Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

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2046 **½
In Wong Kar-wai's latest, a newpaper and pulp fiction writer has a string of affairs in 1960s Hong Kong. The film's narrative jumps back and forth in time, and in and out of the writer's fictional and real worlds, as characters and situations from real life migrate into fiction, undergoing a transformation each time. Sad, sometimes funny, and beautifully shot, with a vaguely noir-ish feel, 2046 is touching for the first couple of hours, but starts to drag under its own weight towards the end. Definitely worth seeing for fans of Wong Kar-wai, but perhaps not his best. {Bo Gilliland}

3-Iron ***½
South Korea's Kim Ki-duk is definitely a filmmaker to watch. I first loved his transcendentally beautiful meditation Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring and the earlier Bad Guy, a brutal story of crime and obsession that on the surface is Spring's polar opposite. Then Samaritan Girl — not so hot, but I needn't have worried, because now comes 3-Iron, an almost dialogue-free romance about a young drifter and a lonely domestic-violence victim who go around staying in a series of houses whose rightful owners are temporarily absent. Watching this riveting film unravel into a kind of Zen ghost tale is cathartic and uplifting in ways I just cannot explain.

4 ***
It's late at night in present-day Moscow, and three strangers are drinking in a bar and telling extravagant stories about themselves: one says he's involved in a secret government cloning program, another purports to be running an ad campaign for a mysterious happiness-inducing product, the third claims to provide the Kremlin with bottled water. After this fascinating chat we follow the characters into their very different actual lives (involving feral dogs, police interrogations, bizarre round pigs, emotional abuse of an elderly man, and/or doll parts made of masticated bread), and what supposedly results is, according to the SIFF description, "a disturbing and vivid tale of modern Russia". I don't know if that's true, but much of the film intrigued me even though I had little idea what the hell was going on for much of the too-long 126-minute runtime.

5×2 ***½
Director François Ozon finds unique and masterful ways of addressing adult themes without the showy and macabre filmmaking of many of his French peers. His latest, 5×2, is a series of five vignettes that highlight major moments in the history of a contemporary French couple. The twist is, their story begins with their divorce and ends with the first time they meet. The result is a fractured narrative with very few clues or emotional payoffs. Instead, the audience is forced to fervently study the faces of two incredible actors (Valeria Bruni-Tedesch and Stéphane Freiss) looking for hints as to whether the characters themselves know how and why their story will end. {imaginary boy cosmo}

9 Songs **
You may have already read the New York Times article about the hardcore sex in Michael Winterbottom's new movie, and how it is used not for any pornographic purpose, but to bring straightforward sex further into film (John Cameron Mitchell is having less success with funding for his take on this). You may have also read how the central couple's relationship is structured along the indie rock shows they attend in London — Franz Ferdinand, the Dandy Warhols, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club make appearances. But none of this really matters since the film has no interior. It lacks subtlety to such a degree that when you learn where Matt (Kieran O'Brien) goes to live after the inevitable breakup, the metaphor is almost comical. {imaginary chapman boy}

Adam & Steve **½
The reason to see this film is Parker Posey. She steals every scene she's in as fag-hag to thirtysomething Adam (writer/director Craig Chester), who becomes implausibly reacquainted with a former one-night stand named Steve (unengaging Malcolm Gets), but neither of them realizes they've met before. Interesting setup, and I wish that I could report that hilarity ensues, but that only seems to happen when wonderful Posey is around; a more interesting movie would've focused on her character and Steve's best friend Chris Kattan and the freakshow relationship that develops between the two. And a whole other crazy movie could be made about Adam's cursed family (led by fab mom Julie Hagerty), who are also a hoot. But they ain't no Parker Posey.

Arvo Pärt, "24 Preludes for a Fugue" **
The famous Estonian composer is the subject of this at times charming, other times amateurish documentary. While Pärt is charming, whether talking about his formative years or trawling his old notebooks with nostalgic wonder, the film is fragmented so awkwardly that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. There are scenes where the haunting, beautiful music breaks through this, which even a novitiate like myself can appreciate. But the talking head format interspersed with rehearsal footage leaves one too often with the impression of a lesser art chasing the real thing. {imaginary chapman boy}

As It Is In Heaven
Cornball eye-roller of a Swedish sitcom in which a world-renowned conductor (Michael Nyqvist) returns to his lil' backwater hometown and ends up leading the mediocre church choir to greatness. He also helps the conservative townsfolk realize that there's more to life than their podunk ways. Yeah, it's Sister Act meets Chocolat, with nary a Juliette Binoche in sight to kick it out of its treacly quagmire, but I don't doubt that she'll be offered a part in the even-cheesier Miramaxed English-language remake that will inevitably follow. Heaven forbid.

