Short Film Review: Waiting (2019) Duration 6 min

“Show, don’t tell”, an old adage that rings especially true for the visual medium of film and one that writer/director Anthony Cally has fully embraced with his dialogue-free short, Waiting. It’s a credit to Cally and everyone involved that his story about a group of people waiting in a bar was so engaging that I wasn’t even cognizant of the fact that no one had spoken a word until after the film finished. It’s a bold move to try and communicate a concept without words, but the brilliant acting, gorgeous, professional production design, and the exquisite use of sound to guide the narrative all work in concert to create a stunning final product.

The story itself is very clever and while it might take viewers a couple of watches to pick up on exactly what is happening, all the clues are provided if you look carefully. As more information is revealed the tension becomes palpable as this seemingly innocuous location is clearly anything but normal. While it does function perfectly as a self-contained story, the world was so engaging that I would love to see it as a springboard into a feature-length continuation. At just about six minutes, this bite-sized short left me hungry for more and as soon as it was finished I immediately had to watch it again. Here’s hoping we see a lot more of Anthony Cally in the future, and that we’re not left waiting too long for his feature debut.

Short Film Review: Filtered (2021) Duration 5 min 39 sec

As we rely more and more on technology to make connections (especially as the ever present quarantine isolation marches on) it makes sense that tech based horror would become more prevalent in the genre in new and interesting ways. Just as Host did last year, Filtered is able to effectively communicate horror and anxiety in the simple yet brilliant format of video chat. With a runtime of less than six minutes, writer/ director Vincenzo Nappi doesn’t have a lot of time to establish characters or backstory, yet is able to make both Jasmine (Jasmine Winter) and Marco (Marco Carreiro) immediately feel genuine and real with the sparse information provided. This goes a long way to making their initially mundane conversation all the more familiar at the start and therefore more frightening by the climax. With simple yet effective imagery that recalls the classic David Lynch shortThe Alphabet at times, this is an amazing piece of bite-sized horror that feels very apropos to the moment.

Short Film Review: Forced Entry (2021) Duration 24 min 24 sec

Typically in short films it’s best to dive right into the action and Forced Entry does just that as it plunges you into the world of psychotic drifter duo Arthur Maddox (Tom Lodewyck) and Donovan Hatche (James Bett Jr). The film follows the pair on a brutal killing spree over the course of a couple of days and was inspired by real life murderers Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris who raped and killed five young women in 1979. Even though brief footage of the real killers is shown at the end, the connection they have to the film probably wouldn’t have been clear to anyone who didn’t have the luxury of reading the highly detailed press kit. Even so, the shots do still serve to illustrate the point that our real world is filled with brutal, sadistic violence that usually occurs without much motive or rational explanation.

The story here is definitely pretty bare bones as most of the twenty-four minute runtime is taken up with extended scenes of mean-spirited violence. That’s not at all a bad thing in this case though, because even without a more robust narrative, the film still manages to be highly compelling with some truly impressive practical gore effects and excellent performances from the victims. It also makes sense given the fact that K.M. Jamison (who co-wrote/co-directed with James Bett Jr) said in a statement that the film is intended to function as a kind of showcase for what will hopefully be turned into a feature someday. In that regard it’s highly successful and I’m very on-board to see this nasty little story get fully fleshed-out in all its blood-soaked glory.

Undergods (2021)

Is it necessary to fully understand a film to enjoy and appreciate it? I would argue that it is not, for if that were the case surrealist masters like Jodorowsky and Lynch would never have ascended to their exalted levels within the film world. We still watch, discuss and are sometimes confounded by films like Holy Mountain and Eraserhead more than four decades later because there is far more beneath the strange visuals that bares fruit if we are patient enough to peel back the layers. Surreal films benefit from re-watching and further examination, the trick is to make your films good enough that its worth an audience’s time to do so.

Writer/director Chino Moya’s first feature is certainly a film that requires additional scrutiny to fully comprehend. While it’s not as overtly surreal as the previously mentioned films the slippery narrative thread and dream-like quality give it a viewing experience akin to Holy Motors with a healthy dose of High Rise mixed in. There aren’t exactly main characters nor is there a clear narrative through-line as segments seem to flow into each other, sometimes in the guise of stories told between characters, and occasionally intersect.

The structure in fact is more on par with a collection of short films taking place in a shared universe where the edges are muddied enough for them to meld into each other rather than all serving a common storyline. We see body collectors nonchalantly tossing corpses into their truck like they are common trash, a middle aged couple who’s frosty relationship threatens to become upended by an unexpected guest, a father telling his daughter a bedtime story of an unscrupulous merchant, a post-apocalyptic prison and an ordinary business man whose life becomes incalculably more complicated with the arrival of someone from the past.

Some of these segments flow very cleanly into each other, whereas at other times the connection is a bit more abstract. Regardless of their storyline similarities it’s really the emotional thread of dysfunctional relationships in a bleak and hopeless world that connects and links the stories. More importantly, the purpose of this film is not to provide a by-the-numbers plotline but to create an evocative experience where well-realized characters flow into each other’s worlds with a dream-like quality and in that regard it is better served by the unconventional structure. The result makes for an incredibly engaging experience whose shifting narrative works well to simulate the feeling of watching an unnerving dream (or more aptly a nightmare) unfold and giving the audience plenty to mull over between viewings.

Fortunately the beautifully bleak cinematography that deftly captures the quiet horror of a ruined city and the across the boards flawless acting make this a trip that’s worth taking multiple times. If you are looking for a straightforward, easily digestible story that neatly resolves then this is not going to be for you. On the other hand, those interested in taking on a cinematic experience that provides depth and layers of meaning to be gradually unraveled would do well to give this a try.

Short Film Review: Friend of the World (2020) Duration 50 min 30 sec

FOTW_PosterFriend of the World exists in a very strange space. Originally penned in 2016, writer/director Brian Patrick Butler conceived of the story as a reflection of the political anxieties of the time. Now that it’s finally ready for release in 2020, this post-apocalyptic film about racial/cultural disparity, isolation, and paranoia feels almost painfully prescient. Some films are able to be an effective reflection of their time but the degree to which this one was able to accurately predict what 2020 would feel like is just plain unnerving.

The main story begins with a young black woman named Diane Keaton (Alexandra Slade) waking up in an underground bunker in a room full of corpses. After making her way out of the room and deeper into the bunker itself, she soon encounters a middle-aged white man named General Gore (Nick Young) who lives down there and seems to know more about the apocalyptic event that occurred on the surface world than he is letting on.

nick-young-still-3-friend-of-the-world

Given the short runtime it’s hard to say too much about the plot without getting into spoilers but suffice to say this is a strange film that gets more surreal by the minute. Much like the Lynch films that this is clearly drawing influence from not everything you see will have an immediate and obvious explanation but there is a lot beneath the surface waiting to be brought to light by further analysis and discussion. That being said, the narrative never feels lost or nonsensical and Butler effectively uses his unique visual style to communicate a feeling of accepted reality giving way to a nightmarish world of body horror and insanity.

A stylistic example of this is the choice to have most of the film in black and white while idyllic memories of the world before play out jarringly in full color set to a background score of an almost unrecognizably discordant version of ‘Ode to Joy’. There are also a lot of impressive visual techniques at work here that create an uncanny and menacing effect. From simple sped up visuals that give an eerie and unnatural sense of movement to full on face melding that looks straight out of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, there is a lot to love here visually.

luke-pensabene-nick-young-still-friend-of-the-world

It’s not just visuals at play here though as the conversations between the cigarette chomping alpha male Gore and the young, gay, activist artist Keaton are very engaging and packed with commentary and subtext. The small cast all do an excellent job but Young especially shines with his portrayal of the patriarchal Gore whose bravado and subtle menace make for a mesmerizing on-screen presence.

This is a piece of art that is very much of this moment and really taps into the surreal horror that we are experiencing in the world at large right now. When we look back on the quarantine days it will be films like this and Host that will stand as an artistic representation of the anxieties of the time. Hopefully we won’t be watching them from a bunker.

 

4-5-stars-red

M.O.M. Mother of Monsters (2020)

M.O.MEver since The Blair Witch Project exploded onto the horror scene in 1999 and crushed the box office to the tune of a quarter billion dollars, countless filmmakers have tried their hand at tapping into that low cost Cinéma vérité style magic. Now that it’s 21 years later any filmmaker looking to utilize that format needs to bring something more to the table than abandoned footage found in the woods. Fortunately, M.O.M (Mother of Monsters) does bring an innovative twist to the standard formula as all the footage comes directly from cameras that characters use within the world of the film.

This approach alone isn’t unique but the justification and execution make it work better than most. Old home movie footage is spliced with straight to camera testimonials and consumer grade home surveillance as Abbey (Melinda Page Hamilton) obsessively documents the actions of her teenage son Jacob (Bailey Edwards). The more we see, the more it seems that this strung out single mother has good cause to worry as Jacob kills animals, has violent outbursts, and makes troubling maps of his school. Is Abbey uncovering the genesis of a dangerous criminal in the making…or is something else entirely going on?

