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See also: SHADOWS FILM FESTIVAL | Last update 17.Jun.20

The Ascent   US title: Black Ops
Review by Rich Cline | 2.5/5  
The Ascent
dir-scr Tom Paton
prd Alexa Waugh, Mikel Iriarte, George Burt, Tom Paton
with Shayne Ward, Bentley Kalu, Samantha Schnitzler, Alana Wallace, Toby Osmond, Spencer Collings, Sophie Austin, Phoebe Robinson-Galvin, Simon Meacock, Julia Szamalek, Matt Malecki, Piotr Baumann
release US 12.Jun.20,
UK 15.Jun.20
19/UK 1h43


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schnitzler and ward
Strikingly shot to make the most of a small budget, this British thriller has an intriguing bare-bones quality, leaving the audience as clueless as the characters while things turn increasingly fantastical. Writer-director Tom Paton keeps the movie lean while deploying visual flourishes that make it look great. But it's so undercooked that it struggles to grab hold, leading to a series of violent set-pieces infused with metaphysical meaning.
While a civil war rages in Eastern Europe, a team of British commandos led by Stanton (Ward) arrives to infiltrate the rebels and leave no witnesses. Which means killing several unarmed civilians. Back in the UK, Clarke (Schnitzler) is reminded that one prisoner warned her not to go down. Sure enough, when they're forced to ascend the stairs in their headquarters, things quickly turn nightmarish. The staircase seems endless, but they reach a series of doors leading back to their mission. To get out of here will require them to right their wrongs.
Each person has a personal story that feeds into the situation, which feels like hellish payback for their ruthless line of work. So when Ryan (Robinson-Galvin) defies the group and heads downstairs, we know she's made a mistake. Paton uses a series of colour washes to add variety to the static settings, plus creepy music and grisly violence. So if the mythology about the Prophet of Death feels more than a little silly, the way the film circles around war atrocities has a dark kick.

There's not much acting required here: even when randomly talking about past issues, each actor maintains a meathead military persona, barking dialog rather than speaking it. Regret over past mistakes feels paper thin, as do connections between them. The cast is adept at adding minor variations that reveal ripples of mental stress, especially as their numbers deplete. But without any real subtext, they seem like little more than puppets in a haunted house.

This makes it difficult to engage with them. Instead, Paton relies on a creepy-looking woman (Szamalek) picking off these soldiers one by one. Although each of the murders is grim rather than scary. And since the characters are so ill-defined, their conflicts have no weight. All of this makes the film feel overlong, literally going round in circles with no end in sight, like Groundhog Day with machine guns. Or a low-rent version of Edge of Tomorrow. Although the script's wry reference is to Back to the Future Part 2.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 7.Jun.20

Review by Rich Cline | 3/5  
dir Glenn Payne
scr Casey Dillard
prd Casey Dillard, Glenn Payne
with Richard Speight Jr, Casey Dillard, Maddie Ludt, Jaime Adams, Mari Kenney, Jamie Fair, Glenn Payne, Coley Bryant, Brent Hearn, Tyler Floyd, Samantha McLarty, Bill Luckett
release UK Aug.19 frf,
US 19.Jun.20
19/US 1h30


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speight and dillard
With a snappy sense of humour, this film cleverly adds textures to darkly horrific goings-on. The premise is simple enough to catch the imagination, and writer-actor Casey Dillard skilfully maintains the sardonic tone, augmented by Glenn Payne's inventive, unfussy direction. It's a very cool little movie with a glossy visual sheen that belies its small budget. And the strong characters pull us in even when things get silly.
While working as a cab driver in a small town, Emerson (Dillard) is trying to her stand-up routine. But her passengers aren't particularly responsive to her jokes. One night after the usual collection of journeys, she picks up Roger (Speight), who's visiting a series of addresses on a mysterious mission. When things turn violent, Roger tells Emerson that he's hunting demon-like beings that are trying to take over the world, and then he will summon a time-traveling hero. But the cops are after them, and some of the officers are possessed by these entities.
Emerson and Roger are such an unlikely duo that it's impossible to predict where their prickly banter will take them next. Roger is in a line of demon-killers who has until tonight to finish his task, according to an ancient book. This mythology is ridiculous, and Emerson's no-nonsense reactions are hilarious. As is the way the script simply glides over the details that don't really matter to the audience. And while the story's themes are somewhat undercooked, at least there are some riotous details along the way.

