FlixChatter Review: ANNETTE (2021)

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What a roller coaster ride it has been doing an Adam Driver marathon of sort. I had just watched four of his films last month for the Hidden Gems series, which I had decided before I got a press screening for ANNETTE last week. Well in a way, the absolute bizarrity of Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote ends up serving as a pre-req for Annette. It’s interesting that before the film starts, we’ve got a VO of its director Leos Carax telling the audience to hold our breath until the end of the movie. Well, there were a few times I did hold my breath watching this movie.

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It’s been four days since I saw it and let’s just say I’m still recovering from it, ahah. I guess nothing could really prepare you for this rock opera written by the Sparks Brothers. Ok now, even that info alone should tell you this isn’t a movie you watch for its strong narrative. Its primary strengths are its visual style and the catchy songs. I LOVE So May We Start in its opening sequence, starting with Carax and the Sparks with their band in a studio, then they step out the room, meeting the main actors of the movie and the entire group sing the song together as they walk out into the street. That’s such a surreal scene unlike anything I’ve ever seen, which is what you could say about the entire movie.

We’ve fashioned a world, a world built just for you
A tale of songs and fury with no taboo
We’ll sing and die for you, yes, in minor keys
And if you want us to kill too we may agree

That’s just some of the lyrics from the opening song… so don’t say the filmmakers didn’t warn you. When it first came out in Cannes, Twitter was set alight by critics describing a character performing cunnilingus while singing a love song. Well believe it or not, it’s actually NOT the most bizarre thing in this movie.

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The basic plot is that we’ve got a celebrity couple, a stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (Driver) and an opera singer Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard) who falls head over heels in love. Their career trajectory changes course as the film progresses and the birth of their daughter turns their lives into a tailspin. The film’s title is named after their daughter who has a special gift… I’m not going to spoil it for you what her gift is, but what’s quite unnerving to behold is Carax chose to use a puppet for the baby. For someone with a strong aversion for dolls/puppets in general, it took me a while to adjust to that fact, but thankfully there are plenty of things to distract me from it, most notably Adam Driver’s tour de force performance.

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In my post about Annette here, some critics talked about Driver’s towering, imposing physicality being used to great effect in this film. That turns out to be absolutely true. Though billed as a bizarre love story, this is pretty much an Adam Driver show from start to finish and he capably carries this film on his strong shoulders. Carax is known for his grand but strange vision for his films and Driver is willing to match his insane cinematic choices, which I shouldn’t be surprised given he did exactly that for Terry Gilliam. As Henry, his dry sense of humor, sheer rage, magnetic charisma and intensity are in full display here, at times in extreme close-ups. His character preps with boxing regimen in his hooded robe which is quite strange for a comedian, but perhaps that explains why his acts are so militant and physical. Most people have seen how intense he could be as Kylo Ren in the Star Wars trilogy, but given he’s under a mask for most of the trilogy, I feel like you’re robbed off just how insane he’s willing to go for a role.

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Annette feels more like an experimental film at times, but it also feels personal in its depiction of love and loss. I find it hard for me to delve into this film’s plot as even after days watching it, I can’t quite put a finger on it what it’s about. Driver’s Henry–nicknamed ‘the ape of God’– is such a provocative performer who depicts the quintessential toxic masculinity, complete with a Me-Too chorus of women accusing him of various misbehaviors. But even from his stand-up acts where he doesn’t so much deliver jokes but throw lines at the audience to react to, it’s clear he’s got issues. Though both Henry and Ann are performers, the stark difference is that Henry seems to put a lot of himself into his show while Cotillard’s Ann is the opposite. She wears a wig when portraying a larger-than-life persona in her play where she dies at the end of each show. The theme of death ends up spilling over from their stage persona into real life… well, as ‘real’ as it seems in this film given the blurred line between fantasy and reality.

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Despite Driver’s long screen time in the movie (he’s pretty much on screen at least 95% of the time), I don’t really get his character. I’m not sure the filmmakers intend it to be a character study, but at least Driver has an arc as Cotillard’s and Simon Helberg’s the conductor character barely has any. Both have their moments in the movie, but for the most part I feel like their characters are only there to move Henry’s story forward. It’s quite frustrating and such a pity given how talented both actors are. Heck, what living breathing performers want to be upstaged by a puppet baby? Yet that’s what happens here, especially the huge scene towards the end that made me gasp. The ending is as puzzling as ever as it feels anticlimactic. My friend sitting next to me raises both hands as the screen turns to black and said ‘that’s it?!’ Perhaps the filmmakers intend things to be one big giant puzzle, but perhaps they just didn’t know how to end the film.

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In terms of visuals, Annette is gorgeous to look at, shot by French DP Caroline Champetier, it has a neon green/blue tone similar to Holy Motors that she also shot. As to be expected in a musical, the songs are memorable and have such an infectious energy to them. So May We Start and We Love Each Other So Much are still stuck in my head to this day. One thing for sure though, the film’s sheer grandiosity, extreme absurdity and off-kilter sensibilities will likely make this one of the most divisive movies of recent memory. Like Holy Motors, Carax’s distinctive styles are not for everyone. It’s long running time (140 minutes) and odd pacing also doesn’t make this the easiest film to recommend to others.

For me personally, despite some of my biggest quibbles, I had a good time with it. I feel like I don’t have to fully understand something to appreciate it. Just like an art in a museum/gallery, I often have no clue what it means or why it’s constructed in such a way, but it can still be absolutely mesmerizing.

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Have you seen ANNETTE? I’d love to hear what you think!

FlixChatter Review: LIMBO (2021)

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There have been some titles of certain films lately that leave me scratching my head, but this is one of those occasions where this one word title perfectly describes the story. The people in this film are literally in limbo, they’re in a forgotten place and state, uncertain of what to become of their fate as this new arrivals in a fictional remote Scottish island await results of their asylum claims. 

The main protagonist is Omar (Amir El-Masry), a well-educated Syrian musician who carries his grandfather’s Oud everywhere he goes. He ends up sharing a room in a rackety house with Farhad (Vikash Bhai) from Afghanistan, who somehow still remains chirpy after having been on the island for about three years. The contrasting personality often creates an amusing exchange between them, especially as Farhad suddenly decides to adopt a chicken from a nearby, unattended farm. I suppose when one has absolutely nothing to do and barely anyone to talk to, having a pet seems like a good idea. There are also two West African refugees Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) along Omar’s journey who I initially thought as brothers. Each have their own dream and life goal, as we all do, but let’s just say how one of the characters end up is quite heartbreaking.

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The vast Scottish Western Isles landscape is beautiful but feels desolate, which makes it even more evocative. As they say, sometimes the location becomes the character. The Scottish landscape truly helps you get into the characters’ head as they wait, and wait, and wait… with no hint or assurance whatsoever if their asylum papers would ever be granted. The culture class taught by husband/wife team Helga and Boris (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Kenneth Collard, respectively) offers absurd humor that’s both sad and amusing.

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Ben Sharrock, in his sophomore feature effort, is definitely a filmmaker to watch. Limbo is a study of restraint as everything moves at a measured pace. The film has minimal dialog but it’s highly atmospheric. The slow-ness is deliberate, the camera takes its time following a character walking down a field or lingering for minutes as a character talks on the phone inside a phone booth. Sharrock acutely depicts a sense of loneliness and isolation that’s palpable and moving. In a sea of action films that just want to get your adrenaline going with endless high-octane action sequences, it’s actually refreshing to watch something that really allow you to immerse yourself in the story and the journey the characters are going through. I think some people might find the whole affair a bit too tedious, but I find it quietly absorbing given how it reminds me of my own life as an immigrant. Granted my experience before I finally became a US citizen were vastly different from Omar’s or Farhad’s, but I remember being in limbo while I was waiting for my H1B visa approval.

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I love that Sharrock didn’t spoon feed us too much details of each character’s situation, but gave us enough hints to empathize with them. For example, the way he revealed Farhad’s situation in his home country, in just a simple sentence I understand why he didn’t mind the wait as he simply cannot go back. Small gestures of kindness involving a fellow refugee working at a small grocery shop is done really well that makes a seemingly obscure scene deeply memorable and meaningful. 

I feel like by the end of the film I’ve spent time with real people instead of watching actors playing a part. Of course that is part of the beauty of not having big-name stars, but later on I recognized El-Masry from his supporting role in BBC’s miniseries The Night Manager. I really like his performance here, there’s a quiet grace and compelling vulnerability about his performance. He’s got a nice rapport with Bhai who’s also able to balance the humorous and earnest moments nicely.

There are plenty of films about the refugee experience, but LIMBO definitely stands out from the pack for its unusual wry approach. The film isn’t afraid to be melancholic without resorting to over-sentimentalism. It even veers into surrealism involving Omar’s brother. The musical number towards the end wonderfully celebrates Omar’s musical past and I find it so moving. Though the ending isn’t neatly tied in a big red bow with some questions remain unanswered, it does end in a hopeful note, which I think is as perfect an ending as one can get.

4/5 stars

Have you seen LIMBO? I’d love to hear what you think!

TCFF 2017 Reviews: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri + Blue Balloons

It’s just two days left in TCFF and I’m playing catch-up with posting reviews! You might’ve noticed I’ve got to post a couple of things in a day at times… too many films too little time (both to watch and to review!)

Well, below are couple of reviews from Day 6 and 7.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
review by Andy Ellis

It’s described as a dark comedy, but writer and director Martin McDonagh’s newest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, has a lot more to offer. The film, led by Frances McDormand who plays Mildred who causes some small town chaos by using three billboards to ask local officials why they haven’t found her daughter’s murderer and rapist yet.

A subject such as this must be treaded upon carefully, and it’s done very well here. The humor comes from the fact that none of the characters hold anything back. Mildred has has no problem telling the local priest how she really feels, or anyone else for that matter. Sam Rockwell shines as Dixon,  a small-minded Sheriff’s Deputy with a short temper ends up costing him dearly in one key scene. If there’s a character who keeps his calm the best in the story it’s Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, the main target of Mildred’s billboard messages.

It’s also a film with a lot of heart in it as well, and it helps round out the characters. One scene causes causes Mildred to switch moods so fast you’ll realize that beneath that pissed-off no-nonsense barrier is a mother that just wants her daughter back. And this role may even earn McDormond some awards recognition, and then same goes for Rockwell.

The rest of the cast rounds out the story pretty well, too, with each one getting their own chance to shine—and they do. Lucas Hodges plays Mildred’s son Robbie who isn’t all on board with his mom’s methods, and Abbie Cornish plays the Sheriff’s wife Anne. Caleb Landry Jones has great scenes as Red Welby the owner of the billboards, and Peter Dinklage has a very small but memorable role. John Hawkes plays Charlie, Mildred’s ex-husband, and Samara Weaving steals the show a couple times as Penelope, Charlie’s young girlfriend.

This film is a great mix of everything, and throws more than a few a surprises in there as well. The acting is superb and it’ll leave you wanting more. Now if only more films would grab a hold of you like this one did.


BLUE BALLOONS
Review by Ruth Maramis

This is one of the films with a Minnesota connection that I actually didn’t know much about. So I pretty much going in blindly about the story, other than the fact that the story deals with a terminal illness.

Right from the start, this film feels deeply personal. I’m not sure if that’s the case, but Blue Balloons is an honest, realistic story about a family gripping with the complexity of cancer. Written, directed and produced by Emily Troedson, who also acts as the eldest daughter Claire of the Kippson family, the story is told from her perspective. I like that it paints the day-to-day life of the family in a matter-of-fact, candid way… especially in the way Claire is questioning her faith and her existence in a devout Lutheran community.

Chari and Emily in Blue Balloons

The film’s pacing is a bit slow and really tries your patience at times. I have to say some of the acting by the supporting cast aren’t convincing (crying with no tears visible??), but overall it’s a well-crafted piece with genuinely poignant moments as well as interesting artistic choices. I wish there were more mother-daughter relationship being explored here, though I think the dynamic of the family is portrayed pretty well.

Chari Eckmann as Joanne

I connected most with Emily’s character and she did an amazing job juggling so many roles in the film. Being a daughter who dealt with an ill mother at a young age, there are parts that was hard to watch for me. I also have to commend Chari Eckmann‘s performance (as the cancer-stricken Joanne), her emotional transformation and deterioration throughout the film is believable.

Glad to see so many talented writer/director like Emily having their films at TCFF! I sure hope she continues to make films in the future.


There’s more films and festivities to be had at TCFF!

 

Guest Review: CHRISTINE (2016)

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Written/Directed By: Antonio Campos
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Tracy Letts, J. Smith-Cameron, Michael C. Hall
Runtime: 1 hr 59 minutes

Depression and suicide do not make pretty subjects for a film. It is easy to produce a voyeuristic essay that exploits someone’s despair and self-destruction, but portraying tragedy without sensationalising or trivialising it is as tough as it gets for directors and actors. While most suicides are silent and private, TV journalist Christine Chubbuck chose the most public stage available when in July 1974 she shot herself in the head, live and on-camera. Christine (2016) is her story.

At 29 years of age, anxiety-ridden over a career that stalled, still a virgin and living with her mum, Christine (Rebecca Hall) faces a daily struggle with herself and everyone around her. She is a serious journalist who believes her main role is to tell the truth about important issues but she is also a very difficult person to be near. Hyper self-critical, she needs constant stroking and clashes frequently with her TV station boss who is under pressure to improve ratings. He wants sensationalist coverage of human interest stories, so she is side-lined while others get the breaks. She has long had a crush on another announcer, but he is wary of getting involved with someone so intense. When she finds out he is dating someone it adds another layer of despair; her divorcee mother brings home a date and it feels as if life could not rub enough salt into her wounds.

The tension across this story rises incrementally, with each episode triggering another outburst but not serious enough to push her over the edge. While the episodes subside they do not disperse, and their cumulative effect is to store increasingly volatile fuel that slowly approaches flashpoint. The storytelling imparts a sense of us intimately knowing Christine, seeing what she is going through, feeling her waves of emotion and knowing that she cannot take much more of this. Whether its empathy, curiosity or voyeurism, there is no mistaking our proximity to her when, in the film’s closing moments, she looks straight down the camera lens and says “bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and living colour, you are going to see another first”, and then shoots herself.

This film is not for viewers who are looking for action-based drama. It offers little of that, but loads of dialogue and characterisation. Rebecca Hall is brilliant as Christine, tip-toeing the fine line between appearance of normality and deep despair. It is extraordinary that in her final minutes we can almost feel what it is like to have no hope and see no other way out. This is one of the most high-voltage female lead performances of the year, and begs the question why Christine (2016) was overlooked at the Academy Awards.

Everything in this film leads inexorably towards what we know is going to happen. One effect of this is that we readily interpret all that we see as causally linked symptoms of acute depression. It would be easy to say that now, more than four decades later, this could not happen again because we know so much more about the causes and treatment of this debilitating condition. But of course, this is not true; and that is why this is such an important film.

cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘CHRISTINE’? Well, what did you think? 

MSPIFF Double Documentary Reviews: Chavela and Untouchable (2017)

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CHAVELA

Directed By: Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi
Runtime: 1 hour 30 minutes

Like most 20-something-year-old Midwesterners, I had never heard of Chavela Vargas. I might have heard some of her music in college, but I didn’t know her name-or her incredible history-until I saw Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s documentary chronicling her unconventional musical career, heartbreaking personal experiences, and massive impact on Mexico’s LGBT community.

Chavela tells the story of Chavela Vargas, a Costa Rican-born Mexican ranchera singer who gained popularity in the 50’s and 60’s, then disappeared into obscurity until the her career was revived in the early 90’s. Through a collection of interviews of individuals who knew her, as well as an interview of Chavela herself, we learn of her life-her lonely childhood with her loveless parents, per move to Mexico to pursue a music career, her struggle to find mainstream success due to her masculine style and being a known lesbian, despite not publicly labeling herself as such until her later years, her nearly crippling alcoholism, and her comeback in the 90’s that led to a huge, 2-decade-long success until her death in 2012.

I obviously can’t discuss this film without first discussing Chavela’s music, which acts as the perfect soundtrack to the story of her life, because it is so genuinely emotional. Every note in her strong, smoky voice carries a passion that you don’t realize is absent in other artists until you hear the real thing. It’s integrated so well into the movie too- each song, with its lyrics subtitled in English in a script-like font over concert clips and snapshots, introduce the different parts of Chavela’s life. It’s a beautiful and creative way of incorporating her music into the storytelling instead of just playing it in the background.

My only critique of this documentary is that, while for the most part it is very well-organized, it occasionally introduces a topic or piece of information in a seemingly unrelated spot, which can be a little jarring in an otherwise smooth narration. I understand there’s only so much they can fit into an hour and a half-long film, but that doesn’t completely excuse messy structure.

Despite minor organizational problems, I would highly recommend you see this fascinating movie if you get the chance, and if you don’t, at least listen to some of Chavela’s music, and if you don’t have tears in your eyes by the time you’re done, you’re made of stronger stuff than I am.

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UNTOUCHABLE

Directed By: David Feige

David Feige’s documentary Untouchable is a difficult film to review, mostly due to the painful and complicated subject content. Documentaries are difficult enough to critique since they’re more informational than entertaining, and one about the sex offender registry is even more challenging to discuss. As Feige said when introducing it at MSPIFF, “it’s hard to watch, but easy to remember.”

Untouchable explores the national sex offender registry, using the stories of individuals affected by it to show its intricacies. Interviewees include Ronald Book, a lobbyist who has been fighting for the toughest sex offender laws possible after discovering his daughter Lauren had been assaulted by her nanny; Shawna, a mother of two who has been on the registry since she was 18 for having drunken sex with a 15-year-old boy; and Patty Wetterling, the Minnesota mother whose son Jacob was kidnapped, assaulted, and murdered by a complete stranger who had no history of pedophilia on criminal record.

This film does an excellent job of showing all sides: the victims and their families as well as the sex offenders and theirs. They never try to excuse the behavior of the worst criminals, but they show that nothing about the registry is simply black and white, despite how a lot of the laws are set up.

Untouchable’s biggest problem is that they don’t explore sexual assault prevention; they make a point that it’s important but don’t really discuss it past some clips of Lauren Book reading her children’s book on the subject to a group of kids, and, as Patty Wetterling pointed out during the Q&A after the movie, just holding your hand up and loudly saying “No!” isn’t a solution. Granted, the majority of the film was about the intricacies of the sex offender registry laws, not sexual assault itself, but discussing prevention would have provided a good balance, especially since it is brought up during the film.

Despite this, Untouchable is an important documentary, and hopefully its release will lead to more exploration in and work on sex offender registry laws.

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Have you seen either one of these documentaries? Well, what did you think? 

Spotlight on [ + review] of indie comedy ‘We Make Movies’

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A hilarious and heartfelt look “behind the scenes” as a group of college kids spend their summer making a movie for their town’s Film Festival. Cameras chronicle the tumultuous ups and downs as an egotistical student Director rounds up his friends (and some bystanders) to help make his masterpiece: a movie that blends together all the greatest films ever made.

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Laura’s review:

I love mockumentary-style comedies. Christopher Guest movies always crack me up, and The Office is one of my top go-to binge shows on Netflix. So I was delighted to have the chance to watch We Make Movies, an independent film by Matt Tory, when I found out it was the same style as some of my favorite comedies.

We Make Movies follows a group of college-aged individuals, led by wannabe filmmaker Stevphen (Matt Tory -and yes, I did spell the name right), in their journey to make a great movie for their small town’s film festival. Stevphen is joined by his best friend and loyal assistant producer Donny (Jordan Hopewell), their friend and the movie’s straight man Garth (Jonathan Holmes), Garth’s acting classmate Leonard (Zack Slort), and Donny’s cousin Jessica (Anne Crocket). The group struggles with filmmaking logistics as well as personal conflicts behind the scenes.

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I really enjoyed this movie. I laughed out loud multiple times (especially at the titles of some of Stevphen’s previous movies), and was impressed by most of the cast’s acting skills. Jordan Hopewell as the lovably dorky Donny was especially hilarious, and Jonathan Holmes as Garth struck a great balance of being the exasperated voice of reason while still bringing a lot of humor to his character. The writing overall was fantastic, with several hilarious one-liners and sight gags.

That said, there were a couple problems I had with this film. The main one had to do with Stevphen. While it can be interesting and funny to have an unlikeable main character, Stevphen is a little too one-note. He has absolutely no redeeming qualities: he’s pretentious, jealous, and self-absorbed. They try to give him a bit of a character development at the end of the movie, but by then it’s too little too late. Leonard, the lead actor in Stevphen’s movie, had similar flaws, but he was also self-conscious, which added at least some depth; I’m not sure why they couldn’t do that with Stevphen.

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Jessica has a similar problem: her character is underdeveloped. I’m not sure if it’s the acting or the way the character was written, but it was unclear if she’s supposed to be a deadpan pessimist or the straight woman to Stevphen, Leonard, and Donny’s ridiculous behavior. I worry that, as the sole female character, she was just there as a romantic interest, and as such didn’t get as much effort put into writing her.

Despite these complaints, We Make Movies is a genuinely funny, enjoyable comedy, and I hope to see more from Matt Tory soon.

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Visit We Make Movies‘ official site


 

‘Project Eden Vol.1’ Premiere Recap + Interview with filmmakers Ashlee Jensen & Terrance Young

Last week had been quite a whirlwind… but in the most wonderful way. Last Wednesday 2/15, my hubby and I attended the premiere of Project Eden Vol. I, part of Twin Cities Film Fest’ Insider Series event, with the cast and crew. It was a fun, festive night. It was lovely to chat a bit with the lovely lead actress Emily Fradenburgh, who arrived early to the event in a gorgeous dress, as I didn’t get to interview her in person. Everyone looked red-carpet ready, including the Twin Cities-based male lead actor Peter Christian Hansen, who was his usual charming self.

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I had met the duo filmmakers Terrance Young and Ashlee Jensen just hours before for our interview at Nina’s Coffee House. The screening ended with a fun Q&A with the cast and crew.


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Quick Thoughts on the film:

Well, the first part of Project Eden got off to a strong start. The sci-fi thriller deservedly won Best Vision at the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival just a week prior. It’s an intriguing sci-fi that played more like a conspiracy theory, set in a familiar world like ours, but with a few twists. I have to say the visuals looked amazing, shot by Twin Cities based DP Christopher Lange. It looked more expensive than it was, which is always a feat for indie films. The film’s is quite enigmatic and made you ponder about what’s really going on, but that’s to be expected as we haven’t seen the whole story yet.

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The two leads Evelyn and Ethan (played by Emily Fradenburgh and Peter Hansen) are definitely the strongest performers of the film. We’re not sure just how their worlds are connected, but we’re given just enough to care about their journey. It’s always interesting when we’re not sure if the protagonist is a good guy or not, and Ethan definitely keeps you guessing. Evelyn and the mystery surrounding her catatonic son is the focal point of the story, and her exchange with Erick Avari’s mysterious character in the third act leads to a massive cliffhanger!

I do have a few quibbles, such as the stock characters and their hackneyed dialogue. There are also odd situations that don’t quite add up, which you could refer to as plot holes or continuity problems. But overall, it’s a pretty thrilling set-up that made me eager to see Volume II!

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I met the duo filmmakers Terrance and Ashlee at another charming St. Paul coffee house called Nina’s. There’s a bit of logistical challenge trying to set up a time to meet, as they were only in town for a few days so no doubt their schedule is jam packed. But it was well worth the effort as they’re one of the nicest people you ever had the privilege to meet! They’re both from Sunshine Coast, Australia, and they certainly had such a sunny outlook on life. By the time I got there, Terrance had stepped out for a bit so I got to chat with Ashlee first.

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How did the concept/story idea of Project Eden first come about for you?

Ashlee: Terrance actually had the concept of the ending, this amazing grand ending, about ten years ago. And we’ve known each other for 11 years, so we talked about it back and forth throughout that time, but of course we ended up doing other things, including 500 Miles (Ashlee’s directorial debut that Terrance produced). Then we went on our separate ways, we did a bit of study and other projects in between. It wasn’t until we stopped here in Minneapolis on our way to Palm Beach for 500 Miles and we walked through the Stone Arch Bridge. And from one side of the bridge to the other we talked out the whole story of Project Eden.

Terrance: So the beginning and the end were always there. For some reason, I don’t know if it was a dream or something. So the idea was there but it’s a concept that was going to cost a lot of money so we put it off. I just weren’t at a point in my career yet [to make this]. So Ashlee and I did 500 Miles together in 2014, then a few years later we were here in Minneapolis and we came up with the whole story and started writing it. As we had the beginning and the end, we sort of weaved everything together. Then we decided to do it in two volumes as we know that if we’re trying to do it as one feature we wouldn’t have gotten the budget. It’d be too ambitious. But by doing part I, it opened up a franchise opportunity and we’re able to make Part I with a decent amount of money.

So are you saying the birth of the project is right here in Minneapolis?

Ashlee: Yes. It’s really interesting because when we had our final filming blocked, so this was a year and a half blocked in three different countries (Australia, New Zealand and the US), the very final scene that we shot was the one that happened at the Stone Arch Bridge.

You said you talked through the whole project as you both were walking in Stone Arch Bridge. Did you envision it to be multiple films instead of just one feature?

Ashlee: No, at the time, obviously we fell in love with the city, it has the right vibe and we’re like, ‘oh we have to film it here, it’s amazing.’ At the time we were hoping to get it into one story, but by the time it came down to to writing it all out and then of course being indie filmmakers, all the other things came into place. We didn’t have unlimited budget and all these political, behind-the-scenes stuff came up. But we knew in our hearts if we wanted to do justice to the story then we needed to separate it into two volumes. So the first one you’re really setting up the world of Project Eden and getting to know the characters in such a deep level, seeing all their flaws and the journey they’re about to embark on. But we ended it right at the point where things are about to kick off. It’s a massive cliffhanger.

You said Terrance had this grand ending idea initially, but did you have the characters in mind at the time? Or is it more about the concept?

Ashlee: We didn’t have the name but we knew the central core of the story is a young woman and her son who’s in a catatonic state.

In the concept video, both of you said that the world seems to think that spirituality and science are two separate things while you think it’s one and the same. Would you expand a bit on that thought?

Ashlee: Sure. Of course these are our personal perspectives how we view reality.. But we see time and time again where there’s always this opposing views that you’re either spiritual or you have this scientific belief. While we’re like, well why can’t it be combined? Because anything that is scientific has a spiritual element and vice versa. The nature of the universe and everything that we’re even sitting in today is so overwhelmingly vast and amazing, I don’t think you can pinpoint it down to just science. There is always this grander allusion of spirituality so we feel that the two are so complexly and deeply intertwined that it’s one and the same.

Terrance: I feel like our world today is governed by religion to the point of our detriment. We’re killing each other because of religion. At the end of the day everyone has a spiritual side, but we can still have science without discounting spirituality. That’s what we’re trying to do, with our science fiction [story], we do deal with science but there’s a spiritual element to it ‘cause I think that’s how the world is, physics and spirituality goes together. That’s our belief and people put in what they believe in into their own projects.

So did this film start out as a short film?

Ashlee: No, it’s a short film that Terrance and I did maybe about four years ago that has the same name. There are a few little themes that are similar to this feature film but it’s really more of a stand-alone story. If we’re ever going to expand on that little short, it’ll be more of a series. So no, this film didn’t originate as a short.

How about the financing aspect of this film? Did you go through crowdfunding route or did you talk to a bunch of financiers for this?

Terrance: Yeah, for the last film we did the crowdfunding route. It worked all right. But we knew we’d never raise the amount of money needed to make Project Eden. But we knew a guy who wanted to invest in our last film but the timing wasn’t right, so we went to him and he put in a bit of money. We also found a couple other investors so we’re able to put together some money to go and shoot the first half of the movie.

Ashlee: Yeah it’s a bit of an unorthodox approach. So we got a small pool of money and we knew it’s a catch 22. We need more money but we wouldn’t get more money until they see what we could do. So we took a massive risk. We came here [to the US] then came home with the first 20 minutes of the film.

Terrance: We had some money from investors but it was only like 50 grand here, 50 grand there, so we had about $150K all together to do the initial shoot. It’s totally unusual and a huge risk, because normally you don’t shoot the first 20 minutes in order. Then we presented that to the investors and showed them what it would look like. So we got more financing and went back to shoot the rest of movie in New Zealand and then back to Minnesota.

So in which country did you shoot the first 20 minutes?

Terrance & Ashlee: Here in Minnesota.

Wow, there’s a lot of Minnesota connection.

Terrance: Yes, we basically shot half the movie here in MN and half in New Zealand and a little bit in Australia.

The filmmakers w/ Twin Cities-based DP Christopher Lange + Helsinki-based Mark Hobson Source: Project Eden FB
The filmmakers w/ Twin Cities-based DP Christopher Lange + Helsinki-based Mark Hobson – Source: Project Eden FB

What made you decide to collaborate and co-direct this film?

Ashlee: This one is a huge… the premise of this concept is big, and there’s all these intricacies that work up to the grand ending. So for us, to make sure that we always have one another’s back that no one would fall behind, we’re always on the same page. Since we wrote this together, we decided to direct this together as well. We’ll do the same for volume 2, but this project is the only one we’ll do it like this.

Terrance: It was so ambitious that we knew that one of us could not just go and direct this. Ashlee is so great about working with actors and getting the performance out of them. My background is in post production so I’m more on the technical side. So we’ve got two different viewpoints but because we were on the same page when we wrote it, there was never any sort of clashes of creative ideas.

Yes, Peter mentioned that it was seamless collaboration that if it wasn’t the case, then you guys did a good job in shielding it from him and the other actors.

Terrance: Yes we sort of had this agreement that if they had questions about characters then they’d go to Ashlee. If they had other questions such as the logistical stuff then I can handle those. Of course there were times that we chimed in together, but for the most part I’d handle the business if you will, how we’d get everybody to New Zealand and all that. But yeah we both learned from each other.

So how was the experience of collaborating? Do you want to keep doing this, directing together again?

Terrance: Look, we’ll definitely would do this together for volume 2 but after that I think we’d go back to directing and producing as we have two different skill set. But I am looking forward to working together again for the next film.

Ashlee: It strengthened our relationship as well. I think the reason why we seemed like this united pair because at the end of the day, we’re always like ‘y’know what, we have respect one another, we listen to one another’s perspectives and we have trust in one another. Because we were the leaders, whatever energy between us would filter down, so we have to make sure everything’s good.

What has been the most challenging aspect about making this film, apart from the financing?

Terrance: Having not gone the film school route and being told about how to do things. There were certain things that I personally learned the hard way. Even though sometimes it’s the best way to learn, it was very stressful and there were times we thought the movie just wouldn’t get done. Because we had invested so much, so much of our personal lives and also financially and professionally. But of course there’s always the belief that we’d never not finish what we’d started, so definitely there has been a ton of great life lessons and next time we’ll know what to do. I mean there will be a new set of problems but hopefully then we’d know more what to do.

Any snafus/mishaps during filming that stood out to you?

Ashlee: Well, we came over to America and learned about the politics of how films are run here. Then we went over to New Zealand. It’s like it’s same same, but also totally different. So we learned a little thing the hard way. We did have one incident in NZ. I mean it happens but for us, it was the first big things that happened and we’re like, whoa! We were filming in this little place called Waipu, it’s in the middle of nowhere, about 2.5 hours drive [from Auckland] and in order to get there is this long mountain tracks, all gravel road. Then this generator truck pulled to the side of the road to let a car pass and after all the rain and everything the road gave way and the whole truck rolled four times down the side of the mountain. Fortunately the makeup artist who was in the truck only had this cut on his nose and that was it!

Terrance: I know, he could’ve died!

Ashlee: Yep, 50 meters off the road and he would’ve fallen into a massive canyon and it would’ve been completely different situation.

Terrance: Because of that we only had limited power so our unit base like catering and so on could only have limited power just to have the lights on to keep the schedule going. The thing is, we didn’t really have money for contingency days, so if the lights didn’t work for the shoot, we would be a day behind and we wouldn’t have the money to facilitate that. So it was bad, but we were lucky as nobody got killed. But yeah, the generator was gone, we had to have another one brought in from Auckland.

Peter Hansen, Ashlee Jensen, Paul O'Brien, Emily Fradenburgh prepare to step onto set on Day 1 – Source: Project Eden FB
Peter Hansen, Ashlee Jensen, Paul O’Brien, Emily Fradenburgh on set on Day 1 – Source: Project Eden FB

So about casting. How did you cast those sci-fi actors like Mike Dohpud, Cliff Simmons, etc as well as the Twin Cities actors like Peter and Emily?

Terrance: So Ashlee dealt with the casting of the Minnesota people, and I dealt with the agents of Mike Dohpud, Cliff Simmons, etc.

Ashlee: With the hierarchy of films, as we get further in our careers, casting directors would cast a lot of the actors. But I personally love the audition process, love it. Not obviously for the smaller, background extras but the key people, we want to be a part of that. So when it came to the leads, we’ve got this little tradition that we’re always going to continue doing because we believe in supporting emerging creatives. So we always wanted our leads to be up and comers rather than established actors. So when it comes to casting here, we did a round of auditions and then everyone we liked we’ve got call backs and we did a few little read throughs. I think the crux of it, and there were a lot of talents, but there were a set of people that we really liked so we just sat down and had a conversation with them. Because when you worked with in such a small level, the people you work with became your family. So you want to know that they’re good people, that you like them, and they’re true collaborators. Emily and Peter just hands down just stand out, they’re both just all around good people.

Terrance: And we saw a lot of people so it’s not like we just picked them because they were presented to us. Like for Emily we must’ve seen about fifteen people and I think Peter too, there were probably similar amount.

Ashlee: And people were sending tapes to us too, so there were quite a lot.

Terrance: One of our producers, Sallyanne Ryan, she connected us with a photographer named Dennis Alick [spelling?] who’s very connected with the sci-fi channel world. He’s friends with Mike Dohpud. And we actually initially talked with an actor by the name of Robert Knepper, he played the character T-Bag in Prison Break. He’s very well known for that. But then he ended up not being a good fit for us, so we said we wanted to speak to Mike. So I spoke to his agent and did the deal. He said the reason he wanted to do it was because he loved the script. And then, because of that, see I grew up watching Stargate-SG1 and I love Cliff Simon who’d be great for the Russian.

