2009-2010 Winter & Spring Festivals Journal

All ratings are based on **** being best.
Films in BLACK type are AFI Film Festival films AND Miscellaneous film reviews
Films in RED type are Palm Springs International Film Festival films
Films in GREEN type are Los Angeles-Italia Festival films
Films in ORANGE type are Methodfest Festival films
Films in PURPLE type are City of Lights/City of Angels Festival films

(d. Rachid Bouchareb)
This film was originally submitted by Algeria to the Academy for the foreign language film Oscar competition.  It was rejected because it was deemed to be more than 50% in English.  Since it was playing at the AFI film festival, I thought in the interests of completion that I should watch it.  I'm actually glad I did.  This is the quite well acted and moving story of two disparate strangers who meet in London after the subway bombings of 7/7/2005, each searching for their offspring who seem to have disappeared.  One is a widow from Gurnsey (played by the still luminous Brenda Blethyn) whose daughter isn't returning her phone calls.  The other is the great Malian actor, Sotigui Kouyaté, who emigrated to France when his son was 5 and never returned... yet nevertheless promises the boy's mother still in Africa that he would go to London to search for their missing son.   The film is an excellent character study; but also a moving tribute to those lost to England's traumatic terrorist attack, that nation's 9/11.  *** 1/4

Chazelle is a young Bostonian who set himself the difficult task of re-inventing the American film musical in grainy 16mm black & white.  The story, what there is of one, is about a young jazz trumpeteer and the two women he interacts with rather aimlessly over the course of a week or so.  The musical numbers mostly revolve around parties and jazz gigs, and there's a lot of incidental tap dancing and fantasy.  It's all reminiscent of recent (and not so recent) French cinema, works from Jacques Demy, Christophe Honoré, Alain Resnais.  But for all the director's laudable ambition, I fear he failed to pull it off, for me at least, since he lacked something those other directors have, a coherent narrative sense.  Still, the original music and nifty dancing made for some enjoyable moments.  **

RED RIDING: 1974  (d. Julian Jarrold)
This is the first film of a trilogy made for Channel 4 television in England, but shot like real theatrical releases with great casts and high production values.  The setting is Yorkshire in the north; and the main theme throughout the trilogy is exposing a web of corruption spreading throughout the police departments of the region.  The first film follows an ambitious young reporter (played with elan by the wonderful actor Andrew Garfield so memorable in Boy A, but here a tad callow for this role) as he attempts to make sense of a series of child abductions terrorizing the area.  Each film in the trilogy has a different director, and the stylistic differences are quite telling.  The first film sets the tone for the trilogy; but Jarrold's style tends toward visual bravado at the cost of narrative cohesion...or perhaps it's just that the trilogy format leads to a lot of loose ends which account for some of the confusion.  Plus I found some of the Yorkshire accents difficult to understand...so some crucial dialog got muddled.  Nevertheless, this is powerful stuff, on a par with the best conspiratorial procedural series like The Shield; and certainly head and shoulders above the usual run of tv series. ***

RED RIDING: 1980 (d. James Marsh)
Part two of the series picks up six years after the events of part one, and involves an ongoing case of serial murders by a fiend who goes by the nickname "The Yorkshire Ripper" who preys on prostitutes.  The already disclosed (from the first film) Yorkshire constabulary is riddled with corruption; so the Home Office, alarmed by the lack of results, sends a crackerjack inspector who has a reputation for probity, to run a special operation charged with solving the Ripper case.  The new cop is played in a truly remarkable performance, by Paddy Considine.  And this film, for my money the most successful of the three, is mainly about an honest cop up against a web of conspiracy and deceit in his attempt to fulfill the mandates of his job.  This episode was subtitled throughout, which helped a lot to make things clear.  But it also had the advantage of being directed by the non-flashy James Marsh who brought a sense of narrative clarity which the other two episodes somewhat lacked.  *** 1/4

RED RIDING: 1983 (d. Anand Tucker)
Part three is set nine years after part one (obvious from the title); but returns to the child abduction case of the first film when another little girl disappears in a manner eerily reminiscent of the original cases, which were thought to have been solved (albeit not really).  It centers around a bad cop from the original two films who is undergoing a crisis of conscience, another fine lead performance, this time by David Morressey.  This film concludes the original story satisfactorily, if somewhat predictably; but it does leave the overall disappointing impression that business in the corrupt Northland goes on with the really evil police conspiracy not addressed.  All in all this was an absorbing series with some of the finest acting I've seen in films of this kind.  But it seemed, in the end, incomplete somehow.  ** 3/4

AFI is trying an experiment this year...reducing the number of films and giving away tickets to all the screenings.  They're still not selling out the shows I've watched the first weekend; but all in all the festival at its new venue, the Mann's Chinese multiplex, is remarkably well run.  I particularly like the little short film they've made to introduce each screening...a classy gem of editing bits from old films which promises not to become stale after many viewings.  I like the theaters, too...maybe not as plush as the Arclight...but the screens are huge, the sound systems fine and so far the projection has been flawlessly handled.  Nice job, AFI.

I KILLED MY MOTHER (d. Xavier Dolan)
Dolan was 19 when he wrote, directed and starred in this amazing howl of adolescent angst.  To call him a wunderkind would be understating the case (we just may be witnessing the debut of a youthful auteur of Wellesian stature).  His character, Hubert, is 16 at the start of the film, a sensitive boy embarrassed by his bourgeois, single mother (a heartbreaking performance of maternal tough love by Anne Dorval); and their constant bickering as he castigates her is quite unpleasant to watch.  Hubert hides his gay side from his mother, at the same time he is fantasizing about escape from his mother's supposed tyranny.  I don't ever recall seeing a film like this before: a probing, masterfully filmic look at being a teenager from the inside.  *** 1/2  (second viewing even more impressive:  *** 3/4)

Rumor had it that this was the film China should have submitted to the Academy this year rather than Forever Enthralled.  Actually, there's no contest in my mind.  City of Life and Death is an epic masterpiece of which time will only enhance its reputation. Shot in stark black & white, with a huge cast and jaw dropping scope, the film graphically presents the conquest (and let's not mince words) rape of the Chinese capitol Nanking by the Japanese in 1937-38.  But, and this is the crucial but, it does it in a completely unexpected way, mostly from the point of view of the Japanese soldiers...and with a strangely neutral politic which replaces wholesale castigation with a humanistic, if ultimately unforgiving, point of view.  I must present the caveat that personally I can't give this film the **** that it probably deserves.  I had problems watching it:  for one, throughout the film I, as a Caucasian, had difficulty separating the Chinese from the Japanese.  And in spots my attention flagged, maybe from emotional overload.  But I don't wish these personal quirks to affect my overall feeling that this is one hell of an important, timeless film, reminiscent visually of some of the great past war epics from classic filmmakers like Dovzhenko, Eisenstein and Kurosawa.  *** 1/4

WOMAN WITHOUT PIANO (d. Javier Rebollo)
This is an arch comic take on modern life in today's Madrid.  Carmen Machi plays a middle-aged, middle-class married Madriano matron (how's that for "M" alliteration) who, probably out of boredom with her life as a professional laser hair remover, sets off on a one night excursion to anywhere but where she's at.  During the evening of comic encounters, her always taciturn character drinks more than a few brandies and interacts with various strange people and situations, especially a Polish gentleman on the lam.  The film is shot like a constantly evolving Hopper painting, and has an emotionally reserved point of view which reminded me of absurdist comic filmmakers like Tati and Keaton without the evident humor of their slapstick.  I enjoyed this film, mostly for the mood it engendered; but I didn't love it.   ** 3/4

VINCERE (d. Marco Bellocchio)
"Vincere" means victory in Italian...and this large scale historical film purports to tell the story of Benito Mussolini's early days, his dalliance with his mistress, Ida Dalser (who spent most of her life in mental institutions), and his son by that supposed bigamous marriage, which may or may not have ever happened.  The film is mostly about Ida, played magnificently, with amazing emotional strength, by Giovanna Mezzogiorno.  But one must also give mad props to Filippo Timi, who plays the dual roles of the young Il Duce and his grown son with just a hint of overdoing it.  In fact, the entire project is so operatic in scope, that it constantly threatens to devolve into bathos.  But in the final analysis, the sheer bravado of the acting and mis-en-scène carry the day.   *** 1/4

PERPETUUM MOBILE (d. Nicolas Pareda)
A couple of guys own a moving truck and wander aimlessly around Mexico City encountering a series of people.  Nothing much happens, and the film looks ugly.  The actors are all pretty terrible.  Sometimes this kind of nihilistic cinema works.  This time it didn't...a complete waste of time.  * 1/4

YOUTH IN REVOLT (d. Miguel Arteta)
Michael Cera is given an opportunity to expand his range as he plays the dual roles of nebishy Nick Twist and dashing alter-ego Fernando Dillinger; and he hits it out of the ballpark.  The film is a comedy about a kid from a zanily dysfunctional broken home who is determined not to remain a virgin.  In other words, it's not all that original.  But the witty script and spot on characterizations raise the level.  We're not talking great art here; just an entertainment which ought to please its intended audience.  ***

EASIER WITH PRACTICE (d. Kyle Patrick Alvarez)
Two 20-something brothers take to the road on the "intellectual" one's book tour reading passages from his self-published short stories.  The writer is drawn into a phone sex relationship with a mysterious woman after a random call to his motel room.  This based-on-a-true-story is particularly fine in its surprisingly sensitive characterizations, with a cast of relatively unknowns whose naturalistic performances are quite true to life...especially the lead, Brian Geraghty.  Maybe it goes on a little too long for its slender premise; but this nifty little film is a true audience pleaser.  ***

LOOKING FOR ERIC  (d. Ken Loach)
This is a very non-Loachian film about a guy who fantasizes the presence of a famous soccer star who advises him in some life lessons.  It's a little confusing and not very entertaining, for a supposed comedy.  ** 1/2

PAULISTA (d. Roberto Moreira)
The eponymous Paulista refers to a main street of Sao Paolo where two women live in a high rise apartment.  One is a lawyer with a vital secret, who gets involved with a nice guy at work.  The second is an aspiring actress, new to the city, naive, but open to new experiences, which includes a lesbian affair.  The film is about the bitter-sweet nature of romance in the big city.  It's involving up to a point; but I couldn't get past its pessimism.  Still, the actors are attractive and the story involving and modern enough to keep my interest.  ** 3/4

INSIDE HANNA'S SUITCASE  (d. Larry Weinstein)
Hana Brady was 11 and orphaned when she was sent along with her older brother to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and eventually to Auschwitz.  The suitcase that she was supposed to have carried to her final destination ended up in a Holocaust museum in Japan, where it became a symbol to millions of Japanese children.  This enormously moving documentary is told mostly by school children, and is about the gradual uncovering of the life and times of this young girl who became famous only because her suitcase just happened to arrive in Japan in 2000.  It is Anne Frank without the diary, although a surprising amount of history comes to life thanks to what amounts to a miracle of happenstance.  This film proves that there is still an enormous emotional vein to be mined out of the Holocaust, as more original stories are found to be told.  *** 1/2

A BRAND NEW LIFE  (d. Ounie Lecomte)
An adorable young Korean girl is left by her father in a Christian orphanage in the 1970s.  At first she is defiant, rejecting the notion that her father has deserted her.  This isn't a Dickens story, rather an uplifting story of good people doing good work with children.  It has the feeling of truth; and I wouldn't be surprised if it is at least partially the director's own life story.  ***

THE BALIBO CONSPIRACY  (d. Robert Connolly)
In 1975 the Portuguese left their colony on the island of Timor (just north of Australia) and the independent state of East Timor was founded, only to be overrun by an invasion of the Indonesians from the west part of the island.  This film is the true story of five Australian journalists who went missing as they were covering the invasion, and a sixth journalist (played by the outstanding Anthony Lapaglia) who followed their trail to attempt to uncover the truth of their disappearance.  The film is tense and has the feeling of authentic history unfolding, although it never is quite clear on the reasons that the Indonesians were so villainous.  *** 1/4

BIG GAY MUSICAL  (d. Andreas & Caruso)
One would expect a film touting itself as a big gay musical would be in trouble; but the fact is that this is a minor miracle of a film:  fun and well written with some good original songs and a talented cast.  It's basically the story of the preparation for the opening of an off-Broadway musical about gay oppression.  But it is also a solid portrayal of big city gay life as led by the attractive actors in the play within the movie.  We're not talking great art here; but I have to say that as a musical it was far better than the current magnum opus "Nine", better songs, a more involving story.  ***

EYES WIDE OPEN  (d. Hair Tabakman)
An ultra-orthodox Jewish butcher, living an exemplary life in Jerusalem, married with four children, hires a young man as his assistant.  He is warned that his young hire was kicked out of his former congregation and made apostate for the sin of homosexuality.  However, there is something going on in the older man's emotional life which draws him to the younger man.  The film is beautifully acted and somewhat shocking in its truthful portrayal of its strange cult-like lifestyle.  I felt gratitude that I wasn't brought up in the judgmental and ascetic world of this film; but found it fascinating, even as its anti-erotic tone repelled me.   *** 1/4

MIRACLE SELLER (d. Boleslaw Pawica & Jaroslaw Szoda)
An alcoholic, loser Polish man has remade himself as one questing for redemption, conning funds from supporters to travel to Lourdes to be cured by the Virgin.  On his road trip, he picks up two lost Chechen waifs, a brother and sister who are attempting to be reunited in Lyon with the father they can't remember.  The trip to the west is fraught with perils.  This is a pretty good road picture with consequences.  ** 3/4

1981  (d. Ricardo Trogi)
This is another French Canadian trip down memory lane, in this case the director's own story of his 11th year, when he enters a new school and decides to become a liar to make friends and downgrade his unsuccessful parents.  It's a one-joke, slender premise.  The film is marred by its narration, which is the writer/director's way of telling his story; but it would have been better to have found a way to tell the story without the constant droning of narration.   Certainly the boy actor was up to the job and the film does a good job of representing the early '80s accurately.  But I just didn't care.  ** 1/4

EAMON  (d. Margaret Corkery)
Eamon is an adorable 6 year old, hyperactive Irish boy whose rambunctiousness is kept in check only by denying him sugar.  His parents are in over their head trying to raise him:  his mother selfish and irresponsible, his father a good man overwhelmed and sexually frustrated by the strange mother/son dynamic.  The three of them head for a vacation at the seashore; and their adventure provides some comedy and quite a bit of revelation into human nature.  Nicely done film; but the ending almost ruined the effect of the film for me.  *** 1/4

DIFFERENT FROM WHOM  (d. Umberto Carteni)
This is a semi-romantic, issue oriented comic farce about a liberal gay politician, running for mayor of an Italian town along with a zipped tight conservative woman running on the ticket as deputy mayor, who must find common ground to get elected.  That common ground involves an affair with each other, despite the gay man's supposedly happy home life cohabiting with has chef partner.  The film is slickly done; and despite some very weird sexual politics which turned me off, I couldn't help liking the film and feeling very entertained. ***

PLAN B  (d.Marco Berger)
Two young Argentinian men vie for the same woman.  One of them, the ex-boyfriend goes to Plan B to win back his girl, seducing the very straight new boyfriend somehow.  Apparently there's nothing quite as erotic as two straight boys fighting a mutual attraction.  This film has almost no production values at all...dingily shot, sort of a meandering script.  But the two main actors are very personable; and the tone of the film is completely ingratiating, original and enjoyable.  Almost without seeming to try, this is a superb gay film.  *** 1/4

MEDITERRANEAN FOOD  (d. Joaquin Oristrell)
A young woman is born to cook, growing up working for her parents at a small Spanish seaside restaurant.  She gets married to a good man, has an affair with a not-so-good man, a waiter on the rise.  She studies cooking with a French master; and along with the two young men from her home town opens a fine cuisine restaurant in her old town.  Along the way, the film goes for an unconventional three way love affair and presents enough delicious looking food that I am glad I wasn't hungry when I watched the film!  Apparently the word got out that this was a delightful film, as every screening after the first was a sellout.  The film looks fabulous; and this film goes a long way to add to Spain's increasing reputation for producing really wonderful and original romantic comedies.  *** 1/2

THE BIG DREAM  (d.  Michele Placido)
Placido is telling his own story as a student in 1968-9 involved with the worldwide youth revolt, in this case in a Madrid university.  The film suffers from being the nth iteration of this theme, and is rather diffuse and a little hard to follow.  But the actors are attractive; and there is a certain ring of truth to the story.  Maybe Placido was too personally involved to hone his script to perfection.  ** 1/2

FORTAPASC  (d. Marco Risi)
Before the film, people in line were speculating about how to pronounce the title in Italian.  Somebody gave it the Croatian "ch" sound at the end and thought maybe it should sound like "Fort Apache".  That turned out to be exactly right, as the film is an extended metaphor of the American film:  a depiction of a crime beleaguered city, in this case transferred to Naples in the mid-1980s.  It's the true story of a sympathetic journalist-journalist for a small town newpaper trying to uncover the truth about the Camorra's deep, but hidden, infiltration of all the underground activities in his Bay of Naples town, and the government corruption which reached to the highest levels.  It's a complex story with a large cast and the potential for a very powerful exposé; but I don't think the director was quite up to the task of making a fully coherent narrative.  ** 3/4

THE ECLIPSE  (d. Conor McPherson)
Ciaran Hinds is a widower with two children living in a seaside Irish town which is holding an international literary festival.  As a townie, he is charged with driving  two authors around town, one a lady who writes true stories about ghosts (the always interesting Iben Hjejle).  Coincidentally, Hinds is being haunted by his not-quite-dead father-in-law's ghost.  I'm not really into ghost stories...but this one did have a little fright to convey, although the love story was sort of conventional.  But Aiden Quinn, playing a rotten, philandering author, overacted; and the film just went nowhere. ** 1/2

IS IT JUST ME?  (d. J. C. Calciano)
I think I can literally count the number of successful gay romantic comedies on the fingers of one hand.  As a genre, it is apparently an almost impossible task to present one which can compete on a level playing field with the straights.  Calciano, in his first directorial effort, managed to make one of the best I've seen...I laughed, I cried, I felt that I learned some truths about young gays that needed to be said.  Not that it was a perfect film, I don't want to oversell it.  The characters were rather stock:  bright young man, insecure about his looks; his trick-a-night, go-go-dancer roommate; the fag hag best friend;  the internet chatroom hick.  But Calciano delivers the goods with a clever script (an adaptation of the Cyrano story), along with a sure talent for casting actors who interact with real chemistry and sell their roles perfectly.  A couple of actors to watch for in the future:  Nicholas Downs, who combines smarts and acting chops in one attractive package; and David Loren, who is quite ingratiating in an almost impossible role as the cute, insightful hick from Texas with a good heart.  *** 1/4

BROTHERHOOD  (d. Nicolo Donato)
This is a Danish film about a cult of neo-Nazi skinheads who beat up on gays and Muslims.  A closeted gay ex-soldier joins their ranks despite all, and a passionate gay affair with one of the committed members ensues which wrecks havoc.  I had the feeling of having seen all this before (eg. Danish hyper-violence as in the Pusher trilogy); but the film was well acted enough to hold my interest.   ** 3/4

THE SICILIAN GIRL  (d. Marco Amenta)
A 12 year old girl witnesses her father's assassination by the Mafia.  She seeks vengeance, and for 5 years keeps a diary of the criminal enterprises in her Sicilian town; and ultimately becomes a witness in a large scale Mafia trial.  That's the bare bones description of what happens in this true story (the director already had made a documentary on this subject a decade ago; but this film examines the same story with actors).  What Amenta achieves here is a towering expose and a riveting story of the Mafia in action, and one brave girl who dared to stand up to them.  Veronica D'Agostino is astonishingly real in a non-actressy way in the lead role.  The script is a model of clarity which personalizes the issues and really brings home the difficulties of bringing down the Mafia in a culture which has supported it for centuries.  It's hard to overpraise this excellent film, probably the best Italian film I've ever seen about their criminal syndicates.   *** 3/4

GLORIOUS 39  (d. Stephen Poliakoff)
Glorious is her brother's nickname for luminous Romola Garai's character, a young lady adopted as an infant into one of Britain's high class ruling families.  The 39 in the title refers to the lovely English summer of 1939 where war clouds are forming.   Bill Nighy, understated and acerbic as always, plays the diplomat father who is quietly leading a pro-German faction intent on keeping Britain out of the war.  The film features lots of surreptitious scheming, fake suicides, murders, murky conspiracies reaching to highest levels of government.  These seem like preposterous plot contrivances; but maybe it was really like this.  In any case, this is a lush production with fine actors and gorgeous settings.  ***

QUEEN TO PLAY  (d. Caroline Bottaro)
Sandrine Bonnaire plays a chambermaid in a Corsican resort inn, whose humdrum life and working class husband aren't quite enough.  She watches an American couple play chess and becomes obsessed with the game.  She reaches out to an elderly American ex-pat (played by Kevin Kline with more than serviceable French) to be her chess mentor.  Bonnaire is an actress of uncommon stolidity who expresses everything with her eyes, which is perfect for a film which mainly consists of watching people play chess.  But the film didn't quite work for me, predictable and boring with its unrealistic and frankly unsatisfying obsession with the chess games. ** 1/2

OVER THE HILL BAND  (d. Geoffrey Enthoven)
Three seventy-ish Flemish ladies were a rock 'n roll trio in their youth.  One of their sons is a failed musician; and by a series of plot devices the three reunite with the son and his musician friends to try out for a musical talent tv show.  This is another of those Full Monty, fish-out-of-water films, only it does go to a darker place as the film progresses.  But along the way it's a feel-good film for seniors which didn't make me feel all that good.  ** 1/2

ANGEL AT SEA  (d. Frédéric Dumont)
Louis is a bright, happy 12 year old French kid living with his parents and older brother in Morocco.  His father, the always reliable actor Olivier Gourmet, while succumbing to bi-polar clinical depression confides to his loving, favorite son a terrible secret which no 12 year old should ever have to hear.  It amounts to mental child abuse, and I noticed a lot of audience members leaving the theater, probably in disgust at the father's behavior.  It so happens that when I was in college my own father started to exhibit serious bi-polar symptoms, so I can attest to the realism of this film.  But I wasn't an impressionable 12 year old then; and my heart broke for this boy played by the enormously talented young actor Martin Nissen.  This is one tough to watch film; but it expresses its truths with remarkable fidelity.  *** 1/4

BRIDE FLIGHT  (d. Ben Sombogaart)
Sombogaart made one of the best films of the last decade, Twin Sisters, and this film proves that that film was no flash in the pan.  This is the film that Baz Luhrmann's Australia could have been (only in this case it would have been about New Zealand.)  It's the story of a planeload of immigrants on the KLM plane which won the 1953 race from London to Christchurch, centered on one man and three women with whom he interacted.  The film successfully manages two time lines:  the present day when the three women get together at the funeral of the man (a successful vintner played by Rutger Hauer in the present day and sexy Waldemar Torenstra in the '50s story), and the flashback to the formation of their rocky relationships.  This is romance and melodrama taken to the highest level, wonderfully acted and photographed in wide screen which captures New Zealand and an era perfectly.  Sure, it's a little soap opera-ish...but the story had some original twists and turns which took it out of the ordinary.  *** 3/4

HIPSTERS  (d. Valery Todorovsky)
A dazzlingly visual Russian musical about the Soviet '50s?  Who woulda thunk it.  I have no idea how realistic this film is; but I have to say it is one of the most entertaining musicals I've seen...combining the zany, super-saturated colorful visual panache of Yes Nurse, No Nurse with a story right out of the '30s American musical tradition...young communist boy meets rebellious girl and changes his stripes, literally in this case since the wild clothes of these " hipsters"  are their trademark.  Maybe the film went on a bit too long for its slender story; but its visual inventiveness, wonderfully lively song and dance treatments, and unexpected Western tradition brio made for a unique film experience.  And the young couple, played by Anton Shagin and Oksana Akinshina, were fine and had nice chemistry together.    *** 1/2

The film which won the audience favorite award at Palm Springs is a wide screen thriller based on a famed Swedish novel.  I almost didn't watch the film because the book is next on my to-read list.  But I'm glad I did.  It's quite well made, with a fairly original and unpredictable plot about a journalist and a young hacker girl who form an unlikely alliance to expose a serial killer in the midst of a rich industrial family with Nazi connections.  Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace are perfectly cast in the lead roles; and now I'm ready to read all three novels in this series!  *** 1/2

ALIVE! (d. Artan Minarolli)
A college sophomore (played with star quality by a charismatic young Alain Delon lookalike, Nik Xhelilaj) from a small, remote mountain village is called back home to attend his father's funeral when he learns that he's now in mortal danger, the object of a blood feud that he hadn't heretofore even been aware of.  This is an tension packed, involving and even enlightening view into a mysterious foreign culture which seems so strange, yet so real.  I'd rate this film even higher; but its narrative arc is just a little too diffuse. ** 3/4

SAMSON AND DELILAH (d. Warwick Thornton)
The setting is a threadbare New South Wales aboriginal settlement where a disaffected pair of teenagers are marking time.  Samson is a gasoline sniffer with an abusive big brother, Delilah cares for her aging primitive artist grandmother.  Their lives are really unpleasant, as is the film, although it is almost redeemed by the bittersweet ending.  ** 1/4

FOR A MOMENT, FREEDOM (Ein Augenblick Freiheit) (d. Arash T. Riahi)
The plight of refugees from tyrannical regimes has become a popular topic for filmmakers.  This film tells the tension packed story of three groups of Iranians who make it to Turkey and suffer through the procedures to become legal emmigres.  Two of the stories involve young children, and the film is loaded with sympathetic, heart tugging scenes.  It is quite well written and the acting is naturalistic...almost documentary like in its realistic depiction of these deprived and endangered refugees.  *** 1/2

THE MISFORTUNATES (d. Felix Van Groeningen)
Young Gunther is a 13 year old boy, son of an alcoholic father and absent prostitute mother, raised in a household of rowdy lower class wastrels.  His story is being told in voice-over and extended flashbacks by the present day Gunther, 27, budding novelist, who is living a life perilously close to repeating the mistakes of his father.  I found the constant loud carousing of the 1990s family to be annoying, and to be honest I almost walked.  But then somewhere, maybe 2/3 through, the connections between past and present started to make sense and I realized I was somehow
emotionally involved with these unlikable characters.  I'm glad I persevered.  ** 3/4

This ungainly title is a quote that 7-year old Sasha is told early on by his backgammon playing grandfather.  The film opens in the present day with a terrible automobile accident where the grown-up Sasha is the sole survivor.  He's the son of Bulgarian refugees living in Germany; and the accident leaves him with retrograde amnesia.  His grandfather (played by the great Serbian actor Miki Manojilovic) travels to Germany to try to help his grandson recover his memory.  Through flashbacks and an extended road trip by tandem bicycle, we're told the story of this plucky family which somehow survived the Communist era.  It turns out that the process of recovering from amnesia is a particularly effective narrative device here.  This is one heck of an emotionally satisfying film which scored highly with the Palm Springs audience.  *** 1/2

DAWSON ISLA 10 (d. Miguel Littín)
When Salvador Allende was overthrown by Pinochet's junta, the former government ministers and other major leftist supporters were rounded up and sent to what amounted to concentration camps on islands in the frozen far south of Chile.  This film is essentially a prison story of the first years of the incarceration of some of those men.  It's a very bleak look at the best and worst of human nature, shot in muted tones with a documentary feel and with a strong leftist political agenda; yet a humanistic and in a strange way uplifting story, too. ***

DONKEY (d. Antonio Nuić)
A dysfunctional extended family reunite in their bucolic village home at the tail end of the Serbo-Croatian war.  Very gradually, almost glacially slowly, past secrets are revealed.  The animal of the title, a cute little donkey tethered to a tree and ostensibly for sale, is both incidental to the plot and the fulcrum of the resolution of much of the tensions which divide the family.  This bleak film, shot in muted tones, represents the dark side of country family gatherings. ** 1/2

PROTEKTOR (d. Marek Najbrt)
Emil is a popular radio announcer married to a Jewish actress when the Germans are ceded Czechoslovakia after Munich.  The film is about the moral dilemma that Emil is forced into trying to accommodate both his job and his temperamental wife during the war years which follow.  This is a fundamentally interesting concept; but the film is stylistically tricked out to the point that it seems contrived, when it could have been emotionally powerful.  ** 1/2

LETTERS TO FATHER JACOB (Postia Pappi Jaakobille) (d. Klaus Härö)
Härö directed one of my favorite films of the decade, Mother of Mine, an emotionally devastating film.  This current film is a much smaller affair, an intimate story of spiritual awakening...but just about as moving for all of that.  It's the story of an elderly blind pastor who hires a paroled woman murderer to read his correspondence.  The two actors are especially fine, their subtle performances play against each other perfectly.  The film is beautifully shot, austere interiors, lush exteriors; and the soundtrack, featuring a haunting piano musical score, is remarkable.  Yet somehow I didn't quite reach the emotional catharsis that the film promised.  Maybe it was just a tad too austere.  *** 1/4

A PROPHET (Un Prophete) (d. Jacques Audiard)
Tahar Rahim is a star.  What?  Never heard of him?  Don't worry, you will.  In Audiard's near masterpiece he plays Malik, a 19 year old Arab/Frenchman, an orphan raised in a state facility who at the start of the film has been sentenced to 6 years of hard labor for attacking a cop.  By an accident of fate, the naive, illiterate newcomer becomes involved with the Corsican gang which effectively runs the prison...especially the elderly gang leader Cesar, played
by Niels Arestrupin in a tough guy performance  worthy of Jean Gabin.  Malik progresses magnificently as a character over the course of his prison term; and the whole film works as a thriller and a really interesting character study.  There's a bit of spiritual mumbo jumbo as Malik becomes best buddies with the ghost of a guy he killed.  And lots of intrigue between various factions which becomes a little confusing.  But all in all this is a superbly made film which plays a lot shorter than its 155 minutes.  *** 3/4

THE WHITE RIBBON (d. Michael Haneke)
Of course this film won the Palm D'Or at Cannes.  Haneke is a master of the enigmatic plot.  This film is shot in simply stunning b&w and takes place in the period immediately before World War I in a small German town where most of the inhabitants work for a rich baron and are more or less dissatisfied with the status quo.  When strange, horrifying things start to happen in the town, the social order starts to break down.  This film is a lot more subtle than many previous films by Haneke, more in the world of Caché than Funny Games.  I was also surprised that for all its slow plot development that the 2 1/2 hours had passed in a flash, I was that much involved with the story and characters.  *** 1/2

CHAMELEON (Kaméleon) (d. Kristzina Goda)
An attractive con man preys o
n needy women until he and his accomplice from their ophanage upbringing encounter a woman more savvy than his usual conquest.  This sets up a caper film with more complexities and invention than the usual film of this type.  Slick, involving,  well acted.  But I'm not sure that by the end all the loose ends are tied satisfactorally.  *** 1/4

Baltasar Kormakur, who has been sticking to directing lately, comes back to acting in this clever, comic, caper/thriller from Iceland.  Kormakur plays an ex-con smuggler, married with two cute young sons, in AA, and trying to go straight.  He's drawn into one last smuggling trip to Rotterdam by his incompetent brother-in-law, and a comedy of errors ensues.  It's the kind of mad plot that Hollywood will probably steal and ruin.  Lots of trivial fun and quite well directed to keep all the balls in the air at once.  *** 1/4

AJAMI (d. Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti)
 This is a multi-character, multi-ethnic Israeli thriller centered around a Palestinian family who have become the hunted victims of a blood feud; but it also meshes Christians, Jews and Bedouins in its complex mosaic.  It's very dark, very densely plotted, with a structure of gradually propelling the story forward in four chapters each of which shifts back in time disclosing important (and startling) additional information from a different point of view.  It is so well written and naturalistically acted that the technique doesn't feel artificial, rather the means to ratchet up the tension all the more.  This is a superb film on every level, with characters I cared about and could empathize with despite their obvious flaws.  But I wish I had paid better attention to one crucial detail early in the film which remained a seemingly loose end by the conclusion.   *** 3/4

BAARIA (d. Giuseppe Tornatore)
Baarìa is the nickname for the small Sicilian town where writer/director Tornatore grew up. This sprawling, lickety-split epic is the life story of Peppito (played by several child actors, culminating with Francesco Scianna as the grown up version), child of poverty in pre-WWII fascist times who grows up to be a Communist activist while the town develops and grows around him.  This is Tornatore's Amarcord, emotionally resonant evocation of a town, but adding layers of life experience through decades of events.  It's a technical tour de force, with a flawless re-creation of the eras the film passes through...beautifully photographed in wide screen and with another of Ennio Morracone's recognizable and evocative scores.  The film is a wonder of filmic transitions, years pass with a single brilliantly conceived edit.  It plays much faster than its almost 3 hours.  I was impressed by the scope of Tornatore's vision...but after all that, surprised that I remained more emotionally distanced than with his previous films.  Still...if only for the bravura filmmaking:   *** 1/2

NOBODY TO WATCH OVER ME (Dare Mo Mamotte Kurenai) (d. Ryôichi Kimizuka)
Japan's cinema has excelled recently with social realism stories which go a long way towards illuminating Japanese society, warts and all.  This current film is a police thriller of sorts, one that explores the culture of shame which affects the (supposedly, at least in Western culture) innocent family members of murderers.  In this case, the alleged (apparently a term unknown in Japan) killer was an 18 year old boy, considered a minor in Japan.  By law the police are supposed to protect family members (who face a lifetime of shame and social stigmatizing) from suicide.  But in the age of voracious media and internet, that task is difficult, if not impossible.  This is the story of a policeman charged with protecting the alleged killer's 15 year old sister.  The film is fast paced, nicely acted, informative, insightful, even emotionally resonant and touching.  In other words it really worked for me.   *** 1/2

KELIN:  THE DAUGHTER-IN-LAW  (d. Ermek Tursunov)
It takes cheek to make a film with zero dialog.  But Kelin is uniquely up to the task.  It's the 2nd Century story of a girl sold by her father to a husband and taken by him to live with his family (mother and teen-age brother) in wintry, mountainous Kazakhstan.  The film reminds me a little of The Fast Runner in the way it seems to accurately represent the lifestyle of winter bound herdsmen.  The film is absolutely gripping, authentic, wonderfully realized, with amazing cinematography and naturalistic acting.  Masterpiece is a word I rarely use; but here it just may be applicable.  ****

VORTEX (Duburys) (d. Gytis Luksas)
The film takes place at some unspecified, but Sovietized time in rural Lithuania, where a farm boy from a struggling family is traumatized by the accidental death of his father.  He grows up; and despite an almost Candide like goodness, lives and loves through a troubled life.  Shot in glorious black & white (a real trend this year with some of the best cinematography of recent years), the film has its problems:  overlong, confusingly episodic, with a draggy 2nd act.  Still, the direction is outstanding, the acting throughout assured.  I was absorbed by the hero's life and times, even while cringing at the unmitigated miserablism.  *** 1/4

DRAFT DODGERS (Réfractaire)  (d. Nicolas Steil)

Réfractaire is translated as "dissidents" in the sub-titles; but its title at the Palm Springs film festival is "Draft Dodgers", which might be more  apropos.  It refers to a group of young anti-Nazi Luxembourgeois men during World War II who would be conscripted into the German army and sent to the Russian front if they didn't instead hide out in a deserted underground mine aided by the Resistance.  The film centers around François, son of a Nazi collaborator, but himself a drop out from a German college which teaches Aryan racism.  He's nicely played by one of my favorite French actors, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet.  This is yet another original take on WWII, which continues to dominate foreign films as no other historical event of the 20th century does.  But it simply isn't as emotionally resonant as other films of its type.  Despite an authentic look and some fine acting, the film failed to cohere as drama.  ** 3/4

BACKYARD (El Traspatio) (d. Carlos Carrera)
In the late 1990s the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez, across the river from El Paso, experienced a series of rapes and murders of women.  This well made, gritty, based-on-a-true-story procedural is about the gradual realization that serial murders are occurring; and follows the efforts of one courageous woman cop to overcome systemic inertia and corruption in the pursuit of the culprits.  The wide screen production is first class slick.  If it all seems a little predictable, maybe it's because I watch too many similar tv procedurals like Criminal Minds and CSI.  But kudos for acting to Ana de la Reguera as the beset cop and Jimmy Smits reprising his character in Dexter (I do watch too much tv).  *** 1/4

CASANEGRA (d. Nour Eddine Lakhmari)
This film takes place in Casablanca (which means "white house").  The title here is a play on that name:  "black house" because it takes place in the dirty underbelly of pimps, whores and thieves in Casablanca.  It's the story of two young friends on the make, one from a family with an abusive step-father who longs for the clean snows and blond women of Malmö, Sweden; the other from a working class family where the father is suffering from Parkinson's.  Their hapless quest for licit or illicit dough might have been the stuff of comic melodrama, if the over-long narrative weren't so unrealistic.  One thing I did like about this film was that we were drenched in the atmosphere of modern day Casablanca, a city of beautiful vistas slightly reminiscent of Madrid.  Much of the film is composed of tracking shots, the camera placed at street level looking up with the exotic architecture of the city's high rises in the background.  But that's the most admirable feature of this film which just misses the mark as an effective narrative.  ** 1/4

MAX MANUS (d. Joachim Roenning & Espen Sandberg)
So many films have been made about World War II that it is amazing when one comes along which has something fresh to add to the common lore, and one that does it with such emotional resonance and panache.  As with last year's Danish film Flame & Citron and this year's Hollywood film Inglourious Basterds this is a story of the resistance...in this case in German occupied Norway.  The film is ostensibly a biopic of the true life decorated resistance fighter Max Manus (superbly played by Aksel Hennie). But it is also a tale of friendship, heroism, and especially the terrible cost of war on those who live through it.  The large scale production is just about flawless in its depiction of time and place.  This is an impressive piece of filmmaking, one that transcends its genre.  *** 3/4

WINTER IN WARTIME (Oorslongwinter)  (d. Martin Koolhoven)
This is yet another look at World War II, in this case from the point of view of a teenage boy, son of a small town mayor in German occupied Netherlands, who becomes involved in the hiding of a downed British bomber pilot.  This is a gripping thriller, beautifully directed, which develops in truly original and surprising ways.  Young Martijn Lakemeier is an actor to watch.  *** 1/2

THE MILK OF SORROW (d. Claudia Llosa)
A young woman watches her mother die.  The mother is singing a song about how terrorists abused her and her baby, the sorrow passed through her mother's milk to her daughter along with other horrors too terrible to mention in this review.  The girl now lives with her uncle's family in a poor shanty town; and in order to obtain the funds to bury her mother she goes to work as a domestic for a rich lady.   This exercise in miserablism is artfully, even beautifully shot with compositions making fine use of light and shadow.  One has to admire the sad truths of the film, even though its slow pacing and the lead characters impassivity was ultimately hard to take.  An interesting sidelight of the film was a recurrent theme of the regenerative quality of weddings in the impoverished village.  As an exotic slice of a hard life, this was an interesting film...it just wasn't my cuppa'.  ***

GRANDPA IS DEAD (Ded Na Si Lolo) (d. Soxie H. Topacio)
A woman amongst her immediate family is notified that her father has died.  She faints, being a drama queen.  She's not the only drama queen in this large extended family which gathers together for the week-long wake.  What we have here is a raucus family comedy, a farce about a dead man and his many squabbling children and their families.  I found it virtually unwatchable...the acting was so overdone as to be extremely annoying.  I stuck it out as long as I could (about half way) and then walked.  W/O

REVERSE (Rewers) (d. Borys Lankosz)
The year is 1952, and black and white stock footage from that time in Warsaw seamlessly segues into a beautifully shot B&W film about a bourgeois family of three generations of women caught up in the terrors of the encroaching police state.  The center of the film is the dogged, unattractive daughter, an office functionary in the poetry department of a publishing house.  Her mother was a druggist before the war, and her feisty, aristocratic elderly grandmother is approaching death with pluck.  Together they bravely face their new lifestyle through a series of events comprising a deliciously satiric black comedy of sorts, one which captures the tone of an era perfectly even as it goes to gristly extremes.  The only flaw is that it intercuts occasionally events in modern day Poland, shot in color for contrast, events which detract a bit from the suspense of the 1952 story.  Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this beautifully realized gem of a film. *** 1/2

POLICE, ADJECTIVE (d. Corneliu Prumboiu)
A plain clothes policeman is charged with tailing a trio of high school students that are suspected of smoking marijuana in order to find the source of the drugs.  In keeping with recent films from Romania (especially 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days, which it resembles on the surface, but without that film's thematic, dramatic tension) this film was a rigorous exercise in story telling at the speed of life.  What do I mean by that?  It is made with a deliberate rhythm, long static takes with little action other than the seemingly trivial (endless walking scenes as the policeman tails the kids by foot, long static scenes of quotidian actions like eating solitary meals, reading a dictionary aloud for two reels).  This comes off to an American audience used to the artificial quick editing rhythms of tv and films as tedious.  The film also focuses entirely on the policeman, his job and his personal moral quandary, leaving the subjects of his surveillance as complete ciphers...irrelevant to the film's theme (which is the status of the law in an ostensibly free post-Communist Romania).  I found the thematic core of the film fascinating, and was never bored, despite the provocative editing schema.  ***

WARD NO. 6 (d. Karen Shakhnazarov)
Russia had one of the best films I've seen this year with Wild FieldThat film would have almost certainly been in the running for a foreign language film Oscar®.  Instead they sent this talky, pseudo-documentary based on a Chekhov play brought up-to-date.  It's the story of an ancient monastery which has been turned into a mental institution; and how the doctor running the place undergoes a breakdown and is incarcerated in his own mental ward.  The juxtaposition of the actors reading 19th century Chekhovian dialog with 21st century big-head closeup documentary style interviews with real mental patients is an interesting technique.   But the film overly intellectualizes, is much too talky and provides zero emotional catharsis.  **

BROKEN PROMISE (d. Jirí Chlumský)
Even 65 years later the Holocaust is still providing fodder for stark, illuminating and involving dramas.  This film has a familiar ring to it:  the based on a true story of the WWII experiences of a large Slovakian Jewish family.  The narrative is centered on Martin, bar mitzva boy in 1938, whose luck and pluck and athletic prowess on the soccer field took him through the war.  His sojourn through work camp, TB sanitarium, and as a partisan resistance fighter makes for a grandly involving epic.  The film is very well directed, and Samo Spisák is particularly fine and convincing as he ages from 13 to 20.  This film joins a handful of really well made, young man centered Holocaust personal stories, such as Europa, Europa, the recent Defiance and particularly the 2005 Hungarian film Fateless, which still have the power to enthrall despite their similar and familiar themes. *** 1/2

LANDSCAPE NO. 2 (Pokrajina St. 2) (d. Vinko Möderndorfer)
The premise of this film is that in the days following WWII there were large-scale summary executions of German sympathizers by Communist partisans, the mass graves of which are today being uncovered.  When two men, in the course of a theft of a stolen painting (by a retired Communist general) accidentally steal a document which blows the lid off the heretofore secret orders for those executions, it sets in motion a series of events beyond anybody's control.  This film is sexy, super bloody, relevant...a thriller with some elements of satire.  It's totally absorbing as a film, even as it goes over the top into very black comedy at times.  *** 1/2

WHITE WEDDING (d. Jann Turner)
An upscale black couple are planning to wed in Capetown.  But the groom has to make the journey by bus and car from Johannesburg before the ceremony.  This turns into a comedy road trip as he and his best friend encounter a series of adventures involving a hitchhiking Englishwoman, some angry Boers and various other setbacks on the road.  It's an opportunity to humorously explore the reconciled social fabric of the new South Africa.  But the situational comedy comes off a tad light, and for all its popular appeal, I couldn't get very involved. ** 1/2

MOTHER (d. Bong Jong-ho)
The film opens with a mysterious shot of a seemingly demented middle age woman dancing wildly to inappropriate music in a field of wild grasses.  What is happening here?  Immediately we are transported to a shop where the woman is cutting herbs with a cutting board, her attention dangerously set on a grown boy and a dog across the street as the chopping blade cuts closer to unsuspecting fingers, a clever mechanism for the kind of suspense this film exhibits throughout.  This boy/man turns out to be her slightly retarded son; and the relationship of this mother and her son turns out to be the crucible for a surprising series of events surrounding a teenage girl's murder.  The film is magnificently shot in wide-screen color.  The acting is impeccable, especially Kim Hye-ja as the mother whose obsessive love for her strange son takes her to some amazing places.  I was impressed by the originality and unpredictability of the screenplay; but the film raises a series of difficult, culturally specific moral quandaries which are hard to swallow.  *** 1/4

BEST OF TIMES (d. Youngyoot Thongkongthun)
Two best friends in college, one gets the girl, the other secretly longs for her as his first love.  Ten years later, the film picks up as a bittersweet story of that relationship along with a September romance of two elderly people, one of whom is starting to suffer the effects of Alzheimers.  The film is wide-screen, nicely produced, beautifully photographed.  But the overdone music and the bathos inflected story was just a little too much for me.  Too bad, because at heart there are some touching elements here.  ** 1/4

I SAW THE SUN (d. Mahsun Kirmizigül)
This is a based-on-a-true-story of people caught up in government forces beyond their control.  In this case it is an entire Kurdish village, surrounded by the long-term war between the Kurdish nationalists (read terrorists) and the Turkish army.  The people of the village, along with (as the film tells us in an epilogue) 2.5 million others, are displaced, exiled from their village and traditions.  After establishing their life in the village, the film diverges into two main story threads.  One family buys its way to Norway in a difficult passage.  Another settles in Istanbul and encounters the horrors of fish truly out of water...including one central story of a gay son discovering himself in the big city while being  ruthlessly treated by his conservative family which has never really left their village with regards to their attitudes.  The film features spectacular production values:  beautiful, colorful wide-screen vistas, a huge cast, widely divergent actual locations.  The story is affecting enough; but the acting style tends toward the over-dramatic to the point that I found myself rolling my eyes on several occasions.  The film is overwhelmed by its ambitious, over-the-top earnestness.  ** 3/4

BAD DAY TO GO FISHING (d. Alvaro Brechner)
A dissolute con-man is the manager of an aging former world champion wrestler.  Together they are touring small South American towns offering $1,000 to anybody who can stay in the ring for 3 minutes against the champion.  That's the set-up for this entertaining, if ultimately somewhat pointless, slice of life caper flick, as the two men arrive in the one town where their flim-flam is going to encounter some problems.  The characters are, for the most part, interesting and well played; the wide-screen cinematography and sense of time and place quite nicely realized.  ***

This Italian television biopic has as its subject Enrico Mattei, a truly interesting and historically important person I'd never heard of before.  The film covers his life starting post-WWII, even though his wartime experience with the anti-fascist resistance would probably make a film in itself.  Mattei was a successful businessman, who was charged by post-war prime minister De Gaspere to clean up the government owned Italian oil company, a scam which never produced any oil.  Instead, he turned it into multinational ENI Group.  He married a former ballet dancer, and the film discloses episodes of his personal life; but its study of oil geopolitics and Mattei's fight with the American oil companies from the Po region to Iran to Libya to Sicily is very informative and quite well written.  This is a tv movie, and the dingy digital projection was not great (the Chinese theater here is using the wrong aspect ratio making everything look wider than actuality...but one gets used to that.) ***

MEMORIES OF ANNE FRANK (d. Alberto Negrin)
Hannah Gosler was best friends (apparently) with Anne Frank before the war.  Their lives diverged; but this film purports to be "freely adapted" from Gosler's book which culminates with the two reunited briefly late in the war at Bergen Belsen.  What this film attempts is to reconstruct Anne's life after she and her family was sent to Auschwitz in 1942.  One must give points for good intentions; but the actual fact is that this English language tv film is dreadful...poorly acted, preposterously written, eye-rollingly overly sentimentalized.  It's not even very Italian, with an American lead (bright 13 year old Rosabelle Sellers) and mostly Hungarian cast and crew.  Even Ennio Morricone's rare current musical score was inferior by his standards. There must be a good film to be made with this subject matter; but for sure this isn't the one!  * 1/4

INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978) (d. Denzo Castellari)
Tarantino obviously borrowed the title, if little else, from this 70's spaghetti war flick.  It featured mostly American actors, and was probably post dubbed to the current English language version.  It's the story of a rag-tag bunch of WWII American soldier deserters and criminal types being transported to prison when their truck is strafed and they escape.  Their adventures trying to make their way to Switzerland and out of the war make for a fun comic drama with an enormous casualty list and bodies blowing up every which way along with huge explosions every few minutes.  In some ways it follows the plot development of the current Tarantino film...the group stumbles into doing a heroic anti-German deed behind enemy lines.  But mostly it goes its own ridiculous kill-everybody-in-sight way; but all with tongue in cheek and quite entertainingly well played.   Plus the current wide-screen color film print is well preserved...the film looks great.  ** 3/4

THE YOUNGEST SON (Il figlio più) (d. Pupi Avanti)
An Italian business man, played by Christian De Sica, is pulling off a gigantic scam with fake companies and multiple tax dodges.  It all started when he married his mistress years before to legitimize their two boys; and then deserted her on her wedding day with nothing.  In the present day the boys are grown and the father, in trouble with the authorities as his business empire is crumbling, involves his rather simple youngest son in a scheme to transfer all assets to the young man.  It's all rather over-complicated with a plot which is frankly hard to follow (maybe some of the fast paced Italian dialog escaped the subtitling?)  However it did look great on the gigantic Grauman's Chinese screen...the large budget and high production values did show well.  ** 1/2

THE VICEROYS (I Vicerè)  (d. Roberto Faenza)
The Uzedas were a noble family descended from Spanish viceroys who actually existed in mid-nineteenth century Italy.  This superior costume drama is adapted from an Italian historical novel and works on almost every level.  The story starts around 1850 with the death of the mater familia whose will starts a war for dominance among her progeny.  The plot revolves around the young prince Consalvo, whose martinet father schemes to take over the family fortune and soon banishes his rebellious son to a monastery.  The film covers the next several decades, including Garibaldi's social revolution and the many internecine rivalries inside this family ruled by hatred and power lust.  The film is superbly set in its period; and the acting, direction, and cinematography are flawless.  Why this 2007 film has languished in obscurity is a mystery...I can easily compare it with Visconti's The Leopard in its scope and affect.  *** 1/2

EIGHTEEN YEARS LATER (18 anni dopo)  (d. Edoardo Leo)
I was sort of enjoying this dramedy about two estranged brothers who embark on a road trip to deposit the ashes of their recently departed father.  They drive off in the splendid Morgan auto that the father had restored in secret.  But I was only going to watch the entire film if it captivated me utterly, since I had a personal errand to run.  As presented here with a dingy video print, and with a plot that failed to impress me as anything out of the ordinary, the film just didn't justify spending more than an hour.  Oddly enough, this film was eerily similar to an American indie which opened just this week called Easier With Practice.    W/O

AS GOD COMMANDS (Come Dio comanda)  (d. Gabriele Salvatores)
Wow!  Salvatores hits a new high with this 2008 film, a strong, viscerally affecting family drama and Gothic thriller.  It centers around a working class father and 11 year-old son.  The father is out of work and blames blacks and foreigners for his plight, effectively as a neo-Nazi.  Their friend "Four Cheeses" was left mentally impaired by a work accident, and this is one of Elio Germano's best performances, more than fulfilling the promise I saw in last year's The Past is a Foreign Land.   The film unfolds almost as an operatic tragedy with a horrendous rape and murder and the consequences.  I really cared about the characters in this film for all their flaws, and was enthralled and emotionally wrung out by the conclusion.    *** 1/2

QUO VADIS, BABY  (d. Gabriele Salvatores)
Salvatores seems to specialize in channeling other directors.  Last night (with As God Commands) he did a pretty great job of doing Gaspar Noé.  Today's film was Michael Haneke's Caché...but not quite as issue oriented.  In this film a woman working for her father as a private investigator receives several videos which were made by her rebellious older sister, who may or may not have committed suicide years earlier.  The videos provide a rationale for an investigation into the past which leads to some intriguing revelations.  It's all done at a slow, even lugubrious pace; but the film works because it rations out its surprising discoveries with an unusual depth of character development.  ***

RAISE YOUR HEAD (Alza la testa)  (d. Alessandro Angelini)
Moro is a single father obsessed with living vicariously through his teenage son's skill as an amateur boxer.  The father is controlling, and the kid (a convincing performance by tyro actor Gabriele Campanelli) is rebellious:  keeping in contact with his estranged Albanian mother and having an affair with a girl that his father feels is a distraction.  The film develops in surprising, unpredictable ways...which is the mark of a very fine script.  It's not often that boxing and transgender issues get equal treatment in a film.  I really cared about the characters in this film...it got under my skin.  *** 1/4

TEN WINTERS (Dieci inverni)  (d. Valerio Mieli)
Boy meets girl cute.  They seem to be destined for each other; but their paths merge and dissolve over the course of ten frustrating winters split between gorgeous Venice and frigid Moscow.  The boy is played with unexpected romantic charisma by Michele Riondino, the other lead actor (along with my fave, Elio Germano) in the wonderful The Past is a Foreign Land.   The girl is played by Isabella Ragonese, an actress I don't recall seeing before; but I predict a bright future for her as she is the entire package, acting chops and looks.  The film is a tad predictable; but its combination of fateful romance and beautiful settings make for a beguiling experience.  ***

THE CÉZANNE AFFAIR (L'uomo nero)  (d. Sergio Rubini)
This is another estranged father and son film, a running theme in this year's Italian films.  In this case the father is a train stationmaster whose own father forbade him studying art when young...his lifelong passion.  He is played by the director, Sergio Rubini, whose performance here tends to go over the top.  The film is a mess of  flashback structure,  to a time when the stationmaster is obsessed with painting a copy of a famous Cézanne painting which is housed in a museum in Bari, a city within a short train ride from the provincial village where he lives.  Rubini is attempting something like Amercord in dissecting the varied inhabitants of the village.  But it didn't work for me.  I figured out the trick ending too early, and was frankly bored by the film.  Only a really fine kid performance by young Guido Giaquinto as the stationmaster's son in the extended flashback (and the film's "point of view" character) kept me in my seat.  ** 1/4

HAPPY FAMILY (d. Gabriele Salvatores)
Salvatores owes a lot to Pirandello and Charlie Kaufman with this "world premiere" comedy which played before a rare sold-out house at the Italian film festival.  It's the story of a screen writer who sits at his computer and writes, becoming part of his story about an eccentric extended family.  It plays as a clever film-within-a-film farce just this side of sit-com.  It's been my experience that comedies don't cross cultural barriers all that well; but I have to make an exception for this film.  The foibles of the characters in the families of this film are universal.  Good fun, and somebody should remake it in English. *** 1/.4

WE ALL GET OUR SHARE (Ce ne è per tutti)  (d. Luciana Malchionna)
A young man climbs up to a ledge at the Roman Coliseum and ruminates on life and why he should jump while his family and friends make their way through the Roman streets having various non-humorous comic adventures on the way.  Comedies and farces often don't translate into other cultures; and this boring, almost unwatchable film just goes to prove that point.  *

I'M NOT SCARED (Io non ho paura)  (d. Gabriele Salvatores)
Second time around for this beautiful film.  My 2003 review can be read here. *** 1/4

TRICK IN THE SHEET, THE (L'imbroglio nel lenzuolo) (d. Alfonso Arau)
This film reminded me of the Giuseppe Tornatore films Starmaker and to a lesser extent Cinema Paradiso in that it takes place in Southern Italy around the turn of the last century.  An upper-class gentleman becomes so enamored of a lower class maid and fortune teller that he makes her the unknowing subject for his film, showing her bathing au natural in a local lake.  This was in an era when films were at their infancy and projected onto a white sheet, and audiences couldn't separate the filmed scene from reality.  It's an intriguing premise, and the film is lovely to look at and quite authentic as to period.  But I just couldn't get interested in the characters or the story, as the narrative was all over the place and confusingly constructed.  ** 1/2

JUST MARRIED (Oggi sposi)  (d. Luca Lucini)
Four disparate couples are on the way to the altar in separate, but interconnected stories which ultimately come together.  The film is a comedy; but in this case it works despite the cultural differences as the stories are universal and quite entertainingly written and acted.   ***

I AM LOVE (Io sono l'amore)  (d. Luca Guadagnino)
Guadagnino is a young director of great promise.  This film is the story of an haute bourgeois family of mill owners, whose fortune has led to a sumptuous life style, although though the two sons and daughter of the current generation have problems.  The film reminds me of the huge family sagas that Olivier Assayas is so good at staging, particularly Les destinées sentimentales.  And Guadagnino has gathered an exceptional cast and has used a strong musical score by John Adams to good effect.  There are sequences (including a sex scene montage) of enormous filmic beauty and originality.  However, there is also a feeling of excess and pretentiousness...the filmmaker's ambition may have gotten ahead of his ability to produce.  It also seems a little overlong and ponderous.  But I have to say I was totally involved in the story; and despite some flaws this was an extraordinary film.  *** 1/4

SOUTHERN ZONE (Zona Sur) (d. Juan Carlos Valdivia)
An upper class white family:  divorced mother, lesbian teenage daughter, wastrel teenage son and adorable 5 year old boy inhabit a beautiful La Paz villa accompanied by two indian servants who are part of the family, but subtly not.  The director utilizes a constantly slow panning camera: it becomes almost a signature of the, frankly, gorgeous cinematography and production design.  Not much happens, the story is very insular in the way it keeps inside the home for the most part; but the accumulation of details about how these people lead their lives is very telling about current Bolivian society and the way class distinctions are breaking down.  This is a filmmaker to watch.  *** 1/4

DON'T BURN IT (d. Dang Nhat Minh)
A woman doctor has spent three years working in a Viet Cong field hospital and writing a diary of her feelings during the war against the Americans.  When her hospital is overrun, an American soldier finds her diary and keeps it for 35 years.  This based-on-fact film is an inherently interesting story, which needed to be told.  But in the hands of a director who oversentimentalizes just about every plot point with horribly over done music...and several American actors who deliver lines with amateur incompetence, the film doesn't work at all until its powerfully emotional conclusion, by which time it is too late to save the film.  ** 1/2

NIGHT GUARDS (d. Namik Kabil)
Two men are working as night watchmen at an Ikea like furniture department store.  Nothing much happens.  It's even more boring than that...some sort of existential exercise like a comic mashup of "Waiting for Godot" and "No Exit".  Needless to say I have no idea what it was really about...the war?  religion?  nothing?  Even the static camera and slow line readings added to the ennui.  * 1/4

THE WIND JOURNEYS (Los Viajes el Viento)  (d. Ciro Guerra)
The setting is the windswept, sparsely populated Caribbean plains of northern Columbia in 1968.  An itinerant "jugler" (wandering musician), having recently lost his wife, sets off on a trek by burro to return a treasured accordion to his teacher.  He's joined by a teenage boy who may or may not be his love child from the musician's wandering days.  That's the set-up for this picturesque wide-screen road trip epic, which is also a coming of age and a spiritual journey film packed into a long, slow moving, gorgeously photographed package.  ***

THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (El Secreto de sus Ojos) (d. Juan José Campanella)
A retired prosecutor revisits an unsatisfactorily closed 25 year old rape-murder case by writing a novel.  This is the set-up for an intriguing cold case procedural which exposes layers of past Argentinian government corruption through flashbacks to the time of the case itself.  This is another in a long series of great roles for star Ricardo Durín, who, with just a little make-up and subtle changes in posture, successfully plays his character at two different ages.  It's an altogether fascinating puzzle of a film which kept me on tenterhooks throughout.  *** 3/4

WINGLESS (d. Ivo Trajkov)
At the start of this strange film, an angel whispers into the ear of a prospective mother that she would give birth to a boy who would die at age 29.  The film picks up as Joseph, approaching his 29th birthday, stands poised on the railing of a bridge contemplating the water below.  What follows is a series of surrealistic, semi-comic vignettes from a life gradually sinking into despair.  The film was just a little to symbolic and allegorical for my tastes.  I checked my watch three times, never a good sign.  **

DECEMBER HEAT (Detsembrikuumus) (d. Asko Kase)
In the fall of 1924, the Russian Soviets apparently conspired to foment a coup to overthrow the fledgling democratic state of Estonia.  This film is the story of a young Estonian soldier and his wife, whose planned emigration to France is disrupted by the timing of the coup.  The film's feeling of time and place is well done.  Maybe the patriotic message is a tad overplayed and clichés abound...but I was drawn into the story, kept in suspense by my lack of knowledge of any of the historical events.   ***

FALLEN GODS (d. Ernesto Daranas)
I will be totally honest...I have no idea what this film was about.  Something about a famous Havana pimp who was killed in 1910, whose blood soaked garment is today a power symbol in the current day underworld.  Somehow in the present day a university professor, several prostitutes, some bad guys and a gigolo on the make get involved in various intrigues over the garment. The film definitely had visual panache; but the totally opaque narrative left me cold.  * 3/4

DOOMED LOVE (Um Amor de Perdição) (d. Mário Barroso)
This film is a riff on the Romeo and Juliet story: a dashing, upper class, delinquent teenage boy falls for the beautiful, if constitutionally weak, daughter of his family's sworn enemy.  The film is exquisitely shot, emphasizing the dissolute lifestyles of the spoiled rich.  Hints of incest and abuse are rife.  Still, the film for the most part steers clear of overamped melodrama. 
Portugese films are often too esoteric or pretentious for my tastes; but here I was emotionally involved in the drama, probably because the charismatic young lead actor, Tomás Alves, imbued the doomed lover with real pathos.  ***

THE DANCER AND THE THIEF (d. Fernando Trueba),
This Spanish film is an off-center caper flick with an intriguing twist.  Ricardo Darin continues his run of great roles playing a famed safe cracker, just released from a Chilean prison after a general amnesty, determined to go straight.  Also released from prison at the same time is a charming young rogue (bright, new Argentinian star-to-be Abel Ayala) who has something on the prison warden which makes him a marked man; but who also is his unreleased cellmate's messenger with a plan for a daring heist in which he attempts to involve Darin's character.  Sub-plots abound, especially one involving Ayala's character's infatuation with an orphan girl with a gift for ballet (the "dancer" of the title).  The film is an interesting character study and something of a preposterous wish fulfillment fantasy, yet charming and easy to watch.  *** 1/4

NO PUEDO VIVIR SIN TI (I Can’t Live Without You) (d. Leon Dai)
This small, based-on-a-true-story production, shot in black & white, is nevertheless big on heart.  It's the story of a father, menial part time worker as a harbor diver, and his 7 year old daughter whom he is raising the best he can despite dire poverty.  Her mother deserted them; and now it is time to enroll the child in school.  But the bureaucracy intervenes:  seems the mother had already been married to another man and the child's birth father has no standing as her guardian.  Much hassles with the state and social services ensue...one can relate to the father's feeling of helplessness.  It would be easy to allow cynicism to spoil the tender, yet gritty mood of this film.  I was impressed by how the director managed to imbue the story with truth and pathos with so little resources and a cast of (seeming) non-professionals.  ***

BEYOND THE CIRCLE (d. Golam Rabbani Biplob)
A simple country potter is famed beyond his village for his exquisite flute playing of his own compositions.  When big media discovers him and brings him and his son to the big city to acclaim and exploit him...well it's the story of the fish out of water.  The film looks good, well photographed in vivid colors.  The acting is a little broad for western tastes, the plot somewhat obvious.  But the flute playing, although obviously dubbed, was magnificent. **

TIME OF FEAR (Salve Geral) (d. Sergio Rezende)
This is yet another Brazilian film which exemplifies the violent breakdown of society, a recurring theme.  In this case we're presented with a young middle class man, who in 15 seconds of senseless violence finds himself sentenced to a hopelessly crowded São Paolo jail.  His mother, who studied to be a lawyer, but now quietly teaches piano, gets involved with jailhouse revolutionary forces in a quest to protect her son.  The film is a complex examination of the powerful prisoner hierarchy, and revolves around a true event where a general prisoner uprising paralyzes the city in scenes eerily reminiscent of the L.A. riots I have personally experienced.  There is undeniably powerful filmmaking here; but ultimately the film trips up on its underdeveloped personal stories.  ***

Sri Lanka has been wracked by a long term "terrorist" insurgency, with four different ethnic groups struggling for dominance.  The Tamils, based in the north of the island, and apparently the victims of ethnic cleansing in the past,  have been particularly overt in their fight for liberation against the government in the south.  This film is the large scale, but also intimate, story of a relationship formed by a government soldier charged with transporting a Tamil woman defector through the war torn countryside of jungle, numerous checkpoints and small towns, encountering obstacles at every turn including encounters with
a jaguar, exotic birds, dozens of monkeys and more gun toting villains than any movie deserves.  The film's story arc is rather predictable...the film is based on an apparently famous novel which came out of the conflict.  But the two attractive actors have real chemistry, although maybe there's a bit too much romantic hokum.  Still, the sheer scope of the film is impressive.  ** 1/2

ST. GEORGE SHOOTS THE DRAGON (d. Srdjan Dragojevic)
This is a wide screen, intimate epic about the villagers inhabiting a Serbian town on the Austria-Hungary border during two wars spanning the era from 1912-1914.  It's also a traditional triangle love story amid an imposingly realistic story of trench warfare at its most extreme.  The acting was slightly over-the-top and the direction tended towards claustrophobic extreme close ups in the midst of huge action sequences.  But the overall effect is that of a grandly produced war movie with vivid characters and a more or less clichéd plot.  ***

An ex-cop turned scrupulously honest scooter-taxi driver faces a crime wave in his Caracas neighborhood by turning vigilante, cut-rate Batman style.  The film has its charms, notably a sympathetic performance by lead actor Rafael Gil.  But overall, the film is too broadly played, the plot unlikely, if amiably optimistic.   ** 1/4

Jamila is a prostitute who is sentenced to death for killing a popular young politician, a questionable verdict which indicts the legal system.  While in prison awaiting her fate the audience is gradually let in on her past, and by proxy the many young girls sold into white slavery by their families including Jamila's lost younger sister.  The film is earnest to a fault; but, despite a fairly naturalistic performance by beautiful Atiqah Hasihola as Jamila and an important message, the film seemed overly contrived and failed to engage.  **

AUTUMN OF THE MAGICIAN (d. Rouben & Vaheh Gevorgyants)
This is a relatively short documentary about the life and works of Tonino Guerra.  The amazing thing is that I had never heard of Guerra.  Here stands the writer and collaborator of dozens of vital films:  pantheon films by Fellini, Antonioni, Tarkovsky...and thanks to the deification of the director in film culture, I'd never even heard of Guerra!  Not that he isn't famous in his own right as an artist, landscapist, poet and general polymath Renaissance man.  In any case, this documentary is a reverie by a narrator traveling through Guerra's home countryside of Romagna and exploring his life and works.  It was presented in 4X3 format and looked like a television documentary...but the fascinating life of the subject and the beauty of the images (many of them showing Guerra's artistic creations) made for a splendid experience.  ***

66/67 - FAIRPLAY WAR GESTERN (d. Ludwig & Glaser)
A sextet of hoodlums, fans of the soccer team Braunschweig United, make varied forms of mischief.  One weird and distasteful subplot (which is never really followed through on) is of a guy who frequents Pos-Neg parties where people go to purposefully change their HIV status.  Most of the other stories concern violence and the effect on relationships with women.  I'd go into more detail; but the film had its confusing aspects, where stories abruptly cut away or suddenly shifted from Germany to Turkey with the drop of a mysterious drug.  It's all somewhat interesting as a study of woeful human nature and the German character; but all in all I really disliked the film.  **

THE RED MACHINE (d. Stephanie Argy, Alec Boehm)
This noirish thriller takes place sometime pre-WWII, when American naval intelligence is attempting to solve the Japanese government's new Enigma type machine codes.  In order to gain access to the machine sequestered in the Japanese embassy, they take a jewel thief/safecracker out of jail to utilize his skills.  There are several subplots involving past intrigues and crosses and double crosses, which tended to the overly complex.  The film has a glossy, well lived-in look for all its low budget.  And there is a star-making turn by a young actor playing the thief: Donal Thoms-Capello, who has just the right amount of insouciance for the role.  But for all that, the script was cliché ridden and unbelievable.  ** 1/2

MERCY (d. Patrick Hoelck)
Scott Caan wrote the script for this film and acted the lead part, about a brash, successful young novelist who lacks life experience to progress at his craft until he meets the woman (Mercy) who wakes him up to the existence of "love".   The film has a superb supporting cast:  Troy Garity as the best friend, Erika Christiansen as an intelligent rebound girlfriend, and notably James Caan playing Scott's world-weary father (for the first time, I believe).  Only Wendy Glenn, in the title role, seems a little off cast...not quite spectacular enough to crash into the novelist's fantasy world.  The film is well directed, quite diverting; but it somehow falls short in the script department.  I just didn't believe in  these characters.  ***

PARKOUR (d. Marc Rensing)
The Method Fest where I viewed this German film with an audience of exactly 2 others in the theater, is one of L.A.'s least successful and  almost unknown festivals.  Too bad, because they do make some incredible finds, which definitely includes this spectacularly involving, brutal and wonderfully realized German psychological action flick.  It's the story of Richie (mad props to the lead actor, Christoph Letowski, who is brilliant in this role, and in incredibly good shape), a freelance construction worker who is madly and jealously in love with his girlfriend Hannah, a college student challenged by her upcoming final exams.  Richie has two male friends with whom he practices parkour in abandoned industrial wastelands.  (Special note:  Marlon Kittel, who was so good playing Leo, the gay lover in Summerstorm, is fine here as one of the friends.)  As the story progresses, Richie goes off the rails in mysterious fashion (though I did figure it out early on.)  This film has everything:  exciting action mis-en-scène, fine acting, an absorbing, complex, unpredictable (but perfectly logical) plot.  Three people in the theater!  What a travesty. *** 1/2

THE FATHER OF MY CHILDREN (Le Père de mes enfants) (d. Mia Hansen-Løve)
Overextended art film producer, Grégoire, spends most of his time on the phone juggling various projects at the expense of his family life, wife and 3 cute daughters.  The film really nails the pressures of big time indie filmmaking today; and it totally involved me in the processes of Grégoire's life, which is actually based on a real person, film producer Humbert Balsan.  The problem is that the film is episodic, overlong, and seemingly plotless until about 2/3 in when it undergoes a startling change of tone.  Still, overall it is a well made slice-of-life film, very French in its emphasis on intelligent conversations.  ** 3/4

ROUND DA WAY (Lascars) (d. Albert Pereira Lazaro, Emmanuel Klotz)
Watching this French slang-filled, adult 2D cartoon was an ordeal I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.  The scattered plot is roughly about a group of low-lifes:  a carpenter who housesits a mansion when the owner leaves him the job of installing a sauna; another couple of low-lifes set on going on vacation to a tropical island; a family of low-lifes that happen to be corrupt cops.  Oh, there are myriads of other characters...I couldn't keep it straight and I didn't want to even try.  Somebody in the audience was laughing...she must have seen something that totally went over my head.  I didn't even crack a smile at the silly goings on.  *

FAREWELL (L'Affaire Farewell)  (d. Christian Carion)
Emir Kusturica, the actor/director, plays a dour, real-life Russian KGB officer who literally changed the course of history when he provided vital information to French intelligence (personified by his "handler", a meek engineer trapped into the job by circumstances and played by a wonderfully understated actor/director Guillaume Canet.)  The film is a masterful thriller in the style of Costa-Gavras (although it doesn't quite have the realistic, tension provoking suspense that Costa-Gavras is so good at).  I was totally enthralled by the psychological interplay between the characters and their families, and the historical implications of this story.  Maybe its only flaw (but an enjoyable one, nevertheless) was its humorous handling of the real people in the story:  lookalikes for Reagan, Gorbachev, Mitterrand etc.  Still, this was a fine production, which deserves to be seen.  *** 1/4

HEDGEHOG (Le hérisson)  (d. Mona Ashashe)
Young Garance Le Guillermic plays Paloma, a difficult 11 year old, daughter of a rich government minister and tranquillizer addled mother.  After having been given a video camera to play with, she confides to her camera that in 156 days on her 12th birthday she will kill herself.  That's the set up for this extraordinary coming of age story...which also involves a life changing relationship between the dowdy concierge (translated as "janitor") of the tony Parisian condo where Paloma lives (played by the superb Josiane Balasko) and the new tenant, a cultured Japanese widower (also superbly played by Togo Igawa).  It doesn't sound all that promising...I'll admit that I probably would have skipped this film from the on-line description.  But what doesn't come across in the plot summary are the sensitive characterizations, the emotionally devastating plot developments, and the fine, subtle director's touch with the material, which is mainly played from the point of view of the 11 year old through her videography and wildly creative artistic bent.  *** 3/4

A working class family, husband a mason (Vincent Lindon in his most stolid performance yet), wife a factory worker, their young son an elementary school student whose homework is too difficult for his parents (a nice plot device to set up the family dynamic from the start.)  Happenstance brings the husband to "father's profession day" at school, where he encounters his son's refined, spinster teacher (played by Lindon's ex-wife Sandrine Kiberlaine).  What results is a fairly interesting collision of class differences and marital problems.  Frankly, I was bored...the film was too much a traditional "woman's picture", signaled its message too early, and I didn't find the characters all that interesting.  Yet it is gratifying that French cinema, unlike Hollywood, is still making films about realistically portrayed, ordinary adults. ** 1/2

IN THE BEGINNING (À l'origine)  (d. Xavier Giannoli)
François Cluzet is excellent as a petty thief and con man who falls into a scheme to fool an entire town that a fictitious conglomerate is constructing a long delayed highway in their area.  This is a large scale, suspenseful caper flick with a fascinatingly based-on-a-true-but-totally-unlikely-story plot.  The impeccable cast includes a cameo by the increasingly enormous Gérard Depardieu, plus talented up-and-comer Vincent Rottiers, who is prominently featured in three films at this festival.  I was quite impressed by the director, who reminded me of Laurent Cantet in his ability to dig deeply into the psyche of the working class while managing the logistics of a large scale production.  *** 1/4

SILENT VOICES  (Qu'un seul tienne et les autres suivront)  (d. Léa Fehner)
This is a complexly plotted drama which riffs several disparate threads involving criminals and victims and inexorably brings them together for the climax in a Marseilles prison.  It works up to a point because the characters are vivid, even if their motivations are unclear and suspect.  But I felt that the plotting relied too much on coincidence and happenstance to make total sense.  Algerian actress Farida Rahouadj is especially good playing a grieving mother whose estranged son was murdered by his gay lover.  And I was once again impressed by Vincent Rottiers who here is playing a hot-headed, romantic anti-hero...a young Jérémie Renier type.   ***

FRENCH KISSERS, THE (Les beaux gosses)  (d. Riad Sattour)
This is a French verision of the American Pie and Superbad theme:  nerdy, sex-obsessed teen-age boys doing their predictable thing.  It wasn't terrible; and the lead actor, Vincent Lacoste made a convincing Gallic Michael Cera type.  Also, Noémie Lvovsky creates an amusingly original take on the neurotic mother of a teenager role.  The French are more salacious and realistic about the sex than Hollywood would be with this genre...but all in all there isn't anything fresh enough about this film to make it stand out.  ** 1/4

HIDDEN DIARY  (Mères et filles)  (d. Julie Lopes-Curval)
Catherine Deneuve is quite touching, playing a small-town, middle age doctor, somewhat estranged from her daughter, who was in turn deserted by her own mother at an impressionable young age and never forgave.  The film is a drama about mothers and daughters which turns around the discovery of a long lost diary written by Deneuve's disappeared mother.  I really liked the film's flashback structure and the way the central mystery gradually unfolds in unpredictable ways.  *** 1/4

This year's slate of French films so far have been distinguished by the large number of accomplished women directors and the strong emotionally cathartic plots.  Later this month I'll continue the City of Lights/City of Angels experience; but commenting on these press screenings seems to be an exercise in futility as many of the best films I watched are already listed a sold-out by the festival.

RESTREPO (d. Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger)
PFC Juan "Doc" Restrepo was a guitar playing, fun loving medic with the 173rd Airborne Brigade stationed in a remote Afghanistan valley near the Pakistani border and at the forefront of the Taliban insurgency.  After Restrepo was killed in action, his platoon was sent to build and man a forward outpost on a rocky crag overlooking the Korengal Valley, which they named Outpost Restropo.  The directors of this documentary spent a year embedded for long periods with the 2nd Platoon and made this sprawling film which captured the feeling of the daily life of these soldiers.  The film is remarkable for the way it portrays the soldiers, by their actions in-country and through later reflections in big-head close up interviews.  There is a palpable sense of ever present danger, both to the soldiers and the filmmakers.   *** 1/4

AN ORDINARY EXECUTION (Une exécution ordinaire) (d. Marc Dugain)
Moscow, 1952.  The film follows a female doctor who has magnetic powers in her hands to relieve pain in her patients (somehow here this unlikely talent seems very realistic).  This is the year that Stalin's iron-fisted tyranny was scheduled to end with his death.  And this film takes us on a slow building, dread-filled trip into the Kremlin for a unique fly-on-the-wall view of the corrosive effects of absolute power on one lonely, frightened, talented doctor terrorized into treating in secret the dying dictator (played in a powerful, convincing performance by André Dussolier).  The film belongs to Marina Hands, however, whose stoic acting style as the beset doctor is perfectly matched to Stalin's steel.  This isn't an easy film to watch, its slow pace threatens boredom.  But as a character study and a realistic historical drama, it certainly held my interest.   ***

TÊTE DE TURC  (d. Pascal Elbé)
At the start of this film a Franco-Turkish teenager commits both an act of violence and one of heroism within a space of a minute, setting off a journey into the modern day hell of life among the immigrant French underclass.  The film has a complex set of characters: cops, marauding teenagers, drug dealers;  but overall it is the story of families stressed by the pressures of living in the hellhole of the urban projects.  I was involved with the characters, especially the conflicted, guilt ridden boy played by Samir Makhlouf and his mother (the always interesting Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz) who aspires to a better life for her sons.  But the film resolves in an unsatisfying, unrealistic way which sort of spoils everything that came before.  ** 3/4

LOVE IS IN THE AIR (Ma vie en l'air)  (d. Rémi Bezançon)
Bezançon's breezy first feature (2005) is a gentle romantic comedy about a man born in flight who becomes a flight simulator tester while retaining a fear of actual flying which cripples his romantic life.  Vincent Elbaz is quite good as our beset hero, aided by Gilles Lellouche playing his best friend as a typical slacker.  But it is future Oscar winner Marion Cotillard who really shines as the girl who almost gets away.  This is a slick, well written romcom which is involving and fresh even though it plays like a combination of several recent films revolving around flying (Up in the Air, Catch Me If You Can etc.) ***

VILLAIN, THE (Le Vilain)  (d. Albert Dupontel)
The director plays an outsized, comic "villain", a bank robber and all-around bad guy chased by indiscriminate shooters.  Wounded, he returns home to his mother (artificially aged Catherine Frot in an amusing performance...meek exterior hiding a steely resolve) who is herself fighting to save her home from unscrupulous developers.  For me the film was only intermittently amusing.  Several ridiculous action sequences along with absurd situations made for an over-the-top farce which, even when well done, just turns me off.  Nice production values, however.  **

PLEASE, PLEASE ME  (Fais-moi plaisir!)  (d. Emmanuel Mouret)
Mouret is a French farceur actor-writer-director hyphenate who combines the inept charm of Jacques Tati and Woody Allen with a some of the physical characteristics of Chaplin and Keaton.  In other words he is an original talent with a unique vision carrying on a fine tradition.  Here he plays Jean-Jacques, hapless inventor, whose romantic misadventures start when a friend boasts of a fail-safe method of getting girls.  What follows is a subtle, underplayed farce which somehow really tickled my funny bone.  Mouret has a way of quietly escalating sequences of ineptitude to absurd levels, while somehow playing it straight and remaining realistic.  It's a high-wire act of spot-on comic timing; and he really pulls it off.  *** 1/4

LITTLE THIEF, THE  (La petite voleuse)  (d. Claude Miller)
In this 1988 film, from an unfinished script by François Truffaut, a very young Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the female equivalent to Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows.  She is a mature 16, an inveterate thief, constantly in trouble with her guardians and the small town authorities.  She has an affair with a 40ish married man, runs away with a younger rogue (played by the tragic Simon de la Brosse, whom I really will take notice of in a couple of days in his first film, Pauline at the Beach.)  The film is relentlessly episodic, with few surprises.  But Gainsbourg is well cast and the film is involving enough.  It pales in comparison with early Truffaut, however.  ***

IRÈNE  (d. Alain Cavalier)
Cavalier was a French filmmaker who lost his lover, actress Irène Tunc, in an automobile accident in 1972.  In this impressionistic film essay he uses passages he reads from diaries that he wrote from 1970 to 1972 and images from his present day compulsive video taking of his reminiscences to examine his time with Irène.  Unfortunately, his constantly droning narration is soporific and the images don't provide any particular insight into his narrative.  I ended up not knowing anything more about Irène and Alain than I had at the start.   * 1/4

I AM GLAD MY MOTHER'S ALIVE  (Je suis heureux que ma mère soit vivante)  (d. Claude Miller & Nathan Miller)
Thomas Jouvet and his baby brother were deserted by his loving but irresponsible mother when he was 5 and adopted by a childless middle-class family.  Knowing that this was another of Miller's "based on a true story" films, it was obvious from the start that something dramatic was in store and the story does not disappoint.  The film plays in extensive flashbacks to youthful scenes based around Thomas as a baby, a child of 5 given too much responsibility, a troubled pre-teen and finally as a 20-year old working class auto mechanic obsessed with finding his birth mother.  The 20 year old Thomas was played by the charismatic young actor Vincent Rottiers, who seems to be in every other film at this festival.  Here, Rottier underplays the role to fine affect given his character's emotional opacity.  By the end of the film I was unexpectedly moved to tears.  *** 1/4

HIGH LANE (Vertige)  (d. Abel Feray)
Five naive 20-somethings embark on a day trip excursion of rock climbing on a rugged, challenging Croatian trail which has been closed by the authorities.  What occurs is a gore filled riff on the Blair Witch story combined with some really excellent mountaineering stunts.  This kind of midnight horror film is not usually my idea of fun; but here the action was well choreographed, the characters were interesting enough in a surface way to identify with.  I went because I'm a fan of Johan Libéreau ever since The Witnesses.  But I did get a sick charge out of all the carnage, which is all one could ask from a film like this.  ***

PIERROT LE FOU  (d. Jean-Luc Goddard)
Let's just get it out from the start:  Goddard, especially from about this film on, is just not my kind of filmmaker.  This film was presented here in a startlingly fantastic new digitally mastered print which brings out Raoul Coutard's super-saturated Eastmancolor wide-screen photography to its full extent (though the screechy sound track didn't make such a successful update.)  The film looks remarkably undated.  It's essentially an anarchic road trip about two social revolutionaries who steal their way through the French Riviera being chased by people they've ripped off.  The film is about as far from narratively cohesive as possible, jumping from one absurd situation to another.  Belmondo plays his usual insouciant hero.  For me, in the '60s war of French movie stars, I went with Alain Delon over Belmondo every time.  I'd probably do the same today.  Anna Karina is luminous, as usual...but for once there doesn't seem to be all that much chemistry between the two leads, who seem dwarfed by the landscape and defeated by Godard's silly plot manipulations and contrivances.  This may be a canonical classic film (it certainly looks like one); but I disliked just about everything about this film.   **

SPHINX  (Gardiens de l'ordre)  (d. Nicolas Bookhrief)
Cécile de France and Fred Teston play two cops who are dragged into an unauthorized undercover drug sting to restore their reputations after a disputed killing (amusingly enough of a character played for a split second by Vincent Rottiers in his fourth film appearance at this festival...he is the young French actor of the moment, I think).  This is one modern film noir which really lives up to its genre, as we get a nicely gritty, realistic view of the drug underworld and the ambiguous lives of the police who have to deal with a corrupt establishment.  Maybe it is all a little too pat and predictable and perhaps a tad excessively violent; but I was totally involved with the two charismatic leads and their dilemma.   *** 1/4

IMMACULATE  (Sans laisser de traces)  (d. Grégoire Vigneron)
One of my favorite actors, Benôit Magimel, here is playing a corporate up-and-comer...a confident executive (who incidentally married the boss's daughter) on the cusp of taking over a large multi-national subsidiary as CEO.  He has a guilty conscience about his ascendancy, however...and the complex way he gets involved in expiating his guilt with the "help" of a wastrel school buddy makes for a cascading series of actions with unexpected consequences.  It's a neat and tidy script, well executed by cast and director; but I couldn't help thinking that it was all a little *too* neat and tidy.  ***

IN THEIR SLEEP  (Dans ton sommeil)  (d. Caroline & Éric Du Potet)
This is a typically French horror film, sort of reminiscent of Haut Tension in its unmitigated violence and blood letting.  It's about a housewife (Anne Parillaud) who encounters a boy (angelic looking Arthur Dupont) on a lonely road who reminds her of her dead son.  The  boy is being chased by a crazed burglar, or is he?  The film is sufficiently bloody to satisfy any fan's blood lust.  But the story is psychologically suspect...in fact it is maddeningly opaque about what motivates the crazed killer.   There are also several narrative cheats, and false leads which provide surprise, but left me sorry that I bothered to watch this gorge inducing, sadistic film.   ** 1/2

PAULINE AT THE BEACH  (Pauline à la plage)  (d. Eric Rohmer)
This is the third film in Rohmer's mid-career "Comedies and Proverbs" series, apparently based on the proverb: "He who talks too much will hurt himself".  As usual for me, I guess I'm not deep enough a thinker to get the connection (see Kieslowski's Decalogue for another example of my failure for making deep analyses).  But I was entranced by this 1983 film anyway.  It's the story of two female cousins, one a gorgeous blond who has been around the block a few times, the other a lovely, canny 16 year old virgin.  They're visiting a Norman beach late in the season, and encounter three men:  one a worldly vagabond rogue, another an ardent surfer (played by an amazingly young and buff Pascal Greggory), the third a forthright youth (beautiful Simon de la Brosse, who I just discovered committed suicide at age 32, in his first role at age 17).  What follows is a typically French film:  a talky, sophisticated, modern comedy of manners.  Rohmer has a way of being extremely astute about human nature with deceptively casual dialogue and unadorned visuals.  *** 1/2

HEARTBREAKER (L'Arnacoeur)  (d. Pascal Chaumeil)
This is a slick French romantic comedy about a con man who has a legitimate business as a professional breaker-up of relationships for hire (along with his sister and her comic-relief husband).  It's a seemingly ridiculous premise; but somehow it makes a little sense in context.  Romain Duris, looking scruffy and in full manic mode here, plays the professional "heartbreaker" hired by a rich heiress's father to break up her impending marriage to a handsome, but boring Englishman (played by one of my favorite actors, Andrew Lincoln from the English tv series "Teachers".)  For all the originality of the premise, the film is a predictable, typically lush and empty modern day French comedy which has populist surface appeal but lacks any substance.  ** 1/2

RAPT  (d. Lucas Belvaux)
Belvaux makes wonderful, subtle thrillers which are treats for the mind as well as satisfying procedurals.  Here he tells the complex story of a cocky industrialist, young CEO of a huge conglomerate, who is kidnapped for ransom.  It's a brilliant performance by Yvan Attal of upper class hubris brought down.  I don't want to say anything more about the plot; but I was fascinated by this glimpse of high level government, industry and police operations.  *** 1/2

MAKING PLANS FOR LENA  (Non, ma fille tu n'iras pas danser)  (d. Christophe Honoré)
Honoré for my money is a very uneven director.  Here he is attempting a large dysfunctional French family drama, a genre associated with Arnaud Desplechin or Olivier Assayas these days.  What he has come up with is a rather boring, fitfully interesting character study of a troubled wife and mother (nicely played by Chiara Mastroianni) who is falling apart.  It seemed to all be rather pointless and going nowhere; but what do I know?   ** 1/4

TWO IN THE WAVE (Deux de la vague) (d. Emmanuel Laurent)

This documentary played at City of Lights/City of Angels; but I was able to watch it on video after the festival concluded.  It's a fine overview of the foundation of the French New Wave, centered on the two friends, Truffaut and Godard, who were the main progenitors of the movement writing for "Cahiers du Cinema" in the 1950s...but whose paths diverged as they became enemies in the 1970s.  I was a huge Truffaut fan...Les quatre-cent coups introduced me to French cinema and changed my life.  So this film had a very strong identification factor for me.  Still, just on its own merits, the interview footage and selected scenes from New Wave films are quite extraordinary.  Unfortunately the documentarian chose to utilize the actress Isild Le Besco shown silently looking through the archival material as a unifying motif.  That didn't work for me...but it didn't detract from the fascinations that the film had to offer about the history of these filmmakers and their movement.  *** 1/2

Return to Ken Rudolph's Movie Site home page.