Famous faces boost quality of ShortFest offerings

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Famous faces boost quality of ShortFest offerings

Posted on: June 17th, 2014 by tommyj

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“Nosferatu In Love” (Photo: Courtesy photo )

My wife showed me a video recently that exemplified the problem short films have in reaching a mass market.

It was a Youtube video of a cat lip-synching to the voice of a laughing man. Someone my wife knew had placed a link to the video on Facebook, so she clicked on it, laughed and forwarded it to me.

Short films are never that easy to find. And they have this stigma that they aren’t as good as talking animals.

But short films can leave you with a sense of awe that can resonate beyond the thrill of well, a talking animal. Packages of shorts, like the ones playing in this week’s ShortFest at the Camelot Theatres, can be hit and miss. But a great short makes you tolerate crappy ones because, like an addictive drug, you always want to replicate the feeling of that first hit.

The Palm Springs International ShortFest has developed a reputation as a premier festival because its films hit more often than miss. I trust ShortFest Director Kathleen McInnis and Palm Springs International Film Society Executive Director Darryl Macdonald when they recommend a film because they watch thousands of shorts and, if they’re passionate about one, it’s at least as good as a Facebook "like."

This year’s festival features more name actors than I call recall in its 20-year history, and, despite assertions that the stories and the singular filmmaker voices are what distinguish short films from Youtube videos, the quality of the acting matters significantly. I’ve recently viewed more than 20 short films on screen, online and on DVD, and I can tell you I wouldn’t have liked many of the stories or filmmaker touches if it weren’t for the actors’ transcendent work. For example:

• Jenna Fischer, who played Pam in "The Office," and Thomas Sadoski, who plays Don in "Newsroom," transform "It’s Okay" from an ordinary story into something that burns indelibly in your memory about ordinary people wondering if they’re really in love because their lives are so ordinary.

• Mark Strong, who was brilliant as Frank Agnew in AMC’s "Low Winter Sun," is equally brilliant as an actor hitting the depths of despair in "Nosferatu in Love."

• Ian Hart, who burst onto the scene portraying John Lennon in the 1994 film, "Backbeat," gives a tour de force performance portraying dual characters discussing smoking in "Conversation With A Cigarette."

• Danny DeVito, even in a small role, adds gravitas to the feel-good movie, "Today’s the Day," which proves that a movie musical can be presented in the short form.

Other name actors in the festival starting Tuesday night include:

• The legendary Sophia Loren, starring in her son Edoardo Ponti’s adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s one-woman play, "The Human Voice," about a woman having a last conversation with her lover before he leaves her.

• Sally Hawkins, who earned an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in "Blue Jasmine," playing a shy woman on a helpline who receives a call from the heart-warming Jim Broadbent in "The Phone Call."

• The fascinating character actor, Richard Kind, playing a grief-stricken widower in "What Cheer?" for which he was nominated for Best Lead Actor at the New York VisionFest.

Droll Alan Ruck, best known as the beleaguered sidekick in "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off," playing a husband who performs a desperate act to save his marriage in "Destroyer."

• Diverse Barry Bostwick, who has entertained us in film and TV roles such as Captain Ahab in "Moby Dick," Franklin Roosevelt in "FDR: American Badass," and Brad in "Rocky Horror Picture Show," plays the title role in "Dragula," a musical with Rob Riggle and Missi Pyle. Pyle, a former ShortFest jury member, also is featured in the comedy, "Somebody’s Mother."

Some of McInnis’ favorite ShortFest films feature name actors.

" ‘#twitterkills,’ ‘Ticky Tacky,’ ‘What Cheer?’ — all of these films, and others with well-known actors, showcase amazing performances from actors," she said – "established actors believing so much in the material and the filmmaker that they feel secure enough to take their own risks."

McInnis also favors some films directed by well-known actors.

"’The Hyperglot (by Michael Urie from "Ugly Betty"), "Pieces" (by Taylor Kitsch from "Friday Night Lights") and "Dawn" (by Rose McGowan from "Charmed") all blew me away," she said. "Gorgeous, striking, risky, strong. These films really epitomize what ShortFest is about — using the visual storytelling medium to its fullest, taking risks you can’t take with more commercial films, pushing some boundaries and, at the same time, having some fun."

At this 20th annual event, she says, "We have stronger films than we’ve ever had — films that take more risks, show more talent and speak even more directly from the filmmaker’s voice."

Festival in L.A.

The ongoing Los Angeles Film Festival, programmed under the guidance of part-time Palm Springs resident David Ansen, also is devoted to shorts. Its Future Filmmakers segments feature works by high school students from across the nation. It’s also screening 29 shorts in a competition sponsored by HBO.

I especially liked Peter Modestij’s Swedish film, "102A: Couple (Expletive)" about a man who wins an art auction and gets to take home a real fornicating couple, only to get terribly ill when they start smoking on his sofa.

The festival also presented the world premiere Saturday of "Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story," a wonderful feature documentary directed by N.C. Heikin, executive produced by novelist Michael Connelly and produced by part-time Palm Springs resident James Egan.

Heikin, who collaborated with Egan on the remarkable documentary, "Kimjongilia," which played the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival, interviewed jazz aficionados who believed the best alto saxophonist after Charlie Parker spent most of his adult life in San Quentin. So she hired an all-star jazz band and staged a concert in the prison to serve as the film’s centerpiece.

Like many musicians in the bebop era, Morgan, who died in 2007, tried heroin to emulate Parker. He eventually began robbing banks to support a $1,500-a-day habit. But, whenever he was returned to San Quentin, he got to play in a big band featuring some of the top jazz musicians of the post-war era, who were also inmates.

Heikin spent three years making the film after learning about Morgan from Connelly. Egan spent one year trying to get permission to stage a concert in San Quentin. The film features some amazing musical performances by a deeply appreciative prison audience and great clips of Morgan playing in his youth, when he impressed Parker, and at his last performance at the Kennedy Center, when he was heralded as a long-lost legend.

Egan got the clearances to the music just two weeks ago. He hasn’t had time to start work on a distribution deal. But the clips of Morgan’s music brought tears to my eyes, as did a performance of "Over the Rainbow" by his protégé, Grace Kelly.

"This is a movie that passed my goosebump test," said Ansen. "If it gives me goosebumps, I want it."

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