Sunday, December 20, 2015

Etheria Film Night 2015: Inner Demon & Shorts

Fourth year at Etheria, and I'm still quite glad to come - even though this year's shorts probably fall a bit short of some of their stronger years, many of those other years had more short films, so that a few excellent ones could make a good impression (15 without a feature in 2012, 8 in both 2013 and 2014, compared to 6 plus a local program this year). It's a valuable program, and I hope to see it continue.

One thing I did notice that struck me as kind of odd is that, when I started coming, Etheria was a sci-fi/fantasy off-shoot of a horror festival (Viscera), but has now circled back around to being mostly horror itself. That probably explains a bit of my dissatisfaction - I can enjoy horror all right, but unless it's very well done, I don't usually find it as interesting as those other genres. It's sort of a logical thing to happen - Viscera is no more, and horror still makes up a big chunk of genre production, so it's perhaps inevitable that Etheria 2.0 would fill with that.

Still, that gave us a chance to have the Wicked Bird folks including 10-year-old filmmaker "Fiona Fright" on stage. We saw a promo reel of Something Wicked This Way Comes, a long-gestating documentary about horror in New England that has, in the making, seemingly shifted from being about how the region has influenced American horror to people working in the genre scene locally, and then Miss Fright's film, which looks a lot better if you understand that its young star directed it from a story she started writing when she was five. Her parents, as you might expect, are big horror fans, and have been taking their little girl to conventions practically since birth, so she's become familiar enough with the scene and genre to reference Re-Animator in her first short film.

Let me repeat a bit of that last last paragraph for emphasis: A ten-year-old made this from a story she wrote at five. I'm certainly going to keep this in mind when I'm Christmas shopping for my own nine-year-old niece, because if this kid can handle something this scary, my brother's and sister-in-law's super-smart little girl can, right?

(You know I'm just joking about this, right, Dan & Lara? Right?)

Fortunately, the feature after the intermission was pretty impressive. I'm certainly looking forward to what a lot of these filmmakers have coming up and next year's program, at least.

"Sheila Scorned"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Etheria Film Night, digital)

"Sheila Scorned" is a neat little calling-card type short, albeit one that doesn't necessarily make a whole lot of sense as anything but genre pastiche: It is writer/director Mara Gasbarro Tasker wanting to make an old-school exploitation flick with even less concern over it making any kind of sense than the movies that inspired it. It's enjoyably tacky with a good-looking badass chick (Laine Rettmer) in the title role, so what more do you want?

Maybe a feeling that it's about something? The title suggests Sheila is trying to avenge something, but actual motivation sort of falls away and there's not a whole lot of cool twisting or quipping to make up for that. It's well-done enough that Tasker is worth keeping an eye on.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Etheria Film Night, digital)

That's kind of cute.

This short is a fun little take on the angry girlfriend bit, with tons of borrowing genre tropes and winking acknowledgment that, yeah, a lot of them are somewhat male-gaze-y even if a lady does like to be that sort of sexy every once in a while. It's fun, though, in large part because Jessica Sherif, Emme Rylan, and Megan Lee Joy are able to build characters who are each funny in their own way despite the short being twelve minutes long and filled with fantasy scenarios, and while the gags are generally kind of obvious, they're also fairly amusing.

Director Amber Benson knows her way around this sort of genre material; she's fond of it and has had plenty of practice, both in playing it straight and having an ironic take on it. Benson's made an amusing little short - maybe not the most original concept, but put together well enough.

"El Gigante"

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Etheria Film Night, digital)

I pretty much despised "El Gigante" when I saw it at Fantasia this summer, and while I can't say that I liked it this time around, I didn't feel the same sort of revulsion I did in July; maybe I was in a better mood or just not paying as much attention this time. Not sure. Still very ugly, though, and at least as a teaser, it doesn't offer a whole lot of ideas that make it worth slogging through.

What I said in July.

"Gödel Incomplete"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Etheria Film Night, digital)

"Gödel Incomplete" is the kind of short that is put together so well that it can't help but carry the audience along while it's running - it's got a star in Elizabeth Debicki who would soon get noticed and cast in much bigger projects, nice production values, a capable soundtrack and a facility with throwing scientific terms and romantic musings into the dialogue (and narration) that certainly makes it feel sophisticated and intellectual.

Is there much there? I don't really know. Writer/director Martha Goddard splits her time between the idea of time travel being built on a paradox and a doomed romance between Debicki's Serita and scientist Kurt Godel in the past that neither one gets to feel quite so clever or tragic that the audience is as overwhelmed with emotion or fascination as Serita is, especially after taking a step back to think about it. Being able to get something like this to run smoothly is a pretty useful skill to have as a filmmaker, but it would be great if it could be applied to delivering an idea well, rather than disguising the lack of one.

