Monday, February 02, 2009

PSIFF 2009—Frako Loden Takes Notes

My perpetual thanks to Frako Loden for offering The Evening Class her notes from this year's edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which I was not able to attend this year.

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On the same flight from SFO as programmer Anita Monga, we arrived four hours late but didn't miss any screenings like last year. I attended the 2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival for all but the final weekend—eight days. I got in four films a day at five different venues and was able to eat and shuttle expeditiously in between. Special thanks to the sweet-and-sour cabbage soup at Sherman's Deli! I stayed at the Coyote Inn in the Tennis Court neighborhood, a 10-minute walk to the Regal where I saw most of my films. (Anita stayed at A Place in the Sun Garden Hotel, so named because it was built in the early 1950s as a retreat for the production crew of that film.) The days were uniformly sunny and warmer than previous years. No late-evening screenings. This year felt even more geriatric than the year before. I had some great conversations with festivalgoers, but I had more than my share of stupefying exchanges with people who didn't have the slightest idea what films were doing in their brains. Aside from the first day's movie, which had us being moved from one screening room to another and stuck in the second row after an hour's wait in line, there were no logistical fuckups that I experienced. Nonetheless there was plenty of loud complaining, a few emotional meltdowns and indignant comments in line and during some screenings. A huge increase in loud, one-way cell conversations as near-deaf callers barked into their phones. Back in Berkeley I got a sick jolt from hearing some music on TV and realized it was the same Mercedes ad that I had been forced to watch over 30 times at the start of each screening.

Warning: I tried not to include plot spoilers, but some of these capsules may contain information that could be construed as spoilers.

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Three Monkeys (Turkey: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2008)—This film takes the prize for most reviled film in the festival, despite its making the short list for Oscar contender (though it didn't get nominated). I can't count the times I heard someone call this the worst film they'd ever seen even outside the festival. I just don't get it either—it wasn't that bad or that good; it doesn't deserve superlatives. Several of the people who badmouthed it thought they were getting a simplistic thriller with a catalogue description listing "bad faith, simmering resentment, adultery and murder." The handheld camerawork wasn't as dominant as claimed, and—though the pacing was a bit slow—a significant incident was reliably and recognizably happening. A man goes to prison in place of the guilty party, an aspiring politician who has killed a pedestrian with his car. The prisoner's wife, in trying to collect the hush money from the politician, falls in love with him. I liked it more than I liked Climates, his previous film. Here, at least there are a few more characters whose long stares you can examine for motives and next steps, and the motives are more interesting.

Tokyo Sonata (Japan: Kurosawa Kiyoshi, 2008)—Overall a disappointment, but an encouraging sign that Kurosawa is expanding his subject matter and style. It might have been a clinically unsentimental view of a complacent family shaken into awareness by the husband's layoff and the sons' personal rebellions, but at one point the plot goes in such a wild direction (involving the wife/mother and Kurosawa veteran Yakusho Kôji) that the film feels "damaged" from that point on. The ending is surprisingly "healing" for a Kurosawa film. (Opens in the Bay Area on March 27 after screening at the San Francisco International Asian American Filmfest.)

Goodbye Solo (USA: Ramin Bahrani, 2008)—I missed both Man Push Cart and Chop Shop so I can't compare this to those, but from their descriptions I get the feeling I would have preferred them to this. This film tries hard to develop an interdependent relationship between a Senegalese taxi driver and a crotchety old white guy determined to throw himself off a cliff near Winston-Salem on an appointed date, but I had trouble feeling it. The very gruff and closed-off performance by ex-Elvis driver/bodyguard Red West doesn't hit the proper sympathy notes to make you care about his date with death. (Opens April 17 in the Bay Area.)

Sugar (USA: Ryan Fleck/Anna Boden, 2007)—This film is nearly great, very emotionally satisfying, maybe the best baseball movie I've seen—and I tend to hate baseball movies, so maybe it's not a baseball movie at all. It's about a teenage Dominican pitcher who aspires to the American major leagues. After excelling in baseball academy back home and learning a devastating knuckle ball, he arrives in the US and gets stuck on a farm team in Iowa. He stays with a family who's hosted foreign ballplayers but who doesn't know Spanish, and he knows no English. His family and girlfriend back home don't understand what he's going through and assume he'll become a major league star and bottomless ATM. My tears were streaming in the last half-hour of this film—it's full of heart and the tugged-apart feelings of the immigrant. (HBO. Opens April 10 in the Bay Area.)

Public Enemy No. 1 (Mesrine: Instinct de mort), Parts 1 and 2 (Jean-Francois Richet, 2008)—Now this felt like an epic! Part 1 was much more thrilling and effective than Part 2.

Part 1: The opening credit sequence was tense and interesting with several split-screen shots. It turns out to be notorious true-life French criminal Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel)'s final minutes on earth, as he and his lover Sylvia (Ludivine Sagnier), both in curly wigs circa 1979, put her suitcase in his beloved metallic-brown BMW and prepare warily to drive out of Paris, only to be ambushed at a green light by cops hiding in a tarp-covered truck. Led by Commissioner Broussard (Olivier Gourmet), the surprise shooting is interrupted at the end of the opening credits, when the story rewinds back to 1959 Algeria, where the young soldier Mesrine is handed a gun to shoot an Arab woman during a brutal interrogation. When he returns from Algeria, his bourgeois parents have a lace-factory job lined up for him, but you know he'll never take it—instead his friend Paul enlists him to do some "under the table work" that involves home break-ins and bank robberies. He's introduced to the mobster Guido (Gerard Depardieu) and shows how brash, violent and needy of respect he is.

Even though I knew little about Mesrine save some Wikipedia cramming the night before seeing this film, I remembered enough to know that he's put in prison and escapes as many times (four), makes audacious promises that he fulfills (e.g., that he would come back and try to spring some inmates who helped him escape), lives for a while in Montreal, even has an escapade in Monument Valley (I think in real life it was Arkansas) when he's stopped by American cops and extradited back to Canada, and has an inchoate notion of himself as a revolutionary out to destroy maximum-security prisons, etc.

The rise of a legendary criminal is always more fun and thrilling than his fall, especially if he's young, charming, audacious and full of vinegar and blood. When he leaves home, he accuses his father of going along with the Nazis. He hates the idea of a white Frenchwoman being pimped by an Arab, so he purports to be defending her honor by beating him to a pulp. While on vacation in Spain with Paul, he falls in love with a young woman whom he marries. But after having three children with her, she is fed up when he returns to the criminal life since doing one stretch in prison and getting laid off from a job making architectural models. He sticks a gun in her mouth, which causes her to leave him and family behind. He takes up with a Bonnie Parker type named Jeanne (Cecile de France) who participates in bank and casino robberies with him. During one casino robbery he alienates a rival gang and escapes to Montreal with Jeanne, where they work on a millionaire's estate. After they kidnap the millionaire and he dies, they escape to Monument Valley, only to be extradited to Canada for the kidnapping. There Mesrine is put in an MSA (maximum security unit) and endures a hideous spell of isolation that includes teargassing, water cannoning, noise and light torture. He manages to escape from there too.

Somewhere in there he robs two banks on the same day—apparently something he did more than once. He and escapee François (of the Quebecois Liberation Front) murder two forest rangers as they're doing target practice. Jeanne urges him not to try to spring her since she's got only a short time left in her sentence. Once back in France, he continues robbing banks and occasionally gets imprisoned, but he escapes again and somehow continues to live a life out in the open (a lot of this was just plain implausible). Part 1 ends with the aftermath of his escape from the Canadian MSA, with his fellow escapee François shot by cops.

Part 2: The second part begins, I believe, with his astonishing escape from a court building during a sentencing, where he briefly takes a judge hostage. He escapes by needing to use a toilet while handcuffed—he reaches into a toilet tank and takes out a gun, which he points at the judge in the courtroom. It's mostly downhill from there, with Mesrine's sagging gut preceding everything that happens to him a la Raging Bull. Finally in the end the aborted getaway and ambush introduced in the opening credits is repeated, this time way too drawn-out, this time from the point of view of the nervous police. The relationship between Mesrine and the Commissioner character (played by Gourmet) never goes anywhere.

The film contains reminders of several great Warners Bros. gangster films like Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Bonnie and Clyde, then killers-on-the-run films like Thelma and Louise. (Why Monument Valley? Probably just for the spectacular scenery, the unbroken straight road and the phalanx of cop cars). Although I don't remember enough about Heat to feel really confident in saying so, this film feels very Michael Mann-ish at times. Gerard Depardieu has gone full Marlon Brando—he's almost as stout—so there's the occasional echo of the Godfather films, and finally the scenes involving explosive tempers and violent gun assaults can't help but remind one of Scorsese.

It's amazing how much incident is packed in the four-hour running time of the two movies, yet so much detail of Mesrine's life is left out—episodes from the Canary Islands, Venezuela, etc. I think this was the most enjoyable film I saw at Palm Springs.

It just happened after seeing Public Enemy No. One and returning to the inn, I turned on TCM at midnight and there was the title screen for William Wellman's The Public Enemy! It was interesting to compare Mesrine with Tom Powers (James Cagney)'s development as a criminal. Of course, Powers was still practically a kid when I fell asleep, while Mesrine starts out in the middle of his military service (and apparently had been married once already). But it seems that to make it as a movie gangster you need to have breathtaking guts and supreme confidence. You're also having to constantly fend off your family obligations, since your family attachments are your Achilles' heel. Vincent Cassel is very affecting in the scene where he impersonates a doctor and visits his dying father in the hospital, begging for his forgiveness and confessing that he was not much of a son nor a father either. (Sony Worldwide.)

Eldorado (Belgium: Bouli Lanners, 2008)—I laughed hardest at the festival during the first half of this bizarre road movie about a young junkie who hitches a ride with a slobby dealer in vintage American cars through the Belgian countryside. It had an effect on me similar to last year's You, the Living. You never know who's going to appear around the bend, and some message about humanity gets lost in strained, wretched oddness relieved by the occasionally touching gesture. I have to warn you: If you're bothered by imagining what a whimpering dog might be going through, I would discourage you from watching this.

The Baader-Meinhof Complex (Germany: Uli Edel, 2008)This foreign Oscar nominee was long, frenetically paced, and with a "labyrinthine" (catalogue description) plot. I had a lot of trouble understanding the characters' relationships to each other (this was one of a number of films I saw at the festival where I felt handicapped for not knowing more about recent European history). I was as confused with this story as I was with Andrzej Wajda's Katyn, but here the action was compelling despite my bewilderment. Martina Gedeck as Ulrike Meinhof is more familiar to me, but Johanna Wokalek as Gudrun Ensslin was fiery and impressive. Moritz Bleibtreu as Andreas Baader and some of the other men were good, but Wokalek and another young woman were the soul of the film. After an idyll at a nude beach, the film blazes into action with a violent confrontation between demonstrators and riot police at the Shah of Iran's visit to Germany. Even if you lose track of how the characters are connected, you'll come away realizing how much more committed to political change these RAF people were than, say, the Weathermen. Exciting, thrilling.

Tony Manero (Chile: Pablo Larrain, 2008)—A coldly-told tale of a cruel and bitter man living in the Pinochet regime. In 1978 Santiago, 52-year-old Raul arrives one week too early to compete in the popular lookalike TV program. Impersonating John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever is his avocation and his obsession, but this is Chuck Norris week. He returns home to his "family", which consists of a household that runs a fifth-rate dinner theatre run by an older woman. Raul's own woman, her daughter, and the theatre manager's son all perform around the central attraction, Raul as Tony Manero. Raul is preparing a white suit to wear on the TV show but is brought up short when a stage manager corrects him and says that the pants have two buttons, not just one—didn't he know that? That's just one of the obstacles to a perfect performance: During a crucial dance move Raul breaks a rotten plank and in a rage starts ripping up the floorboards. He decides to replace the floor with a section of high-density glass that lets light shine from below, but that's too expensive so a junkyard acquaintance suggests glass bricks. When the price he originally quoted to Raul goes up, look out!

Raul appropriates a boy's soccer ball, smashes a mirror, and glues the shards on the ball to fashion a disco ceiling ball. Nothing except cash stops him from realizing his dream of the perfect Tony Manero imitation, and he does what he can by barter and by murder. Finally when he learns that the theatre manager's son has also prepared a white suit to compete against him in the Tony Manero lookalike contest, he does the unspeakable. But even that gesture might be moot, since he escapes from the house amid a visit from paramilitaries investigating the distribution of anti-Pinochet pamphlets, and the whole family's future is in doubt. Of course the film climaxes with the John Travolta lookalike contest.

What makes the film interesting is the obvious parallel between the Pinochet regime and Raul. Both prey on anybody they feel like to get what they want, and what they want is a piece of the allure of the Northern Hemisphere. The movie works as a political allegory at the same time it's a portrait of the obsessive, disgruntled moviegoer. Raul watches Saturday Night Fever at a theatre, a huge hit because it's apparently still playing a year after it opened in Chile. He mouths the dialogue as he watches John Travolta dance, put on his crucifix necklace, talk with his brother about his future, tries to pick up the ballet dancer. He sees something pure and beautiful and perhaps eternal in Travolta's portrayal, something that transcends his sordid life in a dictatorship, where he has to hide from paramilitary death squads on the street, make curfew, and he's literally impotent. When he sees that Grease has replaced SNF at the theatre, he unhesitatingly goes up to the projection booth and smashes the projectionist's head into the projector, stealing his beloved film away to study the separate frames in his own room. That's when I felt sympathy for the protagonist.

Moscow, Belgium (Belgium: Christophe van Rompaey, 2008)—After seeing a number of bloody crime films, it was palate-cleansing to watch a film, equally parts comedy and drama, about a 41-year-old woman with three kids whose husband is having an open affair with his young student and who herself is dallying with a 29-year-old truck driver. By the time she makes her choice after several reversals, it feels like something hard-won yet possibly regrettable down the line—the kind of choice seen all the time in life. Very likable film with a believable heroine.

The Black Balloon (Australia: Elissa Down, 2008)—Set in a Sydney suburb. A new family with a military dad moves into the neighborhood. The mother (Toni Collette) is heavily pregnant and of the two teenaged sons, one is autistic/ADD and the other is ashamed of him. Charlie is a real handful. He's big and tall and runs around in his underwear, sometimes barging into other people's houses and using their toilets. Even when he's sitting "still", he's whapping the floor with a wooden spoon and moaning. Sometimes he smears his shit all over the carpet. Totally out of control, especially when he's freaking out. He used to talk but now he only says "da." So his brother Thomas has to accept him first before he can make others accept him, and with the help of an angelic new girlfriend he does. The film is pretty superficially about that topic, and it has an After School Special feel to it. The ending is a cloying musical, way more professional-sounding than it should be, performed by the shortbus kids about Noah's ark and featuring the kids dressed up as animals. When Charlie's also-autistic monkey partner refuses to perform, Thomas the "normal" brother subs for him. He acts as silly and "mega embarrassing" as his brother and finds his inner autistic. Aside from one black balloon rising in the sky after a bunch of colorful ones, the title didn't resonate in the film. The subplot is Thomas going for his bronze medallion in water lifesaving—he learns how to take care of others as well as let others (like this perfect girlfriend) take care of him. Of course they get to kiss during mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Skin (South Africa: Anthony Fabian, 2008)—Set in South Africa and spanning the years 1965 to about 2003, Skin is based on the true story of Sandra Laing, a very black-looking girl born to white parents in the Eastern Transvaal during apartheid. Although her birth certificate said "white," she was treated like a black person—which meant she was kicked out of an all-white school and all but chased out of all-white establishments. Her situation is explained as "polygenic inheritance" or "throwback," with one court ruling that in rare cases it could happen since most Afrikaners actually have some black blood in them. Of course Sandra's father (Sam Neill) harbors the suspicion that his wife (Alice Krige) had an affair with a black man, but he also steadfastly believes that his daughter is white and shouldn't associate with "kaffirs." So when Sandra falls in love with a black produce-seller to her father's trading post, the father goes berserk and threatens to kill him. She runs off with Petrus to live in the black neighborhood and there has two kids. Throughout her life her official status changes from white to black and to white again, in order for her to raise an ordinary family. It's a case that tests our notions of race as being determined by appearance. It was marred by the kind of earnestness that you see in Hotel Rwanda and other films "about" race. I believe the director is British. I really liked Sophie Okonedo in it, though. And Alice Krige got the best ageing makeup job I've ever seen—it was just flawless and totally believable. Quite a powerful film. Apparently Laing's real-life siblings still don't talk to her (they don't look black).

