Cherzoso: The Silent Film (Short) (2020)

Shorts are always an interesting form of cinematic storytelling, sometimes able to pack a lot into a small space, sometimes experiments intended as tasters for a longer project. Cherzoso: The Silent Film falls into the former category as a five-minute short telling the story of a circus clown/escort who has to make some life-changing decisions about her son and sister.

As advertised, the film is silent, with quick subtitles permeating the upper and lower corners. Tracy Ann Chapel plays all the characters—Cherzoso, her sister Sherry, her escort alter-ego Cherry Bell—highlighting Cherzoso’s turmoil as she puts on and takes off wigs and makeup, turning the conversation into an internal debate. The choice of silent, black-and-white images here allows for a deeper focus on the images themselves, but the attempt to make the film look more like a silent film undercuts its meaning. The onscreen titles don’t quite mesh with the “old timey” look of the film—the use of actual intertitles, rather than subtitles, might have helped to set the tone.

However, the silence means that Cherzoso’s dilemma plays out more on Chapel’s face than via her dialogue (or the changing of voices), and forces the viewer to focus on the subtle alterations in her appearance, rather than her other behavior. The result is an intriguing short film whose plot is not always clear.

The Dalai Lama – Scientist (2020)

Dawn Gifford Engle’s The Dalai Lama – Scientist examines the 14th Dalai Lama’s lifelong interest in science and technology, culminating in his initiation of a number of dialogues between himself, fellow monks, and (primarily) Western scientists, including physicists, neuroscientists, and psychologists. The goal was not only to feed the Dalai Lama’s fascination with science, but to establish a conversation and potential collaboration between Eastern religious philosophy and Western science. As the film chronicles these dialogues, an evocative image emerges of the sympathetic relationship.

Despite the slightly odd title, The Dalai Lama – Scientist is an interesting examination of the developing collaborative relationship between Western science and Eastern religious philosophy, specifically Tibetan Buddhism, in the person of the Lama himself. The most interesting sections focus on the extensive dialogues between the Dalai Lama and Nobel Prize-winning physicists, MIT neurologists, psychoanalysts, and beyond. It then traces the similarities between Buddhist thinking and the foundations of quantum physics, neurology, and psychological examination. In establishing a clear comparison between two apparently disconnected modes of human investigation, there’s a revelation that perhaps science and religion are not and should not be at odds, that the constant questioning and investigation of the world around us and within us are more human endeavors than strictly religious or scientific ones, and that much can be learned by collaboration rather than skepticism of each other.

The film does occasionally veer into the hokey and brushes against some New Age mysticism that is at odds with the attempt to take both Tibetan teachings and quantum mechanics, among other things, seriously. This is not a critical documentary, but more of an instructive one, and relies primarily, if not exclusively, on the viewer’s comprehension of a number of heady concepts. But both as a mental exercise and as a unique insight into these dialogues between the Dalai Lama and scientists, it functions well, most interesting when the film takes a step back and simply shows us, in somewhat truncated form, the progression of the dialogues and the revelations from both sides of the aisle.

Happily, The Dalai Lama – Scientist makes those dialogues available and accessible, with minimal interference. Yes, we are meant to respect and understand both sides of the conversation, their complexities and mutabilities, and not really to question the dialogues as political exercises (though a brief statement, nearing the end of the film, clarifies that the Dalai Lama did actually meet with Chinese scientists not long ago), but the whole interaction is intriguing without being politicized. The film does not necessarily take a position, though the title indicates that it’s certainly coming from the side of the Lama – the film is produced by PeaceJam, a foundation made up of fourteen Nobel Peace Laureates, including himself, and is part of a series intended to showcase the work of the Laureates.

The Dalai Lama – Scientist is ultimately intended to preach to the choir, instructing without much critique, but it accomplishes its project intelligently, developing the relationships between science and religion via the person of the Dalai Lama and his desire to integrate his belief system and the teachings of the Buddha with scientific understanding. Ultimately, this is about mutual respect, learning what we can from different modes of thinking, and developing relationships that that bring us together as human beings. It’s an act of love and of collaboration, reinforcing the ability of human beings, and especially intellectual thinkers, to bring disparate modes of thinking together in common understanding and with a common goal to further human investigation and enlightenment. For its occasional hokeyness, it’s hard to fault the film for that.

The Dalai Lama – Scientist is available to stream on Kanopy, Vudu, and Amazon, among others.

The Bellmen (2020)

The indie comedy The Bellmen stands in the tradition of ensemble comedies like Super Troopers and Waiting, chronicling the odd lives and codes of honor of working class workers. Set in an Arizona resort hotel near Tucson, the film opens with the initiation of Josh (Josh Zuckerman) as a bellman by the seasoned bell captain Steve (Adam Ray) and his team of bellmen. As a BIT (Bellman in Training), Josh has to cover a lot of ground, bearing up under hazing by his fellow workers and learning the complex code of the bellmen. Meanwhile, Steve tries to win the heart of Kelly (Kelen Coleman), a manager at the hotel, despite having been stuck as a bellman for the past twenty-seven years. Into this comes Gunther (Thomas Lennon), a New Age guru obsessed with hand hygiene, who soon bewitches workers and hotel guests alike.

The Bellmen is a bro-comedy that proves to be gentler than it initially appears. While there’s the usual ribbing of the new guy and one or two silly sex jokes, it never gets mean-spirited, nor does it rely on the sexism, gross-out humor, and bro-code that many comedies of its type use as substitutes for actual laughs. The jokes don’t exactly fly fast and furious – the comedy is mostly situational and rarely laugh out loud, yet there’s something kindly charming about the whole enterprise, evading easy laughs in favor of absurd situations, vignettes, and non-sequiturs.

While this is still a bro-comedy, the women do get a few chances to be funny, especially Susan (Anjali Bhimani), who walks into a management meeting already two steps ahead of everyone and ends it by flinging papers in the air and running out. But the women are mostly there for support and sexiness, with Gunther’s female companions used as props rather than fully fledged characters. This isn’t surprising, but one wishes that they’d been given a bit more to do.

While the majority of the cast are still more or less in their career infancy, three recognizable (and welcome) faces are Thomas Lennon, as the confusingly accented guru Gunther, Richard Kind as the hotel’s owner, and Willie Garson as Alan, the increasingly put-upon manager who keeps giving recalcitrant workers demerits in a system he’s made up. Lennon in particular helps to guide the plot and provides some of the film’s most entertaining set pieces as he spouts New Age platitudes and confusing metaphors that wander off into infinity. Lennon’s presence is referential here – after all, he made his name in this kind of comedy with Reno 911! – but he luckily doesn’t dominate the proceedings.

But the main cast, beyond the recognizable faces, do most of the heavy lifting, and a lot of the film’s charm is down to Adam Ray, who could have played Steve as an overconfident idiot. Instead, Steve constantly tries to hide his sense of inadequacy, his genuine romanticism, and his love of his job. Steve aspires to a management position not because he really wants one but because he think it will make him more attractive to Kelly. But his true love is being a bellman, and there’s a sweet silliness to the seriousness with which all the characters take their jobs that elevates the film even more.

The Bellmen aspires to cult heights in the same vein as Super Troopers, but it may not go down as a cult film simply because it’s far too nice. And that, to be honest, is what’s most enjoyable about it. Rather than relying on the jokes that have dated more than a few films like it, The Bellmen gives more space to absurdist humor (including a mysterious cactus) and even character development. Is it silly? Oh, very. But silliness is underrated, and The Bellmen proves that you can construct a film like this without relying on offensive comedy.

The Bellmen comes to iTunes, Amazon, Google, and Vudu in May.

Silent Panic (2019)

Silent Panic takes a standard thriller narrative and uses it to launch a character study of three friends’ very different reactions to the same event. The film opens with the abandonment of a woman’s body in the trunk of a car. The car belongs to Eagle (Sean Nateghi), an ex-con camping with his friends Dom (Jay Habre) and Bobby (Joseph Martinez) in Angeles National Forest. The three are having a perfectly pleasant time until they discover the body and wind up disagreeing on how to handle it. Dom and Bobby are all for going to the police, but Eagle doesn’t think that the cops will believe them that the body just showed up in their trunk. As their decisions compound the problem, the film becomes something of a case study in how the men react to the circumstances, and how their choices complicate things further.

The basic setup of Silent Panic is the sort of thing we’d expect from an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the initial events play out much as an episode would. The responses of the three men are natural – Eagle doesn’t want to be sent back to prison, the other two are disturbed by his recalcitrance and increasingly guilt-ridden themselves, especially Bobby, who struggles with a drug problem. And the film makes much of this conflict, as the three move farther from being able to reveal the presence of the body without implicating themselves. Nor can they agree on what to actually do with the body—it remains in the trunk of Eagle’s car, and is the source of the film’s best tension, as he attempts to conceal its presence from his girlfriend, Robin (Constance Brenneman).

The strength of the film lies in its ability to establish and maintain tension, something which it succeeds at much of its runtime. The choice not to go to the cops is primarily Eagle’s, and he’s at once the most interesting and least sympathetic of the three protagonists, essentially telling his friends what to do in an effort to protect himself. There’s betrayal and complication, anger and misdirected energy, and the question of how the body even got there, who it is, and why it’s in their trunk. For the most part, Silent Panic manages to maintain its tension without going overboard.

The film’s weakness, though, lies in the increasingly unbelievable choices made by its protagonists, a few plot holes that are difficult to ignore, and the occasional divergence into near-comedy that seems, in places at least, unintentional. Bobby heads off to his drug dealer when he can no longer stand the tension, resulting in an extended scene in which Jeff Dowd (touted as the real-life inspiration for the Dude in The Big Lebowski) tries to convince Bobby to go to rehab, all while puffing on a vape pen. Entertaining? Yes. But not particularly applicable to the plot at large.

More problematic are some of the characters’ reactions to the presence of the body, as when Eagle decides to go off gambling and deny the body’s existence at all. Most thrillers have some kind of plot hole, but there are a number of open questions: if the woman disappeared, do the police know? Why aren’t they mentioning her disappearance? Isn’t that body beginning to smell? And so forth. While we can get past some of the problems, others become more prevalent the more you think about them.

Silent Panic is a middling thriller, with a solid concept and mostly solid performances. Director Kyle Schadt finds some excellent points of tension to keep the viewer engaged, but the film becomes less believable as it goes on. Still, it’s a good piece of entertainment and a character-driven approach to the thriller that should be lauded for the attempt.

Silent Panic is available to stream on Tubi, Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play.

Union (2019)

Writer/director Whitney Hamilton’s film Union is an ambitious, intriguing work that attempts to navigate some difficult waters, made more difficult by a limited budget. It opens with the near-death of Henry Keiler (Hamilton), a Confederate soldier who’s shot, captured, and taken to a Union Army infirmary in Virginia to await execution. When the doctor tends to Henry’s wounds, it’s discovered that he’s a woman, Grace, posing as her dead brother to fight in his place. Through the machinations of her fiancé, Henry survives, only to escape again and try to make his way back to the woman (Virginia Newcomb) that he left behind.

Union begins with a briefing about the more than four hundred women who posed as men during the Civil War, on both sides, in order to fight, and purports to tell one of their stories. The complexity of gender, how it’s perceived, and who suffers because of it is an intriguing concept for a Civil War narrative, and in this element, Union acquits itself quite well. It’s never revealed for how long Henry has been posing, or when it started, but the fluidity of Hamilton’s performance, and Henry’s romance with Virginia, makes for the most interesting scenes of the film. The addition of indigenous concepts—I want to say Cherokee, but I’m not entirely certain on that point—of gender and its mutability make for an intriguing critique of white Western essentialism, especially as female soldiers are executed when discovered.

Union is a high-budget concept with a low budget, meaning that the film has to rely on some deft camerawork and action happening off screen in order to establish verisimilitude. The concept is a fascinating one, but there are sections the narrative suddenly elides over, to its detriment. Is Henry/Grace engaged to the Union captain who captures her? Does Henry know the widow from before? What about the scenes of a wife and child? The movement between timelines confuses the issue, making it difficult to follow the tribulations of the characters and understand their relationships, as though missing half the story.

Union must also overcome the patchy nature of its acting and story structure. Hamilton and Newcomb acquit themselves well, especially in their scenes together, but some of the others read their lines with a stiltedness that belies a discomfort. There’s little tension in Henry’s potential discovery—he’s protected on all sides, and somehow manages to hide, get married, and work a farm, without the Union soldiers being any the wiser. The elision over chronology and an imprecise indication of character relationships means that the film’s denouement, as Henry goes looking for a son stolen by the Union army, feels more like an add on than a central conceit. It was not always easy to follow the plot or understand, for instance, why the Union Army suddenly stops looking for Henry, why no one seems to notice that a Confederate soldier has been holed up in a local farm, or why Henry heads all the way to Canada to find a child taken from Virginia.

The central interrogation of transgender issues and the mutable nature of gender is what lends Union its strength (though, God knows why we must continue to treat Confederates as the scrappy underdog and Unionists as a malicious invading force). The most effective sections of the film occur after Henry has come home and begun to work the land alongside his wife. The digressions into concepts of gender, its fluidity, and the indigenous acceptance and even veneration of those who have “a man and a woman’s soul” in one person are interesting enough, though there are places where it begins to veer too far into “native mysticism” territory, as the group that helps to protect and support Henry constantly pop up across the narrative to be certain everything goes well. But these elements have the capacity to lift certain sections of Union above its limitations.

All in all, Union is a patchwork film, some of it excellent and intriguing in concept and execution, some of it severely lacking. It’s such a game attempt to bring to light an underdiscussed element of Civil War history, especially in terms of the issues of gender both in that time and our own, that I hesitate to dismiss it outright. Its weakness lies in not establishing strong enough narrative stakes or making clear its character relationships at the outset, leaving the viewer to work out things for themselves in increasingly confused and confusing ways. It’s based on Hamilton’s original short film, which might be more cohesive, and thus perhaps needed another editorial pass. Still, there is something in here that deserves to be paid attention to, and Union is far from a waste of time.

Union is available to stream on VOD, including Amazon and YouTube.

Night Sweats (2019)

Low-budget horror continues to flourish in the twenty-first century, launching whole subgenres and giving audiences access to a plethora of terrifying tales that stretch beyond the standard Hollywood fare. While everyone really wants to be the new Paranormal Activity, it’s not the easiest thing to craft a narrative that manages to truly frighten. So when writer/director Andrew Lyman-Clarke’s virus-run-amok film Night Sweats popped up on my radar, the possibility of some proper Cronenbergian scares within a small budget film seemed an interesting prospect. 

And it is indeed an intriguing premise. Night Sweats opens with skateboarder Yuri’s (Kyle DeSpiegler) arrival in New York City, where he’s come to join his friend, Jake, who works as videographer for shadowy self-help company True Healing. Yuri falls for MK (Mary Elaine Ramsey), a waitress in Bushwick, whom Jake has been filming as a subject for True Healing’s “trauma” videos, which the company sells to pharmaceutical companies. When Jake dies suddenly of a mysterious illness, Yuri decides to investigate, discovering that a number of True Healing’s subjects have died the same way. As he digs deeper, he uncovers a winding conspiracy that leads to some of the unlikeliest places.

Night Sweats has all the makings of decent, low-budget horror flick about a virus engulfing New York City, a shadowy company trying to profit from it, and a plucky do-gooder working against the clock to discover its source. The film is well paced and generally well shot, clipping along nicely without dwelling too long on its occasional body horror moments. Yes, there are a few plot gaps, and the acting tends to wobble into histrionics, but the sections of the film that build Yuri’s dread and the varying, developing nature of the mysterious illness have real teeth to them. Creepy and effective, Night Sweats even overcomes its budget restrictions (and the occasionally patchy acting of its leads) to deliver some real scares and tension. But for all its strengths—and it has many—it’s entirely let down by the final act, which tosses much of the good will it has built up into a massive buzz saw of misogyny.

I don’t know if the filmmakers thought they were being clever or if they legitimately missed the vicious problematics of their big reveal, but dear God, boys. The denouement would have fit in perfectly with right-wing hysteria at the height of the AIDS epidemic and is so backwards thinking that it reads (perhaps accidentally, if we’re being charitable) as an MRA horror story. There’s really no excuse for this, and one would only hope that Clarke and his cast did not realize what they were doing. There are so many horror possibilities inherent in the notion of a company that sells and profits from recordings of trauma that to shift the focus at the end onto an actual victim, especially given contemporary politics surrounding trauma and victimhood, at best exhibits ignorance and lack of understanding, and at worst comes off like a deliberate attempt to craft an insidiously misogynist horror narrative.

Night Sweats might have worked were it not for this denouement. The filmmakers effectively up the tension throughout, and the occasional wobbles are forgivable for the instances of real excitement. The bogeyman of Big Pharma is a legitimate one, but the late act shift to another (male) fear absolutely undoes all that came before. It’s seldom that contemporary film is actually offensive in its gender politics, but this goes beyond casual, thoughtless sexism and enters the realm of explicit, self-satisfied, and unreflective misogyny. It’s an insidious conclusion to an effective film, one that begins to develop about partway through and that had me whispering, “Oh no,” for much of the last ten minutes. It’s a shame, too, because there’s plenty of good stuff in Night Sweats. If only the narrative wasn’t so hateful.

Night Sweats is available to stream on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.

Sunday Girl (2019)

Sunday Girl (2019)

Sunday Girl opens with its lead character, Natasha (played with disarming charm by Dasha Nekrasova), casually snapping an image of an off-camera man with her iPhone, then heading down the street to her old-school Volkswagon Bug, which she pulls up a few feet to stop in front of suburban home. There, she breaks up with the first of what turns out to be four different boyfriends, all of whom have different reactions (and feelings) about their relationships with Natasha. Natasha, however, is doing her best to commit to a fifth guy, George (Brandon Stacy), with whom she’s had an on-again/off-again relationship for some months. The opening shot is actually Natasha doing her job – she’s a photographer working on a project involving images of people crying – and over the course of the Sunday (we assume), she begins to question the core of how she lives her life.

Sunday Girl could come off as an unbearably twee entry into mumblecore, complete with an idiosyncratic wardrobe, nostalgic callbacks, Wes Anderson-style shots, and a set of increasingly obnoxious, talky boyfriends with whom Natasha splits. But somehow the film works, due largely to the gradual revelations about Natasha’s character, her desires, and her attempts to do the right thing. At first, Natasha appears to be your typical cinematic representation of a detached Millennial, passing through life on her phone, halfheartedly engaging with the real people around her. But her increasing desperation and attempts to fix a problem that she created turns the film into more of a journey of the heart, as she tries to enforce her own sense of self-worth and self-control over relationships that she seems to have accidentally fallen into. The men themselves run the gamut of navel-gazing, self-serious poets, to corporate lawyers, but it’s less about whether they’re too good or not good enough for Natasha, and more about her need to detach herself from them in order to move on with her life.

The film’s anchor point is Dasha Nekrasova, a podcaster whose bonafides are increasingly in question (beyond Red Scare, a left-wing yet nihilist podcast, her major claim to fame is appearing on Last Week Tonight, and showing up in an episode of Mr. Robot); better, though, is that she’s an actress who does have some screen presence and is likely to gain more as time goes on. She’s a strong but uncomfortable presence in Sunday Girl, and focalizes the confusion of tone that the film, especially in its third act, falls into. This is certainly not a feminist march toward freedom from (stupid) men, but it’s also not explicitly anti-feminist. Natasha comes off as a confused but basically decent woman trying to figure out what she wants, and knowing pretty well what she doesn’t. She’s looking for a solution to the direction of her life in her relationships, but neither the film nor Nekrasova’s performance provides a sense that she’s able to be “fixed” by the right one. Rather, she’s stumbling through, attempting to do the right thing without really knowing how.

Writer/director Peter Ambrosio doesn’t attempt to do too much with his story, which is probably why Sunday Girl doesn’t come off as an attempt to transmogrify mumblecore. The point is the character and her trials, even if there are occasional flourishes with a fancy red coat or the ubiquitous presence of an adolescent girl whom Natasha cautions against cigarettes, ice cream, and falling in love. While the early parts of the film dwell too long on the men holding forth about their relationships with Natasha, the film picks up when she reveals her problem to her roommate, Kim (Ashton Leigh), who gives her some inept but well-meaning advice.

Sunday Girl’s final act unfortunately undoes some of the good will of its first two, constructing a semi-nihilist conclusion for Natasha without providing much solution to her conundrum – or even finding any satisfactory conclusion in the lack of a solution. But it’s a film that works fairly well until then, developing a thin narrative into something potentially profound. For a slight film that comes in at barely eighty minutes, Sunday Girl has some fine qualities that makes it more than a diverting indie exercise.

Sunday Girl is in limited release in New York and Los Angeles starting November 8.