How many short films have you watched this year? Personally, I am forever trying to catch up to the long list of short film subjects that I would like to see at some point. Watching all of the movies that interest you can be hard enough. Unless you’re willing to give up all significant social ties, neglect your kids until they write a depressing folk song about you, and quit your job, you’re probably never going to see every movie you want to see. If you’re like me, your list is never static, which is part of the problem.
And that’s just full-length features. When you start to consider short subjects, and when you remember that one of these days, you’d really like to get caught up on Scandal or Sons of Anarchy, you’re pretty much pre-panning your entertainment diet for the next several months. That doesn’t even include things that haven’t come out yet, or films that you hear about that sound interesting.
Something is going to suffer in all those possibilities. In literature, people like meals over snacks, and that seems to be the case with movies, as well. For a culture that supposedly has the attention span of a hummingbird on coke, we tend to go for feature length movies over short ones, and we generally prefer novels to short stories.
I’m sure there is some science to explain why this is, but I don’t know it off the top of my head.
So I try to watch as many short films as I possibly can. You can include short fan films on popular properties from comics, video games, and other movies in that ambition, as well. I’ll never keep up, same as it is with full-length films, but it’s fun to try. I’ve acted in a couple of short films. Occasionally, I get to write about them, such as when I covered the short student films featured in the 2009 Savannah Film Festival. For the most part, I don’t get to watch as many as I would like, and I don’t get to discuss them as often as I would prefer.
I also don’t know people who watch them at all, and I think that’s too bad. Between the projects designed to elaborate on fandoms in the most loving, dedicated way possible, and the cinematic storytellers who try to tell a complete, compelling story in 15 minutes or less, there is a lot of great material out there. There is also a lot of colon-shredding garbage to wade through, as well. This is no different than anything else, but you may find it harder to get suggestions from your friends. The short feature subject usually doesn’t get a lot of media attention until awards season. Becoming well-versed in this area of film will probably force you to watch movies you don’t have a ton of background information on. Is that a bad thing?
If you don’t know where to start, a straightforward Google search for something like “the best short films of 2015” or “the best short films of 2014” will probably get you somewhere. The Best Live Action Short Film Oscar picks for 2015 represent an interesting, varied range of perspectives and styles. Short film festivals are all over the place, so you may want to find out what you can find in your neck of this misguided universe of ours. I would also strongly suggest that if you’re someone who attends a lot of science fiction/fantasy/Anime/misc. fandom conventions, find out if the programming block includes an offering of short subjects.
The short film included with this month’s column is the motivator behind this sudden desire to make the case for this type of filmmaking and storytelling. Sean Mannion’s Time Signature is only ten minutes in length. It is definitely worth your time, for reasons we’ll get into shortly. Without actively trying to, this short feature does a nice job of highlighting the creativity, passion, and breathless ambition of those who make films that have very little large-scale commercial appeal. At best, these shorts tend to give the cast and crew the opportunity to work on their respective crafts, while hoping the movie leads to bigger budgets and larger projects later on down the line. These people have to work, create, and promote with the knowledge that their current release may take them to the next stage of their careers, but they must also keep in mind that there is a very good chance that this won’t happen.
Similar circumstances exist for independent filmmaking of all shapes and sizes, but you could make the argument that because they get less attention, short films have a much tougher road to travel.
Which is too bad, since some of the best movies out there are less than twenty minutes in running time.
Get Hard (2015): D+
Individually, Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell are pretty talented comedic actors. Throughout Get Hard, they individually have moments that while are not truly representative of their talents, are nonetheless reasonably funny.
Unfortunately, most of their scenes together, which is supposed to be the centerpiece of the film, are wretchedly humorless.
Get Hard has an interesting premise going for it, in which a hedge fund manager (Ferrell) turns to his car washer (Hart) for advice on how to survive in prison. Etan Cohen makes his directorial debut here. He has some good writing credits under his name (Idiocracy, King of The Hill, and Tropic Thunder, to name a few), but he doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in doing anything with Get Hard. The movie relies on its two stars to get brilliant humor out of tired jokes about racial stereotypes and gays. Not surprisingly, Ferrell and Hart fail for the most part. Mostly because at this point, no one is going to get anything particularly clever out of prison rape jokes, which Get Hard relies on to a degree that is almost funnier than the movie itself.
