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See also: SHADOWS FILM FESTIVAL | Last update 15.Sep.19

Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5  
dir Matt Kane
scr Matt Kane, Marc Underhill
prd John Henry Hinkel, Matt Kane, Robert Sharman, Marc Underhill
with Richard Kind, Susan Blackwell, Christen Harper, Simone Policano, Larisa Oleynik, Katie Curri, Carrie Gibson, James C Victor, Steven Robertson, Christine Donlon, Matt Hetherington, Chris Devlin
release US 20.Sep.19
19/US 1h21

kind, blackwell and policano
There's a gently realistic tone to this offbeat drama, which adds an engaging kick to its Black Mirror-style premise. Filmmaker Matt Kane keeps the film remarkably understated, even as it grapples with both intense psychological issues and the impact of technology on everyday life. This is a movie that's designed specifically to generate thought and emotion in the viewer, and it seriously gets under the skin.
Pushed into early retirement, architect Felix (Kind) is given "augmented reality assistant" eyeglasses as a leaving present, projecting a virtual companion called Auggie (Harper) into his environment. His wife Anne (Blackwell) thinks having extra free time will be good for them, especially as their daughter Grace (Policano) is now considering moving in with her boyfriend (Robertson). But when Anne gets a promotion at work, Felix begins feeling rather lonely, and the always-available Auggie is adapting ideally to meet his needs. The problem, of course, is that he's beginning to prefer her to his real life.
Intriguingly, Auggie is only seen through Felix's eyes, so other camera angles catch him interacting with thin air. This lends the film a blackly comical slant, even though everything is played in with a very straight face. The point is that Auggie's appearance is based on the user's subconscious need, so it's an attractive woman for Felix, while for Anne it appears as her boss Jack (Victor). This makes her high-handed moralistic response more than a little untidy. And it continually adds edges to the story that are complex and provocative.

Performances are subtle, even somewhat hushed, which adds an otherworldly sensibility to the entire film. Kind is an actor who beautifully reflects his inner thoughts on his face, so his superbly nuanced turn is compelling and engaging, even when Felix is doing something he knows is wrong. Blackwell has a more difficult role balancing Anne's struggles with work and home against her realisation of what Auggie means to both her and to Felix.

Yes, there's a lot going on in this film. Retired, Felix feels rudderless, like he has no purpose in life. So this virtual companion focusses his thoughts as well as his need for interaction on various levels. In the final act, the film begins to feel a little mopey, echoing Felix's own journey. But by remaining internalised and thoughtful, it touches on a number of resonant issues, sparking the imagination in ways that surprisingly don't have much to do with the technology.

cert 12 themes, language 12.Sep.19

Empathy, Inc.
Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5  
Empathy, Inc.
dir Yedidya Gorsetman
scr Mark Leidner
prd Yedidya Gorsetman, Josh Itzkowitz, Mark Leidner
with Zack Robidas, Kathy Searle, Jay Klaitz, Eric Berryman, AJ Cedeno, Charmaine Reedy, Fenton Lawless, Anthony Mangano, Karen Lynn Gorney, Tom Kemnitz Jr, Brandon Engman, Selima Smith-Dell
release US 13.Sep.19
18/US 1h37

robidas and searle
Beautifully shot in black and white, this sleek thriller has echoes of other notable low-budget debuts like Darren Aronofsky's Pi or Shane Carruth's Primer. The idea is simple, exploring how it would feel if there was a way to put your consciousness inside someone else. Director Yedidya Gorsetman and writer Mark Leidner have come up with a fantastic story that really gets under the skin.
When his company collapses due to a scandal, Joel (Robidas) loses everything, so he and his wife Jessica (Searle) head back East to stay with her parents (Reedy and Lawless). Then old friend Nic (Berryman) asks if he'd like to work for Empathy, a virtual reality start-up that boasts new technology created by the woolly braniac Lester (Klaitz). As Joel looks for investors, he tries out the system and finds it exhilarating. But things quickly start to feel sketchy about the company, and there may be a sinister connection to a recent crime spree.
Gorsetman playfully keeps things enigmatic, rendering the VR as increasingly indistinguishable from real life. And the tech feels enjoyably retro: Empathy's office is a messy warehouse worlds apart from Joel's former futuristic digs in Silicon Valley. The film's pleasures are more fundamental, as this extreme experience allows users to experience taste and touch, among other things. No wonder it's addictive, and also easy to misuse. And as Joel investigates, the tension becomes vivid.

