Short

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).


Familiar Strangers (2020, Murat Sayginer)

Once the technology gets better, something like Familiar Strangers is going to be disturbing as all hell. Director Sayginer has created a bunch of heads, using deep-fake technology to look like various famous celebrities (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Luke Evans are the most spot on), and the top row moves one way, the bottom row moves the other way and you’re just seeing these disembodied, familiar heads look out.

Some of them look at you and gently smile—everyone’s in a great mood and seeing approximately 250 idyllic looking people smile at you is a nice feeling. Do you forget they’re computer generated? No, because the level of realism isn’t quite there yet. It’s movie stars rendered as happy video game characters. It’s not real. Yet.

Even stranger than the sensation of the “people” looking at you is the sensation of them not. Some of the heads don’t look out at the viewer, they look out at something else. So you’re waiting for the computer-generated Keanu Reeves to look at you and he doesn’t (I actually can’t remember this one for sure; Strangers has a high rewatch value if you’re trying to find you’re favorites; I forgot the second time through to see all the Chrises together). But you feel bad if you don’t get the “eye contact” and the smile.

Perfect musical accompaniment from Bach. I hope Sayginer keeps going with this kind of exploration; heck, I hope he comes back to it once artificial face generation is further along. Not being able to exactly recognize the stars would be better.

Also, a lot of them look just like Mackenzie Astin, which is very odd and seems to say more about Astin (and me for recognizing him in all these CGI faces) than anything Sayginer’s done. Like, I don’t think Mackenzie Astin made the cut for model inclusion here. He’s just apparently got the face Sayginer’s computer wanted to render.

Open the pod bay doors and so on.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Murat Sayginer.


A Terrible Night (1896, Georges Méliès)

A Terrible Night had me exclaiming, “Holy shit,” when the giant bug appeared. Or when it started moving. I’m not sure if it’s always in the shot. I’m resisting the urge to go and check.

The short is short—a minute—and one of director Méliès single shot films. He appears in the film as well, a fellow with a distinct proboscis settling in for the night. Once he’s got himself tucked in, a gigantic bug starts crawling up the bed and then onto the wall. Méliès’s sleeper is prepared with a flyswatter of sorts, but then it turns out there might be other bugs around.

Night captures the very human terror of a bug interrupting sleep, exaggerating it with the bug’s size; the special effects are limited—you’re so busy watching Méliès scramble to get the flyswatter, the bug gets from bed to wall almost instantaneously—but the simplicity of the bug’s movement makes it all the worse. It’s very hard not to ascribe intention to the bug and its movement, a certain disturbing malice.

Méliès’s instinct with the makeup—the nose is obviously fake—is good too. He’s concentrating the viewer’s attention throughout the frame, both with moving and non-moving parts. It’s very cool stuff.

The only thing wrong with Terrible Night is it isn’t long enough. Méliès does such fine work in the first minute, you’d love to see what he could come up with in a second one.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Georges Méliès; released by Star-Film.


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.

Stryker’s War (1980, Josh Becker)

Stryker’s War runs just over forty-five minutes. The first fifteen to twenty minutes are all about how twenty-two year-old lead Bruce Campbell can both do anything and make everything feel legit. The film opens in Vietnam (as shot in East Michigan) with Campbell taking his squad out on a mission after being promoted to lieutenant. It shouldn’t work at all. But it does, because Campbell. When Campbell gets wounded and shipped back home where he lives in a remote cabin trying to drink himself to death, it also works. Director Becker has a nice style with the actors, so when Campbell’s bantering with the kindly grocery store owner—played by Campbell’s dad, Charlie—it maintains a certain bit of seriousness, but also a lot of appreciation for the scene being able to work. War never does victory laps, but it’s full of confidence in itself (knowingly thanks to Campbell).

Turns out the kindly grocery store owner—who delivers microwave dinners and liquor to Campbell—has a pretty granddaughter who just might give Campbell the will to live. When she shows up–played by Cheryl Guttridge—the short leans heavy on the absurd; it’s love at first sight, complete with accompanying, sweeping melodramatic music and longing gazes from the lovebirds. She’ll be back the next day with more food for Campbell, giving him an excuse to shave and get dressed up.

Concurrent to Campbell’s burgeoning romance are radio reports of Manson Family-style killings in the Detroit area. They’ll be important in a bit, but first the short’s got to introduce Campbell’s Marine buddies—Scott Spiegel, David M. Goodman, and Don Campbell. None of them are good, occasionally they’re kind of bad, but Becker directs their scenes so well it doesn’t matter. That extended suspension of disbelief he’s set up with the romance carries over to the Marines being on a weekend pass from Japan to… East Michigan. They’re looking for something to do so they decide to visit Campbell in his remote cabin. They find him waiting for Guttridge, who hasn’t shown up, so like any red-blooded American males they get really drunk at nine in the morning and go outside to shoot things.

That night, when Campbell’s dog goes missing and they go out looking for him, they discover the Manson-esque cult is in the nearby woods and they’ve got Guttridge.

Sam Raimi plays the cult leader.

The last fifteen or so minutes of War is Campbell and his pals taking on the cult in the woods, set to familiar music borrowed from other films. There’s some great Bernard Herrmann in there for Campbell and Raimi—the film pairs off the good guys and the bad guys—and I wish I could recall the main chase theme for the rest of them. There’s a lot of running through the woods, some great action gore money shots, and an excellent pace.

War doesn’t aim too high—it’s ever conscious of its limitations—but it’s a great showcase for Campbell and a decent one for Becker. Becker seems like he’d rather get more stylized with the direction but doesn’t have the opportunity, but every once in a while there’s an excellent, complex shot.

It’s very impressive. Especially whoever cut all the music together; the editing’s quite good, but the music editing is outstanding.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Josh Becker; produced by Bruce Campbell and Becker.

Starring Bruce Campbell (Stryker), Scott Spiegel (Marine #1), David M. Goodman (Marine #2), Don Campbell (Marine #3), Cheryl Guttridge (Sally), Charlie Campbell (Otis), and Sam Raimi (Head Crazy).


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).


Pierre Paolo (1998, Rachel Amodeo)

Pierre Paolo is a five minute short, set in a seaside Italian town. It opens with a simple, handwritten title card, then there’s a montage of the town set to classical music. The action rests on an old woman (Filomena Paletta) sitting on some stairs. Text appears across the bottom of the frame, explaining she’s thinking about her husband, the titular Pierre Paolo. When he appears, he’s a little boy on the beach, playing with a little girl (presumably the old woman on the stairs).

The action cuts to a younger version of the woman (director Amodeo) near the same, or similar stairs, in the town.

While the short raises some unaddressed questions—i.e. does it matter if the footage was all shot contemporaneously—the young boy is played by Pierre Paolo Pegnataro, the young girl by Govanna Saboureault, so is it old found footage or did Amodeo sort of create this nostalgia piece—the questions don’t have any affect on the effectiveness of the short. There are some limitations from the medium; clearly shot on film, it appears to be edited on video with that medium’s too static pauses. But it’s extremely well-edited, the music fits just right, and Amodeo’s composition is excellent.

It’s even better if she did go and stage kids playing on the beach in the thirties or forties or whatever. Those flashback sequences are lovely.

Pierre Paolo has its issues, but they’re from the video (the onscreen text is that always somewhat ugly nineties video editor generated text); Amodeo’s creative impulse is nicely executed. It’s a touching memory visualized. Or imagined. It’s nice work.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Rachel Amodeo.

Starring Pierre Paolo Pegnataro (Boy), Govanna Saboureault (Girl), Rachel Amodeo (Woman), and Filomena Paletta (Old Woman).


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