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.

Azarkant: a good-looking sci-fi piece short on plot and character

Andrey Klimov, “Azarkant” (2013)

Made as a proof-of-concept piece for a film, “Azarkant” understandably is short on plot and character to the extent that it plays like a generic sci-fi piece in which all the old “hard science” stereotypes appear. A group of cosmonauts on a 10-year voyage in space, their mission being to find planets capable of supporting life, come across an abandoned spaceship and investigate. One of the cosmonauts finds naught but human remains, even an old astronaut’s uniform, suggesting that this spaceship indeed has been floating in space for decades if not hundreds of years. The cosmonaut is ambushed by a robot whose last order is to kill every living being it finds. After a hard fight in which the cosmonaut finally disposes of the robot, he descends to a lower level of the abandoned spaceship where he finds a human body stored in liquid in an incubator.

There’s really no plot to speak of, and the film is remarkable mainly for creating a distinct sinister atmosphere in emphasising shadows, darkness and the barest hints that something dreadful occurred on the abandoned spaceship long ago. The cosmonaut shines his torch onto the surfaces of the spaceship’s interiors to partly reveal skeletal remains and a dead astronaut slumped against a wall. Tension slowly builds through the film as the cosmonaut investigates further, only for him to be suddenly sidelined by the creaky robot. The fight is massive though brief – but the tension itself starts to build again when the cosmonaut resumes his mission and falls through a floor into a deeper level.

The animation is very good, appearing three-dimensional, and seems almost realistic. There is little dialogue and the cosmonaut and robot express their characters through their movements. The cosmonaut seems hesitant, nervous at first, but bravely carries out his mission. The film’s conclusion may be open-ended; it seems that the cosmonaut is approaching a new, more sinister and powerful enemy posing as a human, or the body’s reaction to his presence may be nothing more than reflexive and instinctive.

At least the film looks good and has much visual technical detail, as there is not much more one can say in its favour.

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.

Laws of the Universe: justice working out in mysterious ways

Chris Mangano, “Laws of the Universe” (2019)

As is usually the case with sci-fi film shorts uploaded to Youtube by DUST, this film makes up for in depth and quality what it lacks in the way of a budget. Houston (Sidney Brown Jr) has spent 16 years in jail, much of it in solitary confinement, after being wrongly convicted of killing someone. While in prison he actually did murder someone out of self-defence which explains why he is in solitary confinement. He is waiting to be released from jail after using the time to educate himself in law and learning yoga and meditation. Unfortunately the prison wardens seem to have disappeared so he contacts his mother on his cellphone and she tells him to turn on his TV set. He does so and sure enough, a strange UFO is hovering above Los Angeles, attracting so much attention that even the wardens and administrators at the high-security prison have deserted their posts to view the wonder.

Over the next several days, while Houston and his fellow prisoners languish for want of attention and food and drink, Mom informs her son by phone that people are looting the abandoned UFO for alien technology. In the meantime, the water supply and then electricity are cut off to the prison and Houston endures several days of near starvation and thirst. He becomes concerned for his family’s welfare and worries about his mother. On Day 12 of his continued incarceration when he should have been freed eleven days earlier, Houston receives an unusual visitor in his cell: a man (Jason Karasev) using some of that unusual alien tech materialises in his cell looking for a friend to free …

The plot is entirely driven by dialogue and Brown’s acting, much of it silent. Beneath the youthful tough-talking exterior, Houston is revealed as someone of considerable intelligence and adaptability. While he and his previous lawyers were unable to overturn his initial wrongful conviction, Houston has used his time in jail to turn over a new leaf and improve himself. At the same time his prison experiences have toughened him in a different way from life in the streets, perhaps as a member of a teenage gang, and he does not hesitate to sweep aside conventional notions of morality if it means saving his life or saving the lives of others. Hence, when the stranger keeps reappearing in his cell, clearly unsure of himself (this suggests that he knows that he is doing wrong in trying to free his convicted pal), Houston takes advantage of the stranger’s uncertainty to free himself. He lands in a world at once familiar to him – he sees his family’s home – and yet unfamiliar: the streets are free of crime, traffic and pollution. Clearly the alien technology that has been pilfered from the abandoned UFO above the city has some capacity to see into people’s minds and probe their intentions, and has fulfilled those subconscious desires and instincts in ways unforeseen by the new human owners of the technology.

While the laws of physics might have been broken in this film, the law of morality turns out to be straightforward in spite of its apparent extreme elasticity and malleability. As religious people say, God works His justice in mysterious ways.

