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Movie Review: 2008 Austin Underground Film Festival: Shorts Review (Part One)

Austin Underground Film Festival 2008

The third Austin Underground Film Festival was a truly epic short-film event. It took place all in one night (Dec. 19), but it included enough short films for almost a week.

Andy Gately, AUFF’s director, was nice enough again to send me a screener of all the films. I’m breaking the reviews into two parts arbitrarily just cuz I think there’s so much to cover that it’ll be more readable in two smaller halves. Also, just a quick overview, this was a very international festival this year with short films from all over the world with a very wide and diverse range. That said, here’s the first half of reviews, mostly in the order in which I believed they were originally screened, but with a few mixed around for various reasons.

Everything Will Be Okay, dir. Don Hertzfeldt. Best described as an unholy union of Albert Camus and Franz Kafka told in stick figure form, Everything is the epic animated story about Bill, a sad sack afflicted with an unnamed disease. As Bill’s condition worsens and he meditates on the meaning of life during his long, painful existence, the world around him becomes more surreal and populated with all kinds of freaks and monsters. The story is mostly related via a dispassionate narrator who offers neither pity nor sympathy toward the debased main character and Hertzfeldt takes a very unique approach to delivering the visuals. The action takes place in cloudy white bubbles floating on a stark black background, which lends an old silent movie look to it, the way irising lenses and similar camera tricks used to be commonplace. The film thus has a very distancing effect as if we’re watching amoeba swirling about in petri dishes, yet Bill’s woes are extremely human despite how surreal his situation can become, so on another level it’s all very relatable. There’s a tremendous depth here despite the flatness of the stick animation.

Muto, dir. Blu. This short film gained a popularity online for its highly original animation: The entire film is animated through actual graffiti. Odd creatures pop out of walls and mutate into other monsters as they crawl along and up and down brick walls and the sides of buildings. As each new action is painted on the wall, the old actions are whitewashed out to offer the illusion of motion. I’ve seen the film before online, but watching it again I’m struck at what makes the film truly successful. While the animation work is staggering, the movie really works well as a film. Instead of locking the camera down on a tripod and just let the animation do its thing, the camera is a moving object, moving along with and zooming in and out of the action as the animation dictates. It’s the timing of the camera moves with the moving figures that makes this a truly stunning film.

Rabbit, dir. Run Wrake. This animated fable is like an evil cross between Dick and Jane primers and the comic strips of Kim Deitch. Two evil little bastards who dissect animals for fun are greeted by a tiny golden idol after slicing a rabbit in half. Innocently using it’s magical powers to turn insects into jewels, the mischievous homunculus is tricked by the children into making them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Like the work of Deitch, the film is playful, charming and completely disturbing at the same time. The film really has an old children’s storybook feel to it and every object in it has its name floating above it, e.g. “Leaf,” “Jewel,” “Rabbit,” as if this is an educational film, which in many ways it is since its essentially a parable about greed. So, kids will either learn a good lesson from watcing this or be scarred for life.

Made in Japan, dir. Ciro Altabas. This is a Spanish film that didn’t come with any subtitles. There’s plenty of talking, but the fun of the piece was being able to figure out what was going on without understanding any of the dialogue. A harried young man sits down at a table in a restaurant with an obviously pissed-off woman. Clearly, he’s late for a date and he spins a wild yarn about where he’s been, which includes a trip to Japan to watch a samurai sword dueling championship. Why this man claims he had to do all this, I have no idea, but still an amusing work with a very universal theme.

Musika, dir. Asier Urbietaren. This is another Spanish film sans subtitles, but since there’s no dialogue it doesn’t matter. (Can’t quite call it a “silent” film since there’s natural sounds, just no speaking.) A one-armed man gives a lesson in tolerance to a kid who is freaked out by the deformity. The film is only about five minutes long in a very simple location, but the impact of the finale in which the man is able to reach the boy on an emotional level is very powerful and poignant.

The Life & Times of Drazen Paskaljevic, dir. Chris Bianchi. I have no idea if Drazen Paskaljevic is a real person or not, but this film alleges that he’s the most overlooked gypsy musician in history. One could call this an animated film. There’s no real animating going on, however. Instead, as a narrator gives us a brief overview of Paskaljevic’s life, the camera pans over still drawings of the man’s life. Although, what’s interesting is how more information is revealed during the pans so that you do get the feeling of a story progressing, even though the drawings themselves are static. I’m tempted to do a web search for Paskaljevic, but as of now I’d rather not know if I was being put on or not.

Film Noir, dir. The 313. This is an extremely difficult type of spoof film to pull off, so big props go to Detroit comedy improv group The 313 for scoring some very big laughs. Obviously, this is a spoof of old film noirs in which a down-on-his-luck gambler attends an illegal card game with some shady characters and presided over by a femme fatale. The film starts with a traditionally overwrought noir voice-over monologue from the main character, but then each character first gets their own monologues that quickly seques into dialogue all done via voice-over. It’s a good trick played extremely well, especially during a poker game when the most important thing is for each player to hide the strength of his hand. I really laughed a lot during this one.

Siyamo, dir. Mahmoud Rezi Sani. This is an extremely difficult film to pin down. It’s shot like a video documentary in which a man travels all over Afghanistan to find a woman named Siyamo that visited him in his dreams. We never get to see this main character and all the people he interacts with consider him to be a “foreigner” even though he flawlessly speaks the native language.¬† While most of the men he speaks with are cordial and friendly, there’s a tension bubbling under the surface as if they are all just telling him what he wants to hear — namely that he’s nuts trying to find a woman he only saw in his mind. All this man knows about this woman is that she has black hair, so trying to locate her in a country where all the women are covered up by either just veils or the body-covering burka. Actually, seeing all these women wearing these head-to-foot flowing drapes while walking around the villages and the cities was quite disturbing to watch. With that, plus how you really feel for this guy on his mad, obviously pointless and futile quest, gives the film a really sad overall quality. But there’s also a dream-like fairy-tale aspect to the quest, so the film doesn’t get overly bogged down and depressing and is in someways a bit uplifting.

Soccer Time, dir. Edmond Hawkins. This is a quick throwaway film that succeeds exactly because the filmmakers don’t try to push things too far. Shot like a homemade video, two suburban kids videotape themselves kicking a soccer ball around. Suddenly, one of them is attacked by a big pink animated blog. The kid squirms free and he, plus the guy carrying the videocamera, find shelter in a garage. That’s it! The film comes across as though the kids are trying to pull a hoax on the audience to convince us this poorly animated creature is real, which is painfully obvious it isn’t. It’s all a goof and it’s all fun.

El Mago Manani, dir. Victor Dryere Pro. Another Spanish film, a seaside magician prepares for his big finale: A knife-throwing demonstration with his hot young assistant as the trussed-up target. As he steadies his aim, he flashes back to the past two weeks in which he’s been having an affair with said hot young assistant while dutifully calling his wife everyday and telling her how much he loves her. The assistant, however, tells him she won’t bang him in the hot tub anymore if he doesn’t officially ask for a divorce el pronto. This is a very nicely shot and well put together short film that, given the setup I just laid out, the ending should have been ridiculously obvious, yet I was still surprised, which I credit to the filmmaking and not just my own obliviousness.

A Belly Full of Anger, dir. Andre Perkowski. I’ve reviewed many of Perkowski’s films on the¬†Underground Film Journal and this one is a trailer for a kung fu spoof that hasn’t been completed yet. On the one hand, this works just fine in and of itself, as if it’s its own short film, serving up one ludicrous martial arts gag after another. On the other hand, like any great trailer, this really makes one hungry for the full version, which I seriously hope Perkowski completes soon because the world needs it.

Hemisfair, dir. Olivia Hinojosa and Yvonne Hernandez. This is a straight-up documentary chronicling the 1968 Hemisfair in San Antonio, TX. This was a World’s Fair that the city agreed to host in order to help transform it into a world-class metropolis. I don’t think the Hemisfair quite had that result — no offense — but the film is filled with interviews with many, many proud citizens of San Antonio who helped make the fair a reality. Actually, the amount of civic pride that went into building this endeavor is very inspiring. I had never heard of Hemisfair before and I ended up being extremely impressed by both the film and the fair.

Read Part Two of my AUFF shorts reviews here.


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