2017 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL SHORT FILM TOUR

Presenting a consumable cross-section of the 35 shorts that played at this past January’s Sundance Film Festival, the 2017 Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour offers seven films of varying length, subject matter, and execution. All of the selected seven are well made, present a specific perspective, and are engaging. What more could a moviegoer ask for?

Come Swim, Kristen Stewart’s first foray into writing and directing, is a fractured dream/hallucination/foreshadow of an unnamed man (Josh Kaye) who both fears and needs the water. He downs water by the bottle, he hears the surf wherever he goes — as well as an unknown woman’s voice — and is constantly tormented by the rain as he tries to enjoy a meal at Waffle House. Stewart provides little story but plenty of impressionistic editing, asking more questions than providing answers.

Of all the shorts featured in the program, 5 Films About Technology, a satirical short from Canadian Peter Huang, is the one I would most like to see expanded into a feature. Using a La Ronde-like structure, 5 Films is sharp, smart, and effortless connects each character, mainly through moments of stupidity. It’s humorous look into the mirror.

Night Shift, from writer/director/producer Marshall Tyler, is thin-slice of an LA club bathroom attendant’s night. Not only is the attendant (TV on the Radio singer Tunde Adebimpe) in the middle of a divorce, his job revolves around looking after drunken middle-aged frat boys. Working with sparse dialogue, Adebimpe gives a resonant performance of a man of dignity who has found himself in a much lower position than he could have predicted.

In Lucia, Before and After, writer/director Anu Valia keeps the story close to Lucia (Sarah Goldberg), a woman who travels a great distance to abort her pregnancy at a Texas clinic. The clinic requires a 24-hour waiting period between ultrasound and abortion, forcing Lucia to wait around longer than she wanted. Short on cash, Lucia tries to get a free room at a rundown motel, walks out on a bar tab, and whittles away her 24-hours stay in Purgatory. A pitch-perfect naturalistic performance from Goldberg helped Lucia nab the Jury Award for Short Fiction.

Ten Meter Tower, from directors Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson, is a study in hesitation as swimmers at a Swedish pool confront the challenge of the ten-meter tower (a little over 32 feet). Using static cameras, mainly the one focused on the diving platform, a range of emotions, heroics, and comedy plays out. In a couple of instances, the directors employ the use of the phantom cam (a super-slow motion camera) to capture the art of the jump, notably Elin Astrom, a diver on the Swedish team.

From Poland, Pussy is an animated short about a woman who indulges in a little alone time after the cable goes out. What starts as a simple comedy of starts and stops turns psychedelic when her vagina sprouts arms and legs, climbs off her crotch and begins seeking pleasure on its own. Written, directed, and animated by relative newcomer Renata Gąsiorowska (with animation assistance from Agnieszka Borowa).

The 2017 Sundance Shorts Traveling program concludes with the winner of the Jury Award for International Short Film: And the Whole Sky Fit In the Dead Cow’s Eye, from writer/director Francisca Alegría. This meditation on death opens with a field of dead cows — with no indication of how they died — and continues when Death visits 85-year-old Emeteria (Shenda Román). But Death has not come for her; he has come for someone else.

And the Whole Sky Fit In the Dead Cow’s Eye is a moody and atmospheric short, one that is exactly as long as it needs to be. Any longer and it would drag. Any shorter and it would leave too many questions. That is the beauty of short films; they are not beholden to the tyranny of feature length runtimes and can be as concise or loose as they want to be.

The 2017 Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour opens June 16 at the Sie Film Center.

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SLACK BAY

The disappearance of a tourist brings two bumbling inspectors to the picturesque seaside town of Slack Bay; a place where a mussel gathering family cradle-carry the wealthy across the bay when the tide is high, wealthy that are too obsessed with their own stupidity to realize that these mussel gatherers also double as cannibals.

Written and directed by Bruno Demont — a filmmaker known more for his dramatic works than his comedic — Slack Bay is a bourgeois farce made by a filmmaker who is above such silly matters. Though Demont cites Laurel and Hardy, Peter Sellers, and Monty Python as inspirations, Slack Bay is almost entirely inert and completely devoid of recklessness and anarchy. Perhaps Demont thinks he can elevate such lowly material through form and rigor, though Slack Bay lacks that as well. Guillaume Deffontaine’s images are beautiful in themselves, but the compositions have neither the rigidity nor the looseness that comedy requires. Not even Didier Desprès, a balloon of a man who squeaks with every step, or Juliette Binoche as the hysterical Aude Van Peteghem can bring levity to this over-long, over-bloated piece of dreck.

Slack Bay opens June 16 in limited release. In French with English subtitles.

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AFTERIMAGE

All first films are alike; each final film is final in its own way. When Polish director Andrzej Wajda made A Generation in 1954, he already had three shorts and an apprenticeship with filmmaker Aleksander Ford under his belt, but it was the four-minute unbroken tracking shot of a Warsaw slum that introduced Wajda to the world.

Sixty-plus years and 40 films later, Afterimage, marks Wajda’s departure — from this earthly plane, but certainly not from memory.

Set in 1950s Poland, during the Stalinist rule, Afterimage centers on renowned avant-garde artist, Władysław Strzemiński (Bogusław Linda), a professor who lost his leg and arm in World War I. Since, his pen and paintbrush have turned him into a well-recognized member of the Polish art scene, a beloved teacher and theoretician, and a threat to the Communist regime.

On more or less a whim, the Minister of Culture decides that Strzemiński is out. His work is destroyed, his memberships are revoked, and his food stamps are cut off. Strzemiński’s students try to help their favorite professor out, but they can only do so much in a system this crushing.

