2018 Seattle International Film Festival: SIFF VR Zone

Seattle International Film Festival 2018 - VR Zone

At the 44th Seattle International Film Festival, SIFF debuted a brand new venue: The SIFF VR Zone at Pacific Place, produced by Seattle’s WonderTek Labs. Participants are invited into a first-floor storefront at Pacific Place Mall in Downtown Seattle. They are free to choose their own VR content for the next 90 minutes, wandering through an array of 28 films and interactive VR installations. Some were 360-degree films, primarily on Samsung Gear VR, and others were interactive experiences using either HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, with handheld controllers.

It was quite impossible to view all of the VR content in 90 minutes, so a selection is reviewed below. I’d like to offer a special thanks to both WonderTek Labs and SIFF staff and volunteers for making this press visit possible – it is one of the most complex festival installations I’ve seen, and it was a well-oiled machine.

The SIFF VR Zone continues for one more day, with six sessions available on Sunday, June 10th, every two hours from 11AM to 9PM.
For tickets, head over to SIFF.net.


Space Explorers: A New Dawn

Poster for

Directed by Felix Lajeunesse & Paul Raphaël
Hardware: Samsung Gear VR
19 min, Canada

Space is as appropriate a subject for VR as it has long been for IMAX, and I sense this won’t be the only subject matter overlap between these two venues. I’m told this one even has some narration by an Academy Award-winning actor (Brie Larson), but I’d be lying if I said I noticed it. This was the first VR film I watched at this venue, and I spent most of it simultaneously taking in the closeness of having a one-on-one conversation with its subjects (current and prospective astronauts all), and feeling a bit rude for ignoring their speech and staring around at the surroundings instead. The surroundings were, of course, as much the point as what the astronauts had to say about them. There was the simulator, as well as some barren landscape with spacesuited astronauts and a gargantuan test rover. There was even some stunning footage of areas not generally available to the public – although when I looked behind me as the tour guides spoke, I could see some public crowds accompanying me into NASA’s neutral buoyancy training facility – essentially a vast, deep pool with spaceship mockups either floating or submerged, for the astronauts to rehearse various procedures in the closest thing to null gravity that we can simulate on Earth. But all of those real tourists had to stand behind the yellow line. I know that experience, because I toured NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center last year – and it’s still awesome. Being there is still best, and probably will remain so, pending some Matrix tech.

But this was something different – this was plunking a 360-degree camera into the most interesting spot in the room. And then into the tank. And then into space. Looming closer and closer to the ISS docking port as telemetry is spoken into your ear, trying to keep your eye on the target with the vast Earth above your head, stretching to…well, the horizon, filling the entire upward view, reminding the viewer that our planet, tiny as it is, is several orders of magnitude larger than our human perspective. And in a flash, ISS and Earth are gone, and I’m suddenly watching one of the new astronauts that I “spoke with” earlier, and she’s wearing a VR headset of her own, working a controller, and rehearsing the ISS docking procedure. And that’s perhaps the greatest endorsement of this film: the pros are using something very much like it to learn their trade.

I’ll make a hardware note here: The Samsung Gear VR is heavy. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, which I read afterward are a mere 50 grams lighter, didn’t tax my neck muscles quite so much. But this will definitely be a moving target if the technology sticks around.

Available for purchase in the Oculus Store here. More info here.

Homecoming: Seduction

Still from

Directed by Lance McDaniel
Hardware: Samsung Gear VR
5 min, USA

An elaborate choreographed dance between a man and woman, seemingly in a romantic relationship, but occasionally strained and violent. The bulk of the dance takes place in an Oklahoma junkyard. The description for the film says it’s a metaphor for the allure and disappointment of drug addiction, and to be honest, I doubt I would have picked up on that without the artist’s statement. The dance is sensual, bordering on obscene at times – and turns angry and isolated before the end as the venue shifts to a flat landscape with a straight line of fenceposts stretching to the horizon. This is not the first dance performance I’ve seen in VR (that was this one, from the Dutch National Ballet), and my reaction was largely the same: this feels a bit odd. I enjoy dance, and I can see the appeal of feeling like an interloper or impossible spectator, and experience art in a several-on-one format that is impractical for anyone but a wealthy patron in real life. I enjoyed this film – but this experience still feels fundamentally bizarre and isolated to me.

More info here.

Queerskins: A Love Story

Still from

Created by Illya Szilac & Cyril Tsiboulski
Hardware: Oculus Rift w/controllers
15 min, USA

Of all of the VR experiences here, this was the one in which I felt the most like a real participant. My real body was sitting in a cushy chair, next to a table full of mementos – knick-knacks, papers, a diary – I didn’t look at them too closely, although I did ask the volunteer if handling them during the VR experience was a part of it. Of course, I realized how silly a question this was after asking it. The objects were disorganized, strewn across the table. And the idea that virtual versions of those objects could move in the simulation as I handled their physical counterparts would seem to strain the current state of the technology. Nonetheless, this was the first experience I tried that had controllers, and I was excited for something halfway between a film, a video game, and an interactive art installation. And I was not disappointed.

As the film began, I was in the backseat of an old car, driving down a country road. An older couple sits in the front seat, quietly discussing something dire, which is gradually revealed to be their dead adult son, Sebastian. The particulars: Sebastian was gay, and the couple – who appear to be Catholic from the iconography – had disowned him, and he had moved to Los Angeles. After the move, he had a hard life, and eventually died of an unspecified illness (the film’s synopsis reveals this to be AIDS).

My best guess at what I was seeing here was real-life driving footage outside, a 3D CGI environment for the car’s interior (likely taken from a scan of a real vehicle), and…wait, are those people real, or CGI? I leaned over to get a better look at the mom…my mom? And I realized the viewing angle of her changed slightly as I moved my head in space. Whatever this was – I would later read the term “volumetric video” – it was real footage of real people, rendered as three-dimensional objects that I could view from multiple angles. As they discussed…my death, apparently. I presumed I was meant to be Sebastian, and as a character, I’m not really there – the couple never acknowledges me. The man, Ed (Drew Moore) asks the woman, Mary-Helen (Hadley Boyd) what’s in the box in the backseat. To my left is a more obviously CGI banker’s box. I pick up the lid. I must emphasize, the ability to “pick up”, turn over, and view objects from any angle was crucial to the immersiveness of this scene. The weights didn’t feel right, of course, but watching my pale blue hands grasp each object, turn it over, throw it into the front seat… I felt like a real, live poltergeist. Inside the box was a variety of religious and personal items – a statuette of the Virgin Mary, a diary (whose pages didn’t move), several books (one of whose pages did move, at least initially).

The two former parents drive on to their son’s funeral, sadly discussing their cruel treatment of the man in his life. They argue over which of them treated him better. Ed projects onto Mary-Helen that she must have disapproved of his lifestyle, as she hadn’t talked to him in years. Mary-Helen protests that she went out to visit him “after the attack”, and Ed never did that. This is some borderline maudlin material, and it’s delivered with some haste due to the constraints of the VR experience – but the couple’s acting really sells it, particularly as the scene intensifies at the end. The scene also changes as the couple continues driving (it feels as if hours pass – the weather outside seems to change as well), and with each scene change, a new set of objects appears in the box. I’m straining to remember more than a handful of them, although their real-life counterparts were available on the table for me to examine after I had completed the VR portion.

One of the items that stuck with me was a cartoonish Frankenstein mask. I lifted it up to examine it, its eye-holes looking toward me. Then I decided – initially as a technological curiosity – to see if I could rotate it into a position where I could “wear” it. The Oculus controls are quite precise – I did so easily. As I moved it up to “my” face – it began to vanish from a point at its center, expanding outward as it passed through my virtual avatar’s face or field of view. And without even planning to immerse myself so fully, I took on the role of the frightened child. It felt performative at the time, and yet I found “my” parents’ argument so distressing that I kept the fake mask on my face for a full ten seconds, imagining what it would be like to hide from these people in life. That moment was the sense of “being there” that I had been seeking from each of these experiences. As a technological demo, this was cutting edge. But as a film, it was one of the most immersive emotional journeys I’ve ever experienced from VR. This was a hint of what Star Trek characters (starting from the ’90s, when VR was little more than a punchline until The Matrix) said about the allure of participatory storytelling in “holo-novels”. I’m a nerd in the tech industry who reviews movies. I am not the most objective source when it comes to whether or not VR will ever be anything more than a niche fascination. But this experience was the closest I’ve ever come to viewing VR as a true art form.

More info here.

Let This Be a Warning

Still from

Directed by Jim ChuChu
Created and Produced by The Nest Collective
Hardware: Samsung Gear VR
11 min, Kenya

You – either a robot or an astronaut or both – land on another planet, in a barren desert. A heads-up display warns that your motor and speech functions are non-functional (a handy storytelling mechanic for VR), and that multiple subjects are approaching. A cadre of (human) soldiers appear – all dark-skinned, and all with futuristic weapons, and they take you into custody. The scene shifts, and you awaken in a warehouse. A representative of this government appears – also black, as every person so far has been – to inform you that you will be sent home to your planet, and you are to inform your people that this world does not wish to hear from you again. They desire no relations with your planet, and they will consider any further incursion to be an act of war. The man informs you that you’ll be held until a ship is available to take you back to your planet. He walks out, and the armed guards remain. The scene shifts, and another representative (Marrianne Nungo) appears. Your HUD informs you that she’s unarmed, but cryptically warns you of “extreme danger”. You, or it, recognize her – and view her as a critical threat. And then her speech begins. She paces around you with unwavering cheer and menace as you sit, powerless to interrupt her in any way. She never raises her voice, even as she casually discusses dissecting you, as “your kind did to us, many centuries ago,” she reveals with a smile. This woman holds your fate and has no sympathy for you. Curiously, she notes that no one living has ever seen “one of you”. Even amid the confusion of who and what the protagonist might be, this is some solid exposition. She finally reveals your fate. The plan is still to send you home to your planet. But how that will occur is, like this film, an act of provocation.

Fundamentally, even as the nameless, faceless protagonists sits, devoid of identity or defining characteristics, unwelcome and judged, I’m okay with taking the bait and saying that this film is trolling white fragility in a major way. The protagonist isn’t white, of course – it may not even be human. But it represents an unwelcome other on a powerful colony of black-skinned separatists, and the question that the film asks on-screen should only offend people that have a good reason to believe they’d be treated badly in such a place. The film essentially asks: Whoever you are, how would you be treated on a planet where black people hold all the power? What sort of treatment have you earned? Does this even seem like a fair question? And for that matter, where would the outrage be if someone wanted to make a sci-fi movie about “white worlds”? Shut the fuck up with that, Tucker Carlson, and yes, I would be addressing his impotent bowtie directly if I thought there was a chance he’d don a VR headset and watch a movie from Kenya on purpose.

Further, it feels as if this film is trolling anyone who pretends they haven’t witnessed “white worlds” in sci/fi and fantasy already. Throwing a bit of American racial politics into the mix (which I doubt were intended – not everything is about us), it also felt like a barb for anyone who pretends that racial segregation is some sort of novel and shocking concept, or a mere historical curiosity that’s long dead. The reality, of course, is that it’s as much the stuff of everyday housing and education policy as it is the fodder of tiki-torch-clad Nazi rallies. It’s the sort of reality that is dismissed as a historical artifact by people who vote up a local education levy before asking on Nextdoor if it’s dangerous that so many kids at the local elementary school are on free and reduced lunch, then posit that it won’t matter for too much longer, as the neighborhood is rapidly become unaffordable for their parents. None of this is in the film, but a VR experience like this really does feel like traveling to another planet: you only have what you brought with you. As the film asks whether you be welcome in a black world, the implication is surely to question how welcome black people are in this one. And whether or not it’s a fair question, it has stayed with me. This world is where I’ve remained whether it wants me there or not.

More info here.

