51ST SAN SEBASTIAN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL - 9/18/2003-9/27/2003
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, 2003
(written by Laura Clifford except where noted as Robin)

Intermission (Zabaltegi, New Directors)

Intermission This morning's Zabaltegi selection provides the first really exciting film of the festival (discounting "The Station Agent," which we did not see here).  Competing for the New Directors award is the Irish film "Intermission." John Crowley's fresh and inspired film can only be described as an ultra violent romantic comedy!

The film characterizes itself in its opening, amazing scene where Lehiff (Colin Farrell, living up to his star rep with flair here as a psychopath with unexpected flashes of humanity) chats up a cashier with his longings to build a nest and settle down.  It ends with a bit of truly unexpected, shocking violence.  A filmmaker of urgent originality is born.

"Intermission" features multiple characters in Dublin whose lives are all touched when John (Cilian Murphy, ¨"28 Days," who also appears in the fest's "Girl With a Pearl Earring") breaks up with long time girlfriend Deidre (Kelly Macdonald, "Trainspotting"), then goes ballistic when she takes an older, married lover Sam (Michael McElhatton, "Blow Dry") who has a respectable job managing a bank.  John ekes by in a hateful job stocking shelves with his buddy Oscar (David Wilmot, "Rat"), continually tempting fate by pushing his controlling manager Henderson's buttons.  Desperate for a real (vs. porn video) girlfriend, Oscar convinces John to go to a club where older women look for love.  Oscar hooks up with Sam's deserted wife Noeleen (Deirdre O'Kane), who takes out her aggressions during their sex play.

Deidre's mother Maura (Ger Ryan, "The Van") passes no judgement, but sister Sally (Sally Henderson), leaves the new couple saying ´There´s the stench of an adulterer in here.´  Sally is down on men (in an unpleasant bit of backstory borrowed from Woody Allen) and her mother is desperately trying to raise her daughter's self image (a running gag about Sally's 'runny,' or moustache, is hilarious).  When the bus they're riding overturns in an accident caused by a young boy throwing a rock (Taylor Malloy), the two are approached by Ben (Tom O'Sullivan), a TV journalist yearning for darker material.  Ben's been trying to do a piece on Detective Jerry Lynch (an inspired Colm Meany), a puffed up copper with Dirty Harry delusions.  Lynch has been on Lehiff's trail (as evidenced in an early scene where he pisses on Lehiff's shoe for daring to use a pub restroom without being a paying customer) and he and Ben will get more than they bargained for when Lehiff joins up with a vengeful John and unjustly sacked bus driver Mick (Brian F. O'Byrne, "Bandits") in a plot to rob Sam's bank.  Everything goes hilariously awry as Crowley crosscuts between two final chase scenes before concluding with the rightful reunion of the film's first couple.

"Intermission" is one of those films that shows the influence of predecessors like "Trainspotting" and "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" while standing on its own unique turf.  Urgent, handheld camerawork is combined with great musical selections (Crowley uses U2 without seeming cliched) to showcase a brilliant ensemble.  While the violence against women is initially disturbing, Crowley is an equal opportunity offender and soon so many of the cast are sporting black eyes that the violence blends into the film's outrageous comedy.  Running gags featuring 'brown sauce,' paraplegic barflies and kitchen woks are all worked into the inventive plot.  A-

Robin:

Newcomer John Crowley brings us a slice of life tale about a disparate group of people living in Dublin Ireland whose lives, unbeknown to all, are about to intertwine in a fast-paced, lively tale in his debut film “Intermission.“

Things start out innocently enough as Lehiff (Colin Farrel), a handsome young man, flirts with a shop girl, discussing personal chemistry and attraction. She is bowled over by the good looking guy´s attention until, wham! He socks her, hard, in the nose and cleans out the cash register and runs from the police in hot pursuit, highjacking a car along the way.

After this auspicious beginning, Crowley begins to introduce the many characters of the film. John (Cillian Murphy) is a troubled young man whose girlfriend, Deidre (Kelly MacDonald), has dumped him and takes up with an older man. The man, Sam (Michael McElhatton), a middle-aged banker, leaves his wife, Noleen (Deidre O’Kane), of 14 years and shacks up with Deidre, who sees him as the way to a solid and secure life. Jerry (Colm Meaney) is a rough and tumble street cop who takes pride in his toughness and his boxing ability. Ben (Tom O’Sullivan) is a TV producer who wants to create gritty, truth-laden television programs and sees Jerry as his way to the top.

John´s friend and work mate Oscar (David Wilmot) wants one thing – sex (with a woman) – but is too shy to score with girls his own age. He decides that a middle aged pickup club is his only hope and meets Noleen. Sally (Shirley Henderson), a plain girl with a decidely noticable moustache (it´s not as bad as Burt Reynolds´s or Tom Sellick´s she is assured by her widow mother, Maura (Ger Ryan)), is bitter over her bad luck with the opposite sex. Mick (Brian F. O’Byrne) is a bus driver who loses his job when a boy (Taylor Molloy) hurls a rock through the windshield and causes Mick to lose control, flipping the bus on its side. He is fired for carelessness.

All of these myriad story threads come together in a high energy yarn that culminates in kidnapping, attempted bank robbery and new uses for the infamous Irish brown sauce. Crowley marshals his actors along with skill, giving mostly equal weight to their stories until all things intersect and each touches the lives of the rest. This is all done with an assured hand that combines action, violence, sex and humor in liberal doses with its talented ensemble cast and manic, inventive story.

I give it a B+.

Arven (The Inheritance) (Official Selection)

The Inheritance Next up is eventual Best Screenplay winner, Per Fly's "Inheritance (Arven)."  This official selection from Denmark is the far more satisfying, if chilly take on the dynamics of family business, its title a twisted irony.  We're introduced to Christoffer (Ulrich Thomsen, "The Celebration") happy running a Stockholm restaurant with his Shakespearean actress wife Maria (Lisa Werlinder).  Christoffer's father, owner of a Danish steel plant, visits but cannot take the time to experience his son's alternate business.  Christoffer and Maria rush to Denmark upon the news that father has hung himself and mother Annelisa (Ghita Norby, "The Kingdom I & II") begins a shrewd manipulation that will preserve the business but will strip her son of his very soul.

Fly's writing is subtle, believably building upon the small compromises and concessions which create the type of moral vacuum whose creation cannot be understood from the outside.  The power hungry mother who drives her son to a kind of madness is perhaps Fly's reflection of the Danish set "Hamlet," although shades of "The Godfather's" Michael Corleone are also present. Norby gives a chilling performance, only gradually revealing the extents she is willing to go in order to preserve an empire.  Thomsen travels a huge arc, taking Christoffer from happy family man to powerful executive barely conscious of what he has lost.  The film is stunningly photographed, with Stockholm's warm lighting giving way to the steely grays of Denmark.  Twinned processions of black clad family members through a mass of steel workers make ironic counterpoints.
B+

Robin:

Christoffer (Ulrich Thomsen) and Maria (Lisa Werlinder) have a good and happy life in Stockholm. He is a restauranteur with a successful business and she is an up and coming stage actress who performs Shakespeare and has an assured  future in the theater. Until, one day, the phone rings and Christoffer is told that his father has committed suicide. He is ordered home by his mother, Annaelise (Ghita Norby), to take over the family steel business and to claim, whether he wants it or not, his “Inheritance.“

Just when you think you´ve gotten out, they drag you back. This is essentially the premise for “Inheritance“ as Christoffer is forced to give up the life that he loves and enjoys in Stockholm to return to Denmark and take on the burden of running the family business that may well have killed his father. When he arrives, his mother fully expects him to fill his father´s shoes but must deal with his brother-in-law, Ulrik (Lars Brygmann), who has worked hard for his in-laws and expected to get the top post in the business. Christoffer must also face the reality that times are hard and drastic measures are needed to save his father´s life work.

Maria does not want to give up her acting career or leave Stockholm but, loyal wife that she is, agrees to move to Denmark after Christoffer assures her that it will be just for two years. Her husband turns his attention to the problems at hand, the reality of which is that he must fire upwards to 200 workers and merge with a French steel works if his is to save the family business. This begins a downward spiral as he puts loyalty and kindness aside and come to grips with survival in this dog-eat-dog world. All the while, his mother is conniving to keep her son on a leash, get rid of Maria and create his life the way she wants it, regardless of the toll it takes on Christoffer.

“Inheritance“ is a study of a man´s responsibility to his family and the business that has paid for the easy life that allowed him, for so long, to live it as he wished. What Christoffer doesn´t know when he comes back to the family manor is that his mother is a puppetmaster who uses guilt as a bludgeon to keep control and manipulate those around her. She has never accepted Maria as a part of the family and, once she has her son back home, begins her manipulation that eventually drives her daughter-in-law away and leave Christoffer under her control.

This is not a pretty film as Christoffer devolves from being a happy man to one who lives every day in misery as he must make decisions that adversely affect hundreds of people, including those closest to him. Once he agrees to take over as the family patriarch we see that he is headed for the same fate as his father – do or die, but for the sake of the family, specifically his mother.

Don´t expect a “they all lived happily ever after“ tale from helmer and coscripter Per Fly with “Inheritance.“ Do expect a dramatic story of the toll that family responsibility can take on a man as he tries, in vain, to do the right and good thing but is doomed to lose what he really holds dear. I give it a B-.


Deep Blue (Velodrome)

Deep Blue We attend the world premiere of Velodrome selection, "Deep Blue."  This 90 minute documentary was culled from the BBC series "Deep Planet," which has aired in the US on the Discovery Channel. At their press conference, the producers said they wanted to create a more emotional experience by taking the most striking images and condensing them into a film that has been scored by the Oscar nominee George Fenton ("The Fisher King").  The film's opener, of dolphins surfing the waves, recalls an early statement in surfer doc "Step Into Liquid," and narrator Michael Gambon mentions 'liquid space.'  Brilliant sequences include an entire, layered food chain which constantly reshapes itself as predators enter until a whale gulps the whole in the finale, killer whales taking six hours to separate a blue whale from its pup - a real heartbreaker, and truly amazing footage of the little known creatures of the ultra depths.  The score is majestic, although it breaks for the comical with Latin riffs accompanying scurrying blue crabs, goes for an 'old dark house' effect as rays, eels and sharks night feed and becomes lyrical to underscore the graceful movements of squids glinting metallic red.  "Deep Blue" is a nice piece of work, but unfortunately it smacks of bandwagon-jumping following the success of such docs as "Winged Migration."  B

Robin:

BBC documentary filmmakers Alastair Fothergill and Andy Byatt had created the TV series, for the Discovery Channel, “Blue Planet,“ giving the viewer an up close look into the mysterious, harsh and beautiful underwater world of our oceans. The popularity of the series has led to a feature length version that will soon be in theaters as “Deep Blue.“

Narrated by British actor Michael Gambon, “Deep Blue” begins with the graceful ballet of dolphins as the ply their way effortlessly through great waves to a majestic music score. Things move along to the world of the albatross as these great birds feed upong the fish driven to the surface by the dolphins. Then, huge orcas risk being beaches as they come right up to the shore to capture and feed upon unsuspecting sea lions.

This symphony of life and death in the seas continues as crabs lay their eggs and their babies attempt to survive as they hurry to get to the safety of the sea. The oceans´ reefs – which make up 1% of the undersea world but are the homes for fully 25% of all aquatic life – are shown in all their beauty. A harrowing sequence takes place as a mother grey whale tries to save her new born baby from a pack of killer whales that relentlessly work together to separate the babe from his mom until they succeed, to feed on just a tiny bit of their prey before leaving the carcass to its unfortunate mother.

Exploration continues as the filmmakers go where few, if any, have gone before as they take their high-tech submersibles to the deepest part of the world, the Great Mariana Trench, seven miles beneath the surface. Here, where you expect nothing to live, life thrives in many forms despite the pressures hundreds of times greater than on the surface.

“Deep Blue“ does this all this deftly but, unlike the television series, does not give a great deal of information about what you are seeing. The filmmakers rely on their masterly visuals to tell the story of the mystery world of the Seven Seas, making this a stunning work of images but not as much an educational tool. If you want to get a learning about the undersea world and its inhabitants then rent “Blue Planet.“ But if you want to have a majestically scored, beautiful, often haunting look into an unknown world, and only have 90 minutes to spare, go see “Deep Blue.“ I give it a B.


Donostia award winner Isabelle Huppert press conference


                Isabelle Huppert      Isabelle Huppert  
Tonight the first recipient of the Donostia award for lifetime achievement will be the great French actress Isabelle Huppert, so we attend her press conference.  Dressed in a navy blue blazer and faded jeans (which she also wears to the ceremony that evening!), Huppert strides into the room appearing taller than her 5'3" height.  When asked about her lack of success in American films, Huppert declares "Heaven's Gate" a masterpiece which closed a golden era of American filmmaking and says she's just completed "I Love Huckabees" for director David Russell, costarring Dustin Hoffman and Naomi Watts.  The inevitable question about the state of European cinema again draws praise for the US, when Huppert talks about the 'movement' of such filmmakers as Russell, Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson who work with studios but make personal films.  She also says some countries preserve their own cinema better than others, without specifically noting France.  Of course, Claude Chabrol (who will present her with the award that evening), with whom she has made six films, is brought up and Huppert says they share a common vision.  Asked about her favorite role, she stalls before admitting a preference for "Une Affaire de Femme" and "La Pianiste."  Overall, Huppert is a little difficult to get answers from and rather humorless.  Only as we left the room did it occur to Laura to ask her what the funniest or silliest thing was that had happened to her making or promoting a film in her 25 year career, but as Robin noted, she would probably have replied 'I do not have fun.'  Oddly, the festival does not screen Huppert's most recent and second film with Michael Haeneke, "The Time of the wolf."

Sa-lin-eui Chu-eok (Memories of Murder) (Official Selection, New Directors)

Memories of Murder Next is the official selection which will win the Silver Shell for Bong Joon-ho's directing as well as the New Directors award and Fipresci critics award),  South Korea's "Memories of Murder." Bong Joon-ho does an exemplary job balancing a mystery with both humorous and dramatic elements. In 1986 in a remote wheat field divided by railroad tracks, Inspector Park looks beneath a cement barrier at a murder victim, a bound young woman, Hyan Sook.  The golden glow of the photography belies the circus atmosphere which prevails - a young boy disrespectfully apes Parks' every word, bumbling local cops allow the crime scene to become tainted and a tractor rides right over the most important piece of evidence, a footprint left in the mud.  Parks' regular prostitute tells him about the slightly retarded Kwang-ho, who followed Hyan Sook about, so Park buys sneakers, creates a new footprint at the crime scene, and presents the new shoes to the boy as a gift.  Along the way he arrests Detective Suh from Seoul, who inadvertently scared a woman travelling along the same path near the murder site.  City cop Suh watches the comically criminal country 'investigation' with amazement as his parallel search leads them all closer to the elusive serial killer.

This tale, taken from a real case, links the killer to rainy nights and a song, "Sad Letters," requested on a radio show every time a murder takes place.  Parks, who truly believes he has intuition, uses a 'Look into my eyes' routine that he's willing to falsify in order to impress Shu.  For every ridiculous idea (and created suspect) Parks comes up with, Shu follows up on a fact, no matter how seemingly insignificant, until dogged police work and a little bit of luck have them both staring into a pit of darkness.  A brilliantly conceived 2003 coda shows Park, now a juicer salesman married to his hooker rearing two kids with his old cop tricks, stop at the first scene of the old, unsolved crime.  A suspicious schoolgirl asks what he´s doing and says it is odd because another man did it a couple of weeks earlier.  'What did he say?' asks a startled Parks. ´He remembered doing something here long ago so he came back to take a look.  Their final exchange will be maddening for some, fully satisfying for others.  "Memories of Murder" is a special, unique film that perfectly places its keystone kops within moody atmospherics.  B+

Robin:

South Korean freshman director Bong Joon-ho makes his debut with his telling of the true story of the first serial killer in the history of his country with “Memories of Murder.“

In 1986, the body of a young girl – tied up, raped and brutally strangled to death – is discovered in a drainage ditch in the countryside near a town far from the capital city of Seoul. Inspector Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho), the local police officer in charge of the homocide, is at his wits end as he tries to preserve the crime scene and gather clues on the murder. But, this event is new to everyone and it becomes more like a circus than a murder scene and little, if any, useful evidence is left.

Soon after, there is a second murder committed the same way and help is sent from the capital in the form of homocide investigator Seo Tae-yoon (Kin Sang-kyung) who Park mistakes, at first, as a suspect. Before the experienced cop can make any headway in the case, Park brings in a retarded young man as a key suspect. With questionable interrogation methods the local cop gets a confession from the hapless suspect but Seo does not believe the handicapped guy to be the murderer. A third and fourth victim are soon discovered and two facts come to light – each girl was wearing red and they were killed during rain storms. As more and more evidence and facts surface, a real suspect is found and the big city detective uses modern forensics to validate the evidence.

“Memories of Murder” makes use of often broad comedy, in an almost Keystone Cops manner, as the story unfolds and the heinous serial murders, new to the Korean culture, come to the surface. As things develop, the comic trappings fall away as the tragedy of the multiple murders settles like a pall over the community. The police are desperately grasping at straws as they search for a suspect, manufacture evidence and inflict torture, if necessary, that will get a conviction and keep the political limelight away from the rural town. The country is under martial law and the local police are not anxious to garner the attention of the powers that be in Seoul.

Performances are fully developed by the leads and supporting characters and the screenplay, by director Bong and Shim Sung-bo, provides an intricate plot that keeps you guessing but not confused. My only objection is that the filmmakers decided to tack on an epilogue, 20 years later, instead of closing with a much more beautifully photographed, haunting and ambiguous finale.

Fledgling director Bong Joon-ho received the best new director award at the San Sebastian Film Festival and he shows a deft, talented hand at the helm. I give it an A-.


Leaving the theater, we discover that Saturday night in Parte Veija is one huge party - the streets are thronged and the pinchos bars are overflowing into the streets.  We retreat from the chaos and have an elegant meal at Aita Mari, an upstairs restaurant located just within the gate which leads to the fishing piers.



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