurse at the clinic is worth the price of admission alone. The nurse gingerly asks Autumn routine questions to obtain information as to whether or not she lives in an environment/ has relationships in which she feels safe. “I’m going to ask you some personal questions,” the nurse quietly warns. “All you have to do is answer either never, rarely, sometimes or always.” We hear the questions, but the camera is focused on Autumns face. This is clearly an emotionally fraught situation for her, faced with the reality of her untenable home life with each question. With each response, we get clues to her situation and sympathize or empathize. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a quiet movie, with little dialogue and action. It explores one situation, one character and over only a few days, but its message and impact will haunt long past its 93 minutes of viewing.
His House (Remi Weekes) - A vulnerable yet courageous couple escape from war-torn Sudan, but struggle in their new setting of a low income neighborhood in a small English town. Instead of being welcomed into what should be a safe environment, they are given a list of what they can and cannot do; how they should behave. Even more evil than the unfriendly officials, is the government house assigned to them. It is run down and unclean for sure, but it is haunted with ghosts in the walls and thoughts of their tormented past permeating the couple’s dreams and thoughts and threatening their marriage. All the while, an odd and ominous next-door neighbor seems to be always lurking with unsettling glances and comments. Although there is a bit of a redundancy in the horror aspect of the story line, and certain characters are not fully drawn, the film’s shortcomings are cleverly balanced out with a unique mix of political messaging and refugee social issues at its core. This is an impressive debut for writer/director Remi Weeks and undeniably strong performances from the principal actors, Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku. Netflix
Uncle Frank (Alan Ball, director) - Amazon Prime
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, director) - Netflix
The Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, director) - Amazon Prime
The Dissident (Bryan Fogel, director) - On Demand
All In: The Fight for Democracy (Lisa Cortes, Liz Garbus, directors) - Amazon Prime
There are talented investigative journalists. There are outspoken activists, and there are those rare, self-sacrificing dissidents. Sometimes, there are those who are all three. Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi was one such person. Khashoggi went from maintaining a closely guarded status as journalist covering the volatile politics of his homeland of Saudi Arabia, to crossing that line and embracing activism against the corrupt regime. “The Dissident” explores the self-exiled Khashoggi’s transition and the ultimate price he paid for it- murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The film, directed by Bryan Fogel (“Icarus”) is a real-life thriller of this horrific 2018 crime believed to have been ordered by the Crowned Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). Fogel sets up a mystery, allowing it to craftily and believably unfold over its nearly two hour run.
Taking advantage of incredible access, including never before seen surveillance footage from inside the consulate, numerous interviews with Khashoggi’s fiancé, Hatice Cengiz, Turkish investigators and United Nations officials, Fogel puts forth a plethora of damning information, and does so in a compelling way. Although at one point in his career, Khashoggi actually was an Saudi monarch insider and had been hopeful that MBS would implement progressive reforms he claimed to ascribe to, Khashoggi’s hope gave way to disillusionment and anger. It was then, he became an outspoken advocate for necessary reform. His weapon was his voice and his pen. He was a respected journalist; a man of principles who wanted to be a part of creating a more open society in his homeland.
The film uses interviews with key characters such as Khashoggi’s friends and colleagues, combined with interviews of officials linked to the investigation, graphics and crime scene transcripts. The friends and colleagues provide insight into Khashoggi's personality, personal life, dedication and strong sense of professionalism. In 2018 when his murder could have faded quickly in the era of an already over indulgent news cycle, these people kept the story going and the injustice front and center. Fogel appropriately puts particular focus on two of Khashoggi’s closest allies: his fiancé Cengiz and Omar Abdulaziz, a young Saudi activist with whom Khashoggi was secretly collaborating. The two truly drive the plot along while never allowing the audience to forget the humanity at the center of it. In the case of Abdulaziz, he opens up an equally intriguing sub-plot of social media propaganda, government hacking and the importance of counter intelligence and privacy protection.
If you liked “Icarus,” you will want to watch “The Dissident.” If you did not see “Icarus,” you will want to after being enthralled by “The Dissident.” With the two films, Fogel is proving to be a uniquely talented investigative documentarian, deftly combining his filmmaking skills with his personal sense of social activism. Per the film’s final messaging, “Learn more. Take action. Make a difference.” “The Dissident” - in theaters Dec. 25; On Demand Jan. 8.
Trailer - https://thedissident.com/#videos
Director: Bryan Fogel
Writers: Bryan Foge, Mark Monroe
Stars: Hatice Cengiz, Omar Abdulaziz, John O. Brennan
Language: Arabic, Turkish, English
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 119 min