2008-9 AFI & 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 VIOLET type are from the Cinematheque Italian series

DUNYA & DESIE (d. Dana Nechushtan; Netherlands)
The eponymous Dunya and Desie are two teenage best friends, the former a Dutch born Muslim girl heavily influenced by Moroccan family tradition, the latter a modern, sexually liberated blonde Westerner whose birth father deserted her mother years earlier to emigrate to Morocco.   The film is a road picture as the two become unlikely runaways in Morocco searching for roots and clues to their identity.   The film starts as a female oriented teen comedy, but becomes darker and more emotionally charged as the girls come closer to their respective goals.  ** 3/4

THE COLOR OF FAME (d. Alesandro Bellame Palcios; Venezuela)
This is the story of a young woman who is convinced by her ne'er-do-well, promoter husband to take part in a televised Marilyn Monroe look-alike contest in order to win the $25,000 prize.   Technically the film is rather primitive, shot in grainy 16mm.  But the performances are uniformly wonderful, including a fabulous female impersonator Marilyn who becomes mentor to our heroine; and the script is well written, entertaining and emotionally resonant.  Oddly enough, this isn't the only film in this competition which involves a South American televised look-alike contest (cf the Chilean film Tony Manero, which I saw in Toronto and which is a much darker examination of this theme.)   More than anything, this film proves that a good story and fine acting trump poor production values every time.  ***

The German film is an ambitious, wide ranging and epic true story of the notorious group of  '70s radical leftists who became famous worldwide as terrorists involved in kidnapping, bank robberies, hijackings and well publicized trials.   The film is long at 150 minutes; but it has strong characterizations and propulsive action throughout.  I found some of the politics and motivations and ins-and-outs of the German penal system hard to follow.  But the filmmaking is outstanding, as glossy and involving a docudrama as any Hollywood epic.   It is also highly informative as to the connections between the European and middle-East terrorist organizations, their history and development.     *** 1/4

MASQUERADES (d. Lyes Salem; Algeria)
This competition is the highlight of my cinema year; and one of the reasons is the possibility of finding unexpected gems like this film.  It's a gentle, family oriented comedy revolving about a marriageable young girl and her over-protective, married older brother.  The girl has a mild case of narcolepsy and is secretly in love with her brother's best friend who is considered by the brother as unsuitable husband material.  It's a truism that cross-cultural comedies are hard sells.   And this film is very similar to another film in this competition from Iceland, a farce which depends more on situational slapstick which doesn't travel well.  The Algerian film is more character driven with a delightful, insightful script which humanizes every character.   *** 1/4

THE MERMAID (d. Anna Melikyan; Russia)
This is a Russian take on the Amelie formula:  tell a tale of the life of a strange, unconventional girl with dazzling visuals.   From the very start, a startling visual trick in the opening title sequence, it's obvious that this director has an original eye and a quirky sense of the absurd.   Maybe the film is a little overlong and the script somewhat cloying and predictable.  But I enjoyed every minute of it.  Melikyan is absolutely a director to watch.  ***

THE FRIEND (Der Freund) (d. Micha Lewinsky; Switzerland)
Philippe Graber is a young actor who reminds me of Michael Cera, in other words an actor perfectly attuned to the Zeitgeist as postmodern schlubb hero.  Here he portrays a college student who obsesses over a local club folk singer, a girl who has her own problems.  He doesn't precisely stalk her...he's actually a pretty together young man; but when out of the blue she approaches him and asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend to please her parents, he's interested.  The gentle, unpredictable, emotionally resonant story of what happens when his "girlfriend" dies and he gets involved with her grieving family totally involved me.  *** 1/4

DEPARTURES (Okuribito)  (d. Yojiro Takita; Japan)
Two years in a row, the Japanese have sent wonderful, challenging films which arrive under the radar and absolutely amaze.  Masahiro Motoki is a revelation, playing a cellist in a Tokyo orchestra who returns to his home village when the orchestra folds.  He finds a job of low repute, but immense personal satisfaction as sort of a ritualized undertaker, lovingly preparing bodies for what his boss calls departures (not a travel agency as he originally expected when he answered the want-ad).  This is an exquisitely evocative film, one which illuminates   Japanese culture and aesthetics in an emotionally and intellectually satisfying way.  *** 3/4

BLIND LOVES (Slepe Lásky) ( d. Juraj Lehotsky; Slovakia)
Lehotsky has made a documentary featuring real people (in this case four intercut vignettes of blind couples and individuals who are more convincingly authentic than any actors could possibly be).  However, it is so slick and controlled that it falls somewhere between documentary and scripted docudrama.  Yet it avoids the pitfalls of re-created documentaries, providing an emotional impact based on obvious truth, but with the structure of successful story telling.  The filmmaker pulls this off with an invisible narrative hand and superb technical mastery of camera and sound which somehow seems to transcend the documentary medium.   This is cinema verité with heart and soul.  *** 1/4

GOMORRA (d. Matteo Garrone; Italy)
This is ostensibly a gangster film based on the very real Camorra crime syndicate which dominates life in the Neapolitan underbelly as the Mafia does in Sicily.  However, the film is oddly structured, intercutting five disconnected stories of criminal activities (drugs, toxic waste disposal, haute culture knock-offs, money laundering, gun running) with a large cast of unknown actors who seem authentic, but are hard to differentiate and relate to.  Like the Brazilian film City of God , there is plenty of unredeemable violence and sadism.  Like the more recent Italian ganger film Crime Novel, we get an intimate, frightening look at lower class Italian life.  But the very schematic nature of this film and the documentary filmmaking style makes it hard to grasp as a coherent narrative.  Still, powerful stuff.  ** 3/4

WORLDS APART (To verderner) (d. Niels Arden Oplev; Denmark)
Two worlds collide in this film:  a family of Jehovah's Witnesses riven by both piety and doubt, and the unbeliever young man who falls for the eldest daughter.  The film, based on a true story, is both a Romeo and Julietteish romance and an examination of the powerful hold that such a religious cult holds on those who become involved.  It centers around Sara (a sweet, steely performance by young Rosalinde Mynster, an actress to watch) and her gradual disaffection for the cult and her family as she becomes a woman.   Like most true stories, this one is an unpredictable journey, and all the more affecting for that.  ***

ISKA'S JOURNEY (Iszka Utazása) (d. Csaba Bollók)
Iska is a Hungarian teenage girl who lives hand to mouth supporting her drunken, abusive parents and sickly younger sister by scavenging in a junkyard.  It's an affecting little story; but it didn't have anything to hook my emotional response to.  Iska was just too passive and complicit in her own fate for me to be totally on her side.  An exercise in miserablism.  ** 1/2

THE NECESSITIES OF LIFE (Ce quíl faut pour vivre) (d. Benoit Pilon; Canada)
The year is 1952, the setting icebound Baffin Island where an Inuit (then called Eskimo) family reside in the traditional ways.  But the father has TB, and the Canadian authorities send him to a sanitarium in Quebec where he is isolated by language and fears for his family's survival without him.  This is the set-up for this remarkably well played film which has the ring of historical accuracy and packs an emotional wallop.  Special note must be made for the wonderfully restrained performances of the Inuit man, Natar Ungalaaq and the teenage actor Paul André Brasseur who plays a young, bilingual, Inuit orphan boy, also ill, who befriends the man and helps him communicate.   I loved this quietly powerful film.  *** 1/2

THE HOME OF DARK BUTTERFLYS (Tummien perhosten koti) (d. Dome Karukoski; Finland)
A troubled 14 year old boy is sent to an island reformatory run by a stern, but fair family man whose goal is rehabilitation rather than punishment.  The seven or so boy inmates cooperate in a scheme to grow silkworms in the difficult environment.  That's the set-up.  The film is beautifully photographed, has an attractive cast, and an interesting (if predictable) script.  It's also somewhat overwrought with a heavy, overly dramatic musical score.  There is a certain similarity to a previous nominated film, the Swedish film Evil.  But, unlike that film, there are no irredeemable antagonists here, thus the conflict doesn't ring true.  I still liked this film a lot, despite its dramatic flaws. ** 3/4

REVANCHE (d. Götz Spielmann; Austria)
Revanche (which apparently means "revenge") is the story of a mountain of a man (an impressive turn by Johannes Krisch) who opens the film working as a bouncer in a whore house in an Austrian town.  He's a petty criminal and secretly in love with one of the prostitutes.  When things go wrong in his life he escapes to his grandfather's dairy farm and becomes inexorably linked with a local policeman and that policeman's wife.  What raises this script to extraordinary is Krisch's character's progression, the film's plausible unpredictability, and a stunning conclusion where a very clever bargain is struck reminiscent of the Cold War and MAD:  mutually assured destruction.  *** 1/2

O'HORTEN (d. Bent Hamer; Norway)
Hamer, at least in his Norwegian films, has a definite directorial style...a penchant for symmetrical, perfect compositions combined with a wry, subtly witty story sense.   This film tells the story of Odd Horten, a 67 year old railroad engineer on the cusp of mandatory retirement.  It is made up of a series of vignettes featuring oddball characters who intersect with Horten over the course of a few days post-retirement.  It's all rather amusing without adding up to much.  I'm exactly the same age as Horton in this film, and also recently retired.  But I found little in common with his passive, observational mode of operation.  But Hamer makes it all work, more or less, helped by a fine lead performance by Baard Owe.  ***

TOKYO! (d. Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Bong Joon-ho)
Three short films strung together with the central idea that they take place in Tokyo, Japan and somehow metaphorically connect with that city.  Each filmmaker has such a clear personalized filmmaking style that it was immediately evident which segments each directed.  Gondry's one-third was probably the best of a mediocre lot:  a rather talky story of a young couple, recently arrived in the city and struggling to establish themselves.  The film starts out in realistic mode, but then turns to visual fantasy very much typical of the director.  Carax's segment failed utterly for me:  Denis Levant plays a Caucasian monster, a misshapen human who ascends from the sewers to terrorize the city.  Very strange.  But also boring and amateurishly acted and directed.  Bong's segment featured an agoraphobic man literally shaken out of his malaise by a series of earthquakes and love for a pizza delivery girl (shades of a major subplot of the tv series October Road !)  I've admired each of these directors in the past; but this portmanteau film just emphasized the worst features of all three.  (Gondry ** 1/2; Carax * 3/4; Bong ** 1/2)

LA VIE DES MORTS (d. Arnaud Desplechin)
Typical of Desplechin, this is a talky ensemble film with fine acting and an intriguing premise.  An extended bourgeois family gets together to stand vigil when one of the cousins is lying in hospital after a suicide attempt.  Much dirty linen gets exposed over the course of this short, but intense and intelligent film.  It was Desplechin's first film, and technically it is pretty rudimentary, hand held, grainy photography.  But all of that director's future virtues (and faults) are on display.  And Emanuelle Devos (the only actor in the ensemble that I recognized) hasn't aged a bit in 18 years.  ***

L'AIMÉE (d. Arnaud Desplechin)
This documentary is basically Desplechin interviewing his father at length about family history while one of the family residences is being vacated and items which recall memories are being packed away.   It mostly concerns his father's mother who died from TB when his father was only 16 months old, so much of the story is not told from actual experience, rather from hearsay over the years and through family photos.   I have to say that even though the elder Desplechin is a fine raconteur, I just didn't find the intensely personal family history all that interesting.  ** 1/4

BLOOD APPEARS (La Sangre Brota) (d. Pablo Fendik)
This is one of those dysfunctional family dramas taken to extremes.   Fendik shot most of the film hand-held with long lenses in extreme closeups which made it hard to follow (at least for me).  Still, fine acting and propulsive action made up for a lot of narrative elisions.  And Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, so memorable as the youthful actor from previous Argentinian films Glue and Tattoo, is especially interesting as the drug and sex addicted younger son in constant conflict with his taxi driver father.  ** 1/2

A BOYFRIEND FOR MY WIFE (Un novio para mi mujer) (d. Juan Taratuto)
This Argentinian romantic comedy was a late entry on the AFI festival slate.  It's the story of a husband who becomes fed up with his depressed and overly garrulous wife, and "I Love Lucy" style (though without the slapstick) concocts a passive-aggressive scheme to break up with her.  The film is well written and acted; but I couldn't find enough sympathy with the characters to care.  ** 3/4

OUR BELOVED MONTH OF AUGUST (d. Miguel Gomes; Portugal)
I'm not sure what this film is all about...is it a documentary about small town Portuguese life centered around summer music events?  Or is it a mockumentary about a film crew making a documentary about these summer music events.  In any case, I couldn't manage to become engaged with the film, and for one of the rare times, I decided to leave early and abstain from ranking the film.   W/O

LAKE TAHOE (d. Fernando Eimbcke)
Eimbcke's first film, the wryly humorous Duck Season, was a revelation:  simply shot in black & white in one small apartment.  This follow up film, about a young man having a bad day after crashing his car into a telephone pole, exposes some of Eimbcke's flaws as a director:  directorial tics such as his penchant for running static takes for too long after the action in the frame is over, or sudden cuts to long stretches of black screen to punctuate and end a sequence.  Still, Eimbcke does have a good eye (the wide-screen, color photography here is fine), and his wry sense of humor is intact.  Although I found some of the film annoying, I wasn't bored.  ** 3/4

THE CHASER (Chugyeogia) (d. Na Hong-jin)
The Korean cinema is alive and well with this excellent serial killer vs. Keystone Kops thriller.  Amoral ex-cop now pimps out call girls who are mysteriously disappearing.  The film is one long chase as our anti-hero searches for his latest lost girl, with little help from distracted and incompetent cops and a criminally malfeasant prosecutor.  It's all extremely well done, with lots of action and gore...but stylized to the point short of real horror and with a deft directorial hand at ratcheting up the suspense.  Apparently this excellent thriller is going to be remade into a Hollywood film, so better catch it before it gets ruined!  *** 1/2

TWO LOVERS (d. James Gray)
I've read that this is supposed to be an American remake of the wonderful Israeli film, Late Marriage.  If so, it's been changed beyond recognition.  Still, this star driven romantic melodrama has its own advantages, starting with the great cast.  Juaquin Phoenix, who has supposedly sworn off acting, is outstanding as Leonard, shy son of Jewish immigrants torn between his parent's choice for a wife,  the beautiful and compatible Vinessa Shaw (so good in the recent Garden Party) and the blonde shiksa goddess neighbor (Gwyneth Paltrow, showing a surprising vulnerability.)  James Gray makes small scale American indies with large ambitions.  Even though the plot is semi-predictable, I really enjoyed watching this cast play with these quirky characters.  ***

ALONE IN FOUR WALLS (Allein in vier wanden) (d. Alexandra Westmeier)
This fascinating documentary recounts several stories about boys 11-14 who are incarcerated in the Russian equivalent of borstal for crimes ranging from petty thievery to murder.  The system of this particular reformatory appears to be very progressive, the boys well behaved and interested (more or less) in the schooling and sports which are offered by the institution.  However the film makes the point that 91% of the boys committed at this age eventually return to the adult penitentiary system, which is shocking.  The film centers on an adorable 14 year old budding sociopath who committed (along with others) a brutal murder of another boy.  The film branches out to show his farm family background and the etiology of his crime.   The production values, cinematography, editing are all first rate.  *** 1/4

BETTER THINGS (d. Duane Hopkins)
Throughout this film I felt like bolting from the theater...its glacial pacing and confused narrative were hard to handle.  But I stuck it out and was rewarded eventually.  The film follows a group of initially unconnected young people...hard drug shooting junkies and screwed up high schoolers who seem to f*ck indiscriminately.  It also follows some very old people equally adrift in anomie.  The film is made up of short vignettes which don't follow traditional narrative arcs, showing little snippets of action between long static takes of, well, nothing happening.  Still, the film is gorgeously shot with an interesting effects laden, hypnotic soundtrack which makes the lack of action all the more maddening.  Yet, by the end, when the various narrative threads gel, the sum effect is artistic truth which shines through the miserableness.  ** 1/2

GOODBYE MOTHERS (d. Mohammed Ismail; Morocco)
This is a wide screen, intimate epic which tells the story of two Moroccan families in 1960, one Jewish, one Arab.  The times in the Jewish community in Casablanca are hard:  the recent government has banned emigration and expatriating assets, society is gradually turning anti-Semitic, and the Jews long for a modern Exodus to Israel.  Several stories of Jewish-Arab friendship (including one Romeo and Juliet type thwarted romance) are told.  Despite some poor acting and a plot which occasionally goes over-the-top into bathos, the film still has a powerful emotional impact with its crowd-pleasing ultimate theme of tolerance.  ** 3/4

SNOW (Snijeg) (d. Aida Begic; Bosnia)
This lovely and life affirming film takes place in a small Bosnian village in 1997, populated by women and girls who are struggling to survive by producing food products like plum jams which don't seem to have a viable market.  There are no men since all the men and boys of the village had been taken away by the Serbs in the war and executed.  This is yet another powerful and emotionally involving film about victims rising above their misery.  ***

WELLNESS (d. Jake Mahaffy)
A schlub door to door salesman tries to sell franchises to poor people in a small New York town in an obvious scam involving an "Herbalife" type of medical nostrum.  This super low-budget, naturalistic film has its moments, especially when the sales manager comes to town and alienates all the customers.  But feeling sorry for the pitiable main character isn't enough to justify spending 90 minutes with him.  ** 1/2

NIRVANA (d. Igor Voloshin)
This is an extremely stylized look at disaffected Russian youths, druggies, delinquents, etc. in today's St. Petersburg.  There is definitely a new Russian cinema featuring lurid costumes and makeup which I first noticed in the effects laden films by Bekmambetov, starting with Night Watch.  Voloshin is an a class by himself when it comes to depicting the youthful underclass.  ***

KISSES (d. Lance Daly)
A young boy and girl (ages around 11) run away from semi-abusive homes and wander in the big city for an exhilarating and sometimes terrifying night.  The two kids are brilliant naturals and the film is a pure delight.  I was especially impressed by the assured off-the-cuff appearing direction.   This is Ratcatcher with heart.  **
* 1/2

AFTERSCHOOL (d. Antonio Campos)
Campos is a 23 year old wunderkind who has made a definitive film about existential angst among teenage preppies in the YouTube era.   He utilizes a myriad of techniques:  controlled perfectly shot, widescreen 35mm, caught-on-the-fly videos, eccentric shotmaking, weird and aimless camera moves.  His main character is a teenage boy, sophomore at a high tone prep school, who lives mostly through videos that he either shoots or watches on his computer.  While shooting a class project he is thrust into a situation involving the death of two classmates.  The film has some of the feeling of Van Sant's Elephant ; but it is less confrontational and creepy, and more relevant as a mirror of the times and a generation.   This is a filmmaker to watch.  *** 1/4

TEAR THIS HEART OUT (Arráncame la vida) (d. Roberto Sneider, Mexico)
  Mexico's entry is an intimate historical epic about a young girl thrust into the midst of Mexican revolutionary politics when a much older general takes her as his wife in 1932.  The film is about their tempestuous marriage through the war years.  Ana Claudia Talacón is convincing as her character grows from 15 to full, beautiful womanhood.  Daniel Giménez Cacho plays the strong, but corrupt general with charming bluster.  But the film is almost stolen by charismatic José Maria de Tavira playing a young musician daring enough to have an affair with the general's wife.  Director Sneider is in full command of the medium...with great wide screen cinematography he builds a convincing period portrait.   *** 1/4

CORRECTION (Diorthosi) (d. Thanos Anastopoulos, Greece)
A man is released from prison and stalks a woman and her young school age daughter.  Is he a predator?  The estranged husband and father?  He's taciturn to a fault, the woman is obviously antagonistic.  Turns out that the answer is none of the above.  But the film is so slow to develop, so bound up in its protagonist's anomie, that it's a wonder I stuck around long enough to find out.  ** 1/4

PA-RA-DA (d. Marco Pontecorvo)
This emotionally satisfying film is based on the true story of Miloud Oukili, a French-Algerian street mime and clown who went to Bucharest, Romania in 1992 and became mentor to a group of sewer rat orphan urchans who ultimately form the international children's troupe of street acrobats:  PA-RA-DA.  Made in a documentary style with some of the most natural child actors and a fine performance by Jalil Lespert as MIloud, the film is a natural audience pleaser.  *** 1/4

PAST IS A FOREIGN LAND, THE (Il passato e'una terra straniera) (d. Daniele Vicari)
Elio Germano is fast emerging as one of my favorite actors.  In this film he plays a law student who descends into corruption and criminality starting with his meeting up with a card sharp (handsome newcomer Michele Riondino) and forming an alliance cheating at poker.  This dark, psychological thriller is my kind of film.  *** 1/2

THE BLIND SUNFLOWERS (Los girasoles ciegos)  (d. José Luis Cuerda; Spain)
A priest-in-training, his faith challenged by serving, at the church's urging, with the Falangists in the recently ended Spanish civil war, is sent to serve as teacher in an elementary school. There he encounters a suspicious 7 year old boy, son of a Communist fugitive hiding in a secret room in his house; and he has a further crisis of faith when he lusts after the boy's mother.  The film is beautifully made, and despite its deliberate pacing is a fascinating character study.  But it is marred by melodramatic overkill as the narrative unfolds.  ***

DEFENDERS OF RIGA (Rigas Sargi) (d. Algars Grauba; Latvia)
This is a lush, wide screen patriotic epic telling the story of the founding of an independent Latvian state in 1919, when a combine of Russian monarchists and the powerful remnants of the German army attempted to take over the capital city of Riga.  I was reminded of a similar film about the same era, Eisenstein's October.  However, despite high production values and a script which clearly defined the siege parameters, the film failed to engage me with the contrived personal stories.  ** 1/2

THE ILLUSION OF FEAR (d. Aleksandr Kirienko; Ukraine)
I'm not sure what to make of this mystifying and pretentious film.  On one level it is the story of a modern Ukrainian oligarch, a businessman who has built a mega-mall, but is besieged by fears that mysterious forces are out to destroy his empire.  He dreams that he is King Solomon, grappling with serving the god Moloch; and he seems to have a split personality with two ongoing personal lives.  Maybe he's a paranoid schizophrenic...somewhere in the complexity of the three ongoing story threads, I lost the narrative and never managed to find it again.  Still, the special effects were spectacular...but wasted by the overly complex, symbol ridden plot.  * 3/4

THE ROOSTER'S BREAKFAST (Petalinji zajtrk) (d. Marco Nabersnik; Slovenia)
A young man (charismatic actor Primoz Bezjak) is hired as an auto mechanic apprentice by a wise, but lonely older mentor.  That's the framework for this nicely realized story of small town life in the late 1990s post-Tito Slovenia.  The younger man has an affair with a married woman, the older man has a thing for a romantic, but unreachable, chanteuse.  The film might have developed in any number of ways; I thought for a while that it was going to turn into a Balkan version of The Postman Always Rings Twice.  But it handles its romantic entanglements in a different, and pleasingly unpredictable way.  I really enjoyed this film, even though it was a little overlong for its premise.  ***

TALK TO ME ABOUT LOVE (Parlami d'amore) (d. Silvio Muccino)
Silvio Muccino first came to my attention as a teenage actor in his older brother's film, But Forever on my Mind.   Ever since then I've followed with great interest the careers of both brothers.  This current film is a romantic thriller about a nice young man with a history of gambling addiction, who seeks guidance in love from an older woman in order to win over his childhood sweetheart who is now quite worldly and screwed up.  The director plays the young man, and proves that he is an enormously sympathetic actor, no matter how he is directed.  I liked this film a lot, even though it is somewhat overwrought and Muccino's direction is adequate, but not brilliant.  ***

BLOOD OF THE LOSERS (Il sangue de vinti) (d. Michele Soavi)
This powerful film relates a story of a fractured family during the period immediately after the fall of Italy in WW II, when bloody revenge was visited on the Fascists by resistance fighters in a ferocious civil war.  The family was split by a division of loyalties; and tragedy ensues.  Moving, beautifully shot and played, the film is an important document of a period that the Italians are only now beginning to study.  *** 1/2

TULPAN (d. Sergei Dvortsevoy; Kazakhstan)
This film is strongly reminiscent of another Oscar nominee of a few years ago, The Weeping Camel.  Only it takes place on the treeless steppes of Kazakhstan, instead of the similar terrain of Mongolia.  Like the previous film, it is the story of an isolated family of herdsmen, in this case of sheep being raised in an overgrazed environment.  The large, adorable family, mostly kids, live in a yurt; and the eldest boy must find a wife from the depleted neighboring stock of available young girls or move away from his agrarian dream to the big city.  Tulpan is the only available local girl and she resists his suit.  The film delves deeply into the lives of these herdsmen and brings their lifestyle and the rustic beauty of their environment to rich life.  *** 1/4

THE SONG OF SPARROWS (Avaze Gonjeshk-ha) (d. Majid Majidi; Iran)
The Majidi films I've seen (and liked) before this all featured children, wandering about in innocent peril.   This present film features a middle age man, father of three (of course adorable) kids, who also wanders about...now on a motorcycle as a peripatetic taxi driver.  The film is a pleasant and uplifting, if somewhat aimless slice of aspiring Iranian lower class life.   It certainly breaks no new ground, but weaves a positive spell.  ***

TAARE ZAMEEN PAR (d. Aamir Khan; India)
Aamir Khan is probably India's most reliable crossover actor.  Here he directs himself as a temporary art teacher at a tony private school who tries to help a troubled 8 year old boy, an obvious (though apparently not to the school) severe dyslexic.  This is a feel-good film with some excellent animated effects simulating the boy's dyslexia and a few integrated musical numbers which have a modern pop-music sound.  It's all a little too earnest, and at 160 minutes a little overlong.  Still, child actor Darcheel Safary is quite convincing and carries the film.  ** 3/4

THE REST IS SILENCE (Restul e tacere) (d. Nae Caranfil; Romania)
1911 a group of enterprising Romanians made a two hour silent film epic, Independenta Romaniei, about the war for independence from the Turks which had occurred 35 years prior.  From what remains of original film (scenes are played with the end credits of the current film), it is clear that this was a relatively unknown, groundbreaking achievement on the order of Gance's Napoleon or Griffith's Birth of a Nation, and pre-dating both.   The current film is a gorgeous historical, if most likely highly fictionalized, re-creation of the making of that film and the consequences for the people involved.  Caranfil has a fine eye...every aspect of this film from the sets, props and costumes to the meticulous depiction of the era is just about perfect.  The 2 1/4 hours fly by.   Only the cast's occasional bouts of overacting prevents this film from achieving masterpiece status.  Still, an admirable film and yet another indication of the ascendancy of the Romanian cinema on the world scene.   *** 1/4

MY MAGIC (d. Eric Khoo; Singapore)
An alcoholic wreck of a man has a young son he must nurture and support despite his absent wife.  Once he was a famous magician who toured Asia with his wife as assistant.  Now he devotes himself to performances in a bar:  gut-wrenching exhibitions of personal abuse in the name of "magic shows", in order to make money.   The film is shot on video and looks dingy and amateurish.  But the images are powerful, and the story of a father's love for his son is universal.  Unfortunately the unsparing S&M (no other word applies) imagery is very hard to take, like watching a train wreck and being unable to look away.  ** 1/2

LOVE OF SIAM (d. Chukiat Sakveerakul; Thailand)
Film about gay boy band singer and his first love.  Affecting, but inscrutable.   ** 1/2

PLONING (d. Dante Nico Garcia; Philippines)
A boy swept out to sea on a raft 25 years earlier returns to the Philippine island of his birth.  There, in flashbacks, reminiscences of his family, including his beloved Aunt Ploning, are told.  The film is poorly shot, despite the lovely island vistas, and amateurishly acted.  Yet, despite that, persevering to the end provided a fairly satisfying, if predictable emotional catharsis.  **

PAINTED SKIN (d. Gordon Chan; Hong Kong)
Yet another mystical Chinese historical martial arts epic in the vein of  CROUCHING TIGER and HERO etc.  This one features demons who eat human hearts and two estranged warrior brothers who rekindle their bond battling against a demon couple.  The gorgeous wide screen photography and attractive casting is undercut by some terrible special effects of flying swordsmen edited too fast to actually make sense of the action, and a strangely unaffecting love story.  This is mystical mythmaking of the worst kind, with only high production values keeping me in my seat.  ** 1/4

OPIUM WAR (d. Siddiq Barmak; Afghanistan)
The Afghani film is about two American soldiers, survivors of a helicopter crash in a desolate area, who interact with an extended family of opium farmers who live in a deserted Russian tank.  The film suffered from two major deficits:  it seemed like over half of the film was in English (which would disqualify it from the competition), and badly written dialog at that; and the middle two thirds of the film lacked subtitles, which destroyed any narrative cohesion and vitiated the point of the film.  On the other hand, the bleak terrain and beautiful cinematography, combined with an inherently involving story (at least what I was able to glean despite the lack of subtitles) added up to a sorrowfully missed opportunity.  * 3/4

EVERLASTING MOMENTS (d. Jan Troell; Sweden)
Troell has made an intimate period film epic about a strong woman, mother of four with an abusive working class husband in pre-WWI Sweden, whose inate artistic eye and the wedding gift of a camera enable her to become a notable still photographer despite formidable difficulties.  Beautifully shot with absolute fidelity to the period and with several strong performances, the film was just a trifle too emotionally austere for my tastes, although one has to admire the filmmaking.  ***

WALTZ WITH BASHIR (d. Ari Folman; Israel)
This is a powerful animated film, somewhere between a documentary and a docudrama.  The filmmaker examines his own memory lapse concerning the Israeli army's Lebanese incursion of 1982 where he was a reluctant observer (perhaps) of the Sabra and Shatila massacres.  He does this by interviewing fellow soldiers and illustrating their memories and his own gradually recovering ones.  The animation is fairly rudimentary 2-D stuff (until the amazingly incendiary end sequence).  But these simply drawn images have an emotional wallop which transcends the frame and the film becomes a forceful antiwar tract.  *** 1/2

