The spring of 2003 I'm going to attend the "Premiere" screenings at the American Film Market in Santa Monica, while also doing the Spanish film series at American Cinemathèque for the 9th year in a row in Hollywood.  Also, I've added comments about the French film series.  I've quite a series of films lined up; and if I last through it, I'll be updating my journal below.  I've also added the titles from the City of Lights/City of Angels French film festival.

The American Film Market titles are in black.
The American Cinemathèque Spanish series film titles in red
The French (City of Lights/City of Angels) film titles are in violet.

All ratings are based on **** being truly great.

Feb. 19, 2003
BETWEEN LAND AND SKY (d. Guiseppe Feruto )
Italian political satire about a family man, recently laid off from his job, who climbs on top of the factory chimney and proclaims a hunger strike as a protest against his condition.  His personal problems get subsumed by all sorts of geopolitical issues in the media circus which ensues.  Occasionally clever script; but the film never quite catches fire for an American audience...probably because the local politics are so parochially Italian.  Still, it was sporadically diverting and well acted.  ** 1/2

NO DEBES ESTAR AQUI (d. Jacobo Rispa)
A Spanish thriller, sort of in the vein of Intacto, but not nearly as well written or directed.  In fact, despite a notable cast (which includes a couple of my favorite Spanish actors, Tristan Ulloa and Pablo Echaari), the film is a potboiler of dubious interest.  It's about a group of young people who are drawn into a deadly game in an Internet chat room.  The computer stuff (chat rooms and web cams) was fairly realistic, actually, which is a pleasant change from the way this is usually dealt with in movies.  But the story was confusing and, frankly ridiculous.  Despite everything, I guessed the trick ending too soon.  Just a snarky one-trick pony which wastes a good cast.  *

I'm not sure whether this gangster comedy is a Scottish film or an American one.  In any case, it's about two American mobsters from New Jersey who run afoul of the Ukrainian mob in a deal which went badly, and escape to hide out  with their innocent Scottish cousins in Glasgow.  Pedestrian script and direction, mediocre acting (even by such pros as Dan Hedaya and Danny Nucci as the Americans).  The film looks good; but it certainly is no Local Hero, though that film is an obvious influence.  **

BUBBA HO-TEP (d. Don Coscarelli)  Imagine an old folks home with a delusional Elvis (or is it the real one) and a black JFK in a fight to the death against an evil Egyptian mummy.  Can't quite get your mind around this?  It's funny, well acted (Bruce Campbell is wonderful as Elvis, and Ossie Davis makes a convincing JFK (heh!)).  But I've never been a fan of this kind of silliness.  Still some audiences are going to eat it up, and I figure it has a fine future as a cult favorite and midnight movie.  ** 3/4.

Feb. 21
MADELEINE (d. Park Kwang-Chung)
  Hie-jin (Shin Min-a)  is a hair dresser, just out of bad relationship, pretty but into computer games and daydreaming.  Ji-Seoh (Jo In-seong)  is a dreamy boy, attractive, intellectual.  This mis-matched couple were silent admirers back in middle school 10 years previously in Pusan.  They meet again in Seoul and decide to start a one month relationship with firm rules.  Needless to say, the path of love doesn't go so smoothly.   Nicely shot in scope with two charismatic, attractive leads, the film is familiar stuff, but well observed and for me an altogether diverting two hours.   ***

A GOOD NIGHT TO DIE (d. Craig Singer)
Michael Rappaport and Gary Stretch play two ill-fated hit men somehow connected with the New York mob.  The film wants to be an atmospheric character driven thriller, a Maltese Falcon or L.A. Confidential, but its arty pretentiousness makes it more like a low budget, screwball Year of the Dragon.  The film wastes several good actors in cameo roles, notably Frank Whaley who mugs outrageously, Seymour Cassell and Deborah Harry as mob bosses, Lainie Kazan as a coke sniffing, matronly moll, Ally Sheedy and Ralph Macchio (where has he been?  he still has the chops!) as a hit couple named Donny and Marie.  The overload of directoral trickery (slo-mo and time-lapse scenes etc., jumbled, confusing chronology only possible to follow with title supers) and genre clichés doom the film to the graveyard of wasted celluloid.   * 3/4

MAN'S BEST FRIEND (d. Rob Lundsgaard)
This one is a romantic comedy/farce about a young straight guy (nicely played with authentic sexual ambiguity by Alexander Chaplin) who is mistakenly identified as gay and uses the mix-up to court the girl.  It sounds like hokum, but the script rarely falters (the minor characters are amusingly well written) and the film never loses its focus.  The title refers to the "affair" that the two leads' dogs have, which provides a metaphor for the central relationship.  This film should be picked up by gay film festivals.  It is a great example of a straight sensibility integrating well with the gay milieu (sort of the antidote to Lane Janger's horrendously faux gay/straight movie Just One Time.)  ***

MADE UP (d.Tony Shalhoub)
A genuinely funny and touching mockumentary about making a documentary about older women and their issues.  Brooke Adams  (who really looks much the same as she did 25 years ago in Days of Heaven) plays a depressed  former actress whose cosmetologist wannabe daughter (played winningly by Susan Sarandon's daughter Eva Amurri) wants to apply her beautician's wiles to try to help her mother to either win back former husband (Gary Sinese) from his snarky new and pregnant girlfriend, or date new beau (successful resturanteur played by director, Tony Shalhoub).  The documentary is a family affair, supposedly directed by Brooke's older sister and shot by cousins.  Nice cast, the film is in the same vein of mocumentaries that Christopher Guest has been successfully mining; but this one has a more humanist, less mocking tone which for me was  thought provoking and humorous.  *** 1/4

EL OTRO LADO DE LA CAMA (The Wrong Side of the Bed) (d. Emilio Martinez-Lazaro)
A Spanish musical farce with well integrated singing and dancing sequences which don't obtrude on the farce.  It's a complex story of a group of friendly couples who secretly have affairs with the partners of their friends in mix-and-match couples, straight and lesbian.  That the story is at all coherent is a tribute to some good writing and acting.  The musical numbers are mostly spoken and subtly danced, and for some reason (maybe that I liked the actors and the songs) seemed to work very well with the story.  Ernesto Alterio is an actor to watch, even though he plays a sexist heel here.  ***

Maybe it is a mistake to give equivalency to the American Film Market films and the Cinematheque's Spanish series films.  The latter are so much superior on average that any comparison is bound to be invidious.  Still, I'm attending both events simultaneously, one a long schlepp to Santa Monica with its parking and traffic difficulties during the day, the other within walking distance of my apartment (though I rarely make the 10 block walk!).at night.  For me it is all one big film festival.

Feb. 22
(d. Harvey Kahn)
Nathan Fillion (who plays the captain in the unsuccessful tv series "Firefly" and obviously has the charisma for a successful career) is the only good thing going in this disasterous melodrama which is so bad it provokes audience titters at times.  Avoid it like the plague.  It isn't even worth taking the time for a plot synopsis.   1/2*

800 BULLETS (d. Alex de la Iglesia)
I hated the first de la Iglesia film (Perdito Durango) that I saw, a film with every ridiculous excess of overacting and over the top action one could imagine.  Then I saw La Communidad  last year, and turned around 180 degrees in my opinion of the director, whose over-amped style now seemed refreshing and controlled.  The current film, a wild homage to the American Western (particularly the spaghetti Westerns made in the Spanish desert), simply confirms my opinion that this director is a modern film master.  It's the present day story of a grizzled stunt-man for these old Westerns (supposedly Clint Eastwood's double), who runs a tired wild-West show on the Western town set of these old films.  Sancho Gracia is wonderful in this role.  Carmen Maura plays his estranged daughter in law (his son had been killed in a special effect accident some years before) whose 10 year old son runs away to find his long lost grandfather.  The film is good fun, sometimes sleazy but always controlled.  De la Iglesia does wonders on a small budget (in Q&A he says he's into making "stupid" non-Hollywood films; but his films have a canniness behind them which far surpasses their outrageous plots).  If only more films could have this amount of entertainment value.   *** 1/2

X (d. Luis Marias)
The Spanish seem to be making the best thrillers going these days.  This is the story of a homophobic cop (played by the stolid, subtle actor Antonio Resines) who may or may not have murdered has gay trick (he was too drunk at the time to remember.)  Nicely written, I couldn't predict all the twists and turns of the plot, which makes for a superior thriller.   ***

LA CAJA 507 (Vault 507) (d. Enrique Urbizu)
Another thriller starring Antonio Resnines, this time as a meek bank director whose bank is robbed in a complex plot where his wife is kidnapped and put into a coma.  The banker discovers a secret dossier left behind which involves the Sicilian mafia, international corruption at a high level, and a connection to the death of his daughter 7 years earlier.  All sorts of mayhem follows (a huge body count!) and leads to an opportunity for revenge on a grand scale.  It was late, and the film was complex (I never quite could sort out all the characters), but never boring.   ** 3/4

Feb. 23
EL VIAJE DE CAROL (Carol's Journey)
(d. Imanol Uribe)
Tomboyish teenage Carol has grown up in America (Spanish mother, American father); but returns with her mother to the rural village in the north of Spain where her mother grew up.  It is the closing days of the Spanish civil war, and Carol's father is serving as a pilot for the Republic.  But the town is pretty much in the hands of the Franco partisans.  Carol becomes friends with three boys in a Little Rascals kind of group  and falls for the good looking one (Juan Jose Ballesta, who was so memorable as El Bola).  Basically the film is a coming of age story of a young girl faced with multiple tribulations, and for me it worked beautifully.  Others might find it overly sentimental; but the film moved me enormously.   *** 1/4

EL EMBRUJO DE SHANGHAI (The Shanghai Spell)  (d. Fernando Trueba)
Another coming of age story, this time from the point of view of a 14 year old boy, would-be painter in post WWII Barcelona, and his relationship with a tubercular girl and her mother (the luminous Ariadna Gil), a dotty old man (another memorable performance by Fernando Fernan-Gomez), and various characters who hung out with the girl's absent father (played by the ever-present Antonio Resnines), who may be Shanghai, according to a story told in lengthy B&W flashbacks by a friend of her father.  Fernando Tielve (who was memorable in The Devil's Backbone) played the boy with a wide eyed seriousness which almost made the film worth watching.  But the narrative, based on a famous Spanish novel, was very confused; and the film added up to beautiful to look at but not much in terms of content.  Not the first Trueba film I've felt this way about.   **

Feb. 24
The last day I'm going to attend the American Film Market.  It turns out that Santa Monica is hard to get to early in the morning, and even harder to find parking spaces!  I'm also going to have to re-think the idea of attending a film market with no guiding sensibility choosing the films.  I found myself unexpectedly watching a born-again Christian propaganda film which was deeply offensive to me; I'm sure that nothing would have convinced me to see this film if I hadn't been lured by the imcomplete synopsis which gave no clue as to real agenda of this film.  Fortunately, I got over it.

This was a Korean film, a high budget video game movie based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of the Little Match Girl (in this case a girl selling butane lighters).  It turns into a story of delinquant teenage gamers playing a virtual reality Doom type game set in a visual universe somewhat reminiscent of the Matrix films.  I found it sort of confusing trying to sort out the reality from the game playing...but then I'm not a player by any means.  Still, the film was visually exciting.  However,  it desparately needed a firmer editing hand to avoid repetative sequences.  If  the film had been about 1/2 hour shorter it might have worked better.   ** 1/2

TIME CHANGER (d. Rich Christiano)
Maybe I'm being unfair, but this film offended me and gave me the creeps.  It was touted as a time travel story...a man from the 1890s travels forward to present day Los Angeles and finds it very different from what he expected.  I'm always intrigued by time travel stories (but this one and last year's horrible Time Machine  may cure me of that fascination).  The real agenda of this film was that the 1890 character was a professor in a Christian seminary, a moral upright man;  and how his trip to the future showed him that we've become godless and in denial of Jesus Christ the savior; and how things like sinful movies are leading us straight to the Last Days.  The acting was terrible:   every time someone mouthed the film's philosophy (e.g. science is only reality if it follows the holy word of Jesus Christ)  it sounded like missionary zealots pushing the Bible.  Pedestrian direction...clichéd script...the film had no redeeming features whatsoever.  Except maybe as born-again Christian propaganda, though I can't believe that anybody except hard core believers would fall for this crap.  In any case, I left the theater wishing I had walked out in a huff earlier, like others in the audience, and feeling scared and sad that people might actually accept the reality of this film.   0*

TRUTH AND LIES (La forza del passato)  (d. Piergiorgio Gay)
This one was hard to find in the IMDb because the title translation has been changed from the superior The Power of the Past.   Sergio Rubini (last time I saw him he was in the cringeful but fun film about painful dentistry, Denti) is a writer of children's stories, a communist who has always hated his recently deceased father (who he had always assumed was a fascist).  Into his life comes Bruno Ganz, who claims to be his father's best friend and tells a different story, which is slowly revealed through flashbacks.   This bittersweet drama worked for me, though its pacing and subtlety will make it a hard sell.   ***

100 MILE RULE (d. Brent Huff)
An American indie caper film which until the last scene was quite inventive and entertaining.  Three salesmen from the midwest are at a conference in L.A. when the upright one (well played by Jake Weber) is enmeshed in an extortion scheme which would ruin his marriage if he doesn't pay.  Maria Bello plays the seductive woman who pulls off the extortion.  She's excellent, as is Michael McKean as Weber's boss, the canny sale's manager.    The film is alternately serious and farcially humorous...invoking some real laughter at times, recognition of the cleverness of the script.  They just didn't know how to end the film well.  But this film deserves a release, though I suppose it'll be a hard sell.   *** 1/4

Feb. 26
PONIENTE (d. Chus Gutierrez)
A forgettable drama about labor and race relations between the villager/farmers and the Arabs and N. African workers who supply cheap labor for the plastic greenhouse truck farms in S. Spain.  It all could have taken place in southern California...same greenhouse agriculture, and coastal southern Spain looks just like the coast north of San Diego.  Cuca Escribano is quite good as the lady who returns to the village from family exile in Madrid after her father dies and leaves her the strife torn farm.   ** 1/4

Feb 28
(d. Carlos Saura)
One of these days I'm going to go with my instincts and pass on Saura's films, which for me (at least for his last three films) have been empty exercises of design and filmed dance.  This one makes no pretense of being more than a filmed ballet of the Salome story, though it does start with a pseudo documentary about the design of the piece by interviewing the creators and some of the dancers.  I say pseudo documentary since even this portion seemed overly scripted and designed.  Anyway, the dancing and music were fine, and Saura's camera placements and movements were excellent.  But for all that, the film was just a boring recreation of a ballet which didn't affect me much.  I had trouble staying awake, and even dozed a couple of times, which says something about the impact of the film.  I've seen real documentaries about dancing troups which worked much better than this one, which was so faithful to the ballet performance that one is only left with the impression that it would have been far better to see the ballet in person than this film.   * 3/4

EL ALQUIMISTA IMPACIENTE (The impatient alchemist) (d. Patricia Ferreira)
A thriller/mystery/police procedural about the luridly sexual death of a nuclear plant worker who may or may not have been murdered.  Roberto Enriquez is outstanding as the police sargeant (we'd call him a profiler).  He and his young assistant (ably played by Ingrid Rubio) must first establish whether a crime had been committed, then peel away the layers of complexity to solve it.  I couldn't help comparing this film with all the American television police series which proliferate these days.  There's a little of Boomtown here, some Dragnet, even a little Law and Order.  The nuclear plant angle harkens back to Silkwood.  In other words, nothing particularly original; but the film was interesting and the characters well written.   ** 3/4

EN LA CIUDAD SIN LIMITES (The city of no limits) (d. Antonio Hernandez)
It was late, so I skipped this film that I had already seen at the AFI film festival.  Click on link for review.

March 1
(Don quixote, knight errant) (d. Manuel Gutierrez Aragon)
A sequel to Don Quixote, where the Don and Sancho,. now famous since the book has supposedly already been published,  are off on another series of misadventures.  Shot in wide screen, but with a curious paucity of size (probably due to a fairly low budget for such an epic project).  The actors were accomplished; but somehow the story never caught fire for me...the narrative was jumbled, the mis en scene uninspired; and I found myself nodding off from boredom.    * 3/4

TRECE COMPANADAS (When the bell chimes thirteen) (d. Xavier Villaverde)
A psychological ghost story about the son of a famous sculptor who had been murdered in the presence of the boy by his schizophrenic wife.  Fifteen years later, the boy, who had been sent to live with relatives in Argentina and now a sculptor in his own right, returns to his home town of Santiago to confront the ghost of his dead father and his sick, institutionalized mother.  It sounds like a sappy melodrama.  But in the hands of a brilliant director and a young actor (Juan Diego Botto) doing his best work ever, the film absolutely works.  Villaverde has a way of ramping up the tension in a scene and a feeling for mystery and suspense which can only be termed Hitchcockian in the best sense (the film had echoes of  Vertigo and Spellbound and is visually stunning.)  I was blown away by the film; but it does take something of a suspension of disbelief to accept the supernatural elements of the plot.    *** 1/2

ARO TOLBUKHIN, EN LA MENTE DEL ASESINO (Aro Tolbukhin, in the mind of a killer) (d. Agusti Villaronga etc.)
A faux documentary about a mass murderer in Guatemala in the early 1980s, which combines scratchy super-8 footage, digital, and filmed recreations of life story of  Aro Tolbukhin, a complex character originally from Hungary.  I found some of it compelling, especially the flashbacks to Tolbukhin's childhood.  But for all its insight into the characters and power to shock, the film never quite gelled for me...I just didn't care enough about the characters or events to get emotionally involved.   **

March 2
(The virgin of lust) (d. Arturo Ripstein)
Ripstein is one of those filmmakers whose artistic pretentions usually overcome his undoubted visual flair.  This quasi musical takes place in a Mexican café of which the clientel were mostly refugees from the recently ended Spanish civil war.  The main character is a mestizo waiter who fetishizes feet and women's gloves and jerks off to dirty pictures and who falls for an opium addicted Spanish hooker.  Shot entirely in interiors with a sepia toned overlay, the film looked like a filmed play with tricked up titles throughout to enhance the film look.  But the legubrious pacing and overacting added up to 2 1/2 hours of boredom for me.  Rarely have I felt so bombarded by heterosexual overkill as I was in this film.  One of these days I'll make a firm commitment to pass on all future Ripstein films, as the last three of his that I've seen were deadly dull.   *

EL LUGAR DONDE ESTUVO EL PARAISO (The place that was paradise) (d. Gerardo Herrero)
A fairly good melodrama, sort of a Graham Greene type of story in Spanish (in fact this film was very reminiscent of  the '80s film based on a Greene novel, The Honorary Consul), about an elderly consul (the ever relieable Federico Luppi) whose college age daughter is visiting him at his Peruvian Amazon post in the early 1980s when most of South America was ruled by dictatorships.  The story is a fairly complex one about love and intrigue...and has one of my favorite South American actors, dashing Gaston Pauls in a key role.  The wide screen cinematography which highlighted the unique Amazon setting was admirable.  Just a solid film, nothing flashy or special.   ** 3/4

March 5
(Mine alone) (d. Javier Balaguer)
Sergi Lopez is such an inherently sympathetic actor, that it adds extra shock value when he plays against type (as in With a Friend Like Harry.)  Here he plays an excessively macho husband who loves his wife (played by the fine actress Paz Vega), but also physically abuses her.  The battering is so realistic that, for me at least, it was more viscerally affecting than the much worse (but stylized) violence in Irreversible.  The film is a well drawn, if unsubtle, drama of a bad marriage.  ***

