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|Shadows off the beaten path
Indies, foreigns, docs and shorts...
|See also: SHADOWS FILM FESTIVAL | Last update 26.Jan.21
Review by Rich Cline |
dir Aaron Fjellman
scr Aaron Fjellman, James "Doc" Mason
prd Pete Kirtley, Matthew Temple, Jessa Zarubica, Aaron Fjellman
with Edi Gathegi, Melora Hardin, Angela Sarafyan, Tony Amendola, Robert R Shafer, James Jagger, Andy Mackenzie, Jessa Zarubica, JM Scott, Jose Rosete, Kenyon Glover, Chris Blasman
release US 26.Jan.21
Is it streaming?
Melodramatic and more than a little overwrought, this nerve-jangling prison drama has a vividly theatrical style that plays up pulp-style grit along with almost fantastical psychological touches. It also frequently refers to the uneven justice for Black men in the American system, which adds some sharp thematic interest. But the script feels undercooked, while the violence is too sudden and inexplicable to register beneath the surface level.
An innocent man sentenced to life in prison, Harlow (Gathegi) has exhausted his legal options, and snarling guard Sacks (Hardin) is on his case. Stuck in solitary confinement, he is haunted by memories of his late wife Amber (Sarafyan) and his previous life as a wealthy psychiatrist. The warden (Amendola) offers to help him get out of solitary, but this requires him to sign a confession, which he can't do. Alone in his cell as weeks turn into months, he begins to feel like he's losing his mind. And maybe he's guilty after all.
Most of the film is set inside Harlow's grey cell, which adds a stagey feel augmented by low camera angles that subvert the claustrophobia. Splashes of red add tension, and everything feels heightened. It's not enough for Sacks to pointlessly torment Harlow, she also has nasty facial scarring and eats with her mouth open. Meanwhile, Harlow's unsteady mental state is aggravated by the crazed voice (Mackenzie) of another inmate. Plus faces appearing in stains on the wall. And Harlow's flashbacks are clearly building to something.
In a wrenching performance, Gathegi maintains Harlow's tenacious intelligence even as his reality begins to slip, jeopardising his attempt to address the injustice in his case. Then in the sunny past on board their sailboat, Gathegi creates a smart-sexy connection with Sarafyan, revealing that there may be trouble in paradise. By contrast, Hardin wears an exaggerated sneer while chomping mercilessly on the scenery. Sacks' story only makes sense if she's seen as a ruthless racist.
Filmmaker Fjellman underplays the bigger themes while zeroing in on unnerving imagery that's often in Harlow's addled mind, such as drafting his new appeal in his own blood. The main problem is that it's not easy to work out what the filmmakers are trying to do here, because it feels like little more than a mental freak-out, swirling jarring scenes together in a way that's tricky to decode. Still, the imagery is genuinely nasty, and Harlow's experience is horrific, especially as it reveals a system that has failed him.
Review by Rich Cline |
dir Kourosh Ahari
scr Milad Jarmooz, Kourosh Ahari
prd Alex Bretow, Kourosh Ahari, Jeffrey Allard, Cheryl Staurulakis, Armin Amiri
with Shahab Hosseini, Niousha Noor, Leah Oganyan, George Maguire, Michael Graham, Armin Mehr, Elester Latham, Kathreen Khavari, Gia Mora, Alain Wachnevsky, Lily VK, Amir Ali Hosseini
release US 29.Jan.21
Is it streaming?
This sharply well-made dramatic freak-out is centred on an Iranian family living in the US. Filmmaker Kourosh Ahari deftly builds an atmosphere that's both familiar and darkly unsettling, with echoes of The Shining, Psycho and even Hotel California. The film is provocative and terrifying, even if much of what happens seems naggingly inexplicable. But the vivid suggestion is that this is connected to the family's experience as migrants.
After a lively dinner with friends, Babak and Neda (Hosseini and Noor) are driving home with their infant daughter Shabnam (Oganyan). Babak has had too much to drink, and the sat-nav malfunctions. Lost, they find a rather iffy-looking hotel, but the receptionist (Maguire) is friendly enough. Then in the night there are odd noises and the baby won't settle, while mysterious events make Babak and Neda doubt each other. They also begin to feel that someone is in the room with them. And when a policeman (Graham) arrives, things take an even more insane turn.
Ahari grounds the film in earthy realism, creating a recognisably authentic couple with tiny issues between them that don't seem to matter much, but begin to grow as this seemingly endless night continues. The mind-bending things that this likeable couple experiences get deep under the skin because they're so strongly connected to the characters. For example, the primary haunting apparition is of a young boy calling for his mother, offering tantalising implications of something this couple is refusing to confront from their past.
Hosseini and Noor are superb as a bracingly normal husband and wife trying to hold themselves together through an unnerving situation. Neda's matter-of-fact approach, always assuming that the craziness is related to Babak's drinking, adds a deeper sense of their relationship, creating tension that's subtly well-played by both actors. Their visceral performances sit in intriguing contrast to the casually indifferent people they meet in this hotel, where the laws of physics don't seem to apply. The supporting cast is skilfully bonkers.
The film is packed with terrific set-pieces that make jarringly visual use of iconic locations like hotel receptions, hallways, lifts and bathrooms, even if the sound mix is rather hyperbolic, and some of the crazy touches feel over-the-top. But as the situation escalates, this becomes a clever exploration of how our past can haunt us in ways we don't quite understand. And where this night goes is challenging and deeply moving, playing with our fear and guilt in a properly horrific way.
Review by Rich Cline |
dir Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
scr Justin Benson
prd Michael Mendelsohn, David Lawson Jr, Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson
with Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Katie Aselton, Ally Ioannides, Ramiz Monsef, Bill Oberst Jr, Betsy Holt, Shane Brady, Kate Adair, Matthew Underwood, Carl Palmer, Martin Bradford
release US 23.Oct.20,
TORONTO FILM FEST
Is it streaming?
Moody and strange, this offbeat dramatic horror spirals to heights of absurdity that are grounded in a nicely played central relationship. Filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead stir fiendishly clever visual trickery along with a hint of deeper meaning, although the pace is a bit too laconic for its own good. And there's a nagging feeling that, while it looks flashy and intriguing, there isn't actually much to it.
There's a new designer drug called Synchronic on the streets of New Orleans that's making young people lose their minds. As they deal with inexplicable injuries, paramedics Steve and Dennis (Mackie and Dornan) struggle to make sense of these zoned-out teens and violent deaths. Then a scientist (Monsef) turns up explaining that Synchronic changes the experience of time for people who use it. To find a solution, Steve takes some, then discovers that he has travelled to the distant past. So he begins to experiment with it, and completely upends his reality.
Added wrinkles include some sort of complicated terminal brain cancer that Steve is hiding from everyone, and it's giving him the heightened perception of a teen. Meanwhile, Dennis' increasingly aloof 18-year-old daughter (Ioannides), who from the start is obviously headed for an encounter with Synchronic, simply vanishes. This gives the plot some drive, even if it weakens the story's coherence. And as the narrative shifts along, the script cleverly explores the connections between the past and present, adding moments of intensity are often brain-ending.
Mackie and Dornan both deliver refreshingly earthy performances in a film that's a little too airy for its own good. Thankfully, their personal situations are resonant, throwing some emotional confusion into the mix, and the complex friendship between them remains engaging, allowing for offhanded humour and feelings that run surprisingly deep. And these men become an even more compelling team in the story's final half hour. Other characters are well-played but remain on the edge of the story.
The idea that past, present and future are an illusion is a provocative one, and the events play out with meaningful context both in the adventure plot and in the story of the long-running bromance between Steve and Dennis. Both of them recognise things in each other that they can't see in themselves, and they have distinct perceptions on life that are cleverly challenged. So there are plenty of angles to hold the attention, even if the film feels meandering and ultimately somewhat corny.
See also: SHADOWS FILM FESTIVAL
© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows
on the Wall
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