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last update 24.Oct.12
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Beyond the Hills
4/5   Dupa Dealuri
dir-scr-prd Cristian Mungiu
with Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta, Dana Tapalaga, Catalina Harabagiu, Gina Tandura, Vica Agache, Nora Covali, Dionisie Vitcu, Ionut Ghinea, Liliana Mocanu, Doru Ana
stratan and flutur release US 8.Mar.13,
UK 15.Mar.13
12/Romania 2h20


london film fest
Beyond the Hills Dark and unsettling, this provocative drama gets deep under the skin not because we can identify with the unusual situations, but because filmmaker Mungiu is so skilled at finding larger truths in his characters.

After growing up in an orphanage together in Romania, Alina (Flutur) moved to Germany for work while Voichita (Stratan) joined the orthodox monastery out of town. Years later they're happily reunited when Alina comes to visit. But her presence causes problems for the priest (Andriuta) and mother superior (Tapalaga). Begging Voichita to go back to Germany with her, Alina clearly believes her old friend has been brainwashed by the superstitions that run through the local culture. And Alina's emotional outbursts leave the nuns worrying that she might be possessed by an evil spirit.

Mungiu gives the film such an earthy feel that we actually shiver from the cold as winter closes in. The monastery has no electricity or running water, but the nuns get on with life as it would have been lived here hundreds of years ago. Simplicity and spirituality are their priorities. Intriguingly, Mungiu doesn't depict Alina as an outsider we can identify with, and her unpredictable actions, wild mood swings and outrageous outbursts certainly don't help her get through to Voichita.

The cast is raw and natural, almost unnervingly so, as they spark a series of major events because of how they react to each other. This isn't just a story about the age-old push and pull between faith and reason. There are other social issues at play here, from underfunded hospitals to child abuse. Not to mention the bigger theme of a group of deeply religious people struggling to deal with someone they see as a dangerous interloper. Intriguingly, Alina's brother (Ghinea) also takes refuge in the monastery, but fits in easily.

Over the extended running time, the plot cycles rather too many times through a series of wildly scary and warmly emotional events. And it sometimes feels like the script is meandering without any idea where it's headed, so perhaps 40 minutes could have been cut from the middle. But the final act is bold and intensely disturbing. This isn't easy filmmaking by any means, but it gives us a lot to chew on. Maybe too much.

15 themes, language, violence
12.Oct.12 lff
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Ernest & Célestine
4.5/5     MUST must see SEE
dir Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar, Benjamin Renner
scr Daniel Pennac
prd Didier Brunner, Henri Magalon, Vincent Tavier
voices Lambert Wilson, Pauline Brunner, Anne-Marie Loop, Dominique Maurin
celestine and ernest
release UK Oct.12 lff,
Fr 12.Dec.12
12/France 1h20


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Ernest & Celestine Charming and adorable, but not remotely childish, this animated French adventure has a terrific sense of anarchy that will appeal to adults as much as kids. It's also a superb fable about standing up for yourself even when you challenge society's traditions.

In the underground mouse city, youngsters are warned about the Big Bad Bear who wants to eat them all. But orphan Celestine (Brunner) fantasises that maybe she could be friends with a bear. Sure enough, on a mission to collect teeth in the bear world above, she encounters Ernest (Wilson), who's having a rough time finding enough food to eat. Together they solve their problems but run afoul of the law. They hide out in Ernest's cabin in the woods as winter turns to spring, when the bear and mouse cops catch up with them.

Like a Beatrix Potter book, the animation is refreshingly hand-drawn with softly detailed water-colour backgrounds. Scenes are packed with witty touches, both in the characters and settings, and never in ways we expect. Ernest and Celestine are endearing characters with such strong chemistry that we get completely caught up in their adventure. This means laughing a lot as they tease each other and then worrying about them as they have to answer for their illegal actions.

Indeed, there's rather a lot of thieving, mischief-making and vandalism involved here, although much of it is played as necessary for survival. Yet while we hope they might get away with these things, there's a sense of justice as they face the music. The bear and mouse communities are so well realised that we are fascinated by every twist and turn of the unfolding plot, which is packed with both gripping tension and enjoyable silliness.

At its heart, this as absurdly anarchic as Aubier and Patar's wonderful A Town Called Panic or Sylvain Chomet's The Triplets of Belleville. It's light and effortless, both in its storytelling and its visual inventiveness, pulling us into the premise and holding us tightly right to the final scenes. And in the end, it even leaves us with a few things to think about, although children will just want to have a bear and mouse of their own. Actually grown-ups will feel the same.

U themes, some violence
1.Oct.12 lff
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Flying Swords of Dragon Gate
dir-scr Tsui Hark
prd Jeffrey Chan, Shi Nansun, Tsui Hark
with Jet Li, Zhou Xun, Chen Kun, Li Yuchun, Mavis Fan, Gwei Lun-mei, Fan Siu-Wong, Gordon Liu, Sheng Chien
li (right) release US 31.Aug.12,
UK 19.Oct.12
12/China 2h02

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate With plenty of whizzy action, this wuxia epic should be a lot more fun than this. Instead, we're exhausted by the nonstop chaos, too-fast editing and terrible digital effects, all of which only overcomplicate the story.

During the Ming Dynasty, eunuchs went a bit power mad, terrorising the people in the name of the emperor. While Zhao (Jet Li) plots to bring the eunuchs down to earth, pregnant palace concubine Su (Mavis Fan) escapes execution and goes on the run with the fearsome Ling (Zhou), who's pretending to be Zhao. Meanwhile, female fighter Gu (Li Yuchun) gets no respect from a fierce Tatar princess (Gwei). With a sandstorm approaching, these people take refuge in the Dragon Gate Inn, where palace guards led by the fearsome Yu (Chen) catch up with them.

The story is packed with disguises and mistaken identities that twist these people into a tangled mess as they pursue their targets. And then they're all distracted when the impending sandstorm turns out to be a once-in-60-years blinder that will reveal the location of a legendary buried treasure. As these people engage in skirmishes, liaisons and general wackiness, the story begins to feel rather farcical.

Amid the attacks, counterattacks and duels, director Tsui weaves in a specific fighting technique for each of the warriors, which is about all the character development we get. This certainly adds visual flair, from Gu's throwing knives to Su's razor wire. And other characters are more comical, such as Gu's hapless sidekick, the comically named Wind Blade, who looks exactly like Yu (and is also played by Chen). So when the script attempts to stir in a few rather goofy romantic subplots, they never have enough personal detail to gain traction.

And it doesn't help that the film is shot in a slapstick style, with animated effects instead of real wire work. So the big spinning-flying fights look fake rather than exhilarating. Combine this with fast-moving camerawork, julienne editing and the cluttered story and it's not surprising that there's little to engage our interest beyond the general spectacle of it all. But what a spectacle! As the first Chinese wuxia shot in 3D it frequently makes us duck out of the way.

15 themes, language, strong violence
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4/5   MUST must see SEE
dir Pablo Larrain
scr Pedro Peirano
prd Daniel Marc Dreifuss, Juan de Dios Larrain, Pablo Larrain
with Gael Garcia Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Alejandro Goic, Nestor Cantillana, Luis Gnecco, Antonia Zegers, Diego Munoz, Manuela Oyarzun, Marcial Tagle, Jaime Vadell
garcia bernal (with rene's son) release Chl 9.Aug.12,
UK 8.Feb.13, US 15.Feb.13
12/Chile 1h55


london film fest
No Here's another fiendishly clever drama from Chilean filmmaker Larrain that continually subverts our expectations. Following Tony Manero and Post Mortem, the film uses structure and genre to throw us off its scent, entertaining us while giving us another haunting lesson from the Pinochet era.

In 1988, Chile is getting ready for a yes-or-no referendum to ratify Pinochet for another 10 years. On the "yes" side, ad agency boss Lucho (Castro) represents the right-wing establishment, while his top employee Rene (Garcia Bernal) heads up the "no" campaign, seeking freedom of expression and an end to human rights violations. Obviously, "no" doesn't have a chance of winning, but they each take advantage of their 15 minutes of nightly television over 27 days. And of course their rivalry spurs them to be especially creative.

The film is shot like a 1980s video diary that's been locked away somewhere for all these years, mixing real TV news footage seamlessly with the comedy, drama and even some startling action. Actors are likeable, off-handed and natural, skilfully playing up the bone-dry black humour in each scene. It may take some political savvy to catch the hilarious undercurrents in every scene, often deeply bitter comments about the absurdity of the situation. But the the script helps make up for any in-jokes by giving the actors especially complex characters to play, complete with side-stories and distractions.

Everyone will surely enjoy the riotously silly political conversations, including debates that swirl in circles and work on a variety of levels as macho shouting matches, explorations of complex ideologies and a revealing glimpse of the political process. Lucho and Rene both argue that the Americans would back their campaigns, and they take strikingly different approaches that defy conventional wisdom. For example, Rene realises that there's no point in using fear to convince a public that's been terrorised for 15 years.

Both sides are also more interested in convincing the public to vote their way than in telling the whole truth. And filmmaker Larrain is similarly inventive in telling this story, never avoiding the horrors of history while playfully shifting settings and throwing in a variety of running gags. This is smart, witty and utterly unmissable. Not to mention eerily timely.

15 themes, language, violence
13.Oct.12 lff
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© 2012 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall