2021 – Extended Reviews

A Still Year by Jonathan Beckett

Most short films tend to develop their plot basis around a certain situational crux that simply revolves a revelation that begins and propels characters to a point of no return. I say this on the basis of short films with a particular reason – most shorts don’t have endings, and most importantly, they don’t have the ‘and then’ plot beat of a feature film. And what is unique with A Still Year is its against-the-grain narrative beats… the POV perspective, one which is both a narrative device an empathy triggering tool is the complete opposite design of a short. Here we are hinted at the plot element of that ‘revelation’, but it is also irrelevant, as time simply moves on and our experience (like in a feature) revolves around the ‘and then’.

Simply put, A Still Year is perhaps more of a filmic object than a narrative piece. And this is a very unique and important thing to celebrate. Jonathan Beckett may be unaware of his work, but without a doubt – Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema, in which the affixation of a camera inside of a car, the faces of a film audience, or the capturing of stagnant European sites… where these images, moments of light and space become almost ‘cinema-in-progress pieces’… is a rare and very special space to be working in.. and is the same sort of brain wave or form of communication that Beckett is exploring.

I have perhaps over-pressed this reference to Kiarostami, but it comes with great care – most filmmakers rarely find the ability to step back from their material and capture simple life items that together, in a particular perspective, become a cinematic experience. Beckett has done this – he has placed us in his literal shoes… but also done so in a way that space, time and the human experience becomes an object of the technical filmic space. It is quite luxurious for a short film.

PS. Congrats on the very believable arm shots of reaching for a phone with the camera as eyes.

The Candidate by 

The women of Altındağ – what fantastic performances! – in all seriousness, the team here seems to be always on point. As the camera hits them, they are in mid perforamnce. They are in real life… and the camera does a great enhancement for this – the faces are clear, often we are moving towards them… we are invited to observe and see the micro reactions of each character. It is engaging and interesting to watch thanks to these performers and of course the way they are shot.

The eyes and edits of Altındağ’s world in The Candidate is perhaps one of the cleanest photographically and warmest of tones. The image is often nicely balanced with color and professionally polished. If it lacks anything, it is the wildness of an unusual filming style.

The situation of The Candidate is really that of a teasing, alluring and intense series of moments. We are invited into space and quickly wiped through a variety of intimate spaces taht are threatening and genre friendly (ie something people really enjoy – Gothic horror). The sense of time to is in fluid movement… there is a great sense of momentum here. If anything, one feels almost at threat, or perhaps the ‘mercy’ of the filmmaking team. You the audience are expected to enjoy and keep up with the shape of this film… but it is a delicate dance, and we are the ones quickly thrown out of the circle… we must endure as we trip up, enjoying the sheer presentation and balance of skill at play.

I Wanna Do Christmas With You (Again) by Alex Urquhart

Alex Urquhart has a secret that he might not know.

You see, the music video I Wanna Do Christmas With You (Again) is very charming… It has a great aesthetic, and a pop filled retro vibe – like, this is a sort of 1990’s almost boyband charm. It’s got the static, the props and the grooves to be self aware, comical and almost like a kind of humanist take on the sub-genre of music videos – the ‘breakup’ song (or ‘make up?’). This is, in its totality, what Alien was to Dark Star’s take on sci fi… only, in the context of postmodern music videos.

But, again, that’s not the secret that it holds.

Also, before hitting the secret twist tool – it is worth adding that the video has a solid photographic value to it’s content. This is to say that the photographic value is quite filmic and nicely created. The lighting really shines here – it feels both ‘real’ and gritty, but also creative.

But now there’s an additional secret – the cream of the whole process: Alex Urquhart himself.

The song isn’t the big stealer of the show, but rather Urquhart’s performance itself. He shows himself to be a very versatile performer, mainly balancing the blank expressions of having being dumped with the self awareness of the camera’s gaze that makes for a secret layering of the video’s quality. Urquhart delivers what the video needs: the seed of star quality.

Personal side – I’d love to see Urquhart play a serial killer in an apartment block, a tutor with a desire for a married woman and a cowboy who is getting teased for his inability to stay on any horse (they all kick him off).

Oh Jeff! by Chris Rourke

Chris Rourke, Danel Parquor, and Kyle Strang have written a fairly strange little monster – the kind of monster that well bites your ass and then asks you how it felt. I say this because the film is perhaps one of the most accelerated plots that delve into the surreal subgenre of comedy with such great pleasure. In an unlikely twist, more like a horror film, there’s a sort of burnt flavouring of cult practice in this film. It is the kind of film that walks a thin line between comedy and surreal horror… but the comedy, to me, feels as if it is the bigger tip.

All in all, the implemented foundation of dark tones and obscure characters is largely elevated and brought to life by the caricature performances delivered in this project, as well as the fluid photography that helps the project become engaging and memorable.

Perhaps the only unhappy thing is its runtime. It isn’t short enough to be an easy one to consume, and it isn’t long enough to be a feature… and well, and this is a strange remark to make, but this isn’t a show – and it somehow feels like it could have been one of these things. It could have been a tighter, easier and more punchy short… a longer, more drawn out character driven mad-hat event (ie Inland Empire) or a recurring web series fully fledged and strangely altering (ie fluid plots, fluid characters). I guess the real takeaway is this – the tone is lovely and there (i.e. present, and unique)… but perhaps the format is still yet to be perfected by this team. Only more from them will reveal this, and one can easily get excited about what might follow.

The Truth About Us by Jason White

Have you seen Game Night? – Yes.

Did you like Game Night? – Yes.

Do you like character based films? – Yes.

Do you like indie films? – Yes.

Then this film is for you.

The Truth About Us recalls the 90’s/00’s world of Neil LaBute. There’s a small cast, a tight intimate space and a cut throat moving plot. There isn’t a world of politics or social mobility in this film, but there are people under attack. There’s a moral undertone here, one of a writer going ‘in these situations even the wrong seems right, and the right seem wrong.’ The study of human nature is in full swing here.

The cast are really solid, carrying the dialogue forward content through the paces… the camera work though is perhaps not the most expressive, and this is where I’d suggest one needs to focus in the future – how can one elevate the content to become more cinematic with the photography.

At the end of the day this is a very solid feature film, and one that is well worth its $8,000 budget – i.e. it is money well spent and quite engaging for its content.

Zaara by Hassan Raza (second review)

Zaara Aslam is an incredible heroine. Her scene: a sheltered, overbearing and overprotective home environment. Her world: stunning black and white photography, bold and realistic performances, and of course – a strong visual coherent understanding of sequencing (i.e. shot A to B to C is very smooth).

The lead performance by Sonera Angel (as Zara) is quite moving. She navigates the space with a careful physic, bringing Zara to life. And the photography almost mirrors this – becoming often a dance of reverse-perspective (i.e. how people view Zara and how she sees or looks around). The anticipation of the film’s overall arc builds with Angel’s performance, as she attempts to overcome her struggles, our interest rises.

The only real remark I can make now, which comes with a very strong impression, is this: Zaara is one of the best film entries we’ve had this year (submitted only for a film review). Had it competed in TMBT, we would have awarded it something (this is for sure). Hassan Raza is a real filmmaker with a distinct voice and clear visual story. We can’t wait to see him make more, and hope he makes a feature film soon.

Velvet Crush by Michael Boston

Velvet Crush is a wonder of a film. For one, it comes loaded with some incredible casting – mainly Dani Savka and the director himself, Michael Boston. The pair seem to know two key things when it comes to making a seriously entertaining film: film acting is all about the eyes – and if you are trying to convince an audience of a false reality, you (ie the performer) have to be completely convinced by your own performance when in a scene.

The film opens with some stunning night time walks. This is after some almost Blue Velvet pastiche velveted opening credits. There’s something about this sequence, and even the premise, that is very 90’s. Then we get a touch of voyeurism… It almost feels like a mid-career John Waters film… the Waters with solid photography, impressive genre blending and a nightcap of comedy to send you swinging down the roads… basically – this is a stylish hoot.

