BFI LFF 2016: Prevenge ***

Alice Lowe was the writing/acting force behind the incredibly dark and murderous comedy Sightseers, directed by Ben Wheatley that sent excitable ripples through BFI LFF in 2012. The format here for new slasher-comedy Prevenge is not much different in terms of style. It’s another great showpiece for Lowe’s acting talents in a directorial debut, while boldly using the serious subject of antenatal depression as its emotive vehicle.

It also helps that Lowe was pregnant at the time of making Prevenge, rendering it a highly intriguing exploration for those with any such experience of this illness. By using the jet-blackest of comedy, Lowe draws much-needed attention to the condition, forcing us to confront its reality – very astute filmmaking indeed.

Lowe plays pregnant Ruth, virtually full-term but grieving a life-changing event that gradually comes to light. Along the way, she encounters an array of prejudice from a variety of people, dealing with it in her own murderous way, supposedly spurred on her unborn child’s voice from within.

Sometimes the touchiness subjects are best dealt with comedy. Lowe guides us throughout this tricky terrain with her usual deadpan, vacant stance, turning everyday remarks ‘those with child’ encounter into the ridiculous and hence, justifying Ruth’s reactions. The first couple of vile victims get their ‘just desserts’, with the inappropriateness of the opening scene dialogue only (brilliantly) registering after a minute, much like in a real-life abuse situation where disbelief turns to horror then to anger at being made the unwilling recipient.

Lowe never allows us to pigeon-hole Ruth quite so easily though, keeping her varied and unpredictable – the only given is she’s finding pregnancy tough and will have her baby girl in the end. Ruth is both entertaining as she is shocking in behaviour. Lowe nails the internal thoughts any expectant mother has had when faced with ‘sympathetic’ healthcare professionals and those believing motherhood is a woman’s natural urge. This is where Ruth’s character lays the vital foundations for us to empathise with her. She is consumed by grief and feeling alienated, walking alone towards the inevitable in a comatose state. These are powerful character traits that could have been further explored though.

The production values do place Prevenge in the low-budget, B-movie bargain bucket, and while favouring sobering muted tones and unfocused camera moments to reflect Ruth’s state of mind, also dwell too much on some of the kills as to lessen the of the significance of the illness Ruth is displaying. Lowe only manages to claw this back by getting some superb acting moments out of her supporting cast – such as Jo Hartley as Ruth’s chirpy midwife, even though most characters are painted as caricatures on the whole. Yet the unpolished production values also serve well to mirror an imperfect mental state, so it’s questionable whether any other way (and bigger budget) would have worked better.

Prevenge is a fascinating take on the female killer, as society still battles with – and disbelieves that – women do kill. Antenatal depression might give the intent and some might question using this subject in a nonchalant way, but only by Lowe’s bold filmmaking does it become accessible and open to debate. Lowe delivers an entertaining and thought-provoking directorial debut in her own unique style that could have gone deeper, but that can only be praised and built on in her next project.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

LFF 2016: La La Land *****

As a slice of cinematic bliss goes, you can’t get better than Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle‘s latest musical offering, La La Land. Full of the joys and melodrama of the golden age of Hollywood, it’s a love story of various passions set in La La Land, but with sobering modern sentiment. It isn’t all happiness, but laced with moments of harsh reality. That said it is beautifully stylish and whisks you up in the lure of Tinseltown. It also puts a very flattering spotlight on its leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, so no surprises there have been nods and awards a plenty.

Gosling is Seb, a passionate jazz pianist who is a total purist but keeps getting the ‘bread and butter’ gigs that cramp his style. Stuck in an LA traffic jam, he briefly meets his destiny, Mia, played by Stone, who is an aspiring actor with a barista day job in the heart of Warner Bros Studios movie set land. She almost gets to taste the sweetest of acting success, only to miss out every time. Another chance encounter sets the pair on a course to romance, but can it survive the pressures of their own true passions, jazz music and acting?

