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last update 21.Feb.08
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Beaufort   4/5  
persepolis A riveting depiction of combat-zone terror, this film's main strength is its understatement. A moody, muted tone lets the sharply detailed performances carry us through the somewhat over-constructed plot.

Liraz (Cohen) is only 22 years old but has been put in charge of the soldiers guarding the Israeli outpost at Beaufort, a 12th century Crusader fortress. In 2000, after 18 years occupation, the Israelis are preparing to withdraw from the fort, and Liraz and his men are all beginning to feel overwhelmed by a conflicting mix of emotions. As they wait in a kind of limbo, an expert (Knoller) arrives to check out a roadside bomb while the Hezbollah continues to drop mortar shells into the outpost.

The story is based on first-hand accounts of life in the last few months of the occupation, so the events have a ring of truth even when the screenwriters indulge in a few cinematic formulae. Director-cowriter Cedar effectively puts us into the shoes of the soldiers, and we feel their claustrophobia as they risk their lives pointlessly to hold a position that's already been conceded. And there's also a strong sense that, as dangerous as it is, this is their home, and they're strangely reluctant to leave.

This is all conveyed in a subtle, introspective style by a very realistic cast of young actors. Flares of anger and raw emotion are as unexpected as the bombs that explode nearby, and the actors also convey a terrific sense of black humour throughout the film. Some sections are drenched in flat-out comedy, while at other times the film feels like sci-fi (the isolated outpost with endless underground tunnels) or even a gritty slasher-horror (as they seem to be dying one-by-one).

And even more powerful is the way the film makes a quiet comment on the nature of war, with a military machine that's so caught up in its system that it forgets that there are human beings running things on the ground. The incompetence, lost orders, delays and ludicrous decisions are simply appalling. And as the film builds to its chilling and terrifying climax, all of this complexity pays off in a remarkably moving way.

dir Joseph Cedar
scr Ron Leshem, Joseph Cedar
with Oshri Cohen, Itay Tiran, Eli Altonio, Ohad Knoller, Itay Turgeman, Arthur Perzev, Itay Schor, Danny Zahavi, Ami Weinberg, Hanan Yishai, Gal Friedman, Alon Abutbul
cohen release Isr 8.Mar.07,
US 18.Jan.08,
UK 28.Mar.08
07/Israel 2h05

Best Director:
15 themes, violence, language
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Children of Glory   3/5   Szabadság, Szerelem
Children of Glory With a fascinating setting against the momentous 1956 Hungarian revolution, this story keeps our interest even as the filmmakers throw every conceivable movie genre at us.

Karcsi (Fenyö) is the star player of Hungary's water polo team, in trouble for reacting to the cheating Russian opponents. Of course, the Soviets are occupying Hungary while their secret police AVO terrorises the population. Spurred by his angry grandfather (Jordán) and the feisty-sexy student Viki (Dobó), Karcsi joins the resistance. But his buddy Tibi (Csányi) is afraid to leave the safety of the team. And as the Russians crack down horrifically on the protests, they realise that representing their country at the Melbourne Olympics might be a good place to take a stand on the world stage.

OK, so this is a Cold War thriller with a big sports movie climax. It also has sections that are student romance, family drama, full-on war movie, special effects action flick and even a couple of gruelling prison sequences. In other words, the writers worked overtime to compose an elaborate plot to carry us through the historical events. The problem is that the raw facts are actually strong enough without these hackneyed movie structures.

At least all of this corniness makes the film watchable, although possibly in all the wrong ways, as the interpersonal melodrama, sporting action and gratuitous sex distract us from what's actually going on. The actors are all very good, and the production design is beyond impeccable. The crowd scenes are truly astonishing, both for the expansive imagery and the shocking way the events play out. And the film also carries a strong emotional tone as these young people struggle for freedom and democracy.

But the best thing about this film is also the clear reason it was made: to recount the events of the 1956 uprising and the barbaric and vicious way the Russians responded, indiscriminately murdering thousands in their crackdown to retake the streets. Of course, we also know now that their brutal oppression would hold for only 30 years before that spark of freedom finally won the day.

dir Krisztina Goda
scr Joe Eszterhas, Éva Gárdos, Géza Bereményi, Réka Divinyi
with Iván Fenyö, Kata Dobó, Sándor Csányi, Károly Gesztesi, Ildikó Bánsági, Tamás Jordán, Daniel Gabori, Viktória Szávai, Zsolt Huszár, Péter Haumann, Tamás Keresztes, Bulcsú Székely
gesztesi and fenyo release Hun 23.Oct.06,
US 6.Dec.06,
UK 14.Mar.08
06/Hungary Fortissimo 2h03

Edinburgh Film Fest
15 themes, language, violence, some sexuality
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City of Men   3.5/5   Cidade dos Homens
city of men Based on the TV series about life in the Rio favelas, this film isn't as bracingly vibrant as Fernando Meirelles' CITY OF GOD (2002), which featured many of the same cast and crew. But it's a grippingly entertaining story.

