Undatement Center (2017): Dating Game (Review)

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Written and directed by Chris Esper (The Deja Vuers, Still Life), Undatement Center is a humorous look at the capricious world of modern dating.  It is almost an indictment against the millennial age of computer reliance and the awkwardness of real-life interaction with people we find attractive.

Jack (Trevor Duke) finally decides, after a 12 year break, to get back into the dating game. As befits the modern day man, he opts to join a dating company “Undatement” which is a combination of real world Tinder and speed dating. The poor chap soon realizes that getting back into the dating game requires intensive paperwork, a resume and a draw on his pocket book. 

A spin on the old maxim of kissing a lot of frogs to find a prince, Jack endures a lot of rejection. After some specious and confusing let downs for no apparent reason, he finally decides to take control; at a price. He soon finds that things are not any easier in the driver’s seat and Jack discovers that the early rejection’s came about for a reason.

Esper’s take on the modern world of dating and all the issues surrounding the search for a mate is funny, acerbic and surprising relevant.  Jack’s struggle is amusing and we feel his frustration and underlying fear.

Like most of the prospective candidates in Undatement Center, Jack is afraid of being hurt (again) and yet he continues to look for a special someone to be with. Esper gives us the dating world sans sex, this is not a journey to find a sexual partner but is, instead, a man wanting to find a woman to share things with.

This slightly “old fashioned” take on the dating game is refreshing and it plays well against the frustration of our hero. Jack goes through several stages in his search, after forking out some long green to take charge of his dating quest and at one point he comically dishes out some payback to an earlier “contestant.”

The director’s final message is a simple one and cuts to the heart of the matter. “New and different, is not better.” Jack finds that underneath the surface artifice and “structure” of the Undatement Center’s  controlled dating scenario, it is the human touch that matters most.

We do not doubt that Jack has learned a valuable lesson from his interaction with the business-like candidates he interacts with and Esper ends his tale on a uplifting note. There is some doubt as to how the whole thing will turn out but, like the film’s  humanistic message, we feel that things will move forward at their own pace and not be driven by some superficial agenda set by a company or society.

Trevor Duke gives a fine restrained performance as the man who reluctantly re-enters the dating game. His controlled frustration and confusion fits his character perfectly.

J.D. Achille as Lindsey is also spot on. Apart from being a delight to look at,  her character has an inner confidence and conviction that Achille brings to the fore with a truth that leaves no room for doubt. 

The entire cast bring something to the table in this story of urine samples, multi-page resumes (CV’s) and baffling rejection.

Undatement Center is a 5 star effort that entertains and makes a valid and pertinent social comment on the state of looking for love in this day and age of dating apps and swiping to the left or right. Esper has proven, with his latest effort, that his earlier successes are no fluke and that he can consistently deliver the goods.

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The Deja Vuers (2016): It’s About Time (Review)

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Written by Jason K. Allen and directed by Chris Esper, who also produced the short comedy film, The Deja Vuers is a slice of comedy that feels inspired by The Twilight Zone and is presented with a surreal bit of comedic timing that is oddly satisfying. 

A woman on a park bench, eating a sandwich, is approached by a sloppily dressed and coiffed man who has a “Bill Murray” thing going on.  He tells the sandwich eater that he dreamed about her the night before.

The two talk, he introduces himself as Chuck (Kris Salvi) and her name is Morgan (Christie Devine). He explains his dream and tells Morgan that the only thing different about this “deja vu” incident is her name. (In the dream it was Lulu.)

As the couple talk about what they dislike about one another, more characters drop by. A man from Morgan’s past and another from a dream she had.

Allen and Esper have taken a simple enough premise and spiced it up with a few threads that lead us in other directions. It is funny, clever and each element dovetails nicely to give the eight minute film an amusing ending.

Chris Esper always delivers films that look stunning. In this instance cinematographer Evan Schneider frames each shot perfectly and makes the most of the natural setting. The lighting is quite impressive as shown in the scene where Elias arrives, all brightly lit and nearly jumping off the screen.

The story itself, which could be said to revolve around fruit salad and a slight misunderstanding, is funny and slightly complex.  As things move along, and both Morgan and Chuck realize that, despite his dreaming of Morgan the night before, they have no chemistry whatsoever.

