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

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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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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

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Inferno **

inferno

There is never a terrible Tom Hanks film, only one less satisfying than the other. Inferno is one such Hanks title. It is arguable just how much more mileage director Ron Howard can get out of the Dan Brown ‘Robert Langdon’ saga about symbolism, religion and cult, but you can’t blame him for trying with Inferno. Afterall, these books are made for big screen translation.

The sequel to The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, Inferno starts with Harvard University professor Robert Langdon (Hanks) waking up in a hospital room in Florence, Italy, with no memory of what has transpired over the last few days. He is being plagued with visions of a Hell-like Earth. Dr Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) tells him he has been suffering from amnesia after a bullet to the head. After an attempt on his life on the ward, Langdon and Brooks go on the run to find answers when they discover a ‘Faraday pointer’ with an image of Dante’s Inferno in Langdon’s personal belongings.

Hanks does not have to do much for his fee here, short of portraying his trademark ‘bemused face’ and getting a little exercise. David Koepp‘s script is very by the book, almost a little too so, merely illustrating the Brown text like an visual aid. Even the twist fails to raise excitement levels, and by the time we get to the climax – to save the world (again) – there is little appetite. We are just glad to see Hanks – or Langdon – safe and sound.

The trouble with translating any book from a series is there are always ones less compelling, but like all series, they need to be done to complete the filmic archive. Inferno has some great puzzles and culture to learn about – take Dante, for example. However, like numerous action thrillers of recent times, it just feels like watching a less enthralling ‘travel blog’, even with Hanks at the helm.

We all like a good mystery and chase, it’s just there is little imagination injected into Inferno, and a distinct lack of fear of the unknown that the other Brown books pedal so well. The spread of a virus should strike the fear of God into all – we just don’t get that sense of scale or impending doom in this. That’s probably because we’re being distracted by sightseeing and culture. Not a bad thing though.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Girl on the Train ***

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Apparently Emily Blunt is far too attractive (and slim) to be author Paula Hawkins‘s alcoholic anti-heroine Rachel, the pickled protagonist of bestseller The Girl on the Train. The gripping tale is also set in upstate New York, rather than London that has irked some fans of the novel.

The fact is, this twisty-turny mystery drama of love, heartache, deceit and murder could be transferred to anywhere in the world – hence the original text’s clear catch. It’s also a very compelling modern story of female struggle. All three women in the tale – Rachel, Anna (now married to Rachel’s ex and living in the former martial home, played by Rebecca Ferguson) and Megan (the beautiful girl next door to Anna who goes missing, played by Haley Bennett) – are battling demons, even in the most idyllic of surroundings, but share a common thread. It’s this journey of discovery that director Nate Taylor takes us on, and Secretary scriptwriter Erin Cressida Wilson cleverly relays through plot backtracks and the like.

The gripping nature of the novel is not altogether lost on film. Indeed, getting your head around the new setting takes a bit of time. Blunt is so curiously ‘haunting looking’ that she instantly carries our interest on her obsessive train journeys each day, making us sympathise, dislike then empathise once again. She plays the perfect flawed character, both physically and mentally in this. Who cares about her look? What does an ‘alcoholic’ actually look like anyway? It is quite an accomplished performance for the Brit actress who remains British in this, as to not totally alienate Hawkins fans.

The apparent difference is how ‘tame’ Taylor’s interpretation is – until the end part of the film when the explanantions and replays flow forth, as do the ugly episodes. It’s here that Justin Theroux as Rachel’s ex and Anna’s hubby really injects the malevolence. In opting not to go too sinister though, Taylor has sanitized events somewhat when a more alarming approach was needed to do justice to Hawkins’s work. The surroundings and ‘Nancy Meyers home interiors’ do not create enough foreboding, just infer something is rotten at the core. It is this malice that Taylor misses.

