My Salinger Year: a small-scaled film that never leaves its comfort zone

Philippe Falardeau, “My Salinger Year” (2020)

A film about finding your own voice and creative outlet, and being able to express that creativity, “My Salinger Year” is a likeable and charming piece if a little dull and at times giving the impression of playing safe. The film is based on poet / journalist Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of working for the literary agent whose main client was the famously reclusive novelist J D Salinger, author of high school coming-of-age / teenage angst staple “The Catcher in the Rye”, back in the mid-1990s.

Rakoff (Margaret Qualley) impulsively leaves postgraduate school in California and jets off to New York to take up a position as assistant to literary agent Margaret (Sigourney Weaver) who turns out to be a tetchy technophobic boss. Rakoff is given the job of replying to Salinger’s massive fanbase who send letters addressed to the famous writer; Salinger himself does not want to read these letters so Margaret’s agency sends generic form letters to his fans informing them that he will not reply. Rakoff has to read these letters nevertheless and choose the correct reply form letters; she begins to develop some empathy with some of the fan mail, as the writers see themselves in the character of Holden Caulfield, the anti-hero of “The Catcher in the Rye”, and pour their heart and soul into their correspondence. Rakoff starts to veer from the script, literally as well as figuratively speaking, and writes directly to some of the fans. This is risky for her as Margaret and her other employees treat Salinger and his demands with kid gloves and do not look upon even slight deviations from his instructions favourably.

Aside from the main plot, which is quite insubstantial and in itself not very entertaining for viewers who know little of the world of publishing and how writers were marketed in the pre-Internet age, there are various sub-plots which are equally shallow and under-developed. Rakoff forms a friendship with Salinger over the phone at work; Salinger becomes interested in Rakoff when he discovers she writes poetry in her spare time and urges her to keep writing every day. The people at work gently encourage Rakoff to develop and use her initiative and trust in her own intuition and decision-making, and this support helps her become a valuable employee in Margaret’s agency. Rakoff is in a relationship with a socialist bookshop worker / aspiring writer (Douglas Booth) who initially introduces her to his underground literary scene, which she finds stimulating at first, but who turns out self-centred and whose writing is mediocre and crude. At the same time Rakoff has never concluded her previous romance decisively and her old boyfriend (Hamza Haq) continues to write to her.

The acting overall is good though individual actors themselves, Weaver in particular, are not challenged by the script. Weaver has done the boss-from-hell routine in past films like Neil Blomkamp’s “Chappie” and very little in “My Salinger Year” deviates from that stereotype, even when her character suffers a life-changing blow. Qualley does well as Rakoff in her first lead role and just manages to hold her own in scenes with Weaver who dominates in every scene she appears in. Other actors provide good support though the script never allows them to be more than walking wallpaper.

Whimsical fantasy sequences in which some of Salinger’s earnest letter-writing fans appear – in deference to the prevailing Identity Politics / Diversity culture that has a stranglehold on Hollywood, these fans span a range of different ethnic groups, age demographics and life-styles, though how a black Vietnam vet and a migrant Vietnamese labourer can see something of themselves in a middle-class teenaged rebel with no cause is never explained – are worked into the film smoothly and discreetly, and are never allowed to overpower the narrative. Had Hollywood not been so enamoured of appealing to Diversity “values”, and simply allowed these fans to just be what they were in real life – people looking for connection and purpose to life, in their own immediate environments where the anomie born of capitalist society and its values which have destroyed community alternatives – the Rakoff character would have found real empathy with these lost people, they would have provided her with real material for her writing, her voice and creativity would have been truly inspired, and her path in life would have been clear. She would have been the poet and voice of a new lost generation searching for meaning and authentic values in a world becoming increasingly reliant on and captured by technology to the extent of surrendering itself to its dictates and the ruthless predatory capitalist values of its creators.