Salvi, with his almost “Murray-ish” approach to the stranger on the bench, is brilliant.  His technique, which is a combination of being self effacing and insulting, is truly funny and the end result comes as no real surprise.

Later, we learn who “Lulu” really is and the film, after its conclusion, gives us another riff on deja vu and time travel. Chris and Allen have managed to cram quite a lot of business into a eight minute time frame and, more importantly, managed to tie all the loose ends together brilliantly.

The fact that the film ends on an unexpected note, or two, adds to the fun. It is not quite an “O. Henry” twist but it is close enough. The Deja Vuers has almost the perfect combination of storytelling and comedic twists.

This is nigh-on perfect and because of this the film earns a solid 4.5 stars. It is clever and provides the viewer with an interesting take on not one but two gags rolled together. These types of movies are what the short film was invented for; quick, funny and clever, this one is a definite winner.

Here is a trailer to the short film. Watch it and see what you think of the subject matter  and the comedy on offer.

Still Life (2012): Crisis of Passion (Review)

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Shot, for the most part, in black and white, Still Life follows Martin (Timothy Bonavita) whose search for perfection causes a crisis of passion. His love of photography is being jeopardized by his self perceived problems and each criticism only adds to his frustration. 

Chris Esper, who wrote, produced and directed the film, gives us a flawed protagonist. Martin is torn between pride and uncertainty about his craft.  At the start of the film he is photographing a solitary flower. He presents it in class for a critique but when Professor Lynch (David Graziano) suggests a different angle was needed Martin is exasperated.  

It is a criticism that will crop up often and each time Martin reacts badly. One woman tells Martin he is talented but he needs to take criticism in the spirit it is given. Later the photographer revisits  his first memory of taking pictures.

Esper chose black and white for his 12 minute drama. The medium beloved by most serious photographic artists. It works well. The starkness and lighting of the film help to convey Martin’s true feelings and his shaken confidence.

Interestingly, the director chooses colour for the memory sequence. Once again there is a reason. The young Martin  is taking pictures with either a  Polaroid or Kodak instant camera (where the photo ejects from the bottom and develops outside the device).  The childhood memory is suffused with an orange tint.

Anyone who took  pictures with either of those cameras will remember that often the finished photograph’s had an orange hue.  This was a lovely touch.

The film shows just how easily passion can be deflated with a crisis of faith.  Martin manages to rethink his personal issues and his childhood passion is rekindled with that memory.

Still Life also shows that art is subjective. One man’s prize may be another’s misstep. “You could have changed the angle” translates to “I would not have used that angle.” In some ways Martin’s annoyance at having this criticism voiced repeatedly is justified.

However like any true artist the photographer refuses to give up.

Bonavita manages to show clear delight when his character is praised for his work. He switches easily into a pouty sulk each time differing opinions are voiced. This works well as it shows his wavering confidence and frustration.

It does eventually serve to rejuvenate his attitude and he continues to practice his craft.

Still Life is a excellent offering that presents the side of artistic passion that is not all glowing praise and taking bows. It is also about  ignoring the “negative” side of criticism and carrying on regardless.

Please Punish Me (2015): Guilty (Review)

David Sackal as Scottie Lee

Please Punish Me is short film best classified as a “dramedy.” Part drama and part comedy it follows Scottie Lee (David Sackal) and his deep dissatisfaction with his job. Not that things are going badly. Scottie has just gotten a huge promotion; make a partner, doing work he detests.

Made from a screenplay written by Rich Camp, based on a story by Tom Paolino, the film looks at the guilt successful people may feel when their jobs are overly rewarding. Directed by Chris Esper, Please Punish Me is a “day in the life of” film.  

There is not time spent on backstory, except for a defining moment at the start of the 14 minute film. Scottie is on his way to work. He pops a banknote into a homeless woman’s coffee cup. The note floats in  the liquid and Lee apologizes. Immediately after a cop rousts the young woman and makes Scottie take his money back.

This scene sets up Scottie Lee for us. He is, overall, a nice chap who wants to be kind to others. At his job, the man is wildly successful and has just been made the youngest partner this firm has ever had. Lee is uncomfortable and sits sketching while waiting to give his “thank you” speech.

A co worker, who sneaks into the supply cupboard to smoke weed, suggests an S&M parlor where they can “help you get right.” The establishment’s name is “Punish Me Palace.” Scottie decides to give it a try.

Once there he meets a novice dominatrix who gives him much more than he bargained  for.

The film shows the  older board members as semi articulate cretins. Puffing big cigars and sounding more like animals than the hierarchy of a company.  Lee clearly hates working here but his success makes it difficult for him to leave.

Scottie wants to be a cartoonist but feels that his lack of practice holds him back. Michelle (Joanna Donofrio), the new dominatrix, talks to Lee and  their encounter proves to be life changing.

The message here is simple; enjoy what you do or work at what you hate for better money. Please Punish Me is presented as comic book/graphic novel; with saturated lighting and framed shots that evoke set pieces. (It also makes one think of the 1970s in terms of textures.)

The actors do well.  Sackal in particular manages to bring a lot to his role. At times he seems to channel his inner Don Adams in an effective comic move that makes his character quite likable.

There are some sound issues. In a few places the score overrides the actors and in others they dialogue is too loud. In both cases the end result is jarring and it interrupts the story.

Please Punish Me is an entertaining film.  The main protagonist is a character we can get behind and empathize with.  His sense of not deserving his success is understandable.  We also feel close to single mother Michelle.

The characters in the S&M parlor are funny.  Their use of stock German accents tickles the funny bone as does the madam’s annoyance at being turned away. Kudos to Mark Carter and Lorrie Bacon for their comedic performances. 

Overall this is a 4 star film. It entertains, despite the odd sound issue, and  the ending has a
“Pretty Woman” feel to it.  A film that has good pacing and an interesting premise that is well worth a look.

The Filmmaker’s Journey: Or What Nobody Tells You About the Industry by Chris Esper

Chris Esper author, director, producer, et al

Chris Esper has written a book for the budding filmmaker, or even novice ones, that is less of a “how to” than a “how to go about it” manual.  Esper has a cumulative total of 107 credits under his belt. These include producer, director, editor and so on.

Chris also has a few channels on YouTube – Stories in Motion and The Filmmaker’s Journey.  Not wanting  to limit his potential audience, Chris took the lessons he has learned from making 24 short films, a number of music videos and other projects and published a book. Titled “The Filmmaker’s Journey: Or What Nobody Tells You About the Industry” is a personal look at his career thus far.

The book has 106 pages that range from just common sense items to things that the new filmmaker may have never considered.  Tales that deal with awkward producers, not being specific enough with a client and whether it is a good idea to have a crew comprised of friends.

“The Filmmaker’s Journey”  is a great introduction to anyone thinking of making films. Using his personal experience Chris explains what goes into so many aspects of short film production and flogging your wares.

Film festival submissions, feedback, gathering your crew, how to make money from your passion, terminology and making films are all covered. Esper touches on his own lessons learned and how to avoid some of the issues he has faced in the past.

Anyone who has worked on short films will recognize the world that Chris paints in his book.  More importantly, the filmmaker shows, through his writing,  the passion that keeps him in the industry and his need to share what he has learned.

The book is not a “how to” guide. The best way to learn to make movies, says Chris, is to get out there and “do it.” Esper relates the little known aspects of the field. Learning how to submit to festivals, providing  an outlet for the budding filmmaker is just one “need to know” item that Chris relates.

On top of passing on his experiences, Esper also includes helpful websites, organizations and filmmaking groups across the country. Books and classes are also listed for the hopeful or budding filmmaker.

This is a wonderful chance for anyone still on the fence about making their first film to see that it is not impossible. There are hints and tips that will take some of the mystery out of producing and directing that first film and more.

He also relates things that, as a filmmaker, he did incorrectly. Chris does not set himself up as an all knowing expert, he is just passing on what he has learned.

Chris Esper’s passion is clear  and makes itself felt in every single page of this book. He wants to see more filmmakers producing content and following their passion. This book is a step toward helping budding artists realize how to go about making their own films.

The Filmmaker’s Journey: Or What Nobody Tells You About the Industry” is available from Amazon, via Kindle or paperback. To get an idea of just what Chris covers in his book, check out the trailer below.

Book cover for The Filmmaker's Journey