The Red Lotus

If you have siblings, you know that those relationships can be complex and very strong, even if you don’t necessarily like each other all that much sometimes.  But for good or ill, there’s often a bond that can’t be broken and there isn’t much we wouldn’t do for our siblings even when they drive us crazy. Certainly brothers and sisters often instinctively know the best way to persuade (or guilt) a sibling into going along with things they think are silly, as happens in The Red Lotus.  Michelle (Jennifer Plotzke) has talked her little sister Debbie (Shara Ashley Zeiger) into trying a weekend yoga retreat at the aforementioned Red Lotus, even though Debbie clearly thinks the whole idea is ridiculous.  But Michelle has recently broken up with her horrible boyfriend Adam (Jared Prudoff-Smith), so perhaps Debbie thinks she’s in need of humoring.

Meeting Orelia (Paula Rossman), the woman who runs The Red Lotus, isn’t exactly reassuring either, as she prattles on about the symbolism of the center’s name and the proper chants to use.  But The Red Lotus is more than it appears to be, and Michelle didn’t ask Debbie to come along merely to keep her company.  The film is set slightly in the future, at a time where Roe v. Wade has been overturned, and this seemingly innocuous retreat also provides a now-illegal service that Michelle is in need of.  Debbie, understandably, is shocked to discover that she’s been dragged into something shady, and it seems as though this is one sisterly bond that might have reached the breaking point.

Michelle and Debbie contemplate loss, togetherness, and the sea.

But it’s that very relationship between the sisters that turns the movie into something special.  It’s otherwise a refreshingly, almost shockingly matter of fact look at a world that’s gone backwards, a film that faces the issues without trying to play on the emotions.  It’s poignant enough to experience this world through the eyes of the sisters and the movie wisely avoids delving into moral arguments.  Though some of the later scenes aren’t particularly realistic, much of the film has more of an allegorical feel to it — a sense that anyone might find themselves or someone they care about in a similar situation — and the important point is that Michelle and Debbie are as solid and real as they get, offering a keen, timely reminder that we all need to value our freedoms while we still have them.

Simon’s Quest

There are at least 16,000 awkward things about dating, especially those early dates.  One of the most awkward — and one of the most likely to show up in questions to online advice columnists — is figuring out when to share a potentially sensitive fact about yourself.  After all, there can be a fine line between letting the other person get to know you better and completely oversharing, and depending on the subject some of these conversations can be horrifying.  It’s one thing to explain that you have an uncle who’s convinced there are aliens living in his rosebushes, and quite another to have to admit that you’re a werewolf, as happens in Simon’s Quest.

Simon (Johnny Pozzi) was a regular guy until one night and one bite turned him into a werewolf.  He isn’t alone, at least, even though James (James Tison), the guy who turned him, vanished immediately thereafter.  No, this is a world with plenty of monsters around, vampires and demons as well as werewolves, though they generally prefer to be called the afflicted rather than monsters.  But Simon hasn’t had the nerve to date since he was turned, and Gwen (Talley Gale) and Robert (Lucas Brahme) want to change that.

Robert, Gwen, and Simon play games and talk Castlevania.

It’s a nice thought but they aren’t really all that helpful, since their main focus is on making a documentary about Simon’s life as a werewolf.  They get him on Tinder and act as cheerleaders, but I’d be more than nervous enough about dating without two people watching (and recording) my every move.  But he gets a match with a guy with the unlikely name of Skyye, and Simon tentatively starts trying to get other aspects of his life back together as well.  He joins a support group for the afflicted, and with help from the group’s new leader, Pat (Timothy J. Cox), takes his first steps towards becoming part of the world again.  But there are plenty of things waiting to trip him up along the way, and telling Skyye the whole truth might not even be the worst one.

With a solid script and capable directing from Marley Jaeger, it’s a wonderful mix of drama, humor, a touch of fantasy, and a dash of riotous satire — Axe Alucard (Anibal Nobel), monster hunter, is wildly over the top, as is Liz (Liz Days), the former support group leader, though honestly the demon in the group (Krystal K.C. Wilson) seems pretty nice.  But Simon’s Quest also has plenty of genuinely touching moments, as Simon is constantly torn between his own deep loneliness and the very real chance that he might wake up the morning after the full moon to discover that he’s shredded the person he cares about most in the world.  We all worry about hurting the ones we love sometimes, just not usually quite so literally.

Pat counseling the afflicted.

There are obvious parallels between the plight of the monsters — sorry, afflicted — and the similar situations often faced by the LGBTQ community in the not too distant past.  And it still isn’t all that easy to be anything other than mainstream in all your life choices, even these days.  But this parallel is handled just as discreetly as the monsters are, without a drop of blood or a single sharp, shining fang appearing on-screen.  It’s the quiet, gentle Simon and his very ungentle curse that will capture the audience, and rightly so.  In these internet days it’s easy to forget that every bit of suffering you hear about has a human face attached — even if once a month that face might turn fanged and furry — and this compelling short film reminds us brilliantly of that.

Partitioned_Heart

Sometimes technology can be just as frightening as it is amazing.  For one thing, it can raise all kinds of thorny legal and ethical questions, and if you really want to freak yourself out, try doing an image search sometime for “uncanny valley”.  There’s a good reason why such questions have become a staple of science-fiction — just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should, but the temptation to go ahead regardless can be very hard to resist.  And sometimes the technology does things without human intervention, as seems to be the case in Partitioned_Heart.

Rob (Travis Mitchell) is a father who’s lost his only child, Daniel (Malik Uhuru).  When you’ve lost a loved one, often you’d give nearly anything for one last chance to sit and talk with that person.  Rob has simply stumbled into that miraculous opportunity, as a mysterious program on his son’s computer has allowed him to talk to Daniel, now a literal ghost in the machine.  But this miracle comes with a high price.  When Daniel asks his father to do something Rob simply can’t face, will he be able to honor his son’s pleas?

A partition is a computer term for a way of dividing a hard drive into sections, which is something you might do if you want to be able to run two different operating systems on the same computer, for instance.  Here it’s also a metaphor for the warring impulses in Rob as he’s faced with an unimaginable decision to make alone.  As a short, the film inevitably asks more questions than it answers, but that only makes it more gripping and the anguish on both sides of the screen is simple and crushing.  Mitchell and Uhuru are both utterly convincing as the equally pained father and son, and their performances pull the viewer in.  Sometimes the most uniquely human dilemmas can spring from the most advanced technology.

All Between Us

Though it’s rarely as dramatic as the movies would have you believe, it often seems as though when things go wrong they all tend to go wrong at once.  One minute everything seems fine, and the next thing you know your car’s broken down, your dog’s run away, your roof has sprung a leak, and you’re wondering what you did to deserve all this.  But whether you call it karma, fate, or sheer dumb luck, once the world decides to start beating you up there isn’t much you can do about it, as the characters in All Between Us can attest.

A rare quiet moment before they all want to kill each other.

It starts innocently enough (as it usually does) with a dinner party Clara (Denyce Lawton) and Ray (Brian Hooks) are throwing.  They’re about to get married and Ray has so far only met Clara’s horrible parents Mr. and Mrs. Tillman (Carl Gilliard and Connie Johnson) via Skype, and this party is his chance to impress them in person.  Of course this will never work since Clara’s parents have decided he’s useless, being a mere writer, and they really are horrible people besides.  Clara’s brother Freddy (Esau McGraw), is also awful — though Mom and  Dad think he can do no wrong — so I’m guessing Clara was adopted since she’s so much more human than the rest of the family.   And Ray and Clara have more news that they don’t expect to go over well — Clara’s just found out she’s pregnant.

Also invited for moral support, of which they need plenty, are Clara’s best friend Mishawn (Tiffany Haddish) and her boyfriend Ty (Christian Levatino).  Freddy and his equally wretched wife Aubyrn (Tabitha Brown) can’t stop harassing Ty for being a white man dating a black woman, at least when they aren’t busy making fun of Ray or even Clara.  I really can’t emphasize enough the casual cruelty of this family.  Most of the guests probably only showed up because they’d never met the Tillmans before and assumed that Clara was representative of how they acted.  Certainly neighbor Chad (Kevin DeWitt) and hippie friends Billy (Mancini Graves) and Channel (Isley Nicole Melton) aren’t treated any better, though for some reason Mr. Tillman greatly approves of Ty.  Maybe he does that randomly to keep people on their toes.

As you can imagine, the situation is already pretty doubtful even before things really start to fall apart.  Secrets are revealed — and most of the guests do have at least one impressive skeleton in the closet — and what was already a painfully tense evening descends into absolute chaos.  It probably doesn’t help that Ray’s best man Sam (Jay Phillips) shows up both extremely late and falling down drunk, despondent over his girlfriend having left him.  And he’s far from the biggest disruption of the evening.

The movie suffers from pacing problems — the first half hour or so is mainly setup and it’s very slow setup, doing a lot of telling when they should be showing.  By the time Freddy, for example, shows up on screen they’ve already said so much about him that he isn’t nearly as shocking as he could have been… though granted he’s still pretty shocking.  Once things get properly underway, though, it becomes a quietly zany and entertaining slice of life film that even has a few wise words to say about life and relationships.  I suppose watching relationships disintegrate can be informative.  It’s one of those movies that will make you glad that your family isn’t quite as bad as you thought after all.

The Lightest Darkness

A private detective.  A train travelling all night to a mysterious destination.  Three strangers encountering each other by chance — or is it chance?  The moment you start watching The Lightest Darkness by Diana Galimzyanova, you know you’re in the world of noir, where everything is black and white but never simple.

Musin (Rashid Aitouganov) is the neurotic private eye, a frequent train traveler these days as he works to clear up the estate of his recently deceased uncle (Alexander Rapoport).   Elina Vyasovtseva (Marina Voytuk) is a concert pianist travelling for her work.  Arina (Irina Gevorgyan) is a screenwriter researching a script for a computer game — which, as she is quick to point out, can be as complex as any novel these days.  And the subject of her game is one that isn’t far from anyone’s mind: The Fruiterer, the odd nickname bestowed on a serial killer who haunts the night trains for victims, having claimed at least six lives.  People are afraid to ride the trains and are staying away — no, wait, actually the trains are booked solid and the conductors (Anfisa Mukhamedzhanova and Ekaterina Dar) are doing a brisk business in grisly souvenirs and sharing all the sordid details, for the right price.

As this story moves forward, another spools backward, as Musin recalls the details of his latest case.  A worried husband (Vladimir Morozov) hired the detective to find his missing wife, Lyubov (Ksenia Zemmel), and what began as just another missing persons case quickly flies out of control as Musin becomes far too personally entangled with the case, and especially with the last person to see Luybov — her highly unconventional therapist, Izolda Ivanoff (Kolya Neukoelln).

The stories are skillfully woven together, each mystery heightening the other as they unfold.  The characters all have secrets and are haunted by their pasts one way or another, pasts that seem to have inevitably brought them together.  There’s a strong sense of inescapable fate about the entire film, a feeling that all of the characters are doing exactly what they must do, whether they truly want to or not.  Like a train taking the viewer inexorably to the next station, there’s no turning back — not that you’ll want to, as you’ll be far too caught up in the mystery.

This is Galimzyanova’s feature-length debut as a director, and she handles it like a pro, turning the two stories into a fascinating web of intrigue that will satisfy any film fan and especially noir fans like me.  The actors never hit a wrong note, the characters and various classic noir elements blending seamlessly with the modern world to create an atmosphere that’s both dreamlike and alarmingly real, a place where unknown dangers might lie behind every corner.  Sometimes there’s good reason to be afraid of the darkness.

Musin checks his look in the mirror.

Shadow

College is a time for expanding horizons, learning about new things in and out of the classroom, and taking the first steps to adulthood and (hopefully) self-sufficiency.  Of course it can also be a time for learning by making horrible mistakes and possibly falling apart under the pressure of grades, the temptation of wild parties, and the sudden lack of any parental supervision.  They may be adults legally speaking, but turning eighteen doesn’t magically give everyone a good dose of common sense, more’s the pity.

Jane (Revell Carpenter) is one of the good kids, there to learn calculus and maybe meet some people, though she’s also shy and a little overwhelmed by colleg life.  She also has the most adorable crush on Allen (Kumasi Hopkins), who luckily happens to be very good at calculus and is also willing to tutor the less skilled like Jane.  Allen is shy, too, and has so far resisted the extreme peer pressure from his friend and roommate Will (Nicholas Goodwin, who also wrote and directed) to ask Jane out.  In fact Will says that if Allen doesn’t go after Jane, he will, despite the existence of Will’s girlfriend Jessica (Samantha Morias).  It sounds very high school, but then, that’s where they all were not so very long ago.  Anyway, Will has talked Allen into co-hosting a party at their place.  Hoping to have at least one other non-party-animal there, Allen talks Jane into coming over.

 

It’s a fateful decision, and none of the relationships among the characters will be the same again.  But perhaps the most striking thing about this short film is how quietly realistic it is.  Some important events unfold in near total silence, heightening the power of the images on-screen, with the plot unfolding as much in the pauses as in the words.  Every look and gesture from the actors rings true, and every scene is important.  It’s unfortunately not an uncommon story and there’s nothing shocking here, but there doesn’t need to be — the cold and unvarnished truth is quite bad enough.

The Unwilling

Will readings might be passe as a rule, but in dramatic terms they’re wonderful plot devices. It’s the perfect excuse to gather together all the friends and relatives of the dearly (or not so dearly) departed in one spot, preferably some sort of large, spooky old house, for everything from revealing deep, dark secrets to experiencing terrifying hauntings. In The Unwilling, the group gathering together will face both those extremes, and far worse, as what should be a legal formality soon turns deadly.

The recently deceased here is Mr. Harris (Lance Henriksen), and his son, David (David Lipper) lives in a pretty good example of a creepy house, it being both isolated and full of odd noises and strange shadows. David isn’t happy to have a horde of long-lost relatives descending on him, as he suffers from OCD and visitors make his anxiety spike. Since he also suffers from agoraphobia and hasn’t set foot outside in years, however, there really aren’t any other options. He’s glad to see his sister Michelle (Dina Meyer), at least, though there is some awkwardness when Michelle discovers that her ex, Rich (Robert Rusler), is also there, along with his new fiancee Cheryl (Bree Williamson). Similarly, most seem glad to see cousin Kelly (Austin Highsmith) again, but are less thrilled by the presence of the black sheep drug addict of the family, Darren (Jake Thomas). Still, it’s only a brief reunion and they should all manage, right?

There’s an immediate hitch, however, as the group waits in vain for the arrival of the lawyer. Equally, there’s no copy of the will around, just a hideous old metal box that belonged to the deceased and which no one can figure out how to open. To make things more interesting it’s also a trapped box and eventually sharp needles start to appear. They aren’t poisoned needles, though they all might have been better off if they were. No, these needles are creepier than that, as they allow the box to sense each person’s weaknesses, from greed to vanity to Darren’s overwhelming need for drugs. And that’s where the party really gets going.

Darren and the mysterious box.
Now that’s one ugly looking box.

 

My first thought was that this would be one of those movies filled with bizarre supernatural rules that the characters somehow miraculously figure out even though there’s no way they should be able to. But it’s both more straightforward and more horrific than that — it’s all about what you want and need, or at least think you need. The box is more than happy to give you those things, since that’s how the box gets what it wants. It doesn’t even matter why you want whatever the box gives you, from passing whim to the most dire necessity, for the most selfish or the most altruistic reasons, and that’s what makes it so insidious.

What makes the film good is primarily the characters and the conflicts among them. Given the terrible father figure involved — Michelle says flat out that it’s a good thing he’s dead — this isn’t going to be the most smoothly functioning family, and it’s that tension that helps anchor the characters and the plot as the horror builds. However strange things get, there are still realistic characters and convincing problems for you to relate to, and that keeps the film focused and solid even when the supernatural aspects are at their weirdest, and they do get pretty weird. But it’s an excellent balance of horror and drama, with David Lipper particularly memorable as he does his best to shield himself from the terror through his rituals. The character might have become nothing but a collection of tics and habits, but instead helps to give a fresh approach to a fairly traditional script. Dramatic though they might be, it’s probably for the best that no one gathers for the reading of the will anymore.

Under the Tree

Konrad and his chainsaw. He has no idea what he's doing with that thing.

There’s an old saying about how you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. You also can’t generally choose your neighbors, and sometimes they can be even harder to avoid than family. It can be a real risk to try to befriend a neighbor, because if it all goes wrong somehow your only option is to pack up and move, and that’s a hassle nobody wants. Still, in Under the Tree, both sets of neighbors would have been much better off if they’d fled to opposite sides of the country.

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Dark Forest

Kim and Franky kiss. Never do this in a horror movie, kids.

The woods really get a bad reputation in a lot of horror movies. I lived in the woods for the first seventeen years of my life and I never once saw a monster or a homicidal maniac. Even the animals aren’t all that dangerous as long as you leave them alone, though we did have badgers around and sometimes no matter how careful you are they’ll still try to claw your face off. Of course any animal can be dangerous under the right (or wrong) circumstances, which is my best guess at what the underlying message of Dark Forest is meant to be.
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Prodigy

Ellie and chessboard. Shall we play a game?

It can be pretty rough being the smart kid. That was my fate in school, and often the other kids only really talked to me when they wanted homework help. Also, I was usually bored with the books that were meant for my age group, which meant that I snuck a lot of my family’s sci-fi and history books to read, which probably explains a lot. But while I was a smart kid, I wasn’t the frightening, possibly preparing to take over the world sort of genius we see in Prodigy, and for that I count myself lucky.

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