FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #107 – “Wonder Woman” (dir. Patty Jenkins), “Glory” (dir. Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov) (#SIFF2017)

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In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel are back at the Seattle International Film Festival to check out a lovely Bulgarian political satire. Then Diana (Gal Gadot) shows up to wreck the place by hand and sword, and we can’t complain, because it turns out she’s pretty awesome when not saddled with a lame mystery B-plot (48:06).

May contain NSFW language.

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FilmWonk rating (Glory): 8 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Wonder Woman): 7.5/10 (Glenn), 7/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • [00:24] Review: Glory
  • [17:25] Review: Wonder Woman
  • [35:49] Spoilers: Wonder Woman
  • Music for this episode is the track, “Dance for Tomorrow” by Stop the Schizo from the soundtrack to Glory, and the track, “Angel On the Wing” from the Wonder Woman score by Rupert Gregson-Williams.
  • Correction: Spread the word on this one – we (and many others) have been mispronouncing Gadot’s last name. It’s not French-style, with a silent T – it’s Israeli-style, with a solid T. The actress previously made a video to address the issue (thanks to Dan A. for pointing this out).
  • Correction: Dr. Maru (“Dr. Poison”) was actually played by Spanish actress Elena Anaya. The actress from Force Majeure, Lisa Loven Kongsli, played Menalippe, one of the Amazons, and she’s actually Norwegian, not Swedish.
  • Correction: To complete the trifecta, we made a casual reference to a character played by “Kat Denning” in Thor. The actress’ name is Kat Dennings.

Listen above, or download: Wonder Woman, Glory (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

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FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #105 – “Time Trap” (dir. Ben Foster, Mark Dennis) (#SIFF2017)

Poster for "Time Trap"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel jump into their favorite perennial time-bubble, the Seattle International Film Festival (which opens today!) (20:38).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

There are three public screenings of Time Trap at SIFF 2017, two of them this weekend (Friday 5/19 and Saturday 5/20), and another on 5/30 up in Shoreline. Check out the film’s SIFF page for tickets and details.

Show notes:

Listen above, or download: Time Trap (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

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.

Seattle’s One-Reel Film Festival 2015 – Sunday 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 Saturday’s films


Documentaries Hour 2

  1. Artsquatch (Director: Taylor Grigsby, USA, 22 minutes)

    Ryan Henry Ward, artist and visual arts curator for Washington’s annual Sasquatch Music Festival, says in a talking-head segment that he selects artists based on their ability to communicate effectively about their art to the public. This is one of several selection criteria he gives over the course of the film, but it certainly the most ironic, given that his interminably long interview segments are extremely rambling and repetitive. As a film, Artsquatch is visually interesting because the Sasquatch festival is visually interesting, made so by both the natural scenery of The Gorge amphitheater, as well as Ward and his fellow installation and costume artists featured here.

    But this is some sloppy filmmaking. The featured art doesn’t make the wobbly cinematography or sound mix any less awkward. If the film does anything consistently well, it’s to capture the wandering chaos of attending a music and arts festival in the middle of nowhere. But the structure is quite loose, and it encapsulates maybe 10 minutes of material in a 22-minute wrapper. Each interview could be improved by cutting the first 3-5 sentences while the subject figures out what they’re trying to say (or in at least one case, literally performs an on-camera mic-check). This looseness is evident in the editing, with random interstitial shots and a torrent of all-caps name introductions that add little, if nothing to understanding the art featured behind them.

    In the final minutes, we see footage of a man shooting footage from atop a UHaul truck (seemingly the pan of the emptying Gorge that we saw earlier in the film), followed by footage of two men on the back of a truck debating whether the joke that was just (not on camera) constitutes sufficiently “important shit” to be included in the film, followed by one last monologue from Ward explaining how great it would be to have a time-lapse of the festival setup and teardown – a time-lapse that does not appear in the film.

    There’s a fine line between free form and self-indulgence, and this amateur doc leaps across it several times. Art is perilous and bold, but the patience of its audience is not without limit. Many sacred cows needed to be butchered in the editing room to make this watchable.

    Watch it online here.

  2. Bounce, this is not a freestyle movie (Director: Guillaume Blanchet, Canada, 5 minutes)

    Where the hell is Matt?-style musical travelogue featuring a man (Blanchet) traveling around the world and shooting a few seconds at a time of himself in beautiful spots around the world. Rather than toddler-dancing, Bounce features its subject knee-bouncing a soccer ball in time with a strong musical beat, making its editing a bit trickier, as it had to both sync with the beat of the song and seamlessly transition from starting an action in one location to completing it in another.

    It’s quite fun, if a bit more inwardly focused than Matt, with which it draws inexorable comparisons*. It’s a subtle difference, but Matt Harding seemingly performed his goofball dance in order to connect with the people and places he was visiting, whereas if this film has any abiding message, it’s just… Look at all the cool places I’ve been. With few exceptions, nearly every frame of this film is devoid of any other people besides Blanchet himself. Travel is seldom as bereft of purpose and connection as depicted here, and I have to imagine that in the course of making these videos, Blanchet interacted with a great many peoples, cultures, and places along the way. We get the occasional hint of this during the actual film, then the floodgates open from a final hug into an end-credits reel that’s nearly as long as the film itself, and far and away the most entertaining segment. This is a smaller criticism than it sounds like. I enjoyed Bounce overall. But to boast so proudly in the title about what it is not, the film needs to be able to more clearly answer the question of what it is. Otherwise it’s just a stunt, however enjoyable that might be for a minute.

    Watch it online here – also, watch Globe Trot, a film with a similar concept from last year.

  3. Tomgirl* (Director: Jeremy Asher-Lynch, USA, 15 minutes)

    This doc tells a tale of a kid named Jake – born a boy, and acting like a girl. There are other terms that get mentioned – transgender, transvestite, homosexual, etc. – that may eventually describe Jake as well. But seeing a kid just be himself at the age of 7 illustrates just how useless these terms are until the kid is old enough to adopt them (or not) for himself. Kids will be kids, and this film is a well-balanced mix of both a professional explaining trans issues and gender non-conformity from a psychological standpoint, and a family that is so open and accepting of their atypical son that they hardly seem to need such help. This doc is well-paced, adeptly shot, and never lingers too long on any of the adults talking about Jake before cutting back to him doing his thing and feelin’ fine. The film ably sells the notion that kids like this are never “the problem”, until other kids or adults in their lives decide to make them such. In a world where the risk of suicide and homicide is so high among transgender people, the film’s easygoing attitude about such kids surprisingly feels like the best approach. It doesn’t elevate this to the life or death issue that it may eventually become, but it takes the situation appropriately seriously.

    More info and trailer here.


Best of the Northwest 2

  1. Chasing the Sun (Director: Jeremy Mackie, USA, 12 minutes)

    A pair of Northwest hippie siblings are on a roadtrip across Washington State to visit their long-lost even-bigger-hippie mother, who left them many years earlier. Mom is a ghost in this film, as the only real relationship on display is between brother and sister. And while not every piece of dialogue worked, their performances certainly did. Caleb (Jesse Lee Keeter) is angry at his sister Celeste (Samara Lerman) for dragging him into a reunion that he didn’t want or need in his life, but she gradually draws out his willingness to go along with her mendacious plan. The mix of frustration and familial affection between them is clear and evident on-screen – and when they reach the point of shouting back and forth at each other, it verges on melodrama, but never took me out of the film.

    Not for nothing, but I’ve driven the stretch of Thurston County interstate highway where this film was shot many times. Looks like a beautiful place for a family crisis.

    More info here.

  2. Julia’s Farm (Director: Sudeshna Sen, USA, 16 minutes)

    There’s not much to this story. It features a pair of women who embark on an ill-conceived scheme of insurance fraud together. Like the Coen Bros, it’s a morality play of greed, crime, and punishment. Unlike the Coen Bros, it’s simplistic and obviously rendered, has an awkward and implausible script, and features an overbearing afterthought of a musical score.

    More info here.

  3. Luchadora (Director: Amber Cortes, USA, 8 minutes)

    After Artsquatch, this film was a welcome guide for how to tightly edit a documentary – it’s colorful, shot well, and gets to its point quickly. The main player, a budding Northwest luchadora named La Avispa (“The Wasp”), is a compelling interview subject, speaking with eloquence and enthusiasm about ditching college in favor of “joining the circus”, in the form of a Renton, Washington training gym for lucha libre (Mexican wrestling). It helps that she delivers this entire monologue in her luchadore mask, with all the flare of American pro wrestling (something she’s apparently not a fan of herself). The film effectively introduces a little-known Northwest take on an out-of-town sport (one that I’m rather interested in seeking out now) through the lens of a budding theatrical stuntwoman who’s thoroughly entertaining to watch.

    On a personal note, I’m glad I liked this film. The director, Amber Cortes, was literally sitting next to me as I typed the first draft of these notes (in the back row, over the end credits – I’m not a monster), so it might’ve been terribly awkward otherwise.

