The North Bend Film Festival opens today and runs through July 18. Online ticketing is available, but is geo-locked to residents of Washington, Oregon or Idaho. In the future, these movies may be available through alternate venues—stay tuned to this website for updates.

Below you will find not-quite-twenty reviews for three of the short film blocks that caught my eye. But you may be one of those unfortunate many with “time constraints” and with a job that isn’t “reviewing movies.” Heed, then, the following three recommendations that on their own are almost worth the price of admission: Stuffed, a taxidermy musical (and future feature film); Skinner 29, in which podcast fun turns sharply unsettling—part of an immersive narrative experience; and A Tale Best Forgotten, five minutes of quiet dream-horror that left me going “gaahhhhh!”

“Something Strange?” shorts block

The Nipple Whisperer (d. Jan Van Dyck; 15 min.)—”All those bubbles adore you… because your surrender is so complete,” coaches the director. “It’s just fucking soap” retorts the actress. Before this exchange, two men meet furtively in a café: David is entreating Sandy to, once again, “Be the guy!”… because Doris is asking him. Sandy reluctantly agrees, and through his powers, the crew is able to film a soap commercial of Wagnerian grandiosity. Though communicated indirectly, a lot of characterization and backstory is crammed into its fifteen minutes; a ridiculous concept conveyed with impressive gravitas. Closing on a reunion of sorts, Whisperer goes one further in boldness and humanity as Sandy does his “thing” for Doris, who we see has endured a double mastectomy. 

You Wouldn’t Understand (d. Trish Harnetiaux; 9 min.)—There may have been no good way to end this film. The setup, however, was wonderful. A man idles with a book, enjoying his own private picnic, when in the middle-distance two men clad in white sally towards him, before disappearing behind some shrubs. One emerges, clad in a Prussian-style ensemble, and asks for “Horsey Sauce” for his hundred (then hundreds, then thousands) of friends to share. Before you can say punchline, things are made clear. Perhaps too clear; perhaps too jokey. The first two acts build a whimsical menace; the final act elicits an, “Oh, okay. Sure.”

Grab Them (d. Morgane Dziurla-Petit; 12 min.)—You know what you cannot un-see? A Trump-faced woman masturbating with a vibrating dildo. Like the rest of Grab Them (short for “Grab them by the pussy”), this is actually done with considerable restraint. This mockumentary chronicles the experiences of a middle-aged Swedish woman whose face is exactly the same as that of the former president. Taking its subject seriously (as these things must), we’re told how her marriage hit a road block around 2016, that she lost her job at the small company she worked for, and started being stared at All The Time. Whatever deep-fake technology they used for this, it was convincing to an almost fatal degree. My chuckles mingled freely with my “dear Gods.”

Mustachio (d. Victoria Warmerdam; 11 min.)—Freek’s imaginary friend Snorrie (“mustachio”) reappears after three decades in order to get closure for their abrupt separation. Why is this man, now in his late 30s, seeing not only his own immaterial buddy Snorrie, but also Sparkle—the childhood “friend” of the girl next door? Mustachio takes this unlikely route to address the importance of reckoning with your feelings and emotions. The comedy glaze of bickering imaginary friends who feel short-changed by their hosts makes this melodrama all the more poignant.

Picnic Pals in Dreamland (d. David Ferino; 13 min.)—Twee music jaunting along for a  twee young woman on twee bedding making a twee collage of her and her twee adventures with her twee friends. Opening line: “WHAT THE FUCK?!” There’s a purpose to this film, one whose heavy-handedness is lined by the velvet glove of infectious energy and humor: delivering a pertinent message for this (never-ending) age of Life Online looks better than Analogue Life. Lizzy McGroder shines as a the doubt-riddled, FOMO-afflicted heroine, exuding chirpy optimism between bursts of furious despair. It’s a stylized viewing experience, which is mostly appropriate, but the “gay friend” bordered on stereotype in a manner that left me untroubled, but might irk some out there. That said, it’s my only complaint. #KidsTheseDaysAmIRight?

Today (d. Andrew Jaksch; 21 min.)—Mid-century modern with rustic touches, the Apollo 12 craft en route to a safe landing, and their entire home is surrounded by Nothing. We’ve seen the oppressed domestic scene before: hubby flying off the handle about a bad dinner, the crush of daily repetition for the under-appreciated housewife. Today pushes the metaphor further, though, by setting this scenario in a home surrounded by a void. Some standout moments include the utter disgust with which hubby adjusts his dinner fork parallel to the placemat after discovering it at a 45º angle, and wife threatening toxic man with a light bulb. There is a happy ending (maybe?) involving a plumber, but heading down that road might suggest pornographic overtones. Odd movie. Couldn’t tell you the point.

“Beyond the Void!” shorts block

Stuffed (d. Theo Rhys; 19 min.)—Quirky enough? Why not. A talented, middle-aged taxidermist wishes to tackle the ultimate challenge of converting a human corpse into one of her sawdust-stuffed objets, and so she puts out a notice on an illegal (but cheery) messaging service to find a volunteer. They meet, fall in love, and follow through with the plan. What knocks this one out of the park is the entire thing is performed à la Andrew Lloyd Weber, with soaring strings, bombastic brass, vivacious vocals—all crammed into a house rejected for being too cluttered with creepy objects. Your heart will melt at the duet “Find Someone Who Understands,” and your spirit will soar during “You Only Die Once a Lifetime!” A tip-top taxidermy treat.

Still Together (d. Christopher Piazza; 13 min.)—Your jaw gets pulled open and they shove a condensed-cramming of 1980s hyper-nostalgia warrior-Viking-spirit down your gullet. There’s a  bit of “Today’s Special” here, too. Kate is a Fisher King-era Amanda Plummer type who works as a holiday display designer at a large NYC department store. Leif is the Viking warrior who has been trapped in the display dummy for one-thousand years. Their romance occurs only when they are alone together, as Leif’s curse returns whenever anyone but Kate is in the vicinity. Still Together makes it Christmas in July with bubble-gum pop music, wide-eyed romance, and a few severed limbs.

Goitre (d. Anna Weltner; 15 min.)—Necks, or more precisely, violence targeting them, afflictions vexing them, or disfigurements of them, are one of my wariness vectors. I was relieved, then, to find that Goitre didn’t trigger (too) much physiological distress. (My own neck is very sympathetic to depictions of other necks in trouble.) Anna Weltner woke one morning to find she had a 3 cm^3 growth on her thyroid. This prompted her to make this documentary about famous goiters in historical art (à la “icono-diagnostics”), with a focus on Baroque representations of the mythical Jewish queen Judith. Weltner’s documentary is broken into glibly titled chapters (“3. On Beautiful Women with Bulging Throats”). Personal, educational, fun, and, thankfully, ending on a benign note, Goitre scratched an unknown itch.

Lucid (d. Deanna Milligan; 16 min.)—A well-staged, uninterrupted shot goes on for about two minutes before we find the hapless young art student (metaphorically) ripped to pieces by her classmates and professor. The subsequent flash cuts and uncomfortable close-ups heighten the dismissive snark and render the pre-credits akin to “embarrassment horror.” Then things kind of fall into the mediocrity the protagonist is accused of. Lucid has a 1990s retro feel that is warped further by the fact that what we are witnessing is not real life, but a school for artists. The bloody finale (artistic, I assure you) and trio of hyper-goth helper chicks save the day–both within and without the narrative–but a masochistic streak in me wonders if this could have been improved with a more dispiriting finale.

The Isolated (d. Jason Giampietro; 14 min.)—Scenes from NYC in lock-down, and a lot of messages from Keith. That’s pretty much all that make up this video essay from Jason Giampietro. But it works well. Keith is a lonely guy—lonely even before the social distancing—with several chips on his shoulder but an awareness of his neuroses. Keith doesn’t think the restrictions for COVID are worth it; his friend Jay (the filmmaker) disagrees. Clips of random city scenes capture the near-empty streets of general life, the zeal of the BLM protests, and the citizens’ determination to make themselves known to their fellow residents through shouts, banners, and a stirring rendition of Hendrix’s National Anthem performance. Eminently watchable and invaluable as a documentary record of some very trying times.

Algorithm (d. Edwina Casey; 9 min.)—”If no one can tell the difference, does it matter?” Sound advice from a real therapist, not a computer program mimicking one. Al has a problem: he keeps encountering this young woman with a scooter at random, and when they first talk, she not only accuses him of stalking her, but implies that their history is a bit deeper. Al then seems to espy other Als, and there’s a confusion over the “t’s and c’s” of a wi/fi agreement the allegedly “original” Al signed. Among other questions this cutely dystopian short raised, I wondered when, if ever, the Segway people might have their product used by a “cool” character.

“Ethereal Fantasies…” shorts block

Crackes (d. Andrea Cazzaniga; 18 min.)—A cryptic title for a cryptic movie. Iris and Nicole are staying over at a convent, and Iris sees a (long-dead) nun after finding a set of black rosary beads. Things get no clearer after that, except for establishing that Iris often sees dead people. I’m not surprised that the German filmmakers nailed Crackes‘ spooky atmosphere, full of shadows, eerie sound cues, and a blue-darkness lighting motif. Unfortunately, I’m also not surprised that this horror vignette lacked the gravity of dread required to overcome the paucity of narrative satisfaction. Beyond the atmospherics and the cute hiking montage of Iris and Nicole traveling from spooky convent to spooky abandoned house, there is little recommend. Hopefully the young leads will go on to bigger and better things.

The Cocktail Party (d. Jessica Sanders; 4 min.)—This short fell victim to the fate of being one of the last on my list, so virtually nothing comes to mind. Spunky young hired server imagines (?) revenge against all the thoughtless zeroes who make servers’ lives worse: the jerk-bag who grinds dropped food into a carpet, the jerk-bagette who drops ash in the potted plant, and so on. The bouncy score and cartoony martial arts are fun. Then again, perhaps nothing more need be said. 

Atrophy (d. Nick Hartanto, Sam Roden; 15 min.)—Heartbreaking! Heartwarming! And for me, profoundly disturbing at times—but I have a great fear of my own deterioration (mental and physical). Mrs Sugita is partially paralysed and has difficulty speaking after (what was possibly) a stroke; her husband, a former GP, needs a walker to get around, but is otherwise well. But he is growing resentful of the daily grind of looking after his stricken wife, who herself has grown embarrassed and frustrated at her neediness. Enter a long-lost karaoke machine, discovered behind a wall of paper towel packages. As things deteriorate domestically, Mrs. Sugita slowly improves with therapy, while Mr. Sugita loses himself in old popular songs. Very well put together—and perfectly cast—but I won’t be watching this one again. You should see it, though.

A Tale Best Forgotten (d. Tomas Stark; 5 min.)—Five minutes of creepy folk horror, and you can’t ask for much better than that. Helen Adam sings the ballad of “a daughter, and her lover, and the dog-headed man” (see blurry reflected image above) as we witness the proceedings. The camera pans up from her father chopping wood, to a house window through which the daughter gazes down; there is a cry of pain and the camera pans back down to her father, who walks to the stream to wash his hand. The camera pans up again, it appears, to the daughter and her lover—but they are reflected in the stream. Reality and its mirror-image intermingle, and the tune continues its haunting lilt; before you know it, the deed is done, the axe is bloodied, and the movie ends.

Young Forever (d. Stevie Szerlip; 14 min.)—I don’t like having to ask myself, What was the point of that? It’s my last line of defence for a film, one I rarely ever have to encounter. But I do not know what kind of story Forever Young was trying to tell. Some plot angles: beauty product saleswoman, hints of gambling debts, beneficiary of some guy’s estate, possibly documentary-esque-ish…? The opening and closing credits were very well done, evoking a myth-in-neon-lighting feel. But I’d sooner have watched the Maysles’ Bible Salesmen again, and I didn’t particularly care for that the first time around.

Golem (d. Ryan Cauchi; 4 min.)—Proof of concept? Three minutes into this four-minute short, we see the title. I am intrigued by the longer (short) film Golem whenever they make it, but as it stand now, this re-tread of the legend/classic film is much more like a picture of a sandwich than an actual sandwich. (And I want the actual sandwich.) Cute golem effects.

Skinner 29 (d. Aaron Blanton; 15 min.)—Perhaps the only “found footage” films that gets it right. The protagonists have an easy charm and feel genuine; the found footage is well-lit and without a soundtrack; and above all, Skinner is brief. While not frightened, I was left a little uneasy. Never seeing the protagonists keeps them detached from the nebulous film shots, while adding mystery to the action around them; the audio track of tree crashes, thunder rolls, and finale all spur the listener’s imagination. Being part a narrative ecosystem; I received an e-mail shortly after the screener advising I investigate further. Their website notified me they would be in touch (see screen capture). This is a very good short, and a promising experience; be sure to use headphones.


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