FILMS IN RED are seen at the AFI Film Festival
FILMS IN BLACK  are seen at the Palm Springs International Film Festival
FILMS IN BLUE are seen at the Los  Angeles, Italia festival
FILMS IN GREEN are seen at the City of Lights/City of Angels French film festival.
FILMS IN PURPLE are seen at the Newport or San Francisco International film festivals
Films seen at the Seattle International Film Festival (starting for me on May 7, 2012) will have their own separate file.

All films are rated on a scale of **** (A+), *** 3/4 (A), *** 1/2 (A-), *** 1/4 (B+), *** (B), ** 3/4 (B-), ** 1/2 (C+), ** 1/4 ( C), ** (C-) , * 3/4 (D+), * 1/2 (D), * 1/4 (D-), * (F)

LE HAVRE (d. Aki Kaurismaki, Finland)
This film tells the story of a teenage African refugee trying to smuggle himself into England to join his mother.  On the journey, he gets stranded in the Normandy port of Le Havre, and hooks up with sympathetic townspeople who aid him to evade the authorities.  In many ways it is quite similar to the much superior 2009 film Welcome, but with a feel-good narrative softness.  Kaurismaki has an eye for unique camera set-ups; but the film is too earnest, lacking the director's usual flair for whimsy.   ** 1/2

  (d. Marc Evans, United Kingdom) +
I had forgotten that I had seen this forgettable film 18 months prior (see here).  Still, my reaction this time was precisely the same:  of the two parallel stories one worked (the old lady and her young neighbor traveling in Wales); and the other one (a turgid story of a couple's relationship problems set in Argentina) didn't.  ***

FOOTNOTE  (d. Joseph Cedar,  Israel)
A father and son are both famed Talmud scholars in present day Israel.  One of them is announced by mistake as the winner of the prestigious Israel Prize for scholarship which causes all sorts of problems for the other (who actually won the prize).  This is a film of supreme intelligence and raises issues of status and conflict in intellectual circles that I've never seen portrayed quite as well before.  Such a subtle film, filled with subtext and family rivalry below the surface isn't going to be universally admired.  But I was entranced.   *** 3/4

THE PRINCE & THE PAGODA BOY  (d. Luu Trong Ninh, Viet Nam)
This is a plodding and simplistic historical epic, which tells the story of a ruthless prince who wins succession to the crown by evil acts, and the low-born boy who grew up in a pagoda among priests that became a warrior who ultimately brought the country together around 1000 AD.  Some good action and martial arts set-pieces can't make up for the overacting and cliché ridden plot.  * 1/2

A SEPARATION (d. Asghar Farhadi,  Iran)
Present day Tehran...a married couple are breaking up over her desire to take their 12 year old daughter and emigrate, and his need to stay and take care of his elderly Alzheimer's inflicted father.  When the wife initiates a separation, the husband hires a devout woman as caretaker for father and daughter which precipitates a series of calamities.  The film is talky, with much acrimony.  But it also is a fascinating look at domestic life (and the legal system) in present day Iran.  The ultra-realistic acting and rapid fire dialog are superbly played, making up for rather pedestrian technical credits.   *** 1/2

BACK TO YOUR ARMS  (d. Kristijonas Vildzunas,  Lithuania)

The setting is Berlin in the weeks prior to the construction of the Wall in 1961.   An American-Lithuanian girl is in Berlin to meet her father, who had missed the opportunity to escape the Communists in 1944 while his wife and small daughter made their way out.  That's the set-up for this quasi-thriller about the heating up of the cold war and the way that families were affected by the growing tension between the superpowers in Berlin.  The film held my interest, even if it somewhat misfires as drama.  ** 1/2

PUNK IS NOT DEAD  (d. Vladimir Blazevski,  Macedonia)
An ecumenical group of deadbeats (Macedonians, Serbs, Bosnians, Albanians) re-form their decades old punk band and travel to Albania to perform in an ad hoc concert.  The film is all about the violent political tensions in the region; but it suffers from unappealing characters and a plot that barely exists.  **

TATSUMI  (d. Eric Khoo, Singapore)
Yoshiro Tatsumi is an elderly Japanese writer/artist who helped found the genre of adult themed manga (which he called "gekiga".)  This is a 2D animated film which utilizes Tatsumi's artwork to present his autobiography (adapted from the graphic novel "A Drifting Life") combined with animated vignettes from his stories over the years.  I had never heard of Tatsumi, nor ever seen any of his graphic novels; but his art is stunning in its simplicity of line and depth of feeling of his stories.  It took me a while to get used to the way the autobiography blended with the fiction; but once I grasped the structure I was impressed.  *** 1/4

SUPERCLASICO  (d. Ole Christian Madsen,  Denmark)
Hoping to save his marriage, a Danish man and his teenage son travel from Denmark to Argentina.  Paprika Steen plays the errant wife, who has deserted her family to become involved with a dashing Argentine soccer star (who scores two goals in the eponymous "superclasico" soccer match).  What follows is a wry fish-out-of-water romantic satire, which works for a while but finally bogs down in protracted, unrealistic comic tropes.  Still, the acting is fine and Madsen is a skilled story teller.  I just don't respond all that well to his over-obvious satire. ** 3/4

CIGAN (GYPSY)  (d. Martin Sulik,  Slovak Republic)
A teenage gypsy boy, fundamentally a good kid, is caught up in an ethical dilemma when his father is probably murdered and his mother marries her crooked gangster brother-in-law.  The depiction of the impoverished gypsy life style is gritty and quite well presented.  The actor playing the boy is especially impressive with his inner life so well expressed despite his stoic mien.  He's like a male version of Rosetta in the seminal Dardenne brothers film.  This isn't flashy filmmaking, rather somewhat flat and ploddingly paced; but I was totally involved with the plight of the main character.  ***

ALOIS NEBEL  (d. Tomas Lunak,  Czech Republic)
This is an animation film for grown-ups:  a story about a railroad worker named Alois Nebel working at a mountainous border station during the 1989 transition period from Communism to free elections.  Nebel is a witness to the ramifications of certain horrors done in the previous transition:  June, 1945 when the Germans were evicted from Czechoslovakia by cattle car.  The story is a little hard to follow, jumping back and forth in time and highly politically charged.  However the high quality black and white rotoscoped animation (reminiscent of techniques used in Richard Linklater's Waking Life) is quite well done and artistically rendered.  However, I'm not sure why this wouldn't have worked just as well as a traditional live-action film.  ** 3/4

VIOLETA WENT TO HEAVEN  (d. Andrés Wood, Chile)

Violeta Parra was a notable Chilean singer, songwriter, visual artist and annotator of folk music who died in 1967.  This biopic follows the course of her rather novel and interesting life and features an extraordinary performance by Francisca Gavilán in the title role.  The film follows all the familiar tropes of film biography, jumping back and forth through time and showing the influence of Violeta's alcoholic teacher father, her interaction with her own children and Swiss lover, and various episodes from her erratic career.  Unfortunately, the clichéd film didn't make me care at all about Parra, who despite her genius was quite an unpleasant character.  ** 1/2

IN DARKNESS  (d. Agnieszka Holland,  Poland)
There doesn't seem ever to be an end to Holocaust films...and this film is one reason why there shouldn't be.  It is yet another unique story of the WWII events from a different point of view:  in this case the based on fact story of a group of Jewish refugees from the destruction of the Lvov (Poland) ghetto who spend 14 months living in the dark, rat infested sewers of that city with the aid of at least one reluctantly heroic Pole.  Holland has produced something of a directoral tour de force, an emotionally powerful examination of human nature at the extremes.  *** 3/4

WHERE DO WE GO NOW?  (d. Nadine Labaki, Lebanon)
This is a film about an isolated Lebanese town split down the middle between Christians and Muslims.  While the country undergoes civil war, the women of the town band together to attempt to more-or-less keep the peace.  From my point of view the film was overly stylized, with strange musical and dance-like interludes reminiscent of Bollywood films.  It tries very hard to be an audience pleaser...and I guess it succeeds since it has won awards.  But too often the lack of subtlety pinged my innate cynicism and made me cringe.  ** 1/2

BEAUTY  (d. Oliver Hermanus,  South Africa)
An Afrikaans speaking family man has a dark secret.  Turns out he lusts after a handsome young man; and this is an atmospheric character study of obsessive stalking, rather like an update of Mann's "Death in Venice".  The film is gorgeously shot, the acting impeccable, a truly impressive job of direction.  The story rang true, which is a sad commentary on human nature.  This is a tough film to watch at times; but it is definitely one of the finest politically incorrect gay films of recent times.  *** 1/4

SONNY BOY  (d. Maria Peters,  Netherlands)
Yet another WWII story from a new angle.  This one starts in the South American Dutch colony of Suriname where a young black boy grows up fatherless and leaves for Holland to attend college.  He becomes involved with an older Dutch woman, they have a child; and initially this is the story of how a racially mixed extra-marital relationship is particularly hard in pre-war Holland.  But the story segues into serious depredations during the German occupation of Holland.  The film is convincing as a historical epic.  I had some trouble with some rather pat screen writing, particularly a central metaphor of a black-face Al Jolson singing "Sonny Boy" as symbolic of the relationship of parents to their mixed-race child.  But the film's enormous scope and beautiful production did justify the 2 1/2 hours.  ***

THE SILENT HOUSE  (d. Gustavo Hernandéz, Uruguay)
The film starts with a long tracking shot following an older man and a girl through a field as they approach a dilapidated wreck of a house which they have been hired to clean up for sale.  When they enter the house without an edit, it's clear that this is going to be a stunt long, real-time take with no cuts.  Then it becomes clear that this is a typical festival "midnight movie", as an escalation of bloody, creepy slasher things start to happen to the father and daughter.   This isn't my sort of genre; but I have to say it was rather well done, even though the trick of doing it all in one take made for some strange narrative cheats (or else I was just not following the story entirely).   **

EXTRATERRESTRIAL (d. Nacho Vigalondo)
A couple on a one night stand wake up to discover that gigantic alien spaceships are hovering over their city (and apparently over the rest of the world).  This is the set-up for a somewhat incoherent and unlikely romantic comedy which is more farce than science fiction.  **

BURNT BY THE SUN 2:  THE CITADEL (d. Nikita Mikhalkov, Russia)
Most of the characters from the original Oscar winning film appear in this WWII epic production.  The film starts in the trenches where a company of Russian prisoner-soldiers are about to storm a huge, impregnable German fortress called the Citadel.  The war scenes have a satiric, comic overtone...but are spectacularly achieved.  The people stories, taking place in a forested mansion and at the Kremlin, are far less successful, with much overacting and a story which doesn't make a lot of sense (it's been too long since I saw the original Burnt By the Sun to understand enough of the back story.)  ** 3/4

LETTERS TO ANGELS  (d. Sulev Keedus, Estonia)
A man who apparently had deserted from the Russian war in Afghanistan is searching for a lost daughter in present day Estonia.  Frankly, I could not make heads or tails of the story, which meandered back and forth in time with no discernible pattern.  I would have fled the screening in most circumstances as I had zero investment in the characters or the plot.  3/4*

THE COLORS OF THE MOUNTAINS  (d. Carlos César Arbeláez, Colombia)
A young boy and his farming family are caught between a guerrilla band and the authorities in their tiny, troubled Colombian mountain village.  The film is quite effective at showing the villagers' plight from the boy's naive point of view.  This is a powerful film with minimal production values, but nuanced, realistic acting.    ***

MICHAEL (d. Markus Schleinzer)
A 30-something, unassuming Austrian bureaucrat is holding a 10-year old boy prisoner in his basement, using him for (thankfully off-screen) sex, but otherwise trying to relate paternally with the intelligent, personable kid.  It's all done very low-key and matter of fact which makes it all the more terrifying and fascinating.  I figured out pretty early how the story would resolve; but the filmmaker has succeeded brilliantly in making suspenseful this story of banal evil.  *** 1/4

TERRAFERMA  (d. Emanuele Crialese, Italy)
The plight of refugees from the third world attempting to escape to the 2nd or 1st worlds is a dominating theme in world cinema, threatening to overtake World War II eventually.  Crialese's film, like his superb 2002 film Respiro, takes place among southern Italian islanders.  Here it is a fishing family who rescue an illegal, pregnant African woman and become enmeshed in her drama.  The film is a somewhat predictable melodrama, with occasionally striking visuals.  ** 1/2

LIGHT OF MINE (d. Brett Eichenberger)
A photographer is going blind from a rare inherited disease.  He and his wife embark on one last journey to Yellowstone so that the last images the man has are beautiful ones.  This is the slender thread of a story which holds what is, frankly, a travelogue, together.  The super-16mm images are fine; but the story just didn't work for me.  ** 1/4

JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME  (d. Jay & Mark Duplass)
Jason Segel shines in this slacker comedy, playing Jeff, a slothful 30-year old boy/man who embarks on a journey of discovery with his OCS brother (another fine comic performance by Ed Helms).  In what seems to be a separate film, the boy's mother (Susan Sarandon) is having a strange office romance of sorts.  The film is a tick up in class for the Duplass brothers, with some clever comic riffing by the talented cast and a script which mostly holds together.  *** 1/4

OSLO, AUGUST 31  (d. Joachim Trier)
Trier made one of my favorite films of the 2000s,
Reprise, and here he again uses the outstanding actor Anders Danielsen Lie to tell the surprisingly moving story of a depressive heroin addict on day leave from rehab, who wanders through his former haunts in Oslo searching for some reason to continue living.  Trier avoids the sophomore jinx and proves that the smart script of his first feature wasn't a fluke.  I was reminded of early Antonioni in the way the film observed its milieu from the point of view of its protagonist.  Also, Trier gave one of the best Q&As I've seen.  He's remarkably well spoken and astute.  *** 3/4

