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Japanese hostess clubs are a fascinating cultural phenomenon: not quite brothels, they’re bars where groups of men can buy the “hostesses” overpriced drinks. Really, the men are paying for companionship, flirtation, a good listener, and maybe something more. Hostess clubs are a perfect dramatic setting for stories of love mixed with manipulation and deceit; the new film Maki has some bright moments, but it doesn’t do justice to its potential.

Maki’s protagonist, Eva (Naomi Sundberg), has immigrated from Tokyo to New York, and she works at a stateside hostess club frequented by Japanese salarymen who are in the US on business. She came to America because of a guy, and she’s waiting for, well, we’re not sure exactly. She floats through life, drunk and depressed, propped up by Tommy (Julian Cihi), her secret boyfriend and the bartender at the club. The early scenes of their clandestine relationship are directed with a lovely restraint, and they made me excited for what was to come.

“…works at a stateside hostess club frequented by Japanese salarymen who are in the US on business.”

When Eva becomes pregnant, the owner of the host club (played with scenery-chewing villainy by accomplished Japanese actress Mieko Harada) reveals a scheme to sell the child. This sets off the drama in the second half of Maki, which fizzles out to a lackluster payoff. The emotional power that builds in the early scenes of Eva and Tommy gets lost in time jumps, Harada’s “look at me, I’m evil!” monologues along with an overall lack of clear intentions in the storytelling.

One thing that struck me as strange is that the actress who plays Eva, Naomi Sundberg, seems to be mixed-race judging by her appearance and surname. However, the character’s heritage is never explicitly discussed; we see her Japanese father in a Skype conversation, but her mother (who is in the hospital) remains offscreen. At the start of the film, Eva is unable to speak English or integrate at all into American society; by the end of the film, she speaks several lines of English with an American accent. It’s not that the movie needed to revolve around her background, but given the documented “othering” that happens to mixed-race “hāfu” people in Japan, it’s weird not even to bring it up, and the inconsistencies in Eva’s character are more evident as a result. Maybe the idea is to keep her in an in-between state in the viewer’s mind, but the choice to not drop us a line or two of backstory—her mother is from a non-English speaking European country, or her mother spoke no English around the house—made the situation feel strange and unresolved.

“…like its main characters, it’s plagued by indecision.”

Maki spends a lot of time in this kind of unclear territory. It wants us to infer its characters’ interior states, but it doesn’t give us enough to go on. It follows the art-house conventions of subdued psychological realism, but too often the filmmakers haven’t done their homework to define these characters themselves. Some beautiful shots, solid performances, and effective character moments can’t compensate for drama that’s sketched so thin. It’s possible to point at individual scenes and say what characters want in a specific moment, but if you look at the big picture, with the exception of Tommy, they’re all a blur.

For a film that offers a more thorough take on Japanese host and hostess clubs, watch The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief. For a story that examines the issues of surrogate pregnancy and adoption with a lot more nuance, read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, which is getting an HBO adaptation soon. Maki is too threadbare to add to this list; like its main characters, it’s plagued by indecision.

Maki (2018) Written and directed by Naghmeh Shirkhan. Starring Naomi Sundberg, Julian Cihi, Mieko Harada, Yurika Ohno.

5 out of 10 stars

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As Song of Back and Neck opens, Fred (Paul Lieberstein) is slithering out of bed, a bit to our confusion. Why is he crawling room-to-room, brushing his teeth while lying on the floor and eating his cereal horizontally in his kitchen?

Turns out Fred suffers from chronic back and neck pain, a painful combo that makes most daily tasks feel Herculean. He is a paralegal at his father’s firm, often feeling demeaned by his much younger boss (Clark Duke). Fred is tasked with taking notes during client meetings but is struck one day by Regan (Rosemarie DeWitt), a client in need of a divorce attorney, who takes a liking to Fred. Regan suffers from some of the same chronic pain and suggests Fred sees her acupuncturist. Pain is what brings them together, sparking a bit of awkward chemistry that leads to them going on a few dates. Fred and Regan seem to come into each other’s lives at just the right time, finding common ground in a much-needed distraction.

