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.

Enemy Within

Conspiracy theories aside, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a shock to the world. Hawaii was still only a US territory in 1941, and no one expected that the war would suddenly arrive to awaken the sleeping giant and throw the United States into the war. Enemy Within is based on an unexpected aftereffect of the attack on Pearl Harbor called the Ni’ihau Incident, bringing the tension and panic of the time to vivid life.

Contrary to popular belief, the Japanese pilots were not kamikaze pilots. They had as good a chance of returning home as the average combat pilot… which still aren’t great odds, but there were plans in place to retrieve damaged planes. They were told to attempt a landing on Ni’ihau, a small island about 100 miles from the attack site, and wait for a rescue submarine. But Ni’ihau isn’t uninhabited, as the Japanese thought — there was a small community there, hunting and fishing as their ancestors had. Aside from the occasional neighborly dispute, it was a peaceful place — at least until the damaged Zero fell out of the sky.

Haku, Matsu, and Ben pulling Shigenori from the water.
Haku, Matsu, and Ben doing something they’ll regret.

Ben Kanahele (Joseph Naufahu), leader of the islanders, rescues the unconscious pilot, Shigenori Nishikaichi (Kazuma Sano) without a second thought. The locals treat Shigenori’s wounds and welcome him to the island. But no good deed goes unpunished, and when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor finally reaches Ni’ihau, sides have already been chosen. There are three people of Japanese descent in the village, you see: Irene and Yoshio Harada (Chika Kanamoto, Takashi Yamaguchi), and Matsu (Takuma Anzai), and despite having lived on the island for years they’re not sure their friends and neighbors will ever want to have any Japanese around again. As the fear and uncertainty eat away at them — and Shigenori fights with all his strength to return home — desperate plans are made on both sides. When tension explodes into violence, it soon becomes clear that none of them will be able to return to their old lives.

Enemy Within masterfully juxtaposes the beauty of Ni’ihau with the ugliness that appears all too often when the stakes are high and reason is overcome by emotion. Basing a film on actual events can be challenging, but again the film faces that challenge expertly, creating a realistic portrait of Ni’ihau and its citizens both before and after war descends on them.

Naufahu as Ben and Maria Walker as his wife Ella particularly shine as they struggle to find balance amid the chaos, while Kanoa Goo as angry young man Hawila spends much of his time stirring up more chaos. But as decisions are made and alliances shift, the interplay among the characters is always convincing, creating a truly fascinating community. It’s a compelling, vivid drama that illuminates a neglected chapter in history as well as timeless questions of loyalty, identity, and duty that are as relevant today as they were eighty years ago.

No Knock List

Most neighborhoods seem to have one house that attracts all the strange stories. Maybe everyone thinks it’s haunted, maybe it just seems cursed. We had a house like the latter a few miles down the road from where I grew up, where every new family that moved in seemed to have deeper problems than the last. Thankfully, after the illegal detainment incident someone realized the house was slowly sliding down the hill and it was condemned before anything worse could happen. In No Knock List, the house is far worse but also far more gorgeous, a rambling Victorian mansion that’s been converted to an exclusive bed and breakfast.

Reclusive owner Ms. Vangobels (the redoubtable and terrifying Maria Olsen of Marrtown) has lived there for years raking in money and never seems to spend anything, so rumor has it there’s a fortune hidden somewhere inside. Keith (Brian Stowell) grew up in that neighborhood and now he’s told his friend Lou (James Quinn) the story. They could both use some quick cash, you see, since they’re both recently escaped convicts. I’m not sure how they ever managed to join forces since Lou is a murderer headed for Death Row whereas I’m fairly certain Keith couldn’t kill anything larger than a mosquito without being crushed by the weight of the guilt, but there we are. Lou needs someone to bully and Keith apparently enjoys being bullied, so it works for them. Anyway, they need money and this seems an easy place to rob.

A creature on the bathroom floor
That’s the thing about a B&B – you never know who you might have to share a bathroom with.

You know that can’t be true with Maria Olsen in charge, however, and soon their simple plan starts unraveling as they get caught up in the strangeness of the house and its inhabitants. Repairman Lee (Rick Montgomery Jr.) has only one eye but doesn’t miss much, acting as a creepy lookout for the even creepier Mrs. Vangobels. Maid Andrea (Emily Lapisardi, also of Marrtown) mainly just keeps her head down, trying to avoid getting on her boss’ bad side, and I can hardly blame her. There are plenty of other beings in the house as well, though most aren’t staff or paying guests — or even alive, probably — and since they seem to like bullying bullies you can imagine that Lou might be in for a rough time. But the next several hours won’t be easy for either Lou or Keith, and the choices they make will affect them in more than just this life.

Of course Maria Olsen couldn’t be more sinister, stealing all her scenes as she cautions her guests to follow the rules, with the “or else” strongly implied. Even she has her unseen superiors, but in her house she’s undeniably the queen and even a hardened criminal like Lou has no idea what he’s in for. Montgomery as Lee has a marvelous time chewing the scenery, while Lapisardi floats ghostlike in the background, more than a little overwhelmed but still doing her best. The house itself gives up its secrets only reluctantly, creating an effective slow build of suspense. There are solid special effects and a quietly creepy atmosphere that fills the house and haunts the characters. It might even make you think a little about how the person you are compares with the person you always hoped you’d be.

Nox

Politics can be a very dirty business. People usually say that with great confidence, and with good reason, though it’s likely we only see about half of the shady things that go on. That’s probably just as well, since politics already often seems like nothing but one scandal after another. If things got much worse it would be mass hysteria. But the cliche is all too true — often, even those who had the best intentions when first getting into politics soon discover how hard it is to keep one’s hands clean. In Nox, the grand old hand-dirtying tradition of political breaking and entering is carried proudly on — with a twist.

Peter stops his robbing to study a photo.
Why not combine a little snooping with your breaking and entering?

Peter (Matt Passmore) and Claire (Brigitte Millar) are breaking into the house of a senator who’s up for re-election that very night. The opposition has gone to some lengths to stir up scandal — hardly shocking — but in this case the senator’s elegant wife Michelle (Agnes Godey) is involved and the stakes are higher than usual. And while Claire and Peter both seem to be very professional in their work, sometimes even the best laid plans don’t go quite as expected… and before the night and the election are over, everyone involved just might have a nasty surprise in store.

There’s a lot of sinister detail packed into this noir-style short, and even more implied as the cat and mouse game unfolds. Millar and Passmore both give understated, unsettling performances that hint masterfully at many hidden undercurrents. The final, quietly tension-filled scene is one you won’t soon forget, as the characters’ lives change by the wavering blue light of a well-kept swimming pool. The film owes more than a little to the classic influences of the 1930’s and 40’s, and writer-director Keyvan Sheikhalishahi has created a thriller that’s both thoroughly modern and absolutely timeless.

The Year I Did Nothing

In the 1980’s, everyone still wanted to come to the United States and chase the American dream. If you lived in the Philippines, the U.S. probably looked especially enticing, as the dictator Ferdinand Marcos watched while his country’s economy fell apart. The Year I Did Nothing begins in 1985, when the Santos family finally gets news of their decade-old application for U.S. citizenship. An aunt who had previously moved to the states had agreed to sponsor them, but thanks to the glacially slow pace of government red tape, it’s taken this long to hear anything back. Now, however, it seems as though things are finally starting to move.

The story is told through the eyes of oldest daughter Christina (Nora Lapena), now fifteen, who’s been obsessing about U.S. pop culture her whole life, watching Laverne & Shirley and The A-Team with younger siblings George Washington (Jared Xander Silva) and Elena (Faith Toledo). Yes, George Washington — mom Lucy (Maria Noble) thought it might help speed up their application, though I’m sure she soon realized the futility of that idea. Elena wasn’t even born when the whole process started. But now they have medical exams and interviews scheduled, and soon they might finally be able to leave — though there’s no telling how soon.

The Santos family in their red, white and blue best for their citizenship interviews.

School is just about to start up again, however, and Christina manages to persuade her parents that it’s no use sending them back to school when they might have to pack up at any moment. So begins the longest and strangest summer vacation ever, as the kids wait — and wait — finding ever more creative ways to keep themselves occupied. From wild rides in their neighbor’s Honda Accord, to hanging out at the mall, to facing the ultimate hurdle when their allowances are cut off to save money for the trip, every day is a new adventure. As their last days in the Philippines count down and the political climate begins to heat up, the Santos family find themselves with a front row seat to history as Marcos finally begins to lose control of the country he seized.

The film does a masterful job of blending the larger picture with the daily lives of one family that is both ordinary and unforgettable, trying to move ahead with their plans while still being loyal to the country of their birth during this crisis. Despite some very young actors carrying much of the movie, the performances are realistic and charming, with the interplay among the siblings particularly well done. And there’s also a good sense of place, creating a vivid portrait of Manila in the eighties as well as three kids facing a huge upheaval in their lives. Writer / director Ana Barredo shows us that a year of doing nothing can sometimes lead to some very big events indeed.

The Story of 90 Coins

It’s one of the oldest stories in the world: Two people are getting to know each other, and while one couldn’t be more smitten, the other just isn’t that interested. This nearly always leads to some awkward moments, though sometimes it doesn’t play out in quite the way you might expect. In The Story of 90 Coins, Wang Yuyang (Dongjun Han) tells Chen Wen (Zhuang Zhiqi) that he wants them to be together forever, but all she can say in reply is that she doesn’t feel the same. In some stories this would be the end, but here it’s only a beginning.

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Quietly convinced that they are meant to be, Wang Yuyang makes one last effort to win her heart, asking for just 90 days in which to change her mind. Something makes Chen Wen agree, and the quest begins. At the end of each of the 90 days, Wang Yuyang presents Chen Wen with a coin folded into a note he’s written to her. The 90 coins add up to about nine dollars, conveniently the cost of a marriage license. After the 90 days are done, Chen Wen, while not so sure she’s ready for marriage, is sure that she doesn’t want to lose Wang Yuyang. But romance always ends up giving way to real life, and sometimes we get so wrapped up in work, running errands, and paying bills, we lose sight of more important things. When Chen Wen is faced with a major decision that might take her away from Wang Yuyang, the beautiful promise of those 90 days might be lost.

Dongjun Han is both earnest and intense as Wang Yuyang, while Zhuang Zhiqi couldn’t be more charming as a young woman trying to stay true to her heart and find her place in the world, never an easy balancing act. The film also has a balance to strike and manages it beautifully, portraying a relationship that is both romantic and realistic. And the things that come between them are equally real, leading to the sort of dilemma anyone might find themselves facing. There is also more than a hint of magic to the film, however, a spell woven in those 90 days that changes the characters’ lives forever. It does sometimes seem like there’s less hope out there than there used to be, but The Story of 90 Coins asks us to believe that the world is still a beautiful place, and that a promise can mean everything.

The Tattooist

Somewhere — perhaps in an isolated old basement — is a kitschy, neon-lit room where a tattooist turns skin into works of art. A tattoo of such quality is no doubt very expensive, perhaps in more ways than one. For this tattoo parlor holds many secrets, almost as many as its owner.
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The Tattooist is an award-winning micro-short horror film from Michael Wong, so I can’t tell you much more about it other than that it’s probably the creepiest minute and a half of film you’ve seen in a while, with both screaming, in your face terror as well as undertones of more subtle psychological fears. The tattooist takes great pleasure in all aspects of his work, and he has something of a dream job for those who enjoy inflicting pain — but above all else he is a true artist, and his medium is pure terror. This teaser film hints at great and terrifying things for the extended version which should hopefully follow soon.