These reviews were originally posted on the listserv email@example.com, which is now firstname.lastname@example.org.
An Affair of Love (actual title is A Pornographic Affair): One of my favorites so far. A man and woman meet to fulfill a sexual fantasy through a personal ad, then struggle as their relationship deepens past the merely carnal. At times both erotic and touching, the film explores the barriers to communication, and how sex and love intermingle.
Aimee and Jaguar: (rating: neutral) This is a melodrama set in the Jewish Lesbian resistance in 1944 Berlin. It is best known in this country as the film that got the Foreign Language Oscar nomination instead of Run Lola Run. The central romance is between a Nazi housewife and mother whose husband is away on the Eastern Front, and a woman newspaper editor who is secretly a member of said resistance.
This film made a bad impression on me from the beginning (as always, your mileage may vary). I hadn’t picked up on the press that this was nominally a true story (based on a book which is based on the reminiscence of one of the main characters). Without that press, the notion that there was a Jewish Lesbian resistance in the last days of Nazi Berlin is fairly ludicrous, and the incautious behavior and Hogan's Heroes-like exploits of its participants in the film is even more ludicrous.
The film should be credited with excellent period work and mostly solid acting with some over-the-top moments. My objections are in two areas:
Audition (rating: --): Gruesome low-budget horror film which went beyond what I can deal with. The first hour is a somewhat disjointed, occasionally forboding story of an aging widower and his ruse of using an casting call to find a new wife. Then the story veers suddenly into graphic horror, with some particular images which touched a sore spot with me and sent me (and many others) running. Even without the unwatchable bits, I don't think Audition had much going for it.
Blood Simple (rating: ++), the audacious first film by Joel and Ethan Coen (Raising Arizona, Fargo), is a dead-on thriller in the film noir style of past generations. A young wife (Frances Dormand) and her virile lover, a jealous husband and his sleazy detective -- what more could you ask for? Expect to stay on the edge of your seat. Blood Simple is definitely among my favorites of this or any SIFF.
Butterfly: (rating: neutral to +) This is yet another Luminous Reminiscence of Childhood, this time set in Republican Spain, and should appeal to fans of Peppermint and the like.
Bossa Nova: entertaining, inconsequential Brazilian sex comedy
Carriers Are Waiting: rating: neutral. Comedy/drama about a dysfunctional family, with some very amusing and some very affecting situations. Benoit Poelvoorde gives an excellent performance as the manic father, but everyone else is a bit flat.
Chuck and Buck (rating: +): This unsettling low-budget psychodrama depicts two childhood friends meeting for the first time since their youth. Chuck has long since matured and become a successful executive, while Buck (writer/star Mike White) remains emotionally childlike. Buck also holds on to a piece of unfinished business and is determined to revisit it with the reluctant Chuck. Opens in Seattle July 21.
Criminal Lovers: rating: -. I have officially decided that the schlock-psycho-horror movies of director Francois Ozon (See The Sea) are not for me.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (rating: ++): Luis Bunuel's surreal and hilarious comedy from 1972 has aged well. Six well-heeled socialites face the typical problems of their class, such as soldiers on maneuver in the living room, bishops working the garden, and restaurants in mourning.
The Dreamlife of Angels: Possibly my favorite so far. Two young women on the fringes of society confront poverty and alienation. One struggles to find work and friendship, the other gives in to contempt and despair. This is a quiet, personal film, somewhat handheld. Dreamlife is sort of an archival presentation, it played in last year's SIFF and returned to accompany director Erick Zonca's newer (and reputedly inferior) film Little Thief.
Eve: rating: - to --. This French New Wave archival from 1962 stars Jeanne Moreau as a ball-busting lady of questionable repute who destroys the lives of a jet-set writer and his young fiancée. The print is fine, but the film has not aged well. It tries to be a study of “the true nature of women and men,” but it just doesn’t fly in this emancipated age. I would have rated this a definite double-minus except that the subtitles on this print of the multi-lingual (primarily English) film were not in English (Swedish and Danish?), so I probably missed something there.
The Five Senses (+) is a quiet, touching and thought-provoking naturalistic drama centered on five thirtyish adults struggling with loneliness and lack of connection. Each represents one of the five senses. Opens in Seattle 7/28.
Gigantic: rating: neutral. This is a run-of-the-mill German buddy/road film about three guys and their last night together.
Girlfight (rating: neutral to +): Engaging drama about a high-school girl who trains as a serious boxer (back before it was cool). This does well capturing the feel of life in the projects and the culture surrounding boxing (as far as I can tell), but the love story is a little weak.
Green Desert: Mediocre, predictable melodrama about two child friends and their dysfunctional families.
The Hand Behind The Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story: (rating: +) This is a well-made documentary/hagiography of Walt Disney collaborator Ub Iwerks, in roughly the same mold as the earlier Frank and Ollie. Iwerks was Walt Disney’s first collaborator and the first illustrator of Mickey Mouse. He made lasting contributions to cinema both in animation technique and through his Oscar-winning technical innovations. The film was directed by Ub Iwerks' granddaughter (present at the screening) and financed by Disney.
A Happy Accident (+) is a romantic film pairing Marisa Tomei and Vincent D'Onofrio. Both turn in solid performances, with D'Onofrio somewhat reprising his role in The Whole Wide World. A woman struggling with codependence meets a man who claims to be a time-traveler from the future; will she set him straight, dump him in the "Ex Files", or take him for what he claims to be? Handheld camera warning -- I always get motionsick once at the beginning of the festival, but I know I wasn't alone here.
Herod’s Law: rating: ++. Herod’s Law is an outrageous black comedy about mordida culture, set in Mexico around 1949. A clownish party hack is sent to a dirt-poor Indian village with a history of lynching corrupt mayors. You may be surprised by the direction this takes midway.
Kikujiro (rating: ++): This darling but difficult-to-describe film follows a young boy and older man on a road trip across Japan, ostensibly to visit the boy’s mother. Their difficult and halting journey is portrayed with childlike/magical images, a sense of play, and a wicked sense of humor. Takeshi (Beat) Kitano, the director and star, gives a subdued, Chaplin-esque performance as a never-do-well whose heart is softened by his friendship with the boy. The soundtrack deserves special commendation.
Kirikou and the Sorceror: Very good animated film for children, from France with an African folktale flavor. Assertive newborn Kirikou’s village is threatened by a mean sorceress -- but is she evil, or just misunderstood? Bright colors, African music, and an oh-so-French attitude toward animated nudity.
Little Thief: rating: +. A baker's apprentice gets fed up with life as a wage-slave, but finds the criminal underworld to be less glamorous than he had hoped. Director Erick Zonca's (The Dreamlife of Angels) latest offering also portrays the hardships suffered by young people in the marginalized underclass, but it is even bleaker than its predecessor. I prefer Dreamlife, which has at least one character (Isa) who has the spirit to struggle against her difficulties with grace and energy. Preceded by 30-minute short Alone, also by Zonca, a predecessor to Dreamlife.
Looking for Alibrandi (rating: +): Australia has become known for its quirky comedies, and Looking for Alibrandi clearly wants to be counted among them. It succeeds, mostly. A high-school girl, attending a tony Catholic school on scholarship, struggles with two flirtations, one long-absent father, and an overabundance of embarrassing Sicilian relatives.
Love's Labour Lost (Opening Night): Kenneth Branaugh’s fourth adaptation of Shakespeare (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet; I don’t include Midwinter’s Tale), while an entertaining lark, falls short of the quality of his previous works. The strength of his previous works was in staying close to the emotional power of the original works, resisting the temptation to "do something new" with them by playing with the staging, language etc. This time, however, Branaugh adapts just such a high-concept strategy by reimagining Love’s Labor Lost as a Thirties musical.
The music (featuring Cole Porter and the like) is good, the dance sequences are good (except for Alicia Silverstone who is badly miscast), and the sets and costumes are fine. The problem is more basic. Love’s Labour Lost is a spotty plot under the best of circumstances, generally recognized as one of Shakespeare’s lesser works, presenting a challenge to any director trying to fill in the characters and make them interesting. Here, with so many of the film's 93 minutes devoted to musical numbers and faux newsreels, the main characters remain basically parodies and ciphers.
That said, Love's Labours Lost is fun to watch, and full of subtle and less-subtle cinematic references. It's better than most of what you'll see in your local multiplex.
Magic of Marciano (rating: neutral): Earnest family melodrama about a young boy in a difficult family situation. Natassja Kinski stars as his somewhat unstable mother, and Robert Forster appears as an older man who tries to help. It's watchable enough, but has little to distinguish it from a hundred other such films. I walked out a few minutes before the end, but only to catch the much-talked-about Audition...
Malli: Darling “Luminous View of Childhood”, this time focusing on a tribal Indian (as in the subcontinent) girl living in a national reserve. Malli and her deaf friend Cuckoo act out their eccentric fantasy life in the lush forest.
Manolito Four Eyes: rating: ++. This is a darling children's film about a young boy encountering typical childhood frustrations with school, his mother, his younger brother, and the unfairness of life in general. The situations are kept at a believable, human scale (unlike, say, Home Alone), and the wit should be accessible to both children and adults.
Milk: British comedy of manners about a family meeting after the death of their unpleasant matriarch. Funny, light, occasionally off-color.
Mobutu, King of Zaire: rating: -. This does a good job of detailing the rise and fall of Congolese/Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and contains some good interviews. However, these are interleaved with too much irrelevant footage of Zairian state pomp and circumstance. Rather than relying on footage to tell its story, it tells its story via voiceover. It should have been much shorter than the current 135 minutes.
Nobody Knows Anybody (rating: neutral to +): This Spanish supernatural thriller kept me on the edge of my seat, although the third act was a little disappointing.
Nowhere To Hide: A Korean Dirty Harry, mixing every cop cliché with bold and bright cinematography and music. The ultraviolence could be off-putting for some, but the combination of action and beauty kept my interest.
Passion of Mind is female wish-fulfillment in its most virulent form. Demi Moore plays a supermother who dreams at night that she is a super-career-woman, or is it the other way around? Therapists are no help in either life (as is always the case in the movies) but love conquers all. Women are supposed to weep, personally I may need surgery to make my eyes stop rolling. Demi Moore seems to be moving in on Barbara Streisand’s turf here (c.f. Prince of Tides).
Peppermint: rating: neutral to +. This fits into my category of “Luminous And Heartwarming Reminiscence Of Childhood," a pretty mild and positive childhood as movie upbringings go. I found it a little cliched and predictable but most passholders liked it.
Rebels With a Cause (rating: ++) is a powerful, well-constructed documentary giving an inside look at the founding, rise, achievements, and flameout of SDS, or Students for a Democratic Society. Starting as a small left-wing student organization at the University of Michigan, SDS started out in the civil rights movement, then rose to national prominence fighting against the Vietnam War through mass rallies, “teach-ins” and its dramatic occupation of Columbia University. The director/producer, herself an SDS veteran, built this documentary out of a series of interviews with SDS leaders; they prove themselves to be thoughtful and committed activists with pride and a sense of perspective over their participation in “The Movement”.
Relative Values (rating: +), this year's Sneak Preview, is a drawing-room comedy clearly based on a play by Noel Coward. The star-studded cast is headed by Julie Andrews, playing the matriarch of a British estate beset by various droll family dilemmas. Ms. Andrews still has abundant screen presence, and the supporting cast, including William Baldwin, Jeanne Tripplehorn and the utterly perfect Stephen Fry, hold up their end. Relative Values is a trifle, but a very amusing one.
A Rumour of Angels (Closing Night) (rating: +): If you're into feel-good family dramas, this one's for you. A young boy, mourning the loss of his mother and the too-soon remarriage of his father (Ray Liotta), is befriended by reclusive Mattie Bennett (Vanessa Redgrave), an elderly lady herself in need of healing.
Shower (rating: ++), director Zhang Yang's second film (after Spicy Love Soup) won the Space Needle awards for Best Film and Best Director, as well as a very high rating from the passholder poll. An elderly man and his retarded son run a shabby but lively bathhouse (no, it's just for bathing, this isn't San Francisco) for an ever-aging clientele; as the days count down before the bathhouse and neighborhood are to be demolished for a giant project, a long-absent businessman brother pays a final visit. Shower is a cinematic reflection on "progress" and its costs, as well as a touching family film. I don't count it among my absolute favorites, but this sentimental, well-acted and thoughtful film is worth seeing in the theater or on video.
Solas ("Alone"): This is a mostly-bleak urban drama about a mother and daughter reunited by the illness of their abusive husband/father. The acting is first-rate.
The Sound and the Fury: This informative political documentary explores the debate within the deaf community over cochlear implants, which can restore partial hearing to children who would once have been incurably deaf. A grandmother with one deaf and one hearing son pushes for implants for her two deaf grandchildren, but the deaf son and daughter-in-law are opposed. Many heated sign-language arguments ensue. The film could be shorter, but the questions it raises about the nature of community are fascinating.
Spicy Love Soup: rating: neutral to +. Spicy Love Soup is a good-hearted romantic comedy, built around five vignettes of the trials and triumphs of modern love. Chinese-language.
Sunshine (rating: +): This three-hour epic by Istvan Szabo follows a Hungarian Jewish family through three generations, as they are buffeted by the turmoils of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Hungarian Fascist state, and the Communists. Ralph Fiennes plays three generations of patriarchs, managing to make them distinct enough to not confuse. The film succeeds in representing these great events on a personal level, and the characters are reasonably interesting in their own right. Sunshine will probably be somewhat more interesting to Jewish viewers (like myself) than to others.
Than Brother’s Restaurant: rating: +. No, this isn’t a movie, it’s a newly-opened restaurant near the Harvard Exit. Than Brothers’ serves only Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup), cheap, fast, and in generous portions. It’s a great place to grab a meal between weekend showings. Beware of the “eye-round steak,” it is served raw although the menu isn’t specific about this; check with your waitperson before ordering.
To Die (Or Not): My first walkout of the Festival. This high-concept Spanish stinker is a series of semi-related vignettes about life-and-death decisions. The dialogue is atrocious, the direction is amateurish, the whole thing is pointless.
Tuvalu: rating: neutral. This surreal, near-wordless, sepiatone weirdness is basically an imitation of Jeunet & Caro (Delicatessen), only not quite as good. This one is difficult to rate; the general public won't go for this, but fans of silent film technique should be overjoyed.
Under the Sun (rating: +): This luminous romance stars Helena Bergstrom (House of Angels) as a mysteriuos woman who enters the life of a lonely bachelor farmer. Under the Sun is a little predictable but very sweet, and the sweeping cinematography fills the Cinerama screen nicely.
Urbania: rating: neutral. Lead character Charlie (Dan Futterman) likes to collect urban legends, and winds up trying to create a couple of his own. This microbudget indie starts with the interesting premise of following urban legends, but it lost some of my interest when it changed into a Gay Studies film. Futterman has some charisma, but doesn’t have enough to do to spend that much time on screen. Urbania looks pretty good for the $200K shooting budget; the director said that it was shot on Super-16, transferred entirely to digital, and printed on 35mm. This should play well to the gay community when it opens in September.
Venus Beauty Institute: rating: +. French romantic drama starring Nathalie Baye (Elle from An Affair of Love) as a fortyish beautician with a fear of relationships. Venus Beauty Institute uses the tititular beauty salon to discuss issues of gender, appearance, age, and social class, without the talkiness characteristic of e.g. Rohmer.
Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes (rating: +): This interesting and well-balanced documentary tells the cautionary tale of larger-than-life porn star John Holmes, and gives a peek into the pornographic film industry of the 70s and 80s. The hit film Boogie Nights was a fictionalized version of Holmes' life, based mostly on stories he told about himself. Director Cass Paley interviewed Holmes' wives, mistresses, business partners and co-workers to try to untangle the truth from Holmes' constant fabrications. Paley mostly succeeds, although he also shows several points where the interviewees flatly contradict one another. What seems clear is that (1) Holmes was unusually well-suited for his line of work, and (2) Holmes could not handle cocaine. Be warned that this film (at least the version shown at SIFF) contains many explicit clips from Holmes' films, and is therefore completely unsuitable for, well, lots of people.
What Becomes of the Brokenhearted (rating: +): This sequel to 1994's devastating Once Were Warriors, directed now by Ian Mune rather than Lee Tamahori, follows the characters of Jake Heke (Temuera Morrison) and his children a few years later. Estranged from his wife Beth (Rena Owen, now in a minor role), Jake still struggles to control his temper with his girlfriend and out in public. Meanwhile, his two boys, whom he hasn't seen in years, get mixed up in gang activity. What Becomes... is at its best sharing the strength of its predecessor, an unflinching look at family violence at the most personal and unromanticized level. Unfortunately, director Mune has chosen to punch up the sequel as a traditional actioner, depicting the gangs with attitudes, sets and costumes reminiscent of Mad Max. Even in this actioner mode, What Becomes... is quite watchable, and Temuera Morrison acquits himself well as the central character. It is more of an exciting film than its predecessor, but packs less emotional punch.
When The Rain Lifts: rating: +. This quiet moral parable, about a skilled and gentle samurai who is perhaps too skilled and gentle for his own good, earned unanimous praise in today's screening. Much is made of the script having originated with late Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, but it is nothing like his early Western-style epics and only somewhat reminiscent of his later work.
The Wisdom of Crocodiles: Stylish thriller starring Jude Law as a seducer with a special agenda. I liked it.