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2003-09-13 - 9:10 p.m.
Who Killed Bambi? - 72

2003-09-13 - 3:23 p.m.
Grades:

Nine Souls - 50

Dallas 362 - 55

Loving Glances - 13

The Gospel of John - w/o

2003-09-12 - 8:20 p.m.
Recently deceased Portugese auteur Joao Cesar Monteiro's pre-death requiem Come and Go (61) tests patience somewhat with its three-hour run time (e.g. an impromptu ballad about God knows what is seemingly endless), but it's plays defiantly like the film of someone that's earned the right to indulge himself for such a span. With the director himself in the lead role, the film centers around an oddball comic persona who looks like Nosferatu and acts like a perpetually defiant racist, homophobe and pervert. With a tendency toward long shots (the average one must be held for about 7 or 8 minutes) and symmetrical, simplistic compositions, the film pushes formalism to the extreme. Frequently as shocking as it wants to be, it plays like a paean to iconoclasm. I don't think the freakish points of view here are that of the director, but I think he delights in being able to express what he wants to express with this medium. A truly wild third hour punches things up considerably, though it seems like every other scene works as badly as the one before it didn't.

The debut film from Irish director John Crowley, Intermission (35) squanders a solid cast in a tale of macho, hipster glibness and oversentimentalized fate. It wants to convince us that it's edgy and anarchic, in the same way that Doug Liman's superior Go was, but time and again it hews toward the trite. Its anti-establishment rants (which take on facile targets like a power-mad supermarket manager) are especially tough to bear. Shot on unfortunate DV, it doesn't even give much to look at.

Michael Winterbottom's futuristic romance Code 46 (73) delivers a cohesive and plausible vision of things to come as the backdrop for a genuinely compelling romantic tale. Though by no means a deep movie, the chemistry that stars Samantha Morton and Tim Robbins share drew me in completely. With a plot that circles around a counterfeiting investigation, a psychic investigation, and the presence of viruses that are capable of increasing empathy or hatred, the movie remains surprisingly focused on the central relationship and the emotional states of the characters. It manages to accomplish roughly what Gattaca didn't. Even though his compositions consistently exhibit imagination, Winterbottom doesn't quite make the most of his editorial choices. Nonetheless, it's one of those rare sci-fi movies that can work for people that don't necessarily enjoy the genre.

Manuel de Oliviera's A Talking Picture (63) is scarcely discernable as a comedy at times, but its truly wild ending, definitively makes it one. Almost exasperating in its first half, which consists almost entirely of a guided tour of the Mediterranean, the film becomes even more constricted in its second half, which takes place on a single cruise ship, and essentially gives us two extended conversations between a group of multi-national upper-class women and the ship's captain. I haven't really have had time to consider exactly what's being said here, but to me it seemed a warning about having too genteel an attitude toward history. In a festival filled with last-minute twist endings, none has had the boldness or shock value of A Talking Picture's. It might be tough going getting there for many people, however.

I really hope I don't see a film I like less here than Keith Gordon's The Singing Detective (26), which takes the miniseries that I couldn't manage to sit through, and condenses it into an assaultive, generally unlikable mishmash of genres and tones. With horrendous lip-synching, poor staging and full versions of old pop standards in the musical numbers, even what should be the film's highlights feel like a chore. Katie Holmes is the only thing that I truly enjoyed in this procession of never-ending shtick, and her role is too small to come close to saving things. (Mel Gibson is rather inexplicable buried in latex).

Gabriele Salvatores' I'm Not Scared (41) seems like the sort of movie that will win the audience award, which is to say it's not very good, but it panders pretty well. Though gorgeous (perhaps a bit too much so since it makes the subject too nostalgic for its own good) and a relatively painless sit, this kidnapping drama told from the perspective of a young Italian boy gives the sort of issue-dodging cuteness that we've come to expect from Miramax (who has indeed picked this one up). I'm sure it will have its fans when it's released. They can keep it.

Lars von Trier & Jorgen Leth's pseudo-documentary The Five Obstructions (58) starts out strongly with a concept that could have been ripped from a reality television show. Unfortunately, as it moves from the outrageous to the supposedly profound, it loses much of its appeal for me. I won't spoil the concept, since I was lucky enough to not know it going in. I will note that it doesn't help matters that it centers around a work of art that's, to my eyes, not that good to begin with. Furthermore, I'll gripe that as it goes on, the results of the experiment seem less and less impressive. There are plenty of people up here who liked this better than Dogville. They are nuts. If it turns out that it all (including the sentimental summation) has been a big put-on from the notoriously manipulative von Trier (and that he's always shown eating caviar and drinking expensive vodka suggests it might be), I'll have to bump it up some. . . .

Takeshi Miike's wild Yakuza fantasy Gozu (64) doesn't really make sense to me, but that really doesn't get in the way of my enjoyment. Essentially an extended gay identity crisis, it pokes jabs at the latent homoeroticism in this type of film. With characters running around calling each other "brother" all the time, it feels vaguely incestuous too, but it shouldn't be surprising that any Miike film is a bit unsettling on more than one level. The closing scenes were a huge hit with the midnight crowd, and with good reason. Some of the slower scenes that took place along the way to it were a little tougher to bear, however.

Very quickly now. . .

Des Plumes dans la tete (43) is all well and good, but there's only so much visual metaphor that a film this shallow can hold.

Nathalie... (53) is decent enough as far as French relationship dramas go, and its classy exterior hides a surprisingly perverse core, but it doesn't really resonate when it ends.

L'Historie de Marie et Julien (67) was a little disappointing, since it's from Rivette, but this probably isn't the best setting to judge a film this subtle and simple. I appreciate that it eventually veers into L'amour fou territory by making seclusion from the outside world the only emotionally sensible thing for the characters, and it's well-acted to be sure, but it just doesn't seem as thematically dense as the best of the director's works.

20h17, rue darling (41) isn't very good, but it is an admirable attempt at giving us a narrative told by a recovering alcoholic. It's too downbeat to really be enjoyable at any time, though I guess that's probably the point. I might have had more patience with it if it was the only thing I saw today, but when every third movie you see in a week is about existential griping and the trickiness of coincidence, it's tough to get excited by mere competence.

2003-09-12 - 5:13 p.m.
I'm fairly pressed for time, or I'd do a bigger update... Sorry! :(

The Five Obstructions - 58

Gozu - 64

Des Plumes dans la tete - 43

Nathalie... - 53

L'Historie de Marie et Julien - 67

2003-09-11 - 8:00 p.m.
Come and Go - 61

Intermission - 35

Code 46 -73

A Talking Picture - 63

The Singing Detective - 26

I'm Not Scared - 41

Off to The Five Obstructions...

2003-09-10 - 5:19 p.m.
Jane Campion's serial killer movie In the Cut (65) might be the most conventional film of her career, but it's made with considerable attentiveness toward the female psyche that makes it something of an achievement. It's a sexy, sexually explicit movie with lots of nudity from stars Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo, and though some might gripe that it's more focused on carnality than carnage (all of the murders take place off-screen), I found the change of pace for this creatively moribund genre. Though it's paced more like a foreign film than a domestic one (a fact that's bound to earn it some complaints), it is always adeptly pushing the straightforward murder mystery plot forward. For once, the presence of red herrings adds to the thematic context of the movie.

Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's second feature film 21 Grams (47) marks his first American feature. Though it's got a top-notch cast, this melodrama has a time structure that works against our ability to best understand the characters emotionally. Without spoiling anything, I'll note that by utilizing its plot structure, it's attempting to make big statements about faith, coincidence and justice, but those attempts fall flat, leaving us with a melodrama that dangerously encourages intellectual questioning that it can't withstand. Because we see events out of order, our sympathies aren't often aligned with those of the characters, leaving us in a privileged(or non-privileged) space where the character in question's dilemma is something somewhat foreign to us and the constraints of this mode of in-your-face storytelling are laid bare.

2003-09-10 - 11:41 a.m.
Robert Altman hasn't made a bad film since Pret-a-Porter, but given its subject matter (it follows a ballet troupe), I wasn't sure that I'd flip over The Company (80). Though it apparently was a vanity project for star Neve Campbell, it is probably one of the least vain vanity projects in the history of Hollywood. A real ensemble piece, like most of Altman's work, it truly lives up to its title by following the entire company of dancers and organizers that make the art on display seem effortless (it's tough not to look at the film as a meditation on the filmmaking process in some respects). He demonstrates the organizational effort that goes into putting on the show but at the same time never asks us to stand up and cheer for the troupe.

The dance sequences themselves are beautifully filmed. If a piece of relative hackwork like Chicago can win a Best Picture Oscar, this artful film surely should be a major contender. There's no doubt that Malcolm McDowell will be, at least. Playing the effeminate but no-nonsense artistic director of the company, he is more alive here than he's been in years. He's sure to be on everyone's shortlist. Unfortunately, it was shot on High-def video, so it has a slightly smoky look. Special kudos to the romance, which is played almost worldlessly so it becomes something of a mini-ballet itself.

Jacques Doillon's intelligently made Raja (68) seems on the surface to provide material for a bland romantic comedy. Set in Marrakech, it features a transplanted, middle-aged French man who grows sexually obsessed with a young native who works in his garden. As the two play off of each other, however, the film reveals a sensitive eye for nuance that eventually leads to a hard appraisal of the realities of the situation. Consistently funny, but always slightly appalling because it refuses to make itself cute, the movie uses its foreign setting to shift power so that the lead character can express his unbridled libido.

Thom Andersen's low-budget documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (30) gives us a cute concept, and then, despite a three-hour run time, never really churns out a compelling thesis. Examining the portrayal of L.A. in the movies that we watch and the effects that portrayal has had upon the city's psyche, it always seems content to settle for blanket statements instead of backed-up specifics. Almost exclusively using film clips to demonstrate itself, it disappoints even as a trip down memory lane because it frequently features cropped or low-quality video (a counterproductive move in a film that is attempting to discuss the use of landscape in films).

