2002 Reviews

Here are the reviews for the films that played at the 2002 World Film Festival.

8 Women (8 Femmes) (France - 2002)
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert
Director: François Ozon
Plot: When a rich family man gets killed in his snowed-in mansion, the eight women around him, all suspects in his death, try to discover who among them is guilty as the truth about their relationships comes to light.
Review: Adapted from a play by Robert Thomas, 8 Women is part musical comedy, part Agatha Christie-style murder-mystery, and all farce. The story is full of shocking, ridiculous twists and turns as secrets are revealed and the tension mounts to the final surprise revelation. It's all exaggerated and way over-the-top, often verging on the camp. One isn't too surprised, then, when the characters suddenly burst into song and dance at the strangest of moments. There are the occasional stretches, and the script can't always keep up with the zany surprises, but thankfully there's energy to spare on display here. And that's the thing: the film never takes itself seriously, be it about the murder, the plot, or even the characters - it's all just an excuse for the film's real attraction, the chance to see these wonderful actresses play some delightfully exaggerated tongue-in-cheek roles, interact, and get into as much mischief as they can get away with. Prissy, ignoble, self-serving and conniving, the eight women each have a dangerous secret to hide and an obvious motive for the crime. Of the grand cast, the three that really stand out are the always-classy Deneuve as the disenchanted wife, the tall, forceful Ardant as the woman-of-the-world sister, and an unrecognizable Huppert as the impossibly stuck-up sister-in-law. These great dames of French cinema really pour it on - and seeing Deneuve and Ardant cat-fighting, rolling on the floor pulling each other's hair out is worth the price of admission on its own! As to Béart, she does an appropriately cold, distant turn as the sexy chambermaid, while the rest of the cast also gets into the game with wild abandon. In fact, so impressive is the casting choice that the 2002 Berlin Festival awarded it a special ensemble acting prize. Director Ozon (who previously made the melancholy Under the Sand) pays homage to the melodramas of the 1950's by re-creating the blatantly artificial look of these Technicolor features with their brightly-colored dresses, pristine old-fashioned sets and a carefully planned old school mise-en-scène. Audiences coming in and knowing what to expect won't be able to avoid grinning during most of the running length of this quirky, amusing romp. 8 Women might not be great cinema, but it sure is fun moviemaking.
Entertainment: 7/10

Bemani (Iran - 2001)
Starring: Masoumeh Bakhshi, Shadi Heydari, Neda Aghayi 
Director: Dariush Mehrjui
Plot: A head-strong thirteen-year old girl from a poor family rebels against her forced marriage to a rich land-owner 50 years her senior but strict social conventions make of her practically a slave.
Review: The subject of domestic violence and social persecution faced by Iranian women is a subject that has become quite popular in the country's recent cinema output, and Bemani, the latest, is another harrowing account. Both narratively and theme-wise Bemani is very similar to another recent Iranian offering, The Circle, which followed a half-dozen young women, though this one limits itself to the story of three young, rather forward-thinking young women. If nothing else, the film makes some harrowing observations on the everyday insecurities and hardships that are the lot in life for countless Iranian women. This is also surprisingly well-paced for an Iranian film, showing some interesting narrative ideas, such as when the flow is suddenly interrupted as an off-screen journalist questions the various characters' motivations or witness account, lending an added touch to the drama. As we soon come to understand, the young heroine can rebel against her forced marriage but her avenues of protest are limited to self mutilation and escape from her family and her village. The film does go overboard with its extended takes showing weeping and lamenting women after each sequence of violence, be it a woman's beheading by her outraged brothers or after two of them set themselves on fire in a fit of despair. But though acclaimed director Mehrjui sometimes pushes the melodrama admittedly inherent in his material to make his point, it's nevertheless an important commentary on the state of women in Iran (and, indeed, in many other parts of the world), and as such it makes for eye-opening viewing. The amateur cast isn't all convincing, but the three young teens on which the story focuses often manage to give performances that are vivid and heart-felt, in part (perhaps) due to their inexperience. A sometimes powerful social criticism, Bemani does end up with a small sliver of hope, but for countless women freedom is but a dream.
Drama: 7/10

The Best Day of My Life (Il Piu Bel Giorno Della Mia Vita) (Italy - 2002)
Starring: Margherita Buy, Virna Lisi, Sandra Ceccarelli
Director: Cristina Comencini 
Plot: A widow living alone in the family villa with her memories has a hard time coming to terms with the tumultuous real lives and problems of her children and grand-children.
Review: The Most Beautiful Day of My Life is first and foremost a family ensemble drama like the Europeans have been doing well for decades. The script contains the usual cinematic family problems: infidelity, homosexuality, coping with loneliness, and even teen sexual awakening. The story isn't really anything new, but thanks to a solid script it all comes off well. Like life, not all the situations conclude as a happy ending, but there's hope, and always a healthy dose of humor mixed in with the drama. Well-worn cinematic coincidences abound to create the necessary tension between family members, of course, but are well developed despite their clichéd beginnings. One of the highlights of the story is the occasional inkling of well-observed pain; though there are too many characters to really dig deep into anyone's troubles, and the emotional states sometimes veer into the melodramatic, these moments define the film and its denizens. The success of the film is really made possible by the excellent cast, including some big names in the Italian scene, and the engaging (if brief) characterizations for each. Some intriguing visual instances showing the state of mind, the longings, of each one adds a lot to the narrative, and thanks to some good direction by Comencini makes for an added layer of pleasant viewing. The Most Beautiful Day of My Life isn't a revelation, but as a touching film about one family's self discovery it's well worth the effort.
Drama: 7/10

Corto Maltese (France - 2002)
Voices: Richard Berry, Patrick Bouchitey, Marie Trintignant
Director: Pascal Morelli
Plot: In the aftermath of the First World War, a European adventurer helps a secret Chinese society rob a heavily-armored Russian train filled with the Tasr's gold and guarded by counter-revolutionary soldiers.
Review: The Venetian "bande dessinée" Corto Maltese has successfully been brought to the screen with this distinctive adaptation. Maltese is a kind of mature, literate and rather impenetrable Indiana Jones, and the original work's spirit is much in evidence in this grand, adult adventure. This is a world populated by secret societies, a myriad of dangerous possibilities, and shady, colorful characters each with their own enigmatic motivations. The contemplative atmosphere, the brooding mood of the source material has been surprisingly well captured. The film shows a great design and visual style that's different from the ordinary and keeps in line with creator Hugo Pratt's distinctive art. Indeed, the character animations are often static, but with an economy of lines the backgrounds are well fleshed-out, the dynamic camera angles and editing ensuring that there's always something to grab your attention during the story exposition and dialogues. And there's a lot of that: though there's a good dose of action and spectacular sequences (a Chinese junk attack on the high seas, a collapsing bridge, a devastating battle between warring trains), it's the intrigue and complexity of the plot that gives the film a richness that is rarely seen in animated features. There's a real sense of mystery here, and thankfully the story is neither predictable nor watered-down. In fact, the whole production looks and feels exotic, like our idea of what Hong Kong, China and Russia should have been like in the period after the Great War - mysterious, perilous, and an exciting place to be. The script also shows more subtlety than the usual fare, refusing to easily explain everything away and, mixing equal parts fact and fiction into the mix of political intrigue, there's a certain authenticity to the events. With good voice acting, an intricate, country-spanning adventure and some solid animation Corto Maltese is a decidedly accomplished effort that's well worth catching on the big screen. Definitely not for kids.
Entertainment: 8/10

Go (Japan - 2001)
Starring: Yosuke Kubozuka, Koh Shibasaki, Shinobu Otake
Director: Isao Yukisada
Plot: A Japanese teen of Korean descent lashes back at his parents, his peers, and at the everyday discrimination he faces from the society around him.
Review: Winner of numerous Japanese and international prizes, Go is at its core a quest, a fight for identity, a coming-of-age tale showing well the pressures that bear on all teens, exacerbated by the problem of national identity. From a highly spirited beginning full of anger and unbridled energy (one where the filmmakers use every cinematic trick in the book in giddy excess), the film settles down and becomes a well-paced, and affecting, social drama embedded in a love story. Apart from the central theme of identity, there are also ones of generational conflict and teenage angst. Issues of social conformity and of rebellion are also evident, the never-ending discrimination driving a growing feeling of resentment and frustration that explode in acts of small-time violence. There's also a strong sub-plot regarding the surprisingly fond father-son relationship, one that's based on mutual mistrust and grudging respect despite its strangeness and excessively violent way of showing it (the two bond through rounds of bloody boxing). There is great style and emotional power here thanks to Yukisada's constantly energetic directional approach full of bravura-like touches. Helped by some solid editing, a fine cast, and good camerawork it ensures audiences will have no time to be bored. But the greatest strength is without doubt the engaging script's sharp wit and narrative irony. Indeed, narration from the protagonist gives insight into two cultures at social war with one another, and the colorful, honest commentary gives as much depth to the story as it does humor. There's an obvious intensity captured in many of the quieter scenes, none more so when the two young lovers are about to have their first sexual encounter but the young man's Korean heritage suddenly drives a wall between him and his Japanese girlfriend. Part of the success of the film, especially in these intimate scenes, is due to Kubozuka who, in the role of the lonesome hero, is terrific in his own disenfranchised, weird way and quite sympathetic from the very start. In the end, the film expresses well the dilemma of these disenfranchised "residents", these Koreans living in Japan who try as they might to integrate and disown their roots will never be accepted by the racism bred into the society that surrounds them. Though the hero is a young Korean, it's a powerful, universal message and Go manages to say it well.
Drama: 8/10