La La Land plays out like a dream from the start, without being overly schmaltzy. This is thanks to the reality check it injects when things get a little too cosy. It’s an ode to the likes of the ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ era of cinema, complete with a similar dance number in the Hollywood Hills. It’s infectious and causes a good deal of toe-tapping and knee-jigging, without the need for its leads to burst into song all the time. There are respites of pure, vibrant jazz to enjoy that attempt to educate us – like Seb tries to do with Mia in the story. In that respect, it’s a highly sensory and all-inclusive film, whether you like musicals or not.

Gosling and Stone rift off each other superbly – and not just in song and dance, but actually the comedy moments: Mia teases Seb about his imposed choice of music gig to make ends meet. This gets sourer as the relationship progresses and careers take off, adding a very intriguing story arc that gradually creeps up on all and becomes totally consuming.

The overriding feeling of the film is of living in a parallel universe to your dream that’s within reach but just out of grasp too. It’s that lack of actual control that really resonates for anyone watching, especially when we are forever told about making bright new beginnings happen with each New Year that arrives. The film cleverly has you reassessing your life without knowing it and without patronage, making it all the more poignant and affecting.

It’s not perfect. There are brief moments of banality, pockets of the film that are easily forgotten weeks after viewing. However, La La Land offers a kind of therapy in a cold, unsure world, a guaranteed spiritual boost. It’s a film you will remember for how it made you feel, rather than for any meaningful storyline, especially with the haunting piano solo by Gosling’s Seb at the end. The fact that there’s nothing quite like it at the box office at the moment also makes it a wonderful alternative too, with no special effects (alright, we know Gosling and Stone can’t actually fly), no animation, no widespread urban destruction, just ‘staged reality’, one of La La Land’s most compelling contradictions.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

LFF 2016: Nocturnal Animals ****

With a creative like fashion designer turned film-maker Tom Ford at the helm, his second big-screen venture was always going to be another thing of great beauty to watch. Whereas A Single Man still deals with ugliness tainting its glossy surface, Nocturnal Animals goes a step further and is more visceral, part exquisite art display, part bleak crime thriller – as though Ford is dipping his film-making toe into another genre to test his skills, while still being cushioned by his trademark chic.

Amy Adams plays high society art gallery owner Susan, whose marriage is crumbling, as is her sense of being. Her life changes after she receives a copy of her ex-husband’s novel, a violent thriller that seems to be based on their past – a veiled threat and a symbolic revenge tale.

Adams was a Ford leading lady waiting to happen. Her looks, pose and expressive nature wonderfully relay all the emotions that Susan is going through, amplified by the ‘pretty bird in a gilded cage’ scenario she finds herself in. There is a sense of foreboding in the calm of her perfect existence, as though she challenges the status quo in order to feel alive again when all around her feels stagnant. Adams effortlessly carries these scenes until the next dramatic revelation from the fictional side of the story – the recreation of the novel she is reading.

Jake Gyllenhaal is both the ex-husband in flashbacks and the novel’s grief-stricken and tormented protagonist, being no stranger to such dark roles from his previous work. It’s here in the film that Ford’s biggest contrasts happen, even injecting bouts of displaced beauty in the midst of depravity and despair. As solid as Gyllenhaal is in the role, it’s actually Aaron Taylor-Johnson as perp Ray Marcus who utterly steals the scenes – definitely a defining moment for him as he fleshes out every odious, unpredictable and terrifying characteristic of Marcus. Michael Shannon as cynical old-school detective Bobby Andes brings up the rear of exceptional casting, an actor who gives the film a gravitas and 1950s-style essence in his acting style. As stunning as the Adams scenes are, Ford has proved that he is more than capable of producing a thriller without the sheen.

What comes across with Nocturnal Animals is a passion for a project, attention to detail and dramatic Hitchcockian production values. The intensity sometimes dips as we are thrust back into the banality of Susan’s priviledged existence, though simply serves to tease us and keep us in awe of the next part of the gruesome puzzle being exposed – ironically, where the film’s true passions and sentiment stem from.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

Follow on Twitter