Just Scream

These days there are more options than ever to get your fifteen minutes of fame, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s easy to make fun of the idea — fame is so fleeting and yet still so tempting — but it can also lead to good things. If you can inspire just a few other people with your passion for Kashubian embroidery, you might create friendships, even an online community. Or more seriously, you might also find ways to help yourself and others heal after a tragic event. That’s what Emma (Ewurakua Dawson-Amoah) tries to do in the short film Just Scream, though unfortunately in her case it’s particularly difficult.

Still from Just Scream
Emma tries to explain the unexplainable.

Emma is appearing on a talk show to discuss the abuse she suffered as a child, ten years ago, at the hands of a popular and well-respected teacher. It’s depressing how often it’s the popular and well-respected teachers who do the most awful things, but I suppose the worst offenders would develop that sort of protective camouflage. It’s an impressively brave thing she’s doing, and the show’s host, Carl Peterson (Timothy J. Cox), repeatedly says this along with other encouraging things, but the atmosphere of the show still isn’t what you’d call supportive. And when Emma is asked an incredibly tone-deaf question, she’s driven to speak her mind in powerful, moving fashion.

Dawson-Amoah, who also wrote and directed, packs a great deal into this film while still keeping it simple and real. Everything is shown through the unchanging lens of a single fixed camera. Emma’s experiences — both the abuse itself and the way others approach the subject — are all too common, but the film faces both head on in a way that’s still not common enough. Cox’s portrayal of the fussy Carl, focusing on all the wrong things, creates the perfect foil for the overwhelmed but determined Emma, leading to a memorable and deeply affecting ending. In times when anything can and will be reduced to a hashtag, films like this are needed more than ever to remind us of the people behind the stories.

The Maids Will Come on Monday

There’s no stress quite like holiday stress. Familiar routines are broken, journeys undertaken, and you have to try to coordinate plans with a lot of other people who are just as stressed as you are. That isn’t even getting into the worries about what gifts to buy and how to keep everyone happy with the food selection. With all this going on and more, it’s no surprise that there can be a lot of tension mixed in with the joy of seeing loved ones again, as evidenced by the short film The Maids Will Come on Monday.

This is the latest from (writer-director) Harley Chamandy, the filmmaker behind The Last Act of Joey Jumbler. Here the focus is on a well-to-do family gathering together to celebrate the spirit of the season, though from the very first something about that spirit is more than a little frayed around the edges. Julianne (Anana Rydvald) can’t seem to say anything right to her expectant daughter Chloe (Charlotte Legault), while the hosts of the party (Julianne’s sister Christine and her husband Henry) are apparently trying to get through the evening as quickly and quietly as possible. Julianne’s husband Craig (Charlie Ebbs) just seems to be trying to drink everything quickly and quietly.

When the tension finally breaks, it explodes, and more of the truth than anyone’s really comfortable with comes spilling out. As in Joey Jumbler, Chamandy shows us a realistic glimpse of vulnerable families — the backdrop is different, but the heart of this story is something we can all relate to. Like life, the film offers no easy solutions. We can’t be sure which direction any of the characters will go or whether things will ever quite be the same for any of them, but the film creates a masterful portrait of a family at a crossroads, with a chance to either change things for the better — or fall right back into the same comfortable yet destructive habits.

Self-Storage

The biggest problem with breakups is always in the aftermath, the unexpected reminders that can bring everything back when you’re not really prepared for it. Hearing the ex’s favorite song is a classic, but there are plenty of other things. Maybe you go looking for something of yours and instead find an item the ex left behind. It might be as unromantic as a hairbrush or a statue of a Hindu god, but it’s still more than enough to bring a flood of memories. In Self-Storage, a random group of such bittersweet reminders of the past suddenly take on a great deal of importance for the present.

Conrad (Garrett Wagner) was dumped last Christmas by his longtime girlfriend Olivia (Alexandria Rousset). There’s no good time of year for dumping someone, but that is a particularly nasty time of year. But Conrad is still tortured by the loss, not least because he doesn’t know exactly why he was dumped. His best friend Freddy (Connor McCafferty), who sometimes looks like a hippie and sometimes like a member of the Future Business Leaders of America, is doing his best to cheer his friend up, but that’s no easy task. When Freddy discovers that Conrad still has The Box — an old FedEx box containing all the little things that make him think of Olivia — Freddy insists that his friend burn it and move on.

Conrad and Olivia run into each other.
The obligatory awkward meeting between exes.

Though Conrad promises that he will, he in fact sneaks the box over to his self-storage unit so Freddy won’t see it. No sooner does Conrad arrive at the storage facility, however, than strange things start happening. When he realizes that someone wants to make sure that he never leaves the storage building alive, he fights back with the only weapons he has to hand — Olivia’s mementos.

It’s a clever premise, creating some bizarrely interesting moments during the fight for survival. A little strangeness can be a great way to up the tension. The setting is also first-rate — there are few places more claustrophobic or impersonal than a self-storage facility, which helps to create a sense that the poor, hapless Conrad is very far from any assistance, never mind safety.

The big reveal is less satisfactory, however, being too drawn out and more complicated than it needs to be. Still, the previous cat and mouse pursuit is done well, and the very last scene is excellent, making it overall a solid piece of entertainment that shows what can be done with a small budget and some creativity. Conrad is sometimes almost too slow on the uptake to be believed, but otherwise does a fine job of portraying a nice guy who’s in way over his head, while Freddy takes the best friend trope to new heights, or perhaps new depths. It’s a creative thriller from writer-director Pat Collier that offers a new take on the old souvenirs we all can’t let go of.

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.

Jones

Though we know a great deal about the process of addiction, the process of getting over said addiction is unfortunately still obscure in many ways. Some people are able to quit smoking, for example, without too much difficulty, while others try to stop every other day but can never seem to stop themselves from lighting up. A relative of mine, convinced he could quit this time for sure, made the dramatic gesture of throwing his remaining cigarettes out the door one evening. His wife found him outside in his bathrobe at 3 AM pawing through a snowbank looking for those smokes. However that image makes you react, it will stick with you. The short film Jones is filled with such images as it follows one young woman’s rocky journey towards sobriety.

The Jones of the title (Marzy Hart, who also wrote and produced) considers herself a party girl, certainly not someone who actually has a problem with drinking. Her friend Manny (Michael Varamogiannis) tries to convince her otherwise, but she thinks he’s being a prude. After a bizarre incident with a bicycle one night — remember, never drink and bike — she decides that maybe she isn’t just a party girl after all. So it’s off to AA where she meets Barbie (Lisa Tharps), also trying to get her life back on track, and Jones takes the first steps — no pun intended — towards kicking the habit.

Movie poster
Not exactly a good place for a nap.

But breaking any habit isn’t easy, especially not this habit, and Jones has a long road ahead of her. Worse, like many of us, she isn’t all that great at accepting help, not even when she needs it the most. Some days it seems like every small victory only leads to a big setback, and however determined Jones is, there’s a real chance she won’t make it. You’ll be rooting for her, though, as Hart and the supporting cast bring Jones’ struggles — inspired by real events — to vivid life. The film veers from the realistic and gritty to the hallucinatory, creating scenes that are hard to forget. It takes us to a huge turning point in one woman’s life and gives us a glimpse into the harsh battles that lie behind the 12 Steps and the meetings. Neither apologizing nor romanticizing addiction, Jones is a revelation.

Enemy Within

Conspiracy theories aside, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a shock to the world. Hawaii was still only a US territory in 1941, and no one expected that the war would suddenly arrive to awaken the sleeping giant and throw the United States into the war. Enemy Within is based on an unexpected aftereffect of the attack on Pearl Harbor called the Ni’ihau Incident, bringing the tension and panic of the time to vivid life.

Contrary to popular belief, the Japanese pilots were not kamikaze pilots. They had as good a chance of returning home as the average combat pilot… which still aren’t great odds, but there were plans in place to retrieve damaged planes. They were told to attempt a landing on Ni’ihau, a small island about 100 miles from the attack site, and wait for a rescue submarine. But Ni’ihau isn’t uninhabited, as the Japanese thought — there was a small community there, hunting and fishing as their ancestors had. Aside from the occasional neighborly dispute, it was a peaceful place — at least until the damaged Zero fell out of the sky.

Haku, Matsu, and Ben pulling Shigenori from the water.
Haku, Matsu, and Ben doing something they’ll regret.

Ben Kanahele (Joseph Naufahu), leader of the islanders, rescues the unconscious pilot, Shigenori Nishikaichi (Kazuma Sano) without a second thought. The locals treat Shigenori’s wounds and welcome him to the island. But no good deed goes unpunished, and when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor finally reaches Ni’ihau, sides have already been chosen. There are three people of Japanese descent in the village, you see: Irene and Yoshio Harada (Chika Kanamoto, Takashi Yamaguchi), and Matsu (Takuma Anzai), and despite having lived on the island for years they’re not sure their friends and neighbors will ever want to have any Japanese around again. As the fear and uncertainty eat away at them — and Shigenori fights with all his strength to return home — desperate plans are made on both sides. When tension explodes into violence, it soon becomes clear that none of them will be able to return to their old lives.

Enemy Within masterfully juxtaposes the beauty of Ni’ihau with the ugliness that appears all too often when the stakes are high and reason is overcome by emotion. Basing a film on actual events can be challenging, but again the film faces that challenge expertly, creating a realistic portrait of Ni’ihau and its citizens both before and after war descends on them.

