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last update 21.Feb.16
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dir-scr Michael Petroni
prd Jamie Hilton, Antonia Barnard, Michael Petroni
with Adrien Brody, Sam Neill, George Shevtsov, Robin McLeavy, Malcolm Kennard, Jenni Baird, Anna Lise Phillips, Chloe Bayliss, Bruce Spence, Jesse Hyde, Alexander McGuire, Emma O'Farrell
taylor-joy, grainger and dickie release US Apr.15 tff,
UK 29.Jan.16
15/Australia 1h26
Backtrack Moody and stylish, this thriller from Australia uses tricks from Hitchcock to Shyamalan to play with ideas of guilt and grief. Filmmaker Michael Petroni keeps things dark and mysterious as he tries to torment the audience. But whether this is a ghost movie or a dark drama about mental instability, it ends up merely feeling silly.

Therapist Peter (Brody) and his wife Carol (Baird) continue to struggle with the accidental death of their daughter. Peter's boss Duncan (Neill) offers to help with his workload, but he continues seeing his patients, including the amnesiac Felix (Spence) who thinks it's 1987 and a woman (Phillips) who might be a ghost. And then there's the mysterious silent girl (Bayliss) who seems to be living on another plane of reality. To get some answers, Peter goes to visit his ex-cop dad (Shevtsov) and old pal Barry (Kennard) in their ominously named hometown False Creek.

Petroni playfully fills scenes with suggestions of the supernatural, from time travel to telekinesis. But the film's main angle is psychological, exploring the delicate mental state of someone consumed by grief that's mingled with regret over past actions. Yes, it's a muddy moral mess. Flashbacks flow in and out of the present-day narrative as they swirl around in Peter's mind, as if each tragedy in his past is merging together within him, building up and getting ready to explode.

Brody is strong as Peter, although he's so consumed with emotion that it's difficult to see his experiences as anything but a creation of his troubled mind. And it's not like anything he discovers makes him any more or less troubled; he's a mess from the opening scenes, which is a loud hint as to where this is headed. So since most of this is playing out within Peter's head, the other characters remain peripheral until we meet tenacious cop Barbara (McLeavy) in the final act. At least the supporting cast adds even more atmosphere and emotion.

Oddly, Petroni takes more than half an hour before he delivers a morsel of concrete, so viewers are tempted to give up on the film before it really starts. There are some unnerving revelations to come, as well as some quietly effective jolts, but the film resolutely refuses to gel into anything properly meaningful. Instead, the story spirals out into full-on melodramatic nuttiness. So when there is ultimately some rather ridiculous clarity in the murkiness, it's impossible to care.

15 themes, language, violence
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dir-scr Michel Franco
prd Michel Franco, Gina Kwon, Gabriel Ripstein, Moises Zonana
with Tim Roth, Sarah Sutherland, Michael Cristofer, Robin Bartlett, Rachel Pickup, Laura Niemi, Tate Ellington, Joe Santos, Angela Bullock, Bitsie Tulloch, David Dastmalchian, Claire van der Boom
roth and sutherland release US Oct.15 ciff,
UK 19.Feb.16
15/US 1h33

london film fest
Chronic Deliberately evasive, this artful drama never quite fills in the gaps of its story, which focusses on a complex, intriguing central character beautifully played by Tim Roth. Filmmaker Michel Franco leaves the audience to fill in virtually all of the details about him, which is a fascinating idea. Although the abrupt structure leaves viewers a bit lost.

David (Roth) works as a carer for patients with terminal illnesses. When the emaciated Sarah (Pickup) dies, his next client is John (Cristofer), who has suffered a stroke and is fed up with his family. But John's rebellious requests get David in trouble. So he moves on to care for Marta (Bartlett), a cancer patient who discovers some dark details about David's past. Meanwhile after four years as a virtual recluse, David is trying to reconnect to his daughter Nadia (Sutherland) and find some sort of balance with his ex (Niemi).

Writer-director Franco delights in leaving the audience hanging, offering scenes that seem to make no sense at all until the context is provided later, almost accidentally. The film's first act has almost no dialog at all, leaving us to observe David going about his work and some inexplicable private activities. We seek for clues around the edges of every frame, trying to understand who he is and what his actions mean. Eventually it becomes clear that Sarah is a patient (not a wife or sister), and that he is estranged from Nadia.

The actors are all unnervingly raw. Roth is so natural that he can't help but be sympathetic, even as he stalks Nadia or lies to people by adopting traits from his patients. Without ever saying it out loud, it's clear that this is a man in pain trying to express his inner yearning and redeem himself. So each scene belongs to Roth, and his interactions with the characters reveal more about him than anything else.

At its core, this is a film about respect. David has an unusual ability to empathise with his patients and listen to what they want, as opposed to their demanding families and doctors. And he longs for someone to accept him on the same terms. Scenes with Nadia hint at this possibility, and there are moments in his interaction with both John and Marta that provide breathtaking insight. But Franco's startling final scene kind of drowns all of that out.

15 themes, language, nudity
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The Forest
dir Jason Zada
scr Ben Ketai, Sarah Cornwell, Nick Antosca
prd Tory Metzger, David S Goyer, David Linde
with Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Eoin Macken, Rina Takasaki, Terry Diab, Yuho Yamashita, Noriko Sakura, Stephanie Vogt, Ibuki Kaneda, Akiko Iwase
kinney and dormer release US 8.Jan.16,
UK 26.Feb.16
16/US 1h33
The Forest With a relatively straightforward script, this insinuating horror movie creeps out the audience in the simplest ways possible, using deep shadows, inexplicable noises and sudden frights. It's not particularly clever, but it's solidly shot and acted. So even though the story falls apart, there's a psychological element to the gimmicky mayhem.

Suffering from freaky nightmares, Sara (Dormer) leaves her husband Rob (Macken) and heads to Japan in search of her twin sister Jess (also Dormer), who was last seen heading into the notorious Aokigahara Forest, a traditional place to commit suicide. Amid warnings about angry spirits and ominous dangers, Sara heads into the "sea of trees" at the foot of Mt Fuji to find her sister. There she meets journalist Aidan (Kinney), who wants to document her story. But phones and compasses don't work in these woods. And something's moving in the darkness.

The film is full of suggestive imagery, from the blonde-brunette contrast between the twins to the darkened corridors of Sara's dreams. There's even a tragic back-story. And in a witty touch, Sara and Jess' childhood snapshots look like the creepy twins from The Shining. Sara's premonitions and preoccupations add layers of creepiness, nicely undercut by the hint of illicit romance with a handsome stranger. While the forest itself adds a primordial fairy tale element to the horror, which is more sinister than scary.

Dormer brings a nicely haunted sensibility to the film as the sceptical Sara, who just knows that her sister has to be alive. She's perceptive and likeable, and of course always seemingly on the verge of something awful. Kinney is superb as a helpful charmer who seems unruffled by pretty much anything. No one else really registers. As the events unfurl, there are some strongly character-based twists and turns, even as the plot itself grows increasingly muddled.

Director Zada does a great job at keeping things introspective so he can capture the uncertainty of the situation, which makes Sara's confidence that much more unsettling. Especially since there are constant incidents that question her ability to know what's real. This adds to the film's underlying subtext about how there are things about the world that we have no way of understanding, something most cultures outside of America respect deeply. So it's a shame that the filmmakers resort to such corny, tacky frights in the final act.

15 themes, violence
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The Survivalist
dir-scr Stephen Fingleton
prd David Gilbery, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Robert Jones
with Martin McCann, Mia Goth, Olwen Fouere, Douglas Russell, Ryan McParland, Andrew Simpson, Ciaran Flynn, Hussina Raja, Caitlin Deeds, Sean Doupe, Kieri Kennedy, Dexter Louca Godfrey
mccann release US Apr.15 tff,
UK 12.Feb.16
15/UK 1h44

london film fest
the survivalist Beautifully shot and acted, the considerable skill shown in making this film helps make it watchable even as it becomes stuck in its own gruesome misery. With an intriguing premise and essentially just three characters, it's an involving exploration of the tension between survival and compassion. And it marks Stephen Fingleton as a filmmaker to watch.

After the world ran out of oil and people turned on each other, a young Irishman (McCann) moves into the woods to survive on his own, living in a small cabin surrounded by a tiny farm. Then Kathryn (Fouere) and her daughter Milja (Goth) stumble into his isolated spot, offering anything to be allowed to stay. As a kind of romance blooms between the man and Milja, he begins to drop his guard. But Kathryn has a secret agenda. And there are other people lurking out there in the woods who want something as well.

Fingleton keeps the storytelling minimalistic, letting the audience work out what's happening between the characters through insinuating glances. The camerawork and editing are also telling, revealing small secrets, snippets of dialog and other clues that raise the tension substantially between these people. It's a clever way to create a strongly moody atmosphere. The film quietly surges with life-or-death peril while completely avoiding melodramatics.

The cast give remarkably internalised performances, letting the audience in through their expressive eyes while keeping the other characters at bay. All three are excellent, exposing haunting clues about their back-stories and personalities without giving too much away. And each brings a vivid sense of physicality that gives a hint into how they have survived this long against the odds. Watching them wallow in their mistrust amid difficult circumstances eventually becomes rather exhausting, but it's never dull.

While audience sympathies are clearly with McCann's character, it's easy to identify with the way Goth's Milja continually suppresses her hope. In a real sense, she is the actual title character, a young woman who probably doesn't remember much of the old world, so her instincts are significantly keener. Watching her work out her next move is a bit predictable, especially in the film's final act when the story seems to get bogged down in the grisly nastiness and a sudden sense that there's a major plot point coming. But it's her clear eyes that linger in the memory.

15 themes, violence, sexuality
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