Not Recommended

Rocky and Bullwinkle (2014, Gary Trousdale)

Is it really so hard to make a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon? It’s somewhat unfair to just crap on the writing (by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant), the acting (June Foray’s back as Bullwinkle but barely in it), the editing (it’s hard to say if Mark Deimel’s timing is off or if it’s Trousdale’s direction), or even that direction because the CGI animation itself is pretty bad.

The first scene with Fearless Leader (Lennon voicing and doing better than his writing anyway) laying out the plan to Boris and Natasha, Robert Cait and Lauri Fraser respectively, is iffy enough but once Rocky and Bullwinkle show up the animation takes a nose dive.

The short is nine minutes with credits. The filmmakers couldn’t manage to do nine minutes of mediocre work. Instead, it just gets worse and worse (in all departments). Whoever told the CGI animators they’d done a good enough job on the fur textures for the animals was either lying or the wrong person to be judging such things. The CGI is distractingly bad, which is something since the short rushes through its jokes like no one timed them. Especially the visual gags.

Though the animators don’t seem like they’d have been able to do appropriate facial expressions for the visual gags so whatever.

And whoever thought the Lady Gaga montage was a good idea was also wrong. It’s astounding how bad presumable “Rocky and Bullwinkle” fans are at making Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Gary Trousdale; screenplay by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, based on characters created by Bill Scott and Jay Ward; edited by Mark Deimel; music by Tony Morales; produced by Denise Nolan Cascino; released by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Starring June Foray (Rocky), Tom Kenny (Bullwinkle), Thomas Lennon (Fearless Leader), Robert Cait (Boris), Lauri Fraser (Natasha), and Robert Ben Garant (Narrator).


Batman: Dead End (2003, Sandy Collora)

Batman: Dead End goes far in validating the idea of cosplay as successful costuming for film—well, not Andrew Koenig’s Joker—but definitely the Batman outfit. Costume designer Michael MacFarlane, cinematographer Vincent E. Toto, and director Collora do figure out a way to do a “comics accurate” (if you’re reading comics illustrated by Alex Ross) Batman costume.

Shame about Collora’s dialogue, Clark Bartram’s less than impressive performance as Batman, Koenig’s performance and appearance, and the bland fight choreography. Dead End ends up being a find proof-of-concept for a Batman vs. Predator vs. Aliens project once Disney buys DC Comics and Warner Bros., but the “first act” (it’s not even six minutes, with two minutes of end credits to beef up the runtime), which has lots of comic-inspired imagery with Batman, shows why it’s not a great idea to use that imagery on film.

At least, not when you’re on a low budget and your music is cribbed together from Alien³, Predator, and Danny Elfman Batman.

Also the radio news reports of Joker’s escape are way too pedestrian. Dead End looks really good with the Batman, the Predators, the Aliens (not the Koenig Jokers), but it’s just the costumes and the photography. Otherwise, it’s not a successful production. Even Toto’s cinematography has its limits. He’s able to shoot the costumes, but when Collora tries to do a showy establishing shot—there’s a particularly bad one of Batman’s cape “oozing” as Bartram stands up from a jump—Toto can’t make it work. He’s not a miracle worker.

If it were a bunch of great fight scenes, Dead End would at least be entertaining. It ends about two minutes after it starts feeling really silly and the long end credits are a relief.

But, hey, good costuming.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Sandy Collora; director of photography, Vincent E. Toto; edited by Toby Divine; production designer, Collora; costume designer, Michael MacFarlane.

Starring Clark Bartram (Batman) and Andrew Koenig (The Joker).


We’re With the Army Now (1943, Jean Negulesco)

We’re With the Army Now is somewhat inexplicably a rarity. It’s a Warner Bros. “training short” for the Army (during World War II) but in the public domain. It’s got no IMDb entry, no Google results outside a citation from Doug McClelland’s Eleanor Parker: Woman of a Thousand Faces book… yet it’s available on archive.org and YouTube. The book’s got a seemingly accurate cast list, so McClelland got his information from somewhere… but that somewhere hasn’t been digitized. Or isn’t available digitized anymore.

Anyway.

Most of Army appears to be documentary stock footage. Some of the action-packed shots might be from a Warner Bros. movie, but a lot of it is definitely real-life stuff. The short’s all about the establishing of the Woman’s Army Corps (WAC) and women from all walks of life joining the service so the Army men can do the important thing, be cannon fodder.

Now, since these training shorts were intended for Army consumption and not the general public, the jingoistic narration probably could use some thorough unpacking (the description of U.S. involvement in World War II as deciding the “nation’s destiny” is a little weird), as well as how the narration tries to appeal to women—you get new clothes to wear! Women are good drivers and mechanics too! But their real talent is at switchboards! Also this woman’s army lets ladies lie about their weight plus and minus fifteen pounds!

But the original narrative material is its own thing. The short follows four very different women through their basic training. There’s lead Nina Foch (lead because she gets the most close-ups). She’s the receptionist good girl. There’s Faye Emerson, she’s the slutty shopgirl. Ann Shoemaker is the motherly one (two sons in the war already) who has to lose weight to join. She gets a first and last name though, which is more than almost anyone else gets. Finally, there’s Eleanor Parker as the college girl.

I mean, you almost want to see a movie where Foch, Emerson, Shoemaker, and Parker are all basic training buds, even though none of the material in the film is good and it’s often cringe-y (at one point Emerson seems to be shaming Parker for being in college), but they’re all likable at least.

Negulesco’s direction is adequate, I guess. There’s nothing he’s got to do outside try to match a couple of the dramatization shots with documentary footage. It’s not heavy lifting.

I’m very curious about why We’re With the Army Now is somehow lost to history while still being extant but as the short itself is fairly superfluous. Outside seeing future stars slumming it in an Army training film.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Jean Negulesco; produced by Gordon Hollingshead; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Nina Foch (the receptionist), Faye Emerson (the shopgirl), Ann Shoemaker (the mother), Eleanor Parker (the college student), and Marjorie Hoshelle (the sergeant).


Card Party (1896, Georges Méliès)

Card Party runs a minute. Three guys sitting outside at a table, drinking wine, playing cards. It’s a family affair for director Méliès (who’s one of the card players), with his brother playing another of them. There aren’t any credits and apparently the third player’s identity is lost to time.

At the open, Méliès daughter walks up and is cute, then a server comes over with wine. There’s a dog in the shot—it’s a single shot—for a bit. The server and one of the card players break the fourth wall and look at the camera, so it doesn’t appear Méliès made sure everyone didn’t look at the camera. For a second it seems almost inviting, like the viewer is the fourth player at the table but… no, they’re just looking at the camera, which was probably gigantic and noisy because 1896.

The short ends with one of the players reading something in the newspaper, belly-laughing about it, and showing it to everyone else so they could belly-laugh in turn. So exaggerating reactions was a thing at least.

It’s a minute, so it’d be hard for it not to be fine. But just because it’s fine doesn’t mean it’s particularly interesting or worthwhile, outside a historical context.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Georges Méliès; released by Star-Film.

Save Me (2011, Lena Waithe)

Save Me is the story of a kid (Jaheem Toombs) whose house burned down and the rest of his family died and he goes to ask the man who saved him (Sam Bologna) why he saved him and the man doesn’t tell him so the kid lies about it to his new best friend. There are some ostensible layers to it—Toombs’s Black, Bologna’s an old White man—they’re artificial. Waithe’s giving the impression of raising questions, ones she can’t bother even imagining the answers for.

The photography—by Matthew H. Sanders—is about the only solid part of the short. Waithe’s direction is hyper-focused on the actors, who—at best—aren’t very good and are often worse. Save Me occasionally feels like Waithe’s out to embarrass Toombs, who’s been living in foster care since his family burned to death and he’s got a kindly social worker (Stacy Lutz). They have this game where he gives her a quote and she tells him who said it. The gimmick becomes important later on.

Shame Toombs doesn’t seem to have any idea why he’s saying the quote or who and why he’s quoting the person, other than Waithe thinks it’ll be a good detail.

When people use “workshop” as a pejorative, they’re talking about the script to Save Me. Cultural references are more important than the flow of the dialogue, which is fine because the musical accompaniment is more important than the scenes. Despite being in every scene, Toombs’s the film’s least defined character. Waithe’s doing a character study where she’s avoiding character as much as possible. So what should be a great showcase for Toombs is instead a series of opportunities for him to fail.

Then there’s the cloying finale, which has Toombs forgetting how to skateboard; though I suppose that plot hole is a great metaphor for the short itself.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lena Waithe; director of photography, Matthew H. Sanders; edited by Justin Simien; music by Darnell Levine; produced by Nikki Love.

Starring Jaheem Toombs (Kenya), Stacy Lutz (social worker), Malcolm Williams (shop owner), and Sam Bologna (Mr. Wilkey).


Echoes of You (2018, Henry Quilici)

About halfway through, Echoes of You gets after-school special cringy, which seems like it’s too bad because at least before—despite being this Dickensian tale of classical pianist employed as a theatre custodian (Laurence Fuller) who befriends the street urchin living out back (Zakary Risinger) through the magic of music—at least it’s well-executed. I mean, basically. Multi-hyphenate director Quilici’s editing is excellent. It doesn’t matter Risinger can’t act and Jesse Aragon’s middling but competent photography lacks any character. And then there’s how Quilici doesn’t direct for the performances but paces it like he wants the performances to be the big thing. So you’ve got Fuller pensively doing everything at work as he dreams of playing professionally but it just kills time. It doesn’t build anything with Fuller’s performance. There’s no character development in Echoes. In fact, it turns out there’s inertia beyond the suspension of disbelief.

Because it turns out Echoes is not an after-school special about Fuller helping Risinger and how Risinger’s life is changed—Fuller feeds Risinger, including some soup in a peculiar “just make a Campbell’s commercial” moment, and teaches him (in four days or so based on the short’s internal calendar) to play piano—but it’s all about Fuller. Fuller monologues about how he wanted to play this original piece (the titular Echoes of You, which sounds a lot like the “Downton Abbey” theme… enough you want to watch some “Downton” frankly) for his now dead dad. Because sad Fuller is worse off than kid living on the streets with a junkie mom Risinger. There’s a last act reveal to kind of cushion it but… not in any way to make Fuller any better of a human being. If Echoes weren’t tritely aspirational in another, jaw-dropping, and predictable way in the third act, the short might get away with the lack of any development on Fuller but….

No.

Fuller’s all right. He’s got some really good moments; if it were an after-school special, he’d have been able to crossover to nighttime dramas… but it’s not an after-school special. And for a short film, where he’s the protagonist, it’d have been nice if the director had some ideas for showcasing his performance.

Risinger’s a nope. Who knows if better direction would’ve helped. Better writing certainly would have.

I wasn’t expecting a lot out of Echoes of You but I was at least expecting it not to be so stunningly trite. It seemed too competently produced to be so pointless.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written, produced, directed by Henry Quilici; director of photography, Jesse Aragon; music by Max Quilici; produced by Henry Quilici and John Lapin; released by Omeleto.

Starring Laurence Fuller (Andrew) and Zakary Risinger (Christopher).


The Frontier Experience (1975, Barbara Loden)

The strange thing about The Frontier Experience is how it’s really bad with exposition for an educational film. Watching it, you can imagine an accompanying quiz and if the filmmakers do acknowledge the potential test question instead of just ignoring it, they treat the plot point or detail like a secret. I’m sure if I’d watched Frontier Experience is third or fourth grade I’d have gotten a C on the quiz. Though I don’t think I got Cs in third or fourth grade; I wouldn’t have failed, but I wouldn’t have gotten everything. Because it’s often easy to zone out during the film. It’s blandly American exceptionalism with some period specific details and sympathetic characters.

Even if none of the performances are particularly good. Except Phyllis McNeely as the kindly neighbor woman who likes having another woman living around even though it doesn’t end up meaning anything other than the exposition dump. How many women live in a ten mile radius besides McNeely and lead (and director and producer) Loden… A, 3, B, 2, or C, none. But McNeely’s good. In her scene and a quarter.

Frontier doesn’t have any opening titles, at least not with credits, so I wasn’t sure if Loden also directed the short or also wrote the short (in addition to starring in it). I thought it was writing, which seemed to make sense as the directing often sabotages Loden’s performance. Frontier Experience has a (light) handful of artistic ambitions. For example, Loden tries to do a fun footrace thing but doesn’t shoot it well. So it seems like she wouldn’t have directed it, because nothing seems to be in sync. But no, Loden did direct; Joan Micklin Silver wrote the script, which starts a lot better than it finishes. Including with the diary entries Loden’s writing as time moves on. Frontier starts with her moving out to Kansas with her family to homestead. The husband’s Roger Hoffman. He’s a man with dreams, the expository dialogue to convey them, but not the performance to make them interesting. There are a lot of wanting performances in the film. Educational film really does mean “don’t care.”

But until the third act, I kind of assumed Frontier Experience at least wouldn’t choke on the ending. But for the jingoism, it’d be fine. The jingoism ruins it and makes Frontier Experience seem a lot less like an educational film than disinterested propaganda.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Barbara Loden; written by Joan Micklin Silver; director of photography, Nicholas T. Proferes; edited by Proferes; music by John Duffy; released by the Learning Corporation of America.