"De noche y de pronto"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Etheria Film Night, digital)

Maybe the best of the short films playing as part of the Etheria shorts program, "De noche y de pronto" takes a pretty simple concept - young woman (Alicia Rubio) alone in a new apartment has a man who claims to be her upstairs neighbor (Javier Godino) knock on her door and say that his place has bee broken into and the intruder is still there, but he's acting squirrely, and she's reacting to that, and he sees that she's reacting to that... You know how it goes. The fun part is that this Maria is not a naturally great bluffer, which means that if he is up to no good, her visitor has no trouble staying one step ahead. If he's up to no good; what if he's not and her taking precautions is putting him on edge?

It's a fun set-up that in some cases helps to paper over any weaknesses the film might have - there are moments when things don't quite ring true, but there's also a sense that people wouldn't have perfect, sensible reactions. In a way, that's a sort of meta-tension; not quite the same as the original type but still powerful enough. It's a neat thriller, and kind of unique in being able to leverage its imperfections like that.

"De noche y de pronto"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Etheria Film Night, digital)

Another one I saw before - much earlier in the year as part of the Boston Horror Show - and I liked it a smidge more this time, perhaps; it's clear what is coming both times through, but the style is more impressive. There was a lot of stuff imitating the 1970s both in this package and in horror in general right now, but this one feels different than a lot of them; it just is of that period, rather than commenting upon the style or engaging in parody.

Like a lot of these shorts, it feels like it wants to be, if not a feature, something longer than it is, only telling most of a story and thus feeling more like the director's take on a horror idea rather than something original and scary. It sure shows that Chloe Okuno knows what she's doing, though.

What I said back in January

"Daddy Dearest"

N/A (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Etheria Film Night, digital)

I was groaning like crazy during this short film, although initially for "does everything have to look like the 1970s?" reasons more than its other weaknesses, though that was before I learned that it was directed by an actual kid. Then, yeah, let's be forgiving as heck.

I'd be curious to know just how much "Fiona Fright" (yeah, I should have made a note of her actual last name) actually directed versus "assistant director" Andrea Wolanin and if the producers at Wicked Bird Media were a little more hands on than usual; I'm guessing that she was a lot more big-picture than someone even a little older, although probably sucking up what happened on-set like a sponge. She at least has a fairly clear idea of the story she wants to tell and it's impressively twisty for something from a kid, even if the gore was kind of more because she like horror and gore than something really necessary.

(It's also kind of a reminder of how much of the work we often attribute to the actors is out of their hands - I've seen Diana Porter, who plays the widowed mother of Fiona's character, in other shorts where she's better, but if the director isn't really equipped to give feedback and put the actual best bits together in the editing stage, the best work doesn't always come across.)

Still, it's way the heck ahead of anything I was doing at nine. If she keeps it up, who knows where she'll end up?

Inner Demon

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2015 in the Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Etheria Film Night, digital)

Ursula Dabrowsky directs the heck out of Inner Demon, not just because it keeps going despite having a small cast and what seems like some tight constraints where locations and other resources are concerned, but because she pulls off the nifty trick of making her movie into something else without missing a beat. It's the sort of just making things work that hopefully gets her noticed, because while this is in many ways a horror-thriller that stocks close to the genre's basics, it also works a whole lot better than variations that have a lot more thrown at them.

So start with some basics: Australian teen Sam Durelle (Sarah Jeavons) is babysitting her kid sister Maddy (Scarlett Hocking) when a woman knocks on the door. Denise (Kerry Ann Reid) claims to be a stranded motorist, but when Sam tells her to wait until her mother gets home, she soon finds that Denise's husband Karl (Andreas Sobik) is already in the house, and it turns out that they have kidnapping (at least) on their mind rather than robbery.

Resourcefulness is the key in this sort of situation, and both filmmaker and hero display their fair share of it. The former starts by dealing with being locked in an automobile's trunk a whole heck of a lot more efficiently than most kidnap victims, with Dabrowsky doing a very nice job of communicating what she's doing to the audience without relying on crutches like Sam talking to herself or providing narration. This leads to a chase through the woods that may not look like that much, but is impressive in its staging: A lot of directors will film that sequence with all the emphasis on the feeling of motion and how the heroine has gritted teeth and grunts while the man pressing her gets a lot of stamina from his larger frame, and while there's certainly some of that, Dabrowsky makes sure to keep the woods from being just this vague, homogeneous environment; Sam and Karl pass landmarks and let the audience figure out whether she's gaining or losing distance. In a movie where the filmmakers probably can't afford a lot of proper fights - they require a lot of time and detail work even without stuntpeople - being really good at this kind of action makes up for a lot.

Full review on EFC.

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