Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Short Package 2

Seen 11 September 2004 at Loews Copley Place #5 (Boston Film Festival)

The first of two groups of shorts I saw on Saturday; this is the one that included most of the not quite experimental, but sort of oddball shorts, where the unconventional looks and filming methods are most important. The media-is-the-message types. In some ways, shorts are better at this than features; it's not so terribly important to have a through-line when a film is no more than fifteen minutes long, and if the filmmaker does one thing well, that's great. End it while the audience is still saying "cooooooool" and there's no "yeah, but what about the characters and dialogue?"

"Tap Heat" - * * * *

Take "Tap Heat", for instance. This dialogue-free movie is all about celebrating tap dancing, and while it does offer a bit of a story to string together the first half and allow for some build-up, it gleefully throws this away once it has worked its way up to song-and-dance extravaganza time. It's fanciful, as 70-year-old Arthur Duncan plays a detective in the Tap Squad of New York's Dance Police, called in to deal with a young tap dancer played by Jason Samuels Smith, all basketball gear and aggression.

The two are both formidable dancers, with Arthur displaying smoothness and grace and Jason raw power and energy. And tap is just fun to watch, especially for those of us who know nothing about dance - the clicking of the tap shoes serves as a reminder that, yes, there's more going on with more precision than we initially realize. It's a mildly surprising project from writer/director Dean Hargrove, whose career consists mainly of TV mysteries, but a delightful one.

"Ola's Box of Clovers" - * * * ½

Genevieve Anderson uses puppetry for her short, and doesn't try to hide it - you see the big sticks that are used to manipulate the marionettes, but it doesn't take away from anything. Indeed, when combined with the narration in voice-over, it solidifies the impression of a woman telling a story. Since the idea is that this unnamed narrator is trying to understand her grandmother, having the story not look objectively real is a good aesthetic decision.

And there are some things that are just more fun with puppets. Old women scaring trick-or-treaters by bursting out of her house with a chainsaw, for instance, along with some other elements of bitter behavior that tend to contradict the granddaughter's memories.

"Notes From the Space-Time Continuum" - * * ½

Kevin Haverty's vignette has style to spare, and a nice electronic soundtrack, but seems awful familiar. Oh, the people around us are automatons, devoid of any individuality. Every day is much like the last one, and we just drift through them (we know this, because the film shows it three times). Sure, worthwhile enough message, and visually well-realized, but when the biggest new contribution is blood, how big a deal is that?

"The Bodies" - * * *

Amy Wendel's short feels like part of a longer story. Her main character, Annie, is working as a live-in nanny for her former boss (well, I guess that would be the boss at her past workplace, since Annie's still working for her) while undergoing chemotherapy. As the movie opens, she's still somewhat weak physically (although that's only really shown once, perhaps because her lead actress looks pretty healthy), but is starting to resent how the family takes her for granted. As the movie progresses, she becomes more and more dissatisfied, but apparently won't assert herself because of the recent memory of being sick and having to rely on others. I liked lead actress Camilla Enders (I think - no IMDB entry and the card doesn't assign actors to roles) and how the movie really focused on a transition point in the character's life.

"The Little Match Girl" - * * ½

James Ricker does a quick, ten-minute adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's story, and it's a nice job of creating a Dickensian London on a short budget, but he grafts on an epilogue of sorts, but I'm not sure how well they really fit together. I suppose both parts can be looked at as girls falling victim to an uncaring world, but I had a little trouble accepting the connection between the girl literally pushed out into the winter chill and the victim of her own self-destruction. I suppose the latter might see herself as the little match girl, but I'm not sure the audience is supposed to go for it.

"Last Night" - * * ¾

Look for this one to be an Oscar contender come winter mainly because it features actors that the voters recognize. Frances McDormand plays a woman with terminal cancer, Jamey Sheridan plays her husband, and Sheeri Rappaport plays a friend who spends the night in their company to act as a witness to an assisted suicide.

It's a dark story, as depressing as one would expect given the subject matter. The performances are mostly good, although Ms. Rappaport isn't quite in the same category as McDormand and Sheridan. It's a longish short, at 22 minutes, and frustrating because at the end, I felt like filmmaker Sean Mewshaw had basically spent that time establishing the characters in order to set up the situation at the end, which is a heck of a lot more interesting than the one at the beginning.

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