Slapped!

It’s human nature to ponder sometimes about how the other half lives, and maybe even get a little jealous.  However much we might already have, once in a while seeing the things that someone else has makes us think that we might have taken a wrong turn somewhere.  After all, there’s nothing wrong with trying to have it all, right?  That’s what our current society encourages, at least, in this era of instant, total gratification.  And when your best friend leads a very different life then your own, it’s hard not to think how unfair it is that the other person has this or that really cool aspect to their life and you just… don’t.  This is what happens to best friends Alex (Alex Magaña) and Matt (Matt Lowe) in Slapped!, where few things are what they seem and there’s no such thing as a clean joke.
First of all, Magic Mike (Rodney Mason) seems to be an unfortunate homeless person like so many others, but he can do things you’d never expect, and when he hears the friends complaining about how the other seems to have things so much better, he decides to let both of them find out about the others’ life first hand, by switching their minds.  Alex, the physical fitness nut who’s training for a triathlon suddenly finds his consciousness inside the notably more flabby body of his stoner friend who thinks video games are sometimes a little too tiring.  Despite this, however, it’s Matt who has a gorgeous, devoted girlfriend named Holly (Alysse Fozmark), whereas Alex is too self-conscious to get anywhere with women.  Matt’s very blunt approach works shockingly well, with various women handing over their phone numbers, but I have to say it seems to me much more likely to get him actually slapped out in the real world.  It’s probably not something you’re meant to think about too much anyway, as with Magic Mike’s abilities.
Matt playing makeshift drums
Matt slaving away at work.
Matt and Alex have all the troubles you might expect trying to settle into each others’ bodies and routines, and then some.  Suddenly having a physically fit body doesn’t help much when you don’t also have the mental focus that normally goes with it, and Alex simply doesn’t have the confidence that everyone expects Matt to have.  Matt has a loving (if smothering) family — his mother (Aimée Binford) and her girlfriend Shaniqua (Erin Hagen) — while Alex was abandoned as a child and has often had feelings of being unworthy.  But they learn a great deal about each other, and more importantly themselves, as they struggle to keep up appearances for the rest of the world.  It’s a good buddy picture, with the main characters proving that you don’t have to be at all alike to stick together through good times and bad.
It’s also beyond raunchy, with most of the jokes involving bodily fluids. Admittedly this isn’t my usual preference in humor, but even so it still seems too much at times.  Entire scenes exist solely to get in one more punch line about something sex-related, and several of the characters have no reason for being there beyond trying to get a laugh.  In other words, it’s about twenty minutes too long because the film sometimes loses sight of what it’s doing.  Now, sometimes those detours are pretty entertaining — for instance, there’s a very funny scene that could make a great short film in its own right where a stoned Matt, in Alex’s body, watches a cooking show on YouTube while hallucinating — but for the most part they aren’t detours that really belong in this film.
Overall, however, it’s a good watch and clearly a labor of love from Magaña and Lowe.  When the film stays with its main plot it generally works well and makes some interesting points about what it might be like trying to lead a life that you’re completely unequipped for, sometimes in more ways than one.  It even has some things to say about looking beyond the surface (something probably all of us should do more often), with the movie itself being a perfect example of that.  It might seem like a relatively simple, raunchy comedy — and it is — but it also pauses to think once in a while, and that’s what makes it click.  The humor may not be for everyone, but underneath that it’s also a film with heart and empathy, and those are certainly things all of us could use more of.

Bilal: A New Kind of Hero

Every part of the world has its heroes, those whose deeds have become larger than life and whose stories are passed down through the years.  But if you look beneath the stories, you generally find someone who’s less a hero and more a regular person, which only makes them that much more fascinating.  The story of Bilal ibn Rabah is one such example, and the life of one of the earliest followers of Muhammed is brought to the big screen in Bilal: Another Kind of Hero, the first animated feature film from a Dubai studio.
Movie Poster
And this is gorgeous animation, I can’t emphasize that enough.  The characters’ faces do lean towards the cartoonish, faces still being notoriously difficult to animate, but they’re also individual and expressive.  And every other detail is perfect, from the way the desert sun shines through a thin cloth canopy to the worn patches on a guard’s leather armor.  This is a world that looks and feels as real as whatever is around you right now.
In this world, Bilal (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) suffers from nightmares about the death of his mother and his and his sister Ghufaira’s (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) subsequent fall into slavery.  They grow up as the property of Umayya (Ian McShane), a wealthy and powerful man with a bully of a son called Safwan (Mick Wingert).  Umayya isn’t all that great, either, but he does at least sometimes bother to learn the names of his slaves.  Unable to forget the fact that he had once been free, Bilal doesn’t make the best slave — even aside from anything else, he’ll break any rule if it means helping keep his sister safe — but he forces himself to be resigned to his fate.  Then he meets a mysterious man, who speaks casually but with authority about things like freedom and equality, and Bilal’s journey truly begins.
As fantastic as the animation is — in one scene you can see how drops of water have dampened Bilal’s shirt — it never overshadows the story or the characters.  The tale is told simply, suitable for younger viewers, but that doesn’t mean the grownups will be bored.  It’s an engrossing plot driven by believable people with strengths and weaknesses.  Bilal isn’t perfect, but that just makes him more inspiring as he finds his way in the world while struggling to preserve what’s left of his family.  As in many historical pieces there’s a lack of female characters, but though Ghufaira is unfortunately sometimes reduced to a damsel in distress she also does help keep Bilal focused when he needs it.
The battle scenes are well-done and intense though still PG, and Bilal’s transformation from rebellious teen to a man who at last knows his place in the world keeps the film grounded.  With villains that hit just the right note of wickedness and a vivid supporting cast, Bilal is a vastly entertaining epic that illuminates an era not well known to many in the western world, and thoroughly charms its audience at the same time.

Real Artists

Once in a while, hard work and sheer luck manage to help each other out for a change, and we might just find ourselves on the verge of realizing a long-hoped for dream.  Of course, this happens about as often as a total solar eclipse, so if you ever find yourself in this position do your best to seize your dream with both hands and try not to gloat too much as you’re scampering gleefully away.  In the short film Real Artists, Sophia (Tiffany Hines) is in exactly this enviable position, having earned an interview for her dream job at Semaphore Studios.  She longs to be an animator, and for that this is THE studio to work for.  And right now they’re developing Return to Mythos, sequel to their huge hit Mythos, so this is the perfect time to join the team.
Movie poster
Sophia’s interviewer is Anne Palladon (Tamlyn Tomita), whose work Sophia has always admired.  Even better, Anne is impressed by Sophia’s work and is anxious to get another woman on board.  This couldn’t be a more promising start, and you can almost see Sophia telling herself not to mess this up.  But there’s a lot hiding behind that non-disclosure agreement she had to sign, and the job may not be quite the sort of dream she thinks it is.
Hines is perfectly cast as the hopeful, idealistic Sophia getting her first look behind the curtain, while Tomita shines as the successful woman in a man’s world.  (Your MCND fact of the day: women hold only about 20% of animation industry jobs.)  But where the movie really hits home is in its predictions for the not too distant future of animation and movie-making, where it may just be frighteningly accurate.  The film quietly puts some unsettling notions into your mind, notions that will haunt you long after the film ends.  The real artists behind everything aren’t at all who you expect them to be.

Butterfly Kisses

Butterfly kisses are an affectionate little gesture that involves fluttering your eyelashes against someone else’s skin, the idea being to mimic the quick, gentle movements of a butterfly’s wings.  I always thought the phrase referred to a series of tiny little actual kisses, so I learned something from the movie Butterfly Kisses.  Of course, I have now also learned to associate the phrase with ghostly stalking, torture, and gruesome death, so it will never again make me think of anything even remotely affectionate, but hey, at least I know the dictionary definition.  I guess that counts as a win, right?

Butterfly Kisses movie poster
When you stare into the abyss…

Back in 2004, film student Sophia Crane (Rachel Armiger) is working on her senior project with cameraman Feldman (Reed Delisle), who seems to have no first name.  They’ve chosen to do a documentary on local urban legend Peeping Tom, aka Mr. Blink.  As with any good supernatural antagonist, there’s a ritual to summon him, and it’s a doozy: you have to go to the old Ilchester Railway bridge and stare down through the neighboring tunnel for exactly one hour, from midnight to one am.  And they mean stare, without blinking.  There are a couple of people out there who hold records for not blinking for an hour or so (though none of these are Guinness records), but you have to be some sort of staring prodigy to pull this off.  Considering this feat is almost certainly most often attempted by teenagers with nothing to do on a Friday night, you would think that just not getting bored and wandering off would be enough of a challenge, but apparently not.

Our intrepid filmmakers can’t find anyone who can manage the staring, but they’re determined to tempt fate for the sake of their art.  Reasoning that a camera lens is analogous to the human eye, they set up Feldman’s camera on the bridge at midnight and let it do the staring for them.  But it’s only when they review the footage later that they realize they’ve caught something eerie.

Meanwhile, in 2015, struggling filmmaker Gavin York (Seth Adam Kallick) is supporting his family as a wedding videographer until his mother-in-law (Janise Whelan) finds a shoebox full of Sophia and Feldman’s old tapes and gives them to Gavin.  The box is clearly labeled “Don’t Watch”, and whoever wrote that clearly knows nothing of human psychology because that’s the surest way to get anyone to watch, and Gavin is no exception.  In fact, he quickly becomes compelled to edit them and show them to the world, and prove that everything on the tapes is absolutely real while he’s at it.  But no one else seems nearly as fascinated with the discovery, and Gavin becomes increasingly frustrated and angry.  He’s spent almost his last dime on a film crew (led by writer/director Erik Kristopher Myers as himself) to track his progress on the editing as well as his attempts to discover the fate of the student filmmakers, and he can’t fathom why the world isn’t falling at his feet over the project.

So this is a film within a film about the making of a film, though despite this potentially confusing premise it’s not hard to keep the storylines straight.  Where it really turns meta and strange is when you try to work out whether or not Feldman and Sophia were making a documentary or a narrative film disguised as a documentary.  Further complicating this issue is the inclusion of various paranormal experts as themselves, like Matt Lake, author of several books in the Weird U.S. series, Andy Wardlaw of Finding Bigfoot, and Eduardo  Sanchez of Blair Witch Project fame.

Then there’s Gavin himself — he’s clearly fixated, but is he truly delusional or just desperate to make a name for himself?  Kallick is thoroughly convincing as a man who’s barely holding himself together for much of the movie, though in many ways it’s also his performance that holds the movie itself together.  There are strong hints of a overarching conspiracy to cover up any proof of Peeping Tom’s existence, though it seems far more vast than it needs to be considering that all the photographic proof was lost in some random basement for a decade.  And at one point, Peeping Tom seems to break his own rules to keep the plot going.  But overall the film expertly manages its sometimes convoluted premise and keeps the viewer riveted.  From jump scares to expert debunking of the tapes, Butterfly Kisses weaves a delicate, teasing web of creepy suspense that would do Mr. Blink proud.  Watch it, and you just might be afraid to close your eyes again.

Beauty Queen

Even if your teen years weren’t especially rough, they were probably still pretty awkward.  High school kids have to make decisions that can effect the rest of their lives, because those are the kinds of decisions everyone is equipped to make at seventeen.  College is expensive and not necessarily for everyone in the first place, yet everyone tells you that you have to have some higher education.  And then there are other, equally pressing problems, like being one of the cool kids — or, as in the short film Beauty Queen, being one of the pretty kids.

Christina with a digital camera.
The camera never lies. Or does it?

Christina (Christina Goursky) isn’t not pretty, if you’ll pardon the double negative, but neither does she look like a model the way all the other girls in her class seem to, and this bothers her.  In a truly spectacular backfire, her gender studies class seems to have made her much more conscious of her looks after nearly every other student in the class says they’d rather be called pretty than smart.  Even one of the guys agrees, though the teacher (Sally Eidman) promptly scolds him.  I’m not sure this particular teacher really gets the point of a gender studies class.

Anyway, Christina has decided that she’d rather be called pretty than smart, too, and throws herself into the deep end by trying out for modeling jobs, which is rather like trying to take up jogging by entering a marathon.  Her dad David (Timothy J. Cox) couldn’t be more proud of her, or more encouraging, but dads generally tend to think their daughters are both pretty and smart no matter what, and Christina is searching for something more objective — and searching in all the wrong places.

One way or another we can all relate to Christina’s quest — everyone needs reassurance about themselves sometimes — and the movie is quietly convincing, not to mention sweet and touching.  David is the dad every girl wants, but now it’s nearly time for Christina to head off to college and out into the world, and it’s only natural for her to have some last-minute nerves.  There’s a delightful father-daughter bond between the two that helps keep Christina grounded, and Goursky creates a realistic character that pulls the viewer into her story.  It’s a satisfying slice of life that might need to be required viewing in your next gender studies class.

Hush

Unrequited love can be utterly wretched.  And it’s one of those rotten things that nearly all of us have in common, because hopeless crushes can strike anyone at any time.  Most of us just cope with it one way or another — we mope around the house for a while, try to avoid the object of our affections until things are less fraught, or simply drown our sorrows in ice cream.  It’s no fun and we can be pretty miserable for a while, but we get through it because we have to.  Unfortunately, once in a while unrequited love can turn into obsession, as happens in the short film Hush, and at that point all bets are off.

Jeremy (Anthony Scanish), you see, is so madly in love with Suzanna (Melissa Damas) that he imagines them together constantly.  Her husband Mark (Erik Searle) naturally doesn’t enter into these fantasies in the slightest, just as Jeremy’s wife Betty (Kristin Anne Teporelli) doesn’t matter anymore, either.  Complicating the situation is the fact that all four are friends, often visiting with each other and another couple.  So Jeremy avoiding Suzanna until his emotions settle down isn’t really an option, but as it is things are increasingly stressful between Jeremy and Betty, who knows something is very wrong but isn’t sure exactly what’s happened.

Jeremy doesn’t seem to want to get over his obsession anyway, instead letting it pull him deeper into his ever more dangerous fantasy world.  And when the situation finally reaches a crisis, it will do so in a way that no one is expecting, probably not even Jeremy.

It’s an all too familiar story, told here with sparse, quiet tension.  There’s no dialogue, but there doesn’t need to be, the story unfolding bit by bit through the fascinating imagery of Jeremy’s daydreams and his life, the latter dull and colorless compared to the thrilling, vivid scenes of his imagination.  It isn’t hard to understand why he’s so anxious to make dreams into reality, except all his wife and friends see is him losing his grip on reality.  The ending is both shocking and inevitable, though unfortunately not entirely surprising.  It’s an alarmingly realistic look at the results of one person’s obsession, with powerful images that you won’t be able to look away from.

Living in the Future’s Past

Recently, I reread Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot speech, inspired by the famous photo Voyager I took of Earth from the unfathomable distance of six billion kilometers, making the entire globe appear barely a pixel in size.  It’s a humbling image and a haunting speech — go check them both out if you haven’t already — and there’s one line I particularly want to mention here: “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”  Even just compared to our own small solar system, all of humanity is jostling together in a very tiny and fragile space, something that’s all too easy to forget from our everyday perspective, where the Earth (when we think about it at all) seems so gigantic to us.  In Living in the Future’s Past, the filmmakers remind us of the complex, interconnected web of life that surrounds us, a web that encompasses everything from molecules to whales, and that can so easily be broken.
Narrated and produced by Jeff Bridges, the film is all the things you might expect — it features absolutely gorgeous nature images as well as vintage footage of the all-consuming human quest for energy, to power everything from our bodies to our homes.  In the end, it all comes down to kilocalories one way or another, leading to everything from muggings in the street to full-scale warfare.  We’re already on the path to devouring all the world’s resources, thanks to the conspicuous consumption mindset common in technologically advanced nations.  It’s this mindset that really needs to change, but such views are also painfully, notoriously difficult to budge.
But the film is also some things that you might not expect.  The survival of the Earth and the entire human race is necessarily an overwhelming problem, but the film and its featured experts do a good job breaking that problem down into more manageable concepts.  And while issues like the very real threat of mass extinctions will never be even remotely cheery, the film also doesn’t become a guilt trip, burying the viewer in horrifying statistics about all the living things we’re killing just by existing.  That might change your habits for a couple of weeks, until the horror wears off, but it isn’t the sort of approach that tends to work well in altering bad habits for good.  Instead, the movie asks, decide what good habits you can sustain in the long-term and stick with them.
The movie takes a holistic approach, consulting experts in fields far beyond biology, ranging from neuroscience to anthropology to philosophy, aptly demonstrating how all things are interconnected.  While the bad news is that all the problems can then resonate through literally everything, the good news is that the solutions can resonate in the same way, and that’s what we need to focus on.  There’s far more information presented than I could ever begin to summarize here, but don’t let that scare you.  Nothing in the film is as intimidating as you imagine — well, probably — and the movie sketches out a fascinating overview of where we are, how we got here, and what our descendants might think when looking back at our time. And as Sagan said, we must preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

The Big Take

Probably some of the weirdest and wildest stories from established actors are about how they got their big break.  Hopefully not too many of these stories involve actual crimes, because there’s all too much of that in Hollywood.  In The Big Take, however, the crimes get wildly out of hand when the search for funding for an indie film — something that doesn’t normally lead to anything more nefarious than a pushy kickstarter campaign — instead sets off a chain of blackmail, burglary, assault, and worse.

It starts when aspiring producer Vic (Slate Holmgren) runs into famous actor Douglas Brown (James McCaffrey) at the exclusive club where Vic works.  When Douglas — unsurprisingly — turns down Vic’s offer to star in a low-budget movie by a couple of broke unknowns, Vic seeks revenge.  I’m not sure what he originally had in mind, but after he roofies Douglas things take a direction I’m fairly sure Vic would never have predicted.  He’s still quick to take advantage of events, however, and the next thing Douglas knows he’s being blackmailed for the $200,000 bankroll Vic needs to produce the film his friend Max (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) has written and hopes to direct.

You don’t want to mess with Oxana.

A panicked Douglas turns to his agent Jack (Bill Sage, who somehow reminds me of Brad Pitt now and then) for help.  Not to worry, Jack says, he can spin anything.  When he gets a look at the blackmail material, however, he decides sterner measures are needed and he contacts his “fixer”, Frank (Dan Hedaya).  Pronouncing the blackmailers to be amateurs — and he couldn’t be more right there — Frank is confident he can solve this problem easily. Unfortunately, Vic has accidentally left a clue that points straight to Max, who is blissfully unaware of any blackmail and thinks that Douglas is bankrolling his movie because he likes it.  When the overconfident Frank fails to retrieve the blackmail material — Max is pretty much a pushover, but his feisty Ukrainian wife, Oxana (Oksana Lada), not so much — the fixer calls in his own fixer, Edie (Zoë Bell).

It’s at this point that things get completely out of control, with alliances made and broken, houses robbed, people shot and kidnapped, and generally desperate measures taken all around.  Aside from having the misfortune to get caught up in events in the first place, Max is otherwise so ridiculously lucky as to strain credulity — Frank and Edie veer back and forth between incompetence and absolute professionalism, whatever it takes to help Max survive at any given moment.  And Max doesn’t really have much else going for him besides luck and his wife, the character being otherwise unremarkable.  Then there’s the nature of the blackmail material, which is first of all completely tasteless, and second of all far more useful for blackmailing the person who’s with Douglas on the video rather than Douglas himself.

There is good news, though, in that the script is otherwise well-written and the performances solid, with an excellent blend of action and comedy.  Most of the characters are wacky but likable, though Vic occasionally struck me as a possible sociopath.  The zaniness gets a bit too zany for my taste here and there, but  it’s otherwise an entertaining romp through the roller-coaster world of Hollywood that is often laugh-out-loud funny.  Breaking into the movie business can really be murder.

Written and directed by Justin Daly.

Oni-Gokko (Tag)

There are all sorts of sayings about being stuck with your family, though most of the time the majority of us are okay with that.  For all the complaints and teasing that can sometimes be indistinguishable from harassment, most people will drop everything to rush to the aid of a family member when it’s truly needed.  For every story of terrible rivalry, there’s a story of a sibling coming through in a crisis, and the bond between siblings can be a powerful one.  In Oni-Gokko — Japanese for Tag, as in the children’s game — even death might not break that bond.

Aki, dropping in for a visit from beyond the grave.

Miki (Eri Akita) had a little sister who died long ago, when she was just six years old.  Her name was Aki (Mariko Miyamitsu), and apparently she was the more popular of the two sisters, the one everyone doted on.  One day while the girls were playing tag tragedy struck and Aki drowned.  Was it a simple accident, did it happen because Aki was frightened by a stranger, or was there something more sinister at work?  After all these years, even Miki isn’t so sure anymore.

But now Aki is back, and she wants something from her sister.  Whether that something is revenge or just the simple truth, Miki will never be the same when this night is finally over.

This short packs a lot into eight minutes, and while the ending wasn’t quite what I expected it also fit well with the rest of the film.  Wisely, the movie stays tightly focused on the interaction between the siblings, often without so much as even the background visible to distract the viewer.  The pale, wraith-like Aki is a startling contrast to her living sister — even Aki’s emotions seem dulled and slightly off, only her resentment over all the years of life she lost still clear and strong.

The sisterly bond between the characters also shines brightly, and though they both might chafe against that tie, it’s obvious there’s still love there, beneath the anger and guilt.  Pulling no punches, this movie offers a darkly, beautifully vivid portrait of the things that both pull us apart and bring us together again.

American Virus

If the zombie apocalypse begins in Los Angeles, we’re all doomed.  No one would try to stop it until it was too late because any witnesses would assume that someone was making a zombie movie and ignore all the warning signs.  Even if the outbreak is contained, well, “containment” can be a very fragile thing sometimes.  It might only take one moment’s inattention — or one quick, deliberate act — to unleash the monster all over again.

Heading home after a long night of zombie hunting. Or something involving zombies.

In American Virus, we get a bit of a different approach to the zombie trope in that one small group, at least, seems to welcome the arrival of their zombie overlords, so to speak.  However they might have gotten involved during the initial outbreak — at just over five minutes the movie doesn’t have a lot of time for background — now that the containment has failed, some of them are way too happy about that.  This includes the de facto leaders of the group (Kathryn Eastwood and Shane Ryan), and another young woman (Tommie Vegas, Nite Nite), though troubled, is still all too willing to follow them.  The situation turns awkward, however, when some in the group decide they’ve had enough.  But it’s awfully difficult to change your mind once you’ve thrown in with the fanatics.

Unfortunately they’re far from being the first extremists to decide that what this world really needs is a good cleansing via some horrible catastrophe, natural or otherwise.  Of course, those are the same sorts of people who often assume that they’re the chosen ones who will survive no matter what, which is only one of many such logical flaws in such philosophies.  Here, though, I’m not entirely sure that surviving, at least as non-zombies, was ever part of the plan. I’d love to find out what brought this bunch together, but any movie of this length is likely to feel more like a teaser than anything else, and this one is no exception.  But it’s a very intriguing teaser, well worth a look, and hopefully indicative of good things to come from Mad Sin Cinema.