LONELIEST PLANET  (d. Julia Loktev)
A young couple, she's German, he's Mexican, embark on a pre-wedding guided tour of the Georgian Caucasus mountains and find out more about themselves than they expected to.  For me, this was another overlong travelogue (e.g. Light of Mine above) with gorgeous scenery, but ultimately only a slender plot to carry its length.  Gael Garcia Bernal, an actor I usually love, and the reason I chose to see this film, is wasted here, given little to do but walk through the scenery.  ** 1/4

DECLARATION OF WAR  (d. Valérie Donzelli, France)
An attractive married couple have their world turned upside down when their baby boy is diagnosed with a rare malignant brain tumor.  The film is written by actors playing the central couple (Jérémie Elkaïm and director Valérie Donzelli), and I suspect that it is based on their real-life experience.  If so, it is a remarkably honest and harrowing depiction of parenthood, and ultimately a wonderfully life-affirming story nicely brought to celluloid.  *** 1/2

ATTENBERG  (d. Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece)
Don't ask me.  I was mystified and turned off from the first image of two women dancing in the street giving tongue to each other,  and after 45 minutes I was still unable to figure out what the film was about.  So I walked.  W/O

MONTEVIDEO: TASTE OF A DREAM  (d. Dragan Bjelogrlic, Serbia)
The setting is 1930s Serbia where a ragtag group of street soccer players are put together to attempt to form a national team to compete in the first World Cup in Montevideo, Uruguay.  The film has epic scope and the 2 1/2 hour playing time to expand on the usual sports-film clichés.  Bjelogrlic has an eye for detail and the soccer scenes are especially well blocked.  But the script, with a breathless narration by a young boy observer in retrospect, is totally predictable and yet fails to pay off in its resolution.  ** 1/2

BEYOND  (d. Pernilla August, Sweden)
A woman gets news that her estranged mother is dying, and along with her husband and children embark on a journey of discovery of long hidden secrets.  Noomi Rapace plays the present day wife with affectless stolidity, while in frequent flashbacks we're witnesses to a child forced to become responsible for the depredations of her alcoholic, immigrant parents.  The script was fairly predictable:  a miserable childhood and parental irresponsibility have consequences.  Still, the acting was fine, and I responded to the pathos, even if by the end I was exhausted by the miserablism.  ** 3/4

THE ORATOR  (d. Tusi Tamasese, New Zealand)
A Samoan dwarf somehow overcomes his handicap and may (or may not) become chief of his village.  I was so uninvolved after an hour that I didn't feel like waiting around to find out.  W/O

POSTCARD  (d. Kaneto Shindo, Japan)
A Japanese share-cropping family during World War II sends two sons to war with dire (if often unintentionally amusing) consequences.  This is mainly the story of the gritty wife left behind.  It's interesting enough as melodrama; but the overwrought acting detracts from the affect.  ** 1/2

HAVANASTATION  (d. Ian Padrón, Cuba)
A teenage boy, spoiled son of privilege (in a supposedly classless society), gets lost with his Sony Playstation (thus the pun in the title) in an impoverished part of Havana and learns valuable lessons from a poor classmate on how the other half lives.  The kids are good; but the transparent political agenda of the film and some overacting by the adults didn't help.  ** 1/4

PINA  (d. Wim Wenders, Germany)
Pina Bausch was a modern dance choreographer whose international dance company used the performers as props for extremely innovative productions.  Wenders uses 3D photography to show long sequences from several of Pina's creations.  He mixes this with interviews with the dancers and some old 2D historic footage of Pina performing inventively projected into the 3D plane.  The film is notable for the fine use it makes of 3D, bringing the viewer right into the midst of the dances as a participant.  The one criticism is that the film is just a tad too long and repetitive.  However, I can't deny that the dancing itself was quite exhilarating; and I was never bored.  *** 1/4

RUMBLE OF THE STONES  (d. Alejandro Bellame Palacios, Venezuela)
This is a family saga set among the miserablism of the modern day Caracas slums.  Delia, with the help of her going blind mother, is raising two sons, a 17-year old "bad" boy who is getting involved with gangs; and an 11-year old "good" boy, excelling in school and helping mom with her side business.  The film struggles to find any redeeming features in the slum...and manages ultimately to be hopeful despite unremitting downers along the way.  It's surprisingly moving.  ***

MONSIEUR LAZHAR  (d. Philippe Fatardeau, Canada)
The title character is an Algerian refugee in Montréal who finds work as a temporary teacher in a progressive elementary school.  He's replacing a former teacher who hung herself in the classroom at the start of the film, which traumatized the children.  This film joins a rare group of wonderful views of the elementary school classes, which somehow seem to all be French language films (from Zéro de Conduit to Entre les murs, and several in between.)  *** 1/2

ELITE SQUAD 2: THE ENEMY WITHIN (d. José Padilha,  Brazil)
This is a sequel to an outstanding film, Elite Squad.  It continues the story of the special forces militia formed to fight the gangs of the Rio slums.  But in this case the war is the BOPE against corrupt police and government men who are conspiring to take over the crime syndicates throughout Brazil.  The film is's hard to separate the bad guys from the good guys (except for the BPOE captain played by Wagner Moura).  However, it does build to a powerful, suspenseful conclusion in the best thriller tradition.  ** 1/2

OCTOBER  (d. Daniel Vega Vidal, Peru)
A 2nd generation pawn broker/money lender, ministering to his poor Lima neighbors, finds a baby girl in his apartment.  She had been deserted and left with the putative father by a prostitute he once frequented who has disappeared.  The baby's care eventually falls to a spinster neighbor lady who is enthralled by a month long religious pageant which occurs yearly in October.  The film is an interesting character study, convincingly acted, slow to develop.  But ultimately it lacks a payoff.  ** 3/4

THE FRONT LINE  (d. Jang Hun, Korea)
At the bitter end of the Korean war, the final armistice position depends on which side holds a crucial hill.  This is an epically produced war film, the story of one platoon involved in the often repeated taking and losing of the hill.  It centers on a seasoned officer sent to the front to investigate the mysterious death of the former platoon captain...possibly killed by his own men.  What occurs is an enormously involving anti-war film stressing the futility of continuing war for political advantages with a cast of characters so well written that the audience cares about them to an unusual degree.  It's also has a completely convincing series of battle scenes that comprise some of the best directed such scenes I've watched.  *** 1/2

BREATHING (ATMEN)  (d. Karl Markovics, Austria)
Roman is a basically a good, if troubled, boy who has been incarcerated in a borstal type facility, having been deserted by his teenage mother.  As the film begins he now is 18 and being day furloughed to apprentice work at a mortuary.  Thomas Schubert gives an excellent, if subdued performance as the boy, given little chance to succeed in life, but having enough pluck to root for.  The film is suspenseful and involving, and seems particularly truthful.  It's comparable to a similar Romanian film from last year, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, but more positive.  *** 1/2

