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last update 1.Sep.07
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Blackbird   3.5/5
blackbird Rather than do a straightforward adaptation of his two-actor stage play, writer-director Rapp fills in the back-stories of his characters to paint a fairly gruelling picture of junkies in love.

In 1995 New York, Baylis (Sparks) is a 32-year-old has-been, a veteran of Gulf War I who's not very good at the rehab thing. A new friend (Shannon) introduces him to a lively group of card-playing buddies and gives him a shot at getting back on track. Meanwhile, the 17-year-old runaway Froggy (Jacobs) arrives in Manhattan, meets a sleazy dealer (Hoch) and gets a job in a strip joint, where she meets Baylis. They recognise the desperation in each other, and begin a tentative romance. But can they break free of their addictions?

Yes, this is an extremely bleak film, wallowing in the hopeless downward spiral of people whose lives have gone off the rails. Drugs are everywhere; if even the functioning people are snorting cocaine, what hope is there for a couple of homeless addicts? Even the little money they earn goes straight into their habit, and then there's the temptation of the card game, which takes a very ugly turn when Baylis runs out of cash and bets a night with Froggy.

Despite the grim picture, Rapp and his cast manage to instil just a flicker of humanity in these characters. Even when they hit rock bottom, they're still two people who care about each other against all odds. In this sense, it's a story about love surviving even in the harshest environment imaginable. Sparks and Jacobs manage to inject wry humour and a strangely sweet chemistry into their interaction amid the bad trips, diseases, pregnancy and incontinence. And as it progresses, we begin to think that this might actually be the high point of both their lives.

Making human misery into entertainment is a fairly risky business, and this film is certainly not easy to watch. Rapp's writing and directing are sure-handed. He directs his cast extremely well, uses the musical score to jarring effect and catches the action with the camera in a vivid, artful way. It's neither particularly enlightening nor ultimately hopeful. On the other hand, it's thoroughly gripping and surprisingly moving.

dir-scr Adam Rapp
with Paul Sparks, Gillian Jacobs, Michael Shannon, Danny Hoch, Dallas Roberts, Annie Parisse, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Christopher Denham, Gary Wilmes, Guy Van Swearingen
jacobs and sparks
release UK Aug.07 eiff
07/US 1h48

edinburgh film fest
18 themes, language, drugs
19.Aug.07 eiff
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Brick Lane   4/5
brick lane Based on Monica Ali's bestselling novel, this is an insightful look at a woman searching across cultural barriers for a place to belong. Not only is it a strong story, but it's great to see such an involving film set in London's Asian-Muslim community.

Nazneen (Chatterjee) was 17 when she was sent from Bangladesh to England to marry a man she'd never met. Some 16 years later, she and her chubby, goofy husband Chanu (Kaushik) have two precocious teen daughters (Begum and Rahman). And a friendly but loveless marriage. With news of her sister's romantic life back home, Nazneen allows herself to flirt with Karim (Simpson), the young man who delivers her sewing work. But trouble is brewing: Chanu wants them to return home, and Karim wants to take on racist British society, even if that means violence.

Director Gavron tells the story beautifully, with lush cinematography and clever production design that captures the textures and colours both of Asia and Europe. And it's in the characters that the film really grabs hold, even if it's somewhat over-serious. These are recognisable people struggling with genuine issues we don't often see on screen: the collision between religion and sex, the tension between family back home and family right here, the difficulty of going back home.

The cast is excellent, detailing character subtleties while making sure to include the broader strokes that define the cultural blend. Anyone who's ever been an expat will recognise the public-private divide, plus the assimilation that slowly takes hold and never lets go. Chatterjee's central role is especially demanding, and she perfectly balances Nazneen's five-pronged position as a wife, sister, mother, lover and worker.

There's also the point where the story becomes inexorably rooted in time, as the lives of expat Muslims changed horribly on 9/11. This event removes some of the universality, but it does add urgency to decisions about whether to go home, to quietly stay put or to react with public action. The film perhaps gets a little too edgy at this point, while making Nazneen's personal journey a little less complicated because her choices are easier. But the film never loses its engagingly warm, emotional tone.

dir Sarah Gavron
scr Abi Morgan, Laura Jones
with Tannishtha Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik, Christopher Simpson, Naeema Begum, Lana Rahman, Harvey Virdi, Lalita Ahmed, Harsh Nayyar, Zafreen
chatterjee release UK 16.Nov.07,
US 20.Jun.08
07/UK Film4 1h43

TORONTO FILM FEST london film festival
12 themes, language, sexuality
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Clubland   3.5/5 US title: Introducing the Dwights
clubland As lively as a slap in the face, this film struggles to connect with us due to an extremely unsympathetic central figure, but still wins us over with strong acting and a sweet romance.

