1999 Reviews

Here are a few reviews of the films that appeared at the Montreal International Festival of New Cinema and New Media

After Life (1998)
Starring: Sadao Abe, Natsuo Ishido
Director: Hirokazu Kore-Eda
Plot: Before entering the after-life, recently-deceased people are asked by counselors living in this purgatory to choose only one memory which will be staged, filmed, and finally viewed, to take with them for all eternity.
Review: After Life poses the philosophical question of what is human experience, memory, and how we measure our own lives. The plot is simple, relying on the heart-warming scenes of individual portraits of people from different backgrounds and ages as their lives are condensed into one final defining moment. Nothing on-screen relates to the after-life or to the deceased, but the minimal sets and normal-looking and -acting cast doesn't really bother our suspension of disbelief due to the fanciful script. The last third of the movie, though, when all the memories are being staged and filmed (yes filmed) as if being prepared by a low-budget production crew, seems a bit too down-to-earth. In the end, After Life is an interesting film that evades tripe melodrama and just presents affecting moments of other people's lives, with a slow pace full of quiet moments that let the audience reflect on their own memories.
Drama: 7/10

Felicia's Journey (1999)
Starring: Claire Benedict, Bob Hoskins, Arsinee Khanjian
Director: Atom Egoyan
Plot: A young Irish woman comes to England to find her estranged lover only to fall into the clutches of a lonely middle-aged caterer who spends his nights watching tapes of an old TV chef. 
Review: On the surface, Felicia's Journey could be seen as another psychological suspense and horror film, but this would be an injustice. Like his other features, Atom Egoyan tries to delve deeper, providing a dramatic story that is not formulaic and hinting at subjects that Hollywood would shy away from. The film's protagonists are also complex, emotionally scarred, real characters that are neither stereotypes nor predictable, and both are played admirably. Egoyan uses his familiar approach of repeated flashbacks and interesting camera work to slowly unfold the story and the character's backgrounds. Where the film loses its power, though, is in its ending: by taking the easy road out of the successful narrative, it seems to cheat the audience from an otherwise fine film. An interesting, well-made film, but not quite on par with the director's latest efforts like Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter.
Drama: 7/10

The Flowers of Shanghai (1998)
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Michiko Hada, Carina Lau
Director: Hsiao-hsien Hou
Plot: In the late 19th-century Shanghai, the male elite meet in the city's elegant bordellos, or "flower houses", accompanied by their favorite courtesans, women whose grace, education and beauty were prized above all.
Review: The Flowers of Shanghai is a fascinating look at the daily life of the Chinese elite at the turn of the century, and at the intrigue that parallels other, more Western films, such as Dangerous Liaisons, but in a much more exotic setting. The film portrays a very restrained, honor-bound society and, as such, no real passion is shown in the film, no scenes of nudity or eroticism, only the complex, subtle game of social maneuvering and sexual politics. The narrative unfolds into a story of the flower girls' aspirations, from one of simple luxury, to that of freedom, to a life outside the closed structure of the brothel. The film style imitates its subject with very intimate cinematography, the camera moving slowly across the room, almost as if filming a theatre scene, letting the audience take in the beautiful interior decor, the soft lighting and the intricate costumes.
Drama: 7/10

Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai (1999)
Starring: Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Isaach de Bankolé
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Plot: A small-time mob hit-man who follows the teachings of the Samurai must fight against the mafia after an incident marks him for death.
Review: Director Jarmusch (Mystery Train, Dead Man) is in full form here with his most commercial cinematic outing to date, combining the crime drama with comedy and an independent film-maker's sensibilities. Most of the characters are exaggerated satires, like the aging Italian mobsters who all love watching cartoons. The only serious character is Whitaker who seems a bit jarring at first as the hit man, but quickly makes for a great depiction of the lone assassin. De Bankolé is a also real treat here, playing a secondary role of (what else?) a Frenchman selling ice cream, never speaking in English, but hilarious in his gesticulating. The inter-cutting of passages from the "Book of the Samurai" and the ensuing filmed sequence is particularly appropriate, showing the stark difference between the serious, honor-bound hit-man and the usually vapid, white-trash he comes in contact with. Ghost Dog is an intelligent, funny, and ultimately sad story of the state of the human condition, and of the loss of ancient values.
Drama: 7/10
Entertainment: 8/10

Jam (Taiwan - 1999)
Starring: Cai Xinghung, June Cai, Vina Xu
Director: Chen Yiwen
Plot: Two teenagers get in over their heads after stealing a car that had already been stolen and used in a mob hit.
Review: Jam is an amusing tale of life in Taiwan, with a great array of quirky characters, including a film producer, a hit man, and the two teenagers drifting through life. The stolen car is the recurring theme that brings people from different backgrounds and different walks of life into the story, coming full circle as the character's lives all intertwine. The film's style is fresh and uncluttered, playing with time and perspective to show the three different stories, and the entertaining story makes up for the stylized acting, low-budget sets, and other little inconsistencies.
Entertainment: 7/10

The Limey (1999)
Starring: Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Plot: A tough Englishman fresh out of prison arrives in L.A. to seek revenge on the people he deems responsible for his daughter's death.
Review: After last year's somewhat lighter Out of Sight, director Soderbergh has turned his hand to a more brutal crime drama with The Limey. Some great character acting by Stamp, recreating a role he played 30 years ago in Poor Cow, along with a good, intelligent script easily make up for the otherwise tame and simple story. Indeed, Stamp's performance, with his dark wit, quick violence and occasional moments of almost comic buffoonery, is what really makes the movie a success. The Limey is a film where the style and cinematography plays with our sense of time and place, like an acute sense of déjà vu, jumping from the present to the past, both immediate and distant, using different camera techniques to heighten the sense of tension and keep the audience on their toes. Style definitely does make up for substance here, but its still great to watch it all unfold.
Drama: 8/10

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