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last update 10.Jun.12
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Free Men
3.5/5   Les Hommes Libres
dir Ismael Ferroukhi
prd Fabienne Vonier
scr Alain-Michel Blanc, Ismael Ferroukhi
with Tahar Rahim, Michael Lonsdale, Lubna Azabal, Mahmoud Shalaby, Farid Larbi, Stephane Rideau, Marie Berto, Zakariya Gouram, Christopher Buchholz, Bruno Fleury, Francois Delaive, Louna Klanit
rahim and shalaby release Fr 28.Sep.11,
US 16.Mar.12, UK 25.May.12
11/France Pyramide 1h39


Free Men Based on real events, this is essentially an Islamic Schindler's List. The filmmaking is efficient, and the cast very good, but the screenwriters never find anything new to say. And the lacklustre pacing makes it a bit of a slog, even though the story holds our interest.

In German-occupied Paris, Younes (Rahim) is a young Algerian who sells black-market goods to North African immigrants. When he's arrested, the cops offer him freedom if he agrees to spy on a local mosque leader (Lonsdale) who's suspected of hiding Jews by giving them identity papers saying they are Muslims. At the mosque, Younes falls for the mysterious Leila (Azabal) and befriends the gifted musician Salim (Shalaby). And he's unnerved to discover that Leila is actually a notorious resistance fighter, while Salim is secretly Jewish.

Filmmaker Ferroukhi tells this story with a strong attention to detail, keeping the period settings nicely understated while concentrating on the character interaction, which is complex and involving. But a slow-burning approach, combined with the dry screenplay, never injects much emotional energy into the film, which leaves it feeling almost like a museum piece: a meticulous retelling of an important story without artistic passion.

That said, the actors are all terrific, most notably the magnetic Rahim, through whose eyes we watch the events unfold. He beautifully plays Younes' quiet discovery of each layer of truth, from his initial carefree lawlessness to agreeing to help the authorities and ultimately to risking his life to save people he perhaps should be shunning. But the film beautifully points out that Islam isn't about hating the Jews: it's about respecting human life.

And there's a lot more going on in the story. Strong subplots involving both Leila and Salim are only barely touched upon and could actually be expanded into much more engaging movies than this one. And this is a refreshingly restrained depiction of the Nazis. Sure, they're tenacious and inhuman, but they're also never vilified into cartoon villains, which subtly makes them even more chilling. And even if it lacks any real kick, the film is an important account of normal, flawed people doing what they can in terrible circumstances.

15 themes, language, violence
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Iron Sky
dir Timo Vuorensola
scr Michael Kalesniko
prd Oliver Damian, Tero Kaukomaa, Samuli Torssonen
with Gotz Otto, Julia Dietze, Christopher Kirby, Peta Sergeant, Udo Kier, Stephanie Paul, Tilo Pruckner, Michael Cullen, Kym Jackson, Tom Hossbach, Ben Siemer, James Quinn
dietze and otto
release US Mar.12 sxsw,
Fin 4.Apr.12, UK 23.May.12
12/Finland 1h33

Iron Sky What starts out as a quite promising gonzo pastiche sadly loses steam after the first act, when the script runs out of ways to sustain the hilariously insane premise. It's a real shame, because the film is made to a surprisingly high standard.

On a moon mission to promote the 2018 re-election campaign of the US President (Paul), Astronaut Washington (Kirby) is captured by a colony of Nazis been hiding on the dark side since 1945. Within their massive swastika-shaped complex, they're preparing to take over earth with their Fuhrer (Kier). Things get complicated when second-in-command Klaus (Otto) travels to earth with Washington to get supplies for the invasion. But Klaus' idealistic schoolteacher fiancee Renate (Dietze) stows away for the trip, and their mission is derailed when they team up with the president's shark-like press agent (Sergeant).

There are some great ideas in here, including a lacerating satire of right-wing governments that makes it tricky to tell which is worse: marauding Nazis or hawkish Republicans. The set-up offers continuous B-movie fun, from the Nazi's hilarious spacesuits to Earth's wacky military response. All of this is rendered with surprisingly high-quality effects, which is perhaps what makes us expect a lot more of the script than it delivers.

While there are several amusing moments along the way, the comedy simply isn't clever or consistent enough to keep us laughing. Long stretches get bogged down in distracting plot points or corny slapstick, while the cast members overplay their roles shamelessly. This wouldn't be a problem if the overall tone of the film was broader, but the strong production values never let that happen.

By about halfway through, we start waiting for the filmmakers to unleash something fiendishly clever to kick things up a gear, but they instead stretch their one gag stretch even thinner. Some of these touches are clever, such as the way moon-born Renate insists that Nazi theories will bring about world peace. Of course, she learns the truth when she finally sees all of Charlie Chaplin's classic The Great Dictator. But that sharp reference backfires badly, because that 1940 film is still the funniest and most devastating Nazi comedy ever made.

15 themes, language, violence
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Neon Flesh
2.5/5   Carne de Neón
dir-scr Paco Cabezas
prd Juan Gordon
with Mario Casas, Vicente Romero, Luciano Caceres, Macarena Gomez, Damaso Conde, Vanessa Oliveira, Angela Molina, Dario Grandinetti, Blanca Suarez, Antonio de la Torre, Susana Varela, Miquel Sitjar
conde and casas
release Sp 21.Jan.11,
US 24.Feb.12, UK 11.Jun.12
10/Spain 1h42
Neon Flesh Whizzy Guy Ritchie-style visuals add a pacey edge to this warm-hearted but blackly comical thriller. Although the mix feels disingenuous: a sweet story wrapped in grisly nastiness. So when the filmmaker tries to convince us at the end that some of these people are actually good, we don't buy it.

Ricky (Casas) has been saving up to open a brothel for his ex-hooker mother when she gets out of prison. He turns to his friends for help: pre-op transsexual Infantita (Conde), pimp Angelito (Romero) and Angelito's too-literal goon Nino (Caceres) and junkie girlfriend Canija (Gomez). They hire a group of trafficked women to work in the brothel, but when Ricky goes to collect his mum (Molina), she has Alzheimer's and has no idea who he is. To make things worse, crime-boss Chino (Grandinetti) is furious that Ricky has opened a brothel on his turf.

Cabezas clearly wants us to sympathise with Ricky. He may do some deeply reprehensible things, but the suggestion is that his upbringing has left him with a rather limited moral code, and that deep in side he's actually a compassionate guy. Casas plays him in a likeable way, layering Ricky's low-life instincts with sensitive humanity. And essentially the entire cast does the same. And the filmmaker uses this warmth along with constant comical touches to undermine the squalid lifestyle and sadistic violence, even as he revels in it.

Yes, the film bristles with muscular physicality and snappy visual touches that echo the characters' aggressive machismo. Sometimes this is too much, especially with constantly spiralling flashbacks that introduce a bewildering number of new characters with extended backstories. Then as the chaos escalates, Ricky takes action to clean up the mess with an elaborate plan that feels doomed from the start.

Against the odds, the lively characters hold our interest, so we root for them even if some of their side-plots are hard to stomach. The way everything plays out is extremely messy, soaked in blood and yet comically engaging. In the end, there's a strong message about overcoming your past and breaking away from the people who are pulling you down. But this kind of gets lost amid all the viciousness.

18 themes, language, strong violence, sexuality
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A Royal Affair
3.5/5   En Kongelig Affaere
dir Nikolaj Arcel
scr Rasmus Heisterberg, Nikolaj Arcel
prd Meta Louise Foldager, Sisse Graum Jorgensen, Louise Vesth
with Mads Mikkelsen, David Dencik, Alicia Vikander, Trine Dyrholm, William Johnk Nielsen, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, Thomas W Gabrielsson, Bent Mejding, Cyron Bjorn Melville, Laura Bro, Erika Guntherova, Karin Rorbeck
vikander and mikkelsen
release Den 29.Mar.12,
UK 15.Jun.12
12/Denmark Zentropa 2h08

Angel and Tony With striking photography, sumptuous production values and strong acting, this Danish epic tells a remarkable true story about a tumultuous moment in European history. It's a fascinating, involving story, although the film is a bit too dry to move us.

In 1766, aristocratic English girl Caroline (Vikander) is married off to the Danish King (Folsgaard) to preserve the dynasty. But his brutish rule turns her against him, and she seeks intellectual stimulation from the King's close advisor Johann (Mikkelsen). Eventually, this meeting of minds turns into a lusty affair, as the Queen and Johann plot to turn Denmark into a progressive, compassionate nation. Meanwhile, the King's stepmother (Dyrholm) is conniving to have him declared unfit so her son (Nielsen) can claim the throne.

Intense plot twists and deepening themes hold our interest, especially with the mix of suspicion, loyalty and camaraderie between the characters. And the stakes couldn't be higher, since Caroline and Johann launch into their dangerous affair just as hardliners stage a vicious coup to send their country back into the dark ages. But the film never exploits the story's emotional core, leaving us observing events without feeling like we're living through them.

Director-cowriter Arcel paints beautifully grubby, grey tone over the lavish period details. He also encourages the cast to give raw, naturalistic performances that quietly underline the complex issues and keep us engaged. Mikkelsen is always adept at this kind of layering. It might be clear who the good and bad guys are, but everyone has some characteristic that undercuts our feelings about them.

The film is a fascinating portrait of a turbulent time in European history, when religion and superstition ruled "official" thought even as intellectual enlightenment was starting to show a fairer way forward. This mix of big ideas provides potent fuel to the swirl of plots and counterplots. Intriguingly, the old-school Danes see Caroline as a threat from the start, banning many of the books she brought with her. And she's immediately shocked by the filth and poverty of the Danish people in contrast to the opulence of the palace. Which adds a telling kick of resonance.

15 themes, language, sexuality
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