Looking back at the 25th Annual Santa Barbara Film Festival

The Santa Barbara Film Festival’s Silver Anniversary edition was a rousing 10 days of films, panels guests and parties. SBFF is a dream destination for Los Angeles cinephiles. The fest unrolls at five venues, all on or within walking distance of State Street. A trolley serves the route, passing every 15 minutes. No traffic, ho hassles, convenient restaurants, and the parking is easy.

Santa Barbara has become a part of the Oscar Campaign route and the exuberant Fest Director Roger Durling gets a lot of credit for drawing down such celebrity firepower.

Emily Blunt, Carey Mulligan, Saoirse Ronan, Gabourey Sidibe and Michael Stuhlbargem received the Virtuosi 2010 honor. Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Christopher Waltz and Stanley Tucci received Vanguard Awards. Sandra Bullock received the American Riviera Award, James Cameron received The Lucky Brand American Master Award, Julia Bigelow received the Director Of the Year Award and Colin Firth received the Outstanding Performance Of the Year.

Stanley Tucci and (as part of Jeff Bridges day) Santa Barbara homeboy Jeff Bridges appeared in conversation. Quentin Tarentino presented “Posse” and a Q &A; with Kirk Douglas.

The “Movers And Shakers” Producers Panel presented Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker), Lawrence Bender (Inglorious Basterds), Jon Landau (Avatar), Lori McCreary (Invictus), Ivan Reitman (Up In The Air), and Jonas Rivera (Up).

The “Directors On Directing” Panel presented Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), James Cameron (Avatar), Pete Docter (Up), Todd Phillips (The Hangover), Jason Reitman (Up In The Air) and Quentin Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds).

“It Starts With The Script” Screenwriter’s Panel presented Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker), Pete Docter (Up), Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire), Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek), Nancy Meyers (It’s Complicated), Jason Reitman (Up In The Air), Scott Neustadter (500 Days of Summer), Quentin Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds)

“Creative Forces: Women In The Biz” Women’s Panel included Bonnie Arnold (Producer, The Last Station), Paula Patton (Actor, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire), Amanda Pope (Director, The Desert of Forbidden Art), Joan Sobel (Editor, A Single Man), Rachel Tenner (Casting, A Serious Man) and Erin Wilson (Writer, Chloe). Was there anyone left in Hollywood to make a movie?

Director of programming Candace Schermerhorn presented a diverse, lively feast of films over the festival’s ten days.

Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s frosty, sly “Lourdes” studies the miracle business that is the town of Lourdes. Steering clear of ridicule or piety, she studies the varieties of faith and disbelief, and the subtle workings of the human psyche.

After watching the film, an audience member described her first trip to Lourdes to me. Expecting the empty streets to be crowded with faithful pilgrims, her local relative explained, “It’s not the miracle season.” Hausner shows us Lourdes, in high miracle season, swelled with pilgrims. Christine (Sylvie Testud), in a self-effacing performance, is a young wheelchair bound traveler, part of a large tour group of invalids protected and ministered to by nurse-assistants. Every moment of their day is planned for, even the off time, which is a choice of taking the waters in the grotto or sightseeing.

Christine doesn’t believe in miracles, but welcomes the chance to see the world. She’s an old hand at these tours, which allow her assisted travel. “It’s the only way I get out,” she blithely explains to her young nurse Maria (Lea Seydoux). Clearly aggravated at her truncated life, Christine seems to long for more. She’s attracted to the ebullient Order of Malta officer Kuno (Bruno Todeschini), the ladies man of the traveling group. She has little hope of a romance, since she’s paralyzed from the neck down, and less hope of a miracle. “I prefer the more cultural trips” she opines.

Maria catches Kuno’s eye, and at first it looks like he’ll pursue her. But Kuno’s aware of Christine’s interest, flattered and curious. The martinet head nun Cecile (Elina Lowensohn) sees everything, and warns Maria to toe the line.

Christine’s held on to her sense of humor, and she’s amused by her fellow travelers. Everyone pities her, but when she is the only pilgrim healed by a miracle, the others are outwardly happy for her, and secretly catty and jealous. ‘Why her?” is the question hanging in the air.

In a coolly comic opening worthy of an early Olmi or Forman film, Hausner reveals the variety of human behavior passing through this institution that attracts 6 million hopeful tourists annually. We watch a stream of waitresses set the table. Ave Maria plays in the background like Catholic Musak. The refectory slowly fills with pilgrims, on foot or in wheelchairs, each with their attendants and volunteers of the Order of Malta, whose mission is to assist the ill, handicapped or homeless. (They are an offshoot of the Knights Hospitaller, who cared for sick pilgrims to the Holy Land during the crusades.)

Christine’s elderly roommate, the devout Madame Hartl (Linde Prelog) takes the MS sufferer on as her own religious mission. We focus on a small ensemble. The priest, cynical tour team leaders and flirtatious volunteers (who drink, play cards and crack religious jokes) and two gossipy biddies who have a lot to say about ‘Christine’s Miracle’.

They’re herded through countless religious ceremonies and masses. At one huge church gathering, Madame Hartl, jumping the line, wheels her young charge to the front of the church. Group Leader Sister Cecile, who’s begun to identify with Christine, takes Madame Hartl to task, but soon Christine’s body starts to awaken.

At first she can move her fingers. She strokes the grotto walls. Next she stands (Bach’s organ music seems to suggest the Miraculous and melodramatic), then she walks, and even dances with her dream man at the ball. She’s honored as the Miracle that justifies the whole pilgrimage. A second group portrait is arranged to show the newly cured Christine. Caught up in her drama, Kuno plays Prince Charming, but his fickleness wrecks havoc on her new found “faith”.

There’s a marvelous scene with a local doctor charged to verify whether her healing can be termed a miracle. He believes it’s a spontaneous temporary improvement, common with MS sufferers.

Hausner and DP Martin Gschlacht create a spare visual style. A naturalistic soundtrack, with occasional source specific music (at the final night’s Pilgrim Ball) abets the droll humor. Hausner’s ironic approach leaves the audience to decide whether to credit Christine’s changes to God or science.

I saw three films in the Eastern Bloc section of SBFF, which included the sly black and white period psychological thriller “Reverse” (Poland’s Oscar entry) and “Slovenian Girl” the gimlet-eyed vérité ‘working-girl’ portrait by Damjan Kozole (“Spare Parts”).

First time Brit feature director Peter Strickland’s “Katalin Varga” is a stylized revenge story that commands your attention from he first frame. Set in an unchanged Transylvania, whose dappled meadows and deep forests were the settings of innumerable fairy tales, Strickland summons the primal force of a folk tale or an Appalachian murder ballad, inexorable as a tragedy from the beginning of time.

35 year-old director Strickland (whose 1997 short “Bubblegum” played Berlin) originally bankrolled the film with a small inheritance of £25,000.
Strickland shot with a small crew of 11, camping out in an unfurnished house in the Carpathians. Speaking no Hungarian, he guided astonishing performances from his cast of local stage actors

He returned to Reading, then Budapest, with no money to edit the film and took a job teaching while pursuing production companies for finishing money. Eventually two Romanian producers, Oana and Tudor Giurgiu (Libra Films) came on board as co-producers, covering the cost of a blow-up from the Super 16mm negatives a sound mix and color correction.

The Berlin Film Festival jumped at it and French distribution company Momento snapped it up. Strickland received the European Film Awards 2009 European Discovery of the Year.

The film begins with ‘Police’ banging on a door at night. They rough up a sleeping couple, looking for a ‘Katalin Varga’. Strickland cuts to a sunny meadow. Katalin (Hilda Péter), a kerchief-wearing peasant, traipses through the grasses picking flowers. In a clearing, a little girl spots her than runs away. A man she passes in her village street rebuffs her greeting.

Her neighbor and confidant rushes up the hillside to warn her, “He knows.” As if waiting for this moment to arrive, Katalin races home to confront her steely husband (László Mátray). Denouncing her as a “whore” who’s shamed him, he banishes her and “the boy”. In the local traditions (unchanged during fifty years of Soviet progress), honor trumps his affection for her.

With the pretext of visiting his sick grandmother, Katalin and 10-year-old Orbán (Norbert Tankó) hurry away from their tranquil rural village in a horse-drawn cart. Long horizontal shots reveal the rolling hills and the mist wrapped Carpathian Mountains ahead of them. Like a moment from a 19th century Thomas Hardy story, stolid Katalin passes gleaners with pitchforks. As in Hardy’s fiction, the sensual beauties of nature contrast with the unfolding human tragedy.

They shelter in stranger’s barns, as she searches for the man who raped her (Orbán’s biological father) and his accomplice. We’re shocked when Katalin pulls out a cell phone to call her husband (he hangs up on her). We might have been in Feudal times. In town, Katalin asks some teenage girls (in hip tee-shirts) the way to Jadzereda. “Never thank anyone who leads you to Jadzereda” yell the laughing girls after her.

Bunked down in a cowshed, worried Orbán asks her why she’s so upset. “I just miss my husband, that’s all.” “You mean Papa don’t you? Why didn’t you call him Papa?” asks the anxious, homesick little boy.

They travel through inhospitable mountain communities, as Katalin searches for Gergely (Roberto Giacomello). Gussying up, Katalin snares him at a firelit gypsy dance. The woozy handheld sequence increases our feeling of dislocation.

Later at the local bar, Katalin flirts with the arrogant womanizer (who doesn’t recognize her, although she gives her name). Blithely unconcerned with the village gossips, they leave together. At their open-air assignation, she brutally kills him. At dawn, Katalin wanders home through a meadow. Another suspicious little girl flees when she sees the disreputable Katalin. The poultry farmer (Zsolt Páll), whose coop they’ve rented, reviles her as a loose woman, who leaves her child to meet men. Dressed In underpants and a neck brace he’s a grotesque émigré from a Béla Tarr flic.

Strickland, who relies on visual storytelling rather than dialogue, shows Gergely’s legs in the brush under a tree, his cell phone ringing incessantly. Once his body’s discovered, his widow’s brothers remorselessly track Katalin across the countryside, the headlights of their cars the only thing visible in the pitch-black rural night. The careless way that Katalin proceeds, making no attempt to hide her identity, adds to the doomed fabular quality. It’s clear she’s made no escape plans. Revenge is her only concern. Reaching a further town, Katalin asks farmer Antal (Tibor Palffy) if he knows a room they can rent. Antal (Orbán’s real father) and his wife Etelka (Melinda Kántor) offer them a room.

Katalin seems unmoored when she discovers Antal’s a happily married man. Etelka bonds with Katalin, confessing they’ve been unable to have children. “I wonder whose fault it is?” “It’s not your fault’ assures judgmental Katalin. Needy Orbán and Antal also bond. Antal’s easy with the boy, protective. At first the camera watches Antal’s guilty reactions. Panning to Katalin’s calm smiling face, we watch the lifelong damage her secret has wrought. It’s a profound performance.

All of Strickland’s stark narrative strategies come to a head in a gripping scene in a rowboat. Drifting in a sunny, idyllic lake, normally terse Katalin begins a hallucinatory monologue, detailing in the language of a children’s story, her virginal assault by two men, Katalin spares Antal yet tragedy follows. Katalin’s revelations wreck havoc. Although her husband’s relented, Katalin’s still a hunted woman. When Antal reveals he’s Orbán’s father, the boy flees. Katalin and Antal search the fields, but it’s poor Orbán who finds Katalin’s body in the meadow. Strickland’s dark tale could end no other way.

Mark Gyori’s 16mm lensing create a vivid picture of the region, both specific and timeless. Gyori’s camera moves across the horizon, scans the sky, meditates on the ominous forest where something dreadful once happened. Everything seems to vibrate with portent. The landscape makes one woozy. An unnerving sound design by Gyorgy Kovacs (a Tarr collaborator) heightens each natural sound (the wind, the rain, the crickets and goat bells) to create an expressionist Transylvania. In the climatic scene the furious tapping of woodpeckers announce that Katalin’s time is running out. The sound design was awarded the 2009 Golden Bear at Berlin. Steven Stapleton and Geoff Cox’s eerie chorale-electronic score increases the film’s tension. Children sing a dreadful ballad about wolves. Katalin and Orbán drone a dirge like folk song.

Strickland cites Charles Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter” and Paradjanov’s “Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors” as influences, as well as the Popol Vuh soundtrack to Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu”. Strickland is a master in the making.

First time feature director Nosir Saidov’s “True Noon“, which premiered in Pusan, is also the first feature film made in the Tajikestan film industry after eighteen years of silence (due to civil war and its aftermath.)

Described by Saidov as ‘Theatre of the Absurd”, the modest film describes a very local problem which has global resonance. Its comi-tragic events chronicle the constantly shifting borders of new nation-states and the vagaries of nationalism.

