Film reviews April 2002

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

Teknolust (3 stars, 2002, seen 4/30/2002, 1:25, unrated):

Tilda Swinton plays Rosetta Stone, a biogeneticist, who invents a way to create Self-Replicating Automatons, and she secretly creates three of them using her own DNA. The three are named Ruby, Olive, and Marine (all also played by Swinton, with clothes and makeup matching the colors that are their names, for easy audience identification). They regularly need male sperm to survive, and Ruby has been programmed to go out into the real world to get it, while the other two SRAs stay in permanent seclusion.

Complications ensue, although the film does feel like it was stretched out a bit longer than the material warranted. It was all great fun, mind you, as well as inventive and slickly produced, but it just didn't feel like there was too much below the surface.

The director/writer was at the San Francisco International Film Festival screening where I saw this to answer questions. She indicated that the idea started as a joke, and came out of the Frankenstein story. It was shot in 20 days on high definition, 24 frames/second progressive video (aka “24P”), which made the extensive digital compositing easier. The budget was under $2 million. It is expected to be released in the Fall, and there was also talk of a DVD, which will be direct from the digital sources rather than scanned from the film.

Perdición de los hombres, La (2.5 stars, English title: The Ruination of Men, 2000, seen 4/30/2002, 1:46, unrated, in Spanish with subtitles):

As the film opens, we see two men preparing to ambush a third man, who is walking along a trail with a wheelbarrow. They kill him, take him to a house, and steal his fancy boots. Later we are introduced to the victim's widow and his girlfriend.

To me, the film started slow, and didn't become very interesting until at least halfway through, although it was often funny throughout. Near the end we see the opening scene again, with context to understand better what was really happening.

This dark comedy is filmed in a dusty looking black and white. It's possible that if I had been less tired that I would have liked it better, but as it stands I can only give it a very marginal recommendation. Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Shurayuki-Hime (3.5 stars, English title: The Princess Blade, 2001, seen 4/29/2002, 1:32, rated R, in Japanese with subtitles):

The background needed to truly follow the story is given quickly at the start of the film. Too quickly for me to absorb, but happily that doesn't interfere too much with enjoying the film. Yuki is one of a band of assassins whose mother was killed before the film begins, leaving her as the princess-elect, or something like that. She tries to leave the group and is chased by the others, who don't like to take the chance of any of their secrets being revealed.

The fight style is very much like Hong Kong sword films, which is not surprising given that the action choreography is done by Donnie Yen, who also choreographed Iron Monkey, among other films. Unlike some Hong Kong films, the cinematography here is beautiful, with some very striking compositions, and the melodrama seems a bit thicker. Some minor faults include a main character who doesn't physically seem capable of what she does, some mildly uneven pacing, and some fairly graphic violence in two or three places. But on the whole this is great fun and is highly recommended.

Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Lait de la tendresse humaine, Le (2.5 stars, English title: The Milk of Human Kindness, 2000, seen 4/29/2002, 1:33, unrated, in French with subtitles):

Christelle recently gave birth to her third child, and one day is overwhelmed with motherhood and simply runs away. She ends up in the upstairs apartment of Claire, who is very sympathetic and lets Christelle stay even though she was planning to have a romantic evening with her married lover. Christelle's husband is forced to take care of the children, not knowing where she has gone. As the hours turn to days, Claire begins to wonder how long Christelle is going to continue imposing, and Christelle's husband also finds the situation increasingly difficult.

There are also other characters who make the story more complex, but, at least for me, didn't add much to the film. The acting by the adults is fine but nothing special, while the children seem quite natural.

On the whole I would only recommend the film to people with a particular interest in the subject matter. Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Sur mes lèvres (3 stars, English title: Read My Lips, 2001, seen 4/28/2002, 1:55, rated R, in French with subtitles):

Carla is a secretary who is essentially deaf without her hearing aids. When she finds herself overloaded at work, she is able to hire Paul to help her out. Paul is just out of jail, and his past is not entirely behind him. To say too much more about the story, which has many twists, would be a mistake.

The most interesting thing about this film for me is how sound is used to indicate when Carla can hear and when she can't—a sort of “point of hear” (like point of view). The early scenes that set this up, as well as the early character development of Carla and Paul, was more interesting to me than the twists and turns later on, some of which were hard to follow and/or stretched credibility a bit. There was also some unpleasant violence. Back to the positive side, the cinematography was very good.

The film is worth seeing, but perhaps not seeking out. Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Cet Amour-là (3.5 stars, 2001, seen 4/28/2002, 1:40, unrated, in French with subtitles):

This film tells what I gather is the true story of the relationship between the French author (and screenwriter, director, and even composer) Marguerite Duras and a much younger man, Yann Andréa, based on his novel. Many people wrote to her, but Yann's frequent letters stood out. After some time, he went to meet her, and ended up living with her. She was a woman of extreme and rapid mood swings, and yet somehow Yann was able to weather these storms.

Marguerite is played exquisitely by Jeanne Moreau. There was one particular transition that she made from one emotion to another, using only her facial expression, that simply blew me away, and the film is well worth seeing just based on the strength of her performance. From what I can tell on IMDb, Jeanne Moreau has actually worked in films with the character she is playing here, which gives additional credibility to her portrayal.

Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Pier Paolo Pasolini (2 stars, 2001, seen 4/28/2002, 1:30, unrated, in Italian and French with subtitles):

I'm sure if I knew anything about the director profiled in this documentary, I would have gotten more out of it. Pasolini was a poet, philosopher (very leftist and Marxist), and a filmmaker who tended to make films with rather provocative images. His final film was Salò (the DVD of which is so rare that it recently sold for $700 on eBay), based on the work of The Marquis de Sade, and Pasolini was murdered shortly after it was made. This documentary didn't feel like a documentary to me, seeming to deal more with presenting Pasolini's philosophy and words than with documenting his life. The look of the film was also a major distraction, looking at times like it was shot on old 8 mm film, transferred to VHS, and then transferred back to film for projection. Really, at times it was so fuzzy that you weren't sure what you were seeing, and I don't think that was an intentional effect.

This is not recommended except to fans of the subject. Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Heng shu heng (3 stars, English title: Go for Broke, 2001, seen 4/28/2002, 1:27, unrated, in Chinese with subtitles):

This film feels like a documentary, but isn't, quite. The actors all generally play themselves in their own lives, at the original locations with natural light. The story is of a group of Chinese workers in Shanghai who are laid off by the various companies that they worked for. They form a construction company using some savings and lots of borrowed money, and find the business to have some rather significant ups and downs. There are numerous humorous scenes, such as when they decide to save money by moving some boards to an upper floor apartment themselves, and then find that the boards are too long to be taken up the stairs (their solution is funny, but exhausting). The down moments are also done well, but are somewhat difficult to watch since by then you find yourself rooting for them to succeed.

The look of the film is of a documentary, with extensive if not exclusive use of handheld cameras, but it was shot on film rather than video.

I saw this at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where an earlier showing was the U.S. premiere.

Swimming with Sharks (3.5 stars, 1994, seen 4/24/2002, 1:41, rated R):

Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey) is a Vice President at a major Hollywood studio, and Guy (Frank Whaley) is his new assistant, replacing Rex (Benicio Del Toro). Buddy treats his assistants like dirt (for example, telling Guy at one point that some pencils are more important than he is), but Guy puts up with it because Buddy's assistants (including Rex) all move on to bigger and better things. The one other significant character is a producer named Dawn Lockard (Michelle Forbes), who also abuses Guy when they first meet until she finds out that he works for Buddy, which she knows is bad enough.

The story is actually told in flashback, from when Guy has taken Buddy hostage, in a scenario somewhat reminiscent of Nine to Five. But while that film is a fairly conventional comedy, this film is a pitch black comedy, and is not for all tastes. What makes it all work is Kevin Spacey, who you can really believe is a monster given how well he inhabits the Buddy character. The writing, by the director (George Huang, who was once such an assistant himself), is also very good, and apparently is real enough that many people have thought that the Buddy character is based on their bosses, even though he is really a composite of many people.

Seen at the San Francisco International Film Festival following an interview and lively question and answer session with the star.

Divoké vcely (3 stars, English title: The Wild Bees, 2001, seen 4/24/2002, 1:34, unrated, in Czech with subtitles):

The main character is named Kaja, who lives with his father (who is obsessed with religion, in a humorously philosophical way) and grandmother. His (presumably older) brother is Petr, who is home after dropping out of college. Kaja has a crush on Bozhka, who has a child and is attached to Ladya, who in turn does a killer Michael Jackson imitation, which reminds me to mention that the film has a good soundtrack.

The first time director, Bohdan Slama, was at the San Francisco International Film Festival screening to answer questions. He indicated that many of the actors had not acted previously, and that the budget was much less than $1 million. He said that yes, they did drink extensively during the shooting, and that one of the messages of the film is the danger of losing your traditions and roots. The title is apparently related to love and to the need bees have to live together in hives. I'm not familiar with other Czech films, but apparently there are references here to many other Czech films, including The Fireman's Ball.

This is a sweet film that I was glad to have seen, but be warned that it doesn't really have much of a conclusion. The earlier showing at the festival was the North American premiere.

De la calle (3 stars, English title: Streeters, 2001, seen 4/24/2002, 1:25, unrated, in Spanish with subtitles):

This is a film set in present day Mexico City, where the teen aged main characters have little to live for except maybe drugs and sex. The main character is named Rufino, who learns that his father might be alive, and even though he had always been told otherwise, he becomes obsessed with finding him. Near the beginning of the film he comes into some drug money that shouldn't really be his, so he tells his girlfriend Xóchitl that she, her son, and Rufino can get away from the city, perhaps to see the ocean for the first time.

But no one in this film really goes anywhere. The Ferris Wheel that they ride near the beginning of the film is the perfect image, since it goes around and around, but there is no real escape. Everyone is just getting by, living day to day.

The acting by Maya Zapata (Xóchitl) and Luis Fernando Peña (Rufino) is excellent, and the rest of the young cast is also very natural. The camera is mostly handheld and the feel is very realistic and gritty.

The first time director was not at the screening where I saw this at the San Francisco International Film Festival, but the SFFS person did read some comments from him, which included the words “open wound.” I think that sums up the film, which is worth seeing but is certainly not uplifting.

Bomnaleun ganda (3 stars, English title: One Fine Spring Day, 2001, seen 4/21/2002, 1:56, unrated, in Korean with subtitles):

This isn't a film about plot, so I'll concentrate on describing the main characters. Sang-Woo is a single sound engineer living with his family. Eun-su is a radio show host who lives about 4 hours away, by herself in a small, somewhat messy apartment. They meet to record the sound of wind in a bamboo forest for her radio show, and a relationship develops between them. The film observes them over the course of the changing seasons in Korea, starting in the Spring both in terms of the calendar and their relationship.

The pace is deliberate, and the characters don't really change much, but the film is beautiful and, not surprisingly, lovely to listen to, and it's definitely worth seeing. I think that the male lead (Ji-tae Yu) is particularly good in his role. My understanding is that the film won the top prize at Korea's equivalent to the Academy Awards.

I saw this at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where an earlier showing was the U.S. premiere. The director was present to answer questions, through an interpreter, and one of his responses indicated that viewers who are more experienced in love tend to identify with the female lead, while those less experienced see themselves in the male character.

Hijo de la novia, El (3.5 stars, English title: Son of the Bride, 2001, seen 4/16/2002, 2:03, rated R, in Spanish with subtitles):

Rafael Belvedere (Ricardo Darín) runs a restaurant started by his parents, Nino (Héctor Alterio) and Norma (Norma Aleandro). While he has made it a success, a corporate buyer who wants to buy the restaurant observes that the extreme effort required to keep all of the plates spinning is like running a marathon. Rafael is divorced and, with the constant cell phone calls and sleepless nights, doesn't seem to have much time for his daughter or girlfriend, although he seems to have genuine affection for both. He hasn't visited his mother Norma, who is in a nursing home with Alzheimer's, in a year. As the previews and the title reveal, his father Nino decides that what he wants most of all is to give Norma the church wedding she always wanted, although many wonder if she would even notice due to her mental state.

The wedding and other story turns which I won't give away help the film turn gracefully from mostly a comedy in the early going into an outstanding drama in the later parts of the film. The performances are excellent by all of the actors, helping to make all of the characters seem real. While the photography is often attractive, I would not be surprised if the film was shot on 16 mm film or even high definition video and transferred to 35 mm film for exhibition.

This film was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film, which should have given it a higher profile than it seems to have gotten. It is highly recommended, and should not lose too much seen on home video, assuming it eventually shows up there.

Note that the star, Ricardo Darín, also stars in Nine Queens, which is opening very soon in the United States. And finally, note that you should stay for the ending credits, where the answer to a minor mystery is revealed (I didn't, but someone told me about this).

Salton Sea, The (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 4/14/2002, 1:43, rated R):

The film opens with the main character (played by Val Kilmer, although I initially guessed that it was Guy Pearce), playing the trumpet while he is surrounded by flames which include burning money. His voice-over narration indicates that he about to die, and that we can call him either Danny Parker or Tom Van Allen. Then we get a quick but very funny and gorgeously shot introduction to the history and manufacture of “speed” (methamphetamine). And then we flash back to the real movie, which starts by showing Danny Parker as a serious drug addict, surrounded by others who are as well. I could say more, but there are a great number of twists and turns in the plot, and you should discover them for yourself (note that the upcoming Murder by Numbers is by the same writer).

The cinematography is, as I already indicated, spectacular. The soundtrack, featuring Miles Davis, is excellent. And the acting is very good, with Vincent D'Onofrio being the standout as an absolutely insane drug dealer who is called Pooh Bear because his nose had to be removed after he did too many drugs.

I saw this film at the Camera Cinema Club, where the director (D.J. Caruso) was there to talk and answer questions (although I had to leave early in the question period). He said that a significant influence on him was Chinatown, because that was the last great Los Angeles-set noir film. He also indicated that the ending, which was a little too upbeat for some, was more dark and ambiguous than other alternatives suggested by the studio.

With the caveat that it is at times violent and/or tense, I would definitely recommend this film. It is scheduled to be released in late April or mid-May in the United States.

Stanza del figlio, La (4 stars, English title: The Son's Room, 2001, seen 4/3/2002, 1:39, rated R, in Italian with subtitles):

The film starts by showing us a relatively happy, upper-class, Italian family of four. The father is named Giovanni and is played by Nanni Moretti, who also directed, co-wrote, and co-produced. Giovanni is a psychiatrist who works from an office attached to the house, with an array of generally slightly humorous patients. His wife is Paola, and his son and daughter are Andrea and Irene. The only real problem that we see in this early part of the film is when Andrea is accused of stealing a fossil from school. He denies it, and even though his parents are inclined to believe him, he is suspended from school for a couple of weeks. The film's poster, showing the four family members singing in the car, is from this period of the film.

[Warning: If you want to avoid learning too much about the plot, stop reading now. It would be very difficult to say anything more about the film without giving something away.]

Andrea is killed in an accident, taking everyone completely by surprise. His mother and sister weep, while Giovanni is less demonstrative but still obviously quite shaken. That the events of the day of the accident could have gone differently and possibly spared Andrea's life is particularly difficult for his father, and on a few occasions we see his imagined alternate realities where Andrea's life is in fact saved.

One cannot help but compare this film to In the Bedroom, which similarly dealt with the loss of a son. My only complaint with that film was that the ending seemed wrong and unnecessary, and this film generally avoids that problem. For some reason, however, the characters here are just not quite as compelling to me. Perhaps that ending to In the Bedroom was a better device than I realized. In any case, The Son's Room is an excellent film, and has a very good chance of being on my ten best list at the end of the year. It won the top prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

Ice Age (3 stars, 2002, seen 4/2/2002, 1:25, rated PG):

The humans have (unseen, before the film opens) killed a sabertooth tiger, and the tigers want revenge, so they plot to kidnap a human baby. Diego (voice by Denis Leary) is charged with this task, and he partially succeeds, but finds himself sharing three-way custody of the baby with a woolly mammoth named Manfred (Ray Romano) and a sloth named Sid (John Leguizamo), who rightly don't trust Diego alone with the baby. Manny and Sid want to return the baby to the humans and Diego agrees, although he secretly has other plans. All of this occurs as the ice age is beginning and almost all animals are migrating south. Interspersed with this main story we occasionally see a hapless sabertooth squirrel thingy trying valiantly (and painfully) to find somewhere to hide the acorn he has found. Besides the squirrel there are a number of other very fun bits, such as dodo birds performing “Tae Kwon-Dodo” and showing why they became extinct, as well as references to “Star Trek” and Titanic.

The animation is not as polished or flashy as in Shrek or Monsters, Inc., but it might be a little more human. On the whole, I definitely enjoyed this film and would recommend it, but the story which holds the brilliant bits together is pretty obvious and a little too precious to let it measure up to the high standards set by other recent animated films.

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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