Strzemiński accepts this humiliation is stride. What matters to him is staying alive long enough to finishes his life’s work, A Theory of Vision.

It’s not too much of a stretch to see Afterimage as Wajda’s Theory of Vision with a little memoir thrown in. Afterimage may be Strzemiński’s bio-pic, but the images of endless breadlines, drafty hospital beds, and cigarette smoke hanging in the cold Polish air come across like memories tattooed on to Wajda’s brain. As are the vibrant and lush colors that Strzemiński works with, the clear and concise way he speaks, and his ability to push out the horrors of the world and focus on what truly matters: images. Some people can do that for a lifetime.

Afterimage premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, 2016. On October 9, Andrzej Wajda passed away from pulmonary failure. He was 90 years old.

Afterimage is currently in limited release. Wajda’s first film, A Generation, is currently availed on FilmStruck via the Criterion Channel.

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LA 92

The horror is so bad you wish you were watching something scripted, something directed. But you’re not; you’re watching reality play out in gory detail. A man is dragged from his truck and beaten within an inch of his life. Another body lies on the pavement, bloodied, broken, and motionless. A man walks over to the corpse and spray-paints it black. Fires burn in the background, people scream for the police and fire department to help, but help isn’t on the way. As far as they are concerned, South Central Los Angeles is a lost cause.

Though most moviegoers are familiar with the 1992 LA riots — they recently played integral roles in both the feature Straight Outta Compton and the documentary O.J.: Made in America — they are often reduced to a simple example of civil unrest; the moment when racial tension in L.A. finally tipped. That’s true, but there is much more to this story and documentarians Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin unearth a story as dramatic, profound, and chilling as anything in theaters this summer.

LA 92, which was made for the National Geographic Channel, is constructed entirely from archival footage to tell the story of Rodney King, a man who was mercilessly beaten by Los Angeles police officers Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, and Rolando Solano, all of whom walked free. Of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old who was shot to death by a Korean storeowner, Soon Ja Du, who also walked free. And of the August 1965 Watts riots, which Lindsay and Martin eerily frame as the harbinger of the ’92 riots.

Adroitly constructed — thanks in no small part to Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans outstanding score — LA 92 is a stunning piece of work, one that skillfully finds the thread of history and holds on tight. This is an unfinished horror film, one that continues what Watts started. The conclusion has yet to be written.

LA 92 is currently streaming on the National Geographic website.

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IT COMES AT NIGHT

Set in a post-apocalyptic world — what brought about the end, we’ll never know — It Comes At Night explores horrors without and horrors within, and the horrors within are much worse. The titular “it” takes the form of nightmares that plague 17-year-old Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) following the death of his grandfather, a victim of the unnamed plague that ended civilization.

Unfortunately, there is little left in this world to ease Travis’s deepest fears. Least of all his father, Paul (Joel Edgerton), a man who will stop at nothing to protect his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and Travis. There are still survivors in this wasteland, but as Paul darkly intones, “You can’t trust anyone but family.”

But when the world goes mad, even family is suspect.

Inspired by the paintings of Bruegel the Elder and full of ominous chiaroscuro lighting, It Comes At Night is a moody and atmospheric horror film that reflects on the demons one learns to embrace in the name of survival. As with his first feature, Krisha, writer/director Trey Edward Shults makes the most of the least, relying on shadow and sound to terrify. It is, but not as terrifying as human nature.

It Comes At Night is in wide release.

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DAVID LYNCH: THE ART LIFE

Mentor, painter, and sailor, Bushnell Keeler, originated the idea but when David Lynch got ahold of it, the art life went from aspiration to execution: “You drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes, you paint, and that is it. Maybe girls come into it a little bit…”

Check, check, check, and check. Still going strong at the age of 71, David Lynch — filmmaker, painter, sculptor, musician, coffee salesman —reflects on his art life, the events that shaped him, and the creative process that accompanied him the entire way. The conclusion is simple: he is the art life and the art life is he.

But anyone going to see David Lynch: the Art Life hoping for a survey of his cinematic career is going to be sorely disappointed. Concerning the years from Lynch’s birth in 1946 to the production of his first feature in 1977, The Art Life is stream-of-consciousness narration while Lynch works in his art studio. That may not sound like much on the page, but the man behind such creative and cockamamie works as Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive knows how to spin a captivating yarn.

David Lynch: the Art Life opens at the Sie Film Center on June 2.

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BAYWATCH

When Baywatch debuted on NBC in 1989, it was already antiquated. Constructed around a group of lifeguards saving swimmers from drowning while occasionally tracking down serial killers was thin at best, but with a gaggle of good-looking actors who took themselves too seriously, the ridiculous plots the writers came up with turned into television gold. How then to make a 21st century feature film reboot of the franchise ever more absurd and ridiculous? Answer: Hire a bunch of impossibly busty models, a couple of ripped hunks, let them ad-lib as much as possible, and hope for comedy.

The results are less than impressive. Starring Zac Efron as a more pathetic version of Olympic swimmer/screw-up Ryan Lochte, Dwayne Johnson as a gentler version of his Fast and Furious’ Hobbs character, Alexandra Daddario and Kelly Rohrbach as vacuous eye candy, and Jon Bass as the token fat kid with heart, Baywatch is an overly complicated bunch of nonsense stitched together by crappy CGI, a lackluster drug ring subplot, and Johnson’s character droning on about the importance of family. The tone jockeys back and forth between self-aware and self-serious, refusing to land anywhere in the vicinity of a silly summer comedy.

Baywatch is in wide release.

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