2005-6 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

EL AURA (d. Fabián Bielinsky; Argentina)
A fine mystery thriller, creepily atmospheric, about a meek taxidermist who gets involved in a complex robbery plot.   Ricardo Derín, who seems to be in every good South American film sent to the Academy for the past few years, is quite good here.  Probably too labyrinthine a plot to make the final five; but another example of Argentina's current preeminence on the  international film circuit.  *** 1/4

BLUEBIRD (d. Mijke de Jong; Netherlands)
I loved this "afterschool special" kids film when I saw it in Seattle.  Probably too simplistically appealing for this competition.  Also, it has been eliminated from the competition because it was discovered to have played on tv before it was released to theaters (quelle surprise!)   *** 1/2

TSOTSI (d. Gavin Hood; South Africa)
Emotionally shattering, superb film about a violent South African petty gang leader living in squalor in the Joberg shanty town, who gets involved with a baby in an unlikely series of events with life changing consequences.  This is an almost certain nominee, sort of   City of God that is humanistic enough to appeal to just about everybody.  ****

ZOZO (d. Josef Fares; Sweden)
 An affecting drama about a Beirut family trying to escape to Sweden from the devastation of civil war and the young teenage boy who does make the journey.  More serious than Fares' previous films; but also too episodic and diffuse to stand out from the crowd in this field.  ***

BUFFALO BOY (d. Minh Nguyen-Vo; Vietnam)
Lots of water in this tale of a boy from an impoverished farming family in the Mekong Delta who must travel from home to find fresh grass for his family's buffalo.  Sad and moving...beautiful cinematography.  This could be a contender; but probably not.  ***

SO CLOSE, SO FAR (d. Reza Mir Karimi; Iran)
Iran sent another unexpected secular story about modern life.  It's a road film about a successful neurologist who sets off to rescue his ill teenage son who is off in the country on a pilgrimage.  I was moved by the story, even though the main character is maddeningly unlikable.  *** 1/4

VIVA CUBA (d. Juan Carlos Cremata; Cuba)
Another road picture, about 2 kids who wander off as runaways, the boy searching for his father.  It's somewhat involving the way plights of kids are always involving; and the boy is a memorable actor who was also in the Cuban portion of the Mexican entry (here he is called Jorgito Milo Avila; in the Mexican film he is called  Jorge Milo and each has a separate entry in IMDb; but they are the same actor) .   ** 1/4

BLOOD AND BONES (d. Yoichi Sai; Japan)
An epic which encompasses years of history...about a Korean man who emigrates as a boy to Japan before WWII.  This is his life story; and it isn't a particularly pleasant life...he's obsessed by money and has terrible relations with women and his cursed family.  Still, the scope of the film was quite striking...very fine cinematography.  And the lead character was magnificently played by Takeshi Kitano, playing against his usual anti-hero persona of Beat Takeshi.   ** 3/4

ADAM'S APPLES (d. Anders Thomas Jensen; Denmark)
A black comedy/drama which is basically an allegory of the fall of man.  It features another fantastic performance by Dutch actor Ulrich Thomsen as a neo-Nazi sentenced to do rehab after prison in a truly bizarre church.  Photographed in amazingly glowing wide screen, the film was a little too out there for my tastes; but I have a feeling that it just might sneak into the final 5 because a lot of people on the committee seemed to love it passionately.  ***

WHAT A WONDERFUL PLACE (d. Eyal Halfon; Israel)
A forgettable film about desert life in Israel, centered around an unpleasant ex-cop who is working for a pimp handling Ukrainian prostitutes and a number of other unsavory characters.  The plot was so convoluted that I've instantly forgotten most of the details.  **

ZIM AND CO. (d. Pierre Jolivet)
A French film about disaffected youths, with Zim trying to escape prison by getting a job needing a car.  I'm a sucker for movies like this. ***

WRONG SIDE UP (Pribehy Obycejneho Silenstvi) (d. Petr Zelenka)
A silly film, sort of a black comedy about life in present day Czech Republic where the main character is totally neurotic about life and love.  Forgettable, well except it had a funny bit about our hero shipping himself to Cuba in a box.  **

AN AMERICAN HAUNTING (d. Courtney Solomon)
A Gothic horror flick taking place in the early 1800's about a haunted house in Tennessee.  It has a good cast, led by Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek...but the plot seems so overwrought and absurd, and due to the incompetent filmmaking just not scary enough.  In better hands it might have been as good as The Others, which it resembles slightly.   * 3/4

LIFE WITH MY FATHER (d. Sébastien Rose)
Boring film about a strange family, mainly a dissolute drunk father and his two sons.  I simply couldn't get involved.  W/O

06/05 THE SIXTH OF MAY (d. Theo Van Gogh)
I was curious to see what's up with this late and lamented director.  This was a competent political thriller (and I hear it is going to be remade as a Hollywood flick); but frankly it was just competent.   ** 3/4

GEMINIS (d. Albertina Carri)
Another strange dysfunctional family drama...not boring, but really creepy.   ** 3/4

COME INTO THE LIGHT (Alla Luce Del Sol) (d. Roberto Faenza)
A priest battles the Mafia in Sicily.  Involving enough; but nothing special.  ** 1/2

RIPLEY UNDER GROUND (d. Robert Spottiswoode)
A pretty good Ripley story from another Patricia Highsmith novel...marred by the fatal miscasting of Barry Pepper as Ripley.  But the story itself is clever and holds together better than most of the recent Ripley films.  The absolutely best Ripley film ever is Woody Allen's Match Point, whose main character is the perfect analogue of Ripley.  ** 3/4

ANTIBODIES (d. Christian Alvart)
An absolutely fabulous, creepy serial killer story about a Hannibal Lector type psycho who rapes and kills young boys, and the small town cop who must face up to his own involvement in the crimes.  This one is a keeper!  *** 1/2

GIGOLOS, THE (d. Richard Bracewell)
Nicely acted, but dingily photographed film mainly about a guy who makes his living satisfying lonely old women.  The women are pretty fabulous, Sian Phillips and Anna Massey especially.  But I found the main gigolo, played by Sacha Tarter, to be sort of strange and uninteresting.   ** 1/2

THE CHILD (L'enfant) (d. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; Belgium)
The Dardennes are critics' darlings, and this Cannes winning film is probably their most approachable.  I think I liked Le Fils a tad better, identified with the characters more; but this film, about a girl whose boyfriend attempts to sell their newborn baby certainly packed an emotional wallop.  If the newly structured committee with more members this year than ever has become more adventurous, I can see this film becoming one of the final 5.  *** 1/4

LOVELORN (d. Yavuz Turgul; Turkey)
Sometimes I'm just not in the mood.  There's no doubt that this was a worthy film.  It's about a teacher who retires from his job teaching in a remote village and returns to Istanbul, where he gets involved with old friends and meets a troubled young woman.  I just couldn't concentrate, for whatever reason, and after more than an hour of feeling uninvolved, I left...feeling guilty, of course.  I've talked to others who stayed the course and seemed to like the film.  W/O (but see below, I did end up watching the entire film later, and ended up feeling a lot better about the film, ultimately rating it ***). 

ADDICTION (Levottomat 3) (d. Minna Virtanen)
The AFI film festival had its usual highs and lows; but overall it was a little disappointing this year.  This was a Finnish film about a married woman's sexual addiction, and her affair.  I recall it had some soft core sex; but try as I might I can't remember much about the film except that it was interesting .** 3/4

7 VIRGINS (d. Alberto Rodríguez)
Five years ago Juan José Ballesta made an indelible impression on me as the abused child in El Bola.  He's an older teenager here, a troubled youth struggling to stay out of trouble on furlough from some sort of Spanish borstal.  And Ballesta makes the most of it...he's incendiary in this role.  The film is a heartbreaking coming of age story of youth gone wrong, and I was completely absorbed.  *** 1/4

TATTOOED (Tatuado) (d. Eduardo Raspa)
 An Argentinian coming of age story, another teen-age boy runaway searching for his identity and the mother who he has never known (only the mysterious tattoo she had put on his arm in childhood remains as a clue to her.)  There's an interesting sub-plot about the boy's father:  the way the film was cast there's some doubt about his patrimony.  I'm always game for a boy coming of age film; but this one was slow and sort of dingily lit.  Try as I might I couldn't get involved.  ** 3/4

GRÖNHOLM METHOD, THE (El Metodo Grönholm) (d. Marcelo Piñero)
 A one room set representing a job interview/contest between candidates.  Obviously based on a play from the way the action was blocked.  Still, the interaction between the characters and the very nature of the philosophy of a big company and the way it chooses its employees was inherently interesting.  Well written and acted.  ***

Michael Winterbottom is one of my absolutely favorite directors; but he doesn't always make films that I can wholeheartedly support.  There's much to enjoy here:  a convoluted film within a film about the making of a movie based on the old novel Tristram Shandy.   It's very meta, occasionally funny, and Steve Coogan, who is becoming a Winterbottom regular after 24 Hour Party People, is great here.  I enjoyed the fictional film portions so much I wonder if it wouldn't have worked all by itself...even though I've heard that the novel itself is virtually unfilmable.  ***

NEXT DOOR (d. Pol Sletaune)
This Norwegian Gothic horror flick is both deep and terrifyingly horrifying.  Also quite hard to believe...there seem to be holes in the story.  It's the story of a guy who moves into an apartment with very strange and mysterious neighbors who live next door.  It has some fine special effects which adds to the eerie menace.  I was reminded a little of the haunting mood of the Korean film Tale of Two Sisters, but this film was far more successful for me.  ***

DARK HORSE (Voksne Mennesker) (d. Dagur Kári)
A strange B&W Danish comedy/drama about some oddballs, especially a young graffiti artist, and try as I might I can't recall much about the film.  **

TOTALLY PERSONAL (Sasvim Licno) (d. Nedzad Begovic; Bosnia and Herzegovina)
This Academy submission from Bosnia is a sort of personalized diary/documentary by the director, a performance artist of some note.  Begovic certainly knows how to game the system of the art world; and this is an hysterically amusing, original document of his life and times that was just a little too far out for my tastes.    ** 3/4

GIE (d. Rira Riza; Indonesia)
A political epic about the modern history of Indonesia through the life of a political activist named Soe Hok Gie.  It has great scope, and I found it interesting, though since I don't know that much about Indonesian history I couldn't follow all of the subtleties.  ** 3/4

THE OTHER SIDE (Al Otro Lado) (d. Gustavo Loza; Mexico)
An intermittently interesting film which combines three stories of children whose fathers have gone away to look for a better life and job.  In each case the kids set out on a perilous road trip to find their father.   The Mexican boy's father has gone to El Norte, the Cuban boy's to America, and the Moroccan girl's to Spain.  Really, the Moroccan story is the only one that works totally, despite how unlikely a good outcome would be from such a story.   ** 1/2

THE RUINS (Rusevine) (d. Janez Burger; Slovenia)
A film about a troupe of actors performing a play in an outdoor theater.  It was beautifully shot; but I was bored and couldn't really find a story hook that piqued my interest.  ** 1/2

QUEENS (Reinas) (d. Manuel Gomez Pereíra)
A simply wonderful film about 5 mothers of gay sons, which I found totally engrossing.  I'm going to watch it again at the Palm Springs festival and maybe I'll have more to say then.   *** 1/4

THE KID & I (d. Penelope Spheeris)
A strange movie, produced by Tom Arnold which combines some realities from his life with a fun, if peculiar story.  It is structured as a film within a film.   Arnold is hired by a millionaire to make a True Lies type of movie with the millionaire's mildly disabled (cerebral palsy) son as the action hero.  Eric Gores is the real deal:  a disabled kid with a sunny disposition.  I found myself enchanted by the film despite its inherent corniness, and some of that had to do with how involved one gets with the kid.   ** 3/4

HIDDEN (Caché)  (d. Michael Haneke)
Turned down as the Austrian foreign language film entry because it is entirely in French (stupid rule which ought to be changed).  This is one of the best films of the year, a mystery within an enigma within a puzzle.  I think I understand what happened.  Haneke uses digital video in a way I've never seen it used in a film.  My only reservation is that I somehow was not able to emotionally connect with the story, as startlingly effective as it was.  But Haneke has produced his most profound and puzzling film here.   *** 1/2

SUMMER IN BERLIN (Andreas Dresen)
A totally forgettable comedy about two women friends who drink together on one of their balconies during the dog days of summer in Berlin and dish the guys they see below.  They argue,  fall out, nothing much.   ** 1/2

A DIOS MOMO (d. Leonardo Ricagni)
I couldn't get into this moody Uruguian film about a poor young boy who hawks newspapers for a meager living, and his adventures in upward mobility.   W/O

Too many ordinary, average films at my AFI festival this year.  Let's hope the 29 films I'm scheduled to watch at the Palm Springs International Film Festival starting January 7 are considerably more interesting.  At least AFI remains one of the best run festivals I go to, wonderful venues all on one floor of the Arclight multiplex...every film starting exactly on time, no snafus to speak of.  The experiment of having the festival ticket office and pass holder's lounge in tents on the roof of the parking structure worked o.k., I guess.  Too bad that it seemed like nothing was ever happening when I showed up.  But I managed to get my fill of Krispy Kreem donuts each morning.

TBILISI-TBILISI (d. Zakareishvili Levan; Georgia)
 An arty, sketchy, ugly looking drama about the life and times of Georgian filmmaker and his lackluster friends.  Not much happens; but I stayed awake.  ** 1/2

THE PROMISE (Wuji) (d. Chen Kaige; China)
A huge Chinese historical epic in the same vein as Crouching Tiger, Hero and Flying Daggers, with not quite as fully realized and spectacular special effects as in those films; but with fabulous photography, costumes and sets, and a story which worked pretty well on an emotional level.  I did find it hard to follow; supposedly the release edit that Harvey Weinstein supervised with the director's blessing, which cut 18 minutes out and added some explanatory exposition is helpful for foreign audiences not fully cognizant of the period.  I think this film may be in the running for the final five; but I wouldn't put money on it.   ***

COLLECTOR, THE (Komornik) (d. Feliks Falk; Poland)
Another undistinguished film in the same vein as the Georgian submission.  This time about a crooked bureaucrat, a tax collector who hatches corrupt schemes to make money.   He's an anti-hero, and I couldn't find much to admire about him or the film.   ** 1/4

TWO SONS OF FRANCISCO (Dois Filhos de Francisco) (d. Breno Silveira; Brazil)
This is a "based on a true story" film about two brothers who rise out of the impoverished countryside to become successful pop singers.  It follows the familiar track of this sort of biopic; but somehow, maybe because the Brazilian countryside setting was so exotic, I found the film more interesting than similar efforts about American artists, such as this year's I Walk the Line.  Interesting enough; but not a contender.  ** 3/4

REQUIEM OF SNOW (d. Jamil Rostami; Iraq)
An over-the-top romance/tragedy about a beautiful young woman in wintry Kurdistan who is kidnapped by a thwarted admirer.  The setting is everything here; but the story plays to Western sensibilities as overly sentimentalized.    **

PERHAPS LOVE (d. Peter Ho-Sun Chan; Hong Kong)
I've been disappointed by film musicals all year, and this film is no exception.  It is a lush production about a love triangle which occurs during the making of a film in an idealization of mid-20th Century China; with music in Cantonese which sounded really strange to my ears.  Think of Zhang's To Live  played like Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge...only lacking the spark of either.  I wanted to like this film; and maybe many in the audience did; but it just didn't quite work for me.  ** 3/4

TOUT UN HIVER SANS FEU (d. Greg Zglinski; Switzerland)
A depressing drama about the tragic consequences experienced by a couple who lost their child in a fire.  The accident was possibly the father's fault, and the film accurately describes the corrosive way it affected the parents' life and their relationship.   Very wintry, with striking scenes of the French Swiss countryside around Lake Lucerne.    ** 3/4

PAHELI (d. Amol Palekar; India)
A big Bollywood production, a lush romantic ghost story.  Just not my cup of tea at all.  **

NOITE ESCURA (d. João Canijo; Portugal)
A depressing film, shot in a grungy, claustrophobic style...all closeup, swooping camera hand-held shots which left me feeling faintly nauseous.  Stylistically it is slightly  reminiscent of Gaspar Noë, but without that filmmaker's visual genius.  It's the story of an isolated whorehouse run by a man who owes Russian gangsters enough to sell his younger daughter to them as blood money.  The white slavery issue is inherently sympathetic; but this film is just senselessly violent and unpleasant.  *

THE ITALIAN (d. Andrey Kravchuk; Russia)
Vanya is a 6 year old boy, an inmate in a progressive, present-day Russian orphanage, who is being sold for adoption through the system to a respectable Italian couple.  His fellow orphans, a feisty, enterprising bunch right out of Dickens, nickname him "The Italian".  But despite his luck at procuring a foreign adoption, Vanya sets out to find his real mother.  Blessed with an amazing central performance by kid actor Kolya Spiridonov, this is a lovely, heartwarming film.  It reminded me of a previous Russian nominee, Vor, also about a child in peril wandering by train; and like that film this one definitely has a chance to make the final 5.  *** 1/2

RENART, THE FOX (d. Thierry Schiel; Luxembourg)
An animated film about a fox in a fairy tale world.  I perservered and watched it all...undistinguished 2-D animation and a simplistic kid's story that just didn't interest me in the least.  *

OBABA (d. Montxo Armendariz; Spain)
A beautiful film student travels to the Basque town of Obaba (does it really exist?  I can't find it on a map, probably fictional) with a video camera to do a class film project.  She discovers a town reeking with secrets:  a fascinating back story about a disgraced former teacher, several people who have abandoned the town for the big city, and a lot of mysterious goings on.  As a film it was enigmatic, atmospheric and interesting...unfortunately it just didn't add up to a fully successful film.   ** 3/4

WANDERING SHADOWS (La Sombra del Caminante) (d. Ciro Guerra; Columbia)
 Unconventional buddy flick amidst the squalor of Bagota, Columbia. It is in B&W and looked murky and digitized.  I gave it a ** 3/4 rating at SIFF; but my memory of it is far less complimentary. 

SOPHIE SCHOLL - THE FINAL DAYS (d. Marc Rothemund; Germany)
I wasn't aware of Sophie Scholl, a real-life Aryan hero of the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany during WWII.  She stupidly gets captured along with a boyfriend fellow conspirator while passing out anti-Nazi leaflets.  The film is a series of interrogations of her by the Gestapo.  It's an interesting footnote to history, showing a "good" German martyr. However,  I found myself  strangely uninvolved as a spectator to the dry goings on.  I think this film has a very good chance of making the final five...the audience seemed to like it enormously; but it left me cold.  ** 1/2

THE LAND HAS EYES (d. Vilsoni Hereniko; Fiji)
A film in the same vein as the New Zealand film Whale Rider (only much more primitive), about a young, provincial  island girl who longs to better herself by winning a scholarship to study in the capital island.  It  is steeped in the lore of ancient legend, about a great woman warrior who first came to the island.  As sociology the film is pretty interesting; but as a drama it just wasn't involving enough.   ** 1/2

C.R.A.Z.Y. (d. Jean-Marc Vallée; Canada)
This is a fantastic dysfunctional family comedy centered on Zach, the second youngest of five son who is "different", the typical gay son in a family of go-getters.  Marc-André Grondin is wonderful as Zach, playing him from teen-age through his 20s as he unsuccessfully fights for his father's love.  I was just blown away by the inventiveness and relevance of the filmmaking.  For me it is a definite winner; but I fear it straddles the bubble with this committee.  I'm afraid that the film is just a little too wild and out there for many of the staid Academy members.    *** 3/4

BE WITH ME (d. Eric Khoo; Singapore)
Three connected stories of urban angst in modern Singapore...eliminated from the competition after we watched it since it was definitely mostly in English.   ** 3/4

AHEAD OF TIME (d. Ágúst Güdmundsson; Iceland)
I usually like films about modern Iceland; but this unfunny comedy about three former band members in their 40s who attempt a comeback of sorts just turned me off.  Apparently it is a sequel to another film made 20 years ago about the same characters; but I just found this film impossible to enjoy.  * 1/2

PARADISE NOW (d. Hany Abu-Assad; Palestine)
An emotionally shattering film about  two Palestinian suicide bombers, and the process that they go through to achieve their mission.  Incredibly tense and involving, frightening, riveting.  I'm still not certain why suicide bombers exist; but this film managed to turn these two men into real people.  It's an almost certain nominee despite its stomach turning subject matter; and I wouldn't bet against it for the Oscar.  *** 1/2

MOTHER OF MINE (Äidgistä Parhain) (d. Klaus Härö;  Finland)
This is a four hanky weeper about a Finnish boy who was sent by his mother to Sweden for safety to live out World War II with a family that had lost their own daughter in a recent drowning.  It is shot mainly as an extended flashback:  a discussion in the present day between the grown man and his aged mother.  The acting, especially by the boy and the Swedish couple,  is extraordinary.  The wide-screen photography, direction, everything about this film is first rate.  I swear I could not help crying for the entire last hour of the film, I was so moved.  Still, maybe some on the committee were turned off by the sentimentality...I don't know if it will make the finals.  All I know is that I really loved this film.  *** 1/2

KISSED BY WINTER (Vinterkyss)  (d. Sara Johnsen; Norway)
A woman doctor with a sad history arrives in a small town in the north of Norway where a Bosnian boy, son of refugees, had been killed in a hit-and-run auto accident.  She has an affair with the likely perpetrator; and the film is a pretty convincing psychological study of good people depressed by winter and acting out their frustrations.  It's a well made film which falls just short of being one of the top five, though maybe that's just me.   ***

FATELESS (Sorstalanság) (d. Lajos Koltai; Hungary)
This is an epic film reminiscent of Schindler's List about a 14 year old Hungarian Jewish boy sent to Auschwitz during the Holocaust.  Wide screen, incredibly vivid, (the concentration camp footage may be the most convincing I've ever seen, shot in washed out grays which contrast with the colors of Budapest before and after the war), utterly moving and convincing.  The actor playing the boy, Marcel Nagy, is nothing short of miraculous...his transformation from boy to Holocaust victim and back to survivor is a wonder to behold.  What distinguishes this story from all previous Holocaust films is the narration by the present day author, Nobel Prize winner and survivor Imre Kertész.  Somehow his life was affirmed by his harrowing experiences.  I'm afraid this film is just too bleak to make the cut;  and the Holocaust has been overexposed over the years to this committee.  That unfortunately may affect the fate of the film.  For me it was a revelation and certainly one of my top ten of the year.   *** 3/4

THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (Moartea domului Lazarescu)  (d. Cristi Puiu; Romania)
This competition may have started slowly; but it certainly has picked up.  This is another truly excellent, unique film.  It's a slice-of-life semi-documentary type of film about an unhealthy, overweight elderly man who feels ill and calls an ambulance.  That starts a surreal (but all too real) adventure where he and the concerned woman ambulance attendant get involved with the weird health care system in present day Romania.  The film is long and involved; but wonderfully realized.   *** 1/2

MIDWINTER'S NIGHT DREAM (d. Goran Paskaljevic;  Serbia and Montenegro)
I watched this bleak film at the Seattle film festival.  It's doubtful to make the cut.   ** 3/4

JOYEUX NOËL (d. Christian Carion;  France)
The French have sent a large scale World War I feel-good film about the unofficial Christmas armistice along the front trenches during the first winter of the war in 1914.  This story takes place in a remote area where the Scottish and French allies face German troups, and is an unlikely story of how the three forces put down their guns for Christmas day.  It's well acted, and the script is well written.  I'm not sure why, but I just didn't find the film as interesting as last year's A Very Long Engagement, with which it shares the trench warfare milieu.  You can never count out the French, and this is a noble effort which probably will be nominated.  ***

PLAY (d. Alicia Scherson; Chile)
Earlier this year I had the privilege of watching Miranda July's feature debut, the utterly quirky and original Me, You, and Everyone We Know.  Watching Play gave me the same sort of tingle, being present at the birth of a writer/director of rare talent and an original vision.  Both films are flawed, I don't want to oversell this one.  It's a quirky comedy about two people whose lives merge in unexpected ways:  one, a strange, poor, country girl drifting in the big city playing video games and working as a private nurse to a dying man; the other a young upwardly mobile Jewish man, thrust into a depressive funk by his wife's leaving him for another man.  The film is beautifully constructed, with a killer musical score, used creatively in ways I've never seen before.  At times it is truly witty and heartfelt.  However, I could feel the film dragging for the audience; but I never ceased to be enthralled by this director's slightly skewed take on the human condition.   *** 1/4

SHY AMOL CHAYA (d. Humayun Ahmed; Bangladesh)
This is the story of a disparate group of people on a river boat, refugees all from the bloody 1971 war for Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan (3 million people killed, with hardly a ripple in the West.)   It would be churlish to comment on this film as if it were a fully realized feature from a developed film culture.  But to be honest, it's hard to relate to such unappealing characters, poorly acted, incompetently dubbed.  I have the feeling that this patriotic film wowed them in Bangladesh...but in this field it stands out for its incompetent filmmaking.   *

DIAS DE SANTIAGO (d. Josué Méndez; Peru)
Santiago is a young ex-Marine, having been involved in some dirty doings in past wars with the rebels and "equadorians".  It has left an indelible mark on his personality, and he's plagued by difficulties coping with his family and wife; and he reveries constantly on how he can reinsert himself into society.  The film alternates mysteriously between b&w and color, seemingly without a plan, sometimes within the same setup (money problems in the production possibly?)  It's an arty film which has its moments; but definitely an also-ran.   ** 1/4

WELCOME TO DONGMAKGOL (d. Park Kwang-hyun; Republic of Korea)
Dongmakgol is an isolated little village in mountany South Korea, an agrarian Shangri La right out of Lost Horizons.  But it is 1951, and down the mountain the Korean War is raging.  Into this Eden arrive three North Korean soldiers cut off from their retreating army; two South Korean soldiers (a lieutenant who has deserted after disobeying an order to blow up a bridge and kill innocents, and a rather simple-minded medic); and a downed American flyer.  The film is a wide screen, immaculately made message comedy which pits the simple village life against the realities of war and the divided Korea.  I, for one, was unmoved by the film's obvious message about the brotherhood of man and how the two Koreas are spiritually really one people.  But I have the feeling that the Academy audience was pretty well swept away by the film, so it definitely has a chance to make the finals.  ** 3/4

SOMETHING LIKE HAPPINESS (Stestí) (d. Bohdan Sláma; Czech Republic)
The Czechs seem to specialize in sending to us multi-character dramas of modern extended family life.  This time the milieu is industrialized city and the people are working class denizens of a high-rise apartment building or (in the case of one family) an urban farmhouse badly in need of repair.  The various connected families hit a snag when one of them, mother of two darling little boys, undergoes a psychotic breakdown.  The film took a while to establish itself; for the first 1/2 hour I was lost in sorting out the relationships and getting involved with the story.  But then it all came together, and I found myself deeply emotionally involved with these characters.  It helps that one of the Czech's most interesting character actors Pavel Liska (memorable in such films as Pupendo and Bored in Brno), finally gets a leading role to shine in.  It also helps that the director is so skilled with children, the acting here is flawless.  This film won't make the final five in all likelihood; but it is certainly one of the highlights of the competition for me.  *** 1/4

THE TIN MINE (d. Jira Maligool; Thailand)
This is a film made from a series of autobiographical stories by a man whose early twenties were spent working in a dredging tin mine on the rivers of South Thailand in the early 1950s.  It's done mainly through voice over narration from the stories, illustrated by recreated vignettes of the young man's experiences and the people he encountered during his four years at the mine.  It doesn't sound promising; but as executed by the director and cast the film has an optimistic, wide-eyed world view which I found invigorating.  Some of the acting of the racial polyglot cast is suspect and over-the-top.  But the lead actor is sympathetic, and the dredge mining milieu is exotic and intriguing.   ** 3/4

THE CAVE OF THE YELLOW DOG (d. Byambasuren Davaa; Mongolia)
Reminiscent of Weeping Camel, a simple, picturesque story of a family of nomadic Mongolian herdspeople, husband, wife and three adorable little children.  The 7 year old daughter finds a stray dog which is feared to have been raised by wolves.  But she bonds with the dog, even though her father wants her to abandon it.  Beautifully shot on the grassy summer plains, with a trio of killer little kids who seem utterly at home being photographed in semi-documentary style. It's hard to bet against this film making the finals as it is traditional Academy bait in spades.  *** 1/4

STOLEN EYES (Otkradnati ochi) (d. Radoslav Spassov; Bulgaria)
An interesting, politically relevant film about an era in Communist Bulgaria when the Bulgarian Turko-Moslems are forced by the regime en mass to be re-identified, with new names and all former Moslem cultural remnants eradicated.  It becomes an odd Romeo & Juliet type plot of a very difficult and unlikely affair between a Moslem woman and the Bulgarian soldier who inadvertently killed her little girl.  Time is very plastic in this film, it was  hard to tell where one was on the linear timeline, because the film kept jumping back and forth.  The first reel was presented about 30 seconds out-of-sync, which didn't help in getting into the story.  But ultimately I became engrossed with these people and their incredible plight.  It's a pretty safe also-ran; but a worthy film.   ***

ONCE YOU'RE BORN YOU CAN NO LONGER HIDE (Quando sei nato non puoi piu nasconderti)  (d. Marco Tullio Giordana)
Giordana made the year's best film, The Best of Youth, so of course I was anxious to see his followup film.  This film is not up to that six hour epic; but then what film could be?  Still, leave it to Giordana to make the best of the recent spate of international refugee films.  It's also a kids in jeopardy film, a well acted family drama; and it  takes  the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotional involvement.  I can't wait to see what this talented director comes up with next. *** 1/4

IN HIS HANDS (Entre ses mains) (d. Anne Fontaine)
Fontaine is, for me, a good director whose films (with the exception of the wonderful Dry Cleaning) leave me cold.  This is a psychological thriller about a happily married woman (the luminous Isabelle Carré) who is drawn into an affair with a shy and mysterious veterinarian (an impressive turn by Benoît Poelvoorde, the Belgian comedian).   The film has a creepy menace; but ultimately it was too unpleasant an experience to enjoy wholeheartedly.  ** 1/2
QUEENS (Reinas) (d. Manuel Gómez Pereira) + 
I enjoyed this Spanish farce so much at the AFI festival that I felt like filling a space in my schedule by watching it again; and I wasn't disappointed.  This is a timely  audience pleaser:  five grande dames, led by the indomitable Carmen Maura and Marisa Parades, are thrown into a tizzy when their sons are preparing to take part in Spain's first public gay weddings.  The film deftly interweaves the the romantic antics of the mothers and their handsome sons.  I think I generally prefer Spanish farce to the French variety, it's often earthier, and grounded in a reality I share. In this film Pereira is operating in Almodóvar country, a fantasy world I find exultantly amusing.  ***
I thought Park's previous Mr. Vengeance film was an extraordinary, if over-the-top, piece of Grand Guignol blood letting.  This film is simply over-the-top.    Our heroine hatches an elaborate revenge plot in a woman's prison right out of Bad Girls Behind Bars.  It involves enlisting the survivors of victims of a sexual predator in some very nasty stuff.  Maybe it was the late hour; but I had trouble staying awake through all the gore. ** 1/4
YEAR ZERO (d. Joseph Patchhadze) 
This is one of those multi-character relationship films, like Crash, or last week's Czech film Something Like Happiness, where the relationships are not entirely clear until all the strands come together.  Such a film depends a great deal on one's sympathizing with the characters, and this Israeli film just worked for me.  It took a while to get into the complex plot...and I'm still not sure of a couple of details (what was that all about in Barcelona, for instance?  I need to see the film a second time to figure that part out.)  But the central story:  the tragic plight of a young out-of-work mother and her 11 year old son, affected me deeply.   *** 1/4

Susan Seidelman has constructed a real audience pleaser out of anecdotes her mother picked up from her sojourn in the retirement community of Boynton Beach, FL.  The film features a bunch of skilled older actors, especially notable the wonderful Brenda Vacarro, Dyan Cannon, Sally Kellerman, Len Cariou and Joseph Bologna.  The Palm Springs audience was perfect for this comedy; and even though the film is sort of predictable it was a lot of fun.   ** 3/4
BEOWULF & GRENDEL (d. Sturla Gunnarsson)
I'm just not into the whole Norse/Anglo Saxon epic film thing.  The scenery in Iceland, like the ubiquitous New Zealand, is wonderfully filmic.  But I just couldn't get into this tale of a hero called to save a Danish tribe from the revenge of a monstrous, if sympathetic, troll.  The film is in English, and features a first rate cast (Gerard Butler, Stellan Skarsgärd, Sarah Polley); but I struggled to stay awake.  ** 1/4
WHOLE NEW THING (d. Amnon Buchbinder)
If ever a film was designed for my appreciation this one was it: an enormously affecting coming of age story about a precocious thirteen year old boy who has been home schooled by his progressive parents, and who is being integrated into the school system in wintry Nova Scotia.   Aaron Webber is phenomenal as the boy, who forms a crush on his older teacher, played with real sensitivity by co-writer Daniel MacIvor.  In lessor hands (or maybe just had it been made in the current climate in the U.S.) this story would have been excruciating.  But Buchbinder finds the exact right positive tone to make this film work.  This film joins Edge of 17 and Beautiful Thing as one of those rare, excellent and truthful coming of age stories of gay youth.   *** 1/4 
 A well made biopic of a pin-up and soft porn queen of the '50s.  I'd never heard of Bettie Page; and Gretchen Mol does a fine job of portraying her mixture of Southern naiveté and sexual precociousness.  Like most biopics, this one lacked dramatic structure.  Still, it got the '50s right, and even though it wasn't precisely my cup of tea, there's much to admire about the filmmaking.  ** 3/4

LOVELORN (d. Yavuz Turgul; Turkey)
I originally walked out of this film at its Academy foreign film screening at the 75 minute point.  There was about an hour left to go, and I was tired and not able to get into the story.  When I had the opportunity of watching it again at Palm Springs, I decided that I should do so.  Too many people had commented that it was better than I had thought; and that it was a contender which should not be passed over so lightly.  I'm glad I stuck around to the end this time.   The film develops into a truly moving tragedy, which wasn't clear from my first partial viewing.  ***            

SHOP OF DREAMS (Stiilipidu) (d. Peeter Urbla; Estonia)
For about 3/4 of its length I really enjoyed this film about three women who lose their state supported jobs and decide to strike out on their own as shopkeepers selling and renting fantasy costumes. But the film goes off the rails towards the end, characters who were sympathetic change for no reason, and the entire tone of the film shifts into something unpleasant.  ** 1/2

CAYO (Vincente Juarbe; Puerto Rico)
This is an overly sentimentalized, maudlin story about the reminiscences of a dying man who returns from living in New York to the Caribbean island where he grew up.  It's all pretty predictable.  The three characters who made a trio of friends until two of them married and left the third behind just didn't interest me very much.    * 3/4

THE CITY OF THE SUN (Slunecný Stát) (d. Martin Sulík; Slovak Republic)
Four working men, laid off from their factory job, buy a truck and...well, things happen, but nothing progresses.  This is one of those meandering multi-character dramas; only it wasn't going anyplace and didn't get there.   **

DON'T TELL (La bestia nel cuore) (d. Cristina Comencini; Italy)
The Italians do family melodramas better than anybody, maybe because family is so important to them.  This film about a family that is screwed up by a past secret (guess which one...an ubiquitous theme nowadays), features wonderful acting by the two male leads of the all-time fave Best of Youth, plus the creative team of The Best Day of My Life, another favorite from 2004. I'm starting to doubt my prognostic abilities; but this film certainly should be in the running for the final five.  *** 1/2

 This "film of quality" is a portrayal of the era in China on the cusp of the Red Army takeover in 1949.  It's about the consequences of the death of the rich family patriarch and his insistence in his will that his rebellious illegitimate daughter be integrated into the family before the older, legitimate daughter, can inherit the estate. Much ado about nothing proceeds, both daughters vie for the love of an older man, the society of privilege is breaking down, etc.  The film is beautifully shot in a gauzy, authentic style.  But the slow, deliberate dialog and histrionics of some of the characters turned me off.  Pretty, but boring.  ** 1/2

MANDERLAY (d. Lars Von Trier)
Wow!  Von Trier is doing his best here to be be the maximum provocateur.  This time he turns his cynical eye on the African American issue in the U.S.  We're still in the same depression era as Dogville, around 1935.  The current film is a direct sequel to that film, with a change of cast at the top, as Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) and her father (now played by Willem Dafoe) set off by auto from Dogville,  only to stop at a retro plantation in Alabama, where slavery is alive and well.  The plantation, called Manderlay, is owned by a fortunately unrecognizable Lauren Bacall (presumably among other challenges we're supposed to forget that Bacall's character was knocked off in the previous film).  Like Dogville, the set is a sound-stage representation of the plantation.  And the film develops surprisingly like the previous film.  One major flaw, for me, was that Bryce Dallas Howard simply did not have the same force of character and subtlety of nuance that Nicole Kidman gave to the role.  It seems to me that Chloë Sevigny, who apparently had a small part in the film which I didn't even notice, would have made a much superior Grace.  Von Trier presses all the buttons in his anti-American screed; and truthfully many of those issues are well brought out, especially in his now traditional killer end credit montage (this time to David Bowie's "Young Americans".)  But for me the film is only partially successful, overplaying its hand to a ludicrous extent.   ***

STOLEN CHILDREN (Certi Bambini)  (d. Andrea and Antonio Frazzi)
This film starts out with one of the great sequences of recent cinema:  four young pre-teen boys attempt to run across a busy freeway on a mutual dare and the tension in the theater is palpable.  It becomes a modern day Oliver Twist story about a circle of boys in the Naples slums, and one special 11 year old boy in particular, recruited for nefarious gang purposes.  The film has a peculiar flashback format which is sometimes hard to follow; but the central story is gripping.  This film reminded me of some of the Italian neo-realist masterpieces, especially The Bicycle Thief, with its gritty truthfulness.  *** 1/4

TEMPESTA (d. Tim Disney)
A potboiler set in dank, murky Venice, Italy, about an American art authenticator (played with a flawless American accent by  Liverpool born Scot Williams) who discovers an art forgery plot.  Definitely a guilty pleasure, because I enjoyed the film despite its preposterous plot and terrible direction.   * 3/4

LOW PROFILE (Falscher Bekenner) (d. Christoph Hochäusler)
This German film is about an aimless young man, living at home with his concerned parents, applying for jobs while maintaining a secret life doing tricks in men's washrooms.  The boy is played by Constantin Von Jasheroff, definitely a talent to watch for.  His affectless performance (and this film) reminded me of another similar German film,  Bungalow, also about a young man going nowhere.  This film is slow, and not much happens; but it worked for me despite all that, mainly because I was drawn into the main character's life, and identified with his anomie and despair.  Very fine filmmaking, seems to me.    ***

THE BOW (d. Kim Ki-duk)
Kim is fetishizing silence in his recent films.  I liked the notion in 3-Iron, where at least the idea of non-talking actors was motivated.  But with this fable about an elderly sports-fishing boat owner and his virtually kidnapped 16 year old bride-to-be, the silence seemed forced and imposed.   Still, Kim fills his silences with beautifully controlled visuals and amazingly vivid non-verbal interactions.  ***

IDIOT LOVE (Amor Idiota) (d. Ventura Pons)
Pons is one of my favorite directors.  He always seems to be striking off in new directions; and I'd follow him anywhere.  This film is about a 35 year old man who stalks and woos a married woman.  It's a case of amour fou, our antihero's antics are alarmingly crazy; but the character is also narrating his internal life...and he somehow manages to become sympathetic in his Quixotic passion.  Pons has adopted a documentary-like hand held camera schema; and sometimes the photography is shaky to the point of vertigo.  But there are also generous amounts of visual genius:  thrilling quick cut sequences of Barcelona, montages of  every possible sexual position in action.  Kudos to the lovers, Santi Millán and Cayetana Guillén Cuervo, whose chemistry together manages to burn up the screen. *** 1/4

CINEMA, ASPIRIN & VULTURES (Cinema, Aspirinas e Urubus) (d. Marcelo Gomes)
I missed this film at the AFI festival; but people who saw it were impressed.  It's a period road-trip movie taking place in 1942, about a pacifist German Bayer aspirin salesman who wanders through Northeastern Brazil in a truck selling the new drug to the impoverished citizenry.  Unfortunately, I just wasn't very interested in the story.  ** 1/4

MALAS TEMPORADAS (Hard Times) (d. Manuel Martín Cuenca)
This exercise in miserablism comes from Spain.  It's the interconnected stories of several families, all of whom are dysfunctional in one way or another.  The film is directed at a very softly spoken, slow pace, to the the point that I wanted to yell at the screen:  "pick it up!"  Yet, for all of that, the various stories did keep my interest, especially an agoraphobic 14 year old boy who refuses to leave his room.  I can relate.   ** 3/4

SWINDLED (Incautos) (d. Miguel Bardem)
It is notable that so many superior thrillers are in Spanish.  Incautos (the title is translated as "Suckers!" in the subtitles) is somewhat reminiscent of the Argentine film Nine Queens, in that both films are about con men (and here a particularly vivid con woman played by Victoria Abril); and features constantly shifting alliances, crosses and double crosses.  The two leading men, Ernesto Altero and Frederico Luppi are in fact Argentinians...maybe it isn't an accident that the film reminds me of films from that country.  The film looks great, shot in slick wide screen.  There are flaws in the plot...I don't think it is as tightly constructed as Nine Queens, for instance.  But it is a satisfying entertainment.  ***

KAMATAKI (d. Claude Gagnon, Takako Miyahira)
This Canadian/Japanese co-production is a superior coming of age film about a suicidal young Canadian man, half Japanese (though the actor, Matt Smiley has only vaguely Eurasian features) who is sent to live with his Japanese uncle, a famed artisan who makes clay pots by an intricate and difficult firing process.  The uncle is played by the wonderful actor Tatsuya Fuji; and yes, there is a sort of Karate Kid kind of story here; but what makes this film work, in spite of its rather predictable plot, is the marvellous way that Japanese aesthetics propel the boy's progression and the audience's cross-cultural understanding.  *** 1/4

THE LIFE THAT I WANT (La Vita Che Vorrei) (d. Giuseppe Piccioni)
This festival has revealed for me what can only be called a renaissance in Italian cinema; and this film is the best of the bunch.  Not since The French Lieutenant's Woman, has there been produced such a successful example of the film-within-a-film genre.  In this case, the film being made is a costume romantic melodrama, vaguely like The Leopard; while simultaneously we're presented with the present day love affair of its two magnetic leading actors, played by Luigi Lo Cascio (my current favorite actor after his amazing performance in The Best of Youth) and Sandra Ceccarelli.  The way the two stories are interconnected, with its insights into the psychology of actors and their craft, is brilliant.  Maybe the film is a tad long; but for me, too much of a good thing is not enough.  *** 1/2

PALAIS ROYAL! (d. Valérie Lemercier)
Ugh.  A "sophisticated" slapstick takeoff on the Princess Di story set in a fictional country.  The actress/director, Lemercier, has a clumsy comic persona vaguely Danny Kayeish...and this film feels like one of that comic's films, maybe mixed with a touch of Jerry Lewis.  I'm just not a fan of the physical type of French comedy, as opposed to the more intellectual variety of French farce.  * 3/4

HARD CANDY (d. David Slade)
If there was a scale for a movie's sadism this one would rate a good 8.5/10.  It's a story about a teenage girl and her encounter from the internet with a charming sexual predator.  Patrick Wilson was astoundingly good as the pedophile, more than fulfilling his promise from Angels in America.  But I found Ellen Page quite annoyingly mannered.  This is probably not a typical reaction to this film, however.  In any case, a good film, very hard to watch!  ***

CHANGING TIMES (Les Temps qui changent)  (d. André Téchiné)
Téchiné is one of my favorite directors. Here he has made a film about a dysfunctional Euro family living in Morocco, and the way that past loves can remain in the heart to trump current loves.  This film isn't among his best; but it does contain Gerard Depardieu's best work in a while.  Also noted:  Malik Zidi, as Téchiné's gay avatar, and Catherine Deneuve, still radiant...never looking her age, as wife, mother and lover in that order.  I loved this film; but almost despite its sprawling plot.  *** 1/4

MARIO'S WAR ( La Guerra Di Mario) (d. Antonio Capuano)
Mario is a troubled nine year old, one step removed from being one of the Naples street boys from an earlier film in this festival, Stolen Children.  He is perhaps fatally marred by an innate "bad seed".  This film is about his relationship with his foster mother (played by the fine actress Valeria Golino), whose own relationship with her boyfriend is going south under the stress of foster parenting.  The film is involving; but also annoying.  One wants to feel compassion for any troubled child; but Mario is often so wanton that it is difficult to relate.  Society is obviously going to fail him and his foster mother, too.   ** 3/4

COLD SHOWERS (Douches froides) (d. Antony Cordier)
This film promised a hot three-way relationship between two attractive teenage boys and a girl.  It delivered something less than this; but still it's a pretty darn fine film, which examines class conflicts and teenage hang-ups about as well as I've seen it done lately.   Johan Libéreau is a young actor of great physical presence; I expect big things of him.  And Salomé Stévenin is a real find, perhaps the next French nymphet in the Ludivine Sagnier mold.  ***

OFF SCREEN (d. Pieter Kuijpers)
A turgid thriller about an elderly, disaffected bus driver who takes a building hostage.  The only good thing about this film is another fine performance from Jan Decleir, who was so fine in The Alzheimer Case. ** 1/4

THE WAYWARD CLOUD (d. Tsai Ming-liang)
It's hard to know what to say about this film.  It's definitely one of the highlights of the Academy foreign film schedule this year...but like Tsai's previous Oscar submission,  Goodbye Dragon Inn (though for entirely different reasons) I suspect that this film went entirely over the heads of the committee.  This film seems to be a direct sequel to What Time is it There, with the same main character.  Only now, instead of selling watches, Lee Kang-sheng is making straight pornos, screwing big bosomed women in increasingly daring positions.  Tsai has made a film more in the mode of The Hole, than his recent fare.  This film is laugh-out-loud funny at times; and keeping with a recent trend in high end art films contains some imaginative and beautifully designed musical sequences, mostly Chinese adaptations of western songs.  Here the technique worked dynamite for me (as opposed to the Hong Kong submission of a more traditional musical film, where I found the musical numbers excruciating).  The frankly shocking last shot of the film is absolutely disgusting and totally unforgettable.  Regrettably this film will not make the final five.   *** 1/2

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