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Thursday, May 29, 2003

SIFF, Day 5
This is usually just about the point where I wonder if I goofed by devoting one of my precious vacation weeks to SIFF—after all in the land of the free, time off work is at a premium; my employer is considered generous in giving 17 days annual leave—but I certainly haven’t seen any stinkers yet, and since I can only manage one movie per weekday when I’m working, I wouldn’t have seen a fraction of these fascinating movies otherwise.

And lest anyone think I’m some sort of SIFF hero, forget it, I’m a lightweight, since four films is as many as I can comfortably handle in a day, five as an absolute max (quite a few folks see six on a weekday—three press screenings, then the 4:45, 7, and 9:30 shows; and that’s every single day. Ken Rudolph, who’s keeping a journal of his festival viewing, usually sees five films a day (and I bet he’d see more if he hadn’t already watched a lot of the movies at other festivals or for the Academy’s foreign-film committee).

As per usual, my sleep is getting messed up by spending almost the entire day sitting in a darkened room. It’s peculiar, I don’t have nightmares about gory scenes or endless loops from the movies, I just keep waking up every hour or so, which I suppose signifies that my brain is still working through all those subtitles and mysterious motivations. This seems to happen to me every SIFF.

So, Day 5 was Tuesday and I saw …

Julie Walking Home is a lovely family film by Agnieszka Holland—in the sense that it’s about family dynamics rather than that it’s G-rated. Julie finds her husband Henry with another woman in the marital bed and goes ballistic. During the first difficult week after her discovery, their son Nicholas is diagnosed with cancer, and after a lot of yick-yack Julie takes him to Poland to visit a Russian healer (played fabulously by Lothaire Bluteau), who eventually becomes her lover. I’ll say no more, but you can find the whole spoiler-pocked synopsis on the movie’s official Web site.) There are some great things in the movie—Miranda Otto is marvelous as Julie, and the script is very well-conceived, but for my taste Holland crammed in too many elements. By introducing a million themes, it becomes a huge hard-to-digest banquet rather than a delicious and perfectly adequate meal. I also admit that I don’t care for kids-with-cancer movies, somehow the little bald heads feel exploitative as every parent in the audience sees their worst nightmare—and in this case every sibling was drawn in as Nicholas’ twin sister also worked through the agony. (I can still be a heartless bitch, though, since I’m neither a parent nor a sibling.)

I was keen to see Respiro, because it’s getting the full Sony Pictures Classics treatment with lots of postcards piled up in indie cinemas for months now. It’s beautifully shot—the sun and sea in Lampedusa, a remote island off Sicily are just gorgeous—and the story is very simple: Grazia, played by Valeria Golino, is a free spirit who—in the context of the village she lives in where gossiping, casual cruelty to animals, and strict rules of behavior are the norm—seems mentally deranged to her small-minded neighbors. Rather than have her sent off to an institution in Milan, her son—who shows remarkable love and concern for Grazia despite his cruel behavior in the rest of the movie—helps her to escape, sort of. I’m afraid that this is the sort of movie that suffers from being seen in the film festival—coming after weeks of X2 and The Matrix Reloaded, it would’ve seemed like a breath of fresh air, but even 14 movies into SIFF I was already longing for something beyond beautiful scenery and existential cries for freedom. For some reason I became fixated with the island’s variety of Vespa-powered vehicles—not only the standard scooters but also Vespa trucks and Vespa cars. (There’s an excellent IMDB reader comment about Respiro here.)

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is an awesome documentary about the April 2002 coup attempt against Venezuela’s democratically elected president, Hugo Chávez. As I wrote at the time, there was massive confusion in the international news media about what happened—Chávez was said to have resigned, his supporters were accused of firing into a crowd of opponents, etc., etc., but an Irish film crew in Caracas to make a movie about Chávez just happened to be on the spot capturing the rally that was used as an excuse to set off the coup, the truly hideous crap being spouted by the private Chávez-hating TV channels, the chaotic events in the presidential offices of Miraflores Palace (which they never referred to as a palace, although that’s the standard Venezuelan description), and the nasty set of upper-class, light-skinned socialites who took over and proceeded to suspend the constitution, fire the national assembly and the supreme court, and generally show themselves to be anti-democratic to the core. The filmmakers, Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain, aren’t impartial, but given the almost universal bias against Chávez, it’s about time the other side of the story was heard. (Tooting my own horn, I’ve written a lot about Chávez, without repeating the anti-left rhetoric I think.) Unfortunately, Scenes From an Endless War, the 30-minute film that accompanied Revolution was the worst kind of half-assed propaganda that makes me despair for the contemporary left. The fact that the audience got all excited about stupid “jokes” about Rumsfeld and Bush depressed me no end—the corporate interests and the right wing of the Republican Party are venal and scary enough without making stuff up about them.

I almost didn’t go to see So Close from Hong Kong—I’m generally not a fan of Asian movies and I know nothing of kung fu, but JFC what a marvel this was. A sister assassination act kicking bad-guy ass all over town, an endless parade of shots of the sisters in underwear or tiny shorts, Carpenters songs, a smart woman cop who kicks ass just as well as Sue and Lynn, and a tiny hint of girl-on-girl action/attraction! All done in a nicely ironic tongue-in-cheek tone. Forget Charlies Angels, this is the chick flick of the year!