Festival Harvest

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

Saturday, Oct. 3, 9:45 p.m., Sequoia; Sunday, Oct. 4, 3 p.m., Lark

Gods and Monsters (U.S.A., 1998)
The last days of Hollywood has-been James Whale are captured in this excellent film by Bill Condon. Movingly portrayed by Ian McKellen, the gay auteur of 1930s Universal horror is seen in 1957 as a sick old man awash in memories of his youth, his wartime experiences, and his Hollywood career, represented here by a clever use of Whale's Bride of Frankenstein. Ill as he is, Whale is not too feeble to taunt visitors, his caretaker (an unrecognizable Lynn Redgrave), or rival director George Cukor. Nor does he forego lust for his hunky yardman, Brendan Fraser. The touching relationship between the two is at the film's core, Gods and Monsters' main flaw being its uncertainty whether Whale is seeking sex, love, or death from his gardener. Fraser's childlike sincerity, his stock in trade as an actor whether the film is George of the Jungle or the recent romance Still Breathing, is effectively buried here under the embittering crust of his daily labors. His unflattering buzz cut makes his squarish head resemble the Frankenstein monster's, a circumstance of which Condon takes full advantage, down to the film's marvelous final image of a Frankenstein unbound. (Gregg Rickman)

Tuesday, Oct. 6, 7 p.m., Sequoia; Saturday, Oct. 10, noon, Lark

Kosher Valley (U.S.A., 1998; world premiere)
When do the good guys wear black hats? When they're Baltimore rabbis summoned by a struggling community of Colorado ranchers to supervise the production of kosher beef, a premium-priced niche product. Chuck Davis' shallow one-hour documentary is equal parts frustration and fascination; he squanders most of the odd partners' spontaneous warmth and friendship -- and extinguishes most of our budding interest in their success -- in repeated crosscuts between synagogue and church services (a cliched illustration that we're all God's children). When the kosher beef co-op runs into problems and the scenario darkens, the film leaves us with a host of unanswered questions. Davis set out to make a feel-good film; a more rigorous approach (a la Barbara Kopple's American Dream) could have yielded a truly valuable film about multicultural coalition-building in the New America. (Michael Fox)

Sunday, Oct. 4, 7 p.m., Oddfellows

Long Live Life (India, 1998)
Representatives of disparate Indian classes who have been infected with -- and affected by -- HIV are the focus of this film. A young man works at a cafe near a railway slum where street kids and "hotel boys" smoke reefer, visit prostitutes, and sleep with each other. A middle-class woman reacts to her husband's diagnosis with determination to track down the donor of the contaminated blood, thus proving her husband's fidelity. A conscience-stricken doctor resists the temptation to protect his colleagues' reputations through silence, and his sense of social justice takes him into the slums and hospitals of poorest Pune. Like more conventional Bollywood films, this one has musical interludes, but the haunting songs are about the blood that unites lovers -- somber and quite moving. Without being sentimental, this film speaks to anyone affected by the AIDS epidemic. (Frako Loden)

Saturday, Oct. 3, 1:30 p.m., Sequoia

Love Is the Devil (U.K., 1998)
British cinema is littered with stories in which class difference is the enemy of love. Sir Derek Jacobi (see tribute box for more) brings unflinching conviction to this portrait of Francis Bacon, a noted painter and misanthrope, who may have been the toast of Paris salons and the British art scene but, as viewed through the lens of avant-garde filmmaker John Maybury, was a contemptible and contemptuous human being whose reservoir of venom exceeded his talent. The body of the film is devoted to Bacon's torturous relationship with his ne'er-do-well lover and muse, George Dyer, who was a bad fit with Bacon's smart-mouthed bohemian set. Bacon, a master of condescension and a psychological sadist, eventually destroyed the fragile Dyer. Maybury's use of special effects and expressionistic sets to convey contorted psyches and fraught emotions can be self-consciously arty and doesn't elevate the material enough to justify asking audiences to wade through such neurotic excess. (Sura Wood)

Screens as part of the "Tribute to Sir Derek Jacobi" Monday, Oct. 5, 6:30 p.m., Sequoia

Mothertime (U.K., 1997)
For a film with some of the more ludicrous opening scenes I've ever seen in a professional production, this BBC telefilm by Matthew Jacobs settles down into a rather engrossing fable of family reunion. Gina McKee overacts dreadfully as a drunken divorcee in the movie's painful opening; after she smashes the Christmas tree her children react by locking her in the family sauna (!) until she sobers up and learns to act like a real mom. This process takes a few months, during which 13-year-old Vanessa (Kate Maberly) is effectively head of the household. (Estranged dad Anthony Andrews is in for several scenes, gradually revealing himself as the real rotter of the bunch.) Maberly's evident intelligence makes the whole thing more or less work, despite Jacobs' penchant for distorting lenses and giant TV-style close-ups in lieu of a visual style. (Gregg Rickman)

Saturday, Oct. 3, 7:30 p.m., Sequoia; Sunday, Oct. 4, 9:30 p.m., Lark

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