SoCal Independent Film Festival: Nine Hours

When people think that being a film critic would be fun, they aren’t necessarily thinking of the days when they might be sitting in a library for nine straight hours, as I did yesterday for the SoCal Independent Film Fest.

Don’t get me wrong: I chose to do it. And I’d do it on a regular basis if the opportunity arose. But would you? A few others were that hardcore – mainly director Calvin Simmons’ parents-in-law, and festival cofounder Brian Barsuglia’s parents as well. My mom and dad would have trouble with the duration, for sure.

2:08 p.m.: There are 10 people in the library auditorium, including me. The comedy shorts program is up first.

Aaron Brownlee’s “American Deluxe” is a good way to start, a satire about an ad executive (random thought – there sure are a lot of movies about ad executives, aren’t there? Eddie Murphy, Mel Gibson, Tony Randall have all played such people – is it really so glamorous? Anyways). Like that one scene in Fight Club where Edward Norton is ordering Ikea, this short is full of little labels for things that appear in the air to show how the guy typecasts everything he sees. Later, a crazy guy tries to pitch him a new ad, which is a pretty hilarious satire of anti-drug PSAs, in which a little girl is crying because her dad was too stoned to come home in time to help her blow up a hamster in the microwave. I could have watched a feature version of this, and given the way it ends, it could become one.

Tony West’s “Dartsville” is clearly inspired by an overdose of Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell movies – substitute darts for dodgeball, and you’ve got it. Being a short, it distills everything down to the essence – moronic characters in an over-the-top clichéd sports movie, with some fine bluegrass renditions of “Back in Black” and “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the latter labeled as “2001: A Space Odyssey” in the end credits, which ought to earn West a brief stint in cinematic jail, as it’s akin to calling “Singin’ in the Rain” something like “A Clockwork Orange song.”

Benjamin Kutsko’s “Go Ride A Bike” is annoying to me; a surreal would-be allegory in which a guy on a bicycle traverses a post-apocalyptic desert encountering various caricatures of extremists along the way – a Nazi, a hedonistic homosexual, a paranoid, an apathetic loser, a conservative politician...yawn.

David May’s “Itsy Bitsy” pits a young couple against a large CG spider, which is effectively creepy in its rendering, and oddly funny too; “The Great Pretenders,” about a company where laid-off employees go to act busy, falls a little flat in its Dilbert/Kafka wanna-be concept. Much like the film version of Melville’s Bartleby that starred Crispin Glover, it seems like a good idea but doesn’t go much of anywhere, plus the cast feels very “actory” in the way so many do on video, like they’re clearly wearing makeup and costumes but not truly inhabiting them, if that makes any sense.

After a few hours, a lot of the casts start to look the same, even though they probably really don’t..

3: 50 p.m.: Float director Calvin Simmons thanks me again for my review of the movie. As is my custom, I advise him to remember this moment if I ever give him a bad review in the future.

4 p.m.: The dramatic shorts program kicks off with a film that’s actually very funny – Don Hertzfeldt’s “Everything will be OK.” Among animation fans, a new Hertzfeldt short is as anticipated as a new Pixar movie, and this new one does not disappoint, taking the familiar theme of madness and breakdown used in his award-winning “Rejected,” and amping it up a notch stylistically and narratively. Using the familiar black-and-white stick figures, it’s the story of a man named Bill, who observes odd daily minutiae like dead horses on the street and slo-motion replays of boxing wounds, and engages in banal activities like sucking blood from a sore in the corner of his mouth. Eventually, the banalities become stranger and stranger, and Bill suffers a complete breakdown, which we get to observe through his eyes as the editing and visuals get more demented. We could easily be talking Oscar for Best Animated Short here.

Arthur Halpern’s “futures (and derivatives)” at first seems like a sequel to “The Great Pretenders.” Same generic office setting, etc. Only less funny, hard to follow; interesting in the middle when it gets to the crux of things, a temp who takes literally the corporate order, while arranging a Powerpoint piece, to “make it sing.”

Emma Pacilli’s “In a Moment,” in which a woman remembers the death of her child, would be backstory in a Harrison Ford movie. Nothing much happens, and the actual flashback to the death embodies the worst Hollywood clichés, without irony.

4:46 p.m.: Some jackass a few rows down is texting on his bright LED screen, making no effort to be subtle about it.

“In a Moment” is followed by yet another story about mourning and loss, called “Pop Rocks.” This one, we learn at the end, is based on a true story, but that doesn’t make it automatically a good film.

5:06 p.m.: I decide that short films aren’t really the right medium for wallowing in grief. In fact, I want to walk out. Think maybe segregating shorts by genre doesn’t always work – tragedies should be mixed in with comedies to pace things a bit. I’m ready to leave, but then the next short is a western called “Revolver,” with a Sergio Leone style opening shot. Except there are cars. It’s present day, but with people dressed like cowboys, and overacting. Lots of drums on the soundtrack. I get irritated and decide to step outside for a bit.

5:40 p.m. Library snack bar is closed. I drive around the block to find food. Nothing near.

5:50 p.m.: Observation: Most film fests have a bar. This needs one.

6 p.m.: Animation shorts begin. Ben Steele’s “Fragile Machine” is like a fancy CG homage to Ghost in the Shell. Pretty to look at, not sure if I follow the narrative, or if I’m supposed to. Same was true of the Ghost in the Shell sequel.

Next short, I find out later, is called “Glimpse,” though it seems to be entitled “xoxo”when I watch it. Looks to be entirely done on a chalkboard, by a guy in a motorized wheelchair who occasionally flashes by in a frame or two. It’s hypnotic.

Patrick Smith’s “Puppet” was part of the Spike and Mike show at Comic-Con, narrowly making it past a divided crowd at “The Gauntlet.” I decide this would be a good bathroom break time, but damned if it doesn’t suck me in again. The animation is simple but expressive – that evil hand puppet is so adorable. Anyway: Guy makes hand puppet, which proceeds to beat the shit out of guy while still on his hand. Can’t go wrong there.

Neil Jesuele’s “Rad Racers” is a car chase movie done with remote-control cars and McFarlane action figures: Yellow Submarine-style Paul McCartney competes with Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Old Monty for the hand of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No real twist here, but Jesuele shows a great sense of pacing and choreography that any action movie producer ought to take note of.

Jahmad Rollins’ “Slum Noir” loses me. A bunch of kids in masks in a slum doing...what? Don’t know, don’t care. Nice drawing style though.

Zeth Willie’s “The Needful Head” is clearly a riff on Tim Burton’s “Vincent,” though it’s CG rather than stop-motion. A Poe-like satire narrated in rhyme about a man who tires of his head and removes it. The rhyming is a bit off in places, but the enthusiasm is appealing.

7 p.m.: Off-Beat shorts. Program kicks off with “Bloodbath,” an amusing homage to every ‘80s action movie (and ‘90s fighting arcade game) ever. Directed by a guy simply billed as “Raphaello,” who may or may not be a radioactive turtle.

“Bodybagman”...Wait...What the heck is this? Black and white Super-8? I had no idea anyone used this as a medium any more. Feels like I’m back in film school. No sound on this one either. And yet, it’s genius. A guy in a body bag wakes up in a strange house, and tries to escape...but he never once actually gets out of the body bag, so it’s just the adventures of this giant, walking bag. Eventually he ends up in a rap battle, which is hilariously pointless in a movie with no sound. The credits claim that the film was directed by Bodybagman, and it isn’t clear who the lead actor really is, but considering the physical bumps he takes and the expressiveness he gives a big black bag, I nominate Bodybagman for best actor in the festival.

Jennifer Still’s “Code Blue” is a satire of health care – somehow I think we’re going to see a lot more of these in the next few years. A woman whose coverage is cancelled has all her prior health care retroactively cancelled. Fillings are yanked out, a broken arm is severed, and finally her abortion is reversed so that she’s now burdened with an obnoxious kid. Obvious, but still fun.

James Arnall’s “Feeding” would make a great short story. A woman tired of her husband failing to appreciate her cooking starts becoming attached to her garbage disposal, which always swallows everything she gives it. You’ll see the punchline coming, but a good idea nonetheless.

Michael Swann's "Gay Zombie" = Awesomeness. "I'm the undead...maybe I can help you live a little." This would make a much better sitcom than that Geico cavemen thing we're hearing so much about.

“Numero Dos” was seemingly made by the road crew for country singer Brad Paisley, and involves one of the sound guys desperately having to take a crap but unable to find a working toilet. It’s actually better than you’d think – Paisley should consider making it a music video somehow. It’s certainly better than “The Von,” an Australian short that also revolves around a shit joke.

James Pounce’s “Summer Job,” from the UK, is a solid horror short, in which teens running a security sales scam end up in the house of a demented and homicidal foot fetishist. Blood flows.

8:39 p.m.: I need food and/or booze. No free pizza tonight. Damn.

9 p.m.: Sarah Hamblin’s “The Deadening” is hilarious, with an excellent performance by Jonathan Farnsworth as a Bruce Campbell type so self centered and whiny about a small cut in his hand that he doesn’t notice the zombie invasion going on around him. If an Evil Dead remake is seriously being considered, this guy should be the next Ash.

Finally, a feature – Zombie Farm, directed by “B. Luciano Barsuglia” who I believe is also festival cofounder Brian Barsuglia. After the first ten minutes I feel like leaving: awfully acted “inbred hillbillies” chow down on a rubber rat, and I fear nothing good can come of this. It’s a knowingly bad movie, but that’s not a plus more often than not. Still, despite this, I stick around, and it grows on me. Not exactly a “good” movie in any sense, it is strangely endearing, and appears to have been made purely for the sake of showcasing hilariously bad “zombie walks” by inexperienced actors, and a whole lot of ridiculously over-the-top gore effects. Any pointers on making it “better” would be useless, save perhaps does take too long to figure out who its protagonists are, but once they’re all put together, the story is muchly improved by it.

10:40 p.m.: The marathon is over. Fortunately, the Saturday program has a lot of stuff I’ve already seen.

10:41 p.m.: Free snacks? Oh, wait, looks like just the leftovers from Thursday. Trays with a few old-looking cheese cubes and strawberries. I'll take it. One of the pepper jack cubes is the spiciest pepper jack I've ever had, and I love it.


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