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.

The Girl Who Wasn’t Missing

Now and then, many of us have probably wondered how we survived our  childhoods, since so many kids firmly believe they’re indestructible and nothing truly bad will ever happen to them.  Most of us outgrow this phase and sometimes marvel at the chances we so blithely took in younger days.  And you don’t even have to have been particularly daring for bad things to happen anyway — you never know when a freak accident might be lurking around the corner just waiting to get you.   In The Girl Who Wasn’t Missing, Echo (Kai Lanette) roams freely through an urban wilderness that, inevitably, claims a terrible price.

Echo faces life on the streets.

Echo seems to live in a less-prosperous area of southern California, judging from the palm trees and the general air of self-absorbed disinterest that seems quite common around there.  Certainly Echo’s parents don’t seem concerned about their daughter’s habit of wandering alone through the neighborhood, even though she’s only 15 and blissfully unaware that there are bad people out there.  I don’t know if Echo’s mother is perhaps a little more caring, but her father (Rob Dale) is a complete jerk who heartlessly abandons his daughter when she needs him the most.  I’d call him worse, but I try to keep things PG-13 here.

Left homeless and with nowhere to turn, Echo drifts into a pattern of life on the streets, or rather existing on the streets.  Always a loner, there’s no one left now to care whether she lives or dies, and even Echo herself seems largely indifferent to that question.  She does what she has to do to survive out of habit, scrounging for places to sleep and subsisting on convenience store food.  She may not be missing in the official sense — who would have bothered to file a police report? — but she’s still gone in every way that matters, moving mechanically through her days.  There’s a police officer (Jeremy Williams) and a friend of hers (Jerrell Gray) who just might notice if she stopped showing up one day, but aside from them she might almost not exist.

This may sound like a bleak, quietly horrifying film, but I’ve barely even scratched the surface of that.  The visuals are raw and unflinching, with no grim detail of Echo’s daily life overlooked.  Just her struggle to keep herself relatively clean is powerful and painful — a simple shower is an almost unimaginable treat for her, and a clean place to sleep a rare privilege.

Lanette does a superb job portraying the neglected child who transforms into a child of the streets, hiding whatever might remain of herself behind brittle sarcasm and bravado.  Her new life both ages her and keeps her a child in many ways, wandering alone and lonely through her new world in much the same fashion she did through the old, accepting both with the same resignation.

Done in documentary style, this expertly crafted film brutally reminds us that the true plight of the homeless and the lost is infinitely worse than most fiction ever allows us to see, and that those who lead these twilight lives are as real and human as any of us.

The Nonduality of Perry Atman

Remorse is the poison of life.  I can’t take credit for that line; I’m quoting Charlotte Bronte.  But it’s very true that just a moment’s inattention can allow tragedy to happen, and after that moment lives can be ruined.  In The Nonduality of Perry Atman, for the title character (David Christopher-Turner) and his wife (Catherine Hearne), that moment leads to the death of their young daughter, Catlin (Lucy Turner) in a freak accident.

What would you give?

Three years later, Perry’s wife is muddling forward as best she can, but Perry refuses to resign himself to the facts and spends hours in their shed, which he’s converted to a workshop / research center dedicated to the study of time travel.  They need to get back to that awful moment, he reasons, and make sure they have a happy ending, so time travel is the obvious solution.  His wife is increasingly frustrated by his obsession, but Perry can’t back down, not now, when he feels he’s so close.

And one day, all his hopes are realized when he receives a message from his older self, giving detailed instructions on how to save Catlin.  Following a voice from the future is a difficult and dangerous task, however, and time travel is an unforgiving mistress.  And sending a message back is a far cry from changing the course of history.  His grand experiment may succeed — or fail — in ways he can’t even begin to imagine, but he refuses to waver.

Low-budget sci-fi can be a very mixed bag, but this short handles that aspect well, borrowing from famous tropes and giving them an offbeat twist.  The movie might have benefited from showing a little more of the building tension between husband and wife, but otherwise there’s a good balance of past and present.  And overall it’s a quietly poignant short — Perry is a gentle, thoughtful man whose otherwise sharp mind can’t face the terrible truth and takes refuge in the ridiculous — or perhaps it isn’t so ridiculous after all.  There’s also a good balance of pathos and humor — the end credits are a perfect example of the latter — that improves them both.  It’s a winning combination that might just make you believe in six impossible things before breakfast.

Written and directed by Anthony Sabanskis and available to watch on opprime.tv!

The Bestowal

We’ve all had times when the world seems impossible to deal with and all we can think of is how terrible everything is.  Going to work is pointless at best, people are generally awful and getting worse, and the day just isn’t worth facing anymore.  As The Bestowal begins, that’s largely how Steven (Sam Brittan) is feeling, except he’s decided that he doesn’t want to face the entire rest of his life.  But as he’s trying to work up the nerve to end it all, a beautiful young woman (Sharmita Bhattacharya) appears from nowhere and begins trying to convince him that life is worth living after all.

You never know when Death might drop in for a chat.

Given her mission, it’s rather startling when she introduces herself as Death, though she’s more correctly an interdimensional being rather than a personification of human mortality.  As far as she’s concerned, though, suicide is a dreadful thing because it’s a death that happens before its proper time, not to mention a death that leaves a soul wandering, lost in torment.  She apparently can’t help such souls, so instead she visits the suicidal before they act, trying to persuade them to carry on. Borrowing from Plato — or maybe Plato borrowed from her, considering how fluid time is in this film — she tells Steven that caring about the happiness of others is what gives us our own happiness.  Though doubtful, Steven agrees, because it’s hard to imagine anyone not being consumed with curiosity over whether or not Death gives good advice.  She promises to come back in twenty years to see how he’s doing.

And Steven doesn’t seem to have aged a day when Death returns, something they attribute to his journey towards enlightenment.  During this journey, he’s made amazing strides in helping humanity, but the world is still becoming a darker place all the time.  Even Death herself is finding it harder to travel between dimensions because of this.  Is life as we know it about to come to an end?  Or can Death still do something against these vast and powerful forces?  Even a lowly human like Steven might still have a part to play.

This is an engaging example of cerebral sci-fi, with writer / director Andrew de Burgh mentioning influences such as 2001.  As with that classic, the pacing of this film is very slow, and if you aren’t prepared to ponder some deeply philosophical concepts, this isn’t the movie for you.  Of necessity, the film tells rather than shows — even a massive Hollywood budget could only go so far in showing the almost unimaginable beings and bizarre dimensions Death speaks of — and the movie blames most of mankind’s ills on technology, which seems a little harsh to me.  How else am I supposed to get my reviews read if not online?  And at first, Steven’s character is not as sympathetic as he probably should be, though he does soon become more relatable.

The good news is that the slow pace generally works well, giving the audience time to grasp the concepts discussed, and something about the actors held my interest despite the fact that there’s nothing here that could be called action.  So while it’s a mixed bag, overall it’s a successful experiment, creating a sci-fi realm in which the effects are in the viewers’s own imagination, which is the best sort of CGI anyway.  Bhattacharya is particularly well-cast, with a genuine quality about her that helps her move beyond the ‘Death as a beautiful woman’ trope.  It’s a promising and intriguing feature film debut for de Burgh, proving that satisfying science-fiction isn’t limited to the big studios.