“…Fred suffers from chronic back and neck pain, a painful combo that makes most daily tasks feel Herculean.”

Lieberstein wrote and directed the film, which explores familiar territory without much new insight or reflection. There’s a bit of a surrealist musical element to the movie in an attempt to shake the narrative up a bit, but it all feels more distracting than elevating.

Best known as Toby from TV’s The Office, Lieberstein brings that soft-spoken, world-weary bit to his performance here but unlike the constantly berated HR representative, it’s hard to feel too sorry for Fred. He went to work with his father when he was younger and 25 years later is still working for him, feeling stuck but has no interest in doing anything to help himself. How are we supposed to cheer for a protagonist, who so rarely wants to help himself?

Song of Back and Neck is Liberstein’s first feature outing (he has several television credits, including The Office), and while it’s an amiable effort, there’s not much to grasp onto in his film.

Song of Back and Neck (2018). Directed by Paul Lieberstein. Written by Paul Lieberstein. Starring Paul Lieberstein, Rosemarie DeWitt, Clark Duke.

4 out of 10

SONG OF BACK AND NECK | Official HD Trailer (2018) | PAUL LIEBERSTEIN | Film Threat Trailers - YouTube

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The relationship between creator and spectator, especially as it relates to film and television shows, is an interesting one. After pouring blood, sweat, and tears into a project, it is then released to the public for consumption, and the creator no longer has any control; including how the project will be received. Given the amount of media that gets released, some titles get lost in the mix, others are lambasted upon arrival, and some change the face of popular culture forever.

Since its 1966 premiere, Star Trek has launched an ongoing franchise, with six live-action shows, one animated program, several movies, with current talks to bring a new show forth as well (alongside the currently airing Discovery). It’s official convention, which takes place in Las Vegas, That is quite the impressive feat for a show whose pilot had to be reshot entirely. Then, of course, there’s the ongoing Star Wars saga, with its TV show spinoffs and massive toy sales, it changed the landscape of blockbuster cinema forever.

So, what happens when you want to become more than a spectator in one of these (or a different, yet equally viable) fictional universes? Some people cosplay to become those characters, some write fan fiction to actively engage in that world, and some create fan films. Traditionally, a fan film is short (but not always) and is set within a given property’s world, but does not necessarily take place during the main action of the beloved title.

Backyard Blockbusters, from writer-director John E. Hudgens, turns its sights onto those folks that make fan films. Hudgens has intimate knowledge of this world, as he has made several well-received movies of this ilk such as The Jedi Hunter and Crazy Watto. This understanding of the sacrifices made for fan films comes across onscreen in a caring, empathetic way. The documentary never looks down on its participants for creating their (typically short) passion projects; quite the opposite actually, as the film admires these people and all the hardworking they are putting into their passion projects.

“…turns its sights onto those folks that make fan films.”

Talking to luminaries of the fan film world such as Sandy Collora, the man behind the well-known Batman: Dead End short (in which Batman fights the Predator and a Xenomorph), Dan Poole who created a Spider-Man short, and the creators of Ryan Vs. Dorkman, Ryan Wieber and Michael Scott, Hudgens covers several of the most prominent eras of fan filmmaking. Troops is fondly remembered by those who saw the Cops-style parody about Stormtroopers, and it ingrained itself so much that some folks only think of Troops when the theme song from that long-running show is heard.

Of course, context is everything, so the fan filmmakers aren’t the only people interviewed. Rounding up actors such as Walter Koenig and George Takei to discuss their thoughts on fan films, as well as film critics and pop culture experts like Harry Knowles and Clive Young (and Film Threat founder Chris Gore). This not only sets the stage for what was available at the time of a fan film’s inception but also allows for the fan films to be placed in the larger universe properly by those who were there.

The level of detail Backyard Blockbusters provides for each title is exhaustive, and given the affectionate tone the filmmakers take, the movie proves cute and delightful. However, that same eye for detail also proves to be a bit of an issue. Trey Stokes gets interviewed several times about other titles, and different interviewees name drop his Pink Five series, long before the audience is told about the movie.

Pink Five, which is a trilogy of films, is about valley girl Stacey, a Rebel fighter pilot. The first film became such a hit that creator Trey Stokes finished off the series with Pink Five Strikes Back and Return Of Pink Five. It became so popular, that was eventually put into canon, via an official Star Wars book (I believe this was before the Disney buyout of Lucasfilm). Audiences and peers alike seem to love it and based on the clips, its production, and set design looks stellar.

“…Hudgens clearly loves the fan film community and understands what they sacrifice to produce a fan film.”

But not knowing this, at around the one hour mark, does mean that when Pink Five is discussed against other titles, earlier in the documentary, the comparisons don’t work. This is a recurring problem, that means some points those being interviewed are making don’t always hit. However, it does not hamper the film too much.

As by the time the movie sits down to talk with Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala, the audience will be taken aback by the impressive dedication everyone on camera shows; especially those two though. When they were 11 and 12 respectively, the two friends set out to make a shot for shot remake of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Their segment here is a microcosm of everything discussed before. They made the film during the summers, with virtually no money and no formal training of any kind. The filmmakers throughout discuss the time and money it takes to make something, even five minutes long; so imagine what it took for kids to make a full remake of one of the most popular action-adventure stories of all time.

Backyard Blockbusters does not quite hit all the marks, as it just cannot give all the details about every movie at one time. This does mean that specific conversations don’t always make sense. However, director John Hudgens clearly loves the fan film community and understands what they sacrifice to produce a fan film. Couple that with the engaging interviewees, who run the gamut of fandom, and you have a solid, fun, sweet documentary.

Backyard Blockbuster (2018) Directed by John E. Hudgens. Written by John E. Hudgens. Starring Chris Albrecht, Trey Stokes, Dan Poole, James Cawley, Chris Gore, Sandy Collora, Paul Dini, Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala.

8.5 Gummi Bears (out of 10)

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Uncontrolled travel from one dimension to another is the fate of Portal Man, the name of the lead character in the film of the same title. Portal Man (Charles Davis) is stuck in a kind of interdimensional continuum and hurtling into strange and not so wonderful worlds. He’s unsure of why it’s happening to him or even who he is. Making matters worse, an assassin lies in wait each time he lands in a new landscape.

The spaces he inhabits are sometimes realistic looking New York City and other times they’re more like a psychedelic light show. In one, he finds themselves atop a train that’s speeding through a hellish red landscape of molten lava. He’s got to kill the assassin, a man wearing sunglasses to cover his glowing eyes. Once Portal Man dispatches his would-be killer, he’s catapulted into the next level of who knows what? It’s like he’s taking part in a three-dimensional video game, which is what much of the film feels like,

“…stuck in a kind of interdimensional continuum and hurtling into strange and not so wonderful worlds.”

Along the way, he meets a feisty New York attorney, Bearthra (Jennifer Eiffert), pronounced like “Bea Arthur,” who gets sucked into the dimensional time warp with him. Together, they try to find their way out of this trippy nightmare. Beathra adds some welcome peppery humor to the mix, kvetching that her $600 Jack Lord sneakers were ruined by splashed mud. At another point, as the duo enters a new, fantastical dimension, she cries out in frustration, “I’m in goddam Patrick Nagle Leggo blimp land,” a mouthful if there ever was one.

As they bounce from one death-defying stunt to the next, the voice of a woman with a brogue guides and darkly intimidates them. It may make you think of the voice of the DJ in The Warriors, who similarly narrates that tale of a New York street grand fighting its way across the city and back to Coney Island, its home turf. That was the 1970s, and the guiding voice came from radios tuned to a particular FM station. Since then technology has advanced. In Portal Man, the voice comes from a wrist device that the hapless dimensional traveler wears. It turns out that the woman behind the lilting voice plays a crucial role in the fate of the two lead characters.

“…isn’t the kind of movie that’s going to make anyone gasp over an imaginary world…but that’s part of the fun.”

The special effects used to create the surrealistic landscapes are, to say the least primitive. This isn’t the kind of movie that’s going to make anyone gasp over an imaginary world that’s been created for the screen in sumptuous detail. But that’s part of the fun. The story moves along quickly enough to make us not care that the graphics are about as convincing as the 1988 video game Galaxy Force 2. The cheesiness only adds to the overall humor of it all, as does the deliberately (I’m guessing) banal dialogue that feels like a send-up of low budget science fiction films. How else can you expect to be taken seriously, without a nod and a knowing wink to the genre?

Portal Man (2018) Directed by Charles Davis. Written by Charles Davis. Starring Charles Davis, Jennifer Eiffert.

7 out of 10 Plastic Ray Guns

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Natalia is a nineteen-year-old novice who reluctantly returns home to say goodbye to her dying father. However, when she meets up with her sister and her friends, she decides instead to travel the jungle in search of a mystical plant.

If we are going strictly on what Luciferina teaches us, the way to address family estrangement is through a drug-fueled vision quest into the Amazon. Yes, the new Argentinian horror pic details the trials of young 19-year-old Natalia. Her occasional visions raise more than a few eyebrows amongst those at the convent where she is staying. Yet she is still tolerated on the hopes of her joining the sisterhood. It is only after her father becomes gravely ill that she feels the need to return home to say goodbye. This is probably the only time you will ever read these lines in a review, but things were better at the convent. Natalia arrives home, and all hell breaks loose.

“Natalia arrives home, and all hell breaks loose.”

Dad is catatonic, her sister is dating an abusive psychopath, and everyone blames poor Natalia for not being the daughter/sister that she was supposed to be. Through recurring visions, Natalia gets the feeling that there is a far more sinister force that has laid waste to her family and is coming for her. Natalia decides that she and her sisters ought to take a road trip along with a group into the Amazon to find a shaman that offers ayahuasca meditations in an old church. With all of the family strife, dysfunction, and visions, a hallucinatory drug seems like the perfect idea.

The shaman administers the drugs to the kids through a soupy, brick red liquid as they all lay at the center of a ring of salt and candles and he reminds them that, even though they will see things that terrify them, to not be afraid. And finally, we are off. Luciferina focuses on the spiritual arch from young, docile girl to a full-on woman through a series of insane sequences that blur the line between reality and nightmares.

“…focuses on the spiritual arch from young, docile girl to a full-on woman through a series of insane sequences…”

Luciferina is a nicely made film but damned if I know what actually happened and why. This is coming from a guy who had a full interpretation of Mulholland Drive on first viewing. The film is competently acted, the shots are beautifully composed, yet there is a narrative thread that really seemed to have a hard time juggling more than one plot.  We can follow Natalia, easy. However, her family’s dark history and troubled sister are a little murky, to say the least.

I wanted to love Luciferina because there was a real sense of craftsmanship to the proceedings yet the story arcs seemed to suffer at the expense of other elements. Oh well, At least you get an overlong climactic sex scene on an altar, so there’s that.

Luciferina (2018) Written and directed by Gonzalo Calzada. Starring Victoria Carreras, Sofía Del Tuffo, Francisco Donovan, Chucho Fernández, Gastón Cocchiarale

4 out of 10 stars

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A nice gimmick can add spice to an over told story, but you gotta rub in that spice to make a tasty meal. A Cool Fish had a nice gimmick, but the question becomes how well it does integrate with the final product.

A Cool Fish follows the lives of about nine characters and how their lives magically connect with one another in a way that adds nothing to the plot. First, there’s Ma Xianyong (Chen Jianbin), an ex-cop working as security for a wealthy real estate developer Gao Ming (Wang Yanhui). Ming recently ducked out of town because he owes an enormous debt to a local, yet powerful, loan shark. In hopes of flushing out the developer, the shark holds daily public funerals, so everyone knows he’s wanted and shakes down everyone who worked for him, including Ma.

“…follows the lives of about nine characters and how their lives magically connect with one another…”

Then there’s Cobra or “Bra” (Zhang Yu) and Big Head (Pan Binlong), a pair of aspiring criminals on motorcycles and their pretty cool helmets. The two thieves act like tough guys but are a little green when it comes to the pulling off the big heist. I guess confidence is everything in life. After successfully robbing a cellphone store, their heightened adrenaline levels accidentally spoils their getaway, forcing them to leave their bike on top of a nearby tree (sigh).

Now on foot, the pair break into an apartment and stumble across an angry and depressed quadriplegic woman, Jiaqi (Ren Suxi). They threaten to kill her if she makes a sound, and she gladly accepts their offer of death. Needless to say, they’re going to spend a lot of time together.

Now, back to Ma, the police arrive to rescue him from a beating from the loan shark’s thugs. Ma inquires his former partner about possibly returning to the police force. Seeing that his chances are impossible, he decides to go solo and investigate the cellphone store robbery and win his spot back on the force.

“While all this intertwining seems cool, it all really had little impact on the overall story…”

Taking a page from Lost, I suppose, the gimmick in A Cool Fish is that the lives of the central and supporting characters are all intertwined in some miraculous way. Former detective Ma is off the force because of a drunk driving accident that killed his wife and left his sister paralyzed. The sister is Jiaqi with whom Cobra and Big Head are now her captors. Ma’s daughter, in a separate subplot, is dating the son of hiding real estate developer Gao. Big Head’s motivation to rob the store is so he can move back to the country with this girlfriend, who works at a “massage” parlor frequented by Jiaqi’s landlord. While all this intertwining seems cool, it all really had little impact on the overall story, thus the term gimmick. It’s all passively interesting but ultimately unnecessary.

Which begs the ultimate question, why see A Cool Fish? Good question, I don’t know. Its plot, action, and acting are underwhelming. It’s humor relies on silly slapstick, and its supporting characters are somewhat stereotypical for Chinese action films. Make the emotional connections between the connected characters stronger, it might have made a difference in the end. The problem is it was brief and used solely to service an unnecessary gimmick.

A Cool Fish (2018) Directed by Roa Xiaozhi. Written by Lai Zhilong, Roa Xiaozhi. Starring Chen Jianbin, Ren Suxi, Pan Binlong, Zhang Yu.

4 out of 10 stars

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The history of Kentuck Bourbon Whiskey

Did you know that there are very specific elements that qualify a whiskey as a “Bourbon”? Yes, a Kentucky Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn mash, distilled at no higher than 160 proof, and it can’t begin to be stored in the barrel until it has cooled to no higher than 120º. Fascinating, yes, but hardly compelling viewing. For an avid fan of the Bourbon style of whiskey, including this reviewer, Eric Byford’s new documentary, Straight Up: Kentucky Bourbon is a meticulously detailed archive of the development of this tasty beverage and its entire American history. Holding plenty of information, the film contains little spirit for any but the most avid fans.

Straight Up is a series of interviews given by the modern keepers of this amber liquid that is crafted to tell the chronological story of this very particular gentlemen’s beverage. Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Four Roses, and more are all represented. The spokesman from Woodford Reserve (a personal favorite), begins the doc by recalling an interaction that he had with an Irish woman. Known for their whiskey, the Irish woman wondered why Americans weren’t as proud of their whiskey. “It’s a long story,” he replies. Pity that instead of getting a story we get a history lesson.

“…the origins of whiskey and the influence it has had on wars, politics, and United States policy.”

We begin the doc by getting to the origins of whiskey and the influence it has had on wars, politics, and United States policy. We learn the history of mash, distilling, and why this practice had ever come into play to start. We learn about its trade up and down the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers and the perils that early entrepreneurs faced including early Native Americans, wild animals, the elements, and more dangers. That’s not even to mention how the Civil War, Prohibition aka The Noble Experiment, Speak Easies, The ’50s, and then the dark ’70s and ’80s when Bourbon was considered an old person’s drink. Still, up to this point, we are only getting the oral history recalled by the keepers of the craft.

It is only toward the end of the film that the documentary begins to take on a far more personal feel where we explore the modern Bourbon Whiskey makers. It is here we learn of their hurdles, but more importantly, of their relationship with one another. A warm, familial glow begins to permeate Straight Up: Kentucky Bourbon that was missing up to this point. The storytellers stop talking to the camera, and we watch them interacting with one another and warmly regarding each other as family. Here is where the soul of the film comes alive, and we see what a typical, arguably frivolous, love for a particular sauce does to unite people.

I can say that I learned a lot from Straight Up: Kentucky Bourbon but rarely engaged outside of my own personal love of Bourbon itself. There is a great story here that is grazed in favor of fastidious facts. Byford’s doc comes from a genuine place of admiration and respect, love even, but as entertainment goes, this is a little dry.

Straight Up: Kentucky Bourbon (2018) Directed by Eric Byford. Starring Wes Henderson.

6 out of 10 stars

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By the time a man begins farting blood in his bathtub, An Hour to Kill has played its hand. Directed by Aaron K. Carter, it’s a playful anthology film that simply doesn’t have enough original ideas to support its weight, which is, all things considered, quite light.

The campfire stories peppered throughout the movie are framed within the context of two hitmen killing time until their target is ripe. What one of them doesn’t know is that he’s the target. This would be Frankie (Frankie Pozos), a rubber-faced doofus who must be related to someone in the hitman business. The Abbott to Frankie’s Costello is Gio (Aaron Guerrero), a calm, pragmatic gentleman who finds Frankie to be an irritant, but, for some reason, an endearing one. Because of this, he decides to delay Frankie’s execution for as long as possible, hence story time.

“…two hitmen killing time until their target is ripe.”

Looking at the big picture, hiding small horror films within the larger story of two hitmen isn’t without its advantages—it’s a bit messy, but nothing the wacky tone can’t excuse. Likewise, the dialogue isn’t quite as bargain-bin as you might expect, though there are plenty of exceptions, such as using “only on the weekends” as a viable punchline. This doesn’t mean that the more verbose sections of the film, most of which come from Frankie, don’t quickly wear thin. Other than Frankie’s fascination with his spirit animal, nothing that comes out of his mouth is particularly memorable, unique or worthy of mention.

As for the anthology stories, of which there are three, they have moments of amusing, Troma-level trashiness, but they’re mostly sterile. The worst one features a gaggle of college-age women who probably aren’t the brightest in their class or anybody’s class. On the hunt for a legendary marijuana plantation, they stumble into an abandoned Nazi bunker and are routinely killed by a guy in a gas mask. It’s not as fun as it sounds. The best—or most unhinged—of the three involves a race of lusty pig people, which has a few lines that made me smile, against my better judgment. That one is close to being as fun as it sounds.

Like so many movies, An Hour to Kill knows where it wants to be, but doesn’t know how to get there. It wants to be a disorderly, punk-rock slap in the face to your standards—moral, cinematic and otherwise—yet it feels like it’s working off a blueprint, which robs the movie of its necessary spontaneity. Having an attitude is a good place to start, but don’t forget the content.

An Hour to Kill (2018) Directed by Aaron K. Carter. Written by Aaron K. Carter and Ronnie “P.K.” Jimenez. Starring Mel Novak, Frankie Pozos, Aaron Guerrero, Arash Dibizar, Vince Kelvin, Amanda Rau, Jola Cora, Stephanie Strehlow, Alexya Garcia, Sarah Gordy, Brendan Mitchell, Gabriel Mercaado, Luna Meow, Marcus Pearce, Brian Reagan, Joe McQueen, Michael Camp, Kevin C. Beardsley, Chris Morris, Cal Alexander.

4 out of 10

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Most of us have probably had fantasies of returning to our hometown after a lengthy absence and rubbing our newfound success in the faces of everyone who ever slighted us. We would prance down the street in a top hat and tails, using our aristocratic accents to ironically greet our former schoolteachers and bullies, all of whom are now living between concrete and old newspapers. When they beg us for some spare change, we would pull out a hundred-dollar bill and blow our noses with it. It would be wrong, but it would feel so very satisfying.

That’s not what the future has in store for young Jon (Dashiell Wolf). At the beginning of Fall City, directed by Nathan D. Lee, Jon finds himself returning home for the holidays with a black cloud over his head. He spends much of the movie doing the sad Charlie Brown walk. He has no car, no home, and, worst of all, no prospects. The only thing he does have is a criminal record, which might as well be an anvil tied to his ankle. After a good deal of moping, Jon stumbles upon Olivia (Meranda Long), the living embodiment of sleepy, small-town kindness. Through her, Jon may able to shake the fleas from his life and recapture the sense of potential that powered his youth.

“Through her, Jon may able to shake the fleas from his life and recapture the sense of potential that powered his youth.”

In the spirit of many well-known Christmas movies, Fall City is all about redemption and the restorative value of unconditional charity. Just reading those words might fill your heart with warmth and peppermint-flavored wonder, but the movie itself runs these feelings into the ground, like that old lady who was trampled by that feral reindeer. The silly Charlie Brown walks have already been mentioned, but once Jon and Olivia begin their friendship, the movie becomes far too precious about itself. There’s wearing your heart on your sleeve, and then there’s shoving your heart in the audience’s face. Any hope of witnessing the delicate characterization of a local loser is quickly squashed.

However, that’s not to say that the movie wouldn’t play well in the background during the holidays. It’s okay for children, and there are heartwarming messages abound. Some of the performances are rigid, but Long makes for a convincing light at the end of the tunnel. But for someone who wants more than yuletide ambiance—something to engage your brain for an hour and a half might be nice—you’ll find little to chew on.

If Fall City were a Christmas present, it wouldn’t be so bad as a lump of coal; a coffee table book is closer to the mark. You’re not going to throw it away—and you might even give it a moment of your attention—but you immediately recognize its uselessness and mourn the space that it will take up. While the movie won’t take up any space, it will take your time. And time and space are—literally—all you have. Don’t give them away to coffee table books.

Fall City (2018) Directed by Nathan D. Lee. Written by Nathan D. Lee, Erich Cannon. Starring Dashiell Wolf, Meranda Long, Paul Ryan Hobson, Riley Hardy, Brace Evans, Carrie Wrigley, Timothy Threlfall, Thomas Carroll, Kai Findley, David Maloney.

3 out of 10 stars

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Maryam Farahzadi’s short animated film, Blue, naturally places the spotlight on feeling blue, specifically the isolated feeling that comes from being different. Set in an animated world of a plain white background and line-drawn people and objects, a young woman finds herself alone as the only person colored blue in a colorless world. To make matters worse, anything she touches turns blue. For example, the young blue woman is playing with a ball in a park. Touching the ball, it turns blue. At first, a small child is fascinated by the color blue but quickly runs away in fear because it’s different. Fearful of change, the woman is forced to wear gloves to keep the rest of the world from turning blue.

Simple is the best way to describe Blue. It uses simple animation to tell a simple story. Thanks to our old pal, the computer, producing an animated short film can be a relatively easy process. Easy compared to hand drawing 12 frames per second for a 4-minute short. When you look at Farahzadi’s final product, it’s clear that she refused to take shortcuts and she had specific ideas in mind for art direction and kept it consistent throughout.

“To make matters worse, anything she touches turns blue…”

Characters and objects are line-drawn and given a “cut-out” style similar to stickers with white borders. She was intentional in how parts of the body would move. Take for example the lead character’s hair. She could have easily made the hair static and locked into the movements of the head, but instead broke apart the hair to give it swaying motions with every head nod and turn.

In fear of overselling the short, Blue is quite an achievement, especially for a student film. Its story of individuality and finding friendship in others who are different has been told many times, especially in short films. Blue gets its point across effectively, naturally, and within boundaries its own art style. In the end, it’s a good story but falls far short of being groundbreaking.

Blue (2017) Written, directed, and animated by Maryam Farahzadi.

7 out of 10 stars

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