Maren

A lot of us have one semi-annoying friend or acquaintance that seems to have absolutely everything — a wonderful significant other, a great place to live, the perfect job (or lack of job) and generally never seem to have a care in the world.  But even if that’s actually true, it can still take just an instant for that fantastic life to fall to pieces.  In the German short film Maren, that instant comes in the form of a fatal car crash.

The title character (Margitta-Janine Lippok) is a woman who has it all.  Besides the usual things meant by that phrase, she also has a zest for life, taking pleasure in the small things that are so easily overlooked.  On the night that changes her life, her beloved husband is coming back from a business trip and Maren has planned a romantic dinner at a nice restaurant to welcome him home.  Death, however, decides to crash the party, and I’m not just making a bad pun — after she gets the terrible phone call about her husband, Death (Max Tidof) sits himself down at her table for a chat.

Death takes his best shot.

This could never be an ordinary chat, of course.  Maren wants her husband back, and Death is more than willing to talk terms, or at least he claims to be.  But these are the highest possible stakes and Maren has an impossible choice before her.  Death might know (or think he knows) exactly how much a human life is worth, but how is a mere mortal to decide on such an exchange?  If you can’t cheat Death, as the saying goes, you probably should never try to negotiate with him, either, but Maren is desperate.

The film deals with many facets of the human condition without ever becoming preachy or condescending.  Whether your life is wildly successful or you’re struggling through every day, we’re all the same as far as Death is concerned — all equally valuable and equally worthless.  In the end, though, this film’s message isn’t nearly as dark as you might expect.  To quote a very different movie, life finds a way, and perhaps that’s all that matters.

Both Lippok and Tidof give pitch-perfect performances.  Death is intense and often frightening, both wise about and ignorant of the humans he leads into the beyond, while Maren is the image of a woman facing the derailment of her entire life, struggling with the weight of sudden despair.  It’s a powerful, wonderfully directed film that’s haunting and hopeful — because while Death may be everywhere, in the end this is the story of a mere mortal, and it’s Maren that shines through beautifully.

Injustice for All

Asking a group of comic fans who did the best interpretation of the Joker can be a great way of starting an argument.  Between movies and voice acting, there are at least a dozen people who have portrayed the iconic villain and they’ve each given the character their own spin and collected their own group of supporters.  But whoever your favorite is, there’s a very good reason why the Joker has become infamous — his madness gives him a strength of will and a certainty of purpose that most people simply can’t manage, and that gets things done.  Of course, they’re almost invariably horrible things, but it’s still a lot of accomplishment.  The Batman is one of the few who can hope to match him, and of course he’s not exactly mentally stable, either, so it’s no wonder that their opposition to each other has reached the point of legend.

The Joker returns home to Harley after a long day of homicidal rampaging.

Injustice for All is a fan-made short using the DC universe that daringly offers up its own version of perhaps the world’s most famous psychopath, played by Chris Newman.  Here his instantly recognizable look comes from a rare genetic disorder called (appropriately) harlequin ichthyosis.  It’s a real condition, though it doesn’t actually work quite the way it does here, and provides a refreshingly different reason for the Joker’s bizarre appearance, avoiding the usual scars and freakish chemical-based accidents.

The movie begins in Arkham Asylum, where Harley Quinn (Erica Hoveland) is a closely-guarded inmate.  A visit from Lex Luthor (Donavan Darius, also one of the writers) prompts her to tell something of her and the Joker’s story, and with him involved you know it’s a doozy of a story.  The plot is inspired by the popular video game Injustice: Gods Among Us, and it’s a tale that rocks the whole DC universe, featuring as it does a nuclear device, the destruction of a good chunk of Metropolis, and a rogue Superman.  But it was the Joker’s machinations that started everything, and if anyone knows anything about the Joker, it’s Harley — though of course she isn’t going to be the most reliable of witnesses.

Many of the DC favorites are here, including Catwoman (Jamie Bernadette, 4/20 Massacre), Lois Lane (Julia Voth), and Jimmy Olsen (director Danny Mooney), and every character rings true.  It’s a beautifully cast, wonderfully written homage that gives the Joker just the right combination of pure psychosis and the very darkest of dark — yet strangely whimsical — humor.  It’s got to be pretty intimidating to play the Clown Prince of Crime himself, but Newman’s performance shines among many excellent performances.  Check out this film, and you might just find yourself a new favorite Joker.

Reina

We all know the things you’re never supposed to talk about on a first date: politics, religion, and past relationships.  Sometimes, though, despite knowing we shouldn’t and despite our best intentions, we still somehow find ourselves ranting about the last election or saying something vaguely rude about the Pastafarians and then discovering that your date is one.  In the short film Reina, our first glimpse of Seth (Sergio Castillo) is of him telling a long, emotional, clearly not appropriate for a first date story about being cruelly separated from Reina, his longtime love.  Meanwhile, Seth’s date Michelle (Kat Pena) is playing on her phone and occasionally almost pretending to care about his tale of woe.  So you know there’s very little chance of a second date at this point.

Michelle takes a break from texting the gory details to her friends.

Realizing his mistake, Seth apologizes profusely and manages to talk the apparently extremely forgiving Michelle into starting over with a drink at the bar down the street.  Unfortunately, they realize too late that they’ve walked into a dangerous situation, as Dmitry, Sergey, and Vlad (Ron Orlovsky, Travis Mitchell of Partitioned_Heart, and Woodrow Proctor) are up to no good.  For a while, it seems as though this is one awkward date that might end up as a tragedy instead of just a horror story to share with friends.  But much to everyone’s surprise, it seems as though Reina — or at least her full, sad story — just might change everything.

Despite how dire it might sound, this is absolutely a comedy, with Dmitry’s gang sometimes in danger of stealing all their scenes with their antics.  But it’s also a comedy with heart, as it delves into some of the more painful experiences all humans share and how they can help bring us together — even with people we might normally be terrified of.  Pena as Michelle speaks volumes with her expressions, clearly often convinced that she’s the only sensible person in the room.  Castillo’s hapless Seth is a decent guy but also seems to be one of those magnets for trouble and bizarre events, and sometimes seems to be barely muddling through.  The end result of throwing all these characters together is a charmingly funny film that’s both sweet and a little zany, realistic and over the top.  It’s one of the worst — and the best — first date stories you’ll ever hear.

Stalked

We’ve all had that feeling of not quite belonging, and it’s with good reason that misfit characters are everywhere in fiction — it’s something we can all relate to.  In the new web series Stalked from JH Producties, set in Holland,  Finn (Jaimy Homberg) is the awkward teenager who doesn’t quite fit in.  He dreams of being an actor someday so he automatically can’t be one of the cool kids, and honestly, liking to cook probably doesn’t help much.  But his life isn’t all bad, since he has his cat, his best friend Olivia (Myrna Laanen), and an older boyfriend who looks like a model, Jim (Billy Twomey).  Sadly, Jim is now back in England for college so they can only talk on Skype.

This is what happens when you go camping just because it’s scary.

Since he’s missing Jim, Finn does his best to keep busy, especially during the week that his parents are gone.  He goes to auditions and makes plans with Olivia, including a camping trip, about which Olivia is far too excited, especially since they don’t seem to be going anywhere except the middle of a random field.  But hey, whatever floats your boat, as they say, and they seem like they’re having fun.

But there’s some dark stuff happening in Olivia’s life — she’s certainly in need of some distraction, to say the least — and things only get darker for our heroes as the series progresses.  At first you might be able to pass events off as being nothing but tasteless practical jokes, and Finn tries his best to do just that, even though it’s a lost cause.  The fact is he’s being stalked, and neither he nor Olivia is quite sure what to do about it as they’re both thrown into the midst of this very grown-up problem.

Homberg directs as well as stars and does well at both, creating a charmingly offbeat character in Finn, while Laanen’s Olivia manages to be perky and optimistic without being dreadfully annoying, which is quite a feat as far as I’m concerned.  The twist ending isn’t entirely a surprise, but I enjoyed the reveal nonetheless — both leads bring a lot of enthusiasm to their roles and that really shows on the screen.  The cinematography could use a little work, but overall it’s a solid drama that I hope predicts great things for Homberg and crew.  It’s available on YouTube and well worth watching.

Le Sequel

A quick glance at Gofundme or Kickstarter will demonstrate how difficult it can be to get financial backing for an indie movie.   No doubt many bad deals have been struck by filmmakers desperate for their ideas to come to life, and possibly also by investors anxious to strike it rich and / or become famous, not that either is all that likely in the world of indie film.  The deal struck in Le Sequel, however, may set some sort of record for Worst Repercussions for the Most People, since this agreement sets off a chain reaction that would put the Manhattan Project to shame.

Carlos (Kyri Saphiris) is the hopeful director, veteran of 22 films, searching for investors for his next venture.  He finds Dirk (Andrew Tiernan) who represents a group of Nollywood investors from the Nigerian film industry.  No, they’re not a bunch of princes trying a new scam; the Nigerian film industry is actually huge, and they’re ready to invest ten million pounds in Carlos’s new film, or so Dirk says.  His office says otherwise.  But the millions are all for Carlos, as long as he puts up half a million of his own.  I’m not sure which is the worst part of the whole thing; the fact that he mortgages his house to raise the cash or the fact that apparently none of this is ever committed to paper, let alone looked over by an attorney.

In exchange for his investment, Carlos expects to return six months later to find a large studio set waiting, ready for him to film his horror movie epic, Le Sequel, follow up to Le Fear.  Instead, he finds an old, smelly caravan — which for those of us in the States means an old, smelly RV — along with the most unlikely support crew any film has ever had.  Carlos’s people, like cinematographer Jacques (Hadrien Mekki) and production manager Jessie (Leila Reed), seem to know what they’re doing, but not so many of the others.  For instance, Africa (Roxy Sternberg) is a special effects “expert” with only boundless, misguided enthusiasm going for her, while makeup artist Queenie (Victoria Hopkins) spends far more time hitting on anyone who’s breathing than doing her job.  And I do mean hitting, since there’s absolutely nothing subtle about her come-ons.

But none of these doubtful crew members hold a candle to producer / con artist Efi (Seye Adelekan) who’s been in charge of everything, including the substitution of an old, smelly caravan for an actual movie set.  I’m guessing he and the other Nigerian crew members couldn’t make it in the real Nollywood and decided to try their luck in England.  He’s full of promises — I’d use another word but I like to keep these reviews family friendly — and often seems genuinely confused when others don’t think he’s come through on those promises.  In his eyes everything is wonderful, the movie going along just as it should, and I can’t decide if that makes him enviably optimistic or a total psychopath.  Maybe both.

I won’t even attempt to explain how this scene happens.

Take them and the rest of this zany cast of characters, tell them they need to film a no-budget movie in about five days(!), and you’ve got Le Sequel, or possibly a particularly out of control Monty Python sketch with John Cleese at his most hapless as Carlos.  Nothing is scripted and scenes frequently dissolve into chaos, but chaos is just the logical result of these situations and the film manages to be completely realistic and utterly bizarre by turns, sometimes both at once.  It’s a bold experiment that doesn’t work all the time, but when a scene clicks it really clicks and any unevenness is all part of the charm.  Improv can be ridiculously difficult to keep moving, but the cast manages that task beautifully while staying in character besides, and the result is a riveting, crazed, train wreck of a comedy that’s every indie director’s worst nightmare made into film.

Special kudos to Saphiris, who makes Carlos a true Everyman, someone who’s just trying to chase his dreams as we all want to do, and then has to watch this particular dream slip slowly and painfully away into the depths of the most cursed film shoot ever.  Meanwhile, Adelekan’s Efi walks the finest of lines between amoral scammer and likable rogue, though I’m still not quite sure how he managed to avoid being strangled.  And all the characters (I wish I could mention them all!) help create the wildest of rides, a twisted journey into the darkest, funniest side of filmmaking that will leave you wondering every moment if things can possibly get any stranger — and they will.

Under the Flowers: Circle of Hell

Since the events of Under the Flowers, most of the characters have gotten on with their lives, or at least whatever passes for their lives.  Not all of them are actually alive, in the strict sense of the term.  But for one character, at least, getting on with existing has been getting harder, and in Under the Flowers: Circle of Hell, like Alice, she seems to be having to work harder and harder just to stay in the same place.

Poe (Lauren LaVera) isn’t quite herself these days, and I mean that literally –these days she’s Rose (Amanda Kay Livezey), now much less Goth but also much more confused.  If her soul is ever going to be able to move on, there’s a journey Rose has to complete, a journey both physical and psychological filled with dangers of all kinds.  Worse, it’s a journey she’s attempted before, without success, and she’s running out of chances.  This time she has a guide, Nerissa (Kirsten Lee Hess), which may sound promising but let’s just say that Nerissa doesn’t seem all that invested in Rose’s success.

Movie poster featuring the cast.
Careful, or the circle might pull you in…

But there’s a wild card in play: Charlotte (Catherine Kustra), the Halloween Girl herself, who just might be able to help her friend.  Her best efforts still might not save Rose, however, and will almost certainly hurt Charlotte — at least if the Darkness (Richard T. Wilson) is to be believed.  Even Evil must tell the truth once in a while, right?  In the end, though, it all comes down to Charlotte’s decision and Rose’s willpower as she faces her demons one after another.  And of course Nerissa, whatever she might be up to, is waiting for her chance.

It’s a satisfyingly scary and suspenseful second series from Mad Shelley Films, featuring plenty of familiar guest stars along with the new arrivals as we follow Rose’s dangerous journey.  The two series have a good sense of connection without being too much alike, each possessing its own unique feel while still seeming to exist in the same strange — and not so strange — realms.  Best of all there’s still an enticing air of mystery about the characters which should continue for a while, since every answer seems to lead to five more questions. This is easily one of the best and creepiest web series out there, and I look forward to seeing more from the creators’ twisted minds.

All Over Again

It happens to us all. Everyone has things they want and need to do, except somehow, before we know it, it’s three months or three years later and these things still haven’t gotten done. Whether it’s spouses, parents, kids, or just our day jobs, there always seems to be something clamoring for our attention. Things like writing, traveling, or finally turning that spare room into an art studio end up getting put off just one more day in favor of things like putting in overtime to finish the annual reports or helping the kids with homework.

Gregory with his guitar
If you’ve ever wondered where all the inspiration has gone, you’ve probably had this look too.

For Gregory (Joseph Fuoco) in the short All Over Again, it’s his music that’s been neglected, his beloved guitar gradually set aside once Victoria (Constance Reshey) gives him the news that they’re expecting. Gregory’s family means the world to him, but as Adam (Mahdi Shaji) grows up, there’s increasingly a sense of something lost that might not be found again. Gregory spends more and more time at The Bus Stop Music Cafe for open mic night, listening to hopefuls performing poetry readings or play their instruments,, even taking young people like Luis (David Andro) under his wing and enjoying the creative energy even if he doesn’t quite feel a part of it. The big question is, will he ever feel part of it again, or is that aspect of his life gone forever?

Despite encouragement from family and friends, it’s a difficult thing to try to get back on that particular horse, and no wonder. Skills get rusty and no one wants to be the person left sitting awkwardly on stage while the audience offers vague applause, or worse, total silence. Booing is pretty bad, but at least there the audience is actually expending some energy. But it can be a big leap to perform on stage, even a small one, and Gregory’s hesitation is palpable.

It isn’t really fame and fortune Gregory is after — though either or both might be nice for a while — so much as the chance to express himself, and while that phrase has been terribly overused in pop psychology, for many creative people it’s a vital and necessary part of existence, without which there will always be a real feeling of loss. This movie demonstrates that simply and capably, moving back and forth from the present day to the family’s beginnings, showing both how one chapter ended and which might, just possibly, start all over again now. Fuoco is completely convincing as Gregory, his expression often speaking volumes as he takes his first steps back to his music. It’s a quiet little gem of a film that reminds all of us it’s never too late.

The Final Act of Joey Jumbler

It isn’t nearly as familiar as the actor’s struggle, but it can’t be easy making a living as a clown these days.  The big traveling circuses are all gone, which leaves children’s birthday parties and perhaps the occasional baby shower, which can’t amount to much.  Kids are probably less entertained in general by clowns in this age of Candy Crush and scary clown stories in the news.  The title character in the short film The Final Act of Joey Jumbler is very far from scary, however; he’s more reminiscent of old-fashioned clowns like Emmett Kelly, a lost soul with whom you just want to share your last sandwich.

Joey and his red nose face the world.

At least, you do unless you’re some of the people who employ Joey (Alain Boucher) — one such wealthy family, who apparently hired him to entertain three kids during a regular family dinner certainly disprove the old adage that all the world loves a clown.  The children are unsurprisingly a bit spoiled but it’s the grownups in the family that you’ve really got to watch out for.  But Joey  bears his troubles stoically and gets through his day as best he can, walking through the streets in his clown makeup and a battered old suit, hauling behind him the suitcase that holds his balloons and other props.

It’s a strange existence, forcing him to move between resigned acceptance and the effervescence of his entertainer persona without warning, but he finds his small joys wherever he can.  Chief among those is seeing his daughter Mathilde (Leanne Labelle) at the end of the day, the one thing that makes all the struggle worthwhile.  But as the title implies, Joey may not be able to maintain the precarious balance of his life much longer, and his stoicism might not get him through everything.

The sad clown is a tale far older than Pagliacci, but that doesn’t make Joey’s story any less heartbreaking or the way he faces his situation any less poignant.  Boucher plays his role beautifully, neither falling into despair or tipping into mania, and there’s a subtle pain in watching him hold himself together even when it seems as though all he wants is to fall apart.  Writer-director Harley Chamandy does both jobs expertly, creating a small gem of a film that’s quietly, wonderfully moving.

The Red Lotus

If you have siblings, you know that those relationships can be complex and very strong, even if you don’t necessarily like each other all that much sometimes.  But for good or ill, there’s often a bond that can’t be broken and there isn’t much we wouldn’t do for our siblings even when they drive us crazy. Certainly brothers and sisters often instinctively know the best way to persuade (or guilt) a sibling into going along with things they think are silly, as happens in The Red Lotus.  Michelle (Jennifer Plotzke) has talked her little sister Debbie (Shara Ashley Zeiger) into trying a weekend yoga retreat at the aforementioned Red Lotus, even though Debbie clearly thinks the whole idea is ridiculous.  But Michelle has recently broken up with her horrible boyfriend Adam (Jared Prudoff-Smith), so perhaps Debbie thinks she’s in need of humoring.

Meeting Orelia (Paula Rossman), the woman who runs The Red Lotus, isn’t exactly reassuring either, as she prattles on about the symbolism of the center’s name and the proper chants to use.  But The Red Lotus is more than it appears to be, and Michelle didn’t ask Debbie to come along merely to keep her company.  The film is set slightly in the future, at a time where Roe v. Wade has been overturned, and this seemingly innocuous retreat also provides a now-illegal service that Michelle is in need of.  Debbie, understandably, is shocked to discover that she’s been dragged into something shady, and it seems as though this is one sisterly bond that might have reached the breaking point.

Michelle and Debbie contemplate loss, togetherness, and the sea.

But it’s that very relationship between the sisters that turns the movie into something special.  It’s otherwise a refreshingly, almost shockingly matter of fact look at a world that’s gone backwards, a film that faces the issues without trying to play on the emotions.  It’s poignant enough to experience this world through the eyes of the sisters and the movie wisely avoids delving into moral arguments.  Though some of the later scenes aren’t particularly realistic, much of the film has more of an allegorical feel to it — a sense that anyone might find themselves or someone they care about in a similar situation — and the important point is that Michelle and Debbie are as solid and real as they get, offering a keen, timely reminder that we all need to value our freedoms while we still have them.

Simon’s Quest

There are at least 16,000 awkward things about dating, especially those early dates.  One of the most awkward — and one of the most likely to show up in questions to online advice columnists — is figuring out when to share a potentially sensitive fact about yourself.  After all, there can be a fine line between letting the other person get to know you better and completely oversharing, and depending on the subject some of these conversations can be horrifying.  It’s one thing to explain that you have an uncle who’s convinced there are aliens living in his rosebushes, and quite another to have to admit that you’re a werewolf, as happens in Simon’s Quest.

Simon (Johnny Pozzi) was a regular guy until one night and one bite turned him into a werewolf.  He isn’t alone, at least, even though James (James Tison), the guy who turned him, vanished immediately thereafter.  No, this is a world with plenty of monsters around, vampires and demons as well as werewolves, though they generally prefer to be called the afflicted rather than monsters.  But Simon hasn’t had the nerve to date since he was turned, and Gwen (Talley Gale) and Robert (Lucas Brahme) want to change that.

Robert, Gwen, and Simon play games and talk Castlevania.

It’s a nice thought but they aren’t really all that helpful, since their main focus is on making a documentary about Simon’s life as a werewolf.  They get him on Tinder and act as cheerleaders, but I’d be more than nervous enough about dating without two people watching (and recording) my every move.  But he gets a match with a guy with the unlikely name of Skyye, and Simon tentatively starts trying to get other aspects of his life back together as well.  He joins a support group for the afflicted, and with help from the group’s new leader, Pat (Timothy J. Cox), takes his first steps towards becoming part of the world again.  But there are plenty of things waiting to trip him up along the way, and telling Skyye the whole truth might not even be the worst one.

With a solid script and capable directing from Marley Jaeger, it’s a wonderful mix of drama, humor, a touch of fantasy, and a dash of riotous satire — Axe Alucard (Anibal Nobel), monster hunter, is wildly over the top, as is Liz (Liz Days), the former support group leader, though honestly the demon in the group (Krystal K.C. Wilson) seems pretty nice.  But Simon’s Quest also has plenty of genuinely touching moments, as Simon is constantly torn between his own deep loneliness and the very real chance that he might wake up the morning after the full moon to discover that he’s shredded the person he cares about most in the world.  We all worry about hurting the ones we love sometimes, just not usually quite so literally.

Pat counseling the afflicted.

There are obvious parallels between the plight of the monsters — sorry, afflicted — and the similar situations often faced by the LGBTQ community in the not too distant past.  And it still isn’t all that easy to be anything other than mainstream in all your life choices, even these days.  But this parallel is handled just as discreetly as the monsters are, without a drop of blood or a single sharp, shining fang appearing on-screen.  It’s the quiet, gentle Simon and his very ungentle curse that will capture the audience, and rightly so.  In these internet days it’s easy to forget that every bit of suffering you hear about has a human face attached — even if once a month that face might turn fanged and furry — and this compelling short film reminds us brilliantly of that.