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last update 24.Apr.17
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dir-scr John G Young
prd Anthony Rapp, John G Young
with Anthony Rapp, Jimmy Brooks, De'Adre Aziza, Jermaine Rowe, Drew Allen, Ashton Randle, Samiyah Thompson, Jonathan Moore
rapp release US 31.Mar.17
16/US 1h27
Bwoy Gentle and observant, this low-key drama tells a gripping story in the context of urgent real-world issues. The central theme is closeted sexuality, but it plays out through a narrative that keeps threatening to turn into a thriller, even though the tone remains earnest and emotional. Perhaps a bit more upfront information would have made it more compelling, but it's still involving and moving.

In snowy Upstate New York,42-year-old physician Brad (Rapp) is working in a call centre. Lonely, he turns to a dating site to find a man, on a whim listing his location as a visitor in Kingston, Jamaica. He soon starts chatting to 23-year-old Yenny (Brooks), a nice young local who enters into an ongoing conversation, including photo-swapping and video-calls. Brad starts to worry when Yenny asks for cash for his phone bill, but he's won over by Yenny's earnest charm. But Brad is also hiding this from his wife Marcia (Aziza).

There's more than one surprise lurking in this premise, adding complications and resonance along the way. Large sections of dialog are on chat screens, which requires rather a lot of fast-paced reading, then the video encounters cleverly bring the characters together while still keeping them apart. There's also a distinct emotional separation between Brad and Marcia, which is explored in a series of moody flashbacks. And all of this is skilfully shot and edited to add emotional subtext.

Rapp is solid at the centre of the film, conveying Brad's internal yearning as well as his hesitation about leading the young Yenny on. Brooks brings eager energy to Yenny, so likeable that it's easy to see why Brad would fall for him. All of the daddy-son conversation clearly makes Brad uncomfortable, and Yenny plays it for all it's worth, making him more than a little suspect. By contrast, Aziza is barely in the film, hovering around the edges like a plot point waiting to drop.

This set-up sharply conveys the differences between the characters, including age, race and economic position. The film also taps meaningfully into the difficulty of being gay in some cultures. Where the story goes is dark and involving, especially as Brad and Marcia's past and present begin to come into focus. And the final sequence is unusually layered and powerful. There's a complex set of circumstances echoing through Brad's mind, which push him into some dodgy decisions but also force him to see himself truthfully. So the film has a lot to say about the most primal human emotions as well as the need for honesty.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality

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Finding Fatimah
dir-scr Oz Arshad
prd Sol Harris
with Danny Ashok, Asmara Gabrielle, Nina Wadia, Wahab Sheikh, Mandeep Dhillon, Ambreen Razia, Theresa Godly, Shobna Gulati, Arif Jahid, Abdullah Afzal, Zoe Iqbal, Dave Spikey
ashok release UK 21.Apr.17,
US 27.Apr.17
17/UK 1h39
Finding Fatimah There's a clever premise to this low-budget British romantic-comedy, and first-time filmmaker Oz Arshad keeps things colourful and energetic. But it's so awkwardly staged that only very carefully targeted audiences will be able to go along with the story. For everyone else, it will feel corny and inconsistent, losing grip of the solid lead actors in a flurry of silliness.

In Manchester, Shahid (Ashok) is turning 30 and needs to find a wife. But the women who answer his ad on a Muslim dating app are horrified to learn that he's divorced. His best pal Nav (Sheikh) encourages him to hide that detail. Then Shahid meets the gorgeous Fatimah (Gabrielle), a doctor who doesn't realise that the fact that Shahid is Bangladeshi, not Pakistani, is the least of her worries. Meanwhile, Shahid's stand-up act mas made it to the finals of the Muslims With Talent TV competition. So keeping his divorce secret becomes increasingly impossible.

The film is assembled without much attention to detail, as scenes play out in a wide variety of mismatched styles that never gel into anything very coherent. Darkly dramatic moments are juxtaposed with mindless slapstick and goofy comedy to the point where the audience loses interest in hanging on for the ride. Several scenes feel like they were shot in a completely different time and place and then just spliced in to give the actors more screen time. And there's no perspective either, so every plot point is undermined by being presented too soon.

Performances are equally disjointed. Ashok and Gabrielle give nicely balanced turns in the central roles as young people who are genuinely trying to move positively forward with their lives. As their best pals, Sheikh's goofball and Dhillon's diva are broad comedy characters (Dhillon has the added insult of being obscured by unnecessarily long-lasting facial bandages). Family members are knowing and self-obsessed. And the worst moment goes to poor Iqbal as Shahid's insane ex-wife.

Writer-director Arshad clearly should have tapped some more experienced filmmakers for advice and developed further drafts of his script. While there's a strong central plot, the scenes continually let it down. Shahid's stand-up routine contains no punchlines at all, and yet audiences are shown laughing while the public votes for him. The romance between Shahid and Fatimah is warm and cute but utterly devoid of spark. The madcap race-confrontation climax is eerily anticlimactic. There's potential here, but the film feels only about half-baked.

12 themes
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Lady Macbeth
dir William Oldroyd
scr Alice Birch
prd Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly
with Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Anton Palmer, Golda Rosheuvel, Rebecca Manley, Fleur Houdijk, Cliff Burnett, David Kirkbride, Bill Fellows
pugh release UK 28.Apr.17,
US 2.Jun.17
16/UK BBC 1h29

37th Shadows Awards

Lady Macbeth Based on a Russian novel published in 1865 (the title is metaphorical), this blackly wicked British drama centres on a woman who simply won't accept the position in which society has abandoned her. Director William Oldroyd recreates the 19th century setting almost impressionistically, with minimalistic sets and wild landscapes. The story is pretty brutal, and it's very cleverly played by the entire cast.

Somewhere on the moors, Katherine (Pugh) is sold with a piece of scrappy land to the wealthy Boris (Fairbank). She's then married off to his son Alexander (Hilton), who prefers to look at her rather than touch her. When the men leave for a few months, Katherine is bored out of her mind, eventually visiting the stables, where she seduces the swarthy new groomsman Sebastian (Jarvis). Katherine's maid Anna (Ackie) remains quiet about their affair. And Katherine is fiercely determined not to let any of these men tell her what she can do.

Where this goes is rather grim and unsettling, and yet the cast and crew maintain a brittle and almost throwaway tone that keeps the audience off-balance. Some of the darkest moments are surprisingly funny, with strong undercurrents of irony and an earthy sense of justice. Indeed, it's difficult to take sides against Katherine, even as what she does is increasingly horrific, simply because she is so cruelly beaten down by her society. It doesn't excuse her actions, but it may help explain them.

Meanwhile, the performances are so full-blooded that they can't help but grab hold viscerally. Pugh is feisty and sometimes darkly terrifying as a vulnerable woman who insists on keeping control of her own mind and body. It's a star-making performance, an anti-hero who completely wins over the audience. Jarvis is also terrific as the complex Sebastian, irresistibly lusty in his interaction with Katherine and yet struggling against his pesky conscience.

The plot feels like a mash-up of Austen and the Brontes, something the setting helps reinforce, although its plot turns are even bleaker than expected. In the final act, director Oldroyd and writer Birch seem to be daring the audience to maintain their sympathy for Katherine, and in Pugh's defiant eyes they have the perfect protagonist: a woman pushed far beyond the brink, and then some. It's a remarkable comment on the quiet constraints of a sexist society. And it's even freakier because it rings so true.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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The Transfiguration
dir-scr Michael O'Shea
prd Susan Leber
with Eric Ruffin, Chloe Levine, Aaron Clifton Moten, Jaquan Kelly, Tarikk Mudu, Carter Redwood, Luis Scott, Tyler Rossell, Dangelo Bonneli, Danny Flaherty, Anna Friedman, Lloyd Kaufman
levine and ruffin release US 7.Apr.17,
UK 21.Apr.17
16/US 1h37

The Transfiguration An offbeat drama with a rivulet of vampire mythology running through its heart, this film has more than an echo of Let the Right One In about it: there are overt references in the dialog. It's also darkly involving, as filmmaker Michael O'Shea shows himself willing to go very bleak indeed. So while it meanders through its story with perhaps a few too many distractions, the film is clever and mesmerising.

Absolutely obsessed with vampire lore, Milo (Ruffin) is a teen who lives in New York City's projects with his big brother Lewis (Moten) after their parents have died. As summer holidays begin he meets Sophie (Levine), a new arrival in his building, and tentatively reveals his collection of vampire books and videos. She's rather surprised that he's never read or watched Twilight, but genuinely likes his oddball kindness. What she doesn't know is that he sneaks out once or twice a month to kill someone and drink their blood.

The film opens with a witty scene that reveals Milo's blood-slurping tendencies with a suggestive wink, but subsequent killings are played out much more brutally. There's also a constant threat of violence from a gang of older teens in the neighbourhood who are enraged that they can't quite keep up with Milo's quick mind. Meanwhile, Lewis seems lazily stuck to the sofa, oblivious to the actions of his little brother, but approving his new romance with the sparky Sophie.

All of the performances are earthy and natural, captured adeptly by O'Shea's doc-style direction. The attention is squarely on Milo, through whose eyes we witness everything that happens. And Ruffin adds a little stiffness to his performance, which plays up the immortal undead aspect of the character so that we can see it even if no one else seems to notice. This gives the film a nicely surreal sheen that keeps us guessing what might happen next. It also cleverly makes his relationship with Sophie feel intriguingly uneven.

Where O'Shea goes with the story is fiendishly inventive, both narratively and thematically. And it's just elusive enough to leave room for debate after it ends. The main frustration with O'Shea's approach is the pacing. The story drifts along in various directions that often seem to be random, which leaves many sequences feeling like mere filler. Much more effective are the constant clips and references to vampire classics, which add a surprising kick of emotional resonance to Milo's journey.

15 themes, language, violence

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© 2017 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall