In both short and feature length versions of this strange little story, Emerson (Pavlo Lehenkyi) a lonely, isolated man pays an odd assortment of locals to impersonate the members of his family. He writes scripts for them to follow and then uses a video camera to record ‘family movies’. From his demands on these faux family members, we get a sense that there was an original family that is being replicated by these strangers but we never come to know where the real family has gone and why he is alone.
At the beginning of the film, we meet Ericka (Liudmyla Zamindra) who is being inducted into the role of Emerson’s sister but she is not yet quite a perfect fit (‘my sister would not wear a skirt so short’). The rest of the family have already been ‘cast’ – Mother (Larysa Hraminska), Father (Mykola Bozhko) and Brother (Maksym Derbenyov) and together they sit down to Christmas lunch.
The first half of the film very closely follows its short predecessor (it’s on Vimeo – Google it), albeit with a new cast and new location. But in the second half, the relationship between Emerson and Ericka changes quite dramatically on both a personal and fabricated level. As good as The Family is, it’s this extension of the original idea that makes A Family so powerful. Stevens approached this expansion of the original story with some very strong ideas that work well for the finished product. For a start, he chose to shoot the film in Ukraine (inspired by photographs his co-writer and cinematographer, Tom Swinburn had shown him of a recent trip there). This, along with the distinctly 90’s technology they use (which could simply be kinds of phones and computers and televisions available in Ukraine) creates an ‘otherness’ to the film. It’s shot in what seems to be a faded palette of earthy colours that somehow enhances the isolation, grief and loneliness we feel in Emerson and helps us to accept the improbability of the story. Working with actors who speak a language other than the language of the director is risky enough, but Stevens adds more levels of difficulty to this by casting mostly non-actors in the roles (Derbenyov’s day job is as a dentist and Zamidra is a receptionist).
Not only do the actors and director not speak the same language, they don’t even share a cinematic vocabulary with which they might communicate. This, of course, makes it hard to praise the performances as good acting, but these first timers do a pretty good job and the ‘amateurish’ feel actually builds a certain authenticity to the film as does the mundanity of the screenplay. The words spoken (as translated in subtitle) are awkward and perfunctory as befits the situation so it is up to the performances Stevens is able to draw from his actors and the remarkably evocative imagery and sympathetic lens of Swinburn’s cinematography to carry the narrative and between them they tell the story in perfect ‘film’ language.
I’ve seen quite a bit of commentary about this film that focuses on the European-ness of its filmmaking and it certainly has a European sensibility to it but, for me, it’s the Australian-ness that creates the balance and tempers the story allowing it to be more than a bleak and dour study of grief and loss to being something that also has the capacity to bring a smile to the audience’s faces. But don’t be mistaken; A Family never exceeds the comic to become comedic. Don’t expect a laugh anytime soon but do expect that this film might well leave you with a sense of hope and optimism for, whilst Emerson’s plan to manufacture a living memory of a lost family might allow him to assuage his grief without losing his isolation, it’s the redirecting of his absurd idea by Ericka that could well bring him back into the world. But, in the end, we don’t really know. This film is as much about what is not said, as it is about what the narrative tells us. And whilst that’s a pretty brave and risky way to make a film, in this case Jayden Stevens manages to pull it off.
Swab uses the character of Utah and narrator Vin (Frank Grillo) to uncover the incredibly lucrative business of getting bodies into beds at these treatment facilities with a revolving door. The treatment facilities get the government kickbacks, which are filtered down to the brokers who find the vulnerable and pay them to attend for 30 days. With a 10% success rate, business is booming for Vin and Wood. This premise finds Utah as he successfully goes through treatment and finally decides to become a broker himself.
Visually isolating the outdoor scenes are empty and the characters take center stage. Interestingly, Utah’s involvement in the brokering is shown in a cold and sterile way, while the drug den’s and external drug rehab groups are represented in warm lighting and a cluttered atmosphere. Enhancing the sense of Utah wanting to have his foot in both camps but unable to truly make a decision between the moral or immoral path not having much guidance.
BODY BROKERS is an uncomfortable and eye-opening film that keeps you engaged until the end. This is mostly to do with the interesting choice in storytelling, which made it hard to pinpoint the direction. It made the slow burn feel like a climactic build that eventually led nowhere. Saying this, the expose itself on the business of drug treatment facilities was performed and portrayed in such a way it felt uncomfortable and sleazy to even be told this information.
A lot like Vin, who was exceptionally acted by Grillo, the two paths for Utah are plain to see. His life with drugs or the life that can get him out – which unfortunately means he has to play the game and play the system. The balance between his newfound love interest, the human stories, and Wood’s life kept you invested in Utah. Hoping his decisions will get him to a good place, or at least make a stand against the heartless acts of this system.
BODY BROKERS produced a lot of insight that makes this an important film. Unfortunately, the lack of direction in the filmmaking style made it difficult to know if this was a drama or redemption story, or both. It may have worked in Swab’s favor in the end because it keeps you on your toes throughout. The film attracted a great cast of actors who were well placed in their roles. This film leaves the audience with a lot to think about, which is exactly what this kind of film needs to do. While the moral of the story is vague (and probably very realistic), it is successful in creating a unique mood and style of storytelling which keeps you guessing. As Vin says, “How do you end a never-ending story?”
BODY BROKERS is available on DVD from Eagle Entertainment.
Visually we are placed in the snowy mountainous regions, muted colours, and gentle lighting. We meet Ethan and Josh, amidst the snow creating a dream-like haze, they have a father and son lesson in defending themselves from the infected. The more interesting elements of the back-story start straight away where they reveal that the infected are attracted to heat. The infected themselves look understated but are very effective, with minimal make-up or special effects. This first scene results in the first series of events, Ethan gets bitten.
In between the main storyline they provide flashbacks of their lives before the virus took hold. The first flashback scene was one of my favourite scenes of the film. It set up Joe and Ethan’s relationship in an effective and clever way, which provided the initial empathy towards their current dynamic, which after Ethan is bitten is very distant and cold.
The way Tobias and Reisner built-up character development, ended up overshadowing the storyline of how the virus got out. Mostly because the long conversations seemed less important than the action sequences. Meanwhile also in combination with that, trying to foreshadow scenarios that just fell short and were too generic for a well-established genre.
The realism of this world works well and compliments the focus of the story, which is essentially the relationships between the family members. Josh, the son, is by far the most interesting character. He is quite optimistic and realistic when interacting with his parents, who tend to be sombre and corny at times.
This is interesting when Ethan and Joe are trying to teach Josh how to survive when they quite clearly have no idea what they are doing. Josh steps up to the responsibility when needed and is the unsung hero of the film. He even has his own bad-ass weapon, a slingshot. Which is surprisingly effective but again under-utilised. These elements made it feel like Josh is the one that needed redemption, but it is obvious that Ethan and Joe were meant to be the main focus.
F.E.A.R is more of a drama than an action-orientated horror which misses the story beats that could have elevated it to a great film. The overarching story got lost in character development which caused the ‘build and release’ scenarios to be less impactful. It is instead, a technically successful film with great visual appeal and brilliant acting. While it reminds me of a modern-day version of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, it could have (but doesn’t) brought something new to the zombie genre.
Signature Entertainment presents Forget Everything And Run on Digital Platforms 16th June
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.