These reviews were originally posted on the listserv firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of past messages is available on http://groups.yahoo.com/group/fool-serious-discussion/messages.
These are the final versions of my 2002 SIFF reviews, which differ slightly from the postings I made during the festival. I have cleaned up some formatting, and tweaked a few ratings for consistency's sake.
Best Director: Julio Medem (Red Squirrel,
Sex and Lucia)
Best Cinematographer: Norman Cohn (Fast Runner)
Best Script: Das Experiment
Best Actor: Michael D'Ascenzo (Khaled)
Best Actress: Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher)
Best "Guilty Pleasure": Teknolust
24-Hour Party People (rating -): I'll admit it: I just didn't "get" this comedy. 24-Hour Party People follows the rise and fall of a punk rock impresario in Manchester UK. It has its moments, and someone with more emotional attachment to the punk scene might appreciate this more, but I found the characters shallow and uninteresting. Music is key to this movie and the characters speak in a difficult accent, so the lousy sound system in the Egyptian didn't help. Handheld camera warning.
Bungalow (rating: --): This boring and pointless film follows an apathetic young soldier who goes AWOL for no apparent reason. The characters are unlikable and uninteresting, and the few hints at a plot twist never go anywhere. The film is shot entirely flat, with no music and little dialogue.
Butterfly Smile (rating --): I walked out after an hour of this improbable, pretentious, molasses-slow morality play about a fashion designer/model who commits a hit-and-run accident. I wish I had seen less of it.
Cab for Three (rating neutral): A struggling taxi driver is coerced into driving the getaway car for a pair of street thugs, but finds that he likes the easy money and works with them to move to more renumerative targets. This social commentary on contemporary morality in Chile has its moments, but the acting is generally weak.
Catching Out (rating neutral/+) presents the world of the modern hobo, following the iconoclastic and fading tradition of catching rides on freight trains. About half a dozen young-to-middle-aged "tramps" tell their stories, and describe the allure of life riding the rails. The film could afford to be shortened, or given more depth in presenting the darker aspects (drug/alcohol use?) of checking out of "straight" society, but overall it was reasonably engaging.
Chicken Rice War (rating neutral) is an amusing teen comedy from Singapore, very loosely based on / mocking the story of Romeo and Juliet. It's a little offbeat but stays within the general parameters of a teen comedy.
Elling (rating +) is a mild, good-natured comedy from Norway. Two bewildered but harmless mental patients are de-institutionalized into an apartment in Oslo, and gradually learn to make their way in life with the help of a social worker and a few friends. I have heard that a Hollywood remake is already in the works with Kevin Spacey and Gerard Depardieu. (I can't help wondering how this story will work with the American welfare system rather than the Norwegian system. Maybe they get tossed into the street and survive by dint of aggressive panhandling?)
Das Experiment (rating: ++) is a taut psychological thriller, based on a novel which is itself based on the Milgram Experiment and Stanford Prison Experiment from the early 1970s. A group of volunteers, interested mostly in the money, sign up for an experiment where they will spend 14 days role-playing prisoners and guards. Both "prisoners" and "guards" quickly demonstrate the emotional consequences of their situation, as the guards resort to increasingly harsh measures to control the prisoners' behavior. When the experimenters' surveillance breaks down, the situation spirals out of control. This is my pick for best film so far. Warning: Agoraphobics may want to leave the room for a couple minutes, you'll know when.
Fast Runner (rating +/++) is a gorgeous widescreen epic, a three-hour drama set in the Canadian tundra with exclusively Inuit (Eskimo) actors and dialogue. Set in traditional Inuit culture, Fast Runner tells a classic Inuit story with the feel of a Greek legend. Atanarjuat, the eponymous "fast runner," escapes a murderous attack by running naked across the tundra, and survives to return, revenge himself and reclaim his family. The virtue of the film is in its photography of the stark tundra and its depiction of everyday Inuit life in the days before European domination.
Female Trouble (rating --) is a camp classic from trash-meister John Waters (Pink Flamingoes, Polyester). Waters was very entertaining in the preceding tribute, but the film itself has little redeeming value.
