Recommended

Canceled (2019, Jimmy Caputo)

Canceled has a great sense of humor. It ends on a knowing smile but then the end credits have a few knowing big laughs. It’s about five minutes of action, real-time, as two friends (Laura Sacchetti and Maria Scenna) try to console a third (Katrina Rossi) over the loss of her favorite TV show. The first minute pretends the consoling is necessary because of a boyfriend and it switches gears at just the right time. Again, great sense of humor. And director Caputo’s script has a better sense of timing than the short itself, which is frustrating.

Some jokes don’t work (Jeremy Gaipo’s recurring boyfriend gag is a fail), some performances don’t work (Scenna’s bored, apathetic friend seems less like a performance and more like Scenna’s unwilling to exert any acting effort), but thanks to Rossi and also Sacchetti (who’s resilient, she works through the moment not exactly working, not giving up until it does), Canceled works. Also, obviously, Caputo’s script and about half his direction. Whenever Scenna’s onscreen, it’s like time stops—partially because Scenna’s an energy vampire, partially because Caputo’s shot isn’t particularly interesting. He’s got fine composition when the actors are making it work, not when they don’t. Because Canceled’s an actors’ short. It’s a showcase for Rossi. And a good one.

Technically, it’s decent. Cinematographer Max Goldberg’s fine as long as he’s not trying to match lighting between shots. It never works. Some of it’s Justin Wayne’s editing, which is more enthusiastic than it ought to be. Not overconfident exactly, just… the cuts rarely go smooth. Though he does really well cutting a zoom here and there. Like, startlingly well.

It’s a funny short and a strong showcase for Rossi and Caputo’s writing. The successful material overshadows the problems, even the ones you worry about (like Scenna).

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jimmy Caputo; director of photography, Max Goldberg; edited by Justin Wayne; music by Tony Francis Rainone; produced by Caputo, Goldberg, and Wayne.

Starring Katrina Rossi (Molly), Laura Sacchetti (Julia), Maria Scenna (Sadie), and Jeremy Gaipo (Brian).


The Farm (1938, Humphrey Jennings)

For some reason, The Farm completely ditches what had been a very good sense of humor for the last minute or two. It runs twelve minutes. Losing the humor’s kind of rough, especially since there’s nothing to replace it, just the end of the short. It’s like Farm starts winding down too soon, never really getting around to the point.

The short’s this lovely color look at life on the farm. But the first half is the animals’ lives on the farm, not really the people. They get to the people, but they’re nowhere near as interesting as adorable sheep and piglets and cows and whatever. Director Jennings has a wonderful sense of timing. He knows exactly how long to hold the shot, which he’s also composed rather well. Jennings’s profile shots of the animals are awesome. They’re expository but never pragmatic. They’re patient. Jennings gives the audience time to digest what they see, even if the narration always moves too fast to catch the actual day’s lesson of “What’s Life Like on a British Farm.” And, oh, let’s be proud of our farmers as they feed us—there’s no sense of the farmer in the rugged American individualist sense, which is interesting—and also lets not think about the war. Don’t mention the war.

The weirdest thing about the war comment, which is a real thing in The Farm, look at this tranquility; it’s all forgotten now, let's hear no more about the war—the weirdest thing about it is how the comment comes in the first part, the cute animals we’re going to kill and eat part. The second part, the wheat harvest, is six months later. And there’s no mention of the war in it, even though presumably some time has passed. So the war comment is just this narration flourish. It’s very weird.

The Farm’s pretty—the color is gorgeous—and short enough it’s never boring; so a fairly interesting look into 1938 British farming. The direction’s better in the first half than the second half, in terms of composition. Jennings does better with the piglets playing than the afternoon tea break, even though it’s a trip to see the women come out with a picnic—every work day, according to the film—and serve their men tea and crackers. You’d think the narration would be funny about it—given how the jokes in the first half are Groucho Marx-y—but no. Not funny. Still a good short, beautifully photographed, just… not as funny as it clearly could’ve been.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Humphrey Jennings; produced by Adrian Klein; released by Dufay-Chromex Limited.


Peter’s To-Do List (2019, Jon Watts)

Peter's To-Do List is some next level lazy. It’s an “all-new” short film included on the Spider-Man: Far From Home home video releases. It’s actually just a montage mostly cut from the movie; better yet, the footage also appears in the deleted scenes section of the disc. There are no opening titles, no end credits, nothing new.

But it’s a good montage. It’s not like it’s at all bad, it’s well-made, It’s funny, it moves well. It’s just not “all-new.”

