DVD has done a lot for the entertainment industry. It has exposed filmmakers and their movies to audiences who would have otherwise missed their personal or perverted images. It has resurrected long-lost films that previously rotted on the bottom shelves of video stores, or worse, lay dormant in a studio's dilapidated vault. Even the more prominent moviemakers have had a chance to revisit their careers and bodies of work, releasing special edition versions of their classic titles with bonus material enhancing the context of their vision.
But perhaps nowhere has the diamond-encrusted power of the Digital Versatile Disc been better exploited than in the realm of the short film. This mostly-ignored medium, resigned to special festivals and little-seen PBS screenings, has found happy hospice on the modern home theater format. Companies compile and compliment these mini-movies with all manner of bolstering bells and whistles in an attempt to appeal to an overly cautious consumer. In reality, such a supplement-oriented mentality shouldn't be necessary. Many short films stand on their own as examples of cinema at its most straightforward and sensational.
Such is the case with The Best of TromaDance Film Festival: Volume 4. This latest compendium from the free-spirited independent film company offers up 15 fascinating, occasionally flawed features, each one exploring a decidedly different facet of their maker's manic personalities. Taken in total, it's an amazing amalgamation of styles and substances. Individually, there are some landmark works scattered amongst the rest of the merry mix.
Begun seven years ago by Troma chief Lloyd Kaufman (at the suggestion of South Park genius Trey Parker) TromaDance represents a direct challenge to Sundance in both dogma and direction. TromaDance does not charge filmmakers to enter their movies. It does not require patrons to pay. The festival sees itself as a service to both fans and the dreamers of decidedly offbeat visions. Over the course of three previous volumes, Troma has highlighted some of the stellar moments from this cinematic showcase. This latest release is no different, piling 15 films and over three hours of content onto a single DVD.
Instead of trying to tie all these diverse dioramas together, this review will rank the various vignettes in a countdown of sorts. Moving from worst (which is merely confusing) to first (which is a wonderfully quirky comic masterpiece), you too can judge the level of talent and tenacity in TromaDance's stable of savants. Let's start with:
#15: Merry Christmas, Motherf*ckers! (11 mins)
Director: Marco Magni
Plot: An angry man who hates Santa Claus gets an unexpected visitor one night.
Part of the reason for the low rating of this short is the fact that, even with a title card and some manner of actual set up, the story here makes absolutely no sense. Our lonely cabin man supposedly hates/doesn't believe in Santa, so he expresses this rage/regret by removing the arms of some random dude? Huh? What? Certainly the setting is atmospheric, and the direction and camerawork are clever, but one is still baffled by the purpose behind this production. Instead of some Noel nastiness, we end up with a horribly hokey Holy night.
#14: The 'Dubya' (7 mins)
Director: Art Kochukov
Plot: A new translation device helps with the war on terrorism and homeland security.
By now, making fun of the Bush administration and the war on terror is a very old chapeau indeed, and even with an ingratiating infomercial style, this is still a very derivative little film. Most of the jokes fall flat, the irritating subliminal "W"s that appear at random throughout the running time are downright annoying, and the forced sense of campy cleverness really doesn't work. In the end, we feel like we've watched a lame stand up comic do his "big bit" on the government and its goon squads. Yawn.
#13: Revenge of the Killer Meat (2 min)
Directors: Elie Zananiri & Patrick Meimar
Plot: A man sits down to dinner. Dinner is not happy about it.
At two minutes total, Revenge of the Killer Meat is too short to make much of an impact. Nothing more than a live action stop motion experiment, this psycho-food silliness is like a very amateurish take on Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer". Nothing really inventive or interesting happens, and we keep waiting for some kind of incredible finale. It never arrives.
#12: Violin (2 mins)
Directors: Pat Yaney
Plot: A vaudeville team demonstrates an unusual way to play the violin.
If the thought of a 3D computer generated figure playing the violin with his ass makes you laugh uncontrollably, then you'll love this short. That's because, that is all that happens here. For two whole minutes, two cartoon figures serenade us. One holds the instrument, the other plays by manipulating the bow with his bowel. Hardee-har-har-har.