As it is, the film never strays at all from the comfort zone it sets for itself and the result is that it remains small in scale with a paper-thin plot and several sub-plots that remain unexplored and unsatisfactory. Rakoff’s character is not too convincing at times as a woman in a process of self-discovery but I suspect most young actors, even very good ones, would be defeated by the script and Falardeau’s direction. Viewers will feel frustrated that this coming-of-stage story turns out to have very little to say about the 1990s-era New York literary world and its values and pretentiousness.

Some Like It Hot: a cheerful screwball satire about the search for love and security

Billy Wilder, “Some Like It Hot” (1959)

Astonishingly this classic Hollywood slapstick comedy still holds up well more than 60 years after its release. The jokes and witty one-liners are still hilarious even though they are dated and modern audiences may have trouble identifying with the context they arise in and the actual history that informs the context. In late 1920s-period America, just before the Great Depression, two musicians Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) down on their luck witness a gangland mass murder in Chicago and must flee for their lives; they do so by disguising themselves as female musicians Josephine and Daphne in order to join an all-female jazz orchestra about to tour Florida to entertain millionaires in ritzy hotels. On the train taking them from Chicago to Miami, Joe and Jerry meet Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), herself on the run from a complicated romantic past and eager to meet a gentle and bespectacled millionaire who will love her and look after her. After a wild midnight party featuring (forbidden) alcohol with the other members of the jazz orchestra, while the leader / conductor and the manager are fast asleep and unawares, and during which Joe and Sugar start falling for each other, the orchestra reaches its Miami hotel destination and there Joe and Jerry are embroiled in more farcical situations in which Joe pretends to be the very millionaire Sugar has fantasised about in order to get closer to her, and Jerry as Daphne attracts the attention of ageing millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E Brown) who sends him flowers and romances him. In the meantime the Mafia mobsters, led by mob boss Spatz Colombo (George Raft), are still on the trail of Joe and Jerry, and arrive at the Miami hotel to attend a convention of crime syndicates presided over by Colombo’s rival Little Napoleon (Nehemiah Persoff).

The improbable and threadbare plot plays as a series of fast-paced comedy skits during which Joe and Jerry’s lives become more complicated as people insist on intruding in their lives in ways that threaten to blow their disguises. A tension is always present – when will Joe and Jerry’s cover be blown, and how? – that keeps audiences attentive and guessing. How will Sugar find out that her “millionaire” lover is yet another deceptive saxophone player who lusts after her? Will the three protagonists find the money and security they need to finally be free of their past histories and the complicated lives they have created for themselves in search of love and security?

This film relies heavily on its three leads to pull off the cross-dressing musicians and the ditzy child-like singer who seems unaware of the power of her sexuality on the men around her. Both Curtis and Lemmon have fun with their roles and pour everything they have into them: quite a feat, as Marilyn Monroe’s insecurities interfered with her ability to remember her lines and what she was supposed to do, with the result that her scenes with Curtis required numerous takes, yet on film Curtis always manages to sparkle even when he parodies famous Hollywood actor Cary Grant in his deception of Sugar Kane. Lemmon’s character becomes so engrossed in his Daphne alter-ego that he happily joins his female band members in frolicking on the beach and is prepared to marry Osgood Fielding III and then divorce him for the alimony money as so many of the millionaire’s ex-wives have done. However Monroe steals every scene and walks away with the film with her luminous beauty, innocent naif presence, her breathy voice and her performance as the lead singer of the jazz orchestra.

Co-written by director Billy Wilder, the brisk screenplay does wonderful work contrasting the romances between Joe and Sugar, and between Jerry and Osgood, playing up their half-serious / half-comedic angles and highlighting the deceptions Joe and Jerry force themselves into playing in order to get what they want. Interestingly as Joe feels more guilty at deceiving Sugar, Jerry (who initially begins as Joe’s conscience) becomes more and more mercenary and hell-bent on marrying Osgood to the extent that he forgets he is male himself. The complicated plot starts to resemble a Shakespearean play with Joe and Sugar’s romance being slightly more serious and Jerry and Osgood’s date milked for all its clownishness. In the manner of all good Shakespearean comedies, the deceptions are uncovered (after a screwball chase of the musicians by the mobsters), no-one gets hurt and the deceived partners turn out to be very forgiving towards those who duped them.

