Tag Archives: Rachel Willis

Just the Three of Us

All Eyes Off Me

by Rachel Willis

Sex can be one of the most (if not the most) intimate experiences in human existence. However, there are things that interfere to reduce or eliminate the intimacy of sexual relations. This is examined in rich detail by writer/director Hadas Ben Aroya in the new film, All Eyes Off Me.

The film is told in three vignettes, and we start the film following Danny (Hadar Katz). She’s at a party searching for Max (Leib Levin). She’s pregnant and wants him to know. Events interfere with her goal, offering our first look at how an intimate experience can be monumental to one person and insignificant to another.

While the first vignette is the shortest, it opens the door to further exploration as we follow Max into the second. He’s starting a new relationship with Avishag (Elisheva Weil), a woman with whom he not only shares physical intimacy, but emotional intimacy as well, trusting her in a way he’s never trusted anyone. She tries to extend this trust during an intimate moment, delivering an uncomfortable scene full of intimacy but no trust.

This is an especially relatable instance that becomes poignant for a young couple wrapped up in love and lust. Where does one end and the other begin? It raises questions regarding those moments in which lust is confused with love and unveils the outcome when two people sharing these personal moments aren’t necessarily on the same page emotionally.

Avishag carries us into the third vignette. This is the one that brings a certain maturity to the nature of sexual relationships. Sexual attraction doesn’t always result in sex, but that doesn’t lessen the intimacy or the connection between two people.

While the film puts sex at the forefront of these connections, Aroya highlights that this isn’t the only form of intimacy. There’s trust and emotional connection. Physical attraction comes in many forms, often springing from an emotional exploration.

Weil is the most prominent performer in these vignettes; she’s a great focal point, as Avishag is our most relatable character. Aroya has crafted a fantastic, naturalistic film that will make you consider your own relationships. Films that keep you thinking are often the films that stay with you. This is one of those films.

My Father’s House

LandLocked

by Rachel Willis

Writer/director Paul Owens delivers a meditation on past and present with his ambitious, slow-burn debut, LandLocked.

Blending fiction and reality, Owens’s film is a combination of his own family’s home movies and performances of himself, his brothers, and his father portraying fictional versions of themselves. It’s an intriguing set-up, and unlike other family affairs on camera, the Owens family has its share of talent.

Mason (Mason Owens) is the film’s primary focus. Upon returning to his childhood home after the death of his father, he discovers a camcorder that opens a window to the past. In addition, Mason discovers scores of VHS tapes containing all the moments his father chose to record. Watching these videos, as they comprise much of the film’s short runtime, is about as interesting as watching home movies of a family you don’t know. That is to say, not very.

Sure, the family seems happy. There are several scenes that move Mason to laughter. Yet, there is no solid foundation, no reason for the audience to feel connected to the Owens family. Without this connection, anytime a new home movie appears on screen, you can’t help but wish to move forward to the next scene.

LandLocked doesn’t pick up steam until we near its end. When Mason’s grasp on reality starts to blur, as he delves further into his memories, the audience is treated to imagery that provokes confusion as well as suspense. This is when the film truly excels at blurring the line between past and present – when curiosity becomes obsession.

The film is technically competent, and Owens does a great job crafting his low-budget family affair. Mason manages to provide some solid moments of intrigue and interest with minimal dialogue. This is one of the more unique takes on the found-footage genre, so it’s unfortunate the story doesn’t quite carry the weight necessary to create a truly interesting meditation on memory.

The choice to cast his family as his on-screen talent brings naturalism to Owens’s film, though some family members have more talent than others. Choosing Mason to carry the film was a solid decision.  Paul Owens proves he has talent as a director, though his writing chops need a little more polish. However, there’s enough quality material on display in LandLocked that it’ll be worth seeing what Owens comes up with next.

Please Stand Up

I Am DB Cooper

by Rachel Willis

Writer/director T.J. Regan’s part-documentary, part-scripted drama examines the account of a man who claims to be infamous plane hijacker D.B. Cooper. Co-written with Sharmila Sahni, I Am DB Cooper, is another entry into the mystery surrounding the November 24, 1971 hijacking of Flight 305.

The film introduces Rodney Bonnifield, a career criminal who fills in details of the hijacking that supposedly only the perpetrator would know. Outfitted with a parachute, and carrying $200,000 dollars of ransom money, Cooper jumped into the night.

There is speculation that Cooper didn’t survive the jump. But there are those who don’t accept this, and Bonnifield makes the case that he is Cooper.

Enhancing the story with a scripted drama, Regan treats the audience to a visual retelling rather than limiting the story to interviews. While the film is composed primarily of documentary footage, the interspersed drama adds tension.

Ryan Cory plays Cooper of the 1970s. His charismatic and slightly sinister portrayal lends the film needed gravitas.

The parts of the film that don’t quite work are the actor-portrayed interviews with Bonnifield’s friends and family. It’s unclear if these are the words of real people or if they’re scripted pieces of Bonnifield’s story. This lack of clarity leads to questions about authenticity.

The dramatized moments add humor to a situation that’s not really funny at all. This is clearly the intention, helping to lighten the overall mood.

News footage from the time of the hijacking, including when a young boy uncovered $5,800 dollars of the stolen $200,000, adds depth to a history that contemporary viewers might not know.

However, sections of Regan’s film don’t quite fit with the scripted drama. The film takes Bonnefield beyond the hijacking into a relationship with singer Rita Coolidge (played here by Rainee Blake). If this addition is meant to cast doubt on Bonnifield’s story it isn’t really necessary. There are other reasons to wonder if the story is true. Talking with the actual singer/songwriter, though, would have been a fascinating and telling choice.

But the crux of Bonnifield’s story is that he claims he knows where the money is buried. Raising new questions and bringing a quaintness to the story of DB Cooper, Regan’s docudrama adds a new side to the original question: Who is DB Cooper?

Home for the Holidays

My Apocalyptic Thanksgiving

by Rachel Willis

With My Apocalyptic Thanksgiving, writer Richard Soriano and director Charles B. Unger have crafted a touching and unique holiday film.

When Doris, the matriarch of a group home serving adults with special needs, unexpectedly dies, it leaves Marcus (Joshua Warren Bush) awash in loneliness and obsessed with a TV show called Apocalyptic Zombies. Come Thanksgiving, Marcus decides he wants to spend time with his long-absent mother.

A colorful cast of characters populates this film. There is Frank (Walker Haynes), who’s trying to fill the void Doris left behind in the group home, and the Park family. It is friction between young Kim Park (Chris Wu) and his parents that leaves a hole Marcus seems to fill.

Luis (Paul Tully) and Paco (David Jenson Perez) are local thugs who see Marcus’s size as a benefit to their operation. Social worker Nicole (Ciera Foster) does her best to help Marcus find his mother, despite Frank’s protestations.

One of the themes of the film is the constant conflict that affects the lives of many adults with special needs. It is clear Marcus cannot consistently take care of himself, but he is independent enough to resent the intrusion of those in charge of his care. He is allowed some freedoms: a job at the local laundromat, the ability to visit with friends. But he is still subjected to a curfew, to the demands to take his medication, even when he expresses his right to refuse.

Bush does a stunning job of encompassing the very real struggles that affect many adults with special needs. Marcus understands that he is frequently at the mercy of someone else’s wishes, but his desperation for family makes him easy to manipulate. Those with good hearts sometimes use this naivety to their advantage. Others with more devious intentions know exactly how to twist the knife in Marcus’s aching heart.

The film’s most disappointing element is the constant return to the fictional zombie show. Though it is an important part of Marcus’s life, the show and its actors never feel truly integrated into the film. This is especially true as we get to know our “real-world” characters. The forced humor of the show draws our attention away from the more interesting elements.

However, this is the only thorn in an otherwise lovely film. The writing is sensitive, and the actor portrayals are poignant. This is a delightful, sometimes devastating, portrait of what it means to be a family.

Seethers

Sirens

by Rachel Willis

It seems like it would be tough to be an all-female thrash metal band. It looks even tougher if you’re also in Lebanon. Director Rita Baghdadi allows us the opportunity to follow just such a band in her latest documentary, Sirens.

The band is Slave to Sirens, and it boasts a five-woman line-up with an amazing collection of musicians. It’s a shame there are so few opportunities during the documentary to hear them play.

The lack of music is due in part to the pandemic, but another issue is simply the sparsity of opportunities. When one show is booked, the band is called a few days later by the booking agent telling them the show has been canceled. The venue is not allowed to book a metal band.

The wider Lebanese society frowns upon metal music, likening it to Satanism (doesn’t that sound familiar?). The women refuse to give up, but it’s a tough world in which to have a successful metal band.

One of the few chances we have to see Slave to Sirens play is at the Glastonbury Festival in England. It’s a great performance; lead singer Maya has a growl that resonates and lead guitarist, Shery, works magic. It’s a shame that there are only a dozen people in the audience who see them perform.

As the documentary unwinds, two members start to stand apart from the rest: Shery and rhythm guitarist, Lilas. Both feel at odds with the world around them and seek music as a way to express their anger and frustration.

What Baghdadi gives us is more than a simple band documentary. Behind every moment, every note, every song, is a scene of raging turmoil within the borders of Lebanon. This chaos is reflected within the band and the interactions of its members. Scenes of tension between Shery and Lilas reflect the greater tension around them. The two women nearly come to blows during an argument. When a building blows up several scenes later, it feels like a reminder that what we do to each on a small scale is too often reflected back on a larger one.

If you’re not familiar with current events in Lebanon, it doesn’t detract from the overall experience. This is the kind of documentary that reminds us of the power music has to give voice to those who can’t always speak.

Work Trip

Presence

by Rachel Willis

Writer/director Christian Schultz, along with co-writer Peter Ambrosio, attempts to weave together a story of a woman haunted by darkness in his film, Presence.

The movie opens with Jen (Jenna Lyng Adams) pacing in her bedroom on a dark and stormy night. We see from her computer messages she’s been trying to contact someone named Sam (Alexandria DeBerry) for three weeks. A quick flashback lets us know Sam is a friend from New York who is essential in Jen’s life.

Sam’s disappearance weighs heavily on Jen, and it’s in this desperation for information that we get our first inklings of suspense. However, the strangeness of the film’s opening gives way to something more mundane. Despite its initial creepiness, most of the film offers a mishmash of ineffective hallucinatory moments and scenes of dull dinner table conversation.

Sam reappears to tell Jen she has found them a business partner, David (Dave Davis), to fund their venture. It’s not entirely clear what Jen and Sam do, but it seems that they create and design… zippers. Sam wants Jen to meet David, and the opportunity for this comes on board David’s yacht. Along with a small crew, the characters set sail for David’s factory in Puerto Rico where they will sign a business deal.

There is a lot left unsaid, but not in the subtle way that hints at something sinister. Instead, it suggests the writers had only a basic idea of how to get these three people in a secluded location and then ran with it. That it leaves us to get lost in a sea of questions that don’t really matter to the overall plot but are distracting nonetheless.

This lack of satisfactory backstory is telling for the movie overall. A lot of little pieces of information never connect. Some of it is unimportant, while other bits should have been expanded upon. If some of the unnecessary issues had been dumped, it would have left room for deeper exploration of what exactly is haunting Jen. The writers don’t seem to understand that general confusion does not equal tension.  

The result is that nothing much happens and there is no clarity on what exactly is going on. We end up with bones instead of flesh, and it leads to disappointment.

Dance till You’re Dead

Meet Me in the Bathroom

by Rachel Willis

Based on the book by Lizzy Goodman, Meet Me in the Bathroom finds documentarians Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace exploring the New York City rock scene of the early 2000s.

Opening in 1999, the film treats us to a little history of the popular music scene of the time. Artists like The Offspring, Blink 182 and Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit dominated the radio and airwaves (mostly courtesy of MTV).

Our introduction to a new wave of rock in New York begins with the duo that made up The Moldy Peaches. We’re treated to several home movie moments of the two getting acquainted, not only with their new city (many of these bands are transplants to NYC) but also with the young men who would make up the band The Strokes. 

The biggest benefit of adapting a book about a music scene is the access to footage from some of the early concerts. Watching bands like The Strokes, Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs play to small crowds is one of those things that cannot be replicated in book form.

The film also adapts the book’s narrative style – overlaying the footage and images with soundbites from several of the people who were part of the scene. You’ll find no talking heads here – the best part of the documentary is getting to watch the timeline unfold.

The trick of adapting such an expansive book is knowing where to concentrate your focus. The majority of the film focuses on three bands – The Strokes, Interpol and James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem). And though the filmmakers reduce the number of bands covered compared to the book, there are still too many others brought into play.

The Moldy Peaches are our introduction, but they drop out as the film passes through 2001. TV on the Radio comes into play briefly, and one of the scene’s most interesting bands, The Liars, gets even less attention. Several other mentions are made, but each is so quick as to be forgettable.

Because of this shifting focus as we weave from The Strokes to Interpol to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and beyond, things get messy. It’s impossible to keep track of every band and person introduced.

If the filmmakers had whittled down the book’s focus just a bit more, they could have delivered a more interesting documentary.

Insidious

Soft & Quiet

by Rachel Willis

The idea that the kindergarten teacher at your child’s school might be a member of an Aryan group is terrifying enough, but writer/director Beth de Araújo takes that idea even further in her first full-length feature, Soft & Quiet.

The kindergarten teacher, Emily (Stefanie Estes), is our focus as we watch her leave school one afternoon to attend a meeting of like-minded women. Right from the beginning, it’s clear Stefanie is unlikeable. She coerces a young boy into confronting a janitor over mopping the floor, painting it to the child’s mom as teaching him to be empowered.

From this uncomfortable moment, the movie takes us further into discomfort as we follow Emily in real time as her evening progresses. Giving away anything more would remove the tension that is slowly built as the movie moves from unsettling to disturbing to terrifying.

Telling a story in real time takes a truly talented editor, and Lindsay Armstrong nails it. Her cut is seamless, and it helps deepen the tension. The editing work keeps you in the moment, showing how quickly mob mentality can take over – especially if the group in question feels threatened (even when the threat actually comes from the group in question).

Most of the time, the cinematography complements the writing and editing. But on occasion, it feels like we’re watching a found footage film, which detracts slightly from the tension. While there are many moments filmed to unsettle, at other times it removes us from the moment. However, these minor faults are easily overlooked.

The acting throughout is perfect. Every woman feels like someone you might know. From the pregnant Stormfront member to the woman living paycheck-to-paycheck, each actor brings a realism that lends to the dread we feel as we follow the group.

Though we follow Emily, it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for her. She is at times coerced into action and other times the leader of the pack. What she chooses to do is horrifying, and her responses to the events don’t evoke understanding.

There are several themes running in the film, but all of them work together to paint a picture that isn’t hard to envision.   It’s easy to imagine women like these among us. That’s the scariest part of all.

Hep Cats & Cool Kitties

Please Baby Please

by Rachel Willis

A great cast, phenomenal sets, tempestuous music, and spot-on costuming work together to bring life to director/co-writer Amanda Kramer’s film, Please Baby Please.

Together with co-writer Noel David Taylor, Kramer has the elements to craft a successful take on gender identity, sexual politics, and the fluidity of sexuality and gender expression.

But for all these strengths, it doesn’t quite work.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its moments. Andrea Riseborough, who plays Suze, is a powerhouse on screen. Her effortless portrayal of a stifled 1950s wife is a masterful balance between feminine sexuality and masculine anger. It’s her performance that really blurs the line on stereotypical gender roles.

Harry Melling (Dudley from the Harry Potter series) plays the less overt, meeker of the husband/wife duo, Arthur and Suze. He rails against the stereotype that to be a man he must have control – over his wife and the less tangible things that supposedly make a man a man.

When the couple runs across the gang known as the Young Gents, we start to see the dynamics of gender and sexuality and their precarious, yet significant, role in society.

While the Young Gents earn their place in the film, there are simply too many characters here. Aside from a couple, most don’t have much of a role to play. They appear on screen to represent the oppressive, toxic masculinity that pervades our culture, less character than caricature.

The film’s choreography is another element that doesn’t always work. A scene involving a split screen divides focus, and it’s hard to successfully take in both performances. Do you watch Arthur or Suze? Whose performance in this moment is more important to the film’s overall point?

There is a lot that can be said about our society’s views on gender and sexuality. Much can also be said about what has and hasn’t changed since the 1950s. Please Baby Please adds its messy but stylish take to the conversation.

In the Sky with Diamonds

Acid Test

by Rachel WIllis

Though at the time I was a bit younger than Acid Test’s main character, Jenny (Juliana Destefano), I still remember 1992 and 1993 quite well. So, it’s with some authority that I can attest that writer/director Jennifer Waldo’s coming-of-age film feels straight out of the early 90s. I even had the same haircut.

As Jenny turns 18, on the eve of the Clinton/Bush/Perot presidential election, she begins to question her goals and direction in life. Everything has been ironed out for her by her domineering father (Brian Thornton) and acquiescent mother (Mia Ruiz). The film begins with her college interview at Harvard, an ambition she’s carried for many years.

But after a few Riot Grrrl concerts that she attends with best friend Drea (Mai Le), Jenny starts to wonder: who exactly is in charge of her future? Is the dream of Harvard hers, or her father’s?

It’s not uncommon for adolescents to start seeing their parents with new eyes as they grow older. Jenny especially views her father in a harsher light, questioning his role in the family’s life. Were the choices her mother made of her own volition or because that’s what was chosen for her?

Destefano plays the rebellious teenager well. She convincingly skirts the line between obedient, loving daughter and a young woman trying to figure out her path in life. As her parents, Thornton and Ruiz play well against her.

Adolescence is often a time when parents and children start to clash, and Waldo navigates these waters with ease. This is a family with love for each other, but once you start to see your parents for who they really are, it’s impossible to go back.

As Jenny spins farther out of her parents’ orbit, she experiences many of the things that other young people do – falling in love (or possibly just lust), experimenting with drugs, choosing a path forward from childhood to adulthood. A particularly memorable scene lets us know that along with her father’s forceful nature, Mom isn’t shy about laying on the guilt.

It’s a tough situation for any teenager, but Jenny does it with insight and a great soundtrack backing her up. Though she doesn’t have all the answers, what she does have is knowledge. Her future is her own – and we get to watch her wake up.