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last update 15.Oct.07
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The Band’s Visit   4/5
the band's visit This wry, quiet comedy takes an enjoyably askance look at Israeli-Arab relations, using a small, gentle story to say something extremely profound.

When they arrive in Israel for a cultural exchange concert, a police band from Egypt finds themselves abandoned at the airport. Their leader, Tewfiq (Gabai), takes charge, delegating responsibilities to the band members, but they end up in the wrong town, in the middle of the desert. The local cafe owner Dina (Elkabetz), volunteers to help them, as do her regular customers (Moskovitz and Avraham). Over the long night, the band members and the townsfolk have several tiny adventures, a bit of romance and perhaps even a taste of diplomatic detente.

With static camera work, barren settings and a sardonic script, writer-director Kolirin creates a tone that's thoroughly disarming. The characters are all engaging rogues, edgy and surprising, and very funny. And their interaction bristles with real humanity, from small family conflicts to jealousies and power struggles. The visual tone and offbeat pacing have a minimalist quirkiness that feel almost Scandinavian.

This simple approach allows the actors to breathe life into their roles in subtle, witty ways. Gabai's fusty and fastidious Tewfiq is a tightly wound bundle of tradition and order, and yet he's not immune to the real world around him. His clashes with the free-spirited, loverboy band member Khaled (Bakri) are at the centre of the story, as are both men's interaction with Elkabetz. For his part, Bakri gets the film's most wonderful scene, a brilliantly executed single take in a roller-disco as Khaled tries to help Avraham's painfully shy character make a move on his equally timid date.

As it progresses, the comedy gets warm and ultimately emotional as the characters' personalities come to the surface and their personal histories start to emerge and mingle. They begin to find things in common--shared passions that help their differences pale into insignificance. This is a superb examination of how people who, on the surface, should have nothing to do with each other discover a way to not only live together but appreciate other for who they are. A gorgeous gem of a film.

dir-scr Eran Kolirin
with Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri, Khalifa Natour, Shlomi Avraham, Rubi Moskovitz, Imad Jabarin, Uri Gavriel, Tarak Kopty, Hisham Khoury, Francois Khell, Eyad Sheety
Avraham (middle) and Bakri (right) with friend
release UK 9.Nov.07,
US Feb.08
07/Israel 1h25

london film fest
12 themes, some language
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California Dreamin’ (Endless)   4/5   (Nesfarsit)
california dreamin Rambling and extremely clever, this Romanian black comedy pinpoints its story in history and yet manages to tell a remarkably timeless story. Lively and unpredictable, it's also great fun to watch.

In 1999, Captain Jones (Assante) is assigned to deliver a radar system by train from Romania to Kosovo to help with the Nato action there, accompanied by Sergeant McClaren (Elman) and a handful of troops. But when they pass through the village of Capalnita, they're stopped by the officious and somewhat shady customs officer Doiaru (Vasilescu) for not having the proper paperwork. The mayor (Sapdaru) immediately declares a village festival, attended by teen girls hopeful to capture the eye of a GI. One of them is Monica (Dinulescu), Doiaru's daughter, who sets her sights on McClaren.

This film is tinged with tragedy as filmmaker Nemescu died in a car crash before he finished editing (this is his rough cut, which is why it's subtitled "endless"). Nemescu skilfully captured recognisably real characters in situations that are specific and yet also universal. While anchoring this film in rural Romania during the Kosovo conflict, he also makes a much larger statement about his country's place in the world, the sweep of 20th century history (a recurring flashback is set in 1944) and the world's shaky political system.

Intermingled with this are a handful of engaging characters. Their ludicrous behaviour has the ring of truth to it, including Doiaru's stubbornness, McClaren's devil-may-care confidence and Jones' blind arrogance. The cast manages to make them all likeable, even with their flaws. Like the film itself, each actor is funny, edgy, scruffy and bursting with telling details.

Along the way, the story continually uncovers truths about human interaction, from the desire to please in even the most unconvincing way to the all-consuming power of bureaucracy. The village's hastily staged anniversary festival is comedy gold--just look at the decorative paintings in the background: Washington, Clinton, Elvis and the Terminator! And underlying it all is a bitterness that the Yanks never rescued Romania from the Nazis or the Russians. Maybe 60 years later, all is finally forgiven. Sort of.

dir Cristian Nemescu
scr Catherine Linstrum, Cristian Nemescu, Tudor Voican
with Razvan Vasilescu, Armand Assante, Jamie Elman, Maria Dinulescu, Ion Sapdaru, Alex Margineanu, Alexandru Dragoi, Andrei Vasluianu, Sabina Branduse, Gabriel Spahiu, Radu Gabriel, Nicodim Ungureanu
elman and assante release Rom 1.Jun.07,
UK Oct.07 lff
07/Romania 2h35

Un Certain Regard prize:
london film fest
15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
1.Oct.07 lff
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Cargo 200   4/5  
cargo 200 Bristling with raw honesty, and based on a true story, this film is an extremely gruelling experience, as we see a side of Soviet life that couldn't be much nastier.

In 1984, brothers Artem and Mikhail (Gromov and Stepanov) talk into the evening about communism and religion, as well as the dismissive military code for bodies returning from the Afghan War: Cargo 200. A young guy (Bichevin) leaves their flat for a nightclub, where he picks up Angelika (Kuznetsova) then heads for an isolated farm to buy home-brewed vodka. But another customer, police Captain Zhurov (Poluyan), decides he wants Angelika all to himself, kidnapping her and then abusing her physically and psychologically while his beyond-oblivious mother (Andryukova) sits in the next room.

Gifted filmmaker Balabanov (Brother) writes and directs with an almost unnervingly naturalistic style, loading each scene with pitch-black humour even as people do unthinkable things to each other. There's clearly a complete breakdown in the moral fabric, and the discussions imply that communist-inspired atheism is to blame. Although there's clearly much more to it than that, as hedonism gives way to corruption, rape, murder, vigilantism and worse.

The cast bravely approach the material head-on, with matter-of-fact performances that are deeply terrifying simply because most of the characters seem resigned to accepting this is how the world is, and there's nothing a mere citizen can do to change anything. The government will continue sending bright young men to their deaths, while local cops continue exploiting personal misery for their own gain and young people seek ways to make money illegally. A normal person's only hopeful course of action is to lay low.

Yes, it's grim and brutal. But Balabanov tinges events with bleak comedy and wry commentary from the older characters, as they talk about the good old days when young people had respect for their elders. The film is brilliantly produced, capturing a snapshot of the time and place, down to small details like glass storage containers (no plastic) and generic signs over the shops. And his only explanation for the unthinkable actions is that "it was late 1984". The chilling implication being that beyond the surface things haven't really changed that much.

dir-scr Aleksei Balabanov
with Agniya Kuznetsova, Aleksei Poluyan, Leonid Gromov, Yuri Stepanov, Aleksei Serebryakov, Leonid Bichevin, Natalya Akimova, Mikhail Skryabin, Valentina Andryukova, Dmitri Karpov, Igor Malukhin, Mikhail Sokolov
kuznetsova and poluyan release Rus 14.Jun.07,
UK Oct.07 lff
07/Russia 1h30

london film fest
18 themes, language, strong violence
10.Oct.07 lff
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The Yacoubian Building   3/5
The Yacoubian Building A vast block of flats built by an Armenian to bring European-style luxury to Cairo is the setting for this sprawling soap opera of a film. Yes, at nearly three hours it's very long, but it's impeccably filmed and acted, and the stories are involving and provocative.

From one of Egypt's last aristocratic families, Zaki (Adel Imam) is a pasha used to the comfortable life. But his nagging sister (Younis), fed up with his womanising, throws him out of their flat. Living in his office, he strikes up a friendship with his new assistant Bothayna (Sabry), whose boyfriend Taha (Mohamed Imam), after failing to become a policeman, joins an extremist group. Meanwhile, another rich man, Haj (El-Sherif), is seeking both political power and a younger wife (El Khashab), while a wealthy newspaper editor (El Sawy) is looking for love in the wrong class and gender.

This is a lively, colourful film loaded with vivid characters who are all easy to identify with. The multiple storylines intertwine cleverly, keeping us gripped to the growing melodrama, drawing on sparks of humour and bravely going places most religious-themed films never dare to tread. Essentially, everyone in this film is obsessed with sex in one form or another, and their flirtatious interaction is engaging, entertaining and surprising.

It's also an examination of a class structure that's changing from old to new world systems. Breeding, reputation and piety are no longer the source of power; money is. And even the gender politics are shifting. Women are still second-class citizens, but they're not necessarily willing to quietly accept their assigned duties as, essentially, concubines any more. Each character is enslaved in some way, trying to find his or her freedom.

There's enough plotting here for an entire season of Dallas, complete with the power, sex and alcohol. And some of the explanatory flashbacks are rather simplistic, most notably in the plot strand that touches on sexuality. But the film is extremely well-made, with assured direction that skilfully captures the raw, bristling tension of a huge political protest, the tender intimacy of a developing romance, and the terrifying intrusion of prejudice and fear.

dir Marwan Hamed
scr Wahid Hamid
with Adel Imam, Nour El-Sherif, Hind Sabry, Mohamed Imam, Khaled El Sawy, Bassem Samra, Youssra, Issad Younis, Somaya El Khashab, Ahmed Bedeir, Ahmed Rateb, Khaled Saleh
political protest release Egy 21.Jun.06,
UK 14.Sep.07
06/Egypt 2h52

15 themes, violence, innuendo
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2007 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall