2003 AFI Festival and Other Winter Festivals Journal

All film ratings are based on **** highest (one for the ages).  Foreign films are in redAFI and Palm Springs festival films are in green.

BON VOYAGE (France d. Jean-Paul Rappeneau)
France's Academy entry this year is a high budget, scope, multi-character saga which runs the gamut from drawing room farce to political thriller.  Taking place in the period between the start of World War II and the collapse of France, it is a throwback to the classic well made films of Marcel Camus or Réné Clément, and thus Academy bait of the highest order.  I found it to be hugely entertaining, with especially ingratiating performances by Virginie Ledoyen and Grégori Derangère.  Isabelle Adjani, however, chews the scenery in her second role this season (Monsieur Ibrahim is the other) as movie star monstre sacrée.  And Peter Coyote is amazingly bad as the hiss-worthy villain.  In other words, this film has its negatives.  But on balance, I think it must be considered a favorite for the final 5.  *** 1/4

FOREST (Hungary d. Benedek Fliegauf)
Ugh!  The protracted opening scene of people aimlessly walking through a shopping mall in a dingy, almost colorless digital transfer accompanied by unnaturally exaggerated sound effects sets the scene.  A man leaves a backpack and the screen goes to white and we expect a terrorist attack or something monumental.  Instead we're subjected to the ordeal of seven vignettes of unremitting droning monologues, mostly incoherent.  As hard as I tried, my mind just checked out during almost every one of these scenes, as the camera wanders around in extremely tight, claustrophobic close-ups of depressed people telling endless and dull stories from their lives.  Then the film turns around the opening scene and we realize that all these people we've just seen were brought together in the shopping mall...but for what purpose?  Only the filmmaker knows, and he's not telling.  Ugh.   *

DEPENDENCIA SEXUAL (Bolivia d. Rodrigo Bellott)
This film has an unusual format.  Nicely photographed in 24P digital, the entire film, with the exception of one scene, is projected in 1:3.0 ratio, two panel split screen.  The two scenes are often of the same action, sometimes offset timewise, sometimes an entirely different take of the same action.  A gimmick to be sure, and not an altogether successful one, though it occasionally leads to an interesting juxtaposition of images.  Mostly it is just unnecessary.  Still, despite its format, the film worked for me.  It's an episodic examination of several young people at the cusp of sexual crisis.  The characters cross gender and socio-economic lines, some are spoiled children of the Bolivian upper class, some are jocks at an unnamed American university (the film shifts place and tone midway as if two entirely different filmmakers were involved).  There is significant homoeroticism and sexual confusion on view, including a graphic rape scene, which is turned into a poetic performance piece in a deft piece of scripting.  Altogether a powerful and significant film, I think; but not one which has a chance with this committee.  ***

WITNESSES (Croatia d. Vinko Bresan)
The Croatian Academy submission this year is an ironic, intimate epic about a war crime incident during the Serbian/Croatian war of 1992.  It is very well crafted, with beautifully designed wide screen compositions, a constantly fluid camera, a throbbing musical score.  The story of the crime is told by repeating the action, each time from a slightly different point of view while disclosing new information like the peeling of an onion layer by layer.  Ultimately, I wasn't as moved by the resolution as I should have been.  Maybe the film was just a little bit too overly complex for its own good.  Still, it is a good effort by a fine director.  It has the creds to make the final 5; but I don't think it will because its stately pacing will turn off more than it pleases.  ***

NICOTINA (Mexico d. Hugo Rodriguez)
The AFI festival started with a bang for me with this black comedy about a gang of Mexican and Argentinean cyberthieves who attempt a caper to trade diamonds for hacked Swiss bank account information with the Russian mafia which dissolves into a comedy of errors.  The cast was fine, especially notable was Diego Luna as a smart but bumbling computer hacker and Lucas Crespi, an attractive Argentinean tv star.  There's nothing much original here; but the story develops well, the pacing is assured; and the use of split screen and stunning digital camerawork raises the production level well over its modest $1.8 million budget.  This might be this years Nine Queens, a clever latin caper film which could become a cross-over hit in the U.S. ***

INFERNAL AFFAIRS (Hong Kong d. Andrew Lau and Alan Mak)

THE RETURN (Russia d. Andrei Zvagintsev)
This is a high quality coming-of-age road picture about two teen-age brothers who go on a camping trip with their father, who has been away for 12 years.  It builds slowly, with increasing menace and tension and weaves an almost dreamlike spell.  This is admirable filmmaking, almost perfect in execution.  It will probably be one of my choices for the final 5; but seems to have polarized the Academy audience (I heard a lot of grumbling about the elliptical story, which leaves much not spelled out).  *** 1/2

HAPPY HOUR (USA d. Mike Bencivenga)
This American indie production has a lot going for it.  It's a riff on the Leaving Las Vegas theme of the creative man committing slow suicide by alcohol.  The three leads, Anthony LaPaglia, Eric Stolz and Caroleen Feeney are perfect, the production values high for a low budget production shot in New York.  Still, the story does feel derivative and predictable.  ** 3/4

AFTERLIFE (Scotland d. Alison Peebles)
A heartfelt, emotional drama about an ambitious Scottish journalist (nice turn by Kevin McKidd) who has to choose between career and family.  His sister has Down's Syndrome and his mother is ill; he's a lousy self involved boyfriend, and he's on the trail of a big story.  With a less finely honed script and less interesting actors this could have been maudlin and manipulative.  But somehow it comes together as a small gem of an audience pleaser.  *** 1/4

CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE (Ireland d. John Deery)
An interesting contrast to the previous film.  This wide screen Irish film was made with 10 times the budget and every bit as much filmmaker passion.  Yet it comes off as more anti-Catholic church polemic than realistic drama.  Too bad, because there is possibly a good film buried here.  But it was all too obvious and message driven to work for me.  **

Sorry to say, due to time constraints this week (a relatively heavy work schedule, a hugely important tennis match all week on tv, other distractions) I'm going to be minimalist in my AFI festival comments.  I'd just like to add that the festival so far has been incredibly well run...almost every film so far has had a Q&A with the director and/or cast present, and the scheduling is designed to minimize lines in the hall and allow one to stick around for the Q&A and still not miss the next film...which is on the same floor of the Arclight in any case.  The theater, once again, is a superb venue for a festival with some of the best technical facilities in town. 

DOLLS (Japan d. Takeshi Kitano)
This film went right over my head.  Right from the start, with a performance by Japanese puppet performers, I was bored.  I was left with only the gorgeous photography to appreciate, as the story, an extended metaphor about three sets of poor wretches who suffer from regret for things that might have been, didn't work for me.  I usually enjoy the films of "Beat" Takeshi, and the one sequence that really worked for me was a traditional Kitano scene of a gangster massacre.  But that stuck out like a sore thumb in a film otherwise filled with longeurs. **

THE MIRACLE OF BERNE (Germany d. Sonke Wortmann)
This is a heartfelt, uplifting crowd-pleaser about a troubled family swept up in the drama of the German World Cup victory in 1954.  I'm not a soccer fan, but here the game was well portrayed and for the first time maybe ever I was involved in the game itself.  The family story also worked to some extent.  This is solid popular filmmaking...nothing flashy, but pressing the right buttons.  ** 3/4

THE BIG EMPTY (USA d. Steve Anderson)
A genre film which confusingly mixed genres.  It starts out as a standard black comedy noir and develops into a low budget Close Encounters.  It has an interesting cast of oddball character actors, including Jon Gries, Kelsey Grammer, Bud Cort, Sean Bean, Daryl Hannah, Joey Lauren Adams and Rachael Lee Cook.  And Jon Favreau does his good natured schlub lead with a certain comic panache which almost carries the film.  But ultimately the entire project is a waste of talent, and the film is going nowhere in today's market.  **

KILL ME TENDER (Spain d. Ramon de España)
This is a sexy Spanish black comedy by a first time director that simply works.  Reminiscent of another Spanish sexy farce, KM. 0 (and sharing at least one actor, the superb Alberto San Juan), the film is a funny, fast moving and clever romp through various social strata in Catalonia (from the S&M prostitution underground to the bourgeoisie shopkeepers).  Hopefully this entertaining film will find an appreciative audience.  ***

THE COAST GUARD (Korea d. Kim Ki-duk)
Not much to say about this film.  The Coast Guard in Korea literally guards the coast line from incursions by North Korean spies.  These soldiers have shoot-to-kill orders.  When one of the gung-ho soldiers kills an errant drunken townie who was screwing his girlfriend on the beach (against common sense and explicit precautions), the soldier goes nuts as does the girlfriend.  The filmmaking pretty straightforward and the acting is embarrassingly over-the-top.  I guess the film was meant to be an indictment of the Coast Guard's policies, or perhaps a plea for re-unification.  In either case the film simply doesn't work for a foreign audience.  * 3/4

IN THE CITY (Spain d. Cesc Gay)
I really liked this filmmakers previous film, Krampack, so this was one of the must sees of the week.  Unfortunately there is very little here of the youthful vigor and high spirits which made that film so fun to watch.  This is an ensemble piece about a group of Barcelona friends, couples, all of whom are having marital fidelity issues.  None of the characters was particularly engaging, so for the first half of the film I was bored.  Then, and I'm not exactly sure why, the characters suddenly clicked for me...I got interested in them and their problems.  But, from talking to others, I may be the only person in the audience who felt that way.  Anyway, a pretty average low energy film for a promising filmmaker.  ** 1/2

CONDOR:  AXIS OF EVIL (France, documentary d. Rodrigo Vazquez)
Because the film I was originally scheduled to see in this slot was canceled, I had no easy replacement which would allow me to catch the final screening of the next film.  So, against my better judgment, I watched this politically charged French documentary.  The film documents Operation Condor, a cooperative effort by repressive regimes in Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil to control the leftist terrorism of the '70s through "disappearances".  The film makes a great effort to show how Dr. Kissinger, then the U.S. secretary of state, was a party to this operation...but frankly if there was a "smoking gun" there I missed it.  As a documentary it was all over the place; but poorly structured to make any points.  Frankly, I think the filmmakers blew it, even though they had documents which added up to good ammunition.  But the presentation was so scattered and confusing that it failed to make its point.  **

SPIN (USA d. James Redford)
The day was redeemed by this really fine first film by Robert Redford's son, who wrote the screenplay and directed the film with a good eye, a great cast, and the instincts of a future "auteur".  Basically this is a coming-of-age story set in the '50s, about a boy whose parents were killed in a private plane accident and who is raised by a Mexican family on his absentee uncle's Arizona ranch.  Ryan Merriman fulfills his promise from his tv work (including one of the most convincing roles in Taken.) And I was very impressed by the young Paula Garces as his Mexicana love interest.  There is some extraordinary flight footage...in fact the look and feel of the film is quite special for a low budget indie.  Getting the '50s right is more than haircuts and vintage automobiles.  And the young Redford nails it.  This is the kind of film which brings the excitement of discovery back to the festival.  *** 1/4

TWO FRIENDS (Italy d. Spiro Scimone, Francesco Sframeli)
The two friends are roommates, one a secret mafia hit man neat freak, the other an ordinary joe who has developed an industrial lung disease from his factory job.  The film is a slice of their more or less boring, ordinary lives, done in an annoyingly slow and droning style.  I suppose the film works as a weird character study; but I was never engaged by the characters or their activities, and bored.  **

ANGST (Germany d. Oskar Roehler)
A difficult film to watch.  A drama about a married couple tearing each other apart from their individual neuroses.  I was so turned off by the shrieking and fighting that my attention wandered and I checked out of the film (but didn't walk out, for some unknown reason).  Then, with maybe 1/2 hour to go I got sucked into these characters' lives and started to relate to the film.  I'm glad I stayed, because a couple of really remarkable performances gradually unfolded.  It still is a difficult film, rather like watching a train wreck, and I feel creepy and somehow sullied having watched these characters live out their angst on screen.  ** 1/2

AN ALMOST ORDINARY STORY (Serbia/Montenegro d. Milos Petricic)
A pleasant enough romantic comedy about a young couple who meet cute, enter a relationship and then have it stall awaiting mutual commitment.  The film is steeped in American cultural references, though the sub-titles were the worst I've ever seen (every title had a misspelling, which was distracting).  The actors were attractive and interesting, and the film did manage to create a spell similar to the comedies of Nora Ephron, which this film shamelessly japed.  ** 3/4

GOODBYE DRAGON INN (Taiwan d. Tsai Ming-Liang)
I've always admired Tsai for his mordant wit, despite his tendency to occasionally go over the top with 5 minute crying jags.  However in this movie he definitely goes under the bottom to create a formal exercise in obfuscation and audience bashing (though a remarkable number of the Academy audience stuck it out to the end and were rewarded by...well, nothing much in the way of payoff.)  I'm not sure what I was watching, just that the film was a series of endless, stationary camera takes of unitary action (or a screen entirely absent of action) about a seedy movie theater playing an old Chinese epic to a very strange audience.  At times I was reminded of the recent Porn Theater, the theater as gay cruising space, though I'm not at all sure that was the intention of the filmmaker, since typically, nothing happens.  Then I thought it might be a straightforward ghost story about a haunted movie theater.  I guess narrative is beside the point in this film.  The weird thing is that I was never bored watching the film, even though it broke all my rules.  Tsai has managed to create images and a soundscape of such beauty and strangeness that they carried me through the longeurs of inactivity within the frame.  Of course most committee members were not in the mood to enjoy the joke.  I heard more than one grumble to the effect that the submission of this film was an insult to the Academy.  Oh, well.   ***

SLEEPLESS NIGHTS (Egypt d.  Hany Khalifa)
A film which proves that Egypt has whiny yuppies just like the developed countries.  It's a fluffy, romantic comedy cum soap opera about four bourgeois couples, three married, one not, and their simultaneous relationship problems.  It's nice enough as far as it goes.  The actors are attractive, the story works, even though it is all very predictable.  Altogether pretty light stuff, and not original enough or good enough to merit a nomination.  ** 1/2

THE RAGE IN PLACID LAKE (Australia d. Tony McNamara)
Ben Lee (a singer/songwriter currently living in New York) plays a boy raised unconventionally by free-thinking parents (mom is the great Miranda Richardson) who desires more than anything to conform to contemporary Australian morés.  This is a witty, bitingly satiric coming-of-age story in the same vein as Rushmore, with a lead character fully as strange and engaging as in that film.  There's nothing particularly groundbreaking here, the film develops fairly predictably.   It's just a solid entertainment and a breakthrough for Mr. Lee (the song he wrote and sang over the end credits proves him to be a major talent to watch.) *** 1/4

PUPENDO (Czech Republic d. Jan Hrebejk)
This digitally shot film is a light hearted drama of life in Czechoslovakia during the '80s when the Communist regime was still in power and feared, but was failing to engage the intelligencia.  It centers around an out-of-favor sculptor, his family and the family of a low-level Communist high school principal.  It is one of those sprawling, amiable slice-of-life films which create an interesting world of characters without a strong narrative thread.  ** 3/4

A LITTLE BIT OF FREEDOM (Germany d. Yueksel Yavuz)
An absolute gem, my favorite film of the festival so far.  It's a stunningly well played and well directed (with a documentarian eye) story about a 19 or so Turkish Kurd boy, orphaned by events during the recent terrors, who is residing without papers in the St. Pauli area of Hamburg.  The boy may be gay...in any case he befriends another illegal boy, an African refugee who definitely is gay.  Their passage through the times of the film reminded me of The 400 Blows in terms of its style and impact.  Which puts this film in rare company for me...one of my all-time favorites.  There have been a spate of films recently about the plight of illegal refugees around the world.  This is one of the best of them!   *** 3/4

ROSENSTRASSE (Germany d. Margarethe von Trotta)
I'm something of a Holocaust film fan.  I don't think it has anything to do with being Jewish and of a certain age.  Rather, the dramas engendered by this social trauma usually involve and move me emotionally...something I actively seek in films.  This film is about the real event in 1943 where Jewish spouses of Aryan Germans, who had formerly been spared from arrest and deportation, were rounded up and secluded in a former synagogue on Rosenstrasse in Berlin.  The film centers on the Aryan spouses, mostly wives, who sat vigil outside of the makeshift prison for days on end.  As long as the film centers on this story it works.  But there is an additional modern-day story of a survivor of this  era, who had been an 8 year old orphaned girl at the time and is now an embittered elderly lady living in New York.  Her daughter visits Berlin and learns about things about which her mother has stayed silent all these years.  This plot device is labored and for me, at least, didn't work.  The two unequal strands just don't cohere; and there are a lot of loose ends and no emotional payoff.  Too bad.  ** 1/2

THINK IT OVER (Greece d. Katerina Evangelakou)
This is a story of a mother with three daughters and a number of fluid relationships which occur over several years.  It is told in multiple flashbacks which are extremely confusing since the filmmaker makes no attempt to separate the various time-lines and the audience is disoriented most of the film.  The story is faintly reminiscent of Checkov lite, however it is so poorly written and structured that it is hard to care about anything that happens.  *

LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE (Thailand d. Pen-ek Ratanaruang)
I disliked Monrak Transistor, the director's previous effort, so I had low expectations for this film and was prepared to leave early to catch an important tennis match on tv.  But right from the start this film sucked me into its absurdist world; and nothing could have budged me from my seat.  This is a thriller black comedy about a suicidal young Japanese man living in Bangkok, who probably has ties with the Yakusa, who gets involved in a gang war and escapes to the country with a Thai B-girl.  Trying to keep spoiler free with this movie is difficult, as the plot hinges on a number of clever developments.  But as intricate as it is, it all worked for me.  Brilliant filmmaking, too, with a dynamite musical score and some gorgeous photography.  One scene especially stands out, a rapturous fantasy of cleaning house which literally made my heart soar it was so brilliantly conceived.  I doubt I'll see a more satisfying film in this competition.  *** 1/2

UM FILME FALADO (Portugal d. Manoel de Oliveira)
Oliveira's previous Academy submission I'm Going Home was a beautifully done meditation on aging.  But the current film is more a talky travelogue than narrative film.  While it was never boring, it also never quite worked as a film, either.  It's the story of a high-school history teacher who is taking her young daughter on a cruise through the Mediterranean from Portugal to India.  They visit various ports of call and the mother tells stories about each place to her daughter.  So far so good.  Then the film devolves into a meditation on language and feminism as the ship's captain (played by John Malkovich) has at Captain's table three extraordinary women all from different countries (Irene Papas, Stephania Sandrelli and Catherine Deneuve) and they talk endlessly each in their own language.  The film simply comes to a crashing halt at this point and never recovers.   **

KING OF THIEVES (Slovakia d. Ivan Fila)
This is a high energy, exciting film about a Fagan type circus owner in Berlin who buys kids from their Eastern Euro parents and turns them into thieves and prostitutes.  The eponymous "king" is a 10 year old boy recruited in the Ukraine, a highly skilled acrobat (where did they find this incredibly talented kid?).  The drama is propulsive, occasionally over-the-top, but in a good way.  The film has fine production values, and cannot be discounted for the finals, though it remains a long shot.  *** 1/4

BUDDY (Norway d. Marten Tyldum)
Three zany, neurotic roommates, one of whom is a compulsive video maker.  Their antics, a video journal, are made part of a local tv show.  It's a solidly entertaining buddy comedy.  The lead actor, Nicolai Cleve Broch has an attractive and interesting persona. ***

WOLFSBURG (Germany d. Christian Petzold)
Benno Fürmann does a star turn in this drama about a man who makes a fatal error and tries to cover it up.  It's a fine script with a good deal of suspense, though ultimately a downer.  ***

INHERITANCE  (Denmark d. Per Fly)
This is a drama about a wealthy family (steel fabrication) where the father commits suicide having covered up losses, and the prodigal son who has gone to Sweden to do his own thing is forced by family dynamics to return and take over the business and become the innately ruthless businessman that he had tried so hard to escape.  It's an intimate portrait of a man torn between fate and happiness, and the ubiquitous Danish actor Ulrich Tomsen (who played a similar role in Festen,) is again superb here. *** 1/4

TWO DAYS (USA d. Sean McGinly)
Paul Rudd plays a 30-something actor who has stopped getting casting calls and decides to have friends produce a documentary video of him actually committing suicide.  The film has a fine cast of familiar faces (though few real name actors), and is shot half as a mocumentary and half with an omniscient camera showing things that the documentary couldn't show.  This is an iffy way to make a film; but here it works because the script is really clever and the casting throughout is just about perfect.  I can't see much commercial potential for this film, which is too bad as it is a really entertaining and clever film.  *** 1/4

KITCHEN STORIES (Norway d. Brent Hamer)
This film is a gentle and wry satire about a Swedish scientific efficiency study of the kitchen habits of single men in a Norwegian village circa the '60s or '70s.  It's a minimalist effort, centering around one gruff elderly gentleman and how his supposedly non-involved studier inevitably gets involved in his life.  I have a feeling that there is more than a little making fun of the Swedes here that goes over the head of an American audience.  Still, the story was a diverting enough affirmation of human nature, though it lacks the gravitas to make the final 5.  ** 3/4

This is an example of a film which ought to be in the running, Korea's second outstanding film in a row (like last year's Oasis).  Essentially it is a mildly supernatural fable about a young Buddhist monk who grows to manhood,  the sole acolyte of an elderly holy man living on a floating temple on a remote mountain lake.  It's more than a coming of age story, however, as it shows an entire life cycle from beginning to end to renewal.  The photography is phenomenally beautiful, the acting superb, the filmmaking rising to greatness in the simplicity of the mis-en-scene.  I just have the feeling that the film failed to connect with the committee as it should have...I hope I'm wrong and that this film is a serious contender.  *** 1/2

PAPER DOVE (Peru  d. Fabrizio Aguilar)
Taking advantage of its gorgeous Andean setting, Paper Dove looks great.  Like last year's Algerian film, it is ultimately the story of how terrorism devastates a small rural village, only this time we're seeing it happen through the eyes of an 11 year old boy, Juan (excellent, natural actor Antonio Callirgos), whose life is changed when he's kidnapped by a Communist cell and forced by threat to his mother's life, to train as a terrorist.  The film's politics did seem a tad naïve, and even somewhat annoying in the comfort of a Beverly Hills theater.  But there was a lot of truth here, and I found the film to be moving and life affirming.  I doubt the committee shares my view, I heard lots of disparaging remarks. ***

FREE RADICALS (Austria  d. Barbara Albert)
I'm somewhat at a loss as to how to categorize this film.  It is ostensibly a year in the life of a group of mostly unsympathetic characters, loosely connected by tenuous strands of relationship, whose lives seem to be ruled by capricious fate.  The writing and editing were confusing...it seemed as if most scenes (with the exception of several interminable sex scenes) were cut off short of their resolution.  The film seemed to be going someplace and never arrived.  Yet...yet...the film was very well directed, the visuals and characters haunting to a surprising degree.  And the film featured worldwide familiar, totemic songs (for example "Take On Me") which affected me in a strangely powerful way.  The film didn't seem to go over well with the committee; but for my money, as unsatisfying as the story was, the film was still the work of a director whose best work is ahead of her.  ** 3/4

THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS  (Canada d. Denys Arcand)
I watched this for a second time at a studio screening, and the film was definitely worth a second look.  There is something immensely satisfying about this sequel to The Decline of the American Empire, even if my memory of that film has faded a bit.  Maybe it is just that I am of a similar age to these characters; but I do feel a relationship to them somehow.  I'm almost certain that this film will make the final five.  It is literate, moving, relevant, beautiful...all the earmarks of success with this committee.  Anyway, one can only hope...  *** 1/2

THE PROFESSIONAL (Yugoslavia d. Dusan Kovacevic)
I'm not exactly sure why, but the Balkan politics just don't interest me very much.  This film tells the story of a former Serbian secret policeman who has for years had an obsession with observing the life of a radical academic, a revolutionary who is now a powerful industrialist.  The film is a semi-farcial encounter of the two of them where the secret policeman discloses to his prey what has been real for the past 15 years or so.  Sometimes amusing, sometimes informative, the film still failed to engage me since the politics went over my head.  ** 1/4

DIVINE INTERVENTION (Palestine d. Elia Suleiman)
This film is a mess of metaphors, a few too many.  I guess it is a black comedy of sorts, though remarkably unfunny.  Ostensibly about a Palestinian man whose life is torn between an unconsummated affair and a weird family situation, honestly I couldn't understand or relate to much of what happens.  The film has some visually interesting fantasy sequences with, I suppose, political implications; but I simply wasn't engaged enough to try to figure out what was happening.  **

SEA OF SILENCE (Belgium d. Stijn Coninx)
A straightforward narrative about a dysfunctional Flemish farming family, from the point of view of the middle daughter of 5 kids with one on the way.  The father is a binge drinker, and the drama revolves around the family coping with that problem.  The film is pretty average, though the acting and scenario are realistic and somewhat involving.  ** 1/2

I ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A SAINT (Luxembourg d. Genevieve Mersch)
Marie Kramer is outstanding as a girl approaching womanhood whose mother had deserted her family when she was quite young, and who needs to find out why or wig out.  This is a pretty well done coming of age story, and I think the committee overall was impressed.  Probably not enough to break through to the final five; but this one has a chance.  ** 3/4

DISTANT (Turkey d. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Two men from a small village room together in Istanbul.  One is established with a well paying job as a technical photographer; the younger man is newly arrived in the big city trying to find a job.  They have an odd couple relationship, sort of reminiscent of Felix and Oscar, only without Neil Simon's comic spin.  This is an excellent film which was probably too subtle and introspective for this crowd.  Too bad, because there was a lot to admire here, especially the long, subtly revealing takes and the way the director splits the screen, playing with focus, with foreground and background separated, reminiscent of the style of another master with the camera, Hou hsaio-hsien.  ***

THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL (Mongolia d. Byambasuren Davaa)
It is hard to figure out whether this is a documentary about an adorable family of Mongolian herdsmen with a "found" story line (of a baby camel rejected by its mother), or a scripted film.  That is indication enough of how well the film works.  Either way, I think the Academy audience ate it up, and there is some history of films like this getting nominated (Himalaya from 2000 springs to mind.)  However, the committee has also passed on similar and arguably better rustic efforts (e.g. The Fast Runner), so it is hard to say if this one has the legs to make the final 5.  In any case, much love was given to the film, and it has to be considered in the running.  ***

NINA'S TRAGEDIES (Israel d. Savi Gavison)
Once again, I really liked an Israeli film which failed to engage most of the committee to the same extent.  This film is a coming-of-age story of a 14 year old boy from a dysfunctional family who is obsessed by his pretty aunt to the point of becoming a peeping tom.  His diary, which provides the narrative framework for the film, falls into unsympathetic hands.   I empathized with the boy, which made a difference, I guess.  No chance for a nomination; but this film, which is part farce, part well-observed family dynamic, worked for me.  ***

SANGRADOR (Venezuela d. Leonardo Henriquez)
The less said about this Macbeth adaptation among Andean bandits the better.  Despite some beautiful B&W images which occasionally brought pale comparison to Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, this poorly scripted and dismally over-acted film failed on every level.  * 1/2

I'M NOT SCARED (Italy d. Gabriele Salvatores)
Gloriously photographed among scenes of lush southern Italian wheat fields, this intimate wide-screen film is the story of a 10 year old boy who stumbles onto a 1978 kidnapping plot by his family and neighbors.  The naturalistic acting was superb, especially the two youths who played discoverer and victim.  This was definitely an easy film to watch and identify with.  Still, I suspect that the simple story will not set this film apart enought to qualify it for the final 5.  But it is in contention.  ***
Watched again in March, 2010.  It took a couple of scenes for me to recall that I'd seen this film before.  However, maybe with the passage of time this film looks even more stunning to me and plays more emotionally resonant than it did back in 2003.  In the context of the four Salvatores films I've seen at the Italian film festival this year, I must raise my previous rating upward at least 1/4 star and it probably deserves a rating of *** 1/2.

VALENTIN (Argentina d. Alejandro Agresti)
Valentin is an enormously charming 8 year old boy who is old and wise for his age.  He lives with is grandmother (the always luminous Carmen Maura) because his father is an irresponsible lothario and his mother has been forced for reasons beyond his knowledge to desert him.  He is the narrator and writer's voice of the film; and as played by slightly cross-eyed actor Rodrigo Noya he is one of the best kid characterizations in cinema.  This is no Kolya, where the cute kid plays on the audience's sympathy by being better than the adults.  Rather there is a certain transformative tragedy to this story.  I liked this film a lot, and although it is a long-shot it is definitely one of my choices for the top 5 and I think many on the committee agree.  *** 1/2

GOOD BYE, LENIN! (Germany d. Wolfgang Becker)
Daniel Brühl, with his babyface and innately sympathetic persona, was interesting enough to rate a mention in my reviews of two of his previous films, No Regrets and Vaya Con Dios.  Once again he shines in this beautifully realized satire about the fall of the Wall and the re-unification of the two Germanys.  Many of the jokes were undoubtedly in-jokes for Germans; but enough were universal to make the film feel fresh and unique.  Going in, I knew this film had a real chance for a nomination, and the screening didn't disappoint.  It remains to be seen if this committee is hip enough politically to appreciate the deftness of the writing.  *** 1/4

ARO TOLBUKHIN (IN THE MIND OF A KILLER) (Mexico d. Agustin Villaronga et al)  [ALREADY SEEN - See link]

JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM (Bulgaria d. Ivan Nichev)
Vaguely a Holocaust film, about two young orphaned German children trying to escape to Palestine in 1940, and how they are helped by a troupe of Armenian/Bulgarian players when their journey is stalled in Sophia, Bulgaria when their uncle dies on the train.  The story was strong, if predictable.  However the acting overall was pretty mediocre (especially the little girl whose monotone whine was really annoying), with the exception of the luminous Elena Petrova who is strikingly beautiful and with any luck a future international star.  Too many inexplicable walkouts to have a chance.  I wasn't even close to getting bored as I felt the story was really working for me.  ** 3/4

SUITE HABANA (Cuba d. Fernando Perez)
This year's Hukkle, a documentary (or possibly a docudrama) about 24 hours of the intercut quotidian lives of several ordinary Havanans set to a great soundtrack of music and sound effects.  Not much narrative; but the filmmaking was of a high enough quality, well photographed and innately interesting, that the film never was boring.  Still, it's a hard sell in this crowd and despite some interesting people (standouts:  a delightfully up-beat 10 year old Downs Syndrome child and his father, a 20 year old boy who works construction days to support his family and dances ballet at night, a drag entertainer, a man leaving for the U.S., several old people living quiet lives), the film is another hard sell with virtually no chance for a nomination.  ** 3/4

China's entry this year is a wide-screen historical battle epic reminiscent of some of the works of Akira Kurosawa, for instance Ran and Seven Samurai, or maybe even more appropos, it is a Lo Mein Eastern, sort of like the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone.  Three strong warriors are involved in a complex plot which at various times pits them against each other.  The film is quite striking to watch, with huge desert vistas reminiscent of the American west.  The action is fast and furious (though I was a little confused by the set-up and it took a while for me to become involved with the characters, and too much of the fighting is done in extreme close-up with cuts which are too fast to be coherent.)  The real flaw, and it is a fatal one I think, is the overly spiritual deus ex machina culmination which ruins any semblance of reality of the plot.  Still, it is a strong film, though a real longshot to make the final five since it is pretty cold emotionally.  ***
MUNA MADAN (Nepal d. Gyanendra Bahadur Deuja)
It would be churlish to dwell on the shortcomings of this technically inept film about a poor but noble family being driven from its home by an evil moneylender.  Countries make their submissions with the reasonable expectation that the Academy will treat their entries with respect; but this film challenged us to stay through its 2 3/4 hours with intermission.  I wasn't up to the task.  WO

NOI THE ALBINO (Iceland d. Kagur Kari)
Usually I am bowled over by Icelandic films.  Year after year they present to the Academy a national cinema which is underrated, shining through the bleakness of their wintery terrain.  This year their film was just bleak, though quite interesting for all that.  It's the coming of age story of Noi, a small town under-achiever teenager who needs to escape his stultifying family and town to find himself.  It is slow going; but the quirky performance of the lead actor, Tomas Lemarquis, gives the film a resonance that the script denies.  For once, Iceland isn't one of my top five, and this one is a hard sell here.  ***

SOLDANOS DE SALAMINA (Spain d. David Trueba)
The always interesting Ariadna Gil plays a once promising novelist whose writer's block is alleviated when, during a journalistic assignment, she stumbles upon an obscure incident during the final days of the Spanish Civil War. It provides an enigma for her to obsess on and take her mind off of her own loveless and blocked life.  I found the film slow going at first.  Even Diego Luna, in a brief cameo as Gil's young student who has a crush on her, couldn't spark my interest, though Maria Botto provides a blast of energy as a Spanish lesbian version of Miss Cleo who brings spice into our heroine's life.  Then the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall in place and the film builds to a remarkable ending with an astoundingly resonant performance by Catalan actor Joan Dalmau as a grizzled Spanish War veteran with a clear eye for what happened then.  Will this committee be able to get to the kernal of truth here obscured by the blurry details of a war which is hard to relate to?  Probably not; but this is ultimately a very strong film.  *** 1/4

DEEP BREATH (Iran  d. Parviz Shahbazi)
Iran's submission this year is a departure for that country.  This is a film about disaffected college students who steal cars, drop out, use drugs, generally are in revolt against their families and traditions.  And it isn't purely a cautionary tale, either, although there is some of that.  This film could almost be about modern American kids, it was so secular and contemporary.  The actors were attractive, the story involving (though the ambiguous ending seemed like a copout).  It's a youthful version of A Taste of Cherry with the energy level kicked up. Still, the total wasn't as good as the sum of its parts for me.  The film didn't seem to go over well with this audience at all.  ** 1/2

MANSION BY THE SEA (Sri Lanka d. Lester James Peries)
Like the inept Napalese submission, this is a film about a family driven from their home by the economics of change.  In this case a once rich, now decimated by tragedy, upper class family can no longer meet the mortgage payments on their mansion.  Unlike the Nepalese submission, this film was competently made, although the overly potted sound effects follying caused some audience titters.  Still, the film was too slow paced, the acting too broad to work with this audience.  Too bad, because the film was beautifully photographed, and the story actually had a degree of pathos which held my interest to the end.  * 1/2

THE KITE (Lebanon d. Randa Chahal Sabbag)
The Lebanese film this year is a bittersweet comedy set square amidst the Israeli-Lebanon border strife.  Israel has annexed a town where the arranged betrothed of a 16 year old girl lives.  But Lamia (the beautiful young actress, Flavia Béchara) lives on the Lebanon side, is an independant sort, and has never actually met her husband-to-be.  People in the two Arab towns communicate by long distance using megaphones, so everything about the negotiations for her marriage is very public.  There are some lovely things here...a set piece when the bride makes the long walk between towns dressed in her billowing bridal outfit is a striking visual.  And the background of a border splitting families is fascinating.  The Israelis are not stock villains here.  One border Israeli Arab soldier is even drawn sympathetically as the off-center hero of the piece.  But the story depends too much on metaphor (e.g. the kite) and magical realism for my tastes.  Nice enough film, but no chance for a nomination.  ** 3/4

ZELARY (Czech Republic d. Ondrej Trojan)
The Czech Republic film, on the other hand, is a definite contender.  Zelary is a small, rural village set in the most picturesque mountains one can imagine.  It is also relatively free from the bad effects of the German occupation in 1943, and a young nurse (played beautifully by the luminous actress, Ana Geislerova) is sent there when her resistance cell is broken by the Gestapo.  She's a city girl, a fish out of water; but she has to adjust to living in this rustic place and get along with an older man (a fine, subtle performance by Gyorgy Cserhalmi) who is her protector.  This is a superb film, beautifully shot and directed, and the relatively large cast are all excellent.  The 2 1/2 hours fly by, a WWII epic in microcosm.  It just may have the goods to go all the way.  *** 1/2

MAMAY (Ukraine d. Oles Sanin) 
I can't say much about this film since I fought sleep throughout and didn't understand anything that was happening.  I suppose it is a Cossack epic set in the past where the Tatars are sweeping over the steppes.  And truthfully, the film is incredibly well photographed, with striking visual after striking visual ...but no coherent narrative underpinning to keep it together.  The result is pure pretention, meaningless living tableaux.  Still, the strenght of the imagery was strong enough to provide some interest.  * 1/4

THE TWILIGHT SAMURAI (Japan  d. Yoji Yamada) 
Japan's film, an intimate, emotionally resonant, beautifully wrought story set in a small village at the dawn of the Meiji period (same era as Ed Zwick's The Last Samurai), is the most satisfying film of the competition so far.  Hiroyuki Sanada gives an Oscar worthy performance as a petty samurai whose life is beset with troubles and who would rather be a farmer than a member of the samurai privileged class.  If this is not one of the final 5 (and anything can happen), then a true injustice has been done.  ****

RECONSTRUCTION (Denmark d. Christoffer Boe)
I've always liked the Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas; but here he is miscast as a sophisticated lover having an affair with two women.  The film is a complex, wide screen (though digitally shot in a super grainy way) experimental type story.  The characters seem to be mercilessly manipulated, though it isn't clear until the end why.  One has to respect the Pirandelloesque script, and certainly the direction is interesting and avant guard enough.  But on the whole, the film just seemed unnecessarily confusing and pretentious.  Still, a noble effort wasted on this crowd.  ** 3/4.

PORNOGRAFIA (Poland d. Jan Jakub Kolski)
Someone else will have to give a coherent description of this film.  I slept through part of the mid-section, and I simply could not understand the motivations of the characters or care about them.  The setting of the film is once again WWII, 1943, this time in the Polish countryside on a farm where a variety of characters come together.  It starts out like a pastoral Les Regles de Jeux, but goes nowhere.  People do their thing, blood is spilled, it's all very picturesque.  It should have worked; but the motivations were so murky that the film just became tedious and impossible to make sense of.  Go figure.  Anyway, I can't see a nomination here.  **

THE STRINGLESS VIOLIN (Indonesia d. Sekar Ayu Asmara)
The southeast Asian films haven't been going over well with the Academy this year.  This, like the Sri Lankan film, is apparently getting a worse rap from this audience than it deserves.  Yes, it's an overamped melodrama about a woman whose past abortion has pushed her over the edge as she becomes obsessed with the care of physically challenged child cast-offs.  One in particular is a brain damaged and autistic 8 year old with the physical appearance of a 2 year old (played winningly and seamlessly by the child actor Dicky Lebrianto, whose naturalistic performance puts the adult actors and their overly emotive line readings to shame.)  Adding to the film's negatives are poor digital photography and pedestrian direction.  However, for all the negatives, there is still an involving love story here:  the woman for the child, and a sensitive musician (a quite attractive actor, Nicholas Saputra) who falls in love with both the woman and the child.  I was moved by the story; but from listening to others at the screening, I was one of the few who was.  **

FUSE (Bosnia Herzegovina d. Pjer Zalica)
This is another satire about the Serbian-Bosnian conflict, this one taking place after the finish of the fighting and all about the reconciliation.  It centers around a visit to the area by President Clinton; but the story features a group of people who still have to come to grips with the realities of the new world order of Bosnian statehood.  Balkan politics are hard for an American audience to grasp, as the ethnic conflict is social and religious and has had centuries to simmer.  So a lot of this film went over my head.  But the characters were well defined, and the action interesting enough to sustain interest.  Nothing great...this is certainly not this year's No Man's Land.  But a solid effort which is destined to be an also-ran.  ** 3/4

SPARE PARTS (Slovenia d. Damjan Kozole)
The last two years I've missed the Slovenian films because of illness.  This year I remained healthy, not that I'd have missed anything vital.  This is another of a virtual spate of films about the plight of third world refugees trying to reach sanctuary in the developed countries.  It centers on two men, one experienced, another his apprentice, who are part of a gang who smuggle refugees from Croatia through Slovenia to the Italian border.  Very much like the German film Lichter, the focus is more on the smugglers than those victims of circumstance who are trying to be smuggled.  This is a fairly well made, involving film which just failed to engage me enough to raise it to the next level.  ** 1/2

LOS DEBUTANTES (Chile  d. Andres Waissbluth)
This was an extraordinary film which apparently failed with the committee as a whole (many walk-outs), but one which I found gripping and memorable.  The film is an end-of-innocence melodrama about two brothers from the sticks of south Chile who move to Santiago.  The younger one is still in high school, and on his 17th birthday, his 24 year old brother takes him to a porno bar to get laid, which leads them to become involved in the porn and prostitution business and the evil boss who runs it.   This is a multi-level story which follows three points of view, going back in the past three times uncovering additional details with each iteration...a structure exactly borrowed from the English film, The Lawless Heart.  The acting is fine, especially a luminous performance from Antonella Rios as the gang boss's sexy and talented mistress who entices both brothers.  There's plenty of sex and nudity; but none of it seems gratuitous.  Still, too NC-17 for the Academy, I think.  ***

THE FIRST NIGHT (Columbia d. Luis Alberto Restrepo)
This is a dour drama about a family from a rural area of Columbia in the midst of a guerilla rebellion, and how two of them (and two small children) are forced after a disaster to travel pennyless to Bagota and live on the streets.  Reasonably well made, if somewhat over acted at times, it held my interest; but this is a minor effort which isn't going to progress in this competition.  ** 1/2

EVIL  (Sweden d.Mikael Hafström)
Andreas Wilson makes a bid for future stardom in a charismatic turn as a Swedish high schooler expelled from public school for fighting (this is in the mid '50s), whose abusive step-father and weak mother send him to a top boarding school for rich kids.  The school is operating under a sadistic code where the upper form students pass down to the younger student their own abuse when they were in turn the youngsters.  Thus this film follows in a tradition of English boarding school stories (e.g. If...), or sadistic school stories (e.g. Lords of Discipline) where the inmates run the asylum.  But this film is more than that; it is an effective coming of age story about a lost boy who finds himself under severe pressure.  I thought it worked very well, and the film has a chance to make the final five, though I'm sure that many were turned off by the sadism.  *** 1/2

I'm skipping Thursday's Academy screening in order to watch 3 films that I really want to see at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.  I'll review those three films here.

