2011 Seattle International Film Festival

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)

Of the 256 feature films scheduled for the 2011 edition of SIFF, I've already seen 28.  My mini-reviews (with a minimum of spoilers) can be found here.

I received my personalized "Fool Serious" ballot results in the mail today (June 30).  For those who might not know:  Seattle is unique in that a large group of Full Series Pass holders band together every festival to rate the films they've watched which is then collated into a group vote and a computerized, personalized record complete with interesting statistics.  What really interested me the most was my "average likability" score for the 2011 SIFF edition, a score which I feel allows me to compare objectively the festival experience from year to year.  The ratings are calibrated from +4 (masterpiece) to -4 (dreck), so that a likability rating of zero is just about average.

I was under the impression that for me this year's SIFF was not as fulfilling as many of the past festivals.  In fact, I think I tended to rate some films higher than I actually felt at the time I watched the films simply because I had a feeling that maybe I wasn't in the best mood (exhaustion, old age?) during much of this festival.

The bottom line is that when I include all films that I'd seen during and before the festival, this was on average my least liked SIFF of the past eleven, even with my somewhat fudging the scores on a few of the films.

Here are the figures:

2011    144 films    0.24 likability
2010    153 films    0.50 likability
2009    155 films    0.58 likability
2008    153 films    0.45 likability
2007    149 films    0.56 likability
2006    133 films    0.74 likability
2005    149 films    0.78 likability
2004    146 films    0.84 likability
2003    132 films    0.81 likability
2002    115 films    0.64 likability
2001    123 films    1.00 likability

Of course, it could be that I'm just becoming more critical and/or jaded as time goes on; but the stability of the film count and averages does indicate to me that my standards have remained pretty constant over the years.

Anyway, only at SIFF, with the rich tradition of the Fools and their balloting, could I do such research.  So I'd just like to give thanks and tip my fedora to all who make the Fool Serious balloting work.

The last day of the festival!  It remains to be seen how many film I'm going to be able to watch with this cold...maybe only the "Secret Festival" film.  I'm feeling a little better this morning, however, after over 8 hours sleep (the first time I've slept over 6 hours the entire time I've been in Seattle). 
An oldie from 1965, unavailable on DVD.  I hadn't seen it; but despite its famous actors, writer & director I didn't find the film all that compelling.  This year's Secret Festival was a dud from my point of view; and I'll have to think long and hard about whether to do it again next year.
Thus my festival ended with a thud...I was feeling too poorly to attend any other films on the final day.  My overall impression of the 2011 edition of SIFF is that this was an inferior year for the films, made even worse by the problems with venues.  However, I do hope to be back next year, ever optimistic that "Tomorrow is another day!"

SOUND OF NOISE  (d. Ola Simonsson & Johannes Stjärne Nilsson)
A woman, a musician too avant guard for her former school, forms a guerrilla band with six drummers to play an elaborate percussive concerto using an entire Swedish city as their instrument.  The slender story is about the neurotic police inspector charged with bringing the "terrorists" to justice.  But it is the very audaciousness of the "music" which makes this film soar.  I could only have wished for a less silly plot to make this film a real winner.  ***

ROADIE  (d. Michael Cuesta)
Ron Eldard, an actor I've liked ever since I first saw him in ER, plays Jimmy "Testicles" Testagross: a recently fired 40-something roadie (after 25 years on tour with the Blue Öyster Cult band, a retro statement in itself).  He returns to his mom's home in Queens to a bittersweet reunion with his high school lover and the bully who tormented him back then.  Lois Smith is a revelation as Jimmy's aging mother.  I recall her fondly from films going back to East of Eden; but this is one of the first times I've seen her in a major film role and she just about steals the film from Eldard and Bobby Canavalle (in a searing role as Eldard's reunited, and now alcoholic, high school tormentor).  Cuesta is a fine actor's director, and he has elicited some tour-de-force performances from his cast.  But I also found the story here quite poignant and the resolution especially fitting.   *** 1/2

HAYFEVER (Febbre da fieno) (d. Laura Luchetti)
This is an Italian romantic comedy with a plot so obvious and predictable that it wastes its attractive cast.  The film does look good:  the soaring helicopter shots of Rome are nice to look at.  But this is one sappy story which brought out the cynic in me...maybe for the first time in this entire festival.  ** 1/4

I was planning on seeing another film and then doing the data entry for the Fool Serious balloting...but unfortunately I seem to be contracting a cold.  This time for real.  I've been taking Vitamin C as if it's going out of style, drinking fluids.  I'm going to try to get a good night's rest and see how well I can do on the last day of the festival.  Bummer.

ROMEOS  (d. Sabine Bernardi)
Coincidentally, this week's "Stranger" has a letter to Dan Savage by a female-to-male transsexual which is quite appropriate for this drama centered on such a character.  Rick Okon is amazingly realistic playing Lukas, 20-year old German student, part-way through the physical transition from lesbian girl to gay boy, which illustrates his/her gender confusion.  At times the film was uncomfortable to watch since it challenged my own sexual prejudices.  Yet, the fine performances and sympathetic, illuminating script nimbly avoided melodrama. ***

LETTERS FROM THE BIG MAN  (d. Christopher Münch)
Lily Rabe is effective playing a contract water resources scientist who spends most of her time camping in the Oregon mountains.  In the wild she meets (and has genuine sexual chemistry with) an eco-activist (a fine, low-key performance by Jason Butler Harner).  She also gradually becomes attuned to the quiet presence of  Sasquatch, the legendary Cascades ape-man.  The film is part nature travelogue and part ecological thriller, lovely to watch and reflect upon.  ***

POUPOUPIDOU (Nobody Else But You)  (d.  Gerald Hustache-Mahieu)

A writer's blocked pulp mystery author stumbles upon a real-life mystery when he stumbles upon the real-life case of a blond bombshell, small-town celebrity who has supposedly committed suicide under suspicious circumstances.  Jean-Paul Rouve is wonderful as the writer, who gradually peels away the mystery aided by a young cop (actor-to-watch-for Guillaume Gouix).  Turns out the actress (played by a scintillating Sophie Quinton) kept a diary, and has had a life curiously connected to Marilyn Monroe's.  This is a brilliant script which discloses its secrets gradually and thrillingly.  The film, set in the wintry Jura mountains between France and Switzerland, looks terrific.  I loved this film.  *** 3/4

FUNKYTOWN  (d. Daniel Roby)
Mid-1970s, Montreal, the Disco era.  This film is about a group of characters caught up in the sex, drugs, dancing and music scene revolving around a discothèque dance club (The Starlight, a fictitious version of the authentic famous Montreal disco, The Limelight).  The Starlight had two floors, the main straight club and the semi-secret gay floor; and the film covers both worlds for the next several years comprising the ascendancy and fall of the scene pre-AIDS.  To be sure, the characters are pretty stock...the double-life closeted party  boy, the crooked entrepreneur owners, the cocaine-destroyed family-man TV-host etc.  And the film doesn't seem all that original, having resonances of the similar themed American film 54.  But the film also has very good production values:  it looks authentic, has a large cast of fine actors and a spellbinding script.  For various reasons I heard a lot of grousing about this film...how by-the-numbers clichéd it was; but I was engrossed and completely entertained by the people stories and my fond memories of the era along with experiencing anew the ubiquitous Disco music which permeated the film.   *** 1/4

This was a film about a policeman in Ghana who is obsessed with getting back his stolen counterfeit passport so that he could return to New York post 9/11 (his visa application with his original passport had been denied).  It takes the format of the policier, setting it in poverty stricken Accra; and features stolen guns, chases, the usual policier tropes...but with an African rhythm which seemed off to me.  I never could get involved with the story or care about the main character at all.  I just tuned out and wanted to escape the theater.  * 1/2

BELLE EPINE  (d. Rebecca Ziotowski)
A teenage girl (young French actress Léa Seydoux): absent father, recently deceased mother, self-involved older sister.  On the eve of her 17th birthday, she goes adrift...detained for shoplifting, getting involved with rowdy youths who race motorcycles, commencing an affair with a boy who is only interested in sex (a fave actor of mine, Johan Libéreau from Téchiné's Witnesses).  It's a story of difficult adolescence from a girl's point-of-view, aimlessly directed, with murky cinematography and quick-cut editing.  For the second film in a row I simply couldn't engage with the main character at all.  I didn't exactly tune out; but the film bored me. **

AUGUST  (d. Eldar Rapaport)
A late 30-something gay man returns to L.A. after spending 5 years in Barcelona.  He attempts to rekindle the relationship he spurned previously with a now 30 year old guy who is involved with another man.  That's the set-up for a high gloss film about a gay triangle which was expanded from a short film which played at SIFF a few years ago.  For me, despite the attractiveness of the cast and the realistic view of seldom dramatized gay relationship issues, the film remained a short film with insufficient new material to justify an expansion to feature length.  For all that, I did relate to the story which played very real to me.  ** 3/4

KING OF DEVIL'S ISLAND  (d. Marius Holst)

This is a film about a Norwegian borstal reformatory for bad boys.  It takes place in 1915 on a wintry island and has a familiar story of the rebellious new kid (Benjamin Helstad), the hard-nose warden (Stellan Skarsgard), the weak picked-on boy etc.  Certainly the elements were familiar; but the execution was outstanding...fine acting and direction and a gripping story.  *** 1/2

