Highly Recommended

Recorded Live (1975, S.S. Wilson)

Recorded Live is a student film. So director, writer, and animator Wilson’s flat composition gets some wide latitude. He’s got this silly slapstick score on a sound picture, with John Goodwin getting hired to work at an already strange-sounding TV studio only to arrive there and discover a sack of clothes instead of a boss. At that point, Live stops being–potentially–a slapstick about a weird TV studio and all of a sudden something else. Because it’s not that the boss (named W.H. O’Brien, which should’ve forecasted the stop motion) is a nudist, it’s because two reels of videotape has eaten him. But not his clothes.

The short starts getting pretty good at three minutes and then just gets better and better. It runs eight. Once the special effects start, while Goodwin is running around trying to save himself, Wilson’s plotting starts getting smarter and smarter. The reels of tape combine on the floor into a giant mess–Wilson’s definitely making this short for his seventies film school classmates, humor-wise–and it’s not until they have to start problem solving (in addition to listening and talking) they become dangerous. They’re a funny kind of dangerous before because it’s still a comedy, but then they get actually dangerous.

All because of how well Wilson plots the reveals and executes them through action with the stop motion animation. The short is this wonderful synthesis of inventive writing and special effects. Even after it gets really good, Wilson is able to up it even more.

Goodwin’s fine in the lead. His main line is “Hello,” as he explores the empty building. He handles the danger better than the comedy, which is quite a thing since he’s got so many effects shots to work in.

Recorded Live starts like a slight student film. A modern slapstick perhaps. Then all of a sudden it becomes this awesome horror thing. Wilson’s got his specific audience–people who think videotape is messy and hate erasing it when a magnet gets too close–but the phenomenal special effects make it transcend a target audience. The characterization of the videotape monsters or whatever, done through Wilson’s effects and the great sound (from Ben Burtt, so no shock great), is truly exceptional work.

Recorded Live is great.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written, directed, and animated by S.S. Wilson; music by George Winston; released by Pyramid Films.

Starring John Goodwin (Mr. Aaines).


The Window (2000, Jono Oliver)

The Window opens with a crowd on the street, looking up. There’s a title card, so it’s a good bet they’re all looking at a window. Pretty soon the cops show up–it’s set in Flatbush, Brooklyn–and ask what’s going on. Some people see Jesus up in the window, some people don’t. But it’s a big crowd; the people who see it are inspired (like senior Sarallen), other people are just hanging out. Responding cops Rosalyn Coleman and Marcuis Harris are divided too. Coleman doesn’t see anything, Harris kind of sees it. But they decide they need to do something, so they head up to the apartment (meeting Sarallen’s grandson, Chad Christopher Tucker, on the way–he doesn’t see it).

In the apartment there’s a similar divide. Husband Eric R. Moreland is just trying to enjoy his weekend, eat some lunch, watch a game. Wife Cheryl Monroe got home as the crowd was starting to gather and saw the Jesus too. So she’s calling up people from the church to come over–pastor Craig T. Williams is hilarious–while Moreland suffers losing his day.

Eventually Coleman decides the window’s coming out. Harris isn’t in complete agreement, but he’s fine with it. Meanwhile, a news crew has shown up and the window is on TV. And there are more cops, including Romi Dias who wants Coleman to hold off on taking out the window until her grandmother comes down to see it.

Writer and director Oliver keeps a relatively light tone and nimbly moves through the discussions of faith and, well, grime. Whenever the action isn’t on the street, where the film listens in on the crowd’s reactions (or just shows them), usually with a humorous bent (though everyone knows how much it means to Sarallen), Coleman’s the lead. And she’s a great lead. For most of The Window she operates with a quiet exasperation as she’s not only got to keep the variety of regular people in check, she’s also got partner Harris mildly aggravating the situation, not to mention Dias loudly aggravating it.

