The Mill Valley Film Festival, now celebrating its 22nd anniversary, has grown to become one of the country's most respected venues for new cinema. This year, four major features -- Random Hearts, Mansfield Park, Ride With the Devil, and the much-anticipated Snow Falling on Cedars -- also premiere at the festival, joining independent films like The Sterling Chase and Valerie Flake. And as always, the MVFF's international selections are particularly exciting; highlights include cult Austrian director Niki List's satirical Heroes in Tyrol, Fruit Chan's The Longest Summer, and the first U.S. showing of Isao Morimoto's Ichigensan. Finally, there are several special programs at this year's festival, including a tribute to Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career; Mrs. Soffel; Little Women; Oscar and Lucinda), which will feature the Australian director in conversation following a screening of the latter film.
Films reviewed here screen at the Sequoia Twin Theaters, 25 Throckmorton (at Blithedale) in Mill Valley, or at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St. (at A Street) in San Rafael. Tickets are available at all BASS ticket centers, online at www.basstickets.com, or by phone (through Oct. 6 only) by calling 380-0888. The Film Festival Information Line (383-5346) offers updated ticket and sellout information.
The Children of Chabannes
In the early years of World War II, 400 Jewish children from throughout occupied Europe were sent by their parents to Chabannes, a village in central France. There, an enlightened school director and his extraordinary teachers created an aura of stability for their charges and, ultimately, saved all but six from deportation. This diligent American production reminds us that heroic acts are often the natural behavior of decent, strong-willed and non-ideological people, and that Jewish kids were in no way naive about the Nazis' murderous designs. The reunion between survivors and their French guardians that caps the film -- the obligatory cliché of this subgenre of the Holocaust documentary -- here brims with genuine affection and emotion. (Michael Fox)
Sunday, Oct. 10, 2:30 p.m. at the Sequoia
Heroes in Tyrol
The hills are alive with rock and Tyrol. Viennese wacko Niki List treads territory covered by Mel Brooks and John Waters, but takes time along the way to smell the Austrian kitsch -- wallow in it, actually. Rocker/ecologist Max Adler (Christian Schmidt) has a consuming affection for Emma (Elke Winkens), but their love must wait: The town of Helden ("heroes") is under attack from the evil bürgermeister Steiner (I Stangl). He wants to pave the whole place over to bring in the tourists. Fart jokes, talking crucifixes, schnapps-drinking, lederhosen, disco-polka, and much Alpine rutting ensue. (When Max and Emma consummate their love, they yodel as they thrust.) It's Heidi on X. Like Waters and Brooks, List isn't really a filmmaker -- half the jokes fail and the film is a good 20 minutes too long -- but the high-spirited musical lunacy climbs every mountain and fords every stream. (Joe Mader)
Saturday, Oct. 9, 7 p.m. at the Rafael; Tuesday, Oct. 12, 7 p.m. at the Sequoia
In his feature film debut, director Isao Morimoto almost accomplishes something his predecessors have consistently failed to do: Portray the literate outsider's experience in Japan. In this case, a young European man (Edward Atterton) tries to write his thesis at a Kyoto university while falling in love with a blind Japanese girl (Honami Suzuki) to whom he reads books. The girl boldly questions his assumptions about Japan and argues for her right to as full a life as a Japanese woman can expect. The film's tendency toward prettiness and a studiedly meditative quality is balanced by its open-minded honesty about Japanese attitudes toward the "new customer" (one translation of the title) who shows up in its most exclusive city. (Frako Loden)
Friday, Oct. 8, 6:30 p.m. at the Rafael
The Longest Summer
Fruit Chan's eagerly awaited follow-up to Made in Hong Kong is a depressed caper film trying for an energy jolt from footage of the 1997 hand-over of the former colony to China. Nominated for numerous domestic awards, it follows five members of the disbanded Hong Kong Military Service Corps as they try to find their places in a new society that has left them behind: Should they become security guards, goons for an inept gangster boss, or take the money and run? Sam Lee fails to ignite as the brash younger brother of one of the soldiers, and the whole production feels like rehearsal segments for a later, more accomplished, analysis of the rootlessness and disaffection of Hong Kong's citizens. (Frako Loden)
Monday, Oct. 11, 8:15 p.m. at the Sequoia; Saturday, Oct. 16, 4:30 p.m. at the Rafael
The tone of the vast majority of Holocaust documentaries is one of overwhelming sadness, but a relentless, simmering anger powers this blistering Polish film. While sanctifying the memory of the dead -- by displaying ID photos of Jews presumably gassed in Auschwitz -- filmmaker Dariusz Jablonski also aims to inscribe the names of the guilty. A Nazi accountant and amateur photographer named Genewein took hundreds of color slides of the Lodz Ghetto. These detached, dispassionate images (found in a Vienna bookstore in 1987), combined with ledger-book evidence the filmmaker uncovered of Genewein's profiteering from Jewish labor, are evidence of the banality of one evil, opportunistic man. As a corrective to Genewein's benign "historical" photos, Lodz survivor Dr. Arnold Mostowicz relates his horrific experiences. (Michael Fox)
Saturday, Oct. 16, 2:30 p.m. at the Sequoia
Has Harrison Ford's lucrative persona consumed his interest in daring material, leaving him with only two cards -- Charming Everyman and Earnest Hero -- in his hand? Once again Ford plays a cop, this time a D.C. Internal Affairs sergeant named William "Dutch" Van Den Broeck. Dutch adores his wife, Saks fashion consultant Peyton (Susanna Thompson), who, unfortunately, is having an affair with Cullen (Peter Coyote), the husband of New Hampshire Congresswoman Kay Chandler (Kristin Scott Thomas). A storm forces a 737 down into the Chesapeake Bay. Among the 103 dead: Peyton and Cullen, posing as husband and wife, en route to a weekend in Miami. There's great potential for emotional complexity in this premise, but screenwriter Kurt Luedtke and director Pollack fail to kindle much in the way of passion. The main problem throughout is that Ford doesn't really seem to ache. On the other hand, Scott Thomas is a faceful of veiled vulnerability as Kay, her performance enhanced by her gift for restraint. The denouement is graceful and mature, but the only theme here that resonates clearly is the question: How much denial is necessary to maintain one's sanity? (Gregory Weinkauf)
Thursday, Oct. 7, 7 p.m. at the Rafael Solomon & Gaenor
This Romeo and Juliet weepie set in 1911 Wales is blessed with a fresh setting and fine landscape photography, but the central plot is beyond stale. An independent-minded Welsh maiden (Nia Roberts) falls in love with a handsome Jewish door-to-door salesman (Ioan Gruffudd), and forces conspire against the couple. Director Paul Morrison evokes an anachronistic world on the verge of erupting; the explicitly filmed sex scenes suggest the lovers' passion is the match that will inflame underlying tensions in their harsh village. As the film wears on, however, the blend of naturalism and melodrama devolves into a murky porridge, thanks to a clumsy script and a bafflingly inexpressive performance by the male lead. In English with sprinklings of Welsh and Yiddish. (Michael Fox)
Sunday, Oct. 10, 7:15 p.m. and Monday, Oct. 11, 9 p.m. at the Rafael
The Sterling Chase
Right before graduation, three nominees vie for the Sterling Chase Award, given to the student who best exemplifies the spirit or whatever of Chadley College. Alexis (Nicholle Tom) has just dumped her lesbian lover so she can follow in Daddy's senatorial footsteps. (Stuff you do in college never comes back to haunt you in a political campaign.) Darren (Sean Patrick Thomas), the school's first black nominee for the award, has earned this honor by assimilating in classic Oreo style, but at what cost? And Amanda (Allana Ubach of Freeway) spouts feminist platitudes attacking men. What she really wants, of course, is to be loved. What you'll really want is to get the hell out of the theater. A former child actress and recent Harvard grad, Tanya Fenmore's first feature entombs her actors. Ubach manages a valiant spikiness; the rest are only too happy to play dead. (Joe Mader)
Saturday, Oct. 9, 4:45 p.m. at the Sequoia; Tuesday, Oct. 12, 7 p.m. at the Rafael
Train of Life
Paris-based Romanian filmmaker Radu Mihaileanu made this bittersweet portrait of shtetl life in the shadow of the Holocaust as a tribute to his father. The desperate Jews of one (French-speaking!) Eastern European village attempt to escape their inevitable deportation by "passing" as deportees: They build a train, instruct a bunch of their own to salute, speak, and act like Nazis, and head east. It's Fiddler on the Roof meets Von Ryan's Express, but with its own dizzy pacing and manic tone. This is one of those movies in which all the characters wave their arms and yell a lot; despite (or because of) that bogus stereotype, Train of Life was been a crowd-pleaser at Sundance. (Michael Fox)
Saturday, Oct. 16, 6:30 p.m. at the Sequoia; Sunday, Oct. 17, 3:45 p.m. at the Rafael
Two young women, one privileged and the other poor but uncommonly intelligent and ambitious, become great friends at a Tehran university just as the cultural revolution threatens class closures and the abridgment of women's rights. The beautiful Fereshteh returns to her village and meets a series of misfortunes, all caused by zealous and resentful men, that determine her sad, shrunken fate. The power of this fine film, a perfect companion to the recent documentary Divorce Iranian Style, is in its penetrating dialogues between the men and women -- most of the men want to trap the women into their limited sphere, and the women want to break out into a universe of ideas and adventure. (Frako Loden)
Wednesday, Oct. 13, 9 p.m. at the Sequoia
A road movie about a woman who has more in her reserve tank than she realizes, Valerie Flake initially follows a young widow (Susan Traylor) through a series of impersonal, joyless sexual encounters. "Nothing is beneath me," she says. Overqualified for her job as a checkout clerk, Valerie, a talented painter, finds absolution, unexpected refuge, and romance on a trip to Palm Springs. Though Ms. Flake is always ready with a quick-witted comeback -- "I'm tired and I smell like cattle," is how she initially turns down the man (Jay Underwood) she ends up falling for -- her flippant, jaded persona conceals her grief and pain. The film is carried by Traylor's strong, convincing performance as one of the walking wounded. She puts on a smartass false front and then, without fanfare, makes it matter to us when that facade cracks. This stripped-down indie has a good script, quietly assured direction by John Putch, and a plaintive score by Kathleen Wilhoite. (Sura Wood)
Saturday, Oct. 9, 9:20 p.m. and Monday, Oct. 11, 7:30 p.m. at the Rafael
Wisdom of Crocodiles
This mixture of Eastern mysticism, vampires, pop psychology, and just plain hooey is a stylish-looking horror movie that aspires to the art house gloss of David Cronenberg. Steven -- the sullen, handsome Jude Law, whom we last saw eating fish heads in eXistenZ -- is a seductive, murderous creature, part reptile and part mammal, who preys on women and feeds on the love contained in their blood (I kid you not), which he needs to survive. He claims he's evil but not malicious, which seems a moot point under the circumstances, and says that if he could only find the perfect love he would stop. When he meets a flawless woman, an asthmatic structural engineer (Elina Lowensohn, looking sporty in a hard hat), he's in turmoil. Not for the squeamish or the logical. (Sura Wood)
Saturday, Oct. 16, 9:45 p.m. at the Rafael; Sunday, Oct. 17, 9:30 p.m. at the Sequoia.
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