Neil Young’s Film Lounge – San Sebastian Film Festival 2003


Nazioarteko Zinemaldia DONOSTIA-SAN SEBASTIAN Festival Internacional de Cine

report by Neil Young

official website : San Sebastian Film Festival

Section one : Day 1, Day 2, Day 3
Section two : Day 4, Day 5

Section three : Day 6, Day 7
Section four : Day 8, Day 9, Day 10, Awards comment

format of reviews:
Title / rating / original title(s) : country(s) of origin : year : director(s) : length : section of festival
synopsis in italics taken directly from official festival brochure


Day 6 (23rd Sept) : 21 Grams, PyME (Besieged), When the Right One Comes Along

Day 7 (24th Sept) : You Have My Eyes, Code 46, Girl with a Pearl Earring, My Life Without Me

Day 6 : Tuesday 23rd September



[upgraded to 7/10 after 2nd viewing, Jan 2004]

USA 2003 : Alejandro Gonzalez INARRITU : 125 mins : Zabaltegi (additional screening)

[no description in brochure late addition to schedules]

AKA Monsters Ball II: shameless, tragedy-heavy, fundamentally rather silly melodrama seemingly designed to provide a gruelling emotional and physical workout for its actors: Halle Berry went hysterical with the phrase Red gumball in Monsters, here Naomi Watts, crazed with grief at death of young daughters and husband, goes hysterical with the phrase Red shoelaces. Berry rewarded with Oscar, Watts likely to obtain same prize (compensation for Mulholland Dr). Grainy indie feel of Rodrigo Prietos cinematography makes Memphis, Tennessee look like the coldest city in the world. Prieto did Amores Perros for this director and writer (Gullermo Arriaga). Stephen (Traffic) Mirriones jagged editing crucial in success/failure of major gimmick: Arriagas pretentious chopped-up, time-hopping script. Audience must piece together the puzzle of how tragic events bring/brought together maths professor Paul (Sean Penn), bereaved Cristina (Watts) and ex-con-turned-god-botherer Jack (Benicio Del Toro). Never a dull moment along way, even if arc is mostly predictable thanks to structure (we keep seeing glimpses of the climax throughout turns out to make very little sense). Herky-jerky, rough-edged style somewhat familiar nowadays (not least from Amores Perros and Traffic, both as over-rated as this movie classic cases of movies delivering much less than meets the eye). Wunderkind Inarritu overpraised after Perros debut, and the hype will continue with 21 Grams. But he’s by no means immune to clich, and over-cooked approach prevents audience being swept along on emotional tide that keeps the story moving. Much sound and fury, especially towards the end (to the extent it feels like one-damn-thing-after-another) but at heart (!) isn’t this just TV movie material? Imagine Lindsay Wagner, Tim Matheson, Brian Dennehy in main roles. Watts, Penn and Del Toro make it seem better than it is Melissa Leo arguably the best of the lot, however, as Jacks down-to-earth wife (shes in a slightly different, slightly better, slightly more realistic movie). Actors provide emotional heft that almost obscures the odd cringe-makingly duff line (I got a good heart, says Paul after receiving organ from donor who turns out to be Cristinas late husband), and almost overcomes fundamental absurdities/implausibilities of script (final straw: Paul is told he may need a second heart transplant). But scripts flaws become increasingly apparent and troubling the more they’re thought about attempt to subliminally link these tragedies with September 11 (American flag in background of certain shots) as arbitrary and cheap as in Fear X. Even Penn can’t overcome scripts token efforts to convince us Paul is a maths professor: one perfunctory speech about how numbers lie behind all things, etc. Plus he delivers final voiceover which explains the title: supposedly amount of weight lost by human body at moment of death. How much does 21 grams weigh? he asks. At which point viewers, fed up with po-faced metaphysical portentousness of it all, may feel moved to shout out Half an ounce, mate!



PyME (Sitiados) aka Sieged : Argentina 2003 : Alejandro MALOWICKI : 96 mins : Horizontes Latinos

A days work, perhaps the last, in a plastic goods factory on the point of declaring bankruptcy. The entire action unfolds in this place where workers and owner alike try to find a way of solving the crisis certain to lead them all to ruin. Second feature film by a famous documentary-maker. Presented [at San Sebastian 2002] as part of last years Films in Progress.

