SIFF 1997 Reviews

These reviews were originally posted on news://

Here are my personal Golden Space Needle 1997 picks, ranked in order of preference.

Best Film:

Best Documentary:

Best Short:

Best Director

Best Actress

Best Actor:


Beyond Gravity is a pretty good shorts package. The standout is Australian short "Down Rusty Down" about the inner life of dogs, starring Noah Taylor.

The Big Heat: A hardboiled cop comes out of retirement to avenge his partner, has to break a few rules, yadda yadda yadda. This is a pure shoot-em-up, from the prolific HK director Tsui Hark, and a pretty good one when judged by shoot-em-up standards. Still, SIFF has a lot of nerve featuring a film first released in 1988 (the characters keep talking about the handoff of Hong Kong to China in ten years).

A Chef In Love is a romance set primarily in Georgia (former USSR) in the time of the Russian Revolution. I enjoyed this film but it did feel somewhat contrived. This is another of those binational Eurofilms, this time a French film taking place mostly in Georgia. It has all the expected ingredients -- female nudity, tragic love, and glowing food shots ala Babette's Feast. The performances and pacing are good although the ending (or lack of same) was somewhat odd.

Children of the Revolution: The victors write the history books, or in this case the satirical films, and Children of the Revolution proves this. Judy Davis plays a devoted young Communist who travels to Moscow for the 1952 party congress, and comes back pregnant with what may be Stalin's child. As the boy grows older, those few who know his heritage watch with hope and trepidation, and he exceeds all their expectations in both directions. Here is a quote which sets the tone for this movie: "Stalin spent three days locked in his office poring over the Joan Fraser file. He was not a fast reader." This is undeniably a funny film full of biting wit, though it seems too much of an easy shot to lampoon True Believers these days. Coming soon to a multiplex near you.

Christmas Oratorio is a so-so epic drama from Sweden. It stars Johan Widerburg, the same young man who starred in All Things Fair, a very similar Swedish film last year which was better than this film.

Chronicle of a Disappearance was not a disappointment as such, since I wasn't expecting much, but it was not worth seeing. There were a few humorous scenes, and a few points where I though I might have understood some sort of message the director was trying to transmit about life as a Palestinian and life in general. One scene in particular, where a young Arab woman puts her own spin on Hatikvah, was at least interesting. Mostly this was such a deeply personal expression that I don't think director Elia Suleiman really concentrated enough on trying to communicate anything.

Comrades: Almost A Love Story is a quiet romantic film from Hong Kong, a little long, but very sweet. Two immigrants from China meet and fall in love, sort of. He is a wide-eyed Mandarin-speaker from the North, she is a canny Southerner with an eye for the quick buck. The struggle to make it in the new country breaks them apart, but love must eventually triumph.

Conspirators of Pleasure: This bizarre Czech offering takes the form of a series of loosely interrelated vignettes, entirely without dialogue. The theme is fetishes, the various amusing and slightly sordid activities which "get people off." It really doesn't work at ninety minutes; this should have been about 40 minutes, or a series of 15-minute shorts not all shown at the same time. As often happens, marketplace pressures must have forced the director to stretch this out the the more marketable feature length. Still, I won't soon forget "chicken man," "strawman dominatrix," "television man", "texture man," "bread-pellet woman," or "fish woman." I enjoyed this film, and I doubt it will get commercial distribution.

Coup De Torchon is the first film in this year's Bertrand Tavernier retrospective. This gripping 1981 drama stars Philippe Noiret as Lucien, the policeman in a small African French Colonial town. Abused as a simpleton, Lucien learns to revenge himself. The central theme relates Lucien's madness to the overall moral decay around him.

Defying Gravity is a mediocre gay-themed drama about a frat boy struggling with his sexual identity.

Different for Girls is a mediocre British TV-movie about two school friends who meet again after one of them has had a sex-change operation. It really never comes together as either a comedy or drama. The Capitol Hill audience should have been ideal for a film with this subject matter, but they were pretty quiet throughout. My friends note that Kim/Karl has unrealistically bad fashion sense, why go to all that trouble if you aren't even going to dress well? :-)

Dr. Wai In "The Scripture With No Words" is a decent but unremarkable Hong Kong action flick. It does not approach the level of Forbidden City Cop, nor (by report) The God Of Cookery.

Dream With The Fishes is an high-concept indie film about a suicidal voyeur (David Arquette) who goes on a last fling road trip with a terminally-ill hunk (Brad Hunt, looking a lot like Val Kilmer playing Jim Morrison) and learns from him how to live. It has its pretentious moments but also some interesting character acting, plus some very cool music.

The Dress, the only Dutch film in this year's SIFF, is a bizarre and somewhat unpleasant drama/thriller which I cannot recommend. It is centered on a dress which passes from hand to hand, bringing misfortune to those who wear it. Some scenes are surprising and amusing, but the two near-rapes on camera really put me off this film.

East Side Story is an enjoyable and well-constructed documentary chronicling the musical films of the East Bloc. The DEFA studio in East Germany produced 40 of these films over the course of 40 years, attempting to counter the West by producing entertaining films with the proper ideological perspective. Others were produced throughout the Socialist world, including a few sponsored by Stalin, who understood the importance of entertainment better than his successors. The filmmakers had to struggle not only against censorship and shortages of electricity, but also against the perception that entertainment was just not revolutionary. "Who knows how things might have turned out, if Socialism could have just been a bit more fun?"

Ecstasy is an excellent supercharged crime drama from Spain. Three young adults plot to steal money from their parents, run away and start their own tavern. Things get complicated and soon their loyalties to one another are strained. Star Javier Bardem stands out in a magnetic performance reminiscent of Antonio Banderas in his Almodovar years.

The Elevator is a near-complete failure, a high-concept attempted comedy/drama which should never have been made. A young scriptwriter corners a famous producer on an elevator, traps him with the emergency stop button, and force-feeds him a series of short scripts. The first short is awful, the second bad, the third actually has potential; but after that the film tries to get serious and instead turns simply awful.

The Emperor's Shadow is an excellent historical epic set during the formation of the Qin dynasty, the first to unify China. This is an earlier period than most other Chinese period-pieces you may have seen. The costumes and settings are fabulous and by report historically accurate, and some of the crowd scenes are on D.W. Griffith scale. The story is a romance which is melodramatic but affecting.

Familia is an ingenious Spanish comedy, one of my favorite films so far. This is the sort of film where one doesn't want to give the plot away, so let's just say that it is about a non-traditional family -- a very non-traditional family.

Fire is a feminist drama set in modern India but shot in English-language. It has its pretentious moments but is saved by excellent performances by Canadian veteran Ranjit Chowdhury, Indian veteran Shabana Azmi and newcomer Nandita Das. Canadian director Deepa Mehta does well with her low budget aside from some sound problems. This could also afford to be a bit shorter.

Forbidden City Cop is a hilarious sendup of the Hong Kong chop-socky genre exemplified by Jet Li (Dr. Wai...) and many others. The high point actually comes in the opening credits, a side-splitting parody of the credits in a James Bond film, but the entire film is dotted with well-aimed barbs. Highly recommended to fans of the Hong Kong fantasy-action genre, probably even better for speakers of Cantonese or Mandarin.

Forgotten Silver: This short new offering from New Zealand director Peter Jackson (The Frighteners, Heavenly Creatures, Dead Alive, Meet The Feebles) is a "mockumentary" depicting the life of the pioneering (albeit imaginary) filmmaker Colin MacKenzie. I wasn't as blown away by this as some, but some of the absurdist touches are really brilliant; for example, MacKenzie films the first "talkie" in 1908, about 20 years before The Jazz Singer, but it is a commercial failure because he films it in Chinese and fails to invent subtitles to go with it. Jackson also managed to get cameos from Harvey Weinstein and Leonard Maltin. Children of the Revolution also used the "mockumentary" format at times; this format seems to be growing in popularity, though the documentary proper is still languishing as far as I can tell. As with the previous film, film buffs will appreciate this far more than casual filmgoers.

The Full Monty is a very commercial comedy starring Robert Carlyle (who played the psycho from Trainspotting) as a laid-off steelworker who gathers his friends into an imitation of the Chippendales. The title refers to their promise to one-up the Chippendales by showing "the full monty" to their audience. The real-life audience (stacked toward women and gay men) enjoyed this film thoroughly, although the plot was a bit predictable and most of the humor tended toward the juvenile. Preceded by the short "78".

The Garden of Redemption is an old-fashioned war melodrama set in 1945 Italy, very cliched but watchable. What it lacks in moral complexity, it makes up in earnestness.

Guantanamera is an agreeable Cuban romantic road movie about an officious bureaucrat, his wife (the eponymous Guantanamera, or girl from Guantanamo City) and their adventures transporting a dead relative for burial in Havana. Their path collides with the wife's old flame and with various pitfalls of modern Cuban life. The Latin song of the same name (you'll recognize it) is used throughout the soundtrack, in fact they have recorded their own version with lyrics specific to the plot of the movie.

Guy is a high-concept indie film about a guy named Guy (Vincent D'Onofrio), who is followed everywhere by a woman intent on making a film about his everyday life. We see almost the entire film through her camera lens, as the constant monitoring costs him his job, home and girlfriend, and a strange relationship develops between him and the filmmaker. Many people had trouble suspending disbelief, as the plot has a lot of holes; but those who could get past that enjoyed D'Onofrio's performance. A side note: This film brings to mind a big hit from a few years ago, called Louis 19, a sidesplitting French-Canadian comedy which was one of my favorites that year. It doesn't appear to have ever gotten distribution but maybe Scarecrow has it.

Happy Together, today's much-awaited sneak preview, won its director an award in Cannes, but here in Seattle it generated at least a 50% walkout rate among passholders in the first 45 minutes (myself included). The film is nominally about a dysfunctional gay Chinese couple in Buenos Aires, but the point of the film is really to let the director show off all of his cutesy camera angles and tricks.

Hu-Du-Men is an excellent comedy/drama from Hong Kong. The central character is Lang Kim-Sum, the star of a Cantonese Opera company, who specializes in male roles onstage. Sum's personal life is as disorganized as her stage life is disciplined, and she must come to terms with the sacrifices she has made to reach the top of her profession. As a bonus, the film contains marvellous footage of Cantonese Opera, not just a few scenes to set the mood, but enough to enjoy it for itself. The title apparently means something like "proscenium," the line where an actor sheds his/her real identity and becomes immersed in the role.

Irma Vep is a failed French satire about filmmaking. Maggie Cheung (Comrades: Almost a Love Story) stars as herself, starring in a remake of the silent film Les Vampyres. This must set some kind of record for "meta" films: a film about making a film which is itself a remake of another film. Regardless, the humor falls flat and the characters are undeveloped. Preceded by the short Angry Boy, a hilarious one-take set piece about "those annoying people in the next sitting next to me."

The Island on Bird Street is a Holocaust melodrama about Alex, a 12-year-old boy who hides in a Polish ghetto after it has been cleared. Alex manages to set himself up a hideaway like Robinson Crusoe, with Gestapo raids taking the place of cannibals and hungry animals. The film is involving and well-made but one aspect is a little strange. This is a Danish production, shot in Poland, reputedly with German money; but what's really bizarre is that it was shot in English and most characters speak with Cockney accents. This does kind of work if you don't focus on it, and English-language films do have a much wider audience.

Libertarias is a quality historical drama and war epic set during the Spanish Civil War. Ariadne Gil starts as a meek young nun who is caught up in a company of female soldiers during the Spanish Civil War. These women struggle for equality with their fellow soldiers as well as fighting against the Fascist forces. The ending is fairly bleak (perhaps inevitable for a film set during this period), so be prepared.

