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See also: SHADOWS FILM FESTIVAL | Last update 28.Feb.20

Escape From Pretoria  
Review by Rich Cline | 4/5  
Escape From Pretoria
dir Francis Annan
scr Francis Annan, LH Adams
prd David Barron, Mark Blaney, Gary Hamilton, Michelle Krumm, Jackie Sheppard
with Daniel Radcliffe, Daniel Webber, Ian Hart, Mark Leonard Winter, Nathan Page, Paul Harvey, Adam Ovadia, PJ Oaten, Lliam Amor, Lenny Firth, Ratidzo Mambo, Jeanette Cronin, Stephen Hunter
release US/UK 6.Mar.20
20/Australia 1h58

radcliffe and webber
A straightforward prison-break thriller, this film has added interest because it's a true story about political activists locked up for fighting apartheid in late-1970s South Africa. This provides some depth to the story, which is carefully staged to create tension from the detailed twists and turns of this outrageous escape. Shooting in Australia with an international cast, British director Francis Annan keeps the film authentically gritty.
In 1978, Tim Jenkin and Stephen Lee (Radcliffe and Webber) are convicted of distributing illegal literature using leaflet bombs. In Pretoria Prison, they're held in a wing with other white prisoners of conscience, including long-icarcerated anti-apartheid activist Denis Goldberg (Hart) and French national Leonard (Winter). Slowly a plan evolves to make their escape from the prison. This requires Tim to create wooden copies of the keys their harsh guard (Page) carries around, so they can open the nine doors between them and freedom.
The script gets straight to the point, opening with the leaflet bomb and trial. As political prisoners, Tim and Stephen don't believe their convictions are legal, so immediately begin plotting a breakout. The script carefully details their plans, including ingenious solutions to seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Then as they begin testing their wooden keys and fine-tune their operation, unexpected hitches add to the suspense. All of this is filmed without gimmicks, which makes it earthy and involving.

It also helps that Tim and Stephen are likeable idealists determined to do what they can to bring justice to a racist system of government. Radcliffe goes full-70s with long hair, bushy beard and huge specs, creating a solid character as a young man whose curiosity and honesty inform each decision. Even though Stephen is less defined by the script, Webber is also engaging. Hart provides gravitas as the cellblock's veteran leader. And Winter adds scruffy charm as a fictionalised version of a fellow inmate.

Since this is based on real events, the story has a proper sense of importance. There are frequent references to the work of the ANC to challenge the government, and also to Mandela's very different kind of imprisonment on Robben Island. And the vile bigotry of guards and officials is palpable without ever being exaggerated. Annan cleverly keeps all of this present throughout the story, even if it remains mainly in the background. For a prison break thriller, this film may seem rather low-key, but it carries a potent thematic kick.

cert 12 themes, language, violence 19.Dec.19

Straight Up  
Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5
Straight Up
dir-scr James Sweeney
prd David Carrico, Ross Putman, James Sweeney
with James Sweeney, Katie Findlay, Dana Drori, James Scully, Tracie Thoms, Randall Park, Betsy Brandt, Joshua Diaz, Brendan Scannell, Ken Kirby, Grace Song, Hillary Anne Matthews
release US 28.Feb.20
19/US 1h35

sweeney and findlay
Cute and colourful, this breezy comedy explores the idea of a soulmate who isn't a romantic partner, and that maybe romance itself isn't as clear-cut as we think. Actor-filmmaker James Sweeney keeps the tone fizzy, allowing some serious edges to creep in between the funny-snarky lines. At its core, this is a warm, likeable film about self-discovery, or rather accepting a truth about yourself that you've known all along.

Cripplingly obsessive, Todd (Sweeney) is so frightened of the idea of sex that he thinks he must be straight. His friends (Drori and Scully) laugh, but his no-nonsense therapist (Thoms) gets it, gently prodding him to find himself. Then he meets Rory (Findlay), an aspiring actress who has just lost her waitressing job. Her free-association running commentary perfectly balances his rambling neuroses, and they soon begin to feel inseparable. But when they start a relationship, the question of whether Todd is actually gay proves difficult to answer. And to be honest, maybe Rory doesn't care.
Todd is a mind-bogglingly fast-talker, and Rory gives him a run for his money. Their conversations veer off in all kinds of riotous directions, usually with surreal results as they continually lose their train of thought and head off on tangents only to pick up the loose ends later. When Todd takes Rory to meet his parents (Park and Brandt), it's clear where he gets it. And a Christmas party with Todd's friends and his ex (Scannell) turns predictably uncomfortable, as does interaction with other hilarious people along the way.

Even though the characters are rather cartoonish, they're performed with an unfussy authenticity that makes them even funnier. Sweeney and Findlay layer engaging emotions under the comical surface, revealing their yearnings. Their connection becomes more and more complex as the film continues, making the characters likeable even though they're a mess. The supporting cast is also excellent, underplaying side characters who provide needed moments of comedy and truth-telling along the way.

It's up to a close friend to point out the fact that Todd isn't bisexual: he's ashamed of himself. It's clear from the start that Todd is going to need to face up to who he is, and Sweeney writes, directs and plays him cleverly, continually pushing against provocative boundaries even as the film remains rather sexless and adorable. But it's a terrific, unpreachy exploration of how difficult it is to love someone when you can't even love yourself. And that love and companionship are as important as romance.

cert 15 themes, language, sexuality 21.Feb.20

Review by Rich Cline | 3/5  
dir Philip Barantini
prd Bart Ruspoli
scr George Russo, Greg Hall
with Craig Fairbrass, George Russo, Izuka Hoyle, Mark Monero, Robert Glenister, Tomi May, Taz Skylar, Eloise Lovell Anderson, Michael John Treanor, Daniel Larkai, Jennifer Matter, Stephanie Fayerman
release UK 28.Feb.20
20/UK 1h37

russo and fairbrass
With more depth of character than the usual London crime thriller, this gritty drama finds some surprising resonance in between the usual scenes of vicious threats and gruesome violence. A central redemption plot offers some resonance, even if it remains superficial, but there's a smaller storyline that finds more intriguing emotional notes. And the cast is solid enough to bring out both the movie's grisly action and earthier observations.
When Eddie (Fairbrass) is released after a decade in prison, he's hoping for a quiet life running his pub and reconnecting with his estranged daughter Chloe (Hoyle) and her new baby. But Eddie's crackhead brother Sean (Russo) has put him deep in debt to monstrous gangsters Roy and John (Glenister and May). And Sean's dodgy dealings seem to involve Chloe's baby daddy Jason (Skylar). So Eddie has no choice but get right in the middle of it all, calling on old pal Mike (Monero) for some support. And the situation quickly spirals into violence.
Director Barantini gives the film a striking visual ambience, making the very most of the small budget by relying on clever locations, a pulsing score (by David Ridley and Aaron May) and watchable actors. Meanwhile, the script digs further than expected into the characters, offering some strong subtext. So while the themes are never particularly complex, the people in the story are fleshed out with moments of tenderness that sharply contrast to their acts of brutality.

At the centre, the stony Fairbrass brings a sense of quiet dignity. Eddie is a considerate man tired of the way life keeps pushing him into criminality but resolved to do what needs to be done. He also has a very fiery temper. It's a remarkably layered performance for a film like this. And Russo is also strong as his likeable-idiot brother. But it's Hoyle who gives the movie a blast of soul, with a quietly impassioned turn as a young woman who has learned to hide her true feelings.

Barantini seems perhaps a little to excited by both the gunplay and a grotesque (thankfully largely off-screen) dismemberment sequence. Shootouts are a rather lazy way to resolve issues in a crime movie, especially one set in London. And thankfully this script offers some textures in the way these tough men attack each other. But in this movie, only Eddie seems to understand that violence doesn't solve anything. And this is depicted almost ironically, which makes the film thoughtful without being provocative.

cert 18 themes, language, violence, drugs 26.Feb.20

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