SIFF 2001 Reviews

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These are the final versions of my 2001 SIFF reviews, which differ slightly from the postings I made during the festival. I have cleaned up some formatting, added ratings where they were missing, recalibrated ratings to a -- to ++ scale, and tweaked a few ratings for consistency's sake.

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Ali-Zaoua (rating: neutral to +): This tearjerker follows three teen and preteen street children in the back alleys of Casablanca (Morocco). The kids are cute, their plight is tragic. The film pushes the right buttons, about like you would expect.

Amy's Orgasm (rating: +) is a cute, enjoyable, pop-psychology-profound sex comedy directed by and starring Julie Davis (who also directed All Over the Guy). A young woman writes a best-selling self-help book on why women don't need men, but finds her resolve challenged when she meets a charming shock-jock. Amy's Orgasm should play well at multiplexes if it ever gets distribution; right now it's still on video pending additional funds.

Animal (rating: +) is the heart warming, epic story of a love forbidden by society, by custom, and ... OK, I'm pulling your leg. It's about a guy who falls in love with a sheep, and for some reason his family just doesn't understand. The humor is about at the level you'd expect. Not ROTFL but funny, with a couple images you won't soon forget.

The Anniversary Party (rating: neutral): Passable indie co-starring Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh who were also co-directors and came to the premiere. The Anniversary Party is more or less an updated The Big Chill, without the great music. Solid acting.

Barking Dogs Never Bite (rating: neutral): This amusing but unexceptional South Korean comedy follows several residents of a large apartment block and their sometimes unproductive relationships with small dogs.

Body and Soul (rating: +) is an archival rarity, a treat you can probably only catch at film festivals. Young Paul Robeson turns in a riveting performance as a preacher gone bad, in this 1925 silent produced by and for the African-American community.

Born In Absurdistan (rating: neutral) is a light, somewhat political comedy about the immigration controversy in modern Austria. When the babies of an Austrian and a Turkish couple are switched at birth, the two couples must learn to work together.

Bread and Tulips (rating: +): Enjoyable comedy about an unappreciated housewife who comes into her own in Venice.

Brother (rating: -): This clichéd yakuza flick from Takeshi "Beat" Kitano isn't his strongest, but it is watchable enough. An exiled gangster (played by Kitano) from Japan's criminal underworld relocates to Los Angeles, where he rebuilds a crime family. The basic theme is that Japanese yakusa are a breed apart from their weak American counterparts. Many elements are Tarantino-esque, but the pacing is more relaxed, with brief but intense violent interludes.

Canone Inverso (rating: -) tried to follow in the footsteps of The Red Violin, but its stilted and heavy-handed dialogue doomed it to failure. This melodrama, set around Vienna just before the Nazi occupation with framing devices in Prague Spring and 1990-ish, hits just about every cliché of the Eurofilm genre: obsessive musicians, young lovers separated by fate, mistaken identity, long-lost relatives, Nazis storming a concert hall ala The Sound Of Music, and even a violin followed through the years. Over and over, the actors are forced to mouth deep truths about the consolations of music, as opposed to talking like human beings. Gabriel Byrne is cruelly misused, and the less said of the romantic interest, the better. It's a shame, I liked the director's earlier work Vite Strozzate, although I didn't like The Red Violin as much as some. In the post-film discussion, the director noted that Canone Inverso is adapted from a novel; perhaps the clunky dialogue worked better on paper.

Chopper (rating: +) is a fascinating but disturbing character study of the paranoid murderer Mark "Chopper" Read, a famous author and celebrity in his native Australia. This may do for actor Eric Bana what Romper Stomper did for the career of his countryman Russell Crowe, although it isn't quite as violent.

Diary of a Chambermaid (rating: ++): This archival classic from Luis Bunuel stars Jeanne Moreau as a Parisian chambermaid who takes a position in a country manor. The degenerate and somewhat surreal habits of the manor's owners brings to mind Bunuel's Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which came out eight years later.

Disco Pigs (rating: ++): This supercharged character study isn't for everyone, but it is one of my favorites this year. Boy "Pig" and girl "Runt" are soul mates, inseparable from birth, speaking their own private dialect. Pig's devotion to Runt is matched by a sociopathic and occasionally violent indifference toward everyone else. As they reach adolescence, emerging sexuality begins to interfere with their previously chaste relationship. The lead actors (including Elaine Cassidy from Felicia's Journey) are mesmerizing.

Diva (rating: neutral): This is Jean-Jacques Beneix's first film, shown as part of this year's Beneix retrospective. It has never been one of my favorites of his. Diva is visually stunning, but the characterizations are weak, the dialogue is unlikely, and the plot is all over the place. Beneix tries to make "deep" statements about Art, Love etc., but doesn't really succeed. Diva does succeed as eye candy, and to a certain extent as a thriller, but has problems as a complete package. Mortal Transfer is much more accessible, and less pretentious.

Divided We Fall (rating: +++) was acclaimed by passholder balloting as the best nonarchival of SIFF 2001. Among the SIFF films I saw, I concur with that judgment. (I actually saw Divided We Fall a couple weeks after the festival.) Divided We Fall is the quiet, uplifting, and alternately nail-biting and hilarious story of a Czech couple who in the waning years of World War 2 hide a Jewish camp escapee in their apartment. Their unpremeditated heroism makes a socially relevant statement which starkly contrasts with Hollywood swashbuckling. Director Jan Hrebejk uses a realistic period style, with an unusual variant on undercranking at key "panic" moments. I recommend Divided We Fall to anyone except those who (1) absolutely will not watch subtitled films, or (2) are offended by films discussing the Holocaust using comedic content (Life Is Beautiful being a more extreme example).

England! (rating: --) follows a young Russian, ill from radiation poisoning, who bounces around the Russian immigrant underclass in Germany for a few months. This Chernobyl version of Midnight Cowboy is tragic and depressing and fairly boring. I can't think of anyone to whom I would recommend this.

Escape to Life (rating: ---) is a failed attempt at a documentary on the lives of Erika and Klaus Mann, the eldest children of Thomas Mann. It is loaded with inept re-enactments, and the same stock footage as every documentary on the Nazi era. Perhaps there isn't enough material for a feature. I walked out.

The Foul King (rating: neutral to +) is a commercial Korean physical comedy about a put-upon clerk who becomes a pro wrestler.

Gen-X Cops (rating: -) is a weak example of the Hong Kong actioner.

Ghost World (rating: neutral to +): Much has been made of the alternative-comix origin of this story, but on film it is a fairly Hollywood coming-of-age story about a girl drifting through an aimless summer. American Beauty's sexpot Thora Birch is transformed into the cynical and decidedly unsexy Enid. Birch is ably supported by Steve Buscemi as the pitiable and much older eccentric she befriends (said to be a stand-in for cartoonist Robert Crumb). Ghost World is worth seeing, but don't expect anything too unusual in the story or presentation.

Ginger Snaps (rating +): Off-the-wall teen horror flick about two sisters with Goth tendencies. When elder sister Ginger first gets her period, she attracts the attention of what may be a werewolf and acts out a hilarious extended metaphor on puberty; younger sister Brigitte struggles to keep her under control. Ginger Snaps starts strong and clever but suffers from a conventional third act. Mimi Rogers is marvelous as their helpful but oblivious mother.

Hybrid (rating: + to ++) is a sentimental, unorthodox documentary on the life of Milford Beeghly, a farmer who pioneered the breeding of hybrid corn. The filmmaker, one of Beeghly's grandchildren, combines interviews with time-lapse photography and stop-motion animation to capture the spirit of a man tied deeply to the land. Strongly recommended for fans of documentaries and viewers with tolerance for unorthodox filmmaking.

If... (1968 archival; rating: --) is an allegorical film set in a British boarding school. Young Malcolm McDowell turns in a strong performance as student who rebels against the quasi-fascist school structure. Unfortunately, this film has not aged well; after a fine first act, it wallows around in visual games and failed experiments.

Ignorant Fairies (rating: -) hit me really wrong, although some friends liked it (and others agree with me). After her husband dies, his widow discovers his secret life in the homosexual community. The problem is, the mystery is fully unraveled about fifteen minutes, after which the film languishes with minimal plot. The gay characters and their alternative family are gushingly heartwarming, but the stereotypes are familiar and grate after a while. Paul suggests that the copy shown at SIFF may be missing several minutes from each reel; this would explain some glaring continuity issues. Only rabid fans of gay cinema are likely to put up with Ignorant Fairies.

Investigating Sex (rating: -): Long-time director Alan Rudolph (Choose Me, Afterglow) disappoints Seattle again with this period piece set around 1929. Investigating Sex imagines the circumstances in which the Dadaist Recherché de la Sexualite might have been produced, but from this rich raw material, Rudolph pulls an uninteresting farce populated by callow twentysomethings. Nick Nolte does his over-the-top best to rescue Investigating Sex (as with Rudolph's earlier Breakfast of Champions), assisted by the still-sumptuous Tuesday Weld, and the costumes and sets are first-class. Unfortunately, they cannot overcome the weak dialogue and muddled plot.

Jackpot (rating: neutral) is a road-trip film about an aspiring Karaoke singer paying his dues on the road. It's a bit more than a one-joke wonder, but not much more. I was hoping for better from the Polish brothers (Twin Falls Idaho).

The King Is Alive (rating: --, motion-sickness warning) is a Dogma 95-compliant melodrama about a group of tourists who are stranded in a Sahara ghost town and decide to put on a production of King Lear to pass the time. This is a pretty contrived concept, plus I hate Dogma 95, but it had its moments of solid acting.

Lalee's Kin (rating: +) is a TV documentary on the grinding poverty in a rural Mississippi county. It has two focuses. One is on Lalee, an African-American woman struggling to raise a large brood of grandchildren and great-grandchildren in a collection of trailers. The other is on the superintendent of schools tasked with raising test scores high enough to get off "probation". Expect to see this on PBS.

Miracles (rating: +) is a Jackie Chan screwball comedy from 1989. It ran a little longer than I would have liked, a little too much exposition, but the comedy is genial and clever and the fight scenes are top-flight.

Mortal Transfer (rating: ++) is a comic S&M film noir. A hack psychiatrist is drawn into a web of intrigue when his beautiful patient turns up dead on his couch. Who did it, if not him, and why? Plenty of hide-the-corpse humor, plenty of bent sex, and a handsome film as might be expected from the director of Betty Blue and IP5. Mortal Transfer should play well to most adult audiences. This showing was preceded by two hours of interview and clips with director Jean-Jacques Beneix.

Nang Nak (rating: neutral) is an ghost story set in ancient Thailand. The pacing is slow by American standards, and the dialogue spare and poorly subtitled, but the setting is gorgeous and exotic. This is a good pick for foreign movie fans looking for something different.

O (rating: +): One could easily expect the worst from a modern retelling of Othello with prep school basketball players, but this actually comes out fairly well, about as successfully as Clueless follows Jane Austen's Emma. O stays quite close to the plot of Othello, and holds to a seriousness of purpose. This is not an MTV-inspired teen flick. I do wonder who is the intended audience; adults generally won't want to see films where the main characters are all teenagers, and teenagers will likely be put off by the adult themes and pacing.

The Princess and the Warrior (rating: +): Tom Tykwer is one of my favorite directors (Deadly Maria, Wintersleepers, Run Lola Run). Although his films share some distinctive stylistic elements, each has been markedly different from its predecessors, and The Princess and the Warrior is no exception. Audiences expecting the relentless energy of Run Lola Run may come away disappointed, but those taking this film on its own terms will find plenty to like. Princess... follows the story of Sissi (Franka Potente, the red-haired girl from Run Lola Run), a mental hospital nurse living a circumscribed life. Sissi has a chance encounter with small-time criminal Bodo which ultimately transforms both of their lives. Tykwer's usual themes of fate and chance are in full force, as is his audacious visual style. The Princess and the Warrior is really more comparable to Wintersleepers, although with more likeable characters.

Smell Of Camphor (rating: -) follows an Iranian film director (the actual director) through a series of crises involving abused wives, missing persons, conflict with Islamic authorities, and a stolen gravesite. This meditation on mortality has its moments, but the director doesn't have the screen presence to be in every frame and carry the film.

The Stranger (rating: neutral) is a low-key noirish thriller about a young Mexican woman looking to sell a kilo of cocaine in Vienna. Passable all around, but nothing special in setting, script, or acting.

Sun Alley (rating neutral): Absurdist comedy about growing up on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. Call it "Porky's meets the Commissar." This should break some misconceptions about life in the former East Germany, and reinforce some others.

Tears of the Black Tiger (rating: ++) is a sort of "Pad-Thai Western", a conscious imitation of the classic movie Westerns, but set in 1950s Thailand. The images are digitally altered to look like Technicolor, but tend more toward bright primary colors than toward the grays and browns of the American West. The tone overall falls between homage and parody, with every element hyped up and enhanced; the plot is supercharged melodrama, the violence is splattering ultraviolence, the scenery is digitally enhanced lush paradise. Many of the genre's typical camera tricks are brought front-and-center: for example, scenes in an automobile are typically shot in a stationary prop cars with artificial passing scenery, but here the car and occupants are in Technicolor and the exterior is in black-and-white. It's definitely something different to see Asian bandits with blatantly fake moustaches riding horses through the Thai countryside. Film buffs will enjoy this most. Miramax will be the American distributor.

Thomas In Love (rating: + to ++) is science fiction set in the near future around 2020. Thomas (the protagonist) is a severe agoraphobe who neither leaves his apartment nor lets anyone else in; he only interacts with the world by videophone. The high concept is that the entire film is a record of his videophone interactions; we never see the protagonist, we only hear his voice and see and hear his video screen. This works surprisingly well, and the script invests some drama in Thomas' relationships with his mother, psychiatrist, women he meets through a dating service (and prostitutes he meets through his insurance), and other daily interactions. I like science fiction, and was intrigued by the depiction of the economic and social world of the near future. There is also some meat here, in the interplay between the technology which makes it possible for Thomas to fully indulge his phobia, counterbalanced by the limited willingness of others to connect emotionally by remote.

The Weight of Water (rating: neutral) is an American mystery/drama, starring big names Sean Penn, Sarah Polley and Elizabeth Hurley. The plot moves between two modern-day couples vacationing on a sailboat, and the mid-19th-century murder of two Norwegian immigrant women. It's meant to be deep but comes off a bit pretentious, perhaps some dead weight from being adapted from a novel. Basically this is the American version of Eurotrash. Director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days) puts together a pretty film, although the editors cut a little too quick for my tastes. That said, The Weight of Water kept my interest, and no movie in which Elizabeth Hurley rolls an ice cube over her half-bikini-clad body can be all bad in my book. (Hurley actually turns in an OK performance, and seems to take the sex-kitten moments, of which there are many, in good humor.) BTW, I liked Strange Days.

Will Full (rating: neutral): Comedy/tearjerker in the quirky Australian vein. Only Cat can see the ghost of her flamboyant mother; much wacky bonding ensues. Strong performances in the lead roles make up for an all-too-familiar plot.

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