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SciFi, Monsters & Shorts Aplenty

Hope Madden Hope Madden SciFi, Monsters & Shorts AplentyVoyagers - Photo courtesy Lionsgate via IMDb
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Theaters are open, the sun is out, our couches are comfortable—I mean, how’s a person supposed to decide whether or not or where to watch a movie? That part’s up to you, but we can help you pick the best options for viewing. 

Voyagers

In theaters

by Hope Madden

If you have ever wondered what Lord of the Flies might look like in space, Neil Burger thinks like you.

The generally mediocre director (The Upside, Limitless, Divergent, etc.) follows a manned vessel in search of the next planet we can ruin. Or not. Maybe our better natures will win out.

Voyagers is the journey toward that new home. The crew doesn’t really know Earth—they were the result of specifically engineered donors, raised indoors so they wouldn’t miss open spaces, and will spend their whole adult lives on the ship. Their children will, too. But their grandchildren will be the first generation to see the new planet.

Naturally, this is only going to work if nothing kills them and they don’t kill each other before future generations can exist.

Scientist and father figure Richard (Colin Farrell) will shepherd them through as much of the journey as he can, but the future of the human race is in the hands of these young people.

Essentially a YA space fantasy, Voyagers is not without its charms. Tye Sheridan and Fionn Whitehead lead a cast of convincingly naïve geniuses. The conflict is obvious (especially for those who read Golding), but Burger zigs and zags enough to keep your interest. The director’s knack for encapsulated action and his sharp cast’s baser instincts create some B-movie thrills.

The nature versus nurture argument gets a quick nod, but Burger (who also wrote) isn’t especially preoccupied with the why. The immediacy of the fact that it just is requires more attention.

Science fiction tends to be heavily allegorical and heavily borrowed—Voyagers is certainly both of these. Although the execution feels a bit like a neutered version of Claire Denis’s brilliant 2018 cosmic horror High Life, the story itself looks to the distant future to illustrate our present (and very, very recent past).

Grade: B-

Oscar Nominated Shorts: Live Action

Available via Gateway Film Center and Drexel Theatre virtual cinemas

by George Wolf

When I was a kid watching the Oscars, I remember always being perplexed by short film categories. How do people manage to see these shorts?

Good news, kids, it’s gotten much easier. In the last several years, all the nominated shorts have been packaged by category for theatrical showings. This year, of course, virtual screenings are available as well, making it more convenient than ever to find great films in smaller packages.

And if there was any doubt that movies are mirrors, check the pervasive theme that runs through this year’s live-action nominees. All are examples of the struggle to retain human dignity, to be seen simply as worthy. And in four of these five films, that struggle directly involves abuses by law enforcement officials.

Feeling Through 18 Mins. Writer/director: Doug Roland

A troubled teen (Steven Prescod) needs a place to stay for the night, but his search is interrupted by a deaf and blind man (Robert Tarango) who needs help crossing the street.

The fact that Tarango is the first deaf and blind actor to be cast in a film is reason enough to seek this out, but Roland has crafted a truly touching ode to the healing power of caring.

Prescod and Tarango are wonderful together, and our short time with both of them is nothing but rewarding.

Two Distant Strangers 32 mins. Writer: Travon Free Directors: Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe

Really? Another Groundhog Day premise? Yes, but get ready, this gripping slice of activism will rock you.

Carter (Joey Bada$$) and Perri (Zaria) are still flirting the morning after their first hookup. Shortly after Carter heads home to check on his dog, an aggressive cop (Andrew Howard) incites a confrontation, and soon Carter is dead on the sidewalk…until he again wakes up in Perri’s bed.

The scenario plays over and over, with Carter trying to come up with some way to change his fate.

Free, a former Daily Show writer making his film debut, lulls you with a comfortable device before lowering the boom. It’s uncomfortable, as it should be, but you’ll want to thank Free for the experience…as soon as you catch your breath.

The Letter Room 30 mins. Writer/director: Elvira Lind

The first thing that catches your eye here is a familiar face. Yes, that is Oscar Isaac, starring as Richard, a corrections officer granted a transfer to the facility’s letter room.

