Indies

Indie Intros: Tim Miller’s ‘Rockfish’

Before the recent success of Fox’s Deadpool, Tim Miller had only directed two animated short films. His debut ‘Aunt Luisa’ won him and co director Paul Taylor a Jury Award at the Ojai Film Festival. His second film, ‘Rockfish,’ won an honorable mention also at the Ojai Film Festival for Best Animation and came in second for Best Animation at the Palm Springs International Shortfest.

Since then, Miller worked his way into Hollywood, namely for visual effects, as an Assistant Director for Thor: The Dark World’s opening sequence and as a Creative Supervisor for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Miller’s career proves that just because you specialize in other areas of entertainment, such as animation, doesn’t mean you can’t transition those skills into live action film as well.

In ‘Rockfish,’ we follow what appears to a miner and the first incarnation of Puppy Monkey Baby from this year’s incredibly disturbing Super Bowl commercials. All of this takes place on Tatooine or maybe whatever world the video game Borderlands is set on.

Miner and Monkey-Alien are blue collar guys doing their blue collar thing, digging a large hole and running a long metal wire down it as space miners do. Everything seems to be going according to plan until the wire hits a snag and the entire crane contraption attached to it goes for an incredibly destructive ride.

‘Rockfish’ attracts audiences with this vagueness; luring audiences by their curiosity and slowly answering their questions through visuals rather than exposition. As we hope for our heroes to survive this dangerous predicament, we are also hoping the outcome will reveal a little more about their characters. In this case, we find that the miners aren’t actually miners at all, but hunters of a different sort. I won’t give away the ending, but all is made clear in the end.

Although the animation probably looks dated by today’s standards, the low-res shouldn’t undermine the way the story is revealed. For any of you that have seen Deadpool, this might have actually worked out in his favor, as the kind of bare bones animation used to make Colossus kind of works to reinforce the tongue in cheek feel the movie manages to create so well.

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Spotlight on Shorts: ‘Timelike’

 

Found footage films have gotten a pretty bad rap as of late. The genre has been a mainstay in horror since the popularity of The Blair Witch Project, but can be seen as far back as the 80’s with films like Cannibal Holocaust. Since then we’ve been given a slew of found footage films, such as Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, VHS and REC.

Often seen as an overused gimmick by some, “Timelike” proves that you can still use an old trick provided you do something new with it.

“Timelike” is written and directed by Richard Boylan, a cinematic designer for video game developer Bioware where he worked on the Mass Effect series.

“Timelike” starts off like most found footage films, with a cameraman who, for whatever reason, never shuts off the camera and insists on filming everything. The first character we are introduced to is Madeline, who has just been accepted to college. After receiving the good news, she and the cameraman, her boyfriend Rich, decide to celebrate with a bottle of wine. In the midst of their celebration, a stranger knocks on their door delivering a mysterious message. From there, things begin to go awry as time and space seemingly begin to unravel.

It is here where “Timelike” separates itself from other found footage films. As time begins to go out of whack, the footage we see begins to reflect this, repeating over and over as we the story is slowly revealed. It’s a simple technique that proves to be used to great effect, both telling the story and letting the audience experience the discombobulation associated with time coming unglued. What results is a film that entertains through the use of suspense rather than scares.

Those of you familiar with physics can probably decipher what happens in the film by the title. For those science lovers out there that are curious, you can try to make heads and tails of it here, but I would suggest watching the film first to get the full mind fuck effect in all its glory.

Indie Intros: Tim Burton’s ‘Doctor of Doom’

Tim Burton is one of those directors whose talents were immediately recognized, yet difficultly placed. After studying at the California Institute of Arts, he was immediately given fellowship by Disney where he worked for a short time. This led to the short “Frankenweenie,” which was never released by Disney, but was nonetheless still seen by Paul Reubens who wanted him to direct the cult hit Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. From there Burton’s story is fairly well-known, going on to direct Beetlejuice and becoming one of the most unique and in demand directors of the 90’s.

“Doctor of Doom” is one of Burton’s early shorts which he directed along with partner Jerry Rees. Burton also stars in the film as Don Carlo along with a variable who’s who from the Disney roster. Brad Bird, who won two Oscars for Disney/Pixar first for The Incredibles and another for Ratatouille, provides the voice of Don Carlo. Another Disney Oscar winner, Chris Buck, is most recently famous for directing the animated hit Frozen and plays the character of Pepe in “DoD.”

If you’re expecting some cross between the Burton style of filmmaking and Disney’s signature style like A Nightmare Before Christmas, you’ll be disappointed. “DoD” is more like something Burton’s hero Ed Wood would have devised. “DoD” is an homage to old B movies, possibly influenced by the 1963 Mexican horror film of the same name.

In it, a mad doctor is invited to dinner by a group of people who have clearly never eaten tacos before. He is shunned and decides to get his revenge by creating a creature that is a cross between an elephant and Greedo from Star Wars. The group manages to stop the creature, mainly because it’s worthless at terrorizing and because they’ve studying the fighting art of the WWE.

At first viewing the short appears to be plagued with problems. The dialogue, recorded separately, is almost incoherent. Everything is spoken as if a chipmunk on speed was called in to do ADR. There is even a moment when the cameraman attempts to shoot through a mirror, but is clearly visible for a good two-seconds. But now knowing Burton’s influences, it’s clear that many of these “mistakes” most likely done on purpose.

“DoD” does give us a sense of the filmmaker that Burton would become. The title font alone screams Burton, with that “it’s always Halloween” feel to his films. The film also combines horror elements presented as comedy which has become Burton’s signature.

Indie Intros: Ron Howard’s ‘Cards, Cads, Guns, Gore and Death…’

Some people are just born to be filmmakers, I guess.

It’s common for a child to want to pick up a camera. I remember my father filming every Christmas at the house. He would simply set our VHS camcorder onto a tripod and let the thing roll, totally static, no need to get tricky. I always wanted to get my hands on that camera, but my father wouldn’t let me even touch the remote to our TV let alone a camcorder. Still I often wonder if I had the foresight to do anything worthwhile with it. I mean, I was only a kid. Still, had I been able to get my hands on that camera, the world might have had a video record of The Great War of 1986: Greyskull vs. Cobra.

One thing I can guarantee is my film probably wouldn’t have been as good as “Cards, Cads, Guns, Gore and Death…” by a young Ron Howard.

By the time Howard had begun shooting this film he was already well established as child TV star. Shot in 1969, The Andy Griffith Show had already wrapped and he was taking roles on Gunsmoke.

I’m not going to pretend like “Cards, Cads, Guns, Gore and Death…” is some sort of amateur masterpiece by a fifteen-year-old phenom. It looks pretty much like what I kid that age would shoot if you gave him an 8mm camera. Still, it’s clear that he possesses some early film skills that aren’t common at that age that I would like to acknowledge.

The film centers around three kids dressed in western attire reenacting the famous saloon poker game. In one particularly high stakes hand, one kid lays down his cards and attempts to celebrate an early victory before another player stops him and lays down a stronger hand. Being ever suspicious (or just a sore loser), the first player calls the other a cheat and shoots him in the chest. The third player, played by a young Clint Howard who looks pretty much the same as he does now, decides he having none of it and proceeds to shoot the first player. It all seems like Clint has come out the victor till a kid in a black hat shoots him from behind because he hates gambling or is just an asshole. What we’re left with is a gory scene of bodies and blood-soaked poker chips.

Some of the interesting things to not e about this film is how Howard uses some fundamental film techniques to tell his story. The opening shot is your standard establishing shot, a close up of the poker chips as we tilt up to a shot of the first player. It’s elementary, but advanced for a fifteen year old and a better opening than some indie films I’ve seen from much older. The rest of the shot is done in one take as it pans to the second player, then back down to the chips, then to a bottle that we see the third player take a drink from and finally back to first player who shoves some chips into the stack. What results is a kind of tracking shot that introduces the characters by their interactions with the props.

The first cut we see is the smiling face of the first player as he is certain he has the best hand.

The special effects are clearly lo fi, but effective. To be honest, when the players are shot, I still can’t tell if the actors are in control of the blood or someone is shooting them with a water gun filled with red liquid from off-screen. I want to say the latter, since Clint Howard is shot in the back and doesn’t seem to be at an angle to spray himself.

The film ends with a shot of a lone poker chip lying in a pool of blood, which, even in its simplicity, is pretty cool final shot that symbolizes what the whole film is about.

I got to give it up to Ron Howard for releasing this film. It was apparently a bonus feature on the special edition DVD release of The Missing. It’s rare to see a filmmaker of Howard’s status to release their very early work, which is a shame because I believe aspiring filmmakers can learn a lot from them, even if they’re horrible.

Spotlight on Shorts: ‘Truth in Journalism’

How could I do the name of this blog justice if I didn’t do at least one Spider-Man related film.

“Truth in Journalism,” directed by Joe Lynch, follows one of Spidey’s most notorious villains, Eddie Brock aka. Venom. Those of you familiar with the comics know the story well enough, if not, you can get the overall story by watching Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. To give you just a bit of back story on Brock, he’s an angry and envious guy who just so happens to be infested with an even angrier symbiotic organism from space. He’s got all of Spider-Man’s powers and then some, including shape shifting and the ability to manipulate his body into sharp objects.

The film follows an already defeated Brock, fired from the Daily Bugle, as he hires a film crew to rebuild his shattered reputation. They follow him as he boisterously brags about his life and career, oftentimes dodging his checkered past. Now working for a tabloid newspaper, Brock takes the film crew into the seedy underbelly of the streets, occasionally stopping a crime at his own leisurely pace. As the filming goes on, the crew becomes more and more frustrated with Brock’s lack of cooperation, focusing the film on himself and dodging the tough questions. As the crew begins to threaten backing out of the film, you can see Brock’s seething anger begin to show.

The film is an homage to the Belgium mockumentary Man Bites Dog, a dark and powerful film about a documentary crew that decides to follow a serial killer through his day-to-day routine. In it, the killer’s overbearing nature begins to manipulate the film crew, as they are pulled into his world of murder and chaos. They then begin to actually take part in the murders, becoming just like the figure they are documenting.

“Truth in Journalism” doesn’t stray too far from the formula Man Bites Dog follows. The film is also shot in black and white, with the film crew being present in most of the shots, unlike other mockumentaries like Spinal Tap, The Office, or Parks and Recreation. Brock’s personality is also much like the serial killer’s, boisterous and loud, but also very much a bully at heart. He exudes an energy that would make anyone uncomfortable, the type of person that’s always flashing a fake smile to hide his true intentions.

Some of the effects are quite interesting as well and will still manage to impress fans of the comics. At one point Brock is talking to himself in the mirror with his shirt off. He then notices the camera capturing his dialogue and shuts the door, only to immediately open it, revealing him fully clothed in a suit and tie. There are also a few hidden cuts, much like Birdman, where everything looks like it was shot in one take.

“Truth in Journalism” differs from Man Bites Dog in that the film crew never goes as far as to help Brock commit any crimes. In fact, true to the comics, Brock is more concerned with being a big shot and getting back at Peter Parker than he is at committing random acts of violence. Although, we can’t exactly speak for Brock’s other half.

Although the film isn’t shot like your traditional comic book movie, the film still manages to throw in a few things for fans familiar with the genre. Like all Marvel movies, you’ll want to wait until after the credits for that inevitable coda. There might even be a few cameos comic fans will recognize.

Indie Intros: Robert Zemeckis’ ‘The Lift’

Last week Robert Rodriguez had on filmmaker Robert Zemeckis on his excellent show The Director’s Chair. Seriously, if you love hearing filmmakers talking about their craft, this is one of the best programs (imagine Inside the Actor’s Studio for filmmakers).

Piggybacking off of that show, we’re going to take a look at Zemeckis’ first student film, “The Lift,” a film shot in black and white, much like last week’s Christopher Nolan flick “Doodlebug.

The film is about a man going through his normal day-to-day routine until he meets his arch nemesis in the form of his apartment’s elevator. The elevator is either broken, possessed by The Devil, or maybe just hates him like your cat hates you. I don’t care if he’s cuddled up next to you right now purring his little heart out, that cat hates you and plots your demise daily.

The elevator seems to have a life of its own as it escapes him, shuts on him and sometimes traps him as he desperately tries to get to work. No matter how unpredictable the lift becomes, the man seems dead set on using it despite the hassle it causes him. Perhaps he’s trying to break it the way a trainer breaks a horse, or perhaps he’s just an idiot.

The black and white stock provides a strong level of contrast, as the film is not always lit properly. I wondered if he was using the same Kodak black and white reversal stock we used in my film school days that always managed to be overexposed or underexposed, sometimes even in the same frame. Still, Zemeckis manages to do some interesting stuff with the lighting, especially later in the film. Some of his usage of shadow seems to come right out of a film noir, with hard shadows being casted on the ground by light passing through the elevator’s grates. It kind of gives the elevator an ominous feel, further giving it a kind of sentience.

Other shots are precursors to some of Zemeckis’ later work. The opening shot of “The Lift” is a series of pans and close-ups, often focusing on appliances and clocks that furnish the main character’s apartment. Any fan of Back to the Future will recognize the similarities between its opening scene and the one seen here in “The Lift.” Either that, or Zemeckis took the DeLorean, travelled back to his film student self and told him to add the shot, forever changing the course of his life to make him the powerhouse director we know today.

Indie Intros: Christopher Nolan’s Doodlebug

I guess I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for black and white film. It was what we used when I went to film school and it always brings back a little nostalgia when I see it used. Watching a monochrome film, for me, is like opening an old book or touching an oil painted canvas.

Christopher Nolan’s “Doodlebug” foreshadows common themes he would later use in his most popular films. Insanity and the workings of the mind are on full display here. One watch will give you hints of Inception, Insomnia, Memento and other Nolan films with one-word titles.

The film follows a man who is dead set on crushing some sort of vermin that has entered his house. As the film progresses, we see his mind begin to waver and struggles to focus on the scuttling of the creature which has infested his home and the sounds of his appliances. Things descend into total bedlam when we realize the invader our protagonist is desperate to smash into oblivion, is not all that it seems.

The special effects aren’t exactly The Dark Knight, but they do the job well enough. Camera angles and close-ups dominate the screen and tell the story for us. They reflect the paranoia our main character seems to be suffering from, as well and give the film a manic pacing. It isn’t towards the end that we get a true special effect, a simple trick that has been used in films predating this one, but used in a unique way to reveal the twist at the end.

Nolan seems to have been limited to the same criteria that I was for my final student film. No dialogue, black and white film only. But he stretches the most out of those limitations, creating a visual tale for the audience. Honestly, if Nolan had the same type of restrictions we did for his final student film as we did, most of the student body would have been floored. I don’t remember anyone, especially myself, that was able to get this creative with so little.

Indie Intros: Spike Jonze’s How They Get There

Ever see a single shoe on the side of road and wonder, “Who leaves a shoe? I mean, just one shoe? If you’re going to go gutter-stomping shoeless, why not just commit and rock both those knee-highs for everyone to see?” Well, Spike Jonze attempts to answer this in his short film “How They Get There.”

While not exactly his intro into filmmaking (Jonze was a well established music video director whose contributions include such classics as “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys), it was with this film that he began to flirt with cinematic storytelling devices that would eventually lead to his first feature Being John Malkovich.

The film stars Mark Gonzales, a legendary skateboarder, who was the first to Ollie off the Wallenberg Set, a nineteen foot long, four-foot tall series of steps. For those of you not familiar with skateboarding (like myself), it means he jumped his skateboard really far and landed at a much lower place than where he lifted off without killing himself.

It also stars Lauren Curry, who I’m convinced is one of the many Zooey Deschanel clones that have been running around Hollywood lately.

Model Number 13

Model Number 13

The film is simple enough. Two strangers spot each other from across the street and begin to flirt by imitating one another. This comes to an abrupt end when Mr. Mimic is hit by, what might be, the drunkest driver ever and absolute chaos is unleashed. The girl seems horrified at the disaster she’s caused, and yet it begs the question, how many other people have lost their lives entranced by these Deschanel Doppelgangers? What is their true motive? I’m sure a quick analysis of the amount of innocents killed while listening to “Teenage Dream” will produce some startling findings.

What “How They Get There” shows is that you don’t need to get overly complicated to make a good short. In the two minutes of this film we are given enough of what we need to know, character-wise, to understand the type of guy the main character is. Little things, like a trip off the curb, show us that he’s kind of a klutz. The haphazard way he disposes of his milk tells us that his focus is easily drawn, causing him to shirk common sense habits such as using a damn trashcan or looking both ways before crossing the street.

With what could also be considered a Micro-short film, the two-minute runtime is refreshing. It shows that length doesn’t always equal content.

Spotlight on Shorts: Punisher: Dirty Laundry


It’s been a kind of good last few weeks for comic book fans. Last week marked the release of Daredevil on Netflix along with, what I’m sure was, a spike in people taking sick days and pizza delivery sales. Then of course there was some extra Hulkbuster footage from Avengers: Age of Ultron and the long-awaited teaser for Superman vs. Batman (along with a leaked trailer, but you didn’t hear that from me).

Going with the trend, I’ve decided that for the rest of the month I will be devoting the Spotlight on Shorts section to comic book based fan films.

We start with “Punisher: Dirty Laundry”.

This film first screened at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con and wowed audiences with the return of the best Frank Castle (sorry Dolph Lundgren fans), Thomas Jane. The film was produced by Adi Shankar who’s made a name for himself producing such films as the survival thriller The Grey and most recently the much talked about “Power/Rangers” fan film.

The film has what I assume all Punisher fans are looking for, a large dose of violence as the cure for criminality. Witnessing a gang of thugs terrorize a city block, Castle begins the film hesitant to don the skull again (for whatever reason), simply looking to hit up the local Laundromat, grab a Yoo-Hoo, and get back to watching the final season of Dawson’s Creek. But we all know it would be a pretty disappointing Punisher film if Frank didn’t reach his breaking point, and I mean “breaking” literally.

As a non-profit fan film, “Punisher: Dirty Laundry” can take a few liberties. The most obvious one is this film didn’t appear to have to be ok’d with Marvel as their name is nowhere on it. Secondly, the entire soundtrack was brought to you by Hans Zimmer and his work on The Dark Knight, which means Shankar managed to steal from Marvel and DC in one fell swoop.

I’m sure all you Punisher fans out there have already seen this and probably chimed in on whether or not this is a fitting film adaptation to the comic. I’ll leave that for you to discuss since the only experience I have reading The Punisher is when he shows up in Spiderman comics and when he steamrolled over Wolverine. From a film lover’s perspective I think I speak for most when I say that 2004’s The Punisher starring Thomas Jane is probably the franchise’s best and “Dirty Laundry” does a good job feeling like a sequel to that film.

5 Shorts That Became Feature Films

I’m at a crossroads. As gamer who still primarily plays retro games, I couldn’t be more thrilled about the recent trailer for Pixels, a mass destruction film where arcade classics from the 80’s come to wreak havoc upon Earth. On the other hand, as a film lover, I couldn’t be more worried that it’s a Happy Madison production. For those of you who don’t know, Happy Madison Productions is the company founded by Adam Sandler, whose title nostalgically reminds us that it was responsible for at least two good films.

I don’t normally like to criticize a film before I’ve seen it, but this one stars not only Sandler, but Kevin James as well, two actors who are much like the two chemical components that Bruce Willis and Sam Jackson ran around New York desperately trying to keep apart in Die Hard with a Vengeance. Sure, alone the actors are harmless enough, but put them together and they create a weapon of mass destruction capable of destroying any semblance of wishful thinking from the cerebral cortex.

What may be a saving grace is that Pixels is actually based on a relatively popular French animated short from 2010. Directed by Patrick Jean, the two-minute short is an homage to retro 8-bit era video games where classic sprites run amok throughout New York City.

This got me thinking about what other shorts have made the transition to full-length feature films, but I didn’t really want to do any research so I just cut and pasted five random links to YouTube videos in an attempt to trick the eye.

Ok, I kid, but if you scrolled down to make sure, thank you for reading the whole article and not just skimming to see the videos.

 

La Jetée

A lot of art film geeks and film students know this one. I was first introduced to it in film school. The French short is comprised almost entirely of stills to tell the story of a prisoner who is forced to time travel to the past to rectify the events that led to World War III. This is actually a pretty damn good watch, especially if you’re high because, “Dude that’s not a still! It just moved, I swear!”

Those familiar with the plot might already recognize that this film would become the Terry Gilliam classic 12 Monkeys, a film that ditches the stills and instead goes in the completely opposite direction by casting a manic Brad Pitt who never stops moving for a second.

 

The Dirk Diggler Story

Much like the feature this was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Inspired by This is Spinal Tap, the story follows the tragic story of Dirk as he begins a career in pornography only to get caught up in a life of drugs.

Of course, this film would eventually become the superb classic Wonderland starring the incomparable Val Kilmer, hot off the success of Aces: Iron Eagle 3, as well as Lisa Kudrow from the US version of the BBC series Coupling.

All right, you caught me. It became Boogie Nights and if you haven’t seen it you’re missing out on a true cinema masterpiece.

 

Monster

You know The Babadook, right? If you don’t, you really should. My favorite indie film of last year, The Babadook follows the story of a single mother and her child who are tormented by a supernatural force.

“Monster” follows basically the same premise as The Babadook, with the exception of starring some guy called Trash Vaudeville who is either the lead singer of a punk infused Cole Porter cover band or a creature created from the lesser parts of John Waters’ films.

 

Peluca

“Peluca” was made for the low, low price of $500. Shot on 16m black and white film, the short also stars Jon Heder in the role of Seth, a name that would go down in history when it was changed to the titular Napoleon Dynamite.

Watching the short you can see some of the familiar character traits and plot points that would eventually make it into the quirky Napoleon Dynamite. Much like Napoleon, Seth has an infatuation with martial arts and is always there to help his friends with their follicle mishaps.

 

Jay and Seth vs. The Apocalypse

“Jay and Seth vs. The Apocalypse” is less a short film and more a super early trailer for what would become This is the End. As the title suggests, the short stars Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel who would reprise their roles for the feature.

The short acts as evidence to the amount of attention Hollywood is giving viral videos nowadays. The short apparently inspired a bidding war to eventually get it to the big screen. Garnering a budget of $30 million, This is the End would go on to make $126 million at the box office.