    More info here.

  4. Signs Everywhere* (Director: Julio Ramirez, USA, 12 minutes)

    A man wearing earbuds (Tony Doupe) wanders around Seattle. Everywhere he goes – from home to work to his commute – he sees people in pain, as rendered by simple cardboard signs held by each person, summing up their particular pain or baggage. His own family isn’t exempt – his daughter hates her body, his son is being bullied at school, and his wife longs to feel desired again. Without exception, each person that he comes across is experiencing pain and misery. After twenty or thirty of these uniformly miserable people, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this simplistic storytelling dynamic – literally the stuff of sitcoms – was striving for anything greater than blasting subtext at the screen without having to earn it in character or script.

    But there were two things that made this film work so well. First, the performances were uniformly strong. Even if the character only has a single line of text to work with, each actor or actress spells out real pathos and depth even in just a moment of screentime. The film’s emotional tapestry, spelled out in a nearly complete absence of dialogue, is thorough. But its second strength was casting reasonable doubt on the clairvoyance of the man at the center. If he is really just this adept at sensing the misery around him, he wouldn’t be much more than a facile storytelling device. But the film ends on a note of uncertainty, perhaps revealing what’s really happening with this character – that his grand insightful tableau of sadness may just be a projection of his own miserable life. There’s something gravely amiss with him, and by the end of the film, he seems just about ready to stop dealing with it alone.

    More info here.


 

Films4Adults

  1. Best Man Wins* (Director: Stéphane Dumonceau, USA, 20 minutes)

    This film features a spurned husband, master chef Edward Stiles (Tim DeKay) setting an elaborate trap for his wife’s secret lover, master vintner Jean-Louis Vachon (François Vincentelli). I don’t hesitate to reveal that setup, because this film is not shy about revealing its intentions, and it remains an absolute delight after doing so. From its initial setup, in which Stiles manufactures a “chance encounter” with Vachon on a flight from Paris to New York, every moment and line of dialogue is filled with palpable and escalating tension. The best phrase I have for this is “Tabloid Hitchcock”, with a subtle spritz of Edgar Allen Poe for good measure. Its premise is over-the-top – lifestyles of the rich and famous put through a tense filter of infidelity, friendship, and cat-and-mouse betrayal, serenaded by a grand and zany musical score from newcomer Luca Ciut. The script, co-written by Dumonceau and Frederick Waterman, is certainly one of the finest that I saw today – a feast of intrigue and tension and humor so decadent that I fear to see in a feature-length version, which would surely collapse me into a deep and diabetic slumber before the digestifs are poured. Magnifique.

    More info and trailer here.
    Buy on iTunes here.

  2. Hole (Director: Martin Edralin, Canada, 15 minutes)

    This film is utterly mystifying. Its final scene is so far on the fringes of human behavior that it’s an outstanding reveal that I dare not spoil here. The film is a successor to a film like The Sessions, presenting the unexpected experiences of a severely disabled man while somehow avoiding gawking at him. Here he is, watch how he lives. It’s not boring, and the reveal is worth it.

    More info and trailer here.

  3. The Mill at Calder’s End (Director: Kevin McTurk, USA, 14 minutes)

    This film almost feels like the product of a dare. Can puppets be used to tell genuinely terrifying gothic horror? The film features many intricate carved characters, each with a subtle look of sadness and worry on its face. And the rest of the emotional range is accomplished by a mix of talented voice-acting (mostly in the form of Jason Flemyng‘s voiceover narration as the lead, Nicholas Grimshaw) and an elaborate interplay of light and flickering shadow across the carved faces (kudos to cinematographer Kenton Drew Johnson). They don’t look alive, per se, but they nearly look animated. The result is something akin to Japanese Noh theatre, where the emotional interplay is slow and deliberate, and reflected across the faces of masks that are never removed (the director mentions bunraku puppetry as an influence). At a certain point, we do see a few of the puppets’ lips move. And while I’m still undecided whether I consider this a misstep, it is at least a jarring change in look and technique that amounted to a slight distraction.

    But did I mention that the film is terrifying? The Mill isn’t just a technical marvel – utilizing a mix of what appear to be models, live actors (shot from a distance or in shadow), and real-life skies and backgrounds – but it’s also a taut and effective piece of Gothic horror. Director Kevin McTurk, a model-maker with an impressive array of special effects credits from the Stan Winston Studio and others, builds tension marvelously through increasingly tricky camera angles in and around the mill, often looking straight up or down from impossibly close angle on a model or puppet.

    More info and trailer here.