The American Military Retreat from Vietnam: a general history of the prolonged end of the Vietnam War

Carlton Meyer, “The American Military Retreat from Vietnam” (Tales of the American Empire, 19 June 2020)

This video serves mainly as a retelling of the significant events in the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1975: the 1968 date is chosen, not so much because most people in the West believe that was when the war began in earnest for the United States and its allies (including Australia), but because this date was actually the start of the prolonged end of the war. By this time, the US government knew it could not win the war unless the American public was willing to countenance the sacrifice of tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of Army conscripts in a war it had no appetite for. In 1968, the then US President Lyndon B Johnson, his reputation ruined by prosecuting the war, decided not to contest for the presidency which was later won by Richard Nixon. On becoming President, Nixon decided to turn the prosecution of the war to South Vietnam and to arm that country with military materiel and money – but thanks to endemic corruption in the South Vietnamese government and military, the equipment often ended up with the Viet Cong and money in politicians and military generals’ Swiss bank accounts. After throwing money and providing arms to a nation whose soldiers and people were unwilling to fight for corrupt leaders, and preferred instead a united Vietnam, the US government finally withdrew all its forces and assistance from South Vietnam by April 1975, and not long afterwards South Vietnam collapsed. The nation’s elites escaped overseas with American taxpayer money and Vietnam was united under the Communists in Hanoi.

The video presents the war as part of the US strategy to hang onto South Vietnam as a vassal state, in much the same or similar way as it currently hangs onto South Korea as a vassal state. What this video and a later video “The Mythical Threat from North Korea” in this series (Tales of the American Empire) do not actually say is why these countries serve as virtual colonies and what purpose they serve as colonies. Their geopolitical value to the US as battlegrounds between the US and the real enemies – the nations dominating the Eurasian heartland Russia and China – is not mentioned.

Interesting war film footage is shown and photographs and stills of the significant US politicians and military leaders of the war are interspersed with these to match Carlton Meyer’s voice-over narration. The video serves as a good general introduction to the history of the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1975 with a clear theme of the US pursuing an unwinnable war, unnecessarily throwing thousands of soldiers, equipment, ammunition and money, aiming at prolonging the war for imperialistic reasons. The long-term effect of the war on US politics, the economy and society generally – it might be said that the Vietnam War marks the beginning of the decline of the US as a superpower – is not covered in this brief video.

The Mythical North Korean Threat: how the US exploits North-South Korean tensions for its own benefit

Carlton Meyer, “The Mythical North Korean Threat” (Tales of the American Empire, 26 June 2020)

Amazingly in this admittedly short (eight-minute) video there’s no mention of North Korea’s nuclear defence program among the DPRK’s other defence strategies and military capabilities which for the most part are very poor. The video pivots on the US need to keep North and South Korea divided so as to maintain its iron grip on South Korea as a vassal state. To that end, the US built its largest offshore military base, Camp Humphreys, at a location some 40 miles south of Seoul to house up to 30,000 soldiers and their families. The base includes primary schools, a junior high school and a senior high school, and a number of fast food franchises are located there as well, to judge from photographs and film featured in the video.

The video pulls apart the propaganda, constantly repeated in Western mainstream news media, that North Korea poses a major danger to both South Korea and the US, and that current DPRK leader Kim Jong-un is a crazed despot. Far from it, the video tells us that Kim was educated at a private school in Switzerland, speaks English well, loves US basketball and has a physics degree. Kim also knows what his country’s armed forces are capable of, and not capable of. The DPRK’s army is made up of agricultural labourers who spend more time working in the fields than maintaining their weapons and equipment; consequently what weapons and military materiel the North Koreans have are in poor condition. Meyer might have added the reason for this state of affairs: due to economic sanctions imposed on North Korea since the 1950s, not to mention the devastation the Korean War brought to the country (some 20% of the population died during the war and every major city was ruined), North Korea has no agricultural machinery or the tools to make such machinery, and farming is highly labour-intensive.

South Korea turns out to be a far more powerful nation than North Korea, militarily and economically, and North Korea well knows the punishment the ROK could dish out if it dared to invade its neighbour. Indeed, many South Koreans realise that the Americans are not needed and demonstrations against the US presence in South Korea are common. The question is why the US continues to stay in South Korea. The video makes clear that in both the US and South Korea, political and military elites profit from the spending (running into the billions of US dollars) that US military occupation enables in South Korea. What perhaps is not clear in the video (its major failing) is the geopolitical value of South Korea as a threat to China and Russia in its far eastern region.

The real eye-opener in this video is the existence of Camp Humphreys and the huge size of the base: a family could easily live there for an entire lifetime and never set foot outside the base. Its shops and facilities however have a generic and soulless look about them: one would never know that it is located in South Korea as everything about the place – its buildings, their design, the shops there, the people who live and work there – does not acknowledge the culture of the host nation. The impression I have is that the camp exists mainly to provide employment for Americans – indeed, actual military personnel make up a minority of all Americans employed at Camp Humphreys – and for US companies to profit from by providing services and goods that resident military families need.

While this video is very informative, I did have a feeling that some information about North Korea might need updating. In recent years, North Korea has experienced some prosperity, along with some relaxation of restrictions on North Korean citizens and private enterprise being allowed. The video relied mainly on old film and not very recent photographs to portray Kim, the North Korean military and life generally in the DPRK. Perhaps at a future time the video might be updated to include more current information about this reclusive nation.