FILMS IN RED are seen at the AFI Film Festival
FILMS IN BLACK  are seen at the Palm Springs International Film Festival
FILMS IN GREEN are seen at the Los Angeles, Italia Film Festival
FILMS IN PURPLE are seen at the City of Lights, City of Angels Film Festival

Tavernier is an outstanding director, and with this film he is essaying the epic costume drama genre with great success.  The film takes place during the Catholic-Huguenot religious wars in the late 16th Century, during the same time period as other films such as Chéreau's outstanding Queen Margot.  It is the story of Marie (radiant Mélanie Thierry), and the four men who love her in an age when noblewomen are sold by their fathers to marriage for advantages at court.  Some of my favorite French actors play her putative soldier-lovers:  handsome, stolid Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet as her jealous husband the Prince; dashing, charismatic Gaspard Ulliel as her childhood friend and the man she can't help loving; new-to-me, but an actor to watch Raphaël Personnaz as the king's brother and mediator between the two rivals; and Lambert Wilson as a disgraced soldier who serves as adviser and friend to all. This is Romance with a capital "R", passions unleashed, dashing soldiers waging war, court intrigues, heaving bosoms, dueling rivalries...and I ate it up!  *** 1/2

BOY  (d. Taika Waititi)
Taika Waititi is a multi-hyphenate native New Zealander.  This is a gentle comic drama about two young boys, Boy and Rocky, whose mother died in childbirth and whose father (played by the director) has just been released from prison in the North Island seaside town of Waihau Bay in 1984.   The story plays from the point of view of the 11-year old older boy; and it is full of apt and authentic commentary on the place and time.  It's an enjoyable look at small town N.Z. life with just enough originality to be diverting.  Plus, Waititi's skill at handling the excellent, novice child actors is a marvel.  ***

HEARTBEATS  (d. Xavier Dolan)
Dolan's first film as director/writer/actor was the utterly remarkable How I Killed My Mother, made when he was 19.  His followup venture doesn't entirely escape the sophomore jinx; but he remains a remarkable talent with a huge future.  This film is about a young gay man and his best friend fag hag who both fall for a sexually ambiguous Adonis, and try to be very, very cool about it.  Dolan plays the gay member of the triangle with aplomb and a fabulous fashion sense.  Much of the film follows him from the back in slow motion as he observes the world to an apropos rock song score (especially "Bang Bang", Sonny Bono's song in a modern interpretation.)  I wasn't as impressed by Monia Chokri, who fills the straight woman role; but Niels Schneider is extraordinarily well cast as the object of their affection; and Dolan's camera and montages do a fine job of featuring his classic beauty.  It was pretty obvious to me that Dolan was heavily influenced by Bartelluci's The Dreamers and Christophe Honoré's filmmaking style in making this film...the references underscored by a late cameo by those film's sex object:  Louis Garrel himself.  But I'm afraid that Dolan's precocious pretentiousness got away from him with a series of unnecessary documentary like interviews with subjects otherwise unassociated with the story.  Plus, the very cool nature of the characters made for a rather cold film which doesn't really go anyplace plotwise.  Still...Dolan even with a sub-par script is more interesting to watch than just about any other gay auteur making films today.  ***

HAMILL  (d. Oren Kaplan)
Matt "The Hammer" Hamill is a profoundly deaf pro wrestler who, from this standing-room only festival screening, apparently has a large fan base, representing a sub-culture that I've never even heard of.  This is a sports biopic of his early life and struggles, culminating with his participating in the National 167 lbs. collegiate championships in the early 1990s.  In the film, Hamill is played by deaf actor Russell Harvard, who is enormously engaging and one of the reasons the film works as well as it does.  Other stand-outs in the cast are Shoshannah Stern, a familiar deaf actress who plays Hamill's deaf culture activist girlfriend; and Raymond Barry who is quite effective as Hamill's beloved grandfather.   This film does work, both on an emotionally satisfying level and as pure filmmaking, which is remarkable since the filmmaker comes from tv and this is his first feature film.  I'm not sure why I originally programmed this film; but I'm glad I did!  *** 1/4

SUBMARINO (d. Thomas Vinterberg)
Two pre-teen brothers are left to care for their baby brother by their drunkard single mother, precipitating a life-scarring tragedy.  The film picks up several years later as both brothers are 30-something and deeply depressed...the elder just released from prison with anger management problems, the younger a junkie single father of an adorable young son.  The inevitable drama which proceeds from this set-up is a fine return to form from Vinterberg, who is back making Danish films after a so-so career in Hollywood.  It also features outstanding work by the two lead actors:  Jakob Cedergren and Peter Plaugborg.  If this isn't exactly a Dogme 95 triumph like Festen, it still is an emotionally shattering drama in its own right.  By the way, I understand that "submarino" may be Danish slang for waterboarding; but I'm not sure what relevance this has to the film.  *** 1/2

Using a large cast of mostly unknown amateur actors picked up in the Detroit area where the film takes place, this film tells the comic-drama story of one summer night revolving around a number of high-school age group sleepovers.  The kids rove around searching for sex or love or adventure, sort of reminiscent of Superbad, without the "bad" (or even the "super").  The acting is a mixed bag, although Claire Sloma, who plays a bike-riding temptress, is a potential find with star quality.  The script ambles along, not going anywhere profound; but it does have its moments of insight into the youthful Zeitgeist.  ** 1/2

NOTHING'S ALL BAD  (d. Mikkel Munch-Fals)
A father-son pair of sexual perverts encounters a mother-daughter pair of potential victims.  But this is a non-violent black comedy of sorts; about characters who are hiding their lives from each other and even from themselves.  Maybe I was tired going in, or coming down with a cold which developed later that night; but I just couldn't manage to get involved with this film.  I loved the artful cinematography and the oft times cleverness of the writing.  Still, the film overall didn't work for me.  ** 3/4

INCENDIES (d. Denis Villeneuve; Canada)
A Canadian woman dies, leaving in her will instructions to her grown twin children to delve into her shocking secret past.  Turns out that she was a Christian in some unnamed war-torn middle-East country (probably Lebanon) who as a disgraced teenager had given birth to a son lost to the fog of war.  The plot slowly develops in two timelines like the gradual peeling away of layers of an onion with one brilliantly revelatory scene after another as the flashback scenes of war horrors are intercut with the children's search for truth in the present day.  This is a superb script which surprises and shocks at every turn.  The mostly unfamiliar actors are quite fine, too.  *** 3/4

THE BLACKS (d. Zvonimir Juric, Goran Devic; Croatia)
A squad of Croatian Blackshirt fascist troops are sent into the forest on some benighted task at the end of the Serbo-Croatian war.  The forest scenes are creepy; but the flashbacks to their base camp make little sense to one who has scant knowledge of the Balkan politics.  Ultimately the film feels pointless and I regretted that I stuck it out to the disappointing end.  * 1/2

ILLEGAL (d. Olivier Masset-Depasse; Belgium)
This is another film about the plight of refugees from the third world as they try to make better lives in the West.  In this case the Russian mother of a teenage son who is living illegally in French Belgium is captured and sent to a relocation facility on her way to expulsion.  Anne Coesens is especially fine as the woman torn between the love of her son (who was not captured) and her determination to not be expelled by keeping her identity secret.  The film has a ring of authenticity especially in its depiction of the refugee holding facility, something between a prison and army barracks.  ***

PEEPLI LIVE  (d. Anusha Rizvi; India)
This is a satire of politics in today's India, where a state policy of rewarding farmers with 100,000 rupees for committing suicide becomes a political football when one desperate farmer threatens to do the act in front of the massed media.  It's all a bit frenetic; and honestly I wasn't much engaged.  Maybe the satire was just too pointedly broad.  ** 1/4

MAMA GÓGÓ (d. Fridrik Thór Fridriksson; Iceland)
Twenty years ago director Fridriksson made the outstanding film Children of Nature, an Oscar nominated foreign film about a couple who escape from an old folks facility and wander together around Iceland.  With this film he revisits the making of that film, updating it and telling the story of a film director whose 80-year old mother is succumbing to Alzheimer's.  Kristbjorg Kjeld is quite fine as the old lady who over time exhibits all the traits of Alzheimer's (pardon me if I take a moment to regret that I'm experiencing such shock of recognition from my own current life).  And one of my favorite actors, Hilmir Snaer Gudnason (unforgettable in the film Peas at 5:30) plays the film director who must endure the double dilemma of a failing career and a failing beloved mother.  The current film is filled with pithy and truthful anecdotes; but it just misses the mark of emotional involvement that I've experienced with other recent films which also grapple with this issue.  ***

A faceless immigrant, former employee of a huge bakery firm in Jerusalem, has been killed in a bus bombing circa 2002.  When her body is eventually linked to the bakery by an ambitious tabloid reporter, the HR manager of the firm is sent on a public relations trip to take the woman's body home to rural Russia for burial with her family.  This is the set-up for a bittersweet satire which entertainingly enough pokes fun at all sorts of institutions, from capitalism to wintry Russian despair.  This isn't profound stuff...but it is a nicely mounted film about the absurdities of life.  *** 1/4

UNDERTOW (d. Javier Fuentes-León; Peru) +  First time around, last spring, the inferior projected DVD presentation was marred by technical difficulties which almost scuttled the screening and I gave the film ** 1/2.  At that time I found its coy treatment of a gay relationship as a ghost story to be highly problematic.  The setting, a picturesque fishing village, was pretty enough.  But I was offended by the depiction of the town's inhabitants, steeped in Catholic bigotry...and the conflicted, married lead character's tragic family dynamic. I appreciated this film much more the second viewing. This time around, instead of disappointment over an over-hyped, stereotyped gay film, I felt considerably more compassion for the two main characters and their struggles for identity in the macho, homophobic Peruvian seaside town.  And the ghost story love affair emotionally clicked on second viewing, rather than arousing scorn.  *** 1/4

A BAREFOOT DREAM  (d. Kim Tae-gyun; South Korea)
A Korean man, once a failed pro soccer player, settles in the new nation of East Timor in 2002 and attempts to make a group of street kids into a successful soccer team.  His crass motives are suspect; but the film's story arc is as predetermined as every clichéd, uplifting sports movie has been since the invention of film.  This is especially obvious since it is "based on a true story".  However, this is also an audience pleaser, with adorable kids, great kinetic soccer action, and a positive message which is annoyingly lacking in any irony.  It's just too light for this competition, and I'm disappointed for the Koreans.  ** 1/4

OF LOVE AND OTHER DEMONS (d. Hilda Hidalgo; Costa Rica)
This is a lovely, if turgid, adaptation of a Gabriel García Márquez novel which might have been called "Love in the Time of Rabies".  It's the story of a young noble girl in the Spanish new world colonies who was bitten by a rabid dog and sent to a convent by an overzealous bishop along with a young priest given the task of saving her soul.  The production is nicely mounted with some fine, if stolid, acting and even better production design.  The star of the film is the young actress's 6 foot mane of blazing, curly red hair.  No, that's unfair.  This is a serious literary effort which makes its anti-Catholic point with philosophical rigor, and managed not to be too boring.  ***

LA PIVELLINA (d. Tizza Covi & Rainer Frimmel; Austria)
The setting is Rome, among a troupe of Gypsy carnies who live a simple life in trailers.  At the start of the film, a grandmotherly woman finds an adorable, intelligent 2-year old who has been left deserted in the local kid's park.  The old lady, along with her husband and 14-year old grandson, decide to keep the child and await the re-appearance of the little girl's mother. Nothing much happens for the rest of the film, even though this is fundamentally a protracted adventure story of a child in jeopardy. It's mostly enjoyable, with an overall feeling of impending dread mingled with childlike euphoria.  I'm not quite sure why; but it reminded me a little of The 400 Blows the way it presented its characters and passage of time, and especially the film's artful resolution.   ***

9:06  (d. Igor Sterk; Slovenia)
In long shot a car stops in the middle of a bridge over a river.  Turns out that the driver apparently has jumped, a suicide.  The police inspector charged with investigating the death searches for clues to the mystery of the dead man.  The film starts out all atmospherically noir:  muted colors, gradually unfolding back-story.  But as the policeman becomes increasingly obsessed with the victim/suicide, the film goes off the rails into some weird, psychologically suspect dead-end.  Too bad; because the first half is so promising.  ** 1/2

AFTERSHOCK (d. Feng Xiaogang; China)
This is an old fashioned intimate epic, high quality stuff which would make a Hollywood studio proud.  It is the story of a family:  mother, father and twin children, caught up in the calamitous 7.8 earthquake which destroyed the city of Tangshan, China, and killed at least 240,000 (and perhaps as many as 650,000) people in 1976.  The film unfolds as the story of the surviving family members  for the next 32 years, comprising huge changes in the political and social landscape.  The special effects and production values are excellent; but it is the emotionally riveting family saga which holds our interest.  To Western eyes, Chinese characters exhibit more histrionics than would be the case in a similar Hollywood film.  Despite that, the film simply works on all levels, is enormously moving and a towering achievement by any measure.  *** 3/4

WHEN WE LEAVE (d. Feo Aladag; Germany)
Apparently there is nothing worse than to be a Turkish Muslim woman who has shamed her family.  In this case, 25 year-old Umay leaves Istanbul and her unhappy marriage, taking her 5-year old son with her to the supposed protection of her family in Berlin.  Not a good move for Umay.  The subjects of the abuses which occur in the cultures of shame and the plight of Muslim women are familiar in art films...for instance at the 2008 Seattle Film Festival we saw a film, Bliss, about a Turkish family hunting down their fallen daughter.  But this cautionary tale needs to be told over and over so that these horrors are exposed. This film may be somewhat predictably melodramatic; but it works, mainly because of the excellent cast and the first time director's fine sense of pacing and skillful use of music to heighten the tension.   ***

KAWASAKI'S ROSE (d. Jan Hrebejk; Czech Republic)
Hrebejk's clever, humanistic family dramadies (for instance, the luminous Beauty in Trouble) have been reliably watchable for years; and I consider him a director to watch.  Here he sets off on a different tack:  a film about a family torn apart by revelations of shocking past secrets dating to the Communist regime.  The film is intellectually rigorous to a fault, which, even on a 2nd viewing was hard to follow, since many of the missing cultural references referred to a shared past that I could only glimpse in part.  Yet, for all that, the film still had emotional power and beautiful imagery.  *** 

NOY (d. Dondon Santos; Philippines)

The "Noy" in the title refers to an actual Philippine politician running for president (Noynoy Aquino), and a fictitious character, a young man capably played by handsome Coco Martin, who is also named Noy.  The film's protagonist comes from a poor family living in a waterfront slum, who fakes his way into a position as journalist charged with making a documentary video about the other Noynoy's campaign.  The film is melodramatic and emotionally overwrought in a manner too extreme for Western sensibilities.  Yet it does have undeniable power, especially in the scenes leading up to the unfortunate culmination (although by then I had been tempted to check out of the film entirely.)  ** 1/4

THE ANGEL (d. Margreth Olin;  Norway)
A junky mother takes up prostitution and gives up her baby to foster parents before the child's first birthday.  In flashbacks we see that as young girl she had been traumatized by a series of events in a totally dysfunctional family situation.  This is a powerful,  harrowing film which examines how the seeds of abuse ripen and overpower hope affecting future generations.   Kudos to Maria Bonnevie for one of the fine depictions of heroin addiction.  It's quite a bleak experience; but also realistic and truthful.   ***

CRAB TRAP (d. Oscar Ruiz Navia; Columbia)
A man with a mysterious past wanders through the jungle into a poor coastal town and encounters a series of people and situations which add up to nothing much.  96 minutes of headscratching nothing much.   * 3/4

EASTERN PLAYS (d. Kamen Kalev; Bulgaria) +
Originally, at the Seattle festival in May, I subjected myself to yet another dark Eastern Euro film from Bulgaria.  However, I hadn't remembered having seen the film; so I attended this screening and realized in the first five seconds that I'd seen it before.  Still, even on second viewing, this film mostly worked for me, being the story of two brothers trying to make a life for themselves in today's Sofia.  The older one, played by recently deceased real life artist Christo Christov, is depressed and desperate for a life change.  His younger brother has become a skinhead, part of a gang which beats up tourists, particularly one Turkish family whose savage beating becomes instrumental in forging both brothers' future.  The film develops slowly; yet I became invested in rooting for the characters despite their flaws.  ***

THIRD PERSON SINGULAR NUMBER  (d. Mostofa Sarwar Farooki; Bangladesh)
According to this film, life for a woman alone in Bangladesh is insufferable.  At the outset, the attractive, young protagonist is scorned by her family and turned out to live in the streets after her husband is sentenced to prison.  Nobody will rent to a lone  woman, and mere sustenance is difficult.  As timely and realistic as this may be in that part of the world, in practice it makes for a didactic film, hitting the viewer over the head with sledge hammer obviousness.  Nusrat Imrose Tisha is beautiful, and does carry the film on her slender shoulders.  But around half-way through, even though the film was obviously starting to improve as the heroine started to assert her independence, I couldn't stay the least bit interested in the I walked.  The film wasn't terrible, just too unsubtle to engage me.  Let's say an honorable walkout that probably merits **. 

STEAM OF LIFE  (d. Joonas Berghäll & Mika Hotakainen; Finland)
This is a documentary about the struggles of Finnish men as told to the camera and each other in the omnipresent saunas all over the country.  The saunas vary from such inventive rural contraptions as a trailer or an old phone booth, to elaborate home and commercial ones.  The men are varied as to social level and lifestyle; but I was particularly struck by the proportion of men disclosing distressing relationships, and how prevalent were the displays of out-of-shape naked bodies.  Nevertheless, this is an interesting document of the state of men's life styles in today's Finland.  ** 3/4

THE EDGE  (d. Alexei Uchitel; Russia)
In the aftermath of WWII, an enormous number of former Russian war victims were re-settled in Siberia - apparently because Stalin thought that  most prisoners-of-war were German collaborators.  This film takes place in a rural train depot and work-camp gulag deep in Siberia, and revolves around a dissident train engineer and war hero whose arrival at the gulag starts a dominance struggle with the authorities.  The engineer, during an escape attempt, uncovers a deserted but operable train engine occupied by a feral German woman who had been deserted with the train after the end of the Russo-German truce in 1941.  This is the background of this ironic drama about a disparate group of workers and train people.  There are some remarkable action sequences dealing with racing the monstrous train engines.  But for all the film's high production values and historical veracity, as a character study it wasn't particularly engrossing.  ***

CONFESSIONS (d. Tetsuya Nakashima; Japan)
The Japanese are on a roll, at least as far as making searingly critical films about the malaise of modern Japanese society.  Here we are presented with the shocking story of a middle-school teacher whose out-of-control and rowdy class contains two boys whom she accuses of having murdered her 4-year old daughter.  The film is comprised of a series of voice over "confessions" which gradually disclose the nature of the crime and punishment (it's not coincidence that Dostoevsky's novel is part of the discourse).  This is hard hitting, difficult subject matter (evil children, parental malfeasance, and Japanese law which over-protects minors); but Nakashima presents it in an exciting, gut-wrenching visual style and sure footed story sense which I found hypnotically involving.  *** 1/2

LA YUMA  (d. Florence Jaugey; Nicaragua)
The title of the film pertains to the nickname of a young woman, living in a rural town, who takes up semi-pro boxing as a way out of her impoverished and abusive family situation.  It's a slice-of-life, coming of age story which ambles along nicely enough, develops in absolutely predictable fashion, and just didn't involve me emotionally.   ** 3/4

OF GODS AND MEN (d. Xavier Beauvois; France)
The setting is 1996 at a long established Cistercian monastery in the lovely Atlas mountains region of Algeria.  The eight elderly monks, beloved by the natives of the region, work at raising goats and selling honey and tending to the poor and sick, while a war between Islamic terrorists and the "corrupt" government rages around them.  I don't think I've seen a more realistic portrayal of monastic life in a fiction film...the religious and lifestyle aspects; but also the nature of the calling.  This is a quiet, contemplative film, but also a film imbued with the feeling of impending dread.  Unfortunately, for all its beauty and import, the film was for me somewhat too long, and dare I say somewhat boring.  ** 3/4

EAST, WEST, EAST (d. Gjergj Xhuvani; Albania)
This is a comic road trip flick about a group of Albanian bicyclists who were sent by the Communist government to participate in a French bicycle race just as the repressive Hoxha regime was about to fall, leaving them stranded in Italy with no money or support.  The film is an amusing trifle with minimal production values...but quite enjoyable as a pop film experience.  ** 3/4

THE LITTLE ROOM (La petite chambre) (d. Stéphanie Chuat & Véronique Reymond; Switzerland)
An elderly care nurse, recently returned to work after a medical leave for depression, bonds with an embittered old man in her care.  This is a reversal of the usual Kolya trope of "grown-up learns valuable life lesson from a child", with the child replaced by an elder at the end of life.   This is a subtle, if somewhat predictable story, which develops in an emotionally moving, realistic and satisfying arc.  It's a character driven film with some fine acting, especially by Florence Caille as the nurse and Michel Bouquet as the elderly gentleman (with an able assist from sympathetic actor Eric Caravaca as the nurse's husband.)  The depiction of elder care issues:  for instance dementia and loneliness, was particularly apropos to my personal life and caused repeated shocks of recognition.  I became intimately involved with these characters.  I loved this film.  *** 1/2

UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (d. Apichatpong Weerasethakul; Thailand)
My cineaste friends call this important, world-class director "Joe" since his name is so unwieldy.  He enjoys a high reputation for making art films; and this film did win the Palm d'Or at Cannes.  But I've seen a couple of his previous films and know that his bent for supernatural allegory is not to my taste.  This film is a series of tales of ghostly manifestations surrounding an old man who lives in a jungle compound and is slowly dying of kidney failure.  The stories seem disconnected, non sequiturs...for instance the tale of a narcissistic princess who has relations with a fish under a beautiful waterfall seems to have no relation to the rest of the film.  The director has a penchant for staging static tableaux and endless scenes of portentous talk which illustrate an Eastern spiritual  worldview that I simply can't share or understand.  For all the formal beauty of his compositions, there just doesn't seem to be any "there" there.  **

MIENTE  (d. Rafi Mercado: Puerto Rico)
Henry is a handsome young artist living in a squalid city apartment.  He falls under the influence of a mysterious male street person, and becomes passionately involved with a blue-haired temptress...leading to his embarking on a life of sensation and crime.  The film was frenetic and arty to the nth degree, over edited and flashy...but with a directorial flair for the visual.   Despite the confusing narrative, there was a certain logic to what seems to be an unreliable narrative subjectivity.  However, I could see the surprise ending coming a mile away.     ** 1/2

BIBLIOTHÈQUE PASCAL (d. Szabolcs Hajdu; Hungary)
A Gypsy woman has lost custody of her 3-year old daughter and undergoes depredations to get her back.  I was impressed by one special effects dream sequence; but other than that the story left me cold, unable to care enough for the woman's dilemma to feel like slogging through to the end.   W/O

A USEFUL LIFE (La vida util) (d. Federico Veiroj; Uruguay)
This is a short (66 minutes) B&W 4/3 aspect ratio film which recounts the desultory story of a few days in the life of the programmer and projectionist at the failing Montevideo Cinematheque.  The film definitely is imbued with a reverence for film history, showing interesting, brief clips from old films.  But the slender story of the two men who will soon be out of a job (although for them a satisfying labor of love) wasn't interesting enough to carry a film.  **

MONGA (d. Doze Niu; Taiwan) +
A high-school student, recently arrived in the Monga slums of Taiwan, is rescued from hazing and befriended by four other students.  This embroils him in a long simmering war for dominance between rival gangs in 1980's Taiwan.  What develops is a well executed large-scale gangster epic strongly reminiscent of the Italian film Crime Novel, with echoes of Infernal Affairs and even The Godfather.  This is powerful stuff, with a remarkable ensemble of young actors making up the gang of five youths.  *** 1/4 

HONEY (Bal)  (d. Semih Kaplanoglu;  Turkey)
This is basically a film about the quotidian life of a 10-year old boy in rural Turkey.  His father raises bees, the hives of which are failing.  His mother is a simple housewife; and the boy himself attends school where he has a severe reading disability and a bad stutter.  This is the set up for a slow, reflective film of great naturalistic beauty.   ***

THE BORDER  (d. Jaroslav Voytek; Slovak Republic)
The Slovaks chose to send a documentary about the small town of Slemence which was split in half in 1945 by the border between Slovakia (then part of Czechoslovakia) and the Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union).  Entire families were separated from each other (even mothers and children), and over the years the townsfolk failed to adjust.  The film documents the adaptation of several families to the political situation on both sides of the border to the present day, centering on mostly elderly people who lived through the entire period.  Unfortunately, for all the relevance and historical scope of the events, the film failed to involve me in the people stories.  Maybe this had something to do with insufficient exposition or clarity of subtitling...I couldn't tell the Slovakians from the Ukrainians, and all of them were apparently of Hungarian extraction in this confusing geography.  Ultimately the film felt over-long and repetitive.  * 3/4

MESSAGES FROM THE SEA  (d. Daoud Abdel Sayed; Egypt)
This is a long, involved romantic melodrama about a young man's coming of age in his late twenties.  His father has just died, leaving him unmoored.  He had graduated from medical school, but quit practice because his disabling stutter caused patients to lose he relocates to Alexandria and ekes out a living as a pier fisherman.  That's the set-up for a surprisingly involving film which works because its naive leading man, played by Asser Yassin, is so sympathetic and charismatic.  Also impressive are the three beautiful actresses who are his romantic entanglements.  This plays like a telenovela with the scope of a novel.  I was enthralled, even though the film could use a little judicious pruning.  *** 1/4

EVEN THE RAIN (También La Lluvia)  (d. Iciar Bollain; Spain)
A Spanish film company is shooting a costume art film about Catholic priests who were protesting the exploitation of the natives during Columbus's expeditions to the New World.  The pragmatic producer (played by Luis Tosar) and the idealistic director (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) are shooting the film in landlocked Bolivia to save money.  But while the film is being shot, the countryside is embroiled in a controversy where the Bolivian government has sold all the water rights of the area to a heartless transnational corporation (who claim to own water rights to "even the rain".)  That's the set-up for an intellectually intriguing film which contrasts the separate 16th Century and 21st Century liberal causes.  This is an extremely well made film, which I would have rated higher except that it sort of loses focus in the 2nd act before reaching a powerful ending.  *** 1/2

ALL THAT I LOVE  (d. Jasek Borcuch; Poland) + 
I actually saw this film last May in Seattle and forgot that I had.  It took a little while to realize why the film looked so familiar.  Here's what I wrote back in May, which still applies:  The film takes place in a small seaside Polish town in 1981 when Solidarity has forced the Communist government to declare martial law.  Janek is a high-school senior who, with three of his rebel friends has formed a punk rock band which gets him (and his liberal naval officer father) in trouble with the local commissar.  The film meanders through the usual coming-of-age tropes; but I actually enjoyed the band's music and the lead actor (Meteusz Koscinkiewicz) was easy to like.  ***

DOGTOOTH (d. Yorgos Lanthimos; Greece)
This uniquely strange film presents an entirely novel theory of child rearing:  isolation and indoctrination from childhood through adulthood for the two girls and one boy siblings now in their 20s.  As weird as the script is, it is also so enigmatic as to sustain interest throughout...although it's mostly "did they really do that?!"  There's a real similarity to the films of Michael Haneke...but Lanthimos isn't quite as disciplined an auteur as the Austrian.  ***

OUTSIDE THE LAW  (Hors la loi) (d. Rachid Bouchareb; Algeria)
Three brothers become revolutionaries for Algerian independence after their family is expelled from their rightful land by colonial French in the late 1920s.  The film is an epic family saga which tells the story of their underground (read terrorist) activities in France leading up to the 1960's victory.  The story has wide scope and is every bit as interesting and involving as the very best of the WWII resistance films, which it resembles.  *** 1/2

THE FIRST BEAUTIFUL THING (La prima cosa bella) (d. Paolo Virzi; Italy)
A young boy is embarrassed by his mother who wins a local beauty contest in the town of Livorno in 1971.  Cut to the present day when the boy is now a teacher in Milan, estranged from his family, especially his dying mother back in Livorno.  Thus begins an utterly charming family dramedy which intercuts the current time frame when the man returns home for the first time in years, with the saga of his growing up along with his younger sister under the thrall of their spitfire mother.  Stefania Sandrelli, still attractive as an old woman, is wonderful as the elder Anna...dying, yet full of life.  The film has an impressive wealth of human interest details, little touches which add up to a profound emotional payoff.  This isn't a film for cynics, who may find it trivial or overly sentimental; but for me it was a treasure.   *** 3/4

FAREWELL BAGHDAD (d. Mehdi Naderi; Iran)
An American boxer, having killed a man, becomes a soldier in Iraq.  He goes AWOL and encounters a suicide bomber who has had a change of heart.  Shot in extreme close-ups in an annoying wide-screen hand-held style which is both claustrophobic and dizzying, the story jumps about in a narrative which I, frankly, couldn't follow.  I deserve a medal for sticking it out to the end...but to give the film its due, there were occasional starkly beautiful visuals which almost made the enigmatic plot irrelevant.  *

CARANCHO (d. Pablo Trapero; Argentina)
There must be a law that Ricardo Darin must be in every film made in Argentina (or occasionally Uruguay).  Here he plays Sosa, a man of uncertain morals to say the least:  an ambulance chaser involved deeply in auto accident insurance fraud.  According to an opening title, 8000 people die in automobile accidents every year in Argentina, and many of these accidents are fraudulent.   In the course of one of these planned affairs, Sosa meets Lujan (played by intense Martina Gusman), an ER doctor working an ambulance shift.  They become involved; and the film becomes a noirish romantic thriller of sorts.  A reprehensible hero and unremitting violence  made for an unpleasant film.  I was reminded of the central affair between an outlaw and a doctor in the tv series "Sons of Anarchy"; but Carancho is not nearly as well written or involving.  ** 1/4

THE LIGHT THIEF (d. Aktan Arym Kubat; Kyrgyzstan)
The story takes place in a small Kyrgyzstan village on the wind-blown steppes.  The director himself plays the lead character, a kindly electrician whose major vocation involves stealing electricity from the rural grid for his poor village mates and attempting to construct primitive windmills to bypass the greedy government power agency and a corrupt city politician who is trying to buy up the entire village.  This is a gentle, slowly paced tale of heroism and illustrates a unique steppes lifestyle (playing polo with a dead sheep, for instance.)  One of the reasons I love foreign films is the chance to experience such exotic fare as this film.  ***

LULA, SON OF BRAZIL (d. Fábio Barreto; Brazil)
This is a traditional in form biopic of the early life of the current President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.  According to the film he was born in poverty in a rural hovel, had an abusive drunken father and loving, over-breeding mother, and rose up through the ranks from factory worker to union organizer.   The film is large in scope and well acted; but follows the predictable course of any similar story of the early life of a successful politician.  It reminded me of a weirdly asymmetrical version of Oliver Stone's W
, with that protagonist's privileged life being replaced by its antithesis.  ** 1/2

THE LIFE OF FISH  (d. Matías Bize; Chile)
Handsome international star Santiago Cabrera plays Andrés, a 32-year old Chilean who has been living in Berlin for ten years as a journalist.  Having returned for a visit to Chile, he encounters a series of old friends and an ex-girlfriend (exquisite Bianca Lewin) at an evening soirée.  The film is beautifully shot largely in extreme close-ups (in one notable scene through a fish tank) as Andrés wanders from room to room.  Also remarkable is a techno score which adds immeasurably to the party ambiance.  This is a slowly developing, mature film with a fine cast, inventive direction, and a script which emphasizes subtext quite skillfully.  *** 1/4

SOLUMN PROMISE (Besa) (d. Srdan Karanovic; Serbia)
On the day in 1914 when Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia a small-town Serbian schoolmaster is called to active duty and must leave his newly-wed Slovenian wife in the care of an elderly Albanian custodian (played by the familiar actor Miki Manojlovic), who swears a "besa" (an oath) to keep her safe until her husband's return.  This is the set-up for a finely crafted, intimate costume drama about those left behind during wartime.  Kudos to the luminous actress, Iva Krajnc, for bringing the wife to vibrant life.  This is superb filmmaking.  *** 1/2

BIUTIFUL (d. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
The film opens and closes with the same scene; however the content is vastly changed by what occurs in between.  Javier Bardem is remarkable playing a Barcelona fixer, mediating for Chinese and African illegal immigrants.  He's also a beset family man with two young children and a bipolar ex-wife.  And icing on the cake:  he's sick.  Such an unremittingly depressing script; but Iñárritu brings an awesome, if  almost unbearable level of pathos to the table.  *** 1/2

THE TEMPTATION OF ST. TONY  (d. Veiko Ounpuu; Estonia)
From beginning to end, this absurdest parable is unbearable to watch.  OK, some of the images are amusing...for instance an auto crash in the midst of a funeral procession.  But it doesn't add up to anything.  Maybe it's just a failure in me; but I couldn't make any sense out of the story other than the obvious anti-capitalism message.  In the end credits the filmmaker gives prominent thanks to Buñuel and Passolini, which elicited one of the few chuckles from the audience.  Maybe their influences (among others, like Bergman) were apparent; but Mr. Ounpuu isn't anywhere near their class.   3/4*

THE PRECINCT  (Ilgar Safat; Azerbaijan)
An art photographer and his fiancée are arguing when they have an automobile accident and end up being interrogated in a surrealist nightmare of a police precinct.  The story starts to get interesting during a flashback to the photographer's youth; but by that time the accumulated boredom and incomprehension got to me and I split with about 1/2 hour to go.   Too bad; if this had been the first film of the evening I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more.  ** (W/O)

STRAYED (d. Akan Satayev; Kazakhstan)
A family is driving through the Kazakh wilderness when the husband takes a "shortcut" which turns out to be a circular trip to nowheresville:  an isolated shack populated by a very strange couple.  Normally a supernatural horror flick would not be my cup of tea; but this film is made with a smart visual style and has just enough substance and dramatic tension to overcome its trivial  existential plot.  Plus Andrey Merzlikin is quite fine as the nightmare beset husband.   *** 1/4

CIRKUS COLUMBIA (d. Danis Tanovic; Bosnia)
The ubiquitous actor Miki Manojlovic plays a former Bosnian dissident, returned triumphantly with his young trophy girlfriend from exile in Germany to his small Herzegovinian village after the fall of Tito in 1991.  There he encounters his estranged wife and son, and the gathering war clouds of the Balkan civil strife to come.  Tanovic is a fine filmmaker; and here he has populated his film with vivid characters and recounts a propulsive story of village life in the midst of an historic crisis.  *** 1/2

STREET DAYS  (d. Levan Koguashvili ; Georgia)
There's a type of film that lately has been associated with Romania, such films as Mr. Lazarescu, Police-Adjective, 4-3-2...what I call the "story telling at the speed of life" school of filmmaking.   This film from Georgia could be said to belong in that same company.  It's about a petty heroin addict/dealer and his wandering about with his disreputable friends looking to score or fix-up.  The junkies gather to plot and kvetch in front of a his young son's school, yet.  The film plays as black farce...and even though it is tough to take with no characters uncorrupted, this is one hell of a good film:  fine, shockingly realistic script plus
excellent, naturalistic acting.  *** 1/2

MOTHERS  (d. Milco Mancevski; Macedonia)
This film tells three separate stories, tenuously connected by their ironic, distanced view of motherhood.  The first is about a group of schoolgirls who mind their mothers about not getting involved with strangers - except when they don't.  The second is about a trio of documentary filmmakers wandering the Macedonian hill country searching for disappearing culture and find it in the form of an elderly granny and her brother.  The third is a pure documentary of a true-life serial murderer with a mother complex loose in a small town.  All three stories a complete in themselves, and more or less interesting with high gloss production values.  But the film would have been better, I think, if there was a more cohesive theme.  ** 3/4

SIMPLE SIMON  (d. Andreas Ohman; Sweden)
This is a delightful coming of age comedy about two brothers:  normal 24-year old Sam (handsome Martin Wallström) and his Aspergers symptomatic 16-year old brother Simon (played by yet another of the bountiful, talented Skarsgard brothers, this one Bill).  The elder cares for his younger brother despite pitfalls to his own romantic relationship.  The film feels a little familiar, being something of a mash-up of Elling and Ben X, b
ut with its own charming and involving story.  It's hard to beat this film for audience friendly.  *** 1/2

TO DIE LIKE A MAN  (d.  João Pedro Rodrigues; Portugal)
Rodrigues continues making dingy, confrontational gay themed films about fetishists and drag queens.  They're arty and opaque; and this film is just an incremental improvement over his past films.  It's the story of an aging drag queen who is contemplating a sex change for the benefit of his younger junkie lover; but she becomes embroiled in a series of dark encounters with other drag queens and her (his) AWOL soldier son.  The story made just enough sense to have kept me in the theater; but Rodrigues shows again that narrative coherence is his downfall (although there are visually beautiful set-ups which compensate largely for this flaw.)  Props to Fernando Santos, however, who pulls off the aging queen with enormous panache.  ** 1/4

LIFE, ABOVE ALL  (d. Oliver Schmitz; South Africa)
A teenage girl, lives with her ailing mother and two half siblings in a ramshackle S. African village, the inhabitants of which are beholden to tribal prejudices.  She faces enormous odds to keep things together; and this is a remarkably emotional resonant (if somewhat obvious) film which works extremely hard to find life affirmation in the direst of situations.  Credit to the director, actors and producer for the great wide-screen production and seamless characterizations.  This is the type of foreign language film that Oscar was made for.  *** 1/4

IF I WANT TO WHISTLE, I WHISTLE  (d. Florin Serban; Romania)
Silviu (played stoically by amateur actor George Pistereanu with brutal bearing and soft eyes) has been living in the Romanian equivalent of Borstal for the past 4 of his 18 years.  He's about to be released when he learns that his no-account mother is about to inflict the same bad child-rearing on his younger brother as she inflicted on him as he was growing up.  That's the set-up for this riveting story of the end of hope set in a relatively enlightened prison environment.  It reminded me more of a Dardenne brothers' film with so much time spent on the main character rushing around going nowhere, than the current Romanian school of slower paced slice-of-life cinema.  Still, I was emotionally involved with Silviu's predicament, even if I didn't fully understand his actions.  Credit the young actor, whose affectless performance showed natural star quality.  *** 1/2

HERMANO  (d. Marcel Rasquin; Venezuela)
A woman and her young son find a baby left in the trash.  Cut to 16 years later and the "brothers" are budding soccer players living in the Caracas barrio.  This is a film about ethical dilemmas, nature vs. nurture, good boys vs. the hard environment of the slums.  But it is also an absorbing story centered around soccer and making it dynamic and exciting (quite a task for this viewer) through astonishing camera work and editing.  The measure of how involved I became with these characters is how tense every scene made me feel with the unpredictability of a script which breathed with the essence of real life.  Impressive filmmaking.  *** 1/2

HOW FUNNY (OUR COUNTRY IS)  (d. Deddy Mizwar; Indonesia)
An out-of-work business college graduate gets involved in turning a group of young boy pickpockets (shades of Oliver Twist) into a money making syndicate.  I really was interested in the ongoing narrative...but I walked out midway despite that.  Sheer movie fatigue.  W/O

NUUMMIOQ  (d. Torben Bech, Otto Rosing; Greenland)
This is a meditative story about a man, living in a small Greenland community, facing a life crisis.  Accompanied by his cousin, he goes off on a boat journey and...well, nothing much happens.  But the scenery is pretty spectacular and well photographed.  The film is slow, even by foreign film standards.  It does set a mood; and I'm not saying it is without merit.  I just didn't care much. ** 1/4

TIRZA  (d. Rudolf van den Berg; The Netherlands)
An ex-college professor loses track of Tirza, his younger 20-something daughter, and travels to Namibia to try to find her.  There he hooks up with a 9 year old prostitute (I couldn't make this up) and together they explore the truly exotic Namibian culture.  The film is obviously shot in a complex flashback pattern from the point of view of an unreliable narrator and becomes increasingly, weirdly unmoored from reality.  As a study of the innate evil of humanity it works.  As a film:  I wish I hadn't watched it.  ** 3/4

BLACK TULIP  (d. Sonia Nassery Cole; Afghanistan)
An Afghani couple open up a cafe-restaurant in Kabul called "The Poet's Corner" and hold free-mic nights.  This gets them into conflict with the Taliban, which still holds power of terrorism in Kabul, apparently.  Made in wide screen, with more than competent acting and production values, the film tends toward a little too much over-the-top melodrama for my tastes.  And it's the 2nd film I've seen lately where there is a scene of people playing a polo like game with a dead animal.  Still, this is an admirable film with a very informative and possibly important view of today's life in Afghanistan. ** 3/4

FAMILY TREE (L'Arbre et la foret) (d. Ducastel & Martineau)
It's 2000, and Holocaust survivor Frédérick (stoically underplayed by Guy Marchand) has conspicuously refused to attend the funeral of his eldest son.  This precipitates a series of revelations of past family skeletons in the closet (literally in this case)  regarding this landowning Bourgeois family.  As a story of a family settling inheritance issues around the bucolic forest that they inhabit, the film reminds me of a dark, wintry version of Assayas's Summer Hours.  However, all the characters except for grandson-in-law Rémi (handsome Yannick Renier) are variously flawed.  ***

LOPE  (d.  Andrucha Waddington)
This is a straightforward costume drama biopic about the early life and loves of prolific 16th-century Spanish playwright and poet Lope de Vega.  Alberto Ammann plays the role with just the right amount of dash, if a little short on charisma.  The performances and set-pieces were fine (although some of the swordplay scenes were awkwardly blocked).  And I enjoyed the view of Madrid's contemporary outdoor theater somewhat reminiscent of Shakespeare's Globe happening around the same time, I think.  But there were long periods of the film where the story failed to engage; and the murky, under-lit cinematography didn't help. ** 1/4

DUSK (Schemer)  (d. Hanro Smitsman)
Three teenage couples, best friends, fall out with one of the girls, who is annoyingly hitting on two of the guys.  This Dutch film is based on a true-crime story, where the friends conspire and then try to help solve the crime.  The film is creepy and somewhat sexy in a cold way, with a subtle gay subtext which reminded me of a similar true story, told better in the French film Chacun sa nuit.  I liked the way this film jumped around its time frame continuity rather than telling the story linearly.  On the other hand, I was disappointed that it seemed to end with the outcome somewhat in doubt...I would have liked a tad more cloture.  ***

THE WHISTLEBLOWER   (d. Larysa Kondracki)
Rachel Weisz plays a Nebraska policewoman who takes on a well paying job as UN Peacekeeper in Bosnia in the 1990s.  There she discovers a far reaching and shocking sex-and-slave-trade conspiracy by some of her fellow DynCorp hirees.  This "based-on-a-true-story" thriller tells her story as she blows the whistle on this scandal, encountering danger to herself and the girls she is determined to save.  Nicely filmed, with a good propulsive script, the film just seemed a little too predictable.  Still, this is an important exposé of an ongoing problem kind of film; and it deserves finding an audience.  *** 1/4

IN A BETTER WORLD  (d. Susanne Bier; Denmark)
A Swedish doctor (Mikael Persbrandt, scruffy and sensitive) working selflessly in dire, poverty stricken Africa has a family living at home in Denmark.  There his son Elias is a sensitive boy picked on by high school bullies who call him Rat Face.  Christian (a noteworthy performance by young William Johnk Nielsen) is another boy, raised in London by his recently deceased mother and returned to live with this father (Ulrich Thomson) in Denmark.  The two boys become friends...Christian, budding alpha male, taking the lead against the bullies.  This is the setup for an extraordinary tale of two boys and their respective fathers who have differing views of how to resolve the many moral dilemmas that they and their sons face in the course of this absorbing narrative.  Bier has shown in the past with such films as Brothers that she is a fine director of actors.  But here she and her writer-director husband Anders Thomas Jensen have constructed a complex, far reaching script with the broad sweep of a masterpiece. ****

3 BACKYARDS (d. Eric Mendelsohn)
Mendelsohn is back with actress Edie Falco in Judy Berlin country:  suburban Long Island.  Only this time he's playing with a broader canvas:  a neighborhood of gossiping housewives, a miserable celebrity actress, a little girl in jeopardy, an unhappy married man.  All their stories are intercut in a jumble, seemingly unconnected.  And none of the stories seemed to go anyplace or engage me.  Too bad; because some fine actors and a splendid sense of place is wasted.  ** 1/4

THE CHILD PRODIGY  (L'enfant prodige) (d. Luc Dionne)
Andre Michel was a real child prodigy of Mozartian proportions, a child of Quebec in the 1930s who started playing piano at 3 and giving concerts of his own compositions at 5.  This is more or less a traditional biopic of a troubled life:  the genius child and his failed musician father, overbearing mother, ignored sister.  Michel's romantic classical compositions are lushly presented throughout the film with ravishing effectiveness.   And somehow, with an unsparing lack of sentimentality, the film transcends the usual biopic tropes...probably because of the essentially tragic nature of the real life artist's life. *** 1/2

NORMAN  (d. Jonathan Segal)
Segal has pulled off something of a miracle here:  the high school misfit dramedy which seems original and significant.  Much of the effectiveness has to do with the cast.  Dan Byrd has developed his supercilious nice-guy teenage persona in television; and here he is perfectly cast as Norman, smart-ass wimp who fantasizes his way to infamy of a sort.  Richard Jenkins, an actor of uncommon sensitivity, plays Norman's dying father; and Emily Van Kamp is perfect as the new girl who falls for the outcast.  The elements of plot and setting (a nicely rendered Spokane) are familiar; but the execution by writer-director Segal and his cast are near letter perfect.  *** 1/2

DAYDREAM NATION (d.  Mike Goldbach)
The random vicissitudes of the film festival brings two wildly different, but strangely similar, high-school dramedies in a row.  This film is more in the vein of Donnie Darko:  surreal evocation of its morally decaying suburban Toronto milieu...sort of Degrassi High with even more menace and drug addled inhabitants.  The film is centered around smart, precocious high school femme fatal (the amazing Kat Dennings, far more effective with the clever quips than Ellen Page was with Juno) and the way she affects two men...her precariously vulnerable English teacher (Josh Lucas) and stoner misfit boyfriend (Reese Thompson, a favorite young actor of mine since his amazing turn in Rocket Science.)  Writer-director Goldbach in his first effort as director shows great promise...the film is filled with clever touches and consistent moodiness.  But the general tenor of the film was just a tad too dark for me to the point of being a turn-off.  Yet I'm looking forward to further work by this Canadian auteur.  ***

GOETHE (d. Philipp Stolzi)
Perhaps a better title would have been "Young Goethe", as this humor infused costume biopic focuses on the education, first employment (as a law clerk and rival in love to his boss played by a subdued Moritz Bleibtreu), and first love of the German author.  I once read that Johann von Goethe was a true genius; but one would never know it from the bumbling interpretation of the character by Alexander Fehling.  This is an amiable enough romp of a film which seemed to trivialize Goethe's early life by equating it totally with his first influential novel, "The Sorrows of Young Werther".  It's a true audience pleaser, however, with an engaging, somewhat farcial narrative which only mildly engaged me.  ** 3/4

BLACK FIELD (Mavro Livadi) (d. Vardis Marinakis)
The year is 1654, the setting a convent purchased on a remote rocky tor in the midst of Ottoman Empire Turkey.  When a Greek Janissary (Christian soldier captured as youth and enslaved by Ottoman conquorers) deserter is found by the nuns nearly dead, he's taken in and reluctantly saved.  Then a young nun with a dark secret helps him escape and this becomes a weird, sex infused chase film through gorgeous forest locations.  The film is beautifully photographed; but I was bored by the soporific beginning in the convent and then properly shocked by the revelations in the forest.  The almost wordless, reflective narrative was just too austere for me.  This was one film I disliked intensely while admiring the scenery.  **

BLACK BREAD (Pa Negre) (d. Agusti Villaronga)
This is an intense coming of age film about a 10 year-old boy, son of a formerly Red Catalan farmer in 1944, the start of the era of fascist repression.  In Spain after the Civil War, the victors wrote the history and ate white bread; while the losers were left to live or die on non-nutritious black bread.  Francesc Colomer is quite fine as the boy Andreu, typical of the 2nd generation of the conquored:  caught up in the post-war struggle with divided loyalties.  This is politics mixed with family melodrama.  I wish the politics had been made more clear to viewers like myself...I was confused throughout the film about the motivations of the characters and the whys and wherefores.  So despite the obvious quality of the production, I was left emotionally unmoved.  ** 3/4

THE MATCHMAKER   (Pa'am ha'yi'ti)  (d. Avi Nesher)
This is another coming of age story, this time of 15 year-old Arik (a remarkable performance by Tuval Shafir who will be heard from in the future).  Arik goes to work for the mysterious matchmaker and smuggler Yankele Bride as his spy, checking up on prospective clients for his matchmaking business in Haifa during the 6-day war in 1967.  The film's sense of time and place is beautifully rendered.  I loved everything about this film:  the tenderness of first love, the fascinating characters (including Holocaust survivors shunned because if they survived they must have been collaborators).   This film should have been Israel's Oscar submission.  *** 1/2

CEREMONY  (d. Max Winkler)
Two of my favorite young actors finally play their age, graduating from teen comedies to 20-somethings:  Michael Angarano and Reese Thompson.  Here they are occasional best-friends who become involved in Angarano's quixotic quest to rewin the affections of his former obsessive love object (a radiant Uma Thurman), who is in the process of marrying another man at a weekend wedding celebration at a beachside mansion.  Unfortunately, despite an A-list cast (including Lee Pace sporting a superb British accent as Thurman's fiancé), the film is too quirky, with an unrealistic farcial tone and virtually unactable dialogue which defeats the most valiant efforts of actors I really admire to deliver. ** 1/4

THE MAN WHO WILL COME  (d. Giorgio Diritti)
This is a fictionalized account based on a true story of the horrendous German retaliation for partisan activities on the citizens of a small, forested rural village in the Bologna region of Italy in 1943.  It starts slow; but ratchets up the pathos to an almost intolerable level as the film progresses.  It is a beautifully shot, impressive film about an unfamiliar  aspect of the horrors of WWII, which I'd rate higher if it had sustained my interest throughout.  *** 1/4

EASY MONEY  (d. Daniel Espinosa)
This is a Swedish thriller about rival drug gangs, Serbian and Albanian...and a naive, young Swedish business administration student on-the-make who becomes enmeshed in their criminal enterprises.  It's nicely crafted, with a script which mostly holds together, with a very bleak view of human nature.  ***

OUTRAGE (Autoreiji)  (d. Takeshi Kitano)
Kitano has constructed the ultimate gang war movie where rival Yakusa gangs go at the systematic internecine killings with unbridled savagery.  The film is constructed like a French farce, only instead of serial love affairs we're dealing with serial gang killings.  Unfortunately, I had some trouble keeping track of sides (including the corrupt police); and the whole action packed plot became tedious.  Still, Kitano is a stylish enough director (and actor) to make the film visually interesting enough to sit through.  ** 1/2

40 (d. Emre Sahin)
This Turkish film is a gritty, clever thriller which follows a lost bagful of Euros as it winds its way through the possession of several characters in contemporary Istanbul.  Each character has a back-story (petty criminal, unhappily married nurse, lost Nigerian illegal immigrant); and the film connects the dots quite skillfully.  The main character, however, is the city of Istanbul itself, teeming with disreputable life and shot documentary style with a sometimes disconcertingly jumpy hand-held camera.  ***

THE RUNWAY  (d. Ian Power)
A Colombian renegade pilot crash lands his plane in a rural Irish field and is discovered and rescued by a feisty 9-year old fatherless boy.  The small-town County Cork citizens, impoverished by the closing of the local factory, decide to repair the plane and somehow construct a runway to accommodate it.  This is another working class British-style comedy in the vein of The Full Monty, only with a rather clever and original plot which does seem contrived, even if one believes the "sort of based on a true story" title card.  I have to admit to not being charmed by the film, which seemed to try too hard.  However, it's a charming audience pleaser and I'm a Grinch.  ** 1/2

POTICHE (d. François Ozon)
Catherine Deneuve is radiant playing the "trophy wife" of an umbrella factory CEO (frazzled Fabrice Luchini) in 1977.  Ozon has constructed a brightly lit farce which spans the beginning of Women's Lib in France when the trophy wife usurps her husband's position and liberates herself.  On the way we're treated to some fine comic acting by Gérard Depardieu and Jérémie Renier; but this is Deneuve's film; and I appreciated the visual pun comparing the colorful umbrellas in this film with the young Deneuve's masterpiece, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  ** 3/4

SORELLE MAI (Sister Ever)  (d. Marco Bellocchio)
This is a very different sort of Bellocchio film, and somewhat mystifying.  Apparently shot in six episodic chunks over a nine year period (1999-2008) in student labs using Bellocchio's own family as actors, the film fails to cohere as a narrative.  The central story is about a bourgeois family centered in Bobbio, Bellocchio's home town in Northern Italy.   The family consists of brother and sister, each trying to escape to careers elsewhere, and her young daughter being raised by two maiden aunts.  Along the way there are detours, including the non sequiteur story of a teacher, boarding with the two aunts, who is having a personal crisis which has no relationship to anything else in the film.  The film was presented at this festival with dingy digital projection which was literally washed out in many places, which didn't help.  Still, there were compelling elements to the story and some fine acting.  This is profoundly mediocre Bellocchio; but still worth watching.   ** 1/2

ATLANTIS DOWN  (d. Max Bartoli)
The film opens promisingly with some rather good 3D animation of the space shuttle Atlantis doing its job in orbit.  Then the film moves into the cockpit and the cheesy dialog and bad acting commence.  Suddenly a flashing light and 6 of the 7-person crew are magically transported to a forest in the middle of nowhere while one novice astronaut is left in the shuttle.  When crew members started dying and literally turning to dust, transforming the scifi film into an illogical mix of Blair Witch and Twilight Zone, I checked out.   W/O

UNEVEN ROME (La vita dispari) (d. Luca Fantasia)
An avant guard artist (handsome, bearded Ettore Bassi who deserves to be in a better film) wanders Rome, wanted for questioning in the murder of his gallery owner qua mistress.  He gets involved with a series of poorly developed women (I had trouble telling them apart); and nothing much happens except for some poorly projected scenery and a lot of badly directed sex.  This is the director's first film, and it shows very little talent.  * 1/2

FISTS IN THE POCKET  (d. Marco Bellocchio)
As opposed to the Uneven Rome, this first film by Marco Bellocchio, made in 1965, showed the director's amazing talent right out of the box.  It's the story of a dysfunctional family:  blind elderly mother and four grown siblings who live in a rambling isolated home surrounded by mementos of past family prosperity.  The plot centers on the second son, bipolar and epileptic Alissandro, and how and why he commences to knock off his family one by one.  Sandro is played by cherubic Lou Castel (looking like a young Matt Damon) in a performance of such manic energy that it sets an all-time standard for crazed youth.  The film also features beautiful black and white cinematography - all light and shadow; and an eerie score by Ennio Moriconni (along with a fantastically appropriate use of the Verdi aria Sempre Libera in the climactic scene).  I don't know how I missed this film before now; but it ranks right up there with the best of the contemporary Italian cinema of Antonioni and Visconti.   *** 1/2

ANGELS OF EVIL (Vallanzasca - Gli angeli del male)  (d. Michele Placido)
Renato Vallanzasca is apparently a real-life criminal/gangster who has spent 40 years in prison.  As played by Kim Rossi Stuart in a performance of feral charm comparable to Al Pacino in Scarface, his life of crime and imprisonment comes to vivid fruition on film.  Director Placido also made the similar period gangster film Crime Novel, set in Rome.  This film, mostly set in Milan, has the same feeling...lifetime friends who grow up to rob and murder together.  This is a high quality production all the way, with an unusually coherent script and a truly fascinating antihero protagonist.   *** 1/2

PIANO SOLO  (d. Riccardo Milani)
Kim Rossi Stuart does another fantastic acting job which lifts this biopic of jazz pianist Luca Flores out of the ordinary.  I had never heard of Flores, an Italian musician who played with such jazz greats as Chet Baker before mental illness and suicide ended his life in 1995.  The film manages to finesse the usual biopic tropes with a well designed editing scheme of showing flashbacks to the central trauma of Flores' childhood while progressing his tragic life story in the main story.  Stuart is completely convincing playing the tortured artist.  Also, the film is suffused with a splendid musical tribute to Flores.  This film belongs in the company of other great jazz biopics like Round Midnight and Bird.  *** 1/4

THE WEDDING DIRECTOR (d. Marco Bellocchio)
Sergio Castellitto plays a famous film director visiting in South Italy on break from his current project.  When he's asked for advice on the shooting of a wedding video, he becomes embroiled in the disharmony of a bad upper class arranged marriage.  From that point it's hard to differentiate between reality and fantasy as the narrative becomes unreliable.  This is a rare misstep for Bellocchio, a director who succeeds in making things interesting visually even in his failed efforts.  ** 1/2

FATHER  (d. Pasquale Squitieri)
Because of poor scheduling at this "free" festival, I arrived at watching this film somewhere in the middle.  But I watched enough of it to make a judgment.  It's the story of a Sicilian father and son, living in Philadelphia, who fall out with the local Mafia.  What I watched exhibited some pretty bad acting and I think I'll pass on viewing the entire film.  **

CADO DALLE NUBI  (d. Gennaro Nunziante)
The title is translated as "Fall From the Clouds".  This is a fish-out-of-water comedy-with-music about Checco, an Apulian (read South) hick singer who is spurned by his girlfriend and moves to Milan to live with his gay cousin.  There his affections are transferred to Marika (played by a bright, young Italian actress Giulia Michelini).  Checco Zalone is an amazingly spirited and likable dumb/smart comic in the vein of Adam Sandler in his Billy Madison mode.  Zalone's physical comedy and musical skills enable this film to cross cultural boundaries and be funny and well observed even for an American audience.  ***

ALONG THE RIDGE (Anche libero va bene)  (d. Kim Rossi Stuart) +
Back in 2007 I originally watched this at the Palm Springs film fest.  I was impressed; but somehow never wrote a mini-review at the time.  So I was delighted that this festival gave me a 2nd chance.  Stuart (he's 1/4 English, which is why this Italian actor has such a British last name) is an excellent actor, one of my favorites in the world.  This is his one try at directing; and I hope it isn't his last!  This is the story of a failed marriage from the point of view of 12 year old Tommi, son of embattled, dysfunctional parents.  It features one of the all-time great child actor performances by Alessandro Morace who manages to transmit more pain, sympathy and pluck than most adult actors.  Stuart himself is amazing as the dad, trying to overcome his life wasted with a crazed, philandering woman (a totally convincing performance by Barbora Bobulova).  This is one involving, emotionally shattering film.  *** 1/2

100 STEPS (I cento passi)  (d. Marco Tullio Giordana)
Giordana made one of my favorite films of the 2000's, The Best of Youth, which also starred Luigi LoCascio.  This film was made in 2000; and it is the based-on-fact story of a son of the Sicilian Mafia, Peppino Impastato, who out of a sense of right took on his family and the entrenched gangsters of his town by running a local radio station which dared to tell the truth.  LoCascio is astonishing and magnetic playing Impastato (and from photos at the end of the film is a good likeness, too.)  The "one hundred steps" refers to the distance that Impasto's childhood home was from the home of his uncle, the Mafia don who ruled his town.  This is film as vital biography at the highest level.   *** 1/2

GORBACIOF  (d. Stefano Incerti)
A really wonderful in person solo piano jazz performance by Stefano Bollani went to about 6 encores (including a truly amazing variation on "Rhapsody in Blue").  So my trek to the theater in the rain was, at least filmwise, futile in that the last movie of the day was canceled because of the late hour; and all I got to watch was this almost wordless film about unpleasant characters, which I disliked immensely.  It's the story of a prison cashier with a strawberry birthmark on his forehead (thus his nickname) who steals from the till to support a gambling habit and falls for a beautiful Chinese girl (luminous Mi Yang) who unaccountably returns affection to this loser.  The film is well shot, and features a stoic central performance by Tony Servillo who is coming off a really outstanding job of playing Giulio Andreotti in Il Divo.  But I could find nothing to admire about the character or the script.  * 3/4

CHE BELLA GIORNATA  (d. Gennaro Nunziante)
The digital projection froze multiple times about 1/3 of the way through the film.  They finally gave up.  Up until then, this sequel to Cada Dalla Nubi, also starring Italian commedian
Checco Zalone, was reasonably promising as another illustration of an inept Southerner trying to be a security guard in the Milan cathedral.  Pretty broad comedy; but Zalone is charming and somehow makes it work.

WELCOME TO THE SOUTH  (d. Luca Miniero)
This is an Italian remake of an incredibly successful French box-office success:  Welcome to the Sticks.  It's the story of a disdainful Northerner forced to work in a southern town along with all his stereotyped fears.  I think I liked it a little better than the French film...the town south of Naples was quite beautiful, the characters just a little sharper than in the original, and not so much depended on mangled dialog which is so hard to translate in subtitles.   ** 3/4

MY AFTERNOON WITH MARGUERITTE (La Tête en friche) (d. Jean Becker)
  Gérard Depardieu, bigger than life (literally), commits totally to the role of Germain, semi-illiterate 40-ish son of an abusive mother, a gardener who takes on occasional odd jobs.  In flashbacks to his childhood we see a fat boy, bullied, unloved and intellectually crippled by a learning disorder.  The man-boy Germain encounters an old lady in the park, a highly literate 90-something retired lady beautifully played by Gisèle Casadesus; and they become unlikely friends.  This is a feel-good film that manages to examine an unusual relationship without being overly sentimental.  *** 1/4

LOVE LIKE POISON (Un Poison violent) (d. Katell Quillévéré)
This is a coming-of-age film about a 14-year old girl facing multiple issues (puberty, deserting father, dying grandfather, first love, crisis of faith).  Clara Augarde is convincingly natural in the role; and I suppose this is a realistic view of life from a young girl's point of view.  The film has a beautiful score, some nice choral religious works.  But other than that I found it tedious and difficult to relate to in any way.  **

OUR DAY WILL COME (Notre jour viendra) (d. Romain Gavras)
Vincent Cassel plays a bored psychologist who somehow hooks up with a troubled young man (Olivier Barthelemy).  They embark on a mad road trip spree of violent encounters and sexual discovery.  The script is fundamentally flawed because nothing makes sense psychologically or tactically.  Still, at least I wasn't bored, only flummoxed.  ** 1/4

LILY SOMETIMES (Pieds nus sur las limaces) (d. Fabienne Berthaud)
Ludivine Sagnier is over 30, yet in this film she convincingly plays a much younger character, Lily, orphaned wild child (possibly high functioning autistic?) who frightens people in her rural community with her primitive, naturalistic behavior.  Her zipped up older sister (Diane Kruger) is swept into her younger sister's problems.  I respected the acting; but was annoyed by the film which pressed several of my buttons.  Not since Jody Foster's Nell has there been such an ambiguously out-of-control protagonist. ** 1/2

HIS MOTHER'S EYES (Les Yeux de sa mère) (d. Thiery Klifa)
A prima ballerina (played by Géraldine Pailhas in a restrained performance nothing like Black Swan) has a secret which she has kept from everybody, even her estranged mother (a still radiant Catherine Deneuve), famed tv talk host.  At 16 she had a child which she gave away, and now 20 years later wants to re-establish communication.  It's all complicated by the presence of a muckraking journalist (Nicolas Duvauchelle, an interesting actor whose career I really need to follow more closely) and the boy himself (Jean-Baptiste Lafarge), amateur boxer, sexually ambiguous.  This is a complex, fascinating character study and melodrama which has all the earmarks of an episodic, multi-character Christopher Thompson script (e.g. Avenue Montaigne).  *** 1/4

SLEEPING BEAUTY, THE (La Belle endormie) (d. Catherine Breillat)
I was bored to death by Breillat's fantasy fairy tale of a princess hexed at birth who wanders about in her dream state as she grows up.  It didn't even look convincing, just contrived and silly.  * 1/2

ANGÈLE AND TONY (d. Alix Delaporte)
Angèle is a young mother who has been released on parole after 2 years in prison.  Her new life involves working for Tony, a Norman fisherman, and trying to reclaim her 9-year old estranged son who has been raised in the interim by distrustful grandparents.  This is a slice-of-life story, a fitfully involving tale of love and redemption, sort of simplistic and predictable.  I was never fully engaged; but the acting was naturalistic enough to make up for the slender plot. ** 1/2

LOW COST (d.Maurice Barthelemy)
The "low cost" refers to a no-frills airline hired to fly a charter from an African nation to Paris.  The film is a comedy about a planeload of quirky passengers, and how they cope when the airplane is grounded due to money problems.  The characterizations are artfully drawn; and the film is reminiscent of the much funnier American comedy, Airplane.  I actually enjoyed the film as it went off the rails into ridiculous farce.  ***

LOLA (d. Jacques Demy, 1961) +
Anouk Aimée's Lola is one of those iconic characters:  suffering young mother pining for her lost love and getting by the best she can dancing for the lonely navy men in her post-WWII port town.  Demy's sentimental romances seem timeless to me, even in wide-screen black & white.  Michel Legrand's score evokes memories of the later Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which repeated the lost-love theme.  I have some problems with the characterizations in this film, more sketched in archetypes than filled out, fully formed people.  Yet I can't fail to respond emotionally to Demy's sweet storytelling.  ***

MY PIECE OF THE PIE (d. Cédric Klapisch)
Klapisch throws a change-up with this international finance romantic thriller.  Karen Viard plays a mother thrown out of work in her Dunkirk shipyard when the shipping company falls victim to financial manipulations.  She finds work as a domestic for one of the major financial manipulators (husky up-and-comer Gilles Lellouche); and their oil & water relationship amidst the trappings of his ill gotten wealth make for an involving story.  Ultimately, Klapisch doesn't commit to a third act resolution; but I enjoyed the film up to the unsatisfactory ending.  *** 1/4

LITTLE WHITE LIES (d. Guillaume Canet)
A group of 30-something friends go on a seaside vacation trip despite one of their cohort's serious hospitalization. Canet has written & directed an over-long Gallic version of The Big Chill, complete with an American song score which oversells every event.  However his large, excellent cast (Magimel!, Cotillard!, Cluzet!  Lellouche (again!) etc.) almost make up for the utter predictability of his plot.   ** 3/4

WANDERING STREAMS (Les Petits ruisseaux) (d. Pascal Rabaté)
Only the French would make a film about the sex life of elderly people and do justice to the subject.  Daniel Prévost plays a 60-something, zipped up widower whose equally decrepit fishing buddy confesses his active sex life.  The film becomes an amusing, off center "coming of age" road trip as Prévost's character blossoms and discovers a renewed interest of life with two attractive elderly women.  This is a warm hearted, nicely played audience pleaser.  ***

COLD CUTS (Buffet froid) (d. Bertrand Blier)
A younger Gerard Dépardieu wields a knife in a subway station which starts a series of absurd killings and chases in this 1979 release.  I suppose as a semi-farcical black comedy it has its moments; but for me it just went from ridiculous to more ridiculous.  I felt like walking out, but didn't in dashed hopes that the film would go anyplace.  Of course, maybe that was Blier's point. **

THE CLINK OF ICE (Le Bruit des glaçons) (d. Bertrand Blier)
An alcoholic, middle age writer, living in country mansion solitude with his housekeeper, is visited by Cancer in the guise of a hallucinatory man.  The film has fine production values; but its attempt to make serious comments on illness using the devices of black comedy just didn't work for me.  ** 1/2

THE 317th PLATOON (La 317ème section) (d. Pierre Schoendoerffer)
This beautifully restored 1965 film is the story of a platoon of mostly Vietnamese soldiers led by a French 2nd Lieutenant (played superbly by a young, charismatic Jacques Perrin) and  a grizzled Alsatian ex-German army sergeant (Bruno Cremer in a memorable portrayal).  The platoon is stuck behind enemy lines after the fall of Dien Bien Phu; and must fight its way through the jungle and the relentless Viet Minh to join up with the remnants of the French army in defeat.  The film was immaculately post-dubbed, and shot in a gritty, documentary black & white style by Raoul Coutard in the actual Cambodian jungle where the story took place.  I have rarely felt so physically involved in the nitty-gritty, gut wrenching drama of war in a film.  This film should get a current day release, it's that good.  *** 1/2

THE NIGHT CLERK (Avant l'aube)  (d. Raphaël Jacoulot)
Vincent Rottiers, was the unsung star of last year's City of Lights/City of Angels in three films.  This year he returns playing a young, lower-class orphan who has been hired as a night clerk intern at a tony, snowbound Pyrenees hotel/resort, after serving a short jail sentence for assault.  He witnesses a crime, and becomes complicit with the cover-up by the hotel owners.  Sylvie Testud is fine again playing her bumbling detective type. This is cat-and-mouse noir set among the pure white of bleak snowscapes.  It's involving, a little predictable, nicely shot and acted.   I need to take note of the short which accompanied this film, L'Accordeur (The Piano Tuner) directed by Olivier Treiner. This little 13 minute thriller provides everything a noir should, including a wonderful performance by my favorite actor, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet as a failed blind pianist turned piano tuner.  It doesn't appear in the IMDb, but it should! *** 1/4

THE LONG FALLING (Où va la nuit) (d. Martin Prevost)
Yolande Moreau does another wonderful turn playing the repressed, beaten wife of 32 miserable years who takes matters in her own hands.  She moves in with her gay son (convincingly played by Pierre Moure as a young man who had problems of his own with his abusive father).  The film started slowly, gathered steam, and throughout developed its off-center noir plot in unpredictable ways.  I really loved the way it portrayed so realistically the gay relationship of the son with his Belgian lover which had echoes of the son's relationship with his own family.  The film is as understated as Moreau's quietly unaffected acting style, and all the more effective for that.  *** 1/4

THE BIG PICTURE (L'Homme qui voulait vivre sa vie)  (d. Eric Lartigau)
Romain Duris plays a successful lawyer, a skilled amateur photographer whose wife is having an affair with an untalented professional photographer.  Circumstances lead to a trading of identities with a whole series of ironic consequences.  Along the way we're treated to an interesting view of the art scene and life in modern day Yugoslavia.  This is another cleverly plotted film noir which suffered from a maddeningly unresolved ending. 

LES BONNES FEMMES (d. Claude Chabrol)
Chabrol's 1960 film about four bachelor shop girls and their everyday lives hasn't aged well.  It didn't help that this was a poor print with occasionally abysmal sound distortion.  There were far better nouvelle vague films made that year; but to be fair the problem might be mine, personally, as I couldn't summon up any desire to relate to the uninteresting, motiveless characters.  Even Henri Decaë's B&W cinematography was sub-standard.  ** 1/4

JO'S BOY (Le Fils à Jo)  (d. Philippe Guillard)
Jo is a middle age single father whose golden years were spent playing rugby in school.  He's determined that his 13 year old son continues the family rugby tradition.  This is the set-up for a predictable, sentimentalized coming of age story for the son and life-lesson story for the father.  For what it is, it's rather well done; but for me it was tiresomely old-hat.  ** 1/2

NOTHING TO DECLARE (Rien à declarer)  (d. Dany Boon)
The best thing about this fun film was the Q&A afterward with a very engaging Dany Boon.  The film is a comic take on the situation in the mid-1990s when the European Union eliminated frontier customs at the border between Belgium and France.  The film turns on the friendly enmity between the two French speaking people bordering on racism as personified by two contrasting border guards (perfectly cast Belgian comedian Benoît Poelvoorde and French director Boon himself.)   At times the film gets a little slap-sticky; but Boon is a talented writer and director who imbues this film with universal comic touches quite well.  The film also looks great, high gloss cinematography and production design.  This is one of the few French comedies recently that I enjoyed.  ***

MONSIEUR PAPA (d. Kad Merad)
A powerful woman, CEO of a transnational corporation, has no idea who the father of her questioning 12 year-old son is.  So she hires a non-entity rugby coach to be a paternal stand-in.  This is the set-up for an emotionally affecting story about unconventional family and the importance of masculine influence in the raising of a boy.  The director himself plays the father substitute; and does a very creditable job for a first-time directorial effort, underplaying to good effect.  Also kudos to kid actor Gaspard Meier-Chaurand for his genuine, likable portrayal of the spoiled rich kid's coming of age.  But two French films centered on rugby in as many days?  Things that make you go hmmmm.  ***

BLESSED EVENTS (Glückliche fügung)  (d. Isabelle Stever) (At San Francisco International Film Festival)
A woman (played with affectless listlessness by Annika Kuhl) is picked up at a dance club and has a one-night stand with the guy in his car.  She gets pregnant, and coincidentally later runs into the guy.  They commence a relationship of sorts, rent an apartment together.  She feathers her nest.  He...well, to be honest, after an hour and a quarter I checked my watch to see how long the film had lasted with basically nothing happening. The film is like a slow, brain dead version of Knocked Up. The guy is played by attractive, doey blue-eyed Stefan Rudolf, whose super nice-guy performance promised potential of future menace...but, nope, again, nothing happens.  I still sort of liked the film despite its flaws. ** 1/2