  4. Stealth (Director: Bennett Lasseter, USA, 22 minutes)

    I recall earlier this year when a whiny filmmaker at a college festival complained that the “SJW” crowd had coopted the film festival process – that any story featuring an oppressed minority would gain traction and receive awards and accolades, while his [genuinely unwatchable schlock] would be ignored and shunned. I mention this because this is the second story I’ve seen today about transgender issues, and two is by far the most of these stories I’ve ever seen at once. One could certainly take that to mean that my objectivity in judging the film will fly out the window in the face of novelty and social pressure, but one would be profoundly arrogant to do so.

    Yes, this is all pretty new to me. And if the national media is any indication, it’s pretty new for most of us. But merely presenting something novel is not enough to make me feel something as a viewer or critic. Merely prodding my prejudices and forcing me to experience a way of living that’s different from my own is not enough. Emotional resonance doesn’t exist in a cultural void, but it’s still something that must be judged from within the text of each film. It’s what allowed me to adore Cloud Atlas and (so far) find Sense8 a bit preachy and self-indulgent. To hate myself for watching all of Entourage, but still masochistically enjoy the films of Michael Bay. Knowing that someone might be judged unfairly by smallminded bigots doesn’t make me shy away from judging them as fairly as I can.

    So when I say that these performances feel utterly real, and that this film was alternately touching, provocative, and devastating, you should know that I mean exactly that. The main character, Sammy (Kristina Hernandez), is an eleven-year-old transgender girl dealing with life at a new middle school. She has a close relationship with her mother (Liana Arauz), with whom she shares many of the film’s most tense and touching scenes. We get a hint that some serious unpleasantness befell Sammy at her old school, and while we never quite learn what it is, it hangs as a persistent threat for the rest of the film as she gets to know a pair of new girlfriends. Hernandez is affecting in the role (which is apparently a semi-fictitious version of herself). I’ll repeat what I said for Tomgirl above – these kids are never “the problem”, until somebody makes them so. This girl wants the same things as any other child – and the freedom to seek them out. And this film illuminates just how complex that process can be.

    More info here.

  5. Unleaded (Director: Luke Davies, UK, 8 minutes)
    A delightful, coincidental yarn about a gas station robbery colliding with stoner drama. Veers into the slapstick violent realm of Guy Ritchie, even if the scenario and details strain credulity a bit more than his stuff – but none of that matters while watching this. It’s still a ton of fun.

    More info here.

  6. Walls (Director: Miguel López Beraza, Spain, 10 minutes)
    A tenement building in Budapest narrates a day in the life of its two favorite residents, a pair of elderly neighbors named Mr. Istvan and Mrs. Magdi. In English, with a Spanish accent. It’s perhaps a testament to this film’s sensitive and resonant portrayal of its subjects that I was left unsure whether this is fiction or not. After the film, it identified itself as a documentary, but all I can say with any certainty is that it’s a pleasant and touching slice of life – the embodiment of a happy ending to a life well-lived. We only learn a small amount of each of them, but Mr. Istvan and Mrs. Magdi each live lives that are active, social, and surrounded by people who enjoy their company. The film uses a literal embodiment of “if these walls could talk” to add to its sense of warmth and closeness, but it never feels like a salve for the loneliness of its main characters. The building doesn’t express its love for them because no one else will – the building cares for them because it sees how many others do so as well. We should all be so fortunate.

    More info and trailer here.




Quick List: All of the films that are available online

Seattle’s One-Reel Film Festival 2015 – 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


Films4Families

  1. Bear Story (Director: Gabriel Osorio, Chile, 11 minutes)

    This film tells a deep, dark story of a bear taken from his family by a dictatorial circus regime. Given the film’s Chilean origin, this seems to be a real-life tale of oppression molded into a child-friendly wrapper. I’m inclined to say the film erred by using the mechanical diorama aesthetic as a literal framing device rather than a mere visual style. The visuals of the diorama are stunning, but implausible enough as a physical streetside object to be distracting. The film could have merely adopted the style for amusement’s sake without deigning to explain it, if not for it literally being shown to a [bear] child on the side of the road. But I daresay that the reluctant satisfaction on the adult bear’s face at the end made it worth it as a framing device.

    Teaching painful history to young people in a way that doesn’t feel like medicine is a difficult task, and for this bear to have to craft his lifelong oppression into a quick, consumable format to entertain (and educate) one child at a time clearly takes a toll on him. But he’ll keep at it, if it means keeping that message alive. The film makes this subtle point rather well, even if it has to dazzle and distract a bit with its visuals before sneaking that message in.

    More info and trailer here.

  2. Bunny New Girl (Director: Natalie van den Dungen, Australia, 6 minutes)

    Never work with children or animals, so the saying goes in filmmaking. This film seemingly violates both rules, featuring a shy little girl on her first day of school wearing a paper-plate bunny mask, evoking a quick sense of schoolday dread. To her classmates, the weird kid is weird, and must be called out as such immediately. The girl’s eyes tell a story of childhood dread despite a complete lack of dialogue, and once the true meaning of this weirdness becomes clear, the story quickly takes a turn for a tale of kindness and inclusion. It’s all very sweet and funny and cute.

    More info and trailer here.

  3. Lila (Director: Carlos Lascano, Argentina, 9 minutes)

    During the first minutes of Lila, in which the title character wanders through the city rendering everyday things and people into whimsical colored pencil sketches in her magical reality-altering sketchbook (which eventually comes to life to move in a 2D plane and affect reality), I experienced two simultaneous reactions.

    First, this is all visually well-staged, and second…why is Lila in this film? She seems almost a whimsical addition herself – a projection of the filmmaker into the story, meant to hand-feed us the emotion that we’re meant to experience for each little vignette. She’s not a necessary component, and the eventual attempt to humanize her by telling a bit of her ambiguous backstory visually doesn’t do much to justify her presence. It’s no fault of the actress, who does a fine job at being a manic pixie sketch-girl, but every sketched scene would have been fine without her.

    Watch it online here.

  4. Pik Pik Pik (Director: Dmitry Vysotskiy, Russia, 4 minutes)

    A satisfying “Merry Melodies” throwback featuring a flat, bright 2D animation style and rhythmic classical underscore for its silly tale of environmental unsustainability.

    More info here.

  5. Ray’s Big Idea* (Director: Steve Harding-Hill, United Kingdom, 4 minutes)

    This film’s animation is beautifully ugly. Each hideously overcrowded frame is pristinely rendered with the detail of something like ILM’s Rango, with each unique character and visual detail grandly crafted for no more than a few seconds of screentime apiece. The film’s core concept is the first prehistoric fish who thought to leave the ocean on his tiny little legs, and it renders that concept with a nice, wry sense of humor. Then it takes several hilarious (and gross-looking) turns from there.

    Watch it here.

  6. Submarine Sandwich (Director: PES, USA, 2 minutes)

    A sandwich is built through live-action stop-motion animation, turning inedible objects into slices of sports memorabilia that loosely resemble a sub sandwich. I’ve said this before; stop-motion involving live humans is a creepy aesthetic that I rather enjoy, but here’s the thing – not everyone can do this as well as Jan Svankmajer, and his creativity was creepy in the service of some sort of message or atmospheric objective. This just felt like a technical exercise by someone who was perhaps a casual fan, but didn’t quite know what to do with the look. The timing felt off, shots lingered for too long, and there were awkward shifts in zoom and framing for no discernible purpose. The result is cute, but ultimately derivative, and doesn’t do a great deal to justify its existence. Other than making an indigestible thing that kinda resembles something else.

    Addendum: It seems PES is also the filmmaker behind “Fresh Guacamole,” from 2013. I now believe even more strongly that this was little more than a technical exercise, but Guacamole was at least a better execution of the concept. Even if adding diced tomato to guac is an abomination.

    Watch it here, or if you don’t want to sleep tonight, just watch Svankmajer’s Food instead.

  7. The Trumpeteer (El Trompetista) (Director: Raúl Robin Morales, Mexico, 10 minutes)

    This film, with its dingy, grey-brown uniformed figures (seemingly the same clothing and character model), made splendid use of light and shadow and color despite its deliberate homogeneity during the opening moments. After introducing a squad of identical bandmates in a miserable prison-yard, the film erupts into a gorgeous brass symphony of color and reflected light to represent the lead trumpeter’s musical rebellion against the rigid, boring bugling prescribed to him by the bandleader. We see swirls of color and light erupt from his trumpet in a manner that is first subtle, then erupts into a full-on acid trip of fluorescent watercolor. Quite lovely.

    Watch the trailer here.


 

Best of SIFF 2015, Part 1

  1. Bihttoš (Director: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Canada, 15 minutes)

    This unconventional, highly personal documentary about a father and daughter from an indigenous community in Canada (and another in Norway) feels like little more than a pretty solid college admissions essay. Even if the conclusions are a bit trite and not long-lasting (“And they all kinda turned out just fine!”), the visuals and storytelling are unique and thorough enough. Not bad, but not for me.

    More info here.

  2. The Chicken (Director: Una Gunjak, Croatia, 15 minutes)

    This is a rough film, illustrating both the ugly realities of meat production, as well as the dangerous ignorance of a child in a war zone trying to preserve a piece of her innocence. The film helpfully notes that no animals were harmed in its production, which is not evident while watching.

    More info and trailer here.

  3. Personal Development* (Director: Tom Sullivan, Ireland, 15 minutes)

    An absolute delight of a family dramedy about the teenage daughter of a divorced single dad who has the great misfortune to have to deal his daughter’s unexpected “woman’s troubles” during his solo weekend with her. I almost feel ill-equipped to evaluate this film, except to say that it rang true, didn’t let father or daughter off the hook for awkwardness or familial affection, and it all felt very sweet. A brief run to the shop for menstrual painkillers makes for a nice comic beat, as the pharmacist gives Dad the unexpected third degree.

    More info here.


 

Best of SIFF 2015, Part 2

  1. The Answers (Director: Michael Goode, USA, 8 minutes)

    Nathan, recently deceased, stares directly into the camera and asks for the objective answers to every question in his life. He quickly comes to terms with his demise, and gives way to the novelty of knowing the unknowable details of his prior existence, however alternately hilarious or distressing they might be. The infographic bits (“How many eggs did I eat?”) are quickly supplanted by greater insights, such as who was the his ideal woman. Insight gives way to a palpable sense of regret, nearing in just a few minutes what Albert Brooks accomplished in Defending Your Life – a sweet and poignant existential comedy.

    More info here, trailer here.

  2. Go Daan Go! (Director: Mari Sanders, Netherlands, 15 minutes)

    Chalk this one up to personal bias, but I found this story of simplistic family drama and sports triumph to be utterly boring. Will Daan be allowed to swim? Well, his mom has both an emotional and practical reason to not want him to do so, and his dad really wants him to, and they all love each other and they’ll all be fine regardless. But hey, at least we got to see the kid strumming on his sad guitar with a couple of broken strings while his parents fight downstairs. Total snooze.

    More info here.

  3. Listen (Director: Hamy Ramezan, Denmark, 13 minutes)

    This film is a biting piece of cultural criticism, simultaneously excoriating fundamentalist Islam, religious and sexist oppression, the role and place of insular immigrant communities, and the mainstream institutions that are ill-equipped to assist them with their problems. A battered woman sits behind a burqa, as well as barriers of language, apathy, and a near-complete lack of control over her life. Her distress is palpable, and evident in her thrice-repeated opening monologue. But there’s little that anyone can or will do about it.

    More info and trailer here.

  4. World of Tomorrow* (Director: Don Hertzfeldt, USA, 15 minutes)

    Don Hertzfeldt’s visual style remains as weirdly splendid as ever, and it is now accompanied with a pack of fascinating sci-fi ideas that emerge in rapid-fire dialogue and visual chaos as a third-generation adult clone named Emily explains the future to her original self (Emily Prime) as a toddler, with neither one quite fully understanding the other. Hertzfeldt’s sense of humor remains pitch-black as ever, and as the ideas and implications for mankind spill forth one by one, the laughs become more and more mirthless, giving way to an imminent sense of doom. Outstanding and worth a watch.

    Watch it here (free trailer, paid rental).




Quick List: All of the films that are available online

Seattle’s One-Reel Film Festival 2014 – Monday 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 Saturday’s films
Click here for Sunday’s films


Best of SIFF 2014: Jury Award Winners

  1. Rhino Full Throttle (Director: Erik Schmitt, Germany, 15 minutes)

    A beautiful tale about temporary friendship amid wanderlust, the expectations we impose on those who pass through our lives on a transient basis, and how to express those feelings outside of Facebook. The main character is an artist (Tino Mewes) who uses the city of Berlin as his medium and muse, using cardboard and forced perspective to carve out a magical world straight out of the minds of Michel Gondry or Terry Gilliam. The in-camera visual construction and deconstruction are marvelous, even as he finds a partner in crime, Vicky (Marleen Lohse), with whom to construct his elaborate artwork. And he loves her, because of course he does – and then this film delivers a powerfully subtle message that no, the girl in your life doesn’t lose the power to make her own decisions just because you develop a crush on her. And the main character’s journey ends up spinning this dilemma into a beautiful tale of friendship and mutual acceptance – the idea that no matter where you go in the world, your friends will always be your friends unless you give them a serious reason not to be.

    Trailer here.

  2. Twaaga* (Director: Cedric Ido, Burkina Faso/France, 30 minutes)

    I don’t know Burkina Faso, but this short historical family drama acquainted me with a huge amount of detail in its brief runtime, projecting the uncertainty and weirdness of a post-revolutionary environment with remarkable skill. The secretiveness, the petty grievances settled under the auspices of revolutionary fervor, and the grand uncertainty about the future are put on display through the eyes of a young boy, Manu (Sabourou Bamogo), who desperately wants to be a superhero. The film’s title, Twaaga, means “Invincible”, and evokes a tribalistic ritual that we see at the film’s outset, designed to instill revolutionary fervor by imbuing the recipient with an ancestral and magical sense of invincibility. Manu sees his brother Albert (Harouna Ouedraogo) becoming anointed in this manner, and it melds seemlessly with his superheroic desire to navigate his own childhood perils and look after his family. Manu converses with the local comic merchant about the various parallels between the X-Men and the American civil rights movement, then dons a superhero costume to confront his local bullies on the soccer field. And all around the edges of this family, the revolution rages on. This is exactly how powerful, personal storytelling is done, and it has stayed with me since I saw it.

    More info and trailer here.

  3. Maikaru (Director: Amanda Harryman, USA, 7 minutes)

    Maikaru is a powerful, personal testament from a young man who grew up in Seattle’s underbelly as a victim of human trafficking. The vast majority of the film is shot up close and personal in Maikaru’s face, his piercing gaze heightened with a pair of stylistic contact lenses that make his pupils look like stars going nova. The contrast created by his upbeat persona, artistic endeavors, and positive outlook is overwhelming as he reveals one terrible thing after another that happened to him, his siblings, and his mother during his upbringing. This is not a pleasant film, but it is certainly an important one for me to properly understand my hometown of Seattle. The Greyhound bus station at 9th and Virginia, the colony of drug culture on Pike between 2nd and 3rd… These were the bedrooms of Maikaru’s childhood, as well as for countless others that I pass each day, whose stories I may never hear.

    Watch it here.


Down Under

  1. Thanks For the Ride (Director: Tenika Smith, Australia, 17 minutes)

    There’s one of these every year – a short with the narrative ambition and depth of character that it would’ve worked better as a feature film, and in this case, that is almost to the film’s detriment. From the hearse driver sitting at a funeral who clearly doesn’t give a damn, to the young man with a cast on his arm who “shouldn’t be here” (according to an angry man who chases him from the funeral), these characters (played by Simon Lyndon and Matt Callan) were instantly intriguing. The resulting short left me wanting another two acts to help fill out their unlikely friendship a bit more – a few of the emotional beats (including a bit of an improbable fistfight) happened just a bit too quickly. But the film’s every attempt at emotional resonance landed well thanks to Lyndon and Callan’s solid “lovable loser” performances, and all told, the film is well worth a look.

    Watch it online here.

  2. In Autumn (Director: Rosanna Scarcella, Australia, 15 minutes)
    Is “romantic dreadnaught” an appropriate name for a film about romance that evokes a persistent and deliberate sense of impending doom? This film was…utterly boring and macabre. And if its objective was to properly express the uncertainty and malaise of middle-aged romance… Here’s where I should dismissively say, “Bravo” and get on with my life, but this film hardly even deserves credit for that. Romance is hard at any age, until the moment it stops being so. For some people, this moment might be death. And this film earns no credit for a tedious slog in the service of such a banal observation.

    More info and trailer here.

  3. A Great Man (Director: Joshua Dawson, Australia, 17 minutes)
    There’s something rather powerful about two boys lying on the grass in small-town Australia debating the definition of a great man, as they stare up at the bright full moon – a celestial body which, at that exact moment in 1969, has two great men walking on it, as a nearby radio helpfully informs us. These boys engage in the sort of Stand By Me risky exploration emblematic of this time period (at least in cinema), including dares and dangerous stunts. There’s an axiom in population studies that males slightly outnumber females at birth, but by age 25 or so, it all evens out. Because boys, the axiom says, are more likely to do stupid things that will get themselves killed before they come of age. This axiom is likely not actually borne out by statistics (boys are more likely to be victims of violence, for instance), but it’s fair to say stunts and dares do inform society’s notions of greatness and masculinity to some degree. Great men do dangerous things, the story goes, sometimes for no reason whatsoever. And as these boys debate jumping from a 50-foot waterfall, the adult in me was certainly saying “hike to the bottom and check the depth first!”, even as the teen boy in me said I should go for it, or more likely, chicken out, get called a pussy, and get on with my day. This film captures something very real about boyhood, even if it’s just the legend of great men that we grow up with, and never fully realize in the real world.

    Trailer here.


Show Me The World

  1. The Queen (Director: Manuel Abramovich, Argentina, 19 minutes)
    After watching this film (a documentary?), I just hope there’s a teen beauty queen out there who’s doing it by choice. Because this film depicts an Argentinian carnival beauty (who is perhaps 10 years old) in a manner that is nothing short of child abuse. The film is told almost entirely through an extended close-up on the girl’s face, as frigid stage mothers dance around the periphery of the frame strapping a 10-pound rhinestone monstrosity to the top of her head. They thread zip-ties through her hair, offer lidocaine creams to numb her scalp, and eventually, just straight-up pills to pop (which she refuses, despite no longer being able to feel or move her head and neck). We hear about the various scars borne across the backs of these beauty queens by the end of their teenage years, even as we see them forming across this girl’s face. This film made its point effectively, even if I’m torn as to whether the mere act of making it was despicable.

    More info and trailer here.

  2. Mother Corn* (Director: Guillermo Lecuona, USA/Mexico, 16 minutes)
    If nothing else, this film demonstrates the sad truth that as any culture approaches extinction, it becomes, at best, a thing to be packaged and sold to tourists. This dilemma is addressed through a grandmother and granddaughter who struggle between their linguistic and cultural identity – Trique vs. Mexican. Infused with Pan’s Labyrinth style imagery, this film mingles the girl’s uncertainty with images of death, floating souls, and fantastical creatures.

    Trailer here.


Films4Adults #3

  1. The Man Who Knew a Lot* (Director: Alice Vial, France, 20 minutes)
    It’s the ugly truth of every specialized touristy shop that the knick-knacks contained within – the authentic Southwestern pottery, the deer antlers, the gargoyle statues – won’t look nearly as good on your apartment shelf as they do in a perfectly lit store surrounded by similar crap. They’re selling an image, not an object. And this film takes this idea to the nth degree by taking place inside a dystopian IKEA store called Paradesign. On the show floor, scenes of everyday life and household situations in various disembodied rooms are expertly staged, complete with human beings who spend all day – indeed, live their entire lives – sitting in the chair, laying on the bed, and so forth. An old man on the first floor, Mr. Beranger (André Penvern), teams up with a little girl (Naomi Biton) who was born on a €59.99 bassinet, both of them desperate to break free from Paradesign and find out what lies beyond. The result is somewhere between WALL-E and Dark City – an oppressively well-rendered piece of short science fiction.

    More info here.

  2. Deadbeat (Director: Danielle Morgan, USA, 12 minutes)
    Still a better love story than Twilight. This film acts as an unofficial sequel to the inexorable love story between a perpetually 17-year-old vampire (John Brodsky) and his now upper-30s human lover (Melissa D. Brown). Great fun made at the expense of a genre that richly deserves it.

    More info and trailer here.

  3. Syndromeda (Director: Patrik Eklund, Sweden, 22 minutes)
    A naked, bloodied man (Jacob Nordenson) is found wandering in the middle of nowhere. What ensues is a fascinating dramatic parable about how our minds deal with trauma and uncertainty. From its non-linear storytelling to outright confabulations on the part of the main character, this film depicts a man utterly perplexed about what has happened to him, filling in the details of ambiguous sensory input with his own culturally informed ideas. And the result is a smart, solid, visually stunning horror short.

    More info here, scene from the film here.

  4. The Fall (Director: Kristof Hoornaert, Belgium, 16 minutes)
    A couple debates what to do when they accidentally hit and kill a child in the middle of the woods. Because everyone knows the road less traveled is the easiest spot to dispose of a body. This film is beautifully shot, but existentially unpleasant. And that may have been the point, obliterating Eden with original sin and all that – but the experience wasn’t exactly enjoyable.

    More info and trailer here.

  5. We Wanted More (Director: Stephen Dunn, Canada, 16 minutes)
    Just add water for instant body and existential horror, as a singer (Christine Horne) loses her voice the night before a concert tour, and imagines it appearing before her in the form of a creepy child (Skyler Wexler). Her angst about her career is compounded by having just dumped her boyfriend (it’s implied, because he proposed). This is a simple, effective premise with stirringly disturbing imagery, bringing to mind the likes of Black Swan. And it turned out to be the perfect recipe for a personally high-stakes horror short that comes to a swift and pitch-perfect conclusion.

    Trailer here.




Quick List: All of the films that are available online: