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CCFF 2018: Beast & Revenge

May 16, 2018

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There are feral instincts and violent retaliation on display in “Beast” and “Revenge” the films that recently played in the midnight slots at the Chicago Critics Film Festival (CCFF), which ran from May 4th through May 10th at the Music Box Theatre. Both films feature strong, nuanced female leads with complex characterization and are set in unique locations that accentuate the unsettling and mysterious tone of the stories they tell. Both films could be considered thrillers, although “Revenge” fits more firmly in that category with a lean towards action, while “Beast” is a challenge to pin down, adding romance and mystery to the thriller genre. What stands out in both films are some great female characters roles who choose to fight (literally or figuratively) to break free from expectations others have of them and take a strong grasp of their own destinies. 

The two films premiered last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival and are currently available for viewing right now. “Revenge” recently had an exclusive release on Shudder on May 11th and then received a digital/VOD release on May 11th. “Beast” is opening in three Chicago-area theatres (AMC River East, Landmark Century Centre & Century Evanston) this Friday, May 18th.

Midnight screenings at film festivals tend to be more miss than hit, but these two films offered some refreshing originality in their execution, despite having some predictable elements. They are a reminder that it’s more about how a movie goes about doing what it sets out to do.  More thoughts below…

 

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BEAST (2018)

rated R
runtime: 107 min.

For his feature-length directorial debut, writer/director Michael Pearce has created a confident thriller, laced with unexpected developments and artistry. The story that unfolds is continuously interesting, but what will be remembered is how Pearce tells it, as well as the memorable performances form his two leads. The film follows 27-year-old Moll (Jessie Buckley), who still lives at home under the watchful eye of her controlling and domineering mother, Hillary (Geraldine James), working as a guide on a local UK island bus tour. It’s evident right away that she is overlooked at home and longs to break free, tied down by the expectations of taking care of her ill father or looking after young niece.

Feeling uncomfortable and ignored at her birthday party, she wanders off and winds up being unexpectedly rescued by a peculiar stranger, who scares off the unwanted advances of a local young man. The rugged and mysterious loner is Pascal Renouf (Johnny Flynn), becomes a needed free-spirited presence for Moll, tied down by no one and definitely free from the stifling aristocracy of her family. Attracted by his disposition and the freedom of his company, Moll begins spending more time with Pascal and two fall in love, despite concern from her mother and a local detective (who has a crush on Moll) who both fear this rogue could be connected to a local string of brutal murders making the news. Moving in with Pascal and set on building a new life, Moll can’t help but begin to question her choices and contend with the feral restlessness that is building within her.

While Pearce has an absorbing screenplay, it’s the performances of “Beast” that really stand out here. Buckley, a captivating red-haired Irish actress seen in last year’s FX mini-series “Taboo” with Tom Hardy, shows a great range of emotion here, playing a young woman fed up and frustrated by the sternness of her mother and overall dismissiveness from her family. There is an understandable rage that Buckley masters, that is sometimes literally blurted out, but most of the time it is simmering under the surface. English actor Johnny Flynn, who recently played Young Albert Einstein in National Geographic Channel’s “Genius” series, is also quite captivating here, conveying the ability to second-guess what kind of guy we think Pascal is at just about every turn. As soon as Flynn is introduced here, portraying a fine-tuned charm with a discernible degree of menace present. These are both tough roles to tackle, but Buckley and Flynn, who both have fine chemistry together, deliver convincing and compelling performances that hold the character-driven story together.

The two are surrounded by solid supporting performances from recognizable UK actors, but it’s Geraldine James who will be the most memorable as the family matriarch. The veteran actress has been working since the mid-70s, in great dramas (“Ghandi”) and comedies (2011’s “Arthur”) and can be currently seen in the Netflix series “Anne”. As Moll’s oppressive mother, she delivers a great balance between harshness and warmth toward her daughter, that can be unnerving at any moment.

Pearce also benefits from a reunion with cinematographer Benjamin Kracun, who worked on his previous shorts. Rich earth tones are on display throughout, inviting viewers to an enticing natural environment and the lighting variation used augments both the atmosphere and mood. There are piercing medium shots here where the camera is set on Moll or Pascal (sometimes both in the same shot) that further our curiosity of who these two characters are, adding to and confounding our study of who these two are.

“Beast” may seem like a misleading title for the film, but the more time spent with the two main characters, primarily Buckley’s Moll, one could see why its called that. It’s certainly better than the film’s original title, “Jersey Affair”, named after the distinctive UK location of the story, which is the largest of the channel islands between England with France, filled with romantic cliffs and beaches. There is also an ambiguity to the tile that Pearce leaves to the audience to determine.

“Beast” is one of those films that captures you right from the start and maintains its draw throughout, thanks to a curious story inhabited by two fascinating lead characters. Pearce desires to have his audience second-guess Moll and Pascal and the two actors are on board, selling that aspect perfectly. Some of the ancillary characters in the story seem unnecessary and I’m still unsure certain moments at the end really work, but overall this is a film that will likely subvert any expectations viewers will have going in.

RATING: ***

 

 

 

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REVENGE (2018)

rated R (for strong bloody gruesome violence, a rape, sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use and language) 
runtime: 108 min.

Are you ready for a rape/revenge action/horror thriller film? I wasn’t either. In fact, I’ve grown tired of seeing women raped on screen (not that I ever really had a stomach for it), but the buzz building around “Revenge” piqued my curiosity. I was hoping there’d be more revenge than rape in this feature-length debut from French writer/director Coralie Fargeat and thankfully, there is.

Jen (Matilda Lutz) is a attractive young American woman who is spending time with her married French lover, Richard (Kevin Janssens) at his stylish secluded villa in the middle of the desert. The location is so far away from civilization that they have to be dropped off and picked up via helicopter. Richard has some vehicles there to roam around in, but this trip is simply intended to be a relaxing and illicit tryst limited to the swimming pool and the bedroom – or so Jen thought.

Things change when Richard’s friends show up early for their annual hunting trip, they are as surprised to see Jen as she is to see them. In fact, they can’t take their eyes off her. The quartet have a fun night of carousing, but things take a turn for the worst when Jen is sexually assaulted by Stan (Vincent Colombe) the next morning while Richard is running an errand. His cohort, Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) is aware of the screaming, yet does nothing. Once Richard returns, Jen realizes she has to make a run for it and takes off barefoot into the barren terrain. The situation gets even more out of hand when the three men leave Jen for dead in a ravine. Their mistake.

What transpires next is a vicious cat-and-mouse game of survival that finds the three men on the run from the woman they fatally underestimated. Indeed, Jen proves to be much more resourceful than they would’ve ever imagined and begins a relentless quest for bloody revenge.

“Revenge” is quite a shocker. It definitely benefits from a stylish and timely reverse approach to a somewhat familiar scenario – a victim of sexual assault exacting revenge – essentially becoming a film that is just as courageous and clever as its protagonist. Now, for those who have a certain tolerance for bloodshed and gore, yet would prefer not to be subjected to someone getting raped (like myself), rest assured Fargeat knows that what an audience doesn’t see is more unsettling than witnessing every graphic detail.

Italian actress Matilda Lutz, last seen in the States in last year’s “Rings” horror reboot, is a revelation here. Sure, she’s attractive, which is what the role calls for, but where she goes, emotionally and physically, is amazing. We witness a literal transformation as we see her experience just about every range of emotion as she goes from victim to warrior. It’s truly something to behold. The three men in the film also have a wholly unsettling presence, especially the jarring transition we see in Janssen’s Richard. His friends are sleazy and depraved, but Richard’s true colors are horrific.

While it becomes clear that Jen will survive and eliminate these men, the journey and manner in which she dispenses them is absolutely nuts. There is blood, a crazy scene involving peyote and a beer can, blood, an uncanny use of saran wrap and more blood. I don’t even recall seeing this much blood in a slasher flick. It’s a movie that’s bound to elicit a visceral reaction from its audience, but it’s also visually striking thanks to the dynamic cinematography and editing, resulting in a truly remarkable directorial debut for Corgeat.

“Revenge” winds up being one of those “discovery films” that I hope for each year, where I’m exposed to a talented filmmaker and/or actor(s) I had not been aware of.  I am now officially interested in previous work from Lutz and look forward to the next project from Fargeat – heck, I wouldn’t mind it if they reunited!

RATING: ***1/2

 

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