Monday, April 15, 2019

A look at the Florida Film Festival’s domestic narrative shorts

Posted By on Mon, Apr 15, 2019 at 3:14 PM

click to enlarge "One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure"
  • "One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure"
Overlooked by most mainstream audiences and even some critics, short films are nevertheless essential to cinema. And by virtue of its Oscar accreditation, the Florida Film Festival is one of the world’s most important shorts showcases.

This year’s fest features 130 shorts, most of them contained in 12 blocks ranging from experimental to international to animated to documentary, but it’s the four domestic narrative blocks that are traditionally viewed as the heart of the program. Contained in these four blocks are 31 films, and though quality is a bit more hit-or-miss than in most past years, there are any thought-provoking, intriguing, emotionally satisfying, funny and just plain strange films to recommend seeing all four.

In my recent interview with festival staff, Programming Director Matthew Curtis reminded me of the festival’s old tag line: “films for everyone.” And nowhere is that motto more evident than in these blocks, which offer something for every age and sensibility. Indeed, the tradition of featuring conservative narratives in Shorts #1 and getting progressively weirder with Shorts #2, #3 and #4 seems to have mostly given way to a programming free-for-all. Yes, #4 is a tad edgier than the other three blocks – even featuring a beautiful experimental film – but all four blocks push the envelope. Sometimes they practically shove it. (At least they don’t fill the envelope with feces and set it ablaze. That task is reserved for the Midnight Shorts.)

All four blocks are named for Aretha Franklin songs, in tribute to the late Queen of Soul, and all four are being presented at Regal Cinemas Winter Park Village. Shorts #1 (Tuesday, April 16, 7 p.m.) is labeled “Respect,” and each of the seven films contains characters who are either seeking or deserve admiration. The block trends toward understated, often deadpan comedy, with a touch of sweetness – such as Father Figurine (think Wes Anderson meets Norman Bates), Sweet Steel (helmed by Orlando’s own Will Goss) and Kenny (about a man dealing with his dying mother and loathsome, unsupportive family). But the block also makes room for East of the River, an almost mumblecore look at a day in the life of a suspended high school student.

Regrettably, the latter film and a couple of borderline-absurdist selections aren’t impactful enough, but that only makes the final film, One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure, shine more brightly. One of the best shorts of the entire festival, this quirky, endearing commentary on immigration is directed by A.M. Lukas and stars Emily Mortimer, and it might just get shortlisted for the Oscar.
click to enlarge "Debris"
  • "Debris"
Shorts #2 (Wednesday, April 17, 4 p.m.) is labeled “Think,” and if you believe you can predict the subjects from that title, you’ve got another think coming. In fact, it might be the most intellectually challenging of the four domestic narrative blocks. Dominant Species and Unzipped tackle existential topics in vastly different ways, while Will “The Machine” creeps up on you with its understated power. Sorry, Not Sorry provides a comedic palette cleanser while telling a complete, satisfying story in just seven minutes. But it’s Julio Ramos’s Debris, a gritty examination of the throwaway lives of illegal immigrants, that hits the hardest emotionally. Frankly, I’m amazed the block didn’t conclude with that film instead of the ill-conceived and sophomoric Funeral. It’s a rare mistake from programmers who are usually competent at balancing tone and theme.

I can’t recommend Shorts #3 (Thursday, April 18, 4:30 p.m.) as strongly as the other blocks, but three of its eight films are noteworthy. The block is named “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” and most of its films focus on sex and relationships. The deceptively simple Androgen encapsulates the anxiety and body-image issues of a booty call, while I Want to Marry a Creative Jewish Girl is uniquely weird, in a neighborly way. But Arthur Halpern’s Touchscreen, a poetic tale of social and sexual-preference anxiety, is the block’s must-see selection.

Labeled “Chain of Fools,” Shorts #4 (Thursday, April 18, 8:30 p.m.) lives up to its name and then some. A mix of comedy, drama and that aforementioned excursion into experimentalism (Dog in the Woods), the block highlights the ineptitude of man (and the smarts of “man’s best friend”).

Squirrel and The Toll Road will make you laugh, squirm and almost tear up, while Lockdown – about a girl who fakes a terror incident at her school just to get closer to her crush – is the tensest of the block’s eight shorts. But the best is Shange Zhang’s The Five Minutes, a Mandarin-language production straight from The Twilight Zone playbook. It reminds us that, even in another dimension, we can never change our past mistakes.

Many films and shorts blocks were at or near sell-out last weekend. That’s good news for the festival, but it’s also a reflection of how much the 2016 Regal renovation – in which the cinema replaced traditional seats with large recliners – reduced capacity. This is an issue that will continue to plague the festival now that the Enzian expansion has been canceled, unless the festival leases more than two Regal screens in the future. But for now, this means you should buy your tickets online in advance.

And if you’re a filmmaker, volunteer, press member or anyone else who is granted complimentary admission after paying guests are let in, your chance of seeing films (or getting a good seat) could be slim. So you might consider purchasing a ticket if there’s a must-see film on your list. And it would be nice if festival staff could work with Regal to move the stand-by line inside, where it has been in the past. Hard-working volunteers and talented filmmakers deserve better than standing in 90-degree heat. But, hey, at least I was able to sweat off the tasty cupcakes I consumed at the festival’s free block party in Winter Park Village. Bon appetit, my fellow cinephiles!

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