RETURNING TO THE "A" (d. Egor Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, Kazakhstan)
A veteran of the Soviet Afghan war, probably suffering from PTSD from evidence of flashbacks, returns in present day to the scenes of the war.  Very confusing transitions and a story virtually impossible to follow.  W/O (but watched long enough to know it is a stinker)  *

THE FLOWERS OF WAR (d. Zhang Yimou, China)
Like the fine B&W film from last year, City of Life and Death, this is a story from the 1936 Japanese conquest and "rape" of Nanking.  It's told from the point of view of an American mortician (played by Christian Bale who is monumentally unsuccessful at reading some of the poorest dialog ever) who arrives at a Catholic church hired to bury the dead priest and instead gets involved with the children and refugees who inhabit the compound.  The first half hour features some excellent war footage of the Japanese conquest, featuring a Chinese sniper soldier almost single handedly decimating a Japanese platoon.  But when the story of the happenings inside the church starts, it's all downhill from there.  Yimou is a fine action director; but the script is unsubtle and cliché riddled.  ** 1/4

A SIMPLE LIFE  (d. Ann Hui, Hong Kong)
Ah Tao has been working as a treasured domestic servant for the same family for 60 years.  Most of the family has emigrated to the U.S.; however at the start of this film Ah Tao is still cooking and cleaning and generally taking care of Roger, the bachelor business man she helped raise from birth, who remains in Hong Kong.  The relationship of these two is at the center of this gentle, beautifully conceived domestic family drama.  Deannie Yip is quite marvelous as Ah Tao, kindly, efficient, loyal to a fault until old age catches up to her.  Chinese action star Andy Lau is subdued and quite wonderful playing the sympathetic Roger, whose clockwork life is turned around by happenstance.  The film is slow to build; but ultimately one of the most satisfying, emotionally fulfilling films of the year. *** 1/2

72 DAYS  (d. Danilo Serbedzja, Croatia)
This film is about a ne'er do well family subsisting on a government pension which is dependent on an aging, senile grandmother.  The head of the family is played by the director's father, familiar actor Rade avaricious, evil man capable of any chicanery including murder to save the family's pension.  The film is a black comedy with several story details which add up to very little of interest (and are somewhat confusing to a non-Balkan.)  * 1/2

THE TURIN HORSE  (d. Bela Tarr, Hungary)
The film is apparently based on an anecdote involving Frederich Nietzsche who casually noted the mistreatment of a balking horse by some random carter on the streets of Turin.  This film takes off from that, and in stark black & white photography examines a few days in the life of that horse and its owners, an elderly man and his spinster daughter living in a bleak, remote, wind-tossed hovel.  The film is unremittingly pessimistic in its attitude towards life's hardships.  Tarr outdoes himself in the complete lack of montage (extremely long takes with a constantly moving camera, only seeming to end with a fade-out at the end of a full reel.)  Yet, the utter despair of these lives hold some fascination which makes the 160 minutes of the same four-notes of music and constant wind sound effects pass by with only a little tedium.  ** 3/4

JOSÉ AND PILAR (d. Miguel Gonçalves Mendes, Portugal)
José Saramago was a Portuguese Nobel Prize laureate for Literature who died in 2010.  This documentary shows his struggle to complete his last story despite the infirmities of old age.  It showed in exhausting detail his whirlwind life of international travel from about 2006-2008 which included various appearances, among them an interesting one with Gael Bernal at a Mexican book fair.  It is also the story of his love affair with his wife, Pilar, more than a companion...his Spanish translator and muse.   Saramago was an inherently interesting curmudgeon who never lacked for bon mots.  But I could never warm to the subject, and the documentary flagged a little for me.  ** 3/4

BULLHEAD (Rundskop) (d. Michaël R. Roskam, Belgium)
Belgium consistently makes the strangest, darkest thrillers.  This film is the complex saga of, among other things, a conspiracy to overly steroid the Flemish beef population. The film's antihero is a beefy rancher, Jacky (played with utter conviction the Matthias Schoenaerts), who suffered a childhood attack which left him drug dependent.  The actual machinations of the plot got so out of hand that frankly I couldn't follow it all.  But that hardly mattered, since the film is basically the wonderfully stylized depiction of a tortured soul which never ceased to fascinate.    *** 1/4

VOLCANO (Eldfjall)  (d. Rúnar Rúnarsson, Iceland)
Hannes is an elderly, curmudgeonly man who has been retired from his school principal job.  His two grown children blame him for being neglectful to his doting wife, Anna.  He briefly considers suicide, but decides to soldier on as a part-time fisherman.  Then disaster strikes and he's forced to face difficult changes in his life.  This isn't the first Icelandic film which absolutely nailed the experience and pathos of old age (the fabulous 1991 film, Children of Nature comes to mind.)  But it's hard to imagine it done very much better.  Both Theodór Júlíusson and Margrét Helga Jóhannsdóttir excel in the roles of the elderly couple.  This is reflective, moving filmmaking at a high level.  *** 3/4

ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA  (d. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
The film starts out with distant headlights on a bleak country road, and it's soon clear that a convoy of police are accompanying a perp trying to find the body of a murder victim that has been buried along the road.  At first the film reminded me of a more animated version of Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry; but Ceylan has a more ambitious agenda, to examine the Turkish police system CSI style.  For me the film just ambled along too aimlessly, despite some nicely written dialogue exchanges.  But having made it to the end of an overlong film, I had to admire the gruesome sound effects of the final scene.   ** 1/2

WARRIORS OF THE RAINBOW  (d. Wei Te-Sheng, Taiwan)
In the early part of the 20th century, China ceded Taiwan to the Japanese empire which proceeded to exploit the island's resources and subdue the warring indigenous jungle tribes.  This film is mainly the story of the chief of one of these tribes, who led an extended guerrilla war against the foreigners in 1930.  It's a 4 1/2 hour wide-screen epic film which tells the story of this revolt in remarkably lucid and stirring fashion.  Never boring, often sublimely beautiful, this is a true-life Avatar like drama from the native's point-of-view. The more I ponder it, the greater the achievement looms in my mind.  *** 3/4

MISS BALA  (d. Gerardo Naranjo, Mexico)
A reluctant participant in the Miss Baja beauty pageant becomes embroiled in a Tijuana drug war between a fearsome gang and the often corrupt authorities (including the American DEA).  What ensues is an unlikely, but fascinating series of violent set-pieces, as the girl is stoically buffeted between the warring sides, where it is often unclear who the real baddies are.  Naranjo's films (such as the excellent Drama/Mex) seem to focus on passive characters whose fates are decided beyond their control.  He is one of my international filmmakers to watch.  *** 1/4

AMNESTY  (d. Bujar Alimani, Albania)
A woman monthly makes conjugal visits to her husband in prison on the same day that a man does the same for his wife.  They eventually meet, and in the fashion of ancient Greek tragedy, interact.  The film is involving despite its bleak view on wasted lives.  Until the surprising final shot, the film feels predictable and unrelenting.    ** 1/2

LUST  (El Shooq)  (d. Khaled El Hagar, Egypt)
This film is about the various goings on by the inhabitants of a street in Alexandria.  It failed to hold my attention for long, with over-the-top acting and too large a cast of under-developed characters.  After about an hour I walked.  W/O

CHANTRAPAS  (d. Otar Iosseliani, Georgia)
A Georgian filmmaker, discredited in his country, goes to France to continue filmmaking.  In inept comic fashion, he manages to round up backing; and makes a terrible film.  This strange, over-the-top film just goes from bad to worse.  * 1/2

ELENA  (d. Andrey Zvyagintsev)
This third feature by the excellent Russian filmmaker of The Return examines contemporary Russia by telling the story of Elena, a working class woman who has married a wealthy older man.  Both she and her husband have problems with their respective children...he with his spoiled daughter, she with her wastrel son and his struggling family.  The film develops slowly, with long duration static shots reflecting the contrasting atmosphere of wealth and poverty in contemporary Russia.  This is a character study and social commentary mixed into a story that might have been a James M. Cain novel had he been Russian. ***

LAST WINTER  (d. John Shank)
A young cattle herder, son of the founder of a collective which raises meat cows in the bleak landscapes of mountainy central France, is faced with multiple difficulties making a go of modern ranching with limited means.  Vincent Rottiers, a very interesting young French actor who seemed to be in every French film last year, plays the lead with stoic solemnity.  This is another slow, reflective film with minimal dialogue...but one which raises issues of the viability of modern day ranching.  Interestingly enough, the director is an American from Indiana who has managed to make his first film a memorable, French one.  ** 3/4

SIMON AND THE OAKS  (d. Lisa Ohlin)
This wonderfully executed family epic starts in 1939, when a dreamy young boy from rural Sweden starts school and meets a Jewish chum whose family has narrowly escaped from Nazi Germany.  It covers life of these two intertwined families for the next 13 years...years which gradually disclose secrets, underscores rifts, encapsulates the era.  This is great filmmaking, beautifully directed and acted (young Bill Skarsgaard carries on the family acting tradition admirably).  I was fascinated and moved...the film reminded my of one of my favorite films of the last decade, Mother of Mine, in its setting and mood.  But Simon is its own compelling story, and certainly one of the best films of the past few years.  *** 3/4
FOREVERLAND  (d. Maxwell McGuire)
The hero of this film is a young man coping with cystic fibrosis, which usually kills by age 30.  The film is a heartfelt tribute to his spirit, written and directed by a man who also has the same disease.  Max Thieriot, a fine young actor whose work I've followed with interest for several years, is quite convincing, even charismatic in the role.  There's real chemistry between him and the girl (played by Laurence Leboeuf) who accompanies him on the road trip that the film develops into.  If the film has any flaw, it's that the dialogue tends to be a little too clever.  But this is an involving story, an audience pleasing film which entranced me, and left me feeling uplifted by the humanity of the effort.  *** 1/4

MORGEN  (d. Marian Crisan, Romania)
One theme that recurs most often these days is the plight of 3rd world refugees trying to storm the ramparts of the developed world, especially the European Union.  This is the third such film that I've seen in the past couple of months, including Le Havre and Terrafirma.  Here it is a Turkish man who sneaks into Romania on his way to visit his son in Germany. He is aided by a local supermarket security guard who can't understand a word the Turk says; but is sympathetic anyway.  The film is a satire, with the authorities serving as Keystone Kops types.  It's rather slow and predictable.  ** 1/2

ABALLAY  (d. Fernando Spiner, Argentina)
This might well have been a Sam Peckenpah western.  Its a story of a young boy who watches his father killed in a stage-coach robbery, who 10 years later returns to the wild-west like country to exact revenge against the bandits (especially Aballay, a charismatic super-villain).  It is hyper-violent...but also a film that I've seen before.   * 3/4

MY BEST ENEMY  (d. Wolfgang Murnberger)
Set in Austria during WWII, this is the story of a wealthy Jewish family of art dealers who own a valuable Michelangelo sketch which is coveted by the Nazis and the Italians.  It's a clever script, filled with humor and tricky maneuvers; but I figured out the mystery probably too soon.  Still, watching Mauritz Bleibtreu (an always interesting actor) flummox the Germans is quite a lot of fun.  *** 1/4

THE SALT OF LIFE  (d. Gianni Di Gregorio)
This is another "old folks" comedy from the director of Mid-August Lunch.  It's the story of a put-upon retired man who has to contend with his deceptively clever, spendthrift mother, and the rest of his slacker family.  It's a gentle farce which borders on tedious after a while...just not sufficiently original or interesting to me, even though I'm about the same age as the protagonist.  ** 1/2

NORTH SEA TEXAS  (d. Bavo Defurne)
Pim is a quiet 15-year old boy with a flighty mother, who develops a crush on a neighborhood boy from a more normal family.  This is a poignant, involving film which gets adolescent gay issues right, with age-appropriate actors and a positive spin on unrequited love.    *** 1/4

THE MONK  (d. Dominik Moll)
Vincent Cassel is superb playing an ultra-religious zealot monk who grew up in a 17th century Spanish monastery, having been left as a foundling baby at the monastery's door.  He undergoes a crisis of faith (to understate it a bit) when he finds himself sexually attracted to a hideously burned, masked young novice.  Much drama and angst ensue.   This is a gothic period piece which wouldn't work without Cassel's mesmerizing performance.  ** 3/4

COUSINHOOD (Primos)  (d. Daniel Sánchez Arévalo)
A young man gets dumped at the altar and, accompanied by two of his cousins, embarks on a road trip to the town he grew up with to try to connect with his first love.  This is a pretty much unfunny Spanish romantic comedy which left me cold. **

SAL  (d. James Franco)
Val Lauren is quite good playing Sal Mineo as a 30-something during the last day of his life.  From waking up, going to the gym, to rehearsing for a play, this is slice-of-life filmmaking, and somewhat aimless (but rather like real-life, after all).  Franco's take on the murder is plausible, if not exactly scintillating.  ** 1/2

MY AUSTRALIA  (d. Ami Drozd)
I'm not going to do justice to this film.  It's the story of two brothers, young boys growing up in 1960's era Poland, who buy into the anti-Semitic climate of their neo-Nazi acquaintances.  But it turns out that they are Jewish, without knowing it, sons of a Holocaust survivor.  The boys' mother takes them to Israel (not the Australia that the younger one dreams of), and they must adapt to kibbutz living (or not.)  The film creates a convincing and involving story of how immigrants to Israel coped in the '60s.  *** 1/2

