Monday, February 4, 2019

Sundance with Abe: Paradise Hills

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.

Paradise Hills
Directed by Alice Waddington

It’s difficult to truly change a person. Over the course of their life, they may adapt new viewpoints based on events and experiences, but, unless there is tremendous work matched by a similarly staunch will, truly becoming something else is uncommon. When someone does transform considerably, there’s usually reason for alarm, raising questions about whether the change has come about as a result of outside influences that might be deemed dangerous or oppressive. When fantasy and science fiction elements are involved, it’s even more crucial to analyze why and how it is that someone’s personality has become unrecognizable.

Uma (Emma Roberts) finds herself on an island known as Paradise, unaware of how she has arrived there. She quickly learns that the facility is one that aims to provide emotional healing so that its troubled residents can return home cured of the ailments from which they suffer, which in Uma’s case is an unwillingness to marry the high-powered man who wants her hand. Bonding with her roommates Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), who is overweight, and Yu (Awkwafina), who suffers from panic attacks, Uma joins popular musician Amarna (Eiza González) in trying desperately to escape the confines of this mysterious prison that holds many secrets, all carefully guarded by its sinister headmistress, the Duchess (Milla Jovovich).

It’s hard to peg this film when it begins, featuring its captive women in lavish costumes and given a carefully-proportioned specific meal each night. What exactly is going is not clear, and all that Uma and Amarna know for sure is that things are not at all right. Diving deep into that mystery leads to a somewhat expected surprise revelation about Paradise Hills’ true nature, though the film earns back points for cleverly tying up its threads and using its narrative to its dramatic advantage.

Roberts was probably the right choice to play the lead role here, serving as the typical questioning force who won’t take anything at face value and, unlike everyone else, including Amarna, who plays the game so that she can soon be released, loudly refuses to accept any occurrence as legitimate or acceptable. Macdonald, Awkwafina, and Gonzalez all fill their supporting parts well, while Jovovich, who portrayed a curious figure in a science fiction film two decades ago in “The Fifth Element,” appropriately chews her scenery as directed. This is an odd film that embraces its strangeness, framing a version of a story that’s been told many times before through a new lens, one that mostly impresses.


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