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last update 18.Jan.11
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Derren Brown: Enigma
dir Ben Caron
prd Debbie Young
scr Derren Brown, Andy Nyman
with Derren Brown
brown release UK 17.Jan.11 dvd
10/UK C4 1h16
derren brown: enigma Derren Brown's award-winning stage shows are much less slick and manicured than his superb TV specials. Which is perhaps what makes them so hugely thrilling, as they're impeccably assembled to thoroughly freak us out.

His theme here is to take tricks from the 19th and early 20th centuries and add his own inimitable spin while debunking the "magic". Much of this has to do with predicting random outcomes and reading peoples' behaviour to both second-guess what they're thinking and prod them into doing what he wants them to do. The show itself is one gigantic trick in this sense, and the final payoff is an almost mind-blowing punchline. Along the way he delves into hypnosis in a stunning display of how mediums have claimed to contact the spirit world.

Of course, Brown's entire career has stressed the fact that there is no such thing as real magic. Without ever quite explaining how he does it, he gives us clues to the ways he spots telling details and plants thoughts in people's minds. Even so, there are a few tricks in this show that seem frankly impossible, such as the way he reaches out to an audience member about her grandmother.

I saw first this show in a London theatre, and watching the DVD about a year later is just as entertaining, perhaps because I spotted some telling details along the way. Even more enjoyable on repeat viewing are the tricks that seem just as magical the second time around. And watching everything line up for the final whammy is more fun when you know where it's going.

On the other hand, a DVD can't capture the thrill of a live show. We can't participate in the adrenaline rush whenever Brown throws a Frisbee into the audience to select a random volunteer. We can't try to be hypnotised by that odd sound pulse. And we can't help but wonder if limited camera angles (which are very well shot and edited) are obscuring something important. But the loose, snarky approach - which itself is a ruse - and Brown's expert timing and hilarious asides are definitely worth watching again in the hopes of revealing some of his secrets. Although I have a feeling most of them will remain as elusive as they were the first time around.

12 themes, language
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dir-scr Eusebio Pastrana
prd Nuria Moser Rothschild
with Alejandro Tous, Olav Fernandez, Agustin Ruiz, Zoraida Kroley, Eduardo Velasco, Ruben Escamez, Arantxa Valdivia, Carolina Touceda, Mario Martin, Charo Soria, Alejandra P Pastrana, Guadalupe Perez Lancho
release Sp 21.Nov.08,
UK 15.Nov.10 dvd
07/Spain 1h40
spinnin Scruffy and cute, this Spanish comedy-drama explores big family issues - mainly parenthood and sexuality - with a huge number of characters and a surreal approach that's thoroughly disarming.

It's 1995 in Madrid, and Garate (Tous) and his boyfriend Omar (Fernandez) have been thinking about becoming parents. Omar offers to help their lesbian friends (Valdivia and Touceda) get pregnant, but the process doesn't go quite as expected. Then they meet Kela (Kroley), a pregnant young woman whose boyfriend died of Aids. She's desperate for someone to share her life, and Garate and Omar offer to form a family with her, joined by their filmmaker buddy Garcia (Ruiz), who's making a movie featuring 100 different kisses.

This film within the film gives characters an opportunity to speak straight to camera while allowing filmmaker Pastrana to playfully stir in all kinds of wacky Fellini-esque imagery. The film has a colourful, swirling rhythm that feels almost dreamlike as it blends past, present and future, plus side characters who flit around the story's edges almost like cherubs. It's funny, strange and very messy, and also thoroughly engaging.

At the centre of the huge cast, Tous, Fernandez and Ruiz are hugely likeable as young men who are exploring what life has to offer while remembering what's important. Each of them has a variety of friends and family members, plus random people they meet along the way, all of whom offer a telling glimpse of specific aspects of romance and parenting. Yes, it's all rather indulgent as these serious issues are often explored through mimed scenes and a lot of smiling, laughing and crying.

The core idea is that all of us are in the same boat; the one thing we have in common is that we're spinning on planet earth. So we're not nearly as in control of our lives or futures as we think we are. The film is a stream of consciousness, as random encounters, conversations, antics and relationships float across the screen accompanied by a charming indie-style score. But the awkward, uneven approach constantly touches on real life in a refreshing way that makes us see the world just a little bit differently as a result.

15 themes, language, sexuality
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dir-scr Nicolas Flessa
prd Alexander Salokin, Piera Pos
with Beba Ebner, Florian Sonnefeld, Eralp Uzun, Oktay Ozdemir, Annabelle Dorn, Adrian Can, Soner Ulutas, Erman Sahin, Adam Kowalski, Frederic Heidorn, Marion Kruse, Anna Oussankina
sonnefeld and uzun
release Ger 22.Jun.07
UK 27.Dec.10
07/Germany 1h00
straight This German drama is barely long enough to be a feature, but it's a raw, honest approach to some serious issues. Even with the slightly tentative pacing and melodramatic tone, it makes us think.

Jana (Ebner) is a social worker bored with her life. Her only spark of joy is her boyfriend David (Sonnefeld), but even with him she's restless, partly because he always seems too busy to see her. Then she meets Nazim (Uzun), whose overt sexuality seduces her. What she doesn't know is that Nazim also works as a gay escort to pay for his cocaine addiction. And there's more she doesn't know: David is secretly seeing Nazim as well. And all of this is about to come out in the open.

Low-key and understated, the film has a roughness that makes it feel extremely realistic. The characters are all introspective, and the three central cast members play them with and a palpable sense that the people are trying to sort out personal issues, resisting the fact that the solutions aren't what they were hoping for. But of course this is mainly because of how they think their friends and their society will react to them.

The multiple points of view give us the big picture, although this also makes it difficult to find the film's centre. Uzun beings charisma to the screen in his layered performance, portraying Nazim's journey as a mixture of self-loathing and honest soul-searching. Ebner's Jana is a little too passive to really engage us, but in many ways that makes her more identifiable. And Sonnenfeld's likable, hapless David is a little more elusive, conveying his character through glances and physicality rather than dialog.

Despite its brevity, the film has an edgy, urgent quality, mainly because filmmaker Flessa is so confident about building characterisation through sharp direction and editing, rather than wordy dialog. Although the plaintive tone is a little over-serious at times, and some themes (such as Turkish machismo and Jana's hinted lesbian leanings) are underdeveloped. Still, we understand what each person is thinking due to the solid acting and filmmaking. These are people who know what they want but wish they wanted something else. And most of us can identify with that.

15 themes, language, sexuality, drugs
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dir-scr Joseph Graham
prd Joseph Graham, William D Parker
with Ben Bonenfant, Nick Frangione, Paul Gerrior, Carlo D'Amore, Michael Klinger, Raphael Barker, Artem Mishin, Michael Carlisi, John Kiernan, Katherine Celio, Michael Vega
frangione and bonenfant release US 24.Sep.10, UK 17.Jan.11 dvd
10/US TLA 1h29
strapped Despite its slightly heavy symbolism, this drama has some very interesting things to say about interpersonal connections, both physical and emotional. It's also a terrific calling card for the cast and crew, who never let their low budget show.

After charming his latest customer (Mishin), a young hustler (Bonenfant) gets lost trying to leave the labyrinthine apartment block. Over the long night that follows, he has a series of encounters with the residents, all of whom want him to be someone else, and he's happy to oblige. One guy (D'Amore) thinks he's an old friend, another (Klinger) sees him as a dangerous bit of rough to play with in the shadowy basement. More interestingly, he also meets a middle-aged former activist (Gerrior) and a guy (Frangione) who wants romance instead of sex.

Writer-director Graham assembles this with intelligence, packing the film with existential references and arty touches that make it feel like a surreal fantasy. This sometimes drifts into preachiness as it grapples with the tension between physical vs spiritual connections (clearly the filmmaker is arguing for the latter). But it's grounded in solid performances from the actors, and it's very nicely centred on Bonenfant, an earthier, sexier Orlando Bloom who lets us see the real man beneath a series of believable facades.

Meanwhile, while each of the guys he encounters is essentially a stereotype, the script and performances continually subvert the cliches. So Klinger's self-hating "straight" guy is actually oddly sympathetic, and Gerrior's aging muscle-boy has some real dignity. Even Frangione's character, who wears his heart on his sleeve, has some surprises in store as he seeks a very different encounter than this hustler has ever had.

In the end, the film might not say anything new, and the pacing may be rather slow, but the approach is at fresh enough to keep us engaged. Despite the teasing tone, there's nothing very sexy on screen. And even with the late-act moralising, the writing and acting are honest enough to generate some thoughtful moments along the way, which may at least nudge us into examining our own attitudes toward sex and love.

18 themes, language, sexuality, violence
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© 2011 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall