For those who suffer from a short attention span but enjoy a well-told story, the sextuple feature of short films that debuted at the 35th annual Three Rivers Film Festival was an entertaining range of tales, covering everything from alien encounters to costume shops.
The films’ directors tried for themes such as a lightning-quick look into fear of the unknown, growing up and simply the texture of life. And while all the films entertained, those which kept their stories simple and close to the heart succeeded as more than an excuse to sit and munch on popcorn.
The following list reviews them, in order.
“Accepted,” directed by Olivia Lauletta, Greg MacArthur and Ariana Victor, looks at the life of Alexis Taylor Monroe, a LGBTQ+ youth moving his life from Pittsburgh to New York to college in Los Angeles.
The documentary builds genuine drama. The tension as Monroe readies himself — lipstick, effeminate voice and exquisite hair flip — for a frat rush event leaves the viewer short of breath. But this tension is followed up with anti-climax and no definite resolution, since the frat party scene is never actually shown.
At one point, Monroe idly states high school was hard as bullies accused him, due to his “flamboyance,” of being “self-obsessed.” But the viewer hardly learns the names of anyone else in the film other than the main character, and his struggle always feels assumed.
Because Monroe is genderqueer, conflicts surely exist, but at least some of them should be shown, not told. As a longer documentary, “Accepted” could prosper, but as as short film, it relies on platitudes.
The Exceptionally Extraordinary Emporium
“Emporium”, directed by Lindsey Phillips, is one of the standouts of the six films, crafted as lovingly as the Mardi Gras costumes the film documents.
Educated at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Phillips moved to New Orleans and became fascinated in how normal, everyday people transform from their drab street clothes into magnificent costumes, bursting with gaudy hues, giant feathers and shiny beads.
The documentary focuses on one shop, Jefferson Supplies, its owner Lisa and the various creoles and cajuns who file in to pick up whatever crafts they need from the “glitteropolis.”
At 19 minutes, the film is one of the longest shown and drags at times. The shop, which opens the film so prominently, takes a back seat for most of the second half as Phillips dives into the people she meets, who talk of the community, competition and pride that defines Mardi Gras.
The assorted characters then show off their hidden personas in a spectacular explosion of rattling tambourines and big, blue bird costumes on the big day.
Unlike some of the other films that needed more time to thoroughly tell their stories, “Emporium” demands more attention.
A Funny Man
Of all the films, none provided as wide a range of emotions as “A Funny Man,” directed by Peter J.S. Regan and Benjamin T. Wilson, because of its weighty premise: a middle-aged man contemplating suicide.
The drama is inherent, but Regan and Wilson also find humor when they pair the man with an awkward, angelic millennial working a job she hates — selling life insurance by phone. Their conversation, in blunt but genuine exchanges, drives the plot forward in a funny but realistic fashion.
As she tries to help others find meaning, there is also subtle irony in the insurance salesperson’s hatred of her own job. Along the way, she confronts her own lack of purpose.
Regan and Wilson’s film is also one of the shortest, at 12 minutes, without a wasted shot or word. Charming, funny and suspenseful while looking at the most human condition of death, “A Funny Man” is the highlight of the six films shown.
Directed by Mark Stitzer, “Hunter” is about an unnamed young man who enters the woods for a solitary vacation of deer shooting and beer drinking before an unseen ghoul turns the tables on him.
Stitzer’s use of audio to build tension isn’t anything new, but it’s well done. The eponymous woodsman’s isolation becomes more evident by the lack of sound past crackling leaves, the click of his laptop keyboard and the sipping of brews, which, combined with a low droning score, create a disconcerting feeling.
But the monster haunting the man is revealed in a haphazard way: as a grainy still the hunter finds with an impossibly sharp eye from his motion sensor camera. The shadowy form is too subtle to be frightening, and the reveal ruins any suspense.
“Hunter” might entertain someone without familiarity with the horror genre, but it won’t impress a viewer who’s used to sitting on the edge of the couch cushion.
The Last Transmission
“The Last Transmission,” by Stephen Turselli, speculates on the fate of a pilot and documents his last communications with Fred, a retiring air traffic controller.
The cinematography is exquisite at points — such as a sweeping shot of the sun setting behind the airfield as the silhouetted Fred steps out for lunch or the intro sequence including two matching shots of the pilot taking off and Fred driving to work — but the point of the film gets lost.
Fred’s last day on the job feels like an overused trope, like the cop shot with a week before retirement, but there is no drama for Fred. He simply has to coach a pilot through an experience with an “unidentified” “flying” “object” — words all used to describe the conflict driving entity but never together or in that order.
At the end, the movie feels like exposition on flying saucers, but between decent effects and some pretty shots, that might be all right. But Turselli does himself a disservice by then adding 15 seconds of text at the end, describing how the movie was based on real life events that were never solved, “though some could speculate.”
The film would be better off if Turselli showed the confidence to leave the plot to itself. Aliens are aliens. An unexplained mystery is not necessary to make their inclusion realistic.
“Woodshed,” directed by Travis Newton, is the story of a troubled youth and his day-drinking, cigarette-smoking uncle.
After a chance encounter between uncle and the boy in the titular woodshed, they bond on a mini road trip to the gas station for burgers and cokes as they sing through a faux grunge mixtape plaintively begging, “I got something to say.”
The acting lets this simple-but-cute story soar, and subtle situational humor generates laughter. The boy’s father is more focused on tough love than showing real compassion for his son, while the uncle tries to explain his brother’s perspective to the boy.
When the boy recovers his beloved tape deck that he lost earlier in the film, it feels as if nothing more needs to be said. Even if life doesn’t look great, the newfound relationship between uncle and nephew might help the boy through life.