Performances are grounded and matter-of-fact, which keeps the film engaging as freaky things happen around the characters. Dillard has a wickedly straightforward wit, full of attitude as Emerson is generally fed up with everything, plus feelings of lingering bitterness after a bad breakup. But her clear perspective on things is refreshingly entertaining, especially when she calls others on their idiocy. Opposite her, Speight has an equally earthy sense of humour as a hapless man who has never quite come into his own.

For a film largely shot around two people inside a car, there's plenty of visual variety, and even some strong suspense. Everyone this duo encounters is suspicious, some are downright scary, but it all plays out with tongue firmly planted in cheek. That said, a few of the conversations take startlingly nasty turns. And the narrative has a likeable ramshackle quality, charging full-speed through massive (and perhaps deliberate) holes. Although this does leave the big climax feeling a bit underwhelming.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 15.Jun.20

Review by Rich Cline | 3/5  
dir Patrick Vollrath
scr Patrick Vollrath, Senad Halilbasic
prd Jonas Katzenstein, Maximilian Leo
with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Omid Memar, Aylin Tezel, Carlo Kitzlinger, Murathan Muslu, Paul Wollin, Aurelie Thepaut, Passar Hariky, Denis Schmidt, Cornel Nussbaum, Max Schimmelpfennig, Simon Schwarz
release Ger 26.Dec.19,
US/UK 19.Jun.20
19/Germany Amazon 1h32

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After setting the scene in a relaxed fly-on-the-wall documentary style, this thriller builds tightly contained tension as a dangerous situation unfolds in real time. While the script touches on motives for the attack, it never delves into social or political issues. So the narrative remains on a more human level, straining to fill the running time. But it's a fascinating depiction of courage and tenacity in the face of violence.
On an flight from Berlin to Paris, shortly after take-off with 85 passengers on board, four men (Memar, Muslu, Wollin and Hariky) rush the cockpit, attacking Captain Michael (Kitzlinger). Pilot Tobias (Gordon-Levitt) fends them off, calling in a "seven-five-zero-zero" hijacking alert. Meanwhile out in the cabin, the attackers subdue the flight attendants (Tezel and Thepaut) as the injured Michael and Tobias watch on a closed-circuit screen. Reporting the emergency, the plane is rerouted to Hanover. But the hijackers are determined to get through the cockpit door, threatening to kill passengers one by one.
The opening sequence is composed of chillingly silent airport surveillance images as passengers board the plane and the crew prepares to depart. Everything goes as usual, with a few added character details and a slight delay due to late-boarding passengers. From here, the camera remains in the cockpit, so what happens in the cabin is only seen on the tiny screen. As the stand-off gets increasingly horrific, the struggle for control escalates in unexpected directions. Although the plot's momentum peaks far too early.

This is a tour-de-force for Gordon-Levitt, who carries the film with a superbly textured performance that ripples with resolve and desperation. It's a strongly physical role, with wrenching emotions that resonate strongly, even with the cursory establishment of the fact that he has a 2-year-old son with his girlfriend, a flight attendant whose fate hangs in the balance. The Muslim hijackers are seriously cold-blooded, but never caricatures, and one of them is wrestling with his conscience.

The film is strikingly well shot in a confined space, as the nighttime setting isolates the warmly glowing cockpit in inky shadows. And Tobias is further isolated by language, as an American working in Germany. So even if there aren't wider themes at work here, the story's edgy energy keeps the audience gripped from start to finish, even when awkward plot points strain credibility, especially in the extended final act. But the film is refreshingly free of the usual Hollywood bombast, remaining gritty and urgent right to the haunting conclusion.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 16.Jun.20

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