I've arrived in Seattle after an uneventful trip up the coast in record time.  Seattle is colder than I remember.  Other than that, I'm well settled and had a good day of three memorable films and the member orientation presentation (with 58 minutes of trailers!)  I've had a chance to peruse the entire schedule and I've seen more films already than in any previous year.

For capsule journal entries of the 39 films I've already seen at other festivals click this link.

All films rated with **** (masterpiece) being the best.

AMERICAN TEEN (d. Nanette Burstein; documentary)
This is a documentary which centers on five high school seniors in Warsaw, Indiana during the year 2006.  They are actually fairly stock characters:  the jock, the social queen bee, the pimply geek, the arty misfit girl, the prom king heartthrob.  The filmmaker was lucky enough to find some real gems among these archetypes.  The film utilizes some excellently realized animation to dramatize the hopes and aspirations of the main subjects.  It is also skillfully edited...but with some noticeable continuity cheats which made me wonder if some of the drama and conflict might have been editorial constructs rather than actual events.   Still, the film shows real insight into these modern kids' inner lives, how they are truly children of the internet and text messaging.  It plays like a more sophisticated version of an MTV documentary series about teenagers, taken to another level.   It's a real audience pleaser.  Nice job.  *** 1/4

BEFORE THE RAINS (d. Santosh Sivan)
It is 1937 in Kerala, India.  Linus Roache plays an Englishman exploiter, out to make his fortune from tea and spices if he can pull off the difficult and relatively expensive effort of building a road before the monsoons arrive.  But his passion for a married Indian woman has consequences.  This is a beautifully photographed, if predictable and clichéd story of the Raj.  It does for India what The Painted Veil did for China, only not nearly as interestingly.  ** 3/4

BOY A (d. John Crowley)  I originally watched this film in Toronto.  It was my favorite film of that festival and probably of the entire year.  So I had no qualms about watching it again.  Here is my review from Toronto, which I still feel is valid:
This is as close to a perfect film as I expect to see at this festival.  Jack is a media monster, convicted as a young boy along with his sociopathic best friend for a brutal murder, released with a new identity at age 21...but still a hot item in the English popular press, with a price on his head on the internet.  Its a fictionalized version of a famous English case with all the details changed.  But like the excellent The Woodsman, it's basically the story of how such a person adapts to life out of prison.  In this case there is the implication that Jack was mostly a good boy who fell under the sway of his really bad friend.  Of course the actor is crucial, and here the film really delivers.  Andrew Garfield is breathtakingly good...an actor whose inherent likability is off the charts (watch his gawky dancing on Ecstasy for a lesson in how to portray likability in a totally cinematic fashion).  Director Crowley's eye for detail and ear for realistic line delivery is amazing:  Ken Loach without the political baggage.  All I can say is wow!  *** 3/4

EVERYTHING IS FINE (Tout est parfait) (d. Yves Fournier)
The title is ironic.  Everything is not fine in this small French Canadian town.  Five teenage boys apparently make a fatal pact (I'm not going to give away anything else from this essentially plotless, but fascinating character study.)  The film has a crucially sensitive central performance by Maxime Dumontier, who almost carries the entire film on his young (and quite attractive) back.  It is also remarkably similar to last years Swedish film Falkenberg Farewell, only far superior in every way.  It's a little long in spots; and I wish that it wasn't quite so subtle with the characters' motivations for the central acts.  But it was the kind of film with a strong statement which engendered much discussion among the circle of my SIFF moviegoing buds.  ***

CHRIS & DON:  A LOVE STORY (d. Guido Sante; documentary)
This is a very nicely put together biographical documentary which tells the story of the years long relationship between author Christopher Isherwood and his much younger lover, the artist Don Bachardy.  It is most done mostly using present day reminiscences on camera by Bachardy who is in his mid-70s now.  He was 16 when he met the 46 year old Isherwood on a Santa Monica beach.  There is also utilization of wonderful old 16mm footage of the pair plus dramatic recreations of certain events, plus Michael York's narration from Isherwood's diaries.  It culminates with generous views of Bachardy's art and process, especially his fascination with his lover's visage (he invariably captures with unusual feeling the eyes in his portraits).   I had some personal encounters with the pair...being of an age and living in the same city, that isn't surprising.  I wish I had had a chance to get to know them.  This film does provide a moving and quite remarkable insight into their lives.   *** 1/2

ELITE SQUAD (d. José Padhila)
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1997.   The cops are on the take from the powerful drug lords of the teeming slums.  This is the same world which we've seen in such films as City of God  and City of Men.   Only this time we're seeing the world from the point of view of the cops, especially an elite paramilitary squad, something between the American SWAT teams and the Nazi Blackshirts, called the BOPE (Special Forces Operation Battalion), symbolized by a black skull.  Under their increasingly burnt out captain (played with brute force and remarkable charisma by Wagner Moura, so unforgettable in the 2006 SIFF film Lower City), they are charged with cleaning up the slums for the Pope's upcoming visit.   The film starts out with a confusing action scene, and then proceeds to go back in time and show the same event with all the subtle interplay shown in detail complete with the complex backstory.  It's a brilliant script.  The film certainly isn't for the squeamish...there's lots of shoot outs, torture and bloodletting.  But the bottom line is that it kicks proverbial ass.  *** 3/4

HALF-LIFE (d. Jennifer Phang)
Set in the near future, supposedly in an L.A. suburb at the time that global warming has started to wreck its havoc, this is a black comedy about three more or less dysfunctional mixed Asian-American families where the children of various ages and their parents share a kind of vacuous anomie.   The acting is all over the place, but in general the parents were terrible and the kids were fine (especially brother and sister actors Alexander and Katrina Agate).   But nothing really happens.   The script drops its interesting set-up and instead we're given a tiresome character study which isn't even that interesting visually.  This is yet another film which uses animation to expand on the characters' inner feelings; but here again the film falls short.  There is a nicely written gay relationship central to the story (and Leonardo Nam plays the gay boy with wit and elan); but other than that this is a snoozer.  **

This is one of those obvious indie films, shot handheld on video with no budget.  Technically it sucks; but oddly enough, I really enjoyed it.  It reminded me of Old Joy, being a film about two 30ish male friends from college who no longer really get along...but get together anyway, and somehow rekindle a hetero relationship.  One of the characters is a pretentious young novelist in the Dave Eggers mold (he even compares himself to that author and Jonathan Franzen in dialog).  The other has settled into a life of chopping wood and hunting cougar in a remote cabin in a Washington State forest.  The plot, what there is of it, is a fish out of water tale, when the citified author makes an unexpected side trip to visit his friend in the forest.  Their acerbic dialog is actually rather witty at times.  And a third character, a taciturn young mountain man, adds a touch of menace to the mixture.  The more I reflect on this film, the more I like it.  But it certainly won't be to everyone's taste.  ** 1/2

UP THE YANGTZE (d. Yung Chang; documentary)
This is a documentary about discovering the new China by taking a voyage up the great river to explore the development of the Three Gorges dam, a huge hydroelectric project which is displacing millions.  It is seen through interaction of the Canadian filmmaker with a poor family whose daughter is training to become a worker on the cruise ship, and the son of a wealthier family who is doing the same.   The film is beautiful to look at and documents its stories well (nice use of time-lapse throughout to show the progress of flooding water); but I found myself nodding off at times.  ** 3/4

EMMANUEL JAL:  WAR CHILD (d. C. Karim Chrobog; documentary)
Emmanuel Jal was a boy in South Sudan who was forcefully removed from his family during the bloody war when he was 8 years old, taken under the wing of a kindly white lady, educated in Kenya; and who eventually made his way to the U.S. where he became a rap singer of some note.   The film documents his return to South Sudan to re-establish contact with his family and establish a school to raise the standard of living for the victims of the war torn region.  It's an inherently uplifting and interesting subject.  It helps that there are generous amounts of film time devoted to Jal's riveting performances.  ***

This is a French Canadian black comedy about several people in various stages of depression and disconnection.  A middle age man wanders off and his wife pines.  A young female hotel clerk sends herself voice messages to relieve her loneliness.  There's also an elderly man trying to get money for an operation and an unlucky insurance salesman trainee separated from his family.  These people live despairing lives just this side of absurd.  Their stories are interconnected slightly, and the film sustains its inventiveness for most of its length.  But eventually the slow pace and the characters' unremitting ennui wore this viewer down.  ** 1/2

Normally I skip animated films at SIFF.  But fortunately this one was scheduled for a press screening.  Basically it is a personal and unconventional adult animation which combines the story of Rama and Sita from the Indian epic, "The Ramayana" along with a parallel event from the filmmakers current life.  She does this by utilizing the wonderful (and unknown to me) late 1920's songs from white blues singer Annette Hanshaw plus traditional and contemporary Indian style music...all animated with a deceptively simple 2-D art style, slightly reminiscent of the recent French/Iranian animation triumph Persepolis.   All in all, this is as impressive an effort as that Academy nominated feature and deserves to find an audience.  *** 1/4

Hunter Thompson was a larger than life character who has been a personal favorite of mine as definer of the Zeitgeist for decades.   This documentary does a fine job of exploring the man behind the myth of his own making.   Filled with illuminating footage and commentary by those people (e.g. Jan Wenner, and the incredible artist associated closely with Thompson, Ralph Steadman), this is one fascinating film which kept me rapt for its entire 2 hour length.  *** 1/2

THE RED AWN (d. Cai Shangjun)
This is the story of a father and son in conflict in agrarian present day China.  It's well acted and has some interestingly visual scenes of itinerant wheat harvesters; but bottom line it was pretty static and, in the end, rather pointless.  The director wrote such films as Sunflower and Shower, and obviously has issues with absent fathers and thankless sons.  ** 3/4

WALT & EL GRUPO (d. Theodore Thomas)
In August, 1941, faced with a labor strike at his studio, Disney took several of his most creative artists and animators on a  government "good will" mission to South America.  This documentary tells the story of that trip using generous amounts of high quality motion pictures and stills.   They visited Rio, Buenos Aires, and Santiago, with side trips to Uruguay and Peru.  And then utilized the research and copious drawings that were made by the various artists in several animated films made during World War II.  The film is slightly overlong and at times turgid; and interviews with (mostly) the children of the original travelers, now elderly themselves, didn't add much.   However the impressive technical brilliance of the production excited my animator's eye.  The film combined present day footage of the same places with the old films and still pictures by dissolving from one to the other in motion.   It was done with such artistic panache that it raised the quality of the experience for me.  ** 1/2

BALLAST (d. Lance Hammer)
This is a wide screen, but mostly hand-held and rudimentary American indie film which is a contemporary slice-of-life story of a struggling, broken African-American family unit in the Mississippi delta.  It starts with a suicide, and an attempted suicide by thirty-something identical twin shop owner men, and then tells the meandering story of the ex-girlfriend and teenage, crack addicted son of one of them.  The film is strongly reminiscent of a much better film, David Gordon Green's George Washington, and has the same deliberate pacing and impoverishment of that film, though not the superb beauty of the director's vision.  Apparently this film won the director and cameraman prize at Sundance; but for the life of me I don't know why.  It was so unremittingly depressing and despairing, so choppy and unsatisfying technically, that I left the theater feeling I was totally movied out for the day.  ** 1/4

SON OF A LION (d. Benjamin Gilmour)
Gilmour, an Australian neophyte director, went to Northern Pakistan to make this intimate coming of age film.  Niaz is an 11 year old boy whose father was an Afghani expatriot, an illiterate ex-mujahideen who wants his son to follow in his footsteps as a gun maker.  But Niaz desires to go to school, and father and son are in conflict.  The film makes brilliant use of its cast of unknowns, especially townspeople who are quite outspoken politically giving the film a great deal of relevance to Western audiences.  I had no idea of the breadth of the gun culture of the region...it's actually rather scary.  No wonder American power is useless in Southwest Asia.  In addition to having a moving story, this film has important cultural lessons to teach.  ***

STRANGERS (d. Erez Tadmor, Guy Nattiv)
A Jewish man and a Palestinian woman meet cute in Berlin and have an off-again, on-again affair despite the obvious obstacles.  It's a geopolitical fairy tale, with a plot far too dependent on coincidences and one in a million happenstance.  Still, the two attractive main characters did generate genuine on-screen chemistry.   As a political statement the film was naive; as a Romeo & Juliet-ish love story, it more or less worked, for me at least.  ** 1/2

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (d. Tomas Alfredson)
This is a nicely photographed (in snow drenched wide screen) film about an eternal 12 year old vampire girl living in a Swedish suburban housing project, and how she befriends a neighboring boy her age.  It sounds unlikely; but the vampirism is actually a charming, if bloody, metaphor for misunderstood and bullied youth.  The two kids are wonderful.  ***

Sorry.  I'm running behind with my journal and will catch up tomorrow!

AIN'T SCARED (d. Audrey Estrougo)
This young director has made an energetic, if confusing, film about youths in the Parisian projects and how ethnicity = conflict.  Confusing because it has a structure which backs up on itself, replaying scenes from different points of view.  Now this technique can work brilliantly when done right (c.f. Rashomon, or the fine Brazilian film from this festival, Elite Squad), where the layers of added meaning and experience are revelatory.  But here it was handled poorly, with no discernible demarcations to explicate the non-linearity.  Plus I didn't care for the characters, and much of their actions puzzled me.  It may just be a case of cultural and age barriers making me the wrong demographic for this film.   **

CREATIVE NATURE (d. John Andres)
William Morris is a 49 year old major glass blowing artist whose work (and that of his assistants and co-workers in what seems to be a new wave creative commune in Western Washington state) is undeniably brilliant in its complex beauty.  He's also an interesting and attractive character whose life is one of constant adventure and seeking.  Still, despite all that plus some digital cinematography of amazing clarity and beauty, this documentary just comes off as pretentious and didactic, a bunch of talking heads spouting platitudes.  OK, maybe I'm being extra tough on this one for some subconscious reason of my own (jealousy?)  ** 1/4

GARDEN PARTY (d. Jason Freeland)
There's something about multi-character, indie films about upcoming artists in L.A. (for instance Laurel Canyon, or Sunset Strip) which has built-in appeal for me.  This film, despite one of the poorest examples of digital photography and projection that I've seen recently, fits that bill to a tee.   What makes the film so appealing, a lot more than the clichés which make up the plot, are  the mostly underexposed and upcoming actors, particularly adorable singer-actor Erik Smith, ironic and smart Richard Gunn, and sexy Vinessa Shaw.  Kudos to the casting director!   Freeland, as a director, has a knack for finding a fresh take from scenes we've seen a thousand times before:  the porn photographer and the underage model; the sexually ambiguous guy from the sticks in the big city; the lame rock group try-out etc.   Even though this isn't a great, or even a particularly good film, I left the theater under a pleasant spell which lasted a while.  ***

FIELDS OF FUEL (d. Josh Tickell)
Tickell is a very involved filmmaker/environmental crusader who has spent years traveling the country in a "green" van run by bio-diesel.  In this documentary he is something of a Michael Moore type character without that director's self-defeating political baggage.  His passion (or obsession) is the superiority of bio-diesel as fuel to save the planet and restore America's fuel self-sufficiency.  He may or may not have a point.  But his film is an extraordinary job of filmmaking, which puts most efforts of this type to shame.   I'm reminded of a film a few years ago,  Who Killed the Electric Car, which also was an excellent example of environmental propaganda.  Some people are turned off by such a strongly felt, controversial point of view on the part of a documentarian.  In this case, I was so impressed by Tickell and his treatise that I was literally in tears of hopefulness for the future by the end of his marvelous film.  *** 3/4

DREAM BOY (d. James Bolton)
Yikes!  I never had read Jim Grimsley's novel; but I have a feeling that it was one of those gay coming-of-age books intended for teenagers.  Bolton (who made the difficult, but lovely art film shown at SIFF a few years ago, called The Graffiti Artist) has made a stiflingly Southern Gothic romance out of it, about two high school boys, one abused by his bible quoting father, the other a wholesome farmer kid who has a girlfriend, but...  The film is slow, and has some gay erotic scenes which are bound to offend some.  On the other hand, it really is a sensitive take on the gay teenager story, for the most part well acted (though it might have been better had the two main characters been as fine actors as those in the remarkably similar The Mudge Boy of a few years ago.)  I would rate this film higher, except that the ending bothered me, turning the film into an entirely different sort of genre film.  ** 1/2

SAVAGE GRACE (d. Tom Kalin)
This one is hard to review.  Apparently based on a true story about a wealthy family of American ex-pats enjoying the high life in Europe from 1946-1972, the film is both shocking and mesmerizing.  The acting is simply fantastic:  Julianne Moore is, of course, wonderful as the ball-busting mom; Stephen Dillane (he of the soulful eyes) is just right as the absent father, and Eddie Redmayne as the grown son of this misbegotten marriage more than fulfills the promise of such minor roles as the son in The Good Shepherd.   Even the minor roles are beautifully cast (an almost unrecognizable Hugh Dancy and sexy Unax Ugalde).   The sets, costumes, in fact all the technical aspects of this film are first rate.  The film could definitely be an Oscar contender in several categories; but shocking doesn't even begin to describe what happens in this film, so it's liable to offend more Academy members than will love it.   No more spoilers here.  Dare to see it.   *** 1/4

BATTLE IN SEATTLE (d. Stuart Townsend)
The liberal-to-a-fault audience here ate this one up.  It's sort of a disaster film (c.f. The Towering Inferno) with a large cast and an apparently realistic portrayal of the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle in 1999.   The acting is fine, the script a mish-mash, with a confusing point of view between the predominantly anti-violence based protesters (whose leadership apparently got blindsided by activist anarchists) and the police, who sort of lost it (according to the film).  Irony...policeman's wife (director's girlfriend Charlize Theron in a heart-tugging performance) gets mugged by rampaging policemen.  That's the sort of heavy handed dramatic license the film presents, pandering to the local audience.   Don't get me wrong, it's not all that bad.  The technical aspects were fine.  One of my favorite young actors, Channing Tatum, was wasted in a small, underdeveloped role.   But then every character in the film was underdeveloped.  The people, obviously, weren't the point of the film.  ** 1/2

Now that the festival is starting in earnest, I wonder how much time I'll have to devote to these journal entries.   Hopefully I can just write faster!  Anyway, the festival got off to a rocky start, with the first film starting over 20 minutes late, which meant that my 35 minute window to get from the Uptown (in Queen Anne) to the Harvard Exit (on Capital Hill) during rush hour was about 15 minutes.   Unbelievably enough I made it, due to the happy fact that the traffic just wasn't bad, I hit all the signals on Mercer and found a distant parking place fairly quickly.   SIFF is less spread out this year; but still it can be a pain to get from one venue to another quickly.  I'm trying to program my festival to minimize the travel problems...but it would help if the films started reasonably on time!  Fortunately, the festival seems to get this together more and more as it progresses.

THE FALL (d. Tarsem Singh)
I've made no secret that I'm not particularly enamored of allegories or fairy tale films in general.  But this charmer has some things going for it which make it hard to resist.  Briefly, it takes place in a hospital in Los Angeles sometimes in the imaginary past, and the framing main story is of a depressed, suicidal patient (upcoming superstar Lee Pace, best known for the tv show "Pushing Daisies") who spins an epic yarn for an adorable little girl patient (an outstanding, amazing performance by Catinca Untaru, which could rate an Oscar nom. if anybody actually sees this film).   The story the man tells is visually illustrated by fabulously exotic and beautiful images which literally span the globe.  The director is a visionary; but the plot is rather basic and too "children's story" for me, even though I'm not sure that it would be appropriate for young children.   An A for effort based on the visuals alone; but for me it didn't satisfy my need for an involving story. ** 3/4

The setting is an insane asylum in Hungary in 1913, run by a sadistic doctor who experiments with various quack cures for his all female patients.  The new doctor (played by the great Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen, obviously, but skillfully dubbed) is a novelist with writers block, who has addicted himself to morphine.  He falls under the spell of a patient, a 27 year old hysterical schizophrenic who is his opposite:  she can't stop writing, scribbling thousands of pages of nonsense diaries.  The patient is played by Kirsti Stubo, looking like Bresson's St. Joan, who is literally run through the wringer in this acting tour de force.  This is another visually stunning film, but also claustrophobic and sexually explicit.  The film is painful to watch at times, slow and ponderous.  But powerful!  ***

THE WRECKING CREW (d. Denny Tedesco)
The director's father, Tommy Tedesco, was a great guitar player who was part of a group of relatively unknown studio musicians called the "Wrecking Crew" which backed up most of the really great L.A. rock and pop groups of the 1960's through the mid-80's.  Such groups as the Beach Boys, the Association, the Mamas and the Papas used them;  plus they made up the backbone of Phil Spector's wall of sound.  This documentary is a tribute to these men (and one woman), using interviews with many of those still alive plus generous portions of the songs they helped produce.  This was my era of music...I don't think there was one song here that I didn't know and that didn't provide the sound track of my life.  Plus all this happened within a mile of where I lived and worked (and even was a peripheral participant in this scene as a music video editor and filmmaker).  So for me, this was a fascinating evocation of a part of the music industry that I was only dimly aware of at the time.   The film was emotionally satisfying, to say the least; but as a documentary film it was rather straightforward and broke no new ground.  *** 1/4

I've decided that this year I'm not going to kill myself by being obsessive and catching every possible film.  If I don't feel like going to 5 films in the day, I'll bite the bullet and not.   But I'm scheduled for two 6-film days next week, so I guess I'll see how closely I stick to that promise to myself.  SIFF was better run on Saturday.  All the films started reasonably on time.  However, the projection at the Egyptian left a lot to be desired.  The projectionist left the video projector on for the first 30 minutes of Children of Huang Shi, which made for a slight, but quite noticeable, degradation of the image with the blacks grayed out in the area of residual video projection.  Maybe it's only the purist in me; but I found that extremely annoying and bothersome, since it definitely distracted from the beautiful photography of the film.

