First Cut reviews

Jordan Wilson
Staff Writer

Last Tuesday and Wednesday at VCU Cinema’s “First Cut,” the department premiered six short films written, produced and directed by cinema students —all of them here reviewed and examined for the Commonwealth Times.

“Small Steps for Mankind”

Directed by Jasce Burrows

Written by Brookes Finnie

Produced by Gerhard Stiene

“Small Steps” opens with a fairly convincing shot of the moon’s surface, and then cuts to Earth where a teenaged kid named Houghston (Spencer Neale) lives with his mother (Lauren Ward). His father ran off at one point leaving them alone and in a domestic mess, but they try to get by any way they can —it’s obvious that Houghston loves his mom, comforting her in the kitchen over his burned eggs.

From here, the film cuts back and forth from scenes on Earth — Houghston skipping school, cooking and selling drugs with his friend Dennis (Robert Hoffman) — to a space station where Neil Armstrong (Coby Batty) and Buzz Aldrin (Harold Ginn) live in isolation, desperately seeking more Tang.

Both interesting and challenging, “Small Steps” presents some good performances and well-crafted scenes. There is one particularly impressive shot of Houghston after he’s used drugs, which is reminiscent of Michael Pitt’s Kurt Cobain figure in Gus Van Sant’s “Last Days.” Because the film cuts back and forth between such distinctive characters and images, it leaves a lot to interpretation. This is a wise choice on behalf of the director and the writer, who take the audience through about three-quarters of the film without revealing the link between Houghston and the two spacemen.

With an intriguing final shot, the filmmakers leave us asking questions, which in this case is something that they should be proud of. “Small Steps” won three awards at the end of the night: Best Location Sound, Best Original Concept and Best Production Design.

“Bloom”

Directed by Maggie Crawford

Written by Kurt Bailey

Produced by Alee Sproles and Ana Figueroa

“Bloom” is a smaller, subtler film than “Small Steps.” It involves the relationship between Andrew (Bo Keister) and Emma (Amelia Zontoni), two 30-somethings who love each other but cannot be together.

The film opens with Andrew waiting for her at a train station, looking anxiously at his pocket watch. She finally shows up, and we learn that she has been in New York, and that her fiancé Michael essentially drove her away through his unkind behavior toward her.

Emma decides on arrival back to North Carolina that she would rather spend time with Andrew than return to Michael. She isn’t ready for that yet.

Most of what the audience comes to know about them unfolds throughout their long, romantic day together — Emma insists that she feels guilty about their secret love affair, but continues it. They go to a park and lie down on the grass in each other’s arms, and they both feel comforted. It’s a well-established relationship, and both Keister and Zontoni do some fine work in showing its sincerity.

Emma eventually comes completely clean to both Andrew and the audience about her thoughts and feelings on Michael, and her parents’ death in a car crash years earlier. Kurt Bailey’s script flows very well, and freshman director Maggie Crawford does some excellent work, shooting many long takes that allow the actors — particularly Zontoni — to speak with meaning and honesty. The final sequence is very well done, and again, like “Small Steps,” it leaves the audience asking questions.

The pieces are all there, but it’s really up to us to put it together in its entirety, and to interpret what the future has in store for Emma and Andrew. “Bloom” won the award for Best Script at the end of the night.

“My Fourth Wife Drove Me to the Fifth”

Directed by Brooks Finnie

Written by Dylan Frayser

Produced by Daniel Schofield

A fascinating and humorous take on fate and redemption, “My Fourth Wife”  begins when a well-off Los Angeles man named John (Jeff Wincott) comes home to discover another man in his house. He’s shirtless and making a sandwich when John walks in, and after a brief confrontation he storms out and drives to a local bar, where he meets a priest named Gabe (Mark Joy). They hit it off immediately, and each confesses to not being perfect human being.

“I’m not the best husband,” John says.

“I’m not the best priest,” Gabe replies.

Gabe then offers to buy John the best burger in the city, stopping quickly at a liquor store before heading to the burger joint. Soon after, Gabe engages John in a philosophical conversation on the beach about his life and his future without his fourth wife. Their conversation turns into a fiery argument about fate and purpose. This film had some of the finest writing, acting and directing of the night, and Joy and Wincott are inspired in their respective roles.  It was a pleasure to see the last third unfold, as John comes to terms with his own fate, and with the world around him.

“My Fourth Wife Drove Me to the Fifth” won three awards: Best actor (Jeff Wincott), Best Supporting Actor (Mark Joy) and Best Film.

“Gutted”

Directed by Stavros (Steven Vagias)

Written by Michael Leonberger and Stavros (Steven Vagias)

Produced by Michael Scarberry

The final film of Tuesday night proved to be the most challenging and chilling. Entirely silent and in black and white, “Gutted” concerns a burly old fishmonger (James ‘Ike’ Eichling) who seems ready to blow at any moment — and when he does, it is to save a little girl (Emma Lyle) being assaulted by an older man.

What’s more important than story in this film is the images that director Stavros shows the audience. “Gutted” opens with a shot of a doll’s eye, a shot as beautifully composed as any other shot in the film. Every single shot is incredibly poignant. The man guts a fish, lights a cigarette and walks down the street wearing a trench coat and a mug that rivals actor Lawrence Tierney’s.

The man saves the little girl, and she follows him home to stay with him. He is her knight in shining armor, but he is also an unlikely protector. This nearly drives him to suicide, the innocence of the girl and how she clings to him. He finally breaks his tough demeanor and weeps for her and for himself.

This is a film that could be written about in pages and pages of analysis, which is a testament to how richly conceived the imagery is, and how carefully the director has envisioned each shot.

Like the other films shown, “Gutted” leaves a lot to the audience’s interpretation. The director shows us something, allows it to simmer for a few precious moments, and then shows something equally as absorbing. The final shot is exceptionally moving, as the man sheds a tear for the girl who kept him company, and who reminded him of the love and compassion we are all capable of.

“Gutted” was met with overwhelming applause, and won three awards at the end of the night: Best Sound Design, Best Cinematography and Best Production Team (Producer Michael Scarberry, writers Michael Leonberger and director Stavros).

“Xanadu Undone”

Directed by Harrison Colby

Written by Danny Caporeletti

To open a film with a character vomiting is something of a risky move. There has to be some support to the action throughout the film — otherwise, it comes off as crude and gratuitous.  It’s a risk that the filmmakers of “Xanadu Undone” take, and in their case, it works.

The character that vomits in the opening shots is named Sam (Stephen Farris IV). He is the front man for the titular band that is scheduled to perform that very night. Sam is an excellent musician, but he is a drug addict. He also has a reputation for being tardy for shows, which his band mates discuss in an anecdote about his audition years earlier. He goes out to get lunch and meets a homeless musician who offers him some comfort and life advice.

The other two members are bassist Cole (Brandon Crowder,) and drummer Taylor (Mike Marunde.) Cole invites his ex-girlfriend to the band’s show, unaware that she is bringing her new boyfriend. Taylor is a Desert Storm veteran who is beginning to realize the fleeting nature of time and his own mortality.  Marunde’s performance is superb, as he sits around a table telling young fans about his days on the road, which suddenly merge with his memories of the war in Iraq.

Most of “Xanadu Undone” takes place in one bar, and within  the hours leading up to the band’s show. All of the bar scenes involve very dim lighting, which seems to be a conscious choice by director Harrison Colby, with the contrast between the dark bar scenes and the bright shots outside too stark to have been an accident. Writer Danny Caporeletti nicely defines each of the characters, and the filmmakers allow the audience to see their dreams, fears and regrets, through a revealing and emotional day.

“But Daddy Loves Momma”

Directed by Katie Baumgart

Written by Abe Smith

Produced by Yossera Bouchtia

So here it is: the most odd and challenging of all the student films shown. “But Daddy Loves Momma,” the tale of a tortured and semi-sociopathic organist named Raymond (Christopher Cartmill) who is unfaithful to his wife and is disgusted — or perhaps simply unimpressed — by his own children. He speaks frankly to anyone who will listen about his soul, or lack there of, his fears and innermost desires.

When he first meets the woman he will marry, he rants about his resentment of people. She seems confused, and he tells her, “I don’t make sense, I make messes.” They have sex, and the film moves forward to their wedding and their children.

The omniscient narrator (Joel King) describes Raymond’s passion for the organ. It is his sole obsession, his one true lover, and his fingers move independently from his body when he sits down to play. Scenes shot in the Byrd Theatre — on the famous Mighty Wurlitzer — are very impressive, and the way that these sequences were shot is quite striking.

What is most fascinating about the film is the script, and how deliberate and concisely Raymond delivers his thoughts and feelings about the world around him. He has taken the time to organize such dark and pessimistic beliefs, and he behaves as if nothing really matters. Why would any woman marry such a man? Why would he want to marry another human being regardless of his own disgust for them?

She seems intrigued at first, and perhaps that is what drives her to remain seeing him, but the filmmakers are up to something here in creating such an outwardly destructive character. It’s a film that could probably be expanded on in a million different ways. The writer Abe Smith must harbor some dark secrets and feelings that helped to fuel the screenplay. But then again, we all have feelings comparable to Raymond’s from time to time, don’t we?

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