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Thread: The 2007 Miami International Film Festival

  1. #31
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    LIFE CAN BE SO WONDERFUL (Japan)

    This anthology film consists of five fictional portraits in the form of visual poems. Together the numbered episodes can be said to constitute a snapshot of Japanese society. More than anything, Life Can Be So Wonderful is the debut feature of artist Osamu Minorikawa, who aims to express his worldview, esthetics and personal concerns through five characters that reflect aspects of his personality. The film adopts the title of the first episode, about a 39 year-old nude model's concern with aging. This single woman living in Tokyo gains a deeper appreciation of her body through her interest in botany. This episode features vibrantly saturated shots in which the color green predominates. "Bar Fly" is the only episode shot in black & white. It concerns the daily routine of a homeless man in Osaka who carries a sign promoting sake bars, then spends his pay at those same establishments. "Her Favorite Solitude" uses voice-over narration to convey the ruminations on love and happiness of a young girl during moments of intimacy with her boyfriend. "Snakfin Liberty" features a cosmologist whose girlfriend's pregnancy conflicts with his desire to remain free from familial responsibilities. The character, like Minorikawa himself, identifies with Finnish cartoon character Snakfin, a globe-trotting poet. A teenage girl is the central character of "Reasons to Live", a gorgeously fluid meditation on beauty, on noticing the small things in life we often bypass or take for granted. Things that are often difficult to grasp and explain. Life can be so Wonderful incorporates a variety of texts including Jacques Prevert's "Pater Noster" and these words by Umberto Saba: "Nothing answers life like life". The unique experience is complemented by an evocative soundtrack that highlights the lovely voice of world-famous opera singer Norie Suzuki.

    Writer/director Osamu Minorikawa introduced the film then answered questions after the screening. He is an affable, 35 year-old man with blond hair and an easy smile. He charmed the audience by helping those who walked in during his introduction to find seats in the crowded theatre. He reported that this screening was the "world premiere" of Life Can Be So Wonderful but he must have meant outside Japan since the film was shown at the Tokyo International Film Festival (it's scheduled to screen at Cannes in May). He discussed technical and financial aspects of making his debut, but most interestingly provided details of his personal life that left no doubt as to the autobiographical nature of the project. Not only his interest in botany and cosmology, but his desire to fall in love and have a family competing with his freespirited, freewheeling personality.

  2. #32
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    THE VIOLIN (Mexico)

    Don Plutarco Hidalgo, his son Genaro, and grandson Lucio earn a living as street musicians. Plutarco (Angel Tavira) plays the violin and Genaro the guitar while Lucio sings and collects donations in public squares. Under cover of darkness, Plutarco and Genaro smuggle guns, ammunition and supplies into the secret camps of a rebel army. Government troops have been ordered to find and exterminate the rebels. The Violin opens with a scene showing soldiers brutally torturing captives to obtain information. It leaves no doubt that the Hidalgos are risking their lives. One night they return to their village as it's being ransacked and burned by the army. Genaro's wife and daughter are not among the residents that manage to escape into the jungle. They've likely been killed or taken prisoner. The government troops set camp in the outskirts of the town, blocking the road that leads to the family's cornfields. While Genaro searches for his wife and daughter, Plutarco approaches the squad captain and asks for permission to pass. Plutarco's unthreatening stance, advanced age, and melodious music eventually help him gain the trust of the arrogant captain. A routine develops in which Plutarco entertains the squad for the privilege of having access to his cornfield_he is missing his right hand so he attaches his forearm to the bow with cloth in order to play. What the captain doesn't suspect is that the courageous Plutarco is bringing guns and bullets buried in his field to the rebels.

