Memento Mori / Small Town Fireworks (2012 / 2012) – By Cary Conley

Director Michael McCallum will soon be premiering his latest two short films. While both touch on the general theme of breakups, the films couldn’t be more different. The first film is a very short work that is a dramatic piece while the second, slightly longer film is a comedy. Together, the films will premiere at Kelly’s Downtown Pub on June 24th in Lansing, Michigan. If you are in the area, this is a don’t-miss opportunity that you will be sure to enjoy. Below are the reviews for each film.

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Memento Mori (2012) – By Cary Conley

Memento Mori: an object that usually reminds one of death or of one’s own mortality. But in this eight-minute short film by the good folks at Rebel Pictures, UnSAFE Film Office, and Vernacular Films, it isn’t an object that is dying; rather, it is a relationship. The viewer is treated to the death throes of a young couple’s romance as Todd walks into his apartment only to find his new ex, Kerri, rummaging through the detritus of their relationship. The film itself can be viewed as merely a brief snippet in the lives of this couple, and it’s unfortunately the final act.

As Todd walks in, Kerri is packing a box of odds and ends that she left in the apartment. The couple trade a handful of half-hearted jabs at each other, but this relationship is so done already that these two don’t even have the energy to argue anymore. Todd goes to the bedroom to retrieve some of Kerri’s belongings, picking up a previously overturned picture frame and setting it upright in a conspicuous position, as if he wants the picture to be seen. As Kerri enters the bedroom, she sees the picture and approaches it, turning it face down on the nightstand. What is this mysterious picture? Does it represent a special time in the lives of these two? While we never learn the contents of the picture frame, perhaps it is the memento mori the film is referencing. It’s clear that Todd isn’t entirely ready for the relationship to end, but in true feminine fashion, Kerri is already over it.

Memento Mori marks a slight departure from the previous films from these two companies, well known for some fine dramatic products like Fairview St., The Girl with Blue Eyes and Slow Burn. It is by far the quietest film I’ve seen from director Michael McCallum. There are periods of silence in the film punctuated by brief lines of dialogue. Writer Justin Muschong has crafted a superb dramatic story that is filled with the atmosphere an ugly breakup usually creates, with dialogue that perfectly illustrates a couple dealing with the end to a relationship. Cinematographer A.E. Griffin, whose camera is usually in constant motion, stealthily prowling about a scene or tracking a character, is unmoving in this film. This lack of movement also helps to create a quietness about the film as both Todd and Kerri grieve for their dying relationship. It is a testament to Griffin and McCallum that they can collaborate in such a way as to know when a film doesn’t need fancy camera movements to support the story being told.

Cody Masalkoski co-stars as Todd along with Christine Therrian as Kerri. The two have an obvious chemistry on film even as they play soon-to-be exes. Both performances are understated yet powerful–perhaps most powerful when they are silent, which allows the tension in the small apartment to build. The few lines each have are spoken in hatefully measured tones, allowing the viewer to understand just how painful this breakup is for both of them. Perhaps due to the fact that Masalkoski has more lines in the film, his emotional range in particular is quite broad as he moves from anger to resignation to sadness before ending on a final angry note.

Though brief, McCallum’s latest film again provides the type of fine drama one has come to expect from him. It is painfully realistic and totally authentic, made all the more so because each and every viewer has probably gone through the same situation as the two characters in the film.

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Small Town Fireworks (2012) – By Cary Conley

The problem with a Michael McCallum movie is that once you see it, it becomes one of your favorites. Having just seen Memento Mori 24 hours earlier, I should have known better than to sit down and watch its companion piece, Small Town Fireworks.

Memento Mori was a (very) brief snapshot of the dying throes of a relationship gone bad. We never know how or why the relationship went south and we really don’t even get to know enough about the characters to understand who was primarily at fault. We literally see what in all likelihood is the last contact between these two individuals, which was the entire point of the film. But with Small Town Fireworks, viewers are privy to the entire final weekend of a relationship about to end. With Memento Mori, we see the fallout from a relationship that has ended; with Small Town Fireworks, viewers are treated to the mechanics of how a relationship might end. We see the dynamics between two people just trying to survive the relationship, witness the emotions the pair go through, and observe the actual breakup.

If Memento Mori was a straight dramatic piece that exposes the grief the end of a relationship can cause, Small Town Fireworks is much lighter in tone; in fact, Small Town Fireworks is much more humorous and comedic. Instead of the grief portrayed in Memento Mori, Fireworks depicts the relief two people experience once their relationship is over.

McCallum, who wrote and directed Small Town Fireworks, also stars as Allen who is a fan of vintage products. As his girlfriend Allie says, "Old cars, old music, old movies." Allen is obsessed with everything vintage, all of which has become a bit tiresome for Allie. The film centers around the final day of the relationship as the couple struggle to find any common ground as they window shop through town. But as they move from store to store, Allie keeps meeting old flames–one of the few vintage things Allen isn’t happy about. The final straw for the couple is when Allen insists on watching an old silent Chaplin classic, The Gold Rush. Allie puts her foot down, musters up the courage, and flatly refuses to sit through another "old" movie.

McCallum’s strength is in his writing, both story and dialogue. His insight into relationships, whether it be with his cinematic father in Fairview St. (who also happens to be his real-life father as well) or with Allie in Small Town Fireworks, is always deadly accurate and genuinely authentic. Rarely does a writer show such an unswerving knack at getting to the heart of a relationships as does McCallum. One of the reasons his films speak to viewers is because we have all experienced exactly what he writes about, and this film is no different. McCallum also fills the film with a great deal of irony. While Allie claims to disregard and dismiss things that are old, she certainly has no problem greeting her old boyfriends. And while Allen loves all things vintage, he is clearly irked, and maybe a bit threatened by all the "old" boyfriends that have coincidentally shown back up in Allie’s life. Even the opening of the film is a bit ironic as the music cue sounds much like the opening of a silent film, with vintage music that even sounds a bit scratchy, as if played on a vintage gramaphone. The final bit of irony is saved for the last scene, but I don’t want to give anything away. Suffice to say, Allen turns the table on Allie who, even though they are broken up, still can’t resist a couple of last-ditch digs.

While McCallum is a superb writer and director, he is also an excellent actor as well. His facial expressions and voice tones are pitch perfect, and his range of emotion is broad. One can’t help but laugh when the couple meet yet another of Allie’s old flames in a–you guessed it, a vintage record store–who promptly breaks out into song about the tryst the two had in Barcelona. As McCallum as Allen removes his glasses and rubs his temple, we get a glimpse of how tiresome this has become for him. In another scene, as he describes his hellish day with his whiny girlfriend and a succession of her old boyfriends, McCallum gazes directly into the camera and shares a knowing look with the audience, as if to say, "Do you see what I have to put up with? Why do I even bother?" It’s a fantastic moment in the film.

For her part, Kayla DeWitt as Allie is also superb as Allen’s tiresome–and tired–girlfriend. The audience is first introduced to Allie as she sits next to Allen at a bar and lights into him for his "old" shirt. Then she orders a drink for herself and another one for him. She makes his a diet, looking at him and saying, "You need to cut back." At this point we know exactly how this relationship is going to turn out. DeWitt plays the sassy girlfriend wonderfully, almost making her a villain as she alternately dismisses Allen and snipes at him for every perceived wrong she notices. We are actually relieved when, with a final flurry of insults she leaves him, single and standing in front of the movie theater ticket office. DeWitt’s character for Small Town Fireworks in the polar opposite of the character she played in McCallum’s recent Slow Burn, which highlights her significant acting range. In Slow Burn she co-stars as a quiet, sensitive young lady but is acidic as Allie in Small Town Fireworks.

McCallum has a knack for identifying talent, and even the characters that populate the film in small scenes are terrific, including Jeff Kelley as one of the most authentic bartenders I’ve ever seen on film and Paul (Jeffry Wilson) as Allen’s easygoing but not-so-sympathetic friend who has a crazy theory about women. Music is also a typical highlight in McCallum’s films, and while neither Memento Mori nor Small Town Fireworks has a full musical score, the song Barcelona (I Still Love You) by Sam Corbin–who also makes his acting debut in the film–is a wonderfully melodic acoustic song that isn’t just fun but provides a bit of perverse comedy to the proceedings.

A.E. Griffin’s cinematography is also his usual superior quality and is especially highlighted in the montage of ex-boyfriends Allie and Allen meet during one long day of window-shopping. The skillful editing by both McCallum and frequent collaborator Jonathan Worful completes this terrific scene. The sequence is both fun as well as funny and is a definite highlight in the film.

Small Town Fireworks, a Rebel Pictures/UnSAFE Film Office/Vernacular Films/232 Pictures co-production, acts as a terrifically light bookend to the downbeat tone of Memento Mori and highlights these filmmakers’ ability to create films in different genres that rely on the same theme. It is a talent not all filmmakers possess.