Last Picture Shows

Week 2 of the Mill Valley Film Festival

Sunday, Oct. 11, 3:30 p.m., Sequoia

Letters Not About Love (U.S.A., 1998)
This film is built around the correspondence between an American and a Russian poet, as interpreted for the screen by local filmmaker Jacki Ochs. The ideas conjured in their very different societies by words like "book," "grandmother," or "violence" are illustrated with cleverly shot and edited footage that is both beautiful and instructive. Meanwhile the poets' own relationship blossoms. Lili Taylor voices the writing of American poet Lyn Hejinian, while Victor Nord speaks for Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. This highly recommended hourlong work plays with two short films on autobiographical themes: Becky MacDonald's Why Has a Long Tale, and Yuriko Gamo Romer's Occidental Encounters. Filmmakers in person. (Gregg Rickman)

Saturday, Oct. 10, 3:15 p.m., Sequoia

Little Voice (U.K., 1998)
The art-house crowd relishes working-class losers and sentimental hogwash every bit as much as the multiplex masses -- so long as they're imported from England. This gimmicky, disturbing "comedy" finds Jane Horrocks reprising her London stage performance as Little Voice, a nearly nonverbal agoraphobic who finds comfort only in her late father's albums (Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe). Turns out this girl can sing -- not only sing, but mimic her idols impeccably -- inspiring fantasies of fortune in her screechy, lascivious mother (Brenda Blethyn, doing a cockney Shelley Winters) and Mom's low-rent talent agent boyfriend (Michael Caine, doing Michael Caine). Director Mark Herman (Brassed Off), who also adapted Jim Cartwright's play, wants it both ways, playing his menagerie of grotesques for laughs early and pathos late. Ewan McGregor plays another shy misfit, who keeps homing pigeons (no kidding) and befriends Little Voice. Metaphor alert: You may drown in the glut of allusions to caged birds. (Michael Fox)

Friday, Oct. 9, 7 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 11, 9:30 p.m., Sequoia

Maternal Love (Iran, 1998)
A young boy doomed to an adolescence in reform schools convinces himself that his mother isn't dead but is, in fact, the new social worker. This young woman, fresh on the job, hasn't yet learned how to separate professional compassion from emotional involvement. Life only gets more complicated when Mehdi escapes from the reformatory and takes up residence on her block. Iranian films like The White Balloon that have garnered worldwide acclaim trade on the natural enthusiasm and spontaneity of children; Maternal Love goes further in suggesting their isolation, vulnerability, and susceptibility to tragedy -- far enough to hint that an orphan's lack of love combined with a life of street crime can ripen into a terrible violent streak. (Michael Fox)

Saturday, Oct. 10, 4:45 p.m., Lark

My Family's Honor (France, 1997)
A young woman from an Algerian immigrant family in France gets pregnant. Her family regards her as damaged goods and pressures her to marry. The groom, of course, doesn't have a clue his bride isn't a virgin -- and no one is about to tell him. In this context, hypocrisy is preferable to dishonor. The only real sense of family in this humorous film exists in the relationship between the young woman and her best friend. Together they break the rules and try to create choices in a culture that offers them few ways to be both independent and respectable. (Sura Wood)

Saturday, Oct. 10, 5:30 p.m., Sequoia

My Son the Fanatic (U.K., 1997)
Director Udayan Prasad brings vitality and weight to a Hanif Kureishi screenplay -- an expansion of Kureishi's acclaimed New Yorker short story of the same name, and his best script since My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). Om Puri is wrenching as a Pakistani taxi driver in a provincial English city. His son's newfound Islamic fundamentalism both bewilders him and forces him to confront his own midlife dissatisfactions. The movie takes off from the hero's central outburst in Kureishi's story: "I can't understand it! Everything is going from his room. And I can't talk to him anymore. We were not father and son -- we were brothers! Where has he gone? Why is he torturing me?" Under Prasad's direction, Puri's soulfulness enlarges on those questions. The movie turns into a touching adult romance between the cabbie and his favorite fare, a prostitute (the sublime Rachel Griffiths), without slighting the character of the cabbie's wife (the sublimely expressive Gopi Desai). This surprisingly good picture is also a spiritually gracious one. (Michael Sragow)

Saturday, Oct. 10, 9:45 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 11, 4:15 p.m., Sequoia

Nothing But the Truth (U.S.A., 1998)
A traveling band of legal analysts and media critics pontificated about the implications of the O.J. Simpson trial, but what it all came down to was America's crass ability to turn anything into entertainment and ancillary products. Mark Steven Shepherd, who was hired by CNN to shoot the criminal trial, made this documentary about the carnival surrounding the civil proceedings and captured some up-close-and-personal footage of O.J. that never made it to the network news. One sidewalk theorist inadvertently presages the Clinton mess when he observes: "Too many females can cause you to go crazy. Two girls are too many. Three's a crowd and four, you're dead." (Sura Wood)

Wednesday, Oct. 7, 9:15 p.m., Sequoia

Pick a Card (Israel, 1997)
The luster is fading from Israel's cities if this shallow drama (which somehow nabbed an armful of Israeli Academy Awards) is any measure. Reminiscent of the numerous superior African films that caution villagers about seeking their dreams in urban centers, Pick a Card centers on a small-town couple making their way in Tel Aviv. She supports them as a supermarket checker while he does nothing, lacking the initiative and courage to work toward his stated goal of becoming a magician. Naturally, they bicker ... and bicker ... and bicker. The two supporting characters in this woefully underpopulated movie are equally uninteresting. The film does serve as a reminder that industrialization is not synonymous with progress; as Israel has evolved from a Third World country into a proud citizen of the First World, much of its idealism and optimism has been sacrificed. (Michael Fox)

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