Almost, but it’s not. Get Hard is largely a depressing trial of your patience. Wait and wait for the potential of the plot and its two leads to go somewhere. When the movie is thankfully over, you’re still going to be waiting.
What We Do in the Shadows (2015): A+
Based on a 2006 short film, What We Do in the Shadows is a good example of the best-case scenario for short subjects. With time, the writing/directing team of Taika Waititi (who also directed the very good Eagle vs. Shark, as well as the 2010 film Boy) and Jemaine Clement (one-half of The Flight of the Conchords) were able to develop the original short subject into this feature film.
If you know what kinds of projects Waititi and Clement generally attach themselves to, then you can probably guess everything that What We Do in the Shadows is going to entail. It builds on the kind of quirky, hyper-reality mockumentary stylings of films like This Is Spinal Tap, but What We Do in the Shadows never gets close to rip-off territory. It uses an established formula for telling very silly stories with a straight documentarian face, but this film quickly goes off into its own creative direction.
A group of vampires living together, trying in their own individual ways to make sense of the 21st century, can go in a lot of directions. What We Do in the Shadows celebrates the vampire genre, and throws in an assortment of nicely-timed jokes and nods to the genre as a whole, but it gets most of its appeal and strength from being intensely character-driven. More to the point, it has excellent actors working with well-written characters, which makes the fact that it is so character-driven all the better.
What We Do in the Shadows has a lot to offer those who are willing to be both interested and in possession of an open mind. There are singular moments that are hilarious with or without context (such as the opening, in which Waititi’s vampire introduces the audience to the rest of the vampires, under the guise of letting them know that a house meeting is scheduled to start). There are characters who grow on you, over the course the movie’s running time. One of the best examples of that is Stu, the one human in the group. Played by Stu Rutherford, Stu is the least comedic actor in the movie. Rather, he is one of the only actors in the movie who is not actively trying to make you laugh. Yet he gives what is easily one of the funniest performances in the entire movie.
Exceptional comedic chemistry amongst everyone in the cast is perhaps the strongest defining component to one of the most wonderful surprises of 2015 thus far. What We Do in the Shadows is the latest entry in the field of ensemble comedy films, and it is one of the best examples of that subgenre in recent memory. Each individual piece that makes up the machine of this film is perfect. Even better is how those pieces work together so beautifully.
Salvador (1986): B+
A fairly long time ago, Oliver Stone made time capsule movies that were not altogether factually accurate, but were generally pretty exciting and well-made, in terms of being pure entertainment vehicles. Most of his films thus far have dealt with social/political matters, and they are projects that tend to be more interested in achieving Stone’s vision as a writer and director, than they are at being true to the source materials.
Salvador is a good case in point. However you may feel about the social elements that surround this story of a struggling photographer (James Woods, in what is still perhaps his definitive, guy-with-one-foot-beyond-the-fringe-of-sanity performance), who takes a disc jockey friend (Jim Belushi, who is actually really good, as well) to El Salvador, it’s a pretty engrossing movie-watching experience. Until Stone decided to finish losing the rest of his mind during the 90s, he had a pretty good track record for interesting, singular cinema. Salvador stands up fairly well after almost thirty years. Phenomenal, in terms of how adept the film is at juggling Stone’s personal feelings with his stylistic touches, while miraculously leaving more than enough room for actors like Woods and Belushi to give memorable performances.
It is a feat that Stone would struggle to recreate later on. Here, he’s a filmmaker ravenous for an opportunity to do things his way. The frantic, infectiously manic energy of El Salvador is unrelenting, but it rarely engages at the expense of story and character.
The Omega Man (1971): B-
For a lot of people, this is still the best film version of Richard Matheson’s iconic science fiction novel, in which one man tries to find some semblance of a life (as well as any surviving pockets of humanity) in the aftermath of a plague that wiped out most of the planet.
As far as this survivor (Charlton Heston, doing all sorts of angry and/or sardonic Charlton Heston things) is concerned, it’s him alone against a legion of mutated, psychotic half-humans. Of course, that proves to not be the case, but we don’t get to know that for sure until much later in the movie. Same with 1964’s The Last Man on Earth and the 2007 I Am Legend, The Omega Man spends a great deal of time on Heston trying to keep his hope and sanity together. Heston doesn’t overact as much as you might think he would, but it is hard to separate the fact that he was/is so easy to parody from the fact that in the right projects, he was a very effective actor. He is quite good here, as is Anthony Zerbe and Rosalind Cash.
By 1971, Heston was probably pretty aware that his mere presence could grab the attention of an audience. What makes The Omega Man a formidable, still worthwhile entry in the post-apocalyptic landscape trope is the fact that he doesn’t coast on that knowledge. A sincerely effecting performance only further enhances what is still the best version of Matheson’s story ever made. Although for what it’s worth, Will Smith and Vincent Price both do better turns with the character in their respective versions of the story, than Heston does here.
Popeye (1980): C-
Your kids may or may not like the 1980 film version of E.C. Segar’s seminal comic strip character, but that’s beside the point. If you’re just watching it to round out your marathon of films starring Robin Williams or directed by Robert Altman, Popeye is going to be interesting.
You may not like a movie that was considered pretty weird in its time, and has since just become stranger and stranger with age. One thing is for certain, and that is the fact that whether you like this surreal musical adventure, which is disconcertingly faithful to the comics and cartoon, or whether you don’t, you’re not going to be able to take your eyes off the screen.
Popeye spent 20 million dollars on trying to bring a bizarre cartoon from the 1930s and 40s to life. It succeeds, and it also succeeds as being one of the oddest movies Robert Altman ever directed in his haphazard, prolific career. Popeye is so good at sticking to its roots, someone who watches the movie now with no context might think it is making fun of the source material. It’s not. Popeye is simply that earnest in being a reliable adaptation of a deliriously wacky cartoon/comic strip. You’ll stick through the movie for that reason alone, hardly able to believe that a major studio gave Robert Altman a small fortune to see what he could come up with.
In one of his earliest film performances, Robin Williams as Popeye amounts to the other main reason why you’ll at least watch this to the end. His Popeye impersonation is scary in its accuracy, and the performance suggests a lot of the talent (particularly in comedic timing) that Williams would later bring to projects that were better suited for his talents. The fact that Paramount trusted a project this expensive to a star that was not even remotely a proven box office entity is interesting, as well. Probably, Robert Evans and the studio believed that Popeye could grab some of that money that the film version of Annie was catching, and that people would see Popeye for the characters, and not the actors. Regardless, Williams is the one thing in the movie that will be recognizable to many people. If he is your main reason for watching this, you’re not going to be disappointed. Williams would get better at film acting with time, but he showcases early indicators of his brilliance here.
Besides Popeye existing in an absolutely freakish universe, the movie is memorable for what Williams suggests he will be able to do as an actor later on.
Time Signature (2014): B-
If Time Signature seems a little heavy on exposition, even for a movie that is less than ten minutes long, that’s a fair enough opinion.
Still, that doesn’t really change the fact that Sean Mannion meets his high storytelling ambitions with remarkable skill in the film, which depicts a meeting between a young woman (the excellent Kitty Ostapowicz) and the guitarist of her favorite band (the equally fantastic Tara Cioletti). The meeting jumps suddenly into science fiction territory, which happens near the movie’s end. This is also the point in which we are left wanting more from these actors, as well as from Mannion as a writer and a director.
Everyone in Time Signature brings unique talents to a short subject that manages to tell a very compelling narrative over its short running time. Everything about Time Signature very clearly suggests that if Mannion was given what he needs in the way of budget and resources, he could come up with something well worth watching. An expansion on this short would be nice, but with the promise Time Signature shows, I’m okay with pretty much anything he might have in mind.
TIme Signature is available to watch now on Vimeo.