Reviews of Shorts Programs at the Maryland Film Festival
Unbylined blurbs indicate a movie not available for screening before press time. An asterisk by the title indicates a must-see favorite recommended by the CP Film Fest Frenzy review crew.
This collection of 10 short animations contains three selections that are simple in theme, but complex in imagery (technical difficulties prevented a full review of all titles in the program). Sol Friedman's "Junko's Shamisen," a story about a young Japanese girl whose grandfather is brutally murdered by an evil samurai, uses human actors interacting in an abstract and haunting manga-inspired environment to get at the base human emotions behind brutality, violence, and revenge. In Luke Randall's "Reach," a tiny toy robot comes to life and is inspired by the world; unfortunately, his world is only as big as his power cable is long. It's an exactingly animated piece, whimsical but visually realistic.
Of the three shorts, Ria Ama's "Mu-emptiness" is the most abstract--its animations are inspired by traditional Japanese screen paintings, and its story is based on the Zen concept of "mu" or "nothingness." An image of a phoenix, painted by a monk, escapes the confines of her painting to experience the world as a human woman. Despite the monk's guidance, she finds herself lost in a sort of opium-fueled daze, experiencing longing, desire, fear, and confusion. (ES)
If avant-garde film once explored the frontiers of the cinema, today experimental films, including those represented in this program, are just as likely to look backward as forward, recovering abandoned film styles and reviving them for new generations. The program opens with Ron Resendes' "Duet," which casts two red amoeba-like blobs in a performance on a yellow-green field. The ghost town of Calico, Calif., takes on a toy-town like quality in Gavin Heffernan's "Ghost Train." "Golden Hour," likely named for the early morning and late evening hours when the sun makes every photographed object shimmer, pushes the boundary between representation and abstraction. "Locking Gazes" is a Brakhage-like effort that filmmaker Michael Robinson describes as "the faded memory fragment of someone never born."
Eric Dyer's "Media Archeology 2110" uses animation and experimental film techniques to display the materiality of the film image. Following in the same spirit, Antonio Martinez's "Near the Egress" takes 35mm stills from old circus films and converts them into tintypes, giving the film a pre-cinematic air. "Needle Work" offers a close-up view of life as a sewing needle. Joe Reinsel's "Threshold Circuit" is a pulsing, fretful experiment in sound and image.
In "A Vitrine (The Vitrine)," mannequins of all types and sizes are explored as our plastic equivalents, still, portable, and silent. "The Woman," by Isaac Diebboll, matches the plastic work of mannequins with a wilderness story of a woman and her dog at the ocean, shot like a Bergman film. Bobby Lewis' "The Writings of Denis Kaufman" uses the diaries of Kaufman (better known as the filmmaker Dziga Vertov) and images from his films to pay tribute to the visionary pioneer of avant-garde and documentary film. (MLJ)
WTF indeed--from a lo-fi minute-long film of hair blowing in the wind (Justin Kelly's "Vibe Flex") to a 21-minute featurette about a man and a woman who think they are afflicted with a rare disease that makes them alternately ugly and beautiful (Ryan Parker's "Woke Up Ugly"), this collection covers a broad section of oddities.
In Landon Zakheim's "Delmer Builds a Machine," a young boy constructs a functional contraption that brings him more spoils than he bargained for. "The Feast of Stephen" by James Franco (yes, that James Franco) is an homage to the Anthony Hecht poem of the same name; in it, a young man is alternately titillated and brutalized by his peers.