IMPULSOS (Impulses) (d. Miguel Alcantud)
A portrait of a completely amoral, sociopathic killer (played by Daniel Friere, who never unsheaths a humungous cock as he did playing Carlos in Sex and Lucia, but still manages to combine menace with innocence like a Spanish Ted Bundy).  It's also the story of a suicidal jazz musican...a woman who stalks our serial killer in hopes that he'll aid her to kill herself.  A creepy, stylish thriller...not quite up to the high level of other Spanish thrillers this year, but fascinating as a character study.   ** 3/4

March 6
(Lazaro's girlfriend) (d. Fernando Merinero)
A dingy looking digital film about the Cuban community residing in Madrid.  Lazaro is a ne'er do well drifter who is big trouble.  He persuades is girlfriend Dolores to immigrate, but is jailed for rape before she arrives.  The film is a slice of life story of the innocent Dolores wandering through the Inferno of Madrid.  Made in a deliberately semi-documentary style with rough camera work and choppy editing, it's sometimes hard to watch.  But the underlying story is very involving, and Claudia Rojas is really fine as the fish out of water who learns to breathe before our eyes.  ** 3/4

PIEDRAS (Stones) (d. Ramon Salazar)
Almodovar and Ozon meet Paul Thomas Anderson.  This fabulous romantic epic...gorgeously shot in scope and complexly structured with every scene flowing into the next, is my favorite Spanish film of the year.  Yes, it goes on too long with 20 possible endings.  Yes, it's unabashedly over the top.  But all is forgiven by the sheer bravura filmmaking on evidence.  It's the parallel (but mysteriously interlocked) story of the screwed up lives of seven women.  Also central to the story are three young gay men who I found so attractive that my reaction to the film is probably skewed way out of proportion.   The film is also a valentine to Madrid, which is portrayed so vividly that it become a character of the film; and to women's shoes, which serve as a running metaphor for the state of mind of each of the major players.  This is a young director to watch!  By the way, it's one of those films which demands to be seen on the big screen.   *** 1/2

EL SOL DEL MEMBRILLO (Dream of light aka The quince tree sun)  (d. Victor Erice 1992) 

EL PERRO DEL HORTELANO (The dog in the manger)
(d. Pilar Miro 1996) 
** 1/2

TESIS (Thesis) (d. Alejandro Amenabar 1995) 
*** 1/2

LA ARDILLA ROJA (The red squirrel) (d. Julio Medem 1993)

This one joins the long list of Jews in jeopardy during WWII films, this time in Paris in 1942.  Add to that a good examplar of the genre of old geezer learns valuable life lessons from young kid films (cf Kolya or Central Station).  Not that it's a bad film, per se.  The acting was fine.  The director himself played M. Batignole with a bemused stoicism which was fun to watch; and Jules Sitruk is an outstanding child actor.  The production values were high enough:  nice scope photography.  But it's really just another one of those feel-good Holocaust films, somewhat manipulative emotionally, and ultimately pretty mediocre.  ** 1/2

SON FRÈRE (His Brother) (d. Patrice Chéreau)
A departure for Chéreau
Intimate drama of 2 estranged brothers, the straight one dying of rare blood disease. Eric Caravaca is great!   *** 1/4

LES DIABLES (The Devils) (d. Christophe Ruggia)
Harrowing story of 2 abandoned children, incredible acting.  Hard to do this one justice in a line.   *** 1/2

UN MONDE PRESQUE PAISIBLE (Almost Peaceful)  (d. Michael Deville)
Post WWII Jews trying to return to normal life in Paris dressmaking atelier.  Gentle, pastoral, slow.   ** 3/4

SE SOUVENIR DES BELLES CHOSES (Try to Remember)  (d. Zabout Breitman)  
Moving & pathos filled love story set in rehab hospital.  Young woman with Alzheimer's.   *** 1/4

PETITES COUPURES (Small Cuts) (d. Pascal Bonitzer)
Daniel Auteuil! Kristen Scott Thomas!  No chemistry!  Drama disguised as silly French farce.   **

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