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Waiting Room

Charles Joseph Ouda’s film WAITING ROOM (2016) explores that cliché of asking: “how far would you go to get what you want?” There is, however, another, more interesting read to the film. It’s not, it seems, that the protagonist has to “go far” out of desperation. It seems, instead, seems to acknowledge that, perhaps, people who claim to act out of fear, desire, or any other extreme emotion are maybe not exactly desperate. Maybe “too far” is actually their comfort zone.

In the story, a young woman has a wonderful husband and a seemingly fulfilled life. She does, however, want a baby quite badly, and appears to be having some challenges becoming pregnant. However, her seemingly perfect life falls apart when she finds out that her husband has been having an affair with another woman. The protagonist appears to have a talent for making lemons into lemonade, however, and sets about to get everything she wants in another way.

The conversations between the wife and the husband’s mistress are probably the most interesting part of the film. Ita Korenzechar is quite good as a woman that sheds unnecessary emotion to achieve what she wants. She also has a cruel streak that makes her simply delightful as a character. In describing the nurse’s affair as fleeting and ultimately forgettable, she twists the knife. The nurse is an unwed mother without a happy dad in the picture. The casting of the wife’s antagonist is also apt. Ana Ribeiro is a wonderful reverse image of Korenzechar. They are two beautiful brunettes, but one is ruthless and the other naïve. WAITING ROOM films the two women in a series of very tight shots, augmenting the claustrophobia and fatalism of the final events. And, while it does seem unnecessarily convenient that the mistress works is a nurse in the fertility doctor’s office, it does help to contrast her sweet persona to the wife’s sour one. The larger problem here is the hen-pecked husband, who could perhaps be less of a sad sack stereotype. But, like many films, this piece is made by its women. In a world in which female fertility is still imagined as a woman’s highest honor, these two actresses convey the agony and the ecstasy that surrounds pregnancy and birth in our current moment.

Rotten Love

In the short film ROTTEN LOVE (2017) by Xandar Turian, a sadomasochistic scene gone wrong becomes the catalyst for violence, despair, and death. Feeling stressed from work, the man, Leo (Xandar Turian) comes home to his girlfriend Kat (Sarah Gierchsky), and they seem to reconcile through a rough bout of sex. However, what appears have been romantic before—a love affair with BDSM overtones—turns violent when the man can’t seem to tell the difference between reality and dream. Off his medication, he kills his girlfriend over and over again, but even her murder can’t stop her from reappearing in his line of sight.

The film has some success with its chiaroscuro lighting and empty rooms, which help to give a kind of goth-noir sensibility. The lighting appropriately sets up the inner turmoil and anguish that the man faces, as well as his internal instability. The camera tightly follows Leo as he travels from room to room, making the large, empty home appear looming and claustrophobic. However, even though it sets up a creepy noir mise-en-scene that turns romance into horror, the film has some issues with other aspects of its production. It’s uneven audio production and odd choices of editing transitions make it appear a bit like an early student film (a rookie director move when he thinks that more is better). Moreover, the acting has some challenges. A film like this–because it is sparse and thin, about an internal decline mirrored by an external one—is made by its acting. Unfortunately, neither lead can quite get where they need to be in their performances.

What If

WHAT IF (Linda Gasser, 2017), ironically, is about the eradication of questions and the overabundance of answers. In Gasser’s film, romance is now arranged through big data. There are no chance meetings, funny first date stories, or wild, unpredictable romances. In this (semi) utopia, a young man named Achille feels that he needs spontaneity and chance in his romance. His mother is frustrated with his refusal to be set up with his match the “traditional” way, he insists on falling in love, or, more specifically, meeting through a romantic encounter. His attempts to capture that spontaneity go awry, however, when he steals a woman’s purse, kidnaps her, and locks her in his basement apartment. While he eventually lets her go, its ambiguous as to whether or not she eventually succumbs to Stockholm syndrome.

The film’s pastel tones and tinny music—the sets resemble nothing so much as the original Star Trek’s other planets with gorgeous alien hipsters and oddly blocky furniture—are eerily disturbing, but not as disturbing as the young man who insists on love through violence. In a world in which the old tropes of the rom-com are beginning to fall flat, the chase that appeared wildly romantic generations earlier now seems much more like stalking. Achille sees his insistence and dedication to this woman he just met as wildly romantic—she, on the other hand, is disturbed and even terrified.

The film’s biggest issue, however, lies in its ambiguity. While its gestures toward the importance of random chance are very interesting, it seems to be unsure if it sympathizes with Achille or not. While the film ostensibly has a happy ending, in truth, it may make the viewer long for a future time in which all romantic feelings are catalyzed through big data. At least then, perhaps people can avoid those felonies that seem to arise out of a meet-cute scenario.

The Interview

The short film THE INTERVIEW (Dave Klapproth, 2017) is by turns a funny, awkward, painful, and revolting image of the post-2008 corporate world. At a time in which labor has been devalued and real work has become scarce, young and old, male and female, and experienced and new find themselves fighting to gain a foothold in the ruthless corporate environment.

Three candidates arrive for a job interview at a generic looking corporate office: a family man, an almost senior citizen, and a fresh-out-of-college millennial. The three share their sad stories in the waiting room. The older candidate left the industry to care for his dying wife, the family man may lose his house, and the young woman is terrified of a tough job market. The interviewer talks to each candidate alone, telling him that he will bring all three back later. After speaking with the three separately, he brings them all back in and offers them a contest—whoever can solve a maze puzzle can have the job. When the contest is won, however, the real disaster occurs.

Here, part of the humor lies in the fact that corporate banality can paper over real absurdities that is the contemporary system. The movie is slow, with long pauses as three potential competitors attempt small talk. Discussing cancer at the office with strangers is always awkward, but perhaps even more so when competing for one open position. The position is rather awful, in fact, not much more than a simply lackey. Moreover, the final contest is silly and trivial. The odd maze may gesture toward Google’s famous logic quizzes, which don’t seem to prove anything except that managers like to make prospective employees do trick to prove their worth. The relationship between a plastic maze and a highly secure biological research facility seems tangential at best (also, the film begs the question: Why did he interview each alone if he knew he was going to bring them all back in at the end? The fact that he told them from the beginning makes the concluding “maze contest” look entirely prearranged from the beginning.

The film’s ending, however, dampens much of its potential satire. Too narratively driven to be abstract, the films odd lack of a traditional story arc challenges the viewer to derive any meaning from the scenario. Except to know that, in fact, work is awful and occasionally deadly. It’s best to stay away from it at all costs.

Kill The Engine

Derek Frey 2017 film, Kills the Engine, aptly exploits the one-act simplicity that makes short films their own art. The three protagonists have one goal, and—when initially thwarted—work together to fix their problem. Unfortunately, for them, their goal is to make their car work so that they kill themselves via carbon monoxide poisoning.

It is the simplicity, together with the gaps in the story, that make Kill the Engine funny. It tells us nothing of these men’s stories, so we can’t help but see them as slightly absurd incarnations of American pathos. Middle aged and average looking, they seem neither rich nor poor; brilliant nor stupid, or even particularly sad. In fact, their major obstacle in life appears to be their inability to get their mode of death up and running.

A lot of the comedy comes from their clear discomfort with mechanical work. When they attempt to jump the battery, they are terrified to even try for fear of being electrocuted. They also oddly decide to wear random children’s sports helmets, presumably with the idea that these will somehow protect them against shock. The only thing it protects them against, however, is a bump on the head. And, when they are finally able to get their car running, their Friday Night Lights victory pleasure is short lived, as they realize what victory means.

While the slapstick is fun and the story tightly written, the movie does fall apart a bit if you think about it too much. Stories like this work best when there is a larger commentary or cultural critique underpinning them. Because the men aren’t developed to be “real people,” with real problems, they are stand-ins for societal types. Given the characters’ inability to work with their hands and seeming malaise, it leads us to think that they may be stand-ins for emasculated men? If so, they lack the sharper critique of why that is interesting or important, making the film claim that that is, in itself, deserving of suicide. It could be their overreaction to societal norms that leading them to their sad condition; the film doesn’t say (or have the space to tell us that). It’s a fun ten minutes, though; it’s probably best not to think too hard about it and enjoy the ride.

Shadow

In Jae Won Jung’s Shadow (2017), a broke filmmaker gets what appears to be a too good to be true job. Jae-ha, an aspiring, desperate filmmaker who appears to be about two weeks from eviction, finds a flier that advertises twenty thousand dollars for three days of work. The job involves documenting a subject from morning to night without being spotted. Jae-ha is of course more than a little uncomfortable with the jobs and grows even more so when he sees his subject: a beautiful, young theatre actress named Sun-Woo, who smokes her way through rehearsals for a play and not much else.

Sun-Woo, like so many other truly cinematic heroines before her, is indecipherable. She says the lines from her play, but are they necessarily something she believes? And, while her performance consists of seemingly unemotional dialogues, she seems equally as unknowable outside of her play. She lies down, she smokes, she talks, but her face reveals nothing. In this way, Sun-Woo is quite similar to the female characters of Wan Kar Wai, David Lynch, and the other directors that Jung sites as inspiration. Like Laura Palmer and Su Li-Zhen, Sun-Woo is a compendium of melodramatic heroines who are placed in situations, not of their making. Through her emotive eyes and blank expressions, shadow asks that we empathize with Sun-Woo’s pain, even if we don’t understand it.

