Doll It Up

Whether they involve friends, family, or significant others, relationships change whether we want them to or not. Friends can drift apart, family dynamics can shift in different ways, and love can fade. That’s what’s happened with Gunther (Timothy J. Cox) and his wife of three years, Natalie — it seems as though the simplest remark can start a fight, and Gunther just isn’t happy any longer.

Gunther takes delivery of Wife #2
Happiness in a plain brown wrapper.

Enter raven-haired Dorri, Gunther’s new flame and apparent soulmate. He showers her with gifts and affection, and poor Nat is completely forgotten. I’m not sure how much Nat minds, though, since she’s a total airhead. No, I’m not being mean: both Nat and Dorri are inflatable dolls. Yes, those kinds of dolls. Admittedly Dorri has a more human face, but she’s also getting perilously close to uncanny valley territory. And perhaps with more human looks come more human flaws as well, for as it turns out even Dorri has her secrets. Has Gunther lost every possible chance at happiness?

It’s a thoroughly zany concept for a short film that takes itself absolutely seriously, to fantastic effect. It’s human nature to sometimes want something simply because we can’t have it, never more so than in affairs of the heart, and this wild satire drives that home. Gunther’s struggles are more than a little laughable, but we can also sympathize with Cox’s pitch-perfect guy next door performance, even as we feel a little superior to him. After all, we’d never treat OUR relationships like they’re so utterly disposable — would we?

Three Doors from Paradise

Moving can be rough.  Even if you like the idea of new experiences it isn’t always easy to find a place that really feels like home, not to mention the problem of finding new friends.  Don’t even get me started on packing and unpacking.  But all this is exponentially more difficult if you’re already someone who relies heavily on routine and the help of others, and one day you find yourself out in the wide world without the safety nets you’re used to.

Rose and Brandon
Rose rescues Brandon from the horror of figuring out how much things cost.

This is what happens to Brandon (Robert Aloi), in Three Doors from Paradise, a new feature-length film from Joe Lobianco and the folks at Tin Mirror, makers of Quality Control.  Brandon is autistic and lives in a group home run by Stephanie (Debra Toscano) and Jerry (Maarten Cornelis).  But the home is now being shut down and Brandon needs another place to live.  Apparently considered just high-functioning enough to try managing on his own, an apartment has been arranged for him.

First of all, though, said apartment is roughly the size of a shoebox, and second is in a truly terrifying neighborhood.  Like many autistic individuals, Brandon is prone to meltdowns if he feels pressured or confused, and any change to his routine is stressful.  Now he’s out in a world where people expect him to do things like chat and make eye contact,  besides being able to handle money, none of which he can actually do.  Worse, there’s almost constant noise from next door as one of his neighbors (Stacy Kessler) mainly communicates with her young daughter, Rose (Kylie Silverstein), through screaming.

Then Brandon meets another neighbor, Tammy Lynn (Erica Boozer), who shows up at his door looking for help fixing something.  Considering that the landlord probably hasn’t fixed anything in that building since the seventies, it’s lucky for her that Brandon likes jigsaw puzzles, and with that approach is able to come to the rescue.  But while Tammy Lynn accepts Brandon as he is, her boyfriend Argo (John Anantua) is a lot less understanding, not to mention less law-abiding.  Despite such hiccups, however, Brandon, Rose, and Tammy Lynn slowly start to help each other in many ways, and maybe — just maybe — Brandon’s new life isn’t as awful as he expected.

It’s an engaging drama with a nice slow build, pulling the viewer into Brandon’s new and often alarming world, peopled with realistic characters.  Their stories are sometimes tragic, sometimes gently funny, but always familiar, with Rose in particular an expert at making the best of whatever life might throw her way.  And while I’m no expert, the portrayal of Brandon and his disability seems solid and grounded in reality.  The symptoms of his disorder shape his life, but they never entirely define him as he gradually begins to accept that new experiences might not be automatically horrifying after all.  Sometimes the happiness we’re all looking for is just far enough out of our comfort zone to require a leap of faith.

Their War

These days World War I is a forgotten war, living in the shadow of its offspring World War II, even though it was really the first world war that, in many ways, began to shape warfare into something like its modern form.  It was a conflict that left its mark on a generation and then some — the War to End All Wars, as it was thought then — and though that prediction has turned out to be sadly incorrect, it certainly managed to affect the wars that came after it.  I’m always surprised there aren’t more movies made in this setting, since it requires no exaggeration to create a powerfully dramatic tale.

A soldier in the trenches
This happens to be a British soldier, but the despair is the same on both sides.

In Their War, a short film from writer / director Max Mason, the bare facts are more than enough to entice you into the story.  Two men, on opposite sides of this vast conflict, do their duty and enlist when their respective countries need them.  Nikolaus Seifert (Des Carney), a skilled sniper, hopes to return home to his wife Anna (Elif Knight) with his honor intact despite having fought in a most dishonorable war.  Arthur Jefferies (Hamish Riddle) is an ordinary foot soldier who just wants to see his wife Mary (Katharine Orchard) again and their newborn daughter for the first time.

Neither is especially well-suited to life in the trenches — though really, who is? — with one not nearly blindly patriotic enough for his fellow soldiers and the other more than half lost in thoughts of his family.  As their lonely paths inevitably converge, the vastness of the war marches on, far beyond the reach of these smaller dramas.

The ending is pitch perfect and unforgettable, not least because this story is only one small example of the many cruelties of war.  The immersion into the time period is excellent and the performances absolutely realistic.  And beneath it all is the quietly terrible knowledge that no matter what, two families — and the world — will never be the same again.

Redisplacement

Recently I was offered the opportunity to see some test footage from a movie still in production, called Redisplacement.  Since I’m all for new movie experiences, I immediately said yes even though I had no idea what to expect.  In this case, at least, it turns out that ‘test footage’ is a lot like ‘teaser trailer’, meaning that if you’re hoping for a lot of information about the plot you’re not going to get it.

Movie poster

But as with most teaser trailers it was intriguing to watch, not to mention an interesting challenge to try to work out more about what’s going on.  I watched it first before reading anything about the film, and guessed at once that it was something to do with not being quite sure of what’s real and what isn’t, and happily the imdb teaser summary backs me up on that.

Since I’m not in the business of spoiling plots, however, let me talk more generally about the feel of the footage.  There’s a quietly disjointed atmosphere about the scenes, and the main character certainly seems lost, in more ways than one.  There’s also a lot of shots involving water — in glasses, flowing over a dam, sitting placidly in a swimming pool — which would be appropriate.  The mind can be capricious, and trying to catch hold of a memory can be like trying to grab a fistful of water.

The important point is that as a teaser trailer it’s certainly done its job and I’m now looking forward to the finished product from writer / director Lewis Coates, who was gracious enough to invite me to see the footage.  It seems as though it should be an intriguing look at what will always be the final frontier for all of humanity.

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.