Category Archives: 2016

Crystal Lake (2016, Jennifer Reeder)

Crystal Lake opens with lead Marcela Okeke packing a suitcase; based on some of what she packs–Aliens and Purple Rain on VHS, the LPs to Tea for the Tillerman and the Muppet Movie soundtrack—the short immediately establishes Okeke as one of the cooler people to ever exist. And then comes the final item—a broken skateboard. Okeke is going to live with relatives because, we soon find out, her father is dying. We also find out her mom died some years before—when Okeke’s character was seven (she’s a teenager now)—and Okeke’s married older sister booted her out. So not a great situation for Okeke.

And not a soft-landing spot either. Her older cousin, Sebastian Summers, is presented a little mysterious and does indeed seem to have some stuff going on but it’s just an insert. Same-ish aged, cool cousin Shea Vaughan-Gabor takes a while to size Okeke up and takes a tough (but real) love approach. But Vaughan-Gabor doesn’t get even the hint of a subplot. She’s got some personality (through wardrobe as well; both Okeke and Vaughan-Gabor wear hijab, but Vaughan-Gabor with a lot of bling). But no story. Other than the tough (but real) love personality trait. It’s not even clear why Vaughan-Gabor is living with Summers, who’s just another cousin.

Okeke’s got this insert subplot about intentional self-preservation, which is really cool but it’s just an insert. As a director, even with the inserts, Reeder has every good idea. Crystal Lake is phenomenally well-made. As a writer, Reeder’s got good intentions for her scenes, but they often sputter out once the exposition gets unnaturally heavy. It doesn’t help neither Okeke or Vaughan-Gabor can do the exposition. There are plenty of natural moments in Lake but zero hint of them—or even memory of them—when there’s exposition. And drama. Reeder, writing, has a problem with the dramatic turns. They’re peculiar disconnects because the filmmaking never wavers; it’s great during the exposition, it’s great during the drama, it’s great during the action, it’s great during the natural moments. Just the writing (and then the acting) go wobbly.

Vaughan-Gabor’s the most impressive performance in the film (she and Okeke are the only two contenders really; Summers’s insert doesn’t have him doing much acting), which is great—when it clicks, it clicks—but the short ends feeling lopsided. After the set up, Okeke becomes second (and even temporarily third) fiddle. It’s still her story, Reeder just doesn’t stick with her to tell it.

Even with wonky exposition dumps, lopsided pacing, and unexplored inserts, Crystal Lake is still more than worth a look. Reeder’s direction is outstanding, the plot is good, the cast is good (often better than good).

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jennifer Reeder; director of photography, Christopher Rejano; edited by Mike Olenick; produced by Penelope Bartlett and Steven Hudosh for Forevering Films.

Starring Marcela Okeke (Ladan), Shea Vaughan-Gabor (Samiyah), Sebastian Summers (Samer), and Kristyn Zoe Wilkerson (Toni).


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Lights Out (2016, Savannah Bloch)

Lights Out gets obvious way too fast given it’s a five minute short. The film opens with Alixzandra Dove in a mostly dark house, folding clothes while she talks to a friend on the phone. There’s a little exposition from the phone call—Dove’s kid has outgrown some clothes, Dove’s partner has been away two weeks but is coming home that night—while Dove tries to find something to do. She turns out the kid’s light, heads into the bedroom to read a book (while still on the phone call), only for the kid to turn the light back on. He’s goofing off instead of going to bed, which frustrates Dove.

The short’s a morose affair, with Dove alternating between yelling at the kid and being exasperated with the phone call. Writer Kelly Peters carefully puts some clues throughout the short as to the eventual twist, but they’re all painfully obvious because they’re the only time there’s anything interesting in the conversation. Peters is way too obvious when she’s trying to misdirect. Or maybe Dove’s performance is too flat. Or not flat enough.

Because Dove’s not bad. There’s only so far to take Lights Out and Dove gets about as much mileage out of the five minutes as she can, especially since the phone call conversation isn’t anything special. Bloch’s direction is okay. Technically, with some great photography by Cooper Ulrich, Bloch does an excellent job. Her composition, how she directs Dove, how she and Bret Allen cut the thing together… eh.

That technical excellence, particularly how well Ulrich can light the mostly dark house, it sets a high bar for Lights Out. And the short doesn’t even begin to reach it.

It all starts to fall apart at the end—which is concerning as they only had to keep the momentum going for five minutes—but it does end before it gets too bad.

Out is kind of a disappointment, kind of a shrug.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Savannah Bloch; written by Kelly Peters; director of photography, Cooper Ulrich; edited by Bret Allen; music by Lars Hempel; production designer, Daniel S. James Jr.; produced by Alixzandra Dove and Linda Rothschild.

Starring Alixzandra Dove (Joanne).


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Sensitivity Training (2016, Melissa Finell)

Sensitivity Training is… an easy (but not in a pejorative way) comedy with winning (but not in a sarcastic way) lead performances. It’s never daring, but it has some good laughs. It’s better than middle of the road but it there’s not much exciting about it. Director Finell does a great job with a low budget as far as the filmmaking goes–Finell and cinematographer Paul Cannon have nice widescreen shots, Finell and editor David Egan keep a brisk pace (the film’s eighty-six minutes or so). And Paul Chihara’s music is a great. Very energetic and emotive. It’s impressively executed, given its scale.

Which makes some of the script choices annoying, actually. Like, Finell writes way too broadly even in scenes where she could afford precision. The script’s too conservative for what the film can do. But the script’s still perfectly fine and often really funny. It gives leads Anna Lise Phillips and Jill E. Alexander decent showcase material. Gives them great parts, not great roles. Like, there’s a whole “everyone is a caricature” thing going on even though it’s all about Phillips having to learn empathy after she maybe causes a tragedy at work due to her personality.

Phillips is a very abrasive scientist who appears to be the only scientist in the world aware of an imminent bacterial infection. Sensitivity Training’s sunny world–where Alexander’s daughter, Courtney Fansler, would never actually get teased for having two moms–also appears to have cured childhood leukemia or something. There’s a lot of science going on in Sensitivity Training and it ostensibly means a lot to Phillips, but it doesn’t mean anything to Finell’s script.

Meanwhile Alexander is a sexual harassment counselor who makes sexually harassing men sign apology statements. It’s not until she starts trying to make Phillips empathetic she realizes it’s a terrible job–the sexual harassment thing–and bad. Alexander doesn’t get much character stuff to herself. Finell usually uses it for a joke, which is funny about–say, kids’ birthday parties–but less funny when about sexual harassment.

So most of the movie is Alexander trying to get Phillips to treat people nicer, mostly her lab workers–quietly essential Quinn Marcus (who doesn’t get enough to do) and background filler Amy Vorpahl and Andy Gala–but also her younger half-brother, Finnegan Haid. The stuff with Haid makes no sense in the narrative, but it’s fine. They play well off each other. Everyone works well with each other in their scenes, no crowding.

Eventually, of course, there’s crisis and drama and big-time introspective character development for Phillips, who’s otherwise had zero self-awareness in the film (to an absurd degree but still fine given the film’s soft take on reality), and a somewhat perfunctory wrap-up where Finell reveals she wasted like six of the eighty-six minutes on a total MacGuffin just for a couple smiles not even laughs. So. When the film’s really funny, those laughs have a lot of weight on them. And they hold up.

Phillips and Alexander are both good. But they don’t get anything too tough. Quinn gets the internal subplot but almost no time for it and she’s real good. Amy Madigan’s great as Phillips and Haid’s mom. She should’ve been in it more, especially how she and Phillips play off each other. Charles Haid’s fine as the dad, though just fine. He executive produced the film so if it’s a stunt cameo, it’s not a good one.

Finell’s a good director. Sensitivity Training is a good comedy. It doesn’t try to do anything but amuse, even when it’s got potential to do more.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Melissa Finell; director of photography, Paul Cannon; edited by David Egan; music by Paul Chihara; production designer, Richard H. Perry; produced by Finell and Megha Kohli; released by Random Media.

Starring Anna Lise Phillips (Serena), Jill E. Alexander (Caroline), Quinn Marcus (Ellen), Finnegan Haid (Ethan), Amy Vorpahl (Joan), Andy Gala (Dr. Hamilton), Michael Laskin (Dr. Donald Pierson), Gregory Itzin (Barry), Amy Madigan (Nancy), Charles Haid (Glenn), Courtney Fansler (Maggie), and Challen Cates (Dr. Laura Stern).


