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Watching For Kicks 

Iranian gem scores highest among new field of contenders

My interest in the foreign import Offside spiked exponentially once I realized it was the latest effort from Jafar Panahi, the Iranian auteur who, let's make no bones about this, currently ranks as one of international cinema's most accomplished -- and certainly most important -- filmmakers. Like Zhang Yimou back in the 1990s, Panahi has frequently found himself the target of government interference, with all of his works banned outright from being screened in his homeland.

Lucky for us, these humanistic efforts have steadily been making their way to U.S. shores -- and, more surprisingly, to the Queen City. One such work, 2004's Crimson Gold, is a superb examination of the dehumanizing aspects of class separation, while another, 2001's The Circle, is a harrowing account of the violence often perpetrated against Iranian women. Dramatically, Panahi's latest effort is far less punishing than these previous pictures, which isn't to say it's any less critical of the way things stand in this Middle Eastern nation. Yet for all its railing against archaic (and misogynistic) ideas, it also introduces us to a handful of endearing characters (male and female), in the process humanizing a nation that is only presented to the U.S. as a boogeyman threatening -- what's the popular term? -- "our American way of life." Offside is exactly the sort of movie that George W. Bush and his cohorts in crime wouldn't want you to see, since it reminds us (since we miserably failed to absorb the lesson from Iraq) that women, children and other innocents will be the ones paying for his proposed premature ejaculation of a war.

The protagonists in Offside are young women and young men (all played to perfection by non-professional actors), and political issues are the furthest thing from their minds. Like the rest of the globe, they're caught up in World Cup frenzy, and the film is set on the day when Iran is hosting Bahrain for a crack at soccer's ultimate honor. But in Iran, women aren't allowed to enter stadiums to see sports competitions, meaning that many females disguise themselves as men in order to gain entry. The ones in Offside are the unlucky ones: They're caught and hauled off to a holding area just outside the stadium, where they'll remain until they can be taken away to jail. They're not thrilled with this wrinkle in their plans, but neither are the soldiers assigned to guard them. These fellows would rather be doing other things (like watching the soccer match), but fearful of their commanding officers, they dutifully carry out their orders. This results in various conversations between the soldiers and their prisoners, in which it's established that nobody's crazy about this law that reduces women to the status of second-class citizens. Indeed, as witnessed by the behavior of the soldiers and many of the men watching the game (some of whom attempt to help one of the girls sneak into the match), it's clear that the younger generation considers this exclusionary law silly, and that it's the country's elders -- the ones with all the power -- who adhere to these musty modes of tyranny and domination.

Through this enchanting and illuminating film and via press interviews, Panahi seems to be quietly hopeful that policies will eventually change in his country. It's a lovely daydream, though reality dictates an unfortunate outcome. After all, today's youth will quickly become tomorrow's elders, and noble confrontation too often gets molded into complicity, compromise and the corruption of values.

WHAT IS IT about the zombie flick that brings out the social critic in filmmakers? George Romero's Night of the Living Dead subtly touched upon racism, while his Dawn of the Dead was a glorious exploration of mindless consumerism. Decades later, Danny Boyle used 28 Days Later to examine the unchecked spread of SARS, Anthrax and, given the time and the film's English setting, even mad cow disease.

Now, here's Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (whose fascinating previous effort, Intacto, was brought to town back in 2003 by the Charlotte Film Society) tackling the sequel (Boyle remains as an executive producer). Working from Rowan Joffe's script, he's made a zombie yarn that also serves as a condemnation of American military might in Iraq. Yet let's put aside the sociopolitical context for a minute: Taken strictly as a full-throttle horror film, 28 Weeks Later delivers the goods.

Set (as the title implies) months after the original film, this finds the virus still affecting folks throughout the British Isles. But efforts at containment eventually succeed (i.e. "Mission accomplished"), and slowly the survivors start over in a self-contained city, all under the eye of the U.S. military. Naturally, a security breach occurs, the zombies start overrunning the city, and the American troops begin indiscriminately killing everyone in sight, whether they're zombies (read: insurgents) or humans (read: innocent Iraqi civilians).

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