Combustible Celluloid

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

As usual, I knocked myself silly this year watching movies for the festival. There were 190 films in all, some 105 features and assorted shorts. I thought I'd keep a little diary or sorts here so that I can keep track of everything I've seen. Maybe these will come in handy for some others of you out there someday. - JA

The Age of Innocence
This is Martin Scorsese's 1993 adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel, shown in conjunction with Winona Ryder's Owens Award for excellence in acting. It features a couple of brilliant stretches and amazing camerawork, but it ultimately suffers from the same thing that most of these kinds of movies suffer from--dull reverence to the written page. Rating: 2 Fellinis

American Gypsy: A Stranger in Everyone's Land
I can't remember ever seeing a film that was so honest about gypsies. Even recent films like "The Red Violin" go in for the historic treatment of gypsies as outcasts and thieves. So it's refreshing that filmmaker Jasmine Dellal was able to not only give us a proper idea of gypsy life in America, but she tells one of its most prominent stories. In the mid-eighties, Gypsy Jimmy Marks had his house broken into and illegally searched by cops. He took them to court and battled with them over almost a decade. Dellal has some trouble earning the trust of the Gypsies, and the film runs a little thin at times because of it, but it's afascinating and sometimes moving doc. Rating: 3 Fellinis

And Life Goes On...
The middle film (1991) of Abbas Kiarostami's "Earthquake Trilogy" is yet another masterpiece and perhaps the first film on which he really began playing around with space and reality. It starts like a documentary with an actor who is not Kiarostami playing a filmmaker who is supposed to be Kiarostami. Driving around the village of Koker that was recently destroyed by an earthquake, he looks for the young actors who played in "Where Is the Friend's Home?". Instead, the filmmaker becomes involved in the locals and their attempts to rebuild their lives. Many scenes feel improvised, but the poetry in them seem too deliberate for that. The final shot involving the filmmaker's car and a twisty uphill road will last for hours after the film is over. Rating: 4 Fellinis

This wonderful film by Nanni Moretti is a semi-documentary, semi-fictional movie. Moretti, who directs and appears on camera, plays himself as a madcap, neurotic, lunatic filmmaker who is torn between making three films: a musical about a pastry chef, a documentary about the Italian elections, and home movies of his newborn son. Moretti is a lovable cross between Woody Allen and Roberto Benigni, who, when working on one film, is thinking about the other two. Even so, he's amazingly charming and it's a joy to celebrate and share his occasional small victories. Rating: 3 1/2 Fellinis

At All Costs
I admit that I didn't finish watching this French documentary about a struggling restaurant. After such powerful docs like "Sound and Fury", "First Person Plural", and "Long Night's Journey Into Day", it just didn't seem that relevant. Plus, my wife and I are huge fans of Saturday morning cooking shows. The cooking scenes in "At All Costs", which included cutting and crunching a lobster in half, just didn't measure up. The only thing we really see is the manager trying to raise money, which, it seems to me, is also the most boring part of making a film. Rating: none

Babette's Feast
Gabriel Axel's 1987 feature was selected as part of the Indelible Images series by filmmaker Fielder Cook. It's a delightful adaptation of the story by Isak Dinesen in which a great Paris chef winds up as a maid for a pair of elderly sisters in a remote Jutland village. It takes a while, but she manages to cook some amazing dishes for these religious folks who don't believe in extravagance. The food photography is the selling point of the movie, though the storytelling works well too. Rating: 3 1/2 Fellinis

Beau Travail
Claire Denis' beautiful new movie is an update of Herman Melville's "Billy Budd" set among the French Legionnaires stationed in South Africa. But she only uses that story as a springboard to observe the soldiers' daily rituals of working, exercising, training, cleaning, cooking, and dancing, making these seemingly mundane movements of the human body dreamily poetic. The tension between the persecutor (Denis Lavant) and the persecuted (Gregoire Colin in the "Billy Budd" role) is built slowly and naturally so that it becomes more than just a plot device. Their climactic clash and the aftermath make unforgettable filmed moments. This is a truly great film. Rating: 4 Fellinis


