No Dawn.

For Men.
Thursday, January 29, 2004

No spectacularly well-known movies since the last update, so be warned. Also, the jury is now officially in session, after the arrival of our Tunisian colleague, Hassouna, and we´ve seen three more titles in competition.

Among the remaining four I´ve seen on my own, the Icelandic Salt is my absolute favorite. It looks deceptively simple, and cheap, shot on cheap digital video, often by protagonists themselves, so that it has the look of private, homemade footage - except for the seals. And the seals haunt the private life of Hildur, a girl from a provincial town on the east coast of Iceland, who reluctantly joins her sister and the sister´s boyfriend Aggi in their plan to go in search of a better life in Reykjavik, the capital city. So far, so good - many recent films feature young people who go in search of a brighter future somewhere else. And the plot here is thinner than in many - but that just makes the subtext come to the forefront all the more. It´s ultimately about what´s inside Hildur at the moment, not in some unspecified better life ahead - and it´s about this particular mood and outlook on life that only people on the northern fringes of the Atlantic seem to possess - and about seals. Aside from Shara, this is the most poetic film I´ve seen here so far.

The Australian coming-of-age comedy The Rage in Placid Lake and the Finnish Pearls and Pigs would be perfect for twentysomething audiences who think themselves cool and post-Gen-X-y and so on, but actually don´t want their moviegoing experiences to stray too far from the melodramatic standard. The first one features the unfortunately named Placid, a young man raised by hippie parents who consciously decides to give in to the expectations of the corporate world, and hilarity ensues. (Miranda Richardson plays his mom, and we know she´s hilarious, but she´s in good company here.) The Finnish film deals with four rascal sons of an imprisoned father who are in debt and trouble, and yet have no particular wish to do anything about it - until their previously-unknown baby sister arrives. She is 8, terribly cute and shy, and sings like an angel. Of course, they enroll her in a talent contest, and hilarity ensues. It´s an obvious crowd-pleaser, and for the most part it works. Because the kid is so darn cute.

Just for variety, the second Finnish film yesterday was a Fucking Amal-type early puberty drama involving two girls, called Suburban Virgin. I know most of those movies have dodgy titles and involve 13-year-olds and the kind of sexual and social issues that would just be unthinkable in the US - but over the course of this festival I´ve come to admire the Scandinavian honesty and fearlessness in trying to deal with the difficult side of growing up. Some such movies are in our competition, but all the others I see are helping me get a clearer idea of the context and the trends they´ve been made in.

Oh, and it seems I´m the only jury member who actually has time to see more than what´s on the official competition list. With that, I´m off to see my 28th movie so far - a Norwegian teenage drama about a girl going through the difficulties of sexual awakening, per of course...

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

A busy day today. Managed to achieve all I set out to do - see five films, learn about the Oscar noms in time, and meet Niels, the Norwegian colleague in the jury.

But first. The Films.

Saw three documentaries - The Fog of War and Capturing the Friedmans, both nominated for the Oscar today, and Werner Herzog´s Wheel of Time. Now, the last one is terribly bad - not because it involves Buddhism, but because Herzog is a fool who has a zero, zilch, nada understanding of any form of spirituality. Watch Werner interview Dalai Lama! Watch Werner make a complete ass of himself! Wash Rinse Repeat. And to think some people, like Harmony Korine and the other Dogme guys, actually think of him as some sort of a guru. A guru, of all things.

But Erroll Morris´ Fog of War is brilliant - with a few caveats. Of course, it´s about Robert MacNamara, who was one of the key US policy makers of the last 60+ years, and it´s - in MacNamara´s view - about the ways that he deals with his own decisions that resulted in wholesale slaughter of civilians in Japan and Vietnam, and with the utter stupidity in the highest echelons of the Army and the White House that accompanied them. MacNamara is obviously guilty as hell - he even admits that the entire fuckin Vietnam War was started because of a sonar glitch - but Morris just lets him talk, knowing that he´s capturing a truly unique testimony. I don´t know how to feel about it just yet - whether angry, because there was so much idiocy shaping the recent world history, or even more angry, because the current echelon of White House policy makers will never be able to even hide behind the veneer of trying to do the right thing, as MacNamara does.

It´s my favorite to win the Oscar, even though Friedmans is a great film - devoted as it is to exposing one of the dodgier media lynchings of suspected child abusers in recent times. Now, back when I spent some time in the UK in 2000, there was a huge media uproar against non-registered paedophiles who served their prison sentences - apparently they should have worn a Star of David on their coats so that everyone could see them for the filth they are. The fact that the Friedman family were Jewish actually has nothing to do with the amount of prejudice and witch hunting they faced at the hands of the police, close-minded community and the judicial system. And the docu does a great job of being a cautionary tale of the human need for easy victims - it is probably the most gray-shaded and harrowing personal story of all the docus I´ve seen here. It´s just not better than Errol Morris´ film, as a film.

Oh, and last night and today I saw two films in the competition I´ll be judging with Nils, but I won´t be mentioning neither them nor him here, because It Would Be Unfair.

And now for the dessert: Girl with a Pearl Earring. I came into this knowing that it was based on one of the billion gazillion modern novels that deal with art history, and that it´s supposed to appeal to a snobby elite audience such as comprises, for example, most of the Croatian "cultural" establishment. I couln´t have been more wrong - I was delighted throughout! True, I still don´t give a rat´s ass about the book, because this whole story is about the visuals - in the opening shot of the peeling onion, in the myriad and one ways it can convince you that you´re experiencing the reality of life in 17th century Holland, in Scarlett Johansson´s nonexistent eyebrows and ruby red lips, in the gorgeous score that makes you smell it all. And it´s extremely subtle in the shadings of its drama, which is never too terribly big - the few requisite scenes of The Poor Suffering Housemaid come and go without too much impact on the real story. And precisely because the film is never grandiose, because it never shouts and never harrasses and never bribes you, you can follow it down the paths that are quite unheard-of in this day and age. I mean, did I seriously think I´d see a film in which I could be made to feel an almost erotic epiphany at the sight of a curl of hair? I´m saying. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and to know that Scarlett was snubbed at the Oscars both for this - she carries the film magnetically, and yet has no more than a few dozen mostly one-sentence lines - and for Lost in Translation is just retarded. No matter - the world is hers to take, that´s practically obvious now.

I do feel happy for most everyone else who got nominated, though - and for Sean Astin not being nominated, which just means he´ll get one less potential chance to moan about his body fat.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Pieces of April was really good, actually - a cute story about a Thangsgiving reconciliation involving a rather unfortunate turkey and excellent performances from all involved, not only Patricia Clarkson. But turkeys of another kind have begun cropping up in the program I´ve managed to see - Japanese Amazing Story managed to shoot itself in the foot with a very pedestrian approach to story, which seemed to work in a minimalistic fashion until the end. And the Dutch film Interview actually was great for the most part - depicting as it were the kind of a two-person late-night sex-booze-drugs-insecurity-filled encounter that I´ve been unfortunate enough to live through a couple of times myself, wondering whether it could ever be captured on screen. This the director Theo van Gogh actually did rather well, until - again - the ending, which delivered a one-two punch twist instead of anything more in tone with the clever and self-shattering content of what came before. Still, it´s a compelling movie. The Italian L´Isola is, on the other hand, a sweet darling of a movie, an almost documentary-type feature on the life of a teenage brother and his prepubescent sister on a small island off the coast of Sicily. The director, Constanza Quatriglio, is still quite young, but has a kind of maturity that is actually up there with the best modern-day heirs to the Neorealist tradition... there was also In the Cut, which is actually as bad as I´ve heard, mostly because Jane Campion obviously had no idea she was making a regular B-grade erotic thriller. Apparently her delusion was shared by Meg Ryan and the cinematographer Dion Beebe, who did great job here, although I´m still not sure about Mark Ruffalo... that´s about it so far...

...oh, and I saw Kevin Macdonald´s docu on Errol Morris, which was excellent like anything Kevin does, and a good setup for the upcoming Fog of War. That´s the movie I originally wanted to be presenting here. However, that job fell to Nils, my Norwegian fellow juror who is arriving tomorrow. And in three hours I get to present Shara to these Swedes here, and I´m already getting the heebie-jeebies of stage fright. Before that, though, there comes the Swedish Hip Hip Hora!, the first of the eight films in the competition we´ll be judging. It´s about nasty 12-year-olds, and Screen International has already hyped it as the most interesting of the bunch. How dare they do a FYC to my judging process...

Sunday, January 25, 2004

I was just poring over the FIPRESCI website to double-check whether all the eight movies in the Nordic competition here are indeed eligible - meaning, that they hadn´t won a FIPRESCI award previously. Of couse they hadn´t - but I found out something else.

Namely, one of the FIPRESCI winners last year was Koktebel - a movie directed by my fellow Pitch Point 2001 finalists Alexei Popogrebsky and Boris Khlebnikov. Now, I never met Boris, who doesn´t speak any English - but Alex was actually my roommate in Berlin during the pitching and was a sterling guy. I´m so utterly immensely happy for them! And they also got cited as one of the best debuts of 2003!

I´m honestly as happy as if it were my own baby. Will hafta e-mail Alex as soon as I get back home! Molodec, Aljosa!

I think I´m getting the hang of this. (except that the stupid keyboard has question mark in the place of inverted comma, which is horrid) (whip pan to:) Now I actually know which movies the FIPRESCI jury has to judge, and there are only 8 of them, so it´ll be a piece of cake. Also, they?re all Scandinavian, which is a v. obvious ploy by the organizers to have the International Critics Federation actually award them. But fortunately the staff and everybody involved with the festival has been quite kind and also quite forthcoming with sharing their kinks, especially after a few drinks, that I don?t mind giving them an award. That?s right, giving it to them - in the same way the?re giving out a Plexiglas Dragon tomorrow evening, at the same time that the official Swedish Film Awards gala is happening (handing out traditional bronze statues). The plastic dragon thingy is a newfangled award dedicated to extras, gaffers and production assistants - you know, people who never get any respect at the usual ceremonies. Now I can tell you, regardless of how good the films shown here are, the staff definitely hasta get a plastic something. (I know it sounds dodgy. But that?s just the way things are once these people get a few drinks in them...)

Onto the movies - I can?t believe I actually have time to update today.

The Weakness of the Bolshevik is an amazing film that?s so likely to fly under the radar, it?s not funny. The title is actually too clever for its own good - the story concerns a thirtysomething bank manager who is totally bitter about the way his life turned out. And in the course of his merciless teasing of an upperclass woman (who gave him a hard time after a totally minor car accident), he meets the woman?s sister - who?s 15. And he becomes obsessed about her - but not really in a kinky way. And this is where the director, Manuel Martin Cuenca, really shines - there have been so many movies recently about introverted, silent types who go through terrible things in life and are yet more or less utterly unable to express themselves; these things usually are a drag to watch because the lead actor just can?t pull it off. Cuenca is tremendously good at observing the way people act and react to one another, and his star (Luis Tosar, think Robbie Williams, but balding) and the girl (Maria Valverde) just simply make you feel everything there is to know without ever spelling it out. Quite masterly, then. And I must add that the ending even reminded me a bit of my own movie that wasn?t meant to be - so if you wanna know how White Noise ends, well, check this out.

Touching the Void is the infamous reenactment documentary by Kevin Macdonald of the ordeal two British mountain climbers had in the Andes in 1985. I have been a fan of Macdonalds since One Day in September, and here he proves himself to be a master yet again - you feel every beat of the story that put the "wing" into "harrowing", and just live through it with the protagonists, who are never glamourized, but shown frankly to be cocky jocks who just had to take the risk for the risk?s sake. Also, it puts to shame every fictional mountaineering film Hollywood has ever made.

Shara is my baby, actually - the title I?ve selected for the Critics? Program, and the one I?ll be officially presenting tomorrow evening. The only problem? I haven?t seen it till this morning - my whole decision was a product of lack of time and availability of titles, so finally I had to turn to Vanja and ask her which of the titles Gothenburg had proposed is her favorite. So actually I had to trust Vanja that Shara would be good - not that it?s usually a smart thing to bet on Vanja - but lo and behold, I loved it. It?s a very poetic film about a pair of teenagers in Japan who have suffered loss and tragedy, and are trying to deal with it - but it?s never overtly tragic and never spells just about anything out. And yet it?s profoundly moving. And easy to watch, too, just as long as you don?t expect a Robert McKee plotline. It?s actually my favorite of the festival so far - Naomi Kawase, the director, actually rocks my world now, and Vanja has gotten a new lease on her credibility.

Northern Star is a small German movie located in the Pynchon favorite town of Cuxhaven - which is just as fucking as Amal, to use a Swedish cinema simile - and which leaves the rebellious teen Anke increasingly fewer options in life. Julia Hummer is quite good as the girl totally resentful of her mother, whom she blames for her father?s suicide, and the film works basically because newcomer Felix Randau chooses to present the story inside her headspace. It?s a good little drama, even though poor Anke has no place to go at the end, and then Felix just ends it, which is a bit of a cop-out. But Julia actually gets to sing the blues here, which she does amazingly well. So I don?t have to feel bad about missing yet more of the Famous Directors? History of the Blues documentary series that?s currently hogging the spotlight here, just like at any other recent film festival.

Okay - time to have dinner now! After that: Pieces of April. Hopefully it will start snowing by then - the pieces of January I?ve seen so far have been quite chilling. And I have to trudge for 15-20 minutes from venue to venue between screenings, which is not too much fun with all the slush and snow these days...


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