So, whether it’s called PORTAL or whether it’s called DOORS; either way this is a pretty interesting film even if it doesn’t entirely work. I’ve seen it referred to as an anthology film but, for me, it’s a bit cleverer than that. It may have the appearance of being three (or maybe four) separate short films that relate to a common idea but, in fact, it’s telling a single story from three (or four) different points of view and directed by three different directors – Samen Kesh, Jeff Deson and Dugan O’Neal under the overall creative direction of Kesh (they also all do a bit of acting in the film, but let’s not go there) . The story it tells is about what happens when millions of (we assume) alien portals or doors appear all over the world exuding an almost irresistible attraction to we humans pulling us closer and closer until it seems about half the population of Earth is drawn into them and no-one seems to know why or what happens to people on the other side.
We start with a segment called Lockdown in which we meet a bunch of high school teenagers and Mr Johnson (Christopher Black) their disengaged teacher in a scene that feels somewhat reminiscent of The Breakfast Club. There’s something in the air amongst these teenagers, especially with Ash (Kathy Khanh) who spends her essay writing time sketching a cartoon of Liz (Julianne Collins) along with some intervention from Jake (Aric Floyd) the boy up the back who can’t resist passing notes. These are good characters even if what they’re doing is pretty run-of-the-mill. At least it is until the Mr Johnson gets a call and rushes from the room and the sirens start blaring as the school is plunged into lockdown. But why? I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this is the moment when the alien doors start to appear although we only get a sense of it from the scraps of information the kids start to piece together and the roar of fighter jets overhead. (at least, we assume they’re fighter jets) Of course, they eventually encounter one of the doors – an oddly furry looking portal that seems alive and speaks to them in ambiguous sounds translated by title cards. The visual design and animation of the doors themselves is very effective even if the ‘subtitling’ cards are an intrusion.
Then we jump, in both time and place. In echoes of Marvel’s Endgame, we learn that a big chunk of the population has gone missing, courtesy of the irresistible force of the doors. In an effort to better understand these ‘visitors’ a group of young adventurers known as Knockers (which is the title of the second segment) are decked out in space suits and sent into the portals to try to find out what the hell’s going on. We follow Vince (Josh Peck) and Becky (Lina Esco) into the labyrinthine world beyond the furry entrance which is both dreamlike and nightmarish at the same time, clearly referencing things familiar to both of them but messing with their perception of environments they think they know. It’s a clever sequence that has echoes of Mark Z Danielewski’s mind bending book House of Leaves (get a copy and ‘read’ it if you haven’t already) and, once again, is quite oblique in what it communicates to us about the motivation behind the appearance of these doors.
Then, in Lamaj, we take another jump, this time into the woods where hermit-like scientist Jamal (Kyp Malone) is making progress in his efforts to communicate with the doors until good old fashioned human stupidity intrudes on his scientific retreat. The fact that the title of this segment if Jamal’s name in reverse feels like a clue, but it never really pays off.
And finally, as I’ve already suggested, there’s a kind of fourth segment that’s referred to as the Interstitials (I had to look that up – it’s the web-based advertisements that appear before, during or after the narrative content). These appear throughout the movie but this final one is more substantial and focused around Alan (Darius Levanté) who is trying to make sense (as is the audience) of the fragmented story we’ve been watching.
As much as I like this narrative structure, I do find, at the same time, that it can work against the film in the sense that any investment we make in the characters results in unrequited storytelling. In the case of the teenagers in Lockdown, for instance, I really wanted to know the outcome of their story but, like the other the segments, it sacrifices resolution to a higher level story arc and as much as I was sure those characters would return for some denouement, my prediction proved sadly wrong. I guess it’s the risk in this kind of storytelling. On the one hand it presents us with a puzzle that we can enjoy trying to solve whilst on the other hand it keeps making narrative promises that it never intended to keep.
Having said all that, it’s a really well-made, low budget film. The performances are strong and the writers and actors often make interesting choices in how they navigate what could easily be little more than derivative work. The visual effects work well (even if the title cards are a bit annoying) and John Beltrán ‘s music provides just the right atmosphere. In the end, it makes the best of its opportunities to pose some provocative philosophical and intellectual questions about our existence and the nature of our evolution. It never reaches the profound levels of a film like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in how it tackles these big questions of life the universe and everything, but it does make a good fist of it and succeeds in leaving us with some questions that are well worth pondering.
Signature Entertainment and Defiant Screen Entertainment present Portal on Digital Platforms & DVD 2nd June
This film comes to our screens at a high point in political and social commentary that demands change in the way we live, to protect not only our environment but our future generations. MINAMATA shows this story through the eyes of a photographer who not only brought this story to the world but also the pacific theatre of World War II. Levitas doesn’t emphasize his personal battles, but gently reminds you throughout, of what Eugene has seen and how it has shaped him as a photographer.
Depp plays Eugene as an artistic, loner, with a drinking problem. At times I felt Jack Sparrow coming through in his drunken moments and I expected to not like his character from the beginning scenes with Robert Hayes (Nighy). But the balance Depp portrayed his frustration juxtaposed his empathy made him relatable and engaging to watch. His love/hate relationship with photography made his story more fulfilling as the push and pull of the drama gave well-paced tension and relief.
This is emphasized by the relationship between Ailene and Eugene. She could make him do anything with a steely look and brings some of the funnier light-hearted scenes that bring their relationship closer. Minami and Depp had great chemistry, like the relationship that builds between Eugene and the Japanese village was similarly the heart of the film.
While the first half of the film felt like a slow burn, to build tension and create the mood of the small town, the second half really makes this film stand out. As the momentum picked up, it was scenes that lingered that were the most powerful. Such as the scene where the famous photograph ‘Tomoko in Her Bath’ (1971) was taken. They took their time and respected the process that Eugene, at this point bandaged and beaten, went through to respectfully take the most important image in the editorial. The camera had a presence and was one of the best scenes in the film.
The colours used built an absorbing mood. Blue, green and red light throughout, either artificial or natural was an interesting choice for a photographer who only shot with black and white film. The warmth in the village and Eugene’s apartment juxtaposed the industrial coldness of the Chisso manufacturing plant and Life magazine office building foregrounded the story.
Although I felt the first half of the film could have been tightened, Levitas has produced a beautiful and respectful film that comes at a poignant time in the present discourse. The true story holds your attention but following a photographer that played a role in showing this tragedy to the world was a visually rewarding endeavour for the viewer.
The fascination of this film and the story it tells, is the common theme of dedication to preservation. Through the museums research and extensive restorations; to Van Gogh’s dedication to preserving a technique and emotion through the colour of the sunflowers. This leads us through the life and mind of Van Gogh and his sunflower collection in what was, a very short period of time in his 10 years of being an artist.
SUNFLOWERS does not go in depth into the most famous and well-known aspects of Van Gogh, such as the mutilation of his ear and time in an asylum leading up to his death in 1890. It follows the path of his passion for colour, recreation, impressionism and realism in his artist’s journey. Beginning in 1886 his work began to incorporate more colour from his previous portraits, which started when he used flowers as his subject. As he says in a letter, he “lacked money for models” and was “struggling for life and progress in life”, comparing himself to other painters.
The sunflowers became an outlet for Van Gogh as much as a way of studying composition and colour. What is talked about within this film was the idea that Van Gogh wanted to continually adapt and learn, through his 11 paintings of sunflowers he was able to apply ideas he had learnt from other artists into his work.
We see these paintings which are now scattered around the world from London and Munich to Japan and Philadelphia. Still, after all this time, a fascination to art lovers. The interviews with the specialists give an insight into other artists of the time as well as the subject of flowers, specifically sunflowers. Giving context to Van Gogh’s art in the late 1800’s.
This film being released during the northern hemisphere's summer is appropriate for the amazing scenery bathed in light which mimics the brightness of sunflowers and Van Gogh’s interpretation of them. The relaxing feeling portrayed through this film transports you to the rural scenery of the south of France. Relaxing and visually stunning.
While the paint has dulled the intensity of the colours over time, the observations made through this film show Van Gogh’s love for colour and inspiration he found all around him in spite of his mental health issues during this time. SUNFLOWERS can be beautifully wrapped up in one comment by Van Gogh. In a letter to his brother Theo, he says about his friend and artist Paul Gauguin; “Gauguin… (had) seen a painting by Claude Monet of sunflowers… very fine. But he likes mine better.”
SUNFLOWERS IS SCREENING IN SELECT CINEMAS FROM MAY 20.
While I have a personal policy not to spoil entire plots, I should warn any potential viewers that the above twist isn’t the last sudden change in direction that HAPPILY makes. To put it simply, this story is a mess - and not the kind that you can’t bring yourself to look away from. None of its turns are foreshadowed, hardly any are explained, and none are ultimately satisfying. For instance, Root’s character claims that Tom and Janet are missing the ability to feel diminishing returns, which explains their long-lasting contentment. Even if the viewer takes this at face value, there’s no elaboration as to how this happened or how this mysterious figure would know, nor development of the idea as a commentary on modern romance (‘getting along with your partner is so rare that people think it’s weird!’). On my kindest day I’d assume Grabinski was going for the latter, but I’m already grasping at straws trying to make sense of it.
This story problem is exacerbated by Grabinski’s seeming uncertainty over what the film’s tone should be. Again, while it verges on the absurd, there is nothing on screen to suggest that HAPPILY is intended to be black comedy or satire. The characters sometimes trade quips to show their longstanding rapport, but they’re screenwriting shorthand, not the kind of thing viewers might actually laugh at or remember. Moreover, it’s so unclear what the stakes are that there’s hardly any tension left in the film by the time Tom and Janet arrive at the couples’ retreat, which happens within the first half an hour. From this point, any scene of them worrying that someone might find out about the stranger, or attempting to gain information, is shot coldly and lifelessly; if a thriller is a taut tightrope, this is a sagging telephone wire on a hot day.
It also doesn’t help that this is the flattest I’ve ever seen McHale, who appears to simply be reciting lines for much of the second and third acts. I suspect this comes down to how muddled Tom’s arc becomes as the viewer learns more about his past, and Grabinski not providing sufficient guidance for McHale to make sense of it and imbue his scenes with a coherent motivation. By contrast, Bishé at least delivers a more expressive performance that wouldn’t be out of place in a traditional thriller or horror film, though one scene of her crying veers into melodrama at exactly the wrong moment.
Once the couples’ retreat begins HAPPILY reveals a surprisingly impressive supporting cast, who will be particularly recognisable for avid TV viewers. However, this is largely wasted, with only Natalie Vea and Paul Scheer being given much to do, likely since their characters are the first to express annoyance with Tom and Janet’s constant PDA. Scheer is fun to watch as the snarky and successful Val, quickly establishing himself as the de facto group leader. Meanwhile, Vea adds a matter-of-fact quality to Karen’s shit-stirring that prevents her from being annoying, coming across more as someone making her own fun. The other notable supporting character is Charlene Yi as Gretel, who has hardly any lines yet delivers them so clunkily that I can’t imagine why those were the takes Grabinski left in the film. Naturally, Gretel is central to another bizarre plot twist, but Yi’s line readings made it hard for me to invest in what felt intended to be a serious moment.
Apart from the few moments where the cast manages to rise above the material, it’s hard to find anything to like about HAPPILY. There are plenty of more competently made (or endearingly schlocky) thrillers that I would recommend ahead of it, while its inability to even find a consistent tone makes it an unlikely candidate for a midnight screening or cult following. I, for one, will happily never watch it again .
Signature Entertainment and Defiant Screen Entertainment present Happily on Digital Platforms & DVD 2nd June
Objectophilia isn’t a topic that’s often explored in cinema. The only other pertinent example I can think of is Craig Gillespie’s 2007 feature Lars and the Real Girl. In a similar manner an outsider finds love with a non-human character, in this case a sex doll. Like Lars, Jeanne is an outsider and as the script seems to imply probably on the autism spectrum. Jeanne’s love however isn’t even a stand-in for human interaction. She and Jumbo communicate through movement and lights, but it’s hard to know how much of this is Jeanne’s fantasy life and what is real.
When Jeanne confesses she has met someone to her mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot) the assumption is that it’s her new boss Marc (Bastien Bouillon) and Margarette encourages the presumed relationship much to Jeanne’s discomfort. Margarette wants Jeanne to find a man, to the point that she brazenly talks about her daughter to Marc as if she’s almost an object herself. A complex dichotomy appears in the film; if Jeanne can be objectified then at what point is her falling in love with an object really wrong? What harm does it do to anyone? The question the film posits is whose fantasy is out of line? Is it Jeanne’s for being sexually aroused and emotionally attached to a machine? Or is it Margarette’s for wanting her daughter to be someone she clearly is not?
Jeanne’s love for Jumbo soon becomes public knowledge when after Marc sees her half naked embracing the ride. The love affair between Jeanne and Jumbo is doomed from that moment with Marc deciding to dismantle to ride and sell it on from the amusement park.
Winttock creates a bizarre fairy tale that functions to question what is normal, but also acts as a metaphor to examine how love works. Margarette must come to terms with Jeanne’s “specialness” and her initial reaction to ostracise her vulnerable daughter and kick her out of the house after learning about Jumbo forms the dramatic core of the film. Margarette loves Jeanne but social mores proclaim that she can’t support her daughter’s bizarre fantasy. Margarette’s own lover, Hubert (Sam Louwyk) acts as the voice to remind her that Jeanne is who she is – a strange but harmless creature who needs her mother’s support regardless of how bizarre the circumstances of Jeanne’s love life.
Visually JUMBO is a feast with Winttock creating a multi-coloured and oddly seductive spectacle that makes Jeanne’s fantasy seem plausible. There are erotic moments between Jeanne and Jumbo that are characterised by Jumbo spilling oil over her which she immerses herself in. The production design is genuinely engaging and pulls the viewer into Jeanne’s subjective reality.
Noémie Merlant commits herself entirely to the role of Jeanne. Merlant who is best known for her work on Céline Sciamma’s exquisite film Portrait of a Lady on Fire exhibits a dazzling emotional range. The audience feels her discomfort, her pleasure, her sadness, her shame. We believe her love for Jumbo is real and palpable no matter how absurd it seems.
Ultimately Winttock has crafted a strange fantasy that anchors itself in some very real questions. How do we love, and does it matter who we love if there is no harm being done? The most important relationship in the film isn’t actually between Jeanne and Jumbo, but rather Jeanne and Margarette. Margarette’s lesson in how to love her daughter is the grist of the film and offers a universal aspect to what would at first appear to be a very niche production.
Signature Entertainment presents Jumbo on Digital Platforms 23rd June.