PyME = Pequeno y Media Empresa, though this is never explained in film itself. Translates as small to medium enterprise. Plastic-chair factory in crisis, bankruptcy looming. Doumentary-maker Malowicki turns hand to fiction, but doesn’t exactly leap into storytelling possibilities of medium. Stilted, dry presentation in utterly flat DV: basic to the point of Zen simplicity. Tinkly piano comes and goes, as does ticking clock, heartbeat on soundtrack. We never leave the confines of the factory claustrophobic scenes mostly dialogue-heavy two-handers. Talk talk talk. Personal chat sits uneasily alongside more political discourses (soft-spoken boss of firm rails against the free-market dogma he bought into, which has now turned savage and bitten him on the ass). Pressing subject: capitalisms winners and losers. But deserves and needs much wider perspective. Argentina: total mess. But issue is better handled in more oblique terms as background-noise for dramas (Red Bear, Nine Queens). Those films dramatically involving, but make effective political points as well. Here factory noise is background and foreground with arid, numbing results. (One flash of unintentional surreal humour: bloke comes in and announces that his child has just been born weighing 3,600 kilograms according to subtitles = 7938lb or 567 stones. Should be 3.6kg = 8lb.) Even armed robbery is only very minor and temporary upheaval staged with more brio by Coronation Street on TV back in the 70s as just one more damn thing to deal with. Workers go on strike, forbid anyone from leaving: Bunuelian possibilities of this action aren’t explored. If intention is portray grinding monotony of industrial-action crisis, succeeds only too well. Are you staying or leaving? someone asks at a key moment. I want to see how it ends, is the response. They shouldn’t have bothered film ends (with clunky coda) as it began, schools-TV treatment of major global problem.



Wenn der Richtige kommt : Germany (Ger/Swi) 2003 : Oliver PAULUS & Stefan HILLEBRAND : 78 mins : Zabaltegi

Summed up in a sentence, this is the tale of a cleaning woman who falls in love with a Turkish security guard at the company for which she works, who decides to follow him when he returns to Turkey. Thats the storyline, but the movie is much, much more. Paula is liberal-minded. She does and says whatever she wants, has a crazy aspect, even wilder clothes and surprising friends.

Short, DV-shot romantic comedy not especially comic, but touchingly effective on the romance front. Refreshing lack of cuteness/sentimentality that bedevils most of dreaded US/UK rom-com genre. Unlikely relationship between gawky, ungainly, goose-like, six-foot Paula (Isolde Fischer) and dumpy security-guard Mustafa ( Can Sengul). Bare-bones plot delivered in discrete chapters: Paulas dream, journey, miracle then bittersweet epilogue. Film over relatively quickly, but leaves impression though no thanks to ho-hum visuals or tinkle-tinkle piano soundtrack. Very believable performances in four-hander: Fischer, Seygul, plus Helga Grimme as Paulas unreliable friend Frau de Witz, and Tulay Gonen as the unassuming chap who helps Paula out when she arrives in the dauntingly vast city of Adana. Film revolves around against-the-odds German-Turkish relationship, but were a long way from the intensity of Fassbinders Fear Eats the Soul (unless the slightly Norma Desmond-ish Frau de Witz was the one in love, perhaps). Much lighter stuff, though poignant enough to make it more than just a pleasant time-passer. Limpid, fairytale-ish story of an offbeat shape, just like its heroine.

Day 7 : Wednesday 24th September



Te doy mis ojos aka Take My Eyes : Spain 2003 : Iciar BOLLAIN : 116 mins : Official Section (in competition)

Starring Laia Marull and Luis Tosar, Te doy mis ojos (Take My Eyes) takes a close-up look at the terrible reality of battered women from a completely new perspective [sic] of surprisingly courageous clear ideological stance. The movie, written in collaboration with Alicia Luna, is born as an extension of the short film Amores que matan. [Loves which kill].

Domestic violence: serious, important subject, so powerful that it demands the most careful, sensitive and intelligent treatment if used as subject for movie. Otherwise: source of cheap gravitas. Programme of film festival promised a completely new perspective on domestic violence perhaps it seems such in Spain, country where sexual equality still lags behind economic success. But nothing should excuse such a formulaic, cardboard-cut-out depiction of the issue. Ominous thriller muzak on soundtrack, flat visuals direction hits all the most predictable notes. Takes cue from Marulls performance battered wife: caricature of meek self-effacement in a tediously by-the-numbers and woefully mannered performance. On looks, Marull would have been ideal in title role of Frida, except on this evidence she isn’t in (even) Salma Hayeks league as an actor. Talented Tosar deserves so much better: stuck in thankless role as caricature pigheaded, drink-swilling macho man spouting monotone paranoid rants. Character is clearly incorrigible, despite sessions in group therapy (which is forgotten about in latter stages). These sessions do, however, provide rare flashes of welcome interest via comic relief likewise, her relatives are milked for (rather easy) laughs: sister (Candela Pena!) gets married to nice-guy Scotsman. Pena should have played main role, which might have gone some way to injecting life into drab material. Not quite the Lilya 4-Ever of marital abuse, but unforgivably two-dimensional.

For a rewrite of this review click here.



UK 2003 : Michael WINTERBOTTOM : 92 mins : Getting to know Michael Winterbottom

[SPOILER ALERT!] In a world dominated by genetic engineering and climatic desertification, the only point of entry to strictly guarded cities are a series of control points. An inspecter [sic] in charge of granting and regulating use of the documents necessary for travel falls hopelessly in love with a woman before learning that he was cloned with deceased mothers DNA.

