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The 3rd Annual Chicago "Really" Short Film Festival

by Erik Childress

Rick Ramirez may be the first to admit that he started his “really” small Chicago festival with selfish motivations as an easy way to get his own short films seen by an unsuspecting public. But there’s nothing selfish about pressing forward, without sponsorship, into a third year of giving filmmakers an outlet to debut their works in a medium that rarely has such organized events. Normally it would take a plane ticket and a hotel stay to Sundance or South by Southwest to see a collection of short films on a program. How many Oscar-nominated (and winning) shorts have gone unseen by even the most avid of film seekers? Thanks to sites like iFilm and, downloading shorts, both artistic and wacky, have made it worth the upgrade to a faster modem service. But for one night at The Abbey Pub in Chicago, some filmmakers are fortunate to have an audience getting more entertainment for their ten bucks then probably 80% of the feature films, concerts and comedy shows which make up any given weekend.

At 8 PM on April 22, 2006, Ramirez and Maia Entertainment got the official show going with attendance by yours truly, again on hand to judge the shorts and present a pair of awards at the end of the evening. Sitting one table over was the gang from Image Union, a PBS show which has been in production since 1978 presenting the works of independent artists. A late submission to the festival led off the night as a prologue. Rather than tell the Canadian filmmaker to wait until next year, Rick graciously programmed it as an opening act for things to come.

Directed by Jeff Denis
Written by Jeff Denis and Peter Hamon
Cast: Jean Jacqui Boutet
Length: 13 minutes

The prologue for the evening is this handsomely shot and narratively twisty film involving an old man, a phonograph, an urn and a picture on the wall as the reaction to his action. I’ll be damned what any of it means but it captured me enough to keep me at attention as the man keeps switching places for the urn, trying different music and eventually having fantasies about gorgeous women being at his side. Obtuse as any student art film you’ve ever seen, but better looking than most to make you appreciate the craft even if you don’t understand it.

Overtime Boogaloo
Conceived, Shot, Directed & Edited by Nicklaus Louis
Cast: Rey Barrera, Jose Furentes
Length: 4 minutes

Ever feel the need to just dance all over your abandoned office while working past hours? Ever think the janitor would beat you to it? Nicklaus Louis’ short plays like the kind of oddball commercial you would see during a Super Bowl broadcast. Need a bit more panache and the dancing is just too average to appreciate or laugh at, but it’s short as shorts go and produces a smile or two.

The Fix
Directed & Produced by Matt Burns
Written by Robert Burns
Cast: Mike Boland, Ted McGuiness, Robert Burns, Jack LaPick
Length: 8 minutes

Sometimes there’s nothing more thrilling cinematically is a journalist with a scoop (especially for us journalists.) Director Matt Burns suggests how hot this scoop is as we watch a reporter run through the streets of New Orleans (substituting for NY?) to meet his editor in, where else, a bar. Seems he overheard a coach and his star quarterback on the eve of the Super Bowl pontificating their dilemma over the mob having some particularly nasty evidence implicating them giving kissing babies a bad name. His editor is wary to run the story and suggests he bet on the game instead. Robert Burns’ script is sharp with the moral quandaries and this brief exchange could easily be the jumping off point for a more thorough feature. What’s there now is no less compelling and sparks immediate debate midway through the fade-to-black.

Written, Directed & Edited by Alexander Rojas
Cast: Holly Montgomery-Webb, Luis Perez, Adrian Oscar Rodarte, Cheryl Golemo, Erik Pauz
Length: 15 minutes

As I was watching “Held” I was reminded of the tone and dark dramatic comedy which accompanied the short film “Cushion” which I chose as last year’s recipient of the festival’s eFilmCritic award for excellence. Those thoughts were justified during the credits which revealed Alexander Rojas once again bringing a unique sense of humor to the most confused of human nature. It’s the story of a troubled young woman taking refuge in the home of her traveling brother and finding friendship in the unlikeliest of places. The drabness of the opening scenes give way to a bizarro turn midway through that nevertheless opens up her world for possibilities even if one unintentional lapse in judgment leads to potential, albeit humorous, tragedy. Held isn’t quite as fulfilling as Cushion. It has a long opening stretch and ends on a note I felt was far too early for the story’s progression, but still confirms that Rojas knows how to challenge the shortform. I’m anxious to see what he’ll do with the long kind.

Written & Directed by Ransom Riggs
Cast: Arman Zajic, Michelle Page, Chris Emerson, Richard Tanner, Bridget Cohen, Austin Hayden, Jeff Blumberg
Length: 15 minutes

The most professional looking of all the shorts (courtesy of cinematographer Pyongson Yim and Hi-Def equipment) is this nice throwback to the days of Amazing Stories if not completely successful in its execution. A young high school student, preoccupied with watching the skies believes he hears a message from beyond and begins having visions of rings (planets?) The film hardly feels like a short; more like a brief condensing of a feature’s first act that is fanciful and holds our attention with the burgeoning friendship between the boy and his brother’s rock band girlfriend. The good will it builds though with clear nods to Close Encounters and Contact and other 80s sci-fi fantasies like Explorers and The Last Starfighter, gives way to an unsatisfactory conclusion that would have disappointed any fan of the original “Steven Spielberg Presents” series. A second viewing helped add to the overall whimsy and sweetness of the piece, though.

Silver Atlas
Directed by Karyn Ruffin
Length: 6 minutes

This has all the makings of a project given to film students at Columbia. Here is a bunch of interview footage of a struggling band, some of their music and some time on the road. Now make something of it. College assignment or not, it’s still more of a calling card for the band in question then the filmmaking stylings of a budding documentarian. But even the band footage isn’t all that thrilling. The lead singer’s stage banter consists of how he’s trying a McDonalds in every country. I wish them the best of luck, although it’s hard to give a definitive review on even the music since very little of it’s “eclectic” sound is heard, but like any average working band out there – they are listenable, but you won’t feel guilty at any time getting up to get a beer or go to the bathroom.

Here we got the first of the scheduled intermissions, if you will. With the festivals lineup of films, the audience has been treated in year’s past to performing arts groups and live music. Now, before I describe the next act – I want the gentlemen out there to look at the following picture and imagine the anticipation if you were about to catch it live.

Yeah, me too. And the only word that escape my lips during it was a capitalized “WOW”. Oh no, not in the positive sense – but the sort of jaw-gaped, anvil-head-pounding that leads you to question the whole concept of entertainment itself. Who pays to see this? What am I watching? Where am I and why? And when will the madness end?

As the silver screen was lifted to reveal the performing stage of the Abbey, a small set named the Fembot Factory stood in the middle. As the familiar Austin Powers theme is played, two of the Dolls come out in similar Fembot regalia, complete with silver skirts and funnels over their breasts. These two will dance and dance and dance until the solo male of the group (who remarkably resembles Jim Belushi) presents himself in front of a covered table on the ground floor. He drinks from a bottle labeled “Sex Change”, goes through some Jekyll-like convulsions, slides under the table and out comes Ms. Hyde. The two on stage continue to dance (or, more accurately, bob their knees back and forth.) Ms. Hyde explores her new form, puts on her own funnel bra and goes up on stage to where everyone dances in place. At this point, I believed I blacked out. When I came to, my watch indicated that I had been out for infinity and the girls were STILL dancing.

After a description of The Devil Dolls which included the following talents: Dance, Cheerleading, Vaudeville, Strip Tease, Fetish AND Fire Performance coupled with costumes, makeup and special effects – the deck is stacked for them to deliver. And THIS is what they delivered? “This is fucking atrocious,” was overheard. Meanwhile, a guest at my table was coming up with more creative ways to stimulate the taint by means of a coat hangar dipped in acid (Enter-taint-ment if your pleasure) than watching this display any further. I believe he was speaking for most of the audience who weren’t sure what the appropriate response was this type of performance. Thankfully, it was time to get back to the shorts and easily the best collection of them this evening.

Every 30 Seconds
Written & Directed by Jeremy Corray
Cast: Jeremy Corray, Kenn Drescher, Josepher Erker, Liz Nierzwicki, Greg Horstmann, Nathan Rickher, ben Smith, Fred Dekke, Bettyt Smith, Robert Mitchell, Matt Sinopole, Ian Malcom, Brian Kweskin, Shirley Jones, Dave Durham, Natalia Corray, Phyllis Cullon, Paula Redmond, Bill Corray
Length: 4 minutes

The title refers to the statistic that someone in this country is hit by a drunk driver every half-minute. Writer/director Jeremy Corray portrays that particular someone and provides a running clock to time his agony. The beauty of the short film can come from starting with a one-joke premise and finding the ways to branch it out to either more elaborate or subtler ideas. Blood and vomit find their way into the poor bastard’s unlucky streak which goes from go karts-to-scooters-to-ice cream trucks. Add in a few nice visual homages to Field of Dreams and North by Northwest and this is damn funny stuff.

Written, Produced & Directed by James Affolder
Cast: James Sprague, Erin Allen, Matt Palumbo, Marcus Gilmer, Glenn Wilson
Length: 11 minutes

Here was some genuine absurdist flair that plays like the slacker’s version of a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton short. 6 AM and off to work for the grocery clerk, literally chained to his job as his dream girl begins to walk right out of his life. He sees himself in a variety of class structures all forced to watch as she is taken away from him by just another jerk. Affolder brings a splendid waking dream/déjà vu sort of state to the journey coupled with a visual elegance that is part MTV and part Keystone Kops. Capped off with a nice Dave Matthews-esque twist, Snoozer gives hope to us all.

Suspension of Nourishment
Written & Directed by Dana Timmons
Cast: Dana Timmons
Length: 13 minutes

From Ramirez’s own Maia Entertainment comes this Cast Away-esque short about a deserted man struggling with whether or not to eat a dead beetle. As time passes we see other insects moving towards their prey while the man creates a potential stone maze for his companions. I had assumed its meaning was steeped in man being separated from nature in their ability to control their own urges. Of course, than I remembered that none of the other creatures nourished themselves either. So, color me baffled or the film missed its mark. Still, its another good-looking short in a time when hand-held and lower quality cameras are all the rage.

Teenage Superhero Pregnancy Scare
Written and Directed by Steven Tsapelas
Cast: Meaghan McCaig, Jeff Schine, Chris Carvalho, Kevin Collins, Maureen Fewel, Adam Hamway, Jonathan Lapearl, Brian Amyot, Alan Ivicic, Grant Shehigian, Brittany Scott, Tina Tsapelas, Ritchie Steven Filippi, Steven Tsapelas, Kieran Valla, Ali Sky Bennet
Length: 12 minutes

My favorite short of the evening is the hysterical crossing of an after-school special with the most memorable of action figures and then some. “Superman took my virginity last night” says Wonder Woman to Plastic Man, each represented by the cheap Halloween masks of our youth. The Man of Steel turns out to be a deadbeat in his teenage years, while others after-school activities include drug dealing and backroom abortion procedures. Tsapelas may not address the SuperSperm suggested by Mallrats and the music of another classic superhero tv show gave me false hope we’d see a certain anger-conscious doctor, but its still a nice touch and he keeps the absurd revelations coming and even cameo appearances by other masked avengers and 80s cartoon staples. I laughed hard and I laughed often and like last year’s Requiem of the Rings parody, Tsapelas has a blast slapping down the legends and shows great comedic promise. Plus, I guarantee in Bryan Singer’s forthcoming reinvention, you won’t hear Superman say “Rainbow Brite – tell Wonder Woman she’s not a whore.”

Zoom Suit
Written & Directed by John Taddeo
Length: 9 minutes

Based on a comic book series, this is the only animated piece of the night and in many respects it does have the feel of colored panels given an implant of motion. From the 1947 UFO landing in Roswell and through the Zemeckis-esque universe timeline to the present, an alien supersuit is guarded and protected by the government until an incident puts it in the hands of a put-upon youngster, not unlike Spaceboy. The animation style become wearisome after a while. Like the anime shows on TV it’s sometimes so in love with its own visuals that its sense of narrative suffers. As evidenced by a title card during the end credits (“The Beginning”) Superverse is its own portfolio, a first act calling card hoping to garner interest for further exploration through funding. Anime fans may be more enthralled with its style than I am, but that’s more a matter of taste than skill in the animation which is evident. But narratively every time it’s about to pick up steam the foot comes off the pedal.

For our second break of the evening, it was time for Beatallica. More than just a clever convergence of names, Beatallica is the literal crossing of the Beatles music with the stylings of Metallica. Jaymz Lennfield, Kirk Hammettson, Kliff McBurtney and Ringo Larz (all aliases) don’t just play the Beatles tunes under the guitar hammers and metal riffs of Enter Sandman. They make the songs their own as evidenced by leading off with “I Wanna Choke Your Band”. Flirting the line between parody and respecting your influences is a dangerous undertaking, but Beatallica pull it off without stopping to wink. At first you laugh and then you start rockin’ and as evidenced by a few of their hair-propellin’, head-bangin’ fans, they had the crowd right from the beginning and begging for more; a wish that would be granted later in the evening. But now, back to the completion of the shorts.

From the Burp to the Wallet (Part Four)
Conceived by: Mike Weber & Tim Murphy
Cast: Dana Scott, Larry Allen, Mike T. Taylor. DJ Montit, Mike Geigel, JT Stroud, Sandy Yohe, Richard Choi, Anna McKeever, Theresa M. Benuzzi

The unusually titled (part of a series?) intrigues us early on by setting up expectations through dialogue and then debunking them as little more than misinterpreted entendres. From dating-to-hooking-to-pimping, the film has a man bringing a woman to a bar to enter a burping contest. But not to burp. Oh no. That’s the job of the others. Her skills lie in, shall we say, sniffing out the competition. It wasn’t funny when they did it in Biodome with farts. It isn’t any funnier with belching. We’re even denied the sickening joy of actual live belching as all burps (according to the credits) were provided by one Bobby Fick and are dubbed to a distinctly non-comic effect.

