What we’ve watched: 44th annual Mill Valley Film Festival has something for everyone

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Armaan Mumtaz/Senior Staff

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The 44th annual Mill Valley Film Festival brought an eclectic collection of cinematic masterpieces to the Bay from Oct. 7-17, blessing the area with a heavily anticipated and much-needed dose of creativity. With options to view its rich and remarkable program at in-person, COVID-19 conscious screenings at Smith Rafael Film Center, CineArts Sequoia and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive or at home through MVFF’s new online streaming platform, the festival’s offerings have been more accessible than ever.

This year’s films were divided into nine strands to help viewers find the films that appeal to them the most. These strands were “Create,” centering around art, “Debate,” about controversy and advocacy, “Grow,” on ecology, geography and environment, “Heart,” about love and passion, “Laugh,” the comedy strand, “Passages,” stories about journeys and coming of age, “Spirit,” on body and soul, “Surprise,” films described as “eye-openers and risk takers” and “US,” focused on stories from and about the United States.

With such an extensive variety of quality cinema to indulge in, everyone was sure to find something to their liking at the MVFF. And if you missed it, don’t fret — the festival returns every year, and it’s not leaving anytime soon. Here are film beat reporters Dominic Marziali and Joy Diamond’s takes on some films they watched at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival.

“Parallel Mothers”

Grade: 3.5/5.0

Writer-director Pedro Almodóvar is known for a couple of things: One is his engagement with queer narratives. The other is colors. They go hand in hand in his latest film, “Parallel Mothers,” which is so spectacularly resplendent, it may provoke gushing. 

The titular two mothers, played by Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit, meet in a hospital room, waiting out the last few days before they each begin labor. The story is full of twists, yet Almodóvar’s film lacks the pacing to make them truly surprising. The bungled pacing puts the narrative pressure entirely on the cast — and they deliver.

The elder mother, Janis (Cruz) doesn’t regret her baby — it’s a blessing to her, and Cruz is a blessing to the screen. Her performance is as vibrant as the colors she wears, seamlessly navigating the competing tones and plots that Almodóvar throws at her. And while Cruz holds the film together, Almodóvar brings it back together with a walloping ending that, for the first time in his films, addresses the atrocities committed under the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. 

Dominic Marziali

“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain”

Grade: 4.0/5.0

An unexpected gem, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” brims with color in a beautiful retelling of its subject’s eccentric life. Born in 1860, Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) was an English artist best known for his drawings and paintings of anthropomorphized cats. The film follows his journey, from creating his first cat drawing and through the fantastical yet tumultuous life that moment sparked into existence, which, in his later years, included suffering from schizophrenia.

The film is mystical and, sure enough, electrifying — it is marvelous to consume. The dialogue and narration are also charmingly humorous, contributing intentional brightness to the storytelling. Cumberbatch’s incredible acting, however, is what really engages curiosity about his intriguing character’s life. Everything comes together to create a story that seems almost unreal, but one that reminds us of the persistent beauty and light you can find in life as long as you look for it.

Joy Diamond

“Courtroom 3H”

Grade: 4.0/5.0

A courtroom is a setting particularly well-suited to cinema verite. It is drab and averse to geometric arrangement, which contributes in no small part to its resistance to spectacle. One might point to courtroom dramas, but in most instances, that drama takes place outside of the courtroom, and when the courtroom takes the screen, it’s as the pulpit. 

The courtroom is everything to director Antonio Méndez Esparza’s fly-on-the-wall “Courtroom 3H,” in all its bureaucracy. Esparza’s camera sets up shop in Courtroom 3H, a family court in Tallahassee, Florida court that handles cases involving minors. The film adopts a similar style to that of Frederick Wiseman (“At Berkeley”) and only ever watches the court’s happenings. 

This stilled cinematography may not have the emotional bearing that some viewers would hope for or make the beeline to conclusions that others might prefer. Some of the film’s dispositions may have gotten mixed up in the courtroom jargon, but “Courtroom 3H” makes a lasting plea on behalf of the children, the court’s most vulnerable. 

Dominic Marziali

“Sami, Joe and I”

Grade: 2.0/5.0

Swiss coming of age film “Sami, Joe and I” commendably tries to capture some hallmark experiences of being a teenage girl, and to its credit, the conflicts that the film throws its titular characters into succeed in reflecting these familiar realities. But that may be the only thing the film gets right, and this bare-bones foundation simply crumbles without the support of adequate directing, writing, acting and editing.

Best friends Sami (Anja Gada), Joe (Rabea Lüthi) and Leyla (Jana Sekulovska) come from very different upbringings, allowing the film to explore themes surrounding overbearing parents, looking after siblings and working a first job. Their stories are about solidarity and overcoming odds, and it’s refreshing to see a film written and directed by a woman about three teenage girls. Unfortunately, “Sami, Joe and I” drags its feet for too long through poorly written dialogue, rough acting and editing and is overall too weak to add believability to a plot with potential.