And it’s not particularly essential. Or even inessential. The important stuff from List do appear in the movie proper, so it’s just like… why. Well, I get why—Sony has a long history of aggrandizing deleted scenes to create special features (including extended versions of the movie made without filmmaker involvement, just reinserting deleted scenes).

Where To-Do List is… potentially interesting is in its positioning and promotion. “All-New Short Film” is a claim and a promise. To-Do List fails the claim but maybe not the promise. It’s Tom Holland being adorable as he goes around trying to get ready for the Far From Home part of the movie. He’s got a list of errands to run, culminating in taking down a bunch of gangsters. That sequence is rather good—and it’s impressive to see how, even in under four minutes, Holland and the filmmakers are able to maintain this consistent tone between Holland’s mundane tasks and his technologically accelerated fisticuffs with bad guys.

Tack on some titles, some credits (which would be difficult, I imagine, because then they might owe residuals), To-Do List would almost be “all-new.” With the right titles and credits anyway.

It’s even lazier than the old “Marvel One-Shots,” which was a series of short home video exclusives mostly made out of cut scenes and Clark Gregg shooting inserts. That series eventually got better. But I don’t think even the laziest one was as lazy as To-Do List.

I mean, technically it’s Recommended but only because it’s an incomplete. Hell, throw on a teaser for the rest of the movie and it’s basically a concept trailer. Instead, it’s a short mid-quel (defined by Petrana Radulovic as “side adventures taking place during the events of the original film”), just made out of cut footage….

So lazy.

But an amusing three and a half minutes.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Watts; screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Matthew J. Lloyd; edited by Dan Lebental and Leigh Folsom Boyd; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Claude Paré; produced by Amy Pascal and Kevin Feige; released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Starring Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Jacob Batalon (Ned), and Hemky Madera (Delmar).


The Bells of Cockaigne (1953, James Sheldon)

The Bells at Cockaigne plays it very safe. It’s an inspirational “play for television” about lovable old Irishman in the U.S. Gene Lockhart daydreaming about winning an apparently still legal in 1953 numbers racket the newspapers run. Lockhart’s going to use the money to go home to Ireland and his little village one last time.

Lockhart sounds like he’s doing an ad read for a leprechaun. He really goes crazy with the accent. It’s not good, but it’s also not offensively bad. It’s a tolerable bad accent.

Now, Lockhart’s top-billed but the Bells is actually all about young kid (kid meaning late teens, maybe early twenties) James Dean who’s got a sick baby daughter and no money. He and wife Donalee Marans need a miracle but they’re not getting any so Dean’s going to play poker with his coworkers after they get paid. Oh, right, it’s payday. Vaughn Taylor’s the paymaster. He talks to Lockhart a lot.

It’s all very predictable and very positive. There’s nothing to it. Except Dean. Dean’s performance has these transcendent moments, where for a minute it’s not obviously a nonsense bit of positivity to play to a Christian nation in 1953. Where it’s actually Dean playing this part. Young, naive, out of his depth. Bells finds some honesty, thanks to Dean, when it’s not even looking for it.

Lockhart’s fine. Taylor’s not as good as Lockhart but only bad a couple times. Marans isn’t good. You really don’t watch this one and think the director did very much to help his actors with their performances. For Marans, it matters. Probably for Taylor too. Not Lockhart. Definitely not Dean. Watching Dean at the poker game, where he’s got the nervous active style going opposite all the comparatively motionless stiffs… it’s something.

The Bells of Cockaigne succeeds, despite having no ambitions at such a thing, and it’s all thanks to Dean. And it not being particularly bad in any way.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by James Sheldon; written by George Lowther; “Armstrong Circle Theatre” sponsored by Armstrong World Industries; music by Harold Levey; produced by Hudson Faucett; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Gene Lockhart (Pat), Vaughn Taylor (Jonesy), James Dean (Joey Frasier), Donalee Marans (Margie Frasier), John Dennis (Rivnock), and Karl Lukas (Kreuger).


Battle at Big Rock (2019, Colin Trevorrow)

Battle at Big Rock is a reminder the Jurassic Park Franchise Part 2 isn’t over yet. It’s a suspenseful nine minutes where director Trevorrow puts the preserving lead characters in danger—a family, of course—culminating in an allosaurus about to eat a baby. There’s also the precocious kid Melody Hurd, who’s a caricature but it doesn’t matter because Hurd’s so good, which is kind of the whole thing with Big Rock. It’s marketing, but it’s well-executed marketing. It’s the promise of R-rated danger with at most PG-13 ratings. It lionizes parents to the point they should be empowered enough to bring the whole family to the next movie because of its positive messages. And it’s not like dinosaurs are real, they’re not going to eat a baby out of its crib. We can just pretend.

And it does a great job of it. Dad André Holland and Mom Natalie Martinez are perfectly good movie parents for a terrifying short about dinosaurs getting up higher than they’re supposed to be (two years since Holland and Martinez Brady Bunched, presumably because of dead spouses)—oh, it’s like A Quiet Place. Oh. That’s dumb.

Whatever. Both Holland and Martinez are fine. Once Trevorrow reassures they’re not going to be running scenes without dinosaurs too long.

Things get scary, they get desperate, then they get silly. And all of a sudden, you get an imagine of the next Jurassic World movie and you wonder if somehow Universal is trying to make itself pretty for Disney.

But it’s all well-executed. Larry Fong’s photography, Stephen M. Rickert Jr.’s editing, it feels like Jurassic Park enough. Like a good Jurassic Park commercial. Amie Doherty’s “just pretend I’m John Williams” music is good too. It’s like homage; soullessly corporate homage but… whatever, it’s nine minutes. If the ending didn’t cheap out it’d be actually good. As is… it’s not bad.

So it’s technically, if unenthusiastically,

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Colin Trevorrow; screenplay by Emily Carmichael and Trevorrow, based on a novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Larry Fong; edited by Stephen M. Rickert Jr.; music by Amie Doherty; production designer, Tom Conroy; produced by Frank Marshall and Patrick Crowley; aired by FX.

Starring André Holland (Dennis), Natalie Martinez (Mariana), Melody Hurd (Kadasha), and Pierson Salvador (Mateo).


The Flying Fish (2019, Murat Sayginer)

It’s a little hard to describe The Flying Fish. At least without describing it in relation to other things. It’s what happens when Dr. Manhattan leaves, it’s a Boris Vallejo sexy robot painting turned into a movie, it’s like if early nineties POV-Ray renders looked real, it’s… It’s often breathtaking. Fish is all CG, with different “scenes” connected through music, editing, and—occasionally—a luminescent flying fish.

Director, animator, editor, contributing composer Sayginer has some recurring motifs. Third eyes, pyramids, Garden of Eden, Jesus, Venus—she gets Terminator arms, it’s awesome—skeletons, Greco-Roman stuff (gods, statues, architecture), and probably some other stuff. The film opens with these rounded stones “sculpting.” Their material is this whirl of small flying mirrors (it’s probably necessary to know how 3D modeling works, at least in the basics, to appreciate Sayginer’s abilities, but it adds a nice layer—there’s some really impressive work in Fish). Back to the stones. They sculpt this head, the head goes on to somewhere else, then turns into a constellation, then there’s something with the third eye, then Dr. Manhattan shows up. It’s a lot of imagery, impressively executed.

It’s a shame: CG artists do these amazing, wacky creations then go on to be in charge of Captain America’s belt buckle consistency and what not. “I loved in your reel when you had the space aliens looking at the Jesus statue, do you think you can make sure Iron Man’s left buttcheek armor stays consistent throughout the scene?”

These folks are not getting to go all out.

Flying Fish is solidly all out. There are the occasional “eh” moments, but it’s not like they’re not rendered well. I’m thinking of the tank, which is impressive, but doesn’t fit. Especially not when it could’ve been tied into the rather successful White male soldiers saluting a headless businessman in front of a pyramid in the Middle East; behind the businessman is a field of caskets.

Usually any “eh” is related to the people. Sayginer doesn’t render many, but they never work out. Their movement too. He’s got an amazing dancer though and you want to watch them do a whole set, so clearly he’s got the movement down… but not in the other scenes. I think it also stands out because CGing humans is the last hurdle and going for it doesn’t always seem prudent. Especially not when you’ve got so much other good stuff going on.

Flying Fish runs a fast twenty minutes and is rather cool. Especially if you haven’t seen a POV-Ray render since 1995. Though it does make you wish someone had hired Sayginer in time to make the CG in Wonder Woman look better. He does Greco-Roman sky fighting and well.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Murat Sayginer; music by Sayginer, Jochen Mader, and Onur Tarcin.


The Laboratory of Fear (1971, Patrice Leconte)

The Laboratory of Fear is all about expectation. For the short’s eleven minutes, writer and director Leconte wants the audience to expect something. Lots of foreshadowing. Some of it matters, some of it is red herring.

The short opens very documentary-like, with a voice over explaining the modern (for 1971) laboratory. The lab’s so hip they’ve even got a woman scientist (Marianne di Vettimo); better yet, she’s actually good at her job (just ask any of the fellows, says the narrator). Cue opening titles, which end with a disclaimer: don’t expect too much scientific accuracy. So why open with the documentary style? To control the audience’s expectations.

There’s no way to predict, from that opening tag, Fear is actually going to be about lovesick custodian Michel Such going from annoying crush to possibly dangerous stalker. di Vettimo, however, doesn’t seem to notice his escalation. She doesn’t know she’s in the Laboratory of Fear, she just thinks she’s at work, trying to make some silver iodine and getting messed up because Such needs constant attention from her. He even tries to show off for her, sticking his hand in various kinds of dangerous chemicals. Presumably the actor didn’t have to do it, but who knows… di Vettimo is manipulating the spilled mercury by hand without a second thought (because 1971).

The short seems to be a race—will di Vettimo take notice of Such’s possible threat before Such escalates to the point of being dangerous? But the race is yet another of Leconte’s manipulations. The punchline, which is excellent, is as unpredictable as the setup. Though Leconte has been building to the punchline since after the opening titles; should it have been expected? Probably not. Not even if one is familiar with di Vettimo’s experiments, since Fear’s not about the hard science.

Good creeper performance from Such. Decent one from di Vettimo, who doesn’t really get anything to do. Leconte’s direction is fine, save the occasional visual flourishes. They’re to play with expectation too, of course.

Fear’s a competently executed narrative with a nice kicker.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Patrice Leconte; director of photography, Jean Gonnett; edited by Marguerite Renoir; produced by Pierre Braunberger for Les Films de la Pléiade.

Starring Marianne di Vettimo (Clara) and Michel Such (Antoine)


Baghead (2017, Alberto Corredor)

Baghead ends up feeling a little exploitation-y, even though it’s rather classy. Great production design from Marie Boon—it takes place in a dank pub and then a danker pub cellar—and great photography from John Wade. Hollie Buhagiar’s music is classy too. Corredor isn’t a sensational director (at all)–meaning sensational in the sensationalistic way, not as a dig; his composition is good–and a fantastic Julian Seagar keeps everything even acting-wise.

The short opens with a guy whimpering and getting punched in the face, repeatedly. The shot’s offered without explanation or context and until the opening titles, what seems most important is the guy can’t even get tears out. Crocodile tears. Then, after the opening titles, Oliver Walker shows up, going into the aforementioned dank pub and meeting the aforementioned Seagar. Seagar wants to go home but Walker’s heard he keeps a witch in the basement who can do seances. Seagar warns Walker to go home, warns him he’ll find no solace in the experience, but Walker insists.

Then there’s the scary introduction to the witch (who’s got a bag over her head, hence the title), which Corredor and the crew handle quite well. What doesn’t help is all the bad will towards Walker, who’s not good. He gets better, once the plot twist comes out, but it’s a somewhat problematic better (and a somewhat problematic plot twist). But following that opening, where you’re mostly just wondering if Brett Kavanaugh would even get out real tears if someone repeated struck him in the face? Walker’s just not good enough. Seagar makes up for a lot of it, but Walker’s plum annoying.

And then there’s the twist and all of a sudden, even though Walker’s still a worm, he’s a different kind of worm. There’re some logic holes—like how he’s the first person to surprise Seagar with his specific seance request (is Seagar new? He doesn’t seem new). But it works. The short’s been patient, it turns out; solid production while waiting for the script to do its thing.

The plot twist isn’t not predictable—I was hoping for a similar twist, though less problematic—but it’s effectively done. And Walker’s sufficiently engaging by the end.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Alberto Corredor; written by Lorcan Reilly; director of photography, John Wate; music by Hollie Buhagiar; production designer, Marie Boon; released by Shorts TV.

Starring Oliver Walker (Kevin), Natalie Oliver (Lisa), Tama Phethean (Mike), and Julian Seager (barman).


The Song of Styrene (1959, Alain Resnais)

The Song of Styrene is gorgeous. The way director Resnais showcases the plastic press-styrene becomes plastic through chemical processes (Song of is an industrial promotional film)—it’s a solitary object, removed from the factory setting and just amazing and new looking. Even when something’s weathered, like the industrial plants, it all looks new. Very futuristic, very clean. When there’s the eventual shots of coal, it’s stunning how much it contrasts with the very clean, very futuristic look of everything else. Coal is elemental, even as the narrator talks about its mysterious origins (Song is from 1959).

You’d think someone might notice how the story of a created plastic whatever going backwards to being coal gas is visibly clean to dirty; there’s not a “look how this dirty rock turns into something beautiful” sentiment either. Song has narration. A lot of narration and narrator Pierre Dux goes from being excited about plastic being pressed to excited by the power of fossil fuels. Song is a very obvious promotion, albeit a visually impressive one.

It’s not an intellectually impressive one. Not even for 1959. Maybe it’s Dux’s narration or Pierre Barbaud’s music. Until the fossil fuel blathering starts, the Barbaud’s music is Song’s biggest problem. It doesn’t not match Resnais, cinematographer Sacha Vierny, and editor Claudine Merlin’s visual charting of an industrial plant, it just doesn’t add anything to the visuals. Resnais, Vierny, and Merlin have it covered. The music and narration are just noise, disingenuous noise.

During that visual survey of plants, tracking the pipes and so on, Song hits its peak, which is something given how cool the opening with the plastics gets. But Song tells the story backwards, which Resnais doesn’t—it’s not like visual sequences play in reverse—and it hurts the potential. For a 1959 energy company promotional video about the wonders of fossil fuel and how it makes everything clean and modern… Song’s pretty good. The visuals engage enough the narration and intent don’t really matter. But it doesn’t transcend that intent. The attention Resnais places on the solitary plastic press doesn’t carry over to the industrial plants; such a feat would be outside the technological capabilities of a 1959 promotional short. But it’s also what Song would need to be anything more. Resnais, Vierny, and Merlin letting loose instead of dancing in place, the script, narration, and music moving the film along instead of the actual filmmaking.

And opening with a Victor Hugo quote about the human condition is, in the end, a little much.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Alain Resnais; written by Raymond Queneau; director of photography, Sacha Vierny; edited by Claudine Merlin and Resnais; music by Pierre Barbaud; produced by Pierre Braunberger; released by Les Films de la Pléiade.

Narrated by Pierre Dux.


Crystal Lake (2016, Jennifer Reeder)

Crystal Lake opens with lead Marcela Okeke packing a suitcase; based on some of what she packs–Aliens and Purple Rain on VHS, the LPs to Tea for the Tillerman and the Muppet Movie soundtrack—the short immediately establishes Okeke as one of the cooler people to ever exist. And then comes the final item—a broken skateboard. Okeke is going to live with relatives because, we soon find out, her father is dying. We also find out her mom died some years before—when Okeke’s character was seven (she’s a teenager now)—and Okeke’s married older sister booted her out. So not a great situation for Okeke.

And not a soft-landing spot either. Her older cousin, Sebastian Summers, is presented a little mysterious and does indeed seem to have some stuff going on but it’s just an insert. Same-ish aged, cool cousin Shea Vaughan-Gabor takes a while to size Okeke up and takes a tough (but real) love approach. But Vaughan-Gabor doesn’t get even the hint of a subplot. She’s got some personality (through wardrobe as well; both Okeke and Vaughan-Gabor wear hijab, but Vaughan-Gabor with a lot of bling). But no story. Other than the tough (but real) love personality trait. It’s not even clear why Vaughan-Gabor is living with Summers, who’s just another cousin.

Okeke’s got this insert subplot about intentional self-preservation, which is really cool but it’s just an insert. As a director, even with the inserts, Reeder has every good idea. Crystal Lake is phenomenally well-made. As a writer, Reeder’s got good intentions for her scenes, but they often sputter out once the exposition gets unnaturally heavy. It doesn’t help neither Okeke or Vaughan-Gabor can do the exposition. There are plenty of natural moments in Lake but zero hint of them—or even memory of them—when there’s exposition. And drama. Reeder, writing, has a problem with the dramatic turns. They’re peculiar disconnects because the filmmaking never wavers; it’s great during the exposition, it’s great during the drama, it’s great during the action, it’s great during the natural moments. Just the writing (and then the acting) go wobbly.

Vaughan-Gabor’s the most impressive performance in the film (she and Okeke are the only two contenders really; Summers’s insert doesn’t have him doing much acting), which is great—when it clicks, it clicks—but the short ends feeling lopsided. After the set up, Okeke becomes second (and even temporarily third) fiddle. It’s still her story, Reeder just doesn’t stick with her to tell it.

Even with wonky exposition dumps, lopsided pacing, and unexplored inserts, Crystal Lake is still more than worth a look. Reeder’s direction is outstanding, the plot is good, the cast is good (often better than good).

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jennifer Reeder; director of photography, Christopher Rejano; edited by Mike Olenick; produced by Penelope Bartlett and Steven Hudosh for Forevering Films.

Starring Marcela Okeke (Ladan), Shea Vaughan-Gabor (Samiyah), Sebastian Summers (Samer), and Kristyn Zoe Wilkerson (Toni).


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