Thursday, August 15, 2019

Popcorn Frights 2019, Day 7: Paradise Hills (2019) and Knives and Skin (2019)

It was ladies' night at Popcorn Frights on their seventh day, with two films both directed by women and built heavily around their female characters. Unusually, it was also a night where neither film was what one could call a horror movie, even if both were horror-adjacent; one was a sci-fi thriller, the other a Lynchian teen drama. I'm not complaining; both were pretty damn good.

First up, it's Emma Roberts vs. Stepford...

Paradise Hills (2019)

Not yet rated

Score: 4 out of 5

Paradise Hills is what happens when you take the basic premise of The Stepford Wives, give it to a teen-lit writer to turn into a YA dystopian thriller novel with shades of The Hunger Games, and then give the film adaptation to a European arthouse filmmaker with big ideas on the kind of imagery and visual spectacle she wants to use in order to bring this world to life. While it's not adapted from any book that I know of, it's still one of the best of these sorts of movies I've ever seen. Its cast, comprised of a mix of established teen stars, up-and-comers, and B-movie veterans, was grand, the aesthetics were absolutely gorgeous, and as unwieldy as the plot could get towards the end, it still told a meaty story of rebellion and class warfare that had me invested beyond just the characters' plan to escape their situation. When this gets released, it's one that I can see very quickly becoming a cult classic among the kinds of people who love these sorts of books.

We start with Uma, the disaffected daughter of a wealthy family who's still mourning the death of her father, waking up at a strange island resort with a disquieting mix of Mediterranean architecture, advanced technology woven throughout, and loads of people in strange outfits, all overseen by the glamorous yet vaguely threatening Duchess. It turns out that Paradise Hills is a kind of cross between a "wellness" center and a finishing school, and her family sent her there because she didn't want to marry the rich jerk that they wanted her to, instead carrying on a relationship with the working-class Markus. Uma finds all of this quite strange, and before long, she realizes that this place doesn't just help girls "get better" -- it does some weird shit to them. Stepford Wives shit. Uma sets out to unravel the mystery of the island, together with her roommates Chloe and Yu, who were sent by their families for similar reasons, Amarna, a pop singer who had tried to take creative control of her music only for her record company to have other ideas, and Markus, who managed to track her to the island in order to break her out. But will she escape? After all, the prologue, set two months later (and the "treatment" is supposed to take two months), shows Uma having submitted to her family's wishes and become the kind of "proper lady" that Paradise Hills was supposed to turn her into...

The first thing you notice about this film is that it is gorgeous. Director Alice Waddington crafted a setting that is both beautiful and eerie, filled with both rugged natural vistas and the architecture of luxurious Spanish mansions woven within, all while filling the place with high technology that feels like it could be watching the characters' every move. The aesthetic reminded me of the Capitol in The Hunger Games, to be sure, but it also reminded me of a less grotesque version of Repo! The Genetic Opera and BioShock, specifically in its distinctly retro/vintage sci-fi aesthetic. The world outside Paradise Hills is one where '40s luxury cars have been modified with hover technology and the upper class engages in traditional balls and dances from the '20s and '30s, existing side-by-side with something resembling modern celebrity culture. The outfits worn by the girls at Paradise Hills are big on corsets and frills, and what we hear of Amarna's music would sound at home in the '60s as much as it would today. I didn't refer specifically to BioShock just because of the shared visual design, either. At its heart, this film is interested in a fair bit more than just riffing on The Stepford Wives in a more fantastical sci-fi setting. The big thing that made BioShock a classic video game was its charged storyline and themes, and while this film doesn't have anything like that game's massive twist that forces you to recontextualize everything you've just witnessed, the spin it does put on the Stepford Wives story adds some exploration of privilege and social class to the basic setup. Without spoiling anything, this is fundamentally a film about rich people who don't realize how good they have it, and how most people would do anything for the opportunities that the wealthy take for granted. Uma's attempt to evoke the loss of her father (who was convicted of white-collar crime and killed himself) in order to get sympathy from a certain character backfires badly on her in this context, and that character lets her know it.

As for the cast, I've always found Emma Roberts to be an actress with a limited range, but one who excels at two character types: catty villainesses like Madison Montgomery from American Horror Story: Coven and Chanel Oberlin from Scream Queens, and the heroic version thereof, spunky young women who power through to victory on sheer gumption. (Ten years from now, I can see her headlining a successful primetime soap opera or cop drama.) Uma is very much the latter, somebody who quickly realizes that there's some funny business going on here and starts making plans to escape, all while showing an increasingly short tolerance for the crap that Paradise Hills puts her through. Awkwafina as Yu reminded me a lot of Daria Morgendorffer, a snarker for whom the lessons she's learning aren't sticking and just wants to get it over with as quickly as possible, while Danielle Macdonald's Chloe, the odd duck in her Southern pageant family, felt like a funny yet tragic figure as she doesn't realize what's going on. Eiza Gonz├ílez, too, had a touch of tragedy to her as Amarna, who realizes her predicament but too late to actually do anything about it. The only character who didn't click with me was Milla Jovovich as the Duchess, and not for lack of trying on the part of Jovovich, who gave off the image of an ice queen who's secretly scheming to ruin the heroine's life -- again, Jovovich, like Roberts, doesn't have the most range, but she's well cast here. It was in the writing where I started having problems with her character, particularly in the supernatural elements attached to her, the fact that she has some kind of telekinetic powers being only the start. She felt like a character out of a different kind of fairy tale, one who didn't really mesh with the rest of the film, grounded as it was in a kind of science fiction atmosphere that, while undoubtedly heightened, didn't indicate the existence of the supernatural. She and the story probably would've been better served if she had a more tech-based set of skills and abilities, in particular focusing on her omniscient surveillance over the island and any number of other high-tech tricks she might have access to. Make her something of a mad scientist figure, a sort of Alexis Colby from Dynasty by way of Silicon Valley, and you would've had a better villain. As it was, she felt wasted in the film.

The Bottom Line

This was an excellent, satirical sci-fi fairy tale that will likely find its audience pretty quickly once it comes out. It's got style in spades and substance to spare, a film that offers everything that I enjoy about dystopian YA novels (and their movie adaptations) without most of the fluff.

(Also, as a side note, I noticed a minor, recurring audio glitch, one that was most pronounced during the second half of the film, in which there was kind of an echo effect on some of the sounds, especially the characters' voices. It made some of the dialogue difficult to understand, though not enough to really hurt my enjoyment. I think it might have been something to do with the theater, because there were far more noticeable audio and visual glitches in the short film they screened before Knives and Skin. And on that note...)

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Second film of the night served up a lot of weirdness, and some neat characters I could root for.

Knives and Skin (2019)

Not yet rated


Score: 4 out of 5

Knives and Skin is, on the surface, a murder mystery about the death of a teenage girl named Carolyn Harper in a small Illinois town, just as Twin Peaks was, on the surface, a murder mystery about the death of a teenage girl named Laura Palmer in a small Washington state town. David Lynch's famous TV show that mixed death, magic realism, and a cast of quirky characters was an obvious influence on writer/director Jennifer Redder, though here, it comes mixed with a teen soap opera about the teenagers and parents' varied reactions to Carolyn's disappearance. As in Twin Peaks, the plot of what happened to Carolyn is of secondary importance. It lends the film a narrative and thematic through line, but otherwise, it's squarely focused on the characters as they come to grips with their friend's (or daughter's) disappearance, all while the world still turns and their lives -- and drama -- continue.

We more or less get the gist of what really happened to Carolyn at the start of the film. She rejects the advances of her boyfriend Andy while they're hanging out by the lake in his Mustang, and he angrily drives off without her, even after she trips and suffers a grave injury; left alone that night, she eventually died. Andy, as the last person to see her alive, is wracked by guilt. Carolyn's mother, the music teacher Mrs. Harper, refuses to believe that her daughter is dead, and slowly goes flying off the handle as she's forced to confront the handle. Carolyn's friend Joanna has a side business selling her depressed mother's used panties to local perverts, including the school principal, while her father, working part-time as a clown at parties, is having an affair with the sheriff's wife and won't admit to his wife that he's been fired from his old job. Charlotte uses flamboyant fashion as an escape from bullying. Two cheerleaders discover romantic feelings for one another. The guy who plays the football team's mascot is increasingly disgruntled with life. And all of their myriad emotions are brought to the surface by the aftermath of Carolyn's disappearance.

The plot here isn't so much disjointed as it is nonexistent, and that's really kind of the point. Redder is best known for short films, and this one feels like a collection of such tied together by the backbone of how these characters are affected by Carolyn's disappearance. Musical numbers sung by the school choir (composed of all the main teenage characters and led by Mrs. Harper), all covers of classic pop and rock songs from the '80s and '90s, set the tone of the film. With their mostly separate stories only coming together at the very end of the film, this is one that is about the journey far more than the destination. The unknown actors playing the characters were all outstanding, each of them bringing to life a different side of the neuroses and psychoses afflicting their small town, and each of them eager to find an escape from it. You don't feel like you're watching a movie about these characters as you are living in their world, watching their day-to-day lives get turned upside down by the tragedy that has afflicted the community, one with no easy answers and nobody to readily blame. All of it is shot through with a beautiful visual design and score that together make the otherwise bleak and ultra-ordinary small town the film is set in look and feel almost magical. Carolyn especially is implied to have had some kind of magic within her, still watching over the town even after her death, though how much of this is real versus just a stylistic decision is left up to the viewer to decide. The tone that the film delivers is melancholy, yet ultimately hopeful as the characters dream of a better life after high school while making the most of their teenage lives. (Also, side note: I appreciated the uncommented-on diversity in the cast. There are multiple black characters and one Muslim, but none of the characters ever really remark on that or care about it, and the film itself doesn't really, either.)

The Bottom Line

It's really hard to describe Knives and Skin in words. It's interested less in narrative structure than it is in mood and aesthetics, weaving several stories together in a patchwork quilt that's often unwieldy, but is still an unforgettable experience. It felt like an offbeat version of Riverdale that was interested less in camp than in genuine emotions, building less to a story conclusion than an effecting thematic one.

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