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last update 13.Apr.09
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All Around Us
4.5/5   MUST must see SEE
dir-scr Ryosuke Hashiguchi
with Lily Franky, Tae Kimura, Mitsuko Baisho, Susumu Terajima, Tamae Ando, Norito Yashima, Minori Terada, Akira Emoto, Yuichi Kimura, Yosuke Saito, Yoichi Nukumizu, Rie Minemura
franky and kimura release Jpn 7.Jun.08,
UK Oct.08 lff,
US Feb.09 piff
08/Japan 2h20

London Film Fest
Berlin Film Fest
all around us This remarkable film looks at a marriage as an organic entity, tracing the highs and lows over a decade while remarkably keeping it in perspective. Strong acting and a beautiful sense of time and place make it well worth seeing.

In 1993, young wife Shoko (Kimura) is struggling with the infidelity of her husband Kanao (Franky), but decides to move forward when she gets pregnant. Kanao gets a better-paying job as a court artist, but their baby dies shortly after birth, sending Shoko into depression that's worsened by a hard decision she makes several years later. As Kanao's career rises, Shoko sinks into guilt, moving into a Buddhist temple to find help. With Kanao at her side, she begins to emerge from her shell in 2001.

Rather than pegging the story to the major events of 10 years, novelist-filmmaker Hashiguchi inventively focuses on the space between them. The result is a vivid portrayal of the connection of two imperfect souls, with the banalities of life as the glue that holds them together through. And through Kanao's job in the court, the script juxtaposes big historical events against the personal story.

Shoko and Kanao have a recognisably realistic marriage that defies the normal movie conventions. And the grounded performances sharply capture their contrasting personalities--uptight and laid back, respectively. Although the events of their life seem depressing and grim, the film is bright and sweet, with real moments of tenderness and raw humour. For every yearning cry of the soul ("I wanted to do everything right, but I couldn't," says Shoko) there's a sharply realistic counterpoint ("I come home to an angry woman eating a banana; it's not exactly a turn-on," says Kanao).

This is lively, detailed filmmaking with thoroughly engaging characters we really grow to care about over the long running time. Yes, the film is a bit indulgent in Hashiguchi's inclusion of a number of long scenes that feel rather pointless, but everything fits together into a larger portrait that makes sense of the humour, anger, awkwardness and silence. And most of all, it puts their pain into perspective as an integral part of their life as they grow together.

15 themes, language, innuendo, some grisliness
14.Feb.09 bff
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Baby Love
3/5   Comme les Autres
dir-scr Vincent Garenq
with Lambert Wilson, Pilar López de Ayala, Pascal Elbé, Anne Brochet, Andrée Damant, Florence Darel, Marc Duret, Catherine Erhardy, Eriq Ebouaney, Liliane Cebrian, Luis Jaime Cortez, Catherine Alcover
wilson and elbe release Fr 3.Sep.08,
UK Mar.09 llgff
08/France Canal+ 1h38

Closing film:
London L&G Film Fest
baby love A sweetly silly film about a very serious issue, this gentle French comedy is bright and busy, with some snappy dialog and sharp performances. Although the story itself feels rather simplistic.

Manu (Wilson) is a Paris paediatrician who's desperate to have a child of his own. But his partner Philippe (Elbe) is against the idea. This disagreement escalates until Philippe moves out, leaving Manu to face the obstacles to parenthood on his own. France doesn't allow gay men to adopt, so he tries to get his pal Cathy (Brochet) to carry his child. But she's still hoping for Mr Right. Then Manu meets Fina (Lopez), an Argentine with visa trouble. The solution to both of their problems seems obvious.

The farcical plot has several more twists and turns as Manu must re-approach Philippe for help, explain the convolutions of his situation to his family, mess with Fina's affections and misunderstand Cathy's own desires. Writer-director Garenq approaches this with a light hand, keeping both the comedy and the emotions grounded and real. On the other hand, he badly underwrites the characters and breezes through some fairly nasty behaviour along the way.

It helps that Wilson is such a likeable screen presence; he holds the film together with his sheer charm, even with Manu's sometimes obsessive thoughtlessness. He's also terrific with each of his costars, letting them shine in their scenes, even though none of the characters are developed beyond a few simple points. The female roles are particularly thin, most notably the succession of cliched lesbian couples Manu interviews. Brochet finds some pathos in Cathy's fairly shallow loneliness, while Lopez manages to be relatively engaging as the oddly inconsistent Fina.

This simplistic approach also undermines the story, which rushes past plot holes and shrugs off the big issues that are raised along the way. But Garenq manages to do this with a smile, punctuating the dialog with sharp one-liners that keep us laughing. And it's all so cute that we feel warm and fuzzy by the time the rather sudden happy ending comes along to tie things up, making us forget about the unresolved undercurrents. At least until we're outside the cinema.

15 themes, language
8.Mar.09 llgff
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Burn the Bridges
3/5   Quemar las Naves
dir Francisco Franco
scr Francisco Franco, María Renée Prudencio
with Irene Azuela, Angel Onésimo Nevares, Bernardo Benítez, Claudette Maillé, Ramón Valdés, Jessica Segura, Aida López, Juan Carlos Barreto, Alberto Estrella, Juan Costa, Ricardo Blume, Pablo Bracho
azuela and nevares release US Jan.08 psiff,
Mex 4.Apr.08,
UK Mar.09 llgff
07/Mexico 1h40

London L&G Film Fest
burn the bridges Both comical and moody, this Mexican drama is just deranged enough to grab our attention. It's also a bundle of suggestive subtext and offbeat characters who are often intriguingly unlikeable.

Helena (Azuela) takes her role seriously, caring for her hapless teen brother Sebastian (Nevares) and their dying pop-star mother Eugenia (Maille). They live in a sprawling, falling-down mansion, and when Eugenia dies both siblings lose their footing. Helena becomes increasingly obsessed with Sebastian, but he is just discovering his own sexuality, falling for a new boy (Benitez) who seems to be nothing but trouble. And since Sebastian is so easily led, anything can happen. This not only worries Helena, but also their cousin Ismael (Valdes) and their wealthy guardian uncle (Barreto).

Director Franco has a distinctly Almodovar-style approach, adding bright wit and colourful drama while letting his characters go into some very dark places. These are extremely complex people dealing with intense personal issues, and this affects their interaction in offbeat ways that keeps us wondering what will happen next. The sun-drenched cinematography is intriguingly offset by a dry dramatic approach: everyone hides their emotions from each other (and us), and their close relationships often feel distant and strained.

The cast members are superb at catching these conflicting personality traits, with tiny moments of comedy, telling details and minimalistic subplots that add loads of texture. This also helps keep us gripped when the characters start behaving in increasingly tortured ways towards each other. There's so much tension surrounding these siblings that we often wonder if they'll survive at all.

The title actually means "burn the ships", which is a reference to the Spanish conquistadores' decision to cut off their route back home and make a new life in the New World. This is a distinctly strong theme, and gives the film a somewhat unusual angle on the usual teen drama. Even as the events begin to get creepy, chaotic and rather overwrought, the idea that we can decide to move forward is deeply inspirational. And the film's askance sense of humour makes sure we're paying attention.

15 themes, language, violence
6.Apr.09 llgff
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Tony Manero
dir Pablo Larrain
scr Pablo Larrain, Alfredo Castro, Mateo Iribarren
with Alfredo Castro, Amparo Noguera, Héctor Morales, Paola Lattus, Elsa Poblete
release Chl 28.Aug.08,
US Sep.08 nyff,
UK 10.Apr.09
08/Chile 1h38


London Film Fest
tony manero This clever, creepy Chilean drama keeps us utterly gripped because we have no idea what might happen next. It's also so dark--both violent and sleazy--that it nearly takes the breath away.

In 1978 Chile, 52-year-old dance coach Raul (Castro) fancies himself as Tony Manero, John Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever. He's determined to win a national TV station's lookalike competition, and his obsession drives him to a series of criminal acts, some of them brutal. Meanwhile, the dancers he works with are involved in street protests against Pinochet's oppressive government, which is severely cracking down on them.

Raul's overpowering preoccupation with recreating Saturday Night Fever in his life is a strange mixture of dark wit and grisly nastiness. This freaky blend extends to the ways he creates underfloor lighting and a disco ball in the cafe where his dance troupe performs. The first time we see his temper flare is thoroughly horrifying. So when Grease replaces his favourite movie at his local cinema, his reaction is both shocking and unsurprising.

Castro's dives a dedicated performance, looking eerily like Al Pacino, which adds a blackly ironic tone to the whole story. And he plays even the most repugnant scenes with matter-of-fact detachment. Even the dance numbers have a kind of train-wreck quality: Raul actually has some talent, but since we know what's going on off-stage we can't watch his performances with an open mind. Meanwhile, the people around him are much more sympathetic, especially the young Goyo (Morales), who has dreams of his own.

Filmmaker Larrain keeps the tone gritty and edgy, constantly hinting at foul things to come as he skilfully echoes the scruffiness of 1970s movies. The camera work is clever and suggestive, while the characters are all slightly enigmatic: the more we learn about them the less we feel we know. And by stirring in the political elements, the film achieves a remarkable level of bleakness. There doesn't seem to be any rule of law in Chilean society at the time, which is something Raul has taken weirdly to heart as he begs, borrows, steals and kills to become a star. And we somehow know he won't respond well if he loses.

18 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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© 2009 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall