Venice 2015: 'Beasts of No Nation' review

★★★★☆
There's a scene halfway through Cary Fukunaga's adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala's harrowing novel Beasts of No Nation (2015), which premièred in competition at this year's Venice Film Festival, where a mother and her daughter are dragged from their hiding places, raped and killed while our protagonist Agu (a stunning performance from the young Abraham Attah) participates. It's a brutal moment in a film full of them and represents an ulterior and perhaps final loss of innocence. And yet such notions of innocence and guilt, of victim and oppressor, are not strictly delineated and darkness and confusion reign in the moral fog of war.
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Film Review: 'Ricki and the Flash'

★★★☆☆
What does a Jonathan Demme film look like? From features to documentaries to television, he has an old studio player's utilitarian work ethic; restless and unfussy. Aside from the musical fixation, there's little in the way of recurring thematic concerns or visual tics. To rephrase the question, where is the auteur in Jonathan Demme? His new film, Ricki and the Flash (2015), gives us the answer almost immediately. The camera tracks a man into a bar then pulls up to find the band playing on stage. We switch between band and audience throughout the song - the shared bonhomie of musical communion. It is a kind of unspoken, unassuming connection that makes a Jonathan Demme film.
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Film Review: 'Miss Julie'

★★☆☆☆
All the right pieces seem to be in place for Liv Ullmann's adaptation of Miss Julie (2014), Swedish playwright August Strindberg's examination of class and sexual politics set in the waning years of the 19th century. A pedigree director in the form of Ullmann, a powerful pair of leads take the shape of Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell and a sumptuous, sprawling countryside estate in Victorian-era Ireland as the setting should all, in theory, create a lovely piece of cinema. Unfortunately, there's something too jarring about what unfolds over two very long hours. Rife with mawkish histrionics and a thoroughly overwrought script, it's hard to maintain interest in what should be an intriguing watch.
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Film Review: 'Dope'

★★★☆☆
Produced by Forest Whitaker, this teenage coming-of-age caper set in Inglewood, California involves the usual hood narrative trifecta of drugs, gangs, and crime while attempting to offer a playful alternative to black cultural stereotypes. Fantastical, and sometimes fun, if not quite convincing, Dope (2015) offers plenty of eye candy thanks to Rick Famuyiwa's energetic direction, Rachel Morrison's colourful widescreen lensing, and a cast including prominent models, rappers, and TV personalities. Supported by a single working mother (Kimberly Elise), high school nerd Malcolm's (Shameik Moore) American Dream is not to play basketball but to get into Harvard.
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Film Review: 'Closed Curtain'

★★★★★
Closed Curtain (2013), Jafar Panahi's symbolically charged follow-up to his critically acclaimed This Is Not a Film (2012), is about state repression, censorship, depression and the intersection between art and reality. Echoes of the former Soviet Union's 'Iron Curtain' are reflected in the title. The superb opening shot is filmed through the security grill of a window; an image reinforced by the bars of an iron fence directly in front of it. A car draws up. Two men approach the house. All that can be heard is the faint sound of birdsong. The first man, carrying a black bag, enters the house and we hear him set down his bag and keys. He accepts a suitcase and box of water from the second who then drives off.
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Film Review: 'Cartel Land'

★★★★☆
Perhaps this year's most important documentary, Cartel Land (2015) offers a too-close-for-comfort, ground-level look at vigilante groups who attempt to thwart murderous Mexican drug cartels on both sides of the US-Mexican border. Equally chilling and engrossing, this direct cinema Sundance winner also explores moral responsibility - or the increasingly murky guise thereof - in the absence of law and order, where the only clear issue is the seemingly unstoppable cycle of violence. Director Matthew Heineman crosscuts between two protagonists offering alternative solutions to the same problem: Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles and Tim "Nailer" Foley.
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Film Review: 'Buttercup Bill'

★★★☆☆
"Like a murderer jumping outta nowhere in an alley, love has jumped in front of us, like a lightning strike." This may seem a bizarre way to describe a relationship but in fact it perfectly captures the essence of the strange psycho-sexual bond that lies at the twisted heart of Remy Bennett and Émilie Richard-Froozan's Buttercup Bill (2014). It's a tantalising piece of slow-burn Southern Gothic that threatens to never get going, but even in its listless moments never relinquished a pervading sense of threat. Violence and aggression lurk just beneath the surface and the film cultivates a decidedly Lynchian vibe, particularly in the form of its striking opening.
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Film Review: 'Bait'

★☆☆☆☆
Of all its many crimes, the most heinous that Dominic Brunt's vile Bait (2014) commits is its attempt to convince you that it isn't the grim, misogynistic horror that it ultimately turns out to be. Its two female protagonists, Bex (Victoria Smurfit) and Dawn (Joanne Mitchell), begin the film as feisty, independently-minded individuals, running their own market stall selling organic tea and cakes and attempting to secure a loan to expand into a shop. They're well-drawn and smartly acted at first, with realistic lives and realistic aspirations that don't involve men and it initially feels refreshing to see a home-grown genre flick that seems rooted in the lives of women.
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Film Review: 'Aaaaaaaah!'

★★★★☆
Steve Oram's directorial debut Aaaaaaaah! (2015) comes on like a collaboration between Dogme '95 and Chris Morris. It's hard to think of another film closely like it in British cinema. It really is that out-there and singular. You can bet your bottom dollar on Aaaaaaaah! becoming a cult oddity in years to come, but it's equally fair to say that the general cinema-going audience would be left nonplussed. It's an experimental work for the arthouse crowd, certainly, but it's also one of the funniest and most poignant movies of the year. The lives of gorillas and other primates, their hierarchies, interactions and rituals, serve as chief inspirations for Oram's anthropological social satire/horror-comedy.
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Venice 2015: 'Monster with a Thousand Heads' review

★★★☆☆
Opening the Orizzonti (Horizons) sidebar at the 72nd Venice Film Festival today, A Monster with a Thousand Heads (2015) is a witty and efficient drama from Rodrigo Plá about a woman pushed to the edge by bureaucracy and an indifferent society. Jan Raluy plays the woman in question, Sonia Bonet. Her husband has cancer but the insurance company refuses to provide the medicine that he needs to ease his pain and perhaps reduce the tumour. Having been unable to reach the doctor in charge on the telephone, she goes to the offices of the company with her teenage son Dario (Sebastián Aguirre Boëda) in tow. However, no one is interested in her case.
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Venice 2015: 'Everest' review

★★★☆☆
In 1996, Kiwi Rob Hall and his company Adventure Consultants took a team of climbers along with a group of paying clients to Kathmandu with the hope of reaching the summit of the world's highest mountain on 10 May. The disaster that subsequently occurred was recorded in memoirs by several of the survivors, most successfully by professional journalist Jon Krakauer, whose book Into Thin Air became a bestseller and was adapted into a less-than-successful TV movie only a year after the tragedy. Following such startlingly impressive opening films as Gravity and Birdman, Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur's new film Everest (2015) now opens the 72nd Venice Film Festival.
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Venice 2015: Read our Venice 72 preview

The 72nd Venice Film Festival will run from the 2-12 September and promises one of the hottest line ups for years. The already announced opening film, Baltasar Kormákur's Everest, continues the start big philosophy of Gravity and Birdman of the previous two years. The Johnny Depp return to acting, Black Mass, has also already been announced as showing out of competition, seeing Depp don another physical transformation, but this time in the service of a more grown-up tale of real life gangster Whitey Bulger. In the main competition, the English language big hitters include Kirsten Stewart in science fiction thriller Equals, a post-True Detective project for Cary Fukunaga - Beasts of No Nation starring Idris Elba - and Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl starring an unrecognisable Eddie Redmayne.
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DVD Review: 'Wellington'

★★★★☆
A fitting ode to the late, great Chilean filmmaker Raoul Ruiz (directed by his former editing partner and widow Valeria Sarmiento), it would perhaps be unfavourable to compare the Golden Lion-nominated Lines of Wellington (2012) with Ruiz's final finished work, the sublime Mysteries of Lisbon (2010). An understandably disruptive production history undoubtedly helps the latter overcome the former in terms of out-and-out quality, yet Sarmiento's final gift to her mercurial husband remains an enrapturing rough diamond, a sprawling Napoleonic epic with the type of scale and ambition rarely seen in modern western cinema.
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DVD Review: 'Phoenix'

★★★★☆
An Hitchcockian Berlin-set thriller, Christian Petzold's Phoenix (2014) hinges almost entirely on its sensational finale; a near-perfect coda to a film that employs acquainted genre tropes to unearth the malodorous remnants of memory and guilt in contemporary Germany. Petzold's characters often find themselves in situations in which they must conceal a truth about themselves; a secret that threatens to unfurl the fabric of their lives, they're usually alienated, forced into corner and struggling to overcome a desire to escape their homeland. The same themes are present in Phoenix, where Nina Hoss stars as Nelly, a disfigured concentration camp survivor who, after major facial reconstruction, returns to Berlin.
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Blu-ray Review: 'Medium Cool'

★★★☆☆
Fact and fiction intertwine in Medium Cool (1969), the combustible feature debut of celebrated cinematographer Haskell Wexler. This impeccable, director-approved transfer really helps underscore the rawness and urgency of a flawed but dynamic piece of politically-charged vérité. A loose narrative is framed within the lead up to the actual 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Wexler zeroes in on a disillusioned, post-Kennedy US - a county at war with itself and in the midst of the debilitating Vietnam conflict. A number of scenarios typify the mood: from civil unrest in the streets and college campuses, to the simmering racial tensions in the city's socially-deprived areas.
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DVD Review: 'Far from the Madding Crowd'

★★★★☆
Thomas Hardy gets a hearty update in the newest adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd (2015). A faithful adaptation of Hardy's most notable work, this is a film built on realism, bringing the farmlands and estates of Dorset to life in the richest of Victorian palettes. Director Thomas Vinterberg, fresh from the success of quiet Danish thriller The Hunt (2012), and screenwriter David Nicholls have created a period drama centred, appropriately, on a cast of endearing but fallible characters that bring freshness to a classic story. Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) has grown up on her own. Despite being in the care of relatives, she has formed her own opinions of the world, choosing independence over tradition.
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DVD Review: 'The Decline of Western Civilization'

★★★★★
"I've been through one too many youth movements" quips one fanzine writer in part one of this seminal documentary trilogy, but the sentiment could well have come from director Penelope Spheeris herself. Bruised from the Hollywood system having tasted mainstream success with Wayne's World (1992), Spheeris' most notable work was kept from DVD release until now. The extras packed into this release add value for the completist fan, but the films themselves remain the centrepiece, and are as startling even decades on from their release. The Decline of Western Civilisation (1981) presents the late 70s punk scene through the testimony and performances of its biggest acts.
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FrightFest 2015: 'We Are Still Here' review

★★★★☆
Ted Geoghegan's We Are Still Here (2015) is a fittingly gruesome tribute to the halcyon days of 1980s splatter movies and the cosmic horror mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. It specifically channels and mimics the visual palette and tones of Lucio Fulci, the director who earned his stripes in the Italian genre filmmaking boom of the 1960s and 1970s, making all sorts of pictures, before establishing a talent for extremely violent imagery. For his efforts, he became known as the 'Godfather of Gore'. Fulci, today, is an established figure in the 'Masters of Horror' pantheon. His phantasmagorical blood feasts, especially the 'Gates of Hell' trilogy, are rightfully celebrated as classics of their kind.
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FrightFest 2015: 'Tales of Halloween' review

★★★★☆
Tales of Halloween (2015) is the latest stab by well-regarded horror directors at the anthology format. Created by Axelle Carolyn, the intent is to replace the V/H/S series as a showcase for filmmakers whose names will be very familiar to genre fans. Avoiding found-footage like the plague, Tales of Halloween is a slickly presented and often correctly ultra-violent homage to the one night of the year when all things supernatural and horror-themed are celebrated. If it lacks genuine chills and frights, this collection of ten terror yarns makes amends by providing a wealth of laughs, jubilant enthusiasm for all things horror cinema and spirited interpretations of old tropes and traditions.
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FrightFest 2015: 'Sun Choke' review

★★★★★
Ben Cresciman's intense psychological horror film, Sun Choke (2015), is the story of a woman staring into the abyss of nothingness and liking what she sees: absolute nothing, a retreat from the chaos of the light. It's been likened to grand auteurs such as Bergman, Lynch and Polanski, and those debts are easily enough to pull out. However, the director's approach and 'treatment' of his protagonist, Janie (the astoundingly good Sarah Hagan), and the depiction of her mental illness and form of disassociation is perhaps more informed and closer in spirit to the 1981 German production, No Mercy, No Future, by Helma Sanders-Brahms.
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FrightFest 2015: 'Pod' review

★★★☆☆
In the varied annals of horror cinema history, attics and basements operate as spaces ripe for psychoanalysis. When not serving as metaphors for ills of the human mind, they function as focal points for demonic manifestations, and sometimes portals to other dimensions. Kitchens aren't scary, right? Parlours are only creepy if the house is grandly built and furnished and there is a piano going all Jerry-Lee Lewis of its own accord. Dining areas, pantries and garden sheds are rarely, if at all, used to stage sequences drenched in supernatural terror. It Came from the Pantry! (an invented title, admittedly) doesn't boast the same attention-grabbing promise as Cellar Dweller (1988) or The Attic (2007).
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FrightFest 2015: 'Nina Forever' review

★★★★★
It's as rare as rocking horse excrement for horror movies to exhibit emotional depths not related to the visceral thrills of the jump scare and the insidious, bone- chilling fright. So invested in the art of the slay and sending the audience into paroxysms of fear, the genre and its practitioners have either forgotten or disregarded the idea that it's capable of doing other stuff. Like making the audience have a good cry. The aim of Nina Forever (2015), by débutantes Ben and Chris Blaine, is not to get the heart pumping and nerves going with ghost train jolts, but to pull at the heart strings and demonstrate that films of this nature are entirely capable of provoking our tear ducts to do impersonations of Niagara Falls.
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FrightFest 2015: 'Landmine Goes Click'

★★★★☆
Levan Bakhia's Landmine Goes Click (2015) is the kind of genre flick that comes along sometimes - where a director's intentions can be misinterpreted. The brutalisation of three female characters is horrific, but it would be a presumptuous leap to suggest the film itself flexes a misogynistic creed. Such assertions would woefully misconstrue Bakhia's thematic subtext, which is an examination and comment on the male mind warped by patriarchal thinking and a manipulative form of self-exculpation/cowardice. Its spiritual relation is perhaps Gaspar Noé's Irréversible (2002), a violent fantasy saga about two men filled with blind rage doling out vile retribution, after one's partner is raped in a Parisian subway.
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FrightFest 2015: 'Emelie' review

★★★★☆
Despite a third act change of tone, that plays out like a hybrid of Home Alone (1990) and The Shining (1980), there is still plenty to admire in Michael Thelin's debut movie. For much of its brisk eighty-two minutes running time, Emelie (2015) is a devilishly good thriller of notably transgressive bent, giving the slasher and home invasion formats a rare matriarchal focus. However, once it has to commit to the familiar trope of the plucky protagonist fighting back against the unwelcome intruder, it loses something vital; the edge and suspense evaporates into a formulaic duke out, and certain generic obligations are dutifully fulfilled.

Sarah Bolger plays the titular character, a demented babysitter spurred into criminality by tragic events, and it's the kind of performance that crops up and wows only once in a while. Her star-making, nuanced portrayal of a young mother driven to recreating the past, while wrecking the lives of others, is partly why the third act feels a little bit of a let-down. Surely there was a more inspired way to deal with the character? As Emelie openly flirts with the father, enchants (and then repels) the oldest son on the cusp of puberty and torments the little ones with cruel and manipulative acts, her scheming becomes not only malicious – she feeds a pet hamster to a snake and makes them watch – but downright perverse (showing her charges a sex tape made by their parents). Not only does Bolger impress, the littlest cast members have a naturalism so often lacking in American cinema, where kids come across as jaded industry professionals by the time they're gumming rusks.

For the more adult scenes clever editing is involved, but there is a welcome lack of trained theatre-school polish evident. Such performances, too, help deliver the required mood of dread, as well as emotional engagement. The general tone harks back to the heyday of the slasher movie, its classical style highly reminiscent of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), as well as the more recent work of Ti West or Adam Wingard. Take for instance the bravura opener, capturing, as it does, in one masterful single take, the abduction of a teenager on an ordinary suburban avenue. It's the kind of 'horror in plain sight' ambience that Halloween masterfully exuded, and the playful transgression is more in line with Messrs. West and Wingard, current kings of the US indie horror scene. (Do not call it 'mumblegore.') The scene mentioned makes excellent use of the location, composition and deep-focus cinematography and marks out Thelin as an assured craftsman. If only the ending hadn't succumbed to genre conformity.

Film4 FrightFest 2015 runs from 27-31 August. Programming, ticket details and all information can be found at www.frightfest.co.uk. You can keep up with our coverage here.

Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn
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FrightFest 2015: 'Deathgasm' review

★★★★☆
With What We Do in the Shadows, Housebound and now Deathgasm (2015), New Zealand is fast becoming the go-to place for crowd-pleasing horror comedies. Jason Lei Howden's directorial debut is primed for unalloyed genre thrills, making you laugh until your sides hurt and subverting the rom-zom-com format. If fears going in hinged on the suspicion that Deathgasm was an attention-grabbing title and nothing much else, worries dissipate soon enough, as a laugh-out-loud banquet of blood, made in the spirit of Evil Dead II (1988) and Peter Jackson's Braindead (1992), plays out on the screen. Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) is a heavy metal fan spinning the black circle for Satan.
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FrightFest 2015: 'Cherry Tree' review

★☆☆☆☆
David Keating's silly and unsuccessful folklore horror film, Cherry Tree (2015), suffers from a list of ailments no old crone in a woodland cottage, with her library of esoteric books, magic spells and potions, could ever save or transform into a superior version. She'd look the film straight in the eye and wish it the best of luck. The issues and problems cripple what could have been a gnarly genre piece. Because everybody loves sexy witches being evil, right? Among many, one of the most peculiar creative decisions is to pretend it wasn't filmed in Ireland, with the cast suppressing their Irish lilts in favour of, sometimes, strained attempts at RP or Thames Valley intonations.
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Film Review: 'Straight Outta Compton'

★★★★☆
This visceral hip-hop biopic documenting NWA's meteoric rise to fame at times struggles to avoid stumbling into Hollywood cliché. Still, Straight Outta Compton (2015) proves as infectiously entertaining as it is educational thanks to F. Gary Gray's richly textured direction and a thumping soundtrack that confirms rap as the protest music of its time. Although gangster rap is now the stuff of legend, Straight Outta Compton reminds the viewer that for some it was - and still is - a way of life. The opening sequence reveals Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) stomping his way out of the grilled window of a dope house, after a police military tank, without warning, rams its way right through the front door.
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