ALL WILL BE WELL (Wszystko Bedzie Dobrze) (d. Tomasz Wiszniewski)
Let's get it out in the open:  one of my favorite film genres (if it is done well) is the "grown-up learns valuable life lesson from a child" film, of which Jan Sverak's Kolya is the definitive example.  This Polish film continues that tradition with an emotionally moving, but always truthful and never maudlin, story of a boy trying to save his cancer ridden mother's life by performing a transcendental act of homage to the Virgin Mary aided by his alcoholic teacher.   I'm deliberately leaving the details vague, since this is such an original film that I don't want to spoil its surprises.  Here is another example of a film raised to a higher level by an amazing performance by a child actor, in this case Adam Werstak, wise beyond his age, perfectly cast for his physically demanding role.  But credit to the adult, Rafal Szamburski, who plays against the saintly kid as a tragic, rough-hewn, flawed alcoholic.   When a film earns tears without seeming to manipulate them, I call it great.   *** 1/2

FOSTER CHILD (d. Brilliante Mendoza)
This is the story of a foster mother whose latest charge is an adorable 3-year old who has been adopted by a wealthy San Francisco family.  The film is made up mostly of transitions:  characters walk, taxi or pedicab through the Manila slums encountering countless dirty children and other slices of life among the poor.  It takes a while to become involved; but slowly I found myself empathizing with the plight of the foster mother (nicely played by Cherry Pie Picache) who has to serially give up each child she has raised since infancy after establishing a mother-child bond.   The emotionally cathartic ending made up for a lot of the aimlessness of the rest of the film.     ** 3/4

SLINGSHOT (Tirador) (d. Brillante Mendoza)
Part of a double bill of recent Mendoza films, this one failed utterly for me.  Its basically plotless premise was a view of the low life of the Manila slums, the pickpockets, thieves, drug addicts, prostitutes through a camera which was constantly moving through streets literally teeming with shit.  There are some bravura sequences:  a frantic police roundup, a neglected child ignored by addict parents, a thief who spends her loot on a set of dentures and then proceeds to lose them.  But nothing ties these scenes together, so the film lacks anything to focus on to make a coherent narrative.   It's one of the most endless 86 minutes I've ever spent.  * 1/2

CHILDREN OF HUANG SHI (d. Roger Spottswoode)
Jonathan Rhys Meyers is the draw to this elaborate Chinese/Australian co-production.  The film is based on a true story taking place in mid-1930's war-torn China.  Meyers plays a pacifist journalist, witness to the rape of Nanking (nicely characterized, by the way, in scenes reminiscent of the much more expensively made Empire of the Sun) who becomes involved as teacher to a group of orphan boys.   The film is gorgeous to look at, with Hollywood-like technical proficiency all the way.  But for me it just lacked that emotional center, so that events seemed manipulated by rote rather than happening organically.  Too bad, because this was obviously a labor of love by all involved.  ** 3/4

I'd already seen this first Secret Festival film and really had no desire to see it a second time.  So I spent a leisurely couple of hours at the Folk Life festival and caught the next film.  I was sure glad I did!

LOVE AND HONOR (Bushi No Ichibun) (d. Yôji Yamada)
This is the third film from Yamada's Twilight Samurai  trilogy, and for my money about as close to a perfect film as I ever expect to watch.  This isn't particularly surprising, since I did give four stars to the first film.  However the middle film, Hidden Blade, wasn't quite up to that rating.  Once again, Yamada has presented us with his unique vision of the underling samurai and the struggles to maintain life in the feudal, dog-eat-dog society of the Japanese shogunates.   In this film Takuya Kimura gives a stunning performance as a suddenly blinded (and thus useless) young samurai.   Somehow the filmmaker manages to make the depiction of the period and its strange rituals so living and breathing realistic  that one can't help falling under its spell, even with the slow and deliberate pacing which signifies the way of life in that era.  Yamada is a world class filmmaker; and I can't quite figure out why he isn't world famous.   ****

IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY (d. Robert Hamer, 1947)
I'm not particularly interested in viewing the archival films at SIFF.  I only decided to go to this  one because I'd already seen all the other films in the time slot.  This was a post-war Ealing Studio thriller.  Actually, for me, an Ealing Studios production meant the amazing run of Alec Guinness black comedies produced in the early '50s, such masterpieces as The Man in the White Suit and Kind Hearts and Coronets.   But, apparently there were a lot of other genre films made over the years by that studio.  Unfortunately, except for a truly fantastic culminating chase scene in a railway yard, with some of the best B&W lighting and cinematography ever put on film, this film came off as something of a pot-boiler, with a lame, old fashioned, ill-fated illicit love story imposed on an uninspired family drama and frankly ludicrous crime thriller.  ** 1/2

KING OF PING PONG (Ping Pong Kingen) (d. Jens Jonsson)
I'm not exactly sure why I didn't like more this quite niftily directed and acted Swedish film.  It's the story of two young teenage brothers, totally different from one another:  one pudgy and unpopular whose one claim to fame is a rudimentary skill at ping pong; the other, younger one, lithe and a young babe magnet.  There are also a set of adult parents who aren't exactly paragons of parenthood.   What bothered me most about this film is that I never could quite believe the psychology of the characters...it just didn't ring true or make sense to me.  On the other hand, the technical aspects were fine:  wonderful winterscapes of snow and ice beautifully presented in wide screen compositions.   And I do have to give special mention to young Jerry Johansson who gives a definitive performance as the pudgy kid who is the butt of all the bullies who terrorize  teenage life, but who perseveres with good humor more or less intact.   ** 1/2

CAMILLE (d. Gregory Mackenzie)
I'm sorry to report that one of my favorite actors, James Franco, who is at the peak of his attractiveness and charisma in this film, has come a cropper to one of the lamest films ever to come down the pike.   The producer who greenlighted this outrageously misbegotten script should be shot.  Enough said.  I just want to forget the entire enterprise.   Oh, yeah, the only reason I'm giving this film any stars at all is because the two romantic leads, Franco and the equally luminous Sienna Miller, make it almost worth sitting through this mess.  * 3/4

FANTASTIC PARASUICIDES (Fantastic Ja-sal-so-dong) (d. Jo Chang-ho, Park Soo-yeong & Kim Seong-ho)
This is basically a compendium of three short films, each with a different S. Korean director and different actors with the common theme of, well, not exactly suicide, something a little stranger in each case, thwarted suicide.  The first film is in the form of a madcap teenage school story, something like last year's Dasepo Naughty Girls.   It was too far out for my tastes...but on the other hand, at least it was coherent and occasionally even funny.  The second short was  a surrealistic black comedy about a young policeman bent on committing suicide who encounters some impediments on the way.  I really liked that one.  The third, also to my liking, was a bittersweet farce about an old queen, depressed and lonely on his 70th birthday, who becomes involved with a young stranger who is being chased by gangsters.   Rating each short film separately:   ** 1/4, ***, ***.   Averaging it out:  ** 3/4

TRANSSIBERIAN (d. Brad Anderson)
The third of the young turk American directors named Anderson (along with Wes and Paul Thomas) has made a high gloss thriller with a fine cast.  Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer are American tourists traveling on the trans-Siberian express train.  Their cabinmates are an attractive,  young multinational couple (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara) who may, or may not be up to no good.  Into the mix is a Russian narcotics detective (Sir Ben Kingsley) working on a case of a murder with heroin smuggling connections.  The film is drenched in ominous tension; and while fairly predictable, it still has plenty of surprises and a script which holds together remarkably well.  This one deserves a wide release and just might find an audience.  ***

STILL LIFE (Sanxia Haoren) (d. Jia Zhang-ke)
Last year's Venice Golden Lion winner is a film about modern China and the disruptions to people occurring around the gigantic Three Gorge Dam project.   As such it makes a fine companion piece to the documentary playing here, Up the Yangtze.   This film is an episodic road picture, with two protagonists searching for their long-separated spouses who have been displaced by the waters which are covering large swaths of populated areas in the city of Yichang.   The film is pretty to look at, with slow camera movements and a strong sense of geographical space; but it takes its good time getting anyplace storywise.  Often I am mystified by the films which win major festival prizes.  This film is a prime example of that.  ** 1/2

COCHOCHI (d. Israel Cárdenas & Laura Amelia Guzmán)
Two schoolboy brothers, 11 and 12, living in the mountainous Sierras of northwest Mexico, set off on horseback to take medicines to their great aunt who lives in a remote canyon of which they only have an inkling as to the location.   This becomes a charming kids-in-peril story, set in an exotic Mestizo cultural milieu and without any huge menace to detract from the pure pleasure of watching a good yarn unfold.  *** 1/4

UNDER THE BOMBS (Sous les bombes)
(d. Philippe Aractingi)
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