Being Caribou **½
Canadian filmmaker Leanne Allison and her enviro-biologist husband Karsten Heuer spent five months following the migration patterns of caribou in northeastern Canada and through Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge (where Dubya wants to
drill for oil). This doc of their travels has some amazing footage of the titular beasts, plus mountain goats and bears and creatures I couldn't begin to identify, but it ultimately seems rather light for a chronicle of such a significant journey.

Bluebird ***
The apparently fabulous life of individualistic 12-year-old Merel (Elske Rotteveel) involves any or all of the following: taking a train to downtown Rotterdam every morning for classes in a super-sleek public school, going to swimming practice, rehearsing for the school play, spending time with her special-needs brother, reading Roald Dahl and/or Leo Tolstoy. And she's a model student, which doesn't bode well for her social status — I guess there are cruel and bratty popular kids in Holland too. Bummer. Originally a Dutch TV after-school special, this touching and effective little film is highlighted by Rotteveel's superbly natural performance.

Boats out of Watermelon Rinds ***
Nice little film from Turkey in which two rural teen boys fantasize about lots of things (being filmmakers, dating a hoity-toity town girl) while working toward the lofty goal of building a movie projector out of a wooden box. Interesting characterizations and strikingly goth DV fantasy-imagery make first-time feature director Ahmet Ulçay one to watch.

Brothers ***½
Emerging Master Susanne Bier follows up her 2003 Dogme melodrama Open Hearts with another fascinating (though decidedly un-Dogme) family drama about loss and reconciliation. After an apparent tragedy explodes the wonderful life of happily-married Sarah (Connie Nielsen) and Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) into chaos, Sarah grows closer to her wild-child brother-in-law Jannik (hot Bier regular Nikolaj Lie Kaas)… and, refreshingly, it doesn't turn out quite how you expect. The final devastating act, highlighted by the bruisingly honest performance of young Sarah Juel Werner, seethes with a slow-burning intensity that I shan't soon forget.

Childstar **
Canadian Don McKellar, one of those familiar character actors who you might remember from his roles in eXistenZ and Exotica, wrote and directed this mediocre take on the world of child actors. The film focuses on a Culkin-like kid with the fabulous childstar name Taylor Brandon Burns (Mark Rendall) who's skedaddled from the set of a big Hollywood blockbuster being filmed north of the border. His high-maintenance mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and new friend Natalie (Kristin Adams, who is so good that she really seems to be from another, better movie) join in the ridiculousness. Then there's Alan Thicke, surprisingly hilarious in an extended cameo as Taylor's TV dad in the dreadful sitcom Family Differences. It's funny because it could happen.

Clean ****
Can you tell the story of an indie rock widow and ex-junkie cleaning up for the sake of her kid without getting bogged down by sentimentality? If you're Olivier Assayas, you do it very well. Reuniting with ex-wife Maggie Cheung (in a masterful performance of her own), Assayas takes his broken protagonist through globalized London, Paris, San Francisco, and Vancouver on her way up and down and up and down. The film's only flaw may be that it doesn't have the same formal intelligence as his last film Demonlover; but it is a beautiful exercise in straightforward storytelling, avoiding the landmines of cliché at every step. {imaginary chapman boy}

Côte d'Azur **½
The French title is actually Crustacés et Coquillages, literally Shellfish and Shells. Originally the English title was to be Cockles and Mussels, which is much sassier than Côte d'Azur, don't you think? Anyway, the film is a breezy trifle in which Marc (Gilbert Melki) and Béatrix (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, also in the SIFF '05 hit 5×2) take their two adult children to the Riviera summer house of Marc's youth, where their daughter (Sabrina Seyvecou) runs off with a biker and their might-be-a-homo son (Romain Torres) takes lingering walks the beach with his charming best friend (Edouard Collin). Things get steamier than a too-long shower when Béatrix's lover Mathieu (Jacques Bonnaffé) shows up, and an old flame of Marc's appears. It's randy in an old-fashioned way, and light as a feather: the only required brain power is for reading the English subtitles.

Dalecarlians **½
A typical story: a single thirty-something big city protagonist comes home to the countryside for a parent's birthday and feels jealous of siblings who have kids while the siblings feel jealous of big city single life. Lots of Scandinavians on snowmobiles who repress their emotions (and one crazy uncle who speaks his mind) drink far too much booze at the party and drama ensues. The Dalecarlians? Nah, that was my last trip home to Wisconsin. Make the protagonist female, have everyone speak Swedish, and add some contrived melodrama….that's the Dalecarians. Despite its rather conventional plot, this is a pleasant film that tugged the heartstrings of even a cynical city boy like me. {imaginary boy cosmo}

Dead Man's Shoes ***
Not that I mind, because he's a terrific actor (and not at all un-hot), but is Paddy Considine in every British film now? He even co-wrote this thriller (with director Shane Meadows) and stars as a disaffected soldier who returns to his Derbyshire hometown with a singular purpose in mind: to get even with a group of petty thugs who committed a heinous crime against his mentally-challenged brother (spot-on Toby Kebbell) years before. Good performances and startling twists make for a riveting tale of vigilante vengeance.

Drive Well, Sleep Carefully ***
Wilco had its label battles, the Stones had the Hell's Angels, and Bob Dylan had his own persona. Great rock documentaries often have fate on their side. So when Justin Mitchell followed hometown heroes Death Cab for Cutie for 3 weeks of their recent North American tour, he didn't have much of a chance to get anything deeper than some concert footage (with great sound) and a few charming interviews. Much of what you might expect to see — their "O.C" fame, signing to Atlantic — is only referred to. Still, the band is more honest with the camera than most; they even answered one of my age-old questions,
"Don't they get tired of playing the same damn songs every night?" (Yes. Yes they do.) In the end, the film is a love letter for the fans and standard fare for the rest.
{imaginary chapman boy}

The Dying Gaul ***
Writer Craig Lucas makes a decent transition to film director with this adaptation of his contempo Greek tragedy. A mid-nineties fledgling screenwriter (Peter Sarsgaard) is offered big bucks for a script about his boyfriend's dying days, but a ruthless studio exec (Campbell Scott) wants to make it a heartland-friendly boy-girl weepfest. Patricia Clarkson shines (as per usual) as the exec's busybody wife; her shocking actions culminate in a deadly denouement. The real star here, though, is Lucas' story, and this far-from-perfect adaptation just manages to do it justice.

Ellie Parker ***
Stripped-down DV screwball comedy about a struggling but dedicated actress (Naomi Watts) driven to the edge of loony-land. Production values aren't the best (shaky hand-held camerawork had me diggin' for the Dramamine), but it's quite refreshing to see rising star Naomi in a micro-budget DIY indie. Especially when her character gets to do hilarious things like vomit bright-blue ice cream, dig in a dumpster for recently-discarded headshots, and scream horrible audition lines like "Yes, I sucked his flaccid fucking cock!" Plus fellow Aussie Rebecca Rigg is a hoot as Ellie's friend and partner in neurosis.

Frozen **½
We don't deserve two films in one SIFF starring fabulous Shirley Henderson. Here she plays Kath, a northern UK fish-cannery worker on a dogged search for her missing-for-two-years sister. The disappearance takes on a metaphysical cast (Kath discovers a puzzling image in surveillance footage of where the sister was last seen alive), which just makes it all kinda silly, but Henderson is brilliant throughout. (And, after all, not every movie can be a Yes.)

Godzilla: Final Wars **½
As the title suggests, Toho Studios of Japan has promised Final Wars to be the very last Godzilla movie, in honor of big green guy's 50th anniversary. Oh, there's some plot about mutant human beings that use kung-fu to fight monsters. And something about aliens trying to take over the Earth. What's important is this: Unlike Hollywood's recent ill-conceived remake, Godzilla and the other monsters are still men in rubber suits smashing model cities and plastic tanks! And look, there's Rodan! And Mothra! It's like being a ten-year old kid again! Fun! Happy retirement, big fella. {imaginary boy cosmo}

Hari Om ***
I've always wished that SIFF would program a Bollywood musical or two each festival. Sure, those movies are completely over-the-top, obscenely lavish (especially considering their big-time popularity in such an impoverished nation), and largely incomprehensible to western audiences (though they all basically have the same plot), but this tons-of-guilty-fun world cinema genre tends to go unrepresented in our otherwise mammoth festival. Oh well. At least we're privy to good films like Hari Om, an exciting and very charming road story that gleefully references Bollywood conventions. Soon after the titular rickshaw-taxi driver and gambling addict (Vijay Raaz) meets vacationing French couple Isa (Camille Natta, a sort of Gallic Nicole Kidman) and Benoit (Jean-Marie Lamour, a sort of Gallic Matthew McConaughey), Isa misses a train and the two get separated. Hari Om winds up driving Isa around Rajasthan and surrounding environs while on the run from some baddie gangsters to whom he owes money. What results is an engaging and heartfelt film with sweet moments of discovery, aching loveliness, and first-time feature director Ganapathy Bharat's wonderful use of music and natural locations. Not quite balls-out Bollywood, but I'll take it.

