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last update 7.Mar.08
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Caramel   3.5/5  
caramel It's lovely to see a film from the Middle East that never mentions politics or war. No, this is a girly ensemble romance, and it carries strong resonance for viewers in any culture.

Three women working in a Beirut beauty salon face romantic predicaments. Layale (Labaki) is seeing a married man, hoping against hope that he'll leave his wife, even as a young cop (Karam) has his eye on her. Nisrine (Elmasri) is getting married to Bassam (Antar) and has a secret she needs to deal with. And Rima (Moukarzel) may be falling for a female customer (Safa). Meanwhile, their actress-diva friend (Aouad) is auditioning for roles she's perhaps too old for, and their seamstress neighbour (Haddad) is romancing a customer (Staneofski) with interference from her delusional sister (Semaan).

Despite the light tone, the film touches on serious issues from the multi-religious Lebanese culture, gently addressing the disparity in both Christian and Muslim communities between what people should do and what they're actually up to. In other words, it's pretty much just like any community on earth. And director-cowriter-star Labaki adeptly captures a natural tone with the help of her solid, likeable supporting cast.

That said, it's not a very profound movie. The title refers to the sugaring beauty treatment, which implies that these women will endure quick, sharp pain in their love lives but emerge with confidence and success. The title also applies to the film's golden hue, with warm cinematography that looks delicious enough to lick. It's a fascinating approach, made more engaging by the often hilarious misadventures of these complex women.

In the end, the breezy tone allows the film to drag. Just when it should be deepening into something much more potent, it remains safely in the emotional zone. We do identify with these women in their joy and sorrow, but we wait in vain for the script to push them just a little further into all-out rebellion against the constraints of the system. What we get instead is a sweet slice-of-life that's funny, enjoyable and both happy and sad. It's also remarkably assured work from a filmmaker to watch.

dir Nadine Labaki
scr Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Rodney Al Haddad
with Nadine Labaki, Yasmine Elmasri, Joanna Moukarzel, Gisèle Aouad, Adel Karam, Sihame Haddad, Aziza Semaan, Fatmeh Safa, Ismaïl Antar, Dimitri Staneofski, Fadia Stella, Victoria Bader
labaki release Leb 9.Aug.07,
US 1.Feb.08,
UK 16.May.08
07/Lebanon Bac 1h35

PG themes, innuendo
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[REC]   3.5/5  
rec Essentially, these Spanish filmmakers took the best sequence from The Blair Witch Project (the terrifying finale) and turned it into an entire movie. The result is thoroughly unnerving and often almost unbearably scary, even if there's not much to it.

Angela (Velasco) is a TV presenter working with her faithful cameraman Pablo to make a fly-on-the-wall report about a firehouse. She's clearly bored rigid as she interviews a couple of firefighters (Terraza and Vert), but perks up when they head out to investigate a strangely behaving old woman (Carbonell)--a situation that turns desperate when she attacks the firemen, cops and other residents. Then the health authorities quarantine the building, and they're all trapped in the stairwell. Apparently it's some sort of contagious disease. And the sick aren't dying properly.

It's always great to see a new spin on the zombie genre, and the subjective camera brilliantly puts us in the line of fire, with lots of things that leap out of nowhere. After the rather relaxed and goofy opening sequence, the film shifts gears and never slows down, cranking up the suspense and fear, and refusing to cut away from the gore (as any decent news cameraman would get it all).

A few characters emerge, but we don't really get to know them beyond paranoias and prejudices. The shrinking number of survivors are only worrying about getting out alive, while Pablo's goal is to catch everything on tape. As opposed to Cloverfield, there's a reason why he's so adept with a camera: he's a trained professional. And his camera actually becomes part of the story. Meanwhile, Velasco is terrific as the witty, tenacious, obnoxious TV hack.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers make the most of the claustrophobic setting, especially as the story closes in horrifically on Angela and Pablo. Yes, it's repetitive and murky, and very simple, but the increasing chaos and grisliness are gripping. Like the characters themselves, we are desperate to get out of this sealed building, outraged by the knee-jerk authorities and rattled by the snarling undead hiding in every dark doorway. Effective and exhilarating.

dir Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza
scr Jaume Balagueró, Luiso Berdejo, Paco Plaza
with Manuela Velasco, Ferran Terraza, Jorge Serrano, Carlos Vicente, Carlos Lasarte, David Vert, Pablo Rosso, Claudia Font, Vicente Gil, Martha Carbonell, María Teresa Ortega, Manuel Bronchud
velasco and terraza
release Spain 23.Nov.07,
UK 11.Apr.08
07/Spain 1h18

See also:
REC 2 (2009)
REC 3 GENESIS (2012)
And the American remake:
18 themes, language, strong violence
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Son of Man   3.5/5
son of man The cast and crew of the Xhosa version of Bizet's Carmen (2005's U-Carmen eKhayelitsha) reunite for this intriguing take on the life of Christ. It's a flawed film, but full of energy and passion.

In the fictional nation of Judea, government troops are battling insurgents with the public caught in the crossfire. Amid the chaos, Mary (Malefane) is told by an angel (Anthony) that she'll have a child who will bring peace to her people. After he grows up, Jesus (Kosi) brings a message of non-violence that threatens newly formed coalition of elders and military ("To restore peace," they say, "we must use force"). And one of Jesus' closest friends, Judas (Ngxabaze), provides the damning videotape evidence of his revolutionary activities.

The film bristles with urgency, as Dornford-May adeptly captures the rhythms of African life both in rural settings and sprawling townships. There's a constant threat of violence, and the script is loaded with telling little touches, such as how Mary teaches the child Jesus to look injustice in the eye. We also get glimpses of tribal rites of passage (a clever adaptation of baptism) and charged conversations about what can be done in the face of such poverty, injustice and violence.

On the other hand, many scenes are strangely abrupt, while the script struggles to integrate Jesus' miracles into a meaningful context. And after introducing his followers as former child soldiers and people whose lives have been destroyed by war, they're never allowed to become proper characters (only Judas has any real dialog). Still, Kosi gives a nicely understated performance as a man who quietly stands up to thugs who want to beat him into submission. Malefane's Mary is passionate and powerfully emotional, especially in the visceral musical scenes. And the subplot involving Magdalen (Mthethwa) is strongly emotive.

Along the way, there's a mixed bag of references, from distracting King James English subtitles to witty visual references (such as a moving recreation of Michelangelo's Pietà in a bakkie). Best of all is how the situations feel ripped right from the headlines. Documenting events with home video and wall murals adds a lovely local touch, while the feather-clad young angels offer an eerie echo of Africa's lost generations. And most important is the vivid political message about confronting true evil both at home and in the world at large.

dir Mark Dornford-May
scr Mark Dornford-May, Andiswa Kedama, Pauline Malefane
with Andile Kosi, Pauline Malefane, Andries Mbali, James Anthony, Jim Ngxabaze, Sibulele Mjali, Ruby Mthethwa, Mvuyisi Mjali, Zamile Gantana, Sibusiso Ziqubu, Joel Mthethwa, Vuyo Sonyaka
release SA Oct.06,
UK 7.Mar.08,
US 18.Mar.08
06/South Africa 1h26

london film fest
12 themes, violence
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Water Lilies   4/5   Naissance des Pieuvres
Water Lilies With her first feature, Sciamma shows a seriously gifted eye as a director, capturing this sensitive coming-of-age story with sharp wit and emotional relevance.

Marie (Acquart) is a 15-year-old obsessed with synchronised swimming. But with her compact, boyish figure, she knows she can't really hope to join the local team, led by the curvy Floriane (Haenel), who has a carefully cultivated reputation as a slut. Marie's slightly chubby best pal Anne (Blachere), meanwhile, has a crush on Floriane's hunky water polo playing boyfriend François (Jacquin), who recently saw her naked in a lockerroom. But Marie and Anne's friendship is about to be strained by these yearnings, as Marie befriends Floriane and realises she has a crush on her.

Essentially, the film is a slice of normal teen life, in which these three young women circle around each other, changing loyalties while struggling inwardly with peer pressure, self-doubts and inner longings. For them, the emotions they're experiencing feel like the end of the world; their cruelty seems careless, but is full of emotion. All of this is examined with remarkable honesty--and without even a hint of sentimental self-indulgence--by Sciamma and her remarkable young cast.

Acquart looks like a young Kristy McNichol (where is she now?), with her soulful eyes and lanky physicality. She plays Marie perfectly as a quietly obsessive teen struggling with the inner conflict between confidence and insecurity. Her interaction with the equally excellent Haenel and Blanchere is packed with subtext. And as they screw up the courage to be honest to each other, the scenes pack hugely powerful punches.

As the gentle storyline progresses, Sciamma fills the film with bracing observations. She tellingly shows synchro scenes from askance angles or in selective silence, cleverly expressing Marie's internal journey. It may be extremely girly, but male viewers will learn a thing or two as well! And besides, the film is beautifully shot (by Crystel Fournier), including several gorgeous underwater sequences. And it's skilfully assembled with artful editing and a rich sound mix. In the end, it's also a provocative and lingering examination of the power of friendship in all its forms.

dir-scr Céline Sciamma
with Pauline Acquart, Louise Blachere, Adele Haenel, Warren Jacquin, Christelle Baras, Marie Gili-Pierre, Alice de Lencquesaing, Claire Pierrat, Barbara Renard, Jeremie Steib, Christophe Van de Velde, Serge Brincat
haenel and acquart release Fr 15.Aug.07,
UK 14.Mar.08
07/France Canal+ 1h25

15 themes, language, nudity, sexuality
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© 2008 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall