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.

Doll It Up

Whether they involve friends, family, or significant others, relationships change whether we want them to or not. Friends can drift apart, family dynamics can shift in different ways, and love can fade. That’s what’s happened with Gunther (Timothy J. Cox) and his wife of three years, Natalie — it seems as though the simplest remark can start a fight, and Gunther just isn’t happy any longer.

Gunther takes delivery of Wife #2
Happiness in a plain brown wrapper.

Enter raven-haired Dorri, Gunther’s new flame and apparent soulmate. He showers her with gifts and affection, and poor Nat is completely forgotten. I’m not sure how much Nat minds, though, since she’s a total airhead. No, I’m not being mean: both Nat and Dorri are inflatable dolls. Yes, those kinds of dolls. Admittedly Dorri has a more human face, but she’s also getting perilously close to uncanny valley territory. And perhaps with more human looks come more human flaws as well, for as it turns out even Dorri has her secrets. Has Gunther lost every possible chance at happiness?

It’s a thoroughly zany concept for a short film that takes itself absolutely seriously, to fantastic effect. It’s human nature to sometimes want something simply because we can’t have it, never more so than in affairs of the heart, and this wild satire drives that home. Gunther’s struggles are more than a little laughable, but we can also sympathize with Cox’s pitch-perfect guy next door performance, even as we feel a little superior to him. After all, we’d never treat OUR relationships like they’re so utterly disposable — would we?

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.

Redisplacement

Recently I was offered the opportunity to see some test footage from a movie still in production, called Redisplacement.  Since I’m all for new movie experiences, I immediately said yes even though I had no idea what to expect.  In this case, at least, it turns out that ‘test footage’ is a lot like ‘teaser trailer’, meaning that if you’re hoping for a lot of information about the plot you’re not going to get it.

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But as with most teaser trailers it was intriguing to watch, not to mention an interesting challenge to try to work out more about what’s going on.  I watched it first before reading anything about the film, and guessed at once that it was something to do with not being quite sure of what’s real and what isn’t, and happily the imdb teaser summary backs me up on that.

Since I’m not in the business of spoiling plots, however, let me talk more generally about the feel of the footage.  There’s a quietly disjointed atmosphere about the scenes, and the main character certainly seems lost, in more ways than one.  There’s also a lot of shots involving water — in glasses, flowing over a dam, sitting placidly in a swimming pool — which would be appropriate.  The mind can be capricious, and trying to catch hold of a memory can be like trying to grab a fistful of water.

The important point is that as a teaser trailer it’s certainly done its job and I’m now looking forward to the finished product from writer / director Lewis Coates, who was gracious enough to invite me to see the footage.  It seems as though it should be an intriguing look at what will always be the final frontier for all of humanity.

Slapped!

It’s human nature to ponder sometimes about how the other half lives, and maybe even get a little jealous.  However much we might already have, once in a while seeing the things that someone else has makes us think that we might have taken a wrong turn somewhere.  After all, there’s nothing wrong with trying to have it all, right?  That’s what our current society encourages, at least, in this era of instant, total gratification.  And when your best friend leads a very different life then your own, it’s hard not to think how unfair it is that the other person has this or that really cool aspect to their life and you just… don’t.  This is what happens to best friends Alex (Alex Magaña) and Matt (Matt Lowe) in Slapped!, where few things are what they seem and there’s no such thing as a clean joke.
First of all, Magic Mike (Rodney Mason) seems to be an unfortunate homeless person like so many others, but he can do things you’d never expect, and when he hears the friends complaining about how the other seems to have things so much better, he decides to let both of them find out about the others’ life first hand, by switching their minds.  Alex, the physical fitness nut who’s training for a triathlon suddenly finds his consciousness inside the notably more flabby body of his stoner friend who thinks video games are sometimes a little too tiring.  Despite this, however, it’s Matt who has a gorgeous, devoted girlfriend named Holly (Alysse Fozmark), whereas Alex is too self-conscious to get anywhere with women.  Matt’s very blunt approach works shockingly well, with various women handing over their phone numbers, but I have to say it seems to me much more likely to get him actually slapped out in the real world.  It’s probably not something you’re meant to think about too much anyway, as with Magic Mike’s abilities.
Matt playing makeshift drums
Matt slaving away at work.
Matt and Alex have all the troubles you might expect trying to settle into each others’ bodies and routines, and then some.  Suddenly having a physically fit body doesn’t help much when you don’t also have the mental focus that normally goes with it, and Alex simply doesn’t have the confidence that everyone expects Matt to have.  Matt has a loving (if smothering) family — his mother (Aimée Binford) and her girlfriend Shaniqua (Erin Hagen) — while Alex was abandoned as a child and has often had feelings of being unworthy.  But they learn a great deal about each other, and more importantly themselves, as they struggle to keep up appearances for the rest of the world.  It’s a good buddy picture, with the main characters proving that you don’t have to be at all alike to stick together through good times and bad.
It’s also beyond raunchy, with most of the jokes involving bodily fluids. Admittedly this isn’t my usual preference in humor, but even so it still seems too much at times.  Entire scenes exist solely to get in one more punch line about something sex-related, and several of the characters have no reason for being there beyond trying to get a laugh.  In other words, it’s about twenty minutes too long because the film sometimes loses sight of what it’s doing.  Now, sometimes those detours are pretty entertaining — for instance, there’s a very funny scene that could make a great short film in its own right where a stoned Matt, in Alex’s body, watches a cooking show on YouTube while hallucinating — but for the most part they aren’t detours that really belong in this film.
Overall, however, it’s a good watch and clearly a labor of love from Magaña and Lowe.  When the film stays with its main plot it generally works well and makes some interesting points about what it might be like trying to lead a life that you’re completely unequipped for, sometimes in more ways than one.  It even has some things to say about looking beyond the surface (something probably all of us should do more often), with the movie itself being a perfect example of that.  It might seem like a relatively simple, raunchy comedy — and it is — but it also pauses to think once in a while, and that’s what makes it click.  The humor may not be for everyone, but underneath that it’s also a film with heart and empathy, and those are certainly things all of us could use more of.

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.