(All films rated on a **** scale) 
This year's festival is the first I've been to which takes place at one venue, namely the plush ArcLight multiplex.  The screening rooms are quite nice, with comfortable seats and excellent projection and sound facilities.  However, having five festival screenings going on at once in one hallway makes for extreme congestion, and in truth the festival is showing some disorganization pains:  late starts and frequent changes of venues without adequate notification.   Hopefully this will all shake out and things will start going more smoothly.  At least this year no Vogue Theater!  For that boon, the organizers get a free ride from me for quite a while.

Friday 11/8/2002
RESPIRO [France, Italy Dir: Emanuele Crialese]
The festival started with a bang with this gorgeously photographed, intimate, Sicilian fisherfolk family saga.  The film is a heady return to neo-realism, a sun drenched Bicycle Thief, populated mostly by non-actors...including gangs of pre-teen boys whose idea of fun is staging mock seaside battles and pantsing each other.  One can't help but contrast the utter unsentimentality of this little gem with the gloppiness of Giuseppe Tornatore's films which inhabit the same general milieu.  One aspect which dominates this film is the relationship of the characters with the sea.  The final scene, an underwater shot, is one of the most memorable visuals in the history of cinema...though I'm not sure what it added up to.  *** 1/4

I'M WITH LUCY [U.S.  Dir: Jon Serman II]
Fine cast, the perky Monica Potter has five intercut rebound blind dates with such diverse luminaries as Henry Thomas, David Boreanz, Anthony LaPaglia, Gael Garcia Bernal and John Hanna, after being rejected by her fiancee in an elevator (played by Craig Bierko in what turns out to be the silly comic highlight of the entire film.)  The only suspense is that we know one of these dates leads to an upcoming wedding...but which character is the groom is unknown.  Good idea, but this is one romantic comedy which is all sizzle and no bacon.  Nary a laugh to be heard in the audience (though I personally tittered solo a couple of times at the banality of it all).  Gael Garcia Bernal is hot as ever and speaks good English!  That's 10 times more than Julie Cristie (playing Potter's mother)  manages with NewYorkese.  What an embarrassing turn for this Oscar caliber actress.  The Q&A with the director discloses that this is a French film, made with French money (a shocking $12 million budget, which hardly shows on screen), and is being non-distributed in the U.S. by Sony.  Straight to video.   * 1/2

SONNY [U.S., Dir: Nicolas Cage]
What happens when actors attempt to direct?  Often spectacular showcases for acting, and this film is no exception.  True to his image, Cage has led his talented cast to the edge of going over the top (a definite danger when Brenda Blethyn is involved in any film) and pulled them back on the verge.  James Franco is one of the best actors of his generation, with an eerie resemblance to James Dean (one scene where he contemplates his unknown father by telling a story about him in front of a shotgun blast in a brothel wall makes a fitting Dean homage.)  Here he plays Sonny,  literally the son of a whore, who is trying to escape his past as New Orleans heterosexual hustler trained by his mother to the trade from the age of 12.  Franco is spot on perfect, alternately charming and sexy to his older lady tricks (Brenda Viccaro is one of the memorable ones), and full of anger as he tries to escape the trap that his life is.  Blethyn plays Southern madame matriarch with ripe fulsomeness; and Harry Dean Stanton does his usual seedy reprobate perfectly.  I was also impressed by Mena Suvari as a young prostitute who falls for Franco's Sonny, and Nick Cage himself, almost unrecognizable in a minor cameo as the king pimp in a gay brothel.    Southern Gothic for sure; but lots of fun.  ***

THE SLAUGHTER RULE [U.S. Dir: Alex & Andrew Smith]
This prototypical American indie production is difficult to gauge.  Beautifully photographed in 2-perf 35mm turned into scope, the film features the chilly vistas of wintry Montana and the hardscrabble lives of the ranchers and Indians who inhabit the landscape.  It also is an uncommonly interesting character study of two men, one a high-school football player cut from the team for lack of killer instinct, the other a "manly man" drifter, who leaves Texas under a cloud of scandal and settles in the Montana highlands to resume his calling as a coach of the rough and tumble game of 6-man football.  David Morse plays the coach in a career defining role which simply raises him to another level as an actor (here is one actor who is constantly being re-defined...hard to believe he could be better than he was in Dancer in the Dark; but here he outdoes that for complexity of characterization).  Ryan Gosling plays the quarterback/rancher kid with a smirking vacuity and huge depths of compassion.  Gosling has the potential to be a true movie star.  He seems to glow on screen with a luminance that the camera can't avoid.  The film is almost a great film.  Certainly the performances and the cinematography are up to that level.  The film  reminded me a little of another spare masterpiece of rural Americana, The Last Picture Show; but its latent homosexual subtext differs from that film; and  I fear that this little gem will fail to connect with its potential audience.  *** 1/2

ABOUT THE LIVING [Mex. Dir: Jorge Aquilera]
A difficult film about the corrosive effects of grief on a middle class Mexican family.  The film was shot in a series of little scenes, fade in, fade out, with no discernible narrative thread.  Apparently the daughter was killed in an accident about a decade before the present day action, and the film shows the various effects on the mother, father, and teenage brother (who was a young boy at the time of the accident.)  Artful, beautifully photographed, powerful in its imagery and evocation of emotional despair.  Yet, also boring and narratively opaque.  I can't entirely dismiss it, since the filmmaking was skillful; but I didn't enjoy the film.  **

MAN ON THE TRAIN [Fr. Dir: Patrice Leconte]
Patrice Leconte returns to form after the disastrous Felix and Lola.  This is an atmospheric thriller about two elderly men: a meek, retired teacher and a possibly over the hill bank robber, who are thrown together in a small French town and somehow merge their disparate identities.  The film features two really splendid performances.  Jean Rochefort (who hopefully from the evidence of this film may again be healthy enough to do Terry Gilliam's Don Quixote) plays the teacher with hidden depths and fantasies of being an outlaw.  And Johnny Hallyday, whom I remember as French pop-star singing idol of the '60s, is truly fabulous as the aging gangster who yearns to go straight.  As a character study this is outstanding.  As a transcendental thriller...well, it worked for me.  *** 1/4

This is a quirky, romantic film about an ophthalmologist (played by a sweeter tempered Luis Guzman look-alike) who is thrown off kilter by the death of his stewardess wife and returns to the place he originally met her (the wintery, forbidding yet strangely beautiful Falkland Islands) to strew her ashes in the sea and then kill himself.  There he encounters an equally screwed up stewardess (played by the wonderful Spanish actress Ingrid Rubio), and the film develops rather predictably from there.  This sort of film works if the actors generate a mutual spark...and here I have to say they don't.  Still, the film was a pleasant enough diversion.  I'd like to note for future reference that Daniel Hendler plays a memorable, rather off-the-wall, engaging Uraguayan-Jewish taxi driver.  He should have been the star of the film.   ** 3/4

Sunday turned out to be a good movie day.  Three innovative and kinetic (though frankly plotless) films at the festival, and one faux-Hollywood classic at the Academy.  The festival has also managed to get their act together, figured out how to handle long lines and sell-outs without hall congestion and best of all managed to start all the films reasonably on time!  I'm finding that I'm not all that interested in doing these reviews in any depth.  There are too many distractions right now to spend the time on them, and I can't force it.

SUNDAY 11/10
MORVERN CALLAR [Can., UK  Dir: Lynne Ramsay 97min.]
Ramsay burnishes her reputation as an a-list arty filmmaker with this character study of a working class Scottish girl who goes off the reservation when her lover, a struggling writer that we never get to know, suicides.  Samantha Morton gives a wonderful performance as the naive but innately canny (or devilishly lucky)  Morvern Callar, a character which might have been pulled from any random Van Trier film (and truthfully, with hardly any changes, this could have been a Dogme 95 film).   I'm not sure why I liked the film as much as I did, since when I think about it, not much happens.  There is a fun parody of a Club Med for Brits kind of trip to Spain.  *** 1/4

