Film reviews November 2002

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

Personal Velocity: Three Portraits (3 stars, 2002, seen 11/23/2002, 1:26, rated R):

As the title indicates, this film is made up of three stories. The first is about Delia (Kyra Sedgwick), who has two children and is married to a man who we quickly find out abuses her. The film's male narrator fills us in on Delia's history as we see dream-like flashbacks to her in high school, where she was known for her ass and for being a slut. Back in the present day we see her bloodied from her husband's attack and needing to decide what to do.

The second story is about Greta (Parker Posey). She is a cookbook editor in New York City, and is married to a man who she is sure will never leave her. Her father (Ron Leibman) is a powerful lawyer who figuratively towers over both she and her husband.

The third story is about Paula (Fairuza Balk), who is pregnant and running away from a not very pleasant life when she picks up a hitchhiker.

There are similarities between the stories, most obviously that all are about women, and slightly less obviously that all have significant personal decisions to make in their lives. The stories also intersect, as all such films seem to be required to do, but this device doesn't really add much to the film. There are also differences between the women. Delia has two children, Paula is pregnant, while Greta is intentionally (presumably) childless, and is also much better off than the other two.

The looks of the three stories are very different. Greta's story, in the middle, is filmed very calmly and intellectually, and looks relatively conventional. Paula's story is filmed with enough nervous camera movement (SpastiCam™) to make people normally immune to motion sickness at the movies start to feel a bit queasy. Delia's story is also gritty, but with a more down-to-Earth feeling. Note that all three were filmed on digital video and transferred to film for exhibition. The middle story reminds you that digital video doesn't have to look bad, so the look of the other two stories is clearly intentional.

The film was written and directed by Rebecca Miller, daughter of the playwright Arthur Miller and wife of Daniel Day-Lewis. On the whole it has some very good performances and is worth seeing, but it isn't a pleasant experience, and the short length of each segment prevents it from getting into as much depth as I might like.

I saw this at Talk Cinema in Palo Alto, CA. Here are a few more tidbits I picked up there (although some observations above probably also originated from other people at the screening):

Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (4 stars, English title: Spirited Away, 2001, seen 11/22/2002, 2:05, rated PG, dubbed):

Chihiro is a little girl. She and her parents are driving to their new house in the suburbs to meet the movers, but they take a wrong turn and end up at the entrance to what looks like it might be an abandoned amusement park. She doesn't want to go in, but her parents insist. Things don't go smoothly, and soon Chihiro is on her own, exploring what looks like an enormous bathhouse.

But this is no ordinary bathhouse. Soon Chihiro discovers that it is populated by many spirits, mostly in the form of creatures the likes of which she (and the audience) has never seen before. I'd love to tell you about some of them, but I don't want to spoil the wonderful surprises. Okay, I will mention the soot creatures, who look like little black Koosh balls with eyes and whose job it is to carry coal for the boiler.

I went into this film with very high expectations, since it has gotten universally good reviews. Usually high expectations are a bad thing, and in fact during the very early parts of the film I wasn't convinced. The green line running down the middle of the screen for maybe 10 minutes didn't help either. But once the story entered the spirit world, the film became simply magical. I was just watching to see what wonderful thing Hayao Miyazaki (the writer/director of this film and also My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke) would come up with next.

The animation is sometimes startlingly realistic and other times not at all, and the combination works wonderfully. About the only negative thing I can think to say is that the film seemed like it might have been a touch long, although I couldn't even begin to suggest anything to cut. I understand that this film is being distributed in subtitled form in addition to the dubbed version I saw, although for non-Japanese speakers the dubbed version is probably a better choice for the first viewing. Hopefully the eventual DVD will offer both options.

The United States doesn't consider animated films to be appropriate for anyone but children, but that's just wrong. This film passed Titanic to be Japan's number one grossing film of all time. It absolutely deserves consideration for the Best Picture Oscar®, and if it does not get at least a nomination for best animated film, something is very wrong.

See this film!

Tully (3.5 stars, 2000, seen 11/17/2002, 1:42, unrated):

Tully Coates, Jr. (generally just called “Tully,” played by Anson Mount) and his younger brother Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald from The Sixth Sense) live on a farm in Nebraska with their father, Tully Coates, Sr. (usually called “Mr. Coates”). We first see the brothers in a field goofing off. Earl is hurt when some dirt ends up in his eye, their father is not happy about this and that they aren't working, and Tully isn't too upset. This is pretty much standard operating procedure: their father has no sense of humor, Tully gets away with whatever he wants to do, and Earl comes out on the short end of the deal.

The other significant characters are the women. April Reece, who works as a stripper but prefers to call it burlesque, is seeing Tully and would like to make that exclusive. Ella Smalley (Julianne Nicholson, a bright spot from the last season of “Ally McBeal”) is a tomboy friend of Earl's who is sort of interested in Tully but sees how he sleeps around. Tully and Earl's mother is unseen, having left the family long ago, but she is still an important character. And finally, Claire (Natalie Canerday from Sling Blade), the grocery store checkout woman, likes Mr. Coates and is probably my favorite character in the film, although it's a small role.

I won't cover the plot, since there are a number of twists along the way. That said, the characters and their interactions are the heart of this film, and if the outcome had been different the film would still have been worth watching. Every so often the acting felt forced to me, although there were also other times when I found the acting to be wonderful and I also gather that most other viewers did not feel the same way.

I saw this at the Camera Cinema Club in Silicon Valley, CA. The director, Hilary Birmingham, was there to answer questions and to apologize repeatedly about the VHS copy that we were forced to watch due to a film print lost in transit. It actually looked substantially better than one would have expected due to the high end digital projector, and I'm told by the club programmer that the picture was only slightly cropped, from 1.66:1 to 1.33:1. The screenplay, which Birmingham helped write, is based on a short (15 page) story which took place over a substantially longer period of time than this film does. Birmingham's background is in literature and documentaries, and she cited The Last Picture Show, Badlands, and Days of Heaven as influences.

The film was shot in only 24 days, under sometimes difficult circumstances. A few scenes, for example, were shot in the director's parents' garage in Massachusetts in the dead of winter. The heaters were too loud to keep running during shooting, but it was so cold that the set cooled down too fast when the heaters were turned off. Eventually they had to wrap some insulation around the whole garage to keep the heat in. On the positive side, it rained for 14 days straight just before the farm scenes were filmed, but then didn't for almost the entire shooting schedule.

The film got distribution quickly, but almost as quickly the distributor went bankrupt. Since the distributor listed the film as an asset, it was held up. And since the distributor was Canadian, the filmmaker had to learn Canadian bankruptcy law in order to get her film back. So this really is a 2000 film that is just now being released.

Given my minor misgivings about the acting and the VHS “print,” I would probably give this a lower rating by half a star, which would still make it a film worth seeing. My guess is that on actual film this is a gem well worth seeking out.

All or Nothing (4 stars, 2002, seen 11/14/2002, 2:08, rated R):

Phil (Timothy Spall) drives a taxi. When he can get motivated enough, anyway. He seems very disconnected from his life, and you can also get a subtle sense of sadness (the sense is subtle, not the sadness) and maybe a hint of desperation. We spend time watching him as he drives various people around, unshaven, harshly lit, and with an expression that never seems to change.

His wife, presumably common-law since they never formally married, is Penny (Lesley Manville). She works as a grocery clerk in the local supermarket. She's the one person in the family who isn't seriously overweight. She isn't quite as dead to the world as Phil is, but you wouldn't exactly call her happy either.

Their children are Rachel, who works mopping floors and the like in a old folk's home, and Rory, who only leaves the couch and television when it's time to eat, yelling angrily and defensively when anyone suggests that he do anything different.

Maureen (Ruth Sheen) is someone who works with Penny at the supermarket and also lives in the same building in London. She is a single mother who also does ironing to make money. She is by far the best adjusted significant character in the film, actually making jokes on numerous occasions. Her daughter is Donna, who has an angry boyfriend that Maureen doesn't like much.

The final family consists of Carol, who is constantly drunk, and Ron, who also drives a cab. Their teenaged daughter Samantha plays the tramp, using her sex appeal to get attention from the local boys.

The film looks grim, and the soundtrack is dominated by depressing strings. But it manages to transcend that and offer a little hope, without seeming manufactured or manipulative. And the performances, especially by Spall, Manville, and Sheen, would all be Oscar® contenders if anyone actually had a chance to see this film. It's a crime that it only played in theaters here for a week.

If you saw Mike Leigh's earlier film Secrets & Lies and appreciated it, this film is one you should seek out.

Intacto (3.5 stars, English title: Intact, 2001, seen 11/9/2002, 1:48, rated R, in Spanish with subtitles):

This film puts you in the middle of a world where luck isn't all luck. In this world some people really do have more luck than others, and it can be transferred from one person to another by touch. But this isn't a film that spells things out—you're immersed and have to figure it out on your own.

Very early in the film we see Federico win several rounds of roulette in a row, betting on single numbers. He goes to see the owner of the casino, Sam (Max von Sydow), who hugs Federico (taking his luck) and then throws him out of the casino. Federico wants revenge, so he begins to look for a very lucky person to help him. He finds Tomás, the sole survivor of a plane crash.

To say more about the plot would give away too much, so I won't. The film is visually beautiful and unique, and there are a few scenes that will likely stick with you for weeks (I can say this with certainty since as I write this it's been over two weeks since I watched the film). I'm not normally someone who seeks out thrillers, but I'm very glad I saw this one.

Seen at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Bowling for Columbine (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 11/9/2002, 2:00, rated R):

This documentary... but is this really a documentary? I would argue that it is, sort of, although the filmmaker, Michael Moore (who wrote, directed, and helped produce), is the main on-camera character, and this is his opinion. There is also an extended cartoon sequence which I assume was made specifically for this film, which seems counter-documentary. So it's easy to argue that the film is more of a performance piece than it is a true documentary.

You might think that the question would be one of gun control, but it's really not. Moore turns out to be an actual lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, and the film shows that gun ownership is high in some other countries (most notably Canada), but the rate of using guns to kill one another is much higher here in the United States. So the basic question is: why?

Moore covers a lot of ground in trying to answer that question, including, of course, Columbine High School (the film's title comes from the fact the the killers at Columbine went to a bowling class the morning of the shooting, by the way). I won't give away any conclusions that may or may not be reached, but he does talk with Charlton Heston (head of the NRA), Dick Clark, and, in a surprisingly down-to-Earth segment, Marilyn Manson. There is also a very funny stand-up comedy segment by Chris Rock, and a moving segment when Moore takes some survivors of the Columbine shooting to K-Mart, which is the store that sold the ammunition to the killers.

This film manages to be entertaining, disturbing, educational, and thought provoking. The only thing that kept it from reaching my top rating is Moore's tendency to try to milk a situation for everything possible. He sometimes asks questions that are the equivalent of “Have you stopped beating your wife?” And when people leave an interview early, Moore often keeps standing there, trying to look helpless and asking a final question to the air. This feels like pandering to the film's audience far more than it feels like true fact finding.

This film was the first documentary in many years to be accepted into the competition for the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. It did not win that, but it was given a special 55th Anniversary Prize, unanimously. It has also won audience awards at many other film festivals.

Seen at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival, although it was already playing in normal theaters at the time. I definitely recommend this film.

Cowboy Bebop: Tengoku no tobira (3 stars, English title: Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, 2001, seen 11/8/2002, 1:54, rated R, dubbed):

This animated film opens with a convenience store robbery, which is stopped, although not without incident, by Spike Spiegel and Jet Black. The initial assumption, at least by viewers like me who are unfamiliar with Cowboy Bebop, is that Spike and Jet are cops, but it quickly becomes clear that they are bounty hunters. The attitude is completely different.

Soon we are introduced to the rest of the Bebop crew. Faye Valentine is a woman who more or less holds her own with the guys, but is drawn with unrealistically large breasts. A young girl with the confusing name of Ed (short for Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV) is the computer expert of the group, but seems pretty clueless in all other areas. And Ein (short for Einstein, I think) is a dog who seems to have human-level intelligence, although this wasn't explained.

The main plot begins when Faye is going after someone who is in a hijacked chemical truck. As she closes in on him with her seriously futuristic flying vehicle (this is not set in the present), the truck explodes and all the people nearby die. But Faye sees someone, who does not look like the person she was chasing, leave the truck and walk away unhurt.

My favorite part was the opening, and the film seemed to drag a bit in the middle. The funny bits seemed to work better than the action, and the drama didn't work at all for me. This Japanese anime film is based on a television series of the same name, and it seems to me that perhaps this film was stretched out a bit longer than it should have been. But the fun parts were good enough to make me glad I saw it, and the music was good too.

Seen at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival, where this showing was sold out to a very enthusiastic audience, who mostly seemed to already know all about Cowboy Bebop.

Tongan Ninja (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 11/8/2002, 1:22, unrated):

This is a wonderful parody of Hong Kong action films, and also of Star Wars, Titanic, Quentin Tarantino, and probably many other things I've forgotten.

