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last update 3.May.16
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Desert Dancer
dir Richard Raymond
scr Jon Croker
prd Luis Astorquia, Fabiola Beracasa, Pippa Cross, Izabella Miko, Richard Raymond
with Reece Ritchie, Freida Pinto, Tom Cullen, Marama Corlett, Neet Mohan, Bamshad Abedi-Amin, Simon Kassianides, Makram Khoury, Gabriel Senior, Nazanin Boniadi, Akin Gazi, Sam Kordbacheh
pinto, cullen and ritchie release US 10.Apr.15,
UK 22.Apr.16
14/UK 1h44
Desert Dancer Based on a compelling true story that has timely relevance on several levels, this film is somewhat compromised by the screenwriter's desire to force the real-life events into a rather pushy movie formula. But the core narrative is riveting, it's nicely played by the cast, and it has a terrific visual sensibility.

As presidential elections approach in 2009 Tehran, arts student Afshin (Ritchie) gravitates to like-minded fellow university students like Ardavan, Mona, Mehran and Naser (Cullen, Corlett, Abedi-Amin and Mohan). They introduce him to an underground world of discos and parties, plus proxy servers that allow access to forbidden sites like YouTube. But what Afshin really wants to do is dance, and as he forms a secret club with his friends, they're joined by Elaheh (Pinto), a dancer with deep personal issues. Together they plan an invitation-only performance in the desert outside the city.

Director Raymond shoots the film artistically, capturing the characters' emotional undercurrents in scenes that bristle with transgressive physicality. In Iran, it's forbidden to even hold hands in public, so modern dance is a serious breach of the Morality Police's law. These young people could be arrested at any time. The scenes in this small group's secret rehearsal space and then out in the desert are beautifully shot and edited, with evocative choreography that cuts right to the heart of the story's pungent themes.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn't trust this artistry to carry the message, so they bend the events into a rather obvious movie narrative, complete with contrived thriller moments and lots of wrenching melodrama. The strong young cast still shines through, diving into each scene to make it resonate. But many of the film's strongest moments seem scripted rather than realistic, such as Elaheh's heroin addiction montage, Mehran's clash with his nasty brother (Kassianides) and Afshin's climactic explosion of pent-up frustration.

Each of these plot elements carries real power, but is depicted in a rather cliched way that makes it clear that the real events probably weren't so photogenic. At the centre, Ritchie, Pinto and Cullen are likeable and engaging, developing a vivid sense of physicality as young people trying to simply live their lives in one of the world's oldest, most sophisticated cultures (Iran created the first human rights laws), which has been smothered by religious legalism. So even if the story feels compromised, this is an important, yearning cry for freedom from oppression.

15 themes, violence, drugs
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Hard Tide
dir-scr Robert Osman, Nathanael Wiseman
prd Katarina Gellin
with Nathanael Wiseman, Alexandra Newick, Mem Ferda, Oliver Stark, Kat Gellin, Veronica Trickett, Beverly Hills, Ralph Brown, Andy Lucas, Grant Davis, Sean Cronin, Leroy Kincaide
wiseman and newick release UK 29.Apr.16
15/UK 1h20

raindance film fest
Hard Tide Based on a true story, the events recounted in this British drama pack a weighty punch. So it's unfortunate that the story has been twisted into a standard British crime thriller. The actors are directed to overplay every scene, and the filmmakers' inexperience and low budget show frequently, which makes the entire movie feel like a silly soap opera.

On a grim housing estate in Margate, Jake (Wiseman) is a swaggering tough guy working for his father, the local boss Gaz (Brown). One day Jake meets Jade (Newick), an energetic little girl who skips school to run around in her superhero costume and avoid her drunken dad (Davis). Without anyone to take care of her, Jake takes her in, which puts a crimp in his style and annoys his girlfriend Kim (Gellin). It's also causing problems with the plan he and best pal Alfie (Stark) have to make some cash.

The central idea is that any teen growing up in this kind of community would be in trouble, and that Jake's inner good guy has been brought out when he was required to take some responsibility. Yet while the filmmakers shoot this in a naturalistic style, they fill every scene with the usual British gangster cliches, from the language to the settings to situations involving drugs and guns. The plot barely hangs together, with inexplicable characters such as the thug (Ferda) who takes exception to Jake for an unknown reason. And the actors are encouraged to go way over the top.

The entire cast seems to be straining to be tough and edgy, which gives the film a cheesy, melodramatic tone. At the centre, Wiseman has enough charisma to hold the interest, even though Jake feels rather cartoonish. His tough-guy stance is never very believable, but it works in contrast to the way Jake reluctantly lets his paternal instincts emerge. When he drops the hard-man attitude, he's actually charming, and has some nice chemistry with hyperactive newcomer Newick.

Sadly, the jarringly awkward storytelling and broad performances leave the story feeling artificial and frankly unbelievable. This undermines any valid point the movie might be trying to make. This is a situation packed with urgent themes, but the filmmakers insist on ramping everything up like yet another run-of-the-mill London crime thriller. As a result, the important message is never given a chance to survive.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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These Final Hours
dir-scr Zak Hilditch
prd Liz Kearney
with Nathan Phillips, Angourie Rice, Lynette Curran, Jessica De Gouw, Kathryn Beck, Sarah Snook, Daniel Henshall, Peter Docker, Ben Sutton, Phil Bennett, Troy Coward, David Field
rice and phillips release Aus 31.Jul.14,
US Apr.15 cff, UK 6.May.16
13/Australia 1h27

fright fest
These Final Hours Darkly moving, writer-director Zak Hilditch takes an internalised approach to the end of the world that's unnervingly short on even a glimmer of hope. Throughout this odyssey, people are more likely to kill than help each other. But this makes the more compassionate characters stand out strongly. And it keeps the emotional energy high.

After a major asteroid impact, devastation and anarchy sweep across the globe. The western Australian coast has 12 hours left before oblivion. En route to an end-of-the-world party, James (Phillips) rescues Rose (Rice) from two nasty thugs, then reluctantly takes her with him. But even as he heads to meet his girlfriend Vicky (Beck) at the party, James keeps thinking about his pregnant other girlfriend Zoe (De Gouw). Could they survive in the bunker his friend Freddy (Henshall) has built? Probably not. Then James decides to make one last visit to his mum (Curran).

It isn't easy to root for people when you know they have just a few hours left. Thankfully, Phillips gives a remarkably thoughtful performance as, apparently, the only man left in Australia who still has both a brain and a conscience. With his muscly bulk, he's a terrific leading man, and the character's flaws humanise him in surprising ways, especially as he bonds with Rice's sympathetic lost girl. Scenes are also bolstered by ace scene-stealing actors like Curran and Snook (as a delusional young partier).

The film opens with a collage of random and inexplicable post-calamity violence. This is a rather bleak portrait of humanity, suggesting that when restraints are lifted the majority of people would indulge in their most brutal fantasies. As James and Rose travel, they encounter a series of situations that are genuinely disturbing. Even the epic party is ugly and violent. Thankfully, alongside Hilditch's relentlessly pessimistic view, there are some intriguingly complex moments that reveal less nihilistic emotional reactions to imminent doom.

Still, for everyone who embraces life and love in their final hours, five people turn to murder and/or suicide. And by revealing their story in flashback, Hilditch kind of undermines the raw intensity of James and Zoe's strongly emotive story. Knowing this up front might have given the entire film a clearer, more urgent sense of momentum. But what makes the movie worth a look is its quieter moments, beautifully played to make strongly resonant comments about the pain of saying goodbye.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality, drugs
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What We Have
dir-scr Maxime Desmons
prd Maxime Desmons, Sally Karam
with Maxime Desmons, Alex Ozerov, Jean-Michel Le Gal, Kristen Thomson, Roberta Maxwell, Marie-Eve Perron, Johnathan Sousa, Atticus Mitchell, Paul Fauteux, Marc Fournier, Pamela Sinha, Trevor Hayes
le gal and desmons release Can Sep.14 csiff,
UK 12.Apr.16
14/Canada 1h29
What We Have Introspective and thoughtful from the start, this is a gentle story about a guy who simply can't make sense of who he is or how he fits in. It's sometimes a little too personal, pushing the audience away rather than drawing us in. But Canadian actor-filmmaker Maxime Desmons' approach is intriguing and involving.

As shy Maurice (Desmons) moves from France to a small town on the Canadian coast, he fills the lonely hours with empty sexual encounters. He also quietly gets his professional life going, as he's hired by Patricia (Thomson) to tutor her son Allan (Ozerov) in French. He also joins a local theatre group, overcoming the awkwardness of the fact that it's run by Michael (Le Gal), whom Maurice coldly dismissed after a one-night stand. But all of these experiences are dredging up some difficult memories for Maurice.

Echoing the rather pretentious title, the film has a thoughtful, gentle tone, with a loose plot that feels eerily autobiographical. Desmons frequently diverts the film into moody, stylised flashbacks of Maurice's childhood, a swirling combination of happiness, confusion and fear that hints at a series of revelations to come. Meanwhile, Allan's own arc involves living with bullying over his hidden sexuality from other kids and his harsh grandmother (Maxwell), something Maurice obviously understands all to well.

Performances are relaxed and loose, never remotely self-conscious. Desmons nicely underplays Maurice's inner life, which adds plenty of subtext to his interaction with each of the other characters. His scenes with Ozerov are especially engaging, as they find an easy camaraderie and then something shared on a deeper level. Intriguingly, the hints of transgression between them never play out as expected. And there's still more complexity in Desmons' portrayal of Maurice's developing interaction with Le Gal's hopeful Michael.

The film's tone is so subtle that the script only ever suggests where it might be heading. Is this a story about an illicit romance? Or perhaps a man trying to leave his troubled history behind him? As the events roll on, and as Desmons layers big issues into each scene, the narrative quietly becomes darkly captivating. So it's rather odd that where this goes becomes rather melodramatic. Even so, the film remains honest and challenging in the way it focuses on the characters.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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