2004-5 AFI Festival and Other Winter Festivals Journal

All ratings are based on **** being best.
Films in BLACK type are foreign films watched
Films in RED type are AFI Film Festival films
Films in GREEN type are Palm Springs Film Festival films

A LOST EMBRACE (El Abrazo Partido) (Argentina d. Daniel Burman)
Daniel Hendler, another in a seemingly endless series of attractive Argentine leading men, plays Ariel, the twenty-something younger son of a broken family of shopkeepers of Polish-Jewish extraction.  This film might be called More Scenes from a Mall since it centers around Ariel's interaction with the various denizens of a tacky shopping mall in the heart of Buenos Aires' Jewish quarter.  The film is both a touching family story and an entertaining farce, combining elements of both.  I'm sure that some found the constantly roving and shaky hand-held camera a distraction; but I felt it added to the film's realism.  A charming slice of life film which I liked a lot; but it probably won't get far in this competition.  *** 1/4

THE OVERTURE (Hoam-Rong) (Thailand d. Itthisoontorn Vichailak)
This film "based on a true character" tells the life story of Sorn, a traditional Thai musician who becomes a master at playing a xylaphone type of instrument during the time period from the late 19th Century through the second World War.  It's something of a conventional artist biopic, examining a life ranging from youthful prodigy to old master, with politics always seeming to interfere with art.  The traditional Thai music was superbly played and the film looked fine, with a flawless period feel.  The film did show a tendency to slip into melodrama, however, at least to a Western sensibility.  Still, an interesting subject and it held my interest throughout.  ** 1/2

PRODUCING ADULTS (Lapsia ja aikuisia) (Finland d. Aleksi Salmenperä)
The Finns have sent us a wonderfully relevant film.  Venla is a psychologist at a fertility clinic who wants a child; but her long-term athlete boyfriend is neurotically terrified of fatherhood.  That is the set-up for a bittersweet, subtly nuanced relationship comedy where very realistic characters cope with modern social issues from abortion to lesbianism.  Salmenperä as a director reminds me of the modern Swedish master Lukas Moodysson in his handling of actors and juggling complex relationships.  *** 1/4

UP AND DOWN (Horem Pádem) (Czech Republic d. Jan Hrebejk)
Hrebejk returns to form after last year's  disappointing Pupendo.  The current film is a large scale tapestry of character studies in modern day Prague.  The stories are subtly connected, and range from the plight of refugees from the Balkans to the anomie of soccer hooligans to the lives of a middle class family fractured by the fall of Communism and emmigration.  It comes together quite nicely and is an interesting, if ultimately disturbingly melancholy, film.  *** 1/4

CHRONICALS (Cronicas) (Ecuador  d. Sebastián Cordero)
I'm not sure what I expected from Ecuador; but this taut and exciting psychological thriller with its international cast certainly exceded my expectations.  John Leguizamo plays an American tv journalist based in Miami who is the crack reporter for a South American schlock tv newsmagazine run by Alfred Molina.  His crew is investigating a series of child rape-murders in a small Ecuadorian town and they become personally involved in the case to the point where journalistic ethics (or the lack thereof) become a real issue.  The film starts with an excellently edited scene of a small riot which almost leads to a lynching and gradually unfolds its creepy, moody mysterious story.  Probably too unsettling for a nomination...but I could see it as a slam dunk  American remake.  *** 1/4

THE KEYS TO THE HOUSE  (Le chiavi di casa) (Italy  d. Gianni Amelio)
Amelio is a fine director who has been here before and this film must rate highly as nomination fodder.  Kim Rossi Stuart (startlingly attractive and quite a good replacement for Amelio's usual actor hero, Enrico Lo Versi) plays a man whose girl friend died birthing a handicapped baby fifteen years earlier, and who deserted the child sight unseen for fifteen years.  Now, having grown and fathered a normal child, he's prepared to follow his conscience and become reacquainted with his teen-age son (a truly amazing performance by Andrea Rossi who must be authentically handicapped or deserves an Oscar for acting), taking him to Berlin for orthopedic treatment.  He meets another parent there, beautifully played with surface serenity covering a tragic interior by Charlotte Rampling, who is establishing quite a career in late middle age.  Subtly, almost effortlessly, Amelio melds these elements into a heartrending but surprisingly unsentimental film which is a journey of personal discovery.  Academy bait, to be sure; but a fine film and worthy of a nomination.  *** 1/2

I've caught a cold, so I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to write much to this journal.  I'm running late, so we'll see what happens if I can't kick the cold.

This Swiss film in German reminds me a lot of Dino's story in the American tv series (which is being totally unwatched, so this reference will mean nothing to anybody reading it now) "life as we know it".  The center of the film is a 14 year old girl, newly moved to town, who falls for a fellow student.  Her father and his mother, old friends, meet and have an affair which tears up the kid's lives.  It's an affecting, minor little film, nicely acted.  ** 1/2

SYMMETRY (Symetria) (d.  Konrad Niewolski)
Likely innocent man gets caught up in a Kafkaesque situation where he's accused of assaulting an old lady who dies before the trial...but he's in jail for a year anyway, awaiting trial.  The film looks stark and bleak, shot with a flourescent green tint.  It has some of the strenghts of Bresson's A Man Escaped in that it examines jail life and its affect on the prisoners in a realistic and non-sensationalistic way.  I can't say I enjoyed the experience of watching this film, it's slow and dismal.  But formally, it's a fine film.  *** 1/4

