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.
- Birding (Director: Max Cantor, USA, 16 minutes)
Note to Hollywood: do more “rear window” scenarios. No, I don’t mean you should transparently rip off the entire story of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but rather – give us a story that effectively utilizes the panopticon monstrosity of a high-rise city apartment building to great narrative and cinematic effect. Birding is exactly the sort of short that I was looking for in this category. It features David (Alan Fox) and Ada (Lizzy Fraser), a newly engaged couple about to head out for the weekend to go bird-watching with Ada’s father. David becomes fascinated with a woman in an opposite apartment, and begins watching her with his newly acquired bird-watching binoculars. This incredibly simple setup works in large part because the couple’s acting and dialogue is stellar. They establish a credible relationship in a short space of time. If the film had failed at this one crucial task, it would’ve rendered the awkward final act entirely ineffectual. And this act is admittedly a bit off. The dialogue, strong up until that point, becomes awkward and uneven, as does Fox’s performance. The film seems to be building toward an obvious and excruciating ending that it mercifully avoids, and everything remains askew for just long enough to make it seem like a deliberate and effective choice.
And that is ultimately what this short is about – choices. The mundane choices of our daily lives are far more frequent than the sort that might have far-reaching and life-changing consequences, but this film effectively shines a light on one that can seemingly erupt out of nowhere. No matter how important the choice may be, you’re still the same person you were before you had to make it, and you would do well to remember that.
More info and trailer here.
- Midnight City (Director: Luis Ventura, Switzerland, 14 minutes)
Midnight City is an incredibly goofy and trashy genre exercise that takes place in a brothel during an unspecified “old-timey gangster period”. I’ve certainly enjoyed such pulp before, but this one was almost intolerable. There was a severe gulf in acting caliber between the female lead (Lucinda Farrelle, who wasn’t half bad) and the two male supporting characters. Male #1, the john (Alex Rendall) bore an uncanny physical resemblance to Ben Affleck, but gave a performance that was almost as grating as Reindeer Games. And Male #2 (Alan Thorpe) was boring and forgettable as the club “Daddy” – although I’m not sure any actor could have redeemed such terrible dialogue. You have to be pretty bad at being a creepy pimp to make me long for the squirm-inducing talents of Oscar Isaac in Sucker Punch (a performance I loved, but never wish to see again). This wasn’t good (or stylistically consistent) enough to be Sin City, not bad enough to be The Room, nor pretentious enough to be Sucker Punch. But very nearly dumb enough for that last one.
- Spine* (Director: Sophie Miller, Australia, 11 minutes)
What would happen to my culturally constructed and reinforced notions of masculinity and power if I were suddenly rendered paralyzed? How would my image of myself in a romantic relationship have to change as I suddenly must be taken care of all the time? And how would all of these tenuous notions avail me in a life-and-death situation that I was just as unlikely to face before my injury?
Spine forces the audience to confront all of these questions in a matter of minutes. There were so many subtle touches that grant a view into the inner life of the quadriplegic protagonist Nick (Lucas Pittaway). There was a brief flashback to he and his girlfriend Chloe (Sara West) making out – an expression of affection that is highly physical for both parties, and has now left them both behind. In a lesser film, this sort of flashback would have lingered and hammered the point into oblivion, but here, it was just a nice, subtle moment, in a film that makes a nice, subtle point.
West is also given some nice material to work with as she runs into an old friend working in a liquor store where she has stopped to get Nick some beer. Chloe clearly maintains a strong affection for her boyfriend, but also feels the burden of their new existence together. Even as Nick’s arc is coming together in the carpark below, each stolen moment in the liquor store reveals more about her own struggle. And it all fits together quite well.
This experience feels authentic, even as I mercifully lack the life experience to validate its authenticity for myself. This is an unfortunate, but credible situation – and a story quite worth telling.
More info here.
- Penny Dreadful (Director: Shane Atkinson, USA, 18 minutes)
This film reminded me aggressively of both Tarantino and his acolytes – and I mean that in the best way possible. There are few things more hilarious than the kidnapping of a child gone awry (*chuckle*), and this film milks every bit of dark comedy from the situation. Both man and girl were brilliantly cast. The easy comparison for Oona Laurence‘s character here is Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass, but I actually found this character far more believable. She’s not a cartoon psychopath; just a troubled and precocious little girl with a bit of an f’d-up sense of humor. This film was an absolute delight, and I don’t dare say more.
More info and trailer here.
- A Pretty Funny Story (Director: Evan Morgan, Canada, 19 minutes)
This is a bad story for bad people to enjoy. It begins with a couple glancing through the window at their neighbor, who is indulging in a bit of goofy solo dancing. They laugh at him for a moment before they’re caught watching…and then everything goes to a bit of a dark place. This film is hilarious, awkward, mean-spirited, and unrelenting. And I loved it – I’ll direct you back to Sentence #1 for my conclusion.