    The Violin is the expanded version (98 minutes) of a short director Francisco Vargas made previously. The absorbing tale fully deserves the feature treatment; the pace never lags and the duel of wits between Plutarco and the captain generates a great deal of suspense. Black & white lensing is professional and free of mannerisms, perhaps helping to give The Violin a timeless quality. Vargas purposefully avoids anything that specifies time and place, both in the dialogue and in the visuals. The tale brings to mind a number of conflicts in Latin America although, if I had to guess, I'd say this is Chiapas,Mexico during the Zapatista "insurrection" of 1994. The Violin's politics are quite simple: the film is supportive of the rebels to such extent that it could reasonably be called "propaganda". It clearly aims at every stretch to present Plutarco and Genaro as heroic and their adversaries as villanous. The Violin won three awards at San Sebastian when it was shown as a film-in-progress in late 2005. At Cannes 2006, the dignified and stoic Angel Tavira was named Best Actor of the Un Certain Regard section. Then The Violin was nominated to 7 Mexican Academy awards based on screenings at the Guadalajara and Morelia film festivals. The most current information I could find is that Guillermo del Toro is trying to use his fame and clout to find a commercial distributor for The Violin. I wonder if the unabashedly leftist stand has anything to do with the film's failure to gain distribution in Mexico.

  3. #33
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    SOUNDS OF SAND (Belgium/France)

    Somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, a third child is born to Mouna (Carole Karemera), a girl named Sasha. The event is not cause for celebration, particularly for Rahne, Mouna's husband, who reacts with anger and frustration. After the opening credits, five years have passed, and the family is forced to leave their parched village to search for water. Rahne, Mouna, their two sons, Sasha, a young couple, a small herd of goats and two camels embark on a perilous journey for survival. Along the way they encounter corrupt government soldiers and vicious rebels, thieves and scavengers. They must traverse punishing deserts and areas planted with land mines without the aid of maps or guides. Rahne finds himself fighting to preserve a family that begins to fall apart.

    Sounds of Sand tells a sad story about people faced with poverty, violence, and disease. But there isn't a single maudlin moment because the performances are restrained and the music score is used sparingly. The relaxed stoicism of the characters inspires thoughtful concern, not pity. Because the perils faced by the characters are common to Africans of several nations, the script doesn't specify where the action is set. But those magnificent, daunting landscapes were mostly shot in Djibouti.

    Writer/director Marion Hansel's film is an adaptation of the prize-winning novel "Chamelle" by Marc Durin-Valois. It could have easily become an adventure film, but Hansel never forces the action or milks the story's inherent suspense. She highlights the personal sacrifices made, and the desperate struggle to live through the most terrifying ordeals. By the final reel, Sounds of Sand becomes the moving story of father who grows to appreciate and admire the resilient daughter whose birth he once dreaded.

    *The MIFF has been showcasing Hansel's films since 1985. They have been unjustly ignored in the United States, even the two or three spoken in English, perhaps because they are too "heavy" for mindless consumption. Sounds of Sand opens in Belgium in two weeks, followed by theatrical runs in France and Germany.

  4. #34
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    HOLE (Spain)

    The term "minimalist" has been overused, mostly by critics who usually confine their viewing to commercial movies. Here comes a film that truly deserves the designation. By the time Hole opens, Miguel has been kidnapped and brought to a "zulo", which means "hole" in Basque but refers specifically to a space that looks like an indoor well. It is said that the Basque separatist organization ETA used "zulos" to hide arms and captives, but the film avoids any specificity, refusing to identify Miguel's two kidnappers and explain why they captured him. They remain nameless and hidden behind masks for the duration of the film. Hole is not a character study either. All we learn about Miguel is what can be deduced by observation: he's about forty, wears nice clothes, and has a gold wedding ring. The kidnappers refuse to answer any questions, and there are no real conversations, only verbal exchanges regarding food, tobacco, water, etc. Hole is strictly experiential, in that we get to witness the gradual physical and psychological deterioration of Miguel, and how he responds overtime to such a predicament. All the suspense is generated by whether he is freed or killed.

    Director Carlos Martin Ferrara deploys a varied choreography of shots inside the restricted space in which the film takes place. For instance, tracking shots are used to follow Miguel when he exercises by fast-walking around the periphery of the "zulo". When something is lowered to the bottom by the kidnappers, vertical shots follow the object all the way down. A single, brief establishing shot of an isolated wooden house, where Miguel is being kept one assumes, acquires significance because of its singularity. Jaume Garcia's performance is absolutely riveting from beginning to end; a work of intense focus and concentration. Obviously, Hole is a film for specialized audiences who can appreciate the rigorous execution of an experiential conceit.

  5. #35
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    FRAULEIN (Switzerland)

    This drama about three women from the former Yugoslavia working at a cafeteria in Zurich was written and directed by Andrea Staka. Ms. Staka, a Swiss of Serbo-Croatian descent, has developed similar themes in her previous films: the short Hotel Belgrade and the documentary Yugodivas.

    Reza left Yugoslavia in the late 70s expecting her boyfriend to join her but he opted to say. Now she's fifty and owns a cafeteria in Zurich which she runs with discipline and efficiency. She ocassionally meets a man for sex but her life is governed by a precise routine. Reza speaks German without a trace of an accent and insists other immigrants working for her speak German while on the job. On the surface she has put the past behind her. Mila, an older woman from Croatia, came to Zurich about 15 years ago and has worked at the cafeteria for many years. She and her husband Ante invest as much as they can in a house they are building in the Croatian coast, where they plan to retire. Mila is afraid to tell Ante that she'd rather stay in Zurich near her grown kids and grandchildren, who would not be moving to Croatia. Into their lives comes the 22 year-old freespirited and hardworking Ana; she arrived after the war and hides deep emotional wounds behind her cheerfulness and zest for life.

    Fraulein comments on problems familiar to people who have been displaced from their origins and must forge a new life elsewhere. Staka avoids being schematic and agenda-driven by keeping the focus on the psychology of the characters. Among them, Ana is the pivotal one. She serves as a catalyst for change in the settled lives of Reza and Mila. Moreover, Ana brings an element of mystery into Fraulein that helps engage the viewer's attention. Character is drawn as much through dialogue as through visual elements _close-up of mark on Reza's forearm from a watch worn too tight, tracking shot of Mila's living room decorated with Croatian knick-knacks, etc. Marija Skaricic and Mirjana Karanovic (Cabaret Balkan, Underground, Grbavica) shine as Ana and Reza. Ms. Staka has crafted a compact (81 min) and deeply satisfying drama that places her instantly among the most promising young European filmmakers. Fraulein won the Swiss Film Prize for Best Screenplay and the Golden Leopard (Best Film) at the Locarno Film Festival.

  6. #36
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    GOD WILLING (Sweden)

    The very hot summer of '75 in Stockholm. Juan cleans the kitchen at a McDonald's at night and works at a produce market every morning. He and his brother Tito emigrated to Sweden and, within a week, his wife will finally join him. Then Juan meets Juli, a beautiful tango singer from Finland. They like each other immediately, and get to know each other as Juan's wife's arrival approaches.

    God Willing is the feature debut of writer/director Amir Chamdin, a hiphop singer who started directing music videos and shorts in the mid-90s. As would be expected, his use of music throughout the film is masterful, particularly a sequence scored to BJ Thomas' "Hooked on a Feeling". The film is inspired by the experiences of his Syrian father, and a newspaper photo of an immigrant standing in front of the McDonalds where he worked after it was bombed to protest US imperialism.

    God Willing was shot in 24 days with an analogue Panavision camera and sound equipment typically used in the 70s. It's a gorgeous widescreen canvas, in black & white, with filters used to add a single color at a time. Chamdin plays Juan as an easy-going, slightly gawky guy well-liked by natives and immigrants alike. Scenes of Juan at work and play with his friends provide plenty of humor. The beautiful Nina Persson, lead singer of The Cardigans, plays Juli, a charming woman who may be suffering from serious health problems. To a large extent, she remains an enigma. When Juan asks her is she's single, she answers "sort of" and won't clarify what that means. God Willing is also vague about Juan's feelings towards his wife, whom we never meet. God Willing is light on plot and heavy on mood and atmosphere. Chamdin keeps the emotional temperature at simmer point. The film is a brilliant evocation of the 70s, a snapshot of immigrant life, and a richly imagined affair seemingly destined to be brief. Chamdin's ability to represent the characters inner lives; their dreams, memories and fantasies, marks him as a gifted and astute filmmaker to watch.

  7. #37
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    SONJA (Germany)

    Sonja is a blonde in her mid-teens living with her mother in the outskirts of Berlin. Over the opening credits, she reads in voice-over a poem about unrequited love. It soon becomes clear that the object of her affections is not ex-boyfriend Anton but best friend Julia. The girls are very affectionate towards each other, but Sonja's gestures and gazes indicate she wants more. Mom's suspicions are confirmed when she finds Sonja's diary and reacts with open hostility. It's summer and the plan is for Julia to spend a few days with Sonja at the beachfront house of Sonja's father. Julia changes her mind at the last minute, so Sonja goes alone. Once there, Sonja meets her father's neighbor, a handsome and kind 30 year-old guy. One night she tells him she thinks he's the right guy to help her lose her virginity. It seemingly convinces Sonja she's simply not attracted to the opposite sex. She returns to Berlin to find Julia is quite happy with her new boyfriend. Sonja suggests to Julia that they won't be close anymore because being around her is too painful to bear.

    This is the debut feature of Finnish actress-turned-director Kirsi Liimatainen, who also wrote the screenplay. It's a good little movie (73 minutes) anchored by the performances of newcomers Sabrina Kruschwitz and Julia Kaufmann. The actresses give the impression of having spent a lot of time together during pre-production to develop intimate rapport. There are some quiet scenes in which a lot is expressed without dialogue. Liimatainen chooses not to show Sonja losing her virginity (there is no nudity whatsoever). Perhaps a wise choice since scenes just before and after sufficiently reveal the significance (or lack of significance) of the event. Moreover, this treatment of the material makes it appropriate for kids as young as 11, who will find it educational and thought-provoking. It's hard to think of a better film about a girl at the stage in life when her sexual orientation becomes a certainty.

  8. #38
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    THE OLD GARDEN (South Korea)

    The Old Garden is the fifth feature from director Im Sang-soo, who has had as much international exposure as his compatriot Kim Ki-duk. What distinguishes Sang-soo is his interest in exploring South Korea's recent history and incorporating political themes into his films. In A Good Lawyer's Wife (2003) he critiques bourgeois marriage and pays attention to the painful legacy of the Korean War. The President's Last Bang (2005) was a caustically comedic take on the 1979 assassination of president Park Chung-hee by his Head of Intelligence. The Old Garden (2007) is a romance set in two time periods: the early 1980s, when the country was ruled by a military dictatorship, and the late 1990s, when democracy had been firmly established.

    The Old Garden is an adaptation of a novel of the same name written by Hwang Seok-young, who spent most of the 80s in exile and was jailed upon his return_reportedly for traveling to North Korea without authorization. It's the story of Hyun-woo, a student activist on the run from the police during the months following the Guangju Massacre (clashes between police and demonstrators in that southern city resulted in hundreds of deaths in May of 1980).The handsome young man is sent to hide at the small, rural home of Yoon-hee, a confident art teacher. Over the course of several months they fall in love passionately. They take long mountain hikes, go on lakeside picnics, and build a miniature garden in the kitchen. Hyun-woo decides it's time to rejoin his comrades in the fight for social justice and returns to Seoul where he is apprehended. Yoon-hee attempts to visit him in jail but she's not allowed to see him because she's not a relative. Her letters are never delivered to him. He is released from prison 17 years later. A difficult period of adjustment and many surprises await.

    The Old Garden portrays with great nuance the period of activism in Korea during the 1980s. Several scenes depict both the implacable brutality of the government forces and the sometimes foolish actions of the demonstrators, many of whom idealized the communist governments in China and North Korea. If there was any doubt as to Sang-soo's filmmaking chops, these precisely choreographed action sequences lay them to rest. The arc of the romance between the principals is beautifully realized, and the period transitions are graceful and smooth. It's the tone of the film that is sometimes a bit off. For instance, a long shot of an angry Yoon-hee after being denied visitation is unintentionally comedic. A couple of politically-charged violent scenes feel awkwardly integrated into the rest of the picture. These are minor complains, The Old Garden succeeds as a deeply affecting love story during a time of political instability for South Korea.

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    IRA & ABBY (USA)

    This sophomore effort by actress/writer Jennifer Westfeldt (Kissing Jessica Stein) is as much the crowd pleaser as the debut. Both premiered and won the audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival before touring the festival circuit. It's an "indie" picture that could perform like a "major" at the box office if handled properly. The premise is less original and "edgy" than Kissing Jessica Stein but it's just as funny.

    An indecisive procastinator named Ira walks into a gym and, instead of getting a membership, gets a date with the perky and disarming saleswoman Abby (Westfeldt). They fall hard and fast for each other. She proposes marriage and he can't find a reason to refuse.Ira & Abby milks the culture clash between Ira's parents, who are angst-ridden Jewish analysts-not-therapists, and Abby's cheerful New-Age folks. Plot thickens when Ira's mom and Abby's dad start having a torrid affair and Ira discovers post-nuptials that he is Abby's third husband. Everyone enters therapy to deal with the fallout and all hell breaks loose when the shrinks get involved, culminating in a riotous group therapy session.

    Ira & Abby moves like a sitcom but the material is a notch above. Veteran actors Robert Kline, Judith Light, and Fred Willard are masters at this type of comedy. Westfeldt and Six Feet Under's Chris Messina are likable as the titular couple. Nothing earth-shattering going on here but I was amused. Neil Simon and Woody Allen fans are likely to be delighted.

  10. #40
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    THE PAGE TURNER (France)

    Melanie is a 10 year-old aspiring pianist preparing to audition for tuition-free enrollment at a prestigious conservatory. While playing her tirelessly rehearsed piece, Ariane (Catherine Frot), one of the judges, makes a late entrance and waves in a fan seeking an autograph. Ariane's cavalier attitude causes Melanie to lose her composure and fail the audition. At home, the butcher's daughter puts away her Beethoven mantelpiece and locks the piano. A decade later, Melanie (Deborah Francois) gets an internship at a law firm where Ariane's husband Jean (Pascal Greggory) is one of the partners. Melanie learns that the rich couple need an au pair to care for their son. She volunteers and travels to their lavish home outside Paris. Melanie gradually earns Ariane's confidence. One day, Melanie approaches Ariane while she plays the piano and expertly turns the page of sheet music at the precise moment. From then on, Melanie becomes Ariane's regular page turner. Before traveling abroad on business, Jean tells Melanie that his wife is emotionally fragile and afflicted by stage fright since she was hit by an unidentified driver (was it our young protagonist?). Melanie waits patiently for the right moment to exact revenge on the unsuspecting Ariane.

    Writer/director Denis Dercourt has made a number of films depicting the lives of classical musicians. The professional viola player and Conservatory instructor wisely adheres to the adage "stick to what you know". There isn't a single false moment in The Page Turner, and the use of music, both original and well-known repertory pieces, is predictably excellent. The Page Turner recalls Claude Chabrol's suspense thrillers, particularly La Ceremonie for its locale, This Man Must Die for its theme of obssesive revenge, and Merci Pour Le Chocolat for its classical music milieu. Dercourt's film lacks the irony, humor and sharp social commentary of Chabrol's best films. But The Page Turner is a precise chamber piece with a sustained and deliberate pace. The sense of mystery and suspense never flags. Dercourt keeps providing suggestions as to the many ways Melanie could potentially settle scores; he milks the premise for all it's worth. Both veteran actress Catherine Frot (Chaos, The Dinner Game, Un Air de Famille) and Deborah Francois (who debuted last year as the young mom in L'Enfant) are deservedly nominated for French Academy awards.

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    MORE THAN ANYTHING IN THE WORLD (Mexico)

    Emilia is increasingly stressed by job demands, failed romances, moving to a new apartment, and taking care of her six year old daughter Alicia. She becomes depressed and irritable following a breakup with a co-worker. Little Alicia feels lonely and experiences difficulty adjusting to the new environment, particularly to the noises coming from the adjacent apartment.It's occupied by a gaunt, stoic man who suffers from a serious illness. Alicia comes to believe the man is a vampire, her imagination fueled by a TV broadcast of Dracula, her nanny's folktales, and the conversations with her schoolmate Julia. She interprets her mother's deterioration and moodiness as resulting from some kind of vampirism.

    More Than Anything in the World was written and directed by Andres Becker and Javier Solar. It's an eloquent dramatization of the struggles of single, working mothers anywhere to maintain a balance between personal and parental demands. Actresses Emilia Cervantes and Julia Urbini spent a lot of time together prior to shooting to develop the necessary intimacy and familiarity. Their chemistry is undeniable, with dialogue involving mother and daughter feeling utterly genuine. Comparatively, brief scenes involving Alicia and Julia at school have a staged quality. The role of Julia, who serves only to advance the plot, is somewhat underwritten. The imaginative resolution of the plot involves a contrived twist that detracts from an otherwise laudable picture. More Than Anything in the World won Best Mexican Film at the Guadalajara Film Festival, Best First Film in Montreal, and has been nominated to 5 Mexican Academy awards.

  12. #42
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    STRAIGHT TO THE POINT (Brazil)

    A documentary about "gangsta samba" and Bezerra da Silva, the godfather of that musical style, directed by Marcia Derraik and Simplicio Neto. Original title, "Onde a Coruja Dorme", means "where the owl sleeps" and refers to Bezerra's willingness to go anywhere to collect streetwise sambas from composers the music industry ignores. Derraic and Neto's 15-minute short Coruja won Best Short at the Gramado and Miami Brazilian festivals in 2001. Encouraged by the awards, Derraik and Neto returned to Bezerra and his songwriting associates to make a feature-length documentary.

    Straight to the Point consists of interviews and informal musical performances at homes, bars, street corners and workplaces_most of these composers hold jobs as electricians, mechanics, truck drivers, security guards,etc. The delicious music we hear should be familiar to most, but these sambas eschew typical romantic themes; Bezerra says he forbids the word "love" in any record he releases. These are chronicles of working-class life that tell stories of vicious drug gangs and brutal cops, corrupt politicians and the indifferent elites, workers' struggles to eke out a living and unfair bosses, and of various characters from Rio de Janeiro. Sometimes the tone is caustic and sharp, often bawdy and humorous, but the lyrics are always witty. The affection the songwriters have for Bezerra is palpable. He has provided an outlet for their art, and mediates between them and the record companies that finally realized the popular appeal of "gangsta samba". Film is probably the best way for non-Portuguese speakers to appreciate the genre because of the simultaneous translation of lyrics via subtitles.

    I enjoyed Straight to the Point tremendously but I wish it included more biographical material on Bezerra. In the course of doing research for this review, I learned he had a very colorful life_for instance, Bezerra came to Rio from Recife by hiding on a ship transporting sugar when he was a teenager. I also learned that Bezerra da Silva died in 2005 at age 77, something perplexingly unacknowledged by this documentary reportedly completed in 2006.

