Holiday Films

Spotlight on Shorts: Alma

Christmas time is only a day away and to close out my month of holiday themed short films I’ve decided to save the best for last. So far we’ve seen a holiday themed zombie apocalypse, killer Christmas trees and a plot to kill Santa Claus, but “Alma”, a 2009 Best Animation winner at the LA Shorts Fest, is probably the darkest of them all. The best way I can describe the film is it’s the result of what happens when you combine the feel of Toy Story with the plot of Child’s Play.

If you noticed that “Alma” looks and feels a lot like a Pixar film, you’re not mistaken. The director Rodrigo Blaas was an animator for the Oscar winning powerhouse and worked on such films as Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and WallŸ⋅E.

Much like the opening scene in Up, “Alma” contains no dialogue. The entire story is told visually. You might also notice that the score of the film is reminiscent of many Pixar films such as Ratatouille, but unlike that film the music belies the dark nature of the film.

In it a little girl by the name of Alma is happily skipping through the snow when she comes upon a doll the bears a striking similarity to her. Her curiosity gets the better of her and she enters the toyshop to investigate.

Unlike “Treevenge” or “Preferably Blue“, “Alma” doesn’t rely on gore or adult subject matter to garner its Dark Fantasy label. In fact, “Alma” is relatively kid friendly; it’s simply the implications of what the film ultimately portrays that will probably scare the piss out of your children. It’s like the Joe Camel of holiday shorts; visually appealing to kids but harboring a dark, dark secret.

Filmmakers might be able to take a page out of “Alma” in terms of how dark subject matter can be presented in many different ways. The film proves that unlike films such as A Nightmare Before Christmas, dark fantasy doesn’t always have to rely on death or the macabre to get the message through. Instead, “Alma” uses plot devices more akin to an episode of The Twilight Zone than a Tim Burton film.

I hope you all have enjoyed this my picks this year for holiday themed shorts. Hopefully, I’ll be able to find a slew of others to share with you next year. I’ll be taking a little break for the holidays, but stop by next week where I plan to pick my five favorite indie films of the year. Also, plan on seeing another Focus on Filmmakers early in January where I’ll be interviewing another local talent. Happy Holidays everyone!

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Spotlight on Shorts: Preferably Blue

“Preferably Blue” is a nice little animated short out of New Zealand and is directed by Alan Dickson. It’s a dark comedy that is told in the same vein as “Twas a Night Before Christmas”. In it the Easter Bunny has hit rock bottom. Things are so bad that he’s taken to drinking and is dependent on anti-depressants. He comes to the realization that the cause of his depression is stems from children’s love of Christmas over Easter. This turns the bunny into a Scrooge of sorts and he devises a plot to kill Santa Clause and take his magical sack. What results is an adult version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas.

“Preferably Blue” manages to just toe the line between adult humor and children’s fairy tale just enough to keep both intact without corrupting the other. I’m not saying that you should gather the kids around the computer screen and roast chestnuts to it, but those of you that grew up with the old Rankin/Bass TV specials. Although it’s CG animated, you will immediately see where “Preferably Blue’s” inspirations come from. “Preferably Blue” manages to keep of some of the innocence intact by delivering a lot of its humor through double entendre. After a while of viewing the film, you can’t help but begin to laugh at lines like “Santa’s sack”. Sure, you may think the humor is somewhat sophomoric, but get too clever and you begin to lose the childish magic commonly associated with Christmas tales. Also, by keeping it light-hearted, it allows the audience member not to take darker themes like murder and loss too seriously.

Much like The Grinch, “Preferably Blue” stays true to the message of so many Christmas tales, that the holidays are a time for sharing, forgiveness and helping one’s neighbor. It is a set of beliefs so common, especially in Western Culture, it’s impossible to imagine a holiday story that doesn’t end by celebrating these festive principles. Even films like Bad Santa end with the anti-hero ultimately surrendering to lure of the Christmas Spirit. This seems to be the one unifying trait that separates holiday movies from all the rest. Although predictable, it’s become a standard, like weddings at the end of a Shakespearean comedy. This is not a criticism of holiday movies by any means. Holiday movies distinguish themselves from other cinematic fare in another important way; they’re rarely viewed outside of the holidays. With that in mind, Christmas and other holiday movies seem to play a very important role in moviegoers lives, to get them to share in the Holiday spirit.

Spotlight on Shorts: Treevenge

One sad Christmas memory I recall was the annual disposing of the tree. My parents would drive out to the designated dumping grounds and throw the wilting symbol of Christmas spirit back to nature from whence it came. I can still envision the hundreds of dead trees piled upon one another waiting to become mulch or maybe those paper containers Chinese food comes in. To this day I still consider this often overlooked holiday moment to be cruel, despite the fact that I still have no problem eating the hell out of a bacon wrapped filet of beef.

If you’ve ever wanted to see humans finally receiving some comeuppance for their crimes against nature, I present to you “Treevenge” a film by Jason Eisener. Any of you who are familiar with Eisener’s other major work, Hobo With A Shotgun, shouldn’t be too shocked at what they see in “Treevenge”. Much like Hobo With a Shotgun, “Treevenge” takes much from gore-heavy exploitation films (Translation: This video is NSFW). Virtually everyone in this film is subject to a violent death, and I mean everyone. “Treevenge” is not a film that follows any conventional movie “rules”; in fact, it seems more likely that Eisener is consciously trying to break them.

Normally, I’m not a fan of unnecessary sex or violence in movies. Not to say that I’m against sex and violence in and of themselves, but I prefer that there be some justification for their existence in film and not just filmed to increase ticket sales. I make an exception when I come across the type of over-the-top exploitation found in a film like “Treevenge”. This type of exploitation can be found in a lot of Sam Raimi’s work as well as most of Troma’s film catalogue. In films like these you’re almost certain to find insane levels of violence, sexism and objectification, but it comes at you in such absurdly large doses it can’t possibly be taken seriously.

“Treevenge” does some very interesting things with point of view. We actually witness the film from the trees’ perspective. The humans in the film are such overblown caricatures personifying violence and evil, it’s hard to really feel any remorse for them when the bloodshed begins. Furthermore, every death, no matter how taboo or repulsive, is done with a sort of “wink, wink” to the audience. Each death comes complete with some kind of gimmick to make it even more unbelievable. As a result the audiences’ compassion is on the side of these murdering trees who dole out violence in such tongue and cheek way it comes off as entertainment.

Whether you’re a fan of over-the-top exploitation films or not, “Treevenge” still manages to serve as a lesson of how point of view can be used to instill compassion in a protagonist. Even when the protagonists act in ways that are clearly immoral, compassion can still be established by seeing the story through their eyes. And yes, I’m aware trees don’t have eyes.

Spotlight On Shorts: Tanghi Argentini

We’re continuing our Spotlight of holiday themed shorts with a short film from Belgium, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2008. “Tanghi Argentini” or “Argentine Tango” is a film directed by Guy Thys and written by Geert Verbanck, that tells the story of André, a middle aged office worker, who makes the age old mistake of lying on an online dating site to impress a girl. When André strikes a date with a Tango aficionado, he must convince Franz, a co-worker who’s the cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and Yul Brenner, to school him in the art of dance.

The first thing you might notice about the film is the muted color palette. Blacks, greys, and whites dominate most of the scenery. Very rarely do we get a green from a Christmas tree in the background or yellow from the sun shining through a distant window. This seems to highlight the drab and boring existence that is André’s life. Even Franz, who is supposed to be sparking the passion in him, is dressed like he’s going to a funeral most of the film. The first time we really ever see a noticeable change is when André shows up to his date wearing a red rose in his lapel.

This is all very deliberate, as we are finally introduced to André’s date, Suzanne, in a striking red dress and sultry lipstick. This sudden injection is a great example of how color can be used as a kind of subtext in film. In this case, red can be representing André’s passion, as it has finally begun to flourish with his learning the Tango. Suzanne, on the other hand, is practically brimming with it, as she represents André’s escape from his colorless life.

Something else to note is the lighting. “Tanghi Argentini” is lit very similar to a film noir, with dim lights casting hard shadows. This gives an air of mystery to the film, possibly suggesting that not everything is as it seems.

Like many good shorts, “Tanghi Argentini” does take an unexpected twist, the kind that will have you going back to the beginning asking, “How did I miss that?” As good as the story is, I think the best thing to take away from the film is how Thys uses lighting and color to visually guide us through the story. This has been used to much effect in films such as Shindler’s List and The Sixth Sense. Filmmakers should take note on how “Tanghi Argentini” again proves how good cinematography can be used to tell a story just as dialogue can.

Spotlight On Shorts: Dark Times

Whether you love them or hate them, one thing’s for sure, holidays are right around the corner and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. For the next month leading up to Christmas I’ll be spotlighting select holiday themed shorts for your viewing pleasure. For our first freakishly festive film I give you “Dark Times”, directed by Peter Horn and Jared Marshall, a tight five-minute short shot completely in the first person.

The directors’ choice to shoot POV gives this film a feel like being on a Disneyland ride. Try to imagine Star Tours set in a zombie apocalypse during Christmas time and you’ll get a good idea of what I’m talking about. The tight running time combined with the shaky cam really amp up the pace of this film.

Another interesting aspect of the film is how quickly we’re thrust into the action. There is no introduction of characters. The film simply doesn’t have time for it. We follow a man, we can only assume is a friend of ours, through a dark forest evading the undead and the like. As we continue through the mayhem that ensues, we are introduced to other zombie apocalypse tropes we have come to expect from the genre. The filmmakers even spare us the end credits as if to protect us from anything that might bog down the fast pace of the film.

An interesting thing happens about halfway through the film that changes the mood and pacing. I won’t give it away, but watch how Horn and Marshall play with our perspective by use of color and camera movement. Those familiar to first person gaming will recognize some of the tricks the directors use, which lead me to believe that Horn and Marshall have probably played their fair share of Call of Duty. Really, this could make a pretty good video game trailer.

Those of you looking to pick up some tips on pacing should give this one a view. “Dark Times” relies on zombie fandom and knowledge of the genre to tell most of the story for us. What’s left is an interesting study on the many ways POV can be used in film.