CAPE NO. 7 (d. Te-Sheng Wei; Taiwan)
Two love stories, a doomed one between a Japanese man and a Taiwanese woman in post-WWII 1945 and another between a Japanese woman and a Taiwanese man in the current day are contrasted in this romantic dramady from Taiwan.   The current day story revolves around the formation of a Taiwanese pop group to sing at an outdoor concert.  The film has so many pop cultural references that are inexplicable to foreigners that for most of its length it was difficult to follow.  By the end, the disparate elements came together in predictable fashion; but by then, despite the high production values, the film had lost its impact, at least for this viewer.  **

NUITS D'ARABIE (d. Paul Kieffer; Luxembourg)
A contented train conductor becomes involved with an attractive, troubled Algerian/French college student and gradually gets sucked into a vortex of foolish conduct, despite the best of intentions.  I  was impressed by the two central performances, especially Jules Werner who brings a naive humanism to the man.  The script was pleasantly unpredictable, even enthralling; and the ending was ambiguous enough to be surprising.  *** 1/4

LOSS (d. Maris Martinsons; Lithuania)
A single woman, scarred by a terrible auto accident in the past, adopts a child from an orphanage.   This uncovers a tangled web of fateful relationships.  The central theme is laid out with the beginning title citing "six degrees of separation."  But the script suffers from unlikely contrivances to bring it all together.  To add to the film's problems, this was one of the few times that shaky hand-held camera work with unwatchable swish pans gave me vertigo.  There are some good, original ideas here; but the execution was poor.  **

NO ONE'S SON (Niciji sin) (d. Arsen Ostojic; Croatia)
Ostojic's previous submission, A Wonderful Night in Split, was a marvelous exercise in style.  In this film, Ostojic adds substance.  The film starts with a murder/cover-up in 1992 post-civil war Croatia and works backwards telling the story of a Croatian war hero who mysteriously starts to sing Serbian patriotic songs in public.  The facts are presented up front; it is only through the gradual peeling away at the onion of past deceits that the film discloses its secrets.  This is a thoughtful, well acted play artfully transformed to the screen.  *** 1/4

THE KARAMAZOVS (d. Petr Zelenka; Czech Republic)
A troupe of Czech actors rehearse a production of a play based on The Brothers Karamazov which is to be presented in a huge, almost abandoned steel mill as part of an international arts festival.  To be truthful, I have never read the Dostoevsky's novel and I found the play-within-the-film to be hard to follow.  But I also felt emotionally distanced from the accompanying story which involved the actors and the few remaining steelworkers who were audience to the rehearsal.  ** 1/2

HEAVENS BLUE (Tengri)  (d. Marie Jaoul de Poncheville; Kyrgyzstan)
A man returns to his roots in a little village of kurts in the lush steppes of Asia after serving time as a sailor and wandererer in the West.  He falls in love with a local woman married to an absent soldier who is serving on the Soviet side in the Afghanistan war.  When the possessive soldier returns home from the war a momentous love triangle struggle ensues, which leads to an escape and chase through the gorgeous scenery.  This is an elemental love story told well, with fabulous wide-screen cinematography reminiscent of some of the great Hollywood Westerns.   *** 1/4

LION'S DEN (d. Pablo Trapero; Argentina)
Martina Gusman is luminous playing a young woman who wakes up bloody and finds her boy friend and his male lover lying dead and dying in her apartment.  She's two months pregnant and sent to the relatively friendly kid's ward of an Argentine woman's prison.  This is an informative and emotionally powerful drama about prison life which tells of the relatively enlightened treatment of women with young children.  It's the polar opposite of the Brazilian prison film, Carandiru; but it makes for an interesting contrast.   *** 1/2

UNDER THE BOMBS (Sous les bombes) (d. Philippe Aractingi; Lebanon)
Sometimes a film is too hot to handle.  Director Aractingi apparently winged a script, hired two actors and took his HD video camera into South Lebanon 10 days after the cease fire of the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.  This simple, but heart tugging road picture is essentially about a Westernized Lebanese mother who hires a taxi to drive around the war-torn areas searching for her lost 6 year-old son.   The veracity of actually shooting in the recent rubble was telling.  No amount of special effects could have presented as vividly the awesome and devastating effects of war, reminiscent of the unforgettable urban destruction in the 1994 Croatian film  Vukovar, Poste Restante.   This is effective Hezbollah propaganda, disguised as a fiction film.   Israel (and by inference the U.S.) are presented as unprovoked mass bombers and child killers.   No attempt was made by the filmmaker to present an even handed assessment of the war.   Still, I must emphasize the word "effective", since the film really does work in an emotional level, even if as a Jew I found the politics of the film offensive.  ** 1/2

THE CLASS (Entre les murs)  (d. Laurent Cantet; France)
François Bégaudeau is a real teacher in a progressive Parisian inner city lycée.  In this film he teaches French to a multi-ethnic class of vividly portrayed 13-14 year old kids.  The film is apparently a re-creation of a book he wrote which covers an entire 9 month school year and takes place almost entirely within the walls of the classroom.  It's shot in documentary style, but with all the control of a fiction film:  wide screen cinematography, students and teachers so authentic that  I truly felt involved with a real classroom experience.  This film joins a fine French tradition of recent educational docudramas, from the rural elementary schoolroom of Être et avoir to the similarly excellent 1999  Tavernier film Ça commence aujourd'hui; but this is even more involving and relevant than those films.  Cantet and Bégaudeau (who is credited with the script) have done something remarkable here; and for once I'm in agreement with the Cannes' Palm d'Or winner.  *** 3/4

I WAS HERE (d. René Vilbre; Estonia)
This is a stylish, involving film about a student in a privileged Estonian high school who lives a life of petty crimes which escalate when he gets involved with selling meth to his fellow students.  I was impressed by the charismatic young actor, Rasmus Kaljujärv.  I also think this is a director to watch, one with a good eye for action.   The film seems to be aiming for some vital statement; but it peters out to a disappointing  denouement.  ***