The Girl on the Train can be enjoyed as it stands, with Blunt doing justice to Rachel being the most important thing. It’s just fans might feel out of sorts and less than freaked out than when they read the book.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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War Dogs ***

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If War Dogs, The Hangover director Todd Phillips‘s new war dramedy is meant to entertain in his distinctive bromance-worshipping way, then it serves its purpose as it follows the highs and lows of a volatile male-on-male relationship. Indeed, it does rely heavily on its stars Jonah Hill and Miles Teller’s chemistry, plus a generous dollop of Hill expectation as the actor has made ‘cuddly’ sociopathic characters his new forte.

David Packouz (Teller) is a male masseuse for the rich who is trying to get enough money together before wife Iz (Ana de Armas) gives birth. When he sinks all their savings into a stock pile of luxury cotton sheets and fails to sell these to Miami’s old-people’s homes, his unlikely ‘saviour’, unscrupulous old school chum Efraim Diveroli (Hill) appears on the scene with a proposition that could make him rich quick.

David can join the small-time arms trade and become a ‘War Dog’ like Efraim, looking for the crumbs – small arms contracts touted online by the US Government – and bid on them. As the money starts flowing in, the mother of all arms deals comes up – a 300 million dollar contract to arm the Military to the teeth in Afghanistan. That’s when the problems begin and the whole operation unravels, as the War Dogs must rely on elusive, Grade-A War Dog, Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) to get a shipment out of Albania.

As the story goes, this is Hill as Efraim’s big moment, his very own The Wolf on Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort, completely absorbing with his maniacal, high-pitched laugh that both delights and disturbs. Hill ought to be commended for making the film bigger than it actually deserves to be. We never like his character and are waiting for him to do the dirty – well, we get told he will throughout. However, we do relate to the lure of his naked ambition. In fact, his character is far more intriguing than Teller’s, even though we are forced to believe the latter; David is our constant narrator and seems to get into more bother in the plot. Teller does as great a job with what he’s got to work with.

The film does miss a trick in being blacker than it is, merely dabbling in the dark side but swiftly returning to safety when the central rocky bromance waivers. We are meant to care about this relationship, even though we don’t quite buy it. Even Cooper’s shady middle-man arms dealer is just not threatening enough to give the film more of a sadistic edge it needs. Ironic, as at the start, David has a gun pointed to his head, setting up the high stakes of the dangerous war game they are in. We never get a real sense of that, which is a shame.

That said there is an infectious, erratic ‘goofiness’ to all the boys’ dealings that totally entertains, like two young city traders dabbling in dealings way over their heads. It tries to be a mix of The Lord of War, The Big Short and a Scorsese gangster buddy film, without really delving into what actually makes the characters tick – apart from the money. Indeed, even de Armas is left hanging, supposedly our moral compass but going off piste all the time – one minute appalled by David’s new business venture, the next supportive as it pays the bills. She just comes across as the typical, irrational (try gullible) new mum, all hormonal, and hardly a decent female character worth remembering. At least The Wolf’s Margot Robbie character doesn’t lie down and take it from her Wall Street rogue.

War Dogs is far from perfect and a wannabe imitation of a Scorsese film it aspires to be – queue the characters’ references throughout. However, Phillips has started ‘something’ of interest here, if he can just combine his skill of crafting bromances with a more developed and pitch-black comedic script in the near future. For now, there are enough laughs with Hill and Teller in action to make War Dogs highly watchable – especially Hill, plus it raises some interesting talking points of global government corruption. This is hardly shocking, but will have you shaking your head all the same at the cost of the ‘war business’.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Purge: Election Year ***

the purge election year

It’s another year, and another Purge – which usually means the poor/vulnerable getting brutally hunted by the rich. The only thing different this time for writer/director James DeMonaco’s latest flick in the saga, Election Year, is it’s rather poignantly about a US election, with one candidate for the mass 24-hour killing set against one very much against the injustice. The rest is lots of privileged people revelling in the blood let – and still poor Frank Grillo having to risk life (and limb) getting ‘innocents’ to safety.

Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) remembers her family being ‘purged’ (slaughtered) in the past on the legalised night of crime and is determined to put an end to this ‘law’ if elected to US President. The trouble is powerful parties – and her political opponents – have vested interests in keeping the 12-hour killing spree going and have put a price on her head in this year’s annual Purge.

After an attempt on her life a few hours after the siren sounds the start of the killing spree, she goes on the run with Leo Barnes (Head of Security played Grillo) and crosses paths with an underground group run by the elusive Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge from the first film), who wants to go after her opponents and their supporters. She needs to keep alive during the next 12 hours and win the election.

The chilling theory behind the Purge stories still holds eerily strong; the idea that ‘somehow’ a nation’s social problems can be erradicated by erasing groups reliant on the state’s welfare. It’s absolutely this that DeMonaco relies on to justify his series further, as the rest is more of the same. Albeit this time, there is an attempt at a more serious side in 2016 election year, which often comes across as (unintentionally) comical in delivery.

There is a rather solid character in Sen. Roan though, a ‘hero’ fighting for the less fortunate, and the kind we’d like to rally behind in a world in turmoil in reality. Mitchell plays her tough and soft sides simultaneously in a plausible manner. Her tough guy and protector Grillo slugs it out like some kind of gruff, youthful Falk/Columbo in tow.

The ‘dry’, sardonic quips are provided by Mykelti Williamson as shop keeper Joe Dixon who peppers the dialogue with racial ‘digs’ that outstay their purpose. We ‘get’ who some of the most disadvantaged groups are in the USA today. It doesn’t have to be spelt out in the script every time his character is in the frame.

There does seem to be less visible bloodlust this time around, and more running/driving around. However, one pesky teen brat does gleefully get her just desserts for being a tad annoying, even though the set-up is sensed a mile off. Another humorous/dark side is visiting ‘murder’ tourists that DeMonaco is keen to comment on. Sadly, this feels shortlived as they merely serve as padding/fodder, even though this is an intriguing by-product of the Purge.

Fans will get more of the same, plus equally despicable, hammy characters to like/loathe in Election Year. Whether the idea of setting it in election year will draw a greater audience is unlikely, but it certainly feels very topical – if not for mask/outfit inspiration come October 31st.

3/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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London Has Fallen ***

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Watch out Europe; beefy Banning (Gerard Butler) is back – and so are the rest of the White House crew. The action is no longer confined to one building, Olympus (code name for the White House) – as in the 2013 film, but London, a city under terrorist siege. London Has Fallen is more of the same carnage too, only more graphic than the first – and surprisingly still rated 15.

Banning continues to protect President Asher (Aaron Eckhart), but also contemplates resigning as a dad-to-be. However, when news of the British Prime Minister’s death reaches Washington DC, the President is invited to attend the state funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, along with other world leaders. Banning is there by his side.

Then tragedy strikes in a massive, coordinated terrorist attack, seeing Banning and Asher on the run in London’s city streets from a heavily armed enemy. Meanwhile, Vice President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) – formerly Speaker Trumball – tries to coordinate a rescue from back home in the States with the (over) use of drones.

The whole premise of a London-wide attack would seem utterly ridiculous two decades ago. However, since ‘terror’ has reached European streets as recently as the 2015 Paris attacks, it really isn’t much of a stretch of the imagination to buy into this film’s plot – however much we want to dismiss it as daft. After all, we Londoners are constantly told a threat is imminent and many attempts are thwarted daily. This film certainly pays lip service to security services’ need for greater online snooping powers – indirectly picked up on by one of the supporting characters.

There is also a need for a real-life action hero right now in a world of turmoil; to see ‘terrorists’ get their just desserts by a one-man killing machine. It’s the stuff of far-reaching fantasy. This is where Butler’s character Banning triumphs again, much like a pesky, latter-day John McClane. Butler certainly gets the job done – and in tailored style, being highly entertaining to watch. Although, the ‘terrorists’ are actually part of a rightly aggrieved family (however abhorrent their previous actions might be), they are the usual bogeymen to satisfy Western tabloid sensationalism. But enough on the politics for now.

London Has Fallen is untaxing action fodder that really has its tongue firmly in cheek – most of the time. It has to, what with some of the corniest lines delivered on screen in a while that will have you howling with laughter. It still holds as nice a pace as Fuqua’s 2013 film. This time the director is relative action newcomer, Iranian Babak Najafi whose only other equivalent feature project was Easy Money II in 2012. Still, the same writing team is guilty for this second instalment, but it’s a reactionary script designed to get the whoops and the groans as we go along for the ride.

The special effects are fantastic as London crumbles. There’s even a quaint throwback to wartime London that the writers touch on that supposedly clears the streets – something that just wouldn’t happen in this day and age as people would be out on their phones for social media documenting when the networks are back up.

The action is definitely grizzlier – and quelchier in effect, as Banning disperses with baddies in hand-to-hand combat even, while raising the body count. It also shows just what the US would like to do to a team of fundamentalist beheaders too, that’s sure to get the cheers. In fact, much of the later action is played out in Tour of Duty-style video gaming, so it’s titillating stuff. Widening the playing field this time just gives the writers more leeway to be grander in effect. The trouble is the end fight is held in a more constricted environment, so that’s a shame, considering all of London is at their disposal.

Will Asher be back – there’s a hint Banning might be. In the meantime, it’s down to that faultless tower of screen strength Morgan to settle our nerves and bang the drum of defiance that we just lap up and can’t help but grin at. London Has Fallen does do what it sets out to do for an action blockbuster; shamelessly entertain, free of consequence.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Triple 9 **

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Cue dirty cops, jobbing criminals and Russian gangsters; it’s latter-day US crime thriller time, just as you expect it. Although this might be a great comfort for many, Triple 9 ought to be using far more of its exceptional ensemble cast in something a little off the beaten/well-worn track. Director John Hillcoat (Lawless (2012)) and debut feature writer Matt Cook have squandered their chance to show their full potential here, as they hit all the right tropes. It just goes to show how writing experience matters.

Career criminal Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) just wants to do one last job as he has a kid son. He has no choice as he’s tied up with/related to Russian gangsters, headed by matriarch Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet). He must storm a police HQ that holds some vital documents Vlaslov needs to help release her Russian mobster lover from prison.

Atwood recruits inside help, dirty detectives Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.) into his gang – that includes hapless Welch brothers, Gabe (Aaron Paul) and Russel (Norman Reedus). To create a diversion, they plan to kill a cop. Detective Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) is new on the turf and their prime target. After all, he is the boss, Jeffrey Allen’s (Woody Harrelson) nephew.

As expected, we are introduced to the heist plan and the players – all set in the grimmest, moodiest environment, where the line between good and bad is so blurred, no one is trustworthy. So far, it’s pretty much by the numbers. It is intriguing to see the depths the film-makers will go to make their production grittier than the last. Triple 9 holds no punches here, and will satisfy and immerse you in the bleakest of urban surroundings.

The problems are the lackluster writing, coupled with the casting. Although the latter is impressive, certain members seem to be vying for ‘credible accent of the year award’. Brit Ejiofor comes off the best, but it’s Winslet’s Russian one that brings on the giggles – complete with bouffant hairdo – rather than fear, cheapening the shadowy setting the film-makers have worked hard to produce. She’s a classic Slavic film caricature in this, however you dress it up – as is willowy Fast and Furious‘s Gal Gadot as sexy sister Elena. Thank goodness for Affleck and cop drama veterans like Harrelson (True Detective) who bring the status quo back on track.

Both of the latter do a fine job – as expected – with Harrelson feeling like he has to do the lion’s share of the work in keeping an air of mystery. Allen Senior is one of those wonderful cop drama characters with a colourful record and boundless opportunity to veer off at a tangent, so they really thrive in this story. Sadly, all Affleck can do is stick to being the ‘moral compass’.

And there it is. There is little else of memorable substance to Triple 9, although it’s perfectly watchable, complete with gory and impressive action set-pieces too. It’s certainly not all bad, but could be far darker and daring in story and spirit than just its cinematography.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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