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last update 23.Oct.08
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Bigga Than Ben
3/5   The Russians’ Guide to Ripping off London
dir-scr Suzie Halewood
with Ben Barnes, Andrei Chadov, Ovidiu Matesan, Andrew Byron, Jeff Mirza, Sean O'Callaghan, Terence Anderson, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, Mervyn Etienne, Cecilia Colby, Dado Jehan, Naomi Cooper-Davis
chadov and barnes release UK 10.Oct.08,
US 18.Nov.08
08/UK 1h25

edinburgh  film fest
bigga than ben This lively comedy feels like about half a movie, as the inventive Borat-like hilarity runs out of steam after about an hour. Then the film turns strangely serious, and never recovers our interest.

Two young "pieces of Moscow scum", Cobakka and Spiker (Barnes and Chadov), dream of going to Los Angeles but end up in "foggy Albion", where they make a video to help their countrymen get free money and find ways around the British legal system, with its presumption of innocence. Eventually they get jobs through an unintelligible employment officer (O'Callaghan) and rent a smelly flat from an Afghan refugee (Mirza). They also get involved with a conman (Matesan) and various drug dealers. Can two losers actually survive in a place like this?

The title refers to the clock, of course, and the film kicks off with loads of attitude and a mock-doc structure that's genuinely outrageous. Writer-director Halewood is unafraid to tackle some big immigration taboos full on. For example, a friend back home (Byron) warns them that they'll need to sound English in London, "or you'll be shot as a terrorist". As their cash quickly dwindles, their desperate scams get increasingly amusing, all accompanied by on-screen titles like "Our First Robbery".

After Prince Caspian, it's great to see Barnes in such a scruffy, low-life role, and both he and Chadov nail their characters' attitude and camaraderie, finding comedy as they prowl both the seedy backstreets and posh neighbourhoods looking for a way in. They're thoroughly likeable in their gleefully anarchic approach to every situation ("Stealing from large corporate shops that kill off local shops doesn't count"), and they cheekily take advantage of the promiscuous English girls who need sorting, now.

Yes, the film is packed with astutely comical observations that use exaggeration to make a point (in Moscow, when you break the law you get beat up by cops; in London, you get a polite letter). But when the serious side takes over, the film's pace sags badly. After all the silliness, we can't really be expected to sympathise when things go wrong. Halewood seems unsure how to wind things up, so she indulges in some awkward earnestness that just can't possibly hold our interest.

12 themes, language, drugs
25.Jun.08 eiff
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dir-scr Giles Borg
with Ian Bonar, Lyndsey Marshal, Kieran Bew, Mathew Baynton, Giles Maythan, Luke Rutherford, Matthew Sim, Ben Stratford, Jennifer Aries, Brendan Hughes, Alan Bleay, Trevor Sellers
baynton, bew, marshal and bonar
release UK 5.Mar.10
08/UK 1h25

london  film fest
1234 A charming tone and likeable characters make this film thoroughly engaging, with its dry sense of humour and authentic look at the difficulty of launching a music career. But writer-director Borg seems to loose his grip on the narrative in the final act.

Stevie (Bonar) is a slightly nerdy call-centre worker who really wants to be a singer-guitarist in a band with his eccentric drummer pal Neil (Baynton). They invite another guitarist, Billy (Bew), join them, along with his bass-playing friend Emily (Marshal). And after discovering that they work well together, they make a demo and book a few gigs. But will they ever make enough money to give up their day jobs? And how will Stevie cope with the fact that he's falling for Emily, who clearly needs to dump her obnoxious boyfriend (Maythan)?

From the start, Borg creates a superbly realistic atmosphere that draws on the characters' senses of humour and often jaggedly funny interaction. It's an upbeat story, thoroughly entertaining and also hugely involving due to the wry observations and bracingly down-to-earth performances. Bonar holds the film together effortlessly as the nice-guy Stevie who somehow rubs Billy the wrong way. Their brittle conversations are terrific.

Meanwhile, Baynton is hilarious as the guy who says whatever's on his mind, even when he probably shouldn't ("If I wasn't in this band, this would be my new favourite band!"). And Marshal gets the most complicated role as the musician-artist with so many irons in the fire that someone's bound to get hurt. The film is inventively and skilfully shot and edited, giving the actors space to explore the characters while peering under the surface.

It's so good, in fact, that it's a real shame that the story slips away. A couple of contrived plot turns start to wear us down, and we begin to tire of the blackout inter-titles after number 10. Although the situations remain utterly real (the gig with five people applauding is brilliant) and the characters remain bracingly genuine and sympathetic, when the film's tempo begins to slow down and get a bit vague, we quickly lose interest. Even so, this is a particularly well-made indie with a terrific, fresh cast.

