2007-8 AFI Festival and Other Winter Festivals Journal

All ratings are based on **** being best.
Films in BLACK type are foreign films watched
Films in RED type are AFI Film Festival films
Films in GREEN type are Palm Springs Film Festival films
Films in VIOLET type are Skandinavian Film Festival (L.A.) films

(d. Tom Collins; Ireland)
Five Irish lads headed to England together in 1977 to make a future for themselves.  This film, obviously based on a play and dialog heavy, is about an Irish wake that the four survivors throw for their suicided mate thirty years later in present day London.  They still speak Gaelic among themselves; but they have gone separate paths and become true Londoners.  It's similar in set-up and tone to Fred Schepisi's Last Orders; however not as filmic.  ** 3/4

I JUST DIDN'T DO IT (d. Masayuki Suo; Japan)
Ryo Kase is outstanding as a young man falsely accused of groping a teenage girl on a crowded train.  He's defended by the superb actor Kohji Yamamoto; but in essence this long, complex courtroom procedural is an indictment of the Japanese legal system.  Done in an almost documentary like style,  spare and unusually realistic, the film made the point that judges and the legal system lose face if an accused is found not guilty.  Japan has the "presumption of innocence" principle; but in practice it doesn't work.  I found the film riveting throughout its 2 1/2 hour length.  *** 1/2

THE UNKNOWN (d. Giuseppe Tornatore; Italy)
Not your typical emotionally excessive Tornatore film, rather a fairly taut thriller which seemed more Spanish than Italian in its style (whatever that means, just a personal impression).  It's the story of a former Ukranian sex slave who arrives in a small Italian city in order to find her lost child and will stop at nothing in her determination.  Nicely acted, especially by the beautiful Kseniya Rappoport, both as a blond in the quick-cut flashbacks and as a worldly brunette in present day.   I was initially bothered by a heavy handed, if expressive score by Ennio Morricone; but ultimately it worked to provide gravitas.   I had some problems with the internal logic of the narrative; but on reflection I think it all held together remarkably well.   *** 1/4

THE SILLY AGE (d. Pavel Giroud; Cuba)
This is a stylish coming-of-age film taking place in the Cuba at the point of the success of the Castro revolution in 1958.  It's the story of a  woman and her precocious 10 year old son who return from Spain to Cuba to the home of her free spirited mother, a successful society photographer.   The film is shot largely from the boy's point of view as he approaches puberty (apparently this is the "silly age" of the film's title), explores his budding sexuality, bonds with his grandmother, and watches the revolution unfold.  I was impressed by the filmmaking, even if the film's themes and story seemed a trifle familiar. ***

GONE WITH THE WOMAN (d. Peter Naess; Norway)
Naess has made a comedy about a nebbish guy pursued by a pushy girl,  and their cleverly off-center relationship.  It reminded me of a male-centered version of Amélie, only slightly less self-consciously precious.  In any case, the guy, played with empathy and nerdish compassion by Trond Fausa Aurvag, was an original.  Comedies don't always cross cultures successfully; but this one worked for me.  It helped that the excellent wide screen photography and quirky musical score were first class.   ***

THE KNOT (d. Li Yin; China)
The Chinese film is an historical epic love story ranging from the late 1940's in Taiwan to the present day in New York and Tibet.  It's about a young couple caught up in the passions of the Communist takeover:  she an artist, daughter of a bourgeois Taiwanese dentist, he a red partisan who leaves Taiwan to join the Communists, becomes a medic for the Red side in the Korean War, and disappears.  It made an interesting double bill with the Norwegian film, because this film reminded me of another Jean-Pierre Jeunet film, A Very Long Engagement, also a sweeping war epic of the long time separation of committed lovers...but Jeunet did it better.  The Knot is a fine, beautiful film which somehow just failed to engage me emotionally, although that was its intention.  ***

THE ORPHANAGE (d. J. A. Bayona; Spain)
A creepy, old, possibly haunted house, once an orphanage; a distraught mother whose son has disappeared.  Atmosphere for days, even some scary moments.  Amenábar did it so much better in The Others.  ** 1/2

A MAN'S JOB (d. Aleksi Salmenperä; Finland)
For some reason most of the films so far have reminded me of past films.  In this case Cantet's Time Out, also about a working class man who loses his job and invents a subterfuge to avoid confronting his dysfunctional family with the true situation.  Here, the husband becomes a male prostitute for older women...and, predictably, this doesn't offer an easy life.  Tommi Korpela is an interesting actor, 40ish, craggy face and great body.  At first he seems an unlikely sex object, but his descent into debasement rings true.  Interesting character study.   ***

Baltasar Kormákur; Iceland)
*** 1/4

SHORT CIRCUITS (Kratki Stiki) (d. Janez Lapajne; Slovenia)
Several stories desperately looking for a connection.  A lonely busdriver finds a baby left on a doorstep by a reclusive woman living under a bridge; a woman doctor involves herself out of guilt with a quarrelsome quadriplegic accident victim; and a frightened young girl gas station attendant unknowingly refuses to gas up the car of a father whose son is dying in his arms.  The time line of these stories is deliberately confusing, as the stories intertwine out of  literal continuity.  However the same actress plays the important female role in all three stories (Tjasa Zelenik), an amazing achievement since I wasn't even aware of this until after the film concluded.  It's a tricky downer of a film, and I was left with more unanswered questions than I was comfortable with.  ** 3/4

DUSKA (d. Jos Stelling; The Netherlands)
How annoying was this dark comedy?  Very.  Duska is an oddball homeless Russian man who invades the apartment of a lonely Dutch film critic who accidentally had made his acquaintance some time before at a surrealistic (but amusingly portrayed) Ukranian film festival.  Duska is annoyingly persistent and obtuse, and the film critic is annoyingly passive.  Or maybe nothing is as it seems.  Who knows?  * 3/4

