The Mill Valley Film Festival is well underway and while numerous offerings in the lineup are already receiving national and international attention there are other gems worth seeing that aren’t as highly visible but are just as deserving of your time.
Two under-the-radar films I recommend are “The Divine Order” (5:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7 at the Rafael Film Center) and “The Corridor” (8:45 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 7 at the Lark).
Here are capsule reviews of both.
“The Divine Order” is a thoroughly entertaining dramatization of the drive to allow women the right to vote in a small town in Switzerland, a right shockingly not granted until 1971! Director Petra Volpe adopts the right touch and tone, injecting humor amid the escalating drama in a film that elegantly captures the period and its attitudes. It helps that the cast, led strongly by Marie Leuenberger as the housewife Nora — who undergoes a liberation transformation and becomes the unofficial community leader for the movement — plays off each other so gracefully. (Screens again 6 p.m. Oct. 8 at the Lark Theater). Opens Nov. 24 in the the Bay Area.
“The Corridor” is a riveting, fully immersive Bay Area-set documentary that illuminates an innovative program launched by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department that requires inmates without high school diplomas attend school while they’re behind bars so they can earn GEDs. Filmmakers Richard O’Connell and Annelise Wunderlich have done a comprehensive yet intimate job of exploring the program, particularly in presenting the stories and journeys of the inmates profiled. Don’t miss this one. (Screens again 10 a.m., Oct. 12, Rafael Film Center)
For tickets and additional information, visit mvff.com.
Anyone who endured high school rather than enjoyed it well knows what a soul-damaging experience the teen years can be. That more hellish ordeal has been a popular topic plumbed — sometimes successfully, other times mundanely — in numerous coming-of-age stories.
Rarely do these explorations — be it on screen or on the page – have depicted the painful, awkward period with such raw truthfulness like “Some Freaks,” a head-turner of an indie feature that deserves a wider release than it is getting. (You can see it in one theater in S.F this week or rent it on Amazon Prime and other streaming platforms).
Directed and written with unsentimental compassion and intense understanding by newcomer Ian MacAllister-McDonald, “Some Freaks” is a no-nonsense romantic comedy/drama with sharp edges aplenty.
Actor Thomas Mann (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) effortlessly taps into the beaten-down, hunch-shouldered, anxiety-riddled reality of Matt, a depressed high school kid with an eye patch. Matt is insufferably picked on by obnoxious Rhode Island high school brats. His life at home isn’t much more inviting since he’s living with his bossy sister (Marin Ireland) and her baby. Even his best friend Elmo (a well-cast Ely Henry) — who is gay and crushing hard on a straight, out-of-his-league athlete — demands a lot.
Matt meets and falls for the acerbic and unpredictable Jill (Lily Mae Harrington, giving the film its most radiant performance). She’s relentlessly bullied due to her plus size but maintains a sassy, no-guff demeanor. Suddenly, a seismic emotional shift happens, leading Matt to experience joy, likely for the first time in his life.
What makes “Some Freaks” stand out from other dramas dealing with teens lingering on the high school fringes is that MacAllister-McDonald and his leads don’t make the characters saints. These young people are flawed. They react poorly at times, and that genuineness gives the film an honest soul.
Jill eventually relocates Southern California where she adjust how she looks and attracts the attention of Patrick (Lachlan Buchanan, so perfect here), a golden boy from her former high school. What motivates Patrick to pursue Jill? Where will this lead?
Answers come, but the resolutions are never black-and white and pat.
What is an absolute is that “Some Freaks” announces the arrival of an exciting and original new filmmaking voice. Seek it out. Recommend others see it. It is that good.
3. 5 out of 4 stars
Rating: Starring: Thomas Mann, Lily Mae Harrington, Ely Henry, Lachlan Buchanan, Marin Ireland
Director and screenwriter: Ian MacAllister McDonald
After suffering through the insufferable “Assassin’s Creed” (made redeemable for its flashes of Michael Fassbender’s shirtless upper torso), I had abandoned hope there would be a half-way decent, even mediocre, cinematic — or TV — adaptation of a video game.
Some have gotten close (“Silent Hill” happens to be my favorite), but most attempts are downright awful.
Netflix defies this curse. The streaming giant’s new and way too short four-part series “Castlevania” works.
It’s a gory Gothic experience, a visually arresting production made all the mightier by punchy right hooks of dark humor from writer Warren (“Red”) Ellis, an icon in the adult comic world.
The premise is intriguing: Count Vlad Dracula goes on a rampage in the 15th century after his smart, scientific-focused wife is branded and then burned at the “witch” stake by Catholic detractors.
That all happens in the prologue. In ensuing episodes we meet the sexy but fallen-from-favor Trevor Belmont (voiced by “The Hobbit’s” Richard Armitage), a demon-buster who is a reluctant hero, but a hero nevertheless. He decides to help out.
His fighting skills are much needed since Vlad has gone cuckoo, summoning devilish huge bats to level villages and exterminate everyone. Will the peasants and innocents survive?
The final episode sets the stage for an uprising, and then just ends. But that’s OK.
Why “Castlevina” works while many other adaptations failed is because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Ellis’s irreverence ensures that the carnage (bloody indeed) is balanced with wit. Ellis’s influence makes even the most tried-and-true horror tropes — which are summoned forth here — appear original, even daring.
From the raves garnered by this series, I’m hardly a lone wolf on liking it. Netflix too realizes that it has a hit on its hands, and has already ordered another eight episodes.
Need more recommendations on what to see at this year’s Frameline, S.F.’s LGBTQ film festival?
Here are quick reviews of must-sees I haven’t mentioned yet:
Wednesday, June 21:
“Sensitivity Training”: Due to her blunt put-downs, the HR department orders a tactless but brilliant scientist (Anna Lise Phillips) to undergo vigorous sensitivity training officiated by a perpetually perky life coach (Jill E. Alexander). That setup results in a heartwarming, funny odd-couple matchup, well-excuted by first-time feature director Melissa Finell. (9:30 p.m., June 21, Elmwood; 6:30 p.m., June 24, Victoria)
Thursday, June 22
“4 Days in France”: In this moody, slyly rendered drama with gusts of knowing humor, a lover suddenly disengages from his boyfriend and goes on a rudderless tour outside of Paris. The journey of Pierre (Pascal Cervo) takes unexpected turns as he encounters and sometimes hooks up with strangers. Jerome Reybaud’s long but meaningful debut sticks with you. (noon, Castro)
Friday, June 23
“Alaska Is a Drag”: Shaz Bennett’s feature debut is a winner, a fully realized character drama about Leo (Martin L. Washington Jr.), an athletic young man who dreams about being a drag star while working in a cannery in Alaska. His interactions with his dad, sister, former friend and hunky co-worker (Matt Dallas) pave the way for this compassionate soul to discover more about who he is and what he wants out of life. (9:15 p.m., Castro; 9:15 p.m. June 24, Piedmont)
Frameline — the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival — overflows with well-made and exciting features to mark its 41st year.
Here are seven standouts — in addition to the 10 previously mentioned — you need to check out during the festival’s run, June 15-June 25.
In the days ahead, I’ll be posting short reviews of others, including one that’s my favorite in the lineup.
“Beach Rats”: Talented filmmaker Eliza Hittman’s so-real-it-aches Sundance winner is an insightful character study of a hunky, closeted Brooklyn guy and his sexual hookups and hangups. Featuring a breakthrough performance from Harris Dickinson, it fearlessly visits uncomfortable places and spaces. Watch Hittman’s feature-length debut, “It Felt Like Love” too. It’s a knockout. (7 p.m., June 22, Roxie)
“Prom King 2010”: A college student tries to find his groove, not to mention a rock-solid relationship, while in New York. But alas sex and love in the big city is never easy. Christopher Schaap stars and directs, and his first feature is a sumptuously photographed find. (June 19, Castro)
“God’s Own Country”: Francis Lee’s award-winning, feature-length debut makes you feel not only like you’re a part of the rugged Northern England terra firma but that you’re rolling around in earthy passion. His rich drama about two men — a farmer (Josh O’Connor) and a Romanian ranchhand (Alec Secareanu) — and an undeniable attraction is not only wildy sexy but elemental and real. I love this film. (6:30 p.m. June 17, the Castro)
“A Date for Mad Mary”: An anger-prone maid of honor who’s been freshly released from a prison stint makes a mess of things while finding a date in director Darren Thornton’s observant Ireland-set dramedy. This is beautifully played in every way; funny and touching, and best of all honest. Lead Seana Kerslake is a revelation. (June 18, Victoria; June 24, Piedmont)
“Handsome Devil”: In this formulaic but satisfying coming-out tale, a troubled rugby player (Nicholas Galitzine) rooms with his seemingly polar opposite, the much more demonstrative and picked-upon Conor (Fionn O’Shea, so good). What elevates John Butler’s Ireland-set dramedy from its adherence to a template are the characters and performances, including another standout turn from “Sherlock’s” Andrew Scott as a gay English teacher. (1:30 p.m., June 17, Victora; 9:15 p.m., June 20, the Victoria)
“Becks”: After catching her L.A. girlfriend in the cheating act, a forlorn folk singer Becks (Lena Hall) sullenly shrugs her way back to her conservative Midwest roots. Once there she deals with a faith-centered mom (Christine Lahti, stealing every scene she’s in) who struggles to balance a staunch religious convictions with her desire to support her daughter’s happiness. Meanwhile, Becks strikes up a close friendship with the wife (Mena Suvari) of her former high school tormentor. Bolstered by a nifty soundtrack and good performances — particularly from Lahti — “Becks” is a treat. ( 6:30 p.m., June 21, the Castro)
I’ve been covering Frameline for awhile and believe this year’s program is one of its strongest yet.
Below are 10 films I recommend you check out. The opening night selection — “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” — along with the closing-night one — the thought-provoking “After Louie” — are must-sees.