Dir: Vladimir Michalek. Czech Republic. 2000. 100mins.

Reviewed by Anna Franklin

A drug induced fantasy that mixes horror and comedy without being either, Vladimir Michalek's Angel Exit is a film that makes its impact with a mosaic of images, sights and sounds that appeal to all five senses. Based on the popular novel of the same name by Jachym Topol this is love story about two drug-addicted youths who escape the decaying, post-industrial back streets of Prague to a world that is as much hallucination as it is reality. Already a box-office hit in the Czech Republic, the film's cutting edge look and fashionably attractive young cast should appeal to the youth market internationally although like any non-English language film it will face a tough sell to attract more than arthouse distribution.

Michalek's Prague will come as a shock to audiences used to seeing this beautiful city as a backdrop for numerous Hollywood period productions. Set in the teaming, semi-derelict neighbourhood of Prague's Smichov district, the film opens with a gypsy child stabbing a local shopkeeper, which is intercut with the traditional bloody Christmas butchery of live carp on the streets. Shabby tinsel decorations in the shop windows only make the seasonal celebration seem more morbid. Mikes (Cechticky) is a thirtysomething down-and-out, who lives in the semi-ruined neighbourhood along with a collection of pimps, religious fanatics and freaks. A former drug addict trying to go straight he believes that he can get his life together when he meets and falls in love with his neighbour Jana (Stivinova). But his drug-addicted friends Lukas (Pavlicek) and the dangerously seductive Kaja (Issova) have other ideas and lure him back into the world of drug-induced hallucinations and depravity, where colourful dreams contrast sharply with the drab grayness of Smichov.

Mikes and Kaja brew up a super drug called Czecho and embark for Africa on a magical trip where reality merges with a drugged euphoria that turns into a nightmare. Unable to remember the formula for the new superdrug Mikes runs into trouble with the local gangsters he has agreed to supply and is forced to flee to Prague but he cannot escape. Still hounded by addicts lusting after the secret formula that produces the ultimate high, he discovers in a moment rich with metaphor that the missing ingredient is his own blood, the only thing that gives the superdrug its magical power.

Michalek shot the film chroniologically on digital video using a skeleton crew, giving it a rough, spontaneous look and helter-skelter feel. At its best the film is poetic, as in its opening scenes when it portrays the life of the teeming streets with visceral images of blood and dead fish; at its worst it becomes lost in its own surfeit of fantasy such as the sequences in Africa which make little dramatic and border on silliness when Mikes and Klara are on the run from the unconvincing gangsters. An ambitious but uneven film that achieves much of what it sets out to do, Angel Exit brings the black humour and morbid power of Topol's story of a decaying, post-industrial world with its own morality to life.

Prod co: Buc-Film
Czech dist: Falcon Film
Int'l sales: Buc-Film
Prod: Jaroslav Boucek
Cinematography: Martin Strba
Scr: Vladimir Michalek, Jachym Topol
Ed: Jiri Brozek
Music: Jan Cechticky, Yarda Helesic
Main cast: Jan Cechticky, Klara Issova, Zuzana Stivinaova, Vojtech Pavlicek

Dir: Mona J Hoel. Norwegian. 2001. 95mins.

Reviewed by Anna Franklin

A family whose skeletons come out of the closet when they get together for the holidays is not exactly a new idea, but Mona J Hoel's Cabin Fever explores this well-worn theme within the framework of the Dogma manifesto to create a Chekhovian drama that is both fresh in its approach and distinctive in its visual style. The film's best asset is its ensemble cast of accomplished Norwegian and Polish theatrical actors who put on a display of dramatic fireworks that is intensified by the rigorously natural production techniques and the densely packed space in which the film is shot. The Dogma label and film's distinguished cast should give it a solid commercial run domestically and will also serve to heighten its visibility on the global arthouse and festival circuit.

When the Dogma group issued its manifesto several years ago, many cynically accused it of being little more than a publicity stunt to hype the latest offering by Lars Von Trier. However, after a series of films produced to its demanding strictures with varying degrees of success, a truly alternative form of film-making has been defined that has proved it can produce satisfying results when applied to the right project. Luckily, Hoel has chosen a story that lends itself ideally to the form, relating the tale of a nightmare Christmas spent by an extended family in the confines of a holiday cabin in the mountains. The moving video camera, the lack of formal sets and costumes, chronological shooting and natural lighting and sound give the actors and the direction a sense of freedom and spontaneity and allows the energy and dramatic tension to build in one long, uninterrupted flow.

The film begins with the individual members of a Norwegian family, mom, dad and their four grown-up children and their respective families, including their Polish in-laws, getting ready to spend a traditional Christmas together in a mountain cabin. But the tension between them begins develop almost as soon as they arrive in the cramped cabin with the kerosene stove breaking down, one grandchild suffering an asthma attack, one of the daughters bursting into tears over the break-up of her relationship with her boyfriend, another confiding she has just had a miscarriage and the alcoholic father already nipping into the vodka.

In the claustrophobic confines of the snowbound cabin the parents and their adult children begin to reveal their real feelings for each other in increasingly cruel exchanges as they go through the motions of a traditional celebration while their Polish in-laws become an unwilling audience. In one scene good-natured Stanislaw (Zamachowski) who is married to one of the daughters tries to diffuse the situation by singing Polish ballads along with his father Olek (Nowak) which provides a momentary release but in the end neither the Poles nor the Norwegians can understand each other and the mounting tension threatens to explode. Finally the Christmas celebration breaks up in a drunken brawl as the son tries to kill his father and everyone departs for their homes leaving the parents alone.

This is a film made of the dialogues between the characters as they strip away layer after layer of themselves. The actors turn in tour de force performances that are tightly scripted but appear almost improvisational in their freshness. The obvious presence of the camera within the confines of the cabin only serves to heighten the stifling sense of claustrophobia and unwanted intimacy, while Hoel has edited the film down to essentials to give it a relentless tempo. As a story we may have seen it done before but we have rarely seen it done better.

Prod co: Dis Film As
Int'l sales: Trust Film Sales
Prod: Malte Forsell
Scr: Mona J Hoel
Cinematography: Robert Nordstrom
Ed: Helene Berlin
Cast: Kari Simonsen, Svein Scharfenberg, Grrild Mauseth,