2006 Seattle International Film Festival Journal

May 8, 2006:  I'm in Seattle a week earlier than last year, for 2 1/2 weeks of press screenings (plus the "members only preview") leading up to the start of the festival on May 25th.  My trip by auto north from L.A. was uneventful, except for a visibility obscuring downpour on the far northern leg of the journey.  Fortunately that didn't prevent me from arriving in Seattle right on time...and now I'm comfortably situated in my friend Dave's basement apartment on Beacon Hill for the six weeks I'll be here - ready, willing and able for my yearly total immersion in film.  This year, having given Comcast cable the boot as my ISP, I have dial-up internet at my home-away-from-home, which should greatly aid my writing these journal entries.  Anyway, on with the show!

All film ratings are based on **** being best.

(d. Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon & Bruno Romy; Belgium)
A French-Belgian comedy about a woman whose brush with death makes her reassess her life.  The film is a solid progression of effective sight gags and deadpan physical comedy somewhat reminiscent of Tati or even more tellingly, Buster Keaton.  It looks very cool, lots of bright colors and a hip design sense; but this sort of comedy just isn't my cuppa, though I have to admit I laughed out loud a few times. ** 1/2

HALF NELSON (d. Ron Fleck; U.S.)
Ryan Gosling is probably my favorite actor of his generation, sort of a younger Edward Norton with non- good looks, enormous acting chops, and a dedication to the integrity of his roles.  Ever since this film debuted at Sundance, I've been anxiously awaiting my chance to watch it.  And I certainly wasn't disappointed.  Fleck is a director in the same school of American indie, social commentator-minimalists as David Gordon Green; and this film has a slight thematic resemblance to George Washington, with similar pacing and elliptical character development; although the directors are quite different in their visual style.  Gosling etches another memorable performance as a young inner-city high school history teacher who is battling his inner demons.  Maybe the script oversimplifies things a bit:  the classroom scenes are not very convincing, and some of the characters' motivations seem weak.  Still, this is an admirable effort.  *** 1/4

PUSHER (d. Nicolas Winding Refn; Denmark)
Kitchen sink miserablism about the lives of drug pushers in Copenhagen with lots of internecine violence between various factions in the drug underworld.  This is the first of a trilogy which I'm dedicated to watching this week.  I found some of the violence off-putting, and none of the characters or actors particularly interested me.  Still, this is strong stuff...I'm reminded of  part one of Lucas Belvaux's Trilogy, though it remains to be seen if this trilogy is as inventive formwise as that one was.  ** 3/4

ALLEGRO (d. Christoffer Boe; Denmark)
Boe's previous film Reconstruction was as arty and pretentious a film as they come.  This film almost surpasses that.  The ubiquitous and always excellent Ulrich Thomsen plays a professional pianist who loses control of his life's history in the mysterious "Zone", a few square blocks of Copenhagen which is off limits to ordinary people.  If this sounds unlikely and unfathomable, well...it is.  I think I "zoned" out myself for part of this film because I have absolutely no idea what it was all about.  Give it points for technical mastery and subtract gobs of points for an overly enigmatic script.  **

SKETCHES OF FRANK GEHRY (d. Sydney Pollack; documentary U.S.)
Documentary films about architects are inherently interesting since the artform is essentially visual (a case in point is the exquisite docu about Louis Kahn by his son which played at SIFF a couple of years ago).  This is Pollack's self-described first documentary; and Gehry, arguably the greatest, certainly the most famous, architect of the present day is a good friend of his.  Pollack does a good job of shooting and organizing a film comprised of illuminating interviews with Gehry (né Goldberg) and others, showing his unconventional collaborative working methods and beautifully showcasing the buildings he has created.  All in all an interesting documentary about an important and polarizing artist.  ***

PUSHER II (d. Nicolas Winding Refn; Denmark)
Part One was a hyperviolent noir about Frank, a petty drug pusher who got into debt to his Serbian connection and beat up his friend Tonny half to death.  Part Two is Tonny's story after he is released from prison some time after Part One.  For me it was a considerably better film:  tighter, more involving...probably because Mads Mikkelsen, who plays slightly retarded Tonny with repressed rage, is such an extraordinary presence.  With Part Two, the saga begins to approach epic noir, with echoes of the same sort of moral dilemmas that the Dardenne Brothers present, especially in the recent Palm D'Or winner, L'Enfant.  I'm fully engaged now, and anxious to watch the conclusion.  *** 1/4

Last night SIFF had its members only preview, which I finally got the opportunity to attend since I'm at the festival a week earlier than usual.   We were shown about 10 trailers (I'd already seen four of them, which is a scary proposition) plus the clever animated SIFF marketing campaign trailers for this year.  Then the programmers gave little speeches about the highlights of their specialties.  After all these years I pretty well know to listen closely to Helen Loveridge, since her enthusiasms usually resonate with me (however her rave for Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times is going to test that theory); and mark Maryna Ajaja's favorites for a miss since past experience has shown that she seems to be a reliable counter-example of my tastes in film.  Bottom line: seems that this festival is bigger than ever (418 films, 198 narrative features, 60 documentary features, 15 archival films, 4 secret festival films and 141 shorts).  Also it appears there are going to be many special programs that I'm going to miss in my zeal to catch all the real films that I can fit in.  Anyway, today the festival web page goes up plus the valuable insert in the Seattle Times comes out...I'll finally get some notion of my must-see films for the next 5 weeks.

PRINCESS RACCOON (d. Seijun Suzuki; Japan)
I had managed to miss this film at two previous festivals...somehow, despite the enthusiasm of others, my gut told me that this wasn't going to be my kinda film.  And as usual, my gut was right on target.  It's a retelling of a common legend/fairy tale done as a musical pastiche...about a wicked vain king and his handsome son who falls for an enchanted princess (the luminous as ever Zi-yi Zhang).  The costumes, sets and animation are splendid, if somewhat kitschy.  And the music is quite varied in style (from rock and hip-hop to traditional Japanese folk).  However, the script was all over the place, a little King Lear, a dab of Romeo and Juliet, lots of  Grimm and Andersen, all mixed with Japanese cultural signifiers.  And I was bored.  I'm just not the fairy tale type.  **

ROAD TO GUANTANAMO (d. Michael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross; U.K.)
Winterbottom hitting all cylinders.  This is an absolutely scintillating docudrama about three naive English/Pakistani boys who wander into Afghanistan in late 2001 and get caught in a web which leads them to capture and incarceration by the American marines in Guantanamo.  Winterbottom is one of my favorite directors; I can rely on him to be interesting and innovative...and on occasion absolutely brilliant.  Here he returns to the style of In This World, telling an important and relevant story in realistic, caught-on-the-fly documentary fashion.  Believe me when I say that this sort of film has never been done better than here.  After watching this, I'm not proud to be an American...but then I haven't been ever since the current inhabitant of the White House stole the election in 2000.  This is an almost perfect film.  ****

PUSHER III (d. Nicolas Winding Refn; Denmark)
After all three films have been screened, it's clear that this is a major work in progress.  Each film exists independently, a progression in time from the previous films; but examining a fresh set of characters only tenuously connected to the past groups.  And each film has a subtly different style, although all are distinguished by superb steadycam cinematography and remarkably disparate techno-rock scores by Peterpeter which really set the mood.  Number three is the most grisly of the bunch...as if Gaspar Noé had been turned loose to direct one of the "Sopranos" rub-out episodes.  It's not for the faint of heart or tender of stomach.  In between retches, I absolutely loved this film!  *** 1/4

1:1 (d. Annette K. Olesen; Denmark)
I missed Olesen's films at last year's SIFF (she was an Emerging Master).  Now I'm sorry that I did.  The title here is confusing:  it refers to the architectural plans for the low income "Projects" that were built with green spaces and views to rectify past problems with this sort of housing.  However in the present day, like others of its kind, these Projects have become home to immigrants along with the violence that happens when cultures clash.  This film is a story of a traditional Palestinian  immigrant family, especially the middle son who is having a clandestine affair with a Danish girl.  Sh*t happens.  This isn't a Romeo & Juliet story, however.  Maybe a more telling comparison can be made to Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers, as boxing is the method of choice for this family's upward mobility.  Bottom line is that this is a compelling film about the difficulties that immigrants have in today's Europe.  ***

I'm an Altman fan; but this exercise in nostalgia for radio and vaudeville is definitely minor Altman.  Yes, it has a great cast.  Especially notable are Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as country-singer sisters, and Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as a cowboy singer/comedy act.  The film flies by when they are doing their acts on screen.  But the rest of the film is a tired replay of the final broadcast of the eponymous radio show with a silly mystery appended to fill out the story.  Garrison Keillor wrote the scenario.  I listen to his show on the radio nowadays with occasional appreciation (it isn't necessarily my thing; but it's on all weekend on my favorite NPR station, so I listen).  But at movie length, even with a master like Altman at the helm, it just adds up to nothing much.  ** 1/2

SHANGHAI DREAMS (d. Wang Xiaoshuai; China)
China in one of their cultural revolutions sent certain families out of the big cities to work in provincial factories.  This is the story of one such family, centered on the teenage daughter, which after 10 years of exile longs to return to Shanghai.  It's involving, well shot, directed and acted.  A lot of action takes place in extreme long shot or off screen.  And the story develops slowly.  Maybe too slowly, although the payoff is worthwhile.  ** 3/4

Basically a two person show done almost entirely in split screen.  Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart are superb as once lovers (or maybe once married, the film is ambiguous on the subject) who meet after several years of separation at a wedding.  Filled with sparkling, adult dialog, this is just an enthralling acting tour de force.  I've always liked Aaron Eckhart who has charisma and a certain sly charm to spare.   Cautionary note:  some at the screening seemed to find the split screen tiresome over the course of an entire film.  It never bothered me, although like another film, AKA, it is something of a gimmick which could be 80% eliminated without affecting the film.  *** 1/4

A SOAP (d. Pernille Fischer Christiansen; Denmark)
This is a strange movie about an odd couple relationship between a woman who has left her lover of four years to move into a small apartment and her downstairs neighbor, a younger pre-op transsexual man whose life revolves around American television soap operas.  It's an inherently amusing set-up; but I don't thing the male actor was quite up to the rigors of his role.  That may be unfair since he was touching in the role; but I'm trying to figure out why this film just missed involving me.   ** 3/4

A SIDE, B SIDE, SEA SIDE (d. Wing-Chiu Chan; Hong Kong)
This film has two stories clumsily intertwined by a cute lost kitten who travels between the characters.  The A side story is about four giddy girls attending a camp at a seaside island near Hong Kong to celebrate their graduation from the local equivalent to high school (younger than our graduates, I think.)  There's some charm to this story, the girls are so enthusiastic - if occasionally annoyingly so.  The B side story is of an older girl returning to the island and rekindling a friendship with two boys.  I never got into this story, which seemed gratuitously appended to the original story.  Apparently a lot of the charm of this film depends on a knowledge of the sociology of young people in Hong Kong.  Lots of swimming, wind surfing and beautiful oceanscapes.  But not much to engage this viewer.  ** 1/4

SEVEN SWORDS (d. Tsui Hark)
Tsui Hark, as I'm sure is common knowledge, is the acknowledged master of the Chinese historical martial arts epic film.  Well, I'm here to tell you he's either over the hill or his reputation is bullshit.  Oh, well, this isn't my preferred genre...but I have seen most of the recent films like this that have come out of China, and this one seems strictly amateurville in comparison to, say, The Promise (one of my least favored of the recent bunch).  The story of seven swordspeople (one woman was included, undoubtedly for the sake of some Chinese version of p.c.) who take on an army of ruthless tattooed bounty killers to prevent the annihilation of a village full of good peasants, might have worked if the script had been a little tighter (2 1/2 hours is a killer here).  The look of the film is more scruffy, early Mad Max than the gorgeous epic cinematography we've become accustomed to.  And forget character development, which is virtually non-existent.  Only the editing of some of the fighting sequences puts it in the same league as previous efforts...but even the martial arts stuff seems pale and uninvolving.  A major disappointment.  * 3/4

TWELVE AND HOLDING (d. Michael Cuesta)
I was mixed to positive on Cuesta's first film, L.I.E.; but there was no doubt from that effort that the director had a flair for understanding young people and a fearlessness which promised interesting things to come.  With this film he's living up to that promise in spades.  It starts, of course, with an insightful script...this time a maiden film effort by writer Anthony Cipriano.  He has created a suburban world where three misfit twelve year old kids play out their traumatic youths.  I really felt emotionally involved in this film, alternately laughing and crying with every plot development, no matter how unlikely.  The acting is superb throughout...all the kids and their parents are wonderful, and it's hard to single out anyone in this cast, though I thought that Jeremy Renner and Zoë Weizenbaum were particularly good at tastefully presenting a potentially squicky May-January romantic involvement.  Cuesta is definitely a major talent working the American indie film genre to perfection.  Hopefully he won't sell out his off-center, even dangerous vision for the big studio bux. *** 1/2

Monday was one of the better film days I've had in a while:  three more or less worthwhile films in a row.  If the festival keeps this up it's going to be the best SIFF in years.

QUINCEAÑERA (d. Wash Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer)
A few years ago I attended a midnight retrospective of Wash Westmoreland's gay porno (very arty, high quality) at OUTFEST.  I figured that there was no way he'd be stuck in the porno ghetto for long.  He and Richard Glatzer also co-directed The Fluffer, an ok genre gay film, but which gave no hint that they had such a quality effort in them.   They've definitely hit the bullseye with this American indie film about an Hispanic family living in the Echo Park district of L.A.   Yes, there's a gay subplot...and it is extremely well done with a startlingly strong performance by Jesse Garcia as an mid-20s former gang member who happens to be gay.  But the film belongs to Emily Rios, 14 going on 15 (the eponymous "quinceañera" is a rite of passage for Latina girls when they reach 15, very much like the bat/bar mitzva for Jews).   Involving, moving, nicely played by all...fine, fine script.  It's a winner.  *** 1/4

WORDPLAY (d. Patrick Creadon)
I've seen the trailer about a dozen times; but the film itself just hit my sweet spot.  Maybe because I've been a New York Times crossword puzzle fanatic since college and I could relate!  Beautifully structured and edited documentary...about as good as they come.  *** 3/4

BOY CULTURE (d. Q. Allen Brocka)
The gay film genre is hard to ace.  Brocka made a very funny comedy farce a couple of years ago called Eating Out, and I expected this to be a similar film.  But I was surprised that Brocka attempted a more serious examination of gay life...in this case about a twentysomething male prostitute with issues.  Darek Magyar is quite good in the lead, not a simple task because a lot of the film is done in clunky voice-over stream of consciousnesses narration.  The digital cinematography was dark and dingy and worked against the plot to some degree.  Still, I found myself becoming involved with the characters.  This came close to being a good film.  ** 3/4

A couple of years ago The Corporation blew my mind:  a relevant, beautifully made and important documentary.  This year I can say the same for this film, which blows the lid off of the suppression and extinction of the electric car as a conspiracy of the oil companies, the car companies, the U.S. government and the California Air Regulation Board.  The film brilliantly presents several smoking guns, skillfully melding graphics, original footage and fascinating interviews into a convincing polemic.  It made me angry.  It should be required watching for everybody who drives an automobile.  *** 3/4

THE PROPOSITION (d. John Hillcost)
Based on a true story, this Australian "southern" (their version of the wild west) about the Burns brothers:  outlaws, killers, rapists.  Yet, like the James brothers or Billy the Kid in the American west, they have a certain panache which makes for legend.  Guy Pierce is brilliant as Charlie Burns...the brother with a conscience.  And Ray Winstone is equally brilliant as the army captain hired by this squalid little town to be its lawman.  Winstone is married to Emily Watson, a genteel English lady.  And John Hurt has some wonderful scenery chewing moments in a role that gave me supporting Oscar tingles.  I love little touches in this film, the way a delicate English china tea set and a rose garden rising out of the desert symbolize civilized conduct; and how every important scene takes place in front of a fabulous sunset over the vast wasteland.  But mainly this is a film about violence which doesn't spare the watcher's sensibilities.  Stylish filmmaking, visceral stuff.  ***1/4

CARMEN IN KHAYELITSHA (d. Mark Dornford-May)
There have been no shortage of Carmen based films that I've watched in my lifetime...Carmen Jones, Saura's Carmen etc.  This one takes place in a South African township, and is pretty darn faithful to Bizet's score, although the libretto is in Xhosa and the story is completely modernized and adapted to its milieu.   I have to give credit for the fine cast and singing.  But for me, I just got bored about mid-way into the film.  After all the story was familiar and there was nothing that particularly grabbed me.  However, the lady who played Carmen was quite strong in a totally different way from Dorothy Dandridge, for instance.  ** 1/2

SKI JUMPING PAIRS - ROAD TO TORINO 2006 (d. Mashima Riichiro, Kobayashi Masaki)
This is a Japanese mockumentary which just tickled my funny bone.  It's actually a little silly:  all about the genesis of a ridiculous event in the Winter Olympigs (sic...apparently the actual Olympics wouldn't give permission for the subtitles to be spelled correctly, or something like that).  It's not easy to make me laugh continuously in a movie...I'm not all that easily amused.  But this film was so appealingly screwball.  Nice 3-D animation, too.  *** 1/4

THE ILLUSIONIST (d. Neil Burger)
I could say a lot of nice things about this film:  the look and feel of the era was wonderful:  all sepia toned palette, an authentic, lived-in representation of turn of the last century Austria-Hungary; Edward Norton is his usual outstanding, dedicated actor at work; the special effects were flawless, even magical.  So what if the script, based on a short story, is romantic claptrap.  I loved every minute of it. ***

WAH-WAH (d. Richard E. Grant)
Sometimes a film is just enjoyable without giving me much of a hook to write about.  This is basically a coming of age film, made up from reminiscences from director Richard E. Grant's youth growing up in Swaziland as it was transitioning from British colony to independence.  I've always liked Grant as an actor; and like many actors turned director he has managed to get uniformly good performances from his cast, especially the always remarkable Miranda Richardson (though Emily Watson's American accent is not one of her best career achievements.)  Nicholas Hoult, almost preternaturally beautiful in About a Boy, is an even more striking teenager.  The film sets its time and place well.  It's rather amiable and touching, and sort of bland.  ***

AL FRANKEN: GOD SPOKE (d. Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus; documentary, USA)
I'm the sort of person who gets a sick feeling in my stomach whenever George W. Bush opens his mouth on camera;  and I would love to wipe Ann Coulter's smirk off of her ugly (inside) face.  In other words, I'm exactly the kind of audience that responds positively to a film about liberal satirist and aspiring politician Al Franken.  I'll say no more than that this is an extremely satisfying peek into Franken's life in the period leading up to the 2004 election.  I almost missed this documentary, as I prefer to watch fiction films at a festival...but I had seen every other film in this timeslot.  I'm really glad that I went.  *** 1/4

SANGRE (d. Arnat Escalante; Mexico)
This is a meandering slice-of-life film centered on a terrifyingly middling man - middle age, middle class, caught in the middle between his abusive, sexually demanding second wife and his needy, drug addicted teenage daughter.  The film focuses, perhaps too much, on the little details of his boring life.  Its pacing is dangerously slow (the director reminds me of a Mexican version of Abbas Kiarostami, not a compliment); and the payoff meager, if not downright maddening.  I have absolutely no idea how to process the mysteriously ambiguous ending.  ** 1/4

REQUIEM (d. Hans Christian Schmid; Germany)
I've liked Schmid's films a lot in the past, especially Crazy, which played at SIFF in 2001.  This current film is a German intellectual version of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, focusing more on the sociological rationale for 21 year old epileptic, Michaela, to become possessed, rather than the lurid process of exorcism which an American film would stress.  Sandra Hüller (who oddly enough looks enough like Schmid's previous lead actor Robert Stadlober to be his sister) is just right in the role of Machaela, trying to attend university plagued by her demons.  This is not a pleasant film to watch; but in retrospect one has to give points to Schmid for handling the subject matter with subtlety and grace.  ***

GAMBLER (d. Phie Ambo; documentary Denmark)
I loved the Pusher trilogy - but the director of that series, Nicolas Winding Refn, had a terrible experience:  when the two films he made after 1996's Pusher failed at the box office, he and his producer were forced into bankruptcy.  To get out of debt he took on the (for him) unpleasant task of writing and making the two sequels.  This documentary is a look into his life as he is making the recent films.  A lot of it is about the nitty gritty of film financing from the point of view of a promising director who is under tremendous financial pressure.  The documentary is presented in wide screen; but the cinematography would probably have better supported a smaller format:  it's dark and grainy and very ad hoc.  Sometimes my mind wandered among the somewhat boring details of Refn's difficulties.  But Refn himself is such an attractive presence, such a nice guy, that one can't help but root for him in the film.  I guess it helps that I'd seen and admired the trilogy before watching this film.  I asked Refn (who speaks perfect American English, so probably has an assured eventual career in Hollywood) if he would ever make another Pusher, and he replied with certainty that he wouldn't, although he admitted that he had said the same thing after the original film was made. ** 3/4

CONTAINER (d. Lukas Moodysson)
I'm not even going to attempt to analyze this film.  Moodysson made one of my all-time favorite films, Tillsammans; but here he is in experimental film mode...and for me it was a very difficult film to watch.  I think it was about a woman in the body of a fat, pregnant, male transvestite.  But the B&W film was such a constantly shifting montage of so many different things that nothing much stood out as a narrative thread to follow.  People were exiting the theater while the screening was going on; so I assume I wasn't the only person in the audience turned off by the film.  * 3/4

EXPIRATION DATE (d. Rick Stevenson; USA)
In my experience, made in Seattle films are often simply non-commercial efforts that never see the light of day.  That would be a shame with this film, a black comedy-romance which actually works.  I'm not going to dwell on the story which is clumsily bookended by the explication that it is a modern Amerind legend of sorts, told by an old man to a young runaway Indian boy.  Robert Guthrie plays 24 years + 51 weeks old Charlie Silvercloud III in the legend...whose father and grandfather were both killed by milk trucks on their 25th birthday.  Guthrie is exactly right in the role, giving dry fatalism to maximum effect.  Seattle looks great in this film.  In fact, the digital photography and presentation were quite extraordinary...they've made huge strides in the past few years with digital.  Here it was almost always as clear and vibrant as 35mm film.  I enjoyed this little film a lot.  ***

LITTLE FUGITIVE (d. Joanna Lipper)
I had seen the original '50s film many years ago; so the story of a 7 year old runaway to Coney Island wasn't new.  Maybe that partially explains why the current film didn't involve me as much.  Or maybe it had something to do with the amateur acting of the two kids in the lead roles.  In any case, as involving as the story was, the film just missed for me.  I did like the discursive montages about the history of Coney Island - some shocking visuals which actually worked against the central plot.  ** 1/2

Of course I'm sworn to eternal silence about this near masterpiece by a world class filmmaker.  *** 1/2

EARLY IN THE MORNING (d. Gahité Fofana; Guinea/France)
There's not much to say about this film.  I spent the first quarter of the film trying to guess the country it took place in (I was correct, Guinea in West Africa).  The actual film didn't engage me at all...about two teenage boys who long to escape to Europe and ultimately do so with disastrous (albeit off-screen) consequences.  Meandering and unfocused, at least for me, the film was designed to put me to sleep.  * 3/4

TEXAS (d. Fausto Paravidino; Italy)
I had the exact opposite reaction to this film (from the above film).  This was a film seemingly made on uppers, with a propulsive energy that left me somewhat confused.  It starts out with an extremely fast paced series of scenes presenting its major characters, a group of arrested development, twentysomething rowdies in a small Italian provincial town.  I had trouble digesting all the exposition from the start.  Then the film flashes back three months and we're eventually caught up to the climactic fight which started the film.  Indeed, I never did get it all straightened out...a second viewing is just about mandated to sort out all the relationships.  Still, the sheer energy and brio of the direction made the film work for me.  Plus the film has an attractive cast with the luminous Valeria Golino being the only familiar face.  I'm not sure what the title means, however, other than that the characters admire the heroes of American westerns.  ***

TWO DRIFTERS (Odete) (d. João Pedro Rodrigues; Portugal)
Rodrigues directed the infamous O Fantasma  which scandalized SIFF in 2001.  Fortunately this film represents a huge improvement in the director's narrative skills.  This is the story of Odete, a slightly unhinged girl who works in a supermarket, who becomes convinced that she is pregnant with a tragically dead gay man's baby.  As with the director's previous film, this is a gay genre film, even if the main character is a woman.  The guys are all super attractive and the sex is hot.  This isn't a film for everybody, obviously; but for me it was just a guilty pleasure...fun in a campy way, strangely moving emotionally, and memorable for the zany obsessiveness of the main character.  ** 3/4

RUSSIAN DOLLS (d. Cédric Klapisch)
This is a direct sequel to Klapisch's L'Auberge Espagnole, which played at SIFF in 2003.  Most of the same characters are brought together for a culminating wedding of one of them in St. Petersburg five years after the events of the first film.  Like L'Auberge, this is romantic fluff of the most exalted kind, as only a Frenchman could conceive.  The cast is wonderful, especially Romain Duris, who is in just about every scene, and the English actress Kelly Reilly, who comes into her own in this film.  Klapisch has one shining virtue as a director:  he can romanticize the cities that his stories take place in better than just about any director since Stanley Donan.   Just as Barbarian Invasion made me want to rewatch Decline of the American Empire, I am now anxious to revisit L'Auberge.  This is one sequel that works in resonance with the original film, improving with age.  *** 1/4

I'm taking off Memorial Day afternoon.  It's no big loss since I've seen every single movie in one afternoon slot.  Which leads me to another thought:  starting tomorrow (Tuesday) I'm scheduled to see six movies for three straight days.  In the past I've set for myself an arbitrary limit of five films per day; but I'm really having trouble figuring out which films, if any, to cut.  The real problem of attempting to watch six films is that it doesn't leave me any time or energy to write these little reviews.  So I expect to be a lot sketchier in writing for this journal for the next few days.

COMBAT (d. Patrick Carpentier; Belgium)
I took most of the day off from films (well, I did pay to watch the new X-Men movie).  However, I made the mistake of going to this experimental gay film, which had no real story and not even any particular saving grace eroticism.  However, one of the two shorts that played was pretty good, Hello, Thanks, a clever enough comedy about a shlub who is hooked on using the gay personals.  I walked out of the feature.  Even 57 minutes is too long when nothing interesting is happening.  *

HIDDEN BLADE, THE (d. Yoji Yamada; Japan)
Another sequel, in this case one of my favorite films of 2004, The Twilight Samurai.  Like the previous film it takes place towards the end of the era of shogunates, I'd guess mid-19th century.  It's all about low-level samurais and their quotidian, ordinary lives.  Yamada is up to something interesting:  much like Eastwood in The Unforgiven, which successfully deglamorized the traditional American western, Yamada's films are taking a more realistic, unromanticized look at the Japanese samurai milieu than previous genre films (at least the ones I've watched).  Once again we're presented with a hero (beautifully and understatedly played by Masatoshe Nagase) whose conscience is at odds with the Samurai code and the requirements of his clan.   The feeling of the period is perfectly achieved.  This is a simple story which packs a subtle emotional wallop.  *** 1/2

NO. 2 (d. Toa Fraser)
This is a film about a day in the life of a large, feuding Fijian family living in Aukland, New Zealand.  "No. 2" refers to the house where the materfamias (the wonderful actress Ruby Dee) lives with two of her adult grandchildren.  It's a film about reconciliation, and it spoils nothing to say that it ends with an emotionally satisfying banquet which is as luscious as that in any of the great foodie films every made (i.e. Babette's Feast, Ang Lee's Eat, Drink..., etc.).  ***

This is a documentary in three parts plus epilogue which pretty well covers playwrite Tony Kushner's life and works.  It's informative, as comprehensive as one would hope, and quite a moving document about someone that I now admire even more than before I saw the film.  What gives the film special resonance is the way the filmmaker was able to connect episodes of Kushner's life with his works in progress.  I have to admit that I identified with much of Kushner's life, being a gay Jew and somewhat of an artist myself.  So maybe it is no surprise that I connected to this film so well.  *** 1/2

My reaction to this college comedy was bemused enjoyment.  It's sort of a mixture of Animal House and Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, about a neurotic, emotionally zipped-up college student (a game Patrick Fugit) whose stolen philosophical diary becomes a big deal on campus.  It's silly and sophomoric; but good fun (any film which lets Matthew Lillard and John Cho loose to do their thing has something going for it.)  ** 3/4

A SUMMER DAY (d. Franck Guerin; France)
Essentially, this is a coming of age film about an 18 year old boy whose best friend dies.  This is one of those infuriatingly obtuse French films which sets a mood, but doesn't quite become a clear narrative.  And yet, it's so beautiful in its Loire valley
setting, and its lead actor (Baptiste Bertin, who the director said was a non-actor whom he found on the street) is so strikingly comely that it ends up being a completely satisfying experience.  There's a strong undercurrent of homoeroticism throughout the film, which adds to its mystery and allure.  This film isn't for everyone...its slow, moody pacing is going to drive some up the wall.  I was enchanted.  ***

THE BETRAYAL (d. Philippe Faucon; France)
A dark film (in more ways than one) about an incident in the French-Algerian war in 1954 where some of the Algerian troops under French command are suspected of having turned traitor.  I have to admit I snoozed through some of it; but I don't think I missed anything essential.  ** 1/4

SNOW CAKE (d. Marc Evans; Canada)
Some films deserve to be seen on their own merits without spoilers.  I'm not about to divulge word one about the plot of Snow Cake.  I will say that it is one of the highlights of the festival, a film which skirts the edge of sentimentality without ever stepping over; a writing, acting and directing tour de force.  Alan Rickman returns to the off center romantic hero mode of Truly Madly Deeply, that he does so well.  And Sigourney Weaver is truly spectacular in an Oscar worthy portrayal of autism which ranks with Dustin Hoffman's Rainman.  Add Carrie-Anne Moss...whew!  Fine, fine film, a must see which apparently needs an American distributor...listen up, studios! *** 3/4

ROUND TWO (Segundo Asalto) (d. Daniel Cebrián; Spain)
Wrongly pegged in the program and advertising as a boxing film, this actually is a superior caper film on the order of Nine Queens.   Angel is an aspiring, but only moderately talented young boxer.  His life gets complicated when a mysterious Argentinian man from his mother's past reappears and offers Angel a chance to illegally better his economic status.  Álex González, who apparently came out of Spanish telenovelas, is quite a find as Angel...one is reminded of Alain Delon in Rocco & His Brothers (Jeez, that's the second time this festival I've referred to this film, one of my all-time favorites).  Highly recommended.  *** 1/4

THE HORIZON OF EVENTS (d. Daniele Vicari; Italy)
This is one half a good film, unfortunately the second half; and by then it's hard to get interested.  The first half is about a nuclear physicist who is in charge of a huge underground project to detect neutrinos which penetrate the earth (at least I think that's what the project was about...it isn't very clear and this part of the film is uninvolving and dull).  Then, after a scandal at work and a self-inflicted auto accident, the physicist is rescued by a troubled Albanian shepherd...and the film suddenly becomes interesting.  Too late.  ** 3/4

HOST AND GUEST (Bangmunja) (d. Shin Dong-il; South Korea)
This is a pleasant enough screwball comedy about a man depressed by his recent divorce who is rescued, literally and figuratively, by a young Jehovah's Witness (or the Korean equivalent thereof).  It's minor stuff...and the screening itself was marred by two lengthy projector jams which broke the narrative momentum.  But the characters were likable, and some of the political banter (where George W. Bush was made fun of) was laugh-out-loud funny.  ** 3/4

THE KING (d. James Marsh; USA)
What to make of this film...I had a restive night's sleep (i.e. nightmares) thinking about it, trying to deal with the queasy feeling I felt faced with this story of innocence and evil.  It reminded me of a straight director's version of Pasolini's Teorema, with the incredibly attractive Gaël Garcia Bernal handily stepping into a similar role to Terrence Stamp's in that film (Bernal's perfect American accent holds promise for his future in Hollywood, if he wants to go there).  There's also more than a little hint of Badlands, and Malik's lyrical approach to filmmaking.  This is strong, viscerally affecting stuff.  I'm still working on resolving my issues with the film.  *** 1/4

SA-KWA (d. Kang Yi-kwan; South Korea)
Moon So-ri was so outstanding in Oasis that I'd watch any film with her in it.  Here she plays an ordinary young career girl who is romantically involved with two very different men.    In lesser hands this would just be an infuriating story of a pretty, spoiled girl who screws up her life; but
Moon brings great depth to the role, she lives her character on her face better than most Korean actresses from my experience.  Also the two guys are very good at representing two very different romantic types.  I liked this film a lot, mostly because the script is insightful in the way it provides character growth.  *** 1/4

NORDESTE (d. Juan Solanas; Argentina)
Carole Bouquet is another outstanding actress; and it was a pleasure to see her in two films on the same day (she also has a minor role as the crippled mother in Hell.)  This film is exploring familiar territory, the baby selling business (we've seen this recently in John Sayles' Casa de los Babys and Bernard Tavernier's Holy Lola).  But more than that, this is also a story of the effects of extreme poverty in Northeast Argentina, centering on a mother and son (beautifully played by Aymará Rovero and especially young Ignacio Jimínez) in dire straits.  The more I think about this film the better I like it for its unexpected take on the subject matter.  Only a too ambiguous ending, probably very true to life but disappointing for me, spoiled my ultimate feelings about this film.  ** 3/4

I've always been interested in Jack Smith and his chaotic, underground gay cinema.  I wasn't about to miss this amazingly detailed documentary about his life (amazing because so little of his work was ever completed in any final form).  This film informs as well as possible considering the difficulty in amassing materials.  It's compelling stuff, even if it falls slightly short of being a totally successfully realized document...probably because Smith's life itself was so chaotic and unrealized.  ** 1/4

HELL (L'enfer)  (d. Danis Tanovic; France)
This film was written by Krzystof Piesiewicz, and originally intended for the great director Krzysztof Kieslowski.  It's fascinating to speculate what Kieslowski would have done with the material.  It certainly would have been a very different film.  Danis Tanovic, who made one of the most deserving Academy foreign language Oscar winners of recent years, No Man's Land, brings a very different sensibility...and I can't help thinking that he is somehow and unexpectedly even more suited to the material than K.K.  The film could have been called Three Sisters, if that title hadn't already been taken by Chekhov.  It's the story of three lives utterly screwed up by a horrendous past traumatic event.  All three lead actresses are great, especially Emmanuelle Béart, who once again astonishes that someone so beautiful could also be such an outstanding actress.  Tanivic shows a wonderful visual flair, making spiral staircases into paths to hell, finding unusual visual metaphors.  Even the creepy music is totally right.  This isn't an easy film, the script is somewhat enigmatic, though I did solve the puzzle fairly early on.  But it certainly rewards a careful viewing.  *** 1/2

OLD JOY (d. Kelly Reichardt; USA)
Two thirtysomething old friends, one  (a spacey Will Oldham)
a familiar counterculture type drop-out, the other (Daniel London, in a naturalistic, bemused performance) married with a kid on the way, ready to embrace the realities of working life in Portland, OR with his Beemer station wagon.  They embark on an overnight camping trip to a  backwoods hot springs, get lost, camp out, get loaded, find peace.  I kept waiting for the dueling banjos of Deliverance; but that isn't what this film is about at all.  It's about rediscovering the old joys of life in a throwback way curiously close to my life when I was in my 30s (so many many years ago).  Nostalgic, and somehow lovely.  Nothing much happens in this film; and yet I was blown away by the good feeling it engendered in me.  I think I'm going to try to search out Bagby Hot Springs before I get too old to hike in.  ***

THE GROOMSMEN (d. Edward Burns; USA)
I've always liked Ed Burns as a writer and director (but not so much as an actor).  So sue me.  I know he's often self-indulgent; but he also has a way of capturing the zeitgeist that makes him truly representative of his generation.  This is probably his best film since, well ever:  five mid-30s guys reunite with typical Burnsian camaraderie for the impending wedding of one.  Sh*t happens.  The acting is the thing here...he's gotten performances against type from Jay Mohr and Matthew Lillard which are nothing short of miraculous.  And Donal Logue and John Leguizamo, always reliable, are super fine here, too.  I noticed something interesting...Burns' script gets lots of laughs; but many of them have a decidedly feminine cadence...much of this film is about the foibles of guys, and the women in the audience are eating it up.  *** 1/4

THE BLOSSOMING OF MAXIMO OLIVEROS (d. Aureas Solito; Philippines)
Maxi is 12 years old, youngest of a family of petty thieves, decidedly feminine and totally accepted for that by his family; in fact he's become the mother surrogate, cooking, sewing, cleaning.  When he falls in love (more a crush than anything amorous) with a handsome young policeman it causes real problems for his family.  The film was presented in video, murky and badly transfered with fuzzy subtitles.  It also had a decidedly amateurish feeling of acting and directing which I couldn't quite ignore, even though the story was involving enough.  ** 1/4

I AM (Jestem) (d. Dorota Kedzierzawska; Poland)
A young boy runs away from an orphanage, finds and is rejected by his mother (the town tramp), and exists on his own for a while.  A simple story, immaculately well told. 
Piotr Jagielski plays the boy, jug-eared, face like a little mouse, every expression showing a sharp inner life.  The cinematography is stunningly beautiful; and the score, by Michael Nyman, has his usual droning expressiveness complimenting the visuals.  I was reminded in a way of Ratcatcher, also a film from a disadvantaged kid's point of view...but this film is more accessible.  *** 1/4

FOUR STARS (d. Christian Vincent; France)
French fluff.  For me a non-funny farce about a woman spending her inheritance at the Carleton four-star hotel in Cannes.  Isabelle Carré is beautiful, and an acceptable farceuse, even if her character is sort of annoying in this role; but I seem to be immune to the charms of José Garcia.  When a French comedy falls flat like old champaign, it's especially annoying.  **

FACTOTUM (d. Bent Hamer; USA)
Festival artistic director Carl Spence thinks that Hamer's excellent previous film was called "Kitchen Sink" (tsk, tsk, Carl...it's Kitchen Stories).  This film in English is based on several somewhat autobiographical stories by Charles Bukowski, and it is not unfair to compare it unfavorably to Barfly, which it resembles to some degree.  At least Matt Dillon is basing his characterization on Bukowski...he's put on weight for the role, has splotchy facial makeup, affects a churlish, gruff mien which is reminiscent of the young Bukowski even more than Mickey Rourk's impression in the previous film.  Hamer brings a Nordic, sardonic humor to the film, which fits very well with Bukowski's wit.  Still, the film didn't do it for me.  I just didn't relate to the characters enough to get involved with the film.  ** 3/4

LA MAISON DE NIÑA (d. Richard Dembo; France)
One would think that there's nothing left to be said about the Holocaust, at least nothing new.  Of course this isn't true...it's the defining event of many people's lives, even 60 years after the end of WWII.  This extraordinary film is mostly about the traumatic effects on the children who survived the camps or were orphaned in hiding during the war.  It's emotionally devastating...at least for this Jewish viewer who would have been five years old and certainly dead by the time this film took place, if my grandparents hadn't had the courage to immigrate to America well before the war.  I understand completely the phenomenon of "survivor guilt".   In any case, I don't feel like giving anything else away about this film:  the acting throughout is wonderful even if there are too many major characters to process each one's story to the fullest.  I was shocked to read that the director died upon completion of this film...what a fitting capstone for a career, certainly an Oscar contender if France is wise enough to submit it next year.  *** 1/2

If I've counted correctly, I've now seen 61 festival films since I arrived in Seattle the second week of press screenings; which means that I'm about half way through my allotted measure, even though there are 15 full festival days remaining.  At this point I'm ready to make an assessment of my impressions of this year's festival so far.  It's certainly been the rainiest SIFF of the nine I've attended, with rain falling on over half the days I've been in Seattle.  Not that I mind, coming from L.A. I have a lifetime rain debt which longs to be filled.

Last night I attended my first festival film at the new Bellevue venue across the lake.  Lincoln Square is a superb, modern multiplex, which ranks up there with the best cinemas in L.A.:  comfortable, lumbar supporting leather seats; a fantastically large, flawless screen; and great sound.  For me, with a car, it's no hassle to go there, especially when the traffic is light as it was on a Saturday evening.  It took me 20 minutes to get from the Egyptian to Lincoln Square...I had no trouble parking in one of the many free lots on the premises.  All in all it is a much more pleasant experience than trying to drive to and park at the Uptown Theater on Queen Anne Hill, one of last year's venues.

This is the best run SIFF I can recall; not one screening has started late.  The intro films (and there are several, all animated and with original songs) are great:  short, creative, a pleasure compared to past campaigns.  There have been a few projection issues...there are ongoing problems with noisy or protracted reel changes at the flagship Egyptian theater, probably the result of the problems they've been having with one of their projectors.  I feel that the sound level at the Neptune has been potted slightly too low, certainly lower than at the other venues.  The screen at the Harvard Exit is annoyingly flawed, even though it appears that last year's hole in the center of the screen has been patched.  And it would be churlish of me to complain too much about the tiny screen size at the Northwest Film Forum, Seattle's cinemathèque.  I'm spoiled by living in Los Angeles.  Yet, for all that, this is a remarkably pleasant festival for this viewer so far...maybe because I've made so many friends here that queuing is always a time for discussions about the films with so many friendly fellow "fools".  Also, I'm getting better at finding parking places, eating well (so far I've been able to stick to my no-more-than-five-films-a-day rule), and getting enough sleep.

Finally the films.  Anybody who has slogged through my web site festival journal must be aware that for me the average quality of the films has been the highest in memory; at least that's my overall impression half-way through.  Bravo, SIFF!

As usual, not a word.  This time, apparently, for good reason.  ***

Whenever I see Andrew Davis's name as writer on a BBC production, I can pretty well count on it being an exceptionally well written adaptation that I'll enjoy.  This three part serialized telenovel is currently playing in England.  Here it was presented in wide screen video, and it's superb stuff.  It is the story of Nick (played by upcoming star Dan Stevens), a nice, attractive middle class guy who happens to be gay, and who gets involved with the politically influential Tory family of his straight Oxford roommate during the early 80's Thatcher years.  It's all about class, politics, sex, love, scandal.  I don't think it is an accident that Nick has the same name as the narrator of "The Great Gatsby", as there are many resonances in this story with that great American novel, also a story of the struggle to attain a higher class than one is born to.  I never was able to get into Alan Hollinghurst's first novel, "The Swimming Pool Library", after a couple of tries.  But from the experience of this film, I'm going to have to read his entire oeuvre.  *** 1/2

This is the story of Fang, a four year old rebel who is sent to a regimented, live-in Beijing kindergarten school, apparently in the 1950s, though I was never quite sure of the era.  In any case, the strict collective education is designed to stifle individuality - even the kids' pooping is supposed to arrive on schedule.  The film is pleasant enough.  The children are all amazingly naturalistic, which became a problem for me.  Maybe because of the difficulties in handling so many young children, the film had a rather chaotic, rambling narrative structure.  Scenes would start, and then abruptly change with no resolution...often sequences were edited with no continuity.  The result is a character study that feels more like a slice-of-life documentary than an achieved story.  Still, the main actor (young Dong Bowen) steals every scene he's in with ease.  I found the film rather annoying; but I think my point of view is a minority one.  ** 1/2

20 CENTIMETERS (d. Ramón Salazar)
Wow, this is a difficult film to peg...sort of a Spanish version of Hedwig, with the amazingly mercurial Mónica Cervera playing a pre-op transsexual hooker who longs to rid herself of the 20 centimeters of dick that she so inconveniently sports.  The musical numbers (all dream sequences explained by the main character's narcolepcy) range from cheesy to sublimely cinematic.  As does the entire film, for that matter.  Great fun, however, and sexy.  ***

MADEINUSA (d. Claudia Llosa; Peru/Spain)
A stranger is stuck for a weekend in a remote Peruvian town which celebrates the period between Good Friday at 3PM and Easter at 6AM as a time when the Lord is not looking and there is no sin.  If there's no sin, then anything can happen...if I were that stranger I'd get the hell out of Dodge.  Then this movie wouldn't happen, of course.  It's a moody film, all repressed longing.  It's also gorgeously shot, with a fine sound design.  But I couldn't get fully engaged because the characters and their actions were so removed from my reality.  ** 3/4

MOLLY'S WAY (d. Emily Atef; Germany)
At the last minute I changed my schedule around, usually a bad idea.  Because the previous film was shorter than expected, I had a chance to run to Pacific Place to see this film; and I'm glad I did.  Molly is a good Irish lass who travels to a small, blighted, industrial, coal mining town in Poland to search for the one-night stand man who fathered her unborn child.  A lot of the charm of this film is watching the spark of light that is Molly (an exceptional performance by Mairead McKinley) light up the bleak Polish wasteland.  ***

BEYOND HATRED (d. Olivier Meyrou; France)
Another schedule change, this one a mistake.  I should have learned by now that the French often make documentaries as philosophically talky and unsatisfying as some of their story films.  This is about the family of a 30 year old victim of a gaybashing killing by three skinhead thugs.  The film was remarkably coy about the actual case:  we never see pictures of the victim or the defendants, for instance.  Instead we're subjected to endless shots of the city park path scene of the crime and countless big-head close-up discussions between lawyers and family members as they try to cope with the crime and trial.  The family was sympathetic; but the film failed.   ** 1/4

BLESSED BY FIRE (d. Tristan Bauer; Argentina)
The Argentines call the Falkland War of 1982 the Malvinas War; and as with our Vietnamese war it left many veterans adrift afterwards, damaged and un-honored in the losing cause.  This is the story of a couple of men who served, told mainly in flashback to their harrowing experiences during the war.  I went mainly because I knew it starred Gastón Pauls, one of my favorite actors.  But to my pleasant surprise, this turned out to be a truly great war film...which captured the horrors of war and gave to me, a neutral observer, true emotional catharsis from the Argentinian point of view.  Great music, exceptional editing, a script which works on every level...this is probably the best film I've seen so far at SIFF.  *** 3/4

URBAN SCARECROW (d. Andrew McAllister; USA)
This small-scale "made in Seattle" drama was about a basically nice teenage boy (Peter Richards, a sympathetic, young actor) living in a motel on a bleak stretch of Highway 99 north of Seattle with his failure of a father five years after the death of his mother.  He's probably dyslectic, and certainly has dropped out of school spending times huffing away at Redi-whip cans with his best friend (a sardonic, expressive Ben German who shines here).  It's a simple character driven story, impressionistically shot on digital video with enough narrative drive to remain interesting.  ** 3/4

STARFISH HOTEL (d. John Williams; Japan)
A dense, mystery film which falls somewhat short of Japanese horror/supernatural films such as Ringu or Cure.  In fact, it's so multi-leveled and pretentious that I simply don't have the energy to try to figure out what it was all about.  Visual metaphors abound, especially filmic references to Donnie Darko and Alice in Wonderland.  These references seem amusing at first; until one realizes that the film doesn't seem to make sense, the time line is all screwed up.  It's all very pretty (super slick cinematography), but soporific...and the hypnotic musical score doesn't help.  * 3/4

AMERICANESE (d. Eric Byler)
Two Asian-Americans break up regretfully and try to sort out their lives amidst family and friend troubles.  It's a pretty ordinary story; and it develops slowly as a character study of people that are hard to really like.  Still, the film worked for me.  The acting ranged from mysteriously hysterical (the beautiful Joan Chen playing the "other woman") to curiously affectless (the lead actor, Chris Tashima.)  It amazed me that the boring lives of these people held my interest.  Maybe because the characters themselves weren't boring.  ** 3/4

ELSA & FRED (d. Marcos Carnevale; Spain/Argentina)
This was for me a slam dunk...brilliant acting, a story which totally involved me at every level, simply a delightful film which should have been Spain's entry to the Oscars and might have won.  Fred (a beautifully nuanced, gentlemanly performance by Manuel Alexandre) has recently lost his controlling, "tidy" wife of many years, sold his home and moved into an apartment.  His new neighbor is the wild and wonderful Elsa (a stunning career topping performance by Argentine actress China Zorrilla), who claims to be 77, but relates to the young Anita Ekberg of La Dolce Vita, whose picture has prominence on her apartment wall, though she also has the eyes and innocent-worldly air of an elderly Giulietta Masina.  They meet; and the result is a Felliniesque romantic comedy which is a wild ride and totally emotionally fulfilling.  *** 3/4

3 NEEDLES (d. Thom Fitzgerald; Canada)
Fitzgerald, a director I admire greatly for his past work such as The Event, struggled for years to make this ambitious film which ranged the world in three stories (South Africa, South China and Quebec) about the ravages of the AIDS epidemic.  We're treated to some fine acting by such luminaries as Stockard Channing, Lucy Liu, Chloë Sevigny (never more beautiful), Shawn Ashmore (known as the  Iceman in the X-Men movies, here convincingly playing a male porn star) and Olympia Dukakis.  The stories are all involving and infuriating to various degrees.  Infuriating because they're so real in depicting the way that ignorance and poverty and human greed abetted the AIDS virus in establishing its horrible ascendancy.  Never didactic, Fitzgerald has managed the difficult task of humanizing the epidemic through his characters and their stories.  *** 1/4

YOU AND ME (d. Julie Lopes-Curval; France)
This is another piece of French romantic fluff; however for me it hit me in the right place with characters I liked even if their actions were unfathomable.  It's about two very different sisters and their romantic entanglements.  Julie Depardieu writes (and lives) photo-romance novels (and the film is notable for its scenes of still photos representing the fictional fantasy lives from these photo-novels).  Marion Cotillard (in a wistfully sweet performance) plays a cellist in an orchestra.  I was particularly pleased that one of my favorite French actors, Jonathan Zaccai finally gets to play a fully achieved romantic lead as a successful solo violinist.  It's all about rooting for these characters despite their foibles.  Plus wonderful orchestral playing integral to the plot, which almost always works for me.  A guilty pleasure.  ** 3/4

SUICIDALS (d. Juan Villegas; Argentina)
Another actor I like, Argentine Daniel Hendler, is wasted in this boring film about depressed people.  I should have taken the title of the film more seriously...it was hard to stay awake.  * 3/4

FIVE DAYS IN SEPTEMBER (d. Barbara Sweete; Canada documentary)
This is a spectacularly involving documentary about the first five days of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's rebirth under its new musical director, the charismatic Peter Oundjian.  In sequence after sequence we're treated to wonderful insights into the people who make up the orchestra and the amazing soloists performing during this period (pianist Emanuel Ax, soprano Renée Fleming {in fabulous voice} and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.)  Maybe because I was primed to enjoy the music by the involving You and Me (a film which also featured orchestral performances), I was particularly thrilled by this documentary.  It helped that the sound mix was absolutely perfect...I don't recall ever hearing a symphony orchestra with such perfect fidelity where every instrument stood out in relation to the cinematography.  Technically, this was the most accomplished documentary in every facet of filmmaking that I can recall.  ****

49 UP (d. Michael Apted; UK documentary)
Jeez, another great documentary.  This festival has been amazing for the quality of the documentaries that I've managed to catch despite my predilection for watching fiction films.  What can one say?  I've now watched 5 of the 7 films from this long-running series...and each one is more fascinating than the last.  Here Apted has concocted a fitting summary from each of his children's sequences so that this film exists quite well on its own.  What becomes obvious is how much the actual format of shooting a documentary has changed over the years from the original grainy B&W stuff to the fantastic digital video that exists in 2005.   One can only hope that in seven years Apted is able to top this film...though it's hard to figure out how he can.  *** 1/2

I had a disasterous screw up and lost my journal reviews of the next four films as originally written.  I'll try to rewrite them when I have a spare moment.  In the meantime, if anybody happens to have printed out these reviews, could you please contact me!  Also, note to self:  midnight movies screw up your sleep sechedule which leads to doing  stupid things on the computer.

CRIME NOVEL (d. Michele Placido; Italy)
A filmed epic based on real events, about a gang of ruthless youths who took over the criminal underground in Rome in the late-70s early 80's.  One could also have called this "Once Upon a Time in Italy" since it had the scope of the Leone masterwork, and had a similar story.  Especially notable was Kim Rossi Stuart as Ice, the cool co-leader of the large gang of hotheads.  This film develops as the flip side of last year's superior film The Best of Youth, in this case about the worst of Italian youth.  An amazing job of filmmaking, dense and taut.  *** 1/4

GARPASTUM (d. Alexey Guerman; Russia)
The title refers to the ancient greek game of football similar to soccer.  This film was set in 1914-17 Russia, the story of two young brothers into girls and soccer in roughly that order at a time when the world was falling apart.  There's lots of scenes of street soccer shot in involving close-up action.  I actually enjoyed and got into the sport which has always bored me.  Maybe because Evgeny Pronin is so outstanding and attractive as the soccer playing brother.  The film's sense of the era and place was just about perfect.   ***

MAXED OUT (d. James D. Scurlock; U.S. documentary)
A documentary about the conspiracy of the banking industry and the government to enmesh mostly poor people in so much debt that they'll never get out.  It has some frightening factoids; but in many ways it was preaching to the choir...the liberal audience here ate it up.  I thought it was a little too obvious. ** 1/2

LOWER CITY (d. Sergio Machado; Brazil)
A gritty story of two men
(Lazaro Ramos and Wagner Moura), one black, one white, friends from youth, who become involved with a beautiful young prostitute.  Predictable troubles follow.   Alice Braga (niece of Sonya) is beautiful and charismatic as the girl.  I was also impressed by The setting is the lower city barrio of Salvador da Bahia; but much of the film seems confined to close-ups and emphasis on the characters rather than the setting.  Yet, for all of that, the story works in the fashion of a lower class Jules and Jim. ***

A superior documentary about the life and career of George Michael.  It's surprising how forthcoming he is about his life:  the tragedy of his lover dying of AIDS in 1993 (how well I can relate), the cottaging arrest in Beverly Hills (a few blocks from the house I grew up in), and his career as superstar (we part company here).   Even though I've never particularly been a G.M. fan (I never bought one of his albums after Wham! broke up),  I really enjoyed watching his performances and videos.   Michael comes off as a remarkably nice guy and very centered despite all the  problems of his life.  *** 1/4

ROOTS (d. Pavel Lungin; Russia)
Pavel Lungin (or however his name is spelled...I've also seen it as Pavel Lounguine) is one of my favorite directors.  He made my highest rated film at the 2001 SIFF, The Wedding; and this film is a return to that frenetic comedic sensibility.   This is the story of a Russian con man who subverts an entire town to fool foreigners that are searching for their roots into thinking that they've found them.   Konstantin Khabensky has wonderful comic timing as the con-man; and there is another sweet performance here by 95 year old Esther Gorintin (so amazing in Since Otar Left , this time speaking Yiddish).  Lungin is a master of visuals, much of the film is made up of remarkable hand-held camerawork (by Mikhail Krichman, world-class cinematographer) which aids the comedy. Every camera set-up seems perfect and unusually appropriate.  Perhaps only a tendency to overdo the physical comedy to the point of silliness keeps this from being an unalloyed masterpiece. *** 1/2

I love Leonard Cohen...his gravelly voice and poetic soul really get to me.  Unfortunately there just isn't enough of Cohen here.  Some interesting interviews with the man are interspersed with performances of his works by others at a tribute concert in 2005.  Not all of the performances are outstanding...especially some of the weird stylings by Nick Cave.  But Rufus Wainwright shines here.  Unfortunately the film broke during the culminating new song sung by Cohen himself; and I had to leave right at the peak moment of the film to make the next film.  ** 3/4

BROTHERS OF THE HEAD (d. Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe)
Done in a mockumentary style, however with perfect fidelity to era and milieu, this is the story of conjoined twins who become punk rock stars in the mid-70s.  Identical twins Luke and Harry Treadaway are nothing short of phenomenal as the Siamese twins...this film makes Twin Falls Idaho look like a silly artifice.  I'm not a great fan of punk rock; but here the original music fits the story and has an authentic feel and raw power in the performances which raise the level of the film.  There's also a wonderfully camp unfinished film-within-a-film by "Ken Russell", who actually is interviewed in the pseudo-documentary.    *** 1/4

ANOTHER GAY MOVIE (d. Todd Stephens)
Stephens made the excellent and sensitive coming of age film Edge of 17.  Here he's trying another tack entirely, a raunchy gay version of American Pie, done as tastelessly as possible.  He certainly succeeded.  Unfortunately for me (but not the audience apparently, who ate it all up), the quality of writing, acting and directing just wasn't there.  Sure the film was designed to be offensive - that doesn't bother me a bit - and it is a lot of fun to see gay sex (including hard dicks) portrayed so unflinchingly normalized.  But as a film it fell very much short.  *sigh*  I swear I'm not a prude; but this film just went too far towards infantile scatological humor for me.   This film was fun to watch in a large audience of mostly gay men whose laughter was contagious; but I'm not sure it will work at home alone on DVD (where it is destined to be seen in the U.S.)  * 1/2

Gus Van Sant co-produced this film; and certainly it had some of the same impressionistic feeling as Van Sant's more personal films.  Also, I have the feeling that the director was influenced visually and thematically by the Thai film, Tropical Malady; there's a certain dreaminess to the mise-en-scène which is reminiscent of that film (which I disliked).  Wild Tigers is a tone poem about a 13 year old junior high student who is in the process of coming out.  He has a crush on a straight boy and jerks off to inchoate fantasies of facing a mountain lion, caves and forests.  Symbolism for days; and nothing much happens.  But this isn't exactly an "afterschool special" that will ever show up on tv. ** 1/4

DREAMING OF SPACE (d. Alexei Uchitel; Russia)
Two men meet through competitive boxing in a gymnasium.  The time is 1957, the place a frigid Russian harbor town in the Arctic Circle at the border of Russia and Norway.  One of them is politically naive, the other in the process of preparing to defect.  They become friends, share girlfriends; and the film ambles for a while until the narrative takes a strange turn which I couldn't quite follow.  This is one film which worked for me because the characters were amiable, the exotic setting beautifully photographed, and the script just mysterious enough to keep my interest.   ** 3/4

THE BIRTHDAY (d. Diane Kurys; France)
A group of former friends and lovers who were connected 20 years before in the radical counterculture, but have gone separate ways, reunite at the 45th birthday party of one of them at his lavish Marrakech villa.  It's a French, upperclass version of The Big Chill.  The cast (notably Lambert Wilson and Jean-Hughes Anglade) is impeccable, the sets and wide-screen cinematography lovely to behold.  Over the years I've enjoyed Kurys' films which often had a personal, autobiographical touch which I connected with somehow.  This film is a more traditional narrative; but just as involving for me for all of that.  *** 1/4

BLOOD RAIN (d. Kim Dae-seung, Lee Won-jae; South Korea)
The film broke 2/3 of the way through, and I guess it was unfixable as they halted the screening and refunded admissions.  So I can't say how the film resolved; but by that time I really didn't care much.  It's a complex story of blood-curdling revenge set on a Korean island, apparently in the 19th century.  Boats burn, people are killed off in especially grisly ways.  I was just tired enough that I couldn't separate the many characters or follow the plot fully.  One has to admire the artful direction and fidelity to time and place.  But it didn't make sense to me up to the point the film broke.  ** 1/2

An oldie but goodie.  ***

SHINOBI (d. Ten Shimoyaina)
Two Ninja clans in 17th century Japan are mandated by the Shogun lord to send their five best warriors to a fight each other to the death.   Lots of people flying around and doing magical things while butchering each other.  It's very stylized, gorgeous to watch.  But maybe there's been just a few too many similar films recently.  This one does have an X-Men like feel to it, however.  And it's also a well portrayed Romeo and Juliet type story, with attractive leads.  ** 3/4

THE WINDOW (d. Ted Tetzlaff)
I originally saw this film when I was about 12 or so.  It remained in my mind as an influential film...the lesson, which I believe I took to heart, was that kids shouldn't make up stories.  From today's perspective, it's just a dynamite noir about a kid in jeopardy...a very tight film which in this ravishing new B&W print ratchets up tension and simply still works.  *** 1/4

THIEVES AND LIARS (d. Ricardo Mendez Matta, Poli Marichal; Puerto Rico)
Set in present day Puerto Rico among the cocaine smugglers and the corrupt courts, this is a film like Traffic, with a large cast and intertwined stories.  Shot on digital video, it has the look and feel of an intimate, epic television mini-series, only tightly scripted to a fast moving two hours.    ***

