FESTIVALS: Premieres galore at Mill Valley; indie "Metal" shines
by Carl Russo
As northern California baked in the heat of an extended Indian summer, fans packed the often-sweltering Sequoia Twin Theaters for ten days of the Mill Valley Film Festival. The picturesque Marin County town is host to the event, which is many a filmmaker's respite after a grueling spring/summer ride on the festival circuit. This year's program -- which ran October 7-17 -- saw a surprising number of new faces present to introduce their works to the world.
Three studio period pieces opened and closed the fest: Patricia Rozema's early 19th-century romance "Mansfield Park" from Miramax, based on the writings of Jane Austen; the U.S. premiere of Ang Lee's "Ride With the Devil," about rebel young guns of the Confederacy from USA Films; and Scott Hicks' meditation on post-war racism, "Snow Falling on Cedars," starring Ethan Hawke, Max Von Sydow and Sam Shepard, from Universal.
While such high-profile bookends may grab local headlines, it's Mill Valley's annual roster of offbeat and daring films that make braving gridlock on the Golden Gate Bridge worthwhile. World and U.S. premieres screened by the droves this year, and for every dud there were at least two gems.
For sheer kookiness, take the Dutch comedy "One Man and His Dog," Annette Apon's paean to modern alienation. The silence and odd behavior of a young introvert gets him labeled an idiot until he reinvents an exciting past, complete with photos he pinched from the neighbors he spies on. Crazier yet are the gangsters, gigolos and vengeful spouses of Marco Risi's madcap "Kaputt Mundi," set at a gloriously apocalyptic New Year's Eve party (picture Blake Edwards, Italian-style).
On the cutting edge of the premieres was Tahmineh Milani's feminist tragedy "Two Women" (think "Divorce Iranian Style "-- The Movie), the story of a brilliant woman who would be "doing cartwheels in Oxford or Harvard" if born in the west. Instead, she finds herself trapped in a traditional marriage that seems designed to destroy her spirit. Additionally, the struggle to find oneself personally and politically is at the core of Ricardo Larrain's complex Chilean drama, "Enthusiasm." In it, a convoluted love triangle stretches to the breaking point when a former anti-Pinochet revolutionary evolves into a vulgar industrialist.
What sounds like the premise for an insufferable arthouse flick -- American man fluent in Japanese reads books to blind Kyoto girl and falls in love -- turns out to be an extremely sexy, intriguing love story. Isao Morimoto's "Ichigensan" charges every word, every drop of rain, with an electric sensuality.
The Children's FilmFest sidebar offered two standout premieres. Caroline Link's "Annaluise and Anton" (Germany) pairs a neglected rich girl with a boy working to support his sick mother for adventures and laughs; and Eric Till's somber, touching "Pit Pony," (Canada), a Dickensian tale of hardship in the coal mines of Nova Scotia. But offering bad news for kids is Raymond Jafelice's new animated musical "Babar: King of the Elephants" (Canada/France), faithful to the classic book for the first hour before it strays into a mess of Nazi rhinos, elephant angels and an ending that warns, "Don't think this is the end of our story."
Bad news for grownups: certain lackluster Mill Valley premieres may be on their way to a theater near you. Niki List's "Heroes in Tirol" (Austria) is a colossal exercise in stupidity, from hammy kitsch (singing and yodeling during sex) to the cheapest of laughs (munching on the contents of one's nostril). Refined to the point of suffocation, Deborah Warner's film version of Elizabeth Bowen's "The Last September" (UK/Ireland) is a stodgy museum piece about a feudal Irish manor under British occupation, to be distributed by Trimark. Indie filmmaker Tanya Fenmore introduces some hot-button issues in her Ivy League comedy/drama "The Sterling Chase" (US), but the story never leaves the starting gate. Likewise Martin Davidson's "Looking for an Echo" (US) -- starring Armand Assante as a retired doo-wop singer -- should be titled "Looking for a Conflict." And despite the presence of screen faves Kerry Fox and Ray Winstone, Kay Mellor's romantic comedy "Fanny and Elvis" (UK) is as generic as they come.
If the Sundances and the Torontos can yield dozens of exciting new discoveries each year, then, as a matter of scale, Mill Valley should produce at least one. For 1999, that honor belongs to local indie director Christopher E. Brown for his film "Metal."
Set in San Francisco's Hunter's Point -- an area of crumbling shipyards bypassed by Silicon Valley's recent go-go economy -- the struggles of an African-American family are told with a harrowing realism. A laid-off mechanic detaches emotionally from his wife and two children only to spend his days trying to fix an old pickup truck.
"Metal tends to corrode as it's exposed to the elements outside. That kind of corrosion also starts affecting the father's own life," Brown told indieWIRE. "Hunters Point was at one point a haven for blacks in terms of getting employment -- helping the war effort -- and when it was over and the jobs went away, it was, like, 'What are we gonna do?' And that community has declined ever since."
Brown said he tries to emulate John Cassavetes' notion of "truth-telling cinema." "You don't have to have any answers, just show what's there. I felt the story needed to be told in a certain way -- not with any guns, not with any 'Boyz N the Hood'-type situation." As if blessed by the late maverick filmmaker, Brown received a note from film scholar and Cassavetes intimate Ray Carney, who read his screenplay and wrote, "John would've been proud."
"Metal" is, in fact, 88 minutes of unpolished truth told in stark black and white. Brown's characters bear the names of real family members. "This is my father, only he stays rather than my actual father who deserted me," Brown explained. "There was a lot of catharsis going on, both in writing that script and actually shooting it."
Brown and producer Adryenn Ashley financed the production out of their own pockets. "There were some extremely lean months eating rice and Top Ramen (I still live in a residential hotel) and just trying to get by. I kept thinking, 'you'll get there,'" said Brown. That moment came on October 10th when "Metal," his second feature, debuted to an enthusiastic Mill Valley audience. The buzz prompted a request from Miramax for a preview tape. "Of course, they see 10 trillion films a year," he added cautiously.
But the director isn't waiting around. Besides his plan to screen "Metal" for more festivals after Mill Valley, he has been rehearsing his stock company for an April 2000 shoot. Appropriately, the film is about "an artist going against the tide. He's a filmmaker who wants to save a film industry that doesn't want to be saved." That's quite a cross to bear, but Christopher E. Brown may just be up to the job.