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last update 15.Jun.18
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Alex Strangelove
dir-scr Craig Johnson
prd Ben Stiller, Nicholas Weinstock, Jared Ian Goldman
with Daniel Doheny, Madeline Weinstein, Antonio Marziale, Daniel Zolghadri, Annie Q, Nik Dodani, Fred Hechinger, Kathryn Erbe, Joanna Adler, William Ragsdale, Isabella Amara, Sophie Faulkenberry
doheny and marziale release US/UK 8.Jun.18
18/US Netflix 1h39
Alex Strangelove A rare high school comedy that takes a realistic angle on sex-obsessed teens, this film avoids trivialising issues with cheap gags. But it's still very funny, and its a topical edge makes it notable. While many scenes are bright and comical, the more serious elements give the story a startling kick of real-life emotion as a young man comes to terms with himself. His romantic journey is engaging, and his friendships resonate strongly.

Alex (Doheny) is a smart teen who hosts a popular video blog and storms school dances in costume with his girlfriend Claire (Weinstein). His chucklehead best pal Dell (Zolghadri) is egging Alex on to finally lose his virginity with Claire. Then Alex meets Elliott (Marziale), a charming guy whose parents threw him out for being gay. Getting to know him makes Alex question his carefully mapped-out life. Especially as Alex begins to, against all expectations, find himself falling in love with Elliott.

Writer-director Johnson manages to keep the film both silly and endearing at the same time. Even the ruder comedy set-pieces reveal telling things about the characters. And then there are the requisite goofy antics, including an incident with a psychoactive toad at a drama club party. Most refreshingly, he never shies away from the difficult scenes that defeat many other filmmakers, pushing encounters and conversations into areas that are hilariously charged and actually mean something too.

Performances are a little broad, as required. But there's an undercurrent of honesty that deepens the characters in surprising directions. Doheny is engaging as a young guy who is frightened by what he is leaning about himself, and he plays the beats of his journey without the usual cliches. Weinstein is terrific as his partner in crime, a smart young woman who isn't sure why her boyfriend is making her crazy. And Marziale is also excellent, developing effortless chemistry in his scenes with Doheny.

When the film snaps into its more serious themes, it becomes a genuinely complex exploration of sexuality through the eyes of this teen. His reaction is a terrific example of overcompensation, adding unusual textures to the usual frat party antics. Indeed, the general wackiness adds to the charm of a sweet coming-of-age story that's packed with knowing observations and moments of raw emotion. It's an astute approach to the topic, and entertaining at the same time. And what it has to say to teens and parents is seriously important, echoing the voices of this generation.

15 themes, language, sexuality
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Freelancers Anonymous
dir Sonia Sebastian
scr Lisa Cordileone, Amy Dellagiarino
prd Lisa Cordileone, Amy Dellagiarino, Sonia Sebastian, Eugene Park
with Lisa Cordileone, Natasha Negovanlis, Jennifer Bartels, Mouzam Makkar, Alexandra Billings, Amy Shiels, Megan Cavanagh, Cassandra Blair, Grace Rex, Haviland Stillwell, Jennie McNulty, Jamison Scala
cordileone and negovanlis release WP 25.May.18 ioff
18/US 1h22

Freelancers Anonymous Witty performances and a snappy script keep the audience engaged all the way through this rather goofy comedy. The premise may be simplistic, but the topic is timely enough to keep things relevant. Director Sonia Sebastian never over-eggs things, which gives the film a relaxed vibe. And the actors bring a sense of truthfulness to their characters, no matter how ludicrously they behave.

In Chicago, Billie (Cordileone) is feeling trapped in her horrible job. At the urging of her home-worker fiancee Gayle (Negovanlis), then in a moment of cannabis-induced clarity, she quits in a blaze of glory. Now she needs a quick job to pay for their upcoming marriage, so she joins a networking group to find employment. They may be a bunch of misfits, but Billie thinks they could start an agency together. Meanwhile, Gayle's pushy mother (McNulty) is trying to take control of the wedding. Of course, all of this strains Billie and Gayle's relationship.

There are several very corny slapstick moments along the way, as well as a few tired gags (there's not much new that can be done with a wacky edible-pot sequence). And the whole "let's launch an app" narrative is more than a little contrived. The script also includes several conflicts, most of which feel nicely authentic as they drive the plot forward without becoming overwrought. Still, one honest conversation would have diffused everything. In the final act, a caper plot develops that's thoroughly ridiculous, packed with hilariously random touches.

The central relationship between Billie and Gayle is refreshingly infused with earthy humour, which lets Cordileone and Negovanlis ground their characters' sillier flourishes in real-life chemistry. Both are heightened but believable and, most importantly, likeable. The range of personalities in the group is enjoyably sparky, led by Bartel's hard-nosed Gillian with able support from Makkar, Shiels, Cavanagh, Blair and, in the film's only real male role, Scala.

At a time when people are being forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, this premise ought to strike a nerve even if the plot details feel somewhat preposterous. The characters are all at that pivotal point in life when they are trying to make a plan for the future in a culture that seems unusually harsh. This adds an unexpected resonance, as does the continuous peeling back of character layers. It may be unsophisticated and a bit too sunny, but it does elicit a smile.

15 themes, language

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Happiness Adjacent
dir-scr Rob Williams
prd Rodney Johnson, Rob Williams
with Adam Fried, Ian Dick, Rachel Alig, Jorgie Goico, Mike Justice
dick and fried release US/UK 29.May.18
17/US 1h36
Happiness Adjacent It looks like writer-director Rob Williams shot this movie guerrilla-style on a real cruise ship. Although scenes with his lead actors seem to have been filmed when no one else was on board, including the ship's crew. This focusses the attention on the central story, making it feel like a two-hander stage play. It's light and breezy with darker undercurrents that resonate beyond the intended message.

When his friend cancels at the last minute, gay Los Angeles filmmaker Hank (Fried) has to take their planned cruise to Mexico on his own. Feeling lonely, he gets chatting to Kurt (Dick), who's on holiday from Indiana with seasick wife Kate (Alig). As he roams around the ship, Hank keeps running into Kurt, and as they become friends Hank begins to suspect that Kurt isn't as straight as he claims to be. This is confirmed when Kurt kisses him and they begin a shipboard fling. The question is what Kurt really wants in life.

Hank narrates the story as he talks to himself, as if he's chatting to his absent friend (or his therapist). Combined with the eerie lack of extras in locations that should be crowded, this gives the film a rather quirky sensibility that isn't as off-putting as it might be. Perhaps this is because a ghost ship is the right place for a lonely heart. Even the ship's LGBT mixer event is empty. Meanwhile, scenes between Hank and Kurt generate some nice chemistry.

Fried and Dick have offhanded charm, engaging on a variety of levels. As they talk, they discuss their pasts: Hank is getting over an ex; Kurt has told his wife about his gay urges, but only in the past tense. The actors catch the sense that these young men need a friend to talk to. Hank's narration continually over-analyses everything, questioning why they're getting involved and where it will go. When Alig's perky Kate turns up, the tone gets rather a lot more comical.

The generally sunshiny settings are enticing, including a bit of tourism in picturesque Mexican locations. The script is somewhat overwritten, but the extraneous character detail adds to the overall charm of the movie, finding warm connections even in moments that feel cheesy or soapy. And the darker themes are intriguing, looking at gay men who find themselves stuck in a marriage that feels unnatural. The title refers to that feeling that things are good right now, but not quite as promising in the bigger picture. The conclusions here aren't terribly complex, but at least Williams is grappling with the questions.

15 themes, language, sexuality
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Stanley: A Man of Variety
dir-prd Stephen Cookson
scr Stephen Cookson, Timothy Spall
with Timothy Spall
spall release UK 15.Jun.18
16/UK 1h23
Stanley: A Man of Variety Timothy Spall plays all of the characters in this offbeat arthouse film that grapples with mental illness issues using icons from the music hall era. It's a bizarre concoction that occasionally gets the balance just right, but mostly it feels like a strangely grim comedy. Spall is of course superb in each role, even if the overall narrative never quite coalesces into something properly involving. But as a curiosity, it has cinematic value.

In a seemingly abandoned British prison for the criminally insane, which is imminently due to be closed, Stanley (Spall) is an inmate who works as a cleaner. In his mind the empty halls are crowded with spectres from the vintage shows he's watches on his coin-operated television. But now he has run out of coins. The people he sees are figures from movies and variety shows, plus his own parents. And today Stanley yearns to be granted compassionate leave to commemorate the 15th anniversary of his daughter's tragic death.

Blurring the lines between comedy and tragedy makes each scene intriguing, although director Cookson tilts heavily toward a sinister sense of cruelty. The comical elements are of the evil clown variety: humorous figures who ooze cynicism and shout abuse at Stanley, leading into a direct confrontation with the darker aspects of his own history. The film is visually impressive, with a mix of dense colour around the black and white fantasy figures. And the grotesque story and characters are constantly surprising.

Within this, Spall delivers a range of often thrilling performances in a range of ages, genders, physicalities and ethnicities. Stanley is a sympathetic figure, tortured by his emotional pain and these taunting visions. The icons he encounters include comical silent film star James Finlayson, silly walk entertainer Max Wall, singer-comic George Formby, character actor Alastair Sim and Oscar-winning actress Margaret Rutherford. These and several others offer Spall a chance to flex his dramatic and physical skills.

Essentially, this is the story of a fragile man who goes on a mind-bending odyssey in which he is tortured viciously by his own guilt. Once this becomes clear, fairly early on, the film is not particularly easy to watch, especially as it never seems to say anything particularly meaningful or helpful about the issue of mental illness. Still, it has plenty of value as a tour de force for Spall. And Cookson also offers some clever directorial touches that make the very most of the set-up, offering moments that resonate with humour and emotion.

15 themes, language, violence

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