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Hello Destroyer (2016, Kevan Funk)

With Hello Destroyer, writer and director Funk spares down a character study. He saps the action from it–and there’s a lot of potential action, as the character the film studies is a rookie pro hockey player (Jared Abrahamson). Abrahamson’s a quiet loner who fits in well enough with the team, but is rather passive. Outside the opening scene, where the team hazes the rookies, there’s very little action, even during the hockey games. Funk uses mostly close-ups, with his actors near center in a wide frame, with a sharp focus on the character. The first half of the film is exquisitely written, just seeing how Funk is able to do so much with so little exposition, so little setup, just scene and cast.

It’s a pro team but not pro enough Abrahamson and a teammate don’t have to bunk with a local family. Abrahamson’s not exactly one of the family, but he’s got a good rapport with his hosts, even babysitting for them.

Then there’s a bad game and, in response to coach Kurt Max Runte’s belittling screaming at he and his teammates, Abrahamson gets too rough on the ice and hospitalizes another player. Abrahamson’s naive and confused, especially when host mom Sara Canning starts acting scared of him and assistant coach Ian Tracey just blows smoke up his ass instead of telling him what’s going on. Pretty soon Runte has convinced Abrahamson to issue a statement taking the blame and, pretty soon, after Abrahamson’s headed back to his parents on the bus.

Once home, Funk starts revealing some of Abrahamson’s (still unverbalized) baggage. Dad Paul McGillion is constantly verbally abusive to Abrahamson as well as occasionally physically. The single exposition dump in the film reveals McGillion’s a bad dad because his dad was a bad military dad. Meanwhile mom Yvonne Vander Ploeg is barely present. She and Abrahamson have zero relationship, which isn’t a surprise as Abrahamson doesn’t have any relationships. There’s an implied relationship with probably sister Terri Mahon, but Funk does it all through Abrahamson looking at old pictures on his phone (in a single scene) and then holding his nephew. Probably nephew.

The film’s not exactly a waiting game to see if Abrahamson’s going to figure out what kind of trouble he’s actually in–it initially tracks his descent before he starts getting a little better after bonding with coworker Joe Buffalo. Funk doesn’t change the narrative distance until the very end, which is its own thing; otherwise, he keeps the same tone and pace throughout. Deliberate long shots of Abrahamson internalizing and processing what’s going on around him. There are some great moments from Abrahamson, even if the role itself ends up a little too thin. Turns out Funk is keeping that deliberate narrative distance so he can make some big moves in the third act.

There’s a certain cinéma vérité styling; Edo Van Breemen gets credited with the music but there’s barely any in the film. Ajla Odobasic’s editing is languorous, perfectly matching Benjamin Loeb’s sharp and deep photography. Funk goes almost two hours without ever picking up the pace, without ever going for melodrama, without ever letting a crack show in Abrahamson’s demeanor. When he does break under pressure–either just pressure or drunkenness–Funk shoots Abrahamson removed. We’re seeing him break, not watching him break. It’s a distinction in Hello Destroyer and one of the film’s greatest strengths. Funk knows how to present this story, knows how to position his actors, knows how to shoot it, knows how to cut it.

So when he gives up in the third act–after building the friendship with Buffalo for however long, it becomes just as disposable for the film as any of Abrahamson’s other relationships and the stuff with the family is kind of a MacGuffin–it’s a bit of a surprise. Funk seemingly could go on forever with the desolate slow pace, with each new reveal further revealing more about Abrahamson’s protagonist and informing the performance, only to chuck it all for an easy finish. Funk got to raise a bunch of questions and make a bunch of observations, but he doesn’t do anything with them in the end.

It’s a beautifully made film, with an exquisite performance from Abrahamson, but Funk’s ambitions are a tad more melodramatic than the film ever suggests they might be. For most of the film, Funk’s doing character revelation and development, only to switch it up entirely at the end and try to do character examination. It’s a big slip and too bad; a lot of Hello Destroyer is outstanding. Funk’s an excellent director and a capable writer. He just–artfully–uses a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel, like that artfulness can compensate for the force. And it can not.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kevan Funk; director of photography, Benjamin Loeb; edited by Ajla Odobasic; music by Edo Van Breemen; production designer, Robin Tilby; produced by Daniel Domachowski and Haydn Wazelle; released by Northern Banner Releasing.

Starring Jared Abrahamson (Tyson Burr), Paul McGillion (Ron Burr), Joe Buffalo (Eric), Ben Cotton (Bill Davis), Sara Canning (Wendy Davis), Ian Tracey (Coach Aaron Weller), Maxwell Haynes (Cody MacKenzie), Yvonne Vander Ploeg (Judy Burr), and Kurt Max Runte (Coach Dale Milbury).


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