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Last Picture Shows 

Week 2 of the Mill Valley Film Festival

Wednesday, Oct 7 1998
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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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