10 Berkeley-connected films at the Mill Valley Film Festival

Actress examines a rare science fiction book by Johannes Kepler in the movie, Kepler's Dream, which will be playing at the Mill Valley Film Festival
Actress Isabella Blake Thomas examines a rare science-fiction book by Johannes Kepler in the movie, Kepler’s Dream, which will be playing at the Mill Valley Film Festival

Berkeley writer Sylvia Brownrigg was 21 when she met her paternal grandmother for the first time. It was not an easy start, as her grandmother, a world traveler and famous book collector, was “frosty” and not easy to relate to. But, with time, Sylvia and her grandmother developed a close and lasting bond.

Elements of that relationship – with some significant changes – can be found in Kepler’s Dream, a movie that will have its film festival premiere Friday, Oct. 7 at 6:30 p.m. at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

The movie, produced by Sedge Thompson of West Coast Live fame, and directed by Amy Glazer, tells the story of an 11-year-old California girl who is forced to go live with her grandmother in New Mexico because her mother is sick and her father seems to want to avoid parenting. The young girl, Ella, played by British actress Isabella Blake Thomas, becomes captivated by a rare book written by Johannes Kepler. Its theft sets into motion a series of events that both challenges the family and brings them together.

The movie is based on a book that was  published in 2012 and written under Brownrigg’s nom de plume, Juliet Bell. Glazer, a local film director with whom Brownrigg hikes regularly, read the book and declared she wanted to turn it into a movie. The two wrote the screenplay with another pair of women.


“I am really excited it has come out,” said Brownrigg. “It has been a three-year project so it’s great to see it make its way into the world.”

Kepler’s Dream (see showtimes) is one of at least 10 films in the Mill Valley Film Festival with a Berkeley connection. The other films are by Berkeley filmmakers Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow; Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg; Katy Grannan; Doug Nichol; Siciliano Trevino, Finn Taylor, Charlotte Lagarde, Carrie Lozano, and Rob Nilsson. Berkeley-based producer Ariana Garfinkel also has a film in the festival.

A still from Unleashed, a film directed by Finn Taylor.
A still from Unleashed, a film directed by Finn Taylor and staring Kate Micucci

Unleashed tells the story of software developer Emma (Garfunkel & Oates’s Kate Micucci). She is a lovelorn romantic and astrology skeptic who is settling into a new life in San Francisco when her beloved cat, Ajax, and dog, Summit, go missing. But the heavens have a wry sense of humor, for an alignment of planets has transformed both pets into humans, with their four-legged memories intact. So begins this playful farce, full of daft physical comedy and plenty of jokes for dog and cat lovers as these two unlikely paramours vie for Emma’s affection. Will the goofy, amiable mutt prevail, or the wily, charismatic feline? The film is directed by Berkeley filmmaker Finn Taylor. Unleashed is playing at the Sequoia 1 on Oct. 12 at 7:00 p.m. and Oct 13 at 1:00 p.m. The star, producer, and director will answer questions after the shows.

Love Twice  “What do you do when the spark touches down — brief and hot?” So begins Rob Nilsson’s provocative meditation on the Möbius relationship of fiction to reality, and the notion of creative control. In Love Twice, Luz and Ken are star-crossed lovers in screenwriter Sal’s script, until their desire takes shape, inscribing itself into a movie of their own design. Risking his sanity to save the screenplay, Sal struggles to regain control of his characters and satisfy the demands of his producer Lester (legendary Velvet Underground founder John Cale), driving a wedge between the lovers with a desperate attempt to seduce Luz. Veteran actor Carl Lumbly appears as Rodrigo, another controlling interest in Sal’s film, who imposes his own designs on the production. In Love Twice, the pulls of competing desire may be difficult to bear, but impossible to give up. Love Twice plays tonight, Thusday, at 7:15 p.m.

Company Town  Another film by Berkeley filmmakers documents the impact of the tech boom and the “sharing economy” on San Francisco. Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufmann use the political battle between Julie Christensen and Aaron Peskin for a seat on the SF Board of Supervisors as a vehicle to discuss evictions, displacement, and the growth of a new wealthy class and how it is changing the city. Company Town will play Oct 9 at 2 p.m. at the Sequoia 1, followed by a panel discussion. It will also play Oct. 15 at noon at the Century Larkspur.

My Love Affair with the Brain: The Life and Science of Dr. Marian Diamond Meet UC Berkeley scientist Dr. Marian Diamond as she pulls a human brain out of a hatbox and lovingly enumerates its astonishing qualities. A mad scientist? Quite the opposite. In this energetic documentary directed by Berkeley filmmakers Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg, Dr. Diamond is revealed as one of the great minds — one of the founders, in fact — of modern neuroscience. Dr. Diamond’s unprecedented work includes theorizing and proving previously unimagined brain capabilities, analyzing Albert Einstein’s preserved brain, and building a scientific and academic career that broke barriers for women in science. My Love Affair with the Brain is playing Oct 13 at 6:30 p.m., Oct. 14 at 10 a.m., and Oct. 15 at 11:15 a.m.

California Typewriter  Weaving together three stories — of a Berkeley repair business, a Canadian collector, and a Bay Area artist — and including interviews with famous typewriter devotees like Tom Hanks, Sam Shepard, and David McCullough, this documentary, directed by Doug Nichol, celebrates the creative virtues and tactile joys of the typewriter. But rather than a eulogy for yet another mechanical device tossed on the slag heap of obsolete technology — joining the Polaroid, the album, and sprocketed film — this micro-history is both a love letter to this humble tool and a pointed critique of our digital age. For some, the typewriter’s limits are benefits, even a state of mind. Ultimately, the film suggests we move past that modern technological conundrum — analog or digital?—and simply embrace both. California Typewriter is playing Oct. 7 at 3 p.m. and Oct. 10 8 p.m.


Herb Permillion in the film California Typewriter
Herb Permillion in the film California Typewriter. He runs California Typewriter Company on San Pablo Avenue

The Nine is a documentary by Berkeley photographer Katy Grannan. In a shabby motel room in California’s Central Valley, Kiki showers, fixes her hair and cheerfully repeats her father’s promise to buy her a condo. Outside her door is a living hell of drugs, prostitution and bitter regrets. This is Modesto’s South Ninth Street, or “the Nine,” a neighborhood on the nightmare end of the American dream and the setting for dustbowl stories like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the hard-luck portraits of Dorothea Lange. Grannan’s documentary explores the lives of those who struggle with their past tragedies and current addictions. Showtimes for The Nine are Oct. 11 at 9 p.m. and Oct. 12 at 2:30 p.m. Grannan and two producers will be at the screening.

New Mo Cut is a short documentary by Berkeley filmmaker Siciliana Trevino. It tells the story of some film canisters found in the Berkeley dump that turned out to contain films of Moe’s Books founder Moe Moscowitz. They had been shot by David Peoples, who wrote The Bladerunner screenplay. It will screen in the Valley of the Docs section on Oct. 9 at 8 p.m., Oct. 10 at 5:45 p.m., and Oct. 11.at 10 a.m. Read more about the film on Berkeleyside.

Best and Most Beautiful Things – Michelle is an endlessly curious young woman, absorbed with her obsessions and powerfully motivated to find her place in the world. But Michelle faces challenges: She is legally blind and high functioning on the autism spectrum. She is also the last person to be tempered by these supposed “limitations,” choosing instead to reach beyond the life many have assumed for her and finding commonality, self-discovery, empowerment, and even love within an unexpected fringe community. Through the use of incisive cinematography, an original score, and a compelling nonlinear structure, this debut feature documentary by filmmaker Garrett Zevgetis never condescends to its subject as it explores Michelle’s complicated family past, the restless present, and her uncertain future, effectively mirroring many of her unique perceptions with empathy and compassion. The producer is Berkeley-based Ariana Garfinkel.  Best and Most Beautiful Things will play Oct. 8 at 2:30 p.m. and Oct. 10 at 2 p.m. Zevgetis will be at the Oct. 10 screening.

The Ballad of Fred Hersch – With his hands on the piano keys, eyes closed, leaning forward as if listening for the instrument to guide him, Fred Hersch is a man in complete harmony with his universe, fluidly carving melodies out of thin air. Away from the keys, he’s a soft-spoken, warm but exacting composer and collaborator in music and in life, who knows precisely what he wants to hear. Hersch has always been a rarity in the jazz world—a young musician in the ’70s and ’80s accepted by an older generation of bebop greats; a publicly gay man in the ’90s Midwest, bravely and openly HIV-positive; and presently, an eight-time Grammy nominee staging a multimedia performance inspired by his miraculous survival of a two-month, AIDS-related coma. Berkeley-connected filmmakers Charlotte Lagarde and Carrie Lozano began working with Hersch to document that performance, and that collaboration leads to a much deeper and wonderfully intimate portrait of an incomparable artist. The film will be shown Oct. 11 at 8:00 p.m. and Oct. 12 at 6:00 p.m. The director Lozano and Hersch will be at both showings.

This story was updated to add another Berkeley-connected film.

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