3 Minute Dates
Written, Produced & Directed by Jason Williams
Cast: Eric Churney, Marcia Wahlen, Jerome Balestrieri, Anthony Paulis
Length: 4 minutes

Three dates in three minutes in B&W. What you see is what you get. The guys are either boring or jerks. The girl is either indifferent or offended. End of story. The 40 Year-Old Virgin already beat them to this material and unless you even attempt to trump that, why bother? A film as bland as its picture.

Mobius Redux
Written, Produced & Directed by Joseph Witkowski
Cast: Joseph Witkowski, Renee McGurk
Length: 8 minutes

I’ll be damned at exactly what I witnessed, but the same can be held true for David Lynch too. The title by nature must be referring to the medical condition known as Mobius Syndrome, a nerve defect that can involuntarily control facial and ocular activity. Witkowski & McGurk then present the twitchy tale of medical experiments and interrogation involving the search for a female doctor. There’s no definitive solution to everything that occurs in Redux, but there are spastic hints dropped that the patient involved may know the doctor inside and out. Of course, it’s bound to have multiple interpretations and while it’s a thinker it’s also an unstable viewing experience. Which, I suppose is the point.

Talking Dead
Written and Directed by Chris Randall
Cast: Eric Richter, Jose Ruiz, Nadyne Parr
Length: 7 minutes

This creepy Re-Animator homage gets off on the right foot when a Jeffrey Combs-ish doctor introduces another to experiments he’s conducting with corpses. Whatever that nuts-and-bolts machine is made of it’s transmitting vocal noises from his subject, one who may have a surprise of her own in store. Randall’s film twists nicely, widens our own focus and then….and then…just kinda ends. I guess that’s why it’s a short, but another minute or two couldn’t have hurt.

Zombie Movie
Written, Produced & Directed by Michael J. Asquith & Ben Stenbeck
Cast: Simon Neblett, Des Morgan, Ben Stenbeck
Length: 15 minutes

In capable hands, Zombie Movie is a home run. Three guys in a stalled car in 1986 New Zealand surrounded by the living dead. One has been bit, another is tempted to hog the ration of potato chips and the third is about to go through a nicotine withdrawal. And yet it just lays there with no sense of urgency, horror or the farcical tone of Shaun of the Dead or New Zealand native, Peter Jackson. Outside of Undead, rarely am I bored with zombie flicks in any incarnation. There’s a good idea halfway through when one of the three contemplates suicide and tries to talk the other two into doing the deed by tempting the starving pair with the same sort of menu favored by the current population majority. This was an incredible disappointment.

But not nearly as disappointing as realizing that the filmmaker awards would be delayed while the Devil Dolls got another shot at the audience. They wondered if they could get more racy with this crowd. Based on the first set, this could have entailed topless crocheting, but I was colored curious. This time the theme was zombie chicks who plopped Belushi down on a table, began pulling sausage links from his chest and biting them. It was the most erotic thing I had seen since that masturbatory cured meats show in Vegas. Then for the piece de resistance, one of the Dolls came out equipped with a metal codpiece for the express purpose of grinding a metallic object against it to create a giant spark show and spit some blood substance out towards the audience; a liquid which almost tainted the pair of certificates I was scheduled to hand out. Notice how I just can’t get off the word “taint” while describing this show? Maybe I’m being too hard on them and there is a place for this sort of entertainment. This just wasn’t anywhere near that place.

Also back for a second set were Beatallica, proving once again that they are way cooler than Metallica, if only that they have no problem offering their music online for admiring fans to download. These double performances by the live acts were questionable since previous years only saw one-and-outs and they only extended the evening past some of the audience’s limits. But for ten bucks, who is to question when you get nearly five hours of entertainment?

Finally it was time to honor the best of the evening. The Image Union representatives for the first time went with four of the shorts to be broadcast on their show. Check your PBS listings in the future for the opportunity to see Every 30 Seconds, Talking Dead, Zoom Suit and Spaceboy. The audience award thankfully didn’t go to the film with the largest entourage present (Burp!), but to Every 30 Seconds and I couldn’t be happier since they were third on my list for the evening and I only had two awards to give. The eFilmCritic Award for Snoozer and the Hollywood Bitchslap award for Teenage Superhero Pregnancy Scare were presented in spirit as neither of the filmmakers were able to attend the evening.

And with that, the 3rd Annual Chicago “Really” Short Film Fest was in the books. 12 less shorts than last year, a better musical act, a performing troupe that made me miss Molly Hale and Bryan Irzyk (aka The Patel Leads) who were terrific last year and a show which ran about an hour shorter. I hope that some sponsors find this show and that filmmakers from Chicago and wherever hear about it and pledge their full support. This is a rare thing to have such a non-profit entity out there continuing to push forward in the name of discovering new artists. I know I will continue to be as long as they keep inviting me. Hopefully, we will see you there next year too.


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originally posted: 04/25/06 02:47:31
last updated: 05/14/06 15:18:41
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