In the (fictional) mountain village of Safedobi (between the recently independent states of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) Soviet meteorologist Kirill (Yuriy Nazarov) is training his lovely apprentice Nilufar (Nasiba Sharipova) to take over his job. Once she moves into the weather station, he can finally retire and reunite with his Moscow family.

Problems beset their plan. First, Nilufar has no certificate. She’s a math prodigy without official university training. Second, Nilufar’s engaged to Aziz. Aziz, and the local Muslim culture, have no truck with women working outside of the home. His rich father expects them to move into a house he’s built for them.

Once Kirill smooths the way for both the marriage and job to go forward, the Army arrives and erects a barbed wire fence, running a new international border right through the center of town. Safedobi’s split in two: Upper and Lower town, the hospital on one side, the school and post office on the other. The bride and groom’s families are also separated. The outraged villagers are told to complain to the district council. Their problems are imposed by a distant centralized government

At first, Saidov relies on lowkey comedy. With peasant logic the villagers adapt. Hanging their goods on the barbed wire they conduct the local market. The school teacher lectures to his young students through the barbed wire. Half of the class sits on the ground on each side of the fence. The effortlessly charming scenes are reminiscent of small town Ealing comedies like ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt” or Mackendricks” Whiskey Galore.”

But soon the danger in the situation becomes apparent. Brandishing guns the army warns the students off the border. They plant mines. Niloufar’s mother goes into labor but the hospital is on the other side. With no way to reach the distant border crossing in time, Kiril secretly cuts the barbwire. Jury-rigging a tool, he scans for mines. The family illegally crosses to the hospital in time. Having outsmarted the army, Kiril assumes they can use the new rigged crossing to unite the two families. The wedding goes forward but tragedy intervenes.

Non-pro Sharipove and Nazarov richly detail their sentimental father-daughter bond. Soviet veteran Nazarov (“Little Vera“) gives the film its gravitas. Local amateur actors give zesty performances. Unadorned camerawork uses the beautiful mountainous landscapes. A delightful folkloric score never overwhelms. One of the highlights of the festival’s Eastern Bloc.

Ludi Boeken’s “Saviors In the Night” (based on the memoir of 97-year-old Marga Spiegel) tells an unexpected story of good Germans, who hid a Jewish family during the death camp deportation. Dani Schneor’s 16mm handheld camerawork and Suzanne Fenn’s fast paced edit create an almost vérité quality to this unexpected story of relationships forged in war. Boeken’s interested in the conflicted hearts of some of the German people.

Decorated war hero Siegmund Spiegel, a German Jew who fought for Germany in WWl, is a man with a price on his head, sought by the country he once defended. The Ashcoffs hide the Spiegals because their Christian conscience felt it was the right thing to do, yet voted for the Nazis, who they believed would help the farmer’s cause, and nervously wait to hear if their eldest son (Marlon Kittel) will survive the Russian Front.

A brief prologue, set during WWI in 1918, reveals four German soldiers fleeing a trench gas attack. 25 years later Siegmund ‘Menne’ Spiegel turns to his war buddies to hide his family as the last Jews are deported from Germany. Protestant Westphalian farmer Heinrich Ashloff (Martin Horn), agrees to hide Menne’s Aryan-looking wife Marga and daughter Karin but refuses to shelter Menne because locals will recognize the familiar horse trader, whose Jewish face is almost a caricature from a Nazi propaganda poster. Moving from one barn to another, ‘Menne’ finds refuge in a loft in Pentrop’s barn. Wily, taciturn Pentrop (Veit Stuebner) successfully hides his discovery from his rabid neighbors.

I saw two films in the Spanish and Latin American section, which also included Mexico’s Oscar entry “The Backyard” (a thriller about the thousands of women murdered in Ciudad Juárez once the maquiladoras came to town) and Yolanda Cruz’s documentary “2501 Migrantes” a portrait of Border artist Alejandro Santiago and his epic series of clay sculptures honoring the migrants who left the ghost town of Teococuilco to search for work.

Filmed in over 80 locations in Northern Colombia, Columbia’s Oscar entry Ciro Guerra’s “The Wind Journeys” (“Los viajes del viento“) was invited to participate in the “Un Certain Regard” section of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival Official Selection.

Paulo Andres Perez’ widescreen compositions of Columbia’s breathtaking virgin landscape frame the folkloric road movie, a magical realist quest.

When his wife dies, vallenato singer and Juglar Ignacio Carrillo (Marciano Martínez) vows to stop playing and return his cursed “Devil’s Accordian” (It even has horns) to his master, who reputedly won it from the Devil. On Ash Wednesday 1968, Carillo, and would-be teen apprentice Fermín Morales (Yull Núñez), leave Majagual and journey through the Caribbean region of Northern Columbia to the desolate desert hamlet of Taroa to find the maestro. Accompanied by their donkey, they travel from village to village. In one, Carillo plays for a deadly knife battle, in another Fermin wins the approval of a conga master (for bravery not musical skill) and is initiated with Lizard’s blood, to the amazement of the Bantu speaking conga students.

Carrillo, who turns down a lucrative wedding offer, earning the enmity of a local landowner, is lured into a musical mano-a mano, besting an arrogant local player at the Vallenato Legend Festival in Valledupar. Carillo’s lyrical improvisations catch the eye of an old (now married) love.

Dour peasant Carrillo accepts Fermin’s presence reluctantly. Avoiding the “coming of age” clichés, Guerra’s script allows their relationship to develop without the expected easy bonding. Fermin may long for a father figure but Carrillo’s in no rush to mentor him. Fermin may long to be a Juglar, but it’s clear he has no musical talent. Fermin’s tenacity in the face of violence finally wins Carillo over. A scene where the battered Fermin wakes in an Arhuaca Indian village (they nurse him back to life) has a dreamlike quality. When Carrillo is robbed by a mysterious band of thugs, Fermin must recover the cursed accordion.

Wonderful musical interludes pepper the haunting film which highlights Columbia’s cultural diversity. Guerra’s award-winning “La sombra del caminante“, was Columbia’s 2004 Oscar entry.

Argentine first-time director Mariano De Rosa’s “Green Waters” (“Aguas Verdes“) is and accomplished, genre-bending meditation on macho. A fun-loving urban family takes off for their annual beach vacation.
Highly-strung 50-something social worker Juan (Alejandro Fiore) and his younger sexy therapist wife (Milagros Gallo) stuff their sniping kids in the car and take off for their seaside rental. Teenage ‘Lo’/Laura (Julieta Mora) can’t wait to get away from her annoying, overweight little brother (Maximiliano Gigli).

They stop for gas. Complaining of the expensive roadside snacks, Juan has to pull Laura away from the handsome young biker Roberto (Diego Cremonesi), who’s caught her eye. Ever-polite Roberto, a twenty something savvy traveler suggests a shorter route, but Juan takes a dislike to him at first sight. No amount of brown nosing will make him accept the young man, who he sees as lascivious older man, preying on his virginal daughter.

Charmed by Roberto’s casual charm, Laura, her mother and even their new neighbors (a sophisticated lesbian couple) include Roberto in all their activities. Juan, like a one-man Homeland Security, spends his days spying on his daughter, suspicious of everything Roberto does. When her little brother reports that Laura was taken away on a boat, Juan sends the lifeguards after Roberto. They order his motorboat in to shore, but the sight of the big fish he’s caught makes him a beach side hero. Jealous of Roberto’s easy social success, and suspicious of his every move, Juan embarrasses himself in moments of acute social awkwardness and is marginalized by his exasperated family. It’s not just Roberto that’s getting him down. Another vacationer accuses his son of playing perverted games with his kids. Alarmed, he finds his son running naked through the bushes with another kid. “I needed to pee”, his son explains cantering into the bushes. Juan’s carefully controlled world is unraveling fast.

De Rosa evokes the seductive endless days of summer, playing that sensual aspect off against edgy camera work and a crunchy thrillers sound design by (by Daniel Ibarrart). The more his family dotes on the footloose Roberto, the more Juan seethes with anger. He’s none too pleased with his wife’s new lesbian friends either, although he can’t help eyeing up the flirtatious one. Juan is both protective of his family and irrational. A sudden tragic action bursts like a storm in the last few moments. Unaware the family speeds home.

I saw two films in the East X West section which also included Joon-ho Bong’s latest “Mother” and Pou-soi Cheang’s fascinating paranoid “Accident“. Produced by the protean Johnny To, the stylish Hong Kong thriller portrays a group of hit men who choreograph hits that look like accidents.

Castaway on the Moon” by Lee Hae-Joon (“Like A Virgin“) is a Korean Indie rom-com with an underlying social conscience. It’s full of quirky unexpected plot and character twists, An ironic narration drives the oddball love story of two social isolates drawn together over insurmountable barriers. The castaway Mr. Kim is a real change of pace for Jung Jae-Young, who usually plays in violent dramas like “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” “Public Enemy 3” and “No Blood No Tears“.

Dumped by his girlfriend, unable to arrange a loan from a mass-market loan shark, 30-something businessman Mr. Kim leaps off a bridge into the Han River. Minutes later, sputtering up polluted river water, he washes ashore on the deserted Isle of Bamseom (an uninhabited nature refuge) directly under a major bridge. Staring at Seoul’s skyline, unable to swim, Kim tries to flag down passing tourist boats.

Using the last few minutes of his cell phone battery to call 911 he’s rebuffed by the operator, who intones, “prank call of the hour” with the blasé drawl of Laura on the Dr. Katz show. Next he calls his ex, who derides him as a loser before hanging up. KIm makes the best of it, building shelter out of abandoned trash that’s washed up on shore. Freed from debts, bosses and unresponsive girlfriends, his makeshift Eden begins to please him.

The wimpy Crusoe learns self-sufficiency, farming and fishing within yards of Seoul’s high-rise skyline. Blessed with “perfect boredom”, he becomes obsessed with reproducing his own a bowl of “jajangmyeon” black bean noodles, a dish he spurned when a salary man, but now dreams off nightly. Planting seed he’s picked out of local bird-shit, he finally grows enough grain to make his own noodles. His adventures make up the first third of the movie. The dry narration contrasts with KIm’s physical antics and loud philosophical rants.

Half way through the quirky film we meet Kim Jeong-yeon (Jeong Ryeo-weon). This “hikikomori” Kim has locked herself in her bedroom in the riverside high-rise apartment she shares with her enabling mother (Yang Mi-Kyung). KIm sends cell messages to her mother, who leaves supplies outside her locked door. Traumatized by a facial scar, self -isolating in a world in which image is everything, Kim creates a glamorous alter-ego (out of snippets from other blogs) who dazzles and flirts on cyber social networking hubs. She works out obsessively in her room, relying on ritual to avoid the stress of the real world. She sleeps cocooned in bubble wrap in her closet. Even her darkened trash-piled room is too threatening for a good night’s sleep.

Kim only opens her shades one day a year, the day that civil defense exercise empties the city streets. She uses a binoculars and a telephoto camera to scan the world outside her secure bunker. During a drill she notices the half naked “alien” Kim on the island. Kim obsesses about the lost “alien”. One day, Mr. Kim draws a large “Hello” on the sand. House-bound Kim stuffs a message in a bottle, and in a Ninja midnight exercise, distracting her doorman with a windup toy robot which seems to take the elevator on it’s own, she sneaks out unobserved to toss her message off the bridge.

They become pen pals, culminating in a endearing sequence in which Kim sends a noodle-delivery boy paddling boating to the island with noodles, which ‘Robinson’ Kim refuses. His farm is producing results. But Kim’s’ forays into the world melt her defenses. She speaks to her mother, moves out of her closet, pulls opens the shades, and grows her own garden in her room. Former rock and sitcom star Jeong Ryeo-weon builds a credible emotional journey from unlikable agoraphobic to a blooming young woman.

Lee’s good-natured romance uses fantasy sequences, physical gags, and eccentric art direction (both the island hut and the bunker) to dig at some serious social issues. Beautiful widescreen compositions by D.P. Kim Byeong-se’s (“The Aggressives”) and peppy editing keep audience interest up. Eventually authorities discover Kim and try to arrest him. An amusing, suspenseful last sequence finally unites the two “aliens” in a moment haunted by Mike NIchols’ “The Graduate.”

Hiroshi Nishitani’s “Amalfi: Rewards of the Goddess” celebrates Fuji TV’s 50 year reign of the box-office charts. Starring Yuji Oda, the star of Fuji’s block-buster “Bayside Shakedown” franchise in which Oda played Detective Aoshima, known for butting heads with his bosses at the Tokyo police department. Oda’s career break was the popular TV drama “Tokyo Love Story“.

Executive produced by Chihiro Kameyama (head of Fuji’s film division. the slick big budget thriller borrows conventions from Hollywood actioners (while happily avoiding the blood-drenched violence American blockbusters demand.) Surprisingly, it’s neither based on a popular manga nor Fuji TV show, but a stand-alone original script, and features many of Bayside’s stars.

Amalfi” is the first Japanese film shot entirely on location in Italy. Gorgeous cinematography from Hideo Yamamoto (“Hula Girls”.” Big Man Japan“), burnishes the tourist sites of the Amalfi Coast, Rome’s Spanish Steps, Forum and Coliseum.

Amalfi‘s” Italy has been pruned for Japanese taste. Few of the Italian characters are developed, the sole exception is the police detective played by Rocco Papaleo. The pivotal scene is a mix of Japanese, English and Italian (the hero and villains speak English.) A concert features Sarah Brightman rather than a famous Italian singer. Brightman’s song ” Time To Say Goodbye-Con te partiro” topped the Japanese charts in 2008. Her album “Amalfi – Sarah Brightman Love Songs”, released with the film, went Gold.

Japanese tourist and single mom Saeko (Yuki Amami) loses her child at the Palatine Museum (overlooking the Forum). Although newly posted “diplomat” Kuroda (Oda) is charged with protecting the Foreign Minister, due in Rome for a G8 meeting, he comes to hysterical Saeko’s rescue. While the entire Embassy staff is frantic arranging protocol and security for the Minister’s high profile visit, Kuroda can’t overlook the damsel in distress. His job is protecting Japanese Citizen’s from terrorist. Every citizen.

Unlike the boyish unruly Aoshima, here Oda, playing against type, creates a serious, unsmiling operative, helping to ground the far-fetched gadget-filled third act. A clever security camera sequence unravels the mysterious kidnapping. Saeko’s daughter Madoka (Ayane Omori) is seen entering a bathroom and never leaving it. The bathroom is empty when searched.

Kuroda develops a sentimental attachment for the single mother while negotiating with the kidnapper. Suspicious of Saeko’s old suitor, who arrives in Rome to support her, Kuroda and the Italian police begin to uncover anomalies in his story. Continuing to oversee the security protocol for the Minister’s appearance at a culminating concert, Kuroda coolly deflects the urgent plea from his Embassy staff.

As in other Kameyama productions, team effort is stressed. Human foibles are accepted and decency is applauded. (What a relief from Hollywood blockbusters who focus on the heroics of the star.) The novice interpreter (Erika Toda), the elegant councilor (Shiro Sano), all get drawn into the kidnapping rescue which is cleverly tied in with an unfolding terrorist plot, pinned to a personal quest for retribution.

The film offers a glimpse of the Japanese Diplomatic corps, living in glamorous elegance on state monies. An action filled climatic scene and a sentimental coda reveal that behind Kuroda’s urbane diplomatic facade, lives a globe-trotting clandestine operative posted wherever security oversite is required. Smells like a franchise! An entirely enjoyable entertainment.

SBFF programmed a fascinating group of documentaries.
Cambodian reporter Thet Sambath and British documentarian Rob Lemkin collaborated on the exceptional “Enemies Of The People.” Sambath, whose family were killed in the “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge, spent a decade patiently wooing a friendship with Khmer Rouge second in command, Nuon Chea AKA “Brother Number Two.” Years into his freelance assignment, Thet Sambath met Brit filmmaker Rob Lemkin, who was on a research trip to Cambodia during the 2006 Khmer Rouge Trials. Dedicated Sambeth repeatedly visited Nuon Chea and other interviewees gaining their trust. These weekend trips to the countryside nearly destroyed his family life.

Smiling patiently as he listens to harrowing truths, Sambath never reveals that his family were Kymer rouge victims, lest he lose the participant’s stories. “I think only the killers can tell us the truth. Why they killed the people and who ordered them to kill,” explains his narration, which reveals a Buddhist compassion as well as a tenacious digging for the truth. Peasant soldiers were forced to kill or be executed themselves. An uneasy interviewee smiles at the camera as he demonstrates the throat cutting style he was taught and used on hundreds of bound victims.

No amount of archival footage can match the power of this astounding documentary. What began as a investigation, seeking the justice that revealing the truth can bring, becomes over time, a lesson in forgiveness as Sambeth finds himself oddly concerned for the ailing Nuon Chea, once he’s arrested to face War Crime trials.

Ten years of visits wears down Chea’s defenses. The now frail 83-year-old tyrant, known as the ideological leader of the genocidal regime, at first denies knowledge of the local level assassinations. Eventually he acknowledges that the rural mass murders were policy handed down from the top. Sambath reveals that his family members were all killed and Nuon Chea, apologizes. This is the unique time that a high level Khmer Rouge accepted responsibility for the extensive war crimes. (Pol Pot died in 1998.) Interviews with victim’s relatives, peasants who point out where the bodies lay in the now tranquil countryside, and low-level participants in the army massacres add some additional color, but it is the final resolution with Chea that gives the film it’s dramatic force.

Like the masterful documentaries of China’s New Documentary Movement (NDM) and Eyesteelfilm’s earlier release “Up The Yangtze“, “Last Train Home” reveals the collateral damage of China’s Globalization. Following one family through several years, Canadian-Chinese filmmaker Lixin Fan reveals migratory life of Chinese rural workers.

Sixteen years ago, Changhua Zhang and wife Suquin left their village to find work in the Guangzhou province garment factory. Their newborn (eldest Qin) and subsequent son (Yang, now10) was left behind to be raised by their grandparents. The couple has been working towards the day when all the family can be united to live a normal family life in their ancestral village. Once a year, during Lunar New Year they battle their way home to see their children. 130 million workers attempt to visit their families during the traditional Lunar New Year. This seasonal migration from urban centers to rural China is the largest migration on earth and strains the train system beyond its breaking point.

Watching daunting shots of huge crowds waiting in the rain outside the train station, your brain grapples with the enormity of the migration. Chaos overwhelms the under-equipped train stations, as desperate people swarm any official and try to squeeze any opening. In the crowd, Fan’s camera picks out the Zhangs, who’ve waited a week in the hopes of buying tickets. They will travel over 2,000 kilometers by train, bus and ferry to spend a few days with their children. At home, the couple try to reassert their parental roles, nagging their kids about the homework, but it’s clearly too little, too late. They’ve become ‘latch key’ parents.

Bored with the rural life her parents have sacrificed to maintain for their kids, Adolescent Qin resents their abandonment. She can’t imagine the drudgery and substandard life style they’ve accepted as their part of the bargain. Soon after their annual trip, Qin drops out and moves to Guangzhou, where teen co-workers become an ersatz family, supplying the family energy her aged grandparents couldn’t provide. To the stoic couple, who’ve sacrificed their family life to provide their children with an education and a way out of sweatshop labor, Qin’s act is a nightmare betrayal.

A year later we watch the family, Qin included, traveling home for the New Year. An epic snowstorm knocks out the electrical grid. Travel grinds to a halt. Trains are delayed for days. The crowds, fighting their way through the station barriers are even more daunting than the year before. It’s a hellish scene. By the time they magically make it onto their train, the family is feuding. Suquin and Changhua have been lobbying Qin to return to school. She sits in sullen silence.

Back home, Qin, who seethes with resentment when her estranged family attempt to act parental, loses it. Goading her father with the F-word, we watch an uncomfortable, abusive slap fest. Her father, whose patriarchal culture demands filial obedience is livid. He throws his own tantrum. Turning to the omnipresent camera Qin shrieks “You want to film the real me, this is the real me”.

The kind of massive economic transformation has no equivalent in our culture. The traditional family unit, stable throughout the twentieth century and Mao’s revolution, have splintered under industrialization and globalization. The problem of latchkey kids is magnified to an epic proportion. Conversations on the two-day train journey flesh out contemporary Chinese culture as various people opine on the economy and the West. A soundtrack of lyrical piano and pop music underscores China’s straddling of traditional and Global culture. With all access to the family, Fan’s verité hand-held lensing creates a family drama stewed in the stress of China’s economic miracle.

James Kleinert’s activist “Disappointment Valley” is a forceful plea to save the American Mustang as well as our civil liberties and quality of life. Interviews with scientists, wranglers, animal rights activists and environmentalists as well as celebrity activists Michael Blake, (writer, “Dances With Wolves”), Sheryl Crow, Viggo Mortensen, Daryl Hannah illustrate the shameful work of the Bureau of Land Management who are
“managing the Wild Mustangs to extinction.” Although not mentioned in the film, if the BLM protected the wolves, cougars and wild horse, as they were charged to do, natural balance would trim the herd.

Traumatized helicopter and small plane pilots, who were used for herd round ups, describe the quasi military often fatal operations. A “Judas” or bait horse leads the herd into catch corrals. Helicopters run down the frightened horses, often in killing heat. Many die along the way. Sometimes clever runaways are lassoed and left to die in the heat. As an interviewee describes “It’s an unholy death for a magnificent animal.” The captured herd is separated, male from female, grown from foals. The older horses are sent to long term holding pens. The young horses wait in crowded, shadeless, short-term pens. Healthy muscular horses who arrive strong from foraging and running in the wild, soon whither, half starved, waiting, slumped and downcast in captivity for who knows what ultimate destination.

The BML claims it improves the herd, releasing the strongest breeders back into the wild. Actually the best horses are privately auctioned off. Stallions past their breeding prime (who often die in hard winters) and mares treated with birth control are released, insuring the herds won’t reproduce.

Kleinart tracks a prime breeding stallion “Traveler” who was rounded up in a BLM gather and languished in the Cañon City, Colorado short term holding area. The band (lead) horse, whose magnificent offspring improved the stock, was finally released after extensive public protest.

Historically the Cattlemen’s Association merged with the General Land Management to form the BLM. Cattlemen mindsets prevail in the department. Wild Horses are seen as competitors for feed in the wild, although they only graze the top of grasses, which regroup. Cattle overgraze, damaging the root system. Wild horses and burros consume only 5.3 percent of the total forage versus livestock. Adding in forage consumed by big game, wild horses and burros are responsible for less than 2 percent. Cattlemen lease public lands for grazing at $1.50 per head, less than 10% of the fair market price. The Federal Cattle Grazing program, which costs the American taxpayers $150 million a year, feeds a mere 2% of the American beef supply. Allowed to share the land with indigenous animals, cattle ranchers actively campaign to repeal the 1971 Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act repealed, using the excuse that the Mustang is an exotic.

Fossil DNA recovered from the Alaskan Permafrost prove that Equis were native to this continent until an unknown cataclysm, approximately 10,000 years ago, wiped out the horse and many other species. Some Equis migrated across the Bering Strait to the rest of the world. The horse was reintroduced on the continent by Cortez in the 1500’s. As rancher Roeliff Warner predicts, “First the horses then the cattle will go.” Once the Mustangs are removed, the BML, adept at divide and conquer, will take the cattle “in trespass for overgrazing”, leaving the land available for lucrative mining and energy extraction.

Forest Service and BLM lands are de facto controlled by cattle, oil and mining interests. Heavily government-subsidized mining operations pollute the water and leave the land an industrial wasteland, unusable for ranchers who share the land. A massive boom in gas, uranium and coal extraction is underway. Energy Consultant Randy Udall predicts 20-40 years of extraction on public lands. The mining industry, which pays no royalties, has a vested interest in seeing nothing changes in public land management policy.

The Disappointment Valley Preserve, at the center of the mining boom, is staked out with uranium claims under the General Mining Act of 1872 which holds that US citizens are free to stake mining claims, hoarding up federal lands “on the prospect” of finding valuable minerals. Herds are “zeroed out” to accommodate mining interests. Gated mining areas threaten all the indigenous wildlife. Charged with creating wilderness and protecting the Mustang and other indigenous species, the BLM and Department Of The Interior have repeatedly issued permits to oil companies. Using “categorical exclusions” they have superseded the laws, defanged the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and picked off all reformers within the BLM. Jim Baca, outspoken former director of the BLM under Clinton, quit after pressure from the powerful cattle, oil and mineral interests. Baca was working on reforms to the Agency, including attempts to make the Alaska Pipeline safer, when he ran afoul of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Democratic Congressman Raul Grijava of Arizona has spearheaded public reforms, and has repeatedly called for an accurate accounting and an investigation of the BLM. When Arizona requested a GAO feasibility report, the investigative branch of Congress failed the BLM on all counts.

Using the Freedom Of Information Act, activists exposed 2008 plans to euthanize the wild horses. Smacking of a “Final Solution” the plans included killing healthy horses during round-ups, burning mustangs in burial pits and discuss how many “can we destroy each week to run under Congressional radar and NEPA oversight?”

Historically, Mustangs were rounded up and traded across the Natchez Trail to supply western bound pioneers. The Army massacred most of the Indian ponies during the Indian Wars. Mustangs were rounded up to fight in the Boer Wars and World War l. From the 1930’s through the 1950’s, Mustangs were slaughtered for pet food (as seen in “The Misfits”). That mind set remains in the West. 19th century vaqueros coined the terms “sentimiento” for captured horses who died from broken hearts and “despecho” for those that died from nervous rage.

One of the largest letter writing campaigns in American history produced the Free Roaming Horse And Free Burro Act of 1970. Termed “A Living Symbol… of the pioneer Spirit of the West”; Congress ordered the feral animals to be free of capture or death. Despite that, since the act was passed, wild horses have lost approximately 19.4 acres of land. The Department of the Interior claims that their records have been lost or destroyed.

In 2005, Senator Burns of Montana slipped a rider into the Federal Appropriation Bill amending the 1970 Act. Signed by President Bush, the Burns Bill allows the majority of horses held in government pens to be slaughtered. Documents from the BLM advisory board recommend marketing the horses to foreign food markets. As Kleinart’s footage shows, Mustangs are spirited across the Mexican border and slaughtered for the organic, luxury restaurant market in France and other countries.

Activists believe there are less than half of the 33,000 feral horses reported by the BLM in 2005. Since 2010, the BLM has rounded up 10,000 horses a year. The BLM proposes a roundup of 10,000 to 15,000 in 1010. Independent count estimates a mere 15,000 horses left in the wild.

It costs $125.00 to adopt a Wild Horse or Burro. Sellers realize 300 to 800 per head selling horses to slaughter. Not mentioned in the film- although the BLM claims they retain title and monitor all adoptions for a year, since 1984 ranchers have been granted fee-waivers. Called a “bogus scheme” by activists, the fee-waiver guidelines allow ranchers to pool powers-of attorney, evading the four-horse limit. The largest adoption approved by the bureau was for 2,000 animals. Activists contend the animals are slaughter-bound. On July 17th, 2009 the House of representatives overwhelmingly passed the Restoring Our American Mustang Act (R.O.A.M.) The Senate has not weighed in.

Recalling the original letter writing campaign of 1970, Kleinart urges Americans to call and write President Obama and the Senators on the Energy & Natural Resources Committee and demand a moratorium on roundups of the Wild Mustang and a Congressional investigation of all levels of the BLM. www.senate.gov/ www.house.gov. To adopt a Wild Horse or Burro- www.WildHorseandBurro.blm.gov. To learn more- www.AmericanHerds.Blogspot.com

John Ferry’s “Contrary Warrior- The Life and Times Of Adam Fortunate Eagle” is a moving portrait of the renowned 80-year old Native American artist- activist Adam Fortunate Eagle Nordwall. As detailed in his first book “Pipestone: A Boy’s Life in an Indian Boarding School”, Nordwall fondly remembers his boyhood in the Government Pipestone Boarding School (Pipestone, Minn,) Unlike most recounts of the boarding school experience where young native Americans were socialized in American “values”, Nordwall describes his stay as a way out of the grinding poverty of reservation life during the Depression.

Nordwall and wife Bobbie (who he met at the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas) moved to San Francisco where he became a successful businessman. Prejudice towards Native Americans turned him activist. The strategist of the landmark 1969 takeover of Alcatraz, Nordwall negotiated behind the scenes with Nixon’s federal officials. Nixon eventually signed papers to invalidate the Indian Termination Act. Termed an “assimilation program”, the act ended tribal autonomy, forced Native American’s onto the welfare roll, ended education and the Indian Health Service, while ushering in the wholesale government takeover, and ensuing privatization, of resource-rich tribal lands.

Nordwall, termed an “enemy of the people” by the government, lost his business and moved to the Paiute-Shoshone Reservation, Bobbie’s home. There he discovered his métier as a pipestone artist and sculptor of ceremonial pipes. Now a member of the Whistling Water Clan of the Crow peoples, the revered cultural leader, featured on the cover of the Smithsonian Institution’s” Native People’s Magazine”, wrote two books on his activist years- “Heart of the Rock” and “Alcatraz, Alcatraz”.

Nordwall tells his story in his own words. During the Depression, his father (a World War 1 veteran gassed in the trenches) and uncle moved to the Chippewa Reservation to work as mechanics. The Swedish-American brothers married Chippewa sisters. After eight kids, Fortunate Eagle’s fundamentalist father lost his “party-girl” wife to a handsome Sioux Indian lover. His disillusioned father began proselytizing on the reservation. Trusting in God to heal him he failed to treat a festering World War 1 wound. Unable to pay for a train ticket to travel to a clinic, Uncle Ernie dragged him onto a boxcar. The feverish man died in his brother’s arms.

Five year-old Nordwall and five siblings were sent to a boarding school with members of six other tribes. Indian directors Mr. & Mrs. Burns became his “new parents.” He had no regrets leaving the disease-ridden tarpaper shack or the reservation where malnutrition was rampant. By 1935, kids were allowed to speak Native tongues at the school. Only American cussing was forbidden. Autodidact Nordwall read every Indian book in the school library. He illustrates with a collection of books once found in his school library. Making model airplanes may have inspired his later sculpting. Colorful storytelling gives the film its folksy charm. He describes seeing his beautiful Bobbie for the first time “at the chow line at breakfast”. He tried to stay on at the Institute, but wound up sign painting in Lawrence, Kansas then Oklahoma City.

A tribal timber settlement of two hundred dollars, gave him the courage to invite Bobbie to join him. Bobbie became a carhop then worked as a secretary for thirty-five dollars a week. Katz drugstore paid him twenty-five dollars a week, with free lunch! His brother suggested the newly solvent couple marry. The moonlighting Justice of the Peace conducted marriages at his junkyard. “The medicine is good- now I have a life-time mate.” They moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where a meeting with Cy and Aggie Williams and returned Native Vietnam Vets opened his eyes politically. In the sixties, the Indian Relocation program dispersed Indians to major cities. Once they received a paycheck of any amount, the BIA cut them off. Working his way up from foreman, by 1968 he owned First American Termite Company. When Alcatraz was declared surplus property, he and his friends began strategizing Native use of the Island. His satirical Proclamation offered $24.00, beads and cloth (Manhattan’s sale price) to the government to buy the abandoned penitentiary.  Home movies of the takeover and archival photos illustrate the historical moment when the boats to take them to the Island failed to appeared. He talked a two-masted tall ship into taking them across. Richard Ochs jumped overboard, others followed. Most had to be rescued. It was a brilliant photo op for the boatloads of photographers.

“In the course of 19 months we changed the course of history.” Vetoing a covert plan to take the island back by force, Nixon officially repudiated the Termination and signed in wide-sweeping Indian Affairs reforms. “We saved the island for all Americans.” Nordwall, who received his Indian name (Fortunate Eagle) from a Crow Indian he helped, recounts his first art commission. In 1970, he carved a Totem Pole honoring Livermore, California’s centennial. When the shopping center cancelled his payment, he donated the pole to the city. He was appalled to see his pole, truncated beyond repair, raised at Livermore Park. The City claimed they had no money to restore the pole. Fortunate Eagle laid a curse on the city’s sewage system. Once the sewers backed up, the city paid him to lift the curse and restored his pole (with a plaque) to its original glory. On a trip to Rome, he planted a spear, claiming to discover Italy in the name of the Native American peoples. The Pope asked to meet him. Years of absurdist government harassment fill out the tale. Indians are arrested for the use of eagle feathers, as was Fortunate Eagle, while the killing of eagles by ranchers remains unpunished. We tour the green roundhouse Cultural Center he’s building on their reservation. Optimistic Fortunate Eagle Nordwall is a national Treasure and Ferry’s film is a worthy introduction to his life.

Mike Webber’s “Elephant In The Living Room” focuses on the little known world of exotic pets. Webber tracks animal expert Tim Harrison (director of Outreach for Animals), “the number one advocate for proper behavior around wildlife. ” Once an exotic owner himself, Harrison estimates that there are over 7 million reptiles and 15,000 big cats living in private homes across the states. Exotics are legal in many states, and available at a variety of American outlets. (Surprisingly Amish auctions are a prime source.) Deadly snakes, bears and cougars are available for catalogue sales. Only breeders are regulated. Owners of exotics face less regulations than dog owners in most states.

Most owners are naively irresponsible, as the statistics on abandonment show. In one uncomfortable sequence a woman testifies to hitting her macaque in the head with a shovel after he attacked her.
News stories like the burgeoning Burmese python population in the Everglades and a fatal tiger attack at the San Francisco zoo pepper the film. Harrison’s relationship with disabled lion owner Terry Brumfield cuts to the core of the story. At odds at first the two men come to an understanding about the welfare of Lambert and Lucy, Brunfield’s pair of lions. Harrison called the lion cub adoption by depressed, immobilized Brumfield my “first happy ending” in 35 years of advocacy. Harrison blames Reality TV for the upsurge in exotic pet ownership. Besides educating people on the difficulties of living with exotic pets, finds homes for exotics whose owners can no longer care for them and tracks animals that have been released into the wild. Webber’s film will leave you wondering, who or what lives next door.

Britt Stuart Hazeldine’s taut “Exam” drew serious buzz at SBFF. First time director, Hazeldine, already known in Hollywood for his rewrite of “The Day The Earth Stood Still” turns in a glossy 96-minute psychological thriller that eschews gore to deliver a clever surprise ending. The uber-capitalist competitiveness of Reality TV (“The Apprentice”) meets the claustrophobic closed-room thriller halfway; think “Fernat’s Room” or Hirschbiegel’s “The Experiment”.

Extreme close-ups introduce the eight good-looking, ethnically diverse candidates for a mysterious job at an unnamed world-class corporation. Arriving at a stark, windowless examination room, they meet ‘The Invigilator’ (the deadpan Colin Salmon), a stern taskmaster, who announces the following Rules. You have 80 minutes. There’s one question before you and one answer. Any attempts to communicate with me or the company, any destruction of your test papers will disqualify you. The game of wits will decide who wins the coveted post of assistant to a vast biotech corporation’s hermetic CEO. When the test papers turn up blank, the gradual melt down of the guarded corporate hopefuls begins. An armed guard observes them as together they try to puzzle out the nature of the question before their time runs out.

Labeling himself ‘White’, one agro player doles out plain wrapper names to the rest. The Afro-Brit scientist is dubbed ‘Black’ (Chuk Iwuji); the East Asian professional gambler draws ‘Brown’. There’s the cool ‘Blonde’ (Nathalie Cox), a mouthy, bespectacled shrink ‘Dark’ (Adar Beck) and a sassy ‘Brunette’ (Polyanna Mackintosh). Last we meet ‘Deaf’ (John Lloyd Fillingham), a withdrawn mumbling Frenchman.

Luke Mably (“28 Day Later”) plays the blithe cockney baddie, given to racial and gender epithets, self-serving motivational speeches, and outright lies to galvanize the other candidates. I wish the other characters were more fleshed out. Their ruthless cruelty seems to emerge too quickly. (A quip about Sartre hints at “No Exit” as an inspiration.) One by one the characters are picked off (à la Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians“). With the unnamed pandemic outside the corporate walls, a job dismissal begins to feel like death.

The low budget thriller relies on psychological twists to build suspense. Mark Talbot-Butler’s surgical edits keep the events unrolling almost on a real time schedule. Handsome widescreen lensing by Tim Wooster (“Cold Mountain“) make the most of the sterile examination chamber. After almost 90 minutes of darkly satiric ruthlessness, the surprise end lifts the film’s moral tone.

Exam” was nominated for the 2010 BAFTA Film Award-Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer and the 2009 British Independent Film Awards-Raindance Award.

The high-spirited “Brand Nue Dae” is one of short list of Australian musical features. Think Gillian Armstrong’s ebullient 1982 “Starstruck” and quasi musicals like “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert“, Baz Luhrmann’s “Strictly Ballroom.”

Based on the 1990 Aussie stage musical, Rachel Perkins’s film adaptation makes up in candy-colored charisma for it’s stereotypical characters and largely forgettable songs. It’s 1969. Church-going Aboriginal Willie (newcomer Rocky McKenzie) has been in love, all his life, with his local sweetie Rosie (“Australian Idol’s” Jessica Mauboy) who sings in the church choir at his mother’s evangelical church. Willie and Rosie sneak out to spy on the goings on in the forbidden (to good kids) roadhouse. Rosie spots Elvis wannabee Lester (Dan Sultan) and he spots her, romancing her on the spot. Swiveling his hips as he tears out a song, Lester romances impressionable Rosie, promising her musical stardom. Willie watches appalled as Rosie


About Author

Robin Menken

Robin Menken Robin Menken lives in Los Angeles. She was the Artistic Director of the Second City Workshops, taught at UC Berkeley, USC, Barcelona\'s Ateneu and the Esalin Institute. She was Roberto Rossellini\'s assistant, and worked with Yevgeny Vevteshenku, Glauber Rocha and Eugene Ionesco. She sold numerous screenplays and wrote the OBIE winning The FTA SHow (touring with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and Ben Vereen.) She was a programming consultant and Special Events co-ordinator for numerous film festivals, including the SF, Rio, Havana and N.Y Film Festivals. Her first news outlet was the historic East Village Other.

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