- Voice Over (Director: Martin Rosete, Spain, 10 minutes)
A narrator tells a series of increasingly dire life-and-death situations, all in the second-person starring you, the audience member. Each of the sequences features the main character (you) about to die in increasingly horrific ways, whether in a space suit on an alien planet, or strapped to a sinking boat underwater. Each of these sequences is rendered with absolute precision (and gorgeous visuals, particularly for the alien planet), and yet each one has a bit of a fanciful quality. The narrator keeps cursing his poor memory and correcting himself, lending each story both the urgency of imminent death and the endearing hilarity of somebody’s dad telling a poorly strung narrative. The heartwarming side of this film hits like a ton of bricks, and yet feels like it was always inevitable.
- The Next Step (Director: Mel Eslyn, USA, 7 minutes)
A couple meets a stranger (Kevin Seal) in a coffee bar to discuss their next step in the relationship. And that’s really all I’ll say. This is a 7-minute film featuring a single joke – meaning it has basically the same formula as a modern episode of South Park – but it only needs to keep the joke going for a third as long. By and large, it works. The couple is delightfully awkward, with the enthusiastic Nancy (Alycia Delmore) and the uncomfortable (and slightly henpecked) Glen (Evan Mosher) making an effective on-screen pair. The film keeps you guessing nicely, complete with a wonderfully creepy interaction between the stranger and the coffee-shop manager, as well as a so-subtle-I-may-have-imagined-it reference to Clerks. Funny stuff.
More info here.
- Decimation* (Director: Wade Jackson, USA, 30 minutes)
Like any film featuring American actors set in a foreign country, there is something slightly askew about Decimation, at least until your brain has time to adjust. Much criticism was heaped upon Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie for not even attempting German accents for its English-speaking cast of Wehrmacht soldiers. But I tend to think that affecting a foreign accent is more of a gamble than a guaranteed win. Perhaps Enemy at the Gates (which receives a nice shout-out in this film) handled it best for an American audience, opting for the generic stand-in British accent for all of its Russian characters. Decimation, a film about a group of World War II Russian solders accused of cowardice, opted for accent fakery (with bits of actual Russian sprinkled in), and I don’t think it does the film any great service. The acting quality here is quite solid all around, but the accent work is variable, and my three years of Russian language made it difficult to separate the two as the film began. But before too long, I was absorbed enough in the story and cast that this detail ceased to bother me.
The strongest performer is certainly Roy Stanton, who plays Prisoner One, the unofficial leader of the group. The titular practice of “Decimation” refers not to the complete obliteration of a group, as it has come to mean, but rather the destruction of just one tenth of it to enforce discipline – in this case, a single soldier selected by Prisoner One for execution. He could even choose himself if he wished, but whichever man is chosen must be executed by the other members of the group. This practice featured prominently in a vignette in Max Brooks’ novel World War Z (also in Russia), and apparently there is a documented instance of it happening among Russians in World War II. But I give this film immense credit for using the practice as an effective metaphor for the unrelenting bleakness and indifference of warfare.
If you’re lucky, you won’t be in a war. If you’re luckier, you won’t be in a war in the Soviet Red Army. And if you’re luckier still, you won’t duck or hide in the face of enemy fire while a commissar is watching your back. Enforcing both the virtue of patriotism and the shame of cowardice was deemed essential in a war in which over 20 million Russian soldiers and civilians died. We get to see this struggle of ideology vs. survival play out in the face of pure, indifferent chance. Differentiating ten characters in the space of a 30-minute short must have been a daunting task, and the film does a marvelous job. Each character, whether the suspected Cossack, the Eastern Orthodox priest, or the doggedly patriotic teenager, gets his moment to shine. Making me care about each of these characters was essential; otherwise I would have a nice, long list of unimportant extras that I’d be happy to see up against the wall in the end. There were certainly a few who received very little screentime, but not one that seemed superfluous.
I’ve referred to a few short films from this weekend as a “solid first act”, but I think this may be the only “solid third act” that I saw. The film jumps effortlessly from one moment of character-loaded tension to the next, mostly justifying it with the acting, but never completely earning it with the setup. Even a few plot details are unclear from the start. I initially identified the prison commandant (Michael Patten) as one of the worst accent offenders (sounding more German than Russian), only to see him identified as “The German” in the end credits. How did a German come to work in a Soviet prison camp? We never know…but it must be a hell of a story. Despite this fundamental problem with putting feature-length complexity into a short film, none of these unknown details prevented me from feeling every moment of shock, sadness, and horror by the film’s end. And apart from that, the film is very well made. The score is dramatic and catchy – albeit slightly repetitive – but it never once commits the cardinal sin of pushing past the justified emotional content of the scene. The production design is budget-impeccable, featuring authentic weapons and real-looking uniforms*. In addition to the score, the sound mix features the slightly mocking twitter of birds just outside the cell, giving the constant [and false] impression that happiness and freedom are just a window-climb away. Very effective.
Bottom line – this movie is unrelentingly bleak, features some very strong performances, and is greater than the sum of its high-concept parts. For a 30-minute war film, I couldn’t have asked for more.
*Confession: I really don’t know if the uniforms were accurate, although they helped significantly with character differentiation. But the weapons (notably the PPSh and the Mosin-Nagant rifle) certainly looked legit. I spotted at least one German MP-40 rifle, but given that the Russians frequently had to deal with weapon and ammo shortages, I’m happy to justify that by assuming it was a captured item.
More info and trailers here.