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last update 18.Aug.10
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Dog Pound
dir Kim Chapiron
prd Georges Bermann
scr Kim Chapiron, Jeremie Delon
with Adam Butcher, Shane Kippel, Mateo Morales, Slim Twig, Lawrence Bayne, Trent McMullen, Dewshane Williams, Bryan Murphy, Alexander Conti, Tim Turnell, William Ellis, Bryan Murphy
morales and bayne
release US Apr.10 tff,
UK 27.Aug.10
10/Canada 1h31
dog pound Shot like a clear-eyed documentary, this unnerving teen prison drama draws us in by never sensationalising its story or characters. Clearly an homage to Alan Clarke's 1979 classic Scum, this film re-deploys cliches with originality and skill.

Three teens enter a Montana juvenile detention centre together: hot-tempered Butch (Butcher) is 17, ladies-man Davis (Kippel) is 16, and young tough-guy Angel (Morales) is 15. They're immediately challenged by the top echelon of inmates and singled out for abuse, while their guard (Bayne) is just as harsh when they refuse to rat out their attackers. Still, they make a friend in the outcast Max (Twig), and find ways to survive and even thrive. But the violence is about to erupt in a very nasty way.

Filmmaker Chapiron creates a remarkably ordinary atmosphere that makes the situations and characters bracingly believable. Even when the formula kicks in (involving things like back-handed cruelty and the inmates' drug ring), scenes are underplayed nicely, making it feel authentic rather than overwrought. That doesn't mean that the emotional gut-punch is weakened; this is a provocative movie that isn't very easy to watch, especially as it keeps reminding us that these hardened criminals are really just children.

The cast of mostly non-actors is extremely effective, playing the roles as if they're improvised from real experience. They continually reveal little flashes of personality and humour within the scenes, while also showing us the weaknesses in their thick skins. Butcher is especially impressive; he has an electric screen presence and channels fearless bravado so sharply that we want to lean back from the screen. Meanwhile, Kippel has the more comical role, regaling the boys with his stories of conquest and then facing the film's most wrenching attack.

In some ways, the script is rather too constructed, playing a little too heavily on the irony of the "punishment" that's meted out (or not) to each of the three protagonists, their guard and their nemeses. It sometimes feels too deliberately grim, but these moments are counterbalanced by the longer scenes of sharply observed camaraderie punctuated by tiny jolts of sudden violence. It's certainly not a film that you can get out of your head very easily.

18 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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The Good Heart
dir-scr Dagur Kari
prd Skuli Fr Malmquist, Thor Sigurjonsson
with Paul Dano, Brian Cox, Isild Le Besco, Damian Young, Bill Buell, Andre De Shields, Clark Middleton, Daniel Raymont, Ed Wheeler, Edmund Lyndeck, Henry Yuk, Nicolas Bro
dano and cox release Ice 19.Mar.10,
US 30.Apr.10, UK Jun.10 eiff
09/Iceland 1h35

edinburgh film fest
the good heart Gritty and oddly predictable, this gloomy New York drama (filmed mainly in Iceland) reunites the terrific Dano and Cox (see L.I.E.). And even if the story sags in the middle and turns strangely sentimental, it's still an intriguing look at humanity.

Jacques (Cox) owns a run-down bar in Manhattan with a dwindling clientele of regulars. He discourages anyone new from coming into his bar, but when he wakes up in hospital after a heart attack, he befriends the homeless guy, Lucas (Dano), in the next bed and takes him in. As Jacques grooms Lucas to take over his business, he's startled by Lucas' generosity, which offends the perpetually grumpy Jacques. Worse still, Lucas takes in the opportunistic April (Le Besco), who tries to add a woman's touch to the bar.

The film's gruff humour is its saving grace, because the seedy setting is almost overpowering. The more we get to know the brusque, bitter Jacques, we wonder why anyone would ever enter his dismal bar. While this sets up some clever confrontations with the softer and nicer Lucas, it also makes the movie feel rather cartoonish and over-constructed, especially as the gears of the plot start grinding.

Cox is terrific as the angry old man who refuses to stop smoking even though he has had a string of near-fatal coronaries. "Be familiar, not friendly," he says to Lucas. "Learn hostility and arrogance." But it quickly becomes clear that his project to harden up the timid but not stupid Lucas is never going to work. And while Cox and Dano have terrific on-screen chemistry, Dano's performance here is far too mannered for us to really identify with him as we should.

Filmmaker Kari packs the screen with hilarious little touches that add telling observations and sharp black comedy. And the bar's regulars are an enjoyable collection of eccentric types--blocked writer (Buell), chimney sweep (De Shield), dandy (Young), and so on. Plus the Christmas duck. But Kari so heavily signposts the various plot turns that nothing is very surprising or revealing. And in the end, the film kind of undermines its own point about big-heartedness.

