Zoom Lens

The 27th Mill Valley Film Festival is, as always, the little film festival that can, an ambitious schedule in a modest setting. Its heralded releases include Bill Condon's Kinsey, an intelligent movie about the life of the pioneer sex researcher (Liam Neeson), downplaying his evident eccentricities in favor of celebrating taboo-busting in a political move directed against 21st-century puritanism. (Kinsey's fundamentalist dad, John Lithgow, is clearly the sick one here.) As in his earlier Gods and Monsters, Condon includes a scene of a hunky topless gardener tormenting the hero's libido in what bids to be an authorial trademark.

Marc Forster's Opening Night biopic of Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) is a Miramaxed fudge sundae of rich costumes, plush period sets, and prestigious actors laboring to earn our tears with their ennobled suffering. Depp wins the acting contest by underplaying, but a little research into Barrie's life reveals a much better film that could have been made just using the facts of the author's friendship with the family that inspired his beloved play, rather than this sticky treacle.

Ousmane Sembene's Moolaadéis the one indisputably great movie on offer. Africa's finest filmmaker, Sembene, 81, brings a rich, naturalistic style to a clash between tradition and a mother who refuses to let a group of girls be genitally mutilated. Sharp social comment and humor (the town's desperate men confiscate all the women's radios) leaven this masterwork.

San Franciscoarea filmmakers could learn a lot about authenticity and honesty from Sembene. Slogans and cant sluice from the mouths of the characters in Lise Swenson's Mission Movie, obnoxious white yuppies and noble undocumented workers alike. Mission Movie forces its cultural assumptions onto its actors and the neighborhood it supposedly represents, rather than serving as any kind of living document. Rob Nilsson's Jordanian-filmed Samt(Silence) is a slight piece that defers fireworks in favor of earnest discussions about women's role in society.

A third local filmmaker, Bill Plympton, offers up his animated Hair High. Fans of Plympton's short, grotesque cartoons will be pleased with scenes like a smoker's innards being coughed out, even as the film centers on high school stereotypes, exaggerated to an extreme.

Also recommended: Python(Laila Pakalnina, Latvia), a snake charmer of a movie; Cindy Baer's Purgatory House (Dead Like Me for teen punks); and in-person tributes to the likes of Gena Rowlands, Mike Leigh, and Laura Linney.

This year's fest is the first in history not to actually screen anything in Mill Valley, its regular Sequoia Theater space having had its roof collapse. Films announced as playing at the Sequoia show instead at San Rafael's Century Regency and at the Century Cinema in Corte Madera. (Films listed in the printed program as taking place at the Rafael Film Center stay there.) See www.mvff.com or call the Festival Hotline at 380-8264 for complete schedule, ticket, and venue information.

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