Heaven (2002)
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Remo Girone
Director: Tom Tykwer
Plot: Going after the Italian drug lord who killed her husband, a widow mistakenly detonates a bomb that kills four innocents but once captured only a young police officer believes her story.
Review: Cold, sober, shot with only minimalist sets, Heaven is based on a screenplay by famed Polish director Kieslowski (Blue, White, Red) posthumously adapted and set to the screen by director Tykwer who brings a surreal quality to the proceedings. The film starts off as a thriller, then a fugitive film, and parts into a love story, but though familiar elements are quite in evidence the final product is a rather slow, deliberately paced rumination on morality and fate. It's a film that operates on many levels, a straight-forward love-on-the-run story with enough subtext and symbolism to entrance art-house fans thanks to its meditation on themes of fate, justice and chance. There are short moments of suspense, but these take obvious second place to the musings of the authors. The story is, as often as not, improbable and highly surreal, as if we were taking part in a world removed from our own where everyday instances aren't as important as the larger-than-life themes and ideas the script wants to import. Thankfully, the filmmakers never let it fall into the ponderous or the moralistic. The whole exercise is quite static compared to his more famous film Run, Lola, Run, though Tykwer's touches are sometimes evident, it's also obvious he has kept a restraint on his usual colorful flourishes and surreal visual imagery so evident in The Princess and the Warrior. Though nowhere near as involving or as beautifully shot as these previous films, using the scenery of Turin and the surrounding Italian countryside to best effect (right up to its symbolic conclusion), it is still a visual treat. The pin that holds it all together is the sympathetic (if rather flat) performances from its two leads as they take on a spiritual quest to escape, even temporarily, from their past, their guilt. Though the love that blooms between them is unconvincing at best, Blanchett's presence is palpable as a woman desperately in need for redemption, even with so little to work with, and Ribisi is up to form playing a character completely consumed by hers. Some may see this as a maturing step for the director, but for those who enjoyed his past work this effort is neither surprising nor as profound as it wants to be. Still, Tykwer and Blanchett elevate the sometimes bland material to make Heaven an interesting effort.
Drama: 6/10

The Human Comedy (Taiwan - 2002)
Starring: Chang Ling-Shien, Ethan Chen, Woon Chi-Shing
Director: Hung Hung
Plot: Four sets of people living in modern-day Taipei struggle through their everyday existence.
Review: Using Balzac's La Comédie Humaine as a reference point, The Human Comedy interprets and updates four bizarre moral stories from a classic Confucian book of filial loyalties. These four intertwining narratives are very different in style and content, and yet all show different sides of life in contemporary Taipei. What we get is a heart-felt tale of a salesgirls living in a fantasy world with her pop star idol, the drama of young man trying his hand at theatre produced by a director dying of AIDS, a comic quest for a new un-infested apartment by a young couple, and a darkly humorous story of a man helping his ailing ex-wife during a raging storm. Through the absurd, the comedy and the wrenching emotions, the film never lets us forget that these are people (some plain, some geeky, some flamboyant) and that their struggles through their modest lives is noble and important. The humor comes from careful human observation of people in a world where social interactions are becoming ever more complex rather than from forced plot twists. At times deliberately paced, at others dynamic, from the delicately intimate to the broadly comic, this is a terrific showcase for talented Taiwanese director Hung Hung who shows an impeccable control of his subjects and a fine eye for detail that renders each part believable and intimate. The presentation of the Chinese play The White Tide, through the amateur troupe's rehearsals and final aspect, is an interesting piece in its own right (the adaptation of a Chinese demonic tale can be seen as an allegory on social discrimination) and Hung manages to capture the feeling of witnessing a live stage play. Managing to juggle both the sensitive and the entertaining, The Human Comedy is an endearing work that portrays well the emotional mine-field that is modern society and the nobility of our everyday struggles.
Drama: 8/10