  13. #43
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    MISSISSIPPI CHICKEN (USA)

    The American South has experienced tremendous change over the past 50 years. This film directed by John Fiege documents a relatively recent phenomenon: the establishment of hispanic immigrant communities in small towns.In this case, Central Mississippi towns located near poultry plants. Immigrants mostly from Mexico have taken the unpleasant and dangerous jobs available in this industry as African-Americans have moved up the economic ladder. The construction boom has also attracted a large number of foreign workers in the area. Mississippi Chicken focuses on how the newcomers are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because of their legal status, low educational level, and lack of resouces. The central personality is Anita Grabowski, a young social activist and union organizer from Texas who practically became a part of the community for a year. We witness the charming, bilingual woman earn the trust of the community by advocating on their behalf in a variety of disputes, involving a sub-contactor, a corrupt cop, and a plant supervisor. The trust was extended to Fiege, a friend of Grabowski who basically follows her around with his Super 8 camera and eschews any formal interviews. Of special significance is the close friendship Grabowski develops with a Mexican woman and her teenage daughter, who are quite candid about the perilous journey from Southern Mexico to Mississippi, personal issues, and the painful separation from family members still in Mexico. Mississippi Chicken is consistently interesting and edifying.

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    FISH DREAMS (Brazil)

    In a seaside village in the Northeast of Brazil, Jusce, a 17 year old fisherman, dreams of owning his own boat and conquering the beautiful and elusive Ana. She dreams of traveling and moving to the city so she can live like the characters in the soaps she watches daily on a small b&w set. Jusce and his friends (including a long-haired German they call "Gringo") fish for sting ray and also lobster, which is illegal and dangerous. Jusce lives alone since his father died, presumably while diving deep for lobster. He's saving money to buy a motor and planks to fix a boat. When Rogerio returns from the city with a car, Jusce is forced to find a way to compete for Ana's attention. He takes the money he's saved for the boat, sells his shack, and goes to the city. He returns with a 61' projection TV set.

    Fish Dreams is the feature debut of Kirill Mikhanovsky, who was born in Russia and lives in the US. He stretches the simple plot over almost two hours in order to capture life as lived in the gorgeous, remote location. Scenes of locals pushing boats in and out of the sea, sailing, diving, fishing and cleaning the catch reminded me of Four Men on a Raft, the documentary Orson Welles shot in Brazil while The Magnificent Ambersons was being butchered at the studio. The images are that beautiful and authentic. Mikhanovsky pays equal attention to the local leisure activities: the music-making, dancing, drinking, soccer-playing and socializing by the villagers.Fish Dreams is perhaps more of an ethnographic film than a fiction feature. The plot is merely sketched, with very little dialogue scripted (not a bad thing when you use non-professional actors). The film appropriately adopts the bucolic pace of life in this corner of the world but, at 111 minutes, it's too long. The message that the incursion of technology and modernity is nocent to the village is dramatized without a hint of didacticism.

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    SWEET MUD (Israel)

    This coming-of-age drama is informed by the personal experiences of writer/director Dror Shaul as a boy growing up in a kibbutz in Southern Israel. Sweet Mud takes place during the twelve months prior to 12 year-old Dvir's Bar Mitzvah, beginning in the summer of 1974. Miri, Dvir's mother, is a widow who has a history of psychiatric hospitalizations dating back to the mysterious death of her husband many years ago. During one hospital stay, he met Stephan, a much older and caring Swiss man who loves her. The kibbutz leaders allow him to visit but his stay is cut short when Stephan injures a neighbor who killed Dvir's dog and threatened to hurt the boy. Miri decompensates and begins to drink excessively. With his older brother doing his military service, the burden of helping Miri falls squarely on Dvir, who's dealing with issues of self-identity and first love typical of boys his age.

    Sweet Mud contrasts vistas of the beautiful countryside surrounding the kibbutz with a debunking of the commune's romanticized image as a socialist paradise. The film is particularly critical of the kibbutz's treatment of its weakest, neediest members. Sweet Mud holds one's interest even though it loses its dramatic focus here and there. As visual narrative, the film never strays beyond the conventional. I found the performance by newcomer Tomer Steinhof (Dvir) wooden in spots, but effective enough to make me care. Variety's review, at its world premiere in Toronto, wrongly predicted the film won't amount to more than Shaul's forgettable Sima the Witch. Then Sweet Mud won four Israeli Academy awards, a youth prize at Berlin, and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2007.

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