Epic Snowday Adventure

Created by Verge of Brilliance LLC
Hardware: HTC Vive w/controllers
USA

As a film critic, I’m a little embarrassed that I succumbed to the temptation here. I asked if this booth was free, or how long the experience lasts for, and the volunteer immediately booted a lad of eight or so out of the booth – he had apparently been playing the game for 20 minutes or so, but I still felt a bit sad taking away a toy from a child.  I was prepared to go watch the seven short films from a Jordanian refugee camp instead, but…I just couldn’t resist the call of the silly snowball fight game. And that’s what this is. You’re a kid in the middle of the street (as Colonel Rhodes would say, the killbox). Various spritely (and by that, I mean simplistically animated) kids peek out from the driveways and houses around you, and attempt to gather up snowballs to pelt you. I’ll grant this was the first level in a game for children, but the little bastards didn’t stand a chance. I demolished them. A few of the kids wore armor in the form of cardboard boxes. As a game mechanic, this meant that I not only had to bend over to pick up a much larger snowball than the tiny ones I was effortlessly headshotting them with before, but also make it much bigger by frantically wiggling my wrist until it became the size of a basketball. And this is where they would’ve had me – where my thirtysomething knees and a flare-up of carpal tunnel would’ve let them do me in. Naturally, I abandoned the game before suffering such humiliation.

What I saw of this game was pretty basic, but it teased more elaborate mechanics (I received two large cardboard boxes to hide behind, making the killbox marginally safer). I never felt the nebulous sense of “being there” that I was seeking out with the other VR experiences, but I briefly felt like a Calvin and Hobbes drawing? And that’s not nothing.

Available for purchase on Steam here.

Mono: Blackwater

Still from

Directed by Ben Wolstenholme
Hardware: Oculus Rift w/controllers
USA

Mono: Blackwater is a slightly better movie than a game, but it’s a pretty underwhelming example of either. Before I go further, I should mention that this Oculus setup suffered some intermittent technical issues – a previous patron had apparently bumped the sensor that was meant to keep an eye on my position in space, so the entire perspective would occasionally tilt – it gives me a headache just thinking about it. The volunteers made it clear that we could ask for help if we noticed any issues like this, so this is on me, but it certainly didn’t help the film’s chances.

An older man paces around his study, and a beastly (but nonetheless humanoid) mutant jumps through the window, ready to fight, before the older man gestures to a foggy yellow 3-D image projected above his table, and informs him he has a daughter. There’s some alright acting on display here, but this is fundamentally just a simplistic, button-mashing “rescue the princess” brawler. The most interesting thing about it is the “AR-within-VR” mechanic. You’re in a simulation, wherein you play a guy standing in front of a table – and overlaid on that table is a virtual model of the castle that the mutant man is invading to rescue his daughter. And you’re controlling him, somehow? First you steer him through a HALO jump as surface-to-air missiles hurtle at you (this took several attempts, owing to both the technical glitch and the awkward motion controls, instructions for which only briefly flash in your field of view). Once he reaches the ground, you’re maneuvering him through the castle and brawling with other dudes. Since you’re viewing all of this through the fuzzy yellow hologram model, it felt like an excuse to only have to design two detailed character models – and the combat is uninteresting. Just a joystick and a single button for punching and kicking. It never really feels like you’re controlling what’s going on – just mashing a fast-forward button while the game plays itself. I found myself moving around in space just to view the action from different angles, in an attempt to make it more interesting. Then I gave up.

More info here and here.

Aeronaut

Still from

Directed by David Liu & Rob Ruffler
Hardware: HTC Vive
4 min, USA

This is a  swirl of mixed reality (Microsoft’s phrase for whatever HoloLens is shaping up to be), in the form of a music video. As Billy Corgan (from The Smashing Pumpkins) plays and sings his heart out at the piano, an array of animated colors and leaves and textures swirl all around and overhead. You can get a sense of the visuals from the 2D version below – just imagine that happening all around you. As the player, you’re a sort of colorful mummy figure that can swirl its hand-bandages together in order to create lotus flowers, Chinese lanterns, and sparks of light and color. It’s a fun ride and a decent song.

The non-VR version of this music video is available on YouTube, here. More info here.


The SIFF VR Zone continues for one more day, with six sessions available on Sunday, June 10th, every two hours from 11AM to 9PM.
For tickets, head over to SIFF.net.

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2016 Seattle Shorts Film Festival (Sunday)

SIFF Film Center projection room

The sixth annual Seattle Shorts Film Festival played at the SIFF Film Center this past weekend. I had a chance to preview some of the festival selections, which you can read about in my previous post.


Streets Don’t Love Me

Directed by James Winters
Music performed by TNT, Sir Mix-A-Lot, L.K.

The video is a competent execution of some pretty standard hip-hop tropes – a floating, spinning camera in front of singers with gold records and awards on the wall behind them. The subject matter? Get money, get fame, any way you can. We also see slick footage of the men driving around in cars, with a bit of amber-tinged overhead drone photography of Seattle streets for good measure. And I’d be lying if I said that all of this didn’t please me as a Seattle critic for sheer novelty’s sake, even if it might not impress the spoiled critics from NYC or LA who have presumably seen such a thing before. TNT is a capable and genuinely catchy performer, but Sir Mix-A-Lot is what makes this song truly special. And if there’s one thing that the the man born as Anthony Ray makes abundantly clear the moment he starts smoothly blasting into the mic with his stylish top-hat and signature goatee, it’s that he’s still got it. Is he suckin’ up game? Yes sir. And he’s expounding some history for these youngbloods. The song, and its smooth-voiced chorus by L.K., get downright wistful by the end – these men lament the passage of time and think upon an uncertain future. The themes may be common, but they feel sincere – and sorely needed right now.

Watch it here.

Release Me

Directed by Jeremy J. Hawkes
Music performed by Adalia Tara

I’m not a music critic, but I’m going to try my best here, because this is an odd, mostly a cappella, song that I quite liked in the end, and I think I’ll struggle to explain exactly why. The singer, Adalia Tara, appears in a series of shots wearing various face paints, forming a minor-keyed, percussive harmony with herself (in that deliberately unnerving YouTube-style). The background effect is genuinely ominous, so when Tara bursts out the heroic choral vocals, it creates an instant catharsis as she commands the listener’s respect and attention. And yet, she delivers this demand from multiple vulnerable stances, backlit, kneeling in a robe, and alternating with another interesting shot, which featured no visible singing whatsoever. She writhes and dances, alternately in a squat and on her knees before a black curtain, with a slightly soft focus, her hair unnaturally attacking her head to the beat of the song as she floats out of focus and into the background. The full effect – that of a human as a herky-jerky puppet – set against vocals that proclaim that the broken singer was “never yours to fix”, is hauntingly beautiful.

Watch it here.

Cheatin’

Music performed by Derek Reckley

The singer identifies himself at the outset as a pile of clichés. As the guitar twang’d to life, I initially couldn’t argue, and waited for the aggressively generic country song – featuring a middle-aged singer with an awkward mustache making upbeat love to a muscle car in the desert – to be over. This song actively irritated me even as I hated myself for finding it catchy and shared it with my Carolina wife when I got home. And then he hurtles his wedding ring, it lands in a tight closeup, and one silhouette fades into another and then another. The tires grind, the fighter jets soar overhead, the preposterous poetic voiceover begins, and the perils of Poe’s Law become apparent as always. As the singer wipes the sweat off his brow with the American flag, I was 80% sure it was a pastiche, like Zladko or Gunther or Dewey Cox or Borat. He’s in on the joke. Come on. He has to be. Maybe 70%? This is ridiculous and enjoyable. 63% tops. To be continued? Fuck, I have no idea.

Watch it here.

Calling Me Home

Directed by Tonya Skoog
Music performed by Jessica Lynne

Odd juxtaposition of an upbeat Northwest country song – performed by Jessica Lynne with some slick guitar work standing beside a pickup truck at a lake – with a harrowing dialogue-free drama about an imminent high school grad (Rachelle Henry) finding out that she’s adopted, and embarking on a search for her birth parents. The drama is essentially a silent film playing beneath the song, relying entirely on visual beats (notes and printed materials) and the actors’ performances to carry the emotion of the story and song, starting from the happy family and imminent graduation to the adoption twist. I’ve never quite seen a music video like this – except perhaps attached to a feature soundtrack in the ’90s – it’s a odd hybrid, which is, frankly, exactly the sort of thing I hope to find at a shorts festival. The parts and the whole work quite well, and it all adds up to a tale that feels real enough to be autobiographical for someone involved.

Watch it here.

Oceancrest

Directed by Kyle Woodiel
Music performed by My Body Sings Electric

I’ll skip to the meat of this- much of this video takes place on the gray-sand beaches of the Pacific Northwest, and virtually all of the beach cinematography actively bothered me. The soft focus, speed-ramping, and color manipulation conspired to make a place I love look as generic and bland as possible. I couldn’t connect with the singer’s long lost love when she was in this place, because the artifice of the entire shoot took me right out of her performance. Everything at the police station worked much better, including lead singer Brandon Whalen‘s powerful vocals in front of a suspect line of visibly silent backup singers and catchy, but entirely off-screen electric guitar riffs. All of the on-the-nose imagery seemed determined to drag the love interest back to the beach – as the singer says, “You pick me up”, bam – she’s back on the beach picking up sand. Some of these shots (such as the one above) looked difficult, and probably took a talented cinematographer to pull off. But they amounted to nothing more than a giant, ambiguous distraction. This is a solid song inside of a video that actively and repeatedly made it worse.

Watch it here.

Dying

Directed by Brady Hall
Music performed by Ephrata

This song starts as the very definition of background music – wispy, Enya-type stuff that plays over the emotional climax of a Grey’s Anatomy episode. Then there’s blood dripping sideways from multiple hands, the lead singer is a vampire, everyone’s covered in blood, and a series of shots ensue, oscillating wildly back and forth between hilarious and grotesque. The rotating four-way split shot of heads dripping blood in all four directions was particularly bizarre (and I resisted the temptation to include it above). While grotesquerie isn’t a dealbreaker for me (see my previous praise for the manic weirdos of Die Antwoord), it doesn’t hold any intrinsic appeal for me, and the imagery got a bit repetitive over a song that was equally tedious. As the bridge says, “They don’t know what to say to you, they don’t have the slightest clue.” That ably sums me up.

Watch it here.

Behind the Wall

Written and directed by Bat-Sheva Guez

This experimental short features an injured ballerina (Alexandra Turshen) who has just moved into an old apartment building as she recuperates from a twisted ankle (or some other injury which requires wearing a surgical boot). Having worn one of these boots personally for six weeks once, I immediately bought into the impact on this woman’s life, but the film accentuates it further with the odd, but apropos choice of having her remain completely mute for the entire film. This device is clear, and functions quite well as a mechanism to explore the dancer’s isolation and artistic stagnation as she tackles the long, boring process of recovery. And this is before she discovers the magical holes in her apartment wall that allow her to see her neighbors (Karen Lynn Gorney and Lou Patane) and…herself (also Turshen) in whimsical dance-o-vision. The sound design during these sequences is masterful (and made me glad to be seeing the film in a theater with surround-sound), with the building’s creaks and bangs providing a rhythmic soundtrack for the characters to dance to. This is quite literally the premise of a horror or psychological film put to downright delightful use. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but as Turshen meets her neighbors (who live down the hall, not through the wall she’s been surveilling them through), I just found myself smiling the whole time as the actors performed the delicate vocal dance of interrupting Turshen in perfect cadence to prevent her from responding to the barrage of well-meaning questions for the new girl.

More info here.

Cupido

Directed by Natali Voorthuis
Music performed by The Kik

Simple, fun, and incomplete. The Kik, a Dutch band, reminds me – like Japan’s The Wild Ones before them – that the ’60s beat rock style is catchy in a way that transcends language and time. The song is the upbeat lament of a poor young man with the misfortune to fall in love with a woman already in a relationship. It has the added dimension – only modern insofar as it’s discussed in the open like it ain’t no thing – that the object of his affections is a lesbian (or at least is in a same-sex relationship). And that’s about it. The singer rails merrily against Cupid for being so mischievous as to inflict a doomed crush upon him, and it feels like there’s a third verse missing where the singer gets on with his life. But then, I suppose The Beatles were never really about the three-act structure either. The animation, in a crude Flash-style, was quite fun, and included amusing renditions of Cupid’s other misfired arrows, including one that forces a whale to fall in love with…the planet Mars? Douglas Adams would approve.

Watch it here.

One of them Days

Directed by Cole Brewer
Written by Brewer and Baylee Sinner
Music performed by Lanford Black

This airy college-rock anthem is fine, but the video made it better. The film tells the story of a band having a house party and going on the road, but each shot contains a multitude of implied stories. We meet each band member (and perhaps a few strays), identified on-screen by a single stereotype (The Douche, The Flirt, The Caretaker, etc.) – but every shot of these people told a bit more about them through their performances and invited me to speculate further. One member of the band is clearly not enjoying himself, which is an odd thing to see in a party video, and kept me wondering. I particularly liked the moment when the group mom/Caretaker (Kyle Sinner) squirts everyone with hand sanitizer for an impromptu road bath before a very brief (literally 30 seconds long) performance beneath a freeway overpass that caps off the video. And everyone looks very put-together for it, for having had such a long day and night.

Watch it here.

Before I Die

Directed by Katherine Joy McQueen
Music performed by South of Roan

Look, I love a harmonic duet, particularly with a wide gulf in vocal pitch (usually, but not exclusively, male-female), and this was no exception. South of Roan are a pair of lovely and complementary voices, and the video has significantly better cinematography than some of the others here. That said, I didn’t care for the song or the video. I’ve always found this sort of upbeat death-worship a bit cheesy and off-putting – and this is a song that literally ends with, “And I pray she dies right next to me.” Not exactly the proclamation of love that the video – a great big pile of narratively-ambiguous backwoods imagery, plus furniture-building – is trying to sell me on.

Watch it here.

Lay Me Down

Directed by Tatjana Green & Nazar Melconian & Matt Barnett
Music performed by Fortunate Ones

Now that’s more like it. This video was shot in a static location – a church blooming with almost entirely natural light – but as I seek to describe it further, I find I’m hitting many of the same beats as South of Roan‘s country ballad above. This is another upbeat harmonic duet that’s ostensibly about death – but between the two, this one seems like it actually has something interesting to say. This Newfoundland pair stands back-to-back and belts out the chorus together, but then they perform alternating solo verses. The lyrics – which seem to tell the tale of a mother and father reassuring their daughter that her long-lost love will safely return – evoke a kind of hope amid desperation, like some calamity is waiting to descend upon the family, that they’re desperately and futilely trying to escape. And it’s all very catchy and performed with just the right mix of aggression and sincerity. The vocals are rendered in AM radio static, and the upbeat folk rock style that lands somewhere between The White Stripes and at least one version of The Decemberists. Most enjoyable.

Watch it here.

So it Goes

Written and directed by Justin Carlton

In this short, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a singer-songwriter dealing with a bout of writer’s block in her home studio. After staying up all night and blowing off plans with her sister (clearly not for the first time), she wanders to a lovely park and finds her muse – an unnamed puckish figure in a suit who is attached to a bicycle with a U-Lock. The stranger is played by Ryan Kattner, who also wrote the film’s original music – and the magical realism ensues quickly, as Winstead and Kattner immediately begin a choreographed song-and-dance number set to the music of Van Morrison, and it is magnificent.

My only real beef with this film is that it changed its title from its original Kickstarter pitch. It’s not that Studio Apartment was such a striking title, but a cursory google search (which I used to find the website below) indicates there are approximately ten billion gazillion short films called So It Goes already in existence, and it’s not a title that says very much. This film is a taut little musical delight – and the filmmaker shouldn’t have gone out of his way to make it sound trite. I didn’t mean to rhyme there, but…so it goes.

More info here.


Last Night in Edinburgh

Directed by Bita Shafipour
Written by Shafipour and Christopher M. Boyd

Before I discuss this film, here’s a little free advice for any festival programmers out there. This film was the first in a block called Raising Awareness. It may just be the glut of fake news on Facebook during this election cycle, but I’m just gonna go ahead and say, “awareness” is overrated. Empathy, rationality, understanding, intellectual curiosity? All fine. But people’s attention spans are finite, and by announcing “awareness” as the highest ambition of this block, you’re essentially telling me in advance that all of these films will be Very Special Episodes that I can watch, feel feelings about, and immediately forget. Message films are fine. But in my experience, it’s better when they sneak up on you a bit.

Case in point, Last Night in Edinburgh is a solid family drama about an Indian family in Scotland, and it announced its intentions in the very first scene as a film with an Important Message. That the message is about human trafficking didn’t make it any less clunky. In the scene above, one of the daughters, Zahra (Hiftu Quasem) has a bizarre back-and-forth with her Scottish boyfriend (Ikram Gilani) about a lesson they’d apparently learned recently, that forced marriage and abduction are “still a major problem in certain communities”, and that if you’re about to be abducted out of the country as a young UK girl, you should carry a spoon in your underwear so that it will set off the airport metal detector, as a final salvo to alert the authorities. It’s an entirely useful and helpful message that lands much better when it’s revealed naturalistically at the end of the film. And amid laughing banter between a pair of teenagers, it felt about as naturalistic as product placement for Subway on this blog. That’s Subway. Eat Fresh (Alternate slogan: “Look, we didn’t know. We make sandwiches. We’re not detectives”).

I feel as if I’m harping on this point, but the fact is, this was part of a block of semi-didactic films that mostly managed to deliver their messages less awkwardly, and the film is a pretty well-rendered family drama apart from this. Zahra and her younger sister (Hannah Ord) are about to be shipped out of the country to marry much older men, and their parents (Amir Rahimzadeh and Maryam Hamidi) are not only complicit in this sale of their flesh and blood, but they spend much of the film trying to convince the girls that it is an honor, and they should be happy. It’s disturbing to behold, and all of the actors pull off the tension marvelously.

More info here.

Trapped

Directed by Long Tran

Let’s have some real-talk here for a second. Transgender people aren’t new, but they’re conceptually new to a lot of people this year, and the cisgendered community is still learning the proper language to talk about (and to) them. And against this backdrop, I’ve seen more than a few documentaries of this sort – essentially biopics of a young trans person who is exploring or explaining their new identity. At this point, I’m just happy to see one of these portraits where the story being told is mostly a happy one. Brooklyn (née Bruce) Sabado Buenaventura is a recent high school grad from a Seattle suburb who identifies as a transgender girl, and as told in this 4 1/2 minute documentary (also made by high school students), I’m left inescapably with the impression that she has had a decent life so far. We even see footage of her being made homecoming king and also queen to a cheering gymnasium. And this was immensely satisfying to see, even if, “Teen girl has a mostly okay childhood” really shouldn’t have to be such a “man bites dog” story in 2016.

The most compelling monologue is when Brooklyn explains how she reconciles her faith (and the various people within it who treat her badly) with her gender identity. And she seems to have a healthy attitude about it – that being yourself isn’t a choice, and can never be a sin. We see much of the story filtered through Brooklyn’s YouTube and Instagram channels, and she uses a bit of that characteristic language as well (“I still have my haters”), and what I was left with was an overwhelming hope that she’s as happy as her warm smile suggests. This is a simple story, told mostly from Bruce/Brooklyn’s perspective (she goes alternately by both names). I have to know, as both an optimist and a jaded adult, that Brooklyn’s life is far less simple than a short documentary can tell, but Trapped is ultimately satisfying in its simplicity.

And Long Tran? Let me speak directly to you for a moment. I also made films in high school, but the tools were much cruder, and the results were far less polished. Your lighting, composition, and sense of pace are solid. Keep learning and keep making films.

Watch it here.

Venom Therapy

Written and directed by Steven Murashige

This is obscene. As I watched this story, a well-acted, well-shot drama about a family struggling to deal with the mother (Ashli Dowling)’s Multiple Sclerosis using an ineffective, unscientific, painful, and dangerous treatment of applying bee-stings to her spine, that was the phrase that popped to mind, and stayed in mind as I glared at the screen for the duration of the film. It didn’t matter to me that the child (Nikki Hahn)’s pain and courage, or the father (Kenzo Lee)’s love, felt unwavering and authentic. That the family’s desperation felt real. Because this played like propaganda, and I kept waiting for the moment when the mother would suddenly get up and start walking as the treatment miraculously starts working.

That moment never came. After a well-rendered dramatic climax in which the child is forced to drive both of her parents to the hospital, what popped up instead was a title card from the writer/director, dedicating the film to his parents, who battled MS by each other’s side for 47 years. And the film instantly went from obscene to tragic to…kind of poignant. I should probably mention, the internet has put me relentlessly on guard against unscientific medical practices ever since Andrew Wakefield first lied to the world about vaccines causing autism. As people bandy about the disingenuous rhetoric of “What’s the harm?” in order to peddle their own nonsensical “alternative” miracle cure to an intractable disease, I can provide innumerable real-world answers – the blood of needlessly dead children and adults who could – in most cases – have been saved or had their life improved with real medicine. What I’m admitting here is, my opposition to this film was transparently ideological. And in that opposition, I did the film a disservice. Venom Therapy depicts a labor of love in the service of family, and it never crossed the line that I assumed it was edging toward – inventing a fictitious happy ending.

I’ll let Murashige explain himself.

“It can be so isolating for those with MS and their family members because the experience and life-changes brought on by MS are so profound and so unique. I hope this film allows others to feel that they are not alone in their struggle and that it sheds a sliver of light on the experience of life with MS. If this film can do that in some small way, perhaps my parents can feel that their suffering has not been in vain.”

 

I feel anger and pity for the pain that the fictionalized mother endures. Perhaps some of it was needless. But much of it was inevitable. There is truth and poignancy here, even if the level of objectivity is uncertain. And that truth is in the love depicted between these family members who are doing the best they can, and the son who is struggling to tell his family’s story.

More info here.

Creased


Written and directed by Jade Justad

Kayla (Lizzie Lee) is a Chinese-American high school senior at a mainly white high school who is considering getting double eyelid surgery. This was a beauty standard I had been aware of, as there are many East Asian pop stars who have famously (allegedly) gotten the surgery to look more “Western”. I have no earthly idea whether this standard of beauty originated in the US or Asia, but I will say, the film depicted two things masterfully as it explored this cosmetic notion in the context of an American high school. First, Asians are seemingly the last group remaining in the US that it’s relatively socially acceptable to mock, stereotype, alternately sexualize or desexualize depending on the context, etc. And second, white people can be real experts at gaslighting minorities. Make a racist joke, lament political correctness, then tell em to calm down as they react like humans. It’s easy to see the resonance of this pattern this year, and the film makes this point well without feeling didactic. Indeed, the dialogue feels quite naturalistic, and this plays mostly like an ordinary coming-of-age film amid Kayla’s dilemma. Apart from Lee herself (who ably sells it), Rachelle Henry (who also appeared in Calling Me Home above) is a particular delight as Kayla’s best friend, and it is between these two that much of the film’s emotional range comes into play. These two are able to be more honest with each other than with anyone else in the film, and that level of candor isn’t always pretty.

More info here.

Piece of Cake

Written and directed by Ella Lentini

This is a satisfying love story told through flashbacks, right as it starts to get rough in the present day. Ever since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this media res romantic storytelling has been a favorite tool of mine, and the film manages to sell a meet-cute at a costume party quite well in a limited space of time, owing a great deal to the ambiance and chemistry between the characters, Alex (Lentini) and Jessie (Shannon Beveridge). The editing is quite slick, cutting seamlessly between the dour present and blissful past (my favorite cut was from Jessie cracking an egg…to Jessie cracking an egg in happier times). Their conflict is that Jessie is still in the closet with her parents, who are about to visit them in New York. They know about her significant other, Alex…but they think she’s a man.

The film’s website prominently mentions National Coming Out Day, so it’s pretty clear who the target demographic is for the film’s message. The dilemma is ultimately quite satisfying. Explicit metaphors always put me on guard, but the titular piece of cake works rather well for the short-form medium. Cake is a fine stand-in for home, family, and domesticity – and Jessie’s choice to either reinforce or blow up her parents’ expectations of her as a young [straight] woman living on her own is essential to the character’s dilemma. She can still deliver that cake to her parents, even if it doesn’t quite meet their old-fashioned expectations. And if they love their daughter, they’ll take a bite and be glad of it.

More info here.

Bunee: The Boy from Constanta

Directed by Bunee Tomlinson

A compelling personal narrative about a boy adopted from Romania at the age of six. Under Ceaușescu’s communist government, all forms of birth control were banned in Romania, and the entirely expected result was a glut of overcrowded, substandard orphanages. I visited a handful of these orphanages myself in 2001, and – at least for the ones I saw – the conditions had improved significantly. But this is a look back to the early 1990s, right after the communist government had fallen – and things were in bad shape. The story is mostly told through home movies (which gradually improve in quality and resolution over the course of Bunee’s childhood), intercut with interviews with his parents explaining what it was like raising a child plucked away from everything he had ever known. It’s a harrowing tale of love, made so by the parents’ confident retelling – in fact, the film feels mostly like Tommy and Susan Tomlinson‘s story, since Bunee is a child having a tricky upbringing for most of it, and he doesn’t really take the reins explicitly until he is revealed (through a series of photos) to have a escalating interest in film as he becomes a teenager and then an adult.

Bunee Tomlinson is the director of this film, so it’s entirely his story. But by telling it in such a third-person, hands-off manner for so much of the film’s runtime, he invites introspection on his parents’ part about what the hardest parts were about raising him. Some of the film’s most touching moments come from his parents’ moving reflections on Bunee remembering or rehashing something from the orphanage, explicitly or implicitly. His mother tells of him throwing a sippy cup on the ground, and looking at her expectantly, as if – she tears up while saying this – there had been no one to do that for him at the orphanage. It’s unclear whether this is true or not. It’s unclear whether Bunee left it in as confirmation, or because his mother’s love for him was the truth of that scene. But either way, the moment was powerful. There was a full cycle of appreciation and backlash on Richard Linklater‘s 12-year opus, Boyhood, but what ultimately makes that film so poignant is not its script, but rather our instinctual and cultural affinity for watching a child grow up, even when it’s fictionalized. That’s the monomyth – family, life, and a dream of a happy child becoming a happy adult. It’s the only story that we all strive to experience personally, and it’s a powerful thing to see rendered in short form, with the storyteller revealed to be its very subject. This one stuck with me.

More info here.

2016 Seattle Shorts Film Festival (Preview)

SIFF Film Center projection room

The sixth annual Seattle Shorts Film Festival will be at the SIFF Film Center starting tonight and running through Sunday – tickets are still available. I’ve had a chance to preview some of the festival selections below – I’ve noted at the bottom of each review when the film can be seen at the Film Center this weekend.


Lemonade Mafia

Still from

Directed by Anya Adams
Written by Keith Edie

Lemonade Mafia depicts a girl named Kira (Marsai Martin) who gleefully runs a ruthless price-fixing lemonade cartel – all-natural, yellow, made from freshly squeezed organic lemons. When a competing lemonade outfit moves into the neighborhood, slinging pink lemonade loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, Kira has to unleash every ruthless mafia trick in the book. The last of these is government corruption, when a city health inspector played by Community‘s Yvette Nicole Brown, shows up to shut down her competition. This was an unfortunate casting choice, as it served only to remind me that Community‘s depiction of a college chicken-finger cartel managed to tell a much more compelling story than the checklist of mafia tropes that are gleefully ticked off one by one here. There’s really no arc for the girl to speak of. Following many threats of kid-violence against Xboxes and comic books, Kira is at the top of the citrus game, and the film ends with a baffling, out-of-nowhere voiceover – “Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.” And yes, it’s just setup for a genuinely amusing visual gag. But it spoke to the film’s greater interest in being cute than telling an actual story. If this wasn’t confirmation enough, a three-minute rap recitation of the short’s entire script plays over the end credits.

Lemonade Mafia will be playing in:
“Women in Film” Block, Saturday 11/12, 3:50PM
More info here
.

Cab Elvis

Still from

Directed by Andrew Franks

This is a fun little documentary about an Elvis-impersonating Seattle cabbie named Dave Groh. The story is told mostly by Dave himself, with the visual aid of the various press clippings from when he began to get international media exposure. It was this exposure that got him in a bit of trouble with his boss and eventually the city, which apparently had a boring, black-pants-and-a-blue-shirt dress code for cabbies at the time. But after this legal spat is amicably resolved, I assumed the story – a fine capsule segment of This American Life, perhaps – was over. But then things get dark and strange for a bit. Dave contains multitudes, but his rationale for why he’s doing his Elvis bit is simple and straightforward – that the “reservoir of love” that Elvis left behind is bottomless. Notwithstanding whatever demons of drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll that he consumes while soaking in it, it’s hard to argue with that reservoir’s appeal. Especially when it includes backseat karaoke.

Cab Elvis will be playing in:
“Made in Washington” Block, Sunday 11/13, 4:45PM.
More info here
.

Michelle

Poster for

Written and directed by Kendra Ann Sherrill

This is awkward. A group of twenty-something high school boys sit in a 60s diner sharing some stilted expositional banter about their group’s newest member, Doug (Nich Witham), and apparently the slender thread that binds them all together (apart from strained line delivery) is their shared sexual history with a foxy lady named Michelle (Victoria James), whom Doug’s gang of miscreants assure him is the “free love type,” and who happened to have just walked in. Naturally, the new guy is pressured to wander over and get his “Michelle story”. The group of women that he approaches is just as limited as his own posse – “That’s Jennifer, the mean one,” one says, “And I’m Georgia. The sensible one.” This is the extent of their characters and dialogue.

It gets a bit less awkward once Doug and Michelle are alone, as Witham and James are noticeably better actors than the rest of the ensemble – but nothing can save a premise this thin. Michelle quickly tells Doug that all of the sex stories about her are false, then proceeds to sum up each of his boys with equally one-dimensional character descriptions. Spoiler alert: One of them has daddy issues. But the two of them are no better. Doug is a blank slate who just wants to have friends (and says exactly this, twice), and Michelle’s cooperation in her own character assassination – or interest of any kind in its latest perpetrator – is never made coherent or convincing. Hard pass.