THE DEAL (d. Harvey Kahn)
Christian Slater has made better films.  Here he's playing Gordon Gekko lite in a near future tale of Wall Street shenanigans in the oil patch.  The story sort of holds water; and I wasn't bored at all.  But I can't see this derivative, straightforwardly directed film going anyplace except to the video store.  ** 1/4

SEQUESTRO EXPRESS (d. Jonathan Jakubowicz)
Some films are so strong and stomach churning that they demand attention.  This Venezuelan video looks terrible, fuzzy, out of focus.  It's the tale of an unsympathetic young upwardly mobil couple carjacked and kidnapped (an apparently common event in Caracas these days) and the gang who couldn't shoot straight which took them, combined with the corrupt cops from hell who don't help in any way.  It's shot with a very kinetic, frenetic style, much in extreme close ups.  Add Caracas to Medellin as a destination I'll never visit.  ** 3/4

MY TINY UNIVERSE (d. Glen Scantlebury, Lucy Phillips)
This is a relationship farce with a good script and a fine cast.   Andy Comeau, an actor I don't think I've noticed before but who has a real future in comedy, plays a failed actor on the brink of suicide when he finds the cell phone of a Hollywood bigwig with the phone number of every Hollywood player. The way he uses this tool is the key to a satire on the L.A. lifestyle and the biz.  The film was shot in the directors' home on HD, and it looks great:  I thought it might have been original 35mm film, so fine was the cinematography.  John Herd, Debi Mazar and Lesley Ann Warren are part of the perfectly cast ensemble.  ***

SECONDHAND CHILD (Wer Kusst Schon Einen Leguan) (d. Karola Hattop)
Presented on video, this might be called the German version of an afternoon tv special.  It's the story of a 13 year old fatherless boy who is on the brink of losing his neglectful mother, who bonds with a neighboring commitment phobic bachelor as an unexpected father figure.  The acting, especially of the boy who combines a certain fake bravado with emotional fragility, is first rate.  This is an involving, if predictable, film which doesn't break much new ground.  ** 3/4

SOUTH (Het Zuiden)
(d. Martin Koolhoven)
Oy, I wish I had skipped this film.  Not that it isn't a good film...in fact, it's a gripping psychological drama.  But I didn't enjoy the experience.  It's the story of an ostensibly sensible and successful woman who is suffering secretly from a complex caused by her losing a breast (undoubtedly from cancer in the unstated backstory).  She goes off the rails when a man in her employ reacts with startlement at discovering her fake breast during foreplay.  One watches the results with increasing dread.  From the Q&A it is clear that the director considers this to be a feminist film; but I thought it smacked of a little too much mysogeny in its examination of a woman's hysteria.  ** 3/4

RABBIT IN THE MOON (Conejo en la Luna) (d. Jorge Ramírez Suárez)
This is a superior thriller about corruption and conspiracy in the Mexican government and police force and how it affects an innocent man, his family and friends.  It's a propulsive script which puts the audience and the sympathetic hero into a situation of powerlessness.  Well acted, with an unfamiliar international cast (some of the film takes place in England).  ***

DAYBREAK (Om jag vander mig om)  (d. Björn Runge)
This Swedish film is another example of the general anomie which most Scandanavian drama seems to be asserting these days (not that that is anything new...there's a long tradition from Strindberg to Bergman).  The current film contains three simultaneous stories, only slightly connected, of people unhappy with their relationships and indeed present day society in general.  Technically, it's a fine piece of filmmaking; but I just couldn't connect emotionally to any of the stories.  ** 3/4

This mindblowing film is based on stories by J.T. LeRoy, apparently based on his life, that I was totally unaware of.  Jeremiah is a 7 year old boy (a truly fabulous performance by Jimmy Bennet) who is taken from his middle class foster parents by his totally unfit mother and thrust into a wandering life of drugs, molestation by her "boyfriends", occasional respites with his religiously fanatic grandparents, and other degrading experiences.  The film covers Jeremiah's life from 7 through about 12, and is one of the most unsparing looks at unabating child abuse I've ever experienced.  The director, Asia Argento, plays the trashy mother like a junky Courtney Love.  She is brilliant, no other word for it.  I can imagine how this polarizing film could be hated; but I'm still haunted by the characterizations and imagery.  *** 1/2

REVOLUTION OF PIGS (Sigade Revolutsioon) (d. Jaak Kilmi, René Reinumägi)
This is a large scale, ambitious film about a convocation of Communist youths at a summer camp in 1985 in Estonia.  The kids get out of hand, protesting Soviet rule and the war in Afghanistan, it turns into a riot of sex and rock and roll.  It doesn't get very deep into the characterizations, and, though nicely photographed with lots of good looking young people on view, I couldn't get into the film at all.  ** 1/4

AFTERMATH (d. Paprika Steen)
Paprika Steen is a fine Danish actor/commedian...but maybe her true calling is as a director.   Aftermath is an intimate drama about the corrosive affect of the loss of a child on a couple and the people around them.  Incredibly well acted, a gem of a script, insightful.  It's the kind of small, perfectly executed piece of filmmaking which makes an entire festival worthwile.  *** 1/2

