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last update 20.Feb.09
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A Christmas Tale
4/5   Un Conte de Noël
dir Arnaud Desplechin
scr Arnaud Desplechin, Emmanuel Bourdieu
with Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Consigny, Mathieu Amalric, Melvil Poupaud, Hippolyte Girardot, Emmanuelle Devos, Chiara Mastroianni, Laurent Capelluto, Emile Berling, Françoise Bertin, Samir Guesmi
mastroianni and poupaud release Fr 21.May.08,
US Oct.08 nyff,
UK 16.Jan.09
08/France 2h33


london Film Fest
a christmas tale Bustling and chaotic like most big families, this film really captures the outrageous collision of personalities in any gathering of relatives. It's a true ensemble piece, and packed with characters who are painfully recognisable.

Junon and Abel (Deneuve and Roussillon) have never recovered from the death of their eldest son many years ago. And the emotions return when Junon is diagnosed with the same cancer, which requires a bone marrow transfer. The only matching relatives are their teen grandson Paul (Berling) and their black sheep son Henri (Amalric). And this brings back all kinds of past stress between Henri and siblings Elizabeth (Consigny) and Ivan (Poupaud). Not to mention Elizabeth's husband (Girardot), Ivan's wife (Mastroianni), cousin Simon (Capelluto) and Henri's lover (Devos), who just laughs at everyone.

Director-cowriter Desplechin approaches these characters with a cheeky style that refuses to settle on a singular plotline. He mixes multiple narrators, animated cutaways and scenes that start and stop seemingly at random. The result is lively and messy, and it sometimes feels far too long and dense, as these people should really never all be in a house together like this for the holidays. Yet the film also captures the complexities of family relationships and personalities--how we make the people we grow up with into who they are, and how we can never understand how we turned out the way we did.

With so many feuds and liaisons, the first-rate cast has plenty to chew on. Pettiness and jealousy are written all over their faces alongside the awkward bonds of love and loyalty. Amalric and Poupaud create a remarkably vivid brotherly bond, while there's a lovely Hitchcockian moment between Deneuve and Devos in an art gallery. Even the smallest characters add to the web of relationships and family roles.

We learn much of the story through flashbacks and family photos, painful jokes, whispered secrets and raucous laughter. And through it all is a wry acceptance of the competition and dysfunction. As the cumulative effects of the past boil over in selfishness and cruelty, there's also a spark of warm emotion that wins us over in the end. Instead of resolving the conflict, Desplechin allows it to boil over completely. And the result is surprisingly life-affirming.

15 themes, innuendo, violence
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The Good the Bad the Weird
dir Kim Ji-woon
scr Kim Ji-woon, Kim Min-suk
with Song Kang-ho, Jung Woo-sung, Lee Byung-hun, Ryu Seung-soo, Ryu Chang-sook, Deligeer, Yoon Jae-moon, Sohn Byung-ho, Kim Gwang-il, Ma Dong-suk, Song Young-chang, Lee Chung-ah
song kang-ho
release Kor 17.Jul.08,
UK 6.Feb.09, US 23.Apr.10
08/Korea 2h00


london Film Fest
the good the bad the weird An unhinged, high-energy tribute to the Western, this raucously entertaining Korean action movie kicks off at full speed and never slows down. It's a little exhausting, but also loads of fun.

In 1930s Manchuria, three bandits launch an assault on a train. Do-wan (Jung) is a cool-headed, principled bounty hunter chasing the vicious, rock-star-like Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun), who's trying to get his hands on a valuable treasure map. But it's the offbeat, clownish Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho) who ends up with the map. And now everyone's after him, including a gang of Asian warriors and the occupying Japanese army. But what exactly is the treasure? And who will end up with it?

The title is a direct nod to the classic spaghetti Western, which this film plays fast and loose with. Filmmaker Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters) packs every scene with witty movie references as well as more obvious comical touches. The camera surges and prowls through each scene, as characters rush around colourful sets and epic landscapes. And this crazed atmosphere adds a terrific sense of desperation, especially since every person is a relentless opportunist.

This kinetic style also allows for some remarkably gritty action. The elaborate gun battles are realistically terrifying, and the acrobatic fights are wrenchingly physical. But it's all underscored with a sense of humour, with running jokes that include personal sore spots, common histories and inventive weaponry. Much of this is so chaotic that it feels like a comic book, but there are some strongly engaging characters, most notably Song's goofy, childlike Tae-goo and Jung's pure-of-heart Do-wan.

From the outrageous opening train assault to the final charge across the vast desert, the film packs in so much stuff that we often don't know where to look. Koreans, Chinese and Japanese go at it with guns, swords, hammers and tongs, all shot with spectacular wide-screen cinematography that revels in glary sunshine and, of course, generous splashes of red. For these people, life is about chasing and being chased, and they converge for the twisty finale, the wonderful reality is that it's the running around that they love. They couldn't care less about what that map actually means.

15 themes, strong violence, language
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Three Monkeys
4/5   Üç Maymun
dir Nuri Bilge Ceylan
scr Ebru Ceylan, Ercan Kesal, Nuri Bilge Ceylan
with Yavuz Bingol, Hatice Aslan, Rifat Sungar, Ercan Kesal, Cafer Köse, Gürkan Aydin
aslan and bingol release Tur 24.Oct.08,
UK 13.Feb.09
08/Turkey 1h49


london Film Fest
three monkeys This unflinching, gorgeously filmed Turkish drama quietly follows a series of increasingly tense situations within a small, struggling family. And with very few words, it really gets under our skin.

When the politician Servet (Kesal) gets in a car accident, he asks his driver Eyup (Bingol) to take the fall, offering a lump sum for his trouble. So Eyup goes to prison, leaving his wife Hacer (Aslan) struggling to cope at home. Then their surly teen son Ismail (Sungar) develops some bad friendships that tempt him into lawlessness. So Hacer turns to Servet for help, but what he asks of her causes even more stress for the family when Eyup returns home a few years later.

Director-cowriter Ceylan develops an almost dreamlike tone with dark, grainy cinematography that often looks like a painting. And the scenes are made up of long takes and not much dialog, cleverly shot and edited to subtly reveal the internal journey each of the characters is taking. Most scenes have an almost electric undercurrent of tension to them, as the characters try to conceal their feelings while figuring out what the others are thinking. And the silence between them is powerfully gripping.

Of course, it requires an especially good cast to make this kind of material work, and the performances here are fine and textured, catching the confusion and pain as well as the feisty resolve and relentless machismo. As the reality of what has happened begins to dawn, each character has a very different response: Ismail's flare of anger, Eyup's rough-hewn sense of justice, Servet's callous control and, most evocatively, Hacer's stunned reaction to the way these three men treat her in her time of need.

In the end, this is a rather bleak look at the fact that caring about each other doesn't always make things any better. There are references all along to the loss of another son at some point in the past, and that old pain is infusing these current situations in complicated ways. There's also the idea that for people who are desperate, getting on with life may involve subverting justice now and dealing with the fallout later. And there's always fallout later.

15 themes, strong language, violence
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Twentieth Century Boys
dir Yukihiko Tsutsumi
scr Yasushi Fukuda, Takashi Nagasaki, Naoki Urasawa, Yusuke Watanabe
with Toshiaki Karasawa, Etsushi Toyokawa, Takako Tokiwa, Teruyuki Kagawa, Hidehiko Ishizuka, Takashi Ukaji, Hiroyuki Miyasako, Katsuhisa Namase, Fumiyo Kohinata, Arata, Hanako Yamada, Takashi Fujii
karasawa release Jpn 30.Aug.08,
UK 20.Feb.09
08/Japan 2h22
twentieth century boys This is the first in a trilogy of live-action movies based on the epic manga series. As a film, it's rather bloated and over-complicated, but it's also exciting, outrageous and extremely well-made.

At his class reunion in 1997, Kenji (Karasawa) is reminded by his old school buddies (Toyokawa, Kagawa, Ishizuka and others) of their early-70s secret society and the Book of Prophecies they created, outlining how the world would end on 31 December 2000. Strangely, these prophecies now seem to be coming true. And the unseen leader of a growing cult must be one of their old gang bringing their childhood doomsday fantasy to reality. Now Kenji and his buddies only have three years to save the earth.

This is a sprawling saga, framed with scenes in a 2015 prison ship, where a political detainee who has violated the Protection of Youth law hears the story from another inmate. Flashback to teens in 1973 listening to T.Rex and creating their elaborate mythology, and then to the events of 1997. Director Tsutsumi gives the film visually witty tone as it jumps around in time. It's constantly engaging, and hugely inventive in the way it portrays things like child-imagined rayguns and giant robots coming to life.

That robot sequence plays wonderfully on the fine tradition of Japanese monster movies with a remarkable sophistication and a mixture of comedy and pathos. The characters are vivid and humorous, with terrific touches in the way we see them age over the decades. But the fragmented structure starts to get to us over the long running time, and the result feels overwrought and rather sloppy to those unfamiliar with the comic.

It also feels like a massive introduction. Which is a little frustrating after watching for nearly two and a half hours and realising that the story has only really begun, as we ultimately only get a few answers and meet the "chosen one" who will push the story even further. Technically, this is impressive filmmaking, with outrageously inventive effects and an ambitious story. It will leave fans gasping for the next two films, but the rest of us will wonder if it will be worth it.

15 themes, strong violence
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© 2009 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall