The Hollywood Film Festival opens today with a 7 p.m. invitational screening of Josef Vilsmaier's "Marlene," an entertaining if conventional film biography of a most unconventional woman. Marlene Dietrich was so radiant a beauty, such a strong and distinctive personality and her life so remarkable that this film cannot fail to command attention, especially because Katja Flint is a fine actress and her resemblance to Dietrich quite strong. Another plus is that the filmmakers had the cooperation of Dietrich's daughter Maria Riva, who wrote an unsparing and eloquent biography.
Indeed, the Marlene of this movie, Germany's most lavish production since before World War II, is the Marlene of her daughter's book: an ambitious, talented and hard-working Berliner of good family who became an international star once cast by Josef von Sternberg in "The Blue Angel"; a woman who lived by her own rules, taking lovers, sometimes female, by the legions but maintaining an iron grip on her husband, Rudi Sieber, who had been an assistant director, and her only daughter.
Caught in the crush was the lovely Tamara Matul, Sieber's selfless mistress who helped raise Maria, wore Marlene's cast-offs, submitted to repeated abortions and eventually went mad. To the end Sieber remained Dietrich's affable trophy spouse. If Dietrich kept a stranglehold on her family, she fearlessly stood up to the Third Reich, tirelessly entertained American troops during World War II and carried on with her concert career until she dropped, and then retreated to her Paris apartment, where she spent the last 14 years of her life, never to be seen again in public before she died in 1992 at age 91. "Marlene" captures a great deal of this, but a convenient story line gives Dietrich a fictional romance with an aristocratic German officer, who turns out to be part of an assassination attempt upon Hitler, a ploy perhaps designed to make Dietrich more sympathetic to German audiences.
Dietrich deserves more sardonic, venturesome treatment, but there's no denying that Vilsmaier is a solid storyteller capable of sustaining an epic tale, an ability he demonstrated recently in another film biography, "The Harmonists."
The festival continues at Paramount Studios, 5555 Melrose Ave., Friday at 7 p.m. with veteran documentarian Mel Stuart's bracing and affectionate "Running on the Sun," which covers 1999's annual Badwater 135, a grueling three-day race, among the world's most difficult. It begins in Death Valley in 115-degree heat, at an altitude of minus 282 feet and ends 8,400 feet up Mount Whitney. It is a contest in which age and experience can triumph over youth, and past winners will have a tough time repeating their success--a contest in which two men, both having lost part of their right legs--and one of them part of his right arm as well--will strive simply to finish.
One of the first to throw in the towel, overcome by dehydration and failing kidneys, would seem the least likely: a fit young Marine major who recovers to urge on others to complete the course. The oldest racers are two men, 68 and 64, and the oldest woman is 56. They are all likable, unpretentious people. Some of them can put into words why they're racing; others find it beyond their powers of expression. Kirk Johnson, a New York Times editor, competing in honor of his late brother, a runner, sees the attraction of the race as an ultimate reaction against post-industrial society, and that is as good a general explanation for an experience that for participants seems ultimately mystical, a deep communion with nature and self. Some other highly touted offerings: "Flight of Fancy," "Paperback Hero," "A Place Nearby" and "The Poor and the Hungry." (213) 480-3232.
The Los Angeles Film School, 6363 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, continues it 2000 Classic Film Series this weekend, highlighted by a rewarding new film, "Getting to Know You" (Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 9:45 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.), which director Lisanne Skyler and her co-writer sister, Tristine, imaginatively fashioned from several Joyce Carol Oates stories. "Welcome to the Dollhouse's" Heather Matarazzo plays 16-year-old Judith, and Zach Braff plays her older brother Wesley. They have visited their mother (Bebe Neuwirth) in a Cattaragus, N.Y., mental institution and are now are at a bus station, waiting to go their separate ways. Judith is headed to a foster home or orphanage in Rome, N.Y., and Wesley is going to the University of Rochester, where he's enrolled in a pre-med course on a full scholarship. While Wesley buries himself in his books, which is how he has survived life with his alcoholic parents, a dance team that failed long ago, Judith becomes caught up in conversation with Jimmy (Michael Weston), not much older than she.