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last update 3.Feb.07
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Balls 3/5 Männer wie Wir • aka Guys & Balls
This goofy German comedy has virtually the same plot as the Icelandic film Eleven Men Out (2005), although this one piles on more humour and football action. It's not particularly clever, but there's a strong sting in the tail.

After a particularly disastrous match, goalkeeper Ecki (Brückner) is thrown off his team. And he makes matters worse by revealing that he's gay. While Ecki vows to form a new squad to beat his old teammates, his parents (Bär and Vester) are horrified, and subjected to endless homophobic comments. Ecki moves to another town to stay with his sister (Potthoff) and slowly overcomes prejudice to assemble an all-queer team. But can they stay together long enough to take on Ecki's old team?

Director Horman and writer Gollhardt cram in every conceivable plot twist, including a couple of romances, lots of family wrinkles and every aspect of sexuality. They're clearly having a great time playing with each gay cliché (some of this cuts rather close to the bone), indulging in scenarios from leather bars to locker-room tantrums and even a father who takes his gay son to a brothel in hopes of curing him.

The cast is charming and likeable, adeptly playing scenes as subtle drama, cheeky comedy and everything in between. Puns and innuendo abound, and there's no attempt to make the storyline itself even remotely unpredictable--this is a standard underdog tale building to the final face-off. And while we never have even slightest doubt how it'll turn out, the journey is at least funny and sweet.

And as it progresses, there's a surprising subtext lurking underneath the superficial silliness. They filmmakers are actually quietly undermining every stereotype so profoundly that Ecki begins to wonder if he's gay at all. While various characters boldly face up to raw bigotry that's masquerading as humour. In the end, the message is simple: these men have nothing to prove. And that's actually something rather new for a light-hearted comedy to say.

dir Sherry Horman
scr Benedikt Gollhardt
with Maximilian Brückner, Rolf Zacher, Lisa Maria Potthoff, David Rott, Christian Berkel, Dietmar Bär, Saskia Vester, Mariele Millowitsch, Andreas Schmidt, Hans Löw, Billey Demirtas, Jochen Stern
potthoff and bruckner release Ger 7.Oct.04,
US 28.Apr.06,
UK 6.Nov.06 dvd
04/Germany BuenaVista 1h42
15 themes, language, sexuality
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Brother to Brother   2.5/5
Moody and soulful, this film has a great story to tell about the Harlem Renaissance, but it slips into a preachy, Spike Lee-style tirade, addressing an important issue without any sense of balance or reconciliation.

Perry (Mackie) is a soulful artist and student who discovers that an old guy (Robinson) in the homeless shelter where he volunteers is actually African-American poet Bruce Nugent. Nugent tells him about life in the late 1920s, including how his fellow artists (Sunjata, Ford and Ellis) suffered racial prejudice from publishers and homophobia from the black community. Both of which Perry strongly identifies with.

The two-pronged structure works well--the combination of colour and monochrome is strikingly effective. And the cast is strong enough to make the characters vivid and engaging, even if the film feels slightly amateurish and awkward. The problem is that the filmmaker and the characters, seem to have huge chips on their shoulders, taking offence at any comment that can be loosely tied to race or sexuality, even if it's said with compassion or sympathy.

In other words, beneath the sensitive surface, this is an angry film. And perhaps writer-director Evans has every right to be outraged by the fact that things have changed so little over the decades for African-Americans, homosexuals and especially gay black men. But by fuming so loudly, Evans loses control of the story, and it ends up feeling both forced and pushy.

A more straightforward tale from the Harlem Renaissance--what it meant and how the people chose to get on with their lives--might have let us make the modern day connections ourselves. In trying to tell both sides of the story, Evans comes across as bitter and completely opposed to dialog on the issues. He raises these important, urgent topics without properly grappling with them. Yes, the history of oppression and patronising condescension is harsh and deeply evil, as is gay prejudice within the black community. But Evans is in a position to urge a positive response to help make it better. And this just feels like a rant.

dir-scr Rodney Evans
with Anthony Mackie, Roger Robinson, Larry Gilliard Jr, Alex Burns, Duane Boutte, Daniel Sunjata, Ray Ford, Aunjanue Ellis, Reid Mihalko, Brian Everett Chandler, Kevin Jackson, Billoah Greene
mackie release US 5.Nov.04,
UK 18.Sep.06 dvd
04/US 1h34
15 themes, language, sexuality, violence
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Death of a President   3.5/5
Essentially an essay on current world politics, filmmakers Range and Finch use a provocative what-if scenario to make their points. It's a little simplistic, but it also addresses extremely important issues in creative ways.

