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.

Bunker: Project 12

The search for bigger and better weapons has been going on ever since one of mankind’s distant ancestors figured out that small rocks hurt and big rocks hurt more.  During the Cold War that search sometimes reached epic proportions, with countries everywhere rushing to find something that would keep them from being crushed outright by a stronger country.  And of course both the US and the Soviet Union led the charge to “peace” through really big bombs.  In Bunker: Project 12, however, some Cold War-era mercenaries have been sent after a different sort of super-weapon, left lying in cold storage since the project was shut down at the end of World War II.
Movie Poster
The team isn’t even sure what they’re after, but they’ve been hired by a very wealthy businessman, John Henderson (Eric Roberts), and he’s paying them enough that they don’t ask too many questions.  I’m fairly sure that Bruno (Timothy Gibbs) thinks he’s in charge, or at least wants to be, but as much as they even have a leader that would be Tabeel (Joaquín Sánchez), who seems to be the one thing holding the group together. Well, him and the money, presumably.  Along with Irina (Natasha Alam), Alan (Tony Corvillo), and Carl (James Ferguson), they take their first step towards tracking down the mystery weapon by kidnapping Balanowsky (James Cosmo), one of the few people alive who knows his way through the mazelike underground facility that holds the weapon.
The Russians want Balanowsky dead so their secret will be safe, and frankly he isn’t a whole lot safer with the mercenaries, especially Bruno.  Though Balanowsky knows exactly what they’re looking for, he isn’t talking, and by the time the group starts closing in on their goal, they quickly realize that they’re in way, way over their heads this time.
The film starts out a lot like a Bond movie, which is to say that you’re not entirely sure what’s going on or who’s on which side, but you can be absolutely certain that things will explode and a lot of people will get shot.  It’s inside the research facility that things really get going, however — the stark, abandoned look of the structure makes its narrow corridors even more claustrophobic and eerie as our “heroes” start to discover who and what their real enemy is.  And of course Eric Roberts is always brilliant at looking like he’s up to something, which also helps build the suspense.
It’s also about as logical as a Bond movie, which is to say not very logical at all, and it only gets worse at the end.  But the action and the tension help pull you in despite this.  The characters are interesting and in some cases even strangely likable,
despite their dubious profession, and the acting is solid throughout.  While you might guess at the secret of the weapon, it’s still a different and intriguing idea that I wish was explored a little more.  Of course, the ending leaves things cleverly open for a sequel, so that still might happen.  It’s primarily a popcorn flick, but if you can ignore the occasional inconsistency, it’s a wildly entertaining action film.

Let’s Chat!

Movies are always having to adapt to changing technology in various ways, sometimes with mixed results.  Cell phones, for instance, are ever-present but at least easy to neutralize through dead batteries or the fact that there’s just no reception in these extremely isolated camping sites.  Some movies take a slightly different tactic, however, and make the technology at least as much the enemy as any slasher, as in Let’s Chat!, where any online conversation can  suddenly turn dangerous — and I don’t mean just a slightly racy game of truth or dare, though that happens, too.

Some of the facial expressions alone make it worth watching.

It all starts innocently enough, when Luke (Jaimy Homberg) virtually gathers his friends together to invite them all to a Katy Perry concert.  Luke’s boyfriend Jesse (James Burleson) doesn’t get what all the fuss is about, and I’m with him, but Elle (Amber Romero) and Nico (JohnPeter Johnson) are terribly excited.  Sidney (Billionna Olivia Reyes), however, is stuck babysitting her little brother and is desolate about not being able to go.

But the chat has been acting twitchy, even by Skype standards, which I hear are pretty low these days.  As the other friends sign off, someone else muscles into Luke and Jesse’s chat, and that someone claims to be the notorious — and recently escaped — serial killer Peter Loft (Johnnie Brannon), whose favorite targets are teenagers.  He says he just wants to liven up the conversation, but considering what his idea of fun is like, this is one Skype call Luke will wish he’d never made.

It’s rather like a low-budget reboot of Unfriended, and though I wasn’t thrilled with the execution of the latter, it was certainly an interesting idea, so there are worse movies out there to emulate.  At least this version has likable characters, which is more than I can say for the original.  This is also more technical than supernatural, which is a better approach in my opinion, even if some of the techy stuff here goes a little over the top.

It feels too rushed, and the level of acting talent varies, but overall it’s a fun watch with an interesting twist at the end, even if that twist does seem particularly out of left field.  But it’s a solid take on a good idea that everyone seems to have had a lot of fun with, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from Homberg.

Maren

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

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

Death takes his best shot.

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

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

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

Injustice for All

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

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

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

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

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

Reina

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

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

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

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