2006-07 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
Films in VIOLET type are Skandinavian Film Festival (L.A.) films

(d. Guillermo del Toro; Mexico)
Del Toro has constructed an allegorical fantasy for grown-ups (simply 'way too violent and horrific for children).  It's the story of a young girl caught in the maelstrom of the post-Spanish Civil War era, victimized by her mother's relationship with her step-father, an evil fascist captain (a superb portrayal by the usually mild-mannered Sergi López) who is tyrannizing the populace while fighting renegade resistance fighters.  The film goes into the child's fantasy world of magical realism with really excellent special effects.  It reminded me a little of the Narnia film, only with a horrific, no-compromise brutality which made for a much more satisfying experience, for me, at least.   I usually abhor allegorical/magical realism films.  But this dark, wonderfully realized film viscerally got to me.  It may make the final 5.  *** 1/2

BLUE CHA CHA (d. Cheng Wen-tang; Taiwan)
A schedule change brought the committee this dark romantic drama from Taiwan.  It's the story of a semi-autistic young woman who has been released from prison and becomes a B-girl protégée of the bar's proprietress.  She gets involved in two relationships with men, one for money, the other for love, of a sort.  The film is too long, with stretches of boredom where nothing much happens.  But it looks great, and as the story progresses it becomes more and more interesting as a character study of a uniquely disturbing dysfunctional psychology.  This isn't an audience pleaser; but it is a fine film...illuminating and disquieting.  *** 1/4

(d. Lee Sang-il; Japan)
Japan's submission is a lightweight comedy '60s period piece about a scheme to save the jobs of an obsolete coal mining town by hiring a lady dance instructor from Tokyo to train the town's daughters in Hawaiian hula dancing and set up a Hawaiian village entertainment complex.   Vaguely reminiscent of the original Japanese Shall We Dance in its treatment of teaching dance, the film was far too predictable and the comedy too broadly acted for my tastes.  Still, the young girl who is the troupe's leader played by the luminous Yu Aoi is quite good in the "Billy Elliot" role of gawky amateur turned into graceful swan.  The film got applause, although for the life of me I can't understand why.   **

MAROA (d. Solveig Hoogesteijn; Venezuela)
Maroa is a young girl from the streets and slums of Caracas who lives by her wits, gets into trouble with the police and is sent to a youth reformatory where she falls under the guidance of a committed Spanish music teacher.  It's sort of  a girl Pixote with a dash of Central Station: somewhat manipulative, yet for me it really worked.  Part of that is the wonderful acting by young Yorlis Dominguea in the title role.  Add to the mix the Spanish actor Tristán Ulloa who has been one of my favorite actors since his remarkable performance in Sex and Lucia, plus a script which develops predictably, but satisfyingly on an emotional level.  Too bad that the audience didn't seem to be into this film as much as I was. *** 1/4

YOU BET YOUR LIFE (d. Antonin Svoboda; Austria)
The Austrians keep sending bleak, realistic portraits of empty modern lives to this competition.  This film was about an unredeemable gambling addict who screwed up his life and that of those around him.  As a character study, I felt the film worked.  But it was far too much of a downer, too tedious, without even a hint of emotional catharsis.  ** 1/2

VOLVER (d. Pedro Almodóvar; Spain)
Rather traditional thriller with comedic overtones.  Almodovar has a way of eliciting great performances by women, and it's nice to see his former muse Carmen Maura back in a lovely comic performance.   I just have the feeling that Almodovar is coasting here, making an enormously entertaining film with little or no resonance or gravitas.  Also I guessed the mystery far too early in the film.   ***

(d. Fredi M. Murer; Switzerland)
I'm a sucker for a certain type of film, and this one pressed all my buttons.  It's the story of a musical prodigy and hi-IQ kid...his family, pushy mom, dreamer dad and sympathetic grandfather.  Teo Gheorghiu, a real-life piano prodigy who can also act plays the 12 year old boy.  It's a stunning performance (not to downplay the actor who plays the boy as a 6 year old, Fabrizio Vorsani).   Bruno Ganz is also remarkable as the grandfather.  It may be that this film is too close to the bone for me to be objective, it's a wish fulfillment fantasy, and I identified like crazy; but I'm reasonably certain that it should make the final five.  *** 3/4

(d. Sergej Stanojkovski; Macedonia)
A well acted film about two wounded souls in present day Macedonia:  one a girl from a war criminal's family who is released from a mental institution, the other a guy recently released from prison.  Predictably enough they manage to connect and help each other become whole people.  The journey is overlong; but the end is ultimately satisfying.  Unfortunately for those who left early, the film improves as it goes along.  ** 3/4

BOBBY (d. Emelio Estevez)
Estevez has made a big, old fashioned disaster film: a modern update of Grand Hotel, with a large cast of second-tier stars; and Towering Inferno with a long set-up establishing characters before the inevitable disaster.  For someone like myself, where the events of June, 1968 are central to my life and the death of Bobby Kennedy still hurts with a dull ache, the film is emotionally charged.  I'm not sure how young people, who didn't experience the events and the wonderful music of this era first-hand, will respond.   Nicely acted (stand-outs among many:  Shia LaBeouf, Sharon Stone, Freddy Rodriguez, Elija Wood, Anthony Hopkins), with a reasonably involving script which seemed true to the times.  The political message, using news footage of Bobby's campaign from the time well integrated into the fictional story, was pretty heavy handed; but this extravaganza managed to entertain.  ***

FORGIVEN (d. Paul Fitzgerald)
Fitzgerald wrote and stared in this small-scale, emotionally charged and provocative melodrama.  He plays a born-again Christian district attorney running for the U.S. Senate who is haunted by a death penalty case with racial overtones that he tried six years earlier.  The film reminded me of a documentary I watched earlier this week, The Trials of Darryl Hunt, and interestingly enough the director brought that film up in the Q&A as an influence.  The acting was uneven, ranging from subtle and moving to over-the-top.  The film brought out a lot of anger expressed in the Q&A afterwards, especially from the African Americans in the audience.  It certainly pressed the racial button hard.  But I have to admire the filmmaker for bravely and unsparingly sticking to the central truth of his message.  ***

FROZEN DAYS (Yamin Kfuim) (d. Danny Lerner)
A rather minor thriller about an Israeli girl involved in a seemingly paradoxical situation after an internet date goes bad (sort of a low-budget Open Your Eyes).  I figured it out too soon.  But for some reason, maybe because for all its low-budget and video look, the filmmaker is talented.  The film is nicely shot, mostly in shadowy, expressionistic B&W, and has just enough propulsive energy to be surprisingly involving.  ** 3/4

DANIKA (d. Ariel Vromen)
Another weak Marisa Tomei vehicle, this one a sort of horror thriller with a timeworn plot device.  It all looks pretty slick; but it's one film cliché after another.  * 1/2

Dave Boyle is the young triple threat (director, writer, lead actor) auteur who has created a nifty little comedy farce.  He reminds me of a budding Buster Keaton, deadpan serious, whose very persona (sort of capitalist Mormon missionary) is inherently amusing.  Here he plays a nerdy whiter-than-white Japanese "businessman" in San José's Little Tokyo.  From the knowing laughter of the Japanese speakers in the audience he must have pulled off  a good simulation of the language and culture.  It's not a caricature, rather he gets humor from the very authenticity of his creation.  This is a very likable film by a talent to watch.  ***

MEMORIES OF TOMORROW (Ashita No Kioku) (d. Yukihiko Tsutsumi)
Ken Watanabe is the leading light in this Japanese early-onset Alzheimer story.  The film is well done; however it suffers from the feeling that we've seen this story before and done better.   ***

SOMEONE ELSE'S HAPPINESS (d. Fien Troch; Belgium)
Belgium's Oscar entry is a slick, enigmatic film about the consequences of a hit-and-run auto accident in a small community where seemingly everyone knows everyone else (even the policeman involved in the case is conflicted by being the father of the youthful victim).  The film looks great, and raises some important questions.  But as far as I was concerned the plot was too elliptical and contrived to make for a fully successful film.  ** 3/4

YOUR LIFE IN 65' (Tu Vida in 65') (d. Maria Ripoll)
Some films just hit me right.   This romantic comedy revolves around three 20-something guys, long time friends, whose romantic misadventures start in the newspaper's obituary pages.  The young unknown actors are especially attractive and sympathetic and the Barcelona setting looks great.  Even an unfortunately provocative ending couldn't mar the spell this picture put on me.   *** 1/4

(d. Rakesh Omprakash Mehra; India)
Mehra has updated the Bollywood formula, making a romantic thriller about patriotism, political corruption and youth disaffection disguised as a big budget extravaganza.  Yes, things still come to a stop when the inevitable, if well integrated, musical interludes obtrude on the action.  And for occidental tastes it all seems somewhat emotionally over-the-top.  Yet the almost 3 hour film is continuously visually stunning, and for me, at least, the story spanning a century of revolution was involving and fresh.  *** 1/4

HOST, THE (Gue-Mool) (d. Bong Joon-ho)
OK, this is a well made monster-mutant-attacks-city horror/comedy flick.  The creature special effects are quite convincing.  But to say the least, this genre isn't my cup of tea; and for all its high gloss I thought the film bordered on the ridiculous.  **

ART OF CRYING, THE (Kunsten at Graede I Kor) (d. Peter Fog)
This is a beautifully acted film about familial child abuse in '70s small town Jutland (a district of Denmark near the German border).  Apparently based on the experiences of a current day novelist when he was 12, the story is chock full of moral ambiguity.  It's also shockingly frank and knowing.  It left me wondering if it might be something of a literary hoax a la J.T. LeRoy.   *** 1/4

STEPHANIE DALEY (d. Hilary Brougher)
Tilda Swinton and Amber Tamblyn are standouts here in a connected story which contrasts a disastrous teen pregnancy with an equally difficult mid-life pregnancy.  The film devolves into a sort of a legal and moral quagmire, which raises more questions than it answers.  But the outstanding acting and well honed script make for a fine film on an intellectual, if not emotional, level.  ***

(d. Stephane Lapointe)
The title is ironic as there aren't any happy people in this film.  It's basically a comedy/melodrama about  a terminally shy and dreamy college student whose  successful entrepreneur father and tv quiz show obsessed mother hatch a doomed plot to help him become focused.  The somewhat contrived plot is aided by some fine actors; and I found myself rooting for the hapless hero.  ***

THE ROAD (d. Zhang Jiarui)
Literally a road picture spanning decades of the life of a modest country bumpkin bus driver and his enthusiastic female assistant.  Gorgeous countryside cinematography; but as a story it went on too long.   Still, the history of China from the '60s through the Cultural Revolution to the present is inherently interesting...and the actors, especially the girl, Jhang Jingchu, do a fine job of aging.  ** 3/4

YOUNG BLOOD (Pura Sangre) 
(d. Leo Ricciardi)
An Argentine film about an 8 year old boy suddenly orphaned who goes to live with his taciturn, elderly grandfather on a ranch.  We've seen this film before, famously in Kolya, where a young person changes the life of a hidebound elder.  What this film has going for it is a very likable performance by young Yaco Levy, and beautifully nuanced performances by Norma Aleandro and Maria Galiana plus some nice cinematography of the Argentine ranchlands.  ** 3/4

