International Film Festival Rotterdam
24-30 January, 2004

[NOTE: As ever, what follows is highly tentative and subject to considerable last-minute change, depending on what buzz I encounter (Rotterdam offers more flexibility to press than any other fest I've attended) and whether extra-cinematic pleasures beckon (though I pretty much explored the surrounding area last year). Also, I've left a few slots empty simply because all of the films are currently unknown quantities, which is why some days I've scheduled five titles (not all of which I'll necessarily get to) and others only three. Plus I can't find any screening times right now for this sucker, the polyphonic siren call of which I cannot resist.]

Sat 24

Green Tea (Zhang Yuan, China): 52
[Flashy style (courtesy Chris Doyle) trumps dopey substance (courtesy yet another dude-consumed-by-two-chicks-played-by-the-same-actress scenario, moratorium please). Jiang Wen immensely appealing in the sort of faux-cool doofus role Owen Wilson has cornered the market on in the States. Gradually becomes kind of insufferable, but the first 15 minutes are so arresting it might be worth seeing for them alone.]

The Living World (Eugène Green, France/Belgium): 65
[If Bresson did children's theater. Semi-anachronistic fairy tale played with just the right balance of dry wit and heartfelt naïveté; the non-performances -- delivered directly to the lens, Interrotron-style -- are all beautifully inflected. Early best line of the festival, from a dying knight: "Now I will never need spectacles." No doubt this assessment will repel as many folks as it attracts, but it's really kind of darling.]

Hero (Zhang Yimou, Hong Kong/China): [no rating, but clearly awesome]
[A "surprise film," and it wasn't until I was trapped in the middle of the Schouwburg (TIFFers: think Uptown 2) that I discovered the print had Dutch subtitles only. Surprise! Rather than make 25 people stand up, I decided to just give it a go, and frankly unless the dialogue scenes turn out to feature Tony and Maggie and Ziyi engaging in spirited debate about the relative merits of Chaplin and Keaton, there's no way this doesn't make my top ten this year. Can't wait to find out what's going on.]

Sun 25

Anatomy of Hell (Catherine Breillat, France): 21
[Remember the big scene in Lovely and Amazing where Emily Mortimer asks Dylan McDermot Mulroney (I forget which, sorry) to assess her naked body? This is that scene, expanded to feature length, written and directed by Catherine Breillat...except here the woman pays a gay man to be the judge, thus allowing Rocco Siffredi to deliver with a blank expression such classic lines as "the elasticity of a boy's anus does not lie." Had somebody deliberately set out to parody Breillat at her most ludicrous, they couldn't have done a better job. And you can't even tune out the pseudo-feminist nonsense and enjoy Amira Casar's loveliness, because you're constantly being lectured about how repulsive you find her (if you = male, regardless of orientation) and how deep down you don't know whether you want to fuck her or kill her or both at once. Shut. Up.]

Accelerated Under-Development: In the Idiom of Santiago Alvarez (1999, Travis Wilkerson): 43
[Apparently re-edited post-Injury, but it still lacks the preternatural formal assurance Wilkerson would shortly develop, and content-wise it rarely transcends hagiography. Nice to see clips from Alvarez's work, though, both for their own sake and as evidence that Wilkerson didn't simply rip off his aesthetic wholesale.]

All Tomorrow's Parties (Yu Lik Wai, China/France): 50
[In which Yu injects a bit of life into the disaffected-Chinese-youth genre by giving his characters something to mope about, viz. an obscure post-apocalyptic cult in lieu of a government, followed by its sudden disappearance. Surprisingly robust cutting and framing, given the work he's done for Jia; inert drama overshadowed by magnificently dilapidated locations and eerie Lynchian soundscape. Intriguing in a remote way.]

\Ong-bak\ (Prachya Pinkaew, Thailand): 57
[My instincts were correct: Not a good movie. It does, however, eventually* feature some of the most eye-popping stunts ever captured on film...though I preferred watching our hero leap over moving vehicles (NOTE: not the hood) and turn cartwheels between panes of glass to watching him fight. (No doubt Muay Thai is a brutally effective style, but it's not that thrilling to watch, in the same way that a real-world bar fight wouldn't be as much fun as, say, Road House.) Instant replay shtick almost as grating as the teen girl's two (2) hysterical crying fits over the corpse of a loved one.

* (38 minutes, for the record. Victor, what was our wager again?)

Mon 26

Pirated Copy (He Jian-Jun, China): 35
[Go ahead and pirate this one, enterprising Chinese street vendors -- you can't possibly make it look any worse. Potentially fascinating milieu ruined by slapdash videography and petty dark-side-of-cinephilia ironies, e.g. an unemployed couple who try to emulate Pumpkin and Honey Bunny's impromptu robbery, with predictably tragic results. Also, why would A River Runs Through It inspire someone to visit the ocean?]

Zebraman (Takashi Miike, Japan): 55
["Don't stand...behind me!" Unbelievably silly, and really little more than an (over)extended bit of sketch comedy, but Sho Aikawa has fun in the title role (as a mild-mannered schoolteacher who takes on the persona of a TV superhero of his youth) and priceless bits abound, including the original show's convoluted theme song: "What made him turn his back/On the savannah?" Decent special effects, too -- how'd he get a budget for this project?]

Ana and the Others (Celina Murga, Argentina): 62
[Ana's singlemindedness proves strangely disarming -- she's pleasant and accommodating on the surface, but you get the feeling that if it were a choice between saving an infant from drowning and securing another lead about her ex-'s whereabouts, she'd be genuinely torn. Rohmeresque, I suppose, but with less philosophizing and much more detached observation; non-ending completely defensible but feels a little coy nonetheless. Not an especially memorable movie, but a promising debut.]

Code 46 (Michael Winterbottom, UK): 41
[Just a muddle, really. Staggering ethical implications ignored in favor of multiculti background detail; Robbins and Morton, ostensibly in love, seem to have been spliced in from two separate movies. The good news is that Winterbottom is so prolific that his next accidental good movie can't be too far away.]

Tue 27

[NOTE: I've bailed on the Ruiz retro since reliable reports indicate that few if any of the prints have English subtitles.]

The Missing (Lee Kang Sheng, Taiwan): 69
[So similar to a Tsai film in many ways that the differences (roving camera, overt melodrama) stand out in bas-relief. It's a richer, more vital work than Good Bye Dragon Inn, with which it was originally intended to be paired in an omnibus project; Lee's use of duration -- particularly that heartbreaking, endless shot of Grandma running frantically around the park -- has an admirable clarity of purpose, and the movie as a whole is elegiac without becoming simply maudlin. Weird to hear Lee rambling on and on in his introduction -- I'm pretty sure that was more than I've heard him speak in all of his movies combined.]

Struggle (Ruth Mader, Austria): 48
[Okay, clearly we need to ship a bunch of Happy Meals to the Austrian populace as soon as possible. Combines the observational study of the disenfranchised with the entomological portrait of discontented suburban pervs, as if Rosetta had wandered into Dog Days; I found its documentary aspects -- laborers crouched down picking strawberries; a lengthy tour of a poultry factory -- more convincing than its occasional stabs at a narrative, and the eventual collision of the two stories feels painfully overdetermined. Life is hard, etc. Got it.]

The Garden (Zeka Laplaine, Congo/France): W/O
[Conferences generally bore me, but if ever one should turn up entitled "African Movies: Why Do They Invariably Suck So Hard?", I'm there. Amateur hour on every conceivable level, from the too-emphatic performances to the contrived "inciting incident" to the careless compositions. Didn't feel like sticking around to see the patronizing white dude reveal his true colors, especially since there was only half an hour left to go.]

Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (Jang Sun-woo, South Korea): 59
[Astonishing from scene to scene, but what's the point, exactly? I have yet to see a movie about video-game culture that says anything especially trenchant about its influence on our daily lives, and Match Girl, after a magnificent prologue and intriguing setup, gradually devolves into a series of rote action scenes and clever but empty gags. Admirably ambitious, but once the title character turned into an avenging angel and it became abundantly clear that any emotional investment in the film was wasted energy, I grew restless in a hurry.]

Wed 28

[Unproven directors. Buzzfree titles. Selections made largely on the basis of venue, proximity to good restaurants, lively stills in the program book. You've just entered...The Walkout Zone.]

Peep "TV" Show (Tsuchiya Yutaka, Japan): W/O
[Exactly the kind of half-assed vid-shot trifle that I predicted was going to overrun festivals in the wake of people taking Kiarostami's 10 seriously. They're here already! You're next! You're next!]

The Last Train (Alexei German Jr., Russia): W/O
[Like father like son, so disregard my hasty retreat if you found Khroustaliov, My Car! something other than torturous. This one's considerably more accessible, but still has little to offer beyond gorgeous b&w 'Scope cinematography. Basically it is just a fat dude trudging around in the snow in my opinion. Also there is War, etc.]

Doppelgänger (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan): 56
[Easy to see why Cannes (allegedly) didn't want this, since it's closer to the hackneyed genre mechanics of something like Single White Female than to Kurosawa's artier efforts. Still entertaining, even if there's more skill than imagination in evidence; split-screen has rarely been used to such disorienting effect, and if the final act doesn't make a whole lot of sense, it's nonetheless perversely satisfying to watch this predictable, controlled movie suddenly and unexpectedly implode.]

Vibrator (Ryuichi Hiroki, Japan): W/O
[cstults explain. Was it the muddy video imagery that appealed to you, or the unidimensional characters (strong silent male, needy female), or does something interesting happen in subsequent reels, or what the hell?]

Thu 29

The Friend (Elmar Fischer, Germany): 61
[Easily the best 9/11 movie to date, though most of its strengths are only tangentially related to the terrorism angle. In a way, it's a male version of Ghost World, with Enid's bus bound for an Al Qaeda training camp; not nearly as glib or offensive as that sounds, though, and Fischer wisely downplays the more sensationalist aspects of his inherently compelling story, letting his actors create characters rather than symbols. Too clumsy to recommend without reservation -- the flashback structure, in particular, is more hindrance than help -- but also too assured and subtly resonant to ignore.]

Días de Santiago (Josué Méndez, Peru): W/O
[Randomly switching back and forth between b&w and color does not make a banal veteran-stymied-by-civilian-life story more interesting or incisive. I think my favorite bit (in color) was the one where our post-traumatic hero dresses up in his fatigues and plays soldier on a deserted beach. Note to self: Avoid all other films at festival with "Santiago" in the title.]

Haute tension (Alexandre Aja, France): 46
[Dutch subtitles again, but I have no qualms about giving a rating this time since (a) I understand French well enough to follow stuff like "Dormez bien" and "Qu'est-ce que vous avez regarder, Jimmy?" and (b) 90% of the movie is dialogue-free in any case. On the other hand, I do have qualms about assigning it this particular rating, since what we have here is a perfectly solid slasher flick -- nicely atmospheric, occasionally witty, constantly gripping, properly gruesome -- that winds up hamstrung by the single most retarded plot twist of all time. All through the movie I kept thinking "Why did the folks at TIFF not dig this?" and then it ended and I was all: Oh. Imagine a terrific rollercoaster ride that ends with the car pulling into the station and a bucket of pig vomit being dumped onto your head. Did you have a good time? You see my dilemma.]

Fri 30

[NOTE: I'm pretty much blowing off movies today -- my final day in town -- in favor of museums and sightseeing. This is the last entry, thanks for reading, until Cannes, etc.]

Dandelion (Mark Milgard, USA): W/O
[Let's see, how can we stack the deck against our sensitive young protagonist, who looks like he just wandered out of Elephant High and is first seen delicately putting the barrel of a pistol into his mouth? First, we'll saddle him with an overbearing, disapproving father; a passive, pill-popping mother; and a crazy uncle who fears that the boy will be killed fighting in Vietnam. (The film is set in the present.) Then we'll show him perform a mercy killing on a wounded bird. Then his asshole dad will allow him to take the fall for the old man's hit-and-run, because presumably a two-year juvie term means nothing compared to pop's campaign council. "TWO YEARS LATER," read the intertitle, and I had to disagree. It had already felt like at least five.]