The dangerous thing about mix tapes is that the quality tends to be all over the map. There's usually a lot of mediocrity to wade through in order to get to the good stuff, and the same has held true on most of the collections of shorts I've seen on DVD. The eight short films on TLA Releasing's Celebrity Mix DVD share two things in common: they're each anchored around familiar faces, and unlike those uneven collections of shorts I'm used to, they're all quite good.
Vital Stats: 2001; 4 minutes; written and directed by Philip Euling; stars David Hyde Pierce
The Rundown: David Hyde Pierce is Laud Weiner (say it out loud): a producer, an agent, an executive, a...producer, all rolled into one! The shortest of the shorts on this DVD, Philip Euling's perfectly cast spoof on Hollywood egos is a surgical strike. It's fast, it's breezy, it's funny, and the moment its mission is accomplished, the end credits roll. Just like a mix tape should start off with a bang, Laud Weiner is a great way to kick off this sort of collection.
Vital Stats: 2003; 19 minutes; written and directed by Amy Lippman; stars Zooey Deschanel, Felicity Huffman, and Paul Rudd
The Rundown: Based on the story by Michael Chabon, this short stars Paul Rudd and Zooey Deschanel as a couple of house-hunting newlyweds. She's pondering the potential of each place they look at, while he's disinterested, more preoccupied about the people living there than whether or not there are granite countertops or hardwood floors. They're shuttled around town by an unbalanced realtor whose behavior takes an extremely bizarre turn as he shows them a house that really doesn't look like it's ready for visitors.
I guess since there's a good bit of kleptomania, a kinda frenzied sex scene, and even a little blood, House Hunting would be best classified as a dark comedy, although there's more to it than just a few uncomfortable laughs. Even with the confines of a short's limited runtime, Christy and Daniel seem like people...behave like many of the married couples I know...not just a couple of pawns who exist purely to be shuffled around a filmmaker's chess board. I like films like this where I don't feel like I'm being pushed along some pre-determined, formulaic path. This unconventional comedy is really well-made in every possible sense, from the scope photography to the writing to the performances.
Vital Stats: 2005; 7 minutes; written and directed by Scott Peehl; stars Cheyenne Jackson
The Rundown: A man spots a DVD taped to a crosswalk sign. He yanks it off and brings it home with him, only to find...well, curiosity...cats...that whole thing.
Writer/director Scott Peehl weaves his story without any dialogue and with essentially a cast of one. Most people watching Curiosty will be able to tell within a couple of seconds of Jackson's character watching the DVD how the rest of the film will play out story-wise, but focusing solely on plot is missing the point. It's not about what happens -- it's about this character's reaction to what's happening...or what he thinks might be happening...and his gradual shift from general curiosity to outright terror is what makes this compact, efficient thriller work as well as it does.
Vital Stats: 2005; 8 minutes; written and directed by Terri Edda Miller; stars Laura Kightlinger, Alexis Bledel, Sarah Wynter, Jim Belushi
The Rundown: The fairy tale characters in Terri Edda Miller's critically acclaimed short film would take issue with the storytellers who claimed they lived "happily ever after". Dysenchanted takes a peek at Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Goldilocks, Alice, Little Red Riding Hood, and Dorothy (?) as they gripe about their lives in group therapy, where they're joined by an awfully ordinary divorcee from New Jersey who isn't as far removed from their fantasy lives as she might think.
This short is one of the most deserving of the 'celebrity mix' title -- if you watch enough hour-long TV dramas, you'll recognize every single person in the cast -- but the appeal isn't just because you'll spot someone who guest-starred on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The concept is clever and original, and much like a fairy tale, there's a moral to the story, but it's delivered without seeming overly corny or contrived.
Vital Stats: 2001; 13 minutes; written and directed by Laura Kightlinger; stars Laura Kightlinger, Lewis Black
The Rundown: Laura Kightlinger stars as Jocelyn, a temp who couldn't care any less, quietly trying to wile away the hours in an office that seems agonizingly banal but has a depraved underbelly. Most of its humor stems from how strange Jocelyn's newfound officemates are and how disinterested she is in both them and her job-du-jour. That stone-faced approach is kind of like a less voyeuristic version of The Office with a sadomasochistic streak. More 'amusing' than laugh-out-loud funny, but it's still very much worth a look.
Vital Stats: 2002; 9 minutes; written by Ali MacLean; directed by Karl T. Hirsch; stars Chris Hardwick, Taye Diggs, John Doe, Coolio
The Rundown: Written by and starring Ali MacLean, Media Whore collects a bunch of interviews from VJ Astrid's early days at The Muzic Channel, littered with rambling, hysterically awkward attempts at sounding hip and mindless celebrity interviews. Asking Roswell's John Doe about his days playing bass with Billy Idol, trying to get a few words out of Coolio when he's not sucking on a chicken wing, asking Taye Diggs about acting in Boyz N The Hood...high art? Maybe not, but it kept a huge, goofy grin plastered across my face the entire time.
Vital Stats: 2001; 23 minutes; written and directed by John Daschbach; stars Ben Shenkman, Tina Holmes
The Rundown: A temp timidly walks into the office of an executive she's only met in passing and drops a bombshell: you're going to die. Suddenly. Violently.
He calls her back in, convinced...or perhaps trying to convince himself...that it's a joke. The more she says about her premonition, the more intense Charles' reaction becomes. It's neither anger nor fear...more of a combination of being unsettled and intrigued...unsure if she's out of her mind but not quite ready to completely discount the possibility. The fascinating thing about Waking Dreams is that it's not about whether or not Charles is going to be mauled by sharks in the Caribbean. That question is answered, but it's the conversations between Charles and Becky...the way they see each other as some sort of amorphous concept and strive to understand...that's far more interesting than stock thriller clichés. Even though the names might not stack up to the 'celebrity mix' concept, the performances are outstanding and utterly convincing throughout. I was especially pleased to see Becky presented as a shrinking violet who's trying to do the right thing, even if she's not entirely sure what that is, rather than some ominous voice of doom. This is by far the most substantial of the shorts on this collection.
Vital Stats: 2005; 12 minutes; written and directed by John Stalberg, Jr.; stars Amy Acker, Oliver Hudson, Katharine Towne
The Rundown: Jodi (Amy Acker) is sitting in a bar waiting for her blind date to arrive when the condescending, identically dressed Elizabeth fills her in on her date's nickname: Mr. Dramatic. Acting as if he stepped straight out of a Z-grade spy flick, Mr. Dramatic flicks cigarettes, crushes skulls, smashes beer bottles, and gets the girl...or at least tries.
As an exercise in style, Mr. Dramatic works, but it's a one-joke concept. One good joke is really all you need in a short, but if it's not used to its full effect, it doesn't matter how glossy the photography is or how slick the effects are. Really, I think my biggest qualm with Mr. Dramatic is that it's not long enough. There's a lot of comedy that can be eked out of this surreally awkward a date, but Mr. Dramatic really isn't given that much screentime. He brawls with a couple of people, smooshes and smooches Jodi's face, and that's it for the date. More torturous interaction between the two of them could've been hysterical, but as it is, it almost seems like a beginning and ending without a middle. Still, I'm a fan of both Amy Acker and Katharine Towne, and I loved the moments where the two of them were pitted together.
Video: Most of the shorts on Celebrity Mix are letterboxed; Curiosity is the only of the lot to be presented in anamorphic widescreen, and Dependable People is full-frame. These shorts were shot on a variety of different formats -- video, DV, film -- and with greatly varying budgets, so their appearance understandably isn't exactly uniform. Dependable People fares the worst, looking as if it was lifted from an ancient video master, and House Hunting is softer and less detailed than it seems like it ought to be. Otherwise, the quality of the video is decent enough throughout, if leaning a bit more towards what I'd expect from digital cable than an immaculately mastered DVD.
Audio: The Dolby Digital stereo audio (192Kbps) is a little less variable and sounds fairly robust throughout. If I really felt like griping, I could rattle off complaints like how some of the dialogue in Waking Dreams sounds a bit clipped, but there's no point. It's fine, although this DVD doesn't offer subtitles or closed captions, for anyone who's curious.
Supplements: The only extras are plugs for a few other TLA Releasing DVDs. These eight shorts can be viewed individually or played consecutively, and the disc is packaged in a transparent keepcase.
Conclusion: The shorts on Celebrity Mix all range from at least passably good to great, with no filler or botched experiments padding out the runtime. Very highly recommended as a rental; recommended as a purchase, especially to fans of the talent involved.