LFF 2017: The Killing of a Sacred Deer *****

It is becoming increasingly difficult to describe a Yorgos Lanthimos film to the uninitiated. The Greek writer-director first came to international attention with his odd but endearing dystopian drama, The Lobster, about people having a limited time to pair off in a hotel, before being turned into an animal of their choice. Two years on, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is equally perverse, though chillingly more sinister in nature. It also reunites Lanthimos with actor Colin Farrell who is enjoying a career-defining change with such misfit characters – and lots more facial hair.

Farrell is Steven Murphy, a successful heart surgeon married to medic Anna (Nicole Kidman). They have two children. Steven is forced to make an unthinkable sacrifice in his family, after taking a strange young man called Martin (Barry Keoghan) under his wing.

The story plays heavily on the supernatural, the fear of the unknown. It is quite clinical in its approach, from the wide vistas of the hospital to the equally lofty rooms at Murphy’s home. What makes the status quo even more absurd and detached from reality is Lanthimos’ curious script, co-written with Efthymis Filippou. Through the terse (sometimes shocking), banal chitchat – think the unfiltered subconscious having a voice – comes a wealth of emotion from the characters. They seem cold and aloof at the start, but actually, as disaster comes ever closer, there is more urgency and feeling in their rapport.

Farrell and Kidman are compelling as a screen couple – subsequently going on to film The Beguiled after this. However, credit goes to Keoghan whose ‘immortal’ Martin is the most fascinating character overall. Keoghan begins by making him vulnerable and inquisitive, until something unknown penetrates Steven’s closeted and privileged lifestyle. Then it is too late. This is a superior supernatural thriller, utterly unique in execution – even the roaming camera has a mind of its own.

5/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Alien: Covenant ***

After the lukewarm response to director Ridley Scott’s 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus, there was real cause for concern with his latest instalment Covenant – did it have a new bite (no Alien pun intended). Thankfully, because of Michael Fassbender’s mysterious and creepy android David, Scott had a new terror on offer to the human crew.

It’s ten years on since the demise of the Prometheus crew, and another craft called Covenant with 2,000+ hibernating colonists is cruising through Space. After a malfunction, its crew is woken early and receives a signal from a nearby planet that suggests human life. They go to investigate and find a surprise from Prometheus on its surface. They also discover their worst nightmare still breeds: the alien.

Covenant follows the same trajectory as the other Alien films, while you wait for the first alien strike. However, where this film then differs is two forces of evil at play, the question being which is more imminently terrifying.

Fassbender as David – and more ‘empathetic’ Walter – is the driving force, as established in the very first scene, and shows the actor at his finest, playing a synthetic psychopath with shades of light and dark and keeping us grip. In fact it’s almost as though the alien is a sub plot of malice and the real disturbing question is man’s reliance on (and submission to) machine.

Praise too, to Fantastic Beasts actress Katherine Waterston as Daniels, the first serious Ripley contender since the earlier films. She has enough fight to take on David and the aliens and be the human saviour – or not, perhaps?

Covenant may not satisfy all fans, such as those wanting to see lots of alien attacks – indeed, Scott does make sure there are some gory chest (and back) bursting scenes, but it does inject new blood and purpose into the Alien series with the focus on character rather than effect. It’s still just a nail biting.

3/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Passengers ***

Described by some as a ‘love story in space’, director Morten Tyldum’s new and hotly anticipated sci-fi action thriller Passengers throws up some interesting concepts at the start but falls short of further exploration. It is certainly slick to encounter and has a good chemistry in its leads, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, considering the appalling circumstance they come to be known to each other.

When passenger Jim Preston’s (Pratt) hibernation pod accidently opens 90 years too soon into a 120-year journey to another planet, he finds he is all alone on an auto-piloted ship. Panic turns to him making a life or death decision, and a romance with another passenger, Aurora (Lawrence). However, as the ship begins to malfunction and Jim’s secret comes out, it is up to them to rally together and save the voyage, ship and the lives of thousands of passengers on board.

The concept of being lost in space is a ripe and creepy one that feeds on our fears and curiosity of the greater beyond ‘up there’. Tyldum’s story plays on this nicely from the start, with Pratt our competent leading man demonstrating how to kill time while trying to figure out how to survive his dilemma. It is his only real time to shine in the film as, as soon as Lawrence is awake, the focus is on her and her complete screen dominance.

Again, Passengers demonstrates that whatever Lawrence is in, she steers the project, with the camera loving her and her every move, completely casting a shadow over Pratt. Even Michael Sheen as android bartender Arthur – like some sci-fi The Shining extra – upstages Pratt in their scenes. This is no fault of latter, only we are supposed to empathise with Jim. However, as he does something so despicable – bordering on stalker-ish, it is very hard to. Hence, here lies the conundrum and an apparent plot weakness. That said, what Jim does do makes you question how you would react in the same situation, so in an unsettling sense, it is also thought-provoking.

As the action ramps up – and Laurence Fishburne makes a brief appearance to help in the salvation, the idea of trying to establish control over your situation is an intense one that propels the story forward. The credibility of proceedings does leave you frowning as to how two passengers with limited knowledge could save such a ship in the timeframe given and defy the laws of science. Therefore, there is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief involved to allow you to enjoy the action scenes.

Passengers has some great ideas to ponder over and a good-looking cast. The ‘love story’ is a little titillating to show off how fine the two leads are. However, it needed to get its facts a little straighter and pay more attention to its plot scenarios to truly propel it into the big league of sci-fi memorabilia, which is a shame as there is a lot to chew over in it.

3/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Star Trek Beyond ****

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In a moment of irony right at the start of the latest Star Trek film, Star Trek Beyond, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) admits things have started to feel a little ‘episodic’ aboard the USS Enterprise, angling for a desk job in Top Brass. This could be said of the film franchise, regardless of a J.J. Abrams reinvigoration of it in 2013.

This Justin Lin (of Fast & Furious directing fame) version keeps the series zinging along in its own nebula of cosmic chaos but grounds it with some compelling character relationships, plus a generous touch of nostalgia and fun.

When a rescued crew member reports that her ship has been destroyed and her crew taken hostage, James T. Kirk and his crew, Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), Doctor ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban), Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott (Simon Pegg) venture back out into space, but become stranded and divided on an alien planet. With no means of communication, they must work together to reunite and find a way to get back home.

The same cast returns three years on, having already convinced us of their credentials back in 2013, and not failing to engage us again with a solid combination of solidarity and fun. They are helped by a script penned by Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung, with the smart quips certainly having that trademark Pegg sarcasm.

The best lines are delivered by Urban as Bones, who comes across as the funniest, unfunny guy of the moment, constantly sticking his space boot in it with pure relish for us. Pegg naturally reserves some humorous lines for Scotty too, though assisted by an unusual comedy sidekick in Sofia Boutella as warrior rebel Jaylah who rebuffs his comments and is perhaps the most striking and exciting character in this episode.

Qunito’s Spock still has an aura of understated wisdom and awe about him. The actor has made this iconic character his own, reiterated by the defining moment he hears news from home of his mentor (played by the late Leonard Nimoy). In fact, in a moving note, it’s good to see the late Anton Yelchin back as Chekov one last time.

Idris Elba makes an appearance as the token baddie Krall, though is virtually unrecognisable until the very last battle scenes. Still, his character has a nice story arc, like all the others, allowing us to connect with them on a deeper level and care about their personal and collective troubles. Again, another success of the film is its big emphasis on ‘team spirit’, which doesn’t require you to be a Trekkie or to have seen the other films to fully engage. It is a standalone space ride of thrilling entertainment.

With gravity-defying effects – some nauseating, like revisiting Nolan’s Inception, this film’s momentum carries you along in a whirl, while pausing to address a character’s reaction at any single moment. This great marriage of sci-fi fantasy and characters we care about will guarantee the Star Trek movie franchise lives much longer and prospers.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Midnight Special ****

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Filmmaker Jeff Nichols always gives us very real characters, ones that have to fight for their lot. It’s this passion that makes his work so remarkable and memorable, from Take Shelter (2011) to Mud (2012). His latest, sci-fi-toned addition, Midnight Special, is no different, using the element of the unexplained to further add complexity to what we understand as a ‘relationship’. Muse Michael Shannon takes centre-stage again, an actor with such an emotional resolve that we shudder at his inner turmoil, without a word ever passing his lips.

Shannon plays doting father, Roy, who goes on the run with his gifted but ‘poorly’ young son Alton (a brilliant Jaeden Lieberher), aided by old friend, ex-cop Lucas (Joel Edgerton on fine form). A religious sect and the Government are after Alton – the mystery is why?

It’s the power of the unknown that steers Nichols’s film. Its constant ambiguity prompts question after bigger question from its characters and its audience. Like all great 80s/90s sci-fi, there is an inherit paranoia surrounding events of the darker side of the authorities who want to control anything they don’t understand. This feeds our desire for father and son to reach whatever final destination they need to reach, whether it spells tragedy.

The casting is as exquisite as is the writing here, with Shannon and his retro, Fifties-hero screen presence a formidable contradiction of towering strength and crushing vulnerability. As his character progresses on this road movie he is constantly learning – as are we. The need for answers becomes overwhelming, sweeping you along in the narrative that is essentially a very basic one on paper. It’s intelligent filmmaking from Nichols who whips the status quo up into something far grander.

The special effects feel very real, ironically, even with a large dose of the supernatural. The ending conjures up feelings from first-time viewing of Cameron’s The Abyss (1989) too, which also made believable correlations between human/organic and alien existence, questioning man’s knowledge of the watery depths of our oceans. Midnight Special poses similar questions about the ‘after life’ with its juxtapositioning of science and religion.

As coaxing and hypnotic as the pace of Nichols’s films are, Midnight Special is not as even as Mud. There are some odd moments of unnecessary padding. It’s questionable as to how relevant Kirsten Dunst’s character Sarah (Alton’s mother) is, short of answering where Alton supposedly originated from. The story is really Shannon’s to help us understand Alton’s journey.

Midnight Special will delight fans of intelligent sci-fi, weary of current-day, big special effects and yearning to revisit man’s connection to the universe and beyond. Its magical quality makes it special, and the core relationship will tug hard at the heartstrings, without you realizing, until the very end, how deep an impact it has made.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Martian ****

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“I am the greatest botanist on this planet”, says Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut who’s been left behind on Mars – presumed dead – as the only living soul. The ever-likeable Matt Damon convincingly plays Watney in another standout role, just that like that of Jason Bourne in the Bourne saga.

Watney’s line is one of the many in this gripping solo delivery and would ordinarily seem corny in a big blockbuster but demonstrates a playful comedic theme that runs right through director Ridley Scott’s new space epic, The Martian. The story’s intriguing contrast is the serious subject matter of Watney’s situation verses his positive can-do attitude and will to survive that render his situation more accessible to us and ‘lightens’ the mood.

That’s not to say Scott’s sumptuous cinematic spectacle – one of his best in a long time – doesn’t pull any action-packed punches and rack the tension sky high when needed. Indeed, The Martian comes with a surprising number of nail-biting moments that Watney encounters then resolves to the best of his ability – and with some devilish, sarcastic wit. There is also the daring grand finale that stretches credibility somewhat but works.

Back on Earth, NASA boffins and chiefs try to figure out how to get him back – or face an international PR disaster, much along the lines of many a space disaster movie such as Apollo 13. The fascination here is not mechanical fixes as such, but botanical ones – the first movie of its kind to relish the appearance of the humble potato. Apart from our curiosity about possible survival on Mars, it’s the very fact that Watney uses his environment and man’s ‘space junk’ to make Mars inhabitable that makes The Martian something different from the rest of the space disaster bunch.