Letters from Rosita (Alia Shawkat) to Death Row inmate Cris (Brain Petsos) captivate Richard’s interest, until he’s tempted to cross some questionable lines.

Lind (Isaac’s wife) mines her powerhouse cast for a beautifully subtle layer of humanity. Everyone here is flawed, in different ways and by varying degrees. But Lind lets us see just how far a little empathy can go – even in the darkest places.

The Present 24 mins. Writers: Farah Nabulsi Directors: Farah Nabulsi and Hind Shoufani

On the morning of his wedding anniversary, Palestinian Yusef (Saleh Bakri) and his young daughter (Mariam Kanj) head out to buy a gift for his wife (Mariam Basha).

But the road to celebration is littered with soldiers and segregation, cages and checkpoints. As Yusef endures humiliation in front of his daughter, rising tensions increase the chance of a deadly altercation.

It feels somewhat surprising to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict funneled through a Palestine viewpoint. And though Nabulsi’s hand is never overly heavy, a universal power struggle emerges: authority flexes muscle against those trying to remain calm and grasp for options.

The Present offers hope that the children can one day find common ground.

White Eye 20 mins. Writer/director: Tomer Shushan

White Eye‘s search for humanity begins with a bicycle.

An Israeli man named Omer (Daniel Gad) spots his stolen bike locked up on the street. Immigrant Yunes (Dawit Tekelaeb) says he bought the bike fair and square, but Omer doesn’t want to hear it.

Once Omer alerts the police, the situation (you guessed it) escalates, and soon Yunes’s co-workers are in hiding and Omer is staring headfirst into consequences he may not have intended.

Gad carves out a 20-minute arc of awakening for Omer that feels achingly real. It’s a standout performance and the driving force that makes White Eye linger with lasting resonance.

Grade: A-

Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animation

Available via Gateway Film Center and Drexel Theatre virtual cinemas

by George Wolf

In these five nominated (and three bonus) treats, you’ll find charm, humor, fascination, and devastation – all a tribute to the different ways animation can touch our souls.

Burrow 6 mins. Writer/director: Madeline Sharafian

An excited bunny has big plans for a new home underground (maybe a disco?). But the more the bunny burrows, the more times she accidentally invades a neighbor’s place!

What to do?

Originally intended as the short subject intro to theatrical showings of Soul, Burrow is a completely charming reminder of the need for friends you can count on. And the beautiful 2D, hand-drawn animation gives it a picture book feel that’s refreshingly retro.

Genius Loci 16 mins. Writer/director: Adrien Merigeau

From France, Genius Loci is a surrealistic trip through “urban chaos, ” as a young loner named Reine (voiced by Nadia Moussa) takes off on a dreamlike tour through the heartbeat of her city.

Unfolding like a watercolored stream of consciousness, Loci is wonderfully stylistic, bursting with contrasts and ambiguities about Reine’s headspace that keep it constantly intriguing.

If Anything Happens, I Love You 12 mins. Writers/directors: Michael Govier, Will McCormack

Oh my, this one is heartbreaking, tender and devastatingly lovely.

A middle-aged couple is living in a fog of despair, completely unable to comfort each other or find any joy in life. A charcoal-type animation style reveals shadows depicting a former life of happiness, then leading eventually to the tragic event that broke them.

Keep the tissues handy for a soft-spoken gut punch that reframes the stakes we know only too well.

Opera 9 mins. Director: Erick Oh

Nine minutes? I could watch this for hours.

Billed as a “massive 8K size animation installation project which portrays our society and history,” Opera is a single frame in constant, intoxicating. motion.

The eye level creeps in, then out, up and down around a pyramid filled with scores of small figures co-existing in a constantly evolving community. Even as you fixate on one fascinating section, you’re drawn to others that are equally rewarding.

Oh has created a true animated marvel, and one that should be hard to beat in this category.

Yes-People 8 mins. Director: Gisli Darri Halldorsson

Welcome to a tenement building in Iceland, where we follow some 3D Wallace and Grommet-looking Icelanders going about their daily trials and snowy tribulations.

Most of the dialog is a well-placed exclamation of “Yow!” which adds to the goofiness and overall fun factor. With glimpses into work, school and mundane chores around the house, Yes-People becomes a light and breezy take on the small moments that make our lives.

The animated shorts program will also feature three “highly commended” animated short films

Grade: A-

Oscar Nominated Shorts: Documentary

Available via Gateway Film Center and Drexel Theatre virtual cinemas

by George Wolf

As usual, these nominated documentary shorts are often heart-wrenching, but able to speak necessary truths to power and our collective human experience.

A Concerto Is a Conversation 13 mins. Directors: Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot

Pianist and film composer Kris Bowers explains to his 91-year-old grandfather Horace (and to us) that a concerto is a conversation between a soloist and an ensemble.

But the conversation between the Bowers men is a moving work of art itself, as Horace recalls his life’s journey from a poor kid in the Jim Crow south to a successful business owner in Los Angeles.

And as Kris prepares for the premiere of his first concerto, the film becomes a beautiful expression of heritage, love, talent and courage.

Colette 25 mins. Writer/director: Anthony Giacchino

75 years after her stint as a member of the French Resistance, 90-year-old Colette Catherine is preparing to make her first journey to the concentration camp in Germany where her brother Jean-Pierre died.

She’s accompanied by the young Lucie, a history student and docent at France’s WWII museum, who regards Colette as a “national hero.”

As sobering and horrific as the subject matter suggests, Collette – the film and the hero – finds a redemptive power through defiantly shining a spotlight on an evil that still searches for dark places to take root.

Do Not Split 36 mins. Director: Andreas Hammer

Taking us to the front lines of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests of 2019, Do Not Split becomes a tense, indelible account of resistance against civil rights abuses that will look pretty familiar to U.S. audiences.

Hammer is blessed with a host of intimate footage, often featuring first-person commentary from protesters while they are actively pushing back against tear gas and police escalation.

It’s gripping stuff. Without becoming overbearing, the film never lets you forget you are watching important and heroic history unfold.

Hunger Ward 40 mins. Director: Skye Fitzgerald

Part three of Fitzgerald’s Refugee Trilogy (along with 50 Feet From Syria and the Oscar-nominated Lifeboat), Hunger Ward‘s focus is the children – specifically those affected by the ongoing civil war in Yemen.

The images of wounded and starving children carry an understandably tragic weight, while real-time footage inside a Yemeni memorial service being actively shelled is unforgettable.

And still, those committed to helping the children exhibit an unwavering and miraculous resolve.

The U.N. has labeled Yemen as home to the world’s “greatest humanitarian crisis,” and Fitzgerald’s unflinching call for action and empathy will leave your heart in your throat.

A Love Song For Latasha 19 mins. Director: Sophia Nahli Allison

A touching tribute to one victim of senseless gun violence, A Love Song…turns the focus away from the aftermath and toward the positive effect Latasha Harlins had on those around her.

In 1992, 15-year-old Latasha was killed by a store clerk in South Central Los Angeles. Framed by Allison (and Executive Producer Ava DuVernay) as a VHS tape memoir with sequences of animation, the film lets the narration from Latasha’s best friend Ty and cousin Shinise craft a warmly intimate profile.

A Love Song For Latasha wants us to know that these victims of racial injustice aren’t just statistics to be glossed over. In a short time, Latasha Harlins made a big impact. So it seems only fitting that a short film makes you glad to meet her.

Grade: A-

Slalom

On VOD

by Hope Madden

As her camera races down the mountains of Val-d’Isère, writer/director Charlène Favier depicts both thrill and isolation in equal measure.

It’s a tone that fits more than just the competitive Alpine skiing that sits at the center of her latest film Slalom. The breathless and somewhat terrifying imagery is a perfect characterization of wunderkind skier Lyz Lopez’s (Noée Abita) particular coming of age.

At 15, Lyz is in training but on her own. Her mother has taken work quite a distance away, so Lyz will be looking after herself on weekends, training at a facility and studying schoolwork on weekdays.

She’s also quite heartbreakingly looking for somebody who won’t let her down.

Abita’s performance is equally aching and frustrating, which makes her a painfully realistic adolescent. Faviere wisely limits Lyz’s actual dialog, allowing the performance to become more observational. Lyz watches and processes, her awkwardness, stillness, and anger telling us more than words ever could.

There’s a lived-in feel to this film, likely born of the filmmaker’s experience growing up in Val-d’Isère. The training, the experiences of team and competition, the beautiful but frigid landscape create an organic backdrop to the larger drama, a complex and soberingly authentic exploration of abuse.

The sports movie genre is littered with tales of the could-have-been athlete who regains what legitimacy he can by shepherding the next phenom. Jérémie Renier offers nary a false note as charismatic, tough-as-nails trainer Fred, whose moral weaknesses far outweigh any coaching talent.

Faviere’s take on the situation is even-handed. She never stoops to melodrama, never paints Lyz as a faultless innocent. The character’s complexities, particularly given Abita’s assured performance, only ensure that the film leaves more of a mark.

Grade: A-

Moffie

On VOD

by Samantha Harden

“Moffie” is a derogatory term used in South Africa meaning an “effeminate homosexual man.” Moffie is also the name of the South African-British biographical war film.

The film was written and directed by Oliver Hermanus. With help from his co-writer Jack Sidey, the two created a love story that encapsulates struggles, racism and homophobia. You feel stressed right from the beginning.

The year is 1981, South Africa’s white minority government is entangled in conflicts at its borders with communist-led Angola. All white men between the ages of 17 and 60 must complete two years of mandatory military service.

Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) was drafted into South Africa’s military, but he knows he is different from the other men serving. Another recruit develops an intimate relationship with Van der Swart and they realize that they are both in danger. 

This is just an incredible performance by Brummer. You could feel his emotions, the worry and the sadness and most of all, fear. Throughout the movie you rarely saw even the slightest smile. 

The first scene begins with suspenseful music that feels as though it belongs in a horror movie. Of course, for young Nick, it is a horror movie.

But once Nick meets Dylan Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) and begins to fit in (at least a little), the music changes to classical opera. Later the music makes another change, and then another, and another. Braam du Toit’s score continues to change throughout the film to match Nick’s moods, an excellent detail.

Moffie not only has an aesthetically pleasing score but it is an aesthetic pleasure of the highest order, on nearly every level. 

The movie is so bright and beautiful even if the story is heartbreaking. In a flashback, we see young Nick at the public pool with his parents. The camera follows him underwater and for a moment, Nick is happy and carefree. 

We see Nick again underwater, but this time he isn’t a carefree young child anymore. Now Nick is a soldier in the South African military and he just lost a friend. The world has been cruel to Nicholas Van der Swart, Moffie captured that cruelty. 

Grade: A-

The Power

On Shudder

by Hope Madden

Simultaneously sympathetic and vengeful, Corinna Faith’s ghost story The Power sets an emotional tone that suits its core themes.

Today is Val’s (Rose Williams) first shift at a rundown London hospital. It’s 1974, and a coal miners’ strike means rolling blackouts. Val hadn’t anticipated still being at work when the lights went out, but a power struggle with Matron (Diveen Henry) means putting up or shutting up.

Unfortunately, Val’s not great with darkness.

Williams provides a tender central figure, terrified of everything: her new bosses, the sprawling building itself, the dark, failure. Val doesn’t get a lot of support from the rest of the staff, particularly one creepy janitor, a repugnant handyman and a viciously catty colleague (Emma Rigby, spectacular).

When the abuses turn supernatural, Faith begins to dig into the real terrors that faced women in 1974 (and in 974 and in 2021). But the filmmaker never abandons her ghost story in favor of a podium. The Power is an effective allegorical tale, but before that, it’s a spooky horror story set in an old hospital.

Why are those always so scary? Session 9 may be the high-water mark, but Faith taps into our fears of the powerlessness that comes with illness and institutions, and she exploits them.

The director makes good use of familiar elements—the ’70s vibe, the crumbling edifice, the darkness—and not only to create an unease that heightens the scares. She crafts an environment that amplifies and clarifies the theme, whether it’s the strike, the systemic sexism and classism, or just the insidious nature of abusing and silencing those without power.

Wonderful performances throughout elevate story tropes that could get old, and the filmmaker’s instincts for using light, shadow and reflection give the film an eerie quality that’s hard to shake.

Grade: B

Embryo

On VOD

by Brandon Thomas

Good old alien horror doesn’t come around as much as I’d like. Outside of the occasional Alien or Predator sequel, this subgenre is pretty much stagnant or banished to the realm of mico-budget dreck. Embryo might skirt the line of microbudget, but this eerie alien tale is anything but dreck. 

The bulk of Embryo follows campers Kevin (Domingo Guzman) and Evelyn (Romina Perazzo) as they venture into the woods of southern Chile. Their camping getaway turns into a nightmare after Evelyn is abducted by extraterrestrials, leaving her in a state of shock. As the effects of her alien abductors take hold, Evelyn becomes increasingly more bloodthirsty, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake.

Director Patricio Valladares approaches alien abduction as a blend between Fire in the Sky’s creeping dread and Cronenberg body horror. Evelyn’s descent into other-worldly terror reveals itself in visceral, extreme violence. We’re talking lots of blood and guts here. However, the explanation of her metamorphosis is kept an enigma. The guessing game surrounding the aliens themselves is left to the deepest levels of the audience’s subconsciousness. It’s an act of omission probably born out of budgetary concerns, yet it ends up aiding the film more than the filmmakers could have foreseen. 

Valladares throws a curveball when constructing the film’s narrative. There’s an occasional break in Kevin and Evelyn’s story where Embryo attempts to open up the world a bit more. This allows the filmmakers to weave together other tales of close encounters in this small Chilean town. Not only are the stories different, but so is the style of filmmaking. By switching to found footage, Valladares is able to emphasize suspense and dread over the fantastical gore that oozes through the main segment.

Despite telling three individual tales, Embryo clocks in at a scant 72 minutes. Even with the different stories, the film threatens to run out of steam on multiple occasions. There’s a repetitiveness to the Kevin and Evelyn segment especially that starts to detract from its overall effectiveness. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but there are only so many times Kevin can lose Evelyn only to find her feasting on a biker, doctor, or other camper. 

Embryo doesn’t quite cross the finish line at full speed, but through deft tone management and a willingness to get gross, the film leaves an overall positive impression.

Grade: B-

Dawn of the Beast

On VOD

by Rachel Willis

Seriously, who still thinks camping in the woods is a good idea?

There’s something about the woods that haunts us, so it’s the perfect setting for many a horror movie.

In director Bruce Wemple’s latest film, Dawn of the Beast, it’s the ideal locale for a group of cryptozoology students on the hunt for Sasquatch.

Wemple likes the creature feature – a look at his past work uncovers another film about Bigfoot (Monstrous), as well as one about the mythological Wendigo. Writer Anna Shields must also enjoy the ‘Squatch, as she not only penned Monstrous, but Dawn of the Beast as well. You’d think with two movies about Sasquatch under their belts, these two would have something new to say about Mr. Foot.

And in a way, they do, but unfortunately, what they have to say about their monster is buried beneath a run-of-the-mill ‘cabin in the woods’ horror trope.

There is some fun in Dawn of the Beast. There are a few jokes, characters you root for, as well as one or two you root against, but there’s also a lot of drudge here. You find yourself sitting through too much filler while you wait for the more interesting moments.

Shields also co-stars in the film as Lilly, but her talents seem better suited to writing. There are some genuinely creepy moments – yellow lights (are those eyes?) drawing you into the woods, one or two effective jump scares, and some funny dialogue. And what Lilly and her classmates find in the woods is a lot more terrifying than the legendary Bigfoot.

However, the film’s best aspect is – far and away – the creature effects. They add a degree of tension and fear that would be otherwise absent without such convincingly scary monsters. In some films, the addition of a monster removes the tension; seeing too much destroys the mystery. But in this case, it really works.  

It’s around the film’s third act that Dawn of the Beast begins to hit its stride, embracing the funnier elements and dropping the attempts to inject a seriousness to the film that it largely doesn’t need. A funny horror movie can still be scary, so anything too serious in this movie (a kidnapping, for example) is time wasted for the audience.

Perhaps if Wemple and Shields attempt a third Sasquatch film, it’ll be the charm that lands them a horror film that hits all the right notes.

Grade: C

Follow George and Hope on twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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