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last update 7.Feb.18
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Birth of the Dragon
dir George Nolfi
scr Stephen J Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson
prd Stephen J Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Janice Williams, Leo Shi Young
with Philip Wan-Lung Ng, Xia Yu, Billy Magnussen, Qu Jingjing, Jin Xing, Ron Yuan, Vanness Wu, Simon Yin, Terry Chen, Zhou Yang, Lillian Lim, Darren E Scott
ng and xia release US 25.Aug.17,
UK 23.Feb.18
17/US 1h25

Birth of the Dragon A dramatisation of a real event that has taken on mythical importance, this movie has enough energy and spark to hold the audience's interest. But the script's focus on a caucasian character throws the central story off balance. And director George Nolfi can't resist punching the emotional moments with some truly sappy music. Still, the action scenes are exhilarating.

In 1964 San Francisco, a young Bruce Lee (Ng) teaches kung fu to American students, against the wishes of Shaolin priests back home in China. So when master Wong Jack Man (Xia) arrives, Bruce thinks he's about to be beaten into submission. Wong has other reasons to be there, but when Bruce's student Steve (Magnussen) begins to study with him, a showdown begins to be inevitable between their divergent philosophies. Meanwhile, Steve is trying to win freedom for waitress Xiulan (Qu), who is being held virtual hostage by mobster Auntie Blossom (Jin).

Making Steve's story the central narrative strand is an odd decision by writers Rivele and Wilkinson, because they are also building anticipation for an epic showdown between Lee and Wong. The question is why they didn't instead deepen Lee and Wong's characters, adding personal drama for them rather than for a side role. That said, Magnussen is the most solid actor in the cast, giving Steve a likeable hang-dog quality.

Steve is easy to root for as he tries to work out his own approach to kung fu while becoming distracted with taking on the mob to rescue Xiulan from her life of servitude. His scenes with Qu are the strongest in the film dramatically. By contrast, Ng and Xia are a little stiff in their roles, which gives them a cool sheen but never reveals much under the surface. Instead, they express themselves in cool banter and awesome physicality.

The clash between their philosophies is fascinating: Lee uses kung fu to fight, while Wong uses it to live. And there's further interest in the question of whether it's a discipline that should remain cloistered with the Chinese monks, or if perhaps there's a version that can successfully bring these ideals to the world. We all know that Lee succeeded in finding a balance between styles, becoming a superstar in the process. And while this film is only loosely based on facts, it at least offers some insight into how this might have happened.

12 themes, language, violence
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The Music of Silence
dir Michael Radford
scr Anna Pavignano, Michael Radford
prd Roberto Sessa, Andrea Iervolino, Monika Bacardi, Motaz M Nabulsi
with Toby Sebastian, Antonio Banderas, Jordi Molla, Luisa Ranieri, Ennio Fantastichini, Nadir Caselli, Alessandro Sperduti, Francesco Salvi, Stefania Orsola Garello, Antonella Attili, Emanuela Aurizi, Andrea Bocelli
sebastian and banderas release It 10.Sep.17,
US 2.Feb.18
17/Italy 1h54
The Music of Silence Based on the autobiographical novel by musician Andrea Bocelli, this English-language Italian film traces the moving journey of a young man struggling to find his direction in life in the face of disability. It's a powerful story, with a terrific kick of resonance, even if it feels anecdotal and a little staged. Some more spark and grit would have made it even more engaging.

On a farm in 1958 Tuscany, Sandro (Molla) and his wife (Ranieri) discover that their infant son has severe glaucoma. Having gone blind by age 12, the teen Amos (Sebastian) strains against both his disability and the constricts of society. This continually subverts his attempts to put his musical prodigious talent to use. Limited by the educational options, he decides to study law, working with a tutor (Salvi). And he finds support from friend Adriano (Sperduti) and girlfriend Eleonora (Caselli). Then at age 30, he finally begins proper musical training with a Spanish maestro (Banderas).

The decision to make this film in English is an odd one, as this purely Italian story would resonate much more strongly in the original language. This artificiality, as well as a few odd moments of melodrama, undermine the generally solid production and excellent acting. The film is infused with a nice sense of musicality, exploring the gut-level urges that drive artists, especially in the context of complex outside pressures. Amos' journey to become a top singer is a very rocky one that starts and stops through four decades.

The multi-national cast is excellent, catching layers within the characters and their interaction. Sebastian's charm is likeable even when Amos is moping, which he does a lot as he clarifies his purpose and develops both his personal and professional relationships. When he arrives later in the story, Banderas brings a nicely prickly quality to the maestro. Other characters are also strong, but come and go along the way, creating some nice chemistry while living their own lives off-screen.

Produced to a high standard, the film looks sunny and slick, although it also feels somewhat squeaky clean, avoiding anything even remotely sexy or properly dark. Amos and Eleanora act like guilty teens kissing and hiding from their parents, even though they're in their 30s. And while there are heavier moments in Amos' life that have an emotional kick, director Radford kind of steps back from them. But Bocelli's fans will love it.

U some themes

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dir-scr James Fanizza
prd James Fanizza, Brendan Whelton
with Alex House, James Fanizza, Guifre Bantjes-Rafols, Brian McCook, Leah Doz, Amanda Martinez, Stacy Smith, Gabe Grey
fanizza and house release Can May.17 iotff,
US/UK 6.Feb.18
17/Canada 1h24
Sebastian With its homemade aesthetic, this Canadian romantic drama is a bit too awkward to connect with audiences. But even if it's both underwritten and overwrought, the film has a gentle charm to it, and actor-filmmaker James Fanizza should be commended for getting it made. But only the most undemanding viewers will be able to see past the stiff acting and direction.

In Toronto, when Nelson (Bantjes-Rafols) goes away for a week, he asks his boyfriend Alex (writer-director Fanizza) to keep an eye on his visiting Argentine cousin Sebastian (House) while he's away. But there's a spark between them, which Alex encourages. Over the next week, they get to know each other intimately, which forces both of them to make big decisions about their future. Alex needs to decide how he really feels about Nelson, while Sebastian has to decide if he'd rather stay here with his aunt (Martinez) instead of returning to his homophobic mother.

Even with its contrivances, the script has an earthiness to it that just about works. But scenes are continually undermined by awkward camerawork and choppy editing, and virtually all of the information we get about the characters comes from painfully explanatory dialog. These often emotional speeches sometimes relate a moving story, but they're never quite as devastating as the filmmaker seems to want them to be. And the overall artificiality is represented in the only sex scene, amateurishly staged as a shirtless wrestling match with lots of nuzzling.

Even if their characters feel under-defined and a bit bland, House and Fanizza create a nice sense of chemistry between them. They are also refreshingly unlike the usual Hollywood heartthrobs, with more realistic faces, bodies and attitudes. They also bravely dive into some intense monologs as the characters recount traumatic events from their pasts. So it's rather frustrating that the performances never quite ring true, feeling more scripted than spoken. And some inexplicable plot points are pushy and implausible.

There's a strong story in here that a more experienced filmmaker might have turned into something darkly moving. Thankfully, the screenplay never moralises about Alex's behaviour, revealing cracks in his relationship with Nelson before he dives into this week-long fling with its "follow your heart" message. But where this goes never quite feels organic. There's definitely the sense that Fanizza is aiming for a Weekend-style drama, but while this film has its moments, especially when things erupt in the final act, it never quite musters enough emotional or physical honesty.

15 themes, language
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dir Margo Pelletier
prd Lisa Thomas
scr Laura Kelber, Margo Pelletier
with Scott Townsend, Deirdre Lovejoy, Cole Canzano, Jonny Beauchamp, Christopher Rivera, Keith Leonard, Michael DiGioia, Malina Weissman, Patrick Chillemi, Natti Vogel, Bianca Del Castillo, Everett Taylor
townsend release UK Oct.16 rff,
US 6.Feb.18
16/US 1h37

raindance film festival
Thirsty With a terrific blast of musical energy, this film recounts the life of lead actor Scott Townsend as he grew up to become drag sensation Thirsty Burlington. While the film maintains a sense of snappy attitude, director-cowriter Margo Pelletier sometimes glosses over key plot points and struggles to maintain momentum. And while she shies away from some key aspects of sexuality, she finds some earthy emotional resonance along the way.

As a preteen, Scott (Canzano) is mercilessly taunted by a neighbourhood bully (Rivera) for not being masculine enough. His mother (Lovejoy) worries about him, but he discovers that he has a natural gift for cheering people up through song. He comes alive performing with his Uncle Gene (DiGioia), and as a teen (now Beauchamp) becomes a star in his theatre group and falls for painter Christopher (Vogel). Years later, Scott (now Townsend himself) discovers the drag world, and shines because he sings rather than just lip-syncing like everyone else. But he's also a nasty drunk.

With a scruffy, low-budget charm, the film continually cuts loose with song and dance as it tells the story slightly out of sequence, jumping between three points in Scott's life. Every part of the story is packed with terrific touches, from a mean Cher impersonation to Barbie-doll nun-chucks! Thankfully, the script never wallows in Scott's alcoholism. And amid its dramatic and comical flourishes, the story touches on several powerful themes, mainly restrictive gender expectations that can make some children feel unwanted and unsafe.

Casting is pivotal in a film like this. Obviously, Townsend can hold his own, but both of actors who play younger versions of Scott are also excellent, finding terrific textures that bring him to life as a complex, talented, likeable young man. Which leads nicely into the later scenes with Townsend himself, a larger-than-life figure bursting with talent and offhanded personality. Other characters are more cartoonish, each providing a specific impact on Scott's story.

The movie's choppy structure is sometimes distracting, as scenes begin to feel a little pointed and preachy. But the issues the story touches on are important and evocative, including how difficult it is for someone who can't conform to the notion of what is "normal". The approach is sometimes a little narrow, making the observations so personal that the film misses a chance to offer more widely relevant observations. But this is a colourful, entertaining film with a dark undercurrent that keeps us thinking.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality

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