Tag Archives: Rachel Willis

Pick A Side

A Shot Through the Wall

by Rachel Willis

“It’s important … that I understand your side of the story.”

Writer and director Aimee Long tackles a big topic with her debut feature, A Shot Through the Wall. Focusing on the aftermath of the shooting of a Black man shot by a police officer, Long tries to present the issue in shades of gray rather than the black and white portrayal often warring in the news or across social media.

When two police officers stop a group of Black teenagers on the street, a chase leads to an accidental shooting.

In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, Officer Michael Tan (Kenny Leu) draws his weapon in the pursuit of one of the teenagers and his gun discharges. Whether the result of a misfire or a jumpy trigger finger is never made clear, but that’s not Long’s point. From Tan’s perspective -and his is the one on which we’re focused – it’s an accident.

This is one of the more troubling aspects of Long’s film. While it’s made clear from the beginning that Tan never meant to hurt anyone, we’re not given the alternative perspective of what the killing of a Black man at police hands means for the family or the community.

A moment in the film’s first act allows us a chance to see the anger and the demand for justice, but this is depicted as a blanket response. No one takes the time to show us how the hole in the wall of an apartment rips a hole in so many lives. Be it accidental or intentional, the result is more victims of an unjust system.

The only chance we get to understand the victim’s side comes in the form of Tan’s fiancée, a Black woman. Portrayed by Ciara Renée, Candace is the strongest character as her dual role in the conflict gives us a little more insight.

However, that’s not to say the other actors don’t inhabit their roles. Each one brings depth that makes up for the film’s storytelling weaknesses.

A few tough questions are raised in the film. Is Tan’s race a factor in his indictment? Would a white cop face the same legal persecution?

There is strength in the film’s second act, as we get a chance to know Tan, but it falls apart at the end. The idea that violence begets violence leads to a (forgive the pun) cop out.

There is no real justice to find here. Only more of the same in a society where oppression and injustice are too often the norm.

An Unfinished Life

Salt in My Soul

by Rachel Willis

When she was just three years old, Mallory Smith was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. What transpires in director Will Battersby’s documentary, Salt in My Soul, is a family’s fight for their daughter’s life.

With unfettered access to the family’s home videos, Mallory’s own audio and video recordings, and interviews with those closest to Mallory, Battersby makes us feel like part of a village that nurtures and cares for the girl.

For anyone unfamiliar with cystic fibrosis, or who considers it a “nuisance disease,” as one of Mallory’s coaches did, this documentary is an eye-opener. Mallory’s mother talks of the diagnosis as “receiving a death sentence” at just three years old. The average life expectancy for a person with CF was eighteen years.

But with her attitude of “no pity parties,” Mallory flourishes despite her illness. There are hospital stays, but when healthy, she dates, plays sports, makes time for her friends, all while undergoing intense treatments designed to keep her alive.

However, the reality is that cystic fibrosis is an unforgiving ailment. The result of an inherited, mutated recessive gene, CF primarily targets the lungs, but can affect multiple organ systems and leave people especially susceptible to infections. At the age of nine, Mallory caught a bacterial infection (B. cepacia). Adding insult to injury, B. cepacia is a drug-resistant bacteria that further comprises an already battered body.

Battersby’s documentary evokes numerous emotions. There are moments of optimism mixed with moments of despair. Mallory and her family are candid about their experiences, from fights over treatment options to the heartbreak of a lung transplant that falls through. We’re privy to it all.

Documentaries that look so closely into private struggles can veer toward voyeurism or exploitation, but Battersby manages to make the audience feel like part of the team. It’s hard not to care about Mallory and her family as they exhaust every option. We witness the devastation of a new illness or another hospital stay; we’re elated when a treatment goes well or an experimental drug makes a difference.

Anyone unfamiliar with Mallory’s memoir – published under the same name as the documentary – might not know what to expect. But it’s a chance to pull the curtain back on a part of life many of us never have to see.  

Giving Voice

Algren

by Rachel Willis

One of the literary giants of his age, Nelson Algren has faded from public consciousness in the seventy years since the publication of his award-winning novel, The Man with the Golden Arm.

Writer/director Michael Caplan hopes to revive interest in the Chicago native with his documentary, Algren.

As the winner of the first National Book Award, issued in 1950 for the above-mentioned novel, it’s surprising Algren is not grouped in similar circles as other U.S. literary greats such as Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck. 

The best parts of Algren highlight the words of the writer himself. Excerpts from his letters, interviews, and his novels and short stories depict not only Algren as a person and writer, but the way he hoped to portray people in his work. Drawing attention to the underbelly of Chicago, and America itself, Algren portrayed prostitutes, addicts and the dark side of the American dream.

And he did so with sympathy rather than voyeurism or exploitation, according to the many interviews with Chicago natives (such as Billy Corgan) and Algren lovers alike. Several interviews with writers, such as Russell Banks, Studs Terkel and others, help capture the influence of Algren’s work and the importance of his depictions of the “voiceless.”

There is a lot to interest a viewer about Algren, not merely his writing, but his collage work, as well. Many of his collages are revealed throughout the film, and it’s moments like these that help the viewer understand Algren better than the tawdry details of his gambling issues or love life.

Algren’s work, though lauded, also drew controversy. Bookstores refused to carry his books; the Chicago Public Library sent a scathing letter declaring their decision to remove his work from its shelves. These are interesting tidbits provided in Caplan’s film.

Unlike the author’s groundbreaking work, Algren is standard documentary fare. It follows a common pattern, although at times, is messy, as it jumps around from subject to subject – Algren’s affair with Simone de Beauvoir, his dislike of the film version of The Man with the Golden Arm, his love of boxing and poker, his gambling issues. The documentary jerks us along through his life story without a clear focus.

If the documentary had kept a solid focus on one aspect of Algren – whether his artistic endeavors or his life experience – it would have benefitted greatly. Still, if Caplan’s film achieves its goal of reminding Americans of one of our great writers, it’s done what it sets out to do.

25 for 2021

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Looking back, what will we remember about the 2021 year in film? Musicals, black and white palettes, smoking, ensembles and impressive debuts are the trends we’ll think of first. But more specifically, we’ll remember these 25 favorites:

1. Licorice Pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is loose, forgiving, and along for the ride as 15-year-old entrepreneur Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) woos life, Hollywood and, in particular, Alana Kane (Alana Haim), his much older paramour.

Danger edges but never fully punctures the sunshine of youth that brightens every scene of the movie. But that darkness is there, looming like the creepy guy staring at your office window, or the cops who arrest you mistakenly, or the volatile Hollywood producer who may or may not smash your window (or your head) in with a crowbar. (Thank you, Bradley Cooper, by the way, for that brief but unforgettable performance.)

It’s nostalgic. It’s uproarious, dangerous, just-this-side-of-innocent fun. It’s a near-masterpiece.

2. The Power of the Dog

Even if you haven’t read the celebrated source novel by Thomas Savage, director Jane Campion’s adaptation unfolds with enough subtle poetry to convince you that it must be a wonderful read. Onscreen, the Oscar-winning Campion (The Piano) contrasts the vast majesty of the American West (kudos to cinematographer Ari Wegner) with delicate details that shift the nature of love, trust and strength within a family.

Kodi Smit-McFee, Jesse Plemmons, Kirstin Dunst and a particularly brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch bring her story to life. The Power of the Dog finds its own power in what it shows but never truly tells. It’s a film that is hauntingly lyrical and masterfully assembled, with a beauty that lingers like an echo in the Montana wilderness.

3. The Tragedy of Macbeth

Coen brother Joel delivers a vision that’s both decidedly theatrical and profoundly cinematic with his solo directorial effort. Filmed in Bergman-esque black and white to glorious ends, Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand play the Lord and his Lady and this, friends, is a dream team. Two of the most celebrated and talented actors of modern cinema square off, and the veterans give an inconic relationship a depth that tinges the eventual madness with touching grief.

A uniformly brilliant ensemble (kudos in particular to Kathryn Hunter’s inspired turn as the witches) gives this dreamy take on the Bard its life.

Coen’s venture into Shakespeare, though it strips away the humor and quirk you may associate with Coen Brother filmmaking, stands as a strikingly Coen film. And that has never one time been a bad thing.

4. Summer of Soul

According to director Amir “Questlove” Thompson, the first time he saw some of the digitized footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival concerts, he nearly wept.

You might, too.

From the gospel of Mahalia Jackson to the blues of B.B. King, from the 5th Dimension’s smooth pop to Sly Stone’s psychedelic funk, the musical styles blend gloriously in the summer sun and the goosebump moments mount. But even more impressive than Thompson’s musical direction is the way he frames the entire festival through a deeply effective context of time, place, and population.

5. West Side Story

Right from the opening minutes, Steven Spielberg’s camera seamlessly ebbs and flows along with the street-roaming Sharks and Jets. From one musical set-piece to the next, Spielberg’s touch is smoothly precise, starting wide to capture the breadth of Justin Peck’s homage to Jerome Robbins’s iconic choreography, zooming in for intimacy, and then above the dancers and rumblers for gorgeous aerials set with pristine light and shadow.

It just looks freaking fantastic.

And in bringing his own vision to a classic story, Spielberg gently adds a perspective that makes Tony and Maria’s quest soar with a renewed, more universal vitality.

Just like most everything else in this West Side Story.

Christie Robb’s favorite film of 2021: Luca

Pixar/Disney’s Luca fosters self-acceptance and bravery in kids who were in the process of transitioning back to in-person school.

6. Flee

Like so many other headlines of numbing enormity that we regularly scroll past, stories of the worldwide refugee crisis rarely come with an intimacy that makes the stakes feel palpable. Flee brings an animated face to the discussion, using one man’s incredible story to re-frame the issue with soul-stirring humanity.

Using that man’s actual voice in the conversations with director Jonas Poher Rasmussen adds startling depth to the reenacted memories, and as our childlike comfort with animated scenes clashes with the uncomfortable scenes depicted, Flee‘s bracing resonance only intensifies.

7. Nightmare Alley

What director Guillermo Del Toro brings to this remake of a 1947 noir classic, besides a breathtaking cast and an elegantly gruesome aesthetic, is his gift for humanizing the unseemly. As usual, Del Toro wears his feelings proudly on his sleeve, with unmistakable but organic foreshadowing that ups the ante on the stakes involved. Anchored by another sterling performance from Bradley Cooper as Stan, the journey rises to biblical proportions. An actor whose gifts are often deceptively subtle, Cooper makes sure Stan’s pride always arrives with a layer of charming sympathy, even as it blinds him to the pitfalls ahead.

For Del Toro fans, the most surprising aspect of Nightmare Alley might be the lack of hopeful wonder that has driven most of his films. As the title suggests, this is a trip to the dark corners of the soul, where hope is in damn short supply. As much as this looks like a Del Toro film, it feels like a flex just from taking his vision to the sordid part of town. But what a vision it turns out to be – one of the year’s best and one of his best.

8. Drive My Car

Adapting a short story into a three-hour class on screenwriting, writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi turns a seemingly simple premise – a visiting theater director begrudgingly accepts a chauffer from festival organizers – into a sprawling study of the human soul.

As secrets are revealed and burdens lifted, Drive My Car becomes a soaring testament to grief, forgiveness, moving on and the unending lure of a fine automobile.

9. Riders of Justice

Men will single-handedly gun down an entire biker gang rather than go to therapy. That’s the premise from prolific writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen, as he reunites with Mads Mikkelsen in this dark comic revenge fantasy.

But Jensen isn’t nearly as interested in the physical mayhem as the emotional wreckage his oddball characters are all coping with. Riders of Justice treats its characters with such forgiving empathy that it’s easy to forget that the group is also almost certainly responsible for the most murders in Denmark since the Vikings.

Matt Weiner’s favorite film of 2021: Riders of Justice

It’s the feel-good Christmas comedy that brings the whole family together with good cheer, redemption, philosophical detours on the meaning of life and a body count that puts Die Hard to shame.

10. Wild Indian

As angry a movie as you’re likely to see, Wild Indian pushes you to hope compassion and tenderness come to the most unlikeable man onscreen.

Writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. refuses to lean on stereotypes that would make the central performance more comfortable viewing. Makwa (a stunning Michael Greyeyes) is neither victim nor noble wiseman. Not entirely a villain, he’s nonetheless ill-suited as antihero or, God forbid, hero. He’s a survivor bound up in his own guilt and shame, taking advantage of whatever he can and hating himself and everyone around him because of it.

It’s a desolate world Corbine Jr. creates, but no less remarkable for its bleakness. A character study unlike anything else on screen this year, Wild Indian gives longtime character actor Greyeyes the opportunity to command the screen and he more than rises to the occasion.

11. Pig

This touching film—a tale of love, loss, authenticity and a good meal— is essentially the anti-John Wick. And we are better for it.

Nicolas Cage is almost always the center of attention in every film he’s in. It’s tough to look away from him because you’re afraid you’ll miss some insane grimace or wild gesture, but also because filmmakers love him and never pull away. Here, co-writer/director Michael Sarnoski asks you to wait for it. He gives Cage time to pause, breathe, and deliver his most authentic performance in ages.

Brandon Thomas’s favorite film of 2021: Pig

Pig is a beautiful commentary on grief while also serving as a reminder that Nicolas Cage never stopped being one of our finest actors.

12. Passing

Making her feature debut behind the camera, Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about women unable to find a place to truly belong. Hall mines Larsen’s insight and longing to produce a visually stunning, melancholy period piece.

The languid beauty and comment on class play like a more delicate take on Gatsby, Hall subtly drawing attention not only to the racial divide but to the socioeconomic divide within Irene’s (Tessa Thompson) home and life. Never showy, never heavy-handed, the film’s themes prick at the audience just as they slowly, cumulatively wound Irene.

Thompson delivers an introspective performance unlike anything thus far in her impressive career. Likewise, Ruth Negga is superb as Irene’s friend/nemesis Clare, just incandescent and haunting as a damaged, elegant survivor.

13. Belfast

Belfast is a man’s reminiscence of his own childhood, informed by the movies and songs that bleed together with memory and saturated in the wonder of youth.

Director Kenneth Branagh has yet to make a film with such precise visual purpose or style. Every black and white frame, every movement or lack of movement from the camera carries the vision of the film. 

It is sentimental. It is nostalgic. It is unapologetically sincere. But by taking the perspective of a 9-year-old boy (a magnificent Jude Hill) trying to make sense of a suddenly and profoundly confusing and frightening world, the film gets away with it.

14. The Green Knight

Lutes and mead, chainmail and sorcery—director David Lowery’s Camelot is just as rockin’ as ever in his trippy coming-of-age style The Green Knight. The story itself may be more than 700 years old, but credit Lowery, who adapted the old ballad for the screen, with finding fresh intrigue in the old bones. He’s slippery with symbolism and draws wonderful performances from the ensemble.

His visual storytelling has always been his greatest strength as a director and this tale encourages his most fanciful and hypnotic style to date. The Green Knight is gorgeous. The color and framing are pure visual poetry. Together with a never-better Dev Patel and an exceptional ensemble, Lowery’s created a magical realm where you believe anything could happen.

Cat McAlpine’s favorite film of 2021: The Green Knight

The Green Knight is a visual spectacle that matches the scale of journeying within oneself, masterfully portrayed by a wide-eyed and constantly wet Dev Patel.

15. C’mon C’mon

A man’s changing relationship with his young nephew mirrors his deepening bond with his estranged sister. That man, Johnny, is played by Joaquin Phoenix, particularly endearing in this film. Nine-year-old Woody Norman soars as the nephew, his chemistry with Phoenix couldn’t be more charming or genuine. Gaby Hoffmann is wonderful as well as Norman’s mom, Johnny’s sister Viv.

C’mon C’mon wraps the messy, awkward, disappointing realities of being human in a blanket of hope. As cloying as that sounds, the film is so sincere it’s hard to deny its warmth.

16. The Lost Daughter

Unnerving intimacy marks Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut as a feature director. Luckily for all of us, Gyllenhaal’s uniformly subline cast meets the challenge.

Adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel, Gyllenhaal challenges romantic preconceptions about motherhood (sometimes quite bitingly, thanks to lines delivered with acidic precision by the remarkable Olivia Colman). The film acknowledges what is given up, what is lost, when you essentially transfer ownership of yourself—your time, your attention, your future—to someone else, to your children. The theme is deeply and honestly felt, and that, too, is unnerving.

17. The Humans

Two of 2021’s most prominent film themes – impressive debuts and stellar ensembles – come together in rookie writer/director Stephen Karam’s The Humans.

Adapting his own stage play, Karam displays wonderful instincts for how his story of a family reunion could move from stage to screen with relevant new layers. Buoyed by a first-rate cast including Richard Jenkins, Steven Yeun, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein and Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans slowly revels itself as a domestic horror show, with familiar tensions and deep-seeded fears becoming more frightful than anything going bump in the night.

18. The Worst Person in the World

Led by a revelatory performance from Renate Reinsve, the latest from Norwegian writer/director Joachim Trier effectively fuses coming-of-age sensibilities and romantic drama.

As one woman navigates what she wants in a career, in a relationship, and ultimately what she wants out of life, Trier crafts small, indelible moments that bind together for a refreshingly honest look at how, as John Lennon once said, life happens when you’re busy making other plans.

19. Zola

Is it surprising that movies are now born from Twitter threads? Maybe, for a minute. But you’ll find good stories on Twitter, and with Zola, director/co-writer Janicza Bravo tells a ferociously good story, even if some of it may not be exactly true.

Bravo, Taylor Paige and Riley Keough (with solid support from Colman Domingo, Nick Braun and Jason Mitchell) all bring indelible talent to Zola, and the sheer buzz of this wild ride becomes irresistible.

Is it truth? Fiction? A bit of both?

It matters only in that it doesn’t matter at all. Because whatever truth still exists in the digital age, Zola speaks it.

Rachel Willis’s favorite film of 2021: Adventures of a Mathematician

Adventures of a Mathematician offers devastating insight into why some of the world’s most brilliant scientists lent their skills to the creation of the deadliest weapons in history.

20. Spider-Man: No Way Home

This third installment of Jon Watts’s Spidey franchise showcases the naïve optimism and youthful sweetness that has made his first two episodes such a great time, that are so perfectly embodied by star Tom Holland.

Rather than feeling like those Marvel overreaches in defining their own universe, No Way Home uses the opportunity of pulling in other movies to celebrate the hero, his roots, and what he stands for as an icon of comics, heroes, and childhoods the ‘verse over.

Oh, sure, it’s nostalgic. It panders. It also spills over with joy.

21. Spencer

The opening credits of Spencer include a declaration that the film is “a fable from a true tragedy.” Indeed, this look at the final weekend in the marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles is draped in sadness and longing, but it’s one that uses what you already know about its subject to its advantage, completely enveloping you in an otherworldly existence.

If you haven’t been keeping up with Kristin Stewart’s string of fine performances since the Twilight films, don’t be surprised when she starts collecting the award nominations this performance richly deserves.

Filmmaker Pablo Larrain chooses the word “fable” at the start for a reason. This film is no fairy tale, but Larraín’s committed vision and an achingly poetic turn from Stewart make Spencer a completely fascinating two hours of story time.

22. Saint Maud

Maud (an astonishing Morfydd Clark) has some undefined blood and shame in her recent past. But she survived it, and she knows God saved her for a reason. She’s still working out what that reason is when she meets Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former choreographer now crumbling beneath lymphoma. Maud cannot save Amanda’s body, but because of just the right signs from Amanda, she is determined to save her soul.

As a horror film, Saint Maud is a slow burn. First-time writer/director Rose Glass and crew repay you for your patience, though, with a smart film that believes in its audience. Her film treads the earth between mental illness and religious fervor, but its sights are on the horror of the broken-hearted and lonesome.

23. Candyman

This new Candyman is the most delicious brand of horror sequel. Thanks to the startling vision of director/co-writer Nia DaCosta, it is a film that honors its roots but lives so vibrantly in the now that it makes you view the 1992 original from an urgent new angle.

DaCosta’s savvy storytelling is angry without being self-righteous. Great horror often holds a mirror to society, and DaCosta works mirrors into nearly every single scene in the film. Her grasp of the visual here is stunning—macabre, horrifying, and elegant. She takes cues from the art world her tale populates, unveiling truly artful bloodletting and framing sequences with grotesque but undeniable beauty. It’s hard to believe this is only her second feature.

By the time a brilliant coda of sadly familiar shadow puppet stories runs alongside the closing credits, there’s more than enough reason for horror fans to rejoice and…#telleveryone.

24. The Last Duel

This is a brooding, brutal, violent and sexually violent film, one that utilizes a Rashomon-style narrative to frame an often debated moment in history around a centuries-old struggle that continues today.

Director Ridley Scott presents the tale with exceptional craftsmanship and spectacle, getting big assists from Dariusz Wolski’s gritty, expansive cinematography and Michael Fentum’s detailed sound design. Scott’s remarkable cast — Jodie Comer, Adam Driver, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — digs in to these old ideas to find startling relevance.

The Last Duel aims for more than just a gripping history lesson. It’s ultimately able to use that history to remind us that the way society treats women generally – and women’s sexuality specifically – has changed little since the freaking Middle Ages. 

25. No Time to Die

Opening with a tense and expansive 26-minute prologue, Cary Joji Fukunaga unveils thrilling set-pieces and gorgeous visuals that beg for a big-screen experience. Aided mightily by a soaring, throwback score from Hans Zimmer, Fukunaga infuses Daniel Craig’s final Bond film with a respectful sense of history while it marches unafraid into the future.

The one-liners, callbacks and gags (like Q’s multi-piece tea set) are well-placed and restrained, never undercutting the nearly three-hour mission Fukunaga clearly approached with reverence.

Where does James Bond go from here? Hard to say, but this 007 doesn’t care. Five films in 15 years have changed the character and the franchise for the better, and No Time to Die closes this chapter with requisite spectacle and fitting emotion.

Daniel “Schlocketeer” Baldwin’s favorite film of 2021: No Time to Die

No Time to Die is a fantastic action adventure epic, a pitch-perfect ending to the Daniel Craig era of James Bond and a wonderful modern encapsulation of the writings of Ian Fleming.

Almost Made It:

Lamb

Beta Test

The Harder They Fall

Mass

Shiva Baby

CODA

Hail Mary

American Underdog

by Rachel Willis

Directed by the Erwin Brothers, the life story of NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner is filled with the kind of inspirational messaging that is sure to hit all the right plays for a certain segment of the movie-going population.

That’s not to say American Underdog doesn’t have appeal for a wider audience, but the studio knew what it was doing with a Christmas day release. There’s football, an underdog dreamer, and a smidge of Christian faith, all bundled together in a surprisingly funny, if familiar, package.

Zachary Levi is the perfect embodiment of a quarterback with a dream delayed. From an early age, Warner has hopes of an NFL future. The movie starts with the unreality of Kurt’s goal—a short narration outlining the long odds of making it to the pros. But Kurt has genetics on his side, plus genuine talent. Unfortunately, nobody wants him.

Exactly why he’s unwanted isn’t always clear. We learn Warner spent most of his college career on the bench, only getting his chance to play as a fifth-year senior. Something about discipline is the reason behind this, but it’s never fully laid out. He isn’t part of the NFL draft upon finishing college, but he does get a chance with the Green Bay Packers. However, a misstep ends his career in Green Bay.

The film trains its focus more on the hardships Warner faced off the field alongside his girlfriend, single-mother Brenda (Anna Paquin), and his perseverance to work through them.

This is the more interesting part of Kurt’s story, and the screenwriting team of David Aaron Cohen, Jon Gunn and Jon Erwin (also co-director) know how to engage the audience. It’s not the victories on the field that matter most – though they are impressive – but the sheer determination to make the dream happen.

Of course, it’s easy to root for a man who pursues his goals with such dogged persistence and nary a negative thought. He faces hardships but with such grace, it borders on unrealistic. Even while working as a stock boy at a local grocery store, living in an apartment with no heat in the middle of winter, Brenda and Kurt radiate the kind of positivity that you typically find in a film with a faith-based anchor.

There is some cringe-worthy dialogue, and you can’t expect a movie like this to skip the inspirational speeches, but American Underdog wears its heart on its sleeve, and it’s not too hard to ignore the schmaltz.

Why So Serious?

Are You Happy Now

by Rachel Willis

A self-proclaimed anti-romantic comedy, Are You Happy Now brings us a character who epitomizes a disinterest in life.

Well, Adam (Josh Ruben) does have one minor request: he wants to marry his girlfriend, Gina (Ismenia Mendes). But to Gina, marriage is a sham. What is the couple to do?

Despite this setup, writer/director David Beinstein’s movie isn’t really bothered by the conundrum of two people who want different things from a relationship. The main interest is Adam, and we spent most of the running time following him as he meanders through a film that isn’t about much of anything.

Instead, like Adam, Are You Happy Now is disappointingly aimless. Character motivations are unclear. Though it’s reiterated that Adam is driven by fear, it seems apathy is a better descriptor. Life pushes him along, and he rolls with the ups and downs, never mustering much energy to tackle the challenges he faces – not with work, his relationship, or much of anything.

As a metaphor for the pressures of adulthood, it kind of works. Societal expectations can overwhelm anyone, particularly those who live life in a constant state of anxiety. Adam is the perfect representation of anyone struggling to anticipate what comes next.

