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On this page: CROWN HEIGHTS
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last update 18.Aug.17
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Crown Heights
dir-scr Matt Ruskin
prd Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Galazka, Matt Ruskin
with Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Bill Camp, Zach Grenier, Nestor Carbonell, Josh Pais, Ron Canada, Yul Vazquez, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Sarah Goldberg
stanfield release UK Jun.17 sllf,
US 18.Aug.17
17/US 1h34

Sundance London film festival
Crown Heights A powerful true story is recounted skilfully as this drama spans 21 years in the life of a man wrongfully accused of murder. Writer-director Matt Ruskin has several urgent things to say about the American judicial system, although his approach chronicles the events like a well-made TV docudrama rather than building a proper cinematic narrative arc. This leaves us feeling informed but not hugely involved, but it's essential that this story is told.

In 1980, 18-year-old Colin (Stanfield) is arrested by a gung-ho detective (Grenier) who secures a series of witnesses putting him at the centre of a murder in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Convicted and sent to prison, his best pal Carl (Asomugha) never gives up appealing the case, even though everyone seems to just want Colin to disappear. Then his old girlfriend Antoinette (Paul) joins his cause, rekindling their romance. And Carl takes a job with a lawyer (Camp) who he may be able to spot a new route to justice.

The screenplay leaps through time, skipping from one key event to the next several years later. But the passage of time is never very apparent on-screen, aside from news clips of various US presidents making the law increasingly harsh. The parade of lawyers, witnesses and judges over these years is a bit of a blur; amid all of the names thrown around, only a few stand out. And the personal moments in each central figure's life are limited to momentous events.

The main problem with this approach is that it leaves Colin rather enigmatic. Stanfield is such a magnetic actor that he brings a beautiful range of feeling to each scene, easily bridging Colin's nice-guy qualities with his righteous rage. This bracingly conveys the injustice he feels, even though we never quite get to know him. Asomugha and Paul are terrific as well, adding a lovely sense of compassion to their characters, plus genuine affection for Colin.

Perhaps with a bit more space, such as in a miniseries, the characters could have been fleshed out a bit more forcefully. As is, this film merely hits all of the highlights. It's skilfully shot and edited, with a sharp sense of its thematic urgency. And it holds the audience gripped, even if we know where the story is headed. It's definitely the kind of film that needs to be seen widely, but a more nuanced approach to the characters might have made it devastating as well.

15 themes, language, violence
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England Is Mine
dir Mark Gill
scr Mark Gill, William Thacker
prd Baldwin Li, Orian Williams
with Jack Lowden, Jessica Brown Findlay, Simone Kirby, Jodie Comer, Peter McDonald, Vivienne Bell, Adam Lawrence, Laurie Kynaston, Katherine Pearce, Graeme Hawley, Finney Cassidy, Marc Graham
lowden and kynaston release UK 4.Aug.17
17/UK 1h34

England Is Mine This is a beautifully made film about the nature of artistic expression and how some people struggle to find their own voice. Filmmaker Mark Gill skilfully recreates the late 1970s and early 80s with a gifted cast that adds layers of intriguing emotion to their characters. Unfortunately, this is also an unauthorised biopic about Morrissey that feels pointless because it features none of his music or lyrics.

In 1976 Manchester, Steve Morrissey (Lowden) struggles to hold down a job, bored rigid by the mundane life expected for him. His mum (Kirby) is relatively patient with him, while his sister Jackie (Bell) is merciless. For support he turns to his best friend Anji (Pearce) and later Linder (Findlay), and both encourage him to do something with the lyrics he doodles in a notebook. He joins a band with guitarist Billy (Lawrence), who is snapped up after one gig, leaving Steve to find another dull job.

Gill recreates the period with understated production design, eliciting strong performances from a relaxed cast. Lowden has plenty of charisma as Steve, offering insights into his personality that are tantalising and telling. The script hints at but skirts around his sexuality, and it also fictionalises many real-life events, leaving out key details. These things will annoy Morrissey fans and anyone hoping to get some insight into either Morrissey's music or The Smiths' back-story.

Even where things aren't factually accurate, the film has value as a portrait of an emerging artist. Rising star Lowden is terrific, bringing a nice sense of internal energy to Steve's interaction, which creates intriguing, revelatory relationships with the people around him. Findlay's Linder is magnetic as a fellow artist pursuing her own path, and Kirby has some vivid moments as Steve's patient, open-minded mother. Less visible, McDonald has some nice scenes as Steve's father, although as Johnny Marr, the electric Kynaston oddly has very little screen time.

But it's the lack of Morrissey's music that's the real problem, leaving the audience to wonder why Gill made the movie at all. By only having Steve sing once (a New York Dolls cover), there's a gaping hole at the centre of the story, right where this artist's creative expression needs to be. Replacing this with mopey voiceover or shots of not very subtly churning water simply isn't good enough. And it means that this movie will remain an oddity until Morrissey grants the rights for someone to properly tell his story.