THIS IS NOT A LOVE SONG  [UK  Dir: Bille Eltringham]
Here is an example of a film shot on digital which uses the medium to its advantage.  All hand-held, kinetic, frenetic...like a dash of fresh air when it is handled by somebody who knows how to do it right (even though the film looks terrible).  The story isn't much:  two lunkhead petty criminals get chased through the Scottish countryside by vengeful farmers after one of them more or less accidentally kills a farmer's young daughter (the murder scene itself is a masterpiece of fast cuts and use of music and sound to show the panicked mental state of the character.)  There were a number of plot flaws...but the piece worked for me since I was sucked into the plight of the characters despite their unattractiveness.  ** 3/4

FAR FROM HEAVEN [U.S.  Dir: Todd Haynes]
Not a festival film...but quite a treat.  I remained emotionally distanced from the film, unlike what happened to me when I watched the prototype films during the actual '50s and inevitably found the tears flowing like rivers.  But I think that is inherent in the way that Haynes directed the film...this is emphatically not a '50s film, even though it looks like one.  *** 1/2

SNAKESKIN  [New Zealand  Dir: Gillian Ashurst]
My favorite film of the festival so far...a knockout road picture in the Thelma and Louise tradition.  Again, not much of a plot.  Two Hollywood image-obsessed New Zealanders (well played by Heavenly Creatures actress Melanie Lynskey and simpatico actor Dean O'Gorman) pick up an American hitchhiker (in a starmaking turn by American actor Boyd Kestner) who is the epitome of their cowboy fantasy.  They get involved in a complex chase by a carfull of skinheads and a group of drug dealing hippie criminal types.   A mixture of fantasy and trenchant social satire, the film is still approachable on an action level and probably deserves a release if some studio has the guts to put it out.  *** 1/4

MONDAY 11/11
THE CUCKOO  [Russia  Dir. Alexander Rogozhkin]
Reminiscent (though not as brilliantly satirical) of last year's Oscar winner, No Man's Land, this is a story of three people involved in the follies of a war zone, in this case Lappland during the Finnish/Soviet engagements of WWII.  The three are a young Finnish soldier, a Russian deserter (?), and a Lapp widow.  The crux is that none of the three speaks a common language, and each has to accommodate to the others.  Entertaining film, well made, beautifully photographed, with a solid script, fine acting by the three principals.  ***

A LUCKY DAY [Arg. Italy  Dir: Sandra Gugliotta]
Somebody is going to like this movie about a young Argentinian girl who chases an unknown lover to Sicily after a one-night stand.  I could not get engaged by the main character or anything else (except for the Italian scenery); and worst of all, the hand held camera work was so amateurish that I was seasick watching the film.  *

SHATTERED GLASS [Ger. Dir:  Chris Kraus]
A serious family drama, reminiscent of the Dogme film Festen,  in that it exposes an upper class family's dirty past secrets over the course of the film.  Two brothers, now estranged (the younger dying of leukemia and needing a bone marrow transplant), cold father, insane mother.  The film has a complex but very fine script which shows in flashbacks how the family came to be the way it is today.  Beautifully acted, directed with assurance and skill, altogether a satisfying serious film drama.  *** 1/2

OKAY [Denmark  Dir: Jesper W. Nielsen]
Denmark should have nominated this film for the foreign film Oscar...it would have found its audience with the Academy.   This one is a sort of black comedy about three generations of a modern Danish family.  Emotionally detached grandfather is dying estranged from his gay son, when he is taken in by his daughter's family who are in the midst of marital and family troubles of their own.  Funny, moving, well observed, well acted throughout, this one is really growing on me.  *** 1/4

SAMSARA  [Ger./Ind.  Dir: Pan Nalin]
I use the term masterpiece rarely (but maybe even too often.)  If any film in the past couple of years qualifies as one, this one does.  A combination of agrarian epic (e.g. Earth and  spiritual journey (lots of examples, but frankly none as good as this one, in my experience).  Glorious scope cinematography, literally shot at the ends of the earth,  in the High Himalayan plains of India.  Superb, subtle acting...especially on the part of the lead, a dedicated Buddhist monk who rejoins secular society when his sexuality and love for a woman overcomes his ability to withstand temptation.  However, it is not a film solely comprised of moral lessons.  Rather it is also an earthy drama and a love story which touches a spiritual place in even the most rationalist viewer.   This is the film that 7 Years in Tibet wishes it could have been; and if Bertolluci had managed to cast Shawn Ku in Little Buddha, then that film might have been nearly as good as this one. ****

HYPNOTIZED & HYSTERICAL (HAIRSTYLIST WANTED) (Filles perdues, cheveux gras) [Fr.  Dir: Claude Duty]
I guess that the musical is rife in the current day French Zeitgeist.   I liked the pop flavored musical stuff here a lot more than in the recent 8 Women,  but other than that, there isn't much to recommend this mess of a film.  Featuring three fallen women with issues (my favorite story is that of the alcoholic hairdresser), the film keeps going downhill into incomprehensibility as it goes along.  However, there is a nicely turned caddish performance by Charles Berling; but Sergei Lopez is completely wasted in a role of a a guru of native South American  spirituality (including a nicely done piece of modern Disneyesque animation which feels really out of place here.)  The film doesn't go anyplace; but the trip was interesting anyway. ** 1/2

INTACTO  [Spain  Dir:Juan Carlos Fresnadillo]
The Spanish make good thrillers...and this one qualifies.  I left the theater totally energized by the film, although the premise is pretty shaky:   how there are so-called "lucky people" who can steal other people's luck and then play gambling games for the highest stakes of all.  Leonardo Sbaraglia is one of the most magnetic presences in films today, and Max von Sydow adds a dimension of gravity to the film as the luckiest Holocaust survivor.  It's hard to rate this film, because on the one hand it is silly and doesn't hold much water as a premise.  On the other hand it is a compelling, beautifully made thriller which had me riveted to the screen throughout.  So I'll rate it ***.

SOLITUDE  [U.S.  Susan Kraker, Pi Ware]
Shot in DV and screened here using  l:1.33 aspect ratio digital projection, the film still looked good...better than 16mm on the ArcLight big screen, proving once again that digital is a viable alternative to film when it is done well.  Solitude is a strong, intimate three character drama about the dynamic between a thirtysomething brother and sister in a dysfunctional Phoenix family when the sister introduces a potential lesbian lover into the equation.  Newcomer to me Patrick Belton plays the  perceptive brother in a performance of verbal skill which gives Campbell Scott as Roger Dodger a run for his money.  During the Q&A, one man in the audience offered the opinion that Belton was "really hot"...and I'd have to agree.  The interplay between the characters hints at dark subtexts like incest and suicide; but the script, like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which it is clearly modeled after, is full of deliciously subtle dialog that is immaculately delivered.  Altogether a satisfying drama.  *** 1/4

NOTHING MORE  [Cuba  Dir: Juan Carlos Malberti]
Comedy often doesn't travel well between cultures.  The over-the-top slapstick and gratuitous color special effects of this Cuban mish-mash about a female postal worker who steals letters and rewrites them to try to better the world (or something like that), didn't add to my enjoyment or understanding of the film.  The Spanish speakers in the audience seemed to appreciate the humor more than I did, which leads me to believe that there must have been something in the dialog or presentation which wasn't getting through to me through the subtitles.  But I found the film tedious and stupid beyond belief.   *

THE DANCER UPSTAIRS  [Equador,Italy,Spain Dir: John Malkovich]
Malkovich is one actor/director who seems to care about the subtleties of the story rather than allowing his film to become a lesson in acting.  This political thriller is about a fictitious Latin American country faced with a years'  long revolution patterned after Peru's Shining Path.  Javier Bardem underplays nicely an honest police captain fighting the bureaucracy, the military, and his own emotional involvement with a woman to try to catch the mysterious leader of the revolution who goes by the nom de guerre of Ezekial.  The low budget film looked a little dingy, and the story dragged a bit at times.  But all in all a pretty satisfying film.  One of my favorite Spanish actors, Juan Diego Botto, was featured prominently as Bardem's assistant.  One can be thankful for small favors.  ** 3/4

SWEET 16  [Ger.,Sp.,UK  Dir: Ken Loach]
Loach turns to a story about a cocky, resilient teenage boy (a remarkable performance by Martin Compston): step-father an abusive drug dealer, mother in prison, sister a teenage unwed mother, best friend a psycho.  Yet he's determined to make a place for him and his mum before his 16th birthday.  A remarkable film by this master of  films about the British underclasses.  This one was immensely helped by subtitles throughout, since the Scottish cockney would have been impossible for me to comprehend without them.  My favorite Loach film since Ladybird, Ladybird.   *** 1/2