Naufahu as Ben and Maria Walker as his wife Ella particularly shine as they struggle to find balance amid the chaos, while Kanoa Goo as angry young man Hawila spends much of his time stirring up more chaos. But as decisions are made and alliances shift, the interplay among the characters is always convincing, creating a truly fascinating community. It’s a compelling, vivid drama that illuminates a neglected chapter in history as well as timeless questions of loyalty, identity, and duty that are as relevant today as they were eighty years ago.

No Knock List

Most neighborhoods seem to have one house that attracts all the strange stories. Maybe everyone thinks it’s haunted, maybe it just seems cursed. We had a house like the latter a few miles down the road from where I grew up, where every new family that moved in seemed to have deeper problems than the last. Thankfully, after the illegal detainment incident someone realized the house was slowly sliding down the hill and it was condemned before anything worse could happen. In No Knock List, the house is far worse but also far more gorgeous, a rambling Victorian mansion that’s been converted to an exclusive bed and breakfast.

Reclusive owner Ms. Vangobels (the redoubtable and terrifying Maria Olsen of Marrtown) has lived there for years raking in money and never seems to spend anything, so rumor has it there’s a fortune hidden somewhere inside. Keith (Brian Stowell) grew up in that neighborhood and now he’s told his friend Lou (James Quinn) the story. They could both use some quick cash, you see, since they’re both recently escaped convicts. I’m not sure how they ever managed to join forces since Lou is a murderer headed for Death Row whereas I’m fairly certain Keith couldn’t kill anything larger than a mosquito without being crushed by the weight of the guilt, but there we are. Lou needs someone to bully and Keith apparently enjoys being bullied, so it works for them. Anyway, they need money and this seems an easy place to rob.

A creature on the bathroom floor
That’s the thing about a B&B – you never know who you might have to share a bathroom with.

You know that can’t be true with Maria Olsen in charge, however, and soon their simple plan starts unraveling as they get caught up in the strangeness of the house and its inhabitants. Repairman Lee (Rick Montgomery Jr.) has only one eye but doesn’t miss much, acting as a creepy lookout for the even creepier Mrs. Vangobels. Maid Andrea (Emily Lapisardi, also of Marrtown) mainly just keeps her head down, trying to avoid getting on her boss’ bad side, and I can hardly blame her. There are plenty of other beings in the house as well, though most aren’t staff or paying guests — or even alive, probably — and since they seem to like bullying bullies you can imagine that Lou might be in for a rough time. But the next several hours won’t be easy for either Lou or Keith, and the choices they make will affect them in more than just this life.

Of course Maria Olsen couldn’t be more sinister, stealing all her scenes as she cautions her guests to follow the rules, with the “or else” strongly implied. Even she has her unseen superiors, but in her house she’s undeniably the queen and even a hardened criminal like Lou has no idea what he’s in for. Montgomery as Lee has a marvelous time chewing the scenery, while Lapisardi floats ghostlike in the background, more than a little overwhelmed but still doing her best. The house itself gives up its secrets only reluctantly, creating an effective slow build of suspense. There are solid special effects and a quietly creepy atmosphere that fills the house and haunts the characters. It might even make you think a little about how the person you are compares with the person you always hoped you’d be.

Nox

Politics can be a very dirty business. People usually say that with great confidence, and with good reason, though it’s likely we only see about half of the shady things that go on. That’s probably just as well, since politics already often seems like nothing but one scandal after another. If things got much worse it would be mass hysteria. But the cliche is all too true — often, even those who had the best intentions when first getting into politics soon discover how hard it is to keep one’s hands clean. In Nox, the grand old hand-dirtying tradition of political breaking and entering is carried proudly on — with a twist.

Peter stops his robbing to study a photo.
Why not combine a little snooping with your breaking and entering?

Peter (Matt Passmore) and Claire (Brigitte Millar) are breaking into the house of a senator who’s up for re-election that very night. The opposition has gone to some lengths to stir up scandal — hardly shocking — but in this case the senator’s elegant wife Michelle (Agnes Godey) is involved and the stakes are higher than usual. And while Claire and Peter both seem to be very professional in their work, sometimes even the best laid plans don’t go quite as expected… and before the night and the election are over, everyone involved just might have a nasty surprise in store.

There’s a lot of sinister detail packed into this noir-style short, and even more implied as the cat and mouse game unfolds. Millar and Passmore both give understated, unsettling performances that hint masterfully at many hidden undercurrents. The final, quietly tension-filled scene is one you won’t soon forget, as the characters’ lives change by the wavering blue light of a well-kept swimming pool. The film owes more than a little to the classic influences of the 1930’s and 40’s, and writer-director Keyvan Sheikhalishahi has created a thriller that’s both thoroughly modern and absolutely timeless.