“Araf” – (Short Film Review)


By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***** out of *****.

“Araf” (2016), an eight-minute and forty-five second collaborative short from writer-directors Fidan Jafarova and Tofiq Rzayev, is a masterful meditation on pain and suffering. It is also a heart-wrenching example of moving picture art beautifully evaluated through the lens of human tribulation. Such is phenomenally expressed through the underlying theme of the incredible tolls of war on mankind. This is signified by several distinctly woven personalities. The Angry Student Films, Synaps Production and Fidan Jafarova release, made for 1,000 AZM in the Eurasian country of Azerbaijan, also brilliantly elucidates echoes of Swedish cinematic auteur Ingmar Bergman’s tour de force, Cries and Whispers (1972). This is especially evident in its mature, sobering handling of grave subject matter. These are all articulated unflinchingly, yet respectfully. Such transpires with the topics of disease and dying at the forefront. Furthering this correlation, is the concentration in both endeavors on the measures and sentimental outcomes such unavoidable trials brings about on the family members which dominate each singular tale. Given that the term “araf” is often utilized to reference the Muslim borderlands between heaven and hell, instituted for neither the wholly good or wicked, there is also a religious constituent to the proceedings. This connects Bergman’s material with Jafarova and Rzayev’s latest in this respect as well. Likewise, the character-oriented emphasis is credibly etched in these accounts. This technical component is so well formulated that this quality alone carries each corresponding composition to greatness.

Additionally, the performances in each item are exceptional all around. This is with the incorporation of a superb balance between the photographic, the everyday and the theatrical. Also, the cinematography in each respective entity, with that in “Araf” stemming from Rzayev and that from Bergman’s construction from Sven Nykvist (who won an Academy Award for his work on the aforesaid invention), is gorgeously grim and appropriately bleak. There is a brooding, meditative color palette shared between these undertakings. Such is undeniably striking and ambient throughout. Yet, in Jafarova and Rzayev’s brief effort, the general veneer arises as more shadowy, stylish and thriller oriented. The constant rumble of thunder and the highly demonstrative sights of the rain hammering outside, which creates a breathtaking image which opens and closes the piece, spectacularly heightens this attribute. Thus, when the fabrication slides into an unanswered question of actuality, ghosts or delusions, all through the eyes of daughter Feride (in a captivating enactment by Konul Iskender), the progression is simultaneously natural and complimentary. This transpires to alluring consequence in the second half. There is also a countless deal of symbolic imagery laced into practically every frame of these presentations. At the heart of this is a focus on feminine strength, vulnerability and courage amid nearly impossible circumstances. Enduring this representative correlation, there is a concentration on inner-wars. This is noticeable, in one manner or another, through every disposition dominating these already addressed exertions. These are both unspoken or verbalized. In “Araf”, this figure is physically embodied. This is via an unnamed combat with an unspecified menace. It is frequently discussed but never seen. Yet, we ceaselessly impress upon ourselves the unnerving ideology that this brutality is inching ever closer to the treacherous mountains our protagonists call home. In so doing, the incorporation of this abhorrent item akin wonderfully increases the previously mentioned allegory. It also makes it all the easier to delve into the uncertain psyches of those we follow within the chronicle.

The story, credited to Rzayev, concerns a son, Ali (in a phenomenal turn from Adil Damirov), who becomes caught up in the previously addressed violence. Early on, the plot oversees the young man’s Mother (in a gripping, quietly commanding portrayal from Basti Jafarova) tending to her sickly husband. He is credited here simply as Father (an emotionally gripping turn from Sabir Mammadov, which triumphantly communicates his anguish largely through tormented grunts and groans). Enhancing the strain upon Mother and her kin is that her blood relations are all nearing starvation. It is also an ever-present fear for Ali. With this in mind, Mother braves departing her nearby loved ones. This is after defiantly declaring to Feride: “My other child…is out there fighting against the enemy and has nothing to eat. I cannot accept them both suffering hunger. You just don’t be afraid.” Such brings Mother on a quest to uncover a source of nourishment for those she is leaving behind. Feride than takes up Mother’s position. Almost immediately, the anxiety stemming from the unseen confrontations outside is personified in increasingly unique ways. This occurs as the situation around her instantly begins to deteriorate.


Such is a genuinely intriguing premise. It is one which requires much insight into both the psychology and attitude of those living under the persistent threat of real life terror. This is to be as successful as it obviously strives to be. Jafarova and Rzayev offer exactly that with their intelligent and richly constructed screenplay. They concoct personas, situations and dialogue that are as fully-realized, elegiac and memorable as any Bergman production. Regardless, their use of deceptively straight-forward discourse is meticulously sharp and profound. For instance, the commencing narration pronounces that “In these mountains…it always rains a lot. It’s unfortunate that we cannot hear it anymore”. Such a sweeping declaration draws us in instantly. But, when contemplated in retrospect, this line exemplifies tremendously just how far-reaching the apprehension is that our leads are under. Continually, the arc is largely unpredictable. This is without ever becoming implausible. Jafarova and Rzayev also unveil a perfectly even, cerebral pace for the brief opus. It is one that compliments the atmosphere splendidly. This is without weighing down the overall progression of events. Such is an astonishing feat itself.

All of this is made progressively encapsulating and hypnotic by Gergo Elekes’ remarkably emotive, piano driven score. Simuzar Aliyeva provides fantastic costume design. Shahmal Novruzlu and Kamil Ismaylov evoke a sound department contribution that is illimitably crisp and undoubtedly attention-garnering. The same can be said for the seamless visual effects from David Kislik. Jafarova’s editing is just as stellar. Similarly, Mitch Davies’ use of premiere stock footage is thoughtfully delivered.

At only twenty-two years of age, Rzayev has reflected his big screen heroes Andrei Tarkovsky (1975’s The Mirror, 1986’s Sacrifice) and Stanley Kubrick (1971’s A Clockwork Orange, 1987’s Full Metal Jacket) with deft precision. Such is seen in the plethora of unique camera angles, the experimental nature of his celluloid catalogue and in the sheer prowess in guiding the project at hand. “Araf” is no exception. Prior depictions, such as “In a Time For Sleep” (2016) and “Nihan: The Last Page” (2016), only re-enforce this factor. With sixteen scripting and directorial recognitions already to his name in only a five- year span, he is incessantly re-affirming that he is a talent far beyond his years. The same can be spoken of twenty-one-year old, Jafarova. This is her third such labor. The $500 budgeted documentary “Nagillar Alemine Seyahet” (2016) and the autobiographical “Fidan Jafarova Film Portrait” (2016) arrived previously. Given the evident might between these moviemaking forces, and the all-around excellence of this first alliance, I sincerely hope that the ingenious “Araf” marks the commencement of many future pairings among the duo. What they have created here is enlightening, profound and engaging. It is indisputably one of the best entries in its genre of the year.


“The Girls Were Doing Nothing” – (Short Film Review)


By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ***** out of *****

Thirty-something Marta (in a commanding, beautifully formed depiction from Katie Alexander-Thom), the heroine of “The Girls Were Doing Nothing” (2017), has a sharp retort concerning the debut title of writer-director Dekel David Berenson’s short film (the twenty-one minute work in progress “press preview” cut of which I base this review upon). It comes while Marta regales her similarly aged husband, Jake (in a quietly stalwart turn from Malcolm Jeffries), with a yarn from her youth. In this tale, the boys in her school would go out to play football. She goes out of her way to affirm that they would engage in such an activity in even the harshest snows of winter. While watching them busily go about their sports, Marta’s teacher would pose a question to the young ladies of the learning institution. This was why they “weren’t doing nothing.” Here the thesis statement of this slyly enigmatic, deeply meditative and highly symbolic production arrives. This is when Marta, with agitation visibly growing in both her voice and eyes, declares: “We weren’t doing nothing. We were watching”.

Such directly explains the hypnotic, subtle and clandestine tone of this erotically charged tour de force. Previously titled “The Vacation”, this presentation calls to mind Stanley Kubrick’s underrated masterpiece Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Lars von Trier’s same held Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 and 2 (2013). This parallel is visible in the sheer craftsmanship on display. It can also be spotted in its mature handling of carnal subject matter. In retrospect, Berenson is providing the audience the opportunity to tread in the footsteps personified by the young ladies in Marta’s chronicle. Yet, this accrues in an undoubtedly adult world. We view the measures of Marta’s daily life, whether she is going through photographs or trying to quietly provoke her husband’s sensual passions, without the component of clarifying precisely what is transpiring at every narrative twist. Given that this element is far too prevalent in cinema nowadays, the decision to excise what most would deem pivotal makes the proceedings even more riveting. It also comes across as refreshing and natural. Keeping true to this structure, the credible and gorgeously penned dialogue (which was partially inspired by psychologist Carol Gilligan) is kept to a minimum. Such makes the results increasingly voyeuristic and addictively appealing. The concluding sequence, which wordlessly proposes what is too come, is especially brilliant and captivating.

Despite this brave stylistic approach, another telltale sign of Berenson’s incredible risk-taking capabilities, the engaging plot thread is never lost. Even when we find ourselves unsure of why some sights are unfolding, Berenson forces our imagination to fill in the blanks. Moreover, our interest, our glimpse into Marta’s world of luxurious restaurants, private gyms and high-paying professional positions adds to the fascinating rhythm of the demonstration. All of this is punctuated further by the Marta’s inner-struggles to overcome the commonplace motions of her marriage. It makes the piece as much an exhibition of routine as it is a meditation on how to break out of such a monotonous extension of events. Marta and Jake find it in their charismatic neighbor, Andrea (a well-rounded, extraordinary enactment from Jolie Sanford). This occurs when she asks the couple to do a favor for her while she is on vacation. Such an invite becomes an unexpected chance to add both variety, spontaneity and intimacy to their lives. Yet, they soon learn the paradox of this meticulously paced fiction. This comes in the form of a quote from psychotherapist Esther Perel, which is exposed in the opening moments of the invention. This is that “Love longs for closeness, desire thrives in distance. And therein lies the rub”.


Adding to the sheer excellence at hand is the highly representative imagery. For instance, there is a shot near the commencement which also closes the effort. This is of a sugar cube absorbing. It is ultimately spied as a perfect mark of Marta’s bland, imprisoned outlook on life slowly wilting away. Additionally, it declares her willingness to find the exhilaration in being by seizing new prospects when they arise. There are several sequences involving Marta’s blood which are powerfully indicative of feminism. Aside from this, the undertaking is further graced by sensational editing from both Fabrizio Gammardella and Berenson. Phillip Quinton’s sound issuance is spectacular. The camera crew, consisting of Pete Blakemore, Melanie Jansen and Tom Blount, provides a spellbinding contribution. Elizabeth Hedley’s make-up design is stellar. Lem Lawrence’s visual effects significantly enhance the authenticity radiating from every frame. Kamil Lemie’s scant appearance in a role dubbed “1920’s Guy” and Samantha Whaley’s bit as a retail assistant are both deft and intriguing. The costumes by Britt Seel are superb. Such an ingredient fits the contemporary impression of the sum grandly. Music consultant Heather Hadar Gallar incorporates an operatic soundtrack. This only strengthens the overall imprint. It also impeccably reinforces the attitude of the exertion beautifully. Likewise, Berenson’s screenplay and guidance of the project is proficient and carefully constructed. The cinematography by Ruaraid Achilleos-Sarll is sumptuous and sweeping. These greatly piqued qualities aid mightily in making Berenson’s latest an absolute knockout. This is guaranteed to be a surefire hit with spectators once it begins its run at cinema festivals.

“The Girls Were Doing Nothing” is the first of three similarly brief, unified compositions. All of them deal with intense notions of fondness, lovemaking and personal bonds in one manner or another. These are collectively known as The Eros Trilogy. The next two labors, continuations of the account set forth with this initial undertaking, are “Borderlines” (2017) and “The Surface of All Things.” No due date has been given for the final segment.

This is more than a reason for excitement. The characters in this initiating episode are genuinely etched. Berenson is unafraid to paint real people on his celluloid canvas. Everyone we encounter, Marta and Jake especially, have flaws and likable traits woven in equal ration. Yet, the air of mystery in this 168 Wardour Filmworks, Bekke Films and Radiator IP Sales release is palpable throughout. It suggests many different directions that Berenson can pilot the opus in upcoming episodes. This is so much so that one cannot help but anticipate seeing where he takes the fabrication. What elevates this anticipation is that Berenson’s latest affair is among the most memorable and outstanding concoctions of its type I’ve witnessed all year. Berenson has an undeniable knack for storytelling. Such is boosted by his gifted team and their respective donations. These essentials fill the screen with ongoing resonance and awe. Rich in mentality, emotion and subtext, Berenson has evoked a winner on all fronts.


“Gary From Accounting” -(Short Film Review)


By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****.

The title character of director Daniel Lofaso’s smart and darkly comedic five-minute and eight second short film, “Gary From Accounting” (2016), is an unassuming and mostly unwilling hero. He is not the same first named individual who our lead, Nathan (in another of Timothy J. Cox’s various show-stopping, wholly gripping performances), has thought to have developed such a strong rapport with via their respective occupations. Hence, his confusion and wrongful invitation to the incident that is about to unfold. Still, he is, nevertheless, forced to partake in an intervention which confronts Nathan’s alcoholism. This event has been put together by Nathan’s wife, Hannah (in a brilliantly realized and believable depiction from Thea McCartan). Upon entering his home, Nathan is met with heart-rendering declarations that would move even the stoniest of centers. For instance, Nathan’s sister, Belle (in a riveting enactment by Jake Lipman), cries out: “I can’t sleep at night because I worry about you driving drunk!” Hannah declares immediately afterward: “I have no one to talk to because you are out drinking every night!” Uncomfortable and desperately trying to find a way out of the situation, Gary (in an uproarious, bulls-eye representation from Mark Grenier), meekly chimes in with: “Your expense reports are sometimes a little late.” The rest of the tale teeters on this sharply established, seriocomic edge. This is as Nathan’s kin confront him with genuinely troubling episodes based on his intoxicating habits. All the while, Gary, whose presence Nathan seems solely enthusiastic and truly supported by, struggles to come up with something a fraction as unnerving as the myriad tribulations Nathan’s relatives are hurling at him.

Such is a distinctly clever premise. It is made more so by first time screenwriter Phoebe Torres’ and Lofaso’s decision to plant Gary, a highly likable persona who would fit all too contentedly in a working-class sitcom, in a circumstance of somber beings and high drama. The well-penned dialogue from Nathan’s loved ones is wrenching; full of pain and grief. Their embodiments of these entities are equally gripping. The centerpiece of this is a terse instance at around the three-minute mark. At this moment, Nathan’s children, cited as Little Boy and Little Girl (Christopher John and Rhea Kottakis respectively, in roles which showcase talent beyond their young years), confess to their father the difficulties he has inflicted on their lives. Despite the undeniable poignancy of these illustrations, Lofaso and Torres make an almost acrobatic exercise out of the composition. The effort finds just the right tone and balance for its affected and guffaw-inducing components. Such is instituted immediately. From this perfectly symmetrical juggling act it never wavers. It makes this briskly paced, well-penned and stalwartly guided affair even more masterful in both presentation and construction. Consequently, the laughs become increasingly triumphant. They hit us all more potently because of this divide. This is because we find ourselves snickering at subjects that otherwise would be met with the gravest approach.

Assisting matters is Jesse Bronstein’s handsome cinematography. It is accessed on an atmospherically appropriate palette; a beautifully blended collage of dusky colors and cheery hues. Such creates a wondrous visual interpretation of the opposing moods of the piece. Additionally, Gusta Johnson provides sensational editing. Cecilia Lewis’ makeup is every bit as exceptional as these aforementioned traits. Joseph Iacobazzo’s sound is top-notch. The proficient turns from the camera and electrical department, which consists of Mihai Bodea-Tatulea and Adehm Geller, heightens immeasurably the intimacy evident in this gathering. They help construct a closeness so palpable that one can easily relate to all who try to pull Nathan from his addiction in one manner or another. This makes the relation between viewer and narrative personality continually taut. It is so much so that its spectators can naturally find themselves sitting alongside these fictional protagonists; a silent bystander.