ONLY GOD KNOWS (d. Carlos Bolado; Mexico/Brazil)
I was absolutely in the mood for an old fashioned romantic melodrama; and this film fit the bill.  Diego Luna, who has the soul if not the looks to be a major romantic star, co-produced and provided himself with a role which allowed him to  cry real tears on screen at least three times.  And Alice Braga (who was so strong in a contrasting role in the film Lower City that I saw a couple of days ago) is wonderful again in this update of Love Story.  So what that the characters do stupid things which make no sense.  For whatever reason, I was able to submit myself to this film utterly, have a good cry and just feel good leaving the theater.  *** 1/4

WHO IS HARRY NILSSON (d. John Scheinfeld; U.S. documentary)
Nilsson was a singer-songwriter who has been a fairly large part of my musical world for years.   For all of that, I knew remarkably little about him; and in fact, I've forgotten how much his music, especially from the Nilsson Shmilsson era (early 70's when I was still into music) affected me.  This is about as comprehensive a film about his life and work that we're ever likely to see.  Much of the early stuff is done with still pictures; and the graphics are excellent.  Nilsson wasn't an artist who liked to sing live; so there's limited footage of him singing.  Still, this film is destined to join the growing pantheon of really good music biography films.  *** 1/4

A TRIP TO KHARABAKH (d. Levan Tutberidze; Georgia)
I know very little about the politics of the Caucasus region.  This is a comedy road trip of sorts about two young Georgian slackers who set out on a journey to score hash and end up lost and captured by partisans of both the warring Azeris and  Armenians.  I say comedy because the audience who obviously understood the languages (there were several in the theater) were in stitches about dialog that just wasn't funny in the subtitles.  It became obvious that the subtitles weren't doing justice to the film.  Which meant that ofttimes I was lost as to which group was which and what was happening.  Yet, for all that, maybe partially because the lead actor, Levan Doborjginidze was so interesting, I got into the film.  And by the end I did feel educated and more knowledgeable about the region and its people.  ***

OSS 117:  NEST OF SPIES (d. Michel Hazanavicius; France)
Ugh.  This was a French parody of James Bond films (which themselves are parodies nowadays) set in the era from 1945-1955.  I guess somebody found it funny because people around me were chuckling, although I don't think I laughed once.  Maybe I'm lacking a funny bone for stuff like this...I hated the Austin Powers films also.   The French do have their own comic agenda, however...much of the humor is derived from latent homophobia. * 1/4

HAPPY AS ONE (d. Vanessa Jopp; Germany)
This German film is one of those multi-character dramas about boring, lonely, depressed people in present day Berlin who are searching for love and companionship.  Yet somehow the film isn't boring or depressing.  Each of the three main stories are involving to various degrees, the characters well limned, their situations familiar, yet not predictable.  It reminded me of a Mike Leigh film; and I wasn't surprised to read later that Jopp had used some of Leigh's workshop technique with her actors.  ***

SACRED HEART (d. Ferzan Ozpetek; Italy)
Whew!  After the screening all I heard was from people who HATED this film.  Any film which aroused such a response must have been working at a level I wasn't aware of.  All I saw was a ravishingly beautiful film about the spiritual awakening of a wealthy, successful woman industrialist who, like her mother before her, has a psychotic episode which fills her with God's grace.  OK, maybe I do understand why some were put off by the religious symbolism or bored because the film took its sweet time getting anyplace.  But Ozpetek can shoot and edit a scene for maximum effect about as well as any director working in film today.  For what it is worth, I never really got emotionally involved with this film; but intellectually it was one of the most interesting films we've seen at SIFF so far.  *** 1/4

THE STANDARD (d. Jordan Albertsen; U.S.)
People might ask me why I go to film festivals?  This film is the exact reason why:  seeing without warning an outstanding film which has flown in under the radar.  Just about anything I say about this film will spoil the plot.  Let's just say it starts with an astounding 6 minute plus steady-cam tracking shot, equal to anything by Scorsese, which shows everything there is to know about the film in a single cut before we actually know anything.  The setting is an ordinary high-school on Whidbey Island near Seattle.  This film by a 23 year old wunderkind director gave me the same sort of thrill of discovery that I felt having watched Donnie Darko when it first came out, only here we have a more traditional narrative and relatively unknown actors (but kudos to Alex Frost, Marne Patterson and Taylor Handley who will be heard from again).  Warning:  this film divided the press screening audience.  Some agreed with me that this was the film of the festival.  Others were upset or offended or somehow managed to undervalue what this film achieved.  Too bad for them.  *** 3/4

STRANGERS WITH CANDY (d. Paul Dinello; U.S.)
El stinko.  I thought the trailer was fairly funny, even mildly intriguing; but believe me, everything remotely funny was used in the trailer and the rest of the film is unusually puerile.  Lots of good actors (Philip Seymore Hoffman! Matthew Broderick! Sara Jessica Parker! etc.!) in minor roles totally wasted here.  What were they thinking?  It'll probably clean up at the box office since stupid humor sells; but ugh.  *

SMALL TOWN GAY BAR (d. Malcolm Ingram; U.S. documentary)
A documentary about two gay bars in Mississippi, of all places, heart of the Bible Belt.  For some reason this film gives almost equal time to Fred Phelps and Donald Wildmon, of all the bigots in all the gin joints they could have chosen for "balance".  But the actual stories of the two bars and their owners and habitués were interesting, and even heartening. ** 3/4

THREE TIMES (d. Hou Hsiao-hsien; Taiwan)
I think I'm going to have to give up on Hou.  I can't follow his plots, his films hypnotize me to sleep.  Yes, they're pretty...and even occasionally thrilling to watch the way he manipulates the camera; but not this film.  Three stories with the same actors in three different eras (Taiwan in 1965, 1911 and 2005).  Only the first and shortest part (and incidentally the one with the clearest narrative) interested me in the least.  Still, gotta give the guy credit for creating visuals which appear to be meaningful, even if they're too obscure for my poor brain.  **

EVERY OTHER WEEK (d. Mâns Herngren, Hannes Holm, Felix Herngren, Hans Ingemansson; Sweden)
A Swedish comedy about divorce as only the Swedes could make.  It's actually fun...two mid-30s brothers, one a commercial director the other a doctor, and their various romantic problems.  There are some really amusing send-ups of commercials reflecting the wacky idea that marital problems can sell products.  This is an intelligent, novel look at relationships which works pretty well as a film.  ** 3/4

BACKSTAGE (d. Emmanuelle Bercot; France)
This is a turgid melodrama of obsessive fandom, French style.  Emmanuelle Seigner convincingly plays a hugely successful pop-star as a crazed Debbie Harry double.  Isild le Besco plays her young obsessed fan who manages to inveigle her way into the pop star's life (unlikely; but what the hell, it's only a movie) in a quasi-lesbian relationship.  Oh, there's a guy in the equation, too, equal time.  I allowed myself to submit to this film's dark mood; at least the film held my interest.  Actually the backstage of a screwed up pop-star's life seemed pretty authentic.   ** 3/4

TV JUNKIE (d. Michael Cain; U.S. Documentary)
Rick Kirkham was once a daredevil "journalist" for a junk tv show that I've never watched called "Inside Edition".   Over the course of years he obsessively recorded on video over 3000 hours of his life as a crack cocaine addict, married with two cute kids, who hits the skids big-time.  It's hard to watch, very self-indulgent, but fascinating in a way that a horrible train wreck is fascinating.  I just wanted to slap him across the face and scream "stop whining and get it together!"...but of course that's not possible.  This is a triumph of documentary editing, though; I really feel sorry for the people who had to watch all 3000 hours to cull out the highlights and make sense of it all.  But the result is a cohesive true-life depiction of addiction and ultimate redemption.  ***

Gregg Kavet, Andy Robin)
I missed the press screening; and after several people said that this American indie comedy was stupid I almost missed the movie.  Fortunately for me I ignored them and went anyway.  The film actually is a well written New England slacker comedy with a pair of fine performance from Aaron Stanford and especially Paul Schneider, who creates a comic persona against type which is simply brilliant.  Schneider reunites with Zooey Deschanel (looking fine)...this time playing brother and sister rather than the lovers of the wonderful All the Real Girls of a couple years ago.  At least as far as I'm concerned this was a comedy which actually made me laugh - mostly for the originality and ingenuity of the story and characterizations. ***

GO WEST (d. Ahmed Imamovic; Bosnia)
The Bosnian civil war of the early '90s has engendered several powerful films, and this one is no exception.  It's the story of two gay men lovers, one Serbian the other Moslem, who try to ride out the war pretending that the rather feminine Moslem partner is a woman (to avoid the fatal stigma associated in this conflict with Moslem circumcision); and ostensibly getting married to each other in the home village of the Serbian hunk.  It's an intriguing story; but I felt it got a little bogged down in the telling, and seemed over-obvious in its anti-war didacticism.  Still, the strong direction and depiction of the depravities of war took this film to a higher level.  ***

YOU ARE SO HANDSOME (d. Isabelle Mergault; France)
Nobody plays boring-shlub-with-redeeming-qualities quite as well as Michel Blanc.  Here he's a recently widowered farmer trying to find another wife/servant to replace his dearly departed.  It's a fairly amusing story...only it's almost the same exact story that was done much better a few years ago with The Girl From Paris.   Pleasant enough trifle...I even felt a little tearing up at the end of the film.  ** 3/4

TIME TO LEAVE (Le temps qui reste)  (d. François Ozon; France)
In case anybody has any doubts about how subjective my ratings are during these festivals, then my feelings about this film should set them straight (so to speak).  I've never doubted that Ozon was a good director (with an occasional lapse in taste, as with the lamentable 8 Women.)   But here he's made the masterpiece I always hoped he had in him.   He also showcases one of my favorite French actors, Melvil Poupaud, whom I first noticed back in the late '80s when he was one of the best young teen actors in the world in such films as Ruiz's  Treasure Island, and The 15 Year Old Girl.  His transition to adult actor went well...for instance again Ruiz with Genealogies of a Crime and Ivory's Le Divorce.  But here he has the breakout role, the one that should make him a star.  He plays Romain, a self-involved, gay fashion photographer who discovers that AIDS is not the only mortal danger in modern gay life.  He spurns his young lover, his family, his career.  He confides only in his beloved grandmother (a luminous, wonderful performance by Jeanne Moreau).  More about the plot I won't divulge; except that I was emotionally shattered by this film...it struck close to home.  But more than that it held in 90 minutes the keys to life.  I'd gladly have died at 31 to have lived Romain's epiphany.  A great film.  ****

BURNT OUT (Sauf le respect que je vous dois)  (d. Fabienne Godet; France)
I don't like the mis-translation of the title of this film.  It isn't about a burn-out; rather about how the system crushes white collar working people in France.  But what the hell.  This is another very good French film with an extraordinary performance by Olivier Gourmet.  It's somewhat reminiscent of Cantet's Time Out; but has its own agenda.  Apparently this is Mlle Godet's first feature; and it is a remarkably accomplished film for that.  ***

What is twisted love?  In these six short films it ranges from the jealous rage of a crazed cuckold (in a film where the characters all watch "Law and Order" but don't seem to be aware of the existence of the paraffin test for gunpowder residue), to a little girl obsessively in love with a department store Santa Claus actor.  The best of the films was Douglas Horn's Full Disclosure, where Judy Greer and Brent Sexton have an amazingly complicated first date.  An enjoyable shorts program.

DREAMLAND (d. Jason Matzner; U.S.)
American indies are an iffy thing.  After five minutes I was convinced that this was going to be one of those predictable, pretentious novice director's indulgences.  The setting was cliché desert trailer park, the characters pretty stock.  But it soon became apparent that the actors here were making something out of their roles...particularly Agnes Bruckner (who broke through in the little watched Blue Car a couple of years ago), Justin Long (who hadn't made an impact on me before this film), and the always interesting John Corbett notably from "Sex and  the City" and "Northern Exposure".   This film didn't blow my socks off the way that The Standard did.  But it ended up being a good people story well told.  ***

LIUBI (d. Layia Yiourgou; Greece)
The eponymous Liubi is a young, pretty Russian girl who is hired by a middle class Greek family as a nurse/servant to rehabilitate the grandmother who has been silenced by a disabling stroke.  Dimitris, the recently engaged older son who runs the family gas station business, falls for Liubi and they embark on a clandestine affair.  It's a film which reinforces the notion that Greek men are macho pigs.  Handsome pigs, at that, since Alexis Georgoulis is quite a hunk as Dimitris.   It's another of those films which provoked intense dislike in some people I've talked to...and I can't understand why. 
I thought the characters were well portrayed and the film really moved me at times.  Different strokes.  ***

TOUGH ENOUGH (d. Detlev Buck; Germany)
Sensitive, intelligent, 15 year old Michael has been displaced from his cushy suburban existence
to the inner city Berlin when his young mother is kicked out by her rich paramour at the start of the film.  At his new school he is mercilessly bullied by Turkish gang members, and he inexorably is pushed into a life of crime for protection.  Young David Kross is remarkable as the passive-aggressive Michael:  every nuance of character shows behind his eyes.  And the propulsive techno-rock soundtrack, one of the best I've heard in recent films, adds immeasurably to the total effect.  This is a superb film which gets to the heart of adolescent angst.  *** 1/2

HOUSE OF SAND (d. Andrucha Waddington; Brazil)
The setting is everything here:  the desert like sand dunes of
Lençóis Maranhenses in Northern Brazil.  Two women, mother and child are trapped alone here in 1910 (Halley's Comet fills the gorgeous night sky).  The film continues in stages until 1969, with the same two actresses (the remarkable real-life mother and daughter Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres) alternately playing the same characters growing older.  It's a beautifully photographed film; and even though the action is slow to develop a quite moving one.  I loved the central metaphor of the Theory of Relativity explaining  how people can age differently by traveling separate roads.  *** 1/4

GRAVEHOPPING (d. Jan Cvitkovic; Slovenia)
The evening ended with a dud:  a distasteful black comedy about a man who makes his living giving speeches at funerals and his eccentric friends and family.  I guess I'm not immune myself to disliking a film based on my abhorrence for the characters and their actions.   **

WE SHALL OVERCOME (d. Niels Arden Oplev)
Once again, a superb film which had no advance buzz.  It's a coming of age story of a kid entering the Danish equivalent to Junior High at a school run by a tyrannical headmaster in 1969.  The kid is feisty and rebellious despite being an essentially "good" boy; the headmaster a sadist who works within the system, bringing "order" which pleases the townspeople and school board.  It reminded me a little of Evil; but the film was going for a different, more positive, effect.  The teachers, parents, and other students were all well fleshed out.  However, if the film had any flaw, it was just a little too pat in the way the characters played to predictable types.  Still, the central performance by 13 year old Janus Dissing Rathke was nothing short of astonishing; and I was really moved by the story.  *** 1/2

WE GO WAY BACK (d. Lynn Shelton)
A pretentious, arty film about a 20-something actress working with a crazy director to create a mad take on Hedda Gabler.  Even at 80 minutes the film was far too long and uninvolving.  * 1/2

PRINCESSES (d. Fernando de Aranoa)
The Spanish do prostitutes well in films; and Dominican actress Micaela Nevárez is a knockout beauty.  Other than that, this film about a friendship between two women who are temp whores with hearts of gold is a disappointment from the director of Mondays in the Sun.  ** 1/2

A COMEDY OF POWER (d. Claud Chabrol)
A minor disappointment from Chabrol.  It's a rather talky, cerebral take on an Enron like scandal of misappropriated public funds and the prosecutor (another fine, intelligent performance by Isabelle Hupert) who goes after the nebulous conspiracy between government and big money.    As usual with Chabrol, the filmmaking is fine, with an air of behind-the-scenes tension...mysterious things happening just beyond the range of the camera.  It's just that this film failed to make me care enough about the characters or what was happening to try to make sense of the complexities of the plot.  ** 3/4

Heading into the last day of the festival, remarkably I'm not at all movied out!  I'll add to this journal and give my final reactions to the festival on my trip back to L.A.  In the meantime, it's time to pack. 

An interesting world premiere film which will cause lots of controversy if it ever gets released.  ***

LOS AIRES DIFÍCILES (d. Gerardo Herrera; Spain)
Dark secrets of a middle class Spanish family including possible fratricide.  Well acted, but not very involving.  I was still cogitating about the Secret Festival film and had trouble getting into this one.  The film seemed to shift time periods in at least three levels of flashbacks; and was initially hard to follow.  Once I got the drift of where the film was going, however,  I got into it.  It didn't go where I expected...and that's a plus in this day and age.  ** 3/4

MY NIKIFOR (d. Krzystof Krauze; Poland)
Nikifor was a primitive painter,  mostly of icons and landscapes, who became world famous.  Despite suffering from TB, he produced over 40,000 small paintings which survived (many were destroyed during his lifetime), selling many of his works for pittances as a street beggar.  In this film, the old man was actually played by an actress, Krystyna Feldman, which I wasn't aware of when I was watching the film nor had  any suspicion.  A remarkable job of acting; but the film failed to engage me...I slept through part of it unfortunately.  ** 1/2

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP (d. Michel Gondry; France)
Gondry is a visual genius...a younger version of Terry Gilliam with his own vivid sense of visual whimsy.  But he does need a Charlie Kaufman to channel his visions into a coherent narrative.  Gaël Garcia Bernal was fine as a guy who lives a remarkably strange fantasy life in his sleep (more vivid than his waking life).  If the film's narrative is little more than a peek into Gondry's own id...well, that's a pretty fascinating place.  But as a film it's something of a failure:  the effects, mostly practical and stop motion stuff, have a sort of cheesy home-made look and the romantic comedy aspect of Bernal wooing Charlotte Gainsbourg with his wacky inventions didn't work for me.   ** 1/2

ITINÉRARIES (d. Christophe Otzenberger; France)
The festival ended with a winner:  the story of a basically good boy who gets involved with the wrong people and spirals down into a fugitive life for a crime he didn't commit.  It's an indictment of the French legal system which considers a man guilty unless he can prove his innocence.  Yann Trégouët gives a powerfully sympathetic performance as passive, on-the-run Thierry, and the camera loves him.  *** 1/4

That's it for SIFF, 2006.   I believe I watched 128 film programs, the most I've managed during any previous SIFF (but I had an extra week of press screenings this year.)   I never watched more than five films in any one day, choosing a good meal each day over one extra film.  So all in all I avoided festival overload by eating well and getting enough sleep.  And the way the films were scheduled, along with my increased knowledge of the streets of Seattle and ability to park in a space barely larger then the length of my car, allowed me to navigate the venues flawlessly.  I managed never to be late to even one screening.

It's my impression that this has been the best run SIFF of the aughts, with a very high ratio of films I enjoyed a lot.  Once again, the SIFF programmers seemed to be choosing films just for me and my peculiar set of tastes!   So what that the Golden Space Needle audience award went to such a silly James Bond send-up as
OSS 117.   That film shouldn't have been in the festival to begin with, more a Hollywood pop film in its sensibility than a film of festival quality, even if it was in French and subtitled.  It just goes to show that audiences, even in Seattle, prefer mindless, popular crap to well considered art.  Embarrassing.

During the next few weeks, I'm going to add to this journal the SIFF films I missed which I end up watching at the upcoming L.A. Film Festival and OUTFEST, Los Angeles' gay film festival in July.   Until then...Rudolph out!

Films already seen prior to the festival:

*** 1/4
THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T (Saw this when I was 11, and it gave me nightmares for months!)
BE WITH ME  ** 3/4
BLACK ORPHEUS (Saw this when it came out in 1959.  Impressive visuals and music.)
CHINAMAN (d. Henrik Ruben Genz) Wry Danish comedy. Plumber divorced by wife marries younger Chinese woman. ***
C.R.A.Z.Y.  *** 3/4
*** 1/4
(d. Per Fly) Another Danish mid-life crisis film...teacher falls for eco-terrorist former student. Stark, fine drama.  *** 1/4
ME, YOU, THEM   ** 1/2  (2000 Brazil Academy foreign film submission)
(d. Stéphane Brizé) Slow, lugubrious; 50ish man redeemed by too much tango. ** 1/2
OFF SCREEN  ** 1/4
*** 1/4
THE WINDOW  (a 1949 film noir which I recall as being one of the best films I've ever seen)
ZOZO ***

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