15 themes, language, some grisliness
21.Jun.10 eiff
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dir-scr Darren Flaxstone, Christian Martin
prd Christian Martin
with Daniel Brocklebank, Garry Summers, Wayne Virgo, Bernie Hodges, Dymphna Skehill, Simon Pearce, Dave Jones
release US Apr.10 mglff,
UK 17.Sep.10
10/UK 1h27
release This British indie ambitiously mixes religion and sexuality into a melodramatic prison drama. It's a brave, forceful film that touches on some very big issues, although an uneven script and some weak performances undermine its power.

Jack (Brocklebank) is a priest sent to prison for an undisclosed crime that has left him alone with no family and no support from the church. He soon finds a friendly ear in the guard Martin (Summers), and the two begin a secret romance behind bars. But when Jack stands up for his cellmate (Virgo) he gets on the wrong side of the prison thugs, most notably the slimy, prowling Max (Hodges). Meanwhile, the prison's governess (Skehill) is putting pressure on Martin that will undoubtedly lead to another kind of trouble.

It's clear from the intensely sober tone that a happy ending is unlikely here, and the filmmakers tell the story out of sequence, giving us key details at strategic moments while withholding other information until they're ready to reveal it. This helps build an overall sense of suspense in the plot, but it undermines the depth of character by not allowing us to properly get to know these men. This leaves us struggling to care what happens.

The only person who emerges as a fully rounded person is Jack, and Brocklebank's subtle performance holds the film together. Most of the others are uneven - either under-developed or over-played. This patchiness diffuses the tension in most of the scenes, even though the situations are compelling and sometimes very emotional. The most striking scenes are the dreams and nightmares Jack has about his past, shot in sun-drenched colour that contrasts cleverly with the drab prison sets.

Despite the low budget, the film looks very good, thanks to Simon Pearce's terrific camera work. And it has an unusually introspective tone for a prison film, which keeps us engaged. But the story only really comes together as it touches on themes relating to religion and society, most notably the hypocrisy of people who use their positions of power to manipulate others. On the other hand, a key plot point hinges on a strange moment of moralising that feels badly contrived and may leave viewers unwilling to accept the final series of events.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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Wah Do Dem
dir-scr Ben Chace, Sam Fleischner
prd Ben Chace, Sam Fleischner, Katina Faye Hubbard
with Sean Bones, Norah Jones, Ira-Wolf Tuton, Kevin Bewersdorf, Patrick Morrison, Carl Bradshaw, Mark Gibbs, Sheena Irons, Peter Matthews, Ben Goldwasser, Christopher Harper, Christopher Palmer
bones release US 18.Jun.10,
UK 27.Aug.10
09/US 1h16

los angeles film fest
london film fest
Wah Do Dem This scruffy and offhanded comedy-drama has a certain realistic charm that keeps us smiling all the way trough. It's a cleverly made film with a story that continually moves forward, taking us on an enjoyable series of adventures.

Slacker musician Max (Bones) is looking forward to a freebie Caribbean cruise with his girlfriend Willow (Jones), but she breaks up with him just before they're due to leave. Max's friends insist that he goes anyway, although all of them are too busy to travel with him. Bored on his own, he jumps ship when he gets to Jamaica. But this turns into a bigger challenge than expected when he's robbed of everything but his swim-trunks and has to traverse the island on foot to find the American Embassy.

The title is Jamaican patois for "what they do", and the filmmakers' relaxed, documentary-style approach disguises the skilful directing and editing. And much of the dialog feels realistically off the cuff, with awkward pauses and throwaway lines that reveal the jagged attitudes even of smaller one-scene characters. The sequence on the ship is like a short film all its own, with tiny dramas and hilarious encounters with random passengers. And the journey across Jamaica is packed with offbeat interaction with the locals, including a musical rave and impromptu football match.

Through it all, Bones creates a terrifically likeable character. Even though he mopes through most of the film, he's still charming and mischievous (Twilight filmmakers take note), as well as open to the experiences that come his way. We sympathise when he does something stupid and really feel his loneliness as he travels on his own. And the people he meets on his trip are funny and friendly, and also a little exciting as they're a break from his normal routine.

As it progresses, the film's gently loping pace and endearing characters thoroughly win us over. And it's all underscored with some terrific music. This isn't really a coming-of-age film, as Max doesn't learn any big lessons. But the lack of moralising makes it all the more refreshing. Essentially it's just an eye-opening series of encounters that broaden this young guy's worldview. And ours too, perhaps.

15 themes, language, drugs
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