Coming Attractions: Shorts
In this animated short, four notorious despots--Ayatollah Khomeini, Fidel Castro, Moammar Gadhafi, and, yes . . . Saddam Hussein--regularly gather to unwind, and wreak bloody havoc anew, at an American bowling alley. Robert Smigel's "Ex-Presidents" meets "Itchy and Scratchy." (RG)Only a Turtle
Directed by Renee Fischer
May 2, 6 p.m. (before One Small Step)
Renee Fischer's "Only a Turtle" presents the fanciers and defenders (the director included) of the title reptile, apparently too often the victim of dogs, garage doors, and malignant neglect. (RG)
Directed by Jim O'Donnell
May 3, 1:30 p.m. (before Duckpin Country)
This short follows 5-foot-3, pear-shaped Ph.D. student Ray Harris on his quixotic (to say the least) quest to become an NBA player. Like most pursuers of impossible dreams, Harris appears part hero, part fool, and what the film itself thinks about Harris it never lets on. (RG)
Shorts Program: Black Maria
May 3, 6 p.m.
The venerable Black Maria Film Festival touring package of award-winning shorts returns to the MFF.
Shorts Program: "Comedy Shorts"
May 2, 1:30 p.m.; May 4, 2:30 p.m.
Most comedy shorts are cinematic knock-knock jokes only as good as their central gag, and the MFF's "Comedy Shorts" program offers plenty of these. In "The Hit," written and directed by Martha Elcan, a woman is forced to do one last job for her mysterious boss. It's a charming retread of La Femme Nikita-esque assassin films with a punch line far too good to give away here. "Mosquito Night," directed by and starring Blago Srebrenov, doesn't fare quite as well, taking a long time to get to its less entertaining twist ending. And Pes' "Roof Sex," in which two chairs have a sexual romp on a rooftop, may be only a minute long, but it feels like an eternity.
In "A Day Between," written and directed by Thomas Coker, Steven decides to commit suicide after his girlfriend leaves him. Unsure what method to use, he imagines a series of various grisly deaths. The twist ending doesn't come as much of a surprise, but his parents' imagined reactions to his deaths are genuinely amusing. "Nether Regions: To Err," a Twilight Zone spoof, is harder to take. The story of a doctor (played by co-writer/co-director John Walker) who is more interested in playing golf than healing patients seems like an old joke.
But this program's best shorts aren't the ones that go for easy yuks. In "Anna Is Being Stalked," written and directed by Gabriel Rhodes and Scott Prendergast, Anna is, well, being stalked, by an albino man who constantly mumbles "Happy birthday, Anna--I'm going to kill you," under his breath. Even though the stalker wields a knife, Prendergast, who plays the stalker, makes him a pathetic, even sympathetic, figure. And his relationship with Anna, in which she becomes not just his victim but his reluctant caretaker, is oddly touching. "Tom Hits His Head," written and directed by Tom Putnam, is the true story of the director's battle with panic attacks. Not exactly a laughing matter, but Putnam is so magnificently frank about the ridiculousness of his paranoid illusions that his tragedy does entertain.
"A Ninja Pays Half My Rent" offers more obvious comic fodder. Written and directed by Steven Tsuchida, this short follows a regular guy named Barry as he deals with the difficulties of living with a ninja. Tsuchida mixes sight gags, like a ninja coming out of the shower in traditional ninja garb with a towel wrapped around his waist, with deadpan humor.
But the real standout in the "Comedy Shorts" program is "Quest to Ref," winner of the 2002 HBO Short Film Award. Directed by Guy Guillet and written by and staring Ben Watkins, "Quest to Ref" is a fictional documentary about Roland Scott, a man who dreams of becoming an NBA referee. Watkins portrays Roland with absolute seriousness, whether he's discussing the importance of being one with your whistle, interviewing for a referee job at his local parks and rec department, or trying to ref pick-up games in the inner city against the players' wills. Roland is so deluded and yet so likable that he feels like a modern-day Don Quixote. And the film never shows its hand, remaining completely deadpan throughout, making its audience truly care whether or not Roland will ever realize his dream. (Anna Ditkoff)
Shorts Program: "Crossroads"
May 3, 5 p.m.; May 4, 12:30 p.m.
Distinguished by two exceptional narrative shorts and a striking non-narrative experimental piece, the "Crossroads" program provides a fine overview of state-of-the-art short-film-making. "Hannah Can't Swim," written and directed by Rochester Institute of Technology film student Randall Good, for one, is a 19-minute triumph. Hannah, perfectly played by Tamara Luzeckyj, is a timid commuter who develops an intense crush on a fellow commuter with whom she has never spoken. In voice-over, we hear the letters she composes to this mysterious man, while the film cuts between the commuter train and Hannah and the object of her desire on an idyllic island. This filmic reiteration of E.M. Forster's famous dictum, "Only connect," is photographed well, and when Hannah finally has a legitimate excuse to connect with the commuter, the scene is poignant and true.
The program's second success is "Home," a British-lensed short written and directed by Christina Ioakimidi. It boasts another strong performance by the lead actress--in this case, the elfin Holly Denoon, who plays Ellie, a young woman vaguely dissatisfied with her relationship, her job at the local café, and her future. Finely attuned to the details and rhythms of the inner and outer lives of her characters, Ioakimidi and her excellent cast have created a work that is at once enigmatic and deeply satisfying.
That said, the opening work, "Drawing on Horseback," is unfortunately a familiar if proficient demonstration of the freedom and fluidity of animation, as horses in various stages of completion dash across the screen accompanied by Celtic music. Better is "Por Mis Ojos" ("For My Eyes"), a non- narrative experimental work that is visually and aurally mysterious, even sinister. Built from scratched and painted-on home movies, interspersed with grainy color and black-and-white shots of a haunting landscape and a man in a hammock, this film is as creepy as the killer film in The Ring. "Crossroads" concludes with "The Waiting," a diverting black comedy by Danny Meltzer about dental anxiety with a clever title sequence that makes effective use of dental X-rays. (MK)
Short Program: "Documentary"
May 3, 11 a.m.
It's been said by much wiser minds than mine that all documentary is actually propaganda. But this year's program of documentary shorts seems to argue that, today at least, documentaries seek not to advance an agenda, but to find a punch line. The pack leader here is Jay Edwards and Dave Drablik's "Y'All Come!", a self-guided tour of the Hell Hole Swamp Festival, held every May in tiny Jamestown, S.C., to help line the town coffers. The irony of the event is so leaden--its highlights include a men's sexy legs contest, an honest-to-God spit-for-distance competition, and a beauty pageant to crown the "Queen of the Rednecks"--that the filmmakers are wise to take a light-handed approach in documenting it. In a similar vein, Scott Calonico uses the Freedom of Information Act toward unexpected ends in "The King and Dick," a quick one-off that splices still photos, text from the director, and excerpts from archived White House papers to chronicle that fateful day in 1970 when Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon briefly met. Hanging onto this thread of humor most meagerly is Richard Slade's "Bicentennial Junk," a wordless montage of footage depicting the Asian workers who manufactured patriotic tchotchkes in 1976, the Americans who bought them, and the cash registers that rang, as if to alert us that--gasp!--someone profited from the Bicentennial!
But the film that's most out of place here is also the most earnest: Frances Nkara's "Downpour Resurfacing" takes an interview with an adult victim of child abuse and overlays his soul-bearing with clips of '50s domestic scenes, artists performing airy contemporary dance numbers, and other imagery that's so abstruse that it's hard not to conclude that this film could learn from others in the program: Even for documentaries, there's such a thing as taking yourself too seriously. (BD)
shorts program: "A Feast for the Senses"
May 2, 4 p.m.; May 4, noon
This thoughtfully assembled package of shorts showcases filmmakers who demonstrate an intuitive understanding of the pacing and demands of the short format. Like the best short films, they exploit the possibilities suggested by their central premise (that one nifty idea) while never wandering off onto the kind of side paths that beautify (or despoil) the landscapes of longer films.
"Salad Days (Desalinada)," a first effort by the Spanish actor Gustavo Salmeron, imagines the bittersweet romance between a salad and a trout (yes), co-captives of a restaurant's walk-in cooler, who now long dearly to be served together, digested together, eliminated together, etc. A true crowd-pleaser.
In John Krokidas' exemplary student film, "Slo-Mo," a lethargic young New Yorker named Jimmi, addled by writer's block and jilted by his more motivated girlfriend, is ultimately diagnosed as "motionally retarded," a condition that makes the rest of the world fly by in superfast motion. This predicament lets Krokidas show off some technique, but the focus remains securely, and compassionately, on Jimmi's emotional life.
The first unsettling minutes of Kevin Molony's "Sylvester," a nighttime pursuit across a noir landscape, are filled with dread. The surprising reason for this chase is revealed in a brilliantly edited sequence, and the film heads from there into more heartfelt territory.
