Film reviews April 2003

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

Mies vailla menneisyyttä (3.5 stars, English title: The Man Without a Past, 2002, seen 4/30/2003, 1:37, rated PG-13, in Finnish with subtitles):

I you would like to know nothing of the plot, just know that the main character is a man (Markku Peltola) with amnesia, and skip the rest of this paragraph, and maybe the next one too. A man takes a train trip. After leaving the station at his destination, he is assaulted, beaten up, and left for dead. He survives, but cannot remember anything from before the train trip. He does not know his own name, whether or not he has a family, or anything.

The man with amnesia finds himself in a small community of outcasts living in poverty, mostly in converted shipping containers. He is helped by a poor family, and later meets a Salvation Army worker named Irma (Kati Outinen). Despite the obstacles not knowing anything about yourself causes, he does not feel sorry for himself, and begins to build a new life.

I thought this film was quite good for a few reasons. First, it is not a film that you can say “it's like [other film title here].” I found it to be unlike anything else I have seen. Second, the soundtrack is quite good, starting with solemn classical music but later becoming wonderfully eclectic and sometimes outright fun. And third, the acting by the two main characters is excellent, conveying so much with so few words and so little expression. Outinen was named best actress at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival for her work here.

The film has also been well honored, winning the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, as well as a best foreign film Oscar® nomination. These awards are well deserved.

San Jose Film Outings: This new Yahoo! group was formed in April 2003, initially taking most of its members from the Camera Cinema Club. The plan is to jointly attend films weekly, initially on Wednesday evenings, and whoever shows up sees the film. This film was the first seen by the new group.

Chik yeung tin sai (3 stars, English title: So Close, 2002, seen 4/27/2003, 1:50, unrated, in Cantonese with subtitles):

A huge multi-national company is in crisis: a computer virus is wiping out the mainframe and no one knows how to stop it. At the last moment a computer program that calls itself “Angel” swoops in and wipes out the virus. The company chairman is so thankful that he conveys his wish to meet the person behind this Angel. Soon he gets his wish. A beautiful woman named Lynn (Qi Shu) shows up, in very high heels and rather distinguished sunglasses, and announces that she is the Angel. If you want to avoid a mild spoiler, skip the rest of this paragraph. She assassinates the chairman, and takes out a large number of bodyguards too. At one point she flips up and drives her heel into the ceiling, hanging there upside down shooting guards.

The other main characters are also women. Sue (Vicki Zhao) is Lynn's sister and partner, and Hong Yat Hong (Karen Mok) is a policewoman. If the men in the film didn't have names, the story really wouldn't have suffered much. That seems quite rare if not completely unheard of in U.S. films.

Basically this film is a silly action film that thankfully doesn't take itself too seriously. The story is silly, and the dialog is even sillier. The acting is cartoon-like, but that works here. It's all very well executed and is a great guilty pleasure. Think Charlie's Angels meets John Woo's The Killer. Or maybe a bit of The Long Kiss Goodnight.

Besides the general silliness, my only real complaint is that the film seemed to drag a bit in the middle, which kept it from getting another half star in my rating. That said, I'd love to see it again. Hopefully the fact that Columbia Pictures is attached to it means that it will get distributed in the U.S. If it does and you like action films and strong women, you should definitely see this film.

Raising Victor Vargas (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 4/27/2003, 1:28, rated R):

Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk) is a fast-talking teenager on the Lower East Side of New York City. The film opens with him and a girl named Donna (Donna Maldonado), who has the unfortunate but accurate nickname“Fat Donna.” Victor wants to get laid, but first he wants Donna to promise that no one will find out. But soon it seems that everyone does know, partially thanks to Victor's sister Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez).

Perhaps in a bid to rescue his self-perceived reputation as a ladies man, Victor, accompanied by his friend Harold (Kevin Rivera), hits on Judy (Judy Marte) when she and her friend Melonie (Melonie Diaz) are at the neighborhood swimming pool. Victor is shot down, but he is nothing if not persistent.

The other significant characters in the film are Victor's younger brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk, who is actually Victor's brother), who looks up to him, their Dominican grandmother (Altagracia Guzman), who is raising Victor and his two siblings with very definite and old-fashioned ideas about how children should behave (any sign of sexuality is a big problem for her), and finally Judy's younger brother Carlos (Wilfree Vasquez), who likes Vicki.

What works above all else here is the acting, almost entirely by first-timers (all of the actors I named above are in their feature film debuts, except for Diaz, who is in her second feature). That using all newcomers works as well as it does always surprises me, but is reminiscent of Manito, which a fellow film fan compared this film to when recommending it. Everyone feels real, and the low budget filmmaking technique adds to this sense of realism. Furthermore, the story manages to avoid the usual cliches, and shows character growth without tying up all of the loose ends. I highly recommend this film.

Ruz-egar-e ma (3 stars, English title: Our Times, 2002, seen 4/27/2003, 1:15, unrated, in Farsi with subtitles):

This Iranian documentary is really two different stories. The first, briefer, story is about youth in Tehran organizing a campaign office for an election. The surprising part, at least to me, is that they choose to campaign for the incumbent, who doesn't seem to need their help or to be aligned with the causes of their age group. The other surprise is that the young women who are part of this campaign are allowed to hand out leaflets on the street, with no real restrictions except for a few on their wardrobe (specifically around their head covering).

The second part of the story covers the same time period and focuses on some women who had registered as candidates for the same election. That women are even allowed to register surprised me, but everyone understands that they have no chance because men are also running for the same office. This part of the story really focuses almost exclusively on one candidate, who is a single mother with her blind mother and one daughter. That there are no men in this picture makes her life very difficult, especially after she is given notice by her landlord to move out to make room for their own family. No one wants to rent to a woman with no husband and no father, since there is a worry that such a woman might invite strange men over. Those who are willing to consider renting propose higher rents and deposits (the latter is referred to as a “mortgage” in the subtitles). It's blatant discrimination, and it's pervasive and accepted. I heard afterwards from some recent Iranian immigrants that this discrimination would be even worse outside of Tehran.

The subject matter of this documentary isn't particularly new, but it is still worth telling and the overall structure of the story is good. The look is typical for a present day very low budget documentary, namely shaky (SpastiCam™) handheld video.

I saw this film at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Diskoli apocheretismi: O babas mou (3 stars, English title: Hard Goodbyes: My Father, 2002, seen 4/27/2003, 1:48, unrated, in Greek with subtitles):

Elias (Yorgos Karayannis) is about 10 years old, and lives with his older brother and his parents in Greece in the late 1960s. Well, actually his father is on the road most of the time, making his living as a traveling salesman. Well, making his living would be overstating it, because he's not doing very well. The older brother, who is about 21, sees the reality of the situation, but Elias idolizes his father and lives in a bit of a fantasy world. But their relationship really is a good one, as exemplified in my favorite scene in the film. The father and son are in a car driving in circles, but both of them are hanging more out of their windows than in, and yelling to each other about their dreams for the future.

Then the father leaves, as usual, and he leaves a note to Elias promising to be back before the moon landing. In the note he also promises to take Elias with him the next time he leaves.

I won't reveal more of the plot, although every other review will. On the whole I felt the film started well and ended well but dragged a bit in the middle. The performances were all good but not remarkable, although I was impressed with how good Karayannis was for his age. The cinematography was remarkable, with a great use of colors, angles, and focus.

I saw this film at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

À la folie... pas du tout (3 stars, English title: He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, 2002, seen 4/20/2003, 1:32, unrated, in French with subtitles):

I've read at least one review of this film that suggested not reading the review until after seeing the film, to make sure that no surprises were spoiled. I knew a little bit about the film beforehand and didn't find that my experience suffered, so I'll limit the revelations to roughly that degree.

The film opens with Angélique (Audrey Tautou, who played the title character in Amélie) in a flower shop, surrounded by a wide variety of roses. She picks one, eventually, and convinces the shop owner to deliver it even though they usually only deliver larger orders. Then she leaves on her bicycle to go to her job as a waitress, where her co-worker/friend is Héloïse (Sophie Guillemin, who played the girlfriend in With a Friend Like Harry). We also see the flower delivered to  Loïc (Samuel Le Bihan), a cardiac surgeon substantially older than her.

Okay, that's all from the first few minutes, but the key device used in the film happens about half-way through. The story has progressed substantially when we reach a critical point and then... rewind to the start again, and this time see the same events again, from a different point of view, Rashômon-style. This is done quite well, and you see how dramatically different interpretations can come from the same events.

My expectations for this film were high, and unfortunately I was somewhat disappointed. As a thriller it's more entertaining and interesting than thrilling, perhaps because the film's central device keeps the viewer a little distant. The performances were fine but nothing special. The ending ties up the loose ends a bit tidier than I would have liked, but at least it left a little bit of ambiguity. On the positive side, the production values are excellent and the film is quite stylish to look at. Overall, the film is definitely worth seeing, but not worth a special effort.

Dancer Upstairs, The (3.5 stars, 2002, seen 4/16/2003, 2:04, rated R):

A truck is driving through the night, in a remote part of unspecified Latin America. The driver really doesn't want to have any contact with any government officials, as is demonstrated at the first checkpoint they come to. At the second checkpoint, they do stop. This checkpoint is manned by Rejas (Javier Bardem, Oscar® nominated for Before Night Falls), who reveals that he used to be a lawyer but is now a policeman, and another man, who Rejas sees accepting a bribe. Corruption is something he's seen before, but that clearly isn't comfortable with.

Cut to 5 years later. Rejas is still a policeman, but now he's working in a large city. He and his partner, Sucre (Juan Diego Botto), see the first sign of a mysterious man who calls himself “President Ezequial”—a dead dog is hung up on a lamp post with a protruding stick of dynamite and a sign with a message from Ezequial. Soon Ezequial is escalating his terrorism, seemingly as the start to a revolution. Rejas is assigned to head a small team investigating these acts, but clues are hard to come by and his boss threatens martial law if Rejas is not quickly successful.

During these early parts of the film, we also learn that Rejas has a wife who is obsessed with her own appearance. They have one daughter, whose dance instructor Yolanda (Laura Morante, who played the mother in The Son's Room) is also a significant character.

I found the story excellent, transcending the usual thriller genre and with many possible hidden meanings. The performances were all good, but Bardem stands far above the crowd here. It's a cliche, but his performance is richly nuanced, and some of the scenes towards the end are truly excellent. The cinematography is generally good and occasionally great, but there are a few scenes which employ SpastiCam™.

The most common complaint about this film seems to be its pace, which is slow, especially for a thriller (if you are looking for a more traditional thriller, you may find that this film does not give you what you would expect). It probably could be edited a little bit, but I cannot recall ever being bored. Give this film a chance, and I think you will be glad you saw it.

John Malkovich: I got to see a special sneak preview of this film, which opens on May 9, 2003 in Silicon Valley, CA. This preview was organized by the Camera Cinema Club, and somehow they also arranged to have the director, John Malkovich, there to answer questions after the screening. Very cool.

Malkovich has apparently directed a few short films and many plays before, but this is his first feature length film. His journey to make this film started eight years ago when he read the book, which he really liked the tone and style of, and includes some substantial delay between when the filming was finished (before 9/11) to its actual theatrical distribution now. It was first shown at Sundance in 2002 and was purchased shortly thereafter. Malkovich acknowledged that people's reactions to a film about terrorism are undoubtedly affected by 9/11, but did not offer an opinion about the effect that might have had on studios' willingness to distribute the film.

The story is inspired in part on a real story of a terrorist group in Peru called the Shining Path, and Rejas is similar to a real life policeman from that case, although Malkovich was quick to say that this story does not claim to be at all historical. This is a big reason why the film is set in an unspecified part of Latin America, although it was actually shot in Spain, Ecuador, and Portugal. Malkovich also indicated that he would like to show the film to the real-life criminals whose stories this film is related to, but he has had no luck doing so so far.

In various questions about what the film means, Malkovich said:

When asked about the view of women in the film, and Rejas' wife in particular, Malkovich said something like, “I hate to be the one breaking this to you, but there are many shallow women in the world.” He offered to provide phone numbers if the questioner was unconvinced.

Impressively, Malkovich says that he framed every shot, and that he actually operated the camera much of the time.

Man in the Glass Booth, The (3 stars, 1975, seen 4/13/2003, 1:57, unrated):

We start on a terrace on top of a tall building in New York City, initially without sound. We meet Arthur Goldman (Maximilian Schell), a very rich and powerful man, and two of his flunkies. Charlie Cohn is his assistant/“yes man,” and the other is a black man who is probably Goldman's body guard.

Goldman likes to look down at the world through his telescope, and is especially on the lookout for a suspicious blue Mercedes. He sometimes has vivid but impossible visions, like when he sees his father, who actually died 30 years earlier in the Holocaust, running a hot dog cart on the street below. He also imagines that he sees Colonel Dorff, the man who killed his father. On the whole it quickly becomes clear that Goldman is seriously paranoid and mercurial. There are several major twists as the story progresses, so I won't go any further or even explain the title.

This film was based on a play, and it feels like it in several ways. For one thing, very few locations are used. But the biggest play-like aspect is Schell's performance, which is far more over-the-top than one would expect in a drama film. This felt overbearing at first, but eventually worked well for the story, and in fact Schell was nominated for an Oscar® for his performance.

I found myself wondering afterwards if the film was in black and white, but it was in fact in color, but obviously very muted colors with a preponderance of gray, which suits the story while contrasting with Schell's performance. The sound was frankly not very good, although part of that was the volume in the theater, which was initially set a little too high. That said, I was glad to have seen the film, but it is not worth making a special effort to see.

Arthur Hiller: This film was shown at the Camera Cinema Club in Campbell, CA, and the director, Arthur Hiller (director of Love Story, Silver Streak, and The In-Laws; not to be confused with Arthur Miller), was there to introduce the film and to answer questions afterwards.

This film was one in a 1970s subscription series called the American Film Theater, created by producer Ely Landau. The idea was to take some good plays, film them with good casts (but not pay them very well—this film was done for only $1 million and shot in 23 days), and sell subscriptions to see them. The plan was that the films would not be seen except by the subscribers, so when this film was given a short normal theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles, some of the subscribers sued.

The screenwriter was Robert Shaw, but because of a change that the director made, he asked that his name be completely removed from the film. But then he ended up liking the result and asked for his name to be restored, but by then it was too late.

Apparently the terrace and the apartment, which appear to be connected in the film, are not in fact in the same place. Hiller used a trick that he attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, namely to place a large, frame-filling statue in both locations and cut when the statue fills the frame.

The entire American Film Theater series is being released by Kino on DVD this year. This film is scheduled to be in the second of three sets, and should be available on July 8, 2003, according to the New York Times (4/13/2003). Hiller thought it would be released sooner than that, but then again he kept saying that it was going to be on “CD,” so his ability to retain details is suspect.

Cidade de Deus (3.5 stars, English title: City of God, 2002, seen 4/6/2003, 2:10, rated R, in Portuguese with subtitles):

The film opens with amazing visual style. Food is being cooked, and a chicken is obviously soon to be part of the meal. The chicken looks understandably nervous. It escapes, but it is pursued, with the camera right behind it, running down the street at the height of the chicken's head (I hope the DVD shows a “making of” for this sequence). Then we meet Rocket, the main narrator of the story. He is nearest to the chicken, with the chasing gang aligned on one side and the police on the other. Rocket introduces himself in voiceover, saying that the story begins much earlier, and as the camera swirls around him, he and the neighborhood travel back in time to when he was a child.

The film takes place is a desperately poor housing project called the City of God, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Since the children here have very little chance to ever work their way up and out of this slum, they have almost nothing to lose, so violence, drugs, crime, and corruption are a way of life, starting from a very young age. The mood of poverty and violence is pervasive. Gangs form because they provide the only opportunity for advancement, however limited and dangerous that possibility might be. The film is quite violent, but the energy of the filmmaking technique keep it from ever seeming oppressively gloomy for too long.

The acting is all very natural, mostly from first-time or rather inexperienced actors. Assisted in this is a real life story, based on a novel by Paulo Lins, who grew up in the real City of God. Fernando Meirelles, the director, also does amazing work here, as I mentioned when describing the opening, and this is one of his first films (the first to be distributed in the United States, from what I can tell). This was Brazil's submission for the best foreign film Oscar®, and its omission from the final five nominee list was one of the biggest surprises when the nominees were announced.

And indeed, I seriously toyed with giving this a full four stars, but I held back for a couple of reasons. First, exactly which character does what when is a little hard to follow at times, although in fairness that doesn't really matter greatly in this film. Second and more important, I simply didn't find myself thinking much about this film in the days immediately after I saw it. And finally, to be honest, my expectations were very high, which makes a mild letdown almost an inevitability.

All that said, this is an excellent film that I recommend very highly.

Elsker dig for evigt (3 stars, English title: Open Hearts, 2002, seen 4/3/2003, 1:53, rated R, in Danish with subtitles):

This film is impossible to review without spoiling what would be surprises if you were coming to it completely fresh, so I'll start with a summary in case that's all you want to read. First, you should know that this is an official Dogme95 film, which means things like handheld camera work, natural lighting, and so on, although sometimes there seems to be a music track (breaking rule 2), and there is a color filter effect at the beginning of the film that would seem to break rule 5 (and also some low-quality black and white or maybe desaturated dream sequences). You should also know that Denmark chose this film to be their entry for the best foreign film Oscar® for 2002, although personally I would pick Okay over this film. And as was the case in that other Danish film, the acting by the women (and particularly Paprika Steen) is very good, while the men are not quite as good.

The remainder of the review may contain very mild spoilers, although not about anything that happens more than 30 minutes into the film.

Cæcilie and Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, the star of Truly Human) are a young couple in love, or at least thoroughly in lust. They get engaged, and not long after that, without warning, Joachim is badly injured, paralyzing him from the neck down. Cæcilie tries to help him, but he is too mad at the world to accept it, trying instead to drive everyone away. The woman who was partially responsible for the accident, Marie (Paprika Steen) is married to Niels, a doctor who works in the hospital where Joachim ends up. They have one teenaged daughter named Stine, as well as two younger children. Cæcilie, nicknamed “mishap girl” by Stine, is understandably distraught, and begins to lean on Niels.

I found the story somewhat predictable, and the film seemed like it needed a bit of editing in the middle. But as I said above, the acting is good, so this film is worth seeing. It just isn't the best Danish or Dogme95 film out there.

External filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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