Review by Sarah Williams
The long-take opening shot of Amundsen, The Greatest Expedition, a thrilling plane crash, is a high that's not quite returned to. The Roald Amundsen biopic by Norwegian Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man Tell No Tales and Kon-Tiki director Espen Sandberg is a road to an adventure that's never truly felt. Charting the lead-up to the explorer's renowned (and dangerous) polar exploration, the film falls flat when it eventually reaches the end of the world, with a danger that's never felt like that first aeroplane.
Leading the first expedition for the South Pole in 1911, and reaching both poles in 1926, Roald Amundsen (Pål Sverre Hagen) is given the Spielbergian-lite biopic treatment. Most of the film's strengths lie in galas and dinner meetings, scenes building anticipation for the expedition that feels far lower stakes than it should. Perhaps the focus isn't on the trip, but on the life leading to it, but with a team who is strongest with idolized heroes and glamorous set pieces, introspective, moody, character studies don't quote work.
What does shine in these more mundane sections is the outside world around Amundsen. The period setting is beautifully assembled, and for a more minor release, one that's taken two calendar years from premiere to US release, it's startlingly detailed and accurate. The supporting performances are worth noting, with appearances from Christopher Rubeck and Katherine Waterston livening the affair.
What's baffling here is making a film where the selling point is the expedition, and then trying to study a character that's left dull instead. Amundsen's strained family relationships, and the romantic subplot, don't give any of the actual interesting aspects of his character, the lack of fear and why he would want to go where no man has before. The men on the expedition aren't particularly characters we care about, and it all feels far too low stakes. The film is part adventure saga, part slow period drama, and it doesn't quite stitch together. All we know in the end about Amundsen is that he is driven by ego, something that can be extrapolated watching countless other works about the renowned men of the time.
With set pieces like a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and the storyline of a Thanksgiving day release, Amundsen is a film that would have replayed the best at a Sunday afternoon matinee, the kind of harmless but forgettable film you see with your parents, shrug, and learn a few history facts from. It's hard to hide that it feels like a relic from fifteen years back, dated and formulaic, destined to be played in a freshman year geography class's end of year explorers unit. It's hard to judge it as a bad film, because it's not all that poorly made, this just feels like deja vu of years past, and the few highlights and surprises are never quite allowed to shine. The issue isn't poor craft, or an offensive misstep, Amundsen just that brings so little to the table that doesn't call back a forty year old formula.
Amundsen, The Greatest Expedition is now available on VOD.
Review by Sarah Williams
In The Affair, originally titled "The Glass Room" (a title change that's truly baffling given how much less unique the former sounds), Carice Van Houten is a gem in what is an otherwise messy and distant lesbian love story. Liesel (Hanna Alström) is content in her marriage to Viktor (Claes Bang), when her dynamic with close, free-spirited friend Hana (Van Houten) shifts. Liesel turns away as Hana confesses her love, turning away while things are still easy. Over the years, Hana tries her best to push away male interest as she waits for Liesel to be ready to love her back. What follows is a lengthy saga across Europe, of two women who may be the right person for each other, but don’t meet at the right time, and an eclectic combination of talented actors, some working on autopilot here, it’s surprising all speak the same language.
The architectural setting at the root of the story most easily draws comparisons to Reaching for the Moon, a Brazilian adaptation of poet Elizabeth Bishop's relationship with architect Lota de Macedo Soares, which painted a passionate, conflicted romance and utilized the house alongside their relationship. Though the modernist house in The Affair, by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, may be better known, the structure feels like merely a setting even though it's so tied to Liesel's past. They anticipate the significance, but the many, many scenes shot within never quite let the room breathe as the character it's supposed to be.
The film has got an odd bend to how it pursues its leads' everlasting desire to be together no matter what, as it's incredibly pushy even when the chemistry dries. Instead of making the love between Liesel and Hana more present, there's an emphasis on leaving, and specifically a focus on their husbands in that regard. We see Czechoslovakia fall to the Nazis, and we see a push to leave behind this glass room, and the past significance it has to their families. The very Aryan Liesel pushes to leave firmly, and it's so in contest with her husband it makes an awkward message considering his firmly noted Judaism in an era of violent antisemitism.
