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On this page: AKRON | THE CHAMBER
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last update 8.Mar.17
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dir Sasha King, Brian O'Donnell
scr Brian O'Donnell
prd William Snodgrass
with Matthew Frias, Edmund Donovan, Andrea Burns, Amy da Luz, Joseph Melendez, Cailan Rose, Isabel Machado, Andrew Wimmer, Daniel O'Donnell, Alexander Mariani, Luis Gabriel Canas, Diego Suarez
frias and donovan release UK Mar.16 flare,
US 30.Jan.17
15/US 1h28

flare film fest
Akron With a bright, easy approach, this Midwestern drama never makes an issue of its central teen same-sex romance. Instead, this is a story about a wide range of people trying to overcome a shared past tragedy. It's a bit melodramatic, and also rather straightforward, but the characters are engagingly realistic and the message is important.

At an Akron, Ohio, university med student Benny (Frias) meets flirty rival mudball player Christopher (Donovan), an arts student. In this first flush of romance, Benny finds support from his pal Julie (Rose) and his parents (Burns and Melendez), plus teasing from his little sister Becca (Machado). So Benny develops a strong relationship with Christopher and they head off to Florida together for spring break with Christopher's mother (da Luz). But a past event sends their relationship down an unexpected rocky road.

Frias and Donovan are relaxed and natural, athletic young men who are powerfully attracted to each other. As Benny's parents, Burns and Melendez offer a terrific perspective, a bit taken aback to watch their child make his own decisions. And da Luz plays a rather more open-minded woman who has been through quite a lot. What happens between them allows the actors to give sometimes startlingly authentic performances that have real impact.

Still, the film is squeaky clean, more cute than sexy, with only one real shadow: Benny and Christopher had a fateful encounter many years earlier, portrayed in a pre-title sequence. Christopher is haunted by this long before Benny makes the connection, leaving the audience waiting for the other shoe to drop. Their awkward feelings are what drive the film forward, and they're strongly resonant. Even talking about this event leaves a space in the room. And while every character wants to bury what happened, the film takes a more provocative approach.

Yes, this is a story about how difficult it is to achieve true reconciliation, because it requires accepting the pain and sometimes embracing it. Filmmakers King and O'Donnell keep the film's tone introspective and inquisitive, letting deeper feelings gurgle to the surface along the way. It's not a particularly artful film, but the observations are honest. And what it has to say about people who simply refuse to move forward, blaming others for their issues, is seriously powerful.

15 themes, language
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The Chamber
dir-scr Ben Parker
prd Jennifer Handorf, Paul Higgins
with Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Charlotte Salt, James McArdle, Elliot Levey, David Horovitch, Christian Hillborg, Robbie Robinson, Yeohan Kim, Kim How, Alex Lee, James Artaius, Benjamin Yon
kuhnke and salt release UK 10.Mar.17
16/UK 1h28

fright fest
The Chamber Styled like an American thriller, this micro-budget British horror is inventively shot and edited. But the solid four-person cast struggles to make much of the corny dialog and, while writer-director Ben Parker demonstrates some skill, the film never says or does anything original. Which leaves it feeling waterlogged.

Mats (Kuhnke) is working on a scientific research vessel off the coast of Korea, and his captain (Horovitch) isn't too happy that a team of Americans led by Edwards (Salt) has arrived with their own agenda. They take Mats' creaky mini-sub on a murky mission into North Korean waters, immediately sparking a power struggle between Mats and Edwards, with added fireworks from Edwards' cohorts Parks and Denholm (McArdle and Levey). And Mats soon realises that he has no choice but to go along with the Yanks' dangerous, under-explained plan.

The mission boils down to arming and exploding some sort of "device" that's liable to decimate the sub but can't fall into the hands of the North Koreans or Chinese. As everything goes wrong, Mats quietly emerges as the only sensible person on board. This allows Parker to blind the audience with science, never properly explaining anything while hinting at dramatic perils. But it's difficult for us to feel any real suspense when everything is so cliched. Instead, we have a visceral reaction to the steely editing and pulsing ambient sound score.

Parker adds to the grave, ominous tone by having the characters take everything super-seriously. Their discussions are so dry that it's difficult to connect with them. That said, the words are basically irrelevant, because the plot would be obvious with the sound switched off. The actors bring plenty of intensity to their roles, which are relatively interchangeable. McArdle is the requisite hothead, while Kuhnke's Mats is enjoyable as he outthinks the others while pretending to cooperate, issuing warnings of doom that spark nasty outbursts.

The impending geo-political crisis is nothing more than background noise here. The only point here is that four people are trapped underwater in leaky tin can. Two-thirds of the film features them jostling for control, all equally annoyed and scared, looking for a solution to their predicament. Much of this involves shouting and punching and grappling for a way to escape this impossible situation. But the thrills are empty without any larger issues or deeper themes. Parker and his fresh cast clearly have talent, so let's hope they get something meatier to work with next time.

15 themes, language, violence

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The Love Witch
dir-scr-prd Anna Biller
with Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddell, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, Jared Sanford, Robert Seeley, Jennifer Ingrum, Randy Evans, Clive Ashborn, Lily Holleman, Jennifer Couch, Stephen Wozniak
keys and robinson release US 11.Nov.16,
UK 10.Mar.17
16/US 2h00

The Love Witch A consistently hilarious pastiche of camp 1960s thrillers, this nutty movie plays it dead straight, even though every scene is luridly over the top. Performances are riotously packed with innuendo, while the mix of romance, sex, violence and magic is head-spinningly groovy. Filmmaker Anna Biller stretches her joke about a half-hour to far, but it's a lot of fun.

In a romanticised present-day Northern California, Elaine (Robinson) is running away from her past life, settling in a small town known for its tolerance of her witchcraft practices. She strikes up a friendship with neighbour Trish (Waddell), then sets out to find love using her special spells and potions. And she seems unfazed when her first target Wayne (Parise) dies in the attempt. She moves on to Trish's husband Richard (Seeley). And when that goes wrong, she turns her attentions to hunky detective Griff (Keys) with help from her witchy friends (Ingrum and Sanford).

Writer-director Biller pretty much does everything here, from designing the sets and costumes to editing the film and composing the florid score. As a result, this is a uniquely sure-handed parody, impeccably capturing the silliness of period-style filmmaking. Scenes are drenched in colour, while every moment of interaction features layers of lusty subtext. And the actors strike just the right tone, remaining nonplussed by the outrageous goings on.

Robinson is hilariously blank-faced in the central role, as Elaine is clearly unconcerned about the carnage she is leaving in her wake. Her saucer-like eyes, epic hair and saturated dress sense cleverly echo Elaine's focussed personality as she searches desperately for the perfect man while preaching about the power of women. Waddell's Trish is more sympathetic as the wounded wife with conflicting thoughts about Elaine. And the men are little more than puppy dogs, helpless to resist Elaine's charms and spells.

Biller is a very clever filmmaker (see also her 2007 pastiche Viva), packing the movie with pointed commentary about gender issues. But the story begins to drag in the final act, mainly because we're in on the complexities of the joke. So it feels a bit repetitive as it piles on even more wacky imagery and settings while losing focus on the various strands of the plot. The scenes are still witty and packed with visual, verbal and thematic gags, but as it drags on it becomes somewhat difficult to care where these people end up.

15 themes, language, sexuality, violence
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Personal Shopper
dir-scr Olivier Assayas
prd Charles Gillibert
with Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie, Ty Olwin, Nora von Waldstatten, Hammou Graia, Benjamin Biolay, Audrey Bonnet, Pascal Rambert, Aurelia Petit, Olivia Ross
stewart release Fr 14.Dec.16,
US 10.Mar.17, UK 17.Mar.17
16/France 1h45

London film fest
Personal Shopper Intriguing but elusive, this observant French film takes in a variety of genres as it goes along, from internalised drama to ghostly horror. The central character is played vividly by Kristen Stewart as an engaging woman who reveals her back-story along the way. Nut elements of the narrative remain maddeningly out of reach, drawing the audience in deeper but never reaching a proper payoff.

In Paris, Maureen (Stewart) works as a stylist for a red carpet star (von Waldstatten) while she's waiting for a sign from her recently deceased twin brother, with whom she shares a heart condition. He believed in the afterlife, so the sceptical Maureen tries to tap into his aura, but instead runs into another spirit in his house. As she considers just leaving to join her boyfriend (Olwin) in Oman, a horrible crime brings another layer of stress to her life, which might open her up to a deeper supernatural experience.

Assayas is a fiendishly clever writer and director, sometimes excessively so. And there's a sense here that he's not quite letting the audience in on the joke. But the film has a superb visual sensibility that envelops us in the mystery and emotion. The spectral apparitions are artfully rendered, always in service of pushing Maureen further into her emotional honesty. This makes the paranormal goings-on eerie and unsettling without being scary. By contrast, Maureen's more glamorous life surrounded by insanely expensive fashion items is revealed as rather dull and pointless.

Stewart is terrific, even more transparent and engaging than in her award-winning performance in Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria. She gives the confident Maureen a riveting inner life, holding the audience at arm's length even as she can't help but reveal a complex mixture of insecurity and grief. Where this journey takes her is darkly fascinating, especially as events circle in around her and people push her along an unexpected path. Everyone else in the movie is essentially a one-scene player, but they make their roles indelible.

Setting a haunting amid the French fashion world allows Assayas to make several witty, unexpected juxtapositions, commenting on the quiet lives of people behind-the-scenes as an undercurrent of longing seeps through into every on-screen moment. It's all so smart and artful that the plot's refusal to come into proper focus becomes increasingly frustrating. Each moment provides plenty to chew on, but in the end the refusal to bring it all together leaves us feeling rather lost.

15 themes, language, sexuality, violence

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