Now Playing! Mill Valley and Drunken Fests on Tap, Radha on the Home Screen

Writer and director Radha Blank as Radha in 'The Forty-Year-Old Version.' (Jeong Park/Netflix)

Rescheduled, rejiggered and reimagined, the fall movie calendar nonetheless looks a lot like it does in a normal year: Festivals lined up like planes on a tarmac, with new releases dotting the horizon. It’s getting to be desperate days for theaters, but film fans are still well supplied.

Mill Valley Film Festival
Oct. 8–18
Streaming and drive-in

The pandemic has torpedoed two signature elements of Marin County’s laidback extravaganza: the live concerts at Sweetwater linked to music-based films and the red-carpet parade of Oscar-hopeful stars. The latter, at least, has been safely transposed online, which means you can take in interviews with genuine giants from your couch.

The stargazer alert includes tributees Dame Judi Dench (Blithe Spirit), Italian immortal Sophia Loren, Viola Davis, Anthony Hopkins (The Father) and Kate Winslet (Ammonite). The other honorees are Regina King (One Night in Miami), local thespian Delroy Lindo, Irish actress and writer Clare Dunne (Herself) Aaron Sorkin and Frieda Lee Mock (Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words).

Frances McDormand in Chloé Zhao's 'Nomadland.' (Courtesy MVFF)

MVFF is embracing the in-person, drive-in model to a far greater degree than any other local festival since COVID-19 hit. The 52-foot screen at Lagoon Park in Marin Center will host the world premiere of Blithe Spirit on opening night, the North American premiere of Gia Coppola’s Mainstream, Chloé Zhao’s highly touted Nomadland, Braden King’s The Evening Hour, Francis Lee’s Ammonite and The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart on closing night. And a Star Wars movie from 1980, if you missed it the first—or ninth—time around.

One MVFF staple unaffected by the pandemic is the presence of several notable local documentary filmmakers. Erika Cohn (The Judge) constructs Belly of the Beast around stalwart survivor-turned-activist Kelli Dixon and Cynthia Chandler of the Oakland-based human rights organization Justice Now. Their persistence and courage leads to legislation outlawing the despicable practice of California Department of Corrections-sanctioned surgical sterilization. Belly of the Beast also opens Oct. 14 at the Roxie virtual cinema.

On a lighter, brighter note, Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider (Havana Curveball) deliver a double album of Cuba libre with Los Hermanos/The Brothers. Violinist Ilmar Gavilán has lived in the States and performed around the globe for years, while his younger brother, pianist Aldo López Gavilán Junco, thrived in Havana. President Obama’s enlightened cultural-exchange policies set the stage for a joyful U.S. tour featuring Aldo’s blood-pumping compositions that meld jazz, classical and Latin music.

Jesse Jackson, Joan Baez, Ira Sandperl, Dr. King and Dora McDonald in South Carolina, 1966, from 'The Boys Who Said No!' (Courtesy MVFF)

Judith Ehrlich’s 2000 doc, The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It, was a revelatory account of conscientious objectors to World War II. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009), the riveting whistle-blower saga she made with Rick Goldsmith, revisited one of the highest-profile examples of civil disobedience in U.S. history. Ehrlich’s impassioned capstone, The Boys Who Said No! Draft Resistance and the Vietnam War, features organizer David Harris and singer-activist Joan Baez then and now. The doc has its world premiere at MVFF accompanied by a Q&A.

Of special note to local filmmakers and film buffs, MVFF’s starry lineup of panel discussions, dubbed Behind the Screen, is free to anyone with an RSVP. The tempting topics include the evolution of Black women’s roles onscreen, rethinking classics (towards a more democratic global canon) and the ever-popular state of the film industry.

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The Forty-Year-Old Version
Premieres Oct 9
Netflix

In case it’s unclear from the title, Radha is having a midlife crisis. Once an up-and-coming Black playwright who maybe, possibly, could have been The Voice of Her Generation, now she’s just another scuffling New York writer with a day job as a teacher, middling contacts, no partner and no path forward. Worse, she’s lost her voice as an artist.

The most surprising and endearing thing about the protagonist of Radha Blank’s semi-autobiographical indie comedy, played by the writer-director, is how square she is. Blank hasn’t made herself a cooler-than-thou rebel doling out putdowns to lesser beings. She’s on the wrong side of hipdom, as everyone points out, including her blunt high school students and the unhoused dude on her Harlem block.

But Radha is a big-city Black woman, so neither self-pity nor self-delusion survive very long in her vicinity. She pushes ahead on a new track, reinventing herself as a rapper with, ahem, mixed results. Meanwhile, Archie (Peter Kim), her gay Korean BFF from high school and current agent, pulls strings and, ahem, juggles balls to launch a workshop production of one of Radha’s old scripts.

Shot in black and white all over NYC, The Forty-Year-Old Version evokes, yet is miles from, the tradition of blistering, uncompromising films by Black filmmakers. Blank’s critiques of the white establishment behind “daring” theater are amusing, but don’t draw much blood. More edge—or less of the conventional ups-and-downs with the designated (and underdeveloped) love interest—would be welcome, given that the film clocks in at over two hours.

And yet, The Forty-Year-Old Version, which earned Blank the directing award in the dramatic competition at Sundance, isn’t satire, but a wry, open-hearted gambol through the self-aware psyche of a talented lady who’s unwilling to settle for obscurity or, worse, complicity.

Drunken Film Festival
Oct. 11–13 and 15–17 at Tribune Tower, Oakland
Streaming on Twitch Oct. 14 and 18

The gestalt, the vibe and the raison d’être of the Drunken Film Festival is very simple: Movies in bars. So what’s an approximate substitute in the year of the pandemic? Ripping a page from football tailgate playbooks, the DFF convenes six nights in the outdoor parking lot of Tribune Tower in downtown Oakland. On the off nights, the festival of short films unspools online via Twitch. The whole shebang is free, which eliminates the barriers to entry. Hoist a pint, wherever you watch, and toast the filmmakers. Vive cinema!

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