Short

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).


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).


Gowanus, Brooklyn (2004, Ryan Fleck)

Gowanus, Brooklyn is quite possibly the best you could hope for early aughts digital video short. Director Fleck and cinematographer Chris Scarafile know the limitations of the medium. Some of those limitations are seemingly self-imposed—if a scene isn’t obviously handheld, it’s because Scarafile was standing really still that shot. Since the short is so traditional—it’s basically a legit after-school special, like something “Sesame Street Junior High” would do—only with a complicated ending.

Tween Shareeka Epps catches her coach and something or other teacher Matt Kerr smoking crack in the girls locker room after he’s closed up for the night. She gets a ride home and a burger and fries out of it. Director Fleck and co-writer (and producer and editor) Anna Boden take a hands off approach to a lot of the story. It’s one of those “oh, the answer’s from a better world” moments. Only they don’t end on that positive sentiment, they go about fifty percent on it just so Epps never seems in danger and use it all the time. All the time. There’s also a message in the short about gentrification and it’s very hard not to see it as a perspective on Epps and not from her. The short is very much the story of this girl and this weird time in her life but it’s not the girl’s story. Gowanus examines Epps. It describes her, instead of her informing it. The narrative distance is inverted and leveraging the heck out of 2004 digital video verisimilitude; the short never exploits Epps—going out of its way to never do so (it’s so safe, so safe—but in a good way)—but sometimes it seems like the scenes are constructed more for that purpose than ever to do actual character development. Gowanus is comfortable throwing things in Epps’s way and watching her get through them… but refusing to examine her reaction to them. Everything in the short is tailored around Epps’s performance, which is great—she’s excellent—but it’s also a bit too safe. Fleck’s not willing to try anything. He never wants it to look too video, just video enough.

Kerr’s good as the teacher. Fleck’s not willing to take any chances with him either. Everything’s so controlled. And it’s masterfully executed. I’m reluctantly enthusiastic about Gowanus, Brooklyn because it’s got such a strange feel to it: the hyper reality of the video, the pseudo-intrusive nature of the narrative distance. It’s as perfectly made a short 2004 digital video could a 2004 digital video short be, positive proof a short video could hold up for twenty minutes.

I’m so glad it didn’t catch on.

But Fleck knows how to get it to work. Epps, Kerr, everyone; they give serious performances, even when the direction’s framed around not showcasing that performance because video is so flat. Boden knows when to cut away from that flat too; the cuts seem based on when the lack of depth becomes distracting. Because you’re usually wondering if it just looked better, how much better would it be. Fleck’s ambitiously strict to reliable techniques with no interest in exploring. Gowanus is very constrained.

Which just makes Epps’s performance more impressive. Her performance is enthusiastically ambitious while the short itself isn’t.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Ryan Fleck; written by Anna Boden and Fleck; director of photography, Chris Scarafile; edited by Boden; music by Ronit Kirchman; produced by Boden for Gowanus Projections.

Starring Shareeka Epps (Drey), Matt Kerr (teacher), Karen Chilton (mother), Timothy Nesbith (brother), and Regina Milligan (friend).


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).


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 Most Insane Amusement Park Ever (2013, Mark Robertson)

The Most Insane Amusement Park Ever is about a New Jersey amusement park called Action Park, which opened in the late seventies and ran for twenty dangerous years—there were apparently six deaths and countless injuries (enabled by the owner running some kind of insurance scheme). The video has a mix of original commercials, interviews, and some recreations. Not sure where the recreations were shot (the park reopened under a different name, with most of the original rides gone, and an emphasis on not maiming customers).

Is it interesting? Not really, no. The filmmakers seemingly picked most of their interviewees for availability, not having any actual salient information about the park. For instance, not a single person interviewed seems to have ever been injured in the park, which is great for them and all, but they've got a particular kind of bias. They braved the park and survived.

Unlike the people who died.

It's unclear if they count the drownings in the six deaths, because when they're interviewing the current owner (and son of original owner), he makes it sound like there were a lot of drownings.

Concerning since he was a lifeguard at the time at the park.

Though apparently the park was just a good place for teenagers to get drunk and bully each other without any adults caring. Because teenagers ran all the rides, even though they weren't old enough.

Because cool. It made men out of all of them. Men who don't think there's anything wrong with rules and laws in place to prevent people from dying at amusement parks. Even skipping all the toxic masculinity stuff and even the fact it turns out to be a bad promotional video for the reopened park… there's also the incurious nature of the filmmakers. They got a former park manager on the phone; he and a law professor provide the more negative side of the park, but everyone else is a cheerleader for it. Yet, again, none of these people had any tragedies. So why not find someone who actually had a negative experience. Since those involved broken limbs and, you know, death.

Instead, there's the owner saying people need to get over themselves and embrace the nostalgia for getting drunk and spitting on people at the park.

It's a weird, limited, and draggy short.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Mark Robertson; written by Seth Porges; produced by Robertson and Porges; released by Dailymotion.


Alien: Containment (2019, Chris Reading)

For the first few minutes—say, three of the short’s nine minute runtime—it seems like Alien: Containment is going to work out. The acting is good. Gaia Weiss is a fine lead, Theo Barklem-Biggs is an okay freaking out guy (he’s in an Alien movie, someone’s got to freak out), but Sharon Duncan-Brewster is fantastic as the Company scientist who knows more than she’s letting on. Even though the official plot description–Containment being an official “fan movie”—says there are four people, Adam Loxley is a red herring. He’s just there to throw everyone off the obvious plot twist.

That plot twist comes just after Barklem-Biggs has turned on the women in an unfortunate “might makes right” plot development. I had already been thinking about how all the dated technology in the Alien future looked kind of silly given the short is done with professional CGI and whatnot. But director Reading’s script is pre-1979 Alien dated; Barklem-Biggs gets to be in control, once he wants to be, because he can be more violent to the women than they can be to him. And then when Weiss gets made at Duncan-Brewster about something and calls her a “bitch,” well… there are appropriate ways to homage the original films and then there are cheap ways. Reading goes with cheap and inconsequential.

By the last third, the short’s used up all of its goodwill. The beginning, before Barklem-Biggs gets violent, has a lot of potential; for a few precious minutes, Containment seems like a great setup for its cast and characters. Then Reading’s writing ruins everything. His composition is fine (though the last shot is way too much, especially given the nine minute runtime) and his crew is solid—Howard Mills’s photography and Simon Porter’s music in particular—but Containment goes nowhere. It’s a big “why bother” by the end, a sentiment even the short seems to have.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Chris Reading; screenplay by Reading, based on characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; director of photography, Howard Mills; music by Simon Porter; production designer, Arthur de Borman; produced by Patch Ward; released by IGN.

Starring Gaia Weiss (Ward), Theo Barklem-Biggs (Nass), and Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Albrecht).


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