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Films I Neglected To Review: Sound Judgement
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Light from Light," "Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound" and "Paradise Hills."

Based on the logline for "Light from Light" found on its IMDb page--"A single mom and part-time paranormal investigator is asked to look into a possible "haunting" at a widower's farmhouse in East Tennessee"--you can practically imagine all the spooky scenarios and jumps scares promised by such a description. While there are any number of fascinating things to be had about this particular film, the most unexpected and rewarding are the ways that it quietly but consistently rebuffs all of those expectations for something far more different and effective. Marin Ireland stars as Sheila, a single mother whose man job is working at an airport car rental concession but who also occasionally and somewhat reluctantly dabbles in paranormal investigation, a side gig stemming from the possibility that she may indeed have some kind of extrasensory gift, even if she herself seems unsure of it all. After doing a radio interview, she is put into contact with Richard (Jim Gaffigan), a widower who suspects that the spirit of his wife, recently killed in a plane crash, is lingering around their East Tennessee farmhouse and trying to communicate with him. Although reluctant to exploit her possible gifts for financial gain, Sheila agree to investigate and arrives at the farmhouse, accompanied by her teenaged son (Josh Wiggins) and his would-be girlfriend (Atheena Frizzell) and to say anything more would be to do the film a gross disservice. Suffice it to say, this is not another "Paranormal Activity" knockoff filled with cheesy scare sequences. With its decidedly low-key tone and a mood more contemplative than terrifying, it is closer in spirit--no pun intended--with David Lowry's similarly low-fi "A Ghost Story" and it is perhaps no surprise to learn that he was an executive producer here as well. For his part, writer-director Paul Harrill has created a quiet but unusually engrossing drama that develops in unexpected but satisfying ways while managing to retain a certain note of ambiguity throughout and which is further anchored by fine performances from the entire cast, especially the contributions from Ireland and Gaffigan. Those going into "Light from Light" looking for nothing but cheap thrills and dumb scares may be disappointed with its slow-burn approach but others will find it an uncommonly compelling work that, like an actual spirit, will linger with you long after it ends.

Sound is an undeniably important part of the cinematic experience but outside of the most basic elements, the average moviegoer probably does not have much of a working understanding of what it actually entails (proven ever year by the confusion about the differences between the two sound-related Oscar awards). The new documentary "Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound" aims to explain the various aspects of the history, mechanics and importance of film sound through the testimonies of two of its most celebrated practitioners--Ben Burtt ("Star Wars") and Walter Murch ("Apocalypse Now")--as well as such filmmakers as Ryan Coogler, Sofia Coppola, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand. From recounting early experiments with sound technology to the audio secrets behind some of Hollywood's most famous films (such as how jangling car keys were deployed to approximate the sound of clanking armor in "Spartacus") to the current evolution of the industry thanks to technological advances and a new generation of craftspeople (including Gary Rydstrom, the man behind the sounds heard in nearly all the Pixar features), director Midge Costin (a sound editor herself) presents an entertaining and informative overview of an often-misunderstood subject without ever letting it get totally bogged down in technical minutiae. For anyone with even the slightest interest in the behind-the--scenes workings of the world of film, "Making Waves" is a must-see but even those whose interest in cinema is not quite as intense will find a lot to learn here as well.

If "Paradise Hills" had been turned in as a film school project, it might have been dismissed or at least excused as an alternately pretentious and silly collection of themes and symbols in search of a coherent narrative--the kind that many new filmmakers need to get out of their systems when they can still afford to make mistakes. In fact, this debut feature from Alice Waddington contains an elaborately stylized look that could not have come that cheaply, a screenplay co-written by Nacho Vigolando and a cast featuring the likes of Emma Roberts, Awkwafina and Milla Jovovich but it still feels like a misfired student effort nevertheless. As the film opens, rebellious Uma (Roberts) wakes up in Paradise Hills, an isolated and lavishly appointed island retreat/rehab facility/asylum run by The Duchess (Jovovich) that, for a hefty fee, takes in problematic young women and puts them on the right path via a vigorous regime of diet, exercise and the occasional bit of brainwashing. Among those in attendance are Chloe (Danielle MacDonald), whose parents hope to transform her into a slender beauty queen, Yu (Awkwafina), who has problems with social anxiety, and Amama, a pop star whose handlers wish to quell her desire to change both her sound and her image in potentially controversial ways. Uma's crime is her desire to marry someone beneath her social standing rather than the elite psychopath that her mother favors for her. Uma quickly begins to suspect that something is off with the place and bands together with her new friends to figure out the truth behind what The Duchess is doing and how to escape for good.

"Paradise Hills" is clearly a film commenting on how society as a whole tries to silence or condition women who threaten to upset things with their refusal to conform to societal standards. That message is delivered pretty bluntly right up at the front of the film but the oddball story and setting donít really have much to say about these ideas beyond the most obvious notions--you get the feeling that the themes were decided upon first and the story was then jerry-rigged to fit around them. The visuals are certainly trippy enough but they start to feel like distractions included to keep you from noticing the shallowness of the screenplay and the fairly uninspired direction. There are a lot of good actors here but they are mostly one-note turns as well--the only one who really makes an impact is Jovovich, who tends to thrive in cheerfully over-the-top roles such as this. (By comparison, I suspect that Awkwafina wishes that this film had come out before her star-making turn earlier this year in 'The Farewell.") The sheer, if ultimately shallow, weirdness of "Paradise Hills" might be enough to win it a small cult following but unless you have been yearning for someone to do a mashup of "The Virgin Suicides" and "Sucker Punch," this particular cinematic Paradise will prove to be anything but.

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originally posted: 11/01/19 06:24:56
last updated: 11/03/19 00:47:40
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