I Got Five on It

Writer-Director (among other things) Jordan Peele is perhaps the most sought-after creative in film and television from the past decade with nearly every piece of work he puts his name on being an instant-hit, a seat that is well-deserved in my opinion. So Peele is not particularly someone who needs folks running to his defense, yet nevertheless I feel so particularly protective of Us when it comes to its place in his rise from tv comic to producer who has no trouble fast-tracking any project he chooses to back. Despite being a smash hit like his debut feature, Get Out, it didn’t get any of the endless awards attention that its predecessor received and all of its successes financially and critically feel dwarfed by the giant splash Get Out got… out. Particularly, there’s a contingent of the audience that found the movie’s logic or themes either hard to parse or not entirely as well-baked as Get Out.

Which is of course where I step in and confess that I am glad I rarely care what movies are about. It is definitely the case that Us is about something – class is the major target for the picture and Peele is intelligent enough to make that impossible to even folk like me trying to avoid it – but the major reason that I consider Us so astronomically better than Get Out is just so much more simpler: it’s scarier. And I mean honest to God, make-the-horror-creep-up-into-your-conscious frightening. Get Out is definitely scary and smart and funny, but it has training wheels on and a devotion to being a message movie that Us has little use for. Instead, Peele looks to flex out all the stylistic attributes of horror movies he’s been practicing in a career of hilarious parodies throughout the sketch show that boosted him to household name status, Key and Peele.

The story all of that style is in service to belongs to Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry as a child, Lupita Nyong’o as an adult and speaking of awards this should have received… Nyong’o’s snub was among the biggest frustrations of the last Oscar season) as she takes a trip with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) to Santa Cruz. This bothers Adelaide intensely from a dark moment in her childhood experienced on the famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk that we have revealed to us bit by bit. Just after she opens up on the experience to Gabe, the lights go out in the house and just outside the front door stands a foreboding nuclear family in crimson. When they make their way into the vacation home and corner the Wilsons near the fireplace, they are revealed to be doppelgangers of each member of the family and that’s only the tip of the scope behind what’s going on in Us which just expands on that instant mix of fears between an unknown entity so familiar to you and the violence of having your domestic space intruded upon to something just so much more draining.

From there on, it’s a mix between the cinematographer Mike Gioulakis’ shadows of a living nightmare as the family are terrorized by their own villainous mimics, all three supporting actors giving their own version of a guttural non-verbal performance while Nyong’o’s own Red communicates to us with a gnarled whisper as she moves in unnervingly unnatural ways. Alongside the way the makeup truly distresses Nyong’o, Duke, Joseph, and Alex’s faces to just sap the humanity out of their doppelgangers’ faces, matching well with their primordial body language and vocal utterances. Which makes it all the more impressive that the central family (and we shall later see the rest of the supporting characters encounter) deliver two distinct performance styles: one character that is of course frustrating and flawed in all the human ways and the other being latching on to one particular trait of that character with a tenacious viciousness that propels the Tethered being – for that is what the doppelgangers are referred to – to its violent acts in a natural way.

But Us doesn’t simply get to being one of the scariest movies in a long time simply be being a perfect acting showcase for every cast member’s range. It has jump scares, perfectly timed ones with Nicholas Monsour’s pacing giving it just the right amount of pregnancy to make us jolt the way a calibrated shock should make us (and indeed the fact that my initial viewing of Us had the best audience possible – tuned in the way a great horror movie audience should be and freaking out proper – makes me nostalgic for the days of full-house opening weekend theater viewings). It has disturbing images as I brought up just the way that alarming dark red of the Tethered’s uniform costumes by Kym Barrett looks in the darkness of the Wilson’s home especially when punctuated by the rare scenes of bloodletting. The mixture of those dark blacks and reds is a big part of what brings Us this heavy mood that all the best horror movies are expected to be thick with.

Us practically drowns in that mood, only bobbing for the surface with Peele’s characteristic ability to add some dry humor to the proceedings that also let us appeal to the Wilsons as characters (Gabe’s obsession with his boat being a notable connection to that class theme while also a Chekovian device). Because Peele is such a horror buff – the very first shot of the film includes video cassettes of Night of the Living Dead, C.H.U.D., and A Nightmare on Elm Street visible; Thriller and Jaws appear on t-shirts; the location is consciously the same as The Lost Boys; a deformed character is almost certainly named after one in The Hills Have Eyes; and there are so many visual quotings of horror classics – he knows exactly the right ingredients to appeal to the home invasion thriller that this starts off as and then lets the disorienting existential horror of facing your cruel self expand like hot air to at least a scale that is just inescapable and leaves the characters trapped.

Probably the most notable element of the filmmaking that lets these chills slide down smoothly is Michael Abels’ score, indulging in all of the stock horror sounds like the screeching strings and thumping drums without feeling too much like a generic score. Particularly the manner in which it adopts a leitmotif out of the Luniz song “I’ve Got 5 on It” to turn its key down as low as possible so that the beat just translates to an occasional shudder and makes for the perfect punctuation to most of the scares to come once Us goes full-throttle throw its lightning pacing.

So it’s the tools rather than the message that truly engages me with Us, something that is the case for most pictures. It is impossible to pretend that the same broad strokes Peele and company take to give us a pure work of terror aren’t the same broad strokes that embolden its message on class and the violent divide it brings (again… it uses “I Got 5 on It” as a leitmotif and one of Nyong’o’s first scenes as Red involves her croaking a dark fairytale about a shadow receiving worse than table scraps in attachment to her body) and so you cannot take one without the other and I’d claim that Us is all the richer for having that depth beneath the surface (literally given the descent to a crypt-like tunnel that makes up the third act). It’s even understandable that Lupita Nyong’o’s ability to play both monster and hero and the unexpectedly twisted way in which Peele’s writing moves around those roles within the third act truly gets to play both sides of that presentation, including the fact that Nyong’o’s delivery of a late monologue that is in my opinion the weakest moment of the film salvages some of atmospheric cruelty of the whole picture. In any case, it’s not what I come to Us for or what I exit it praising most. I don’t care where the Tethered come from or why they are doing what they do. I only admire the way it all combines – Monsour’s cutting, Abels’ score, Gioulakis’ shadows and framing, and Nyong’o’s performance – to a heartpounding balletic climax at the end of a particularly draining horror movie experience, one that lost very little of its initial power when I saw it in theaters with a likewise frightened crowd when I re-watched it in the blackness of my living room alone.

“Hey Michael, Check This Out…”

Within the past week I’ve revisited Freddy vs. Jason, the 2009 Friday the 13th remake, and our subject here: the 2009 remake of My Bloody Valentine. And it’s evidently a small sample size of 2000s slasher cinema and reliant specifically on intellectual property with a pre-existing fanbase, but if there’s one major connection one can make of the three (as well as the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Rob Zombie Halloween remakes, and the Hatchet series*): the 2000s were not for want on slasher movies that had the proper attitude that that subgenre is meant to have. At the prime of the subgenre in the 1980s, they were all just filled with mean attitudes using the plot and characters simply as vehicles to deliver elaborate death setpieces that flex out their gore effects budget and artistry. They are happy to walk the exploitation walk all the way through.

Their achilles heel however is the fact that they came out in the 2000s and thereby are subject to the sort of polished clean digital look that removes the sort physical visual griminess that these previously often independent, frequently low-budget pictures were forced to have and in turn gave the subgenre a rawness to its craft that horror cinema was kind of moving to in the wake of respectability that stuff like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist were bringing. Film stock and the primitivism of that low-budget resource that allowed these films to pop out a dime a dozen in the 1980s was the source of most of the best examples of the form feeling like wallowing in grub. And try as the cinematographers of these 2000s production could, you just can’t have the same honesty with digital filmmaking.

My Bloody Valentine takes advantage of that by going the other way: it indulges in that vanguard of 2009 cinema, the very same year as Coraline and Avatar. It indulges in 3D, thereby allowing us to refer to this remake as My Bloody Valentine 3D for the remainder of this review to distinguish it from the original Canadian picture.

Which to be fair, Todd Farmer and Zane Smith’s screenplay (with a credit given to Stephen Miller for story) does quite a lot to try to pull from John Beaird’s original screenplay from 1981 but in overly complicated ways that end up making the plotting of the film at once extremely dizzying. We still certainly have a mining town by the name of Harmony (this time shot around Southwestern Pennsylvania around Pittsburgh or Armstrong County with not nearly the amount of edge-of-the-world coastline personality that Sydney Mines brought to the original film) and we do have an inciting accident that traps five miners with a single homicidal survivor by the name of Harry Warden (played by either Richard John Walters or Chris Carnel), sans the added sensationalist treatment of cannibalism (this time Warden killed the men simply to preserve more oxygen for himself). This time, however, the writers decide to cut out the middleman and make our ostensible young protagonist the worker whose negligence led to the methane explosion that caused the tragedy, Tom Hanniger (Jensen Ackles, the first of the two stars of the show Supernatural that amusingly starred in a slasher remake in early 2009; Jared Padalecki would follow his lead into Friday the 13th the very next month). Hanniger happens to be the son of the mine’s owner, a little bit of nepotism that evidently got him into an unqualified position and also probably keeps the entire town from lynching him over their considerable resentment for the tragedy he caused.

Doesn’t stop Harry however, who went into a coma immediately after his rescue only to wake up a year later and massacre his whole hospital wing in search for revenge from Tom. He finds Tom in the middle of a Valentine’s Day party being thrown at the same mine he was originally trapped in, which probably didn’t help his vengeful mood any further as he kills every teenager he runs into at the party: it’s only through Warden’s single-minded hunt for Tom that Tom’s girlfriend Sarah (Jaime King), their friend Axel (Kerr Smith), and Axel’s girlfriend Irene (Betsy Rue) are neglected by the bloodthirsty miner and it’s only by Sheriff Burke’s (Tom Atkins) sudden arrival and shooting of Warden that Tom makes it out by the skin of his teeth.

That funneling of the major plot points of the original My Bloody Valentine gets us barely 20 minutes into My Bloody Valentine 3D – partly because the mining accident is mostly registered by a montage of ridiculous newspaper headlines during the opening credits – and yet it still doesn’t hasn’t yet re-used of the love triangle from the original movie. For you see ten years later (a fact humorously communicated by a voiceover newscast saying “it’s been nearly ten years” EXACTLY when “Ten Years Later…” fades in on an aerial shot of the Kittanning Citizens Bridge), Tom came back after being gone since the attack to ostensibly sell the mine now that his father is dead and finds that Sarah is now married to Axel with a son (it is frankly laughable that Tom’s father is not at all a presence in the movie to substantiate his daddy issues, only appearing in the form of his ashes container. Sarah and Axel’s son is barely more of a presence with a frustratingly contrived moment of menace towards him that does not pay off). Meanwhile, Axel happens to be Harmony’s Sheriff and that leaves him in charge of investigating the horrifying murders that coincidentally started just when Tom arrived back into town: murders commit by somebody resembling Harry Warden in their miner’s getup and pickaxe weapon of choice.

Honestly, the structuring of this story makes it feel like the makers wanted to frame this as remake AND pseudo-sequel of the original (including the fact that one of the final shots in the 10 years ago prologue resembles the very last shot of the original movie, watching a wounded Miner retreat into the darkness of the mines). This is not the only area where Farmer and Smith’s script gets way to convoluted to find the long way around recycling the same story, but I don’t think you need to dive that much further into its weirdly shallow psychology of characters who are ostensibly grown ass adults with domestic lives and matured experiences still acting like teenagers to see just how frustratingly poorly put-together it all is. Frankly, My Bloody Valentine 3D is not a good movie by any metric: contrived writing only being the tip of the iceberg when faced with the extremely CW level acting talent (and it’s not like the original actors playing TJ, Sarah, and Axel were all that much better but at least they still lend a genuine humble presence to the small-town that these soap opera-esque leads just can’t meet), and Lussier as a director just does not have any sophistication or inspiration to offer to a sequence that does not take feature gore or 3D, especially obvious when it comes to the moments that rely particularly on tension… character-based tension worst of all.

But fortunately this IS a gore-filled movie and it IS one that’s in 3D. And I am sorry to suggest to anyone that this movie mirrors Lussier’s lack of offering to anybody who attempts to watch it in 2D, but that is certainly the case. Yet the 3D is absolutely the element that keeps me coming back to My Bloody Valentine 3D in the way that it happily indulges in any possible moment to have blood splash every which way through the screen or put us in the perspective of one of the murderous Miner’s victims so we’re consistently watching the pointy end of that threatening pickaxe jam right in front of us. Sometimes both at the same time as in an early moment where we watch the pickaxe-through-the-back-of-the-head-popping-out-an-eye kill from the original movie lovingly recreated as a little peek-a-boo moment that gets me giddy as a schoolboy when I see it. In fact, to My Bloody Valentine 3D‘s credit, a lot of kill styles get their own reenactment in this remake just for the sake of having Lussier, cinematographer Brian Pearson, and stereographer Max Penner play around with how to give it a smiling kitschy to its visceral imagery. It’s not like the revolutionary work of Avatar here but instead whole-heartedly treating 3D as the sort of gimmickry that it was back in the 1950s and that honestly seems the perfect sort of marriage to the purely junky motivations of the slasher genre to begin with. It also allows for even the most blatantly computer generated of the bloodiness to be forgivable in how the 3D gives the chintzy look more artistry on top of feeling more fun.

And that fun is something that My Bloody Valentine 3D gets to accomplish without falling into that oh too popular trap of being winking or self-aware. Sure, Lussier and company know they’re making trash and even lean quite into it with an extended rampage in a seedy motel that largely involves Rue spending most of her total screentime running around a parking lot wearing absolutely nothing but high heels (credit very much to Rue for being so bold; less credit to Farmer for writing himself a short bit part as the guy who she has sex with at the beginning of her commando run here) but they’re still taking it seriously and sincerely without the slightest hint of parody. The bones of the story obviously don’t earn that seriousness (and at around 10 minutes longer than the original, I even start to get exhausted at that po-faced mystery shit and the predictable direction it’s going before it ends), but I don’t go to this genre for narrative indulgences – just purely for exhibition of cheesy carnage and the 3D extravaganza and I like to imagine I’ve made clear how well this has delivered on both so that the 3D Blu-Ray has just ended up one of my guilty pleasure comfort foods. You’re not going to see what I see if you try to watch it in 2D. I am unashamed to say that My Bloody Valentine 3D does not need to function at any aspect to justify that placement – and it does not, it is admirable and dedicated but still a complete piece of shit movie – just as long as it gives me the satisfaction of watching a pickaxe point at me through somebody’s perforated skull more than once.

*I have not watched the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street since its release (which may be soon to change – I just finished a Friday the 13th binge, why not initiate a Nightmare binge?) and I will refrain from making a declaration on that one.

Come Back Again to Here Knows When

You can’t accuse My Bloody Valentine of not getting straight to the point: it opens with a dialogue-less sequence of two miners walking through a damp and dark mine shaft until one of them decides to stop walking and removes her miner’s uniform to reveal herself as a blonde busty woman in underwear. The other guy gets more and more foreboding in his refusal to remove even his helmet and that foreboding vibe turns out to be prophetic when he grabs the woman in the middle of her seduction routine and shoves her right into the pointy end of a pickaxe he stuck on the wall behind her. Oh, what’s that? I’m forgetting the Valentine aspect. Not to worry, the woman happens to have small valentine heart over her left breast, all the better to have a target for that pickaxe to poke through as she screams us into the title card.

Of course the movie would have to promise sex and violence to function satisfactorily as one more slasher of arguably the most prolific year of that subgenre’s run: 1981, the year of The Burning, Hell Night, The Funhouse, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and to top it off the best Friday the 13th movie: the one that introduced us to Jason Voorhees proper. Except those are all American productions and it does not do to forget that Canada was just as involved in the unholy beginnings of that craze as we yanks were, given Black Christmas‘ existence pre-dates fellow inaugural slashers The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween and even matches up to their masterpiece status. My Bloody Valentine is a bit more humble than either of those three giants but director George Mihalka executes just about all the standards we expect of a slasher picture with no less an admirable turn of skill as any of the other 1981 greats (ok, maybe The Burning leaves it in the dust).

Those standards living in a fairly average screenplay by Jack Beaird (writing his first of two 1981 Canadian slasher pictures, the other being uncredited work on Happy Birthday to Me) about the suitably named town of Valentine Bluffs on the country’s east coast. It’s a small mining town with very little things for its fellas to unwind with after long day’s work in underground and that means that most of the young miners are looking forward to the Valentine’s Day party to come that weekend, the first celebration of the holiday in twenty years. Turns out that the dark memory of a tragic mining accident trapping five miners during that romantic holiday supersedes having “Valentine” in your name, all the moreso when Harry Warden – the sole survivor of that tragedy, whom we only see in a gas-helmeted miner’s outfit identical to what we saw at that tawdry opening and performed by Peter Cowper – took a year later to violently murdering the two mining supervisors whose negligence led to the explosion that trapped him with the co-workers he was forced to eat to survive. Warden left each supervisor’s disemboweled heart in their own candy box with a threat to continue his reign of terror if the town dares to throw another Valentine dance as he was taken away and institutionalized.

And no sooner than when a town volunteer Mabel (Patricia Hamilton) begins decorating the Union Hall for such a celebration does Mayor Hanniger (Larry Reynolds) and Chief Newby (Don Francks) receive a similarly bloodied up candy box with a horrifying human heart in it and a note promising to fulfill Warden’s legacy if the dance does not get called off. But the young miners and their girlfriends have no idea and pay no mind to the adults’ firm insistence of the dance’s cancellation, least of all Hanniger’s son TJ (Paul Kelman), the lead miner Axel (future sitcom animator Neil Affleck), or Sarah (Lori Hallier) as they are much too busy dealing with the love triangle when TJ went west and left Sarah behind to be picked up by Axel before TJ’s dejected return.

Now this all certainly sounds like nothing special in comparison to the legacy My Bloody Valentine had since left behind as one of the major non-franchise slasher films (discounting a remake in the late 2000s, but that’s a story for another time), but there’s reading about what’s going on and there’s actually sitting in with it all. My Bloody Valentine is most distinguished in its unorthodox choice of location as half of it takes place in the rec room of the central mine where the youngsters all decide to throw their party without the authorities’ knowledge or within the mine itself as they are to be stalked and killed by either Warden or somebody imitating him. But it’s the selection of the shooting location – that of Sydney Mines in Nova Scotia – that truly gives that atmosphere more verisimilitude as it’s one thing to build together a dreary set but it’s another thing to shoot within those decrepit mines, creepy in their own right and inviting shadow and tension in the way it winds or feels set to collapse at any moment*.

Added on top of that is just the hangout vibe that the cast of youngsters naturally sink into in their many scenes together, most notably Keith Knight (who just stands out so well with his magnificent moustache), Cynthia Dale, and Alf Humphreys. It’s not like they’re particularly performing on a dramatic level, but the casual chemistry between all of them – whether drinking at the bar, shooting jokes as they walk out the mine elevator, or just sitting around at the central party – adds that sense of real working class presence to this small-town setting. And they are of course aided by characterizations and dialogue that give no particular depth as complex human presences (this of course hurts most in the sequences involving the TJ/Sarah/Axel triangle) but allows them at least the dignity of responding to the discoveries that something horribly wrong is going on appropriately, particularly compared to other slashers that take years for their hapless victims to realize mayyyyybe a psycho killer is on the loose.

These are major enough strengths to allow My Bloody Valentine the ability to survive much of its notorious suffering at the hands of the MPAA, attempting to censor as much of the “bloody” in the movie’s title as possible, but the fortune of living in 2021 (I mean, one of the few) is that we have by now a blu-ray release by Shout! Factory that properly gives a 2K restoration to the original negative most of the previously cut footage that was added to a 2009 Lionsgate Blu-Ray release** (which honestly looked way too rough in the earlier blu-ray) allows us to indulge in the wonderful low-budget raison d’etre of slasher cinema: fake gore effects. And some pretty good ones too: an eyeball poking that would certainly get its due homage in the remake, the afore-mentioned piercing of a woman’s chest from behind, an awesomely gruesome moment where a body drops with a noose around its neck that instantly decapitates upon becoming taut from gravity, and so much more. It’s altogether impressive what this tiny Canadian production was able to put together as the savage spectacle was the subgenre was meant to be.

And it should be proud of those tricks just as much as the rest of the tricks Mihalka and his crew do to make an adequate slasher picture, from the measured usage of low-lighting in those creepy underground tunnels to the occasional usage of a broad angle when the tension is finally broken by the murderous miner popping up to claim another victim (including an opening usage of a canted angle that disorients us with what is already a pretty abrupt interruption to the sex – in fact, while we ARE in the company of horny 20-year-olds, I don’t think there’s another moment in the film as risqué as that striptease – and the violence). My Bloody Valentine is certainly part of an unsophisticated subgenre that came out right at its most blatantly mercenary era, but it constructs an example of that subgenre with elegance and care to its assembly that makes it a point of pride to many of the modest fans and connoisseurs of that subgenre. And being one of those connoisseurs, I gladly declare to cheers upon it for being such a reliable little piece of horror cinema I can return to.

*Funny enough, the owners of the mine where the film was shot ended up cleaning it before the production team arrived, to their absolute dismay. The set had to be filthied up proper to fit the ominous ambience that Mihalka and the producers were aiming for. Still there’s a big difference between a fake mine stage and a real one that maybe had to have some makeup put on it.
**One of the more grim murder sequences, whose aftermath we still see and frankly resembles a similarly cut up sequence from the same year’s Friday the 13th Part 2, is believed by Mihalka to be lost forever and so he accepts the restored uncut versions as the closest to his vision.

The Sundance 2021 Animated Shorts

KKUM (Kim Kang-min, USA/South Korea)

Of course Mickey Please was not going to be the only animator in the world who experiments with styrofoam sculpting as an animation style. And frankly Kim Kang-min makes his own mark with the form, pushing on an ambition with the spacing and scope of what he’s depicting that rivals Please’s Marilyn Myller. I am a bit too distant with the schema by which Kim approaches this otherwise a deeply felt personal story of maternal affection and protection, but the depiction of his mother’s dreams and the primitivism imagery comes with a magical realism that compliments the style. It is quite possible that this supersedes Excuse Me Miss, Miss, Miss as the short I’m most excited to watch again whenever I can.

THE FIRE NEXT TIME (Renaldho Pele, UK)

Feels way too much like the sort of film that wants to say something without really having much to say, but its animation does well enough to give it a true frenzy to the way it escalates that while I found it to be a short I could not connect to… the visuals were so clearly inspired and lively that it was a lack of connection that I deeply regretted. The sort of usage of color and lines that demand you pay attention to why they’re chosen.


This was probably something that I should have expected but this program had at least three short films that I ended up watching thinking “wow, this grotesque visual style and the puerileness of it would feel right at home as an Adult Swim bumper” and here we arrive at the first of these. And to be honest, that thought was a big part of what made me fear I was going to hate Joe Cappa’s short here except… at some point I ended up coming around to loving it and finding myself impressed with how steadily it was able to maintain its discomforting vibe for the entirety of its runtime. Cappa’s utilisation of the humanoid dogs with horrifying sharp teeth and sickly blue skin turns out to be less indulgent than I as worried it was going to be – accompanied by a protagonist dog whose smoothness of lines and warm brown is adorable in comparison – and it turns out he’s just finding out how long he can turn up the suspense before letting loose on a psychedelic climax followed by a hilarious punchline to it all that made this among the most impressive works of animation in the whole program.


Very easy to like, but it didn’t stick around long enough for me to love it. Still it’s hard not to recommend this as comfort food for when one is feeling most melancholy, as it provides soothing visuals that still dare to transform throughout its central tune and cool colors to it all.

GNT (Sara Hirner & Rosemary Vasquez-Brown, Australia)

The second of our “Adult Swim” type of shorts and unfortunately the one that appealed the least to me, albeit I’m sure that there is exactly an audience for the sort of bodily humor that this one traffics in as well as the squashy pink-on-white visual style matching pretty well with that humor. It’s impossible to pretend that it’s not setting its sights on themes that have some relevance today, what with social media and open conversations about the female body, but it’s just not for me and that probably indicates how out of touch I am at the ancient age of 28.

THE FOURFOLD (Alisi Telengut, Canada)

A friend of mine told me that they would have probably liked this more if there were an English-language version of Qirima Telengut’s narration (mind you, they are no philistine and watch healthy amount non-English films regularly) and while I don’t know that I agree, I can certainly understand how trying to keep up with Telengut’s speech may get someone unable to keep up with the ever transforming abstract visuals. In any case, they marry together extremely well into a short that is one part meditation and one part environmental plea so that the elusive nature of its impressionist artwork just lingers in our head several frames later and makes us recognize how easy it is for things to change drastically.

TREPANATION (Nick Flaherty, USA)

It just does not feel finished in any visual sense and that got in my way with connecting to this short on any level. I’m certain that’s a deliberate choice on Flaherty’s part to give it that sort of alien nature to its opaque storytelling, but I wish I could respect it enough to meet it halfway in that manner. It reminds me way too much of Tony de Peltrie in all the wrong ways.

SOUVENIR, SOUVENIR (Bastien Dubois, France)

The script could go either way for me, as I’m sure could be expected for this subject matter. The story of people realizing how bad war crimes the French commit on us Algerians certainly brings out my inner “congratulations for catching up”, but I can’t hold that too hard for a story that uses that as the bedrock for a variety of animation styles clashing together in representing not only the divide between generations trying to discuss and process wartime trauma but also the slow ability for Dubois as an artist to truly recognize the seriousness of this material and grapple with his past juvenile cartoons versus the harsh textures of his later attempts to tell this story. The meta-layers are the source of this short’s depth for me, providing introspection that the obtuseness of Dubois’s father otherwise cannot give way to and for that I can forgive it for taking a minute to getting to conclusions that were already clear for all Algerian people if not most French people and certainly not in the 1950s-60s.

LITTLE MISS FATE (Joder von Rotz, Switzerland)

The final of the Adult Swim looking shorts and like GNT before, definitely one where the animation style just does not appeal to me. Still I imagine an earlier version of myself in high school who used to be all about this vulgarity would have been all over it and I honestly can’t pretend that Joder von Rotz’s attempts to gross us out with the violent and puerile distortions of its characters don’t aim for an ambition that maybe I don’t see as often with these types of shorts. I’ll send it back in time to high school me and see how he responds.

The Sundance 2021 Live-Action Shorts – Program 4

You can read my thoughts on Program 1 here, Program 2 here, and Program 3 here.

LIKE THE ONES I USED TO KNOW (Annie St-Pierre, Canada)

A melancholy Christmas story that manages to remain fresh and emotional even despite how many melancholy Christmas stories I’ve gone through. Annie St-Pierre clearly has a hand on tone and modulation, however obvious some choices of camera movement and framing may be, and the result is a movie that is efficiently able to establish the mindsets of its duotagonists (both of whom – Steve Laplante & Lilou Roy-Lanouette – are the stand out of a perfect ensemble cast), the relations of everybody in this short, and let that drive the emotional drama until a brilliant two-hand ending. Obviously Excuse Me Miss, Miss, Miss is my favorite film of all the programs, but this one puts up an excellent fight for my second favorite short of the festival (mostly trying to battle Raspberry).


Feels like it may be trying a bit hard to have its absurdity cake while pleading for us to laugh with it, but I do think it’s trying in all the right ways: Anthony Arkin and Jacob Ware’s performances, the neat costumes, and the selection of wide shots and close-ups that specifically punctuate what the hell we are trying to figure out this time. I can’t possibly say it wasn’t put well enough together to get the job done, I just have trouble being as amused as it seems a story of this kind wants you to be.


I mean, there’s no going around the fact that given how much workplace sexual harassment in all industries still exists after the #metoo and #timesup movements, Doublespeak is a very relevant short film addressing a long urgent issue. I just honestly have trouble seeing it address that issue in a compelling way. It doesn’t help its case that this short played at Sundance so soon after The Assistant came around and provided an overwhelming experience similar to the one Doublespeak provided. I expect that’s not fair to compare. In any case, the lighting, acting, and dialogue felt like a gritty primetime reboot of a corporate harassment reporting video and maybe that’s the point to add subversion to the obvious truth it’s heading towards about Human Resources’ complete resilience to help survivors of sexual misconduct in any manner. I just wish embraced the bite that could have given or provided more insight on the matter.

THE UNSEEN RIVER (Pham Ngoc Lan, Laos/Vietnam)

The last of these gorgeous short films that would be so perfect if they were shorter. Probably the one that frustrates me the most given how perfect everything seemed to be going up until… it still kept going. And that is a bit unfair to say, since I understand the mosaic schema that it is trying to adopt and while it takes its sweet time tying the various stories togerther… it does eventually come together. But I also finding the swapping of the stories interrupts the otherwise meditative rhythm of the whole thing, despite Lan and his crew doing a phenomenal job to help me sink into the environments of this short in its sedate visuals and the brilliantly layered sound mix for the river and the people on it. So perhaps I’m a bit bitter that it didn’t end up my favorite thing ever as I initially thought it was gonna be, but what’s left is still an outstanding experience.

I ran from it and was still in it (Darol Olu Kae, USA)

We got three avant-garde shorts on the experience of being a Black person in America by the end of the Live-Action shorts run (albeit all three of them on different areas of that experience) and while I might still prefer Black Bodies to Darol Olu Kae’s I ran from it and was still in it, I think this is the one that most takes advantage of that unorthodox approach to provide something touching truly overwhelming and touching. A lot of that comes from the earnestness and honesty that Kae uses to determine his associative editing rhythm and juxtapositions from a combination of archive footage and personal videos and truly some of that earnestness leads to the movie getting a bit too fussy but this isn’t necessarily trying to be anything other than a personal appeal for something better in the fact of what he’s bringing to the world. Kae takes exactly as much time for that appeal and I walked away very impressed by how he did it with the power of filmmaking.


I genuinely don’t have anything to say about this and I apologize to Gregory Barnes for that. It caught me at a time where the subject matter is a bit too close to home regarding a friend of mine, but it also just approaches things from an angle that is alien to myself as an anti-religious person (and sort of alien to my religious friend, to be sure). I am confident enough in saying that this was never going to be my sort of jam no matter when I saw it, between the sense of humor and stakes, but I feel saying anymore would be ungenerous.

THE CRIMINALS (Serhat Karaaslan, France/Romania/Turkey)

Pretty impressive how smoothly this took on the tonal shifts, but maybe that has something to do with what I was expecting when I originally read the premise. And it led me on with that expectation at first with the relaxed manner in which it introduced its protagonists and what they wanted to do without the scope of the film – I was honestly expecting a tiny teenage sex comedy about them just trying to find a place – but slowly and surely the menace of what sort of society they live in and the invasive nature of the morally self-righteous edges in. It is a bit frustrating that it reaches the peak of that tension fairly early on and I suppose some of that comes from the antagonist’s performances being such blatant villains, but the naturalism of the two teenage leads helps ground this into something very real and threatening to them. It is totally understandable why such a story won the Screenwriting Award for the shorts, even if it wouldn’t be my choice.

The Sundance 2021 Live-Action Shorts – Program 3

You can read my thoughts on Program 1 here and Program 2 here.

WIGGLE ROOM (Julia Baylis & Sam Guest, USA)

On the one hand, a great and likable protagonist performance in Deanna Gibson whose naturalist performance fits right into the realist aesthetic that Baylis & Guest adopt in trying to tell a low-key frustrating story with real-world stakes. Ostensibly, those stakes are kind of abandoned almost invisibly by the time the short ends, leaving an ending where it is obvious how we are meant to feel positive but it also lacks any true resolution to what it previously took very seriously in a manner I’m not convinced the short is aware of. But I also can’t pretend that the sort of sleigh-of-hand the final beats make to let the surprise of that ending land really earns this movie a lot of praise from me, not to mention how Gibson doesn’t underplay or overplay the small victories. I haven’t decided whether or not the fact that Sam Stillman practically looks like if Lin-Manuel Miranda wore Eric Andre’s suit is a benefit or detractor, but it doesn’t help the broadness of the performance or a secondary antagonist. A brusque receptionist earlier in the short matches the sort of natural antagonism that is more fitting to Wiggle Room‘s style and a foil to Gibson’s performance, but this is Gibson’s film by the end of it all.


As though a response to the visually exciting Five Tiger being too short, there had later been a noticeable trend for me of the other great visually exciting shorts in the festival being too long (we will have at least one more in Program 4 where this is a big liability). I am even more paradoxical with regards to The Longest Dream I Remember: it is at once too long to be satisfying as short and too short to truly accomplish the patient atmosphere that the longeurs of its gorgeous cinematography invite. The Longest Dream I Remember is more than any other short the one that I’d be most interested to see adapted into feature-length form, where it could live up to both the “long” and the “dream” in its title. Although, to be fair, it does tap into the dream elements in its selection of shot scales arranged to make us witness an occurrence in simultaneous different forms. But most of all, it probably would give Carlos Lenin the canvas to fill out the narrative with… something. Something other than the ostensibly deliberate non-presences that stand to be dwarfed by Diego Tenorio’s incredible visual eye.

AVA FROM MY CLASS (Youmin Kang, USA/South Korea)

A friend of mine asked while we were talking about Sundance what was the best performance in my eyes? And my immediate response was a pair of performances from In the Earth but after really sitting down and thinking about it… I think I’d have to land on Bae Bonalie here. Child actors can be good or bad, but Bonalie (and I assume Youmin Kang as a director of her performance) do tremendously complex work in giving a naturally nervous little girl several scenarios to display that with a layer of “acting in drama class” and then juxtaposing that with the uncertain way she interacts with her classmates or lets those interactions sink her subtly into further shyness. It is phenomenal work that would probably get more attention if as many eyes landed on the shorts as the features at Sundance. I can’t honestly say that I felt much for any other aspect of the short (and this may be a symptom of it now being a week and a half since I’ve seen this shorts program), but a find is certainly a find.

EXCUSE ME MISS, MISS, MISS (Sonny Calvento, Philippines)

Sonny Calvento’s attack on the EDSA Malls is certainly something with a lot of specificity towards an exclusively Filipino phenomenon, but I found the ideas and concepts it pulled out and tore apart to be universal to capitalism all around the globe. And opening up with that feels like a mistake, because surely Excuse Me Miss, Miss, Miss is a social satire but it’s an extremely fun one to watch on every aspect. Its alienating set designs for the central shopping center it takes place in, its earwormy jingle, its occasionally cheeky choice of compositions, and its ability to have the condescending smiling attitude of the shopping center environment to fuel both Excuse Me Miss, Miss, Miss‘s bounciness as a narrative while also allowing it to sit down as a major target of the taxing of working in the mall. And I find just as much as this lives off of Calvento’s confidence as a filmmaker, it also has to be credited to the polar opposites in the central performances: Phyllis Grande’s stone-cold deadpan to everything she deals with only to be punctuated by wide-eyed discoveries and Mailes Kanapi’s aggressively smiling tyrant in her bright red suit that stands out with the soulless sterility surrounding her. I saw a lot of features and I saw almost all the shorts in Sundance (apologies again to the Documentary programs). In any case, THIS is my favorite film I saw in the whole festival, more than any other feature or short.

FOREVER (Mitch Mcglockin, USA)

Certainly feels like an entry into Live-Action split the difference for Forever as something of an autobiographical documentary while also being very much an animated short. But I guess focusing on category fraud stalls me from saying things that I don’t want to say, so how about I start with what I do want to say? Which is that this is outstanding as a representation of life via Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) which gives this short a three-dimensional feel even in its disarming usage of a tool as flat as the line with something simulating camera movements to stress emptiness and depth at once. And it DOES compliment the sort of story it’s telling and it is a story that absolutely makes my eyes sink into my skull with its morbidity and weird attempting to grapple with AI as an infallible force. And the monologue in which this thought process takes place obviously was instigated by a personal and definitely disturbing instance but I do think it was a phone call taken way too seriously. Like, dude, come on.

BLACK BODIES (Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, USA/Canada)

I absolutely love it when editors are approaching a rhythm from something other than conventional narrative cutting. And that’s what Kelly Fyffe-Marshall does with Black Bodies, keeping up with Komi Olaf’s passionate delivery of poetry regarding the topic you would expect it to regard with that title and matching up with Jordan Oram’s similarly poetic lighting of the titular black bodies and faces in an open interior space. Treating a real-world issue with visual abstraction is to my mind the best kind of approach to appeal to an audience that otherwise won’t listen and Fyffe-Marshall creates that sort of appeal without losing an ounce of blunt impact that this should hit others with.

WE’RE NOT ANIMALS (Noé Debré, France)

Just have to join in the choir of people that say this is a very French movie. In its approach to sexuality, its approach to philosophy, in its approach to human interaction, and none of these are particularly topics that interest me so there was only a hard ceiling on how well I was going to enjoy this short. I give it credit for trying to use its non-stop dialogue to keep moving, though the direction in which the short is moving is kind of hard to determine even after it ends (partly because its ending beat focuses on an entirely different conflict from how it began). It’s perhaps an attempt to accomplish an amusing shagginess, but all I got was the shag and the amusement was more nervous than certain.

LIZARD (Akinola Davies, UK)

I am… kind of pleased that such a weird movie ended up winning the Short Film Grand Jury Prize. And it probably help cases that even despite everything Davies does to make this film about uneasy premonition feel that kind of weirdness so that we connect with Naomi Akalanze’s attempt to piece together this ominous feeling, it is a very easy short film to sit down and feel engaged with. There is certainly the presence of narrative and characters, but at the end of the day Lizard felt like its focus was provided an extended mood: one that feels akin to watching a car crash happen seconds before you end up in a wreck. Shabier Kirchner catches my attention once again so soon after watching his brilliant work in Small Axe, this time by letting the haze in which he keeps Lizard in giving us unsteadiness until the horrible acts we get the sense are gonna happen hit. And Davies’ ability to establish the location as a real space is what keeps Lizard anchored from getting way too intangible so if this isn’t necessarily in my top five shorts overall, I can’t say I’m displeased with such confident work being recognized by Sundance.

The Sundance 2021 Live-Action Shorts – Program 2

You can read my thoughts on Program 1 here.

WHITE WEDDING (Melody C. Roscher, USA)

Sundance has an M.O. and that M.O. is generally not my thing and this short honestly embodies that M.O. to a T. A whole lot of heavy-handed delivery of themes, most of them crammed in, most of them honestly predictable. It’s not poorly shot or edited (in fact, the opposite) so it has that going for itself, but it also would feel right at home as Oscarbait if it was a feature film with the artless way that the cast and script posture itself for all the final beats and twists. I’ll give it that at least one of those beats lands.

LATA (Alisha Tejpal, India/USA)

There was a letterboxd review that I encountered after finishing this program that I captured exactly my attitude and I could not imagine adding a single observation to it: “Yes, I too have watched Roma“. But this is meant to be a fuller capsule review and I do believe every movie deserves elaboration on it’s responded to. It is very apparent what Tejpal is going for and she does it relatively successfully: placing Shobha Dangale’s titular housekeeper in compositions stressing her out-of-placeness or invisibility amongst the privileged folks she works for. It’s no more dysfunctional on this matter than Roma, honestly, but Roma is a full-length picture that has more to exercise the patience that Tejpal is restrained from doing. And because of that, it’s obviously there is a lot of promise in this short without a whole lot realized that isn’t already established by the halfway point.

IN THE AIR TONIGHT (Andrew Norman Wilson, USA)

Is it associative in its cutting and rhythm? Yep. Does it try to spin around that famous urban legend about the titular song? Kind of, but I don’t think it needs to to be entertaining at least. Is the dry delivery of David George’s extended monologue amusing? Sure. So what is it that holds me back from being in love with this short as somebody who is the ideal viewer for this? It is so fucking literal. Which is the most disappointing thing for something ostensibly avant-garde to be, its choice of shots and imagery to have accompany the monologue is just so obviously what would be going through someone’s head and guiding our expectations of where this short is going that it ends up not feeling as engaging as I was hoping it could be. Points for including an explicit shot of penises touching each other mid-ejaculation though, so I can’t say it isn’t out there even in its literalism.

MOUNTAIN CAT (Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir, Mongolia/UK)

Sadly one of the shorts that was starting to evaporate from my brain by the end of the festival, but what I do remember of it… I very much enjoyed. Beginning with its beautiful cinematography from Krish Makhija, which compliments very well with the shifting moods and high-altitude anxieties this picture places us into. And these shifts that for the most part Purev-Ochir and the cast all approach with naturalistic subtlety that won me over even further. The sole exception to that is the shift that defines the first and second half of the movie, very much calling attention to how the plot and conflict kind of changed to us in an abrupt and awkward way. Still even if it’s not a small gripe, it is the only gripe I truly have towards this short.

THE AFFECTED (Rikke Gregersen, Norway)

In the Q&A after this program, Gregersen brought up the fact that she was trying to avoid the sort of short that would – with this sort of premise about a deportation being interfered with in an inconvenient manner – make a political statement. And this was something that already crossed my mind while watching the short itself, but I absolutely feel it is to the short’s benefit. For one thing, the focus away from the act of protest gives us some cramped shots of everybody who is stuck in the crossover, which only amplifies the dark humor it has about people who are reacting in either blasé or aggressive ways. And it doesn’t overstay its welcome, particularly once it finds the most cynical pair of beats to end on and thereby deliver its political attitudes on Norway’s treatment of foreigners without undercutting itself.

RASPBERRY (Julian Doan, USA)

It has one beat. Just one. And if I’m being honest, it’s a beat that probably has the misfortunate of arriving so soon after Dick Johnson Is Dead had a penultimate scene similar to that beat. But it’s still supremely well-constructed in its lead up to that beat and its wind-down from that beat and in the beat itself. And by Doan’s ability to put it all together with a sense of pacing and composition stressing the empty rooms and placement of the family over the dead grandfather (and especially the awkward placements of the undertakers), it’s not just that the beat lands but that it gets to find a few variations in its emotions during the moment it pops in. I sound pretty weird when I describe but this is a short I found to have tremendous payoff personally.

UNLIVEABLE (Enock Carvalho & Matheus Farias, Brazil)

Like Yoruga from the last live-action shorts program, tremendous world-building on the part of the creators. And not just that, but tremendous character-building where we learn so much of the relationship between Luciana Souza, Sophia William, and Erlene Melo’s characters in the short time we spend with them (and that they spend with each other, given that Souza is the clear protagonist and the one we are with from beginning to end). It’s hard to pretend like its choice in tones, particularly when it comes to the ending of it all is more for the sake exercise, but I am impressed enough by its willingness to end on an ambiguous note that gambits on our desire to know more regarding its central mystery (a gambit that I find works on me) that I’m pretty happy to assume great things to come from Carvalho & Farias.

The Sundance 2021 Live-Action Shorts – Program 1

Now that Sundance 2021 is behind us, I’m gonna spend the next few posts reviewing a couple of the features I actively enjoyed at the festival and also give capsule reviews of all the shorts I’ve watched. The Shorts program was set up as Animation, Live-Action 1, Live-Action 2, Live-Action 3, Live-Action 4, and Documentary. I sadly did not have time to see the Documentary Shorts, but expect the rest.


Definitely a feel-good cutesy kind of movie, which kind of hampers its attempts to say much about race or class (though there is a central scene specifically dedicated to dragging the latter theme as far as possible). There is a whole lot of areas in which it hit me right in the soul, beginning with the fact that Johnnyboy Tellem’s charismatic central performance reminds me specifically of a friend I had in Queens (Shout out to G.C.) and the gorgeous deeply in-love citywide cinematography of Chicago, soon enough after I had moved to the city last year to bring to my attention the moments where the area I live in were captured on-screen. Its shagginess doesn’t prevent me from feeling like it’s not entirely too put-together and especially in the fact of moments like the endless balloons from the bag that could have hinted at a more warmly absurd story than the non-committal realist one we got, but it has heart and it happened to have hooked mine at the right time in my life.

FIVE TIGER (Nomawonga Khumalo, South Africa)

Not only was this by a long shot the most exciting and promising film – short or feature – that I saw the whole week of the festival, but staying for the Q&A afterwards and learning that Khumalo is in the midst of pre-production for her feature debut got me giddy as a schoolgirl. For if there is one issue I have with Five Tiger it is, with all due respect to Khumalo’s discussion after on the attitude towards sex work in South Africa and the dual therapeutic and predatory nature of religion in communities, there doesn’t seem to be very much within it. Certainly not with its frustratingly ephemeral runtime or its sudden decision of a stopping point. And this is not a small gripe that I felt more of that theme in hearing Khumalo talk about it than in Five Tiger‘s content, but nevertheless it is the imagery of Five Tiger that arrests me and gets me interested for what her feature film will be: Khumalo and cinematographer Rick Joaquim show a confident hold on the Panavision frame to fill out gorgeous widescreen visual and also tell us more about the characters in the positioning of that frame than any script could (particularly with a use of close-up that refuses to split focus on a character in the background). It was felt more than it was said, I suppose is the best way to put it about this film and that’s exactly what I look for when it comes to movies.

YORUGA (Federrico Torrado Tobón, USA/Colombia)

Yet another short film that I wish I could had more of, though that of course appears to be the point of Tobón’s story. And he places on top of it a ticking clock, challenging himself as a filmmaker to earn a particular sentimental and emotional beat within a 5 minutes. Suffice it to say, Yoruga accomplishes this with flying colors: it performs its world-building extremely fast without sacrificing any solidness to that world and uses its choice of character perspective in an unsubtle way to earn its tenderness and its bittersweet final moments. “Time flies”, as Octavio Solorio says close to the end of the film and boy does it. One of several shorts I’ll be on the look out to watch again when it’s available to me.

BRUISER (Miles Warren, USA)

I have to admit that very little checks me out of a movie these days than another one that examines trauma and masculinity, especially if I don’t think it’s cutting as deeply as I think it could. Bruiser is definitely not one that puts on as many kid gloves as some other recent Sundance darlings, but none of its revelations particularly struck me as fresh or new in this go-round and it keeps me from honestly checking in too much emotionally even with its admittedly relieving ending that allows a bit more complexity to its patriarchal character way too late before the credits roll. But it definitely believes in its convictions about toxic masculinity, is competently constructed, and it was definitely a welcome surprise to see JD Williams acting in something, who is perfectly cast for what the film requires of him.

FLEX (Josefin Malmén & David Strindberg, Sweden)

Positioning two short films about masculinity next to each other is definitely the most obvious bit of pageantry I can recall encountering in any of the short programs here and I have to admit that Flex is the short that benefits most from that juxtaposition. But even then, it would probably stand out on its own terms simply from how weird and silly it is by any metric, having a sense of humor while it examines Calle Bolund’s top-tier physique and has his delivering a monologue that ebbs and flows with vanity and insecurity. Plus the places it goes aesthetically only seem to further the desire to make us giggle with the film rather than at the film. I don’t think anyone laughs at it as it makes the most out of its amateur look and the rhythm it develops between the monologue and the cuts. But, it’s not really my sense of humor so I don’t find myself laughing with it either. I do give it my deep admiration for going where it goes, though.

BAMBIRAK (Zamarin Wahdat, Germany)

One of those instances where the content supersedes my preference for the form as the chemistry between Kailas Mahadevan and Lara Cengiz as the central Afghanistani father and daughter is just too winning not to dismiss it in the face of how I’m really not a fan of the sort of realist look that this movie goes for (especially with BJ’s Mobile Gift Shop in the rearview). But even in the spaces where the movie interrupts itself to become a message movie about racism in Germany (something I’m confident was the point of the movie, if only this allowed itself a bit more room in its runtime to live with the suddenness of its confrontational climax), Wahdat paces this day in the life of the two so easily and with enough awareness of who they are and where they are that Bambirak ends up an entirely satisfying character drama.

DON’T GO TELLIN’ YOUR MOMMA (Topaz Jones & Rubberband, USA)

At the beginning, I fully onboard and I do confess I still ended the short film mostly positive on it. But there was A LOT of time between the beginning and the end of this short film and it’s pretty clear where most of that 38 minute running time is being drawn out from. This is an ambitious and admirable project on its own terms, an attempt to fundamentally reconstruct a black-positive educational tool from the letters A to Z and when Jones and Rubberband represent most of the letters with fun visuals and gags specific to the black experience in America… that’s where Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma feels like its in motion and pumping. But more than a few of these letters become dedicated to eloquent talking heads speeches by both personal figures to the filmmakers (such as one of their old teachers and one of their lawyers) and public figures (such as Black Thought from The Roots). Frankly, these moments just feel didactic in this context on top of specifically halting the rhythm and making this one of the longest short films I watched in the entire festival. It is basically the equivalent of being a student who was really getting into the fun and engaging part of the lesson plan feeling intellectually stimulated, only to have to deal with the boring part of the lecture plan. Still by the end of it, it feels like a piece to talk to all audiences, even if some methods in it feel less elegant than others.