ASTRONAUTS (Astronautas) (d. Santi Amodeo)
A harmless piece of fluff about a Galacian artist who kicks heroin and tries to stay off it with his own 10 part program.  He gets involved with a 16 year old girl runaway.  The narrative is broken on occasion by some Terry Gilliam like animation, which is actually pretty skillfully produced, but way overused.  This is a disappointing Spanish film...I expect more from Spain.  **

SOUNDLESS (Lautlos) (d. Mennan Yapo)
A taut, clever, well executed German thriller about a professional assassin towards the end of his career.  The subtitles call the film Without a Sound, which is a better title for this film, as this is a meticulous killer who operates invisibly without making a ripple.  Victor, or Felix, has been a successful, almost unnoticed killer since he was 9.  But a clever policeman puts himself into the assassin's mind and starts to get closer to him.  This is an extremely well written script, which holds together better than most recent thrillers.  Tom Tykwer produced, and the film has some of the look and feel of films by that director; but Yapo is a talent in his own right...exceptionally good with pacing and wide screen compositions.  I expect an inferior American remake is in the cards.  *** 1/2

SOMERSAULT (d. Cate Shortland)
This small scale Australian film is quite affecting.  It's a drama/road picture about a sexually precocious 16 year old girl runaway, a "good" girl who manages to find a viable life on the road.  These are very real characters, and the low key acting and direction are just right.  ***

OMAGH (d. Pete Travis)
This is a documentary style film about a family caught up in the aftermath of the IRA bombing of a main street in Omagh, N. Ireland in 1998.  Gerard McSorley gives a beautifully moderated performance as an ordinary man thrust despite misgivings into the heart of a search for justice after his son was killed in the bombing.  I thought the film might be even a little to underplayed...I found my attention wandering.  But the central performance is so strong it carries the film.  An interesting companion piece to Bloody Sunday.  ***

Sean Penn gives his usual top-flight performance here, based on a true story of a man pushed to horrible violence by a life of desparate mediocrity.  I can't say I loved the film, it is such a downer.  But I have to give much credit to the director and actors (Jack Thompson especially is great as the supersalesman boss from hell.)  ***

MY STEP BROTHER FRANKENSTEIN (Moj svodnyj brat Frankenstein) (d. Valery Todorovsky)
It's hard to put my finger on why I enjoyed this film so much more than its modest, downer plot seems to deserve.  It's a familiar story of the plight of a returning soldier, this one of a Chechnya veteran who is wounded both physically and mentally.  He imposes himself on the family of his father, who didn't even know of his existence until he showed up in Moscow one day.  The family is well portrayed, and the film shows modern Russian society in a more real fashion than I think I've ever seen before.  Somehow the film just worked for me.  ***

BRIDE AND PREJUDICE (d. Gurinder Chadha)
I think Chadha and Miramax have an unlikely hit here.  This is a Bollywood musical toned to fit the Hollywood mode, with American and English characters who combine well with the cliché  Indian plot of the middle class family of four daughters trying to find husbands  (it's based sort of on Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice, though the connection is pretty forced.)  Chadha isn't very inventive when it comes to the musical numbers; but she is a fine director of actors and getting to the emotional truth of her plot.  Despite all my prejudices against the Bollywood conventions, I was simply charmed by the film after I got over my initial reluctance.  ** 3/4

DUCK SEASON (Temporada de Patos) (d. Fernando Eimbcke)
This is a simple, one location black and white film in the mode of Jim Jarmusch (whom the director credits as being a primary influence.)  It's the story of two 14 year old boys stuck alone in an apartment on a Sunday and all the troubles imaginable that can happen without their leaving the apartment.  It's a delightful slice of life film, a comedy with a great deal of heart and from a director who has a keen understanding of his characters.  It has a great soundtrack mix of natural sound effects and original music.  Just a gem of a little film.  *** 1/4

FERPECT CRIME (Crimen Ferpecto) (d. Alex de la Iglesia)
Iglesia can be uneven; but this caper comedy is one of his better efforts.  Its clever script and high gloss cinematography and production design balance some unlikely sillyness.  But it's a purely fun audience film, a farce about a Lothario salesman in a big Madrid department store who gets taken down by an unattractive woman employee.  Richly inventive, and very enjoyable.  ***

20 FINGERS (Beest Angosht) (d. Mania Akbari)
I was bored stiff by this Iranian film, done in the style of recent Kiarostami in tight close ups of a bickering couple in various modes of travel.  They fight about some pretty weighty things for an Iranian film, among them abortion and infidelity.  But I found the director/leading actress to be shrill to the point of annoyance and the claustrophobic camera style equally bothersome.  * 3/4

WHISKY (Uraguay d. Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stall)
This is a subtle and emotionally truthful film about two brothers, each owners of their own stocking factories a legacy of their patrimony.  The younger Argentinian is visiting his Uraguaian brother to commemorate their Jewish mother's headstone unveiling.  They are playing a lifelong game of competitive dissimulation.  The film presents its psychological revelations very nicely in a slow, repetitive style which is probably too subtle to break through to a nomination.  ***

CHRYSTAL (d. Ray McKinnon)
An overwrought piece of Ozark gothic that is also a propulsive and interesting character study of the corrosive affects of grief and guilt.  Billy Bob Thornton gives one of his best, if amazingly muted, performances as an ex-con returning home after a stretch in prison for causing a car accident where his young son was lost; while Lisa Blount is fine in the title role as Thornton's grief stricken, long suffering wife.  The director, Ray McKinnon plays a particularly sleazy villain.  The film uses mountain music and the ambience of its place quite well.  ** 3/4

ETHAN MAO (d. Quentin Lee)
Quentin Lee is the heir apparent of Gregg Araki.  This is a film about a Chinese-American teenager who is kicked out of the house by his stern father when he comes out as gay.  He hustles, gets involved with a hispanic roommate and ultimately confronts his devils.  It's all straightforwardly done, with some nicely crafted performances by newcomers (to me).  If the plot is a little pat, at least it kept me interested and involved.  ** 3/4

BEREFT (d. Tim Daly and Clark Mathis)
I saw this wide screen Showtime effort at the Seattle Festival, where it made such a mediocre impact that I forgot that I'd seen it before.  I sat through it a second time, and this time I liked it a little more, appreciating the beautiful photography and the finely wrought and psychologically interesting characterizations.  It's another film about the terrible affects of grief on a person's life, this time a young wife whose husband was killed by a car while jogging.  I still felt emotionally distanced by the film, which is why I can't rate it highly...but there's much to admire here.  ** 3/4

SPEAK (d. Jessica Sharzer)
An exceptional central performance by Kristen Stewart as a troubled teenage highschool student marks this fine Showtime film (shot on super-16 but presented in video).  What makes her performance such a standout is that for most of the film she is basically mute, unable to communicate her hurt after a casual rape at a party.  Steve Zahn, too, gives a wonderful performance as an unconventional art teacher who manages to reach the troubled girl.  This is an effective, emotionally powerful film.  *** 1/4

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STREET (O Outro Lado da Rua) (d. Marcos Bernstein)
Fernanda Montenegro, so wonderful in Central Station, is the attraction here.  She plays a retired lady who works for the police as a sort of ad hoc crime spy.  She witnesses a crime from her high-rise window and gets caught up in a romance centered on the perpetrator.  Nicely made and acted, I just felt a little too emotionally distanced from the characters to love the film.  ***

PEAS AT 5:30 (Erbsen auf Halb 6) (d. Lars Buechel)
Germany erred in not sending this wonderfully touching and skillfully made film to the Academy for the foreign language film Oscar.  I suspect it would have been nominated.  Hilmir Snaer Gudnason (a favorite actor of mine from his work in Icelandic films) is simply terrific as a stage director driven suicidal by his recent blindness, the result of an auto accident.  He encounters a blind-from-birth girl (another wonderful performance by Fritzi Haberlandt,) and the film turns into an unlikely road picture as the two blind people set off on an impromptu journey.  The film is beautifully made, exceptional photography, script and direction.  Except for the inherent implausability of the plot, this was almost a perfect film for me, leaving me stunned by its emotional power.  A great way to end the festival on a high note!  *** 3/4

Missed it!  I doubt I'll get another chance to see this 16th century epic since word is it doesn't have much of a chance to make the final five...but one never knows.

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (China d. Zhang Yimou)
This film is the visual master Zhang Yimou's throwing down the gauntlet in the sweepstake to produce the most amazing Chinese magical martial arts film ever.  I think he's succeded; but then this isn't my favorite genre and I haven't seen many of the classics.  Still, this film astounds for the number of stunning set pieces: the echo dance, the battle in the trees, the swordsmanship displays.  And let's not forget that the three central actors, so perfect as archtypes and exemplars of physical skill, are also completely convincing in the personal story.  The only flaw of this film is that it goes on too long.  Too much of a good thing is still too much.  But it's hard to see how anyone could do this type of a film better than Zhang.  I expect it will be a box-office success in the U.S.; and I think it will be a strong contender to make the final five in this competition.  *** 1/4

CAMPFIRE (Israel d. Joseph Cedar)
The Israelis have been sending excellent family dramas to this competition the past three years; and this one fit right into the pattern.  It's the story of a recently widowed young mother and her two teenage daughters; and manages to be touching, harrowing and informative all at once.   Tami is the younger daughter, something of an awkward misfit, and the crucible of the drama is what happens to her at a summer campfire ritual, something bad.  There are some fine performances here, particularly Michaela Esher as the lovely, if self-involved mother; and Moshe Ivgy as her shy suitor.  But it is also the children's story, and the two girls are quite fine.   I should also mention Oshri Cohen, who was so outstanding in last years Bonjour M. Schlomo.  Here he has to play an unsympathetically passive boyfriend; but he shines even in that role.  The film gets political in the way it deals with the family's intention to become settlers of a West Bank commune.  I found the details of modern Israeli life to be quite illuminating.  The film doesn't quite have the heft to make it to the final 5; but it is a good effort.  ***

20:30:40 (Taiwan d. Sylvia Chang)
Sylvia Chang is the Tonie Marshall of Taiwanese films (meaning an actress turned director making light ensemble pictures based on women's lives like that French director of Venus Beauty Institute.)  This film is a romantic, if dark comedy about three seemingly unconnected women (one twentysomething, one thirtysomething, one fortysomething, which explains the title of the film.)  They actually inhabit the same street, unbeknownst to each other.   Each is the victim of love and the search for love.  I thought the film was tedious and uninvolving, although I must say that Ms. Chang is quite good as the 40-something divorcée.  Just not my kind of film.   * 3/4

