2002-3 Winter Film Journal

MON RAK TRANSISTOR (Thailand  dir:  Pen-Ek Ratanaruang)
This film had made the festival rounds; but I hadn't managed to catch it.  It's nicely photographed, and competently acted; but somehow never managed to break through and affect me much one way or another.  It's the story of  a very unlucky young Thai man who wants to be a professional singer, but somehow suffers great hardship trying to make it.  ** and virtually no chance to make the final 5.  But, honestly, the film had virtues which made it interesting to watch, and there was more than a little applause at the conclusion of the film.  By the way, the film is effectively a musical...the characters occasionally broke into song accompanied by invisible musicians (in addition to the several scenes where the main character actually sings on stage) as a filmic device,  à  la Bollywood.   Apparently this is a worldwide trend as several films from places as disparate as France and India that I know of this year are musicals.

FIREDANCER (d. Jawad Wassel; Afghanistan)
Where to start?  24 years on this committee and I've never seen a more incompetently made film.  Period.  It wasn't that it was boring, particularly.  Many people in the audience did stick it out to the end, since the story...what there was of it...almost worked.   It's just that the film seems to have been shot, edited and dubbed by a crew of really bad amateurs.  First of all, there's a real question of whether it should have qualified in the first place.  80% of the film (which was about Afghani refugees living in New York City and pining for their homeland) was apparently shot in English, and then badly dubbed into Afghani or Farsi.  There was no effort at all given to the dubbing.  Entire scenes were wildly out of sync and apparently there were only two or three actors dubbing all the characters and they made no effort to change their voices during conversations.  The film was shot for the most part in horrible looking digital; but some portions (maybe 20% of the film) were shot entirely differently, with live sync sound and at least some spoken Farsi.  Perhaps the death of the writer/director during the making of the film had something to do with this.  But the result was a mess up there on the screen!  It's not worth any more print.  1/2*

HUKKLE (Hungary dir:  György Pálfi)
Ever see one of the Sqatsi movies (films by either Godfrey Reggio or Ron Fricke)?  Hukkle is like them, only based on the happenings on and under the surface in a little Hungarian village, and using natural organic sound effects instead of  electronic musical scores.  The title refers to a little old man sitting on a bench in front of his house watching the world go by with an annoying case of the hiccoughs (apparently the meaning of the Hungarian word "hukkle").  What transpires is a lot of life, people eating and working, animals living and dying etc. etc. almost ad nauseam since it is hard to make any sense out of the film's structure.  Still, the transitions are often nifty, the photography is often spectacular, the film keeps one's interest because the life it shows is so dynamic and, well, uniquely alive (except when it is dead, which can be unsettling in this film.)  This is a window into a foreign place, which is what makes this a foreign language film, even though there is no dialog (people do talk, but their conversations are potted down to content free wallah and no sub-titles are provided except for a rather ironic song sung by a group dressed in native clothing at the end of the film which rather neatly capsulizes the theme of the film).    I liked it.  I had the feeling that the committee was rather mixed, and the film has no chance of a nomination.  ** 3/4

CITY OF GOD (Brazil  dir: Fernando Meirelles)
A complexly plotted epic of a slum in Rio spanning decades and ending in a gang war with a huge body count. Going in, this one was touted as one of the front runners to actually make the final five; but I think it was too violent and difficult a film for this committee.  The film will get a release; and I assume it will even be a relative hit, since it has some intriguing elements:  mainly hyper-violence, crazy sociopathic antagonists, and resonances with doings here in the U.S.  (I'll be curious to see if Scorsese's  Gangs of New York doesn't end up being somewhat similar in theme to this film since there were elements here reminiscent of that director's oeuvre.)  ***

FINE DEAD GIRLS (Croatia dir:  Dalibor Matanic)
Every once in a while a film comes to the Academy completely untouted, and knocks people out.  Tonight two such films, the reason why this foreign language film committee is such a pleasure to do year after year.  The IMDb translates "Fine mrtve djevojke" as  Nice Dead Girls, which is probably a better title.  Anyway, it's the story of the Apartment House from hell in present day Zagreb, Croatia.  Into this den of vipers (rapacious landlords, abortionists, rapists, wife-beaters etc.), move two hot Lesbian chicks, which sets up a fatal dance of crosses and double crosses between the residents of the Apartment.  The film has sterling production values, nice scope photography, well-written script, fine direction and really good acting throughout.  It's one tough cookie of a movie...probably too controversial for this committee (I could hear some shuffling when the beautifully photographed and tender Lesbian love sequences hit the screen).  Still, it is going to be one of the highlights of my film year!  *** 1/2

OASIS (Korea  dir:  Lee Chang-dong)
This has been a great year for the booming Korean film industry, so I was especially curious to see what film they would send to the Academy.  They chose a great film in my opinion; but not one that stands much of a chance with this committee (I keep saying that...I guess it's a put-down of some sort; I wish I could say that controversial films had a better chance than they do here; but this polarizing film is certainly going to have its detractors, as well as its supporters, and I fear that too many people walked out of the screening too soon to appreciate its achievement.)  Remember the film Gaby - a true story which came out in 1987?  Probably not, since it didn't have anything like the credit that it should have for its amazing portrayal of a girl with cerebral palsy.  The central character here is another girl with that malady...and Moon So-ri gives here one of the greatest performances ever put on celluloid.  Too bad it will never have the chance to get its due when awards time comes.  This is a completely off-kilter, sexually explicit, love story between a just released prisoner, slightly retarded and sociopathic himself, and a totally disabled girl.  It starts out with a brutal rape and then goes off in totally unexpected ways.  Along the way we are treated to some extremely fine portrayals of family and societal dynamics.  Irony abounds, especially when it becomes clear that it is almost impossible for outsiders to actually see the central relationship clearly.  Kudos to writer/director Lee Chang-dong for an amazing achievement.   And mention of his central actor Sol Kyung-gu also needs to be made, since he gave the role of the fool such authenticity that he managed to convincingly hold the screen  with the amazing Miss Moon.    *** 3/4

THE ONLY JOURNEY OF HIS LIFE (d.  Lakis Papastathis; Greece)
Beautifully photographed.  Striking imagery.  That's all this film has going for it.  The plot is a confusing mixture of mixed up time lines...the film's present day is late 19th Century when a (famous?  real life?) author who is dying in an insane asylum is going back through his life and his work...mostly about himself when he was 10 years old and working as a tailer apprentice in Constantinople as his grandfather is dying in real life.  The film mixes the super reality  of the asylum with the magical realism of the author's fictional and autobiographical  memories.  It's a messy, poorly acted hodge-podge which a Bergman or Angelopoulos might pull off; but this director couldn't.    * 1/2

OUT (d. Hideyuki Hirayama; Japan)
A black comedy about 4 women who work on the assembly in a sushi processing plant and who get involved in a nefarious conspiracy involving dead bodies.  Any more would spoil the film, which is a fun lark reminiscent of Weekend at Bernie's only with real emotional resonance and some lovely performances (especially Mieko Harada as the group's leader).  Japan keeps presenting these odd films to the Academy, reenforcing my feeling that Japanese films in general nowadays are showing a rather bleak and pessimistic view of their society.  I think the committee responded well to the absurdity and blackness of the film...it's very entertaining.  But I doubt if many will rate it high enough to be a contender. ***

RACHIDA (d.  Yamina Bachir; Algeria)
A heart wrenching drama about a young lady teacher in Algiers who heroically foils a terrorist plot and must exile herself and her family to a small village where even there the horrors of terrorism slowly encroach.  The leading lady, Ibtissem Djouadi, was quite beautiful and her performance haunting.  The film was strongly anti-terrorism and sympathetic to the plight of women in Algerian society, which added a great deal of relevance to the text.  But it assumed a knowledge of Algerian politics that most foreigners wouldn't have.  Still, the film was emotionally affecting, and almost overcomes its drab look and mediocre mis-en-scene.  ** 3/4

HOUSE OF FOOLS (d. Andrei Konchalovsky; Russia)
The first Chichan War comes to an insane asylum.  The inmates, a set of clichéd grotesques, were rather successfully limned, I thought.  Their reactions as a rebel platoon takes over the building seemed pretty realistic.  There are several well done and successful setpieces; but the overall effect of the film is "so what..."  Odd note:  the central crazy character was a girl who hallucinated an affair with Canadian rock star Bryan Adams, who in her crazed reveries kept appearing on screen in person singing love songs.  These scenes were so weirdly surreal that it almost had the same effect on the movie as Bjork's dream sequences in Dancer in the Dark, except here it kept bringing the viewer out of the drama and were laughably inappropriate.   ** 1/2

NOTHING (d. Juan Carlos Malberti; Cuba)
Until the first scene, I didn't realize that I had seen this before at the AFI festival under a different name.  If I had known, I never would have attended this screening, since my reaction at the AFI was that the film was silly and annoying and I gave it only one star (my review then can be found here).  However, I did like it slightly better the second time.  The slapstick comedy and annoying digital color effects didn't bother me as much as I anticipated them; and I watched for other, more subtle messages in the film which I appreciated more this time.  There is something rather free and liberating about the idea that such a peculiar and anarchistic film could be made in dictatorial Cuba today.  Still, the slapstick and outrageous overacting by the comedy relief characters were too over-the-top for my tastes.   Now **

LILJA 4-EVER (d. Lukas Moodysson; Sweden)
Lukas Moodysson is three for three in my book, making him one of the world's major directors.  This dark, dark drama about a 16 year old Russian girl deserted by her mother and sold into white slavery packed an emotional wallop and will remain one of the highlights of my movie year.  It features amazing performances by its two child actor leads, Oksana Akinshina and Artiom Bogucharskij (as her only friend, a younger boy who is also rejected by his abusive father), and an unsparing downer plot which tore me apart from empathy with the characters' plights.  I wish I could say that this committee shared my reaction; but I fear that it was too much a downer for most of the attendees.  I guess we'll see.  Certainly it belongs in the top 5.  *** 3/4

9  (d. Umit Unal; Turkey)
A digitally filmed fictional documentary about a police investigation into the rape and murder of a girl. It's actually a fairly successful experimental film, intercutting a series of videotaped interrogation scenes of six realistically portrayed suspects, with videos of the neighborhood and crime scene supposedly taken by the suspects themselves.  The stories these six tell interreact and change; and the facts of the case gradually come out like peeling layers of an onion   The film is a subtle indictment of the Turkish police system.   Costa-Gavras might have made a masterpiece from this material.  As it is, it doesn't quite add up to a totally satisfying script.   ***

THE SEA (d. Baltasar Kormakur; Iceland)
I admit it:  I'm a sucker for this kind of dysfunctional family drama.  This film is basically a riff on the Festen (The Celebration) story, taking place in one night when a rich family is brought together to tear each other apart.  Only here the story is presented with ravishingly high production values,  a top-notch cast (I really, really like the actor Hilmir Smaeae Gudnason), and  excellent scope photography which turns the small Icelandic fishing village into a winter theme park.   Baltasar Kormakur proves that the humanism of the excellent 101 Reykjavik was no accident, that he is one actor who really can direct!  *** 1/2

WARMING UP YESTERDAY'S LUNCH (d. Kostadin Bonev; Bulgaria)
Film within a film:  making a documentary about the memories of an old lady who lived through a myriad of complex Balkan political changes over her lifetime.  The flashback sequences, which take up most of the film, were actually well acted and interesting; but the present day film crew story was tedious and unnecessary.  It would help if I had an understanding of the history of this Macedonian ground which apparently has been ruled by Serbia, Bulgaria, Nazi Germany, Yugoslavia, and had its brief independence during this lady's lifetime.  But without the necessary historical grounding, the story was confusing and only mildly diverting.  **

THE SON  (d. Dardenne Brothers; Belgium)
The Dardennes are world class filmmakers who simply aren't this committee's cup of tea.  Certainly Rosetta, which played here a couple of years ago, was worthy of nomination and didn't pass muster.  Considering the considerable (but actually pretty low comparatively) number of walkouts at this screening, it's pretty safe to say that this excellent and moving film about a carpentry teacher and his apprentice who have a mysterious history together will not fly here.  Maybe it's the filmmaking style, which as my friend Robin commented is faux videocam filmography with lots of hand held stuff shot from behind the actor as he walks and peers around corners.  Very kinetic cinematography (remember the Jacquot film A Single Girl which was comprised of shot after shot of Virginie Ledoyen walking around in real time?...in this case we have the same sort of experience with Olivier Gourmet, who incidentally is excellent here, even though we're mostly focused on the back of his neck.)  But this style of photography is off-putting to enough members of this committee to make a nomination here virtually impossible.  *** 1/2

NOWHERE IN AFRICA (d.  Caroline Link; Germany)
Define "Oscar bait" and you'll come up with this film.   Holocaust refugees in Kenya, gorgeous scope photography, production values galore (of course the comparison to Out of Africa is obvious), wonderful acting all around.  This committee nominated the director, Caroline Link's previous film, Beyond Silence, and it will certainly do the same for this one, which is even better.  I have to give special props to the leads:  Juliane Kohler gives a remarkable performance comparable to what Meryl Streep won her Oscar for in that other film.  And the Georgian actor, Mirab Ninidze, is absolutely wonderful as the father, as are the two actresses who play the little girl growing up whose autobiography is the basis of the film.  Yes, I'm susceptible to Oscar bait...this film won me over completely.  *** 3/4

THE INVISIBLE CHILDREN (d. Lisandro Duque Naranjo; Colombia)
Occasionally funny, nostalgic story about life in a small Colombian town at the time that TV was being introduced ('50s, probably).  The narrator spins a vivid story about when he was 7: chubby and shy and obsessed with a pretty neighbor girl.  He convinced two of his best friends to help him conjure up a difficult black magic spell found in a stolen booklet which would make them invisible, so that they could fulfill their fantasies (and he could get close to the girl of his dreams without her knowing.)  The film is well observed, rich in detail and with a good feeling for the time and place;  but ultimately too light an entertainment for a nomination.  ** 1/2

GEBIRTIG (d. Lukas Stepanik, Robert Schindel; Austria)
Drama about several characters for whom the Holocaust remains the  most powerful influence on their lives.  It centers around a trial of a war criminal and mostly revolves around two characters and their stories told in flashbacks and through the device of a film within a film.  First, a famous composer emigrant to the U.S. (living under the shadow of the World Trade Center, which will always henceforth be a distraction in films) who reluctantly returns to Vienna to testify at the trial.  The other, the son of a war criminal doctor at Auchwitz, who as a boy witnessed the events and remains tormented by passed on guilt.   The complex narrative, legubriously told,  may be too complex for its own good, with such a diffuse focus that much of the emotional impact got lost for me in trying to follow the many characters.   ** 1/2

HOLD MY HEART (d. Trygve Allister Diesen; Norway)
Humanist drama about a father denied access to his daughter for three years (his ex had accused him of physical abuse and incest), who on the day his mother dies sets off on an unplanned kidnapping of his 7 year old daughter.  In lesser hands, or in a Hollywood film, this could have become a different film, something like the third act of Adaptation.  But here, even as events spiral out of control, the theme stays focused on the essential goodness of people, including the father, the police, and the people encountered on the journey.  This is an immaculately made road picture, with beautiful scope photography, and some of  the best acting by a young girl (Vera Rudi) that has ever blessed the screen.   It cannot be discounted as a potential nominee here.  *** 1/2

I'M TARANEH, 15 (d. Rassul Sadr-Ameli; Iran)
Sometimes these committee double bills inadvertently make statements of their own.  This film might almost be a continuation of the Norwegian film, with the daughter now a beautiful grown up 15, her father in jail, and her dying grandmother to take care of.  But Iranian culture is so very different.  I'm often confounded by Iranian films, as they don't always follow human nature as I perceive it.  Still, this is a powerful slice-of-life story about a strong, essentially "good" girl caught up in events within  a culture which doesn't provide much support.  Too many walkouts, I think, to get nominated.  ***

EDI (d. Piotr Trzaskalski; Poland)
Drab, digitally shot drama about two down and out trash collectors, Jacek and Eddie.  Eddie gets in trouble with a pair of gangster brothers when he is falsely accused of raping their sister.  The film was a total turnoff for the first half, when the characters seemed to be dumb and dumber, and I couldn't get engaged with them at all.  Then the story started to click about 45 minutes in; and when the characters escape to the country with a little baby that Eddie had been forced to take, suddenly the film captured my emotional involvement and took on an unmistakable poignancy.  The film had its good points:  some arty photography somewhat  spoiled by the digitization, a quietly heroic (if psychologically inexplicable) eponymous main character.  I ended up liking it; but it won't finish in contention.  ***

8 WOMEN (d. François Ozon; France)
Seen previously, and I decided to take the afternoon off from movies rather than re-watching a film I was extremely mixed about in the first place, even though I'm a huge Ozon fan.   So I have no idea at this point what the committee felt about this campy musical version of an Agatha Christy mystery story.  I suspect it won't go over that well.  ** 1/2

THE CLAY BIRD (d. Tareque Masud; Bangladesh)
This film follows an Islamic family through the difficult days when Bangladesh was splitting from Pakistan.  Devout father is faced with a crisis of faith, mother's dedication to her marriage is challenged by external events, son is sent to religious school, daughter is sickly, uncle is Communist revolutionary.  Lot's of food for thought in this well made film.  Nice feeling for time and place, splendid cinematography (on film...a rarity this year!).  I think the film will be downgraded by this committee since the issues raised are foreign and obscure and lack resonance for our culture.  But this is surely a fine effort for Bangladesh's first entry here.  ** 3/4

WHEN MARYAM SPOKE OUT (d. Assad Fouladkar; Lebanon)
Intimate family drama about a couple where after 3 years of marriage, the wife turns out to be barren.  Her mother-in-law insists that her son divorce his wife to marry a fertile woman and have children.  The poor digital photography worked against this film; but the involving, emotionally moving story worked for me.  It was actually a clever script, with echoes of last year's wonderful Israeli film Late Marriage in its treatment of the dynamics of the extended family.  The acting and direction were fine: especially noteworthy were Bernadette Hobeib as Maryam and Talal Al-Jordi as her husband Ziad.  There was some interesting and creative use of mysterious flash forwards, which when the film resolved were quite moving.  All in all this is a fine film; but I'm doubtful that this committee was sufficiently attuned to the cultural diversity to give the film its due.  ***

ABOUNA (d. Mahamet Saleh Haroun; Chad)
A family drama eerily reminiscent of the Bangladeshi film seen yesterday, which is probably accounted for by the powerful reach of Islam in today's third world.  Two brothers (15 and maybe 9), non involved mother, father away to find work.  The boys are sent away to a small village school when they become too troublesome for their increasingly depressed mother.  Their troubled lives are the central story; but the film captures the hopelessness of the rural poor in French Equatorial Africa very well.  The acting was fairly good, and the film looked nice.  But it failed the watch test for me...slow and boring, three looks at the watch and only an 84 minute film!  **

SMALL VOICES (d. Gil M. Portes; Philippines)
A drama about a new teacher in a rural village, who is faced with the low social rank of teachers, the lack of interest in education by the parents, the corruption of the school officials, a local peasant revolt against the army etc. etc.  Against all odds, she involves her students in a song contest.  Predictable, annoyingly simplistic in its message and politics, overwrought and emotionally manipulative.  At least it wasn't all that boring.  * 1/2

WILD BEES (Czech Republic)
I saw this earlier at the Seattle film festival, so I didn't see it again here.  My journal entry then can be read here.  ** 3/4

PINOCCHIO (d. Roberto Benigni; Italy)
Where to start.  First, the good points:  um, beautiful scope photography, nice sets and costumes, ok special effects (I especially liked the big shark, which was plenty scary, even moreso than Disney's whale; and the Blue Fairy's chariot drawn by hundreds of squealing mice, a nice touch).  Now, the bad points:  everything else.  Even in his own voice speaking Italian, Benigni is unbelieveably annoying and unfunny, with his one gear of line delivery...manic, over the top with a whiney edge to his voice (every successful screen comic has an element of pathos to his persona...Benigni's is a pathetic kind of arrested childhood, not pretty at his age.)   Nary a smile cracked my lips at his ridiculous antics, which seemed to be the committee's general reaction, too.  It's hard to imagine a more benighted major project.  Nobody escapes unscathed from this disaster...but Kim Rossi Stuart, former child actor, showed some screen charisma as Lucignolo, and I hope to see more of him in future films.  *  

THE MAGIC BOX (d. Ridha Behi; Tunesia)
An amalgam of Cinema Paradiso and 8 1/2, in that what is presented is a drama  about a "famous" Tunisian film director married to a French woman and living in Tunis, who is writing a screenplay for a film (shown in flashbacks) which is a reverie on a crucial time in his childhood, when he was about 8.  Here we have yet another film which touches on the common  themes of students at an Islamic religious school; and filmmakers with father hang-ups who had  cool uncles who were a major influence (in this case for a love of movies.)   Every year seems to have certain recurring themes...this year it is definitely disparate filmmakers exploring Islamic religious schooling with its rote Koran study and corporal punishment.   This film was particularly successful:  directed in a subtle and spare style, beautifully photographed and well acted, with a good balance struck between the present day story and the childhood flashbacks.  Its authentic feel for the creative process of  film making, and its truthful characterizations, will make it successful at festivals and with critics (if it should get released); but I do feel it was probably too subtle for a top-five consensus from this committee.  *** 1/4

ZUS & ZO (d. Paula van der Oest; Netherlands)
This film splits genres.  Is it the Dutch version of a sex farce?  A dysfunctional family sitcom?  A loose adaption of Chekhov's Three Sisters?   Actually, it has some elements of all three...a nice looking (scope, high gloss photography), frenetic movie about three sisters and their gay younger brother who get involved in a complex and farcial family mess when the brother decides to marry a woman in order to fulfull the conditions of his father's will and inherit the family-owned hotel on the Portugese shore.   The script is funny and clever and struck a chord here, I think.  This enjoyable, entertaining film is definitely a contender...whether or not  too many on the committee are turned off by the film's uniquely Dutch sexual politics is the central question.   *** 1/4

THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST (d. Aki Kaurismäki; Finland)
I've never been a fan of Aki Kaurismaki's brand of satire; but there's no doubt that he's an original talent.  This film starts out with a brutal beating and leaves the victim an enigmatic amnesiac...or maybe even dead, I never was quite sure.  The film can be viewed as allegory,  political satire (an anti-capitalism indictment), or straight narrative (least likely).  I had the feeling that if this film were in English the acting would have seemed stolid and the dialog would sound undeliverable or maybe even ridiculous.  But in Finnish it is easier to accept the dead-pan line deliveries.  Still, Kaurismaki has such a vivid and original visual style that it is easy to go with his set-up and just enjoy the originality of the characterizations and the unpredictability of the story.  ** 3/4

CRUEL JOYS (d. Juraj Nvota; Slovakia)
This was one of those Central European period village comedies, which lives or dies on its characterizations and humanism.   The plot is almost incidental, involving an orphaned young girl exiled to live with her filandering, irresponsible father who convinces his best friend, town teacher, to pretend to be her uncle so he can diddle two of the ladies of the village.  Not promising stuff; but the characters are well limned, and the village has a feel good patina which makes the film work.  Nothing special here, just an enjoyable, well made movie which won't make the top 5.  ** 3/4

DEVDAS (d. Sanjay Leela Bhansali; India)
An overwrought Bollywood spectacular, sort of an Indian version of Romeo and Juliette set in the 19th century Raj era.  Quite nice production values, spectacular sets, costumes, gorgeous scope picture and especially vivid sound and music.  Still, it all adds up to a huge banquet of empty calories.  Characters whose motivations are enigmatic, a story that simply doesn't engage an American viewer, nice choreography...but the film mis en scene of the  musical numbers came up short, with the same medium shot setups repeating over and over.  Many on the committee walked out at intermission; and the film didn't improve during the second half the way Laagan did last year.  * 3/4

OGU Y MAMPATO EN RAPA NUI (d. Alejandro Teilez; Chile)
Children's cartoon, so shrill and simplistic that it makes one appreciate Nickelodian's cartoons all the more.  This film apparently was about a kid with a transport belt and his pet gorilla visiting Easter Island.  Apparently Ogu and Mampato are continuing characters in some comic strip universe.  But I found the film absolutely unwachably juvenile.  W/O

ELDRA (d. Tim Lyn; United Kingdom)
A charming children's film about a young gipsy girl whose father serves as gameskeeper for a Welsh lord.  It's a tender coming-of-age story about the summer vacation where she starts to relate to boys.  Marred by poor digital photography which blurs out the too frequent long shots, the film nevertheless kept my interest due to some nice characterizations and an interesting take on the Romany life.  Probably too fluffy for the top five; but still I'm glad I weathered a lingering cold and decided  to return to the theater after walking out of the Chilean cartoon.  ***

A bad chest cold may be affecting my perceptions.  I'm going to keep these reviews short.  

DEAD MAN'S HAND (d. Boon & Brandenbourger; Luxembourg)
Consumerist satire about a bailiff, whose job is to foreclose on the properties of debtors, whose wife becomes a secret compulsive spender.  Fine production values, scope photography and a musical score which underlines the zaniness of the film.  It's a likable film; but I think too light to make the top 5.  ** 3/4

LABYRINTH (d. Miroslav Lekic; Yugoslavia)
Very strange mystery and revenge drama, which reminded me a little of The Skulls:  a strange cabal, mysterious labyrinth, deadly consequences.  The story had atmosphere going for it; but that's about all.  I couldn't care about it, and I also couldn't follow the solving of the labyrinthine puzzle.  * 3/4

SECRETS OF THE YOUNG GIRL (d. Magdi Ahmed Ali; Egypt)
A 15 year old girl (another running motif of this year's competition) delivers a secret premature baby in her aunt's bathroom...and the forces of religion and social customs clamp down on the family.  This was a brave movie to make in Egypt, one imagines.  The story is quite involving; however, as with many Iranian films, there seems to be a disconnect between my concept of human nature and the actions of these characters.  Still, this harrowing film works...its message is important.  ***

MONDAYS IN THE SUN (d. Fernando Leon de Aranoa; Spain)
Spain chose not to send Almodovar's Talk to Me, an almost certain nominee; so this film had a large burden to live up to, which frankly it failed to do.  Imagine Last Orders (denizens of a bar spreading the ashes of one of their own) as directed by Ken Loach, all lefty and concerned for the working man...and you have this film.  Now, that is a recipe for a pretty good film, actually; but it is not a winner here.  *** 1/4.

Unfortunately, due to high fever and bronchitis, I had to miss Tuesday's films.  Zithromax is doing wonders and I may make it to Wednesday's (though I probably shouldn't.)

HEAD NOISE (Slovenia)

Darn, I'm going to miss tonight's screenings, too; and it was the double bill I was most looking forward to during the entire competition.  I apologize to my vast audience for letting them down...but this illness really has given me a scare, and I have to be reasonable.  I'm willing to defy a cold, even a bad one in dedication to my moviegoing jones; but I'm out of my depth here with this bronchitis.

HERO (China)

THE ARCHANGEL'S FEATHER (d. Louis Manzo; Venezuela)
I'm not big on Christian allegorical films...but this one was pleasant enough.  It takes place in a remote Venezuelan provencial town at a time that the telegraph was the sole means of communication with the capitol and central authority (Stalinist parable?  probably) that it represented.  When the old telegraphist dies, a mysterious Gabriel, who may or may not be the actual Archangel Gabriel appears as the new telegraphist with the power to change people's lives with his telegrams.  It's an enjoyable enough film, if nothing special...nicely shot and fairly well acted.  ** 3/4

THE BEST OF TIMES (d. Chang Tso-Chi; Taiwan)
Contemporary family drama.  All I can say is Wow!  I must admit that midway through the film I was wondering why Taiwan, a pretty good film country, would send this film.  It starts out rather aimlessly, a series of tableaux of ordinary family life...and an especially unpleasant and relatively uninteresting family at that.  Static long shots, little character development, it was hard to predict where the film was going.  Most of the audience fled by this point, unfortunately.  I found the central character sympathetic and interesting enough to stick it out and I'm glad I did.  Wei (played by future superstar Wing Fan) is 19.  His twin sister is dying of leukemia, as did his mother.  He has a nothing job as a parking valet at a sex club and he's mostly into Bruce Lee and not much else.  He also has a dorky cousin his age, a magician wannabe who obviously is going to cause trouble.  And the two of them do get into trouble, big time, as the film throws everything at the two cousins but the kitchen sink; and then drops that on top of them.  I found myself devastated by this crude little film.  Chang is no Edward Yang, though there is obviously an influence.  I can't even put my finger on why this unconventional film is so powerful...despite its weird narrative structure which, in the final analysis, goes off the rail and could have ruined the film in the last 10 minutes.   But it does exert a powerful jolt.  It's certainly among the best films of the year; and it's a shame that it was so slow to start and so difficult to get into that this audience never gave it a chance.  *** 1/2

BROKEN WINGS (d. Nir Bergman; Israel)
Realistic and touching drama about a family unit, mom and four kids, disintegrating from despair and  grief after losing the father 9 months previously.  Done in a spare, naturalistic style with some fine actors who hardly seemed to be acting, the film avoids grief cliches and is ultimately life affirming.  Two years in a row, Israel has sent a fine film to this competition.  Last year's film (Late Marriage) certainly deserved a nomination, but was unaccountably overlooked.   Certainly this film isn't the original tour de force that Late Marriage was; but perhaps it will find a more congenial reception here.  A nomination is possible.  *** 1/4

EL CRIMEN DEL PADRE AMARO (The Crime of Father Amaro) (d. Carlos Carrera; Mexico)
Father Amaro is an ambitious, but naive young priest sent for his first posting to a village parish mired in sin and corruption.  His fall from grace is monumental.  The film has the satiric overtones of a Luis Buñuel film, complete with that filmmaker's rabid anti-Catholicism.  Even burdened with the melodramatic overload stemming from its 1875 novel (updated to 2002) provenance, it was effective filmmaking, seems to me.  Gael Garcia Bernal as the attractive priest once again gives a career-making performance (next stop Hollywood superstardom).  It's hard to gauge the committee's response.  Certainly the applause at the end was sustained...but I fear that the film was too controversial to get enough points for a nomination.  *** 1/4

AIME TON PERE (d. Jacob Berger; Switzerland)
Gerard Depardieu, in one of his best recent roles, plays a conflicted, complex author, just awarded the Nobel Prize.  His real-life son, Guillaume Depardieu, plays his estranged son, long exiled from the family (which also includes the long suffering daughter who has stayed home to care for her father).  The film is basically a road picture, as son and father are reunited to continue a lifetime of feuding on the way to Stockholm.  Well made, good script, beautiful scope photography, fine acting throughout.  This one is a potential nominee.  *** 1/4

KAMCHATKA (d. Marcelo Piñeyro; Argentina)
If there is any justice, this one is a certain nominee as it is an emotional powerhouse and a nearly great movie to boot.  It is the story of one family:  father, mother, older boy, 10, and his younger brother, 6, in 1976 when the Argentine military junta was starting the political purges which made thousands of people "disappeared".  Told from the point of view of the intelligent, if politically naive, elder boy, the film is never about the politics and all about family dynamics ...think Running on Empty with even more dire consequences and you have an approximation of this film.  It's a beautiful film to watch, lush wide screen photography featuring amazing Argentinian landscapes.  The writing is superb, a series of well observed childhood memories in a larger context just beyond the frame.  All the acting is first rate.  This one is an authentic contender for the Oscar.  *** 3/4

O DELFIM (d. Fernando Lopes; Portugal)
Contemporary drama about a rich, possibly noble family:  husband, wife, one-handed black servent, and 3-legged dog.  The film becomes a murky, confused story of murder (or maybe suicide...told you it was murky) and noblesse oblige.  Pretentious and boring almost beyond belief; but the Portugese seem to send this sort of film to the Academy about every other year on average. *

CA-BAU-KAN (d. Nia Dinata; Indonesia)
Colorful historic drama about a young Javanese girl who becomes a pleasure girl for various men and seemingly the entire Japanese army.  It mostly takes place in the 1930s and during the war and its aftermath, with a present day story which supposedly wraps it up.  It was interesting to look at; but truly bad in terms of horrible over-acting, a shapeless script, uninspired direction.  The Javanese girl was quite lovely, and actually was an effective actress...it's as if she was inhabiting a different film from the rest of the cast, who were truly, pathetically bad.  * 1/2

THE LAST TRAIN (d. Diego Arsuaga; Uruguay)
Three old men and a boy steal a vintage steam locomotive to raise a media ruckus and keep it from being sold to Hollywood to be used as a movie prop.  Rather predictable, rather emotionally manipulative, it's the kind of film which is almost designed as Oscar bait.  Starring the ubiquitous Federico Luppi (is there any Hispanic film that he isn't in lately?) and one of my favorite S. American actors, Gaston Pauls as the young entrepreneur who wants to make a buck from selling Uruguay's heritige to the gringos.  I'd be disappointed, but not surprised, if this underdog sneaks into the top five as a last-day heartwarmer.  ** 3/4

PHILANTHROPY (d. Nae Caranfil; Romania)
A black social satire about a poor high-school teacher who becomes part of a master plan to organize the beggars of Romania.  It involves a shady philanthropic Foundation and a man of mystery who thrives by writing scripts for the beggars, including a scam for our hero where he rips off high tone restaurants. On the side, the teacher also pretends he's a rich arrivist to impress the ladies.  Sometimes funny, sometimes inscrutable to non-Romanians, I suppose this one has an outside chance as the audience obviously was enjoying its convoluted plot.  ** 3/4

HERO (d. Zhang Yimou; China)
Because it was nominated, I had the opportunity of seeing one of the films I missed, namely Zhang Yimou's fabulously beautiful historic epic of the legendary clash of the Qin Emperor and his unnamed potential assassin.  The film is reminiscent of several previous films...Crouching Tiger; certainly, for its emphasis on magical swordsmanship (and a couple of scenes even top that memorable film in terms of beauty and thrill).  The Last Emperor, too, since so much of the film took place in the same Forbidden city "set" and had a similar look to it.  Even Rashomon (for the way the same history is told in several versions) and Ran (for the choreography of the battles), and all of the incredibly beautiful stuff in previous Zhang films (flowing colorful fabrics from Red Sorghum and Jou Dou, ravishing compositions from Raise the Red Lantern.)  But the film was cold and strangly uninvolving for me...and its repitition of events became somewhat tiring.  But still, the epic quality, the perfection of the filmic technique, the sheer bravura of the enterprise makes for a modern classic.  Plus a hugely wonderful cast with five major action actors at the top of their physical form, if not their emotional peak.  It might not have made my best five...but it would have been up there, and I'm not surprised at its nomination. ***

OPEN HEARTS   (d. Susanne Bier; Denmark)
I finally got to see one of the three other films I missed during the competition, since it got an arthouse release.  The film is one of the better Dogme 95 films; but one can see why the Academy didn't go for it:  they've never chosen a Dogme film yet.  Well acted by the central foursome (I was especially glad to be able to see another film with one of my favorite actors Nikolaj Kaas from Truly Human and The Idiots, this actor is making a career out of doing Dogme films).  A bittersweet story about the loss of love.  ***

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