The film’s at its best when it’s not focused on Adam or Gina, but instead Adam’s co-workers, the brothers Walt (David Ebert) and Drew (Gregory Jones), whose vitriolic banter is hilarious.

Infrequent narration from Gina interrupts at odd moments, and though it does fill in a few narrative gaps, the film would have been better off without her occasional commentary.

Adam is not without his endearing qualities, so he evokes a certain amount of sympathy. His lost puppy expression certainly helps. It’s hard not to want to give him a pat on the head and a kind word or two, as it seems that’s really all he needs to be happy. The rest of life’s details are inconsequential.

That appears to be the message the film wants to get across, but the clunky delivery weakens the message. Like Adam, it’s not without its charms. But it takes more than charm to make a movie work.

Second Sight

The End of Blindness

by Rachel Willis

In Ethiopia, 1.6% of the population is blind, 80% of them with curable ailments. But for the nation’s poorest, care is beyond their reach.

In director A.J. Martinson’s documentary, The End of Blindness, we follow Dr. Samuel Bora, the only ophthalmologist for a population of more than 3 million, as he works to treat as many people as he can.

With the help of the non-profit organization, Tropical Health Alliance Foundation (THAF), Dr. Bora operates primarily in the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa. However, he spends two weeks out of every month traveling the country to visit the nation’s poorest villages.

Though focusing primarily on Dr. Bora, the documentary takes time to follow a few of those who seek treatment: a young mother who has never seen the face of her four-month-old baby; an older woman out of work for two years because of her blindness; a nine-year-old boy suffering traumatic cataracts after an injury.

By allowing us to spend time with a few of the people who desperately need treatment, Martinson gives these startling numbers a human face. For those of us so far removed from the idea of a five-minute, $50 surgery being unattainable, this is a reminder of the importance of access to quality medical care. In some ways, this gives the film the feel of one of those depressing commercials that hopes to elicit donations.

Further contributing to this impression is the deep timber of the film’s narrator. The crisis is laid out in simple terms with the narrator’s occasional input. The documentary’s score makes sure we recognize the importance of Dr. Bora’s work.

Yet, it’s impossible not to be moved when a patient has their bandages removed and the blank expression on their face gives way to a radiant smile that tells us the operation was successful. Dr. Bora’s work is crucial for a country where so many are devastated by blindness. It’s a crisis worthy of the attention the documentary draws to it.

For the squeamish, a few close-ups of eye surgery may have you turning away, but the images underscore the ease of the surgery Dr. Bora performs. It’s a stark reminder that this quick surgery is only possible because of the dedication of one man – who sometimes performs 60 surgeries in one day.

His dedication is a reminder that one person can make a difference. His story is worth telling.

I Spy

Lair

by Rachel Willis

Opening with a very tense scene of a young boy hiding under the stairs, writer/director Adam Ethan Crow sets us up for a suspenseful horror tale.

It’s unfortunate he can’t keep the momentum going. Following this immensely creepy start, Lair falls back on a mundane expository scene where we’re introduced to our main character, Dr. Steven Caramore (Corey Johnson). Disbelieving the existence of demons and the supernatural, he nonetheless decides to test out several supposedly haunted items on a group of unsuspecting renters in his building.

The clueless renters are Maria (Aislinn De’ath), her girlfriend Carly (Alana Wallace), and her own two daughters. The apartment is wired to watch for any sinister activity, so the film sinks into voyeur territory. Caramore watches these women in intimate situations, but Crow treats this as an unfortunate part of spying on your neighbors for demonic activity. It would have made more sense to mine this behavior to sinister effect, and combine it with Caramore’s habit of sneaking into the women’s apartment to place new, haunted items.

His tenants, unaware of this invasion into their lives, have their own drama to deal with. Head of a newly constructed family, Maria is trying to integrate Carly into her daughters’ lives. Carly attempts to figure out where she fits—is she the girls’ friend (particularly the teenage daughter) or an authority figure? This, along with the haunted apartment, is reason enough for interest. Dr. Caramore’s place in the mix begins to seem unnecessary. Why is his story patched into the family’s horror?

And yet, you can appreciate what Crow is trying to accomplish. The bones of a great tale are here, but the narrative falls apart as it’s fleshed out. Poor dialogue and an excess of exposition hurt the overall story. The actors embrace their roles and bring a level of realism to the movie, even as you try to wrap your head around some of the things they do or say.

Lair’s best aspects are the visual effects. There are some terrifying scenes, a couple of impressive jump scares, and some well-imagined demonic activity. Crow delivers enough horrific moments to satisfy even as his movie leaves something to be desired.

It’s also refreshing to see a demon movie that doesn’t revolve around possession—a genre explored almost as much as the zombie oeuvre.

Though Lair is not without its flaws, it’s nonetheless an intriguing idea.

A Sort of Homecoming

Lantern’s Lane

by Rachel Willis

Urban legends are everywhere. But some are real.

So begins writer/director, Justin LaReau’s attempt to combine urban legend, local myth and slasher horror in Lantern’s Lane.

When Layla (Brooke Butler) returns home from the city at the invitation of old friend Missy (Ashley Doris), the two (and two others along for the ride) end up at one of their high school haunts – Lantern’s Lane. The legend is that a ghost woman wanders the road with a lantern. However, the referenced urban legend doesn’t quite make the woods around the lane sinister.

Neither does the cast of characters, despite what noises they hear or antics they get up to. The most interesting part of the first act is the clear tension between Layla and Missy.

The enmity between the former friends is uncomfortable. Layla’s disdain for their old high school hijinks — ever present for the ones left behind in their hometown — grates on those who feel judged for their choices. This tension represents the one successful tactic in the movie because it feels like the others are trying to punish Layla for moving on. Looks exchanged between characters suggest something going on behind the action on screen.

But for a horror film, that’s just not enough. A boarded-up house offers some promise, but little of what’s found in the house frightens. There’s nothing you wouldn’t expect in an empty home vandalized by local teens. (But thank goodness for those maxi pads someone left behind.)

The action is very slow to get started, so much so that we’re still waiting for scares at more than halfway through the running time. The few attempted jump scares are ineffective. Once the horror does starts, the previous half’s attempted misdirection leaves us feeling flat. And the villain that comes to call doesn’t inspire much terror.

There are little bits thrown in here and there, but they never connect into something satisfying. Worse, first half padding mainly reiterates what we already know. And yet, despite the time we spend with these characters, none of them really come to life.

LaReau never manages to make you care what happens to Layla, Missy or any of the others. Without characters – or a villain – to root for, this horror mashup becomes a floundering mess.          

Invasive Species

Snakehead

by Rachel Willis

In New York’s Chinatown, those who smuggle humans into the country are known as Snakeheads. One woman, smuggled into New York herself and in debt to Dai Mah (Jade Wu), finds herself trafficking humans in writer/director Evan Jackson Leong’s film, Snakehead.

Sister Tse (Shuya Chang) is willing to do anything to survive, even if it means working for Dai Mah and her family of black market criminals. Like any criminal family, Dai Mah’s crew runs a few legitimate operations, but out of the eye of the law, they smuggle men and women into the country.

Writer/director Evan Jackson Leong’s film has an eye on the many pieces of operating a human smuggling operation. It’s dangerous work, but most of those involved are true villains. Dai Mah’s son, Rambo (Sung Kang), has no regard for the people he brings into the country. They’re cargo. His legitimate business is an aquarium, and he treats the fish he sells better than the people who are forced to rely on him for safe passage into America.

Sister Tse watches most of this with an observant eye. She’s tough, but she hasn’t lost her empathy for those in situations similar to hers. Though Sister Tse is higher up in the slave chain under Dai Mah, she is still a slave.

Chang crackles with unspoken rage as she watches the operations around her. She sells the role as a fierce woman who ingratiates herself into Dai Mah’s inner circle, but never forgets what she truly is. Wu can’t match Chang’s ferocity on screen. Though we watch her commit a violent act, she never sells herself as someone truly dangerous — a necessity for a woman who runs a crime organization. Slightly more convincing as a villain is Sung Kang, but even his character has a soft spot that stretches believability. 

There are too many moments that require a hard suspension of disbelief. Though the immigrants’ predicament rings with truth, it’s the overarching operation that never lands as a believable enterprise.

Loosely based on real people and events, Snakehead is the kind of true-crime drama that tells a compelling story. The fictionalized element, though, tends to forget the victims who suffer as they seek a better life. Sister Tse is an attempt to remember, but as the more brutal elements of the film play out, it’s easy to be swept up in the action rather than rooted in the true horror of human trafficking.