One of the things I have learned covering independent films is that you do not need a big budget to make something entertaining. Passion, creativity and a group of talented individuals is sometimes all it takes. A prime example of this is Sujewa Ekanayake’s Cosmic Disco Detective Rene and the Mystery of Immortal Time Travelers, a sequel to his wonderful The Secret Society for Slow Romance.
In Cosmic Disco Detective Rene, we catch up with the couple from the first film, Rene and Allyson. Rene is a detective who tunes into the music of the cosmos to help him solve his investigations. You can guess what that music sounds like from the title. Allyson realizes the freedoms she now has as a filmmaker and has a hard time deciding which project she should work on first, while helping Rene with his secret plan to make the world a better place for all. Rene is soon hired by Ithihasaya to investigate the possible presence of Immortal Time Travelers. He needs to determine if they are messing with our time line and if they pose a threat to the human race. And that is just for starters.
This is a delightfully fun and well written indie comedy that was as unpredictable as the first film. It is minimalistic filmmaking at its finest. Ekanayake gives us characters who are highly amusing thanks to the entire cast’s performance. Rene is played by Ekanayake with subtle charm and improved delivery from the first film. It always seemed like Rene was amused, regardless of the situation, thanks to the corner of his lips that curled into a subtle smile. The segments with Rene recording his audio notes are particularly funny because of the subjects he talks about. Even the scenes where it was just two people trading lines of dialog were charming. Alia Lorae returns as Allyson, my favorite character from the first movie as well as in this one. Many of her scenes reminded me of a poet at open mic night in a beatnik cafe. You learn alot about her while she records her own notes about which project she should work on, her relationship with Rene, and the state of things in general. Genoveva Rossi plays the role of Ithihasaya. You can tell she is having a lot of fun with the character. There is also a character named Chitrapati, a theater owner and film critic, who interviews Rene. This was a character I wanted to get to know more about thanks to the performance of Natalie Osborne.
Like the first film, the city of New York is also a character. There are a variety of shots of random locations that are interspersed between the scenes of dialog. Some are beautiful, static shots while others are more abstract, quick takes. Some shots are intentionally out of focus or unsteady. All help convey the energy New York City is known for while also serving as a unique creative expression of the director’s love for the town. He also plays with time, with some scenes being played in reverse. This is sometimes very evident and sometimes subtle. It is a simple yet effective way to sell the idea that there may be time travelers somewhere messing with things. The music adds to the energy and helps solidify the film’s identity. Above all else the vibe of the story is always upbeat. We do not see our happy couple have a fight or people’s lives being threatened. It is positively charming.
Cosmic Disco Detective Rene and the Mystery of Immortal Time Travelers is not going to be for everyone. It is an artsy film in all aspects, but this is not a negative. You can feel the honesty in the story and there are some truly laugh out loud moments, if you get what Sujewa is laying down. While it may leave mainstream audiences scratching their heads, for those seeking something entertaining, up beat and different, this one's for you, especially if you enjoyed the first film. Whoever said there is no creativity left in cinema isn’t looking in the right places.
When someone is going to hypnotherapy, there is a certain level of trust placed in the therapist. Now what if that therapist is possessed by a demonic force looking to take advantage of the situation? This is just one of the ideas explored in “Evil Lurks”, a new indie horror film from director Aaron Hawkins and Chris Shern.
Kimberly suffered a great loss in her life and has been overcome with grief ever since. She seeks the help of a hypnotherapist named Harold. Harold is quickly drawn to her, and he suggests a private therapy session, which she agrees to. Little does she know that her therapist is possessed by a malevolent force known as the “Ssh Man” who appears every 15 years on the blood moon. After being viciously sexually assaulted, Kimberly is sent to the psychiatric hospital where she gives birth to a daughter, Erica. Fifteen years after her birth, the Ssh Man is once again roaming the earth, this time looking for his offspring. Kimberly, knowing that her daughter is in danger, gathers all of her strength to track down Erica and protect her before the “Ssh Man” discovers Erica’s location.
What “Evil Lurks” may lack in budget it makes up for in spirit, creativity and talent. Hawkins and Shern tell a story that covers the subject of grief, loss, foster parenting, and trust. The idea of the “Ssh Man” is chilling and executed well. I loved the concept, and the portrayal was legitimately scary thanks to the performance of Chris Shern. Harold flips between charismatic hypnotist to possessed madman like a light switch. He sells the evil, elevating some of the more extreme scenes. Amanda Winston’s Kimberly is a very sympathetic character. Winston makes you feel her frustration and sadness as she deals with all of the trauma she has experienced. You get the feeling there is something more than just the horrors she’s faced at the hands of the “Ssh Man”. Kimberly’s daughter, Erica, is played by Savannah Mae. I thought she did great as a young woman caught up in something so dark. There was a good mother-daughter chemistry between her and Winston.
It is always interesting to see how a filmmaker will handle extreme abuse scenes. Some show everything, some keep things more to the imagination with quick cuts and obscure camera angles. Hawkins and Shern do a little bit of both. The camera does not shy away from the abuse, giving weight to what is happening, but it does not feel exploitative. Props to both Winston and Shern for how they handled difficult scenes.
“Evil Lurks” feels overambitious when it comes to the visual effects. There are a number of scenes where Kimberly is in a nightmare world. These scenes are where the smaller budget is most evident. The compositing of the green screen is apparent in some spots but Winston still does an excellent job in selling the idea that she is in an otherworldly place. I loved what they were going for and I wish they would have had a bigger budget to pull these sections off better. The dialog audio is also muddled in a few scenes.
The subject of grief, separation, and loss have been a popular subject in horror the last couple years. Some have handled these subjects well while others have stumbled. Evil Lurks is in the middle of this group. While some of the production elements could have been better, it is the direction and performances that make it a worthwhile watch.
There is a new coming-of-age movie out that has the spirit of a classic fairytale but with modern sensibilities. W tells the story of Violet, a very inquisitive and naive girl who believes that she is a witch. Her family life is not the greatest. Her sister Savannah aspires to be a model and is overly concerned about her body image. Violet’s mom Chloe never smiles like she used to, and Violet figures it may be because her dad Adam spends all the time on the internet. While her sister auditions to be a model for a fashion icon named Yana, Violet wanders into a nearby forest and comes across a witch named Hazel. Violet bonds with Hazel through their mutual connection to nature and magic. Soon Violet is on a journey that will change her and her family forever.
Wonderwell is a fanciful female-led story that is sure to spark the imagination of many young people. It will also spark conversations about puberty, self-image, family dynamics, social behaviors and more. Director Vlad Marsavin weaves these themes into the tapestry of a fantasy world that includes floating gold faces, extra large venus fly traps, and flowers that seem to be able to move. All the elements looked fantastic thanks to the special effects which helps immerse you into Violet’s world. Whether you are in the green gardens of the Paradiso or the coldly modern Inferno, it all looks great thanks to Cinematographer Kenji Katori. The gorgeous score by William Ross is part John Willams and part Hans Zimmer that not only enhances the emotions of each scene but manages to shine on its own.
The cast also shines. Carrie Fisher puts in a solid, heartwarming performance that reminds us how much we miss her talent. Her Witch Hazel had the perfect balance of kindness, sympathy and strength. Rita Ora plays Yana, the Yin to Hazel’s Yang. They only get one major scene together but it was my favorite scene; powerful and tension-filled. Yana is a dark, cold character who has a commanding presence everytime she is on screen. Ora plays her perfectly. She is definitely a villain you will love to hate. Young newcomer Kira Mileward holds her own with the veterans. While her line delivery was rough at times, her charisma and energy helped make up for it. She had great chemistry with the other performers, particularly with Carrie Fisher and Nell Tiger Free who plays Savannah. Free makes a perfect jump from a rebellious teen to someone questioning their choices. She uses a lot of facial expressions effectively in her performance to convey this transition. You can see she is torn between being a cold-hearted model and a loving sister.
There is an interesting parallel between the Hazel and Yana relationship and Violet and Savannah relationship. It is as if we are seeing how Hazel and Yana started out through the younger characters. It is not just reflected in how the characters are written, but also in their costuming. Costume Designer Nicoletta Ercole designs were both visually striking and helped enhance the personality of the characters. Violet and Hazel wore soft, warm, earth toned clothing while Yana’s clothing was far colder, abstract and made up of mostly black. You could tell Ercole had a lot of fun designing Yana’s clothing line. I could see any one of these designs on the runway in real life.
The only issue I had with the film was with the ending. I could have used a bit more explanation on how the magic worked. Specifically, in the way things are resolved. I understand that the main focus is Violet dealing with the changes that occur with getting older, so some aspects of the story do not get as much attention. Still, I would have liked a little more in the rules of the world and why the resolution worked the way it did. I don’t need everything spelled out but the ending did leave me with a few questions.
Wonderwell is a magical, entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking family film. It does not shy away from presenting some heavy topics like infidelity and the sexualization of young women but it doesn’t get too far into the weeds on these topics. The ninety-six minute run time breezes by and the overall production value makes it worth a watch. 4 out of 5 stubs.
Ever since I became a parent, I learned that you should never underestimate the perspective of a child. Their view of the world and how things, like relationships, are supposed to work is pure. This idea, along with others, are front and center in the short film Who’s Watching Who? written and directed by Chris Levine. We meet Trevor, a rather precocious ten-year old who is being watched by his Uncle Nick. Nick has been down and out due to a major event in his life. Over the course of the weekend, Nick finds it a challenge to reign in his young nephew. During the same weekend, Trevor helps Nick gain a more hopeful perspective on life.
Who’s Watching Who? Is a touching, funny, and grounded story with a lot of heart. Chris Levine is also in front of the camera as Uncle Nick. I loved his approach to Nick, this guy who really has not been around kids much and just feels like he is in over his head. There is a palpable underlying sadness that seems to fade as he spends more time with Trevor. Alex Lizzul’s Trevor is very charismatic and just adorable. His interactions with Nick came across as a genuine nephew/uncle relationship. If you ever sat down with someone who is Trevor’s age, you know they have opinions and are willing to share them. The two really play off each other well which is important for a character driven story like this.
While not trying to break any new ground, Who’s Watching Who? strengthens the idea that kids know more than we think they do and can help us through the tough times as an adult. I loved the heart and spirit of this short film and think it is worth catching if it is playing at a festival near you.
Welcome to another SMP Review!
2020 was an eventful, history making year. The pandemic was swiftly ramping up, society was trying to adapt to a “new normal” and the Black Lives Matter movement began. It makes a perfect backdrop for Bernard Rose’s Traveling Light. In Traveling Light, Caddy is a man who is looking for his missing son while working as an Uber and Delivery Driver. His son has been missing for a couple of years, but Caddy has not given up hope. Over the course of the day of May 30th, 2020, Caddy meets a number of characters, including Harry. Harry is a cult leader who decides to invite some of his flock to a house on Mullholland Drive to take part in a rather bizarre, existential ceremony. Meanwhile, the city of L.A. is a powder keg of building tension due to the murder of George Floyd. As Caddy continues to ferry more people to Harry’s house, that powder keg is ignited along with Harry’s secret plan for his followers, while Caddy just wants to earn some money and find his son.
Traveling Light is character driven biting satire that is hilarious, thought provoking, and subtly terrifying. The social commentary represented by the various characters Caddy meets pulls no punches. Whether it is a woman who refuses to keep her mask on while in the car with Caddy or the guy who seems good on the surface but is actually a creeper, or the privileged individuals of Harry’s flock. All are different aspects of our culture which reared their head during the rise of the pandemic and civil protests. The tone to the commentary is similar to the one in Rose’s Candyman, but with a more subtle, gradual build of dread. Traveling Light uses a Cinéma vérité style of storytelling, giving it a documentary feel. This grounded the film further and added depth to all of the characters by making them feel like real people.
Tony Todd is wonderful as Caddy. He gives you a very sympathetic, everyday man who is just trying to do his job while also fighting to stay positive in the search for his son and in spite of the state of society. You feel his frustration when dealing with the people he is transporting as well as his love for his son. Harry, played by Danny Houston, is dark, slightly creepy but also charismatic. I love what Houston does with this character. He gives Harry just enough honesty that you will almost buy what he is selling but at the same time there is something just below the surface that makes you uneasy. The uneasiness grows as things escalate at Harry’s gathering and it is thanks to Houston’s performance. Stephen Dorff’s Todd is a layered character; someone who didn’t believe in the whole meditation and existentialism schtick that Harry presented in the beginning, but that changes for him to the surprise of his, played by Olivia d’Abo. He does half-heartedly try to question some of Harry’s actions but never gets his answers.
This is considered a drama but the use of real world news clips in the background, the various forms of paranoia the characters feel, and even the color palette all give the story a more horror-like atmosphere. The feeling of dread never goes away even when chuckling at a drunk Todd trying to order food. The audience will definitely connect with the characters because ninety percent of the conversations and situations portrayed were actual conversations and situations many faced in 2020, providing yet another layer to an already stacked story.
Traveling Light is not those looking for Tarintino-esque conversations or fast paced action. If you enjoy a day-in-the-life type story that has satire mixed with steadily paced thought provoking scenes with horror undertones, then you will want to seek this out. I found myself immediately engrossed in it and was delightfully surprised by the ending. 5 stubs.
Quantum mechanics and the multiverse collide with self-loathing and the regret of a one night stand in the new sci-fi comedy, Backwards Faces.
Backwards Faces is a story about Sydney, a theoretical physicist who has a one night stand with a man named Ken. We catch up with the duo the morning after, when Ken claims to be from a different universe. He states that he arrived via the bathroom in the apartment they were in. In fact, the bathroom is a blackhole portal that can take you to any number of infinite worlds. Each world is a different version of their current reality. At first, Sydney thinks this is just Ken’s way of trying to keep her there after their awkward evening. Soon she is presented with evidence that she cannot deny and comes to the realization that theoretical physics may not be as theoretical as we are led to believe.
Backwards Faces is a heady sci-fi comedy that takes the idea of actions and consequences in a refreshingly original direction. Director and writer Chris Aresco uses the concept of the many-worlds as a representation of how people internalize behaviors when they make a decision they regret. That question is, “What if I had done something differently?”. The answer to that question for Sydney and Ken manifests in physical form, and they don’t always like what they see. Each character states their case on the nature of man, the option of actions without consequences, and of perception of oneself. These arguments are presented through well crafted dialog and sharp delivery by the performers. You can tell Aresco spent a lot of time working out the details so that the information presented felt true to theoretical physics while being entertaining at the same time. There are some high concepts explored, but I never felt lost in what was being said.
The performances by the two leads are nothing short of amazing, especially for an independent project like this one. The dialog is delivered at Tarintino-esque speed that feels believable. Lennon Sickles does a wonderful job portraying Sydney and makes you feel her confusion, curiosity, regret and fascination with the thought of the many-worlds concept being a reality. Not only does she make you believe what she is saying but through her facial expressions and movements, you can see that she is figuring things out. Ken is played by Andrew Morra and makes a great counterpoint to Sydney. Ken has had more experience with the things Sydney has only read about and is able to hold his own with her. I love the verbal sparring that occurs throughout the film. Both performers also get to play various versions of themselves and make those versions believable. Plus, they just look like they are having fun.
If you do not like dialog heavy, character driven films then Backwards Faces may not be for you. It takes place all in one apartment and there are only the two characters on which the story completely relies. If you enjoy a script that will have you thinking deeply while laughing out loud at the same time, I highly recommend it. 5 out of 5 stubs.
Backward Faces is out now on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, iNDemand, Vubiquity, DirecTV and more!
The Dark Web. It is the underworld of the internet where anything and everything illegal happens. From selling passwords, to selling drugs, to human trafficking. It is also the setting for the web series Red Rooms. Five people, who have done horrendous things in the course of their life, have been kidnapped and tied to chairs in five separate rooms. Each room has a webcam and microphone for the viewing audience to see and hear everything. These individuals are unwilling contestants in a game labeled “Live or Die.” The host, known only as the Grandmaster, asks the contestants about the horrific things they have done. If the contestants lie about what they have done, they are killed before the end of the contest. When the questioning is complete, the Dark Web viewers vote on who is the worst. The person with the most votes gets to live; the rest are killed. Over the course of the first season, we learn about the contestants and who is behind putting them in the Red Rooms.
This definitely is a product of the pandemic. While big studios were putting the brakes on production, indie companies like Philly Chick Pictures were coming up with inventive ways to tell stories while still observing quarantine guidelines. Think of Red Rooms like Hostel meets SAW on Zoom. The series relies on the performances of the actors since everything happens in a single room where they are fairly immobile. Having to shoot their scenes via webcam on their computer or laptop must have made the roles extra challenging. Ricky Dean Logan plays the creepy Father Stephen Bishop. You could tell he was deep into this role which could not have been easy given the character. David Alpay puts in a convincing and unnerving performance as the assassin Alex Terizan. Everyone does well, but Logan and Alpay really stand out.
Joshua Butler, who wrote and directed all of the episodes, manages to piece everything together to create a series that will keep you wanting to see what happens next. Most episodes are about eight minutes and change which makes this series a breezy watch. The surreal red-colored CGI opening and Composer Luna Pan’s creepy theme music helps set the dark tone of the show.
The story is a great exploration into how people handle justifying bad decisions in their life. Each episode ends up being a different stage. From denial, to deflection, and finally acceptance. Things really pick up in episodes four and five, which are my two favorites. There is also a twist that is revealed that added an extra layer of weight to what was happening.
If you are not used to a micro-budget aesthetic and do not enjoy watching a video conference session from hell, this series may not be for you. Everything is tinted red which may put some
people off. Some of the dialogue could have been handled better, especially for the Grand Master in the first couple of episodes where they repeat themselves more often than necessary.
If you are looking for something different to watch that is bingeable and has a character-driven story with decent performances, you will want to check it out. I would have liked to see some of the writing tightened up and a little more time spent with the characters. I have a lot of respect for what they accomplished with the series and would be interested to see what they would do with another season with a new set of characters. I give the Red Rooms series three out of five stubs.
You can see Red Rooms for yourself on the "Deep C Digital" YouTube Channel here: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLXNY08O_Iy2l95hAkqWtU6HWt6k1eQyoJ
The holiday season may be over, but horror movie season is year round. There is an indie holiday horror film called It Came Upon a Midnight Clear that you may want to add to your Holiday Horror watch list. We get the story of Jeremy Adams, a senior in high school who is not that popular except with his best friend Minka Romero. When Amanda, the most popular girl in school and Jeremy’s dream girl, agrees to go on a date with Jeremy, he thinks his luck has turned around. Unfortunately, fate has other plans for the two as Amanda is kidnaped. Even worse, it appears a serial killer from the town’s past has returned and is out for revenge. Now, Jeremy and Minka find themselves on a blood-soaked trail searching for Amanda leading to more bodies, feelings revealed and dark secrets uncovered.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is a coming-of-age story meets Scream in a Santa outfit. The story wears its influences on its sleeve and is having fun while doing it. Director and writer Stephen Allen Gutierrez keeps the story brisk and is not heavy handed in the exposition. While I like a fast moving film, I would have liked to see a few more emotional beats in the scenes that were supposed to have some weight to them.
There is plenty of emotion in the performance of Jaeden Riley Juarez. Juarez plays Minka with the perfect balance of emotion, wit and charisma. You immediately empathize with her and the situation she is in with her friend Jeremy, played by Drew Pipkin. Pipkin and Juarez are, for lack of a better term, adorable. I could just watch a movie with these two navigating the waters of their senior year in high school and their potential for being more than friends. The rest of the young cast put in solid performances. Katreina Sifuentes’ Amanda was a surprise. Amanda is not your traditional “Popular Girl” personality. Sifuentes plays Amanda with honesty and makes you believe that Amanda is actually excited to go out with Adam. She also is genuine in her defense of Minka when Minka was being bullied in the locker room.
The adult characters were also a delight. I loved seeing Michael Berryman in the unexpected role of Principal Lucas. You could feel the weight on the principal’s shoulders as news of more deaths came across his desk. P.G. Marlar plays the teacher Mr. Campbell, who ends up being one of the more badass characters. Chief Lawton is Amanda’s father, played by Rob Huey, who makes the audience feel the emotions of a parent whose child is in peril. Patricia Vonne also shows up with a solid performance as Jeremy’s Aunt Prudence.
The film shows its influences in the design of the killer; from the coat that looks like it came from “Silent Night, Deadly Night” to the extensive use of the augmented phone voice ala “Scream”. Now that said, the Santa Slayer's kills are unique to the character. The blood and gore in the film were nearly all practical and looked great. There is only one scene where it looked like they enhanced the wonderful makeup effects with some CGI. The ending was a bit of a disappointment only in that it was more cliche than I would have liked, though it did make sense given the rest of the film.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is a bloody genre mashup that has as many endearing moments as it does scary ones. While it does borrow from many past slasher films, it still manages to have its own identity and feels like a modern slasher. Like with many modern films, you will want to stay until the end credits to enjoy the blooper reel and an end credit stinger. Indie horror fans looking to get their killer Santa fix may want to check it out. I had a fun time and give it 3 out of 5 stubs.
If you have been following the news at all, you know there has been a recent uprising by the women of Iran. Activists everywhere are standing up to the status quo that has oppressed them for decades. Mary Apick, a long-time activist, filmmaker, and actress has created a hand drawn animated film to reflect life in Iran since the 1979 revolution. “The Cat” tells the story of a little girl who sells flowers on the street. One day a darkness rolls in, destroying everything in its path, from artwork to individual will. The little girl tries to run from the darkness to avoid being consumed. At times she wants to give up but she keeps pressing on, hoping that she can once again find the light to push back the darkness.
“The Cat” is a powerful short film. No frame is wasted during the twelve-minute run time. Each scene is an allegory for what women and society as a whole have had to live with in Iran for decades. The various ways the darkness is portrayed is downright scary. There is a particular scene involving a factory that has stuck with me since I first saw it. So much is said without dialog, demonstrating the power of visual media. The hand drawn aesthetic of the animation gives the story an extra personal touch and an organic connection that is not as strong when CGI animation is used. I was very moved by this short and watched it a couple of times. I got more out of it with each viewing.
The message in the film of hope is needed in the tough times that the women of Iran are facing, as well as for those facing similar challenges around the world. I highly recommend this moving, poignant, animated short film that says so much in so little time.
Watch ‘The Cat’: https://vimeo.com/653885052
Curses, Demons, and the Occult. While most commonly found in horror films, these elements can also be found in other genres. Their meanings vary from culture to culture. There is a new film from Japan that deals with all three subjects, but not in a way that you might be used to.
In The Divine Protector - Master Salt Begins, members of a high school occult club discover a way to summon “Master Salt”, a protector of the Divine, repealer of evil, and eliminator of curses. One of the members of the club has had a number of strange and scary incidents that the club determines are due to a curse. They summon Master Salt to help get rid of the curse. Master Salt does as advertised. The club decides that there are many people who could use Master Salt’s help and they work together to help eliminate curses and heal those affected by them.
The Divine Protector - Master Salt Begins is a Buddhist morality play. It is a female driven story that is well acted, excellently crafted, and solidly written. I am glad that I watched the subtitled version with the original dialog. Rin Kijima delivers a skillful performance as Master Salt, played with such passion and strength that you can’t wait for her to appear. Her theme song is catchy too. By the third time I heard it, I was happy as I knew Master Salt was about to lay the smack down. There is a wonderful balance and honesty to her character that is amplified by Kijima’s performance.
The story plays out like an anthology with four self-contained subplots dealing with different curses. These curses take various supernatural forms and carry out selfish, evil deeds. There is a man who uses a phone scam to prey on the elderly, an abusive husband, an egotistical playboy, and a jealous classmate. These curses are exposed by Master Salt and removed from the people they are plaguing. In many movies, we would see the hero just kill the evil, but Master Salt rarely takes that path. Instead, she teaches the curse what it is doing wrong. She also teaches the person about what they did to allow the curse to inhabit them. The strong religious overtones may be hard to relate to, particularly in Western culture, but the story’s intention is one of positivity and redemption. The special effects were a bit campy but given the budget and type of film this is, I found amusement in their quality. The cinematography and color usage was beautiful whether it was just a scene in a hallway or someone walking through a park. It is a gorgeous film.
With all that is going on in the world, we need more positive films and The Divine Protector - Master Salt is definitely that. Director Hiroshi Akabane takes care in addressing dark subjects without turning bleak. While some may not enjoy the film due to the religious foundation, many will find a lot of fun with this fantastical tale. I know I did and so did my wife. The Divine Protector - Master Salt Begins is out in select theaters now and will soon be on VOD.
I have been reviewing films since high school. I love discussing films with those who share my passion for them. I also do video reviews on YouTube and on my podcast.