Split

These days, if reality shows are your thing, you have an overwhelming array of such shows to choose from, and even movies are getting in on the act, at least in satire. But in large part because it’s so widespread, attempting to spoof the “reality” genre — which is, of course, one of the most unreal things out there — is a tricky business. Most of these shows are already ridiculously over the top, so trying to push them further isn’t always going to work out so well. But Split, a feature film from Ireland, goes boldly where no film has gone before, at least as far as I know: it’s a movie about a documentary crew following two hit men as they go about their, er, normal day to day business.

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Our protagonists don’t even get names; they’re credited as Hitman (writer-director Robbie Walsh) and Hitman 2 (David Alexander). Which makes sense since they’re doing at least six illegal things before breakfast every day, but which also doesn’t make sense as they’re both willingly being filmed doing said illegal things. Maybe the plan is to blur their faces in post-production, but if I was a hit man — hit person, whatever — I’d never rely on anyone else’s thoroughness. But I always assume the worst, in that once that recording is made you can never be 100% sure that the wrong person won’t see it someday. Basically, if you’d be mortified (or arrested) if your video ever made its way out into the world, then just don’t record it in the first place. These guys don’t care about that sort of thing, though. Maybe they think those worries are for sissies.

Anyway, these are two very busy days in the lives of our “heroes”, so the camera crew also has a lot to do. None of their targets are exactly regular people — the vast majority of us will never have to consider the possibility of being executed by a professional assassin — but there is also the occasional, inevitable instance of collateral damage for the two to deal with. And each of them has a very different approach to their work, with First Hitman being the thoughtful one, at least relatively, while Second Hitman seems to think there’s no reason to have this job if he doesn’t get to be the ultimate tough guy and not worry about the small stuff like innocent bystanders. Like all of us, though, they have dreams for the future, and since I doubt they get benefits like insurance, it’s no wonder they have to work hard if they want to retire to that nice beach someday and drink pina coladas.

It’s as weird and wild as you might expect and then some, not to mention surreally funny. The camera crew, for instance, can’t stop asking everyone questions no matter how tense the situation. Most people hiring a hit man just aren’t going to want to stop for a quick interview as to their motivations, however much of a loss this might be to posterity, and pestering someone facing imminent death as to whether or not their life is flashing before their eyes is rarely helpful. Despite their profession, First and Second Hitmen are rather likable, even if you might not want to risk getting a drink with them, and though they might harass each other, in the end they’re a true team. There’s shockingly little blood and plenty of swearing, but most of all it’s a thoroughly fascinating look at how the less law-abiding among us live, and the craziest and most bizarrely entertaining mockumentary you’re ever likely to see.

Spirits in the Dark

Even the worst workaholic probably has some kind of hobby to help them unwind. Granted, hobbies can sometimes get pretty specific and therefore incomprehensible to those of us who don’t enjoy whatever it is. I like to relax by playing quizzes on Sporcle, which to some might seem an awful lot like deliberately reliving high school where everything will be on the test, so I understand people thinking it’s weird. In the same way, I certainly wouldn’t be interested in the hobby Gil (József Gallai) enjoys in Spirits in the Dark.

Gil, you see, likes to explore abandoned buildings and doesn’t mind doing so after dark. You couldn’t pay me enough for this kind of expedition, and it isn’t because I scare easily, or at least not just that. I’d constantly be worrying about the ceiling caving in or the floor giving way. Anyway, Gil and his wife Stephanie (Beáta Boldog) both enjoyed this, so I guess they were made for each other. Sadly, both Stephanie and their daughter died in childbirth, leaving Gil to explore alone with his camera.

A deserted theater
See, this isn’t even a nice place to visit.

Then Gil discovers some mysterious footage on his computer, footage of someone exploring an abandoned building he’s never seen before. He finds the structure intriguing, but what really stuns him is a closeup image of a white crystal necklace exactly like the one his wife always wore. Managing to track the location down, Gil finds himself in a deserted complex of buildings, supposedly a former military complex, with the main structure also the site of the video. I was just thinking it looked like Pripyat when Gil agreed with me, and the place definitely has the same grey, institutional design as well the same unsettling air of having been hastily abandoned to the elements. As his eerie walk through the crumbling, deserted hallways continues, it’s as the mystery footage suggested — Gil isn’t alone. But what haunts these halls isn’t quite what you might think, and Gil faces an unexpected test of courage that goes far beyond ghosts.

There’s a beautifully scary slow build to this film, with every shadow hiding a secret and every half-seen movement a threat. Gil, still quietly grieving his loss, is a relatable Everyman — albeit one with a strange hobby — turned into an unlikely hero. The setting is a terrifying, palpable presence, with an atmosphere that weighs on you even through the screen. Best of all, the ending makes you think. It’s a creepy and compelling film from József Gallai, who also wrote and directed, that gives another layer to the usual abandoned building tropes. It proves that you never know what nightmares — or miracles — you might find when you explore off the beaten path.

The Last Fishing Trip

It’s easy to go a little off the rails after the loss of a loved one. The situation can be even worse when the loss comes after a prolonged illness and you’ve been forced to watch someone you care about fade away bit by bit. That’s what happens to Diana (Diane Bakos) in the short film The Last Fishing Trip. She’s been looking after her brother Edward (Mike Connelly) in his final days, and now that he’s gone she finds herself deeply lonely and uncertain as to what to do next.

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Clinging to the memory of the last good experience she and Edward were able to share — the fishing trip of the title — Diana packs a suitcase and drives from her small town to New York City, just because Edward had wanted to visit the Big Apple. With nowhere to go and all day to get there, she wanders through Times Square and rides the subway aimlessly. Then she has a conversation with Patrick (Lester Greene of Night Job), a New York native who offers her a tour of all the best spots.

At first an emotional wreck, Diana finally begins to find some peace through Patrick’s quiet, accepting approach to living. But even if she has help this will still be a difficult and overwhelming journey, and there may be setbacks ahead. She might just end up making a leap of faith that could help her learn to trust life — and herself — all over again.

Writer-director Christopher Fox offers up a quietly thoughtful look at what can happen when we’re faced with mourning a loved one and the prospect of our own mortality at the same time, a combination that might crush anyone’s spirit. Diana’s grief is raw and palpable, and at times it seems as though no one, however kind and well-meaning, will possibly be able to help her through. But ultimately there’s hope here — from Greene’s compelling portrayal of Patrick to Diana’s first steps back to something like normality. Sometimes the worst day of your life can take you exactly where you need to be.

Slapface

At some point in their lives, nearly every kid has a phase that involves a lot of obsessing about monsters. Most of us outgrow this; the rest get into the horror movie game, one way or another. Of course, the big problem most kids face is convincing the grownups in their lives that the monsters are real. In the short film Slapface, however, one boy (Joshua Kaufman) faces a slightly different dilemma.

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You’re never really alone in the woods.

For one thing, he seeks out the monster (Lukas Hassel) that lurks in the woods where he lives with his widowed father (Nick Gregory), when usually kids do everything they can to avoid said monster. Possibly he’s trying to prove his bravery, but equally possibly he finds playing with monsters preferable to going home. Let’s just say that his father has some strange ideas about what makes good parenting, and his definition of a game isn’t at all like mine.

It’s often hard to tell where the real danger lies in this film, and trying to figure it out will more than hold your attention. The relationship between father and son is complicated, to say the least, and the addition of a monster to the mix won’t make things any easier. As often happens with short films, there isn’t enough time to explore all the questions the movie raises, but the questions alone are fascinating. Writer-director Jeremiah Kipp handles the movie and its undertones deftly, creating something much more than just a monster movie, and I look forward to seeing more of his work.

Three Doors from Paradise

Moving can be rough.  Even if you like the idea of new experiences it isn’t always easy to find a place that really feels like home, not to mention the problem of finding new friends.  Don’t even get me started on packing and unpacking.  But all this is exponentially more difficult if you’re already someone who relies heavily on routine and the help of others, and one day you find yourself out in the wide world without the safety nets you’re used to.

Rose and Brandon
Rose rescues Brandon from the horror of figuring out how much things cost.

This is what happens to Brandon (Robert Aloi), in Three Doors from Paradise, a new feature-length film from Joe Lobianco and the folks at Tin Mirror, makers of Quality Control.  Brandon is autistic and lives in a group home run by Stephanie (Debra Toscano) and Jerry (Maarten Cornelis).  But the home is now being shut down and Brandon needs another place to live.  Apparently considered just high-functioning enough to try managing on his own, an apartment has been arranged for him.

First of all, though, said apartment is roughly the size of a shoebox, and second is in a truly terrifying neighborhood.  Like many autistic individuals, Brandon is prone to meltdowns if he feels pressured or confused, and any change to his routine is stressful.  Now he’s out in a world where people expect him to do things like chat and make eye contact,  besides being able to handle money, none of which he can actually do.  Worse, there’s almost constant noise from next door as one of his neighbors (Stacy Kessler) mainly communicates with her young daughter, Rose (Kylie Silverstein), through screaming.

Then Brandon meets another neighbor, Tammy Lynn (Erica Boozer), who shows up at his door looking for help fixing something.  Considering that the landlord probably hasn’t fixed anything in that building since the seventies, it’s lucky for her that Brandon likes jigsaw puzzles, and with that approach is able to come to the rescue.  But while Tammy Lynn accepts Brandon as he is, her boyfriend Argo (John Anantua) is a lot less understanding, not to mention less law-abiding.  Despite such hiccups, however, Brandon, Rose, and Tammy Lynn slowly start to help each other in many ways, and maybe — just maybe — Brandon’s new life isn’t as awful as he expected.

It’s an engaging drama with a nice slow build, pulling the viewer into Brandon’s new and often alarming world, peopled with realistic characters.  Their stories are sometimes tragic, sometimes gently funny, but always familiar, with Rose in particular an expert at making the best of whatever life might throw her way.  And while I’m no expert, the portrayal of Brandon and his disability seems solid and grounded in reality.  The symptoms of his disorder shape his life, but they never entirely define him as he gradually begins to accept that new experiences might not be automatically horrifying after all.  Sometimes the happiness we’re all looking for is just far enough out of our comfort zone to require a leap of faith.

Their War

These days World War I is a forgotten war, living in the shadow of its offspring World War II, even though it was really the first world war that, in many ways, began to shape warfare into something like its modern form.  It was a conflict that left its mark on a generation and then some — the War to End All Wars, as it was thought then — and though that prediction has turned out to be sadly incorrect, it certainly managed to affect the wars that came after it.  I’m always surprised there aren’t more movies made in this setting, since it requires no exaggeration to create a powerfully dramatic tale.

A soldier in the trenches
This happens to be a British soldier, but the despair is the same on both sides.

In Their War, a short film from writer / director Max Mason, the bare facts are more than enough to entice you into the story.  Two men, on opposite sides of this vast conflict, do their duty and enlist when their respective countries need them.  Nikolaus Seifert (Des Carney), a skilled sniper, hopes to return home to his wife Anna (Elif Knight) with his honor intact despite having fought in a most dishonorable war.  Arthur Jefferies (Hamish Riddle) is an ordinary foot soldier who just wants to see his wife Mary (Katharine Orchard) again and their newborn daughter for the first time.

Neither is especially well-suited to life in the trenches — though really, who is? — with one not nearly blindly patriotic enough for his fellow soldiers and the other more than half lost in thoughts of his family.  As their lonely paths inevitably converge, the vastness of the war marches on, far beyond the reach of these smaller dramas.

