American Film Market - Spring 2004
Cinematheque Spanish film series 2004
City of Lights City of Angeles French film festival 2004

A PROMISE KEPT (d. Daniel Milligan)
B-movie filler, undoubtedly straight to video.  A policier about a conflicted cop (Sean Patrick Flanery, the only actor who comes out of this with any props) looking for a mysterious vigilante avenger who is targeting child molesters.  Turgid, predictable, badly acted and directed with a wooden eye.  Poor Mimi Rogers deserves more.  1/2 *

IL CARTAIO (The Card Dealer) (d. Dario Argento)
Dario Argento is a director who does have a distinctive visual style (as opposed to Daniel Milligan in A Promise Kept).  This film is an Italian policier (in English, though it sounds absurd for the Italian gendarmes to be speaking English with an Italian accent in a Rome setting) about a maniac serial killer who plays internet poker with the police for the lives of his victims.  The plot is ludicrous, even laughable; but the film is stylish and has a nice performance from one of my favorite young Italian actors, Silvio Muccino in a minor role. * 1/2

DREAMING OF JULIA (Cuba Libra) (d. Juan Gerard) Weirdly, I saw this about the same time that I watched another film Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights which is happening simultaneously in another part of Cuba.  This film is a nostalgic coming-of-age trifle about an 11 year old boy in a small Cuban town in 1958 who has a crush on a much older woman (Iben Hjejle) who is the secret mistress of his powerful grandfather (another bombastic called-in performance by Harvey Keitel).  Even Gael Garcia Bernal is totally wasted here in a tiny role as an ineffective revolutionary.   The kid actor is good; and the film has a nice, authentic period look to it.  But there's not much to the story.  **

SILMIDO (d. Woo-suk Kang)
The North-South conflict in Korea has led to some riviting cinema, and this film is no exception.  The film may or may not be based on a true story (I was left unclear about this), an incident that the Korean government would prefer to keep under wraps, I think.  It is about the formation and training of a squad of soldiers recruited from convicted criminals facing the death penalty (yes, shades of Dirty Dozen) to infiltrate North Korea and assassinate the great leader.  Silmido is the remote island where these convicts are gathered and trained.  Just about every fine Korean male actor was cast in this film, especially notable was another great performance from Kyung-gu Sol, so outstanding in Oasis.  But what makes this film stand out is the taut action direction and propulsive plot.  This film is a big winner (jeez, just compare it to the similar Coast Guard which is remarkably inferior as a film), and should get a release.  *** 1/4

THE EMPEROR'S WIFE (d. Julian Vrebos)
This one is a strange, stylized modern dress story of court intrigue set in some present-day fictious country.  Max Beesley is the emperor whose beloved (and ruthless) wife has not conceived, so by law he must find another wife.  Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, dolled up in albino white hair coiffed to the max, is charismatic as the bloodless chancellor, charged with finding the new empress.  Somewhat overwrought, not a little campy, this one is a guilty pleasure just for the mood it sets.  ** 1/2

Every once in a while a film comes along which seems to nail the high school experience.  Thanks to a riviting performance by young Korean actor Sang-woo Kwong, this film is one of the best of the genre I've seen, as good as the similar Japanese/Korean film Go of a couple of years ago.  Kwong plays a shy boy beset by bullies, who must work on himself to surmount his problems.  Nicely directed and photographed, this one is another Korean winner.  *** 1/4

IRISH EYES (d. Daniel McCarthy)
Daniel Baldwin vehicle...he's a Boston Irish gangster. But it wasn't holding my interest, though it wasn't all that bad.  W/O

RING OF DARKNESS (d. David DeCoteau)
This B-picture horror thriller wannabe is about a hugely successful "boy band" whose success is based on Satanic rituals and devil worship.  It is made with all the overwrought and ridiculous dialog and wooden acting that one would expect.  The trailer on-line was interesting, lots of pretty boy flesh on view, possibly in homoerotic code.  But the film as made, though technically competent, is pure exploitation and teenage girl pandering, and is pretty dreadful.  * 3/4

TAKE MY EYES (Te Doy Mis Ojos) (d. Iciar Bollain)
This is a brilliantly written and acted relationship drama, taking place among the splendors of Toledo, Spain.  Luis Tosar is remarkable as a typical macho Spanish man with one flaw...he beats his wife.  And Laia Marull is even more spectacular as his abused wife who despite everything is still attracted to her husband.  Nothing is purely black and white in this film, which examines the relationship dynamic with remarkable even-handedness.  Tosar tries to improve through group therapy.  Marull's character is torn by conflicting feelings and pressure from her unsympathetic mother.  The film is a throwback to the traditional "woman's picture", I think; but with a totally modern psychology.  Oscar caliber filmmaking.  *** 1/2

THE 24TH DAY (d. Tony Piccirillo)
Two young, upcoming American actors, Scott Speedman and James Marsden get roles to sink their teeth into and run with it.  This is essentially a two-person drama where Marsden's gay  Lothario is kidnapped and held hostage by Speedman, whose one gay experience five years before with Marsden led to disaster.  This is an adaptation of a theater piece, very claustrophobic with a one-room set.  But the direction of the actors and the camera is impeccable.  Piccirillo is a director to watch!  *** 1/2

SLEEPING LUCK (La Suerte Dormida) (d. Angeles Sinde)
Adriana Ozores plays a Spanish Erin Brokovich, a paralegal who takes on a complex case where a mining company may be liable for the on-the-job death of the son of her friends.  Ozores has a secret history of her own, which adds to her passion in the case. Outstanding acting by Ozores, Jose Soriano, and Felix Gomez (who plays a law student aide and is a young actor to watch).  Good script, although it is hard to follow the complexities of the Spanish liability law.  *** 1/4

HARRY AND MAX (d. Christopher Münch)
Some films are simply too hot to handle.  Disclaimer:  Chris Munch is a friend of mine and I worked on this film.  I saw this at a cast/crew screening; and I was simply blown away.  Harry is a 23 year old veteran of a boy band which had once been huge, but now is having creative problems and losing popularity.  As portrayed by Bryce Johnson, who has flown under my radar doing TV like the WB series "Popular", he is wise beyond his years, sexually confused (he's recently broken up with his girlfriend, underplayed with an edge by Rain Phoenix, a dead ringer for her brother Juaquin), and incredibly attractive.  His 16 year old brother, Max (Cole Williams), is a Tiger Beat teenage heartthrob star, unabashedly gay, best Platonic friends with his brother's former girlfriend, and being shamelessly exploited by his mother/manager.  The two brothers leave on a long promised camping trip vacation into the Southern California mountains; and an entire chain of events leading from a supposed sexual escapade 2 years before in Bermuda, come to fruition.  Two factors assault the audience:  the underage brother's liberated gay attitude, and the incest angle.  And the film doesn't pussyfoot around these issues, confronting them directly and unashamedly.  This is a fine script and a brave film!  And Munch has a great eye, a fine sense of camera placement and pacing, and a rapport with his actors which leads to extraordinary performances.  He has a European filmmakers sensibility, and gets major  production values out of his low budgets.  This film was apparently savaged by unsympathetic audiences at Sundance; but it deserves to find an audience which will appreciate its qualities.  *** 1/2

THE HOURS OF THE DAY (Las Horas del Día) (d. Jaime Rosales)
Boring film about the boring quotidien life of a boring shopowner with one little quirk.  The film has the same sort of droning ordinaryness of the films of Bruno Dumont.  I kept anticipating all the surprise twists, which means that the writing here is sub-standard.  **

TORREMOLINOS 73 (d. Pablo Berger)
This film is a clever satire about an ordinary Spanish couple who almost by accident become hugely successful turning their ordinary sex life into pornos for the Scandinavian market.  Funny, ribald, clever (some wonderful film savvy takeoffs on Ingmar Bergman), it also nails the look and feel of the early '70s.   Candela Peña is a standout as the meek wife who becomes a sex symbol, and Javier Camara is just as good as her budding filmmaker husband.  ***

TWO TOUGH GUYS (Dos Tipos Duros) (d. Juan Moreno)
Antonio Resines, who was everywhere in last year's Spanish series, returns as a tough guy in this Guy Richie type bloody, gang-who-couldn't-shoot-straight comedy.  He's up against a diabolical criminal mastermind played against type by the wonderful Rosa Maria Sarda.  But what raises this film above the ordinary is Jordi Vilches, who played Nico in Krampack.  Here he is the naive but energetic and inept nephew of Resine's gangster boss, and is let loose to sink or swim under Resines' reluctant tutiledge.   Vilches is wonderful, literally stealing the movie and the hearts of the audience.  He does a lap-dance in drag that is a classic comic film moment.  ***

ERES MI HÉROE (d. Antonio Cuadri)
The kid from Butterfly, so expressive and outstanding as an 8 year old at SIFF in 2000, plays a 13 year old outsider, undersized and newly arrived at school in the 1970's during the death-of-Franco cultural revolution.  This is simply an excellent coming of age story; and Manuel Lozano is a world class child actor.  *** 1/2

WHERE IS MADAME CATHERINE? (Las Manos Vacías) (d. Marc Recha)
Silly "lost dead body" farce (in French) with a plot I found impossible to follow.  This one makes even makes Weekend at Bernie's look good.  * 1/4

ALEGRE MA NON TROPPO (d. Fernando Colomo)
Slick, high gloss '94 Spanish sex farce on confused sexuality with clever plot and some fine acting.  ***

GOING SOUTH SHOPPING (Bajarse al Moro) (d. Fernando Colomo)
A low-budget '88 comedy about Madrid druggies. Even a young Antonio Bandares couldn't elevate it.  **
EL GRAN GATO (d. Ventura Pons)
Gato Parez was an Argentinian who relocated to Barcelona when he was 13 (in 1963) and became a popular singer/songwriter in the rumba and gypsy music styles.  He died in 1990; and this film is a tribute to his story-telling music using some really fine singers to recreate his songs (a technique well used in In the Shadow of Motown, which this film resembles in structure).   There are also interviews with his family, friends and companeros...but unfortunately no footage of Parez himself, which is a shame as the film really involves the viewer in his life.  This film fits right in with the current spate of latino music documentaries like Buena Vista Social Club; and is nicely directed by Pons, who incorporates the music well in his documentary structure, using effective lighting and fluid camera movement to add to the experience.  I know nothing about this music, and truly don't have much of an affinity for it; but the film brings it all alive very nicely.  ***

THE IGUAZU EFFECT (El Efecto Iguazú)  (d. Pere Joan Ventura)
The "Igazu Effect" is a complex metaphor for the deleterious effects of global capitalism.  Boatsmen on the Iguazu river are in calm waters just before plunging disasterously over the falls (which are much larger than Niagara).  This documentary shows the results of a financial scandal when the Spanish phone monopoly sold out one of its largest subsidiaries and laid off thousands of workers.  The workers formed a shanty city in the heart of Madrid and lived there in a massive protest for 6 months in 2001 before bringing the government to take action.  The film really gets in the middle of the protests (helped by a side trip to the 2001 Genoa economic summit which was marred by riots), and manages to make a compelling and involving film out of the pieces.  *** 1/4

Finally I get to see a film by this demented and majorly talented director!  It was a sparsely attended press screening; so I assume that the film is getting an imminent  release.  Madden has made a totally authentic retro-film, which looks like it was made in the 1930's, combining German expressionism with Hollywood extravaganza.  Major props for the cinematography, which managed to make grainy black and white and saturated color sequences look as if they were actually shot 70 years ago.  Also, this must be the best edited film in years, cut with a frenzied energy which made total sense out of a chaotic story.  Finally the acting:  Isabella Rossillini has never been better, playing a double amputee who concocts a multi-national musical competition in the heart of the Depression.  And Mark McKinney, all grown up from his "Kids in the Hall" days, is moviestar material here.  I was blown away by the audacity of the film; but for me it didn't entirely work, although I think the problem lay within my own inability to keep up with the craziness.  *** 1/4

THE THREE THOUSAND (Polígono Sur)  (d. Dominique Abel)
Dominique Able has made a documentary about Gypsies living in a barrio called the Tres Mil (Three Thousand).   The otherwise ordinary lives of these people are suffused with flamenco music, they form ad hoc groups in the streets of the barrio, singing and playing guitars and clapping in the distinctive off-beat rhythms of the music.  The photography by master cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier, who is currently working with Christopher Doyle to shoot the new Wong Kar-wai film, is excellent.   This is one of those documentaries which gets into the lives and the very hearts of its subjects, who are disturbed by the encroachment of drugs on their children and the difficulties of their outcast status.  But the seemingly unrehearsed and spontaneous music is the heart of the film; and it is remarkably uplifting.  *** 1/2

NOVIEMBRE (d. Achero Mañas)
I was blown away by this film.  In structure, it is a mockumentary as made 20 years in the future looking back on a troupe of revolutionary street theater people in present day Madrid.  They called themselves November because they weren't quite all-out revolutionary enough to be called October.   But what we really have is a wide screen, incredibly well shot and directed film about talented and idealistic young people dedicated to art and disdainful of commerce.  At the center is a riviting performance by newcomer (to me) Oscar Jaenada, who plays the charismatic founder of the troupe of misfits.  The film is partly a series of vignettes of the crazed acts of street theater that these people put on over the course of a few years.  In some ways, it reminded me of the kind of mad role playing of the Party Monster crowd, only without the sociopathy of that group.  An out-of-the-blue masterpiece of inventive filmmaking.   *** 3/4

THE GALINDEZ FILE (El Misterio Galíndez) (d. Gerardo Herrero)
Galindez was a true-life Basque nationalist exiled to New York after spending some time working for Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.  He apparently was kidnapped and killed by Trujillo (who is convincingly played here as a cold-blooded tyrant) in 1956.  All this is back story (though fleshed out in flashbacks), to an '80s reality where a grad student (Saffron Burrows, miscast) is researching Galindez's story for her thesis.  She runs afoul of a CIA coverup masterminded by the ubiquitous Harvey Keitel (subtlely menacing; but also coasting on his reputation here).  Costa-Gavras would have made a fine film from this material (and probably did, this film seems so familiar).  But director Herrero just seems to be painting by numbers here.  ** 1/4

LIFE MARKS (La Vida Mancha) (d. Enrique Urbizu)
Two half brothers reunite after 13 years.  The elder brother left home and was mysteriously incommunicado, and returns with secretly smuggled diamonds and the confidence of a successful man of the world.  The younger brother is married to a beautiful wife and has a fine 5 year old son; but he is gambling and losing the family's food money and in danger of having his truck repossessed.  The drama revolves around the two brothers and their mutual affection for the younger one's wife.  It's a traditional woman's picture, a relationship melodrama.  But in the sure hands of director Urbizu the plot unfolds with just the right amount of ambiguity and novelty.  I enjoyed this film a lot...the characters were identifyable and I'm just a sucker for this type of film.  *** 1/4

THE WEAKNESS OF THE BOLSHEVIK (La Flaqueza del Bolchevique) (d. Manuel Martin Cuenca)
Some people were raving about this film when it was over; but it left me cold.  Luis Tosar is again remarkable (this is his breakout year) as a bank executive who gets into a fender bender with a spoiled, rich woman and gets involved in a complex plot to harass her, which eventually leads to a disasterous relationship with her 15 year old sister (a fine performance by Maria Valverde).  I found the Lolita and stalker aspects of the film disturbing and a turn-off.  My problem, I guess.  The film is slow and dull in parts, and the psychology murky at best.  But the fine acting raises the level of the film.  ** 3/4

APRÈS VOUS  (d. Pierre Salvadore)
This utterly predictible French relationship farce starts out in a nice Parisian restaurant with shots of gorgeous food and great wines.  It was mostly down hill from there.  Yes, Sandrine Kiberlaine (unforgettable as Betty Fisher) is an interesting actor.  Yes, Daniel Auteuil is a particularly deft French actor.  But there was really no chemistry between them.  I found the plot to be totally contrived:  a man adopts as a cause to change the life of some guy whom he rescues from a suicide attempt.  I hate it when people act dumber than they are and do really inane things inconsistant with their character, just for the sake of adding layers of complications to the story.  The French are usually good at this sort of thing; but this one was just overlong and unbelieveable.  * 3/4

(d. Francis Veber)
Gerard Depardieu has lost 100 pounds and looks and acts spry in this fast paced French buddy cum chase film comedy.  He plays off Jean Reno, animated and manic to Reno's taciturn and stolid.  The combination of acting styles works very well.  I found Veber's last film, The Closet unfunny and uncomfortably homophobic, although he is one French comic writer/director whose films usually cross cultural lines well and remain funny to an American audience.  This film is a return to form.  Even though the entire premise is unlikely, the film works.  Veber in Q&A seemed like a genuinely pleasant guy.  His script ran to over 120 pages (and he says he cannot abide improvisations on the set); but he directs the action and dialog at an unusually fast pace.  Thus there is very little left on the cutting room floor, but the film runs less than 90 minutes.  He quoted Billy Wilder as his primary influence and guru.  An entertaining trifle.  ***

NATHALIE  (d. Anne Fontaine)
The director of the brilliantly achieved film Dry Cleaning comes a cropper with this overlong drama about a wife (stolid performance from the elegant Fanny Ardant) who gets involved in a complex psychological game with a b-girl (the still amazingly beautiful Emanuelle Béart) to come to grips with her failing marriage to Gerard Depardieu (seemingly in every French film lately - but very fine here).  What I liked about this film was that it was unpredictable, very French and adult.  What I didn't like was that it was...well, boring and psychologically suspect.  ** 1/2

LES SENTIMENTS  (d. Noémie Lvovsky)
I've loved Melvil Poupaud ever since he was a charismatic, difficult teenager in several obscure favorite films of mine.  He really gets the short end of the stick in this bittersweet relationship comedy about two married couples of different generations who become involved in a typically French situation of infidelity when the older man and the younger woman become intimate.  The only thing that bothered me is why such a vivacious young married woman (well played by Isabelle Carré) would choose the older guy, burley French leading man Jean-Pierre Bacri, over Poupaud.  But that is part of the French condition:  the older, lived in guys become the monster stars (and I've never understood Bacri's appeal...but that is just me, apparently).  Anyway, Nathalie Baye continues her run of spectacular portrayals, this time of a beautiful married woman of a certain age who is losing her husband and escaping into alcohol.  The film has its pretentions, for instance a Greek chorus (literally a chorus) singing a running commentary on the action.  And truthfully, the insane colorfulness of the characters' wardrobes was distracting.   There's no doubt that this is a film of quality; but I was uncomfortable watching it.  I couldn't believe in the characters, despite their innate likability and the skill of the actors.   ***

  (d. Phillippe Le Guay)
Le Guay has brought together a group of characters inhabiting Lyon in the present day into a complex interwoven tapestry of relationship stories.  All the story threads somehow center on money, and people's reactions to money in terms of their interpersonal relations.  Le Guay, seemingly an effortless juggler, keeps all the balls in motion until the story somehow peters out at the end with no real resolution...sort of like real life, I guess.  But the entire effort up to that disappointing ending was splendidly entertaining.  This was a flawless ensemble effort, great casting, almost Altmanesque in its textured mis en scene.  And Le Guay himself, in Q&A, was particularly charming and informative about his writing methods.  By far my favorite film of the French series so far.  *** 1/4

FRANCE BOUTIQUE (d. Tonie Marshall)
Not my cuppa, but I knew that going in.  This one is a particularly frothy and pointless comedy about the games people play in a cable tv shopping network studio.  I was so unengaged that I wanted to walk out, but newcomer actor Julian Lucas was eye candy enough to make me stay and watch the farce unfold.  And darn, if by the end of the film I was feeling a little more accepting of it...the ending left a pleasant glow.  Still, a waste of time and talent.  **

THE PHARMICIST  (d. Jean Veber)
Jean Veber is the personable son of Francis Veber, though his filmmaking style is different from his fathers.  Here he shamelessly mixes genres, the serial killer thriller, the buddy cop flick, the gay chase comedy, the eco-terror horror film.  I found it to be quite entertaining, though the entire premise lacks credulity.  Still, there is genuine chemistry between the leads, Vincent Perez, playing sympathetic crazy psycho to perfection, and Guillaume Depardieu as the confused cop chasing him, who continues to amaze me with his grungy attractiveness so different, yet so similar to his father's.  ** 3/4

HIGH TENSION  (d. Alexandre Aja)
Sort of a mix of Texas Chain Saw and Audition.  Gorgeously shot in scope, with no lack of vivid and realistic blood effects to chill even the most jaded.  Rarely have I been so horrified by film images...but it gets to be a little much after a while, though the directoral style never wavers.  However, and it is a big however, the plot is a monsterous cheat, in my opinion, which ultimately cheapens the effect of the film.  Still, this one gets high marks for sadistic thrills.  I just wish I hadn't subjected myself to it; but that's just me.  ***

The festival was improved this year.  First of all, the filmed festival intro before every screening was a model of its type:  short, graphically interesting enough to hold up to multiple viewings, well made.  I wish more of these obligatory festival promos had such economy (hint: SIFF!)  Then there was a short film before just about every feature, and interestingly each short related to some extent with the feature which followed.  And the quality of these short films was pretty darn high. 

DONKEY SKIN  (d. Jacques Demy)
Not much to say about this 1970 Demy fairy tale/musical.  It wasn't nearly as successful for me as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or The Ladies of Rochefort, which it resembles with its tuneful, though second rate Michel Legrand songs and its star in common, Catherine Deneuve.  Still, the costumes and sets were outrageously wonderful, and its simple story is diverting enough.  ** 1/2

CASH TRUCK  (d. Nicolas Boukhrief)
This is a more or less successful film noir about a man who takes a job as an armored truck driver at a firm whose trucks have been the target of recent hijackings.  Albert Dupontel does his usual workmanlike acting job as the tragedy haunted driver.  The film culminates in a complex and super violent sequence that is splendid filmmaking.  But, all in all, this is familiar stuff done well.  ***

EAGER BODIES  (d. Xavier Giannoli)
Essentially this is a three person Frenchified version of Love Story.  The girl has cancer, her boyfriend wants to take care of her; but gets involved with the girl's wayward cousin.  And the crossfire of relationship problems and passions escalate from there.  The story wouldn't work if the actors didn't bring it, and the three principals are definitely up to the task.  Laura Smet, daughter of Nathalie Baye and Johnny Hallyday, plays the sick girl with a smoldering passion.  Nicholas Duvauchelle is simply stunningly good as the attractive guy who wants to do right by his lover, but is only human.  And Marie Denarnaud is sexy and just right as the healthy cousin who is virtually irresistable to Duvauchelle.  Yeah, it is melodrama; and the scope photography looks dingy and digital.  But the film works.   *** 1/2

BLUEBERRY (d. Jan Kounen )
I'm not sure how to describe this film, since I've never seen anything quite like it.  Let's just say it looks like a Western; but it is more a psychedelic trip film which outdoes even the Matrix films in terms of the special effects.  It is overlong, and the talented director, a visual genius, lacks the discipline to make a tight film.  It also suffers from a world-class horrendous acting job by Juliette Lewis, who is laughable as the femme fatale.  But as bad as Lewis was, Vincent Cassell makes up for it with his charismatic portrayal of Mike Blueberry...raised by shamans, racked by guilt partially assuaged by serving as marshall of a western town.  It's a story apparently based on a famous French comic novel.  The plot is pretty absurd; but the visual feast makes up for that in spades.   This English language film could be a huge hit with a little tightening.  ***

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