Damon does not act entirely alone – albeit in parallel – in the film, getting some tremendous support from the likes of Jessica Chastain (Watney’s compromised commander), Jeff Daniels (NASA chief) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (another harassed NASA big-wig who has to find operational solutions). There are even some commendable performances from Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Michael Peña and Kate Mara to name a few that each serve their purpose to bolster the storyline.

In fact, nothing, it seems, human or inanimate, goes to waste here, making The Martian a very satisfying watch and a return to the Scott glory days.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Terminator Genisys ***

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“Old, but not obsolete”, is returning Terminator legend Arnie Schwarzenegger’s punch line throughout the new reboot, Genisys. Clearly one line couldn’t better sum up the latest instalment: it’s by far not obsolete in concept and has a lot of mileage yet, exploring all kinds of societal impacts when machines start outsmarting us.

However, the execution this time feels ‘old’. That’s nothing to do with the Terminator (1984) and Judgement Day (1991) scene re-runs (re-filmed with the new stars) to jog the memory for this plot – and fill in the gaps for any newcomers, it’s just there is no new technological and hence, special effects that really ‘wow’ you in this one. All are well-worn elements from your average sci-fi action flick. And yes, we’ve seen such a time machine – like the one used by Skynet here to send back numerous individuals – before.

In Genisys, Sgt. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is sent back to 1984 by human resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) to protect his future mother Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) and mankind. A spanner gets thrown into the time-travel works, causing Reese to return to an alternate 1984 (from the one we know in the original film). He must learn who are his allies and to trust his arch enemy, the Terminator, in the shape of the Guardian (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Sarah’s lifelong protector, all with the aim of resetting the future.

The plot this time is incredible convoluted that it gets lost in the modern-day special effects – or we get lost as we hope that enlightenment will happen as a matter of course as to what’s going on when. Without giving the game away, the reference to ‘a spanner’ is what warps the timeline. This is about the only truly exciting bit.

Even though we revel in Arnie’s return – the Terminator joker in this, much to our glee, you cannot help but make unfair comparisons as a fan of the series with his co-stars, between Emilia Clarke and Linda Hamilton and Courtney and Michael Biehn, the latter being the originals. To be honest, Game of Thrones star Clarke is as headstrong as Hamilton was – albeit seems a little too young for the part, while Courtney suits the gun-for-hire military bod role. However, overall, they feel generic, and not as edgy as Hamilton became in Judgement Day, or nervous and gritty as Biehn in the 1984 film. Both new stars do a reasonable job in this – and keeping us up with the plot.

All in all, Genisys gives fans nothing new to chew on, just a little more Terminator action and Arnie worshipping. It certainly sets itself up for the follow-on, with there always being ‘a leftover’ that could threaten mankind, regardless of how many man-made/machine parts get sent through the time machine.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Avengers: Age of Ultron (3D) ***

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The world of the Avengers just got darker, more complicated and more extended in a sequel that although contains many  of the key ingredients of its predecessor fails to rise to its exhilarating and entertaining heights.

The problem with The Avengers: Age of Ultron lies in its convoluted plot and writer-director Joss Whedon trying to pack everything including the Marvel kitchen sink into this non-stop action packed two and a half hour long 3D adventure. The film hits the ground running from the start with Thor (Liam Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) fighting as a cohesive force.

When Tony Stark tries to restart a dormant peacekeeping program it leads to the creation of Ultron (James Spader) a villainous artificial intelligence hell-bent on global domination with the aid of his newly acquired army of robots. The Avengers are faced with a formidable foe, superbly played/voiced by Spader, who is joined by evil twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who is super-fast and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) who can control minds.

Downey Jr is on wisecracking form as Stark while Hemsworth and Evans have little to do as Thor and Captain America who are relegated to providing the muscle here. Unlike in the previous film our heroes are not given equal screen time instead the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye are awarded more prominence.

The blossoming romance between the Hulk and Black Widow feels oddly forced and doesn’t quite ring true along with her ability to lull him back into Bruce Banner with her whispering ways. Hawkeye’s back story is also a bolt out of the blue. However it is good to see Paul Bettany morph from Stark’s computerised buddy Jarvis into the meatier Vision and he is indeed a vision to behold.

Despite everything Whedon  does know how to deliver an eye popping spectacle which will bombard your senses. It just needed more light and shade including more banter and killer one liners.   The scene where the Avengers let their hair down in a night club is fun and inspired. The only thing that is missing is Loki while they do very cleverly explain the absence of Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Thor’s human girlfriend.

This sequel isn’t as fun or as captivating as Avengers Assemble, which set the bar incredibly high, but you will get your money’s worth and it does lay the groundwork for the new up and coming members of the Avengers and their numerous films.

3/5 stars

By Maria Duarte

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The Hunger Games – Mockingjay – Part I ****

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The third installment of The Hunger Games saga has arrived, and without having any prior knowledge of the Suzanne Collins books, it’s the darkest and most relevant film (and story) so far that can be enjoyed without any insight (or interest) in the killing games. It’s also boosted again by the striking and formidable figure of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, who combines beauty and vulnerability with stiff resolve, signifying the ultimate survivour character.

In Part 3 (Mockingjay – Part I), Katniss wakes up in the fortified bunker that is District 13, without fellow Hunger Games contestant Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), but with her mother and sister safely nearby. She is told they could only save one after she literally shatters the Games virtual environment at the end of the second film with one arrow from her bow.

District 13’s President Coin (Julianne Moore) wants Katniss to be reborn as the revolution’s figurehead, used as their propaganda weapon against the wealthy oppressor, the Capitol. But Katniss’s only thought is rescuing Peeta who is currently being held by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and used in his mission to crush the rebellion once and for all. It’s only after seeing the devastation of District 12 with her very own eyes that Katniss answers her call of duty.

It’s a case of who’s creating the best video propaganda in the third film as both Katniss and Peeta are used as political pawns. It’s a fascinating premise – and ironically timely in the real world, what with the extremes of the deadly Islamic State video campaign on the one hand, and the impact of reality TV stars on the other. This film certainly plays more to our raw emotions while sounding the rally cry for revolution to come that’s rapidly gathering pace.

In fact, Mockingjay – Part I will appeal to any ‘underdog’ out there, any sci-fi fan, complete with bunker claustrophobia that is life in a futuristic world on the brink of change. Director Francis Lawrence keeps things tense and eventful as the threat comes from all angles – the most terrifying being on a screen. Part I is actually not as rich in detail as the previous two films, but it delivers the greatest impact so far.

Lawrence will forever be Katniss, a role she has made her own. Like her character in this film, she is the franchise’s figurehead and safe bet for box office success. Hutcherson gets the short straw this time, with sporadic screen time (literally), but still manages to portray Peeta’s oppression, the result of which comes out in full force at the end.

Most of the old faces return, including the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as shady Plutarch and comedic value from a ‘dry’ Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). By far the most enjoyable is Elizabeth Banks as Effie, Katniss’s personal stylist who tries to bring a bit of ‘prison chic’ to the grey attire of District 13 with amusing results. Even Gale gets more action this time (sadly, not from Katniss), with little brother of Chris and Luke, Liam Hemsworth showing off his action-hero skills.

Moore’s Coin is definitely an intriguing character in the making, having shown her leadership talent in this, we have yet to see much of her true colours. Indeed, those familiar with the book will not get a sense of the sinister side of District 13 as this is played down to bump up the revolution rally cry and get us firmly on the side of the oppressed. It will be interesting to see how this is interrupted in Part II, whether Coin and co’s true motivations are revealed. At the moment, it’s still enigmatic Snow/Sutherland’s evil verses the suburbs’ virtue.

Like any film in a saga, it needs to be relayed to move on to the finale of the story. However, far from just joining the dots, Mockingjay – Part I is an entertaining standalone film that may attract new audiences of all ages to the cinema for the values it stands for. If nothing else, Lawrence dons the sexiest Katniss outfit yet! A shameful plug, but she is the poster girl in all senses.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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