Hawaii, Oslo ***½
A Norwegian Crash, minus the racial strife and with the slightest touch of magical realism. It's the hottest day of the year in Oslo, and many lives collide: new parents get bad news about the health of their newborn baby; their ambulance driver rescues a suicidal woman whose troubled tween sons are living Nobody Knows-style after their father's untimely death; the boys encounter a mental-health professional with apparent psychic ability… and the wondrously well-plotted story goes on and on. It's a grand achievement, with lots of familiar faces (Jan Gunnar Røise and Petronella Barker among them) for devotees of Scandinavian cinema, and I'll definitely be on the lookout for more from talented director Erik Poppe.

Heights ***
Perhaps it is true that even New York can feel like a small world, as the film Heights posits. (Well, at least this seems to apply to the subculture of the NYC arts scene.) Based on a short play, this feature-length film is an elaboration upon the myriad ways that three lives are connected leading up to the rooftop on which they meet. The connections are juicy and enjoyable as they are revealed, but are ultimately unsatisfying due to the lack of screen time devoted to any one character. The result a slick ensemble piece with great dialogue and good acting (Glenn Close practically steals the movie in her small role) but lacking the emotional punch of a more focused story. {imaginary boy cosmo}

The Holy Girl ***
Lucrecia Martel's follow-up to her masterful 2001 film La Ciénaga tells the story of a teen Argentine girl (María Alche) reconciling her budding sexuality with her Catholic beliefs. The film reveals itself slowly — but patience is rewarded with off-the-wall drollness (a maid with a spray-freshener penchant, a naked man appearing on a patio after having fallen from a window on the floor above) and a nice turn by lovely Alias star Mía Maestro.

Izo **½
The immensely prolific Takashi Miike's latest to be shown stateside, Izo is the tale of a murderous, immortal spirit based on a real 19th century myth. To give a standard review to such an intentionally bizarre and fractured film feels like a slight, but I'll still try. For a director who has fully digested so many Western aut
eurs, Miike is genuinely offering up something different this time. What we are given is a thinking man's samurai tale run through the blender. The result is very hit-and-miss, with moments of violent marvel and others of tiring redundancy. It also doesn't help that the director is miles ahead of his special effects team. {imaginary chapman boy}

The Journey ***½
Lush, colorful, beautiful film in which two teen rural Indian girls (Shrruiti Menon and Suhasini V. Nair) start getting hot for each other, play a little Cyrano game with a humorously clueless male classmate, and finally succumb to their desires. But when villagers' tongues start waggin', things get ugly, and it sends one of the families into panicked preparations for an arranged marriage. Strong characterizations and sobering insights into Indian culture make Chicago-based director Ligy J. Pullappally one to watch.

King's Game ***
Slow-burning political thriller from Denmark about government corruption and media manipulation. Anders Berthelsen is great as a politico-journo who, suspecting that a Prime Minister candidate was the victim of foul play, enlists the help of a cynical freelance tabloid writer (Nicolas Bro) to unravel a tangled web of high-level deceit. At one point the two go to SAS and manage to check out top-secret surveillance footage whilst posing as producers of a fake TV show called They Never Came Home. It's funny because it could happen.

Kontroll ***½
Famously filmed entirely in the Budapest metro, this debut by Nimrod Antal follows a charming crew of ticket checkers as they're ignored, insulted, and beaten by the general populace. Though the writing and acting suffers from the stock Cool Silent Guy In Black syndrome that is the hallmark of amateur cinema (at home and abroad), Kontroll is saved by gorgeous cinematography — reminiscent of Conrad Hall's symmetry — and genuine warmth. There are moments of levity and humor amid the murder mystery plot, which keeps things nicely balanced throughout. Overall, a solid first film which one hopes starts a particularly daring trend in our own bus tunnels. {imaginary chapman boy}

L'Amant **½
Shojo manga-based story in which a high-school senior (Ando Nozomi) decides that the way out of her boring existence is to put herself under contract with three men to be their collective lover for one year. Quirkiness ensues, and I'm sure there are feminist undercurrents somewhere, but by the end of the too-drawn-out final act I had honestly stopped caring.