#11: Faberville - Special Delivery (2 mins)
Plot: A retarded guy rides his tricycle around Faberville, delivering newspapers to professional wrestlers and referees.
Without much explanation, and with very little preparation, we enter the oddball town known as Faberville. Apparently populated by all manner of professional wrestlers and sports referees, we follow along as an adult idiot cruises around on an incredibly small tricycle delivering papers. Though it sounds kind of dumb, this is actually very enigmatic and eerie stuff. Too bad there's not more too it than random shots of an oversized savant crossing the countryside via big wheel. With just a little bit more narrative heft, this would have been one of the best offerings in the set.
#10: Nosferatu, The Friendly Vampire (5 mins)
Directors: Karla Davis
Plot: A teenage Nosferatu tries to fit in - and more or less fails.
Trying to twist the classic vampire tale into a story of teen angst, director Karla Davis gets most of her nod to Nosferatu right. Sadly, there is not much of substance once the premise plays out. The friendly fiend being taunted by a group of cool kids is clever, and the scenes where our bloodsucker is running around trying to entertain himself are classic. But the ending is anticlimactic and the overall feel is of a half-baked idea pulled to its inevitable breaking point. A little more development and depth and this would be a winner.
#9: Teenage Bikini Vampire (7 mins)
Directors: Devi Snively
Plot: A rebellious teen vampire longs to spend her DAYS on the beach
Neckbiter teen traumas - part two. Using a beach movie style format is a novel way for director Devi Snively to distance herself from the rest of the post-modern irony crowd. This easy going goof could have been funnier (some of the jokes are painfully obvious) and the resolution is telegraphed and very obvious. Still, we get behind this sun worshipping wannabe and her claret-based craving for a studly surfer boy. Though there are elements that could have worked better - the music montages are too matter of fact - this is still a wonderful, wicked little film.
#8: Emily (14 mins)
Directors: Tate English
Plot: A bride-to-be plots against the mother-in-law from HELL!
Mother in laws, as unhinged harpies, are the stuff of standard cinema. It takes something really clever to recreate this category of comedy - even if it's the woman, not the man, who is in the old battleaxes shotgun sights. Tate English tries, and for the most part succeeds, in making this formula fly, mostly by turning to terror and the twisted. Emily's fate is hilarious at first (there is just something inherently hilarious about hearing an old lady curse like a sailor) but before long, the 'murder as a means' of diverting the pack mule's angry intentions seems shockingly illogical. It is only when the ending arrives that we realize how the slaughter should work. But since we aren't prepared for it properly, it seems awkward and odd. Still, English deserves credit for trying to take a path previously worn into the fabric of film and enliven it with a little killing.
#7: The Little House in Saskatoon (4 mins)
Directors: Mathieu Aubin, Nicholas Archambaulth, Yannick Nolin
Plot: A giant sea creature threatens a sleepy Canadian town.
Nothing more than crayons on paper, cut out and animated stop motion style, this retarded romp with a layer of luscious grue is the one guilty pleasure of this DVD presentation. It doesn't tell that great a story. There isn't anything artistically inventive about the cartooning. The F/X are first grade level at best, and the soundtrack is loaded with screams and fart sounds. As a result, we get a delightfully dumb exercise in cheap monster movie mayhem. And it works, though you may feel like a moron for enjoying it so much.
#6: Doomed to Failure (7 mins)
Director: DJ Summitt
Plot: A film crew heads out to make a movie. Their best laid plans go astray.
Using nuclear holocaust and hip hop as a metaphor to an independent movie meltdown may seem like a stretch, but DJ Summit manages to make it work here. After some inventive opening credits that remind the audience of those misguided government films from the 50s and 60s, we are taken directly into the post-millennial world of some hopeless dopes who soon learn that their cinematic magnum opus might just be a big pile of offal. Filled with flashbacks, careful intercutting, and a believable, anecdotal style, this mockumentary fools us by "keeping it real" and not resorting to the ridiculous.
#5: Lick-It Man (34 mins)
Director: Adam Antonucci
Plot: A mild mannered mailroom clerk holds the special super power of oral sex and must battle evil and ennui with it.
A super hero whose only power is crafty cunnilingus - that's the entire movie in a single, silly sentence. Lick-It Man is obviously riffing on a certain Spider guy, from the alliterative character names to the entire unrequited love story setup. Antonucci does a decent job of lampooning the crime fighter format, but frankly, this short film is about 10 minutes too long. Certain scenes drag on, without much rhyme or reason. The character of The Poker is introduced far too late and given very little to do. And the entire notion that women can go from bitchy to blissful with just a simple bit of oral stimulation is a tad sexist at best, outright ridiculous at worst. Still, there are a lot of good jokes here, some inventive camera work, and a real sense of fun and adventure. With a little editing and tightening, this would be a superb short. As it stands now, it's a wicked work in progress.
#4: 976-LARS (29 mins)
Directors: Gregory Scott Carroll
Plot: A lonely nerd seeks carnal companionship via a dating service.
The sad sack loser nerd with no life to speak of (love or otherwise) has been done to death in both the long and short formats. Thankfully, director Gregory Scott Carroll decides to go with character and style over formula and foolishness, managing to revive the stereotype in a fresh yet familiar way. Lars is a big time tool, the kind of clueless manchild that a ball peen hammer to the back of the head couldn't help. The prostitute mercy date is also kind of derivative, but again, Carroll finds a new angle on an achingly ancient idea. Complete with a pissed off pimp and a pathetic pornstar brother, this is a very cinematic offering, with lots of color scheme strategies and creative compositions to really invigorate the narrative.
#3: Kingdom Rebels: The Passion of the Kingdom Rebels (6 mins)
Directors: James Bernardinelli
Plot: Two alien blobs meet Jesus...and Christ is not happy about it.
There is nothing funnier than something profane and sacrilegious, and James Bernardinelli's Kingdom Rebels is a whole lot of both. Revolving around a couple of extraterrestrial idiots who run into a very racially insensitive version of Jesus (might have something to do with the blackface and big Afro), this nonstop assault on organized religion and ethnic humor is in absolutely brazen bad taste. Though it really exists for no other reason than to make a person laugh, Bernardinelli delivers a delightful animated romp. The computer cartooning is very good, and the character design is deceptively simple. Overall, there might be meatier offerings on the TromaDance DVD, but this savage short film is what the event is really all about.
#2: Bagman - Profession: Murderer (22 mins)
Directors: Anouk Whissell, Francois Simard, Johnathan Prevost
Sam Raimi - eat your heart out. Finally, someone has found a way to match Sam the man in the realm of cinematic cartoon carnage. Call it an over the top and totally gratuitous goofy gorefest, but Bagman is a balls to the wall blast and a half. Of course, when matched against Mr. Evil Dead, it takes three filmmakers to finally equal one Fake Shemp, and the non-stop killing does grow a wee bit derivative after a while. But with kinetic filmmaking, inventive deaths, and a full blown foreign language facet, this movie is like watching a long lost Peter Jackson opus. Indeed, this film plays more like a riff on Bad Taste and Dead Alive than something out of an American oeuvre. Though it doesn't make much of a point - it's just set up and then TONS of slaughter - this is a truly entertaining and innovative work. Our sick and twisted trio of filmmakers should be proud.
#1: Johnson 2: The Passion of the Johnson (35 mins)
Directors: Andy Bauman
Plot: A private detective agency probes the disappearance of rare Swedish mustard, and a sudden influx of Scandinavians into their Utah town.
Along with the previous offering, this is why the TromaDance DVDs can be such great presentations. This remarkable film by Andy Bauman is one of the best, brightest and freshest homemade movies this critic has seen in a very long time. The basic premise for the narrative sounds kind of shameful - after all, how far are you supposed to get with a surreal story of a guy looking for mustard. But thanks to inspired casting, some brilliantly written dialogue, and a great deal of cinematic craft, we end up with a masterwork of near flawless farce. Like a far cleverer Chris Seaver, or a crackpot amateur Coen Brothers, Bauman uses standard archetypes, twisted personalities and incredibly insular humor to forge a film that is equal parts ridiculous and risible. Along with a cast that just resonates with eccentricity and individuality, we have a bizarre character study that holds up to multiple viewings.
This is a movie of many extremes. Bauman employs both deadpan and delightfully over the top elements to make his ideas soar. There are scenes that seem pointless, but that add pleasure to the package by really fleshing out the heroes. The Utah locale is also incredible, since many people haven't seen sights as strange as the main Mormon Temple before. There just aren't enough good things that can be said about this project. If Troma were smart, they would do a Giuseppe Andrews on Bauman and collect up all his works and release them on a single DVD pronto. This is one short filmmaker whose name this critic will be looking for in the years to come.
Overall, it is interesting to note the level of professionalism that has crept into the TromaDance selection, even over the perfectly proficient offerings from Volume 3. So many of Volume 4's shorts feel like real films, not just homemade exercises in cinematic striving. In particular, the top eight entries (minus the paper cutout creativity of The Little House in Saskatoon) all look like promo reels for actual full length features. Even some of the less successful pieces (Faberville, The Dubya) have a realism and an authenticity that can't be denied. Where once independent film looked as if it could never rival the big boys, many of the presentations here surpass the so-called "legitimate" films that one stumbles across in the course of DVD reviewing. It's a testament to TromaDance and the talent it attracts that so many of these mini-movies stand up to close, critical scrutiny. Even the ones with less than successful scores show promise - something sorely lacking in other realms of the entertainment industry.
As wildly divergent as the subject matter they manifest, the transfers of the short films on The Best of TromaDance Film Festival: Volume 4 are equally contradictory. None are bad, and many are as pristine as cinema can get. This is a 1.33:1 full frame presentation that has a few letterboxed oddities tossed in among the collection. Of special note are the images of Johnson 2, Bagman, 976-LARS and Emily (which tries for a nuanced monochrome picture and more or less succeeds). Indeed, nothing here is as hopeless as recent Troma titles like Shakespeare...In and Out or G.I. Executioner. Obviously, the gains in personal production technology have more or less guaranteed that.
Everything said about the video can be transferred over to the audio as well. Though each soundtrack is channeled through the primary presentation's Dolby Digital Stereo mix, many of the films suffer from camcorder microphoniness. You will experience occasional dropout, some shrill distortion, indecipherable dialogue and frequently lame indie rock songs throughout all of The Best of TromaDance Film Festival: Volume 4. More times than not, there is plenty of mood and a marvelous sense of atmosphere in the sonic situations. But this is not a true decibel delight.
With so much content cluttering up the available disc space on the DVD, there is really not much room for bonus features. There is an interesting featurette by Justin Remer, the director of In Defense of Lemmings (featured on The Best of TromaDance Vol. 3) who discusses what it is like to work with Lloyd Kaufman. Using photographs, and a few clips from the scene, Remer shows that even the most passionate of independent film proponents can be a little prima donna-ish when it comes to movie making. It makes for an entertaining few minutes. We are also treated to some more Make Your Own Damn Movie material, including an ad and a lesson from the recent five DVD release.
In typical Troma fashion, Kaufman makes his usual amusing introduction, this time from the set for his latest film, Poultrygeist. His comments are purely an exercise in dictatorial director ranting and raving. It is very funny stuff. That, however, is the extent of the added content. Again, with so much movie here, it would be next to impossible to provide padding like commentaries, making-of's or simple filmographies. The fact that we get 15 different views from the world of independent cinema should be enough...and actually, it is.
Short films can sometimes be less than satisfying, offering up minor, if any real amusement value. They are occasionally one-note exercises in personal egotism that never even attempt to engage or entertain. That is why TromaDance is so important to the realm of independent film. In this fourth volume of festival fodder, we can see filmmakers and fans actually trying to connect with the audience. Instead of making insular statements about unimportant topics, these talented individuals look across the vast pop culture landscape and leave their imprint on several of the more interesting segments. Sure, there is a decided bent towards horror and humor, but we can also decipher elements of drama, speculative fiction, social commentary and personal politics peppered throughout this DVD. More so than any other celebration out there, TromaDance is proving to be the farm team for the future of motion picture making. Certainly some of the more esoteric works will remain locked down in a decidedly cult status, but it is also true that a great many soon to be famous face will eventually come from this sensational series. Troma may be the last bastion of independent art, but TromaDance is the true conduit to creative nirvana.
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