Joy Diamond

“Lingui”

Grade: 3.5/5.0

One of the festival’s most electrifying titles comes from the Chadian writer-director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. His film, “Lingui,” meaning “the sacred bonds,” is about Amina (Achouackh Abakar) and her 15-year-old daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio). Maria has become pregnant and wants an abortion, but in Chad, a predominantly Muslim country, abortions are condemned by law and religion. 

The pregnancy is social poison and a death sentence to Maria’s education as her school expels her for the sake of its reputation. “Lingui” navigates the family’s situation with tenacity and sensitivity. The film is intimately crafted, letting viewers peer into every part of the family’s life — from Amina’s job (weaving baskets with wire salvaged from tires) to the pressures the pregnancy exerts on Maria’s mental state. 

At times, compassion supersedes craft. The film’s electricity falters toward the end, trading some of its narrative energy for a clean ending that prizes unity. Still, Haroun’s film always asks the audience to identify with its subjects, to hope for a stroke of luck as they do. 

Dominic Marziali

“The Velvet Underground”

Grade: 3.0/5.0

Todd Haynes’ first documentary, “The Velvet Underground,” is a creative masterpiece — to no one’s surprise — but it’s not very fun. The documentary covers the life and times of American rock band The Velvet Underground, one of the most influential bands in underground, experimental and alternative rock and once the house band at Andy Warhol’s Factory.

The film is undeniably good; it is visually pleasing and dripping with creative merit. The documentary does an excellent job of recounting and exploring the history of the band, and interviews with past members and their family members are candid and intimate. The documentary is in every respect remarkable on paper, but sitting through an eventually monotonous cycle of interview, photo, interview, photo becomes exhausting.

While well worth a watch for fans of the band or documentary films, “The Velvet Underground” is a bit more tedious than one would hope.

Joy Diamond

“Mothering Sunday”

Grade: 1.5/5.0

Olivia Colman does pretty much anything well, but her craft plays one particular quality with such verve, it’s impossible to overlook. The actress maintains an emotional boldness and quick-witted acting that, so stylistically adept, cut to the bone. So, why doesn’t “Mothering Sunday” throw its top-billing star a bone and give her a few more lines? 

Is it that the filmmakers don’t know what they’re working with? That doesn’t entirely track — her lines are, as written, some of the most tonally adept in the movie. Beyond the writing, even the way she descends a set of stairs, clomping down with something comparable to a mid-semester weariness, outshines the ensemble’s performances. 

The issue, unfortunately, is broader. “Mothering Sunday” is the story of an illicit affair between a maid (Odessa Young) and a groom (Josh O’Connor) whose dad can afford maids — go ahead, yawn. The film is like a rough draft, opting for lazy ellipses instead of some light rewriting. At the end of the day, perhaps it’s best to lighten up: Tan lines make for hilarious continuity errors in an interwar period drama. 

Dominic Marziali

“My Dead Dad”

Grade: 1.0/5.0

Be prepared to do more than a couple of double-takes when watching “My Dead Dad,” and not the good, suspense-building kind. At one point in the film, Kieffer (Booboo Stewart) delivers a line without moving his lips — but it evens out when later, he appears to talk but no sound comes out.

It’s a shame that this film came together so haphazardly, because the premise has a lot of promise. Now a burnout, former skateboarder Lucas (Pedro Correa) inherits his estranged father’s apartment building and gets to know his late father through conversations with the eclectic tenants. The story starts interesting, but it soon becomes obvious just how sloppily the film was sewn together; the messy seams soon loosen and everything quickly falls apart.

A disappointing collage of bad acting, dry writing, an unlikable romance and some egregious editing errors, “My Dead Dad” feels like a rough draft.

Joy Diamond

“Bergman Island”

Grade: 3.0/5.0

“Bergman Island,” as a story of heterosexual love, does “Mothering Sunday” one better. Actor Anders Danielsen Lie bares a surprising amount of skin, while writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve brings a surpriseless yet entertaining feature to the table. 

Hansen-Løve’s film is set on Faro, the island the Swedish colossus of cinema Ingmar Bergman called home. It stars Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth as boyfriend-girlfriend filmmakers retreating to the island for inspiration on their latest projects. Roth’s character, Tony, is a well-established director — Krieps’s Chris is far younger and struggles to put pen to paper while Tony sits for a Q&A. 

“Bergman Island” goes on a cinematic self-reflexive bend, but before it gets there, it’s already clear that this film recycles what we already knew about Bergman. At its most interesting, “Bergman Island” uses a film within a film to toy with the idea of a frail relationship — not a frail relationship itself.

Dominic Marziali

Dominic Marziali and Joy Diamond cover film. Contact them at [email protected] and [email protected].