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last update 7.Oct.15
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Beasts of No Nation
dir-scr Cary Joji Fukunaga
prd Cary Joji Fukunaga, Daniel Crown, Amy Kaufman, Riva Marker
with Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, Emmanuel 'King Kong' Nii Adom Quaye, Opeyemi Fagbohungbe, Jude Akuwudike, Francis Weddey, Ama Abebrese, Kobina Amissah Sam, Vera Nyarkoah Antwi, Richard Pepple
attah and elba
release UK 9.Oct.15,
US 16.Oct.15
15/US Netflix 2h13

london film fest
Beasts of No Nation Strikingly well shot and edited, with rumbling, raw performances from its cast, this dark thriller immerses its audience in the chaotic horror of civil war in Africa, where young boys are pressed to participate in atrocities. And filmmaker Fukunaga's remarkable attention to detail just about sustains the story when it loses focus in the final third.

When a violent civil war threatens their safe town, young Agu (Attah) watches his mother and sister (Abebrese and Antwi) flee to the capital while marauding soldiers murder his father and brother (Sam and Weddey). Escaping into the forest, he's captured by a charismatic rebel militia commander (Elba). Taught to shoot a gun, kill with a machete and boost his "morale" with drugs, Agu weathers the highs and lows of the fighting but worries that he has lost his soul. Then the commander clashes with his superior (Akuwudike) about the next course of action.

Fukunaga cleverly constructs the film to draw the audience into Agu's life, revealing a cheeky, lively kid who finds happiness amid the chaos around him. Seeing that joy drain from his eyes is painful to watch. Newcomer Attah gives a staggering performance that balances the gruelling horror with a faint glimmer of hope. His interaction with the imposing, magnetic Elba is riveting, hinting that the commander may have once been a child just like him.

But then Fukunaga hints at a lot over the course of the movie, continually cutting away as if to say that some things are too awful to depict on screen. Although apparently hacking a man's head with a knife isn't. These things remind the audience that this is a constructed movie that is trying to say Something Important. And it's so skilfully written and directed that the message can't help but come through, especially with every element of production at such a high standard.

The film's raw power challenges and moves the audience. It's never quite as astute or electric as Jean-Stephane Sauvaire's more realistic approach to the same theme in 2008's Johnny Mad Dog. But Fukunaga's approach is perhaps more accessible, bolstered by Elba's imposing starriness and a likeable child's perspective. It's also a truly important film in this sense, because it will reach a large audience who may be able to make sure their politicians act to stop this kind of inhumanity.

15 themes, language, violence, drugs, nudity
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A Haunting in Cawdor
dir-scr Phil Wurtzel
prd Phil Wurtzel, Lolly Howe, Larry A Lee
with Shelby Young, Cary Elwes, Michael Welch, Alexandria Deberry, Charlie King, Bethany Edlund, Phil Black, Julie Grisham, Patrick Floch, Penelope Alex Ragotzy, Scott T Whitesell, Anna Bradley
young release UK 9.Oct.15
15/US 1h42
A Haunting in Cawdor Writer-director Wurtzel takes his time building a horror-style atmosphere in this pitch-black drama. This means that the central character is a lot more interesting than expected, and when things begin to cut loose, the psychological nastiness is surprisingly involving, even as the film gets increasingly camp and ridiculous.

As a condition of her parole, Vivian (Young) is on a three-month work-release theatre camp in rural Cawdor, which this year is staging Shakespeare's Macbeth. On arrival, she meets friendly young local Roddy (Welch), then bonds with the other detainees. The camp is run by Broadway veteran Lawrence (Elwes) and his tough drill sergeant Chuck (King). As Vivian lands the lead role, she becomes increasingly jumpy, catching glimpses of the past haunted the actress (Deberry) who last played the Lady. And she learns that the last time the camp performed Macbeth ended in tragedy.

With skilful camerawork and foreboding editing, Wurtzel establishes a nicely sardonic tone, matching the rebellious attitudes of these young campers, none of whom want to be here. Meanwhile, he insinuates danger in every scene, dropping hints about messy past relationships and of course playing up superstitions about the curse of the Scottish play, which Lawrence revives amid a chorus of objections ("We're all going to regret this!"). Honestly, why not just revive Grease instead?

The cast is natural and believable, although they're far too old to be teens who have just been released from juvenile detention. Young is solid as Vivian, a murder convict terrified by the unexplained things she's experiencing and afraid that she'll never have a normal life. Perhaps playing a psychotic killer on stage isn't the best way forward. Elwes lends some offhanded gravitas as the faded Tony-winning actor. And there's a nice sense of the characters, with a few kids standing out from the crowd, including Edlund's nice girl Tina and Black's brooding Brian.

It's intriguing to see these troubled young people form a make-shift community, jostling for control, trying to show their bravado while hiding their insecurities. And the haunting nature of Vivian's journey gets under the skin, even if we suspect from the start that everything will merely boil over into the usual slasher nightmare. But this doesn't go quite where we expect it will, mixing ghostly freakiness, pitch black comedy and more introspective drama. It doesn't always make much sense, but the original approach makes it feel fresh.

15 themes, language, violence
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James White
dir-scr Josh Mond
prd Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin, Max Born, Melody C Roscher, FA Eric Schultz
with Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi, Makenzie Leigh, Ron Livingston, David Call, Sue Jean Kim, Jeanette Dilone, David Harris, Bhavesh Patel, Shannon Viehmeyer, David Cale
nixon and abbott
release UK Oct.15 lff,
US 13.Nov.15
15/US 1h25

london film fest
james white This is an unusually focussed character study, both in terms of script and camerawork, offering a seriously complex role for likeable actor Abbott. It sometimes gets bogged down in its central melodrama, almost sidelining the eponymous character's journey, but it continually catches the audience with its resonant themes and emotions.

In Manhattan, James (Abbott) has been taking care of his mother Gail (Nixon) for two years as she's gone through cancer treatment, and he's finally starting to think about getting a job and home of his own. To regroup, he heads to Mexico to hang out with his best pal Nick (Mescudi), and while there he starts a relationship with teen Jayne (Leigh). He also arranges a job interview with a family friend (Livingston), an editor at New York magazine. Then Gail's illness takes a turn, and James' priorities are put to the test.

Writer-director Mond keeps the film focussed tightly on James, mainly using close-up camerawork that essentially crops everyone else outside the frame. Only Gail is allowed to invade his space. By contrast, the scenes in Mexico are shot widely, allowing James to be a part of the landscape. This is somewhat obvious filmmaking, but it effectively creates a a sharp sense of James' perspective, depicting how he is essentially trapped by an obligation that he never resents.

Abbott is an engaging, scruffy protagonist, playing James as a young guy who seems determined to be a slacker but can't ignore his responsibility for his mother. It's a tricky character to like, but he's easy to sympathise with, especially as he so erratically veers between doing the right thing and acting like a thoughtless child. Which of course makes him easy to identify with. Meanwhile, Nixon has a thunderous presence as a strong woman shattered by illness, and she carefully manages to never overplay it, as tempting as that must have been.

As the story continues, Mond sometimes wallows in the idea that James is a victim of circumstances, but that this experience is what will ultimately make him a man. It's all rather traumatic, especially as he goes through some more gruelling moments of both personal failure and outside challenges. But the film is also a nice exploration of how some things simply are more important than others. And even a loser can surprise himself by rising to the challenge.

15 themes, language, sexuality, violence
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Taking Stock
dir-scr Maeve Murphy
prd Maeve Murphy, Geoff Austin
with Kelly Brook, Jay Brown, Scot Williams, Georgia Groome, Lorna Brown, Femi Oyeniran, Junichi Kajioka, Jack Waldouck, Ashley James, Natalia Kapchuk, Alison Cain, Xavier Alcan
brook and brown release UK 5.Feb.16
15/UK 1h15

raindance film fest
Taking Stock A simple caper comedy, this British movie was clearly made on a small budget with a lot of heart. It's rather corny, but has a nice sense of the characters and situations, and a playful approach to its story that refuses to take anything too seriously. And the cast is thoroughly enjoyable.

As she turns 30, Kate (Brook) is struggling to cope with being suddenly single again. And then her grumpy boss (Lorna Brown) tells her that the neighbourhood shop they work in is closing down. With nothing to lose, Kate decides to go down the route of her childhood idol Bonnie Parker (of Bonnie & Clyde fame), enlisting her coworkers Nick and Kelly (Jay Brown and Groome) in an over-complicated plan to rob the safe in the office of the accountant Mat (Williams). What could possibly go wrong? Well, everything.

The plot is pure fluff, without subtext or complexity, played as an old-style farce with characters who have a breathtaking lack of common sense but are up for anything as long as they have their friends around them. Filmmaker Murphy and her cast have fun with a few too many black and white retro-fantasy sequences that look like a vintage gangster movie. This gives the film a nice sense of camaraderie, and the actors build strong chemistry in the way they interact, including sparks of romance here and there.

Brook is a likeable presence, cute and awkward and thankfully never pushed to deliver anything more than a bubbly performance. But then, all of the characters are pretty basic, really, never revealing any undercurrents or back-stories. Jay Brown has a terrific presence as the hyperactive Nick, and Williams is enjoyable in the only role that packs any surprises along the way, including some rather witty innuendo. But the main requirement here is to be smiley and have fun, and that attitude is what makes the movie enjoyable while it lasts.

This bouncy atmosphere and a superb use of locations mainly around Kings Cross goes a long way in overcoming the film's simplistic production values, including bare-basic sets, low-key direction and slightly slack editing. The lack of sophistication in both the writing and production means that the film is never more than light entertainment, and neither the caper nor the interpersonal storylines manages to achieve full velocity. But London caper comedies are rarely this warm, sunny and unapologetically silly.

18 themes, language
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