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See also: SHADOWS FILM FESTIVAL | Last update 7.Jul.20

The Beach House
Review by Rich Cline | 2/5  
The Beach House
dir-scr Jeffrey A Brown
prd Andrew Corkin, Tyler Davidson, Sophia Lin
with Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Jake Weber, Maryann Nagel, Michael Brumfield, Matt Maisto, Steven Corkin, Dan Zakarija, Veronica Fellman
release US 9.Jul.20
19/US 1h28

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le gros and liberato
Quietly insidious, this low-key horror slowly builds up a head of steam but still leaves characters very sketchy. The filmmaking is subdued and vague, even when it cuts loose. Writer-director Brown nicely creates the foreboding atmosphere along with a barrage of inexplicable nastiness. There's eventually more intense action in the final act, but even with the brief running time it feels like it takes ages to get there.
Before summer season, Randall (Le Gros) takes Emily (Liberato) to his parents' seaside cabin, trying to talk her into delaying grad school. But they soon discover that old family friends Mitch and Jane (Weber and Nagel) are also staying there. Then things start getting strange, and no one's sure if it's because of bad oysters or the edibles. Or maybe it's the freaky seed-pod thingies washing up on the beach and implanting slimy worms in their feet. The question is how widespread this problem is, and where they can turn for help.
Conveniently, Emily is studying organisms that adapt to specific environments, offering a clunky hint at where the story is headed. Cue another cutaway to something odd on the seabed. The film is strikingly shot with a terrific sense of sunlight, blue skies and creeping menace. And the nasty moments are vivid, with proper physical grisliness and elemental fear echoed in flickering lights and billowing mist. Of course, with her expertise, Emily is more equipped than most to face a biological threat.

Brown's still, silent approach never quite defines the characters apart from obvious comments in conversations. The actors spend a lot of time staring blankly into the middle distance, either in deep thought or darkly unhinged by something. Emotional resonance is much harder to get a grip on. Liberato and Le Gros are an engaging couple, so it would have helped to get to know them before the craziness begins. Because after that, they're largely reactive, even if Liberato particularly gives it her all. And Weber and Nagel are even less present after their first strong scene.

At least Brown avoids tired jump scares and most genre cliches, keeping things outrageously undefined and asking us to identify with characters who have no idea what's going on. But that's precisely the problem: we never have a clue. There's an intriguing parallel with the changing ocean temperatures upsetting the natural balance of things, but the underpowered script never quite grapples with any of that. Still, the movie does contain some terrific effects, with properly yucky makeup and prosthetics providing the biggest gross-outs.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 5.Jul.20

Black Magic for White Boys  
Review by Rich Cline | 3/5

Black Magic for White Boys
dir-scr Onur Tukel
prd Gigi Graff, Onur Tukel
with Ronald Guttman, Onur Tukel, Lou Jay Taylor, Charlie LaRose, Eva Dorrepaal, Leah Shore, Colin Buckingham, Brendan Miller, Brian W Smith, Franck Raharinosy, Lisa Azuelos, Karl Jacob, Kevin Corrigan
release US 3.Jul.20
19/US 1h45

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shore, guttman, buckingham and dorrepaal
Fast and chattery, this New York comedy has a huge ensemble and a plot that feels like it's spiralling out of control from the start. Writer-director Onur Tukel clearly enjoys telling stories about terrible people, so this movie is packed with them. Overlong and a bit flabby, it also involves a heavy dose of supernatural intervention. And as the title suggests, the racial undercurrents are deliberately provocative.
Magician Larry (Guttman) has a new intern Leah (Shore), helping run his elaborate tricks with assistant Lucy (Dorrepaal), stagehand Dean (Buckingham) and theatre manager Quentin (Smith). But the fact that he uses real magic makes them nervous. In the audience one night are friends Oscar and Jamie (Tukel and Taylor), property owners on blind dates. Oscar is shocked that his date Chase (LaRose) is pregnant, while Jamie has just hiked the rent on his tenants, who are fighting back. And both think Larry's sorcery can solve their problems, regardless of the side effects.
The film's rambling structure is hilariously unfocussed, crosscutting between a variety of characters who have their own neuroses as they fail to deal with their own awkward situations. The dialog has a witty, improvisational tone that's generally amusing, with some hilarious one-liners along the way. And the fact that people of colour are the victims of this ill-used wizardry adds a pointed kick. There's also the parallel story of Fred (Raharinosy), who helps people his box of all-purpose drugs. He might even have a pill that will make someone a better person, like magic.

The characters are enjoyably messy, making a string of very dodgy decisions. They're not necessarily bad people, but they're also not remotely likeable. At the centre, Guttman has a godlike smugness about his powers, blithely playing with power he may not understand. A lively double-act, Tukel and Taylor are funny and astonishingly cruel. There are a few nicer side characters to engage with, but they're not as interesting as the horrible ones, especially Miller as Leah's bigoted hothead boyfriend.

Basically, each person in this film wants to take a shortcut to solve his or her problem, either using medicine, magic or both. None of these breathtakingly self-absorbed idiots is wiling to actually put in the work required. Tighter editing would have helped focus more coherently on the story and themes. Tukel's loose approach allows for quite a bit of unnecessary repetition, but even the most random sideroad is vividly well-played. And the subtler thematic jabs hit the mark.

cert 15 themes, language 30.Jun.20

Midnight Kiss  
Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5  
Midnight Kiss
dir Carter Smith
scr Erlingur Thoroddsen
prd Tevin Adelman
with Augustus Prew, Scott Evans, Ayden Mayeri, Lukas Gage, Adam Faison, Chester Lockhart, Will Westwater, Colin McCalla, Jonnie Reinhardt
release US 27.Dec.19,
UK Mar.20 flare
19/US Hulu 1h29

bfi flare

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prew and faison
There's a relaxed, witty tone to this offbeat slasher horror, which is set in the gay subculture. A sunny, colourful setting and vividly created characters make it engaging on a variety of levels, and the filmmakers cleverly mash-up sexy encounters with a bit of proper grisliness. There are some clumsy attempts to stir bigger themes into the story, but it's the interpersonal elements that make it worth a look.
A group of longtime gay friends is heading to a gorgeous house outside Palm Springs to celebrate New Year. Joel (Evans) brings his new man Logan (Gage), photographer Cameron (Prew) is documenting the fun, and Zachary arrives fashionably late, like the diva model he is. There's also their straight-girl pal Hannah (Mayeri), who introduces the rules for their annual midnight kiss game. While hanging out, issues from their history together begin to emerge, as do some darker attitudes. Then when they head out to the nightclub, they're unaware that a killer is in their midst.
The film opens with the grisly shower murder of the one friend (Westwater) who was unable to join the party. And it doesn't take long for the same masked figure to turn up in the desert and begin knocking others off one by one. In between, each of these people gets up to a variety of activities that reveal things about their personalities, including things that are starkly disturbing. This adds romantic entanglements and dramatic tension alongside the ever-present threat of imminent death. So the longer the film goes, the less we want anyone to die.

There are several intriguing dynamics between the characters, including secret attractions, jealousies and lost relationships. This allows the actors to keep the characters complex and likeable, even though they're not always nice. At the centre, Prew is solid as the thoughtful, observant Cameron, who has very specific connections with each character, including his ex Joel, whom Evans commits to playing as an unapologetic control freak. Meyeri offers standout support, a breath of fresh air who kind of remains outside the fray.

The murders are startlingly violent, and bring some surprises as well. So as we become invested in the characters, what happens feels increasingly meaningful in the bigger picture. Director Smith and writer Thoroddsen come up with some clever twists on the usual formula, throwing us off the scent before pouncing later. And they develop suspense properly, without cheap scares. The revelation of whodunit is overplayed and not terribly surprising. But it's remarkably nasty, and signs things off with a flourish.

cert 15 themes, language, violence, sexuality 27.Jun.20

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