Belly of the Beast. Photo: Courtesy Mill Valley Film Festival Credit: Mill Valley Film Festival

When I first started writing this column in 2009 I tried very, very hard to follow a simple set of self-imposed rules. The name of the column was ‘Big Screen Berkeley’ and it appeared on a website named Berkeleyside, so films that were playing in Berkeley — or had been shot in Berkeley — would be the only permissible subject matter.

Sometimes, though, my choices were limited, and I started to cheat. Film opening in Oakland? Well, that’s where I live, so that’s alright. Film playing in San Francisco? Well, people should be informed if there’s something on the other side of the Bay worth the price of bridge toll.

Within a few years the slippery slope had turned into a well oiled slip ’n slide.

Regardless of all that cheating, though, I still never sent readers across the Golden Gate Bridge — until now. With COVID-19 continuing to keep film fans at home, and with this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival (running from Oct. 8 through Oct. 18) making the vast majority of its high quality programming available for streaming, it’s time to dispense with another unwritten rule.

One of the fest’s cornerstone documentaries, Belly of the Beast, does provide me with a slender reed to lean on. Directed by San Francisco’s Erika Cohn, the film details the efforts of Oakland lawyer (and former Philadelphia punk rocker) Cynthia Chandler to end the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s practice of forcibly sterilizing female inmates.

No, it didn’t start with ICE: as Belly of the Beast details, sterilization has been a part of American medicine and jurisprudence for decades (indeed, the Nazis eagerly took lessons from American eugenicists). Technically illegal in California since 1979, hysterectomies have continued to happen under the auspices of CDCR.

Former inmate Kelli Dillon — herself sterilized without consenting — decided to do something about it: working in concert with Chandler, Dillon lobbied tirelessly for a new state law to finally close those 40-year old loopholes. And while their efforts were successful, Cohn ends her film on a depressing cautionary note: CDCR, it seems, will likely find new ways to evade oversight.

‘Heist of the Century’

Heist of the Century. Photo: Courtesy Mill Valley Film Festival Credit: Mill Valley Film Festival

I’ve written before about my love for a good heist movie, and they come no better than El Robo del Siglo (Heist of the Century), a lively recreation of a bold 2006 bank robbery. Featuring an array of Argentina’s finest screen actors — including Diego Peretti (On Probation) and Guillermo Francella (the Oscar-winning The Secret In Their Eyes) — the film is riveting, tense, and hugely enjoyable. Added value is provided by Dario Eskenazi’s assertive brass and percussion-driven score, reflecting in equal measure the influences of composers Quincy Jones, Ennio Morricone, and David Shire. I needn’t tell you those are some really good influences.

‘The Outside Story’ and ‘The Bee Gees’

The Outside Story. Photo: Courtesy Mill Valley Film Festival Credit: Mill Valley Film Festival

If you’re looking for a feel-good movie (and these days, even I hanker for one every now and then), The Outside Story fits the bill. Starring Brian Tyree Henry as Charles, a TCM obituarist (!) who inadvertently locks himself out of his apartment one New York autumn’s day, the film is a gentle, episodic comedy of minor misunderstandings, unfortunate mishaps, and relationships gone sour featuring an assortment of unique, likable characters (even the cops get off easy in this one).

Finally, though I wasn’t able to screen The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, any fan of the Brothers Gibb will already know they need to see it. Unlike the bulk of the Festival’s offerings this will only screen once, on Saturday Oct. 17 at the Marin Center’s Lagoon Park. Gates open at 5:30 p.m. and the film begins at 7:30 p.m. — don’t be late!

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...