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last update 9.Mar.14
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Awful Nice
dir Todd Sklar
scr Alex Rennie, Todd Sklar
prd Michael Forstein, Elizabeth MacKenzie, Adam Paulsen, Todd Sklar, Maury Steinman, Brock Williams
with Alex Rennie, James Pumphrey, Christopher Meloni, Brett Gelman, Keeley Hazell, Charlie Sanders, Josh Fadem, Laura Ramsey, Henry Zebrowski, Jon Gabrus, Hari Leigh, Cheryl Black
rennie and pumphrey release US 7.Mar.14
13/US 1h32
Awful Nice There are some clever observations in this sloppy comedy about the immutability of family connections, but the humour is of the "you had to be there" variety. We quickly begin to expect every scene and indeed the entire plot to merely descend into anarchy. Which is a bit exhausting to watch.

In South Dakota, Jim (Pumphrey) tracks down his brother Dave (Rennie), sleeping naked in a teepee, to tell him their dad is dead. Married with a child, Jim resents Dave's slacker lifestyle, and the two continually lock horns. When they learn they've inherited the family lake house, they decide to drive home to Branson to sort it out with their father's agent Jon (Meloni). Maybe this road trip, and then fixing up the dilapidated cabin, will help sort out their differences. As long as they don't kill each other first.

Rennie and Pumphrey have a rambling improv style, with nonstop chatter that occasionally builds into a comedy riff. Uptight and compulsive, Jim is slightly more of a straight guy to Dave's inconsistent idiocy. But scenes feel random and unconnected, shifting jarringly between love and hate, wry observations and ridiculous nuttiness. There's also the problem that neither of these guys act like a real human being. Each moment they're together threatens to descend into a full-on brawl.

Even though they're well-played by Rennie and Pumphrey, both of these guys are such angry morons that we can barely stand to be in their presence. And there isn't anyone on-screen who's any nicer to be around. Every character is played for absurdist comedy value, which leaves scenes feeling like aimless comedy sketches. Sometimes the actors achieve some amusing momentum, but the chucklehead characters and nonsensical dialog leave every scene with nowhere to go.

Director-cowriter Sklar maintains a gentle pace that never lets up, skilfully shooting it like a reality TV show about people trying to do the dumbest thing imaginable. There's the occasional funny sight gag, and a few unexpected moments of wacky slapstick, but most scenes are so inane that they're just annoying. Perhaps this film was made by and for people who are falling-down drunk. Because if you're sober it's almost unwatchable.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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8 Minutes Idle
dir Mark Simon Hewis
prd Sarah Cox
scr Matt Thorne, Nicholas Blincoe
with Tom Hughes, Ophelia Lovibond, Montserrat Lombard, Antonia Thomas, Jack Ashton, Divian Ladwa, Paul Kaye, Pippa Haywood, Robert Wilfort, Leigh Quinn, Roddy Peters, Luke Newberry
hughes and lovibond release UK 14.Feb.14
12/UK BBC 1h26
8 Minutes Idle Making the most of a small budget, this low-key British comedy explores that time of life when hopes collide with reality and we have to start making decisions for ourselves. It's sometimes fragmented and uneven, and it takes awhile to get going, but it's engagingly well-made and there's a terrific kick in the tale.

Bristol call-centre worker Dan (Hughes) is thrown out of his home by his angry mum (Haywood), who blames him for letting his drunken dad (Kaye) steal her winning lottery ticket. With nowhere to live, Dan secretly camps out in the office with his cat, carrying on as usual with his wacky colleagues (including Thomas, Ashton and Ladwa). Then his maneating boss (Lombard) asks him to sack Teri (Lovibond), on whom he has a crush. In other words, Dan has a lot of growing up to do, immediately.

The film plays Office-style with life in a call centre (the title refers to one unforgivable sin), packing the script with comical banter between bored workers who use pranks and wild nights out to cope with endlessly dull work shifts and meddling bosses. This allows the bright cast to deliver sharply funny performances as believable young people who don't care about work or much of anything really, and would rather be drinking or having sex.

Hughes is likeable as Dan, one of those hapless British protagonists for whom nothing goes quite right, annoyingly. But we still root for him, even if he oddly seems to know nobody outside his office. And Lovibond makes a decent quirky foil, as do the offbeat supporting players. Together the actors develop amusing tension between the characters, hinting at possibilities for relationships and friendships, and ultimately vaguely triggering a rom-com subplot.

With tightly editing and a strangely muted tone, director Hewis gives the film a sometimes broad, comical tone that punches the visual gags. And as things get more internal and surreal, the film gets more interesting. We begin to understand Dan's deepest worries about being on his own and taking responsibility for his life for the first time. Which helps the film astutely depict how that first job goes so quickly from thrilling to soul-destroying. And how the random people around us become the centre of our lives.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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Southern Baptist Sissies
dir-scr Del Shores
prd Emerson Collins, Del Shores
with Emerson Collins, Leslie Jordan, Dale Dickey, Willam Belli, Matthew Scott Montgomery, Luke Stratte-McClure, Newell Alexander, Rosemary Alexander, Bobbie Eakes, Ann Walker, Joe Patrick Ward, Johna Myers
stratte-mcclure and collins release US 21.Feb.14
13/US 2h19
southern baptist sissies A filmed staging of Shores' clearly autobiographical play, this movie knowingly skewers Bible Belt culture as it applies to human sexuality. Sharply written with astute observations and witty dialog, it gets more potent as it progresses, letting Shores and his actors dig deep beneath the surface.

Raised in a fiercely baptist family, Mark (Collins) tries to be a good Christian boy even as he falls in love with his church friend TJ (Stratte-McClure). Mark, TJ and the other gay boys at church, Benny (Belli) and Andrew (Montgomery), strain against both their desires and the demands of their preacher (Newell Alexander) and their families. Meanwhile, we also meet two backslidden baptists, alcoholic Odette (Dickey) and the lively, queeny Peanut (Jordan), who meet in a gay bar because it's one place where they won't be judged.

The plot flickers around in time, while the actors step out of scenes to address the audience and reveal their inner feelings. Most telling is how these four boys deal differently with their homosexuality in this setting: Benny shrugs off the haters and does his thing, Andrew has a dark faith crisis and TJ desperately tries to resist temptation. Meanwhile, Jordan and Dickey entertain us with revealing, funny anecdotes. And while most of the film is amusing, several moments are sexy or darkly moving.

The ensemble cast is terrific, adjusting their performances for the camera, so even the broadest characters feel believable. And there are layers of meaning to explore. Mark struggles with the word "sissy", which was used to describe him as a child. And he still wonders why, if "God so loved the world",the church was the place "where we learned to hate ourselves". There are also questions about why prayers that God would remove those urges went unanswered, and why homosexuality is this the only Old Testament "abomination" the church takes any notice of.

The over-long running time allows Shores to be perhaps too comprehensive, delving into almost every aspect of the clash between religion and sexuality. As in work like Sordid Lives, Shores maintains the brightly comical tone while addressing very serious themes including bullying and even suicide, accepted notions of "happiness" and subtly endemic Southern prejudices. And it's all done with tender honesty, sassy humour and real emotional power.

15 themes, language, sexuality
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Under the Skin
dir-scr Jonathan Glazer
prd Nick Wechsler, James Wilson
with Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Paul Brannigan, Marius Bincu, Adam Pearson, Krystof Hadek, Scott Dymond, Michael Moreland, Joe Szula, Roy Armstrong, Alison Chand, Dave Acton
release UK 14.Mar.14,
US 4.Apr.14
13/UK Film4 1h47

34th Shadows Awards

london film festival
Under the Skin After Birth and Sexy Beast, inventive filmmaker Glazer continues to surprise us with this outrageously atmospheric sci-fi thriller. There's no dialog of any importance, and the plot is so ambiguous that we feel like we may have dreamed the whole movie. But it's utterly mesmerising, and it carries a visceral kick.

In Scotland, an alien creature assumes the shape of a woman (Johansson) and starts prowling Glasgow's streets looking for men. Flirty and friendly, she entices a series of guys into her inky lair, where their sexual appetite traps them like insects in a roach motel. But after a few encounters don't quite go as expected, she begins to experiment with what it might be like to be a human, including an attempt at romance and putting herself in danger of real violence. And her alien cohorts have no idea where she's gone.

By avoiding traditional narrative and characterisation, Glazer creates a movie that's as alien as its central character. He resolutely refuses to explain things to us, focusing our attention on the most identifiable aspect: the emotions of both the alien and her prey. So as the story progresses, we engage with the film at an unusual depth. This is a bold move for a filmmaker, especially when working with such an international star. And while some viewers will be annoyed by the ambiguity, others will find it breathtakingly original.

Johansson cleverly drabs down while still looking gorgeous enough to drive the local men to distraction. And her performance carries a strong punch because of the way she reacts so subtly: initially an ice queen doing her job, she begins to be curious about why men are so drawn to her, and ultimately she begins to make a tentative exploration of human sexuality, discovering emotions that are bewildering in both good and bad ways.

In other words, this movie works as both a nasty little alien-invasion thriller and as an evocative art film about the nature of attraction. Every frame combines otherworldly beauty with gritty earthiness, while a blackly comical tone undermines every sense of filmmaking indulgence. But it's Glazer's daring approach to the narrative that makes it so unforgettable, using sensuality rather than words to propel us into an odyssey of loneliness and lust.

15 themes, language, violence, nudity
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