Land of Plenty **
Acclaimed German film director Wim Wenders continues his love affair with (and struggle to understand) America in his latest, Land of Plenty. John Diehl plays a militant Vietnam vet trying to protect America from terrorists vigilante-style. Michelle Williams is his niece, a Christian missionary coming back to America after having grown up overseas. Together they struggle with what it means to be an American in a post-9/11 world. Wenders deserves credit for tackling tough issues, but his films seem increasingly less interested in telling a good story than they are in giving a good sermon. {imaginary boy cosmo}

The Last Mogul **½
This overly slick flick on the life and times of Hollywood agent and power-broker Lew Wasserman has a disquieting E! documentary feel, but could be a relatively interesting look at the late Tinseltown legend for those unfamiliar with his legacy. (Wasserman brought us the disaster flick, the studio tour, the TV movie of the week, and Jaws, among other things.) Of the many interviewees (we're talking Robert Evans, Larry King, President Jimmy Carter), the most interesting and candid is… Suzanne Pleshette. Yeah.

Layer Cake **½
Slick British crime thriller directed by longtime Guy Ritchie producer Matthew Vaughn and featuring a wealth of good production elements that never really meld into anything memorable. Fantastic Daniel Craig (probably best known stateside for his daring turn in last year's The Mother) is slick perfection as the nameless drug dealer who decides he wants 'out', and great Michael Gambon shines in an extended cameo as his top-tier criminal mentor, but the flick's rushed and convoluted script doesn't really give us a chance to care about much else.

Little Sky ***½
The most depressing film I've seen in ages, but also the most soberingly truthful. A young drifter (beautiful and affecting Leonardo Ramírez) goes to work for a troubled farm couple (Mónica Lairana and Darío Levy) in rural Argentina, but gets more than he bargained for when compelled to care for their neglected baby son (cute-as-a-button Rodrigo Silva). Just as we're taken in by the deep emotional bond that forms, the second half of the film takes us on an increasingly dark journey, and talented director María Victoria Menis is to be admired for her willingness and ability to so effectively slap us upside the head with brutal social realism.

The Lizard ***½
This 2004 comedy from Iran (which has since been banned there, but only after having become that country's biggest box-office draw since the late '70s) tells the story of a petty thief called Reza the Lizard (fantastic Parvis Parastui), a chameleon criminal who escapes jail by posing as a Mullah. When he has to stay in disguise for longer than he expected, he accidentally becomes the revered leader of a small-town mosque, bringing people flooding in with his refreshingly frank (and occasionally Pulp Fiction-inspired) sermons. The story's lighthearted, common-sense approach to dogma and religion and spirituality represents a side of Iranian cinema that we've never seen — and we may be hard-pressed to ever see it again.

Lonesome Jim ***
The actor Steve Buscemi plays down-on-their-luck characters on the fringes of society, and often on the fringes of the plot of whatever movie they find themselves in. These characters always seem a bit too strange to be the heroes of the story, but his heartfelt portrayals make them intriguing and real. Buscemi the director likes to take these characters and build stories around them. He explores the little corners of life where there is not much drama other than f
inding reasons to get out of bed in the morning. This journey leads to films that seem somehow more true-to-life, in the tradition of Cassavetes. Lonesome Jim is a perfect example. The titular character Jim (Casey Affleck) comes home to Indiana to have a nervous breakdown, but instead begrudgingly finds ways to connect with his family and, ultimately, to himself. This film is at its best when it captures the quiet yet profound struggles of life and family in Middle America. {imaginary boy cosmo}

Mars ****
Marx, a forgotten Soviet city closed off from the outside world, has been transformed by filmmaker Anna Melikan into Mars, a Felliniesque place caught somewhere between the old Soviet reality and an unknown yet hopeful future. The city is now known for its stuffed animal factory, and the citizens barter with this 'soft currency' as they plan their moves to Moscow and other dreamscapes. The central story is of a boxer who gets off the train at random and finds himself swept up in the schemes and dreams of Mars' wacky denizens. This movie is my personal favorite of the fest. After years of seeing dour films about Russia tinged with irony, this film is simply bursting with life, beauty, and visual ideas. Mars may or may not be about the new hope of Russia despite its lingering problems, but, for me, it is all about the rapturous joy of filmmaking.
{imaginary boy cosmo}

My Stepbrother Frankenstein ***½
A nuclear family in the new Russian middle class has their world turned upside-down when the father's illegitimate son shows up on their doorstep. The son, Pavel (Daniil Spivakovsky), has come to Moscow to meet his long-lost father and receive an operation to repair wounds from fighting in the Chechnyan War. But Pavel's wounds are psychological as well as physical. This is a film of strong social conscience that is applicable to Russia, America, and every society that trains young men and women to be killing machines and somehow expects them to return to normal life afterwards. But more than being a message film, this is an engaging story told with impeccable writing, directing and acting.
{imaginary boy cosmo}

