Bunker: Project 12

The search for bigger and better weapons has been going on ever since one of mankind’s distant ancestors figured out that small rocks hurt and big rocks hurt more.  During the Cold War that search sometimes reached epic proportions, with countries everywhere rushing to find something that would keep them from being crushed outright by a stronger country.  And of course both the US and the Soviet Union led the charge to “peace” through really big bombs.  In Bunker: Project 12, however, some Cold War-era mercenaries have been sent after a different sort of super-weapon, left lying in cold storage since the project was shut down at the end of World War II.
Movie Poster
The team isn’t even sure what they’re after, but they’ve been hired by a very wealthy businessman, John Henderson (Eric Roberts), and he’s paying them enough that they don’t ask too many questions.  I’m fairly sure that Bruno (Timothy Gibbs) thinks he’s in charge, or at least wants to be, but as much as they even have a leader that would be Tabeel (Joaquín Sánchez), who seems to be the one thing holding the group together. Well, him and the money, presumably.  Along with Irina (Natasha Alam), Alan (Tony Corvillo), and Carl (James Ferguson), they take their first step towards tracking down the mystery weapon by kidnapping Balanowsky (James Cosmo), one of the few people alive who knows his way through the mazelike underground facility that holds the weapon.
The Russians want Balanowsky dead so their secret will be safe, and frankly he isn’t a whole lot safer with the mercenaries, especially Bruno.  Though Balanowsky knows exactly what they’re looking for, he isn’t talking, and by the time the group starts closing in on their goal, they quickly realize that they’re in way, way over their heads this time.
The film starts out a lot like a Bond movie, which is to say that you’re not entirely sure what’s going on or who’s on which side, but you can be absolutely certain that things will explode and a lot of people will get shot.  It’s inside the research facility that things really get going, however — the stark, abandoned look of the structure makes its narrow corridors even more claustrophobic and eerie as our “heroes” start to discover who and what their real enemy is.  And of course Eric Roberts is always brilliant at looking like he’s up to something, which also helps build the suspense.
It’s also about as logical as a Bond movie, which is to say not very logical at all, and it only gets worse at the end.  But the action and the tension help pull you in despite this.  The characters are interesting and in some cases even strangely likable,
despite their dubious profession, and the acting is solid throughout.  While you might guess at the secret of the weapon, it’s still a different and intriguing idea that I wish was explored a little more.  Of course, the ending leaves things cleverly open for a sequel, so that still might happen.  It’s primarily a popcorn flick, but if you can ignore the occasional inconsistency, it’s a wildly entertaining action film.

Let’s Chat!

Movies are always having to adapt to changing technology in various ways, sometimes with mixed results.  Cell phones, for instance, are ever-present but at least easy to neutralize through dead batteries or the fact that there’s just no reception in these extremely isolated camping sites.  Some movies take a slightly different tactic, however, and make the technology at least as much the enemy as any slasher, as in Let’s Chat!, where any online conversation can  suddenly turn dangerous — and I don’t mean just a slightly racy game of truth or dare, though that happens, too.

Some of the facial expressions alone make it worth watching.

It all starts innocently enough, when Luke (Jaimy Homberg) virtually gathers his friends together to invite them all to a Katy Perry concert.  Luke’s boyfriend Jesse (James Burleson) doesn’t get what all the fuss is about, and I’m with him, but Elle (Amber Romero) and Nico (JohnPeter Johnson) are terribly excited.  Sidney (Billionna Olivia Reyes), however, is stuck babysitting her little brother and is desolate about not being able to go.

But the chat has been acting twitchy, even by Skype standards, which I hear are pretty low these days.  As the other friends sign off, someone else muscles into Luke and Jesse’s chat, and that someone claims to be the notorious — and recently escaped — serial killer Peter Loft (Johnnie Brannon), whose favorite targets are teenagers.  He says he just wants to liven up the conversation, but considering what his idea of fun is like, this is one Skype call Luke will wish he’d never made.

It’s rather like a low-budget reboot of Unfriended, and though I wasn’t thrilled with the execution of the latter, it was certainly an interesting idea, so there are worse movies out there to emulate.  At least this version has likable characters, which is more than I can say for the original.  This is also more technical than supernatural, which is a better approach in my opinion, even if some of the techy stuff here goes a little over the top.

It feels too rushed, and the level of acting talent varies, but overall it’s a fun watch with an interesting twist at the end, even if that twist does seem particularly out of left field.  But it’s a solid take on a good idea that everyone seems to have had a lot of fun with, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from Homberg.

