|by Chris Parry
So often at a film festival like Sundance, the short films get ignored by the legion of entertainment journalists and autograph seekers desperate to tell Kevin Bacon and Keira Knightley and Carmen Electra how awesome they are. We like to tread the path well traveled ourselves sometimes, but what good is it to talk about Adrien Brody's latest role without paying respect to some of the lesser known actors and filmmakers who work just as hard, if not harder, to get their art to the screen. To that end, we make a special effort every year to catch as many short films as possible and bring them to you in the annual Sundance Short Film Explosion. Let's bring it.
A lot of short films are really nothing more than a few minutes of set-up and about ten seconds of punchline. Motel is no different, telling the tale of a man who shows up at a hotel in the middle of nowhere, only to find no staff, no prices, and all the food he can eat. The punchline is easy to guess before the finish, but only if, like me, you're a cynic who delights in guessing the big twist.
An Australian short film written and directed by Beck Cole, this tale takes place in an outback town rife with long-abandoned mine shafts and not much else. A young couple have recently moved in to a rundown old shack, and when the male of the duo takes off for a spot for mining for a few weeks, his better half begins to feel the loneliness. What makes matters worse is that she's also seeing a ghost. Despite making use of a cliche aussie setting, this is a well-paced, moody piece that says a lot without needing to get into a whole lot of dialogue. Great effort.
MATALO (KILL HIM)
Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s 10-minute short from the barrios of Mexico features a group of children engaging in their daily play, which generally consists of violent games involving fake guns and cop-play, until two of them find a giant papier-mâché devil in the local market. They buy the devil, take it back, and the entire pack of children set about teaching the devil a lesson. Very documentary in style, and very worrying by the end, it’s a pity that the only place you can see a short from another culture like this is at a high end film fest.
Kari Juusonen’s 15-minute short opens with an abattoir worker sitting at his desk, aiming his computerized cattle-slaughtering equipment at a cow’s head. It drops and the machines turns it into beef products as the next cow comes down the chute, but this cow isn’t going to go so easily. What follows is a battle of wills that runs all through the night, in a beautifully animated and incredibly well-directed short. It’s not just the art, the writing and the message that makes this a five-star affair – it’s the little things. The subtle flaring of a cow’s nostril, or the ever-so-slight head shift that tells you exactly what a character is thinking without a word being spoken. A fantastic short, and far better than many of this year’s Sundance features.
Children can be cruel little bastards, but on occasion their penchant for risking the lives of others can be taken a step too far. That’s the message in Choked, a 12 minute short about a CPR instructor (Anstem Richardson) who shows up to school to teach a class how to deal with a choke victim, only to be subjected to cruel and unusual abuse by a gang of tweenies which shakes him to his very foundation. Directed by Brad Barnes, produced by his brother Todd, and written by both of them, this tiny slice of life (and death), shot on 35mm, lacks a real punch behind all the punches taken by the lead. As the instructor stumbles patiently from one abuse to another, he doesn’t react in kind, instead going into a kind of catatonic state, and even the cathartic ending isn’t all that cathartic. Well shot, deliberately constructed, but in the end it’s no life-changer.
A monster is stalking a group of rag dolls in this computer-animated ‘Nine Inch Nails noir’ 11-minute short film. With some astounding imagery and the kind of bizarre post-apocalyptic world that instills the fear of death around every corner, the fact that the victims of the piece are roughly sown together toys is all but forgotten after the first minute or so. If not for their pair-shaped bodies, calico skins and huge metal zipper down the front of their chest, they could just as easily be any modern computer game superhero, and the villain of the piece, a huge metal/bone contraption, is genuinely nasty. Can the rag dolls overcome the evil among them, or will death come a-calling? You’ll never look the same way at your childhood security doll again. Shane Acker writes and directs a truly neat sample of the technology in gaming can be used to create things pure celluloid-based filmmakers never could. Other than that, though, not much to hang your hat on, storywise.
AMERICA’S BIGGEST DICK
Proof positive that a great and simple concept can bring the house down, America’s Biggest Dick takes a speech by Dick Cheney at the Republican National Convention, puts a ‘stunt mouth’ over his, and plays the voice of Al Pacino in Scarface over the top to make a decidedly political statement about the government of the United States today. When you think of the things said in Brian DePalma’s seminal work, things like “you got that kind of money, you can buy the Supreme Court,” and “you need people like me so you can point your fucking fingers and say ‘there’s the bad guy.” Thankfully, Bryan Boyce, the man behind the America’s Biggest Dick concept, doesn’t let the film overstay its welcome, wrapping things up after only four minutes, but by that time the point has been well made, the joke has been delivered, and the audience is either booing or on its feet in praise. Me? On my feet.
An 11-minute story about an overweight kid who has to pass a swim test to graduate from high school, director Alex Chung’s 35mm short is a film that, even with such a tiny running time, really does drag along at a snail’s pace. Sure, okay, the filmmaker might call it ‘setting the tone’, but as a viewer it really is difficult to get into a film when the film takes a good portion of its story arc just getting to the story. 9 minutes in and the casual observer still doesn’t know what’s going on, besides a kid walking down school halls, sitting in his seat in class, and moping about like he’s got nowhere to be. Though there is a good pay-off, by the time it happened, I didn’t really care.
THE YOUTH IN US
Lukas Haas and Kelli Garner star in a film that is very much different from what it first appears to be. Haas’ character tells his girlfriend a story while laying in bed, about how, when he was a child, he once met a deer in the woods. The tragic twist in the tale is a bit of a downer on what seems to be a precursor to a sexual encounter, but the devil’s in the details as director Joshua Leonard’s beautiful tale of moving on after tragedy comes to a conclusion that will dampen even the traditionally driest of eyes. And yes, that's the same Josh Leonard that was in the Blair Witch Project.
Directed by ten-short veteran filmmaker Brett A. Simmons, and written by Guy Fitzgerald, Husk is the story of four guys in a stalled car with nothing but cornfields for miles. But just as you might expect (especially if you've seen Jeepers Creepers) there's aomething evil in them thar... corn. A truly spooky little 27-minute thriller, the film suffers only from being a little too long for the material. Otherwise, it's perfectly creepy, just as it's supposed to be. And credit where it's due, the people promoting Husk are among the most hard-working folks at the festival.
The best short film at the festival by a country mile, this superb piece of comedy has everything you could ask for - music, style, editing, stunts, effects, and dozens of cans of Crisco. the production cost only $2500 to shoot, and was shot on 35mm film obtained by collecting loose ends of filmstock from the production of Man on Fire. Talk about achieving great things in the face of peril!
A wildlife researcher goes into the woods against his girlfriend's wishes to further the research of his crazy old professor, who had been testing a series of different wildlife recordings on a mysterious population of bigfoot-like creatures. Why the Crisco? Well, with that comes the answer to what Broadcast 23 actually was... better you watch the film and enjoy finding out yourself.
A young Mexican streetkid goes about his daily business, drawing tiny pieces of information from all around him, and coming to a rather bizarre conclusion about how he came to exist in the world. But what comes to mind most after watching Tim Parsa's intriguing short is that the streetkids are sometimes a little less disgusting that someone of us who have homes to go back to. An abundance of stlye, and a an interesting way to spend 12 minutes.
EMAIL A MAMA
Ouch. This is one harsh short film, a real gutpunch that starts off sweet and ends with a brick to the side of the head. It's one of the always-large group of one-punchline shorts at every festival, but this isn't so much a punchline as a punch. The story - a literary student writes her mother an email about the relationship that has been growing between her and her professor, a man who seems to have a penchant for ill-temper. There's only one shot, and the sounds in the background of that shot seem like happy times, but man oh man, what an ending. Great piece of directorial misdirection.
Many short filmmakers try to use renowned music for their films, reasoning that if they're not going to sell the thing, copyright issues won't apply. In this case, the owners of the music commissioned the short film itself. Dimmer is a short documentary about a gang of blind kids in Buffalo NY, getting by like Fat Albert's friends in the rust belt of the northwest. Consisting of three blind teens and one legally-blind albino, the group does the same stuff as any bored teen - mess about in abandoned buildings, roll carts around shopping mall parking lots - even ride bikes - all while one of their number wonders what he's going to do with his whorish girlfriend. "Dude, I'm blind so I don't discriminate... but she's ugly, I'm sorry. Truly funny, with great music by Interpol, and style by the truckload. Though the film never puts a candy coating on anything, it leaves you with a real big smile.
CRY FOR HELP
As much as this film has all the hallmarks of a winner - great production qualities, some genuine humor, a cast that includes recognizable TV talent, it just doesn't have the one thing necessary to bring it all together - a script. The son of a born-again Jew is told that because his father has rediscovered his faith, he would like the kid to get a late-in-life circumcision, which sets off a series of events that lead to a changing of the guard in Heaven. Starring Sam Lloyd (Ted the downtrodden lawyer from Scrubs) as a middle-aged drug-peddler with a hare-trigger and a jerky-producing sideline... well, if you don't get that this is an all-over-the-place comedy farce by now, you never will. Funny moments, no story worth bothering with, and a very muddled point.
ELEPHANT PALM TREE
This UK short, shot on 35mm but seemingly using only the absolute minimum of color and light, revolves around a married couple in peril. He is running for elected office in a few weeks, and she is running for the Bahamas, set to take him to the cleaners in a divorce. I bumped into writer/director Kara Miller on a shuttle bus at Sundance, clutching a loaded box fileld with promotional material, and bearing a huge grin that she'd managed to find her way from the UK to Park City Utah. Glad to report her short film is an even-tempered, intriguing piece of humanity, free of the one-joke nature of most of her competitors, and more than content to point its finger at human nature and mutter 'tut tut', rather than rely on the traditional big finish. Good stuff.
Canadian Debra Felstead's directorial debut is a strong one, at least where performances and script are concerned. The entire 11-minute film consists of one scene, taking place in a beauty parlor, where Keesha (Robinne Fanfaire) storms in front of the queue, discoveres that her old long lost pal is the nail technician she's yelling to see, and engages in a little reminiscence that ends predictable poorly. But what impresses about Stronger is not that the events skid out of control, but rather that the entire film is about staying in control in the face of heck. That is does. A good effort, if not particularly a sky-reach.
This is one beautiful piece of filmmaking. The players: A young Seminole father, a younger kid just barely out of adolescence, and Irene (Casey Camp-Horinek), an elderly native woman who, if you go by the title of the piece, is not long for this world. The location: A free clinic emergency waiting room. The plot: The three sit and wait. And talk. And wait. And talk some more, and wait. Despite what might not sound like a radical departure from the everyday, Goodnight Irene is a poignant piece of short filmmaking that steers very clear of the Smoke Signals-variety of native quirk and instead uses all the traditional means of filmmaking to paint one hell of a pretty picture in the least pretty of places. Superbly played by Camp-Horinek and her two co-stars (Jon Proudstar and Robert A. Guthrie), if the talent on diusplay here is any guide, filmmaker Sterlin Harjo's upcoming feature will be one to track down.
TV ad and theater director Paul Cotter had a spare day in Chicago and a Mini-DV camera one sunny August, so he decided to make use of it. He determined that one word was spoken at exactly 11:00am on sunday morning, by five different people, in five different situations. And then he went about filming them doing so. The result is a very funny short that has the same dry wit as Paul Thomas Anderson's opening to Magnolia, only with less death and a much quicker delivery. Estes avenue won't change your life, but it is three minutes of fun. Well worth your time.
ONE WEEKEND A MONTH
Following a theme that several shorts seem to have gone with this Sundance, One Weekend a Month involves Meg (Renee O'Connor), a woman who is just your average ordinary struggling single mother of two children. She has all the same dramas as you or I might in the same situation, except for one... back a few years ago, she signed up with the National Guard. 'One weekend a month' seems like a bit of a lie now, what with the news that Meg has about one week to find someone to look after her kids before she's deployed in Baghdad. Her mother's husband is abusive, her ex-husband is a stoner and laughs when she asks him to come stay at her house... so now what? Well, for starters, this short is one of the greatest reality checks for anyone who thinks the war in Iraq is a good thing for America. This film should play on CNN every four hours. The war would be over inside a month. Big props to writer/director Eric Escobar for making a short film matter.
Rosie Marconi (Debra Jo Rupp of That 70's Show) is a stand-up comedienne about to take the stage at he Ha-Ha-Hut. After a few words of prayer, she's off and running with a routine about her lazy-ass husband. It goes down a treat, the audience is in tears, but Rosie has a secret that makes her routine eat at her like cancer every time she uses it. what is that secret? That'd be telling, but suffice to say, Susan Kraker and Pi Ware's 9-minute short on the topic is well-paced, beautifully shot, impeccably performed and worth viewing. The second of Fox Searchlab's shorts in this year's Sundance short fest, it's safe to say the team at Fox is doing something right.
THE SAILOR'S GIRL
The mark of a true filmmaker in this format of cinema is to be able to show the audience something brutal, yet have it come across as poetry, to tell a story with a minimum of dialogue, and to characterize while giving little away. With The Sailor's Girl, Music video director Brett Simon weaves a simple tale about a girl who provides an odd service in an abandoned car on the outskirts of town. For $15, she'll show you your conception. For an extra fiver, she'll show you your death. The catch in having such a talent, of course, is that your skills don't switch off between customers. Incredibly beautiful, wondrously original, and the mark of greatness inherent throughout.
VICTORIA PARA CHINO
The quality of these short films has never been higher, and this is no exception. Victoria Para Chino tells the tale of 90 undocumented immigrants from Southern and Central America who boarded a white semi-trailer for what they thought would be a short trip to Houston. Within hours, the over-loaded trailer was a furnace, with many of the passengers starting to expire. But what was to follow, after the driver discovered his ailing cargo, is worse than you could imagine. To think that some people risk death just to have a minimum wage job in our world, while we sit around complaining that our own jobs are boring, boggles the mind. That some would let dozens die just to make a little coin, is even harder to comprehend. Writer/director Cary Fukunaga should be proud of his 13-minute work.
Sometimes you can do a lot with not a lot in the way of equipment, cash and ambition. Thus is the MO for Jason Rayles, a New York City-based computer programmer who went to the fair one day, took a video camera along, and then created a ten-minute web-based partly-animated short that is, quite frankly, a thing of beauty. An amazing slice of Americana that will have you pining for hot dogs and popcorn, the Fair is not an effort to be arty, or poignant, or thrilling or dramatic. It's just images, thoughts, words and memories of a great place that we may well remember as tacky, but let's be honest, when the fair was in town, we always had a blast. The Fair is not just a short, Jason Rayles has recently turned it into a book as well.
Minutes roll by as a man floats in the ocean with a vaccuum cleaner, some suitcases and a chicken in a cage. That's the Flotsam. Then comes the Jetsam, which I can't talk about because, well, it's the twist. It's a decent twist, certainly sneaks up on you, and it's well executed. But I couldn't for the life of me figure out if this footage was real or not. The short is listed in the documentary competion, so you'd expect it to be, but the filmmakers seem to be intentionally saying little about the film, and they haven't put out any press information, so... I'm at a loss. By all means, be mysterious, but not with the press.
LOVE AND LAUNDRY
Cariche and Olvido are getting on a little. In fact, they've been together for over sixty years. Love and Laundry is nothing more than this septuagenarian Cuban couple telling how they met, and why they love the piece of arid land they met on so much. Seems pretty simple, until you factor in the way things are done in Cuba, the spirit of these two old-age lovers, and the sense of humor that filmmaker Barbara Alvarez brings to the table. A genuinely sweet 7-minute video.
PLANET OF THE ARABS
This short has it all - art, political commentary, social meaning, action, explosions, pop culture... but mainly a point. How many times have you watched a film or a TV show that shows Arabs as terrorists, idiots, or somehow lesser than any other race of man? Hundreds? Thousands? Maybe more, and Palestinian/American artist/filmmaker Jacqueline Salloum seems to have spent a little time documenting them, because the concept of Planet of the Arabs is that she's made an action movie trailer out of scenes from existing Hollywood films, all of which come together to make an alarming point about how Arabs are showin in cinema. From the early days of cartoons, to the Muppet Show, to Chuck Norris films, to Back to the Future, we've been eating a steady diet of 'the Middle East wants to kill you' for so darn long, it takes something clever like this to wake us up to the truth. Inspired use of clips from the film Network illustrate an all-too salient point. We're the madmen. This is a must-see, and so is Jacqueline Salloum's website..
Want to see these films yourself? Well, you have the chance - Sundance gives you the option of free membership to their online film site at http://www.sundanceonlinefilmfestival.org - it's free and registration is fast. Go take a look and tell us what you thought in our forum!
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1313
originally posted: 01/25/05 07:29:12
last updated: 03/05/05 14:46:42