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.
Butterfly kisses are an affectionate little gesture that involves fluttering your eyelashes against someone else’s skin, the idea being to mimic the quick, gentle movements of a butterfly’s wings. I always thought the phrase referred to a series of tiny little actual kisses, so I learned something from the movie Butterfly Kisses. Of course, I have now also learned to associate the phrase with ghostly stalking, torture, and gruesome death, so it will never again make me think of anything even remotely affectionate, but hey, at least I know the dictionary definition. I guess that counts as a win, right?
Back in 2004, film student Sophia Crane (Rachel Armiger) is working on her senior project with cameraman Feldman (Reed Delisle), who seems to have no first name. They’ve chosen to do a documentary on local urban legend Peeping Tom, aka Mr. Blink. As with any good supernatural antagonist, there’s a ritual to summon him, and it’s a doozy: you have to go to the old Ilchester Railway bridge and stare down through the neighboring tunnel for exactly one hour, from midnight to one am. And they mean stare, without blinking. There are a couple of people out there who hold records for not blinking for an hour or so (though none of these are Guinness records), but you have to be some sort of staring prodigy to pull this off. Considering this feat is almost certainly most often attempted by teenagers with nothing to do on a Friday night, you would think that just not getting bored and wandering off would be enough of a challenge, but apparently not.
Our intrepid filmmakers can’t find anyone who can manage the staring, but they’re determined to tempt fate for the sake of their art. Reasoning that a camera lens is analogous to the human eye, they set up Feldman’s camera on the bridge at midnight and let it do the staring for them. But it’s only when they review the footage later that they realize they’ve caught something eerie.
Meanwhile, in 2015, struggling filmmaker Gavin York (Seth Adam Kallick) is supporting his family as a wedding videographer until his mother-in-law (Janise Whelan) finds a shoebox full of Sophia and Feldman’s old tapes and gives them to Gavin. The box is clearly labeled “Don’t Watch”, and whoever wrote that clearly knows nothing of human psychology because that’s the surest way to get anyone to watch, and Gavin is no exception. In fact, he quickly becomes compelled to edit them and show them to the world, and prove that everything on the tapes is absolutely real while he’s at it. But no one else seems nearly as fascinated with the discovery, and Gavin becomes increasingly frustrated and angry. He’s spent almost his last dime on a film crew (led by writer/director Erik Kristopher Myers as himself) to track his progress on the editing as well as his attempts to discover the fate of the student filmmakers, and he can’t fathom why the world isn’t falling at his feet over the project.
So this is a film within a film about the making of a film, though despite this potentially confusing premise it’s not hard to keep the storylines straight. Where it really turns meta and strange is when you try to work out whether or not Feldman and Sophia were making a documentary or a narrative film disguised as a documentary. Further complicating this issue is the inclusion of various paranormal experts as themselves, like Matt Lake, author of several books in the Weird U.S. series, Andy Wardlaw of Finding Bigfoot, and Eduardo Sanchez of Blair Witch Project fame.
Then there’s Gavin himself — he’s clearly fixated, but is he truly delusional or just desperate to make a name for himself? Kallick is thoroughly convincing as a man who’s barely holding himself together for much of the movie, though in many ways it’s also his performance that holds the movie itself together. There are strong hints of a overarching conspiracy to cover up any proof of Peeping Tom’s existence, though it seems far more vast than it needs to be considering that all the photographic proof was lost in some random basement for a decade. And at one point, Peeping Tom seems to break his own rules to keep the plot going. But overall the film expertly manages its sometimes convoluted premise and keeps the viewer riveted. From jump scares to expert debunking of the tapes, Butterfly Kisses weaves a delicate, teasing web of creepy suspense that would do Mr. Blink proud. Watch it, and you just might be afraid to close your eyes again.
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 (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.
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.
Probably some of the weirdest and wildest stories from established actors are about how they got their big break. Hopefully not too many of these stories involve actual crimes, because there’s all too much of that in Hollywood. In The Big Take, however, the crimes get wildly out of hand when the search for funding for an indie film — something that doesn’t normally lead to anything more nefarious than a pushy kickstarter campaign — instead sets off a chain of blackmail, burglary, assault, and worse.
It starts when aspiring producer Vic (Slate Holmgren) runs into famous actor Douglas Brown (James McCaffrey) at the exclusive club where Vic works. When Douglas — unsurprisingly — turns down Vic’s offer to star in a low-budget movie by a couple of broke unknowns, Vic seeks revenge. I’m not sure what he originally had in mind, but after he roofies Douglas things take a direction I’m fairly sure Vic would never have predicted. He’s still quick to take advantage of events, however, and the next thing Douglas knows he’s being blackmailed for the $200,000 bankroll Vic needs to produce the film his friend Max (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) has written and hopes to direct.