Firefly Dreams (rating neutral to +): A sullen 17-year-old girl is sent off to live with family in the sticks, and learns to respect herself from an elderly relative. This story from Japan has been told many times by many films. The cinematography, acting, and script are all decent but unexceptional.
God Is Great, I'm Not (rating neutral/-) is an offbeat comedy starring Audrey Tatou (Amelie) as a shallow and spiritually needy model. She places her affections in a shallow and spiritually insensitive Jewish veterinarian, and becomes inappropriately obsessed with Jewish practice, much to his annoyance. The film has its moments, and Tatou is darling, but somehow it just doesn't seem to hold together.
Grey Zone (rating +) is a Holocaust drama set in Birkenau, about a group of Sonderkommandos, the Jewish trusties who operated the Nazi concentration camp ovens on pain of death. The Sonderkommandos debate the moral dilemma of surviving through cooperation with genocide, and plot an uprising before they are themselves murdered, hindered by ethnic divisions within the camp inmates. As you might expect, Grey Zone is uniformly grim and high-minded. Director Tim Blake Nelson (known recently for "O", the high-minded teen-Othello adaptation) does a decent job with this, and draws a fair number of Hollywood's better character actors. The use of accents is a little confusing (cf. The Island on Bird Street).
Igby Goes Down (rating: -) is a nihilistic look at the life of the East Coast leisure class. Igby (Kieran Culkin) is a rebellious preppie who delights in getting kicked out of one tony boarding school after another, while his distant, prescription-drug-addled mother (Susan Sarandon) and Young Republican brother clean up after him. When Igby decides to drop out for good, he relies on but gradually squanders his family connections, including his wealthy godfather (Jeff Goldblum). Igby sinks lower and lower into a bohemian netherworld of "actors who don't act and painters who don't paint." Igby Goes Down seems to be aiming for the kind of black comedy exemplified by The Young Poisoner's Handbook (a personal favorite) but just doesn't have the nerve to get there.
In The Mirror of Maya Dere (rating: neutral/-): Intriguing study of the life and work of Maya Dere, experimental filmmaker and voodoo aficionado of the 1940s and 1950s, featuring many clips of her work. Dere is a fascinating character, but the documentary runs a little long, and the clips of her films are the sort of experimental artfilms which strikes me and probably most people as close to self-parody. Perhaps I would appreciate them at full length, although I doubt it.
Joint Security Area (rating ++) is an engrossing Rashomon-like crime drama about an investigation into a violent incident along the border between the two Koreas. This is a much better film than Park chan-Wook's more recent Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. There is some violence but it works in support of the storyline. The strength of Joint Security Area is in personalizing the political conflict between the two Koreas, although it does lapse into didacticism at times.
Khaled: (rating +): Khaled is a gritty depiction of life in the underclass in modern Toronto. Twelve-year-old Khaled lives with his sick white mother in a housing block, abandoned by his Moroccan father and subject to racial taunts by his classmates. His already tenuous existence is further shaken when his mother dies, but the independent young boy tries to hide the fact of her death and carry on as usual. Camera motion warning: those sensitive to handheld camerawork may want to look away from the screen for the first 5-10 minutes.
Love in the Time of Money (rating neutral to -): Yet another retelling of La Ronde, the chain of lovers coming full circle. This film is competently acted and produced, but utterly unremarkable. Love in the Time of Money exemplifies the modern "calling card" independent film. Or maybe I'm just getting burned out.
Maya (rating ++): This is a Luminous Depiction of Childhood from small-town India, very reminiscent of Malli from SIFF 2000. It's a big beautiful film in bright primary colors, featuring cute and perky child actors and mostly well-meaning adults. Also like Malli, it also has a very dark subplot which comes to the fore in the later reels, this time centered on an abusive coming-of-age ceremony for girls (based on current real-life practices in some areas of India).
Minor Mishaps (rating neutral) is a by-the-numbers Danish TV-movie about a dysfunctional family. The acting is pretty good, especially Jorgen Kiil as the family patriarch.
My Voyage to Italy (rating ++) is a four-hour-long comprehensive look at postwar Italian cinema from the 1940s through the 1960s, with copious commentary by Martin Scorcese. From the stark Neorealism of Rosselini and Antonioni to the gaudy excesses of Fellini, Scorcese celebrates the cinema which inspired him. Most of the running time consists of actual film clips, with some movies rating 10-15 minutes of clips in a sort of mini-screening. My Voyage to Italy feels like an extended college lecture, but one given by a master professor who sincerely communicates his love of these films and his desire that a new generation should experience them.
Orphan of Anyang (rating --) is a grim and excruciatingly slow melodrama about an unemployed Chinese factory worker who "adopts" for money the child of a call girl. The shooting style is unique: it seems that every shot lasts at least a minute or two, all highly static. We watch as the female lead consumes a bowl of noodles in one shot without interruption -- not just a few exemplary bites, the whole bowl. The director seems to be trying to make a artfilm virtue of no-budget necessity, but the result is extraordinarily boring.
Passionada (rating -/--) is an failed attempt at romantic comedy directed by Dan Ireland, one of the original founders of SIFF, continuing a streak of losers at SIFF's closing night festivities. The plot, about a British professional gambler who hides his past to woo a beautiful Portuguese lounge singer, is loaded down with weak dialogue and every imaginable cliché. Sofia Milos is mesmerizing as the female lead, the only redeeming factor in this drivel.
The Piano Teacher (rating neutral/+) is a psychological shocker from offbeat director Michael Haneke (Funny Games), starring the incomparable Isabelle Huppert as a harsh and repressed conservatory teacher who secretly nurses perverse S&M fantasies. When she seduces a young student, she sets off a power struggle which can only end in catastrophe. Huppert is superb, but I can't help thinking that her character's weird behavior is not fully motivated. The screening was marred by repeated projection problems which stopped the show for minutes at a time.
The Pinochet Case (rating +) tells both the news story and the story behind the news. After five minutes or so following the byzantine legal maneuverings of the Pinochet extradition trial, with stock footage and interviews with activists and lawyers, it spends a similar amount of time with the victims of Pinochet's secret police. There is some filler material which could be cut, but overall this is a solid and moving documentary.
Pipe Dream (rating neutral) is an amusing, improbable light comedy about a plumber whose imaginary movie project inexplicably becomes a "hot" project among Hollywood insiders. Martin Donovan and Mary-Louise Parker star in a comedy which plays well to movie fanatics but may have trouble finding a wider audience.
Princess Blade (rating neutral) is a comic-book movie with a manga feel. Noted chop-socky director Donnie Yen puts together some quick but flashy action sequences, while the slightly draggy storyline features some understated eroticism.
The Prisoner of Zenda (rating ++): Classic archival swashbuckler from the Golden Age of Hollywood
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (rating neutral) appears as part of this year's 70s retrospective, one of the last comedies from famed director Billy Wilder. Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson step up to a deductive challenge from a seductive stranger, Holmes' brother Mycroft, and mysterious happenings in Loch Ness Scotland. Wilder spices things up by bringing out the latent homosexual leanings of Holmes' and Watson's relationship (no, he doesn't go that far), adding a bit of nudity (by the standards of the time), and tacking on a very 70s politically-charged ending. The mystery-aspect of the film isn't quite successful, and ends with a sudden deus ex machina. This film didn't find an audience when it was first released and probably doesn't deserve one now, but it is beautifully filmed.
Quitting (rating +/++) is a wrenching and difficult real-life drama about an actor whose family is struggling to get him off drugs and straighten out his life. Lead Jia Hongshen plays himself in his own story, and his real-life (and non-actor) family members portray themselves. Hongshen is a difficult character to like, but the raw honesty of the portrayal won me over. Director Zhang Yang's skill is evident in his delicate manipulation of the line between truth and artifice. This isn't nearly as accessible a film as his earlier film Shower however.
