SIFF 1999 Reviews

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Aguirre, The Wrath Of God: This classic from Werner Herzog is still breathtaking, although the soundtrack is somewhat dated. Herzog's camerawork around the Amazon jungle is memorable, and Klaus Kinski as the mad conquistador Aguirre is a classic figure of modern cinema.

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me: If you liked the first Austin Powers film, you'll probably like this one. The sequel is loaded with even more in-jokes and gross-out humor, including one sequence which had me in stitches and a hundred others which fell flat. Let's just hope this is the last one.

Battleship Potemkin: Eisenstadt's famous silent film has not aged well, but it retains some of its power. By modern standards, the acting is overstated, and the politically charged plot unsubtle. However, the images are classics, including the famous baby-carriage-on-the-steps.

As for the live accompaniment, the Bellevue Philharmonic did a creditable job (IANA classical music critic) with the Shostakovich medley used in this showing, but the exercise serves to prove that film scoring is a specialized activity. No canned music chosen afterward can ever fit the action as well as a custom score, especially for silent films where musical accompaniment is more critical.

The Book of Stars: This latest melodrama from Shadowcatcher Entertainment (Smoke Signals, Getting to Know You) is a real disappointment. Decent performances fail make up for to shallow characterizations (it feels like it is based on a short story rather than a novel), predictability, and lack of a sense of place. Other attendees at this premiere agreed.

Breakfast of Champions: Those familiar with Kurt Vonnegut Jr's work must be thinking that a film version of this novel would have to be a very strange film, and indeed it is. I went to see it despite the negative recommendations and I was not disappointed, although I could never recommend it to anyone. There are some excellent scenes and images here, although it doesn't all hang together. Bruce Willis, Nick Nolte, and Albert Finney head an all-star cast chewing the scenery for all it's worth. Willis (with whose money this was apparently filmed), Nolte and director Alan Rudolph were on hand to set expectations and answer a few questions.

Buena Vista Social Club: Fascinating documentary about the famous music group, marred by tricky and obnoxious camerawork by Wim Wenders which distracts from the music and made me motionsick. The Buena Vista Social Club is a big Cuban band anchored by Ibrahim Ferrer and other once-forgotten superstars of the pre-Castro era, brought together by guitarist/producer/film-composer Ry Cooder. The highlights of this film are live footage of concerts and recording sessions, plus interviews with a dozen or so of the musicians.

Buttoners: This series of loosely connected shorts, tied up in the end ala Seinfeld, has its moments of bizarre Czech humor but is very uneven.

Chutney Popcorn: Harmless sitcom/drama about a young lesbian who agrees to "help out" her infertile sister. All the jokes and stereotypes you might expect are present and accounted for.

The Dinner Game: This year's SIFF opening night featured The Dinner Game (, a broad French farce. The "dinner game" is a weekly dinner held by wealthy friends who compete to invite the biggest idiot to a dinner party. When snobbish Pierre Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) invites Francois Pignon (Jacques Villeret) as his unknowing object of derision, Pierre's life unravels faster than he would have dreamed possible. This low-budget comedy had more than enough sidesplitting moments to earn my recommendation.

Earth: This second installment of Deepa Mehta's elemental trilogy (Fire) is a polemical drama set in Lahore during the partition of the British colony of India into two separate nations, India and Pakistan. Many American viewers probably aren't aware of the extent of the massacres and population displacement between Hindus, Islamists and Sikhs. The film centers on Lenny, a young Farsi girl (a small ethnic minority which remained neutral), and her nanny (played by the always radiant Nandita Das). As it becomes clear that Lahore will be granted to Pakistan, ethnic tensions flare and the circle of friends gathered around Nandita falls apart. Mehta's dialogue is heavy-handed and seems intended to rub the noses of modern Hindu and Islamic nationalists in what both sides did during this conflict. Still, the film is interesting and well-put-together, and ought to raise as much controversy as did the earlier Fire.

Getting to Know You: This unassuming indie melodrama weaves together several narratives into a powerful whole, so far one of my two favorites of the festival (next to Lovers of the Arctic Circle). 16-year-old Judith (Heather Matarazzo), spending the afternoon waiting at a bus station with her college-bound brother Wesley (Zach Braff), strikes up a conversation with talkative stranger Jimmy (Michael Weston). As Jimmy relates to her possibly-invented stories about the others in the station, her own real story comes to the foreground. Based on several short stories by Joyce Carol Oates, this new offering from local production company Shadowcatcher Entertainment is a wonderful showcase for the talents of these young actors, especially the homely but poised Heather Matarazzo (Welcome to the Dollhouse). After seeing Getting To Know You, I've changed my mind about The Red Violin, at least as far as my criticism of its multiple-vignette format. Getting To Know You shares the same format (to a slightly lesser degree). The real problem with The Red Violin is that I never came to care about any of the characters. I'm not sure that I can explain why that is though.

Insomnio: After walking out of Xiao Wu I headed in this direction, but I was warned by people walking out of Insomnio that the SIFF print of this Spanish-language film was neither dubbed nor subtitled.

The Interview: This low-budget Aussie police drama takes place almost entirely in a police interview room, as a haggard suspect tries to outsmart his wily questioners. I was on the edge of my seat most of the time, so I'll recommend this one, without giving anything away.

Jinnah left a seriously bad taste in my mouth, especially after seeing Deepa Mehta's _Earth_ (which covers the same time period and the same general topic) on Saturday. This laudatory biopic about Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, felt like nothing so much as a propaganda film for children, intended to justify his insistence on dividing India and the conflict this has engendered ever since. Jinnah himself is portrayed as a saint on a noble crusade, struggling against one-sided Hindu oppression and betrayed by the British and Lord Mountbatten. The dialogue is wooden and the whole film is dragged down by a noxious framing device. I suppose _Earth_ is just as much a propaganda film in its own way, but at least _Earth_ was artful and (by comparison) subtle.

The Last Contract: Tagline: Oliver Stone (JFK) meets Olaf Palme. This is a typical TV cop drama that just happens to be about the assassination of Olaf Palme. I'm not an expert on the subject, but I suspect this is mostly a paranoid fantasy. Engaging enough, somewhat stereotyped, could be shorter.

Last Night: Clever and thoughtful high-concept Canadian indie comedy/drama. If you knew when the world was going to end, what would you do on your last night? If everyone knew, how would society react? Writer/director/actor Don McKellar avoids disaster-movie cliches, concentrating instead on various characters and their choices.

Late August, Early September: This oh-so-French slice-of-life drama benefits from strong naturalistic performances, but suffers from poor camerawork, loose editing, and a miscast central figure.

Limbo: Noted indie director John Sayles (Lone Star, Passion Fish, and over a dozen other directorial credits) delivers yet again. Limbo has everything: a well-crafted storyline, good acting (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Sayles regular David Straithairn), characters you care about, and a sense of place. Why do so many films have trouble with this? Anyhow I don't want to give too much away. An itinerant lounge singer (Mastrantonio) passing through an Alaskan fishing village meets an ex-fisherman (Straithairn) with a history. When they set off on a sea voyage, things take an unexpected turn. It doesn't end the way you expect.

Limbo may not be Sayles' greatest film, but it stands head and shoulders above almost anything else. This extended SIFF showing featured a lengthy advance discussion with SIFF director Darryl Macdonald and a Q&A afterward.

The Little Girl Who Fell From A Tree: Adequate German thriller in the Fatal Instinct "<insert here> From Hell" vein. When Lisa moves into the apartment across from Jenny and Ben, vivacious Jenny pulls her into a close friendship; but something seems wrong. Who will prove to be the "Neighbor From Hell"? This kept me involved but not quite on the edge of my seat. This sort of film has been done to death IMHO.

The Loss of Sexual Innocence: Mike Figgis' new work, The Loss of Sexual Innocence (, is a loosely tied series of short stories filmed on Super-16 with the look of a film school production.  This had its moments but it is definitely an arthouse flick, and not among the best of those.

Lovers of the Arctic Circle: This romantic and compelling new melodrama from director Julio Medem (Vacas, The Red Squirrel), on the timeless theme of star-crossed young lovers, satisfies in pacing, cinematography, and performances. Unlike much frenetic Spanish cinema, Lovers... is calmly paced and relaxing. Classic date flick. I won't discuss the ending in order to avoid spoilage, but I welcome direct email on the subject.

My Son, The Fanatic: This latest from the writer of My Beautiful Laundrette is a watchable but unremarkable TV-movie centered on Parvez, a Pakistani cab driver with family problems. As Parvez's (Om Puri) involvement grows with a Hooker With A Heart Of Gold(tm) (Rachel Griffiths) and a decadent German businessman (Stellan Skarsgard), his son rebels into the arms of Islamic fundamentalists. Om Puri turns in a fine performance.

Only Clouds Move the Stars: Luminous Swedish drama about the wisdom of children. The film centers on a young-teen girl whose family is struck by the death of her younger brother. She finds the ability to cope with the help of a young friend, and must help her mother who is struggling. Features excellent child performances.

The Passion of Ayn Rand: I was a little disappointed in this, although it was quite watchable and contained some excellent performances. Helen Mirren is compelling as Ayn Rand and Peter Fonda is remarkable as her husband Frank O'Connor. Weaker but still tolerable is Julie Delpy as Barbara Branden, and a little below that is Eric Stoltz as Nathaniel Branden. The problem is in the treatment, which communicates the soap-opera aspects of their convoluted relationship but not their underpinnings in Rand's Objectivist philosophy. Why should we care about these people and their couplings, unless we understand what Ayn Rand is really about? If you are familiar with Rand's work (as I am) you will appreciate this more than otherwise. Also see the real-life Barbara Branden's home page ( for her take on the movie and other things. Expect a Showtime airing on May 30 (according to Branden's site).

On a related note, a laudatory documentary called Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life ( aired a while ago on PBS. It contained much detail on Rand's life although it was a little sketchy on the details the newer biopic emphasizes. I was disappointed though that it failed to answer two questions I went in hoping it would answer:

Pirates of Silicon Valley: This surprisingly entertaining fictionalized warts-and-all biopic depicts the legendary rise of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Anthony Hall is credible as Gates and Noah Wyle does an outstanding job portraying Jobs. The director insists that, while dialogue was invented, every scene is documented to be true. Watch for it on TNT starting June 20 with several encore presentations.

Porgy and Bess: This archival presentation started, in classic Cinerama fashion, with a lengthy overture while the curtains were still closed. Unfortunately, the movie itself was a disappointment. It filled the giant Cinerama screen nicely, and the sound was of course excellent, but the presentation was very stagy and bland, almost a filming of the opera rather than a movie. Sammy Davis Jr. and Pearl Bailey turn in strong performances in supporting roles (Sportin' Life and Maria), but Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge in the lead roles were less memorable. According to the SIFF presenter, this is the only known 70mm print (it belongs to a German collector and is in English with German subtitles), and is rarely shown due to a rights dispute.

Red Violin: This high-concept Euro-film follows an antique violin across three hundred years and five countries (Italy, Austria, Britain, China, US). The violin's story is told in five seperate vignettes, from its creation, to its sale at a tony New York auction house. It's a pretty enough film with an interesting premise. My problem with this conceit is that it doesn't give any of the actors enough time to do anything on screen. I also have to wonder how the producers can hope to recoup their investment from a film that is at least 60% subtitled in every filmgoing market.

Return With Honor: Well-made documentary about American POWs in North Vietnam, from the writers/producers of the Oscar-winning Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. Good pacing, interviews.

Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt): I wouldn't call this eighty-minute thrill ride the best film of SIFF 1999, but I can easily see why it was the number one audience favorite both among SIFF passholders and the cheering Capitol Hill SIFF crowd. Franka Potente (expect to see more of this fine young actress) plays Lola, a 20-or-so rebel with shocking red-dyed hair. In the first scene, she gets a call from her distraught lover Manni. His tryout as a drug courier has gone wrong; DM100,000 is missing, and in twenty minutes Manni will rob a supermarket to get it back, rather than face the gangster it belongs to. How will Lola get the money and get it to him, in twenty minutes? Stealing a march from Sliding Doors, director Tom Tykwer shows us three paths Lola could follow, and the effects of her choice ripple through their lives and many others.

Run Lola Run won't appeal to everyone; with its relentless pace and house-music beat, this film is definitely targeted to the MTV generation. Much of the action consists, literally, of Lola running, but this visceral image never loses its intensity. Director Tykwer (whose earlier films Deadly Maria and Wintersleepers, both past SIFF favorites, were much more sedate) mixes in a self-conscious melange of film media, moving from 35mm, to video, to animation, to photo montage. It does feel at times like a music video, but with characterization, and plot, and fantasy, and a never-ending stream of surprises. As for me, I want to see this again, and I want the soundtrack.

Santitos is an unlikely but enjoyable Mexican comedy with just a touch of magic realism. Esperanze, a mild housewife from central Mexico, just lost her only daughter to a hospital accident. She announces to her bewildered priest that she was visited by Saint Jude, and told to search for the "pink house" where she will find her daughter whom she believes was actually was abducted to a brothel. Esperanze searches through a series of houses of ill repute, making her peace with them in her own way, until she meets her special angel in Los Angeles. I'm sure this sounds strange but it actually works. I would rate Santitos among the better films so far.

Saturn: I forgot to write about this forgettable urban drama after seeing it on Friday. A young mechanic must take care of his ailing and increasingly senile father, and his life begins to fall apart. Some heartbreaking scenes, also some bad editing decisions.

Sekal Must Die: This Czech morality play is essentially a Western set during the German occupation. A mysterious stranger comes to town, and is chosen by the town elders to eliminate the local turncoat who has been terrorizing the town under Nazi protection. The good and evil characters are drawn perhaps too sharply, so that this verges on self-parody at times, but the basic dilemma and magnetic central character kept my attention.

Siam Sunset (Sneak Preview) Pleasant, forgettable Aussie comedy starring Linus Roache (Priest) as a man who suddenly begins to experience freak accidents.

Speak To Me Sisters: This is a decent documentary about apartheid, much like a hundred others (including the usual stock footage), but with the additional angle of telling the stories of several women involved in the struggle against apartheid.

Speedway Junky: In the vein of My Own Private Idaho (but not quite as brutal as Kids), Speedway Junky portrays young hustlers on the streets and alleys of Las Vegas. Johnny, a teenage runaway whose dream is to get to North Carolina and join a stockcar-racing team, runs out of cash in Vegas and falls in with a group of street kids. It's a fun film, brash and energetic, featuring some young sitcom stars whom I don't know, plus barely recognizable Daryl Hannah as yet another Hooker With A Heart of Gold (tm).

The Third Man: This classic set in postwar Vienna, directed by Carol Reed and written by Graham Greene, just looks that much better in this new print and on the big Cinerama screen.

Train Of Life: Life Is Beautiful meets Fiddler On the Roof. Stereotyped shtetl dwellers in France flee German deportation by embarking on a grand adventure, dressing some of their own as Germans and "deporting" themselves to Russia and then Palestine. I found this less interesting than Life Is Beautiful and more offensive.

Twin Falls Idaho: Did you hear the one about the Goth chick and the Siamese twins? You might think this would be a one-joke wonder, but actually Twin Falls Idaho is a thoughtful, subtle, and substantially weird comedy/drama with excellent performances by brothers Mark and Michael Polish (also directors/writers) and newcomer Michele Hicks. Highly recommended.

Water Easy Reach: This replacement screening for the no-show _Gomez: Heads Or Tails_ was populated 100% by passholders; who else would see a Norwegian movie no one had ever heard of at 9:30 on Tuesday? Anyhow the film itself is a very quiet story following the experiences of a Norwegian sailor stuck in a Spanish port, with most of the dialogue in English. This was just a little too slow even for my tastes, but pleasant enough, with an intriguing soundtrack.

West Beirut: Those who loved _Halfouine, Boy of the Terraces_ (and I count myself among them) will enjoy this story about children running free amid the civil war in Lebanon. An earlier posting predicts that this will open in August. Stewart Copeland deserves mention for the soundtrack.

When Love Comes: I was looking forward to this new film starring Rena Olin (from the devastating Once Were Warriors), and while it isn't really bad, I am definitely disappointed. Olin stars as Kate Keen, a washed-up pop singer searching for her roots. There are some interesting character interactions but the Streisand-esque bowing and scraping to the wise and lovely older woman got on my nerves.

Xiao Wu: I walked out after 15 minutes. Very slow, badly subtitled.

You Can Thank Me Later ... for warning you to avoid this film. This over-the-top family melodrama can't decide whether it should be pure slapstick/farce or a serious investigation of family dynamics, and succeeds at neither. The characters are annoying and their behavior inexplicable, and even Ellen Burstyn's performance as the neurotic family matriarch cannot make up for the senseless plotline. Although filmed in Canada with Canadian actors in English language, this film clearly shows its roots (producer/director) in the worst of Israeli cinema, with its unsubtle jabs at comedy and pathos at the expense of genuine characterization.


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