Even though the chemistry lacks at times, the end result of their relationship is sweet, and feels like a worthy payoff to the very slow road there. Claes Bang is surprisingly the highlight out of the actors, charismatic enough that Viktor is more than just the omnipresent, foreboding husband character that is usually present. Visually, the whole deal is a lovely pastel watercolor, with soft lighting and colorful costuming in contest with some of the darker settings.
It's quite clear that this was a novel before it was a film, and perhaps a lot of these weaknesses lie in being an adaptation. Of course, there's not all faults, as it's got a genuine, happy ending that's more than deserved, which breaks a lot of tragedy porn trends within lesbian film. However, some of the flaws don't lie in the source material, with uneven pacing that drags heavily for two acts, and some choppy and distracting editing that takes away a more lucid flow detracting from the romance. It's a solidly middle lane romance, one with a happy ending and talented actresses working on autopilot, that will have a few cult followers, but mostly viewers giving it a decent shrug and moving on.
The Affair is now available on VOD.
Review by Sarah Williams
Love letters are the most common surviving relic of relationships between women of the past. Diaries and notes are pieces together, getting a half idea if love affairs that, while not outwardly forbidden, went unnoticed in a male-driven society. These female friendships were often tinged with a burning passion, commitment beyond that to a husband. The World To Come is a chain of such love letters and diary entries, threaded into a delicate love tragedy, that though flawed, is so believably rendered, with a pleading, beating heart of chemistry.
Abigail (Katherine Waterston) has recently lost her daughter from diptheria in late 19th century Upstate New York. A winding diary entry monologue details her detachment from her husband and child, and how she feels that she has become her grief. Redhead whirlwind Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) falls into her life one day, met at the edge of their property, and the two women begin to meet often, and grow close, coming alive with the company. It's a romance film, but it's more about the awakening than anything. We see Abigail roll over in the night and express her newly articulated discomfort for physical intimacy with her husband before we ever see her and Tallie do the same.
This, in large part, is a film about ecstasy, and finding something holy in love. Tallie's visits come weekly, and they're a light in Abigail's life that leaves her breathless and excited each time, even when it's something as simple as plucking chickens together. That religious ecstasy climaxes when Tallie's visit ends in a gently burning kiss. Abigail seats herself on a bench when she shuts the door behind her, and lays back against the table. Her arms outstretch, her neck cranes back, and dark hair and billowy dark sleeves and skirting pool around her. She looks to be sacrificed to some power above, spare for a sigh of pleasure that comes with having known joy in love that day.
For Abigail and Tallie, finding pleasure becomes like heaven. The two women find a certain freedom in their escapes together, laying in a small clearing in the forest for gentle affection. Small rays of sunlight find them here, and they are able to strip down a bit and blend in with nature in their joy. Abigail saves her money to buy an atlas, as she dreams of far off places, and longs for that tactile feeling of pages beneath her fingertips. For her, in those coming months, Tallie will become her world, and she'll be that atlas of pages of memories she can take to love on with her. Abigail once says "And you know what memory it is that I most cherish? It's of your turning to me, with that smile you gave me, once you realized that you were loved", and it really sums up the power she finds in having this brief love, and in being able to make someone else feel that same joy she does. Cliche, but it's the power of a good love story.
The film is far from without its issues, and they may overwhelm it for others. While many praised the score as innovative and beautiful, a fellow disappointment media critic referred to the sound as "like someone had deep-throated an oboe" after the Sundance screening. This is a minor and subjective issue, however, compared to the film's messy messaging when it comes to the finale. A turn for tragedy breaks the rhythm of the film, and feels unnecessarily cruel (not to mention the misplaced sex scene) when this plot point is there for a message that love can be what awakens you, and that the memory is important. There are so many less jarring ways to do this, that don't feel like a tonal pitfall, and changing the original short story ending feels warranted here. Abigail's diary entries sometimes feel like a copout to avoid showing the intricacies of dialogue, though they're usually wonderful. Also, this is a movie starring Casey Affleck. Do what you will with that.
The World To Come has its missteps, but the fantastic chemistry of those first two acts make it emotionally devastating enough some of its issues can be forgiven. It's bluntly realistic enough about each of the two women's situations, whether they be grief or an unhealthy relationship. This frankness makes the moments we don't see easier to fill in, easier to see what level of passion Abigail and Tallie have between the scenes. With splendid craft all around, it's an ideal Valentine's Day alone and cry movie.
The World to Come hits theaters February 12 and VOD on March 2.
Sofia Coppola seems to be leaning further and further into mass appeal. If using any adjective to describe On the Rocks, it would be “watchable”. No matter how inconsequential the film gets, it’s never truly boring, and its pre-treaded path makes it a fairly certain viewing experience with your parents over that fall break, something you’ll finish watching, say “Hm, that was perfectly fine”, and never watch again. The heist tale of Bill Murray's playboy father to Rashida Jones’s anxieties over her husband's whereabouts isn’t bad, but it never says anything interesting enough to warrant memory in any canon, hardly more of a drop in the ocean than A Very Murray Christmas.
Laura (Rashida Jones) begins to suspect her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) may be having an affair. It's not that he seems unfaithful, but the jewelry store sightings, long work dinners, and time away toy with that little voice in the back of her head, and her idea of her father's (Bill Murray) infidelity, and his help investigating only lead her suspicions to rise. Father and daughter begin a series of late-night stakeouts, bathing in his wealth as they debate the nature of staying together and how this affects the whole family, and old bitterness at fatherhood comes to rise between glasses of champagne and fine art.
Coppola is the closest women have gotten to that common conversation canon of getting into movies masters — men like David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright, and Christopher Nolan who have become household names among twenty-somethings that like to claim to be into movies when they’re just starting out. From time to time, Twitter threads crop up, asking readers to name a female director that isn’t Sofia Coppola or Greta Gerwig. Its not that she’s undeserving of this pedestal of popularity, but the steam seems to be running out, and it's worth noting the Coppola family is an easier entry to the film industry than most get, but there’s no denying the great cinema we’ve gotten from her in the past.
What is missing here of Sofia Coppola’s signature charm is her style. The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antionette are as great as they are because they let darkness exist within their hyperfemininity. On the Rocks may believe itself to be a maturation, but in doing so it loses the feminine trappings that have created that distinctive style. If anything, the style here is Apple TV. Sleek and overpriced, like an iPhone, there’s more concern for caviar in a convertible than relatability as a woman in this world. It’s streaming service fodder through and through, and though tightly written, I can’t imagine anyone scrambling to rewatch beyond the novelty of a new Coppola film (though it is less disappointing than Gia Coppola’s newest entry Mainstream, a shallow and buzzy social media caper).
If The Virgin Suicides is the wide-eyed ingenue, then On the Rocks is not a wise mother, but a tired secretary of a film. It feels like it’s running on autopilot, an algorithmically determined family drama until the end, where it becomes a lovely acknowledgement of Laura’s anxiety and self-worth, and the ideas our childhood leave us with about family. Jenny Slate is an absolute star here as well, popping up every thirty minutes or so at Laura’s kids’ school to vent her own frustrations on affairs from the side of “the other woman”. This isn’t just a film about the struggles of marriage, but a map of everyone hurt by the lack of communication in an affair.
It is nice to see a Black family get their bland wealthy family drama, but there are some tropes that are stumbled into, even if unintentionally. It's common that Black families in popular media aren’t homogenous, and the mother is always mixed or lightskin when one parent is darker. It’s a trope that’s followed here, and whether or not it’s intentional, it’s a shame only lighter black women get these glossy romcoms about their families, and On the Rocks only makes it clear how deeply entrenched colorism is in Hollywood.
Perhaps I am being unfair to On the Rocks due to its all-star pedigree. For bourgeoisie anxiety drama, it’s very well made, and Bill Murray and Rashida Jones make charming co-conspirators. However, it does everything it can to pull the relatability out of anxiety, staying in the New York high society of yesteryear, a world that feels so alien that even the real conflicts presented start to feel like trifling rich people problems. It’s a shame Sofia Coppola has matured away from her distinct style, as On the Rocks is the just fine-est film of the year.
On the Rocks streams on Apple TV+ beginning October 23.
Review by Sarah Williams
Yet another “never before seen footage” type doc, Cured does its job fairly well. It is the story of how gay activists went toe-to-toe with the APA to get homosexuality removed from the DSM listing as a mental illness, and its yet another gap filled in LGBTQ history (and the ludicrous claim that the removal of the listing 'cured' every documented homosexual). Newspaper clippings, archival footage, and narration blend together to give a clear picture of this law, and its removal, an end result that doesn’t leave much more than the true story itself.
Gay history is often viewed as dominating relationships between aristocratic men and peasants in Ancient Greece and Rome, then Stonewall, the the United States Marriage Equality Act in 2015. It’s a Euro-centric view of LGBTQ history, skipping around to just the parts that are harder to erase. Even within the US, so many smaller legal victories towards acceptance are overshadowed, and it's great to see this important act of removing the dehumanization of love documented the same way this more commonly discussed history is. It’s hard to believe that the heads of the scientific nation would go out of their way to list homosexuality as a mental illness, but this is conveniently scrubbed from history, always discussed as pure phobia, and not societal classification that this is defective. Of course, unless outspoken, lesbians were instead ignored or written off as close friendships, an odd safety.
These kind of simple, direct docs may start to blend together, but it is important to note that we now see gay and trans history documented and released the same way other stories of a fight for equality have been. While some of these types of films may come off as merely serviceable nonfiction storytelling in a slate of imaginative fiction at an LGBTQ centered film fest, like Outfest or Frameline, this fits a specific niche. It’s educational content that doesn’t need to be sought out, and is made for more mass appeal in terms of filmmaking sensibilities, as this is something that many will genuinely learn from.
Kay Lahusen joined other protesters on a picket line in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on July 4, 1969. This protest marked the fifth “Annual Reminder,” a march held yearly on July 4 to remind Americans that LGBTQ citizens were denied basic civil rights. From Cured, directed by Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer. Photo credit: Nancy Tucker, image courtesy of Lesbian Herstory Archives.
Even though Cured isn’t the most adventurous in terms of filmmaking, it fits into a key sector of cinematic purpose. It’s the sort of film that you’d find on PBS late at night, the way information seeps into your brain when the moon comes up, an after dinner haze where you don’t realize you’ve learned something until it slips out in conversation at a dinner party. It’s great to see this assembled in a manner that normalizes it as a piece of history, the same kind that plays on the TV wheeled into a classroom on a substitute teacher. It’s LGBTQ history 101, but our history is hardly told, and it’s nice to be able to watch something that unpacks it so clearly.
What I do want personally is for these historical documents to focus less on suffering and discrimination, and to see more gay and trans joy when history decided we did not exist. Even though it is shown through the eyes of the family around them, Netflix’s A Secret Love was a step in the right direction, showing the love between an older lesbian couple that had flown under the radar for so long. Of course, seeing the truth is never troubling, but it would be nice if the media a heterosexual audience sees shows more than just our oppression, and for them to see that light was even possible at the height of it.
Cured had its world premiere at Outfest 2020. It is currently seeking distribution.
Three French Film Festival Favorites (BURNING GHOST, WONDERS IN THE SUBURBS, and THE BARE NECESSITY) Streaming on Virtual Cinema
Review by Sarah Williams
Kino Marquee is set to release a collection of three French films that have been fan favorites at recent film festivals, yet had yet to receive mass acclaim in the United States. Some of these have appeared on Mubi, or Kanopy, but are available now to support arthouse streaming services. Here’s what I thought of them, and this format certainly works well to curate the foreign market. (Seriously, when are we getting a triple feature of Losing It, Heroes Don’t Die, and Real Love as a second part to this?!)
Burning Ghost is a transcendent small production, a fainter echo of the intimate awe inspired by Mati Diop's Atlantics last year. Judith Chemla has a haunting gaze, her pale, wanting look alone leaves her ghostly in the lens of Céline Bozon's adept camerawork. Funny enough, she isn't a ghost, but Juste (Thimotée Robart) is. She is from his past life, and recognizes him as he has come to walk the earth again. He is a collector, taking memories off of those on the streets to help them move on, and hardly knows where he recognizes the souls from. The film is beautifully shot, lighting making city streets out to be an eerie afterlife, and the intimate sequences are particularly beautiful. Reds and oranges come out at night against bright blues, burning with colors of a flame, with blue that feels hot instead of the cool or serene hues it so often is relegated to. The end result is tender, yearning, and a pleasant surprise.
Burning Ghost is now streaming online in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.
Wonders in the Suburbs
Wonders in the Suburbs is a comedy of eccentrics, but the eccentricity falls flat into dry satire and joyless quirk. A supposed satire of French municipal politics directed by actress Jeanne Balibar, and produced by actor Matthew Amalric, it's embarrassing to see this running on autopilot "comedy" from actors with the privilege to try their hand behind the camera seemingly without any passion for the craft. It feels overbaked, a slew of French stars turning up, only for it to be utter nonsense (and an absolute waste of Bulle Ogier in the furthest thing from Rivettian comedy it could be). It’s unfortunate that this comes from genuinely talented people, some of the most passionate left wing faces in French cinema, but it’s a screaming, unfunny disaster. Emmanuelle Beart is a sad letdown, at the core of some of the many cringe inducing moments. It would be nice to pride the film for its diversity, but it’s too hollow, unfunny, and pointlessly quirky for this praise. Chaotic neo-liberal utopia would be entertaining to explore, but nothing lands, and it can’t help but seem like this wasn’t just lost in translation.
Wonders in the Suburbs is now streaming online in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.
The Bare Necessity
The one issue with The Bare Necessity is that it often feels like a script perfected on paper, but never tried in reality. Other than some awkwardness, it’s heartfelt, witty, and well-defined to its own little world. Swann Arlaud and Maud Wyler shine in a story of how easily our lives can change when someone enters or leaves it. Often deadpan, it is the story of a person as a meteor, given the chance to crash into the lives of a tight-knit community, and open eyes. The film finds its feet when pride is stripped down, personality flaws ripped apart to reveal a new, humbler man, as everyone watches. When the film is clever, it's very clever, and the weak first act, and its plot contrivances, are saved by great performances, and qualified camerawork. The adapt cinematographer shows nature wonderfully, a pale, serene delight for the landscape to stretch out into.
The Bare Necessity is now streaming online in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.
Review by Sarah Williams
A lingua franca, also known as a bridge language, is a language used for communication between people who do not share a native language. As we move through our lives, we exist in the world by how much it accepts us. It is like a language, a translation of social codes and risks we take that we translate to our own place in the world. It is hard to see the world through another’s eyes, this language of their movements, and the choices they must make, but the language that comes through art can bridge this. This is why we use cinema to see through into what someone else experiences, but this only really works when it comes from a place of authenticity. That authenticity runs through the veins of Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca, a small, understated feature that feels deeply lived in.
Isabel Sandoval is Olivia, an undocumented Filipino trans woman in Brighton Beach, who works as a caregiver for aging Russian Olga (Lynn Cohen). She's working to be able to marry the man who has promised himself to her, until Olga’s grandson Alex (Eamon Farren) opens her eyes that immigration may not be the hardest factor here. There’s a tender safety between Olivia and Alex, but it’s not quite clear whose safety that is. When Alex tells her “you’re safe now”, he seems to mean himself, finally at peace where her life comforts him.
Lingua Franca is a quiet lull before the storm, a calm insight into the daily rituals that come with living in a world that is set out against you. All of this is normal for Olivia, the stressors of her life are normalized here to a point where the plot isn’t her being trans and the struggle of it, and her immigration status is only relevant for the financial struggle that arises to marry her lover. These things are not the focus of her character, and Olivia is allowed to live a normal life, and isn’t defined by her setbacks, but lives them.
I look forward to a world in which Isabel Sandoval is one of her auteur generation, as the story she creates is intimate, authentic, and smartly-crafted. A one-woman filmmaking wonder in the tradition of Akerman, she directs, produces, edits, writes, and stars in this quiet slice of life, scenes from an ordinary day that feels extraordinary when we don’t live it. Having worked on this idea during her own gender transition, Sandoval acutely depicts the stresses of life with a hand that rarely wavers as one of an amateur would. While her voice may be fainter here than it could be, the film is often too slight to leave as hard of an impact as it could. There is a commendable nature to how she never goes for the cheaper emotions, no loud outbursts come here. That being said, it’s almost too gentle, no one scene stands out as memorable, and it’s hard not to wish that tenderness went much further.
Released by Ava Duvernay’s ARRAY label, this is the kind of film that benefits from this wide audience. It’s put in a place where it will be clicked impulsively, and even if that view mainly resonates as too slow for a general audience, at least this story is presented to the broadest audience it could be. So often, queer cinema is relegated to the sidelines when it comes from a place of authenticity, in favor of watered-down stories made palatable to a general audience. ARRAY focuses on this authenticity, stories against an all-white cinematic canon that prevailed for years, that will challenge this general Netflix audience if they choose to view. It is the accessibility that matters, allowing for the world to see what they may not know to seek out on their own.
Lingua Franca streams on Netflix beginning August 26.
Review by Sarah Williams
A vérité-style documentary showing the formation of community through music, River City Drumbeat is a finely crafted portrait of how art can uplift us when the world won't. The story of the River City Drum Corps in Louisville, Kentucky, follows Edward "Nardie" White, and his assistant, Albert Shumake, a former member of the corps, and the music program they develop for at-risk elementary schoolers. We not only see what these kids go through in a city that tells them not to aspire to anything, but we see the two men's own struggles, and how the community they foster helps them too. It’s about the connection to and sharing of culture, and how art persists even when it is not invited in.
Using the music of its subjects for a rhythm, the constant drumming, growing more skilled as the young musicians thrive. It’s not about skill though, it’s about community, one that fosters talent and gives the young people a place to grow at something. The persistent drumbeat helps the pacing quite a bit, where the film slows there’s the music that keeps it from dragging too much.
The lack of talking head interviews keep the film from feeling blandly educational. Blending the stories of this community, including the escape from the cycle that is poverty, some mentions of family death (the murder of White’s granddaughter and his wife’s cancer) that may be upsetting for some viewers, and a discussion of racism, language, and bias from the education system itself, smoothly into the rest of the footage to make this a story of triumph, not suffering. It is able to tackle these struggles, many of which are systematic, in a way that shows that joy can be found, that people can work together, and make it past this, by showing the light instead of dwelling upon these tougher parts of life.
Overall, River City Drumbeat’s final product is a heartfelt, uplifting story about the power of community over prejudice. What it lacks in originality of craft, it makes up for in heart. It’s a powerful, compact story of triumph, and a love of the arts, and a testament to teamwork that makes it a great film to show mature kids. While showing one school in the south, it provides a leading example for what can be done to uplift young people by giving them an outlet for their energy, something to look forward to, and someone who believes in them having something to aspire to.
River City Drumbeat is now streaming in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.
Review by Sarah Williams
Ever want to see some of the most insufferable, empty people you will ever meet on a screen brutally killed by crocodiles? Well you’re in luck with Black Water: Abyss, as everyone is so unlikeable you’re not only rooting for the beast, but wanting to be it.
A sequel to the 2007 Australian sleeper hit, Abyss loses steam in any semblance of narrative or investment by refusing to develop its characters beyond pests to be exterminated. Eric (Luke Mitchell) and Yolanda (Amali Golden) lead the way, with Jennifer (Jessica McNamee) and Viktor (Benjamin Hoetjes) in tow, on an impromptu adventure into a subterranean cave Eric is intrigued by. The trip soon becomes the romantic getaway from hell as the four are trapped in the increasingly narrow cave tunnels by a storm, and a hungry reptile is ready to snack.
Admittedly, the cast of characters does play the game down there well, and no one makes dumb decisions, clear they know what they’re getting into. They aren’t whiny, don’t squabble unnecessarily, but everyone is so devoid of personality it's hard to care past the spectacle of the kill itself. They seem like bots at times, pre-programmed straw-men who make most of the right decisions, except for what kills them. These kills are well done, sparing much of the blood and gore for what we don’t see, a creature that rarely shows its face spare for a creeping sense of dread, the best case scenario for horror beyond the big-budget name brand flicks.
At times feeling like a reptilian knockoff of The Descent, it does get some solid scares in. If you’re unlike me and are able to be unsettled by a horror movie that doesn’t give you a tolerable audience surrogate, or at least someone to pity and be invested in, it’s a fun, if shallow ride at times. Whereas The Descent knows itself as high energy, shock driven, and gutsy, Black Water tries to ride on its scaly menace that does not quite provide the fear factor without an existing fear factor outside a few gimmicky jump scares. The scariest thing here is nature, and the tropical storm keeping the pair of couples down, rather than any beast that may come.
Black Water: Abyss almost works better as a disaster flick than anything else, but its lower budget and unmemorable performances keep it from going down with the greats in that genre. It’s mindless popcorn entertainment with a nice setting, the kind of late night ‘scary movie’ that starts to blend together with little difference outside the placement of jump scares. It’s not poorly made for a sequel this late in the game from the original, which does not share any characters, but it begins to blur together with the many similar films on the market, it's hard to find any stand-out element, or hook, for anything beyond the die-hard genre fan.
Black Water: Abyss is now available on VOD.
Review by Sarah Williams
Playfully intimate, Simon Amstell's Benjamin is a love letter to falling in love with the concept of being loved. A slight indie rom-com that's genuinely charming, it's the film we've been asking for to make the genre gay. Light, gentle, and still surprising Ben Whishaw doesn’t have a role anywhere in it, it’s a hidden gem of easy viewing with a massive amount of heart, not to mention the Mark Kermode cameo.
Merlin's Colin Morgan plays a film director, the titular Benjamin, on the verge of premiering his second film. He is introduced to a young French musician while at London Film Festival, and is enamored at first watching from a distance. The two soon hit it off, and it’s a slight love story filled with that messy awkwardness from the beginning of getting to know someone beyond just watching them. Noah (Phénix Brossard) has this natural, teasing chemistry with Ben, who can say anything, joking about French stereotypes constantly, and is enamored just the way Ben is when he sees Noah sing that first night.
Almost Xavier Dolan-esque in its brightly colored gay love story about two pale skinny guys with dark floppy hair (the only kind of Dolan love interest) meeting and falling head over heels, it avoids much of the enfant terrible’s melodramatic tendencies. Where the young auteur goes for heartbreak and over the top drama, Amstell’s film goes for tender laughs in a way that may appeal to those who’ve tried to like Dolan, but just can’t get behind the height of his maximalism. Nobody is perfect in this sweet little rom-com world, and though the romance is idealized, it is put on the same pedestal as the typical heterosexual rom-com (and even those seem to be disappearing), and never does it make the characters seem any different.
Neither man is given a struggle of toxic masculinity, allowing a refreshing save of tenderness to wash over the film. A scene where Noah softly washes Ben’s hair in the bathtub comes to mind, eyes shut as they touch, and it's so rare to see two men allowed their desire without any hardness. There's a warm, grainy haze washed over the whole film, like we are peering into an archive of memories of woozy nights spent falling into love, projected on a screen later on in the relationship. They’re the kind of memories you’d show the world, the moments in your love that create a neatly packaged retail book that make it all look so easy.
As a friend of Ben once says, “You only like people who are well lit and weak”. There’s a love letter here, drawn often from Amstell’s own experiences, to loving the easy targets, those that you are sure will love you back from a pretty picture. While this isn’t always the soundest way to go about things, as sometimes love is tough, it’s refreshing to see the two men slip together so easily. Benjamin may not be the meatiest romance, but it has a massive heart, and is the kind of simple gay romance the internet has been begging for.
Benjamin is now available on VOD.