THE JOURNEY (Yatra) (d. Goutam Ghosh)
This was a turgid, pretentious film about a famous Hindi author whose long-time affair with a high class courtesan mistress comes out in his novel (shown as a film-within-a-film) when he is chosen for a literary prize.  I found little here to like, the film was too talky, I couldn't relate to the characters or care about them; and I was continuously fighting dozing off.  * 3/4

COMIC EVANGELISTS (d. Daniel Jones, Dann Sytsma)
"Crawlspace Eviction" is an actual improvisational troupe based in Kalamazoo, MI.  They have expanded an improv skit into a satiric meta mocumentary about an improvisational troupe ("Comic Evangelists") of Christian fundamentalists who travel by van along with some bemused hangers-on to an improv festival in Toronto.  Frankly, I found the entire film delightful:  funny, trenchant, with actors absolutely on the nose with their characterizations of hypocritical fundies.  It's all done in dead pan documentary style shot and projected on video.  But when it works, it works!  ***

(d. Arunas Matelis; Lithuania)
This is a documentary about children with leukemia in a hospital in Vilnius, Lithuania.  It's done with sensitivity.  The children are wonderful, and the pathos of their situation is manifest.  However in the context of the foreign film competition, a documentary, no matter how well done, doesn't carry quite enough weight.  ***

9TH COMPANY (d. Fyodor Bondarchuk; Russia)
Bondarchuk is an actor turned director who has put on screen a high-gloss, wide-screen war film about a platoon of Soviet soldiers that covers them from basic training to their battles with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.   For my money this is one of the best war films I've ever watched, with special effects which rival the best of Hollywood and some remarkably fine acting.   If it has any flaw, it's how it depersonalizes the enemy while making the Soviet soldiers so individually sympathetic.   But that's almost a given of the genre.  As a film, it is a brilliantly directed war epic, and it definitely deserves consideration for the final five.   *** 1/2

I know I'm in trouble when the director introduces a film with the words "magical realism".  Almost certainly I'm going to reject that part of the narrative.  In this case we have a sort of New England supernatural western set in the '30s about a family of Depression spawned whiskey smugglers of decidedly mixed heritage.   The film has occasional moments, and the cast (including Kris Kristofferson, Genevieve Bujold, Gary Farmer, Luthaire Bluteau and young Charlie McDermott) tries hard, even if almost universally they're poorly directed.  Actually the director in Q&A offered some guidance to understanding the film; but all in all it still was a mess.   ** 1/4

UNDER THE ICE (d. Aelrun Goette)
In sharp contrast to Disappearances, this was a superbly directed and acted film.  The title may be the German equivalent of the metaphor of sweeping something bad "under the rug", and the corrosive effects that such has on an ordinary family.  The director in Q&A said that among her influences were Michael Haneke's films and Ang Lee's Ice Storm.  Certainly there are similarities; but Goette has a sensitivity to her story and the actors (especially amazing kid actor Adrian Wahlen) that is all her own.  *** 1/2

THE DEAD GIRL (d. Karen Moncrieff)
Moncrieff showed in Blue Car that she has a talent for directing actors, and with this film it pays off.  Basically a serial killer thriller, the story of the dead girl found in the hills around L.A. is told in five separate vignettes which come together to make a fully realized narrative.  The acting throughout is outstanding, especially Mary Beth Hurt as the killer's wife and Brittany Murphy at her best in victim mode.  The film doesn't focus on efforts to catch the serial killer; rather it delves deeply into the lives of the people, especially five troubled women who are connected, even tenuously, with this particular killing.  It somehow reminded me of Bruno Dumont, especially L'humanite, with its unsparing camera and concentration on the interior life of its characters.  *** 1/4

FOUR MINUTES (d. Chris Kraus)
There must be something in the Zeitgeist, for I've now seen three films in the space of a couple of weeks about young, transgressive musical geniuses.  They're all superb, and this one may have suffered a bit from its similarity to Vitus and Maroa; but in its own way is just as effective as they were.  *** 1/4

(d. Murali K. Thalluri)
This is another high-school-is-hell story, this time from Australia.  Unlike, for instance, Van Sant's 
Elephant, or the outstanding unreleased American film, The Standard, we're not going into the realm of mass shoot-ups.  Rather, this is a much more subtle story of individuals who are suffering variously from adolescent problems.  No parents here, only troubled teens.  Apparently this film stems from the director's own life experience (the director failed to show for Q&A after my screening, so I'm not certain).  For a first film it is astonishingly well made, with a fine, inventive script which combines big-head docu like B&W closeup interviews with some beautifully photographed realistically staged scenes which bring the high-school milieu to life.  I loved the way that certain scenes repeated themselves from different point-of-views.  This is a director to watch!  *** 1/2

I am not going to waste much time deconstructing this superficial and weird film about suicides in a narrative invention type of limbo world.  The cast is good, especially a game Patrick Fugit in the lead.  But the film is boring, looks terrible and altogether fails in its intention to be a wacky, romantic black comedy (at least that's what I think it intended to be.)  * 3/4

(d. Matt Bissonnette)
I love this film, about two best friends (Lukas Haas, all grown up, and Adam Scott) who five years before had fallen out over Scott's affair with Haas's wife (played by the luminous Molly Parker, real-life wife of the director).  It all works, thanks to some fine acting and a particularly insightful, literate and adult script.   Also the film looks great, taking full advantage of its gorgeous north Manitoba Lake Of The Woods setting.  *** 1/2

BROKEN (d. Alan White)
It's difficult to describe this film in few words.  On one level it's a bitter-sweet love story about two damaged heroin addicts (Heather Graham and Jeremy Sisto, in his usual charismatic nut mode).  On another level it's the familiar story of a seedy, late night diner of which the various broken patrons tell their stories before all hell breaks loose.  The film is a little unclear about what is real and what is not.  Ultimately for me it didn't hold together, even with some admirable acting (including one of my favorites, Michael Goorjian).  ** 1/4

FAMILY TIES  (d. Kim Tae-yang)
The title is ironic...three stories of atomized Korean families hardly tied together at all.  Not much to say about it except it was watchable, if forgettable.  ** 1/2

COME EARLY MORNING (d. Joey Lauren Adams)
A nice script about a strong, if screwed up woman (Ashley Judd) who goes from one drunken pick-up to another until she encounters a good man (Jeffrey Donovan, so wonderful in the tv series "Touching Evil").  Writer-director Adams proves to be a good director of actors.  Nothing spectacular here, just a good American indie.  ***

12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST  (d. Camelia Porumboiu)
Why this did so well at Cannes is a mystery to me.  It's a rather unfunny comedy about a current day tv talk show interview with some guy who claimed to have been part of the revolt in his provincial town which deposed Ceausescu in 1989.  There's a certain dead pan irony which drenches the script; but it was all too dry and obscure for me.  **

VENUS  (d. Roger Michell)
Michell joins again with his scriptwriter from the sublime The Mother, Hanif Kureishi, to produce a well tuned story of old age reinvigorated by youth.  Peter O'Toole and Leslie Phillips are marvelous as old theatrical warhorses in thrall to a young girl.  It's all a little over the top and obvious; but with the actors' inventiveness, a literate script and a director who knows how to put it all together, the film is a delight to watch.    *** 1/4

BEAUTIFUL OHIO  (d. Chad Lowe)
Based on an Ethan Canin novel about an unconventional family in the '70s, the film has a fine cast, especially William Hurt and Rita Wilson as the parents.  But the adolescent kids were weak, I thought, and the direction unfocused and flat.  ** 3/4

(d. Leo Kittikorn; Thailand)
Thailand's Academy foreign submission is a weird thriller about a young man who has hallucinatory experiences of future events.  Unfortunately badly acted, with a script which was either incomprehensible or out of my league.  I gave it 70 minutes and finally had to bail.   *

AVENUE MONTAIGNE (Fauteuils d'orchestra)  (d. Daniele Thompson; France) +
I had seen this film last April; but it's so much my cup of tea that I wanted to see it again.   It's a romantic comedy melodrama about the happenings of a group of people centered around a bistro in the upscale theater/hotel district of Paris on the Ave. Montaigne.  It all culminates in one grand evening where a concert featuring Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, opening night of a Feydeau farce, and a huge art auction of a famous collector's modern artworks are all happening simultaneously.  The actors are all wonderful, especially Cecile de France, the perfect French gamine; Valerie Lemercier doing a wonderful comic turn and the director's son and co-writer of the piece, Christopher Thompson.  But in actuality this is an ensemble piece, and it's perfectly tuned to a wonderfully involving script.  *** 1/2

TOMORROW MORNING (Sutra ujutro)  (d. Oleg Novkovic; Serbia)
An American expat returns to Belgrade to get married after 15 years exile to find his best friend and old girlfriend conveniently still around.  They carouse endlessly and drink gallons of vodka.  Something must have happened; but it all was rather disjointed. * 3/4

THE BOTHERSOME MAN (Den Brysomme Mannen)
(d. Per Schreiner)
A man commits  suicide and finds himself in a weird limbo.  The film is visually inventive, stark exteriors and cityscapes.  It's all done very low-key, with strange occurrences happening as if they were ordinary events.   I felt echoes from other Scandinavian films, notably Songs from the Second Floor  for its surrealist feeling, and Kitchen Stories, for its dead-pan humor.  And strangely enough, it has a very similar plot to a terrible American indie also in this festival, Wristcutters: a Love Story; only the Norwegian film is infinitely superior.  *** 1/4

OUR LAND (La Terra)  (d. Sergio Rubini)
This is an intimate old-fashioned epic melodrama about a southern Italian town and the passions that are ignited by the money troubles of a large landowning family.  It's gorgeous to look at, with truly spectacularly good wide-screen cinematography.  Rubini is obviously channeling Fellini, with some Tornatore and Visconti thrown in.  In other words:  it's filmic, emotionally over-the-top,  and entertaining.  *** 1/4

(d. Jasmila Zbanic; Bosnia & Herzegovina)
The consequences of a terrible war told in the reflective story of a Serajevo woman struggling to raise her fatherless, rebellious teen-age daughter several years after the war's conclusion.  The bleak, wintry cityscape is strangely beautiful - and the story, while not personally emotionally resonant for most of the film, had a powerful conclusion which knocked my socks off.   Possibly a contender.  *** 1/4

THE LIVES OF OTHERS (d. Florian Henckel von Donnersmark; Germany)
This is an incredibly nuanced look at the East German secret police in the era just before the fall of the Wall from the point of view of a committed, but increasingly disillusioned Stassi Captain.  Subtle, insightful, reflective, powerful, with a great central performance by Ulrich Muhe whose eyes conveyed all the tortures of his soul.  It's a serious look at the same era that was so interesting in Goodbye, Lenin, Goodbye.  And this one just might take the whole enchilada.  *** 3/4

(d. Jesper Ganslandt; Sweden)
I was warned against this film by friends who saw it at Toronto or AFI festivals; but it wasn't nearly as bad as they all claimed.  It's the story of five young guys who grew up together, spending their summers in the seaside village of Falkenberg.  In the present, they're sort of slacker types, at the cusp of manhood, but variously lost.  The film is rather aimless and lacks clear focus or narrative, sort of scripted anarchy, a little like life itself.  I couldn't understand the psychology behind the central event, so in that sense the film failed.  But as a document of a time and place it sort of worked.   The audience reaction was pretty dismal, however.  Not an easy film to watch.  **

