2008 Spring Film Festivals

Los Angeles, Italia festival
City of Lights, City of Angels (French) film festival
San Francisco International Film Festival

All films rated on a scale of **** best.

SCUSA MA TI CHIAMO AMORE (d. Federico Moccia)
A glossy piece of Italian romantic comedy fluff, about an affair between a 37-year old man and a 17-year old high school girl...sort of a squirmy premise to begin with.   There's no doubt that Raoul Bova is an attractive movie star (he's even been featured recently in an American TV series, "What About Brian". )  And young Michela Quattrociocche is quite pretty and lively...a future star.   And apparently the legal age for heterosexuals in Italy is 16, so that avoids one built in problem with the plot (only it really doesn't).   What is unavoidable, for all the high production values, is that this is a tiresome, predictable romantic farce with nothing going for it but an attractive cast and the extreme expression of middle age men's infantile fantasies plopped down in an unimaginative chick flick.  **

IL PUNTO ROSSO (d. Marco Carlucci)
This is a film about a maverick Italian comedian who becomes a political force by poking fun at the establishment politicians on television.  It was presented here in a terrible digital transfer; and apparently the theater didn't even have the right lens to project it in correct aspect ratio, as everything was stretched horizontally by at least a third.  What might have been an effective film was ruined by this annoyance.  Plus, the politics were both obscure and a little too on the nose for my tastes (every establishment politician was corrupt and clichéd.)  Still, the cumulative effect of a little man poking his (literally) red nose at the establishment had some emotional power which ultimately overcame the really bad technical lapses in editing and overacting.  ** 1/4

LAST MINUTE MAROCCO (d. Francesco Falaschi)
This one is a nicely photographed (scope and actually on film) road trip flick.  Three teenagers play hooky and travel to Morocco to pick up weed and attend a music festival.  One of them, Valerio (a winning performance by Daniele De Angelis) has two bickering divorced parents.  Valerio's father travels to Morocco to try to find his errant son and a pleasant enough farce ensues.  This isn't a great film; but in the context of the rest of the day it's a masterpiece.  ** 3/4

THE RAGE (La Rabbia) (d. Louis Nero)
A film which defines arty pretentiousness.  Supposedly a tribute to Fellini (it opens with a beach dreamscape which could come from a Fellini film), it's more like Peter Greenaway at his obscure worst.  It's all very meta:  a young filmmaker wants to make an arty indie film about making an arty film.  Filled with dreamlike imagery, some of it actually effective (for instance a sequence of the filmmaker walking around shot in high contrast against a pure white background); but every scene is too long, too self-indulgent, and maddeningly obscurantist.  The hypnotic score and content light scenario put me to sleep for vast stretches.  When the film actually broke in the gate, burning up, it almost seemed like a deliberate stroke on the part of the filmmaker.  However, after the projectionist woke up and dealt with the problem, unfortunately the film continued to its meandering conclusion.  * 1/4

WINE AND KISSES (Come le Formiche) (d. Ilaria Borrelli)
Another film presented in terrible digital format; at least this time in the right aspect ratio.  It's a totally unfunny comedy about a bickering family who own a gorgeous Umbrian vineyard gone to seed and how they scheme to save it.  The sub-titles were mangled with misspellings and grammatical errors; but the overacting and flat and predictable script were worse.  * 1/2

This third iteration of the  Los Angeles, Italia festival is free (quite amazing in this day and age.)  Last year I was surprised by the quality of the few films I watched; and this year I was determined to go to more.  After all, the Chinese Theater six-plex is an excellent venue...and free is, well free.  But sometimes you get what you pay for; and honestly if the festival doesn't improve the quality of the films soon I'm out of here.

It's the next day, a much better day of films, so all is not lost after all.

ANOTHER LIFE (Ovunque Sei) (d. Michele Placido)
Stefano Accorsi is one Italian actor who picks roles which match his soulful eyes.  This is a romantic melodrama, a little too much in the same vein as a couple of American films, even the mention of which would be too much of a spoiler of the surprises in this plot.  But it's slickly done, with excellent acting and cinematography which restored my faith in Italian cinema, at least as far as this festival goes.  ***

THE BUM'S NAME (Civico 0) (d. Citto Maselli)
This film turned out to be a docu-drama, as if Errol Morris and Robert Flaherty had combined forces.  The subject is about the plight of three homeless or poverty stricken people, recreated by actors in the actual milieus of their lives.  One was an Ethiopian girl who just about walked to Italy, and survived in the city's mean streets of pimps and whores.  Another was a depressive Romanian woman whose life without papers in her adopted land was serving as hidden away caretaker to a 92 year old woman.  The third was a middle age mommas boy who was cast utterly adrift and homeless when his mother died.  The look of the film was very gritty b&w digital.  But every frame was filled with sad truths; and the actors were remarkable in their fidelity to their subjects.  ***

MILANO PALERMO - IL RITORNO (d. Claudio Fragasso)
Apparently this slick mafia thriller is the sequel to an 11 year old film (Palermo Milano Solo Andata) which I hadn't seen.  As such, we're thrust into the middle of the plot without much explanatory exposition.  Giancarlo Giannini is a mafia accountant who had turned states evidence and apparently stolen 500 million euros from the Family.  Eleven years later, the cop that brought him in (another charismatic role for Raoul Bova) is charged with guarding the now released prisoner while the new mafia boss (a chilling performance by Enrico Lo Verso) will stop at nothing to capture the old man, extract revenge and recover the money for the mob.  This is one hell of a well made thriller; it might have been a big Hollywood production with extremely well directed action and chase sequences.  I was impressed by every aspect of this film.  *** 1/4

SWEET AND THE BITTER, THE (Il dolce a l'amaro) (d. Andrea Porporati)
For obvious reasons, Italian cinema is obsessed with the Sicilian mafia...and this is a better than average story about the twenty year journey of an underling in that organization.  Luigi Lo Casco (who, ever since THE BEST OF YOUTH has been just about my favorite Italian actor) plays Saro, son of a mafioso leader killed in a prison riot, smart but more humane than ruthless, who rises in the Family hierarchy until he's faced with having to make uncomfortable choices in an internal war for mob supremacy.   What raises this film above average is Lo Casco's humanistic performance and a very well written script which goes to the heart of what it means to be a minor soldier in the mafia.   *** 1/4

FEVER, THE (La Febbre) (d. Alessandro d'Alatri)
I really loved his film, although it's hard to put into words why it affected me so.  It's the story of a young man living in the beautiful Lombardy city of Cremona (in northern Italy) who aspires to designing and opening a hot nightclub, but instead becomes a civil servant of the city, a job mimicking his now dead father.  As played by the actor Fabio Volo  (a dead ringer for Pauly Shore physically, but a fine actor that I'm going to watch for in the future, although he seems a little too old for this role), he's totally simpatico and plucky in the face of every impediment that the film throws at him.  The final shot of the film sums up the emotional satisfaction of the film for me, a soaring zoom from the town square to an outer space perspective of the entire Italian boot and a narrator who raptures on the beauty that is Italy.  *** 1/4

L'ABBUFFATA (The Feast) (d. Mimmo Colopresti)
This is a strange film, which in some ways reminded me of Fellini or Antonioni in their heyday, although I'm not making the claim that this director holds a candle to those masters.  It's the story of three young guys who are determined to make a movie despite being stuck in their small Calabrian seaside town.   They have a story culled from an episode in local lore; and they travel to Rome to attempt to get into the movie biz.  There at a party they meet Amélie (played by the luminous
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) who offers that her boyfriend might be interested in playing in their movie (the boyfriend happens to be, unknown to them, Gerard Depardieu playing himself as bon vivant monster).  When the actor actually shows up, the town goes crazy making a feast in his honor.  It's ultimately very AMARCORD in feeling, which surely isn't a bad thing.  I had trouble getting into the film initially; but it just kept getting better and better as its unlikely story unfolded.  ***

SECRET OF THE GRAIN, THE (La graine et les moulets) (d. Abdellatif Kechiche)
Kechiche has made an intimate family epic set in the Mediterranean port city of Sète, France, about an extended family of francophied North Africans led by a sixtyish pater familias who, having been laid off from his 35 year port maintenance job, embarks on a project of turning a rustbucket ship into a floating couscous restaurant.   The film is over-long, with a large cast, mostly family and friends, which is initially hard to keep straight.  But after a while the accumulation of detail about this dysfunctional family begins to make sense; and more important, I started to care about the characters...really care.  In fact, by the end I was so emotionally invested that the up-in-the-air ending left me feeling literally bereft.  But all this adds up to a successful, even unforgettable, film.  *** 1/4

WATER LILIES (Naissance des pleuvres)  (d. Céline Sciamma)
A coming of age film about a gawky teen age proto-lesbian and two of her friends.  The milieu of synchronized swimming (the water lilies metaphor) is well done.  But teen-age girls' sexual angst is far from my comfort zone.  The film is nicely shot; and I suppose the acting was adequate.  But for me it failed to engage.  **

99 FRANCS (d. Jan Kounen)
Kounen made the amazing psychedelic western, Blueberry which was a hint of things to come.  Certainly he is a daring filmmaker, not afraid to overreach.   This film is a satire of the advertising business, about a blitzed out cokehead creative director and his misadventures.  In some ways it reminded me of David Fincher's stylizings in Fight Club:  an obvious visual touchstone.  But Kounen has his own demented visual style which I find fascinating to watch even when I'm repelled by the narrative.   And make sure to stick around after the end credits start, since one of Kounen's things is to never actually end the film.  This time he outdoes himself.  ***

ELLE S'APPELLE SABINE (d. Sandrine Bonnaire)
Sandrine Bonnaire is an actress of innate intelligence and stoic depths.  This documentary, comprised of video footage that Bonnaire took over many years of her younger sister, Sabine, may show from where Sandrine gets her emotional strength.  For Sabine, from an early age, showed unmistakable signs of what was later diagnosed as profound autism.   Sandrine's well shot videos covered Sabine's gradual descent from dull eyed, but talented little girl into a kind of drug affected torpor in middle age.  Only a 5 year period when Sabine was institutionalized was missing.  The film skips around in time; but focuses mainly on the present day when Sabine is being housed in a well maintained home environment for autistic or brain damaged adults.   Bonnaire's camera is surprisingly neutral; and some of the best footage is of other patients in Sabine's current facility.   All in all, a fine and personal document of a sister's family tragedy.  ***

MELODY'S SMILE (La chambre des morts) (d. Alfred Lot)
The English title (somebody's whimsical translation of literally "The Room of Many Dead") gives no hint as to the quality of this fine French policier/thriller.  I was never a big fan of the film Silence of the Lamb, however this film does that film one better by pitting two pairs of evildoers against the flics and each other...and doing it in the perfect noir setting of the run-down seaport areas of present day Dunkirque.  I mention the Demme film because there are unmistakable homages to Silence in this film; and there is also a strong female detective (played by Mélanie Laurent) whose personal life and past play crucial roles in the unfolding of the gruesome crimes.   The real achievement of this film is the successful resolution of a plotline so complex and convoluted. ***

SECRET, UN (d. Claude Miller)
For those suffering from cinematic Holocaust fatigue, I present this film:  a multifaceted romantic melodrama set in World War II and post-war France which takes a different slant on events.   The film has a complex structure, existing simultaneously on at least 3 time lines covering fifty years from the mid 1930s to the 1980s, utilizing black & white and various degrees of saturated color photography to help separate the periods.   It's the story of an extended Jewish family and how they cope (or don't cope in some cases) with the Nazification of France; and how their lives are affected for decades by personal issues even more pressing to the family members than the horrors of the outside world.   The cast is superb, the direction immaculate.  Maybe because of this film's focus on familiar family issues, I found myself more profoundly moved and personally connected to this story than from any previous Holocaust film.  Quite an achievement.  *** 1/2

KILLER, THE (Le Tueur) (d. Cédric Anger)
Grégoire Colin is one of those chameleon like actors who can adapt his appearance to any role.  Here he is playing a sleazy, nondescript contract killer, hired by an anonymous source to do in a financier.   The film is very reminiscent of Melville's Le Samouraï from 1967, also a film noir about a loner hit man at a crisis point, although the fairly  straightforward narrative of the current film follows a different track.   Nothing spectacular here, just a solid film noir which seems to exist in an existential bubble which excludes such outward realities as police.   ** 3/4

THE FEELING FACTORY (La Fabrique des sentiments) (d. Jean-Marc Moutout) V.
Actually this film isn't playing at the City of Lights/City of Angels festival; but it was sent to me on DVD and did play this spring at the New York Rendezvous with French Film...so I'm adding it here.  It's the story of Eloïse, played by the luminous Elsa Zylberstein, a 36 year old lawyer who seems to have it all...except she wants more, namely a relationship.  She searches for it in a 7 minute speed dating club...and that's when her life starts to fall apart.  The story was involving enough; but the ending came so far out of left field that I was wondering if an entire reel had been skipped (not very likely with a DVD, I suppose.)   The film is talky and very French.  I suppose it had something relevant to say about modern relationships; it was just not that involving for me.  ** 1/2

FEMALE AGENTS (Les Femmes de l'ombre) (d. Jean-Paul Salomé)
Salomé has made an old fashioned WWII resistance film with a definite feminist, revisionist bent.  It's the mostly fictionalized story of a group of four French women recruited by the British to perform an important mission in France just prior to D-Day (I didn't know until reading the sub-titles of this film that the French refer to this as J-jour.)  Sophie Marceau plays the stalwart leader of the group as a steely-eyed sniper.  But the real star of the film is Moritz Bleibtreu in his first (and apparently only, according to the director's Q&A) depiction of an SS colonel obsessed with proving to his superiors, despite obfuscations, that Normandy will be the landing place.  Bleibtreu's characterization is amazingly complex for a Nazi...obsessive, emotionally vulnerable, altogether human if also monstrous.  The film's main flaw is a series of unlikely plot developments which mar the credibility of the narrative.  But the action sequences are  well directed, and the film looks great, with an amazing attention to realistic details of the period.   Too bad the plot is so unbelievable.  ** 1/2

WHAT IF...? (Notre univers impitoyable) (d. Léa Fazer)
The French title is apparently a quote from the French translation of a phrase from the tv show "Dallas", denoting the ruthless world of commerce.  The film is a very talky and dark romantic comedy about two lawyers:  a couple contemplating marriage, who are competing to become a partner in the law firm both are employed by.  The film has a clever structure, alternating narrative threads where each wins the competition and the consequences thereof (thus the "What if...?" of the English title).   But other than admiring the originality of the concept, I was turned off by the execution, which is full of office and sexual politics clichés and too talky by far.   The only saving grace is the performance of the two leads, Alice Taglioni and Jocelyn Quivrin, as cut-rate Tracey/Hepburns.  There was some chemistry there.   ** 1/4

THOSE WHO REMAIN (Ceux qui restent) (d. Anne Le Ny)
Two people meet cute at a hospital where their significant others are being treated for cancer.  The film focuses on the couple (we never see their sick partners); and since they are portrayed by the excellent actors Vincent Lindon and Emmanuelle Devos, the audience is treated to a deft, bittersweet, seemingly doomed romance.  I have to admit that I was emotionally involved with these characters since there were strong resonances in this script with my own life.  But for all the excellent acting and well written dialog, the film just failed to gel for me, seeming just a little to pat and predictable for my tastes.  ** 3/4

A MINUTE OF SILENCE (Une Minute de silence) (d. Florent Emilio Siri)
I've commented before how much I admire the French director, Florent Siri, who has proved to be a master of action thrillers such as The Nest and Intimate Enemies.  So watching his ten year old first film was a must, especially since it also stars two of my favorite French actors, Benoît Magimel and Bruno Putzulu.   Unfortunately, except for the director's eye for colorful imagery, the film strikes out as drama.  It's the story of two young coal miner friends who are working in the last French mine in Alsace, and how they are affected by a violent strike when the company and government decide to prepare to close the mine.   The relationships in the film proved to be too diffuse to engage me.  The film shows Siri's future promise as a director, but doesn't quite match his later work.  ** 1/2

THE GROCER'S SON (Le Fils de l'épicier) (d. Eric Guirado)
This promising young French director has made a heartwarming film about a bitter young man estranged from his family, having escaped from his country village and his domineering grocer father ten years earlier, who returns from the city to run the family business after his father's heart attack.  This film reminds me of another wonderful French film which glorifies the French countryside:  The Girl From Paris.  Like that film the salubrious French countryside  (this time the rolling hills and farms of Provence) has a healing effect on the former city dweller (nicely played by the very attractive young actor Nicolas Cazalé).   The most interesting aspect of this film is its exploration of a particularly French type of business...the grocer who travels country roads in a market truck to serve the far flung rural families.   The film is slow to develop; but it definitely casts an enthralling spell.  *** 1/4

Why was this beautifully restored 1948 American noir by a German director playing at a French film festival?  The explanation we were given is that there were two films recently restored by the UCLA Film & Television archive...the French one, Ophuls' Madame de, went to Cannes, so this festival programmed the Lang film as part of its noir Friday.  Regardless, the film was worth watching if only for its marvelous B&W cinematography and somewhat absurd psychological suspense plot with its resonance with Hitchcock's Spellbound.  I'm not particularly a fan of old genre films; and I found myself snickering at times at the melodrama and overwrought score by Miklos Rozsa.  The film stars Michael Redgrave (whose progeny look nothing like him, incidentally) and Joan Bennett; but for my money Natalie Schafer (later famous for playing Lovey Howell on Gilligan's Island)  steals the film with her portrayal of the ditsy upper-class sidekick, Thelma Ritter crossed with Margaret Dumont.  ** 3/4

CORTEX (d. Nicolas Boukhrief)
André Dussollier is wonderful playing a retired detective admitted to an assisted living facility with Alzheimer's whose police mind is still active despite his memory lapses.  The film combines an original, unpredictable plot (so no further spoilers from me) with stylish direction which handles the suspense aspects particularly well.  Plus it's a treat to see Marthe Keller, one of my favorite actresses, playing old and dementia stricken.  ***

ROMAN DE GARE (d. Claude Lelouch)
Lelouch has made a complex tale of intrigue among the artistic intelligentsia with clever manipulation of audience expectations.  It's nicely played, particularly by the strangely magnetic (but quite unattractive) actor Dominique Pinon.  It's a good story; but for me there were a few too many holes in film logic to make for a totally convincing film.  Still, Lelouch is a good enough director to make a pleasant and diverting confection out of his unlikely mixture of class conflict and questions about the authenticity of authorship.   ***

RIVALS (Les Liens du sang) (d. Jacques Maillot)
Two brothers from the slums of Lyon:  the elder a petty criminal who can't seem to go straight after being released from prison despite trying (played by the intense actor François Cluzet); the younger a police detective (played by attractive Guillaume Canet) determined to overcome his roots.  The way their lives intermesh makes for an interestingly dark story, well acted and directed.  However, one could hope for a more optimistic ending.  ***

LA VIE D'ARTISTE (d. Marc Fitoussi)
One of my favorite genres of French films is the portmanteau film which weaves various seemingly unrelated stories together into a whole which is greater than the sum of the parts.  A fine example of this was the recent film Avenue Montaigne.   The current film tells three stories of would-be artists (a singer, a writer and an actress) who are all struggling to achieve successful careers.  The stories only connect incidentally; but each is extremely well done, and the sum total is a poignant and totally involving film.  It helps for me that one of my favorite young actors, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, has a small, but vital part in the writer segment.   This wasn't the best film of the festival; but it was the film I enjoyed the most.  *** 1/4

WELCOME TO THE LAND OF CH'TIS (Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis) (d. Dany Boon)
This gentle and uplifting comedy about regional stereotyping of French northerners has been a true box office phenomenon in France.  One would think that a comedy based on such an obscure premise would have trouble crossing cultural boundaries.   But when it won the audience award at this festival, it intrigued me enough to catch the film, although I had a feeling that it wouldn't be my cup of tea.  What the film has going for it is its sympathetic actor/director/writer, Dany Boon (so memorable in Leconte's recent My Best Friend), who has made a love letter to his home region of Pas de Calais and the weird dialect spoken there (represented in the sub titles by curious misspellings which occasionally are indecipherable.)  The fish-out-of-water of this story is the  regular Frenchman (played with good comic timing by Kad Merad)  who is punished by being banished to work in the post office of this obscure northern town instead of being given the desirable post he requested on the Riviera.  The comedy which ensues has its moments...but it all just left me feeling that there wasn't enough substance to merit such commercial success.  ** 1/2

SHADOWS IN THE PALACE (Goong-Nyuh) (d. Kim Mee-jung)
This is a Korean costume drama set in the imperial court of some unspecified century.  It's the story of intrigue and murder among the maids serving the Emperor's family.  The film mixes elements shamelessly, sometimes being a ghost story, sometimes a horror flick; but mostly it is a strange type of policier out of time:  a nurse put in charge of an autopsy of a dead servant is thrust into imperial intrigue over the succession amidst torture and ritual executions of the most graphic and bloody kind imaginable (the audience was audibly horrified by several scenes and there was a mild rush to the exits during some extremely graphic torture scenes).  I had trouble following the narrative because, once again, I was confused by my inability to identify the unique differences in the appearance of Korean women...I kept mixing up characters.  And it didn't help when the film shifted time lines with clues I wasn't picking up on.   Still, this film succeeded as an art film despite the odds due to  the amazingly vivid cinematography, costumes, sets; and the unique court setting from the servant's point of view.  ** 3/4

Way back in 1994 at the Seattle Film Festival, I caught a special Bela Tarr screening.  I remember very little about it; but what did stand out were the incredible slow moves, snail pace, and beautiful compositions.  But borrrrrring.  So I've never watched a Tarr film since.  Still, he has such a reputation that I felt that given a chance to watch his latest film, from a Simenon novel, which meant it had to have an actual plot, that I'd give him another try.  Sure enough, the same signature Tarr effects...here in gorgeous, perfectly composed B&W.   And sure enough, still the slow pacing which becomes soporific at times.  The plot is almost lost in the affect...an Englishman steals some money from his boss, escapes on a ship to some remote French port, and manages to lose the money.  We never meet the mysterious Mr. Brown, who stole the money.  Rather the film focuses on the dysfunctional family (termagant mom played by Tilda Swinton speaking imperfect French) which ends up finding the money.  Blah, blah.  The plot, in what I suppose is typical Tarr fashion, is rather elliptical.  The film is all atmosphere and slow camera moves.   And I ended up actually appreciating the craft enough to upgrade the film.  ***

AMERICAN TEEN (d. Nanette Burstein)
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.  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

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