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Review: Most Beautiful Island (Dir. Ana Asensio, 2018)

“Are you ready to receive the gift of salvation?” a street preacher asks lead character Luciana as she walks past him. It’s a running theme through the first half of Most Beautiful Island as Luciana discusses redemption with her mother. She has left her home country following an accident involving her daughter Sofia (we don’t know the specifics but there’s a shoebox containing baby clothes, sealed in plastic bags to preserve the newborn smell). In the US she must find the belief to survive and the faith that things will, have to, improve.

The film opens with a camera sweeping crowded streets, randomly honing in on unidentified women and briefly following them before moving onto the next, until it eventually finds Luciana (writer-director Ana Asensio). She is trying to see a doctor for the nausea, nightmares and nose bleeds which are becoming more and more prevalent, however she, like many undocumented individuals, has no health insurance nor the $75 spare to pay for the appointment. Her day made worse as she returns home to passive-aggressive notes from her roommate demanding rent and the Post-Its tacked to food items in the fridge reminding her that they are “Not Yours”.

What follows is a relentless pelting of lack of privilege and hardship, tightly framed and often in close-up to give a real sense of discomfort and entrapment as each situation becomes increasingly worse; living hand to mouth, the crappy jobs which include babysitting bratty children or dressing like a sexy chicken to advertise fast food (the latter something immigrant men are spared, presumably). While discussing the dismal prospects with friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) – another woman finding her way in the world – Luciana considers donating her eggs for the $8000 offered in a magazine ad, it’s either that or fully embrace the defeat she has been feeling. However, things look promising when Olga offers Luciana the opportunity to cover for her at a party, all she needs is a LBD and heels and in return she will earn $2000.

At some point, alarm bells must start ringing as Luciana is led to the bowels of a Chinese restaurant to pick up a handbag, a designer knock-off complete with a padlock and then onto the hastily scribbled address she carries on a scrap of paper. As a viewer, you’re internally screaming for her to turn back as her evening becomes more bizarre, she finds herself in a web of weirdness, and the significance of those women seen in the opening moments is made apparent. To say any more would be to spoil but suffice to say Jeffrey Alan Jones’ music comes into its own here, the jarring sounds adding to the tension as the voyeuristic handheld super 16mm camera bounces between close-ups and wide shots, most of the action taking place behind a closed door – we’re as much in the dark as Luciana.

Most Beautiful Island depicts the day and night, light and dark aspect of the American Dream, and the form the film takes is very much split in two as the day brings opportunity and the night brings the dastardly (and genre-favourite and the film’s producer Larry Fessenden in a very small role). Asensio’s deployment of those genre elements in the second half exaggerates an already increasingly hopeless situation and is particularly effective. The first-time director manages to communicate a great deal, harrowingly, in a taut 80 minutes and refreshingly doesn’t sugar-coat the human plight at the centre of her narrative.

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Review

Review: We Are Still Here (Dir. Ted Geoghegan, 2015)

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The opening shot of Ted Geoghegan’s directorial debut We Are Still Here is a blank canvas of snow; desolate, cold and perfect. Anne and Paul Sacchetti are on the way to their new home – the exterior landscape is not the only frosty element to the scene, the deep chill clearly present in the car. Anne (Barbara Crampton) is broken – though no victim; devastation is written all over her face, her eyes red raw from crying. Paul (Andrew Sensenig) keeps his feelings hidden in the odd tumbler of scotch. They have recently lost their son Bobby in a car accident and the new home is obvious attempt at escaping painful memories; the couple are connected in their grief and yet completely alone with it.

From the moment they pull up to the house, it is evident that things are not what they seem. It is very subtle but look closely at the shutters of the windows, they move, as if they are blinking; the house lives. It has a history and energy which hippy séance-loving friends Jacob and May Lewis (Larry Fessenden and Lisa Marie) zone into when they pay a visit to the Sacchettis. The eeriness of the vacant rooms, creaking of door hinges and floorboards and a breeze coming from seemingly nowhere that keeps knocking over a framed photograph of Bobby. It has all the hallmarks of a haunted house film but somehow this feels more authentic. The camera is intrusive and lurks voyeuristically, the editing similar to Don’t Look Now as it draws the audience in, dialogue is scarce but that just adds to the tension.

Family is the heart of this film and Wojciech Golczewski’s original music compliments the theme wonderfully, playing with the melodrama and creating tension and foreboding. There are nods to Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Pupi Avati but they blend perfectly with the contemporary, albeit dateless, setting. There is even a yellow labelled J&B bottle of scotch perfectly placed, (although rebranded as B&J) displaying a sense of humour amid the modern aesthetic. The film is a slow burn and builds steadily to a bloody, yet profound, denouement. Oddtopsy FX provide some fabulous effects and gives us some real picturesque deaths as the house quite literally devours. Who knew arterial spray against a canvas backdrop could look so beautiful?

We Are Still Here plays with the 70s and 80s but feels wholly original. It is smart, well-acted, funny and was the standout of this year’s FrightFest.