Ace and Wallace (Silva and Cunha) are childhood buddies just emerging into adulthood. Ace has a wife (Monteiro) and young son to take care of, while Wallace tries to develop a relationship with Camila (Silva) as well as the father (dos Santos) he's only just tracked down. But there's trouble brewing, as Wallace's cocky gangster cousin (Haagensen) has his leadership violently challenged by his right-hand man (BR). And suddenly, Ace and Wallace are caught in the middle of a gang war, with some difficult choices to make.

The film sharply catches the fact that the vast majority of people living in the favelas are peace-loving and hard-working, and their biggest challenge is living with the small number of gun-toting thugs around them. The gang culture has depleted the male population to the point where most kids have never met their fathers, and without strong role models are unsure where they're going in life. Or if they'll live to see 20.

Morelli directs this with a TV sensibility, keeping the camerawork and editing simple, cutting away from the raw edges of sex and violence, and relying on the strength of his earthy, natural cast. Although this approach doesn't particularly bristle with electricity (it's shot on location more like a documentary), it still succeeds in telling a powerful story we can identify with, mainly because the central duo is so engaging.

Silva and Cunha are likeable, brave young actors who bring a complexity to their characters that feels almost startlingly real. The growing tension between them is both physical and emotional, and yet we know they have a bond that could rescue them if they can snap out of the storm of violence around them. Even when the storyline becomes a bit meandering and preachy, they keep us connected. And they remind us that a seemingly simple decision, like dropping a gun (or becoming an actor), can save a life.

dir Paulo Morelli
scr Elena Soarez
with Douglas Silva, Darlan Cunha, Jonathan Haagensen, Eduardo BR, Rodrigo dos Santos, Camila Monteiro, Naima Silva, Luciano Vidigal, Pedro Henrique, Maurício Gonçalves, Vinícius Oliveira, Vítor Oliveira
cunha and silva release Br 31.Aug.07,
US 29.Feb.08,
UK 18.Jul.08
07/Brazil Fox 1h50

london film fest
15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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Flight of the Red Balloon   3.5/5   Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge
Flight of the Red Balloon Adventurous Taiwanese filmmaker Hou (Three Times) pays homage to the 1956 classic The Red Balloon with this intriguing but ultimately elusive slice of urban life.

Suzanne (Binoche) is a single mother in Paris who's a bit too busy with her career as a puppeteer who voices all her own characters. She hires a young Chinese nanny (Song) to take care of her lonely son Simon (Iteanu), who is followed around the city by a watchful red balloon. The increasingly frazzled Suzanne is weighed down by the pressures of her life, including Simon's absentee father and an irresponsible neighbour downstairs (Girardot) who keeps borrowing her kitchen. Meanwhile, the nanny gets Simon involved in her short film remake of The Red Balloon.

This is an intriguing modern take on the post-war classic, shifting the "action" to the cluttered, distracted 21st century. At the centre, Binoche is a wonderfully chaotic whirl--even her hair is out of control. She seems to be holding everything together by the skin of her teeth, contrasted cleverly with Song's quiet observations and Iteanu's wide-eyed acceptance of whatever is happening around him. They make a terrific oddball trio.

Hou assembles this with effortless skill, quietly highlighting the underlying loneliness of a busy city lifestyle, which is of course symbolised by the balloon silently floating above Paris. But after the first hour of this, we are waiting for some sort of plot to kick in. And it never does. There are small events (such as moving a piano upstairs from the neighbour's flat, then getting it tuned), but the film is essentially a series of fragments caught on camera.

Sure, it's often very funny, with an undercurrent of black humour and some real emotional resonance. The sparse dialog is raw and natural, and the piano score is hypnotic. There are also some very playful cinematic touches, mainly in Song's short film project, in which she gets a man to carry a red balloon around behind Simon, dressed in green so she can paint him out digitally. But in the end there's no discernible point to it all beyond an almost documentary-like study of the isolation and constant motion of modern life.

dir Hou Hsiao-hsien
scr Hou Hsiao-hsien, FranŤois Margolin
with Juliette Binoche, Simon Iteanu, Song Fang, Hippolyte Girardot, Louise Margolin, Anna Sigalevitch
iteanu and binoche release Fr 30.Jan.08,
UK 14.Mar.08,
US 4.Apr.08
07/France Canal+ 1h55

PG themes, language
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© 2008 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall