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 2015: The Lobster ****


Damned if you are. Damned if you’re not. Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’s first English-language feature The Lobster puts its characters in an impossible situation. The decision is all theirs in this bizarre but highly comical dark tale set in a dystopian future with completely different ideas on relationships.

David’s (a superb Colin Farrell) wife has just left him for another man, so he decides to book into The Hotel with his dog (actually his brother) to find a new life partner, in order to return and live in The City. He has 45 days or will be transformed into an animal of his choice. In David’s case, that’s a lobster as it lives for over 100 years, is blue-blooded (like an aristocrat), and he likes the sea too.

In the surrounding ‘The Woods’ live singletons or ‘loners’ that are not allowed to couple up, according to draconian rules followed by their leader (played by Bond’s Léa Seydoux). David can earn extra time (in days) at The Hotel for every loner he kills in establishment’s nightly organised hunts. However, after a tragic event at The Hotel, David is forced to become a loner. Ironically, he meets and falls for a ‘Short Sighted Woman’ (Rachel Weisz, who also narrates), someone he would love to have a relationship with.

The first half of the film in The Hotel is the best part by far. The latter half still has its nuggets and intriguing concepts as the overall way of life bemuses the hell out of you. There is a totally warped sense of coupling in both respects, played out in ritualistic dances, sports and breakfast meetings and set uniforms in The Hotel, and hilarious signing between David and his ‘Short Sighted Woman’ in The Woods.

Perhaps the funniest scene is the total lack of control when the ‘couple’ visits the loners’ leader’s parents in The City. Farrell and Weisz are an absolute scream here, openly doing what you only dreamt of doing in full view of the folks when the boyfriend was visiting, in the pretence of being a genuine couple. Weisz is also very funny as the sarcastic narrator, first telling the story of David at The Hotel then becoming part it.

Other delightful performances from an array of international talent include Olivia Colman as the obtuse Hotel Manager, along with her partner (played by Garry Mountaine) – almost certainly a product of their own creation. John C. Reilly is the ‘Lisping Man’ and Ben Whishaw the ‘Limping Man’ who gleefully squabble for our pleasure. Ashley Jensen is ‘Biscuit Woman’ with a penchant for custard creams – and David. The Greek director’s Dogtooth star Angeliki Papoulia is quite chilling as the ‘Heartless Woman’ who susses out David’s game and pursues him like a Terminator.

The Lobster has wonderful extremes too, from wildly absurd, laugh-out-loud moments to totally shocking brutality, often throwing you off course. The ending does let it down a bit as the effect of the brilliant set-up of this crazy dual existence seems to wane, which is a shame. Still, The Lobster is devilishly entertaining with some of the most original and deadpan crackpot wit on offer in a long time.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Dead Man Down ****

With the success of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (the original version) under his belt, plus the chance to work with leading lady Noomi Rapace once more, it was never going to be long before Danish director Niels Arden Oplev tried his hand at Hollywood revenge to further demonstrate his film-making skill.

More exciting is how Oplev could potentially channel some of that eerie, austere atmosphere of the 2009 hit film into this one, Dead Man Down, helped by one of cinema’s ever-brooding bad boys Colin Farrell who mirrors his turn in London Boulevard as self-reflective, man of few words, ex-con Mitchel, trying not to fall for the girl.

This time Farrell plays Hungarian Victor, a hired gun with an axe to grind much closer to home than his crime boss (played less than convincingly by Terrence Howard) would like or suspect. His chosen profession is sussed out by his disfigured but pretty neighbour, former beautician Beatrice (Rapace) who not only finds him strangely alluring but also wants revenge on the drunkard who caused her injuries. She propositions Victor, threatening to expose his seedy ways, unless he does her deadly deed. Victor starts losing control over his own personal objective, as well as his feelings.

Dead Man Down might be a revenge movie on the surface, but it’s a modern-day, edgy love story at heart that must overcome the most difficult of beginnings and the worse odds of success. The onscreen dynamic between Farrell and Rapace is highly believable, an engaging oxymoron in a sense: dangerously innocent as it tentatively progresses in a somewhat sweet fashion, partly due to Isabelle Huppert as Beatrice’s quirky French mother. It’s this core fledgling relationship gives the thriller its substance and soul, allowing you to forgive the uneven (and in parts, woodenly acted) opener, and really settle down to see where things lead.

Both actors manipulate their characters’ personas well, keeping them intriguing and unwittingly mysterious. Like Lisbeth Salander, Beatrice is emotionally scarred but far from a victim. This defiant survival attitude that Rapace embraces effortlessly combines sumptuously with Farrell’s natural despondency to make for a hypnotic watch. The plot’s catalyst is not necessarily Victor’s apparent exposure at any moment, thanks to the beady eye of fellow hit man Darcy (amicably portrayed Dominic Cooper), but Beatrice’s passive aggressive nature as she lures Victor out of the darkness he inhabits.

The climatic ending that brings the house down is pretty spectacular – as collateral damage and body count go: Though nothing new, it’s beautifully realised and shot. Short of changing the pace of the introspective affair, this finale may jar a little, but it’s perhaps a visual consequence of Victor’s pent up frustrations – like the storm following the calm. When the despicable truth behind Victor’s grievance is revealed it naturally requires a bloody revenge of grandeur, especially to prevent history repeating itself and allow old wounds to heal. Oplev merely delivers what is a must with some panache.

Dead Man Down allows Oplev to comfortably make his English-language debut doing what he has done best before: serving up sweet revenge, but never forgetting to explore the emotion behind the reaction as the primary goal. In turn, this makes for a more satisfying watch than your average, bloody revenge thriller and widens the usual box office appeal of such a genre with the prospect of a forbidden love affair at the helm.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Special Forces ***

Remember last year’s The Way Back, starring Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris and rising Hanna star Saoirse Ronan, where Siberian gulag escapees seem to walk half the planet to reach a safe destination, and defy all of nature’s odds? Well, writer-director Stéphane Rybojad’s new French action drama Special Forces feels much the same, only swapping Siberia for the unforgiving terrain of Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the Taliban in hot pursuit. If ever there was a recruitment advert for the military might of France, it’s this.

Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) plays Elsa, a determined journalist after the inside scoop in Afghanistan, who is kidnapped by the Taliban and on course to die at their hands. In fly the French ‘special forces’, an elite bunch of six commandos, armed to the teeth and with a no-holds-barred ticket to rescue her. After successfully doing so, they miss their rendezvous point and have to form their own plan of escape and survival to bring her to safety.

Much of Rybojad’s film plays out like a gun-ho video combat game that turns into a nature adventure programme. But with its infectious French swagger – heightened by the unflustered determination of Commander Guezennec, played by international cinema heavyweight Tchéky Karyo, and the bravado of our six hero rescuers on the way to their mission who “love their job”, it’s highly entertaining and even humorous at times (considering the subject matter). Rybojad’s glorification of mighty firepower is mostly set against an over-the-top, pumping techno tracks with slow-mo action and death-defying moves, all designed to place us firmly on the side of the elite killing team.

With all-masculine names like Kovax (Blood Diamond’s Djimon Hounsou), Tic-Tac (Benoît Magimel), Lucas (Denis Menochet), Elias (Raphaël Personnaz), Victor (Alain Figlarz) and Marius (Alain Alivon), we’re given salt-of-the-earth, testosterone-fuelled and committed men who start out as one camouflaged force, but who develop personalities along the way as the story alters from war film to survival mission among the stunning but cruel terrain. The great performances from Kruger and the boys give the desired impression of unfaltering unity as the stakes get higher (making you earn for a blast of Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For A Hero” at times), resulting in the grand end scenes managing to tug a few heartstrings and get a few cheers. There are the inevitable clichéd and groan-inducing moments at humanitarian attempts, but such theatrics within a gallant French film production are carried off without much adversity.

Rybojad’s tale does suffer from the inevitable, overly lengthy moments, though, as he tries to stuff his visuals with even more breathtaking landscapes – like a Gallic Peter Weir. The pursuit scenes and subsequent defence ones begin to drag a little, and even Taliban chief Zaief, played (ironically) by striking-looking Israeli actor Raz Degan, and his men begin to look a little weary after their cross-country marathon. Degan is incredibly charismatic in the role, a mixture of intelligence and brewing danger, but who comes to a less than satisfactory conclusion, which renders the previous padded scenes fairly redundant. It is certainly at this point that you know Rybojad’s primary aim is to unify all sides by suggesting that man’s biggest enemy is nature itself.

Special Forces has an amusing, arrogant French Rambo-esque appeal to it that paints an uncompromising and lengthy black-and-white picture of the Afghanistan issue. Amongst the killing and body count is the contrary desire to end the conflict and heal the wounds. In this sense, it is a film you can get behind in its end goal. With an attractive international cast in tow, it should translate well for global audiences – and beguile the viewer at the locations’ magnificent beauty, while banging the drum for “vive la France.”

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Fright Night (3D) ****

Craig Gillespie’s last and probably only memorable film to date was the touchingly quirky Lars and the Real Girl in 2007, starring Ryan Gosling as a delusional guy who has a relationship with a life-like doll. This showed the makings of a great director of twisted unconventionality in the heart of suburbia – kind of like his latest project, the remake of 1985 cult classic, Fright Night, only in 3D.

Anton Yelchin reprises William Ragsdale’s troubled soul of a character, Charley Brewster, who learns that his new next-door neighbour, Jerry, is a vampire (played by Colin Farrell). But no one, not even alleged ‘vampire slayer’ Peter Vincent (David Tennant) will believe him. He tries in vain to keep the ones he loves, mum Jane (Toni Collette) and girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots), away from Jerry’s alluring charms.

Gillespie has produced a worthy comedy horror remake with thrilling bite that nicely balances the comedy with the frights, and actually uses the 3D in the moments that matter. Purely to engage latter-day audiences, he has brought Fright Night into Noughties’ Las Vegas suburbia with its sparse, box-like housing that’s a freak show in itself, but is familiar ‘hunting’ ground for the paranormal from many previous horrors.

There is a blood-sucking overload happening at present, from TV to the big screen, but whereas the Twilight saga takes itself too seriously, this is more like a comical version of True Blood, sexy and provocative but tongue firmly placed in cheek. For the ladies, there’s brooding Farrell as Jerry in full testosterone gear, hunting females like sport in a way we like to think the real Farrell behaves. Chris Sarandon as Jerry was far more debonair in the original whereas Farrell is a Hells Angel ‘bad boy’, complete with bike. For the guys, this genre film does lack a certain ‘femme fatale sexuality’ that is synonymous with vamp horrors and the sex connotations of penetration with the drawing of blood. Even Vincent’s attractive female groupies do little to stir the flames, almost a parody of the wanton hussies found normally cavorting in the vampire’s lair.

Fright Night 3D demonstrates how a stellar cast can make a dramatic and engaging difference to any offering in the vampire genre. In addition to Farrell and Collette who gives a great supporting performance, it’s ‘Charlie Bartlett the vamp slayer’, with Yelchin once again providing his unique brand of understated boy-next-door charisma and affecting vulnerability in another coming-of-age role. Yelchin is a worthy Ragsdale successor, keeping us onboard the fang fight, where less accomplished, younger talent may have caused Gillespie’s efforts to falter, but not forgetting to keep his character, Charley, interesting on many levels.

Tennant brings a touch of Russell Brand to Roddy McDowall’s memorable portrayal of Peter Vincent the showman that it’s hard not to think Brand is in fact on the screen. Tennant plays madmen with aplomb anyhow, and fans will delight at his camp, leather-clad appearance in this.

Gillespie’s Fright Night retains the cool but spooky factor of the first film, with a couple of 3D effects thrown in – or at you, mainly droplets of blood. It may well reignite the cult classic following of the first for a new generation as it provides a fang full of fun.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Horrible Bosses ****

We’ve all had one. They come in all shapes and sizes. Their mission, it seems, is to make our working lives a living nightmare. So it’s understandable that Michael Markowitz’s story, Horrible Bosses, brings a gleeful curiosity as to how other helpless souls deal with their own private workplace horror. Director Seth Gordon’s cast of Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikisdemonstrate with effortless panache how to get the boss back in understated but pitch-perfect humour.

The plot is simple: three average, hard-working friends, Nick (Bateman), Dale (Day) and Kurt (Sudeikis) have three different nightmare bosses to contend with each day. Nick’s is a control-freak psycho called Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey). Dale’s is a man-eating sex pest called Dr. Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston). Finally, Kurt’s top boss dies leaving his tool of a son, Bobby (Colin Farrell), running matters – and he’s only concerned with squeezing every last drop of cash out of the family firm to fund his playboy lifestyle. The trio decide to take drastic measures to rid each other of their awful bosses once and for all.

The comedy has all the initial characteristics of an Apatow/Rogen romp like Pineapple Express, including an endearing central bromance, trouble with some white powder and oddball characters, and is paced in much the same way. However, Gordon has struck gold with his three leads, Bateman, Sudeikis and Day, who are a comic tour de force of understated, observational and more mature humour, and who keep the giggles coming in the more serious moments.

A lot of the gags, however, still cover old ground, but the story-defining buddy bond that seems so completely natural between the trio rekindles the same affections for more of the same humour, especially as the casting is so strong in this. In fact, rather that clashing personalities swamping the same scene, each character is carefully introduced, along with each devil boss, showing their woes and individual coping mechanisms, allowing us to empathise with each. Apart from the odd freak-out moment of Day as drug-induced Dale – reminiscent of screeching Bobcat Goldthwait’s Zed, the insanity comes not from the three trying to be such, but the escalation of each farcical situation.

Actually, it’s the bosses, played by Spacey, Aniston and Farrell that are far larger than life in comparison, making them appear even more neurotic, narcissistic and appalling, and emphasising their evil traits. Markowitz clearly defines his good and the bad guys in this, without showing any mitigating personal circumstances of those in charge and clouding any judgements. We hate all three from start to finish – even though one (Aniston) makes for an attractive distraction in the process.

Horrible Bosses delivers what it promises; a hugely satisfying sacrificial culling of those at the top, goading a panto-style witch hunt of all three bosses with relish and a guilty-free conscience. It’s a great balance of a sharply written script and all those involved, and makes for a seriously refreshing tonic after a hard week’s graft.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Way Back – 3*

With highly respected film-maker Peter Weir (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) behind a new adventure, you know you are in for a visually stunning treat, born of meticulous planning and hard graft to get it factually right. The Way Back is no exception to the Weir catalogue of cinematic triumphs, a sumptuous film adaptation based on the equally fascinating true story of a 4,500-mile trek against nature’s odds by seven escaped prisoners from Stalin’s Siberian Gulag in 1940.

Weir spares no expense in the grand scheme of things, whilst managing to convey the intricate personal stories of all his characters, played by an intriguing variety of acting talent. Jim Sturgess is Janusz, a polish national who falls foul of Stalin’s ideals, opposite Colin Farrell as the dangerous and blade-obsessed street criminal Valka. Ed Harris is American prisoner Mr. Smith, a man of few words, alongside the only female lead in the film, The Lovely Bones star Saoirse Ronan as runaway Polish orphan Irena. Harris and Ronan develop a convincingly tender father-daughter relationship, in the midst of the harshest of living conditions – both on and off set – that makes Weir’s film even more compelling, as Irena unlocks each man’s inner personality.

Indeed, the four leads deliver some exceptional performances, and some of the best of their respective careers, which is hardly surprising, given the rich subject matter and history at their disposal. In fact, this is an enlightening history lesson with lots of danger and action on its own about a period that’s often overlooked in the classroom, in favour of Nazi domination in mainland Europe at the time. Therefore, it can be argued that it’s hard to detract your feelings about the then-realities, from whether or not this is a good film.

As journeys on film go – and there haven’t been many epic ones, the likes of Lawrence of Arabia or Out of Africa in decades, unless you count Australia by Weir’s countryman Luhrmann, The Way Back is one that sounds incredulous, had it not been based on truth. This entanglement of truth and fiction shows the power of Weir’s storytelling skill, as well as his commendable casting.

Admittedly, the lead performances are strong on their own, but are helped by an excellent supporting cast of foreign actors that provide some of the lighter moments in the film; Romanian Alexandru Potocean is wise-cracking accountant, Tomasz who likens eating snake to eating a “big black poisonous chicken with no legs”. Weir nicely balances these very detailed human exchanges in the face of adversity with the wider ones, to avoid pretension and possible tedium. However, as with such a film, it does suffer from flatter moments, as you wait for the next thing thrown at the group, even with yet another breathtaking panoramic wide to feast on.

Weir fans will not be disappointed, though, and fans of the cast members will be equally impressed, too. This is solid, old-school epic film-making that is deeply affecting with its captivating human spirit, and makes for a welcome break from the incessant 3D out there.

3/5 stars

By L G-K

London Boulevard – 2*

Oscar-winning The Departed writer William Monahan’s directorial debut, London Boulevard, is one of those films that prompts the immediate reaction of ‘hmmm’: You really don’t know how to process what you’ve just seen – unless you’re an avid Colin Farrell fan, so can be rest assured that his sexy charm is in full flow in this.

Farrell is the linchpin in what first appears to be yet-another-London gangster story, complete with overblown cocky accents that even co-stars Ray Winstone and Eddie Marsan are guilty of partaking in. However, Monahan delivers such a bewildering version of the genre that flits from one plot idea to another that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what London Boulevard is trying to achieve. Even though Winstone’s in it and it has shocking moments of brutal violence, it isn’t as straightforward as a Guy Ritchie flick. It does seem to swing from one extreme to another, from larger-than-life gangster parody, to serious social affairs drama, to touching English class love story the next. In this sense, and forever shifting its goalposts, London Boulevard can claim to be different from the run-of-the-mill gangster offerings.

In accent terms, Farrell misses the mark with his Irish lit still fighting to escape. But all can be forgiven, as his ex-con character called Mitchell is a remarkably refreshing change to his usual cheeky rogue ones. Think of Farrell in Minority Report, meaning business, slightly sinister and suave, and you’ve got the picture. In fact Mitchell is like a Carter in Get Carter, deadly serious about his intentions, but deeply frustrated at the obstacles put in his path as he tries to go straight after a stint in Pentonville Prison for GBH, but gets prevented from doing so by ruthless and unpredictable crime boss Gant (Winstone). It has to be one of Farrell’s most intriguing parts to date, allowing him to really stretch his talents, playing vulnerable one moment to shockingly violent the next, whilst still finding time to get the girl in a stylish, Clooney-esque fashion.

London Boulevard has an amazing cast, which is undoubtedly due to Monahan’s reputation, and the girl in question is not from Mitchell’s rough South London manor, but a reclusive British actress called Charlotte who’s being hounded by the paps in her own Holland Park home grounds, desperate to provoke a reaction to her crumbling marriage and estranged hubby. Mitchell comes to protect Charlotte, played by Keira Knightley, who needs him as much as he needs her to make a life change. Knightley gives a decent and fragile performance that must surely (and painfully) draw on real-life experiences with the media, but she doesn’t make quite the impact you’d expect, given the trailer and poster campaign, and it’s still not clear exactly why?

Indeed Monahan may well have adapted Ken Bruen’s noir crime novel of the same name, and done a pastiche of the classic Hollywood film Sunset Boulevard – hence the film’s title and inject of Hollywood glamour in Mitchell’s new suited-and-booted appearance, but in his excitement, he’s forgotten to piece together more of how Mitchell and Charlotte come to be. There are a lot of unexplained circumstances that just ‘are’ that add to the head-scratching at the end, including the confusing period in which the story’s meant to be set, not helped by the 60s’ soundtrack, or Marsan’s 70s’ TV cop throwback that makes him look like an extra from Life On Mars.

Monahan may well capture the essence and farce of London’s underground dealings and colourful participants, which Winstone agrees with – breezing through another gangster role and picking up an easy pay check, but we’re left with a bunch of rather odd characters that only resemble some sort of purpose when Mitchell is on the scene with them. The only character that seems to fit the setting and is credible is Ben Chaplin’s Billy, Mitchell’s low-life friend who gets him into more trouble every time. Some overly snappy cutting between scenes and situations further perpetuates the plot’s disjoined feeling, never fully allowing you to absorb that’s going on and being said, and possibly, resulting in you missing some important character quips.

That said it’s co-stars David Thewlis and Anna Friel who deserve the most credit for the film’s quirky entertainment value and real wit. Friel plays Mitchell’s wayward lush and gold-digger of a sister, Briony, but with such an erratic aplomb that it keeps you on your toes, and comic Sanjeev Bhaskar’s surprising performance as her love interest, Dr Sanji Raju, nicely compliments this. However, it’s Thewlis as Charlotte’s rather eccentric, dope-smoking and reclusive house manager/failed actor/failed producer Jordan who gets reawakened by Mitchell’s presence who delivers one of the best performances, as well as a series of classic one-liners, demonstrating Monahan’s talent. Without Thewlis or Farrell, this film would have died a death alongside its victims near the start. But Jordan is another example of an unexplained character presence at Charlotte’s house, just someone that the viewer must ‘except’ as being, like an enigma.

London Boulevard is certainly sexy, stylish and brutal, and Farrell makes an impressive serious leading man. But in his efforts to make Bruen’s story more of his own, Monahan seems to have missed a key ingredient in introducing some characters and situations: a sense of purpose to the narrative. In being slightly unconventional with the genre, and maybe having too many characters involved, the film is difficult to follow in parts, whilst pandering to the genre’s stereotypes in others. Monahan may have bitten off more than he could chew as a first film project, even if his odd assortment of cast will save his first effort at the box office, as it will ignite interest.

2/5 stars

By L G-K