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last update 12.Jul.09
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dir-scr Cherien Dabis
prd Paul Barkin, Christina Piovesan
with Nisreen Faour, Melkar Muallem, Hiam Abbass, Alia Shawkat, Yussuf Abu-Warda, Brodie Sanderson, Daniel Boiteau, Andrew Sannie, Joseph Ziegler, Jenna Kawar, Selena Haddad, Vanessa Mayberry
faour and muallem
release US 4.Sep.09
09/US 1h36

los angeles film fest
amreeka With her first feature, filmmaker Dabis takes a remarkably engaging, observant approach to a prickly situation, boldly examining raw aspects of immigration and prejudice in middle America without ever getting heavy-handed about it.

After her husband leaves her, Muna (Faour) is struggling to raise her teen son Fadi (Muallem) in the West Bank, fighting through checkpoints and taking long detours around the Israeli wall to get to work. So when she wins the US Green Card lottery, she and Fadi head to live with her sister Raghda (Abbass) and her family outside Chicago. But the adjustment isn't easy for either of them, as they face a new kind of oppression but also find friends in surprising places. Meanwhile, Raghda starts thinking she wants to move back to Palestine.

The opening scenes buzz with the chaos of life for this non-religious family in an increasingly restrictive society. By contrast, when they reach the Midwest, the expansive silence is a huge contrast. But Muna is sure that "it's better to live as immigrants in a strange country than as prisoners in ours", so she does everything she can to make it work. Even as she runs into deep obstacles everywhere she turns, eventually taking a job serving burgers at White Castle despite her qualifications and experience as an accountant.

Even with such a serious topic, the film maintains a bright, often comical tone. At immigration, when asked, "Occupation?", Muna says, matter-of-factly, "Yes". These are lively people bursting with personality, and both Faour and Abbas find real resonance in their roles. Abbas is especially engaging as a woman who is disillusioned by the American dream but doesn't have a home to go back to. And Muallem is also terrific as a young guy facing both the standard new-school issues as well as rampant peer pressure and prejudice, taken under the wing of his hilarious cousin Salma (Shawkat).

As the film progresses, there are a couple of clunky plot points that force various confrontations and revelations, but the film remains firmly character-based, which makes both the story and the issues much more personal and resonant. And along the way, Dabis' script touches on some extremely emotional themes as well as some uncomfortable truths about Western society. And in the end, it delivers its message about tolerance and diversity with grace and humour. A small but extremely important gem of a film.

15 themes, language, some violence
27.Jun.09 laff
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Fish Tank
dir-scr Andrea Arnold
with Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Harry Treadaway, Rebecca Griffiths, Sydney Mary Nash, Charlotte Collins, Jason Maza, Brooke Hobby, Chelsea Chase, Jack Gordon
jarvis release UK 11.Sep.09,
US 15.Jan.10
09/UK BBC 2h04

edinburgh film fest

29th Shadows Awards
BEST ACTRESS fish tank Andrea Arnold takes a confident step forward with the follow-up to her acclaimed debut RED ROAD. This is an almost unnervingly naturalistic look at a teen's life, anchored by a fierce central performance.

Mia (Jarvis) is 15 and lives in a council flat with her peroxide-blonde mum Joanne (Wareing) and her sharp-tongued little sister Tyler (Griffiths). Her only interest is in dance, and she's preparing for an audition that she hopes will get her out of her grim Essex life. In the meantime, she finds herself intrigued by Joanne's latest boyfriend, Connor (Fassbender), although she's not sure if it's as a father figure or something else entirely. And she also decides to free an old horse owned by a neighbour (Treadaway).

Besides the horse metaphor and one gratuitous floating balloon shot, Arnold keeps the film grounded in gritty realism, drawing performances that feel so raw and open that no one appears to be acting. At the centre, Jarvis is revelatory, combining anger with hope in a way we rarely see in teen characters. She lets us see past Mia's bravado to what she's thinking, and what we see is complicated and provocative. Opposite her, Fassbender is also excellent, exuding an intoxicating blend of sexuality and parental concern. And Griffiths offers a sardonic comical counterpoint to each scene ("I like you; I'll kill you last").

Robbie Ryan's crisp cinematography combines with Arnold's skilful direction to get us on Mia's side from the start; we experience every scene from her limited perspective, including telling glances and tiny observational details. Seemingly innocent events bristle with sensuous longing and a foreshadowing of what might come next. This point of view gives the scenes with Fassbender an outrageous charge that's seductive, sweet and more than a little scary.

And a more overtly frightening scene later on is so intense that we're unable to breathe. We have no idea which direction it will go and feel as off-balance as the characters when things take such an unexpected turn. But even this dark dramatic sequence is beautifully balanced by brittle comedy. Arnold's filmmaking has a sharp intelligence that's reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers, but the difference is that she's not merely observing this girl's life: she's letting us feel what it is to be her.

15 themes, language, sexuality
18.Jun.09 eiff
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dir-scr Lance Daly
with Kelly O'Neill, Shane Curry, Paul Roe, Neili Conroy, Cathy Malone, Sean McDonagh, Stephanie Kelly, David Bendito, Willie Higgins, Hilda Fay, Jose Jimanez, Stephen Rea
o'neill and curry release Ire 21.Nov.08,
US Feb.09 piff,
UK 17.Jul.09
08/Ireland 1h12

kisses Like an Irish Somers Town, this runaway odyssey centres on two pre-teens who have a series of adventures. It's both sweet and tough, with vivid characters and an unnerving sense of danger.

Dylan (Curry) is trying to hide from his violent dad (Roe), who turns even more brutal when Dylan stand up to him to protect his mum (Conroy). Dylan's next-door friend Kylie (O'Neill) helps him escape, and she's trying to get away from her family as well. Together they hitch a ride from a barge-driver (Bendito) down the canal into Dublin. But the streets are a bit meaner than they expected, and for everyone who helps them there's someone else who may want to do them harm.

While this is essentially a short film extended with several montage sequences, Daly directs with a sure hand, using gritty cinematography and an edgy tone to keep things moving. The black and white opening sequences in their homes are shockingly horrific, and as colour starts to filter onto the screen we feel relief that they've left the violence behind. Although the night streets are definitely not safe either. And for every light-hearted encounter or moment of liberated playfulness there's a scene of raw fear.

O'Neill and Curry are bracingly natural in the roles, with their open faces and foul-mouthed but good-natured dialog. We can see the hopefulness in their eyes as they search the streets for Dylan's runaway brother. And their interaction with the people along the way bristles with humour and honesty. It all gets a little heavy-handed when a busker (Jimanez) tells Dylan about his namesake Bob, which later leads to a surreal encounter with an impersonator (Rea). But at least this gives the filmmaker an excuse to include some terrific music.

There are lots of other people who cross their paths over this Christmas night, but Daly keeps the focus extremely tight on the kids. Alongside their spark of independence, it's clear that they are children after all; they know they'll have to go home eventually, if only to get a decent meal. And for everything that happens to them, there's never a moment of sentimentality or moralising. Which is perhaps the most remarkable thing of all.

15 themes, strong language, violence
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dir Fabrice Du Welz
scr Fabrice Du Welz, Oliver Blackburn, David Greig
with Emmanuelle Béart, Rufus Sewell, Julie Dreyfus, Petch Osathanugrah, Ampon Pankratok, Josse De Pauw, Omm, Borhan Du Welz, Joey Boy, Teerwat Mulwilai, Saicha Wongwirote, Roger Kunatam
beart and sewell release Fr 1.Oct.08,
US 7.Apr.09 dvd,
UK 2.Oct.09
08/France 1h36

edinburgh film fest
vinyan A vivid example of style over substance, this textured film creates an overwhelming sense of emotion and dread, but never manages to find a point to it all. It merely gives into the grisliness, leaving us shaken and unstirred.

Six months after their son was killed in a tsunami, Janet and Paul (Beart and Sewell) are still living in Phuket nursing their grief. But Janet is convinced that he must be alive and living up-river in Burma, so convinces Paul to fund a desperate expedition. Their first guide (Pankratok) is a bit of a crook, but they soon link with Thaksin (Osthanugrah) and another expat, Kim (Dreyfus). And the further they venture into this strange region, the more bizarre things get.

The title refers to spirits that are trapped between life and death, and this is clearly a reference to Janet and Paul themselves. Their offhanded bitterness is palpable, as is Janet's obsessive longing and Paul's patient yearning to help. And these emotions just get stronger as the story progresses. Soon Janet is a crazed nutcase, dragging them into increasingly dangerous territory. Frankly, we just wish Paul would leave her to her inner demons. Because we know it can't end well.

Filmmaker Du Welz has a lurid visual sensibility that captures the nightmarish aspects of the settings (and some of the beauty). This is dense and oppressive, but we go with it due to a glimmer of hope on the horizon. As it progresses, though, the parallels with Don't Look Now (parents dealing with grief over a child's death) and Apocalypse Now (voyage upriver into hell) give way to some seriously indulgent filmmaking. And once he abandons the emotional resonance of the premise, Du Welz and his cast are up the creek without a paddle.

Eventually it devolves into a nasty horror movie about a demonic army of jungle vampire children. And while it's deeply creepy and even stomach-churningly gruesome (which is a good thing in a horror film), it's also utterly vacuous without characters we have a connection to or a story with any logic. In the end, the only way to see this is as a symbolic journey into the tortured brains of grieving parents. But by the time we get there, we don't care.

18 themes, language, strong violence, sexuality
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