Valley Ho!

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

Bad Manners
This is a wonderfully funny, brittle update of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Director Jonathan Kaufer, adapting David Gilman's expertly engineered play Ghost in the Machine, substitutes quietly nasty exchanges for George and Martha's drunken fits. Dissatisfied, obsessive religion professor Wes (David Straitharn) and his mate, Nancy (Bonnie Bedelia), also an academic, play host to Nancy's old boyfriend, a musicologist named Matt (Saul Rubinek) and his computer whiz girlfriend, Kim (Caroleen Feeney). What might have been a pleasant reunion unravels quickly as Wes suspects Kim of stealing $50 from him, which the film works to dizzying heights of absurdity. Kim, a power-hungry anima figure right out of Psych 101, tells Wes, who's got the hots for her, that she's into "metagames ... games that play themselves." Bad Manners is a kind of metagame itself, keeping you guessing to the end what's really going on with these fascinating, flawed characters. (Gary Morris) Thursday, Oct. 9, 9:30 p.m., Sequoia

Lea
The German reputation for gloom and depression won't be lifted by this debut film by Ivan Fila. A lifetime's worth of horrible cruelty is inflicted upon a young Slovakian girl under the opening credits, and as the adult Lea's fortunes are passed from one unsympathetic male to another, one can only wonder if her relentless victimization will ever let up. While the impressive final image does indeed indicate Lea's ultimate "triumph of the human spirit," her fate comes at the expense of whatever credibility Fila and his dogged cast have provided to that point. Lenka Vlasakova is as good as anyone could ask in the title role and it is nice to see veterans Hanna Schygulla and Udo Kier gainfully employed as sympathetic villagers. Petr Hapka's music, with a main theme that sounds like glass being shattered, is an appropriately discordant accompaniment for Fila's meticulously crafted mechanism of despair. If you have tears, prepare to shed them now. (Gregg Rickman) Friday, Oct. 10, 9:30 p.m., Sequoia; Sunday, Oct. 12, 7 p.m., Lark

Love and Death on Long Island
Death in Venice meets Teen Beat. John Hurt plays a respected, widowed British author so reclusive he can barely find his way around the block to buy milk. He stumbles into a multiplex cinema one day and accidentally finds himself watching Hotpants College II. Much to his own surprise, he falls head-over-heels for one of the stars (played by former teen heartthrob Jason Priestley). Obsessing like an adolescent girl over a Beverly Hills 90210 stud, he buys movie magazines, rents videos, keeps a scrapbook, and, finally, flies to Long Island to insinuate himself into the star's life. Love and Death on Long Island is a charming crowd-pleaser, and a lovely showcase for John Hurt. Ultimately, though, it's pretty thin material for a feature film. Writer/director Richard Kwietniowski has made a couple of acclaimed short films, but here he overmilks the situation, relying entirely on Hurt's grace to carry the show. Utterly convincing as a virtual Martian, Hurt lends a great, tender dignity to his embarrassing infatuation, but it's not quite enough to make for a satisfying feature. (Tod Booth) Saturday, Oct. 11, 7 p.m., Sequoia; Sunday, Oct. 12, 1:15 p.m., Lark

Telling Lies in America
Joe Eszterhas has been telling lies to America for a long time. Of course, he's a screenwriter, and that's what they get paid to do, but Eszterhas has told us more than his share of whoppers. To make it up to us, every once in a while he shows us his sensitive side. Hence, Telling Lies in America, his two-hour civics lesson set in his hometown of Cleveland, in the early '60s. It's the story of a shy, bland teen-ager, Karchy (Brad Renfro), a Hungarian immigrant who tells quite a few whoppers himself in order to beef up his otherwise uninteresting image. He's in love with rock 'n' roll, the nice older girl down the street, a local DJ named Billy Magic (Kevin Bacon), and the easy pickin's he thinks America offers. He's eventually betrayed by all of them, and so learns a few little life lessons -- the same ones you've seen in a million other coming-of-age films. Only the man who made the backstage world of Vegas Showgirls boring could make the early days of rock 'n' roll radio as dull as this. Rent American Hot Wax instead. (Tod Booth) Sunday, Oct. 12 (closing-night film -- tickets $15, with party $50), 6:30 & 9:30 p.m., Sequoia

Topless Women Talk About Their Lives
It's a little dangerous to make a movie about a filmmaker whose friends can't tell him his movies are bad. Audiences -- and critics -- have no such compunction; so I can say that, like his tortured director/screenwriter character "Ant," director/screenwriter Harry Sinclair has made a bad film. This New Zealand indie is too ragged and meandering; with some judicious scene-shaping, more rehearsal time for the actors, and stronger dialogue, it might have made a better impression. As it is, all we have is a good title, a lot of improvised sequences that fizzle out dramatically, a single strong performance by the alluring Danielle Cormack (who's really pregnant throughout), and a disjointed narrative that gives us little reason to care what happens to these people. Maybe Sinclair should take the amusing film-within-a-film (called Topless Women Talk About Their Lives) and market it as a short. (Gary Morris) Saturday, Oct. 11, 9:30 p.m., Sequoia

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