15 themes, language

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Kept Boy
dir George Bamber
scr David Ozanich
prd Haley Christensen, Laura Reich, Ben Simons
with Jon Paul Phillips, Thure Riefenstein, Greg Audino, Deosick Burney, John-Michael Carlton, Toni Romano-Cohen, Charles Fathy, Ellen Karsten, Sideara St Claire, Vivian Lamolli, Scott Atkinson, Tod Abrams
burney, riefenstein and phillips release US/UK 8.Aug.17
17/US 1h29
Kept Boy Based on the Robert Rodi novel, this black comedy has a somewhat uneven tone, leaning more toward a prickly drama packed with unsympathetic characters. While the premise is packed with intriguing themes, the writing and direction never quite settle into anything that's either coherent or believable. So it's difficult to engage with the people or situations.

Reality show designer Farleigh (Riefenstein) loves beautiful things, like his much younger boyfriend Dennis (Phillips). With work slowing down and his health in decline, Farleigh tells Dennis he needs to get a job before his upcoming 30th birthday. But Dennis has never been anything other than a toy boy, so for help he turns to his friend Lonnie (Carlton), who has a sugar-mamma (Karsten) of his own. Worried that Farleigh is grooming their pool boy Jasper (Audino) to be his replacement, Dennis plans a romantic getaway to Cartagena, which doesn't quite go to plan.

Writer Ozanich and director Bamber never quite connect the story's scenes to each other, which leaves the film feeling like it's just bouncing around the plot aimlessly, finding bits of the story here and there. This approach creates a lively, loose tone, but is also makes the characters look shallow and selfish. Farleigh is deeply unlikeable, which isn't a serious problem, but Dennis is just as bad, and that leaves the audience in search of someone to identify with. And with the rest of the characters are paper thin, the relatively inexperienced actors can't do much to bring them to life.

At the centre, Phillips makes Dennis petulant and pathetic, and rather too arrogant to be believable, although there are some emotional moments that ring true. Riefenstein's Farleigh is inexplicably cruel, which forces the audience to wonder why Dennis bothers trying to rescue their relationship. There's certainly no chemistry between them. And Audino's interloper is little more than a pretty face. Which leaves Burney with the most engaging role as Farleigh's frazzled assistant, Dennis' predecessor.

Despite the fact that the cast is frequently naked, Bamber's approach is so timid that he leaves anything remotely lusty off the screen. At least there's plenty of beauty to see, from the fit actors to the gorgeous settings. So while the story's awkward pacing and corny dialog makes it difficult for the audience to get involved in the melodrama, it's intriguing enough to keep us watching. Even when the coincidence-laden plot takes some flatly ridiculous turns.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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dir Aisling Walsh
scr Sherry White
prd Bob Cooper, Susan Mullen, Mary Sexton, Mary Young Leckie
with Sally Hawkins, Ethan Hawke, Kari Matchett, Gabrielle Rose, Zachary Bennett, Billy MacLellan, Greg Malone, Marthe Bernard, Lawrence Barry, David Feehan, Nik Sexton, Brian Marler
hawke and hawkins release US 16.Jun.17,
UK 4.Aug.17
16/Canada Sony 1h57

Maudie Based on the true story of rural Canadian painter Maud Lewis, this warm and easy-going film gently avoids bigger issues to tell a simple romantic tale. Irish filmmaker Aisling Walsh does a lovely job setting the story in the isolated location through the various seasons, and she also coaxes earthy performances from her solid cast.

In 1930s Nova Scotia, Maud (Hawkins) live with her Aunt Ida (Rose), frustrated that her brother Charles (Bennett) is selling their family legacy. Maud was born with physical issues that left her rather crooked, and her borderline autistic approach makes her an outsider. So to get away from her family, she applies to be a housekeeper for hermit fish-seller Everett (Hawke). As this inarticulate couple begins to rely on each other, Maud continues to paint, gathering renown around the world. But she never strays from the tiny home she shares with Everett.

Framed as an unconventional love story, the film tracks the growing bond between Maud and Everett without the usual romantic touches. Both of these people have thick skins from their challenging childhoods, and neither of them are good at revealing their feelings. This is quite a challenge even for fine actors like Hawkins and Hawke, who dig deep beneath the physical quirks to find the complex emotions under the surface. Sometimes their awkward physicality becomes distracting, but both are intriguing enough to be likeable.

The setting is virtually another character in the story, a small community in which everyone knows everyone's business. One outsider who summers there, New Yorker Sandra (Matchett), offers the crack in the routine that boosts Maud's reputation. But mainly the depiction is one of snowdrifts in winter and windswept fields under blue skies. It's not difficult to see why Maud feels so safe there. And Walsh gives the film a gentle tone that never feels rushed, even as the plot spans more than three decades.

The time period is never identified, and in this place there's no real sense of what's going on in the rest of the world, aside from a reference to Vice President Nixon, who wants to buy one of Maud's paintings. And it seems a bit off that the characters don't age as much as the time-scale suggests. Still, this is a warmly involving little film that tells a story that needs to be told about an untrained painter who made her mark on the world on her own terms.

12 themes, language, violence

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