A MAP OF THE HEART (Der Felsen)  [Ger.  Dir:  Dominik Graf]
Shot in murky digital video transferred to film, committing most of the sins of the format....unsteady anarchic camerawork with too many moves and cuts.  Yet, somehow the film ends up working,  getting stronger as it goes along.   Actually, the film starts out as the boring story of a couple...married boss and his female assistant...at a conference in Corsica which has turned into a vacation romance.  A half hour of this and I'm ready to walk.  Then the real story starts...the couple splits after a spat and the woman takes up with a teenage hustler who is serving his sentence for murdering his father back in Berlin in a work camp on the island,  while also caring for his orphaned younger brother.  The moment the actor (Antonio Wannek) playing the boy takes over the film, the film literally becomes transformed into something the audience really cares about.  Suddenly even the lousy digital photography and wildly inappropriate camera work are transposed like magic into acceptability, since finally we care about the characters and the story is working.  Amazing how that happens.  It's as if two entirely different films are being presented at once.  Anyway:  * for the 1st half, *** 1/2 for the second half.

VAYA CON DIOS  [Germany  Dir:  Zoltan Spirandelli]
This is a fun little comic road picture about a group of singing monks of an apostate order (the Cantorians) whose monastery is being repossessed as the abbot lay dying.  The three remaining monks set off on a trip to Italy to join the only remaining group of their order.  Along the way they're tempted by worldly things.  Trifling, but fun, this first feature does have the advantage of really wonderful, lush scope cinematography and a great soundtrack of liturgical choir work.  It sounds very unlikely; but the film does work because the characters are so sympathetically drawn (especially the young monk Arbo, sweetly played by Daniel Bruhl, who was so good in the film No Regrets that I saw earlier in the year in Seattle.)  ***

FRIDAY 11/15
CHAOS AND DESIRE (La turbulence des fluides)  [Canada Dir: Manon Briand]
Part scientific thriller, part love story, part hokum, this lush scope production stars Pascal Bussieres in a beautifully modulated performance as a scientist returning to her birthplace in Quebec to examine a strange natural phenomenon whereby the tides in a certain part of the St. Laurence River estuary are failing to rise.  There's another superb performance here:  Jean-Nicolas Verriault plays a super-scooper pilot who has been widowered when his wife disappeared into the water after a plane crash.  All sorts of water symbolism and strange metaphysical happenings in this small town.   I found the film interesting and even moving...but one has to say that it was hard to suspend disbelief at most of the plot.  ** 3/4

SLEEPING ROUGH (Tussenland)  [Neth.  Dir: Eugene Jansen]
A Dutch TV movie shot on film...but one wonders what the hell for?   This one is a character study of an embittered, lonely old man,  who sort of befriends a teenage Sudanese refugee...though "sort of" is the key.  Nothing much happens.  There's some sort of commentary of how the Dutch are ignoring their colonial past, as the old man reminisces about his younger days in the Dutch East Indies.  But the connection between that and the colony of blacks is tenuous at best.  There is one great performance here, a minor part of an Alzheimer lady whose face really contains the vacuity of the malady.  But I was put off by the slow pace and lack of any hook with which to get involved.  I suppose it is an honorable failure...but a failure nevertheless.  **

XX/XY  [U.S.  Dir:  Austin Chick]
This one is a very, very interesting American indie with some great performances.  I'll admit that I almost walked out after 20 minutes, as the extended prolog flashback was insufferable:  a sex triangle involving two Sarah Lawrence students and a thoroughly dislikable opportunist young man (played bravely as a child-man by the excellent actor Mark Ruffalo).  Ick.  It was shot in claustrophobic close ups and the self-involved characters and their actions were despicable and uninteresting.  Then the film shifts to the current day and introduces Petra Wright's character, a strong woman who provides the audience with an anchor into the real world;  and, much like Map of the Heart yesterday, the entire film turned around on a dime.  Suddenly I found myself involved in the story; and even though Ruffalo's character remained despicable, I cared about what happened to him and the other characters.  The film also opened up and became more true, with some remarkable observations about the dynamics of modern relationships.  So all in all a successful film, though I wouldn't have believed it after the opening 20 minutes.  *** 1/4

CHIHWASEON  [Korea  Dir: Im Kwon-Taek]
Beautifully made biopic about a 19th century Korean artist who rose from humble servant class to famous master.  Most of the politics and history were obscure and unknown to me; still the film cohered, and was one of the few films of its type to really convey the beauty of the Asian naturalistic aesthetic and the creative artistic spirit, as well as the life story of the protagonist.  An impressive film which deserves to get a release.  *** 1/4

CITY OF NO LIMITS  [Arg.Spain  Dir: Antonio Hernandez]
Leonardo Sbaraglia strikes again in an impressive performance in this thriller cum dysfunctional  family saga spanning 40 years, cum enigma film.  The plot is like the peeling away of layers of an onion...figure something out and there are still several layers of  disclosures to come.  Fernando Fernan Gomez, and especially Geraldine Chaplin as the parents with a dark, secret past, were also pretty incredible.  I think another viewing would be necessary to figure out all the complexities of the plot.  But as an atmospheric thriller this one works, thanks largely to a director who knows his onions.  *** 1/4

LOVE THE HARD WAY  [Ger.  Dir:  Peter Sehr]
Another good film, good job AFI programmers!!   This one is an English language film set in New York; but with a Euro sensibility.  It's about a group of petty grifters led by Adrian Brody, an actor whose career highlights seems to be made up mostly of  high quality "foreign" films...i.e.. Loach and Polanski can't do a serious actor any harm.  Brody has an interesting, oddball personality and physicality which shines in this sort of film.  Here he plays a real heel, who corrupts a nice Columbia girl (Charlotte Ayanna, who is this close to stardom); the two leads have real magnetism in this off-kilter love story.   One of the best things in the film is the hard-boiled vice cop played by Pam Greer.   ***

I decided to watch the Chysler Millennium short film contest compilation for the late show, which was a waste of time.

SUNDAY 11/17
GETTING MY BROTHER LAID [Ger.  Dir: Sven Taddicken]
Well, it was bound to happen.  The last day of the festival and a couple of stinkers.  This one is the story of a weird family...retard with a good heart celebrating his 30th birthday with an awakening of his sexual urges; virgin younger sister looking to get laid;  "normal" middle brother coping with trying to have a "normal" relationship with his girlfriend despite the chaos of his living arrangements.  None of these characters engage the viewer.  The ending is amazingly badly conceived, undercutting any good will that might have existed in an accepting audience.  * 1/2

GRILL POINT  [Ger.  Dir:  Andreas Dresen]
A digital video film which could easily have qualified for a Dogme 95 certificate.  It's a slice-of-life drama about two ordinary (even dowdy) married couples mutually involved in mid-life relationship crises.  The film looks dingy and digitized, with the usual bad camerawork; but the characters do come across as people with understandable problems, and occasionally there are funny observations and some good dialog.  So the film almost worked for me.  It just went on and on, and the characters and their problems weren't all that interesting to begin with.  **

TATTOO  [Ger.  Dir: Robert Schwentke]
I almost skipped this one; but I'm glad I watched it.  A policier thriller reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs  or Se7en.  In other words, not very original...but still skillfully done with a directorial touch which compares well to Demme and Fincher in those films (praise indeed for this novice director).  August Diehl, as the young, rookie cop who is out of his league on this case,  is a talent to watch (he was also an impressive presence in yesterday's Love the Hard Way).   The film looks good, high gloss super-35 scope...lots of atmospheric shots of Berlin at night.  I'm going to watch for more films from this creative team.  ***

So that's it for this year's AFI festivalThe move to the ArcLight proved to be successful by any metric...large crowds and many sell-out screenings, but no problems for me in getting to any of the screenings I had chosen, since they were all on the same floor of the huge multiplex.  All the screening rooms were fine, with perfect picture and sound and very comfortable seats.  Even the projectionists did an admirable job in all 6 theaters, as far as I was able to determine.  Every year this festival gets better; and it does seem like there is an extraordinarily high proportion of films that I enjoyed here this year.   Can't wait until next year!

Return to Ken Rudolph's Home Page