SIFF 1996 Reviews

This is a complete list of my 1996 reviews.



Swedish language, English subtitles

This Academy Award-nominated film tells the story of a 14-year-old schoolboy and his affair with a married 37-year-old teacher during the WW2 war years in Sweden. The film is well-paced, well-acted, and worth seeing.



German-language with English subtitles

I walked out of this film after 30 minutes. It wasn't really so bad, but after the above two marvelous films I didn't want to waste my time with a formula smirky German sex comedy. (Well, technically Austrian, but I understood what they were saying so they must have been speaking reasonably proper Hochdeutsch.)


ANGEL BABY (my favorite so far)

English language (Australian)
Notable: Best Screenplay, Best Film
Notable performance: Best Actress (Jacqeline McKenzie)

ANGEL BABY is the disturbing love story of two psychotics who meet in therapy. This directorial debut (Michael Rymer) is not for everyone, but fans of alternative cinema should not miss this. The obvious comparison is to one of my all-time favorites, BETTY BLUE; on balance I would say ANGEL BABY is almost up to that level, with two strong performances from the leads (as opposed to the one superb performance from Beatrice Dalle in BETTY BLUE), but that Jean-Jacques Beneix's gorgeous cinematography puts the earlier film on a slightly higher level.




This hilarious crowd-pleasing documentary lets ventriloquists and their dummies tell the story of the art of ventriloquism (or "belly-talking") today and over the centuries. The road-movie format takes us to a ventriloquists' convention and all over the US, and is interspersed with archival footage. Interviewees include Shari Tupper and Lambchop, David Copperfield (Edgar Bergen fan and purchaser of an original Charlie McCarthy doll for $100,000), and Edgar Bergen's daughter Candice Bergen. In addition, dozens of professional, semiprofessional and rank amateur ventriloquists are interviewed, ranging from entertainers to ministers to psychiatrists. Director Sandra Luckow and her dummy Joaquin answered questions after the show.




Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) stars in this tearjerker as a despondent opium-addicted sailor whose life is turned around by a ten-year-old street urchin. I am a sucker for tearjerkers and so found this very enjoyable, though not so much as KING OF THE MASKS. This movie features an excellent soundtrack.




As one more among the many excellent child-actor-based pictures in this year's SIFF, THE BOY FROM MERCURY does not stand out, but it does compare favorably to works such as A MONGOLIAN TALE, KING OF THE MASKS, CROWS, and VILLAGE OF DREAMS. 8-year-old Harry Cronin (James Hickey) interprets his world through the fantasy that he is an extraterrestrial from Mercury send to observe Earthlings. Hugh O'Conor (The Young Poisoner's Handbook) turns in an excellent supporting performance as Harry's brother Paul. Of the SIFF films I have seen this year, THE BOY FROM MERCURY is probably the most appropriate as a "family film."



German language, English subtitles
Notable cinematography

"Farinelli meets Deliverance": this just about describes BROTHER OF SLEEP, the latest offering from director Joseph Vilsmaier (STALINGRAD). A musical prodigy is born and grows up in a remote mountain village. The hauntingly beautiful mountain region is contrasted with the town's inbred and bestial inhabitants. BROTHER OF SLEEP touches all the bases of quality Eurotrash: gorgeous scenery, doomed love, explicit sex (though relatively little nudity), and incoherent anti-Catholic philosophy. This film is almost worth seeing for its cinematography alone. Really, this is a decent flick, but isn't it time that the EC passed a law against the making of films about musicians and composers, at least for the next few years?

Director Vilsmaier answered some questions after the screening. Most interestingly, one viewer asked if he was influenced by the Bergfilme of Leni Riefenstahl (familiar to anyone who saw the recent and wonderful documentary "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl"). Vilsmaier indicated that he had not seen any of those films.




BROTHERS IN TROUBLE is a solid drama set in a London tenement overcrowded with 18 Pakistani illegal immigrants, all men. As they struggle to build a life in a foreign and sometimes hostile land, a local woman enters all their lives and proves to be their greatest challenge.



French-language (some Spanish) with English subtitles

This lightweight but delightful French romantic comedy features a strong performance by Ariadna Gil in the ingenue role. A young Venezuelan woman leaves her fiancee at the altar and runs to Paris to seek her fortune as an opera singer. The stars dictate her success, but can a jealous video artist use voodoo magic to hold her back? CELESTIAL CLOCKWORK is preceded by BROOMS, a 14-minute musical short from the "Stomp!" team, produced by Quincy Adams; this has the Stomp touch but could have been shorter.




THE CONFESSIONAL is an art-house mystery which is well-put-together but never really caught my interest. The scenery is expertly crafted for every detail of color and light, but the characters are flat and unlikeable.



Polish-language with English subtitles

CROWS is the quiet but moving story of a young girl who lives alone with her mother. Her mother spends no time with her, and the girl's loneliness drives her to abduct a younger child as a playmate. The pace is relaxed and the performance by young Karolina Ostrozny is extraordinary. Since CROWS is less than 70 minutes long, this showing was preceded by the 30-minute short The Fruit of Her Womb, a diatribe on sexual repression which is easily the worst short I have seen this festival.




This clever documentary tells the story of a small town caught in a transition between its industrial past and its high-tech future. It is an affecting piece of work but I have to question the producers' judgment in certain areas. If you see DADETOWN, be sure to stay through the credits. Trust me on this.



English-language (New York)

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to spy on an AA meeting? DRUNKS has all of that voyeuristic appeal. This low-budget but solidly produced offering features a solid ensemble of well-known character actors (Parker Posey, Dianne Wiest, Spalding Gray and others) whose characters tell compelling and horrifying alcohol stories, although it is slightly hampered by a weak performance by TV actor Richard Lewis in the nominal lead role.




Gwyneth Paltrow holds the title role in this period-piece adaptation of yet another Jane Austen novel. Actually, the popular film Clueless (starring Alicia Silverstone in the comparable role) is also an adaptation of the same novel, and the contrast is an interesting one. This EMMA is a much more conventional "costumer" production, but is equally enjoyable in its own way.



primarily English-language, some German and Japanese with English subtitles

Fringe director Hal Hartley assembled this high-concept offering where a single drama is presented once, then replayed twice in different milieu. The first telling is a hetero love story in New York, the second a homosexual story in Berlin, and the third a gender-reversed version of the original at a Butoh dance company in Tokyo. Each replay is increasingly self-referential. The first is hilarious but I found the second two increasingly tiresome; for me, at least, this is an experiment which mostly failed.



Japanese-language with English subtitles

An actor in a rubber monster suit destroys Tokyo and battles the evil velociraptor Gyaos. Buildings fall down. Chemical factories explode. The Japanese military is called out. What more do you need to know? If this is the sort of film you like, you like this sort of film. You know who you are.



English language
Notable: Best Documentary

THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE is a three-hour documentary describing the Tienanmen Square uprising in 1989. The scope of the film is broad, and details the historical background leading to these events, and the growth and stagnation of the democracy movement, as well as the carnage and aftermath. Some of the footage is remarkable, and I have no idea how they could have gotten, for example, film of the People's Army cleaning up the square after the shootings. It could have been a little shorter, but this is clearly a fine, thorough and (as far as I can tell) balanced documentary.



Korean-language with English subtitles

A HOT ROOF is a peppy feminist comedy in the vein of THELMA AND LOUISE. Ten women get into a brawl with the lazy, abusive, and simply annoying men in their lives. When things get out of control, they flee to their apartment rooftop, and their standoff with the police quickly becomes a celebrated cause throughout Korea. I have heard some reports that this is based on a true story. This is a fun flick, although something of a ball-buster, and is definitely worth seeing.



French-language with English subtitles

Directed by Claire Denis ("Cocolat"), this drama is loosely centered on a series of serial murders of elderly Parisian women. The pacing is slow and the plot is often incoherent. I can't claim to understand why this film needed to be made.




This British dark comedy stars Julie Walters (Educating Rita) and Rupert Graves as a middle-aged housewife and the young lodger with whom she becomes entangled. Both main actors turn in solid performances. INTIMATE RELATIONS was generally appreciated by the Festival audience.




Veteran actor James Woods (Salvador) turns in a masterful performance as an unrepentant sociopathic murderer who is befriended by a Jewish prison guard. The plot, based on a true story, turns on questions of crime and punishment and specifically the death penalty. Screenwriter and first-time director Tim Metcalfe manages to sustain the audience's interest in these characters and to present hot political issues evenhandedly and without preaching.



Chinese-language with English subtitles

Occasionally the Festival presents us with a little gem, a film which makes all the cinematic disappointments worthwhile. THE KING OF THE MASKS is such a film. Set in China roughly 100 years ago, the film follows Old Wong, an elderly street performer. He has no son and heir to whom to pass his family tradition, the snapping-masks routine. Old Wong resorts to the child-slave market, where desperate parents sell their own children (mostly girls) to save their children and themselves from starvation. At the market he meets and purchases young Doggie, who proves to be both more and less than he bargained for.

What makes this film special is the relationship between the old man and his "grandson" Doggie. Doggie's hard work and filial devotion add a moral lesson to what is already an entertaining and very beautiful film. This could be considered a fine children's film with several caveats (Chinese-language, slower pacing, some frightening situations).



Italian-language with English subtitles

Half documentary and half drama, LAMERICA depicts the desperate conditions inside formerly Communist Albania. Cut off from the world for forty years under the dictator Enver Hoxha, Albania has been reduced to a nation of refugees seeking to emigrate to Italy or to anywhere which won't throw them out. Gino, a young and ambitious Italian hustler, joins a scheme to set up a fake factory in Albania and embezzle the support grants from the Italian government. As the plot goes more and more awry, the crafty Albanians strip away both his posessions and his sense of superiority. One cannot fail to be moved by the terrible plight of this country and its people.



English-language (Canadian)

Director Bruce Sweeney's first feature film is an agreeable no-budget ($85K, not sure whether US$ or CAN$) comedy depicting a Generation X'ers problems with the opposite sex. The film is somewhat hampered by sound problems and grainy 16mm B&W film stock, but overall this is a very accessible filmfest discovery.




Director John Sayles' latest offering is an intelligent, nuanced depiction of the life of a Texas border town. It should come as no surprise to any film buff that LONE STAR is one of the treats of the Festival. As sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) investigates the discovery of the dried bones of an old murder victim, he uncovers the secrets of his deceased father who was sheriff before him. Sayles investigates the effects of corruption and racial prejudice on the personal lives and histories of the inhabitants of his border town.



English language
Notable performance: Best Actress (Helen Mirren)

LOSING CHASE, the directorial debut of veteran actor Kevin Bacon, is a quality melodrama featuring a top-flight performance by British character actress Helen Mirren, and a solid outing by Beau Bridges and Bacon's real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick. This Viacom-funded production is really a TV-movie and should work fine on the small screen, although it is worth seeing at any opportunity. The plot starts out reminiscent of Bergman's "Persona" although somewhat cheerier: Elizabeth (Sedgwick) is hired to take care of a mentally ailing older woman (Mirren), and the film follows their clash of personalities, although this film leads to eventual recovery and reconciliation. Kevin Bacon does a workmanlike job as director, presenting his story and characters clearly and succinctly without fancy camera flourishes. In the tradition of TV melodrama, "Losing Chase" sticks to drama with relatively little humor, and contains only one plot twist worth not spoiling.




LOVED UP is a television movie detailing the dangers of the drug Ecstasy, set in the London rave scene. It is kin to REEFER MADNESS and the like, but rises above them through its gritty and realistic plot and through solid performances by Lena Headey and Ian Hart in the lead roles. LOVED UP is preceded by the hilarious public-service commercial VAMPIRE CONDOM.



mostly French-language with English subtitles

LUMIERE is a high-concept documentary celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Lumiere Brothers' first movie camera. The premise of the documentary gives forty directors a chance to produce a 52-second film under the same conditions (more or less) in which the Lumiere Brothers had to shoot. In between these films are interspersed the directors' sometimes pretentious answers to the somewhat pretentious questions "Why do you make films?" and "Is cinema mortal?" Most of the directors are obscure French natives, although there are a few recognizable names here.

A few of the clips (notably, Zhang Yimou's clip on the Great Wall) are worth seeing in their own right. Unfortunately, most of the directors don't do anything interesting in their clips, and few have anything to say in answer to the Pretentious Questions. I can only recommend this to serious film buffs who are likely to recognize more than a few of these directors' work.



Japanese-language with English subtitles

MABOROSI is a pure example of an arthouse film, a complete triumph of style over substance. First-time director Hirokazu Kore-eda displays a striking visual style in this extraordinarily beautiful film. Almost every shot is completely static and lasts 10-30 seconds, filling the entire movie with filmic moments which would be used only sparingly in most movies. Unfortunately all of the attention on cinematography sucks the life out of the story and performances. The characters are completely subdued and repressed on screen; perhaps this is a statement about Japanese society, but it makes for a very boring movie. I cannot recommend MABOROSI for anyone but the most avid artfilm buff.



Spanish-language with English subtitles

These two short films are the only Cuban offerings in this year's SIFF. The first, MADAGASCAR, is a ponderous and pretentious story of a mother's difficulty dealing with her daughter's adolescence. The second, LOVE ME AND YOU WILL SEE, is a more palatable tale of an aging gangster's reminiscences of old Havana and his search for an old flame. You didn't miss anything if you missed these.



