Special Coverage: SF Independent Film Festival 2024, Short Selections
A collection of short film reviews from a great indie film event.
Occasionally, I’ll review films from beyond the bayous of Louisiana and the Gulf South. Well, more than occasionally. Often.
This time, I’ve been invited to give some thoughts on a selection of films from this year’s SF (San Francisco) Independent Film Festival, running virtually and in-person from February 8th to 18th.
Here are four short films that I chose out of a grand selection of diverse cinema (streaming online/virtually until the 18th). For more information and to buy tickets, visit sfindie.com.
Witnessing an actor throw themselves into a role with an all-or-nothing attitude is always - always - a gorgeous thing. In Madame, Ann Mayo Muir plays an elderly foster mother to a wayward little girl who, by sheer serendipity, gets a rude awakening and vulgar blossoming at the hands of this elder being.
Known only and preferably as Madame, this foster parent sets “rules and regulations” for the girl, which include silence, absolute obedience, and constant observation. The relationship that Madame establishes from their meeting to their breakup isn’t so much toxic as it is a mean and ugly mentorship in the ways of ruling the world through one’s image and intuition. The girl, seemingly innocent, sees and hears everything, learning more than we could at first imagine.
Ann Mayo Muir is a revelation of a tortured wicked witch type, one that has been burned by life and can only spread misery and rough lessons. The film’s style, framed with the eye of an old home movie camera and the feel of an early David Lynch project - perhaps The Grandmother - adds a scream to her performance that, if left without such style, would’ve come off very uncomfortable.
With a strong directorial vision from filmmaker Kerry Muir (related?), Ann’s take is all the more powerful and scary. Madame is a crazy and wonderful marriage between director and actress, where both are synchronized together to an unsettling delight. Of course, Ann Mayo Muir is the tougher key to making the piece work, since Kerry’s vision is more or less dressing - at least it is here. Still, Madame as a creepy fairy tale and as a sad story of broken joy and twisted living, is stellar and fine. 4/5
Called “incoherent” and “horrible” by a Letterboxd user, The Grand Book is an animated anomaly and a true example of dreamy imagination. For this shell-shocked critic, this film is a revelation and a revolution. It’s great.
Reminding me of computer graphics similar to the video game The Sims or the Adult Swim cartoon Xavier: Renegade Angel, The Grand Book indeed has an uncanny valley to its cast of bug-eyed and wide-mouthed characters. It’s a lot of startling creepiness for sure, but this element works in the film’s favor. Set in an early Twentieth Century-ish dystopia, The Grand Book refers to a running movie that is constantly on display for a city of citizens surrounded by silent film camera surveillance. Always being recorded and edited in real-time, everyday actions are immediately shown on screens placed throughout the city, for both the enjoyment and the terror of others.
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One individual, a young exhausted woman who sleeps on benches and experiences lucid dreams, is singled out by these cameras and ever-present spotlights as of particular interest, to her horror and frustration. Through various crossings with a psycho-analyst and a female entertainer, she comes to an understanding of her creative self and her ability to create and control worlds within worlds.
The Grand Book can be difficult to decipher, and that’s ok. It’s preffered. No dialogue is heard, as every interaction is only accompanied by instrumental music and foley, perhaps as another tool of this surveillance society - how strange. What is the meaning of The Grand Book? Is there one? Does it need one? Dreams within dreams within movies that look like open-world games that mimic silent-era cinema.
I can only compare this to the feeling of watching the trailer for the game Bioshock: Infinite, which blew my freakin’ mind. Same here. If you give yourself to The Grand Book, you’ll find many a great thing to think about and to dream about. Guaranteed. 5/5
“Fuzzy Logic.” O.J. Simpson did it. Giving CNN the business. These are but a few things that master of the media hoax Joey Skaggs “performed” in the public eye circa the mid-1990s. Mr. Skaggs, under various aliases, would gather media attention through outrageous but somewhat believable actions, to fool the gullible news media, to expose just how manipulated and manipulative modern journalism can be, specifically the 24/7 news cycle.
In The Solomon Project, a first-person retelling of one hoax in particular, as told by an older and hairier Skaggs, the man himself stands in place for the camera, speaking softly but clearly for everyone to grasp. He tells of the grift involving a made-up artificial intelligence program, named The Solomon Project, that could determine better and more accurate outcomes of court cases, thus eliminating the need for a human jury. He sent out press releases and statements, claiming how he ran high profile cases - like the O.J. trial - through the program, and came up with answers that people wanted to he…I mean provocative answers.
When you can get CNN to come to a fake office with fake employees working on mocked-up computer programs, with a television crew, to produce a segment on a silly concept, you’ve proven yourself as a clever fellow. The Solomon Project, however, made up primarily of archive footage of the news segments and some behind-the-scenes clips, mostly holds interest in the subject itself.
Skaggs and his hoax make for a vastly interesting story, but without some much-needed personal and professional context - why must the news media be confronted and what exactly is the point of these acts? - the film is but a series of smoke and mirrors. There’s something genuinely off-putting about Skaggs and how he looks and talks today, which is merely just shown as is and never fully expressed or explored. There’s something about the news media today that’s also genuinely off-putting and dangerous, which here is just surface scratched.
Maybe The Solomon Project is just meant as a tease for something bigger. Maybe it’s setting up another hoax. Another performance. Another truth. Who knows. 3/5
In this very unique but simple short, Kala bridges a gap between two brothers who feel driven apart by addiction and honor. More than that, it’s an example of language barriers that break through the visual palette of cinema and the rejuvenating power of water. Letting nature speak might be all you need for such a small story.
A dying father living in a secluded but beautiful part of Hawaii asks his son for some Kala fish, and to bring his estranged brother with him. The estranged one is willing but skeptical, as the other brother has a past with addiction and with hurting the family. The two go net fishing for Kala which swims just off the shore, and begin to reconcile their thoughts and feelings. Nothing more, nothing less, it’s a sweet story.
What makes Kala special is in the language and the speaking throughout. The word Kala doesn’t just mean a kind of fish but is also a word for forgiveness - a rather clever and very personal way of conveying what the father wants. Everyone speaks with a thick accent of a Hawaiian dialect, which can be hard to understand at times. This barrier is superficial thankfully, as the body language and the vocal motions of the brothers are crystal clear and spot on. No matter how we speak or what we say, there’s a way to cull together what we mean.
Pretty straightforward, Kala has many a pretty shot of lovely coastal landscapes and currents, making one remember how water can also mean rebirth and new life. I might be easily taken by such wonderful cinematography and conception, but Kala does form it all to make an awfully easy script transform into a kind family film with depth and drama. Nature tells a tale. Just listen. 3.5/5
Coming up next is a selection of feature films from the fest.