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last update 4.Mar.08
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How She Move   1.5/5
How She Move This hip-hop drama suffers from the same underdeveloped plot as such films as Step Up and You Got Served (the notable exception has been David LaChappelle's superb doc Rize). And the dancing isn't particularly well-filmed either.

Raya (Wesley) is carrying rather a lot of baggage: her sister has just died of a drug overdose, so she's her family's hope to break out of the crime-ridden neighbourhood and go to a posh university. But she also needs to dance, and joins a local step team without telling her parents (Nicholls-King and Coates). She also keeps falling out with her friends, including her strained best pal (Armstrong) and her flirty team leader (Murphy). After one fight just before a big competition, she defects to a rival team, setting up a big dance-off.

It's actually fairly impressive how many cliches the screenwriter can squeeze into the script, from the obvious romantic subplot and difficult parental dynamic to the climactic confrontation, in which the main two teams somehow make it to the final, while the third is conveniently sidelined with an injury. Yet none of the characters are well enough defined to come to life, no matter how energetic the bright young actors are. Sadly, they're left dangling--plenty of attitude but no drama at all.

And it's further weakened because director Rashid never captures the spark of step. The performances are darkly lit, harshly edited and extremely repetitive, not to mention somewhat contrived to fit the demands of the plot. Meanwhile, key story elements are underdefined, and even the supposedly shocking fact that a girl is dancing on a boys' crew is bypassed without much fuss. It's also somewhat distasteful that Raya's dead sister is used so shamelessly as a mere plot point over and over again. So any attempt at soul-searching feels deeply vacuous.

In the end, the movie is just about watchable for the music and dance. But a film set in this kind of place with these kinds of characters should be something both entertaining and important. Alas, these filmmakers seem afraid to rock the boat, content to produce yet another undemanding urban-interest movie.

dir Ian Iqbal Rashid
scr Annmarie Morais
with Rutina Wesley, Dwain Murphy, Tre Armstrong, Brennan Gademans, Shawn Desman, Kevin Duhaney, Melanie Nicholls-King, Conrad Coates, Cle Bennett, Merwin Mondesir, Keyshia Cole, DeRay Davis
wesley and murphy release US 25.Jan.08,
UK 4.Apr.08
08/US Paramount 1h32
12 themes, language, some violence
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In Search of a Midnight Kiss   4/5
in search of a midnight kiss Like Once, this is a terrific example of how no-budget filmmaking often produces the most effective romantic dramas. And this film has humour and charm to spare.

Wilson (McNairy) is a lonely Texan living in Los Angeles with his pal Jacob (McGuire), who's about to propose to his girlfriend (Luong). It's New Year's Eve, and Wilson doesn't want to be alone at midnight, so he puts an ad online that's answered by the feisty Vivian (Simmonds). She lets him know that she might leave at any time, but he gets his hopes up as they find a rhythm of banter between them. They're both carrying rather a lot of relational baggage, haunted by their exes (Osgood and Murphy) in very different ways.

Even though writer-director Holdridge indulges in several cliches (like indie music montages) and film school touches (the "lost shoe" project), the story is well-told with vivid characters and snappy dialog. Plus a hip resonance in the use of internet communities, email, voicemail and mobile phones--all as part of everyday life rather than plot gimmicks. All of the interaction between characters has a lively, often improvised feel that's disarming and unpredictable.

It helps that the fresh-faced cast bucks Hollywood stereotypes. McNairy is scruffy and a bit embarrassing at the start, but grows into a charming leading man as the story progresses, and as he reveals Wilson's quirky personality, hopes and regrets. And Simmonds is terrific as the feisty Vivian, with a spiky false bravado that slowly peels away as we learn more about her. These are two extremely identifiable people who are trying to do their best in the face of everyday obstacles.

These bittersweet touches make the humour funnier and the emotions stronger. Some hilariously deranged sequences add a terrific zing (most notably an encounter with Vivian's "loser ex-boyfriend"), while the artful black and white photography and an unusual use of back-street L.A. add to the film's inventive tone. And above all, Holdridge vividly captures the collision of grim reality in the city of dreams, where life doesn't work out as expected. But you find other things that make it all worthwhile.

dir-scr Alex Holdridge
with Scoot McNairy, Sara Simmonds, Brian Matthew McGuire, Katie Luong, Twink Caplan, Robert Murphy, Bret Roberts, Via Osgood, Bruce Jay, Alicia McNairy, Justin Huen, Stephanie Feury
mcnairy and simmonds release UK 13.Jun.08
07/US 1h30

edinburgh film fest
15 themes, language, sexuality
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Irina Palm   3.5/5  
irina palm With an intriguing willingness to cross all sorts of societal barriers, this film has the ability to catch us off guard and make us think. And it's also a surprisingly involving story.

In an English village, Maggie (Faithfull) is helping her son Tom (Bishop) and daughter-in-law Sarah (Hewlett) cope with the serious illness of their young son (Burke). When they need cash for a life-saving treatment, Maggie seeks a job in London, answering a "hostess wanted" notice in a shop called Sexy World. She's a bit shocked at the responsibilities of the job, but braces herself for it since the money's good. And she becomes very popular, earning the stage name Irina Palm. But can she keep it a secret from her family and gossipy neighbours?

A grandma in the sex trade isn't the usual set-up for an insightful family drama that's combined with an extremely unusual romance. But with central characters this vivid, we can identify with the actions and reactions. And the side roles are just as intriguing, including Manokjovic's stern-but-sweet club manager, Gryllus' helpful-but-jealous sex worker and Agutter's haughty-but-intrigued neighbour. There's also a nicely understated tension within Maggie's family that boil overs in several unexpected ways.

Meanwhile, the script is quietly examining extremely serious issues, from a health care system that caters to the wealthy to the whole theme of female empowerment. At first, we feel Maggie is being exploited by her "pimp", but the reality is far more complex, as she's takes charge in many more ways than one. All of this is beautifully played by the cast, taking unexpected routes through each scene.

That said, the film is extremely low key and anecdotal, while the script strains to give each person a significant event in their back-story that seems to explain everything about them. But there are some incredibly potent sequences along the way, such as when Maggie finally confronts the gossipy middle class ladies and when her boss' resolve finally cracks. In the end, the needs of the plot take over from the more interesting character drama, but director Gabarski keeps things both gritty and engaging, with a sharp sense of cheeky humour and startlingly raw emotions.

dir Sam Garbarski
scr Philippe Blasband, Martin Herron
with Marianne Faithfull, Miki Manojlovic, Kevin Bishop, Siobhan Hewlett, Dorka Gryllus, Jenny Agutter, Corey Burke, Meg Wynn Owen, Susan Hitch, Flip Webster, Jonathan Coyne, Jules Werner
faithfull release US 21.Mar.08,
UK May.08
07/Belgium 1h43

15 themes, language, sexuality
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Out of the Blue   4.5/5   SHADOWS MUST SEE MUST-SEE
out of the blue In recreating a harrowing real event, the filmmakers' most remarkable achievement is to avoid both sentimentality and sensationalism. Presenting the events without inflating them is intensely powerful and relevant.

In a tiny coastal town near Dunedin in 1990, a profoundly normal day begins with the usual family and neighbourly interaction. A loner living among them, David Gray (Sunderland) heads into town for a frustrating visit to a bank and gun shop, and comes back so deeply annoyed that he begins shooting at everyone around him. The cops arrive, including two friends (Urban and Kircher), who try to track down the shooter before he kills anyone else. But pulling the trigger isn't easy for them. And the killer proves more elusive and vicious than anyone can imagine.

Director-cowriter Sarkies' approach is extremely bold, completely avoiding Hollywood overstatement and moralising while establishing a gentle rhythm that catches the feel of life in a peaceful, isolated community where stories like this are the stuff of distant legend. Using gorgeous cinematography, expressive camera work and introspective dialog, he builds the suspense slowly but surely. And when horror arrives in this literally sleepy town it's almost unbearably terrifying. Mainly because it feels so startlingly real.

The cast gives detailed, natural performances that suggest entire back-stories and add true-life quirks to every scene. The unlikely hero of the story is the elderly Helen Dickson (Lawn), whose experience is seriously moving. And from the sudden first shooting until the scene erupts like a full-on war zone, the characters hold us in their grip. And it's grounded in the solid performances of the actors playing policemen, doctors and firefighters: trained professionals who are unprepared for what they encounter and struggle to rise to the challenge. In other words, they're genuinely courageous.

As the events progress, the film is deeply human and profoundly unsettling. Not only is the filmmaking clever and skilfully razor-sharp, but it's grounded with real compassion. And by treating the tragedy with such respect, the filmmakers have created one of the most gripping and haunting films in recent memory. They've also honoured the loss of 13 lives in an extraordinary way.

dir Robert Sarkies
scr Robert Sarkies, Graeme Tetley
with Karl Urban, Matthew Sunderland, Lois Lawn, Simon Ferry, Tandi Wright, Paul Glover, William Kircher, Georgia Fabish, Fayth Rasmussen, Tony Bishop, Timothy Bartlett, Vanessa Stacey
urban release NZ 12.Oct.06,
US 19.Oct.07,
UK 14.Mar.08
06/New Zealand 1h40

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