Life, death, and perseverance in the shorts of MKE Film Fest’s “Milwaukee Show I”

Milwaukee Show I
A still from Sitora Takanaev's 'Twin Sister'

Impressions of five short films in “The Milwaukee Show I,” screening as part of Mon night’s Oriental Theatre program at the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival

As the Milwaukee Film Festival enters its first full week of screenings this final week of Sept, buzz is peaking for the two 70-minute short-film showcases of local cinema, encapsulated under the banner of “Cream City Cinema.”

Both “Milwaukee Show” programs will be presented in the first screening room of the luxurious Oriental Theatre just south of UWM campus. The first, which premieres Mon, Sept 26, at 8:00p, features a diverse assembly of filmmakers currently operating out of Milwaukee, including Sitora Takanaev and her compassionate drama about a Cuban woman’s struggles with cancer in Twin Sister [Jimagua]; Xavier Ruffin’s tragic ripped-from-the-headlines story of Saint Paul; and Cecelia Condit’s sobering reflections on aging and memory in Some Dark Place.

In alphabetical order, here are more thorough assessments of the five additional shorts in the robust program:


Fox in the Fan (dir. Carol Brandt)

The one-line synopsis about late-night DJ Misty Littlefoot discovering a cryptic message on a Microcassette recorder paints a mental picture analogous to Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem (2012); but Carol Brandt’s new short, an elusive and beautiful mystery, subverts these supernatural tropes to examine something more terrestrial in an undisclosed past of a community. As Misty broadcasts the warped Tom Waits-like drawl of the voice on the tape, Brandt’s lens follows its echoing semi-coherent reminiscences. While her former features and shorts have been looser and more conversational, the eloquent and understated visual style here, aided by Joshua Halverson’s cinematography, indisputably breaks new ground.


The Hindu Thread (dir. Jennifer Higgins)

In just three short minutes, renowned magician Eugene Burger’s warm, weathered voice reaches through the ages to narrate a cyclical tale of creation and destruction as bonded to the eternal Gods of Hinduism. Jennifer Higgins’ silhouetted cut-outs and ornate black line patterns sprout from Burger’s resonant, articulate words on parchment-colored background. The Hindu Thread is a shining example of optimistic permanence in an era of temporality.


Needlepoint (dir. Jon Phillips)

In characterizing Needlepoint‘s pre-production last year, Jon Phillips’ unnerving tale was promoted as a “psychological thriller/horror family thing.” True to the original vision, the short is a dizzying and refreshingly challenging micro-budget cinema experience. Confronting memory and familial abuse through a daughter divulging the news of younger sister Abby’s seizure and death to their mute, bedridden mother, Phillips utilizes flashbacks to intelligently parcel out details of the dueling personalities. And if the tension couldn’t already be cut with a knife in the 16-minute film’s sharp visual mirroring, Amanda Huff’s warbling electronic-ambient score instantly elevates the mood of domestic quiet into unbearable emotional storm before the first words are even uttered.


Shangri-L.A. (dirs. Drew Rosas and Nick Sommer)

At nineteen minutes and the face of the program, Drew Rosas and Nick Sommer’s offbeat comedy primarily trails the environmentally conscious vagabond Nick (Sommer himself), who seeks inner peace in a land that seems to only value outer beauty. La-La Land is replete with quirky visual references, including Nick’s pet goldfish that he carries around in a Mr. Coffee pot, a bubbly aspiring singer who hocks her “Jew-C-Pop” demo on the street, and a swindling wannabe-agent whose stale fashion sense is quintessentially 1970s. Although there’s an excess of noticeable ADR, Shangri-L.A. is a droll, slightly surreal (and supposedly episodic) commentary on struggling artists. Coven director and American Movie star/subject Mark Borchardt has a cameo as self-help guru Marvin Nestor, who shares a spiritual link with Master Chang from Quentin Dupieux’s Wrong (2012).


Synthase (dir. Sam Kirchoff)

A standout in the “Wisconsin’s Own” experimental program this past Apr at the Wisconsin Film Festival, Sam Kirchoff’s stunning Synthase utilizes the microscopic magnification of naturalistic phenomena to keenly convey a sense of pandemic. Uniting crisp, haunting sound design with slow-motion visual parallels of rushing water/foam, cellular biology, amphibious dissection, and time-lapse photography of the growth and wilting of fungi, the approach feels indebted to Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013). Yet it also feels perfectly suited to its own unique feature-length expansion, abstractly complementing the life cycle dictated and drawn in aforementioned Hindu Thread.

  • The eight short films of “Milwaukee Show I” will screen at the the Oriental Theatre as part of the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival on Mon, Sep 26, at 8:00p. For ticketing information, head to At the time of publication, tickets were still available.