Phantasmagoria

Things can be pretty tense when you’re trying to land your dream job. When that dream job will also lead to a dream career it can be even more stressful, especially when you might have a real chance of making it big in the movie industry. And anything in the creative realm can be awfully unforgiving — if you don’t seriously impress everyone your first time out of the gate, you might never get another chance to try again. So imagine how aspiring writer / director Vignesh (Vignesh Shanmugam) feels in the short film Phantasmagoria when he wins a coveted appointment with a producer.

The characters up to no good
Part of the dream sequence. Or is it?

His friend (Manoj) was an aspiring director himself once upon a time, and he urges Vignesh in no uncertain terms not to let this opportunity get away. He has a great script that he calls the 234 script, and he plans to pitch this to the producer even though he’s concerned that the producer is too old-fashioned. This story is a little wild, you see, since he originally dreamt it and later turned it into a script. Then, just before his appointment, he discovers that all his work has mysteriously vanished. Did his envious friend steal the script? Has it fallen into the hands of a stranger up to no good? Or is Vignesh’s dream not over yet, in more ways than one?

The dream sequence is a common trope and can be a very effective one, but unfortunately it’s all too easy to become lazy with such sequences. But Phantasmagoria gets it absolutely right, creating a compelling, vividly disturbing dream landscape that leaves both Vignesh and the viewer uncertain as to what can be believed. The visual effects are subtle, realistic and just unsettling enough to seem as though they crawled straight out of the subconscious. Featuring convincing performances from the cast, the film is an impressive first effort from director MJ Arun Babu that’s a perfect example of what indie filmmaking can do and which I trust will lead to still greater things.

Miss Freelance

It isn’t uncommon to stop now and then and realize that you’re not as happy with your life as you’d like to be. Maybe your job isn’t what you’d hoped, or an important relationship has been neglected for too long, or you just have the vague feeling that something’s lacking. Often that missing thing is excitement, though many times that’s something best left for fiction anyway. Real life excitement can often lead directly to real life panic, or possibly a new life that you like even less than the old one. In the short film Miss Freelance, one young woman goes to unusual lengths in search of a more fulfilling life, only to find herself in the strangest of places.

The Miss Freelance in question is Carly (Maddy Murphy). She’s apparently advertising on Craigslist or some such to find work helping men out for the night, to put it delicately. And these jobs aren’t confined to the usual, either. Maurice (Ivan Greene), for instance, asks Carly to take advantage of him — which she does, though not exactly in the way he intended. I won’t even mention what Randy (Zach Abraham) is after. It’s set in New York City, so there are plenty of strange inclinations to choose from out there.

Carly and Ben
Sometimes there just isn’t much left to say.

Ben (Timothy J. Cox) is the sympathetic, patient boyfriend Carly has left behind, probably the one man in the city she can’t look in the face anymore. He can’t understand what else it is that she needs out of life, but of course the real tragedy here is that neither can Carly.

This is a story of a woman trying to find herself at any cost, and perhaps not even entirely realizing what she’s losing along the way. The film and the performances are both subtle and realistic, telling the story of a life through the microcosm of a few days when everything changes in that life. Murphy’s impressive debut performance as Carly is understated and desperate as she runs from the world she knows into the unknown, while the broken-hearted Ben can do nothing but let her go. It’s a quiet, remarkably nuanced look at what can happen when life leads us astray, from writer / director Matthew Kyle Levine, brought touchingly to life.

Another Plan from Outer Space

As a longtime fan of Star Trek and other sci-fi, I can’t even count how many times I’ve wished someone would hurry up and invent some form of faster than light travel already. I’d even take wormholes, despite how unreliable they often are in fiction. Sadly, these days the term ‘space race’ mainly seems to refer to corporations vying to be the first to mine huge quantities of gold and platinum from asteroids and possibly cause huge damage to the world economy in the process. There’s also the stuff about a “Space Force” coming from the general direction of the US capital, though sadly it’s hard to take anything from that part of the world seriously anymore. The movie Another Plan from Outer Space offers a somewhat more optimistic view of the conquest of space, even if coming back home is a little problematic.

Jackson and Strickland sitting by the campfire.
No, they don’t sing “Kumbaya” around the fire.

By 2024, in fact, there are 521 colonists on Mars, which, also sadly, will never happen in five years, but we’ll pretend. The crew of the space shuttle Genesis I has just dropped off the latest batch of said colonists and returned to Earth, only to encounter some savage solar flares just before landing that instead cause them to crash. Tachyons were involved, and any Star Trek fan knows those are bad news. The five surviving crew members wake up in the middle of a desert with no idea of where they might be.

Reduced to emergency supplies amounting to little more than a canteen of water each and a couple of days’ worth of food, their situation is dire, especially since they can’t be sure anyone is looking for them, or if any searchers even know where to start looking. Commander Sam Strickland (Jessica Morris) reacts especially badly, to the general surprise of the rest, and Captain Raymond Jackson (Scott Sell) has his hands full keeping morale up. Then there’s the fact that Engineer Hudson (Augie Duke) has apparently had at least one full-blown hallucination. Dr. Koji Yushiro (Minchi Murakami) and Lieutenant Ben Brooks (Hans Hernke) seem to be holding up better, but tension is mounting as the hours tick by and there’s still no sign of rescue. Sam becomes increasingly erratic, and despite Hudson’s best efforts, they can’t be sure that the distress beacon they scavenged from the ship will reach anyone. With danger lurking in unexpected places, the crew is in serious jeopardy — and that’s before some truly inexplicable things start happening.

Despite the name, there are no space zombies involved as in Plan 9, but that’s probably for the best. The movie owes a lot to the classic Twilight Zone series, even having been filmed in black and white. It’s as much a survival tale as science-fiction, but it works equally well as both, with plenty of realistic relationships among the characters. The slow build at the beginning is perhaps a little too slow, and at times it doesn’t seem possible that these people have all been in the same small ship for nearly two years. For instance, one character has a picture of his infant son that apparently no one else has seen yet, and I find that hard to believe. But apart from the occasional hiccup, there are convincing performances and a good sense of the characters fighting against the situation as well as their own natures and limitations. Overall, it’s a solid, old-school science-fiction film that keeps you thinking, as all such films should.