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last update 13.Dec.07
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Black Water   2.5/5
black water In the tradition of Open Water and Wolf Creek, this Australian thriller strands a small number of characters in an impossible situation. But with little character development, it's difficult to care what happens.

Grace (Glenn) has just found out she's pregnant, but hasn't told her boyfriend Adam (Rodoreda) as they collect Grace's little sister Lee (Dermody) for a road trip in northern Australia. They decide to take a river tour of an isolated mangrove, and their guide (Oxenbould) seems well-prepared to deal with the territorial crocodiles until one capsizes their boat. The guide is dragged off, leaving Grace, Lee and Adam treed in a mangrove, trying to figure out how to get out or to get rescued, both of which look unlikely.

Grace's secret pregnancy is virtually the only item of back-story, and seems almost a distraction from the filmmakers' main purpose: trapping these three people in a tree and terrorising them for 90 minutes. But with so little information about them, it's fairly impossible to get involved in their predicament. And the low budget means we don't get many money shots of ravenous crocs.

The decision to avoid digitally created creatures at least lends the film some authenticity. When the beast finally does show itself, it's genuinely scary. And the cast portray the terror and desperation very well, especially as they are forced into the water for various reasons and come face-to-face with the gluttonous beast. But even before this, the filmmakers build some seriously gripping tension.

As another thriller about the dangers of the Australian wilderness, this bracingly simple film at least shows some inventive skill. The writer-directors sustain the plot over the full running time without ever stretching things. They keep us watching through solid cinematography and editing, rather than any real plot or character originality. For the first half of the film, the villainous crocodile remains largely unseen, then they start to reveal it, often startlingly close to the actors.

This clever structure keeps us entertained even though there's not much actually going on here. There's just enough peril to keep us with the characters, trying to strategise a way out that doesn't involve wading through the water to get that upended boat. But by the time the finale comes, we're just ready for it to be over.

dir-scr David Nerlich, Andrew Traucki
with Maeve Dermody, Diana Glenn, Andy Rodoreda, Ben Oxenbould, Fiona Press
rodorenda and glenn release Aus Nov.07,
UK 22.Feb.08
07/Australia 1h30
15 themes, language, violence
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Far North   3.5/5
far north Breathtaking cinematography and earthy performances turn this fable into an involving, haunting tale of isolation and trust. It's impeccably well-made, but the darker turns in the tale will keep it from crossing over to mainstream audiences.

Saiva (Yeoh) is a survivor, travelling the Arctic ice floes with the younger Anja (Krusiec), hiding from civilisation and only barely surviving; she's just served up one of their sled-dogs as "reindeer". One day she finds a dying man, Loki (Bean), and nurses him back to health. This goes against her deep mistrust of everyone, but we can see a spark of attraction in her eyes. So when Anja starts flirting with him, Saiva isn't pleased. And this turn of events brings back memories of her horrific past at the hands of some other interlopers.

As he did with The Warrior, Kapadia uses the environment as another character in this film, capturing the raw beauty of the settings with gorgeous camerawork and carefully fitting the characters into their harsh surroundings. From inside Saiva's skin-lined hut to the expansive glaciers, this film looks simply amazing. Then in the flashbacks we get a completely different view of life before the logging industry changed things forever. And the plot itself feels like an ancient myth handed down for generations, especially when the shocking climax arrives.

There are all kinds of ideas swirling around in this film, from the desperate need for safety and survival to the giddy oblivion of romance. These two women live in fear of the past, when strangers raided their community and killed almost everyone. And yet, when a new man appears, that green-eyed monster rears its ugly head. These people may be living like prehistoric Inuits, but they have a lot more in common with us than is first apparent.

Kapadia's fine attention to detail brings the characters, settings and situations to life in constantly surprising ways. And not just the lesson in how to flay a sea lion! The freaky finale kind of undermines any sympathy we might have built up, but it adds a level of classical storytelling that makes the film feel utterly timeless.

dir Asif Kapadia
scr Asif Kapadia, Tim Miller
with Michelle Yeoh, Michelle Krusiec, Sean Bean, Gary Pillai, Per Egil Aske, Hakan Niva, Espen Prestbakmo, Bjarne Osterud, Neeru Agarwal, Sven Henriksen, Sophie Wu
yeoh and bean
release UK 26.Dec.08
07/UK Film4 1h29

london film fest
15 themes, violence, grisliness, sexuality
4.Oct.07 lff
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The Magic Flute   2.5/5
the magic flute Kenneth Branagh, clearly not content with bringing Shakespeare to the masses, turns his directorial hand to Mozart's classic opera. The uninitiated may find it new and intriguing, but most everyone else will wonder why he bothered.

The story has been moved to the World War I trenches, where the peace-loving Tamino (Kaiser) is lost in no man's land and rescued by three mischievous nurses (Koço, Callinan and Woodhouse). They take him to see the Queen of the Night (Petrova), who asks him to rescue her daughter Pamina (Carson) from her kidnapper, the nefarious Sarastro (Pape). As he leaves, he's given a magical flute and is accompanied by the goofy bird-lover Papageno (Davis). But when they arrive at Sarastro's castle, they hear a different side of the story.

Not being an opera fan, I can't fault the musical performances, which sound bright and lively, even if it's impossible to hear most of the lyrics, which is a big problem in a story this twisty. It's virtually impossible to figure out what's happening and why, as the characters seem to jump through a variety of hoops to reach their various destinies. At least the essential story is clear, and the characters are played with broad strokes that make every emotion obvious.

The film's an intriguing mix of comedy and melodrama, with fantastical sets and landscapes that are either digital or very cheap (a few curtains and a fake doorway). This creates a stagy tone that matches the theatrical acting and contrived plotting. Meanwhile, Branagh gleefully indulges in bravura long takes, sweeping camera moves and vertiginous action. But there's also some extremely dodgy slapstick. And frankly, why WWI instead of, say, Iraq? At least then there might be some sense of relevance.

This is a story about love and peace triumphing over revenge and war, so there's no real tension in the story, which leaves it feeling overlong and draggy. Much of it is played in wink-nudge style, as girls with heaving bosoms giggle maniacally at the dim-witted men folk, who we're sure will surmount even the most difficult obstacle to win the women of their dreams. Complete newcomers might enjoy this, but opera fans and opera haters probably won't.

dir Kenneth Branagh
scr Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Fry
with Joseph Kaiser, Benjamin Jay Davis, Amy Carson, René Pape, Lyubov Petrova, Teuta Koço, Louise Callinan, Kim-Marie Woodhouse, Tom Randle, Silvia Moi, Liz Smith, Ben Uttley
carson and kaiser
release UK 30.Nov07
06/UK 2h15


PG themes, innuendo, violence
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P2   2/5
P2 This claustrophobic thriller is so bracingly simple that it actually becomes a bit dull as the violent histrionics increase. Although it's skilfully made, there's just nothing to it. And what's here feels badly contrived.

Angela (Nichols) is a Manhattan workaholic who stays in the office too long on Christmas Eve. She's late for a family dinner, so is understandably frazzled when she gets into the underground garage, level P2, to finds her car won't start. The only person around is the parking attendant Tom (Bentley), but he has an unhealthy interest that turns nasty as he kidnaps her and chains her to a table so they can have a romantic Christmas dinner. And it gets much, much worse.

If you're not entertained by watching a crazed nutcase terrorise a woman for 98 minutes, there's not much to see here. Sure, the film is packed with genuinely creepy moments, truly vicious violence and some good jolts as Angela breaks free and uses whatever she can find as a weapon of survival. But Tom is a ludicrously simplified Norman Bates type who's so daft that you just want to laugh at him, and Bentley never finds anything terribly interesting under the surface.

At least the filmmakers set things up well, as Angela's frustrating evening is readily identifiable, punctuated with some terrific red herrings that get us into a jittery mood. And the atmospheric car park is pretty scary too. But the moment she's captured by Tom, the film starts slipping, and we can feel the script being stretched out to feature length with extended set pieces that never work because they're so unlikely.

As a result, it gets tedious very quickly: she's running and crying, he's increasingly crazed. From the gratuitously broken fingernail to a gruesome scene involving Tom's snarling dog, we just don't believe it. Decent moments of tension, like the investigating cops or the chaotic car chase, just aren't enough to compensate for Tom's lame dialog ("After all I've done for you, why would you be so mean to me?"). And the preposterous final series of events leave us as anxious to get out of the cinema as Angela is to get out of that garage.

dir Franck Khalfoun
scr Alexandre Aja, Franck Khalfoun, Grégory Levasseur
with Rachel Nichols, Wes Bentley, Simon Reynolds, Miranda Edwards, Stephanie Moore, Philip Williams, Grace Lynn Kung, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Jamie Jones
bentley and nichols release US 9.Nov.07,
UK 2.May.08
07/US Summit 1h38
18 themes, strong violence, language
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© 2007 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall