Tag Archives: Rachel Willis

Memory Lane

Lie With Me

By Rachel Willis

Past memories and present regrets mix in director Olivier Peyon’s film, Lie with Me.

Returning to his hometown after decades away, celebrated author Stéphane Belcourt (Guillaume de Tonquédec) looks to dig up the ghosts of his past in hopes of inspiring something lost. Or in this case, one ghost. 

In 1984, a young Stéphane (Jérémy Gillet) begins a relationship with popular student, Thomas (Julien De Saint Jean). The only condition of their relationship is that no one can know. What starts as something tawdry deepens as the two boys spend more time together. Scenes from the past intermingle with scenes from the present, as memories of his first love overwhelm an older Stéphane.

It’s not clear if Stephane expects to encounter his past love when he returns, but he is floored when instead he meets Thomas’s son, Lucas (Victor Belmondo). 

There are two very touching relationships in the film as we watch the budding romance between Stéphane and Thomas unfold, along with Stéphane’s friendship with Lucas. The two actors portraying Stéphane are equally skilled at bringing the character to life in a seamless blend of one person at two different times in life. It’s as effectives as the contrasting natures of Thomas and his son, Lucas. Where Thomas is reserved, never revealing who he is, Lucas is at ease with himself.

The slow steps the film takes in trying to reveal Thomas are elusive; can we ever really know a person who doesn’t know himself? In hiding a part of himself from everyone but Stéphane, he essentially lives a stunted life.

There are some scenes that don’t always work. A few are too heavy-handed and sentimental in a film that works better when it embraces restraint. As the older Stéphane, de Tonquédec can convey a range of emotion with his expressions. When his controlled façade slips, we see sadness and radiance as he recalls moments of love and loss. 

The movie isn’t perfect, but it’s touching. There is a quiet sadness that haunts Stéphane as we follow him through his memories. While some scenes carrying a heavy weight, the film is not without hope. While it’s true there are some people we can never really know, often they leave hints, revealing as much of themselves as they can. It’s depressing, but it’s hopeful, too. 

Perhaps one day, the world will learn the accept others for who they are and there will no longer be a need to hide.

We All Float On Okay

Float

by Rachel Willis

It’s often said there are no new stories, only new ways to tell them. Director Sherren Lee’s film Float aptly exemplifies this concept.

The film follows a standard rom-com format while not exactly falling into the rom-com category. There’s romance, yes, and a certain amount of comedy, but also a lot of heart and turbulence as several characters navigate their relationships.

Waverly (an exquisite Andrea Bang) finds herself in Holden visiting her Aunt Rachel (Michelle Krusiec), whom she hasn’t seen in so long neither can really remember when it last was. Waverly’s visit is unexpected. She was supposed to be in Toronto for a career opportunity her parents arranged for her. But even that wasn’t planned. Her original plan for the summer was to fly to Taipei to spend time with parents she hasn’t seen in four years.

It’s clear from the beginning that Waverly’s relationship with her parents is far from perfect. Seeking refuge from their expectations, she finds the small town of Holden a good place to recharge and sort out her feelings.

Waverly meets a host of characters who enliven her experience in the gorgeous town. It can be hard to balance a large cast of characters, but the film does this well.

The one exception is Blake (Robbie Amell), which is a problem since he’s the other half of our romantic duo. Blake never really comes to life, and it can be hard to work out what it is about him that Waverly likes. Most of their time spent getting acquainted is shown in montage, which doesn’t allow the audience to get to know Blake.

The other problem is the lack of depth given to Waverly’s relationship with her parents. This is a big part of the film’s conflict, but Lee doesn’t devote enough time to it.

However, Float boasts an endearing tenderness. Bang can carry the film’s emotional weight, her range of emotion spilling over into each scene. A mixed bag, Float at least has a unique take on the rom-com formula.

Shadow Dancing

Reflect

by Rachel Willis

Writer, director, and star Dana Kippel delivers a trippy journey through a form of psychotherapy called shadow work in her film, Reflect.

As Summer, Kippel invites participants to a spiritual retreat as a challenge of sorts in which they can win money upon completing “reflective” obstacle courses.

Accompanying her on this journey to the desert (both spiritual and literal) are three friends (and one frenemy). Each woman brings her own past traumas with her, but none of them take their upcoming journey too seriously. From the clothes they wear to the things they pack, they don’t seem to understand the gravity of what they’re getting into.

Along the way, the characters meet some odd balls – odd balls that are part of a show, The Game of Life, in which the women are unaware participants.

It’s a strange set up for sure. By putting our characters on this journey, Kippel mines the sources of trauma in each woman’s life, some of those traumas more damaging than others.

As each woman undertakes the obstacle courses, they must face their anguish. It’s part of the game, part of the journey, but it makes you wonder what exactly becomes of a person who can’t handle the pain that plagues them.

Reflect excels at delivering a game cast of women (including Grace Patterson and Jadelyn Breier) who play off each other with the authentic dynamic of friends. There is genuine affection, but also a level of cattiness that keeps the quintet from truly letting each other in. Perhaps if they were able to do so, those life traumas would not be so overwhelming.

The film’s only weak element is when Kippel cuts away from the women to the gameshow framing device. Reflect would have worked just as well as a psychedelic journey into shadow work without the added element of voyeurism.

However, Kippel wisely keeps most of our attention on Summer and her friends, revealing their baggage little by little. It’s an interesting look at how our past infects our present and influences our future. Is there a way to move forward when the past pervades our every being? Maybe, maybe not. Kippel offers no easy answers, and the film is better for it.

Winging It

Migration

by Rachel Willis

A family of mallard ducks decides to migrate to Jamaica, setting off a series of misadventures and kid-friendly comedy in the latest animated film from Illumination, Migration.

When exotic ducks land in same pond as our mallard family, son Dax (voiced by Caspar Jennings) becomes smitten with one of the flock, prompting his desire to head south for the winter. Mom Pam (Elizabeth Banks), is also intrigued by idea. Littlest duck, Gwen (Tresi Gazal), seems ready for anything, but Dad Mack (Kumail Nanjiani), it too fearful of the outside world to consider leaving their little pond.

The catalyst for adventure comes from Uncle Dan (Danny DeVito). He gives Mack the prod he needs for accepting Pam’s request to open his eyes to the world.

So little time is spent on Mack’s paranoia and fear that his change of heart doesn’t make much of an impact. Based on the title, we already know the family – with Uncle Dan along for the ride – is going to make the journey, so no surprise there. And you can expect hijinx along the way.

The humor–mainly predictable and heavy-handed–derives from the family’s reactions to the obstacles and characters they meet along the way. While this might entertain the youngest in the audience, it gets tedious for the rest of us.

Migration’s tender-hearted treatment of each member of our duck family is its selling point. Though Mack’s fears would keep him in his little window forever, Pam is willing to help him overcome his reticence and step out into the wider world. Uncle Dan’s sweet relationship with little Gwen makes him more than just comic relief.

The ancillary characters don’t all get the same heart. The imprisoned parrot Delroy (Keegan-MichaelKey) is a standout in a sea of mostly forgettable side players. His longing for his former home is palpable. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the film’s unnecessary villain. The grunting chef who cooks ducks and particularly dislikes Mack and Pam lacks the menace necessary to create a memorable bad guy.

Migration fits the bill for lighthearted fun. But its predictability and shallow characters limit its potential to become anyone’s newest holiday favorite.

Pitchforks Out

Hayseed

by Rachel Willis

An insurance investigator is pulled into a who-done-it murder mystery in writer/director Travis Burgess’s film, Hayseed.

Bored from the moment he enters the small town of Emmaus, Michigan, investigator Leo Hobbins (Bill Sage) becomes intrigued when Darlene (Ismenia Mendes) tells him the esteemed reverend’s death wasn’t an accident, nor was it suicide (Hobbins’s reason for investigating). It was murder.

From the get-go, we’re introduced to a colorful cast of characters, each with their own stories and ideas about what happened. It’s a small-town, so gossip runs rampant – some of it true, most of it false. Several characters feel like people you know. Others are awfully quirky, but it works for this comedic mystery.

Hobbins might draw comparison to some of the other big-screen detectives we’ve seen over the last several years, but Sage creates his own character – one who is charismatic in his own droll way. Though Darlene is a member of the community, her status is that of an outcast. Several question her relationship to the reverend and her influence on him. Together, our dynamic duo leads us deeper into the mystery surrounding the reverend’s untimely end.

There are several moments when you might feel like you know where the mystery is headed, but it doesn’t harm the film. Many pieces fall into place as we prod further alongside Hobbins. There aren’t any obvious red herrings, nor are any threads untied. This is a tidy package, one wrapped by a writer who knows how to draw you in and lets you attempt the solve the mystery.

While the conclusions might not be entirely obvious, there is enough on the table to leave you satisfied by what comes of the sleuthing.

With a larger cast, some characters are less well-developed than others, but no one feels underdeveloped. These are all people who have a place, and it’s easy to differentiate one from another – no small feat when working with so many characters. While our two leads are the focus of the show, there are others who stand-out, particularly Joyce Metts (Kathryn Morris) with her bitchy gossip and snide comments.

