LFF 2017: Good Time ****

Robert Pattinson has come a long way from his Edward Cullen years in Twilight, having to carefully pick his roles as to throw off the vampire mantel. He has had some successes and some duds. However, with the Safdie BrothersGood Time, an urban thriller on speed, he may just have done it. Its edgy pace and sense of ‘in the moment’ fixes makes the actor’s underdog character Constantine ‘Connie’ Nikas not just an exhilarating one to try and keep up with, but a complete change from the normally laid-back Pattinson.

After a botched bank robbery by brothers Connie and Nick (Benny Safdie), the latter gets caught and jailed. So begins the desperate 24-hour countdown by Connie to collect together bail money and stop his mentally-ill brother from being sent to Riker’s Island prison, where he knows Nick will not survive.

With its film noir nods, punctuated by psychedelic colour and energizing pop tracks, the Safdie Brothers take us on a journey through the underbelly of Queens – their home turf, with Connie as our unwilling guide. The gritty, hand-held production was often shot without filming permits – as is the Safdies’ ‘urban opera’ style, further complimenting the whole affair.

With elements of Taxi Driver to it – the Safdies are working with Scorsese on a new film, there is a pressure-cooker environment waiting to come to boil. Unlike the 1976’s cult classic, Good Time has moments of release, only for a split second, to show the idiocy/absurdity of certain events throughout.

At the heart is a criminal with a heart – thieves may not stick together, but brothers do. Pattinson’s casting is a clever choice by the Safdies, who have pluck unknowns from the street to act. Pattinson embodies Connie completely, including clinching the accent. That said there is a softer edge to his hardened exterior, allowing empathy with his plight to filter through at times.

This is in stark contrast with Queens native Buddy Duress, a real-life, reformed felon who the Safdie Brothers cast in their earlier film, Heaven Knows What (2014). Duress plays Ray this time, a pathetic small-time crook who knows how to get cash quick for Connie. The fact Pattinson is so convincing opposite Duress in their scenes is credit to the Brit’s complete transformation in this.

Good Time is a ride of the night, a pulsing, high-octane race against the main enemy – time. It may surprise some Pattinson’s fans, but it will certainly hold him in greater acting regard by everyone who sees this.

4/ 5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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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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LFF 2017: Mutafukaz ****

Japanese anime has always been pop culture’s anarchic social commentary on current affairs, but equally troubling for its sexualizing imagery of young girls. Its fantastical themes, vibrant characters and whirl of colour are still compelling for most.

Mutafukaz, the new Franco-Japanese collaboration by directors Shoujirou Nishimi and Guillaume ‘Run’ Renard shown at this year’s London Film Festival suddenly makes anime more relevant and accessible to a wider audience. With its nods to the likes of Ren and Stimpy, Grand Theft Auto, Leon and even Men in Black, Mutafukaz uses such references cleverly to address modern-day social issues, ranging from austerity and multiculturalism to state intervention in a highly energetic and entertaining way.

The story’s lead character is pizza-delivery boy called Angelino, one of many deadbeats living in Dark Meat City (D.M.C.), along with flat mate, best buddy Vinz who has a skull head that’s always flaming. In life in D.M.C. will always be “Desperate, Miserable and Crap” – the boys just need to break away from all the ugliness and the cockroaches.

On his rounds one day absent-minded Angelino is transfixed by a stunning, mysterious girl walking past, causing in him crashing his scooter. First putting it down to concussion, he begins noticing menacing monster-like shapes, while mean-looking men in black are after him, resulting in him and Vinz going on the run.

Creator Renard has come a long way from the Sundance short of the same name. With the help of veteran animator Nishimi they have given birth to genuine animated characters, each with curious personalities. The feature-length run-time of 90 minutes has helped with this, giving an actual sense of Angelino and Vinz’s daily troubles, but amplified by strong, purposeful voiceovers from actors Tay Lee and Mark Ryan Haltom respectively.

While having an ever-present sense of urgency and paranoia, the pace slows at times, so we can take a breath and marvel at the creativity, illustrating the mood of the moment. Take Angelino’s Pied Piper-esque skill with their resident cockroaches, rendering something revolting rather alluring to watch.

Die-hard anime fans still get their dose of gravity-defying moves, graphic gore, juvenile reactions and blatant sexism. However, scenes such as the shoot-outs in the ghetto are injected with Shakespearean prose (and graffiti) and stage choreography, all in splendid 2D render. With such hard-hitting issues at play, grinding down our protagonists, empathy for each multiplies, reaffirming our commitment to seeing them succeed.

This addictive sense of survival and rebirth, coupled with the bigger mystery – who are the alien beings and why do they want Angelino – adds many intriguing layers to a 2D production, while the characters bombard us with thoughts and opinions in their wake.

Mutafukaz becomes not just a coming-of-age journey for our animated heroes, but one for the anime newcomer, quite possibly igniting a newfound love of the art and bringing the fantasy down with a thud to a palpable street-level understanding.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2017: Sicilian Ghost Story ****

If Salvo wasn’t enough of a powerhouse debut to shine a light on the murky world of the mafia, award-winning film-makers and co-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza have a new offering, Sicilian Ghost Story. This is more of a coming-of-age love story and more expertly layered. It still retains that mystical, almost supernatural quality that the pair alludes to. It also has one of the most shockingly brutally but captivating scenes witnessed in a long time.

Based on the real-life Italian crime story of the abduction and subsequent murder of 12-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo, son of a Mafioso turned police informant, the story follows classmate Luna’s (exciting newcomer Julia Jedlikowska) lovelorn quest to get to the bottom of what happened to Giuseppe (newcomer Gaetano Fernandez). Her determination absorbs her adolescent years. Her obsession is of great concern to her parents, particularly her strict mother who wants to keep off the authorities – and mafia’s – radar.

Set in the idyllic Sicilian countryside the film has a mesmerizing, innocent, dream-like quality to it from the start – much like a ‘Sicilian Twilight’, where young love can flourish away from harsh realities. It is this false sense of security that flows into a greater estuary of foreboding caused by an evil entity that is very much part of the local culture and fabric of the landscape. There is even a scene where with question the true existence of a building. However, when the menace proves too great for our young leads, the film-makers allow their characters a supernatural ‘retreat’, where youth can achieve anything and solve all problems adults seemingly can’t or won’t.

What keeps the whole beautifully crafted affair grounded is the stone-cold reality of Giuseppe’s demise, played out as imprisonment scenes of varying brutality and psychological abuse. This finally climaxes in the powerful ‘cleansing’ scene, truly repulsive (and stomach churning) as it is beguiling to watch nature taking its course. This scene runs for quite some time to ensure the full impact hits home.

At the same time, the film-makers are not caught up portraying the morose, allowing moments of reflection and ‘escapism’ to blend all the emotions felt whilst watching. Indeed, out of despair a young adult life is born, so the film has a surprising upbeat quality to it, even after the ugliness of the crime grip-hold in this region lingers on.

It is this clever blending of truth and fiction that allows Grassadonia and Piazza to tackle the narrative’s horrors while keeping us entranced and guessing. This leaves us with some sense of optimism that good can prevail over something ongoing and sinister. Sicilian Ghost Story just triumphs in this, both technically and artistically.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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47 Metres Down ***

Ever since Jaws, there’s been the desire to thrill audiences with crazed, human-hunting sharks singling out victims in the water. We know sharks can bite in reality (and even kill), but sadly, since the 1975 Spielberg classic, none of the shark films have been as effective, including the Jaws sequels. These all become more and more laughable, to the point of absurdity like Sharknado.

The only film that began capturing the ‘reality’ of being in the water with one of the deep’s greatest hunters, and came close to Jaws for sheer terror, was Open Water (2003). There was believability to it that events portrayed ‘could’ happen – in fact it was based on a true story. The beauty of this film was you never got to see the crazed shark attacking. It was all below the waterline.

Last year’s Blake Lively adrenaline fest, The Shallows, got average reviews and revived our fear of Great Whites targeting us. 47 Metres Down, like Open Water and The Shallows, plays on a realistic situation you ‘could’ possibly find yourself in, especially in the middle of the Summer season. The latest film is surprisingly effective too, and cleverly throws enough curve balls to keep you entertained for the 89 mins, but doesn’t go quite far enough with the shark menacing.

Two sisters, Lisa and Kate (played by Mandy Moore and Claire Holt respectively) are on holiday in Mexico, with Lisa trying to get over a breakup back home. Befriending two lads, they decide to go on a cage-diving expedition to get up close to sharks. The problem is the equipment and cage supplied by the operator (hippie Taylor, played by Matthew Modine) is less than safe. After the boys’ turn, and the cage the sisters are now in plunges 47 metres to the ocean floor. As their oxygen begins to run out, the sisters must find a way of communicating with the surface and get rescued, while Great Whites circle them.

The setup and process in which the girls become shark bait is highly believable – this reviewer experienced faulty diving gear while in St Lucia. Writer-director Johannes Roberts plays on this possible scenario – being exposed to dubious practices as a tourist, challenging you to think what you would do in the sisters’ unfortunate situation? The filmmaker also shoots within murky surroundings, not the crystal-clear blue expanse other productions favour. This heightens the fear of ‘what’s out there’ even more.

While you will be covering your face in anticipation of an attack, squinting with one eye through your hands, the problem lies with some far-fetched parts. There are also not enough shark frights in the run-up to the next attack – ironic, considering the subject matter. As far as stretching reality, one of the sisters goes off to find a much-needed bit of kit sent down by the boat, over the edge of a ocean-floor ledge with a significant drop, and still manages to find her way back to the damaged cage, without consequence, for example.

Indeed, the premise is, after a certain time when the oxygen is near gone, so how many of situations the sisters are in are actually happening, and how many are delusions? This is where Roberts’s film gets very intriguing. It’s a shame it didn’t played on this more to heighten the disorientation at 47 metres below the surface, and elevate it out of the vanilla-acted, B-movie outcome it lapses into. It could have been a memorable psychological thriller and upped the game in this genre. The ending does have you questioning, is this really happening? Hence the plot’s main problem lies with whether 47 Metres Down is meant to be just a shark-menacing film (like Jaws), or a psychological nail-biter about disorientation (much like Open Water), with the big fish just another peril to contend with? This is where things feel a little inconsistent.

That said, 47 Metres Down will have you cowering in your seat, muttering “no, no, no, don’t do it” to either one of the women’s actions. With its twists and turns, the film does what it intends to do; make you think twice about cage diving with sharks on your holiday, or at least, demanding to see the operator’s certificates, licences and equipment before stepping onto the boat, let along the into the shark feeding cage!

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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My Cousin Rachel ****

Daphne du Maurier novels are primed for screen use – just take Rebecca, The Birds and Don’t Look Now, for example. After all, she was a master of intrigue, dark imagination, and open endings, and was one of Hitchcock’s favourites to adapt. Hence, the second big-screen incarnation of My Cousin Rachel (the first made in 1952, starring Olivia de Havillard and a young Richard Burton) ought to be an enticing affair, starring Rachel Weisz this time around. It is, and just as moody in production as in acting as any ‘period film noir’ should be. It also retains the mystery right up until the very last frame, which some might find utterly frustrating.

After the sudden death of his beloved cousin/father figure in Italy, young Englishman Philip (Sam Claflin) begins to plot revenge against his cousin’s widow, the enigmatic and beautiful Rachel (Weisz), believing foul play at his cousin’s demise. He waits for Rachel’s imminent arrival, after news that she is to settle in England on her husband’s estate – which Philip has been running and will inherit at on his 25th birthday. However, the more Philip gets to know her, the more he falls for her charm and individuality. But what are Rachel’s real intentions?

The ‘did she, didn’t she’ yarn is engrossing enough to have you hooked throughout and continually looking for clues to solve the mystery. At the same time, it almost makes excuses for some of the lesser explained sub plots that writer-director Roger Michell leaves ‘hanging’. Perhaps, this whole mystery works because both Michell and his leads did not discuss who is to blame throughout filming? This certainly translates onto screen, as all the characters have is to react to the present situation they find themselves in, while they (and we) try working out what the devil is going on?

My Cousin Rachel cleverly swings between sympathy with and suspicion of Rachel, partly due to the great acting talents of Weisz – without her, this film might have been a non-starter. Weisz delivers just the right amount of torment and teasing, composure and melodramatics to keep you guessing, playing the full spectrum of emotion. She is entrancing to watch even when she says nothing, dressed in mournful black most of the time, like some ever-present dark menace in the room, even in her lighter moments.

Michell does make full use of the Rael Jones music score to prompt changes in mood perhaps a little too frequently, but Claflin’s ‘lesser acting experience’ compared to Weisz’s actually plays to his character’s advantage in dealing with the more worldly-wise woman. Claflin says he did not know what Weisz’s next move would be on set and this certainly shines through.

The actual surprise for those fans of Austen and Dickens-adapted films is the modern vein of humour coursing through it, even the language that My Cousin Rachel employs – cue the moment Philip’s butler deals with men wrongly dressing the Christmas tree. This is a feature of du Maurier’s written word which Michell has captured well, and it feels quite in place and ‘fresh’, punctuating languishing moments in such a period drama, even though the time’s decorum is still maintained.

Game of Thrones’ star Iain Glen and Holliday Grainger are brilliant support to Claflin’s Philip as the Kendalls (father and daughter), who worry about his position and mental health. As onscreen mentors and wiser figures, even they are susceptible to Rachel’s lure, making for an intriguing dynamic.

My Cousin Rachel is a curious one to describe to those who haven’t seen it. It creeps up on you slowly and makes you think before frustrating the hell out of you in the end. It has love, mystery, drama and comedy, without all the stuffiness of period drama that might turn some off. It is a period ‘coming-of-age’ film too, where the ‘bad guy’ is female – or is she? Is she just very independent and sexually liberated for her time? As Philip asks in the end: who is to blame? Perhaps, that’s where du Maurier’s opening line in the novel might help: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days”… You decide.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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John Wick: Chapter 2 ****

If you could ‘feel sorry’ for an assassin, John Wick would be one such case. Desperate to get out of the deadly profession, he just keeps being dragged back into it. Keanu Reeves on the other hand – who again stars in the title role – is more than happy to revive this troubled brute who makes Rambo’s bodycount look pitiful. Reeves/Wick makes a welcome return in Chapter 2, not losing any of his previous appeal or looking worse for wear. There is also a dog in this one, but the situation has changed so animal lovers can breathe a sigh of relief.

This time, Wick is asked to repay a debt by crime boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), which involves a hit very close to home. The trouble for John is carrying out this request puts a global bounty on his head and will have him shuned from the decadent criminal underworld network – managed by Winston (Ian McShane) – he enjoys protection in. However, a debt is a debt, and John Wick must obey the code of honour.

This feels more ‘Bond’ in production and style than the first film, which had a grittier, edgier crime caper feel. It still has its colourful gloomy scenes but the global trek feels more akind to a 007 storyline, which is not necessary a bad thing. Chapter 2 boasts the same writer (Derek Kolstad) and director (Chad Stahelski who co-ordinated Reeves’s stunt on The Matrix), which also gives the character and the story some much needed continuity. Indeed, Kolstad came up with the character so it’s good to see he hasn’t abandoned him – there is talk of a third escapade anyway.

Reeves plays emotionally distant characters exceptionally well. John Wick works because he is a man full of secrets trying to redeem himself, while acting like a wounded animal on a self-defence mission. All of this is played out in an environment that does not take itself too seriously, with glimmers of deadpan humour mixed with a campness that certain Bond films enjoy. With a stunt co-ordinator in the director’s chair, the hand-to-hand combat sequences are exhilarating and commendable alone. There is a gaming sense behind the action, although without first-person play available, so it widens the target audience.

The motivation to kill is a simple one to grasp – there is no convoluted plot. Hence, this all ties in nicely with what John Wick’s strengths are; rawness, honesty, survival and loyalty. This is clearly what makes the series popular. Trying to cloud this are the mysteries and lore surrounding the ‘brotherhood’, though Kolstad gives fans more to chew on this time, but still leaving more for us to ponder over too. When John meets Winston at the end, it’s just like something out of The Matrix – even Laurence ‘Morpheus’ Fishburne stars in this film as a resistance-type character to add to the thrill. More questions upon questions feed an ongoing saga. At the same time, Wick dispenses with undesirables, even those higher up the food chain.

John Wick is another triumph for Reeves, just like Neo, with the same movie mileage, as Wick uncovers yet another underworld cancer that needs removing while trying to buy closure. Chapter 2 is every bit as satisfying and thrilling. Wick has to come back again for a hat-trick, if only to finish the job – a happy thought indeed.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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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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