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Heart of Now (2010)
The bottom lineI don't feel good about what happened
Very near the beginning of Heart of Now, a young girl, Monica (Mary Elise Hayden), makes the quasi-pithy, half-serious/half-joking statement that all women need a man who will give them 'loads of intensity and massive support'. Couldn't this observation expand further to blanket all of humanity, though? Don't we all need that mix of feeling and security to go about our daily lives with meaning? Well, if we are to use Zak Forsman's lead Amber (Marion Kerr) as an exemplification for us allyes, we do. Hers is a girl who appears to have everything figured out when we're introduced. Pretty, healthy, and active, Amber knows how to have a good time with her friends and beau Tobey (Jason L. Brandt), seeming to balance all facets of life in a way that gives the revelation of pregnancy in the first scene an incalculable sense of excitement and joy. This is the start of the next chapter in her life, one with all the people she loves and a family on the horizon. What we cannot expect, however, is that a short five or so minutes later, this turning of the page becomes much bleaker than originally guessed.
Two scenes into the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival screening of Heart of Now and we've already been whipped through the emotional roller-coaster, basking in a young woman's glow, pulsating to her celebratory, red-hued dancing within the sounds of Airom Bleicher and Deklun, and eventually devastated by the abrupt exit of Tobey, leaving as Amber sits in stunned silence on the couch, immobile to the blur of impossibility moving before her. There is nothing she can do, a last ditch effort to beg and plead leaving her with a shove to the ground, her happiness driving away down the road. So, here she is, pregnant, alone, and without a place to stay. Her friends are there for support as Monica attempts to suggest an abortion so she can move on to forget the jerk while Edwin (Dusty Song) looks to console by taking her out for some much needed fun. Amber needs anything at her disposal to take her mind off of the hard choices she faces, a steady stream of phone calls to Tobey shedding light on her inability to cope and yearning for companionship.
There is really only one person she can truly turn to, though, someone who disappeared without so much as a goodbye years earlier, yet who once gave her the love and respect of a father. It's a hard call to make, but one that her soul needs to cleanse it of all the guilt, pain, and memories of always being left behind that plague her, risking a total descent into oblivion. Gabe (Kelly McCracken) can be her savior, he can be her knight in shining armor, but the question soon expands to what she can be for him. A closed-off introvert who wanders through Los Angeles's surrounding nature filming, his welcoming of Amber after over ten years of absence feels like more of a business arrangement than an expression of kindness. With machine-line precision, he tells her where the rooms of his apartment are, that she can set up in the living room, and how fickle his lock is. Any questions by her are met with silent dismissalhe is the one speaking, these are the rules. Gabe tries to keep his distance, telling himself he doesn't owe this girl anything, but the simple fact he invites her in proves he doesn't believe it.
Their relationship is soon exposed and we begin to understand how they havealthough separated by many years of agecome to know each other. Concepts of love, family, loss, and regret crop up to add an even heavier sense of emotional turmoil to the mix. Amber doesn't know what it is like to be alone and Gabe has no desire to give up his love of isolation. But the two have been connected somehow, the fates have brought them back together to reconcile and move on even though they both thought they already had. The unspoken tension between them is palpable and the closely framed compositions refuse escape from the performers' highly emotive facesstrained in pain, contorted in suffering, and forever in need of even a glimpse of hope. Details of their lives are uncovered that infer on their current situations like her sense of not letting go and his of never holding tight enough. She can't see that her ex only starts calling her again to satisfy his sexual needs, not any desire to be with her, and he is blind to his 'sort of' girlfriend's inability to suffer through his cold detachment.
They are who they are because of where they've been and much of that stems from a previous life lived together. Talking to Amber would only open up old wounds that Gabe isn't ready to face. She must take extensive measures to chip away at his defenses, leaving recorded messages for him to know that she cares, despite all that happened. Heart of Now is a gradual build to its eventual payoff; its cathartic climax will leave you devastated by Kerr and McCracken's subtly brilliant performances, their explosion of pain long left buried making way for a chance at redemption in a world often appearing to lack such possibility. Forsman writes a couple exchanges that leap off the page and out these actors' mouths with the type of intensity and longing for safety Monica described. He makes sure we become claustrophobic with their expressions until juxtaposing them against the wide-open expanse of desert at the endmaking them seem more alone and vulnerable than ever before. So much is also said in the silence, their story existing on more than words and their future lying in wait to once and for all be taken without regret.
White Knuckles (2010)
Why don't you give me something to be joyful about?
Love can seem so easy from the outside. Two people: completely enamored with each other, their smiles easy, serene, and unmistakably genuine. But we forget that behind each joyful façade lurks the reality of who we are. A relationship takes work and the longer it spans the more care is necessary to keep it viable. Sometimes, no matter what others see, the stuff that goes on behind closed doors is a tumultuous storm of emotion, repression, and isolation. We clench our fists for so long, pushing back the anger and frustration as patience hangs by a thread, that the release doesn't end in a kiss, but volatility. We begin to erase possibilities with each passing second taking us farther from where we were the day, month, decade before. White Knuckles shows us this state, a marriage all but lostone looking for a calm long since forgotten.
Writer/director Kevin K. Shah pulls us into the world of Julie (Martie Ashworth) and William (Larry Strauss), a couple we believe we have seen many times in our own lives. Seniors in their Golden Years, the two have very disparate ideas on what constitutes a good day. She yearns for life, digging in her gardens and breathing love into each and every plant; he seeks routine, sleeping in late, watching football, eating his wife's food, and turning off the light to do it all again. But their clash is a symbiotic one, the cause of the rift in this union impossible to find. His depression and unhidden anguish at life making her miserable, her inability to keep that frustration under wraps making him depressed. And so the future of Julie and William loses its shine day by day.
A past trip to the Rocky Mountains, remembered fondly by both, begins to serve as a physical manifestation of their lovea last ditch goal who's achievement will show success. Thus Shah introduces us to trees, a haunting score at their backs, their natural beauty a glimpse of what should be. Whether the bare branches of a forest against the sky or the rolling hills of a hiker's dream from above, this is the promise of love everlasting. And it's all threatened as the film goes on to show just how far this couple has fallen into the depths pure revulsion. These vignettes of trees begin to speed up, the music quickeningthe beauty of life about to be consumed by fire. The spark has been lit and the future is helpless from its own destruction. As Julie and William drift further apart, the flames build higher, all chances for forgiveness, life, and hope resting on the failures of two people too eager to place blame than to acknowledge their own roles in this genocide of love.
It's hard for people to change and when you get to the age of these two leads, the lack of desire to do so only makes it impossible. Life was never easy for this family, but they had an understanding; they had tiny moments of warmth to get them through. This ability to survive, however, only existed because they had space, time to live their lives and come together for a night's dinner. Place all these pieces in a small space for an extended period of time with nowhere to go and an explosion is only natural. Add the fact the husband is struggling to keep his head above water emotionally, the testing of his closet bar's strength alluding to his defeat, and the wife barely able to remove her permanent scowl, the loathing of this man's sloth and ambivalence too much, and you can't say her idea to slowly alleviate the pain by poisoning him is surprising.
But it isn't handled in a comic way or with malicious intent. In fact, Shah somehow allows this heinous act to appear as charity. This is the answer for them bothhe senses her want for him to be gone and she needs his exit to move on with her life. The progression of their fissure soon evolves into an earthquake, the space between them increasing with each action. And while both Ashworth and Strauss aren't household names or faces, they are nothing short of revelatory. Her suffering is always just under the surface while his forfeiture of life is stamped in the watery drooping of his defeated eyes. Every opportunity for him to understand what's happening to their marriage is shot down, his realization she is pushing him away noticeable in every scene, the deflation of body language seen when a smile turns to a frown and even a frown falling further; every grasp at hope for her buried beneath the fear and agony of God's abandonment many years ago.
White Knuckles is a slow burn with an emotionally resonatealbeit expectedoutcome. The visual style seamlessly moves from the trees metaphorically depicting the tempestuous souls at play, routinely shot scenes of character interaction, and extreme close-ups with shallow depth of field disorienting and intriguing in their artistry and carefully chaotic composition. Love is oftentimes depicted as some serendipitous contrivance of fate used as a device to warm audiences' hearts. It's rare to then watch two people with a history together attempt to reconcile the distance grown between them. The mushy, clichéd period of dating is long gone, replaced only by strain. In such a situation, sometimes you must lose everything to once again realize what it was you had. Life kicks you down more times than anyone could ever expect and it is those around you willing to offer a hand that matter. We all have people in our lives we wish ill upon, those we feel we'd be better off without. But instead of blaming God, instead of blaming them, it is most likely ourselves who need to wake-up. Our only solace is in knowing we may be able to do so with enough time to make it count.
Dark, Stunning, and Contemplative
Much like the short films and feature debut of David Lynchhell, throw in his last release Inland Empire tooBelarusian writer/director Grzegorz Cisiecki's Dym is both stunning visually and experimental in its story structure and motives. It begins with a young man, shirtless, moving away from the flowing clouds out his window to the corner table of his desolate room, sitting down and pressing play on the old Sanyo tape recorder in his hands. From here it all goes into the surreal madness the film's tagline foreshadows, showing vignettes of a balding man in a car backseat feeding on something juicy with a hint of humiliation once our lead, now dressed in a trench coat, approaches him; a brothel shrouded in a smoky haze of drugs, anonymity, and sexuality; and the brighter, quieter moments of the nameless gentleman and the woman he loves.
Many may ask the question, "What does it all mean?" And to that I reply, "Anything you want." Cisiecki could very well have made a piece so personal that it touches him at his core, but what its meaning is to him is meaningless to how it affects you. The duration may leave you in a state of utter confusionperhaps even anger at its incomprehensibility or in your own inability to understandbut if just one frame hits you with a powerful blow to your soul, well then the film is a success. For me there were many gorgeous instances burned into my mind, from the mesmerizing beauty of a girl at the end, covering her face with her hands and in turn her hair, sticking in place, seeming to be a shot played back in reverse; the bordello scene of danger and fear on behalf of the lead, with its masks, its brazen edits with malicious intent, and the red-tinted view of a balcony above with the feeding man, this time with hair and a beard, smiling oddly with the girl he's chosen; and the innocent look of the same actor in the car's backseat, the embarrassment of his actions left unpunished.
It is that shame that sticks with me the most in my understanding of the piece. To me, it is a story of the death of love and the tearstained shame of those a broken-hearted soul attempts to capture in order to fill the void left. Here is a man who has lost his soulmate, whether from death, a break-up, or a myriad of other possibilities, that has just awoken from a night of empty passion with a woman he barely knows. Taking his recordercontaining the last remnants of the girl he once spent a day in the park with, lying together, hands clasped, staring at the skyhe tries desperately to remember happier times. But the static we hear play back amidst the haunting score by Aleksandr Poroch and Rashid Brocca, doing their best Badalamenti, mixes together the joys of complete glimpses and the horrors of disjointed darkness from the abyss he has begun to wade in, barely keeping afloat. The surreal moments of blood, sex, and tears are the pain of his soul and his heartthe muscle that I could infer is what the man in the car has been eating, he being the facilitator of his night of carnal pleasure devoid of emotion.
I could be way off baseI almost hope I am so as to take from Dym what is purely mine and mine alone. But this is what I beg anyone who decides to watch to do. Go in with an open mind and discover something about yourself through its visualsthere is no speech for the seven-minute runtimenot for meaning in the pictures themselves. Cisiecki gives us the line that this is "The story of the person who became the captive of surrealistic madness," but perhaps the person he speaks of is you the viewer. All the actors, Grzegorz Golaszewski, Bartlomiej Nowosielski, Oriana Soika, Marta Szumiel, and others, are wonderful, yet, in the end, they are merely vessels for our own demons to inhabit in a story personal to us. The lead is you; the curly haired girl, your love; the new woman, all those that have come and gone, never comparing to the one and only. We all live inside the smoky haze; it's only when it clears that we should ever take pause and take a stand to not let the chance pass us by.
"Rope, Suit, Park, Hang"
The beauty of short films from the comfort of your home is the ability to rewatch them with ease. While I'd love to see everything in the confines of a darkened theatre, the image blown up to an overwhelming size so that the cinematography can engulf you, the under ten minute family of cinema doesn't necessarily lend itself well to those conditions. With so little time to tell its story, the short film must pack in detail upon detail, each frame meticulously composed to show the audience exactly what they need to enter the world and comprehend the actions playing out.
Ian Clay's Rope is no different. A deliberate four-minutes of voice-over juxtaposed with a memorable and affecting score by José Villalobos layered over a man, (played by Jason Britt), in the woodslost and relegated to taking his own lifethis film begs for precise attention. I'll admit, after my first go-round, I appreciated the look of the work, the acting, the music, and the economy of information, but I didn't quite know what was happening. Why is this man 'crushed by the unbearable weight of the way things are' as the plot line shares? What is the significance of needing time to be just right, peering at his watch when the nerves of waiting prove daunting? Don't we all have something to live for?
And then I went back to watch it again. As soon as Britt's voice began to speak, I could feel the click of understanding as my internal switch flipped. Those first moments in his car are crucial to going on the journey to oblivion set forth. It was a phone that drove him to the edge of existence, words over a wire bombarding him in sequence to share the news no one ever prepares to hear. You'll put the pieces together later on when, choked up, Britt recalls something brokenshattered remnants of his life forever gone; love taken without notice, so quickly that the world assumes business will go on as usual. His entire being has been planned out, written, checked, and crossed off his daily planner. Ritualized and exacting. One can deal with a canceled meeting or a forgetful client, but this no one expects an emptiness to rest where once was life.
I'd be doing Clay's well-crafted script a disservice by going into any more detail, risking to ruin the feeling of heartbroken epiphany I discovered in watching the film devoid of preconceptions. His cuts break in staccato with the scorea character in itself, especially with its well timed rests once Britt's mantra is tripped over by the discovery of a visitor watchingand the frame's depth of field keeps what's crucial in focus while leaves or obstacles between remain blurred. There is always an obstruction in the corner, covering a piece of the activity beyond, whether foliage, a tree branch, or the actor's own shoulder and head bent over, hands working with purpose. And Britt himself is fantastic, doing it all with facial expressions, blinking eyes, and twitching cheeks, the voice-over expounding on the actions even though I think it could work silently as well.
Just remember to pay close attention to what's on screen while viewing. Look at the planner for completed tasks or ones that will never be; take notice of the disjointed words, relayed as though in a Beat poem, more coherent and telling than initially assumed; and know what is in focus and what is not. The watch counts down to 10:00, but once it finally arrives, you'll see that while the clock becomes a blur of color, something else has takes over as Britt's main focal point. Hope exists in every second; it's a matter of letting the pain go long enough to see it. Life is all around us.
Copper Penny (2009)
She's the only woman I've ever been with Copper Penny
Some films not only necessitate a second viewing to wrap one's head around the subtle intricacies, but also cause you to beg for the opportunity to watch again. Writer/director Jay Pulk's short film Copper Penny is one of these. Screening at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, I am almost glad I wasn't able to catch it. Had I been able to, I would have been completely distraught at the knowledge I might never have a chance to watch it again with the knowledge only seeing it beforehand can deliver. Being happy I missed it is seriously bestowing my highest praise upon this gem. Thankfully, having made Pulk's acquaintance at the festival, I was able to secure a copy of the film so I could view it on my own time to enjoy and review. Yeah, you guessed it; as soon as those credits began to roll I hit the menu button on my remote and quickly hit play to take the journey again.
Copper Penny is tough to talk about without ruining the well-conceived plot line. Pulk has crafted the film in such a way that the audience only becomes privy to pertinent information at the last possible momentcausing the knowledge to effectively work in the context of what you thought was happening and also subvert it all to reveal underlying facts that make the truth different from what you originally had thought. One could argue its construction is gimmicky and a ruse eliciting a reaction the filmmaker manufactures in us with a double twist, but I disagree with this assessment. The first 'twist' is in fact the end of the story. The film's first moment of full disclosure is the natural progression for what's happening. An unnamed gentleman escorts a female companion into a motel room in order to wrap his head around the shattered mess his life has become. Needing consoling and help in order to reconnect with his wife, the prostitute he has followed can no longer be of assistance since the physical contact he needs is with the woman he loves. The hidden truth of her role in his life becomes the logical and fitting end, hitting you hard before the real twist occurs, bringing every action and word back into your consciousness for a second evaluation.
But the film is more than just it's ending, no matter how effective. Pulk's directorial success is seen with the meticulously framed imagery, angling the camera from the motel bed, oftentimes softening one character's focus while the other becomes the main focal point. Even when both actors (Michele Messmer as the woman and Norm Roth as the man) are seated together, the shallow depth of field is utilizedthis broken man constantly fading away into his ocean of emotions. And their performances show how much exposition and character development can occur from just six-minutes of body language, seemingly inconsequential facts about their lives and motivations for why they are in that room together, and an ability to embody the pain (him) and the empathy (her) necessary to make the culmination of their random meeting so beautifully tragic in its result. Messmer cannot help Roth; she can't get his lifelacking a job and a wife to loveto make sense again. Even so, after you find out who she really is, you'll still ask the question of whether the choice she makes could have ultimately changed things.
Pulk recently told me that he had come up with the idea to expand on these characters and create a film series depicting more of their world. I am both excited and worried about the prospect. The ultimate achievement of Copper Penny is a direct result of the carefully unraveled truth at its core. Knowing everyone's role for sequels, or perhaps prequels as well, not only makes his job of writing more chapters as hard-hitting as this difficult, but also could belittle the original's reveal. That said, I am very interested to see where he goes next and with whom he continues to follow. This piece is a memorable work that deserves each and every festival inclusion it has been receiving. The strength of its story alone gives me faith that if anyone could expand a universe so perfect in its singular encapsulation, Jay Pulk is the one to do it.
The Beneficiary (2008)
Go to bed darling The Beneficiary
You never know who is watching or recording your daily moves. Theodore Mali's The Beneficiary, a short film screened at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, expresses this idea both in its storyline and visual flair. While we watch the characters move along through the days this movie spans, the screen regularly cuts to different surveillance cameras showing another vantage point, recording common activities that seem like nothing, but could be hiding a crime when pieced together. The entire plot hinges on such an electronic record of a seemingly innocuous phone call, a random stranger that was the victim of a mild case of road rage on behalf of a trucker passing him. Little did this man know his call would be the final straw to get the driver fired, causing Roy Vidrow to look up the complainant's number for payback.
From the start, the film gets you somewhat disoriented by throwing you into the action as Julie Ann Emery receives the life insurance policy of her recently deceased husband. The 'eye-in-the-sky' camera on the ceiling records the exchange and leads us into the credit sequence, finishing on what we would assume to be the start of what this beneficiary will do with the money. Instead, however, we are rewound back in time to see how the husband dies and the events leading up to the event. The husband, Roy, (having a volatile disposition coated with a smile like most of John Kapelos' roles), is the kind of guy you may think the world would be better off without. His temper definitely frightens his wife and risks spilling over into abuse if it hasn't before. So, upon losing his job, you aren't surprised to see Emery risk her own paycheck to go through company files and find the person responsible.
The Beneficiary is a dark story of deception, fear, and death. Collateral damage occurs everywhere, weighing on people's conscience whether they tell themselves it was for the greater good or not. No one could anticipate that a phone call complaint would resonate so tragically, bringing a handful of strangers together for the ride. Vidrow's bloodlust for vengeance and having nothing to loseshowing you how much he truly cares for his wife and their future togethersnowballs into one murder and soon the attempt of another. But through it all, you can't help but look at Emery and wonder how she could have prevented everything. It may be Roy's temperament and anger that directly inflicts the horrors on screen, yet when looking back, his wife is definitely not an innocent.
Without mentioning her accidentally retrieving the wrong number at first, or her warning Joe O'Neil, (Matt Shevin, who also wrote the short), that someone was coming for him, Emery was the person that fielded the complaint over the phone. She could have erased it from her memory and saved her husband's job, but she wanted to see him suffer, not to keep the streets safe, but for selfish satisfaction. Therefore, this simple tale of revenge and murder makes way to expose a much deeper sense of naming responsibility. You don't always have to be the one pulling the trigger to actually commit the crime. And to have that level of contemplation for a 15-minute short, one can't help but realize its power and success.
The Teacher (2010)
Maybe a scotch would be better The Teacher
Conquering your fearsI think that is as good a description of what Lisa Ford, (and her son Zack Ford, who co-directed), was looking to express with in her short film The Teacher. Screening at the Buffalo Niagara Film festival, the piece is an interesting mix of reality and fantasy, showing many of the activities for which Hermes is the patron God of. A stand-in for orators and literature, (the teacher), as well as thieves, liars, athletics and sports, (the student); this God arises from the water at the start of the movie to watch how both Marian and Conner interact. It seems at first to just be your run-of-the-mill relationship between teacher and student, especially learned professor and under-achieving kid, until we start to understand exactly where Marian is coming from, and how much more complex her character is.
The first collision between these two occurs during a test in her Classics class. She discovers him cheating and throws him out of the room. Unable to admit his wrongdoing, the boy's knowledge that an F could cause him to be ineligible for the swim team is all that is on his mind. The bitterness clouds his judgment and instead of understanding her side to the problemhow could she let someone get away with blatant deception in front of the rest of the classhe selfishly confronts her with malice, refusing to help as she drops her groceries in the street, even kicking a piece of fruit before he leaves. And this is how so many people live their lives, running around without regard for the others co-existing in close proximity. Marian is so much more than just some teacher collecting a paycheck, uncaring if her students do good or not. She had to fight to go to college against a father that thought it a waste of time and money; she gave up her dreams to travel in order to study and succeed on her own. These days sees a different generation, one of entitlement and laziness.
Full of regret and questioning exactly what she has done with her life, Marian arrives at a bar, spills her troubles to the one person who will listen and decides to give Conner the chance no one gave her. But it's too late at this point. While the kid may forgive her now and be thankfully for her compassion, her help was only relevant if it worked towards his swimming goals. She tries to become a figure that he can trust and lean upon, but he wants nothing of it. So here she is again, worthless to the world and empty from the opportunities she let slip away. Tried and worn downI won't say her character might have been contemplating suicide, maybe just retirementeverything changes when she believes Conner is in danger. Putting her own fears aside, she does the most selfless thing one can do; it's an opportunity to start her life fresh and with purpose, a message sent by Hermes that she receives with open arms.
Ford's film is very lyrical and makes sure to place Joyce Feurring's face (as Marian) as the core image, seeing the defeat in her eyes where so much optimism once resided. The performance is central to the success of the story, pulling off the role of strict teacher at the start while also the compassionate educator who understands the job description more than her contemporaries who only looking at punks like Conner and dismiss them rather than reach out a hand to help. Marian sees so much of her past in this boy; she notices all the promise that made her who she is, only it's trapped within him. Andre Diniz does a wonderful job showing Conner's ambivalence towards the future, that huge chip on his shoulder preventing him from opening his eyes to what really matters. If the end of both their trajectories shows us anything, it's that it is never too late. Whether you were just born or a day away from death, it is up to you to seize the day and make of it what you will, despite any fears or obstacles standing in the way.
BNFF 10: All I can do is drive Cadillac
The eight-minute short film Cadillac, by Nathan Lewinski, is a sentimental portrait of the memory of a man who has left this earth. Beginning without dialogue, an older gentlemen turning on his Caddy while still in the garage, I thought that maybe my cynical mind was playing tricks on me. The first reaction I had to the scene was that this man was committing suicide, especially as the sequence blurs out into black for the next act to begin. Only when I read the press notes in the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival's program was I validated, feeling that Lewinski portrayed the scene exactly as planned instead of thinking I needed to start watching some more uplifting films to shake the ever-present initial interpretations of death and depression I obviously harbor.
Cadillac then becomes the antithesis of a small plot line used in Rain Man. Whereas that Cruise and Hoffman film used a vintage car to stand-in for the love the boys felt they deserveda machine that was shown more compassion than their father's own flesh and bloodthe car in question here is the last visage of a man our lead Bryan cannot easily forget. Once the prologue ends, Bryan Lillis' character arrives at his father's house, (played by Richard Derwald, Forever Young's own Mr. Fitnessshameless plug for the paper I layout every month), entering the garage that houses the car that embodied the man's essence as well as what killed him. Emotions run high and what is first a rough roller coaster of pain and anger towards his father's action soon evolves into acceptance. The only thing left for Bryan is to turn the key and honor the man's life with one more drive.
Shot well and utilizing an intriguingly composed sequence that starts in letterboxed super-widescreen, eventually adjusting to fill the theatre screen's frame, Lewinski definitely has a good handle on making sure to only show exactly what the audience needs to see in the short timeframe on display. His use of focus and cropping in the prologue alludes to the suicide in progress and his ability to let Lillis grieve without the distraction of camera movement or unnecessary flair shows a level of restraint not always seen in this era of quick cuts and kinetic pacing. If there was one aspect that I was unsure of, it was the choice of music. However, while the Beach Boys song used seemed too obvious in its tone, I did grow to accept it as being effective and warranted. It adds to the Cadillac's era and the use of a dreamlike reunion between father and songiving the boy the goodbye he wasn't allowed in reality.
St. Gertrude (2009)
A bitch named Leroy Brown St. Gertrude
By far one of the highlights during my first day at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, Emily Johnson's senior film project for the Savannah College of Art and Design, St. Gertrude, is a gorgeous little film. Right from the beginning, during a sequence that sees a family in mourning, as the grandmother lies dying in bed, you can notice the strong sense of composition and quality of visual aesthetic. The credits then run above a static shot of young Gertrude on the floor of her room, angel wings superimposed onto her back, foreshadowing the conversation about to take place in her Catholic school with a couple of bratty girls asking where her halo is. All angels need a halo, so perhaps Gertrude hasn't done enough good deeds. Let's just say the one taking her juice box under the false pretenses of karmic action doesn't do anything to get her closer to heavenly status.
It is a moment like this that brings St. Gertrude out of the family film tropes it could have easily fallen into. While the moral of the tale is solid and worth being told to the younger generation, the film itself definitely leans more towards adult viewers with its cursing and strip club locale. Gerty wants to do right and earn the halo she desires, but after watching her bus drive away, she begins a journey home that leads to places she really shouldn't be. All those around her are selfish, from the girls at school, the bouncer at Heavena local drag queen strip clubwho is too ambivalent to the world to notice an eight year old entering the establishment, and even Gertrude's own mother, finding it easier to yell over the phone, make racist comments, and blame everyone else but herself, rather than get out there and actively search for her daughter.
Only one person has the kindness and maturity to reach out a helping hand for the girl. The most unlikely of sources, it is Ms. Leroy Brown, the star of Heaven's drag show, dressed as an angel, who finds it in his heart to treat Gerty as an equal. Rather than shatter her dreams of earning her halo, Bryan Anthony's Leroy keeps the ruse going by adapting his own life to the fantasy. When the girl asks how he earned his halo, the response of, "you really don't want to know," hits home with a big laugh as we adults in the audience can imagine what sexual act he might have performed to get the job at Heaven, and therefore the costume, but also because he diverts the conversation without being inappropriate or pandering to the girl. Not only does he keep the possibility of angels existing alive, but even extends the charade to say that Gerty might in fact be a Saintjust as holy and kind as an angel, yet without the need for wings and halos.
Here he is, her real life guardian angel, bolstering her spirits and showing that other people in the world strive to be just as good as she. Again, though, the film itself has another message, one more inline with the gritty, inner city locations and the people who inhabit them. It's the bigotry that still exists in the world with Teresa Arnold-Simmons' portrayal of Gertrude's mother that soon comes to the forefront. She is a woman who's narrow-mindedness is so ingrained within her that no matter how happy she is getting her daughter back, the prejudices cause her to forsake the one person willing to help because of the color of his skin and the sexual ambiguity of his wardrobe. Young Stella Sauers is absolutely transcendent as Gertrude, keeping her sense of innocence throughout the adult situations and scary scenes, but it is the final reaction through the window of her home that resonates the most. Watching the interaction between her mother and Leroy finally tears down the rosy sheen that had filtered her world. You just have to hope the influence of an angel such as he will have more of a lasting effect on the girl's psyche and character than the closed-minded, bitter woman who is her mother.
Now show me yours Teeth
What's the best way to get out from underneath your famous father's shadow? How about write and direct a film about a teenager afflicted with vagina dentata? Yeah, that should do the trick. Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of famed Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, deciding to delve into feature film with the horror/comedy Teeth certainly thought so. It is definitely unlike anything I've ever seen and uniquely original, but that isn't necessarily a good thing. Besides the premise being inventive and the second half of the film eliciting some genuine laughs, I kind of disliked this whole crazy affair. I'm guessing that the acting was intentionally amateurish, but even so, the story itself is weak and under-developed. It might have been effective as a short film, ridding itself of the very laborious first act that crawled along, unsure of whether it wanted to make us laugh, and therefore seeming unintentionally funny rather than purposely subversive. More uncomfortable than anything else, I never knew exactly how to take what was happening on screen until it was almost over.
Lichtenstein seems to want to give us some back-story into the psyche of Dawn O'Keefe, a young woman who has no idea what makes up a normal vagina. Her school system is Puritanical to the point where a huge starred circle covers the necessary diagram to enlighten her on its page of the Health book and it appears that she almost believes her 'affliction' is something all girls go through. Taking a vow, or I should say promise, of celibacy until marriage, it is as if once her plastic red ring is replaced by a golden band, the teeth lying hidden away inside her genitalia will dissolve, allowing her to continue living just like anyone else. Admittedly, the brouhaha surrounding its release in 2007 made me aware of what was actually happening to the lead victim/villainess, so it only took the early flashback of Dawn and soon-to-be stepbrother Brad in a blow-up swimming pool to understand the intricacies of her condition. To then go through forty-five minutes of her being chaste and innocent only made me impatient for the horrors that its billing sold me on. Maybe the exposition is relevant to believe the evolution from naïve schoolgirl to preying mantis, but it doesn't excuse the plodding pacing used to explain it all.
Then there is the very heavy-handed work in pretty much every facet of the work. It could be the fact I was still wondering whether I was supposed to be laughing or not, but the music cues are so cheesy. On the most innocuous moments that only hold a sense of danger because we know what sort of evil lies between Dawn's legs, you will hear a menacing percussive note to inflict a sense of horror film dread. Being inside the joke, however, makes the punctuation more tongue-in-cheek joke than any sort of jarring sense of anticipation. As for visually, we are inundated constantly with the visage of two black smoke pumping nuclear power plant silos in the distance. We get it manthe chemicals and radiation mutated her mother's egg and created the man-eating gene shown very effectively in a fun opening credit sequence. And there is also the unfortunate poor editing transitions. Some are so abrupt you begin to wonder why Lichtenstein even showed the scene before as a few five minute set-pieces do nothing to add to the plot except give one more messed up moment in this demented world.
Once the story gets moving, though, when Dawn finally sees what her weapon can truly accomplish, the laughs become confident and the enjoyment factor increases greatly. It is just a little too late. Jess Weixler is left to languish in mediocrity for the first two-thirds, playing the virgin too over-the-top and very "One Tree Hill" Clean Teen-like, especially being opposite the awkward performance from Hale Appleman as her boyfriend Tobey. When the two are together there is absolutely no sexual tension because their stares and deep breathing and uncertainty overpower any connection. Rather then want the two to be together and see her lash out in fear, we just wait and watch, hoping that she will eventually draw blood. That is why anyone would bother with the film anyway to satisfy their bloodlust in an interesting way they have never seen before. Josh Pais's gynecologist helps bring the story into this genre territory with a hilariously funny moment of karmic beauty for the sexual abuser he is and soon Dawn becomes in control of her bodily actions. This is when Weixler shines, the perfect mix of innocent country girl with an edge of malice and a vengeful heart against the male sex. It is this later work that makes me second-guess what I initially thought was horrible acting at the start.
John Hensley's Brad tries his best to make the beginning tolerable, but even his psychopath can't do it alone. The first victim of Dawn's at such an early age he doesn't remember the incident that scarred his index finger"I think she bit me," is all he can conjure upthe guy's mental instability is fully formed. Adamantly refusing natural intercourse with his girlfriend, we can assume it is due to the deep rooted, subconscious fear of teeth being where they shouldn't be, even though he appears to tell himself that he is saving it for a long awaited chance at his stepsister. Tattooed, pierced, and very funny in his ability to be just plain mean, his comic relief is all that saves the film to eventually reach its stride with monster unleashed. Only then is the fun sustained with Teeth's pure absurdity and much more graphic gore moments than anticipated. You do get to see the aftermaths of Dawn's dentata flourishes, so be prepared. Or just avoid the film completely and hope Lichtenstein's sophomore effort, Happy Tears, fares better.