Spotlight on Shorts

Spotlight on Shorts: The Fly

No, not that Fly, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less dangerous.

On the surface, ‘The Fly’ is a British gangster flick in the vein of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, but with a twist. Directed by Ollie Williams, it won Best Comedy at the Plymouth Film Festival and garnered a Best Actor nomination for Jack Doolan at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival.

The plot of ‘The Fly’ is easy enough to recognize from the very first line of dialogue. A group of bank robbers are attempting a heist while the lonely getaway driver awaits their return so they can make off with their score. Simple enough, but he finds an obstacle in the most insignificant of creatures.

We get that this particular fly is going to be a problem from the dire way the title of the film is introduced. Loud and in big, bold, seizure inducing red letters, the four-second title sequence might as well be introducing  fire breathing King Kong. At first the insect is but a mere nuisance, but as the film goes on it becomes much more; an antagonizing force hell bent on ruining this heist.

Jack Doolan’s performance is done well, but it’s the camera work that really stands out. Many of the shots gives us an almost voyeuristic view of the action, with some shots taking place outside of the car looking in and some that make you feel as if you’re sitting in the back seat. The cuts between these angles come frequently. As the driver becomes more irritated with the fly’s presence, the cuts come more and more rapidly giving the film a chaotic feel to accompany the mayhem going on inside the car.

It’s a one joke movie to be sure, but at a little under five minutes, it never overstays it’s welcome; a byproduct of keeping your shorts, you know, short. ‘The Fly’ shows what you can do with a short if you keep the idea simple and the running time low.

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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.

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.

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.

Spotlight on Shorts: From the Future With Love

Let’s be honest, economics isn’t the sexiest topic of discussion, yet if listen to the talking heads from both sides of the right/left political spectrum, you’ll find most of them spend a good amount of time dedicated to the subject. Since most films focus not only on delivering a message, but making it entertaining as well, it’s hard to find a movie that attempts to thematically present the implications economic systems have on society. K-Michel Parandi’s “From the Future With Love” is one of the few short films that manage to address this without getting bogged down with the specifics.

At first watch, you’ll notice that “From the Future With Love” is treading on familiar territory. Films like Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop are also placed in a future where corporations have invested in policing the world. Just as in Robocop, “From the Future With Love” suggests that problems will inevitably arise when the corporate priority of increasing profit margins meets the societal need for security.

In the future presented in “From the Future With Love”, there are various corporate-run policing outfits which all claim different territories. Each provide different packages, much like insurance packages, that ensure varying levels of security. Their jurisdiction stretches as far as their client base reaches similar to telecommunication providers. What we begin to witness is the negative effects this has on people’s security, as those who don’t have the financial means are only allowed a certain level of police involvement and are subject to a bevy of lesser crimes. To add to that, the inherent competitiveness of Capitalism reaches violent proportions as different police outfits begin to fight over territories.

From a filmmaking perspective, “From the Future With Love” uses some interesting storytelling techniques. Much like how Robocop integrated advertisements throughout the film to stress how every aspect of the future had become increasingly commercialized, “From the Future With Love” features its own commercial outlining the technology and packages the police now offer.

Visually “From the Future With Love” is impressive. A lot of detail went into the cosplaying of this film. The police are decked out in black and white armor, similar to a Stormtrooper, but with added red and blue flashing lights as decoration. It’s like the merging of officer and squad car, all in one. Furthermore, each unit is outfitted with their own drone sentry, foreshadowing the result of our drone programs.

The CG also pays a good amount of attention to detail. In one scene you can see an officer take aim at a mechanized dog. Through his visor, you can see a target reticule mirroring precisely where the officer is aiming. All this adds to the ever-important “cool factor” that sci-fi films are known for.

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!

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.