Last Picture Shows

Week 2 of the Mill Valley Film Festival

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)

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)

Thursday, Oct. 8, 7:30 p.m., Sequoia

Rainbow (U.K., 1995)
Actor Bob Hoskins directs this fantasy, clearly modeled after E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, although it seems more like an ABC After-School Special. It's hard to see any kid being captivated by this fey, earnest, and overlong clunker. Fatherless yet dully well-adjusted Mikey (Jacob Tierney) meets a magic dog that shows him a rainbow's end. To recapture this experience, he and his friends concoct an incoherent scheme involving a surveyor's theodolite, a GPS-enabled computer program, and bicycle time trials. When they next ride a rainbow (to Kansas, natch), Mikey's older brother steals some golden rainbow crystals. This causes riots, insufficient photosynthesis, and all the color to bleed out of the world. Actor Hoskins, as Mikey's dotty, lovable grandfather, proclaims, "Some people have a problem with the incredible." No one demonstrates this more than director Hoskins. A Skittles commercial is more involving. (Joe Mader)

Wednesday, Oct. 7, 5:15 p.m., Sequoia

Stuart Bliss (U.S.A., 1998)
In this likable, low-key black comedy, the title character's wife leaves him -- and soon his entire Southern California life is sliding into the ocean. A co-worker plots for his job, televangelists take over Stuart's TV, and Grandma becomes even ditzier than usual. Is everyone conspiring against Stuart? Or is the apocalypse really coming? Or -- and this is a long shot -- is he under the spell of rampant paranoia? The filmmakers opt for subtlety over hysteria, making great use of clever sound design. Co-producer and -author Michael Zelniker (who starred in Eastwood's Bird) delivers a minimiracle of a performance as the perpetually stunned yet sympathetic Stuart. An abundance of intelligence is on display here, although a little more pulp wouldn't have hurt. (Michael Fox)

Saturday, Oct. 10, 9:45 p.m., Lark

Taxi Dancer (U.S.A., 1997)
Miss Mississippi of 1970 turns up looking for work in grubby 1993 Los Angeles in this likably uneven effort by Sharon Powers. Weeping magnolia Darlene Reynolds is completely unequipped for the hard life lessons that immediately rain down on her. Her eventual employment as a dance hall hostess is as unlikely as her friendship with an embittered colleague and her love affair with a nerd. Viewers must waver between feeling excruciating embarrassment for the cast and feeling excruciating embarrassment for the characters they're playing. Reynolds' night with the nerd is a splendidly realized ballet of mutual humiliation, and overall she's good as the dim belle keeping her dignity about her like an old beauty contest sash -- until the film's ludicrous ending. Since when is letting your feet be massaged for cash an act of feminist empowerment? (Gregg Rickman)

Friday, Oct. 9, 9:30 p.m., Sequoia

Tempest in a Teapot (U.S.A./France, 1997)
Ten minutes into this dopey tale of Frenchmen adrift in New York, I was begging for an exit visa. A vanity piece starring and written and directed by the darkly handsome Arnold Barkus and Jackie Berroyer (who resembles Jean Renoir's Octave from Rules of the Game, only without the vitality), Tempest is an existential investigation of romantic love submerged in rhetoric and preciousness. One guy's hung up on his (never-glimpsed) girlfriend; his pal's trying to break her hold by any means necessary, including forged love letters "proving" a dozen affairs. This is the kind of piece that might work better onstage, where the life of the mind is more palpable and more interesting. (Michael Fox)

Wednesday, Oct. 7, 7:30 p.m., Sequoia

Waking Ned Devine (U.K., 1998)
A mighty thick slice of blarney is this calculatedly poignant and picaresque tale of small-town life in coastal Ireland. Someone in the village has won the lottery, but who? Two elderly pals set out to solve the mystery, getting themselves in deeper and deeper with their fibbing. Toss in a few predictable subplots, lots of close-ups of lined Irish faces, pretty scenery, and a pub, and you've got charm-laden box office bait. But this slick concoction has all the insight and resonance of a McDonald's commercial (no coincidence that writer/director Kirk Jones is a successful London director of TV ads). Aesop would have been embarrassed at the tidiness of this fable. (Michael Fox)

Thursday, Oct. 8, 7 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 11, 9:15 p.m., Sequoia

Where's Marlowe? (U.S.A., 1998)
Two documentary filmmakers whose previous effort was a three-hour history of water (amusingly glimpsed before the credits) decide to make a film about an L.A. PI. They pick the wrong dick, however, in Daniel Pyne's comedy. Miguel Ferrer, already immortal as the sarcastic coroner on Twin Peaks, bites off his lines like a bad cigar as their barely competent subject -- the filmmakers themselves have to join his detective agency if they're to have any hope of completing their movie. Meanwhile, a Chandler-esque mystery unfolds before the team's uncomprehending eyes. Clever running gags and Michael Convertino's propulsive music help unify this film, whose fragmented, hand-held pseudo-documentary style needs the glue. Best shot in the picture: a hilarious side view of Ferrer's bulbous, bristly head as an overeager cop mashes it down on a desk. (Gregg Rickman)

Saturday, Oct. 10, 7:15 p.m., Lark

With Friends Like These (U.S.A., 1998)
A sociobiologist examining social breakdown by mapping a dollop of opportunity onto a grid of scarcity could have plotted this comedy by Philip F. Messina. A pack of friendly character actors grazing the underbrush of Hollywood in search of bit parts and juicy cameos turn on each other in Darwinian frenzy when the chance to star as Al Capone in a Martin Scorsese picture comes their way. Unfortunately this dog-eat-dog look at Hollywood nips rather than bites, for in the long run all the actors are really good guys. Of the large cast David Strathairn, playing a sort of Zen acting coach, makes the best impression, while in a funny cameo Scorsese himself -- in his current beardless state resembling a laboratory rat in full twitch -- proves himself the true king of this jungle. (Gregg Rickman)

Friday, Oct. 9, 7:15 p.m., Sequoia; Sunday, Oct. 11, 7 p.m., Lark

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