Predictably unpredictable team of Winterbottom and scriptwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce make foray into science-fiction. Results can’t be counted success on level of hyperactive Winterbottoms recent fine work (The Claim, 24 Hour Party People, In This World, Wonderland) but (as in the other prominent DNA thriller Gattaca) once audience accepts daftness of the script, this is a diverting enough excursion into a mildly dystopian near-future. Also excursion across the globe: main action unfolds in Shanghai (more Suzhou River than Shanghai Panic), with minor detours to (the free port of) Jebel Ali in Dubai, and Seattle. Daft, sub-William Gibson wisp of a plot: should perhaps have been much longer and more complex (Jeanne Balibar fans will fume at size of her tiny role in what could have been a more pivotal role). Many intriguing minor characters around not-so-hot central pairing of Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton. Hes fine as slippery empath but she’s a distracting presence: this version of the cool-tech future isn’t sufficiently distinctive from Minority Report but there are more troubling echoes of her other most prominent performance of recent years: as she walks through a nightclub in beatific, strobey slomo, it clicks into place: Morvern Callar in the 21st Century! Similar pleasures in this sensual world lovely woozy cinematography by Marcel Zyskind: both he and Winterbottom seem in love with Shanghai setting (aim was to do a modern Alphaville visually, not far off). As in Morvern, score adds to mood of movie, even if occasionally a little loud: makes jargon-heavy, quasi-Spanglophone chat a little hard to make out. Some dopey dialogue deserves drowning out, however (The Sphinx gave you a virus, etc etc). Not especially chilling, apart from implication (cf Skunk Anansie at the end of Strange Days) that Coldplay are going to be with us for quite a while yet

For a full review of Code 46 click here



UK (UK/Lux) 2003 : Peter WEBBER : 91 mins : Official Section (in competition)

The screen version of Tracy Chevaliers bestseller, Girl with a Pearl Earring is exquisitely set and studied in every detail. Young actress Scarlett Johansson embodies Griet, the young maid turned model for one of the most famous paintings by Vermeer, played by Colin Firth. The light and mystery reflected against the pearl hanging from Griets ear fill this film above all about a love for painting. [sic]

Period drama with Firth, Tom Wilkinson costumes and period settings (1660s Delft) clearly a deluxe production (albeit on a budget) from Delux Productions. Strings and horns on soundtrack, sly servants, bustling street scenes, costumes. Familiar stuff? But the casting (by Leo Davis) is spot-on: seldom so many amazing sets of eyes in a single movie. Firth underplays it as Vermeer, necessarily a more still and watchful presence surrounded by all these remarkable women and their remarkable faces (alternative title: Master V and the Women?) Doll-like Essie Davis as Vermeers jealous wife (cf Miranda Richardson as Queen Elizabeth in TVs Blackadder); Judy Parfitt as his mother-in-law, glowering in best Bela Lugosi/Robert Blake tradition but sympathetic despite flinty surface (as in Dolores Claiborne). Creepy little Alakina Mann (from The Others) as Firth/Daviss spiteful kid. Not to mention Cillian Murphy as the butchers boy who falls understandably in love with Johanssons Griet. More amazing eyes, set in a bonewhite face of luminous intensity. Shes terrific in a nightmarishly tough role: largely observant, reactive, switching between servant-girl and muse/model in an instant (recalls line from The Player: Im not just me Im also the job). Actress exposed to almosy uniquely intense scrutiny by the camera, and stands up to it remarkably well. Everything boosted by Eduardo Serras cinematography (Vermeer to Greet, explaining hos his camera obscura works: Its an image a picture made of light.) Pale sunlight of wintry c17 Holland Delft convincingly sketched in, but as backdrop for absorbing, small-scale drama: economic in itself, and also expressly concerned with the economics of art. Creation of a single masterpiece, examining the subtle agonies (external and internal pressures) of the creative process. Webber, however, keeps it simple: lets Johansson and Serra get on with things. Unexpectedly spellbinding results.

Click here for an interview with director Peter Webber



aka Mi vida sin mi : Spain/Canada 2003 : Isabel COIXET : 100 mins : Horizontes Latinos

Isabel Coixets new film was one of the big hits at the Berlin Film Festival, where it captivated the audience with its unassuming style. Anne is one of the most attractive and sweetest characters even seen in films. Her tragic story of love and self-sacrifice is full of hope and faith that life without her really will still be life for the people that she loves most. Sentimental without sentimentalism. [sic]

Spanish production, but filmed in Canada and full of familiar faces : Scott Speedman (Dark Blue, Underworld) as Annes husband. Debbie (Deborah) Harry as her mother. Amanda Plummer as friend. Cameos from Maria de Medeiros, Alfred Molina, Leonor Watling. Film utterly dominated, however, by Sarah Polley in central role : most reliable, self-effacing and talented young actress working in (North) American films, though of course she doesn’t work often enough. Coixet realises what a trump card she’s got, tells commendably uninflected tale of woman in early 20s, given only a couple of months left to live, she’s practical, indominatable in fact, odd that she’s a cleaner living on a trailer-park (though she was pregnant at 17). Potentially very mawkish subject-matter, but never bogs down into sentiment. Whats left out is key: no death scene, nobody even knows she’s dying apart from herself, doctors and audience (we become conspiratioral sounding-board). Minor caveats: perhaps a little chick-flick-ish, just a little too indie-textured and bittersweet?

films seen at cinemas Principe, Principal, Astorias and Kursaal, San Sebastian/Donostia

by Neil Young