The amount of advance negative hype afforded Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny (65) after its Cannes premiere earlier this year was absurd, judging by the 90-minute cut shown yesterday (the "unfinished" Cannes cut ran a half-hour longer). A simple, affecting story about one man's attempt to regain a lost love, the movie features consistently gorgeous cinematography (the camera is always pulled in too tight for comfort), a lovely use of sound, and a shocking penultimate scene that forces one to reevaluate what's come before. Self-absorbed, but with a purpose, the movie is clearly not the worst film to play in Cannes competition this year, much less for all time (though I understand the ending was radically altered since then. . . ).

Samiria Makhmalbaf's well-intentioned but completely naïve At Five in the Afternoon (41) is set in modern Afghanistan and attempts to address the current desperate situation in that country. Though surprisingly funny and warm in its first half, and initially charming in its structure, as it grinds on, it begins to feel repetitious at the point when it's supposed to start becoming poignant.

Japanese horror film Ju-On: The Grudge (57) makes no sense and is more effective as a result. Essentially a haunted house movie, it introduces characters, one after another, only to have them each meet the same vague, horrible fate. Filled with jump shots of white-skinned Japanese people lurking in the corner of the frame, the film works better than it probably should. Apparently Sam Raimi is producing a remake. I hope it retains the same non-specificity that this film has.

Rick (39), the first feature from editor Curtiss Clayton, is a somewhat effective modern morality tale set in the business world that unfortunately is bit too broad for its own good. Using corporate espionage and power politics, it attempts to delineate the ethical fall of a man (Bill Pullman) who wasn't that decent to begin with. Like a tepid retread of In the Company of Men, it wants to shock us by being politically incorrect and consistently callous toward humanity. That's, like, so five years ago!

2003-09-09 - 11:18 p.m.
Just grades for now... I'll probably get to do a longer update tomorrow around noon EST.

The Company - 80

Raja - 68

Los Angeles Plays Itself - 30

The Brown Bunny - 65

At Five in the Afternoon - 41

Off to The Grudge...

2003-09-09 - 1:03 a.m.
I think this might be a little subpar tonight, but it's better than nothing:

16 Years of Alcohol (26), the first film from Scottish director Richard Jobson plays like Mean Streets, except that it's awful. It has a lot of the same stylistic flourishes as that film (a pop music score & slow motion attempt to enhance the energy level surrounding the violent scenes), but next to none work. About halfway through it switches into a pseudo-romantic movie with the lead character seeking redemption in the woman he loves. It's not much better in this mode either. Something as routine as Good Will Hunting easily blows this away. I could list dozens of movies that do what this movie does better (it has A Clockwork Orange poster featured prominently, which smacks of hubris), and as such its routine story line and delivery seems like narcissism.

From the writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually (39) gives us about ten or so mini-romances in an absurdly chipper fantasy version of London (the dodgy side of town is filled with cute residents, who all banter with Hugh Grant), none of them which really works to any degree. This structure worked to better effect in the relatively mediocre Playing By Heart. I can understand why this might become a crowd pleaser, but I certainly wasn't pleased watching it. There were okay turns by Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, and Laura Linney, but nothing exceptional (except for a cameo by the President of the United States). At more than two hours long, it's entirely too bloated. Cutting some of the characters (e.g. the body doubles, who go M.I.A. for far too long) could only improve it. Also, saying "bugger" sure isn't that funny. They should stop doing that.

Dogville (96) is most likely going to be the movie of the year (if it happens to come out). I'll hold off on elaborating. . .

Pupi Avati's romantic melodrama A Heart Elsewhere (67) was kind of shrugged off when it played at Cannes earlier this year, but I thought it was definitely enjoyable. Though far from deep, it has a little more weight than most foreign movies of this type. It's about an insecure professor who falls deeply in love with a blind society woman, much to the chagrin of his family. Much of the film is spent watching as he withers under her pretensions, which makes it feel a little masochistic, but the laughs remain consistent enough throughout that it doesn't lose its sense of fun. Really it's a nice little movie with a lot of sincerity. It easily won me over. I just wonder why no one else seemed to go for it. . .

Twentynine Palms (85) is awfully similar to Gus Van Sant's Gerry, but way better. I don't want to wade into spoiler territory here, but I really appreciated the way that the characters found out about each other by talking about whatever external things are right in front of them (e.g. the quality of the food they eat, the talk shows on TV). There's something really cinematic too about the central conceit of the characters going around doing location scouting. They almost want to see the world in cinematic terms, and want to find things they are attracted to, but I guess that's not a central theme here.

Tap-dancing around things, I'll just say that the central (only?) relationship here felt like the two main characters were tied together with a rubberband. External forces would come and momentarily pull them apart, only to have them snap together again. Each time this happened, the elastic wore out a little, and they stretched further apart, and they smacked together with greater force. It's only so long before the band breaks in a situation like that. Definitely an experiential mood piece, but near the top of that genre...

2003-09-08 - 8:26 p.m.
Love Actually - 39

Dogville - 96

A Heart Elsewhere - 67

2003-09-08 - 11:14 a.m.
Zhou Yu's Train (38) was fairly dull, and not very well made either. With forced romantic scenes and a non-chronological plot that gets in the way of our emotional understanding of its characters, it is a project hardly worthy of Gong Li's return to acting. At one point near the end of the film, one of the characters says "a lover is a mirror" of the person who loves. Since the lead woman is pretty shallow, that just ensures all of the other characters are shallow too. Sigh.

Last Life in the Universe (50) plays something like a Thai Lost in Translation. An improvement over the director's Moon-rak Transistor, it concerns the serindipitous romance of two drifters in Bangkok. One is a displaced Japanese man who contemplates suicide whenever his mind wanders. The other is a somewhat snippy young woman who is forced to examine herself a bit when her sister is suddenly killed. The two don't share a first language, so mostly they communicated through broken English, making the notion that they're meant to cure each others' loneliness all the more ironic. Not quite great, but still the work of a director worth watching...

Michael Haneke is clearly a director worth watching, and his Le Temps du Loups (70) is something of a comedown from his last few features, but is still quite an achievement. For the first 1/3 or so of the run time, I was convinced I was watching a masterpiece. The compositions Haneke uses here, in his vision of the apocalypse, won't carry over to video at all, since they utilize an extreme sense of scale and are lit so dimly that action is barely discernable at times. After showing us the world after society seems to have died in the first act, it stumbles slightly when attempting to expand itself, only to regain its footing for its conclusion. Less a piece of shock cinema than a humanist statement, it might be a useful film for those who only considered Haneke a provacateur. Surprisingly, it's an ensemble piece...

First time feature filmmaker Greg Marcks' "hip" comedy 11:14 (54) is a surprisingly watchable movie with next to nothing on its mind. With an interesting cast, it recounts the events in a small town leading up to the fateful moment when several losers get their comeuppance. Repeating some of the same events from multiple perspectives, it often makes us watch characters bite the big one repeatedly, from different angles, which isn't fun (though the crowd seemed to think it was). Still, there are some great little performances from solid young actors (Shawn Hatosy, Jesse Eisenberg, etc..) and a frenzied feel that reminded me of Doug Liman's Go.

Amos Gitai's Alila (76) wasn't really a film that I was anticipating, but it's turned into my early pick for best of the fest. Using one extended family's tale to deliver a state of affairs in modern Tel Aviv, the film retains Gitai's general even-handedness while dropping his didactic nature to deliver a movie that feels more like a Hollywood melodrama like Traffic than a somber sermon like Kedma. What's amazing here is that he manages to achieve that mainstream feel while strapping the film into a stylistic device that would lead to a static feel in many other filmmakers' works. The entire film consists of 40 sequence shots, but it still often "feels" like a conventionally shot film, thanks to Gitai's roaming camerawork. The director's one-shot long 9/11 short was preachy and too convinced of its own virtousity. This is much more relaxed, much funnier, and packed with great writing and performances.

Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World (54) was something of a letdown though. Set during the Great Depression, during a contest sponsored by a beer company to find the titular music, the movie starts out promisingly, only to turn into more of a chore as it chugs along. By the time we're watching the 10th face-off between two nations' musical representatives, it's easy to forget why we're watching at all. It doesn't help matters that much of the subtext that is present in his best films is missing here (unless I was too dumb to find much). I'd be tempted to say that his style works better when he doesn't have characters talking, but Careful is one of his best, and that had plenty of talking...

The French gore flick Haute Tension (49) was last night's midnight flick, and it was a blast... sort of a female revenge fantasty with Irreversible-levels of gore... at least until a completely retarded third act revelation (it makes no logistical sense... don't try to figure it out), hobbles things. Fairly derivative to be sure (I saw shots stolen from Speilberg's Jurassic Park, Argento movies, and Scream 2), but fun enough. I just wish it didn't all fall apart at the end.

Grade : 16 Years of Alcohol - 26

Off to see - Love Actually & Dogville...

2003-09-08 - 2:20 a.m.
More ratings ...

The Saddest Music in the World = 54

Haute Tension = 49

2003-09-07 - 8:31 p.m.
Scores... words to come....

Zhou Yu's Train = 38

Last Life in the Universe = 50

Le Temps du Loups = 70

11:14 = 54

Alila = 76

2003-09-07 - 10:54 a.m.
After an impressive run of films yesterday, things slowed down a bit. My first film post-Zatoichi was Marc Recha's moody Les Mains vides (Where is Madame Catherine?) (47). It's a film that's almost plotless, since its thin plot is stretched over 130 minutes. Set in the south of France, it centers on a group of social outsiders that barely scrape by until one of them, Eric played by Olivier Gourmet, steals the money of a dead woman. To avoid raising suspicion among her neighbors, he begins dressing in her clothes and intercepting anyone who attempts to visit her home. Essentially, a hardcore art film version of The Trouble With Harry, the movie mines laughs out of his attempts to hide to body. It goes deeper than Hitchcock's film in many ways though with a few scenes that have a lot of emotional resonance (a failed hunting trip is the best). It really makes it apparent at every turn that these people have their own social system and perception of the outside world. They laugh at bungled politics and mild religious fiascoes because their own lives are rather unrooted. The drunken X-mas dinners that start and end the movie are filled with the gritty energy of a good Larry Clark film. I just wish the rest of the film, which drags in spots, was up to the same level.

Kim Ki-duk's Spring Summer Fall Winter... and Spring (30) is a wild shift from a Korean director known mostly for creating subversive and violent bloodbaths, and unfortunately it struck me as phony and forced. Frankly, I'd prefer to see him stuck in his old rut. Set entirely around a lake on which a master and trainee monk live, the film is divided into five chapters named after the seasons of the title. It attempts to paint a simple, modern religious parable, but I don't think that it's pure enough to achieve the effects that it shoots for. Its first scenes, which follow a young boy as he is taught a lesson about the repercussions of violence that will stick with him for the rest of his life, are certainly cute, but they struck me as shallow. When the movie attempts, about halfway through, to deepen emotions, its shortcomings become more apparent. It wants to feel its lead character's psychological anguish, but it seems completely schematic. The final sequence, which features a mountain climb that feels wholly inadequate when compared to Imamura's The Ballad of Narayama cranks the vocals on the soundtrack hoping to fill the void at the movie's center and trick us into thinking we're watching something profound. Simplemindedness doesn't always equal purity.

Zhou Yu's Train (38), seen this morning, is noteworthy primarily because it marks the return of actress Gong Li to the screen. Though it's a generally underwhelming romantic drama, it's attractive and doesn't really stumble too badly to be truly unlikable. The narrative structure, which plays with the plot's chronology gets in the way of our emotional understanding of the characters and the endless scenes that feature slow-motion and flowery narration wear out their welcome by the end of the first reel. As we watch the titular character strike up and decimate one relationship, and constantly flirt with another, we're supposed to be impressed by the film's poetry, but since the movie is so overwrought, it's tough to be moved. Someone or other narrates at one point "a lover is a mirror", and the movie wants us to believe that sentiment wholly. The shallowness of the main character ensures that her paramours are shallow. It's not a bad thesis per se, but I'd much rather watch Millennium Mambo which does way more interesting stuff with the same themes.

2003-09-06 - 5:12 p.m.
I've seen three films so far today, so let's get down to business. . .

First up was Ridley Scott's con-men comedy Matchstick Men (63), which I wouldn't have bothered seeing (at TIFF) had it not been the only film programmed in its time slot. It was a happy accident, I suppose, since I ended up enjoying it a good deal. Though the script takes a while to really get cooking, the film features a trio of wonderful performances courtesy of the leads (Nic Cage, Alison Lohman & Sam Rockwell). It's a much funnier film than I would have expected from the generally dour Scott, and the movie manages to create real comic energy with its seemingly stale Odd Couple-style pairings. There are a few instances where Cage's nervous tics are used as punch lines that don't really work for me (because they're not funny, not because I was in any way offended), but otherwise most of the jokes that the film shoots for work.

When it turns into something more serious, the results are mixed. The first instance of violence is perfectly timed to catch the viewer off guard and rescues the film right at the point where it starts to feel too cute. The next one was too telegraphed, even though it was obviously straining to have the same effect. The ending almost cheapens the genuinely affecting relationships that we've built up until that point, but I suppose it's also the film's raison d'art. Visually, it's especially fine in the first half, though it becomes less interesting, necessarily, as Cage's character opens up a bit. Lohman takes top honors here. She's clearly one to watch.

Next up for me was Peter Greenaway's obscure but entrancing overload Tulse Luper Suitcases: Part 3, Antwerp (60). Set almost entirely in a Belgian train station, this boldly chaotic film uses the split screen techniques that Greenaway has used before (e.g. The Pillow Book) to create what truly feels like a multimedia experience. Essentially a treatise against those fascists who only give you one image to look at while watching a film, the movie offers an influx of information that's as often giddying as it is perplexing. I can't really understand what exactly the director is trying to do when he introduces his character by simultaneously showing us several actors rehearsing for the part at once, but it seems to be related to the notion that we should have a choice in what we're looking at. Throughout, Greenaway gives us plenty of choices as to what we want to look at. It's not uncommon for the frame to include both shot and counter-shot or an establishing shot and a close-up at the same time. Just as frequently, he'll replay snippets of scenes or a box will zip around showing in it an alternate take of the action that we're watching. All the while, the soundtrack shifts our attention from image to image.

The plot concerns the detainment by Nazis of Tulse Luper, a master file clerk that has collected in suitcases 92 items that explain the nature of the world and has chronicled many of his findings in voluminous notes that need to be transcribed by a stenographer before the Nazis are willing to let him leave. The Nazis' obvious desire for organization of information is a prime object of ridicule here, and I imagine that no one would be able to absorb all that Greenaway presents here in one viewing. My experience with the film was filled with laughs (an anecdote featuring a urinating Samuel Beckett was a highlight) and slightly less revulsion than I feel in the average Greenaway feature. Near the end of the film, one character says to another, "Those who write with an easy hand mean to be read easy." Clearly, nothing could be farther from Greenaway's intentions here. Fascinating and unique stuff nonetheless . . .

Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi (70) was my third feature today. I see on the news wire that it just won the Venice Silver Lion for Best Director, and that comes as no surprise. Though the film is hampered somewhat by a budged that is a bit too low (the CGI looks nothing less than lame, even if conceptually it's inventive), it's a delight that's surprisingly comparable to the director's Kikujiro. Like that film, there's a playful mood throughout, and it enlivens this tale of the famed Japanese blind swordsman. I also appreciated the frequent moments where Kitano takes time to establish the community that Zatoichi lives in. Though they make the movie sometimes feel a bit aimless, narrative digression is to be expected by now in his work.

What's new here a precision for shooting elaborately choreographed action scenes that prove that Kitano could be a more fast paced filmmaker if he so desired. Though the action always unfolds in brief quick bursts, there are a few fight scenes here that are thrilling in a way that his past portrayals of violence haven't been. The plot circles around the revenge plot of twin Geisha against a tyrant that is overtaxing Zaitoichi's community, and that hook gives the film an emotional immediacy that's sometimes buried in the director's work. Though still as concerned with Japanese culture as any of the director's previous films, Zatoichi is one of the director's liveliest outings and a real return to form after his disappointing Dolls.

2003-09-06 - 2:07 a.m.
I just finished two more TIFF films bringing my grand total to three after one day... Obviously, I intend to ramp up production over the next week to bring you all more too-brief-to-be-useful capsules...

First up was Cesc Gay's In the City (46), a rather slight movie if I ever saw one. This talky comic drama traces the romantic escapades of about a dozen or so characters in modern-day Barcelona to little effect. Though leagues better than the last Spanish-sex romp that I saw (the dismal The Other Side of the Bed), it is so blandly targeted at the upper-middle class urbanite that it always fails to excite. It might be upscale, but it's a bit stale. Laughs are few & far between and dramatic confrontation is even rarer. Most of the "big" scenes take place off-screen, and while that approach avoids melodramatics, it also avoids dramatics too.

It's an attractively lit film with attractive people coping with issues of infidelity of both emotional and physical types, and it manages to be pleasant even though it doesn't add up to much. That being said, it's awfully trite at times. To demonstrate people's loneliness, Gay shoots his characters as they eat dinner alone or find now messages waiting on their answering machine. When a character finally tries to sum up the movie's point of view, he stammers, "Relationships are... I don't know." That sort of inconclusiveness is probably preferable to definitives in a broad-ranging movie like this, I suppose, but sometimes there's not much space between not overstating yourself and not stating much at all. Essentially, it makes The Taste of Others look like a thrill ride. Moica Lopez and Maria Pujalte make strong impressions, the former by being tightly-wound but still likable, and the latter by being unconventionally sexy despite being somewhat despicable.

Cypher (39), the first film in this year's Midnight Madness series caps off my Friday Night, and since I didn't know anything going into it, it wasn't much of a disappointment. Because it's one of those all-too-common sci-fi-mindfuck-neo-noirs, it's best to go in blind, but I'm not sure that that even helps much here. A rather humourless affair from the director of the inspired, but ultimately half-baked Cube, it features Jeremy Northam and Lucy Liu in a tangled plot in which Nothing Is What It Seems. Owing more than a little debt to The Matrix ("If you want answers, take the shot," the hypodermic-brandishing Morpheus-cum-Charlie's Angel Liu commands at one point), it fails to live up to even that film by neither providing its genuinely entertaining action pyrotechnics nor improving on its mishmash of supposedly mind-blowing ideas.

Like most of these corporate espionage flicks, everyone is double crossing everyone else, and like most of them, it stops making sense from time to time. Since Cypher is so slow paced though, there is plenty of time to play catch-up. Visually it starts out somewhat inspired, replacing the shadows and rain of old noir films with silhouettes created by excessive backlighting and storms created by a car wash, but as the lead character descends further into madness, director Vincenzo Natali whips out cliches like Vaseline-smeared and fisheye lenses. Before long, you're likely to find yourself pining for old-fashioned film noir. With the exception of Strange Days and Abre los Ojos, this isn't a genre that I've been able to embrace. Cypher gives me no real reason to change that stance. I liked it during the scenes when something "cool" was being revealed on screen, but the moment that "cool" ended, my interest waned. It's as weightless as In the City, and then some.

Up tomorrow (provided I get up tomorrow? Matchstick Men, Zatoichi, Tulse Luper Suitcases 3, and more...

2003-09-05 - 9:01 p.m.
It's Friday evening and I've finally seen my first festival film. It was Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder (59), and it marks a pretty solid start to the festival. On the surface, at least, it's a fairly standard real-life serial killer drama which follows a group of Korean detectives as they attempt to track down a killer over the course of three years. Typical to the genre, there's a good-cop / bad-cop sensibility at work and a series of frustrating red herrings, but most of this movie's pleasures don't really have anything to do with its genre.

For example, even though many of the details in the movie's script are too schematic to have been lifted from reality, there's a great sense of time and place that reverberates throughout. There are scenes showing air raid drills and focusing on pop songs that surely must resonate with a Korean audience and give this story, which essentially details the gradual corruption of a small farm town. Some of my fellow festivalgoers seemed to gripe about the movie's abundant sense of humor, but I think that it does a great job of illustrating the way that over the course of a long investigation the personalities of the two lead characters began to merge.

Though it's never really gory, there are gross-out moments throughout (some vomiting, an amputation, a train accident) that show that typically Korean flair for the disgusting. Visually the movie is rather sophisticated, with compositions that often feature action on multiple planes and a tendency toward imagery that mixes poeticism with a queasy approximation to death.

I'm about to go hop in line to see two more films, but I'll quickly note that I saw a bunch of other films outside of the festival. The tepid, too-broad comedy But I'm a Cheerleader (27) was my in-flight movie, courtesy of a DVD. The new David Spade vehicle Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star (48) was funny, but a bit less chaotic than Joe Dirt. It does a good job of sending up the Hollywood sentimental message movie and then almost becomes one itself. The Oedipal overtones were pretty awesome though.

Not as awesome as my brief trip to the National Film Board's Mediatheque though... Thanks to the viewing kiosks there I was able to see numerous Candadian avant-garde shorts, focusing mostly on the work of Norman McLaren. The real highlights of the 15 or so McLaren shorts that I watched were Begone Dull Care and Pas de Deux (both 83), but I found plenty to like in even the shorter films such as Blinkity-Blink (72) and A Chairy Tale (68). From my point of view, he stands somewhere between Disney's Fantasia and Stan Brakhage. I'd definitely be interested in seeing more of his work.

That's about all the time I have now... I'll update later, hopefully with more festival films under my belt.

2003-09-03 - 7:24 p.m.
A year later, I'm almost surprised to find this log still here, but since it's the easiest way that I know to upload to the 'net when I'm not sure what computer I'll be using, I guess it will have to do. I'll be heading out to Toronto sometime tomorrow afternoon, but won't start seeing films until Friday afternoon, after which I expect to see 40-something before next Sunday.

I'll leave the entries below for the curious, and to prepare people for the rapid disintegration of my mental state as sleep becomes a distant memory.

Looking over my schedule, I see a lot of eagerly anticpated films (2 x Lars von Trier, a new Altman, a new Maddin, a new Campion, etc. etc...) and a lot of unknown stuff that might very well turn out to be dreck. I can't say that I'm anticipating the line-up this year as much as I was last year, but that might be because I've largely tried to avoid any information about stuff that I planned to see. Ignorance isn't bliss yet, but I hope it turns out to be.

Even before I've begun, guilt has started to set in... Movies that I regret I'll be missing: Coffee and Cigarettes, Alexandra's Project, Bright Future, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Chokher Bali: A Passion Play, Jesus You Know, I Love Your Work, Good Bye Lenin!, Twist, Broken Wings, Kitchen Stories, Les Triplettes de Belleville, Purple Butterfly, Noi Albinoi, Japanese Story, Rosenstrasse, and a whole slew of docs (The Agronomist, S21, Dream Cuisine, and perhaps most regrettably of all films at TIFF, Enquete sur le monde invisible)!

2002-09-16 - 9:55 p.m.
Now that I'm back home, I've moved my updates back to my normal website: http://www.moviemartyr.com

Check there for full reviews.

Thanks,

Jeremy

2002-09-14 - 5:37 p.m.
No time to elaborate much, but here goes:

In America (* *) - Awfully generic tearjerker with several solid actors wasted. A year in the life of a rather unexceptional immigrant family in modern day Manhattan (that still manages to wrangle a better apartment than me). It's one of those movies that's so earnest that it can't even say the word AIDS when one of the main characters is dying of it. The puffball with the camcorder who tells us how to feel is pretty insufferable as well. It doesn't feel like a miss at times, but overall it's tough to swallow.

The Other Side of the Bed (*) - An immature Spanish musical-comedy that plays like an extended, unrated episode of Friends. The running gags are awful here (especially the one where characters are stunned to learn of bisexuality), and you'd think that it would have been enough to show a frustrated tennis match turning into an argument only once. The musical bits don't help matters. They're build upon the lamest pop music imaginable and have a look to them that's probably supposed to be charmingly and clumsily realistic, but ends up looking like a serious lack of production values. The cast is filled with unlikable sorts, and the one that shows any sort of presence (Maria Esteve's bubbly Pilar) is treated like a freak by a script that has no idea what to do with her energy.

Ken Park (* * 1/2) - Far from Bully in quality, but far above the dire state of affairs that was Bully, this Clark exercise in teenage miserablism works more often than not, but there's no denying that large swaths of it don't. There's some great photography here, and the message (Parents are partly to blame for bad kids' actions) is presented with more shading than you might suspect (notice that Claude's dad doesn't close the door), but at this point it seems like some of the director's shock tactics only still shock himself.

2002-09-14 - 7:03 a.m.
I must say, on today, the last day of the Festival, that burnout has never set in for more than a film or two. I'm really astonished at my ability to be totally receptive to great movies after watching many films, most of them less than superb, for over a week straight. Overall, Friday was my best day of the festival thus far, by far. Here's what I saw in addition to the aforementioned Sex is Comedy & Sympathy for Mr. Vengance:

Dirty Pretty Things (* * *) - A real surprise for me, actually, I didn't expect a lot from this Steven Frears thriller, but it's solidly done, in its slick way. The second stolen kidney movie that I saw in a row (after Mr. Vengance), it shows us a world rarely seen in this sort of film (this sort of film being the glossy sort): the London underclass of illegal immigrants. For most of the first hour, before the mechanics of the plot become wholly apparent, it's really quite exciting. The visual gloss doesn't suffocate the realistic feel, and the performances manage to be likable without much whimsy, even with Audrey Tatou - Amelie herself - featured prominently. I think it helps a lot that there isn't a kid plugged into this formula (a small wonder considering Miramax financed it), and the movie's focus on the work that these people do is nice. Instead of smoking gun set pieces, we get Immigration raids, and the change of pace is refreshing and intellegent. As it moves into the last hour, it's far less satisfying, and a tendency crops up to verbally state everything that we've already understood up until that point, but that's not much reason to keep you away from this tight piece of work.

Bear's Kiss (* 1/2) - Dismal really, and I'm only giving that 1/2 star because I nodded off for a solid fifteen minutes somewhere along the line (trust me though, it hardly mattered) and I don't want to damn something that I haven't seen in its entirety. I can't quite fathom who this film, which straddles the line between contemporary fairy tale and porno fantasy, was conceived for, but I can say pretty definitively that it wasn't me. Flat performances and a predictable script are just about all this one has to offer. Even the photography of this circus-set tale of a girl that fales in love with a shape-shifting bear is a letdown.

Vendredi Soir (* * * *) - This is more like it! I have to puzzle a bit why I hated Blissfully Yours so much, since this new film by Claire Denis is essentilaly the same in plot and approach (a long, near-real time look at a brief sexual encounter). I guess it's just that Denis is so rigorous here in creating a subjective point of view for her main character. Certainly, this one's not as hypnotic as Trouble Every Day or Beau Travail (though I probably prefer it to the former), since the score is much less forceful, but Denis just as wordlessly puts us in the mind of her protagonist here as in either of those two. It feels like it might be her best film yet, since it's such a total distillation of her style, but I'll wait until I see it again in New York in a few weeks before I make any kind of sweeping judgments.

Punch Drunk Love (* * * *) - I suppose I could understand after watching this one why the buzz was sort of mixed, and though I could completely understand the complaints that I heard about PT Anderson's new film (it's got a weird juxtaposition of violent outbursts and delicate humor, it's a bit insubstantial, it never slows down in pitch), for me those elements played as strengths. Perhaps that was because I went in expecting them, but I don't think anything can quite prepare you for the directorial tour de force that Anderson launches here. I'll try though, without spoiling anything.

The visual scheme of the movie is probably it's greatest strength. Clearly this time out, Anderson's going to be accused of ripping of Jacques Tati, since so many of his gags rely on the physical exploitation of his widescreen frame, but this film is far more plot bound than anything Tati's done. Still, it doesn't ever feel a slave to that plot (the pudding coupon redemption subplot doesn't amount to much beyond quirkiness, for example). Anderson uses his score to assault us in a way, and creates a sense of rising tension that keeps escalating until it has to explode somewhere (sort of like Magnolia worked, but here it explodes more frequently). I love the way that he uses L.A.'s aggressive non-look to create a really unique aesthetic. The way that he plays with color, light, and darkness is incredibly sophisticated (especially, like everything here, for a studio project) and when his characters finally become shadow puppets the effect is breathtaking. There are also some amazing shots in which Sandler's character fades to black and white as he wanders into the back of the frame. Essentially, it's an examination of the wonderful and frightening way that love makes us re-evaluate our self-worth, but don't go in expecting any depth, and you might be surprised by the amount of emotion that the movie actually has. I could deal without Sandler's quirky profession, but that's a minor reservation in what's a superb piece of work.

2002-09-13 - 1:53 p.m.
I have about a half an hour before I head off to see Dirty Pretty Things, so I figured I'd type out some capsules...

Dirty Deeds (* * 1/2) - As noted above, this '60s-set Aussie casino caper flick rather sub-Ritchie, but it's not awful, even if it's terribly by the book. Certainly, it's got a lighter tone than your average heist flick, and I certainly preferred this one to either version of Ocean's 11. To go into more detail now seems silly, since there are much more important movies to talk about...

Max (*) - Probably the worst of the fest so far, with little likely to topple it... About 5 minutes in, when I realized that Noah Taylor's Hitler is the only main character with a thick German accent, I was ready to leave. He wears a constant sneer, which makes it pretty much impossible to see any sort of humanity in him, which seesm to be the point of this exercise. The production values aren't inept or anything, but the thought process behind the film seems to be. It requires us to have knowledge of what Hitler's to become to feel any kind of suspense throughout, but at the same time operates by sowing false hopes that he'll somehow focus his energies into becoming some sort of great artist. Since it assumes we think he's inherently evil, its surface level psychoanalysis fails completely to impress. It wants us to sympathize with him, but would never be so bold as to present his viewpoint rationally, so his character never evolves beyond a cartoon-like imitation. It's really retarded, honestly, and just about the only thing missing from its grade-school recap of this era of German history is a end title card saying "and then, Young Adolph went on to become the Fuhrer."

The Crime of Father Amaro (* *) - This one recently shattered some box-office records in Mexico, which probably means that it's working for someone, if seen in proper context. To me it seemed a rather bilious assault on organized religion without much of an alternative solution offered up, leaving an end result that felt like an empty exercise in controversy. It's rare to see complex priests on screen in modern films (at least when they aren't battling literal demons), so there's something refreshing about it (though casting a strapping young guy like Gael García Bernal makes it a bit less believable), but since the movie is set up as a melodramatic series of scandalous revelations, each more shocking than the rest, it begins growing stale just as its criticisms should be their most potent.

Julie Walking Home (* * 1/2) - Director Agnieszka Holland returns here with a fine, but manipulative drama about family breakups and faith healing, that still manages to be affecting at times. The proximity to her characters makes emotions feel immediate, even when the plot seems randomly constructed and the symbolism gets heavy handed (because his parents are divorcing, a boy gets heart cancer!). There's a really interesting screenwritng mechanism at work here that continually sets up false expectations, and the occasional moments that ring true, many of them comic, resonate throughout and power you through a lot of the muck.

Irreversible (* * * 1/2) - You Now Have 30 Seconds To Leave This Review... 29... 28... 27 ... Just kidding, but not entirely. Those who have seen Noe's I Stand Alone will get the above reference, but his new film should carry some sort of warning before audiences even set foot in the theater.

I was told to expect a love/hate reaction from this one, but I ended up a lot of with both (though most of the "hate" has resolved itself). Certainly an aesthetic triumph (except perhaps in how it aestheticizes misogyny and presents gays, minorities, and transgendered folks as denziens of a world gone profoundly wrong), Gaspar Noe's clearly improved as a director since I Stand Alone, and uses excellent digital effects freely here to create a lucid but nightmarish look at fate. The tumbling camerawork that he uses makes the entire film seem like one continual shot, even though the chonology of his sequences travels backward. Early on he has a character say, "You know what? Time destroys all things," but by reversing the flow of time in this film, he seems to be working toward a denial of fate instead of a surrender to it.

That hopefulness is hard won though, and for many that conceit won't be enough. You have to sit through some of the most brutal sequences that I've ever seen to get to it, and for anyone the least bit squeamish, I'd suggest sitting this one out. I don't want to disproportionately criticize the content of a film that's so much more about style than ideas, so I'll lay off that stuff, but I will note that many of the bits that initally had me worked up later revealed themselves to be a running joke, so I was cool with them by the time the movie was over.

Alive (* *) - Midnight Madness continues to underwhelm this year... Boring as hell for the first ninety minutes or so, where it assumes the form of a prison-set chamber drama, this Japanese sci-fi flick reinvents itself in its final act as a campy self-deprecating thrill ride that really works. Its lulls aren't filled with any depth whatsoever, so it's tough to recommend to anyone beyond die-hard fans of wire-fu action flicks.

Sex is Comedy (* * *) - Briellat doesn't seem to be growing as an artist here or anything, but this examintion of the filming of Fat Girl's central sex scene is a likable enough look at her creative process. It gets a lot of mileage out of the prosthetic penis that the lead actor wears, and the relationship that she has with the rest of her cast and crew seems almost too simple to be real, but the biggest hurdle, surprisingly is the director's own hangups. The on-set friction that she feels with her lead actor (much of it caused by her directorial insuffiencies) makes her to doubt herself, and watching her re-examine her conceptulization of the scene is genuinely interesting.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengance (* * *) - This Korean kidnapping flick sort of plays out like a reverse version of Kurosawa's High & Low with us understanding the motivation of the victimizer before the victim. After the kidnapping is botched, however, a cycle of revenge plots builds up that makes a pretty effective statement about the toll of this gory business. Surprisingly comic for most of its run time, when it kicks into its last half hour into a more graphic series of showdowns it manages to shock. If not a great film by any means, it isn't one that seems to be compromising much either in its vision.

Well, that's gotten me up to date for now... I'm off...

2002-09-13 - 7:54 a.m.
Since the festival was paying reverence to September 11th and started the screenings later in the day, I only saw four movies on Wednesday. Quick capsules follow:

Phone Booth (* * *) – Not nearly great, but much better than I really expected, this Joel Schumacher thriller hews closely throughout to its high-concept premise and is the better for it. Clocking in at just over 80 minutes, it has no time for silly subplots or much unnecessary sentimentality. After roughly fifteen minutes of setup, it gets locked into its single, titular locale, but never has a chance to grow boring after it does so. Sure, it has a somewhat corny absolution scene at the end and some of the visual gags (the robot, for example) are overdone, but mostly Schumacher’s direction, which uses split screens well and has a garishly exaggerated sense of city life, serves the script. I was also quite amazed to learn after watching the movie that it only cost $1.5 million, digital effects and all. I would have guessed an amount about ten or twenty times higher.

Evelyn (* *) – The crowd sure loved this one, but for me it was rough going. Earnest in the extreme, this light drama about of a single Irish father’s (Pierce Brosnan) attempts to get back his children after the court removes them from his home in 1954. With next to no legal mumbo jumbo, the film lunges straight for your heart, and if it seemed maudlin to me, I was all-too-aware that the majority of the audience seemed to be moved. I couldn’t help but scoff when the lawyers made sweeping statements like, “You’ll lose this case, because if you win the whole of family law would be upended.” There are moments that are really effective here, but generally things are overplayed. It’s not enough for Brosnan’s character to be a well-meaning father. He’s also an established crooner and a more than competent artist. It makes you puzzle about why his wife left him in the first place and makes the attempts to wring suspense over which guy the only attractive woman in the film who isn’t a nun will pick seem academic.

Kedma (* * 1/2) – Set in 1948 on the day before the creation of the Israeli state, Amos Gitai’s Kedma suffers since it offers biases under the illusion of evenhandedness. The last words in the film for example, are an impassioned speech from a riled up Palestinian who suggests the Jews are as powerful as they are because of their willingness to suffer. He makes some rabid, but cognizant points that seem an excellent counterbalance to much of what’s come before, but then has to pause to wipe the foam that’s frothing from his mouth away. Kedma is the name of the ship that the Israelites that the film follows arrived at their homeland on, and as soon as they get off of it, they’re greeted with gunfire from British soldiers who want to stop the creation of the state. Several battle scenes ensue, but they all have an odd, stagy quality about them. Explosions almost always take place within the camera’s frame – there’s no sense of off screen space here – and the characters have a tendency to launch into a political rant that ends on a hopeful note… right before they die. Kedma a not exactly bad film, but it’s in many ways one that is hard to swallow.

Happy Here and Now (* * *) – Surely I need to see this one again. For its first hour I was a bit bored, to be frank, but in its last half hour, it became something (or I finally realized what it was doing) that was exciting and perhaps revolutionary. Essentially, it boils down to a meditation about how our relationship with film, and art in general, is a two-way exchange, but it confounds the expectations that it sets up inside itself in order to do that. The plot is set up as a mystery without much of an answer, and while watching it unfold, you’ll inevitably be perplexed since things don’t pan out as you’d expect. Still, every red herring that the script offers up seems somehow tied into the greater thematic web of the film, and once they all start clicking, the film takes off. I’m excited to view it again to see how those thematic hooks plug into the first two thirds of the film and to check out whether that title’s ironic or heartfelt.

2002-09-12 - 10:58 a.m.
I forgot the disk with my writing from last night back at my hotel room, so I'll just give star ratings & upload them next time.

Phone Booth (* * *)

Evelyn (* *)

Kedma (* * 1/2)

Happy Here & Now (* * *)

Also, this morning I've already seen the Aussie heist film Dirty Deeds (* * 1/2), which is a bit sub-Ritchie, but entertaining enough for what it is.

2002-09-11 - 10:27 a.m.
Not a lot of time today, since I slept later than I probably should of, so here are some quick & dirty capsules:

Lost in Lamancha (* * *) - A documentary about the decline of Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. If this production can't quite compare to Fitzcarraldo, it seemed awfully troubled, and watching it fall apart was alternatively humorous and harrowing. The filmmaker's total open access to nearly everyone involved seems like a fortunate mistake, and the film shifts to the absurdist as it shows just how hard it is to shut down a mega-production.

Spider (* * * *) - Almost perfectly realized, really, though I would have preferred if all of the protagonists flashbacks would have been things he actually experienced (instead of what he imagined). There are moments of sheer terror when we realize that the schizophrenic Spider simply has no ability to discern from the layers of his reality, and Cronenberg's decision not to use any effect to indicate a flashback makes the film harrowing. Some of the best scenes of the year are here, though I seem to be in the minority on this one...

Sweet Sixteen (* * * 1/2) - Slightly better than Mike Leigh's excellent All or Nothing, this one features a devastating lead performance. It's the story of a Scottish youth who decides he has to become a thug to save his mother from thugs, and for the last half hour or so, it's utterly heartbreaking in a way that similarly masochistic exercises such as Moodysson's Lilya 4-Ever aren't.

Blissfully Yours (*) - Really, the epitome of bad art films. Watching it, I couldn't help escaping the notion that instead of watching these people laze about outside in real time, I could have done the same. There's a 20 minute car ride with only incidental dialogue, a 15 minute walk through the woods, a 20 minute dip in a creek, etc...

Aiki (* * 1/2) - Really entertaining, earnest, and mainstream with some quirks (surgery nightmares & Viagara dreams) that remind you that its director wrote Miike's Audition. Ultimately it's a bit too scattershot to earn my recommendation, but I sure didn't mind watching it, especially since it never gets old to see Aikido masters flipping opponents on the ground.

My Little Eye (*) - My little eyes would have rather been in bed than watching this dumb thriller. I can't wait until internet technology evolves to the point where movies that ape it as their aesthetic won't look like total shit.

2002-09-10 - 8:15 a.m.

An extra two hours of sleep made a huge difference for me on Monday. I felt completely refreshed and ready to tackle the five movies that I had scheduled. Even a 9 a.m. screening of Samantha Lang’s slow-paced sex drama L’Idole (* * 1/2) went down easy. The main attraction to seeing the film was the prospect of seeing the talented young actress Leelee Sobieski acting in fluent French. It’s probably a great compliment to the film that within a few minutes I wasn’t paying attention to that gimmick, but was instead interested in what the characters were actually saying.

The movie follows Sobieski’s character Sarah, an understudy who travels with a play to Paris, as she strikes up a relationship with an elderly Chinese neighbor while attempting to salvage a disintegrating one with her co-star (call it Mon Premier Monsieur if you like). At first it’s disappointing that the film doesn’t intensively explore the sexual desires of its protagonist, but as the film continues we realize that it’s because her sexual desire, much like her later depression, is less a natural impulse than an overly romantic one. She seems a bit unable to distinguish between her actorly flamboyance and her genuine reaction to things, and as a result goes a bit too far in her actions. Watching the movie, you’re often surprised by its oddly whimsical take on its serious subject matter. It’s only when dealing with the nosy neighbors in her apartment building that it goes too far in this direction, though. The central friendship that develops between Sarah and her neighbor Mr. Zao (James Hong) is alternatively tender, sexually charged, and fraternal. If L’Idole doesn’t exactly stir your passions (there’s next to no nudity, which seems odd) it does a reasonable job of stirring your intellect.

Next up was Todd Haynes’ brilliant tribute to Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows, Far From Heaven (* * * *), which is not only the best film I’ve seen thus far at the festival, but also one of the very best films I’ve seen this year. Reteaming Haynes with the superb Julianne Moore for the first time since Safe, the film exhilarates in the same way that Safe did, by toeing the thin line between humorous irony and poignant emotion. Unlike Safe though, which never really declared an allegiance to either, Heaven uses ironic jokes and witty dialogue in its first half to close the rift between modern audiences and the film’s 1950s setting and then later reduces his humorous touches as the drama becomes more intense. Haynes lulls us into a position where we feel a little superior to, but not emotionally detached from, his characters and then goes on to show a series of melodramatic twists (many taken almost directly from Sirk’s Heaven) that confound our expectations by actually making us feel something genuine. By the time our opinion of Moore’s blonde Connecticut housewife matters to the film’s emotional success, we’ve been made fully aware of her limitations as a thinker and a resident of her community, and that allows us to better understand the decisions that she makes. When she says, “I don’t understand,” we understand that she really doesn’t.

Moore’s fantastic performance doesn’t hurt in endearing us to her character either. She disappears completely into her role, and before long we don’t see the actress when we look at her. The supporting cast is equally fine, without a bad line reading in the film. Technically, the film is irreproachable. Haynes adopts the cinematography and elaborate art direction of Sirk’s film, but then uses his own editing rhythms and camera placement so that the end result never feels like a carbon copy. Still, when the camera launches into a crane shot and Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent score swells, the sheer technique bowls us over. Instead of focusing on the class politics the caused the drama in Sirk’s film, Haynes examines the sexual and racial hang-ups that lurked beneath the attractive veneer of ‘50s life. The most frightening thing we realize is that underneath all of the stylization that he employs, we realize how little has changed today, and when that happens all of the ironic distance that we felt evaporates totally.

Anything would probably have been a bit of a letdown after Far From Heaven, and the 45 minute delay before the start of Todd Louiso’s Love Liza (* *) probably didn’t help to enhance my opinion of it. For what it’s worth, the film features Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his most prominent role to date, but I don’t know that he’s given a performance this empty since his Twister days. I could understand what the film, which follows Hoffman’s character along the long road to emotional stability after his wife unexpectedly commits suicide, was trying to do, but it seemed to fail miserably at it for the most part. Most of its attempts to show his mourning seemed loaded with forced pathos, and that the plot’s resolution hung on his character’s resistance to open his wife’s suicide note seemed to reveal everything leading up to that point as a screenwriter’s construct. For no apparent reason except for the film’s need to dredge up some edgy conflict, he becomes addicted to huffing gasoline (a habit that ensures practically every third scene is a musical montage). Perhaps special mention should be given to the protagonist’s occupation: he programs internet pop-up ads. This automatically makes him just about the least likable character in the entire history of the movies.

After Love Liza, I went straight to another huffing movie: Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever (* * *), which features several scenes of children in the ex-Soviet Union huffing glue in an attempt to escape the harsh realities of their lives. After Moodysson’s last films, which seemed infinitely generous in their depiction of humanity, Lilya came as a bit of a shock. Sorrow has moved in this movie from the subtext to the text itself, and the results are somewhat uncomfortable. It is rather (deservedly) contemptuous of nearly everyone who lives in its world, since they are all too willing to take advantage of the protagonist and those like her. After a stunningly cut opening that plays an aria of teen angst set to music that sounds like Rammstein, it flashes backward three months to a happier time where we see the 16-year old Lilya eagerly anticipating her move to America. As brutal and visceral as the opening moments of the film are, we have no inkling that poor Lilya’s situation will become as dire as it does.

The film sets up the United States as the embodiment of heaven for these Eastern Europeans. They live in abject poverty but still bring up Michael Jordan and Britney Spears in their conversations. As the hope of Lilya’s escape to this paradise dwindles, and her circumstances continually worsen, the atmosphere grows increasingly more violent and sexually charged. By the time the climax rolls around, it feels like a horror movie. Lilya’s plight is heartbreaking and Moodysson’s filmmaking never fails to implicate her environment in her downfall. He opens many scenes by showing a master shot, then quickly zooming into a close-up so that we never forget about the surroundings that they inhabit. The ending of the film isn’t quite devastating on its own terms, though it tries to be. Still, I was relieved when my being subjected to Lilya’s pain could end. For many audience members the experience was even more harrowing.

From the frying pan to the fire, I followed up Lilya with Mike Leigh’s terrific new film All or Nothing (* * * 1/2) which finds the director returning to his working class British roots after a detour into Topsy Turvy territory. I don’t have much time to go into detail here, but suffice to say that it seems conceived on a slightly larger scale than his usual work. It examines the debilitating effects of work on three families in a London apartment complex, but any one of them would be more than interesting enough to carry their own film. The richness of character is a given though with Leigh, though, as are the wonderful ensemble performances, I suppose, but that doesn’t reduce the pleasure that you feel watching this world unspool. It’s only once he has one of his working class characters wander onto a placid, almost surreally beautiful beach setting that you realize how damn effectively he’s created the places that the rest of the film takes place in. They seem an aberration in a conventionally beautiful world. I suppose you could complain it’s slow going for the first hour, where it seems almost random and plotless, but all along the movie is working to set up for a climax that packs an incredible tragicomic punch.

2002-09-09 - 8:05 a.m.
I haven’t updated in two days now, but that’s only because I’ve been forced to choose between sleep and updating, and I chose the former. As such, I got a whopping three hours of rest on Friday night before heading off to my first screening of the day.

Peter Kosminsky’s well-intentioned chick flick White Oleander (* * 1/2) was my first task on Saturday morning and it wasn’t exactly a disappointment, but it failed to live up to the positive buzz that I had heard for it. Certainly the acting in the film is a little less superb than you might expect from a film with its cast. Instead of completely satisfying, fully rounded performances, we get characters that shine only in a few individual scenes, and the emotional arc of the film suffers as a result. The script might be more to blame here than the actors though. Things start off badly as the voiceover narration intones obviously scripted observations such as, “Maybe the wind was the reason my mom did what she did.” Most of the dialogue throughout suffers from similar pratfalls, and few moments in the film feel the least bit improvisational. Only Renee Zellweger, who has a tendency to crinkle her nose and pause a bit before speaking, ever manages to consistently convince us that her character, and not screenwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue, is thinking her thoughts.

Each of the actors has at least one scene that justifies their presence though. The most unexpected of these was a powerful scene in which Michelle Pfeiffer’s jailbird mom attacked organized religion (in a Hollywood film!) in order to encourage her to think for herself. It is perhaps the only time that the film’s Oprah’s book club-endorsed message really stirs you though. Mostly, we just see a series of pseudo-edgy encounters with the people that enter the teen protagonist’s life once she’s placed into the foster care system. None of the stories linger long enough to bore you, but all of them would have been more effective if at least one of them didn’t end in an explosively physical climax. For all of the articulation of feelings that fill the generally intelligent White Oleander, none of its episodes are allowed to resolve with a simple conversation. It’s that it always needs to elevate things to a melodramatic head that disappoints the most.

