Michael Sicinski (U.S. / Poland / Mexico, 1972)  presents . . .



All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)


seen prior to the festival

Bus 174 (José Padilha, Brazil) [8]

See SFIFF reviews.


Cremaster 3 (Matthew Barney) [6]

See January 2003 new releases.


Chinese Series (Stan Brakhage [s] [6]

Stan’s Window (Stan Brakhage) [s] [9]

Work in Progress (Stan Brakhage) [s] [no grade / review]

See May 2003 new releases.


seen at the festival




The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, Canada) [6] [grade revised to 8 on 6/4/04]

A pretty strong way to begin my fest, but certainly a thing of diminishing returns. It comes on like gangbusters, with a set of premises which are so unexpected (even though the title announces them, I had no idea the form it would take), but the film loses its way while trying to deliver on its promises in narrative, rather than spectacular, form. The second half still delivers some LOL gags, although the presence of a Kid in the Hall (great work from McKinney, btw) accurately signals what the tone of some of the humo(u)r will turn out to be. Still, mark my words: this will be the film that puts Maddin on maps he never even imagined. [SECOND VIEWING, June 2004: Well, the exhaustion of early morning travel is my only explanation for why I lowballed this film at TIFF. Or maybe the second viewing just allowed me to take it on its own terms. Instead of a fitfully amusing comedy, this time I saw a movie that is equal parts black comedy and florid melodrama, equally snarky and sincere. The thematic through-line of Canadian brain-drain seemed much more coherent this time, as did the satirical critique of America's inability to mourn post-9/11. Chester Kent is not just shallow showbiz; he's the personification of a lunkheaded will just keep on keeping on, using media alchemy to turn "saltwater dressing" into triumphalist can-doism. ("America: Open for Business.") Not to put too fine a point on it, but the -- SPOILER ALERT! -- collapse of Lady Port-Huntley's legs, a feat of engineering introduced to the camera with a towering close-up and low-angle upward pan, might be an oblique representation of the WTC itself. Chester, oblivious, chirpily announces "Anything that was built can be rebuilt," refusing to accept what Port-Huntley now knows all too well. Some things are gone forever.]


Alexandra’s Project (Rolf de Heer, Australia) [W/O] (1:10)

I had heard that The Tesseract was so bad that I should ditch it, so I just dropped in to see what condition Aussie-teurism was in. Jesus H. Basically what we have here is something you'd get if the two assholes from "Project Greenlight" were assigned to make a "Haneke film." Did you know that holding a single dissonant note on the synthesizer, or shooting light through mini-blinds in a darkened room, can give your film "atmosphere"? Let’s all look into this!


The Tesseract (Oxide Pang, Thailand / U.K. / Japan) [2]

This film is tedious and fucking stupid.


The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo) [9]

It's hard to understand how anyone could declare this the worst film of any festival, in any form.  Gallo's study of wounded masculinity may be narcissistic, but it is analytically so. (Many reviews have chuckled at the fact that the women are all named for flowers, but no one that I'm aware of has noted that he's called "Bud." "To Daisy from Bud" would be a spot-on alternate title.) I could go on and on about the beauty, formal control, sound design, and deliberately anti-naturalistic performances, and I will at a later date. But the truly amazing achievement here is that Gallo has yoked two incompatible modes of meaning-making. Stylistically, the film adheres to festival-approved, Bazinian-inflected neo-modernism. But within this structure, there is an engagement with schmaltz, sentiment, and lowbrow pathos, one which never for a moment condescends. Gallo is talking about how most of us process our pain. I hate to say it, but maybe only a conservative Republican was capable of making such an honest paean to mourning in America.


Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea / Germany)  [7]

A lovely, exquisitely wrought Zen koan of a film, investing old ideas with new promise through care and humor. There is something of a flatness of tone, and so I never moved much past admiring it. Still, everything which has impressed me about Kim in the past is there, and most of what has given me pause is shorn away, so I feel a bit like a hypocrite for not liking it more. Oh well.




Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont, France) [6]

In a sense, this one falls squarely into the category of "going off the rails at the end," a capacious category indeed considering the fest I'm having. But although I found the first 3/4 of the film well-observed, particularly with respect to the awkward minutae of relationships, it felt a little remote, and from a visceral filmmaker like Dumont, that's a surprise. (Sure, there's the fucking. But all the bizarre, elemental behavior in L’humanité served to give the animalistic sex a context beyond itself, and its relative isolation here felt like a containment.) Twist #1 seemed outrageous and then a second later justifiable, if a tad simpleminded. (Cf.Irreversible.) Twist #2 pretty much made me want to throw something at the screen. But this is one film with which I sorely need a rematch. I just can't decide, really.


Cocteau Centro (Dan Boord / Luis Valdovino) [v/s] [5]

I don't like video art made up of film clips, meant to serve as "criticism in film." (Godard is an exception.) But this had some lovely shots from Cocteau films and it went quickly and quietly away.


System of Transitions (Johannes Hammel, Austria) [v/s] [8]

Austria does it again! No place on earth is producing experimental cinema as great as that coming out of Vienna, and Hammel is a wonderful discovery. Simple in concept but intricate in construction, this is a video of a dance piece, wherein a bald-headed woman performs semi-minimalist, semi-hip-hop dance moves against various walls. The use of editing to replace the various planar surfaces in mid-move serves to place the dancer in a kind of patterned, abstracted environment, as though she's trying to fight her way out of the screen. A major surprise, and Hammel is now one to watch.


Noor (Deborah Phillips, Germany) [s] [4]

Nice polite collage film showing how patterns on mosques look like flowers. Pleasant, but slight.


Interior (Jim Jennings) [s] [7]

I haven't really understood the recent turn in Jennings' work, away from the black-and-white constructions of  Miracle on 34th Street and Painting the Town and toward slightly travelogue-related concerns. In this new film, but he seems to be working more as a compilation filmmaker than as a shaper-editor. There are gorgeous passages of indoor light and shadow in this film, things you just notice while sitting in your bedroom. But his organization of these shadows into shapes is unclear. Much of the footage is stuff I wish I could have shot myself, so I give it points for seducing me. But I would need another viewing to feel like I really grasp its underlying structure.


Translucent Appearances (Barry Gerson, 1975) [s]

Gerson's a figure I've heard a bit about, someone who was making structuralist-inflected films back in the day. This film shows water moving over a waterfall with parts of the frame blotted out, over and over again, with no discernible organizing principle.


(Sharon Lockhart) [m] [6]

Here's another one that knocked my socks off for the first half and petered out. This film is a still-frame, 33 minute shot of a dirt field, while two Japanese farmers distribute hay across it. (Hey, where you goin'?) The beginning is hilarious, as the man and woman enter and exit the frame in rigid lateral movements and deposit hay in three piles. Is there special hay and regular hay? Because they come and go from different directions, making a left, middle, and right pile, and they don't just stop at the nearest pile. It becomes a sort of shell game, and watching them move past each other to the far piles (why?) takes on a lovely choreography. They make four rows, moving closer to the camera each time, and falling out of sync with each other. But alas, once the piles are complete, they each take a rake and begin evenly distributing the hay across the field. And there's no "micro-gestures of labor" or "reductive poetry of the everyday" here. The farmers are remarkably inexpressive as they disperse the hay. Lockhart is a talent, but she should have found better, more Bressonian peasants.


Rolling in My Ears (Barry Gerson) [s] [2]

Frankly, I don't get it.  The colors and motion produce a slight three-dimensional effect, with sculptural forms bulging from the screen.  But like Translucent Appearances, there is a frustrating lack of clear development -- one not-very-intriguing idea, promulgated across the running time.


21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu) [4]

The film has strong performances (with the notable exception of Watts -- what gives?) which manage to survive Inarritu's jazzy but rather pointless editing scheme. For an English-language debut, a fellow could do worse than to ape Soderbergh, but the script veers quickly into cheap Kieslowski-isms and soon careers right into Telemundo. See, Jen? It was a mainstream vehicle, and I really, really tried.


Come and Go (João César Monteiro, Portugal / France) [8]

I can't really recommend this to anyone else, but the guy's humor has always been just always right up my alley for some reason, and this film removed virtually any narrative context in favor of Monteirian blackout sketch comedy. Sign me the fuck up. It could have used a bit of trimming, of course, but I kept waiting for it to flag and even by hour three, it just never did. The sign on the back of the bus is brilliant. Deus is dead, long live Deus.


Feathers in My Head (Thomas de Thier, France / Belgium) [3]

It seems that you can get into the Visions section by setting your compositions up at a 45 degree angle to a receding road or pipeline, to generate a deep, vaguely de Chiricoesque frame. Then you can orchestrate some silly, histrionic stuff in said frame. The teenager who wandered over from the Téchiné film across the street was pretty strong but wasted in this dissolute mess. Oh! Maybe Visions means that the characters actually have them! Now I know.




Good bye, dragon inn (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan) [5]

Basically a lovely 15 or 20 minute short padded out to feature length. (In fact, I can think of no other reason for the ticket-taker's character's disability. She was a walking longeur.) I thought What Time Is It There? was a transitional film, but with The Skywalk is Gone and now this, we'd better start seeing some actual transition.


A Talking Picture (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal / France / Italy) [7]

What the fuck was that?  Regardless of your feelings about prior Oliveira, you have to check this thing out. Basically three separate movies, the final one lasting about ten minutes. Each one, really, represents a different meaning of the title phrase. I cannot give the ending away, except to say that I would not have expected such a conservative sociopolitical position from MdO. I've already consulted with Victor, and he approves. [Note: Theo had a better, more even-handed interpretation, about how Silveira’s character recounts a bloodless, conflict-free World History, which then gets, shall we say, Aufheboomed.]


At Five in the Afternoon (Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran / France) [7]

I'm not a Samira M. fan, but this one was pretty good, anchored by an unexpectedly expressive central performance. It certainly demonstrates the limits of American Oprah-style female empowerment in situations where the local patriarchs have little power as it is. There is about 85 minutes of solid stuff here, but it's clear Makhmalbaf is reaching beyond her current scope, to proffer a full-on portrait of Afghan collapse. The early moments, when the schoolgirls are debating women's available roles, was shockingly natural and non-didactic. Either it was spontaneous, or the actors are to be commended for putting it across like an Afghan edition of "Crossfire." I went to see this in order to write Samira off, and now I clearly can't. [SECOND VIEWING: I think the film is stronger than I gave it credit for in 2003, and I'm even more perplexed by its detractors. It seems clear to me that while Nogreh the wannabe president is the obvious identification figure for Western viewers, Makhmalbaf lets us see that she is more than a little naive. Her idolization of Benazir Bhutto, and her fundamental lack of understanding of what a president really is, indicate both Nogreh's imagination and the impact of her lack of education during the Taliban regime. By contrast, her conservative grandfather is competent to discuss geopolitics at the end of the film. (Does Nogreh even know that the Americans have invaded?) I still think the film overreaches, but the fact that it takes its title from a Garcia Lorca poem is significant. Like a poem, At Five in the Afternoon is giving us a synchronic, evocative snapshot of one moment in a nation in transition and distress.]


Guest Room (Skander Halim, Canada) [v/s] [7]

This film of the cinema is pretty awesome in all of the attending Cinemasters' opinions. What it is is Mr. Halim deploys the restrained type of camera work and elicits the subtle yet dead pan comedical performances from his talented cast. The lighting and the use of film (even though it was shown on video) show through with a burnished visual quality. This is a film that you do not need to be Funga.psycho to love and given my cursory understanding of the Canadian funding system this guy should be getting some funding from the government soon to make the full blown feature. Also cute kid but more nudity next time. thanks bud.


Animal Nightmares (Peter Lynch, Canada) [v/s] [1]

...although I laughed so fucking hard I should really give it an 8 or something just for sheer entertainment value. I cannot do justice to this stunning work of cinema with mere words. Imagine bald guys in an all white room painting themselves and then live frogs jump out of their unzipped pants and you are beginning to get where this is going. Truly one of a kind.


The Five Obstructions (Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier, Denmark / Switzerland / Belgium / France) [7]

I went in giving this every benefit of the doubt, because really I can think of no more awesome outcome than a structural film couched in an accessible enough format to break through. The film is that, sort of, although the dynamic between von Trier and Leth far outshines any of the specific films which Leth produces. The main problem is that the film, true to TIFF 03 form, busts out of the gate with every hysterical aspect of the premise on display, and the surprises run out rather quickly. Leth's answers to the assignments become gradually more rote and predictable. (Although I saw the Martin Arnoldesque solution to Obstruction #1 coming, it didn't diminish its impact as a film.) Ryan Wu compared the project to The Game, and this isn't as perverse as it sounds, given where it ends up. This film is sometimes hilarious, but not as much as it ought to be. But I wish it well, since I'd love to see sadistic, Oulipo-inspired collaborations become the Next Big Thing.


