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Movie Review: 2009 AFI Fest: Short Film Reviews

By Mike Everleth ⋅ November 25, 2009

Send Me to the lectric Chair

Monday, Nov. 2 was unofficially “short film day” at the 2009 AFI Film Festival with two programs of short films back-to-back in the afternoon. I previously reviewed the first program, which was a screening of selections from Mike Plante’s Lunchfilm project.

However, the films below weren’t connected by any thread and were a combination of straight-up narratives, experimental documentaries, animation and other somewhat unclassifiable projects. This was my first time attending AFI and I don’t know how in the past the festival has handled short film screenings, if they’ve been more spread out than this, if they typically screen more or less of them, or if this one-day block is typical of how short films have been treated.

The nice thing is that both screenings were extremely well attended. I can’t say if the second block of short films was absolutely sold-out, but it seemed like it. Again, I don’t know if that’s typical of AFI, or if the theater was more full due to the fact that this year all screenings were free to the public. But, it felt good to see short films, which don’t usually get the attention that features get, receive so much love even at two screenings. It made me wish there had been more throughout the festival.

Before I start in with the reviews, a bit of bad business. My reviews are one short since there was technical difficulty with the first film scheduled, The History of Aviation, directed by Balint Kenyeres. This would be a shame for any film and filmmaker, but from the opening ten seconds or so that we were able to see this of this film, it really looked beautiful. I didn’t write this here to bust on AFI. These kinds of things happen at festivals and it’s unfortunate.

Well, onto the reviews proper. The reviews are listed in the vague memory my mind recalls, so it’s probably not in the proper order at all:

S/T, dir. Lisandro Alonso. This was an exceptionally short film, basically just an extreme close-up of an owl staring right into the audience’s eyes. If you’re going to make a film of basically one shot and this brief, you better make it a gorgeous one. And Alonso does just that. A really crisp and intense image that is startling.

The Citizens, dir. Kevin Jerome Everson. This was the first of two shorts by Everson screened back-to-back. The Citizens is comprised of two pieces of found footage weaved together. One is of an interview with Muhammad Ali from looked like the mid-to-late ’60s and the other shows Fidel Castro goofing around on the pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium. The Ali interview is fantastic. Nobody is grilling The Greatest about boxing, but instead he fields general political and personal queries. Most enlightening is when the most famous fighter in American history says he’d never let his children box, nor let them participate in any sport. He’d rather raise them to develop their brains over their muscles. Of course, his one daughter Laila did go on to box professionally, but it was nice to see Ali as a proud and enthusiastic young father committed to big and bold issues and not afraid to speak his mind plainly and clearly.

Lead, dir. Kevin Jerome Everson. This on the other hand was all modern footage of African-American men and women working in a coal mine. Lead is one helluva loud movie, too! Absolutely deafening, which worked perfectly to really get the audience to feel what it’s like to work shoveling coal. It’s dark, it’s dirty, it’s grimy — and L-O-U-D!

Short Term 12

Short Term 12, dir. Destin Daniel Cretton. Set in a home for troubled teenagers, both girls and boys, Short Term 12 is a straight-up dramatic narrative that features a haunting, painful script and some really terrific young actors. At a Q&A after the screening, Cretton admitted that his inspiration came from working in such a facility himself and the film is successful at hitting a nice realistic tone rather than going for overblown drama. Brad William Henke stars as the subtly complex main character, Denim, who is the lead supervisor in charge of the home for the day. Denim is a confounding mixture of great strength — which he needs lest the kids run over him — and complete awkwardness when it comes to dealing with with his adult co-workers. Denim is a man who has to wear many faces and Hanke really wears the weariness that comes with that on his face.

Oil Change, dir. Todd Luoto. Pat Healy stars as Kole, a man-child that’s two parts sympathetic and one part revolting. He’s a poor bass player happily in love with Teresa (Michelle Lawrence). At least he is until the couple have to spend the weekend at Teresa’s rich friends’ house where Kole’s inadequacy draws out the worst in him. It’s a familiar, awkward set-up that plays out in suitably cringe-worthy fashion by Luoto. But it’s obvious that the film is going for a grand punchline — that happily more than delivers when it arrives. Egged on to confess the most embarrassing thing he’s ever done, Kole reveals a secret about himself that’s beyond immoral, revolting and degenerate, yet leaving it up to the audience to decide if he’s being sincere or is acting out some gross form of revenge by lying.

I Am So Proud of You, dir. Don Hertzfeldt. Although I had previously seen this film on DVD, watching it again on the big screen was a real punch in the face. In a good way. This is a truly epic stick figure animation film, featuring possibly the saddest story every told and including bombastic visual and audio effects happening around the simple stick figures. Poor Bill is one of the most put-upon human beings who ever strode the planet having been raised by a psychotic mother who taught him to be fearful of everything. The film alternates between being genuinely sad to being riotously funny as one mishap after another piles upon our hapless hero and with off-putting sidebar stories, such as the tragic death of Bill’s young brother who was born with metal hooks for hands and a flashback into Bill’s grandmother’s history of being married to men who got run over by trains. One isn’t sure if he should laugh outright or emit nervous little chuckles at the misfortunes being laid out in front of them in grotesque forms.

John Wayne Hated Horses, dir. Andrew T. Betzer. This is a quiet little film exploring different worlds of masculinity between a young boy and an older man, whom we learn later is the kid’s father. The two exist in different universes. The boy plays on rusty tanks abandoned in a field while dad works cleaning up the yard. In fact, we don’t even know there’s any relationship between these two characters until the youngster is finally called home. Furthering the military theme, there is a diorama of army men set up in their house. One character has put military action figures into sexually compromising positions, while the other tears them apart to create a scene of wanton violence. This is an elliptical and moody piece that’s more about the introspection afterward than the direct action on the screen.

Send Me to the ‘lectric Chair, dir. Guy Maddin. Maniacal men strap poor Isabella Rossellini into a grand electric chair and, yes, shock her to death. If one didn’t know who Rossellini was, one couldn’t be faulted for not realizing he wasn’t actually watching a snuff film from the ’20s. The whole scenario is acted out with the greatest of melodrama, so it ends up being absolutely frightening — and exhilarating. Maddin’s ability to recreate another era on film is uncanny, from the crazy contraptions that power the chair’s death-dealing shocks to Rossellini’s old-fashioned prison garb. The men take too much glee from their dastardly deed for this to be an inmate’s execution, so they must be delivering this poor woman to her demise just for kicks.

Dick Cheney in a Cold Dark Cell, dir. Jim Finn. This is another one of Finn’s Duchampian pieces that takes some pop culture detritus and mixes it up with an in-context title. The detritus this time is a scene from Damien: The Omen II in which a character is trapped under an icy lake during a hockey game. The players watch in horror as their friend is washed away by the current just under their feet. And instead of the original dialogue and score from the film, there’s a happy song by Judy Garland playing on the soundtrack. The pairing with the subject in the title is obvious. But, is the film just playing upon wishful thinking? Or showing the horrific results of actual wishful thinking?