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last update 23.Oct.15
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Closet Monster
dir-scr Stephen Dunn
prd Kevin Krikst, Fraser Ash, Edward J Martin
with Connor Jessup, Aaron Abrams, Aliocha Schneider, Joanne Kelly, Sofia Banzhaf, Isabella Rossellini, Jack Fulton, Mary Walsh, James Hawksley, Paula Morgan, Jonathan Watton, Marthe Bernard
jessup brown release Can Sep.15 tff,
UK Oct.15 lff
15/Canada 1h30

london film fest
Closet Monster Filmmaker Stephen Dunn takes a strikingly introspective look into the life of a young boy who feels like his life is spiralling out of control. Beautifully shot and edited, the film mixes artfully stylised flights of fancy with earthy themes that cut to the heart of big issues like bullying and self-loathing. But more than that, this is a thoughtful exploration of someone learning to accept his sexuality.

With his parents (Abrams and Kelly) fighting in the next room, the imaginative young Oscar (Fulton) shares his worries with his hamster Buffy (voiced by Rossellini). Even scarier for Oscar than the thought of his mother leaving is the fact that he might turn out to be gay in a world where homosexuals are bullied and beaten. Later as an 18-year-old (now Jessup) with a girlfriend (Banzhaf), a job and a passion for taking elaborately staged photographs, Oscar struggles to be the person he knows he is. Maybe his stoner coworker Wilder (Schneider) can help.

Warm and dark, the film unflinchingly travels to disturbing areas of the human mind. The script playfully explores Oscar's inner turmoil through nutty dialog with Buffy, which is complicated by both a chorus of casual homophobia around him and his own unwelcome internal urges. His sexual awakening certainly isn't something joyous or expectant. And where this goes in Oscar's mind is remarkably disturbing, which means that the line between what he's imagining and what's real can be hard to find.

Jessup is engaging as a young man grappling with his longings and struggling to cope with overpowering loneliness. His clashes with his father are telling and powerful, aided by Abrams' layered performance as a man trying his best but unaware of the impact his words have on his son. Meanwhile, Schneider is superbly enigmatic, as Wilder coaxes Oscar to open up. Each character has striking complexity, especially as seen through Oscar's eyes.

The approach to the topic is refreshingly original, with the truthful ring of autobiography about it because Dunn includes realistic details and avoids the usual narrative structure. A visualisation of Oscar's churning guts is a bit on-the-nose, while a costume party dress-up scene feels indulgent until it becomes clear what it is revealing about Oscar's lost inner self. And the brutal truth is that that growing up gay requires having a much thicker skin than everyone else. Which of course isn't something that a teen is ready to understand.

15 themes, language, violence, drugs
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Couple in a Hole
dir-scr Tom Geens
prd Zorana Piggott
with Paul Higgins, Kate Dickie, Jerome Kircher, Corinne Masiero
release UK Oct.15 lff
15/UK 1h45

london film fest
Couple in a Hole Like something from the Greek new wave, this film takes a surreal look at fundamental human emotions through a premise that feels both fantastical and eerily realistic. On the other hand, this particular parable is far too on-the-nose, never quite coming up with anything very insightful. Still, it's packed with unexpected twists and characters that defy expectations.

Originally from Scotland, Karen and John (Dickie and Higgins) are living in a hole in the French Pyrenees, foraging for food in the woods and resisting all contact with the people in a nearby village. When Karen is bitten by a spider, John heads into town for medicine and begins to think about re-engaging with society. Without telling Karen, he starts an uneasy friendship with local farmer Andre (Kircher). But Andre's wife wife Celine (Masiero) is extremely uneasy about "the accident" involving a burnt-out farmhouse, which is what caused Karen and John to drop out.

As the relatively underpowered narrative develops, the couple's back-story reveals that they are engulfed by grief over the death of their only child and have quite literally gone to ground, rejecting any assistance offered to them. So it's the crack in John's armour that sparks the events in the film, opening the door to the possibility of emerging from their self-imposed exile. This plays out through the interaction between just these four people. There's also a sideroad involving local teens never quite materialises into anything meaningful.

Higgins and Dickie are excellent at the centre, digging deep to explore the ravages of guilt and the desire to simply stop living. Their pain is palpable, even though it takes awhile for Belgian writer-director Geens to dribble enough information to understand what has happened to them. Kircher provides a nice counterpoint as the compassionate Andre, while Masiero does well with the under-defined Celine, who seems a bit too strident and pushy, even once we understand the connection between them all.

Oddly, once the root of the situation becomes clear, the film actually feels more simplistic. Geens is depicting the usual stages of grief with literal visual flourishes, but he never offers much in the way of real insight. This essentially leaves the actors without anywhere to take their characters, leading to an unconvincing final act. Even so, the film looks gorgeous, as cinematographer Sam Care captures lush undergrowth in the shadowy forest, most-shrouded mountains and a grubby sense of survival. yet while the emotions are raw and real, the film itself never quite overcomes its artificiality.

15 themes, language, violence
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Take Me to the River
dir-scr-prd Matt Sobel
with Logan Miller, Robin Weigert, Richard Schiff, Josh Hamilton, Azura Skye, Ursula Parker, Ashley Gerasimovich, Elizabeth Franz, Grant Young, Seth Young, Amy Hostetler, Ella Jaixen
weigert and miller release US Jan.15 sff, UK Oct.15 lff
15/US 1h24

london film fest
Take Me to the River After starting as a gently witty drama, this film turns dark quickly, sending its central character on an unexpected odyssey. The themes it's exploring are so intense that the film feels creepiest when everyone is smiling broadly. And even though the film is flooded with a sense of foreboding, where it goes is utterly unpredictable.

Californian 17-year-old Ryder (Miller) isn't looking forward to a family reunion in Nebraska, because his parents (Weigert and Schiff) want him to hide his sexuality. He instantly stands out from his sports-mad cousins, who ridicule the length of his shorts. But the little girls love him, and things take a freaky turn when 9-year-old cousin Molly (Parker) is injured in his presence. Uncle Keith (Hamilton) instantly turns on Ryder, causing him to feel like even more of a pariah. But Keith unnervingly switches gears, leaving Ryder perplexed about what's really going on here.

Where this goes is extremely unsettling, as filmmaker Sobel steers the film through hilariously jagged comedy, bitter emotions and some harshly dark drama. At the centre of this is how Ryder feels marginalised for not looking and acting like everyone else, but there are also skeletons rattling around in the family closet. Sobel keeps scenes natural and realistic, beautifully contrasting the pastoral location with intense dialog that lets the actors remain strikingly believable.

Miller vividly captures Ryder's unease at being treated like an alien creature. But then he's not very smart, allowing himself to be manipulated by this little girl. Weigert has the film's most textured role as the woman caught between wanting to protect her son and tolerating her family's nasty attitudes and behaviour. And it's her personal history that comes back to haunt them all. Sobel's one misstep is to try to raise our suspicion by cutting away from the incident. Wanting us to understand the haters' perspective is both contrived and extreme.

Even so, the story and themes are loaded with nuance. Sobel may use too much blunt force, but the subtext is so creepy that several scenes are almost unbearable. The most stunning sequence is Ryder's squirm-inducing dinner with Keith, his wife (Skye) and four daughters, as if nothing happened. Followed by a bit of pistol-shooting practice. It feels like another shoe is about to crush him! In other words, Sobel taps into the usual family weirdness and then takes everything much, much further. Ryder was right to worry: this was the reunion from hell.

12 themes, language
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Under Milk Wood
dir Kevin Allen
prd Stephen Malit, Kevin Allen
scr Michael Breen, Murray Lachlan Young, Kevin Allen
with Rhys Ifans, Charlotte Church, Matthew Owen, Aneirin Hughes, William Thomas, Bradley Freegard, Steffan Rhodri, Nia Roberts, Boyd Clack, Sara Lloyd Gregory, Nicholas McGaughey, Buddug Verona James
church leads the charge
release UK 30.Oct.15
15/UK S4C 1h27

edinburgh film fest
Under Milk Wood Dylan Thomas' iconic drama, written in the form of a poem, is ambitiously adapted into an experimental film by filmmaker Kevin Allen. But it's hard to know who it might appeal to. Lovers of the text will find it too wilfully wacky, while those new to it will only want to quiet the madness to enjoy the power of Thomas' beautiful words.

Over 24 hours in the Welsh fishing village Llareggub, a narrator (Ifans) peers into homes, revealing dark secrets and deep yearnings. There's a sea captain (also Ifans) reliving his glory days, the school teacher (Church) trying to obscure her grief through a series of random liaisons, a postman (Owen) secretly reading everyone's mail, a tailor (Rhodri) ilicitly in love with a shopkeeper (Roberts), an obsessed organist (Hughes), the schoolmaster (Clack) who dreams of his wife's death, and many more. The intertwined relationships both hold the village together and cause a continual stream of emotional chaos.

This is shot like a music video, letting bizarrely representative imagery flit across the screen in an attempt to capture Thomas' wit and insight. It also frequently feels like a nutty sketch comedy show, with little scenes that play on the pitch black humour in Thomas' observations on everyday small-town life. The film leaps from character to character in sequences that vary from gritty realism to freaky fantasy to zany slapstick, weaving and layering all of this into a perplexing mishmash.

It's so fragmented that the characters can never become engaging, although Church provides some big-eyed emotion in her moments on-screen. Others add some gritty energy, wrenching longing, devious plotting, and so on. But without a coherent structure or a central story or figure to identify with, the film is oddly alienating, like wallpaper that would be gorgeous run on a loop in a museum but feels rather torturous in a cinema.

The only thing that makes this film watchable is Dylan Thomas' text, which is a beautiful tumble of wickedly clever wordplay that finds jagged humour and thoughtful emotion in everyday life experiences. The story opens in the dreams of the residents before they awaken for the day and ends with thoughts of love and loss and sex as sleep comes to them at night. It's a stunning cycle of humanity, carrying a remarkably moving kick in the haunting phrase, "Remember me; I have forgotten you."

15 themes, grisliness, sexuality
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