Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2017
Scott R. Larson





ScottLarsonBooks.com




Building façade in Cannes, France

Short Film Reviews

Aftermath (Akibet)

Any Last Words

Araf

Bursts of light illuminate a black sky, casting a strangely lovely indigo hue. We think it is a storm, but as the film progresses, it becomes clear it is not thunder we hear but the sounds of war. Azerbaijani filmmaker Tofiq Rzayev has, interestingly, worked in various genres and languages, but we first knew him for grim, claustrophobic films often dealing with trauma within a family. This latest one falls firmly in that category. This time he is co-directing with Fidan Jafarova, a young paint/rugmaker/filmmaker/actor, who wrote the screenplay from Rzayev’s story. According to the film’s IMDb page, this marks his first time making a film in Azeri, a Turkish-related language spoken in Azerbaijan and the neighboring part of Iran. Through efficient and effective uses of cinematic shorthand, we realize that, while war rages all around, a son is participating in that war while the father is near death. A mother and daughter are left to cope as best they can. One cannot imagine a situation more bleak. Understated supernatural visitations do nothing to dispel the bleakness, but there is still the faintest glimmer of hope. Despite the dark theme and visuals, the cinematography is truly beautiful. The music of regular Rzayev collaborator Gergö Elekes sets just the right tone. The father is played by Sabir Mammadov, whose most recent feature film was the similarly themed Nabat, Azerbaijan’s official 2015 Academy Award submission. While not forgetting that this work is a collaboration, I have to note that, as a filmmaker, Rzayev’s technical mastery gets more and more impressive. Seen 15 November 2016

The Best Birthday Ever

With earnest and enthusiastic narration, punctuated by rough crayon drawings, Dimpton tells us all about how he spent his birthday. Described with the optimistic world view of a child, it all sounds very happy and rosy—except when a couple of negative bits intrude into the otherwise rosy narrative. How old is Dimpton? His drawings and speech suggest a kid in primary school. There are ten candles on his cake. The only inconsistency is that Dimpton is played by the film’s writer/director Cole Jaeger, who appears to be in his late teens. Are we meant to suspend disbelief and accept Jaeger as a small child? Or are we meant to see him as a child trapped in a grown man’s body? In the end it doesn’t matter. We simply accept Dimpton for who and what he is and, to Jaeger’s credit as an actor, he is totally credible as a child with no hint of ironic detachment. His man-child persona has just the very slightest reminiscence of Jared Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite. At four and a half minutes, the film’s story is brief but fills a complete arc. Cross words between his father (Timothy J. Cox) and uncle (Scott Schuler) followed by a hallucination on the beach suggest a commentary on the divisiveness of politics. Jaeger made the film three years ago at the New York University Summer High School Filmmakers Workshop. Seen 25 October 2016

Board to Death

Bulldog

In the course of this 17-minute movie, we come to know Sean Kang fairly well. In a natural performance by Vin Kridakorn (a veteran of numerous short films, web series, stage and television), he does not seem to be a bad kid. He takes out the trash and is concerned about his mother, who appears to be thrown on the couch from the night before. Sean is protective of her, as we see in an encounter with a man who Sean thinks is taking advantage of her. But this young man is clearly angry and frustrated. As his day progresses, we learn more about the family situation, the absent father, the loss that affects all of them and the frequent moves that have brought Sean from Long Island to Queens. The bad influences and alienation that are all too prevalent in the urban world of teens are seen at every turn. I would like to say that Benjamin Tran’s involving and well-made film ends with at least some sort of ray of hope, but you would need some pretty strong rose-colored glasses to see it. But at least we can take comfort from the fact that there are skilled young filmmakers like Tran out there shining their light into these uncomfortable recesses of contemporary society. Seen 15 April 2016

Choosing Sides

A three-hander that takes place at a family dinner table, this acid-tipped comedy demonstrates what can happen when parents become increasingly competitive over their child. Mikey is about turn twelve, and our first sign of trouble (mere seconds into the film) is when Dad points out that twelve is the number of apostles and Mom notes that it is also the age when Mikey would need to decide whether he wants to be bar mitzvahed. Yes, this is a religiously blended marriage—although perhaps not as smoothly blended as the parents might like to fancy. This is the humor of escalation, as the grown-ups keep raising the stakes while they not-so-subtly compete with each other for supremacy. A parable about the futility of religious war? Or perhaps just a wry observation on how kids find their own way in spite of their parents. Timothy J. Cox and Rachel Lynn Jackson are Mom and Dad, and Max Plush is Mikey. Lee Loechler directed from Yael Green’s script. Seen 17 December 2015

The Cleaner (Temizlikçi)

The Clone Theory

First of all, kudos to Mr Darklight. He—or it—is credited with the music to this little three-minute masterpiece, and the soundtrack has a lot to do with this brief film’s impact. Visually there is not a huge amount going on, with it mostly consisting of tight shots on our protagonist as he peers at his computer screen. He is played by writer/director/editor A.P. Stevens. (With a movie that has the word clone in the title, would it be a spoiler to suggest that Stevens has a dual role?) Obviously, with such a scant running time the plot is not particularly intricate, but it is well played and cumulatively gets a lot of bang per second of screen time. It I were to indulge in a bit of kibbitzing, I would suggest that the ending might have more impact with the use of body double. But, as it is, it just means that the viewer immediately wants to see it again to be sure of what happened. I’d definitely love to see something longer by the talented Mr. Stevens. Seen 9 December 2015

The Convict

A taut little thriller with a heart, this 2014 short benefits from the great screen presence of Dean Temple. This was Temple’s first collaboration with writer/director Mark Battle. (Two years later they would reunite for Here Lies Joe.) Temple has a wonderful way of playing men at the end of their rope, and he has a way of making us sympathize even when we have no idea whether or not is he is up to no good. In this film he plays a prison escapee named David Eller, who is very determined to get to a specific place. When we meet him, he is breaking into a house to treat a wound he has sustained. Clearly he is dangerous. But is he a threat? Something in his eyes makes us want to take his side—that and a tattoo on his wrist. As his journey progresses, the gaps in his story are filled in and we learn just how desperate he is to get to his destination—and why. Also notable in the cast is Travis Mitchell as a motorist who encounters Eller on the road. Our involvement in the story is heightened by the fact that it all feels completely natural and real. In the end the story is a simple one, but the emotion mined in the telling—and those soulful eyes of the lead player—haunt us for a good while aferwards. Seen 31 August 2016

Coyote

Mark Grabianowski’s previous film Messiah, a creepy little Halloween number, made an impression because of its professional polish, its confident command of escalating suspense, and its ability to cram a lot of information comfortably into its brief running time. This follow-up is likewise infused with a rising tide of unease and tightening tension, although it has a look and feel completely different from the previous film. For one thing, the dialog is to a large extent in Spanish. The setting is fifty miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border (filming was actually done in California’s Mojave Desert), and the story is nothing if not topical. It opens with a brief glimpse of a young woman running though the hot, barren landscape in desperation. Later we will learn that her name, somewhat ironically, is Esperanza (Hope). The real action, however, begins with an interrogration conducted by the titular coyote, that is, a human trafficker. As played by Caesar James, Ramón is one of those villains whose menace is all the more unnerving because he invariably keeps his cool and maintains unerring control. The wildcard is his sidekick Marco (Johnny Rey Diaz), who seems torn by the situation but knows he dare not waver in front of Ramón. In the course of its quarter-hour running time, the drama unspools with no wasted time toward an emotionally involving climax. The mood and aesthetics may put some in mind, at least tangentially, of such Coen brothers fare as Miller’s Crossing and/or No Country for Old Men. (You can see a trailer for the film at the official web site.) There is not a false note among the cast. As Esperanza, Diana Dorempz Campos tugs at the heart without resorting to melodrama. We feel George Capacete’s despair as a man in a hopeless situation. As a pair of wandering North American hikers, Clinton Roper Elledge and Jesse Charles are natural and believable. I continue to wait for a feature-length piece from Grabianowski to see what he does with an even more complex story. Just keep an eye out for his production company, which still has one of the best names ever: Marked House Pictures. Seen 23 August 2017

Curmudgeons

We think of Danny DeVito mainly as a comic actor, but he also has an impressive c.v. as a filmmaker. He has helmed such features as Throw Momma from the Train, The War of the Roses, Hoffa, Matilda and Death to Smoochy. In recent years he has made a number of short films, including this one. And this one is clearly a labor of love. It is dedicated to his friend David Margulies, who starred in this heartwarming mini-comedy before passing away three months before its screening at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. It has since played at festivals in Seattle and London, where DeVito appeared on UK primetime television to promote it. Margulies plays Ralph, a cantankerous foul-mouthed New Yorker, unhappy to be living in a nursing home. He kvetches and swears and criticizes everyone and everything. Lucy DeVito (Danny’s daughter) plays Ralph’s granddaughter, dropping in a for a visit. What he doesn’t know is that she has a surprise for him—and us—and it is one that will cause us to see Ralph in an entirely different way. By the end the film has turned heartwarming and bittersweet, and it prompts us to ponder whether it is worth revising long-ago choices or whether the only thing that matters is the current moment—even when the moments are very few and getting fewer. DeVito is so anxious to have the film seen that he has released it for viewing at no charge on Vimeo. Seen 20 October 2016

Dark Romance

The premise of this eight-minute flick sounds like it should be a horror thriller. Nice guy advertising exec Tim has a secret admirer. On Monday his colleague Cam teases him because he has gotten a card. On Tuesday there is more slagging because he has gotten flowers. On Wednesday the teasing stops because he gets, well, something disturbing. This is no longer a laughing matter (or is it?) because Tim is clearly being targetted by a psycho. This little set piece of workplace Grand Guignol was directed by Matthew Mahler (who co-wrote it with Ross Mahler) a couple of years before he made the very inventive What Jack Built. Tim is played by the versatile Timothy J. Cox. Cam is played Cameron Rankin. And Tiffany Browne-Tavarez plays the very attentive secretary whose coffee-making skills figure prominently in the action and the denouement. Seen 10 August 2016

Darkroom

Defarious

Late at night a woman wakes in terror. But is she really awake? Very quickly we realize we are in Wes Craven territory. Can we ever know for sure whether what we are witnessing is dream or reality? Other horror movie references abound. The camera perspectives are those of CCTV, making this feel like, among other things, a found footage flick. A stabbing sequence is photographed so as to remind us of Hitchcock’s masterful tour de force in Psycho. Of course, the mask on the titular dream demon is meant to evoke the killer in Craven’s own self-aware homage to the horror genre, Scream. Naturally, we never do see the actor behind that mask, but the credits reveal that he is none other than Jason Torres, who played the wonderfully nice lead character in J. Antonio’s Night Job. At eleven minutes, this film does not have a lot of time for character development or plot elaboration, but that is not what it is about anyway. This is about the visceral essence of why people go to horror movies—the primal fears that haunt our nights and torture our souls. It is the concentrated form of the genre, rather than the customary diluted form we get in a full-length feature. The long-suffering heroine is played by Janet Miranda, an Italian-born Ukrainian-American actor who is also an author. A veteran of the genre, she evokes the many blonde victims of our legacy of cinema terror. The soundtrack music of Jonathan Martinez is more than suitably unsettling. The director of this determinedly unnerving opus is Chase Michael Pallante, who also wrote the screenplay in collaboration with its developer Zay Rodriguez. Pallante already has two more shorts in the pipeline and, judging from the titles (Malignancy and Rasplata), they should be no less disturbing. Seen 2 February 2017

The Deja Vuers

Have you ever come across a complete stranger and had the nagging feeling that you knew her or him in another life—or maybe in a dream? It is that strange but universal human experience that is at the heart of this extremely clever mini-comedy. But the déjà vu angle is only the launching point for the spooling out of the quirky sense of humor of filmmaker Chris Esper and screenwriter Jason K. Allen. A man approaches a woman sitting alone on a park bench and tells her that, though they have never met, he dreamed about her the night before. Some of the dream’s details line up and some do not. Is it a true case of déjà vu? Or is more than one case of déjà vu getting confused with another? By the time the scenario has played out, more characters have been brought in and there is even a nonchalantly exposited time travel event. The pleasure in the viewing is that of a well told joke where you cannot really quite anticipate the punch line. Kris Salvi is the creepy but mostly confused man chatting up perplexed but curious Morgan, played by Christie Devine. Craig Capone has a J.K. Simmons quality in the role of, well, let’s just say a relative of Morgan’s. Director Esper’s c.v. includes a host of other short films, including the comedy Please Punish Me. Seen 9 January 2017

Dirty Books

David Burroughs is something of an anachronist. He is devoted to the traditional idea of information being spread on sheets of paper. So it comes as an unwelcome shock when the school principal informs him that the student newspaper, of which he is the editor, will be discontinued and replaced by an online blog. Unable to accept this change, he is determined to make the print edition of the paper newly meaningful by finding and printing a story so compelling that it will result in the Prichard Hall Gazette becoming the ultimate must-read. Making the scoop 100-percent inclusive of all the pertinent facts is less of a priority. David prefers paper to digital because “it’s timeless.” In the end, though, David learns that the timelessness of the printed word can come back to haunt him. As the stubbornly earnest David, Noah Bailey has the perfect youthful face to convey the idealistic crusader who may not know when he is actually crossing a line. Filmed in Massachusetts, this brand new 16-minute movie comes from Fitch Fort Films, which previously gave us The Runaround Club. Zachary Lapierre directed and co-wrote it with Ian Everhart. Seen 20 February 2016

A Fairy Tale

5 Ways 2 Die

Fond of a Moth

Freak

Gary from Accounting

This five-minute comedy made me laugh a lot. Setting up its characters in an awkward situation, it has the feel of sketch comedy, like maybe something we might have seen on Saturday Night Live. It begins with mild-mannered Gary letting himself into a home. He has been invited for a very specific time and place but does not know why. Very quickly, things start happening, beginning the arrival of Hannah and Belle, who were clearly expecting someone else. It turns out they are staging an intervention, and Hannah took a wrong name and number from her husband’s address book. Then the ambushee Nathan arrives. In the best tried-and-true comedy tradition, the intervention proceeds regardless, with everybody expecting Nathan’s co-worker to participate anyway. The humor spools not only from the mixup but also from the increasing awkwardness of Gary, who clearly does not have the most emphathetic of personalities. This droll nugget, directed by Daniel Lofaso, has an Orange is the New Black connection. Its writer Phoebe Torres and performer Thea McCartan, who plays Hannah, have appeared on the Netflix series. Jake Lipman, who plays Belle, is the writer/producer/star of the web series Smart Actress. Mark Grenier displays a nice sense of befuddlement as the titular Gary, and Timothy J. Cox goes through a range of emotion as the husband who, strangely, finds it easier to connect emotionally with the guy from accounting than his wife, sister or kids. Seen 10 November 2016

The Girl in the Woods (Ormandaki Kiz)

Greg’s Guardian Angel

This very amusing short has the classic structure of a joke—complete with punch line. One morning corporate slave Greg puts on a tie and immediately gets a visit from the titular angel. It turns out that the choice of which tie he dons could have longlasting implications for the rest of his life. The gag is when the angel’s visits become more frequent, more intrusive and basically micro-management gone wild. It is sort as if the film is pondering the question: what if we lived every moment constantly worrying about the butterfly effect? As Greg, Greg Vorob is an affable straight man. Clearly having fun as the angel, Elmer J. Santos plays him hilariously as a fussy worry-wart who becomes increasingly caught up in the pettiest of Greg’s affairs. Veteran short-film-makers Dan Conrad and Dan Kowalski wrote and directed, respectively. Special kudos for the inventive title sequence. Seen 6 January 2016

Grind

Guillotine Guys

Gunderson’s

Even though this is kind of a one-joke movie, it’s actually not that hard to see it being expanded into a feature-length comedy. We have all the key set-ups for a very funny guy-oriented flick. There’s the uncomfortable visit to the doctor’s office. There’s the buddies sitting around and shooting the bull out in the woods. And there’s the young teacher saying all the most inappropriate things to a skeptical middle school health class—a ripe situation for male comedy if ever there was one. At about 14 minutes, that’s a lot of stuff to pack into one little film. Max Azulay, who looks a bit like a young Ray Romano, plays the young man who learns that he has the titular STD, which has a single odd symptom. The young actors who play his students are well chosen and are completely convincing as typically unimpressed tweens. Our old friend Timothy J. Cox is also on hand (with shaved head), as the gung-ho principal who comes to worry about the message Max’s medical condition may be sending. Phil Primason and Mallory Westfall co-wrote the screenplay along with Azulay the director, Matt Porter. Personally, my favorite bit was the snippets we got of a classroom education film about the dangers of drunk driving. Seen 1 April 2016

Hell-Bent

From the beginning it is clear that this is going to be one of those workplace comedies, about the competition and dehumanization that goes on in the cubicled world. And then it goes off in a wackily unexpected direction. The disparaging boss (Timothy J. Cox) of Brimstone Magazine (pay attention to that name) puts his writers in competition with one another to write a really good piece, with a promotion as a reward. Everyone thinks that ball-breaker Beth (Ashley Kelley) will win, but we are meant to root for mild-mannered Michael (Justin Andrew Davis) who we know loves writing because he uses the old typewriter his granddad gave him. And then this flick goes off in an unexpected and humorous direction. One of the best things about it is Leslie Lynn Meeker as Agatha, the receptionist and Michael’s ally in the competition. She has one of those wonderful voices that add so much to a screen comedy. It is reminiscent of Mae Questel, whose voice work graced many cartoons as Betty Boop and Popeye’s Olive Oyl. Beyond her voice, however, her contribution is the true comic spark of the film. Kelley’s suitably tough performance as Beth adds a nice edge to compensate for the lack of energy in the Michael character, as does that of Steven Trollinger as the jerk from (literally) hell. Given the nearly half-hour running time, more could probably have been done with such a funny conceit so full of possibilities but, as it is, this is quite an entertaining little story with very identifiable characters. Foster Vernon directed, and the screenplay was by Shayne Kamat and Lorenzo Cabello. Seen 25 May 2016

Here Lies Joe

The first thing we notice from the very first frame is the happy face drawn on a car window with lipstick. It has x’s for eyes. Then we notice the hose shoved through the window and the duct tape sealing up the places where air can escape. This does not look good. Joe is played by Dean Temple, and he has the careworn face and weary eyes that let us know he is well and truly at the end of his rope. (When he is not acting—or directing or writing his own film—Temple does animal wrangling, including for the period medical series The Knick.) At a suicide prevention meeting—which is mainly played for dark laughs—Joe meets Z, an anarchic free spirit, whose carefree impulsiveness is the antithesis of Joe’s morose gloom. Z is played naturally and beautifully by Andi Morrow, an actor from Tennessee who doesn’t seem to be acting at all. Also standing out in a brief comic-relief role is Mary Hronicek, as another meeting attendee. Filmed in New Hampshire, this 23-minute flick makes us care about its characters even while we fear the worst for them. It was directed by Mark Battle, who co-wrote it with Pamela Conway. I hope it is not too much of a spoiler to say that the film’s ultimate message is a hopeful one. Seen 27 January 2016

Honey Halo: The Left by Snakes Video Series

Hully Gully

I F*@#ing Hate You

In a Time for Sleep (Bir Uyku Vakti)

As this 14-minute movie opens, Arda is consuming the lovely dinner that Leyla has thoughtfully prepared for him. We learn the reason for the meal is that she wanted to do something special to celebrate their first month together, but Arda is not the least bit apppreciative. In fact, it is pretty obvious that he is your basic male chauvinist pig. Things deteriorate quickly into a bitter fight. To say any more would not be fair, but let us simply say that things do not progress exactly as we might expect. By the end of the story Leyla is in a very different place, having come to see herself as someone quite distinct from who she had thought she was. The screenplay was written Tofiq Rzayev (who directed) and Mehmet Fatih Güven (who plays Arda), i.e. the same team that gave us a different sort of domestic melodrama in The Cleaner. It has been a pleasure to Rzayev’s film work grow more assured and polished with each movie he has turned out. The performances here are solid, particularly in the way that Goknur Danishik (as Leyla) and Elif Barut (the final character in this three-hander) play off one another. The ending is particularly strong, featuring a beautiful song by Serif Ahmet Ege, marking the first time Rzayev has employed an original song in one of his films. Kudos also for the end titles sequence, presumably the work of David Kislik, who is credited with visual effects. It is subtly reminiscent of something we might see at the beginning of a James Bond movie. Seen 11 May 2016

Inspired

Clearly inspired on real events, this lovely film tells the story of a young woman influenced for the better by a sports coach—at precisely the moment concerned adult guidance is critical. Audiences looking for edgy entertainment may find it a bit conventional, but most people will feel it tug honestly and genuinely at the heartstrings. There was surely a temptation for the director and actors to go for flashy, screen-chewing performances, but to their credit everyone plays it very realistically and true to life—even to the point of understatement. The protagonist Sam is an adolescent at that point where everything and everyone seems to be against her, and Tyler Kipp plays her convincingly. We feel her overwhelming frustration, without necessarily justifying it. As her perceived nemesis, Ariane M. Reinhart balances nicely between, on one hand, the kind icy toughness that the insecure would find intimidating and, on the other hand, unspoken and heartfelt concern for her charges. Overall the production is as slick and professional as anything you might see on television. Writer/director is Maggie Kaszuba has done well by a story that is plainly very close to her heart. Seen 17 May 2016

It’s Not You

This brief but very moving film very nearly qualifies as a time travel story. It opens with two parents nervously preparing to tell their daughter that their marriage is over. The brief shots of Timothy J. Cox and Sara Ruth Blake as the father and mother are extremely powerful in their raw emotion. Once the bombshell has landed, the girl’s mind travels back to happier times when everything seemed untroubled and merry. How could such a happy family come apart? But then she revisits these memories anew and other details emerge: the lingering glance at a woman, the stain on a collar, the whispered phone call. The recriminations and arguments, muted, are only half-heard, as if off in the distance. These things had been suppressed and ignored in her memory. Now they come flooding back to be pieced together as an alternate reality, a hidden narrative. Abigail Spitler does a nice job in a passive role as someone watching her world fall apart retrospectively. The writer/director is Sophie Peters-Wilson. Soundtrack music is by Mountain Range. Seen 29 July 2016

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Kinnari

This brief film (just under five minutes) is essentially the monolog of a man who has lost faith with the material world and is seeking enlightenment through beauty and meaning. He wanders away from his humdrum existence and falls in thrall to the vision of a mysterious and beautiful woman. Inspired by and/or based on Hinduism, the screenplay is compelling, in large part because of the images that bring it to life as well as the considerable screen presence of David Graziano. He and writer/director Christopher Di Nunzio have worked together before on the feature films A Life Not to Follow and Delusion. Indeed, the latter film also had Graziano pursuing the answers to life and death through mediation by a supernatural female presence, so this may be a running theme with Di Nunzio. The photography is impeccable and is in glorious black and white with one brief and nearly imperceptible—but quite well judged—use of color at a key moment. The film is available for streaming on both YouTube and Vimeo. Seen 9 January 2017

The Last Time I Saw Richard

This three-year old short film by Australian Nicholas Verso is of fresh interest because it features similar themes and the same main actor as his new feature Boys in the Trees, which has been getting some film festival buzz lately. The short focuses on Jonah, a rebellious teen prone to self-harm who has cemented his loner status in a mental health institution. That changes when he is given a roommate who stays up all night drawing strange pictures. In the best Lovecraftian tradition, the creatures drawn by Richard (Cody Fern) may or may not actually be real. The beauty of the film is that it can be read as either a supernatural story or a metaphorical take on mental illness. The visuals are mesmerizing and haunting. The spooky bits are genuinely unsettling and frightening—without resorting to jump scares. Toby Wallace as Jonah, despite the character’s obvious problems, is likeable and engaging. The bond that forms between the two lads—the intense and somber Richard unexpectedly exposes Jonah’s previously unseen protective nature—is genuinely touching and ultimately heartbreaking. With this as a teaser, in addition to an impressive trailer for Boys in the Trees, Verso’s feature looks very promising indeed. The cast for that flick includes Toby Wallace and Gulliver McGrath, who has previously appeared in supporting roles in Scorsese’s Hugo and Spielberg’s Lincoln, as well as playing David Collins in Tim Burton’s version of Dark Shadows. Seen 14 October 2016

Leftovers (Geride Kalanlar)

My knowledge of the Turkish language is non-existent, but Google suggests that a more literal translation of the title might be Left Behind, and I wonder if that does not capture even better the sense of traumatic loss evoked by this harrowing 13-minute drama by our prolific Azerbaijani friend Tofiq Rzayev. On the other hand, the title Left Behind has already been appropriated by a series of Christian apocalyptic novels (and film adaptation) so maybe Leftovers is the better way to go. This movie is vintage Rzayev, which is a strange thing to say about an accomplished filmmaker who is still only in his early twenties, but he has already earned the right to his own adjective. Rzayevian? Rzayevesque? His frequent themes of family tragic, unbearable loss and feelings of hopelessness are again front and center. The story is simple enough. Two men are driving a third man along a mountain road. (The filmmaker’s notes tell us we are in Turkey.) The backseat passenger is distraught, and we wonder if he is possibly being brought to his own execution. It emerges that he is being brought by two police officers in plain clothes to a crime scene to identify the body of someone who is believed to be a family member. Finally, his anguish becomes extreme to the point of illness and they stop the car to let him out. His expressions of mental, emotional and metaphysical torment become so intense that the two officers—men in a profession that would presumably harden them to the grief of others—are clearly and startlingly moved, even shaken. The power of the situation is impressively rendered by the raw performances of Gökberk Kozan as the passenger and Ismail Mermer and Erhan Sancar as the escorts. Sancar has previously appeared in Rzayev’s films The Cleaner and Nihan: The Last Page. Rzayev’s scenario co-writers are Alsen Buse Aydin and Mehmet Fatih Güven. The drama was so compelling, it was only in hindsight that I realized there was not a note of music on the soundtrack. We continue to wait impatiently for the impressive Mr. Rzayev’s eventual foray into feature-length movies. Seen 21 December 2016

Linda LeThorn & the Musicbox

The titular Linda’s Aunt Lucinda has passed on and left her a collection of odds and ends that were important to her and which, she hoped, would be important to Linda. Chief among these items is a music box and, when it begins to play, it has a startling and unsettling effect on our protagonist. She is overwhelmed by traumatic memories involving her mother (apparently), skin sores and olives. Linda’s (presumably) stable life in a small Brooklyn flat shared with her cat Kook and her pet-minding job are thrown into turmoil. The music box is also interfering with a budding relationship. There is something disorienting and ultimately disturbing about this offbeat comedy. As Linda, Aundrea Fares has the sympathetically bedraggled mien and expressive eyes to make us care about this woman—even when we do not completely understand exactly what she is (or is not) doing and why. Ashley Peoples is quite appealing as the woman who tries to free Linda from her mental stupor. The writer/director is Meg Skaff. This film brings back three characters (played by Brit-Charde Sellers, Timothy J. Cox and Kimberly David) from her earlier film, <Terry Kendall and Orange Green. Seen 14 July 2016

The Legacy

Mail Time

This four-minute flick is an homage to Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, from which it borrows a clip and Philip Glass’s haunting theme. But it is also an homage to cinema pioneer Georges Méliès. Music aside, this is essentially a silent film that evokes the magic and wonder of Méliès’s groundbreaking visual work. Yes, modern movie audiences are well accustomed to special effects, but somehow filmmaker Sebastian Carrasco manages to make us see the tricks through new eyes. This is because we see them through the eyes of the protagonist, played by chameleon-like actor Timothy J. Cox. He is a postal carrier, who attempts to liven up his day and that of his customers by delivering a trick or two with the letters and parcels. Inspired by Edward Norton’s turn in The Illusionist and seemingly through sheer force of will, he takes his magic to a whole new level. The story climaxes with a re-encounter with a thief that tests his newly developed powers. The real magic, though, is how Carrasco and Cox make us feel as though we are seeing with a child’s wonder. Seen 29 July 2016

Mallas, MA

At seven and a half minutes, this little movie packs a full story—complete with some nice whimsy and even a moral—into its brief running time. Timothy J. Cox and Maria Snyder are a couple of paranormal investigators with a deadline. They have promised something exciting for that evening’s television news broadcast. Do they actually expect to find something supernatural in the house that they are visiting or are they merely exploiting the fears of the home’s occupier? While they seem to have gone through this routine many times before, this time will be different. And at least one of them will have a consequent change of heart. The director is Sean Meehan, whose other shorts include Over Coffee and Total Performance. Picturesque Winthrop, Massachusetts, stands in for the titular Mallas and is seen to great effect in the film’s opening aerial shot. Twins Uatchet Jin Juch and Nekhebet Kum Juch’s enigmatic smiles add a sweet touch of mystery to the proceedings. Seen 8 January 2016

Messiah

The Misogynist

Harlan is a photographer in New York, who is going through a rough patch creatively. The first thing we learn about him is a disturbing dream he had, as he describes it to his wife. She should have probably paid more attention. Later, as he is talking to the guy at the talent agency, Harlan talks about himself in a way that suggests someone who has obsessive/compulsive issues. Everywhere he goes, the city seems to be full of all sorts of people with cameras, using up all the ideas there are for a photographer. And he badly wants wants to find something that no one else yet has. Is he headed for a breakthrough—or a breakdown? The answer is jarring for both its casualness and its unexpectedness. Harlan is played by Pascal Yen-Pfister, a very busy New York actor who has appeared in numerous shorts, feature films and TV series. He brings an air of world weariness to his portrayal of a man who has truly lost his way. The final shot can be read as darkly comic and/or as poignant. The writer/director of this 13-minute unsettling portrait is Chai Dingari, who completed it in 2011, the same year that he received his BFA from New York University. Seen 18 February 2016

Möebius

Narcissist

Next/Door

Patty is unlucky in her choice of boyfriends. But she just may be equally unlucky—maybe even more so—in her choice of neighbors. And that’s about all I dare say about the actual story of this deceptively twisty little creep-out of a short film. The less you know about it going in, the better off you are. It won’t to everybody’s taste or welcome to everyone’s sensibilities, but if a 17-minute visit with a dark, unhealthy soul is your idea of a good (or at least interesting) time, then this is your flick. The good news is that the payoff is a good one. The director is Nathan Suher, working less broadly than he did in Scary Little F**kers but no less wittily. The screenwriter is Brian Pickard. Once again Suher has assembled some first-rate actors, whose commmitment to the material is essential for it to have the proper impact. In the principal role David Ryan Kopcych somehow elicits a bit of sympathy—even while we are completely put off by him. He actually gets us to see things from his own deluded point of view. Also, special mention has to be made of stalwart Lindsey Elisabeth Cork, who never breaks the film’s illusion under the most trying circumstances in a role that is, for the most part anyway, best described as passive. Seen 10 March 2016

Nihan: Son Sayfa (Nihan: The Last Page)

The last couple of films that we saw from Tofiq Rzayev ventured into genre territory. The Girl in the Woods was a mystery story bordering on horror. The Cleaner was a crime story that could also be read as sort of a romantic comedy. By contrast, this sombre and emotional 14-minute movie returns to what seems to be Rzayev’s natural narrative space: the bleak introspective meditation on life and death. As in Aftermath, we have a bereaved man struggling to cope with a devastating loss. Our protagonist has been writing a book about the life he shared with his beloved wife, and clearly this has been every bit as difficult for him as it has been necessary. Now he finds himself on the last page, and something is stopping him from completing it. A visit to his sister-in-law may hold the key to closure. In the best art film tradition, the sunlight illuminating that encounter contrasts with the shadows of our writer’s solitary scenes. The two main actors are Erhan Sancar and Alsen Buse Aydin, both of whom also appeared in The Cleaner. Where Aftermath ended on a note of despair, this film offers some sort of hope. The very affecting screenplay (in Turkish) was written by Rzayev and Erdogan Ulgur. It was based on an idea from Sevgi Ucgayabasi, who portrays a ghostly presence in the film. Seen 10 February 2016

Ninety Seconds

Numb

We do not find out a lot about Astrid in the course of this somber and, at times, heartbreaking ten-minute movie. On the other hand, we actually accumulate a wealth of information about her in that brief span of time. Young, attractive and morose, she easily draws the attention of men. More to the point, she invites their attention. Whether it is a guy in a bar, the new fellow at her support group or just a stranger in a restaurant, she latches on in her cool, detached way, and she is the one to initiate a quickie. What has made her this way? She certainly does not lack for concerned people around her. Played with assurance by Rebecca Martos, Astrid is one of those enigmatic characters who keeps others at a distance even while pulling them in close out of some sadly insatiable emotional need. We eventually get enough of the backstory to fill in the gaps by the time the movie reaches a conclusion that makes us desperate—or afraid—to know what happens next. The writer/director is Penelope Lawson of the New York University Tisch graduate film program. Her previous short films are Love and Babysitter. In Numb she has created a concise, efficient portrait of a woman in pain that stays with you. The mood is reinforced by a soundtrack which includes music by LCS Soundsystem, Twin Shadow and Evan Louison & Matthew Mendelson Seen 6 October 2016

Over Coffee

If the late Gabriel García Márquez had been the one to pen this sweet little mini-romcom, he might have called it Love in the Time of Cappucino. At just over a quarter-hour, this tale of possible office romance spins its story economically and efficiently, complete with a classic three-act structure. Its setting will be familiar to any urban or suburban office worker—divided between the office and the local latte-dispensing coffee shop. It is established in the very first scene that Andrew is crushing on Carla but, in addition to his own shyness, he has to negotiate boorish colleague David and the imperious Mr. Rice, whose rigidity over his coffee sets the plot proper in motion. The story unfolds naturally and briskly, keeping us involved right up to the end. Erik Potempa is Steve Carell-like as Andrew, Michael Oberholtzer is creepy in the usual romcom-best-friend tradition, and Timothy J. Cox has a nice moment as Rice when an inopportune phone call humorously and unexpectedly infantilizes him. This is a 2010 film by Sean Meehan, whose latest work is Total Performance. Seen 8 December 2015

The Penis

Well, the title certainly gets our attention. The next thing we notice is how short it is. I am speaking, of course, about the length of the film, which is just a tad over two and a half minutes. The auteur of this faux commercial message for a sure-fire way to get ahead in the employment world is Audrey Noone, who tickled us last year with the slightly longer comedy A Warming Trend. For years Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg has unsettled us with a genre that has come to be called body horror, and now Noone is pioneering a sub-genre that might be called body humor. While A Warming Trend took a wry look at a very particular aspect of female biology, this new film has a laugh at the expense of double standards in the office as exemplified by the most apparent difference between men and women. Noone herself appears onscreen in the opening scene, as a well-qualified woman applying for a position. Other amusing vignettes follow, with the titular appendage acting as a stand-in for the concept of masculine domination. As the film makes clear, though, you do not even necessarily have to be female to need a hedge against testosterone in the workplace. Seen 24 June 2016

Please Punish Me

Positive Discrimination

In Ireland the term “positive discrimination” refers to the practice of giving extra help to people who are disadvantaged, i.e. what we would call affirmative action in America. By the time we get to the end of Charlo Johnson’s engrossing 12-minute movie, we realize that the phrase here is perhaps just a tad ironic. As we watch elderly Joe negotiate the streets of Dublin back to his flat, we see enough casual acts of kindness toward him to suspect that this may actually be a promo for the Samaritans. Don’t be fooled. Nothing is quite what it seems, as Joe receives a pleasant home visit from a kindly young woman played by Róisín O’Donovan, a regular on the Irish cop drama Red Rock. Old Joe, as played by white-bearded Liam Burke, is a twinkly grandfatherly presence. Their visit is as natural and comfortable as any you might have with your own favorite uncle. That is probably why we don’t see the twists coming any sooner than we do. Also on hand is the imposing presence of Niall Dempsey as a detective who may or may not be Joe’s nephew. An interesting tidbit from Burke’s IMDb page: he was actually cast to play the assassinated mad king Aerys Targaryen in flashback scenes on Game of Thrones, but his scenes wound up on the cutting room floor. For this film, however, he was nominated as best actor at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, where Positive Discrimination won the prize for best foreign short film. For his part, writer/director Johnson, who hails from Tipperary, picked up nominations for best writing and best new Irish director from the Cork-based Kinsale Shark Awards. Seen 18 February 2016

Psychic Murder

There is something a bit noir-ish and something of the absurd about this comedy/drama by Brandon Block. Billy is an aspiring comedian trying to find his feet in front of an indifferent audience. The usual lines about his non-existent love life are met with uncomfortable silence. He is, as they say, dying out there—until he starts joking about his unusual hands—and that is where the absurd element comes in. The best way to describe his mitts are, well, cartoon hands. On stage Billy recovers well enough to be approached afterward at the bar by a talent agent, who turns out to be a real piece of work. Played with near-satanic malevolence by Timothy J. Cox, this guy gives Billy a clear idea what to expect if he signs away his soul to him. A bathroom encounter with the guy’s girlfriend only emphasizes the mind games that will be involved. Will Billy do it? Or will he hold on to his independence and his integrity? A nice mood is set by the film’s washed-out lighting and a piano score composed by Nicholas Saia and played by Christopher Frick. A nice jolt of humor is provided by some brief flashbacks, and Will Bernish is suitably nervous and ill-at-ease as the callow Billy. (A throw-away James Stewart line suggests that Billy’s real gift may actually lie in impersonations.) Tatiana Ford, as the agent’s arm candy, shines in her brief moment alone with Billy. Block’s screenplay, adapted from the short story Ghosts by Maxwell Gontarek, could well become standard course material for people studying neuroses among those in the entertainment business. Seen 18 March 2017

The Runaround Club

This tense little drama by Matthew Rindini mostly takes place in a house one evening over a relatively short amount of time. Two young men break into the house with burglary as the apparent motive, but things get dicey when the three residents return home unexpectedly. Short-tempered dad Frank and daughter Linda eventually become aware of the interlopers’ presence but assume that they are friends of Linda’s sister. And, frankly, things are left ambiguous enough that the viewer cannot be completely certain whether that is true or not. The fifteen-minute running time doesn’t really give an opportunity for delving deeply into what are clearly complicated family dynamics, and John Depew’s performance, while solid, doesn’t really make Frank quite as monstrous as he is meant to be. In the end, the film’s highlight is the comfortable rapport that develops between Linda and the alpha burglar Lucas. Their banter successfully keeps us guessing as to what way things might ultimately go. As Lucas, Ariel Zuckerman displays ample leading man potential and, as Linda, Asta Paredes has an appealing vulnerability laced with independence. (Aficionados of Troma productions may recognize this veteran actor as the lead in two Return to Nuke ’Em High flicks.) Andrew Gleeson wrote the screenplay, and filming was done in Dalton, Massachusetts. Seen 22 January 2016

Scary Little F**kers

Just to be clear, it is my own sense of editorial delicacy that has cleaned up the film’s name. As released by IM Filmworks, the title appears in all its original Anglo-Saxon glory. A fairly spot-on parody of Joe Dante’s Gremlins, the flick has pretty good matches for Hoyt Axton and Zach Gilligan of the original in Rich Tretheway and Josh Fontaine. It tells the story of perpetually inebriated Saul who poignantly (pathetically?) tries to make up for his inadequate parenting skills with an unusual gift for his alienated 15-year-old son Kyle. Soon, however, the Fookas are multiplying—and not because they got wet but for more straightforward (and blinding) biological reasons—and mayhem ensues. Despite a determination toward raunchiness, the flick actually turns out to be almost sweet in spite of itself. At 23 minutes, its length is just about right so that the jokey premise does not wear out its welcome, and there are a few pretty good laughs. While the quality is low-budget (no Jim Henson calibre creatures here but that’s part of the fun), it is definitely professional. A particularly nice turn is contributed by Anna Rizzo as Kyle’s bubble-gum-chewing girlfriend who has a not-entirely-healthy eye on Dad. The director is Nathan Suher, who has a string of shorts under his belt—with more to come. The writer is Lenny Schwartz, who has previously written the feature films Accidental Incest (which he also produced), Normal and Murder University. Seen 8 March 2016

Simple Mind

This involving little drama packs a fair amount of nervous suspense in its seven-and-half-minute running time. The story is framed by some sort of therapy session in which Bob talks about his life. At first blush it seems innocent enough, but it quickly turns dark. The first little twist is easy enough to see coming, but the final couple of twists are much harder to anticipate. Written and directed by Phil Newsom, this is a thriller in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock or Rod Serling. Bob is played unnervingly by the chameleon-like Timothy J. Cox, whom we have seen as completely different types of characters in Socks and Cakes and Over Coffee. At one point he does something with his eyes that would give anyone the creeps. Seen 17 December 2015

Sineater

Six Shooter

Sky’s the Limit

Jason is having a difficult time being his son’s sole parent. He is consumed with finding a new mother for Frankie and a wife for himself. Of course, all Frankie wants is his dad’s attention, but that is hard to come by when Dad seems to spend all his evenings on a succession of dates with women. On this particular evening, though, the babysitter lets Jason down and Frankie has to be brought along. Maybe, just maybe, during the film’s seven-and-a-half-minute running time events will conspire to begin to let Jason into Frankie’s vivid imagination. Dad is played by Timothy J. Cox. As Frankie, young Joseph Di Stefano has the most imposing pair of large brown eyes we have seen in a child actor since Lukas Haas in Witness. The writer/director is April Schroer. Seen 8 January 2016

Socks and Cakes

A film buff’s first reaction to this urbane comedy of manners would have to be déjà vu. The setting is an upscale urban apartment where witty, intellectual people are having a dinner party. The soundtrack features mellow jazzy pop. A male character is in a relationship with a much younger woman. And the opening credits are written in white (in the Windsor typeface) on a black background. Yes, it is a Woody Allen film—or, more precisely, an affectionate homage to the Woodman. The Allen character is played by Timothy J. Cox who, like various actors who taken that role in Allen’s own movies, is not impersonating him but is channeling his world-weary perspective on modern life and love. At one point breaking the fourth wall, Cox makes us like Harry even when while we’re judging him. The setup involves three couples gathering for dinner, except that Harry (Cox’s character) has arrived alone. Another guest (Ben Payz, who bears a bit of a resemblance to onetime Allen regular Tony Roberts) arrives with his new girlfriend, the daughter of French clients. There is much discussion and conversation and drinking of fine wine and, ultimately, coveting of what someone else has. It is all executed very smoothly, pleasingly and amusingly. At twelve and a half minutes, the film earns the ultimate accolade for a short film: we wish it was longer. The writer/director is Antonio Padovan. Seen 8 December 2015

Solutions

I suppose you could categorize this 20-minute caper flick as light-hearted drama, but I would personally tend toward the label serious comedy. The story is nicely framed by black-and-white sequences that include jazz, a bottle, a tumbler with ice, and an older Damon recalling how, at the age of 18, he learned exactly what his father did for a living. In the flashback that forms the bulk of the film, Derek decides to take his inquisitive son along to a meeting with a client, an underdog tycoon who aspires to become mayor—by whatever means necessary. (Presumably, any parallels to current politics are only to be encouraged, as the screenplay includes an explicit reference to Donald Trump.) Interest builds as the viewer attempts to work out exactly what specific dirty trick Derek is price-haggling over. The suspense rises further, as we fret about what danger young Damon may get into on his initial foray into murky operations. Will there be a twist at the end? Would we want it any other way? Hard-boiled on the surface, the film puts a smile on your face. As plain-spoken no-nonsense Derek, David P.B. Stephens exudes the world-weary confidence of a man who is by no means saddling up for his first rodeo. As the callow Damon, Oise Ohiwerei convincingly conveys that false courage young men summon up when they are being tested. As for the tycoon, chamelion-like Timothy J. Cox plays him as a man long used to getting his own way but who now must deal with someone more streetwise than himself. The director is Zachary Halfter, whose story provided the basis for Stephen Pavlics’s screenplay. Seen 12 October 2017

Stutterer

The only thing better than seeing someone with your own surname win an Academy Award (congratulations, Brie Larson) may be seeing an Oscar-winning film in which the main character has your old job. Greenwood is a typographer, who seems to still be working with metal type. (Kids, ask your grandparents.) He is also something of a recluse, living with his father and, yes, as the title indicates, he has a serious problem getting his words out. What writer/director Benjamin Cleary does wonderfully is portray the eloquent and witty monologs that go on inside Greenwood’s mind and in his social media interactions—in contrast to his insurmountable verbal challenges, as exemplified by an onging war with the telephone support system of his broadband provider. What really makes the film work is the endearing and engaging performance by British actor Matthew Needham, an erstwhile regular of UK TV’s Casualty. He has that wonderful look of sensitive lost youth. Think Ben Whishaw with just a bit of the hardened edge of Mathew Baynton. As the only winner from Eire in this year’s Academy Awards (among a record number of Irish nominees), Dubliner Cleary did his nation proud. More than one commentator said how great it was to hear the word sláinte in an Oscar acceptance speech. I’ll drink to that. Seen 3 March 2016

Terry Kendall and Orange Green

This straightforward story, about a conscientious young woman and the very odd man who appears to be stalking her, unfolds in twelve minutes like a late-night news report, cautionary tale or maybe an urban legend. Terry, played sympathetically and winningly by Brit Charde Sellers, is a model supermarket employee. She is always sure to arrive at work punctually, and it is probably her attention to time which causes her to notice that a strange man appears day after day at precisely two o’clock. We will learn that his name is Orange Green, and that is not even the weirdest thing about him. The always versatile Timothy J. Cox plays him in a way that is truly unsettling but does not signal explicitly whether he is harmless or if there could be cause for alarm. His sudden appearances and strange question (always the same one) definitely unnerve poor Terry. An evening of drinking flavored vodka with her self-involved friend Traffy (Kimberly David) does not resolve Terry’s or our unease. The ending is unexpected and bewildering in its matter-of-factness. The writer/director is Meg Skaff, whose knack for oddball characters is on further display in the slightly longer Linda LeThorn & the Musicbox. The three actors from this movie make appearances in that one, apparently playing the same characters—although Cox may actually be playing Orange’s twin brother, since his name in that one is Purple Green. Seen 18 August 2017

That Terrible Jazz

An exercise in evoking the atmosphere of film noir in the 1940s and 1950s, That Terrible Jazz pays a lot of attention to period detail. Its slick black-and-white photography and hard-boiled banter let us know that we are in another period. When Bethany (Elizabeth Alksne) tells a man sucking on a cigarette in an alley that he could be doing that inside the bar, we definitely know this isn’t the health-conscious 21st century. The details are so meticulous that we actually wonder if this will be a parody but, no, writer/director Mike Falconi is playing it straight. This is a sincere homage to a glorious Hollywood era. That man with the smoke is Sam Sellers (Ephraim Davis), a private investigator who will shortly be on the trail of a missing musician. In an efficient few seconds we learn that Sellers likes his drink and that this may have contributed to the end of his marriage. It is that kind of efficient story-telling that makes this 17-minute drama filmed in Philadelphia feel nearly like a full-length feature. Not surprisingly, the trail will eventually lead right back to that troubled dame we met in the very first scene. Seen 15 January 2016

To Be Alone

This thirteen-minute film makes an interesting companion to director Matthew Mahler’s earlier film, What Jack Built. Roughly the same length, both films focus entirely on a single character whom we never hear speak. Motivations, history and state of sanity are left unclear, but in both films the protagonist is consumed with a compulsion to put something together out in the woods. And in both cases he is played by Timothy J. Cox. These are performances that give Cox, who often plays authority figures in supporting roles, a real chance to show off his range and depth. In To Be Alone it takes a few minutes for us to suss out his situation. He is clearly agitated if not traumatized. In a series of cuts we see him clutching his Bible, listening to televangelists and sleeping on the couch. A phone call from a concerned party is left to go to the answering machine. A certain amount of tension builds as we ourselves become increasingly concerned as well as curious about what exactly is going on. A climb up a stairway has the uncomfortable feel of a thriller and we are reminded that Mahler’s Dark Romance did not end happily for all involved. I would like to say that the end of this movie resolves all our questions and allays all our worries, but it is not that kind of movie. The conclusion is amiguous yet strangely moving. It incisively explores fears, emotions and longings we are all prey to at some point in our lives. Seen 2 May 2017

Total Performance

Transience

This is the kind of film that is hard to pull off: a mostly silent black-and-white dramatic two-hander with no spoken dialog. But filmmaker Tan See Yun pulls it off in a concise bit of storytelling that clocks in at just under seven minutes. Two men, apparently married, share a home. The film does not tell us their names, but press notes inform us they are George and Tom. George (Timothy J. Cox) is dressed and ready for work, glancing at a chessboard with pieces from an unfinished game. He has made breakfast for Tom (Joshua Michael Payne), who is only now coming in from a night out, guiltily slipping his ring back onto his finger on the sly. George presents him with papers. A divorce? Later, Tom studies his own face in the mirror in such a way as to signal he is obsessed with his fleeting youth. On a subesequent jog through the park he sees something (a vision?) that puts things into some sort of perspective. The filmmaker does a nice job conveying an entire relationship and a complete dramatic arc with these brief series of images. Will George and Tom work it out? The chessboard and a vase with flowers are our clues. Seen 10 August 2016

Trouble

Our first clue that Isaac is being bullied comes in the very first scene when he is awakened at 4:21 in the morning in a fairly elaborate prank to make it seem as though a train is bearing down on him. Isaac, played with an appealing befuddlement by Bennett Kirschner, is a resident of St. Sebastian’s Quiet Academy for Disreputable Youth (apparently in Maryland). And, yes, the tone of the film is just as tongue-in-cheek as the institution’s name makes it sound. Though hapless, Isaac is a rebel at heart, sort of like a young hipster version of Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. His torments include run-ins with his nemesis Greg (Max Carpenter) and being forced by the headmaster (Timothy J. Cox) to act out lame little dramas about character. His repeated efforts to escape come to naught until the nurse inadvertently gives him an idea. At 13 minutes the film is just long enough to amuse without wearing out its welcome. Indeed, one suspects that the character of Isaac could be further developed for a longer format. The writer/director is Daniel Witkin, who has a cameo as a priest. Seen 13 January 2016

The Trouble with Uncle Max

Film buffs will know immediately that this clever 21-minute movie’s title is a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 dark comedy The Trouble with Harry. Whereas Hitch’s film dealt with people’s unlikely reactions to coming across a corpse, the titular trouble of this comedy noir has more to do with the problem of making a victim die—and staying dead. (Another nod to Hitch may be the fact that, though the film is clearly set in the present day, Max is for some reason watching a a television show from 1957.) We know from the very opening that we are in good hands. To the strains of Bon Saints’ “Wreck Me,” we quickly and efficiently get a wealth of background information in a series of shots of a bulletin board and a car interior. The film hangs confidently on the strong performance of Arianna Danae as Sonya, our working class femme fatale, anxious to be out from under the loathsome presence of her unpleasant uncle, all too convincingly incarnated by Bill Taylor. Nathaniel Sylva is suitably dim as Sonya’s would-be partner in crime, and Logan Lopez is spot on as her dorky co-worker with a major crush on her. The production values are first rate, since the writer/director is Rufus Chaffee, who has previously made the horror features Divine Intervention and The Muse. The Trouble with Uncle Max is currently available for streaming or download via Vimeo’s on-demand service. Seen 19 November 2016

Undatement Center

Chris Esper is a prolific maker of short films with a quirky sense of humor. His trademark is the high-concept situation that feels like it is happening in a parallel universe where the rules are different and yet everything that occurs is totally recognizable and relatable in our own lives. In Please Punish Me (from a story by Tom Paolino and adapted by Rich Camp) a man visits a service where people pay to be punished in order to assuage their guilt. The Deja Vuers (written by Jason K. Allen) takes place in a world where dreams are literally, if confusingly, indicators of things that are happening or will happen in real life. In Undatement Center (written by Esper himself) the conceit is that there is a place for single people to go when they find themselves made redundant relationship-wise. It is not entirely clear if the Undatement Center is a private business or actually run by the government, but either way it has the definite feel of a large organization where bureaucracy has taken over and made everything impersonal. Waiting lines are demarcated with tape on the floor and plastic cones. Our everyman hero Jack is palpably apprehensive about dipping his toe back into the pool of modern dating rituals—even before discovering the new rules have gone all hyper-procedural. As played by Trevor Duke (with his light beard he is something of a dead ringer for Thomas Dekker), Jack should reasonably expect to have little enough trouble in the romance department in a rational world, but his world—like our own—is not particularly rational. His befuddled reactions will be familiar to those who have endured disastrous blind dates as well as to those who have had bad experiences at the department of motor vehicles. The system can be soul-destroying and, the longer this goes on, the more we see Jack’s heart grow cold and calculating like everyone else’s. Will the charming Lindsey (winningly played by J.D. Achille) be different? Perhaps genuine human connections are not completely extinct after all? Seen 4 April 2017

Vesper

Vespers are evening prayers, a connotation that comes from the word’s root literal meaning, which is the evening star. Vesper can also refer to the bell that summons worshipers to vespers, and sure enough our first image of Marge is of her waking at night to the sound of a chime. This is a film where details like that are worth paying attention to. Likewise the on-screen epigraph quoting French Romantic poet Alfred de Vigny’s Les Destinées to the effect that the invisible is real and souls have their own world. This is the sort of film where it is unfair to divulge much, if anything, about the plot, but here is what becomes clear in the early moments. Clare is consumed—and perhaps menaced—by the lingering presence (real or imagined?) of her husband Walter. She confides her concerns to her earnest young nephew Christian, recently returned from studies in Finland. As the 23-minute tense drama unfolds, we cannot be sure what is real or imagined or whether we are jumping forward or backward in time. Darkly lit interiors, stairway encounters and, mainly, the mood-setting score of Gréco Casadesus combine to create an atmosphere of deeply dark foreboding. The openness of an exterior sequence on the deserted beach in Deauville, Normandy, does not relieve the looming dread. If I had to guess the filmmaker’s influences, I would venture Chabrol and Hitchcock. Marge is played by Agnès Godey, who has been seen in numerous roles on French television. The imposing figure of Walter is played by Götz Otto, whose long c.v. of mainly European work includes Tom Tykwer’s and the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas, the Hitler drama Downfall, the Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies and the cult Nazis-on-the-moon flick Iron Sky. Vesper is the second film of Keyvan Sheikhalishahi, who not only directed it but also wrote it and took on numerous other jobs alongside a sizeable crew, producing it with his own production company Amitice. As if all that were not enough, he also has the role of Christian in the movie. The film has been accepted to compete in the Digital Box Office Awards in California and in the upcoming London Independent Film Awards in October. It is an extremely impressive piece of work purely on its own merits, but the accomplishment is even more remarkable when one realizes that Sheikhalishahi made the film last year when he was eighteen years old. He is definitely someone who bears watching. Seen 21 July 2017

A Warming Trend

The Watchers

As a friend of mine always used to say, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Are they out to get John Porter? It is hard to be sure at first. Director Sy Cody White, who co-wrote this with Jeff Moffitt, who plays the increasingly disturbed Mr. Porter, builds the tension nicely and gradually in the beginning. We cannot be certain if John is merely over-anxious or if something untoward is truly going on. Soon enough, though, over the course of the film’s 28-minute running time, the suspense ratchets up. The proceedings have the comfortably creepy feel of a 1950s conspiracy thriller. The strangers on New York’s streets eying John have the ever-so-slightly unsettling look of the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. When one of them actually speaks to him, she has the disturbing quality of certain characters in Carnival of Souls. Is it all in John’s head? Is there some sort of plot? Or is there something supernatural at work? Maybe his counselor (Timothy J. Cox) can sort him out? Or maybe his absent wife, if she would ever take one of his numerous phone calls? It’s all effective edge-of-the-seat stuff with a satisfying conclusion that only needs Rod Serling to step out of the shadows and add a few sardonic comments. Seen 18 August 2017

We Just Want to Play

If there is something vaguely familiar about the boorish members of Ruckland University’s men’s rugby team, it might be because they are the cinematic descendents of Faber College’s Delta Tau Chi fraternity, immortalized in John Landis’s classic Animal House. Like their Delta House forerunners, they can only be bothered to interrupt their hedonistic and degenerate lifestyle when the powers that be try to oust them unjustly. We can’t say we weren’t warned. The very first frame is a classification warning to viewers to, among other things, “Hide Your Wife” and “Prepare To Be Rucked.” Lars Lee plays the inexplicably clean-cut team member who is our point-of-view character. Alexandra Bartley plays the girlfriend who has little patience for his teammates’ sex-obsessed shenanigans. Trevor Williams is the main instigator of pretty much all of the bad behavior. Andrew Gill is their bane as the haughty leader of the rival golf team, whose father (Timothy J. Cox) just happens to be the athletic director. Much mindless and politically incorrect fun ensues. At sixteen and a half minutes, this about the right length for the broadly played humor and, in fact, it is reminiscent of the one-reel comedies these lads’ grandparents might have enjoyed at the cinema. The scenarist is Frank De Rosa, and the director is James Cappadoro. Seen 9 January 2017

Welcome to New York

What Jack Built

Well, here’s something I can’t always say. Despite having but one single actor and absolutely no dialog, this film held my attention closely for its entire running time (about 11 minutes). What we lack in verbal exposition is more than made up for by a manic performance by our old friend Timothy J. Cox, a lot of quick cuts and an energetic electronic score that was provided by the director, Matthew Mahler, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ross Mahler. Kudos should also be paid to John Heerlein, who is credited with props, for one of the most authentically ramshackle and imaginatively equipped workshops I have seen. For most of the film Jack is frantically putting together some sort of invention. It’s hard to tell what it’s meant to be, but it involves a fair amount of woodwork and electronic circuits. We’re not completely sure that Jack, unshaven and constantly puffing on a smoke, is really in his right mind. At one point he drops to the floor to furiously punch a few keys on a keyboard that isn’t connected to anything and consequently seems amazingly delighted with himself. You really don’t need to know anything else—except to hear those words that stir the heart of any sci-fi/fantasy/suspense fan. There’s something in the woods. Seen 20 January 2016

Yeah, Love

The setup is one that most all of us have been through. A shy high schooler notices and becomes captivated by a more popular student. She is so cool, but she doesn’t even know I am alive. Emmily (with two m’s) glumly goes through her day, getting bothered by a creepy guy on the subway and watching the boys at school brag about their imagined female conquests. She is getting counseling, but the shrink has nothing useful to offer. Emmily gazes longingly at cool girl Milo, and then Milo notices her. Could she and Milo actually become friends? Writer/director/narrator Becca Roth nicely captures the frustations, the pinings and the madness of adolescence. As is usually the case for films about high school, the actors are a bit old for their roles, but they suspend our disbelief with their complete buy-in of their characterizations. As Emmily, Crystal Franceschini totally inhabits the moods and poutiness—and eventually the glee—of the teen years. The other actors, including Paton Ashbrook as Milo, likewise convince us that their characters are real people. Seen 10 August 2016



Short Films Seen at Film Festivals

Seattle International, 1987

Seattle International, 1996

Seattle International, 1997

Cork, 1997

Seattle Women in Cinema, 1998

Galway, 1998

Edinburgh, 1998

Seattle International, 1999

Seattle Irish Reels, 2000

Seattle Irish Reels, 2001

Galway, 2001

Seattle Irish Reels, 2002

Cork, 2002

Galway, 2003

Cork, 2003

Cork, 2004

Galway, 2005

Cork, 2005

Cork, 2006

Galway, 2007

Cork, 2007

Cork, 2008

Galway, 2010