Chasing Einstein

Once we’re out of school, most of us don’t ever stop to think about physics again, and probably also breathe a sigh of relief about that fact. But whether we understand how they work or not, the laws of physics shape our world, and in many cases are more second nature to us than we realize. You might not be able to calculate the coefficient of friction between your car tires and the street, but you know instinctively that said car will brake faster and more efficiently on dry pavement than it will when there’s snow on the road. In the documentary Chasing Einstein, the filmmakers recruit a group of physicists from several nations to discuss one of the biggest mysteries of physics today, a little concept called dark matter.

It’s becoming something of a sci-fi catch phrase, but it’s really a term physicists use for something no one quite understands. Gravity is one of the fundamentals of physics and life. It ranks with death and taxes as something that can be counted on, keeping our feet on the ground and allowing planets to sail smoothly around their respective stars. From the first hominid noticing that leaves never fall up, to Sir Isaac Newton, to Albert Einstein himself, gravity has been one of the most studied phenomena around. Then, thanks to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, we realized that gravity as we know it can’t explain some fairly basic things.

For example, there are galaxies rotating contentedly away that shouldn’t be able to stay together based on the gravitational forces of the matter we can see, yet stay together they do and no one can explain it. The phrase dark matter was coined to refer to “Whatever is holding that stuff together when gravity as we know it can’t possibly be holding that stuff together”. The idea is that there’s some new form of matter that can’t be detected with the usual instruments but still has the mass to generate all this extra gravitational pull. Chasing Einstein — and by the way, the Theory of Relativity still hasn’t been toppled after over 100 years and countless leaps forward — is almost as much about following in the great man’s footsteps as it is about the pursuit of the truth of dark matter. That might seem intimidating, but the film doesn’t forget its audience and keeps things simple yet still fascinating.

A dark matter detector.
A dark matter detector. Don’t worry, you don’t need to know how it works.

Some scientists — Dr. Elena Aprile of Columbia University, for one — have spent years of their professional lives in pursuit of proof that dark matter exists. Others, like twin physicists Erik and Herman Verlinde, believe there isn’t necessarily any matter in dark matter, and the real problem is simply that our understanding of gravity is imperfect on a more cosmic scale. Right now either approach might be the correct one, and there’s no telling what the future will bring. All anyone can say for certain right now is that for Einstein’s theory to be correct, there has to be something hidden out there, dark matter or something else, and every physicist out there wants to be the one to solve the enigma.

Featuring other rock stars of science like James Beacham and 2017 Nobel Laureates Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, the film captures a sense of wonder and awe that’s worthy of any science-fiction epic while still staying grounded. It’s our own innate curiosity that drives us to explore the unknown, but it’s physics that propels us forward. The theories can be intimidating, but they also hold the key to all the mysteries of the cosmos — if we can just figure out exactly where and how to look. Chasing Einstein shows us one aspect of the grandest search of all, and does it in an accessible, compelling fashion.

The Tattooist

Somewhere — perhaps in an isolated old basement — is a kitschy, neon-lit room where a tattooist turns skin into works of art. A tattoo of such quality is no doubt very expensive, perhaps in more ways than one. For this tattoo parlor holds many secrets, almost as many as its owner.
Movie poster

The Tattooist is an award-winning micro-short horror film from Michael Wong, so I can’t tell you much more about it other than that it’s probably the creepiest minute and a half of film you’ve seen in a while, with both screaming, in your face terror as well as undertones of more subtle psychological fears. The tattooist takes great pleasure in all aspects of his work, and he has something of a dream job for those who enjoy inflicting pain — but above all else he is a true artist, and his medium is pure terror. This teaser film hints at great and terrifying things for the extended version which should hopefully follow soon.

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.

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.
Continue reading “Dark Forest”

Marrtown

Theo wakes screaming. Those nightmares about having missed class are the worst.

Long ago, in the wake of a deadly duel, a family was cursed through the generations. Though innocent of any wrongdoing, it was daughter Theodosia (Kristin Mitchem) who faced the worst of the curse, struggling to protect her young son. She finally consults a mysterious seer (Emily Lapisardi) who says that the curse cannot be broken, but perhaps it can also become a blessing. Casting a spell upon Theodora’s locket, she says that it is now an object of great power and returns it to Theodora, also advising her to change her son’s name and hide him away.

In the present, descendant and lookalike Theo Burton faces more ordinary problems. Her father has recently passed away, and though they were divorced her mother (Sherri Knapp) isn’t taking it well. Theo also has one more year of college to complete, and while Professor Daniels (Jeff Little) is happy to give her extra credit she isn’t too thrilled with the idea since it involves letting him sexually harass her. Theo’s friends Blythe (Mandi Bolyard) and Winter (Philip Morris) are supportive of her in this unpleasant situation, while Kelley (Toni Marie Perry) suggests blackmail. This, we will see, is typical of how Kelley’s mind works.

But other things are going wrong as well, like the strange dreams that Theo is having which seem to mimic real life. Also, her neighbor Missy (Maria Olsen) is convinced that Theo is a witch from a family of witches and isn’t afraid to say so very loudly. Beginning to wonder if there might be some truth to Missy’s accusation, Theo consults her cousin Angus (Zeilo Vogta, who also wrote the script), who hints at old family stories regarding curses and the locket. And it does seem as though the Burton men in particular tend to die young. Only Uncle Jason (Bob Butler) is still around to give Theo some family keepsakes, among them the locket.

While Theo doesn’t quite know what to make of any of this, frenemy Kelley has plenty of ideas and isn’t afraid to break all the rules in order to further her own schemes. When she tries to tap into the power of the curse, she risks all hell breaking loose — perhaps literally — but all she cares about is getting what she wants, from supernatural abilities to worldly riches, and a little thing like a curse doesn’t scare her. But power isn’t always easy to control, and when the dust settles lives will have changed — or even ended.

The historical scenes felt off to me — though granted I’m fussy about historical settings — and also a bit rushed, but the film hits its stride once the background is set up and the action enters the modern day. The mystery unravels gradually and convincingly, and Theo’s frustration over all the people (read: men) trying to protect her by hiding the facts from her is particularly realistic. Yes, everyone needs help sometimes, but “help” generally shouldn’t involve lying or concealment of useful information.

Maria Olsen naturally steals all her scenes and gives unexpected depth to a relatively minor character, though many of the other lesser roles are unfortunately neglected. It’s still worth four out of five, however — it’s an ambitious undertaking for an indie film but it largely succeeds, offering some interesting ideas and and more cohesive internal logic than many horror movies. Theo’s character is also given a wonderful arc, showing her journey from an uncertain, often lost student to a capable young woman ready to live the life she wants, even if she has to fight all the curses in the world — with a little help from her loyal friends.