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last update 18.Jun.16
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dir-scr Joshua Lim
prd Joshua Lim, Stephen Lim
with Craig Jordan, Michael E Pitts, Jefferson Rogers, Garrett Young, Michelle Gallagher, Joseph Aloysius McGinn, TJ Howard, Lovlee Carroll, Larry Stone
jordan and pitts release US 17.May.16
15/US 1h83
godless Dry and somewhat pretentious, this is a muted exploration of brothers trying to redefine their too-close connection in the wake of personal tragedy. While the transgressive themes are intriguing and provocative, and the depth of emotion remarkably involving, the film's painfully slow pacing makes it rather hard-going.

After their parents (Gallagher and McGinn) die in quick succession, medical student Steven (Pitts) returns home from university to help his grieving younger brother Nate (Jordan) cope with his loneliness. Unable to work, Nate's colleague Trent (Young) takes over as a personal trainer for his clients. But when Steven's boyfriend Ray (Rogers) arrives to offer support, efforts to get Nate out of his shell only seem to become more futile. Clearly there is some sort of deep secret between these brothers that is holding them back.

Occasionally, Nate speaks directly to the camera, explaining some of the nuances of their relationship before revealing exactly what's going on. It turns out that a youthful experimental romance between these gay brothers ended when Steven went to university. And even though they understand that it can't continue, there are lingering emotions that the more sensitive Nate mixes with his grief following their mother's death. The film explores this in a series of short, quiet scenes that insightfully mix unspoken thoughts and feelings with very difficult conversations.

Jordan and Pitt have vivid chemistry as brothers who don't really know how to be with each other any more, especially now that they have to re-define the bond between them. Both give subdued performances that are full of emotion and internal struggle. On the other hand, the muted tone leaves all of the other relationships feeling undercooked, including scenes from the past featuring them interacting their parents, and also the private moments between Steven and Ray. Through all of this, the most natural performance comes from Gallagher, the only actor who injects a relaxed spark into her scenes.

Writer-director Lim beautifully captures the stunned silence of grief, as well as the way people cope in different ways with what life throws at them. But this morose tone infuses everything, including what should be happy flashbacks. The energy levels are so low that it seems like everyone is moving and speaking in slow motion. At least the constant relational subtext keeps the film engaging, as does the intensity of the theme, which is never remotely simplified. Ultimately, Lim's approach is thoughtful rather than moralising, which is refreshing. And surprisingly powerful.

15 themes, language, nudity
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dir-scr Jamie M Dagg
prd Nick Sorbara
with Rossif Sutherland, Sara Botsford, Douangmany Soliphanh, Ted Atherton, Karen Glave, Vithaya Pansringarm, Naliphone Siviengxay, David Soncin, Aidan Gillett, Amphaiphun Phommapunya, Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy
sutherland release Can 11.Mar.16,
UK 8.Jul.16
15/Canada 1h35

River Skilful acting and filmmaking helps make up for a plot that never quite gains any traction, simply because it's difficult to believe an intelligent person would behave like this. Frankly, it's impossible to sympathise with the central character for the decisions he makes, so his increasing panic feels like it's all of his own making. But the edgy realism keeps the audience hooked.

At an isolated clinic in rural Laos, John (Sutherland) is working as a volunteer doctor. After a clash with his boss (Botsford), he goes on holiday to an island village, where he becomes entangled with two Australian guys (Soncin and Gillett), who are flirtatiously getting local girls blind drunk. When John intervenes, the situation shifts dramatically. Instead of turning to the possibly corrupt authorities to explain what happened, he goes on the run, fleeing through a series of perilous situations and eventually turning to his clinic's driver (Soliphanh) for help.

Writer-director Dagg assembles the film in an intriguingly autobiographical style that makes it feel like it could be a true story. This extends to the fact that John's actions continually undermine his likeability. He's certainly not a hero the audience can root for, as he digs himself deeper and deeper into trouble. And he's clearly smart enough to know what he's doing. Sutherland plays him superbly, although the character is always on the go, so he never quite becomes a fully fledged person.

The other characters flicker in and out of scenes around John, without getting much chance to establish a personality. Since they carry a sense of their own back-stories within them, they all feel as bracingly realistic as the settings. The film is shot on location with a complete lack of the Hollywood sheen that paints everywhere as a soft-hued Disneyfied dreamscapes. Instead, this journey goes through several fascinatingly gritty places. This is the first North American feature shot in Laos, and Dagg captures the local settings and culture beautifully.

With the story, Dagg's clear intention is to explore a person who wants to do the right thing but ends up doing something wrong instead. It's a clever idea that the filmmaker doesn't quite pull off, simply because it's so difficult to believe John's sudden inability to make a rational decision. But the idea is so strong that the film still manages to grip the attention. And even if the message seems rather muddled, Sutherland's charismatic presence and the superb locations make the movie well worth a look.

15 themes, language, violence, grisliness
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dir Sven J Matten
prd Jean Du Toit, Sven J Matten
scr Sven J Matten, Melissa Kajpust
with Chad Connell, David Cameron, Tamara Gorski, Mimi Kuzyk, Erik Athavale, Jason Wishnowski, John B Lowe, Sheila Campbell, Andrea del Campo, Chris Sigurdson, Ben Grocholski, Maxine Gibson Bruce
connell and cameron release US 17.Nov.15,
UK 23.May.16
15/Canada 1h48
Steel This odd, inexplicably titled Canadian film doesn't seem sure whether it's a thriller, a romance or a darkly personal odyssey, so it ends up feeling like none of those. It also has an amateurish tone that ripples through the acting and direction, straining to add meaning to the flimsy, twisty plot. At least its themes are important enough to hold the interest.

Hot TV presenter Daniel (Connell) wakes every morning in a panic before charming his audience with celebrity news and gossip. He convinces his producers (Gorski and Athavale) to air a live exclusive interview with an arms dealer (Lowe). But personal issues are playing havoc with his head, leading to an emotional breakdown. Deeply in the closet and pushing 30, Daniel heads to a bar, where he meets the 19-year-old Alexander (Cameron), who follows him home and worms his way into his bed. But he gets Daniel thinking.

The story and script aren't bad, and the actors have plenty of charisma on-screen. Filmmaker Matten directs every scene with moody suggestions that something dark is going on, but continually shies away from revealing anything, which leaves the film feeling gloomy and bland. And his attempts to crank up suspense are too corny to have the desired effect. Meanwhile the sweeping romantic score makes the timid sex scenes flatly ridiculous. And everything else for that matter.

Connell has strong physical presence as Daniel, fit and likeable. But his shaky tics and nerves seem uncharacteristically unhinged, and are oddly played up with comically melodramatic camera angles and music. The main problem is that Daniel's breakdowns are unexplained, so he comes off more as an unstable, petulant diva than someone with real mental or emotional issues. Meanwhile, Cameron's Alexander also seems to suffer from split personality, veering from adoration to a pointless jealous strop.

Frankly, Daniel's histrionics would be a lot more engaging if the audience had a clue what was going on with him. Obscuring the explanation until a last-minute catharsis feels like a cheat, because the story is told from Daniel's point of view. There are hints that it has something to do with his childhood (as he clutches a well-worn stuffed animal), but when the climactic flashback finally comes, it feels too late, like it would have had a much greater impact earlier. And the heavy-handed plotting and cheesy symbolism undermine the emotional kick Matten tries so hard to deliver.

15 themes, language, sexuality
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The Violators
dir-scr Helen Walsh
prd David A Hughes, David Moores
with Lauren McQueen, Brogan Ellis, Stephen Lord, Liam Ainsworth, Derek Barr, Callum King Chadwick, Jennifer Hennessy, Roxanne Pallett, Harry Evans, Jacqueline Leonard, James Foster, Stella Grundy
chadwick and mcqueen release UK 17.Jun.16
15/UK 1h37

edinburgh film fest
The Violators This gritty British drama has plenty of intriguing angles that hold the interest, although the inexperience of the cast and crew creates some rather awkward storytelling. The film lacks clarity and momentum, meandering through its twisty plot with a nice focus on the characters. But the strong issues in the story are only dealt with on a superficial level.

Only just turned 15, Shelly (McQueen) has become the primary carer for her 12-year-old brother Jerome (Chadwick), and both live with their older brother Andy (Barr), who doesn't seem to do much of anything. Always looking to improve their life, Shelly turns to the local pawnshop owner Mikey (Lord), who is pressuring Andy to repay a debt he owes. And things get even more urgent when their social worker (Hennessy) informs the siblings that their abusive father has been granted parole. Meanwhile, Shelly befriends Rachel (Ellis), a rich girl who has been stalking her.

The connections between all of these people are extremely brittle, mainly because there are so few people they can rely on. Even Shelly's friendship with Rachel feels rather unstable, as both of them seem to be concealing their agendas. So it's rather frustrating that writer-director Walsh doesn't invest more emotional resonance into their scenes together, leaving everything elusive while building a tone that suggests that these miserable people will never know more than a brief moment of happiness.

Performances are strong from the fresh-faced cast. McQueen is magnetic at the centre, earning the audience's sympathy simply because Shelly refuses to give up. Her tenacity is compelling, even if virtually everything she does feels like an act of desperation. Intriguingly, it's McQueen's physicality that offers a glimmer of hope. Other characters are far more opaque, harder to identify with or understand, perhaps because they're seen from Shelly's limited perspective. But while this adds a layer of complexity to the film, it doesn't make it very easy to engage with it.

Walsh directs the scenes nicely, but the low budget shows in some gaping holes here and there. Scenes that look unfinished or under-shot leave the plot feeling disconnected and incomplete. And several pivotal moments are oddly unexplained, so the audience has to strain to connect the dots where possible. This helps to make the character interaction consistently intriguing, but it leaves the film as a whole feeling rather vague and aimless.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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