Jean Dwight (Blethyn) is an English comic who gave it all up to move to Sydney with her husband (Holden) and raise two boys. Now grown, the feisty, mentally disabled Mark (Wilson) works on an assembly line, while the younger Tim (Chittenden) drives a moving van. But their real full-time job is taking care of their self-absorbed control freak mum. Over the years she has driven away her husband and any girl who gets close to her sons. Now Tim has a new girlfriend (Booth), and it's starting to feel like all-out war.

What could be a full-on diva-fest is saved by a generous dose of dry Aussie humour and the fact that the story focuses on Tim rather than his colourful mum. Blethyn goes for broke, as usual, chomping on the scenery with gusto to create a fearsome woman who uses flamboyant intimidation to cover her deep insecurities. This includes blackmailing her sons into living with her, sabotaging their relationships, and bullying her loyal agent (Dykstra) and gentle ex-husband. She's pretty impossible to like, and Blethyn deserves credit for boldly taking her so far over the top.

Much more accessible is Tim's story, as he tentatively tries to escape his mother's control to become his own man. Despite Jean's bawdy stand-up routine, Tim has been shielded from the real world, and Chittenden somehow makes this believable with a gentle, hesitant performance that's intriguingly balanced by Booth's layered turn as Jill, a woman who's both more confident and more riddled with self-doubt than Tim is.

This fragile little love story is what grabs hold of us, and it's somewhat annoying that the drama queen Blethyn keeps storming onto the screen to interrupt it with her outrageously attention-seeking antics. In the end, she shows us just enough of Jean's inner tenderness that we don't hate her quite so much. It's not a complete redemption, but it's close enough.

dir Cherie Nowlan
scr Keith Thompson
with Brenda Blethyn, Khan Chittenden, Richard Wilson, Emma Booth, Katie Wall, Russell Dykstra, Frankie J Holden, Rebecca Gibney, Philip Quast, Tracie Sammut, Justin Martin, David Webb
blethyn and chittenden release Aus 28.Jun.07,
US 4.Jul.07,
UK 21.Sep.07
07/Australia 1h45

15 themes, language, sexuality
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Lovely by Surprise   3.5/5
Lovely by Surprise One of those wilfully quirky movies that we're not quite sure what to do with, this film actually gets under our skin as it goes along, and as its seemingly random elements start to come together in an oddly moving way.

Marian (Preston) is struggling to write a novel, in which she pictures two brothers (Chernus and Roberts) living on a land-locked boat wearing just their underpants. Both of them have an awareness of their fate, and an ability to control it. So when Marian's mentor (Pendleton) tells her she needs to kill off her favourite character in order to find truth in the story, one of the brothers rebels and marches into the real world. He emerges in Marian's past, where as a little girl (Lamer) she's watching her widowed father (Rogers) wage war on his depression.

The three strands of this story--Marian's past, present and imagination--feel completely disjointed early on, and the difficulty is trying to find the point where they connect in some way. But writer-director Gunn just plays with the scenes, layering in themes and ideas and slowly rounding out the characters until each element begins to fit into one story. The wacky, often surreal filming style belies a startlingly serious undercurrent, mixing black comedy with full-on tragedy.

The cast plays with this tone, giving heightened performances infused with humour and charm. If Preston is a little too shrill and bewildered, the film's heart lies with Chernus' smiley goofball and Rogers' car salesman, desolated but doing the best he can. Both of them are utterly disarming, and when they get together the film really begins to connect with us, even though we still aren't sure what's actually going on.

Parts of this film achieve almost Lynchian levels of absurdity through stilted dialog, repetitive imagery and a choppy musical score. But it takes so long for us to get into the groove of the film that we feel like giving up. Eventually, as it comes together, it becomes a bracing examination of the writing process where memories and our subconscious work together to create something altogether new: something with a life of its own.

dir-scr Kirt Gunn
with Carrie Preston, Michael Chernus, Dallas Roberts, Reg Rogers, Lena Lamer, Austin Pendleton, Kate Burton, Richard Masur, Jimmy Crothswait, Glenn Fitzgerald, Boyd Gaines, Donald Meyers
chernus and roberts
release US 1.Aug.07,
UK 30.Jun.09 dvd
06/US 1h38

edinburgh film fest
15 themes, language
19.Aug.07 eiff
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© 2007 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall