June 18, 2010

Toy Story 3 Talkback

Walter reviewed it here; what did you think of the film? Let's talk Toy Story 3 and all things related.

June 12, 2010

Dispatch from the 2010 WWSFF: Midnight Mania - Creepy

Click here to visit the Worldwide Short Film Festival's official website.

Back in my early-twenties, there was one summer job I had where I found myself doodling animals saying inexplicable--and, needless to say, often repulsive--things. It started out as an effort to break the ice with my only co-worker (we spent most of our time locked in a makeshift editing bay together), then escalated into a constant test of her boundaries. I happened across some of these drawings recently, and they are resolutely unfunny: a bunny threatening to kill your mother with an axe, a frog telling a fart joke; in retrospect, I wonder why said co-worker eventually invited me to her wedding. Stockholm Syndrome's my best guess. Nevertheless, during the subterranean Looney Tune that is Everybody (animated; ds. Jessie Mott; 4 mins.; ½*/****), I began to feel grateful that there was no real public forum to display those cartoons back then, because all I'd really be doing is inviting some asshole on the Internet to dismiss it as adolescent shit. This is adolescent shit. Rendered in crude, impatient watercolours, various deer, bats, goats, etc. are anthropomorphized via cheaply cryptic remarks like "I'm too small in the necessary spaces," and "You paralyze me with disgust. You're spilling open like a gelatinous achin' belly." To which I reply, by way of Al Pacino in Heat, "Don't waste my motherfuckin' time!"

Credited as "un film improvisé," Québec's Jardin Dead End (live-action; d. Stéphane Laponte; 10 mins.; **½/****) continues a nihilistic trend that will be hard-shaken by the "Creepy" program, but I laughed and was suitably impressed by how well it hangs together as an improvisation, which here clearly refers less to ad-libbed dialogue--the acting is free of Method tics--than to a sort of spur-of-the-moment invention. (Dressing up for an exorcism, a priest dons a lucha libre mask.) When a lonely guy hits on an unfathomably-single woman at a nightclub, she's receptive but warns him that she's possessed by the Devil. He clearly presumes she's being metaphorical, but before long she's spitting pea soup at him; while the sex is good, he can't take her to a nice restaurant. Alas, the opening shot of a dog getting pasted to the road by a passing car is a dreadful miscalculation: it's not just a Seth MacFarlane moment of bad taste, it's pointless bad taste, and the film instantly faces an uphill struggle to redeem itself.

Comparatively chaste, Britain's The Elemental (live-action; d. Robert Sproul-Cran; 12 mins.; **) is also peculiarly unsatisfying. The synopsis at the official site says, "Karen's mother used to terrify her with tales of a presence on the dark tenement stair--something you should never look at. Years later Karen reluctantly returns to the house she loathed to find her elderly parents, and finds it facing demolition. But her childhood fear still waits within..." This is all very helpful backstory at best abstractly indicated by the film, wherein Karen discovers her parents in a zombified state that I gather is out of the ordinary--though in my experience a lot of elderly English couples are just like this, vacantly waiting for their adult offspring to brew the tea. The problem, ultimately, is that the movie suggests a pre-credits teaser rather than a self-contained story. And maybe it's supposed to (i.e., maybe it's a sample scene to secure further funding), but I can't say the slow pace or banal monster made me wanna know more. Back to exceedingly poor judgment with the Canadian Jack (live-action; d. Kryshan Randal; 5 mins.; ½*/****), and no wonder: it was produced for the Bloodshots Canada 48-Hour Film Challenge, whereby contestants are given a horror subgenre, a weapon, a prop, a line of dialogue, and two days to fashion these ingredients into a short subject. In my experience, that kind of pressure cooker is more likely to breed gonzo irreverence than anything resembling inspiration. Sure enough, not only does the movie...overstep with its baby-in-peril climax, it also--I'm not the first writer to point this out--conspicuously recalls Treevenge in its tale of pumpkins getting even with humanity for the jack-o'-lantern.

What to say about the morbid MRDRCHAIN (animated; d. Ondŕej Švadlena; 10 mins.; ***/****), from Prague, other than that its title cracks me up? A vivisected, quasi-human being (apparently called Sliceman) traverses a dark city in the desert where all the architecture looks like stretched tendons or rectal cavities. A marquee gains temporary illumination as each lightbulb sacrifices itself to violently inject life into the next--until one of the little guys refuses to conform, thus breaking the "murder chain." It might just be a desperate bid to decrypt the film, but one can't help drawing an allegorical line back to Švadlena's childhood, when he escaped the Czech Republic by crossing the Yugoslavian-Austrian border on foot. His vision is an idiosyncratic one, in any case, finally seizing on the potential for those creepy botched character renderings sometimes shown on Pixar and DreamWorks DVDs to become misfit Mickey Mouses of their own.

It's disappointing to chase something so fresh with something as stale as Canada's 5 Minute Dating (live-action; d. Peter Hatch; 6 mins.; *½/****). How many more wacky turbo-dating montages must I sit through until I've reached my quota? How many more skits will solve the problem of an absurd character's bachelorhood by pairing him off with his distaff equivalent before that particular well runs dry? As the debonair monster who shows up late for speed dating (with his monocle, top hat, and apple-doll complexion, he could be an undead Mr. Peanut), Gustavo Franco cuts a sympathetic Beast hopelessly searching for his Beauty. Then he's matched with the disfigured Sarah, and it's kismet. I saw the twist-ending coming, but in fairness to the filmmakers, I thought it would be the mirror image of what we get--which is hilariously meanspirited. As conventional as it would have been to have these two waltz off into the sunset together, one is again left waiting for sincerity to return to the movies.

Another Canadian entry, Chloe and Attie (live-action; d. R. Scooter Corkle; 8 mins.; **/****), grows progressively less intriguing the more it reveals, both literally and figuratively. The schematically-chosen camera angles--faces are rarely the subject of shots at first--slowly morsel out the premise, in which a middle-aged woman watches over her ailing sister in a small apartment. (One is reminded early on as we peer through a doorway at a woman with her back to us of that moment in Rosemary's Baby that had audiences craning their necks to "see" around a corner.) The titular siblings have a co-dependent relationship that seems headed for a Dead Ringers-style denouement until the filmmakers effectively grant them a sentimental reprieve, and once we finally see how dangerous Chloe--or is it Attie?--is, it is to laugh, really. It's a short whose reach greatly exceeds its grasp, though it didn't tax my patience like Scotland's monotonous Battenberg (animated; d. Stewart Combie; 12 mins.; */****). Imagine a scatological Fantastic Mr. Fox performed with rotten and emaciated animals, as a squirrel and a magpie butt heads over the titular cake and other things in a country kitchen.

Again programmers saved the best for last. Shot in 'scope, the BAFTA-nominated Off Season (live-action; d. J. Van Tulleken; 13 mins.; ****/****) transposes the boy-and-his-dog archetype of post-apocalypse flicks to a frozen tundra that obviously and, I think, intentionally (so rarely do we see this much snow on screen), brings John Carpenter's The Thing to mind, using it to provoke a Pavlovian dread in the viewer. Our surly hero and his underfed terrier companion have survived something others have not, or have lingered longer in cottage country than they should have; he spends his days looting abandoned houses, his nights guzzling whatever liquor his scavenging has yielded. Indeed, this is a quietly devastating portrait of alcoholism couched in a genre framework rife with haunted houses and bitter "Twilight Zone" ironies. A truly frightening film, it heralds writer-director Jonathan Van Tulleken as the next big name in horror. With any luck.

June 04, 2010

Dispatch from the 2010 WWSFF: Midnight Mania - Freaky

The Worldwide Short Film Festival got underway this past Tuesday in Toronto and continues until Sunday, June 6th. Click here to visit the fest's official website.

It's tempting to say that pop already ate itself, leaving a vast wasteland of remakes and reboots that can't possibly be fertile enough to cultivate imaginations; I sometimes lie awake worrying that one day all we'll be left with is the vultures and their Jane Austen mashups, their homemade Lord of the Rings prequels and Sweded Rambo movies. Should such a Doomsday scenario come to pass, let's hope it occasionally yields something as whimsical and obviously heartfelt as France's The Little Dragon (Le petit dragon) (animated; d. Bruno Collet; 8 mins.; ***/****), in which a magical force brings a Bruce Lee action figure to life, seemingly with the legend's identity, if not his soul, intact, as it is his impulse upon encountering a Chuck Norris cut-out to kick it down. (He also recognizes his name and image on other collectibles.) Decked out in his yellow Game of Death jumpsuit, he navigates a maze of cobweb-strewn movie memorabilia that appears to be some Harry Knowles type's bedroom; in a moment of quintessentially French cinephilia, Bruce, having been passed the torch (the Statue of Liberty torch from a Planet of the Apes model kit, that is), stumbles on a makeshift crypt lined with dolls of Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Louise Brooks, Robert Mitchum, and, erm, Robert Taylor. The stop-motion animation is charming--this scrappy little guy may actually be the ne plus ultra of Lee imitators, who are of course legion--and the tone is deceptively irreverent. This is fan art, executed with gusto--but does it have a function? Collet could be the next Nick Park--but is he hurting for inspiration?

I sincerely doubt that Norwegian writer-director Sara Eliasson thought she'd be labelled uninspired or derivative when she came up with the  concept of a post-apocalyptic world where children rule and language is both dying and a MacGuffin, yet the dystopia of Still Birds (live-action; 13 mins.; **/****) is too redolent of Bad Boy Bubby to ignore, while the ragamuffin with the angelic singing voice is such an indelible part of The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover that seeing another one here feels like copyright infringement. (The constant mewling on the soundtrack, meanwhile, prompted somebody in the next room to ask if I was watching Eraserhead.) It's a shame, because Eliasson is capable of delivering the odd arresting image all her own, the best of them--that of a dying queen draped in a robe of stuffed animals--incidentally the only one in the film to exploit the cast's native innocence for something other than grotesque shock value. Speaking of shock value, Denmark's Clean Carousel (animated; d. Andreas Bødker; 2 mins.; ***/****) violates a very specific taboo with an impishness I can only describe as Von Trier-ian. Ditto a determinedly primitive aesthetic that's rather effective as a psychic projection of the main character, an obsessive caretaker of a merry-go-round whose solitariness and emotional seesawing between euphoria and horror are paralleled in the spartan, similarly binary-minded Flash animation.

From medium (stop-motion) to aesthetic (sickly) to concept (grim fairytale), Spain's The Twin Girls of Sunset Street (Les Bessons del Carrer de Ponent) (animated; ds. Marc Riba & Anna Solanas; 12 mins.; *½/****) is an uncanny Brothers Quay pastiche. (All that's missing is a soundtrack by Tool.) The eponymous villainesses are decrepit old sisters who steal children, strip them of gender by shaving their heads, and use their body parts in the preparation of various elixirs that are popular with what I presume is the local apothecary, who looks, for reasons unclear, like Chaplin's Tramp gone to seed. (I think they're supposed to be cannibals as well.) In the end, the film may be entirely too ersatz for its own good: I'm not a big Quay fan, and found it nailed the oppressive dourness of their work without transcending it; and yet, I can easily see devotees rejecting it for getting as close as it does to the Quays' style without being the real deal--like a forgery. An unlikely palate cleanser, Israel's To Kill a Bumblebee (live-action; ds. Sharon Maymon & Tal Granit; 7 mins.; **½/****) opens with the more alpha dog of two hunters thoughtlessly killing a bumblebee, then shows the pair quickly become equally desensitized to taking human lives after accidentally killing "something Asian" and gunning down the witness to that, and each subsequent, murder. The fact that we ourselves are disturbed by the first couple of deaths and laughing uproariously by the time the body count is approaching the teens doesn't necessarily prove anything, but it's food for thought about the hollowing toll of violence. Still, as cut and dry as it sounds, this was the first time watching this batch of shorts where I felt like I was missing out on a deeper cultural context for the film. I'd love to read an Israeli take on it, if only to have its peculiarly specific hostility towards Thais illuminated for me.

At 37 seconds in length, The Tail Gunner (animated; d. uncredited; */****) is barely worth mentioning: a Furby-type creature dreams he's a WWII flying ace; this isn't a short, it's a bumper. Then there's the interminable Beauty Plus Pity (live-action/animated; ds. Emily Vey Duke & Cooper Battersby; 14 mins.; *½/****), which isn't really a movie, either. Indeed, to its credit, it's not like anything I've ever seen on screen before--though it is a lot like many an ultra-didactic, would-be avant-garde ("would be," if not for all the didacticism) high-school play I've sat through. Made by New York-based Canadian artists, the piece is half PowerPoint presentation done up in the style of airline-safety pamphlets, half found-feeling footage of a hunting party. Over the video-based material, a lunatic narrator with a Lee Perry-esque voice recites Philip Larkin's "This Be The Verse" and advocates the killing of animals as a way of communing with nature (this section is described in official literature as "part apologia and part call to arms"); in cartoon form, an anthropomorphized beaver holds a slideshow--hello, unauthorized still from Sixteen Candles--to aid a very human tale of woe involving the Catholic church's expulsion of a grieving mother for not preventing her daughter's alcohol-related death; and I compulsively check the timecode, however fascinated I am by the irreconcilable politics and inscrutable sincerity of the thing. In any event, I would maybe change that titular plus to a minus.

But it's arguably more palatable than The Prince of Milk (live-action; d. Eisuke Naitou; 15 mins.; */****), a student film reminiscent of amateurish Japanese gross-outs like Living Hell, if not half as endearing. The elliptical plot finds a possibly-retarded teenage boy killing himself after some giggly schoolgirls catch him jerking off and nickname him "The Prince of Milk" based on his long, ropey ejaculations. Shades of The Grudge, this manifests a vengeful, possibly-retarded spirit who goes around dry-humping the female student body and stabbing them repeatedly, all the while regurgitating milk onto their faces and into their mouths. Ten years later, the "Milk Prince" appears to be in a psych ward, where a schoolgirl rams an umbrella deep up his ass then opens it to protect herself from the arterial spray. Sorry for having given away the ending just now, but how often do you get to type something like that? I do like that it was shot in Academy ratio, or at least transferred that way to video, complete with frayed matte edges that bring super8 incongruously to mind.

They saved the best for last. Rounding out the "Freaky" portion of the WWSFF's Midnight Mania program, the UK's Yellow Belly End (animated; d. Philip Bacon; 9 mins.; ***½/****) is a deliciously absurd specimen, ripe for interpretation and stealthily emotional; no surprise that it's racked up an impressive number of awards. At the edge of the world, a man trainspots the animals he sees, keeping a running tally of which ones leap off the horizon to their presumed death by marking it in a book and taking a corresponding jellybean. I should clarify that there are no animals, per se, only people in Miyazakian costumes--like the man himself, who's dressed as a canary. When he inherits a suitcase with a bloody, beaten, and gagged "mouse" inside, he's confronted by a compulsive urge to give the mouse that last push he needs. Is it coldbloodedness? Pity? Completism? Or is it simply pretext for leaving his post and becoming more than a spectator in this society? (Given that the title links his costume to cowardice, it seems an act of bravery.) A late-developing romance in which the "bird" finds his complement in a cow avoids conventional geek uplift by distilling whatever bond they have to its temporariness. For all its accomplishment, including a perceptive sound design, I can't believe this is a student film.