A panicked Douglas turns to his agent Jack (Bill Sage, who somehow reminds me of Brad Pitt now and then) for help. Not to worry, Jack says, he can spin anything. When he gets a look at the blackmail material, however, he decides sterner measures are needed and he contacts his “fixer”, Frank (Dan Hedaya). Pronouncing the blackmailers to be amateurs — and he couldn’t be more right there — Frank is confident he can solve this problem easily. Unfortunately, Vic has accidentally left a clue that points straight to Max, who is blissfully unaware of any blackmail and thinks that Douglas is bankrolling his movie because he likes it. When the overconfident Frank fails to retrieve the blackmail material — Max is pretty much a pushover, but his feisty Ukrainian wife, Oxana (Oksana Lada), not so much — the fixer calls in his own fixer, Edie (Zoë Bell).
It’s at this point that things get completely out of control, with alliances made and broken, houses robbed, people shot and kidnapped, and generally desperate measures taken all around. Aside from having the misfortune to get caught up in events in the first place, Max is otherwise so ridiculously lucky as to strain credulity — Frank and Edie veer back and forth between incompetence and absolute professionalism, whatever it takes to help Max survive at any given moment. And Max doesn’t really have much else going for him besides luck and his wife, the character being otherwise unremarkable. Then there’s the nature of the blackmail material, which is first of all completely tasteless, and second of all far more useful for blackmailing the person who’s with Douglas on the video rather than Douglas himself.
There is good news, though, in that the script is otherwise well-written and the performances solid, with an excellent blend of action and comedy. Most of the characters are wacky but likable, though Vic occasionally struck me as a possible sociopath. The zaniness gets a bit too zany for my taste here and there, but it’s otherwise an entertaining romp through the roller-coaster world of Hollywood that is often laugh-out-loud funny. Breaking into the movie business can really be murder.
Written and directed by Justin Daly.
There are all sorts of sayings about being stuck with your family, though most of the time the majority of us are okay with that. For all the complaints and teasing that can sometimes be indistinguishable from harassment, most people will drop everything to rush to the aid of a family member when it’s truly needed. For every story of terrible rivalry, there’s a story of a sibling coming through in a crisis, and the bond between siblings can be a powerful one. In Oni-Gokko — Japanese for Tag, as in the children’s game — even death might not break that bond.
Miki (Eri Akita) had a little sister who died long ago, when she was just six years old. Her name was Aki (Mariko Miyamitsu), and apparently she was the more popular of the two sisters, the one everyone doted on. One day while the girls were playing tag tragedy struck and Aki drowned. Was it a simple accident, did it happen because Aki was frightened by a stranger, or was there something more sinister at work? After all these years, even Miki isn’t so sure anymore.
But now Aki is back, and she wants something from her sister. Whether that something is revenge or just the simple truth, Miki will never be the same when this night is finally over.
This short packs a lot into eight minutes, and while the ending wasn’t quite what I expected it also fit well with the rest of the film. Wisely, the movie stays tightly focused on the interaction between the siblings, often without so much as even the background visible to distract the viewer. The pale, wraith-like Aki is a startling contrast to her living sister — even Aki’s emotions seem dulled and slightly off, only her resentment over all the years of life she lost still clear and strong.
The sisterly bond between the characters also shines brightly, and though they both might chafe against that tie, it’s obvious there’s still love there, beneath the anger and guilt. Pulling no punches, this movie offers a darkly, beautifully vivid portrait of the things that both pull us apart and bring us together again.
If the zombie apocalypse begins in Los Angeles, we’re all doomed. No one would try to stop it until it was too late because any witnesses would assume that someone was making a zombie movie and ignore all the warning signs. Even if the outbreak is contained, well, “containment” can be a very fragile thing sometimes. It might only take one moment’s inattention — or one quick, deliberate act — to unleash the monster all over again.
In American Virus, we get a bit of a different approach to the zombie trope in that one small group, at least, seems to welcome the arrival of their zombie overlords, so to speak. However they might have gotten involved during the initial outbreak — at just over five minutes the movie doesn’t have a lot of time for background — now that the containment has failed, some of them are way too happy about that. This includes the de facto leaders of the group (Kathryn Eastwood and Shane Ryan), and another young woman (Tommie Vegas, Nite Nite), though troubled, is still all too willing to follow them. The situation turns awkward, however, when some in the group decide they’ve had enough. But it’s awfully difficult to change your mind once you’ve thrown in with the fanatics.
Unfortunately they’re far from being the first extremists to decide that what this world really needs is a good cleansing via some horrible catastrophe, natural or otherwise. Of course, those are the same sorts of people who often assume that they’re the chosen ones who will survive no matter what, which is only one of many such logical flaws in such philosophies. Here, though, I’m not entirely sure that surviving, at least as non-zombies, was ever part of the plan. I’d love to find out what brought this bunch together, but any movie of this length is likely to feel more like a teaser than anything else, and this one is no exception. But it’s a very intriguing teaser, well worth a look, and hopefully indicative of good things to come from Mad Sin Cinema.