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Menacing "Tom" An Experimental Slice of Short Film Disturbia

"TOM" (2017)
Genre: Horror / Experimental
Length - 7:54
Company: Trinity

Tom (Justin William Houghton) likes to watch women.  He likes it so much he uses a camera.  Two cameras.  Many cameras. 

This, his trolling phase, is just one part of a bigger cycle. 

Do you want to get to know Tom? 

A DISTURBING EXPERIMENT

The movie camera doesn't feel.  It has no ability to understand what it's seeing.  All it can do, as a passive observer, is to document what happens -- unblinkingly -- right before its eye.  It's cold.  It's ugly.  It's raw.

This may as well be the mission statement for "Tom", written and directed by Houghton and Joshua Nicholas Goodman.  The titular character is unstable, which lends well to the off the cuff and at times seemingly random "found footage" playing through 99% of the film.  It grows more intense and bloody as we go on, which only serves to build up to an inescapable sense of menace we feel from the middle onward. 

With a strong sound design and a bass filled, rumbling soundtrack, at times this film will feel genuinely real and it will make you uncomfortable.

A FRAME STORY

What's interesting is that "Tom" lacks the frame story element of most entries in this genre -- i.e., group of filmmakers making a documentary are missing, but here is their footage, as in Cannibal Holocaust or Blair Witch Project.  

Let's take a moment and dig into that frame story element of the aforementioned flicks.  What I'm talking about is that the story unfolding via the footage onscreen is the movie, but then there's the people behind the camera, the ones who are, in the world of the film, actually recording what we see.  This part is important because, inevitably, for us to suspend our disbelief, we think to ourselves, "Who's filming this?" 

While cliche nowadays, you can appreciate why it's important to know the answer to that question.  The people behind the camera, who we don't necessarily see with our own eyes -- the existence of these individuals is explained through a separate but equally interesting story.  Without it, our disbelief has a significant hurdle to clear before we can go along with the "This is real!' premise.

CONSISTENCY ISSUES?

This is where "Tom" loses some of its impact.  Most of the footage is obviously done by hidden camera, or video taken by Tom himself.  But then there's a few sequences where the camera is following him from behind, or viewing him on a park bench, and you can't help but wonder, "Who's filming this?"

There are no answers, which results in an inconsistent film.  Does "Tom" have a helper?  Perhaps, but if he does, then what's the point in having himself filmed on a park bench?  Is Tom creating some kind of psycho documentary for his own viewing pleasure? 

Even with that issue, Houghton and Goodman have created a disturbing little gem.  It's a dark, experimental mood piece and if you can get into that sort of thing, you might just leave your computer chair feeling a little dirty yourself. 

Sounds like a win to me.

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 1.5 / 5.  The film feels very spontaneous and winds its way where it wants to go without any regard for the viewer.  "Tom" is an intriguing setup, but without any additional plot movement it becomes one note.  It's a good, clear note, but it's still one note.
Directing: 3 / 5.  There's some truly inspired use of lighting, courtesy of Director of Photography Goody Bags.  Houghton and Goodman wear their David Lynch influences on their sleeves, and some of those early shots are gorgeous. 
Editing: 4 / 5.  The shots accelerate into a frenetic pace of bloody and sexual imagery, increasingly so as the movie reaches its climax.  Goodman also handled editing duties.  The color correction is gorgeous in the more conventional but still handheld shots.
Acting: 3 / 5.  The performances work, even though there are no complicated roles.  The strongest actor on hand is Valentina Isis -- she's good in everything I've seen her in, so no surprise there.
Sound/Music: 5 / 5.  The sound and music are where "Tom" really shines.  I'm not sure, based on the credits, who's responsible for the design or the music, but both combine to create a serious underlayer of unease.

Overall Score: 3.3 / 5.

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*** I am featured in the "Special Thanks" section of the credits of "Tom", but beyond a few suggestions I had little to do with the film itself.  Therefore, I feel comfortable writing a review that is both fair and honest.

Avant-Garde "Who Is Elmore Dean?" Takes a Walk In Anxiety's Shoes

"WHO IS ELMORE DEAN?" (2017)
Genre: Avant-Garde / Comedy
Length - 5:30
Company: Monticello Park Productions

Elmore Dean (Timothy J. Cox) is a successful songwriter set to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame tonight.  It's kind of a big deal, so it's no surprise that Elmore's freaking out.

But when his apartment reciprocates the feeling, it starts to get a little weird . . .

A ROCK & ROLL HAUNTING

"Who is Elmore Dean" is a short film written and directed by Max Rothman.  Lifting a great deal from 2014's Academy Award hit Birdman, Rothman's film deals with a troubled entertainer and is shot in what appears to be one take (that means no cuts, for film neophytes) underneath an unconventional jazz soundtrack that ramps up to match Elmore's escalating anxiety.

That's not to say that what's been achieved isn't admirable -- after all, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery and Birdman pushed the envelope on what wide release cinema is permitted to do.

Certainly there is room for expansion in this department.  There have been a handful of one take experiments in film -- from Hitchcock to Roman Polanski and, to a lesser degree, Josh Becker's Running Time and virtually every 1980's horror film released.  But to do it in such a direct way and still deliver genuine widespread success -- that's a fairly new phenomenon, with the most recent example being, obviously, Birdman.

The problem is that Birdman had Riggan, a fascinating character played by a brilliant actor at the very top of his game.  "Who is Elmore Dean?" provides none of the nuance and depth of such a role.  Cox delivers his apprehension well, but there's nothing more for him to do than look pensive while doing one thing, then look concerned doing something else over here.  Even when Elmore's apartment begins to look like something straight out of Poltergeist, he doesn't seem too concerned about it -- not more than he was before the ghost activity started.

I appreciate where Rothman was going with the film -- he wanted the haunting to be Elmore's subconscious expressed in a physical form, an emotion turned real.  That's an interesting concept, but it just doesn't lift off here.

FUNDAMENTALS

So maybe I didn't enjoy "Who is Elmore Dean?", but in all fairness I also thought Birdman was overblown.  Yes, it pushed envelopes, but was it something I'd want to watch again, or even think about in ten minutes?  For me, the answer was and still is no.

Different strokes for different folks, as they say.

But even if you don't like the end result, there's no denying the artistry and technical prowess it requires to deliver a film all in one take.  The wandering Steadicam bit at the beginning was impressive, with its swooping and sweeping to give us a look at Elmore's world before the movie proper starts.  Everything had to be arranged just so, and the cameraman had to hit every mark, culminating with Cox on the bed, and then cue the phone call -- and so on.  Particularly considering all the interplay with the apartment, the garbage cans, the paintings, all of it . . . all those moving parts live on camera.  It's pretty breathtaking from a technical standpoint.

Bravo to Rothman and crew.

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 1 / 5.  There's virtually no story, nothing happens that prompts a change in Elmore Dean, and what's more the actions he takes onscreen don't particularly matter.  These issues hit hard when you're dealing with what is ostensibly a comedy.
Directing: 4 / 5.  This film truly belongs to Rothman and Director of Photography Olivia Kimmel, and they have put together a weird little film that feels spontaneous and interesting.  It may not ultimately pay off, but it's certainly a sign of truly good things to come from him.  I do feel like Elmore Dean's lack of response to the apparent haunting around him is probably due to a directorial choice, which I feel was a misstep.
Editing: 3 / 5.  Color grade is good.  Apart from that, it's essentially one take.
Acting: 3 / 5.  Cox does all he can, but there's not much written -- and the script is where it starts.
Sound/Music: 3 / 5.  I feel like the jazz soundtrack was a little loud, but that might have just been me.  Otherwise, the sound is good.

Final Score: 2.8 / 5.

You can learn more by checking out the official website right here!



Director/Editor Chris Esper Examines The Blurry Lines of Justice in "Bent"

"BENT" (2018)
Genre: Crime
Length - 20:54
Company: Stories in Motion

Brenda Hoggins (Audrey Noone) and Michael Brooks (Justin Thibault) are crooked cops.  They shoot and kill a criminal and another woman, pocket his drugs to sell later and in general become very poor role models for the youngsters out there.

Inspector John Camp (Marc Powers) and internal affairs officer Reuben Jones (Kris Salvi) sets his sights on putting Michael, the ringleader, behind bars.  But to do that, he's going to have to figure out how to get to Brenda . . .

LOW BUDGET AMBITION

Director/editor Chris Esper brings us "Bent", his take on the crooked cop crime drama.  I've reviewed a number of his films here, most recently the moody psychological drama "Imposter".  That short nailed a somber tone and presented an interesting thematic direction.  "Bent" could not be more different from the style of "Imposter", and that's a pretty ambitious undertaking, particularly when you're working in low budget territory.

How's it turn out?  Well, "Bent" comes out something of a mixed bag.  From a visual standpoint, Esper and Director of Photography Evan Schneider are hamstrung by garden variety locations: an apartment, a dark car, a dark street.  The opening assault has a very staged feel and it doesn't come across as authentic police work (or corruption, as the case may be).

Paradoxically, the following scene which introduces Inspector Camp is arguably the most accomplished scene in the film.  The shots cut from one to the other extremely well and the darkness plays on the actors' faces, which adds some weight to what otherwise could be a stock scene.

Speaking of actors, the performances are hit or miss.  Kris Salvi puts in the most interesting performance, while the leads sound forced.

This script, written by Salvi based on a story by John Epski, has been done a million times on TV and in movies.  There's no new territory to mine.  There's a brief dialogue exchange in which there's a couple shout outs to some of the more troubling police corruption we've seen over the past year in real life, and that adds some veracity to what we're seeing on the screen.

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 2 / 5.  We've been here, done that but the plot's structure pays off at the end.  The dialogue scenes should be emotionally affecting in places, but it doesn't work out that way because we don't really understand the characters or their motives, aside from the film's assurances that these are Bad People.
Directing: 3 / 5.  Not Esper's finest moment, but it's not bad and every now and then a scene pops visually and pulls you out of the more restrained shots.
Editing: 3 / 5.  The assault scene doesn't cut together effectively and feels like it runs a little long.  Actually, the film itself runs long as it just peeks over the twenty minute mark.
Acting: 2.5 / 5.  On the one hand, it's good that none of the performances are horrible -- but on the other hand, not many feel professional.  Salvi does well in front of the camera.
Sound/Music: 4 / 5.  Mathew Solomon handled sound and music duties, and this is without a doubt the most professional aspect of the production.  The music is a little hammy every now and then, going after a film noir effect.  Overall however the score adds to the film in a positive way.

Overall Score: 2.9 / 5.

Don't forget to check out director/editor Chris Esper's production company Stories in Motion.  Also, you can watch the trailer for "Bent" right now!




Thanks for reading! I'm a screenwriter and script consultant. Most recently, I've worked with LMC Productions and Mad Antz Films in Australia. I helped mold Goodybag Productions' award winning screenplay "The Teacher" and Michael Maguire's feature length script "The Wolfpack", which is still in development.

Check out my blog and let's get in touch!