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See also: SHADOWS FILM FESTIVAL | Last update 29.Jun.22

The Alleys  
Review by Rich Cline | 4/5

The Alleys
dir-scr Bassel Ghandour
prd Rula Nasser, Yousef Abed Alnabi
with Emad Azmi, Baraka Rahmani, Nadira Omran, Munther Rayahnah, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Nadeem Rimawi, Jawdat Saleh, Hazem Elian, Mohammad Al Jizawi, Islam Alawadi, Ibrahim Nawabneh, Mohammed Wasdfi
release UK Oct.21 lff
21/Jordan 1h56

london film fest

Is it streaming?

azmi and rahmani
Believe half of what you hear and two thirds of what you see, the narrator warns us at the start of this Jordanian drama. Written and directed with skill and insight by Bassel Ghandour, this engagingly knotted story grips the audience with sharp characters and situations. The mob thriller premise may feel familiar, and the message may seem fatalistic, but there's real depth and several surprises in store.
In a lively Amman neighbourhood where everyone knows everyone else's business, Lana (Rahmani) is trying to hide her relationship with Ali (Azmi), a charmer who hustles wealthy hotel visitors, allowed to continue by local mobster Abbas (Reyahnah). Then someone films him sneaking into Lana's window and threaten public disgrace if she doesn't pay up. And her tough-minded salon-owner mother Aseel (Omran) turns to Abbas for help. This makes Ali's position extremely precarious, both with Lana and in his work. So he hatches a very risky plan to get out of the situation on top.
Describing this set-up is misleading, because there are continual surprises in what these people do. And it plays out with a tense slow-burner rather than big action thrills. Ghandour intricately depicts life in this community, with wonderfully textured characters who are always up to something. Conversations are punctuated with snappy humour and earthy emotion, revealing snippets of information and dragging others into the mess, including Lana's "worthless" father Tutu (Rimawi). Virtually each scene puts the characters into morally complex positions, leading to unexpected, plot-spinning actions and reactions.

Even with his petty criminal ways, Ali is hugely sympathetic as played by the charismatic Azmi. He's a guy who could easily take over his grandfather's shop, but prefers to dream of greater things, even if they're dangerous. Rahmani is the heart of the story, the only one blameless in the chaos swirling around. As her fierce mother, Omran has a strong reason for crossing those moral lines, then squirms to remain above the extreme nastiness she has unleashed.

In addition to generally mounting intensity, there are several sequences that carefully build suspense, such as a carefully orchestrated burglary that takes a frightening turn. And as a larger web of intrigue emerges, the film becomes a remarkable comment on how even the most respectable people protect their secrets, and that most of them are willing to do just about anything to protect their reputations. So the cycle is vicious and continuous, and both the innocent and guilty ultimately share the same fate. And life goes on.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 11.Jul.22

Pompo: The Cinéphile  
Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5
Pompo: The Cinephile
dir-scr Takayuki Hirao
prd Motoko Kaneiwa, Ryoichiro Matsuo
voices Konomi Kohara, Hiroya Shimizu, Ai Kakuma, Rinka Otani, Akio Otsuka, Ryuichi Kijima, Akio Otsuka
release Jpn 4.Jun.21,
US 29.Oct.21, UK 1.Jul.22
21/Japan 1h34

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corbett, pompo and gene
Opening with a raucous Oscar-style musical number, this Japanese anime romp is fast-paced and fantastical. Set in Nyallywood, it's a riotous dive into the process of filmmaking, with generous doses of comedy along the way. The animation is strikingly inventive, creating a range of eye-catching details, sometimes so many that it's not easy to take everything in. And while it frantically glosses over the darker, deeper issues, this is a charming love letter to the movies.
Prolific B-movie producer Pompo (Kohara) is a demanding boss to frazzled assistant Gene (Shimizu). But she has faith in him, and when he proves his skill assembling her latest thriller's trailer, she asks him to direct her next film, a serious drama with legendary actor Martin (Otsuka) and rising star Natalie (Otani). So they head to the Alps, where filming goes very well. Then on a down day, Gene runs into his school friend Alan (Kijima), who hates his banking job. But maybe he can help when Gene gets into trouble in the editing room.
Amusingly, the whirlwind-like Pompo comes across as a spoiled little girl, as if a mogul has turned over the studio to his bratty daughter. But she's actually a prodigy with a strong pedigree. The film slides between perspectives, shifting from the outrageously nervous Gene to overwhelmed newcomer Natalie, who is training with top movie star Mystia (Kakuma). Both Gene and Natalie are crippled by feelings of inadequacy, but they love movies and have always dreamed of making them. Indeed, their obsession nearly does them in before the studio-imposed deadline.