This Brooklyn, New York shot winner and Chirality Films release is also a masterclass in the power of brevity. In its brief runtime, Lofaso and Torres also successfully tackle the notion so prevalent in our society of feeling more of a bond, an excitement towards the proceedings of a popular television program than their our own personal measures. Such is utilized as an entry into the underlying commentary concerning the disconnect many of us impress upon ourselves. This is from the happenstance of our own existence. Perhaps this is an insight into Nathan afflictions. Either way, Lofaso and Torres have given us a chance to find the humor in ourselves. Yet, there are countless opportunities to reflect. All of this is implemented in a manner that is always respectful to the stern core of its commanding central themes. This is without ever falling into the trap of being pretentious, preachy or overwrought. What we are, ultimately, given is a largely dynamic, warm and inviting affair. This is a herculean display of cinematic storytelling and aptitude at its finest.


“A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2016)” – Movie Review

By Andrew Buckner

Rating: ***** out of *****.

Writer-director Richard Griffin’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s circa 1590-1597 penned romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2016), pulsates with magic, splendor and eloquence. It is a passion project the Providence, Rhode Island born craftsmen has been attempting to bring to fruition since 2000. This is highly visible in the final product, which burns with the ardor of a long spent wish finally realized. The Scorpio Film Releasing distribution is both a beauty of sight and of sound; a searing triumph of frisky, smoothly paced entertainment. This is as much a courtesy of Jill Poisson’s rich, hypnotic cinematography and Griffin’s lively, astonishing handling of the production as it is the unmistakable, Early Modern English language of The Bard himself. Such an element Griffin takes directly from the original work. Even though Griffin has moved the central action from Ancient Greece, in an unspecified year, to Athens, Massachusetts in 1754: the rhythm, and amusing nuance (which is often innuendo based), of Shakespeare’s opus remains intact. All of this combines to create an affectionate, faithful homage to the source material. Yet, it distinctly resonates with the core of a Griffin construction. It is both radiant, sidesplitting, cutting edge, a bit old fashioned and affecting. Regardless, there is an innocence to the labor that showcases the sheer variety Griffin, who has toiled largely in the cinematic horror genre, is more than capable of conducting. Griffin, whose first celluloid tour de force was a modernized version of Shakespeare’s roughly 1588-1593 scribed tragedy Titus Andronicus (2000), is obviously well-versed in the narrative. This knowledge accentuates the sum of the vehicle. It makes its humor even more affective. This evident wisdom makes its message all the clearer. Moreover, its dramatic intervals are increasingly stalwart and wrenching. In turn, we are amended what is a highlight in Griffin’s multi-faceted career. This is undoubtedly one of the best pictures of the year.

Heightened by a few sly modern touches, such as a quick midway gag involving our obviously enthralled characters passing along a bowl of popcorn to one another, the sum of the effort is a wholly fresh and unique experience. It is as much a testament to Shakespeare’s sustained relevance as it is a display of Griffin’s endearing charms. Moreover, the theatrical roots of the exertion are more than perceptible. It is seen in the larger than life, yet still delightfully intimate, representations from everyone involved. This is as notable in Anna Rizzo’s riveting portrayal of the Queen of the Fairies, Titania, as it is with Johnny Sederquist’s punk rock take on the English mythology based elf, Puck (who is also known by the moniker of Robin Goodfellow). The more straight-forward presentations, such as Steven O’ Broin’s terrific and mature depiction of Theseus, balance out pleasantly the plethora of more light-hearted entities which dominate the affair.

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There is a wide range of categorical beats and themes, with the reversal of gender roles, transformation, the supernatural and the pursuit and nature of amour being at the forefront, that must be successfully orchestrated. Yet, the entire cast pulls it all off as if it as natural as breathing. Jamie Dufault as Demetrius, Laura Pepper as Robin Starveling, Aaron Andrade as the comical Snout and Elizabeth Loranth as Helena are especially good. The same can be said for Alexander Platt as Oberon, Josh Fontaine as the man turned donkey, Nick Bottom, Lee Rush as Hippolyta, Lydea Irwin as Mustardseed, Bruce Church as Egeus, Christin Goff as Rita Quince and Ashley Harmon as Hermia. She is the conflicted admirer of both Lysander (in an entrancing turn from Charlie Ferguson) and Demetrius. These stretches mechanize terrifically due, in part, to the fact that the chemistry between Harmon and Ferguson is palpable. This makes the numerous sequences revolving around their relationship even more hypnotic, wrenching and stunning.