Read My Lips (rating: +/++) is an exciting noir-ish thriller. Carla, a lonely and bored office manager, becomes fascinated with her male ex-con secretarial trainee, and winds up cooperating in a crime. Emmanuelle Devos as Carla took this year's French Academy Award for Best Actress from Amelie's Audrey Tatou; Devos' performance is actually more nuanced, although Amelie is overall a better (and very different) film.
Red Squirrel (rating ++) is an erotic melodrama from 1993, a long-time SIFF favorite. A young man comes across an amnesiac woman without any ID, tells her she is his girlfriend, and steals her away to a distant campground. Things are not all as they seem, and the power struggle between the two reaches into their dreams and their sex life. Director Julio Medem (Vacas, Lovers of the Arctic Circle) has a new film in this year's SIFF, Sex and Lucia.
Sass (rating neutral) is a Hollywood-ized account of the fascinating story of the Brothers Sass, two auto mechanics who became celebrated safecrackers during the Weimar Republic. Sass has a good period feel and is a workmanlike production all around, but I can't help thinking that it didn't have to be so predictable.
Sex and Lucia (rating ++) is a supercharged sex-o-drama from SIFF darling Julio Medem (Vacas, Tierra, Red Squirrel, Lovers of the Arctic Circle). Writer Lorenzo and his young lover Lucia live in delirious bliss, until his past spills into his novels and his novels spill into real life. The plot is a little difficult to figure out and may require (and merit) multiple viewings. This is one of my favorite films of the festival, although I rank Red Squirrel slightly higher. Sex and Lucia features lots of beautiful people having all kinds of sex. With this film, Julio Medem joins the list of directors whose new films I will automatically watch, along with Richard Linklater, Ang Lee, and Tom Tykwer. After the showing, Medem gave a lengthy explanation of the themes of the film, touching on the metaphysical and also the incomprehensible.
Shopping (rating +/++) is a hilarious and public-spirited comedy on the theme of consumer debt. A cold but efficient repossession bailiff struggles with his softhearted police escort, while his distant wife flirts with the fleeting pleasures of buying stuff. I like a good comedy, but I especially value one which carries a positive message, such as the later work of the late Juzo Itami (Minbo, Supermarket Woman).
Spawned In Seattle: Small Fry (rating: +) is a package of local shorts, mostly pretty good.
Sunshine State (rating neutral/+) is far from John Sayles' best film, but still amusing, and politically conscious if a bit didactic. A placid seaside community in Florida is threatened by rapacious developers, but will they come together to resist? Sayles attracts some strong acting talent, where the best and most naturalistic performance is by Edie Falco (Carmela from The Sopranos). The 140-minute running length is excessive; the film could use a stern re-edit and could probably shed a subplot or two.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (rating: neutral/-) is a gory shock-fest from Park Chan-wook, the director of Joint Security Area (which is by all accounts a much better film). A deaf industrial worker is laid off just as he needs money to buy an organ transplant for his sister, leading to a botched kidnapping and a macabre series of vengeance killings filmed in gruesome detail. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance wobbles between social commentary and pure schlock; it reminds me of the early work of Francois Ozon, which I also don't like.
Take Care of My Cat (rating: neutral) is a slice-of-life drama about a circle of five South Korean girls just out of high school. They struggle to remain close as circumstance and class differences pull them apart. The film is only moderately engaging, but the cultural picture, including the pervasive presence of cellphones, did keep my interest.
Teenage Hooker Became... (rating: ---): Amateurish home-movie-quality porn-slasher, a real stinker. I originally thought Chris Conrad had recommended this, but it turns out that he didn't.
Teknolust (rating: neutral) is a colorful, disjointed, over-the-top sci-fi experiment starring Tilda Swinton (Orlando) playing four separate roles. The film has the conceit of examining the border between technology and sex, although it veers into self-parody pretty often. Fans of last year's Thomas In Love may appreciate Teknolust, although Teknolust does not try nearly as hard to develop real characters or make sense.
Yellow Asphalt (rating: +) is a series of three short stories set in the margins between harsh Bedouin society and modern Israeli life. No stereotypes are broken, but the cultural clash and exotic setting kept my interest.