Revanche (Austria: Götz Spielmann, 2008)—This foreign Oscar nominee was my second favorite film of the festival. It opens at a pond in the woods—an object gets thrown in the water, creating ripples and suspense. A woman fixes dinner in a nice home in the country. Then we're in the city, where a Ukrainian prostitute named Tamara is in love with an Austrian gofer, Alex, for a brothel owner who wants Tamara to move into an apartment and be a classier whore for special clients. While she's fending him off, Alex plans a bank robbery that goes disastrously wrong. This tragic turn of events is connected to the robber's farmer grandfather and the woman in the nice home in the country and her cop husband. I thought Revanche had a tense, deliberate storytelling style that enjoyed suggesting different directions the plot could take. It reminded me of another German-language film, The Free Will, in exploring a man's sense of responsibility for his conduct in the world. That makes both films deeply humanistic and conservative, offering redemption to characters who are in deep pain and angry at what's happened to them.

Of Time and the City (United Kingdom: Terence Davies, 2008)—This film is Terence Davies' meditation on his native Liverpool. The first several minutes of the film are just enthralling, as Davies explores his relationship with the Catholic church and his sexuality. He says, "Caught between canon and criminal law, I said farewell to my girlhood," and describes his illicit pleasure watching pro wrestling. But then something starts creeping in—a repetitiveness of themes (how much more interesting and lively and innocent the past was, jabs at the church, how the city is being ruined), a crotchety sarcasm that mars the lyrical flourishes and wistfulness. Someone compared it to Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg, which I think has a more varied temperament, more vivid imagination and way more humor. Even though it's short (74 minutes), I was glad when this one was over. It had a musty feel to it. There was a forced ironical tone: "Betty and Phil" (for the royals) and "We had hoped for Paradise—we got the anus mundi." (Opens February 13 in the Bay Area.)

Unspoken (Belgium: Fien Troch, 2008)—My seatmate was totally baffled by this film and gave it a "poor" on her audience award ballot. I think most of the room agreed with her. I usually scoff at viewers who insist on every plot strand neatly tied up with tissue and pink ribbon by the end, but this film really gives nothing away—it's almost dogmatically reticent. Which made it the most interesting film I saw that day. A husband (Bruno Todeschini) and wife (Emmanuelle Devos) have lost a teenage daughter—she disappeared without a trace four years before. First some odd things happen to each separately—Lucas is a tax examiner, and people in their homes show up in their underwear or bang into a wall and get knocked out. Grace hears someone calling for help and finds her neighbor under his tall bookcase. Then a friend of their missing daughter visits out of the blue and they start getting silent phone calls. The film is doggedly dominated by closeups, which don't permit us to see their environment and swallow us up in their preoccupation with their missing daughter. It's clear both are still devastated and disoriented by the disappearance, but they rarely let out their feelings except in denying that anything's wrong or outright lying. Lucas seeks comfort in other women but it's not clear how far that comfort goes. Grace is obsessed with an unexplained crack that leaks water from the ceiling. Their dog is injured (who knows how? there's blood everywhere) and has to be put to sleep, but instead of burying it Lucas leaves it in the car where it's overrun by maggots. A guy comes to the door yelling, "20,000 euros, arsehole!" and when Lucas finds him in a restaurant kitchen he beats the shit out of him without apparent consequence. Who is this guy? We never learn. It's an extremely slow film with huge longeurs where the husband and wife stare off into space. Ultimately the interest wears off due to lack of any resolution—any at all that I could discern. Very stingy, ungenerous film.

Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner (USA: Murray Grigor, 2009)—Due to movie overlap, I missed the first 30 minutes of this documentary, which I thought was pretty good. I learned a lot from it, but it wasn't transcendent; it wasn't like Rivers and Tides, for example. I didn't know actress Kelly Lynch was a Lautner preservationist. It's probably because I haven't seen too many films about architects, but it was a slight letdown to see how these Palm Springs/SoCal residences were constructed. The concrete and beams used to hold them up on steep slopes, and the moats and other structures designed to keep people from plummeting off them, made them seem somehow less attractive to me. Maybe I prefer to think they're supported by their own streamlined beauty. The houses are mostly located way up high on hills, and despite their beauty you didn't really see people living in them and they seemed more isolating than integrated with their environments despite all the attempts to "bring the forest into the house and the house into the forest." One interesting detail was this group of 10 Dutch, I think, architecture student-admirers of Lautner who planned a trip to see his residences, and they used Google Earth to track them down. And I did like the camera work, which gracefully followed the lines of the buildings and really did express the possibilities of infinite space. But I just kept being nagged at the idea that these houses are so elitist and so far away from communities. Sure they can be used for parties and concerts and gatherings, but they're so high up or so removed from where it's easy for poor, ordinary people to go.

No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos (USA: James Chressanthis, 2008)—An entertaining look at the friendship of the late Laszlo Kovacs and the still very active Vilmos Zsigmond, the Hungarian-American cinematographers who combined shot a lot of the pioneering works of the "American New Wave," or films from the late 1960s to the late 1970s and beyond. A few talking heads just didn't belong, like Sharon Stone—just pretentious as hell. Karen Black and Peter Bogdanovich were fun and interesting. I did enjoy anecdotes about their early careers shooting stuff like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? and then Easy Rider, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, Shampoo, Five Easy Pieces, Winter Kills, The Deer Hunter, Heaven's Gate and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I didn't realize that they smuggled out of Hungary footage they shot of the 1956 Soviet invasion, and that's how they ended up in Hollywood.

Hunger (England: Steve McQueen, 2008)—My highest anticipation was for Hunger and it brilliantly satisfied. It's made by a Turner Prize-winning video artist whose feature-length film debut this is. It's based on the 1981 hunger strike led by Provisional IRA activist Bobby Sands, playing what Margaret Thatcher called his last card. After showing some terrible treatment of these prisoners who were engaged in "blanket" and "no wash" protests and who insisted on being treated as political prisoners, there is a long, apparently one-take conversation between Sands and the prison priest about his intention to start the hunger strike among 75 prisoners. Then we watch as Sands' body deteriorates into skin, bones and bedsores, and he dies watched by his parents and his younger self. It really does seem like a Passion play as he gets more gaunt and ethereal and we're reminded of the story he told the priest about drowning a dying foal, knowing it was the right thing to do but getting persecuted for it. It's stark, brutal and very beautiful—the body really is the temple of his soul.

The part of Hunger that hit me emotionally was following Bobby Sands' catechism with the priest, when there's a long shot of the prison corridor. Inmates have crafted a gully with their food (mashed potatoes?) so that their piss flows out under their door to the corridor. The piss wells out to the center and meets in a stream. You think of their bodies communicating that way—that's all they have and they can't see it but we can. From way in the distance a prison worker sprays the piss with a chemical, then push-brooms it forward so that it all mingles. The shot lasts until the worker is up close to the camera, then we get to hear a voiceover of Margaret Thatcher that caused a sniffling old man near me to snarl, "God damn British sons of bitches!" Then we start seeing Bobby Sands' body's deterioration. That piss-stream interlude comes between Sands' healthy, vital statement of moral principle and his living out that principle—which we've heard the priest say is without meaning and only a suicidal gesture, not just his but of the other 75 prisoners. (IFC)

The Window (Argentina: Carlos Sorin, 2008)—Another story of a man's solitude from the director of Bombón el Perro and Historias Mínimas, but this time there's no dog that I can remember. Here an old man is lovingly cared for in his remote countryside home, but nobody takes him seriously anymore. Impatient to see his son, a famous concert pianist, he escapes from the house and collapses in the tall grass. He's lost in the past, suddenly remembering a beautiful young woman who babysat for him as a child. I thought this was a decently affecting film—what I remember of it more than the old man's situation is—like in other Sorin films—the broad Argentinian landscape and the temporal, mobile nature of all human existence.

Il Divo (Italy: Paolo Sorrentino, 2008)—A hyperactively stylized, byzantine account of the career of Italian ultra-Teflon politician Giulio Andreotti (actor/director Toni Servillo, who is also apparently good in Gomorrah too), Machiavellian head of the Christian Democratic party who was prime minister seven times until his downfall in the '90s. I really should have cribbed my Italian history before seeing this one—never once was I on solid ground knowing what was happening, and the film seemed to delight in leaving me far behind. The movie begins with a "glossary" that goes by so fast you can barely read, much less digest, it. (Sitting in the front row of the sold-out room and having to swivel my head as if watching a tennis match didn't help!) Andreotti always appears as a diminutive, almost comical center of stillness surrounded by frantic criminal activity. Fanny Ardant is lovely in a few scenes as an enigmatic admirer/interviewer, but her purpose is lost in the confusion. My favorite moment was the protagonist's confrontation with a cat in the halls of power.

The Young Romantic: Yundi Li (Canada: Barbara Willis Sweete, 2008)—A documentary about Chinese piano prodigy Yundi Li, now an established 25-year-old superstar, preparing for his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic. Li has the cleancut, affable disposition of a young Paul McCartney, perfect as the role model for 20 million aspiring Chinese concert pianists. The scenes of his collaboration and rehearsal with charismatic Maestro Seiji Ozawa are wonderful. But the film ends just as the expected climax, the debut, is about to happen, leaving my audience bewildered and upset.

At the Edge of the World (USA: Dan Stone, 2008)—A documentary about Paul Watson, who co-founded Greenpeace then broke off over a difference of opinion in strategy and formed another called Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, seeking a more aggressive engagement with illegal whaling activities in Antarctica by Norway, Iceland and Japan. In this film his two "pirate" ships, the M/Y Robert Hunter (apparently now renamed Steve Irwin) and the Farley Mowat, spot the Japanese whalers Nisshin Maru and Kaiko Maru and announce their intent to arrest, sabotage and sometimes even ram them. One successful piece of sabotage is the hurling onto the whalers canisters of a chemical that bonds with the steel decks, creating a bright pink smoke and putrid odor that renders the whale meat inedible. This is a very exciting and inspiring film, very conventionally made and a few notches above World's Deadliest Catch in highlighting the dangers and rewards of working for a good cause in frigid waters for weeks at a time.

Unrelieved Misery Dept.

The Desert Within (Mexico: Rodrigo Plá, 2008)—This film is about a devout Catholic man whose wife is pregnant. Due to the Mexican Revolution of 1928, all Catholic rituals have been prohibited and priests banned from the villages, but this man stubbornly wants his baby baptized. The mother falls from a ladder and is badly injured, but the priest blesses the baby in utero. He's caught and shot and many villagers are hanged. The father steals a wagon and takes his large family, with his wife and eldest son's corpses, out into the desert where he's willing, nay determined, to sacrifice all of his children in the construction of a church to expiate his wrongdoing. The new, healthy baby is put into a glass relic case and then locked in a room to grow up painting the events in their lives—he's not allowed to play with his siblings. The film is pretty heavy going and a bit contrived. The use of the boy's paintings as animation started out seeming brilliant and then felt overused and even precious. The near-destruction of the family, and the parallel between the small-f and the large-f fathers, seemed a little overworked. When the brother and sister were fucking, an elderly lady in the audience could be heard saying, "They're brother and sister!" in disgust.