BENEATH HER WINDOW (Pod Njenim Oknom) (Slovenia d. Metod Pevec)
This is one of those quirky relationship comedies which stands or falls by the charms of the actors.  Here Polona Juh plays a thirtiesh dancer who has prickly relationships with her mother, an older married man, and a sympathetic young stalker.  For whatever reason the charms of this film eluded me...I just didn't relate to the characters (except for the stalker who was attractive and different enough to make his all too few scenes interesting).  Others on the committee were more enthusiastic, I have to admit; but I think this is an also-ran.  ** 1/4

AS IT IS IN HEAVEN (Sa som i himmelen) (Sweden d. Kay Pollak)
Oh, oh...here is the perfect example of why this committee is in trouble with the media.  The Swedes have sent us an utterly charming audience pleaser about an orchestra conductor who returns to the town of his unhappy youth to recuperate after a heart attack.  It's the story of the blessed stranger transforming a dull reality into something magical.  There's nothing edgy or experimental here, just good story telling (which stays just this side of sappy).  The film does have a hard-hitting message ending.  Still, it's typical Academy bait and almost sure to get nominated by this committee.  Needless to say, I loved it.  *** 1/2

THE OLIVE HARVEST (Mousem Al Zaytoun) (Palestine d. Hanna Elias)
Two brothers in love with the same woman.  There's a little politics about the Jewish settlements destroying the Palestinian olive groves...but that is not the real text of the film.  It's basically an overwrought love story looking dingy with a bad digital video transfer and featuring some hammy acting.  Raeda Adon is beautiful, however, as the woman who is torn between the brothers.  * 3/4

OLGA (Brazil d. Jayme Monjardim)
This is a difficult film to pigeon hole.  It is a huge Holocaust epic about a real-life German-Jewish woman who gets involved in Brazilian politics through her activities as a pre-WWII communist activist; and who eventually gets caught in the Nazi Gestapo net.  It's also a love story:  romance thwarted by war.  And a harrowing concentration camp story of birth and death.  It's just too darn ambitious for this journeyman director.  For all its fascinating based on real-life plot, the film comes across as overproduced melodrama.  Camila Morgado does give a strikingly strong performance as Olga Benario, beautiful even with the shaved head of her Ravensbruck incarceration.  I've raised my rating on this film because in retrospect it has substance which sticks to the ribs.  But I don't think it has enough oomph to make the final 5.  ***

COLD LIGHT (Kildaljós) (Iceland d. Hilmar Oddsson)
This is an implacably cold Icelandic drama about a neurotic, 40-something man whose present day life is out of joint (from a tramautic event in his youth which he is unable to process).  It is perhaps too reminiscent in terms of plot of the previously presented Noi, Albino.  In any case, despite a fine central performance by Ingvar Sigurdsson, it didn't much engage me.  Still, as with many Icelandic films, one has to admire the filmmaking which manages to find humanism in its frigid setting.  ***

I LOVE CINEMA (Baheb El Cima) (Egypt d. Osamma Fawzy)
This is a family comedy centered on a young boy's point of view of the events which affect his raucous Coptic extended family circa 1966.  The characters are screeching and annoying, and any resemblence between this and Cinema Paradiso (which I believe is the director's intention) is purely a non-starter.  * 3/4

LONG DARK NIGHT (Duga Mracna Noc) (Croatia  d. Antun Vrdojak)
I was transported by this World War II epic of the struggle in Croatia between the Nazi collaborators and the Communist partisans.  The film features a strong, charismatic performance by Goran Visnjic (of ER fame) as a hero of the Communist resistence whose best friend is on the other side and whose family of simple farmers is in the middle of the partisan ebbs and flows of the time.  The film is almost 3 hours long; but I was not bored, even though the film bogs down in political infighting as it transitions to the post war Communist era.  Still, it's a pleasure to watch a film of such ambitious scope which, despite my ignorance of the politics still packs such an emotional wallop.  It's not up to the level of, say, Bartoluci's similar 1900; but I can mention this film in the same breath, which is a rare compliment.  ***

Monday 12/13
REVOLUTION OF PIGS (Sigade Revolutsioon) (Estonia d. Jaak Kilmi, René Reinumägi)
Seen at AFI film festival (see above).  ** 1/4

A TOUCH OF SPICE (Politiki Kouzina) (Greece d. Tassos Boulmetis)
Boulmetis is a filmmaker in the Jean-Pierre Jeunet tradition of wild whimsy and visual pyrotechnics.  This is a highly stylized, big, wide screen film about  a Turko-Greek boy's transition to manhood over several decades.  There's an extended food metaphor, a beloved absent grandfather figure, a huge family of eccentrics...in other words this is a complex film which doesn't lend itself easily to summary.  Let it suffice to say that it is an exceptionally audience friendly film, very ambitious in scope.  If it doesn't quite live up to the ambitions of the director, it isn't for lack of trying.  I suspect that it is going to be in the running for the final 5 with this audience.  ** 3/4

SIMON (The Netherlands d. Eddy Terstall)
Theme night at the Academy:  euthenasia.  Funny about that.   The Dutch film takes the tack that Simon Cohen, reckless heterosexual adventurer, eccentric soft-drug dealer, 40-ish brain cancer victim, is a candidate for state sanctioned euthenasia (the Dutch are so civilized and liberal about this sort of thing).  His erstwhile friend Camiel, timid gay dentist, re-encounters Simon after years of being out of touch, and the film switches time lines from the flashbacks of their adventures together several years before to the present day.  The film takes a while to get started.  The flashback scenes are frenetic and hard to follow.  But eventually the brilliance of the writing and characterizations take hold; and this film becomes an emotionally satisfying drama which affected me deeply.  I doubt if the committee is going to award this film with a nomination...it's just too scattershot.  But for me, in an evening of intense emotional catharsis, this was the film I preferred.  *** 1/4

THE SEA INSIDE (Mar Adentro) (Spain d. Alejandro Amenábar)
This is a based-on-fact story of Ramón Sampedro, a long-term quadraplegic confinded to a room in his family's farm in rural Spain.  Ramón is tired of the struggle, and with the help of a female lawyer who is also physically impared, and despite the opposition of his immediate family, he goes to court in a well publicized struggle to get the state to sanction his euthenasia.  Spain isn't as enlightened as the Netherlands in matters like this.  Javier Bardem gives a wonderful performance (though I was never completely convinced that he was totally immobile lying there in his bed...certain body parts that shouldn't move sometimes did.  Compare this with the incredible job that James McAvoy does as an immobile DMS victim in the upcoming Rory O'Shea Was Here film, and Bardem isn't as convincing).  But he does capture Ramon's sweet and implacable personality; and Amenábar is a wonderful director in establishing the inner life of his characters by visual means.  I felt that the movie was just a little too spot on, too much Academy bait lyrical for my taste...especially in contrast to the rougher, edgier Simon which preceded it.  But from the audience reaction, I suspect this will be a finalist.  ***

THE WELTS (Pregi) (Poland d. Magdalena Piekorz)
Another thematic double bill:  this one about child abuse.  The Polish film is a stark, formal affair existing on two time-lines.  First is an extended flashback about a rebellious teen-age boy struggling against his physically abusive father who is bent on controlling his son's misbehaviors.  The present day time-line is about the boy grown up:  a misanthropic caver who has trouble relating to people...directly connected to his childhood.  I found the film to be intensely affecting, the acting and direction beautifully realized.  Still, the stark reality of the story, the murky  cinematography and slow pace made it a difficult film which will have trouble with this committee.  *** 1/4

NOBODY KNOWS (Japan d. Hirokazu Kore-Eda)
Kore-Eda has made a long film with a simple subject...a family of four adorable kids left to fend for themselves, unnoticed by neighbors and the authorities, when their mother abandons them in a small Tokyo apartment. I think the film is an extended metaphorical indictment of the anomie of Japanese society, and even capitalism in general.  But for my tastes it went on too long for its slender plot.  Still:  children in jeopardy is a theme that the Academy eats up; and this film is skillfully made with four of the most sympathetic and attractive kids ever.  ** 3/4

THE CHORUS (Les Choristes) (France d. Christophe Barratier)
Another of this year's recurrent themes is the making of ad hoc choruses in unlikely places (the Swedish film is similar in this way.)  In this case at a school for wayward boys in 1949 France, where the kindly new schoolteacher gets control over the unruly boys by getting them involved in a choir.  This film is in the French tradition of Jean Vigo and François Truffaut (it feels like The 400 Blows in many ways.)  It is definitely a huge audience pleaser and has to be strongly in the running for a place in the final five.  *** 1/2

HAWAII, OSLO (Norway d. Erik Poppe)
This is a very difficult film to pigeonhole.  It's a slick, beautifully realized production with a complex plot which involves predestination...twelve characters fated to be connected.  It is entertaining, maybe even a little profound; but I found it somewhat predictable and overwrought.  It's a lot like Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead; and like that film only partially successful in overcoming its supernatural premise.  Definitely a long-shot in this competition.  ***

YESTERDAY (South Africa d. Darrell Roodt)
South Africa has sent a heartrending, beautifully shot and produced film from the present day agrarian Zulu countryside.  It is the story of a beautiful, resourceful young mother named Yesterday, and her determination to live for her young daughter when personal calamity strikes.  The film is made in stark wide screen vistas, presented at a leasurely pace which somehow never bores.  Leleti Khumalo is radiant in the lead role, and frankly, even though it isn't among my personal favorites since its simplistic and fairly predictable plot seemed a trifle obvious, I'd have to say that this film is a darkhorse candidate to make the final five.  ***

MACHUCA (Chile  d. Andrés Wood)
The Machuca in the title is an 11 year old boy from a poor family in 1973 Santiago de Chile, who gets a scholarship to attend an English private parocial school in the heyday of Allende's socialist experiment.  The film is shown from the point of view of another 11 year old boy, student at the same school, son of privilege (though his father is a middle class merchant and his mother is the mistress of a rich politico).  The film is essentially a political drama of the tumultuous times in Chile when the Allende goverment is being overthrown by the army junta, from the point of view of the children.  The film definitely has a leftest slant; but it sucked me right into the era...very effective filmmaking which reminded me faintly of the political stance of early Bertolucci, though without that filmmakers cinematic brilliance.  However, it's slated to be an also-ran in this competition.  ***