AMERICAN VISA (d. Juan Carlos Valdivia; Bolivia)
The misadventures of a Bolivian man trying desperately to obtain a visa to join his son in Miami.   It's well made, an audience pleaser which combines features of comedy and thriller; but lacks gravitas in this field.   ** 3/4

(d. Rodrigo Triana; Columbia)
Columbia's film this year is an entertaining, "based on a true story" triviality about a squad of soldiers who happen upon a stash of drug money hidden in the jungle. The film becomes a cautionary moral tale of the consequences of money and greed.  It's competent filmmaking, almost up to Hollywood standards.  But as such, it doesn't have much artistic merit in this competition.  ** 1/4

AFTER THE WEDDING (d. Susanne Bier; Denmark)
Bier is working in the same league as such Scandinavian films as Vinterberg's Festen, Bergman's Saraband and Kormakur's The Sea:  the bring-down of the strong pater familias of a wealthy family.  The film has two strong and contrasting male leads:  the charismatic, stoic Mads Mikkelsen (who is having a banner film year) and Rolf Lassgard, playing a larger-than-life billionaire with the passion of a lion brought to bay.  Bier is a world-class filmmaker (c.f. her underrated masterpiece, Brothers, also a tale of two men in unconventional conflict over a woman), and this film deserves a place in the finals.  *** 1/2

(d. Matías Bize; Chile)
This is entirely a two-actor piece about a one-night stand taking place in a sex motel in Chile.   The title can be translated as "In Bed"; which is basically the entire scenario...the camera never leaves the vicinity of the bed.  The sex scenes are steamy, although unlike similar films such as 9 Songs and Intimacy, it stays this side of overt tumescence.  More than anything, it reminded me of an obscure Australian film, Jonathan Teplitzky's Better than Sex, which was also about strangers who bond in the afterglow of satisfying sex.  The actors, Gonzalo Valenzuela and Blanca Lewis are very attractive and quite convincing in both their sex and dialog scenes.  This film has to be an underdog in this competition; but I found it quite well done and illuminating.  *** 1/4

BOSTA (d. Philippe Aractingi; Lebanon)
This is a Bollywood type musical Lebanese style.  It concerns a troupe of modern day traditional dancers who tour the country by bus.  Frankly, I couldn't connect with the story because I don't have a clue about the history and cultural import of the dance.  * 1/2

(d. Marco Martins; Portugal)
This is a serious downer film about a couple who have lost track of their four year old daughter...we're not sure how, whether she was stolen, kidnapped, or what.  The father is obsessed with finding her, going to extremes of handing out circulars and setting up video cameras all over Lisbon.  The mother is desperately depressed.  It's a moody, dark film...but well acted.  ** 3/4

LUNACY (d. Jan Svankmajer; Czech Republic)
In the past, I've avoided Svankmajer's films since I know myself; and his particular brand of animated craziness just isn't my cup of tea.  This film did nothing to disabuse me from my prejudice.  After an hour of anachronistic lunacy (according to the director's prequel at the start of the film, it  is supposedly a combination of Poe and De Sade) and clever, but pointless stop motion shots of marching slabs of meat, I couldn't take any more.  Svankmajer is obviously a unique visualist; but he's just not for me.  * 3/4

(d. Szabolcs Hajdu; Hungary)
Second time around this film just looks better and better.  It's the story of a Hungarian gymnast in two intercut time frames:  his training as a boy in Communist Hungary under a martinet, sadistic teacher; and his own career 20 years later as a teacher to a Canadian gymnast.  What I found particularly outstanding in this film was the editing of the two stories, how integral to the plot and organic it seemed (although I've read that the original script called for a linear schema, this is one film which was enhanced tremendously in the editing room).   The director went for outstanding athletes rather than experienced actors, and the audacious gamble paid off.  The authenticity showed, and the amateur actors were all amazingly fine.  *** 1/4

THE GOLDEN DOOR (Nuovomondo) (d. Emanuele Crialese; Italy)
This is a film about a scrabble poor Southern Italian family and their trek to emigrate to the United States around the turn of the 20th Century.  It's made in a spare, but visually interesting style by a director with a great eye for details.   I found the first half of the film (the preparation for the journey and the journey itself) to be overlong and underwritten.  But once the action reached Ellis Island the film found its emotional center.  I don't recall ever watching a more seemingly realistic portrayal of what happened at Ellis Island...it resonated strongly with me as I pondered my own great-grand and grandparents and what they must have experienced.   Crialesee, who from this film and his previous even better film, Respiro,  is a director to watch:  a visualist like Fellini without the grotesques, a storyteller like Tornatore without the sappiness.  ***

RETRIEVAL (Z Odzyksku) (d. Slawomir Fabiciki; Poland)
Right from the start I was sucked into this unpleasant story of a young Polish man who sells his soul to a loan shark gangster to support his older girlfriend, a paperless refugee from the Ukraine, and her young son.  Part of it was the innate charisma of the lead actor, Antoni Pawlicki, who couldn't help but be sympathetic no matter how heinous his actions.  But mostly this was just a well written, well directed film, a realistic look at modern day life in post-Communist Poland.  *** 1/4

TEN CANOES (d. Rolf de Heer; Australia)
A narrator is telling a story with a moral about Australian aborigines in time past.  It isn't enough to just show that story; but the film has a complex scheme of making the old story be one that is told by a later generation's story teller in flashback.   The film looked great, with the two stories being intercut, the older story in color, the more recent in black and white.  I found the narrative device to be cumbersome; and I wasn't emotionally involved with either story.  I'm sure that others liked the film better than I did from the audience reaction.  ** 1/2

THE WEDDING CHEST (d. Nurbek Egen; Kyrgyzstan)
Cultures clash as prodigal Kyrgyzstani man returns to his mountain village from his self-imposed exile in Paris with his French girlfriend.  The film has a pleasant enough story and the scenery is ravishingly beautiful.  Natacha Régnier is luminous in an underwritten role.  Some foreign language films just cast a spell with their insights into an alien environment, in this case a fully developed, hermetic agrarian culture; but also fully of the 21st century.  ***

MONKEYS IN WINTER (d. Milena Andonova; Bulgaria)
Three intercut stories of three different women spaced 20 years apart.  I couldn't grasp the connections within the 70 minutes (out of 111 minutes) that I gave the film before my utter lack of involvement with any of the stories made me walk.  The film wasn't all that bad, mind you; just not my cup of tea.  **

(d. Marwan Hamed; Egypt)
A sprawling, soap opera of a movie about a group of people inhabiting a beautiful Cairo building which has a storied elegant past but currently houses a cross-section of society.  The acting was quite good, especially Adel Imam as an elderly Pasha who is both foolish and wise.  What keeps this always interesting 3 hour film from being really fine is a tendency to overdoing the histrionics and an annoyingly clichéd gay subplot.  ** 3/4

(d. Ng Quang Hai; Vietnam)
A slice of life story among the agrarian mountain folk of Vietnam about a family with two mothers.  The rhythms are slow, which seems to be a regular thing with Vietnamese films of late.  But the accumulation of detail, the gorgeous photography and subtle acting lift this film to one that I admire.  I don't think it will make the semi-finals; but it is a fine film.  ***

THE MOROCCAN SYMPHONY (d. Kamal Kamal; Morocco)
This is the third film I've watched recently about poor people getting together to make an orchestra.  And by far the least successful since, unlike Maroa, for instance, it lacked a coherent focus.  Not much more to add except that the acting was quite uneven and I stuck it out to the end even though I was not engaged by the film at all.  * 3/4

(d. Daniel Burman; Argentina)
Burman's story of the interconnections of three generations of fathers and sons struck a chord with me.  Daniel Handler proves once again he's one of world cinema's most charismatic actors.   I'm hoping that this one makes the final 9, at least, although the treatment is probably too personalized and lacking gravitas to appeal to the committee as much as it did to me.  *** 1/2

DAYS OF GLORY (d. Rachid Bouchareb; Algeria)
A politically charged film about a platoon of Algerians who served without due appreciation at the time in the French liberation army of World War II.  The war footage, especially the culminating siege of a small town in Alsace, is quite effective, if slightly unlikely.  There are elements here of Private Ryan, and even though this film isn't quite up to that in production value it does pack an emotional wallop.  I only wish that I cared more for the characters.  ***

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (d. Clint Eastwood, USA)
In a just world this film would be the U.S. entry to the foreign language Oscar competition.  As such it would certainly make the final five, and probably - make that deservedly - win.   At least considering all the films I've watched so far.  This is Eastwood's magnum opus, the film that finally shows that the emotional passion of such films as $Million Baby & Madison County is matched by his mastery of the form, which frankly has tended to overly simplified mis en scène up to now.   I don't think that I've seen a better anti-war film than this, at least since All Quiet on the Western Front, which means ever.  This year's Russian film matches it in the technical competence of handling a war film; but it doesn't come near to having the emotional impact.  And just compare the subtlety of the current day book-ends with the clunky stuff that Spielberg throws at the viewer in Ryan and Schindler.  I swear this is a perfect film...I wouldn't add or subtract a single frame. ****

BASAIN (Migration)
(d. Subash Prasad Gajurel; Nepal)
This film is about a Nepalese farming family in disparate financial shape.  According to the supplied synopsis, the family is forced to migrate from the idyllic valley of their farm; but I felt compelled to bail after 50 minutes and before the migration started.  Unfortunately the subtitles were so badly written as to make the film literally unwatchable.  It would be churlish and unproductive to criticize the film any more than that.  Anyway, the film looked good, and the actors were all attractive, especially the women.  W/O no rating. 

(d. Ragnar Bragason; Iceland)
Icelandic films often mirror emotionally the bleak rigors of the environment.   Shot digitally, in B&W, this film makes no effort to spare the sensibilities of the audience.  The "children" here are from three dysfunctional families...some of them grown-ups.  One character is a schizophrenic psychopath, another a violent sociopath.  The only real child, fighting to remain not screwed up, is son of one and only friend to the other.  Bragason has made a very powerful film: violent, truthful, and ultimately redeeming in a strange way.  The film was probably too controversial for this committee; but for my money it was a gem and I can't wait to see what Bragason comes up with next.  *** 1/2

BLACK BOOK (d. Paul Verhoeven;  Netherlands)
Verhoeven is a great director, especially when he's working in Dutch (his Hollywood films have been a mixed bag, to be sure.)  Here he's working in Hollywood mode, though with some of his Euro sensibility intact.  This is a "based on a true story", wide screen epic of WWII, towards the end of the war in the Netherlands.  Carice van Houten is luminous as a young Jewish woman whose responsibilities in the Underground included falling for a Gestapo officer who turns out to be sympathetic in the "end game".   Slick, very Hollywood in its production values, the film just seemed too contrived and morally ambiguous to arouse my unstinting respect.  I think it went over well with this audience; but I've seen better films here. ***

(d. Dror Shaul; Israel)
The Israeli film was apparently largely about the director's own experiences as a 13 year old on a kibbutz in the 1970s.  In many ways it's an indictment of the kibbutz life:  the boy's mother was depressed and disenchanted by her life, but didn't have the wherewithal to quit.  I tend to react strongly to coming-of-age stories of this type, and this film filled the bill in spades:  beautifully photographed, well written and acted.   Certainly one of my favorites of the competition, but unfortunately a long shot to get a nomination.  *** 1/2

LOVE FOR SHARE (d. Nia Dinata; Indonesia)
After the emotionally shattering experience of the Israeli film, I just couldn't stay to watch the Indonesian film about the plight of three women in polygamous marriages.  I always feel guilty when I miss one of these films.  So I'm going to watch it at the Palm Springs film fest on Friday morning if I can get into the sold-out screening!