Mysterious Skin ***½
Michelle Trachtenberg (yes, Dawn from Buffy!) is in this wonderful new Gregg Araki film, and I am here to tell you that she absolutely kicks ass. Her former TV sis Sarah Michelle Gellar would never dare to take on a role as raw and confrontational as this one, so who's the slayer now, bitch? Dawn, I mean Michelle, plays the BFF/fag-hag to sinewy bundle of deliciousness Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who's also great (as a hustler — double yum) and just keeps delivering on the indie-cred potential of 2003's Manic. Living in the same stiflingly small Kansas town as these two characters is a cute dorky late-teen (Brady Corbett, last seen a couple years ago in Thirteen) who is full of X-Filesish questions after having suffered mysterious blackouts as a youngster; he comes to believe that he can find answers in Gordon-Levitt's character, and he does, and it all culminates on the most heartbreaking Christmas Eve ever. Adapted from Scott Heim's 1996 novel of the same name, this is a beautiful, wrenching, unforgettable film, and a career best for indie auteur Araki.

My Summer of Love ***½
Newcomers Natalie Press and Emily Blunt give unbelievably natural performances in this Beautiful Creatures-esque film about teen Yorkshire lasses whose exotic fascination for one another spirals into all-consuming creepiness. One of the girls has a born again former-pub-owner brother played by Paddy Considine, who I've never hated (and simultaneously lusted after) more.

Omagh ***
Sobering docudrama on the aftermath of a deadly late-'90s Real IRA bombing in Omagh, Northern Ireland. After losing his son in the tragedy, a mild-mannered mechanic (incredible Gerard McSorley) works through his sorrow and rage by becoming the spokesman for the victims' families, but he soon realizes that the government's efforts to keep the peace have little to do with true justice. Made for Irish television, but far from movie-of-the-week melodrama.

Open Hearts ***½
Young Copenhagen couple Joachim (Neanderthal-sexy Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Cecilie (lovely Sonja Richter) get engaged. It's all sweet romance and warmly-lit spaces until, abruptly, Joachim is involved in an accident that leaves him paralyzed. Then, in a fabulous house on the other side of town, we meet the woman responsible for the accident, Marie (astonishingly performed by Dogme regular Paprika Steen). Eventually Cecilie starts having an affair — with Marie's hot doctor husband (Mads Mikkelsen)! And, well, it's hard to blame her. more

Police Beat ***
An African immigrant turned Seattle bike cop known as "Z" (Pape Sidy Niang) investigates a series of bizarre crimes, all the while dealing with heartsickness over the impending loss of a flaky girlfriend (Anna Oxygen) he'd be better off without. Director Robinson Devor co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Mudede (who based the crime bits on his popular weekly Stranger column), and the result is a splendidly-photographed and often fascinating glance into a sorrowful and puzzled inner world.

Pucker Up ***½
There's actually a such thing as the National Whistling Competition. The 31st annual event happened last year in Louisburg, North Carolina, and this rollicking and very entertaining documentary (from the directors of Southern Comfort, no less) introduces us to several of the event's passionate puckering participants. (The coolest is a Dutch guy named Geert, who I was rooting for from the beginning and who absolutely defied all with his final-round music choice.) Footage from the competition is interwoven with interviews from whistling experts (yes, they exist too) and off-the-wall film/TV footage, and the result is an oddball nonfiction treat. If Christopher Guest directed an actual documentary, I'm thinking it would look something like this.

Red Dust ***
Chiwetel Ejiofor's remarkable acting talents, not to mention his super-sexiness, are on full display in this compelling film about a former anti-apartheid activist and African
National Congressman undergoing a Truth and Reconciliation trial in South Africa. Ever-amazing Hilary Swank plays his attorney, and we're told that her formative years in the grotesquely divided nation resulted in emotional scars. But (after the undeniably powerful denouement) I found myself wishing that director Tom Hooper had shown us whether they were anywhere near as profound as the physical marks Ejiofor had been forced to endure.

Rice Rhapsody **½
With a mom as fabulous as Sylvia Chang, what boy wouldn't turn out gay? Two of her three sons did for sure, and the jury's still out on the youngest, but a hot French exchange student (Melanie Laurent, wondrous in her breezy role) may help us all figure it out. Or maybe not, considering how much cheap info-withholding goes on in the rather flat script. And Martin Yan (of TV's Yan Can Cook) adds to the corn factor. It's consistently nice-looking, though, and the boys are all hot. Harmless fun.