Joseph Ernst's "Feeder" gives viewers a front-row, grosstastic view of eating, drinking, smoking, and making out, as filmed by a tiny camera inserted in the mouth of the film's subject. A daydream about a flirtatious and innocent romp turns into a brutal rape nightmare/fantasy in Michael Vincent and Molly Donovan's "The Grass Is Greener." Random tidbits of strange, including footage of a turtle swimming through what appears to be rice pudding and a girl playing the saxophone in front of a rotting deer carcass, make up the bulk of Jason LaRay Keener and Jeremiah Ledbetter's "Hallelujah! Gorilla Revival." In Chris Holmes' "Sapsucker," a tobacco-chewing good old boy tries to hunt an odd breed of woodpecker, but finds that it's he who is being hunted. And finally, Jim Jacob does his best middle-aged Napoleon Dynamite in his own "The World of Film Festivals," in which the narrator explains what to expect from your film festival experience. If it doesn't fit anywhere else, it probably landed in this batch of shorts. (ES)
Although all of these films could be said to be derivative of well-established tropes of the dark indie comedy, three of the four (all but "Bike Thief") are well positioned for expansion into features on the minor keys of American life. A hipster update of The Bicycle Thief, albeit without the social realism, Daniel Martinico's "Bike Thief" tracks one character over the course of a very terrible day. The absence of dialogue, the slight plot, and the frenzied camerawork combine to produce a short more committed to style than substance. With opening shots of a pool at a country estate, it's easy to assume J.J. Adler's "New Media" is a grown-up version of The Graduate. But as you learn more about its central character, an entrepreneur dentist struggling to get his anti-snoring device to market, you realize the filmmaker is more interested in documenting the decline of a middle-aged failure than offering the audience any reason to hope.
Jamie Travis' "The Armoire" crosses the indie whimsy of Wes Anderson with the suburban weird of Todd Solondz in a short about a boy who struggles to cope with the disappearance of his best friend. The shortest and best executed of the bunch is Liliana Greenfield-Sanders' "Adelaide, " a quirky cute story about a young woman who's allergic to peanut butter . . . and loves it--or, at least, the ability to create a medical emergency at will. (MLJ)
Meghan O'Hara's "Aftershock," the first film in this shorts program, is disappointingly shallow. Three people who've been hit by lightning discuss memory loss, pain, and other repercussions, but the lightning strikes themselves are barely mentioned. For instance, one never discovers how the victims feel about the random nature of their accidents--even though one man was hit twice.
Rory Kennedy's "The Fence," on the other hand, is immediately compelling. It is a surprisingly funny examination of the construction of the border fence between the United States and Mexico. Begun in 2006, the approximately 700-mile fence abruptly starts and stops, creates no man's lands, and wreaks environmental havoc, all at a cost of billions of dollars. The viewer meets Mexicans who routinely tunnel under it and climb over it, and American activists--Minutemen--who patrol the desert to stop them. Though hardly evenhanded on the subject of immigration, the film shows, as one rancher puts it, that the fence is thus far "a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound."
"Tongzhi in Love," directed by Ruby Yang, illuminates the little-known subculture of gay men in China. In a culture that emphasizes filial duty and the maintenance of the family line, most say they plan to live double lives. They will marry women--perhaps lesbians--and hide their secret from their parents, who they do not want to hurt. The film's impressionistic style creates a moving backdrop, with interviews melting into line drawings by one of the men, "Frog" Cui. (AA)
If there is a sub-theme to this shorts program, it's ambient sound. Most of the films play with using naturally occurring sounds rather than adding music to create mood. The most successful is "Herbert White," written and directed by actor James Franco. It's an intensely dark piece that uses the sounds of everyday life to create a surprisingly unsettling score which intensifies the short's disturbing thrall. In Patrick Maxwell's "Mrs. Wright," ambient noise is used to create a sense of isolation and anticipation as a married woman struggles with her need to feel desired. A real estate agent struggles with depression in Kazik Radwanski "Out in That Deep Blue Sea" as his business and home life seem to dissolve. While the film is plodding, Radwanski uses novel camera angles to keep the audience's interest.
