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last update 26.Aug.12
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The Flowers of War
dir Zhang Yimou
scr Heng Liu
prd Zhang Weiping
with Christian Bale, Ni Ni, Zhang Xinyi, Huang Tianyuan, Han Xiting, Zhang Doudou, Tong Dawei, Atsuro Watabe, Cao Kefan, Yuan Yangchunzi, Li Yuemin, Paul Schneider
bale and ni ni release Chn 16.Dec.11,
US 21.Dec.11, UK 3.Aug.12
11/China 2h26

The Flowers of War This true story is so outrageous that we'd never believe it as a fictional tale. Especially since its big themes make it almost mythical. Yet while it's gorgeously produced on an epic scale, it also gets rather melodramatic and maudlin in the final act.

American mortician John (Bale) crosses 1937 Nanking as the Japanese finish their brutal invasion. He arrives at the cathedral, but the priest's body has been vaporised by a bomb so there's nothing for him to do. Hiding in the church are a group of orphaned pre-teen girls and one altar boy (Huang), who beg him to help them. Then a group of prostitutes arrive looking for refuge. Reluctantly, he agrees to help them all hide from the marauding Japanese soldiers. And even more reluctantly, he starts looking for a way out.

Told from the perspective of one of the young girls (Zhang Xinyi), the story centres on the banter between John and one of the prostitutes (Ni Ni). Relations between these two groups of young women aren't exactly smooth, and John does nothing to make anything easier. Thankfully both writer Heng and director Zhang refuse simplify the interaction. Less textured is the way Chinese soldiers are depicted as selfless heroes while the Japanese are all vicious rapists.

This is perhaps not so exaggerated, but it unbalances the movie. So when scenes turn weepy and the characters have unthinkable encounters with Japanese soldiers, the film starts to feel like emotionally manipulative propaganda. This isn't to undermine the skill of the actors at creating balanced characters, as they are all engaging and intriguing. And Zhang's direction is artful and subtly clever.

But this approach makes us feel like the story itself, especially with its astounding final-act twist, is a legend rather than a literal account. Not that something so moving couldn't have happened, but filmmakers make it mythical, which of course undermines its ability to trigger the wrenching response they so clearly want us to have. In China, audiences who grew up with this history will no doubt be deeply stirred. Everywhere else, this film holds the attention with its riveting narrative, but leaves us doubting that it actually happened quite this way.

15 themes, language, violence
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Our Children
4.5/5   À Perdre la Raison
dir Joachim Lafosse
prd Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Olivier Bronckart
scr Thomas Bidegain, Joachim Lafosse, Matthieu Reynaert
with Emilie Dequenne, Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Stephane Bissot, Nathalie Boutefeu, Baya Belal, Redouane Behache, Mounia Raoui, Yannick Renier
dequenne and rahim release Bel 30.May.12,
UK 10.May.13 12/Belgium 1h51

33rd Shadows Awards

london film fest
our children Based on a true story, this film paints a picture of happy but complicated domestic bliss before quietly shifting into something very unsettling. The understatement is likely to annoy some filmgoers, but it allows the cast to deliver devastating performances.

Moroccan-born Mounir (Rahim) lives in Belgium with a doctor Andre (Arestrup) who married his sister (Raoui) so she could get a visa. When Mounir falls in love with Murielle (Dequenne), they marry and move in with Andre, where he becomes part of their life while have four children in rather quick succession. But Murielle struggles with this set-up, desperately wanting to have her own home with Mounir and the kids. She isn't even averse to returning to Morocco to live near Mounir's mother (Belal). But Andre is clearly in control.

The film opens with a bewildering scene that hints at a terrible tragedy, then cycles back to tell Mounir and Murielle's story. Over the span of years, there are subtle signs of growing tension, but like the characters we cling to happier possibilities. Dequenne plays Murielle's increasing desperation with raw emotion that's profoundly moving as she struggles under the constraints both of Andre's passive-aggression and Mounir's North African machismo. And Arestrup and Rahim play these men as genuinely nice guys who don't see what's going on.

Lafosse directs from the carefully controlled perspective of Murielle's emotional journey. We never see the whole picture: when Mounir escapes to Morocco from his growing brood, ostensibly to care for his ill mother, we have no idea what he's actually up to. The nature of Andre and Mounir's long relationship is suggested but never confirmed. And in the end, Lafosse even pulls back from Murielle's point of view, because by now we understand everything far too clearly.

In other words, this is delicate filmmaking that never makes it easy for audiences, confronting us with our own expectations and prejudices. How could a giddily ecstatic relationship morph into something so darkly strained? How could no-one notice Murielle's fragility? Lafosse leaves questions unanswered, allowing us to put the final pieces together ourselves. This is masterful, unsettling filmmaking moves us deeply. It also has the power to save lives.

15 strong themes, language, sexuality, some grisliness
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[REC]³ Génesis
dir Paco Plaza
prd Julio Fernandez
scr Luiso Berdejo, Paco Plaza
with Leticia Dolera, Diego Martin, Ismael Martinez, Alex Monner, Claire Baschet, Sr B, Mireia Ros, Javier Botet, Emilio Mencheta, David Ramirez, Miguel Angel Gonzalez, Javier Ruano
martin and dolera
release Sp 30.Mar.12,
UK 3.Sep.12, US 7.Sep.12
12/Spain Filmax 1h20


See also:
REC (2007)
REC 2 (2009)
Rec 3 Genesis Filmmaker Plaza sends the franchise into yet another direction with this lean, scary zombie thriller, punctuating scenes with both humour and emotion. Even if it feels rather thin, it's fiendishly inventive, intensely brutal and engaging in ways that continually catch us off guard.

A cheesy wedding video shows us "the wonderful story" of Clara and Koldo (Dolera and Martin), shot by Koldo's cousin (Monner), leading to the happy day surrounded by lively friends and family. After the ceremony, they head to a fabulous hotel for the garden reception, where Clara tries to tell Koldo something important, but they're interrupted by the festivities. Then people start experiencing what looks like a nasty bout of food poisoning before they start attacking and taking bites out of each other, sending the survivors running for cover.

All of this takes place in the 20-minute pre-title sequence, which is like watching someone else's home movie, complete with dancing, speeches and SpongeJohn (Gonzalez) entertaining the kids. Then all hell breaks loose. Also in attendance is a hilariously high-minded professional videographer (Sr B) using a steadycam, which allows Plaza to crosscut with more high-polished footage. Thankfully, he soon abandons the found-footage genre altogether for a more conventionally shot horror romp.

Once the carnage begins, it's a steady stream of gruesome suspense, always tinged with black comedy drawn from the wedding-reception setting. The fact that bride and groom end up separated gives the mayhem an oddly emotive twist, as well as giving Dolera and Martin a chance to bring some feisty passion to the screen. And while a central core of survivors emerges along the way, it isn't wise to develop sympathy for them, as the attacks are sudden and very violent.

Plaza packs the film with witty twists and turns, as survivors take refuge in a chapel that's full of medieval armour and a creepy priest intones about the ongoing torment of the unholy undead. But amid the rising horror, there are also riotously hilarious moments that keep us nicely off balance for the next freak-out. Even more unexpected are genuinely moving scenes of people losing their loved ones. How many zombie horror movies can make us laugh and cry?

18 themes, language, grisly violence
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Rust and Bone
5/5   MUST must see SEE   De Rouille et d’Os
dir Jacques Audiard
scr Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain
prd Jacques Audiard, Martine Cassinelli, Pascal Caucheteux
with Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure, Corinne Masiero, Celine Sallette, Bouli Lanners, Jean-Michel Correia, Mourad Frarema, Yannick Choirat, Fred Menut, Duncan Versteegh, Katia Chaperon
schoenaerts and cotillard release Fr 17.May.12,
UK 2.Nov.12, US 16.Nov.12
12/France 2h00

32nd Shadows Awards

london film fest
Rust and Bone With an almost unblinkingly honest approach to relationships, this French drama crushes every cliched romance in its wake. The story and characters are messy, tetchy and fiercely passionate, forcing us to experience the pain and joy in equal measure.

Alain (Schoenaerts) grabs his 5-year-old son Sam (Verdure) and runs off to Antibes to live with his sister (Masiero) and her husband (Correia). A big bruiser of a guy, Alain finds work as a bouncer in a nightclub, where he meets Stephanie (Cotillard). After she has a terrible accident in her job training orcas at a local aquarium, her friendship with Alain deepens in ways neither of them expects, mainly because he's able to ignore her new disability. But she also has a rare ability to understand his dream to be a fighter.

You can't really call this film a romance, nor is it a story about two damaged souls who help heal each other. But there are elements of both in here. Instead, this is simply a bracing look at two people who in each other find a kind of solace that shifts in ways that are sometimes unbearably difficult. The title seems to refer to the way the world breaks us down: but bone heals, sometimes incorrectly and other times stronger than it was before.

Audiard and Bidegain's script is a marvel of understatement, undermining our expectations while Audiard's riveting directing style refuses to flinch from anything. Along with the characters, we are forced to confront our prejudices and doubts. And Cotillard's performance is astoundingly delicate, drawing us deep into her soul without being obvious about it. Schoenaerts is equally involving as the likeable guy with deeply unlikeable moments. And everyone around them matches this complexity and depth of feeling.

Audiard masterfully reveals emotional details along the way, as Stephane Fontaine's gorgeous photography captures quiet details that are heart-stoppingly scary and soaringly exhilarating. And it's accompanied by a beautiful Alexandre Desplat score plus some ingeniously deployed pop songs. In the end, we not only feel like we've lived through a powerful emotional experience, but like we have looked a bit deeper into the dark corners of our own souls.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality


R E A D E R   R E V I E W S

Kallie Wilbourn
Las Vegas, New Mexico
Rust and Bone This film confounds every conventional expectation about what makes life worth living, and what connects people in real relationships based not on sentiment, but acceptance. The two main characters have in common physical courage, and an essential desire to live through their bodies as much as their minds. Their drive has zero to do with abstract ideals (of love or just about anything), and everything to do with life lived on their own terms. Incautious as they are, they will likely find more trouble but this viewer can't help but root for them. Audiard is great at giving us characters that are edgy and individual, and his direction, scripting and characterization are of a piece.
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