FORTRESS (d. Shamil Nacafzada; Azerbaijan)
I'm always hesitant to dump on the films submitted to the Academy by some of the small nations whose film industries do not have the infrastructure to compete with countries with more mature filmmaking facilities.  This film is an example...a patriotic film about an isolated,  contemporary village, whose claim to fame are the ruins of an historical stone fortress which had its glory days centuries ago defending the local mountain pass from past invaders.  The plot revolves around a film crew using the fortress as the setting for a pageant film, utilizing the expertise of the local villagers whose lives are endangered by the real-life impending invasion of an unnamed enemy.  Unfortunately, the filmmaking is inept at just about every level from acting to direction.  On the other hand, there is something rather uplifting about being able to look into the lives of these humble mountain folk with their very human aspirations amidst their harsh, but beautiful environment.  * 1/2

HOPE ETERNAL (d. Karl Francis; United Kingdom)
A Welsh doctor, working for Doctors Without Borders in the Katanga Provence of the Congo becomes romantically involved with a Madagascan nurse.  As the political situation deteriorates the characters are forced to flee, suffering unremitting hardships through Zambia and Zimbabwe to South Africa.  Richard Harrington, and especially Christine Rochat are fine as the two protagonists; but despite good intentions, the film's predictable trajectory failed to engage me.  ** 1/2

THE SORROW OF MRS. SCHNEIDER (d. Piro & Eno Milkani; Albania)
Three student filmmakers set out to shoot a documentary about a Sovietized motorcycle factory in a circa 1961 Czech village.  One of them is an Albanian student who is faced with the dilemma of having to return home to his increasingly xenophobic and restrictive communist country or abandon it at the risk to his family by staying in Czechoslovakia where he is romantically involved with an older married woman.   I became totally involved with this film, partially because the Albanian student (the extremely handsome Nik Xhelilaj, who reminded me of the young Alain Delon) was so sympathetic.  But the plot and direction were also quite effective, evoking a gentle, pastoral feeling reminiscent of the works of Hrebejk.  ***

TONY MANERO (d. Pablo Larrain; Chile)
The main character in this film (played with maniacally quiet fury by co-writer Alfredo Castro) is a 52 year old man who is obsessed by the eponymous movie character played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.   The year is 1978; and a Chilean television network is presenting a Tony Manero impersonation contest (too bad it isn't an Al Pacino lookalike contest since Castro eerily resembles that actor.)  We start thinking of this man as something of a clown figure; but the film takes a startling turn and with one act the character changes the audience's perceptions of him forever.  Suddenly the film is a metaphor for the Pinochet years of repression and violence, which are in full swing outside.  This isn't a pretty film, or one easy to like.  But as I reflect on it a couple of days later, my admiration for its grit and honesty have raised my estimation.  ** 1/2

THE ISLAND (El Gezira) (d. Sherif Arafa; Egypt)
Egypt's submission is a large scale Hollywood like thriller based on a true story.  The eponymous island is actually a practically autonomous region run by three families who run guns and grow sugarcane and opium in large quantities, with past cooperation from seemingly corrupt government officials (the script was a little confusing about the political ramifications of the situation.)  The outlaw chieftain, practically a warlord, was raised from birth to run the enterprise by his tough chieftain father; and now has to deal with internecine struggles within the three families and the government which wants to stop the illicit arms and opium dealings.  The film has high production values plus a charismatic lead actor in Ahmed el-Sakka who plays Mansour the outlaw chieftain.  All in all it's a fascinating story marred only by the opaque politics which foreign audiences (or maybe just me) would find difficult to follow.  ** 3/4

CAPTAIN ABU RAED (d. Amin Matalqa; Jordan)
This Jordanian film is a simple, touching drama about an elderly airport janitor who is mistaken by a group of neighborhood waifs for a commercial pilot, which sets off a series of events where the janitor becomes involved with his neighbors and their poverty and in one case, their child and spousal abuse.  The film is slow and reflective, but never ponderous.  It features a lovely performance by Nadim Sawalha as the kind and gentlemanly janitor; plus some excellent, naturalistic acting by the several kids involved in the story.  All in all, a surprisingly effective film.  ***

I'M FROM TITOV VELES (d. Teona Mitevska; Macedonia)
Veles is an industrial town once part of Yugoslavia (and named after Tito), now part of Macedonia.  Its claim to fame is a huge steel mill which spews forth copious amounts of harmful chemicals.  This film is the story of three sisters who inhabit the town, told from the point of view of the mute youngest sister who tells her story in interior narration while she and her two siblings struggle with sex and drug addiction.  The characters are well played and the film is shot with an extraordinary eye for interesting compositions in wide screen.  But the plot devolves into a confusing and overly arty (to my tastes) mishmash of dream sequences, miseralism and unlikely action.  This is an art film which has undenyable artistry; but its pretentions annoyed the hell out of me .  **

DOG EAT DOG (d. Carlos Moreno; Columbia)
A bunch of low-life criminal types fight over a cache of stolen dollars in modern day, lawless Cali.  The outcome is obvious from the title; but the road there is rough and violent to almost comic book extremes.  The non-stop action has its moments; but the uniformly unpleasant characters and the total anarchy of the plot left me cold and wanting to exit the theater.  I held out to the end; but the reward was meager.  * 3/4

ZIFT (d. Vladislav Todorov; Bulgaria)
Zift is defined at the beginning of this film as a tar like substance used as chewing gum, and colloquially:  shit.   The film lives up to both meanings of its title.   Basically this is a beautifully shot (in wide screen black & white), gritty story of a tough guy serving a term in a Bulgarian prison for a murder that he didn't commit in the early Communist era post-WWII.  When he is finally released in the '60s, he becomes embroiled in an intrigue over a diamond stolen or lost in the robbery which sent our protagonist to prison.  The film plays like HBO's Oz, with vivid torture and revenge sequences.  In other words, tough to watch, but fascinating and well played.  ***

JERUSALEMA (d. Ralph Ziman; South Africa)
The beginning title says "based on real events"...but the disclaimer in the end credits states that all the characters and situations are fictitious.  In any case, there is a question whether this film qualifies for this competition as clearly more than half the dialog is in English.  Still, we were treated to an excellent, gripping thriller; so I can't complain.   This is the story of a black man growing up in poverty in Soweto who becomes a successful slumlord and gangster through clever manipulations of the system after the fall of Apartheid.   The production values are high, the wide ranging script tight and taut.    *** 1/4

THE TOUR (d. Goran Markovic; Serbia)
In 1993 during the height of the Bosnian war, a troupe of hammy actors from Belgrade foolishly venture to the war zone to fulfill a contract with a Serbian army colonel.  The film is a satire which pokes fun at the fractured politics of the warring factions.  The characterizations and filmmaking were vivid enough; but I just couldn't respond to the intended humor, finding the film tedious.  ** 1/4

CROSSING  (d. Kim Tae-kyun; Republic of Korea)
Facing poverty and depredations, a North Korean man leaves his wife and young son to brave the difficult and dangerous journey to China to find and bring back unavailable pharmaceuticals that his pregnant and ill wife desperately needs.  The man's (and his son's) struggles are epic; and this tearjerker did get the expected emotional response from me.  But I also felt manipulated by the unsubtle propaganda of the script.  ** 3/4

KILL THEM ALL (d. Esteban Schroeder; Uruguay)
This is a mystery/thriller about a scientist who formerly worked for Pinochet in Chile developing poison gas,  and who in 1993, after Pinochet's overthrow, is somehow  involved with the army in Uruguay.  The plot turns around the dilemma of a conflicted court investigator, a woman whose family has been involved with the Uruguayan army for generations, but who is determined to solve the mystery of the scientist's disappearence (he was probably involved with CIA intrigue through the every popular film subject, Operation Condor) no matter how the chips may fall and possibly affect her own family.  It's a neatly made film; but some of the twists and turns were too murky for me to follow.  ***

THREE MONKEYS (d. Nuri Bilge Ceylan; Turkey)
Ceylan is one of the premier arty directors working today.  This film is drenched in his unique cinematic vision, shot with a subdued color palette in either extreme close-up or extreme long-shot.  It's a noirish psychodrama about a family where the father goes to prison to take the rap for his boss's transgression in return for money...and the corrosive effect this act has on his wife and son.  It all works out very neatly, this could have been a James M. Cain story.  The film is slowly, even ponderously paced; but it has a quite powerful and hypnotic affect.  It helps that the son is a dead ringer for the young Robert DeNiro.  *** 1/2

TRICKS (d. Andrzej Jakimowski; Poland)
A young boy (scene stealer Damian Ul) and his teenage sister encounter a man who commutes to work by train through their town.  The boy is convinced that he is their father who he never knew; and he is determine to use superstitious magic tricks to make the man acknowledge that he is his father.  The film has its charm, especially the way it depicts the quirks of small town village life.  And the camera adores the two children protagonists.  ***

DREAM WEAVERS (d. Jun Gu; China)
The Chinese chose to send a documentary about the six years of preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  Basically the film intercut sequences of the construction of the National Stadium (along with the relocation of families living in the area), the girl's gymnastic team's arduous years long preparations, the efforts by previous Olympic champion hurdler Liu Xiang to repeat, and endless practicing by SWAT teams to combat possible terrorism.   This was a competently made documentary; but its patriotic Chinese-centrism made it hard to get emotionally involved.  I was totally enthralled by the Olympics as it unfolded on television in 2008; but I didn't feel I learned anything new from this documentary.  ** 1/2

LAST STOP 174 (d. Bruno Barreto; Brazil)
Back in 2004 I watched a documentary called Bus 174 about a well publicized bus hijacking in Rio de Janeiro.  This current film culminates with that true-life event; but it is more a brilliantly fictionalized depiction of the backstory of the young hijacker, his family, and another street kid with the same name.  I don't know how accurate the film's scenario is.  However, what we are presented with is both plausible and heartbreaking.  This is not the first time we've seen on film the corrosive effects of poverty on the street children of Brazil...but this is one of the best, most convincing, narratives to come out of this tragic milieu.  *** 3/4

MEDIATOR (d. Dito Tsintsadze; Georgia) 
The mediator in this murky thriller is a man charged (possibly by MI-6, it certainly isn't clear) with preventing a prospective sale of a computer disk which holds dark secrets.  The film is drenched with noirish atmosphere, and is interestingly structured in loops, with the action repeating from various points of view.  However, sometimes there is a danger of a story getting out of control because it is too convoluted.  What does work here are the depictions of some intriguing characters:  a beautiful prostitute, a Peter Falkish cop, a sinister spymaster, a sympathetic Scottish whistle blower/traitor.   I just wish the plot was a little more transparent.  ***

WHITE NIGHT WEDDING (Brúdguminn) (d. Baltasar Kormákur; Iceland)
Kormákur is in a playful mode in this comedy about a small Icelandic village and the native son, a college professor, who returns depressed from the city and his disastrous first marriage to the town only to become the obsession of a much younger woman determined to save him by marrying him.  The film has its amusements, especially in limning the quirky villagers.  The professor is played by an actor I admire greatly, Hilmir Snaer Gudnason, so remarkable in Peas at 5:30.   But this film dissolves into farce; and it just missed the mark for me.  ** 3/4

SALT OF THIS SEA (d. Annemarie Jacir; Palestine)
A young Brooklyn born woman whose family were Palestinian refugees returns to the West Bank to explore her roots and try to reclaim her recently deceased grandfather's bank account.  Even with an American passport she encounters massive indignities from the Israelis at the airport.  And her attitude that her patrimony had been stolen along with her grandfather's property in Jaffa increases as she explores Israel with a couple of Arab male friends.  The film eschews the politics of violence; and its pictorial depiction of the West Bank and Israel is stunningly revelatory.  But the film contains a powerful anti-Israel subtext, although there is also a measure of balance in its point of view.  This was effective filmmaking, unpredictable and visceral.  ***

ELDORADO (d. Bouli Lanners; Belgium)
Two men meet cute when one of them is caught by the other robbing his apartment.  They set off on a road trip and meet all sorts of interesting types and adventures.  Some of this is laugh-out-loud humorous.  But the film also feels meandering and plotless:  as if Wendy and Lucy had been directed by Aki Kaurismäki.   The director was also the lead actor...and there is definitely a comic auteur feeling to the film.  ** 3/4

AHA! (d. Enamul Karim Nirjhar; Bangladesh)

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