Last Stop 174 (Brazil: Bruno Barreto, 2008)—Only a partially successful, fictionalized prequel to the notorious televised Rio de Janeiro Bus 174 hijacking in 2000. Two boys with similar names survive the 1993 Candelária church massacre (in which the cops shot sleeping street boys), and the long-lost mother of one of them focuses on the wrong boy. Meanwhile one of the boys, adrift and high, commits the Bus 174 hijacking. The climactic nonfiction event doesn't flow satisfyingly from the melodramatic—I'm assuming fictionalized—portion of the story.

Crossing (South Korea: Kim Tae-kyun, 2008)—A saga of unrelieved misery as a family struggles to survive in North Korea. A famous soccer player leaves his son and ailing pregnant wife for China to get medicine for her unavailable at home. In the confusion running from security agents, he loses the money he saved and has to stay around working to save more. Meanwhile his wife dies and his son is stuck in a labor camp. The father ends up in South Korea, and the boy sneaks across the border to be reunited with his father. Plenty of astonishing misery to go around.

The Gift to Stalin (Kazakhstan: Rustem Abdrashev, 2008)—I couldn't much get into this film, which is about a small Jewish boy who manages to get off a train headed to a Stalinist death camp and is adopted by a ragtag community of good-hearted misfits in the Kazakh steppes.

Heaven on Earth (Canada: Deepa Mehta, 2007)—A saga of unrelieved misery about an Indian woman brought to Canada to marry a young man who turns out to be seriously disturbed and physically abusive. I found this grimmer than even her other films about the mistreatment of women.

Ramchand Pakistani (Pakistan: Mehreen Jabbar, 2008)—A saga of unrelieved misery about a little boy and father who accidentally cross the border into India and are imprisoned for years. The wife/mother (played by Nandita Das) works off her husband's debts by farming and even has a flirtation with another man, which surprised me. I thought she would be stubborn and steadfast. But then at least four years go by. The little boy falls in love with a teacher at the prison, the father gets bitter, but honestly the prison conditions aren't all that horrible. At one point both father and son are taken to Delhi to be released, but are returned to the prison. We don't see this part—it's just explained to us. That's one of a few faults of the movie, another one of which is dullness. The movie just doesn't work.

Painted Skin (China: Gordon Chan, 2008)—I actually walked out of this lifeless Chinese martial arts period film starring Donnie Yuen and Zhao Wei. I gave it one hour of my life. It's the only movie I've walked out of in long memory. It suffered from being the last in a day of fairly good to superb films. Five minutes in, it was obvious this was a turkey. Lackluster and sluggish, with interminable dialogue using closeups for trickling tears and loving facial details, no sense of dynamism, horrible subtitles—why can't even a big-budget Chinese film have decent subtitles??? Not a single actor has any magnetism except maybe the one who plays a maidservant. The villains are Zhou Xun as a fox spirit and some actor as a lizard spirit who collects human hearts for her to eat. A waifish and inexperienced—but spunky!!!—"Demon Buster" joins forces with a buddy (Donnie Yuen) of the hero to expose and destroy these supernatural entities. I should have walked out at the very beginning. Also, what's with all the Japonisme? All the women look like refugees from Memoirs of a Geisha.

Dunya & Desie (Netherlands: Dana Nechustan, 2008)—This film is about the friendship between a second-generation Moroccan-Dutch and a native Dutch girl. They're both 18 so they can now learn how to drive in Amsterdam. Dunya's parents want to take her back to Morocco to meet a boy for an arranged marriage, and Desie is pregnant and needs to know if the father she never met actually wanted her in order for her to decide whether to keep the baby or not. Dunya and her family go to Morocco, but then Desie goes too because her father went there to live, and then Desie's mother and boyfriend follow her there as well. Most of the film takes place in Morocco, a road movie where Dunya decides to follow Desie to Casablanca where Desie's father's last address is. Cloying and fairly predictable, with its heart in the right place.

Films I regretted not seeing:
Departures (winner of Audience Award as well as one of the Academy Award Best Foreign Film nominees); The Necessities of Life; Tulpan; The Sea Wall; Lion's Den. Besides Departures, the films I (over)heard being praised most were Patrik, Age 1.5 and The Necessities of Life.

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