Stalked Series 2

Those of you who haven’t seen the first series of Stalked from JH Producties should go watch it right now, or at least check out my review. I’ll do my best as always, but I can’t promise a complete lack of spoilers for season one in this case. Go watch, I’ll wait.

Now let me tell you a little about the wild adventures in store for those crazy kids. First of all, Finn in now Kate (Amy Homberg), living on her own and ready to take on the world, with the help of her new and much nicer boyfriend, Josh (Matt Börgel). Olivia (Myrna Laanen) is still Olivia, though whether that’s a good thing or not isn’t an easy question. Despite the — let’s say painful — incident that naturally put quite a strain on their friendship at the end of season one, Kate still visits Olivia and tries to keep the relationship together.

But Olivia is certainly miserable where she is and wants to move in with Kate, except she has quite enough on her plate at the moment. Her ex, Jim (Billy John Twomey), wants to get back together with her despite currently dating Dakota (Jamie Munsey), who occasionally calls Kate to scream at her. And Josh worries that Kate isn’t really over Jim, which in turn makes Kate wonder if she isn’t really over Jim.

Title screen

But you can’t have a series called Stalked without some danger in it, and Kate has that to deal with, too. With escaped mental patients, chase scenes, and the cutest little chainsaw ever, this second installment has all the quirky charm and bizarre happenings of the first. Olivia provides a lot of the quirkiness all by herself, managing to create a character that’s both friendly and frightening, while Kate puts all her energy into living the life she wants to lead at last. The series strikes a good balance of drama, lighter moments, and of course just the right dose of crazy to create a worthy successor to the original, featuring strange friendships, life and death struggles, and dreams coming true — or at least trying to.

Chasing Einstein

Once we’re out of school, most of us don’t ever stop to think about physics again, and probably also breathe a sigh of relief about that fact. But whether we understand how they work or not, the laws of physics shape our world, and in many cases are more second nature to us than we realize. You might not be able to calculate the coefficient of friction between your car tires and the street, but you know instinctively that said car will brake faster and more efficiently on dry pavement than it will when there’s snow on the road. In the documentary Chasing Einstein, the filmmakers recruit a group of physicists from several nations to discuss one of the biggest mysteries of physics today, a little concept called dark matter.

It’s becoming something of a sci-fi catch phrase, but it’s really a term physicists use for something no one quite understands. Gravity is one of the fundamentals of physics and life. It ranks with death and taxes as something that can be counted on, keeping our feet on the ground and allowing planets to sail smoothly around their respective stars. From the first hominid noticing that leaves never fall up, to Sir Isaac Newton, to Albert Einstein himself, gravity has been one of the most studied phenomena around. Then, thanks to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, we realized that gravity as we know it can’t explain some fairly basic things.

For example, there are galaxies rotating contentedly away that shouldn’t be able to stay together based on the gravitational forces of the matter we can see, yet stay together they do and no one can explain it. The phrase dark matter was coined to refer to “Whatever is holding that stuff together when gravity as we know it can’t possibly be holding that stuff together”. The idea is that there’s some new form of matter that can’t be detected with the usual instruments but still has the mass to generate all this extra gravitational pull. Chasing Einstein — and by the way, the Theory of Relativity still hasn’t been toppled after over 100 years and countless leaps forward — is almost as much about following in the great man’s footsteps as it is about the pursuit of the truth of dark matter. That might seem intimidating, but the film doesn’t forget its audience and keeps things simple yet still fascinating.

A dark matter detector.
A dark matter detector. Don’t worry, you don’t need to know how it works.

Some scientists — Dr. Elena Aprile of Columbia University, for one — have spent years of their professional lives in pursuit of proof that dark matter exists. Others, like twin physicists Erik and Herman Verlinde, believe there isn’t necessarily any matter in dark matter, and the real problem is simply that our understanding of gravity is imperfect on a more cosmic scale. Right now either approach might be the correct one, and there’s no telling what the future will bring. All anyone can say for certain right now is that for Einstein’s theory to be correct, there has to be something hidden out there, dark matter or something else, and every physicist out there wants to be the one to solve the enigma.

Featuring other rock stars of science like James Beacham and 2017 Nobel Laureates Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, the film captures a sense of wonder and awe that’s worthy of any science-fiction epic while still staying grounded. It’s our own innate curiosity that drives us to explore the unknown, but it’s physics that propels us forward. The theories can be intimidating, but they also hold the key to all the mysteries of the cosmos — if we can just figure out exactly where and how to look. Chasing Einstein shows us one aspect of the grandest search of all, and does it in an accessible, compelling fashion.

Self-Storage

The biggest problem with breakups is always in the aftermath, the unexpected reminders that can bring everything back when you’re not really prepared for it. Hearing the ex’s favorite song is a classic, but there are plenty of other things. Maybe you go looking for something of yours and instead find an item the ex left behind. It might be as unromantic as a hairbrush or a statue of a Hindu god, but it’s still more than enough to bring a flood of memories. In Self-Storage, a random group of such bittersweet reminders of the past suddenly take on a great deal of importance for the present.

Conrad (Garrett Wagner) was dumped last Christmas by his longtime girlfriend Olivia (Alexandria Rousset). There’s no good time of year for dumping someone, but that is a particularly nasty time of year. But Conrad is still tortured by the loss, not least because he doesn’t know exactly why he was dumped. His best friend Freddy (Connor McCafferty), who sometimes looks like a hippie and sometimes like a member of the Future Business Leaders of America, is doing his best to cheer his friend up, but that’s no easy task. When Freddy discovers that Conrad still has The Box — an old FedEx box containing all the little things that make him think of Olivia — Freddy insists that his friend burn it and move on.

Conrad and Olivia run into each other.
The obligatory awkward meeting between exes.

Though Conrad promises that he will, he in fact sneaks the box over to his self-storage unit so Freddy won’t see it. No sooner does Conrad arrive at the storage facility, however, than strange things start happening. When he realizes that someone wants to make sure that he never leaves the storage building alive, he fights back with the only weapons he has to hand — Olivia’s mementos.

It’s a clever premise, creating some bizarrely interesting moments during the fight for survival. A little strangeness can be a great way to up the tension. The setting is also first-rate — there are few places more claustrophobic or impersonal than a self-storage facility, which helps to create a sense that the poor, hapless Conrad is very far from any assistance, never mind safety.

The big reveal is less satisfactory, however, being too drawn out and more complicated than it needs to be. Still, the previous cat and mouse pursuit is done well, and the very last scene is excellent, making it overall a solid piece of entertainment that shows what can be done with a small budget and some creativity. Conrad is sometimes almost too slow on the uptake to be believed, but otherwise does a fine job of portraying a nice guy who’s in way over his head, while Freddy takes the best friend trope to new heights, or perhaps new depths. It’s a creative thriller from writer-director Pat Collier that offers a new take on the old souvenirs we all can’t let go of.

Phantasmagoria

Things can be pretty tense when you’re trying to land your dream job. When that dream job will also lead to a dream career it can be even more stressful, especially when you might have a real chance of making it big in the movie industry. And anything in the creative realm can be awfully unforgiving — if you don’t seriously impress everyone your first time out of the gate, you might never get another chance to try again. So imagine how aspiring writer / director Vignesh (Vignesh Shanmugam) feels in the short film Phantasmagoria when he wins a coveted appointment with a producer.

The characters up to no good
Part of the dream sequence. Or is it?

His friend (Manoj) was an aspiring director himself once upon a time, and he urges Vignesh in no uncertain terms not to let this opportunity get away. He has a great script that he calls the 234 script, and he plans to pitch this to the producer even though he’s concerned that the producer is too old-fashioned. This story is a little wild, you see, since he originally dreamt it and later turned it into a script. Then, just before his appointment, he discovers that all his work has mysteriously vanished. Did his envious friend steal the script? Has it fallen into the hands of a stranger up to no good? Or is Vignesh’s dream not over yet, in more ways than one?

The dream sequence is a common trope and can be a very effective one, but unfortunately it’s all too easy to become lazy with such sequences. But Phantasmagoria gets it absolutely right, creating a compelling, vividly disturbing dream landscape that leaves both Vignesh and the viewer uncertain as to what can be believed. The visual effects are subtle, realistic and just unsettling enough to seem as though they crawled straight out of the subconscious. Featuring convincing performances from the cast, the film is an impressive first effort from director MJ Arun Babu that’s a perfect example of what indie filmmaking can do and which I trust will lead to still greater things.

Miss Freelance

It isn’t uncommon to stop now and then and realize that you’re not as happy with your life as you’d like to be. Maybe your job isn’t what you’d hoped, or an important relationship has been neglected for too long, or you just have the vague feeling that something’s lacking. Often that missing thing is excitement, though many times that’s something best left for fiction anyway. Real life excitement can often lead directly to real life panic, or possibly a new life that you like even less than the old one. In the short film Miss Freelance, one young woman goes to unusual lengths in search of a more fulfilling life, only to find herself in the strangest of places.

The Miss Freelance in question is Carly (Maddy Murphy). She’s apparently advertising on Craigslist or some such to find work helping men out for the night, to put it delicately. And these jobs aren’t confined to the usual, either. Maurice (Ivan Greene), for instance, asks Carly to take advantage of him — which she does, though not exactly in the way he intended. I won’t even mention what Randy (Zach Abraham) is after. It’s set in New York City, so there are plenty of strange inclinations to choose from out there.

Carly and Ben
Sometimes there just isn’t much left to say.

Ben (Timothy J. Cox) is the sympathetic, patient boyfriend Carly has left behind, probably the one man in the city she can’t look in the face anymore. He can’t understand what else it is that she needs out of life, but of course the real tragedy here is that neither can Carly.

This is a story of a woman trying to find herself at any cost, and perhaps not even entirely realizing what she’s losing along the way. The film and the performances are both subtle and realistic, telling the story of a life through the microcosm of a few days when everything changes in that life. Murphy’s impressive debut performance as Carly is understated and desperate as she runs from the world she knows into the unknown, while the broken-hearted Ben can do nothing but let her go. It’s a quiet, remarkably nuanced look at what can happen when life leads us astray, from writer / director Matthew Kyle Levine, brought touchingly to life.

Another Plan from Outer Space

As a longtime fan of Star Trek and other sci-fi, I can’t even count how many times I’ve wished someone would hurry up and invent some form of faster than light travel already. I’d even take wormholes, despite how unreliable they often are in fiction. Sadly, these days the term ‘space race’ mainly seems to refer to corporations vying to be the first to mine huge quantities of gold and platinum from asteroids and possibly cause huge damage to the world economy in the process. There’s also the stuff about a “Space Force” coming from the general direction of the US capital, though sadly it’s hard to take anything from that part of the world seriously anymore. The movie Another Plan from Outer Space offers a somewhat more optimistic view of the conquest of space, even if coming back home is a little problematic.

Jackson and Strickland sitting by the campfire.
No, they don’t sing “Kumbaya” around the fire.

By 2024, in fact, there are 521 colonists on Mars, which, also sadly, will never happen in five years, but we’ll pretend. The crew of the space shuttle Genesis I has just dropped off the latest batch of said colonists and returned to Earth, only to encounter some savage solar flares just before landing that instead cause them to crash. Tachyons were involved, and any Star Trek fan knows those are bad news. The five surviving crew members wake up in the middle of a desert with no idea of where they might be.

Reduced to emergency supplies amounting to little more than a canteen of water each and a couple of days’ worth of food, their situation is dire, especially since they can’t be sure anyone is looking for them, or if any searchers even know where to start looking. Commander Sam Strickland (Jessica Morris) reacts especially badly, to the general surprise of the rest, and Captain Raymond Jackson (Scott Sell) has his hands full keeping morale up. Then there’s the fact that Engineer Hudson (Augie Duke) has apparently had at least one full-blown hallucination. Dr. Koji Yushiro (Minchi Murakami) and Lieutenant Ben Brooks (Hans Hernke) seem to be holding up better, but tension is mounting as the hours tick by and there’s still no sign of rescue. Sam becomes increasingly erratic, and despite Hudson’s best efforts, they can’t be sure that the distress beacon they scavenged from the ship will reach anyone. With danger lurking in unexpected places, the crew is in serious jeopardy — and that’s before some truly inexplicable things start happening.

Despite the name, there are no space zombies involved as in Plan 9, but that’s probably for the best. The movie owes a lot to the classic Twilight Zone series, even having been filmed in black and white. It’s as much a survival tale as science-fiction, but it works equally well as both, with plenty of realistic relationships among the characters. The slow build at the beginning is perhaps a little too slow, and at times it doesn’t seem possible that these people have all been in the same small ship for nearly two years. For instance, one character has a picture of his infant son that apparently no one else has seen yet, and I find that hard to believe. But apart from the occasional hiccup, there are convincing performances and a good sense of the characters fighting against the situation as well as their own natures and limitations. Overall, it’s a solid, old-school science-fiction film that keeps you thinking, as all such films should.

The Surreal Project

Family heirlooms can be tricky things even if they aren’t particularly valuable. There are few situations more tense than when two grieving siblings realize they’re both expecting to get custody of mom’s favorite vase or grandpa’s pocket watch. If either vase or watch turns out to be valuable besides, all bets are off. A very different sort of heirloom takes center stage in The Surreal Project, however, as one family faces the dark effects of a sinister painting that fascinates some members of the family as much as it repels other.

Mark (Dávid Fecske) runs a vlog on the supernatural called Chasing Fear, and no wonder since he’s more than a little obsessed with things that go bump in the night. Now he’s investigating a mystery that’s a little closer to home than usual: the painting called The Whispering Man. Currently languishing in the attic of his recently deceased grandmother’s home, Mike and his brother Tommy (András Korcsmáros) rescue the painting and bring it to their house. Well, Mark does; Tommy thinks it’s hideous and wants to throw it away.

The Whispering Man painting
The Whispering Man himself.

Supposedly, their father bought it cheap when the hotel he worked for went bankrupt and sold off their furnishings, but I don’t believe it. Any hotel that hung paintings like that around wouldn’t have stayed in business more than a month. It’s nothing complicated, just a picture of a pale greyish face on a black background, but everything about it looks just skewed and strange enough to make the whole effect extremely creepy. Mark’s girlfriend Dora (Ágota Dunai, Spirits in the Dark) refuses to sleep in the same room as the painting, and I can’t blame her.

When unsettling events start to happen, they revolve around Mark as much as the painting, and by the time Mark and Tommy’s sister Anna (Marcsi Nagy) arrives for a visit, everyone is extremely concerned for Mark’s well-being. His best friend Abel (Dávid Kiss) speaks seriously of the need for an exorcism of the painting. But time is running out, and it may already be too late for all of them.

Director József Gallai (who also directed Spirits in the Dark) again features a disturbing abandoned building, this time in the shape of a crumbling sanitarium, scene of a terrible fire in the seventies that claimed several lives, and which also becomes part of the mystery. The found footage format works well — Mark is as concerned with documenting everything that might turn out to be supernatural as he is with the supernatural itself — and though the acting is sometimes a bit stiff there’s a good sense of camaraderie among the characters, especially between Mark and Abel. The initial buildup is perhaps a bit slow, but by the last 20 minutes I could hardly look away from the screen. All in all, this is a creditable follow-up to Gallai’s previous excellent work that will make you wonder what obsession might do to your nearest and dearest.

Italian Turtles

Even the most iconic characters of pop culture like Superman had to start somewhere. For instance, there was a time — back in the dark days before 1988 — when few people had heard of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Before the cartoon series began, they were known only through the comics, where they had a solid fanbase, but the leap to other media would take a little time. This is where the short Italian Turtles begins, with the turtles’ creators trying to boldly go where no reptile has gone before.

There are probably few things more terrifying than waiting to meet with a group of jaded TV execs who seem inclined to hate anything new, hoping to pitch them an idea that really isn’t anything like anything else on television. This is where we find Kevin (Nick Piacente) and Peter (Chris D’Amato), with Peter especially unable to stay calm at the thought of what might happen in the next few minutes. I hear if you don’t grab their attention inside two minutes the execs have security throw you out.

Kevin and Peter make their big pitch.
Ta-da!

In this case, though, the execs, led by John Handy (Timothy J. Cox), seem mainly confused. Kevin mentions reptiles early on, which prompts junior executive Karl (BJ Gruber) to obsess over Komodo dragons, while the other junior exec, Pat (Janel Koloski), can’t seem to get past the idea of them living in the sewers, which always did seem pretty unpleasant to me. But there’s plenty of glorious talking at cross-purposes and zany misunderstandings as the five of them stumble on, drawing ever closer to Mr. Handy’s inevitable decision, which will shape the lives not only of Peter and Kevin but a couple of generations of fans.

It’s clearly a labor of love and there’s no one in the room who isn’t having fun with this wild what-if scenario. And face it — there are few comic book heroes who don’t seem pretty weird when looked at closely. Can you imagine trying to explain a billionaire who dresses up like a bat to fight crime to someone who hasn’t yet heard of Batman? That’s without even touching the ‘infant rocketed to safety from a doomed world’ thing. But we’re in on the joke here and it’s a hilarious one. From long, awkward pauses to strange and pointed questions, Italian Turtles is a wondrous homage to the world’s most beloved martial arts trained reptiles, showcasing their first unexpected leap to fame.

Jones

Though we know a great deal about the process of addiction, the process of getting over said addiction is unfortunately still obscure in many ways. Some people are able to quit smoking, for example, without too much difficulty, while others try to stop every other day but can never seem to stop themselves from lighting up. A relative of mine, convinced he could quit this time for sure, made the dramatic gesture of throwing his remaining cigarettes out the door one evening. His wife found him outside in his bathrobe at 3 AM pawing through a snowbank looking for those smokes. However that image makes you react, it will stick with you. The short film Jones is filled with such images as it follows one young woman’s rocky journey towards sobriety.

The Jones of the title (Marzy Hart, who also wrote and produced) considers herself a party girl, certainly not someone who actually has a problem with drinking. Her friend Manny (Michael Varamogiannis) tries to convince her otherwise, but she thinks he’s being a prude. After a bizarre incident with a bicycle one night — remember, never drink and bike — she decides that maybe she isn’t just a party girl after all. So it’s off to AA where she meets Barbie (Lisa Tharps), also trying to get her life back on track, and Jones takes the first steps — no pun intended — towards kicking the habit.

Movie poster
Not exactly a good place for a nap.

But breaking any habit isn’t easy, especially not this habit, and Jones has a long road ahead of her. Worse, like many of us, she isn’t all that great at accepting help, not even when she needs it the most. Some days it seems like every small victory only leads to a big setback, and however determined Jones is, there’s a real chance she won’t make it. You’ll be rooting for her, though, as Hart and the supporting cast bring Jones’ struggles — inspired by real events — to vivid life. The film veers from the realistic and gritty to the hallucinatory, creating scenes that are hard to forget. It takes us to a huge turning point in one woman’s life and gives us a glimpse into the harsh battles that lie behind the 12 Steps and the meetings. Neither apologizing nor romanticizing addiction, Jones is a revelation.

Murder Made Easy

The dinner party has long been a staple of fiction, especially of the mystery variety. Which is understandable; there’s something very grand and dramatic about getting all your suspects together to enjoy roasted sirloin with new potatoes and then having the big reveal of the killer over coffee and dessert. Of course, dinner parties can sometimes go wrong, but for a good whodunit they’re hard to beat as an impressive ending or just a useful way to get everyone together. In Murder Made Easy, longtime friends Joan (Jessica Graham, BnB Hell) and Michael (Christopher Soren Kelly) plan to use a dinner party — or more accurately a whole succession of such gatherings — as a cover for crime.

Michael and Joan over the body of a victim.
This is never a good thing to see at a dinner party.

One year ago, Joan’s husband Neil died, and it’s to mark this occasion that she and Michael — a disgruntled college professor whose job may be in jeopardy — have invited some old friends over, one at a time, for dinner. You see, Joan has decided that it’s time to even some scores on her late husband’s behalf. Marcus (Edmund Lupinski), for instance, once damaged Neil’s career. Cricket (Emilia Richeson) — I’m not clear whether that’s her given name or not — did some financial damage. Fellow academic Angela (Sheila Cutchlow) may or may not have plagiarized some of Neil’s work. And Joan is convinced that her ex, wanna-be filmmaker Damien (Daniel Ahearn) is still in love with her.

When each guest arrives, he or she is properly wined and dined, though Michael and Joan must have a hard time eating anything by meal number three. In each case, however, while the food is excellent the conversation quickly becomes strained, as old wounds are reopened. But the hosts have this all planned out, and their revenge is both ruthless and thorough — though it also isn’t quite the revenge you might think. As each course unfolds and the next part of the scheme is unveiled, you won’t be entirely sure who to root for. It’s a classic, intricately plotted old-style whodunit, with motives and doubts slowly revealed as it takes us towards a twist you won’t see coming.

Each of the guests steals their scenes in their own quirky ways. Christopher Soren Kelly as Michael not only carries out the scheme with style, he gets most of the best sarcastic asides. As you might expect, Joan isn’t exactly the picture of the grieving widow, with Jessica Graham giving a performance that’s darkly fascinating in more ways than one. Our two ‘heroes’ make deviously devilish partners in crime. All in all, it’s a skewed and compelling glimpse of the secrets we hide, sometimes even from our oldest friends, and how little we really know even about the people we love. It gives you a little something to think about the next time you decide to invite your nearest and dearest over for a nice meal.