What is just as incredible is that the 105-minute feature, despite its $25,000 price tag, remarkably comes off as if its budget is as gargantuan as its upbeat, often seductive, spirit. This manifests immediately in an impressively showcased, 65 second opening credits arrangement. With its cheery palette and blue lettering, it quickly captures the mystical disposition at the center of the narrative. Everything in this section seems bathed in moonlight. This integral ingredient is a mood-setting fixture in the initial literature itself. The plentiful shots of this aforesaid nighttime glimmer hovering above the forest in the presentation are equally intoxicating throughout. This commencing scene also comes across as strikingly retro. Such a visage could easily fit within the confines of a 1980’s style photographic opus. Given Griffin’s penchant for mirroring the look and feel of silver screen marvels from past decades, this similarity could be intentional.

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Advancing the overall appeal is the extraordinary effects from Torey Haas and John Dusek. They backup these prior addressed, bygone qualities spectacularly. Simultaneously, Griffin’s editing is top notch. Chad Kaplan’s Cupid animation is sensational. Margaret Wolf provides stellar, era appropriate costume design. Furthermore, the makeup from Jaquelyn Fabian, Scott C. Miller and Sissy O’ Hara is phenomenal. The Shakespeare writ “Lullaby”, wonderfully composed by Mark Cutler and captivatingly performed by Rizzo, Irwin and Harmon, is elegantly designed and delivered. Likewise, both the gentle and emotive Cutler authored, put together and sung “In My Dreams” as well as Daniel Hildreth’s ambient music augments perpetual lavishness to the project.

Griffin, whose script for this crowd-funded undertaking is both robust and brilliant, handles the various interconnected plotlines of this complex affair splendidly. The first of these are Hermia’s refusal to marry Demetrius. Such transpires due to her strong affinity for Lysander. Additionally, there is the creation of the play Nick Bottom, Snug (in a bravura role from Christian Masters), Tom Snout, Robin Starverling and Francis Flute (in a terrific enactment by Ryan Hanley) plan to act in for the Duke and Queen’s wedding. Many of the early guffaws triumphantly derive from this account. King of the Fairies, Oberon, and his  summoning of Puck to concoct a love potion, which gradually goes out of control, is spectacularly issued. Some of the most visually and sentimentally dazzling bits in the fabrication stem from these segments. Hermia and Lysander’s escape into the same area where Titania resides becomes a focal point. This is for the assembly of all these previously stated anecdotes into one setting. It is all punctuated by a final monologue by Puck that is assuredly smirk-inducing. Such also offers a grand climactic point. This instant reiterates the enchanted atmosphere of the undertaking masterfully.

In a filmography that ranges from fun, 1950’s modeled alien invasion illustrations (2010’s nostalgia fueled Atomic Brain Invasion), John Waters Reminiscent comedies (2014’s ingenious Accidental Incest) and 1970’s grindhouse brand B-movies (2011’s The Disco Exorcist), Griffin’s vision of A Midsummer Night’s Dream fits comfortably in the inarguably varied body of his career. His stamp is on every achingly alluring frame of his latest endeavor. There is also a delicate gentleness to the proceedings, an attention to detail and an admiration and pride for the centuries old text which pulsates proudly through the duration. Such helps bring the composition to life in a way unseen in preceding interpretations of the fiction. This is as much a thanks to his cast of frequent collaborators, all of whom continue to prove their flexibility and variability with the diversity of roles Griffin has handed them throughout the years, as it is solid proof of Griffin’s own multi-faceted talents. With his latest contribution, Griffin soars and astounds. All the while, he also makes us laugh, contemplate and reflect. Though the words and events may be that of Shakespeare, the voice we hear radiating through the entirety is distinctly that of Griffin. What Griffin provides here, besides another example of his absolute command of form, is a masterclass in how to take an oft told tale and make it solely your own.