Tag Archives: Rachel Willis

Hot in the City

Cocoon

by Rachel Willis

Berlin, 2018 is the setting for writer/director Leonie Krippendorff’s coming-of-age drama, Cocoon (Kokon).  

Awkward, quiet Nora (Lena Urzendowsky) is our guide through this realistic, slice-of-life look at teenagers as the hottest summer on record sweeps Berlin. A follower, Nora spends most of her time with her older sister, Jule (Lena Klenke) and Jule’s best friend, Aylin (Elina Vildanova).

When Nora meets carefree, older student, Romy (Jella Haase), she explores a different kind of world – one apart from her sister. Where Jule and Aylin are obsessed with boys and their looks, filming the bulk of their activities on their cell phones, Nora is still finding her way. But it’s an innocent wrestling match in the pool between Nora and Aylin that makes Nora realizes she looks at girls “the way boys do.”

Krippendorff’s masterful take on the embarrassing and exhilarating moments of being a teenager, especially a teenage girl, is both observant and often subtle. Nora’s mother is rarely home, leaving Jule to take care of a younger sister, who is at times the more well-adjusted of the two. A misguided attempt of Jule’s to keep their mother home is met with a level-headed response from Nora.

Romy offers Nora a chance to separate herself from both her sister and the struggles of a home-life absent of parents. Nora is happiest when she’s allowed to explore a teenager’s life – one with adventure and joy and sexual experiences.

Though it’s never made clear how much older Romy is than Nora, there are a few scenes that highlight the age gap between the two. Often, Nora’s responses to Romy’s attentions come across as childish, making the pairing feel a little more awkward than is probably intended. However, it can be argued that Nora’s behavior in her relations with Romy serves as a contrast to the ways she has been forced to shed her youth at home in order to survive. It’s only with Romy that Nora is able and allowed to express herself fully.

In a strong film, there are still a few disappointments: a predictable turn of events during the film’s climax, the not-so-subtle sequences with a caterpillar, an ethereal plastic bag. (I didn’t like it any better in American Beauty).

Fortunately, in a film with so many wonderful moments, the minor flaws are easily forgiven and adolescence in all its incongruous beauty is put on magnificent display for us to either relive or relate.

Birds, Bees and Whatnot

A Sexplanation

by Rachel Willis

Director Alex Liu is on a quest to overcome the shame he feels regarding sex. He’s also out to understand why sex is such a taboo subject in America – especially when it comes to our kids, their curiosity, and their own drives (whatever they may be) – in his documentary, A Sexplanation.

Part exploration of sex education in the United States, healthy sexual conversation, and personal memoir, the doc wants to understand why Liu was made to feel such shame about his own sexual acts and preferences. In a heart-wrenching moment, he even admits to contemplating suicide because of it.

This is a heavy sequence in an otherwise very lighthearted and funny documentary. Liu might still feel some of the embarrassment of his upbringing (in one particular interview it’s obvious from his blush he’s asking questions that bring discomfort), but he is determined to upend the current notion of sex as shameful.

This is the kind of documentary that would be a wonderful conversation starter for parents and their teenagers, as some of its queries are a bit too advanced for younger children. One of the points the documentary makes is that there shouldn’t be “The Talk” with kids, but a continuing conversation around age-appropriate topics. There’s no reason why a two- or three-year-old can’t know the proper terminology for their body parts. Or why a six-year-old can’t begin to understand the biological differences between the sexes. In the case of sex, silence from parents can be just as damaging as outright shaming.

This is what appears to have happened to Liu. As he talks with his parents, both of whom seem quite open to his questions, it doesn’t appear that they intended for Liu to feel awkward, embarrassed, or even wrong for a natural part of development. But their silence meant he was left to the wayward American education system, which primarily values abstinence-only over comprehensive sex-ed.

Conversations with others his age reveal the woefully inadequate education most of us have, not only concerning sex, but also some of the basics of human biology.   

Liu could probably have done a bit more exploring. Still, A Sexplanation offers a non-judgmental safe space for the questions that many of us (okay, probably all of us) have had when it comes to masturbation, sexual proclivities, and the whole exciting and wonderful topic that is sex. 

Air Wolf

Wolf Hound

by Rachel Willis

Three American fighter jets are shot down in France by Nazi pilots flying British Royal Air Force planes. One pilot, Captain David Holden (James Maslow) sets off on a mission to save his fellow soldiers.

Director Michael B. Chait, working from a screenplay by Timothy Ritchey, starts with an interesting hook, but fails to hit the right mood with World War II action-adventure, Wolf Hound.

The most exciting and tense moment of the film happens right in the beginning, as our American heroes face off in the air against the Nazis. Amazing stunt work and great visual effects set up a promising film. Unfortunately, the air battle gives way to a one-man rescue mission à la Rambo.

Captain Holden’s foil comes in the form of Nazi Captain Rolf Werner (Michael Wayne Foster). Each pilot has a vendetta against the other, but where Werner is obsessed with Holden, the American is focused on the rescue.

Films sometimes fail to strike the right tone, and that’s the case with Wolf Hound. At times, the movie wants to tackle serious subject matter, but it often embraces high action-adventure. The score emphasizes tension in one moment, then shifts rapidly to melodrama. It leaves you wondering whether to laugh or scoff. A particularly strange scene that sets torture to the sounds of a recorder had me doing both.

Lending to the high-adventure feel is the stereotypical characterization of Nazis. These soldiers are villains, with no shades of grey, no sense of camaraderie, and no qualms about their many war crimes. One even uses his fellow soldier as a shield during a shootout. Villainous, indeed. But also pretty dull with nothing to distinguish one from another.

Much of the action is admittedly exciting, which distracts from the recycled story elements. With little downtime between action sequences, the film moves, even with a runtime of over two hours.

If Chait had managed to strike a better balance or had fully embraced the adventurous elements, Wolf Hound might have been more compelling. Instead, it’s an uneven mix that relegates the one component that sets it apart to little more than a gimmick.

Reconnecting

Unplugging

by Rachel Willis

When his UPS delivery driver unexpectedly dies, Dan (Matt Walsh) decides it’s time he and his wife “unplug” and reconnect with each other.

With Unplugging, co-written by Walsh and Brad Morris, director Debra Neil-Fisher attempts to find humor in a couple so plugged-in that a weekend without cell service becomes a disastrous nightmare.

The premise of the movie is applicable to plenty of people. Who doesn’t know someone who’s practically married to their phone? In this case, that’s Dan’s wife, Jeanine (Eva Longoria). The demands of her office are such that she’s typing emails and sending Jib Jabs at 3 am.

Dan and Jeanine’s daughter is just as connected as Jeanine, but this is apparently not a problem. Dan’s tech-free weekend getaway is just for Mom and Dad. His daughter, still looking at her phone as she says goodbye to her parents, is left behind with her grandmother.

Walsh and Longoria are adept at comedy, but the script never gives them anything to work with. Gil (Keith David) runs the local place where the only thing worth eating is the enchiladas, but the spot is so dead that Dan and Jeanine are his only customers. At least, until Perkins (Lea Thompson) shows up.

Thompson and David also have a knack for comedy, but David is underutilized, and Thompson’s drone-tracking, government-conspiracy-spouting rural nut is too over-the-top to land any jokes. Neither character make a lot of sense in the grand scheme of things, except to criticize rural people as “out there.” Perkins’s pet raccoon Lulu only belabors this point.

The film is unclear about its message. Is tech a bad thing? Or is it okay in moderation? Does getting lost in the woods make you appreciate your tech more, or less? Will a person’s constant disconnection from the “real” world make them suspicious of their neighbors? Or are your neighbors worthy of your suspicion? (If they live in the country, the answer seems to be yes.)

Like its characters, Unplugging gets lost about halfway through and never finds its way back. That it’s light on the humor only makes it harder for those of us who unplugged to watch the movie to keep our hands off our phones.

Dark Night

Surviving Theater 9

by Rachel Willis

Tim McGrath survived the shooting at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. He shares his story in the docudrama, Surviving Theater 9.

McGrath not only wrote and directed but also plays himself in a film that focuses on what transpired before and after the event. Keeping his runtime to a brisk 49 minutes, McGrath narrows his focus to three survivors: himself, a teenager who went to the screening with his brother, and a woman whose brother was killed in the shooting.

The most affecting moments are the scenes that focus on what happens after. Some of it is appalling to consider: a neighbor who accuses a woman of exploiting her brother’s death; a law school committee that listens heartlessly as a student tries to appeal their decision to suspend him; a teacher who doesn’t understand her student just needs a moment alone.

Though the Before moments want to give the audience a chance to get to know these three, perhaps the shortness of the film’s runtime is to blame for the lack of depth. Surviving Theater 9 might have been more poignant if the survivors had been allowed to speak for themselves in a documentary, but you can see that this story might be easier to tell through another person’s point of view.

McGrath might have been wiser to restrict the timeline to a chronological retelling. Instead, he skips from After to Before and back again, creating gaps in the timeline. You’re left wondering about the fate of a cousin who accompanied McGrath to the theater, because it’s hard to recall if he appears in the After sections or only the Before sections.

McGrath’s goals are understandable, but flaws in the filmmaking detract from the experience.

Wisely, McGrath does not focus on the shooting itself. We’re given only minor moments of the chaos and terror that happened inside theater 9 because this isn’t the shooter’s story. Nor is it the story of the event. It’s about the survivors and the story they need to tell.

Sound of Silence

Midnight

by Rachel Willis

In the dark and deserted alleys of an unnamed Korean city, Do Shik (Wi Ha-Joon) hunts. His prey is mostly young women, but men are not invulnerable to his violent pursuits.

In writer/director Oh-Seung Kwon film Midnight, two Deaf women (mother and daughter) find themselves in a game of cat and mouse with the manipulative and persistent killer.

From the very beginning, Kwon’s focus is building tension. The gorier aspects of what Do Shik does are left to audience imagination. And by introducing the killer first, Kwon allows us to be privy to the type of games this hunter plays.

After a creepy opening scene, the movie takes a little time to introduce us to our other main characters. Kyung Mi (Ki-joo Jing) works as the Deaf representative in a call center and longs to take a vacation with her mother. We also meet an older brother and younger sister who playfully battle over the sister’s curfew for her blind date. The film moves back and forth between these pairs before reintroducing us to our sadistic killer.

Some of the tension is built upon the things mother and daughter can’t hear. A sticky door lock that, even while pulled slowly, emits an ear-splitting whine. The approach of hurried footsteps from behind. A thrown shoe.  

The second act is the film’s strongest portion. The incompetence of police officers trying to “help” leads to some funny moments, and the reactions of the officers and their inability to understand teeter between hilarity and frustration.

There are also some moments of teeth-grinding tension as the two women find themselves alone and taunted by Do Shik. His threatening words are delivered in low tones and close-lipped sentences, allowing the audience to understand what the two women can’t. Kyung Mi’s mother is not as quick as her innocent daughter to accept that Do Shik is trying to help. She quickly picks up on the contradictions in his attitude, which range from distraught to amusement.

Yet for all the strength of the second act, the movie unravels in the final segment. Suspension of disbelief is tested with some truly questionable character decisions. Though the tension carries over from the middle section, it’s hard to maintain when you’re too busy wondering why certain characters behave the way they do.

A disappointing climax muddies the film’s overall effect and overshadows the message. However, there’s enough working for this tense and exciting thriller to entertain even the most skeptical viewer.   

Wake Up Call

6:45

by Rachel Willis

Working from a screenplay by Robert Dean Klein, director Craig Singer brings us the time loop horror film, 6:45.

Bobby (Michael Reed) and Jules (Augie Duke) are trying to work through some issues, so they visit the quaint island of Bog Grove for a relaxing vacation. What the couple doesn’t know is that their visit to the island falls on the anniversary of a traumatic, unsolved murder. Because of this, the ferry service doesn’t run, and they’re stuck – or so they’re informed by the nosy, odd proprietor for the inn where they’re staying.

A slow opening that follows the couple exploring Bog Grove, its tourist shops and oddball residents, doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to build tension. When the tragedy occurs, it comes as a relief rather than a shock.

Soon, Bobby descends into a nightmare he must relive over and over. Being forced to relive the day alongside Bobby is a horror in itself.

No one else experiences the loop, so we get to see Duke in a range of roles: some days she wishes could last forever, others see her trying to rein in an increasingly unstable boyfriend. Reed, on the other hand, is stuck playing a man who doesn’t seem to know how to handle himself each day. Every time the crucial event occurs, he seems constantly taken by surprise.

The cast of locals has little to do, often repeating lines from previous loops. They fill mostly stereotypical roles: small-town friendly and welcoming or weirdly creepy. There isn’t middle ground, and it makes for uninteresting characters.   

Rather than differentiate itself from similar time loop films through storytelling, 6:45 instead focuses on camerawork and distracting split screens. Anywhere from four to six screens will litter the frame, some focusing on banal details, others on more interesting visuals. Days are relegated to montages,

Flashbacks detailing the couple’s history sometimes punctuate the flashbacks. It’s here that Singer cleverly injects moments that help us understand why the couple has been fighting. It’s clear that the fight revolves around infidelity, but these fleeting moments offer hints of violence, which reveals something more sinister.

The film does take an interesting turn, but it comes too little, too late. It also fumbles any message it’s trying to get across. Instead of offering a strong look at a troublesome relationship, it embraces shock over commentary. In the end, we’re not shown anything new or astute.

Jacking and Jilling

Adventures in Success

by Rachel Willis

Fair warning – this film may be the most unpleasant experience you’ll ever have with the female orgasm.

Writer/director Jay Buim, along with co-writers Susan Juvet and Rachel Webster, has crafted one of the most uncomfortable, meandering and sometimes funny mockumentaries with the film Adventures in Success.

Focusing on the group Jilling Off, we follow “energy transformationist” Peggy (Pegasus) Appleyard (Lexi Mountain) as she leads a group of men and women to the Catskills to harness the energy of the female orgasm in “the womb room.”

Joining this group is newbie Erica (Yaz Perea-Beltran). At first, Erica’s seeming skepticism makes her feel like our straight woman among these guys and gals who use terms like “economic ejaculate.” A hilariously uncomfortable scene involving the extreme invasion of Erica’s personal space by another member is one of the film’s highlights.

There are several scenes that are so uncomfortable you can’t help but laugh. Otherwise, you might spend most of the film squirming in your seat.

As Peggy, Mountain embraces the role of sex goddess guru, and the film is better for it. A personal highlight was Peggy’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s I’m On Fire, but it’s mostly a moment that doesn’t fit well into the overarching story. The movie is full of these, as if the writers didn’t know how to fill 90 minutes about a group whose sole purpose is ‘jilling off.’

Another downfall is the fairly large cast of characters – not just the Jilling Off members, but townspeople who pop up from time to time (many more than once), usually to give their two cents on the group who’s descended on their town. It’s hard to keep track of everyone.

The film tries to make you care about the members of the cult, but so much time is spent making fun of them it’s hard to feel sympathy for their struggles. Some films can strike a good balance, but Success never manages to do so.

The film sometimes offers a strangely empowering message about women’s sexuality and female pleasure. It’s too bad the filmmakers’ mocking tone buries it beneath a lot of silliness.

Star Crossed

A Grand Romantic Gesture

by Rachel Willis

After losing her career, Ava (Gina Mckee) seeks fulfillment from a community drama course in writer/director Joan Carr-Wiggin’s film, A Grand Romantic Gesture.

The film opens with a confession, as we quickly learn Ava has fallen for her classmate, Simon (Douglas Hodge). Though both married, their connection grows as the two discover similar dissatisfaction with where life has brought them.

Mining the desires and dizzying highs of illicit love from Romeo and Juliet, Carr-Wiggin applies the famous love (lust?) story to a man and woman in their 50s.

Though not the first film to explore mature love, A Grand Romantic Gesture might be the first to portray Romeo and Juliet as middle-aged. Though the approach is subtly humorous in how it comments that heady love isn’t just for the young, R&J’s smoldering passion just isn’t there. There’s no doubt these characters care for each other, but when the film tries for something more passionate, even reckless, it doesn’t land. Rather than mirroring the high drama of young, forbidden love, it comes across as silly.

Layered onto the story, are Real World-style confessions. The confession room segments might have worked if they’d stayed with Ava, but the snippets become an unnecessary drag on an otherwise steadily rolling story. The things revealed in the confessionals are more artfully delivered via dialogue and body language.

The movie’s tone never decides where to settle, veering from optimism to cynicism with each changing scene. Is one too old to find love? Or does age bring freedom from the pressure of staying for the sake of children?

There are some funny moments in the story, but the dizzying shifts from rom-com to passionate drama are hard to accept. The film might have benefited from a continued light touch in its references to Shakespeare’s famous tragedy.

Though earnest in their roles, McKee and Hodge never successfully convince us of their fervor for each other. Unfortunate for a film with such an ambitious title.

Still Punk After All These Years

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché

by Rachel Willis

Director Celeste Bell helps uncover her mother, X-Ray Spex singer and punk legend Poly Styrene, in the documentary, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché

Co-directed with Paul Sng, Bell dives deep into the circumstances that steered her mother from “an ordinary kid from an ordinary street” to punk rock icon.

Born Marianne Elliott, the alter-ego Poly Styrene came from Elliott’s desire to connect the superfluity of pop stars with the culture’s increasing obsession with disposable commodities.     

Ruth Negga (Passing) lends her voice to read Poly’s diary entries and poems, which helps convey the emotions in the icon’s words. Bell’s own narration, memories of her mother, and a collection of memorabilia help us discover the woman behind the image.

Numerous interviews with rock icons such as Thurston Moore, X-Ray Spex members Lora Logic and Paul Dean, writer Vivien Goldman and others, dig deeper into what Poly stood for as a commentator on the culture.

The documentary maintains a strong emphasis on Poly herself. Interviews happen as voiceovers while images onscreen portray the world in which Poly offered her strongest analysis and criticisms. Footage from concerts and interviews with Poly herself dictate the film’s focus.

However, this is more than a simple rock doc, as the film finds numerous ways to cement Poly’s story as larger commentary on contemporary society. Bruno Wizard lays it out best when he says: “She was a woman of color working with an industry full of middle class men that had it all their own way.” The pressure on Poly, as it is on women (especially women of color), was enormous.

Like many of Poly’s songs, the film illuminates the culture’s uglier realities, including the ways it tries to exclude people like Poly. In many ways, the punk scene was a natural fit, “full of people nobody else wanted.”

As the film dives deeper into Poly’s life story, her struggles with mental health are partially documented. While not the first woman to be misdiagnosed, it’s further critique on the systems in place that frequently fail to help women.

The third act falters as it shifts away from its strongest themes and relies on a more formulaic approach. The overarching criticism is neglected for a timeline of events in Poly’s life.

Despite the disappointing turn, the documentary is a lot like Poly herself: vulnerable, observant, and resilient. Like mother, like daughter one might say.