EARTH AND ASHES (Afghanistan d. Atiq Rahimi)
Afghanistan is obviously now developing a film industry on a similar track to Iran.  This is a technically accomplished, wide screen film which makes good use of its desert setting:  a crossroad busstop in the middle of nowhere,  amidst the destruction of war ravaged villages.  The main character is an old man and his grandson on a mission to find the boy's father to tell him of the war caused tragedy which befell the rest of his family.  This is essentially a road picture where we hardly move from one place, but where details gradually accumulate which have a powerful impact.  The pacing is probably too slow for most of this audience, so I doubt whether it will make the final five; but this is a very well made film, a humanistic tragedy.  ***

FAR SIDE OF THE MOON (Canada d. Robert Lepage)
Apparently based on a famous one-man play, this rather abstract comedy didn't quite work for me.  Lepage plays an both a struggling and failing grad student and his gay tv weatherman brother who are resolving old childhood conflicts after their mother's death.  There's also a strange sub-plot involving the student's dissertation which is about the narcissism of nation's involvement in the space race.  In other words, this is an intellectual exercise which is faintly reminiscent of Lily Tomlin's Search for Intelligent Life, but lacking most of the wit of that exercise.  Or maybe it just doesn't transfer to film very well.  Lepage isn't a very engaging film personality.  **

DAYS AND HOURS (Bosnia/Herzegovina d. Pjer Zalica)
This is a slow (months and years, rather than "days and hours",) talky film about a family which is still affected after seven years by the death of one of them in the Bosnian war.  It is sort of a bittersweet comedy, and to be truthful it does pack into a heartfelt emotional catharsis into its ending...but by that time it is too late, the film took too long making banal dialog which didn't translate well in subtitles.  **

INNOCENT VOICES (Mexico d. Luis Mandoki)
Wow.  Mandoki has made a very powerful film about the 12 year long El Salvador guerilla uprising from the point of view of an 11 year old boy in a rural village who is about to be conscripted at age 12 by the U.S. supported army.  Carlos Padilla gives one of the great child performances of all time in this effective piece of anti-war agitprop.  I would think this film is a sure thing as one of the five nominees, and for my money has to be a contender for the Oscar.  *** 1/2

This is a pleasant enough historical drama about a lovely, virtuous prostitute (played by the radiant Ana Bandeira) who is confused for Our Lady of Fatima by peasants in 1917 Portugal.  It's a pretty traditional, even operatic (Puccini would love this story as a libretto) tragedy of love thwarted, but is very true to its period and looks great with beautifully authentic costumes and lush location photography.  Maybe it was slightly too melodramatic for modern tastes; but all in all an honorable effort.  ** 3/4

ORIENT EXPRESS (Romania d. Sergiu Nicolaescu)
To my everlasting shame, I skipped this due to film fatigue.  I apologize to my vast public dependant on my pearls of wisdom.

DOWNFALL (Germany d. Oliver Hirschbiegel)
This is probably the most comprehensive and authentic seeming film I've seen (among at least four, including tv mini-series) about the last days of Hitler's Third Reich.  It was told mainly from the point of view of Traudl Junge, one of Hitler's secretaries, who was featured in the memorable documentary Blind Spot.  One reason it seemed so authentic was that it was in German, and its casting and dialog rang true to life.  Especially notable was Bruno Ganz, chillingly realistic as the increasingly out-of-touch führer.  This film has grandeur and impeccable quality...leave it to the Germans to make the fall of Berlin into Götterdämmerung.  Maybe too downer for a nomination; but certainly deserving of one.  *** 1/4

MEIN NAME IST BACH (Switzerland d. Dominique de Rivaz)
Seen at the Seattle film festival under the name Jagged Harmonies.

NIGHT WATCH (Russia d. Timur Bekmambetov)
A pastiche of every supernatural film cliché from The Omen to The Matrix .  The special effects are pretty nifty (many produced by U.S. f/x houses); but the story, a huge battle between the forces of good and evil which spans 1000 years, culminating in dark doings by vampires in present day Moscow, well, the story just eluded my comprehension.  To be truthful, this genre is not my cup of tea. Still, the film has scope and vision.  I can see how it is a popular success; but it is a tough sell to this crowd.  **

TURTLES CAN FLY (Iran d. Bahman Ghobadi)
According to the credits, this is an Iran-Iraq co-production, and in truth it seems to be very relevant to the Iraq of today.  The film takes place in a refugee camp in Kurdistan, and is the story of a teenage boy (nicknamed Satellite for his skill at setting up television hookups) who leads a group of ragtag kids as the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 is about to occur.  I was totally immersed in this film, feeling an emotional involvement with the kids.  I'm not sure if it had the same effect on the committee; but this film should be a contender.  *** 1/4

ANTARES (Austria d. Götz Spielmann)
Austria's entry is a sexually explicit, tough, realistic slice of life drama about three families living empty lives in a housing project in Vienna.  The film has a complex circular time-binding structure, sort of reminiscent of Before the Rain (or this year's Hawaii, Oslo, which is eerily similar in structure), where actions happen out of sequence but everything leads to ultimate connections.  I found the film difficult to follow at first; but ultimately it is a pretty satisfying film, well acted and directed.  ***

MILA FROM MARS (Bulgaria d. Zornitsa Sophia)
This is one of those films which defies pigeonholing into one genre.  Essentially it is a road picture about a pregnant 16 year old girl orphan who escapes from an abusive man and hides in a small Bulgarian border village.  The child, an allegorical Christ figure, is born there, and the film turns into a tough love story.  It doesn't sound promising; but somehow it works.  The film looks digital and dingy, and has an overly confusing flashback filled editing schema.  Still, thanks to some good acting and a director who has an observent eye, this is a pretty good film.  ** 3/4.

SHWAAS (India d. Sandeep Sawant)
Maybe it is the cultural differences between India and the west, or maybe I'm just too cynical; but this heart tugger film about a young boy with eye cancer and his grandfather who can't accept that his grandson must lose his eyes just seemed over the top.  * 3/4

I saw 7 films at the Palm Springs film festival.  Especially notworthy was ROMA, to my eyes a masterpiece of intimate epic filmmaking.  I may or may not review each film separately in the future; but for the record following are the films I watched:

(d. Daniel MacIvor)
LA FEMME DE GILLES (d. Frédéric Fonteyne)
CHANGING DESTINY (d. Daniele Gaglianone)
NAPOLA (d. Dennis Gansel)
THE NINTH DAY (d. Volker Schlöndorff)
BAD SPELLING (d. Jean-Jacques Zilbermann)
ROMA (d. Adolfo Aristarian)

PUNTO Y RAYA (Venezuela d. Elia K. Schneider)
I found this Venezuelan black comedy to be silly and without much merit.  I may be in the minority, because a lot of people on the committee seemed to enjoy it.  It looked terrible, in washed out digital black and white.  It's the story of two opposing soldiers, one a conscripted Venezuelan drug dealer/pimp, the other an upright Columbian villager who volunteered to serve in the army.  They are thrown together in the jungle à la The Defiant Ones as friendly enemies facing the narcos and revolutionaries and their own forces.  Not much to recommend. * 3/4

KONTROLL (Hungary d. Nimród Antal)
This is a fairly heavy handed allegorical film, I think it uses the Budapest subway as an allegory of Hell; but I'm not sure about that, since the relationship isn't obvious.  In any case, after an amusing on-screen disclaimer that the film doesn't represent the real subway or its employees in any way, the film becomes the story of a group of five subway fare enforcers who hardly ever leave the confines of the underground system.  The film is shot exquisitely, considering the lighting problems of using the actual subway as a huge set.  It's well acted and directed; but I suspect too obscure and allegorical for this audience.  ** 3/4

EL REY (Columbia d. Antonio Dorado)
A glossy melodrama about Pedro Rey (the King), one of the first of the Columbian drug lords as that country took over the manufacture of cocaine from the Peruvians in the 1960s.  Violent and somewhat reminiscent of DePalma's Scarface (though less Grand Guignol than that film), with a strong central performance from Fernando Solorzano.  Diverting and fast moving; but perhaps too lacking in subtext to thrive in this competition.  ** 3/4
GOOSE FEATHER (Jesen Stize Dunjo Moja) (Serbia/Montenegro d. Ljubisa Samardzic)
Serbia's film is a melodramatic soaper about a peasant farmer in the WWI era who cannot marry the woman he loves in his own village, so moves to a neighboring one and marries above his class with unfortunate consequences.  I had trouble believing in the actions of the characters, as they seemed to act irrationally.  The film looks authentic to its period; but it's certainly a minor effort.  ** 1/4

THE ALZHEIMER CASE (De Zaak Alzheimer) (Belgium d. Erik Van Looy)
Belgium's entry is a superior thriller which holds together well about a mafia hit-man, a Flem working in Merseilles, who can feel the affects of old age (his elder brother is in a home, completely senile) creeping up on him.  He's given a contract in Antwerp involving child prostitution and all sorts of hell breaks loose.  I don't think this committee is favorably disposed towards thrillers; but this exceptionally well directed and acted wide screen effort is a worthy one.  ***

GREAT WATER (Golemata Voda) (Macedonia d. Ivo Trajkov)
This is an extremely interestingly directed political drama about the era after WWII when the Stalinists were on the ascendent in Tito's Yugoslavia.  It's told in flashback from the point of view of a present day politician who has been victim of an assassination attempt and is on the operating table.  He is recalling his childhood when he was sentenced to a re-conditioning camp for the orphan children of the bourgeois and Nazi sympathizers.  Well acted, and directed with a great eye for composition and detail, the only detraction is that it is hard for American's to relate to the politics.  Good film.  *** 1/4

CRYING LADIES (Philippines d. Mark Meily)
I just couldn't get into this light hearted story of three Philippine women who are hired by a rich Chinese family to be designated "cryers" at the funeral of the family's pater familias.  Honestly, I left after about an hour when the story just wasn't involving for me.  W/O

Films already viewed
THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS (De Fem Benspaend) (Denmark d. Jorgen Leth & Lars von Trier)
Seen at Seattle film festival.  See link for reaction.  ** 1/2

TAE GUK GI (Korea d. Kang Je-Gyu)
Overly melodramatic Korean war film, encompassing the entire history of the Korean war conflict between north and south from the point of view of two South Korean brothers.  The film had several good, bloody battle scenes, though they were edited too fast for my taste.  But the people story was trite and overacted.   I can't help but compare this with another large scale Korean war epic, Kang Woo-Suk's Silmido, which was better in every way.   ** 1/2

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