It's a documentary made a year after the never-quite-solved October 2007 assassination of George W Bush in Chicago. It's made up of extensive footage of the fateful day, with the story told through interviews with Secret Service officers (Boland), investigators (Burke, Urbaniak, Mangiardi), presidential staff members (Baker) and journalists (Patterson), as well as suspects (Whittaker, Parham) and their families (Ayoub, Ravine). Initial suspicion and hysteria falls on Syria, quickly transferred to a young man with a tentative al Qaeda connection. And even though later evidence points to someone else, a Muslim villain is much more palatable to the voting public.

The film touches on essential truths about U.S. society--things most Americans won't want to admit about themselves, such as a willingness to jump on the most obvious villain and bray for blood, and a tendency to be led by a media whose main concern is selling the news, not telling the truth. These aren't new things, but the filmmakers cleverly create new situations to illuminate them. And to talk frankly about how the world has changed due to Bush's presidency.

That said, the film isn't harsh and preachy; everything is presented in a rather soft, inoffensive doc style with thriller overtones. Yes, there's some inventive digital trickery going on in the assassination scene, as well as further scenes involving President Cheney, but it's never done in a gimmicky way that calls attention to the effects. On the contrary, it looks like raw, natural film footage.

It's a little dull as a movie, but this understated approach lets the filmmakers dig around inside some truly contentious themes. Besides the politics, they also touch on religious fundamentalism--both Islamic and within the American religious right. What this offers is meaty food for thought and dialog, without any moralising, empty patriotism or pushy preaching. And that's truly remarkable.

dir Gabriel Range
scr Simon Finch, Gabriel Range
with Brian Boland, Hend Ayoub, Becky Ann Baker, Jay Whittaker, M Neko Parham, James Urbaniak, Robert Mangiardi, Jay Patterson, Michael Reilly Burke, Chavez Ravine, Tony Dale, Patricia Buckley
president bush release US 27.Oct.06,
UK 30.Oct06
06/UK FilmFour 1h33
Fipresci Prize:
12 themes, violence, some language
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Parallel Sons   3.5/5
Insightful and natural, with an easy, honest pace, this indie gem combines recognisably real characters with slightly askew situations to examine human motivations and connections.

In his small, upstate New York town, Seth (Mann) is a bit of an oddity. His blond dreadlocks and artistic sensibility don't quite fit in with the salt-of-the-earth locals. Living with his widowed dad (Johnson) and baby sister (Weldon), he's fascinated by hip-hop culture, even though he's never met a black man. His close friend Kristen (Gottleib) is the rebellious daughter of the sheriff (Guyer), but Seth doesn't want a girlfriend. Then an escaped black criminal (Mason) crosses his path, and he starts to see another option.

Writer-director Young sensitively catches the internal attitudes and feelings of his characters and their interaction. His approach is very subtly daring, blurring the lines between what a community sees as good and bad, black and white. It's an intriguing examination of respectability, and also what it feels like to be trapped in a small town, not fitting in at all in a place where everyone else seems interchangeable.

The plot itself is a little contrived, hinging on more than a few coincidences, but the cast plays it in a natural, unshowy way that makes the film feel earthy and even sensual. There are strong shades of Whistle Down the Wind in the story of a likeable, mysterious, vulnerable stranger rescued by someone who admires him for all the wrong reasons. Both Mann and Mason give sensitive, sympathetic performances as two men who discover someone who can meet their needs for family, friends and a shared artistic soul. It's not easy to watch them make some very bad decisions along the way.

This is a low-key drama that almost feels like an after-school special--albeit, a rather gritty one. The script astutely examines racial perceptions in America without ever becoming political about it. It's a little slow-moving, but the filmmaker captures that vague teen vibe--shrugged shoulders, incomplete answers, lack of ambition and the aching yearning for self-expression.

dir-scr John G Young
with Gabriel Mann, Laurence Mason, Murphy Guyer, Graham Alex Johnson, Heather Gottlieb, Josh Hopkins, Maureen Shannon, Julia Weldon
mann and mason
release US 7.Nov.96;
UK 29.Jan.07 dvd
95/US 1h33

15 themes, language, violence
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© 2006 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall