The second week of the Mill Valley Film Festival, running through Sunday at various venues in that town and also at Larkspur's Lark Theater, features some of its best offerings, including a repeat of Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters (this Saturday at noon at the Lark) and the premiere of Japanese veteran Shohei Imamura's The Eel. The festival's Closing Night film this Sunday is Gary Ross' media satire Pleasantville, screening at the Sequoia in Mill Valley with a party in Sausalito to follow. Another highlight will be a screening of the Tiburon and S.F. Bay-set and shot Moran of the Lady Letty, a 1922 film with Rudolph Valentino, screening Sunday afternoon at 1:30 at the Lark. Film screenings are at the Sequoia Theater (25 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.
Am I Beautiful? (Germany, 1998)
Doris Dsrrie (Men, Me and Him) renders her short stories into a sparkling series of episodes featuring displaced, lovelorn German heterosexuals. Stylistically reminiscent of Robert Altman's Short Cuts, much of the film's action is set in Spain -- where the characters find each other and presumably themselves. The largely undeveloped theme of middle-class Germans' apparent need to visit exotic locales (Trinidad, Bali) is intriguing. There are brief touches of humorous whimsy, like a talking cashmere sweater and two women struggling with a wedding gown in the pouring rain, but there are also sentimental groaners and improbable coincidences. Franka Potente stands out as a questing hitchhiker given to outrageous lies. (Frako Loden)
Saturday, Oct. 10, 10 p.m., Sequoia
Blue Fish (Japan, 1997)
As an attempt to duplicate the languid pace of its protagonists' enervated lives, Blue Fish is very successful. This slight, virtually dialogue-free slice-of-life is lovely to look at -- shot in soft, cool blue-green tones, with great attention to small, still-life details -- but static to the point of somnambulism. A young, bored woman develops a bit of a crush on a mysterious, laconic guy who moves in across the hallway from where she works. He's a drug runner in hiding, and she's obviously drawn to the hint of danger about him (not to mention his male-model looks). She listlessly follows him around, he alternately leads her on and rebuffs her, and, well, that's about it. It barely even has an ending -- it just sort of dissolves. (Tod Booth)
Thursday, Oct. 8, 9:45 p.m., Sequoia
The Eel (Japan, 1997)
After a nearly 10-year absence from filmmaking, 72-year-old Shohei Imamura comes roaring back with the divine The Eel, winning the 1997 Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or for the second time (the first was for Ballad of Narayama). And, though there's a sweet compassion and quiet, still beauty in his new film that may surprise his old fans, there's still plenty of his unexpected humor and robust irreverence, too. Tokuro (Koji Yakusho, Shall We Dance?) brutally murders his two-timing wife with a butcher knife in the shockingly graphic first scene. Eight years later, he's released from prison (with his only confidant, a pet eel) to a sleepy riverside town seemingly populated with nothing but lonely, broken eccentrics not unlike himself, all in retreat from themselves and their painful pasts. Setting up as a barber, he reluctantly takes on an employee, Keiko, who's recently attempted suicide and rather unfortunately reminds him of his wife. From here, The Eel could easily have traveled a simple road to easy redemption or budding love. Thankfully, Imamura instead creates a lovely balance between earthiness and delicacy in his portrait of this sad, nutty little village of lost souls. It's a terrific comeback from this septuagenarian filmmaker. (Tod Booth)
Friday, Oct. 9, 9:15 p.m., Lark
How the War Started on My Island (Croatia, 1996)
This sad farce by Vinko Bresan is a 1996 Croatian film that looks back to the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, even as its action anticipates the butchery that followed. A proud old man (the noble Vlatko Dulic) arrives in a small town desperate to pull his son from a besieged Yugoslav army barracks before hostilities break out between it and surrounding Croatian villagers. The latter are portrayed as militaristic dolts, as is the Yugoslav CO. While much of the action is quite funny, the consistently gray skies, muddy uniforms, and drab barracks we see frame the goings-on with realistic gloom. A burst of hokey patriotic song about the glories of old Yugoslavia suggests what that sundered nation lost in giving up its multicultural state in favor of ethnic enclaves -- a daring move on Bresan's part. (Gregg Rickman)
Friday, Oct. 9, 9:45 p.m., Sequoia
Judgment in Flames (Taiwan, 1998)
A spunky, ambitious 30-year-old female reporter is determined to break a career-making crime story, but is thwarted by the chauvinism of the all-male worlds of reporters and cops, the disapproval of her ultratraditional parents, and her stagnant relationship with her longtime boyfriend. If that sounds like a pitch for a TV movie, then it also nails the tone of this earnest, mild drama. Its newsroom/police work milieu isn't particularly convincing, and the film never conjures up much heat, the overstated title notwithstanding (it refers to the serial arsonist case she's following). That it's set in Taipei doesn't make it much more compelling than it would be if it premiered on Lifetime. (Tod Booth)
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