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.

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.