Maren

A lot of us have one semi-annoying friend or acquaintance that seems to have absolutely everything — a wonderful significant other, a great place to live, the perfect job (or lack of job) and generally never seem to have a care in the world.  But even if that’s actually true, it can still take just an instant for that fantastic life to fall to pieces.  In the German short film Maren, that instant comes in the form of a fatal car crash.

The title character (Margitta-Janine Lippok) is a woman who has it all.  Besides the usual things meant by that phrase, she also has a zest for life, taking pleasure in the small things that are so easily overlooked.  On the night that changes her life, her beloved husband is coming back from a business trip and Maren has planned a romantic dinner at a nice restaurant to welcome him home.  Death, however, decides to crash the party, and I’m not just making a bad pun — after she gets the terrible phone call about her husband, Death (Max Tidof) sits himself down at her table for a chat.

Death takes his best shot.

This could never be an ordinary chat, of course.  Maren wants her husband back, and Death is more than willing to talk terms, or at least he claims to be.  But these are the highest possible stakes and Maren has an impossible choice before her.  Death might know (or think he knows) exactly how much a human life is worth, but how is a mere mortal to decide on such an exchange?  If you can’t cheat Death, as the saying goes, you probably should never try to negotiate with him, either, but Maren is desperate.

The film deals with many facets of the human condition without ever becoming preachy or condescending.  Whether your life is wildly successful or you’re struggling through every day, we’re all the same as far as Death is concerned — all equally valuable and equally worthless.  In the end, though, this film’s message isn’t nearly as dark as you might expect.  To quote a very different movie, life finds a way, and perhaps that’s all that matters.

Both Lippok and Tidof give pitch-perfect performances.  Death is intense and often frightening, both wise about and ignorant of the humans he leads into the beyond, while Maren is the image of a woman facing the derailment of her entire life, struggling with the weight of sudden despair.  It’s a powerful, wonderfully directed film that’s haunting and hopeful — because while Death may be everywhere, in the end this is the story of a mere mortal, and it’s Maren that shines through beautifully.

Injustice for All

Asking a group of comic fans who did the best interpretation of the Joker can be a great way of starting an argument.  Between movies and voice acting, there are at least a dozen people who have portrayed the iconic villain and they’ve each given the character their own spin and collected their own group of supporters.  But whoever your favorite is, there’s a very good reason why the Joker has become infamous — his madness gives him a strength of will and a certainty of purpose that most people simply can’t manage, and that gets things done.  Of course, they’re almost invariably horrible things, but it’s still a lot of accomplishment.  The Batman is one of the few who can hope to match him, and of course he’s not exactly mentally stable, either, so it’s no wonder that their opposition to each other has reached the point of legend.

The Joker returns home to Harley after a long day of homicidal rampaging.

Injustice for All is a fan-made short using the DC universe that daringly offers up its own version of perhaps the world’s most famous psychopath, played by Chris Newman.  Here his instantly recognizable look comes from a rare genetic disorder called (appropriately) harlequin ichthyosis.  It’s a real condition, though it doesn’t actually work quite the way it does here, and provides a refreshingly different reason for the Joker’s bizarre appearance, avoiding the usual scars and freakish chemical-based accidents.

The movie begins in Arkham Asylum, where Harley Quinn (Erica Hoveland) is a closely-guarded inmate.  A visit from Lex Luthor (Donavan Darius, also one of the writers) prompts her to tell something of her and the Joker’s story, and with him involved you know it’s a doozy of a story.  The plot is inspired by the popular video game Injustice: Gods Among Us, and it’s a tale that rocks the whole DC universe, featuring as it does a nuclear device, the destruction of a good chunk of Metropolis, and a rogue Superman.  But it was the Joker’s machinations that started everything, and if anyone knows anything about the Joker, it’s Harley — though of course she isn’t going to be the most reliable of witnesses.

Many of the DC favorites are here, including Catwoman (Jamie Bernadette, 4/20 Massacre), Lois Lane (Julia Voth), and Jimmy Olsen (director Danny Mooney), and every character rings true.  It’s a beautifully cast, wonderfully written homage that gives the Joker just the right combination of pure psychosis and the very darkest of dark — yet strangely whimsical — humor.  It’s got to be pretty intimidating to play the Clown Prince of Crime himself, but Newman’s performance shines among many excellent performances.  Check out this film, and you might just find yourself a new favorite Joker.

