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last update 28.Feb.18
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The Breadwinner
dir Nora Twomey
scr Anita Doron
prd Anthony Leo, Tomm Moore, Andrew Rosen, Paul Young, Stephan Roelants
voices Saara Chaudry, Soma Chhaya, Laara Sadiq, Shaista Latif, Ali Badshah, Kawa Ada, Noorin Gulamgaus, Ali Kazmi, Millad Hamidkohzad, Salaman Hamidkohzad, Kanza Feris, Enayat Mazaryar
parvana and her father release US 17.Nov.17,
Ire/UK 25.May.18
17/Ireland 1h34

london film festival
The Breadwinner Infused with the magic of storytelling, this hand-crafted animated drama has real power in its story of three women trying to protect their family amid oppression and violence in 2001 Afghanistan. Based on accounts from refugees, the story skilfully tackles cultural, political and religious issues head-on without ever being preachy. It also explores the power of art to both provide an escape and a solution.

In Taliban-ruled Kabul, 11-year-old Parvana (Chaudry) loves listening to stories from her teacher father (Badshah) about her nation's role at the crossroads of the world. When religious zealots drag him to prison for no reason, things get desperate for Parvana, her frazzled mother (Sadiq) and stubborn older sister (Latif). To survive, Parvana's only option is to cut her hair to appear as a boy so she can go out in public to get food and water. She also runs into school friend Shauzia (Chhaya), who is similarly disguised. Together, they bravely subvert the unjust system.

Gorgeously designed, the film traces history with a visual flair that's undergirded with strongly personal emotion. There's a steady stream of scenes that quietly reveal the illogical nature of fanaticism, where people live in terror of self-proclaimed authorities inflicting violence in the name of protecting people. And along with this is a striking depiction of the inner decency of most people. Meanwhile in flashbacks, witty cutouts depict the fantastical folk tale Parvana started spinning with her father and continues to tell to give hope to herself and others.

The characters and story are vivid and engaging, while the animation echoes both Japanese anime and the producers' earlier work (see The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea). Settings are artfully rendered, as the filmmakers pull us in with beautiful colours and textures. But it's the people who who hold the attention, even if they are animated in relatively simple ways. Each one is written and played with clever touches that ripple with real-life interaction and an honest sense of urgency.

This is the kind of movie that will grip viewers of any age, revealing much deeper truths about resilience and inventiveness in the face of intolerance. Parvana is a hugely inspiring character, unaware of the depths of her own courage and determination. This is the kind of earthy, intense story that would be too harrowing in live-action but, sensitively conveyed through this eye-catching animation, it becomes riveting and essential.

12 themes, violence
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Just Charlie
dir Rebekah Fortune
scr Peter Machen
prd Karen Newman
with Harry Gilby, Scot Williams, Patricia Potter, Elinor Machen-Fortune, Peter Machen, Travis Blake Hall, Janine Hipkins, Jeff Alexander, Karen Bryson, Molly Coffey, Charlie Georgiou, Jess Collett
gilby release UK Jun.17 eiff,
US 29.Jan.18
17/UK 1h37

Just Charlie Skilfully written, directed and acted, this sensitive British drama tackles a hugely important topic head on, never talking down to the audience. It's a bold film that encourages the viewer to understand the truth that a trans person is not changing who they are. The film is a cry for compassion that recognises how difficult it can be to overcome outside pressure and do the right thing.

In middle England, Charlie (Gilby) is a pre-teen with a bright future as a football player, which his rather pushy father Paul (Williams) is thrilled about. But as puberty dawns, Charlie is beginning to understand something that's not easy to express: inside, Charlie is a girl stuck in a boy's body. Her mother Sue (Potter) and older sister Eve (Machen-Fortune) do their best to help, but Paul can't cope. And neither can Charlie's best pal Tommy (Hall). And as Charlie begins her transition, her football coach (Machen) finds her a place on a girls' team.

Machen's screenplay never simplifies this situation, pulling the audience right into Charlie's circle of friends and family, which gently confronts us about our reactions on a variety of levels. Meanwhile, Fortune directs scenes with an attention to the characters, which internalises the issue while drawing out earthy emotions and some edgy humour. It's also a rare film that touches honestly on such a range of prejudice, from the subtle ("let's wait to tell people") to verbal bullying to hideous physical violence.

The entire cast dives in, portraying this wide range of attitudes without either hesitating or winking at the camera. Williams is particularly remarkable as a man who simply can't accept that his "little boy" isn't going to achieve his own dream of football stardom. His journey is powerfully expressed without hedging anything, so the conclusion has an offhanded power. And Gilby is simply terrific as Charlie, offering a beautifully understated performance that never plays to stereotypes.

The point here is that Charlie is still the same person her family and friends have always loved. So the problems are coming from them, not her, as they fight against their own reactions to the fact that she is being true to who she is. It's a simple point made with bracing authenticity, challenging the viewer to look inside and see that Charlie's "revelation" is no different than what any of us have to do as we grow up and demand that people accept us for who we are.

15 themes, language, violence

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The Lodgers
dir Brian O'Malley
scr David Turpin
prd Julianne Forde, Ruth Treacy
with Charlotte Vega, Bill Milner, Eugene Simon, David Bradley, Deirdre O'Kane, Moe Dunford, Roisin Murphy, Anthony Murphy, Elijah Egan, Matthew Sludds, Ronan Byrne, Jack O'Malley
vega and milner release US 23.Feb.18,
Ire 9.Mar.18
17/Ireland 1h32

The Lodgers With the tone of a gothic fairy tale, this dark drama has an enjoyably creepy tone, generating unsettling undercurrents right from the start. Written, directed and acted with arch over-seriousness, the film skilfully plays with its mysteries, adding one freak-out to the next. It's never quite as deep as the themes suggest, but the oppressive atmosphere is superb.

In rural Ireland in 1920, orphaned twins Rachel and Edward (Vega and Milner) have just turned 18, living in a ruined inherited mansion and bound to rules that relate to someone living under the floorboards. These supernatural "lodgers" control the house after midnight, and forbid the siblings from either having guests or moving away. But there's a clear sense that the situation is unravelling. And financial officer Bermingham (Bradley) arrives insisting that they need to sell the house. Then Rachel discovers that Sean (Simon) has returned from the war, and she starts breaking the rules.

The film looks terrific, combining a superb sense of decay with deep, yawning shadows. The special effects are subtle and seamlessly effective, adding a sense of otherworldly fantasy. As do continual references to the centuries-old mythology of the house, with its daytime and nighttime residents. And the script cleverly reveals its secrets through the eyes of interlopers Bermingham and Sean, who think all of this is just a bunch of old stories.

Performances are brooding and suggestive. Both Vega and Milner bring earthy longing to these haunted young people straining in their own ways against menacing limitations. Vega's longing for a real life is as vivid as her visions of her parents floating naked above the lake. And Milner adds an earthy, resolved quality to Edward, who feels compelled to follow the rules whatever the cost. Side characters add intriguing touches, especially Simon's intrepid Sean, but as things get increasingly bonkers, the film belongs to Vega.

Director O'Malley fills scenes with inventive visual flourishes that keep the audience on edge, from expressively muted colours to the inverted gravity. The score is awash in plaintive strings that echo the emotive dialog and deep-dark woodland setting. And there are potent themes as well, most notably in the way the sins of the parents haunt the children. There are also some looser ideas about two siblings coming of age and finding the strength to shake off the expectations of previous generations. But of course the main point is to make the audience squirm, and this movie certainly does that.

15 themes, violence, sexuality
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7 Guardians of the Tomb
aka: Guardians of the Tomb
dir Kimble Rendall
scr Kimble Rendall, Paul Staheli
prd Li Bingbing, Gary Hamilton, Shi Guirong, Ying Ye
with Li Bingbing, Kellan Lutz, Kelsey Grammer, Wu Chun, Shane Jacobson, Stef Dawson, Jason Chong, Eva Liu, Ryan Johnson, Lawrence Mah, Tim Draxl, Chen Qianhua
lutz, wu and li
release UK 25.Jan.18,
Aus 1.Feb.18, US 23.Feb.18
18/Australia 1h31
7 Guardians of the Tomb With a script that merrily adds melodrama using expository flashbacks, this Australian-Chinese adventure holds the attention using a riotous mix of contrived action elements. It's nonsensical, but produced to a relatively high standard. So even if there's nothing to it, and no proper suspense, the story and filmmaking are skilful enough to work as both a jumpy thriller and a guilty pleasure.

When intrepid explorers Luke and Ethan (Wu and Johnson) go missing while searching for a mythical medical miracle, biotech boss Mason (Grammer) tracks down Luke's estranged sister Jia (Li) in Australia. In China's western desert, Jia's expertise in venomous animals will come in handy, as the duo seems to have been captured by an organised army of giant spiders. Jia and Mason also team up with rescue specialist Jack (Lutz), archaeologists Milly and Chen (Dawson and Chong) and teammate Gary (Jacobson). Along the way, they discover orphaned girl Yin (Liu) and enter an underground labyrinth.

The McGuffin here is a legendary spider-based elixir that can unlock eternal life. Of course, there's also an ancient curse at work, plus an approaching electrically supercharged dust-storm and a booby-trapped underground palace. In addition, each character has a tortured back-story full of wafer-thin tragedies and regrets. Thankfully, there's also some Aussie sass in the dry humour and enjoyable flirtation. And the screenplay shamelessly includes every corny cliche imaginable, with gleefully yucky visuals designed to freak out arachnophobes.

The actors deliver straight-faced performances even when the mayhem is at its most ridiculous. Li anchors things as the level-headed Jia, the only person who doesn't lose her cool. She also has a nice internal urgency, concerned about her brother's fate. Lutz provides the nervous beefcake, with comical asides from Jacobson and some gruff-slippery gravitas from Grammer. But the real stars are the enormous spiders, which seem to conspire to pick off the irrelevant cast members.

No, this isn't a particularly textured adventure, never uncovering anything remotely resonant. Instead, it merely jolts the audience with a series of crazy set-pieces involving secret doors, rivers of fire, mummified corpses and lots of skittering, chattering spiders. There isn't much in this movie that's not utterly preposterous, from the personal drama to the dangerous situations. Director Rendall makes the most of his cheap underground sets, generating atmosphere with amusing effects. And most of all, he remembers to both entertain and mildly unnerve the audience.

12 themes, violence, language

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