2009 Florida Film Festival Shorts
Chizfilm Movie Reviews
April 6, 2009
“Original Cinema” Shorts at the Eighteenth Annual Florida Film Festival
by Jonathan Chisdes
Last week, I was privileged to attend seven of the ten days of the 18th annual Florida Film Festival in Winter Park, FL. The theme this year was “Original Cinema” (a pun on original sin in case you didn’t get that) and it was certainly a good theme since the festival was filled with original and creative films.
For me, it was an intense but wonderful and exciting week. During that time, I managed to see 34 films: eight feature-length and 26 shorts. I’ll be very happy to review the features later, but today I’d like to tell you all about the shorts. In the interest of space, I won’t comment on every one; but I will at least share with you the dozen that I most enjoyed. For lack of any better way to organize this, I’ll approach them alphabetically.
- Abbie Canceled: Abbie and her husband, who actually never appear in this, have set up a dinner meeting with two other couples who have not met each other; but at the last minute Abbie has to cancel due to an emergency, so these two couples who have never met struggle to get through dinner without the benefit of their mutual friend. A very interesting dynamic develops between these four people; the two men end up bonding over a strange macho ritual while the two women get catty. When a hidden agenda surfaces, a huge fight ensues and the evening ends with the one couple storming out.
And yet it’s not quite over. One tiny bit of unfinished business seems about to lead to renewed interaction. Unfortunately this interesting short ends there; but director Jessica Burstein, who was present, told us that soon this will be a feature and will finally play out.
- Afterville: A Science Fiction short set a half-century into the future in Milan, Italy. The backstory is that years before, alien spaceships had landed and embedded themselves into the city. Then it was discovered that they were counting down to something. Finally the last day has arrived and we see it through the eyes of Sam who is struggling to come to terms with what may be his last day alive. If it is the final moments of the world, where would you want to spend them and who would you want to spend them with? I really liked this short’s theme about appreciating life. Also the effects were really great, too.
- Barefoot on the Stage: Another Italian film. This was only six minutes, but rather cute. An actress is auditioning for a director who is determined not to cast her. As he searches for an excuse to reject her, he continually gives her demands that she amazingly meets. Where will it end? With a surprise, of course.
- Flat Love: Talk about a love for art. Here’s a film about a young man who falls in love with the painting “Girl with Ball” by Lichtenstein which is currently hanging in the MOMA. Obsessed with flatness, the man rejects a three-dimensional girl who is attracted to him as he attempts to actually get inside the painting without the guards throwing him out of the museum. An interesting take on the relationship between two-dimensional art, three-dimensional art, and real life.
- I Kicked Luis Guzman in the Face: This hilarious short took a comical look at celebrity—both traditional celebrity and the recent fad of internet celebrity—by focusing on a dull and ordinary person who has a tendency to make up outrageous stories. When he spontaneously makes up a story that he met actor Luis Guzman and beat him up in a fight, his story is spread on the internet and he becomes famous on-line. But when Guzman, playing himself, learns of this lie, he decides to pay the young man a visit resulting in tragic consequences. Still, it’s very funny. And kudos to Guzman for playing himself in a negative light.
- Marooned: Inspired by the old “Star Treks” and “Twilight Zones” of the 1960s, this short tells the story of a middle-aged sci-fi geek who is out in the desert role-playing a game with friends. He pretends he is a space-captain who has crash-landed on a desolate planet filled with monsters. However in the middle of the game he hits his head and gets amnesia. When he asks his friends who he is, they think the amnesia is part of the game so they tell him he’s a space-captain; now he thinks it’s real. Unfortunately, this has dire consequences for his friends. I enjoyed the irony of this story as well as the stark photography. It was also great to hear the director, Ryan Nagata, discuss the filming during the Q&A after the showing.
- Memphis Calling: Another short that really touched me. A condemned prisoner is allowed one last phone call; having no one else to call, he calls a stranger, a woman who is driving along a freeway in Los Angeles. What can two strangers share over the phone? You’d be surprised.
- Our Neck of the Woods: This short is set in a factory that manufactures fake deer for lawn ornaments. An assembly-line of workers paints the fake deer; each responsible for a tiny section, such as the right eye, for example. But every so often, one of the deer bursts into flames. Rather than investigate the problem, find out what’s causing this occasional spontaneous combustion, and figure out how to solve it, the company takes the easier rout: they assign one worker to “fire duty.” He stands by with a fire-extinguisher and whenever one of the deer catches fire, he rushes to put it out. This is a perfect metaphor for corporate mentality.
The movie focuses on a sensitive foreman who feels bad for one of his workers, a woman who has emigrated from Georgia (the country, not the state). Really good acting by both leads.
My favorite scene in this short is a brief moment when a real deer is drawn to the lawn of the foreman’s house to investigate the fake deer. The foreman’s wife shoos the deer away—she’d rather have fake deer than a real one. Another powerful metaphor for American culture.
- People Like Us: An interesting eight-minute student documentary about an incident that occurred not far from the site of the FFF—in Orlando, FL. Eric Montanez, of the group Food Not Bombs, was arrested two years ago for feeding homeless people in violation of a recent city law forbidding the sharing of food with the hungry. The student filmmaker had mixed footage that he had shot with tapes of city council hearings where people expressed their various opinions just before the ordinance has passed. The film raised important issues between those who have compassion for the homeless and those who fear them.
Although I felt there were some technical problems with the editing and that the issues could have been explored in greater depth, I gave the short a high rating because student films need to be judged by different standards than professional films.
- The Response: I actually saw this at the Virginia Film Festival last November and loved it. (Faithful readers might recall my article about it.) I was excited to see it again. Based on actual transcripts from Combat Status Review Tribunals, the film depicts three military judges presiding over a hearing at Guantanamo to determine if a prisoner has been properly classified as an enemy combatant. He protests his innocence, but he cannot defend himself since he is unable to see the evidence against him because it is classified.
When I saw this movie at the VFF, there was a second scene in which the three judges retired to debate the case and the legal and constitutional issues. This scene was cut in the FFF version and that greatly disappointed me because, in my view, it was the second scene that really made the movie. It’s still a good film, but the re-editing of movies, especially for the purposes of making them worse instead of better, is an issue that troubles me. Though not as much as the issue of prisoner rights.
- Rosy: A teenage boy who has just been dumped by his girlfriend retreats to his mother’s house to sulk privately in the tub. He knows his mother is out of town so he’ll be alone. What he didn’t expect was that the neighbor, a middle-aged woman, has agreed to come and feed the cat. As it turns out, the neighbor, too, has just been dumped by her boyfriend. A most interesting conversation develops in this peculiar situation as these very different characters discover what they have in common.
- Water Pills: Winona Ryder makes a welcome comeback in this short about an emotionally unstable stage-mother taking her adolescent daughter from audition to audition; it is the mother’s dream but the daughter goes along with it. Just when the daughter seems on the verge of huge success, the mother’s ex-boyfriend calls and wants them to come back, possibly destroying the daughter’s future acting career.
Ryder gives a very powerful performance managing to make the audience sympathize with a character who is really not very sympathetic. It is my hope that Ryder’s work in this short can help reignite her career, put her personal problems behind her, and give audiences a chance to see her for the talented actor she truly is.
If you get a chance to see any of these shorts, I highly recommend you do. They are the best of the ones I saw.
But before I end this article, I do want to comment on one last short. It was called “Glory at Sea.” Of all 26 shorts I saw last week, it was the one I liked the least. In my view, it was just terrible. Survivors of a storm make a boat and sail out into the sea to find their loved ones under the ocean who are still alive. It made no sense to me. Maybe it was supposed to be some sort of religious metaphor or something, but I thought it was just poorly done and quite confusing.
So maybe you can imagine my utter astonishment yesterday when I discovered that “Glory at Sea” had been awarded the jury prize for best short of the festival. I was completely floored. What did the jury see that I didn’t? What did I miss?
I have to tell you, this really made me rethink my own abilities as a critic. If my opinion of films is so grossly off, I wonder if it negates everything I have ever done as a critic in the last two-and-a-half years. If so, perhaps I should consider giving up my career as a film critic.
Well, before I do that, though, I do have at least one more responsibility. I must review the rest of the festival. There were eight feature-length films I saw last week and I have an obligation to write about them. I’ll do that within the next few days, so keep an eye open for that.
After that, who knows?
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