I Am Dina (Norwa - 2002)
Starring: Maria Bonnevie, Gérard Depardieu, Christopher Eccleston
Director: Ole Bornedal
Plot: After accidentally causing the death of her mother, a young girl grows up to be become the wild, head-strong young mistress of a large property in 19th century Norway, but can't help but be haunted by the ghosts of those departed.
Review: Based on a popular Norwegian novel, I Am Dina is what director Bornedal calls "an emotional action movie", a lavish, epic melodrama with many interesting layers and elements, a fascinating character study of a larger-than-life subject. Indeed, part period piece, part epic family drama, and part ghost story, it's an epic endeavor that feels almost like a modernization of a Jane Austen story with its seething characters and bridled emotions. This is far removed from the slow, depressing film one might come to expect; the timeframe is mid-19th century, but the film looks and plays out like a contemporary one. Bornedal knows his way through a Hollywood-type production (he did the US remake of his own Nightwatch) and it shows: slick production, fast edits, quick pacing, flashy camera work all belly its "period piece" setting all help make this a very modern-looking tale. It's a rich, roller-coaster ride of a story, full of overly melodramatic moments and memorable instances. Shot on location, the amazing cinematography captures the fjords, the snowy mountain peaks, and the surreal icy setting showing off the spectacular varied landscape to best effect. Dina is a feminist character living ahead of her time, a head-strong young woman who has her own view of the world around her and has a fascination with death, a major theme of the film. As the titular heroine, Bonnevie is simply magnificent, playing the ravishing young matriarch (and femme fatale) with wild abandon, like a force of nature. Depardieu is in good form as the short-lived hubby, as is Eccleston playing the anarchist / lover with a heavy Russian accent. Unfortunately, this European co-production was filmed in English, probably to maximize its potential audience, and that's too bad: many in the international cast have a hard time with the language making some moments quite jarring. Still, thanks to the force of its acting, this is quickly dismissed. With I Am Dina, the filmmakers were looking to do the ultimate melodrama, and in all the ways that count, they succeeded brilliantly, making this mainstream effort an enjoyable experience for all audiences.
Drama / Entertainment: 8/10

Kedma (Israel - 2002)
Starring: Andrei Kashkar, Helena Yaralova, Yussuf Abu-Warda 
Director: Amos Gitai
Plot: In 1948, the first Jewish settlers escaping Europe with the promise of a new homeland arrive by boat in Palestine and must confront some hard realities.
Review: Kedma is a tale of a rather little known part of history, of the first steps taken towards building a new nation by displacing another, but also a study of disappointments and despair of these new arrivals. The European Jews who had survived the War and the horrors of the Holocaust with scars still fresh, realize that they have left one war behind only to face another. The film ably depicts the chaotic path of a small group of settlers trying to find their way to a kibbutz, reliving the tragedies and fears they though to have left behind. The film starts off with no exposition; those who don't come into the film with a decent knowledge of historical events will find parts of the story confusing. The actual watching the often plodding film unfold is a slow, arduous process, the narrative filled with overly melodramatic irony and instances. The film's dramatic moments also appear to be very theatrical in nature, with characters expounding diatribes and reminisces at the most inappropriate times. The film is marred as well by a lot of amateurish performances and a general lack of finish. Many of the scenes continue even after their purpose has been done, as if the camera continued to roll after the "cut" order was announced. Perhaps all this is meant to convey these times of confusion, of frustrating helplessness and constant waiting to a questionable future, but what it does is cause our attention to wander. Mind you, some of these long, well-controlled scenes are admirable, especially the ones that book-end the film, and the combat scenes are sober and realistic. Thinking back on the film with some distance and remembering the captured mood and moments, it's also a poignant picture of hardship, hope and despair that bears witness to the beginnings of an escalating conflict that still has repercussions today. In particular, two long powerful speeches are noteworthy, the first from a displaced Palestinian giving a prescient call to arms and the other from a newly arrived Jew, despairing about the fate, history and suffering of his people, denouncing the vagaries of this new war. This last is spewed out in the final scene in a single manic monologue, the camera fixed on its furious, distraught character rushing to nowhere. It is a virtuoso, powerful moment that makes the rest of the film fade from memory. True, the whole thing is at times a little too "declamatory", a thinly veiled excuse for director Gitai (Kippur) to expound his views through his characters, yet he has an important message to convey, one that will definitely provoke discussion. Accused of being very pro-Palestinian in its view, the film still appears very fair in its approach. Kedma isn't a film for everyone, but for those interested in better understanding the human pain that gave rise to the Middle-Eastern conflict, this is a good start.
Drama: 4/10

Last Witness (South Korea - 2001)
Starring: Lee Jeong Jae, Lee Mi Yeon, Ahn Seong Gi
Director: Bae Chang Ho
Plot: On the traces of a murderer, a detective finds a diary that retraces the origins of the crimes to a love story that started 50 years ago during a prison break of North Korean POWs.
Review: Equal parts cop thriller and wartime drama, Last Witness is another in a recent line of amazingly slick mainstream productions for South Korean films. Though the main segment focuses on the police procedural, much of the story is told in extended flashback following the struggle by the escapees to avoid detection. Due to the narrative's continual back and forth, what starts off as a fine thriller with all the standard elements clearly in place (the hard-nosed cop, the mysterious murders, etc.), ends up suffering from an uneven pace. Based on a popular novel, the story that had potential for a better adaptation, perhaps with the subject of the Korean war and the fate of the POWs coming off really only an excuse, a backdrop, for the suspense-mystery. The film even throws a tragic love story into the mix but, unfortunately, it lacks the compelling characterizations necessary to make it emotionally poignant; oh, it tries, but all it gets is a melodramatic muddle. Maybe all this would have been acceptable if only the suspension of disbelief wasn't broken by the 50 year change in the cast: using the same actors with limited make-up also spoils the illusion, and the survivors (who should now be in their 70s) are still shown running around like spring chickens. The film also sticks to a conventional mainstream Hollywood showdown and conclusion, giving us an emotional climax that's also a tad too predictable. There's nothing to complain about in the look of the film, however: beautifully shot, with many a haunting image (including a shoot-out in a rain-soaked bamboo patch), this is a slick, well-produced feature that is wonderful to watch. A few high-energy action scenes do make their appearance as well (including an energetic nightclub fight followed by a motorcycle chase in the present, and a long, bullet-ridden prison escape in the past) and, though not really enough to please those looking solely for an action vehicle, these are impressively staged. All said, Last Witness is still an entertaining (if standard) thiller that's aided by some great visuals, but it's an ultimately disappointing effort that is nowhere near as successful in its blending of genres as Shiri, its obvious template.
Entertainment: 6/10

Love Your Father (Aime ton père) (France - 2002)
Starring: Gérard Depardieu, Guillaume Depardieu, Sylvie Testud 
Director: Jacob Berger 
Plot: While driving by motorcycle to receive his Nobel prize, an ill-tempered writer is involved in an accident and gets kidnapped by his disowned, troubled son who hopes to reconcile with his father on the journey to Sweden.
Review: Adults with a tortured childhood are nothing new in movies, be it as comedies or dark dramas. Love Your Father suffers from aiming for both. To be sure, there's a certain fun in seeing Dépardieu "pêre et fils" butting heads as the two leads, with some pointed dialogue between them, some heartfelt grievances coming to light, and some humorous real-life moments intruding unexpectedly; as the story progresses, it's hard not to wonders what kind of relationship the two actors actually have and how close the script is to their own lives. Unfortunately, the drama feels very much like déjà vu and slowly runs out of gas. Oh, it's well enough presented, ably directed with some the occasional interesting visual touch, and the actors are pretty good, but there's nothing new put on the table regarding the topic of father / son (and family) relationships, or on writer's angst (another important theme) to really make it worthwhile story-wise. It's too bad that such a fine premise and such fine emotional turmoil gets marred by some plot meanderings and shallowly presented introspection. Even the ending is Hollywood-like in its easy resolution, with an interesting, rather surreal final sequence that is left to the viewer's interpretation (it may, or not, be a dream). All told, however, thanks to some fine performances all around Love Your Father is still quite watchable as a light French drama.
Drama: 5/10

