Festival Harvest

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

An Obsession (Japan, 1997)
Yet another take on the supposedly spooky bond that develops between cop and criminal, a cliche that surely only happens in the movies. A macho loner cop, Saga, gets shot and loses his gun, his left lung, and his wife all in one bad night. He quits the force and tries to track down his weapon -- which is being used in a string of random murders -- on his own. But is he tracking his man, or is his man tracking him? Who cares? There's a lot of pretentious nonsense about his missing lung representing the emptiness inside him, and the gunman, who naturally has a dark, unsavory master plan, being drawn to his "hollowness." Saga's search for his gun is an absurdly Freudian quest to become whole again and reunite with his wife. (Tod Booth)

Monday, Oct. 5, 10 p.m., Sequoia

The Outskirts (Russia, 1998)
When you think of film comedy, Russian cinema doesn't exactly top the list, but here's the funniest movie I've seen all year, a caustic comic masterpiece of such snowbound bleakness you'll get frostbite just watching it. The residents of a tiny village, finding that their farmland has been usurped by unseen speculators, form a homely four-man militia and head out on a go-for-broke voyage of vengeance. More like a Soviet Four Stooges than a Wild Bunch, they cut a swath across Russia on the back of a hilariously overloaded motorcycle, rusty shotguns in hand, kidnapping, torturing, and killing their prey with ridiculously single-minded ferocity. Underplayed with a surreal, slow-burn austerity, it's a gleefully stark parody of Soviet stoicism, old happy-worker propaganda, and the New Capitalism, and ends in an astonishing and deeply satisfying climax. Absolutely sublime. (Tod Booth)

Sunday, Oct. 4, 7 p.m., Sequoia; Saturday, Oct. 10, 2:30 p.m., Lark

The Quarry (Belgium, 1998)
Is that desperate stranger, fleeing unseen pursuers, a fugitive or a holy man? He murders the alcoholic pastor who gives him a ride, steals his car, and then takes over the dead man's new ministry in the next town. The township's police captain, a tall, blond, Aryan specimen who likes to strut around in jackboots sans shirt and polish his motorcycle, nurses pretensions of racial superiority and isn't inclined to investigate a white man. We never find out the menacing stranger's identity, nor do we learn what he was running from. The film is well-constructed, tightly paced, and suspenseful until the third act, when it becomes deliberately enigmatic and threatens to sink under the weight of its own portentous symbolism. Perhaps it's merely a cautionary tale about the danger of picking up hitchhikers. (Sura Wood)

Sunday, Oct. 4, 7:15 p.m., Lark

Return With Honor (U.S.A., 1998)
Freida Lee Mock, who won an Oscar for her documentary on Maya Lin, has made this standard-issue documentary about American POWs shot down over Vietnam. John McCain, Jerry Denton, and Jim Stockdale, whose gaunt faces once peered out at us from propaganda tapes, are now settled middle-aged men who give frank, unnerving accounts of their captivity. These self-described control freaks and vainglorious peacocks of the service dealt with years of deprivation, isolation, and torture at the Hanoi Hilton. A code of honor and secret communication kept them alive -- but what's missing is a probe into how they dealt with their re-entry into society. Overall, this earnest film is curiously detached. Beauty shots of planes soaring above the clouds give this undertaking the faint whiff of a recruiting film, which may be related to its funding -- a grant from the Boeing McDonnell Foundation to the U.S. Air Force Academy. (Sura Wood)

Saturday, Oct. 3, 4:15 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 4, 9 p.m., Sequoia

They Come at Night (U.S.A., 1998)
This well-meaning but excruciatingly tedious parable of Third World suffering and First World guilt, set in 1986 Los Angeles, is nonetheless guaranteed to pluck the complacent liberal heartstrings of Mill Valley's young matrons in its world premiere. A suicidal El Salvadoran refugee (Elpidia Carrillo), haunted by nightmares of being tortured, starts seeing a novice therapist (Barbara Williams). Since it's a movie, the therapist gradually gets more and more involved in her patient's troubles, culminating in a desperate and dangerous effort to recover the refugee's children from Mexico. Writer/director Lindy Laub botches the thriller elements, but the off-key performances of the leads (who careen randomly between Spanish and English) doom this enterprise in the first reel. (Michael Fox)

Sunday, Oct. 4, 6:45 p.m., Sequoia

Trains 'n' Roses (Germany/Finland, 1997)
One of the best festival offerings, this droll German/Finnish co-production sustains its slender thread of plot through pure, understated cinematic skill. Everyman Hannes embarks on a train trip to the first International Competition of Railway Timetable Experts, leaving behind a dead boss and a Holmesian detective. Oblivious to the fact he's being pursued, Hannes continues north, en route stumbling across uniformed smugglers and frustrated women. A Eurail pass has rarely looked so alluring, while the Finnish government's investment in the film is repaid with several breathtaking vistas. Director Peter Lichtefeld keeps this souffle aloft with one sly sight gag after another and, although the ending's a bit of a let-down and the film ultimately doesn't add up to much, his precision and restraint are a treat. (Michael Fox)

Saturday, Oct. 3, 7:15 p.m., Lark; Monday, Oct. 5, 9:15 p.m., Sequoia

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