To Be Alone (2017): Cold Grief (Review)

Timothy J CoxWritten and directed by Matthew Mahler, To Be Alone charts William (played by Timothy J. Cox) as he deals with grief in a cold environment. Mahler takes the audience through a short journey with the disturbed, and recent, widower, and uses a number of settings to show just what has happened here.

William’s wife is upstairs in the bedroom, lifeless under the bedsheets, and he spends his time watching television evangelical programs when he is not constructing something in the back garden. Clearly the man is grieving but struggling to deal with the reality of the situation.

Mahler plants a number of messages in is film. To Be Alone works on a number of levels. Its imagery implies suicide, check out the line on the woman’s arm and the noose at the end of William’s rope, and the opulence of the kitchen.

His theme seems to suggest that material things cannot make us happy or give us the ability to cope. The voice over preaching of the church lady, who really does sound like Dana Carvey’s SNL creation, implies that grasping at conventional religion is not the answer.  William does take some of the “gospel” in but he alters it to fit his needs.

Timothy J. Cox makes the most of his silent portrayal of a man attempting to cope with unexpected death and the devastating time spent alone  after the event.  Watching TV and eating, almost automatically, is only part of the emotional response and Cox manages to snap out of his robotic trance in a manner that convinces.

There are many questions generated by Mahler’s coldly shot film. Why did Mary kill herself?  Did she, in fact, commit suicide?  William is clearly upset about the death, but did he orchestrate it? Is this the reason behind the “ornate” cross in the back garden?

To Be Alone is a 4 star film that looks at death, survivors and the grieving process without a lot of dialogue. The film moves forward with external inputs: the church lady, the sheriff’s phone calls, and William’s silent journey to complete his ceremony.

Repeated viewing of the film reveals more details and raises more questions. It is an interesting offering that prompts the viewer to think about the events unfolding.


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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I Baked Him a Cake (2016): Short and Disturbing Horror (Review)

All images courtesy of Samantha Kolesnik

Written by Samantha Kolesnik (proving that “The Price of Bones” was not a fluke at all) and directed by  Vanessa Ionta Wright (who killed with her Stephen King adaptation  of “Rainy Season“) I Baked Him a Cake is a gloriously dark and foreboding bit of short horror cinema that catches the viewer’s interest and holds it throughout.

Starring Fleece as the mother and Lillian Gray (in her third role as an actress) as Lenora, the film does not bode well for the kid’s father, apparently, as the girl’s mum busily tidies up as Lenora bakes her dad a birthday cake. 

From the start, where the youngster goes into a bathroom that looks more like an abattoir,  we are aware that there is much more going on here than just a domestic spat gone wrong. Underneath the stern and somewhat unloving exterior of the mother, there seem to be control issues.

When Lenora wants to use the toilet, mum is reluctant to leave the room. The child remonstrates with her parent and the way she delivers the line seems to indicate that this is a longstanding problem. Just this scene alone brings up all sorts of questions about the relationship between these two.

Before the girl bakes the cake, Mother is industriously cutting up body parts and the shadow work in the one scene is brilliantly macabre. (There is also a touch of dark comedy in this particular shot, with a stubborn bone having to be snapped in two…)

Fleece manages to really disturb as the murderous mum who is not overly loving toward her child nor, apparently, her husband. Gray gives the concerned child she plays a depth that, combined with Fleece’s performance, also leads the audience to wonder what the real story is behind the missing father issue.

At seven minutes,  Kolesnik and Wright pack a lot of nuance and disturbing imagery into a very short time to brilliant effect. We almost begin to fear for little Lenora before the movie finishes as we also question just what really happened to daddy?

There is no clear implication that Mother did the dad in. She just sets about cleaning up a very bloody mess and at one point hands Lenora a black plastic bag full of what we know to be filled with viscous objects from mummy’s “work.” Once again there is that disconcerting feeling that there is much more going on here.

The cinematography by Henrik A. Meyer is crisp and dark. The camera zeroes in on Mother’s face and we see, with his focus on her un-wielding features, that this “working mother” is a very cold fish.

By the end of the film we are more worried for Lenora than we are for “Daddy” and the result is an unsettling experience that titillates and leaves the viewer asking questions about what is really happening here.

I Baked Him a Cake is a solid four star film. The juxtaposition of the child making a cake and her mother cleaning up a homicidal mess is a fascinating one and also adds much to the mystery of how these two female characters really get on.

Kolesnik and Wright make a brilliant team here and one hopes that they produce more films together in the immediate future.

I Baked Him a Cake Teaser from Vanessa Ionta Wright on Vimeo.

Psychic Murder (2017): Faustian Twist (Review)

All images courtesy of Timothy J. Cox

Directed and written by Brandon Block (taken from the short story “Ghost” by Maxwell Gontarek) Psychic Murder has a distinct Faustian twist that leaves the viewer convinced that this will all end in tears. Ruthless agent Mickey Goldsmith (played coldly, and somewhat nastily, by Timothy J. Cox) zeroes in on the comic with three fingers on each hand; Billy (Will Bernish) and offers to represent him.

While there is that Faust flavour to the proceeds, the feeling is one of impending disaster. Billy, who is bombing when he first appears on stage, does somewhat better when he references his “defect.” This approach garners the young man more laughs but one feels that the cold audience is laughing at the novice stand-up and not with him.

Block and his cinematographer Bethany Michalski, along with production designer Danielle Naassana, opt to make the proceedings feel shady and slightly unpleasant. Mixing the sound (Corey Johnson) with an overblown decibel level and a somewhat sinister sounding crowd track combines with the seedy appearance and increases the unease factor exponentially.

Taking Billy’s rather inept attempt at comedy and showing us a crowd who clearly are not entertained or amused until Mickey’s table begin to react puts the agent in as devil’s advocate as well as, perhaps, an interlude to Billy’s journey to join the damned.

Cox kills it with those snide and cutting remarks about his previous client and that cold yet penetrating stare he uses to pin the new comic down like a bug on a bit of cardboard. There is clearly no mercy to be had here and Mickey tells his potential client that, in reality, he will do nothing to advance his career.

Despite this, and Puma (Tatiana Ford in her first role) trying her best to warn the lad off, Billy seems determined to take the menacing, and downright unpleasant, agent on as his representation. 

This is after Mickey tells Billy about his previous client Adrian Mann (Matt Moores) – an equally unfunny comic that Puma took a fancy to. Goldsmith tells Billy that he destroyed Mann’s career because his lady opted to love the hapless performer. However, one gets the feeling that Puma was just the bait used for Goldsmith’s trap. He clearly goes after the less talented stand-up artists.

There are things that jar with this short drama. The hands of Billy, for example, look cartoonish. (So much so that one expects some reference to it.) This could well be an allegory for the whole scenario, however, with the fake looking three-fingered hands representing the falseness of Goldsmith’s offer.

All images courtesy of Timothy J. Cox
Billy, wannabe stand-up comic

The sound, which is overly loud in several places, intrudes at the beginning but, once again, this appears to be on purpose. Block opts to allow the background music to drown out Mickey’s first few words to Billy. The emphasizes the bewilderment of the novice performer and his nervousness after his stressful set.

Psychic Murder is lit with a bit of soft, yet harsh, saturation that also adds to the allusion that Billy is not just desperate to be a stand-up comic but he also sees this as his salvation, no matter how unrealistic it feels.

Clearly Block and Gontarek have had some shared experience with the hard to please crowd of the stand-up set. It is a harsh world where the comic has to be good, or at least have the audience on his or her side, to survive. If the performer is off, or not up to the task, the comedy crowd audience can be brutal.

Regardless of whether the writers and the director have personally experienced this world, they have given us a dour, and somewhat unsettling, look at the world of live entertainment. Mickey and his right-hand lady represent all that is wrong with this world and the film gives us a vision of decadence and cruel that is upsetting.

Psychic Murder is a solid 4 star film. It entertains and, despite those cartoon hands, gives up pause for thought. This one is worth a look, or two, if for no other reason than to see Timothy J. Cox playing the devil incarnate.

All images courtesy of Timothy J. Cox

After Hours (2016): Short, Effective and Spot On (Review)

Bill Oberst Jr.

Written by Adam Weber (This was his first time up as scribe.) and directed by Michael Aguiar (His second stint in the big chair.),  After Hours  stars the prolific Bill Oberst Jr. as a detective investigating the murder of a young girl in what appears to be a thrift store. 

The young lady is working after hours and once the lights go off, before she can leave the shop, it seems that she is not alone. When she goes to investigate, things take a tragic and deadly turn.

Detective Harris arrives to find that the girl he questioned earlier in another case has been brutally murdered in the store’s elevator. As he searches for clues, the killer stays busy.

After Hours proves how effective camera work, spot on lighting and some on point suspense, via sound, can take a short film and really make it shine. Cinematographer William Schweikert gives us crisp images, even in the darkened shop, that focuses on the events without distraction.

The FX in the film pack a satisfying wallop that is just this side of brilliant. (Keep an eye out for it and see if you do not agree that it is more than effective.)

The lighting is used to set things up, as is the soundtrack itself, and Aguiar, who edited the film, puts it all together flawlessly.  The end result is a thriller cum horror film that delivers its punch very nicely.

Bill Oberst Jr. has over 164 credits under his belt and the actor brings a stamp of truth and authority to whatever role he plays. In this film, his portrayal of the detective with drive and a keen attention to detail makes the ending come across brilliantly.

Gabriel Lee, as Detective Cordova, projects a sense of realism in the few seconds he has on screen and Tracy Decresie screams the place down very convincingly. 

Aguiar pulls us in nicely and moves the tale along at a solid pace. This short horror thriller manages to deliver a one-two punch that surprises as much as it pleases. The build up to pay off is expertly done, so much so that even with a repeated viewing or two, the essence is still there.  Watching the film several times also allows the viewer a chance to catch all the clever nuances that Michael has “hidden” in the movie.

The director recommends watching After Hours “in a darkened room.” He also suggests wearing earphones to enhance the experience. His advice is sound (pun intended) but watching the film without the tips still entertains and has an impressive scare factor.

After Hours is still on the festival circuit and will, no doubt, garner some excellent reviews from horror fans and critics alike. Film’s like these are what the short film category was invented for. Succinct, punchy and clever this film earns a full 5 stars for effectiveness and an O. Henry flavour that delights.

Have a look at the trailer for a taste of this nigh-on perfect offering: