Short Film Reviews: Plural Titles
My reviews of 8 short films that each have a title containing a plural noun.
If you're squeamish of blood or triggered by depictions of self-harm, you should proceed with caution while watching the first movie on this list. One of three short films directed by Douglas Buck as part of his 2003 anthology Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America, Cutting Moments is a disturbing look at a suburban family coming undone in the grisliest way imaginable. With her marriage long dead and her family falling apart, Sarah (Nica Ray) tries everything she can to keep it all together. But when that fails, she's driven to do the unthinkable. While infamous for being a gruesome flick whose special effects were supervised by horror icon Tom Savini, Cutting Moments is more than just blood and guts. In fact, the gore is saved for the end and serves to underscore the main horror of the film: the deterioration of Sarah's family and the disturbing subtext of their dysfunction.
The camerawork and actors work side-by-side to create an unsettling depiction of a family estranged. The grainy footage, low lighting, and strong acting from the movie's minimalist cast paint an uncomfortably depressing picture. Nica Ray and her co-stars Gary Betsworth and Jared Barsky (who play Sarah's husband Patrick and their son Joey respectively) commit to playing an absolutely miserable family that don't even have the energy to pretend to be happy anymore. They all do an excellent job, with Ray additionally nailing the physical acting required for Sarah's much-hyped bathroom breakdown. Between the well-aged special effects and the painstaking performances from Ray and Betsworth, Cutting Moments' brutal climax and devastating conclusion are likely to have you either tearing up or averting your eyes.
So while it may be best known for the carnage of its last act, Cutting Moments has more to offer than that. It has a poignant and subtly layered story, talented actors, and slow-boiled pacing that will have you on the edge of your seat, waiting to see what becomes of this hopelessly broken home. If you have a strong stomach and the heart to deal with high-octane tragedy, you might be able to watch Cutting Moments. Just be warned: for a while afterward, you might not be able to look at scissors or steel wool without flinching.
Score: 9 out of 10 Power Ranger dolls.
Lions in Waiting:
We go from suburbia to the ice rink with Lions in Waiting, which follows awkward teenager Ray (Taylor Kare) as he struggles to fit in with his new hockey team. But after a cruel hazing experience, will Ray be able to find the courage to accept himself on and off the ice? While it has a rich premise, Lions in Waiting leaves a lot of its potential out in the cold. The script touches on plenty of hot-button issues: hazing, homophobia, toxic masculinity, and sports culture-related toxicity. But in practice, the film scarcely focuses on these issues and only incorporates them into the story in small amounts. The hazing incident in question only takes the spotlight for one scene when the coach confronts his team about what happened. Afterward, it gets shoved to the sidelines and we're treated to an arc about Ray developing self-confidence as both a hockey player and a human being.
As a result of this change in direction and the movie's meandering pace, a lot of questions go unanswered. Does Ray want to play hockey or does he feel obligated to because it's what his father wanted? What are the further consequences of the hazing video going viral? Whatever happened to the trauma Ray seemed to have after the hazing? We see Ray being affected by what transpired for a few minutes, and then, that anguish suddenly disappears and Ray is apparently content to play hockey with the people who assaulted him. SPOILER ALERT Then there's the matter of Ray and Dave's rushed relationship. While they might've endured horrific bullying together, the two teens still don't have enough development to make their segue from chatting in the locker room to going out to dinner feel authentic. The same abruptness impacts Ray's arc of regaining his confidence, making the fact that he and Dave (whose development has been entirely offscreen) are suddenly unafraid to kiss in public feel similarly artificial. Spoilers Over
At least the casting is relatively stable. While his character's development may be lacking, Taylor Kare makes Ray a believably awkward teen who works to persevere in a difficult new environment. Riley Davis does the same as fellow "rook" Dave while the rest of the team realistically plays up the image of thoughtless teenage boys who think they can do whatever they want. Bob Frazer is the best of the cast as the team's enigmatic coach. Through his delivery, Frazer will have you questioning the coach's intentions. Is he truly trying to guide his team in the right direction or is he just focused on his own interests? Is he upset about the video because of its deplorable content or because it makes him/the team look bad? Does he really disapprove of hazing or is he just saying that because he knows public opinion on the practice has shifted since his younger days? Unlike the aforementioned unanswered questions, this kind of ambiguity is thought-provoking instead of frustrating.
The last notable cast member is Valerie Sing Turner as Ray's mother. While Margaret is your typical supportive single mom, Turner does a good job bringing lovable warmth to her underutilized role. Unfortunately, "underutilized" describes a lot of things in Lions in Waiting. The story could've been an emotionally gripping tale of a young man standing up for himself against a damaging culture of harassment. Instead, it uses its themes as little more than window dressing for an average sports drama that gets further bogged down by poor focus and a half-baked finale. While it has a few good stats, Lions in Waiting is a short film that's more of a benchwarmer than a star player.
Score: 3.5 out of 10 birthday cupcakes.
How I Lost My Best Friends:
Natalie Schwan's debut film is all about love, friendship, and wistful nostalgia for relationships long past. A return to his hometown leads Danny (Brendan Miller) to look back at the friendships he's had that became lost to the passage of time. For a story focusing around childhood memories, the narration has all the enthusiasm of an overworked bartender. While Brendan Miller gives a good performance as Danny, his narration sounds bored rather than pensive (I can only assume the narration is Miller's work because no one else is credited as the movie's narrator.) Miller's flat delivery cuts the strength of Schwan's bittersweet script in half.
It might've been a wise decision to have Carson Boatman, the actor who plays the teenage/college-aged version of Danny, provide the narration. While it's not perfect, Boatman's delivery is much more expressive and his performance is as adorkable and wholesome as his friendships. Of the three friends Danny remembers, high school best friend Lily and record store owner Martha actually get some development. Maryann Burr is likable as the bookish Lily and Jodi Carol Harrison is incredibly charming as Danny's well-traveled, passionate-about-music former boss. Between the two, Martha's unlikely intergenerational friendship with Danny is more compelling, in large part because it's the only friendship Danny had that isn't implied to have had romantic undertones. While the story is on the thin side and the narration is emotionally dry, How I Lost My Best Friends has good actors and smooth pacing to keep Schwan's directorial debut interesting and heartfelt.
Score: 6 out of 10 Fleetwood Mac records.
Multiverse Dating for Beginners:
It's Groundhog Day meets When Harry Met Sally... for Ivy (Sara Canning) when she strikes up a conversation with Dave (William Vaughan) after a party. When the romantic moment ends up going sideways, however, Ivy finds herself in a time loop that allows her to learn more about how this meet-cute could end. Multiverse Dating for Beginners starts out as an amusing film with an oddball concept. Seeing a bewildered Ivy go along with the metafictional time loop (the first few loop cycles even restart the opening title sequence) is funny, as is the realistically awkward dialogue between her and Dave. Sara Canning and William Vaughan mesh well together, playing two relatably flawed individuals you'll root to see take a chance on each other.
As the movie goes on, the atmosphere goes from relatively playful to tearjerkingly sincere. Once the time loops lead to an emotional confrontation between Ivy and Dave, the music and Canning's incredible performance are sure to start tugging at the heartstrings--especially if you have experience with being unlucky in love. It all culminates in an ending that, while a bit ambiguous, is sure to put a smile on your face. So if a sci-fi rom-com sounds like your kind of party, Multiverse Dating for Beginners is exactly what you're looking for.
Score: 8 out of 10 underwater gardens.
Small Displays of Chaos:
An ordinary family dinner is torture for Rayanne (Nia Roam), a young woman struggling with an eating disorder. For a short film with a modest story told on a limited budget of CA$1,000, Small Displays of Chaos has quite a strong punch. The dim lighting illustrates the dark situation unfolding over the course of the meal, one which is painfully brought to life by the cast. Rayanne has only a few lines, but Nia Roam uses body language and facial expressions to accurately depict a young girl in crisis. Baraka Rahmani shines beside her as "Edie," a physical manifestation of Rayanne's disorder. While she's obsessively goading Rayanne down a dark path, Rahmani plays it in a way where you believe Edie believes she's actually helping Rayanne. It's a fitting approach, seeing as how Edie is a product of Rayanne's mind.
But while Edie is undoubtedly a negative influence on Rayanne, it can't be said Rayanne's parents are any better. Her father Cal only half-heartedly acknowledges her and her problem, and her mother Hannah treats Rayanne's disordered eating as an annoyance rather than as a sign that her daughter needs help. David Minichiello and especially Linda Watters give solid performances as ineffectual parents whose apathy towards their child sends her spiraling further into her sickness. A simple but profound film about the destructive power eating disorders and troubled family dynamics hold, Small Displays of Chaos will have your attention from somber beginning to somber end.
Score: 8 out of 10 calories.
The Sharpest Fingers in Clayburn County:
Two men named Garrison and Wrightman (Mike Dopud and Aaron Pearl) are in a showdown at the Clayburn Tavern. But rather than fighting with guns or fists, they're battling through origami. A unique take on a scene that's been a part of countless Westerns, The Sharpest Fingers in Clayburn County is a laugh riot. Through nothing but their eyes and sweat-drenched faces, Mike Dopud and Aaron Pearl will have you snickering as Garrison and Wrightman engage in the most intense origami-off in film history. The glances they shoot at each other from across the bar vividly tell you what they're thinking throughout their duel.
Dopud and Pearl aren't alone in the exceptional facial acting department. Their co-star Danielle Stott-Roy (playing intrigued bar patron Katrina) and even the actors playing the bartender and other tavern customers follow in their expressive footsteps. The movie caps off with a surprise revelation, which genuinely took me by surprise and subverts a trope that the script initially seemed to be playing by the book. In just 6 minutes, The Sharpest Fingers in Clayburn County packs so much effortless humor and such a well-executed twist that I'd dub it a perfect silent comedy skit.
Score: 10 out of 10 beer bottle labels.
The Tesla Car Thieves:
The second-to-last film on this list is also the third one to contain a character named Dave. This movie's Dave (Blake Ridder) joins his friend Rob (Louis James) in trying to steal a Tesla they stumble across. But when they underestimate the vehicle's technology, their attempted joyride takes an unexpected turn. Last seen together on my short film review plate in The English Teacher, Blake Ridder and Louis James shift from drama to comedy in The Tesla Car Thieves. Ridder and James are charming and moderately funny as the titular pair of goofy would-be robbers laugh, trade jabs, and play around with the Tesla they've commandeered.
It's nothing groundbreaking, but the mirthful exchange does lead to a trippy twist that ends The Tesla Car Thieves on an appropriately vague note. The ending can be as dark or as light as your imagination wants it to be. If you're in the mood for a quick giggle, consider checking out this comical cautionary tale about the perils of stealing.
Score: 7 out of 10 seat heaters.
Two Wongs Make a White:
We end with a documentary-style comedy all about a "very special" adoption. Unable to have children of their own, Asian-American couple Diana and Jin Wong (Jolene Kim and Keong Sim) decide to adopt a White boy named Sonny (Gavin Warren). What follows is a humorous case of culture clash that satirizes the often overblown response that results from a couple adopting outside of their ethnicity. Jolene Kim and Keong Sim sell the joke with jocular sincerity, as do their co-stars Elaine Kao and Feodor Chin as the Wongs' friends Lina and Lester Ching. Gavin Warren and Kai Henderson (the latter of whom plays Lina and Lester's son Ping) also get in on selling the absurdity, even when the humor starts to wear thin.
Some jokes land better than others, with the "WP" running gag being one that starts out OK before being run into the ground and the finale consisting mainly of stale puns. The best joke to be found in the last few minutes of Two Wongs Make a White is how Diana and Jin's outfits are drastically different from what they were wearing when the film began. It serves as a silent indication of how much they've let their "extraordinary son" rub off on them. It's not a perfect parody, but you're sure to get a few laughs out of this wacky little short if you've got a few minutes to kill.
Score: 6 out of 10 black tablets.
Apart from the underwhelming Lions in Waiting, all of the films on this plurally themed list reach the "good" range of my rating scale or higher. The Sharpest Fingers in Clayburn County stands at the top of the mountain with its "10 out of 10" score. Cutting Moments, Multiverse Dating for Beginners, and Small Displays of Chaos trail just behind while The Tesla Car Thieves, How I Lost My Best Friends, and Two Wongs Make a White have enough good qualities to keep their mistakes from dragging them down too much. So if you're looking for a good domestic horror flick, sci-fi dramedy, or just a simple bite-sized comedy, this list has them and other short features for your viewing consideration.
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