Shadows Film FestArthouse films ’06
Films unlikely to be showing at your local multiplex...
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last update 12.Jan.07
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Army of Shadows   4.5/5   L’Armée des Ombres SHADOWS MUST SEE MUST-SEE
Restored and released in much of the world for the first time, Melville's 1969 classic couldn't be more relevant if it tried. Not to mention the fact that it's one of the most remarkably well-made political thrillers in cinema history.

The story follows a group of resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied France, centring on the engineer Philippe Gerbier (Ventura), who is repeatedly arrested and then escapes, goes on dangerous missions, carries out brutal assassinations and generally makes life miserable for the Germans. The secret head of his underground network is Luc (Meurisse), working alongside his tough-girl deputy Mathilde (Signoret) and his brother Jean-Françoise (Cassel). But their plans are thwarted by capture and torture, as well as betrayal from within their ranks.

Melville tells this story with a striking visual sensibility that builds from the ominous opening long-take of stormtroopers marching down the Champs-Elysées. The tone is tense and creepy throughout, although it's also surprisingly moody and thoughtful, catching human details in the characters and situations, and throwing us right in the middle of it all. It's frighteningly involving, forcing us to consider what we would do in these morally twisted situations.

The writing and direction are fiendishly clever and telling, continually subverting our expectations just as the resistance efforts are derailed at every turn. There are several unforgettably horrific sequences that convey Hitchcockian levels of tension, precisely illuminating the best and worst sides of human nature in each character. And each character is brought to vivid life by the ensemble cast.

It's often quite baffling to watch; we're never quite sure what these people are up to. But then, that's the point, since they can't know what their own colleagues are doing. This murky, anecdotal structure is constantly livened up by outrageous set pieces, such as Gerbier's epic voyage to London to meet with some hilariously unflinching Brits. And this style of filmmaking catches both the minute details of each situation as well as the raw, wrenching emotions. In the end it's an essential film about the true nature of heroism, which is all about the cause and never concerned with glory.

dir-scr Jean-Pierre Melville
with Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Claude Mann, Paul Crauchet, Christian Barbier, Serge Reggiani, André Dewavrin, Alain Dekok, Alain Mottet, Alain Libolt
army of shadows release Fr 12.Sep.69,
UK 17.Mar.06,
US 28.Apr.06
69/France 2h25
12 themes, violence, language
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Iraq in Fragments   4/5 SHADOWS MUST SEE MUST-SEE
This important documentary shatters government propaganda and show us the true situation in Iraq, what American intervention has done there and how the locals perceive the situation.

The film, like the country, is divided into three parts. The first section centres on 11-year-old Mohammed in Baghdad, a Sunni who vividly remembers the beauty and relative peace of Saddam Hussein's rule, even though his father, a policeman, was arrested for speaking his mind and never heard from again. But Mohammad's world is even more chaotic now, and he can't even find the motivation to learn how to read or write.

Part 2 travels south, where Shia activists argue that Americans haven't delivered the promised democracy; they've merely brought unlawful arrests and stolen natural resources, replacing one oppression with another. On the other hand, the Shias aren't exactly democratic themselves, enforcing their fundamentalist theocratic law. Finally, in the Kurdish north, the old Mahmoud longs for a continuation of agricultural traditions, although his young son Suleiman wants to be a doctor. The Kurds are glad to be free of Saddam's tyranny, although the rest of the country blames them for the occupying Americans.

Filmmaker Longley assembles this impressionistically and artfully. There's not a single shot that feels like a foreigner's-eye view. The only time we see soldiers is as they ride by on tanks, wearing sunglasses, chewing gum and brandishing very big guns. The narration comes from off screen--conversational, unscripted and profoundly revealing. When one person observes that the invaders are "shaking our hands while stabbing us in the back, only allowing us a portion of freedom", we can feel the truth of their words.

This is as pure as documentaries get, merely observing the situation and letting the people involved speak for themselves, without analysis. These people are fully aware of what the West has done to their country, and why. They also deeply understand that Iraq must remain one nation with three distinct parts. And that having foreigners plundering their country is no better than Saddam's ruthless Baathist rule.

As a Westerner it's simply impossible to watch this without feeling deeply ashamed. In some ways, the film seems to exist only to make us feel bad. On the other hand, it dares to speak the truth and, even more vitally, forces us to look through the eyes of people whose world we have turned upside down.

dir James Longley
with Mohammed, Suleiman, Mahmoud, Bizhar
mohammed (right) and friends release US 8.Nov.06,
UK 19.Jan.07
06/US HBO Films 1h34

15 themes, violence
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Lights in the Dusk   3/5   Laitakaupungin Valot
Kaurismäki's cheeky filmmaking style is fully in evidence here, even though this movie is a little less substantial than most. But it's enjoyable and sharply pointed, with an askance view at the isolation we impose on ourselves, whether we want to or not.

Koistinen (Hyytiäinen) is a security guard who lives a very lonely life. His colleagues all seem to despise him for some reason, he has few friends outside work, and the only person who shows him kindness is the cook in the lunch wagon (Heiskanen). Then a sleek blonde (Järvenhelmi) makes her move, starting a series of awkward dates. These are two friendless people happy to be together, even if they have little to say. But it soon becomes clear that she's up to something, perhaps with a local criminal (Koivula).

The twist here is that Koistinen clearly has no goals in life--willing to drift along, not bothering to get out of the river even when he approaches the waterfall. Yes, this is a femme fatale noir thriller told as a black comedy, and it's Kaurismäki's gentle, subversive style that keeps us chuckling, even as things get increasingly bleak. This offbeat tone is a little off-putting, especially since it feels somewhat superficial, and also as it's combined with deliberately stiff, hangdog performances.

Fortunately, the cast members manage to generate a glimmer of hope within their abandoned characters. Their deadpan delivery heightens the humour, and the predicaments they work themselves into are engaging and somewhat poignant. We genuinely ache for Koistinen in his predicament, even though he doesn't seem to mind. Meanwhile, the production design has a vivid visual richness that echoes moods from Hitchcock to Lynch, by way of Edward Hopper.

But we can't escape the feeling that the whole film is fairly flimsy. It's technically very skilful, but never quite makes good on the promise of all its elements. The short running time also means that it's over very quickly, even when padded out with musical numbers. At least the touching final moments give us something to hold on to as we leave the cinema.

dir-scr Aki Kaurismäki
with Janne Hyytiäinen, Maria Järvenhelmi, Maria Heiskanen, Ilkka Koivula, Vesa Häkli, Matti Onnismaa, Sulevi Peltola, Aarre Karén, Juhani Niemelä, Pertti Sveholm, Tommi Korpela, Kati Outinen
Järvenhelmi and Hyytiäinen
release Fin 3.Feb.06,
UK 6.Apr.07,
US 15.Jun.07
06/Finland 1h28

12 themes, some violence
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Tell No One   3.5/5   Ne le Dis à Personne
Based on the Harlan Coben novel, this twisty thriller nicely avoids Hollywood formulae, keeping us gripped to the complicated story and characters. It does drift into French pretentiousness, but it's still remarkably well-made.

Alex and Margot (Cluzet and Croze) are childhood sweethearts whose marital bliss is shattered by an act of violence. Eight years later, Alex is still unable to cope with the loss of Margot. Then the discovery of new evidence points the cops in his direction, but the hot-headed young detective (Lefebvre) reaches a different conclusion than his obsessive senior officer (Berléand). Meanwhile, far too many people are after Alex for his family and friends to protect him for very long. And skeletons are about to tumble out of the closet.

This story is a big, complicated puzzle, and it's well-told by actor-director Canet, who adds real-life touches and character details that bring each scene to life with wit and energy. It takes a long time for things to start falling into place, and even then there are some slightly unsatisfying plot points. In this sense, the film feels somewhat indulgent; judicious cutting would have tightened it up. And despite some remarkable final twists, it ends exactly as we know it must.

The ensemble cast is terrific. Cluzet holds the film together with an urgent portrayal of a man on the run, desperate to prove his innocence and get to the bottom of a mystery that has consumed his whole life. Scott Thomas is also excellent as Alex's feisty sister-in-law and best friend. Baye adds some steeliness as his aggressive lawyer. And Dussollier is very good as the man who may hold the key to the conundrum.

It's terrific to see a thriller like this that so expertly avoids the cliches of the genre. Not only is it distinctly unlike a Hitchcock innocent-man thriller, but it's also never remotely sensationalistic like Hollywood movies. Canet achieves a remarkably realistic tone in the action scenes, with bone-crunching stunts and breathless violence. With some sharpening and a shorter running time, it could have been a minor classic.

dir Guillaume Canet
scr Guillaume Canet, Philippe Lefebvre
with François Cluzet, Kristin Scott Thomas, André Dussollier, François Berléand, Eric Levkowitch, Philippe Lefebvre, Marie-Josée Croze, Nathalie Baye, Marina Hands, Gilles Lellouche, Jean Rochefort, Guillaume Canet
scott thomas and cluzet
release Fr 1.Nov.06,
UK/US 15.Jun.07
06/France Europa 2h05
15 themes, language, violence, nudity
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© 2007 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall