Givertaker **½/**** (d. Paul Gandersman)
A nice, compact cautionary tale featuring a novice witch who takes vengeance on her buddies only to find there are Shadowmen living under other people's beds. I wish the lore were better developed, but it's paced beautifully and the young cast is game and lively. I wanted more, and I don't often feel that way.
Ape Sodom **/**** (d. Maxwell McCabe-Lokos)
There seems to be a mania nowadays, hopefully a limited and short-lived one, for mashing Harmony Korine together with Todd Solondz and hoping no one vomits. Ape Sodom is at least anchored by the glimmer of an ideology around the dehumanizing impact of capitalism, as our hero (director McCabe-Lokos) accepts a large sum of money to do disgusting, horrific things for disgusting, horrific people before being run over and left for dead. This leads to a revelatory light-tunnel voyage and evidence of some filmmaking chops and intelligence packaged in something that otherwise feels sophomoric and risible for its own sake.
Sister's Fire **/**** (d. Vinny De Ghoulie)
Speaking of sophomoric and risible for its own sake, this one takes on a David Lynch circa Mulholland Drive-ish vibe in its tale of a burnout loser saddled with a visit from his deranged older sister, setting the stage for mannered histrionics that work in Lynch for the counterpoint he provides them in showbiz satire and identity politics. But Sister's Fire is just basic calling-card stuff: evidence the filmmakers have seen the right movies and liked them. Evidence, too, that they're looking to be noticed by making a movie that at one point double-exposes Bosch beneath an old lady mouthing gibberish through a half-open closet door. It's at once esoteric and right, spot on the nose.
Don't Act Dumb **/**** (d. Mark Haynes)
An evil-cop thing without much substance or bite, Don't Act Dumb is best described as one of those awkward sex comedies. Here, a randy young couple is discovered in the backseat of the boy's (Arthur Kriklivy) car by a cop (Lars Engstrom) who decides to have a little fun tormenting the youngsters. I'm a huge fan of The Hitcher director Robert Harmon's student short China Lake, which sort of has a similar premise but from the cop's point-of-view. This one demonstrates a good hand at the till (the night photography is excellent) and a few nice performances from the trio of actors (Linda Elizabeth is the girl), but ultimately doesn't have much to offer or say.
Death Metal ***/**** (d. Chris McInroy)
Short and to the point. A death metal rocker is given a Satanic axe (a literal axe mounted on a guitar) and, Ash-like, doesn't listen to the instructions very carefully, causing him to unleash hell in the middle of a park on a lazy Sunday. The gore is plentiful and ridiculous and it all wraps up in record time. This would play well in the pre-show for Deathgasm--it's that kind of movie.
Dawn of the Deaf ***½/**** (d. Robert Savage)
Hot on the heels of Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's trailblazing The Tribe comes this nifty little riff on what happens when a mysterious pulse turns everyone into zombies... Well, everyone who can hear it, at least. Various intrigues include a young man finding the courage to speak even though it reveals his deafness and, in turn, makes him vulnerable to bullying. Featuring real deaf performers, Dawn of the Deaf is more than just a high-concept genre piece, in other words, with deafness landing as a key identifying factor in our heroes' identities. If it plays like the prologue to a feature (more proof-of-concept than anything else), even as such it's a fresh and exciting take not on the zombie film, but on disability as it's portrayed in the cinema. It's aces.
Clara's Rage **½/**** (d. Michelle Garza Cervera)
Opening with a pen-and-ink animation of a rabid dog jumping through a window and biting a woman on the ankle while she sleeps, Clara's Rage transitions to a parable of gender and power. Titular Clara (Mayra Hermosillo) is locked away in a little wood-slat cabin while her husband (Gilberto Barraza) goes off every morning to hunt down and kill the packs of ravening, rabid dogs roaming just outside. But Clara keeps dreaming of escape, and it becomes clear that what the men are really hunting is affirmation of their masculinity through the continued suppression of femininity. There are some interesting ideas in this one--mostly revolving around appearance and sex--but the end result is underbaked, and its twist feels proselytizing as opposed to profound. Still, well-made.
The Itching ***/**** (d. Dianne Bellino)
A fine stop-motion piece about a nervous predator falling in love with a rakish prey animal, The Itching has about it the feeling of a Brothers Quay more than a Svankmajer (though both loom large as influences) and is almost physically uncomfortable by the end. Punctuated by the occasional whine and, eventually, surreal images of things emerging from the itchiest spot on a lady wolf's leg, the film captures succinctly the anxiety of relationships--especially miscegenated ones. Fine work.
Imitations */**** (ds. Fabian Velasco & Milos Mitrovic)
Skewering, kind of, the instinct of a very few deranged individuals to undergo devastating amounts of plastic surgery to resemble their heroes, Imitations has a lost soul (co-director Mitrovic) going under the knife to look like teen idol Austin (Conor Sweeney). It doesn't go well; it ends up in a karaoke lounge. And just when you think it might pull itself out by offering a Taxi Driver moment where the wrong guy gets celebrated for the wrong thing, it doesn't, heading instead towards something along the lines of George Romero's Bruiser but without the retributive aspect. A slog, however brief.
I Want You Inside Me ***/**** (d. Alice Shindelar)
Lissome CJ (Abigail Wahl) loses her virginity one night in a cave and wakes up to find her boyfriend long gone in this take on the vagina dentata. The immediate aftermath of CJ's first time is bloody and sad (things not often depicted about the loss of virginity), and Shindelar demonstrates a high level of empathy for women who didn't have a first experience on a bed of roses, scored to violins. While I'm not sure I'm following the picture's next steps into suggestion that her holiest of holies is some sort of dimensional portal, there's a lot of skill on display here and I'm interested in seeing more from Shindelar.