The package's curtain-raiser, "The Rise and Fall of the Legendary Anglobilly Feverson," combines live action and animation in a fashion that easily recalls the work of Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, and Hieronymus Bosch. Deliberately impenetrable (even the character who is being told Anglobilly's tale declares, "I don't get it") and gorgeously nightmarish. A fifth short, Vince Malone's "Ocularist" (Sundance 2003 Honorable Mention), was unavailable for preview. (RG)
Shorts Program: "Looking Glass"
May 4, 11 a.m.
An uneven collection of shorts, "Looking Glass" features five live-action films, one work of computer animation, one of stop-motion photography, and one of traditional animation. The World War I-set opening piece, "A Fall From the Clouds," uses relatively crude 3-D computer animation--this is no Myst--to tell a charming but slight story about a woman waiting in a church steeple for her lover, a pilot, to return from the front. The program's second film, "Gray," is hard going. Filmed in Baltimore, it strives for Kafkaesque paranoia but makes too little sense and goes on far too long, digressing into unconvincing Blair Witch-like goings-on. "The Great Movers of Dust" features a few comic interactions between a cleaning lady and her employer as it attempts to answer that eternal question: Why is life so full of dust?
Local filmmaker Eric Dyer's "Kinetic Sandwich" makes good use of stop-motion photography to chronicle the construction of a sandwich. The short's cleverest sequence features endless slices of olive loaf with shape-shifting olives resembling mouths opening and closing, appropriately accompanied by choral music. With its animated shapes recalling fabric swaths from the 1950s, and its cool avant-garde music, "passe-partout" is an energetic little bit of beatnik animation. More narrative and expansive is "Potential Energy," directed by George Su. This competent black-and-white short depicts the uncertain romantic longings of supposedly platonic roommates Jenny and Richard and the complications that ensue when Richard is dumped by his longtime girlfriend, Lydia.
The program's most professional-looking short is "The Snell Show," made by film students at Brigham Young University. Every element of this live-action film about a large family gathering in the desert for a magical event perfectly captures the feel of its 1950s setting: color, cinematography, set decoration, costumes. "Synapse" closes the program, and effectively combines documentary and staged footage to chronicle the tragically brief life of the filmmaker's first girlfriend. If the film leans too heavily on its Virgin Suicides-like voice-over, it is nonetheless a genuinely moving tribute to a troubled young woman. (MK)
Shorts Program: "Meditations"
May 3, 1:30 p.m.
You won't lose any fingers in this grab bag, but you probably won't pull out any gold doubloons either. The comprising parts of this program are meant to inspire either heady contemplation or, at the very least, a Zen-tinged space in which you can think about whatever you want. But most end up stopping near the lower end of this curve, and maybe it's for the better.
There are a couple of wordless, painterly, Koyanisqaatsi-style vignettes, first of all, which stand in opposition to each other here. "O Sprinklers!", by Cindy Stillwell, devoted entirely to footage of irrigation devices, is a joke that won't admit it. But Joshua Zucker's "Still," in which the lens lovingly studies abandoned factories and burned-out buildings, creates such a mellow scene in so little time, you're likely to get a contact buzz.
The more plot-rich entries in this program, meanwhile, come off as compelling at first but often have a hard time maintaining momentum. Gamal Thabet Amer's "The Eternal Cycle," for instance, creates a celluloid portrait of a young girl in Egypt--washing dishes, listening to the radio, caring for her little sister--but it's difficult to tell when it was made, where her course is headed, and why we've been introduced to her. Pegeen Quinn's "Freamh" is a self-consciously dreary missive from an Irish farm, full of men with weathered faces, footage of backbreaking labor, and narration that includes references to "the cold smell of potato mold." Diane Bonder's "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home by Now" follows a seductive conceit--telling the oddball stories hidden in tiny, bucolic Webster, Mass., like the local weirdo's attempt to make a "sculpture garden" of stuffed animals in his backyard and the effort to turn a path between the town vets' home and the local liquor store into a veterans' memorial--but the reel quits just as the film is picking up steam.
Perhaps the best outing among "Mediations" is the existential exercise of Mike Fleisch's "To Eat," in which a young man and his girlfriend find themselves stuck in a remote cabin with his father, only to learn what toxic lies have been keeping their relationships together. (BD)
Short Program: "Planes of Reality"
May 3, 8:30 p.m.
Dreams about dead wives. Unwanted pregnancies. Ominously swirling ceiling fans. These are some of the motifs of choice among short filmmakers these days, at least if this program is any indication. But thankfully, that's not all this filmic six-pack has holding it together. Each mini-feature aspires to pierce a plane of reality, whether it's social, psychological, or metaphysical, and they all manage to break through, with varying degrees of success.
