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Chris Knipp
04-26-2008, 04:04 PM
San Francisco International Film Festival 2008


This introduces my coverage of the San Francisco International Film Festival, SFIFF/51, April 24-May 8, 2008.

Below is an index of all the SFIFF films I have seen with links to my reviews.

SFIFF titles I had seen and reviewed prior to the festival:

ALEXANDRA (ALEXEI SOKUROV) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=18621#post18621)
ALL IS FORGIVEN (MIA HANSEN-LOVE) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=18755#post18755)
BRICK LANE (SARAH GAVRON) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=18938#post18938)
FADOS (CARLOS SAURA) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=18518#post18518)
GIRL CUT IN TWO (CLAUDE CHABROL) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=18535#post18535)
GO GO TALES (ABEL FERRARA) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=18551#post18551)
IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA (JOSE LUIS GUERIN) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=18613#post18613)
LAST MISTRESS (CATHERINE BREILLAT) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=18632#post18632)
MAN FROM LONDON, THE (BELA TARR) (http://www.filmwurld.com/forums/showthread.php?s=&postid=18576#post18576)
ROMANCE OF ASTREA AND CELADON, THE (ERIC ROHMER) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=18529#post18529)
STILL LIFE (JIA ZHANG-KE) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=18757#post18757)
STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE (EROLL MORRIS) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=24&threadid=2264)

Films first seen at the SFIFF. My reviews of these are in the thread below:

ART OF NEGATIVE THINKING, THE (BARD BREIEN) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20144#post20144)
THE AQUARIUM (YOUSSRY NASRALLAH) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=19994#post19994)
BALLAST (LANCE HAMMER) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20065#post20065)
BARCELONA (A MAP) (VENTURA PONS) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20002#post20002)
EZRA (NEWTON I. ADUAKA) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20049#post20049)
FRANCE, LA (SERGE BOZON) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20050#post20050)
FROZEN (SHIVAJHEE CHANDRABHUSAN) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20033#post20033)
LADY JANE (ROBERT GUEDIGUIAN) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=19990#post19990)
LATENT ARGENTINA (FERNANDO E. SOLANAS) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20011#post20011)
MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY (BARRY JENKINS) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20075#post20075)
NOT BY CHANCE (PHILIPPE BARCINSKI) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20079#post20079)
ORZ BOYZ! (GILLIES YA-CHEE YANG) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20077#post20077)
RECYCLE (MAHMOUD AL MASSAD) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20040#post20040)
SHADOWS IN THE PALACE (KIM MEE-JEONG) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20008#post20008)
SECRET OF THE GRAIN, THE (ABDELLATIF KECHICHE) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20109#post20109)
SLEEP DEALER (ALEX RIVERA) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20099#post20099)
SOLITARY FRAGMENTS (JAIME ROSALES) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20000#post20000)
STRANDED: I CAME FROM A PLANE THAT CRASHED ON THE MOUNTAINS (GONZALO ARIJON) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20016#post20016)
STRAY GIRLFRIEND, A (ANA KATZ) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20025#post20025)
TIME TO DIE (DOROTA KEDZIERZOWSKA) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20035#post20035)
TRAVELING WITH PETS (VERA STORZHEVA) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20023#post20023)
TWO LADIES (PHILIPPE FAUCON) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20022#post20022)
UNDER THE BOMBS (PHILIPPE ARACTINGI) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20046#post20046)
UP THE YANGTZE (YUNG CHANG) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&threadid=2291)
VALSE SENTIMENTALE (CONSTANTINA VOULGARIS) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20061#post20061)
VASERMIL (MUSHON SALMONA) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20096#post20096)
WATER LILIES (CELINE SCIAMMA) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20073#post20073)
WONDERFUL TOWN (ADITYA ASSARAT) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=20055#post20055)

Each link above will take you directly to my review of the title.

For comments or discussion, the Filmleaf SFIFF 2008 forum thread is here. (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&threadid=2254)


Chris Knipp
04-26-2008, 04:05 PM


Depressed noir

Muriel (Ariane Ascarde), Francois (Jean-Pierre Daroussin) and René (Gérard Meylan) are a trio of longtime friends who grew up together in working-class Marseille. As the film begins, Muriel learns by cell phone that her teenage son Martin (Giuseppe Selimo) has been kidnapped. She calls on Francois and Rene to help her raise the ransom. Only later we learn that the three, Muriel included, share a criminal past and were the trio in old-men masks distributing stolen furs free to slum denizens in the pre-title opening sequence. Like some other scenes, this opener is a visual shock accompanied by loud noise, in this case electronic music. There's a shooting scene that makes the most hardened viewers jump.

The team split up years ago after one of them killed a jeweler in a parking garage. They've gone straight since, more or less. The need to raise lots of cash fast leads to new crime but not in coordination this time, and things go badly wrong again. Now that they're middle aged and bourgeois whatever idealism those free furs symbolized has faded into hopelessness and routine. Francois doesn't even love his pretty wife and daughters and wants to revive his old romance with Muriel, but no chance of that.

At present Muriel has a perfume business she runs out of a nice shop on a square in Aix. She calls it "Lady Jane," a nickname her father gave her from the Rolling Stones song. Francois runs a boating center some drug runners use. Rene has a strip club and rents out game machines to cafés. They're legit, but their straightness, especially in the case of Rene, is just this side of shady. The French call this kind of film a "policier;" but the only actual policeman we see is a young lieutenant (Pascal Cervo) who briefly asks a few questions and then disappears. Guediguian drenches the screen with images of the three principals' faces in emphatic closeup--especially Ascarde's grim, stony stare. He mouth remains a tight little line but sometimes a few tears drop down her cheeks. I'm guessing like the director she's of Armenian origin, and her stoical mug recalls the immortal deadpan of Charles Aznavour in Shoot the Piano Player. Hard to know what's behind it besides a diminishing enthusiasm for life. Only in the final scene do we find out this is a double revenge story, one that concludes with an old Armenian saying: "One who seeks revenge is like the fly that bangs repeatedly against a window, when there is a door that lies open." In Guediguian's rethinking, revenge is a dish that never tastes good, hot or cold.

Lady Jane opened in Paris under two weeks before its US debut at the San Francisco film festival. Some French reviewers said the burnt-out mood of the trio reflects disenchantment with the Sixties. If so, this is a somewhat heavy-handed way to convey it, and indeed while some elements of Lady Jane work very well, others don't. The symbolism and existential monologues slow things down, and the jagged and jarring use of flashbacks doesn't really succeed in linking past and present. The film's obvious strengths are Guediguian's rapport with his actors and the way he uses them and his rapid editing of boldly shaky sometimes amateurish feeling camera images to recast a crime thriller (with plenty of violent acts) in harsh naturalistic terms, dropping slickness in favor of vérité, so that you sympathize with these characters even as you deplore their destructive behavior. There are some odd twists that keep you curious about the action (even though it's slowed down too often), and some classic French noir trappings remain reassuringly present: the stolid expressions, shiny cars, nightclub scenes, a tense failed rendez-vous in a train station, and some effectively shot violence. But in dwelling on atmosphere Guediguian holds back on story details so long that he has to resort to a glib, hasty finale where explanations of motive and identity are spoon-fed to us at the last minute as in a slick mystery or a TV cop show. Still, if you have the stomach for it, this is good stuff, with US theatrical potential and a good reception in France.

Chris Knipp
04-26-2008, 08:54 PM


Night people, a teeming city, and camel's liver for breakfast

A man falls asleep in his car and wakes up to find twenty men in galabiyyas and a camel looking in the windows at him. This could only happen in Egypt. And why did he come here to wait till dawn? To have fresh sautéed camel's liver for breakfast. This is just one moment in The Aquarium's ambitious 48-hour ramble through Cairo focused on two detached observers of life, Youssef (Amr Waked) the camel's liver devotee and an anesthesiologist, and Leila (Hend Sabri), a late-night radio Miss Lonelyhearts who lives with her mother and sister. These two lost souls run into each other towards the end, but any storyline takes second place to the film's meandering examinations of this and that with an emphasis on Cairo life and its repressions, sexual and political.

Included is a woman (Samah Anwar), who would be glad to rent her apartment to Leila if the latter moves out on her own. She, like various others, addresses a monologue to the camera about her character, chiefly focused on the dangers of being a Christian woman living alone in a Muslim neighborhood. Leila's studio assistant Zaki does the same for his character; so does one of Youssef's young patients and Leila's married sister, who points out how detached Leila is, how unwilling to actually go out and help people who most need it. These monologues are an interesting way of opening up secret lives and they enrich the film's human panorama considerably. But of course they don't advance the action; they stop it.

Outside during the daytime, there's a big demonstration in the streets with placards calling for an end to all sorts of things, hunger and poverty for a start. Perhaps Leila's thoughts of an apartment and Youssef's homelessness (he won't move in with his divorced girlfriend and lives in his car rather than his own flat) are gestures toward Cairo housing problems; but unlike last year's Yacoubian Building (Marwan Hamed), The Aquarium barely glances at the urban poor and is mainly concerned with the better-off middle class. Going to a nightclub, Youssef winds up driving with a member of the secret police, who says it's natural--they're the only people you can't escape. Leila has to deal with state censorship of her program, in the person of a veiled lady who thinks a caller with AIDS should be reported.

As there is a lack of privacy in Cairo, there is an omnipresence of drama and life. Youssef and an older friend walk along the Nile Corniche and every piece of bridge has lovers, every car is a little theater whose scenes we see and hear snatches of. The ambient sounds, conversations, songs, radio news, are pungent and never-ending, and there's also a very creditable hip hop group that performs midway and at film's end, as well as an imaginary silent film in black and white in which Leila acts out a children's story she's thought up about a woman in love with a pigeon. Perhaps most awesome visually are simply some long shots of Cairo streets at the outset, teeming multitudes moving in all directions. But the camera's, and the filmmaker's, readiness to look at things leads to occasional stoppages. As Peter Scarlet wrote in a comment for the Tribeca festival, "Nasrallah shoots The Aquarium in long and glacial takes, imbuing the movie [at times] with a stillness that borders on the inert."

Both Leila and Youssef are night people. Her program, recorded earlier, is broadcast in the wee hours, when she may go out and party with her older boyfriend, or dance suggestively with the rap band. He visits his aged father, dying of cancer in a hospital. And as she listens to night secrets, he enjoys hearing the twilight zone mumblings of patients he's putting under. At night, he works a second job assisting a gynecologist who performs illegal abortions and sews up raped women so they can seem to still be virgins.

When Youssef calls Leila's talk show, as he inevitably does, he confesses to a recurrent fantasy of the "Garden of the Fish" (Genenat al asmak) an elaborate concrete garden and aquarium he fears if he once goes in, he may never leave. The symbolism, of the garden being a voyeur's paradise and of Cairo at the same time being a fishbowl, is a little obvious; this is a movie that oscillates between occasional poetry and self-conscious significance. It's true as some have said that Nasser Abdel-Rahmane's all-encompassing screenplay may have looked better on paper, and there may be too much telling and not enough showing. But the images and sound of The Aquarium are often pleasing, and the picture of contemporary Cairo is a rich and naturalistic one, despite the free indulgence in surrealism and self-reflexiveness. Hend Sabri is voluptuous and believable as a sweet but self-centered young woman. Amr Waked, however, comes across as rather a cold fish, and when he laughs, that fish becomes a shark. If this were Rome and the Sixties and Fellini were at the helm his part would go to Marcello Mastroianni, and the lonesome anesthesiologist would carry the sick soul of Europe. There is a Felliniesque quality about the proceedings at times.

The Aquarium, shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, was presented at the Berlinale, got its North American premiere at Tribeca this week, and is also scheduled for festivals in Taormina and Abu Dhabi.

Chris Knipp
04-27-2008, 12:39 PM


Scenes from life, a hymn to the quotidian

Rosales chooses to represent the everyday lives of two women in an everyday way. Short scenes, photographed with fixed cameras, sometimes in split screen; a focus on child rearing, an illness, mundane work (a grocery store, an office, a greeter for a convention), ironing clothes, playing cards, chatting about nothing much at dinner, or on a bus. A bus: ah, now there's some excitement. Young Adela (Sonia Almarcha), whose raising a one-year-old boy by herself and moves to Madrid, is on a bus that's blown up by a terrorist bomb. The next time we see her, she's battered-looking, and heads back to the country to see her aging papa. The mother of one of Adela's nice Madrid flat-mates, Ines (Miriam Correa), is Antonia (Petra Martinez), a widow who runs a grocery store, and the subject of the second story thread. Antonia's story is more complicated than Adela's, since she is closely involved also with two other daughters, Nieves (Nuria Mencia) and Helena (Maria Bazan). Nieves has to have an operation for cancer, and the self-centered Helena wants money so she and her husband can buy a second home. Pedro, Adela's ex, also wants to borrow money from her.

All this information is conveyed in the little vernacular scenes, with static cameras looking past objects, or several shots side by side on-screen showing the same people in a scene from different angles, and no music or much ambient sound--except that the last section is called "Background Noise.". It's like looking at a box of snapshots and piecing things together. Needless to say the actors are convincing. It's they who make this seem like eavesdropping on real conversations.

Money is tight, obviously. No one is doing especially well. The pressures lead Antonia to consider selling her house and moving in with her boyfriend Manolo (Jesus Cracio). Discussions over this cause a lot of tension within the family. Manolo repeatedly tries to calm things down, but without great effect. There are jealousies that must weigh on Antonia, and she is Nieves' chief support in her illness. Meanwhile Adela has to deal with trauma and loss.

Solitary Fragments won three Spanish Goyas, including Best Film and Best Director. It's everyday-ness and its reference to terrorism as a part of common experience may have impressed Spanish audiences especially, together with the dignity and restraint of the filmmaking technique. Rosales does a good job of balancing non-mainstream methods with humanistic content. Despite the distancing effects of the universally unmoving cameras, the alternating of two almost-unrelated story-lines, and a style that is low keyed to the extreme, one is drawn into the action through the eavesdropping, fly-on-the-wall viewpoint and one's ordinary curiosity about basic experiences and life choices. If this film doesn't awaken enthusiasm in everyone, it does command respect, and it builds gradually throughout its whole length with an increasingly profound sense of lives unfolding. The actual Spanish title is La Soledad, solitude, and subconsciously one is taught by the visual method, which never cuts back and forth in a conversation, for instance, to see each character as separate, essentially, in life, freestanding and alone.

Chris Knipp
04-27-2008, 12:54 PM


An old couple preparing to die

"People only really talk when they're about to die, and it's not usually very interesting," says Lola (Rosa Maria Sarda), an elegant French teacher and one of the tenants Ramon (Josep Maria Pou) asks to leave the rooms he's rented out to them for years. Lola expresses the assumption of this film, which focuses on Ramon and his wife as they review their lives and talk to the departing tenants. Ramon, who looks like Tom Wilkinson on a bad day, has cancer and hasn't long to live. The couple think they want to be alone for his last days. And yes, eventually they do really talk, and some of it isn't very interesting; but some is.

Pons has produced a provocative, well-acted little study, but it could as well be a play (it is adapted from one) and might have benefited from some more opening up. And this is true despite sepia illustrative clips that constantly interrupt the conversations. The director ought to have used these with more restraint. If somebody says "we once did such-and-such," she feels compelled to introduce a clip showing such-and-such being done--every time. Rather than liven things up, these sometimes frenetic and unnecessary two-second interruptions very often do little but emphasize the slowness of the main proceedings, and the drumbeats and loud clicks that introduce and conclude them become grating as time goes on. Unlike Bergman's Saraband, to which this has been compared, there is not much suspense in Barcelona (a Map) about what is going to happen. Conversations between landlords and tenants may not be the easiest way of delving deep into lives to begin with, and at first most of what emerges about Ramon and his wife Rose (Nuria Espert) indeed seem to be things they haven't, rather than have, done. This is true even when they talk to each other, and also when Rosa talks to her gay brother Santi (Jordi Bosch), about whom we learn only that he's a surgeon who cruises the baths.

However, Rosa and her little failed footballer and security guard David (Pablo Derqui), the second tenant conversation, do get kind of personal. Abandoned by his wife, David wants Rosa to be his mother. And he's naked when first seen and nearly naked during the interview. Pons seems to like showing naked men. And before the film is over, gender lines have been crossed and broken taboos have been revealed.

Ramon's smiles show he likes talking to the pregnant restaurant cook Violeta (Maria Botto, an actress from Argentina), who speaks Spanish (the rest is in Catalan). This is the third tenant conversation; and it turns out they actually have a surprisingly intimate relationship; this dialogue is even more personal, to the point of straining credulity. But nonetheless Violeta is the most alive person and the screen lights up with her presence and her beauty.

Of course the old couple have secrets--parenthood even he wasn't aware of in the case of Ramon, and a diary Rosa wants to reveal to Santi containing a revelation from their past. The final, most dramatic revelation, a gratuitous shocker, strains credulity even further and seems more like a desperate last-minute grasping for drama than anything that follows logically and organically from the material. (It's the kind of bombshell that works better on stage than on screen.) On top of that, as a denouement Ramon reveals to Rosa for the first time that he's a kind of male witch. With these attention-grabbers, what might have become a subtle study of old age is undercut by grotesque plot-line twists.

Pons is no amateur and the production though low keyed is stylish; the interiors are atmospheric; the cast is admirable. Nonetheless, the result is only for the patient and the credulous. The hothouse atmosphere gives you the feeling you get sitting indoors all day when it's nice outside.

Finally, in light of the overall theatricality, the basic premise begins to feel a bit dubious. It provides a pretext for long chats. But why should Ramon and Rosa be turning out these lodgers? How are they a bother? Isn't the rent needed? We learn in fact that when Ramon dies, Rosa will be forced to resort to trickery to collect her late husband's whole pension. Perhaps Ramon and Rosa should be talking to a geriatric counselor rather than trading last-minute revelations with each other and with departing lodgers.

Chris Knipp
04-28-2008, 02:24 PM


Period murder mystery marred by horror elements

A crime story and a lush costume drama about Joseon dynasty Korean court life are combined with horror elements in this directorial debut by South Korean Kim Mee-jeung. She was an assistant director for Lee Jun-ik's 2005 The King and the Clown and shot this on the same set. In Shadows,Wol Ryeong (Seo Yeong-hie) a maid-in-waiting at the palace, is found hanged. Chun-ryung (Park Jin Hee), the (female) royal doctor to the court women, investigates. Discovering the dead girl had a child of which there is no written record, she begins to suspect foul play. She questions a string of court ladies who might be implicated in a murder but nobody opens up and Chun-ryung's superior is obviously looking for a scapegoat to cover things up. This puts the doctor under the gun to find out what really happened before the scapegoat is named and everything is hushed up.

Throughout the film, the smooth workings of the Korean film-making machine are evident in lovely shots, nice but not grandiose settings and costumes, and an elegant period feel. The focus is far and away on women, and it's twenty minutes into the film before a single male appears.
Men are seen as attractive predators. Higher ranking women are agents of repression. The underlying issue is that court maidens are meant to be virgins, but court men are out to impregnate them. This is always the maiden's fault and punished by death if detected.

Both Shadows in the Palace and the previous The King and the Clown are dramas that use a period setting to bring up issues of court (i.e. government) repression. Shadows focuses on women and shows how they're treated cruelly in the palace, even by each other. In fact the focus on this is so strong--and there's a subplot of a concubine, Hee-bin (Yun Se-ah) who wants her son to be made crown prince--that intense interest is aroused in the sexual politics of the Korean court. The repressions of the supervising court maid (Sung-ryeong Kim) and her agents is shockingly brutal, and some of the torture scenes are hard to watch. She tries to pin everything on a court maid named Jung-ryul (Jeon Hye-jin), but it's obvious this cover-up is to protect a high ranking male. Meanwhile a court maid who's gone mute (Lim Jeong-eun) is terrified but nonetheless provides valuable evidence.

A review of the film on DVD two weeks ago on the website Twitch expressed what is probably the reaction of many. Shadows in the Palace, the Twitch writer (Mack) said (http://www.twitchfilm.net/site/view/dvd-review-shadows-in-the-palace-r3/), "is an attempt at the 'epic genre' that simply doesn't convince. Plot twists aside, when the real intentions behind the murderous plot are revealed you are neither surprised nor convinced, they are almost expected considering the context and content of the film." The reviewer was "more interested in the maiden court workings than. . .the horror/haunting elements. The physical and mental stress that came with positions in the court was more horrific than the ghost bits. They were stronger, more interesting and actually bloodier than their horror mashing counterpart." This is quite true. The socio-political themes work quite well with the mystery. The supernatural element may be logical as an outgrowth of the superstitions of the period, but it detracts from what was already a complicated enough story. Kim Mee-jeung shows talent in this handsomely put together film and the cast turns in good work. Maybe the director's focus on women's issues will find better and fuller expression next time.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, April 2009.

Chris Knipp
04-28-2008, 05:46 PM


Solanas looks at the big picture for Argentina's future

Two years ago I very favorably reviewed (http://www.filmwurld.com/forums/showthread.php?s=&postid=14930#post14930) the Argentinian documentarian Fernando E. Solanas' Dignity of the Nobodies, shown at the 2006 SFIFF. This new work by Solanas deals with exploitation of his country from outside and how Argentina can get out from under that and become a strong, rich, independent country. My heading for Dignity was "Chaotic and grainy, but for some of us, essential viewing." This one isn't so grainy, and it's still essential.

Solanas maintains a frankly socialistic, anti-neoliberal position. He focuses on resistance to privatization and points out that Argentina has enormous power that it has relinquished, but can reclaim. He beings simply with the great size and rich natural resources of the country. Then he works through a series of areas.

The aeronautical industry was established in the Thirties but completely disbanded in the 1990's, when the country's biggest family was turned over to Lockheed. The automotive industry got its energy in Argentina from the great enthusiasm for car racing in the Fifties, when the Argentinian driver Juan Manuel Fango was the Formula One champion. After producing economy cars, off-road vehicles, trucks, and tractors, again the country shut down factories to join Chile as a raw materials provider to the US and the multinationals. Solanas visits car factories in Argentina and talks to workers, where now only a few continue and much of the production is done by robotics manufactured in Japan. If only the robotics were at least manufactured in Argentina, one worker laments.

Some degree of recovery from all these concessions to the US and multinationals came after 2001 when local production became necessary to to a breakdown in monetary exchange. Solanas visits a factory as he did in Dignity which the workers themselves took over and began operating themselves on a more primative level when the owners went bankrupt and could no longer pay them wages. In a metals factory that now has huge orders from Johnson & Johnson, a socialist spirit reigns and decisions are made by consensus, not from the top down.

The scientific and industrial base of the country was most severely damaged because of the spread through Latin America of neoliberal policies, which reached its peak in the Nineties. This led to privatization and market-oriented training at the professional schools, and in turn to emigration of the best brains and talents.

Here Solanas visits a school in a poor area. The result of neoliberal policies is that the rich have 30 or 40 times richer than the poor instead of only 6 0r 7 as in the past. Still teachers perform a heroic effort to instill humanistic values in the young. The greatest enemies of progress and social equality, one teacher declares, are poverty and television.

Natural and especially mineral resources, Solanas points out, are still being turned over to the multinationals, despite a huge stock of available raw materials that Argentina has the potential and right to utilize locally and achieve more self sufficiency. And this is something that can come about, he says, through simply applying existing laws. One speaker says being self-sufficient requires first and foremost cheap energy--and so must begin with taking control of its oil.

Human resources are in effect being discarded by Argentina, Solanas shows, because the country isn't paying its specialists, technicians and scientists enough (one young local nuclear engineer, though he chooses to remain, says he makes $3 a hour); this is equivalent to simple expelling the best trained people from the country. Argentina has no national plan, a lady scientist says. It isn't financing scientific research. Researchers have the choice of leaving or working for multinational corporations that will have their best research done elsewhere. When ideas are originated at home, Argentina doesn't hold onto the patents. all this goes back to the fact that the nation has no vision for its future.

Consequently Argentina continues to follow a "colonialist" model, which in this context means behaving and thinking like a colony. Through the course of the film we see dozens of factories and research centers, nuclear reactors, fields of windmills, vast tracts of unexploited land--you name it. It's all there: not only the possibility of industrial growth, but already means of developing solar and wind power.

