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Movie Review: 2007 Austin Underground Film Festival: Shorts Review

Austin Underground Film Festival

I wasn’t lucky enough to attend the actual Austin Underground Film Festival way back on June 9th, but festival director Andy Gately was nice enough to make sure I got the short films that played during the one-night event. I always like watching short films, either on DVD on the TV or on the computer, but I do miss that communal feeling of sitting in the theater with other like-minded underground film enthusiasts.

I reviewed last year’s AUFF lineup here, which was a great collection of shorts, and Gately has done it again, screening a nice, eclectic bunch of films that still hang together extremely well. There’s a couple of really amazing documentary films, some nice goofy shorts, a pair of music videos and an ingenious experimental piece. This really would have made for a fun night in the theater. Now, on to the individual film reviews:

In Defense of Definitions, dir. Don Swaynos. Things kicked off with this goofy little diversion presented more as a filmstrip than a film. Told in a series of still frames, two teenage kids get a quick lesson in how important definitions are from Youth Minister Harry, which of course starts with differentiating between eating and shitting and leads to important lessons in life and death. Swaynos pulls it off pretty well and the gags are funny.

Ghetto Big Mac and Bodega, both dir. Casimir Nozkowski. These are a companion of films starring the same two guys, Dallas Penn and Oh Word, two pretty funny guys who lead us on a tour on how to survive in “da ‘hood” in today’s economy. Big Mac is the more successful of the two films, although both of them could have used a little extra editing for more streamlined, funnier pacing. But these guys are good, educating us on how to order a cheap double cheeseburger and pimp it out to Big Mac status; plus a tour of all the great bargains one can find in a Bronx bodega, which is a corner convenience store for those of you who’ve never lived in NYC. How many times do you get a good laugh while getting a practical education? Not often enough.

Help Is Coming, dir. Ben Mor. From the silly to the deadly serious, we get this startling experimental film shot in New Orleans just a few months after Katrina. In it, three kids find a box of masks of George Bush, Dick Cheney and Ray Nagin that they put on and wander about the ruins. The devastation is incredible and horrifying. The place looks like a couple of atom bombs went off. If you don’t have time to watch Spike Lee’s 4-hour opus When the Levees Broke, this terminally sad short flick is the next best thing. (But, really, you should watch Spike’s film, too, if you haven’t already.)

Cube, dir. Tiffany Haile. I know this is supposed to be a funny parody of the way ’80s video games used to look all blocky and stuff, but by the end of the film I really wanted to play the game because it looked like a lot of fun.

A Girl Like Me, dir. Kiri Davis. If I had been at the AUFF, I would have voted this astounding documentary the best film of the night. It’s a very simply done film exploring complex issues of identity in which Davis interviews different African-American girls about the role skin tone plays in their own lives and in the black community in general. The girls are all very candid and most of what they say regarding their lives is devastating. But, even more explosive, Davis re-creates an old experiment by placing black and white baby dolls in front of very young African-American kids (male and female) and asks them which doll they prefer. The majority of the kids pick the white dolls and some, when prodded, say they chose the white doll because it looks like a “good” baby only because it’s white. It kinda blew my mind.

Baggs Music Video, dir. Jon Clark. This was a short excerpt from the hilarious film Baggs: The Movie, which I reviewed way back here and is a spot-on throwback to ’80s teen films. The music video is actually the climax of the film and it works well enough on it’s own, but you really gotta see the whole thing. You can buy the film from Alarming Press.

Team Queen, dir. Leah Meyerhoff. This extemely well-done music video for the band Triple Creme has been playing the underground film circuit all year long. Seriously, run a search on “Meyerhoff” on the¬†Underground Film Journal and you get a ton of entries, so I was extremely happy to finally see a nice, high-quality version of it. First of all, it’s a really great, catchy song and the video is, like Baggs above, a throwback to good, old-fashioned music videos when music videos used to tell a story and were, most of all, fun. The “story” is slight: a “good girl” is horrified by her outrageous classmates until she finally joins them in all their orgiastic excess. Best part: the transvestite cheerleaders.

Drawing Between the Lines, dir. Bruce Parsons. This is a really absorbing documentary about cult indie comics creator Jeffrey Brown, creator of the graphic novels Clumsy, Unlikely and, most recently, Incredible Change-Bots. While I’m familiar with Brown’s name, I’m not sure how much of his work I’ve read. I know I don’t have any of his GNs, but can’t recall if I own any of his short stories. But, holy shit, after watching this, I have to get more acquainted with this guy. Brown is an extremely unassuming guy, who even as he grows to become a cult icon, still stays rooted by working a three-day-a-week job at a bookstore. He comes across as a really nice, likeable guy with comics publishers and other cartoonists falling all over themselves praising Brown. This is an excellent documentary about another comics creator that is on the same pantheon with Crumb and American Splendor. No wonder it won the Best of the Fest award (and to me it’s a close second to A Girl Like Me).

Exhibit A: Leary vs. Hicks, dir. Penny Dreadful. This is an interesting documentary that goes on way too long showing how comedian Denis Leary stole his entire early standup act from fellow comedian Bill Hicks. The evidence is extremely shocking. The left is just that blatant. But after awhile you kind of feel that you get the point and more isn’t necessary. It also could have used a little tighter editing of Hicks’ act jutting up against Leary’s.

My Best Friend’s Birthday, dir. Quentin Tarantino. Diehard Tarantino fans know that before his first film Reservoir Dogs, QT tried his hand at another film that he never got around to finishing. It’s hard to judge the film since it’s incomplete, but it’s interesting that Birthday isn’t a genre film like all of QT’s other movies and is just more of a goofy comedy. Shot pretty crappily in B&W, Birthday actually reminded me a lot of Kevin Smith’s Clerks, but produced on even less of a budget. The jokes are all pretty on the lame side — one running “gag” involves garlic gum — but one scene is a less-funny precursor to the “Uma Thurman snorting heroin” bit in Pulp Fiction.

Video Bath, dir. Parker Lasseigne. This is an excellent experimental film in which a man fills a tub with TV static instead of water. But that’s only the beginning of a sequence of trippy visuals where the tub eventually transmutes into pure abstract video. While I enjoyed the film a lot while watching it at home, this would have been an even better experience in a theater where I think the images would have fully enveloped me.

Imagination Systems, dir. Adam Grossi. This was a difficult film that I think really pays off once one realizes that the seemingly disparate storylines are all headed towards a mutual conclusion. “Imagination Systems” is a product of one of those late-night infomercial con men that gives children the proper skills to succeed in the marketplace as they grow older. An artist working for the company drawing coloring books slowly starts to realize that the messages being sold to the kids is actually a form of brainwashing. He shares this revelation with a co-worker who rats him out immediately, which throws the company’s founder into a panic. Scenes in the film don’t really flow from one into the other. Instead, they’re kind of jammed up next to each other, so that it takes awhile to figure out the relationships of each of the characters, and there’s more of them than the two I just described. Eventually, it all adds up and the film works as an intriguing meditation on free thought in the culture of business and the business of culture.


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