A few films--such as Desiree Guarino's lottery-ticket parable "The Big Game" and Kyle DeAngelo's gritty street story "wish"--hinge on Twilight Zone-like hairpin plot turns. Others trade either in social currency (as in Derek Frank's stilted "By Any Other," in which a woman confesses to her boyfriend that she's been going by a fake first name) or hollow artiness (Vladimir Khomenko's "F8" looks like an experiment in how many dream-sequence clichés can be shoehorned into a length of film).
But the laurels here go to the program's twin pillars: Tamika Lamison's "Hope" might corner the market on both dead-wife flashbacks and swirling ceiling-fan shots, but the wholehearted acting turns this basic tale about a man mourning lost love into a deeply felt tale of redemption. Likewise, Mateen O. Kemet's "Silence" may not be the only film in this program that takes an unwanted pregnancy as its central point of conflict, but the acting is so flinty that it can't help but create sparks, and it's lensed with tender and colorful affection. (BD)
Shorts Program: "The Power of Three"
May 2, 11 a.m.; May 4, noon
A dry and giddy sense of humor seems to be the only thing linking these three shorts together, but that was enough to give Charles Nelson Reilly a career. Director Aaron Barnett's "The Kung-Fu DJ Crew" is a mishmash of young adult hipster signposts smushed into a comically stunted cartoon. Skinny white DJ Napoleon is getting the high hard one from his nefarious record label, but when he tries to bail, the thick-necked label mogul sends some even thicker-necked thugs to teach Napoleon that Waterloo isn't just an Abba song. But before the goons can inflict too much damage, Napoleon is saved by the Kung-Fu DJ Crew, the multiculti superfriends of the global club circuit, armed with their super-DJ arsenal. This surprisingly low-rent concept rendered with an equally pared-down animation style works better than it has any right to.
Something strange is afoot at the laundromat where director Brendan Donovan's "Grasp" starts off--namely, a hand. A severed hand to be precise, found tumbling in a dryer, which sparks a bizarre, darkly comic investigation headed by police detectives that concludes with an entirely new twist to the old hand job. The creepy laughs continue in director Felix Fuchssteiner "Die Kurve" ("The Curve"), in which two valley-residing brothers live off of the crash remains of cars that careen off a particularly nasty hairpin turn on a mountainous pass. One night, a middle-aged bureaucrat survives his spill over the curve's side, and he just so happens to be the secretary of transportation that on brother has written numerous times about the dangers of this particular turn. Given the short's premise and the sort of wacky, madcap slapstick for which Germans are renown, you can only imagine what sort of hijinks ensue. (BM)
Shorts Program: "Short Stories"
May 2, 2:30 p.m.; May 4, 2 p.m.
Childhood dilemmas abound in the MFF's "Short Stories" program, proving that the pain of childhood can still be sounded with intelligence and poignancy. "For Caroline," written by Poull Brien and Andrew Olanow and directed by Brien, follows Alan, an 11-year-old misfit. When another outsider, Caroline, tries to befriend Alan, he must decide whether to accept his outsider status or try to fit in, even if it means hurting her. The filmmakers never minimize Alan's pain, and Johnny Cenicola's man-in-a-boy's-body portrayal of Alan is haunting.
"The Vest," written and directed by Paul Gutrecht and based on a true story, also tackles childhood and the desire to fit in. Third-grader Sara's favorite article of clothing is a reversible vest her mother made for her. When another girl at school makes fun of Sara for wearing something homemade, Sara ends up accidentally (or maybe not) stabbing the girl with a pencil. Gutrecht brings out the comedy of the situation while still taking Sara's problem seriously.
Two films in this program have ties to Baltimore. Filmed at the Tastee Diner in Laurel, Rik Swartzwelder's "The Least of These" lives up to its name. A motley crew of working-class men, club kids, and prostitutes hang out at a run-down diner. When a young stranger comes in and ends up suggesting that they throw a birthday party for one of the hookers, he upsets the diner's complacent atmosphere. The actors do a great job, especially Baltimore theater stalwart Binnie Ritchie Holum, but the plot is both overly sentimental and nonsensical, leaving the fine performances stranded.
The other "Short Stories" film with a Baltimore connection fares better. "Good Night Valentino," written and directed by Edoardo Ballerini, is based on an essay by famed Evening Sun scribe H.L. Mencken. After a Chicago newspaper prints an article blaming Rudolph Valentino for the "effemeninization of the America male," the screen idol's honor is insulted and he seeks out Mencken for advice. John Rothman, who starred in a one-man show about Mencken, beautifully illustrates a more compassionate side of the notorious curmudgeon, and Ballerini brings a fragility to Valentino that is truly compelling. (AD)
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