Film reviews November 2003

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

Love Actually (3 stars, 2003, seen 11/23/2003, 2:15, rated R):

This is one of those films with a very large number of characters. The new British Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) has an attraction to one of his low-level minions, and it seems that she feels the same way, but it's hard for either one of them to act on it. His sister Karen (Emma Thompson) is in a stale marriage to Harry (Alan Rickman), who's being shamelessly hit on by one of the young women who work in his department. Also working for him is Sarah (Laura Linney), who has had a well known crush on one of her co-workers for years but can't act on it. Meanwhile, Daniel's (Liam Neeson) wife has just died, but that's not what's troubling his young son. And there's another couple who are working as stand-ins in a pornographic movie, so they're naked and simulating sex while the crew gets the lights just right, and they have time to discuss... the weather, news, and all of the usual stuff you might discuss at work. Meanwhile, Jamie (Colin Firth) has gone to a house in the French countryside to write, and he and his new Portuguese housekeeper have no common language. And finally, Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) re-records an old song for Christmas in hopes of getting a #1 holiday hit, but during all of his publicity stops he is excessively honest about how bad he thinks the song is, to the disapproval of his long-time agent. Actually, there are at least two more story lines that I've left out, and some big stars in cameos I haven't mentioned.

So like I said, there are a very large number of characters and stories. I would argue that cutting one or two of them would be an improvement, although my choice for the one to drop (probably the Colin Firth story) might be the one that makes the film for you. My only other complaint would be that the percentage of the film's romances that are between supervisors and their underlings seems pretty high to me.

Other than these small issues, the film worked really well for me. I probably liked the story of Liam Neeson and his son best, perhaps because Neeson's performance was very good, or because his son's story was so sweet. The porn film couple was entertaining and also different from what you'd expect. Hugh Grant was good enough that I had a brief thought of how he would be as the real Prime Minister. And the Thompson/Rickman story of struggles in a long-term marriage was the one that generated the best post-film discussion and thought.

The writer/director is Richard Curtis, who has never directed before, but he has written some rather enjoyable films before, such as Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary. If you liked those films, this one would be a very good bet.

Elephant (4 stars, 2003, seen 11/20/2003, 1:21, rated R):

2003 is apparently the year for films inspired by the Columbine massacre. This one, directed by Gus Van Sant, is set at an affluent Oregon high school. We meet a variety of the students, such as the boy whose father is too drunk to drive him to school, the self-absorbed “yuppie” couple, and a shy girl who is really uncomfortable in gym class. Besides the aforementioned father, we meet a few other adults, all of whom seem totally clueless, while the kids are only slightly better.

We also meet the eventual killers, although we see them arrive at the school with an arsenal of weapons long before we learn their background story. This is because the film uses a significantly non-linear time structure. We see a sequence of scenes in order, and then we jump to another point in time (and often place) and see another slice of the story. Several events are seen from multiple angles, literally in terms of camera angles, and figuratively in terms of character focus. So when the killers first arrive at the school, we know what's coming, but we have to wait to see it, with a sense of dread and impending doom.

Besides the time structure, there are other techniques that give this film its distinctive feel. The soundtrack is all classical music, which I think contributes to a slow, dreamlike (sometimes nightmarish) state of mind. The camera depth of field is often very shallow, leaving much of the picture out of focus, which is not to say that it looked bad or at all amateurish. All in all, one gets the impression of a film that looks, sounds, and feels like it does because the filmmaker chose to make it exactly that way.

The performances, by essentially all first time actors (except for Timothy Bottoms in a small role), are quite good. Everyone seems natural and believable, and not overly showy.

I am forced to compare this film to Zero Day, which I saw first even though it was released locally after this film. Zero Day felt much more like a documentary, while this film has a more stylized form. The other film also offered fewer potential explanations for the behavior of the killers than this one did, although both are more restrained than a lesser film inevitably would have been. Both films are excellent, both pull you in deep, and neither is easy to watch, but both are very highly recommended.

Burning Dreams (2.5 stars, 2003, seen 11/7/2003, 1:15, unrated, in Mandarin with subtitles):

This is a documentary about Liang Yi, a 70-year-old dancer who runs a dance school in Shanghai. The school teaches jazz, tap, and rap, which are all unusual in China. The students are all quite enthusiastic, but have widely varying aptitude levels.

I was hoping for a Chinese He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin', but this film falls far short of that standard. We never really understand Yi's motivations or even his methods. The performances don't show the big picture, with over-editing and not enough full body shots. The black and white photography is occasionally striking, but not nearly as often as it could be.