POR EL CAMINO  (d. Charly Braun)
A 20-something Argentinian man travels to Uruguay and meets a Belgian girl on the boat.  Together and separately they embark on a road trip through the Uruguayan countryside.  Not much happens; but the scenery (the houses, the people met along the way including a band of neo-hippies etc.) held my interest.  The film is a travelogue held together by a narrative thread of a budding relationship.  Red headed actor Esteban Feune de Colombi just about carries the film by himself, playing an apparently independently well-to-do and footloose wanderer.  He was once an investment banker in New York whose parents died and left him property in Uruguay; and much of the film is easy to follow because the characters speak mostly English among themselves.  ** 3/4

SPUD  (d. Donovan Marsh)
John Milton is a physically immature 13-year old with an old soul, who in 1990 starts attending a large South African boarding school.  He's given the nickname Spud (for his pre-pubescent shortcomings) by his seven quirky dorm mates who fill every cliché niche of the schoolboy film genre.  The film is a comic take in the vein of similar coming-of-age films like Dead Poet's Society.  In this case the Robin Williams worldly-wise English teacher role is played with alcoholic, drunken accuracy by John Cleese.   In lesser hands this would be another film we've already seen before.  However, Troy Sivan is an uncommonly good child actor; and the script and direction are clever and accurate enough to make for a diverting, even ultimately moving entertainment. *** 1/4

SEVDAH FOR KARIM  (d. Jasmin Durakovic) 
Karim is a Muslim man working Hurt Locker style as a mine defuser in post-war Bosnia (the year is 2004).  Times are hard, and Karim is considering going to Iraq to work for the Americans; but his politics get in the way.  The film rambles, occasionally boringly, through his life:  his love affair with his best friend's girl, drinking and conversing with his buddies, coping with an early mid-life crisis.  I'm still not sure what "sevdah" means...and that's indicative of my lack of involvement with the characters in this otherwise well made film.  ** 1/2

ALMANYA  (d. Yasemin Samdereli)
A Turkish man becomes the 1,000,001 worker to emigrate to Germany in 1964, just missing fame by one digit.  He works hard and eventually brings his family to live in Almanya, West Germany.  What ensues is a warm, witty, feel-good, present-day comedy which shows in numerous flashbacks how a close-knit Turkish family lived and thrived in Germany.  The script's the thing in this well observed film which looked terrific despite being shown on the huge Egyptian screen using a watermarked DVD.  Also, we're obviously in a new technological age since the Q&A was held by Skype with the director in Germany, her image blown-up with great fidelity onto the big screen.  *** 1/4

The press screenings were screwed up today, one film with no sub-titles, one pretty bad film which put me to sleep, and another one that I didn't want to watch replacing one that I did (of which the print failed to show up on time.)  Hopefully today will be better!
LYS  (d. Krystof Zlatnik)
What was this about?  I'm not sure since the film was so hypnotically boring that it put me to sleep.  Anyway, it was a German ecological disaster sci-fi film...something about a power plant with a new source of power that is attuned to a little girl with strange abilities to shut it down.  That's about all I made from the plot.  The special effects were not spectacular enough to overcome the incoherent story.  *

ROMAN ARK [short] (d. Seth Larney)
This was another ecological sci-fi story about a survivor of a worldwide atomic holocaust living in a bomb shelter under the Australian desert.  Nothing much happens; yet somehow he manages to survive 1600 years into the future in suspended animation, waking up occasionally to sample the earth.  At least this film had a coherent plot, even if it was rather slender for its 15 minutes.
OLD GOATS  (d. Taylor Guterson)
This was the surprise film of the festival, a super low budget ($5,000! according to the filmmaker) Northwest film which belies the poor festival reputation of that genre. It's a wonderfully naturalistic, character driven comedy about coping with aging in 2011 (learning about social networking, dating etc.)...with three elderly non-actors whose originality and easygoing quirkiness utterly charm the audience.  It's funny and genuine; and overcomes its rudimentary filmmaking with excellent editing and sharp dialogue.  I keep going to Northwest films every year against all odds just to find gems like this.
  *** 1/4

HIGH ROAD  (d.  Matt Walsh)
A pretty terrible rock band breaks up; and the group's paranoid, pot dealer songwriter embarks on a road trip through California.  He's accompanied by his runaway 16-year old neighbor and chased by the boy's father and his cop-wannabe friend. It's all pretty silly, sort of an attempt to do a HANGOVER type slacker comedy with no budget and mediocre actors. It was occasionally funny enough to sit through; but barely that.  **

ABSENT  (d. Marco Berger)
A straight Argentinian high school gym teacher drives one of his swimming students to the hospital with a minor problem, and innocently (or so it appears) becomes a victim of that student's stalking.  Except that the entire relationship story is told in subtext, with shots of long duration of nothing much happening on screen but watching the characters staring at something or other to an eerie musical score which is adding all the tension.  If it weren't for the music (and the beauty of the boy, played by Javier De Pietro), the film would be intolerably boring.  But for me, at least, the subtext of inchoate longing and self-discovery by both main characters was enough to sustain my interest.  ***

TABLOID  (d. Errol Morris)
Iconoclast documentarian Morris has found a subject worthy of his ironic derision...an off-the-wall Southern American woman, Joyce McKinney, who twice became fodder for the tabloid press, mostly in England.  First in the late '70s and early '80s as a former kiddie pageant queen involved in a Mormon sex scandal; and later in the mid-2000s for an episode involving a dog.  The film plays like a mockumentary, its subject is so absurd.  Laughs abound at McKinney's expense.  But for me the big-head interview style and tabloid graphics didn't add up to enough substance to sustain an entire full-length documentary.   ** 3/4

FIRE IN BABYLON  (d. Steven Riley)
This is a documentary about the ascendancy of the West Indies national cricket team as it conquered that sport's world from the 1970s through the 1990s.  The film makes no attempt to explain the sport to those who have no knowledge or interest (for instance me).  Instead it presented a series of interviews with cricket luminaries from the past, and boringly repetitive shots of their on-field exploits without any cohesive editing scheme other than vague chronology.  Where the film does work, however, is off the cricket fields with historical shots of racial struggle from Apartheid to Martin Luther King...plus an overview of West Indies history including some wonderful concert footage of Bob Marley.  But like the earlier Chilean soccer documentary Red Eyes, the film seems to be made only for those who are already fanatics for their national sport.  * 3/4

THE WOMEN ON THE SIXTH FLOOR (Service Entrance)  (d. Philippe Le Guay)

This is a French comedy about a group of Spanish women domestics (including a game Carmen Maura in a rather minor role), who live on the sixth floor of a Parisian condominium in 1962.  One of their number, a young mother recently arrived in France, goes to work as a maid for a well-to-do stockbroker's family on the fifth floor.  What ensues is a kind of fish-out-of-water comedy when that family's father (a fine performance of rare subtlety by Fabrice Luchini) goes native with the Spanish maids.  The film casts a nice spell, managing to involve, illuminate and amuse with some good acting and a fresh script.  *** 1/4

It's a secret, after all; but until this film petered out with no resolution it was a fine film.  *** 1/4

SMALL TOWN MURDER SONGS  (d. Ed Gass-Donnelly)
I'm watching the current AMC tv series THE KILLING;  and this film plays like a truncated version of that series:  a woman is found brutally murdered on a deserted road outside a small Ontario, Canada town.  The town's police chief (a solid performance by Peter Stormare) is compromised by his former romantic involvement with the main suspect's girlfriend.  If the slender plot itself doesn't hold many surprises, the film's atmosphere and the propulsive musical song score by the group "Bruce Peninsula" provide energy to keep the audience on its toes.  There's a whole Mennonite religious element which seemed like padding, hard to imagine in an otherwise tightly edited film.   ***

TERRI  (d. Azazal Jacobs)
Misfits in high school and the vice principal who cares.  That's the stuff of American indies which often resort to clichés and exploitation.  However, in the case of this quirky little film the acting and writing are so inventive and interesting that the film simply works.  Credit a performance full of humor and insight by John C. Riley as the vice principal...and three superb performances by young actors.  Especially good was heavily overweight actor Jacob Wysocki as the eponymous Terri, who played one of the memorable characters in the late, lamented tv series Huge.  But I also have to give credit to the other student misfits:  Bridger Zadina's raw exposed nerve of a boy Chad, and Olivia Crocicchia's budding sexpot Heather.  This is a likable, bittersweet comedy which deserves to find a cult following since it's probably not very commercial.  *** 1/4

LOVE CRIME  (d. Alan Corneau)

The late French director's last film is a fine one:  a clever crime story set in the posh world of cutthroat international corporations.  It pits two powerful, ambitious, smart women as rivals in the company and in love...older, ruthless executive played by Kristen Scott Thomas, and her younger acolyte, equally ruthless, played by Ludivine Sagnier (a gamine actress who always surprises with her intelligent eyes, but who did seem a little too young for the role).  The film is reminiscent of some of the better Chabrol films or Patricia Highsmith novels (like the "Ripley" series), with its complex, well thought out, if ultimately ironic, plot.  *** 1/4

Jonathan was a poet, the gay half of a pair of identical twins who a couple of years before the main story had died of some unknown cause.  The film is a complexly structured story comprising on the one hand flashbacks of Jonathan's affair with his lover Christian, who still mourns; and on the other hand, present day Christian's budding friendship with Jonathan's twin brother Michael as they travel throughout the west to spread Jonathan's ashes.  The film is a basically a road trip; but it's also a wonderfully written, poetic journey of discovery...about the nature of twinship, and the resonances of love lost.  The central performance by Sage Price who plays both twins is nothing short of astonishing.  Maybe it's a spoiler to even say that one actor played both roles, since I was totally convinced that actual twins were acting the roles.  There is a tendency from long experience to discount SIFF films which have a "Made in the Northwest" label; but this film illustrates why I continue to attend them for all their low budgets and usual dreary mumblecore nature:  occasionally a bright little gem like this film appears at SIFF and makes it all worthwhile.   *** 1/2

AMADOR   (d. Fernando León de Aranoa)
Magaly Solier is a Peruvian actress who seems to be everywhere, including recent art films such as The Milk of SorrowMadeinusa, and Altiplano.  Her acting style is a rare combination of passive stillness and steely resolution; and I haven't always given her credit for her contributions.  Here she's front and center as a South American immigrant in Madrid, who is in an unsatisfactory relationship with a philandering flower seller. She takes a job as caretaker for Amador, an old, infirm man with his own secrets.  That's the set-up for a suspenseful, slowly developing drama about making do in a hard world.  Nothing flashy here, just an illuminating people story well acted.   *** 1/4

AS IF I AM NOT THERE  (d.  Juanita Wilson)
This film focuses on a rural village during the Bosnian War that was decimated by Serbian troops, the men executed and the women and children imprisoned and in some cases made into sex slaves.  It focuses on the plight of a beautiful young teacher recently arrived in the village from the big city.  Natasa Petrovic is quite wonderful as the girl, victim of the most heinous of war crimes.  This is harrowing stuff which is at times difficult to watch and made me despair for the human race.  At the same time it is also an important tribute to the indomitable human spirit.  It's hard to love such a bleak film; but one has to respect the truth of the testimony here.   *** 1/4

TOMORROW WILL BE BETTER  (d. Dorota Kedzierzawska)
Three little boys, dirty urchins and street orphans living hand-to-mouth in today's poverty stricken Ukraine, set off by foot on a quest to escape to a promised life in Poland.  The film is beautifully shot and the kids are remarkably naturalistic actors who remain amazingly in character for actors their age.  Their story is gripping for a while, although it could have used a little pruning in parts; but the kids' saga is inherently heart tugging.  The director made another memorable film about a lost young Russian boy, I Am.  I don't think there's a better director working with children in the world.  ***

OLIVER SHERMAN  (d. Ryan Redford)

Familiar actor, Garret Dillahunt, whom I've seen in many tv series without ever knowing his name, plays Sherman Oliver, seriously brain-injured war vet suffering from PTSD even seven years after his long recovery.  He has become a drifter, lost and alone, when he ends up at the home of the man who saved his life...another veteran (played by Donal Logue, an actor with innate dignity) who has married and made a good life for himself in a small Canadian town.  What follows is a creepy, character driven, suspenseful drama which is totally convincing and truthful, and even resonated in a way with events in my own life.  Maybe for me it hit too close to home which explains why I admired the acting and the script, but was left cold by the drama.  ** 3/4

Because of brunches with fellow fools this weekend, I'm limited for time.  So I'm going to be very brief in these reviews and maybe flesh them out later.
THE NAMES OF LOVE  (d. Michel Leclerc)
This very French romantic comedy is about a left-wing half-Algerian woman (a full bodied performance by sexy and beautiful Sara Forestier) who gets off seducing stuffy right-wingers.  She sets her sights on serious, half-Jewish Arthur (Jacques Gamblin), an animal epidemiologist who happens to be a closet left-winger himself.  The story is also about their parents; and politics become part of the plot which limits its comprehensibility as comedy for a foreigner unfamiliar with 20th Century French history.  However, the script is clever and quite amusing at times.  And the actors, even with the forced documentary-like on-screen narration, pull it off.  ** 3/4

THE HUNTER  (d. Rafi Pitts)
A man who works in an Iranian auto-assembly plant and hunts animals for pleasure loses his wife and child offscreen...perhaps in a terrorist crossfire.  He goes off the rails.  The film seemed pointless to me, the motivations obscure and the narrative filled with logical holes.  But the ending has a certain satisfactory irony...and that's all I'm going to say.  * 3/4

71 - INTO THE FIRE  (d.  John H. Lee)
This is the based-on-fact story of 71 South Korean military school students and youthful criminals who, at the low point of the Korean War in 1950 when the forces of the North had almost swept to victory, were delegated to defend the school against an implacable hoard.  The film is both an epic, heroic war film and a story of personalities clashing.  Yes, as written the characters were pretty stock.  And the film contained all the clichés of previous war films.  However, the characters also came alive for me and I was totally swept up in the very clearly directed action and moved by the ending.  *** 1/4

DETENTION  (d.  Joseph Kahn)

I don't think I've ever felt my 70 years so heavily as I did watching this utterly insane, off-the-wall high school film which combines slasher film tropes with time travel science fiction.  It's sort of a demented Breakfast Club for today's hipster youths.  Yes, I did get most of the amusing film and music references.  But the super fast pacing, deliberately terrible over-wrought acting, and confusing script paradoxes just lost me.  It didn't help that the sound at the Neptune was especially muffled and I lost some expository dialogue.  The young audience seemed to eat it up, however.   ** 1/4

TOAST  (d.  SJ Clarkson)
Nigel Slater is a British chef and food writer.  This film is expressionistically adapted from his childhood memories at age 9 (where he is wonderfully played by young Oscar Kennedy) and 17 (an almost expressionless performance by Freddie Highmore, growing up gangly).  Slater's fondly recalled mother abhorred anything fresh, cooking only from cans, implying that Slater's bent for cooking was part of a childish revolt against his parents.  But the film really is about Slater's battle with his step-mother, a game performance by Helena Bonham-Carter, whose culinary excellence is evidenced by some of the best food styling in recent memory (I have a hankering for a piece of her lemon meringue pie right now!)  I really enjoyed this film.  It looked great, being faithful to the period; and even more it had interesting and fresh characters and a perceptive, witty script (even if it embellished the real history).   *** 1/4

Paine has made a fairly straightforward sequel to his 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car.  Unlike that film, this one doesn't have a clearly defined goal, since it really isn't clear whether the electric car's resurrection is a reality yet.  Still, Paine travels extensively in search of footage, and was given unprecedented access to the companies and entrepreneurs which are busy trying to jump start the Eco-friendly industry.  This is an informative film with a definite point of view.  But it is also imbued with a pessimistic, rueful reality.    *** 1/4

HEADING WEST  (d. Nicole van Kilsdonk)
Susan Visser commands the screen playing Claire, a 38 year-old divorcée and mother of a young boy, who gets involved with a man-child lover in a maddingly hot-and-cold affair.  For me the film dragged a bit:  Claire's slice-of-life passivity got tiresome.  Much of the film is spent watching Claire staring out of her flat's window, her internal life supposedly mirrored in her eyes...but I just couldn't relate.  Maybe it's just that her plight and its depressing details didn't resonate enough with my life, as others seemed to find the film illuminating.  ** 1/2

THE LAST MOUNTAIN  (d. Bill Haney)
This is an excellent documentary about a subject that is familiar in other recent films:  corporations gutting the American environment for profit.  In this case it was Massey Energy, a coal company which, abetted by the 2nd Bush administration's policies, illegally despoiled entire mountain ranges in West Virginia and caused much harm to the people in the valley's below.  The film features Robert Kennedy, Jr., crusading environmentalist; and makes no attempt at even-handedness as it shows the evils of King Coal vs. renewable energy sources such as wind-power.  Using excellent graphics and a smart script, this film is powerful documentary muckraking.  *** 1/2

FUCK MY LIFE  (d. Nicolás López)
This is a Chilean romantic comedy about a schlub of a hero and his misadventures in love.  Ariel Levy plays Javier, a cute, unassuming late-20-something, unemployed advertising designer into social networking and texting, but maladroit at real-life relationships.  The film is witty and well observed, even as it travels a predictable romantic comedy story arc and outruns its premise. However, I did enjoy the film and its attractive cast and sure footed direction.  ***

MAGIC TRIP:  KEN KESEY'S SEARCH FOR A KOOL PLACE  (d. Alison Ellwood & Alex Gibney)
In 1964 Ken Kesey, at that time a famous author, set off in a bus on a trip from California to New York City to visit the World's Fair along with a group of friends which called themselves the "Merry Pranksters".  This trip was later immortalized by the writer Tom Wolfe; but what hasn't been generally known is that the group made extensive films of their trip in 16mm...although they were often so stoned and inexperienced that they never managed to record soundtrack which synced with the pictures.  The 30+ odd hours of footage have been reclaimed; and along with some narration by the survivors is presented in this documentary skillfully edited together into a coherent record of the trip.  This is a valuable history of the early 1960s; and the film shows the roots of the psychedelic era from uniquely first sources.  I was slightly too young to have taken this trip; but in my real life I was soon caught up in the world of this film, having met Kesey a few years later.  So I felt a personal more-than-casual identification with this film.   *** 1/2

FLYING FISH  (d. Sanjeewa Pushpakummara)
This is the story of some of the inhabitants of a Sri Lanka village during the tumult of civil war in the early 2000s.  We see a military presence; but that isn't the focus.  Rather it's the story of the village people living their sordid lives, fornicating and grubbing.  The film is shot at an almost intolerably slow pace, with long static shots artfully composed, but with little or no action.  The film does eventually make a point, probably metaphorical; but by then I didn't care and just wish I had walked out earlier.   1/2*

WIN/WIN  (d. Jaap van Heusden)
A 24-year old Belgian man, perhaps with mild Asperger's, has a mysterious skill for successfully trading stocks and futures during the tumultuous market of late 2007.  His skills land him a high pressures job at the trading desk in a big Amsterdam firm, with all the perks that come with success.   That's the set up for a rueful, psychological high-finance thriller about the personal cost of success.  Oscar Van Rompay, scruffy and ordinary, makes an unusually unassuming protagonist; but the film rings true mainly because of the truth of his performance.  ***

This is a large budget Chinese costume drama set during the coronation and reign of the only crowned Empress in history.  Some men building a huge Buddha statue are mysteriously exploding; and Detective Dee (played by the wonderful Andy Lau) is brought back from exile by the Empress to solve the mystery.  Mighty forces clashing and much magical action ensue.  The special effects are seamless and gorgeous; and the film has all the scope and majesty that one would hope from the genre which brought us Crouching Tiger and Hero.  Except I didn't care about the outcome as much here as I did in those films, perhaps due to an emphasis on gigantic scale at the expense of character development. Still, an impressive, epic achievement.*** 1/4

BELLFLOWER  (d. Evan Glodel)

Two slacker friends, into muscle cars and building strange contraptions, go through a series of unlikely, even at times comic adventures.  That's the set-up for this super low-budget film set in a white trash Southern California suburb.  The writer-director also plays the lead; and he's quietly magnetic as he meets and courts an adventuresome femme fatale.  Even better was Tyler Dawson as his truly off-the-wall side-kick.  The film is deliberately structured non-linearly, mixing fact and fantasy.  But for all its dirty lens amateurism, the film has a strong, if screwed up, sensibility which made it strangely compelling as drama.  The two teenage boys sitting next to me were obviously enthralled...they kept nudging each other and gaffawing in delight at the lowlife antics of the film's characters.  This is by no means a well made film; yet it definitely has audience appeal.  ** 3/4

This is an eco-friendly documentary about finding a way to make tuna fishing sustainable in an era of increased love of sushi in places like China, Russia and India (in addition to increased love for the food in the U.S.)  It's quite informative when it discusses the history and methodology of making and selling sushi.  It also is a plea to save the endangered blue-fin and other tuna species, the necessary top of the ocean's foodchain, by developing new farming methods.  The film is nicely shot with footage ranging worldwide and has a strong and vital point of view.  *** 1/4

THE OFF HOURS  (d. Megan Griffiths)
This is a small scale film revolving around a loney Northwest U.S. 24-hour truckstop restaurant.  It is centered on a young waitress and those around her:  co-workers, foster brother, friends and a passing-by trucker.  The film was projected poorly, with hardly any scene lit so that one could see the actors.  In addition, the characters were all as dreary as the weather.  This is the kind of bleak, character driven Northwest film which gives the genre a bad reputation at SIFF.  **

MAJORITY  (d. Seren Yüce)
The film opens with a telling vignette showing a spoiled young boy acting badly.  The film continues with the boy now approaching majority.  He's the weak, spoiled younger son of a powerful haute bourgeois, typically Turkish man of privilege, and a subservient mother.  The film is basically a character study of how the Turkish patriarchy sustains itself.  The young man is played by a game Bartu Kucukcaglayan...not afraid to be completely unsympathetic yet showing a glimmer of hopeful maturity.  As a story, it develops slowly with lots of walking and driving around:  something like a Dardennes brothers' film, which it resembles thematically.  ***

TILT  (d. Viktor Chouchkov)

Four young (late teens or early 20's) men are cultural revolutionaries in 1989 Bulgaria during the period when  the Communist hegemony is breaking down.  They like western music, skateboarding (although only the sons of the powerful can afford them), playing forbidden pinball, and having dreams.  One of them falls disastrously for the daughter of a powerful man.  That's the set-up for a wonderful film which, among other things, is about the power of love sustained through societal turmoil.  I was reminded in a way of a condensed version of Giordana's masterpiece, The Best of Youth, the way it encapsulates an entire time period through character development.  All the characters are well written and played, I really cared about their plights.  This is one of those little, unexpected gems of a film that one dreams of finding at a film festival.    *** 3/4

This film takes place in a Swedish high school senior class, narrated by a passively observant, loner, girl student .  The kids are rigidly involved in cliques:  populars and nerds etc.; but the male students definitely dominate in classrooms and co-ed sports.  Into this stratified situation (which is almost invisibly abetted by the faculty) comes a new, unusually worldly girl and the film becomes a tale of female empowerment vs. the system.  The message isn't subtle; but the characters are well written and differentiated giving the audience a stake in the events.  What doesn't ring true is the actions of the adult teachers.  This is a powerful Swedish version of what used to be called an "after-school special".   ***

HOOKED  (d. Pavel Sanayev)
The youthful winners of a Russian computer gamer competition win a new game program disc which, when run, fries their computers at the same time it somehow transmits supernatural powers to the players.  That's the set-up for a film about nerd empowerment as the kids go into real time battle with nefarious forces and split into opposing camps where good and evil are mutable.  The film plays like a futuristic Hong Kong thriller:  lots of action with high body count, explosions, and physics defying stunts.  Exciting and involving to an extent...however, the presentation here was marred by frequently invisible sub-titles and a soundtrack which was a lot lower than it should have been which detracted from the thrill-ride.  ***

ROSARIO  (d. Alberto Martinez)
This is a lush, historical soap operaish film about a beautiful girl in the 1920's Philippines, daughter of wealth, whose life is a series of disastrous love affairs as she is buffeted by an unkind fate.  It's based on the true story of the grandmother of a very successful present day mogul...and is a kind of vanity production with an extraordinary high gloss for a Philippine film.  Yet, for all that I found myself enthralled by the emotionally overwrought story...a tribute to some fine actors and a director who knows exactly how to make sappy melodrama work.   *** 1/4

THE POLL DIARIES  (d. Chris Kraus)

This film takes place in 1914 in a German enclave on the Estonian seaside, the summer before everything is about to change with the upcoming world war.  It's the based-on-a-true-story of a young girl, daughter of a disgraced physician, who, at grave risk, saves and hides a wounded, escaped anarchist from Russian troops.  I was reminded of Haley Mills and Horst Bucholtz in a film from decades ago, Tiger Bay, which has a similar relationship.  The film looks amazingly authentic with gorgeous cinematography and a picturesque location.  It's also a gripping drama, based on a diary that the girl wrote.  The screenplay sometimes stretches credulity; but as a dramatic film this was a real winner.  *** 1/2

My lips are sealed.  However, this was a film that I've seen before in a much improved longer version.  Still, I didn't like it much.  **  1/2

Brooklyn, 1975, dysfunctional family:  good brother, bad brother, abusive father, loving mother.  Familiar?  Absolutely:  almost the same plot as the similarly titled Black Irish from 2007.  Yet, this is a story that can still resonate if the actors and writing are good enough; and in this case they were for my money.  I especially liked (new to me) Nick Thurston as the "good" brother:  sensitive artist type trying to escape his hard drinking, dead-end milieu.  But Karen Allen and Stephen Lang (quite different from his hardened soldier role in Avatar) were also fine as the parents.  The film presents all the familiar tropes of the dysfunctional family genre; but does it in an appealing, authentic way which (for me) transcended its clichés.   *** 1/4

SUMMER CODA  (d.  Richard Gray)
A girl from Nevada travels to Australia for her father's funeral and comes of age.  That's about it.   Rachael Taylor is a find as the girl, a blond Jennifer Lawrence type.  And the guy she meets on the road is played by Alex Dimitriades who was unforgettable in the 1998 Australian film, Head On.  The Australian countryside is lovely, especially the orange grove at harvest time which is the main setting of the film.  I wanted to really like this film; but it was just a tad too predictable...and I never was able to get fully invested in the development of the two main characters.  ***

STOOL PIGEON  (d. Dante Lam)
Lam's second film at this festival is a Hong Kong policier with more heart than usual...about a conscientious cop who becomes too involved with the fate of his informants.  The action set pieces were nicely shot, and for once I could follow the ins-and-outs of the plot and keep the many characters straight in my mind.  Maybe the plot was a little too melodramatic for my tastes; but otherwise this was a satisfying flick.  *** 1/4

Saturday 5/28
This four-and-a-half hour epic feels like a classic novel brought to life on a large canvas.  It's basically the post-Napoleonic coming-of-age story of a boy, born out-of-wedlock to a disgraced Portuguese noblewoman.  When the boy's mother commits herself to a convent, the boy is raised in a Portuguese school by a priest with his own past secrets; and eventually lands in France under the thrall of a mysterious woman in black.  However the film takes many detours, flashing back to stories from other characters' points of view, involving great passions, stories of revenge and disgrace, duels, religion, war, love affairs, etc.  I had some trouble keeping the characters straight as the non-linear timeline often strayed from comprehensibility.  In addition, Ruiz directed the actors to talk mostly in a hypnotic, slow monotone which had me nodding off occasionally.   And then there were the seats at the Egyptian:  not quite padded enough for 4 1/2 hours of sitting with no intermission.  But, for all those flaws, I have to say that the sheer scope of the film, the costumes, the setting, the beauty of the cinematography make it an event film worth watching.  ***

BOY MEETS BOY (Shorts)  (d.  various)
This program presented six short films:  four more or less conventional stories of gay boys and their romantic trials;  one rather obvious short documentary about gay marriage in the U.S.;  and...well, one hard-core male-male pornographic short film, "I Want Your Love",  which has incited a lot of controversy.  The festival gave no notice ahead of time that an XXX film was on offer; and one could tell by the embarrassed titters from the audience that people were shocked (and presumably some were appalled.)  Maybe it's a testament to my own degenerate nature that I liked the porno film best.  I felt it had a really relevant concept:  two old friends who ask why they've never had sex together and then proceed to do so in the most graphic, fun way possible.  They were pretty ordinary mid-20s guys, scruffy bearded and tattooed...but presentable with high likability as characters.  I think the programmers made an error by showing such a film without warning; but I give high marks for chutzpa.  The other film I enjoyed was "Cappuccino", a Swiss-made story of a gay student who is ashamed of his single mother; and whose hopes are raised and dashed by his cute, straight classmate object of desire.  All in all an above average gay shorts series from SIFF.  *** 1/4

ABOVE US ONLY SKY  (d. Jan Schomburg)

What would you do if you were a woman whose husband's deep, dark secret was disclosed in the worst way possible?  It's hard to discuss this film without spoilers, so I'm just going to say that Sandra Hüller was outstanding as the deceived wife; and, until the film goes off the rails with an inscrutable ending I was totally into the story which mixes romance and thriller in an interesting way.  *** 1/4

Friday, 5/27
EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE  (d. Christoffer Boe)
A screenwriter gets sidetracked in completing his current script when photos evidencing Danish soldiers committing Afghan war atrocities come into his possession in this paranoid thriller.  Except this is a Christoffer Boe film; and that director is known for complex plots full of misdirections and surprising twists which can't be discussed without spoilers.  I think I would have liked this film as a straightforward thriller...it has a creepy, noirish feel to it which intrigued me.  But Boe is never satisfied with that, to his films' detriment (in my opinion.)  ** 1/2

GUN HILL ROAD  (d. Rashaad Green)
Esai Morales plays a hardened Puerto Rican ex-prisoner paroled after four years to return to his Bronx home, only to confront his 17-year old son who has gender dysphoria.  That's the set-up for a family drama of intolerant father vs. gay son which is vaguely reminiscent of Benjamin Bratt's film of a couple of years ago, La Mission.  Here the story never transcends the obvious, even though the actors (especially young Harmony Santana) do a good job with the materials.  ** 1/2

A THOUSAND FOOLS  (d. Ventura Pons)
Pons returns to the vignette film genre, here presenting a series of slightly connected stories about characters who are completely and comically self-involved.  The film is presented in three parts...current day episodes book-ending a series of literary and historical tableaux played as farces, which didn't add much to the film.  Some of the sequences worked...being funny and ironic; but too many of them seemed pointless.  Still, Pons has a visual sensibility which always interests me, even when his plots misfire.  ** 3/4

There have been too many mediocre films in a row at the festival so far.  I can only hope the programming improves soon.  At least the rumor is that the screening conditions at the Neptune Theater (which by all reports had been a disaster area with terrible sound, projection and seating problems for the first week) have improved considerably.  I guess I'll see soon, as my first film there is scheduled for tomorrow.

Thursday, 5/26
WASTED ON THE YOUNG  (d. Ben C. Lucas)
The film is set in a futuristic looking West Australia private school, with no adults present and students all connected by ubiquitous social networking. Oliver Ackland (a Jesse Bradford lookalike) plays Darren, a shy nerd who has a mostly texting relationship with pretty schoolmate Xandrie.  Darren's step-brother Zack is the school's Mr. Popular, handsome swimming god, leader of the pack.  Zack throws a drunken and drug fueled party; and a conflict occurs between the brothers over the girl.  The film is imaginatively directed (weird angles, eerie compositions, beauty shots of competition swimming).  Its script, which is all about high school bullying and social structures, was a little hard to follow...I think mainly because of the actors' accents, and a muffled sound mix distorted by a soundtrack of loud synth-pop music.  The film reminded me of Gattica with its sterile, futuristic exteriors and supernally beautiful cast.  If only the trivial plot lived up to the visuals.  ***

SALVATION BOULEVARD  (d. George Ratliff)
This American indie production with a high powered, familiar cast, is a satire on evangelical Christianity with farcical elements which trivialize the message.  Pierce Brosnan plays the seedy pastor, head of the successful Church of the Third Millennium.  One of his parishioners, Carl (a frenzied performance by Greg Kinnear), is the focal point of a series of cascading mishaps involving shootings and money grubbing.  The audience seemed to enjoy the show; but it was all too obvious and ridiculous for my tastes.  ** 1/2

VAMPIRE  (d. Iwai Shunji)
Kevin Zegers, a young actor whom I've admired in the past, plays a slightly sympathetic serial killer, whose trip is finding suicidal people on an internet chat board and helping them die by exsanguination.  He's not a "vampire" per se; but the film is almost fetishistic about blood to a cringeworthy extent. I won't go into the plot details, which range from eerie to ludicrous.  The film was greeted by several walkouts... even I was squicked by the bloodletting and depressed by the dreariness of the dank Northwest setting.   Yet, for all its confrontational aspects, the film had a singular directoral vision, however misguided, which kept my interest. ** 1/2

PINOY SUNDAY  (d. Wi Ding-Ho)
Two Filipino migratory workers in Taiwan find a red leather couch on a street corner and attempt to carry it home with them in this gentle, genial comedy.  Nothing much happens; but the actors are personable enough to carry the thin-as-a-reed plot.  The film reminded me of an classic Roman Polanski short from 1958, "Two Men and a Wardrobe".   ** 3/4

TREATMENT  (d. Steven Schardt, Sean Nelson)
American indie film stalwart Joshua Leonard (from Humpday, among others) here plays a Southern California deadbeat, wannabe screen writer living off his fey friend's inheritance (the friend is played with waspish effect by co-director Sean Nelson).  The contrived plot involves Leonard's entering a posh drug rehab facility to get the attention of a movie star who is drying out there.  The film is talky to excess; however some of the impromptu zingers do hit home.  Just not enough to raise this film to any sort of commercial success.   ** 1/2

Wednesday, 5/25
LESSON PLAN  (d. Philip Neel, David H. Jeffrey)
At SIFF 2008 there was an excellent German fiction film, The Wave, which told the story of a German high school class which repeated an experiment in fascism ("The Third Wave") originally carried out unwittingly by an American high school class in 1967.  This current documentary is mostly made up of big-head close up interviews with the original classmates from that Palo Alto high school during their 40th reunion in 2007, along with reuniting with their soon fired teacher, Ron Jones.  They reminisce about this experiment which gradually comes to frightening life for the present day audience.  This is gripping stuff subject-wise; however the documentary does seem visually constipated with its reliance on so many unimaginatively shot interviews.  *** 1/4

SILENT SOULS  (d. Aleksei Fedorchenko)
The Merya were apparently a tribe of Finns who were absorbed into the Slavs of North Russia about 400 years ago.  They retain their own culture, however.   This film tells the poetic story of a man who loses his wife; and, along with the film's narrator, returns her to the river...water being their culture's fountain of life.  The film is a slowly developing tone poem mixing the natural beauty of its wintry scenery with the prosaic processes of life.  I admired the film rather than enjoyed it.   ***

NOTHING'S ALL BAD  (d. Mikkei Munch-Fals)
Five minutes into the film I was certain that I'd already seen it (at last year's AFI Film Festival).  After a while I walked; but the film wasn't terrible.   Here's what I had to say about it then: 
A father-son pair of sexual perverts encounters a mother-daughter pair of potential victims.  But this is a non-violent black comedy of sorts; about characters who are hiding their lives from each other and even from themselves.  Maybe I was tired going in; but I just couldn't manage to get involved with this film.  I loved the artful cinematography and the oft times cleverness of the writing.  Still, the film overall didn't work for me.  ** 3/4

Tuesday, 5/24
  (d. Lisa Gossels)
In 2002 a group of Israeli and Palestinian (both Christian and Muslim) teenage girls got together at a New York state 10-day summer camp devoted to furthering cross-cultural communication.  This documentary covered the often disturbing conversations at camp meetings; and then followed the girls through the next several years as they variously kept in touch with each other by internet and lived through the horrendous events of bombings and Intifada.  The girls' stories were inherently interesting and well covered by the filmmaker; and their friendships despite all the obstacles were heartening.  Still, the documentary, for all its positive attributes, was a tad too wordy, repetitive and diffuse to fully engage me...but that's just me.   ***

KILLING BONO  (d. Nick Hamm)
Back in the 1980s when the rock band U2 was forming, a couple of Bono's schoolmates, the McCormick brothers, Neil and Ivan, were also forming a band.  This film is a wide screen, full-scale comic adaptation of Neil's autobiography:  the decade long, possibly-true-but-obviously-exaggerated story of the rock band that could have been.  Ben Barnes, and especially Robert Sheehan are fine as the brothers.  There's also a heartrending cameo by an ill-appearing Pete Postlethwaite as a gay landlord, his final role.  The film has really first class production values...it looks terrific and feels authentically '80s.  Just the screenplay...well, it has its moments; but all in all it isn't funny enough to be a comedy nor trenchant enough to be a drama, and the music plus the U2 connection aren't enough to add any gravitas.  Don't get me wrong:  I enjoyed the film; but it's only an entertaining trifle.   ***