Besides Coleman, also exasperated husband Moreland gets the most to do. The film often plays Coleman and Moreland off one another, something the actors and Oliver handle beautifully. Oliver has this single shot in the bathroom–Jesus is in the bathroom window–with the camera pointing away from the window and it’s full of people. Seven at one point. And the emphasis has to bounce all around.

Outside Coleman and Harris’s initial discussion, Oliver’s script doesn’t spend any time on the questions the window (and what people see in it) raise. It’s present throughout, but the action is too busy with the practicality. The cops want to break up the crowd, Coleman’s going the fastest route.

Everything’s good throughout–Michael Pearlman’s photography is phenomenal, great music from David Abir (who eventually takes the whole thing on his shoulders)–but it gets even better once Coleman (and Oliver) really start dealing with things. Without any exposition, just reaction. It’s all about Coleman’s performance. And Oliver’s direction.

The Window’s kind of gently spectacular. Or more, first it’s gentle and good, then it’s quietly spectacular.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Jono Oliver; director of photography, Michael Pearlman; edited by Daniel Carey; music by David Abir; production designer, Eric Oliver.

Starring Rosalyn Coleman (Officer Briggs), Marcuis Harris (Officer Turner), Eric R. Moreland (Lester), Cheryl Monroe (Lucy), Craig T. Williams (Brother Herbert), Virginia McKinzie (Sister Mary), Chad Christopher Tucker (Terrence), Robert Hatcher (Reverend Sinclair), Romi Dias (Officer Newman), Brian Cahill (Officer Doyle), and Sarallen (Mrs. Davis).


The Critic (1963, Ernest Pintoff)

At just about three minutes of “action,” The Critic is the perfect length. It opens with some abstract animation–black shapes dancing around variously colored backgrounds, as active (versus tranquil) classical music plays. The designs get more complex, but for the first thirty seconds (so fifteen percent of the action), Critic plays it straight. It’s some abstract animation short. Not too complicated, but lively.

And then Mel Brooks asks, “What the hell is this?”

And The Critic starts on its path to sublimity.

For a while, it’s just Brooks talking about the action on screen. Dot moving over here, dot moving over there. Some shapes getting jiggy.

Brooks’s character is a cranky, impatient old Russian guy and we’re hearing his thoughts. It’s perfectly fine. Brooks is funny, it’s not going to go on very long, it’s all good.

Only we’re not hearing his thoughts. Or, more, we are hearing his thoughts. But so are all the other people watching the short film with him.

He’s in a theater, talking out loud. That detail gives The Critic the extra oomph it needs and pushes it up and over. It’s awesome.

Brooks ad-libbed the whole thing too. Apparently, the filmmakers didn’t even show him the short before he recorded.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernest Pintoff; written by Mel Brooks; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Mel Brooks.


What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? (1983, Bill Melendez)

What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? is exceedingly intense. It doesn’t start intense, though it does start a little different. There’s this gradual shot–with Judy Munsen’s lovely score accompanying–moving through all the toys in Charlie Brown’s house before it gets to his bookshelf. The books with visible spines are heady classic novels; but Charlie Brown (Brad Kesten) is getting down his picture album. He’s got to put in some snapshots from his trip to France–Learned is direct sequel, time-wise not tone-wise, to the theatrical Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown–and Sally comes over to ask what he’s doing. So he tells her about the events of his trip after the movie.

His recounting starts as comedy. It’s Charlie Brown, Linus (Jeremy Schoenberg), Peppermint Patty (Victoria Vargas), Marcie (Michael Dockery), and Snoopy and Woodstock. Snoopy is driving because when it’s a bunch of eight year-olds without adult supervision, it’s best to let the beagle drive. Even if he does get into multiple accidents throughout the special. After Snoopy wrecks the car and gets into a fight with a flock of ducks, the kids have to rent another one. Good thing Marcie speaks French (she’s the only one who does).

Up to this point, Learned is well-produced–great animation, excellent direction from Melendez, that Munsen music, and a strong script from Charles M. Schulz–but nothing particularly special. Then the kids camp out for the night and Linus realizes they’re on the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach. He goes down to the beach and, through rotoscoping, “sees” the D-Day invasion. The rotoscoping colorizes the black and white footage with bold, bright colors, creating a wonderful tonal contrast between the Peanuts kids’ adventure and the history they’re encountering.

Once the other kids wake up, Linus tells them where they are and all about D-Day. They explore the area, culminating in a walk through the American cemetery, with an Eisenhower speech accompanying them. Learned got intense starting with Linus’s beach visions. The cemetery tour, which is visually magnificent, just ratchets it up even further.

There’s some more humor–really good physical gags–to calm things down. Then they get to Ypres, a World War I site, and Linus tells the other kids about it. The WWI sequence is much shorter–no rotoscoped footage–and initially seems like it won’t be as affecting as the D-Day sequences. Then Linus starts reciting John McCrae’s poem, *In Flanders Field*, with accompanying visuals, and it devastates. Munsen’s music plays a big part, effectiveness-wise.

Schulz wraps it up–before a gently comedic bookend–with some succinct profundity. It’s all very intense.

Great script, animation, direction, and music. Schoenberg is excellent with the lengthy expository monologues. The rest of the cast is good, they just don’t have the heavy lifting Schoenberg gets.

What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? is spectacular.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Bill Melendez; written by Charles M. Schulz; edited by Roger Donley and Chuck McCann; music by Judy Munsen; produced by Melendez and Lee Mendelson; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Jeremy Schoenberg (Linus van Pelt), Brad Kesten (Charlie Brown), Victoria Vargas (Peppermint Patty), Michael Dockery (Marcie), and Stacy Heather Tolkin (Sally Brown).


She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown (1980, Phil Roman)

She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown is all about Peppermint Patty (Patricia Patts). Charlie Brown (Arrin Skelley) has a couple appearances, but it’s just for the brand. Skate is all Peppermint Patty, Snoopy, Marcie (Casey Carlson), and Woodstock. Patty’s training for an ice skating competition. Snoopy’s her coach–and an accomplished skater himself–while Marcie and Woodstock offer various kinds of support. Sometimes rather consequentially.

What’s so striking about Skate, right off, is the ice skating. The attention to the animation, the way Roman directs the sequences, it’s a showcase for Peppermint Patty’s ice skating. And her eventual competitors. Roman and his animators excel at showing the accomplishments in the skating. Patty’s got a bunch of great, fast expressions as she goes through her routines. It’s lovely.

The story is fairly sparse. Patty has to wake Snoopy up to get him to coach, they get into a fight with some boy hockey players (it’s a weird, but rather successful scene), not much else. Not until Patty gets Marcie to make her the skating outfit, but she doesn’t give her any warning. They do it the day of the competition (or at least immediately preceding it in the present action) so it’s build-up to the finale, not a subplot.

Carlson’s hilarious as Marcie in Skate. She gets the best jokes. Snoopy gets a few visual gags–the first one is subtle and hilarious so it’d be hard to beat–while writer Charles M. Schulz gets the heftier material to Carlson in the dialogue. Though Marcie doesn’t get to have anything at the end. Snoopy’s gets a really good bit during the finale, as does Woodstock. And Patty’s skating. Marcie’s just with the mostly non-speaking Peanuts kids cheering Patty on. Skelley (and Charlie Brown) actually get the lines there, which are at best mediocre expository remarks. It’s kind of weird. More of that Charlie Brown branding.

But it’s just before Patty’s final skate so as long as it comes off, it’ll all work. And it does come off. Everything works just right–Ed Bogas and Judy Munsen’s music (and the Puccini aria), Roger Donley and Chuck McCann’s editing–the animating, Roman’s direction, Schulz’s plotting. She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown is outstanding; it’s meticulous and assured. Even when a moment shouldn’t work, it does thanks to the animation coming through or Carlson or Patts or just how fast Schulz moves things along.

And then there’s this perfect little end tag too.

Skate’s great.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Phil Roman; written by Charles M. Schulz; edited by Roger Donley and Chuck McCann; music by Ed Bogas and Judy Munsen; produced by Bill Melendez; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Patricia Patts (Peppermint Patty), Casey Carlson (Marcie), and Arrin Skelley (Charlie Brown).


Frankenstein (1910, J. Searle Dawley)

In its opening title card, Frankenstein warns it will be a liberal adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel. It’s only going to be sixteen minutes after all.

But Frankenstein hits most of the big events–it opens with Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) leaving for university, where he becomes obsessed with the insane idea of creating life. And so he does. Charles Ogle is the Monster. One of the film’s adaptation choices is to make the Monster as evil from the start. Sure Phillips is horrified by his deed and locks himself in his room to cry about it, but Ogle’s immediate reaction is to try to kill him.

Eventually Ogle tracks Phillips back home, where Phillips is finally ready to tie the knot with Mary Fuller. He’s gotten the create-life-by-throwing-a-couple-different-powders-in-a-cauldron bug out of his system–wild oats seeded–and he’s ready to settle down. But Ogle’s not letting him get away with it.

Frankenstein has no moving shots. No panning, no scanning. Director Dawley has his one shot and all the action plays out in it. He gets very creative–Ogle getting into the house at the end is particularly effective. Ogle is where Frankenstein comes to life; Phillips is a bit too histrionic. Not if he isn’t supposed to be the hero. If Frankenstein were just a little less forgiving of Phillips and let him get some comeuppance–or just acknowledge he deserves some–Phillips’s histrionics would be fine.

But he gets a pass and so they aren’t.

Ogle’s not the whole show–Searle does good work–but when Ogle arrives, there’s nothing else to Frankenstein. Everything is waiting for the next Monster sighting. Ogle’s demonic looking, with fur and exaggerated extremities. He does come out of a cauldron, after all, in a truly glorious reverse motion effect. Frankenstein has some great editing. Dawley knows how to create tension, both with effects shots and just Ogle shots.

Frankenstein is quite good. Dawley and Ogle create something particular, especially with the slightly weird, slightly technically ambitious finale. It’s one of Dawley’s most liberal adaptation moves but also perfect for the medium.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by J. Searle Dawley; screenplay by Dawley, based on the novel by Mary Shelley; produced by Thomas A. Edison; released by Edison Manufacturing Company.

Starring Augustus Phillips (Frankenstein), Mary Fuller (Elizabeth), and Charles Ogle (The Monster).


Tooth Brushing (1978, Bill Melendez)

It’s incredible Tooth Brushing only runs five minutes. The cartoon (an educational short produced for the American Dental Association) starts innocuously enough. Charlie Brown gets out of the dentist, heads home to try out his new brush and other dentist goodies–he’s also got fresh instructions from the dentist.

He runs into Snoopy, then he runs into Linus. And decides he’s going to instruct Linus… and Snoopy instead of brushing his own teeth. It’s fine, because Linus has his toothbrush handy and Snoopy has Lucy’s toothbrush. The Snoopy using Lucy’s toothbrush sequence, as Charlie Brown and Linus get more and more mortified, is where Tooth Brushing nails it. It’s gross (though, really, does Snoopy have more plaque than Linus) and it seems like it can’t be topped.

Then Lucy gets home and shows the boys the real way to brush your teeth.

Great animation, great performance from Michelle Muller as Lucy (and decent ones from Arrin Skelley and Daniel Anderson as Charlie Brown and Linus, respectively) and some perfect comic timing make Tooth Brushing so funny you forget it’s supposed to be educational and not just a great bit. Roger Donley and Chuck McCann’s editing and Jeff Hall’s perfect animation (he holds the horrified expressions just right) are outstanding.

Brushing’s hilarious.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Bill Melendez; written by Charles M. Schulz; animated by Jeff Hall; edited by Roger Donley and Chuck McCann; music by Vince Guaraldi; production designer, Evert Brown; produced by Melendez and Lee Mendelson; released by the American Dental Association.

Starring Arrin Skelley (Charlie Brown), Daniel Anderson (Linus), and Michelle Muller (Lucy).


Greetings from Africa (1996, Cheryl Dunye)

In Greetings from Africa writer, director, and star Dunye mixes formats. Her first person comments to the camera are black and white video. The dramatized story is color film. Very, very colorful film. Dunye and cinematographer Sarah Cawley have some affected, formalist shots–even though Dunye’s the only one giving first person narration, Nora Breen (as Dunye’s romantic interest) gets some emotive and stylized close-ups. But then there are the more realistic sequences, where the sets are fully adorned–both the first person video shots and the stylized sequences with Breen and Dunye flirting in private have mostly blank walls. Even when Dunye and Breen have scenes in regular sets (Dunye’s apartment’s bathroom and kitchen), the composition emphasizes the actors, not the scenery.

The short runs about eight minutes, with Dunye recounting her time spent with Breen. They meet (off screen, but with the some of the audio played over, in some of Greetings finest editing), hang out a bit, then Dunye discovers Breen has some secrets.

There’s the scene in the kitchen, which has multiple conversations overlaid in voiceover, all with Dunye and Crawley’s stylized composition and colors and with Joan Caplin’s fantastic editing. Greetings is short, but full of content. Between Dunye’s first person exposition expanding it and contextualizing it, there’s also the technical stylizing in scenes to make it bigger. It’s great.

Greetings is mostly comedic; well, it’s not entirely anything, but it’s more comedic than anything else. Dunye’s got a wry sense of humor, not just in her performance, but in the dialogue and plotting of the short. She’ll cut away from a scene for maximum comedic impact. The short’s exquisitely made.

Dunye gives the best performance (there are three other actors) thanks to her silent expressions as she takes in the events, as well as her recounting of them for the first person. With the video to film and film to video changes, there’s a visual cue to differentiate between Dunye the narrator and Dunye the protagonist. Neither is unreliable or so much contrary as Dunye establishes a different narrative distance. It’s very cool.

Breen’s also good, though she really only gets a few scenes and they’re short ones. She’s playing an enigmatic character but not enigmatically. Again, Greetings excels in its subtle disconnects.

There’s a lot of subtlety to the short overall–it plays very much like a culmination of two of Dunye’s previous shorts. Being familiar with them probably makes the quiet jokes funnier, but seeing them isn’t necessary. The film’s more strong enough on its own.

The editing and cinematography are phenomenal. Perfect score by Glorified Magnified and Rebecca Coupe Franks–and perfectly cut to the action. Greetings from Africa is confident and boisterous and confident in its boisterousness. Dunye, her cast, and her crew, all do excellent work.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Cheryl Dunye; director of photography, Sarah Cawley; edited by Joan Caplin; music by Glorified Magnified and Rebecca Coupe Franks; produced by Dunye, Mary Jane Skalski, and Karen Yaeger.

Starring Nora Breen (L), Cheryl Dunye (Cheryl), Jocelyn Taylor (Dee), and Jacqueline Woodson (The Girlfriend).


The Potluck and the Passion (1993, Cheryl Dunye)

The first sequence of The Potluck and the Passion, with director Dunye (also acting) sitting down and talking with girlfriend Gail Lloyd about the dinner party they’re about to throw. They go over the guest list as the opening titles run, who’s invited, why they’re invited, why Dunye and Lloyd are throwing the party (it’s their one year anniversary but Lloyd isn’t really comfortable with saying they’re dating).

Dunye and Lloyd are basically playing the same characters from Dunye’s previous short, She Don’t Fade, but it turns out there’s zero continuity between the two films. It also doesn’t matter because after Dunye and Lloyd have the first post-titles scene–Dunye’s trying to give some guests directions, Lloyd’s getting the apartment ready with help from friend Robert Reid-Pharr.

