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last update 19.Mar.14
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Lose Your Head
dir Stefan Westerwelle
scr Patrick Schuckmann
prd Michael Schuckmann, Patrick Schuckmann
with Fernando Tielve, Marko Mandic, Sesede Terziyan, Stavros Yagoulis, Samia Muriel Chancrin, Jonas Berami, Jan Amazigh Sid, Rummelsnuff, Claudia Splitt, Kaspar Kamaleon, Andrea Chirchio, Maria Carnicer
mandic and tielve
release Ger 19.Sep.13,
UK 24.Mar.14
13/Germany 1h45

Lose Your Head This intriguing odyssey about unexpected connections between strangers is well-acted and full of involving situations. It's also dark and sexy enough to keep us wondering. Alas, the script is badly undercooked, with several plot turns that feel made up as they went along.

Young Luis (Tielve) decides to take a break from his boyfriend (Berami) and flies from Madrid to Berlin, where he immediately loses himself in clubs and drugs, waking up in a series of strange beds. One of these belongs to lively Ukrainian Viktor (Mandic), who Luis discovers has some sort of connection to a missing Greek boy (Sid) whose sister Elena (Terziyan) and cousin Kostas (Yagoulis) are putting posters all over the city. But Luis really likes Viktor and can't believe he's a kidnapper. Or worse.

The film has a warm, observational tone that holds our interest even when the plot starts to wobble. But there are other problems that continually leave us frustrated, from the elusive and vague story to director Westerwelle's decision to shoot key scenes in darkness and shadows. Clearly he's trying to build suspense, but it leaves us unable to properly see what's happening. And the insipid electronic score doesn't give us many clues.

That said, there are some genuinely suspenseful moments, as well as some wrenching emotion and raw sexuality. And there's also a strong build-up of suspicion and disorientation that fits nicely with Luis' likeable naivete. Tielve plays Luis with open-faced innocence as an impulsive guy looking for new experiences, even as he continually reacts to events in the wrong ways. So since he's kind of asking for trouble, the story's twists and turns never feel very surprising.

All of the cast is natural and realistic, in contrast to the filmmakers' attempts to ratchet up the tension between them. In the end, the movie begins to feel like some sort of cautionary anti-drug movie, as Luis' journey turns into a feverish paranoid nightmare that reveals some deeply troubling endemic bigotry in German society. It's also the kind of movie that will make you reluctant to ever trust the kindness of strangers.

18 themes, language, violence, sexuality, drugs
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The Passenger
dir-scr Tor Iben
prd Pelin Heris, Stanley Moschke
with Niklas Peters, Lynn Femme, Urs Stampfli, Maxim Albert, Annina Nusko, Bastian Scheibe, Bernd Rositzka, Sinan Hancili, Nura Laguerta, Peter Beck, Torsten Poggensee, Seyit Karakayoun
peters, stampfli and femme release UK 10.Feb.14,
US 11.Feb.14
13/Germany 1h10
the passenger After the intriguing The Visitor, German filmmaker Iben turns to this undercooked thriller, which has some nice ideas but feels about halfway there. Themes are lifted both from Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley novels and the Dexter TV series, but without the complexity needed to make an antihero resonate.

When we meet Nick (Peters), he is washing blood off his hands as he confesses his deep urge to kill people. Moving on, he travels to Berlin and rents a room from Phillip (Stampfli), a photographer who takes him into his life and introduces Nick to his actress friend Lilli (Femme). Nick quickly seduces Lilli, but also spends time cruising for men in the Tiergarten. And as he adjusts to life with close friends, Nick worries that killing Phillip and Lilli won't be as easy as usual.

The film has a quiet, thoughtful, insinuating tone, with naturalistic acting and a nice sense of camaraderie and rivalry between the three central characters. Their physicality, closeness and creeping jealousy is palpable even if we never quite buy the romance between Nick and Lilli. This is mainly because Nick is such an icy character, so his feverish nightmares about his past actions feels somewhat implausible. Which means that there's ultimately no one on-screen we remotely identify with.

There's also a problem of pacing. Each sequence is nicely assembled and strikingly visual, but there's little sense of connection due to the choppy transitions. It doesn't help that Nick's narration is relentlessly gloomy. Iben also seems to be oddly timid about both the violence and the sex, which drains any sense of inner drive or passion from the screen. So even at just 70 minutes, the film feels draggy as we wait for something punchy to happen.

Sure, the sudden flashes of violent are nasty and inexplicable, but there's oddly no sense of danger since Iben never develops the suspense. It also seems awfully easy to dispose of a body in central Berlin in broad daylight, while the half-hearted police investigation feels like something the filmmaker added in later. So we keep waiting for the story to kick up a gear and build some tension, but it instead gets mopier. And for a film that's ostensibly about sex and death, it feels frustratingly simplistic.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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The Rocket
dir-scr Kim Mordaunt
prd Sylvia Wilczynski
with Sitthiphon Disamoe, Loungnam Kaosainam, Thep Pongam, Bunsri Yindi, Sumrit Warin, Alice Keohavong
Disamoe, Pongam and Kaosainam
release Aus 29.Aug.13,
US 10.Jan.14, UK 14.Mar.14
13/Australia 1h36

London film festival
The Rocket While it's perhaps too wistful and charming even in its darker moments, this Laotian drama is still a crowd-pleaser. All of the characters are lively and detailed, and the story is thoroughly engaging even if it's so relentlessly cheery that it feels like a myth.

Ahlo (Disamoe) was born under a local curse: a twin whose sibling died in the womb. Protected by his mother (Keohavong) from his feisty, traditionalist grandmother (Yindi), Ahlo grows up in the idyllic countryside. When the government decides to build a dam and flood their valley, Ahlo's caring father (Warin) must move the family to a grim wasteland shantytown. There, Ahlo befriends Kia (Kaosainam) and her drunken outcast Uncle Purple (Pongam), and they all migrate together to another town that's holding a huge rocket competition. Ahlo is sure he can win with Purple's help.

It's not all sweetness and light, as the plot encompasses tragedy as well as the fallout of the Vietnam War, with unexploded bombs and mines littering the landscape. But filmmaker Mordaunt only briefly pauses for darker emotions before returning to sun-dappled happiness. In other words, the film feels rather too polished and beautiful for what it is, only hinting at the grim struggles of daily life for a makeshift family without a home.

That said, plot cleverly allows larger themes to emerge without swamping the central story of a young boy trying to get others to see who he really is. We never take Ahlo's curse seriously because he's such a clever, curious kid whose adventures are packed with possibilities. But it takes others a lot longer to come round. Disamoe holds the film's centre beautifully, a charming young actor we can't take our eyes off.

And the performances around him offer nice surprises that challenge our first impressions. Warin's happy dad isn't as strong as we'd like him to be, while Yindi's grandmother turns out to be more utilitarian than harsh. Pongam's Purple is another story altogether, a James Brown devotee who is so lost in the past that he doesn't know where he is. Just as he starts to develop into an intriguing figure in Ahlo's life, he's oddly sidelined for the big finale. But the climax is such a winning sequence that it takes us awhile to wipe the grin from our faces.

12 themes, violence, language, brief nudity
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Yves Saint Laurent
dir Jalil Lespert
prd Yannick Bollore, Wassim Beji
scr Jacques Fieschi, Marie-Pierre Huster, Jalil Lespert
with Pierre Niney, Guillaume Gallienne, Charlotte Le Bon, Laura Smet, Marie de Villepin, Nikolai Kinski, Xavier Lafitte, Jean-Edouard Bodziak, Ruben Alves, Astrid Whettnall, Marianne Basler, Adeline D'Hermy
gallienne and niney
release Fr 8.Jan.14,
UK 21.Mar.14
14/France 1h46

Yves Saint Laurent This slightly too-worthy biopic traces the iconic fashion designer from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. Its strongest insights are in the exploration of Saint Laurent's long, difficult relationship with his personal and business partner Pierre Berge. This gives us something we can identify with even when the narrative stalls.

Yves (Niney) is only 21 when he begins designing clothes for Christian Dior, and after being fired his partner Pierre (Gallienne) helps him start his own YSL house. Through the 1960s, his distinctive styles combine timeless looks with imaginative touches that make him wildly popular. And as the 1960s slip into the 1970s, he increasingly turns to alcohol and drugs to escape the pressure of expectations. Through it all, Pierre encourages him and manages the company to global success, even as their relationship is strained by various external liaisons.

Of course, the film looks utterly gorgeous, all sleek lines and visceral colours. Dressed in skinny suits and geeky specs, Niney has terrific on-screen presence, even if Yves' diva-like tantrums and drug-addled self-destruction make him rather unlikeable. By contrast, Gallienne's Pierre is a level-headed control-freak patiently protecting Yves from himself.

Pierre is by far the most sympathetic character, which is unsurprising since it's narrated by him in flashback from 2009, just after Yves' death. But everyone else is little more than a colourful burst of sex-appeal, including Le Bon, Smet and De Villepin as his muses Victoire Doutreleau, Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux, and Kinski as close cohort Karl Lagerfeld. Scenes are crowded with celebrity figures rotating in Yves' orbit. But only Pierre knows that he's falling apart.

This side of the film is far more interesting than the colourfully staged parties and immaculately re-created catwalk shows. Every scene looks exquisite, but it's in the glances between these two men that the movie snaps us to attention. Oddly, the script skips the final 30 years of Yves' life, leaving us wondering how he coped with the further demands upon him and, more intriguingly, how these men worked out their life together. It's an odd gap to leave in a biopic, and it leaves us thinking that those years might have been a better movie. Or perhaps a sequel is on the cards.

15 themes, language, sexuality, drugs
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© 2014 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall