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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Fresh Short Film "Valor's Dawn" An Action Packed Clash of Two Cultures

"VALOR'S DAWN" (2016)
Genre: Action
Length- 13:41
Company:  Paleo North Media

Rewind the clock back to 50 B.C.  An invading Roman force surprises Celtic chief Ambiorix (Reed Clare) while he's out one afternoon, and during the ensuing battle, his young son Conall (Jake Rideout) is killed.  In the aftermath, Ambiorix must decide what he wants -- does he want revenge?  Is revenge worth it when it will not give him back Conall?  Is death more palatable?

This might be the story on the surface, but what "Valor's Dawn" really is, deep down, is  a case of a thoughtful premise attempting to merge action packed visuals with genuine thematic depth.

So how's it fare?

INVADERS

Written and directed by Clare and Mike Donis, "Valor's Dawn" is a meditation on ethics -- it's the story of Ambiorix and Conall, a father and son practicing swordfighting and fishing, in general all the tasks Conall will need to be a successful man in their culture.

Conall, frustrated that he can't score a hit during their sparring, attempts to sneak up on his father and strike from behind.  Never attack from behind, Ambiorix says.  "It's dishonorable."  The idea of honor, and what is right and wrong, and in what situations, comes up again and again in "Valor's Dawn", ultimately culminating with the Roman warrior, Eidys (Craig Blair) killing Conall to gain the upper hand in a battle he was more properly waging with Ambiorix.  The boy's death was unnecessary, but it did clinch the Roman victory.

Which brings up the immediate question -- how does one justify having "honor" and treating your enemy with respect when that enemy appears to deserve none, and in fact shows no mercy even to children?

I'm not entirely sure what happened at the end . . . was it all a fantasy in Ambiorix's regretful head?  Is honor, for Ambiorix, dead?  The title of the film, "Valor's Dawn", says no, but the events of the film seem to suggest otherwise.

THE FILM ITSELF

All interesting thoughts which are treated honestly and with subtlety throughout the script, but without a solid and entertaining movie to back them up, it's all just rambling.  Fortunately, Clare's film features a lot to like on the outside as well as on the inside.

First to talk about are the impressive visuals.  98% of the film takes place outdoors, and we have some seriously gorgeous photography.  Bruce William Harper is credited as the Director of Photography, and I'm giving him a tip of my hat here because WOW -- the lake shots, the forest, the sky, all of it look absolutely beautiful.  Ambiorix's home truly looks like an Eden-esque paradise.

Clare's directing is at its best in the fight scenes.  Thanks to a very strong choreography team in Christopher Mott, Dan Zisson, Clare himself and Ray Rodriguez, we have some really strong fight scenes that feel spontaneous and brutal.  During the emotional scenes, I wasn't entirely sold on some of his directorial choices -- the fade outs and slow motion bits in particular felt forced.  But overall, he's got a good eye for action and I enjoyed his work here.

CONCLUSION

The production values of "Valor's Dawn" are top notch -- Clare's making use of some really incredible locations and equipment to create a film that is unique in many ways.  It's not often you see a period piece -- especially a PERIOD period piece, if you know what I mean . . . a period piece set THIS far back in time.  The costumes, for instance, look incredible, and while the battles are understandably small, they are no less intense.

This was an incredible labor of love on the part of Reed Clare and his team, and what you are getting with "Valor's Dawn" is something you don't see every day.

That, in and of itself, is reason enough to check it out.  What's even better is that's quite good.

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 3 / 5.  Clare's strong subtext pushes "Valor's Dawn" beyond simple action territory, but as far as story is concerned, we don't have much going on -- we've got a battle, and a framing shot in which Ambiorix is an old man, remembering, but that's it.  The conclusion doesn't wrap things up in a satisfactory way.
Directing: 3.5 / 5.  Really good visuals, particularly in the exterior shots, and excellent fight choreography.
Editing: 4 / 5.  Navin Ramaswaran handled editing duties and Luke Bellissimo is credited as the digital colourist, and both did great jobs.  The film has great pacing.  I did have issues with the fade outs and the slow motion bits during the emotional scenes, but I think that's directorial choices more than editorial ones.
Sound/Music: 3.5 / 5.  John Gzowski gives us a full fledged score that sounds big and epic.  Maryem Tollar lends vocals to the mix.
Acting: 3 / 5.  Clare looks the part and delivers his old world-y sounding lines with aplomb.  Blair doesn't have much to do other than grit his teeth and swing a sword.  Rideout debuts as a promising child actor.

Final Grade: 3.4 / 5.

Don't forget to check out the trailer for "Valor's Dawn" at its official site and follow the creators on Facebook!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

James Quinn's "The River" A Potent Fantasy Short Film About A Boy On A Ghost Ship

"THE RIVER" (2015)
Genre: Fantasy
Length- 11:14
Company:  N/A

Mom (Emmy Happisburgh) and Dad (Andrew Snowball) are wrapped up in the business of trying to get through each day after their musical older son dies, and little Andy (Jack Hutchinson) is left with little to do but explore the woods near his home.  He discovers a beautiful lake, and a derelict ship floating inside -- and swears he can hear someone playing trumpet onboard.

With a curious mind and a gnawing sense of loss growing inside of him, he makes it his personal mission to discover who's making the music coming from the ghost ship.

A TOUCH OF FANTASY

"The River" is a touching contemporary fantasy coming to us from writer/director James Quinn.  It's billed as something on par with Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, and I think that addressing that comparison is as good a place to begin my review as any.

At first glance, the two films might seem extremely different.  While Pan's Labyrinth brings a young girl to bear on the ugliness of a post-Civil War Spain in the 1940's, "The River" is a very insular film, never addressing the world beyond the scope of a young boy named Andy.  There are no fancy monsters and gorgeous CGI landscapes in "The River".

What the films share however is thematic common ground . . .

SAILING TO NOWHERE

In "The River", as stated, we never look beyond the family unit.  It's the strongest form of government on display, but from the first few minutes we learn that one member, the eldest son, has recently died, and ever since, the familial bond has begun to atrophy.

Mom and Dad are on different wavelengths, and none of them are communicating all that well to Andy, and nobody is stepping up to resolidify their "government", so to speak, so it falls to Andy to, essentially, rise up and attempt to make the changes necessary to heal the family unit before it dies completely.

The result is an admittedly brief but no less epic journey worthy of Joseph Campbell's monomyth, and it works so well because it's utilizing timeless concepts: Andy crosses a RIVER to retrieve a loved one from beyond the dead (River Styx, anyone?)

And on that note, the trumpeter could either be Andy's brother or the legendary Ferryman, Death himself.

Pretty deep stuff for a short film, and I for one appreciate thoughtful films that give you something to think about long after you've finished your first viewing.  Or second.

CONCLUSION

"The River" is a slow paced but emotionally affecting short film that deals with themes of mourning and the afterlife with a pinch of fantasy while remaining rooted in the real world.  Using timeless concepts and gorgeous exterior shots (almost the entire film takes place outside), Quinn sucks you in and makes you feel for Andy and his family, all of whom by the way are splendid actors.

My only real complaint is that so much time is spent up front on atmosphere and mood that when important plot points are introduced (like the boat and trumpet, for instance) they seem to be glossed over in a matter of seconds -- total blink or you miss it moments.

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 3 / 5.  Very slow paced but suitably atmospheric and full of thematic depth, "The River" provides a solid emotional punch.  The ambiguous ending was a bit too ambiguous for my taste, and some of the plot points felt too hinted at, not to mention rushed, which forced me to watch it a second time before I fully understood what was going on.  
Directing: 4 / 5.  Beautiful imagery galore here, from the exteriors (which were just incredible) to even the interiors -- particularly the elder son's bedroom.  Quinn and Director of Photography Joe Douglas have an amazing knack for capturing just the right way to nail a shot.  And the shots of the ghost ship at night -- creepy!
Editing: 4 / 5.  Beautiful color correction from Oisin O'Driscoll and Dan Butler.  Top notch editing courtesy of Riccardo Servini, who serves up a slowburn cut that feels right.  I think certain areas of the film could definitely have been fleshed out more -- considering how much atmosphere we have, if we could have gotten to know the dead boy for instance, it would not have hurt this film to have been filled out to around 15 minutes.
Sound/Music: 3 / 5.  Good soundtrack from Thom Robson and session trumpeter Sam Ewens.  It's not every day I hear a short film with a trumpet on the soundtrack.  The only problem with the sound design from Oliver Whillock was that I couldn't tell whether the trumpet I heard was part of the score, or the trumpet I was supposed to be identifying as coming from the boat.
Acting: 4 / 5.  Hutchinson is a fine young actor and I'm excited to see where he goes from here.  Happisburgh and Snowball are solid thespians as well and pull off emotional performances that are 100% credible.

Final Grade: 3.6 / 5. 

Check out the trailer for "The River" at James Quinn's Vimeo page and follow the creators on Facebook!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Boy Hurts Girl: Love Goes Wrong In Powerful "Know the Signs"

"KNOW THE SIGNS" (2015)
Genre: Drama
Length- 41:12
Company:  The Make A Movie Society, LLC

Felicia (Eden Shultz) and Kevin (Harrison Flanders) have a tumultuous relationship -- but not the super passionate, on-again off-again teenie bopper romance popularized by the Hollywood screens.  No, this is more like Boy Meets Girl, Boy Beats Girl Into a Bloody Pulp sort of a relationship . . . and rather than take her parents' advice, she agrees to meet with him one last time, to provide "closure" for both of them, because she's going to leave him.  Or maybe she won't.  She's not entirely sold on that last part yet.

See, the thing is, Felicia's dad, Jack (Scot Smith) used to beat up her mother, Diane (Elizabeth Corbett) right in front of her.  So how can she take anything Diane says seriously?

All in all, she's a confused young woman, and Kevin doesn't much care what she wants . . .

FIRST FEW THOUGHTS

"Know the Signs" is a short film written, produced and directed by Antonio R. Cannady, and it's a labor of love through and through clocking in at a little over forty minutes in length.  What we have here is a film that's approaching feature length, which normally I would argue against, because its excessive length doesn't usually work for the sort of online format that short films tend to be intended for.

And there are some areas where we could definitely trim this film down, but by and large the story is exposing the effects of domestic violence on several generations of two separate families, so a lot of the length is actually warranted.  I'd say we could get away with cutting maybe ten minutes, mostly teen angst sort of stuff, abbreviating some of the arguments so it's tighter in some spots.

But overall, I have to hand it to Cannady and editor Matthew Kaiser -- this film unfolds pretty well despite its epic length.

THE BRUTALITY OF THE REAL

Domestic violence is not a funny topic.  It's not cute, it's not entertaining.  In real life, it's stomach churning.  It's miserable.  It's heartbreaking.

"Know the Signs" knows this and delivers the brutality of the real world hard.  The finale felt a little cliche and minimized the apparently sorrowful closing moments, but I get why they did it, and you will, too.

While it can feel a little soapboxy and the abusers become caricatures at times, Cannady's film is an affecting and overall relentlessly dark depiction of the spiderweb of violence, obsessive love and hate.

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 3.5 / 5.  Cannady also wrote the script, and he constructs a fairly complicated setup of characters, social status, and hope all dimmed by domestic abuse.  Ultimately it all ends up happening pretty much as you expect it to, but that doesn't mean it's not effective.  One final thought: we never get to see the good side of Kevin: what about him made Felicia fall in love with him to begin with?  As it is, he comes off as a psychotic druggie caricature -- why on earth did this "good girl" get involved with him in the first place?
Directing: 3 / 5.  A well made film from start to finish, but nothing sticks out in my mind except for the inspired tracking shot through Kevin's house at the end.
Editing: 4 / 5.  Overly long, but still well put together and interestingly enough, not boring in spite of the fact that you could definitely take out bits here and there to tighten it up.  The color correction is beautiful.
Sound/Music: 4 / 5.  Solid score by Leo Daniel Kirkpatrick and songs provided by Mulligans Project, Stunna & Fusion and Karma.
Acting: 3 / 5.  A pretty mixed bag here, but good performances overall.  Flanders does the best he can, but he's given an off-the-wall character to play who doesn't make much sense, even to himself, so you can't blame him.  Scot Smith is probably the most off, especially in his violent scenes.  He just doesn't come off as threatening.  Shultz and Corbett are the most credible in their roles, always feeling like their characters and not like actors.

Final Grade:  3.5 / 5.

Don't forget to check out "Know the Signs" at the official websitefollow the creators on Facebook!

I know this blog is about movies and having fun and all that, but domestic violence is a very serious situation.  Please take a moment to read the following below:

* * * * * *

If you or someone you know is being abused, please visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline's website or call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

It's important to get help NOW -- everyone on this planet deserves a life in which they can live each and every single day without someone hurting them verbally or physically.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Pixel Bros' Crime Thriller "Loose Ends" Drives Home A Murderously Moral Dilemma

"LOOSE ENDS" (2015)
Genre: Crime Thriller
Length- 19:18
Company:  Pixel Bros.

Logan (Logan Martin) and Adam (Liam Boehning) run cocaine for Ackard (David Winn), the local crime lord.  Everything goes well enough at first, although they're still not making much money considering all that they're risking.

When Adam decides to duck out on the drug life and walk the straight line, he becomes a marked man -- and Ackard expects Logan to be the one to wipe him out.

BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE

Jacob Dalton and co-writer Christopher Lawruk direct "Loose Ends", a crime thriller short under the Pixel Bros. banner.  It's a collaborative effort in every sense of the word -- we have three individuals taking credit for the writing of the script, including Boehning, Dalton and Lawruk, the latter two of which also edited the film.

There are some pretty impressive visuals here, including some nice work with exteriors.  The film looks good -- that's the greatest compliment you can pay it, really.  The natural lighting and high definition provide a solid cinematic look that draws you in far more than anything in the writing, which honestly comes off as derivative of any number of crime films.  We've seen this story before: two friends pitted against one another, where one wants to quit crime and the other doesn't.

The major question, then, is what does Logan do?  Does he kill Adam?  Does he follow in Adam's footsteps and flee his hometown and live on the run?  Whatever he decides, Adam did betray him -- he screwed Ackard over and left Logan to catch the heat for it.

So, if Logan doesn't kill Adam, where does that leave their relationship?

This winds up being the most interesting part of the story -- the moral dilemma faced by friends when one side of a relationship fails to hold up their end of a bargain.

What happens then?  A brutal, no holds barred battle.  And speaking of that battle -- the fight choreography is seriously impressive.  The violence feels authentic, real and painful.  There's a variety of weapons used.  The special make up effects are effective.

So in the end, "Loose Ends" does its job well.  The production values elevate the story into an entertaining watch.

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 2.5 / 5.  Derivative, but the story knows what it's about and moves along at a decent pace.
Directing: 3 / 5.  Dalton and Lawruk tell the story visually and do so with style, particularly with those big exterior shots.
Editing: 3 / 5.  The film does feel a little long.
Sound/Music: 3.5 / 5.  Nice score from Joseph Vickrey -- it's almost alt-Western.
Acting: 3 / 5.  Not bad.  Winn in particular has a chilling voice.  Martin reminded me of a young Leigh Whannell.

Final Grade: 3 / 5.

Don't forget to check out "Loose Ends" and follow the creators on Facebook!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Mature Look At The Thin Line of Teenage/Adult Relationships In Triskelle Pictures' Short Film "Night Owls"

"NIGHT OWLS" (2015)
Genre: Drama
Length- 13:28
Company: Triskelle Pictures

Kent (Jonny McPherson) lives alone in his childhood home, but it's not much of a life -- not in terms of his past, or a future.  When down on her luck teen runaway Mari (Holly Rushbrooke) shows up on his doorstep in the middle of a rainstorm, he makes the decision to let her in, and the two find that though their ages may be different, they have a lot in common when it comes to broken families . . .

DIFFICULT FAMILY TREES

"Night Owls" is the latest short film from Triskelle Pictures, the company that brought us the moving fantasy/romance "Stop/Eject" in 2014.  This time, Sophie Black takes on directing duty and teams up with Tommy Draper to write a screenplay that deals entirely with reality -- namely, the tricky world of relationships.

What we have here is a film with only two characters, so their onscreen chemistry has to be enough to carry the movie.  While Rushbrooke and McPherson give it a fine try and perform their roles with as much charisma as they can manage, I can't say I ever quite felt like the bond being developed was genuine.

But the questions posed by the film are perhaps more interesting than the onscreen activity.  Is it possible for a teen and an adult to be genuine friends?  Can a real friendship be forged quickly, and if so, how long can such a relationship continue?  Is there ever a situation in which it is OK for a teenager to kiss an adult if the teenager meets an adult mentally on the same level?

And is a kiss ever just a kiss?

These are pretty big questions being asked, and you have to hand it to Black and crew for delivering a short film that will make you think.  "Stop/Eject" was a mournful examination of time, soulmates and love lost.  "Night Owls" is a meditation on relationships themselves.

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 3 / 5.  Really substantial subtext going on throughout the film, but what's actually taking place feels like a tiny slice of a feature length film.  I'd love to see where these characters go from here.  It does feel a bit incomplete as written, and their relationship never feels completely genuine.  I think this is because we never see either character being themself in their own environment before they meet, so we can't really see how they become someone new by entering into a relationship.
Directing: 3.5 / 5.  Some great visuals from Black, as can be expected considering her previous work in "Stop/Eject".  Some of the interior shots suffer from "two people talking in a small room syndrome" -- there's only so many ways to make that look interesting.   Still, Black knows the language of cinema, and "Night Owls" looks great.
Editing: 4 / 5.  Theo Leeds and Richard Winter edited the film and the shots transition and sequence perfectly.  Drew Scott Davis has put a beautiful cinematic sheen to the film with his color correction -- you could play this in any multiplex and it'd fit right in.
Sound/Music: 4 / 5.  Beautiful soundtrack from a variety of sources, with original music aplenty, including a beautiful track played over the end credits.  The dialogue suffers a little in the doorway though, you can really hear some echo.  But overall, Adam Fletcher's done a good job capturing the actors.
Acting: 4 / 5.  Very solid performances from both actors, who are without question professionals in every sense of the word.

Final Grade: 3.7 / 5.

Don't forget to check out the trailer for "Night Owls" at Triskelle Pictures' official website until it finishes its festival circuit and follow the creators on Facebook!

Check out Triskelle Pictures' last film, "Stop/Eject", and our review, right here!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Ambitious Western "Targeted" Fires, But Does It Find Its Mark?

"TARGETED" (2015)
Genre: Western
Length- 39:18
Company:  N/A

Overly confident  Illinois Pinkerton agent Jimmy Makton (Zach Dufrene) takes a case in California to track down Billy the Butcher (Erik Jacob Haley) on a contract with the US Army, working with Samuel (Jak Locke), the sheriff's brother.

There's barroom brawls and gunfights and everything you'd expect from a Western, all in a very low budget package.

So how's this self-dubbed "Experiment in Ultra-Low Budget Filmmaking" fare?

A FISH OUT OF WATER

"Targeted" is a short film shot by a five person team and helmed by writer/director/producer/effects man/actor Jak Locke.  It aspires to be nothing less than a full blown Western on par with any Hollywood release (of which there have been next to none for the past decade).  You have to admire the ingenuity of the filmmakers to put something like this on film.  

There are some missteps along the way.  The script is all over the place -- we spend too much time with the initial gunfight, and while the "re-imagining" of what really happened is played for laughs, it comes across as silly rather than funny.  The dialogue feels like a long train of random old time slang and alpha male posturing.  We never get to know any of the characters beyond their stereotypes.

Literally everyone has a gun and shows it at one time or another.  In a world where violence is this casual, the killing loses any punch it might have had.  Maybe this is an intentional desensitization of the audience, but it doesn't come to any kind of thematic fruition.

The conclusion does throw in an interesting wrench to the storyline, but it's not built up through the rest of the movie so, again, it doesn't feel like it has any purpose.

BLOOD & GLORY

But it's not all bad.  The fight choreography is inspired, particularly for something so obviously low budget.  There's fight scenes aplenty, gun play, bullet holes and a particularly nasty (if a bit out of place) bit with a knife rummaging around in a wound to remove a bullet.

The costumes look fantastic, and the travel montage is pitch perfect.  We get a great sense of the distance traveled, even if the world doesn't look any different in California than it did in Illinois.

But ultimately, the thing that sinks "Targeted" is its length.  At just under forty minutes, it is about twenty five minutes too long.  We have extended scenes of dialogue that could be cut to a few sentences and still get the same effect.  The cast is enormous -- there's probably twenty to thirty characters who appear on camera, none of whom we ever get to know beyond either getting shot or shooting somebody.

There's a fun story to be had in this Western, and it's admirable to see a short film take on this particular genre, but its story needs to be reeled way in before we'll be able to see it.

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 1.5 / 5.  The script isn't complicated, but it takes so many detours for scenes that ultimately do nothing to advance the plot.  Short films need to be concise and say exactly what they want to say in as little time as possible -- your average viewer is not going to have the attention span that I do, and more than likely will not make it to the end credits.
Directing: 3 / 5.  Locke's directing makes for an entertaining show.  We have a variety of shots that are interwoven in an effective way, and the visuals are surprisingly strong.
Editing: 2 / 5.  The transitions work well, but the color correction doesn't attain that true "cinematic" feel.  The pacing is thrown off over and over by scenes that stretch on far longer than they need.
Sound/Music: 3 / 5.  The score is also written and performed by Locke, and it provides some much needed production value to the film.  I enjoyed it.  Plus, the dialogue and sound effects are recorded effectively.
Acting: 2 / 5.  Dufrene and Locke do the best they can with the lines they're trying to chew, but none of it sounds believable through their accents.  The remainder of the cast ranges from amateur night to just bad.

Final Grade: 2.3 / 5.

Don't forget to check out "Targeted" and its eventual release by following the film on Facebook!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Where Do You Find Life's Value? Matthew P. Rojas Asks Just That In Short Film "Upon The Mountain (Behold the Ram)"

"UPON THE MOUNTAIN (BEHOLD THE RAM)" (2015)
Genre: Drama
Length- 5:25
Company:  MrPresents

Chad Evans (played by himself) is a musician struggling to keep his ailing father, Abram (Kevin Clark), alive on the paltry and irregular pay provided him by his label.  But his friend, Barry (Jordan Greenwald) encourages him to stay the course -- he's making waves in the club circuit, and creating a fan base one show at a time.

But his father's only getting sicker, and Chad can't take care of him properly without a more stable source of income.

What are dreams worth?  What would his father say?

FOLLOWING THE ARTIST

"Upon the Mountain (Behold the Ram)" is the latest short film from writer/director Matthew P. Rojas, made for the "Films About Numbers" series.  Rojas previously wowed us here at Forest City Short Film Review with short films like "Upon This Myth of Vengeance" and "The Amputation".  The former was a really well done thriller, with an exquisite sound design and great use of camera movement to produce tension.  You might remember when I reviewed the latter that I was very surprised that Rojas took a completely different direction -- instead of another (well done) textbook thriller, "The Amputation" featured experimental elements, both structural and in coloring, and a stream of consciousness mode of delivery.

Through it all, the one commonality among his films has been the spiritual undercurrent that provides a powerful thematic addition to what inevitably is already an emotionally charged film.

So it is that with "Upon the Mountain (Behold the Ram)", Rojas defies categorization yet again.  This is another black and white picture, but much more straight forward.  Gone are many of the camera flourishes we saw in "The Amputation" in favor of a more grounded, realistic visual style.  The soundtrack is constant throughout the picture.  Relationships are at the forefront, most notably that of Chad and his father.  We touch on a failed romance between Chad and a woman named Debbie (Kelsie Anderson), but that receives a literal blink-and-you'll-miss-it touch.

TIMES  CHANGE

And that's exactly what Rojas seems to be saying -- the poetry of life is gone.  It's just there, and then it's not.  Chad's father is here, but he's on his way out.  Chad's label is ignoring him, his dreams are coming up short, and he's hesitating at the microphone at a club.  But none of this is given too much time on camera -- it's all here, and then it's not.

Rojas gives these images to you without embellishment, without anything to sway your opinion to positive or negative.  It is what it is, he seems to be saying -- and that's exactly how the movie plays out until Chad finally begins to play guitar and sing, and suddenly there is beauty, there is poetry, there is life again.

THAT'S why Chad is pushing to become a musician.  THAT'S why his father tells him, on what could very well be his deathbed, "Time's only temporary."

Life can either be a series of events that just happen, or they can become poetry in your ears.  It's up to us to make that decision.

Rojas and company manages to convey that message in a little over five minutes of screen time.  Imagine what he could do with a feature . . .

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 3.5 / 5.  Thematically, this short film is dynamite.  The fact that Rojas managed to cram so much thought and real life examination into a short time is incredible.  That being said, the whole "family member is terminal and we need money for treatment" has been done so many times that it inevitably feels a little forced.
Directing: 3.5 / 5.  Very subdued show from Rojas this time around, which makes it feel more like a standard TV drama at times.  The directing is not intended to take center stage though, and the relaxed style is intentional so I bumped the score to a 3.5 from what I'd normally rank as a 3.
Editing: 4 / 5.  Jonathan Mendoza and Rojas share editing duties here and the proof is in the pudding -- the pacing is dead on, the scenes transition perfectly and the black and white presentation looks great.
Sound/Music: 4 / 5.  Great original song, "Upon the Mountain" written and performed by Evans.  He's got a great voice and is a Christian musician in real life.  Levi Patel is responsible for the score otherwise, and his music is licensed from The Music Bed.  It's subtle piano work, it's constantly present which only makes sense considering the entire film is about, in its way, music.  The dialogue is clear and professionally recorded.
Acting: 3 / 5.  The actors aren't professional, but they get the job done.  Evans perhaps deserves the biggest props here for being a musician stepping into an actor's shoes and doing just fine.  

Final Grade: 3.6 / 5.

Don't forget to check out "Upon the Mountain" and visit the official MrPresents website before following Matthew P. Rojas on Facebook!

You can see more of Rojas' work by checking out our reviews for "In This Myth of Vengeance" and "The Amputation" as well.  Still can't get enough of this writer/director's uniquely thrilling and spiritual vision?  Get an inside look at his directing style in this EXCLUSIVE interview we did with him back when "Vengeance" just came out!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Two Lost Hearts Found in Wintry Romantic Comedy "Perfect Strangers"

"PERFECT STRANGERS" (2015)
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Length- 26:38
Company:  Magic Monkey Films

It's Christmas Eve in the Scottish Highlands, a perfectly romantic time and place for an engagement, don't you think?  Rob (Kenny Boyle) certainly thinks so, but his girlfriend  (Nicki MacDonald) -- not so much.  She leaves him on the spot.

Meanwhile, Jen (Clare Sheerin) has an awful fight with her boyfriend (Ryan Hendrick) and breaks up with him.

Fast forward a couple minutes and they both wind up at the same lonely train station where the last train's gone and the next won't be around for hours, so of course they get to talking.

And . . . steal a car?

THE WARMTH OF THE SEASON

"Perfect Strangers" is a short film written and directed by Ryan Hendrick.  It's got a good, cinematic style, and gives us some great wide shots of Winter landscapes and homely interiors.  Thanks to smart camera movement and carefully crafted shots, we have a short film that could easily double as a far larger budget picture on a big screen.

One of the most fun things about "Perfect Strangers" is the way it subverts the romantic comedy genre and gives you what you would expect, but not entirely in the way you're thinking it will.  For instance, rather than "boy meets girl, boy pursues girl", it's more the other way around.  Jen is the mover and shaker in this relationship -- she identifies the possibility for something more, and she takes steps to make it happen.  She's active in her participation.  In far too many movies, even these days, women are portrayed as objects that men have to "go out and get".  It's nice to see a film with a strong female lead who is a far more interesting character than her love interest.

And on that note, this is the one thing that bugs me about this film.  Considering the extended running time is almost thirty minutes, I should really know more about these characters than I do.  This takes away somewhat from the emotional impact of the conclusion of the picture.

TRY THIS ON FOR SIZE

The finale is another point in the film where Hendrick and crew defy generic expectations, and I applaud the filmmakers for taking a risk and making a movie that plays out a little differently.  I'm not going to spoil it for you, but I'm sure you're aware of the structure of these sorts of movies.  In the case of "Perfect Strangers", the characters are equals, and neither one is left desperately pining for the other in the rain while somebody sorts their issues out.  Their relationship is, on one level, more mature, and the conclusion reflects that.

So the film itself may be funny, but it's also serious at times and certainly meaningful and even sophisticated in the way that it addresses love and loss and loneliness.

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 3 / 5.  Overall we have a good script, but the lack of character depth does affect the experience of watching the film.  If I identified with the characters more and knew about them as people, it might have been a whole new ball game.
Directing: 4 / 5.  Really nice job from Hendrick, who delivers a picture whose visuals are every bit as stirring and fun as a Hollywood romantic comedy.
Editing: 3 / 5.  Hendrick handles editing duties here.  The film drags on a bit after a while -- considering that little actually happens over the course of the story, it is AWFULLY long.  
Sound/Music: 3.5 / 5.  Mostly solo piano work, but there are some other tracks performed by Jack Henderson.  The audio's recorded professionally.
Acting: 3.5 / 5.  Good performances for what they're given, but Boyle and Sheerin are clearly talented.  They could have taken on meatier roles with wider emotional ranges and done it like champs.

Final Grade: 3.4 / 5.

Don't forget to check out the official website for "Perfect Strangers" and follow the creators on Facebook!

Monday, February 8, 2016

When Tears May Come: Eduardo Michel Piza's "A Christmas Wish" Examines Family & Divorce Through the Eyes of a Child

"A CHRISTMAS WISH" (2015)
Genre: Drama
Length- 15:31
Company:  N/A

Little Michael (Jentzen Ramirez) attempts to play matchmaker for his separated mom (Lisa Roumain) and dad (Matt Back), but instead of reuniting his family, he enrages his dad.  Confused and feeling hopeless, he runs away, and --

I don't want to spoil it, but suffice it to say that navigating the tricky labyrinth of an adult relationship isn't easy, particularly for a child who's pretty lost himself . . .

A DIRECTOR'S SHOW

"A Christmas Wish" is a short film written and directed by Eduardo Michel Piza with the assistance of cinematographer John Rosario, and I think the strength of the lighting and the visuals will be the first thing you will notice when you watch this picture.

Clearly, Piza knows the language of cinema is visual expression, and he harnesses it very well here because his style is mature and assured, with smooth camera movement.  He's got a good handle on timing without letting a scene run too long, but letting it hang in the air for effect before allowing a transition to move on to the next shot.

It's really an impressive achievement, particularly considering some of the exterior shots we have -- there's a considerably usage of shadows and blurring, and a depth of field you simply don't see in every short film being produced today.  It helps take the screenplay to a whole other level.
And speaking of the screenplay . . .

IT'S NOT YOUR PLACE

The script tells a story that is profoundly sad -- a realistic drama about a family rocked by divorce and a child struggling to make sense of it all and failing miserably.  Throughout, the mother and father make it clear that the child is a member of this family unit, and yet he has no say in whether it stays together or it shatters into pieces.

It's an image that many, many people can relate to and a very honest one.  Childhood is one of the most powerless periods of our lives, which I think is also why it is one of the most painful for many of us, as well.  We have to suffer, and we have no choice but to suffer.

And suffer we do.  To complain about it, or to suggest that it ought to be otherwise, is simply not our place.

FINALE

So there's a considerable depth to the screenplay, and the actors are all up to the task of bringing it into reality.  The only problem is that the film doesn't end so much as it stops -- the big climax of the picture should be the confrontation the mother mentions, but we never get to see it.

I think the intention is to embrace ambiguity, but for this reviewer anyway it went too far in that direction.  After the dramatic intensity of the rest of the short, I needed to see what happened.

But just by virtue of my saying that tells you that this short film is special, and that you really need to check it out.  It's got good performances, directed well, the pacing's on, and it leaves you wanting more.

That's a pretty darn good review right there.

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 3.5  / 5.  A really good script, but the ending just pulls the rug out and all of a sudden we're done.  I wanted more, I wanted a conclusion!
Directing: 4 / 5.  Very good show by Piza with solid lighting and imagery support from Rosario.
Editing: 4 / 5.  The film has vivid colors courtesy of editor/colorist Aashish Mayur Shah, and not only that but the pacing is perfect.
Sound/Music: 5 / 5.  The score here by Juan Carlos Enriquez is really something to behold.  It's beautiful, heartfelt and fully realized music performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra as conducted by Adam Klemens.  Now that's something we don't often see here at Forest City Short Film Review!  On top of that, the sound design, also by editor/colorist Shah, is top notch and all the dialogue is professionally recorded.
Acting: 3.5 / 5.  Solid performances for the most part, with particular praise going to Ramirez and Roumain.  Matt Back has a tendency to look surprised with every line.  Not a bad performance necessarily, but could've been better.

Final Grade: 4 / 5.

Don't forget to check out "A Christmas Wish" when it completes its festival circuit and follow the creators on Facebook!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Naughty Minded "Textual Relationship" Talks Love & Sex in the 21st Century . . . With a Phone?

"TEXTUAL RELATIONSHIP" (2015)
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Length- 14:26
Company:  Pixelform Studios

* This film contains male nudity and frank depictions of sexual activity that are only suitable for mature audiences.  This film would probably be rated "R" if it were submitted to the MPAA.

Dating in the 21st Century isn't easy for anyone, but it's difficult in particular for people like DarkDemon92 (David Frias-Robles) and UniqueTalent_33 (Sarah Langrish-Smith), who are socially awkward to begin with and only able to communicate effectively behind the safety of a cell phone screen.

So when things start going really well, and they take their relationship into the real world and even move in together, things start to get amusing . . . and more than a little wrong!

OH SO DIRTY

"Textual Relationship", written by Tom Glover and director Syd Heather and based upon Glover's play of the same name, is similar in some ways to "@Social #Connection", which we reviewed last month.  But whereas that film took a cute, touching direction, Heather's film tacks for more gritty and explicit 40 Year Old Virgin territory.

Which, anyone who's ever seen 40 Year Old Virgin knows that just because you have naughty stuff in a film, it does not exclude a sense of pathos.  The movie as a whole is funny, and yet sad -- we have two people who are stunted as human beings.  They have online chemistry, they want it to work, and yet it's just not clicking and they have to struggle just to understand each other.

Which leads me to my main complaint about the film: there's no real closure for the characters.  How will they proceed in the future?  No answers are provided, the story just ends with each character remaining exactly the same as they were at the beginning.

It keeps the emotional effect at bay because we see that obviously neither of them have learned anything.

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 2.5 / 5.  While funny, the film does seem a bit overly "adult" at times, with one scene seeming particularly gratuitous.
Directing: 3 / 5.  Heather captures the action with a variety of different shots.  I enjoyed the "online sex" montage, that was quite funny.
Editing: 4 / 5.  Well realized visual effects help present cell phone talking and texting onscreen.  The pacing isn't bad despite the fact that there's really not that much action going on in the film.
Sound/Music: 3.5 / 5.  I liked the score from composer Richard D. Taylor.  It's reminiscent of TV's "The Office".
Acting: 4 / 5.  Frias-Robles and Langrish-Smith both do admirable jobs of being likeable and yet unapproachable, hurt and arrogant in their characters' assumptions of relationships.  

Final Grade: 3.4 / 5. 

Don't forget to check out the trailer for "Textual Relationship" at Syd Heather's official Tumblr page, the film's Facebook page and while you're there, follow the creators too!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Twist of Real Life: Short Film Dramedy "Total Performance" Draws Human Laughs Out Of Loneliness

"TOTAL PERFORMANCE" (2015)
Genre: Dramedy
Length- 17:15
Company:  Cross River Pictures

Cori (Tory Berner) is an actress, but showbiz is a tough gig so until stardom comes calling she pays her dues by working for Total Performance.  She still uses her acting skills, but instead of being in front of a camera, she's in front of customers, and instead of doing it for the art, she's basically role-playing with these individuals to help them talk their way out of difficult spots in their own troubled relationships.

It's a whacky way to earn a living, but hey, a girl's gotta eat.  But try explaining it to that cute guy you're trying to impress on your first date.  Especially when that cute guy is Tim (Steven Conroy), who seems to have it all together and you really like him.

And well, that's just the beginning -- 'cuz life's never easy for an actress.

COMEDY, DRAMEDY

Writer/director Sean Meehan's been featured here on Forest City Short Film Review for "Mallas, MA" and "Over Coffee", but this time around instead of a paranormal comedy we have something a little more grounded: a zany comic drama with a really wild story about people trapped in their lives, unable to so much as speak about what might improve it, or what it would take for them to become happy.

While the pacing might be a little slow at times, the coloring looks cinematic and the scenes transition well from one to the next.  Visually the picture might not be stunning but it does what it has to do to tell the story, which might not sound like much, but for a drama I much prefer that than being smothered with fancy camera tricks or odd angles.

I FEEL A LITTLE WEIRD

I don't want to say too much about "Total Performance" because you really should watch it yourself to appreciate what I'm saying, but we have themes of personal freedom, time, and love and trust all being stripped away slowly until our characters become more and more insular.  It all boils down to a final conflict between three characters in particular, and where Cori finds herself at the finale, it's pretty affecting.

All in all, "Total Performance" is the best short film I've seen by far from Meehan.  I much appreciated the strong characters and the surprising depth from what could have been just another off-the-wall comedy.

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 4 / 5.  Depth, characters you can care about and about whom Meehan pulls no punches -- they do good and bad things, just like real people.  The finale was pitch perfect.
Directing: 3 / 5.  Meehan's directing keeps the story moving.
Editing: 3 / 5.  Pacing issues aside, it never drags.  The film looks good thanks to colorist Rob Bessette.  Meehan also handled editing duties.
Sound/Music: 3.5 / 5.   Composer Cesar Suarez's score goes from playful to introspective and dark at times with incredible fluidity.  The dialogue and sound effects are recorded at a professional level.
Acting: 4 / 5.  "Total Performance" is extremely well acted across the board.  Berner is so darn likeable and a pleasure to watch as our lead, Cori, and Conroy is effective in his part.  Caitlyn Berger as Annie and Anthony Rainville as Rafi are also notable for their small roles.  Timothy J. Cox also appears as Walter, and as always he puts on a good show.

Final Grade: 3.5 / 5.

Don't forget to check out "Total Performance" and follow the creators on Facebook!

Once you're done watching "Total Performance", check out "Mallas, MA" from Sean Meehan right here and "Over Coffee" over at this link!

Monday, February 1, 2016

A Question of Betrayal: Amazing Acting Propels Writer/Director Debra Markowitz's Thriller "By Blood"!

"BY BLOOD" (2016)
Genre: Thriller
Length- 14:11
Company:  Intention Films / Halsey Films

Ex-boxer Vincent (Russ Camarda) mourns the loss of Tricia (Diana Durango), his late wife.  Even with the support of his brother Jimmy (Joseph Halsey) and the rest of his tightly knit family, he's barely holding himself together.

But it's after Tricia's funeral, when he discovers a most incriminating piece of evidence, that things really start to fall apart . . .

YOU FLAGGIN' ME, GUS?

"By Blood" is the latest short film coming to us from up and coming writer/director Debra Markowitz.  You might remember her as being the captain behind such shorts as "Leaving" and "The Last Taxi Driver" -- both fantasy driven but finely acted works with a pretty hefty central theme.  "By Blood" takes a more realistic approach, but again asks how we can reconcile the past when we are again and again hit with tragedies in the present.

In that regard, Markowitz and company have really hit a home run here.  "By Blood" is emotional, breathtaking in its simplicity and yet some of the dialogue resonates so deeply ("I think that's what happens when you're happy").  To this reviewer's eyes and ears, this is the best and most completely realized short from Intention Films yet.

My only real complaint with the film as a whole was the finale, which was too rushed and obvious considering how deliberate the rest of the film felt.  The showdown, in particular, was too one-sided and didn't quite feel realistic to me.

KNOWING ONE'S ROLE

Markowitz isn't the only individual we've seen before on Forest City Short Film Review.  Joseph Halsey starred in "Junkie Heaven", in Markowitz's own "Leaving" and he directed "Choice: 'Mother'", which we reviewed last month.  But in "By Blood", he returns as producer and actor, and he really shines opposite Camarda.

They work incredibly well together and develop an honest chemistry as siblings.  You get a sense of the history between them which is never overtly spoken, but you can feel it just by the way they look at one another, and they way they talk.  They're both incredibly talented, and it is in no small part due to their talents that this film succeeds.

Visually, the film is more subdued than Markowitz's previous outings.  As a drama, there's a certain limit to what you're going to be able to pull off.  Whereas there was a certain . . . almost romantic sensibility to "Leaving", for instance, with how beautiful the natural surroundings became, here we're limited to a couple of locations and they're all pretty mundane.  Even so, she tells the story and does so in a pleasant enough way.

The only time where she brought her visually poetic style to bear was in that final shot -- the picture of the deceased wife looking over the shoulder of a certain character.  Now THAT was a truly inspired bit of filmmaking, a beautiful moment visually and thematically and I loved it.

OVERALL SCORES:

Writing: 3.5 / 5.  Markowitz wrote the script, and it's a smart story and the family drama plays out realistically and feels authentic and immediate.  
Directing: 3.5 / 5.  That last shot hits hard, and the rest of the film looks good and moves the story.
Editing: 4 / 5.  Great color correction from Marc Riou.  Robert La Rosa handles the editing, and the whole thing moves fast despite being entirely dialogue driven.
Sound/Music: 3 / 5.  A little shrill at times, but composer Taylor Bradshaw delivers a score that's sinister at the right moments.
Acting: 5 / 5.  Brilliant is the only word that fits this film when you're describing the acting.  Halsey and Camarda are perfect.  Durango does well with her limited screen time.  Jackie Martling has a short peek-a-boo onscreen as the bar owner, Gus.  Even the small roles are delivered well!

Final Grade: 3.8 / 5.

Don't forget to check out the trailer for "By Blood" at Intention Films' website and follow the creators on Facebook!

Have you seen writer/director Debra Markowitz's previous short films, "The Last Taxi Driver" or "Leaving"?  After you've checked those out, you should read our exclusive interview with her right here!

Like Joseph Halsey's acting?  Who doesn't?  Check him out in "Junkie Heaven", "Leaving" (link in paragraph above) and watch his directorial debut in "Choice: 'Mother'" right here!




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!