Since the film devotes so much run-time to trying to make the viewer wonder about Jacob’s true motivations, it’s unfortunate that an early scene on an overpass heavily tips the scales, clearly showing which character is capable of committing unrepentant acts of violence. While the scene itself is well done, the film would be far stronger without it and would allow for some actual ambiguity throughout the story. It’s a shame too since the novel approach actually does effectively make use of the found footage conceit in a way that is modern, innovative and justified (mostly) within the world of the film. It also maintains a storyline that does drag a bit in places but overall manages to be engaging and at times all too real.

M.O.M’s true strength however is with its actors, which is fortunate as this is pretty much a two-hander between mother and son. The acting (and I cannot overstate this) is fucking incredible! Hamilton and Edwards truly live inside their characters and their pitch-perfect depiction is what makes the film work. The nuance and subtlety that they bring to their roles make this prescient story about a young man potentially going down a violent path feel even more dangerous and real. In a world where senseless acts of violence are commonplace, a film that reflects the anxiety that the true monsters can be found within the people we are closest to is a very scary concept indeed.

3-5-stars-red

Short Film Review: Duérmete Niño (2019) Duration 9 min 38 sec

DNShortifilm_PosterClocking in at under ten minutes total (only about seven of which is the actual film) Duérmete Niño (Rock-a-bye Baby) is an interesting little slice of horror. Inspired by a real, sleep deprived nightmare that director Freddy Chávez experienced after the birth of his daughter, this short captures the horror and anxiety of being a new parent in a very creative and unusual way.

In the film Piercey Dalton plays a single mother of twins (a terrifying enough prospect in and of itself) who begins to hear strange noises through the baby monitor that connects to her children’s room. Text in the beginning lets us know that the use of baby monitors can actually be traced back to 1937, an interesting fact that also properly justifies the 1940’s setting. The retro feel adds an extra layer of creepiness to the film as technology from that era was so inherently clunky and prone to dangerous malfunctions. It also allows for the inclusion of an animated faux commercial for the monitor that serves as a fun bonus during the credits.

When viewing this film it is clear that a lot of care and effort went into crafting not just the atmospheric setting but also the tense, well paced story that leads to a horrific and immensely satisfying conclusion. Dalton is essentially a one woman show and does an excellent job in conveying real pathos and emotion through a dialogue-free performance. The skillful use of special effects really seals the deal and makes this one short that is well worth your modest time investment. A must-see film that was inspired by nightmares and will certainly go on to inspire quite a few more.

4-5-stars-red

Empathy Inc (2019)

Empathy1As new forms of media consumption are released so too are new cultural anxieties born, along with the films that reflect them. Whether it’s VHS in Videodrome or cell phones in One Missed Call, films have always been a way of expressing the inherent discomfort that is an inevitable part of adjusting to ever more rapidly changing technology. With VR becoming an increasingly prevalent part of our society, it’s only natural that films like Empathy Inc would come about to explore the darker side of the technology. Of course, the idea itself is nothing new and classic films from Total Recall to The Matrix and many in between have delved into the potential consequences of experiencing a virtual world that is indistinguishable from our own. However, while this was an abstract concept in the ‘90s, ever advancing technology is bringing us closer to this becoming a reality, making the subject far more prescient today.

The story centers around Joel (Zack Robidas) who has to move with his wife Jessica (Kathy Searle) from Silicon Valley to her parent’s house on the east coast following a public scandal and the closure of his company. When an opportunity comes along to get in on the ground floor of a new company that promises a unique VR experience, Joel sees it as his way to get back in the game and convinces his father-in-law (Fenton Lawless) to invest his family’s entire nest egg in the venture. As you can imagine, it’s not long before things start to go horribly wrong.

Of all the VR themed films, Empathy Inc draws the most influence from Strange Days as its invented technology also allows users to enter a fully immersive world where they can live out experiences that are completely foreign to their own in a supposedly consequence-free environment. It does put its own unique spin on the concept (which I won’t spoil here) that makes it feel like a fresh take on the subject rather than a rehash. Unfortunately, this unique take also brings up some important questions that are not resolved like “given all that’s involved, would people really pay for this experience?” Even if they would, the logistics of actually pulling it off seem highly impractical and regardless of how far out your concept is, it needs to be grounded within the logic of the world it creates.

Empathy pic

Despite some glaring inconsistencies with how it’s used, the technology itself is actually an easier sell than some minor but significant plot points that could have been easily addressed in a rewrite. I mean, I’m more than willing to suspend disbelief for the idea of world where fully immersive VR is possible but a world where you can easily sneak a gun onto a cross-country flight (twice) is just far too ridiculous to accept. This is also apparently the same world where you can wander around a city and accidentally run into the exact person you are looking for by pure coincidence.

It’s really a shame that these entirely script-based issues exist because they take away from a film that is otherwise executed incredibly well. The camerawork is beautiful and the black and white aesthetic works very well, especially for the high-contrast shots. Director Yedidya Gorsetman also wisely chooses to keep the effects simple and execute them well which adds much more production value than attempting to overreach far beyond what the budget allows. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the acting which is simply flawless across the board and especially impressive given the events of the third act.

All in all Empathy Inc is an interesting film with a unique perspective that is worth the watch but certainly won’t be supplanting VR classics like eXistenZ or Strange Days anytime soon.

 

2-5-stars-red

Short Film Review: Lion (2017) Duration 11 min 49 sec

LionWhen working within the medium of short film it’s essential to communicate a lot of information in a small amount of time. Making the audience feel for the characters and telling a worthwhile story from beginning to end in just a few minutes is a very challenging task but Davide Melini’s Lion does all that and more within its concise runtime. Located entirely within the confines of an isolated family home somewhere in the snowy wilderness, Lion tells the story of an abused little boy who wishes his favorite animal could come and protect him from his own family.

Lion has a very professional feel to it, especially for a short, and has the rare distinction of actually using CGI properly. Not only is the CGI that is on display of excellent quality, but Melini also shows great restraint with a less-is-more approach that makes the scenes that contain it incredibly effective. The film is well edited, delightfully bloody, and centers around the very real and very horrible problem of violence against children. I do think that the character of the father could have been dialed back just a little to be even more effective but that’s a small note within this nearly perfect film that is well deserving of the numerous accolades it has already received.

4-5-stars-red

Trauma (2018)

__poster-TRAUMA-V3 (002)Incest! Necrophilia! Rape! Graphic murder! Have I got your attention yet? Because as a fan of Extreme Cinema the Chilean film Trauma certainly got mine. Some movies barely cross the line into Extreme Cinema territory, then there are others that grab the line by the fucking throat as they run past it. Trauma is certainly the latter, with certain scenes even echoing some of the most disturbing content from the legendary shocker A Serbian Film. Yet, at least at this point, this film isn’t talked about with anywhere near the same frequency. Hopefully that will change, because love it or hate it, Trauma is certainly a film that deserves to be watched and discussed.

Beginning in 1978 the film opens with text on the screen letting us know that the following is inspired by true events. It then immediately follows that up by gut-punching the audience with one of the most gruesome and disturbing opening scenes ever committed to film, letting the viewer know right off the bat exactly the kind of ride they are in for. The rest of the film takes place in 2011 and follows four young Chilean women who take a trip to a vacation house in a remote part of the country. From there it doesn’t take long before the events from the opening collide with their lives in an unbelievably brutal way.

When viewing Trauma, it is important to have an understanding of where it’s inspirationTRAUMA_Still_2018-001 comes from to truly appreciate what the film is trying to say. While the exact details of the story and the specific characters may not have actually occurred, the film is steeped in Chile’s modern history and very representative of a significant cultural issue that still impacts life today. In the real world, Chile’s democratically elected government was overthrown in 1973 in a brutal coup that resulted in Augusto Pinochet seizing power as the country’s iron-fisted dictator. During this period the country experienced an unfathomable amount of death and real world horror that left it irrevocably changed. This is important to know because at its core, this film is really about the country’s brutal and traumatic past still rearing it’s head in the modern world, and not simply another violent home invasion thriller.

While viewing Trauma, I found a lot of parallels between it and other examples of Extreme Cinema such as the aforementioned A Serbian Film and the gruesome Mexican horror film Atroz. All three are examples of films that draw inspiration from actual violence and trauma from their country’s past (as well as present) and use very graphic and explicit imagery to convey that collective pain. This is essential because it really gets at the heart of expressing genuine emotion through art. I thoroughly applaud these films (and many others) which are willing to make the audience profoundly uncomfortable in order to give them just a glimpse of the actual suffering brought on by real life atrocities.

TRAUMA_Still_2018-004Another similarity between these films is the fact that they are all very well made, which is also what allows them to be so effectively disturbing. Writer/director Lucio A. Rojas has done an incredible job creating a living, breathing world thanks to gorgeous cinematography, top-notch gore effects, and realistic, believable characters. Speaking of characters, while I do want to make special note of the villainous perfection that Daniel Antivilo brings to his psychopathic character Juan, everyone across the board does an absolutely incredible job.

There’s certainly a lot to appreciate here but my one significant complaint has to do with structure of the film itself. There were quite a few times (especially as the film progressed) when the continuation of the story relied too heavily on coincidence, chance, and poor decision making on the part of the characters. While this did help keep the plot exciting, some minor tweaks to the script could have ironed out these wrinkles and helped events unfold in a more organic, realistic manner. Still, these issues are what keep this from being a perfect film rather than the exceptionally great film that it is and shouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing this modern classic of Extreme Cinema.

4-5-stars-red