Rock School **½
Most of this movie was a pain in my ass. If you're a fan of Zeppelin and Zappa and the ilk, it may prove more enjoyable, but I reckon you also have to possess a high tolerance for irksome egomaniacs. Because that's what Philadelphia's School of Rock Music founder Paul Green is. Think back to the fictionalized Jack Black version of him in the better Hollywood film School of Rock and make that character twice as boisterous and annoying and you'll begin to get an inkling. But some of the future-headbangers (aged 9-17) in the Rock School doc are pretty cool. The final third of the film chronicles a trip by a group of the star students to Germany's "Zappanale" festival, and the highlight is a ridiculously talented lil' mixed-race guitar player named C.J. absolutely bringing the tent down as hordes of awe-stricken Aryan admirers look on. And that is kind of a kick.

Saraband ***½
Since his retirement from cinema (with 1982's Fanny and Alexander), legendary Ingmar Bergman has written and directed a steady stream of stage dramas and Swedish-TV plays, many of which revisit his earlier characters' continuing struggles to overcome the bullshit they've created for themselves. The fantastic Saraband is a sequel of sorts to 1973's Scenes From a Marriage, with Bergman old-timers Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson as a former couple working through their bitterness and lingering affection. Josephson's character also deals with a mentally-unstable son (Borje Ahlstedt) and musical-prodigy granddaughter (Julia Dufvenius), all via 10 vignettes of varying intensity. The blistering and beautifully-scripted result is not quite classic Bergman, but it's not really meant to be.

The Story of My Life ***½
This delightful film would be worth seeing only for the fabulous design of the opening-credits sequence, but fortunately there's so much more to love. Imagine a male-oriented Paris-set Sex and the City with a script punched up by Annie Hall-era Woody Allen. Yeah, good stuff. The story follows a celebrity ghostwriter named Raphaël (played by Edouard Baer, sporting a severe case of chronic stubble and spending the movie looking like he just rolled out of bed after a three-day bender) who dreams of being a novelist but just can't seem to express his true self. When Raphaël discovers that his asshole football-star client is dating a woman he once pined for, his wonderfully blunt girlfriend (excellent Marie-Josée Croze) is led to utter a line which I will just go ahead and deem classic: "Cowardice is the most common flaw in men, after mediocrity." This is an insightful and very funny film (there are seriously a couple moments of pants-pissing hilarity) that moves along briskly and efficiently (at a slim-n-trim 90 minutes) and is genuinely, refreshingly surprising.

Ten'ja, the Testament ***
French-born Nordine (very sexy Roschdy Zem), on his way to bury his father in Morocco's Atlas Mountains, finds that he knows his homeland only through family stories. When he meets the charismatic Nora (Aure Atika) along the way, she joins him on the road and helps him explore what it means to be Moroccan. Incredibly touching moments occur when they reach what is left of the little village where the father was born and is to be buried, and a graveside dialogue is one of the most heartfelt and poetic I've ever witnessed in cinema. Director Hassan Legzouli has given us a simple and beautiful little film about roots and branches, fathers and sons.

Three…Extremes ***½
An omnibus by three Asian directors known for their shocking fare, these short films are intelligent and, well, extreme in their own ways. Fruit Chan's film Dumplings never loses its Twilight Zone-esque tone, providing commentary on the dangers of vanity, marriage, and cannibalism. Park Chan-wook, of the 2004 Cannes favorite Oldboy, goes again for the revenge tale, this time with a nice air of metafilmmaking and Matthew Barney production. The last short is the only dissapointment. Normally to go-to guy for blood and torture, Takashi Miike's Box is instead a moody, circus-themed Lynch redux. But what do I know? I never accidentally burn my sister alive in my dreams.
{imaginary chapman boy}

Three of Hearts ***½
Surprising and very engaging documentary about eight years of a real-life "tri-ogomous" relationship. Steven and Sam were the model gay couple when Samantha came into their lives and home. During the course of the film, little Siena (Lordy, all these s's — even they admit it's obnoxious) comes along, and no one knows whether Steven or Sam is the bio-dad. And they say it doesn't matter, but legally only one can claim parentage. Who will it be? The answer to this and other questions, plus the impending arrival of yet another "S" into this offbeat family, set the stage for a jaw-dropping twist just as a tidy happy ending seems imminent.

Tony Takitani ***½
Gently moving film based on a Haruki Murakami story about the lonely title character (Issey Ogata), a talented illustrator who finds happiness late in life when he marries a beautiful and stylish young wife (Miyazawa Rie). She happens to have an addiction to designer clothing, though, and this proves to be (in a round-about way) her tragic flaw. Not much happens, really, but the lovely muted tones and subtle symbolic Ozu-esque touches make Jun Ichikawa's latest effort a sort of aching life lullaby.

Tropical Malady ****
It's taken me a while to get any sort of grasp on maverick Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's masterful and unparalleled latest, but it's rarely left my mind since I saw it. The film begins in modern-day rural Thailand with a light and subtly sensual romance between a simple ice-factory worker named Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) and a soldier named Keng (very sexy Banlop Lomnoi). This story charms and arouses, then ends before the halfway point, and an entirely different movie seems to begin, this time about a soldier (is it Keng?) tracking a nude tattooed ghost-creature (is it Tong?) in an ominous and abstract forest. Odd as it may seem, Tropical Malady exists as Siamese twins, with the two distinctly unequal halves joined in places we can't quite see. I've never had a cinematic experience quite like it, or felt as tranquilized by a film and subsequently imbued with elusive wisdom. (And if I were more familiar with Thai folklore, who knows what I'd be able to make of the talking baboon which may or may not be a legendary shaman with shapeshifting abilities.) For the purposes of this too-brief-to-be-effective recap, Tropical Malady must be awarded the highest possible rating, because it is the best, most haunting, most stunningly perplexing film I saw at this year's SIFF. Even so, it may be understatement to call this a challenging piece of work that isn't for everyone, and if you're like a good number of audience members at the screening I attended you'll give up and leave Weerasethakul's strangely fanciful world long before it's had a chance to cast its gripping and enigmatic spell.

Uno ***
I've been a fan of raw and sexy Norwegian actor Aksel Hennie for… well, just a week or so, since I saw him in the SIFF '05 hit Hawaii, Oslo. He's also quite wonderful in this film (yes, the title refers to everyone's favorite '80s card game, which even plays a supporting role) as a mid-20s Oslo gym employee named David who gets tangled up with a small-time crook and his bitch of a troublemaking son. There's also the chicken-shit bastard of a best friend (Nicolai Cleve Broch) who is so undeniably hot that I could almost see why David overlooked his many, many shortcomings. Anyway, enough about him (I'm still mad about what his character does to David in the final scenes), I didn't realize until I sat down to write this review that Hennie also wrote and directed this movie! And it really is an impressive debut. Draw four! (Well, draw three. Stars, that is.)

Vital ***
Fantastic Tadanobu Asano (also great in 2004's Last Life in the Universe) stars as a medical student left amnesiac in a car accident that killed his girlfriend. He returns to university with vital vigor and finds himself strangely drawn to his anatomy studies, because come to find out the cadaver on his lab-slab is the girl he unwittingly killed! What are the chances?! Director Shinya Tsukamoto's latest film is confusing at first, but eventually becomes a beautifully-photographed and occasionally horrific take on the physical body's (real or imagined) link to the spiritual.

Warsaw **½
As in Kieslowski's Three Colors: White, Warsaw the city and Warsaw the film seem hopelessly covered in white snow and shades of grey. This contemporary city portrait follows the interweaving tales of five people and their struggle to find a glimmer of hope in an unforgiving urban milieu. The drama of their stories never really hits home, but this film does do a nice job of capturing the spirit and beauty of a city with a tragic history and an uncertain future.
{imaginary boy cosmo}

The World ***
The latest from Jia Zhang-ke follows a young dancer (Zhao Tao), her security guard boyfriend (Chen Taisheng), and myriad others as their lives entangle at Beijing's Window to the World theme park. Well-acted, occasionally beautiful, slow-moving vignette-structured film that offers a subtle critique of one of many traditional cultures coping with globalization.

Yes ****
William Shakespeare has decided to give us something contemporary, and his ghost has inhabited fantastic writer/director Sally Potter to carry it out. Or so it would seem, anyway, because the iambic-verse dialogue of Yes is marvelous and wise in ways that few of today's auteurs could ever dream of. Always-fabulous Joan Allen plays a London-dwelling Irish-American in an unfulfilling open marriage with a restrained British husband (Sam Neill); she takes on a sexy Middle-Eastern lover (Simon Abkarian) who brings about (among other things) some sobering post-9/11 life realizations. The dialogue stops seeming gimmicky after a while, a voiceover in a hospital scene near the end achieves sheer poetic perfection, and the shamefully under-appreciated actress Shirley Henderson is a chirpy-droll hoot as the leader of a "chorus" of all-observing maids. Is this one of 2005's best films? Why, Yes.

Yesterday **½
The heartrending story of Yesterday (fantastic Leleiti Khumalo), a Zulu woman in the Kwazulu Natal struggling with AIDS. Writer/director Darrel James Roodt has given us an effective illustration of the challenges faced by HIV-positive Africans (scarce medical care, poverty, sexual ignorance) and a fascinating look at life in a Zulu village. But at times the film comes across too glossy and pretty, a colorful sugar-coating surrounding bitter truth.

Complete list of SIFF award winners

SIFF official website

SIFF '05 preview and picks