CHARITON'S CHOIR (d. Grigoris Karantinakis; Greece)
There have been several films this past year about rural communities forming choirs, and this one is the most earthy, but also the least interesting for me.  Hariton is a principal of a Greek school in the time of the repressive Colonels regime.  The film is annoyingly narrated by one of his students who is constantly talking to the camera in asides.  This is a case where the politics which would make sense of the film are just too obscure to follow for a foreigner not steeped in the knowledge of the time.  Just not my cuppa.  * 3/4

THE WAY I SPENT THE END OF THE WORLD (d. Catalin Mitulescu; Romania)
This one is a film about a family in Romania around the time of the fall of Ceausescu.  It centers around a rebellious young boy and his older sister chafing against the system.  The film was very involving, but often confusing about the political implications.  Events which must be as clear to a Romanian as our 9/11 is to us (since they lived through them) are a lot more obscure to an American not conversant with the events.  Too bad, because it took me out of the narrative which was otherwise quite touching.  ** 3/4

CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (d. Zhang Yimou; China)
Zhang may be the most artful director in the history of film.  He's in full Chinese "legend" mode here, with a huge wide screen epic of the titanic intrigues in the 10th century emperor's court.  Three sons, the emperor and empress are all in conflict and the cast of thousands of digitally created extras are monumentally embattled.  It sounds confusing; but at the same time it is one of the clearest narratives of the recent spate of Chinese epics from Zhang himself and Ang Lee, for example.  All the technical aspects, cinematography, art direction, sets, costumes etc. are first rate.  Chow Yun Fat and Gong Lee are especially outstanding as the Emperor and Empress.  Yet for all its amazing qualities, there's something missing at the emotional core.  Maybe it's all just too much of a good thing.  ***

AURORA (d. Oxana Bayrak; Ukraine)
Aurora was a young girl with ambitions to be a ballet dancer who is exposed to a radiation overdose at Chernobyl and is sent to a hospital in Los Angeles where she befriends a famous, if irascible and unlikable, Russian expat ballet artist.  The actress (Anastasia Zurkalova) playing Aurora has extraordinary eyes, and her plight is supposed to be heartbreaking.  But cynical ol' me just found the film, for all its fine production values, too manipulative.  Still, the money shot which ends the film got to me, and probably gets to everybody who watches this film.   ** 1/2

(d. Sergei Bodrov; Kazakhstan)
I've seen a lot of films which basically are national epics with sweeping action, and this one ranks high among them.  It's the story of an 18th Century Kazakhstan Khan who united the people against a powerful enemy to fulfill a prophecy.  The story follows familiar paths, but the execution is magnificent.  Yes, maybe it helps that such familiar actors as Kuno Becker (the charismatic Mexican lead actor in last year's Goal!  who has the acting chops in addition to amazing athleticism) and Jay Hernandez, budding Hollywood latino star, play the leads.  Honestly, the dubbing into Kazakhstani was so good that I didn't even realize that the actors were anglophones until I read the cast list after the film was over.  I sure hope that they don't make the mistake of going with English dialog when the film is released in the U.S.  In any case, fantastic cinematography, effective use of literally a "cast of thousands" with not a digital image in sight, and truly inspired mis en scène by Bodrov who just gets better and better as a director, and this one is a keeper.  I hope it makes the final five because it deserves to be seen.  *** 1/2

THE BANQUET (d. Feng Xiaogang; Hong Kong)
This is another in a long series of recent films which are huge martial arts epics of Chinese history.  Wide screen, gorgeous photography, lots of wire work fighting which has become a cliché in the genre and becomes tiresomely repetitious over the course of the film's long 131 minutes.   After 3 minutes I realized this was going to be an 11th Century Chinese version of Hamlet.  As such it wasn't bad, exactly, just predictable.  I found the acting rather mannered, and even Ziyi Zhang in the Gertrude role played it as if only half her heart was in it.  The director's idea of acting was to have his principals speak every line slowly and portentiously, which got tired fast.  There's much to be admired visually, but in every aspect it just wasn't as interesting as the recent films of Zhang Yimou or Ang Lee.  ** 1/4

DREAMS (d. Mohamed Al-Daradji; Iraq)
Once again my personal life got in the way and I decided, probably to my regret, to skip this screening. 

(d. Veljko Bulajic; Croatia)
In the 16th century Dubrovnik was a city state Republic which according to this film was ruled by oppressive autocrats.  Marin Drzic was a playwrite and comedy player who was persecuted by the government and forced to flee to Florence and Venice.  With that background we're given a rather dark historical romance about Marin's fate.  He is remembered as a Croatian hero.  I just couldn't connect with this film.  ** 1/4

FOREVER FLOWS (d. Abu Sayeed; Bangladesh)
Based on a sob-sister novel, this melodrama about a good prostitute and her family was competently acted, overcoming a tendency by the director for long, static reaction shots.   Lots of heart tugging scenes which just didn't work to involve me.  **

(d. Edgard Nevarro)
This is a memoire of a Brazilian boy from a bourgeois rural Bahian family.  It reminded me of a straight, less arty version of Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives, also a film I didn't particularly like.  I Remember was earthy and sexually explicit and occasionally visually inventive.  It worked for about half its length when the film was an insightful look at childhood; but maybe because I could find little to admire or relate to in the character's life as he grew up, I found the last half of the film hard to take, fighting the urge to fall asleep.  **