THE PROFESSOR (Il camorrista)  (d. Giuseppe Tornatore)
Tornatore made this first film in 1986, a story loosely based on the biography of an actual Camorra gang boss.  Ben Gazzara, dubbed into Italian with a voice several notches lighter and higher than his natural voice, plays a man sentenced to 30 years for the rage murder of a young man who insulted his sister.  After 10 years he is transferred to prison near his Vesuvian home town, where he proceeds with guile and savagery to take over the Camorra from his cell.  Like later Italian gangster flicks such as Gomorra  and Crime Novel, this is an outsized epic, almost 3 hours long and quite absorbing, if not totally convincing.  But I couldn't help thinking that Gazzara was somewhat miscast...too lightweight for the role.  In retrospect, this was not typical of future Tornatore films...nary a hint of emotional resonance or bathos; but it's a genre that the director did return successfully to with the amazing Baaria, and as such it is an essential forerunner of this major director's career. ***

20 CIGARETTES (d. Aureliano Amadei)
Vinicio Marchioni, apparently an Italian tv actor breaking into features with this 2010 film, is quite splendid playing a callow young man who signs onto a documentary film crew going to Iraq to film during the 2003 occupation.  The character, named Aureliano since this is a re-creation of the experience that the film's director had, is almost killed when a truck bomb destroys the Italian enclave.  The film is largely shot as found footage from the pov of the character shooting with a video camera.  The film was slow to start; but once the attack happens it becomes a harrowing, propulsive story of the physical and mental challenges debilitating injury and redemption with some of the most convincing up-close-and-personal scenes of the chaos of terrorism that has been put on film to date. ***

SOME SAY NO (C'è chi dice no)  (d. Giambattista Avellino)
Three go-getter 30-somethings, passed over for promotion by nepotism, get together at a school reunion and plot a revenge against the corrupt system.  The film plays like a farce, only it is really an issue film with three attractive leads (I'm especially going to follow the career of handsome Luca Argentero, whom I recall from the frenetic comedy Different from Whom.)  This film reminds me of another Italian issue comedy from 1999, one of my all-time favorites But Forever on My Mind, with the same characters 15 years older fighting a more contemporary battle.  ** 3/4

THE EARLY BIRD CATCHES THE WORM (Il mattino ha l'oro in bocca) (d. Francesco Patierno)
Elio Germano, one of Italy's rising stars, shows his mettle playing a rock dj for an underground Florentine radio station in the 1970s who has a serious gambling problem.  I found the film totally involving, I cared about the screwed up protagonist whose character arc seemed particularly realistic.  *** 1/4

THE INDUSTRIALIST (d. Giuiano Montaldo)
An upper class factory owner is facing ruin.  The bank refuses to refinance him. He's unwilling to accept financial aid from his wealthy wife.  So he schemes.  The film has elements that remind me of O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi", irony abounds.  The look of the film is dark and foreboding.  The film is cleverly written; but I just couldn't love it. ** 3/4

TALK TO ME ABOUT LOVE (Parlami d'amore) (d. Silvio Muccino)
Silvio Muccino, brother of the fine director Gabriele and also one of my favorite actors, tried his hand in 2007 at actor/director with this lush, romantic potboiler.  It's the story of a poor orphan who has a crush on a spoiled rich girl, who grows up and somehow becomes romantically involved with her.  As a director, Muccino is quite derivative.  However as an actor he remains one of the most charismatic male actors around.  I loved this film, gladly submitted to its off-the-charts romantic bathos...all the while knowing full well that this was pretty bad. ** 1/2

This film won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 1971 and also was nominated the next year for best screenplay.  The film is about a newly appointed police chief of homicide (played loudly and one-note by Gian Maria Volonté) who kills his mistress and dares the police to bring him to justice.  The film has a wonky score by Ennio Morricone, very different for him, and one which adds a strange comic element to some over-the-top dramatic scenes. Also, the dubbed dialogue was particularly poorly done.  I understand why this film is an ironic, muckraking classic of sorts; yet I still found its raucous dialogue and seemingly unmotivated actions to make for unpleasant viewing. ** 3/4

ON THE SEA (d. Alessandro D'Altari)
A happy-go-lucky young man lives on the picturesque island of Ventotene (west of Naples) ferrying tourists around the island during the summer and working construction on the mainland during the winter.  He falls for a fickle tourist woman, and the film turns into a lush romantic interlude about two beautiful young Italians amidst lovely seascapes (Castiglio Darius, apparently in his first film role, is quite effective as the boy).  I thought at first considering the blue sea milieu, that this was going to turn into a youthful Plein Soleil; however that isn't what the filmmaker had in mind, which was a softer and sappier story.  Still I enjoyed the film more than it deserved. ***

EARLY ONE MORNING (De bon matin) (d. Jean-Marc Moutout)
Jean-Pierre Darroussin, portly, middle-aged (the French are kind to their male movie stars), plays a buttoned down international investment bank executive caught in a wave of office intrigue and recriminations from the sub-prime meltdown.  He's a family man; but more to the point work obsessed.  The film starts out with a shocking revelation and then proceeds in leisurely fashion to skip around somewhat confusingly in non-chronological flashbacks to finally catch up to the present...and in the process only partially (for me) to explain the psychology leading to the film's conclusion.  I was reminded of the films of Laurent Cantet (for instance Time Out):  somber studies of organization men in extreme situations.  But despite the fine central performance, there was an emotional void at the center.  A note to myself to watch the career of Laurent Delbecque, who plays Darroussin's late-teen son and manages to extract some emotional resonance out of the meager role.  ** 3/4

MICHAEL PETRUCCIANI (d. Michael Radford)
This is a documentary about a late French jazz pianist, Michael Petrucciani who died in 1999 after what appears to be a fabulous career in France and America (even if I had never heard of him before.)   Petrucciani was born with a genetic disorder leading to fragile bones which left him a 3 foot tall misshapen dwarf.  But it also gave him full size, lightweight fingers which were able to play notes on the piano faster than humanly possible and a soaring musical sensibility to go with it.  His personal life, well portrayed by interviews with his (at least) 3 wives and fellow musicians, was unsettled (although he was obviously a genius, learning accentless English in mere weeks).  Michael Radford, who made Il Postino, among others, does a wonderful job of bringing diverse elements of his subject's story together...never ignoring the incredible music.  Fortunately there are a lot of performances recorded on film, although the documentary actually left me wishing for even more exposure to this remarkable musician.  *** 1/2

THE ADOPTED  (d. Melanie Laurent)
When actresses try their hand at writing/directing/acting in movies, the outcome is not always certain.  Here Laurent takes a vital secondary role in the love story of her sister (Marie Denamaud) and her sister's fiancé (Denis Menochet) before, during and after a disaster affects the family.  The film started out as a typical chick flick:  couple fated for love meets cute etc.  It was so clichéd that I felt like walking.  However, at a certain point the film started to involve me emotionally; and even though it was overlong and tortuous getting to its destination, I was moved to genuine tears by the end.  A lot of the credit goes to the terrific acting ensemble (including a super-cute 5-year old kid who steals every scene he's in, Théodore Maquet-Foucher); and the director's ability to have her actors both underplay and get at an emotional truth which isn't cliché. 

17 GIRLS (17 filles)  (d. Delphine & Muriel Coulin)
In 2008 an actual event happened in Gloucester, MA:  17 high-school girls got pregnant together.  This story, moved to an actually more plausible (in my opinion) Breton seaside town in France, is the basis for this film.  An alpha girl (played by the luminous girl/woman Louise Grinberg) becomes pregnant after a "condom accident"; and her friends and hangers-on deliberately set out to do the same.  This is high concept stuff; and the film is psychologically convincing even when it gets bogged down in individual teen girl stories which didn't interest me very much.  There's enough young French teenage girl flesh exhibited to fill several films.  This is a mostly benign version of The Virgin Suicides:  implausible script...except it really happened.  ** 3/4

WELL DIGGER'S DAUGHTER (d. Daniel Auteuil)
There's been a trend for venerable actors to try their mettle as directors.  Few have made the transition as artfully as Auteuil in this luminous adaptation of a Marcel Pagnol novel.  Of course the director has portrayed many Pagnol characters in the past (for instance Jean de Florette); and he's scheduled to actor-direct a future Fanny trilogy.  If the Well Digger film is any indication, then I can't wait to see what Auteuil offers up next year.  In the meantime, Auteuil makes use of a flawless southern French accent as the proud, lowly, well digger widower with six daughters, the eldest of which gets in trouble with the son of a wealthy local merchant at the start of WWI.  The plot is fairly predictable; but Auteuil has cast it flawlessly and shot it with a painterly eye which makes full use of the lovely southern French countryside.  Frankly, the film got to me emotionally:  the starcrossed lovers (beautifully portrayed by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey and Nicolas Duvauchelle), the stubbornly proud pater familias with a big heart.  I laughed, I cried...what more can one ask for in a film?  *** 3/4

THE MINISTER  (d. Olivier Gourmet)
In a story seemingly ripped from today's headlines, yet another actor turned director has a go at filmmaking, in this case in the political thriller genre.  Here Gourmet plays a clever Minister of Transport who is under pressure from the fiscal crisis to bow to political expediency.  The film is impressively mounted with a sense of the enormity of governing.  However, I wish I knew a little more about French politics, as I found myself at sea trying to figure out which side was which and what the salient issues were.  Yet rarely has such an inside view of the ugliness of the political process been shown on film.  Michel Blanc is notable playing the minister's chief of staff...hard working, meticulous, loyal yet something of a tragic figure.  The film is viscerally affecting at times, and Gourmet's pragmatic minister is a great characterization; but its cynical look at the political process is also unsettling.  This is a film more to be respected than enjoyed. ***

AMERICANO  (d. Mathieu Demy)
This Demy is, of course, the son of Jacques and Agnes Varda.  Here he plays the lead in a film quite reminiscent of his father's Model Shop, where the beloved (at least by me) filmmaker made a foray to Venice, California in 1969...except this Demy is no Gary Lockwood (or for that matter, no Jacques Demy.)  Americano is the story of a grown man, raised by his scornful father in France; but whose mother has lived for years in a shabby condo in Venice, CA.  He once lived with his ex-pat mother there until he was 8 years-old and now is charged with settling her affairs in the U.S. (that he dislikes) after her death.   The film also contains a tribute to his father's film Lola, which is the name of a mysterious woman that Demy's character follows to Tijuana to abide by his mother's wishes.  The film is a sordid character study, the road-trip plot comes off as contrived; and even though I found the character's actions ludicrously unmotivated and stupid, I still found them interesting.  Up to a point. ** 1/2

GOODBYE FIRST LOVE (Un amour de jeunesse) (d. Mia Hansen-Love)
Camille is 15, Sullivan 17 in 1999.  Despite their youth, they fall in love...she to the depths of her being, he maybe not that profoundly.  In any case, Sullivan drops out of school and leaves on a protracted trip to South America and gradually stops writing.  She is depressed and devastated; but grows up as the film progresses through seven years of her life until chance brings them together again.  As played by pretty, gamine actress Lola Créton and reasonably attractive young actor Sebastian Urzendowsky, the romantic chemistry sizzles.  The moral being that one never really grows out of an all consuming first love.  However, the film goes on too long without a satisfying resolution of its meager premise.   ** 3/4

THE ART OF LOVE (d. Emmanuel Mouret)
I think of Emmanuel Mouret as the young, French version of one aspect of Woody Allen...a consummate auteur of well constructed, sophisticated comedies of manners.  Here Mouret is doing complicated farce in small connected vignettes.  Its major theme is how people can delude themselves in matters of love.  I can see a huge Molière influence here in the creation of certain characters (particularly François Cluzet's Achille) and how disparate threads of the farce are eventually brought together.  Mauret takes only a very minor acting role in the film; but as usual, it is his incredibly clever plotting which makes the film so easy to watch and so involving.  The only misstep is the throw-away story of a doomed musician (played by the wonderful Stanislas Merhar from Dry Cleaning) which opens the film and seems disconnected from the rest of the film.  Perhaps somebody more clever than I am can figure out how this story relates.  *** 1/4

LITTLE DANCER (d. George Jecel)
In a small rural village in some unspecified, Russian speaking Eastern Euro country in the aftermath of civil war, a pretty and vivacious teenage girl (played with luminous star quality by Stesh Seymour) dreams of entering a ballet academy in the city.  Her poor family is in thrall to local gangsters...and this is a patriarchal culture where girls are commodities.  The film is slow to unfold its sordid story, but strong on atmosphere and character development.  The beauty of the nicely photographed locale contrasts with the venality of most of the town's inhabitants, save for a compromised priest and a sympathetic orphaned gypsy boy.  It's a strong indictment against the prevailing culture of its milieu, profoundly pessimistic and viscerally disturbing.   ** 3/4

POLISSE  (d. Maïwenn)
Here is yet again a film by an actress turned director (definitely a trend in movies this year).  This is a slice of life, cinéma verité type of policier about a group of Parisian vice cops who perhaps fill the role of child protective services in the U.S.  In any case, they deal with perps and victims: child abusers and deserters, pederasts, child prostitutes etc.  The film concentrates on the stories of the various cops, many of whom have their own children and relationship problems which contrast with their jobs.  I was totally absorbed by the film, even if the dialog occasionally was so fast and furious that the sub-titles obviously weren't keeping up.  Only an unresolved, seemingly unmotivated ending prevented me from rating of the film higher.  However, it's the nature of this sort of film that real life just is not like a movie:  that narratives are not neat with beginning-middle-end.   That the film manages to project this successfully is definitely praiseworthy.  *** 1/4

