Some short films from some young filmmakers that you really must see.

by Martin Hafer

I recently attended the Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival and, as usual, I spend much of the time watching short films. I love this style of movie because it often gives new filmmakers a chance to experiment and learn their craft…and many of them are surprisingly beautiful films given that they usually have minuscule budgets. Here is a list of some of my favorites–films that you should really try to see. However, I should point out that two shows always aired at the same time and I was unable to see every short and I’m sure some excellent films aren’t mentioned in this article. These films below all deserve attention and are made by filmmakers that seem destined for success:

Roman Citizen (Luca Elmi, 2015) – Grade: A

This is one of the best of the short films at the festival, though sadly very few folks attended this block of shorts on Friday morning.  It’s a shame, as the film is exceptional in so many ways and keeps the audience guessing.  It begins with a vicious bank robbery where the guard is gunned down in front of the customers and bank employees.  As to the robbery, it’s meticulously handled by thugs wearing masks and they seem to have rehearsed this caper repeatedly.  However, when the police investigate, there appears to be far more to the story than meets the eye and perhaps the robbery was just a diversion for something else.  The script for this film is terrific and offered some very nice twists. It’s not just another robbery picture, that’s for sure!  Additionally, Elmi’s direction is superb and keeps the picture taut and terrifying.  Exceptional in every regard and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this nominated for an Oscar for Best Short…it’s that good.

Watch the Roman Citizen trailer here

Don’t Mess With the Sharkies (Richard Rabelbauer, 2015) – Grade: B+

Set in the post-apocalyptic future, this Swiss film centers on two of the few survivors of the human race, a very young priest and a heavily-pierced young lady.  Both spend their time looking for food and avoiding the ‘Sharkies’…whatever these creatures are.  Apparently, the Sharkies have destroyed most of the human race and have hunted them to virtual extinction in this sci-fi short.  Not surprisingly, it’s tense and I found myself on the edge of my seat because I kept expecting something to happen to this young couple.  However, where all this goes is pretty weird–especially when you eventually learn where the Sharkies came from.  The film is dark, tense and, surprisingly, rather funny as it ends.  Additionally, I was really surprised at the quality of the special effects, as you eventually do get to see the Sharkies….and they are simply incredible and not something you’d expect in a relatively low-budgeted picture.  I sure would love to know how they created the Sharkies for this film!  This one took home the Best Sci-fi/Fantasy Film award.

Thick Heart (Kristi Dake, 2013) – Grade: A-

Courtney is a lovely young lady who dreams of meeting Mr. Right.  However, she also is obese and lonely.  Because of her loneliness, she’s decided to try online dating…though her incredibly catty female co-workers make fun of her behind her back and don’t believe anyone could love ‘that girl’.  So, when she goes out to meet one of these blind dates, you can’t help but feel for her and you want her to find love and happiness.  However, as she waits in a restaurant for this mystery man to appear, an obnoxious drunk comes to her table and begins hitting on her relentlessly.  The guy won’t take ‘no’ for an answer and insists on staying with her until her date arrives!  Is this the disaster that it appears to be or is Courtney about to make a love connection in spite of all this?  Apart from perhaps making Courtney’s co-workers a bit more subtle, I couldn’t imagine doing anything to improve this film.  Despite her lack of confidence and the nasty remarks, Kristi Dake manages to make the audience see Courtney as a beautiful woman and your heart bleeds for her–and that is what makes this film so special.  Like the title suggests, this is a movie with a lot of heart.  It’s funny, quite clever and, might just bring a tear to your eyes.

Watch the Thick Heart trailer here.

The Tutor (Grant Johnson, 2015) – Grade: A-

I saw this film for the second time and was very surprised because the same very strong emotional reaction to the short occurred even though I knew what was coming!  The director’s sister, Rebecca, stars in this short as a young lady whose life has fallen apart following the death of her fiancé.  Her college grades have dropped so far, she’s in danger of losing her scholarship…so she agrees to tutor a dyslexic guy in order to keep impress the committee and show them she is serious about her schooling.  What follows is the lady slowly opening up to another person…something she’s had great difficulty doing since her tragic loss.  I like this film because it is ‘the total package’–great music, an interesting story and amazing direction.  It’s not surprising that The Tutor took home the festival’s award for Best Short Film and Grant Johnson not only directed this picture but wrote it as well.  I can’t wait to see more from this young filmmaker!

She Rides the Ghostbike (Daniel James Huppert, 2015) – Grade: B

The writer-director of this short is a New Yorker who has been working for local television but who wants to break into film.  It’s his first film and because of that, I was very impressed.  The story is extremely simple but is crafted very well–with really nice music.  It’s the story that draws attention to the dangers posed to bikers in the big city and is about the recent death of one of them and her boyfriend’s struggle to come to terms with this and get on with his life.  It’s quite sad but well worth seeing.  And, since this is Huppert’s first film, I can’t wait to see what he does next!

M-Theory (T.L. Westgate, 2014)  –  Grade: B

L. Westgate manages to not only to bring us a good sci-fi short but manages to also make it funny as well…in a dark sort of way. It begins with two super-genius scientists creating a device to transmit matter from one place to another…much like a Star Trek transporter. This wonderful device, however, apparently can also be used for evil…which they learn when a time traveler arrives and implores the men not to use the machine and destroy all traces of it.  However, soon other folks start arriving and they men have no idea what to do.  But, when their future selves arrive…things start to get really complicated.  The film was shot on a very small budget but manages to look quite good and tell an interesting story.  Well worth finding this short…particularly if you are a sci-fi fan.

Reset (Domonic Smith, 2015) – Grade: A-

This film took home several awards at the festival including the Audience Choice Award for Shorts, Best Florida Film, Best Short Film Director and Best Effects.  It’s the sad story of a teen whose father was lost while serving in the military abroad.  He’s also in a brand new school and is being bullied.  However, his problems might be coming to an end when he discovers a strange device that looks like a metal ball.  He has no idea what it is and accidentally learns that it can briefly reverse time…but only the immediate past.  For a while, this device serves him very well but the ending is quite tragic.  It’s a great film is just about every way and Smith is very accomplished considering he’s only made a few shorts before this one.  The night I saw it, however, the theater was packed because so many of the teens who appeared in the film as extras as well as in many of the leading roles came to see it since it was a local production.  They also brought their family and friends…all of which burst into huge rounds of applause when the short concluded.  The applause was practically deafening and I could see how it received the Audience Choice Award!

Climb (Ryan Todd, 2014)- Grade: A

This film won the award for Dan Sutter who played Grandpa and was nominated for several others.  Of all the shorts in the competition, I think this one is the most polished and cinematic.  The cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful and this, combined with the music, made it a lovely film in so many ways.  Ryan Todd really deserves a lot of credit for the overall look and style of Climb.  It’s the story about a sick old man who wants to go back to a place he loves…one more time before he dies.  His granddaughter at first refuses to take him on this arduous hike but eventually agrees.  After all, it is Grandpa’s birthday and she’s willing to take him on the outing provided he doesn’t over-exert himself.  What comes next is quite touching and the film clearly is one to see with some Kleenex handy as it explores issues about death and the quality of life.  It’s really hard not to like this one…or to see it without shedding a few tears.  It’s among the best shorts I’ve seen in a long time and can’t wait to see more stuff from Ryan Todd.

Incidentally, Todd also screened another one of his shorts, Eveleigh, during the same block of films and it was quite good as well…and like Climb, it really provokes the viewer and makes you think long and hard about important issues.

Killer Kart (James Feeney, 2012) – Grade: A

This horror film might just have been the funniest film at the festival and it worked because the premise is so thoroughly absurd!  When the film begins, a young lady is working her first night as the manager of a grocery store.  However, this would be no ordinary night and soon co-workers start dropping like flies as an angry shopping cart begins killing them off, one by one!!  Can they possibly stop this angry cart and save themselves?  And why would a cart do such things in the first place?!  As I said, the film is totally absurd but it works so well because James Feeney managed to make a shopping cart look evil…with snapping jaws and a thirst for blood!  He also did some imaginative and tricky camera shots which he described during a question and answer session following the film.  The bottom line is that the audience howled with laughter and I’ve rarely seen a crowd this excited and this happy when the final credits rolled!

Watch the Killer Kart trailer here

Girl + Ghost (Nik Wansbrough, 2014)- Grade: A-

I absolutely loved this wonderful short film from Australian director Nik Wansbrough.  It uses many different mediums to tell the story and is just about as charming a film as you could imagine.  It begins with an adorable little puppet show about a ghost and a girl…and soon you see that it’s the ghost himself who’s telling this story.  Soon, however, you see the real world…though it looks incredibly unreal but in a good way.  Using models and some very clever animation, you see a weird cartoon-like world with lots of happy people…and a sad ghost because all he can do is watch the world around him and dream that he could one day have a girlfriend of his own.  I really don’t want to say more because it would spoil the surprise.  Suffice to say that it’s very romantic, sweet and Wansbrough is one talented guy to come up with something this original and visually striking!

Americano (Alexander Maxwell, 2015) – Grade: B

This is a chilling and violent film, but I must commend Maxwell for avoiding the blood and gore which could have dominated the picture.  It’s a very unusual story that is told in reverse order.  You see a girl murdered in the brutal opening scene and then the film works backward so you can see all the steps leading to this tragedy.  The director attributes Christopher Nolan’s Momento for the style of the short but given that it’s Maxwell’s first film, it’s quite impressive.  It’s also an unusual picture because the film is open captioned since it is told in two languages…Portuguese and English.  For the female lead, Maxwell used his Brazilian-born girlfriend and the picture is creepy and strange…and well worth seeing.

Sisters (Mark Stolzenberg, 2015)- Grade: A

This is a cute and touching comedy about two older ladies who have barely spoken to each other for years even though they are sisters.  What’s brought them together is their mother’s death and the film abounds with dark humor as they try to work through the funeral planning with a sleazy funeral director (played by the director himself).  Can the pair manage all this without killing each other?!  The reason I picked this film as one of my favorites were the actresses playing the sisters, Judy Copeland and Helen Mandlin.  They were just fabulous and I loved all their scenes together. Fortunately, during a question and answer session, Copeland mentioned that the two of them are working on another films with Stolzenberg and I can’t wait!

Espionage 101 (Noah Debonis, 2015) – Grade: B

This story is about a nerdy computer genius who somehow gets sucked into a spy adventure and he sees himself as another James Bond…albeit a very nerdy and not particularly dangerous Bond!  It begins with this man receiving what he thinks is an invitation to join a fraternity…and he ignores it.  However, when he goes to attend his first class, he is shocked to find that he’s the only one there other than a lady who identifies herself as a spy…and she needs his help to bring evil to justice!  What makes this a delight is the tongue-in-cheek way this is all handled.  Again and again, the writer does a great job of creating situations that gently parody spy films and it provides quite a few laughs.  It makes you want to see more films like it or perhaps a sequel.

Sirens (Joey Spillane, 2015) – Grade: A+

I will be reviewing this film in depth as well as interviewing the star of this film in an upcoming article.  To me, this was the best short of the festival and practically made my heart pound through my chest…it was that exciting and well made! You can read the review here and an interview with the star here.