My First Miracle (Mein erstes Wunder) (2002)
Starring: Henriette Confurius, Juliane Koehler, Leonard Lansink
Director: Anne Wild
Plot: When the strong friendship between a precocious eleven year old girl and a middle-aged family man is attacked for being unhealthy and immoral, the two run away together, but their care-free days are numbered.
Review: The subject of My First Miracle is a delicate and difficult one to tackle in a society where the fear of pedophilia is ever-present, one that could also have come off as exploitative or easily been deemed another Lolita, for one, but we come see this is a purely platonic relationship between a man who longs for an innocence lost and a lonely young girl whose view of the world is slightly different. The way the their vacation beach is captured, with its bleach-white adults, screaming kids, crashing waves, makes it immediately recognizable to those who have spent their family holidays lying in the sun, and the setting seems to represent the odd couple's own shifting relation - first carefree during the Summer season, exploring the waters and searching for mythical fairies, the coast begins to turn gray as Fall arrives and the realities of the world come sneaking up on them. In fact, there's a palpable nostalgia for something past, for the infinite possibilities that were once there but are now lost. The two drift apart, the young girl has grown up while her older companion wished for time to stand still and both realize that things are no longer the same for them. The story extends its focus on the people they've left behind as well, a wife and a mother who are trying to come to terms with what happened and why, getting into a forced relationship themselves as they try to sort out the implications and their own lives. With a careful, honest touch and a heartfelt direction for her subjects, writer / director Wild working on her first feature makes this poignant tale work beautifully. A lot also rests on the wondrous pair, especially the head-strong young female lead, who give the melancholy tale such fine, convincing and aching portrayals. In the end, this is a film about social pressures and personal sentiments, about a close friendship that no one else understands, one based on imagined dreams and fantasies and a child-like view of the world that we have lost as adults under the weight of everyday responsibilities. As such, the real examination is not on motivation but on feelings, and these are captured perfectly. A touching story of childhood lost (for one) and regained (for the other), My First Miracle is a fine, touching drama.
Drama: 7/10

Peau d'Ange (France - 2002)
Starring: Guillaume Depardieu, Morgane Moré, Dominique Blanc
Director: Vincent Perez
Plot: A timid young woman must leave her family's farm to find work as a maid in a rich doctor's house, but her life unravels after spending a single night with a bereaved, selfish professional from the city.
Review: The story of Peau d'Ange is really the exploration of the lives of its two leads and the strange relationship that ensues form their one-night stand, as the script explores the destiny of the two characters. There is a bit of a slow start, as the characters and situation are put in place, but eventually the narrative becomes engaging, turning a rather simple story into a sentimental, delicate melodrama. First-time director Perez (best known for his acting in such films as Indochine and Cyrano de Bergerac) acquits himself quite well, showing a good control of his actors and of plotting. Though probably intentional, the narrative is a little jerky at times, quick-cutting to different time frames which makes it all feel a little odd. Apart from Perez's obvious eye for photography (which comes across through some nice, even poetic, imagery), the success of the film lies in the capable hands of his lead actress. Indeed, Moré is a revelation, coming off as shy and naive on one side and enigmatic and saintly on the other, her performance as a simple girl devoted to a man she has barely seen and one she barely knows is delicate and believable. However, though his role does ask him to play the cad, Depardieu is never either convincing nor is he ever sympathetic though we are supposed to feel for the loss of his mother and his eventual redemption. In the end, Peau d'Ange is a nice, intimate little film that shows promise for its director.
Drama: 6/10

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Laura Monaghan, Everlyn Sampi
Director: Phillip Noyce
Plot: In 1932, three half-caste Aboriginal girls escape from a reeducation camp and undertake a 1200 mile journey on foot following the immense rabbit-proof fence that cuts through the Australian Outback to return home.
Review: Based on a true story, Rabbit-Proof Fence is an enlightening and harrowing account of a little-known event. As part of a government plan dating from the 1920's to the 1970's, half-castes (those of mixed Aboriginal and white parents) were literally kidnapped from their parents and relocated far away from their families. On one level, this could be seen as an incredible adventure story, as the details of the girls' hardships during their nine week journey through the desert, pursued by police and trackers, unfolds. On another, it's a critical political message as well as a history lesson. Yet, the film remains sobre throughout, rarely showing signs of being heavy-handed, moralistic or melodramatic though the sometimes bombastic music breaks the delicate substance of the narrative. This is a more personal endeavor for Aussie director Noyce (best known for Hollywood products like Patriot Games and The Bone Collector) who has stated that he undertook the project to help reclaim a dark part of his country's history. The whole cast does well, but the film's success really lies on its three young protagonists (who had, in fact, never even seen a movie before!). Of the three, 14-year old Sampi is the real revelation here, her strength of character immediately apparent in a convincing, courageous performance. Marquee header Branagh is adequate in a minor role as the ironically titled "Chief Protector of Aborigines" trying to give his character a certain complexity, though any other actor would have been just as appropriate. Apart from the fine acting from the Aboriginal cast, however, it's the easy pace and storytelling, along with the impeccable cinematography of the desolate landscapes of the Australian Outback, with its washed-out colors, sun-blistered people and lands, that captures the true feeling of time and place. Though not as powerful as it may have hoped, Rabbit-Proof Fence is still an affecting and important effort, an eye-opening story well told. 
Drama: 7/10

Salomé (Spain - 2002)
Starring: Aida Gómez, Paco Mora, Carmen Villena
Director: Carlos Saura
Plot: After failing to attract John the Baptist, a princess uses her charms to seduce King Herod and exact her revenge and have the saint beheaded. 
Review: Though the story of Salomé has seen countless retellings, most popularly in the form of opera and a '50s film, never has it been more aptly presented than it is here. Using an inspired premise of doing it all to Flamenco, the biblical tale is brought to movement - and it works beautifully. The first half hour gives us a chance to see the backstage details that went into every aspect of the production, from the musical themes, to the costumes, to the sets, to the minutiae of the performers' every gesture. For those curious as to making of a musical, the interviews and rehearsals give some good indication as to the work and sweat involved. But it's when the actual production starts that the film really takes flight. Saura, best known here for other inspiring musicals such as Tango and the popular adaptation of Carmen, directs once again with masterful precision and vitality, allowing cinema audiences to witness the work better than any theater-goer ever could. Instead of expressing the feelings into words, everything is done to dance that appears intensely expressive. However, without a single word uttered those who aren't privy to the popular story are out of luck as to understanding the different events; but no matter this is a feast for the eyes that holds our attention even without any exposition. There's something inherently sensual in the flamenco, and this comes out in every scene thanks to the classically trained dancers who all give excellent performances. But as the titular character, lead dancer Aida Gomez is the real revelation. She is absolutely amazing to watch, and her movements are assured, never more so than in the sublimely erotic Dance of the Seven Veils where she slowly divests herself entirely. Gomez is also credited with the dance and art direction for the stage production; after seeing her here, there's no doubt why she was given the reigns to Spain's National Ballet. To top all this, the stage direction is fantastic, the dance choreography intricate and mesmerizing, the sets minimal and richly lit with saturated colors from deep blues to blood reds. And the music, which rides on the tails of traditional Flamenco tunes, also has intonations of Arabic strings giving it an appropriately exotic air. All told, if you love dance, then you owe it to yourself to be seduced by the entrancing visual treat that is Salomé.
Dance / Entertainment: 8/10

The Stoneraft (La Balsa de Piedra) (Netherlands / Spain - 2002)
Starring: Federico Luppi, Iciar Bollain, Gabino Diego
Director: George Sluizer
Plot: As the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) miraculously breaks off from the rest of Europe and goes floating off into the Atlantic, five people and a dog all with bizarre, supernatural powers meet up and wander the country roads.
Review: The Stoneraft may sound like a special effects adventure, but be warned: the film's real focus is on the band of blessed (or cursed) people, with the larger events (the tectonic shifts, the moving land masses) being more heard and alluded to rather than seen. At first these events allow for some humorous, caustic satire, allowing the script to poke fun at Brits, Yanks and the Euro community in general and during these moments it's an enjoyable affair. Unfortunately, the amiable, amusing beginnings of the film (something between an X-File-type mystery and a light-hearted adventure) is short-lived. The fantasy elements of the film pretty much disappear half-way through and the story tapers down to the romantic relationships between the small band of "survivors" that wants to be a voyage of discovery but ends more like the markings that we've seen in standard disaster flicks, albeit with a more philosophical treatise and European flavoring. It's soon obvious that all this is only a background excuse for the story to reveal a half-baked meditation on love and human relationship. And here, in the second half, the film practically stalls and the script just can't make the serious situations even half-interesting. What starts off as a fun little mystery within a surreal fantasy ends up as a metaphysical meandering that strives for deep but comes up as rather shallow. So what's the point of this political allegory? Who knows. It's impossible no to believe that the original material, the book by Nobel-winning author Jose Saramago, must have had much deeper meaning that this screen effort. To be fair, many instances of humor abound, thankfully, and the fine, endearing cast keeps our interest in the proceedings, as does the easy narration. It's also helped by director Sluizer warm, fuzzy look on their search for meaning, though his work here is nowhere near as interesting as his previous feature, the atmospheric thriller The Vanishing. The Stoneraft is light, amusing fare while it lasts, but the adaptation comes off as tepid at best compared to what might have been.
Drama: 4/10

Voina (The War) (2002)
Starring: Alexei Chadov, Ian Kelly, Sergei Bodrov Jr.
Director: Alexei Balabanbov
Plot: After escaping a Chechen prison, a young Russian soldier decides to help his ex-cell-mate, a naive British actor who must return to Chechnya with a large ransom to free his fiancee from guerillas.
Review: Disgruntled at a war that has been waging for years in the province of Chechnya, Russians have made Vojna into a blockbuster hit and it's easy to see why; part of its appeal is that this is a call to arms, a patriotic film like Hollywood is so famous for with its own version of the Rambo-like vigilante. What starts off as a vicious, if shallow, account of the viciousness of the present conflict (the film opens with a bloody execution, including a beheading) turns into a statement on the powerlessness of governments to help its own citizens, and ends up with a bullet-laden climax as they return to free the hostages. Filmed on a small budget, this is a surprisingly effective film: well shot and well paced, there's enough here to satisfy those looking for mindless action, but there's also enough substance to be found to give viewers a look into one of the bloodiest present-day conflicts and a peek at the new Russian psyche. As seen from nationalistic director Balabanov's eyes (he of the hit flick Brother), the Chechen war is a proving ground for Russian heroes. No matter the political message, Balabanov wanted to make a film about "how things really are" and there's no mistaking that he has a keen eye for this sort of thing, especially when capturing the mood of Russia's disenfranchised youth and when portraying realistic-looking battles. Though there's no love lost on the Kremlin, the majority of its cynicism is geared towards the West which, as shown through the Brit's evident naiveté when faced with violence, has lost the "guts" for war, or so it seems to say. The depiction of the guerillas (and, apart from a sole sheep-herder, these are the only Chechen we see in the film) are of violent, uncaring fanatics; but then American action films have long been accustomed of doing the same job of caricaturing. As for the leads, Kelly is a bit excessive in his depiction of the stereotypical dim-witted Brit, but first-timer Chadov gives a good account for himself as the disenchanted young soldier out for revenge and, despite his views, even draws our sympathy. The depiction of his bleak social life back in the small working-class Siberian town he calls home is depressing and adds a sense of intimacy to the story. Be it propaganda or entertainment, Vojna has captured the attention of its countrymen, and it's a worthy trip for us, too.
Entertainment / Drama: 7/10

The Trespasser (O Invasor) (Brazil - 2002)
Starring: Alexandre Borges, Marco Ricca, Paulo Miklos
Director: Beto Brant 
Plot: Two businessmen arrange to have their partner murdered but once the deed is done their lives take a turn for the worse when the criminal blackmails them and decides to insinuate himself in their company and their social circle.
Review: Based on the novel by Marcal Aquino and winner of the Sundance award for best Latin American film, The Trespasser is a veritable slap to the face, an exciting suspense thriller that's also a powerful condemnation of Brazilian society. Though some might see it as a dark comedy on what it takes to make it to the top, it's also a cynical, social criticism on class status, on the clash between the violence of the ghetto and the cut-throat means of the middle-class. Through the tough, grim subject matter, through the strain between the two conspiratorial partners that causes increasing suspicion and paranoia between them, this is compelling stuff. Indeed, with its take-no-prisoners approach at uncovering the dark side of society it's hard to look away from the screen. There's a strong visual style in evidence throughout, stark, bleached-out colors from the digital video stock giving the film a gritty atmosphere of the dark corners of society with a necessary urgency and intimacy. Brant also uses some impressive camera sequences, editing tricks and a pounding, heavy-rock soundtrack (with lyrics full of urban angst) to capture this frantic world, making us move through the raw under-belly of the city, through bars, clubs, and some intimate, raw sexual situations just as easily as he does the offices and mansions of the privileged few. This is a trip through an amoral world where everyone, even the victims' (not-so-innocent) teenage daughter who falls for her parents' killer, is out for themselves. The devastating ending is sudden and unexpected, yet perfectly well timed. The actors are excellent, each one believably portraying flawed characters that are both despicable and occasionally oddly sympathetic. Miklos, however, is the real find as the greasy underworld criminal looking to climb up the social ladder, oozing a confidence and a menace taught on the tough streets of Sao Paulo. A brazen, dark social thriller, The Trespasser is a shining example of the Latin American new wave.
Drama: 8/10

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