Next up, I saw Kim Ki-duk’s Bad Guy (* *), which is one of the many South Korean films playing in this year’s festival. Telling the tale of a young woman who is forced to get a loan from a loan shark that she knows she won’t be able to repay, it follows her as she enters into a life of prostitution to work off her debt. With a surprising amount of misogynistic venom, the movie proceeds as she is deflowered, beaten, threatened, and smacked around by her peers. Although several of the sharks, one of who is mute, are attracted to her, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for a rescue from her newfound lifestyle, since they’re all preoccupied with taking each other out in imaginative ways. The movie is never as exploitatively campy as it would need to be to make us enjoy its stroll through the muck in an ironic way, but it also fails to feel genuine in its desire to pull our heartstrings. The wildcard ending, which is about as far from the Pretty Woman-style resolution that you’d expect, reassured me that the film wanted me to take pleasure in its series of killings and beatings. I’m almost glad that I didn’t.

Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (* *), or more appropriately “Dollzzzzz…” was up next, and by that time my lack of sleep was clearly taking its toll on me. Though I didn’t ever conk out for more than a moment or two, I’m sure that dozing a bit would have been unavoidable even under the best of circumstances. I’ve grown used to Kitano’s slow pacing from watching his film, and Kikujiro, which might be his most placidly paced until Dolls came around, is my favorite of his works. The rather unengaging plot of this new movie suggests that after the relative failure of Brother to make him a big thing in the United States, he wanted to tell a tale that was more homebound. It recounts a Japanese folk tale using Bunraku theater dolls and then recreates that tale in a modern day setting. Set over the course of a year - and allowing for some amazing seasonal cinematography, which is the one saving grace here – the movie features protagonists who were fiancées that regress after he stands her up at the altar. They revert at that point into a childlike state, and begin to roam the country. Along the way Kitano also incorporates a touching tale about the father of the bride, who is a Yakuza boss, and a somewhat incomprehensible story about a female pop idol. The movie seems to attempt to make some commentary about the various ways that Kitano’s home country builds myths and in doing so it seems to incorporate elements from almost everything the director has ever done. It might all make for an interesting stew if it were not for the deadly pacing, which drains all fun from the proceedings. Images are held for what seems like an eternity then later repeated again. As glorious as many of them are, it doesn’t make for fun watching… at least not when you’re dead tired.

The tough-to-describe Intacto (* * *), which I saw after Dolls, didn’t exactly make me doze off, but it was far from revelatory as well. Although it’s a serviceable thriller, especially considering it’s coming from a first time director, it seems to have made several miscalculations in its execution. First and foremost, this gambling flick, which examines a parallel world in which luck itself is the most valuable asset that one can bet, seems to think that the outcome of gambling depends foremost on luck. The glory of almost every other gambling film ever made has been in showing us that it’s the skill of the hustler that makes watching the game exciting. Even though the stakes are higher in Intacto, the level of tension is usually much lower than in other films, since we know that it’s going to be chance and not skill that determines the outcome of its frequent match-ups. The desultory narrative structure hurts more than it helps too. Motivations often seem unfocused or fuzzy, and the film becomes a head-scratcher to such an extent that your scalp might be exposed by its end. When the motivation behind Max von Sydow’s godlike gambler’s actions is finally revealed, it’s weak at best. Still, to worry about the plot when set pieces like the ones Intacto tosses out every few minutes are in a film seems beside the point. I can’t remember the last time I was so thrilled by a simple run though the forest as I was in this film. Helmer Juan Carlos Fresnadillo proves himself here as one to watch even if this effort’s inconsistently watchable.

Next up for me on Friday was another feature debut, Raising Victor Vargas (* * * *), which is about as different in tone as possible from Intacto. Set in New York City’s Lower East Side during a few hot summer afternoons, it wonderfully captures both the innocent side of teenage puppy love and the posturing that threatens to end that innocence. With a cast of unknowns, Peter Sollet creates a cast of characters whose lives seem to extend well beyond the edges of the screen. Focusing on the titular character and his small family, which includes his brother, his sister, and his irascible and feisty grandmother the film looks at what happens to this barely stable environment once the hormones start to flow in its inhabitants. Not so much a coming of age story as a snapshot of their lives, the tone is far more often comic than dramatic (and never tragic), and the characters are much more endearing as a result.

The movie has next to no dead space. Its central character’s evolution as a ladykiller prompts a series of hilarious scenes that flaunt the director’s winning ear for dialogue and excellent ability to cull great performances from untrained performers. Nothing feels scripted when Victor’s exasperated and irritated sister exclaims, “You’re so stupid! How can you live with yourself!?” and when we see that Victor still has his grandmother wash his hair, he’s revealed as the harmless guy that we hoped he was. As the movie progresses, it sometimes momentarily threatens to get more serious, but it never really does, much to its credit. The film accepts and embraces its small scope, and never for a moment exploits its characters. The only real problem is that the ending seems a bit too schematic in its near-simultaneous resolution of several narrative threads at once, but that might have as much to do with the unforced feel of what’s come before as the toll of the plotting. Even if it’s not quite the great film that George Washington (which cinematographer Tim Orr also shot) was, Raising Victor Vargas deserves a place amongst the best of all teen movies.

Bubba Ho-tep (* 1/2), Friday’s midnight screening, was such a big disappointment that I can hardly bring myself to write about it. After launching a promising premise (which features a rest-home bound Elvis fighting a mummy who preys on his fellow residents) the film falls into a languor that it never gets out of. Bruce Campbell’s performance provides nearly all of the sparks of this almost goreless horror flick, but even Bruce can only do so much. His animated Q&A session (* * * *) was a friggin’ blast though, and almost made it all worthwhile.

Well, it’s past 2 a.m. now on Monday morning & I haven’t touched upon my Sunday shows yet. An in-depth look will have to wait, I’m afraid. In brief though:

Frida (* * *) – Far, far more conventional than Titus, I’m afraid, this one still has its moments. The acting is solid if unspectacular (Hayek is quite far from bad), and none of the many celebrity cameos distracted me, for what it’s worth. What was most surprising about it was that the film is far more interested in Frida’s relationship with Diego Rivera than with her art (which might be a good thing… whenever it tries to visually explain her art, it seems to always find a 1:1 correlation with the events in the screenplay).

Gerry (* * *) – I was neither galled nor rapturous with this one, which was a bit disappointing in itself. Clearly owing a debt to Bela Tarr, who’s thanked in the credits, van Sant copies a few shots verbatim from Satantango in this surprisingly funny story about two guys who get lost in the desert. Going into much detail would spoil the unique feel that van Sant gives this material, so I won’t, but I will say that as much as I adored the lyrical opening and closing thirds of the film, I found most of the middle to be like a bad Far Side cartoon, with about as much existentialist concern. This flippant worldview decked out in homage becomes much more troubling when you remember that van Sant's the dude who remade psycho.

Japón (* * * 1/2) – This one’s definitely not for all tastes, but it fit mine nearly perfectly. Almost a sick co-mingling of Gerry, Frida, and Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, it follows a Mexican artist who goes on a pilgrimage to die. With some beautiful scope photography (almost all shot with natural light), the film shows us a dirty side of its home country that’s barely explored in any of the recent Mexican films to make it big stateside. Thankfully, it’s also the best of that bunch (which includes Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien), but it’s a rarefied sort of film that only the most ardent viewers will be able to enjoy. It’s one of those comedies that seem to its detractors a ridiculously grim and pretentious drama, but because it often plays as a drama, it’s quite moving as well.

Essentially it’s the tale of a guy whose suicide attempts are continually frustrated by his inability to find a place quiet enough so that he can achieve the grace that he needs to feel before he’s ready to leave the planet. Of course, since he’s looking for grace in the first place his suicide threats seem phony, but that doesn’t mean that he realizes it. Warning: there’s a lot of animal torture here, I guess, but it didn’t bug me, since it seemed to all tie into the main theme, which examines how tough (or superficially tough) dying can be. If that sounds like fun to you check it out.

There’s one key moment that strives for transcendence (white screen and all), but fails, and that’s probably what keeps me from giving it four stars, but I’m quite eager to see it again. Right before that moment though, is the most gorgeous moment in the film, so maybe I’m not thinking clearly on this one yet … One thing’s for sure: this is astonishing for a debut film.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (* *) – This film’s far from inept, but it’s essentially Disney’s Homeward Bound with cute Aboriginal kids instead of cute dogs and cats. If that sounds like fun to you, check it out. I found it less than fun by a good deal. The way that it stacks the cards by judging the past’s villains by today’s moral standards is pretty simpleminded and manipulative, and even though many folks are likely to overlook that in the name of being an Important Movie about an Important Issue, I just couldn’t. Mystical Negroes and White Devils abound which usually means something dreadful, but then again most people loved The Green Mile, didn’t they?

La Vie Nouvelle (* * *) – I haven’t seen Irreversible or Ken Park yet, but it’s tough to imagine either of them topping this one’s walk-out ratio. Nearly every scene had the film’s impressive sound design punctuated by the thowmp of a theater seat flipping up as another viewer stormed off. Clearly this is tough going, and I was sometimes uncomfortable with what I was seeing, but as far as non-narrative examinations of sexual aggression go, you could do far worse than La Vie Nouvelle. It looks more intently at the actual physical bodies of people more intently than any film in recent memory and keeps filtering how it is that we see those bodies. There’s tons of violence here, but there are also a lovely moment or two where we spy someone sleeping with a bit of peace washed across their face, and those images justify much of what we see. Like Japón and Gerry have to go into this one in more depth, to be sure. Until then know that it has what surely must be the best rave sequence ever recorded on film.

Interesting thought --- Frida probably had more dialogue than all the other movies I saw today combined….

That’s gotta be all for now…. Sorry kids.... More to come…

2002-09-07 - 7:30 a.m.
Friday was a "light" day for me at the festival, with only three scheduled screenings, but I can already understand how festival fatigue could kick in. It's about quarter to 3:00 AM on Saturday morning (I'll post this in the morning), and I'm finally getting a chance to do some writing. The city seems to have an internet cafe every few blocks, but time's a more valuable commodity than bandwidth here to be sure.

My morning started at about 7:30 when I had to run down to the box office to pick up my tickets. Afterwards, I found out that in order to fill any gaps in my schedule for that day, I'd have to get tickets directly from the box office of the theater where the film I want to see is playing. That's a bit of an inconvenience, to be sure, but I hiked uptown so that I could try to score some tickets to the 3:00 show of Russian Ark(* * * 1/2). Luckily, all my waiting wasn’t in vain, and I was able to catch what’s an early contender for the highlight of the festival.

Surely one of the most technically impressive stunts ever attempted on film, I suppose one could say that Sokoruv's new film centers around a gimmick, but it's one hell of a gimmick once it's implemented. Filmed entirely in one shot, this digital experiment is insanely elaborate in its compositions and costuming. It makes even the multiple split screen techniques of Time Code look simplistic. What begins as a exploration of the halls of the Royal Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg soon becomes a tour of modern Russian, and human, history. Instead of the series of relatively static tableaux that I expected, though, Sokoruv ducks, bobs and weaves his way throughout the museum with as much aplomb as any director working without a one-shot quota. History becomes a malleable and transient thing as each decked out room seems to enter into another era. When we encounter an elderly Catherine II after earlier seeing a younger version of her frolicking about in the same shot some minutes earlier, it comments mournfully on the rapidity with which we age.

All of the sumptuous period detail that he piles on during the film is given the expected reverence of a film that's been made with the blessing of a state museum, but it's never didactic or boring because of the larger theme that binds together all of the temporal and spatial places that we travel during the course of the shot. With his typically sparse philosophical aloofness, the director puts forth the intriguing idea that we honor history and save art so that we might fend off our own undeniable mortality. In scattered moments throughout the film, this premise achieves real emotional poignancy. The gracefully floating camera conveys the unseen narrator’s point of view, but he occasionally interacts with a mysterious European man in black, who is a lot more vocal about his sense of loss. Through their relationship, which echoes the rapport between Russia and the rest of Europe, we come to understand the way that Russia became a country that became so utterly convinced of the power of its own pageantry. Other scenes, such as the indelible one where we see a blind woman caressing the works of a master sculptor so she might understand their greatness, are no less affecting. It becomes quite apparent that the bond between the transcendent nature of great art and the inevitability of human foible is an unbreakable and necessary link. Even if you find Sokurov’s philosophies tiresome though, Russian Ark is a must-see. Even before it builds up to it’s insanely staged ballroom scene, in which 3000 actors appear in full regalia, it’s entered itself into the art film pantheon.

After the splendor of Russian Ark, nearly anything would seem to be a comedown, but Morvern Callar (* * *), Lynne Ramsey’s follow-up to her terrific debut Ratcatcher, holds up remarkably well in comparison. Certainly, it’s got a powerhouse opening, with us first seeing its titular protagonist (Samantha Morton) as she has a disturbingly sensual mourning scene upon finding her boyfriend’s corpse just after he’s killed himself on the kitchen floor. The buzz of the electric lights on Morvern’s Christmas tree make the image fade in and out, but as it does, a bit of her face seems to stay behind like some sort of ghost. Make no mistake though: Morvern’s not a ghost; she’s the haunted one. Unable to cope directly with her mate’s death, she goes off on a hedonistic night of excess, only to find that the clear light of the morning doesn’t help matters. When we see her playing with a lighter he intended to give her as she’s sobering up, the film hits its emotional high point. In these early scenes, there’s a remarkable sense of the environment’s temperature and the way that the heat or lack of it affects the state of mind that Morvern finds herself in. The color of the lights that Ramsey uses to light her sets only further reminds us of the internal churnings of her character.

It’s not long before Morvern takes off on a vacation with the departed’s cash in tow, and the only copy of his unpublished novel sent off to a publisher with her name attached. The film settles into a more conventional mode here, to its slight detriment, as Morvern begins her search for herself. Though the film never falls into clichés, there is a noticeable lack of suspense. Just as we knew in the early scenes that Morvern’s murky existence was temporary because the novel was a golden ticket out of her working life, the presence of a publisher’s rabid interest diffuses much of the anxiety as Morvern and her best mate blunder about the Spanish countryside. One could quite easily argue that the journey and not the destination is what matters here, especially since the question seems to be not if Morvern will take advantage of the novel, but when. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that I wanted more mystery about the eventual destination anyhow.

Plot aside, there’s plenty to love about Morvern Callar. The aforementioned visual sensuality is no small feat, and the film is carried by two solid performances. Whenever Ramsey extends the scope of Morvern’s concerns beyond her protagonist, and into a generational anxiety, the results are impressive. Perhaps the most well done moment in the film occurs when Ramsey turns her pop soundtrack into a tinny shadow of itself, and suggests that it’s the listeners of pop music that make the songs sing and add whatever life that exists in them to them. Nonetheless, there seems to be something a bit too eager in the film’s desire to dwell in life’s ugly moments. When Morvern stops at a Club-Med style youth spa, she tracks a roach into the bedroom of a boy who’s just learned of his mother’s death, and then gets lost in a sexual frenzy with him. When she wanders back to her own hotel room the next morning, despite what seemed to be a sort of catharsis, she can’t help but chip away at the paint by the door jamb. When her maturation finally does occur (evidenced by her sudden tendency to keep her head indoors while in a speeding car), the sensual nature of the first half of the film returns, though we watch Morvern play with coins and unwrap a new dress instead of digging up worms and getting bloodied up. If Morvern Callar isn’t quite as good as Ratcatcher was since many of its emotional elements feel a bit put on, it does still seem to show maturation in the development of its most promising director. I’ll certainly be excited to see her next offering.

If Morvern Callar suffered a tiny bit in my eyes from being seen just after the technically stunning Russian Ark, the comparison between Callar and the film that I saw next, Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity (* 1/2), must be some sort of cruel joke. I suppose in some sort of alternative universe where auteurism doesn’t exist, and the genre reigns supreme, both Movern and Personal Velocity could be considered “chick flicks”, but the levels of ambition, emotional clarity, and insight found in the former are all completely absent in the latter. Shot quite shoddily on digital video, Personal Velocity somehow wrangled the top dramatic prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, though that achievement surely has as much to do with weak competition its own strengths. There’s next to nothing to get excited to get about in this anthology film, self-described as “three portraits” of women with low self-esteem. Assumedly each of these tales is meant in some way to show liberation of its protagonist, but the messages all come out cloudy and ill-formed, since the women invariably end up humiliating themselves and compromising greatly in order to push toward something resembling a happy ending.

The first, and least rewarding by far, stars Kyra Sedgwick in full-on Erin Brockovich mode (all tits and attitude) as an abused wife who works up the courage to leave her man. The second, and best, tale features Parker Posey as a New York copy editor who flirts with success, among other things. The final story of the bunch stars Fairuza Balk in a story about the way that fate tends to twist itself. I suppose if you wanted to find a common thread amongst these stories, you could note that each of the women has self-esteem issues that are rooted in their relationship with their father. The cumulative effect of that cause for their problems though comes off as uncreative instead of revelatory. Miller’s direction doesn’t do much to build emotional momentum. A male narrator reads excerpts from the source novel (which Miller also wrote... you can’t imagine any other director leaving all of this stuff in) that frequently simplify more than they explain the interior thoughts of the characters. Most of Millers more idiosyncratic touches, such as the way that she incorporates montages of freeze-frames at key moments of her story or the exceptionally obvious soundtrack only further take whatever class the picture might have away.

If my final film of the night, Jonas Akerlund’s feature directorial debut Spun (* * *), doesn’t quite wash away the swill of Personal Velocity, it at least has the nerve to make swill an aesthetic of its own. This all-star romp about a group of Los Angeles-based crystal meth addicts takes place in a twisted version of America that exists only as a foreigner could envision it. Only pro wrestling and reality Cops-style shows seem to show on the airwaves, and the freedom of speech afforded by the Constitution seems to have resulted mostly in a proliferation of porn shacks and speeches about sex that would make Cheech’s character in From Dusk Till Dawn blush.When the movie begins, everything about the film seems appropriately cranked off the charts, and then you realize that none of the characters are even high yet. It only escalates from there into a frenzy of animated fantasies and fast forwarded footage that could challenge Requiem for a Dream in the kinetic department.

Since Spun is a comedy though, the preordained moral (Don’t Do Drugs!) doesn’t irk like it does in Aronfosky’s film. Instead the whole enterprise seems calculated as a chance for us to see pretty celebrities act pretty ugly. Can anything compare in shock value to the moment where we get to see not only American Beauty Mena Suvari as she strains on the toilet in an attempt to go to the bathroom, but also a close-up of the end result? Perhaps John Leguizamo’s action sequence in which he only wears a sock on his crotch tops it, but I may have already blocked that from my mind. In addition to this smorgasbord of hideousness, which is played almost entirely for kicks, we get to see Almost Famous’ Patrick Fugit as an impossibly pimpled meth-head, Debbie Harry as a butch lesbian phone sex operator, Jason Schwartzman as our grizzled and addicted protagonist, and Mickey Rourke and Brittany Murphy as “the Cook” and Cookie, who keep this group of losers well-stocked (at least when they aren’t losing their stash). Murphy is the standout of the cast, perhaps because her default acting mode is so close to the hyper-fast babble that everyone else begins talking in. The ebullient perkiness that she’s always shown in the past is twisted into something more desperate and sad here, to great effect. It’s only when Ackerlund begins his extended musical montages (which unfortunately occur quite frequently) that the film seems to switch undeniably