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last update 9.Jan.13
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American Mary
dir-scr Jen Soska, Sylvia Soska
prd John Curtis, Evan Tylor
with Katharine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo, Tristan Risk, David Lovgren, Clay St Thomas, John Emmet Tracy, Twan Holliday, Paula Lindberg, Nelson Wong, Travis Watters, Paul Anthony, Russ Foxx
isabelle release US Sep.12 ff,
UK 11.Jan.12
12/Canada 1h43

fright fest
American Mary For a grotesque movie about murder and torture, this film is eerily beautiful. Imagery is sleek and shiny, with good-looking actors and cool sets. But the story is seriously revolting as it delves into grisly themes without much point while never quite connecting the narrative dots.

Gifted surgical student Mary (Isabelle) is struggling to pay her bills. Since she's also hot, she applies for work at a local strip club, where owner Billy (Cupo) asks her to do some illegal surgery on a client. After one of the dancers (Risk) asks for some extreme body modification, Mary's reputation begins to spread around this fetish subculture. Now secretly earning a fortune, she has little time for the vile sexism of her medical school professors (Lovgren and St Thomas), so she uses her newfound skills to exact horrible revenge.

Despite being centred on hideous surgical maiming, the film isn't actually that graphic. Not that it needs to be, as the mere idea of what these people are up to is enough to get our stomachs churning. But the directors (who appear as body-modified twins) also shy away from any real sense of drama or sex, which leaves several plot threads dangling along the way. This makes the film feel unfinished, as it cuts away from key moments without delivering the expected satisfying punch.

It also leaves the film bereft of any emotional connection, since each character either abuses or inflicts mind-boggling pain on others without ever having a pang of conscience. The acting is solid even if it lacks complexity, since the directors rely so heavily on outward appearances that very little inner turmoil turns up on-screen. Only Cupo manages to inject a world-weariness into his underwritten role.

That said, the Soskas can definitely get an audience squirming. Even if the story is too underdeveloped to hold water, the individual scenes are enough to give us nightmares about this creepy subculture. It would have been even more gripping if they had captured a proper sense of the body modification community rather than leave it lurking around the edges of the film. But then the cameras seem afraid to look at anyone full-on, so the movie ends up feeling almost like a ghost story.

18 themes, language, violence, grisliness, sexuality
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May I Kill U?
dir-scr Stuart Urban
prd Alan Jay, Stuart Urban
with Kevin Bishop, Frances Barber, Jack Doolan, Hayley-Marie Axe, Kasia Koleczek, Rosemary Leach, Ali Craig, Rachael Evelyn, Tyson Oba, Jessica Jackson-Smith, Victor Konstantine, Suresh Sippy
bishop release UK 11.Jan.13
12/UK 1h27

fright fest
May I Kill U? This pitch-black British comedy has its moments, but the undercooked script never fills in enough details to make much sense, while the plot is held together by a series of coincidences and contrivances. But it's often very funny, in a nasty sort of way.

As opportunistic crime escalates in southeast London, bicycle cop Baz (Bishop) delivers his own justice to a looter (Oba) who gives him permission to kill him. Baz posts the video onlineas an anonymous vigilante hero who's cleaning up the streets. After he rescues a group of trafficked women, one of them (Koleczek) comes home with him, which makes his bitter mother (Barber) even angrier than usual. And when an elderly woman (Leach) leaves him her house, her nephew Seth (Doolan) tracks down Baz with his own vendetta.

Writer-director Urban plays gleefully with issues from the headlines, letting Baz confront criminals from a range of backgrounds. Then the plot begins to twist in ways that are both wildly inventive and more than a little absurd. Much of the story is shown in flashback as Seth interrogates Baz in a basement, which adds some structure as well as an unpredictable final act. And it's assembled and played in a loosely offhanded style that keeps us off balance.

Bishop gives a superbly straight-faced comical performance as a nice guy who finds murder more cathartic than expected. Even with his strict code, Baz is morally conflicted, and Bishop keeps him likeable even when he gets things wrong. It helps that the script indulges in implausible plot twists that turn his situation farcical, allowing us to engage with the fantasy. Oddly, there's virtually no chemistry between him and the two women, but Koleczek and Axe (as a fellow cop) have terrific screen presence. As do veteran scene-stealers Barber and Leach.

Aside from the wish-fulfilment premise, there isn't much to this film. We never get beneath the characters' surfaces. Even Baz remains schematic, despite all of the details Urban stirs into the script. He never seems particularly interested in anyone around him, and even his killing spree seems to stem more from general boredom than any passion for justice. But Urban and Bishop still create a jaunty, entertaining tone that keeps us engaged. And elicits a few big laughs.

15 themes, language, violence
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Midnight Son
dir-scr Scott Leberecht
prd Matt Compton
with Zak Kilberg, Maya Parish, Jo D Jonz, Larry Cedar, Arlen Escarpeta, Tracey Walter, Juanita Jennings, Kevin McCorkle, Jeff Campbell, Billy Louviere, Bonnie Jean, Junius Dion Jr
release UK 11.Jan.13
11/US 1h28

fright fest
Midnight Son There's an intriguing perspective to this dark, horror-tinged romance, which plays on the vampire genre by refusing to indulge in the usual cliches. But after a darkly insinuating first half, writer-director Leberecht shifts the focus from the characters to the violent nastiness, which quickly makes us lose our interest.

Jacob (Kilberg) has a skin condition that makes him sensitive to sunlight, so working as a night security guard is the perfect job. Then after a strange encounter with a janitor (Walter), his illness escalates and he starts craving blood. He hides this from the quirky Maya (Parish), whom he meets in the street and begins a very tentative romance with. Then he starts needing human blood, and turns to a nurse (Jonz) for a black market supply. But black-out moments make him wonder if he might also be murdering people in the night.

Filmmaker Leberecht does a great job of building a sense of menace and emotional confusion, which Kilberg plays in a way that's surprisingly engaging. As he starts to suspect his vampiric nature, there's plenty of opportunity for both wit and freak-out eeriness, and even though their episodic relationship is never very plausible, Kilberg and Parish develop a terrific sense of chemistry between them.

So it's frustrating when the loud creak of a thriller plot kicks in, taking over the drama completely with back-alley drug deals, an investigating detective (Cedar) and lots of random gunplay. None of this is remotely as subtle as what went before, and the casually brutal violence sours our sympathy for all of the characters. It also sends the entire film off into a rather dull action-based storyline that isn't so much predictable as it is irrelevant.

That said, the production shows a lot of skill on both sides of the camera. Leberecht has a strong eye for characters and atmosphere, generating some moments of real emotion and suspense. There are also a few urgently lusty scenes that annoyingly lack any sort of pay-off, which puts Jacob and Maya - and the entire audience - on edge. But in the end, after all the shooting and bloodletting, there doesn't seem to be much more to this film than its experimental approach to a tired genre.

18 themes, language, violence, sexuality, drugs
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What Richard Did
dir Lenny Abrahamson
scr Malcolm Campbell
prd Ed Guiney
with Jack Reynor, Roisin Murphy, Lars Mikkelsen, Gavin Drea, Fionn Walton, Sam Keeley, Patrick Gibson, Mella Carron, Lorraine Pilkington, Padraic Delaney, Rachel Gleeson, Gabrielle Reidy
murphy and reynor release Ire 5.Oct.12,
UK 11.Jan.13
12/Ireland 1h28

london film fest
What Richard Did Even before things take a turn in this beautifully shot and acted Irish drama, we know something's coming (the title's a hint). Filmmaker Abrahamson is a master at subtle suggestion, adding an undercurrent of menace to scenes that feel happily freewheeling. So when the story turns darkly emotional, it's seriously unnerving.

At 18, Richard (Reynor) is an intelligent charmer who takes care of everyone around him. A natural leader, he plays rugby and goes to university while spending his spare time hanging out with his best pals (Drea and Walton) and his new girlfriend (Murphy). But at a drunken party, he gets involved in a scuffle that turns nasty, and the fallout is devastating for him and everyone in his circle. His father (Mikkelsen) tries to help, as do his friends, but ultimately Richard will have to deal with his own actions.

Loosely based on a real event, the film combines a raw and edgy tone with a lively vein of humour that turns bleaker as the story develops. This allows the actors to layer performances with personality, emotion and wit. In the focal role, Reynor delivers a subtly devastating breakout turn as a golden boy who feels the weight of the world for the first time. His interaction with Murphy has a startling romanticism, and Mikkelsen shines in a pivotal conversation scene.

This is a provocative exploration of duality: the person people think we are as opposed to the truth only we know ourselves. As Richard struggles to deal with his situation, he feels like his whole life is unravelling. Which brings out other aspects of his personality he has suppressed to live up to everyone's expectations. Films rarely have the ability to tap into this kind of complexity, especially in ways that feel so personal to us in the audience.

Abrahamson directs with remarkable sensitivity, never shying away from the tough emotions while keeping everything askance, forcing us to enter each scene ourselves. The camerawork is especially insinuating, telling us everything Campbell's astute, sparse dialog doesn't need to say. In other words, this is bracing film respects the intelligence of its audience and characters. So it carries a powerful message that's deeply haunting in all the right ways.

15 themes, language, sexuality, violence
14.Oct.12 lff
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