Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Through A Lens, Darkly

Have you ever sat through a full-length feature that could have ended several times? Or been trimmed by at least 20 minutes?  If so, you might find a treasure trove of cinema in the recent crop of short films, including some that were chosen for the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Not every short film is a joke or a mini-documentary. Like short stories, some of these films frame a remarkable slice of drama within a very brief screening time. This is especially true when it comes to offering insights into the lives and fears of young children.

In Charles Blecker's six-minute Epitaph, a young boy is seen making preparations to bury his dead pet (the latest in a long history of animal friends to succumb). The catch here is that Billy Coffin (who takes his last name very seriously) has always had a hobby of writing very serious epitaphs for his pets -- as well as imagining what his own should sound like (let's hope his parents guide him toward a career as a funeral director).

While some viewers might find Billy (Graham Bennett) to be an exceptionally morbid soul, toward the end of the film he's joined by a young girl (Miranda Autumn Lewis) who completely understands his attachment to his pets. The two almost effortlessly form a strong bond. This short film is notable for Sebastian Kleppe's outstanding cinematography.

Billy Coffin (Graham Bennett) finds a sympathetic new friend
(Miranda Autumn Lewis) in Charles Blecker's Epitaph

A beautiful work of hand-drawn animation by Roberto Kondo and Daisuke "Dice" Tsutsumi can be found in their 18-minute story about a lonely little pig who is constantly bullied at school. Not every pig gets to live in a windmill where he has the responsibility of making sure the gears work properly to keep pollution from darkening the skies. In The Dam Keeper, audiences are treated to a poignant tale that children of any age can relate to. It's not often that a put-upon porcine protagonist finds a pretty new pal and manages to push back against the perils of pollution. It's even rarer that the story is rendered so beautifully. Here's a teaser for The Dam Keeper:

There comes a time in every child's life when a stuffed toy or teddy bear is no longer a cherished confidant. Nor is the imaginary friend (whose evil twin may return in adulthood when a person starts hearing voices) given much thought once he has been abandoned by a child. Most people regard a child's growing maturity as the passage from innocence toward a fully-functioning adult.

No more famous example of this may exist than Clara's sexual awakening during a dream sequence as a nutcracker doll given to her by Herr Drosselmeyer is magically transformed into a handsome young prince. In the following clip (accompanied by some of Tchaikovsky's most orgasmic music) Rudolf Nureyev and Merle Park perform the Grand Pas de Deux from Act II of The Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker.

In Kate Tsang's delightful 15-minute short, So You’ve Grown Attached, the situation is viewed from a unique perspective. For as long as she can remember, Izzy (Madeleine Connor) has shared all of her activities and intimate thoughts with her invisible friend, Ex (Simon Pearl). The day finally comes when Izzy's attention is drawn to a young boy who shares her passion for comic books.

Although Izzy can't quite articulate what is driving her attraction to Ron (Jake Miller), her tight bond with Ex quickly evaporates into thin air. This, of course, leaves Izzy's imaginary friend in a quandary, which leads him to seek advice and solace from other imaginary friends who have been dumped -- such as BearBear (Patrick Fleury). Tsang's quirky, absurdist film is a refreshing delight.  Here's the teaser.

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Once adolescence sets in strange things start to happen. Puberty can skew one's perspectives on the world, as can one's exposure to guns, disease, and power. A 22-minute short by Serge Mirzabekiants is darkly lit to the point where the uncomfortable sibling rivalry between two brothers -- 11-year-old Albert (Alexis Lalmand) and his 13-year-old brother Edgar (Lucas Moreau) -- seems doomed from the start.

Albert (Alexis Lalmand) heads into the forest holding his
deceased grandfather's treasured Winchester rifle

Guns play a major role in The Birds’ Blessing, and not just because of the traditional hunt held each year by a family that lives near the edge of a forest. When their father (Eric De Staercke) sends his two sons into the woods with specific instructions about where to go and what to do, Albert and Edgar are already challenged by circumstance.
  • Albert (the good son) has been given the privilege of using his deceased grandfather's Winchester rifle.
  • Edgar (the bad son) takes out his resentment toward his younger brother by abandoning him in the forest and, when Albert ends up screaming for help after finding himself trapped in a deep pool of mud, humiliating him.
A terrified Albert (Alexis Lalmand) cries out to his
brother Edgar for help in The Birds' Blessing

Later, when the brothers return to the family's mansion, Albert is shocked to encounter his grandmother (Jocelyne Verdiere) holding a shotgun barrel just below her jaw in her desperate desire to escape from the boredom and hopelessness of widowhood and old age. The Birds' Blessing is a severely disquieting coming-of-age story which will leave a chilling impression on viewers. Olivier Boonjing's foreboding cinematography coupled with the deceptively delicate musical score creates a sense of heightened suspense. Here's the trailer:

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One could consider The Master’s Voice: Caveirao, a surreal 11-minute short by Guilhereme Marcondes, as a Brazilian nightmare or a warning about the dangers of living in an authoritarian police state. The film essentially describes "the eternal battle for the soul of Sao Paulo, the clash between bohemia and authoritarianism; between comedy and horror."  Every night at 3:33 a.m. in the mythical city of 'M,' all clocks come to a halt. For a moment, time is frozen. During what might seem like a fraction of second to mortal eyes, a second night filled with magical realism is revealed as bizarre spirits come out to play.

In far too many ways, The Master's Voice: Caveirao, is a sight to behold, a nightmarish free-for-all enhanced by a lively musical score by Paulo Beto -- Anvil FX. Here's the trailer:

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LBJ has been making headlines again this year. Following the end of the Breaking Bad series, actor Bryan Cranston has been starring in Robert Schenkkan's play about the 36th President of the United States entitled All The Way. And, on April 8, 2014, President Barack Obama delivered the keynote address at a Civil Rights Summit held at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

However, the LBJ that has been memorialized in popular culture is a far cry from the man portrayed in a seven-minute short by Kelly Sears entitled The Rancher. Narrated by Sam Martinez, and billed as a "quasi-historical thriller," the film portrays Johnson as suffering from a potent combination of nightmares and sleep deprivation. Using a combination of archival footage and distorted images, Sears gives viewers the impression of a powerful man struggling to cope with the burden of carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

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