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last update 5.Jun.18
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Astro
1.5/5  
dir Asif Akbar
scr Asif Akbar, Bernard Selling
prd Asif Akbar, Michael J Henderson, Jacov Bresler, Max Wasa, JJ Rogers
with Gary Daniels, Marshal Hilton, Courtney Akbar, Louis Mandylor, Max Wasa, Michael Pare, Dominique Swain, Luke G Crosby, Randy Wayne, Spice Williams-Crosby, Christopher Showerman, Omi Vaidya
hilton and daniels release US 5.Jun.18
18/US 1h44
Astro Even with some nice cinematography, this amateurish sci-fi thriller has an aesthetic that can best be described as home-made. It's also unintentionally hilarious, simply because the talky script is both cheesy and relentlessly over-serious. The low budget isn't the main problem; this simply isn't the epic franchise-starter the filmmakers clearly thought they were making.

After testing his spaceship, megalomaniacal aerospace billionaire Alex (Hilton) is shocked to find that it brought a creature (Crosby) back to earth that inexplicably shares DNA with his old friend Jack (Daniels). So he sends henchman Allen (Pare) to collect Jack and his 19-year-old daughter Laura (Akbar). Keeping the alien secret, Alex offers Jack a job, which he declines. But Alex needs Jack because of his connection with this creature, so once Jack has made sure that Laura is safe, he brings him into his plan to change the universe.

While some themes pique the interest, the dialog is loaded with blunt exposition even as it neglects to explain simple things like who these people are. The storytelling is choppy, with shameless overacting, clumsily staged action and special effects that would have looked cheap in the 1980s. References are all over the place, with flashbacks to atom-bomb testing, the 1947 Roswell incident and some sort of pact a young Alex (Wayne) made with aliens (Mandylor and Wasa) 30 years ago.

Not many actors could survive a script this clunky, but these give it a go. Hilton is a low-rent Pacino who's engagingly bonkers but has all the worst lines. Daniels has a buff physicality and steel-eyed charm that just about holds the film together. As his daughter, Akbar (clearly a relation) is supposed to be 19 but acts like she's 10. Although as iffy as she is, she gives one of the stronger performances here. It feels like we're watching the initial run-through of a first-draft script written by someone for whom English is a second language.

There's the kernel of a decent idea, and the filmmakers invest a lot of passion into the project. The script stresses the importance of family and loyalty, and the sciency elements have a mind-bending quality that makes us wish the filmmakers had more skill. This pulp sci-fi angle is enjoyably nuts, so it's that much more frustrating that everything is played with such a straight face. And it ends as if it's the pilot for a TV series that will never be made.

15 themes, language violence
22.May.18

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Leave No Trace
4/5   MUSTMUST SEESEE
dir Debra Granik
scr Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini
prd Anne Harrison, Linda Reisman, Anne Rosellini
with Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Dale Dickey, Jeff Kober, Isaiah Stone, David Pittman, Dana Millican, Derek John Drescher, Ayanna Berkshire, Art Hickman, Spencer S Hanley, Alyssa Lynn
mckenzie and foster release US/UK 29.Jun.18
18/US Sony 1h49

SUNDANCE FILM FEST
CANNES FILM FEST
sundance london film festival
Leave No Trace After the indelible Winter's Bone, filmmaker Debra Granik carries on exploring connections between people and nature in this strikingly visceral drama set in the Pacific Northwest. As it expands to touch on a variety of timely themes, the film maintains its tight focus on the central father and daughter, played beautifully by Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin McKenzie. It's a provocative film that reaches deep to evoke a powerfully emotional response.

Still suffering from post-traumatic stress as a war veteran and widower, Will (Foster) has taken his 13-year-old daughter Tom (McKenzie) to live in the national park outside Portland, teaching her survival skills. But she's not so quick to pick up on his restless spirit and innate urge to avoid civilisation. So when social services take them in, she adapts much more quickly than he does. On the run again in the forests of southern Washington, they encounter a kind of drop-out community led by Dale (Dickey) that might meet both of their needs.

Granik crafts this narrative into an involving, unpredictable odyssey as this father and daughter navigate the seemingly erratic rules of society as well as the changing connection between them. Refreshingly, there's no artificial conflict. Social workers and strangers compassionately try to understand their specific needs. So there's never a false moment in which a plot point threatens to spin the story into melodrama. Instead, the film locks in on this close but tricky relationship between a troubled man and a girl who's just discovering who she is.

Both actors deliver earthy, transparent performances. Foster seems to crawl back inside himself as Will, a man flinching away from the world but aware of his responsibility to this young woman who has no memory of her mother. He has taught her to think for herself and be independent, even as he worries for her safety. And McKenzie gives a superbly layered break-out turn as a teenager whose mind is too sharp not to question everything around her.

The most powerful moments have virtually no dialog, expressed in quiet glances or drilling stares. This confident filmmaking shows in every frame, beautifully shot by cinematographer Michael McDonough to create an almost otherworldly atmosphere in damp, cold, lushly verdant landscapes. Yes, there's a fairy tale tone here, and Granik picks up the story just when the people think they've found their happy ever after. What they discover instead is something much more complex, tough and honest.

15 themes, language, violence
3.Jun.18 slf
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Skate Kitchen
4/5  
dir Crystal Moselle
scr Crystal Moselle, Jen Silverman, Aslihan Unaldi
prd Crystal Moselle, Lizzie Nastro, Julia Nottingham, Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman, Rodrigo Teixeira, Izabella Tzenkova
with Rachelle Vinberg, Ardelia Lovelace, Nina Moran, Kabrina Adams, Jules Lorenzo, Jaden Smith, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Nico Hiraga, Taylor Gray, Judah Lang, Brenn Lorenzo, Malachi Omega
moran, lovelace and vinberg release US Jan.18 sff,
UK Jun.18 slf
18/US 1h46

SUNDANCE FILM FEST
sundance london film festival
Skate Kitchen Filmmaker Crystal Moselle skilfully creates a loose vibe in this drama about skater girls in New York City. The narrative is deliberately thin, as the film instead focuses on on the camaraderie, connections and rivalries between young people who are discovering who they are in the context of the tribe they hang with. It's fascinating, honest and thoroughly gripping, expertly shot and edited to bring out the natural performances.

After a crash, 18-year-old Camille (Vinberg) is forced to abandon skating by her concerned mother (Rodriguez). But of course it's summertime and she can't resist heading from Long Island into the city to skate and make new friends like Janay, Kurt, Ruby and Eliza (Lovelace, Moran, Adams and Lorenzo). Further frustrated with her mother, Camille skates away to move in with Janay, but their friendship is strained when Camille starts flirting with Janay's ex, aspiring photographer Devon (Smith), and hanging with his rowdy skater pals.

Moselle's directing has echoes of Andrea Arnold's American Honey in its refreshingly relaxed exploration of people rather than melodrama. Although there are a few obvious plot points, the film feels improvised (it isn't). Conversations among the girls drift to topics that don't usually get discussed in public. Relationships are tentative, building organically based on commonality rather than scripted encounters. It's a rare film that feels so utterly real from the first frame.

Within this environment, the actors are superbly offhanded, clearly drawing from their own experiences. All are good skaters, so they bring out the physicality and interaction in a variety of edgy ways. And they let the film touch on the gender issue without being pushy about it: these girls are winning in what's perceived as a boys' world. Along the way, the camera captures their thoughts and feelings, creating distinct characters with a variety of expectations. And at the centre, Vinberg is likeable, complex and easy to identify with.

Robbie Ryan's gorgeously cinematography also conveys strong physical connection between the characters, as well as a kinetic sense of movement on skateboards. Scenes in Manhattan's busy streets are particularly exhilarating, as they create a superb sense of a skater's eye view of life in the city. But it's Moselle's uncanny ability to create an almost documentary atmosphere that lifts the film above its fairly simple narrative structure into something pungent, provocative and ultimately moving.

15 themes, language, violence
3.Jun.18 slf
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Sunset Contract
3.5/5  
dir-scr Marc Conen
prd Marc Conen, Peter Nicholas
with Peter Nicholas, Paris Jefferson, Anna Nightingale
Jefferson and Nicholas
release US Jun.17 fff,
UK Mar.18 flare
17/US 1h24

BRITISH INDEPENDENT FILM FEST
Sunset Contract With its limited location and just three actors, this dialog-heavy drama feels rather a lot like a stage play. But it's skilfully shot in a cinematic way that obscures the low budget with expansive camerawork and sharp editing. And the acting is so offhanded that it feels earthy and natural, even as the story has a somewhat bonkers fairy tale sensibility. Writer-director Marc Conen is certainly one to watch.

In a modern lakeside villa, Brad (Nicholas) is basking in his newfound wealth when he discovers Eve (Jefferson) lurking on a lounge chair by the pool. She was the main investor in his new business, and Brad has forgotten that she is the devil incarnate, and that he made an agreement which is due to be finalised tonight at sunset. Brad has secured money, the house and the girlfriend of his dreams in the rising-star actress Mary (Nightingale), who arrives obliviously at just the wrong time. So what is it that Eve wants in return?

There's a lot of discussion about an app that Brad and his tech-expert business partner developed for Eve, and while much of this is just plot mumbo jumbo it also carries some strong resonance, touching on the power of a hot new social media platform to shape society at large. The script sometimes overreaches in this sense, as the nonstop conversation spins and escalates between these three people. But the flashpoints are vivid, bursting with meaning even when things begin to feel a little silly.

All three performances are strong, playing enigmatically with the set-up from the start to create a tone that shifts snakily between mystery, noir and thriller. Nicholas is excellent as the rather hapless Brad, who tries to conceal his own thoughts even as these women see right through him. Jefferson has a great time vamping it up as the casually controlling Eve, while Nightingale holds her own as a feisty young woman who isn't as dim as she tries to look. All three are offhanded and often very funny.

Since everything that happens here is in the dialog, the story seems to progress in fits and starts. But aside from one pastiche-style (and rather leery) flashback, there isn't a wasted scene. Each encounter shifts the balance of control, pushing things toward the inevitable climactic moment when a moral decision must be made. With its relatively simple premise, this might have worked better as a short film, but Conen adeptly keeps the audience in his grip, playing with ideas and imagery to tell a timeless fable that has an intriguingly benign sting in its tale.

15 themes, language
2.Jun.18 biff

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