Monday, June 21, 2021

Hungry Ghosts


Set on some of the meanest, most drug-infested streets of Philadelphia, this short film zeros in on a family that has been ripped apart by the opioid crisis. Actor/writer/producer Mark Borkowski, a New York City-based filmmaker with ties to eastern Pennsylvania, chose this setting for its crumbling and shadowy aesthetics, and indeed, the mood is haunting. The weird visions of a psychic lady add to an atmosphere of dark, otherworldly forces preying on lead character Frank Duffy and his wife, who has gone missing due to her drug addiction. On top of it all, their son has been left to his own devices due to their actions. 

Imagination and a touch of surreal would be one way to describe this project, and it might be hard to accept such a strange family drama if the subject matter were not so relevant to the times. You can watch the trailer here: Hungry Ghosts

Life & Life


There is no way to sugarcoat the history behind musician Reggie Austin's conviction and tough prison sentence. He had committed second degree murder while intoxicated on heroin, and by his own admission he deserved to do serious time. When the door slammed shut behind him at San Quentin prison, his life could have been by and large over, but he had more to give and more to live. As the sands of time passed through the hourglass, he became an older and wiser man—a senior citizen. That is where this thought-provoking documentary by writer/director/producer NC Heikin picks up his story. 

Austin himself does not believe in light sentencing for violent crime. In fact, he argues for a robust criminal justice system that keeps public streets safe, with parole decisions tied to personal change, accountability and redemption. Many viewers watching this documentary will have unsettled, mixed feelings about offering parole to someone who took another person's life—the damage to the victim is irreversible—but the criminal justice professionals interviewed in this film echo Austin's sentiments by offering arguments in favor of mercy. 

Heikin acknowledges the need for a criminal justice system by interviewing people within it, and with due respect. At the same time, she highlights the humanity of her subject Reggie Austin, and the net good that can arise when prison is employed as a path to a better society. This film is clear in its position on a need for reform, portraying incarceration as it often can be: a hell on Earth of society's own making...a harsh, vengeful and inhumane structure that fails to consider the goodness in people who have done bad, even horrible things. 

This is heavy material, but the film handles it with care. The debate about sentencing and prison reform won't end with an award-winning documentary, but the issue of aging in prison has gained currency as harsh sentencing in the late 20th century grays the U.S. prison population. No question, changes are underway. This film offers the perspective of a former prisoner, and citizens who are striving for a nuanced opinion could benefit from listening to someone who has firsthand experience with the very people who might be offered clemency. 

You can watch the trailer here: Life & Life

Friday, June 11, 2021

The Heart of Camden - The Story of Father Michael Doyle


Dubbed Camden's Mighty Saint by a grateful, almost reverent community, Monsignor Michael Doyle is an Irish immigrant who came to America with a passionate desire to serve God and his community. And so he did, on a grand scale. While most decent people are charitable on some level, Doyle decided to settle in a place that evidenced sheer sacrifice—blighted Camden, New Jersey. It was a place few people cared or even thought about, so he amazed many people when he demonstrated that he not only cared, but he would also devote his entire life and career to improving the lot of people in this highly troubled city. 

A true reformer and leader, Doyle launched local institutions that would leverage Catholic charity outside the structure of the faith. Heart of Camden, a non-profit serving the poor, is one example. Others include the South Camden Theater Company, because Doyle firmly believed in the restorative power of art, Nick Virgilio Writers House and Camden Fireworks

Now the tireless man has gone viral, essentially, so his model for social improvement is getting widespread press and examination. Talk about leveraging the Catholic Church. The Heart of Camden - The Story of Father Michael Doyle has been accepted by ten festivals as of this preview and The Philadelphia Inquirer has declared it "a beautiful and magnificent film." Doyle can thank helmer Dr. Douglas Clayton for producing a documentary worthy of a lofty subject; so can the monsignor's growing, ever-exultant flock. 

You can watch the trailer here: The Heart of Camden

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Life on Pause


In this cheeky short by Morristown, New Jersey-based filmmaker Steven Lifshey, a 1980's-era wedding videographer cannot shake a college crush despite getting his career off to a rocking start. Mired in bitter, unrequited love, this rather disturbed guy only has one, sure way to rectify her callous brushoffs and putdowns and gain back his battered self-esteem. 

Best of all, good karma makes her, now a bridezilla and diva par excellence, the agent of her own recompense. Of course, feeling invincible, she hires the same bachelor she rejected over and over again to be her wedding photographer—to record the best day of her life for all eternity, and to emblazon the romantic rival with whom she is knotting herself in every, eternal frame. 

What could possibly go wrong? You can watch the trailer here: Life on Pause

Take a Little Time


Filmmaker Jake Jurich wrote and directed this smart short film as an undergraduate student at Penn State, demonstrating that passion for making a quality film exists far outside the graduate film programs of large cities. This project began with an intelligent script, and Jurich continued to refine his work all the way through the thoughtfully-produced trailer.

In the story, Smitty has always had a practical, and one could say blind, attitude towards making money. His entry-level dishwashing job only adds to his impulse for more, even as a sober assessment of his stuck situation begs for seeking value, joy and self-worth outside material things. But when the misguided young man stumbles upon an upmarket silverware set, he finds himself questioning his beliefs, and that is where the attainment of inner wealth becomes possible. 

You can watch the trailer here: Take a Little Time

For Fear of Kofi


After the agonizing death of George Floyd rocked the United States, much was said and written about the case and its aftermath. The incident reached this level of acrimony not only because the video that spawned the backlash was hideous to watch, but also because the issue of police brutality against black men stands on the ground of a long, deeply troubled history. 

For Fear of Kofi examines another previous, less publicized case of police employing violence against a black man under controversial circumstances. The incident took place in 2010 at a University of Florida graduate housing complex, and like the Floyd case, it rocked the media when a videotape emerged that contradicted the account given by police officers at the scene. 

This documentary takes a hard look at the use of deadly force. At the same time, filmmaker Marina Petrovskaia does not engage in hyperbole. She is well aware of the toxicity and complexity of her material and she is not seeking to fan the flames of public opinion. She is after the truth and that, in any era, can be hard to pull from a violent conflagration. 

So she interviews a variety of people, including the commanding police officer at the scene, and ultimately invites the audience to decide how the use of lethal force should be regulated and how excessive force could be avoided in the future. The world needs more people who seek constructive solutions to formidable problems, and Petrovskaia's probing, investigative and powerful film is a good step in that direction. 

You can watch the trailer here: For Fear of Kofi

The Joymaker


After winning Best Short Screenplay at the postponed 2020 New Hope Film Festival, screenwriter Tara Grover Smith defied long COVID-19 pandemic odds by finishing post-production for The Joymaker during lockdown. Now the project is an Official Selection of the New Hope Film Festival as a film. It would have been a fine progression in any year, but in this one it's even more impressive. 

In the story, Karen is a mother dealing with a son who's addicted to opioids. He's getting ready to return from jail, but added to her full plate is the sudden appearance of an old friend and former life coach, Joyce, who has spiraled downward into terminal illness and homelessness. What in the world can Karen do to help them while also holding her own spirit afloat? The Joymaker is Joyce's self-given nickname, and really, with such turmoil in her life, Karen hardly needs the touch of irony. 

What Karen needs is real joy, and it looks like she will need to make it herself or some people she cares about might go down with her. You can watch the trailer here: The Joymaker