Starring Barbara Loden (Delilah Fowler), Roger Hoffman (George Fowler), Tim Petty (Eugene), Sharon O’Donnell (Caroline), Kelly Heft (Alice), John Peirson (Ned), Cecil Friend (John Crawford), Phyllis McNeely (Mrs. Polk), and Leroy Deewall (Mr. Polk).


Alien: Harvest (2019, Benjamin Howdeshell)

Alien: Harvest operates at that all too familiar intersection of bad and stupid. It’s a stupid idea badly executed, though it’s not clear whose at fault for each. For instance, the short is about four survivors on a space ship trying to get the lifeboat before the ship blows up in seven (or eight) minutes. It’s a seven or eight minute short. You’d think it’d be real-time… but no. So who decided to do stylistically weak montage (the second time jump, the first they just cut), director Howdeshell or writer Craig Dewey?

Howdeshell’s direction is bad throughout, sure, but Dewey’s writing is stupid throughout too. For instance, how is it possible no one in the Alien universe knows how to read a motion tracker? Especially given lead (or at least character given the most reaction shots) Agnes Albright ought to know how to read one, given her character’s background. Though Albright’s background is yet another of the script’s stupidities; for an officially produced “Alien Universe” short, Harvest plays pretty fast and loose with the franchise “rules.” And always just for shock value. Dewey and Howdeshell don’t have anything good up their sleeves so they’re just going for the jumps. They don’t get any. They get some eye rolls, which is impressive because it’s usually too stupid to bother wasting the energy to roll the eyes.

There’s one good performance—Jessica Clark, as the pregnant and therefore sympathetic survivor. Adam Sinclair’s pretty bad as her dude, James C. Burns is even worse as the mansplainer. Watching Burns makes you appreciate how even some bad actors are at least not godawful at it. He’s fairly godawful.

Albright’s… not good. It’s a crap part but she’s not good.

Nothing’s good about Harvest, though the space CGI exteriors aren’t bad and Danny Cocke’s music could be worse. At least it’s not too derivative of the source material, whereas Dewey reuses lines from the real movies.

Bad editing from Jake Shaver, though it’s unclear if its his cutting or just Howdeshell’s footage. It seems more like the latter… if you forget the ineptitude of the fifteen second montage to show the characters passing forty-five seconds of present action.

It’s never any good, but the utter stupidity of the finish (and the real-time fails) make Harvest much worse than expected.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Benjamin Howdeshell; screenplay by Craig Dewey, based on characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; director of photography, Chris Saul; edited by Jake Shaver; music by Danny Cocke; production designer, Troy Spino; costume designer, David Tabbert; produced by Shawn Wallace; released by IGN.

Starring Agnes Albright (Mari), Jessica Clark (Hannah), Adam Sinclair (Alec), and James C. Burns (Sturgis).


Smiling Woman (2019, Alex Magaña)

Smiling Woman runs just under three minutes, which is too short. It needs at least another minute; frustratingly, the material’s already there, the film rushes through it. The establishing shots and the point of view shots from lead Ariel Fullinwider are too quick. Even though they're quick and don't invite scrutiny, they seem sped up. Smiling is in a hurry and it doesn't need to be.

Writer-director-producer-editor-cinematographer Magaña is good at almost everything the short tries. Magaña’s composition is good, the lighting is excellent, he directs Fullinwider well. The problem is entirely with the hurried pace and the abbreviated feel to the runtime.

Fullinwider is alone at a train station, waiting. All of a sudden she sees a creepy, smiling woman (Merlynda Sol) on the opposite platform. Then Sol vanishes when Fullinwider looks away. Then Fullinwider starts getting texts from an unknown source—it's so strange how, as technology advances, so do malevolent supernatural beings’ ability to manipulate it… if only boomers were as good with tech as ghosts. Eventually Fullinwider runs away, with Magaña fast forwarding a bit from the initially real-time pace.

Fullinwider’s good. She can handle the pace. Sol’s creepy but not annoyingly so. You never get too much Smiling Woman in Smiling Woman. The short needs to take its time, even if it's just for a good jump scare.

Magaña’s use of music—licensed stock stuff—is excellent but the music itself lacks personality. It's competent, generic scary music. Combined with the too short run time, the music turns Smiling into a great proof of concept for a commercial or something. Magaña’s enforced brevity tries to solve problems the short doesn't have.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written, produced, directed, edited, and photographed by Alex Magaña.

Starring Ariel Fullinwider (commuter) and Merlynda Sol (smiling woman).


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