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It’s All Good: The 2003 AFI Film Festival

The 2003 AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival offered eager cinephiles 134 films from 42 countries over 10 days and 11 nights, including fine documentaries and features, short film programs, and a tribute to Omar Sharif.

The festival was held for the second year in a row at the Arclight Cinemas, right in the heart of Hollywood and in an area that is quickly becoming much trendier than it was three years ago when it was not recommended anyone hang out there past sunset.

This year there were 26 world premieres and most of the features were from new or relatively unknown directors, which is good since festivals should be about discovery more than treading the same old ground. There were however some big name directors with new films including Robert Altman with his latest film The Company, Errol Morris with his excellent The Fog of War and, oddly enough, a 20 minute preview from Anthony Minghella’s new film Cold Mountain.

The Grand Jury Award in the International Feature Competition went to a romantic screwball-type comedy from Denmark titled Old, New, Borrowed and Blue by Natasha Arthy and the best documentary went to Beah: A Black Woman Speaks, by Lisa Gay Hamilton, about actress, poet, and activist Beah Richards.

The Audience Awards for best feature went to In America by Jim Sheridan, which should be hitting theatres soon. The best documentary went to Double Dare by Amanda Micheli, which is about a Hollywood stuntwoman.

I somehow managed to miss all of these films. But I saw plenty of others…

Feature Films

Blind Shaft (Kino) — Combining a realistic palette with a fable, first-time director Li Yang makes a comment about some of the evils wrought by capitalism in China. The story revolves around two killers who take jobs in mines and lure unsuspecting workers into mining shafts and kill them. After the deaths they find a way to collect money from the mine owners on the deaths by pretending that the person they killed was a direct relative of theirs. After one such death the film follows the two criminals as they take a cute, innocent kid under their wing and prepare for his death. Gritty and realistic with fine character development, the film was illegally shot in and around real coal mines and — undoubtedly for its stark portrayal of China — it has been banned there.

Dolls — Japanese director Takeshi Kitano returns with a beautiful myth-like film about two lovers destined to a life of aimless wandering. On his wedding day a man learns that his ex-girlfriend has become brain dead due to an attempted suicide, so he cancels the wedding and attends to her. The film’s very gradual pacing makes it engrossing even though it is difficult for the audience to associate with the main character – who literally gives up everything in his life to be with a zombie-like woman. There is also a parallel story about an aging yakuza that is reunited with his first love after 50 years. The film is about the absolute commitment to love taken to the level of Greek tragedy. At some level the film is absurd but viewed as an allegory rather than real life it works pretty well.

Kitchen Stories (IFC) — This Norwegian film is a subtle character driven comedy (of sorts) about a friendship that develops between a Swedish ‘kitchen scientists’ and an older Norwegian man. The film, by Brent Hamer, has a bizarre premise in which scientists come to observe and take elaborate notes on the movements of people in their kitchens. The idea is to develop a model kitchen that will serve people the best. The film has a restrained, deadpan quality that has become the standard for Scandinavian cinema, but the whole thing pays off in the end.

The Blessing Bell — This is a really darn good Japanese film until the final five minutes. A man loses his factory job and goes wandering for a couple of days. Along his journey he witnesses the death of a yakuza, gets thrown in jail overnight, saves a woman’s child from a burning house, gets hit by a car, sees a ghost, wins the lottery, has the lottery money stolen, wanders further into the night and literally ends up in a hole. Then he wakes the next morning and backtracks. The film, directed by someone simply named Sabu, is slowly paced, mostly silent but very engrossing. The film’s style is not as consistent as it could be, but it does maintain a certain calm mood throughout.

Nói albinói (Palm) — This bleak Icelandic comedy by Dagur Kari is about a bored high school student named Noi who lives in a small remote village. Noi has no mother, his father is a drunk and he lives with his haggard grandmother. Life is pretty dull, and although he seems bright he is at odds with the entire school and manages to get himself expelled. Not a lot happens in the film but is absorbing and picks up pretty well in the second half as Noi is thrown into a situation where he must confront his fate and his future.

The Triplets of Belleville (Sony) — This very imaginative French animated feature by Sylvain Chomet is often fun to watch but also equally annoying. The animation style has a 1930’s French style with strong caricatures including an incessantly whimpering dog, a homely mother and her son, and a rail-thin cyclist with huge, muscular legs. The son is kidnapped by some mafia types for nefarious purposes. The mother and dog go in pursuit with the help of a trio of old hags dubbed ‘the triplets of Belleville’ and they try and get the boy back.

Pornography — Probably the most intellectually rigorous film I saw at the festival, this Polish film by Jan Jakub Kolski takes place in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1943 and deals with a writer and filmmaker who pay a long visit to a country estate as the war unfolds. The two play mind games with the young Lolita-like daughter of the estate owner and make bets that they can get her to fall out of love with her fiancé and in love with her male childhood friend. All the while as they orchestrate this mean-spirited game as history is orchestrating their lives. Beautifully shot and edited, the film — which is based on a book by Witold Gombrowicz — simultaneously has engaging characters and a cold, disjointed narrative structure. In short, it is not very involving but it builds to a strong ending. This is the kind of film that probably requires two viewings to get everything.

James’ Journey to Jerusalem (Zeitgeist) — This low budget Israeli feature by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz is about a young African Christian who makes a trek to Jerusalem where he is suspected of seeking illegal work, so his passport is seized and he is imprisoned. James eventually becomes a wage slave to a racist rich white family that in time begins to trust him. James never actually gets to Jerusalem though, because he gets greedy and finds a way to manipulate the system all the while unable to realize that he is sacrificing his dream and his Christian ideals. The film has a good story but feels very thin and is limited by its budget in both the acting and production quality category.

The Flying Classroom — A big hit in Germany, this film by Tomy Wigand is about a bunch of tough but lovable kids in a boarding school. The film takes a positive approach to boarding schools and troubled youth and in this way treads the ground perfected by Francois Truffaut. But after a while it begins to feel awful thin and a bit moralistic; even though the acting is good, the style is a bit flat.

The Big Empty (Artisan) — An out-of-work actor (Jon Favreau) is ‘hired’ to take a suitcase to the dead-end desert town of Baker, California and wait for ‘the cowboy.’ Of course, nothing goes as planned. The film, directed by Steve Anderson, is sort of a cross between comedy suspense noir and an X-Files episode. It is enjoyable enough but insignificant.

The Green Butchers (New Market) — This Danish film by Anders Thomas Jensen is about two buddies who open up a butcher shop and find their business booming after they start replacing chicken with human meat. It’s droll and grisly for a while, then the film loses steam mainly because of a copout ending.

Nicotina — A diamond-heist-gone-bad movie from Mexico in which all the characters find a way to get themselves killed before the cops even get there. Shot on high-definition video, the program notes say that the film is in real time, but that is only to be believed if the characters stop doing anything until the camera is pointed on them. Director Hugo Rodríguez sometimes shows he has a good imagination, but most of the time he manages to hit all the clichés in the book.

Sexual DependencyThe Los Angeles Times touted this Bolivian film as one of the best in festival and the buzz was hot, but the film is merely an interesting dud. Shot over five years, the film, directed by Rodrigo Bellott, deals with the loss of sexual innocence from virginity to prostitution to rape. Formally the film (shot in digital video) is interesting because it has a raw naturalistic look and the entire film is presented split-screen. But the split screen often only has an aesthetic value and serves little or no narrative purpose. It too often seems insignificant because often the left and right sides of the screen merely overlap, making the image look normal, or the split image simply shows a different angle of the same scene. The film does get better and bleaker as it goes along, but it too often feels like a heavy-handed (albeit auspicious) first film. Of note, this is the first film to be made in Bolivia since 1996.

The Rage in Placid Lake — A barely tolerable coming-of-age comedy from Australia about a kid (played by Ben Lee) who decides to change from his nerdy self to a more ‘normal’ kid, which perplexes his hippie parents and his bright babe-with-classes girlfriend. The film by first time director Tony McNamara is clunky from start to finish.

Documentaries

Bright Leaves — Ross McElwee (Sherman’s March) returns with another idiosyncratic and entertaining documentary. This time he heads to North Carolina to dig up information on his great-grandfather who helped start the tobacco industry in the late 1800s. McElwee investigates history, personal stories, a 1950 Hollywood movie about his grandfather — staring Gary Cooper and titled Bright Leaf — and the effects of tobacco both good (economic) and bad (cancer and death) in our society. At once insightful, self conscious, funny, and poignant, this is the kind of documentary that everyone can appreciate. The problem is how do you market such a film?

The Same River Twice (Balcony) — This nostalgic and insightful take on the past and friendship was one of the better documentaries of the festival. It is about the reflections of five people recalling a river trip taken in their 20s in the Grand Canyon 25 years ago. Sounds boring, right? It’s not. Filmmaker Robb Moss combines footage taken during the river trip and cross-cuts it with footage of their lives today, along with interviews. Although the premise is rather simple, it is a thoroughly engrossing film about memory, counter-culture, the beauty and appreciation of the outdoors, nudity, aging, and lifestyle changes.

Bodysong — This exceptionally mesmerizing work by Simon Pummel consists of an artful montage of hundreds of archival moving images, which tell the story of human life from birth to death and everything in between. The film recalls such films as Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka except that all of the shots are found footage rather than specifically shot for the film. Two-and-a-half years in the making, the film is a marvel to behold (especially from the second row!) and features a fine score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. The film has a good many graphic scenes, including about 20 human births and a couple of shooting deaths, and it is most definitely not for everyone since its narrative is mostly experimental in nature. However good word of mouth will help it find the right audience. The film too has an accompanying interactive website that is remarkable as well in that it includes every shot in the movie with explanations of each shot.

She Got Game — The subject of women’s professional tennis is explored fairly well in this documentary by Abbey Jack Neidik and Bobbi Jo Krals. It is good when it follows the trials and travails of Canadian Sonja Jeyaseelan, a second-tier player on the circuit. The filmmakers seem to want to indict the industry, parents, society, magazines, and TV, but the evidence they provide comes up short in proving that there is a real problem with inflated and unrealistic goals for young women and girls in the world of professional sports. Everyone they interview — including Sonja — seems to be having a good time traveling, playing tennis for a living, signing endorsements, and making money. So what’s the problem?

The Letter — This documentary by Ziad H. Hamzeh is a good but somewhat pedantic documentary about recent bad race relations in Lewiston, Maine. The city had an influx of people from Somalia, which the mostly white community began to be wary of as the economy worsened. Eventually the incompetent mayor of the town wrote a letter to the local newspaper asking the Somalians to stop coming. What ensued was a town split down the middle along racial and racist lines. Soon racist hate groups came into the town to protest the Somalis, and the media ate it all up. Director Hamzeh has his heart in the right place, but he focuses too much on the protest and doesn’t get much in-depth reporting on the community as a whole.

Live Forever — This documentary is about the Brit-pop and Cool Britannia phenomenon of the mid-1990s. The subject could fill many hours but director John Dower cuts right to the chase and interviews a select few primary musicians of the time. What we get is a witty and wild Noel Gallagher (Oasis), a phlegmatic and bemused Liam Gallagher, a conceited and reflective Damon Albarn (Blur), and a self-deprecating Jarvis Cocker (Pulp), as well as a few passing lines by critics, artists, and other musicians. The filmmaker attempts to tie together the musical and artistic resurgence in Britain and the way it unwittingly joined the political period, specifically with the rise of Tony Blair and the Labour party. As it is, the documentary is a good starting point, but the focus is too narrow and slight to the point that if you’re not familiar with the music you may wonder what all the fuss was about.

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