In the black and white "Non-Love-Song," directed by Erik Gernand, two teenage guys find it hard to say good-bye before heading to college. Gernand beautifully captures an attempt to talk about feelings in situation where nothing more intimate than back slaps is expected. Iranian short-short (less than 4 minutes) "Supposed Lines" is also in black and white, but instead of using the look to suggest nostalgia, director Karim Azimi plays with light and darkness in this surreal film. "On the Road to Tel-Aviv" by Israeli director Khen Shalem and "Yes, Yesterday," directed by Van Vu, use music more than the other films. The beautifully shot "Yes, Yesterday" manages to make its central romance feel ponderously drawn out and oddly truncated. "On the Road to Tel-Aviv" is based on a true story and takes a heart-wrenching look at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict from the inside. (AD)
After watching this 82-minute shorts program, it seems that the titular funny is not of the ha-ha variety. While there are amusing moments, the characters in these shorts are funny/weird. Jonathan Lisecki's "Gayby" works within the awkward-is-the-new-funny framework of the post-The Office world as a woman and her gay friend try to have a baby the old-fashioned way. James Johnston's 4-minute "Receive Bacon" briefly combines ungainly sex with bathroom humor, though in an unexpected way. Joel Moffett's "Poi Dogs," about a Hawaiian football player and a spunky female tuba player, hits on familiar themes but still manages to charm thanks to its leads. Frequent supporting player Jean Louisa Kelly stars in "Public Access," a short set in the '80s with very little dialogue. The Cosby sweaters, shoulder pads, and a bit part by a Bob Ross-alike provide most of the entertainment value in this plodding film.
The best film of the bunch was Alex LeMay's "Good People," which follows adorable Zooey Deschanel-like nymph Grace Rex as she tries to find the man behind a suicide note. Bonus points for a legitimately surprising ending. The worst was Matthew Atkinson's "Planet Sun," which revolves around three vapid, tacky, and bitchy employees at a tanning salon. In the days of reality TV, a fictional parody of these women seems unnecessary. The music video thrust in at the end for a pop/dance song called "Take It (In the Backdoor)" almost redeems it, but not quite. (AD)
These six films ranging from 5 to 22 minutes share little in theme, style, or story, though two of the better ones are set in space. Chris Bower's "Solatrium" features pretty, dead-eyed Bria as the captain of a space tanker enduring the ennui of space life. Her solace is the meds she applies in patch form. Beautifully shot and disorientingly paced, "Solatrium" illustrates once again the old sci-fi adage: hallucinogens + prescription drug trial = space madness! Speaking of which, Brian Lonano and Jeff Jenkins' "Attackazoids, Deploy!!" is a newsreel for the near future and the start of something deservedly much bigger. Think Mars Attacks!, but with sincerity and an extra exclamation point.
Another well-done maybe-preview of things to come is the Scigliano Brothers' "The Midnight Bounty," in which tough-looking old dudes bring lots of guns to ambush a bounty hunter arriving on a small boat. The bounty hunter flops the fugitive on the deck like a trophy bass, but the old dudes try to pay him with loose change. Firearms-centric ass-kickin' ensues. A big gun pops up rather more incongruously in Clay Liford's "My Mom Smokes Weed," which reverses the usual roles to cringing effect. Totally true-to-life moment: At the drug house, a shirtless dude frantically does curls with heavy weights while the other drug dealers sprawl on the couch watching Alvin and the Chipmunks. Total cautionary tale, man. Which is also what Alex Horwitz's "Alice Jacobs is Dead" turns out to be, rather predictably. From the opening scene of the fallen San Francisco Bay Bridge, you totally feel that zombies are afoot (and at head). Dr. Ben Jacobs (John Lazar) apparently has saved the world with his anti-zombie drug, but the remedy is imperfect, and he is still working on a true cure. Meanwhile his wife (Adrienne Barbeau!) waits at home, craving raw meat. Andrew van Baal's "The Good Life" is another kind of zombie story. An asshole narrates his perfect, modern, Danish style life with his perfect model girlfriend, detailing tiresomely each well-purchased romantic detail, until the inevitable moment of imperfection intrudes, which you saw coming right about at minute 3. (EE)
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