Seattle’s One-Reel Film Festival 2013 – Saturday Roundup

SIFF Film Center projection room

The One-Reel Film Festival is part of Seattle’s renowned Bumbershoot music and arts festival. Throughout the weekend, I’ve had the opportunity to see short films from all over the world, some of which can be viewed online (I’ve included links below where applicable). The films were arranged into blocks of around an hour apiece, which I’ve arranged in presentation order below. Bold text means I enjoyed the film, and an asterisk (*) means it was my favorite film of that block. Skip to the bottom for a list of all the films that can be viewed online.

Click here for Sunday’s films
Click here for Monday’s films



Films4Families #1

  1. The Collector’s Gift (Director: Ryan Kravetz, USA, 9 minutes)

    This film imagines a Darwinian voyage wherein a single eccentric scientist seeks to collect and catalog every element on the periodic table. A young girl discovers the fruits of his labor shortly after his demise. The animation is elaborate, but uneven – some of the motion looks downright anomalous, particularly when characters are jumping through the air. But all in all, the production value of this USC student film is quite high, and it is a fun and elaborate world that has been imagined here. What’s more, it presents quite a positive message about the value of scientific discovery to the progress of the human race. And as the icing on the cake, the film managed to carry off these themes without a single line of dialogue in the entire film. And it didn’t give me time to ponder the potential danger of a tiny glass bottle of uranium.

    More info here.

  2. Sweetly Broken (Director: Chung Lam, Czech Republic, 6 minutes)

    It is an unfortunate artifact of my love of short film that I’ve seen several versions of this idea already. Two inamimate objects (in this case, wooden marionettes) fall in love, causing trouble for their owners. The soundtrack featured some interesting plucky chords, but I was mostly just waiting for it to be over. Blame Pixar for ruining this one for me twice over – first (kinda) with paper airplanes, then much worse with umbrellas.

    More info here.

  3. Uski Baarish (Director: Archana Phadke, India, 5 minutes)

    A delightful tale of a brother and his little sister hanging out. They navigate the streets of an unnamed Indian city and partake in a hobby involving dangerous-looking spinning tops (that suspiciously resemble lawn darts), homemade umbrella making, and some good-natured sibling roughhousing. This is a cute and personal tale, although it makes a few bizarre musical choices. Cutting elaborately between vaguely U2-like guitar themes and classical violin was a bit jarring, but none of it was too distracting.

    More info here.

  4. The Window (Director: Camille Müller, Switzerland, 5 minutes)

    Alternated between pencil sketch and watercolor. Ostensibly, this is a tale that takes place inside the illustrated pages of a children’s book – which, itself, contains an illustrated children’s book. There’s really not much else to it – this is a simple tale of two kids fending off some older bullies. Perhaps suitable for very small audiences.

    Trailer here.

  5. Fox and the Chickadee* (Director: Evan DeRushie, Canada, 8 minutes)

    A brilliant reimagining of the “Frog and the Scorpion” fable (which I thought was from Aesop, but apparently has more complicated origins), wherein a clever little chickadee negotiates with a vicious (British) fox. Easily the best animation in the bunch, and apparently mastering one style – stop motion with felt and fur, in the vein of The Fantastic Mr. Fox – wasn’t enough. The film also features a sequence made entirely of precision-crafted 2D paper dolls. Both styles are brought beautifully to life, and the story is quite a clever (and delightfully dark) twist on the classic tale.

    More info and trailer here.

  6. Macropolis (Director: Joel Simon, UK, 7 minutes)

    Shot during the 2012 London Olympics, this film features a pair of claymation dolls navigating the crowded and bustling city. As the dolls move along precisely, one frame at a time, the bustling metropolis of London continues at full speed in the background. The film takes on a curious meta aspect as the audience wonders whether the various people and vehicles (who are pervasive, albeit for an instant at a time) interfered substantially with the film production. The sidewalks and streets look as full as can be, and one can only imagine the dire effects of an errant boot or wheel upon one of these cute little dolls. As for their journey, it’s pretty much Toy Story. Very cute.

    More info and trailer here.



Music Video Madness

  1. Fanfare for Marching Band (Director: Daniele Wilmouth, USA, 16 minutes)

    Is there such a thing as marching band propaganda? This film posits the existence of the elusive “quiet-playing” marching band. The music feels unrealistically subdued throughout the film, and the volume peaks sufficiently by the end that it must have been a deliberate choice. The formula is, in short, “public space + marching band = fun”. But I’ll hazard a guess that most of the grocery shoppers or attending train passengers would’ve preferred the performance ended in fewer than 16 minutes. This film had its moments, but I definitely grew tired of it with more than half of its runtime remaining, which left me plenty of time to ponder just how deafening that phalanx of trombones would be inside of a grocery store produce section.

    More info here.

  2. Upon Your Shoulders (Director: Ben Rapson, USA, 6 minutes)

    I don’t envy the husband’s acting task. Set to a song that is 90% choral requiem, this video features a man agonizing over his impending fatherhood. His acting style, featuring broad facial movements (à la Jim Carrey or Ed Helms) seems better suited to comedy than drama. And yet, as his backstory (which is necessarily conveyed without dialogue) becomes apparent, it actually works rather well here. This is a sad story, well told.

    More info here.

  3. I Fink U Freeky* (Director: Roger Ballen, South Africa, 4 minutes)

    Meth is a hell of a drug. This is one of the most aggressively terrifying and creeptastic music videos I’ve ever seen – and yet the single most jarring shot was a lingering logo on a pair of Beats headphones (which promptly get smashed by a brick). Product placement of any kind (if that’s indeed what this was) felt more out of place in this bizarre video than the woman beating a dead lion or being crawled upon by a dozen giant rats.

    Watch online here (NSFW).

  4. Listen Up (If the World is Going to Hell) (Director: Nicholas Junke, USA, 4 minutes)

    A generic 80s ballad plays over a couple gleefully competing to the death for a pair of rubber-headed animals. What you see is what you get.

    Watch online here.

  5. Killer Mike–Reagan (Director: Harry Teitelman/Daniel Garcia, USA, 5 minutes)

    An angry animated video for an angry song. This song is conspiratorial, anti-capitalist, anti-government, anti-prison, and above all anti-Reagan. These are good rhymes, well delivered – and that’s all I really ask for in my anti-establishment hip-hop. The murderous cartoon robot was just a bonus.

    Watch online here.

  6. Dog is Dead–Teenage Daughter (Director: Jordan Bahat, USA, 4 minutes)

    This video, of a girl on a driving range, is fine. The song? Also fine. But it’s pretty telling that at the end of this block of films, I couldn’t remember a single thing about it.

    Watch online here.

  7. Kithkin–Fallen Giants (Director: Ben Anderson/Sawyer Purman, USA, 5 minutes)

    Flashlight tag in the woods. Much like Pacific Rim, this film took on a deliberately difficult lighting challenge. Unlike Pacific Rim, it pulled it off well from start to finish. And the song is enjoyable. If you want more specifics on that, talk to a music critic.

    Watch online here.



Tales of Science Fiction

  1. AnimA (Director: Scott Mannion, Australia, 14 minutes)

    Somehow, this film exists as an even more depressing rendition of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (this will not be the last time this weekend that I mention this film). A man shares memories with his dead wife and son as he struggles with his grief. The film makes use of some gorgeous stellar imagery and time lapse, but the technology is a fairly elaborate and unnecessary metaphor for the grieving process. We don’t get to know the man (ostensibly the only real character) terribly well, apart from his grief and scientifically motivated detachment from his former family. This is a sad tale, but it feels more like an exercise in speculative technology than a complete story.

    More info here.

  2. Tears of Steel (Director: Ian Hubert, Netherlands, 12 minutes)

    This is the bright, sunny, relentlessly cheerful robot apocalypse that says, in no uncertain terms, that hell hath no fury like that of an ex-girlfriend who has turned into a 50-foot cyborg and taken over the world. This film is quite fun, very well made, and yet still slightly cheap looking. Basically, it’s a solid episode of Doctor Who. It fetishizes the end of mankind like so many omnipresent bits of creature fiction (whether zombie, vampire, or robot), but demonstrates a modicum of self-awareness about its sheen of coolness. Something about a soldier on the front lines against Skynet pausing from his robot sniping to take a swig from his mango juicebox told me that this film knew exactly what tone it was going for – outrageous fun, and nothing less*.

    And remarkably, you can download it in up to 4K HD quality for free.

    *In retrospect, this may have just been a branding shout-out to the Mango Open Movie Project. But I choose to stick with my original read.

  3. Incident on Highway 73* (Director: Brian Thompson, USA, 27 minutes)

    A photographer and her fiancé drive along an old deserted highway on the way to her parents’ house for Christmas. This film is extremely judicious with its tension, sometimes making use of something as simple as the crack between an open car hood to heighten the scene. The couple is well acted, and the dialogue feels very naturalistic. This feels like the first act to an excellent horror film, which is often all you get in short-form cinema. But the characters and environment are rich enough that nothing about this film feels lacking.

    More info here.



Best of SIFF 2013: Jury Award Winners


  1. Woody (Director: Stuart Bowen, Australia, 10 minutes)

    A uniquely styled, pristinely animated film about a wooden doll (named Woody) who has failed to achieve his dream of being a concert pianist. This is the nth dialog-free short that I’ve seen today, and it still managed to convey a great deal without dialogue. And naturally, it featured a lovely and elegant score of classical piano music.

    More info and trailer here.

  2. Keep A Modest Head (Director: Deco Dawson, Canada, 19 minutes)

    A mostly non-narrative series of mixed media potrayals of French (or possibly Quebecois?) surrealist Jean Benoît, set to recorded monologues from the artist himself. Apparently Benoît was quite the lothario, freely spinning tales of his adolescent sexual exploits (including some rather dangerous climbs on the snowy Paris rooftops). There is an interesting blend of animation and real-life footage here, but its lack of structure (likely owing to its subject) didn’t hold my attention especially well.

    More info here.

  3. My Right Eye (Apple of My Eye)* (Director: Josecho de Linares, Spain, 13 minutes)

    Grandparents. They love us, and they leave us. Of course, they’d probably say the same thing about the grandkids. This film is an absolutely beautiful love story between a 20-something man and his ailing grandma, rendered as much in guilt as it is in love. We can’t see our elders as much as we’d like. We have responsibilities – things we must do. We also have lives – things we want to do. This film doesn’t let the young man off the hook for how long he goes between visits, but it does give him a chance to tell his loving grandmother goodbye. For some audience members, this may seem like wish fulfillment, or a message of love spoken too late. But for others, it may be a reminder to value your loved ones while they’re still around.

    Watch online here.




    Quick List: All of the films that are available online


    A note on “NSFW”… Suffice to say, I saw a lot of films this weekend. The ones that I specifically remember containing adult content, I’ve marked as Not Safe For Work. However, outside of the “Films4Families” block, I can’t guarantee that the others will be entirely appropriate. Viewer discretion is advised.

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Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” – Fakery in lieu of satire

Poster for "Elysium"

In the distant future, Earth is a polluted, overpopulated wasteland, no longer capable of supporting human life. A privileged few have managed to escape into the only place left for them – outer space. But something is amiss. Humanity is stagnant – out of balance. All of its resources benefit a privileged few. But soon, a lone hero will venture forth from his ruined home planet to save humanity from itself. And that hero…is a cute little robot named Wall-E.

I made the profound mistake of rewatching District 9 the day before seeing Elysium. The former, Neill Blomkamp‘s 2009 feature film debut, posits an alternate present-day in which aliens landed 20 years ago, and now exist in a beleaguered slum in South Africa. District 9 revels in cynicism, and does so quite effectively. As a viewer, I patted myself on the back in smug self-assurance that – yes, that’s exactly how terribly that situation would play out. In fact, it would probably be a lot worse. Elysium posits a similarly broken and unjust world, but does so in a manner that feels completely derivative (see Wall-E) and isn’t particularly effective at world-building or satire. The viewer must either accept Elysium as a straightforward piece of populist propaganda – without an ounce of self-awareness – or simply enjoy it as a film in which Mecha-Matt Damon blows a few things up. I tried to enjoy the film on one of these levels, but found each of them to be lacking.

Many of the film’s action beats felt like pale shadows of things I had already seen in District 9. This included a few identical weapons, but let’s face it, rail guns are cool enough to include twice. Unfortunately, in several cases, the action direction and cinematography have gotten noticeably worse. The moment Damon put on his cyborg exosuit, all of his fights turned into fast-cutting, incomprehensible blurs. Whatever blend of physical and virtual effects was in play here, it clearly didn’t work well enough that they felt comfortable showing it for more than a half-second at a time.

Much of the world building of the earthbound slum (or slumbound earth) worked fine, and some of it even approached decent satire. The overwhelming reliance on automated law enforcement (including a hilarious parole droid) definitely hits a few familiar notes for American audiences. The problem is that the satire is basically non-existent on Elysium – the titular space platform. There is no allegory in place here. Elysium is America, or at least the most wealthy Americans. And this isn’t the future – this might as well be now. This attitude is readily apparent from the film itself (and the director has confirmed as much himself), and it might have even succeeded as a passable allegory if not for the one crucial detail- the most alluring amenity of Elysium is a medical bed in every home that effectively and instantaneously cures any disease or injury. You read that correctly. The MacGuffin in this science fiction film…is a magical healing bed that grants immortality.

elysium-jodie-foster-photo

That’s it, folks. That’s when I checked out of this movie. Because if you’re the person who is withholding the magical healing bed from the rest of the world, you are evil, you are irredeemable, and you are utterly boring. Saddling strong performers like Jodie Foster and William Fichtner with such one-note villainy feels like a waste, despite both of their passable performances. And the less said about Sharlto Copley the better. He plays a neat (if slightly incomprehensible) psychopath, but he feels like a bearded retread of David James‘ psychopathic soldier from District 9. He likes killing, he’s good at it, and he’s in gleeful service of a corrupt regime. If the regime itself had been a bit more believable, I might have enjoyed this performance a lot more. Copley is clearly having a good deal of fun with it.

Elysium should have worked as a concept. There was much about this world that made me intrigued, made me curious… I wanted to know more about how the government of this place operated. I wanted to know more about its relationship with Earth. The platform clearly possesses either the military might or political capital to exert force on the planet below (at one time locking down the airspace of Los Angeles through sheer force of will). There is enough implied substance here that the film could easily have built out that relationship further, peppering in the small details that would have made it a credible world. Science fiction (or at least its marketing) used to be about making the audience “believe” something. You’ll believe a man can fly. You’ll believe a spaceship can fly to Mars. As a film intended to make me believe in an orbital platform for the super-rich, the film was a total failure. All it really made me believe in was a world broken so badly that the film’s pretense of a happy ending provoked nothing but a mirthless chuckle.

FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10