Brown has written and directed a smart, funny, trenchant satire of the Hollywood scene.  It's the story of two young and  on-the-make Hollywood types:  the first, a one-hit tv series writer who has written his dream movie script, arty and edgy; the other, his younger college buddy, a successful new media editor, whom he has asked to critique the script and write notes.  The writer is played as neurotic and needy by Austin Peck.  The editor is played with searing intelligence by one of my favorite actors, Bryce Johnson.   Other notable roles:  Roma Maffia (of Nip/Tuck) as a psychiatrist who holds no punches; and Karen Black as a zany New-Agey screenwriting guru.  The animated main titles are clever, as are amusing quotations used as intertitles between scenes from various authors writing about writing.   The dialog sparkles throughout, highly literate, funny.  And the acting is first rate.   It's only to be hoped that this gem of an American indie film can find an audience.  *** 1/2

SUMMER HEAT (Somerhitte) (d. Monique van de Ven)
This is a thriller about a burnt out professional war photographer on assignment to shoot birds on a Dutch island, who becomes involved in a complex drug caper involving a beautiful woman and various thug types.  The wide screen cinematography is outstanding; but the story has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese.   I really liked the actor, Wildemar Torenstra, whose face reminded me of a good friend of mine, though my friend didn't have a chiseled six-pack to go with it.  ** 3/4

THE SONG OF SPARROWS (Avaze Gonjeshk-ha) (d. Majid Majidi)
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.  ***

THE ART OF NEGATIVE THINKING (Kunsten A Tenke Negativt) (d. Bard Breien)
The projectionist showed this film with two reels switched...and it hardly mattered, since it was still easy to follow the plot.   This is a black comedy  about a therapy group of wheelchair bound invalids led by a lady whose mantra is all about the salubrious effects of positive thinking.   The group visits the home of a recent, depressed paraplegic whose pessimism is contagious.   The film skillfully alternates funny with poignant, and is another pleasant divertissement that isn't great, but just quite entertaining.  ***

GOOD FOOD (d. Melissa Young & Mark Dworkin)
A well meaning documentary about the advantages of organic food grown locally (in this case the Northwest)...but tedious and repetitious to a large degree.   I did learn about some local (to Seattle) healthy restaurants and maybe I'll be more sensitive to where my food comes from in the future.  But boy, do these filmmakers need a crash course in how to shoot and edit a documentary.  **

PERFECT MATCH (d. Anne-Marie Étienne)
Carole Bouquet plays a media guru divorcée with a smart, anti-bourgeois 14 year old son and a ditsy younger sister.   Bouquet and her son  live in a large 5th floor Paris walkup in a changing neighborhood.  Their new next door neighbor is a down-on-his-luck squatter (Marc Lavoine, giving a Clark Gable like performance).  This is the setup for a rather unoriginal, but nevertheless deft and entertaining romantic comedy...one of those hatred at first sight, clever films which hearken back to the age of the screwball comedies with Katherine Hepburn or Claudette Colbert.  The actors make this one work.  ***

MICHOU D'AUBER (d. Thomas Gilou)
Set in 1960 during the end-game of the Algerian independence movement, this is the story of a pair of young brothers, born in France of Algerian parents who have been forced by circumstance to give them up to Social Services for foster care.  The younger brother lands in the supportive home of an oddly matched couple (strong performances by Gerard Dépardieu and Nathalie Baye).  The older brother is put into virtual slavery on a farm in the same rural area.   The film is scrupulously true to its era, especially how the macro-politics of the time seeped down to the countryside in the form of Arab prejudice.   What takes this film out of the ordinary is another wonderful child performance, this time by little Samy Seghir, hair dyed blond to disguise his ethnicity, wise beyond his years.  For me the film just worked...emotionally resonant without manipulative sentimentality.  *** 1/4

PLOY (d. Pen-ek Ratanauang)
The director has in the past been a favorite of mine (Last Life in the Universe).  But for me this is a step backwards into arty ennui.   A Thai couple living in the U.S. returns to Bangkok for a funeral and spends the first night in a plush hotel where nothing much happens, or a whole bunch of stuff happens.  I was never quite sure what was real and what was the result of the characters' sleep-deprived dreaming .  After about an hour of occasionally dozing off myself, I wanted to leave; but the film had just enough suspense and explicit sexual tension to keep me around.  ** 1/4

This may come as a shock; but I much prefer to write positive reviews than to dislike a film enough to pan it.  I wouldn't make a good professional critic, since I'm rarely critical enough about movies.  A day like Thursday, with too many frankly poor films, is somewhat dispiriting.   But, ever the optimist, I'm sure that tomorrow is another day, fiddle dee dee.

Hana is the youngest of the Makmalbaf filmmaking clan (she's 18).  However, the filmmaker gene certainly didn't skip over her.  In some ways this film is so typical of the Iranian cinema of the past few decades:  using children and their innocent point of view as they wander through the local social scene as a metaphor for the society as a whole.  This film takes place in an Afghani settlement of people living in caves literally carved in the rocky, mountains.  The main character is a young girl, about 4 years old and cute as a button, who is determined to follow her equally young boy neighbor to school.  However, in the barely post-Taliban society of the cave people, she is up against many perils, including the ubiquitous subjugation of women, rampaging young boys playing at war with America and picking on girls in particular, and the shocking lack of adult supervision of the kids both in play and in school.  The film is affecting, remarkably well acted by amateur actors and young children, superbly edited, and quite illuminating.   *** 1/4

THE 27 CLUB (d. Erica Dunton)
Joe Anderson (the British actor/singer who has been playing Americans flawlessly in such recent films as Across the Universe) here is portraying half of a huge two-man rock group called Finn, whose partner in the group, and his lifetime best friend, has joined the "27 Club", huge rock stars like Joplin, Morrison, Hendrix and Cobain:  all of whom died at age 27.  The film is structured as a road picture, as Anderson hires a naive grocery boy to drive him across the country from L.A. to N.Y. to attend a private memorial service for his friend.  The film means well; and Anderson has the charisma to carry off the difficult role of burnt out rock star.  But the script was just a collection of situational clichés, and I never really cared about these characters and the people they encounter on the road.  ** 1/4

HIDDEN FACE (d. Bernard Campan)
Despite having three fine actors, this film totally failed to engage my interest almost from the very start.  It's about a married couple whose relationship seems to be fine on the surface; but four weekends on vacation with a friend about to get married himself exposes the previously invisible flaws in the marriage.  Talky to excess in the pseudo intellectual style of the worst French films, murky thematically and in terms of its cinematography (entire scenes lit so dimly that the action is barely visible), the film was a snoozer failure. Sorry.  * 1/4

BLOOD BROTHERS (Tiantang Kou) (d. Alexi Tan)
Three young men from a small town in China in the early 1930s leave for Shanghai to make their fortune.  They fall into the employ of a gangster nightclub owner and much killing and mayhem follow.  Except that the film also is a lushly photographed, but unconvincing chick-flick of tragic romance.  The affect is something like Coppola's Cotton Club:  a mixture of genres which don't quite mesh.  But what really kills the film are the ludicrous melodramatic plot and the horrendously over-the-top score which over emotes every scene.  There's a kernel of a good film here; but it's totally lost in the bathos.  * 1/2

AUGUST (d. Austin Chick)
Josh Hartnett recovers some of his movie star juju in this immaculately produced American indie about a charismatic dot.com entrepreneur in New York City in the period between the tech crash of 2000 and 9/11.  In fact, the "August" of the title refers to the very month before that fateful September day, obliquely referred to in an opening casual special effects shot of the Twin Towers looming over the city street where the protagonist works, which immediately and startlingly sets the time and place.  This is a genre of film that I particularly enjoy:  the smart business thriller, Wall Street combined with Antitrust.  It surely isn't going to be universally admired as a film; but I enjoyed every moment, particularly admiring the intelligent performances by Rip Torn, Adam Scott, David Bowie and Hartnett himself.  *** 1/4

KISS THE BRIDE (d. C. Jay Cox)
I always have low expectations for gay romantic comedies going in; but Cox had made a very creditable dramatic film with Latter Days.  However, it hurts to have to say that this film was cringeworthy:  a self-admitted takeoff on My Best Friend's Wedding, with the genders oddly reversed.   Only in this case abysmally bad acting and an infuriating script which panders to a post-modern, weird notion of marriage sunk the enterprise despite attractive actors (with the huge exception of Tori Spelling) and a series of clever gay tinged bon mots.  But then maybe I'm just being overly critical...the audience seemed to respond positively to the film just as they did to the recent gay sex farce Another Gay Movie, which I detested even more.  **

CAPTAIN AHAB (Captaine Achab) (d. Philippe Ramos)
I have never read Moby Dick, although I did watch the Gregory Peck movie years ago, so I guess that counts for something.  Anyway, this French film attempts to be a prequel to the novel, providing Ahab's backstory from the point of view of five people who were intimately part of Ahab's life...particularly as a youngster of 10 (with Ahab portrayed by the fine young actor Virgil Leclaire); and during his early years at sea when he lost his leg, where the stolid Dennis Levant, who looks the part but lacks sufficient screen presence for the role, takes over as the adult Ahab.  Watching this very American story unfold in French is strange enough; but hearing the stilted, pretentious Melvilleish dialog in literary French is stranger still.  There was one fascinating sequence that could have come from some old Robert Flaherty  documentary, in grainy black and white, about whale fishing.  I woke up for that.  Despite some fine acting and an authentic presentation of 19th century mores, after the first three childhood sequences, the rest of the film just didn't work for me.   ** 1/4

TIME TO DIE (Pora Umierac) (d. Dorota Kedzierzawska)
This is a film which, at least, is worth watching (as opposed to some other recent disappointments).  Elderly Polish actress Danuta Szaflarska does a tour de force performance as the 91-year old owner of a ramshackle villa in woods near Warsaw, who survived the post-war Communist era by sharing her home with tenants whom she has now outlived, and whose ungrateful grown son and chubby pre-teen granddaughter are waiting like vultures for her to die.  She lives simply and alone,  with her clever old dog, Philadelphia, as company (if SIFF ever gave a Golden Space Needle award for best animal performance, this dog would win absolutely), and most of the film is made up of dialog scenes between the old lady and her dog.  The film also has been shot in some of the most gorgeous B&W of recent years...they simply don't do B&W the way they used to.  I'd rate this film higher; but frankly the middle sagged and I found myself drifting off.  Still, the film was redeemed by a very satisfying ending.  ***

32A (d. Marian Quinn)
Thirty-two A refers to the size of the first bra that the 14 year old protagonist of this girls-coming-of-age film is fitted for.  I'm not exactly sure how I knew this.  As I was riding in the bus after the film it came to me in a flash of insight.  However the rest of the film, although undoubtedly well meaning, just didn't involve me right from the start.  Four young teenage girls, good friends, have various adventures in 1979's increasingly complex Dublin world.   Boys, drugs, father problems, falling out, reconciling.  It's the stuff of life...but occasionally the Irish brogues were too heavy for me to understand the dialog (subtitles would have been nice).   The girls were all realistically played, in fact the entire cast was quite fine, although recognizable actors Aidan Quinn and Jerrod Harris were sort of wasted in minor roles as two of the girls' fathers.   For some reason (likely because movies are still a male writer and director dominated medium), coming of age stories about girls are rare; so this film fills a valuable niche.  I'm sure there is an audience for this film, it just wasn't I.  ** 1/2

GAY LIVES (short program, various directors)
Six short films, one a documentary about a local Seattle AIDS hospice, the others story films shown in roughly the chronological order of their subjects:  a young teenage boy plays with male dolls;  two college bound gay best friends enjoy a day in the park accompanied by the insightful younger sister of one of them; two Asian-American guys, 24 and 32, having met on an internet sex site, trick and angst about "open" relationships; two closeted gay men come out while competing in the weird sport of Icelandic wrestling; and an elderly, supposedly straight Finnish man wants to know what it is like to get fucked up the bum by his best mate.  None of the films were all that great, at least from my point of view.  The entire gamut gets a bland average rating of ** 1/2. 

TBS [NOTHING TO LOSE] (d. Pieter Kuijpers)
TBS apparently is the Dutch abbreviation for the unlimited incarceration of really heinous criminals in a country which doesn't have the death penalty.  In this case, the subject of this excellent, but total downer of a film is a strangely likable sociopath, unrepentant for past terrible crimes (perhaps because he's criminally insane), who escapes from the institution and takes a kidnapped 13 year old girl hostage on a violent road trip.  The girl falls into Stockholm Syndrome, and the film provides enough tension for any five films.  The past few days at this festival I've been enthusiastic about any film at all which keeps me awake...and this film had me on the edge of my seat for its entire length.   This is one tough film to watch, not recommended for the squeamish.  *** 1/4

Maybe it's just that the festival on the second Sunday perked me up from a low point of disappointments the previous couple of days...but I find myself being overly generous with my point awards for the next five films.   Also, I'm running short of time to devote to this blog.   I am hereby swearing a solemn oath to myself that tomorrow (Tuesday) I am going to catch up with all the films I've watched in the meantime.

This film truly must remain a deep secret for obvious reasons.  Let it suffice to say that it was a difficult-to-find early film by a cinematic master that I once said I'd give my left nut to actually see...and at the Secret Festival I finally got my chance; and my left nut remains intact!  *** 1/2

NEWCASTLE (d. Dan Castle)
Newcastle, New South Wales is a port city in Australia with a good surfing beach.  Castle, an American, has made a fairly traditional surfing film emphasizing one working class family of three young men and their friends.  The story isn't very original...but the execution pulls the film out of the confines of that narrow genre.  First of all the surfing photography is superb, with many in-water shots made from the point of view of the surfers themselves, with cameras (and the audience by proxy) drenched by the waves.  Secondly, the film is well cast, with solid acting from the mostly unknown cast chosen for looks as well as authentic surfing skill.  Eye candy abounds; and for my appreciation, at least, over and above the playful nudity and coupling of the characters with their nubile girlfriends, there were also sequences with a skillfully written gay subtext,  which brought the film out of the ordinary.  This is definitely a guilty pleasure sort of film, but well above average as an entertainment.  ***

I had a ticket for this film in Toronto, but skipped it in favor of the opening gala when a friend gave me a ticket to that high price event.  I'm very glad I had a second chance to see this fun and original film here in Seattle.  The film intercuts five separate stories of an evening culminating in sex by a disparate group of attractive young people who couple (or in one case 3-way) in amusing, well observed ways.  It's an examination of modern sexual relationships, never overtly prurient, occasionally farcical, (exclusively straight, alas); but always with a wry, light touch.  It reminded me of that remarkable series on MTV a few years ago, "Undressed"; only with an adult sensibility.   It's another guilty pleasure; but so well written that it rises to the stature of comedy art.  *** 1/4

CAPTAIN ABU RAED (d. Amin Matalqa)
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.  ***

SHALL WE KISS? (Un baiser s'il vous plait)  (d. Emmanuel Mouret)
In general, I'm a sucker for a well made French romantic comedy...and this original and beautifully made example of that genre fit the bill perfectly.  It's a "story within a story" film about the unintended consequences that a simple kiss can have.  I don't want to get into the details of this complex plot...let it suffice that the large cast is uniformly delightful.  The director manages to make such usually trivial side issues as decor and incidental music an integral part of the story.  At this screening, the projector kept breaking down...but even though those mood-breaking halts, the romantic spell of the film was so strong that hardly anybody left their seats.  Maybe I was just in the mood to be enchanted by what is, frankly, nothing more than an adult fairy tale; but this film did it for me.  *** 1/2

THEATER OF WAR (d. John Walter)
Walter has made a documentary out of the rehearsals for the recent Central Park performance of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" adapted by Tony Kushner, with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline (among others) in the cast.  He combined this with a scholarly examination of the plot and background of the play, plus a fairly comprehensive biography of Brecht and his actress wife.  All this should have added up to a fascinating documentary...and it truth it was interesting for stretches.  But it was also strangely overly cerebral, and somewhere along the way I lost interest.  This might be more an indictment of my state of mind than any inherent lack in the film.  But still, that's what happened.  ** 1/2

DAYS AND CLOUDS (d. Silvio Soldini)
There's a whole genre of films devoted to the plight of men in middle management who lose their jobs, exemplified by Laurent Cantet's Time Out (L'emploi du temps).  This is the Italian version of that story, and it follows a familiar story line.  It's graced by a couple of fine performances:  by Antonio Albanese as the entrepreneur out of the company he founded, critically ashamed of his failure and depressed; and Margherita Buy, as his smart, artistic wife, at first naive but then determined to prevail.  The writing, acting, production values (the city of Genoa is a novel, picturesque locale) are all fine.  However, the film is flawed by a familiar and somewhat predictable story line.  ***

ALEXANDRA (d. Alexander Sokurov)
Sokurov proved in such films as Moloch and Russian Ark that he's a director who can stage major set pieces.  Here he's working on a smaller palette, telling the story of an old lady from St. Petersburg who makes the strenuous train journey to visit her officer grandson in an army camp in war ravaged Chechnya.  In some ways, this is a companion piece to the Iranian film seen earlier in the festival, Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame, except instead of a young girl wandering about in a strange landscape, here we have an old lady wandering about in an equally strange location:  the bustling army camp and the ruins of the local Chechnyan village.  Galina Vishnevskaya gives a stolid, but convincing performance as the somewhat confused (but never addled) old lady.   Sokurov uses her character and her relations with the local village women as an engine of hope for the future reconciliation of the conflicts in the Caucasus region.  The film is slow and meandering; but by the end I was quite moved.  ***

MAGNUS (d. Kadri Köusaar)
This is a strange film:  ostensibly based on a true story, it is in fact a brave re-creation of a man's failure as a parent to his troubled twenty-something son, with the father played in the film by the actual man in the story.  The son (not in the film for obvious reasons, but no further spoilers will be forthcoming here) is played by the devastatingly attractive Estonian pop star, Kristjan Kasearu (dead ringer for a young Jeremy Sisto) who almost never cracks a smile in his depiction of extreme depression, but who nevertheless manages an effective portrayal.   Meandering in pace, maddening in its truthful depiction of really poor parenting, quite a downer, the film still worked for me...although I'm hesitant to recommend that anybody else watch it!  ** 3/4

SPARROW (Man Jeuk) (d. Johnnie To)
Johnnie To makes lush, visually rich films about Hong Kong life, often about gangsters, but on occasion he dabbles in romance.  Here he is telling the somewhat silly story of a quartet of pickpocket brothers who get involved with a mysterious girl and her elderly paramour.  To has a way with the camera, filling the wide screen with interesting compositions, while the camera is always moving slowly to reveal hidden information.  Unfortunately, nothing To comes up with in terms of visual bravura makes up for the banal, predictable script.  ** 1/2

LETTING GO OF GOD (d. Julia Sweeney)
I had only known Julia Sweeney from her stint on Saturday Night Live and the terrible film It's Pat.   So I had no idea that she has a one-woman show where she struggles with her religious identity (apparently a previous show of hers, God Said Ha!, on this subject won the Golden Space Needle at SIFF in 1998, before I started attending this festival regularly).  I almost skipped this film.  Certainly I would have if it hadn't been presented as a press screening.  And, boy, am I glad that I didn't listen to that prejudiced inner voice.  This beautifully produced video is simply 2 1/4 hours of Sweeney's routine:  funny, informative, moving, amazing...where she goes step by step through the process of her conversion from devout Catholicism to equally committed Atheism.   Her search for the meaning of the universe started with a visit by two Mormon missionaries whose opening question:  "Do you believe that God loves you" opened up a Pandora's box in her soul.  She tells of embarking on an comprehensive quest through all the world's religions;  and her rap is so trenchant, so well informed, so in sync with my own inchoate feelings on the subject of religion, that I felt like jumping up and clapping by the end (something that just isn't done at a press screening...however for the first time in memory the audience actually did break into spontaneous applause despite the hard and fast custom).   *** 3/4

MAD DETECTIVE (Shentan) (d. Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai)
Once again Johnnie To has made a humorous, inscrutable genre film...this time about a literally psychotic police detective who solves crimes through an ability to hallucinate alternate personalities in the suspects.  However, he soon becomes too dotty for the police force and is fired.  Brought back by one of his old assistants to solve a difficult case, he is still hallucinating; and the complex interweaving of reality and illusion is done visually with To's usual brilliance.  The film culminates with a thrilling sequence which is an obvious homage to the house of mirrors scene from Welles's Lady from Shanghai, only times seven (including all the hallucinations.)  I have to admit that I didn't quite understand the complexities of the plot...but it hardly matters since this film is basically an exercise in style over substance, and as such it is quite successful.   ***

A LOST MAN (d. Danielle Artid)
This is a meandering road-trip film about a French photographer, a sexual obsessive, wandering the backwaters of the middle-east (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon) taking photos of his sexual conquests while he's screwing them.   He meets an amnesiac Lebanese man who is also wandering about with no visible moorings, and becomes intrigued by that man's back story.   Melvil Poupaud, who plays the peripatetic Frenchman, was the draw here.  Ever since he was a teenager, he's been my favorite French actor.  He's perfectly cast for his sexual magnetism.  But the film is too murky, the details too unlikely.  For all the plentiful flesh and graphic sex, the film just seems to go nowhere for too long.  ** 1/2

CHOKE (d. Clark Gregg)
This film, adapted from Chuck Palahniuk's novel, is a too-clever-by-half mess.  It certainly lives up to my feeling that Sundance juries must be addled by the altitude.  It wastes a fine cast (Sam Rockwell, Angelica Huston, Kelly Macdonald among others) in telling the story of a going nowhere con man whose institutionalized, Alzheimer's afflicted mother has screwed up his life.  The film wants to be an arch, post-modern comedy.  But, without any redeeming characters and a plot that doesn't resonate with any reality (its depiction of a rest home is ludicrous), it just seems misbegotten.  * 1/2

The SIFF program book says this is Dorrie's updating of Ozu's Tokyo Story.  It's been too long since I watched that film; but I'll take their word for it as unlikely as I find the prospect.  In any case, this is the story of a German family:  hidebound, work obsessed, absent father; nurturing mother who defers her own lifelong love of the art of Japanese dance to her husband; and three ungrateful grown-up children who have no desire to be burdened by their parents.  Circumstances take the film to Japan...and the film becomes a reverie of life and hope, symbolized by the perfection of Mt. Fuji coming out of the mist and reflected on the nearby lake.  No further spoilers from me.  This simple, reflective story of the possibilities of redeeming a self-involved life in old age was both heartening and moving.  *** 1/4

HUDDERSFIELD (Hadersfild) (d. Ivan Zivkovic)
Four men in a room in present day Belgrade: three friends re-united after a decade or so, along with a psychologically troubled neighbor.  They bicker.  The alpha personality tears down all the others, and gets torn down in turn.  It's all very theatrical, both in acting style and in terms of structure.   There is probably a political metaphor here; but I didn't get it.  Still, the film is like an Albee play...lots of talk and conflict which illuminate the human condition...but apparently I was too tired to figure it all out.   ** 1/2

IN SEACH OF KENNEDY (d. Chuck Workman)
This is a documentary about J.F.K. and his times, and how his legacy lives today.  It's an unabashed love letter to the legend and myth; but it fails to find any sort of historical balance.  Sure, I adored Kennedy (and his brother Robert) as much as anybody at the time.  But my view of the world has progressed since then, and I see today how much the media image of him influenced my adoration.  The problem with this film is that it just reinforces that image without critical distancing.  The film has a rudimentary organizing structure; but still it seems loose, simplistic and entirely too hagiographic.  I suppose this is post-modern documentary making:  history reduced to sound (and picture) bites.  It fits right into the Obama as the second coming of Kennedy mythic dreamworld.   * 1/2

VISIONEERS (d. Jared Drake)
Dreadful film.  It starts out as a satire about office workers at a huge future corporation in some near future American dystopia.   For about 10 minutes it looks like it might be a clever skewering of a company like Microsoft and its culture.  But the film goes nowhere.  Finally the hypnotic score, the desultory characters and the lack of plot put me to sleep about 2 minutes before the film ended.  Bliss.   1/2*

CALL ME TROY (d. Scott Bloom)
I've lived in L.A. most of my life, and Troy Perry, founding pastor of the Metropolitan Community Churches (the "gay" church), was a central character in the evolution of gay pride in my city.  This documentary breaks no formal ground in its more or less chronological depiction of Perry's life from interviews with Perry himself and others, and a generous amount of archival film footage from local filmmakers such as Pat Rocco.  But I was genuinely moved by Perry's life story and the various testaments to him by people he interacted with over the course of his ministry.  I never met the man; but Troy Perry is a genuine hero whose life is worthy of documenting.  ***

MAN ON WIRE (d. James Marsh)
Philippe Petit is an acrobat, probably the greatest high wire walker never to die in the pursuit of his crazy hobby.  I vividly recall reading in the L.A. Times about his foolhardy feat of walking a wire between the two World Trade Center towers in 1974.  But I had no idea how or why he did it, or the scale of that achievement.  This incredibly entertaining documentary tells all.  But there's also an unintended consequence of this film, I found.  Maybe the process of watching the WTC being built and used in this crazy way is part of the healing process from 9/11.  For the past few years, every time I have seen the buildings depicted in old films or re-created by special effects in new films, there has been a frisson of horror associated with the image.  But with this film, for the first time, the associations with the buildings were positive.  Bravo, M. Petit for your indomitable spirit and skill; and to Mr. Marsh for having so well depicted it.   *** 3/4

BOYSTOWN (d. Juan Flahn)
The Spanish have been making gay themed farces (e.g. Queens and Km. 0) for a while...and nobody is doing them better.  This is the sometimes silly, but nevertheless fun story of a serial killer stalking Chueca, the gay ghetto in Madrid, killing elderly ladies so that their apartments can be gentrified into condos for wealthy gay couples.   The killer comes up against the mother-in-law of a gay bear couple, plus a phobic female detective and her increasingly out gay son assistant.  As unlikely as these elements are in the real world, as a Spanish farce it does all come together quite nicely.  Nothing great here, just a diverting entertainment for a cold, rainy evening in Seattle.  ** 3/4

BRICK LANE (d. Sarah Gavron)
A 17-year old Bangladeshi girl is separated from her sister and sent to 1980's England for an arranged marriage.  The film takes place several years later, as the now woman has two daughters, her marriage to her corpulent husband is loveless, and she yearns for something else.  The film is beautifully shot in wide-screen...especially the pastoral flashbacks to Bangladesh.  The acting is flawless, especially Tannishta Chatterjee as the unhappy wife and Christopher Simpson as the young man who becomes the focus of her dissatisfaction.  There is also a fascinating view into the ways that the Muslims in London were politicized after 9/11.  However, for me the flaw was that I never quite understood the psychology of the characters...their actions didn't quite mesh with my reality.  But then, for me, trying to understand others is one of the main things that make "foreign" films so worthwhile. ***

This is a bittersweet, American indie comedy with a fine cast, led by John Malkovich as a hokey mentalist/magician showman (61 times on the Johnny Carson show!), washed up but still going at it in small town venues.  He hires as his road manager law-school dropout Colin Hanks (who occasionally, with the right camera angle, looks like a chip off the old block, however he does lack his father's superstar charisma).  The film is a fine character study...especially Malkovich's Buck Howard (based on an actual mentalist whose shtick to this day has never been explained) rings true as a certain type of larger than life (but with feet of clay) celebrity.  However, the script is predictable, the comedy aspects rather lame, and somehow it falls short of its intentions.  Despite that, as an entertainment it worked for me.  ** 3/4

SATURN IN OPPOSITION (d. Ferzan Ozpetek)
Ozpetek is in fine form with this touching film about a group of friends spanning the gamut from gay to straight, who undergo a huge personal tragedy together which fractures their world.  This was so close to my life and experiences that I was stunned.  Unfortunately, just as the film was culminating, with about 10 minutes to go, the theater chose to do a fire drill, stopping the projection and ordering the entire building evacuated.  I was left hanging...emotionally involved to a large degree, literally wrenched out of my trance.  I'll have to watch this film again to try to reach that state of emotional catharsis again.  *** 3/4

RAMCHAND PAKISTANI (d. Mehreen Jabbar)
Rachand is a spoiled 8-year old boy, son of untouchable Hindi living in a Pakistani village near the Kashmir border.  One 2002 morning he has a tantrum and wanders over that border into India during the height of the tensions between the two countries.  His father chases after him, and the two of them are caught in a web of world politics, while the beautiful mother/wife suffers tribulations of her own, alone in the village.  I wasn't expecting much; but I was pleasantly surprised by the subtlety of the acting and the message, and how ultimately moving the film turned out to be.  ***

THE WAVE (Die Welle) (d. Dennis Gansel)
Like the riveting 2001 film, Das Experiment, this is an up-to-date German film adapted from a true-life incident which took place in Palo Alto, California.  In this case it was a one week high-school project in 1967 where the teacher and class got involved in an ill fated experiment in fascism.  One can not help but wonder how American youths of that era were so susceptible to the pernicious allures of becoming part of a autocratic movement...but when German youths do the same, there is an undercurrent of neo-Nazism which is very unsettling.  Despite that (and despite the predictable, overly melodramatic ending), this film is dynamite...directed by the young wonderkind who made Napola (certainly the most interesting German director after Tom Tykwer), with a powerful performance by Jürgen Vogel as the teacher/Führer. *** 1/2

MÁNCORA (d. Recardo de Montreuil)
Máncora is a beach town in Peru, hang out for young druggies and surfers.  Into that milieu wander a rootless young man, his step-sister and her husband.  What ensues is a tale of sex, drugs and rock and roll.  The acting is fine, notably Jason Day and Elsa Pataky as the step-siblings and "Without a Trace's" Enrique Murciano as the husband with issues.  The film is skillfully directed, too...but I'm not sure why it just missed for me.  Maybe it's just that I've seen this evocation of youthful dissipation before (Y Tu Mama Tambien, anyone?), and even the beautiful actors and highly charged sex didn't add anything new.  ** 3/4

TIMECRIMES (d. Nacho Vigalondo)
This is a complex, rather absurd thriller about a man who gets involved in a time-machine experiment.  The plot is notable for how neatly it does tie together the time binding aspects.  But I found the characters unlikable and their motivations suspect.  Nevertheless, the film is quite entertaining as an intriguing puzzle.  ** 1/2

Not a rarity since I could have already seen it at other festivals but hadn't.  I enjoyed it, will probably watch it again eventually.  ***

BLISS (d. Abdullah Oguz)
In a small modern day Turkish village, a young, amnesiac, but surely fallen woman is sentenced by the town Agha and custom to die by her own hand.  When she fails to do so, the Agha's son, ex-army commando, is given the task to take her out of sight to Istanbul and make sure she's executed.  Thus begins a beautiful road trip through the Turkish waterways and byways.  Lovely, affecting, involving...perhaps a trifle unrealistic, though never fairy-taleish.  *** 1/4

Colin Firth and sensitive teen-age actor Matthew Beard play the same character at different ages: a shy, inward seeking person perpetually embarrassed by his outgoing and manipulative doctor father (a wonderful performance by Jim Broadbent).  The film is structured as lengthy flashbacks as the son stands vigil over the dying father about whom he has, to say the least, mixed feelings.  One peculiarity of the casting is that Juliet Stevenson, who plays Firth's mother, would have to have been 4 years old in real life when she gave birth to him.  The film is sentimental; but somehow escapes becoming maudlin.  Maybe because my own relationship with my father was so similar to the one depicted in this film, I found myself particularly involved and moved.  *** 1/4

ENCARNATION (d. Anahi Berneri)
An aging Argentine actress, barely this side of 50, career in the doldrums (although she's still beautiful and semi-famous), travels back to her home town to claim the farm that her father bequeathed to her.  She faces a cold reception from her jealous sister & brother-in-law; but rekindles a relationship with her teen-age niece, a kindred spirit.  As a character study, the film is pretty good; but I never quite could get involved with the film, dozing through the slowly developing middle section.  ** 1/4

STILL ORANGUTANS (d. Gustavo Spoldoro)
Structured like Richard Linklater's Slackers, as a series of vignettes where the camera follows one character who interacts casually with another character who in turn becomes the focus of the ongoing story, the film is a true tour de force.  For as unlikely as it seems, this is a one-take film, no cheating, with only a minimum of transitional doldrums and remarkably subtle control of exposure throughout.  It could only have been achieved with modern digital video equipment.  But the film has more than that one trick up its sleeve.  Each subsequent scene has its own beginning-middle-end structure, flawlessly acted, psychologically insightful, with some of the best steady-cam operation that I've ever seen (i.e. an 84 minute version of Joe Wright's rightfully applauded Dunkirk scene in Atonement.)   The title comes from a piece of graffiti scrawled on a wall we pass by on a train approaching the Brazilian city where the subsequent action takes place.  Yes, it's bravura filmmaking for its own sake; but the accumulation of fascinating details as the viewer is swept along by the subjective camera makes it something special, even if some of the scenes are troublingly surreal.  *** 1/2

LOVE AND OTHER CRIMES (Liebe und Andere Verbrechen) (d. Stefan Arsenijevic)
In modern Belgrade, two minor, elderly gangsters are fighting over turf.  The girlfriend of one of them wants out; and in the course of leaving for a new life in the West, she becomes involved with a much younger gang member who has always had a crush on her.  Deliberately paced, this is a typically dour study of Serbian alienation.  Despite that, and an all too predictable plot, I became interested enough in the characters to overcome the longueurs.  ** 3/4

Rissient is a fixture on the international film scene: a famous cinamatist known for his encyclopedic knowledge of films; a champion of new directors (especially Asian); a failed director himself of two films; an editorial consultant; and notably a powerful influence on film festivals, especially Cannes.   The well-regarded Variety critic, Todd McCarthy has assembled an admiring (maybe even too uncritically admiring) hagiography of Rissient's life and achievements, utilizing interviews with Rissient himself (whose English with a strong French accent is occasionally difficult to understand), along with dozens of powerful cinema movers and shakers.  Unfortunately, the film badly needed an editorial consultant like Rissient.  Overly long, the film seemed to suffer from McCarthy's admiration for his famous interviewees and his unwillingness to edit down their lengthy, repetitive paeans to Rissient.  One is left to wonder exactly how this fixer and hanger-on managed to become such a powerful influence...the film itself never quite manages to make that clear by illustration; and we're just left with numerous and weirdly similar testaments by famous filmmakers.  ** 1/4

SALAWATI (d. Marc X. Grigoroff)
This is a multicultural story of life in Singapore.  A Malaysian family has suffered a tragic accidental loss of the eldest son.  Salawati is the 12 year old sister of the victim who has apparently witnessed and been traumatized by the drowning.  The effects of that event ripple across the Malaysian Islamic community, and also the communities of Indian and Chinese worker/residents of the city.    What propels the plot is how these disparate narrative threads coalesce.  The film is beautifully shot and sensitively acted.  It's a reverie on faith and karma, illuminating and moving; but also reserved and  strangely distancing.  ***

EMPTIES (d. Jan Sverak)
Once again, as in Kolya, the Czech director utilizes his father as protagonist to show a profound awakening of an elderly man from despair to a state of equilibrium.  Here the senior Sverak is a 65 year old high school teacher, fed up with his profession, who embarks on a series of menial jobs which suit him, and takes advantage of his people skills.  The film is a touching character study, which has comic aspects.  Maybe the film went on a little too long, I felt the middle portion sagged a bit; but it culminated with a spectacularly beautiful sequence in a hot-air balloon, filmmaking at the highest level.  ***

TEDDY BEAR (d. Jan Hrebejk)
Hrebejk has made one of his most successful films:  a semi-comic, semi-romantic, bittersweet depiction of three couples, mutual friends, who on the surface are happily married, but underneath there are secrets which threaten to blow up all their relationships.  Constantly surprising, with a flawless ensemble cast, this was a heartfelt humanistic film which really involved me in situations far from my own experiences.   *** 1/4

PRINCESS OF THE SUN (La reine soleil) (d. Philippe Leclerc)
This is a 2-D animated French language film about Egypt during the time of the famous pharaoh Akhenaten, the one who fought the establishment by worshiping one god:  the sun god, Aten.  It centers on his daughter, Princess Akhesa, and her future husband, Prince Tutankhamen (Tut, for short, yes that King Tut.)   As far as I can tell, the film is historically fairly accurate; but it has been simplified and Disneyfied in a misbegotten effort to appeal to kids.  The animation is colorful; but it falls far short of recent Hollywood efforts...looking more like an animated tv show than a modern film.   It just goes to show that everything doesn't work better in French.  * 1/2

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, THE (De Fortabte Sjaeles O) (d. Nikolaj Arcel)
Trying to beat Hollywood at what it does best, animations and special effects adventure stories, is a difficult game.   This Dutch film manages that task through a combination of a good script (three kids facing supernatural forces...sort of a low budget Narnia or Terabithia), and adequately effective special effects to engender a sense of wonder.   Two out of three of the kids were great.  It's too bad that the lead girl was so wooden an actress.  Otherwise this film would have been a total winner.  ***

The story of the rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes and the 16 survivors who managed to last 72 days, living on the flesh of their dead friends is now almost legendary (like the Donner Party).   I recall it vividly; plus there was the 1992 fiction film, Alive, which was based on the story.  However, this documentary, compiled from interviews with the survivors and re-creations of the events along with footage of a present day trek that several of the survivors made with their families to the scene of the crash...on the 30th anniversary of that event, is documentary making at the highest level.  The event becomes a real-life tale of indomitable will to survive.  The film doesn't finesse the issue of cannibalism; but it does make it understandable.   It does take its time getting to the catharsis of the rescue, however.  *** 1/2

LAKSHMI AND ME (d. Nishtha Jain)
This is a video documentary made by an middle-upper class Indian woman about her maid, Lakshmi.  It does illuminate Indian society and the effects of the caste system and the plight of poor families.  But I kept looking at my watch, a very long 60 minutes; and I couldn't help but wonder why it was programmed here.  ** 1/4

SONETAULA (d. Salvatore Mereu)
Taking place in mountainous Sardinia, this film is the coming of age story of Zuanne, a humble shepherd boy who gradually turns into a bandit with a price on his head.  It starts in 1938, when Zuanne is 13 and barrels through the next 15 years at a snails pace.  The film suffers from a lack of narrative cohesion...years pass without adequate exposition, and I, for one, was left puzzled by the chronology.  On the other hand, it also has an epic scale...glorious cinematography and a certain gravitas which is hard to ignore.  The central performance by Francesco Falchetto is one of those classically understated, haunting, unmannered performances, like Falconetti in Dreyer's Jeanne d'Arc.  This is half of a great film, unfortunately the not-so-great half.  ***

EM (d. Tony Barbieri)
An attractive couple hook up at the San Francisco airport after apparently meeting on-line.  They click and move in together; but the well grounded guy is soon troubled by some emotional problems that he sees in his artist girlfriend Amanda (whom he calls Em).  This is a dysfunctional relationship film which has a script well grounded in reality (as I know from personal experience.)   I was impressed by the actor, Nathan Wetherington, whose long suffering love made sense.  However, even though she looked the part, Stef Willen didn't quite carry off the bi-polarness of her character.  This was an affecting film, nicely photographed in crisp HD digital, which just missed for me.  ** 3/4

MOMMA'S MAN (d. Azazel Jacobs)
Let me say up front that this film was an audience pleaser, even if I had problems with it.   It's a comedy about a thirty-something New York guy who lives in L.A., married with a young child, who stays with his parents in their quirky New York City walk up while he is in N.Y. on business.  But something goes wrong in his head, and his brief stay home gets protracted by agoraphobia and his reversion to a childish dependence on his puzzled, if overly nurturing parents.  The film looks terrible:  poorly lit, murky digital.  There are a few truly amusing moments...but I felt no real identification with the infantilized main character.  What worked for me were the intellectual, but naive mother and father, played by the actual parents of the director.  Their unmannered portrayals of bewilderment almost redeemed the silliness of the plot.   ** 1/2

AMERICAN SON (d. Neil Abramson)
A Marine private goes on a 92 hour Thanksgiving leave to visit his home town of Bakersfield, CA before being shipped out to Iraq.  The Marine is played by the charismatic young actor Nick Cannon, who ought to be a big movie star on the level of Will Smith, but hasn't quite made it there yet  (though this film if it manages to get a proper release might be good for his career.)  The film is a wonderfully accurate depiction of family life and youthful dissipation in today's Bakersfield.  It's a drama which is both a successful social commentary and bittersweet love story; and there are some really fine performances (particularly Melanie Diaz as the traditional Hispanic girl whom Cannon meets on the bus into town and is instantly drawn to.)  The script could have gone wrong in a whole bunch of ways; but it never does.   *** 1/2

VICE (Tiski) (d. Valery Todorovsky)
In today's New Russia, a long-haired disco DJ is the toast of his southern city of Rostov-on-Don; but he aspires to a career in music.  Instead, he gets drawn into the web of an amoral underground gangster and drug kingpin, who is being sought by an equally amoral and obsessed rogue vice cop.  Much mayhem ensues.  The film is gorgeously shot with a fine eye for wide-screen compositions.  It has a fine, propulsive techno score fitting with the main character's job as DJ (played by the attractive Maxim Matveev, who looks more Italian than Slavic).  However, ultimately the film goes off the rail into a series of unlikely, violent events which strain credulity.  But the trip to that point is interesting enough to be worth the fare.  ***

MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH (d. Rawson Marshall Thurber)
I loved Michael Chabon's first novel.  And with two of my favorite actors, Peter Sarsgaard and Jon Foster (younger brother of Ben) playing the leads, how could this go wrong?  Well, for starters, it doesn't have any of the insightful whimsy of the book.  At least the film doesn't ignore, as I feared might be the case, the novel's interesting aspect of bisexuality within a male-male-female three-way relationship...although it doesn't quite work in the film as the actors seemed to lack conviction.  In fact, the entire trio (which includes Sienna Miller as the ebullient third wheel who is supposed to hold the threesome together) lacked chemistry.  Still, the film was entertaining enough, even if a disappointment.   ** 3/4

LADY JANE (d. Robert Guédiguian)
This is a typical French caper film with an intriguingly different premise.  A trio of ex-cons, long out of the game and into other more or less kosher pursuits, get drawn back into the underworld in order to raise money to pay off a ransom when the teenage son of two of them is kidnapped.  The plot has enough convoluted developments for any three films...and I had the feeling that there were important holes in the story.  Still, the steely immorality of the three main characters plus the karmic resonances which propel the plot make this a fine entertainment.  ***

FROZEN RIVER (d. Courtney Hunt)
The setting of this outstanding American indie film is the Mohawk Indian reservation on the New York/Canadian border.  Melissa Leo plays the mother of two sons whose gambling addicted husband has just deserted the family the week before Christmas, taking with him the down payment on the family's newly purchased double wide manufactured home.  In order to raise cash, Leo's character becomes involved with a young Mohawk girl in smuggling illegals over the frozen border river.  Tense, amazingly involving, skillfully directed and acted, the film simply works.  Bravo to all involved.   *** 1/2

FAIRY TALE OF KATHMANDU (d. Neasa Ni Chianain)
Irish poet Cathal O Searcaigh is an out, gay 50-ish man who enjoys trolling Nepal to pick up young boys (although they are all over the 16 year old age of consent in that homophobic, but apparently not overly so, society.)  His "friend", filmmaker Neasa Ni Chianain accompanies him to document three of his recent trips to Nepal.  Searcaigh, like most Westerners, is like a god to these boys.  He has adopted one, helps many of them out with money for their education, buys them presents.  The film is artfully made, and starts out unexpectedly positive about its possibly unsavory subject matter...until the director in her narration gets nasty and judgmental about the poet that she had admired so much before.  This happens after she starts to interview some of his boys (choosing only the most negative ones to show on film).  Maybe it's just me; but I liked Cathal, the boylover, a lot more than Neasa, the filmmaker.  **

TRIANGLE (Tie Saam Gok) (d. Tsui Hark, Johnnie To, Ringo Lam)
The trick of this film is that three directors tried their hand sequentially at one story.  Actually, the plot was not worth their effort:  some Hong Kong underworld nonsense about an ancient, gold coin encrusted vest and various groups of criminals and cops chasing after each other for its possession.  I couldn't discern that much of a difference in style between the three directors...but apparently aficionados of the genre are able to.  This was Johnnie To's third film at this festival; and despite the usual glossy look and immaculate wide screen cinematography, this was the most confusing and, let's face it, the most derivative of previous films of this genre.  ** 1/4

THE WACKNESS (d. Jonathan Levine)
This is a well observed, nicely acted and directed coming of age film, one of those quirky teen comedies which surpass the usual genre.  The central character is Luke (played winningly sly by gravelly voiced Josh Peck), the summer after his high school graduation, in an immaculately depicted 1994.   He deals pot, his family is crumbling, and the psychiatrist he is seeing is loonier than he is (also the step-father of the girl he's in love with.)  The psychiatrist is played by Sir Ben Kingsley in one of his best comic roles.  This is a director to watch for.  This is only his second feature (his first remains unreleased).  But he obviously has the innate ability to draw fine performances, construct comic scenes with great timing, and provide his film with an extra jolt of smartness.  *** 1/4

JOLENE (d. Dan Ireland)
Based on a short story by E.L. Doctorow, this is a coming of age dramady, this time of a poor South Carolina orphan girl who marries the first man she can at age 15 and embarks on a 10 year series of unfortunate relationships.  The film is blessed by a great central performance by newcomer Jessica Chastain, a red haired, freckled beauty with star charisma.  I'm a Dan Ireland fan...I think he's one of the best of the current crop of American directors, and here he is working with some majorly fine actors and an adequate budget to provide a high gloss to the production.  This isn't his best, most affecting film; and I could feel that the audience wasn't as swept away with the story as I was.  Perhaps that was because most of  the men in the film were clichéd and fatally flawed.  ***

Must pack and start heading to L.A.  I'll finish off this journal on the way down the coast.  At the end of the rigors of SIFF, I think I'll make the rest of these comments short and to the point. 

This is a Disneyesque TV movie, a coming of age story of an 11 year old girl whose widower father is moving her and her older brother to a different neighborhood.  She copes, mostly in a middle school environment.  The girl, Alyson Stoner is perky.  Luke Perry is an ideal youthful father, which surprised me.  The best thing about the film is a wonderfully sly performance by Penny Marshall, as the martinet teacher:  frumpy, grumpy...but wise.   It's not the kind of film I'd watch if it showed up on cable; but I found it entertaining, if simplistic. ** 3/4

LEROY (d. Armin Volckers)
Leroy is  a modern teenager, a mixed black/white boy growing up in Berlin, Germany.  He gets involved with a girl who comes from a family of four skinhead  brothers.  Much anti-foreigner, neo-Nazi based hilarity ensues...although nothing quite worked to tickle my funny bone.  I had heard lavish praise from others; but the zany, slapstick, mod-German style had little of the visual pizazz of Run Lola Run.  Without that, the comic inventiveness wasn't enough to balance the tepid love story.  ** 1/2

THE GIRL BY THE LAKE (La Ragazza del Lago) (d. Andrea Molaioli)
This was another film with a lavish reputation and a 2nd complete sold-out screening.  It's actually a fairly predictable Italian police detective murder mystery, the kind of plot which runs nightly on any CBS television series.  The film looks great in impeccable wide screen.  Tony Servilo is fine as the issue-ridden, taciturn, senior inspector.  But the plot doesn't build to anything surprising.   An admirable effort, if a disappointing one.  ** 1/2

SLEEP DEALER (d. Alex Rivera)
This was the surprise of the festival for me.  Rivera has created with inspired inventiveness a low budget, near-future, dystopian cyberworld of long distance connectedness through implanted nodes.  It takes place in rural Northern Mexico and a futuresque Tijuana.  It's about revenge; but the interesting subtext is the plight of Mexican workers in a future when they can be exploited by the U.S. cartels while they stay in their own fenced off, third-world  country.  This is a novel future world that Phil Dick or William Gibson could have created: dense, realistic in an imaginative, abstract way.  And it's a good science fiction story, too, with a genuine Winston Smith like hero (here played sensitively by Luis Fernando Peña.)  *** 1/2

A superior genre film.  *** 1/2

BEFORE I FORGET (Avant que j'oublie) (d. Jacques Nolot)
Nolot plays a 60-ish washed up, but once hot, escort/lover for a series of rich, older Parisian men.   The film meanders through his daily life for a while, as he pays for sex with a variety of men, and consults a psychiatrist.  It mainly details in passing moments with friends his memories of past amours and lost inheritance opportunities.   It's all very quotidian with plodding pacing...except that Nolot's performance is letter perfect as an interesting character study of a gay man of a certain age, uncommon enough as to be notable.   I was fascinated enough; but it didn't work for many. ** 3/4

PERFECT SPORT (d. Anthony O'Brien)
O'Brien is a 20-ish director who has the guts (and talent) to direct himself as a teenage high school wrestler who grapples with real issues, including a misguided coach, absent mother, needy younger sister, steroids and coming of age.   I'm not sure which is better, O'Brien as actor (a young Tom Hanks) or O'Brien as director (managing a totally professional looking film, with a well written script produced on a meager budget...and shot on 35mm film!)  This film won the indieflix.com/SIFF internet contest for best feature out of the ten chosen admissions.  It stacks up well with all the more acclaimed New American cinema presentations here.  ***

Thus I ended on a hopeful up note my 2008 SIFF experience.   A week and a half shorter than last year; but I got my fill of films.  Overall I had the impression that the programmers in general didn't do as good a job this year as in past years picking films.  But as usual, SIFF is a feast of diverse world cinema unlike any other, with a smart, friendly group of fellow cineasts to chat endlessly with in the spaces between screenings.   This year the venues were more compactly situated over the city and I had no difficulty handling my schedule...never late, missed none of my preferential choices.  There were some annoying projection problems; but overall most screenings started on time and ran well.  However there were too many pre-screening promos bunched together and repeated ad nauseam...I figure at least 3 hours over all spent watching them over and over.  OK, they were visually complex enough to stand for and I understand the economics; but brevity is a virtue.  All in all, another successful SIFF; and I hope that I'll be able to do it again next year. 

A week after the festival finished, I received my personalized Fool Serious ballot results which rated my scores for likability from +4 ("absolute best") to -4 ("least favorite") with a score of 0 being "good" and a score of -1 being "average".  I had a feeling, and had been claiming as the festival wound down, that I thought the films this year were not up to the level of previous years, at least as far as my personal tastes were concerned.  I was curious to see if this year's report validated that.  The answer is that it did, but not by as much as my gut feeling said: 

Here are my scores since 2001. 
2001    +1.00 based on 123 films
2002    +0.64 based on 115 films
2003    +0.81 based on 132 films
2004    +0.84 based on 146 films
2005     +0.78 based on 149 films
2006    +0.74 based on 133 films
2007    +0.58 based on 170 films
2008    +0.45 based on 153 films

That isn't a really significant drop-off from last year (which was my previous low mark, incidentally.)  Maybe it's just that I'm becoming more jaded over time, or perhaps more critical.  But I'm going with blaming the films!

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