Friday, May 06, 2005

Short stuff: The Animation Show 2005, "Mary", Eros, Wild Safari 3-D, and "Major Disaster"

I was going to tie the short stuff entry to my brother Matt's entry in the 48 Hour Film Project, but the day job interfered, then the Independent Film Festival of Boston, both in terms of going and deciding to give EFC/HBS relatively timely reviews (and I took zero notes during the show, so I could hardly say anything about most of the short films).

So, anyway, to check the item off my list and pay homage to the (intended) nature of this journal to list everything I see, here's a listing:

48-Hour Film Project Boston 2005 Group B

Ratings all over the place
Seen 13 April 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (48 Hour Film Project) (projected video)

There, my anal nature is satisfied. Sorry I didn't write more, Matt, but hey, you got a burger last week. And you've still got to see The Animation Show.

Anyway, I wish I had a chance to see more shorts; they're generally my favorite parts of film festivals and animation collections are a ton of fun. Landmark is currently doing what I consider to be a Good Thing by running a short film before their movies, even if "Mary" is accompanied by an upscale beer commercial nearly as long as the the short itself. Supposedly they're going to switch them out every month, so we'll see if there's something new before 3-Iron.

The Animation Show 2005

Single rating not applicable
Seen 27 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

The Animation Show first appeared two years ago, packed with Academy Award-nominated shorts and featuring an all-star lineup, from excerpts of Ward Kimball's "Mars and Beyond" through Tim Burton's "Vincent" to Bill Plympton's "Parking". This second iteration doesn't have quite so many familiar names, but does feature some truly fantastic short subjects, most famously Plympton's Oscar-nominated "Guard Dog" and Don Hertzfeldt's "The Meaning of Life" (though neither is quite the package's best segment).

In many ways, this is a much more streamlined show than the first. Gone are the open/intermission/close segments, along with the "classic" pieces - the oldest short included is from 1999, making The Animation Show 2005 more of a survey of animation now than its predecessor. Producers Hertzfeldt and Mike Judge are also able to present a full slate without using their own work to fill it out (the 2003 edition had Hertzfeldt contributing two shorts and the linking segments, plus an "early works" reel from Judge). When you see this edition, you're seeing a dozen of the most impressive recent animated shorts.

Note that the near-perfect rating at the top of the review indicates that this is a damn fine show, and also reflects that the best shorts are very, very good. I think that's most the important consideration - even if the entire program only averages three/four stars, the four-star entries are worth the price of admission. So without further ado, on to the individual shorts, in order:

"Bunnies" - ***
"Guard Dog" - ****
"FEDS" - **¼
"Pan With Us" - **½
"Ward 13" - ****
"Hello" - ***½
"Rockfish" - **½
"L'homme Sans Ombre" ("The Man With No Shadow") - ***
"Fallen Art" - **¾
"When the Day Breaks" - ***¼
"Fireworks" - **¾
"The Meaning of Life" - ****

Read the rest (including more detailed reviews of the individual shorts) at HBS.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 April 2005 at Landmark Embassy #5 (attached to Melinda and Melinda)

"Mary" squeezes as much as it can into its five minute running time by being clever. Writer/director Aaron Ruell has a strong handle on what the audience can fill in on their own, and so provides just enough framework, but minimal detail. He's also managed to find a couple of good young actors.

Rachel Bell's Frances is the good daughter, concerned for others and the type that always does what's she's told. So, when she sees an apparition of the Virgin Mary in her bedroom, she immediately tells her parents, who react about how you'd expect them to react when their daughter says a holy vision has charged her with a task that will involve personal suffering. Her sister Stella (Victoria Justice), on the other hand, is more observant and has a strong streak of self-preservation in her.

"Mary" is a comedy, but really has only one or two laugh-out-loud moments (the implied lack of particularity displayed by a holy messenger). Indeed, the last line is delivered sadly, by a kid who knows she's probably in over her head but also knows asking for help is a bad idea. It's a jokey premise which ends before it can get too detailed and thus serious.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 April 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run)

Wong Kar-Wai's "The Hand" - * * * ¾
Steven Soderbergh's "Equilibrium" - * * ½
Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Dangerous Thread of Things" - * ¾

This sort of anthology movie is a good idea, in theory, one which doesn't get tried often enough. Get a few talented filmmakers together, see if they've got a short story in them on a given subject. Slap three or four of them together, and not only do you have around a hundred minutes of good movie, you can slap a whole bunch of big names on the poster. The question must, then, be asked: Why are these things so often uneven when they are done, with the bad segments outnumbering the good?

Caveat: That only appears to be true when it comes to live action. The Fantasias and other animation "jams" are pretty good, but perhaps animators are more used to the short form. Still, half of Four Rooms was pretty bad, and that's assuming I'm feeling generous toward the Tarantino segment. I don't figure Light Years/Alien Love Triangle has been delayed something like five years because the Weinsteins loved it so much that they didn't want to share. And so it is with Eros: One really good segment, one really bad one, and whether the movie is a net positive or negative depends on your impression of Steven Soderberg's middle part.

Read the rest at HBS.

Wild Safari 3-D

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2005 at the New England Aquarium Simons IMAX Theater (Preview)

Many, if not most, IMAX screens are located in museums or similar locations, so it's kind of expected that what they play will not only be friendly to children, but "good for them", too. And that's okay; there's nothing wrong with a little education, and adults can often stand to absorb a little knowledge. There's a difference, though, between a movie where the audience might learn something and one that feels like it would be shown in school.

Come to think of it, there's something sort of funny about the idea of this playing in an elementary school classroom. I'm imagining a bunch of six-year-olds, sitting cross-legged on the floor, fidgeting through the first few minutes because they want to see big animals, not hear about South Africa's foresight in setting up on of the continent's first National Park systems.

Read the rest at HBS.

"Major Damage"

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 5 May 2005 in Jay's Living Room (DVD release)

Considering how much attention Pixar's The Incredibles got last year, especially in terms of how great its superhero world was, Chris Bailey's "Major Damage" deserves a little love, too. This three-minute animated short isn't terribly long on plot - a superhero fights a trio of giant, living tiki statues, only to be revealed as it happening in the imagination of Melvin, the kid who's his number one fan. But it's cute, and there's a case to be made that the short some of the best animated superhero action ever.

The second half isn't bad, either, with Melvin having an expressive face even though much of it is hidden behind his mask. Bailey displays good comic timing, too, and gets nice voice performances out of his cast. The character designs, rendering, and motion are all top-notch. Pretty keen soundtrack, too. In short, this is a pretty darn great cartoon.

Of course, that pretty CGI can't have come cheap, and I think it's a fair question to ask how someone who makes a short film makes their money back. There are, of course, options for animated shorts - getting into Spike & Mike and The Animation Show; I don't know if film festivals pay participants or not. I imagine this is why most of the shorts I've seen at recent festivals are either government-funded (especially from Canada) or someone's student films. Doing them otherwise must basically be like making very expensive business cards, something you can show to a studio when you pitch an idea or list on your résumé.

Baily's gone a different route with "Major Damage"; he's made it into a comic book. $15 gets you the "standard" edition, with stills from the movie (a la TokyoPop's "Cinemanga"), some "Major Damage" stories that ran as back-ups in Eric Larsen's Savage Dragon comic, and a whole thwack of sketches and other "making of" material. $30 gets you the "deluxe", which includes a DVD that includes the short, with options to watch it in fully-rendered, storyboard, and rough animation versions; a reel showing characters evolving from pre-visualization to finished product; and a few hand-drawn frames used to test character designs and coloring schemes. Interestingly, they seem to come from the comic's story, which takes place after the shorts and is, if you give it much thought, kind of dark.

There'll be more shorts later, as I write up the IFFB ones for an EFC/HBS article, along with the three Guy Maddin shorts that the Museum of Fine Arts is playing with Cowards Bend the Knee. But it's back to features for a bit.

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