CAPSULE REVIEWS: Short films of the 5th Chicago Critics Film Festival
Over 40 feature-length and short films, many of which making their Chicago premieres, graced the main screen of the Music Box Theatre this past week-and-change as part of the fifth annual Chicago Critics Film Festival. The programming team of Chicago Film Critics Association combed the festival circuit from Sundance and SXSW on down to secure an outstanding slate of films. It was an honor and pleasure to be be granted press credentials to cover the event. Until the festival's films receive their full distributions and releases, here are my collected capsule reviews (ranked from best to worst) that will grow with new additions as they are completed. Keep an eye on the remainder of 2017 for future full reviews!
In the last few years, I've really begun to enjoy discovering, digesting, and reviewing short films. It's a vast and underserved filmmaking scene brimming with variety and creativity. My compliments go out to CFCA member Collin Souter for his tireless programming of the two short film programs from this year's Chicago Critics Film Festival. He's the king of that beat. I'm just happy to visit and tip my hat.
SHORT FILM PROGRAM #1
TEN METER TOWER-- 4 STARS
Simplistic and highly effective in 16 minutes, you can’t take your eyes off of the short's observational cameras. Ten Meter Tower uses fixed cameras, slow-motion captures, and embedded nearby microphones capture the hopes, fears, and doubts of common people as they peer over the edge of a ten-meter diving platform in a public pool in Sweden. You watch with both laughs and shared fears with utter fascination.
HELL YOU TALMBOUT-- 4 STARS
Starring Joseph Webb and the Northwest Tap Connection, Hell You Talmbout is packed with rhythmic energy and social expression as a high school team of performers dance to Janelle Monae's titular song. The choreography by Shakiah Danielson brings performance to the spoken work of teens passionately telling the problems and issues of today that parallel the historical voices of the Civil Rights Movement. The message is to say, hear, and feel the names of violence victims, even if they aren't you or yours. The short makes a powerful impression immediately and upon conclusion.
APPROACHING A BREAKTHROUGH-- 3 STARS
Arguably the most cinematic short film of of the festival's first program, Approaching a Breakthrough follows an argument centering on relationship troubles between a commitment phobe named Norman (Kieran Culkin) and his fed-up girlfriend (Mae Whitman). In 11 minutes, the laundry list of repetitive flaws pile onto Norman in the form of chance meetings in New York's Central Park from two of his former therapists, a garage clerk, and an ex-girlfriend that he each owns an explanation to, in some way, shape, or form. This impromptu therapy session was an amusing comedy to follow, one that begged for me than 11 minutes.
TOUGH-- 3 STARS
Tough is short film beautifully splashing a conversational narrative between a Chinese mother and her British-born and westernized daughter against hand-drawn and symbolic animation. The daughter grew up questioning the goodness of her harder parents only to learn here in adulthood why that was necessary. This is a culture clash of reflection and level ground is something you wish was longer.
FRY DAY-- 3 STARS
Longest in length and equally cinematic in style to Approaching a Breakthrough, Fry Day uses the nickname of the execution day of serial killer Ted Bundy as its title. Playing in the genre of historical fiction, Fry Day packages a young woman's (Jordyn DiNatale) social awakening following her community neighbors in rural Florida amid the hullabaloo of media and public attention at the prison. As long as it is compared to the rest of the program, this short film feels incomplete or missing fulfillment.
DRAWN AND RECORDED: TEEN SPIRIT-- 2 STARS
Animated with a hand-drawn and pop-up book style, Drawn and Record: Teen Spirit understays its welcome at far-too-quick three minutes. In that time, the gruffy and dry tone of music mogul T-Bone Burnett navigates through the backstory that inspired Nirvana's hit song Smells Like Teen Spirit. The short chronicles an all-day and all-night bender shared between frontman Kurt Cobain and Bikini Kill lead singer Kathleen Hanna that got the creative juices flowing. Too short with words, the excellent animation styling is a saving grace.
KAIJU BUNRAKU-- 2 STARS
Poetic as it is oddball, Kaiju Bunrake showcases the ornate and tedious marionette puppetry of the Bunraku Bay Puppet Theater company. Their short form play put on camera tells the story of an embattled family digging out of and facing down the destruction of their home in Japanese monster movie fashion. Rich storytelling and very clever camera work to move about the sets and scenes and simulate peril and nearby destruction gives this short commendable dedication and atmosphere.
THE DUNDEE PROJECT-- 1 STAR
Mark Borchardt crude and rudimentary handheld documentary short is one one-man show interviewing another on his turf. Borchardt has set out to investigate a random annual "UFO Daze" celebration happening in the small lakeside town of Dundee, Wisconsin. The central subject is Bill Benson, owner and operator of Benson's Hide-A-Way and Restaurant and a man who rants and raves about being able to communicate in person and over the radio with visiting aliens. The film is more than a little aimless to follow inebriated and hayseed storytelling over beers, cigarettes, and lawn chairs with little substance or fact. The Dundee Project tries for serious tone, but is ineffective, using more establishing shots than anything else.
SHORT FILM PROGRAM #2
THE ARRIVAL-- 4 STARS
This very entertaining dark comedy follows a quietly jealous first-born son named Thomas (Fuller House's Elias Harger) in the 1950s. He is dealing with a new baby at home stealing attention from his mother (the director herself Jocelyn DeBoer) and clueless father (Matthew McMillian). Fed up, Thomas prays for a change and gets one when he "summons" hot-to-trot new mother (co-writer Dawn Luebbe). The Arrival is a sly comedy with cheeky twists backed by a stellar production team and creepy-cooky music from Samuel Nobles. Daniel Kenji Levin's dreamlike cinematography shines up the sweet old house production design from Megan Burns to create all the ambiance one would need.
“MARE NOSTRUM”-- 4 STARS
Opening on an ocean shore in Syria, a man (Ziad Bakri) is playing on the beach with his young daughter (Zayn Khalaf). It's a serene fatherly scene until the man throws the girl off the dock and into the ocean to struggle treading water. There’s a frightening and heartbreaking reason why he’s doing this. "Mare Nostrum" holds its cards close to the vest before revealing that. Bold and sad, captivating and enraging, the short directed by the team of Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf is quite impressive.
"NIGHT SHIFT"-- 3 STARS
This single night episode of personal epiphany happens in the nastiness of the men's room. Played by Tunde Adebimpe (soon in "Spider-Man: Homecoming"), the hard-working Olly Jeffries is an aspiring actor doing what he can to make ends meet, including the thankless job as a bathroom attendant at pulsating L.A. club. He was just served divorce papers by with wife Tracey (China Shavers of "Beginners"), but wants to take another hot shot at earning "maybe" terms. The strength of "Night Shift" is its engaging story arc.
“VICTOR AND ISOLINA”-- 3 STARS
William Cabellero's partially animated short tells a quintessential immigrant story. The testimonial conversation being chronicled belongs to the title couple, Cabellero's own grandparents. Animated subtitles help to translate their thick accents while Cabellero and his team used stop-motion techniques with still-life scenes of sculptures and crafted miniature sets to visualize this old married yarn. "Victor and Isolina" is a lovely little nugget that is richly told and edited.
“DAWN OF THE DEAF”-- 2 STARS
The title of this short film is an homage to George Romero's “Dawn of the Dead” where a zombie epidemic hits society. Rob Savage's Sundance and Fantasia festival selection teases the delivery of a clever premise. The protagonists we follow are deaf people communicating with sign language and dealing with their own stresses and relationship issues. All of that is turned on its ear (pun intended) in a Romeroesque way when a mysterious pulse causes widespread deafness knocking out and change the masses and putting the deaf in an uncommon situation. "Dawn of the Deaf," on its own, is a madcap story starter, but it feels unfulfilled and shorted. This one could have used
“BECAUSE THE WORLD NEVER STOPS”-- 2 STARS
"Because the World Never Stops" is the second short film, after "Ten Meter Tower," from the directing team of Axel Danielson and Maximilien van Aertryck. Their short shows the behind-the-scenes of an evening news telecast. The actual news and graphics are removed as the cameras stay on the anchors before, during, and after their on-air moments. When the news stories cut away and the short film camera remains, we see their process, eccentric quirks, and manic routines before becoming the sanitized and unbiased professional images they project to the viewers. The short lingers even on the guy that cleans the desk after the telecast is done. It's fascinating, but marginally effective.
“THE COLLECTION”-- 2 STARS
A one-of-a-kind find of movie memorabilia, one that made it on "Oprah," is the documentary short subject for director Adam Roffman's "The Collection." It's an unique and interesting little nugget of Hollywood history discovered far from California. In 1999, Marilyn Wagner and DJ Ginsberg paid $2000 for several hundred letterpress boxes containing printing plates that were used to create newspaper advertisements for classic films. They are the remnants of a unique publishing process that was last active in the 1980s. It is a historical treasure appraised to be worth $8-12 million, but that's only if a buyer is willing to pay that.
“NUTAG-HOMELAND”-- 1 STAR
Lastly, we have a short that is too short and nondescript. Gorgeous animation creates visualized paintings on cultural history. We learn after its beauty that it was a tribute to the deportation of Kalmyk people of the Caspian Sea area of the former Soviet Union in World War II. The loss of homeland in wartimes is an event with volume requiring more than what was created here. It's a beautiful non-narrative that probably needed a narrative.