Thursday, October 10, 2019

IFFBoston 2019.06: Shorts Exeter and The Rusalka

I always try to get to at least one shorts program during IFFBoston, since they've completely done away with with shorts before films (unless there's been something I don't remember in the last few years) and these movies made by passionate people who are often some of the most interesting/eccentric/passionate works at a festival. If they're student films, the people involved made them knowing that they may never get a chance to make another with that sort of support. No matter how far you try to get away from the things you might have a chance to see at the multiplex later on at a festival - something I've mentioned in previous posts was harder than expected this year - the shorts are one at least one half-step farther.

Which short package would be top priority was an easy pick this year; an online friend who I've met two or three times before (at other festivals) had his film selected and even though I had actually seen it when he opened his Vimeo up to the folks who follow him on social media for a few hours, I figured maybe there was a little more post-production to do and it would be interesting to see what the IFFBoston team thought would be good matches even if I didn't want to support him.

So, hey, there's Will Goss there with "Sweet Steel", along with "Damage" filmmaker Matt Porter and "Put Your Feet Up" writer/director Peter Horgan. I don't know that you would necessarily describe this as the "dark comedy" block or the "unusual relationships" block or just five films that go well together. The filmmakers themselves seemed to like how the group worked together, though. Refreshingly, most appeared to be happy for their shorts to be their own thing rather than dry runs/calling cards for features. Porter sounded interested in expanding on his, although that sounds like kind of a hard sell while Goss saw his specifically as "maybe the most important five minutes of this person's life", which means adding to it would probably be diluting it.

It was a good block, and I'd be back in the same room a few minutes later for Rusalka, which seems like it has already started showing up in other places under a name that needs less explanation, although it's too introspective a monster movie to really play for a crowd that isn't up for a little obscurity. I liked it, though, and had no idea until I started looking for related merchandise that it was made by the same cast and crew as They Look Like People, which makes me feel a lot smarter about choosing this to fill a slot.

Because of a bit of weird sequencing and other stuff - I bumped other days up to get reviews out in time for theatrical releases and detoured from Tuesday night's festival films when it became clear that (a) I wouldn't make it to the Coolidge in time for the first film of the night and (b) I was pushing my luck in avoiding Endgame spoilers, so I'll just try and milk something good from my tendency to take forever on these things by pointing out that IFFBoston's annual midpoint mini-festival, The Fall Focus, is now less than a month away, the weekend of 1-3 November, and that now is a really excellent time to either submit your film for next year's festival or purchase a membership that will, at certain levels, let you impulsively decide what to see at the time rather than buying tickets in advance, if that's how you like to enjoy a film festival

"Sweet Steel"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2019 in Somerville Theatre #2 (IFFBoston: Shorts Exeter, digital)

WIll Goss takes what may initially seem like a darkly comic idea and plays it utterly straight in "Sweet Steel", as a despairing man prepares to commit suicide but finds himself up against the fact that having a gun in your mouth is unpleasant, a situation he seeks to rectify. He does this in a practical montage that never lets the original intent completely leave the viewer's mind but which also potentially plays upon one's optimism. We want to see people step away from the brink, so it's easy to see someone finding refuge in simple pleasures rather than something more darkly practical.

The stripped-down script lets John Merriman home in on the despair this man feels and he does great work showing that this emotion is a thing that has overwhelmed him without going so far out that the script would need to find a way to justify it. The general lack of dialogue is important in two distinct ways; not only does it keep the man's pain from becoming something that can be diminished by specific circumstances but it also makes one think about what words would be appropriate and how in many ways there just aren't appropriate words for this sort of struggle.

Aesthetically, the film has an apparent no-frills look and the spare soundtrack is in large part metallic sounds like a whisk in a mixing bowl, keeping where the movie started in mind without being too obvious about it. Goss is a friend, so it's very cool to see him making a great little movie.

Watch it on Vimeo

"Put Your Feet Up"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2019 in Somerville Theatre #2 (IFFBoston: Shorts Exeter, digital)

Peter Horgan comes up with a couple of unusual characters for "Put Your Feet Up" - a man with an odd fetish and a writer who may herself be more curious about such things because she's asexual - and drops them in a room together for a few visits. That is, more or less, the story, one which gets the movie to a place where it might be time to take some sort of next step. They seem to just be figuring each out otherwise, getting to a point where it's time to start exploring what a romantic relationship where the parties' desires are not particularly complementary looks like.

It's an interesting idea but potentially not much as a two-person production, working in large part because Joshua Koopman and Cara Gerardi are quite pleasant company as the pair. Koopman affects a casual demeanor as Rocky but does a nice job of carrying the not-quite-shame that his desires bring, while Gerardi's Elle is perhaps a bit more confident. They both come across as willing to reveal themselves to others but frustrated by people being unwilling to wrap their heads around them, and it's fun to watch them relax as they start to realize that this person is willing to make the effort.

WIth that the focus of the film, it seems fitting that there is something almost informational about the black-and-white photography; it's clear and unadorned but not meant to offset anything else. It doesn't feel drained - it's the sort where one can almost see pinks and browns amid the shades of grey - and does a nice job of emphasizing the simplicity of the film's concept and how it avoids starkness.

"Personal Best"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2019 in Somerville Theatre #2 (IFFBoston: Shorts Exeter, digital)

"Personal Best" is almost literally a one-joke short, in that you could probably stop it after the initial couple lines of banter and the alarmed look on one character's face at hearing the other's level of sexual activity and not lose a whole heck of a lot Filmmaker Kevin P. Alexander comes pretty close to doing so, but figures he can get a couple more laughs out of it before bailing without running the joke into the ground.

He does get out quickly, which lets you remember this four minute short as its good hook rather than a fizzle. You also get to remember Rachel McKeon and Miles G. Jackson for executing their single-joke hit-and-run without stumbling, and just how very blue the whole thing is. Maybe that isn't an important thing, but, like the rest of the short, it gets your attention and doesn't waste it.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2019 in Somerville Theatre #2 (IFFBoston: Shorts Exeter, digital)

Matt Porter is also doing the premise-as-joke situation here, where the the set-up of a guy responding to a craigslist ad right as the guy who placed it is breaking up with his girlfriend is a funny (and clear) enough pitch that you can almost extrapolate the whole short from it, provided that the people involved don't screw it up. Porter and the rest don't screw it up.

That makes it sound like they did nothing, but casting this and getting the right tone is important. The breakup has to feel ugly but also have both people sympathetic - there's a little more to do if the third wheel is an annoying intrusion than if one reasonable person is have two others hit him from both sides - and the deadpan obliviousness has to play well off the only-slightly-more-mature frustration (with a hint of sadness). It's the sort of micro-budget short that sometimes feels like it's making do with the filmmaker's apartment in terms of finding places to put people, but that turns out to be a pretty minor issue.

Watch it on Vimeo

"The Toll Road"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2019 in Somerville Theatre #2 (IFFBoston: Shorts Exeter, digital)

As much as I generally tend to prioritize production values a bit more than I should for features, figuring that there's too much out there to give much time to something that looks cobbled-together, I kind of look askance at shorts like "The Toll Road", where you don't see a lot of names repeated in the credits, the cast is made up of familiar faces, and there's just generally a little more polish all around. There's been construction at this location and music by Bear McCreary, and what's it doing in the middle of a program of student films and people scraping things together?

The same as the rest, obviously, trying to entertain, and doing a fair job. The premise - meek toll collector Stewart (Martin Starr) is bullied by his co-worker Colin (Billy Gardell), most egregiously by how Colin always eats the cupcake that Stewart's wife Emily (Lizzy Caplan) puts in his lunch every day, until Emily can't take it any more - is just as thin as it sounds, and the filmmakers can't do much to change things up at any point. Colin has to but predictably terrible, and Stewart predictably a doormat, so that the plan Emily eventually comes up with seems plausible if kind of deranged. The film only cycles through it a couple of times (with scenes back at the couple's home to break it up), but it can't help but feel like a set-up: The filmmakers are establishing that this is a regular occurrence, and it repeats without seeming variation.

The whole film seems like a set-up rather than something that the audience has caught a glimpse of - the toll road itself never seems to go anywhere, clearly just created as a workplace where Stewart doesn't have much to do but stew - and the characters are broad weirdos. The film's about the right length to have that work, especially with folks like Lizzy Caplan and Martin Starr clearly enjoying the chance to be a little nuts because this doesn't have to be sustained for more than twenty minutes. It maybe ends up a bit too wacky for the darkly comic direction it eventually turns toward.

It's a weird thing when seen as part of a block like this, a film with a lot of resources and professionalism seemingly trying to capture the anything-goes vibe that the scrappy shorts around it have. It's fine for what it is, but feels self-consciously strange rather than naturally so.

The Rusalka (aka The Siren)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2019 in the Somerville Theatre #2 (IFFBoston, DCP)

Give The Rusalka credit - it starts with its title monster all but explicitly defined as a metaphor for being destroyed by a broken heart and lashing out afterward, and like the best horror movies, it never wavers from that, using every moment to play into that idea and not selling it out for a quick shock, even if something else may make for a cooler, more exciting horror story.

It opens with two men arriving at Lake Argo separately. Tom (Evan Dumouchel) is mute (though not deaf) and seems to be in the process of re-evaluating his being part of a religious community. Even without speaking, he's a pleasant fellow and has rented a cozy lake house to stay in, and while out on a boat, he meets Nina (Margaret Ying Drake) out in the middle of the lake. They're cute together, but Tom isn't in a position to see that Nina never actually gets out of the lake, keeping a change of clothes and a cache of jewelry in a hidden corner. The other arrival, Al (MacLeod Andrews), probably wouldn't be surprised; his boyfriend drowned visiting this lake and he's been reading up on water spirits in the hope of vengeance.

It's a lonely thing, being a lake monster, and there's probably a darkly comic movie to be made about just what such an entity does during the off-season. Perry Blackshear instead offers up a woman stuck in a life she doesn't care for and but from which she can't escape. At times it plays both poverty and addiction, or the frequent overlap, a situation which seems like it could be solved if she would just get out of the water, although that's easier said than done. Nina's desire to be human again is the most compelling story with the best balance of just getting it out there and letting the audience piece it together, and Margaret Ying Drake is quietly impressive in the role, charged with not making Nina the typical seductress but instead making her someone that both Tom and the audience can like even if she's not strong enough to fight her nature (and has now come to live with it).

Full review on EFilmCritic

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