The CT’s series of mini-reviews will hopefully assuage the sorrows of those who didn’t attend Friday’s premiere of six original and compelling short films at the Grace Street Theater – all produced, directed and shot by students in VCU Cinema as part of “First Cut,” a summer intensive in the real-world practice of filmmaking.
directed by Duy Nguyen
“Laila,” the story of an illegal Morroccan immigrant in a polygamous marriage struggling to raise her son in America, kicked off Friday’s premiere as a gem of cinematic sophistication – and, perhaps more importantly, sincerity.
A chilling atmosphere throughout, with a soft yet somehow menacing soundtrack and a father figure whose face we’re never allowed to see (skillfully done, especially in mirror scenes), make “Laila” an immersive emotional experience as well as aesthetic.
The final scene in particular – Laila’s final, courageous step towards a better life for her and her son – speaks volumes of the filmmakers’ skill, purely because the scene could so easily have come off as cheesy or maudlin, but so decidedly doesn’t.
directed by Daniel Schofield
In a remote hunting cabin’s darkened kitchen, made up of super-saturated, hellish reds, a man and his cohort discuss how best to deal with the man they’re keeping tied up and bleeding in the bathroom.
The groany lead actor, with a voice as though trying to channel Clint Eastwood, speaks exclusively in action movie monosyllables – “Thought you got away with it, you sick f—?” etc. – which, of course, is right in place in this kind of film, strange shifts in accent between shots aside. This interrogator seeks vengeance for his murdered daughter but is coming ever more dangerously close to killing his interrogatee before he can spill.
“The Bind” features some fantastic acting in its quieter, more tense moments, with just enough dialogue to hint at the backstory’s horrible details without simply playing for time or suspense. It also stood out on Friday for its ending – striking and completely satisfying – no easy task when we’ve known the characters for 20 minutes.
THE FIRST STONE
directed by Danny Caporaletti
A man living in a bleak gray world of bleak gray people is being fired using a stretch of almost parodically standard “firing scene” dialogue. “What do you want me to do? I’m trying to do business here. … People don’t wanna do business with ex-cons,” etc.
It continues outside the office. In a dramatic closeup, while talking to his parole officer by a seedy-looking diner in the middle of nowhere: “I don’t want to have to convince people I’m not a bad person.”
But perhaps Tarantino dialogue isn’t strictly necessary in a film like this. “The First Stone,” in less than 15 minutes, sets up enough skillfully unanswered questions in the back of the audience’s head to leave them haunted well after they’ve left the theater.
directed by Dylan Frayser
“Trigg County,” featuring sweltering countryside Kentucky with a rock/country soundtrack, is immediately sunnier than the night’s previous films, but its subject matter remains dark. A man, released from 20 years of prison, asks his old partner in crime to help him reunite with his lost son – but his partner is not about to make things simple.
For such a straightforward plot, “Trigg County” is actually rather engrossing in a genuine way. The storytelling – save for a less-than-satisfying final scene – is clean and effective without resorting to phoned-in cinematic tricks. The dialogue, in particular, is something special: an authentic rural drawl with not a hint of narrative drag.
directed by Olivia Blackwell
We open on the lone visitor to the funeral wake of an elderly architect in an otherwise deserted rural church. The scene – from the location, to the stunning camera work, to expert pacing – is gorgeous.
“A Promise” has no shortage of gorgeous scenes: sunny stretches of highway by waving golden maize, the real-deal Americana of a gas station three miles from nowhere. It’s hardly lacking in sublime cinematography, as well.
But soon it’s evident that the film wants beautiful Americana to carry “A Promise.” And while it’s possible for a film to survive on long stretches of “slice-of-life” in convertibles on country roads, gas-stop convenience stores and rural-suburban living rooms, anemic, meandering dialogue and unconvincing acting stop the film just short of enchantment.
We get very close to it, however, in some parts: Again, there are some exquisite shots. The one featuring the two main characters dancing whimsically in the wheat fields under the bluest possible sky certainly takes the edge off an ambiguous cutoff ending.
MY FATHER, THE DAGGER
directed by Chandler Honeycutt
“My Father, The Dagger” is certainly the least mainstream-cinema item on the “First Cut” menu and certainly the best possible pick to leave for last, and thus fresh in the audience’s memory. A child seems trapped between the dull reality of his mother’s country home and the not-quite-real world of his father, who may or may not actually be a carnival knife thrower.
We see here featured the full disturbing-experimental-film rundown: We’re in black and white, with Technicolor at choice moments; we have subtitles; we have the protagonist with a tenuous grasp on reality; and we have the gritty, sickening, extreme slow-motion crackling classical soundtrack, like someone depressing a finger on a vinyl record as it spins.
The question we, as an audience, are left with is not whether “My Father, The Dagger” overdoes it on the homage to David Lynch – the exceedingly well-made and artfully conceived homage, it should be noted, as there exists a profound gap between experimental-good and experimental-lazy. The question is whether overdoing it was, hilariously, the point.