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The Seattle International Film Festival opened Thursday night and runs through Sunday, 18 June. I saw two movies that I would recommend highly:

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. (Romania, 154 minutes, shot with a handheld camera). Stuart Klawans wrote an long review in The Nation, but even that didn't quite resonate. While some of the movie is meant to show conditions and attitudes specific to Romania, I think they are recognizable to anyone who isn't extremely rich or well-connected just about anywhere, possibly short of Scandinavia. Almost as long as Tony Palmer's Margot, it was remarkably rich.

1:1 (Denmark, 90 minutes). Set in a housing development built in the suburbs of Copenhagen with the loftiest of intentions, but what has turned into housing for immigrants from the Middle East and poor whites, this movie explores the relationships of two families, one Danish and one Palestinian, joined by the romance of a teenager from each family and the social worker mother who refused to flee her changing neighborhood. A brutal beating is the episode around which the movie is centered.

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I left out one of yesterday's films called Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul. It is a survey of contemporary Turkish music documentary of sorts in the "narrator attempts to discover the secret of X and realizes he's only scratched the surface" kind of way. In this case the narrator is experimental rock bass guitarist Alexander Hacke. The structure itself is a bit self-conscious and awkward, but the music is almost uniformly terrific. Hacke talks to lots of different bands and street musicians and young people, including a street dance group that performed a cross between break-dancing and Cirque du Soleil. There are also movie clips of three of Turkey's most famous popular singers, who also performed in movies, pop legend Sezen Aksu, Orhan Gencebay -- there's some hysterical Magnum PI-like movie footage of him -- and Müzeyyen Senar, an older star. In a wonderful twist, there is not only film of rock bands and street musicians performing and rehearsing, but there are staged performances as well: with a now middle-aged and still stunning Sezan Aksu singing in the studio and a Kurdish singer named Anyar singing a lament in echoing old building.

My favorite moments were during an interview with two female rappers, when one waxed lyrical about Sezen Aksu, whose music was the only anemic music in the movie, which is kind of like a young Canadian rapper girl saying that she grew up on the songs of Celine Dion and still loves her. Another fun moment was when her father, who looked like a traditional guy in his 60's, said, "back in my day, we listened to Pink Floyd," and then in a quite moving moment acknowledged how he has come around to recognize the validity of the rap music both his son and daughter perform.


We saw a restoration by the Cinématèque Française of the 1930 Julien Duvivier silent Au Bonheur des Dames, based on a story by Emile Zola, with a wonderful original score and live accompaniment, and, unfortunately, spoken translation of the intertitles. Set in Paris, the mega department store, Au Bonheur des Dames, has been undercutting small businesses and sending them into bankruptcy. The niece of the last holdout gets a job at the store. Chaos ensues.

I was awestruck by the cinematography: in the department store itself, the destruction of the buildings where the store will expand, and in the montages.

If the ending is true to the Zola novel, which I haven't read, this is one of the most cynical movies I've ever seen. Otherwise, "Hollywood endings" is a misnomer.

Pippa Scott has produced a documentary called King Leopold's Ghost, based on Adam Hochschild's book by the same name about the colonization of Belgian Congo (aka Congo/Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo) by King Leopold II and the resulting holocaust in central Africa. The film purports to bring history up to the present day, and in my opinion, undermines its story in the last 15 minutes of the movie in a very 1984-like way.

As I left Russian Dolls by Cedric Klapisch, a sequel to L'Auberge Espagnole, I heard two women behind me debate whether or not we had just seen a chick flick or a romance. The movie is what a friend of mine would call a "nice" movie. It was two hours of multi-lingual eye candy with some truly funny parts, not to mention incredible location shots of London, Paris, and St. Petersburg and several of the most magnificent movie apartments I've ever seen, including what may be the hugest communal apartment in the history of Russia. The L'Auberge Espanole characters travel to St. Petersburg where the goofy, romantic stage-hand William is about to marry Natasha, a young dancer with the Mariinsky, whom he met when she performed in England, and whom he re-met after spending a year learning Russian. (There are some relatively short scenes from Swan Lake in the movie.)

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Two more:

Queens, directed by Manuel Gómez Pereira. It was as if Crustacés et coquillages (released in the US as Côte d'Azur) were directed by Pedro Almodóvar. In fact, it stars three of Almodóvar's leading women -- Carmen Maura (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Marisa Paredes (All About My Mother), and Verónica Forqué (Kika) -- has several Almodóvar in jokes, and ties all neuroses back to Mama. The plot centers around a mass wedding of the first 20 gay couples to marry in Spain. The wedding takes place in a new, gay-centric hotel owned by one of the men's parents, and the rest of the parents ascend upon the scene (or don't), increasing the stress levels of the couples. Chaos ensues.

Adam's Apples (Adams Æbler), directed by Anders Thomas Jensen. Plotwise, a recently released neo-Nazi convict is sent to a rural church as part of his parole/community service, where he becomes the assistant to a minister whose take on reality is, well, interesting. A unique and very twisted film. Anyone who seriously dislikes Yanni but has found his/herself absent-mindedly singing "Baby Beluga" when there are no children around will recognize him/herself in the final scene.

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I've rarely seen a movie, this one directed by Copenhagen-trained Icelandic director Dagur Kári, where a rather unfocused lead character, Daniel (played by Jakob Cedergren), shares the first third of the film mainly with one character (Nicolas Bro's Morfar ["Grandpa"]), goes dark a bit during the middle of the movie, which is dominated by Morfar and Daniel's girlfriend Franc, and spends the last third of the film in parallel with another, the judge who sentences him to community service as a result of his arrest during an anti-graffiti sting operation. The very good looking and talented main character, who had been landing on his feet like a cat, fades in the presence of his friend and girlfriend, instead of being bathed in Hollywood light and having his cheekbones caressed by the camera to create a distraction from the lack of substance. A darling of European film festivals, I think it's telling that in most English synopses of Dark Horse (Voksne Mennesker) on the web, the judge is rarely mentioned, although he becomes a major character with no foreshadowing towards the end of the movie. I think the slacker angle loses the importance of the opposite trajectory of the judge. I am not sure how much of this movie I understood, but it was a very fine film by which to have been washed over. The black and white photography was stellar.

Nicolas Bro is having quite a year: he played one of the major characters in Adams Æbler, and he has a lead in Dark Horse as well. (www.imdb.com shows him in five movies release in 2005, and two 2006 movies currently in post-production.) Perhaps he is the Robbie Coltrane of Danish cinema.

The Betrayal (La Trahison) is a rather matter-of-fact story depicting a few weeks in which a handful of ethnic North African soldiers (called "harkis") who are part of the French occupying force in Algeria in the 1960, and are suspected of having turned to the side of the FLN, the Algerian National Liberation Force, to the chagrin of their battalion commander. One of the movie's strengths is that although it does show parallels between the internal conflicts of the commander and of the harkis, both torn between two societal norms, it doesn't attempt to equate their struggles.

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A mother and her mid-twenty-something year old son file the court papers to have their husband/father, who was kidnapped during the 1988 war in Lebanon, declared dead. The next day, the declaration will be made. In theory, A Perfect Day is an allegory of a society that cannot overcome its past. (At least that's what the festival booklet says.) This movie covers dawn to dawn of that period.

What I saw was a mother who had boundary issues, and a son consumed in a young life, pursuing a miserable tease of an ex-girlfriend in a city that is portrayed as one big come-on, when he is not passing out cigarettes to the middle-aged and elderly men who are hanging out in his neighborhood. Visually, the directors stopped short of a wet T-shirt contest, but not by far, and without the "heh-heh" attitude of an American beer commercial. From Copenhagen to Beirut, the horny sleep clinic doctor/technician seems to be a recurring character. What is a boy to do? (Answer: be as passive-aggressive as possible.)

In this movie, the only time people are kind to one another is when one is asleep.

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