"Aardvark" (Feature) — In director Kitao Sakurai’s “Aardvark,” Larry (Larry L. Lewis) describes himself as “your true-to-life blind drunk,” and he’s not really kidding: He is a recovering alcoholic and he can’t see, which leads him to flatly reject labels like “visually challenged.”
But his lack of sight doesn’t stop him from enrolling in a Brazilian jiu-jitsu school where he meets an encouraging, affectionate instructor named Darren (Darren Branch). The most absorbing sequences in “Aardvark” focus on the hard-to-read relationship between the two men, which moves beyond student/teacher to friendship and then seems to be heading into slightly stranger territory.
The movie is driven by a gurgling, growling electronic score by Fall On Your Sword, which has a Tangerine Dream-y feel. That’s not the only 1980s vibe you’ll find in “Aardvark.” Jessica Elizabeth Cole plays an exotic dancer with a more than passing resemblance to Melanie Griffith’s aspiring porn star in “Body Double.” Sakurai’s fondness for almost contemplative takes and his suggestion of something sleazy and frightening hiding behind the walls of squeaky-clean suburban houses recalls director James Bridges’ underrated “Mike’s Murder,” in which a distressed Debra Winger tried to piece together her former lover’s sordid secret life. Darren’s got a few skeletons in his closet as well, and his indiscretions eventually take “Aardvark” in an offbeat direction that was barely even hinted at in the set-up.
Whether you buy the second half of the story or not, you’ll be impressed by Sakurai’s sense of style and the genuine camaraderie between first-time actors Lewis and Branch. — J.S.
“Chasing Cotards” (Playing with "Aardvark") — A high-concept character study in grief, speculatively named for Cotard delusion, a.k.a. Walking Dead Syndrome (but why is it pluralized?). The 10-minute short has solid art direction and music, but is unremarkable except for the novelty of being shot in the obsolete VistaVision format, an ancient predecessor to IMAX. One can’t help wondering why the filmmakers took such painstaking liberties to paint their self-proclaimed “biggest short movie of all time” on such a rich canvas, yet failed to instill it with any sense of pathos. — A.R.
“Happy the Clown” (Made in Michigan Showcase) — “Happy the Clown” is a sharp, fun piece that benefits from a vibrant color palate, fine acting, and a theme song written by Michigan’s golden boy Jeff Daniels. Happy (Lawton Paseka) is a crying-on-the-inside kind of clown who finds himself trapped in a seedy underworld life that’s costing him his relationship and quite possibly his sanity. When his girlfriend shows up at his trailer to make amends at the same time some Mafia goons arrive to give him his next assignment, things quickly devolve into the stuff dark comedy gold is made from. Coulrophobes have nothing to fear, although there is a scary midget.
“Prayers for Peace” (Playing with "Shepherds of Helmand") — Filmmaker Dustin Grella’s poignant short utilizes stop-motion chalkboard animation to honor his brother who was killed in Iraq at age 21, mere months into his first tour. Grella frankly discusses his inability to separate his concept of the girl-crazy, video-game-playing baby brother he grew up with from the soldier he became, and chillingly animates real audio clips sent from the front line just days before his brother’s death. The pastels leave ghostly images on the chalkboard from scene to scene, including the subtle red stripes from his brother’s casket that remain to the final frame. — A.R.
"Shepherds of Helmand" (Feature) — It’s not hard to find documentaries about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan these days, but "Shepherds," made up largely of footage shot by soldiers in Afghan war zones, is distinctively unnerving and often heartwrenching. Director Gary Mortensen’s film follows an Oregon National Guard unit into Helmand Province, a notorious Taliban stronghold, where they try to train Afghan National Army soldiers (some of them barely in their teens) to fight.
Don’t expect John Wayne-style macho heroics: While "Shepherds" conveys the weird exhilaration of being on the battlefield, it spends just as much time examining the sometimes agonizing aftermath, which is spelled out in bursts of survivor guilt and deeply disturbing tales of post-traumatic stress. — J.S.
"The Birds Upstairs" (Digital 10 Student Showcase #1) — Comedy does not get much blacker than this twisted short by Christopher Jarvis. Not for the faint of heart or easily offended, "The Birds Upstairs" at its basest offers bird skeletons — dressed in Old World finery —that consummate their love on screen. Thankfully, the story is less perverted and more cleverly demented than these details. Akin to the visual styling of early David Lynch and Tim Burton, Jarvis tells the animated tale of an aging aristocratic avian couple that give birth to a child. The fully feathered baby bird looks nothing like them and considering it an "abomination," they lock it in their attic upstairs. Narrated in a British accent with crafty lines and visual puns, "Birds" is not as dark as it initially seems; it’s delightfully backwards. — P.W.
“El Cortejo (The Cortege)" (Spanish Short Film Showcase) — Bittersweet, charming and laugh-out-loud funny, “El cortejo” deftly weaves just about every emotion into its all-too-brief running time. Capi (Mariano Llorente), an upbeat gravedigger, makes sure to be in the right place at the right time each week to “accidentally” bump into Marta, a recent widow who regularly comes to Capi’s cemetery to place flowers on her husband’s grave. Llorente plays Capi as a lovesick optimist, nimbly sidestepping all of the morbid implications with a lighthearted tone that only a foreign flick could pull off. Definitely worth seeing. (In Spanish with English subtitles) — A.R.
"Zlata Rybka (Goldfish)" (Digital 10 Student Showcase #1) — It’s a familiar story: Man loves goldfish, man loses goldfish, man negotiates with reincarnated felines about the return of his goldfish. If you enjoy the surreal odysseys of Charlie Kaufman’s films, such as "Being John Malkovich" or "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," you’ll probably enjoy "Goldfish"; its musical score is even lifted from "Malkovich."
Clean editing and smooth pacing give "Goldfish" polish and the existential musings of the cats (men in bowler hats with wooden whiskers) raise questions about the nature of consciousness and memory. But the real joy of the short is the man’s love of his goldfish. — P.W.
“Missile Crisis” (Digital 10 Student Showcase #1) — A sweet fable about two boys living in south Florida during the Cuban missile crisis who hope to stave off nuclear annihilation — and their parents’ impending divorce — with a little childhood backyard magic. Effective period set design, music and costumes convincingly set the time and place. The child actors are believable enough, and best of all, it’s family-friendly without being treacly or preachy. Neato! — A.R.
“Burundi Short Film Showcase” — The Burundi Short Film Showcase provides a rare glimpse into the life and times of this shattered Third World African nation, all but destroyed by genocide, oppression and destitution. These five short movies (six minutes or less) play as proto-legends, enabling the amateur filmmakers to tell stories of desperation, humor, morality, and hope.
In “Pigfoot,” a young man learns an ironic lesson when he abandons his friends for a supposedly higher paying life. “Mission: Montreal” follows a putupon young breadwinner who’s looking for a way out of his responsibilities as the family’s sole source of income. “The Return of Old Man Kubura” is a miniepic, as an elderly refugee returns to the city of his birth and attempts to inspire the family he takes up with. “Easy Call” warns of the dangers of prostitution.
Finally, the awesomely titled “Knock Knock (Who’s Dead?)” is a funnier-thanit-deserves-to-be slapstick farce about a hyperactive idiot who takes a job as a dead body transport at a local hospital.
"The Green Mitten: Medical Cannabis in Michigan" (Michigan Documentary Showcase) — Do you know how the medicinal marijuana law in Michigan really works?
This short documentary sets out to answer all of your questions. Instructional and informative, "Mitten" is a professionally produced pro-cannabis piece. Interviews with hemophiliacs, paraplegics and others who have benefitted from its use make up almost all of the talking heads. The film completely dismisses any legitimate health or social concerns about marijuana’s full legalization with clips from "Dragnet" and other silly anti-pot propaganda. Facts about the drug come from Dr. Robert Kenewell for the Clinic for Compassionate Care; anecdotes from sympathetic citizens fill in the rest of this apparently one-sided debate. — P.W.