SIFF 2003 Reviews

These SIFF 2003 reviews (like all my film reviews) were first posted on the listserv  An archive of past messages is available on

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These are the final versions of my 2003 SIFF reviews, which differ slightly from the postings I made during the festival. I have cleaned up some text and formatting, and tweaked a few ratings for consistency's sake.

Fool Serious 2003 Awards

My votes were:
Best Director: Niki Caro (Whale Rider)
Best Cinematographer: Thomas M. Harting (Winged Migration)
Best Script: Whale Rider
Best Music: Winged Migration
Best Actor: Seol Kyung-Gu (Oasis)
Best Actress: Mirada Otto (Julie Walking Home)
Best "Guilty Pleasure": Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan

American Splendor (neutral/+): Semi-biographical comic-book drama about Harvey Pekar, underground comix collaborator with R. Crumb (Crumb). The proper parallel here is with Ghost World, and Pekar himself has an eerie resemblance to the older eccentric in that film. The real Pekar and his friends and family make appearances, so that we have three parallel sets of personae: the actors playing Pekar et al, the real people, and scenes from the American Splendor comic book series in which the real Pekar portrayed his own real life.

Angela (-) is a bleak cinema verite look at the life of a drug courier. Angela is the wife of a Mafia sub-boss and partner in his drug-front Palermo shoe store. A hunky new Mafia soldier seduces Angela, while the police close in on the whole operation. It's the oldest dramatic plot in the world, and not particularly well-acted, but interesting as a slice-of-life (and based-on-truth) look into another kind of life. Hand-held camera warning.

Animatrix (+) is a series of anime films in the world of The Matrix, directed by leading anime artists and coordinated by the Wachowski brothers. The styles of animation vary, and the stories range from an official Matrix backstory to a detective story. Quality is generally high. I haven't seen The Matrix Reloaded, but some people said that this series is more entertaining and tells more about The Matrix's universe than the actual sequel film.

L'Auberge Espagnole (neutral) is a harmless date flick about a young man's year as an exchange student. Frenchman Xavier leaves Paris and his French amoureuse (Audrey Tatou) for an exchange program in Barcelona, and eventually shares an apartment with a multicultural potpourri of similarly attractive young Europeans working out their Euro-identities. It's like a two-hour episode of Friends set in Spain. There is something universal about the story of a student year abroad.

Big Girls Don't Cry (neutral/+): Teen soap-opera from Germany, passable but nothing out of the ordinary. Two high-school girls (played by refreshingly age-appropriate actresses) struggle with the usual teen dilemmas.

The Bookshop (neutral/-) is a lackluster drama about a repressed Tunisian bookstore owner, his free-spirited wife, and the worldly visitor who moves in as his assistant. It has some local color but disappointingly little plot, and the performances are generally limited.

Cabin Fever (neutral) is an ordinary teen horror flick, there isn't much else to say.

Le Cercle Rouge (-), a 1970 French caper film, stars Alain Delon as an early model for the cool antihero. Unfortunately the pacing is off and this much anticipated re-release left much of the audience cold.

The Day I Will Never Forget (neutral): Documentary about female circumcision in the Somali community in Kenya. This documentary is informative and seems reasonably balanced given the subject matter, but could afford to be a lot shorter.

Devdas (+/++) is an all-singing, all-dancing Bollywood spectacle, said to be the biggest-budget film to ever come from Bollywood. Lavish sets, huge musical numbers, forbidden love, melodrama -- what's not to like? It's a very pretty film and quite entertaining, but overlong (by American standards) at 3 hours.

Dummy (++): Just before leaving for Poland for his Oscar-winning role in The Pianist, Adrien Brody did this low-budget comedy about a live-at-home loser who finds himself and love through ventriloquism. His performance is spot-on, as are the portrayals of the rest of his eccentric family. Supposedly, Brody learned ventriloquism just for this role, in just a few weeks, and did all the dummy work live himself.

The Embalmer (-) is a character study of perverted mafia taxidermist dwarf "Peppino", as he closes in on his new boy-toy Vittorio. This is actually played completely straight. The acting is pretty flat other than that one performance, and the low budget cinematography is dark and uninteresting.

Evening with Jeff Goldblum (-): This special event featured clips of many of Goldblum's films, inside an extended interview with Darryl. Darryl is as weak an interviewer as ever, but the real problem was that Goldblum came to the interview cold, without any stories to tell.

The Eye (neutral to +): Japanese supernatural thriller following in the footsteps of The Sixth Sense.

The Girl From Paris (+): Sweet little film about a city girl determined to make it as a rural farmer.

The Hebrew Hammer (neutral) is a relentlessly campy yok-fest skewering all things Jewish (and some others besides). Super-detective Mordechai Jefferson Carver, aka "The Hebrew Hammer", must foil the twisted plot of an evil Santa Claus pretender to destroy Chanukah and Kwanzaa. Like the films of Zucker and Zucker (Airplane!), The Hebrew Hammer throws ten gags a minute -- even if only two merit a chuckle, that's still enough to keep the audience laughing.

Hukkle (-) is a strange Hungarian puzzle-movie, with sound but almost no spoken words. We move from scene to unrelated scene in a rural Hungarian village, and it doesn't become clear what is happening (let alone why/how) for at least half an hour. Frankly, I'm not sure the payoff is worth it (plus I only partially figured out the puzzle, which annoys me), but it was well-shot. Hukkle is the Fool Serious award winner for Best Cinematographer.

I Capture The Castle (-) is a lightweight confection about two girls dithering about their love lives. It's very British and a bit Jane Austin-esque, but not very good. This should play fine on BBC.

I'm The Father (++): Devastating German drama about a really ugly divorce. I think this film rivals Scenes From A Marriage (Ingmar Bergman / Liv Ullman), it's that good. It definitely hit me close to home. I found the ending to be a bit of a cop-out however.

In July (neutral/+): Clever but lightweight German road movie about a repressed student teacher (Moritz Bleibtreu from Run Lola Run and Das Experiment) on a strange and incident-prone trek to see his beloved in Turkey. I liked this well enough but can't rave about it as have some reviewers, although the music was good.

In This World (neutral/+): Documentary-style drama about two Afghan refugees trying to make their way to the West. Handheld camera warning.

Infernal Affairs (neutral/+): Engaging but by-the-book policier about a crime gang, a police unit pursuing them, and the intricate game they play with two duelling informers. (late review)

Intimate Secrets of a Chinese Courtesan (neutral, guilty pleasure) is a 1972 Hong Kong archival in the chop-socky / soft porn genre. Basically this is a Roger Corman film with more kung fu, more nudity, and smaller boobs. Intimate Secrets... is my choice for Best "Guilty Pleasure" of SIFF 2003.

Jet Lag (no rating): This flyweight comedy is notable for the presence of two of the great stars of the French screen, Juliette Binoche and Jean Reno, but is otherwise fairly lackluster. A working-class beautician (Binoche is almost unrecognizable under her pancake makeup for the role) meets a businessman while both are stuck at Paris' DeGaulle Airport, and romance ensues. Almost all of the action takes place in the airport concourses and hotels, a clever conceit which I ultimately found pretty limiting. I have not rated this film since I saw it after zero sleep the night before (ballot-counting).

Julie Walking Home (+ to ++), the latest from noted director Agnieska Holland, transcends the tired sick-child genre through a bravura performance by Miranda Otto. A young mother in a troubled marriage takes her young son to Poland to see a faith healer, and winds up changing all of their lives in unexpected ways. Holland indicated before the screening that the movie is based on the real story of a friend of hers. Miranda Otto in Julie Walking Home is my choice for Best Actress of SIFF 2003.

Kopps (neutral/+): Amusing Swedish comedy about six police in a quiet village. Threatened with closure of their police station, they manufacture a fake crime wave to save their jobs. This is lightweight commercial fluff, but still fun. The best scenes are fantasies from the imagination of Benny, a policeman who has seen Die Hard and The Matrix once too often.

Last Train (neutral) is a feel-good old-men's-caper comedy about three viejos who steal a steam locomotive and lead the Uruguayan police on a chase. It's pretty much by-the-numbers but vaguely endearing.

The Magdalene Sisters (+) is a fictionalized account of an abusive home for wayward Irish Catholic girls. It's hard to watch but well-acted.

Mine Alone (no rating): This drama about an abused wife is harsh and at times difficult to watch, but Paz Vega (Sex And Lucia) is utterly believable and luminous even under her stage bruises. I recommend it for those who enjoy depressing films. This could have been almost as strong a film as Once Were Warriors if not for the weak ending. I have not rated this film since I saw it after zero sleep the night before (ballot-counting).

Miranda (neutral/-) attempts to transform little Christina Ricci (Wednesday from The Addams Family) into a femme fatale, with mixed results at best. A mysterious young American woman takes up with an eccentric young British librarian; when she disappears, he goes to look for her, and becomes increasingly tangled in the seedier side of real estate.

Missing Gun (neutral/+): Policier about a sad-sack Chinese village cop who loses his sidearm (a bigger deal in tightly-controlled China than it would be here) and must retrieve it. The pacing is uneven and I wasn't fond of the hyperactive camera style, but the story is engaging enough.

Mondays In The Sun (neutral/-) follows the lives of four shipyard workers, unemployed for years since the shipyard closed. Javier Bardem leads the cast, scruffy, overweight and unpleasant. There is some good social commentary implicit in the film, but it's really not an enjoyable moviegoing experience.

Northfork (+) is a surreal exploration of death and transition, a treat for serious filmgoers, but by far the least commercial film to come from the Polish brothers (Twin Falls Idaho, Jackpot). In a town about to be flooded by a new dam, six men set out to convince the holdouts to leave for higher ground, while a dying child fantasizes about being an angel. The cinematography (this was shot in color, but almost looks black-and-white in many scenes) and 50's period work are remarkable achievements for this low-budget ($1.8M) shoot, although there are some sound problems. The script is a bit hokey at times, and the dying-child thing rubbed me the wrong way. This is definitely not multiplex fare.

Oasis (++): For me, the highlights of this festival were the crowd-pleaser Whale Rider and the difficult but rewarding Oasis. Oasis is the story of Jong-du, a childlike ex-con who simply can't stay out of trouble, and Gong-ju, a young woman with severe cerebral palsy whose family leaves her alone in a grimy apartment. Their relationship gets off to the worst possible start. After spending time in jail for killing her father in a hit and run, Jong-du comes with flowers to apologize, but winds up raping Gong-ju. Still, he keeps coming by (she can't exactly run away), and wins her over with childlike attention. Eventually he starts taking her on trips out of the apartment, and becomes her only friend, until the horrifying conclusion.

The center of this dark film is in the riveting performances of the two leads, who won both the Fool Serious Best Actor and Best Actress awards this year. Seol Kyung-gu (Jong-du) offers a compelling portrayal, managing to gather sympathy for a neer-do-well ex-con even when you want to slap him silly. The more remarkable technical achievement is that of Moon So-ri, whose Gong-ju is tic-laden to the point of disfigurement, utterly believable in what must have been a challenging role. Gong-ju's handicap is so extreme that her emotional state is almost (but not quite) covered over by her constant grimace, and her speech is virtually unintelligible, which eventually proves her undoing. Oasis is my choice for Best Actress of SIFF 2003 (I chose Miranda Otto in her more naturalistic role in Julie Walking Home over Moon So-ri), and the Fool Serious award winner for Best Actor and Best Actress.

PTU (--) is a truly atrocious policier about corrupt cops on the streets of Hong Kong. It is only 85 minutes, but still much too long; one scene in particular stands out, where policemen with guns and flashlights creep furtively up a dark staircase, step by step, for what must be five or ten minutes. Like a fifth-grader assigned to write a three-page essay, producer/director Johnny To seems to have had trouble filling up his minimum screen time, and won't cut anything even where it adds no value to the end-product. Oh, and the plot is also clichéd and incomprehensible.

The Sea (+) is an overblown Dysfunctional family drama with a capital "D". The family patriarch, owner of an aging fish-processing plant, calls his children back to their home village for a big announcement. Much alcoholism, incest, and general mayhem ensue. Set in Iceland (Northern Europe seems to put out a lots of this sort of film), The Sea recaps the Danish Dogma 95 film The Celebration (but with much better production values).

The Sea Watches (+): Another post-Kurosawa samurai story (After The Rain), this time centered on a house of prostitution in a seedy oceanside town and the misadventures of "hooker with a heart of gold" O-Shin. As a period piece, The Sea Watches is flawless, set in Japan in the Edo period (mid-19th century), but closer to the Middle Ages than to modernity. The performances are also fine. The weakness here is in the uneven script, which has flashes of brilliance mixed with a load of sentimental twaddle. It may be time to give Kurosawa's "unfinished" scripts a rest and try to remember him for the work he saw fit to finish.

Seaside (- to --) is a pointless Rohmer-esqe slice-of-life drama which follows several couples in a working-class French beach town over a year. The acting and art direction are fine, but the plot just goes nowhere. I had trouble keeping the characters and their relationships straight, and I never really felt motivated to try.

A Soldier's Girl (+) tell the true-life (but fictionalized) story of Barry Winchell, an Army private who becomes enamored of a transvestite nightclub singer. This TV-movie opened 5/31/03 on Showtime.

The Truce (-/--) is a movie-length Mexican soap opera, in the worst possible sense. The acting is weak, the dialogue forced, and the pacing off. On the positive side for those who like that sort of thing, the ingenue is young and beautiful and often naked in frequent, lengthy and very explicit sex scenes. (late review)

Valentin (neutral/-): Everyone else seems to have liked this Luminous Reminiscence of Childhood, so I feel a bit like the Grinch saying that it left me cold. The precocious eight-year-old protagonist was very cute, although I was left with some disbelief that a child that age could really behave this way. The plot details seem to be taken from the life of the director, and like real life, the plot is a bit disjointed in places. If you liked Kolya, you'll like this. Even those who liked it agree that it was pretty flyweight.

Whale Rider (++): Definitely the biggest crowd-pleaser of this festival. A young girl, the granddaughter of a Maori chief, must prove herself to her grandfather who expects to pass the baton to a male. Lots of local color, including both leads and extras from the local population. Whale Rider is my choice for Best Director and Best Script of SIFF 2003, and the Fool Serious award winner for Best Script.

The Wild Dogs (no rating): This is a strange, very personal, very politically-correct tragedy studying Romanian society in the post-Communist period. An American pornography producer flies to Romania in hopes of filming child pornography, with the assistance of a corrupt Western diplomat, but repents and winds up more interested in the subculture of crippled and deformed beggars. In parallel subplots, the diplomat's wife "adopts" a legless street urchin, and a dogcatcher tasked with reducing Bucharest's epic population of feral dogs repents and attempts to futilely shield a few of them. I can't say that I enjoyed this film, but I don't think it is meant to be enjoyed. I have not rated this film since I saw it after zero sleep the night before (ballot-counting).

Winged Migration (+): This documentary follows migrating birds, literally, with truly breathtaking aerial photography. If you liked Baraka, you'll like Winged Migration. Winged Migration is the most beautiful film I have seen in years, and beauty and majesty are what this is about. Don't go in expecting to learn about birds, this is pure art direction. Winged Migration is my choice for Best Cinematographer and Best Music of SIFF 2003.

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