AFI Film Festival 2001 Journal

All ratings are based on 4 stars.

This year's festival was notable for a couple of things.  The crappy Vogue theater is still a festival venue (when are the festival honchos going to wake up to the fact that this just isn't an adequate movie theater...the seats and sightlines for reading subtitles (other than in the first row) suck...and the place has a moldy odor which adds to the suckiness.  Maybe by next year somebody will wise up...maybe four-wall one of the screens at the new Chinese six-plex!  But please don't spread the festival out from it's Hollywood base.  Having it so geographically compact is one of the main reasons that this festival is so easy to do on a full series pass.  The other is that the films are entirely too sparsely attended.  Just about no sell-outs, and this year I wasn't shut out of any film I wanted to see.  The other notable, if regrettable, thing was probably a result of 9/11...few filmmakers were in attendance.  And the few that were at screenings often had really bad Q&As following the films.  What this festival needs are passionate, loquacious interviewer/programmers who can get the ball rolling on Q&As.   Other than that, this festival shined for us passholders.  Just the amount of good food and drinks served in the passholder lounge over the week probably more than paid for the pass...the films were effectively free.  All in all it was a good festival.  Probably not up to last year's in terms of overall film quality and buzz.  But I had an intense week and enjoyed having a world-class festival within walking distance of my apartment!

Friday, Nov. 2, 2001
ON EDGE  (USA;  Dir:  Karl Slovin)
My introduction to the fest is a mocumentary in the spirit of Best of Show, about girl figure skaters, their coaches, parents and fans.  The plusses are an interesting cast which includes Jason Alexander, John Glover and Wallace Langham.  Oh, yes, the women playing the skaters, while mostly unknowns to me, were also pretty good.  The minus is that the writing and direction simply were not up to the level of Chris Guest.  I did laugh at some obvious situational jokes.  But this one was just a mildly diverting entertainment instead of trenchant satire.  **

MILLENNIUM MAMBO (Taiwan;  Dir:  Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
For me, the only suspense in a Hou film is wondering when the next edit is going to occur.  The images are pretty to look at, as usual...this time around mostly tight close-ups which filled half the screen while much of the action occurred in the more brightly lit, but slightly out of focus, background.  If an editor on this film was superfluous, the focus puller on the set was one indispensable talent who earned his salary!  What was the film about?  Search me.  Some woman who was tangentially involved in one abusive relationship and another relationship with a mystery man which went nowhere.  At least that's what I gathered while fighting off drowsiness.   Shu Qi is beautiful, and her wistful narration from the future accompanied by a wonderful modernistic music track was the most engaging thing about the film for me.  **

I had the pleasure of watching the Hou with a couple of cineaste buds from the net:  Muse Malade and Jeff McCloud.  We ended up walking across the street for a quick pizza and good conversation.  They decamped for the screening of  Antonioni's RED DESERT at the museum and I went back across the street to continue my festival.

ACCORDING TO SPENCER  (USA;  Dir: Shane Edelman)
This one is a pleasant enough romantic comedy by a promising new director.  The leads, Jesse Bradford (who has graduated from being a hell of a good kid actor in King of the Hill into a very credible young romantic lead) and Mia Kershner had genuine chemistry on screen.  And Adam Goldberg, David Krumholz and Brad Rowe are also excellent and funny in supporting roles.  I enjoyed this film a lot more than the slender story deserved, which is a tribute to the director and actors..  ***

THE BRONZE SCREEN  (USA doc;  Dir: Alberto Dominguez, Nancy de los Angeles)
A video documentary in the mold of The Celluloid Closet (a much better film, in my opinion) about 100 years of  Latino presence in Hollywood.  Lots of short scenes from movies (many simply title treatments), a few choice big head interviews, minimal editorial point of view.  It could have been better; but it was interesting enough to hold my attention.  ** 1/4

Saturday, Nov. 3
JOINT SECURITY AREA (Korea;  Dir: Park Chan-wook)
I had missed this at SIFF, where it was one of the top audience favorites; so I was happy to get the opportunity to sample it.  The film is a gripping thriller/policier about the Korean de-militarized zone, and a mysterious kidnapping and murder which occurred there.  The plotting was complex, with a series of flashbacks from the central narrative of a Swiss-Korean investigator.  Gradually the solution to the mystery is disclosed.  The film is extremely well directed with an almost Hollywood gloss to the production.   The intelligence and humanity of the script take this to a higher level.  *** 1/2

DOGTOWN & Z BOYS (USA doc;  Dir: Stacy Peralta)
Two great films in a row!  This one is a documentary about the group of '60s and '70s skateboarders (the Zephyr team from West Los Angeles) which revolutionized the culture.  Made with great surfing/skateboarding footage from the time combined with interviews of the present day middle aged survivors of the group, the film features an original and exciting editing style and a particularly well chosen sound track of  rock hits from that era.  The director, who is an accomplished filmmaker, was intimately involved in the surfer-skateboarder culture, so the film comes off as very gung-ho on its subject...but also quite insightful into the characters and the milieu, and pulls no punches.  This is one of the most entertaining documentaries I've seen in a long time.  *** 1/2

DIRT BOY (USA;  Dir:  Jay Frasco)
I changed my mind at the last minute and decided to see this low budget American indie production (shot on super-16 but projected on digital video).  I'm sort of sorry that I did.  The film is an honorable enough effort...the investigation of a series of murders in a small Cape Cod town by a young man with mother "issues" who follows a series of clues from a bestselling book about the murders called "Dirt Boy".  But the tone of the film, sort of earnest black comedy, just didn't work for me.  The plotting was also somewhat contrived, and I had difficulty putting all the pieces together into a coherent and satisfying whole.   * 3/4

Sunday, Nov. 4
TRULY HUMAN (Denmark;  Dir: Ake Sandgren)
This one is a Dogme95 film, and a very good one, indeed.  It features an incredible performance by Nikolaj Lie Kaas (who was wonderful playing Jeppe in The Idiots) as an aborted fetus turned into a naïf grown boy made corporal when his live 6 year old sister is killed in an auto accident.  It sounds unlikely for a super realistic Dogme95 film; but the story just works.  It's a cautionary tale with heavy philosophical notions about the nature of humanity.  But for all that, it is also a film which moved me deeply and made me think.  *** 3/4

ZOE (USA;  Dir:  Deborah Attoinese)
Three young high school aged girls take to the road...going to California or New Mexico or anyplace but their abusive homes.  Zoe is 1/8 Cherokee and longs to find her roots as gleaned from an article in National Geographic.  They hook up with an English lady who is taking her mother's ashes back to a cabin in the New Mexican desert where the mother lived for years.  Out of this comes a fairly interesting road film mixed with vision quest new age mumbo jumbo.  I found it to be somewhat pat and predictable; but it was an honorable effort and rather well made and acted.  ** 1/2

Monday, Nov. 5
MIRACLE  (Denmark;   Dir: Natasha Arthy)
This one is ostensibly a kid's film; but I think it works just as well for everybody.  It's the story of a fatherless 12 year old boy who longs to grow pubes and have his best friend's girl like him better; and his mother who has been depressed for 8 years since her husband died in a reckless accident.  Done with extremely imaginative musical numbers (it starts with a kid rap which is on a level with the best current American hip hop and features without irony a *lot* of American youth culture (skateboards, music, films)); and with good special effects, and featuring some really fine acting, this one is a winner.  The audience was made up primarily of American teenagers:  part of an ongoing program by the L.A. schools to encourage students to enjoy subtitled films.  What an admirable task!    *** 1/2

FELIX AND LOLA  (France;  Dir:  Patrice Leconte)
I had high hopes for this carney romance from Leconte; but found this film lovely to look at...but mostly boring in execution.  **

THE TUNNEL (Germany;   Dir: Roland Suso Richter)
The 157 minutes just fly by.  This is a thriller about the building of the first tunnel under The Wall in 1961.  It works on just about every level.  The people stories are integral to the movie and actually are grippingly well conceived and acted.  The tunnel sequences drip with suspense which never flags.  Germany would be foolish not to send this one to the Academy for foreign film competition where it almost certainly would make the finals.  That makes it officially "Academy bait"; but exactly my cup of tea.  I was on the edge of my chair the entire film.  *** 1/2

THE MEDICINE SHOW (USA;  Dir: Wendell Morris)
Hmmmm.  A comedy about a cancer ward.  Good performances by Jonathan Silverman and especially Natasha Gregson Wagner.  I thought it worked well enough, unlikely  as that may seem.  It's hard to imagine how this one could be marketed though.  ** 3/4

Tuesday, Nov.  6
PAULINE & PAULETTE (Belgium;   Dir: Lieven Debrauwer)
Hi-jinx among four elderly sisters, three of them spinsters (one of them mentally challenged from birth and being cared for by the eldest).  The director was so weirdly gung-ho (he started his intro by singing a song to the audience) that he turned me off to him personally.  But I rather liked his film, which was a riot of campy colors and ranged from comedy to pathos.  It tread a fine line between treacle and genuine human interest and stayed just on the right side of that line, at least for me.  ** 3/4 

BERLIN IS IN GERMANY (Germany;   Dir:  Hannes Stohr)
Martin has been incarcerated in an East German prison since before the Wall fell.  He is finally released into the present day; and the film is a fiercely felt slice of true life about his experiences in the modern reunified Germany.  Centered around a beautifully nuanced performance by Jörg Schüttauf, this one was the director's thesis film...and it is a fine achievement.  *** 1/4

Well, here it is over a week later, and I managed to shine on the journal for this festival.  As wonderful, and as good a deal as the AFI festival is, when I'm home I just don't seem to find the time or energy to do a festival journal.  So I'll finish this with my ratings...and maybe a few comments from the perspective of several days later.

Wednesday, Nov. 7
UNLOVED  (Japan;   Dir:  Kunitoshi Manda)
A somewhat turgid, but intellectually satisfying story of a girl who has affairs with two rich and attractive, but not "suitable"...the other poor and more impulsive.  I really felt that this film provided a lot of information as to how relationships work in modern Japan.  ** 

NINE QUEENS  (Argentina;   Dir:  Fabián Bielinsky)
Very satisfying, complex caper film which kept me guessing right until the end (rare these days).   It's much like a David Mamet film...only I thought this one holds together a lot better than The Spanish Prisoner, for example.   I enjoyed it probably more than it deserved, possibly because the leading man, Gastón Pauls was such an attractive character.  *** 

A SONG FOR MARTIN  (Denmark/Germany/Sweden;   Dir:  Bille August)
A film from the point of view of a married concertmaster woman who has an affair with the conducter/composer, leaves her bad marriage and marries the maestro, only to watch him quickly disintegrate into Alzheimer's.  Harrowing, beautifully shot,  and involving.  It follows roughly the same plot as Iris, which I saw the weekend after this one; but it has a far superior script to that pretentious film.   It's one of those success d'éstime which is difficult to watch; but very worthwhile after all is said and done.  *** 1/4 

PULSE  (Japan;   Dir:  Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
My third Kurosawa...this one my least favorite.  I guess I just don't like ghost pictures.  This one was shot at a strange remove from the characters, mostly in medium longshot...which had the effect of my losing interest scene after scene.  However, it weirdly resonated for me with the events of 9/11.  Also the second row of the Vogue theater is an impossible place from which to actually read the subtitles...and the theater has inferior sound, which is a travesty when Kurosawa's sound design is so vital to the appreciation of his movies.  Anyway, this one was a major disappointment for me.  **

Thursday, Nov. 8
NO MAN'S LAND  (Belgium/Bosnia/France/Italy/Slovenia/UK;   Dir:  Danis Tanovic)
Probably my favorite film of the festival.  This one has a great script about an incident in the Bosnian war...anti-war, but not doctrinaire...drenched with irony, but not heavy handed.  It also won the most popular film prize at the festival.  Well deserved.  *** 3/4 or maybe one of the rare **** films.  Time will tell. 

THE NEW COUNTRY (Sweden;    Dir:  Geir Hansteen Jorgensen)
This mismatched people road movie about 2 illegal refugees (a black boy and an older Iranian) in Sweden disappointed me.  It has relevance and poignancy, and not a little whimsy.  But I felt it went on a bit too long and I just lost interest.  ** 3/4 

ONE NIGHT WITH SABRINA LOVE (Argentina;   Dir:  Alejandro Agresti)
I almost didn't see this film, since the description didn't do it for me.   Then friends pointed out that the lead, Tomás Fonzi, was someone I had noted as one actor  to watch out for in Nine Queens.  I'm glad I did see it.  This one is pure entertainment...about a country boy who has a crush on the star of a television sex show (nicely played by Cecelia Roth) and wins a contest for a date with her.  His picturesque travels to Buenos Aires, his relationship with his gay brother, and his comedic date with Sabrina made for a fun, well made diversion.  And Tomás Fonzi is still one to watch for!  *** 

Friday, Nov. 9
SKIES SATELLITES  (Croatia;    Dir:  Lukas Nola)
An impossible to follow trip through the war zones of the Croation/Serbian war.  I couldn't tell which side was which, and I couldn't have cared less.  * 1/4

Four films more or less themed about death.  None of them were particularly good.

ANGEL EXIT (Czech Republic;   Dir:  Vladimir Michalek)
Not terrible, but something of a mess.  It's a story about a drug dealer/victim.  I just couldn't get all that involved.  ** 1/4 

The film was so horrifically bad that it broke the projector 20 minutes into the film.  A hint from God.   I had no desire to see a replay of the film on Sunday.  1/2*

THE ICELANDIC DREAM  (Iceland;   Dir:  Ròbert I. Douglas)
Some days it doesn't pay to get up and go to a festival.  This was another disappointing film...about a loser and his family.  At least all these bad films were reasonably short, and this one held my interest because the characters were vivid..  ** 1/4

Saturday, Nov. 10
THE EXPERIMENT (Das Experiment)   (Germany;   Dir:  Oliver Hirshbiegel)
This is a superior thriller about a (more or less) true experiment into prisoner and guard psychology which happened At Stanford in the '70s and which was adapted to the far more interesting and resonating terrain of modern Germany.  An excellent film, well written and shot.  It does go off the deep end into unlikeliness at the end, though.   Other than that, it is an almost perfect gem of a film.  *** 1/2 

MORTAL TRANSFER  (France;   Dir:  Jean-Jacques Beineix)
A mild disappointment.  Beineix trying a Hitchcockian murder comedy sort of midway between Spellbound and The Trouble With Harry.  As usual with his films, it is fantastic to look at.  But the story just failed to gel for me.  ** 3/4

Sunday, Nov. 11
WHAT TIME IS THERE (France/Taiwan;   Dir:  Tsai Ming-liang)
My fourth Tsai film, and maybe my favorite.  Wacky love story...another crying jag at the end.  Tsai repeats themes.  But this one is thoroughly enjoyable.  *** 

ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS (Denmark;   Dir: Lone Scherfig)
A Dogme95 film about a group of Danes who interact while studying spoken Italian.  It looked better than most of these films; and the script develops nicely.  It plays a little like farce, a lot like a canny story of alienated people searching for love.  It plays much better than that.  *** 1/4

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