Up in the Valley

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

Kiss or Kill
Young, misunderstood, not very bright, small-time criminal couple accidentally kill one of their scam victims, find an incriminating videotape in his briefcase, and go on the lam, hotly pursued by the cops, a guy who really wants that videotape, and several red herrings. They get into a heap more trouble, but heck, they love each other, so we're meant to love them, too. In other words, it's a standard-issue outlaw-couple-on-the-run picture, only this one's from Australia. The press kit says the writer/director, Bill Bennett, spent 10 years writing the script, then threw it out and improvised the whole thing. Maybe he should have stuck to the script. Tricked up with lots of jump-cutting to give it that "edgy" feel, it has an astonishing opening scene, some nice Australian desert scenery, and is thankfully free of self-conscious neo-noirisms. Otherwise, it feels like a fake American indie you've seen a dozen times before. (Tod Booth) Sunday, Oct. 5, 9:45 p.m., Sequoia

Little Shots of Happiness
This might have been called The Redemption of Todd Verow. Verow's a respected underground filmmaker whose career was thought to have capsized with the gruesome, widely detested Frisk, an ode to extreme sadomasochistic sex. But Verow's sensibility is more palatable in this grim dissection of the humdrum horrors of everyday life. Frances (brilliantly played by Bonnie Dickerson) is a sunny Edie Sedgwick look-alike who by day works as a telemarketer and by night deserts her husband to whore it up, get drunk, steal other women's boyfriends, and rob her rich sister. She's a kind of collapsed gamin who moves to the mindless rhythm of the industrial music that throbs relentlessly on the soundtrack. A scene where Frances becomes the hated guest/sex object for a couple she doesn't know comes off like a sample from Paul Morrisey's Trash, but most of Little Shots of Happiness moves to its own disturbing, original rhythms. (Gary Morris) Monday, Oct. 6, 9:30 p.m., Lark

A woman lies in a tide pool, gripping the sand, in the opening images of this powerful experimental video version of Euripides' play. Based on a screen treatment left behind on his death by the great Carl Dreyer, and shot in 1988 by Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier, this adaption proceeds like the stateliest of silent movies, with long stretches of screen time devoted to mimed agony. As with the greatest silent films, one's strict attention is rewarded with intense emotional communion with the images, here quite overwhelming given the supercharged material. A comparison of this film with Dreyer's masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc is instructive, as the snide attitude of the filmmaker's other works is stripped away by the tragedy's force. Von Trier's trademark use of back projection is much in evidence -- shots of Medea's sleeping children loom up behind her in an early scene, for example. So is the filmmaker's thematization of passion through powerful, color-treated images, done on a bigger scale in such works as Breaking the Waves, but never so potently. Warning: The videotape shown at the film festival press screening was almost inaudible. It is to be hoped that the MVFF will have secured a better print by screening time, but even under adverse conditions the film was still compelling. (Gregg Rickman) Saturday, Oct. 4, 6:30 p.m., Oddfellows

Pippi Longstocking
What to make of Pippi? Many a future riot grrrl was raised on Astrid Lindgren's Swedish superbrat heroine, but whether modern kids will take to her is questionable. Her bizarre image -- spray-gunned freckles; shellacked-erect pigtails; that loopy, vacuous grin -- may strike some as more disturbing than empowering, even in the disbelief-suspending world of an animated feature. After a shipwreck that supposedly leaves her orphaned, the too-resourceful Pippi takes up residence in a small town with a talking horse and monkey. There she spends her time breaking dishes, throwing pancake batter on the walls, picking up adults and throwing them to the ground, and generally reveling in her considerable destructive powers. Director Clive Smith hedges his bets by adding a Disney-esque Broadway-style score, with grating numbers like "My Name Is Pippi!" This and other tired tunes are screamed at the audience as the unbalanced little imp gleefully dismantles the town. (Gary Morris) Saturday, Oct. 4, 5 p.m., Sequoia

Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist
Born with cystic fibrosis, Bob Flanagan managed to survive to the age of 42, in 1996. He was in and out of hospitals all his life, but hung on and to some extent enjoyed a pain-filled life with the help of ritualized, slash-and-burn S/M. Kirby Dick's documentary is likely to be the only one on this subject, judging from the stampede out of the theater by disgusted Sundance audiences. Dick shows us every bloody detail of Flanagan's daily life, from nails through his penis to a slave contract in which dominatrix Sheree Rose takes over his life. But the wheezing Flanagan is a classic "pushy bottom" who bickers with his mistress as often as he submits, and there's some evidence that this "supermasochist," whose need for attention and publicity was insatiable, used Rose for his own purposes. Gallows humor abounds -- there's a shot of a coffin containing a TV set "playing" Flanagan's bewildered face -- but his extreme self-absorption begins to wear on the viewer as much as the sight of his razored, whipped, and bound flesh. (Gary Morris) Wednesday, Oct. 8, 10 p.m., Sequoia

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