It’s Reid-Pharr who gets the film’s first aside, where–in now familiar Dunye fashion–sits and talks to the camera. He’s talking about his character, not talking as his character. His monologue has a lot of personality; better than his performance, but he’s still effortlessly likable sidekicking for Lloyd.

Potluck then cuts to the guests who need the directions–Nikki Harmon and Myra Paci–whose delayed, overly complicated journey to the party is the film’s only subplot. And Harmon and Paci never get monologue moments, their story is solely dramatic. Though comedic.

Once the party starts, Dunye and Lloyd become background to the main plot–guest Shelita Birchett decides she maybe likes other guest Pat Branch (who also co-wrote) far more than she likes her awful girlfriend, Nora Breen. Birchett and Breen get frequent monologues, mostly in character, but starting with the actors talking about the parts. The very clear subtext is Breen is dating Tracy because she’s a Black woman (and Breen is a condescending, controlling, culturally appropriating white woman). Branch isn’t just a Black woman, she’s an older woman with very different experiences than Birchett, who–in addition to dating a white woman–has always tried to live in a white world.

The chemistry between Branch and Birchett is electric–their performances are excellent–and having Breen directly address the viewer lets the character be terrible, but always realized. She’s never thin, because of how the monologues support the dramatics.

Dunye’s shooting on video, so the lighting is always off. She’s got some great composition, which embraces the video medium and is ambitious with it–there’s just no way to light it. It’s not Dunye’s fault, it’s the medium. It’s video.

Dunye’s direction of the actors in the dramatic scenes is fantastic, as is her editing of their monologue delivery scenes. And she and Branch’s writing is excellent.

Potluck and the Passion is occasionally cringe-inducing, often very funny, and always inventive. Dunye’s direction and Branch and Birchett’s performances are superior.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Cheryl Dunye; written by Pat Branch and Dunye; edited by Antoine Bell; released by Third World Newsreel Film Collective.

Starring Shelita Birchett (Tracy), Nora Breen (Megan), Pat Branch (Evelyn), Cheryl Dunye (Linda), Nikki Harmon (Lisa), Myra Paci (Kendra), and Robert Reid-Pharr (Robert)


Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid)

Meshes of the Afternoon is a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream. But since they’re dreams, it’s really just the one dream, I suppose. A woman–presumably, because directors Deren and Hammid shoot from her point of view during the waking segment–comes up and takes a nap. On her way home, she’s found a flower (the short opens with a hand dropping it down before disappearing… the hand, not the flower) and then dropped her key. Once she picks up the key, which has fallen down the stairs, she finds the home in disarray. She goes up stairs and takes a nap in a chair.

At this point, the actions begin to repeat. Only the woman is revealed (co-director Deren). There are some first person shots, usually reestablishing what’s changed–there’s a moving knife, a phone off the hook–but Deren is in the action shots. She moves through the house, upstairs to find herself, only to enter another dream, and another. Soon she’s chasing a hooded figure, trying to get the flower. Or she’s watching the chase.

And then there’s that house key, which soon becomes a knife and Meshes goes from being ethereally confusing to dangerously ethereal. Sort of dangerous. Because it’s never clear how aware Deren’s dream-self is of her reality. There’s never any confusion as she moves through the house, which sometimes loses gravity or has the wind inside instead of outside. There’s determination, which eventually becomes resigned determination.

Meshes is deliberate and repetitive with its visuals. It’s patient for the viewer, never rushing them along. Hammid also photographs (and costars later on in the fourteen minute short); there’s higher contrast to the exteriors than the interiors–there’s also some fantastic process shots–while the interiors are more… airy. Outside seems hot, inside seems cool. The perceptible breeze plays into it, a relief for the protagonist.

The short encourages reflection if not downright dissection–Meshes entangles itself as it moves along, giving the viewer enough time to catch up but not enough time to unravel before the next iteration.

It’s exhilarating.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid; written and edited by Deren; director of photography, Hammid.

Starring Maya Deren (The Woman) and Alexander Hammid (The Man).


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