SHOCKING BLUE  (d. Mark de Cloe)
Three teenage boys in modern day Netherlands, especially one, a budding tulip breeder, come of age.  That's about it for the plot.  The direction is annoying, relying on huge close-ups, hand held camera and quick cuts for the most part.  The boys are attractive...and the drama does have a few shocking developments.  I wanted to like this film...it's a genre which normally appeals to me.  But the main character was so uncommunicative, the script so affectless and dreamlike, that it left me emotionally unmoved.   ** 1/2

Anselm Kiefer is a German artist working in France on gigantic construction project art pieces.  This documentary drones on and on with horrendously screechy atonal modern music and sloooooooooow pans over the artist's concrete and dirt constructions ENDLESSLY, untill I wanted to scream ENOUGH ALREADY!
OK, I'm being a little unfair.  Somebody has paid big bucks to fund this guy's work...and as metaphor for decaying excess his huge tunnels and toppling cityscapes are rather effective.  But this pretentious, over-long  film does no justice to the artist or his vision.  * 3/4

This is a Hong Kong action film/policier with an unusually large death count.  Dirty cops, car chases, unlikely shoot-outs, torture sequences galore, the film has it all.  Unfortunately, I couldn't completely follow the plot.  But the film was visually exciting enough to hold my interest.  Lam has a way of directing action and making the ridiculous seem almost commonplace.  He's no Jonnie To; but at least I stayed awake, not a small achievement after a day of not-so-great films.  ** 1/2

Monday, 5/23
WEEKEND  (d. Andres Haigh)
Two bearded, twenty-something guys meet at a Nottingham, England dance club.  One is slightly closeted, the other defiantly gay.  They spend a weekend together in a gay version of Before Sunset:  lots of sex and drugs, but mostly talking and getting to know each other.  If the actors had been Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant doing the same (albeit straight) things and speaking the identical dialog, this might be a crossover hit.  In any case, this is one film which for me brought a strong shock of recognition...real characters doing and saying things that deeply resonate with my life and times (including several shared cultural touchstones from old movies).  Sure, I'm over twice their age; but a story about the way love sneaks up on one, and the poignancy of loss, is not age dependent.  Rarely am I moved to watch a film more than once at a film festival; but I think this is one time I'm going to.  *** 3/4

VIVA RIVA!  (d. Djo Tunda Wa Munga)
Riva is a disreputable rake who steals a truckload of valuable gasoline from the Angolan mob and delivers it to another set of gangsters in Kinshasa, Congo.  What ensues is a full scale gangster war reminiscent of Japanese Yakuza films...only in this case I wasn't able to connect with any of the characters, especially the unsympathetic lead.  Plus, the over-the-top sadism, violence and pro forma sex was somehow boringly presented.  One thing is for sure:  I have no desire ever to visit a very ugly Kinshasa after dozing through the excesses of this movie.   **

CRYING OUT  (d. Robin Aubert)
In the opening scene, which could have emptied the theater, a young boy is sexually molested off screen while the camera slowly moves into a fish tank.  This episode has future repercussions; but the film really starts about twenty years later when the now grown boy's father loses his second wife to cancer and becomes mentally unhinged.  What ensues is a strange road trip involving three generations of men carousing around the Quebec countryside from seedy motel to seedy bar.  The weird thing is that the film worked for me, keeping my interest despite my complete alienation from any of the characters and their mystifying motivations.   ***

This production is the work of a Northern California summer camp by 20 teenage students who spent several weeks putting together a science fiction film which can best be described as "Lord of the Flies in Outer Space."   Judged on its own terms, it's a pretty amazing achievement...presented in wide screen with fully realized, although somewhat tacky, special effects.  However, this is a film competing for attention with other professionally made films; and here the film falls far short of acceptable (except maybe to the adoring parents of the kids in the film.)  I feel like a real Grinch to have such strong negative feelings about being subjected to the level of amateurism of the film's acting and script writing.  It's actually not that much worse in production values than the cheap looking serials of my youth like Flash Gordon.  I'm glad for the kids and their parents that the film had a chance to be seen; but I should have stayed away.   1/2*

THE MOUNTAIN  (d. Ole Glaever)
In this two character film, two Norwegian Lesbian lovers, apparently a long-term married couple, spend a few days climbing a mountain, revisiting the site of a previous tragedy.  They are attempting to rekindle their love which has slowly evaporated in the wake of the past event.  I wasn't bored...the actors were good enough and their dilemma universal enough to involve me up to a point.  The film had beautiful cinematography and interesting dialog;  but I just didn't achieve the necessary emotional catharsis that the film required to be a winner.  ** 3/4

Sunday 5/22
My lips are sealed about this half-way disappointing documentary.  ** 3/4

FOUR MORE YEARS  (d. Tova Magnusson-Norling)
Leave it to the Swedes to make a sophisticated, grown-up, gay romantic comedy!  This one is about a closeted (even to himself) right-of-center prime minister candidate who falls for a younger leftist politician.  Like last year's Swedish film Patrik 1.5, the film takes a heartening, realistic matter-of-fact attitude towards homosexuality and adult gay relationships.  I didn't really understand all the Swedish political humor...apparently the relationship here is analogous to that of James Carville and Mary Matalin, political enemies but made for each other.   Even without that grounding the film was a delightful, thought provoking film.  *** 1/2

COPACABANA (d. Marc Fitoussi)
Isabelle Huppert has been taking on some weird roles lately; but here she is almost normal (if somewhat eccentric) as Babou, unconventional, anti-bourgeois mother whose conventional, soon-to-be-married, grown  daughter is ashamed of her.  To win back her daughter's affection she takes a job as a tout for a time-share project in Belgium, and a kind of fish-out-of-water, warmly fun comedy ensues.  The film works despite its predictability, mainly because Huppert brings a great deal of an interesting life-lived quality to the role.  ***

WOMB  (d. Benedek Fliegauf)
It's almost impossible to describe the plot of this film without giving away spoilers.  So I won't even try.  Let's just say it's a slowly building, romantic drama about a woman who loses the love of her life in an auto accident and then makes a difficult, morally challenging choice in the realm of science fiction of how to proceed.  Eva Green and Matt Smith make attractive lovers, as do the unknown actors who play them as youths.  For a change, the science aspect of the plot rang true.  The film really is a moral think piece disguised as a romance.  For me it worked, overcoming its ponderous direction and making me care.  *** 1/4

Saturday 5/21
With the revelation that the Neptune Theater has been gutted with temporary chairs in the orchestra section, I've retooled my schedule to eliminate the theater as much as possible.  Even the Admiral Theater in West Seattle, for all its bad qualities, has to be better than the Neptune!  Obviously SIFF has had major problems with finding venues for the festival this year; but I think their temporary solution is going to cause more repercussions than they expect.  I'm a filmgoer who really does care about my screening venues, having been spoiled by living in Los Angeles where just about all the big screen theaters that I use are exceptional. 

A QUIET LIFE  (d. Claudio Cupellini)
Toni Servillo is one actor who totally disappears into his roles.  Here he plays bearded Rosario, an Italian chef, father of a young son, married to a German woman, who is owner of an eponymous hotel/restaurant in Wiesbaden, Germany.  Two mystery men show up at the hotel, an event which puts into play a series of revelations of past secrets of Italian gangster connections which blows the lid off of Rosario's quiet life.  This is a noir thriller of quiet power and not for the squeamish.  Servillo underplays this role in a way completely different from his recent triumphs in Il Divo and Gorbaciof.  *** 1/4

OUR LIFE (La nostra vita)  (d. Daniele Luchetti)
Claudio is an ambitious construction foreman, a family man, father of two young boys with another on the way, when tragedy strikes which alters his life.  This is an alternately heartbreaking and uplifting story of family ties and various people, Italians and Romanian immigrants, coping with life in working class Rome.  Elio Germano plays Claudio and delivers a performance of astounding power and emotional resonance, even as he stumbles through his many travails.  Luchetti made one of my favorite films of recent years, My Brother is an Only Child, and here again he has made a film which spoke directly to my heart.  *** 1/2

THE TRIP  (d. Michael Winterbottom)
Winterbottom has made a clever semi-documentary, apparently a film cut down seamlessly from a 6-part British tv series, about a pair of real-life comedians (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) who are hired to spend a week driving around the North of England staying and dining at various high tone inns and restaurants.  On the trip both men continuously do their apparently ad-lib shtick of famous people impressions and clever repartee.  After a while I tired of their comedy bits which became tediously repetitive; however, apparently that was only me...the audience was in continuous stitches.  In any case, the foodie bits when they stopped to eat were luscious...I wish I had a chance to jot down all the places and dishes for future reference (as if I could ever afford such extravagance.)  ***

ANOTHER EARTH  (d. Mike Cahill)
A teenage girl gets drunk and wipes out most of a family in an auto accident, spends four years in prison, and then is confronted, in a science fiction touch, with a means of redemption when a second Earth appears in the sky offering the possibility of an alternate reality.  That's the set-up (there's a lot more to the story).  Cahill's direction is maddeningly slow:  actors speak their lines with unaccountable pauses, much of the action is directed at half-speed, ostensibly aimless.  Still, the main actress and co-writer, Brit Marling, is quite good, as is William Mapother as bereaved victim.  My main problem with this film is that the actual physics of its central allegory was impossible; and I couldn't suspend my disbelief enough to get past that.  ** 1/2

TYRANNOSAUR  (d.  Paddy Considine)
A violently drunken man (a fine performance by Peter Mullan, every bit of his hard past life etched on his craggy face) encounters a pious woman who is suffering abuse by her vicious husband (strong, affecting performances by Olivia Colman and Eddie Marsan).  This is a film of unrelenting miserablism which does offer a modicum of redemption by the end.  Paddy Considine in his debut as writer/director has done an admirable job with his actors.  For long stretches, however, I wish the film had had sub-titles as the accents were pretty strong.  *** 1/4

Now that the festival is starting for real, with 5 or 6 films just about every day, I wonder if I'm going to be able to keep up with this blog.  At the very least, I'm probably going to have to limit my contributions to fewer words.  I'm also (successfully so far) fighting off a cold.  Ah!  SIFF, every year you're such a challenge.  But you're also worth every moment I spend with you.

HAPPY, HAPPY  (d. Anne Sewitsky)
A married Norwegian couple with an adopted black kid move to a wintry far north settlement after their marriage has hit a snag.  There they befriend their neighbors, another couple with a kid of the same age, whose marriage has invisible fissures.  That's the setup for an absorbing adult drama of families and infidelity which slowly peels off layers of deceit as it examines the contrasting relationships of both couples and the two kids.   Well written, impeccably acted, the film also has a clever device of interspersing the story with a Greek chorus of sorts...a quartet of a capella singers who sing American spirituals which provide counterpoint to
the action.  It's all very entertaining, even if I couldn't quite grasp the intended meaning.  *** 1/4

EX  (d. Heiward Mak)
This Hong Kong romantic comedy starts with a coincidental meeting of ex-lovers at an airport restaurant and proceeds to tell the story (in present day and numerous flashbacks) of why the various relationships in the film all failed.  To be truthful, I dozed through some of the numerous expository flashbacks and had trouble keeping the characters and their stories straight.  For me, the film just lacked any reason to become engaged with the characters and their trivial stories.  **

VENICE  (d. Jan Jakub Kolski)
This is the story of one extended Polish family's experiences in World War II from the point of view of a young boy whose fantasy of visiting Venice, Italy is disrupted by war and loss.  The film is gorgeously shot in wide screen compositions which capture the film's forested, dilapidated country mansion setting.  The characters are all amazingly attractive, but shallowly written and portrayed so that I never really cared about anybody except the main kid whose actions didn't always make sense.  I wanted to love this film for its formal elegance and beauty; but it just didn't offer enough of an interesting, comprehensible story.  ** 3/4

This fascinating, absorbing documentary examines 10 years in the life of the eponymous young chef:  a feisty, attractive Englishman making a career in New York City.  Liebrandt is a chef who combines an exciting experimental nature with a fine grounding in traditional foodie cuisine.  The filmmaker was given remarkable access to the various kitchens that Liebrandt worked in for the 10 years.  And she also managed to reveal much about the inner workings of the restaurant culture in New York...the reviewers, the business aspects, the life of a committed food artist.  This is traditional documentary making done about as well as it is possible to do.   *** 1/2

APART TOGETHER  (d. Wang Quan'an)
Fifty years after the losing Nationalist Chinese escaped to Taiwan in 1949, a recently widowered ex-soldier is allowed to return to Shanghai to meet with and possibly reclaim the woman (and mother of his son) he left behind.  They're elderly now; but still in love.  However, she has re-married and has a large family and plans to move to a newly constructed high-rise apartment.  This film is a slowly developing, reflective piece about family ties and food (lots of delicious looking Chinese food...reminiscent of that other Chinese foodie delight, Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman).  It is a quietly moving story with subtly portrayed characters that I cared for; but also played a little too slowly for me to totally love the film itself.  ***

Start of my festival:  press screenings from 5/5 through 5/19

I arrived in Seattle by car on Wednesday, about 15 minutes ahead of schedule.  Very light traffic (except for trucks) accounted for the savings in time.  My first festival event was the members' preview, which this year consisted of several programmers talking about their favorite film in their section; then showing us 2 hours of trailers...which was overkill.  But I did see several films I'm excited about.  Tonight (Thursday after the press screenings) I planned out the entire [tentative] schedule for the festival, always subject to heavy revision.  My first full day in Seattle was cold and drizzly; but when I arrived it was sunny and balmy.  I'm settled in for the duration.

SOMETHING VENTURED (d. Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine)
This documentary is about the East Coast moneymen who helped finance Silicon Valley from the late '50s (Fairchild Semiconductor) through such successes as Apple and Genentech and into the present day.  They're all rich old men now; but when they started out they were in the main hungry Wall Streeters who admit that luck had a lot to do with their success.  The stories are inherently interesting; but the documentary is quite ordinary in terms of its production.  Only one woman is featured; and she's a bitter founder of Cisco who illustrates the fact that most original entrepreneurs are ousted by the money men after about 18 months.  Might as well see this one on television...the digital print here even had technical difficulties with the animated materials. ** 3/4

SUBMARINE (d. Richard Ayoade)
Craig Roberts plays 16 year old Oliver Tate:  daydreamy, unpopular, maladroit high-school student in early 1990s Wales.  He wants to have a girlfriend; but his most pressing need is to save his parents marriage which is threatened by a possible liaison of his mother (a restrained performance by Sally Hawkins) with a former boyfriend (a flamboyant turn by Paddy Considine).  This is a reasonably well written, sardonic coming-of-age dramady reminiscent of films like Rushmore...watchable, but not original enough to break out.  ** 3/4

The film opens with an amazing animated title sequence which contains elements of M. C. Escher's paradoxical constructions...metaphors for a film filled with narrative paradoxes which eluded me.  At the start of the film, the hero, a non-political, Spanish piano tuner literally bumps into a girl running from Franco's police in the aftermath of the Civil War. The film jumps several years later to them as a settled old couple and just gets weird from there.  The film has the look of a Jeunet film like Delicatessen: containing surrealistic elements (for instance B&W characters in a color scene) with a hyper-realistic look.  I admired the look of the film; but the story was just too strange and incomprehensible for my tastes. ** 1/4

3 (d. Tom Tykwer)
A smart, modern, intellectually accomplished Berlin couple, man and a woman, are in a long time relationship without marriage.  They each meet separately the same person and become secretly involved with that person.  This is the stuff of farce; but Tykwer take it in a different direction:  a thoughtful drama about bi-sexuality and relationship dynamics.  The trio of actors are convincing (I'm trying hard to keep this spoiler free); and Tykwer provides his usual visually stimulating, lived-in world view.  At times the plotting seems contrived (in a city of millions people keep bumping into each other in unlikely ways). Still the frank, middle-age sexuality is refreshingly novel and engaging.  *** 1/4

NATURAL SELECTION (d. Robbie Pickering)
This is a film of such monumental badness that I almost don't want to write about it at all.  It's a road flick, about a barren woman searching for the offspring of her comatose husband.  The characters are all intellectually challenged (to be kind); the acting ranges from over-the-top to what-the-f*ck; the narrative is choppy; the cinematography extraordinarily murky.  The film wants to be a black comedy; but fails even at that.  I can't think of a single redeeming quality...except that this may just qualify as a film that is so bad that it's somehow good.  I wanted to walk; but it just isn't done at a press screening.  * 1/4

DANCE TOWN     (d. Jeon Kyu-hwan)
A North Korean couple enjoy some embargoed South Korean items (face creams, porno videos) and are narked to the authorities by a neighbor.  The husband is apparently arrested; however, the wife manages to escape to Seoul and the film tells the story of her relocation.  The film's production values aren't particularly high:  murky cinematography not helped by the digital projection here, clunky flashback transitions.  But the story is inherently interesting and involving; and I cared about the protagonist's fish-out-of-water dilemma.  ** 3/4

This is an occasionally fascinating inside look at the New York Times with an emphasis on the changes forced on old-line media sources (like newspapers which cost money to produce) by new media (internet, bloggers etc. which users are conditioned to expect are cost free.)  The film centers on Times media correspondent David Carr who is a wonderfully colorful character himself.  My only reservation about the film as a documentary is that it isn't written and edited with a coherent structure...seeming to wander from subject to subject willy nilly.  However the director/cinematographer captured the essence of what goes into producing the newspaper of record; and the lesson is made clear that new media depends on the survival of old media like the fiscally endangered Times. *** 1/4

BLACK, WHITE & BLUES (d. Mario Van Peebles)
Morgan Simpson plays a down-on-luck drug dealer and blues singer-guitarist reluctantly revisiting his past in this road flick which wanders from Austin, TX to Huntsville, AL.  Along the way he interacts with some colorful characters, most of whom are badly directed, terrible performances by some good actors (especially co-producer Michael Clarke Duncan who is done no favors by what appears to be a vanity production.)  I won't go into details; but the film looks great...vivid colors, authentic locations.  However the story, what little there is of it, is full of clichés and predictable situations.   **

BICYCLE, SPOON, APPLE (d. Carlos Bosch)
Pasqual Marragall was a former mayor of Barcelona who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's while he was at the peak of his influence, went public and started a foundation to conquer the disease.  This documentary starts from there, and using Marragall as the central focus, examines the worldwide struggle against this epidemic.  The title refers to the three things that neurologists ask patients to recall during an examination...a test of short term memory which I'm very aware of since my mother is currently dealing with this disease.  My only complaint about this fascinating and important film is that perhaps it could be cut down a bit...it reiterates the same material unnecessarily.  However it is superbly shot and Marragall is an excellent spokesman for the fight against this insidious menace which doesn't get nearly the amount of publicity and resources that it deserves.  *** 1/4

HOW TO DIE IN OREGON (d. Peter D. Richardson)
In 1994 Oregon became the first state to pass a "Death With Dignity" law.  This documentary tells the story of several people among the 500 or so who have utilized this humane practice, centering on one 54 year old woman dying of incurable liver cancer and her family.  It also covers the 2008 campaign in Washington state to enact a similar law there.  The film is a beautifully made, moving document, a monument to the human spirit.  It avoids the maudlin, instead concentrating with consummate good taste on the positives of giving sufferers control over their life and death.  *** 1/2

JESS + MOSS  (d. Clay Jeter)
Jess is a young girl of about 18, Moss a young boy of around 14.  The film is a pastoral tone poem of the two friends wandering about a deserted farming community...seemingly parentless and motivationless.  The film features gorgeous cinematography; but has no coherent narrative that I could understand.  I found myself compelled to doze off by the hypnotic nature of the dialog and camera movements.  It just didn't work for me. ** 1/4

MICROPHONE (d. Ahmad Abdalla)
An Egyptian man returns to Alexandria after 7 years living in New York to find a reluctant lost love, a depressed father, a stultified bureaucracy, and a burgeoning local skateboard and hip hop music culture.  The film is badly edited, with a schematic structure which skips around and plays with the time line, making for a confusing narrative.  However the individual scenes, especially the ones featuring music, occasionally soar; and Khaled Abol Naga is an attractive lead actor.  The film does offer a glimmer of understanding of the underpinnings of the political revolution to come; but mostly it is overlong and somewhat tedious.  ** 1/4

RED EYES (d. Juan Pablo Sallato, Ismael Larrain, Juan Ignacio Sabatini)
This is a documentary about Chile's national soccer team which has historically underperformed until it qualified for the 2008 World Cup.  Perhaps for a Chilean audience which has lived through the time and inherently knows the players and history, this would be a stirring document.  But for a foreign audience, the uninspired compilation of a series of poorly shot and edited soccer games with no coherent editing scheme other than chronology doesn't work.  This is an amazingly badly done sports film and does no service to the furthering of interest in soccer or sports films in general.  * 1/2

BUCK (d. Cindy Meehl)
Buck Brannaman is a former child rodeo performer and now a cowboy "horse whisperer" teaching the art of gently breaking horses.  He's a genial character; and this documentary is an enormously engaging film which follows his itinerant life on a circuit of appearances and horse training seminars.  Nicely shot and edited, the film is a pleasure to watch.  *** 1/4

TOUCH (d. Minh Duc Nguyen)
A 20-something Vietnamese girl gets a job in a gossipy L.A. nails salon; and immediately interacts with a male customer, an auto mechanic whose greasy hands are apparently interfering with his marriage.  The two central characters have good chemistry (John Ruby in particular is an engaging actor who underplays his role to good effect; and Porter Lynn is a lovely Vietnamese-American actress apparently making her debut with this film...and I expect her career to take off).  The film looks really good for a low budget American indie production.  I was surprised at how involved I became with the people in this simple story.  If I had any complaints, it's that the film ran about 15 minutes past its natural culmination.  ***

MEN AT BATH  (d. Christophe Honoré)
Honoré has made an arty home video, a quasi-hard-core porno about a gay Parisian filmmaker who visits New York for a film festival, leaving his muscular lover in their Paris apartment to do his thing (with copious full frontal, hard-on sex by all hands.)  It's a daring film, with almost no plot to speak of; and I understand that many people walked out, variously offended by the bodies, sex, shaky videography or just bored.  However, I was mesmerized.  This is a film of ferocious reality which resonated for me with continuous shocks of recognition that I would never expect to see overtly played in a festival film...what can I say other than that?  How can I rate this film?  For me personally, given the attractive cast and  relatable concept, I'd give it a *** 1/4; but objectively as a film it probably doesn't rate higher than * 3/4.

AN AFRICAN ELECTION  (d. Jarreth Merz)
This documentary covers the 2008 election in the western Africa republic of Ghana, a closely fought affair where the country was roughly split 50-50 between two parties.  There's an interesting parallel with the current state of affairs in the U.S. where the electorate is also split down the middle.  But the political process is complex and prone to error in a  country that is trying very hard not to repeat the election horrors of other African nations such as Zimbabwe.  I was impressed by the comprehensive coverage that the filmmakers managed to bring together; but the film didn't entirely hold my interest.  ** 1/2

ON TOUR  (d. Mathieu Amalric)
The director plays a washed up impresario who brings a burlesque troupe of fabulous American women (and one guy) to tour the seaside communities of western France.  That's the set up for an episodic, multi-character road trip featuring a bunch of show stopping burlesque acts which energize the screen.  The pro-forma people stories are slightly written; but the inventive shows-within-the-film carry the action quite effectively.  The costumes, the girls (characters as extreme as actual drag queens, only real women with flamboyant personalities), the choreography, even the plot, what there was of one, all put the much more elaborate recent American film Burlesque to shame.  *** 1/4

PERFECT SENSE  (d. David Mackenzie)
Ewan Mcgregor plays a head chef at a tony restaurant when the world suddenly suffers a calamitous epidemic of a new mysterious disease.  Telling any more of the plot would provide too many spoilers.  However let it suffice that the predictable consequences of the epidemic are well thought out; but the film is ultimately too depressing and loosely focused to be totally successful as drama, and not quite as effective as disaster science fiction as the similar 28 Days Later, for example.  However Mcgregor and Eva Green, who plays an epidemiologist and sometime love interest, have genuine chemistry.  But one of my favorite actors, Stephen Dillane is completely wasted in a subsidiary role.  ** 3/4

PAPER BIRDS  (d. Emilio Aragón)
One of a pair of male Spanish vaudeville performers during the Civil War has his family wiped out in a Falangist bombing attack.  A year later, the war is over, and the vaudeville troupe is reconstituted.  A young orphan boy is taken on by the performers to become part of the act.  That's the set-up for this historical melodrama done with a fine sense of time and place, with a strong script which ultimately moved me to well deserved tears.  I'm sure that some will feel the film is overly sentimental; but for me it simply worked.  *** 1/2

NOBODY (Kanenas)  (d. Christos Nikoleris)
This is a modern Greek version of the "Romeo & Juliet" story...Albanian girl, Russian boy; and truthfully it is inventively written and nicely directed.  The two protagonists (played by Georgina Liossi and Antinoos Albanis) are attractive actors who for the most part are convincing as starstruck lovers.  Even though the story is familiar (and barely deviates from Shakespeare until the ambiguous ending), this timeless romance seems able to stand multiple variations and not lose its force.   ***

HIT SO HARD  (d. David Ebersole)
This documentary covers the life of Patty Schemel, Lesbian drummer with the rock group Hole until she lost control of her drug addiction.  Peripherally we see some interesting and revealing home movies of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, and several interviews, including several with the currently sober Ms. Schemel.  There is a kernel of interest here; but the musical presentations are not choice: badly shot for the most part.  The film just goes on too long; and somehow what was supposed to be an uplifting documentary about triumph over addiction just gets bogged down and repetitive.   ** 1/4

ON THE ICE  (d. Andrew Okpeaha MacLean)
Three teenage native boys living on the icy steppes of north Alaska leave on a hunting trip and only two return.  What happened out on the ice is never in question, since the audience sees it; the film is all about how the various townspeople react to the event. It's an interesting moral tale with mystery thriller undertones, set in the exotic (if American) setting of Point Barrow.  I found myself surprisingly involved with the kids' story and especially the dilemma of the "smart" one (a convincingly taciturn performance by Frank Qutuq Irelan).    ***

SAIGON ELECTRIC  (d. Stephane Gauger)
This is a Vietnamese film about a beautiful country girl who moves to Saigon and falls into a version of an Americanized hip hop scene, including graffiti, break dancing, a sponsored dance-off contest (between Hanoi & Saigon!), the whole nine yards.  It's basically a female centric version of the Hollywood pop film series Step Up, with most of the clichés and cultural signposts intact. The director loved shooting everything in claustrophobic close-ups and overly fast edits, which quickly became a tiresome style.  The only interesting thing about this lame, overlong and predictable film is the vision that 36 years after the Fall of Saigon, the South apparently won the culture war, no contest.  ** 1/4

EVERY SONG IS ABOUT ME  (d. Jonas Trueba)
A dreamy thirty-something guy, life on hold as he works in his uncle's Madrid bookstore, still yearns to return to the toxic six-year relationship with his ex-girlfriend which had recently broken up.  The film fractures the time-line somewhat confusingly, mixing past and present and possible wish-fulfillment fantasy sequences in no particular order.  After a while I was bored with the main character's indecisiveness and wanted to kick him in the butt.  On the other hand, there was a certain contrasting adult poetry about our stalled Lothario (played by Oriol Vila) which intrigued me. In the end, I sort of liked the film which won me over with its earnest romanticism.  ***

THE FIRST GRADER  (d. Justin Chadwick)
SIFF opening films usually are a mixed bag; and this one is slightly above average for the breed.  It's the story of an 84 year old man, victim of torture in the early '60s Mau Mau rebellion against the British colonialists, who is determined to attend a kid's school and learn to read aided by a courageous young woman teacher.  There's nothing really surprising about this film.  It achieves its aim to uplift by expressing the undaunted human spirit.  And yes, the direction of its mostly native and amateur cast is quite ok.  But...well, I'm just being unkind in thinking that the film is just a little too pat as an audience pleaser.  ***

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