I saw this at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival, where an earlier showing was the U.S. premiere.

Cooler, The (3 stars, 2003, seen 11/6/2003, 1:41, rated R):

Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) has bad luck. You can tell because when he gets his coffee the cream has just ran out, and you know this happens every day and in every area of his life. Well, I guess you could argue that the fact that he has found a way to make this bad luck pay is a tiny bit of good luck. It turns out that his bad luck is so powerful that it rubs off on the people nearby, so he works in a Las Vegas casino as a “cooler.” When someone gets on a hot streak, the casino managers send Bernie over to cool them down.

The casino is run by Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), a.k.a., Shel. Shel is old school: he doesn't want to add any attractions (amusement park rides, etc.) to the casino, he hires a Sinatra-esque singer (Paul Sorvino), and he believes that coolers work. But he is under pressure from the new guys (including Larry Sokolov, played by Ron Livingston from “Sex and the City”) to modernize.

The third key character is Natalie Belisario (Maria Bello, who played Bob Crane's second wife in Auto Focus), an attractive young cocktail waitress who Bernie helps out a bit, and who (this would be a spoiler if it wasn't mentioned in every other review) ends up romantically involved with Bernie, much to his delight.

This character study with a bit of a alternate reality twist (the contagious luck angle) worked very well for me. But I don't think that would be enough to carry a feature length film, and the writers apparently came to the same conclusion. So there is substantially more story, and that's where the problems come in.

The rest of the story, which I won't go into, didn't seem to fit to me. Or at least the story that came before it seemed to have implicitly promised me something very different, so I felt jerked around. Or maybe I just didn't like the direction it took as well as the direction it started out with. In any case it detracted from my enjoyment of the film, although not enough to make me regret seeing it. The parts I liked made the parts I didn't worthwhile, and the parts I didn't like weren't all that bad. And the acting, especially from Baldwin and Macy, was quite good.

If you're still on the fence, do note the rating (R) and the reasons for it. I might have actually seen the NC-17 version, since I saw it at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival rather than at a normal screening, so the film you see might be toned down just a tad, but in any case this is not as light a film as the previews would have you believe.

Walkentalk: Chris worships Christopher Walken, as we see by the memorabilia that utterly dominates his home. A little later we find out that he is only capable of speaking in lines that Walken has spoken in various films and television bits. No wonder his brother Allan is nervous about introducing Chris to his fiancée...

Despite not having seen several of the referenced films, I found this short film, which played before The Cooler, to be very funny and well done. It is highly recommended. I would rate it about 3.5 stars.

Ai nu (3 stars, 1972, English title: Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, seen 11/6/2003, 1:30, unrated, in Mandarin with subtitles):

The film opens with a murder mystery. A wealthy man has been found dead and only other person who was there was... Ainu, the courtesan.

Cut back in time. We see Ainu captured with the intention of turning her into an involuntary prostitute. The madam, Lady Chun, who is quite accomplished in martial arts and also discloses very early on that she personally has no interest in men, takes a very strong interest in the new girl. Ainu is extremely resistant on all fronts, but the Lady Chun is equally determined.

This film is hard to categorize. [Note: Some of what is said in this paragraph could be considered spoilers.] On the one hand, it has some violence which is difficult to watch (especially the vicious caning of Ainu) and some good martial arts action, especially near the end. On the other, there is some nudity, some of which which feels like it is gratuitous. On the one hand, there is more than one rape scene, treated with humor in a very politically incorrect manner. And on the other, there is revenge for these rapes, as you might have guessed by the fact that the film opens with Ainu's apparent murder of a wealthy man.

I enjoyed the film, but it definitely falls into the guilty pleasure category. I would personally not recommend it as a date movie.

Seen at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Nói albinói (3 stars, 2003, English title: Noi the Albino, seen 11/6/2003, 1:35, unrated, in Icelandic with subtitles):

This is just your standard Icelandic albino coming of age story. Hasn't that already been done to death? You're right, it hasn't...

Noi is an albino who lives with his grandmother in a small Icelandic town on the coast, at the base of some mountains. He's in high school, but he doesn't care about school much. Showing up for a math test that he didn't study for, he borrows a pencil from another student, writes his name on the test, and turns it in without even looking at any of the questions. But that he was even at school that day is an achievement for Noi. Like I said, he just doesn't care.

Noi's father also lives in town, and is also pretty pathetic, but at least he does seem to care if Noi turns out better than he did. And the other significant character is Iris, a girl from the big city who has just moved into town and works at the local gas station.

The film is kind of slow and the performances are all subtle, but it manages to have funny moments, sweet moments, and dramatic moments, all without following the usual cliches. That's a pretty good combination.

This is Iceland's submission for the best foreign language Oscar®. I saw it at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Game of Their Lives, The (3 stars, 2002, seen 11/5/2003, 1:20, unrated, in English, Italian, and Korean with subtitles):

This is the story of the 1966 North Korean World Cup soccer team. Given their small size and lack of World Cup experience, they were completely overlooked by the other competitors. Despite the long odds, they succeeded beyond anyone's imagination, including managing what may have been the greatest upset in the history of the Cup.

This is also the story of the diplomatic negotiations that had to take place behind the scenes, given that North Korea was not even officially recognized by England, the host country, at the time. And the story of the improbably warm welcome they were given by the people of England. And the story of where most of the players (who were mostly if not entirely members of the North Korean military) and a few of the English fans who watched them are today.

The documentary is generally very well done. The filmmakers spent years in order to gain access to North Korea and the former soccer players. And of course the story of the underdog going far beyond what is expected is always heartwarming. On the down side, the actual soccer games are shown in a highly edited manner, often intercut with other North Korean footage (e.g., girls playing traditional instruments), making it difficult to follow the action. But that's relatively minor, so if you have the opportunity to see this film, it is recommended.

Seen at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival.

All Tomorrow's Parties (1.5 stars, 2003, seen 11/5/2003, 1:36, unrated, in Korean and Mandarin with subtitles):

“Last night I dreamed of soap.”—unintentionally funny line from the film

This post-apocalyptic film seems like it wants to be The Road Warrior, at least in the later parts, but to me it only succeeds at being confusing, seemingly pointless, and mostly boring. Two brothers, who I think are Korean, are sent to an ominous sounding prison camp, where they meet a woman who has a small child. Later, after they are able to leave the camp, the story gets way less focused, not that it is ever very understandable. The production values seemed so-so, and the acting felt wooden.

Perhaps with a better understanding of Asian politics this film might make more sense, but I cannot recommend it in any way.

I saw this at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival, where this showing was the U.S. premiere.

Big Durian, The (2.5 stars, 2003, seen 11/4/2003, 1:15, unrated, in English, Malay, and Cantonese with subtitles):

This film tells the real story of a soldier in Kuala Lumpur (abbreviated “KL” in the subtitles, with no explanation) who “ran amok” with a machine gun in 1987. He only killed one person, but everyone's reaction was much bigger, because they thought it was the start of something bigger.

I found it mildly entertaining at times, but I never understood why the people thought this killing would be the start of something bigger, or really what the whole point of the film was. This is a pseudo-documentary, with a mixture of real footage combined with other footage of actors, and no way to tell which is which or even any acknowledgment that any are actors. It didn't work for me, although admittedly I know essentially nothing about that part of the world.

I saw this at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival, where an earlier showing was the U.S. premiere.

Butterfly: This was one of 4 short films that played with the main film, and probably the best of the bunch. A strict Muslim father keeps imagining that his daughter is ill and calls a doctor to examine here, but only through a small hole in a sheet. The film is sweet, perhaps mildly to a fault. I would rate it about 3 stars.

Être et avoir (3.5 stars, 2002, English title: To Be and to Have, seen 11/4/2003, 1:44, unrated, in French with subtitles):

This is a charming little documentary about a one-room, one-teacher schoolhouse in rural France. By the end the thirteen students have all become individuals to us, the audience. But more importantly, they are individuals to each other and to the teacher (Georges Lopez). They stay together from one year to the next, so they get to know each other really well. They are a family, with all of the associated benefits and costs:. In their disagreements we see real emotion, not acting.

The experience is quite different from what one would get in a “normal” school. The teacher, who always knew he wanted to be a teacher, makes it work with caring first, and persistence second. While he may not provide a bit of knowledge here or there that most schools would, there are compensating benefits. How many students get to go sledding with their teacher, for example?

This way of life is on the decrease in France, and probably in other countries where it is still found. And after seeing this highly recommended film, I think that is sad.

Seen at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival.

2LDK (2 stars, 2002, seen 11/3/2003, 1:10, unrated, in Japanese with subtitles):

The title is apparently a standard Japanese abbreviation for a 2 bedroom apartment with a living room, dining room, and a kitchen. This apartment is being shared by two small-time actresses who are both up for the same part in a film, and who both have a romantic interest in the director. The blond is outgoing and likes movies, while the brunette prefers plays and books and is anal retentive (e.g., labeling everything in the refrigerator).

On the positive side, the film has good production values and it is not boring, keeping me awake despite the late hour (it started at 10:00 PM). And the early scenes are funny, although simultaneously a little bit painful to watch, as the two actresses get into disagreements and we hear what they are really thinking, even though outwardly they continue to appear civil. But on the negative side, it gets more and more aggressively unpleasant as time passes, to the point were a substantial fraction of the audience left the theater.

I saw it at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival, where this showing was the U.S. premiere.

Molly & Mobarak (3 stars, 2003, seen 11/2/2003, 1:25, unrated):

This film documents Hazaras refugees fleeing persecution and ethnic cleansing in Afghanistan, who settled in the scenic Australian country town of Young in late 2001 and 2002. When the documentary begins, the refugees have about one year left on their temporary visas, and when it ends they have only a few months. They take jobs in the slaughterhouse (warning: there are some graphic images of animals being dismembered), which is actively hiring, so the Afghans cannot be said to be taking jobs from the locals. But that doesn't stop some from being threatened anyway.

Some locals volunteer to teach English to the Afghans, which is how we meet Lynn, who teaches Mobarak. Lynn's daughter, Molly, teaches Mobarak to drive, and he falls for her. Hence the title.

The documentary is interesting and involving, but it's a bit rambling and unpolished. Overall I'm glad I saw it, but I probably wouldn't recommend going out of your way to find it. I saw it at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Tasogare Seibei (3.5 stars, 2002, English title: Twilight Samurai, The, seen 11/2/2003, 2:09, unrated, in Japanese with subtitles):

As the film opens, we see that “Twilight” (Hiroyuki Sanada, who coincidentally was born on the same day I was) has two young daughters, a mother who is old and senile, and a wife who is dying of consumption. He is forced to sell his long sword to pay for her funeral, as his salary is at the very low end for a samurai (this criterion is used repeatedly in the film). He has a tough time making ends meet, so when his co-workers go out after work to drink, he has to go straight home instead, to tend to chores and his family, which is why his nickname is “Twilight.”

What is touching is that Twilight doesn't mind. In fact, he is glad to have a chance to watch his daughters grow up (the younger one, around 5 years old, defines the phrase “cute as a button,” by the way), even if it means that he will be stuck in his low-end accounting job keeping track of the clan's store of supplies (e.g., dried fish) for the rest of his life.

There is much much more to the story, including some action, although less than you might expect from a film with the word samurai in the title. It's definitely more of a drama than an action film. In fact, I would say that it feels more like Sense and Sensibility set in Japan, and I thought Sense was one of the very best films of 1995. So rather than go into the rest of the plot in any depth, I would prefer to just recommend that you see the film if you get the chance. It won a number of awards in Japan (12 Awards of the Japanese Academy, including best picture, actor, actress, director, and screenplay) and has been selected as Japan's submission for the best foreign language Oscar®, so you might actually get that chance.

I saw it at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival, where it was selected as the best feature film.

Traces of a Dragon: Jackie Chan & His Lost Family (3 stars, 2003, seen 11/2/2003, 1:36, unrated, in Mandarin and Cantonese with subtitles):

This documentary works to uncover parts of Jackie Chan's family tree. Until recently Jackie thought he was an only child, but then his father told him that he has four half siblings: two half brothers (Jackie's father's sons with his first wife) and two half sisters (Jackie's mother's daughters with her first husband).

While this is nominally about Jackie, and we do learn about his time in the Chinese opera school (mostly dramatized since all that is available is a few still photos) and see a few of his movie stunts, the core of the film is the history of China. We learn about the war with, and the occupation by, Japan, and how if you were a Nationalist when the Communists came into power, it made life quite challenging.

The documentary style is straightforward, but I like that not everything that is found out in the course of making it was expected at the outset. There isn't much demonstrated emotion, especially by Jackie himself, but there still is a heart to this film, making it well worth seeing.

Seen at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Da zui xia (2.5 stars, 1966, English title: Come Drink with Me, seen 11/1/2003, 1:35, unrated, in Mandarin with subtitles):

At every film festival there seems to be one film that I have extreme difficulty staying awake for. This film, which started at 9:45pm, is the one for the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival. I have given it a rating based on what I did catch, but it would presumably be higher if I had been able to follow the plot better.

Speaking of the plot, there are basically two sides to the struggle: the government, including the girl, Golden Swallow (Pei-pei Cheng, who played Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and the rebels, including a guy dressed all in white. I found there to be more talking and less action than I expected, which unfortunately didn't help me stay awake.

The film opened with a Shaw Brothers screen that looked just like the one at the start of the recent Kill Bill: Vol. 1.

Sharasojyu (1.5 stars, 2003, English title: Shara, seen 11/1/2003, 1:40, unrated, in Japanese with subtitles):

I had high hopes for this film, despite the rather vague description in the program of the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival, where I saw its U.S premiere. Unfortunately, all I can take away from it is a memory of long, handheld tracking shots. The SpastiCam™-induced motion sickness drove my wife from the theater in the middle, and she was looking away from the screen most of the time before she left.

The film opens with a strange scene of two brothers playing with ink. Then we see them chasing each other through the streets and alleys, at the end of which one of the brothers is lost and apparently (but not clearly) dies. The rest of the film takes place some years later, when the boys' mother is pregnant again and the father is leading the planning for a street festival. But there isn't any point that I could detect, and the brother who remains is so quiet that you might think he was mute.

I guess the film has some style, and it might mean more to a native of Japan, but I have to recommend against seeing it. And if you suffer from motion sickness in some films, avoid this one like the plague.

People I Know (3 stars, 2002, seen 11/1/2003, 1:40, rated R):

Eli Wurman's (Al Pacino) job as a publicist in New York City is to know people, but he has seen better days. Much better. In fact, his only remaining significant client is Cary Launer (Ryan O'Neal), who asks Eli to handle a little problem in the form of starlet Jilli Hopper (Téa Leoni), who needs to be bailed out of jail and put on a private plane out of town. Eli, a very liberal southern Jewish Democrat, is beyond busy in trying to finalize the details of a fundraiser for blacks who are being deported, but he is not in a position to refuse his client.

Pacino is excellent as the publicist who has seen better days, never gets enough sleep, and uses various mind altering substances and other drugs to try to keep all the balls in the air. Think of his character in Insomnia, with maybe a little bit of Roy Scheider from All That Jazz mixed in. His southern accent seemed slightly variable to me, but maybe there was a pattern (like his stress level, perhaps) that I missed, and I really have nothing else bad to say about his excellent performance. I thought Leoni was also excellent in a smaller but key role, showing that she deserves some more good film roles. Other notable actors who I didn't mention because describing their characters would give away too much include Kim Basinger, Richard Schiff, and Robert Klein.

The performances are memorable, as I have more or less already stated, but this film has a problem, at least to me. That problem is that while the character study that we start with is quite good, the film goes off in a very different direction partway through. I remember the moment when I said to myself, “well, this isn't what I expected,” and the thought was unfortunately not a complimentary one. But it may work better for you than it did for me, and despite this flaw I was glad I saw it.

Seen at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival, where it was the hand-picked film selection of Roger Ebert, who usually attends the festival but pulled out for medical reasons this year. It already had a limited theatrical run (at most 8 screens) in the United States, with so-so reviews, and has not been released on DVD or other home video yet, perhaps in the hope that it will be given another chance in the theaters. That seems fairly unlikely to me.

Uzak (2.5 stars, 2002, English title: Distant, seen 11/1/2003, 1:49, unrated, in Turkish with subtitles):

This is a very sparse, deliberate film, without much action. Yusuf (Emin Toprak) comes to the big city to visit his cousin Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir), who is a commercial photographer (mainly of pieces of tile, it appears). Mahmut has his own apartment and a car (albeit one which would be dwarfed by a Mini), so he is considered relatively successful. Yusuf, on the other hand, is unemployed, has few if any skills, and isn't even sure what direction he wants to take in his life, although he thinks he would like work on a ship so he can see new places. He clashes with his cousin, who is hyper neat to the point of putting shoes away, but only after spraying them.

The film consists mostly of short clips of life with very little dialog or sense of movement. The two main characters are both stuck and lonely—distant from other people, one other, and even themselves. It has its moments and I'm not sorry I saw it, but it really didn't connect for me.

That said, this film is very well regarded by others. It won best actor (shared by the two leads) and the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, and it is Turkey's submission for the best foreign language Oscar®. Seen at the 2003 Hawaii International Film Festival.

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

Back to recent review page

Copyright © 2001-2005 by Michael S. Weston. All rights reserved.