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Opus Dei (2016)
A Self-contained Story with Effective Themes of Faith and Retribution
Opus Dei, translated from Medieval Latin, literally means 'work of God'. Priests carry out the work of god, but the priest protagonist of this short film takes it to the next level by taking matters into his own hands in this movie that boasts the ability to make a good story solely around compelling dialogue.
To outline the plot would also end up ruining it, as the thriller is only around 7 minutes, discounting the credits. In this time, there are themes of redemption, vigilance, love and the obsessiveness it causes. Before the audience are shown anything, they see a blank screen with ominous music and creepy whispers by children reciting bible verses. This underplays the disturbing elements to come.
The priest, played by Tom Diver, delivers lines with haunting intensity. A policeman, played by Tim C. Hudson, does well with a minor role. They perform in the middle of a blooming field in West Sussex, a beautiful and heavenly backdrop to an otherwise grim plot, brought to you by aptly named production company Suspiric Noir and distributor Terror Visions. Cinematographer Klayton Dean's drawn-out and static takes of a single subject and the beautiful setting leave you to focus on the good writing and acting.
What leaves the most impact, however, is the ending. It smartly contradicts the character's beliefs and shows how lust can manifest itself and take over someone, exemplified again by powerful and analogical Corinthians verses. Audiences will be shocked but also left pondering.
This is director George Najdzien's first credit for any production, and I hope he directs and writes more. His ability to successfully make a story out of a small scenario like this and to turn the film's perceived intentions on its head is an admirable result. Watch this and thank God your local priest is not like him.
A Shadow of Dara (2015)
Clichéd but Fun and Technically Great
The film & TV trope of an everyman being the catalyst for saving humanity has been done countless times. This can result in a run-of-the-mill attempt that fails to stand out in the world of film. However, A Shadow of Dara should stand out in the Sci-fi short film scene, as it flips this trope on its head in ways you do not expect, and gives a healthy dose of steampunk aesthetics and Star Trek-esque action.
A Shadow of Dara follows AJ (Jonny Spurling), a socially awkward office worker who is puzzled one day after his workers ask him weird questions about numbers. He then meets Nátaly (Jo Price), a leader of a rebellion who risks everything to save him from a bleak future: a world on fire, as the tag line implies.
While Spurling plays his awkwardness too much at times, his character adds some humour and structural basis to the short. The supporting cast is decent too. Price is strong as the revolutionary leader, and her team comprised of hacker Daniel (Peter Imms) and survivor Maria (Antonia Reed) are also compelling to watch.
It is no wonder the film is a winner of awards from established international short film circuits such as the Mexico, Nevada, Wordfest Huston Festivals. On a technical aspect, this short should be considered a proud feat. A Shadow of Dara's visual effects are colourful and well-executed, not to mention its vibrant lighting. Its costume design is also a sight-to-behold, with a notable example pertaining to the "Shadows" (the antagonists of the story). They are both conceptually and visually creative and would not be out of place in a high budget Sci-Fi film.
There is another massive positive - the lore. As a result, it feels like a well thought-out and entirely believable short. Characters discuss events occurring in both past and future, races, and their own history - all in the space of around 13 minutes. Heck, the official website even contains a "Behind the Scenes" section, which contains videos of the actors explaining each of their characters' history. By the end, you feel like you know these characters and the history of this fictional universe.
While it may ooze its influences too much (especially from The Matrix), A Shadow of Dara is a low-budget technical marvel that makes you crave a sequel after it wraps up with its open ending. This could maybe become the best short film sci-fi franchise ever. Make it happen, director Kirill Proskura.
Scarlet With Shame (2009)
Bland and Exploitative
Scarlet With Shame begins with a warning: "This film contains strong language and violence". It should also be said that the violence and strong language amounts to very little.
This short film opens with two best friends as they partake in a few rounds of pool and drinking. This is a celebration of Ewan's (Graham Hill) upcoming birthday. But on that same night, an event shapes one of them forever.
Tackling heavy issues, Scarlet With Shame had admirable intentions. That aforementioned event is very disturbing and hard to watch. With its ideals in mind, the film had the potential to be poignant and timely. Alas, this is unfortunately not the way it emerged.
Endaf Eynon Davies as Shane does his best with a shoddy, superfluously swear-ridden script and premise. He portrays a person dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic event with acceptability. Graham Hill as best friend Ewan is also decent. Their chemistry is natural, but these performances ultimately fall flat in the midst of the film's many flaws, one of which especially being the lack of a good narrative.
Some technical aspects are solid enough. Promising cinematography can be found through creative angles, but is let down by dull lighting. The sound production is thorough, but the sounds are not pleasant to hear. Directorial decisions from Raphael Biss are ill-conceived too. In an attempt to be clever, one frame includes a Fight Club-esque, blink-and-you'll-miss-it image that foretells the short's conclusion. And that is another thing - it ends abruptly and unconvincingly, while also turning its chance of conveyance into a hypocritical blur.
Scarlet With Shame should feel shame in and of itself. It represents a serious issue and turns it into a mindless revenge drama that lacks any purpose in the end other than to shock and depress the viewer. Not to say that uneasy topics cannot be tackled meaningfully, but this just exploits it with thematically unjustified violence as horrifying as its subject matter.
The Truants (2016)
Distractingly uneasy but with a Fitting Style
Following the devastatingly hard-hitting Throw Me to the Dogs, promising and visceral director Aaron Dunleavy blesses the short film scene with this equally realistic drama, The Truants.
Alike his previous effort, The Truants is set in Blackburn. It instantly opens on two teenagers escaping from school, who then go on to gallivant around in industrial locales. They then come across an intellectually hapless man, whom is soon victimised.
The cast is comprised of newcomers. Kallum Trueman and Leo Halstead give surprisingly solid performances as they commit to the film's message in motion with superb adlibbing for their young age. A major factor of this film, though, is clearly evident in Jack Hartley's notably believable performance as the outlet of these teens' antisocialism. His vulnerability as a gullible, meek and mentally deficient young man is almost tangible when you see what he is subjected to. I mostly forgot that these were performances, and extra credit is due to Hartley's layered improvisation.
Dunleavy has perhaps solidified his style, for better or worse, but mostly better. Starting with the not-so-good, The Truants adheres to noticeably familiar narrative and themes to Throw Me to the Dogs. However, this can be rectified, as this filmic structure is memorable and well-made. With a stylistic sense that feels both neorealist and Shakespearean, we sense themes of antisocialism and neglect, followed by witnessing actions of bullying and finally tragedy. Malevolent actions and harshly delivered dialogue are mainly what paints the picture for this short. While this might sound like a hard watch, it is, in fact, what make The Truants great.
A synopsis for the film includes "threatening industrial landscape that surrounds them". Referring to the two teenagers, this acts as a juxtaposition to the events in the film. The way I interpret the film is - in this reality - the teens' threatening environment has already accomplished its distasteful influence. They have now become the threat. That landscape has already shaped them into delinquency and violence, just like the "lads" in Throw me to the Dogs. And the lesser man is the target in this unforgiving world they inhabit.
Its beautiful wide shots encompass the notion that harmful environments overtake people's morality and development; its characters and their dialogue are believable enough to feel like you are watching a documentary; and the events of the film will make you occasionally want to look away. These are a couple of factors that makes The Truants a bleak but incredibly realistic and compelling study of antisocialism, neglect, delinquency and bullying. Watch it for uncompromising grittiness.
The Cheese Box (2016)
It is 1950s Ireland, and the Roman Catholic church holds a powerful grip on the country. The results of their influence are felt deeply in this meaningful film. Its deep historical message is sure to resonate with audiences for a while after viewing.
The Cheese Box tells the true story of a man named "Draughty" (Kevin Kiely Jr), directly affected by the powers that be. As a result, he sets off to perform a task most people could not even imagine to be psychologically doable. This involves carrying the titular plot device that is a cheese box.
This short film must be one of the most personal I've ever watched. One aspect of this is the fact that main star Kevin Kiely's grandfather is, in fact, the protagonist Draughty in real life. Secondly, the climax of the film is a prolonged take of that devastatingly unthinkable task. Kiely plays the character with raw emotion during this moment, proceeding with a consistent flow of poignancy seen throughout.
With keen directing from Paddy Murphy, each scene hints at something traumatic, all the while leading up to the plentiful ending. A great sense of melancholy and mourning is conveyed through old-styled songs and the supporting performances. Every character - from the bartender to the wife - share deep expressions that seem to show sympathy and remorse. This adds curiosity to those unfamiliar with the story.
Overall, this well-produced Irish tale is a heartfelt and informing one. With realistic performances, accurate costume design and a memorably moving bit of closure, it is no wonder that The Cheese Box was chosen for the 2016 Cannes Film Festival's Short Film Corner. Forget the unknown premise and take part in the simple but personal journey of a man, a loved one and his cheese box.
Than All Else Ever (2016)
Ambitious Indie with an Immersive Experience
Director Thiyagaraja's Than All Else Ever has a superlative title for a reason. It contains themes of concepts such as love and time, and questions our understanding of the universe. Needless to say, it means a lot to convey in its running time of just under 15 minutes. But does it do it well? We are taken on a journey with a narrator that recounts an anecdote of a space scavenger named David Galloway (Michael Marinaccio). He is tasked with reprimanding a rogue captain as well as retrieving a space pod they stole. Along the way, we see glimpses of Galloway's love life.
Marinaccio's role is well acted and intriguing. He serves as the allegorical and emotional soul of the themes and story. On the other hand, that rogue space captain mentioned is played by the award-winning Eric Roberts (Dark Knight), who completely steals the short in his limited screen time. You truly feel a sense of history and insanity with this Kurtz-esque character, from the grizzled hair to a cynical outlook on destiny and choice.
Than All Else Ever's general idea is that no matter how far we technologically evolve, humanity will still remain determined --- for better or worse --- by its natural tendencies. This idea is furthered through the use of a black and white filter. Adding to this, flickers to the frame are seen. At one point, we even witness one frame roll up as if the film is being shown through an old projector. This artistic choice visually conveys the notion of humanity's tendencies from the past. In the story, qualities and states of mind such as hubris and limerence determine the characters' bittersweet fates. Is free will just a concept? This is one of many philosophical questions posed to the audience.
As you can gather, Than All Else Ever executes these heavy themes well. It has solid acting, an occasional but droningly soothing score and deep thematic depth, achieved profoundly through smart artistic choice. At parts, though, its influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey oozes too evidently, and its effects can sometimes seem amateurish. The inclusion of a narrator does not do many favours either, shoving down the themes in a not-so-subtle way. Still, it is a surprisingly dense bit of short film prowess. Give it a try and contemplate what makes us human.
What Jack Built (2015)
Another example of a Tour De Force by Cox
Rarely do we come across short films where a lone actor carries the whole flow of the picture successfully, but Timothy J. Cox accomplishes that coup with exceptional execution in What Jack Built.
The film follows the titular engineer Jack as he devises and constructs a contraption unbeknownst to the audience. What follows is a purely visual experience, with most of the focus being on Jack gathering and building.
Cox's performance --- as being the case with most of his other turns --- is astounding. He is one of the sole driving forces of this film, and delivers a character that is both oddly compelling and thoughtfully mysterious. Cox manages to portray the character convincingly, adding incredible amounts of nuance. Jack's origins and motives make room for interpretation, which gives a somewhat lasting memory to the character too.
Director Matthew Mahler is the energy that punctuates the tour de force performance. He does this by using editing finesse as well as swift camera movements. Mahler also acts as the composer, crafting an exhilarating electronic score that suits the film's crazy-scientist-styled tone well. He also makes a smart directorial decision by muting out most of the sound that should be resonating, leaving the score to act as the backdrop rather than boring sounds of equipment clunking and machines roaring.
This film is a well made and mysteriously invigorating
I would provide a genre but What Jack Built must be seen to be believed. If someone told me I was going to be entranced by a short film mostly consisting of a man building an unknown device, I would have called them mad. Yet, Cox and crew achieved something unique with undeniable skill. Watch this for a prime example of what can be achieved in a short with just one strong performance.
Mile End (2015)
A Marathon of Insanity
Lauded by the NYC Independent Film Festival by winning "Best Narrative Feature" as well as a decent bit of favourable reviews, Mile End is an unsurely conveyed, but ultimately fascinating, production that interweaves relatable themes with skillful execution that all boils down to a semi-successful character study.
Mile End follows Paul (Alex Humes), a simple and reserved man who questions his competence after suddenly getting fired from his job. Unknowing of the future, he finds solace and self-improvement in marathon running. During one jog, Paul meets John (Mark Arnold), an upbeat and philosophical American man. They both discuss topics such as struggle and employment, and eventually become friends. John's outlook on life revolves around bending the rules, which he follows to a fault.
Humes is decent as an everyman who suddenly gets his life turned around by one person (a trope we should see more). However, notably outshining Humes, Arnold steals the show by giving a performance that demonstrates two sides to his persona. One side is a friendly Jack Lemmon-esque character that simply wants to help, and the other is unexpectedly psychotic. It is impressive to convey a sense of initial likability and then turn that into equal uneasiness for the character. This other persona paves a way for Mile End's shocking tonal transmute that is chilling but sometimes slightly unfitting. I did not presume that a film about marathon running would turn into a psychological thriller, but it does this effectively enough given the unusual running theme.
Production values are crisp and polished in Mile End. Anna Valdez-Hanks shoots the backdrop of East London with care and precision, leaving it to be a reminder of many people's harsh world of unemployment. Ed Scolding sets the score and it undertones the film very well, with credits due to his first attempt at a feature film.
It is a shame, then, that it does not feel like one entity since the indie film tries to establish its chain of events with scattershot pacing and a forgettable script (if you discount the few well-written analogies and expressions about ambition and adversities). A lack of good supporting performances and characters also level it down, but Mile End is an entertaining thriller that provides viewers with enough intelligence to figure out reveals and nuances that even David Fincher would be proud of. Run into this and you will not look back.
The Conjuring 2 (2016)
An Odd Case of well-made Hollywood Horror
Attempts to make horror franchises usually flop in terms of quality. Sequels of classic or modern greats such as Halloween and Paranormal Activity, despite being financially successful, fail to critically impress, unlike their predecessors. This might be because they are retreading the same solidified steps, or that the director had changed from the first. And although director James Wan made a lacklustre attempt at his Insidious sequel, he recaptured the spirit of The Conjuring with its sequel, The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Case.
The Conjuring 2 follows paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) yet again as they set out to help another family plagued by malevolent spirits. This time, the factually based haunting is set in the titular London Borough of Enfield, England.
70's London adds a layer of splendour to the film. Everything from that era is nailed - from the fashion to the old-styled accents. What is also faithful is the case itself and the people involved. Actors were specifically hired to look like their real life counterparts and most of the events from the case are virtually re-enacted from witness descriptions. Even the haunted house and its properties look the same, which makes for a lot of believability for those who are familiar with the story.
By focusing on a case outside the US, the film differentiates itself from the first straight away. However, as is the curse of the horror sequel as previously mentioned, the film retreads many stylistic titbits of Wan's earlier works. One example of this is when a demon points ominously to the desired victim - the same motif used in Insidious. The Conjuring 2's antagonist also looks strikingly similar to 'The Bride in Black' in Insidious, but other than that, Wan uses his one-of-a-kind horror filmmaking skill to craft something that stands out in his filmography.
The tension in the second outing is on par with the original. Wan uses audiences' expectation and paranoia to carefully execute effective scares. There are moments that build to nothing, in the beginning, playing on fears of the dark and of unusual sounds with fantastic lighting. As the events occur, they become increasingly more violent and scarier. Sometimes, though, the film becomes zany and not as believable as the first. Wan once stated that he prefers to leave things to the audience's imagination, but more is revealed in this film. I also have a problem with the amount of CGI as practical effects look more believable.
Wan's experience with The Fast & Furious franchise carries its silver linings here in the form of more energetic cinematography (solidly taken care of by Don Burgess). Camera movements are superb and invigorating, with the tracking shots being a highlight throughout the director's career. He includes them better than ever before, leaving viewers on the edge of their seats as we follow our protagonists through to whatever lies ahead. Joseph Bishara once again helms the score - the scariest aspect of his films. Percussions, strings, and haunting choirs are used to punctuate The Conjuring 2's disturbing imagery to maximum shock and discomfort. I do not know if I would be scared at all if this unbearably frightening score was not included.
Farmiga is the star of the show here and Wilson holds his own too. I am glad the Warrens continue to develop, as they are becoming even more empathetic and compelling this time around. Most importantly, they actually seem quite vulnerable. In the finale, you feel like anything could happen to these characters, which I personally found exciting.
While The Conjuring 2 cannot compete with its predecessor's subtlety and innovation, it serves as the cherry on top to James Wan's title: this generation's most consistent horror director. See it for some of the best thrills of the year
Watch Over Us (2015)
An Overly Familiar Setup but with Moments of Genuinely Creepy Atmosphere
Watch Over Us'. A title suitably conceived, serving as a hint at an integral plot point and reveal that will strike viewers with not just shock but also bafflement. These reactions could be mentioned when discussing the whole film's story and narrative, and those invoked emotions are not necessarily the best effects the film could have had.
This horror/drama triggers its story by focusing on a family struggling to cope after a break-up. Jon (Daniel Link) alongside his two daughters Becca (Elly Schafer) and Eliza (Avery Kristin Pohl) decide to stay at their grandfather's secluded home. As Jon seeks out steady employment as well as rejuvenation of his love life by attempting a few blind dates, his daughters start claiming to hear creepy sounds emerging from around the farm, but especially from within the barn. This plot soon serves as a parallel of Jon's decisions in life and the general question of "do the ends justify the means", making the film a bit more meaningful.
Firstly, horror stories with haunted structures are an unforgivably clichéd trope. Watch Over Us' narrative screams the notion of the characters discovering something nefarious in the barn from the first sound of the eerie noises. Maybe it is because the Horror genre is mostly comprised of predictable narratives and unsatisfying antagonists and maybe that is because there is not much room for variety with all that has already been accomplished, but the story did not intrigue me due to a sense of predictability.
What I was really invested in was the dramatic part of the first half. Link's portrayal of the inadvertently selfish but sometimes humorous Jon is believable and even sympathetic. I believe his character would have been more realised and suitable in a full-on drama or comedy, as well as this part of the plot. The indie film's themes of ramifications might have also been served better in a more character-driven film, but the drift in the story keeps the characters developmentally trapped.
That plot reveal in question also nonsensically descends the film into that category of undistinguished horror, but some credit is due to the factors of what was achieved despite its low budget and unknown actors. Most of the actors - amid a tad of melodrama from a few others - play their parts solidly, with the daughters played by Schafer and Pohl, and the earlier mentioned Link, being promising highlights.
Production values are up to a high standard. Lighting is very well done, and a couple of scenes even incorporate a rare and stylish method to further emphasise the mood - colour-changing filters. I had not witnessed something like this since an early cinema flick, making the atmosphere and style even more memorable. Its cinematography is often safe but sometimes shines in striking aerial shots that solidify the dread of the location and situation.
Watch Over Us also gets more merit for managing to not manifest its riskier indie horror constituents by remembering a rule that the best horror films follow: "less is better". In turn, it accomplished a scarier and haunting villain.
All in all, Watch Over Us is a safe but flawed indie film that tries to be serious about its overly familiar set-up, albeit with unfortunate execution. This is decently rectified in hindsight by the satisfying inclusions and implementations of odd jokes, great aerial shots, unusual filters and mostly tolerable performances. Enter director's F.C. Rabbath's creation with the expectations of your typical horror flick and you will enjoy it for what it is.