Just Scream

These days there are more options than ever to get your fifteen minutes of fame, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s easy to make fun of the idea — fame is so fleeting and yet still so tempting — but it can also lead to good things. If you can inspire just a few other people with your passion for Kashubian embroidery, you might create friendships, even an online community. Or more seriously, you might also find ways to help yourself and others heal after a tragic event. That’s what Emma (Ewurakua Dawson-Amoah) tries to do in the short film Just Scream, though unfortunately in her case it’s particularly difficult.

Still from Just Scream
Emma tries to explain the unexplainable.

Emma is appearing on a talk show to discuss the abuse she suffered as a child, ten years ago, at the hands of a popular and well-respected teacher. It’s depressing how often it’s the popular and well-respected teachers who do the most awful things, but I suppose the worst offenders would develop that sort of protective camouflage. It’s an impressively brave thing she’s doing, and the show’s host, Carl Peterson (Timothy J. Cox), repeatedly says this along with other encouraging things, but the atmosphere of the show still isn’t what you’d call supportive. And when Emma is asked an incredibly tone-deaf question, she’s driven to speak her mind in powerful, moving fashion.

Dawson-Amoah, who also wrote and directed, packs a great deal into this film while still keeping it simple and real. Everything is shown through the unchanging lens of a single fixed camera. Emma’s experiences — both the abuse itself and the way others approach the subject — are all too common, but the film faces both head on in a way that’s still not common enough. Cox’s portrayal of the fussy Carl, focusing on all the wrong things, creates the perfect foil for the overwhelmed but determined Emma, leading to a memorable and deeply affecting ending. In times when anything can and will be reduced to a hashtag, films like this are needed more than ever to remind us of the people behind the stories.

Miss Freelance

It isn’t uncommon to stop now and then and realize that you’re not as happy with your life as you’d like to be. Maybe your job isn’t what you’d hoped, or an important relationship has been neglected for too long, or you just have the vague feeling that something’s lacking. Often that missing thing is excitement, though many times that’s something best left for fiction anyway. Real life excitement can often lead directly to real life panic, or possibly a new life that you like even less than the old one. In the short film Miss Freelance, one young woman goes to unusual lengths in search of a more fulfilling life, only to find herself in the strangest of places.

The Miss Freelance in question is Carly (Maddy Murphy). She’s apparently advertising on Craigslist or some such to find work helping men out for the night, to put it delicately. And these jobs aren’t confined to the usual, either. Maurice (Ivan Greene), for instance, asks Carly to take advantage of him — which she does, though not exactly in the way he intended. I won’t even mention what Randy (Zach Abraham) is after. It’s set in New York City, so there are plenty of strange inclinations to choose from out there.

Carly and Ben
Sometimes there just isn’t much left to say.

Ben (Timothy J. Cox) is the sympathetic, patient boyfriend Carly has left behind, probably the one man in the city she can’t look in the face anymore. He can’t understand what else it is that she needs out of life, but of course the real tragedy here is that neither can Carly.

This is a story of a woman trying to find herself at any cost, and perhaps not even entirely realizing what she’s losing along the way. The film and the performances are both subtle and realistic, telling the story of a life through the microcosm of a few days when everything changes in that life. Murphy’s impressive debut performance as Carly is understated and desperate as she runs from the world she knows into the unknown, while the broken-hearted Ben can do nothing but let her go. It’s a quiet, remarkably nuanced look at what can happen when life leads us astray, from writer / director Matthew Kyle Levine, brought touchingly to life.

Italian Turtles

Even the most iconic characters of pop culture like Superman had to start somewhere. For instance, there was a time — back in the dark days before 1988 — when few people had heard of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Before the cartoon series began, they were known only through the comics, where they had a solid fanbase, but the leap to other media would take a little time. This is where the short Italian Turtles begins, with the turtles’ creators trying to boldly go where no reptile has gone before.

There are probably few things more terrifying than waiting to meet with a group of jaded TV execs who seem inclined to hate anything new, hoping to pitch them an idea that really isn’t anything like anything else on television. This is where we find Kevin (Nick Piacente) and Peter (Chris D’Amato), with Peter especially unable to stay calm at the thought of what might happen in the next few minutes. I hear if you don’t grab their attention inside two minutes the execs have security throw you out.

Kevin and Peter make their big pitch.
Ta-da!

In this case, though, the execs, led by John Handy (Timothy J. Cox), seem mainly confused. Kevin mentions reptiles early on, which prompts junior executive Karl (BJ Gruber) to obsess over Komodo dragons, while the other junior exec, Pat (Janel Koloski), can’t seem to get past the idea of them living in the sewers, which always did seem pretty unpleasant to me. But there’s plenty of glorious talking at cross-purposes and zany misunderstandings as the five of them stumble on, drawing ever closer to Mr. Handy’s inevitable decision, which will shape the lives not only of Peter and Kevin but a couple of generations of fans.

It’s clearly a labor of love and there’s no one in the room who isn’t having fun with this wild what-if scenario. And face it — there are few comic book heroes who don’t seem pretty weird when looked at closely. Can you imagine trying to explain a billionaire who dresses up like a bat to fight crime to someone who hasn’t yet heard of Batman? That’s without even touching the ‘infant rocketed to safety from a doomed world’ thing. But we’re in on the joke here and it’s a hilarious one. From long, awkward pauses to strange and pointed questions, Italian Turtles is a wondrous homage to the world’s most beloved martial arts trained reptiles, showcasing their first unexpected leap to fame.

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.

Simon’s Quest

There are at least 16,000 awkward things about dating, especially those early dates.  One of the most awkward — and one of the most likely to show up in questions to online advice columnists — is figuring out when to share a potentially sensitive fact about yourself.  After all, there can be a fine line between letting the other person get to know you better and completely oversharing, and depending on the subject some of these conversations can be horrifying.  It’s one thing to explain that you have an uncle who’s convinced there are aliens living in his rosebushes, and quite another to have to admit that you’re a werewolf, as happens in Simon’s Quest.

Simon (Johnny Pozzi) was a regular guy until one night and one bite turned him into a werewolf.  He isn’t alone, at least, even though James (James Tison), the guy who turned him, vanished immediately thereafter.  No, this is a world with plenty of monsters around, vampires and demons as well as werewolves, though they generally prefer to be called the afflicted rather than monsters.  But Simon hasn’t had the nerve to date since he was turned, and Gwen (Talley Gale) and Robert (Lucas Brahme) want to change that.

Robert, Gwen, and Simon play games and talk Castlevania.

It’s a nice thought but they aren’t really all that helpful, since their main focus is on making a documentary about Simon’s life as a werewolf.  They get him on Tinder and act as cheerleaders, but I’d be more than nervous enough about dating without two people watching (and recording) my every move.  But he gets a match with a guy with the unlikely name of Skyye, and Simon tentatively starts trying to get other aspects of his life back together as well.  He joins a support group for the afflicted, and with help from the group’s new leader, Pat (Timothy J. Cox), takes his first steps towards becoming part of the world again.  But there are plenty of things waiting to trip him up along the way, and telling Skyye the whole truth might not even be the worst one.

With a solid script and capable directing from Marley Jaeger, it’s a wonderful mix of drama, humor, a touch of fantasy, and a dash of riotous satire — Axe Alucard (Anibal Nobel), monster hunter, is wildly over the top, as is Liz (Liz Days), the former support group leader, though honestly the demon in the group (Krystal K.C. Wilson) seems pretty nice.  But Simon’s Quest also has plenty of genuinely touching moments, as Simon is constantly torn between his own deep loneliness and the very real chance that he might wake up the morning after the full moon to discover that he’s shredded the person he cares about most in the world.  We all worry about hurting the ones we love sometimes, just not usually quite so literally.

Pat counseling the afflicted.

There are obvious parallels between the plight of the monsters — sorry, afflicted — and the similar situations often faced by the LGBTQ community in the not too distant past.  And it still isn’t all that easy to be anything other than mainstream in all your life choices, even these days.  But this parallel is handled just as discreetly as the monsters are, without a drop of blood or a single sharp, shining fang appearing on-screen.  It’s the quiet, gentle Simon and his very ungentle curse that will capture the audience, and rightly so.  In these internet days it’s easy to forget that every bit of suffering you hear about has a human face attached — even if once a month that face might turn fanged and furry — and this compelling short film reminds us brilliantly of that.

Who Is Elmore Dean?

Elmore at breakfast. An absolutely normal day, nothing to see here.

There are few people who have truly risen to the top of their professions. For every athlete laden with awards and trophies, there are thousands of others who never made it past high school glory, and for every Roger Ebert there are a myriad of movie critics like me, who no one has ever heard of. In Who Is Elmore Dean?, the title character (Timothy J. Cox) has undeniably made it big — he’s a somewhat reclusive songwriter about to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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Mail Time

Ted doing a magic trick. Note that there's absolutely nothing up his sleeves.

There are plenty of jokes about mail carriers out there and how cushy their job is, but it isn’t necessarily all that great. There’s the walking and the weather, not to mention dogs and rude people. And in some cases there’s also the other side of the coin. At my day job I often see the mail carrier arrive, and my co-worker loves to corner him with badly-told stories about her dog and long conversations about the weather. Like the poor guy doesn’t already have everyone asking if it’s cold (or hot) enough for him.

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The Watchers

John finally gets a call, but not the one he's been hoping for.

We’ve all had that feeling now and then, that indefinable certainty that someone’s looking at us. Sometimes we’re right about it, sometimes wrong, but in either case the feeling doesn’t last and we go about our day. In The Watchers, though, John (Jeff Moffitt) is having more of a problem with that feeling than usual. Everywhere he turns, he insists there’s someone watching him and it’s bothering him so much he’s making emergency calls to his psychiatrist Dr. Orwell (Timothy J. Cox).

Stress can do strange things sometimes, Dr. Orwell says soothingly, and even aside from the feeling of being stared at John has plenty of that. He’s estranged from his wife Marcie (Nikki Flanagan) and leaves pleading messages on her voicemail that remain unanswered. The pressure is affecting him at work, too, as you might imagine. His boss Philip (Darrin Biss) is very understanding, but that only seems to enrage John, which makes the stress worse.

Then a cryptic note appears inside his apartment, left by a hooded figure John can’t get a good look at. A woman (Kathleen Boddington) he doesn’t know says she’s been waiting for him. When John witnesses a tragedy and tries to report it to a police officer (Robert Nesi) the officer seems to know an awful lot about John, as do many other people he encounters on the street. It seems there’s something to John’s paranoia after all — but it isn’t until his apparently random meeting with an older man (Peter Francis Span) that he begins to grasp the full scope of what’s happening to him.

You can’t help but feel for John — all he really wants is for his wife to return his calls and figure out what’s going on. But as far as the latter goes, it’s a clear case of needing to be careful what you wish for, as the truth will change his world forever. As alone as he feels he does have people willing to help — his boss, the reassuring Dr. Orwell — but he’s determined to go it alone, perhaps out of some misguided need to feel in control. The very last thing he has is control, however, as he loses more and more of himself to these watchers.

I’ll give it four out of five. All the clues are there but the ending still gives a satisfying twist, with some eerie and unsettling moments along the way as we follow John’s bizarre journey of discovery — or perhaps his long fall down the rabbit hole. It’s a realistic look at a regular guy swept up into extreme circumstances and finding out he was never really who he thought he was.

Solutions

It's so touching to see a kid out on his first stakeout with his dad.

Every generation thinks they’re living at the worst possible time for dirty politics and shocking scandals, but of course politics has always been a dirty business and these days it just seems worse because it spreads all over the internet in five seconds and then you can’t get away from it. Still, I have to admit that this last year or so probably has been particularly unpleasant and not just because it seems to be everywhere all the time. In Solutions, though, politics are even dirtier than usual.

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To Be Alone

William in the lonely, lonely woods.

There’s something particularly numbing about being alone when you aren’t used to it. William (Timothy J. Cox) certainly isn’t used to it, as he moves aimlessly about his large, empty house in the woods. He wears a wedding ring but there’s no sign of his wife anywhere. He fills his time with sleep, religious television shows, his Bible, and pointless building projects. Or perhaps what he’s building isn’t so pointless after all.

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