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last update 4.Jan.11
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dir Feng Xiaogang
scr Su Xiaowei
prd Wang Zhangjun, Gio Yanhong and Han Samping
with Xu Fan, Zhang Jingchu, Li Chen, Lu Yi, Chen Daoming, Jin Chen, Zhang Guoqiang, Zhang Zifeng, Zhang Jiazhun, Yang Lixin, Yong Mei, Wang Ziwen
xu and zhang zifeng release Chn 22.Jul.10,
US 29.Oct.10, UK 12.Nov.10
10/China 2h10

aftershock Produced on a grand scale, this film spans more than 30 years in the life of a family torn apart by a devastating earthquake. The script is very corny, but the film is so well made that it sweeps us up in the moving emotional drama.

In Tangshan, Yuan Ni (Xu) is left digging through the rubble when the huge 1976 earthquake devastates the city, killing some 240,000 people. Her husband (Zhang Guoqang) had charged into the collapsing building where their son Fang Da and daughter Fang Deng (Zhang Zifeng and Zhang Jiazhun) are trapped, forcing Yuan Ni to decide which one to save. Ten years later, Fang Deng (now Zhang Jingchu) has been raised by two party members (Chen and Jin), while Fang Da (now Li) is finding his own way while caring for his stubborn mum.

But this is only the beginning of the unexpected events that fill the next three decades. In some ways, the cataclysmic earthquake is the least traumatic thing that happens to these people, which has a few highs but mostly extremely harsh lows. There's so much out-of-the-blue tragedy that it feels like a soap opera written by the Marquis de Sade. And the story's raw conclusion takes place in the wake of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Fortunately, Feng directs with an assured hand, undercutting the schmaltz and stoicism with raw insight. With big effects and a cast of thousands, this is an epic-sized movie with a melodramatic heart, as swelling music reminds us how to feel about what's happening. It's extremely well-assembled, with beautifully detailed settings and memorable characters. It also moves through the decades at a brisk pace, which makes it somewhat superficial but also thoroughly entertaining.

In addition, this is an intriguing trip through 30 years of Chinese history, as we vividly see the nation transformed from a quiet land that time forgot into a place that's connected with the whole world. But at the centre is a story about a shattered family struggling to come to terms with its own need for reconciliation. As we see the final dramatic elements fall into place, it's impossible not to get caught up in the wrenching emotions.

15 themes, violence
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Father of My Children
4/5  Le Père de Mes Enfants
dir-scr Mia Hansen-Love
prd Oliver Damian, Philippe Martin, David Thion
with Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Chiara Caselli, Alice de Lencquesaing, Alice Gautier, Manelle Driss, Eric Elmosnino, Sandrine Dumas, Dominique Frot, Antoine Mathieu, Igor Hansen-Love, Elsa Pharaon, Olivia Ross
Louis-Do and Alice de Lencquesaing release Fr 16.Dec.09,
UK 5.Mar.10, US 21.May.10
09/France 1h46


london film fest
father of my children This charming and lively French drama is like a blast of fresh air, capturing the busy pace of modern life with breezy authenticity. It also carries a real emotional wallop.

Gregoire (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) is living his dream as a busy film producer making the movies he wants to make. But this means his life is a whirlwind, always on his phone juggling issues on-set, deal-making and talking to his wife (Caselli) and three hilarious daughters (Alice de Lencquesaing, Gaultier and Driss), trying to balance his busy work with weekends in the family house. Then serious financial problems crop up in his company. And of course this affects his family in unexpected ways.

Writer-director Hansen-Love beautifully captures the everyday chaos of Gregoire's life without making it melodramatic. We see things through his buoyant perspective, as he takes setbacks in his stride. But the growing problems start to threaten his entire career, and we vividly see how these things are eating away at his cheerful optimism, leading to a shocking decision right in the middle of the film that changes the family's future.

Of course, making this work requires an expert actor, and de Lencquesaing is so natural in the role that we almost believe he isn't acting at all. His interaction with the army of people around him is fascinating, with offhanded dialog that's funny even as it's tinged with emotion and tension. And his sparkling relationship with his wife and kids (also performed with disarming charm) gives the film an engaging kick.

Watching Gregoire's dream collapse around him is painful, but Hanson-Love portrays it with such grounded honesty that it's never depressing. Even as we see both Gregoire's inner resilience and the strength he draws from his family, we can feel the unbearable strain. And where the story goes is deeply moving, mainly because it's such a dramatic shift in tone.

But Hanson-Love orchestrates this beautifully, knocking the wind out of us in a way that's unvarnished and bracingly truthful. The response of the entire cast is even more potent, conveying heartbreaking pain in complex ways that still manage to bring out warmth and, most importantly, hope.

12 themes, brief violence
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An Ordinary Execution
4/5   Une Exécution Ordinaire
dir-scr Marc Dugain
prd Jean-Louis Livi
with Andre Dussollier, Marina Hands, Edouard Baer, Denis Podalydes, Tom Novembre, Gregory Gadebois, Anne Benoit, Gilles Segal, Gilles Gaston-Dreyfus, Regis Romele, Alain Stern, Valentin Popescu
dussollier and hands
release Fr 3.Feb.10,
US Jun.10 siff, UK 26.Nov.10
10/France StudioCanal 1h41
an ordinary execution With a thoughtful and introspective tone, this film continually surprises us as its story unfurls and a young doctor's life takes a strange and portentous turn, colliding with one of history's most notorious figures.

In 1952 Stalin (Dussollier) "purges" the Kremlin of what he thinks are evil Jewish doctors. But he continues to get ill, so he has Dr Anna Atlina (Hands) brought to treat him. She's shocked at meeting the infamous premier, especially as he's heard she has a magnetic power in her hands. She helps alleviate his pain, and as she leaves he threatens her with execution if she ever tells anyone. Her entire life changes bewilderingly as a result, and she never knows when Stalin will summon her next.

Told completely from Anna's point of view, first-time filmmaker Dugain infuses the movie with real life. Anna and her scientist husband Vassili (Baer) clearly enjoy trying to get pregnant (the neighbours actually complain), and they visit Anna's mother (Benoit) and scruffy Uncle Anton (Segal) for an awkward weekend in the country. Their life is plagued by the everyday struggles of Soviet Russia, and then things take a nightmarish turn for both of them as Anna secretly enters this shadowy world at the very pinnacle of power.

The realities of life in 1950s Moscow are conveyed with an almost offhanded quality that quietly blends both humour and terror with matter-of-fact honesty. At Anna's office, no one understands how it can be that she's arrested one day and back at work the next day. And since we so quickly get to know the characters, where these events take them is surprising and often deeply disturbing. All of this is performed expertly by the actors, who beautifully underplay the characters to make us feel the ramifications of each increasingly chilling situation.

This deeply personal film is so cleverly well written, directed and acted that we can't pry ourselves from the screen. It's low on action and heavy on dark, often gloomy drama, but by letting us experience these events through Anna's eyes, these encounters with Stalin take on an almost mythical quality. And their growing relationship, as laced with mistrust as it is, is simply fascinating to watch.

12 themes, innuendo
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Son of Babylon
4.5/5     MUST must see SEE
dir Mohamed Al-Daradji
scr Mohamed Al-Daradji, Jennifer Norridge, Mithal Ghazi
prd Atea Al-Daradji, Mohamed Al-Daradji, Dimitri de Clercq, Isabelle Stead
with Yasser Taleeb, Shehzad Hussein, Bashir Al-Majid, Salih Abdul Rahman Farhad, Kefaya Dakhel Kareem, Mohamed Hussein Jbara, Haythem Abass, Yazy Hassin Hasoon, Asmaeel Al-Matri, Raad Azoeer, Sayyed Hassin Al-Mosawi, Lateef Maouat Al-Asadi
taleeb and hussein release US Jan.10 sff,
UK 18.Feb.11
10/Iraq 1h31

edinburgh film fest
son of babylon This gripping and beautifully made film explores the big issue of Iraq's 1 million missing people, most of whom are presumed dead. And an intimate story and engaging characters make the film hugely involving.

Three weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, a Kurdish woman (Hussein) walks through the desert with her cheeky pre-teen grandson Ahmed (Taleeb). Finally a feisty driver picks them up, charging them a fortune to get to Baghdad. Along the way he challenges Grandma's assured faith in God and Ahmed's belief that his ex-soldier father is safe in a distant town. And their journey doesn't go as expected. They meet several people along the way, including Musa (Al-Majid), another former soldier who tries to help.

Beautifully played by the young Taleeb, Ahmed is a bright spark who drives everyone nuts with his incessant curiosity. Beneath this we feel his longing for his missing father. The relationship between Ahmed and his grandmother deepens through several small adventures, and much of their interaction is hilariously honest. But most potent is the pain we feel identifying with people who have lost loved ones and just want answers.

Most intriguing is that this isn't a typical movie about a boy in search of his father. It's more of a road movie about two generations (with a missing generation between them) traversing the remains of their culture and finding hope for the future. None of this is overtly stated, but it comes through loudly in the subtle filmmaking and fine acting. And it feels so real that we feel as if we're coated in dust like everyone on screen.

Shooting in Iraq with widescreen images and vivid ambient sound, Al-Daradji directs with a steady eye, catching the characters' personalities while making terrific use of settings that are both visually stunning and thematically harrowing. The deserted chaos is striking, as if everyone has run for cover. And it's even more unnerving to know that we're looking at the actual aftermath of both Saddam's ruthless regime and America's heavy-handed invasion. Life goes on, but not as they knew it.

PG themes, violence
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© 2011 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall