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This collection of romantic short films delivers humor, poignancy and sex in equal measure.

It is perhaps a sort of Rorschach test how you interpret the intended audience for the Shorts: Date Night collection at the Milwaukee Film Festival. Is this package of eight short films an escape, for couch-bound veteran couples, from the doldrums of Netflix and actual chill? Or ought “date night” refer to those intriguing early dates with a new person, where the the laughs come easier and a trip to the movies is just the logical post-dinner activity?

As it turns out, the first set of films in this year’s “Shorter is Better” series delivers a little something for everyone (including those of us who couldn’t get a ticket for our date). All eight shorts ran the emotional gamut from melancholy to comical, some pushing further down either or both ends of that spectrum. And there was sex. A lot of sex.

Opening the lineup with “‘The Talk’ True Stories About the Birds & the Bees” was smart because it put the packed house in the right frame of mind to enjoy 88 minutes of mostly-lighthearted, often poignant and definitely sexually aware cinema. “The Talk” tries to make us comfortable with the uncomfortable, employing animated figures to illustrate real men’s recollections of “the talk,” with generous humor in their juxtaposition: there’s an excruciating road trip narrated by an encyclopedic-length audio book on the nuts and bolts of sex; there’s a father who skips over the nuts and bolts with his young son in favor of tips for pleasing a woman; and there’s a book about mating frogs (you had to be there).

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Continuing that theme is “It’s Been Like a Year,” whose comedic timing perfectly executes the awkwardness of a motel-room romp with a prostitute (and there’s a disgusting, can’t-unsee-that surprise waiting for you in the end credits). In “3-Way (Not Calling),” boredom is the specter haunting Mel and Kevin as Mel approaches a milestone birthday, and sex the antidote. Emma Hunter, playing Mel, channels Julia Louis Dreyfus in her daffy quest to find a threesome (not three-way!) partner. The short film balances at the precipice between bleak and droll, just like Mel balances a chip on her sleeping lover’s back in one of the film’s comedic, ahem, climaxes.

For those looking for a good cry with their laughs, “The Spa” delivers both in spades. The crescendo of sorrow, delivered almost entirely by actor Chris Haywood’s brilliant range of facial expressions, has barely crested before the movie serves its absurdly comedic second wave; tears of sorrow become tears of laughter before they can be wiped away.

“Cycle” and “Garfield” each provide whimsy in different ways, both delivering on their act-one dramatic promise — Chekhov’s bike and Chekhov’s Pink Panther suit, respectively — along with a treatise on “the world’s last acceptable prejudice” in “Garfield.” 

And melancholy abounds in “Nothing Ever Really Ends,” and “Victor & Isolina,” two very different shorts that tackle the pain of splitting up — the former in live-action Norwegian with subtitles, and the latter an ingenious execution of hybrid animation by way of 3-D printing. Both films balance the realism of defeat with “if you don’t laugh you’ll cry” details: a fabricated bout of “facial herpes,” and an old woman shaking her cane in rage, for example. Both films capture with poignancy the frustratingly infinite recursion of endeavoring to disentangle two lives woven indivisibly together.

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Shorts: Date Night, delivers on its promises to “tickle your funny bone, test your tear ducts, and put a little pink in your cheeks.” The first of the 2017 “Shorter is Better” program, which opened Friday night, is the perfect venue for an audience looking for love (or at least something to talk about with their partner on the way home).


Go See It: Shorts: Date Night

  • Saturday, September 30, 5:30 p.m. (Avalon Theater)
  • Thursday, October 5, 9 p.m. (Oriental Theater)

 

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