Mixing traditional animation with photo-realistic touches, the movie is often a feast for the eyes. The way the imagery depicts filmmaking is witty and full of wrinkles and surprises, from the value of having an encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema to a random mud fight improvised by the cast. And it vividly captures the intensity of the editing process. Along with rather a lot of sentimentality, there's also plenty of levity, including the pointed joke that making an audience watch for more than two hours is unkind.

Aside from a funding crisis over some reshoots, Gene's film progresses remarkably smoothly, only barely echoing Pompo's comment about moviemaking being all about "dreams and madness". But there are lovely touches peppered throughout the story, most notably exploring the power of personal passion and the depth of imagination that comes from being an outcast. And above all, this is a celebration of how confidence makes your eyes sparkle, changing the way you see the world and how others see you.

cert 12 themes, language 29.Jun.22

Sniper: The White Raven  
Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5
Sniper: The White Raven
dir Marian Bushan
prd Artem Denisov
scr Marian Bushan, Mykola Voronin
with Pavlo Aldoshyn, Maryna Koshkina, Andrey Mostrenko, Roman Semysal, Oleg Drach, Roman Yasinovsky, Oleg Shulga, Vadim Kyalko, Vadim Kurilko, Vladislav Dmitrenko, Egor Kozlov, Zachary Shadrin
release US 1.Jul.22
22/Ukraine 1h51

Is it streaming?

Set during Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine, this wartime thriller has an unintended added timeliness to it that's deeply chilling right now. The story follows a gentle environmentalist who is transformed into a skilled military sniper. While it builds up suspense on its way to a heated final sequence, the film resists becoming a full-on action movie, remaining more internalised and thoughtful. Which makes it remarkably provocative.

Peacefully living in an isolated ecological home in the Donbas countryside, science teacher Mykola (Aldoshyn) and his wife Nastya (Koshkina) are blissfully happy. Then two passing Russian soldiers murder Nastya and destroy their house. Grieving, Mykola is picked up by a Ukrainian militia. He impresses the commander (Semysal) with his rifle skills, and is trained as a sniper, proving himself himself in a series of nerve-rattling skirmishes. Four years later, Mykola is still seeking vengeance, setting his sites on an elite Russian gunman (Drach). The larger question is whether this will actually give him peace.
Opening with scenes that offer insight into the woolly, hippie-like Mykola's genuine, simple lifestyle, the film reveals the narrow-minded people he faces every day as well his tight bond with Nastya. This helps us sympathise with his determination to find some sense of justice, even if it means transforming himself into a new person. Cleverly, the writing and directing remain matter-of-fact, resisting both rah-rah battle moments and heightened melodrama. So while the film turns into a war movie, it remains quietly observant during dangerous missions that play out as seriously tense set pieces.

Almost constantly on-screen, Aldoshyn gets a chance to deepen Mykola in intriguing directions, from his early scenes as a teacher to his focus as a top sniper. Along the way, he also performs a couple of lovely songs with his guitar, adding a soulfulness that underscores his yearning for revenge. By the end, he's a muscle-bound assassin, but Aldoshyn continues to reveal emotions beneath the surface. Other characters come and go along the way, while director Bushan keeps the focus tightly on Mykola's journey.

Yes, the story is one-sided, as Russian soldiers are depicted as trigger-happy hothead thugs, including one fighter (Kozlov) who had earlier been a bully in Mykola's classroom. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians are scrappy heroes with heart and determination as they face a fearsome foe. Of course, the filmmakers couldn't have known how closely this would reflect news coverage of the current invasion. But they way they put a human face to the conflict is powerfully haunting.

cert 15 themes, language, violence, sexuality 29.Jun.22

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