38 WITNESSES  (d. Lucas Belvaux)
I think Belvaux is my favorite living director.  Certainly he makes subtle films that challenge the mind.  This film is another French film based on an American event transported across the pond (and like 17 Girls, it takes place in a seaside milieu, in this case the port of Le Havre.)  Belvaux based this story on a non-fiction book about the infamous Kitty Genovese syndrome: where a woman was murdered in Queens in the 1960's and none of the witnesses acted in her defense.  In the current film, such a stabbing occurred late at night in an apartment lined street, and none of the 38 neighbors would cop to have heard it happen...except one whistleblowing man who suffers greatly from self-guilt for his inaction and universal opprobrium for his coming forth to break the wall of silence.  Yvan Attal is remarkable in the lead role, a performance of stoic inner torment which is all the greater for its subtlety.  But what is really remarkable is Belvaux's mastery of sound and space, where the port and city of Le Havre take on a sinister menace, and the audience is made a participant in the culpability of the characters.  This is a difficult film to watch, one which gathers in strength as it lays out its thesis.  The only reservation I have is that the film's psychological reality, while reasonable in a fiction film, is suspect when transferred to modern life as I believe it really is.  Thus, *** 1/2 instead of a higher grade.

A HAPPY EVENT (d. Rémi Bezançon)
A young couple meet cute in a video store, fall in love, and decide on the spur of the moment, with little thought to the consequences, to embark on parenthood.  The girl (current French it-girl Louise Bourgoin) is studying for her PhD and not quite ready to be a mom (her coldly analytical mother, another great performance by Josiane Balasko, is not helpful).  The guy is nurturing, but also somewhat adolescent.  He's played by attractive Pio Marmaï, who made quite an impact as the "perfect" dead ex-husband in the recent hit film Delicacy.  Rarely has a film gone into the intricacies of pregnancy, birth and the stresses that come after the (absolutely adorable) child is born the way this film does.  It's adapted from an autobiographical novel by a woman (Etiette Abécassis), and thus is quite realistic (at least as far as I could tell).  In fact, for me maybe it imparts too much information.  I have a feeling that I wasn't an ideal audience for this quite well done film, and others could probably derive more pleasure from its achievements.  ***

GUILTY (Présumé coupable)  (d. Vincent Garenq)
This film is based on a true story which happened in France in the early 2000's.  A middle-class, working, married couple with three kids are rousted in the middle of the night and arrested for child molestation and other crimes.  As played by the superb French actor Philippe Torreton, Alain is clearly innocent...but caught in a catch-22 nightmare of deceitful conspiracies and a self-righteous prosecutor/judge who ignores exculpatory evidence.  The cogs of French justice work excruciatingly slow, and Alain is degraded to the lowest tier of society as he spends years in prison, apparently "presumed guilty", even before any trial.  This was a famous scandal in France, an all encompassing failure of the judicial system.  And the director and lead actor
nail the feeling of personal powerlessness in the face of power run amok with kitchen-sink realism.  Viscerally affecting.  *** 1/2

FREEWAY (Voie rapide)  (d. Christophe Sahr)
A young car and video game obsessed man (played by Johan Libéreau, a favorite actor of mine who isn't looking so great in this film), has a traumatic and life changing event happen while speeding on the freeway.  His inner guilt and torment causes his life to fall apart, "Crime & Punishment" style.  I found the main character's actions, while convincingly played, to not quite add up psychologically.  But worse, although I wanted to, I just couldn't make myself care about these unpleasant characters. The car action was exciting...but again just missed being adequately impactful.  Unfortunately, this was nothing more than a disappointing disaffected-youth story which left too many unresolved issues.  **

LE SKYLAB  (d. Julie Delpy)
A woman traveling with her family by train is reminded of a similar trip back in 1979 when she was 11.  Most of the film is a flashback to a large family gathering to celebrate her grandmother's 67th birthday.  It takes place entirely in the bucolic rural family home in Brittany where sheep are being raised; and for the occasion a lamb is roasted on a spit and the family dines and talks (and talks and talks and goes to the beach and flees rain showers and talks and talks.)  The film is clearly made from the point of view of the 11-year old girl...also clearly modeled on the reminiscences of the director's youth.  This was the summer that Skylab fell from the sky (memorable because it was originally thought to fall over western France); and I suppose that is meant to be a metaphor for the outside world affecting the insular extended family.  Frankly, I was bored for most of the film.  The family members individually (especially the children) were well portrayed, if insufficiently differentiated; but the observations and incidents were rather banal and clichéd.  Especially unsuccessful were the present day train scenes which bookend the main story.  They needed to somehow tie in with the family reminiscences; but they fall flat.  This sort of French summer family get-together has been done so much better in the recent past (e.g. Assayas' Summer Hours).  Delpy should stick to more intimate casts, since the complexity of this script got away from her.  ** 1/2

LOUISE WIMMER (d. Cyril Mennegun)
The character Louise Wimmer (played by Corinne Masiero) is a 50ish, mousy woman down on her luck.  She's separated from her ex-husband, homeless and living out of her automobile, deep in debt and working thankless domestic jobs.  The film is a slice of her miserable life, and one of the longest 80 minutes I've spent watching a film.  Still, the outstandingly realistic acting, and portrayal of an indomitable spirit trumps the unrelenting miserablism.  I admired the filmmaking without really liking the film. ** 3/4

PARIS BY NIGHT  (d. Philippe Lefebre)
Simon Weiss is a Captain in the Paris vice squad whose beat covers the sex clubs, bars and rackets of the city by night.  This noirish (literally, since it is shot almost entirely in dark places) film covers one drizzly night's shift as Captain Weiss and his newly assigned female driver drive from club to club following a trail of drugs, gangs and corruption.  As portrayed by Roschdy Zem, Weiss is a hardened, possibly compromised cop, being hounded by Internal Affairs, but determined to do his job.  The real star of the film is the seedy underbelly of Paris at night...rarely has a film devoted such loving care to photographing the City of Lights in such geographic detail.  The film builds suspense by the menace of possible violence; but in fact develops as a complex web of subtle interactions.  Maybe it's even too complex to follow in one viewing.  But Zem's quietly powerful performance is strong enough to carry the film.  *** 1/4

(d. Travis Mathews)
[Seen at 2012 OUTFEST]  This was a film in the same realistic mode as WEEKEND: real looking, scruffily bearded, 30-something non-actors, rudimentary story, authentic San Francisco setting, brittle dialog, copious gay sex of all varieties (nothing left to the imagination, but shot anti-porno style with all the fumbling and messiness that is usually air-brushed out in modern gay porno films). The screening sold out the Directors Guild main theater; but I had the feeling that even with this audience there was some discomfort watching it. Or maybe it was that the rudimentary story was so uninvolving that it dragged. On the other hand, the film was artfully shot, with lovely scenes of fog-bound S.F., and there were moments of clever dialog which were genuine and funny.  ** 1/4