Licensed to Kill: In this thought-provoking documentary, six men in prison for "hate crimes" against gay men tell why they committed these crimes and explain their opinions regarding homosexuality. Their surprisingly articulate accounts make it clear that many different factors are involved. Some were influenced (as the title suggests) by popular prejudice and the Religious Right, but equally important were childhood sexual abuse, racial and social class issues, and the perception that homosexuals are easy and lucrative marks for robbery.

Lillian's Story: Toni Collette (Muriel's Wedding) and Australian veteran Ruth Cracknell give solid performances in this drama about a woman released after 40 years in a mental institution. The plot is somewhat hackneyed, with good-hearted prostitutes, pleasantly eccentric mentally ill homeless people, and an abusive father, but these fine actresses make it work.

Little Angel ("Engelchen") Engelchen is a stark and difficult drama set in modern Berlin. Ramona, a woman trapped in a sterile existence, meets Andrezj, a Polish black-market cigarette hawker. The film suffers from some pretentious and unnatural dialogue, but Suzanne Lothar's performance makes it worthwhile.

The Long Way Home is a documentary about the continued suffering of Jewish Holocaust survivors between 1945 and 1948. After the end of World War 2, unwelcome in their previous homes and denied permission to emigrate to Palestine, many of these survivors wound up in Allied "displaced persons'" camps on the grounds of what were previously Nazi concentration camps. Produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, I first saw this film as a slickly produced propaganda piece to promote Jewish land claims relative to other claims. However, after the show, the gentile woman in the next seat told me, "I had thought that the problems of the Jews were over after the war." The film is intended to remind people why there is a State of Israel, many people do not know the history of this period, and the film does achieve this. Narrated by Morgan Freeman.

Love Serenade is a bizarre low-budget comedy about love, sex and fish. Two young and eccentric sisters live peacefully together in small-town Australia, until a slick disk jockey moves next to them and sets them competing against one another. This is definitely one of the stranger films of the Festival, a real Guilty Pleasure, playing out to the smooth strains of Barry White.

Loved made me angry. This could have been an amazingly good film, but the lack of discipline and clarity makes it a thought-provoking failure. The concept is excellent, the supporting cast is excellent (William Hurt and Amy Madigan), the movie itself is flawed. Hedda (Robin Wright-Penn) must testify against her abusive former lover, who is on trial for the death of a subsequent girlfriend. She refuses to blame him, holding fast to her unconditional love, and challenging the prosecutor K.D. (William Hurt) for his failure to reach out as completely as she has.

There are some images in this film which will stay with me for some time, some of the court testimony in particular. So, what's not to like? The action is muddled, the viewer can't always tell who is who, what is happening or when it is happening. The dialogue is sparse and stilted, sometimes defying both realism and rational explanation. And that's when you can understand it, since the actors mumble and the soundtrack is loud and constructed for maximum emotional effect (n.b. The River by Joni Mitchell).

Loved may appeal to fans of the movie Safe. Robin Wright is no Julianne Moore (the lead in Safe), although in this performance she partly makes up for the abominable Moll Flanders and her mediocre work in Princess Bride and Forrest Gump. She does manage to embody Hedda and make her commitment to love understandable. Unfortunately, the director allows this portrayal to become a little too airy; IMHO, in future, Robin Wright should be prevented from going barefoot, swimming nude or otherwise being too precious.

Why am I spending so much time writing about a movie which isn't actually good? Film festivals are a chance to see movies which will stick with you, movies which will make you think, even if they aren't as polished as the standard Hollywood fare. A director being properly disciplined by studio oversight would not have made these mistakes, but would also have failed to create some of these images.

Not Love, Just Frenzy is accurately advertised as an Almodovar-style comedy/drama about the love lives of the jet set. The club music is loud, the Gaulthier-style costumes are amazing, and the action is loaded with explicit sex (both straight and gay) and some violence. This will get your attention but it isn't for everyone.

One Summer in La Goulette, the new film from Ferid Boughedir (Halfaouine, Boy of the Terrace), is a sweet slice-of-life comedy set in a beachside town in Tunisia. The film presents dozens of characters, but it is really more about the town itself. It is light-hearted and gentle, but Boughedir's emphasis on the pre-1967 peace between Muslims, Jews and Christians comes across as heavy-handed and politically correct. I personally preferred Halfaouine, but some filmgoers preferred this more mature production.

The Other Side of Sunday is a Norwegian coming-of-age story which also touches on religion, morality and character. Maria, the daughter of a village priest in the 1950s, rebels against her strict upbringing but finds the limits to this rebellion in her own generous nature. This is a sweet, low-key film, described by one viewer as "heartfelt and empowering," featuring an excellent performance by the young star.

Paul Monette: The Brink of Summer's End is a laudatory documentary on gay poet/author Paul Monette. I must admit to sniffling a bit during the more maudlin moments.

The Pillow Book is pure Greenaway. The sheer beauty of the images in unmatched, yet there is something disturbing -- in a bad way -- about the tone and message of the film. Along with copious male and female nudity, Greenaway explores a picture-in-picture composition effect which makes parts of the film look like a concept/demonstration of some future multimedia encyclopedia. Vivian Wu stars as Nagiko, a young Japanese woman sexually fixated on calligraphy, and Ewan MacGregor is her lover and human whiteboard. There is definitely some depth to this film and Greenaway fans will want to see it more than once.

So, what's not to like? It is easy to dismiss a film like Basic Instinct et al. as pure voyeurism, but The Pillow Book, like Greenaway's earlier The Cook The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, appeals to both the higher and lower instincts. The nudity and sexuality give this film commercial appeal and notoriety. Art films about nymphomaniacs sell. I just felt a little dirty after watching it; perhaps Greenaway is too decadent for me (and I have a fairly high tolerance level for decadence).

Pizzicata is set in rural Italy during World War II, as a downed Italian-American pilot is taken in by a farmer and his daughters. You're already guessing what happens, and you're pretty much right. This film isn't bad but it is mostly of interest for its depiction of rural life, especially the dance and singing traditions of the pizzicata and tarantella.

The Quiet Room: This new feature by Australian director Rolf De Heer (Bad Boy Bubby, Space Needle award winner in 1994) exemplifies the best festival films: deeply affecting, yet far enough from the mainstream that it will probably never see theatrical release. The entire film is told from the point of view of a seven-year-old girl, and takes place almost entirely in her room and her parents' room. She has willfully stopped talking in response to her parents' marital strife, but a constant voice-over with occasional flashbacks convincingly presents her internal dialogue. This mechanism seems forced at first but rapidly becomes natural.

The familiar story of a marriage in trouble takes on urgency and pathos when seen from the perspective of their young child. This is the first film so far where I have really felt caught up in the drama; I had to hold back from yelling at her parents to straighten themselves out, for her sake if for no other reason. The tone and setting of The Quiet Room could not be more different from Bad Boy Bubby, but this new film has more psychological depth and insight. Possible Award: Rolf De Heer, Best Director, The Quiet Room. Also note: Ponette has a similar theme and one reviewer liked it even more.

Secrets of the Heart is a Spanish coming-of-age story set in the 1960s, centered on an 8-year-old boy and his troubled family. It isn't bad but it is indistinguishable from any number of other coming-of-age stories.

Shall We Dance is a slight but enjoyable comedy/drama about a Japanese salaryman who gets caught up in the world of ballroom dancing. The obvious comparison is the Aussie sleeper hit Strictly Ballroom. This film is probably the better of the two but not quite as commercial: Shall We Dance is more character-based, a little lower-key and a bit too long at 2 hours. Preceded by the excellent short Legs.

Steaming Milk is a quirky comedy, very funny, and very Seattle. Meek twentysomething Andy serves up espresso in a Queen Anne coffeeshop while trying to finish a film noir movie script. The gun-toting characters in his script express his own frustration with rude customers and everyone else who walks all over him, but he can't quite seem to get the scene right until he can stand up for himself in real life. The snappy dialogue in Steaming Milk is a particular treat. The ending will definitely surprise you, I would be interested to hear your reaction.

Such Is Life is a mild romantic comedy starring Helena Bergstrom (House of Angels). I enjoyed it although it was a little slow. I only saw the second half after having walked out of Ulysses' Gaze.

Sunday is a pretentious psychodrama about a homeless man who impersonates a famous director and gets entangled with an aging actress. Art-film buffs rave about the cinematography, and the script does contain flashes of brilliance, but the film is much too long and too much footage is either incoherent or irrelevant.

Supermarket Woman, the latest offering from Japanese director Juzo Itami, does for supermarkets what his memorable Tampopo did for fast food. Gomo is the proprietor of the Honest Gomo supermarket. He is about to be driven out of business by evil competitor Bargains Galore, when he meets childhood girlfriend Tanako. Tanako spots all the shoddy practices in his store, and soon she has reshaped Honest Gomo into an unbeatable force. With Tampopo, A Taxing Woman, Minbo: The Subtle Art of Japanese Extortion (?), and now this film, Itami seems to have found a niche: satires about dishonest business practices, both entertaining and informative, which empower ordinary people to look out for themselves, reward honest business and punish others.

The Tit and the Moon is a bizarre romantic comedy about a young boy who likes breasts, from the director Bigas Lunas (Jamon Jamon, Golden Balls). Nine-year-old Tete, envious of his baby brother's access to his mother, finds a replacement in Estrellita, a visiting dancer. He must compete for her attention with his older brother Miguel, and from Estrellita's husband, Maurice, the farting Frenchman. Yes, this is a weird film, with strange imagery of the world the way a nine-year-old boy imagines it. You'll never look at a baguette the same way again.

Ulysses' Gaze: I walked out of Ulysses' Gaze after 40 of its 190 minutes, my only walkout so far out of 28 films. I just can't say enough bad things about the extended night shots, the dialogue which sounds more like recitations from a pretentious book, and the direction which leaves the normally fascinating Harvey Keitel lifeless. A real fan of auteur cinema told me that he appreciates "the cinematic language" and "the way the shots are framed"; as far as I'm concerned, there is no need to frame this film or its director, they're guilty, guilty, guilty! From now on I will take the advice I was given and avoid the films of Theo Angelopoulos.

The Unfish: I led you wrong on this one, folks. The Unfish isn't bad but it also isn't much more than a standard German/Austrian sex comedy, this time set as a fairytale in a mountain village.

The Unknown is a rediscovered silent classic from director Tod Browning (Freaks). Joan Crawford plays Nanon, the daughter of the owner of a Gypsy circus. Disgusted by men pawing her, she becomes close to Alonzo (Lon Chaney), a knife-thrower who has no hands. The plot just gets weirder from there. Joan Crawford is a screen presence even at 18 years of age, and Lon Chaney is magnificent as well. Browning and his stars provide a great plot and terrific acting, despite the limitations of silent cinema. The Alloy Orchestra came from Boston to provide excellent live music for this performance. The film is in excellent condition, although the text shots (which are many, this is a plot-heavy and therefore relatively talky silent film) appear to be of recent origin. One story is that The Unknown languished in the film vault because it was labelled "Unknown"; we are certainly fortunate that it has been found.

The Van is a pleasant lightweight comedy, I don't have much else to say. This is the third piece of Stephen Frear's comic trilogy (The Ten Commitments and The Snapper).

Viva Erotica is an amusing but unremarkable comedy/drama about a young film director who takes a job directing a porno flick.

The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage: This is an interesting but unremarkable documentary about the making of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Film buffs will appreciate it.