Michelle will be playing in:
“Made in Washington” Block, Sunday 11/13, 4:45PM.
More info here
.

A Walk in Winter

Still from

Directed by Ryan Moody
Screenplay by Jessica Nikkel, based on short story by Robert Boswell

A man comes back to his hometown to face his childhood demons in winter – and I’ll be blunt; I would not have thought that a story this severe could work so well in short form. James Franco (also the film’s producer) plays Conrad sad, quiet, and dark – reminiscent of his turn in flawed, but equally captivating True Story – and the mystery that plays out between Conrad, the town sheriff (Jack Kehler), and his childhood friend Abigail (Abigail Spencer) feels substantial enough by the end that it could probably hold together a feature, if such an endeavor wouldn’t plunge the audience into darkness. The flashback that occurs in parallel contains some nice visual touches, from the series of gorgeous static winter landscapes that start the film, to its willful avoidance of showing a certain character’s face before the end. This is riding right on the edge of exploitation, but Franco never overplays his hand. This is a character who has had a long time to live with his wounds, and it shows, even if we’re not quite sure why until the end.

A Walk in Winter will be playing in:
“Stars in Shorts” Block, Saturday 11/12, 2:00PM.
More info here
.

Frontman

Still from

Directed by Matthew Gentile
Written by Gentile and Corey Wilcosky

125 shows, six continents, six months. Rockstar Jodie Stone (Kristoffer Polaha) has a long tour ahead of him, and his doctor picked this highly inconvenient moment to diagnose him (apparently not for the first time) with an acoustic neuroma, which – if untreated, will result in him going deaf.

His manager tells him, “Your first show is tomorrow. You have, like, 24 hours to make up your mind.”

And that’s the moment that the film’s ambitions came together, and I realized how hard it was trying to imitate everything from Almost Famous to 25th Hour to The Wrestler, and the final moment of the film (in which the singer rocks out on-stage and goes deaf as the credits roll) became crystal clear. I wrote that sentence in the 8th minute of the film, and while I’m disinclined to change a word of it now that the film is over, I will say that it did a slightly better job than expected of showing rather than telling.

The film is technically well-made, with an ably-executed 90-second tracking shot through Stone’s fancy house. As he wanders the house half-naked playing his guitar, we see his household help, a line of 5-7 adoring fans outside the gate, and the trappings of fame – and it all felt a bit empty as I slowly drifted off to sleep (an utterly gratuitous blowjob montage hammers this point home further if it wasn’t clear enough). But at all times, even as I found the plotting a bit obvious, the one thing I cared most about was Jodie himself – it’s Polaha’s performance that holds the film together. The actor previously starred in Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow‘s odd, mean-spirited little short, Home Base, about a jilted boyfriend getting revenge on his cheating ex by sleeping with her mom. I’ve seen him in a handful of TV roles since, always serving as a grounding presence for whatever high concept he embodies. He sings well, he acts well, and he sold the dilemma in his performance (including some masterful physical tics), even if the script did a lesser job of doing the same.

Frontman will be playing in:
“Musical Cinema Block” Block, Sunday 11/13, 10:00AM.
More info here.
Watch online here.

Her & Me

Still from

Directed by Shelby Hadden

This documentary is a delightful and utterly fascinating chronicle of real-life twin siblings. It begins with a staccato series of on-camera interviews – basically just sets of twins (adults and children) briefly interacting with one another, cracking jokes, discussing whether they dressed the same or differently as children, etc. Most of the twins (especially the adults) are fairly distinct, but some of the differences are subtle. A pair of adult brothers, Dennis and Chris, look quite different initially. Dennis, with a larger build, narrates to the camera while Chris, with a baseball cap, has a skinnier face and looks at him in profile. Then he turns to face the camera and speak, and they looked identical once again. Another pair, Sheena and Alisha, have completely distinct hairstyles, with one wearing long, braided segments, and the other keeping her hair short, straight, and up. A pair of middle-aged women (who look quite distinct) discuss how one of them wanted to wear dresses, and the other wanted to wear pants, and how this was sufficiently concerning for their mother to take them to the doctor and ask if that was acceptable. One pair of sisters have distinct appearances and sexual orientations. And so on.

And then there’s Allie and Gabby Byers, the film’s primary subjects. 22 years old, about to graduate college, these women are inseparable, identically dressed, and always smiling in each other’s presence, speaking in parallel, and completing each other’s sentences. They share identical jobs, internships, and side-jobs, as well as hobbies and interests. They are living, essentially, an identical life. Their parents (amusingly, Jerry and Terri) discuss their laissez-faire approach, ignoring the girls’ teachers’ advice about how they spend too much time together, and it’s unhealthy… But they just didn’t care, and said it was up to the girls to decide. Then Terri tells a sweet little anecdote about how distinct their personalities were as babies – the sort of thing only a parent would notice. It’s all very nice and only a little unsettling.

“That is pathological,” says Chris bluntly. The rest of the twins evince a more subdued mix of judgment and compassion, but they all have a pretty similar reaction that what they’re seeing in the Byers twins is unusual in women their age. When Allie and Gabby are interviewed individually (each conveniently placed in a consistent position on the couch for identification purposes), it’s clear that they’re never quite comfortable apart from each other, and that this is something they’re aware of, and have discussed as they consider the next chapter in their lives after college. This chapter may take them somewhere together, or split them apart. It’s difficult to judge any loving family relationship when it clearly makes the participants so happy – except perhaps when they speak of their outside romantic life in unfavorable, but mostly hypothetical, terms – so all that I’m left with as a viewer is just a vague sense that however intense or unusual their bond may be, they’re probably (hopefully?) going to figure out their lives and be fine. And for most near college grads, that’s probably par for the course.

Her & Me will be playing in:
“Women in Film” Block, Saturday 11/12, 3:50PM
More info here
.

One final note…

This is normally where I put a list of which films are available for viewing online. While I won’t be doing that for this preview segment, I did want to call attention to one of my favorite short film selections from last year, Best Man Wins. After completing its festival run, the film is now available on iTunes. Check it out here.