15 themes, language
9.Oct.08 lff
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dir Dominic Lees
scr Jimmy Gardner, Dominic Lees
with Jakub Tolak, Przemyslaw Sadowski, Alexis Raben, Shaun Dingwall, Joe Tucker, Olegar Fedoro, Damon Younger, Michael Klesic, Daniel Vivian, Richard Heap, Sion Tudor Owen, Michael Riley
raben release UK/US 24.Oct.08
08/UK 1h38
outlanders This story has an extremely important message but is told in a straightforward way that doesn't get very far beneath the surface. In this sense, it probably belongs on television rather than in cinemas.

After his father dies, Adam (Tolak) has nothing keeping him in Poland. So he heads to London to find his brother Janek (Sadowski), who dropped out of sight after an injury ended his football career. Adam finds him running a building site, employing "outlanders" from beyond the European Union. Mainly Russians, these people are treated as virtual slaves, while Janek dodges the attention of a nosey cop (Dingwall). Meanwhile, Adam falls for a Russian girl (Raben). And the more he learns about his brother, the less he likes him.

The premise has a gripping timeliness, highlighting a story behind the headlines and touching on an under-reported aspect of human trafficking. Director Lees catches this authenticity in the way the film is shot, with no-frills camera work that's often almost documentary-like. This approach also lets the situation stand on its own, without much dramatic manipulation. Although it also means that there's little in the way of visual style.

Meanwhile, the actors are slightly uneven, which makes it difficult to generate sympathy. Fortunately, the strongest performance is from the likeable Tolak in the central role. This is a guy we root for as he tries to make the best decision in a difficult situation, and his romantic scenes with Raben often have a zing of honesty to them. A bit less convincing is the blunt chemistry between Tolak and Jasinski, which fails to really highlight Adam's serious dilemma.

Meanwhile, the screenplay stays mainly on the surface, continually falling back on corny stereotypes like the cop who suddenly leaps out from behind a parked car and yells, "Gotcha!" Or Janek's decision to junk his precious car to cover up another crime. Many of the plot wrinkles seem added merely to stir the dramatic stew. And frankly, it doesn't seem like it'd be that difficult to get away from these flat-footed policemen. So by the time it reaches the now-requisite big finish, the cautionary message feels both stiff and forced.

15 themes, language, violence
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dir-scr Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
with Algenis Pérez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Ann Whitney, Richard Bull, Ellary Porterfield, Michael Gaston, Jaime Tirelli, Joendy Pena Brown, José Rijo, Eddie Martinez, Cesar Minaya
perez soto release US 27.Mar.09,
UK 5.Jun.09
08/US HBO 1h54

london film fest
sugar For their follow-up to Half Nelson, filmmakers Boden and Fleck shift gears to create a powerfully engaging coming-of-age immigration sports documentary-style drama. And this unpredictable genre mash-up is pure magic.

Miguel Santos (Perez Soto) is known as Sugar, and his family and friends all have different stories about why. But everyone knows he's a skilled pitcher, training at a baseball academy near his Dominican Republic village since he was 15. Now off to play in America, he starts at spring training in Arizona before joining a Single-A team in Iowa. A friend from home (Rufino) helps him face the language and cultural barriers, as does an American teammate (Holland) and an older couple (Whitney and Bull) who hosts him in their farmhouse.

The clever thing about this film is the way it takes familiar elements and combines them into a fresh, thoroughly involving story that constantly surprises us with its honesty. There's never a moment when Boden and Fleck give in to the temptation to indulge in a cliched movie moment; there's no Big Game, cathartic drama, huge revelation or sudden tragedy. Instead, it's a collection of true-life scenes that are so real that the film feels like a documentary. Although Andrij Parekh's stunning cinematography makes it look like a beautifully introspective drama.

And the raw intensity of first-time actor Perez Soto's performance adds to the authenticity. His magnetic personality leaps off the screen as he brilliantly captures Sugar's internal journey. He subtly conveys everything through his eyes, from his quiet soul-searching to his exploration of this strange foreign culture, with its overpowering religion and deep-seated racism. The whole cast has this same style of elegant understatement, which adds to the honest tone and lets us identify with each character.

This is a warm, thoroughly involving film populated with people who are charming, funny, relaxed and achingly real. The constant collisions of culture are played honestly, with quietly challenging touches that make intensely important comments on humanity in general and America in specific. And by avoiding standard cinematic formulae, Boden and Fleck have made a film that celebrates true human happiness rather than the superficial ideas of success and harmony Hollywood usually sells us.

15 themes, language, sexuality
10.Oct.08 lff
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