Festival Harvest

The Weekly's critics look at Mill Valley Film Festival highlights

Every autumn Mill Valley is transformed into a movie festival town that, while perhaps not on par with Cannes or Telluride, has at least some of the glamour of the former and the small-town ambience of the latter.

This year Mill Valley commemorates its 21st annual hosting of the event with a program that includes such important films as Japanese veteran Shohei Imamura's The Eel, Bill Condon's James Whale biopic Gods and Monsters, and the directorial debut of poet Maya Angelou, Down in the Delta, which screens on the festival's opening night. There are also in-person tributes to Helena Bonham Carter, who appears with her new film Theory of Flight this Friday, and to Sir Derek Jacobi, appearing with his new film Love Is the Devil next Monday. (See separate box for an interview with Jacobi.)

Films previewed by our critics are listed below in alphabetical order. Screenings are at the Sequoia Theater (25 Throckmorton) or Oddfellows Lodge (142 Throckmorton) in Mill Valley, or at the Lark Theater (549 Magnolia) in nearby Larkspur. Tickets are available through BASS or via the festival's Web site, www.finc.org/mvff. Admission is $7.50-10, with discounts available for children and seniors. Seminars and special screenings are more. For additional information call 383-5346.

Blowfish (U.S.A., 1997)
The film suffers from the contrived dialogue and hackneyed plot devices that frequently afflict first-time filmmakers. The story of two Brooklyn brothers (one's a hothead, one's not) who have grand notions of destiny and learn what life is all about in a Florida trailer park is not new. Henry, a gentle giant of a man who has been mute since his mother died and whose childhood flashbacks launch the film, is by far the most beguiling character. One wishes this were his movie. Once the film finds its footing, however, it's a celebration of friendship and fishing. Maybe it's true, as one character suggests, "If you can fish you can dance." (Sura Wood)

Saturday, Oct. 3, 2:30 p.m., Lark

The Cruise (U.S.A., 1998)
Bennett Miller's camcorder portrait of existential Manhattan tour guide Timothy "Speed" Levitch is a poetic, narcissistic, boring, hilarious, and disturbing watercolor of urban alienation. Levitch works part time on the Gray Line's double-deckers, weaving facts (250,000 people work in the World Trade Center's twin towers) and quotes (from Henry Miller and other writers) into a torrent of personal impressions of NYC (most of which elude non-English-speaking tourists). He asserts that his moment-to-moment life is an act of creative expression, but the longer we spend with him, the blurrier the line becomes between eccentricity and mental disorder: Levitch talks to plants and the Brooklyn Bridge, but we never meet a single friend. This motormouth just might be the loneliest person in New York, and it's clear that his job is a crucial link to society and sanity. (Michael Fox)

Monday, Oct. 5, 7 p.m., Lark

Down in the Delta (U.S.A., 1998)
A drunken, irresponsible single mother is packed off to rural Mississippi and is, as she puts it, "reborn" in Maya Angelou's neoconservative directorial debut. Sincere endorsements of family, personal responsibility, and entrepreneurship pack Myron Goble's screenplay, a political gesture with little practical value given that African-American community life in the city is shown to be irredeemably squalid. How many poor families can really flee the city and go back to the land? Behind this film's impractical nostalgia does lie one radical notion, an endorsement of looting as an act of revenge, safely distanced in time, however, to 1865. What brings this problematic film to life are the lively performances Angelou coaxes from her cast, notably the always excellent Alfre Woodard as the mom and Mpho Koaho as her son, the viewpoint character for much of the action. (Gregg Rickman)

Opening Night, Thursday, Oct. 1, 7 & 7:15 p.m., Sequoia

Genghis Blues (U.S.A., 1998)
Though it's more a home movie than a polished documentary, filmmaker Roko Belic and his producer-brother Adrian's debut feature perfectly captures their freewheeling epic journey to the near-mythical country of Tuva, which lies along the upper edge of Mongolia. Blind blues musician, San Francisco resident, and self-taught Tuvan-style throat-singer Paul Pena travels to Tuva with a motley crew of friends and filmmakers to compete in a triannual throat-singing competition. Pena and his newfound soulmate, Tuvan throat-singing master Kongar-ol Ondar, forge such a hearty, infectious bond (Ondar serenading Pena on the banks of the sacred Chadanaa River is but one of the film's many rhapsodic moments), and the whole odd group gets so swept up in this remarkable expedition, that you'll feel like you're along for the whole life-changing trip. (Tod Booth)

Saturday, Oct. 3, 11 a.m., Oddfellows

God Said, Ha! (U.S.A., 1998)
Who says accountants don't have a sense of humor? Saturday Night Live alumna -- and former accountant for Columbia Pictures -- Julia Sweeney brings her well-received one-woman theater show to the screen. Sweeney takes her beloved brother into her home after he is diagnosed with cancer. Then her parents move in too. Though Sweeney has thought of her parents as a source of comedy or a reason for therapy, she's forced into a second childhood in middle age after being diagnosed with a rare cervical cancer. "Sympathy cancer. You're an actress and you just couldn't stand being out of the cancer spotlight," quips her dying brother. Life is cruel but, in spite of it all, this dose of comic relief manages to be hilarious. (Sura Wood)

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