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last update 14.Sep.09
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The Red Baron
2.5/5   Der Rote Baron
dir-scr Nikolai Muellerschoen
prd Dan Maag, Nikolai Muellerschoen, Roland Pellegrino, Thomas Reisser
with Matthias Schweighöfer, Lena Headey, Til Schweiger, Joseph Fiennes, Volker Bruch, Tino Mewes, Axel Prahl, Ladislav Frej, Steffen Schroeder, Maxim Mehmet, Hanno Koffler, Josef Vinklar
release Ger 10.Apr.08,
UK 4.Sep.09
08/Germany 1h41
the red baron This is an ambitious attempt to tell the story of World War I's most notorious fighter pilot. But while the events are truly momentous, with thrillingly rendered aerial combat, the film is let down by lacklustre writing and direction.

By 1916, 23-year-old Baron Manfred von Richthofen (Schweighofer) has become the most feared German pilot. With his lurid red plane, he has no interest in catching the Allied forces by surprise: he wants to scare them. But he's also a gentleman, engaging in sport and refusing to be cruel. He's also a strong leader to his fellow pilots, including best pal Voss (Schweiger) and little brother Lothar (Buch). And even Allied pilots like the Canadian Roy Brown (Fiennes) respect him.

This respectful style of engagement is fascinating from today's perspective, when shock and awe has replaced the fact that real people are dying. This film catches this beautifully, reflecting the WWI experience realistically in both the air and the trenches, including the yawning gulf between the aristocratic officers and everyone else. The story also includes Manfred's frank encounters with Kaiser Wilhelm (Frej), which are much more engaging than the half-baked romance he has with a Belgian nurse (well-played by Headey).

Sadly, this romantic storyline takes over the film and feels increasingly far-fetched, especially when the script strains to create a love triangle with Roy after he's shot down by Manfred and vice versa. And then there's the scene when they both crash and spend a day together in no man's land. Although it could have happened, none of this feels even authentic, partly because everyone speaks English but mostly because the dialog has no life in it.

Much of what these characters say to each other is either a non sequitor or a stirring speech. At one point, you think Headey is going to say, in all earnestness, "Did you ever know that you're my hero?" This kind of corny writing simply flattens any emotion, especially when it's directed like a lifeless TV-dramatisation. So it's a good thing that the real story is so intriguing and the dogfights so exciting to watch. The effects work is truly stunning, and makes wading through the drama worthwhile.

12 themes, violence, some grisliness
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Tales From the Golden Age
4.5/5   MUST must see SEE   Amintiri din Epoca de Aur
dir Cristian Mungiu, Ioana Uricaru, Hanno Höfer, Constantin Popescu
scr Cristian Mungiu
prd Cristian Mungiu, Oleg Mutu
with Alexandru Potocean, Teodor Corban, Emanuel Pirvu, Avram Birau, Paul Dunca, Viorel Comanici, Vlad Ivanov, Tania Popa, Liliana Mocanu, Ion Sapdaru, Virginia Mirea, Gabriel Spahiu, Diana Cavallioti, Radu Iacoban, Smaranda Caragea
the legend of the official visit release Rom May.09 tiff,
UK 30.Oct.09
09/Romania 2h21

london film festival
Tales from the Golden Age After the riveting 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, Mungiu is back with five more stories from Romania's "golden age". But these tales replace that earlier film's brilliantly bleak chill with light-hearted irony.

These are five urban legends from communist-era Romania: A group of villagers led by the local party secretary (Potocean) prepares for a Official Visit, but second-guessing the demands of the inspector (Pirvu) isn't easy. The Party Photographer (Birau) and his assistant (Dunca) prepare to cover a state event, but there's a frantic race to make a deadline when the photo needs doctoring. Grigore (Ivanov) is a Chicken Driver for a poultry farm whose roadside innkeeper mistress (Popa) finds a way to make some cash on the side. A Greedy Policeman (Sapdaru) orders a pig on the black market, then has to make a plan when it arrives very much alive. And Crina (Cavallioti) teams up with gentle conman Bughi (Iacoban) to become Air Sellers in a block of flats.

Each of these stories has a strong twist that brilliantly brings together both the political themes and the mythical elements. The filmmakers cleverly use a unified style that captures the settings in all their bleak, anonymous Soviet glory while finding colourful details that keep us utterly glued to the screen. It helps that the characters are full of personality; we become completely involved in their increasingly surreal situations.

These witty, intelligent filmmakers make telling observations without ever being preachy, drawing humour from frustrating situations and constantly surprising us. Memorable moments abound, from a village's desperate attempt to look prosperous ("bring the cow!") to a young couple's nonviolent Bonnie & Clyde-like crime spree. And along the way there are some remarkably emotional scenes as well, most notably in the examination of Grigore's strained, complex marriage.

Mungiu is incredibly skilled at telling deep, resonant stories in an understated way, grabbing our attention and imagination while letting us experience the events along with the characters. This is a film that tells us about a place and time we can't identify with through characters we can't help but understand. And by focussing on real people trying to survive, the film's quiet criticism of a totalitarian regime is that much more forceful.

15 themes, language
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4.5/5   MUST must see SEE   Sztuczki
dir-scr-prd Andrzej Jakimowski
with Damian Ul, Ewelina Walendziak, Rafal Guzniczak, Tomasz Sapryk, Iwona Fornalczyk, Joanna Liszowska, Grzegorz Stelmaszewski, Simeone Matarelli, Maciej Stepniak, Andrzej Golejewski, Krzysztof Lawniczak, Roman Baranowicz
Guzniczak, Ul and Walendziak release Pol 26.Oct.07,
US Feb.09 piff, UK 4.Sep.09
07/Poland 1h35

london film festival

29th Shadows Awards

tricks Polish filmmaker Jakimowski taps into his own childhood for this engaging and warmly authentic slice of life drama. Blending comedy and a hint of magical realism, this beautiful little film really gets under the skin.

Stefek (Ul) is a cheeky young boy who has never known his father. He lives with his older sister Elka (Walendziak) and their mother (Fornalczyk), and hangs out with Elka's mechanic boyfriend Jerzy (Guzniczak). Stefek and Elka play games together tempting fate, trying to trick the gods into helping them just a little bit. And Stefek launches an all-out campaign when he spots his father (Sapryk) on a train platform, quietly setting up events that will get Dad back into the family. Meanwhile, Elka's trying to get a better job.

The film has a playful, meandering tone that obscures the carefully structured story. It feels utterly authentic, and the various elements come together so organically that we almost don't notice it happening right before our eyes. In other words, this is astonishingly adept filmmaking that's funny, scruffy and hugely involving. It's never remotely manipulative or manufactured, and yet filmmaker Jakimowski has us right where he wants us.

He also coaxes disarmingly natural performances from his cast members. Everyone feels like a real person, with traits that are subtle but extremely telling. Ul, Walendziak and Guzniczak are especially good in the central roles, and we can't help but fall for all three of them, identifying with their quiet yearnings. Their interaction is sometimes very raw, but it also carries real compassion and affection. And it makes most other movies look completely artificial.

Packed with gorgeous poetic touches, the story gently explores the deep human desire to make life better against all odds. There's a lot of talk about luck--about making the most of what's dealt to us and then having the initiative to give things a little push now and then. The results are surprising in both small and large ways, and as the story comes together in the end, the film becomes powerfully gripping in ways we don't expect. This is skilful filmmaking that feels utterly effortless. And it carries a kick that's both heart-stopping and heart-warming.

12 themes, language, innuendo
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Unmade Beds
dir-scr Alexis Dos Santos
prd Peter Ettedgui, Soledad Gatti-Pascual
with Fernando Tielve, Déborah François, Michiel Huisman, Iddo Goldberg, Richard Lintern, Katia Winter, Leonardo Brzezicki, Alexis Dos Santos, Lucy Tillet, Al Weaver, Sinead Dosset, Johnny Lambe
francois and tielve release US 2.Sep.09,
UK 11.Dec.09
09/UK 1h33

berlin film festival
edinburgh film festival
london film festival
unmade beds Shot and edited with real skill, this warmly involving film sharply catches the perspective of two young immigrants with very personal journeys. But the script feels too tidy for the loose, relaxed filmmaking style.

Axl (Tielve) is a 20-year-old from Spain in London to find his father (Lintern), who he can't remember at all. Actually, he can't remember much, and after each drunken night out he wakes up in a strange bed. Eventually he finds himself living in a squat with Hannah (Winter) and Mike (Goldberg). Another resident, Vera (Francois), has come to London to forget her ex (Brzezicki) and move on. She meets a charming guy who calls himself X-ray Man (Huisman), but she's reluctant to let him into her life.

As with his first feature GLUE, writer-director Dos Santos uses an intimate cheeky-sexy tone while blurring boundaries and expectations. The cinematography vividly puts us into the minds of both Axl and Vera, who don't actually meet until a climactic moment later on. We see events through their eyes, with journal-style narration in native languages, complete with telling flashbacks and wonderfully imaginative filmmaking. A seaside escape with Vera and X-ray Man is gorgeously assembled and played.

The cast is raw and earthy, giving a strong authenticity to the multicultural setting. Tielve and Francois acutely capture the youthful yearning, hopefulness and fear with the camera often right in their faces. They're always believable, simply because the film lets them create organic characters who are honest and complex. Meanwhile, Huisman and Goldberg provide a nice counterpoint as two young men who are just a little more settled and confident, but still open to new experiences.

The tentative connections between these people is utterly riveting, since the scruffy, edgy approach makes it impossible to predict. But about halfway through, the quirky indie song score hints that this film has a more professional pedigree than it first seemed (the musical approach, while fresh and sparky, seems directly lifted from Juno). And after the improv-style build-up, the story elements coalesce in ways that hint at too much script-polishing. But even if the finale's a little too structured and sentimental, it's still an enjoyable and fiercely inventive film.

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