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last update 19.Mar.17
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The Dark Below
dir Douglas Schulze
scr Douglas Schulze, Jonathan D'Ambrosio
prd Douglas Schulze, Kurt Eli Mayry, Kathryn J McDermott
with Lauren Shafer, David GB Brown, Veronica Cartwright, Arielle Kchikian, Sarah Zorn, John Vella, Lucie Gillespie, Emily McKeown, Taylor Frank, Keyna Reynolds, Brandy Criscerti, Tiffany Burns
shafer and brown
release US 17.Mar.17
15/US 1h15
The Dark Below Conceptual and experimental, this low-budget American thriller uses no dialog at all. The nicely stripped-down approach is complicated by a swirl of revelatory flashbacks, although with only minimal understanding of who these people are or why this is happening, it's not easy to engage with it.

After being drugged by Ben (Brown), Rachel (Shafer) is dressed in a wetsuit with a scuba tank and dropped through a hole in the frozen surface of a lake. Then he seals the hole. As she struggles to survive, she relives her life with Ben, centred around a dive shop owned by her mother (Cartwright). And as they coped with a sick young daughter (Kchikian), Rachel recalls discovering strange links between a series of missing girls. But she really needs to deal with what's happening right now as he prowls on the ice above her.

By skipping the dialog, this story is told through editing, which swirls the past and present to paint a fairly grim picture. Filmmaker Schulze is enamoured with slow-motion, and almost every moment in the movie is rendered nearly frame-by-frame to make it feel super portentous. The true running time would probably be half this brief 70 minutes (plus 5 minutes of credits). And this is a key mistake, because ramping everything up like this only makes it cheesy, especially when accompanied by such an insistently churning-surging score.

There isn't much that the actors can do with these enigmatic characters. Brown's Ben glowers a lot, marching around on the ice in his red parka with its USA emblem (ham-fisted political symbolism?). Shafer's Rachel is pluckier, as she shifts into survival mode. Her superhuman efforts are impressive but perplexing. And once the flashbacks start about 20 minutes in, the revelations cut right through the suspense, trying to crank up emotions among people who are impossible to know. So despite the harrowing experience, Schulze's operatic excesses leave everyone looking silly.

Perhaps telling this story chronologically would have built some proper tension, because the out-of-sequence approach means each moment of terror is undercut by either what we don't know yet or what we've already seen. So the movie struggles to build up any proper momentum. The wordless approach is clever and rather intense, but the hyped-up stylisation and the lack of character definition leave it feeling thin and rather pointless.

15 themes, language
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A Dark Song
dir-scr Liam Gavin
prd David Collins, Tim Dennison, Cormac Fox
with Catherine Walker, Steve Oram, Susan Loughnane, Mark Huberman
oram and walker release UK 7.Apr.17,
US 28.Apr.17
16/Ireland 1h4

london film festival
a dark song This dark Irish dramatic horror movie is much more creepy than scary, as it follows two people who are trying to get in touch with the supernatural realm. It's murky and perhaps a bit dull as it meanders along, but there are splashes of jagged humour along the way, and lead actors Catherine Walker and Steve Oram create unnervingly vivid characters.

While her religious-minded sister (Loughnane) tries to talk her out of it, Sophia (Walker) persists with her plan to rent an isolated house in the Welsh countryside and hire Joseph (Oram) to guide her through a series of rituals. She wants to contact her guardian angel and speak to her recently deceased son. But Joseph only gets this story out of her after accusing her of not telling him the truth. And if she's lying about anything else, there will be big trouble once they seal off the house and enter the spiritual dimension.

Writer-director Gavin sets out this story over several months, as Sophia and Joseph perform a variety of tasks that involve lighting lots of candles, reciting incantations and waiting patiently for something to happen. There are tiny wobbles in the fabric of reality, sights and sounds that seem otherworldly. But Sophia understandably gets impatient, which makes the short-tempered Joseph angry. This tension between them adds a layer of suspense to the film, but it's all so elusive and disorienting that we're never quite sure what's happening.

Walker makes Sophia emotional but eerily untrustworthy. She's so focussed on this project that there has to be something she's hiding. By contrast, Oram is offhanded and matter-of-fact, although the paces he puts Sophia through are sometimes so extreme that he could just be a sadistic weirdo. They make a terrific duo, often clashing but also bonding over the journey they are taking together, including some moments of earthy laughter. And they both throw themselves into the film's physicality.

When the story seems just out of reach, the seriously gorgeous cinematography by Cathal Watters holds the attention. Exteriors look alive, with epic skies and shifting forests. And the house interiors are an array of shadowy corners and glaring rays of sunshine, accessorised with wood, stone, fire and water. In this way, Gavin gives the film a jolt of primal texture to go with the gnostic mysticism. His approach to the story is so methodical that it almost feels like a textbook on how to contact an angel. But of course, the climactic sequence invokes a more traditional scary movie genre.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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Fair Haven
dir Kerstin Karlhuber
scr Jack Bryant
prd Kerstin Karlhuber, Tom Malloy
with Michael Grant, Tom Wopat, Josh Green, Gregory Harrison, Lily Anne Harrison, Jennifer Taylor, Tom Malloy, Lisa Varga, Denise Dorado, Michael Cuddire, Joanna Herrington, Zach Pellman
grant and green release US 7.Mar.17
16/US 1h32
Fair Haven Dark and emotional, this drama explores a very serious issue from a personal perspective. The film is a bit gentle and quiet, but there's a righteous anger gurgling underneath. The uplifting tone may make the movie feel dated, but the warm approach might help some viewers see the world more realistically

After a stint in gay rehab, 19-year-old James (Grant) returns home intending to get back on track studying music in Boston. But his dad Richard (80s TV icon Wopat) wants him to stay home in Vermont and work on the family farm. He certainly doesn't want James seeing his best friend Charlie (Green), which is fine with James because of the conflicting, torturous feelings seeing Charlie arouses. So James tries dating the preacher's daughter Suzy (Lily Anne Harrison) instead. But of course, it isn't that easy to change his nature.

There's an earthy honesty to this film that undercuts the somewhat overserious tone. Even if the themes play out in ways that are a bit obvious, there's a clear intention to genuinely grapple with them. The story frequently flickers back to James' counselling sessions, as his conversion therapist (80s TV icon Gregory Harrison) tries to find an easy explanation and cure for his homosexuality and James and his fellow patients try to redefine themselves. Then back home, James has to face the battle between this reconditioning and his much deeper urges.

The actors give understated, internalised performances that major in intensely staring into the middle distance. This may seem a bit dull, but it's effective for a movie about inner struggles, and the actors are open and believable. Grant is a solid central character, and his interaction with Wopat has a surprising edge as it touches on warped morality and stubborn old-world values. Grant's scenes with Green are just as intriguing, as they work to regain common ground even as both of them know the only truthful way forward.

Bryant's script and Karlhuber's direction are clever enough to never over-egg the topic. Because they let the story unfold at a naturalistic pace, the emotional kick in the final act is much stronger. This isn't a movie with a pushy agenda; it's a yearning cry for compassion, understanding and respect. And as it takes some dark turns along the way, the film portrays cruel attitudes as well-meaning ignorance. The conclusion may be simplistic, but the characters and situations are thoughtful enough to keep the audience involved.

12 themes, language
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The Levelling
dir-scr Hope Dickson Leach
prd Rachel Robey
with Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton, Jack Holden, Joe Blakemore, Stephen Chapman, Angela Curran, Joe Attewell, Clare Burt, Ben Frimstone
kendrick release US 24.Mar.17,
UK 12.May.17
16/UK BBC 1h23

London film fest
The Levelling With a strongly artistic sensibility, this British drama starts out with a death and gets increasingly bleak. It's the story of a young woman grappling with who she is, who she wants to be and how she is connected to her family and their land. Writer-director Hope Dickson Leach piles on the dark emotions as she spirals the characters around each other.

When her brother Harry (Blakemore) dies in a suspected suicide, Clover (Kendrick) is called back to the family farm from veterinary school. Her single father Aubrey (Troughton) doesn't want to talk about it, and immediately puts her to work milking the cows. But Clover wants to know what happened and why, so she turns to Harry's best friend James (Holden), who also works on the farm and is clearly disturbed by something he's not saying. Meanwhile, the farmhouse has never been repaired after a river burst its banks, and the farm's profitability is looking rather dire.

Leach layers the story elements like clues in a big mystery. Someone is culling badgers in the fields. Harry cancelled a big sale of cattle before he died. Aubrey threw a raucous party for Harry on the night he died to celebrate him inheriting the farm. Everyone is angry with Clover for leaving. All of this leaves Clover looking like an amateur detective investigating a suspicious death, and clearly the problem is that these repressed people simply don't talk about anything.

Kendrick is a likeable lead, although her performance strains against the jarring shifts in the film's tonal currents. Is Clover a bright young thing who has a chance to get out of this nightmare? Is she only just now discovering her father's emotional distance? Is she caught in the same cycle of despair that has killed her mother and brother? Meanwhile, Troughton is solid as a brooding, inveterate grump, and Holden offers promise as the smart guy on the sidelines.

To the audience, the only thing clear is that Clover needs to get out of there, and Leach struggles to convince us that she instead wants to stay in this increasingly desolate, desperate place. As everything falls apart around this non-communicative father and daughter, the emptiness is almost overwhelming. Just a tiny glimmer of hope might have made the film easier to watch, but instead it seems to be saying that this old way of life is finished. And if you can't move on, you're doomed.

15 themes, language, violence

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