Erick Avari in 'Project Eden Vol. I'
Erick Avari in ‘Project Eden Vol. I’

Then we looked at Erick Avari who’s just perfect for the role of the Shepherd. So for the most part we dealt with their agents but I contacted Erick Avari on Facebook. I asked him, ‘I’d love to send you a script so who’s your agent?’ He said, ‘I don’t have an agent at the moment as I’m trying to retire from Hollywood but you never know what’s going to happen, so send me the script.’ So we did and he wrote back saying, ‘well I got to say you’ve got an ambitious script here and I’m sick of mediocrity.’

Ashlee: Yeah he said ‘I’d rather put my time and energy into something like this than mediocrity chasing mediocrity.’

Terrance: So we had a chat together, we had Skype sessions, we did hours and hours working on the script. We worked on the dialog, he got really heavily involved. He came to New Zealand and he shot his scenes. So I’d say those three guys (Mike, Cliff and Erick), who I called the Stargate alumni, really brought a whole extra layer, dimension to the cast. So we’ve got these emerging actors from Minnesota surrounded by veteran International cast. Mike is Canadian, Cliff was born in South Africa but now lives in L.A. and Erick is of Indian descent but lives in the US.

So this is Volume I. So have you set up a time for Volume II?

Terrance: Yes it’s in development. We’re already working on the treatment, we’re already working on the script and we want to head to it straight away.

Ashlee: Exactly. Ideally we’d like to shoot this in 12 – 18 months.

Is it going to be set in the same location or are you thinking of finding another spot?

Ashlee: A little bit the same but we’re thinking of diversifying the locations, so maybe Peru…

Terrance: It’s definitely still in North or South America, we’re not going outside of that.

And the same cast, too?

Terrance: Well, the thing is we don’t want to say yes, because then you spoil the movie as then you know who dies in the first film. We don’t want to give anything away.

Yeah I know, but I really want the MN cast to be in this again, they’re such good talents.

Ashlee: But let’s just say we would be very happy to work with them again.

Terrance: One thing we want to reiterate is that we purposely marketed this as Volume I. Because we felt that if we just call this Project Eden and they saw the movie and only saw half of the story, they might feel cheated. But if they go in knowing that this is Part I and it ends at cliffhanger, they hopefully won’t get mad about it.

Ashlee: Hopefully they’d leave feeling excited to see where it’s going.

Terrance: I know it is a risky move for an indie film [to do it as two movies] as you just don’t know. But we followed our instincts and ironically it’s sort of having an opposite effect where they want people to buy it to see part II.

How long was the shoot?

Terrance: If you add it all together, it’s only about 4-5 weeks of filming. But when we split it up, it took about 10 months if you spread it out. But from concept to the finished product [for Vol.I] it took about 2 years. As far as the number of days, about 24 days. With pick up it’s 24 days.

Ashlee: That’s the thing with indie films, we were fitting in 6-8 pages a day, where normally on a bigger set, you have the luxury of only doing 1 page a day.

One last question for you Ashlee. I’ve been a champion of female filmmakers for a long time, which I tried to do on my blog. So would you comment a bit about the lack of gender diversity in the industry?

Ashlee: It’s an interesting topic for me to talk about because I feel like, perhaps I’m just lucky but I also think it’s about the people you surround yourself with. Terrance and I, we hire people based on their skill set and nothing else. And so honestly, on most film sets that we’ve done we’ve actually got more women than men. And it just happens to turn out that way. I would love to see more women in higher up roles and I think it is slowly happening, there’s a bit more awareness there.

In fact there is a film festival recently that just had a gender blind [system] so that when people put in their submissions, there are no names nor gender attached. And within the first year, they went from 3% to 50% of female directors and producers as they base everything purely on merit, on the work themselves. Look I think it’s changing. I mean, Terrance and I, we naturally who we are, we’re pioneering for that [diversity] but we’re not seeking to stand up and put a fuss about it. We are who we are, and I think we stay true to who we are in hiring people based on their abilities then hopefully the perception will start to shift.

Terrance: Y’know I actually get angry when people go on and fuss about equality in films because I don’t even think about that. I just think, who’s good for the job, y’know. I mean somehow naturally, a lot of our crew are women. And again, that’s the way it should be. It should be based on the skill set.

Ashlee: So yeah, like Terrance said, we don’t want to make a fuss about it but we are going to be role models. Just by being who we are and doing what we do.

Terrance: So yeah, we’re not going to force it, we’re going to like count how many women we have in our crew. I think people can’t accuse us about gender discrimination. I think the proof is in the pudding.

The cast & crew of 'Project Eden' Source: Project Eden's FB
The cast & crew of the Waipu shoot of ‘Project Eden’ 
Source: Project Eden’s FB


THANK YOU so much Ashlee + Terrance
for the fun, insightful conversation!