In spite of its improbable plot, the film has lasted as long as it has due to its cheerfully satirical treatment of the way in which mid 20th-century Western culture treated men and women, and of how men and women often deceived one another to get laid and/or to get financial security. In the end, Joe discovers he wants more than just sex and Sugar realises she wants more than money. Jerry is nonplussed at Osgood Fielding III’s laid-back attitude towards social conventions surrounding marriage. Everyone gets more than what they bargained for, but in a happy way.

Check Please: awkward romantic situation comedy with unattractive characters

Daniel Sorochkin, “Check Please” (2015)

A man, Ben (Bryan Manley Davis), takes his girlfriend Laura (Amelia Brain) to evening dinner at a swish restaurant, planning to propose to her … by arranging with waiter Stephan (Matthew Porter) to have his engagement ring planted in the salad that the waiter will take out to their table. Instead what actually happens is that the waiter, accidentally or not, takes the salad out to another couple’s table, and the woman there, Hannah (Emily Dennis), discovers the ring and instantly assumes her boyfriend Mike (Jacob Trussell) is proposing to her. Hannah’s yelps of delight attract Ben and Laura’s attention and Ben almost instantly suspects what has happened.

Viewers might assume this to be the start of a typically American romantic situation comedy in which much arguing back and forth between the two tables takes up most of the film’s 16-minute time, to be resolved in a friendly stalemate where everyone becomes buddiess or the parties end up sharing jail space down at the local police station after throwing punches at each other and smashing a few chairs. Heck, nearly 100 years ago in silent films the two men would have found custard pies and started a huge pie-throwing contest. Under Daniel Sorochkin’s direction, the tale becomes one where Ben must find the courage to confront Mike directly and get the ring back. Mike tries to get Ben to accept the situation as it is, to go along with the charade, and even offers Ben a building – because Hannah’s dad happens to be a rich property developer who hands out buildings to Hannah’s friends like freebies – and money to get him to shut up.

Potential exists for tension to be ratcheted up steadily as Ben tries to placate an increasingly distressed and neurotic Laura – the two have been dating for five years and she is upset that Ben hasn’t proposed to her (because that’s how long he’s been trying to work up the courage to do so) – and to get his ring back from an equally passive man who’s happy to go along with whatever his girlfriend decides or dictates. A potential conflict between two men whose major flaws are much the same should have been interesting but the script and the dialogue make the escalation to that conflict rather awkward, haphazard and even annoying.

The actors do good work but are hamstrung by the characters they play and the dialogue. None of the characters in the film comes away as attractive; viewers may wonder why Ben continues to see Laura if she’s as emotionally fragile and high-maintenance as she appears while frantically tearing her strawberry chocolate dessert into pieces looking for her engagement ring. Mike turns out to be odious and somewhat sleazy and Hannah is plainly a spoilt brat. One does feel sorry for Ben that he lives in such a materialistic world where women expect a great deal like dinner and pricey presents from men and might throw tantrums if the men don’t deliver, and the men themselves play the parts of hen-pecked husbands before they even marry. He’d be better off running away from all these horrid people.

While the film makes good use of its constrained restaurant location, with characters using food and eating and drinking utensils in ways that detail their personalities, and the plot using a change of scenery from the eating area to the men’s toilets and the bar to advance the action and the conflict, the plot itself requires considerable suspension of disbelief to be credible. For some viewers, the film will invite more embarrassed snickering rather than hearty laughter.

Trunk Space: familiar and predictable story and plot elements redeemed by good performances

Max Silver, “Trunk Space” (2016)

As surely as the sun rises in the east, birds fly in the sky and fish swim in the oceans, so also do films that begin with two people driving through a barren desert and stopping to collect a strange hitch-hiker turn out to be terror-filled affairs in which one of the people in the car turns out to be a serial killer. So begins director Max Silver’s short film “Trunk Space”, in which best girl buddies Anna (Jessica Jade Andres) and Priss (Kate Krieger) are fleeing dreary work lives in the eastern US on a road trip holiday to California in their car, and are flying along a lonely highway in the Nevadan desert. They talk about all the guys they’ve seen and picked up along the way. They notice a guy (Jordan Turchin) standing next to a car that’s run out of gas and Anna offers him a lift over Priss’s objections. While Anna and the stranger make eyes at each other while Anna drives, Kate fumes in the back seat and fiddles with the stranger’s bag – she finds women’s bracelets inside. The conversation between the women themselves and between the stranger and the women becomes ever more tense and starts to take a weird and dark turn when the stranger, prompted by Kate’s discovery of an odd tattoo on his neck, tells the women a strange story about wolves. Finally the stranger takes control of the situation by telling Anna that she should have listened to Kate in the first place.

With most of the plot taking place in the car, the tension and mystery arise from the conversation and the conflict between Anna and Kate over the stranger’s presence. A familiar horror story feeding on familiar elements – two friends fleeing the city for unknown reasons for a supposed paradise, the friends falling out over an intruder who then manipulates their strained relationship, the stranger’s mysterious past – is refreshed by good performances from the three actors. The tension is heightened when Kate discovers on her mobile phone news that police have found decapitated bodies along the highway they are travelling.

As a result, when the plot twist comes, it does hit the viewer quite hard even though the viewer can guess what is about to happen. Now we realise what happened to the men Anna and Kate had picked up on their trip earlier and whom they rejected, and we also now know why they are fleeing to California. The plot twist is done very deftly and quickly, and before we know it, the two girls are on their way again and the film ends there and then.

The film is rather repetitive and drags on a bit too long which results in some over-acting from Andres and Krieger. Better dialogue, hinting at dark secrets in all characters’ pasts, perhaps a history of abuse for one character, or some desultory conversation about how the police are hunting for a murderer and Turchin’s character answering to the description of the man being pursued, might have strengthened the plot and made the film even more tense and horrifying. If the film had been made as part of a proposal to movie studios for a longer film, the bean counter executives would have been wise to ask Silver for a stronger and deeper concept

Chappaquiddick: character study deprived of its wider historical background and significance

John Curran, “Chappaquiddick” (2017)

A thoughtful and well-acted film, as the metonym title suggests, this work revolves around the drowning tragedy of Mary Jo Kopechne on Chappaquiddick island, Massachusetts, in July 1969 while participating in a reunion of former political aides to US Senator Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy who had been assassinated a year earlier while campaigning for the US Presidency in Los Angeles. Kopechne had been riding in a car driven by Kennedy’s younger brother Edward, known as Ted, himself a senator for Massachusetts and under consideration (and pressure) from the Democratic Party to run for the Presidency in 1972 against incumbent Richard Nixon, when the car sped off a wooden bridge and plunged into the water that surrounded Chappaquiddick. Edward Kennedy escaped from the car as it sank but Kopechne, apparently asleep in the car’s backseat, drowned.

All the action in the film takes place over a period of roughly seven days from Friday, 17 July 1969, to Friday, 24 July 1969, and the film divides into seven or eight chapters based on the significant events that happen on each day. In its first half-hour, the film deals with the reunion of Kopechne (Kate Mara) and her fellow “Boiler Room Girls”, Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign aides, all brought together by Edward Kennedy (Jason Clarke) in the hope of persuading them to work on his 1972 Presidential campaign, running up to the accident and Kopechne’s drowning. The rest of the film deals with the fall-out from the tragedy and how Edward Kennedy, his close aides Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), and the Kennedy family and its immediate supporters and advisors confront that fall-out and work with it – or against it.

Edward Kennedy comes across as the spoilt youngest son of a formerly powerful and not at all pleasant patriarch Joe Kennedy Sr (Bruce Dern) who is regarded as something of a black sheep yet is also expected to carry the legacy of his three older brothers, of whom the eldest died in World War II and the other two died by assassination, and become US President. In awe of his father, crippled by stroke though the old man is, Edward delays reporting the accident to the police in spite of his aides’ advice and spends much of the film trying to save his own skin and escape responsibility for the accident and the legal punishment he must face.

In a significant scene, Edward Kennedy is confronted by a virtual war council of men-in-black spin doctors and advisors led by former US defence secretary Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) who craft out a strategy aimed at minimising the damage of Kopechne’s drowning and the legal consequences (a possible manslaughter charge and the prison sentence that came with it) to Kennedy and his family. This scene illustrates how far the Kennedy family was prepared to go to shield its youngest son and the one remaining hope for the US Presidency from the consequences of his drink-driving actions. Through this scene, the calculating, manipulative and ruthless nature of US politics and its effects on a leading political family – and by implication, other families closely associated and involved with US national politics – are revealed.

Clarke does convincing work as the troubled Edward Kennedy, forced to carry a burden he should never have had to carry and at a loss as to his place and purpose in the world (let alone US national politics), and wavering between conflicting advice from his aides, of whom Gargan also happens to be his cousin, and his frightful father. Dern is excellent as Joe Kennedy Sr, conveying the old man’s terrifying presence in just a few words of dialogue while stuck in a wheelchair. Helms and Gaffigan are also good as Edward Kennedy’s conscience, fallible though they are. Mara portrays Kopechne as an intelligent young woman, with the result that Kopechne’s death becomes all the more tragic, that such a person with the brains, talent and experience she has should have been thoughtlessly abandoned to die, and then after death treated as an inconvenience to be brushed aside.

The film’s low-key and sober style may be very underwhelming for a mainstream audience and its subject matter may not mean anything for American viewers for whom even Bill Clinton (US President from 1992 to 2000) is just another historical figure. Strangely the wider social and political context in which the Chappaquiddick incident and its repercussions for Edward Kennedy, and the Kennedys generally, take place is completely removed from the film; viewers will get no sense of the rivalry existing between President Nixon and the Kennedys, or of the ongoing Vietnam War at the time, and be able to relate those events to the current rivalry between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and the ongoing wars in their various forms (actual physical war, cyber wars, propaganda wars among others) being prosecuted by the US in Afghanistan, Syria and other parts of the world.

The fact that the Chappaquiddick incident and its aftermath seem to take place in a world divorced from the real world of the US in the late 1960s, and that such a separation effectively alienates the incident from those who most need to know it and learn from it, and to understand something of the nature of US politics in the way it shields certain people and throws away others like Kopechne as if they were no more than used paper napkins, is a major fault on the director’s part. Without this wider context, the film loses historical value and is likely to be used to demonise Edward Kennedy’s character now that he is dead and his legacy as a US Senator for Massachusetts for nearly 50 years recedes into faded memory.

Eve: choosing between freedom, compassion and responsibility makes an android more human than humans

Josh Bowman, “Eve” (2019)

A character-driven sci-fi story with good acting and a strong visual look with a desert setting doesn’t need a fancy budget or whizz-bang special effects as this 14-minute piece demonstrates. Android A6609 (played by Sianad Gregory) is on the run from unknown authorities, racing for her very existence in the Californian desert. Her companion is shot down by lone human hermit Jackson (Matt Russell). When Android A6609 collapses in the desert, Jackson revives her using jump cables attached to his utility van. Coming back to life, the machine resists Jackson and his explanations about why he has been cast adrift in the desert but when he offers to remove the tracking device in her spine so she can continue on her way to freedom, she relents. While he removes the tracker, she tells him that her name is Eve – and that she named herself, presumably after the Biblical character. She spots a photograph of Jackson’s son and asks after the boy; Jackson replies that his son is being held hostage by the authorities and he does not know if he will ever see him again.

Eve wants to flee to a place she has heard of but Jackson attempts to dissuade her – because, as he is later forced to admit, he has implanted the idea into her neurological networks. The brief friendship between Eve and Jackson quickly disappears when Eve discovers that Jackson is negotiating with the authorities for the return of his son if he finds and surrenders Eve. She leaves him in a huff, taking his van, but after driving some distance and seeing the photograph of Jackson’s son, she pauses to decide what to do next. At that point, the film ends.

This character study is an intriguing investigation into the nature of freedom and into how much free choice we humans have and whether what we might call free choice is really a result of deterministic forces in our lives. Are we really free or are we really slaves to our instincts and our cultural conditioning? Connected to the issue of freedom and free choice in the film is acceptance of responsibility – Eve has to choose between pursuing physical freedom and striving to reach a place that might not exist, and giving up that freedom so that Jackson might be reunited with his son. At the point where she stops the van to ponder that choice, she is freer than Jackson will ever be: she can choose flight or she can choose surrendering flight so that a father can be reunited with his child. There is no suggestion though that Jackson will become a free man once he is reunited with his son.

The plot is sketchy enough that it lends itself to quite subversive interpretations about what is at stake for Eve. How do we know that Eve’s “escape” was not originally planned by Jackson and the authorities? What are they actually testing in allowing Eve to run away and to present her with a choice between continuing to run to freedom and surrendering it so that Jackson and his son can be together again? Is Eve’s desire for freedom also something that has been implanted into her neural networks? Is Jackson really telling the truth when he says his son is a hostage? What if the boy in the photograph is not really Jackson’s son?

The film can be considered to be complete in itself, even with its vague plot and its halt right at the point when Eve has to decide whether to give up her freedom or to continue on, or as a pilot for a full-length movie.

Satori [Awakening]: post-apocalypse film very much asleep under character stereotypes and a boring plot

Adam K Batchelor, “Satori [Awakening]” (2020)

An original and ambitious idea of an Earth re-engineered by Artificial Intelligence to reverse environmental degradation, combined perhaps with genetic engineering of most plant life-forms, and that experiment going awry with the result that AI covers the planet in sentient jungles hostile to the remaining human beings who must adapt to and live in new environments that endanger them, is brought low by tired character stereotypes and an equally hackneyed plot privileging violence over thoughts, behaviours and actions rooted in the logic of the new world. A mixed group of soldiers and scientists, so far sheltered in an underground facility, ventures to the surface in a reconnaissance ship. The ship crashes and just two survivors, scientist Daisy Evans (Jane Perry) and military leader Warren Rodgers (Mark Holden), emerge from the wreckage. The two must try to find any other survivors while trying to make their way through the new world.

The film tries to present as a pilot for a film or television series and as a character study of Evans and Rodgers. Unfortunately both characters descend into gender and vocation-based stereotypes: Evans is presented as compassionate as well as knowledgeable, simply because she’s a mature-aged woman as well as a scientist; and Rodgers is a bone-headed macho military idiot who needs the biggest futuristic Uzi alive to show the plants who’s Boss. His actions make no sense at all, apart from angering the plants so much that they show off their special powers, which perhaps is really what the film is all about: generating a new movie trend of genetically engineered terror plants that menace humans. For much of the film’s running time, Evans doesn’t do much at all that would warrant her presence as a female scientist with particular knowledge and personality type.

The two tramp around in the dense jungle without making much meaningful conversation, let alone a conversation in which both could argue about the right thing to do, whether to find the survivors or resume the original mission without survivors. Disappointingly the film ends when at last some semblance of a real plot with real action appears as Evans and Rodgers make contact with a group of humans who actually have been living peacefully with the plants for yonks. Which of course means that Evans’ character was never needed anyway.

At least the film looks good and the ridiculous-looking plants shoot some nifty electric bolts.

End of Decay: pulpy body-horror adaptation of Frankenstein story

Christopher Todd, “End of Decay” (2017)

A pulpy body-horror update on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” novel, this short film has the sketchy and hasty look of a pilot for a sci-fi horror film that might have once done David Cronenberg proud. Ambitious freelancing pharmaceutical researcher Orin (Brian Villalobos) is pursuing a project using stem cells to regenerate body parts and organs in his garage. From this research, he hopes to discover a method by which degenerative diseases and conditions such as cancer can be cured or prevented, and he himself, being wheelchair-bound, can regain the use of his legs. His collaborator, disgusted at Orin’s resort to sourcing stem cells on the black market, and suspecting that the research is Orin’s vanity project, leaves him. After obtaining the stem cells, which have come from God-only-knows-where, Orin injects them into his spine through a machine set-up guaranteed to inflict maximum pain on him (three times, no less!) and hysterical heebee-jeebees on the viewer at the sight of all the vomit.

At first everything seems to have gone well, and Orin does regain the use of his legs – but as with all experiments where the researcher uses himself or herself as the first guinea pig, unusual side-effects can be expected. To his consternation Orin discovers an ectopic pregnancy growing in the right-hand side of his abdomen. Unwisely perhaps, he does not consult his local neighbourhood family-planning clinic who might have urged him to agree to a properly done Caesarean appendectomy …

The film is more notable for its themes which admittedly are not original. Pursuit of scientific knowledge needs to be moderated with ethics or else experiments will generate invalid or dangerous results. Orin narrowly cheats death at least twice but whether he can handle the responsibilities of parenting a fast-growing child who is destined for a poor quality of life as a freak of nature, and what threats and dangers that might pose for both Orin and his creation, is another question. Orin may laugh at his former collaborator for not wanting to share in his discovery but he may eventually rue his decision to inject himself with treated stem cells of dubious origins and nature.

The plot depends a great deal on viewers’ knowledge of Shelley’s “Frankenstein …” to make sense of the breaks in the narrative, corresponding to the passage of time from one scene to the next. Obviously this short film is intended in the space of less than 15 minutes to pitch a plot for a movie or even a mini-series that brings “Frankenstein …” into a contemporary era of DIY freelancing biological research, organ-trafficking and stem-cell technologies.

Lucid: horror sci-fi dealing with cyber-addiction, escapism and technology shaping human psychology

Jamie Monahan, “Lucid” (2018)

The film’s title refers to so-called lucid dreams in which the dreamer is aware that s/he is dreaming, that the action in the dream comes from his/her subconscious and s/he can control and shape the dream’s path and narrative. Actor-director Jamie Monahan applies this concept of dreams to Virtual Reality, in which participants are not only transported to a cyber-world that simulates reality but can be trained to shape it while inside it. Monahan introduces other themes such as the issue of cyber-addiction, the use of Virtual Reality as a form of escape from real life and having to confront it and deal with its mess, and the place of women in technology invented and mostly mediated by men.

Charlie (Monahan herself) decides to try Virtual Reality neurological therapy after months of having had other unsuccessful treatments for post-traumatic stress caused by being raped during a girls’ night out. After a few treatments during which Charlie is able to “think” a puppy into existence in Virtual Reality, the therapist realises that Charlie has considerable talent in shaping Virtual Reality and signs her up to an experimental long-term program. Unbeknownst to Charlie, her sessions with the therapist have been carefully monitored by psychologists and scientists who have plans of their own in using her – and who are quite prepared to throw her therapist off the program if she objects. In her first session in the long-term program, Charlie realises too late that she is being stalked by strangers who have entered her Virtual Reality world and who threaten her psychological stability.

The film plays like a pilot to a full-length film or television series which might explain its sketchy and incomplete nature. However the vague nature of the plot does invite many intriguing explanations of what is happening throughout the film. Is the rape itself a scene in a different Virtual Reality world? What exactly is the role of Deja, Charlie’s friend, in “Lucid”? One might think Charlie would not be too keen on seeing Deja again after her rape experience as Deja was the one who took Charlie to the club where Charlie met the rapist. How and why does Charlie choose Virtual Reality neurological therapy to cope and deal with her trauma? Was the rapist ever arrested, charged with rape and put away in prison?

The acting is adequate for the film and perhaps Monahan is best advised not to try to direct and be the main character at the same time so that her energies and efforts are not spread thinly. However the film’s emphasis is on plot and the themes and issues surrounding the use of Virtual Reality in ordinary life, and how it could lead people into escapist cyber-addiction and encourage an inability to acknowledge and accept that life is often unfair and hard lessons must be learned to gain maturity and self-knowledge.

The film looks very good and plays smoothly, and serves as an introduction to the wider issue of how technology is allowed to invade and shape human psychology and culture.

Outpost: a skimpy plot redeemed by skillful acting, good sets and an uplifting theme of hope and love

Justin Giddings, Ryan Welsh, “Outpost” (2020)

On the very edge of the known universe, the last survivor of Earth’s Interplanetary Diplomatic Service, a fellow known as Citizen Gordon (Ryan Welsh, who also co-wrote and co-directed this film short) and his AI companion A.R.I.A. (Ryann Turner, in real life married to co-director Justin Giddings) make contact with an alien life force that resents the presence of the Earthlings in its part of the cosmic neighbourhood. Citizen Gordon and A.R.I.A. have already collected considerable information about this region of the universe and the alien force wants the data back. The Earthlings try to escape but the alien grabs A.R.I.A. and starts draining energy from her. Gordon is torn between saving the AI being – they have been together and have clicked together so well that they have fallen in love, in defiance of their employer’s directives against human-AI relationships – and adhering to his mission while the alien pulls her with a long tentacle and tries to engulf her.

The plot is very skimpy with many logic holes in it. Why is the alien so concerned about the presence of another interstellar species in its region? What does the alien mean when it tells Gordon and A.R.I.A. that their kind is “not ready” to make contact with it? How long have Gordon and A.R.I.A. been together and how could their seniors have failed to notice the burgeoning romance beneath their good cop / bad cop routine and the bantering between them? (Unless of course their seniors had always been aware of this relationship and even encouraged it, giving rise to further intriguing issues on whether such a relationship was intended to manipulate Gordon and make of him a laboratory animal for study.) Would a spaceship in the 25th century really carry a weapon like a sword? (No wonder the alien force distrusts humans when they insist on using old-fashioned weapons!) Nevertheless the film works because the actors playing Gordon and A.R.I.A. are at ease with each other, have invested heavily into these otherwise one-dimensional characters and the two have good chemistry. Welsh certainly comes across as a young, rough-hewn version of Australian actor Hugh Jackman and plays both a heroic character and a larrikin at the same time. Turner brings a quick mind and wit to A.R.I.A. and the character’s self-sacrifice and death are extremely affecting as the Earthlings sail off in their escape pod while the alien force pursues them.

The special effects are very good without being outstanding – I’ve seen so many DUST films featuring holograms being used as laptop and iPad replacements that this futuristic technology is now looking banal before it even becomes reality – and the sets and costumes are very impressive. Attention to detail such as these and the acting together can flesh out a very sketchy story and compensate for flaws in the narrative.

The film’s conclusion, coming after the end credits, turns out to be very moving with Gordon apparently alone on a deserted planet and A.R.I.A. close by, in the manner of Hans Christian Anderson’s famous Little Mermaid at the end of her tale. Whatever the alien force found in Gordon when it captured him and A.R.I.A. must have impressed it so much – his willingness to sacrifice everything he has for a mere robot, the extent of his love and affection for a machine – that he received a commuted sentence for whatever harm he and A.R.I.A. did to it. Or perhaps the alien force finds him a fascinating subject for further research just as his employers did with his relationship with A.R.I.A.