Solanas uses a wide angle lens throughout, which helps give a feeling of vastness. Even most interiors feel huge, whether of factories, offices, or classroom. One has a sense of room to grow, of wealth untapped, simply from the camera work. A nuclear scientist at a satellite center is enthusiastic about the creativity of the young people he works with. He says the country needs more interdisciplinary integration. Having come to Argentina from Italy at the age of nine, he is bursting with pride with what he describes as a "can-do" (se puede) nation. As an example, he cites what he worked on himself from his thirties: a uranium enrichment program that Argentina developed independently.

Once again, in the third film in his trilogy, "Pino" Solanas has given us a documentary full of enthusiasm and hope. Does he look much at disadvantages and obstacles? No. His aim is to inspire rather than deeply analyze. And he succeeds: his films have a tremendous drive and never lose their thrust or their focus.

Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008.

Chris Knipp
04-29-2008, 05:25 PM


The ultimate survival story

In this excellent documentary survivors of the famous 1972 rugby team plane that crashed in the Andes tell their story with reenactments. This time, unlike the case of Errol Morris' new film about the Abu Ghraib scandal, Standard Operating Procedure, reenactments cause no discomfort, even though aspects of the events shown are famously chilling. That's because in this context, as with Kevin Macdonald's Touching the Void (coincidentally also about survivors in the Andes), participants in the events are present on-screen describing everything in detail so staged scenes don't feel like intrusion or speculation. There was a film dramatizing the events, Frank Marshall's 1993 Alive, with Ethan Hawke, Vincent Spano, and others, but this will be the definitive film statement on this event, one of the great survival stories of recent times. The grainy recreations blend seamlessly with the actual film footage shot of the survivors at the moment when they were rescued.

It was October. They were just going from their home town in Uraguay for a friendly rugby match in Chile, flying over the dramatic, snowy heights of the Andes mountains. And then it happened: the plane is in the middle of a snow storm with heavy winds, the pilot loses control, and they go down. The crash was quiet, soft, mysterious, some survivors report. The 24 who were still living were mostly fine. What logic, they ask, in their survival; the others' death? Marcelo, leader of the team, set a ration of one square of chocolate and a small cup of liquor a day.

An aerial search for the crashed plane was almost impossible because it was a year of exceptional storms, the reason the plane went down.

At first we see the men who survived talking about the trip, the mood, the flight, and the crash. And there are quick, often hazy reenactment shots. Later, some of the survivors are seen actually there in the recent present, revisiting the site, remembering the dizziness, weakness, and nausea of hunger, eating face cream, drinking deodorant cups of wine and feeling drunk--and all that followed.

And then one describes realizing as the days pass and they grow weaker what they'd have to do--"Either we do it, or die." It was a gradual consensus among them that they'd have to "take that step." They had entered a new world where a dead body could be a meal, as one puts it. It's with great subtlety and tact that the film leads up to this difficult subject. In the end, the viewer is spared nothing. It was a choice to live--a responsibility to parents and family to use any means necessary. It wasn't brute instinct but a debated, considered decision. And yet it was not unanimous, and ultimately remained "another unsolved problem." Some saw it as a kind of holy communion. And this is how, in an effective statement to the public, one of them stilled the sensationalism of the press later on.

The radio told them after thirteen days the air search was called off--a terrible blow. They knew then they had to get out on their own. This is where some made a heroic effort to climb up out of the basin where the plane lay.

Suddenly one night the others think they're dead when the plane gets buried by avalanche, so their refuge became a trap from which they had to dig out. In this event their team leader Marcelo died along with another person and they were all buried for three days. And the avalanches continued.

There were several expeditions, the big one by three, after more deaths, at 61 days. One returns, because he is not fit enough. The two "expeditionaries" on the eighth or ninth day come to a path where there's no snow, water, livestock. They see shepherds, and throw them a rock with a message about who they are. When they're taken back in a helicopter to rescue the others, it's unbelievable how far they walked. This return to the scene and the event 35 years later is perhaps the first time all the survivors could fully look these events in the face. It helps that these rugby players all came from the same school and still live close together. They're almost llike one big family. This is a very social experience all the way through--unlike many survivor stories, which tend to be lonely. But still, this is not the kind of thing many of us go through. There's a lot to ponder and digest here, and it's presented with the utmost skill and taste.

Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008.

Chris Knipp
04-30-2008, 02:45 PM


Two feisty ladies, one Arab, one Jew

Inbred prejudices meet unsuspected sympathies in Moroccan-born pied noir director Faucon's resonant, concentrated film. Selima (Sabrina Ben Abdallah) is an independent young nurse of Moroccan Arab origin in the south of France who gets a job doing care for a Moroccan-born Jewish woman, Esther (Ariane Jacquot), who's newly wheelchair-bound. Esther's complaints and abuse lead her housekeeper to quit, and Selima brings in her devoutly Muslim mom Halima (Zohra Mouffok) to clean and do kosher cooking. Problems ensue, but the "two ladies," both of considerable dignity, elegance and girth, find their commonality of generation, religiosity, and national origin overrides politics and prejudice. Halima and Esther hit it off and have many a giggle together. There's no doubt an element of wishful thinking in this story, which is simple in its telling but complex in its overtones; but this is trumped by the sheer authenticity of the people and the settings.

While the Variety reviewer likens this to an "after-school special," major French publications like Les Inrockuptibles, Cahiers du Cinema, and L'Humanité gave it a very high rating. Why this disparity? Perhaps because Americans don't see the need to acknowledge "little" things like Israel's devastating bombing assault on Lebanon two years ago (a event pointedly noted here) and aren't committed to living with a large muslim population?

Push comes to shove when Esther's doctor son, who usually looks after her, must leave town for a month for training and she agrees to spend the time in Halima's house. At first she kvetches, but before long she and Halima are having more fun together than ever. But mean gossipers in the neighborhood say Halima's earnings from the Jewish lady are tainted money and her plan to use them to make the Haj is "haraam," unlawful. She asks the imam after a mosque service (and this is a rare close-up of Muslim worship) and he gives the correct reply: the Koran says muslims and Jews are both "ahl ul-kitaab," People of the Book, they have had lawful dealings with each other since the Prophet's time, and if her employer has never objected to her religion or spoken ill of it, "you have been misled." There is nothing wrong in working for her, her money is "halaal," licit, for the pilgrimage. "Go in peace."

When Esther's son comes back early, she refuses to go home and insists on staying to see off Halima on her departure for Mecca. Again, authenticity prevails as the celebration of the Haj is shown.

Obviously Faucon, a Moroccan-born non-Arab like the character of Esther, knows whereof he speaks when it comes to Maghreban mulitculturalism, an issue pretty well known to French liberal intellectuals but remote from most Americans' ken. The freshness, vividness, and excellent production values make this a winner. We need more stuff like this. Serge Kaganski of Les Inrockuptibles wrote:* "A film that's simple and complex, ambitious and modest; that avoids no zone of conflict but explores them with calm, tact, and courage. From its paradoxes comes its beauty."

Two Ladies, whose French title is Dans la vie (In the Life) opened in Paris March 12, 2008, and was shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, 2008.

*Link: http://www.lesinrocks.com/index.php?id=66&tx_critic[notule]=208657&cHash=17a7bda148..

Chris Knipp
04-30-2008, 03:32 PM


Husband dies, wife is liberated

Young Natalia's unappealing husband, a railroad worker, keels over as a train passes by. He's dead, and her life begins. Storozheva's feminist portrait, not set in any clearcut time, feels slight but is beautifully shot and the young Kseniya Kutepova, who plays Natalia, has definite star quality.

Things initially are pale gray, in tune with Natalia's hitherto joyless life. She uses a railroad trolley to take her husband's body to the morgue and exchanges the family cow, a symbol of her servitude, for a white goat. Young Sergei (Dmitri Dyuzhev), an estranged husband with a spoiled young daughter, it turns out, gives Natalia a ride in his pickup and before long they're having a roll in the hay back at her place. When she's done and he won't go, she shows who's boss by pointing a shotgun at him.

The relationship is off and on for a while. Sergei is hunky and director Storozhova doesn't mind showing him off nude from all angles. He's one of those sensitive brutish types that pop up in Russian films. He's also highly sexed. That's fine with Natalia, who's never known sexual pleasure before, and she lets him back into her life and even gets friendly with his little daughter, despite the latter's annoying manner. But Sergei seals his doom when he says he wants to marry Natalia, get a cow, and turn her into a housewife. This is the limit of his mindset--and, apparently, of how Storozheva wants to represent men in the film.

Natalia is dreaming of other things. She has already gone around in a wedding dress just for fun, dressed up in rust and pink to set off her red hair, is immediately taken up by a group of train riders who stop over, and is hit on by the men. She goes on a brief ride, chased by her dog, then jumps off. Later she goes on a solitary ferris wheel ride and her radiant face symbolizes her impending liberation. Natalia has been compared to Tilda Swinton (she has her alabaster skin and auburn hair) but she also resembles the young Meryl Streep. This is a nice vehicle for her, and the film itself has won some festival prizes. Eventually Natalia takes a (symbolic?) boat ride to an orphanage (she was raised there herself, it seems) and adopts an enterprising boy of 10 or 12 with her coloring. In the final scene Natalia is returning homeward in her boat and the boy and her dog are falling in love with each other.

This seems a transparent and naive depiction of woman's liberation; what weakens it is the unspecific, fable-like setting and narrative. But teahnically it is flawless, the images lovely, keyboard music germane, and Ms. Kutepova a winner.

Shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008

Chris Knipp
04-30-2008, 04:56 PM


Much ado about being dumped

Shown at Cannes last May, this film by the prolific thirty-something Argentine filmmaker stars herself in a semi-autobiographical film journal of the several days after Inez (Katz) is abruptly dumped by her boyfriend when embarking on a vacation in the woods. As her name suggests, the experience may be closer to that of screenplay co-author Ines Bortagaray. Katz does a very convincing acting job under the relentless scrutiny of a sometimes overly jiggly (and overly-close) hand-held camera that is on her and even in her face most of the time. The co-writer, director, and star bravely uses her own physicality in depicting the abandoned woman.

The narrative, and the camera, follow Inez' initial self-deception, tears and uncertainty, and gradual resignation to a situation over which she has no control. Absurdly, Inez gets off a bus where she has been constantly squabbling with her boyfriend Miguel (Daniel Hendler), and is puzzled when the bus pulls away with Miguel still on it. Inez finds she may have gotten off the bus a bit early since she has to walk some distance to get to the resort where they booked a room, so at first she figures that's why Miguel didn't step down. But Miguel was obviously fed up with Inez' neurotic neediness and no longer willing to talk. Miguel comes across as an inarticulate, cowardly creep; on the other hand, Inez is both self-absorbed and self-deluded. Inez goes ahead and checks into their double room at the inn and leaves messages for Miguel wondering what's happened. It takes her many hours to accept that Miguel is completely fed up with her--something evident to us in the first five minutes of the film.

Though this material, with its ridiculously unperceptive protagonist, could lend itself to the work of a female Woody Allen, Katz bypasses comedy in favor of a more naturalistic, almost real-time approach that at times strains the patience, though it does achieve a certain level of slice-of-life conviction. Perhaps the best accomplishment of the film is its evocation of the agonizing boredom of being in the wrong place at the wrong time--away from familiar surroundings, trying helplessly to "have fun"--when going through emotional pain. Unfortunately it's not entirely clear why exactly the audience needs to sit through all the hour-by-hour details of Inez' slow double-take, which aren't particularly memorable. Katz would have done well to muster a little more imagination in finding details. Her film shows the limits of an unmitigated diaristic approach. Just as Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac's On the Road that it wasn't writing but typing, one might say of Una Novia Errante that it's not filmmaking but filming.

The one character who engages interest and momentarily keeps Inez busy is Germán (Carlos Portaluppi), a large, very chubby fellow who seems to live nearby. He too is the victim of a breakup--of his marriage, with kids--and appears adrift. He spends most of his time with other locals including a somewhat worse-for-wear looking woman who may cohabit with him in his disheveled abode, and he's a regular denizen of the resort's archery facilities and enjoys the occasional horse ride and dip in the ocean. Inez evidently feels he's getting too friendly, since when he's taking a swim, she hastily bolts. Later he attempts to steal a few kisses, but she'll have none of it. Meanwhile Miguel has answered his phone a couple of times. He's forced to talk back because Inez has been leaving endless messages and then begun deleting his emails. Once Inez' father (Arturo Goetz) and some others arrive unannounced, Inez seems to be getting back to normal, but there's not much sense of an ending.

Shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008.

Chris Knipp
05-01-2008, 04:41 PM


Weston and Friedlander collaged by Fellini

A stark black and white film about an odd little family living high in the Himalayas, this "first everything" effort (except for having a star who'd been in 149 films) is more memorable for its exotic, contrasty images than its somewhat detached portrait of marginal people.

Shivajee Chandrabhushan is a mountaineer. He actually chose to shoot this, his first film, in the rugged Indian region of Ladakh in the wintertime. Black and white was another choice to emphasize the relentlessness of the place and the difficulty of life for poor old Karma (Danny Denzongpa), whose karma doesn't seem too good. His only talent is for making apricot jam, in small quantities, on a hand-cranked machine which it strains his arms and back to work. When he takes this year's production to local customers he's too late and they've stocked up on manufactured commercial products. He's soon in deep financial trouble because a nasty moneylender, who leers at his pretty daughter Lasya (Gauri), is demanding a large payment. Lasya is a bit wild and crazy and has been kicked out of school. She mostly hangs out with her little brother Chomo (Angchuk), and they spar and chase each other around in a spirited manner that belies the harsh conditions of their life in the wind-torn old shack Karma regards as his ancestral home.

Lasya almost seems autistic. When she and Karma travel around the area, which includes a visit to a fair where there are clowns, Chandrabhushan is closer to the world of Fellini's La Strada than to either Bollywood or Apu.

Another threatening element in the environment is a military unit that moves into the surrounding area. The ranking officer gives Karma some sort of satellite phone system to use in case of trouble, and then later wants to requisition his house and relocate him. Eventually there will be no one left but Lasya, though at first this seems Chomo's tale, if only because of the presence of his voice-over narration. After various meanderings, there appears a young man with earrings called Romeo (Shakeel Khan), almost like a gypsy, who says he's in love with Lasya and madly chases her around.

This is a world of the imagination, however intense its seeming physicality, and the whole narrative shows a weak grasp of the actual that may be natural to high altitudes: everyone's a little light headed. What remains after the film ends are not events, not even specific images however rich these are in local color, but an impression of intense contrastiness and graininess, scatterings of dark rocks in big patches of snow. It's like an acid trip vision of some of the greatest work of twentieth-century black and white still photography, Edward Weston and Lee Friedlander collaged by Fellini.

Danny Denzongpa had played in over 150 films; all the rest were beginners, including the filmmakers. Chandrabhushan certainly shows great determination and independence of vision. But like his heroine Lasya, he seems a little erratic and emotionally remote.

Seen at eh San Francisco International Film Festival 2008.

Chris Knipp
05-01-2008, 04:54 PM


A triumph in ripe old age

Aniela, played by remarkable Polish veteran stage and screen great Danuta Szaflarska, is as much a sprightly, unyielding relic of the past as the big dacha-style house surrounded by tall trees in which she lives alone with her impetuous dog, Philadelphia. Across the way, spied from a glassed-in porch through old opera glasses, she disapprovingly observes a boorish fat nouveau-riche man in a big new house, and over in a corner, a shabbier building occupied by a struggling music school, whose outdoor horn lessons she also deplores, talking to "Phila" in a running monologue.

The world is distorted, unfriendly, remote, but Aniela is lively, cheerful and defiant in the face of it all. Her first words on-screen (as rendered in the excellent subtitles), spoken to an impolite woman doctor she decides not to deal with, are "Kiss my ass."

Time to Die is an ironic title that suggests a dejection utterly foreign to this feisty and charming old lady. The film was largely conceived by Kedzierzawska as a perfect vehicle for her star Szaflarska, a tiny, indomitable woman who at 91 seems to skip up and down stairs and dance across rooms, her strong voice never faltering. (Seen at a festival screening at 93, she was equally sprightly.) But this is not just a vehicle for the star; the house, the dog, and the surrounding impingements are equally important--as is the camera, shooting in black and white; DP Artur Reinhart is another star whose work here dazzles and entrances. He makes much use of refracting lenses that convey at once a sense of the old windows of the house and of Aniela's own quirky vision, which can quickly shift to musings on the past. She not only sees her son (Krzysztof Globisz), now a big pasty-faced man with a peevish, fat little daughter (Patrycja Szewczyk), but a more idyllic image of that son as a handsome boy (Wit Kaczanowski Jr.) playing on the swing that still hangs from a big tree below.

Time to Die excels in many areas, not only in its extraordinary star, its gorgeous black and white images, and its rich sense of place, but in its ability to convey a sense of time savored minute by minute. Like many old people Aniela may not sleep much. Anyway she seems never to lose consciousness or even to stop talking to "Phila" or on the phone or to her son or to people outside. There's even a naughty urchin they call Dostoevsky (Kamil Bitau) because his first name's Fyodor, who's going to be studying drums at the music school but meanwhile climbs up to the second storey thinking to steal something. She's friendlier to him than to the rich boor from next door, who she sends packing, with Philadelphia snarling obediently after him. There are also nosy Kafkaesque city bureaucrats, and everybody wants Aniela's house or her land.

In time she finds out her own son's intentions are hardly as honorable as she'd assumed and she has to decide on some course of action. Is it "Time to Die"? No, not yet. But of course this is a kind of Endgame, and Aniela, cheerful and mobile though she is, still remains an Old Stancher in the Samuel Beckett sense, alone with her beautiful memories, out of touch and out of sorts with a new world of which she rarely approves and which is not very kindly toward her.

Though slight in content by some mainstream movie standards, Time to Die is a rich and beautiful experience. It was interesting to see it at the San Francisco film festival right after the equally striking black and white film Frozen (Shivajee Chandrabhushan). Kedzierzawska is working with material and with an actress she knows and the difference in emotional content was enormous. The cinematography also seemed to have more of a point to it since it so evocatively suggested a vision grounded firmly in the past but still alive in the present. Alive is the word, because the camera seems to breathe in this one. A long crane shot rising up beyond the roof and into the sky at the end is a wise move to give a sense of ascent and also perspective. The extraordinary Danuta Szaflarska agreed with the director at an after-screening discussion that this film was one of the best opportunities she's ever had in her long and successful career. Not having seen other work by Kedzierawska one can't comment but surely this must be one of her greatest successes. Incidentally, this is one of the best performances by a dog you're likely to see.

Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008.

Chris Knipp
05-01-2008, 07:32 PM


In the land of Zarqawi, a man in search of completion

In this documentary that won a Sundance prize for its cinematography Mahmoud al Massad films ex-Mujahideen member Abu Amar, a bearded, devout Muslim man in traditional dress who is forced to survive by collecting cardboard boxes in his little blue truck with help of his sons and selling them to a recycling center. We're in a poor part of Jordan's second city, Zarqa, from which both filmmaker and his subject come. Abu Amar is rarely without his little son Abu Bakr, who even gets to take the wheel sitting in his lap. We don't meet the other sons or the several wives or other family members. In a Christian hospital we see his present wife just in one scene, momentarily unveiled for an interview about pregnancy. We often see friends, never identified, who discuss politics and economics. We also see that Abu Amar prays according to the requirements of Islam throughout the day, and goes to hear a fiery Friday sermon.

Early on Abu Amar and his friends talk about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaida leader later killed by the US in Iraq. We see Abu Amar watching al-Zarqawi himself talking about Iraq on a TV station. Later Abu Amar watches Bush's announcement of the targeted killing on television. Al-Zarqawi came from the same neighborhood of Zarqa, but the locals agree he was an ordinary man, drove a bus, was a faceless city hall clerk, had little education, and wasn't even religious. They never even saw him at the mosque. "Who would think a man from this place would aggravate the whole world?" one says.

One thing they agree on is that jihad is something that it it is legitimate to turn to under certain circumstances. They express sympathy and understanding for those who organize to fight against the US occupiers, but they also insist that those who become "jihadis" do so only when government oppression or economic conditions or both have made them turn desperate. They also note, apropos of al-Zarqawi's apparent 180-degree shift, that turning to the mosque and the Koran sometimes is also the only help available in their country for a person fighting addiction to women, pills, or alcohol.

Abu Amar was in Afghanistan, but only as a security guard for Mujahideen leaders. He consequently laughs when asked by the director if he learned about their ideas through working with them.

When three Amman hotels are bombed on November 9, 2005 and Al-Qaida takes credit, Abu Amar is rounded up and held for four months as a suspect, then found innocent and released. He expresses gratitude for his release: justice was done, he says. He doesn't seem resentful.

Abu Amar traces all his current financial problems back to a major rift with his father--causes unspecified-- that forced them to close a commercial space where they were going to open a business. Abu Amar now only goes and lets himself in this space at night. There he has a typewriter and a plastic bag full of Islamic quotations. With the aid of these, he is working on a book which he can't get published. We see him typing away at it, and later reading to friends a passage arguing that it is wrong for Muslims to live in kaafir or "infidel" (non-Muslim) countries; that even converts to Islam should migrate to a Muslim country. This extremely narrow position appears ironic in the light of a step Abu Amar takes at the end of the film.

Whether by choice or by necessity, al Massad doesn't present a very complete picture of Abu Amar's milieu. It's perhaps because of the latter's strict Muslim principles that not much about his family is revealed beyond his close, if stern, interaction with his little boy. What we get to see is a man doing all he can to hold onto self-respect in a dead-end situation. His night typing on his manuscript seems done mainly to reassure himself that his former commitment and his informal religious studies have some value, rather than with the hope of his writings ever seeing the light of day. Even getting camel's milk for his sick mother is a frustrating, doggedly pursued process that takes repeated trips. Despite his expressions of faith and hope, his patience and his machismo, finally Abu Amar comes to seem a rather pathetic figure. Perhaps al Massad's portrait is all the more troubling and memorable for its very incompleteness. The man he is looking at is himself incomplete. The restrained portrait, which takes us up close without seeking to explain, is one whose implications are worth pondering.

Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival, 2008.

Chris Knipp
05-02-2008, 02:11 PM


Shooting in the shadow of war

Director Aractingi shot this film in the immediate wake of the systematic 34-day Israeli bombing of Lebanon in summer 2006, which left much of the country devastated, especially the South. He uses his own footage of the bombing itself, which shows whole neighborhoods being decimated, and then shoots among the rubble to tell the story of Zaina (Nada Abou Farhat), a divorced mother who comes from Dubai, where she was living with her architect husband, to find Karim, her six-year-old son, who was trapped by the bombing in Kherbet Salam, a Shia Muslim village in southern Lebanon. Zaina left Karim there with her sister, ironically, to "protect" him from the stress of her divorce. The only taxi driver who'll make the dangerous trip is Tony (George Khabbaz), a Christian who turns out to be from the South himself.

Aractingi got the idea of shooting in war devastation with an improvised plot in 1989 as Lebanon's civil war of that time wound down, but fear prevented him from proceeding. Instead he shot 40 documentaries and one feature that used improvisation (the 2005 Bosta) and also starred Nada Abou Farhat. As he got to work with his cast and crew for Under the Bombs, beginning shooting during the bombing and continuing during the ceasefire, he made the decision not to deal with the war so much as its impact on innocent victims, which Zaina and Karim obviously are.

And many of the people and their sufferings are authentic and real-time. When Tony and Zaina reach Kherbet Salam the building her sister lived in is completely destroyed. A young woman comes up and tells her Maha, her sister, is a martyr now. Zaina and Tony go to witness the disinterring of those who died to be reburied in "martyrs' graves," hoping to find the body of Maha (they do not). Aractingi films the actual funerals--not an easy task.

People say Karim was taken up by foreign journalists and went away with them, and this leads Tony and Zaina further south, just a few kilometers from the Israeli border, where they stop over with Tony's Christian family. It emerges that they were collaborators during the long Israeli occupation of south Lebanon and one brother is among those who fled to live in Israel in the aftermath of that time. The confrontation between Tony and his relatives over this collaboration is the fruit of discussions among villagers which Aractingi and his co-writer, Michel Léviant, condensed into a script. This is one example of how the actual fed into the fictional in the day-to-day shooting.

The emotions are powerful and the backgrounds are horrifying in the film. Nothing quite equals the sense of identification when Zaina looks at a whole street where her sister lived and finds only ruins after the systematic bombing destruction. Less successful at times are the interactions between Zaina and Tony, who flirts, comforts, and acts out a surprisingly graphic sex scene with a room clerk at a hotel they stop at on the way. Khabbaz and Abou Farhat are good, but some cutting might have helped eliminate distracting elements. The car's breaking down just before the couple gets to the monastery where Karim is rumored to be seems a rather obvious suspense device too.

The film is neutral as it can be, perhaps to a fault. One wonders why Hezbollah is barely even mentioned, since it is the other party in the warfare, and was the prime provider of aid to the victims in the bombing's immediate aftermath. Though the collaborating family members refer to being "forced to work for the Devil," meaning Israel, the focus is on the suffering rather than its source. Aractingi's film has flaws, but its boldness in bringing to the screen the 2006 bombing of Lebanon and the civilian suffering it caused can't be faulted.

The San Francisco International Film Festival 2008 provided the West Coast premiere of this film, which was scheduled to open less than two weeks later, on May 14, in Paris. This was nominated for the Grand Jury prize at Sundance and received the EIUC Award at Venice, as well as other festival awards.

Chris Knipp
05-02-2008, 04:06 PM


A flawed drama of boy soldiers in Africa

Mamoudu Turay Kamara is brooding, charismatic and stylish as Ezra, a sixteen-year-old trained killing machine who has escaped from "The Brotherhood," the rebel army in what is obviously Sierra Leone, though not named here. He is an innocent boy of nine in a prologue when the rebels overrun his school and kidnap him. Ezra is a Sierra Leone civil war story told, unlike Edward Zwick's effective but Euro-centric Blood Diamond, entirely from the African point of view and with Africans in all the main roles. The director is a Nigerian who lives in the UK.

In the frame-story of the film, Ezra stands before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (on the South African pattern) headed by American Mac Mondale (Richard Gant) and his sister Onitcha (Mariame N'Diaye), though she has had her tongue cut out, bears witness that he was present in an attack on the family village in which their own parents were killed and may even have been the one who killed them. Before such attacks, including this one, the boy soldiers are injected by their superiors with amphetamines, so they can fight for four days, killing heedlessly, in a state of wild excitement and with no shred of a moral sense. After two days if they don't eat, Ezra says, they hallucinate and see demons all around them. After many such experiences the boys develop protective amnesia. The Commission isn't a trial, but Mac Mondale wants Ezra to confess to crimes. He won't. He denies any memory of them.

In its opening passage about the young kidnapped Ezra the film sketches in how the new recruits are indoctrinated, motivated by fear, and brainwashed to forget their families and live for the cause, worshiping their AK-47's. "No hand, no vote" was the rule of the raids: villagers' hands were cut off to frighten them from voting. Ezra has plenty of trauma, but this atrocity is depicted more graphically in Blood Diamond. A surprise and shock: to find that there are girl soldiers too. One Ezra meets up with, Mariam (Mamusu Kallon), becomes the mother of his child. While he can't remember how to read, she comes from a Maoist intellectual journalist father and joined up out of conviction.

Ezra eventually leaves "the Brotherhood" with others, including Mariam, in protest because they are not being fed properly. We also get glimpses of the subject of Blood Diamond, the whites who trade weapons and also drugs for diamonds, the glittering but tainted fruits of this warfare.

It's important to have this material in a film with authentic settings and actors and from the boy soldier's point of view. The film points out at the end that there are about 300,000 child soldiers fighting on the globe, 120,000 of them in Africa.

This film has a convincing look, but it's marred by very serious flaws. The framework of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is its first undoing, because it leads the screenplay into a chaotic series of flashbacks whose chronology is impossible to follow; some reviewers have commented that their order is as blasted as Ezra's drug-addled and traumatized mind. And in the switching back and forth between the flashbacks and the Commission proceedings, the latter are increasingly overwhelmed by the war drama and begin to seem anticlimactic.

The chronology of the various flashbacks becomes even more confusing as Ezra's escape from the Brotherhood gets mixed in with his earlier service, and the rhythm of the story is hobbled. This is one reason why things are confusing. Equally damaging to the natural flow is the fact that all characters speak English rather than whatever they might actually have spoken in individual scenes (Sierra Leone's official language is English but there are 24 native tongues). And to make things worse the voices are post-dubbed, so they're noticeably out of sink. Even Mamoudu Turay Kamara often delivers his English lines in a stilted manner, and you can see the mouths moving before the voices come out. In a few scenes the dialogue is barely comprehensible.

Given how sketchy the story becomes in this treatment, it would be better to read one of several books on the subject of boy soldiers in Africa, notably Ismael Beah's A Long Way Gone: Memories of a Boy Soldier (Feb. 2007), which presents the experience eloquently and in more detail, though even Beah's memories are not always completely reliable, for the same reason that Ezra's are absent: protective amnesia and damaged recall due to drugs and stress.

Ezra was introduced at Sundance 15 months ago where it was nominated for the Grand Jury prize, received several awards in Africa, and has been in limited US release since February. Given this chronology and the film's inherent weaknesses, its inclusion in SFIFF 2008 is open to question

Seen as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008.

Chris Knipp
05-03-2008, 02:59 PM


Lost souls skirting the field of battle, singing songs

This peculiar musical war movie about a woman disguised as a man in search of her soldier husband in World War I France has the courage of its oddball convictions--or does it? It was disconcerting, at least, to hear from director Bozon that his original intention was a film about Arabs in the French-Algerian war of the Sixties. For a French art film you need public money, he said, and to get that the dialogue has to be in French--so voila!--no Arabs, and the dial was turned back to WWI.

La France is the kind of thing that truly delights some of the most ardent festival attendees: a film that's genuinely weird and original, that comes from left field, is quite sure of itself, and is sustained by some of the best actors in its country of origin, good cinematography, and unusual music used in an unexpected way. To others, this is likely to seem merely remote and inexplicable; a long slog even at only 102 minutes. To me, it evoked memories of Bresson, or the Rohmer of Percival, while still seeming a cluster of missed opportunities. Opening in France last November, it received a respectful critical reception and the occasional rave. It also ran in Lincoln Center's New Directors/New Films series early this year and was singled out for special praise by the Village Voice's Nathan Lee.

Bozon and his scenarist, Axelle Ropert, deserve credit for following their own path in constructing what French reviewer Christine Haas called "a melancholy ballad and a humanistic fable."

Here's the premise: a young woman gets a strange letter from her loving husband at the front: "Stop writing me, you will never see me again." She cuts her hair, binds her breasts and, posing as a seventeen-year-old boy, joins a unit whose members she finds sleeping in a field. Of course they try to get rid of him/her, but "Camille" (Sylvie Testud)--she can use her real name, because it's a boy's as easily as a girl's--each time does something so risky and dramatic (gets shot in the hand, jumps off a bridge) that they have to rescue her and keep her in tow a while longer. Eventually her initiative saves them, and she's accepted, even though the Lieutenant (Pascal Greggory) has declared on her first appearance that he/she has the face of somebody who's "seeking death." The surprise is that the essential unmasking will be not of Camille but of the unit she joins. Guillaume Depardieu comes in for an appropriate cameo at the end looking suitably hopeless, pretty, and shattered.

Good use is made here of Testud's androgyny and Greggory's habitual hangdog look. This scrawny, determined "Camille" really resembles a boy, while the Lieutenant's soft, sad visage hints at something very wrong.

Every so often--and this is what the film will be remembered for--the soldiers take out a bunch of handmade junkyard musical instruments and in unprofessional but harmonized falsettos sing a Sixties-style ballad, which is always from a woman's viewpoint--and has, by intention, absolutely nothing to do with the action. Bozon claims that it's a Hollywood tradition and not purely his avantgardism to make war movies with songs that are anachronistic and not plot-related.

The resulting effect, anyhow, lacks any sense of the actual, without slipping over into a purely conceptual or fantastic framework that might have given the themes of loss, loneliness, failure of nerve, and sexual identity (or whatever all this is about) really free rein. Camille is an interesting character with rich picaresque possibilities that are insufficiently explored. Testud seems to give so much, yet get back so little from the film. Greggory's sick-soul character never develops or changes. The other soldiers never take on real personalities. The essential mechanism of most war movies--the sounds and effects of battle--is absent. Instead, violence comes from an unexpected quarter. The resolution is bitter-sweet.

Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008. It won the Prix Jean Vigo in France for independent spirit and originality of style.

Chris Knipp
05-04-2008, 12:57 AM


In the land of the tsunami, love and menace

Fledgling Thai director Aditya Assarat begins the stunning Wonderful Town with flat, screen-filling images of gentle waves that introduce the locale of southern Thailand hit hard by the 2004 tsunami. This opening heralds the film's strong visual sense as well as a prevailing serenity that is not without edges of menace as time goes on. Convincing performances and lovely visuals serve a subtle, haunting screenplay and the whole shows a strong narrative sense that pays off with the cumulative power of the finale.

This is the story of a young man and woman who come together in a kind of limbo. Their personal stories emerge in bits and pieces as a romance develops between Ton and Na. Ton (Supphasit Kansen) is an architect who comes from Bangkok and stays at a very ordinary hotel where he meets Na (Anchalee Saisoontorn), who seems a clerk and maid, but emerges as the sole member of the owner family who is present to run the place. Ton's work is on a project nearby where luxury resort buildings are under construction near unrestored, perhaps haunted relics of the storm damage. He's volunteered to be here to please the client and in effect just spend a peaceful two months away from the noise of the capital doing not very much. The setting itself, the tsunami town of Takua Pa, is the inspiration for the film.

Ton is interested in Na right away, as he openly reveals when he goes out on a rooftop to help her fold up laundry. He's not so much flirtatious as open and relaxed in a way that shows he wants to be with her. Na is reserved but receptive. A scene where she listens to him singing in the shower shows she's interested too. They go on a little "date," they kiss, they walk together here and there.

There aren't many people around: an older man and woman who work at the hotel; then after a while Wit (Dul Yaambunying) appears, a dicey individual who might be an estranged husband (he's moved out; she asks him to come back), but turns out to be Na's brother, a self-declared reprobate who won't come to help run the hotel.

The romance between Ton and Na is marked by beauty and delicacy. The whole locale seems a place of openness and quiet, despite the noise of the construction site, which Ton has to drive back and forth to. Ton's personal ease is underlined by his tendency to break into little songs. He turns out to have had an earlier life as a musician and his father so disapproved that for five years they've been out of touch.

There's disapproval closer at hand. Four boys on loud motorcycles who circle around and around are the first powerful sign of threat; they're like Cocteau's avenging angels or the hot-rodders in Manuel Pradal's Marie baie des anges. Now Na's warning to Ton that this is a small place and they need to be circumspect makes sense. From then on every scene effortlessly communicates its hints of hostility, perhaps serious danger.

Assarat makes it all seem so simple. The earlier scenes are flat and undeclarative, with the camera often still. The Director of Photography Umpornpol Yugala provides lovely, soft colors and is equally effective in eye-filling closeups of Na's bare skin as with landscapes with figures in the distance. The tight-lipped dialogue keeps the viewer attentive. Zai Kuning and Koichi Shimizu provide delicate guitar backgrounds that hint at uncertainty as well as fill in a sense of calm. Every moment counts. The sense is of a place that's as much traumatized as it is recovering.

Ton's and Na's back stories are a little mysterious. It's not certain what Ton is planning to do at the end.

Aditya Assarat has produced a remarkable film that promises much for the future. It received awards at Las Palmas and Rotterdam and was part of the New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center this spring as were six other SFIFF selections. It opens in Paris May 7,2008.

Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008.

Chris Knipp
05-04-2008, 10:12 PM


Depressed punk love in Athens in the summertime

Voulgaris' raw, mercurial film about two twenty-somethings falling in love during a hot summer in Athens is perfectly in tune with its subject. Artistic, angst-ridden Stamatis Anastopoulos (Thanos Samaras) and Goth-girl Elektra (Loukia Mihalopoulou) meet cute in a video shop. Since both adore Carrie their first encounter is a clash over who'll get to rent it that evening. Reluctantly, they watch it together, which leads to an exchange of names, addresses, and cell phone numbers and subsequent dates and tentative making out, finally sex. They not only share musical and film tastes but above all for their time in life the most important thing, they both passionately hate the same things, which means most things--including families, summer, and vacations. He reinforces her dislikes. It's okay to feel bad, better to feel bad together. The two of them against the world. It's a good match, if not a smooth ride. Jerky editing and scenes that don't come in when you would think or end when logic requires become a virtue. The film's construction ignores conventional expectations as do Stamatis and Elektra and the people they sometimes hang out with. If the relationship doesn't progress very visibly from scene to scene as Valse Sentimentale unfolds that makes perfect sense too, because these kids don't know if the relationship is on or off from one day to the next.