Overall, this is a film that works well. While it might be overlooked in comparison to other, recent murder mysteries, it’s not fair to draw too many comparisons. This is a movie that deserves its own consideration, and you’ll have fun if you let yourself be draw into the mystery.

Electric Ladyland

Love Virtually

by Rachel Willis

With Love Virtually, director L. E. Staiman explores what it means to be in a relationship in a virtual world.

Staiman co-stars as Kalvin. Spurned in love at a young age, Kalvin turned himself into a VR sensation as a form of revenge.

Sharing the screen with Kalvin are down-and-outs Roddy (Peter Gilroy), Barry (Ryan O’Flanagan), and La Monte (Vince Washington). Barry’s wife is in love with a chat bot; La Monte is responsible for spreading a virus around the world; and Roddy has lost his one true love to his video game obsession.

The women in their lives are equally pitiful, but each has been affected in real life by their online personas (or the personas of their partners).

A significant portion of the film is set in the virtual world, which is populated by avatars with a distinctly 90s feel. Characters dress up to slip into their VR headsets to hit the hottest clubs. It’s not clear why the characters need to dress their physical bodies for VR clubs since the beauty of an avatar is that it can be whoever you’re not. It’s simply one of many aspects that don’t quite make sense.

There are several side plots that fit the film in a strange yet satisfying way. What you think is a rom com turns into an action espionage video game movie (of sorts). It takes the film in an unexpected direction that makes it different from what you’ve seen before. And while most of the humor feels forced, there are a few scenes that elicit genuine laughs.

Unfortunately, the overall affect is that, aside from Roddy, none of the characters come to life (as real people or as avatars). Their wants and needs are shallow, which isn’t entirely out of place in a film where people spend more time with each other online than they do in real life.

For a film that relies heavily on its animated scenes, the animation is outdated – both as a style and as a representation of what virtual reality is. Avatars look not too far removed from Lara Croft in the original Tomb Raider video game. We’ve come a long way from 1996.

If you’re in the mood for something different, Love Virtually might satisfy that craving, but not for very long.

Cryptids

by Rachel Willis

In the anthology horror film Cryptids, horror veteran Joe Bob Briggs plays radio show host Major Harlan Dean. Dean hosts the call-in show, The Truth Serum. With that kind of name, you might suspect a show dedicated to all manner of conspiracy-style neuroticism. However, in the episode we’re privy to, Dean’s focus is cryptozoology – he wants callers to recount their encounters with cryptid creatures. 

By setting up the framing story this way, each call into the radio show becomes its own entry. As with any anthology horror, some of the shorts are better than others. In this case, all deal with creepy creatures – some familiar beasties, like chupacabras, and others that are unique to this movie. 

The first segment is a bit of a stretch for its inclusion in a film about cryptids since the creatures in question are technically human. However, they’re creepy and unnerving enough that you probably won’t mind their presence. The first short is also a nice warm up for what’s to come. It’s not the best of the bunch, but it’s fun and just a little creepy.

Since each mini movie has only so much time to work with, every short opens with a call into Dean’s show before jumping right to the heart of the matter – the monsters.

The movie’s best aspect is the creature effects. Each creature has its own unnerving features, and each is unique, though some resemble monsters you may have seen before. Little creatures that hatch from a giant egg were my personal favorite beasties as they were both creepy and adorable (something only a mother could love?).

There is always a certain amount of enjoyment that comes with anthology horror since you’re not always sure what will come next. While in this case, it’s clear to be some kind of creature, what they are and what they do is where the fun comes in. Some of the creature antics are gruesome, leaving no shortage of gore and carnage in many of the segments. While the writing can sometimes leave a little to be desired, the film’s overall effect is entertaining. If you like creature features, each of Cryptids little creature slices is enjoyably nasty.

Proceed with Caution

Waiting for the Light to Change

by Rachel Willis

The quarter-life crisis. From the hindsight of middle-age, it seems an enviable position to be in. Yet, the memory is fresh enough to recognize the anxiety, loneliness, and a certain longing for direction. Director Linh Tran captures the feeling with heartfelt tenderness in her film Waiting for the Light to Change.

Falling between the ages of 23 and 25, several friends, including Amy (Jin Park) and Kim (Joyce Ha), have gathered at a beach house. Kim has a boyfriend, a career, and enough money to allow Amy to join the group. Amy, on the other hand, is single and back in school because she couldn’t find a job.

Kim’s cousin Lin (Qun Chi) has recently broken up with a beloved boyfriend because the distance between the United States and China was too great.

Tran mines the tumultuous years after college to examine characters on the verge of their adult lives. Amy’s loneliness pushes her to do things she might not otherwise do. The aimlessness Jay (Sam Straley) feels leads him to make decisions he later regrets.

And though they have the connection of a lengthy friendship, Amy and Kim’s conversations are often fraught with tension. The early- to-mid 20s is a period when many start to realize a friendship made in youth may be toxic.

The film loses its momentum as it moves toward its climax. The group’s apathy starts to manifest in more solid ways, which detracts from the affecting dialogue. As images take the place of realistic and uncomfortable moments between characters, the movie flounders.

A few moments try too hard for profundity and instead stumble over stereotypical conversation. It’s disappointing that these unnatural moments shoulder their way into a film more notable for its naturalism.

However, Waiting for the Light to Change rights itself as it progresses. As relationships rupture, we’re drawn into the turmoil that often plagues adolescents as they struggle to find their way into adulthood.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Eismayer

by Rachel Willis

Based on a true story, writer/director David Wagner’s Eismayer explores themes of repression and masculinity.

Our introduction to Sergeant Major Eismayer (Gerhard Liebmann), notorious hardass, is a conversation in the bathroom between several Austrian soldiers giving newest recruit Falak (Luka Dimic) a lesson in the man’s terrorizing behavior.

When we meet the Sergeant Major himself, he oversees a locker inspection and harasses Falak. He is strict and cruel and the talk from the previous scene has not been exaggerated.

At home, he is affectionate with his son, but there is tension between him and his wife. As the film unfolds, a fight between Falak and another soldier reveals that Falak is gay. This puts new pressure on Falak, as well as Eismayer.

Though Eismayer’s coldness and cruelty could be written off as a reaction to his self-repression, the film doesn’t rest on such a simple explanation. His attitude isn’t just about his homosexuality, but his ideas about what it means to be both a man and a soldier.

Liebmann excels. He brings multiple facets to what could be a simplistic or stereotypical portrayal. Dimic initially has less to work with. However, as the film unfolds, the two characters begin to dance around the complexity of their situation.

More of the film’s underlying tensions would come across with a robust knowledge of Austria’s history and culture, including the implications of Falak’s Yugoslavian background. But there’s no missing the discrimination he faces.

Even as Austria and the army move forward, there are some that would hold both back. Eismayer, himself, resists change, even as he’s pushed toward accepting himself for who he is. That men and women still fear repercussions for embracing who they are is both heartbreaking and infuriating. It’s why stories like Eismayer’s still need to be told.

Family Planning

Plan C

by Rachel Willis

Even before the fall of Roe v. Wade, abortion access was next to impossible for many across the United States, particularly for those in red states where legislatures worked hard to limit access as much as possible.

That’s where Plan C comes in – co-founded by Elisa Wells and Francine Coeytaux, Plan C attempts to get women information and access to abortion pills – in any way possible. Tracy Droz Tragos’s documentary, Plan C, focuses on the fight to get information and access to those who need it most.

The documentary begins during the height of COVID. Access to the ingredients needed to make the pills (which come mainly from India and China) was hard to come by, so the founders of Plan C took it upon themselves to encourage medical professionals to prescribe abortion pills for those in need.

However, Plan C doesn’t just examine the efforts of Plan C to get Mifepristone & Misoprostol into women’s hands. The documentary also spends time examining the hypocrisy of the “pro-life” movement, from the support of family planning clinics in neighborhoods of color by politicians on the right, to the lack of outcry in Flint over lead in the water (lead causes miscarriages), to the reality for Black women in Mississippi who are 118 times more likely to die from a pregnancy than an abortion. The question raised is “whose life are you saving?”

Texas is a major here, as its law, passed before the fall of Roe v. Wade, was one of the harshest in the country (Ohio’s own is currently on hold pending appeals and/or the passage of Issue 1 in November). Plan C’s plan of action to tackle the law is to keep getting information into women’s hands.

There is a sense of fear throughout the documentary, even as the women of Plan C continue their fight. There are threats of violence, even death, to those who provide abortions – and not just abortions, but information on how to obtain them. Again, it begs the question, whose life matters?

Plan C acknowledges that the work has gotten harder with the revocation of Roe v. Wade, but the important takeaway is that there are many who won’t stop fighting for reproductive rights. For these women, it’s about standing up to bullies. Whether that bully is a legislature, protestors, or a group of men with guns, these women will continue the fight to ensure safe, legal abortions.