Review Round-Up: “Burning Cane,” “Paradise Hills,” And “Portals”


If it’s a Saturday after a busy week, that can only mean one thing, right? Yes, it’s time for another review round-up to help catch us all up on some of the smaller releases hitting theaters this weekend. As per the usual, we have three very different films to look at. This time, it’s the drama Burning Cane, as well as two different science fiction outings, one being the high concept Paradise Hills, while the other sci-fi offering is the anthology tale Portals. Are any of these worth your time? Are all of them? Read on to find out what I thought…

Burning Cane

Marvel at this fact for a moment. Phillip Youmans, the filmmaker behind Burning Cane, is a teenager. Yes, for real. He’s nineteen years old. Consider for a moment how unwatchable most teenagers’ attempts at cinema would be. Even with the greats, many of their first efforts are rudimentary and hardly put forth as features, especially before they were of drinking age. Then, there’s Youmans, who burst on to the scene earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival with this movie. Burning Cane would be a solid debut for any creative person, let alone someone who only now, as the flick is hitting theaters, is at the end of his teenage years. In under 80 minutes, he creates a slight yet compelling portrait of troubled characters that speaks to a maturity and wiseness well beyond his years.

The film is a drama, centered on a number of residents in rural Louisiana, living among the cane fields that constantly remind them of the past. There’s loving and worried mother Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers), a deeply religious woman who frets often about her son Daniel Wayne (Dominique McClellan). Daniel is an alcoholic, struggling with addiction, supported by his wife Sherry Bland (Emyri Crutchfield). His hardships weigh on them both. Then, there’s a preacher in Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce), who has recently suffered tragedy. The loss of his wife has pushed Tillman off his axis and towards alcoholism as well. As these characters struggle, Tillman’s sermons are shown, helping to tie in some of the film’s themes. A tale of flawed individuals, it’s a simple yet complex work. The aforementioned Youmans writes, directs, co-edits, and handles the cinematography. The score is by Kevin Gullage, while supporting players include Braelyn Kelly, Erika Woods, and more.

What makes this movie worth a recommendation is the potential exhibited by writer/director Phillip Youmans, as well as the performance by Wendell Pierce. Youmans literally made this feature while in high school, and is only now in film school, which is really something. The poise behind the camera is really something, as is the work he gets out of Pierce. Youmans definitely is still evolving as a storyteller, especially visually, where he’s got some of the look of a Terrence Malick, but his writing is already on point. Clearly inspired by personal experiences, he doesn’t fully make it all feel especially cinematic, but he finds the narrative thread enough to lead you along. Frankly, without Pierce, this might have veered towards being a bore, but the actor helps lead the way, as does the sheer excitement of watching a young filmmaker find their footing.

Burning Cane is indebted to the work of Malick, clearly, though focused closer to the ideas of Beasts of the Southern Wild, minus the magic and less realistic elements. Phillip Youmans is a bright young filmmaker going places, especially at this early age, so one can’t help but want to follow him where he goes next. Even if yours truly only found the flick to be good, instead of great (like the majority of colleagues have), there’s ample evidence that Youmans may be one of the next great directors in independent cinema. That alone is enough to warrant a recommendation for this controlled indie work.

Paradise Hills

When a top notch cast comes together for something below the radar, you’re either in for a disappointment or a major surprise. Sadly, while it toes the line for much of its running time, Paradise Hills ultimately turns into much more of the former than the latter. Now, as far as science fiction fare goes, it’s low-key and has some charm, but once it really leans into its genre trappings and becomes less about the characters, things become less and less satisfying, until it all becomes slightly too much of a mess to recommend.

This movie is a sci-fi tale, aiming to tie in some timely themes with its central mystery. Set in the near future, Uma (Emma Roberts) has woken up to find herself in a strange place. That place is the high end finishing school Paradise Hills. Set up as a a facility where rich families can send their daughters for training to become the ideal versions of themselves (or perfection as sought by their parents), it has the outside look of class. Headed up by Duchess (Milla Jovovich), a mysterious woman with obviously hidden agendas, the girls go through special treatments over the course of two months. Uma, along with friends Chloe (Danielle McDonald), Yu (Awkwafina) and Amarna (Eiza Gonzalez), initially go through the motions. However, between sessions meant to fix their physical and emotional shortcomings, Uma discovers a nefarious secret. Thus begins a race against time to escape from the facility, before it’s too late. Alice Waddington directs a script she co-wrote with Brian DeLeeuw and Nacho Vigalondo. Josu Inchaustegui provides the cinematography, while the score is by Lucas Vidal. Supporting players include Daniel Horvath, Jeremy Irvine, and more.

I wish there was more to grab on to here. The cast is solid, though everyone involved has done better work. Once the “twist” is revealed, if you haven’t guessed it already, things crumble. The idea of rebellious girls being sent away is nothing new, though with the sci-fi trappings, you know there’s more to the story than this. That’s where the struggles for Waddington arise. Her visual style is interesting, so her direction is on point. It’s just that her screenplay, written alongside the aforementioned DeLeeuw and Vigalondo, never coalesces into something as captivating as it should. Perhaps I’m unduly harsh because of the potential here, story wise and in terms of the cast, led by Roberts, but it can’t help but feel like a disappointment.

Paradise Hills is not far from being a recommendation worthy flick. Anything featuring Emma Roberts and Awkwafina these days is at least a curiosity. Alice Waddington shows off a style that should get her more directing jobs in short order. Alas, there’s something missing here, and it keeps the film from being where it should be. Paradise Hills is not without merit, but it sadly winds up being an interesting failure, and little more than that.

Portals

Anthology tales are a recent staple of genre fare. Horror and science-fiction especially have gone to them often on the independent scene, finding it to be an effective way to tell a different sort of story. These indies usually bring together compelling filmmakers or tie together with a hook that makes you curious enough to give in to a series of likely uneven shorts. However, in the case of Portals, none of that applies. Instead of breaking the mold to do something creative, it bungles the simple stuff and becomes an absolute chore to sit through. Hyper violent sci-fi horror mashups shouldn’t be complete slogs, but here we are, anyhow.

The flick sets up a world where, on August 5th of 2020, a series of blackouts have hit the planet. After they end, millions of mysterious cosmic anomalies, essentially tall monolith like objects (sort of from 2001: A Space Odyssey), come to be known as portals, appear all across the planet, littering the landscape. Most opt to move far away from them, but for the characters in this story, they’re either drawn toward, or into, them, setting the stage for horror. There’s a wrap around story featuring a man named Adam (Neil Hopkins) and his family, who are on their way to a relative when their car crashes directly into a portal, causing him to wake up alone in a mysterious hospital, separated from his family. Struck with nerve damage in his eye and given a transplant, he finds himself linked to the portals. As his story is checked in on, we see how others are responding to the arrival, including at a 911 call center, in a parking garage, and elsewhere. The directors on hand here are Gregg Hale, Liam O’Donnell, Eduardo Sánchez, and Timo Tjahjanto, while the writers consist of Sebastian Bendix, in addition to O’Donnell and Tjahjanto. Cast members, who are all disposable, also consist of Natasha Gott, Deanna Russo, Ptolemy Slocum, and more.

Despite an intriguing premise, this film goes absolutely nowhere, opting for random gore as opposed to containing any real ideas. The mix of horror and sci-fi could have been a genre bending bit of fun, but there’s none of that to be had. Instead, the anthology tales never really tie in, don’t function to a larger point, and descend into brutality without cause. It’s as if the filmmakers here had no idea what to do with the concept, so they just turned it into an excuse to kill off the cast in slightly creative ways. It ultimately becomes a pointless experience.

Portals winds up being just shy of one of the worst films of the year. There’s just enough here to pluck the movie out of that depth and drop it into mediocrity. Honestly, that might be worse, ad it’s less fun and even more disposable because of it. It’s hard to imagine who would be interested in this one, considering the shoddy execution, even if the idea itself of the portals has some little bits of potential. Instead, this is just a genre offering that’s easy to ignore, plain and simple.

All three of these films are in theaters now!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

Follow us

Breaking Hollywood News   


UPDATES BY EMAIL

Comments are closed.