The Color of Lies
A lesser work by master French New Wave director Claude Chabrol, "The Color of Lies" doesn't even have an American distributor. But even so, I'm always happy to view the work of someone as good as this. Following in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock again, he gives us a small-town murder mystery where an artist is accused of killing a little girl on the way home from art lessons. In the meantime, his wife (the wonderful Sandrine Bonnaire) is having a tentative affair with a sleazy journalist. It's not much of a surprise when the murderer is finally revealed, nor is it very interesting. Chabrol doesn't care about such mechanics. He's interested in the act of, or the art of, lying. (The real title translates to "The Heart of Lies".) Vive Chabrol! Long live Chabrol. 3 Fellinis

The Cosmic Eye
Animator Faith Hubley has proven that all animation doesn't have to be smooth and plot-driven like Disney. Hubley's artwork is charmingly childlike with semi-restricted movements (not unlike Bill Melendez' "Charlie Brown" cartoons), but it's obvious that her work comes straight from her soul making it resonate on the screen. "The Cosmic Eye" is her 1985 feature film about the state of planet Earth. Dizzy Gilespie can be heard as Father Time and Maureen Stapleton as Mother Earth. The film can be a bit preachy, but it's completely earnest and heartfelt. An amazing autobiographical short film, "My Universe Inside Out", accompanies. As Mother Earth would say, "All these wonders are yours!" Rating: 3 Fellinis

First Person Plural
Deann Borshay Liem's "First Person Plural", a feature documentary about her own life, is a truly twisted tale about deliberately switched adoption papers and confused identities. Liem grew up in San Francisco as an adopted Korean girl, but later found out that her adoption papers had been switched and that her birth mother was still alive and in Korea. The movie juxtaposes her feelings towards her birth mother, with whom she doesn't speak the same language, and her American parents, who are charmingly clueless. This is an incredibly moving film that definitely loosens the tear ducts. Rating: 3 1/2 Fellinis

Furbelows (Falbalas)
This 1945 French film from Jacques Becker (best known for 1952's "Casque D'Or") can't really be considered a classic, because it has never before been subtitled and shown in the U.S. But it's a fantastic discovery and a near-great film. It tells the story of a vain fashion designer (Raymond Rouleau) falling in love with his friend's fiancee. Becker, who worked as an assistant to Jean Renoir, deftly blends comedy and drama without letting the seams show and without forcibly yanking at our heartstrings. This film is actually kooky enough, with its images of the fashion industry and mountains of big hair, to become a camp classic. Rating: 4 Fellinis

God's Wedding
Portugal's Joao Cesar Monteiro writes, directs, and stars in this follow up to his bizarre and depraved "God's Comedy" (1995). It's strangely fascinating to see Monteiro's monstrous ego at work, fancying himself a cross between Welles, Chaplin, and a deity. But darned if he doesn't have nearly the talent to back it up. His exquisite shots are deliciously drawn-out and beautifully framed. The new film has Joao mysteriously coming into a fortune, winning the hand of a beautiful princess in a dice game, then losing everything. It's more toned down than "God's Comedy" was, but it's still an unusual and fascinating movie. Rating: 3 Fellinis

Hamlet (Closing Night Film)
I was thrilled to see that director Michael Almereyda managed to get some Pixelvision footage into his new film "Hamlet", a tribute to the format that got him his start. Ethan Hawke plays the long-suffering Dane, now a New York college student whose new stepfather (Kyle Maclachlan) is the CEO of Denmark corporation. Shakespeare's dialogue translates well to New York and provides for some inventive moments such dialogue left on answering machines. Instead of staging his father's murder as a play, this Hamlet makes a film. The play is quite chopped up, and the acting ranges from outstanding (Liev Schreiber) to hit-and-miss. Your enjoyment depends on how often you can sit through Shakespeare's greatest play. Rating: 3 Fellinis

Jesus' Son
This is a semi-effective junkie movie that has two major problems; a dreary final 20 minutes that seems tacked on, and the forgettable Billy Crudup in the lead role. Otherwise, this film directed by Alison Maclean and based on short stories by Dennis Johnson has some nice moments, mostly those involving the sharp supporting cast: Samantha Morton, Jack Black, Holly Hunter, Denis Leary, and Dennis Hopper. Watching it though, I couldn't decide why someone felt that the world needed yet another movie about how drugs are bad for you. If Crudup had any kind of personality, he may have helped the movie along, but the whole thing just feels limp and unnecessary. (Maclean made the excellent 1989 short "Kitchen Sink" that also played at the SF Festival.) Rating: 2 1/2 Fellinis

Akira Kurosawa's brilliant and colorful 1980 epic was selected as part of the Indelible Images series by filmmaker Larry Clark (my former screenwriting teacher at SFSU). It tells the story of a "shadow warrior"--a thief who looks just like a warlord and is secretly used to replace him when his health fails. Kurosawa was one of the only filmmakers who could pull off an epic 180 minute spectacle like this with dignity and a minimum of camp. Rating: 4 Fellinis

Filmmaker Takeshi Kitano lays aside his violent gangster movies (1993's "Sonatine" and 1998's "Fireworks") in favor of this lightweight Hollywood-like story of an irresponsible man who takes a young child cross country to see his mother. Thankfully, Takeshi's distant and sardonic humor are intact, and there's a lot more of it here than in the crime films. The humor is a bit politically incorrect, but charmingly so. Of course, the last couple of reels are Takeshi's trademark "killing time" sequences, where characters sit around and do nothing, slowly revealing their true natures in the process. It runs a bit long for a comedy, and some sequences get a bit sappy, but "Kikujiro" is a fine entertainment. Rating: 3 1/2 Fellinis

The Legends of Rita
This is the latest work by director Volker Schlondorff ("The Tin Drum", "Death of a Salesman", "Palmetto"), who goes back to Germany for the true tale of Rita Vogt. Vogt was a terrorist who went into hiding and re-invented her life twice (hence the plural of the title). Her story is a compelling one, yet the film (co-written by Wolfgang Kohlhaase) jumps in to the action with a TV news directness--at the expense of place, time, and character. I was constantly lost as to who was important, who wasn't, where I was, and what year it was (it finally turns out to be the 1980's). The actress who plays Rita, Bibiana Beglau, is charismatic enough to make individual scenes explode with life, but the film as a whole seems disjointed and confused. Rating: 2 1/2 Fellinis

Lessons of Darkness
Directed by the German master Werner Herzog, "Lessons of Darkness" is one of the great documentaries of the 1990's. Herzog photographed the wastelands of Kuwait during the last days of the Gulf War, before the last oil fires had been put out. It's a meditative, powerful, unique, and strangely beautiful movie. Herzog is a fearless, meticulous director who approaches his subject in a timeless manner, turning this newsworthy disaster into a great theme, a story for all time. It's an Indelible Images selection from local documentarian Ellen Bruno and it plays along with her own short "Satya: A Prayer for the Enemy". Rating: 4 Fellinis

The Letter
The great 91 year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira returns to the festival with "The Letter", an adaptation of a 300 year-old novel set in modern-day France. Chiara Mastroianni (Marcello's daughter) stars as a lovely French woman who marries a doctor and then falls in love with a Portuguese pop star (played by Portuguese pop star Pedro Abrunhosa) but never cheats. As usual, Oliveira exerts a masterly control over his pacing and compositions, juxtaposing wild emotions with still surfaces, and still keeps the movie breezy by explaining away huge chunks of the novel during intertitles. It's a brilliant work. Rating: 4 Fellinis

Every so often a filmmaker tries to challenge our value system by making a film that bridges mainstream film and porno film. The main problem with this is that serious storytelling combined with porn usually makes for a decidedly dreary and unerotic experience. That's what "Lies" is, the story of a man and a girl who embark on an affair that escalates to beating and whipping and other things too horrible to mention. We get no idea of what their lives are like ordinarily. Although the director Jang Sun Woo does some innovative things here and there, this is a very uncomfortable experience, much worse than some of the best porn availble. Rating: 1 Fellini

Live Nude Girls, UNITE!
From the makers of last year's award winner "Paulina", Julia Query and Vicky Funari give us this slight but very revealing (pardon) look at a group of San Francisco strippers who form a union--the first of its kind. It's shot on video and looks pretty low-rent, but the subject matter is just lurid enough (there's plenty of nudity) and fascinating enough to keep us watching. Ms. Query is the narrator and main focus of the movie, and she gets trapped into finally telling her social worker mother that she's both a lesbian and a stripper. As the movie ends, Query and her comrades are busily working to unionize other strip clubs around the nation. Who says sex and politics don't mix? 3 Fellinis

Long Night's Journey Into Day
This documentary, by Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffmann, covers several cases tried before South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Committee that considers amnesty for apartheid criminals on a case-by-case basis. There are moments in the film that are emotionally shattering; weeping mothers confronting the killer of their children, news reports deliberately lying, etc. But the scope of the film is too huge to really connect. It's more like a thorough news report than good storytelling. There are too many people, whose stories are covered in the film, that we only get to see for a few minutes--not enough time for us to develop a relationship with them. Still, the film covers an important subject, and it gives us enough of an inside picture to be effective. The music in the film is wonderful. Helen Mirren provides narration. Rating: 3 Fellinis

Mask of Desire
This is said to be the very first feature film produced completely in Nepal. It's directed by Tserling Rhitar Sherpa, and it's a near-success. It deals with a small family; a husband and wife and two girls. The wife is pregnant, and asks a goddess to make the child a boy. But dabbling with the gods can be dangerous and the wife soon becomes sick. She and her husband both become involved with a mysterious and powerful healer who drives out demons. I can't say what it is about this film. It's certainly original enough, but I just never got that involved. Perhaps it's because it takes the characters so long to make decisions. We're always a jump or two ahead of them. Still, it has a lot of style for a debut effort. Rating: 2 1/2 Fellinis

No One Writes to the Colonel
How can I recommend a movie that's so lovingly directed and so emotionally true, but is not really rewarding at all? 90% of any Americans who go see this movie will be disappointed. An old Colonel (Fernando Lujan) and his asthmatic wife (Marisa Paredes) live in a small Mexico town where they await the Colonel's war pension money. Their son has recently died in mysterious circumstances, leaving them in extreme poverty, with nothing except a prize fighting rooster. Salma Hayek co-stars as a prostitute who was the son's lover. The story is like a slice from their lives, but one that has no real beginning or end. The story keeps going after the movie ends and we're left with no emotional closure. I'm all for downer endings, but they should actually END something. Yet, the direction by Arturo Ripstein, is just about flawless (there is a long tracking shot for a central scene in a saloon that could have come from Orson Welles) and the performances are fantastic. Rating: 2 1/2 Fellinis

Nowhere to Hide
This is a violent and exciting detective story from South Korea directed by Lee Myung-Se. Park Joong-Hoon stars as Detective Woo, a swaggering, loping, brutish fellow who is on the trail of a killer. He and his partners beat and bruise their way through a pile of suspects, one by one, each time getting closer to the target. Director Lee throws in every cinematic gimmick he can think of, and the result is a kind of stylistic clash between "Reservoir Dogs" (1992), "Run Lola Run" (1999), the Sergio Leone westerns, and "The French Connection" (1971). It's more style than substance, but Park's incredible performance carries the film across. Rating: 3 Cormans

One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich
Director Chris Marker pays homage to personal friend and Great Director Andrei Tarkovsky. Marker was allowed on the set of Tarkovsky's last film, "The Sacrifice" (1986) which Tarkovsky finished shooting just as he learned he was suffering from cancer. Marker films in his usual personal essay style, but with great reverence to the work of the Russian filmmaker. It's great to see all the clips from Tarkovsky's work. I was familiar with the titles, but had not seen many of the films. The bulk of the 55 minute-film is made up of clips, as Marker only had a few minutes of footage of Tarkovsky himself. Sometimes the film verges on pretentiousness, and there's a particularly pointed jab at the ignorance of Western filmmakers. But I really enjoyed this portrait of a great artist as told in a personal way and not a generic PBS format. Rating: 3 1/2 Fellinis

Set Me Free
This is a pretty typical coming-of-age story from director Lea Pool. Karine Vanasse stars as the younger version of Pool whose father is Jewish, mother is Catholic, and kisses her brother. Her father beats her, she's sexually harassed, and she experiments with kissing girls. Scenes are set up to look ordinary, but just as we get into the rhythm of it, something horrible happens that helps to shape her life. At the end, she gets a movie camera. There's nothing really wrong with the movie, except that it's just so ordinary. A person's life should jump off the screen, but this life just didn't surprise me. It's like being at a party and getting stuck talking to someone and you're convinced that there must be something more interesting going on in the kitchen. Rating: 2 Fellinis

Seventeen Years
Zhang Yuan's simple and moving melodrama concerns two Chinese step-sisters, the older one studious and sneaky, the younger one rebellious and passionate. An unfortunate incident sends the younger sister to jail for seventeen years, after which she is released for a brief New Year's holiday. The bulk of the film shows her trying to find her home and dealing with the uncertainty and confusion of facing her parents again. Director Zhang films in an unobtrusive style, almost like a documentary, letting the drama carry itself without forcing it upon us. Nothing ever seems set-up or faked. Hollywood filmmakers could learn a thing or two from this film. Rating: 3 1/2 Fellinis

"Shower" is a celebration of water. It begins with a futuristic sequence of a man stepping into a pay booth to take a shower, the same as if he were making a phone call. It turns out to be the pipe dream of a customer at a public bath in China. An estranged son returns home to his father and his retarded brother who run the bathhouse. The longer he stays, the more he realizes what he's missed in his life--his family, the comfort and companionship of regular customers, and the knowledge of a job well done. Flashbacks tell stories of times of drought when folks had to journey miles to take a bath. One man who sings in the shower is unable to sing on stage until the retarded brother sprays him with a hose. And so it goes. "Shower", directed by Zhang Yang, is a lightweight but refreshing film. Rating: 3 Fellinis

Sicily (Sicilia!)
I caught this new film by veterans Jean-Marie Straub & Daniele Huillet late at night at the film festival, and though I was sleepy and it was dense and austere, I think "Sicilia!" is something special. It's a brief 66 minutes, but packed with talk and meaning. A man travels to Sicily to see his mother and gets into four conversations with: an orange vendor, people on his train, his mother, with a knife sharpener. Sometimes it seems as if the acting is not so good, but that may simply be the style of talking or the filmmakers' directions. It was difficult to tell. But most of the time, the conversations are riveting, especially when the man's mother confesses to an infidelity years ago. The knife sharpener makes a good life-affirming ending to the film. I asked myself when the last time was that I had such revealing conversations on a train, with a stranger in the street, or even with my mother. "Sicilia!" is beautifully photographed in black and white by William Lubtchansky. It will probably never be released on video or ever show again, but I will remember it for a long time. Rating: 3 1/2 Fellinis

Sound and Fury
Director Josh Aronson's infuriating and powerful documentary charts two brothers, one deaf and one hearing, and their families. Both brothers have deaf children and they're both considering a cholear implant to help them hear. Surprisingly to me, the deaf community sees the implant as a betrayal. At first, it sounds almost like racism. The deaf brother has nothing but hatred for the hearing people, even though half his family is hearing. But it gets even more complex as Aronson deftly and cleverly presents both sides of the story. This film is sure to provoke arguments, and may even inspire audience members to learn sign language. Rating: 3 1/2 Fellinis

Time Regained
The French director Raoul Ruiz seems to have a passion for confusing stories. If I remember correctly, his last two films, "Genealogies of a Crime" (1997) and "Shattered Image" (1998) were very difficult to follow. So it makes sense that Ruiz would try and adapt the LAST book of Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time", a series in which I've read not a word. The film lasts nearly three hours and I was never less than baffled. Yet Ruiz is an incredibly inventive director, and I never tired of looking at his creative staging and camerawork, especially the scenes in which he moves props and even characters opposite to the movement of the camera, to create a false depth of field. The cast, likewise, is amazing; Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Beart, Vincent Perez, and John Malkovich. Rating: 2 1/2 Fellinis

Tom Verlaine: Music for Films
A revelation. This was one of those experiences that makes going to the movies special again. Tom Verlaine, the guitarist for the legendary 1970's band Television, performed live music at the Castro theater for seven classic silent short films, including Carl Theodor Dreyer's "They Caught the Ferry" (1948). I had been blown away by Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928) only a couple of months before, and I was so again by this short film, which was a government-funded safety film that Dreyer took on when he couldn't get work. In it, a couple get off a ferry boat and ride their motorcycle through the countryside, passing everyone like wildfire until they get to a strange, black car with a skeletal design on the back--Death himself. They keep trying to pass Death, and of course slam into a tree. Verlaine's music was a pulsing rock 'n' roll speed score that I'm not sure Dreyer would have cared for, but for me, it was pure bliss. Some of the other films were nearly as good: a shadowy, expressionistic "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1928); the classic short by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich, "The Life and Death of 9413--A Hollywood Extra" (1927) done with miniatures; two films by photographer Man Ray, the ineffective "Star of the Sea" (1928) and the much better "Emak Bakia" (1926) which explores texture, shape, and movement; "Ballet Mecanique" by Cubist painter Fernand Leger, which features man-made objects in movement and ends with a woman smelling a flower; and the drippy "Autumn Haze" (1928) which shows a woman walking in the woods and weeping as leaves fall from trees. For "They Caught the Ferry" alone, this evening deserves Classic status. Rating: 8 1/2 Fellinis

The Traveler
Abbas Kiarostami's first feature film was made in 1974 in black-and-white and already shows a masterly vision. It's a very purified story of a young boy and his attempt to raise enough money to travel to Tehran to see a soccer match. The movie deserves comparison to Francois Trufaut's "The 400 Blows" (1959) in its realistic portrayal (and astonishing performances) of children. Kiarostami developed a more playful sense of cinema later on, but this raw, simple feature must have inspired generations of other Iranian filmmakers and films, including Kiarostami's own "Where Is the Friend's Home" (1987), Jafar Panahi's "The White Balloon" (1995) (from a screenplay by Kiarostami), and Majid Majidi's "Children of Paradise" (1998). Rating: 4 Fellinis

It's hard to say what writer/director Alan Rudolph was thinking with his new film "Trixie". Rudolph is always one for trying new experiments, even if they fail ("Made in Heaven", "Equinox") as often as they succeed ("Choose Me", "Mortal Thoughts"). Here Emily Watson stars as the title character, a lady cop who seems to mangle every coinable phrase there is ("fish or get off the pot", "there are brighter clouds ahead", or "I'm ravishing! Where's the food?"). She gets a job as a security guard in a sleazy casino and ends up involved in a murder mystery. Nathan Lane does great things as a fifth-rate stand-up comic, but Nick Nolte and Lesley Ann Warren are over the top and Dermot Mulroney is forgettable. The jokes get old very fast and the plot is pretty shaky to begin with. This is a dud. Rating: 1 Fellini

Up at the Villa
Philip and Belinda Haas' adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novella is a bit run-of-the-mill with an exciting middle sequence. Kristin Scott Thomas stars as a penniless Englishwoman in Florence, looking for a husband. Sean Penn plays the dashing American who shows her around. And Anne Bancroft plays the cheerfully vulgar elder matriarch. Just when you think it's going to be another deadly rolling-hills costume movie, Thomas and Penn suddenly find themselves in trouble when a violin-playing refugee (the great Jeremy Davies) and a gun are introduced. "Up at the Villa" is colorful and fun for a stretch, but it's pretty old hat and nothing special. Rating: 2 1/2 Fellinis

The Virgin Suicides (Opening Night Film) (SEE FULL REVIEW)

Where Is the Friend's Home?
I highly recommend all of the Abbas Kiarostami films, but to start with I'd suggest "Where Is the Friend's Home?" (1987), the simplest and most moving of his films. In it, a young boy needs simply to return his cousin's composition book to him but doesn't know exactly where the cousin lives. In this film, as with his others, the journey itself, the time it takes, and the place we're in become more important than the actual destination. Seeing a Kiarostami film is as refreshing and exciting as discovering an Orson Welles or a Jean Renoir film for the first time. He's that good. Rating: 4 Fellinis

The Wind Will Carry Us
This newest film from Abbas Kiarostami is yet another masterpiece. Watch for my full review. Rating: 4 Fellinis

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