THE POPE'S TOILET (d. Enrique Fernández; Uruguay)
In 1988 the traveling Pope, John-Paul II, spoke in a small, economically depressed Uruguayan village.  The villagers, some of them smugglers of comestibles from across the nearby Brazilian border, decide to take advantage of the Pope's visit by gearing up to serve the throngs of visitors, an admirably Capitalistic endeavor.  One family, the center of the film, decides to construct a luxury outhouse to charge visitors for the facility.   This is an earthy film which plays like a humanistic documentary.  Diverting, but as a film not much.  ** 1/2

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS (d. Cristian Mungiu; Romania)
Often the Cannes winner is problematic with the Academy crowd; and I fear this is no exception.  This film is about a pair of female college roommates in 1987 (two years before the anti-Ceaucescu revolution), one of whom is pregnant and desirous of an illegal abortion.  The film is shot from the point of view of the other, stronger roommate.  Through the use of long, tension inducing static setups and realistic hand held tracking shots, the director manages to heighten anxiety but restrict the emotional payoff.  The film reminded me of another, even more gritty, Romanian film Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr.  Lazarescu...and much of the reason for this is undoubtedly due to the common cinematographer, Oleg Mutu.  *** 1/4

YOU, THE LIVING (d. Roy Andersson; Sweden)
Andersson makes visually dazzling, thematically puzzling films made up of vignettes drenched in irony about various grotesque characters inhabiting his strange, fluorescent, imaginary world.  I don't pretend to understand his symbolism (for instance what's with all the Nazi references?); and to tell the truth, despite my awe at his signature visual imagination and the way he expands the space of the frame by constructing elaborate, painterly backgrounds, his films grate on me. ** 3/4

PADRE NUESTRO (d. Rodrigo Sepulveda; Chile)
Three thirty-something siblings, each of whose life is more or less screwed up, attend their dying father's last days.  It's the epitome of the dysfunctional family story, done with a light touch.  Very well acted, although occasionally flirting with over-the-top, especially the dying father's bar and whore house carousing.  But for me, the film had a satisfying emotional payoff.  ***

DAYS OF DARKNESS (d. Denys Arcand; Canada)
Arcand's film is based in a futuristic, dystopic Quebec; and is the story of a lowly functionary so unhappy with his life that he is constantly fantasizing about sexual escapades and elaborate revenges.  It's sort of a Walter Mitty plot; and I sort of liked the film, even though I couldn't quite relate to the main character.  ***

A girl college graduate takes a job in a remote mountain village and instead finds herself virtually held prisoner and married to a loutish farmer against her will.  That's the setup of this slightly overlong, but well constructed and harrowing film.   This is  the Chinese version of a Ken Loach film:  a kitchen sink presentation of a pressing social problem.  But Huang Lu's remarkable performance as the plucky slave bride is worth the ride.  ***

THE MUGGER (d. Pablo Fendrik)
An elderly man goes on a school robbery spree for what appears to be (in the context of the film) no reason.  Like the far superior Dardenne brothers' film, Le Fils, much of the film is shot from the point of view of a hand held camera tracking the main character from behind his head.  It's an annoying camera style, and over the course of the film's short 65 minutes becomes tiresome.  Well, that, and it all seems rather pointless.  **

THE BAND'S VISIT (d. Eran Kolirin)
The problem here is that I was tempted to count words to see if more than 50% of the dialog is actually in English, which disqualified this film from this year's Academy foreign film competition.  The answer:  maybe...it seems a really close call.  But as for the film, for all the hype I was slightly disappointed.  It's the story of an Egyptian police band invited to play at an Arab-Israeli function which gets stranded in a small Jewish village.   The characters are well limned; and the film has an upbeat humanistic feeling.  I'd rate it higher; but my involvement flagged in the middle section, and the film just didn't quite pay off emotionally for me.  ** 3/4

THE EDGE OF HEAVEN (d. Fatih Akin; Germany)
I wasn't all that impressed by Akin's break-out film Head-On a few years ago; so my expectations were muted.  But to my surprise I was totally engrossed by this fascinating and unlikely story.  Like one of my favorite films, Lelouch's And Now My Love, it has two complex, intersecting stories which tantalize but never quite connect.  I'm not even going to try to offer a synopsis of the plot.  Let it suffice to say that I was totally absorbed and emotionally involved in the plight of these characters.  Akin does something really daring:  gives away important plot points with introductory scene titles.  But this trick actually adds to the tension and ultimate effect.  It's a great script, nicely realized (Istanbul has rarely been better served as a backdrop).  *** 3/4

György Pálfi; Hungary)
** 3/4

CHOP SHOP (d. Ramin Bahrani)
Alejandro is a 12 year old orphan, protective of his older sister, and living rent free in a Queens roll-up garage.  He does odd jobs for a shady auto repair shop, occasionally thieves, scratches out a living, has high aspirations to better himself and his sister.  With that background, Bahrani has constructed a documentary like slice of life story which is both uplifting and cringeworthy.  It works, mainly because the lead actor, young Alejandro Polanco, is such a natural.  ***

JELLYFISH (Meduzot) (d. Etgar Keret, Shira Gefen)
This is a film about anomie in present day Israel, stylishly presenting several characters in crisis.  It plays like a Tsai Ming Liang film (i.e.The Hole plus The River), mixing black comedy with pathos.  ** 3/4

AUTUMN BALL (d. Veiko Ounpuu )
If Estonia is really anything like this downer of a film, I guess I don't want to visit there.  This is a rambling exercise in miserablism about a group of people loosely connected by living in a suburban housing project.  It centers around a local nightclub and the sexy doorman who interacts with most of the main characters.  The film seems endless, overly melodramatic, and ultimately doesn't pay off for all the suffering it caused the audience.     * 1/2

MANUELA AND MANUEL (d. Paul Marchand Sanchez)
Humberto Busto is quite affecting playing a Charles Busch/Divine type:  flamboyant drag queen performer with a good heart.  This film looks great...marvelous cinematography, sets and costumes.   There's a little of the feeling of La Cage aux folles:  a farcial treatment of the drag queen doing the ultimate drag of pretending to be a man.  Simply a feel good movie, an entertainment with heart and soul.  Bravo!  ***

USED PARTS (d. Aaron Fernandez)
Like the previously watched Chop Shop, this is a film about a young boy (in this case 14 years old) apprenticing as a thief of auto parts...here in Mexico City.   This is more of an Oliver Twist kind of story, Ivan is working for his uncle as they try to raise money to pay coyotes to transport them to gringo Eden.  The film works, mainly because the central actors are so natural, especially the lead, first-time actor Eduardo Granados; and the script, while fairly predictable, develops in interesting ways.  It also has an assured director's touch.  Fernandez is someone to watch.  *** 1/4

AMERICAN FORK (d. Chris Bowman)
An unpleasant, downer of a film about a slice of the life of a greatly overweight young man in a go nowhere job.  The lead actor wrote the script, which has its moments; but the direction and pace is so plodding that the film totally lost my interest.  **

KING OF FIRE (d. Chatrichalerm Yukol; Thailand)
This is a 2 3/4 hour historical epic about kingdoms fighting for regional dominance in 1500's Siam.  The history came as a complete blank for me, obviously a result of my American education which ignores so much of the world's history.  Still, this film had enough self-explanatory backstory that it didn't become mired in exposition.  Instead one was able to become involved in the grand sweep of battles, along with the intimate stories of  love and sacrifice.   The film had unexpectedly high production values, the battle scenes  well directed, the characterizations clearly defined.   All in all an admirable effort, though probably one which will be overlooked in this competition.  ***

THE LIVING WAKE (d. Sol Tyson)
An absurdest,  Samuel Beckett wannabe black comedy about a man who expects to die and plans on holding his wake while he still lives.  For my tastes, I found almost everything about this film annoying, from the overacted main character, to the ridiculously empty poetizing and philosophizing.  Only Jesse Eisenberg, subtlely playing the main character's servant/biographer, seemingly in another film entirely, was worth watching.  * 1/2

WITH YOUR PERMISSION (Til Doden Os Skiller) (d. Paprika Steen)
Another mild disappointment in what has to be described as a dud AFI film festival.  Steen actually is a competent director; the problem here is with the script.   It's another rather absurd black comedy...but at least this one actually has some amusing insights...among them:  a battered husband and how the world can't quite cope with that concept.  ** 1/2

LATE BLOOMERS (d. Bettina Oberli; Switzerland)
An elderly, recently widowed lady and her friends living in a remote, mountainous Swiss village revolt against the ultra-conservative patriarchy which is their present-day society.  This film is guaranteed to tickle the funny bone of the oldsters in the Academy committee; but I thought it was too manipulative and predictable to warrant a good review.  ** 1/4

KATYN (d. Andrzej Wajda; Poland)
Wajda is, and has been for decades, an important master filmmaker; and this film proves that his skills are still vibrant.  It's the epic story of an early WWII massacre of captive Polish officers by the Soviets, who tried to change the perception of history after the war by promulgating a big lie that it was the Germans who committed this atrocity.  Much of this history came as a revelation to me; and occasionally I had trouble understanding the ins-and-outs of post-war Polish politics.  But that didn't stop me from respecting the sheer importance of this film and the tremendous artfulness of Wadja's achievement.  *** 1/2

POSTCARDS FROM LENINGRAD (d. Mariana Rondón; Venezuela)
This is an impressionistic, arty film about two kids, cousins and children of communist guerrillas in the Venezuelan jungle in the 1960's.  It's hard to follow, with a confusing timeline and tricky animated effects which look good but don't really aid the narrative.  The film also has a definite leftist drum to beat.  There's a glimmer of an adventuresome director here...but the film turned me off.  **

THE RUSSIAN TRIANGLE (d. Aleko Tsabadze; Georgia)
Tsabadze has made a really fine, complex thriller about an apprentice Russian cop who goes undercover as a Georgian porter to connect the dots linking a current day assassination to a blood feud between ex-Russian soldiers and Chechnyan rebels from their previous wartime encounter.   I'll be the first to admit that the complex politics of the Caucasus region escapes me.  Watching this film raised more questions than it answered.  Still, there's no denying the power of the filmmaking.   *** 1/4

THE COUNTERFEITERS (Die Fälscher) (d. Stefan Ruzowitzky; Austria)
A Jewish counterfeiter is caught in Berlin by the Nazis in 1936 and sent to various concentration and labor camps until he is transfered to a special group in the
Sachsenhausen camp devoted to counterfeiting British pounds and American dollars.  This is one of the most effective, unique stories of the Holocaust...maybe not as emotionally affecting as, for instance, the Hungarian film Fateless of a couple of years ago, or as devastatingly horrific as The Grey Zone; but still a riveting and fascinating based-on-fact story nicely directed and very well acted.  I'd like to see this film in the final five.  *** 1/2

WARDEN OF THE DEAD (Pazachyt na myrtvite) (d. Ilian Simeonov;  Bulgaria)
This isn't the first time I have watched an Eastern European film based on magical realism and inscrutable Balkan politics that has left me puzzled and bored.  This film takes place in a Bulgarian cemetery and concerns a 13 year old boy who sort of runs the place.  I'm not even going to try to summarize the plot.  I stuck it out until the end without a glimmer of comprehension of what was actually going on, mainly because the atmosphere and direction were interesting enough to keep me involved to some degree.  **

BELLE TOUJOURS (d. Manoel de Oliveira; Portugal)
From the title and dedication credit, it's clear that this is something of a sequel (or tribute) to Buñuel's Belle de jour; but for the life of me I can't quite place the reference.  In any case, it's a revenge story:  an elderly man stalks a woman to confront her with the consequences of some act done almost 40 years before.  Oliveira at 98 doesn't seem to be in any hurry to make edits...the pacing is glacial, especially some long, endlessly repeating establishing shots of Paris.  His static camera and lengthy, unimaginatively composed takes just added to the annoying feeling that something was going on, but I had no idea what.  The actors can't be faulted.  But this kind of mannered film just isn't my cup of tea.  **

CROSSING A SHADOW (d. Augusto Tamayo; Peru)
This is a ponderous epic about an engineer who works tirelessly to tame the Peruvian mountains and jungles around the turn of the 20th Century.  Its sumptuous design and costumes (I wish I had the engineer's clothing budget, he was always immaculately and expensively dressed, even in the middle of the jungle) were intriguing.  And some of the set pieces, for instance a jungle bridge collapse, are nicely done.  But my mind tended to wander through yet another mannered and slow-paced film.  ** 1/2

LITTLE SECRETS (d. Pol Cruchten; Luxembourg)
This is a slice of life coming of age story about a twelve year old boy in 1962 Luxembourg, son of a martinet shopkeeper in a country still affected by the traumas of the German occupation during WWII.  The film is well observed; but there are curious lapses in the script...episodes start and mysteriously peter out.  The effect is a moderately interesting story which feels unfinished.  ** 1/2

SILENT LIGHT (d. Carlos Reygadis; Mexico)
I didn't come to this screening tabula rasa.  I had heard much conflicting comments from friends who caught it at various festivals, mostly admiring...but a number of people I know hated it.  I wanted to wait and see it with the Academy audience.  In truth, I'm not at all sure what the audience's reaction was.  I was surprised that there was no applause, because I thought it was a masterpiece.  But a difficult one, with an ending I can only compare for daring with von Trier's Breaking the Waves.  The film is startlingly beautiful:  glorious wide screen panoramas shot in long takes, some of which defy reality (stop motion camera moves?  time lapse?);  truly the work of a unique, original sensibility.   Very slow, very deliberate; but never boring because it successfully expresses raw emotional truths about this exotic Mennonite farming family living in an other-worldly Mexican high desert milieu.  I doubt whether there will be a better film in this year's competition; but I can't help but feel that it was too strange and unconventional to make the finals.  I guess we'll see. *** 3/4

EDUART (d. Angeliki Antoniou; Greece)
The eponymous Eduart is a 20-something Albanian sociopath whose illegal life as a reluctant male hustler and petty thief in Athens is ended by his deportation back to Albania and his incarceration there.  This is a very involving and impressively acted and directed film, based on a true story, mostly  about third world prison life.  Eshref Durmishi is quite good playing an unsympathetic anti-hero.  This film should be a contender; but I suspect it is too bleak for this crowd.  *** 1/4

881 (d. Royston Tan; Singapore)
A musical comedy about two girls who compete in a singing contest.  The Singapore Getai song culture milieu which is central to the story was so campily and incomprehensibly portrayed that I was somewhat turned off right from the start.  But things just went downhill from there.  I think I must lack an affinity for the east-Asian musical.   After an hour, I just couldn't take any more.  W/O

IT'S HARD TO BE NICE (d. Srdan Vuletic; Bosnia/Herzogovina)
Sarajevo is a very photogenic city; and this film takes full advantage of that, being the contemporary story of a petty thief taxi driver who tries to change his life by going straight to win back his wife and baby boy.  In some ways this is the male equivalent to last year's excellent Bosnian film
Grbavica, also a story of lost souls and their children in a post-war world.  It's a solid, well acted film. ***

DONSOL (d. Adolfo Alix, Jr.; Philippines)
Donsol is a resort on one of the Philippine islands which has adopted a rare,  primeval fish, called the "whaleshark", as a tourist attraction.  This is the tender, if predictable, love story of an affair between a 30-something tourist woman and a young, attractive tourist guide.   There's a lot of underwater photography featuring tourists and their guides swimming with the whalesharks (huge, phlegmatic beasts which look like white spotted whales with shark's fins but no teeth).   It's a fascinating, exotic milieu for a film...and to be truthful I was moved by the narrative even though the terrible digital film transfer and rudimentary direction distracted from the experience.  ** 1/2

I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND (d. Jiri Menzel; Czech Republic)
Actually, the best that the hero of this delightful little Czech comedy did was serve the Emperor of Ethiopia...it was his boss, the maître d' of the posh Paris Hotel restaurant  in Prague whose ultimate sophistication was to have served the King of England.  But I digress.  This film encapsulates the Czech worldview between WWI and the Communist era by telling the story in flashbacks from the point of view of a clever, if slight and obsequious, waiter.  Its major strength is a beautifully nuanced, Chaplinesque performance by Ivan Barnev, who plays the young waiter.  But the entire package:  sets, cinematography, music, script are first class.   It reminded me in scope of another Czech historical epic film, Jakubisko's Millennium Bee.  This isn't quite the masterpiece that that forgotten 1984 classic was.  But it has the same sort of Eastern Europe historical sweep, getting the big picture right by concentrating on the microcosm of a survivor.   *** 1/4

BEN X (d. Nic Balthazar; Belgium)
Every once in a while this competition offers up some out-of-the-ordinary surprise, and this year's prize goes to this film.  It's the story of an autistic boy, diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome...sort of a younger version of Dustin Hoffman's "Rainman".  In this case, the boy, incredibly well portrayed by first time actor Greg Timmermans, is only able to live an expressive life through an online multi-player internet videogame, as the heroic character Ben X.  In real life he is tormented by bullies at school and is locked inside his head.  The videogame graphics are nicely done.  But it is the achingly beautiful portrayal of this split life which is done filmically about as well as it is possible to imagine.  I can only hope the committee agrees with me and puts this little gem in the finals.  *** 1/2

SECRET SUNSHINE (d. Lee Chang-dong; Korea)
A young widow and her 9 year old son resettle from Seoul to her husband's provincial home town where further tragedy awaits.  The film is about surmounting what life throws at you.  Some of the Christian as cult stuff made me wince; and the film feels slightly overlong.  Yet the central performance by Jeon Do-yeon is strong and the sum effect is a moving story of modern life in Korea.  ***

RETURN OF THE STORKS (d. Martin Repka; Slovakia)
A German girl leaves her boyfriend to travel to visit her runaway grandmother in her home village on the Slovakian-Ukraine border.  There follows a story which touches on the refugee smuggling racket, the long term effects of the German occupation of WWII, the lovely Carpathian forests, and modern love, symbolized by the plight of the monogamous village stork deserted by its mate, patiently and mournfully waiting.   The film is a little too schematic, events imposed by the narrative rather than seeming to flow naturally.  But the German couple, played by Katharina Lorenz and Florian Stetter are very attractive, and I was drawn into the film.  ***

M FOR MOTHER (d. Rasool Mollagholi Poor; Iran)
Actually, the film should be translated as Mi (as in do-re-mi) for Mother, as the musical note plays a vital part in the plot.  It's the story of a married couple who conceive a child which is found to be damaged in utero because the mother had been a victim of mustard gassing during the war with Iraq years before.  The diplomat husband freaks and deserts them; and the film dissolves into overwrought  bathos as the cute, if damaged, child grows up and the mother falls victim to her old wounds.  Way too over-the-top emotionally for my tastes; but the production values are high.  * 3/4

CARAMEL (d. Nadine Labaki; Lebanon)
Like Tonie Marshall's Venus Beauty Institute, this is an actress/director's vision of the romantic goings on of five women who work at a hair salon...this time in the Christian section of Beirut, Lebanon.  Labaki takes the lead role, and she is beautiful and accomplished.  The film is nicely acted and put together; but it covers familiar, warmed over romantic comedy territory.  ** 1/2

DENIAS, SINGING ON THE CLOUD (d. John De Rantau; Indonesia)
Denias is a poor teenage boy from a backwoods Papua village on the Indonesian island of New Guinea.  He's smarter than the other boys in the village, and his teachers (temporarily assigned to this unlettered community) want him to continue his education by leaving the village and going to a city school that usually caters to more privileged families.  Based on a true story, the film is gorgeously photographed, taking full advantage of the beautiful jungle vistas.  But the acting is rudimentary, and the story is a series of all too obvious clichés.  Too bad, because it really is an uplifting experience.  ** 1/2

EXILED (d. Johnny To; Hong Kong)
** 1/4

Andrés Baiz; Columbia)
Another based-on-a-true-story film...however this time the filmmaker takes some obvious license for dramatic purposes to attempt to explain the inscrutable events depicted in the film.  Almost anything I say about the film will give more away about the plot than I want to.  Let it suffice that the film is an eerie, effective thriller in the David Fincher mode, almost too much to take with its pessimistic view of human nature and its Satan on Earth symbolism. ***

Özer Kiziltan ; Turkey)
*** 1/4

Vidhu Vinod Chopra; India)
This film is an old fashion, wide screen epic, a kind of Hindu version of Hamlet.  It's about an Indian royal family in modern times and the bodyguard named Eklavya, who is sworn to defend the king.  Dramatically, it goes over the top in the best Bollywood tradition.  However there's a definite excitement to the mis en scène.  This is one director who knows how to make a thrilling, larger than life movie.  ***

PERSEPOLIS (d. Vincent Parronnaud and Marjane Satrapi; France)
This 2-D animated film is the autobiographical story of Marjane Satrapi's childhood in Iran, education in Vienna, return to Khomeini's Iran during the war with Iraq, and finally her emigration to France.  At the same time it is a moving and educational pull-no-punches history of modern Iran.  The animation is not special; but it is adequate to the job of expressing the narrative.  It is rare that an animated film makes it to the final 5 foreign films; but there is not doubt that this film will have impact on the committee.  *** 1/4

Peter Fog; Denmark)
*** 1/4

THE TRAP (d. Srdan Golubovic; Serbia)
This is my nomination for sleeper hit of this year's competition.  How it could have been overlooked in the hype, having played almost unnoticed at the Toronto film festival, I haven't a clue.  This is a psychological thriller with such impact and audience affect that it reminded me of Hitchcock, or recent Michael Haneke films such as Caché.   It's about the dilemma of a father faced with a sick child and lack of resources to get the operation which will save him.  The acting was impeccable, especially Nebojsa Glogovac, whose nuanced portrayal of the seriously conflicted father was Oscar caliber, in my opinion.   But the direction also must be lauded.  Golubovic has an eye for innovative compositions which speak volumes and a perfect sense of camera movement and placement.   This film blew me away; and I can only hope that others on the committee were equally impressed, although the film just might be too slowly paced and thoughtful for late night viewing.  *** 3/4

ON THE WINGS OF DREAMS (d. Golem Rabbany Biplop; Bangladesh)
This film about the troubles which befall a simple, rural family when they stumble across some foreign currency, is a like an old fashioned parable or a story by O. Henry.  The acting was uneven; sometimes I couldn't help but be amused by an obvious piece of business, a leer or stare right out of an old fashioned melodrama.  But by and large the characters were realistic, and the story, if predictable, actually held together.  **

THE HOME SONG STORIES (d. Tony Ayres; Australia)
Ayres made one of my all-time favorite gay films in 2002, Walking on Water.  Here he is reaching into his own life to tell the story of his mother, a Chinese bar singer brought to Australia with her two young children by a kindly Anglo sailer who married her and then was largely absent at sea.  It's written from the somewhat naive point of view of the 10 year old child who grew up to be the author/filmmaker.  The acting is superb...Joan Chen has rarely been as magnificent as here, as the self-involved Rose (do I detect a little Gypsy association in the author's recollection of his mother?).   The feeling of time and place is perfect.   And the boy who plays the 10 year old Tom (Joel Lok) is a real find.  *** 1/4

Ognjen Svilcic; Croatia)
** 3/4

THE WHITE SILK DRESS (d. Huynh Luu; Vietnam)
The Vietnam Oscar submission starts in 1954 and covers twenty years of the lives of a poor, struggling, but plucky rural family beset with the miserablisms of poverty and war.   The eponymous dress was the wrapping of a foundling who grew up to be a hunchback laborer, who makes it a wedding gift to his wife-to-be who in turn makes it into a garment for her school age daughters to share.   The family goes through every travail and tragedy imaginable.  The cinematography is striking, the acting valiant; but the melodramatic story and anti-Capitalist slant (there's a particularly ghoulish scene which is a variation of the evil Capitalist blood-sucker which has to be seen to be believed) left me cold.  **

UNSPOKEN PASSION (d. Roni Bertubin)
This Philippine film is amateurishly shot on digital, with uneven acting and a script which occasionally went haywire with strange, disconnected digressions.  However for me it proved that rudimentary filmmaking can be effective if the characters and story are interesting enough and I become involved emotionally.   This starts out as the story of two boys growing up best friends in a rural setting.  One is intelligent and promising, and he obviously has a crush on his charismatic and attractive friend (cf. The Kite Runner).  Their lives diverge as they move apart; but they come together as young men in Manila where each has become involved in the sex industry.  It's the age old story of the gay guy pining after his straight friend who, of course, is unhappily married with a sickly daughter...pure melodrama.  But, surprisingly, it worked for me, mainly because the central actors, especially Ken Escudero as the sympathetic gay one, did a fine job.  ** 1/2
Nemescu died in a car accident before he could make the final cut of this film, which is especially poignant since the film is so interesting and well observed, and could only be improved by some judicious pruning.  It's the story of a platoon of American marines guarding a train loaded with communication equipment for the NATO forces in Kosovo in 1999.  The train gets sidetracked by a corrupt, officious station manager in a small Romanian town; and the colorful townspeople seduce the soldiers in various ways.  It's a delightful film, part romantic comedy, part political parable.  In a great year for Romanian cinema, this was a highlight for me. *** 1/4

BEAUFORT (d. Joseph Cedar; Isreal)
Israel's original submission, The Band's Visit , was eliminated; and lucky for us they found this replacement:  a strikingly effective based-on-a-true-story of a platoon of soldiers holding an old Crusader fort in Southern Lebanon under siege by Hezbollah.  The acting was superb, particularly Oshri Cohen, so memorable as the youth in Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi a few years ago.  Here he is playing the platoon officer, wracked by battle fatigue and doubts about the mission.   Cedar has made some good films in the past; but this tense, claustrophobic, character driven war film takes him to a new level.  *** 1/2

XXY (d.
Lucia Puenzo; Argentina)

IN THE HELIOPOLIS FLAT (d. Mohamed Khan;Egypt)
This is a romantic comedy about a young girl from a small town who learns about love in the big city.  It seemed like a pleasant enough film, an audience pleaser.  But it was much too protracted, predictable and sugar coated for my cynical nature.  ** 1/4

ISLAND ETUDE (d. Huai-en Chen; Taiwan)
Taiwan's original submission was refused entry into this competition also; and in this case the replacement just wasn't nearly as good as the original (Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, one of the best films of the year.)  The current film is a bucolic travelogue following a deaf boy bicycling around Taiwan; and recounts his encounters with various types along the way.  The film is pretty to look at; but I couldn't get engaged since there didn't seem to be a story here at all.   W/O

THE WITNESSES (d. André Téchiné)
It's been a while since there's been an important film about the beginning of the AIDS era.  Leave it to Téchné to deliver the goods with this excellent, moving (but not clichéd) drama.  Johan Libéreau fulfills the promise of Douche Froides, playing an attractive gay boy involved in a platonic relationship with an elderly gay doctor (Michel Blanc) and a steamy affair with a straight policeman (an interesting change of pace performance by Sami Bouajila).  It's all told from the point of view of the policeman's wife, a writer of kid's stories who is going through post-partum depression (Emmanuelle Béart, looking anachronistically sculpted for the 1984 setting).  The film isn't without flaws:  there's an American character who has a distinctly foreign accent, an unnecessary distraction for Anglophones.  But I was personally totally involved with the reality of these characters who lived in a world resonant with my own  experiences.  *** 1/2

IN THE ARMS OF MY ENEMY (Les voleurs de chevaux) (d. Micha Wald)
Two sets of brothers in the early 1800s Caucasus.  Each pair has an older, dominant brother and a weak dependent younger one.  One pair become Cossacks, the other are horse thieves.  For dramatic purposes they come into epic conflict.  It doesn't sound promising; but due to fine casting and effective action direction (there is very little dialog, but the images are ravishing) it works.  Especially notable in the cast are Adrien Jolivet and two French actors who have already made an impression on me in the past:  Grégoire Colin and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet. ***

HEARTBEAT DETECTOR (La question humaine)  (d. Nicolas Klotz)
Mathieu Amalric is fine in this dense, difficult film.  He plays a human resources psychologist of a German company based in Paris who is charged with the task of evaluating the CEO in what appears to be a fight for company dominance.  Turns out it's a complex matter of Nazi participation in the Holocaust.  The film is so dark and slow, that I had trouble staying awake.  But others found it moving for its new take on the testimony of the Shoah. ** 1/4

IRINA PALM (d. Sam Garbarski)
This is one of those naughty little British films which are so audience friendly...especially with this ideal Palm Springs audience composed largely of elderly people.  Marianne Faithfull is wonderful playing a woman of a certain age who becomes a sex worker in order to make enough money to provide treatment for her sick grandson.  Also notable, Kevin Bishop playing her conventional son.  I noticed an interesting phenomenon:  there was a lot of audience laughter,  predominantly from the females in the audience who were responding to the humor about variations of male equipment.  *** 1/4

The year is 1970, apparently a tough time in Brazil for leftists, a couple of whom are forced to leave their 12 year old son with his grandfather with the pretext of going on an extended vacation (although it might be into imprisonment or exile, it was never made clear.)  Only the grandfather has just died, and the soccer obsessed kid is left to fend for himself within the Orthodox Jewish community of Sao Paolo.  This is another audience friendly film, entertaining and well acted, if a tad light to make it through to the finals in this competition.  ***

JANI GAL (d. Jamil Rostami; Iraq)
Iraq's submission is a melodrama about the deprivations of the Kurds from the point of view of an innocent man who has lost everything after 10 years in prison.  It's one of those throw the kitchen sink at the main character movies:  a difficult, but ultimately (if you can last that long) uplifting exercise in unremitting misery.  I was confused by the time and place of the film; it was never clear who the enemy was, possibly Sadam; but the troubles for the Kurds in Iran have been going on for a long time; and the message of this film is an important one.  Too bad that this film is so maladroit dramatically.  **

Carlitos Ruíz Ruíz & Mariem Pérez; Puerto Rico)
** 3/4

SHADOWS (d. Milcho Manchevski; Macedonia)
This is a fine genre film (disclosing the genre actually is a spoiler) about a young doctor who experiences troubling delusions a year after an almost fatal auto accident.  Borce Nacev is quite good in the role of the doctor who has dominant mother problems and an errant wife.   The film feels slightly overlong, but is effective filmmaking:  scary and suspenseful, and also humaine and beautifully photographed.  ***

LA FRANCE (d. Serge Bozon)
Sylvie Testud makes an attractive young boy in disguise in this strange quasi-musical WWI film about a lost platoon of soldiers wandering the bleak countryside of 1917 Europe.   Amidst the general gloom of the film, the soldiers occasionally break into anachronistic musical numbers; and every time the audience tittered, breaking the mood.  Of all the recent spate of French musical films, this is the oddest.  ** 1/2

TIMES AND WINDS (d. Riha Erdem)
This Turkish film takes place in a rural community of breathtaking beauty, spanning mountain and water vistas.  The townspeople are a quirky bunch...the men all flawed, the women docile.  But the film focuses on the plucky children of the village, especially a pair of young teenage boys who have father problems.  The kids are great; the director has a wonderful eye and he's blessed with a great steadycam operator.  The only flaw in this film is overkill in the musical score.  However, all in all, this is the kind of film, observant of a foreign milieu but also totally involving, which makes international film festivals especially interesting. *** 1/4

MATAHARIS (d. Isiar Bollain)
The title refers to three women who work at a Madrid detective agency, mostly going undercover Mata Hari style.   Their involvement in cases of personal and industrial spying lead to problems in their own relationships.  Especially touching is the unfolding of the relationship between Najwa Nimri and the always reliable Tristan Ulloa.  This isn't the harrowing experience of the director's previous film, Take My Eyes.  However, the film has a similar focus on the dynamics of marriage from the women's point of view.  ***

SHELTER (d. Jonah Markowitz)
The pay cable channel Here! is starting to produce gay genre films; and if this is an example of their taste and mission then all I can say is bravo!  Obviously low budget, and presented here in digital, Shelter nevertheless works as a gentle coming out story about a lower class surfer dude living in San Pedro who over the course of the film finds his identity.  I was blown away by the performance of Trevor Wright in the lead role.  He portrays with conviction a young guy taking on the responsibility of caring for his sick father and his partying sister's young kid...while facing a crisis of his own sexual identity and development as an artist.  The director has the quirky habit of ending scenes with a pan upward to empty sky; but other than that he did a more than credible job of bringing a fresh perspective to the coming out story.  ***

MONGOL (d. Sergei Bodrov; Kazakhstan)
** 3/4

THE CLASS (d. Ilmar Raag; Estonia)
This Estonian submission has been compared to Van Sant's Elephant; however, in every way...formally as well as narratively, I think this is the better film.  It's the story of a senior class in a tony high school where one boy is being picked on by the entire class, with the exception of one hesitant friend who defends him as a matter of honor.  The film is brilliantly directed, with several exhilaratingly sequences of fast cuts interspersed with well acted narrative.  Apparently this is based on "true stories", although that seems a little vague.  It's hard to believe how blind and useless the adults were as depicted here.  But the film is a visceral kick in the stomach:  hard to watch, but undeniably brilliant.  *** 1/2

CAUCASIA (d. Farid Gumbatov; Azerbaijan)
I stuck it out to the end; but this film about a Russian family living in the Caucasus which spans decades (in confusing nested flash-backs) just didn't quite have the goods in this competition.  I wish I had a little more background in the politics of this area.  The people story here worked; but the melodrama of the political part of the film just seemed to be amateurish and offputting.  It didn't help that the film dialog was very badly dubbed in parts and the digital photography was among the worst I've seen.  * 1/4

JIMMY OF THE HILL (d. Enrico Pau)
The eponymous Jimmy is the younger son of an impoverished Italian family living in an industrialized Sardinian town.  He turns to crime as an alternative to the empty lives of his family, and that doesn't go so well.  Nicola Adamo plays the role with a reserve which doesn't explain much of his character's inner life.  Also, some of the narrative is unnecessarily skimpy...for instance the robbery scene, crux of further action, is confusingly shot so that I was left wondering what actually happened.   The "Hill" of the title is an interesting place...a rural, bars-free farm community formed to rehibitate juvenile offenders, nicely contrasted with the dead-end juvenile prison that Jimmy originally was sent to. 
The photography and direction were mostly credible; I just wish the film felt like it was going someplace.  ** 1/2

INVESTIGATION (d. Iglika Trifonova)
Billed as a Bulgarian Prime Suspect, this film actually lived up to its rep.  Svetlana Yancheva plays a stolid criminal investigator charged with getting a confession from a man who allegedly committed a brutal killing and dismemberment.  Her methodology is subtle; and even as the rest of her life is falling apart, her confrontations with the taciturn subject of her investigation make for a gripping policier.  ***

IN MEMORY OF MYSELF (d. Saverio Costanzo)
A young man starts the process of becoming a monk in a gorgeous monastery on an island in the Venice lagoon.  With meditation and study he's exploring his own inner self while the monks test him.  Needless to say, such an interior based story makes for a difficult film.  Christo Jivkov plays the young novice mostly with soulful eyes.  There's lots of slow moving camera wandering through the beautiful building.  From what I understand, the original source material had a gay subtext.  But without it in this film, the motivations of the action remain obscure.  I wasn't bored; but I left the theater puzzled.  * * 3/4

NIGHT BUS (d. Davide Marengo)
This is a beautifully shot screwball comedy thriller about a vital microchip and the people who would torture and kill or be killed for its possession.  It's a fun film, with an inventive plot...however I didn't feel there was much romantic chemistry between the two main characters, the hapless night bus driver (played by Valerio Mastandrea) and the petty hustler girl (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) that fate and the microchip bring together.  It's an audience pleaser, for sure.  I have a feeling that a Hollywood remake is inevitable.  ***

PARENTS (Foreldrar)  (d. Ragnar Bragason)
A sequel to last year's Children (Börn) , with different characters and not quite as pointedly harrowing.  This time we follow three families from the point of view of the parent's relationship to their partners and children.  Shot in stark black and white, the film works psychologically.  The adults are fully realized, dysfunctional, flawed people; but the children are more sketchily portrayed.   *** 1/4

LIFE HITS (d. Christian Christiansen)
The milieu is high school in a tough Danish neighborhood.  The film follows three girls who have been friends and juvenile delinquents, drinking and doing petty robberies together.  When the alpha female (sociopathic to start out with) falls out with one of her friends over a boy, it starts a series of violent reprisals which are very hard to watch.  This is one of those teenagers-out-of-control films which ring true and make me glad that I don't have to live as a young person in today's world.  Incidentally Laura Christensen, who plays the blonde, apostate member of the gang, is a dynamite film presence destined for stardom.  ***

MIRUSH (d. Marius Holst)
Mirush is a petty hustler, a young Kosovar boy who runs away from his wretchedly poor mother to find his father in Norway.  After the arduous journey, smuggled in a shipping container, he finds his father (the always wonderful actor Enrico Lo Verso), a struggling immigrant who owns an ethnic restaurant in Oslo.    I'd rate it higher as a film, just for its effective dramatic impact; but its ambiguous moral message enraged and drained me.  ***

12 (d. Nikita Mikhalkov; Russia)
Mikhalkov has re-made 12 Angry Men in a present day Russian context, with a Chechnyan defendant and jury of twelve disparate Russian men, each of whom has a story to tell.  The film is beautifully shot in wide screen and has a fine cast of experienced actors; but the script was a little too talky, confined and long for my tastes.  However, it's a definite audience pleaser, I think.  Being the last film screened in the Oscar competition, it has a good chance of making the finals.   ***

WINTERLAND (d. Hisham Zaman)
This rather short, gentle film is about a Kurdish man living and working in a bleak snow covered northern Norway town, who imports a picture wife from his native land, only to discover that she doesn't quite match the literal photo or his mental construction of a wife-to-be.  She has similar problems with him.  It's psychologically accurate, and nicely shot and acted, if a little simplistic in the plot department.  ** 3/4

THE YEAR OF THE WOLF (d. Olli Saarela)
Saarela is an assured filmmaker who tells a story with striking images.  If the story here is a smidgen too slow and philosophic for my tastes, at least I can respect the filmmaking.  Here he's telling the story of a brilliant (and incidentally gorgeous) college student who is held back by self-doubt because she is an epileptic.  It's also the story of her blocked literature professor at a career dead end and how they interact to aid one another.  This is a different sort of Finnish film than I'm used to (so many feature male centered violence).  ***

THE NEW MAN (d. Klaus Haro)
Haro made one of my favorite films of last few years, Mother of Mine.   Here he's working in Sweden, and telling the startling true story of a misbegotten 1950's era experimental program of sterilizing lower class women who tend to have too many children.  It's made from the point of view of the head nurse at the facility who disagreed with the program run by a fanatic doctor (any similarity between this Dr. Berg and Dr. Mengele is purely coincidental).  Also, it's the story of the girls swept up in the program, mostly against their will, especially one smart, plucky girl who beats the system in a horrifying way.  A nice job of filmmaking which ends my Winter festival circuit on a high note.  *** 1/4

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