VODKA LEMON (Armenia d. Hiner Saleem)

The festival was a complete success for me.  The venues are more than adequate (and the new Signature theater is top flight with incredibly comfortable leather seats and  stadium seating.)  The people in line were friendly and film-savvy; and I struck up many interesting conversations.  I only wish this festival did not conflict with the Academy screenings, or I'd be so there every year with a full series pass!
FATHER & SONS (PÈRE ET FILS) (d. Michael Boujenah)
This is a French comedy with some heavyweight actors, adding up to a highly satisfactory film.  It's a wide screen road movie about a dysfunctional family where the father is trying to get his three feuding sons to reconsile by pretending to be ill and emotionally blackmailing them to accompany him on a "last" trip to Quebec.  This is an audience pleaser above all; and I found it totally diverting.  Kudos go especially to Philippe Noiret as the manipulative father and Pascal Elbé as the unexpectedly canny 'dumb' youngest son.  But the always reliable Charles Berling and Bruno Putzulu aren't exactly chopped liver in this ensemble.  Minor fare, to be sure; but emotionally enriching.  ***

TWIST (d. Jacob Tierney)
Twist is a  clever adaptation of the "Oliver Twist" story, only taking place in a dormatory for male street hustlers in present day Toronto.  It is shot on digital video, taking place mostly at night, and the photography is murky, which goes nicely with the tragic bleakness of the scenario.  Nick Stahl plays Dodge, a street-smart heroin addict runaway who befriends Oliver, a naive new kid in town.  The acting is fine here; but the story as adapted is just too brutal to be affecting.  Yet Nick Stahl remains an actor to watch...not traditionally Hollywood handsome, but soulful in a way which hopefully will lead to an important career.  ** 1/2

LATTER DAYS (d. C. J. Cox)
It is fun sitting in a packed festival audience when a film is working.  There's a certain electricity which crackles in the atmosphere, and this happened here during this film.  It is even better when a star is born before one's very eyes, which is the case with Steve Sandvoss, a sparkling eyed young actor whom the camera adores (though is acting chops are a little suspect.)  The other main actor in this off center love story is Wesley A. Ramsey, who plays to perfection a party queen whose life is changed when he meets a proto-gay Mormon missionary.  Erik Palladino, Mary Kaye Place, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt all do outstanding supporting performances, and Jacqueline Bisset is gorgeous in her small, but pivotal role.  This is an extraordinary gay themed film:  sexy, relevant, well scripted and directed...which deserves to break out of the genre ghetto.  *** 1/4

ELINA (Finland  d. Klaus Haro)
The Finnish film this year is actually a riff on the same theme as the Swedish film Evil.  We're back in the '50s, this time in North Sweden, where a small town school is trying to train Finnish speaking children to speak Swedish.  Elina is a free-thinking 9 year old girl whose maverick father, known for his stubbornness, has recently died.  Elina gets into a running fight with the head teacher (a cold, effective performance by Bibi Andersson), and neither is going to give an inch.  The film is well made; but somehow misses the mark for me...maybe because, against the intentions of the filmmaker, I found myself on the side of the teacher rather than the willful child.  But hey, the committee probably ate it up, a child teaches an adult a lesson, a theme that usually does well in this competition.  However, this year it'll be hard for this one to break through. ** 3/4

CARANDIRU (Brazil  d. Hector Babenco)
If you watched the HBO series Oz, or the director's breakout hit Kiss of the Spider Woman, then you've got some idea of that this film entails.  Carandiru was an overcrowded prison in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  This is the story of one wing in that prison, and of the lives of several inmates as seen through the eyes of the recently hired prison doctor.  This isn't a feel good prison picture:  Carandiru is no Shawshank.  But it all seems pretty familiar until the strong, gritty ending takes the film to a higher level.  My feeling is that this is too tough a dose of reality for the film to get a nomination; but the quality is there, and it could sneak into the final 5.  *** 1/4

SEAWARDS JOURNEY (Uruguay d. Guillermo Casanova),
The Uruguayan submission is not all that different from last year's The Last Train, though a lesser production.  It's the story of several small town men from the interior who take a day trip by truck to see the sea for the first time.  It's a sweet film, well shot with some touching moments.  But it doesn't pay off all that much, and for all its virtues as a nice little film, I can't see a nomination here.  ** 1/2

TWIN SISTERS (The Netherlands d. Ben Sombogaart)
For my money this film is the class of the competition.  Let's hope that the rest of the audience feels the same way (the reaction seemed very positive.)  It's the story of two 6 year old German fraternal twin girls, who, when their parents die in the mid 1920's are split up with two different families...one German, one Dutch.  The film follows their sundered lives through the rest of the 20th century, and becomes an amazingly effective historical epic in addition to an unusually moving personal story.  It's a fantastic script based on a best-selling novel.  I know nothing of the original source; but this is a very filmic adaptation.  The acting, directing, photography are all first rate.  This is truly an amazingly rich film, and will probably take the Oscar this year.  ****

OSAMA (Afghanistan d. Siddiq Barmak)
The Afghans have submitted a film shot as a docudrama which is bound to make Americans feel good about our going to war to defeat the Taliban (which undoubtedly was a supremely evil institution).  Osama is the name of a 12 year old girl whose family disguises as a boy in order to survive the death of the last male family member.  Women are lower than dogs in the Taliban's society where the  religious zealots make a cruel and fearsome theocracy.  This is a harrowing and realistic story of a child in jeopardy, and is so politically charged that the committee may just nominate it despite the fact that it isn't a very good film.  Riviting, important, stomach churning, an easy sell.  But pretty obvious and simplistic for all that.  ** 1/4

DEKADA '70 (Philippines d. Chito Rono)
The competition ends this year with another decades spanning family epic, this time a Philppino bourgeoise family of five sons surviving more or less the tumultuous 1970's, and the film discloses the political upheavals in the Philippines through the eyes of the sympathetic middle class parents (c.f. Ozzie and Harriet Nelson) and the rebellious sons.  It's fairly well made, actually, but overly long and certainly overly emotional for our sensibilities.  I nodded off a little in the middle; but along with most, stuck it out to the end.  The rambling and unfocused script just makes the similarly themed Dutch film,  Twin Sisters look all that much better.  **

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