Saturday, May 20, 2006

JFF 2006: Puzzlehead and the Shorts Program

Ah, Friday with the JFF. It's always the most satisfying day of the festival because, well, I would normally be at work at this time.

So I started the morning by leaving at 9am and hitting Panera for coffee and Chamblin's for a book to read during the down times between films. The day is friggin gorgeous, with clear blue skies and a slight cool breeze. This makes standing in line tolerable, though I later realize standing in line at all was pointless, since the theater only fills to half capacity. I guess it's just me and the work-dodging few today.

More "Lost and Found Video Night" clips for the preshow, though no volume number is listed this time around. Since I'm now attending a daytime show with a title that isn't an expletive, I see a lot of older people checking out the eclectic offerings of the festival. One has to wonder what they think of all this weird hodgepodge on the screen, and it makes me long for my childhood and that one theater in town which projected magnified oil drops that turned the screen into a multicolor lava lamp.

One more note before the feature: I like the introductory film that names the sponsors of the JFF this year. It's professionally done and entertaining, unlike last years B&W Bergman feverdream.

And now on to our show.

Puzzlehead mines some very familiar territory for Science Fiction: What does it mean to be human. Yet, after Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell and tons of Data/Odo/Seven of Nine Star Trek episodes, there are brave filmmakers willing and eager to venture once more into the breach, dear friends. This story owes far more to Frankenstein than any other modern tale, as we witness a made genius in the near future create a mechanical double of himself and the ramifications of that act.

The three main characters are played by two actors. Stephen Galaida plays the scientist Walter and also his creation, Puzzlehead. At first, the two are differentiated by the beard that only Walter wears. Later, he shaves this off for a specific purpose, and things start to get far more complicated from there. Robbie Shapiro plays Julia, a shopkeeper across the street from Walter's home for whom he's yearned for over many years.

This is a low budget affair that makes good use of minimal locations and props. The trickiest bits, where we see the mechanical parts of Puzzlehead, are handled very well and are very convincing. Also, I must give my congratulations to first time director James Bai and editor Miranda Devin for, if nothing else, the logistical nightmare of staging so many scenes between two characters played by one man. The beard looks real enough, so I'm guessing the early scenes between bearded Walter and Puzzlehead had shots that were filmed weeks apart. Bravo.

The tone of the film is very somber. Little detail is given for the state of this future, but it has apparently emptied the city street sufficiently and upped the crime rate to boot. Given some of the camera shots and scenery, it feels like you're watching some Eastern European or Russian film; a fact assisted by the on-again off-again accent that Shapiro uses for Julia.

All of this somberness, however, is no match for Galaida himself. I can see what they were trying to do when Walter portrays only a teaspoon more worth of emotions than the automaton he's created. Walter is the typical introverted technogeek with no social skills and isn't even brave enough to help the girl he yearns for when she's being attacked in her own store. The point here is that, even though he used his own brain as a base pattern for Puzzlehead so that he would act more human, Walter is barely more than a robot himself, which confuses things between the two later on.

I think, though, he's a little too wooden in crucial scenes, such as his interactions with Julia once she moves into the house. The movie is staid enough without nearly every line spoken in a monotone as if he's under hypnosis. Puzzlehead, who does a voice-over narration throughout, speaks of the bad traits he inherited from his maker. It would have been nice to see those traits earlier on and in a more convincing manner. One thing that he did have going for him, though, was the fact that he sounded and sometimes looked just like Stephen King. That does a lot for a film when you're trying to build dread.

I'm recommending this movie, but only to those sci-fi fans who can't get enough of this kind of film. It's a well told story that deserves some recognition.

At 5pm, the San Marco presented a program of shorts for our viewing pleasure. Thankfully, it was preceded not by weird TV randomness but instead, of all things, by an old episode of Tom Snyder's late night talk show. This led me to two conclusions: (1) I miss Tom Snyder and (2) I miss Dan Aykroyd's impression of Tom Snyder.

Here's my brief reviews for each short:

The Bridge is a British film starring Irish singer Andrea Corr as a psychologist who dials a wrong number and ends up reaching an old man about to commit suicide. This one is gorgeous to look at with rich cinematography, though the pacing is a little slow with long pauses. Things pick up in the second half when a plot twist occurs, but the ending still seems a bit ... off. Incidentally, the end credits reveal that the film was sponsored by Nissan, which would explain the close up of their logo on Corr's car when she is driving.

Nevel is the Devil starts with some footage of office drones in lab coats testing some products. We finally settle in to an office where a man and a woman have been called in by their loony boss to explain some things, and comedy ensues. Very low budget and very off kilter, but with good performances and a great game of freeze tag.

Shortstop is about two women who have both been treated badly by the same man, and how they commiserate and fight about it in the cab of a truck. The photography and sound definitely left a lot to be desired on this one, which when combined with the accents made the dialogue indecipherable at times. Still, the two women were very good and the story was interesting.

Losing Lusk comes off more as a trailer than a short film. Amidst a techno track and audio samplings from a narrators monologue, we witness sharply edited footage of both Lusk, Wyoming and New York City, New York. The resulting mix is very engrossing and makes one yearn for it to be longer and fleshed out. I have to wonder if the director thought this might be enough for someone to help him fund a feature film along the same lines (Hell, it worked for Sling Blade and Boogie Nights). Very good.

Coney Island 1945 is a super short film of artist Isaiah Zagar and a brief memory of his childhood. I would have loved for this to last much longer as it ended just when it was getting good. Take that as a compliment.

K-7 is an inspired comic piece about some poor programmer who goes in for a job interview only to be told that his psychological test proves that he has the mind of a killer. Oh, and the company he just applied to is a front for the CIA. Lot's of brilliant verbal and physical comedy in this one and all the players do excellent work. Hilarious.

A Short Film is, well, I'll keep the review as short as the film itself: Eh ... What?

Finally, Viva Morrissey is a real life look at a Hispanic population in Southern California and their utter devotion to the British band The Smiths and their front man, Morrissey. We listen to comments by a Smiths cover band on why they love this music so much and how this particular cultural enclave has taken to it. Very interesting, and I'd imagine it would be doubly so for Smiths fans.

That's it, goodnight, I'm outta here!

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