The ending is pitch perfect and unforgettable, not least because this story is only one small example of the many cruelties of war.  The immersion into the time period is excellent and the performances absolutely realistic.  And beneath it all is the quietly terrible knowledge that no matter what, two families — and the world — will never be the same again.

Bilal: A New Kind of Hero

Every part of the world has its heroes, those whose deeds have become larger than life and whose stories are passed down through the years.  But if you look beneath the stories, you generally find someone who’s less a hero and more a regular person, which only makes them that much more fascinating.  The story of Bilal ibn Rabah is one such example, and the life of one of the earliest followers of Muhammed is brought to the big screen in Bilal: Another Kind of Hero, the first animated feature film from a Dubai studio.
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And this is gorgeous animation, I can’t emphasize that enough.  The characters’ faces do lean towards the cartoonish, faces still being notoriously difficult to animate, but they’re also individual and expressive.  And every other detail is perfect, from the way the desert sun shines through a thin cloth canopy to the worn patches on a guard’s leather armor.  This is a world that looks and feels as real as whatever is around you right now.
In this world, Bilal (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) suffers from nightmares about the death of his mother and his and his sister Ghufaira’s (Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) subsequent fall into slavery.  They grow up as the property of Umayya (Ian McShane), a wealthy and powerful man with a bully of a son called Safwan (Mick Wingert).  Umayya isn’t all that great, either, but he does at least sometimes bother to learn the names of his slaves.  Unable to forget the fact that he had once been free, Bilal doesn’t make the best slave — even aside from anything else, he’ll break any rule if it means helping keep his sister safe — but he forces himself to be resigned to his fate.  Then he meets a mysterious man, who speaks casually but with authority about things like freedom and equality, and Bilal’s journey truly begins.
As fantastic as the animation is — in one scene you can see how drops of water have dampened Bilal’s shirt — it never overshadows the story or the characters.  The tale is told simply, suitable for younger viewers, but that doesn’t mean the grownups will be bored.  It’s an engrossing plot driven by believable people with strengths and weaknesses.  Bilal isn’t perfect, but that just makes him more inspiring as he finds his way in the world while struggling to preserve what’s left of his family.  As in many historical pieces there’s a lack of female characters, but though Ghufaira is unfortunately sometimes reduced to a damsel in distress she also does help keep Bilal focused when he needs it.
The battle scenes are well-done and intense though still PG, and Bilal’s transformation from rebellious teen to a man who at last knows his place in the world keeps the film grounded.  With villains that hit just the right note of wickedness and a vivid supporting cast, Bilal is a vastly entertaining epic that illuminates an era not well known to many in the western world, and thoroughly charms its audience at the same time.

Real Artists

Once in a while, hard work and sheer luck manage to help each other out for a change, and we might just find ourselves on the verge of realizing a long-hoped for dream.  Of course, this happens about as often as a total solar eclipse, so if you ever find yourself in this position do your best to seize your dream with both hands and try not to gloat too much as you’re scampering gleefully away.  In the short film Real Artists, Sophia (Tiffany Hines) is in exactly this enviable position, having earned an interview for her dream job at Semaphore Studios.  She longs to be an animator, and for that this is THE studio to work for.  And right now they’re developing Return to Mythos, sequel to their huge hit Mythos, so this is the perfect time to join the team.
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Sophia’s interviewer is Anne Palladon (Tamlyn Tomita), whose work Sophia has always admired.  Even better, Anne is impressed by Sophia’s work and is anxious to get another woman on board.  This couldn’t be a more promising start, and you can almost see Sophia telling herself not to mess this up.  But there’s a lot hiding behind that non-disclosure agreement she had to sign, and the job may not be quite the sort of dream she thinks it is.
Hines is perfectly cast as the hopeful, idealistic Sophia getting her first look behind the curtain, while Tomita shines as the successful woman in a man’s world.  (Your MCND fact of the day: women hold only about 20% of animation industry jobs.)  But where the movie really hits home is in its predictions for the not too distant future of animation and movie-making, where it may just be frighteningly accurate.  The film quietly puts some unsettling notions into your mind, notions that will haunt you long after the film ends.  The real artists behind everything aren’t at all who you expect them to be.

Beauty Queen

Even if your teen years weren’t especially rough, they were probably still pretty awkward.  High school kids have to make decisions that can effect the rest of their lives, because those are the kinds of decisions everyone is equipped to make at seventeen.  College is expensive and not necessarily for everyone in the first place, yet everyone tells you that you have to have some higher education.  And then there are other, equally pressing problems, like being one of the cool kids — or, as in the short film Beauty Queen, being one of the pretty kids.

Christina with a digital camera.
The camera never lies. Or does it?

Christina (Christina Goursky) isn’t not pretty, if you’ll pardon the double negative, but neither does she look like a model the way all the other girls in her class seem to, and this bothers her.  In a truly spectacular backfire, her gender studies class seems to have made her much more conscious of her looks after nearly every other student in the class says they’d rather be called pretty than smart.  Even one of the guys agrees, though the teacher (Sally Eidman) promptly scolds him.  I’m not sure this particular teacher really gets the point of a gender studies class.

Anyway, Christina has decided that she’d rather be called pretty than smart, too, and throws herself into the deep end by trying out for modeling jobs, which is rather like trying to take up jogging by entering a marathon.  Her dad David (Timothy J. Cox) couldn’t be more proud of her, or more encouraging, but dads generally tend to think their daughters are both pretty and smart no matter what, and Christina is searching for something more objective — and searching in all the wrong places.

One way or another we can all relate to Christina’s quest — everyone needs reassurance about themselves sometimes — and the movie is quietly convincing, not to mention sweet and touching.  David is the dad every girl wants, but now it’s nearly time for Christina to head off to college and out into the world, and it’s only natural for her to have some last-minute nerves.  There’s a delightful father-daughter bond between the two that helps keep Christina grounded, and Goursky creates a realistic character that pulls the viewer into her story.  It’s a satisfying slice of life that might need to be required viewing in your next gender studies class.

Hush

Unrequited love can be utterly wretched.  And it’s one of those rotten things that nearly all of us have in common, because hopeless crushes can strike anyone at any time.  Most of us just cope with it one way or another — we mope around the house for a while, try to avoid the object of our affections until things are less fraught, or simply drown our sorrows in ice cream.  It’s no fun and we can be pretty miserable for a while, but we get through it because we have to.  Unfortunately, once in a while unrequited love can turn into obsession, as happens in the short film Hush, and at that point all bets are off.

Jeremy (Anthony Scanish), you see, is so madly in love with Suzanna (Melissa Damas) that he imagines them together constantly.  Her husband Mark (Erik Searle) naturally doesn’t enter into these fantasies in the slightest, just as Jeremy’s wife Betty (Kristin Anne Teporelli) doesn’t matter anymore, either.  Complicating the situation is the fact that all four are friends, often visiting with each other and another couple.  So Jeremy avoiding Suzanna until his emotions settle down isn’t really an option, but as it is things are increasingly stressful between Jeremy and Betty, who knows something is very wrong but isn’t sure exactly what’s happened.

Jeremy doesn’t seem to want to get over his obsession anyway, instead letting it pull him deeper into his ever more dangerous fantasy world.  And when the situation finally reaches a crisis, it will do so in a way that no one is expecting, probably not even Jeremy.

It’s an all too familiar story, told here with sparse, quiet tension.  There’s no dialogue, but there doesn’t need to be, the story unfolding bit by bit through the fascinating imagery of Jeremy’s daydreams and his life, the latter dull and colorless compared to the thrilling, vivid scenes of his imagination.  It isn’t hard to understand why he’s so anxious to make dreams into reality, except all his wife and friends see is him losing his grip on reality.  The ending is both shocking and inevitable, though unfortunately not entirely surprising.  It’s an alarmingly realistic look at the results of one person’s obsession, with powerful images that you won’t be able to look away from.