Her crisis, however, is more philosophical than material. Her monologues describe the struggle between the ephemeral nature of existence and the eternal nature of the world. That’s why she notes “ephemerality is as beautiful as an eternity.”
Her struggle is augmented by the difference in art forms that populate the film. Sun-Woo is of course engaged in theatrical performances; when she rehearses, each performance is transitory and complete in of itself. But Jae-ha is filming her, giving these finite performances a sense of permanence. In each of these dialogues, Sun-Woo seems to be aware of her short time in this world and the rather fleeting impression she makes on the world. However, these interactions and dialogues also foreground the challenges and differences between film and other performative media.

Shadow’s success is predicated on Se In Park’s excellent performance as Sun-Woo. Park is an actress that can project every emotion so clearly and yet remain entirely unreachable. Like so many of film’s great actresses, Park can embody the contradictory emotions that characterize human existence. With Park performance and the film’s classic, photographic cinematography, Jung creates a beautiful meditation on film, life, and the desire to be known and remembered.

Mascot Fur Life

Jens Wernstedt’s 2016 short mockumentary, Mascots Fur Life, creates a sports film with all the usual clichés: the poor underdog that we can all root for, the Rocky-getting-fit montage, the final freeze, and almost all the rest. Crucially, this underdog isn’t a dog at all; rather, he’s an underlion. More precisely, he’s a lion mascot that real, just like (in this story) all mascots. In Wernstedt’s universe, mascots aren’t people in costume but actual living beings, who pay rent and have jobs and attempt to find self-fulfillment. In the case of Willion, the protagonist, his dream is to be an elite, pro football mascot, which is the pinnacle of mascot life.

Like a lot of sports protagonists, Willion is both truly dedicated and rather average. But what he lacks in talent and looks he makes up for in enthusiasm; Willion trains every day, foregoing work, money, and a personal life to try to make it to the big leagues. Of course, he has to have many trials and tribulations along the way. He must fail at first; therefore his final success is so much sweeter.

Mascots Fur Life is at its best—and therefore most absurd—when it’s at its most serious. While these mascots train exhaustively, their clunky bodies appear bizarre and rather useless. In one particularly funny scene, Willion’s friend is holding a boxing heavy bag for Willion while he practices sparring, but he can’t control his own head. Willion punches, and the friend’s absurdly large head ricochets off the bag, again and again, proving that repetition is indeed quite funny. In fact, the film could have more strongly highlighted the ways that these mascots aren’t built for society, illustrating their inability to handle touch phones and open envelopes.

And I think this is the main issue with the film. On the one hand, its photography is crystal clear, its musical choices are perfect, and its visuals accurately deploy the schmaltziness of sports fluff pieces. However, its satirical strain could have benefited from actually exaggerated those qualities more for greater effect. If the goal of the film is to call into question the need for feel-good sports narratives, it may have actually fallen a little short. The question remains: why do mascots exist (in this world) if not to be mascots? Is this a cruel world in which only a few mascots can be their truest selves? In answering that, the film could point to how we idolize sports life, often to the detriment of ourselves.

Firdaws

Mayur Puri’s 2017 Firdaws asks its audience to think about not whether or not there is an afterlife but if we can actually stand it once we get there. In the film’s earliest moments we meet Affy, a suicide bomber who managed to complete his mission and is now in the afterlife. He wakes up in a beautiful cabin, surrounded by cushions, candles, a TV that plays his favorite cricket match, and a gorgeous woman. The woman, Noor, is everything he was ever promised in the afterlife: sexy and absolutely compliant. Even as he is fed grapes and promised fantastic sex for the rest of his life, however, he remains uneasy. He keeps on asking what happened to his leader, his team, and his mission.

Moreover, the room itself has an undercurrent of malice to it. Behind the frilly pillows and giant television, the walls are wallpapered with newspaper clippings that discuss the horrors of the real world (“40 Dead in Kashmir” and “Trump Deports Immigrants” were two of the headlines). Although Noor is doing her best to seduce him and make him comfortable, he becomes more and more agitated as he remembers the school children he blew up. And, with her last line, Noor even undermines the idea that he is in paradise at all.

This is not to say that the film is pulling the “Twilight Zone Switch” and Affy is actually in hell; rather, the movie undermines most religions ideas of paradise. In many beliefs, there is only one true religion. For a terrorist bomber, it is likely even more so. Additionally, paradise should give its subjects peace of mind, but this paradise doesn’t erase the traumatic memories of the past. Instead, Firdaws images an afterlife in which the frivolous and rather banal desires of humans don’t really make for pure bliss. In a rather funny moment, for example, Affy remarks on how white looking Noor is, and she responds, “Yeah, that’s what you like, right?”, which marks Affy’s ambiguous relationship to western cultural standards. Moreover, when he can’t have sex, Noor gives him a Viagra—which seems an absurd need in the afterlife. In essence, Affy is still fundamentally fully human. In this way, he is only a convergence of his past actions and memories. Even in the afterlife, he can’t shed his own human nature.

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