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last update 23.May.18
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Discreet
4/5  
dir-scr Travis Mathews
prd Jonny Mars, Travis Mathews, Don Swaynos, Chris Ohlson, Joao Federici
with Jonny Mars, Atsuko Okatsuka, Bob Swaffar, Joy Cunningham, Jordan Elsass, Joao Federici, Ed Hattaway, Bill Johnson, Maria Moya, Jason Neulander, Buddy Brown, Bjorn Taylor
federici and mars release UK Oct.17 rff,
US 1.Jun.18
17/US 1h21

BERLIN FILM FEST
raindance film festival
Discreet With a striking mix of imagery and noise, this experimental dramatic thriller from Travis Mathews is sure to provoke different reactions among audience members. An odyssey into the conflicted recesses of American culture, the film deliberately remains just out of reach. But it's a fascinating stream-of-consciousness that embraces the complexity of both individuals and culture.

Living in a van in his 30s, Alex (Mars) listens to rabid right-wing talk radio and is obsessed with YouTube star Mandy (Okatsuka), who makes sensory videos promoting peace. On the way to meet her in Oregon, he returns to his Texas hometown and discovers that John (Swaffar), who abused him as a child, isn't dead after all. Then when he goes to confront him, Alex finds that the still-towering John is now frail and debilitated from a stroke. But he sticks around, even hiring a teen (Elsaas) in an attempt to jog John's memory.

The loosely jumbled plot is punctuated with evocative, sometimes bewildering sights and sounds that tap into Alex's unsettled mind as well as his disconnection with the mundane realities of everyday life. Alex is an offbeat character who continually surprises us, a haunted young man who seems both shaken and emboldened by his circumstances. His sexuality is impossible to pin down, a blur of sauna encounters with a man (Federici) plus sex work as he orchestrates fantasies for male and female clients, then robs them.

The actors approach Mathews' minimalistic screenplay with performances that are so understated that they're open to interpretation. In particular, Mars' Alex is an enigmatic man confronting his past while living what looks like an empty existence. Are these two things related? Is it connected to the mixed messages he is getting from the media? Nicely, Mars is able to create a strong character without over-explaining anything. Side characters remain even more enigmatic, but add intriguing textures to Alex's journey.

The events depicted unfold in a swirl of memory, out of chronological order, which adds to the film's unnerving, sometimes shocking exploration of the life-long effects of child abuse. Facing his tormentor gives Alex no peace simply because John is unable to even acknowledge his presence. So he seems to be waiting for a meaningful moment in which to take his revenge, even as he knows it probably won't make anything better. These kinds of ideas add a much wider resonance, grappling with the false hopes of the American Dream itself.

15 themes, language, sexuality
18.May.18
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Hooked
2.5/5  
dir-scr Max Emerson
prd Melissa D Llewellyn
with Conor Donnally, Sean Ormond, Terrance Murphy, Katie McClellan, Jay Alan Christianson, Laura Austin, Connie Flemming, Jared Sandler, Casper Andreas, Steve Hayes, Edison Farrow, Max Emerson
donnally release US 1.Jun.18
17/US 1h31
Hooked Writer-director Max Emerson overcomes his low-budget limitations by creating strong characters and situations. The film's first half is smiley and loose, and then the darker undercurrents swell up, delving into several deeper issues relating to masculinity and sexuality. But the script is far too obvious for its own good, shouting its opinions instead of drawing us in meaningfully.

On the streets of Manhattan, Jack (Donnally) is a relaxed 18-year-old who helps homeless people. He may be a hooker who robs his clients, but he draws the line at drugs. He lives in a hostel with his boyfriend Tom (Ormond), an aspiring photographer who's nervous about Jack's criminal tendencies, and they're planning a future together. In the street they meet Ken (Murphy), who has a wife (McClellan) and baby but struggles with his sexuality. He hires Jack to accompany him on a business trip to Miami, intending to help him, not sleep with him.

For a film that touches on things like prostitution, crime and drug use, Emerson's approach is oddly moralistic and timid, taking sides and shying away from anything sexual. It also has some seriously clunky plot points (there's actually a gun in a drawer), building a sense early on that something Very Bad is going to happen. Some of this is a result of Jack's careless behaviour, but the plot also spirals out to include Tom's frustration with Jack's job and Ken's escalating marital issues. As these things swell up, the film's tone shifts dramatically.

Donnally and Ormond make up for their inexperience with exuberance, creating likeable teen characters who feel like they're invincible. The chemistry between them is charming. Donnally is such a freewheeling goofball that he also creates an engaging connection with Murphy, an unusually flirty father-son dynamic as Ken tries to tame Jack's wild impulsiveness. But of course, Jack is actually loosening up Ken, seducing him. Then the plot shifts, somewhat improbably, in a foreboding direction.

As it continues, the larger issues swell up and threaten to overwhelm the more engaging character drama. Emerson clearly has quite a few urgent topics on his mind, and he weaves all of them into the narrative, sometimes in ways that feel a bit contrived. He then expects us to be outraged without exploring the reasons why we should be. This lack of nuance undermines any core message that might be in here. Still, these are important things that need to be addressed in practical, compassionate ways.

15 themes, language, drugs, sexuality, violence
17.May.18

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Postcards from London
4/5  
dir-scr Steve McLean
prd Soledad Gatti-Pascual
with Harris Dickinson, Jonah Hauer-King, Richard Durden, Alessandro Cimadamore, Leonardo Salerni, Leemore Marrett Jr, Ben Cura, Raphael Desprez, Leo Hatton, Shaun Aylward, Rhys Yates, Bernardo Santos
dickinson and the Raconteurs release UK 17.Aug.18
18/UK BFI 1h28

flare film festival
Postcards from London A highly stylised exploration of the nature of art, this colourful British film is set out as an odyssey into a fantastical version of Soho, which has a history of remaining just outside the boundaries of polite civilisation. Boasting another riveting performance from Harris Dickinson, the film may divide audiences with its heightened approach and controversial plot. But it's worth hanging on for the ride, because the film has a lot to say.

Escaping from Essex as he turns 18, Jim (Dickinson) arrives in Soho and is quickly recruited by the Raconteurs, rentboys who offer knowledgable conversations about art. Jim is too beautiful not to join them, and he has a deep love of Caravaggio paintings. But he also has Stendhal Syndrome, which causes him to faint when he sees beautiful art, sending him into visions in which he engages with Caravaggio (Cura) himself. And as he becomes a muse to the artist Max (Durden), the bigger question is when Jim will realise that everyone is using him.

Filmmaker McLean gives everything a surreal sheen, with shimmering neon and inky black shadows, plus costumes that are so fanciful that they're timeless. Sometimes this feels a little too lurid, refusing to ground anything in the real world. But allowing this atmosphere to envelop us offers some striking insight into the film's central themes about the nature of creativity. Because ultimately, this is a story about Jim learning to be an artist instead of just an object of beauty.

As in Beach Rats, Dickinson takes a character who could easily be two-dimensional and deepens him in unexpected directions. Jim is physically stunning, but has an even more intriguing soul, and Dickinson quietly uses each scene to expose his sense of humour, steely resolve and, most powerfully, his vulnerability. Even his lanky physicality is used to strong effect, adding a wry, offhanded charm to the re-creations of classic paintings in his swooning, witty hallucinations.

Some plot points feel somewhat obvious, such as how escort-turned-banker Paul (Marrett) exploits Jim's affliction for monetary gain. But because the entire story is so exaggerated, and so closely seen through Jim's eyes, it's not difficult to take these elements for what they have to say. In other words, this film isn't actually a straightforward story of a teen who leaves home and finds his way in the big bad world. It's about how all of us search for beauty, feel faint in its presence and learn to create it ourselves.

15 themes, language, violence
28.Mar.18
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Welcome to Curiosity
2.5/5  
dir Ben Pickering
scr Darren Ripley
prd Ben Pickering, Darren Ripley
with Cristian Solimeno, Richard Blackwood, Finn Corney, Gary Grant, Amrita Acharia, Kacey Clarke, Christopher Rithin, O'ar Pali, Eke Chukwu, Terry Sweeney, Jack Ashton, Brian Croucher, Lara Heller, Monty Burgess, Lili Bordan, Stephen Marcus
solimeno and clarke release US 25.May.18,
UK 8.Jun.18
18/UK 1h34
Welcome to Curiosity Energetic and very camp, this British thriller blends comedy and horror with a soap opera sensibility. Director Ben Pickering has clearly been studying American TV, because he gives the film a slick, swirly tone that looks like it should be utterly riveting. Unfortunately, the actors aren't all up to the challenge, while there are too many characters for any of them to properly grab hold. And despite a bit of gender subversion, it's also naggingly misogynistic.

In the town of Curiosity in Cornwall, hard-nosed detective Binon (Pali) is chasing a serial killer. Schoolboy Elliott (Corney) thinks he knows the killer is a creepy gardener (Croucher), but no one listens to him. Meanwhile, hitchhiking Lee (Acharia) is attacked by a truck driver. Beer company rep Tim (Grant) struggles with an obnoxiously aggressive colleague (Sweeney). And just out of prison, Dexter (Colimeno) and his ex-con friend Al (Chukwu) are working with a swaggering thug (Blackwood) on a heist that goes bad, dragging orphaned siblings Martine and Thomas (Clarke and Rithin) into the mayhem.

These disconnected plot threads are intriguing even if it's impossible to care about characters who are so thinly developed. The script is blunt, sometimes hilariously so, and director Pickering includes all the usual cliches like a random blossoming romance, dining-table surgery, a bizarrely temporary-looking strip club and lots of gunplay, including a ridiculously clumsy shootout. All of this is shot in with leery machismo, played as a movie rather than real life.

Each actor struggles with the corny dialog, especially speeches that strain to sound vaguely Tarantino-esque. The cast is fine when they're underplaying scenes, but moments involving anger or emotion don't work. The only actors who create engaging characters are the younger ones (Corney, Acharia and Rithin), because they don't try to over-egg the drama. All of the other actors spend too much time showing the audience that they're hiding something.

The film is so patterned after hackneyed movies and TV that it's impossible to be surprised by the twists and turns of the plot. Thankfully, it's played with a blackly comical wink, including the grisly violence and scantily clad women. Then in the final 15 minutes, there are a series of revelations that are enjoyable in the sense that they divide the film into four separate thrillers, each with a sting in its tail. But the derivative approach leaves the film as a whole feeling flat.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
15.May.18

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