Nullarbor: laconic little road movie on the need to work together

Alister Lockhart, Patrick Sarell, “Nullarbor” (2011)

Across the longest stretch of straight road through the flat desert that is the Nullarbor Plain in southern Australia is raced this animated riff on the classic Aesopian fable “The Tortoise and the Hare”. A brash young man (we’ll call him Bernie) driving through the Outback in his souped-up convertible nearly has an accident with a semi-trailer while distracted by an elderly motorist (we’ll call him Waddy) in his decrepit old motor vehicle. Blaming his near-disaster on Waddy, Bernie seeks to outrace the old codger but ends up encountering one obstacle after another, including one memorable one where his convertible is prevented from crossing a railway line and the endless line of train carriages with the word “HA” painted on their sides passing over the line appears to be laughing at him. Eventually catching up with Waddy, Bernie and the older fellow agree through their facial expressions and gesticulations to a race across the featureless desert. The race though has unexpected consequences for both men and they end up humbled by the harsh physical environment of the desert and the sea.

Old age is pitted against youth, and the slow and steady approach is held up against the speedy (and also hasty) in this very likable animated character study. Ultimately Waddy is not any wiser than Bernie when it comes to taking care of his car or pushing it beyond what it can handle. The two men eventually come to a compromise and an understanding (that likely results in a real and long-lasting friendship) when confronted by the immensity of the Australian landscape and the results of their foolish rivalry.

The film’s humour relies a great deal on slapstick and exaggeration, and there is some crude and even violent humour at Bernie’s expense, but all the humour adds individual flavour to the men’s characters and advance or underline the plot in some way. The problems Bernie encounters illustrate how out of depth he is in the Outback. Sooner or later we know he will need the old man’s help. While Waddy has a more laid-back personality and he and his car have seen and experienced much in this part of Australia, even he cannot always rely on experience and familiarity with the environment and this leads to an oversight on his part that results in his car’s unexpected demise. The destruction however leads to an understanding between the two men and from then on they start to work together to get out of their common predicament. Nature always bats last.

The animation is spare and emphasises the isolation and vastness of the Australian desert and its brilliant colours as day changes into night. The laconic tone of the film – there is no dialogue and the characters communicate with body language – is distinctive and highlights its Australian character. The stereotype of Australian masculinity and men’s behaviour comes under the spotlight in this very concise little film.

Los Angeles 1991: a common humanity emphasised in an almighty shootout

Miguel de Olaso, Macgregor, Bruno Zacarias, “Los Angeles 1991” (2015)

The tale seems contrived and some suspension of disbelief may be required but essentially this taut story illustrates the futility of racial hatred and emphasises our common humanity. Set in the aftermath of the riots that broke out in Los Angeles in 1991 after a video of police beating Rodney King while arresting him on drink driving charges, the film follows the individual trajectories of four men of very different ethnic backgrounds and social classes. According to the voice-over narration, delivered by Gordon Capps, Korean-American store-owner Jun Seo (Victor J Ho) is determined at all costs to defend his general store, which he has run for 15 years and built up with his own efforts, from robbers. Eladio (Zach Tellez) nurses a powerful grudge against Jun Seo for killing his brother during a robbery, swearing vengeance against the shop-owner. JD (Jah Shams) sees Eladio encroaching on his gang’s turf and decides to teach this Chicano punk that blacks won’t be pushed around. White police officer Mike (Chris Conrad) needs to buy his daughter some candy for her birthday and decides to duck into Jun Seo’s store.

The scene is set for all hell breaking loose when these four men with very different agendas converge in the one store. When the dust settles, there are no winners and all are losers. Perhaps one or two of them finally realise they all share the same humanity as they see all their lives ebbing into the same drain in the floor. The metaphor is very heavy-handed and not for the faint-hearted to watch but it is very effective in the way sledgehammers can be painful. Probably what is missing in the film is the underlying socio-economic context in which all four men are really nothing more than underlings representing communities all competing to get their shares of a fast-shrinking economic pie, the bulk of which is being stolen by a power elite that exploits people by dividing them according to arbitrary categories such as race, ethnicity and religion. Of course none of the men realise they are all being used and manipulated.

The hard-boiled pulp fiction style of narration works well in the film, creating and raising tension as the men draw closer to one another. The silent acting is good and all actors, as well as the directors and technical crew, pay close attention to detail. Viewers are not likely to have much pity for any of the characters: they clearly act in their own self-interest and don’t have time for anyone else outside their own little worlds.

La Carnada: one boy’s road to Hell paved with love and concern in a spider web of exploitation

Josh Soskin, “La Carnada” (2014)

In a poverty-stricken town in Mexico not far from the border with the United States, 13-year-old Manny (Angel Soto Jr) is saddled with the burden of caring for his severely diabetic bedridden mother after his older sister Daniela makes off with the money needed to pay the pharmacist for Mum’s insulin. Desperate, Manny meets Beto (Carlos Valencia) who offers the boy an easy way to make money. “I’m not a mule”, Manny says but Beto reassures him he’s not going to force him to carry large loads of drugs in his stomach or make him do anything the teenager doesn’t want to do – he understands the boy wants to help his mother. Next day, Beto takes Manny to a ghost town near the border, gives him supplies and a small amount of cocaine, and tells him to go to a far mountain where he will meet with some others who will pay him. Then Manmy’s work will be done and he’ll have enough money to get his mother the insulin she needs.

So begins Manny’s journey into adulthood, impelled by the love he has for his mother and his desire to help her after everyone else they know and care for has abandoned them. While Soto essentially plays Manny as one-dimensional and rather blank, the character’s mix of maturity beyond his years, intelligence, resourcefulness – and alas, naivety – comes out very strongly. Unfortunately Manny’s qualities are not enough to save him from Beto’s manipulation and devious plot of using the boy as a decoy (hence the film’s title) to draw US border patrol police away from the real drug mules working at night. Unbeknownst to Manny, Beto is prepared to use him and sacrifice him – and perhaps many other children like Manny who are driven by poverty into becoming foot-soldiers for drug cartels – to make money and to please his overlords in the gangs.

In the space of a few moments, a family’s desperate situation of poverty, unemployment and abandonment drives one of its members – and an innocent, trusting one at that – into a spider’s web of deceit and exploitation through his love and concern for his mother. This is surely one of life’s great ironies that one person’s particular road to Hell is paved with care and concern for a loved one. Few people would want to be in the same situation as Manny – and yet for Manny, the decision he makes to try to save his mother seems the most logical and straightforward.

The acting is quite good for a short film on a limited budget. Soto does adequately for his role while Valencia is slick enough as the devious Beto and Peter Reinert plays border patrol officer Davey efficiently and smoothly. Viewers also see something of the life and vitality of a small Mexican town, poor though it is, and how it contrasts with the soulless life of the American town on the other side of the border through the convenience store where Davey buys lunch. The harsh desert environment echoes the harshness of life in Manny’s home town and the isolation in which Americans on the other side of the border live.

Fortunately for Manny, when Davey finds him in the desert, the officer knows straight away that the boy is one of many youngsters being used by the drug cartels. But in real life, how many officers would show the same level of concern and compassion for illegal aliens like Manny?

The Disappearance of Willie Bingham: portrait of a society exploiting emotions and desire for vengeance

Matt Richards, “The Disappearance of Willie Bingham” (2015)

A truly unsettling short realist film about a bureaucracy gone insanely inhuman, pandering to the lowest common denominator in Western cultural ethics, this Australian psychological horror piece justifies wading through much dross on the Omeleto channel. Prisoner Willie Bingham (Kevin Dee) has been selected by the State of Victoria to undergo a new kind of punishment for having killed a child while intoxicated: the punishment involves the participation of the victim’s family who can demand that Bingham undergo a series of amputations while family members watch. The victim’s father (Tim Ferris) requests that Bingham’s left hand be chopped off first. After this operation, Bingham is then taken by his prison supervisor George Morton (Gregory J Fryer) and the police on a circuit of primary and secondary schools to demonstrate to youngsters the consequences of committing serious crimes: they too can expect to undergo progressive amputation. Over time, Bingham suffers more amputations: his right hand goes, then his left leg, and various organs also disappear. With each operation, the victim’s sisters refuse to watch and leave, and the father steadily becomes more disheveled. Bingham’s mental state deteriorates with each operation as well until he becomes completely traumatised, withdrawn and uncommunicative.

The acting is excellent and Dee’s performance as Bingham is heart-rendingly pathetic, not least because there is a possibility that he is innocent of several charges against him relating to the rape and murder of the child victim. As the convicted criminal in a prison system that has been largely privatised, pandering to public calls for Old Testament eye-for-an-eye vengeance against those deemed to have committed unspeakable crimes, Bingham has no say in his punishment and is caught up in a spiral of a relentless and deranged prison bureaucracy that acts with a demonic life of its own. The film does not say who ultimately is responsible for having set this Kafkaesque machine system in progress, literally chewing through each and every prisoner guilty of a serious crime. At the end of the film, Bingham is left a literal husk.

Other characters fare little better than Bingham: the victim’s father undergoes degradation as well and ironically appears to reach a state similar to Bingham’s initial state when he murdered the child. (One almost expects a late plot twist in which the father admits to the crime.) Bingham’s supervisor Fryer appears a broken man by the end of the film as he resignedly takes Bingham on yet another circus tour of various schools. The high school students view Bingham as a figure to be made fun of. What lessons they might learn are very different from what they are supposed to learn. Yet the bureaucracy carrying out the progressive amputation punishments on Bingham and others like him continues regardless.

Aside from obvious questions about how the State should deal with heinous acts of crime and the people who commit them, and whether effective justice can be served by the punishments attached to these crimes, there is a wider issue of the potential consequences of privatising prisons and other functions of the State, opening up these privatised functions to the whims of the general public and pandering to people’s emotions and instincts rather than their reason. The horrific, dehumanising effects of such privatisation and a populist approach to punishing prison inmates, on inmates, prison administrators, victims’ families and the people who carry out the progressive punishments are made plain to the audience. Even the supposed benefits of the punishments are questionable.

Much of the film’s power comes from its plausibility and its realist tone. All the characters are to some extent stereotypes and audiences can very readily identify with these stereotypes. The plot is very original but its inevitable and relentless trajectory cannot sustain a running time much longer than 15 minutes. For a film of its type to work, it needs to bring in philosophical issues about the role of the State in delivering justice to victims of crimes, in deciding the appropriate levels and types of punishments for crimes, and in accepting (or outsourcing) responsibility for imprisoning people and punishing them. The film also needs to say something about the nature of a society that enables an inhumane system of punishment exploiting emotions and desire for revenge and extreme punishments to exist and thrive.

Retouch: a character study about struggle and sudden unexpected freedom

Kaveh Mazaheri, “Retouch” (2017)

A stunning character study of a married woman, submissive to her bullying husband, who is unexpectedly given a new lease of life when he suddenly dies in an accident at home, “Retouch” examines what she actually does with her newfound freedom – and what she does turns out to be rather ordinary, though in real life many of us would do the same. Much put upon by her badgering husband, Maryam (Sonia Sarjani) patiently juggles his demands and petulance with raising their toddler daughter and going to work at a publication agency. One day though, while working with a barbell, the object slips and pins hubby Siavash (Mohammed Ziksari) to his exercise bench on his throat, effectively cutting off his air. Maryam tries to help get the thing off Siavash but he dies agonisingly. Maryam has no choice but to watch him die.

After that, viewers see from the expressions flitting over her face that while Maryam knows what she ought to do, she also seems to realise that she could just flee the situation, taking the baby with her. So she goes to work as usual, popping the child in at the childcare centre, and gets stuck into her work of retouching pictures of female celebrities for Iranian magazines by digitally dabbing black over their decolletages, shoulders and arms so they look appropriately modest. As the day passes, Maryam takes calls from people wanting to know why Siyavash isn’t answering the phone – and she even makes calls and text messages to him herself! Eventually she is persuaded by work colleagues to go home early and see what Siavash is up to. Maryam picks up her baby and pops into the apartment, half-expecting Siavash to be up and about.

The denouement descends into bizarre comedy as Maryam rehearses what she will say to the neighbours and eventually the ambulance officers when they arrive. Whatever Maryam does though, seems completely credible thanks to the superb portrayal by Sonia Sarjani who fully inhabits the character. Her acting is minimal, reflecting the character’s shy and submissive behaviour, even with female colleagues while having lunch together, yet the expression on her face – the camera does many close-up shots of Sarjani’s face – quickly changes from shock and upset to something resembling quiet satisfaction that at last a major burden has been removed, to guilt and shame at having such feelings. Right up to the end, Maryam constantly seems to be rehearsing her feelings, thoughts and actions, so that even when she repeats coming into the apartment and seeing Siavash dead, the repetitions appear entirely credible. The implication seems to be that Maryam appears something of an empty vessel, with no genuine feelings to call her own, because all throughout her life she has had to suppress her real individuality and character and adopt behaviours expected of her as her own – to be constantly “retouching” herself and her life so everything about her agrees with social expectations.

The style of the film is quietly minimal and naturalistic, throwing the spotlight on its lead character Maryam. This approach and the surrounds – director Mazaheri filmed the apartment scenes in Sarjani’s own apartment – set down a situation and environment most Iranians can identify with, all the more to unsettle them when they see Maryam behave “irrationally” when confronted by the sight of her dying husband. Such a confrontation between what a character actually does and what she is supposed to do clashes with a hitherto downtrodden woman’s beliefs about herself and her place in the world, creating a cognitive dissonance within the individual – so it should be no surprise that Maryam acts strangely for so much of the film.

At once minimal and naturalistic, yet bizarre, awkward and funny at times as well, this film is well worth watching for its depiction of an individual who has had to struggle all her life under heavy burdens – and faces a struggle of a very different kind when suddenly those burdens are lifted.

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.

Fill Your Heart with French Fries: dark comedy about grief, social media celebrity and exploitation

Tamar Glezerman, “Fill Your Heart with French Fries” (2016)

Based on an actual incident in China, in which a woman jilted by her boyfriend ended up staying a week at her local KFC outlet, this comedy short is at once sad, sometimes bitter, a little bit too cute and biting in its social commentary. It seems at once profound in its examination of the nature of grief, particularly in exploring how dealing with grief needs time, a sympathetic ear and even rational examination to come to acceptance and only then can the grieving person face life and move on. At the same time the film appears a little shallow in how it addresses the way society itself deals (or not) with grief and other significant and complicated emotions, and its playing time of 20 minutes ends up wearing quite thin.

Emma (Lindsay Burdge) is rejected by her girlfriend Amy at a FryBaby’s outlet; too depressed to do anything and in obvious shock, the young woman lingers at the table for several days and nights. An employee, Samantha (Auri Jackson), takes pity on Emma and offers her free food while fellow employee Craig (Scott Friend) takes photos of Emma and uploads them to social media platforms where her plight captures the attention of hundreds, if not thousands, of viewers. Before long, Emma becomes the cynosure of all eyes at the FryBaby’s outlet and on social media. Two women surreptitiously film her. An evangelist takes advantage of Emma’s downbeat state to try to preach the gospel. An acquaintance tells Emma to go home, look after herself and “move on”. A salesman makes a proposition to sponsor her if she will promote an eccentric anti-romance product. In the end, a police officer (Tom O’Keefe) shows some sympathy and compassion for Emma’s feelings and a little boy (Finn Douglas) unwittingly shows her how to get out of her depressed fug.

Burdge does good work in conveying Emma’s grief without overacting and the general tone of the film is respectful in its handling of the grieving process. It is not quite so good in dealing with the parade of people who impinge on Emma’s grief and mourning, and the social issues that arise with each and every intruder are toyed with briefly and in a shallow way. Evangelical religion and the way in which it preys on vulnerable people get short shrift, as do commercial exploitation and social media voyeurism. Only the police officer breaks a stereotype about the nature of law enforcement by refusing to arrest Emma for loitering or trespass. The film reaches a surreal level once the small boy starts addressing Emma. While Emma is eventually able to come to a resolution and resolve her problem, the way in which this process is initiated seems unreal and too tidy.

The world in which Emma’s dilemma plays out seems rather bleak, which adds to the bitter atmosphere of the film, and when she finally leaves the fast food outlet, she steps into an environment that seems even more sterile and uncaring, with dog poo left on the pavement and snow that the local authorities should have removed still on the street.

Little character development occurs and viewers are not privy to Emma’s feelings and emotions beyond what is conveyed on her face, leaving the protagonist blank and flat at the end of the film. Nevertheless there is potential for a full-length movie out of this film: a definite character study could be done and each new encounter the protagonist has while in the fast food outlet could be the basis of a sub-plot or an examination of an aspect of modern life.

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

Last Requests: quiet naturalistic character study gives insight into US prison culture and the people it exploits

Courtenay Johnson, “Last Requests” (2017)

A sombre character study of a prison worker on her last day in a program that supplies last-request meals to death row inmates just before their executions, “Last Requests” explores and questions the inner lives and motives of people who in their own small ways maintain the prison system in Texas, sometimes with humanity and sometimes not. Widowed Maggie (Dale Dickey) prepares a roast chicken with all the trimmings for a death row prisoner who is to be executed for the mass murder of young children. She lovingly washes, marinates and cooks the bird, and arranges the food neatly on the tray while her co-workers (Lindsay Pulsipher and Michael Abbott Jr) ridicule what she is doing and tell her the inmate does not deserve any kindness or sympathy for what he has done. She persists anyway, telling the co-workers of how her husband was denied a proper last meal in the hospital where he died of an incurable condition. The roast chicken dinner is eventually taken to the prisoner who rejects it.

Through their conversations about the prisoner and his crime, the ending of the last meals request program, and how long Maggie herself has worked in the program (30 years), viewers come to see how Maggie needs the program to justify her own worth in a society that is otherwise indifferent to her existence as well as to the existence of those it spurns. It becomes apparent that she cooks as much for herself as she does for the prisoners she defends to her co-workers. When one co-worker reminds her that young children killed by the inmate deserve consideration, Maggie is at a loss for words. Does she regret never having had any herself? Are the prisoners a substitute for the children she never had? When the roast chicken dinner is returned to the kitchen, Maggie is devastated: could this mean that she finally realises that the system she has served faithfully for 30 years has always taken her for granted and has always treated her as something less than human?

The actors’ performances are naturalistic and the general tone of the film is minimal and subdued. Interspersed with kitchen scenes are scenes of the death row inmate being prepared for his execution by prison guards and taken to the execution room where he will be injected with poisons. In its own way the film is a quiet observer and commentator of US prison culture and its disregard for the people who work in the prison industry and the prisoners the industry processes.