Spanish-language with English subtitles

This Bolivian comedy/drama is at its best capturing the spirit of that country, with scenes in lush jungle and rugged countryside. The characters are all stereotypes: drunkards, gamblers, gangsters and crooked officials. The acting, storyline, and technical quality are not quite up to American standards, but the film overall is enjoyable and worth seeing for those interested in that part of the world.



German-language with English subtitles

Apparently, Generation X has arrived in Germany. DIE MEDIOCREN is an uninteresting comedy focused on four promiscuous X'ers and their tangled sexual (as opposed to emotional) relationships. None of the four is pleasant or likeable enough for the audience to care what happens to any of them. Skip this movie.




MOLL FLANDERS is a 100% Hollywood adaptation of the novel by Daniel Defoe, better known for Robinson Crusoe. The 18th-century heoine is transformed into a fire-eating feminist and free spirit, using every opportunity to combat patriarchal oppression. This might not be so bad, but Robin Wright in the title role has all the screen presence of an eggplant, and Stockard Channing is completely a cardboard villain. What's worse, the dialogue is mumbled and covered over with swelling-violins melodrama music, so that much of what the characters say cannot be understood. Morgan Freeman tries his best but just can't save this film.



Chinese-language (Mongolian-language?) with Chinese and English subtitles

A MONGOLIAN TALE, described by one fellow filmgoer as "an intimate family drama," ranks with ANGEL BABY as one of my favorite films so far. Shot in deep color in the glorious Mongolian countryside, it tells the story of adopted siblings Bayinbulag and Somiya, growing up in the "yurt" tent home of the family matriarch. The plot moves at a relaxed pace by American standards. The story is affecting, the characters well-drawn, and the setting is simply breathtaking. Not to be missed.




The first of these two Holocaust documentaries, NOTHING BUT SUN (40 minutes), is not so much a new documentary as a pastiche of familiar images with added voiceover for emotional effect. Because it tries to cover the entire cycle of the Holocaust, it fails to offer anything new to those who know much about these events already, although it could be very valuable as a first introduction to the Holocaust (possibly for schoolchildren). The second documentary (as titled above, 75 minutes) uses interviews plus archival footage to present interesting and relatively little-known information on the Kindertransport ("child evacuation") children whose parents saved them by sending them to safety in Great Britain; in most cases, those children never saw their parents again. Using the setting of a conference of Kindertransport emeriti and their own children, the film movingly examines both the wartime events and their emotional repercussions on the following generations.




I can't judge how closely this film follows Dostoevsky's novella, but it is certainly a moving and disturbing work in its own right. Harry Czerny gets my nod for Best Actor as the nameless Man From Underground, a passive-aggressive and paranoid civil servant who despises himself and the world (yes, this is from Dostoevsky) but can't quite divorce himself from all social contact. Sheryl Lee is all honey and hormones as Liza, the prostitute he rescues from a bordello. Special congratulations also go to director Gary Walkow for putting together a watchable film with solid production values from what was obviously a very limited budget.




This remarkable 2 1/2-hour documentary follows the arrest and trial of three teenagers in semirural Arkansas for the brutal murder of three eight-year-olds. After lengthy questioning, one of the three confesses and implicates them all in satanic rituals reminiscent of the accusations in Wenatchee. The families of the victims and of the accused all mobilize to deal with the media and the legal system, and all involved give candid and moving interviews. Music by Metallica (a heavy metal band favored by the accused) effectively sets the mood for this frank and (as far as I can tell) evenhanded investigation of these disturbing events.



French-language with English subtitles

This archival gem from 1960 stars Alain Delon as a dashing nogoodnik based on Mr. Ripley of the famous crime series. Recently deceased director Rene Clement assembles a potent mix of noir comedy and crime thriller set in the villas of upper-class Italy.



Hebrew-language with English subtitles

Set in the apocalyptic near-future, specifically the Golda Meir high school in 1999, the visual style of SAINT CLARA is reminiscent of the American film company Troma Films (Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke Em High). Three punk teenagers terrorize their teachers and classmates until their discovery of a girl with ESP enables then to shift their activities to a new level. Despite the punk appearance and behavior of these protagonists, directors Ori Sivan and Ari Folman manage to avoid overly explicit violence and "gross-out" humor and milk considerable sentimentality out of the film. I can't strongly recommend SAINT CLARA but it was enjoyable and should play well to a teenage audience.




Tom Conti co-stars in this stagey depiction of immigrant life in New York City. The plot proceeds at a relaxing pace, but star Miki Manojlovic generates enough sympathy to keep the audience involved. It isn't bad, but I can't give this a strong recommendation.



Hebrew language (I'm pretty sure), English subtitles

The only Palestinian offering in this year's SIFF, TALE OF THE THREE JEWELS depicts the magic of children's lives in the harsh setting of occupied Gaza. It is a little incoherent but worth seeing for those interested in the Middle East.



German-language with English subtitles

TALK OF THE TOWN (or "Stadtgespraech") is a smart and funny comedy revolving around a radio advice talk show. When the show's host Monika (Katja Riemann) proves better at giving advice than at taking it, much confusion ensues, which naturally must reach its climax on-the-air.



English-language with extreme Scottish accents

This odd offering from director Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave), following the lives of a half-dozen heroin addicts in the grimiest parts of Scotland, could easily have been one of the most dreary ordeals in the Festival. Instead, it is among the funniest and most outrageous offerings in this year's Festival, and a favorite in every poll. Boyle's visual humor knows no limits; The Worst Public Toilet in Scotland left 90% of the audience in stitches, while the other 10% just left. TRAINSPOTTING is clearly not for everyone, but I and many others rated this among the Best of the Fest.




This TV movie stars Elizabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas) and Kyle MacLaughlin (Twin Peaks) as a married couple caught in a kind of urban disaster. When the power and the phones go out in suburban Sacramento, and stay out for days, tempers fray and civil order begins to break down. When they finally their darkened home, hoping to reach Colorado in a sport utility vehicle with not quite enough gasoline, they experience how the Wild West still lurks in the hearts of suburbanites. The premise of this attempt at film noir is occasionally difficult to swallow but it is reasonably well done and tries to present some interesting messages.



Hebrew-language with English subtitles

This melodrama takes place in 1953 at an Israeli orphanage primarily for Holocaust survivors. Israeli director Eli Cohen milks all the sentiment he can out of their struggles to come to terms with their past and their dreams of one day being reunited with their parents. There is nothing subtle about this film, and the quality of the child actors' performances ranges from excellent to over-the-top. UNDER THE DOMIM TREE dares to apply the Hollywood treatment to the topic of the Holocaust, and the result is very watchable.



Japanese-language with English subtitles

VILLAGE OF DREAMS is a luminous reminiscence of a rustic childhood. The two lead child actors are irresistable, unusually good especially considering that they appear to be identical twins. If this is the sort of thing you like, you'll definitely like this; I recommend it.




This Italian thriller follows a loanshark's plot to take over a troubled construction company. VITE STROZZATE features a masterful performance by Vincent Lindon (I am not completely sure of the actor's name) as the charming but amoral loanshark Sergio. Highly recommended.




A late addition to the festival (two films, Epsilon and Phenomenon, were pulled out at the last minute), THE WAR AT HOME is reminiscent of any number of Vietnam-veteran-homecoming films. IMHO, the world really doesn't need another movie featuring a Vietman veteran waving a handgun at his hallucinations. Actor-director Emilio Estevez (Repo Man, The Mighty Ducks) does a tolerable job in both roles, but the film is rescued from mediocrity by marvellous performances by Martin Sheen (Estevez' real-life father; Apocaplyse Now) and Kathy Bates (Misery). THE WAR AT HOME is based on the stage play Homefront.




WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE portrays the life of Dawn Wiener, an unpopular and homely girl just entering junior high, as she struggles to deal with the cruelty of her own generation and the callousness of parents and teachers. The traumas we all have experienced are magnified a hundredfold in poor Dawn's life, and were both painful and wickedly enjoyable to watch. This one falls more or less into the "sick and twisted" category.




Home-town favorite Dan Ireland, co-founder of the SIFF, left the Festival eight years ago to seek his fortune behind the camera. His directorial debut (after several outings as a producer) is a marvellous bittersweet romance, and possibly the best "chick flick" in this year's Festival. Ireland does a fine job capturing the feel of 1930s Texas, but the real treat is watching the versatile actor Vincent d'Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket, The Player) inhabit the character of eccentric author Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian.



German-language with English subtitles

I walked out of this television melodrama after 15 minutes. Apparently it picked up somewhat after I left, but no one I spoke with recommends it. I left the Harvard Exit upstairs and went downstairs to see MABOROSI.




This is a wickedly funny film about an antisocial young science buff who turns his talents towards poison, and his sights (initially) toward his own family. Word is that this film was released several years ago in England. The humor is not for everyone, but if you liked MAN BITES DOG you'll like this as well.