Performances are grounded in reality while also being ever-so-slightly arch in a way that heightens the film's sense of mystery. Robidas has an enjoyably hapless quality that makes him deeply likeable. Joel's odyssey takes a couple of rather too-pointed turns along the way, but Robidas keeps him centred, with a sense of humour and a gritty survival instinct. Those around him are rather a lot simpler, with even the shaded characters resolving as either good or pure evil. But most of the actors get to have some fun along the way.

As it continues, the twisty, clever story seems to write itself into a corner, but there are plenty of surprises in store. So even if some of the plot points seem to be rather simplistic, and even if Gorsetman has a tendency to cut away from key moments, the film grapples with ideas of identity, greed and morality in ways that keep our heads merrily spinning from the opening scene right to the increasingly outrageous finale, which blithely challenges the audience to keep up with it.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 3.Sep.19

Review by Rich Cline | 3/5  
dir Owen Long
scr Steven Weisman
prd Anthony Ambrosino, Younny Long, Owen Long
with Trevor Long, Andrea Chen, Garr Long, Chris McGarry, Kevin Breznahan, John Emigh, Carolyn Colton, Uatchet Jin Juch, Michelle Liu Coughlin, Adrian Blake Enscoe, Lowry Marshall, Abby Mills
release UK Aug.18 ff,
US 13.Sep.19
18/US 1h30


chen and long
Opening with a series of confusing images, it takes awhile for this film to earn the viewer's trust. Director Owen Long clearly enjoys imagery that suggests underlying freakiness, stirring psychological messiness with the more overt monster horror beats and a vaguely sexist eye. All of which allows the film to be read as an exploration of guilt or mental illness. Or just as another bug-out horror.
After a night of passion goes awry, Marcus (Trevor Long) flees to his family's sprawling, deserted estate on the New England coast. His idyllic solitude is interrupted by a visit from his brother Michael (McGarry), who is trying to save his marriage to Grace (Coughlin). As they go away for some alone time, Marcus babysits their kids, teen Lily (Chen) and younger Spencer (Garr Long). But Lily's increasingly seductive behaviour makes Marcus uneasy. The question is whether the nastiness is all in his mind or actually in the house.
There are continually creepy visual touches right from the start, including Marcus' old-time radio, a dead mouse in a trap and wriggling tentacles emerging from various nooks and crannies. Or maybe those are just unruly wires from the house's ageing electric system. From here things get increasingly icky, with gigantic spider legs and other nastiness that is quite possibly coming from Marcus' depraved subconscious. All of this is sharply shot, with a skilful mix of digital and practical effects.

Long gives a remarkably compelling performance as a man who is unnerved by his own shadow, and rightly so. It's a terrific lead character for a gifted character actor who often shines in smaller roles (see Ozark). His scenes with Chen churn with submerged lustiness, sharply underplayed by both actors. The way Lily shakes Marcus' fragile state of mind is cleverly played by Chen as a smart temptress. Both actors also bring earthy energy to their roles, suggesting all kinds of unusual textures in their relationship.

The script and direction avoid things that might provide thematic resonance (such as Marcus' other vices or the family's independent wealth). Instead, the focus is on sinister monsters lurking everywhere. Of course, the malevolent creatures are designed to be read as metaphors for guilt, privilege and sexual transgression. As the story progresses, things get increasingly unnerving. But the film also starts to feel rather indulgent, pushing the symbolism a little too far while neglecting to grapple with issues or build some proper terror.

cert 15 themes, language, violence, sexuality 4.Sep.19

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