The one beautiful thing about running this festival over the course of five years becomes quite obvious in this film. We know Boston and his films well. We’ve seen him do a variety of genres and we ‘get’ what he’s doing here. He’s an author with a wicked sense of humour, one laced with real personality clashes and textures… it’s all a bit seductive really.

Zaara by Hassan Raza

The melodrama of Zaara is a strange combination of old and new. At its heart though, in my eyes, it feels more of an old school retro drama than a more modern thing. This isn’t due to its black and white photography – but rather its carefully composed shots, feminist characterisation and the strong presence of a style that consistently recalibrates the film’s core ideology within a Sirkian type of frame. It recalls Sirk’s All I Desire, for me at least…

Of course, though, the film isn’t a pastiche of Sirk. Nor is it a very aware film in terms of film references. This is the modern part of the film… there’s style, there’s a vision… but it is also its own thing. The sheltered life on the edge of becoming a boiling plot feels very much like a Jafar Panahi motif – of course, here it is the UK setting and a Middle Eastern family clashing with the customs of the West and of the so-called ‘other’. The ethics are blurred of course, and the painting of the Western men is quite interesting – are they perhaps more of a disruptive force than the parents? Perhaps both parties are wrong, and it is the future generation that shall be wiser? – these are of course, as I said, very modern ideas… and ones that would not be present in a Sirk type homage.

So, all in all – this is a great blend of the old and the new. Black and white photography with careful composition and strong themes from the almost old Hollywood finish appears to be packaging new ‘modern issues’ – or perhaps rather engaging in ones that still remain quite on the cusp of everyone’s political discussions… this film is talking about the ‘present moment is what I mean.
The performances almost follow suit – the older performers have great gravity in their physical performances, whilst the young use their faces and expressions to tell us more about how they feel.

This is a highly recommended film – and a fantastic debut by its director. In fact, one gets excited at the thought of the potential feature film that Raza must be working on!

Big Trouble in Seattle by David Fowler

At just over an hour, Fowler’s film is quite the epic. For starters, the setting is a genuine character… And I mean this with intent, as many indie films fail to use their locales as a kind of backdrop, often taking a back seat as a background that the film is set in. Here Seattle is lush, alive and dangerous even.

Furthermore, his use of cast, characters, and multilateral dialogue scenes is quite skilled… Almost evidence of his potential for great TV. Though, might I add – I prefer film, and Fowler does a great job in this medium here.

Knowing his age doesn’t help. Mr. Fowler is still a young director, and the project is a great bit of work… What I mean regarding this is really simple – I’m somewhat jealous (in a healthy way) that I didn’t make this film at Fowler’s age. I wish I’d had the intuition, knowledge and resources to do this kind of film.

If distribution has not been secured, then an introduction must be made. This film is a distributor’s delight – its genre is clear, distinct and the cast all seems to be having a swell time playing with the appropriate archetypes.

Highly recommended, this indie endeavour welcomes one simple regard – where is the next film due? And is it even bigger?

Geneva Jacuzzi’s Casket by Chris Friend

One of the things I’ve really enjoyed in the last few years is the digital playfulness that music videos have grasped – especially those that have encountered the fantasy and fantastical opportunities that digital filmmaking provides. One such examples is the work of Grimes – her music, her persona and especially her videos inhabit worlds and characters entirely unique to her work… And so, it comes with great excitement to say that Chris Friend’s work on this particular whacky music video is no different.

Heads buzz, the digital atmosphere engrosess, hypnotises and we are victim to its wonders – both as consumer and users, as we are… After all… Watching this digital video on a variety of digital screens. The world is alight with colour, music and character – the use of close up is especially rewarding, even unusually so for a music video (it’s quite cinematic).

All in all, this is a perfect little trick of digital editing and performance. The world, though artificial, appears real. Real. Or is it reel? 😉

CHAMP 5 by Paul Gatto, David Jester and Kathleen Strouse

From the small communities to the grand victories, Champ 5 has a fantastically ‘old school’ tale to tell. Now, to be clear – by ‘old school’ I am not actually referring to the charming gang of golden age interviewees… but rather, the style of the film. It is rare these days to find documentaries on bygone subjects that take great care in finding the character within the landscape from which it comes from, but also framing it within the context of the ‘personal’. At least, to me – it feels as if we have entered a new age of consumption when it comes to documentary-style video… those Facebook scroll videos of ‘famous person do this, or quaint person does that… someone has a hobby you will find interesting…’ – rarely do these videos contain the individual really… they instead, in the worst way possible, have a simplified individual framed within a sort of quirky space. That is not what CHAMP 5 provides, and that is why CHAMP 5 is eh champion!

Humanist elements aside, the film carries a great understanding of the key technical elements of filmmaking. The pace is never compromised, and the photography is well balanced with a tight edit. If anything – CHAMP 5 could be expanded to a feature…. but that’s a tale for another day.

Overall, the intimate tales of these individuals, framed within the carefully designed documentary, which captures the bygone era mostly through memorabilia and the ‘persons’ telling the tales, helps solidify the film as almost a kind of time capsule. Not a capsule of the past, but rather of these individuals’ recollections of the past.

Ultimately the film is intimate, personal and above all memorable.

MAGDA by Dimitris Galatas, Fragkiskos Arapai

I remember day trips with a tour guide I took as a child – they had the potential to be quite frightening, walking in caves and wandering down dark passages… and then, of course, there were the activities – those bloody ‘team-building tasks. And here we have a short film that is well just about that… given, now that I live in the city, I rarely think about these sorts of ‘trust’ based spaces in the rural setting. So, put your blindfolds on and get ready – MAGDA is here.

The short overall is quite great. It actually has a great balance of performance, an awareness of space, and above all: an awareness of ‘the way of nature. By this, in my mind, I mean it both in terms of the environmental space: humans appear almost as intruders here in the forest, and the actual act of animal nature – the carnal act of killing.

There’s one flaw to this project really: it isn’t a feature. It could be one, it could be built bigger: think Chernobyl Diaries – the film could introduce us to the team, how they came about this journey and how they all met… then the horror, then a survivor and how they escaped or failed to do so. There’s plenty of room here to bulk it all up.

Distance by Richard Schertzer

‘Distance’ carries a great sort of Stephen King vibe. The film is set in the rural outskirts and follows a kind of survivor plot – or at least a version of it. Of course, many of these kinds of films have arisen since the arrival of Covid, in fact… I think we have about 5% of entries be these sorts of films each season now. However, one must say the following – this is no regular run of the mill ‘we are living in a pandemic and reflecting on life film’… this is largely thanks to Schertzer’s very mature character set up, the smart dialogue, and above all: the delicate naturalistic dialogue and physicality presented by the actors.

Space is greatly used as well. Framing often positions at a smart angle to highlight the natural beauty of the locale, and furthermore – the film’s plot includes this as part of its narrative device, which further enhances the impact of this plot element (the journey).

The downsides: the opening credits are indulgent. The closing credits could do with a bit more detail – a better font, less large. Overall though, the film is really quite nicely stylized, and a great offering during these strange times.

Project Bau by Sajan Jose

The thing I love about Project Bau is the personal journey being told to us. At its heart – it is very much just that: a personal, a single individual’s journey… a being. Not a toy, not a genre… but an individual.

There is a grand location for which the cinematography awes and sweeps around. It is a heartful backdrop to our lead character, Peter, an elderly man taken with a dog. The lead performance here is key – he is a rough man aware of his delivery, and does so with a kind of ballet strike – the physical and sounds are real and part of the dance of life.

The tension is light-handed and very easy – we know what we are supposed to feel and we feel it. Likewise, the sense of culture is engrained in the locale and the personas presented – this is an individual tale of struggle and survival, but also of the mind and the apt nature of a single person’s determination to survive.

The film itself is a well-polished endeavor. some of the grading at times is a bit indulgent, but this is also overall forgiven by the film’s own subject nature – it is a tale of a man in the final bloom of his being, and it is here that of course roses would smell more like strong roses than just a plain flower. Likewise, and perhaps by the time we reach the final sweeping camera angle, the film has reached a kind of Douglas Sirk height of melodrama: the world is beautiful, a playground only loved and devoured by those who can find love and an appetite in life for themselves.