The film starts with two kids in an airplane piloted by the father of one of them, somewhere over the south Pacific. Marvin is not the pilot's son and is clearly Trouble—he refuses to stop kicking the back of the seat in front of him. Sione is the son of the pilot, and grows up to become the title character under the training of Master Magasaki. He doesn't seem much like a Ninja, though. He's more like a big, bumbling kid.

The look is intentionally that of a low budget Asian action movie, which is probably at least partially motivated by the fact that this film has a low budget. None of the acting is very good, many of the characters are dubbed (badly, for effect), and it looks like it was shot on video. In one particularly funny scene, you see a microphone stick down into the shot, and you think that it is a mistake. The second time, you decide it's probably intentional, at which point you see one of the characters on screen reach up, grab the microphone boom, and begin to use it as a weapon.

But wait! There's more! It's also a musical! And a floor wax! No, not really a floor wax, but it is a musical, complete with an Elvis, and with go-go dancers who suddenly appear for a musical number and just as suddenly disappear.

This is a film of continuous little jokes, like a Ninja having to move his mask each time he wants to take a drink. Think of it like Airplane! for the 21st century.

Seen at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival, where an earlier showing was the U.S. premiere. The film's editor wrote me an e-mail and says that the film is expected to get theatrical distribution in France in the summer of 2003, and is also expected to get a home video release in the U.S. through Anchor Bay. You should definitely seek it out.

Let's Love Hong Kong (2 stars, 2002, seen 11/7/2002, 1:22, unrated, in Cantonese with subtitles):

So far as I could tell, this film is a somewhat bizarre mood piece about three women who are apparently all lesbian sex workers in Hong Kong. One literally lives in a movie theater with many others, unless those scenes are supposed to be dreams. Another one seems to have a little more money and is looking at apartments to rent in marginal buildings, with a realtor who is pretty funny. And the third woman is reasonably wealthy.

Not much happens, and appropriately, given this sense of stasis, the camera hardly if ever moves. The only camera movement I recall is during some television clips that we see, which are mostly of giraffes. And speaking of television, this film looks like it was shot on video.

I'm just not sure what the point is.

Seen at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival, where an earlier showing was the U.S. premiere.

Russkij kovcheg (3 stars, English title: Russian Ark, 2002, seen 11/7/2002, 1:36, unrated, in Russian with subtitles):

This film is an amazing technical achievement. It is a single 96 minute long take, with no edits (actually, I have read that the final shot outside was really taken elsewhere and had to be digitally altered and attached). Of course using film would be impossible for such a long continuous take, because the film reel would be enormous, so it was shot on high definition video. But even so, the amazing thing is to imagine the athletic achievement of the cameraman (Tilman Büttner) moving the camera over so long a period of time without a break, and without any obvious mistakes.

Another impressive thing about this film is the location. It is shot at the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg. They only had the museum for filming for one day, and they really only had one chance to get it right. Apparently they rehearsed for eight months, although I don't know how you could reproduce the floor plan (and “stair plan”) of the museum. The museum itself is rich with art, which unfortunately I am not qualified to comment on.

And finely, the cast is amazing in its immense scope. I have read that there were about two thousand people, and what amazed me even more is that there are a few children included. Can you imagine some child deciding to throw a tantrum and destroying everything? Granted, on a couple of times I saw a child look at the camera, acknowledging its presence in a way that I never saw any of the adults do, but it was pretty minor.

The story is pretty thin. The cameraman has a disembodied voice, giving the audience a reference point. In the first minute or two he meets a 19th century French “stranger” (Sergei Dreiden), who remarks with astonishment that he is speaking Russian. The two of them explore the museum, which is filled with costumed people (including Catherine the Great) from a variety of time periods, with the stranger as the main guide. If you don't know Russian history, as is the case for me, this is mostly an exercise in style. My guess is that even if you do, it's still more style than substance.

For me, that style made this film well worth seeing. I found myself saying “wow” on a few occasions, although admittedly those were skewed towards the start of the film. So if you're interested in Russian history or in innovative camera techniques, this is a film to seek out.

Seen at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Who Are You? (3 stars, 2002, seen 11/7/2002, 1:44, unrated, in Korean with subtitles):

Hyung-tae co-invents an elaborate, online, avatar-based dating game. While online he meets In-ju, a woman who is beta testing the game, and tracks her down in the real world too. They both work in the same huge building. [Thanks to the two IMDb readers who tell me that the building, which is in Seoul, South Korea, is called “63 Building” because it's 63 stories tall. See web pages about it here and here.] But he doesn't tell her who he is, so of course confusion and romance reign.

The film is sweeter and better done that I expected, and the acting is reasonable. My biggest complaint would be that the film is a little longer than it needs to be.

Seen at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Barrier Device: This short film played before the feature. The story revolved around a professional woman researching female condoms, and a surprise coincidence that occurs during the study. It is funny, poignant, and very well done. I would rate it about 3.5 stars.

Enan no musume (3 stars, English title: Daughter from Yan'an, 2001, seen 11/7/2002, 2:00, unrated, in Mandarin with subtitles):

As a result of the Cultural Revolution in China, thousands of young people were “sent down” to Yan'an to learn from the farmers. These young people were forbidden love or sexual contact, so when He Haixia was born, her parents were forced to abandon her for her own safety. This documentary tells the story of He Haixia trying to connect with her biological parents 28 years later.

The film is more complex than just a reunion, both because it is hard to track people down after so long and because her biological parents did not marry each other. In fact, I found it confusing at times to keep the people and places straight. But the emotions of He Haixia and at least one other person (not to give too much away) are moving at times, and some of the country scenery is very beautiful.

The film's director and producer were present at the screening at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival to answer questions. They said that the film took about 3 years to make, including 6 months just getting to know some of the people. They also said that the only reason the Chinese government allowed them to make this film is because a reunion was expected to be a happy event. They do not believe that it will be easy to get the film actually seen in China, and welcome anyone who can help them in that goal. Surprisingly, they also said that many people living in China today do not know about the Cultural Revolution.

Pido nunmuldo eobshi (3 stars, English title: No Blood, No Tears, 2002, seen 11/6/2002, 1:56, unrated, in Korean with subtitles):

Dok-bul is a gangster who runs dog fights. He abuses his girlfriend, Su-ji, and so she decides to steal a bag full of money from him. She gets the help of Kyeong-seon (Hye-yeong Lee), a taxi driver who used to be a safe cracker and has been trying to go straight. The other significant character is Kim Geum-bok, who is generally referred to as “KGB.”

While the plot has been compared to Bound, with the two women leads ganging up on the boyfriend, this film is far less coherent than that film. Basically, everyone is after the money, and the film revolves around a number of very well done Hong Kong-style fight scenes, complete with slow motion with water and/or dirt in the air, wire work, and some swirling camera moves. If you can forgive the simplistic story, these scenes plus the performance of Hye-yeong Lee make the film worth seeing.

Seen at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival.

The Quest for Length: This documentary/performance short concerns a man (Roger Fan) in a committed relationship, who worries that his penis is too small. He takes a casting of it early in the film, and takes the plaster model on a tour. He asks apparently random people on the street about its size, compares it to the models available in a sex shop, and asks various professionals about options for enlargement. One section of interview questions with him and his girlfriend, intercut, was particularly good. Warning: There is some footage (as it were) of surgery near the end that I found impossible to watch.

The star was at the screening at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival, and said that it was shot in about a week. I would rate it about 3 stars.

Princess D (2 stars, 2001, seen 11/5/2002, 1:37, unrated, in Cantonese and Mandarin with subtitles):

The film opens with a cool CGI cartoon of a fly, and then we see the fly in the real world. We meet Joker, a video game designer. In a bar he meets Ling, a bartender with an attitude, and she saves him in a impressive Hong Kong-style fight scene in the alley. My expectations were high.

Joker uses Ling as his inspiration for a video game character, but then the film ground to a halt for me. It became a love story, which would have been fine, except it seemed to move very slowly, with many details that seemed completely irrelevant. Granted, I was sleepy, but I started the film very interested and it lost me.

Seen at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Inside Story, The (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 11/5/2002, 1:25, unrated):

Dean is visiting his uncle Edward (Charles 'Bud' Tingwell from Innocence), who has lived in the same house all his life. In fact, Edward's grandfather disappeared at the house years ago and was never seen again.

Dean is strangely drawn to the cellar where he finds a trunk. Locked inside is a book which seems to have all of history recorded in it. Scarier still, as things happen, they appear magically in the book, as if someone is writing it as the events unfold. It might sound like I have given too much away, but there are many more surprises after that.

I'm not a normally a fan of thrillers, so I was scared at times but many people probably would not be. The acting was only adequate, but I thought the story was extremely good and surprising. In fact, the writer (Robert Sutherland, who also directed) won the “Awgie” from the Australian Writer's Guild for best feature film screenplay.

Seen at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival, where an earlier showing was the U.S. premiere. The executive producer (Robert A. Jones) was there to answer a few questions: The cost was about $2.5 million, the music is all original, it was filmed in Melbourne, and it does not have distribution yet. He also said that he found out that an executive producer's primary job is to write checks.

I think this film would be reasonably successful in general release. It's interesting, looks like it cost a lot more to make than it actually did, and I simply enjoyed it.

Searching for Paradise (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 11/4/2002, 1:28, unrated):

Gilda Mattei (Susan May Pratt), who just graduated from college (or possibly high school—I don't recall clearly), is obsessed with Michael De Santis (Chris Noth from “Sex and the City”), an actor. Perhaps it's because they are both Irish-Italians, as she learns by watching (and recording, and replaying many times) an interview with him on television.

Gilda is very close to her father, Giorgio. She knows Italian, and they share a love of opera and literature. Unfortunately, he is quite ill.

[Skip this paragraph if you haven't read any other reviews and want to avoid mild spoilers...] Giorgio dies, and Gilda discovers that he had a long-term mistress in Italy. This shakes her, driving her a little further into a fantasy world.

There's quite a bit more, but I don't want to give away too much. Even if I did, I would have a hard time justifying why I have rated this film as highly as I have. Mostly it is the appealingly intelligent/vulnerable performance of Pratt, but Noth is also given a much more complex role here than Mr. Big on “Sex and the City.” The look is also interesting, with substantial use of handheld video, representing Gilda's always present video camera (think Ricky Fitts in American Beauty). It's just a simple, well-told story, and it's well worth seeing.

Seen at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Wa dong ren (2 stars, English title: The Rules of the Game, 2002, seen 11/4/2002, 1:43, unrated, in Mandarin with subtitles):

Turtle and Chewy are two dim-bulb lowlifes who plan to kill someone. In preparation, they find a secluded spot and dig a deep hole. They are constantly arguing with each other, sometimes humorously. Meanwhile, Will is a rich man whose wife plots to have her boyfriend kidnap Will in order to steal some money. The two stories eventually intersect.

I found it hard to keep the characters straight at times, and while the film has some good moments, on the whole it is fairly forgettable.

Seen at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Note: This is not a remake of Renoir's 1939 film with the same English title, although you could argue that there are some upper class and some lower class characters. But I don't buy it.

Yok mang (1.5 stars, English title: Desire, 2002, seen 11/3/2002, 1:25, unrated, in Korean with subtitles):

I found little to recommend this film except decent production values and few subtitles to read since there is so little dialog. At least to my western eyes, it seems to consist of random passionless sexual encounters, or worse, random hostile sexual encounters punctuated by more hostility (e.g., slaps, spitting in the other's face). The hostility might have been trying to say something, but it wasn't clear to me and it was sure unpleasant to watch. And the rest was just boring.

I need to redo my rating scale so that I can give this even fewer stars, but for now this is about right.

Seen at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival. This was the U.S. premiere screening, and the producer (Eun Lee) made a few content-free introductory remarks.

If anyone can explain what the meaning of this film is, please let me know. Seriously.

Nirgendwo in Afrika (3.5 stars, English title: Nowhere in Africa, 2001, seen 11/3/2002, 2:20, unrated, in English, German, and Swahili with subtitles):

A Jewish family leaves Germany during the buildup before World War II, and goes to Kenya to manage a farm. The father, Walter Redlich, was a lawyer in Germany, so this is far from anything he is comfortable doing or anywhere he is comfortable being, but he rightly feels that deadly changes are inevitably coming to his home country, and so he has little choice.

His wife Jettel is also quite uncomfortable, having insisted on bringing the good china to the middle of nowhere. Only the daughter Regina finds things to like about their new home, including the native cook Owuor, who she becomes friends with. There is also a great deal of beauty, and the cinematography takes advantage of this wonderfully.

There are several complications during their time in Africa. It seems to me that some of these complications could have been left out without harming the film, but leaving them in is only bad in that they contribute to the film's length.

This film was put on the program at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival at Roger Ebert's request. He was at the beginning of the sold-out screening to introduce the film and to encourage people to seek out the director's (Caroline Link) earlier film, Beyond Silence, which was nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar®. He also said that this film only lost first place at a film festival by one vote because one judge thought it was too well made. Indeed.

Obaachan's Garden (2.5 stars, 1999, seen 11/3/2002, 1:34, unrated):

This sort-of documentary started as a short film that director Linda Ohama wanted to make about her grandmother (Asayo Murakami) for her 100th birthday. The title comes from the Japanese word for grandmother (obaachan), and from the fact that Ohama's grandmother had a large garden that she cherished for many years.

The documentary portion of the film was interesting and relatively well done. Ohama interviews her grandmother and others, and travels to where her grandmother lived in Japan and later in Canada. She combines this with photos and archival footage, and manages to unravel some deeply hidden mysteries. The film chronology follows the order than Ohama learns each fact, which works to maintain the mystery, but is perhaps less coherent than a truly chronological telling. The quality of the archival footage is generally poor, while the modern day footage is better but still looks like video, despite the fact that the program indicates 35mm film.

The real problem, however, was that this film departs from the normal documentary approach and uses actors to reenact events from when the grandmother was younger. These actors are not very good or at least do not demonstrate their talents, so the film feels amateur during these scenes. The actress who plays the younger Obaachan is actually another granddaughter (Natsuko Ohama), but is theoretically also an actress. I'm afraid I wasn't convinced.

The director and her daughter (a great-granddaughter) were at the screening at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival to answer questions. They were on their way to Japan to show it there for 30 days. Obaachan wanted to come on the trip, but the doctors recommended against it. She's about 104.

When Linda Ohama started the film, her grandmother had recently gone into a nursing home. Ohama discovered that her grandmother stretched out the filmmaking process by refusing to talk too much on any one day, because she liked the attention. At one point we see her leading a cheer of “Banzai!” from a wheelchair. This is the kind of spirit that makes the film watchable.

Note that while the film is primarily in English, there is some subtitled Japanese.

Spellbound (4 stars, 2002, seen 11/3/2002, 1:35, unrated):

This is a documentary about eight kids in the national spelling bee. It follows each both before and during the nationals. It includes kids from privileged backgrounds (e.g., San Clemente) and otherwise (e.g., a Texas farm and a poor part of Washington, D.C.). It includes kids who parents push them, those who push themselves, and those who don't push at all. It includes kids returning to the nationals from previous years, and those who are there for the first time. The structure is cleverly tied together with a visual consisting of eight vertical sliced photographs of the kids, which helps you keep track of them as they are introduced, and later as they drop out in the national competition.

There are some great moments, including when the mother of one contestant is being interviewed and the family dog is licking her leg (which is ignored). Another moment is a sign on a Hooters restaurant giving “Congradulations” to the local winner.

Overall, I can't think of a documentary that I've liked better than this one. There is an excellent blend of humor, tension, and drama. There are eight slices of American life, and views into eight American families. It's just wonderful, and I really hope it gets some distribution beyond the film festival circuit.

I saw this at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival, where it won the Golden Maile award for best documentary. The editor (Yana Gorskaya) was at the screening to talk. She said that there was a total of 165 hours of material, and that they originally followed 13 kids. Dropping five of them was a very painful decision.

If you have a chance, see this film!

Walking on Water (3 stars, 2002, seen 11/2/2002, 1:30, unrated):

Gavin is dying, presumably from AIDS. He wants to die at home and asks for help from his friends and family. The friends include Charlie and Anna, the latter of whom is also Gavin's business partner. Family includes Gavin's mother and brother, the latter of whom arrives with his wife and child.

Unfortunately, Gavin's departure is not as smooth as was planned, which serves as a catalyst for everyone else's problems to come out. Besides the obvious grief, we see addictive behavior from several people. We also see people try to use sex to deal with their pain. This is fairly balanced between heterosexuality and homosexuality, although until I thought about it afterwards, the film seemed heavily skewed towards the latter. My personal discomfort had affected my perception.

The acting is definitely a strong point in this film. Almost all of the performances are very good, and some are amazing, including one scene with Gavin's brother later in the film. There are is some excellent cinematography outdoors, especially of the ocean (presumably taken near Sydney, Australia, where the film takes place).

Seen at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (3 stars, 2002, seen 11/2/2002, 2:00, unrated, in Bengali, English, and Tamil with subtitles):

Mrs. Iyer and her baby son Santanam are traveling to Calcutta by bus and train. A family acquaintance named Raja is making the same trip, and he is asked to keep an eye on Mrs. Iyer. He is a nature photographer, which seems somehow appropriate since in the course of the film we see a natural beauty in India (e.g., forests and mountains) that seems rare in films.

The beginning of the film moves fairly slowly, so to say much more would reveal events that occur perhaps a third of the way through the film. If you would like an unspoiled film experience, you should probably stop reading now, although I obviously haven't said much yet.

The key fact is that Mrs. Iyer is Hindu while Raja is Muslim. We first learn this when she drinks out of a water bottle without touching it to her lips, while Raja drinks in what we in the United States would consider the “normal” manner (the subtitles helpfully clue us into this difference). When the bus is stopped by Hindus out for revenge on Muslims, Mrs. Iyer saves Raja's life by lying and saying that they are a Hindu couple.

This film has a pretty clear message about violence between Hindus and Muslims, which is not too different from violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the Bosnians and Serbians, and so on throughout human history. I was glad to learn about this in what seemed like a balanced manner, and essentially without the usual Bollywood musical numbers, but the film seemed to be a bit one dimensional, without much else to recommend it.

Seen at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival, where it won the Golden Maile award for best feature.

He Died with a Felafel In His Hand (3.5 stars, 2001, seen 11/1/2002, 1:47, unrated):

Danny (Noah Taylor) wants to be a writer. He has not been successful, however, so he is constantly moving to new apartments and houses all over Australia whenever the landlord insists on actually being paid, taking his Underwood typewriter with him. He uses a roll of teletype paper instead of individual sheets because he heard that Keroauc felt that pages are limiting. And he generally starts each piece based on a couple of lines on a poster he keeps on his wall (something like “Black is the ultimate”).

Somehow the people Danny shares these residences seem to all stick together, which is convenient since that means we also get to know them. Sam is a girl, but is generally just another one of the “mates.” Anya is a vegetarian and is a little dark and scary. Flip is known to lie in the backyard at night with a reflector catching moonbeams. And everyone seems at least a little mental.

Early in the film we see a toad being hit with a golf club, and we hear it hitting the side of the house. For the rest of the time at that house, we occasionally hear the thud of another toad. This explains the “professional cane toad whacker” credit at the end of the film. Note: You never actually see the club hit the toad. The toad simply disappears when the club swings through. So it's mentally but not visually gross.

The film is more style than substance. I was reminded a bit of the feel but not the subject matter of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The dialog is very fun, although it is a bit too clever to be realistic. There are frequent movie and “Star Trek” references. There is drama mixed in to the comedy, but unlike in A Hot Roof, it works quite well here. And the soundtrack is also quite good (the main song is “California Dreaming”).

I came out grinning. I think I liked this film more than most, but if you like offbeat comedies, this is definitely one to look up, assuming it ever gets distribution.

Seen at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Gyae-got-un nalui ohu (2.5 stars, English Title: A Hot Roof, 1996, seen 11/1/2002, 1:48, unrated, in Korean with subtitles):

The film starts out by making it clear that the country (Korea) is in the middle of a record-setting heat wave, and then sets up the various characters. The common thread is that the men are all lazy and/or abusive, while the women are abused sexually, physically, and emotionally, and in general are treated as second class citizens.

A group of women have an informal women's club (although the “president” of the club takes her job very seriously), and are eating watermelon outside when a man drags his wife out into the street. The couple are fighting, although it's the wife who is getting beaten up. The women's club members go after the husband, and other men join the rapidly growing fight. And in the aftermath of this fight most of the women end up on the roof of a building to escape the police.

I won't reveal much more, except that there is also a pair of bumbling thieves trying to rob an apartment in the same building, and they are trapped once the police surround the area. They might remind you of the robbers in Home Alone, and they are definitely in the film for comic relief.

But really the whole film is far more of a comedy that one might expect since domestic abuse is the main topic. In fact, it's more like a comedy with occasional “drama relief.” The acting is in keeping with this, seeming cartoon-like.

This didn't work for me. I rarely was able to laugh at the comedy, and the drama wasn't quite good enough or prevalent enough to keep me interested. The best thing I can say is that the production values were good, with crane shots and the like.

I guess I can also say that the rest of the audience all seemed to appreciate the comedy far better than I, and in fact I have rated the film maybe half a star higher than I would have based purely on my own reaction. Furthermore, this film won the top prize (the Golden Maile) at the 1996 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Seen at the 2002 Hawaii International Film Festival, where this was part of the Golden Maile Korean Retrospective.

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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