Monday, September 13, 2004

Short Package 1

Seen 10 September 2004 at Loews Copley Place #5 (Boston Film Festival)

The short films are probably the most overlooked part of the film festival experience. They don't get written up in the previews of the event, they don't get picked up for distribution by a studio, and they don't have celebrities in attendence to promote them. The filmmakers are often young, some showing things that they'd done for film school, and sometimes the projects are a little rough.

I like shorts, though, and try to make it a point to see all the short packages at the Festival every year. Not all stories require at least ninety minutes to tell, or even the twenty-two minutes for a sitcom episode - presuming you want to see all these characters again. It's unfortunate that there's not really a place for short films anywhere, except at festivals and maybe as filler between features on cable channels.

Of course, just because I like the concept of the short film doesn't mean I'll like every one made. The first group of short films at this year's Boston Film Festival was a decidedly mixed bag.

"Field Trip" - * *

Kids are tricky. The thing that's most appealing about them is their utter lack of pretense. A child who can give a good performance is peculiarly gifted, and cuteness is a blunt tool that needs to be wielded delicately. Writer/director/producer Anita George hasn't quite got the knack yet, as her "one-minute play" about three Texas grade-schoolers on a field trip is eminently forgettable up to its twist ending. Which is, I'll grant, clever; I'd been concentrating so hard on deciphering the kids' accents and what inconsequential thing was of vital importance to them that I hadn't given much thought to where and when this field trip was.

"Dodge City" - *

This short is exactly what the description in the program says it is - two children playing in a kid-sized version of Dodge City (but not playing cops & robbers or anything involving firearms) intercut with images of warfare and its nasty effects. The program would have it that Dodge City and the violence associated with it is a metaphor, or maybe filmmaker Jeff Dell just wants to contrast sweet and innocent children with the brutality they are capable of someday causing.

Where Dell fails is making the connection anywhere other than the program. This short's an example of the most annoying type of film snobbery - juxtaposing opposite images with no linkage and expecting social outrage (as opposed to aesthetic outrage) from the audience.

"Bert Prentice, CEO" - * * *

Some short films that are little one-joke bits. They could be skits on Saturday Night Live, except that they generally rely on filmmaking techniques that wouldn't work well with an audience - in this case, a pull-back reveal in the last few seconds. Thus, Kevin Nibley's film about a corporate brown-noser ends with a one-two punch. I laughed.

"The Other side" - * * ½

... and then there are the "chapter one" shorts. "The Other Side" comes from Rumania, and is based on a current Rumanian urban legend about ghost villages. Here, writer/director/star Andrei Aureliano Popescu gives a story about a man and his wife, who is about to go into labor, driving through the countryside. He gets out of the car in "Black Cat Village" to find help, but instead finds a farmer with a gun ranting about him stealing their livestock. He runs into the fog, only to find the world very much different when he emerges.

And that's it. It's well-shot and acted, but it feels incomplete. Even if you're going for a "horror of the unknown" vibe, where the hero is stymied at every turn in his attempt to understand and resolve what has happened, well, you need more turns than an eight-and-a-half-minute short can provide before the audience is really creeped out.

"Boys' Night Out" - * * * ½

One of only two animated shorts among the 25 scheduled for the festival, and pretty entertaining. It's got a rounded, unabashedly cartoony style that reminds me somewhat of Bruce Timm, though co-directors Bert Klein and Teddy Newton come from a character-animation background. The story is simple enough - while nine-year-old Linberg's mother is off at bible study, his new stepfather Chet is left in charge, and promptly brings the kid to a strip club. But don't tell mom - she wouldn't understand.

Some folks find the enjoyment of curvy cartoons incomprehensible; they're not going to enjoy this one nearly as much. It's fairly funny, but if it shows up on Cartoon Network, it'll be on Adult Swim. PG-13 stuff, though.

"Distance From The Sun" - * * *

I'm a sucker for immigrant stories, and there's usually at least one good one in the shorts each year. This year, it's this portrait of a Muslim living in Florida, operating a Middle-Eastern restaurant. We hear in voice-over how our subject had hated helping his mother cook until she skipped out for a day, when he recognized it as a responsibility and a privilege.

Writer/director Eyad Zahra stated in the Q&A that the star was an actual owner of a Middle Eastern restaurant whose backstory was similar to his character's. The rest of the story, where the cook takes offense at some friends who order beer during Ramadan. It's an interesting little story of assimilation versus tradition.

"Joey" - * * * ½

This one's as simple as it gets - a group of family, friends, and acquaintences mourn a 13-year-old boy who was killed in a drive-by shooting while leaving church. Filmmaker Nancy Stein does a fine job of editing, using her gospel soundtrack, demonstrating how much violence there is in the inner cities, and raising questions about police response in primarily black neighborhoods without ever taking away from the individual story of Joey.

"Spare Change" - * * ¾

A lot of shorts are like stage plays - even though they're filmed, they're done on a budget and thus wind up using many of the same tools as theater - a couple people talking in a single environment. In Peter Waal's short, it's a mostly-empty house, where a man whose wife has left him and taken his daughters just passes time. He's visited by an old acquaintance from college - not a friend; the visitor was something of a bully - who seems to have attained some sort of enlightenment. As they talk, both hostility and healing appear in equal amounts.

It's a nice little film, with the feel of a play but a camera that moves around and walls that allow the home to feel empty from every angle. The performances are decent enough, making for a not-badly-spent twenty minutes.

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