Gozu (Takashi Miike, Japan) [5]

There was some hilarious stuff in the beginning, most of which I can barely remember now. In the middle, it was very slow, and for no discernible reason. Was Miike trying to make a Kiyoshi Kurosawa parody? Hard to tell, but the humor was doled out way too stingily for me to connect with this one. The final fifteen minutes were awesome, even if the best visual gag is stolen from The Kingdom. Nice abrupt ending, with a nod to Jules and Jim.  The weakest Miike I've yet seen.




Greendale (Bernard Shakey) [W/O] (0:32)

Pretty embarrassing. Neil Young warbles about some angry old hippie adjusting his shorts or whatever, and then shows said old hippie doing same. This has no business being presented as a stand-alone, and the three album tracks I heard were not exactly groundbreaking new material.




Nathalie . . . (Anne Fontaine, France) [5]

A rather generous grade, in retrospect. The film has one very transparent premise, which it rehearses until its conclusion. Depardieu is good but is given fuck-all to do; Ardant is sexy but somnambulistic, a luminous mannequin. Béart is really hot and slutty. But the main trouble here is that there is no indication that any of the performers understands how the material should be put across, so we get generic Euro-seriousness, even though some stylization could have made it go down smoother. The direction is a gaping cavity, as though Fontaine is working in the service of her stars, not her actors. Also, does anyone really have arguments while facing the same direction, both looking off into the distance at the TV on the far wall or whatever? This is "Young and the Restless" shit.


Histoire de Marie et Julien (Jacques Rivette, France) [6]

As with several latter-day Rivettes, it takes a long time for all the pieces to assemble on the game board and begin actually moving around. Here, a rather bland love story becomes a dry meditation on genre. Towards the end, it actually began to have an unexpected emotional impact, which its glib conclusion soon eviscerates. For most of the middle, I was content with watching Lubtchansky's camera move around and snap into place, often to Gaspare's surprise.


Time of the Wolf (Michael Haneke, France / Austria / Germany) [4] [revised to 5 on 10/9/03]

A rather ungenerous grade, given that this film is absolutely watchable. Haneke's direction and most of the central performances gel into a relatively intense set of tableaux. The trouble is, there really aren't any fresh ideas in this film. This apocalypse is way too familiar. Nice rhythms, though. It doesn't start so much as it stumbles in, and it doesn't end so much as it wanders away. [NOTE: Unlike most of the films that underwhelmed me at TIFF, this is one I’ve been turning over in my mind. While I’d really need a second viewing to be sure, I am fairly certain I underrated it due to high expectations and festival-fatigue.  I can still recall Haneke’s powerful images and exacting direction, even if I still believe it’s all in the service of a pedestrian, unnamed-social-collapse narrative.]




My Father and I (Xu Jinglei, China) [5]

Had I been in an aisle seat, I certainly would have walked out. With its tinkly score, its overwritten voiceover, and its hackneyed camerawork, it would seem right at home sandwiched between some soap operas on Chinese language TV. But amidst all of this, I discovered two unexpectedly poignant performances (one by the director herself), and a middle-section with some family dynamics that really hit home. The ending, though, was a return to maudlin form.


Good Morning, Night (Marco Bellocchio, Italy) [4] [revised to 5 on 9/9/05]

This is extra-textual knowledge and not really appropriate to mention in a review, but in Q&A Bellocchio admitted that he was trying to depict the Red Brigade terrorists not just as deluded, but as incredibly stupid. I certainly noticed, as they spouted meaningless slogans and chanted in unison, in addition to showing no real connection to the working class. This was offensive to me; whatever I may think of their politics and tactics, the Red Brigade did have a point of view, and depicting them with the subtle shading of a Popeye cartoon serves no one's argument well.  Plus, as a film it was simply a chore to watch.  It resembled the docu-fiction (but not the analysis) of Kluge, joined to the historical realism (but not the generosity to character) of Von Trotta. Mixed into all of this were some bizarre stabs at operatic pathos (Pink Floyd?) which signified their intentions rather than achieving them. Quite a disappointment. [SECOND VIEWING (9/8/05): There's a little more going on here than I first acknowledged, blinded as I was by Bellocchio's political cudgel-swiping at the Red Brigade. I was right about that; the film is a hatchet job by an inside man, a cry of passionate regret that could only come from a once-idealistic leftist who is now searching for a Third Way. But Bellocchio combines this with a domestic melodrama, featuring Chiara (Maya Sansa) as the entrapped daughter of the revolution, helplessly watching a private familial heartbreak play out before her. This is all pretty intellectually hamhanded; Chiara's Partisan father was killed by the Fascists, and now she identifies with Moro as a surrogate father, her comrades seeming all too indistinguishable from Mussolini's thugs. (When she dreams of the glory of revolutions past, Bellocchio cuts in footage of Stalin. He couldn't make the point any plainer.) So the death of radical Marxism is partly brought about by an unconscious twitch of neo-Freudian displacement, and we all apparently need to make our peace with the political mistakes of our parents' generation. I can respect Bellocchio's difference of opinion about the legacy of Western Marxist political action, and I grant that his perspective is borne of concrete experience that I, as a younger non-European, simply cannot claim. And yet, as politics and as cinema, it is entirely too pat. I have upgraded the film, since on second viewing I can appreciate its evocation of Chiara's claustrophobic prison of the mind. (The contrast with the outdoor wedding is remarkably potent.) But the whole thing still feels like a flailing smackdown rather than a close retrospective analysis, and the questionable gender politics (the female revolutionary as the conscience and soul, the mourning daughter who must potentially become the protective mother) only make matters worse. Skillful, effective, but cheap.]


The Third Page (Zeki Demirkubuz, Turkey, 1999)

I would have walked out of this one, too, had it not been for the fact that I crossed my legs in the theatre seat and had $7 CAD in coins roll out of my pocket, lost in the dark. Well, thank god for loose change, because this was a standout. At first it looked like a modest but rather uninspired genre piece.  Over time, it turns into, among other things, a meditation on acting, a playful treatment of plot contrivances, and a set of unexpected formal experiments which kick the whole thing into a new level. Also, the gritty visual style was a welcome respite from art-designed "squallor", from Soderbergh to Jeunet. Every interior looked like the filthy dorm-room of the bearded student who disappears at midterm, and the film itself had a pocked yet saturated look, like it would just fly apart in the projector. The central performances are stylized but strong, especially Basak Koklukaya's femme fatale. Were 1999 not such a stellar year, this would make my  top ten. Thanks for the tip, Bilge.


Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano, Japan) [5]

This motion picture is pretty kind of good when Beat Takeshi is playing the blind man and kicking ass. It is pretty lame when it tries to employ humor, since its idea of funny jokes includes stuff like a retarded dude in a diaper running around the house with a sword. The conclusion, which resembles a show-stopping number from the Japanese road company of Stomp!, is not only a whopping miscalculation, but casts a retroactive pall over the nifty percussive hammering from earlier in the film. Kitano's least Kitanoesque film, for what it's worth. Whatever.  I’m sure Harvey W. will reap mad chingy off it.


PTU (Johnnie To, Hong Kong) [5]

...whereupon we all shook our heads wondering why this mediocre Milkyway trifle is getting all the attention, while other, clearly superior efforts like A Hero Never Dies and Fulltime Killer were largely ignored by the festival-igentsia. It has some neat stuff at the beginning, with a clever introduction of the major players. At the time, the finale seemed cool too, but I think I was just desperate for visceral thrills, because in retrospect it adhered to no discernible action-film spatial logic. Bang bang, kiss kiss off.


Undead (Peter and Michael Spierig, Australia) [3]

I tried to get into the spirit of this, but it was long and unfunny and frequently unwatchable. The World of Weapons guy was funny; too bad he was surrounded by some of the most irritating character actors I've seen in a dog's age. (The manic incomprehensible obscenity hurling guy should be shipped off to Asami's House of Acupuncture stat.) Funniest line of the screening was not in the film, but from MD'A seated two away: "Don't dis late Preminger!"