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Up in the Valley 

A critical guide to week one of the Mill Valley Film Fest

Wednesday, Oct 1 1997
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Can't You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life & Music of Robert Johnson
The life and legacy of Robert Johnson, called "king of the Delta blues singers," hold an apparently endless fascination for the culture: This is the second documentary on him in recent years. The usual suspects -- Keith Richards, Eric Clapton -- are trotted out to give the stamp of rock approval to the master bluesman, but it's Johnson's contemporaries like Johnny Shines who bring this enigmatic figure, who died after being poisoned at age 27 in 1938, to some semblance of life. Writer/director Peter Meyer culled the archives for rare footage and photographs, which he combines with interviews and re-enactments in an attempt to demystify his elusive subject. The film earnestly visualizes key components of the Johnson legend -- Johnson's fabled deal with the devil comes complete with a rattlesnake -- but Shines has the last word when he mockingly refutes such foolishness. Danny Glover's dramatic in-person narration is too ham-handed for the subtleties of the subject's life and death, but all is forgiven when Johnson's eerie, inimitable music drifts across the soundtrack. (Gary Morris) Monday, Oct. 6, 7:15 p.m., Sequoia

Dinner at Fred's
This quaint, occasionally funny black comedy embodies all that's "minor" about independent films, but it does answer the nagging question of what happened to Kevin McDonald of Kids in the Hall. McDonald resurfaces as endearingly weird Fred in this low-budget combination of It's a Wonderful Life and The Old Dark House written and directed by Shawn Alex Thompson. Gil Bellows plays Richard, a corporate everyguy whose encounter with Fred's zany family -- including Christopher Lloyd as a good-natured psycho on a snowmobile -- gives him the courage to dump his boring job, his creepy boss, and his trophy girlfriend. The film tries to mingle absurd humor with a sweet, almost sentimental quality, but the scenes aren't sharp enough or sweet enough to quite succeed as either. The ubiquitous Parker Posey's here, but it's McDonald and his unique comic persona -- a sort of distracted deadpan -- who steals what there is of the show. (Gary Morris) Thursday, Oct. 2, 9:45 p.m., Sequoia; Sunday, Oct. 5, noon, Lark

Fame Whore
The screeching title tune says it all early: "I ain't got talent, and I ain't got style!" What no-talent, no-style writer/director/etc. Jon Moritsugu (Mod Fuck Explosion) intends as a daring critique of a society obsessed with notoriety comes off like a laughably inept 1960s sexploitation film without the saving grace of the sex. This three-part story -- about a closeted, foulmouthed tennis player named Jody George, a self-deluded casting director, and a mincing dog-shelter worker -- lacks the least bit of grit or power, not to mention things like decent lighting, dynamic cutting, or credible acting; atmospherically and dramatically, Fame Whore is DOA. The kind of sensibility operating here is woefully apparent in a quote from the director: "I mean, someone like Jody George, who uses the word 'pussy' like a thousand times -- that in itself, I think, is sort of shocking." Right. (Gary Morris) Saturday, Oct. 4, 10:15 p.m., Lark

The Healers of 400 Parnassus
Don't let the subject put you off from this exceptional film, an AIDS documentary that rises above the rabble with its striking portrait of professional caregivers -- doctors, nurse practitioners, and social workers -- at the UCSF Infectious Diseases HIV Clinic, aka 400 Parnassus. The nurses and doctors here, taking their medical mandate to the max, are deeply involved in their clients' lives and in the world of HIV, and talk eloquently of getting as much from their patients as they give. "We're here because there's no place else we'd rather be," says Dr. Steven O'Brien. These "healers" are hindered not only by a cunning disease, but by politics and profit motive; during filming, Dr. O'Brien's position was cut to "save money." Also on this bill is Before I Sleep, a moving record of the last four years of one of the first American teen-agers to speak about her experiences with HIV. (Gary Morris) Saturday, Oct. 4, 1 p.m., Lark

Herbert's Hippopotamus: Marcuse and Revolution in Paradise
Paul Alexander Juutilainen's documentary is unabashedly on the side of 1960s student radical guru Herbert Marcuse, celebrating his leftist critique of affluent America and focusing on then-Gov. Ronald Reagan's attempt to force the aging philosophy professor from his post at UC San Diego in the late '60s. The real villain of this piece is not, however, Reagan and the American Legioneers (who merely look silly in old TV clips complaining about the red professor), but instead the university bureaucrat who ultimately succeeded in chasing Marcuse from his post by instituting mandatory retirement for all at age 70. In retirement himself today, he lies right to the camera about his act not being directed at the tenured embarrassment, but instead at old fogies everywhere. In a nutshell, Marcuse's argument about the repressive side of liberal humanist "tolerance" is proved. Better foes like Reagan than friends like that. (Gregg Rickman) Sunday, Oct. 5, 6:30 p.m., Oddfellows

The House of Yes
Witty dialogue pingpongs around the screen in first-time director Mark Waters' adaption of a play about a profoundly disturbed family's Thanksgiving festivities. Unfortunately, so does Waters' camera, which is frequently on Actor A when we want to see Actor B's reactions. That aside, Waters gives this film's gimmicky source material its best possible showcase, drawing strong acting work from indie queen Parker Posey as a Jackie Kennedy-obsessed neurotic, and also from Genevieve Bujold as her equally dry but not at all brittle mother. Posey, who normally floats through her films with little more than her dental-receptionist smile and patented sidelong glances to see her through, reinvents herself here as an impaled, impaling butterfly in a pink pillbox hat. With the male leads (Josh Hamilton, Freddie Prinze Jr.) playing brothers bland and twitchy respectively, you know your family's really in trouble when the nice-girl outsider is Tori Spelling, every inch the doughnut-house hostess she plays. All jokes aside, though, this is not really a comedy, and the film's socko finale is unearned melodrama. (Gregg Rickman) Saturday, Oct. 4, 7 p.m., Sequoia; Sunday, Oct. 5, 2 p.m., Sequoia

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