Shadows Film FestArthouse films ’06
Films unlikely to be showing at your local multiplex...
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last update 14.Dec.06
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The Guatemalan Handshake   3.5/5
Deliberately quirky almost to the point of distraction, this offbeat comedy is an enjoyably puzzling film, mainly because we have no idea what could possibly happen next.

Turkeylegs (Haywood) is a 10-year-old girl whose entire town stopped working like it used to following a bizarre power surge that might've been a Three Mile Island-type meltdown. Now her friend Donald Turnupseed (Oldham) has vanished, and his dad (Byrnes) can't find his electric micro-car. Meanwhile, Donald's pregnant girlfriend Sadie (Scullin) needs a place to live and pursue her goal of becoming a demolition derby champ like her womanising dad (Dimitrov). And Stool (Schreiber), the dork who caused the meltdown, takes a job at a roller rink and tries to woo Sadie's half-sister (Harris).

Or something like that. The story unfurls completely out of sequence, as if the meltdown has blown a gasket in the fabric of time. Each character has a personal obsession that's inextricably linked to someone else--lost things are found in unexpected places, ambitions are realised in surprising ways and characters seem to swirl around in a state of eccentric surrealism. In other words, it's like a slapstick variation on a David Lynch movie.

There's so much business going on in this film that it's almost overwhelming, but all of it is genuinely entertaining, such as the goofy flashbacks Turkeylegs imagines with Donald and Sadie (including a song by Oldham). Not to mention all the goofy character names--including Lunchmeat, Neckface, Spank and Ethel Firecracker. The cast is very good, and writer-director Rohal packs the film with so much silliness that it almost drowns out any intriguing themes gurgling within the story.

Rohal also refuses to explain the film's title, saying it's like the name of a recording: "The film itself is the Guatemalan handshake." Sure, it may not be terribly deep or meaningful, but it's expertly shot and edited and loaded with wit, style and energy. While the convoluted plot keeps us thoroughly engaged. In other words, this is an assured feature debut that marks Rohal as a filmmaker to watch.

dir-scr Todd Rohal
with Katy Haywood, Will Oldham, Ken Byrnes, Sheila Scullin, Rich Schreiber, Kathleen Kennedy, Cory McAbee, Ivan Dimitrov, VaLonda Harris, Andy Nadler, Jim Ligons, Sam Myers
oldham release US Jan.06 Slamdance
06/US 1h36

Directing, Writing and Acting prizes:
Torino Film Fest
themes, language, violence
16.Nov.06 tff
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Notes by a Trackman   4/5   aka: The Lineman’s Diary
A vintage visual style gives this Kazakh drama an engagingly timeless quality. With vivid characters, a crisp narrative and resonant themes, it's a definite gem on the festival circuit.

The film opens with an image of an old blind man (Ikhtymbayev) dancing down the rail tracks, testing the sleepers and marking those that need adjusting. He's the long retired trackman, who simply can't bear to stop working. And he definitely still has the skill. His son Askar, who has taken over the job, is constantly ridiculed for following his father's advice, but that advice is usually more accurate than the electronic equipment now used by the rail company. And Askar is also constantly at the end of his wife's anger over his wandering eye for the ladies.

This is a gentle, enjoyable story that never really demands anything of us, besides to watch these people in this intriguing place. Along the way, we begin to understand the central theme--that there's still value in the older generations, that new technology simply can't replace experience, that loyalty and family ties are really the most important things. This is nothing new, but it's conveyed with a simplicity that really gets under the skin.

Performances by the non-professional cast are all effortless and natural, spiced with fiery humour and telling details. Just watching these people live their lives as part of an extended family--and neighbourhood--is fascinating. Especially since they seem to exist completely out of doors. In this sense, and because filmmaker Zhetyruov shoots in sepia tones, the film is heavily reminiscent of early Fellini movies, or even Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy, as an observational exploration of universal humanity.

There's also a wonderful flashback that seems to be made up of silent-movie era footage, showing Kazakhstan's Wild West era, when cowboys rode the rails. These kinds of touches make this concise film feel deeper and more richly textured than most three-hour Hollywood epics. It also takes a nice counter-punch in the year that Borat's fake version of Kazakhstan ruled the box office.

dir-scr Zhanabek Zhetyruov
with Nurzhuman Ikhtymbayev, Shinar Chanisbekova, Nazgul Karabalina, Rustem Abdolda, Nurlan Aibosinov
son and father 06/Kazakhstan 1h04

Fipresci Prize:
Torino Film Fest
some themes
14.Nov.06 tff
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The Private Life   3.5/5   La Vie Privée
Based on a Henry James story, this amusing French comedy looks at the elusiveness of relationships with a touch of magical realism. Vivid characters and mysterious twists make it thoroughly engaging.

Sofiane (Embarek) travels with his mother Genevieve (Canto) to attend a reunion with family friends at La Vie Privée, an estate outside Paris. No one has seen him since he was a child, and he's immediately attracted to Maria (Modiano), a young woman who's there with her surly boyfriend Benoit (Storoge). But Sofiane and Maria start having rather bizarre experiences, witnessing the host (Cowl) turning to a ghost before their eyes and noticing that another guest, the pompous poet Vaudrey (Recoing), has a double in his room who actually does all his work.

Everyone in this film has a secret, and as they're all forced out into the open, it's intriguing to watch the film get increasingly murky. In this case, the truth isn't clearing up any misunderstandings. Director-cowriter Modiano films this in vibrant colours, with a warm graininess that keeps things looking extremely real, even when the story starts getting surreal. She also maintains a witty tone that keeps us slightly off balance, especially in a hilarious flashback sequence involving a fog that once invaded the house and played havoc with another holiday weekend.

This darkly comical tone is matched nicely in the performances, as the actors bravely play with various awkward moments, strained interactions and wacky tonal shifts. The emergence of new characters and plot strands (such as Bouvet as Genevieve's secret lover, plus Maria's nutty family) flows smoothly, and fills in the story very cleverly. Each person is a bundle of insecurities--unpredictable, detailed and surprisingly likeable. This is a subtly comical look at family ties, both by birth and by romance, and how they never quite work out the way we expect them to. It's also an especially well-made film that's great fun to just sit back and enjoy.

dir Zina Modiano
scr Mehdi Ben Attia, Zina Modiano
with Ouassini Embarek, Marie Modiano, Marilyne Canto, Aurélien Recoing, Claire Nadeau, Darry Cowl, Jean-Christophe Bouvet, Dimitri Storoge, Lolita Chammah, Edouard Baer, Rolande Kalis, Dolores Branco
embarek release 05/France Gémini 1h12

Torino Film Fest
themes, language, nudity
17.Nov.06 tff
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© 2006 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall