When the first week of December rolls around and there is a distinct chill in the air, I instinctively know where I need to be; at the Galvin Playhouse on the ASU campus. The year is not complete until I attend the ASU Capstone Films presented by the ASU Fall Film and Media Program. I haven’t missed a screening since the first I attended in 2011. I was instantly astounded by the quality of the filmmaking I was seeing, and mystified by the relative obscurity of the ASU film program. The ASU FMP had cranked out a steady stream of excellent student films since my first time attending in 2011. By the time the Fall 2012 capstones rolled around, there were major changes going on at the ASU FMP. The upheaval took its toll on the program and the filmmaking suffered. The Spring capstones of 2014 fared no better, in a marathon screening that ran for over four hours. All of the student films for the semester were screened, ready or not. The films were all over the place, grasping at stories and direction, trying out a little bit of everything without the refined sang-froid and cohesion of previous capstone films. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this year the ASU Fall 2014 capstones demonstrated the most dramatic turnaround in a film program that I have ever seen. The evening was intimate and well paced, with five excellent films screened, ending early and allowing me to attend the Filmstock Film Festival going on down the street. The ASU capstone films are back bay-bee! Bigger, stronger and better than ever. Here are the films I saw in the order they were screened.
Lotus – Hao (Jenny) Xu
A melancholy woman in white arrives at a quaint Hong Kong coffee house and gets a job as a barista. As she narrates, she reveals she is actually a ghost, doomed to return to the same moment in time to help the coffee house manager learn to fall in love, for all eternity. A high spirited girl in pigtails and riding a stylish bike arrives, signaling the winsome wraith’s cue to depart her temporary earthly plane. In a deeply powerful, simple and sad scene, we discover why he will never get it right, and why she is doomed to forever return to earth to relive that moment. Shot entirely in Hong Kong and subtitled in English, ‘Lotus’ presents characters from ancient lore in a modern setting, creating a jarring and captivating contrast. While this tome was a little more melodramatic for my taste, it was told in a stunning, liquid smooth and lyrical cinematic style, allowing the incredible photography to tell the story while the narrator calmly walks us through it. Outstanding sound and cinematography. Dreamy locations.
Final Take – Bright brilliant blossom.
Dreams Money Can Buy – Zach Jones
A behavioral scientist (Rina Hajra) launches a Go Fund Me campaign in order to finance her life’s work; a program that will allow subjects to learn while hypnotized, receiving instruction subliminally. Just when things appear most dire for the Doc, funding is completely covered by a slimeball business man (Jordy Pena) who uses the technology for his own evil purposes: selling his vile tasting product “Früt 2 Drink” to the mesmerized masses. The Doc turns the tables on the tyrant and apparently regains control of her project. Perhaps she does, or, perhaps this has all been a very convincing dream manipulated by the conniving Doc to sell her own product from the get go. ‘Buy’ incorporates every effect in the green screen arsenal in a fun and fast paced spoof of everything from technology to mindless consumerism to high-definition reality television in general, presenting an evenly silly and serious social commentary.
Final Take – Dreamy drink.
Alison – Zach Figures
Young Alison (Taryn Elise Lafferty) is silent, sullen and soiled. Between high school classes she has sex with a boy in a bathroom stall, dressing hurriedly and then leaving him there without uttering a word. In dark, muted colors she silently walks the halls of her school, almost invisible, while her classmates hurl insults at her. Her father returns home from his tour of duty in Iraq, leaving Alison with a terse glimmer of optimism while she drowns in fear and apprehension. We are merely putty in the hands of director Zach Figures, as he brilliantly manipulates us into quickly formulating our impression of Alison. Dialog is minimal and the words spoken are mostly incidental; nothing is uttered for the purpose of plot construction or back-story. ‘Alison’ relies solely on the outstanding performances of the cast and the stunning photography provided by Michael Thompson and the insanely talented Tyler Sugg (whose work I recognized instantly). Serious props to Taryn Elise Lafferty for her convincingly captivating, nearly wordless performance as Alison, and to Allie Carloni as Alison’s accusatory and naïve younger sister. This film is a lock, stock and two blazing barrels by the outstanding performance from AZ indie newcomer Jason Isaak as Alison’s lecherous father. If you’re expecting a typical student film conclusion, with some sort of intervention or rescue, you can forget it. This punishingly somber film paints a perfect and tragic portrait, deftly finishing in a superbly sad, neorealist masterpiece.
Final Take – “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
Wes and Nick Move A Couch – Clayton Mcdougal
Wimpy Wes (Danny Peterson) has it bad for winsome Wiccan Hazel (Barbara Spencer) and would really like to express his interest in some way other than gulping down the weird potions Hazel concocts. Opportunity comes ‘a knockin when she needs help moving her couch to her new place. Wes enlists the help of his oafish buddy Nick (Nicholas Lehn) and they strap the antique sofa to the roof of Nick’s antique AMC Pacer. When the car breaks down, they improvise with skateboards and sheer will power. Pushing the couch through Tempe they encounter fire, water and troublemaking skate rats before embarking on peyote fueled freak outs. ‘Couch’ is a very funny buddy comedy that skateboards around raunch and crude humor, but never goes for any easy gross-out laughs. Hilarious and entertaining from start to finish. Whimsical photography by Stephanie Dobash. Terrific editing and interesting sound.
Final Take – Sofa, so good.
Through The Meadows – Joey Bassani
Sibling rivalry between brothers Nicky and Jimmy (played by real-life brothers Eddie and Austin Ulano) is pushed to the limit when little Nicky falls hopelessly in love with classmate Ashley (Maura Eckard). She’s not just any girl in math class, but the girlfriend of Bobby (Brandon Pero), the school bully. Nicky drifts off to dreamland, fantasizing about the moment he professes his love to Ashley in a bucolic springtime setting, as his brother serenades the two in a flower covered field while playing a baby grand piano. The return to reality is painful, especially for Jimmy when he rescues Nicky from a violent confrontation with Bobby. The battling brother’s final showdown goes down at the school music recital, when Nicky has to decide whether to support his brother, or sneak away to be with his sweetheart. There is an old film adage that admonishes ‘never work with kids’ on your student film. Supposedly, it is the recipe for disaster but I have yet to see it, and ‘Meadows’ is no exception. Exquisitely shot by Stephanie Dobash, ‘Meadows’ calmly and humorously entertains and amuses. Excellent performances by an outstanding cast of up and coming Arizona actors.
Final Take – The forest for the trees.