2005 Seattle International Film Festival Journal

All film ratings are based on 4 stars top (one for the ages.)

I'm starting out with four films that I watched at the San Francisco International Film Festival (on my way to Seattle). 

WHISKY ROMEO ZULU (d. Enrique Piñeyro)
The film description in the catalog made it seem as this was going to be a graphic account of an airplane crash, a prospect I found particularly queasy since I have a neurotic fear of flying anyway.  Instead it was a fascinating based-on-fact fictionalized account of the malfeasance of an Argentinean airline, especially cost cutting in maintenance.  The film was made from the point of view of the pilot who was a whistle blower prior to the actual 1999 crash, thus there is a certain resonance with Michael Mann's The Insider.  Since the writer-director was also this self-same pilot in a smart career move, it was especially impressive how skillful the filmmaking was.    *** 1/4

BEYOND OUR KEN (d. Pang Ho-Cheung)
Frothy, insubstantial girl buddy and revenge (against common boyfriend) comedy from Hong Kong.  * 3/4

KEPT AND DREAMLESS (d. Fogwill & Desalvo)
Nine year old girl comes of age among poor Argentine extended family.  Sometimes hard to take, but on average this is a pretty good film, just not one that interested me very much.  **

THE DYING GAUL (d. Craig Lucas)
OK, I love Craig Lucas the writer.  He's gathered a fabulous cast for this film:  incredibly attractive Peter Sarsgaard and Cambell Scott, and the wonderful Patricia Clarkson.  The noirish story kept me fascinated right up to the unsatisfactory conclusion.  Well, that's the ballgame.  This could'a been a contender!   *** 1/4

I arrived in Seattle on Sunday, May 8, after a fairly leisurely auto trip up the coast meeting and staying with friends along the way.  I'm settled and ready to start a couple of weeks of press screenings before the actual festival starts.  My big excitement was that my laptop gave up the ghost my first night in Seattle, and I anticipated with horror the prospect of coping with the festival without my trusty computer!  But it turned out that only the battery was kaput (of course the only item not covered by the extended warranty from Dell); and I've ordered a new one.

 A Chinese shaggy sheep story about collectivism gone nuts.  The only problem is that it is seemingly endless without much interesting action.  Still, the stark and beautiful vistas (much of the film was in isolating long shots) make this a stunningly visual treat.  ** 1/2

MURDERBALL (d. Rubin & Shapiro)
This is an effective, emotionally satisfying & extremely well shot docu about quadriplegic wheelchair rugby at high level, featuring some of the star players who regain their sense of personal purpose through the sport.  It culminates thrillingly at the ParaOlympics in Athens.  *** 1/4

ROCK SCHOOL (d. Don Argott)
Enormously entertaining docu about a Philadelphia after-school for kids to learn to perform rock.  The school's headmaster, Paul Green, is quite a character...alternately profane and inspiring.  But it is the students that were chosen by the filmmaker to profile which makes the film so interesting.  There's this 12 year old guitarist named CJ who will certainly be heard of one of these days!  *** 1/2

NOVEMBER (d. Greg Harrison)
Pretentious and mysterious recreation of a convenience store robbery. James LeGros & Courtney Cox are just ok as the protagonists who may or may not be involved. The film is constructed to mystify...and ends up just being overly convoluted.  Also the entire film has a bilious green tint, which set the mood; but looked terrible. **

A Turkish Cinema Paradiso, with terrible digital photography, taking place in rural Turkey in the '60s.  Two 16 year old boys are apprenticed to work at menial jobs...but their fascination is making pictures move with a home rigged projector which they can't seem to make work.   This is a coming of age film; and it has its charms.  I found myself checking my watch a few times.  ** 1/4

Unconventional buddy flick set amidst the squalor of Bagota, Columbia. Two seriously maladapted misfits working the streets trying to survive.  The B&W photography actually enhanced the moodiness of the piece; but it certainly suffered from its digitized graininess.  A downer; but a worthwhile effort.   ** 3/4

Conventional docu about embittered ex-film screenwriter who wrote the screenplays for Rebel Without a Cause, and Rachel, rachel, among others, and was a child of the industry knowing practically everybody in old Hollywood.  He quit writing in the 70's at the top of the game; and this picture goes a long way to explain why.  Still, despite the inherent fascination of Stern the man, the film is pretty straightforwardly made; and I found myself nodding off occasionally.  ** 1/4

HEIGHTS (d. Chris Terrio)
A multi-character modern day New York story done extremely well.  High gloss photography, fine acting (Glenn Close playing close to the bone but wonderfully Shakespearean as Lady Macbeth...James Marsden and Jesse Bradford an attractive pairing), engaging script.  This is my favorite kind of film, even has a gay subplot...what more can I ask?  *** 1/2

Gorgeously photographed downer film, based on fact, about a group of Tibetian vigilantes patrolling the virtually empty 4-mile high Tibetan plateau searching for antelope pelt poachers who have illegally decimated the herds in recent years to satisfy world demand.  Involving, stomach churning at times, but the photography!  Endless vistas of mountains and desert shot beautifully in scope.  The actors are secondary to the scenery and situation...but I was sucked into the story anyway.  ***

THE ARISTOCRATS (d.  Paul Provenza)
Simply the funniest film I've ever seen.  90 minutes of non-stop belly laughs leaving me limp.  It's a documentary shot over several years where approximately 100 top banana stand-up stars do a riff on a dirty (did I say dirty?  this must be the all time dirtiest) joke which is never told in public...but all the comedians seem to know about it anyway.  Excellently edited to get the most from this one really bad joke.  Simply a delight...but not for those who are easily offended by scatological or implicitly sexual language.  *** 3/4

MIDWINTER'S NIGHT DREAM (d. Goran Paskaljevic)
I've appreciated Paskaljevic's films in the past, especially Cabaret Balkan, and like that film this is a depressing slice of modern Serbian life:  in this case an elderly man, deserter from the army, just returned to Belgrade from 10 years in prison who finds a woman and her autistic daughter living in his dead mother's house.   Superb, if inert, acting almost saves a film which is too bleak for words.  ** 3/4

OVERLORD (d. Stuart Cooper)
 1975 B&W docudrama about a British soldier preparing and participating in D-Day.  Some interesting stock WWII footage is inserted throughout the fictional story; but nothing here makes vital a rediscovery of this film.  Certainly this is no undiscovered Private Ryan.  As a film, it's sort of blah.  ** 1/4

ALMOST BROTHERS (d. Lúcia Murat)
Confusingly structured life stories of two Brazilian men, one white, one black...mixing City of God with Carandiru and inferior to both.  **

Based on a familiar Stefan Zweig short story, a remake of a classic Joan Fontaine film by Max Ophuls, this is one of those Chinese period movies which are utterly gorgeous on the surface with impeccable cinematography, costumes and sets, but somehow miss the mark as a narrative.  It's about a woman's long suffering silent devotion to a man who, despite being a supposedly profoundly talented journalist and novelist, is somehow able to remain unaware of her for almost 20 years.  No original insights here.  ** 1/4

THE BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY  (d. Hans Petter Moland)
The plight of a half-breed Vietnamese boy, whose American soldier father disappeared one day after marrying his mother.  Scorned by the Vietnamese, he becomes a boat person, attempting to emigrate to the U.S. and find his father.   Nicely acted and directed (with some surprisingly familiar actors in minor roles), sort of reminiscent of familiar films about émigrés (for instance Kazan's America, America).  Still, I found myself drawn into the story, which has some narrative flaws but still works quite well.  ***

July is a slip of a young woman, a performance artist who brings a unique voice to her filmmaking.  She's made a genuinely original and funny comedy about a broken family which is sort of reminds me of The Opposite of Sex for its take on characterizations, or maybe a far less sour Welcome to the Dollhouse.  In any case, the film features a star making performance by John Hawkes (who plays my favorite character on "Deadwood", the Jewish shopkeeper).  Hawkes brings to his characterizations an easy goodness and natural likability.  July herself plays a ditzy stalker, sort of a young Gracie Allen.  And she's invented some unforgettable kid characters, especially a precocious 7 year old boy who inhabits internet sex chatroooms.  I wasn't in love with this film, maybe it tried to hard to be eccentric for my tastes.  But give it mucho points for its clever inventions and genuine humor.  ***

MY SUMMER OF LOVE  (d. Pawel Pawlikowski)
First of all, this film is nothing like the trailer.  It's actually a pretty tame version in the Heavenly Creatures genre:  two girls bond among the lush scenery of the English moors.  One rich and spoiled, the other poor and orphaned with a Jesus freak ex-con brother (a very interesting characterization by Paddy Considine.)  The two girl actors were good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as the amazing twosome in the Peter Jackson chef d'oeuvre.  But the film pulls its punches...which makes it a more audience friendly, but inferior work.  ** 3/4

2046  (d. Wong Kar-Wei)
OK, I'll admit I'm at a loss here.  I'm one of the few people I know who were left cold by the director's In the Mood For Love, which this film resembles in tone.  On the other hand, I was blown away by the earlier film, Days of Being Wild, of which this film is somewhat of a sequel.  Certainly 2046 looks ravishing...fascinating widescreen compositions, often uniquely composed off-center...incredibly lovely women perfectly photographed...Tony Leung with not a hair on his head or trimmed mustache misplaced.  But what is one to make of the script?  It's partially a science fiction allegory, partly a series of aimless romantic entanglements in various Asian cities in the 1960's.  With all the best intentions, I couldn't grasp the narrative connective thread.  But just watching Zhang Zi-Yi do her best work ever and Maggie Cheung and Gong Li so aptly cast was worth sitting through the head scratching puzzlement of a plot.  ***

THE HOLY GIRL (d. Lucrecia Martel)
So this young Catholic girl lives in a hotel with her divorced mom.  One day she is almost, sort of molested by an older man and she becomes sort of an obsessive stalker, sort of.  The film doesn't commit to much and certainly leaves a lot to the imagination...including the climax.  It's not exactly boring even though not much actually happens and most of the characters are peculiarly unreactive.  * 1/2

SAINT RALPH (d. Michael McGowan)
Why do you go to movies?  I can answer that one, because films like this come around every once in a while.  Not that it's such a great film...it's predictable and somewhat manipulative; and there is nothing special about the direction.  It's just a feel-good movie about a troubled but innately good 14 year old Canadian boy in the 1950's, and his quest to perform a miracle despite the objections of his Catholic high school's headmaster priest.  Campbell Scott does his usual good turn as a rebellious teacher, and Jennifer Tilly is fine as a sympathetic nurse; but the film belongs to Adam Butcher, all gangly and bright eyed and perfectly cast as Ralph.  This may be the most convincing performance of the good/bad kid since Jean-Pierre Léaud in Les Quatre Cent Coups.  In the interest of fairness, I ought to mention that my moviegoing bud, Susan, thought the film trite and poorly acted...exactly my reaction to The Holy Girl, which she admired, with reservations.  In fact, these two films are at their core mirror images of one another, the good/bad girl in one vs. the bad/good boy in the other.  Our opposite reactions are an interesting reflection of the mutability of movie appreciation.  ***

BROTHERS (d. Susanne Bier)
Now the other reason I go to so many movies is in the hopes of discovering a film which works on every level, as this one does.  Brilliant acting; impeccable direction; riveting, timely, relevant plot.  It's the story of a good man who commits an unredeemably horrible act and the way that corrodes everything in his life.  I'm not going to say more about the film, which deserves to be watched and appreciated.  *** 3/4

YASMIN (d. Kenny Glennan)
Speaking of relevant, this film is about the affects of 9/11 on a family of Muslim Pakistanis in England.  The film looks digitized and dingy, and some of the dialog is incomprehensible because of the accents.  But it is carried by its strong script, which is terrifyingly pessimistic about the post-9/11 world where ordinary people can be swept up and polarized by external events.  ***

Can't talk about these films; but I'll have to admit that I was primed to see this difficult drama.  I have a feeling the audience was mixed (I heard a couple of hisses after the film); but I was impressed, especially by the acting.  *** 1/4

I only watched the first film of the Gorky trilogy.  Yes, it's a fine example of Russian romantic realism.  Yes, the B&W print from the '77 reconstruction was wonderfully well preserved.  But, honestly, I kept dozing off...more my fault than the films.  Or maybe it was just the family stuff was developed so slowly and the downtrodden Volga proletarian message was so central to parts of the film.  Still, towards the end, when the actor playing Alexei (Maxim) was an urchin preparing to go off on his own, the film caught on for me.  I probably should have watched part II.  ***

YES (d. Sally Potter)
What is it about me and Sally Potter?  I fidgeted through Orlando; and this film didn't do much to improve my outlook on her.  Certainly I have to admire her audacity in presenting a realistic film where the characters were talking in rhymed verse, sounding vaguely as if Shakespeare were writing in contemporary dialect.  But I couldn't get past that.  I found I had trouble processing the dialog...and some of the accented dialog, especially in the kitchen scenes, was simply incomprehensible.  Surely this is one screenplay which would play better in print.  That said, I have to admire Joan Allen who plays a woman who exudes sexuality caught in an unhappy "open" marriage, who embarks on a torrid affair with a Lebanese surgeon turned restaurant cook by the vagaries of  immigration requirements.  Allen here gives another superb performance...this is her year for sure (and the festival duly honored her with a retrospective clip show and discussion with her, which I missed.)  In addition, I have to give points to Potter for her creativity in inventing interesting images:  blurred stop motion sequences and the like.  But the film failed to engage me in its central drama...and that's the ball game,  period.  ** 1/2

THE ROLE OF A LIFETIME  (d. François Favat)
On the other hand, here is a film which is a straightforward narrative with no directorial tics which I found involving and pleasant to watch through its entire, satisfying length.  It's one of those mixed genre films, half drama, half romantic comedy, about a mousy woman, a journalist, who becomes the personal assistant and fawning acolyte to a huge international star (played to the hilt, but with a great deal of sensitivity to nuance by Agnes Jaoui.)  Both are interested in the same guy, one of my favorite French actors, Jonathan Zaccaï, who once again plays that impossible character:  the "nice and sensitive" Frenchman.  Nothing much here except a good story well written and played.  ***

Of course I had no prior knowledge of Andrew Wood.  That isn't strange, as he was a rock singer in a few fairly obscure Seattle grunge bands who died of a heroin overdose at the tender age of 24 in 1990.  But like last year's Dig!, this was a very interesting examination of a musical scene which got under the surface and informed, even if the music was not one's preferred genre.  Apparently there is only a small amount of live footage of Wood, mostly home videos which don't blow up very well.  But the filmmaker did make the best of what he had, with very inventive animations of still pictures and graphics.  Wood (aka Landrew the Love God, an amusing Star Trek reference) was a born showman from age 3; and this film was infused with his screwed up junky personality as well as his, and his fellow grungers, music.  ** 3/4

MYSTERIOUS SKIN  (d. Gregg Araki)
Araki has been a personal favorite of mine right from the start of his career (full disclosure:  I shot the titles of a couple of his early films).  This is by far his most accomplished film...a near masterpiece which dares to get under the surface of child sexual abuse and the gay hustling scene without pulling any punches.  Featuring a breakthrough dramatic performance by Joseph Gorden-Levitt and great work by the rest of Araki's largely familiar cast, this is not a film for the squeamish.  But it is going to be one of the highlights of SIFF for me.  *** 3/4

4  (d. Ilya Khzhanovsky)
Please!  Anybody who understands why this Russian film was chosen for SIFF; anybody who has a clue what the allegory of the "four" objects (which occurred throughout the film) is about; anybody who has any idea at all of what it all means...well, you can write about this film.  As for me, all I can say is that I managed to stay awake and wonder about all of the above.  *

KING'S GAME (d. Nicolai Arcel)
This is a superior political thriller about a reporter who gets involved in the story of a Danish parliamentary election mess.  It's a complex plot of power grabs and pernicious political influence.  I was especially impressed by the lead actor, Anders Berthelsen, whom I had seen in a couple of Dogme 95 films; but nothing prepared me for his heroic mien and innate integrity in this role.  *** 1/4

CAPE OF GOOD HOPE  (d. Mark Bamford)
This is an audience pleaser...but I just thought it was blah.  It's a South African romantic comedy which covers all the requisite bases:  a white couple, a black couple and a colored couple doing their interactive things, nothing surprising or original.  It held my interest, and that's about all I can say for it.  ** 3/4

FROZEN  (d. Juliet McKoen)
I'm still unsure what happened in this film.  Ostensibly it's a straightforward mystery...Shirley Henderson plays an English working girl whose sister disappeared two years earlier and is presumed dead; but no body was ever found.  She can't let it go; and the film dissolves into a reverie about what happened, or might have happened.  But for my money the film got too tricky for its own good; and I was left feeling somewhat cheated.  Anyway, the film ultimately wasn't worth the effort of figuring it out, I'm sorry to say.  ** 1/2

BARS IN THE MEMORY (d. Manuel Palacios)
Spain is still recovering from the Franco years; and this documentary, filled with much original footage and interviews with victims of the institutional atrocities of that era, attempts to rectify the silence about those years.  It's a laudable job; but ultimately the film is pretty dry and ordinary.  ** 1/2

SUMMER STORM (d. Marco Kreuzpaintner)
OK, I'm a sucker for this sort of film.  It's a German teen-age coming out comedy which has certain similarities to such films as Krampack and even to American Pie.  The lead is Robert Stadlober, an actor I've admired a great deal in such films as Crazy (which played at SIFF three years ago, where I actually thought Stadlober was authentically handicapped, shows how great an actor he is) and the recent Danube-4.  This film handles its gay theme very deftly and positively, altogether an admirable effort.  It also merited a second viewing from me the following day, simply due to the fantastic feast of eye candy.  But a second viewing also allowed me to appreciate the wonderful pop music score, which counterpointed the action and occasionally provided just the right note of humor to a scene.  *** 

NICELAND (d. Fridrik Thór Fridriksson)
A pleasant enough fable about an innocent naïve (played convincingly, and yes, sweetly by Martin Compston, who was so memorable in Sweet Sixteen) who is searching for the purpose of life in a junkyard.  I kept thinking of the song from Monty Python's Life of Brian.  Fridriksson is a fine director who has certainly made stonger dramatic films; this one, his first in English, was pretty slight.  ** 3/4

MISSING IN AMERICA  (d. Gabrielle Savage Dockterman)
Danny Glover plays a grizzled, emotionally stunted Vietnam war vet who has escaped to live a hermit's life in the Northwest woods.  Into his life comes a little Vietnamese girl...the old cliché "child redeems the man" plot.  Still, I'm not so jaded that the film didn't provide something of an emotional catharsis, since the fine acting surpassed the contrivances of the plot.  Others in the audience were not so kind.  ** 1/2

JUNEBUG  (d. Phil Morrison)
This film is hard to define.  It's a quirky Southern hick family drama, certainly.  But there are interesting elements of the primitive American art scene and class issues which add to the complexity of the piece.  The acting is outstanding.  Especially memorable is Amy Adams as a pregnant young girl yearning for something more than the life she's been handed in her marriage to her high school sweetheart, the embittered Benjamin McKenzie (the breakthrough young actor in tv's The O.C. showing little range here, but much presence.)  Also outstanding are Alessandro Nivola, the detached older brother who escaped rural North Carolina for the big city; and Embeth Davidz as his sophisticated art dealer wife who provides the audience point of view of the family dynamics.  Adding to the ensemble are Celia Weston and Scott Wilson as the hidebound parents.  This is one of those films which grabbed me and moved me...but it isn't going to be for everyone.  *** 1/4

GAMES OF LOVE & CHANCE (L'Ésquive)  (d. Abdellatalfi Kechiche)
Lower class, multi-racial teenagers in the Parisian projects...but this isn't about gang violence or drugs.  It's really a sort of Romeo & Juliet kind of romantic film, with the Romeo being a tongue-tied Arab boy who falls for a live wire girl and tries to woo her by acting opposite her in the school play of Marivaux's "Games of Love & Chance".  I was sort of turned off at the beginning of the film by the frenetic pace, shaky hand-held camera and lack of immediate character differentiation.  But as the film progressed I became more and more involved with the characters, and my initial reaction to walk out gradually changed to grudging admiration for the ensemble acting and innovative direction.  ** 3/4

A dark French drama based on James Tobak's Fingers, about a 28 year old real-estate hustler (the magnetic Romain Duris, in a very strong, memorable performance) who yearns to change his life by returning after a ten year absence to his passion for concert piano (his dead mother's profession).  Audiard has a very kinetic style of constantly moving camera which can be unsettling.  But all in all this is a satisfying combination of noir thriller and personal journey to redemption.  ***

THAT MAN:  PETER BERLIN (d. Jim Tushinski)
An excellent documentary about a gay porn star of the '70s, the consummate narcissist beauty, that I personally was fascinated by 'way back when.  He is now in his 60s, living in San Francisco, and still an interesting character of his own invention.  The film is aided immensely by some great interviews with, among others, John Waters (even more amusing than usual) and Wakefield Poole.  Like last year's docu about the Cockettes, this film intersects with my life just enough to add to its fascination.  But the film uses its wealth of interesting historical visual material to maximum effect, and I believe this has the potential to be a breakthrough documentary.  *** 1/2

ABSOLUT  (d. Romed Wyder)
One of those political and psychological thrillers which works on all levels.  I think this is a clever conjectural story based on true events, but elaborated fictionally.  But even if it is total invention, it seems fascinatingly possible.  It reminded me of the original Spanish Open Your Eyes, in that it uses memory restoration as the fulcrum for the complex plot.  It also makes anti-heroes out of computer terrorists who are plotting against the governments and corporations...a nice turn of the audience's expectations.  And it features an impressive performance by Vincent Bonillo, who is an actor to watch for.  *** 1/4

AFTER MIDNIGHT (d. Davide Ferrario)
OK, this is definitely a post-Amélie film, full of clever filmic tropes and with a central character (in this case a young man, stunningly well played by Georgio Pasotti) who is both naive and clever.  But for me it worked far better than the Jeunet (which I loved at the time, by the way).  I've never been to Turin; but this film makes it look like a visual wonderland.  Ferrario is a director of much promise, a breath of fresh air in the Italian cinema; and I plan to seek out his films.  *** 1/4

GREEN HAT (d. Liu Fendou)
In China, wearing the "green hat" is slang for a cuckolded husband.  The film starts promisingly with a well directed bank robbery by three inept young guys.  But then it veers into a strange and (for me) uninteresting story of a sexually impotent cop who had vaguely intersected with the robbery, and whose wife is having an affair.  The film is sometimes amusing, and is shot with flair and originality; but I was left with the feeling that I'd been cheated out of 1 1/2 hours of my life.  * 1/2

RONDA NOCTURNA (d. Edgardo Cozaninsky)
Gonzalo Heredia is a memorable young Argentinean actor who looks a little like Gaël Garcia Bernal.   Here he is playing an angelic male hustler and petty dope dealer wandering the streets of Buenos Aires doing his thing during one spring night.  The film plays like a piece of music with variations, and young Victor's adventures become increasingly strange as the night dawns into day.  In any case, this film cast a spell over me and I'd have liked to have watched a full month of this boy rather than just one night.  *** 1/4

SAVING FACE (d. Alice Wu)
This is a feelgood comedy about a young Chinese-American girl living in New York doing her surgical residency.  She's a lesbian; but can't admit it to herself, let alone her traditional family.  Joan Chen (looking fabulous) plays her mother, unmarried widow and pregnant at 48...and the grandfather is losing a lifetime of "face" by her actions.  The film develops along similar lines to The Wedding Banquet, and I couldn't help comparing the two films.  It's a definite audience pleaser and a good, if slightly clichéd, effort by writer-director Wu. ** 3/4

LEÓN AND OLVIDO (d. Xavier Bermúdez)
León has Downs Syndrome and Olvido is his normal twin sister who is charged with his care (parents dead, four institutions have expelled León as incorrigible.)  The acting is superb; but this is ultimately a story of how the system broke down and left these two young people with heartbreaking problems.  This is a well observed and moving film; but maybe just too much of a downer to recommend wholeheartedly.  ***

A very good day at the movies...five films, and I enjoyed all of them.  The other day I hit the wall after four films, knowing that the fifth (Zia's The World) would be a difficult film to watch with tired eyes. So I bagged on the festival and spent the night playing internet poker.  I was beginning to think that age may have caught up with me and that I should limit my filmgoing to four a day; but a day like this hot Saturday in Seattle proved to me that all it takes is five good films spaced well enough that I can enjoy three unhurried meals.  Yes, I still have the festival bug and requisite enthusiasm.

EARTHLING  (d. Tristan & Wolfgang Bayer)
Sometimes a documentary will hit all the right notes and surpass the possibilities of the genre.  I feel this one goes there, though some people I've talked to were not so enamored.  Wolfgang Bayer has spent a lifetime as a nature photographer for television, sometimes taking along his young son Tristan on his far flung adventures.  The Bayer family embarked on a seven year journey to record their observations in 35mm wide screen; and during this period Wolfgang lived through a seven minute heart stoppage in the wilds of Yellowstone; and the son Tristan, now in his twenties, finished the film as a tribute to his father's lifetime work.  The nature sequences are astounding: swimming with whales, climbing trees with orangutans, swooping with steadycam through billions of monarch butterflies, swimming in toxic waters with jellyfish, cavorting with Arctic polar bears, watching glacial ice floes in stop motion.  All photographed and sound designed with amazing skill; and held together by Tristan's moving narration (this might be a sticking point for some, since the narration was a little new-agey and hokey; but it worked for me).  What lifted this film above a mere nature documentary were the re-creations of the family's saga of the difficulties encountered making the film.  I can see this film as an Oscar contender.  It deserves to be seen on as big a screen as possible...I'd love to see it blown up for Imax.  Sheer magic in the theater.  *** 3/4

ADAM & STEVE (d. Craig Chester)
Somewhat silly romantic comedy about two guys who had an encounter in the swinging '80s and meet up again in present day New York for a pleasantly refreshing middle age (in gay years) affair.  The film combines musical comedy tropes with a comic love story, and features extraordinary supporting performances by Parker Posey (as an emaciated stand-up comedian doing fat jokes) and, of all people, Chris Kattan as the "straight" roommate.  Craig Chester has acted in some good films; and his directoral debut is more than creditable.  Maybe the film tried too hard for eccentricity for me to like it without qualification.  ** 3/4

REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN (d. Taggart Siegel)
John Peterson is an interesting character to build a documentary around.  As a boy he was part of a traditional farming family in Illinois; and when his father died, he took over the farm which failed from overindebtedness in the early '80s.  The film shows numerous incarnations of how he recovered, becoming an organic farmer and running a collective for thousands of Chicago subscribers to his "concept" farm.  This is a feel-good film for liberal audiences, as it provides some hope for the future of alternate ways of farming land.  And Peterson has a truly unique and interesting personality which shines through the film.  I wasn't as enamored as most of the audience with this film, finding it a little long and repetitive.  But, considering the rapturous applause and audience responses at other festivals, this is a definite contender for best docu.  ***

RED DUST (d. Tom Hooper)
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Hillary Swank are outstanding in this drama about the Truth and Reconciliation proceedings in South Africa.  Much like John Borman's In My Country, this is a drama about the horrors of white oppression during Aparthiad and South Africa's attempts to heal the wounds through amnesty for the oppressors, if they confess their crimes in full.  This is a film of large scope and highly professional production values; but the plot was just too familiar and predictable to work totally.  ***

THE EDUKATORS (Die Fetten Jahre Sind Vorbei) (d. Hans Weingartner)
Three idealistic young people in modern day Germany try to relive the anarchy of times past by trashing rich people's homes (rearranging furniture, but stealing nothing).  One of their exploits goes spectacularly wrong; and I was so involved with the people and story that I couldn't imagine how this film could end any other way than tragically.  But the writer pulls off an amazing coup, a totally satisfying and "just right" conclusion.  Daniel Brüel does his usual wonderfully charismatic anti-hero role; but I was also very impressed by Julia Jensch, as the girl in the middle of this three-way.  OK, this is another film which hit me just right.  Maybe it isn't a masterpiece, the digital photography looks pretty bad, for instance; but I found the film totally gripping.  *** 1/2

I'd already seen this film on the big screen (admittedly in L.A.'s absolutely worst film venue).  I had no desire to see it again, since I hated it the first time around.  ** (some people actually love this film) and for me a definite walk out.

A documentary which shows a day in the life of several ordinary North Koreans, including a family of workers and students, some factory managers etc.  They cope with a society where frequent power failures (blamed on the evil Americans) abort the meeting of production quotas; and militant propaganda murals and slogans promoting the greatness of General Kim Jong Il are ubiquitous.  The filmmakers just observed...no interviews, no ostensible taking a point of view; but the portrait that gradually emerged of a regimented society was frankly scary in the casual way that military might and rabid anti-Americanism was promoted everywhere.   ** 3/4

SEOUL TRAIN (d. Aaron Lubarsky, Jim Butterworth, Lisa Sleeth)
Another documentary about North Korea...though from a different point of view.  This was about the plight of the maybe 200,000 refugees that have escaped N. Korea into an intolerant and dangerous China, hoping to find a way to reach South Korea or other havens.  If caught by the Chinese, they are usually returned to North Korea where they face capital punishment as traitors (China routinely ignores international refugee covenants).  Frankly, this wasn't a very good documentary, with poor visuals and mostly talking heads.  But its cogent message came through loud and clear.  ** 1/4

THIS CHARMING GIRL (Yeoja, Jeong-Hae) (d. Lee Yoon-ki)
The first of two very similar films, this one about a South Korean young woman.  She works in a postal office by day, and then languishes in a lonely, loveless apartment the rest of the time.  Even her newly bought cat brings her no solace.  Gradually we find out that she has been wounded by a relative's sexual abuse; but she can't seem to find a way to cope with improving her life.  For me this film was sort of aimless and pointless; it doesn't progress much from start to finish, the girl is left in more or less the same state she started in.  The film sets a mood; but for me it was boredom.  **

ALONE (Allein) (d. Thomas Durschschlag)
This is a German analog of the aforementioned film.  It's a depressing drama about a beautiful young girl (the radiant Lavinia Wilson) who is deeply disturbed.  Her self-esteem is so low that she cuts herself; and she is constantly seeking out casual sexual encounters which victimize her in some way.  When she does finally meet a good man (played by the inherently sympathetic Maximilian Brückner), she sabotages the relationship.  Exactly why she is in this state is never made clear.  I just wanted to shake some sense into her; and ultimately this was a well made, but unsatisfying film.  ** 3/4

THE LAST DAY (Le dernier jour) (d. Rodolphe Marconi)
This is a difficult film to categorize.  Ostensibly the story of a dysfunctional family on vacation in Brittany...it is really about a young man coming to grips with his family's secret history (which I figured out quite early in the film, by the way...it didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the film).  The young man is played by Gaspard Ulliel at the peak of his attractiveness, who seemingly is in every frame, his androgynous beauty caressed by the camera...clearly this is a director who loves his star actor.  But the film is also steeped in the gorgeous landscapes and seascapes of Brittany; and the mysterious girl that Ulliel meets on the train at the start of the film.  Throw in an ambiguous friendship with a lighthouse keeper, and parents who hardly talk to each other and you get a very French, almost dreamlike film which totally absorbed me.  *** 1/2

CHILDSTAR  (d. Don McKellar)
McKellar had a bigger budget than usual, and here he delivers an often trenchant, sometimes silly satire about a jaded 12 year old childstar (superbly and convincingly portrayed by Mark Rendall), his weirdo mom (can Jennifer Jason Leigh be more typecast?), and the ambitious limo driver (played dead-pan by the writer/director) who becomes involved with them during the making of a super-kid movie.  McKellar has multiple targets:  Hollywood excess, agents, producers, Canadian views on American politics etc.; and he hits several bulls-eyes.  He is also aided by some great cameos, especially from Dave Foley, Brendon Fier, Eric Stolz and Alan Thicke.  Great entertainment, if not a great film.  ***

THE LAST MOGUL  (d. Barry Avrich)
Avrich has brought together an amazing number of Hollywood movers and shakers for this hard-hitting documentary about Lou Wasserman which doesn't pussy-foot around his mob connections and shady past.  But the film is unaccountably marred by the worst sound mix I've ever heard in a film.  Huge portions of the narration and interviews are drowned out by a music track gone amok.  Often it seemed as if this was a documentary about the use and abuse of stock music rather than about Wasserman, an inherently fascinating subject.  Very annoying.  Still, under all that overamped music was a compelling documentary.  ** 3/4

THE GITS (d. Kerri O'Kane)
Of course I've never heard before of Mia Zapata, lead singer of a Seattle punk group called The Gits until she was brutally raped and murdered in 1993.  This film makes an interesting counterpoint to Malfunkshun, which was also about a Seattle lead singer who died in that era.  The difference is that there is some really marvelous footage of Zapata and her band in concert, whereas Andrew Wood was not well covered during his lifetime.  This is a well made video documentary about the formation of the band in the late '80s at Antioch College; and its brief upward trajectory, cut short by the singer's murder just at the point that the band was about to make it.  Unfortunately, I didn't find the hardcore punk rock and Zapata's singing all that great; but I do understand why she has become something of a cult favorite over time.  What shined for me was the incredible band behind her, especially lead guitar Andrew Kessler and power drummer Steve Moriarty.  I'm really enjoying the emphasis on obscure rock music documentaries at SIFF this year.  It does help that the sound system at the Egyptian is excellent. ***

WARSAW (d. Dariusz Gajewski)
A strange film about several enigmatic people wandering around and connecting (sort of) in Warsaw one snowy 24 hours.  There's nothing compelling about any of the stories here; but what made the film interesting enough to sit through was trying to solve the puzzle of the interconnections of the various stories and characters.  Still, this sort of pastiche is a fragile reed to build a film around; and unlike, for instance, Cabaret Balkan, a film it resembles in structure, there just wasn't enough substance to support a full length feature.  ** 1/2

LADIES IN LAVENDER (d. Charles Dance)
This was a festival film which I just couldn't manage to catch during its festival play; so I actually paid to see it during its brief run here.  I'm glad I did, since it's a pleasant enough entertainment.  Certainly the acting was worth the price of admission:  Judi Dench and Maggie Smith play two spinster sisters who live in a lovely seaside area of pre-WWII England.  When a young Polish Jew is washed ashore in front of their house, they take him in and sort of obsess over him.  The boy is played by one of my favorite actors, Daniel Brüel (who was also in The Edukators here.)  He's quite good in this role, which I'd call the Hardy Kruger role, referencing one of my favorite old films Tiger Bay (replace the two old ladies with one young girl and the plots are very similar.)  Brüel plays a violin prodigy...and a high point of the film for me was the extraordinary violin playing so well mimed by the actor.  Once again, it is a film that affected me more than its predictable plot merited.  ** 3/4

Today is the thirteenth day...the halfway point of this year's festival (if you don't count the earlier press screenings).  So far I'd give it an A grade for operational efficiency:  all the screenings are starting promptly, the far flung venues this year still allow for traveling between them by car in a timely manner (well, the most far flung, the Uptown, has yet to be utilized.)  Parking has turned out to be a fairly easy proposition up to now.  Unlike last year where it didn't rain once, it's been mostly drizzly and cool...but I seem to thrive under these conditions.  And, knock on wood, so far there has not been a single screening that I've been shut out of because of lateness or a sold out house.  I've been able to sneak in adequate meal time every day, since the festival is being held in areas rife with fast food emporia (the U-District, which contains the fine Neptune Theater, is one of Seattle's best for casual dining.)  But I'd have to give the festival a lower grade, say a B-, for the programming so far.  Still, things are working out very well for me...the place I'm staying is pleasant and comfortable, the people in line and in the theaters are very friendly.  SIFF for me is just a wonderful five week escape into a fantasy life revolving totally around movies.  And considering that it comprises 10% of my year, that's pretty significant.

First of all, full disclosure:  I have a passing acquaintance with the screen writer of this film.  I know and admire his ascerbic writing style, and this seemed like the dream cast for his vision.  The film that showed up on the screen fulfilled that vision up to a point.  It's an over-the-top satire of the teen movie genre, sort of a Heathers or Mean Girls on steroids.  I think it was designed to offend just about everybody.  Evan Rachel Wood is superb as a heartless bitch teen-queen sociopath, and James Woods chews the scenery as her father, a monstrous bigot whose anti-Semitic rants maybe go a little too far.  The film's milieu is a tony Bevery Hills private school.  Now, I grew up in the real Beverly Hills, and I'm not sure the film captures the reality all that well.  Still, I have to say I enjoyed this film, for all its excesses.  But most of the people I talked to hated the film...somehow it misses the mark, and I think that may be the fault of the somewhat flat direction and strangely stilted pacing.  ** 1/2

HANA & ALICE (d. Shunji Iwai)
This film makes an interesting double bill with Pretty Persuasion, being another film where teen age girls run rampant.  In this case, mischievous Hana and her friend, arty Alice, become involved in a game stalking a cute, introverted boy they see every day on the train.  I liked the boy, and when he was on screen the film worked for me.  But like this filmmakers previous film, Lily Chou-Chou, the goings on and motivations for the action often eluded me.  I wish this film had been made with the visual flair of the previous film.  Then it might have kept my interest more.  ** 1/2

THE SYRIAN BRIDE (d. Eran Riklis)
This film had almost the same plot as the Lebanese film The Kite of a couple of years ago, so despite its lovely production values I didn't find it to be that original.  It's a family drama set in the almost surreal world of the Druzes in the Golan Heights, a people caught up in the vagaries of their status between Israel and Syria.  I did get involved in the family's story and the wrenching situation of the bride on the Israeli side affianced to a Syrian tv soap opera star who must leave her family forever and make the march across no-man's land to her new husband.  Good film, emotionally involving...just a little too predictable.  ** 3/4

LE GRAND VOYAGE (d. Ismael Ferroukhi)
I love a good road picture, and this one fulfilled that role.  It's the story of an elderly Moroccan man living 30 years in France, who makes his young son drive him from Paris to Mecca for his once in a lifetime pilgrimage.  The film reminded me, maybe too much, of Monsieur Ibraham, which also was a man + boy road trip film.  Still, the character development and interesting scenery were well enough realized here to make an original, captivating film.  ***

RICE RHAPSODY  (d. Kenneth Biroli)
Sylvia Chang plays a Singapore Chinese restaurant owner cursed (or blessed) with three adorable, but gay, sons.  She's determined to at least try to influence her youngest son to be straight, and enlists a Parisian exchange student girl in her machinations.  I enjoyed this film, which is a surefire audience pleaser.  It certainly joins that select company of films which are steeped in foodie culture.  I'm glad I didn't see this film on an empty stomach.  My only cavil would be the stilted line readings, mostly in English, by some of the cast.  ** 3/4

POLICE BEAT (d. Robinson Devor)
This is one of those "made in Seattle" films that probably wouldn't show up at most festivals.  It's a stream of consciousness film about a Seattle policeman, an immigrant from Senigal, whose beat takes him by bicycle through the metropolitan area dealing with everything from nasty crimes to petty annoyances, all cases apparently taken from real SPD files.  All the while he's trying to reach by phone his white girlfriend who is on a camping trip with his roommate.  Not much plot to hang a feature film on.  It's shot in video, blown up to wide screen...and it looks pretty dingy.  But as a non-Seattle resident, I enjoyed the way that the film explored so many parts of the city.  I was even surprised that I could recognize the whereabouts of maybe half the scenes.  I'm getting to know Seattle pretty well from driving around during SIFF every year.  ** 1/4

DALECARLIANS (Mas Jävlar)  (d. Maria Blom)
The title refers to Dalecarlia, a small town in rural Sweden.  This is one of those family reunion films, where an estranged family gets together for an event, in this case the father's 70th birthday party.  It's told mainly from the point of view of Mia, the youngest of three sisters, the black sheep that escaped to Stockholm to work for Eriksson.  As with most films of this type (and it seems a very common convention in Scandinavian films, i.e. Festen, and The Sea for just two recent examples), there's a gradual disclosure of dark secrets from the past, and the film progresses from comedy to tragedy in a nicely written, if somewhat predictable, arc.  This film works because the acting is so good and there was just enough suspense to keep me interested.  ***

LAND OF PLENTY (d. Wim Wenders)
This is John Diehl's film.  He is mesmerizing as a disaffected, paranoid Viet vet (a theme repeated in this festival in Missing in America) who has gone somewhat nuts after 9/11, devoting his life to tracking down terrorists in our midst.  As a counterpoint, Michelle Williams plays a truly good person, his niece and only living relative, who comes to Los Angeles to aid the homeless on skid row.  The film is sort of a tragicomic thriller, and I was surprised how emotionally affected I was.  It's another of an increasingly common variety of low budget films which are blown up to wide screen from video with a dark, dingy look.  Not a good trend as far as I'm concerned.  ***

Once again, Morel has directed an aimless film.  I loved him as an actor in Wild Reeds, and I wish he'd return to acting.  The current film is about three troubled brothers and their gay Arab friend (the beautiful Salim Kechiouche).  They sort of wander through the film getting into trouble, looking fabulous (especially Morel and Téchiné regular Stéphane Rideau and Nicolas Cazalé, a young French actor new to me, who was also memorable as the son driving his father to Mecca in Le Grand Voyage).  There's an overt gay subtext to much of what they do (not a single female character inhabits as much as a frame in the world of this film), and there are a couple of scenes of gratuitous frontal nudity which are pretty spectacular. There's also a scene where a dog is brutally killed, which seemed to shock people to the point that several in the audience left at that point.  Why is it that audiences can take all sorts of violence and torture directed at people; but kill an animal and it is sickening.  Anyway, all in all, despite the abundant eye candy, the film had too many strange plot holes and discontinuities to make much sense.  ** 1/4

SABAH (d. Ruba Nadda)
One in a long series of films where some minority woman falls for a white guy which causes traditional family turmoil.  Yes, another Big, Fat Greek Wedding. In this case it is about a family of Muslims living in Toronto.  Sabah (played by Mrs. Atom Egoyan, who is a regular in that director's films) is a 40-ish woman who has never married.  Her secret affair with attractive Canadian actor Shawn Doyle is actually kind of touching.  I liked this film despite its predictability.  At least it looked good, being shot on film.  ** 3/4

ELLIE PARKER (d. Scott Coffey)
Naomi Watts entered my consciousness with a huge bang in the memorable audition scene in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.  In this almost home-videoish comedy she plays the eponymous Ellie Parker, an aspiring Australian actor trying to break into Hollywood.  And what is Parker doing throughout the film?   Why, auditioning for parts, of course (something that Watts has shown that she can do better than anybody.)  This film is blown up from shaky handheld HD video and looks like crap.  But Watts is so magnetic, so fantastic...and the situational comedy writing so skillfully done that I laughed throughout and found myself transported.  It just goes to show that plot and character are what really matters, that even hand-held crappy video can work magic in the theater if the acting and writing are good enough.  Or maybe just that I am precisely the demographic audience for this very "in" film about Hollywood goings on.  ***

THREE OF HEARTS (d. Susan Kaplan)
This is a heartbreakingly truthful documentary about two gay men and a woman who attempt a 13 year-long "marriage" relationship.  The filmmaker had amazing access to these people's lives for years; and in some ways it is a text-book lesson on human relationships and the inevitability of sexual preference.  Beautifully shot and edited, this is a truly fine documentary.  *** 1/2

WAITING FOR THE CLOUDS (d. Yesim Ustaoglu)
Maybe it's just that I wasn't in the mood for a slow film of this type; but I had trouble staying awake for this one.  It's the story of an old Greek lady in a Turkish fishing village in 1974 who is racked by guilt because she stayed behind as a child, hiding as a Turk and losing track of her younger brother, when the big expulsion and long march happened in 1916.  Things happen, mostly on account of the innocence of a cute 8 year old boy.  There's some nice photography of the natural beauty of the film's setting, and there's a fairly predictable emotionally cathartic ending.  But all in all the direction was a little too plodding for my tastes. ** 1/2

MARS (d. Anna Melikian)
On the other hand, I can't even say that I enjoyed this film in the least.  First of all the show started with an incomprehensible short which may have been about astronauts on Mars.  In any case, the entire short was projected out of frame as was the first 5 minutes of the feature...apparently there was a totally incompetent projectionist at the Uptown theater on this first day of SIFF at that venue.  Since the beginning of the feature was a conversation in Russian with the subtitles off screen, it was impossible to quite understand what was happening when the projection finally got squared away.  Not that that would have helped.  As far as I could tell, this was an allegorical comedy about present day Russia which I probably wouldn't have liked even if I had understood anything about it.  I wasn't alone...nobody I talked to could figure out what was going on either.  Still, at least the visuals were interesting enough to keep me awake.  * 1/4

Attal is an actor who has now written and directed two films which explore variations of his relationship with his wife, Charlotte Gainsbourg.  Neither is totally successful as films; but both are entertainments which kept my interest.  The current film is ironically titled...nobody is going to live happily ever after in this film.  Rather, it's a male fantasy centering on three 40ish guys whose lives revolve around philandering.  There's one extremely well done scene in a restaurant which revolves around a cell phone; and Charlotte Gainsbourg is a fine actress that I enjoy watching.  But the film just doesn't gel.  ** 1/2

THE HUNTER (d. Serik Aprymov)
This is a beautifully shot, simple and to the point film about an orphan youth in Khazagstan, a juvenile delinquent facing the Russian equivalent to borstal, who is taken under the wing of a lone-wolf hunter who thinks of himself as an eagle.  The mountains, plains and grasslands where wolf packs roam are the real stars of this film.  There's also a great scene of copulating on horseback.  Not much happens; but the film isn't boring.  ** 3/4

UNCONSCIOUS (d. Joaquin Oristell)
A Spanish farce taking place in Barcelona in 1913, revolving around two sisters and their psychiatrist husbands.  Luis Tosar is again very fine as a stogy doctor, as is Lenore Watling as his sister-in-law married to the wrong guy.  But for me the farce just didn't work.  Despite all sorts of technical triumphs: beautiful transition graphics, fantastic sets, costumes and cinematography, the film was only intermittently entertaining because the story never quite meshed.  But it did feature some delicious satire of psychoanalysis and Freud worship.  ** 3/4

DEAD MAN'S SHOES (d. Shane Meadows)
Shane Meadows showed promise as a director with Romeo Brass and Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, but this film is a step backwards.  It's an ultra-violent revenge film about a British soldier wrecking carnage on the six men who tortured his retarded brother sometime in the past.  Paddy Considine, in his 2nd film so far at SIFF, is quite good at playing a cold/crazy killer (he also had a hand with the script and producing).  But this is another British film where the accents were so thick that it badly needed subtitling.  And worst of all, the film's antiheroic text works against feeling any emotional catharsis in the resolution.  I mean how much sympathy can one muster for a serial killer in this day and age, no matter how justified his task?  ** 1/2

HOSTAGE (d. Constantine Giannaris)
Stathis Papadopoulis, so memorable as a teenage hustler in the same director's Edge of the City, is irresistibly charismatic as an illegal Albanian in Greece who is wronged by a crooked policeman and kidnaps a busfull of people to make a foredoomed point.  The director said that this was based on a true event in Greece in 1999, with fictionalized characters; but it is also eerily similar to the events portrayed in the Brazilian documentary Bus 174.  Even though the plot is fairly predictable, the film is a gripping thriller which turns the audience's sympathies inside out.  *** 1/4

THE THING ABOUT MY FOLKS  (d. Raymond De Felitta)
I guess I'm a pushover for well written Jewish family comedies.  Anyway, Paul Reiser wrote the observant screenplay, and he plays the son who is forced by a family emergency to start to bond for the first time with his prickly, absentee father (the brilliant Peter Falk in his best role in years).  The film is maybe a little too schmaltzy.  But it hit me in a sensitive place; I, too, had a father like this...and I wish I had had the opportunity to live this film in real life before my father died.  ***

SARABAND (d. Ingmar Bergman)
Whoever programs these double bills has a wicked sense of irony.  The Bergman is the polar opposite of the previous film at the same theater...this is basically a drama about the utter alienation of an elderly father and his estranged 63 year old son.  It features fantastic acting by Erland Josephson, Liv Ulmann and Börje Ahlstadt with long, revealing close-up move-ins of the actors and some heavy dialog rich with truth and bitterness.  I must admit that for me the film was slow to get started, maybe because I had never seen the original films of which this film is a sequel of sorts.  I hate to admit it, but I dozed through parts of the beginning of the film.  But once I became engaged in the film, I was deeply affected by what Bergman had achieved.  *** 1/4

For the first time at this festival, I missed a film because of an impossible turn-around.  Mostly because of a long winded opening speech by the big lady herself, Helen Loveridge, Saraband at the Neptune started late and ended with only 15 minutes left to make it to the Harvard Exit (for those unfamiliar with Seattle, that's about 5 miles away during rush hour traffic...to say nothing of the inconvenience of having to walk to my car parked several blocks away from the theater and then finding a parking place at the other end.)  Frustrating!  Anyway, amazingly enough, I'm able to rearrange my schedule to watch the film I missed without sacrificing any other films.  And even more amazing, I don't think I face any other short turnarounds or difficult commutes for the rest of the festival.  Hallelujah!

WARRIOR (d. Asif Kapadia)
A taciturn warrior working under a cruel Kashmirian warlord, decides to quit his killing ways, which doesn't go down too well with his peers.  This Indian period piece sort of reminded me of The Bandit Queen in the way it contrasted the warrior class with the impoverished masses.  It was shot beautifully in wide screen, with massive vistas of desert, plains and mountains.  I was somewhat engaged in the story; but all in all the film didn't quite involve me, maybe because the main character was such an unemotional cypher.  ** 3/4

Well acted film in English.  I can say no more ***

(d. Juan José Campanella)
I was looking forward to this Argentine film, by the same creative team that made the excellent Son of the Bride.  But I have to admit that it failed to involve me after its beautiful opening scene (set in 1959, which reminded me of the beginning of Almódovar's Live Flesh, where the future hero's unique birth opens the film).  When the film shifts to the present day, it becomes something of an ordinary story of impoverished people trying to survive and save their 70 year old neighborhood club "Luna de Avellaneda" from going under.  The film suffered from being too diffuse, with too many undifferentiated characters.  ** 1/2

ANOTHER LIFE (d. Michele Placido)
This is an enigmatic romantic film which did involve me (mainly due to the presence of the charismatic actor, Stefano Accorsi, who has one of the strongest presences of placid masculine strength in current film).  I don't want to discuss the plot, since much of the film's brittle charm depends on surprise and the gradual dawning of what is transpiring.  ** 3/4

KINGS & QUEEN (d. Arnaud Desplechin)
The film centers on Emmanuel Devos (another in a line of splendid roles by her that I've watched this year) and her extended family of distant father, crazy as a fox ex-boyfriend (the fantastic Mathieu Amalric), her 10 year-old son, and the self-destructive, now dead boyfriend who fathered her son.  The film is made up of a series of extremely well written and acted scenes which don't always add up to a coherent whole story.  Still, it's the process that counts...watching this film is like being involved in a huge novel where people's lives are being stripped bare to the bone.  This is a fine film which involved me fully.  *** 1/4

(d. Arsen Anton Ostojic)
This is an extraordinarily well shot film (in B&W with beautiful lighting, all contrasty darks and lights) about a two hour period on New Year's Eve in present day Split, Croatia.  It follows the same action from three different points of view, disclosing additional information with each iteration (this has been a well used device lately...here at SIFF we saw it done far less well in November.)  I felt the ending was a mistake...up to that point the film was remarkably realistic and brilliantly written.  But, what the hell.  I don't think there has been a better directed film at this festival, the camera movements are innovative and the entire film weaves a spell which is hard to describe.  *** 1/4

The title is ironic, since this is a film about a train literally teeming with thieves and pickpockets all involved in trying to best each other in robbing an innocent boy.  It's a wide screen but intimate Chinese film which has some of the comic elements of Jackie Chan's works.  Here it is Asian superstar Andy Lau doing some nifty martial arts (all done with quick cuts which hides any actual fighting...a cheat, really).  I was totally entertained by this trifle.  ***

SWIMMERS (d. Doug Sadler)
American indies have, on the whole, been a disappointment at this year's SIFF.  This one is no exception.  It's a turgid drama about a family's economic troubles when the 11 year old daughter needs an expensive ear operation.  The little girl is very good; but the adults, even such a good actor as Cherry Jones who plays the mother, are directed to deliver their cliché lines with too much deliberation.  This is a mediocre tv movie-of-the-week with big screen pretensions.  * 3/4

TROPICAL MALADY (d. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
What to make of this film is a mystery.   It starts out as a beautiful, dawning love story between a Thai soldier and his buddy.  They wander about the Thai countryside during the soldier's leave.  Then they separate, and when the soldier searches out his buddy's home he finds an illustrated legend which then becomes the film...and we're inside an allegory which is very difficult to figure out.  It's a dreamscape where the buddy is a tattooed aborigine, or maybe a ferocious tiger.  In any case, the film lost me during it's last half.  But the mysterious jungle was a feast for the eyes; and the film had a haunting quality which kept my interest.  ** 3/4

9 SONGS (d. Michael Winterbottom)
The nine songs of the title are literally nine performances by rock bands such as the Dandy Warhols and the classical pianist Michael Nyman.  They provide a framework of mutual experience around a hot sexual affair between an American woman and an English man.  The film is structured as the guy's reverie while he is working as an environmental scientist in Antarctica (and the footage of that bleak, cold continent counterpoints well with the ample flesh on view).  But it's the sex scenes which define the film and they're quite vivid and overt.  It's all done in handheld, natural light video which both adds veracity and obscures what's on the screen because it looks so rough and amateurish.   This is a two person film with very little dialog and no character development to speak of, only a series of action vignettes which tell a story en passant, so to speak.  At least the actors Kieran O'Brien and Margo Stilley are young and attractive (which makes the film more watchable than Intimacy, with which it can inevitably be compared.)  Winterbottom is one of the most innovative directors in the world; and I admire him greatly for his ambition to make dangerous films.  *** 1/4

The next five films represent probably the best film day I've ever experienced...five films, none less than *** and a couple of nearly great films by established masters.  A day like this makes me re-assess this festival.  I've been complaining that there were fewer high spots and many more mediocrities than there have been in recent years here.  But the scales, at least on the high end, are being balanced.

STEAL ME (d. Melissa Painter)
Why do I go to SIFF?  It's to get to see little films like this which have a slight chance of getting a release, but are totally worth seeing.  This film has a certain resemblance to yesterday's American indie film Swimmers, being a family drama.  Only this film is all the things that Swimmers is not:  a compelling, original script with real conflict and character development; and direction, and above all pacing that consistently hit the mark.  It helps that the film is set in Big Sky country, an under-utilized slice of rural Americana, and skillfully photographed on film to integrate the characters with the scenery.  It also helps that the two main characters, well played by teenagers Danny Alexander and Hunter Parrish, are totally believable as real young people.  Even the parents and minor characters are developed with extraordinary feeling for nuance.  The film has almost a mythic feel:  Cain and Abel, the healing power of good.  I'm looking forward to further work from this sensitive director.  *** 1/4

UNO (d. Aksel Hennie)
I'd been touted on this film by several people and had to miss the first screening because of a short turnaround.  Maybe because it was oversold, I didn't love it.  It's the story of a young man still living at home with a dying father, feckless mother and Down's syndrome kid brother in modern day Norway.  He's basically a good guy, involved with some really bad friends and acquaintances.  Bad corrupts, and the film turns quite violent.  I'm not sure what the symbolism of the eponymous card game Uno is...the two brothers play it; and the younger one cheats.   I think I was missing something.  But even on the surface, this is an affecting, interesting film.  ***

5x2 (d. François Ozon)
Ozon is a world-class filmmaker; but I haven't really loved his recent work.  This is his most mature film, in my opinion his best film yet.  It's the story of a dissolving marriage, with five vignettes of the history of that marriage shown in reverse order (an ironic technique which works here even better than with Irreversible.)  Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi is extraordinary as the wife.  But what makes this film outstanding is the way Ozon integrates the style of each of his vignettes with the content.  For my money, this is an almost perfectly realized film.  *** 3/4

BLUEBIRD (d. Mijke de Jong)
Wow!  I didn't expect this.  Bluebird is the Dutch equivalent of an Afterschool Special about a junior high girl who cares for her younger, crippled adopted brother while being the brunt of some extraordinarily cruel bullying at her "good" school.  I found it emotionally shattering, the kind of film which left me despairing in tears, but also exhilarated by the wonderfulness of human nature.  The only flaw is that the girl is so extraordinary that I found it difficult to believe that her peers would be so cruel to her.  But, accepting that, this is an amazing film.  *** 1/2

CLEAN (d. Olivier Assayas)
Assayas is another world-class filmmaker who has come through with a near-great film.  His wife, Maggie Chung, has never been better as a self-involved junkie, lover of a washed up rock star, mother of a young son that she can't raise.  The boy has been living with his grandparents (Nick Nolte is quite fine as her father-in-law, a kindly, old man trying to keep things together).  The film is about the redeeming power of love and determination to beat addiction...and it is kinetic (lots of excellent hand-held shots, an Assayas specialty), involving and ultimately totally satisfying.  *** 1/2

MAN ABOUT DOG (d. Paddy Breathnach)
This is one Irish film in dire need of sub-titles.  I don't think I understood more than half the dialog.  Not that all that much understanding was needed...much of the comedy was visual, and only sporadically funny.  The film is about 3 wankers who help fix dog races, and sometimes race them and bet against the bookies.  The only good thing about this film was the presence of Allen Leech in the lead (he was memorable in last year's Cowboys and Angels.)  Otherwise, the film was just too slapsticky and silly for my tastes.  **

One of the interesting things about the past 5 weeks of this festival is how I've mostly ignored two of my three quotidian obsessions:  television and internet, in favor of cinema.  I'm starting to jones for the other two, and I think I'm ready to reemerge into the real world come next Monday.  Also, I got an amusing piece of "fan mail" in e-mail yesterday which told me that this web site was "silly" and that my "obersvations [sic] on many films are so completely bland, uneducated and uninteresting".  Now, I'm not completely in disagreement with this assessment.  I've felt this year that my journal has been somewhat rushed and lacking in spark...mainly because I've had to depend on internet cafés for access to the net; and I have been writing quick and dirty.  My new "fan" also put me in my place with the comment that I'm "a laughing stock at so many festivals, I mean at Seattle, a drink was named after you."  Now, this does interest me.  Nobody I've talked to has been able to tell me where I could sample such a drink (if it actually exists); but I've certainly speculated what the components of such a drink might be:  I've settled on vodka, sweet vermouth and bitter tears as the apt brew.  Anyway, thanks David Schoo, Director, whoever you are.  All comments are welcome.  It means somebody is actually reading this stuff.

OUR OWN (d. Dmitry Meskhiyev)
Boy, I wonder if the Russians are ever going to get over WWII.  It seems as if for as long as I can remember, 3 out of 4 films from that country have been about that war.  At least this film covers the war from a novel aspect:  the way that certain elements behind German lines welcomed and cooperated with the enemy.  It's the story of three captured Soviet soldiers who escape to a Kulak village which doesn't exactly welcome them with open arms.  I found the film quite involving, well directed and acted.  It's an interesting post-Soviet take on the era.  ***

Rubinek has created a film which really experiments with the video form.  It's about a woman who separates from her husband after discovering (from a home video) that he has been unfaithful.  She then decides to surreptitiously record her family with hidden video cameras for two years: teen-age son, new boyfriend, parents, friends.  The resultant film has a rough look, with lots of hand-held stuff and weird angles.  But there's a good deal of situational humor in the script; and all in all the film does work, even if it isn't always easy to watch.  ** 3/4

AMERICANO (d. Kevin Nolan)
This is the first, and inferior, of two rambling "travelogue" type road films in a row.  The Americano here is Joshua Jackson (looking all grown up; but about as impassive an actor as one could find), visiting Spain with two friends (inept comedy relief guy and his attractive girlfriend).  The film features some spectacular footage of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and the photography of the Spain's gorgeous countryside is almost worth sitting through the predictable story of young people "finding themselves".  But some of the excesses here, a way over-the-top Dennis Hopper performance; an annoying Penelope Cruz clone Spanish actress, Lenor Varela; and one cliché situation after another...add up to disaster.  * 1/2

HARI OM (d. Bharatbala Ganapathy)
After Americano, I was leery of watching another road flick...but this one almost worked.  It's the story of a French girl (the luminous Jean-Marie Lamour) wandering around Rajasthan, India in a rickshaw driven by a guy on the run from a gambling debt.  It's something of a contrived story; but the scenery was great, there was enough happening to keep me interested.  Quite an assured effort from a first time director.  ** 1/2
THE WELL (d. Kristian Petri)
This is a superior documentary about a Swedish filmmaker wandering around Spain searching for traces of the 17 years that Orson Welles spent in that country.  Sort of in the style of L.A. Plays Itself, the film is narrated by the director as a very personal monolog of discovery and revelation.  In addition, there are some really excellent interviews with people who remember Welles, plus some great found footage that Welles shot himself in Spain, plus a good deal of fascinating footage which shows Welles himself mostly in Hemmingway mode attending bullfights and enjoying food.  I loved this film; but a lot of people were turned off by the slow pacing and multiple shots of roadway scenery which accompanied the always fascinating and revelatory narration. *** 1/2

Much like Story of the Weeping Camel, this is about the inhabitants of the sweeping Mongolian grasslands and their tentative encounters with western ways.  It centers on three young boys who find a ping pong ball floating in the river.  They are told by the elders that this is object is a sacred luminous pearl, and the film is about the kid's adventures discovering the truth about the ball.  It's an amusing, if trifling, conceit to build a film around.  But it is done with a fine eye and some very good naturalistic acting.  Some films just work because they are so foreign and different.  ***

HER MINOR THING (d. Charles Matthau)
Ugh.  Why was this film even chosen for SIFF?  Probably because the director is Walter Matthau's son.  But it's a really minor, ordinary romantic comedy with absolutely nothing special to recommend it.  Straight to video. * 1/4

Sigh.  Another dismal group of gay short films.  Two reasonably good films out of six:  I did like Eldar Rapaport's "Postmortem", about a past affair possibly rekindled.  And Tiffi Theisen (!) delivered a really touching film called "Just Pray" about an overweight young proto-gay fagling whose supportive mother is dying (mom excellently played by West Wing's Janel Moloney).  The rest aren't even worth mentioning. 

DEEPWATER (d. David Marfield)
This is a superior psychological thriller à la Hitchcock, with enough twists and turns to satisfy just about anyone.  I'm not giving away any of the plot, which was surprising and mysterious.  Lucas Black was simply marvelous as a young man fatefully put in a strange situation.  Good film, with atmosphere to spare.  *** 1/4

BOMBÓN, EL PERO (d. Carlos Sorin)
Sorin made a memorable Argentine film a couple of years ago, Historias Minimus, which was notable for its innocent charm, free from irony.  The current film shares that almost unique virtue in today's world of cinema.  This film is the story of a poor 52 year old out-of-work auto mechanic who does a good deed and is rewarded by being given a pure-bred dog, the care of which he is totally ignorant.  But his sunny disposition and positive attitude inoculate him from bad.  A feel-good film, nicely made, with one of the most attractive big dogs we've seen in films.  ***

REDEEMER (d. Claudio Torres)
I'm not even going to attempt to analyze this film, since its curious mixture of deadpan religiosity (the hero literally converses with God) and Brazilian corruption and poverty didn't interest me very much.  I slept through the middle of the film, only being awakened by the stentorian voice of God himself.  Not my cup of tea.  But the film was made very well, with some convincing special effects, so at least it is worth a grade of * 3/4.

VENTO DI TERRA (d. Vincenzio Marra)
A sad, depressing slice of life drama about a young man whose impoverished Napolese family falls on even harder times.  He's basically a good boy, and life is unfair.  The film probably has too many slow pans over cityscapes, and too many lengthy shots of the lead stolidly driving his scooter around town.  But ultimately I did feel moved and even uplifted by these characters' indomitable drive to survive in a cruel capitalist world.  ***

IN MY FATHER'S DEN (d. Brad McGann)
Matthew Macfayden entered my actor's pantheon with his marvelous work in the British tv series, "Spooks"; and he is a towering presence in this intriguing New Zealand dysfunctional family jigsaw puzzle of a film.  It's one of those films where the slow accretion of details discloses a complex and surprising mystery, so the less said about the plot the better.  It does lead to a myriad of interpretations (and people in my circle certainly have been busy putting forth their 25 cents worth opinions on what actually happened in the past to cause the present.  Much fun to speculate.)  This film has atmosphere to spare, sterling technical credits, and a creepy, effective emotional punch.  *** 1/4

CRANE WORLD (d. Pablo Trapero)
Admittedly, I was tired after a bad night's sleep; but I couldn't help dozing through some of this 1999 B&W film, reminiscent stylistically of '40s Italian neo-realism, and first effort by a promising director.  It's about a luckless 49 year old guy, victim of Argentina's poor economy, who tries various jobs running machinery.  It's one of those slice-of-life dramas that only work if the characters or their plights are compelling.  I just couldn't marshall up interest in this one.  ** 1/2

ROLLING FAMILY (d. Pablo Trapero)
On the other hand I did respond positively to the above director's new film, in color and made with a much surer grasp of character and plot.  It's about an extended family who pile into a home-made vacation trailer and embark on a long, eventful road trip through rural Northern Argentina to attend the 84 year old materfamilias's grandniece's  wedding.  It's that kind of a film:  where the varied multi-generational relations in this earthy family do matter, where the characterizations are vivid, the situations amusing and entertaining.  Not much of a story; just enough humor and brilliantly observed details to flesh out the film and keep my interest.  ***

A YEAR WITHOUT LOVE (d. Anahi Berneri)
A film about a young academic (a remarkable performance by Juan Minujin) quite ill with AIDS in 1996.  As ill as he is, he is still driven by a strong libido which expresses itself mainly in some of the most realistic gay S&M to be seen in films (this is O Fantasma with a coherent plot).  It's the era of the introduction of the 3-drug cocktail; and his health improves over the course of the film.  He writes a journal of one year with AIDS, which basically becomes the story of the film.  Some films reach me in a place too personal...I've observed and lived this film in real life to some extent; so I'm not an objective observer here.  All I can say is that the film might not be for everyone; but I was blown away by its truthfulness, however sordid.  *** 1/4

COTE D'AZURE (d. Ducastel & Martineau)
Nicely turned French sex farce with attractive, polyamorous characters and a coherent plot.  Maybe a little silly; but Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi is wonderful as a half-Dutch, half-French wife and mother, somewhat unsatisfied by her husband and certain that her son is gay and determined to be totally supportive, while having an affair of her own.  In the tradition of French farce it just gets more and more complex.  I wasn't totally charmed...the film has a few musical numbers which didn't do it for me.  But all in all this is a successful entertainment.  ** 3/4

NO SONGS OF LOVE (d. Lars Kraume)
Boring pseudo documentary (the main fictional character is supposedly making a documentary about his brother's rock band...a brother whom he suspects of having had a dalliance with his girlfriend a year before, which makes for tension between the three characters.)  I found the extended club rock songs poorly written and sung, and the whole confrontation stuff between the brothers and the girl way too talky and contrived.  * 3/4

BANLIEU 13 (d. Pierre Morel)
This is a superior martial arts action thriller, set in a lawless, walled-off suburban project in Paris in 2010.  The story here doesn't matter much, it's all action with some remarkably fluid camera work and some of the best fast action gun-play and fight scenes I've seen.  This isn't one of those Matrix like special f/x laden films.  The characters are human enough, although blacker and whiter than possible.  David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli are wonderfully physical young actors who literally climb walls.  This is the kind of film whose audacious action elicits cheers from even a jaded midnight SIFF audience.  *** 1/4

One of my favorite films at this festival, a world premiere (apparently not ready for Cannes), and an emotional roller coaster of a film.  This one saved the secret festival concept for another year after a series of mild disappointments.  *** 1/2

(d. Steve Buscemi)
One of the better American indie films at this festival.  Buscemi has a way with actors.  Casey Affleck has never been better as a 27 year old guy who escaped from Indiana to New York City.  The film starts when he returns home, depressed and a failure, to a home life even more tense and dysfunctional than his life in the city.  There's another remarkable mom role here for Mary Kay Place, who does bemused goodness better than just about any actress of her era.  Kevin Corrigan, Liv Tyler, Seymour Cassel and a remarkable kid actor, Jack Rovello, add to the outstanding ensemble.  It was a good choice of a film to watch after the intense emotional jag of the secret festival film; a film about depression and hopelessness that actually ends up somehow being uplifting.  ***

LAST DAYS (d. Gus Van Sant)
What can I say?  The consensus among those I chatted with at the after party seemed to be that this was a colossal bore and a failure as a closing film (well, it did fill the theater with a hip young crowd, so I think the festival did a good job programming such an appropriate Seattle film).  I'd been prewarned from friends at Cannes; and I must say that the film was what it was and didn't disappoint me:  very meditative, slow, haunting, pretty to look at, with another strange, gratuitous gay sequence as in Elephant.  I kept looking at one of the minor characters knowing I recognized him but just couldn't place him until eureka!, I realized it was Lucas Haas.  But the film belongs to Michael Pitt, who does a great Kurt Cobain portrayal, including some convincingly good off-the-cuff musicianship.  And the "ascension" scene was truly lovely.  ***

Some personal 2005 SIFF festival stats:
Number of film programs watched during the festival and press screenings:  124
Number of times I exceeded 5 films in a day:  1
Number of times I saw less than 4 films in a day:  1
Number of jackets left on seats in theaters:  4
Number of jackets found at the various venues' lost and found:  4
Number of umbrellas I broke or lost:  3
Number of actual times I opened an umbrella:  5
Number of days I had less than 3 meals:  5
Number of nights I had less than 6 hours sleep:  2
Number of parking tickets:  0
Number of films I missed because of timing or parking problems:  1 (remarkable!)

Thanks SIFF for another great festival!

FILMS AT 2005 SIFF ALREADY SEEN (links are to larger journal entries:)

Docu of the quotidien goings on in a local Parisian court. Illuminating...better than Judge Judy.  ***
36  Auteuil & Depardieu in a French noir that could have been a Michael Mann film, dark & violent. ***
3-IRON  Fascinating, but weird Korean thriller about a silent young guy who breaks into houses. Very filmic and mysterious. *** 1/4
APRÈS VOUS  Annoying and contrived French farce.  * 3/4
AS IT IS IN HEAVEN  Uplifting & emotionally satisfying drama about an artist who brings enlightenment to his backwater Swedish home town.  ***
BENEATH HER WINDOW Screwball Slovenian comedy about a 30ish woman's romantic entanglements whose evident charms escaped me.  ** 1/4
CAMPFIRE Involving family drama about a woman with 2 daughters coping with social and relational problems. Nicely acted.  ***
DAYS AND HOURS Talky, slow paced slice of life story about family coping with consequences of Bosnian war 7 years earlier. * 3/4
EARTH AND ASHES Wide screen Afghanistan AFF plays like a despairing Irani film: old man & young boy war victims wandering desert.  ***
EL CRIMEN PERFECTO Another zany film by Iglesia, high gloss comedy about a Lothario salesman's comeuppence. Good fun, but a trifle obvious. ** 3/4
GREAT WATER  Nicely directed and acted drama about a dying Macedonian politician recalling his youth. ***
HAWAII, OSLO Norway AFF: slick, complex multi-strand drama of a group of Oslo residents as they play out one character's portentious dream.  ***
I've seen it twice and consider it an unappreciated masterpiece. 
INNOCENT VOICES  El Salvador guerilla war from pov of 11 year old boy in a small village. Shattering, powerful, excellent film.  *** 1/2
THE KEYS TO THE HOUSE  Quietly moving, beautifully made film of a father getting to know his 15 yr. old disabled son for the first time.  *** 1/2
MACHUCA  An 11 year old privileged boy's pov of society at the end of Allende's regime. Politically slanted left, but powerful stuff.  ***
LAYER CAKE (d. Matthew Vaughn) Stylish Brit noir à la Guy Richie, only better. Daniel Craig wonderful as a smart drug dealer. *** 1/4
MY STEP BROTHER FRANKENSTEIN  Quirky, entertaining film about a psychologically damaged returning soldier & his family.  ***
THE NINTH DAY  Dark, slow, philosophical drama about Catholic priest on leave from Dachau & his duel of wits with an SS officer.  ** 3/4
OMAGH  Muted dramatic re-enactment of '98 N. Ireland bombing & aftermath with quietly great performance by Gerard McSorley. ***

OPEN HEARTS  Dogma drama about fear of loss and love.  ***
THE OVERTURE  Well made, if overwrought, Thai film about a traditional musician's life from child prodigy to regime threatening elder master.  ** 3/4
PIZZA DV eccentric comedy: one night's adventure of a lonely fat girl turning 18 & a 30ish pizzaboy (sparkling turn by Ethan Embry). ** 1/4
PRODUCING ADULTS  Complex Finnish relationship drama about a woman's desire to have a child with a partner unable to commit.  *** 1/4
REVOLUTION OF PIGS  Ambitious, but sprawling film about an '85 Young Communist camp gone to riot in Estonia.  ** 1/4
ROMA  Poignant, lovely, wonderfully acted, written & directed epic drama about an elderly writer's reminiscences of his mother. Juan Diego Boto rules! ****
SOMERSAULT  Well played slice of life about Australian runaway teenage girl.  ***
THE STORY OF MY LIFE  Fun, well made French 4-character romantic comedy. Only flaw is too pat a resolution.  ** 3/4
TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE  Fascinating, very personal docu about prickley liberal cinematographer by his rebellious son.  *** 1/2
TWIST OF FAITH  Downer docu about angry men who were molested as teenagers by a Catholic priest in Toledo OH. Incendiary, but sort of boring. ** 1/2
YESTERDAY Picturesque & heartfelt So. African AFF about a rural Zulu family ravaged by AIDS.  ***