Reina

We all know the things you’re never supposed to talk about on a first date: politics, religion, and past relationships.  Sometimes, though, despite knowing we shouldn’t and despite our best intentions, we still somehow find ourselves ranting about the last election or saying something vaguely rude about the Pastafarians and then discovering that your date is one.  In the short film Reina, our first glimpse of Seth (Sergio Castillo) is of him telling a long, emotional, clearly not appropriate for a first date story about being cruelly separated from Reina, his longtime love.  Meanwhile, Seth’s date Michelle (Kat Pena) is playing on her phone and occasionally almost pretending to care about his tale of woe.  So you know there’s very little chance of a second date at this point.

Michelle takes a break from texting the gory details to her friends.

Realizing his mistake, Seth apologizes profusely and manages to talk the apparently extremely forgiving Michelle into starting over with a drink at the bar down the street.  Unfortunately, they realize too late that they’ve walked into a dangerous situation, as Dmitry, Sergey, and Vlad (Ron Orlovsky, Travis Mitchell of Partitioned_Heart, and Woodrow Proctor) are up to no good.  For a while, it seems as though this is one awkward date that might end up as a tragedy instead of just a horror story to share with friends.  But much to everyone’s surprise, it seems as though Reina — or at least her full, sad story — just might change everything.

Despite how dire it might sound, this is absolutely a comedy, with Dmitry’s gang sometimes in danger of stealing all their scenes with their antics.  But it’s also a comedy with heart, as it delves into some of the more painful experiences all humans share and how they can help bring us together — even with people we might normally be terrified of.  Pena as Michelle speaks volumes with her expressions, clearly often convinced that she’s the only sensible person in the room.  Castillo’s hapless Seth is a decent guy but also seems to be one of those magnets for trouble and bizarre events, and sometimes seems to be barely muddling through.  The end result of throwing all these characters together is a charmingly funny film that’s both sweet and a little zany, realistic and over the top.  It’s one of the worst — and the best — first date stories you’ll ever hear.

Stalked

We’ve all had that feeling of not quite belonging, and it’s with good reason that misfit characters are everywhere in fiction — it’s something we can all relate to.  In the new web series Stalked from JH Producties, set in Holland,  Finn (Jaimy Homberg) is the awkward teenager who doesn’t quite fit in.  He dreams of being an actor someday so he automatically can’t be one of the cool kids, and honestly, liking to cook probably doesn’t help much.  But his life isn’t all bad, since he has his cat, his best friend Olivia (Myrna Laanen), and an older boyfriend who looks like a model, Jim (Billy Twomey).  Sadly, Jim is now back in England for college so they can only talk on Skype.

This is what happens when you go camping just because it’s scary.

Since he’s missing Jim, Finn does his best to keep busy, especially during the week that his parents are gone.  He goes to auditions and makes plans with Olivia, including a camping trip, about which Olivia is far too excited, especially since they don’t seem to be going anywhere except the middle of a random field.  But hey, whatever floats your boat, as they say, and they seem like they’re having fun.

But there’s some dark stuff happening in Olivia’s life — she’s certainly in need of some distraction, to say the least — and things only get darker for our heroes as the series progresses.  At first you might be able to pass events off as being nothing but tasteless practical jokes, and Finn tries his best to do just that, even though it’s a lost cause.  The fact is he’s being stalked, and neither he nor Olivia is quite sure what to do about it as they’re both thrown into the midst of this very grown-up problem.

Homberg directs as well as stars and does well at both, creating a charmingly offbeat character in Finn, while Laanen’s Olivia manages to be perky and optimistic without being dreadfully annoying, which is quite a feat as far as I’m concerned.  The twist ending isn’t entirely a surprise, but I enjoyed the reveal nonetheless — both leads bring a lot of enthusiasm to their roles and that really shows on the screen.  The cinematography could use a little work, but overall it’s a solid drama that I hope predicts great things for Homberg and crew.  It’s available on YouTube and well worth watching.

Le Sequel

A quick glance at Gofundme or Kickstarter will demonstrate how difficult it can be to get financial backing for an indie movie.   No doubt many bad deals have been struck by filmmakers desperate for their ideas to come to life, and possibly also by investors anxious to strike it rich and / or become famous, not that either is all that likely in the world of indie film.  The deal struck in Le Sequel, however, may set some sort of record for Worst Repercussions for the Most People, since this agreement sets off a chain reaction that would put the Manhattan Project to shame.

Carlos (Kyri Saphiris) is the hopeful director, veteran of 22 films, searching for investors for his next venture.  He finds Dirk (Andrew Tiernan) who represents a group of Nollywood investors from the Nigerian film industry.  No, they’re not a bunch of princes trying a new scam; the Nigerian film industry is actually huge, and they’re ready to invest ten million pounds in Carlos’s new film, or so Dirk says.  His office says otherwise.  But the millions are all for Carlos, as long as he puts up half a million of his own.  I’m not sure which is the worst part of the whole thing; the fact that he mortgages his house to raise the cash or the fact that apparently none of this is ever committed to paper, let alone looked over by an attorney.

In exchange for his investment, Carlos expects to return six months later to find a large studio set waiting, ready for him to film his horror movie epic, Le Sequel, follow up to Le Fear.  Instead, he finds an old, smelly caravan — which for those of us in the States means an old, smelly RV — along with the most unlikely support crew any film has ever had.  Carlos’s people, like cinematographer Jacques (Hadrien Mekki) and production manager Jessie (Leila Reed), seem to know what they’re doing, but not so many of the others.  For instance, Africa (Roxy Sternberg) is a special effects “expert” with only boundless, misguided enthusiasm going for her, while makeup artist Queenie (Victoria Hopkins) spends far more time hitting on anyone who’s breathing than doing her job.  And I do mean hitting, since there’s absolutely nothing subtle about her come-ons.

But none of these doubtful crew members hold a candle to producer / con artist Efi (Seye Adelekan) who’s been in charge of everything, including the substitution of an old, smelly caravan for an actual movie set.  I’m guessing he and the other Nigerian crew members couldn’t make it in the real Nollywood and decided to try their luck in England.  He’s full of promises — I’d use another word but I like to keep these reviews family friendly — and often seems genuinely confused when others don’t think he’s come through on those promises.  In his eyes everything is wonderful, the movie going along just as it should, and I can’t decide if that makes him enviably optimistic or a total psychopath.  Maybe both.

I won’t even attempt to explain how this scene happens.

Take them and the rest of this zany cast of characters, tell them they need to film a no-budget movie in about five days(!), and you’ve got Le Sequel, or possibly a particularly out of control Monty Python sketch with John Cleese at his most hapless as Carlos.  Nothing is scripted and scenes frequently dissolve into chaos, but chaos is just the logical result of these situations and the film manages to be completely realistic and utterly bizarre by turns, sometimes both at once.  It’s a bold experiment that doesn’t work all the time, but when a scene clicks it really clicks and any unevenness is all part of the charm.  Improv can be ridiculously difficult to keep moving, but the cast manages that task beautifully while staying in character besides, and the result is a riveting, crazed, train wreck of a comedy that’s every indie director’s worst nightmare made into film.

Special kudos to Saphiris, who makes Carlos a true Everyman, someone who’s just trying to chase his dreams as we all want to do, and then has to watch this particular dream slip slowly and painfully away into the depths of the most cursed film shoot ever.  Meanwhile, Adelekan’s Efi walks the finest of lines between amoral scammer and likable rogue, though I’m still not quite sure how he managed to avoid being strangled.  And all the characters (I wish I could mention them all!) help create the wildest of rides, a twisted journey into the darkest, funniest side of filmmaking that will leave you wondering every moment if things can possibly get any stranger — and they will.

Under the Flowers: Circle of Hell

Since the events of Under the Flowers, most of the characters have gotten on with their lives, or at least whatever passes for their lives.  Not all of them are actually alive, in the strict sense of the term.  But for one character, at least, getting on with existing has been getting harder, and in Under the Flowers: Circle of Hell, like Alice, she seems to be having to work harder and harder just to stay in the same place.

Poe (Lauren LaVera) isn’t quite herself these days, and I mean that literally –these days she’s Rose (Amanda Kay Livezey), now much less Goth but also much more confused.  If her soul is ever going to be able to move on, there’s a journey Rose has to complete, a journey both physical and psychological filled with dangers of all kinds.  Worse, it’s a journey she’s attempted before, without success, and she’s running out of chances.  This time she has a guide, Nerissa (Kirsten Lee Hess), which may sound promising but let’s just say that Nerissa doesn’t seem all that invested in Rose’s success.

Movie poster featuring the cast.
Careful, or the circle might pull you in…

But there’s a wild card in play: Charlotte (Catherine Kustra), the Halloween Girl herself, who just might be able to help her friend.  Her best efforts still might not save Rose, however, and will almost certainly hurt Charlotte — at least if the Darkness (Richard T. Wilson) is to be believed.  Even Evil must tell the truth once in a while, right?  In the end, though, it all comes down to Charlotte’s decision and Rose’s willpower as she faces her demons one after another.  And of course Nerissa, whatever she might be up to, is waiting for her chance.

It’s a satisfyingly scary and suspenseful second series from Mad Shelley Films, featuring plenty of familiar guest stars along with the new arrivals as we follow Rose’s dangerous journey.  The two series have a good sense of connection without being too much alike, each possessing its own unique feel while still seeming to exist in the same strange — and not so strange — realms.  Best of all there’s still an enticing air of mystery about the characters which should continue for a while, since every answer seems to lead to five more questions. This is easily one of the best and creepiest web series out there, and I look forward to seeing more from the creators’ twisted minds.

All Over Again

It happens to us all. Everyone has things they want and need to do, except somehow, before we know it, it’s three months or three years later and these things still haven’t gotten done. Whether it’s spouses, parents, kids, or just our day jobs, there always seems to be something clamoring for our attention. Things like writing, traveling, or finally turning that spare room into an art studio end up getting put off just one more day in favor of things like putting in overtime to finish the annual reports or helping the kids with homework.

Gregory with his guitar
If you’ve ever wondered where all the inspiration has gone, you’ve probably had this look too.

For Gregory (Joseph Fuoco) in the short All Over Again, it’s his music that’s been neglected, his beloved guitar gradually set aside once Victoria (Constance Reshey) gives him the news that they’re expecting. Gregory’s family means the world to him, but as Adam (Mahdi Shaji) grows up, there’s increasingly a sense of something lost that might not be found again. Gregory spends more and more time at The Bus Stop Music Cafe for open mic night, listening to hopefuls performing poetry readings or play their instruments,, even taking young people like Luis (David Andro) under his wing and enjoying the creative energy even if he doesn’t quite feel a part of it. The big question is, will he ever feel part of it again, or is that aspect of his life gone forever?

Despite encouragement from family and friends, it’s a difficult thing to try to get back on that particular horse, and no wonder. Skills get rusty and no one wants to be the person left sitting awkwardly on stage while the audience offers vague applause, or worse, total silence. Booing is pretty bad, but at least there the audience is actually expending some energy. But it can be a big leap to perform on stage, even a small one, and Gregory’s hesitation is palpable.

It isn’t really fame and fortune Gregory is after — though either or both might be nice for a while — so much as the chance to express himself, and while that phrase has been terribly overused in pop psychology, for many creative people it’s a vital and necessary part of existence, without which there will always be a real feeling of loss. This movie demonstrates that simply and capably, moving back and forth from the present day to the family’s beginnings, showing both how one chapter ended and which might, just possibly, start all over again now. Fuoco is completely convincing as Gregory, his expression often speaking volumes as he takes his first steps back to his music. It’s a quiet little gem of a film that reminds all of us it’s never too late.

The Final Act of Joey Jumbler

It isn’t nearly as familiar as the actor’s struggle, but it can’t be easy making a living as a clown these days.  The big traveling circuses are all gone, which leaves children’s birthday parties and perhaps the occasional baby shower, which can’t amount to much.  Kids are probably less entertained in general by clowns in this age of Candy Crush and scary clown stories in the news.  The title character in the short film The Final Act of Joey Jumbler is very far from scary, however; he’s more reminiscent of old-fashioned clowns like Emmett Kelly, a lost soul with whom you just want to share your last sandwich.

Joey and his red nose face the world.

At least, you do unless you’re some of the people who employ Joey (Alain Boucher) — one such wealthy family, who apparently hired him to entertain three kids during a regular family dinner certainly disprove the old adage that all the world loves a clown.  The children are unsurprisingly a bit spoiled but it’s the grownups in the family that you’ve really got to watch out for.  But Joey  bears his troubles stoically and gets through his day as best he can, walking through the streets in his clown makeup and a battered old suit, hauling behind him the suitcase that holds his balloons and other props.

It’s a strange existence, forcing him to move between resigned acceptance and the effervescence of his entertainer persona without warning, but he finds his small joys wherever he can.  Chief among those is seeing his daughter Mathilde (Leanne Labelle) at the end of the day, the one thing that makes all the struggle worthwhile.  But as the title implies, Joey may not be able to maintain the precarious balance of his life much longer, and his stoicism might not get him through everything.

The sad clown is a tale far older than Pagliacci, but that doesn’t make Joey’s story any less heartbreaking or the way he faces his situation any less poignant.  Boucher plays his role beautifully, neither falling into despair or tipping into mania, and there’s a subtle pain in watching him hold himself together even when it seems as though all he wants is to fall apart.  Writer-director Harley Chamandy does both jobs expertly, creating a small gem of a film that’s quietly, wonderfully moving.