PRAGUE (d. Ole Christian Madsen)
Mats Mikkleson has never been better than here, playing a Danish lawyer who travels to Prague with his wife of 14 years to claim the body of his estranged father who dropped out of his life when he was 13.  Slowly, like peeling the layers of an onion, he discovers things about his life, his relationship with his wife and his father's life. This strikingly beautiful, deeply felt and quite adult film worked for me at every level.   *** 1/2
CECILIE (d. Hans Fabian Wullenweber)
Cecilie is a woman who starts to see and hear strange, unimaginable things relating to a murder which happened around the time she was born.  This isn't exactly a ghost story, nor a horror slasher flick, rather something which combines genres.  It's slickly made in wide screen, with subtle acting and suspenseful music.  It was satisfying to a degree, but really not that much more than a blown-up television show like "Medium".  ** 3/4

SALVADOR (d. Manuel Huerga)
Salvador Puig apparently was a real person, a Catalan student who fell afoul of the Franco regime in the early 70's.  Not precisely an innocent since he was a member of a radical gang which robbed banks to support their revolutionary activities.  But as portrayed by Daniel Brüel, an infinitly appealing, idealistic martyr to freedom.  The film is quite powerful, especially the last half when Salvador is in prison.  But the first half is rather sloppy filmmaking, juicing up the action confusingly with fast cuts.  ***

LOVE FOR SHARE (d. Nia Dinata; Indonesia)
I did end up watching this film finally at the Palm Springs fesival, and I'm glad I did.  It's three slightly interconnected stories about three different arrangements of polygamous marriage in Indonesia, where the practice is accepted under Moslem law.  One is a story about a wealthy politician who separates his wives, another about a movie driver who has all his wives and many children living under the same roof.  The last is a restaurant owner who is not moslem, and his relationship is bigamous.  The film is well made, the issue interesting (though I didn't find it particularly relevant to me, rather like the similar HBO series "Big Love", which I quit watching after a few episodes.)  ** 3/4

PINGPONG (d. Matthias Luthardt)
A teenage boy who has recently lost his father runs away to stay with his uncle's family and wrecks havoc with that family's dynamic.  It isn't as extreme as Pasolini's Teorema or as violent as the more recent film The King, two films with similar plots.  Rather, with subtlety and for a young, first time director quite a distinctive eye, it managed to limn an upper middle class German family as well as I've seen.  *** 1/4

SALTY AIR (d. Alessandro Angelini)
This is an excellent film about the relationship of a son with his estranged father, a convicted murderer serving a 30 year sentence.  Giorgio Pasotti is outstanding in the role of the son, who is serving as councellor at the prison when he realizes that the gangster he is supervising is his father.  Emotionally affecting, the film rang true and just got to me.  *** 1/2

A VERY SERIOUS PERSON (d. Charles Busch)
Here Charles Busch changes his screen persona to a emotionally zipped up, gay home care nurse to a dying woman (subtlely played by Polly Bergan, in grande dame mode.)  The woman's 11 year old grandson (a luminous performance by young P.J. Verhoest) is a proto-gay, and the film plays as a coming of age story for the boy.  The film has problems in tone, there's occasionally something uncomfortable about the relationship between the boy and man.  But ultimately the film resolved satisfyingly, at least for me.  ** 3/4

Sigh.  I'm not even sure how to talk about this film.  Anyway, Tom Long plays a hot modern dancer who is kidnapped and sexually abused by three gorgeous women.  If that isn't a recipe for mixed reaction from me, I don't know what would be.  Honestly, it isn't a very good film; but I enjoyed itChalk it up to my own perversity.  ***

(d. Arni Olafur Asgersson)
This outstanding and involving Icelandic drama was about a man who discovers that his assumptions about his happy family life were wrong, pushing him off the rail.  Disparing and ultimately affirming.  Not a perfect film, but beautifully acted. *** 1/4

THE MAN EXPOSED (d. Aku Louhimies)
A film from Finland about a, shall we say, unconventional minister who has a crisis of faith when he is proposed for Bishop.  The film is sort of a satire, it reminded me slightly of last year's Adam's Apples.  But it was not nearly as well made as that film.  ** 3/4

MATTI (d. Aleksi Mäkelä)
Matti was "The Flying Finn", Olympic ski jumping champion and general all around screw-up in real life.  This wasn't a pretty story and went on and on with the disolution of a hero into alcoholism and terrible relationships.  Jasper Pääkkönen was quite good in the lead role, however.  ** 1/4

REPRISE (d. Joachim Trier; Norway)
Norway's Academy submission was an outstanding, original effort about two young novelists and their struggles.  I was especially impressed by the actor Anders Danielsen Lie, who played a mentally ill writer destroyed by success.  Fine script, excellent direction.  All in all one of my favorite films of the comptition.  *** 1/2

ICE CREAM, I SCREAM (d. Yüksel Aksu; Turkey)
The "ice cream" refers to the lead character's job as an ice cream maker and vendor.  The "I scream" refers to the film's annoying contrivance of having all the dialog screamed by the actors.  It was so annoying that I walked out after an hour...but I saw enough to know that this was just not a good film.  * 1/4

THE GIRL IS MINE (d. Virginie Wagon)

BLACK IRISH (d. Brad Gann)
It's no secret that I think Michael Angarano is just about the best actor of his generation.  He shines here, in this touching story of the good son struggling to come of age in an American-Irish family of variously damaged members.  There's nothing very original here; but the sum total is a very satisfying family drama.  *** 1/4

URO (d. Stefan Faldbakken)
ALONG THE RIDGE (d. Kim Rossi Stuart)
*** 1/2

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