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Friday, May 30, 2003

SIFF, Day 6
If it’s Day 6, it must be Wednesday, by which time I was well and truly in the SIFF zone: I haven’t read a newspaper properly for days; I’ve barely used my voice (when I got home the other day it took me all my time to make conversation with R, so unused to human interaction have I become), the cat keeps looking at me as if to say, “I wish you would either go on vacation or stay home—but this sleeping here then disappearing for 12 hours has got to stop.” And my eyes hurt—I wonder how those six-movies-a-day types are coping.

But on Day 6 I see …

Buffalo Soldiers, a controversial anti-Army (well, really it’s anti-incompetent leadership) film that has languished unreleased for two years because post-9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the filmmakers seem to think the time just isn’t right for the ’00 era’s own Catch-22. Set on a U.S. Army base in West Germany just as the Berlin Wall is starting to tumble, Joaquin Phoenix is excellent as Ray Elwood, a conniving clerk who runs rings around the hapless colonel in charge, played very charmingly by Ed Harris, until Scott Glenn comes to the base and tries to get in the way of Elwood’s schemes. Elwood’s scams aren’t penny-ante stuff—we’re talking arms-running and smack-cooking—but he’s still an extremely likable character, which is quite an achievement. There are some very nice set pieces (a smacked-out tank crew driving through a German street fair then laying waste to a gas station is particularly over-the-top fun), and I found myself really getting into it. An enjoyable mainstream commercial movie—too bad it’s being seen by so few people.

H is the sort of movie I would only see at the film festival, and only then when nothing else is playing. It’s a sort of South Korean Silence of the Lambs with the Hannibal Lector character seeming all the more creepy because he’s also rather ordinary—there’s no charismatic muzzle-wearing going on here—but the mystery lies in the fact that the murders are continuing even with the serial killer banged up in prison. As someone who doesn’t much care for horror movies/gore-fests, it just wasn’t my cup of tea, but if I were an aficionada, I suspect I would’ve liked it even less because it wasn’t terribly innovative (though there is a surprise in the final reel). Although the main investigator was a smart, cool woman, she was directed to show no emotions, and it’s very hard to sympathize with a blank-faced hero.

Like Respiro, The Lover suffered from my having seen it in the context of the film festival. It’s a subtle, melancholy Russian movie about a man who, shortly after her sudden death, discovers his wife was having an affair for years. He finds the lover and over the course of the movie gets to know him rather well. The movie felt like it would be more natural as a stage play—the script was really excellent—and the acting was also very good, but it was rather too slow and ponderous, or at least slower and more ponderous than what I was craving right then.

War hit the spot nicely—although it’s very nationalistic and anti-Chechen, it’s an engaging mainstream commercial movie told from the perspective of a Russian soldier who’s being investigated for his role in a raid on a Chechen stronghold where guerrillas were holding a Danish woman and a Russian soldier as hostages for ransom. Ivan is an English-speaking Russian soldier who was released by the guerrillas because he’s worthless to them; when an English actor, released at the same time so he can amass a 2 million pound ransom for his fiancee, fails to come up with the exorbitant sum, Ivan helps him retrieve Margaret and gain revenge. I suspect that my lack of familiarity with the action genre pumped up my enjoyment—I haven’t seen Rambo or anything from that series, but I suspect there’s nothing really new in War. Still, there were enough other themes amid the shooting—the cruelty of governments who blindly declare their refusal to negotiate with terrorists even as their subjects are hideously abused; the unwillingness of the Russian hierarchy to admit the truth of the situation in the Caucasus; how conscription, especially when conscripts are sent to a dangerous place like Chechnya, turns ordinary men into killers; and the lack of support for Russians too poor to buy their way out of military service who serve their time and return to find zero prospects in civilian life—to satisfy my yearning for “meaning” in the movie.