On one early date, they sit outdoors and talk about the best suicide methods. Stamatis favors drowning, Elektra, pills. The camera drops back and shows they're sitting in a grassy, sun-kissed park on a lovely afternoon. And ironically, both are good-looking. She wears cute outfits that show off her cleavage, mostly black. She's not incapable of smiling. He's not incapable of funny remarks. But the style is dark, as is the look of the film. One day she comes in red: "everything else was dirty," she apologizes. Despite cutoffs, suspenders, and Doc Martens, he's surprisingly straight-looking and wears a Chapklinesque mustache and short, well-trimmed hair. Perhaps he's too insecure to be conventionally hip; he is a loner and given to self-mutilation in moments of inner pain, which come regularly in the little flat where he lives with a wall full of brush drawings and a cat.

Sometimes they talk about music and Elektra has a nameless pal who writes songs. In one typically abrupt scene she's alone with the pal on a rooftop at night as he plays a small electric keyboard and the two of them sing the dark verses at the top of their lungs in joyous nihilism. Later she gives Stamatis a CD and wonders if he'll like it. In the classic youthful search for elective affinities, they're always on tenterhooks about whether the other will like the same drink, the same book, the same song, the way they both liked Carrie. An image of perfect union--Platonic, perhaps?--lurks behind their constant mismatching of mood and taste.

Both are too depressed and insecure and flat-out negative to go into a "relationship"--he handles the word uneasily, as if with tongs--with any confidence that they even know what such a thing is, and yet little by little it happens in the jerky, stop-and-start rhythm of the film--whose irregular cutting echoes the couple's moods and uncertainties. (A blow-job pops in suddenly between one scene and another that follows it. An awkward tongue-tied scene between the pair on a couch is inter-cut with another in which he's tenderly waching her hair in the tub--whether before, after, or never we don't know.)

Anyway he does hesitantly ask her to come to his place to take that "relationship" to "the next level"--to make awkward love, which they both love, but can hardly stand the pleasure of. And then naturally things get messy--on the next level.

A movie has rarely caught the uncertainty of young lovers so well. The relationship is painful, and painfully real and touching. It's also punk and Goth, nihilistic and depressed, and glad to be so. It asks for understanding but never for pity. The two main actors are utterly convincing. Voulgaris comes from a well-known writing and filmmaking family and there are likely to be more good things from her.

This was included in the New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center and at least one New York writer called it "the one to beat" while others reviled it for being unspeakably vile looking and self-indulgent. Some films do bring out the worst in people, but really, Valse Sentimentale is fresh, urban, youthful, and truthful.

Seen as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008.

Chris Knipp
05-05-2008, 02:36 PM

JimMyron Ross[IFC FILMS]

An intense debut shot with love and conviction in the Mississippi Delta

First-time LA-based director Lance Hammer's powerful, naturalistic film seeks to capture what he sees as the prevailing sadness of the Mississippi Delta landscape through its concentrated portrait of a little black family torn by terrible grief and gradually struggling from despair to reconciliation and hope. Ballast begins with a shaky camera shot of a flock of birds flying away across a plain in the Mississippi Delta, then to violent events too fast to grasp completely. A white man, John (Johnny McPhail), comes to the door of a little house to ask Lawrence (Micheal J. Smith Sr.) what's wrong. He won't speak, goes outdoors and a shot rings out. He's shot himself. John calls 911 and Lawrence is rushed to the hospital. For a while this almost looks like an episode of "Cops." The hand-held camera throws the viewer in the heart of all this action with a palpable documetary-style intimacy.

Things cool down a bit as the camera moves over to the house nearby on the same lot where a mother, Marlee (Tara Riggs), lives with her teenage son James (JimMyron Ross). Marlee works in a lousy job cleaning latrines. James is on break from school and pays visits to young drug dealers he owes money to. Rudderless and confused about his dead father, a recent suicide and Lawrence's twin, who never visited him, James turns to desperate and risky behavior that he tries to hide from his mother. The drug dealers pay a threatening visit to James's house.

Back from the hospital Lawrence remains so paralyzed by grief over his brother's suicide perishables are going bad in his little convenience store and he can barely speak, let alone reopen the store and resume normal life. Marlee gets fired from her job and there's no money. James wanders the fields, his only friend perhaps the family dog, the half-wolf Juno. Slowly, the three let out their grievances and begin reconciliation and a solution that involves the property the twins' late father left them and an uneasy cooperation between Lawrence and Marlee.

Hammer's filmmaking, which got him consideration at the Berlinale and two top prizes for directing and cinematography at Sundance in early 2008, involves a strong camera and meticulous natural sound (with no music), but above all the director's own commitment to humanistic integrity. His various models include Mike Leigh, Charles Burnett, and the Dardennes--Leigh for the attention to family conflicts, Burnett for truth about African-American life, the Dardennes for a method in which the camera literally dogs the footsteps of ordinary people in crisis.

This isn't digital but 35 mm. Technicolor in widescreen, by Lol Crawley, edited by Hammer. Dolby Digital sound designed by Kent Sparling of George Lucas' Skywalker Sound and edited by Julia Shirar (who's worked with Sofia Coppola and Noah Baumbach) was designed by Sam Watson, a Mississippi native, all with close, committed involvement in the project.

Essential to Hammer's approach was to use local people in the main roles and a screenplay whose dialogue was frequently rewritten by the actors who embellished their scenes with improvisation. Even when James' dialogue at some points is nearly inaudible, the sound crew kept that. Though this may be a dubious nod to authenticity, the film is so involving that it hardly leaves the viewer time to think. If this is the Dardennes, it is the Belgian brothers working in top form--save for the ending, which is no resolution or even a question mark, just an abrupt blackout. However, the whole second half of the film is a struggle toward resolution that gives a surprise sense of hope slowly emerging out of what middle-class viewers in particular might tend to see as an utterly hopeless situation.

Seen as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008. To be distributed by IFC Films in late August 2008.

Chris Knipp
05-05-2008, 08:56 PM


Portrait of young girls in flower

Water Lilies is a well-made first film from France about young female sexuality and friendship. Sciamma works with specialized, slightly sanitized material that is as off-putting to some as it is alluring to others. The film focuses exclusively on three middle-class teenage girls in a tidy new Paris suburb. Their lives revolve around a big indoor swimming pool where two of the three are part of a synchronized water ballet team.

Such distractions as parents, siblings, work and school have been neatly excised from the equation. The central sensibility belongs to the attractively sullen but skinny Marie (Pauline Acquart), who is not on the team, but thinks she would like to be. Marie worships Floriane (Adele Haenel), an alluring blonde and team standout whom the boys are after. This takes Marie away from her former best friend, also a member of the water ballet team, the somewhat plump Anne (Louise Blachere). Being less special Anne is more truly accessible to the boys. Floriane, like this film, promises a bit more then she truly offers. Marie has the more essential quality for a teenage girl: she suffers inwardly. Floriane doesn't so much suffer as jump into situations and then bolt.

Marie is dazzled by the glamor of the water ballet as well as Floriane. Floriane takes advantage of this to make Marie first her slave and a cover for her assignations, then, lacking any other friends, her confidante. All the other girls think Floriane a slut, an illusion she encourages in the men and boys she teases, because it leads them on. She suffers the pretty girl's fate of being not a person but an object, and she can't resist the validation the boys give her by wanting to kiss her and bed her, but she doesn't really care about any of them and knows her involvements with them are a trap. Enlisting Marie to act as her pal so her (unseen) mother won't know she's going out to meet boys, she also gets Marie to rescue her from the boys later. It looked the opposite at first, but Floriane needs Marie as much as Marie thinks she needs her. Anne is left with her discomfort with her body and a desire to get laid that's earthier and more real than the other girls'.

Keeping all external context at bay, Sciamma can highlight subtle shifts in the delicate equation of the three girls' goals and interactions. On the other hand the film's water madness, which includes lots of showering and spitting as well as underwater swimming shots, makes it feel completely airless at times and some of its 95 minutes do not pass so quickly. Luckily the film has a sense of humor and lets the trio sometimes forget their ever-present goals and avoidances and just do silly, pointless girl things. It's the offbeat moments that give the film life; too bad in a way that there aren't more of them. But Sciamma has the courage of her obsessions and what remains as one walks out of the theater is the personalities and their dynamics. Along the way of course it is pleasant also to watch the swimming and to gaze at the girls, who understandably love to gaze at themselves.


There's no great revelation or drama on the way, but things get a bit more interesting when it emerges that Marie doesn't just admire but truly desires Floriane and is jealous of her boyfriends--whom Floriane always stops before they go all the way. In a typical irony of this kind of plot, Floriane actually decides she wants to have her first real sex with Marie--but Marie is the one who holds off, because she knows it won't have the significance to Floriane that it will have to her. When it happens, it's a timid, mechanical affair. Meanwhile Anne has a huge crush on Francois (Warren Jacquin), a male swimmer, but of course he is after Floriane. Boys are not an element that's been subtracted and there always seem to be several dozen ready at poolside or on the dance floor, but they are just bodies and faces, available studs.

Water Lilies, whose actual French title Naissance des pieuvres ("Birth of Octopi") has been given various interpretations, none of which I quite follow, debuted in April of last year to fairly good reviews in France, it appears. It has gathered a couple of awards in France and three Cesar nominations; and was presented in the Un Certain Regard series at Cannes. It has a US distributor, Koch Lorber, and opened in New York April 4, 2008.

Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008.

Chris Knipp
05-05-2008, 10:39 PM


Medicine and melancholy

Micah (Wyatt Cenac) takes Joanne (Tracey Heggins) to the Museum of the African Diaspora on a Sunday afternoon. They woke up that morning in somebody else's house not knowing each other's names after a one-night stand at a party where they both got very drunk. It's San Francisco. They're black. They ride bikes. She was very unfriendly at first, not just because it was a drunken coupling but because she has a white curator boyfriend she lives with who just happens to be in London for the moment, but she loves him.

The first part of this first film by Barry Jenkins, which is shot in digital video tuned to be almost but not quite totally drained of color (like the city, as we are to learn), with pale grays and very white whites, is sustained by Micah's efforts to make Joanne want to spend some time with him. He thinks they ought to get to know each other, and it's a Sunday. She's not at all interested at first. They're both hung over, after all. She lets him take her home in a taxi and then just gets out and runs. But she leaves her wallet on the floor. To go back and find her it takes a search, on his bike, across town, because the address on her license isn't current. The film is also sustained by being very specifically shot in San Francisco. When Joanne goes to a gallery to run an errand it's a very specific gallery. The Museum of the African Diaspora is the Museum of the African Diaspora. The light is San Francisco light. Micah and Joanne are young urban sophisticates. That, as Micah points out, is not only specific but makes them a small minority of a small minority, because gentrification has shrunk the city's blacks to 7% of the city population (New York's proportion is 28%).

Later buying groceries for dinner at his place (because Micah succeeds and Joanne does spend the day with him, and more) they happen upon a group discussing what appears to be the imminent banishment of rent control in San Francisco. Is Jenkins lecturing us, or just treading water? It doesn't matter so much, because the interactions of Micah and Joanne and the wry, cautious words they use when they talk to each other remain central, and are as specific and accurate to who they are (if not to San Francisco) as the cityscapes and the special light.

These two fine actors and this sensitive filmmaker certainly know how to make it real and to record how unpredictably things change from minute to minute. When Micah takes Joanne to the museum, instead of SFMoMA (her original suggestion), and then to the Martin Luther King Memorial at Yerba Buena Center, maybe it's turning into a pretty cool date. But when he leads her over a little bridge there and says, "This is like LA," she just rather coldly says, "Never been," and then, rubbing it in once more and pulling back, "This is a one-night stand." A ride on the merry-go-round at Yerba Buena, she seems to be saying, isn't going to change anything. This delicate homage to a moment is also a rueful acknowledgment of how hard it is to alter the way things are.

And it has to be a bit of a lecture, because Micah is "born and raised," while Joanne is a "transplant," and he wants to remind her how the Fillmore and the Lower Haight were wiped out in the Sixties in "Urban Redevelopment:" goodbye black people, goodbye white artists. Micah lives in an immaculate little apartment in the Tenderloin. Micah, as the voice of Barry Jenkins, wants to reclaim San Francisco for everyday people.

Actually, Micah and Joanne seem like a perfect couple. Is that why they can't be together, except for this one day? You want to just shout out to them, "Can't you just be friends?" They fit so well together. Is this Medicine for Melancholy or jut melancholy? Maybe it's medicine and melancholy. That must be it. A fine little lyric of people and a place. And wholly without cliche' except maybe for the tag-line: "A night they barely remember becomes a day they'll never forget. "

Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008. This had its debut at SXSW, the South by Southwest Interactive event in Austin, Texas. In San Francisco Medicine for Melancholy shared the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature with Rodrigo Pla's La Zona.

Chris Knipp
05-06-2008, 04:35 PM


Kids fleeing from reality in Taiwan

A lot of twee meanderings have to go by before some human emotional content enters this cute but disorganized story about two mischievous schoolboy pals whose gym teacher nicknames Liar No. 1 (Pang Chin-yu) and Liar No. 2 (Lee Kuan-yi). Yang lets every shot and every scene run too long; the nearly two-hour film could benefit from some radical cuts.

Nonetheless first-timer Yang, previously author of Blue Gate Crossing, a successful Taiwan youth novel about teenage girls that was made into a movie by Yee Chi-yen, does have a grasp of the boys' imagination and gets nice performances from his young stars. The film, which includes animated sequences by Wang Teng-yu involving the boys' fantasy escape, the Kingdom of Orz and "Qatar King," is technically accomplished and makes good use of local settings in its Taiwan coastal town of Danshui and dozens of cooperative extras.

Though many scenes take place at school, classroom activities and individual classmates aren't the focus because they aren't for the boys, who also rarely confront the adult world. For their constant pranks (a scam to grab classmates' money opens the film), No. 1 and No. 2 are forced to spend much of their summer repairing library books after school. But they use their time scheming to fly to Orz, imagining a bronze school statue coming to life, and on other boyhood follies.

Liar No. 1 is the bigger boy and takes the lead, and has a peculiar, deranged father. This father and son are vaguely reminiscent of Kurosawa's Do-des-ka-den, and there's material here for a heartbreaking study of deprivation and loneliness. The film winds up spending more time with the living situation of Liar No. 2, who's reluctantly cared for by his mildly abusive shopkeeper grandma (Mei Fang), who doesn't like her son's farming out his kids, and actually loses his baby daughter, Mei--who No. 1 steals as a joke, but then loses in a park.

Granny goes bonkers, but the sequence wanders off at the end, and what preoccupies the boys and the film much more is their project to save money so they can go to the Kingdom of Orz--and their desire to get hold of a winning coupon to get the special edition Qatar King from the local toy shop.

"Orz" also refers to an emoticon of Japanese origin depicting a figure bowing toward the left and denoting surrender, dejection, or deference. Perhaps it refers to the obedience to adults No. 1 and No. 2 don't want to grant. In that sense they're certainly not "Orz boyz," and adults don't come off as very supportive or helpful here.

The filmmaker in Chinese style is also known as Yang Ya-che. Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008.

Chris Knipp
05-06-2008, 05:24 PM


Urban intersections in São Paolo

Not by Chance (Não Por acaso) is set in São Paolo, Brazil. Its crossed-paths (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Crash) plot structure is getting pretty tired by now, but this is a sophisticated and polished and engaging enough work to have been bought an overseas branch of Twentieth Century Fox. It's already on DVD.

We begin with Enio (Leonardo Medeiros), a weary traffic controller who works in a large visually impressive control room. Shortly after a reunion with his ex-wife Monica (Graziela Moretto), who tells him his daughter Bia (Rita Batata), now grown, wants to meet him, he spies an accident and, rushing to it on foot, miraculously in a few minutes, sees Monica and her current husband lying dead. Meanwhile inter-cut with Enio's story is one of a university student, Teresa (Branca Messina), who rents out her large apartment to move in with her boyfriend Pedro (Rodrigo Santoro), an expert pool player who, like his deceased father, builds pool tables. Teresa's mother incidentally, like Enio and Pedro, is a kind of control freak. Teresa's old flat's new occupant is Lucia (Leticia Sabatella), a commodities trader particularly interested in coffee. In the course of the film relationships will be rearranged.

There's a parallelism between Pedro's diagrams of pool play (which he talks through mentally in voice-overs) and Enio's ideas about fluid dynamics, which his boss wants to utilize in some sort of unspecified more "humane" traffic system (rather than a German system of "smart" traffic signals he's not keen on adopting). Traffic controlling as seen here is fabulously technical and precise, while pool and cabinetry of course are art forms. The symbolism avoids seeming too forced because each area of expertise is presented interestingly.

The trouble with these schemes of interconnection, stressing the dire--people do interconnect under positive circumstances, after all--and the arbitrary is that they will seem, well, arbitrary, cooked up by the screenwriters (and there were three, Barcinski, Fabiana Werneck Barcinski and Eugenio Puppo) to give a story a sense of life's complexities that only a long novel, or better yet a series of novels like Proust's In Search of Lost Time or Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, can really convey. Representing several clusters of characters in a film of just an hour or two runs the risk of feeling like a chopped-down TV miniseries.

Nonetheless this first feature shows Barcinski to be a fluent and accomplished filmmaker. He gives us a sense of urban anxieties with the focus on apartment-hunting and traffic snarls. It's cool the way he uses phantom images of the pool balls to show the player's control to contrast with the movements of a girl killed through a random error in traffic. Since this sort of story views life diagrammatically, Barcinski seems to feel, why not diagram it openly? And it works. What you can't diagram are joy and grief, and that's where the actors come in handy...

Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008. It was shown at the Chicago and L.A. Latino film festivals and won a prize at the Chicago one.

Chris Knipp
05-08-2008, 04:49 PM


Beersheba ain't for sissies

This rather downbeat Israeli first film about soccer and social and ethnic problems focuses on three at-risk teenagers whose involvement in a team gives them some hope of saving their otherwise messy lives. At center stage is the luminously sullen Russian immigrant Dima (David Teplitzky), who's involved in petty drug dealing with shady, older fellow countrymen and despises school and his unemployed stepfather. His mother wants him to play the piano at some school ceremony, but he doesn't even go to school most of the time.

The 100% Israeli is Schlomo, (Nadir Eldad) who also has brutish, gangsterish connections and a violent attitude; he's hostile toward his equally mean, violent (and much bigger) boss at a pizza shop. Schlomo however shines at soccer and is captain of the little team coached by yet another tough cookie, Matan (Matan Avinoam Blumenkrantz).

Adiel (Adiel Samro) was born in Israel but as an Ethiopian he's still very much an outsider. He wears a yarmulke, ostensibly because he used to go to a religious boarding school, but perhaps also because people still question whether Ethiopians are really Jews. He's a good soccer player but has to overcome racial prejudice to get to show his ability, and must also worry about a sick mother and a little brother.

At the Jerusalem Film Festival last July Vasermil was viewed as breathing life into the proceedings and it won the Wolgin prize over The Band Visit. Judges admired the nervously expressive camera and use of non-actors and naturalistic sequences worthy of Ken Loach. It's significant that Salmona spend ten years in London. He grew up in Beershiva, where the film is set; Vasermil is a stadium there. He was aware that things were always tough in that town and have gotten tougher.

The Jerusalem judges also were impressed by the director's gritty confrontation of social problems and his avoidance of any Hollywood resolutions. There's no triumph in the Big Game coming. On the other hand, the sequences of soccer play are unusually natural. The only stretcher is the idea that Dima is only water boy and then, because he's a scrappy kid, is called in by Matan to replace the injured goalie--and immediately commands the position.

The implication is that a survivor of the hardscrabble life of the streets can excel in other spheres. Unfortunately the dangers and unwanted commitments faced by Schlomo and Dima are too great for them to ride sports to worldly success. And though Adiel is good and likes playing, he's unwilling to leave his family again to accept a scholarship.

It's indeed impressive the way Ram Shweky's camera in Vasermil makes these boys and the people they must deal with loom very large on the screen, and there's certainly no fluff in Reut Hahn's editing. Not every moment or every performance is convincing, however, and the roughness sometimes seems like disorganization. It would have been nice if Salmona had let his scenes and his characters breathe a bit more. Dividing up events among three boys may be essential to conveying a segmented and restless modern urban society, but while depicting social and family and ethnic conflicts, Salmona doesn't allow his main characters to emerge fully as personalities, and only Adiel gets to have anything like a gentle side. It's fine to avoid a Hollywood ending, but there's nothing very artistic about the way the narrative just suddenly stops. I'm not utterly convinced this was better than all the competition for the New Directors Award at the San Francisco festival (which it won), but it does convey vividly a sense of diving into social realities.

Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008.

Chris Knipp
05-09-2008, 07:17 PM


Tripping at the border

Sleep Dealer is a bright, shiny, hard-working little sci-fi movie that bristles with allegorical and literal messages about technological imperialism, globalization, the exploitation of foreign labor and other serious matters. It's also about the theme of Sterne's A Sentimental Journey: a "traveler" who essentially stays at home--and about how the world's clamoring have-not South in the future will be as full of technology as he North, as indeed it is already. The means of exploitation will be extended into the land of the exploited.

What saves this heavy talk is a soulful innocent who's connected, or 'branché,' as the French say--in the most literal sense: he gets fitted with electronic "nodes" all along his arms, neck, and back, so he can be plugged to a central computer in at the border and thereby help America to achieve its fondest dream: making others do all the menial physical work, but without allowing them to enter the country. Thus Mexicans in virtual factories , at a distance, in 12-hour night shifts, walled off by a militarized barrier, do America's hard labor by proxy just outside the actual physical USA. Memo (Luis Fernando Peña), Sleep Dealer's young hero, comes to the "Sleep Dealers" in a mixture of desperation and hope, to save what's left of his little family in a rural village in Oaxaca.

Memo isn't a lily-white Candide. He has hope and love to give, but he also has a kind of primal curse upon him: he has caused disaster to his nearest and dearest by eavesdropping on a totalitarian northern force that sends drones to make strikes anywhere and blow up what it defines as "bad guys." They detected his radio, assumed he was an enemy, and brought down tragedy on his family. Both as penance and because nothing keeps him in the village any more, he goes to Tijuana, "the world's largest border town," and gets a pretty woman named Luz (Leonor Varela) whom he meets on the bus to fit him with the necessary set of body nodes. She calls herself a writer. Actually she works for a high tech firm that sells memories, and in this Orwellian world of spiritual deprivation, his experiences become fodder for her.

All the machinery in Sleep Dealer is grotesque and comic but it works inexorably to serve the North. Farming has become impossible for Memo's father since the river was damed and a private company took control of the local water supply. In their part of Oaxaca the "future" has become a thing of the past, the father says. They must appease a machine that will shoot them if they disobey, just for permission to go to a river and collect water that they must pay for. Later another threatening gadget gobbles up Memo's Sleep Dealer earnings and transfers them, minus a big fee and taxes, to his family further south. He can talk to his mother and brother on a videophone.

It seems an unintentional irony in Rivera and David Riker's screenplay that the man who ultimately helps Memo and his family, though of Hispanic origin, is an American "pilot,' himself "connected by nodes: the system not only stands for immigrants who can't work at home but for how technology alienates people from real work everywhere.

Sleep Dealer was made after a long struggle through Sundance financing, and got good buzz at the Sundance Festival itself. Because the Hispanic-oriented distributor Maya is buying the film and may finance a substantial stateside theatrical release, Rivera was saying in December, it may have a better fate than the mere straight-to-DVD issue Justin Chang of Variety predicted. It's hard to see why Chang, who did acknowledge the film's colorful visuals and "A for effort" f/x, indeed remarkably polished and stylish and at times even mind-blowing considering the low budget, describes Pena, who's like a combination of Javier Bardem and Robert Downey, Jr., as "a blank." The actor makes a sympathetic little man hero in the classic picaresque mold, and the film's story dramatizes its theme of how immigrants are at once exploited and excluded in a way that's not only full of vividness and irony, but trippy. Though Rivera said his real models are more in sci-fi literature than film, one can see why he'd also describe Terry Gilliam's Brazil as "the Holy Grail."

Rivera made the film in Spanish in Mexico, but is an American whose first language is English. One parent is from the US and the other from Lima, Peru, and he grew up in New Jersey. He has previously explored global have/have-not issues in documentary formats.

Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It was also in the New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center.

Chris Knipp
05-10-2008, 10:39 PM


Tragicomic epic of Arab immigrant life in a French port town, a new triumph for Kechiche

Abdellatif Kechiche, who is also an actor, stands with Turkish-German director Fatih Akim as the preeminent director dealing with diaspora experience in western Europe. He was born in Tunisia but was brought to France at the age of six and grew up in Nice. La graine et le mulet, the title, refers to (mullet) fish couscous (grain) and Kechiche has said he's as stubborn as the mullet. The action is in the southern French port town of Sète. Most of the cast are non-actors.

Though marred by a jittery camera in intimate scenes, over-close closeups, and some sequences that are allowed to run too long, The Secret of the Grain is nonetheless a triumph, an emotionally powerful, overwhelmingly rich, epic-feeling tragi-comedy that overflows with wonderful performances, evokes a host of masters including Jean Renoir and the Italian neorealists, and fairly bursts off the screen with its loving and complex portraits of Magreban society in France and the harsh world in which they struggle and survive. The main focus for all this is food: two grand meals, one intimate and familial, the other in a projected couscous restaurant on an old boat where friends and family and local officials are all invited to show off cuisine and entertainment in an effort to prove that an old man at the end of his tether can, with the help of his family and friends, make a go of it in a new business, against all odds. Kechiche and his cast focus not so much on any plot-line arc, though there are dramatic turns of events right up to the end, but on the way they work as an ensemble to make each moment come alive. In the somewhat stilted, over-polished and over-sophisticated and often dry world of French cinema, it's not hard to see how the rough, irresistible energy of the world Kechiche brings to the screen here would seem a welcome tonic. And, it has to be admitted, giving the same very gifted Arab director the run of the Césars twice can't help but be soothing to the consciences of the left-liberal intellectuals who tend to dominate the world of French film criticism. It doesn't hurt that Secret is offered by Pathé and has the imprimatur of the prestigious producer Claude Berri.

Kechiche's previous (and second) film L'Esquive ("The Avoidance"), retitled in English Games of Love and Chance (after the 18th-century playwright Marivaux's work that's central to the plot) which, like Secret won four Césars, including Best Director and Best Film, was about the young mixed population of children of immigrants who live in the ghetto-like suburban Paris banlieue. This new story is a homage to the "fathers," the generation of Kechicne's parents, who immigrated to France forty or fifty years ago.

Hence the protagonist is the sad but determined Slimane Beiji (Habib Boufares), who as the movie begins is told by his boss at the port shipyard workshop that, now sixty-one, he is no longer "rentable" (profitable), his work is too slow, he doesn't keep up with the schedule on projects. Threatened with no benefits because earlier in his 35 years at the site he was off the books and now offered only half-time status, he quits. He lives in a room in a little hotel run by his lover, Latifa (Hatika Karaoui), whose daughter Rhn (Hafsia Herzi) considers Slimane her own dad and defends him against his mean sons by his ex-wife Souad (Bouraouia Marzouk). He owes her alimony, but brings fish instead. The sons say he ought to go back to the bled, the old country; they want to be rid of him.

Slimane's son Hamid (Abdelhamid Aktouche) is married to a Russian woman. The family evidently knows about Hamid's philandering and especially his affair with the deputy mayor's wife--the need to conceal which becomes a plot pivot-point.

While Slimane is alone in his little hotel room Souad has a big fish couscous dinner with their offspring and their French husbands and children. This sequence is irritating at times for its clamorous, shifting closeups, and its cacophonous talk, but at the same time the way this lively, tumultuous gathering in close quarters has been shot is a tour-de-force of complex naturalism. When the sons bring Slimane a dish of the fish couscous, he gets the idea of enlisting his ex-wife to be the cook in a restaurant he might establish in an abandoned ship. Rhm goes with him to the bank and city offices to present the project where they're politely received, but not given the green light. This is where the idea comes to give a grand dinner on the ship to convince everyone Slimane and company can make a go of it. A lot of the second half of the movie consists of this dinner.

The naturalism of the sequence may be suggested by the fact that Bouraouia Marzouk actually did a lot of the cooking for 100 people for the dinner. The theft of Slimane's Mobylette is a conscious homage to De Sica's Bicycle Thief (Ladri di biciclette). La graine et le mulet is a thrilling, amusing, moving, excruciating screen experience that takes Abdellatif Kechiche to a new level of accomplishment, but the vagaries of his methods will continue to create enemies as well as admirers as he goes along. As Jacques Mandelbaum wrote (http://www.lemonde.fr/cinema/article/2007/09/03/la-graine-et-le-mulet-d-abdellatif-kechiche-a-la-mostra-de-venise_950685_3476.html) in Le Monde, The Secret of the Grain "mixes romance and social chronicle, melodrama and comedy, the triviality of the everyday and the grandeur of tragedy. A simple family meal becomes a classic sequence, a table of old immigrants becomes a Greek chorus, a belly dance a high point of erotic vibration and dramatic tension." For all its flaws, this movie packs a huge wallop and brings Adbellatif Kechiche to the brink of greatness.

Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008.

Chris Knipp
05-18-2008, 07:13 PM


Stop smiling and it'll hurt less

Breien's film about handicapped people is a corrective. It mocks programs that offer false cheer, repress the need to express anger, and don't give people who need to do so the right to take things in their own hands.

Things get lively as soon as Tori (Kjersti Holmen),a smug therapist who works for the Norwegian state health system, takes her group of variously dysfunctional folks in a van to the house of Geirr (Fridtjov Såheim), a wheelchair bound man who's refused to join the program. If she thinks she's going to win Geirr over, she's got another think coming. As we see before the group arrives, Geirr, who's paraplegic and impotent from a car accident, doesn't get along with his wife Ingvild (Kirsti Eline Torhaug) and likes to spend his time getting high, drinking beer, listening to Johnny Cash albums and watching war movies.

Tori has brought quite a motley crew. There's Lillemor (Kari Simonsen), a middle aged divorced woman in a neck brace. Marta (Marian Saastad Ottesen) is a pretty woman. She is paraplegic too, from a mountaineering accident. Gard (Henrik Mestad) is her self-righteous, self-pitying boyfriend. Asbjorn (Per Schaaning) is an older man who is seriously damaged by a stroke and can hardly speak. Tori imposes a regime of forced cheer. It's obviously gone too far with Marta, who wears a fixed rictus smile. Lillemor is perpetually whining. She gets to voice her complaints into the knitted "shit bag," which Tori passes to people who want to say something uncheerful.

Ingvild has invited the group over because she can't take Geirr's withdrawn grumpiness much longer and is desperately hoping they can get through to him. The surprise is that it's he who gets through to them. Geirr doesn't want anybody to try to tell him that things are okay for him. By shaking up the group and expelling Tori and encouraging the others to admit what's really going on inside or alternately dropping their facades of self-pity, Geirr releases a swoosh of energy in the group that flows back to him. It turns out he's a pretty together fellow. He becomes the leader--and the exponent of The Art of Negative Thinking. The group helps him by pointing out that of all of them, he's materially the best off. He lives in a big, beautiful house, while some of them are struggling to survive financially. Others also reveal what else is going on with them, that Tori's bossiness had kept from coming out. Marta stops smiling long enough to point out to Gard that his failing to tie her off is why she fell. On the other hand he needs to stop agonizing over that and move forward. Lillimor deesn't really need the neck brace. Asbjorn gets so involved in the proceedings, which involve some useful drunken revels, that he regains some of his power of speech. In time Tori is allowed back to apologize and the air has been cleared.

The solutions the group, with Geirr, arrive at relate to 12-step recovery, which assumes as a given that people must help themselves and you don't know what it's like unless you've been there yourself. Nobody who hasn't dealt with the minute to minute hardships of being disabled has the right to tell handicapped people to keep their chin up. You have to acknowledge the dark side to get to the light. When being honest is the prime requisite it also comes clear who has been faking and who can get a lot better fast if they try.

But this isn't some kind of instructional film. It's a somewhat theatrical happening, whose improvisational surprises at times suggest the work of Lars von Trier. The actors manage to seem real and at the same time somewhat stylized.

This is a nice little film that somehow seems ideally a product of the angst-ridden world of the Scandinavian northland. But a lot of what goes on here is universal, and by no means restricted to the handicapped--or to Norwegians.

Seen as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2008.

Chris Knipp
06-29-2008, 06:37 PM

ODNYAM ODSUREN (as the young Temudjin)

To the right of who?

Mongol, the Russian-directed semi-historical epic (big emphasis on the semi- here) shot for $20 million in China (and Mongolia and Kazhakistan) with a multi-national cast and crew and Japanese and Chinese stars, purports to depict the first thirty-five years of the life of the emperor Genghis Khan. I say "purports," because not much is known of this period and even in depicting legend, Bodrov chooses to leave out many of the essential connectives that make a good story (or fairy tale or legend). Temudjin, as the young super-Khan is called, is a yoked prisoner, for example, awaiting execution; then, inexplicably, the yoke is off and he's free. He sinks through thin ice deep into the frozen water below; then, inexplicably, he's lying on land and getting rescued. He is languishing in a Chinese prison--his face seeming to acquire a patina of dust and sand (I liked that part: Bodrov excels at faces and tableaux); then he's miraculously found by his faithful wife Borte. She throws him a key and sets him free. Then, inexplicably, he is leading a vast army to defeat his arch rival. Over and over, how we get from point A to point B is left on the cutting-room floor. This is enjoyable as spectacle but unsatisfying from other standpoints.

How Genghis Khan got to be Genghis Khan, in short, is one thing this movie doesn't begin to try to explain. Could anyone? That I don't know; but Mongol presents a its biographical narrative without the connectives that make sense of a life. Despite lots of dramatic scenes with snappy dialogue, striking images, and above all computer-assisted battles with crunching bones and crackling arrows and ringing swords, the film has an epic style without epic themes because its great issues are not so much resolved as abruptly, magically removed. This may in fact be more an epic love story than anything else. It is that in the backhanded way the Odyssey is a love story, because, though Temudjin is away from Borte a lot of the time as Odysseus is mostly away from Ithaka and Penelope, Mongol's opening sequence gives Borte a primary importance, because she (as played by Bayertsetseg Erdenebat), belonging to another tribe, a liberated young woman of the twelfth century, isn't chosen by but chooses Temudjin when he's nine years old and she's ten. It's not supposed to be that way--and maybe it wasn't; it seems a bit implausible. Temudjin is traveling with his Khan (tribal chieftain) father (Ba Sen) on their way to placate another tribe by choosing the boy's wife from their girls. When they don't, the father is promptly poisoned by the other tribe. And its leader, Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov), vows to kill Temudjin--but not for a year or so, because "Mongols don't kill children."

Well, what Mongols do or don't do seems up for grabs, and probably at the time, historically, "Mongol" itself must have been a rather vague concept. In fact that is another running theme: what's a Mongol? What are their primary values? There is no satisfactory answer, though killing and stealing are advanced as major concepts.

Surprisingly, since not too many are "to the right of Genghis Khan," and since he succeeds in wiping out all his enemies, Temudjin as played (as an adult) by the imposing Tadanobu Asano is a gentle-faced, zen-like fellow who's a strong advocate of fair play. Tadanobu, along with the somewhat over-histrionic Chinese actor Honglai Sun as Jamukha, his childhood blood brother and eventual arch rival, are both impressive. But the real star, with some substantial help from computer-generated effects, is the vast landscape of steppe, snow, mountain, and sky that dominates many scenes. With effective use of lenses and light, the filmmakers have created an epic look, and it's this, plus the authoritative acting, that make this film worth viewing--but only if you like this kind of thing and if you don't mind that you're not going to emerge from it with any historical knowledge. Said to be the first of a trilogy. One will approach the sequels with a certain reserve.

Shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival April-May 2008 and in US theatrical release June 2008.