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Mill Valley: a Sleeper Among Filmfests

Just outside San Francisco, the 18th-annual event offers exceptional but undervalued fare

Movie buffs and critics spend a portion of every year scurrying to festivals that serve up quantities of glamorous films in crowded, glitzy surroundings. In this atmosphere, it's easy to forget the riches that await movie lovers in regional events far from the media-conscious buzz surging through places like Cannes, Montreal, and New York.

Now in its 18th year, the Mill Valley Film Festival is a splendid specimen of this undervalued breed. Situated in a leafy corner of Northern California less than 20 miles from San Francisco, it combines the virtue of down-home intimacy with a forward-looking approach to movie programming that some of its big-name competitors could learn from.

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True to its mission of reflecting "the best of the human spirit," to quote a statement by the filmfest's president, it offers a fair share of Hollywood-style entertainments with engaging stories and popular stars. At the same time, adventurous viewers can find enough offbeat fare to keep them challenged on a regular basis. Innovative attractions range from a wide-ranging Videofest, billed as the oldest American event of its kind, to an Interactive Mediafest devoted to the growing interface between cinema and computers.

Add a newly expanded Children's FilmFest, official tributes to performers as different as Alan Arkin and Amanda Plummer, and public seminars on a variety of film-related topics, and you have a 10-day lineup that's as eclectic as it is busy. On top of all this, the festival is steadily growing, via the expansion of its Film Institute of Northern California - now acquiring two new theaters for year-round showings of independent cinema - and an ongoing Outreach Program bringing free screenings to nearby schools.

Programmed by an energetic staff under the leadership of founder and director Mark Fishkin, this year's festival balanced a varied menu of international films with American movies now headed for theaters.

One of these was the opening-night picture, "The Grass Harp," which combines a nostalgic Truman Capote story with the interesting spectacle of star Walter Matthau acting in a film directed by Charles Matthau, his son. The elder Matthau plays a Southern judge with nonconforming attitudes. These lead him to sympathize with two eccentric women and a teenage boy who've taken up residence in a treehouse, thereby scandalizing their town and calling down the wrath of their neighbors. Also in the cast are Piper Laurie, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenbergen, Jack Lemmon, and Roddy McDowall.

With so many fine performers in a story that worked so well for Capote on two occasions - first as a sweetly written novel and then as a more stylized Broadway play in the early 1950s - one wishes the movie had enough imagination and pizzazz to lift it above the ordinary. But unfortunately, the younger Matthau directed it with a plodding sincerity that fails to capture Capote's admiration for the intuitive orneriness of his characters. Mill Valley spectators received it warmly, but I doubt their hospitality will be repeated when the film arrives on commercial screens.

I had a better time watching "The Journey of August King," starring Jason Patric and Thandee Newton as a white farmer and a runaway slave who become fugitives when he helps her flee from a cruel master. It's directed with quiet dignity by John Duigan, whose Australian background hasn't hindered him from devising a sturdy vision of North Carolina in the early 18th century. The film manages to be poignant without lapsing into shallow sentimentality. Its main drawback is its unoriginal plot, which reproduces the old Hollywood habit of putting a white hero at the center of what should logically be a black woman's story.

Less conventional and more exciting is the unglamorously titled "Garbage," directed by newcomer Peter Byck and given its world premiere here. It's a mock documentary about a would-be rock musician who makes his way from Nashville to Los Angeles. He works in a series of janitorial jobs - and is filmed by a cameraman who wants to make the definitive motion picture about trash.

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Blending a fictional story with real-life footage of people Byck and company met, the movie is one part "Roger & Me," one part "60 Minutes," and one part "This Is Spinal Tap," stitched together with a sense of witty serendipity.

Among the international movies on view were Marion Hansel's brooding "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," a Belgian drama with Stephen Rea as a seaman who befriends a homeless Chinese girl; and Antonis Kokkinos's amusing "End of an Era," a Greek knockoff of "American Graffiti." "Tomorrow in Oz," a program of Australian shorts, made its strongest impressions with "Lucinda 31," about a woman's sudden decision to get married, and "The Silence Between," about an emotionally charged vacation the filmmaker took with her mother.

The chance to discover small gems like these is one of the most compelling reasons for attending a regional festival with the sort of derring-do that distinguishes Mill Valley's programming.

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