Film reviews February 2002

The films are rated on a 4 star scale. Any comments should be addressed to Mike Weston at

Misanthrope, The (1.5 stars, 2002, seen 2/28/2002, 1:25, unrated):

This nominal comedy is about a sixth grade teacher who fails to get a part in a local theater production of The Misanthrope, and, when forced to direct the school play, decides to put on the same play. It had some interesting touches, like the use of silent movie-esque organ music and camera irises, but it never engaged me. Perhaps I would have liked it better if I had known anything about the play within the film or ever been a part of a school play, but frankly I wasn't even awake for the whole film.

Based on the audience questions for the director after this world premiere screening at Cinequest, several of them liked it a great deal, so your mileage may vary.

Apsolutnih sto (2 stars, English title: Absolute Hundred, 2001, seen 2/28/2002, 1:33, unrated, in Serbo-Croatian with subtitles):

This film is about a family of marksmen. The father was famous, and the older brother (who reminded me of David Spade) was a world champion in his day, but has become a junkie since the war. The younger brother (who reminded me a bit of Wes Bentley) is training for a big tournament, but external events such as his brother selling the shooting range are making this increasingly difficult.

This is a film with a very energetic style, including pounding music and an injection scene that reminded me a bit of Requiem for a Dream, but it didn't connect for me. Seen at Cinequest.

Execution of Wanda Jean, The (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 2/28/2002, 1:28, unrated):

As someone who is opposed to capital punishment, I found this story of a somewhat retarded black lesbian woman on death row in Oklahoma very difficult to watch. The lawyer who originally defended her was, by his own admission, unqualified, and was only paid $800 for his work. He totally botched the case, and the efforts documented in this film to introduce evidence of her retardation and brain damage which was inexplicably omitted by the original attorney were blocked at every turn. The filmmakers originally got involved to make a tape for Wanda Jean's clemency hearing, but continued to document the case after that failed.

The main investigator working for Wanda Jean was at the screening, and he said that based on the evidence he heard when he first became involved, he never expected to lose. Some of his scenes in the film are heartbreaking to watch. Wanda Jean, meanwhile, remains upbeat and highly religious to the very end. This film is scheduled to air on HBO starting on 3/17/2002. Seen at Cinequest.

GeGe (2 stars, 2001, seen 2/27/2002, 1:30, unrated, in Mandarin with subtitles):

The story, such as it is, is of a pair of brothers from Hong Kong. The older brother disappeared three years ago while traveling in mainland China. The younger brother goes to find him in the village from which he last sent a postcard.

If I hadn't taken a class in recent Chinese cinema, this film would likely have been rated a little lower, but this background helped me look for symbolism. The woman in the film obviously represented mainland China, because she was from there, was a woman (women are often used to represent the country), and was always wearing red. The younger brother presumably represented Hong Kong. It occurred to me that the older brother disappeared close to the time (1997) when Hong Kong was returned to mainland Chinese rule, which probably means something.

But despite these detailed clues, I wasn't sure what the film's overall message was supposed to be, and there was little else to engage me. Seen at Cinequest.

Perfume de violetas, nadie te oye (3.5 stars, English title: Violet Perfume: Nobody Hears You, 2001, seen 2/27/2002, 1:30, unrated, in Spanish with subtitles):

The main character, Yessica, is a tomboy who is often in trouble. As a result, she is transferred to a new school, where she meets Miriam, who lives with her mother in what seems like luxury to Yessica. While Miriam's mother's main concern is saving enough money to get a better television, Yessica doesn't even have a bedroom to sleep in or money for the most basic school supplies. When Yessica's step-brother arranges for her to be raped, things go from bad to worse. In her environment she doesn't feel like there is anyone she can tell, so she must suffer silently, which reminded me of how the women in Missing Young Woman were often not missed.

This film, which was Mexico's nomination for best foreign language film of 2001, is difficult to watch, but it's worth the effort. My notes also indicate that I liked the soundtrack. Seen at Cinequest.

Ichiban utsukushii natsu (3 stars, English title: Firefly Dreams, 2001, seen 2/26/2002, 1:45, unrated, in Japanese with subtitles):

The plot of this film reminded me of On Golden Pond. In this case a teenage girl who is somewhat troubled is sent off to the country when her parent separate. She becomes reacquainted with an elderly relative who is suffering from Alzheimer's.

The pace of the film is slow, but the scenery is spectacularly beautiful, which most of us would not have expected from Japan because most films there are set in the big cities. The sounds of the cicadas made my wife very homesick for the country where she grew up.

The film tied for the audience award for best dramatic feature at Cinequest, which is where I saw it.

Kaaterskill Falls (2.5 stars, 2001, seen 2/25/2002, 1:26, unrated):

A young married couple is going away for a romantic weekend, when on a whim they pick up a hitchhiker. Things go from good to bad to worse in a plot that is fairly predictable until near the end when there is a twist that saved it for me.

The other factor was a very strange editing technique which at first looked like a mistake: you hear a person speaking and the camera is showing that person, but not talking. After this happens several times it becomes clear that it was not a mistake and you wonder why it was done. I thought perhaps the idea was to make the person seem emotionally cold, while another idea I heard was that it made the person seem like two people. I would love to hear others' opinions.

Seen at Cinequest.

Laundry (3 stars, 2001, seen 2/25/2002, 2:06, unrated, in Japanese with subtitles):

The main character is a 20-year-old who works in his grandmother's coin laundry, ostensibly to keep people from stealing clothes but probably really to give him something to do. We learn that he wears a knit cap to cover the scar of a childhood wound which rendered him mentally very slow. He meets a beautiful young woman who has problems of her own.

The film actually covers a fair amount of ground beyond what I have described, including some unexpected twists, but it does so at a very deliberate pace which might be a problem for some people. The acting seems quite good, especially by the two leads, and the story is, in a word, sweet. Seen at Cinequest.

Zee die denkt, De (3.5 stars, English title: The Sea that Thinks, 2000, seen 2/25/2002, 1:40, unrated, in Dutch with subtitles):

The plot doesn't begin to describe the film: a man is writing a film, or rather, this film. It's totally self referential to the point that you think it's going to fold in on itself like a black hole. The writer writes something and it happens, or something happens and he writes about it.

It's very philosophical, like Waking Life but more Zen oriented and for that matter, much better, in my opinion. At one point there are person-on-the-street interviews and then you see shots of these people being filmed, and then you discover that their responses are scripted when one keeps flubbing her lines. There is beautiful scenery and optical illusions.

I hope it comes out on DVD so I can watch it again more carefully. Seen at Cinequest.

Detektor (3.5 stars, English title: Detector, 2000, seen 2/24/2002, 1:42, unrated, in Norwegian with subtitles):

The main character and his friend like to find things with metal detectors (hence the title). One day they find a locket with an inscription. His friend talks about this on the radio, and the owner shows up to claim it. She and the main character fall in love, but then things get strange. To avoid giving too much away, I'll stop there.

I thought the acting was very good, the camera angles interesting, and the story engaging. I simply enjoyed this film more than any other I saw at Cinequest.

Manito (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 2/24/2002, 1:18, unrated):

This is the story of two brothers in a Latino area of a big city. The older brother has just been released from prison and is determined not to let his younger brother, Manny (the title is an affectionate nickname), follow the same path. Manny has excelled in school and is graduating from high school, but he is not home free yet.

The film takes place over 48 hours, and was filmed in 25 days in a gritty, documentary style. The actors were mostly new to film, which probably added to the realism. It's the performances that make this film, which won a Special Jury Prize for ensemble acting at Sundance. As is often the case, it's not an easy film to watch, but it's worth it. Seen at Cinequest.

Aswesuma (2 stars, English title: The Compensation, 2001?, seen 2/24/2002, 1:52, unrated, in Sinhala with subtitles):

This Sri Lankan film begins in the present with a recently widowed man asking to be arrested for murders committed over 50 years previously. The overwhelming bulk of the film is told as a flashback, as he tells the police officers about how the murders took place. That story begins with the main character trying to get care for his very ill son. The son dies, and while digging the grave, the man finds a large gem. Others hear of his find, and will stop at nothing in their efforts to take the gem from him.

My problem with this film is that the acting felt seriously overdone, in a style like what I have seen in some films from India. It had some good cinematography, and some of the tense scenes worked well, but it never really grabbed me. Seen at Cinequest.

Accidental Hero: Room 408 (3 stars, 2001, seen 2/23/2002, 0:48, unrated):

The makers of this documentary set out to make a film about Logan High School in Union City, California because it was identified as the most racially diverse high school in the state. What they found was a teacher running a forensics program and regularly turning out state and even national champions from the most unlikely environment.

I feared this film would be too “special,” but it greatly exceeded my expectations. My understanding is that it will air on PBS at some point. Seen at Cinequest.

Livermore (3 stars, 2002, seen 2/23/2002, 1:00, unrated):

This documentary about Livermore, California weaves together film from a 1969 documentary made for the city's centennial with more recent video footage and still photos taken by Bill Owens (who has a website here). It talks about the longest burning light bulb, a lost time capsule, and a cursed totem pole.

While the production values are very low, this documentary is consistently fun, well paced, and had good music. It won the jury prize at Cinequest for best documentary feature, and this was the world premiere screening.

Buck Naked Arson (3 stars, 2001, seen 2/23/2002, 1:25, unrated):

Four teenagers who just graduated from high school decide to spend the night in a forest. A fire starts, and the authorities take all of them in for questioning. Each of them is questioned in turn, and we see the night unfold four times on screen, once from each perspective.

The eventual answer to the question of who started the fire is unexpected, there is good humor throughout, and in general this turned out to be a sweeter story that I had expected based on the title and the description. The acting seemed merely acceptable, however, and the ending was unfortunately a little too Hollywood. Seen at Cinequest.

Being Light (2.5 stars, 2001, seen 2/23/2002, 1:35, unrated, in French with subtitles):

This is the third in a trilogy of Dogme95 films, with the other two being Lovers and Too Much Flesh. In this one, Maxime arrives in Paris and demonstrates himself to be a very simple man who does not seem to have even a basic grasp of normal societal customs. His goal is to go to India to find Justine (played by Élodie Bouchez, who has much less screen time here than she did in the other two films). Maxime's unlikely companion in this quest is Jack, an American businessman (played by the co-director, Jean-Marc Barr, who played the main character in Too Much Flesh).

This film's naive story reminded me a bit of Being There, with the simple character providing much of the wisdom. It was entertaining throughout and was well paced. As is often the case with Dogme95 films, the production values were quite low. Seen at Cinequest.

Zadnja vecerja (3 stars, English title: Last Supper, 2001, seen 2/22/2002, 1:34, rated R, in Slovenian with subtitles):

Two men escape from a mental institution with a camcorder, planning to make a film. One of them hardly says two words during the whole film, while the other gives an extended comedic performance (including a brief sequence of him bent over facing away from the camera, without pants, “speaking” through his, well, you get the idea). As the film progresses, it gradually moves into drama, with the addition of a suicidal prostitute and her abusive pimp.

While this film is not nearly as good as Elling, which also features two mental patients attempting to make their way in the real world, it is recommended unless shaky hand-held camerawork makes you nauseous. This screening at Cinequest was the U.S. premiere.

Rat uzivo (2.5 stars, English title: War Live, 2000, seen 2/22/2002, 1:41, unrated, in Serbian and English with subtitles):

This film, which was Yugoslavia's nomination for best foreign language film of 2001, starts as an entertaining comedy about the making of an underfunded independent film in Yugoslavia.

Later it turns into more of a drama, but somehow I was left behind at the transition. The acting is probably better than I realized at the time, because the actors were convincingly bad actors in the film within the film, which is likely harder than it looks. Seen at Cinequest.

Torzók (3.5 stars, English title: Abandoned, 2001, seen 2/22/2002, 1:40, unrated, in Hungarian with subtitles):

This film is set in an orphanage in Hungary in 1960. Aaron is left there by his father. At first he is abused by the other boys, but soon he is accepted by them. Unfortunately, the man who runs the orphanage is sadistic and cruel.

While the film feels manipulative at times and seems to have the basic message that life sucks, the one word I would use to describe the film is “haunting.” The performances are very good, especially considering the young age of most of the actors. The cinematography and direction are also quite good, especially in the arresting dream sequences near the beginning and end of the film. Most people will probably never have a chance to see this, but I highly recommend it if you do. Seen at Cinequest.

Otilia (2.5 stars, 2001, seen 2/22/2002, 1:50, unrated, in Spanish with subtitles):

A woman with a beautiful body but also with a large birthmark on her face is spurned by everyone in her village except one man, who is kind but mentally backward. Her father marries her off to an older man who gives her a venereal disease, which makes her sterile, so she sleeps with a variety of men to spite him.

The title actress's performance is brave and very good, but the film moved quite slowly and on the whole disappointed me. Seen at Cinequest.

Search for John Gissing, The (3 stars, 2001, seen 2/21/2002, 1:31, unrated):

In this film, Mike Binder (who also directed) is an American businessman named Matthew Barnes who just arrived in London with his wife (played by Janeane Garofalo), where Matthew is supposed to take over the final negotiations for a big merger with a German firm. Unfortunately, all of the arrangements were made by John Gissing (Alan Rickman), who feels passed over for the job and sabotages Matthew at every turn. Another key character is their boss, Francois (played by Allan Corduner, who played Sullivan in Topsy-Turvy).

All of the characters are interesting, as are the direction and editing (which features lots of jump cuts). All in all I was pleasantly surprised given the poor review I had read in the local newspaper. Seen at Cinequest, where it was the opening night film.

Beautiful Mind, A (3.5 stars, 2001, seen 2/19/2002, 2:14, rated PG-13):

The title refers to the mind of John Nash, a brilliant but eccentric mathematician played by Russell Crowe. This film, which is based on the real life of John Nash, opens in 1947 when he arrives at Princeton, and continues through a period of 47 years. During this time his eccentricity is seen to deepen into mental illness, and we see as he struggles against it in a way few others could attempt.

Crowe's performance here is quite remarkable, both in terms of portraying the changing phases of his life, but also his ability to show us what he is feeling in his early encounters with his schoolmates and his future wife (played very well by Jennifer Connelly) and his later battles with mental illness. Ed Harris, on the other hand, is under used. The direction, by Ron Howard, is quite good in its ability to show us the inner workings of Nash's mind, both in its mathematical brilliance and in its struggles with sanity.

The biggest aspect which holds this film back from greatness is its simplification and Hollywood-izing of Nash's life. For example, Nash's bisexuality is left out of the film. But even if the package is just a little too neatly wrapped, this is a film that is highly recommended.

Black Hawk Down (4 stars, 2001, seen 2/17/2002, 2:23, rated R):

This film tells the story of an American mission in Somalia in 1993. It starts with a too brief history of the situation, proceeds rapidly though introducing the characters (who for the most part you don't find yourself remembering or even caring that much about), and then dives into the action for the bulk of the running time.

At the moment I'm still shell-shocked. To my eyes, Black Hawk Down is as good an anti-war film as I've ever seen, yet I'm sure that for the right people it would be seen as a pro-military film. Similarly in this country we would likely root for the Americans in the film, while I have read that bootlegged copies of this film shown in Somalia drew cheers whenever an American was killed. Perhaps this is a sign of a balanced approach.

My opinion of Saving Private Ryan has grown over the years since I first saw it because the images have stuck with me, and I find myself wondering if this film will be similar. For the moment I will rate it assuming that is the case.

Baran (3 stars, 2001, seen 2/17/2002, 1:34, rated PG, in Farsi and Dari with subtitles):

Like the Iranian film Djomeh, which I saw in November, this film's main character is a young man living in Iran working for an older relative, this time in a construction job. Also similarly it involves the relationship between the native Iranians and refugees from Afghanistan.

The story, which moves slowly, involves sacrifice and a degree of romance. The cinematography is gorgeous, with a much more mobile camera than was seen in Djomeh, and some truly beautiful compositions. This film was Iran's entry for the best foreign language film Academy Award, and is to be distributed in the US by Miramax, although they have apparently delayed it until the Spring. I saw it at the Camera Cinema Club.

Collateral Damage (2 stars, 2002, seen 2/16/2002, 1:55, rated R):

As someone was heard to say after the film, “Just how much disbelief do I need to suspend?”

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a Los Angeles fire fighter named Gordon Brewer whose wife and son are killed in front of him in a terrorist explosion very near the beginning of the film. The government doesn't want to act even though it knows who planted the bomb, so Gordon takes matters into his own hands. He transforms, unbelievably, into the Arnold we know from films like True Lies.

There's not much more to say about the plot, if you can call it that (it's hard to find among the numerous gaping holes), although there is a interesting twist near the end which for me saved the film from an even lower rating. John Turturro has a small role which I enjoyed, but on the whole the acting is about what you would expect from an Arnold movie. The production values are high, of course, but the style offers little of interest.

Note that this film was originally scheduled to be released shortly after September 11, 2001, and was delayed for several months due to the terrorist explosion subject matter.

Monster's Ball (2.5 stars, 2001, seen 2/3/2002, 1:51, rated R):

The story concerns three generations of white men in the Grotowski family (Buck, Hank, and Sonny, played by Peter Boyle, Billy Bob Thornton, and Heath Ledger, respectively and in decreasing age). They live together but don't like each other very much, and all are or have been corrections officers at the local prison, although Sonny doesn't have the stomach for executions. The older two generations are also blatant racists. The intersecting story is of Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry), a black woman whose ex-husband is on death row, who battles with her son over his eating, and who is in the process of being evicted. Of course Hank and Leticia get together for a well publicized sex scene or two.

The main problem with this film is the script: what motivates Hank's 180º change from racist to lover? There are some vaguely possible explanations, but they really don't make enough sense.

The cinematography is, perhaps intentionally, gritty. The direction seems a bit erratic. But what really surprised me is that the performances, while quite good, did not live up to what I had expected based on other reviews. And speaking of other reviews, I should note that Roger Ebert named this the best film of the year, but others have had much less kind words to say about it.

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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Copyright © 2002-2003 by Michael S. Weston. All rights reserved.