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Reel Talent: First Films by Legendary Directors
Few filmmakers make a classic on their first try. Most toil away in film schools, on weekends, scraping together friends, sets and ideas to fashion their student works. Often, the visions of future careers can be glimpsed in these movies built from blood, sweat and tears -- famously, George Lucas parlayed his Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB into his first feature-length project and of the 12 films included in this first-of-its-kind set, many future directors are seen fine-tuning tone and approach.
Split across two discs, Reel Talent: First Films by Legendary Directors is a smorgasbord of student films culled from the archives of the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. While it's quite a stretch to call every director included here "legendary" (Shawn Levy and Jon Turteltaub? Really?), this selection of a dozen short films is an uneven but fascinating look at the scrappy origins of many Hollywood power players. As an added bonus, purchasing this set can help fund future Spielbergs: All proceeds benefit USC's School of Cinematic Arts. On each disc, the films are playable separately or all together. Fox didn't provide a final retail version of the set for review (thanks so much, guys) so I can't comment on packaging. Let's dig in, shall we?
The Oval Portrait (1934), dir. Richard L. Bare
Bare, who went on direct episodes of "The Twilight Zone," "Green Acres," "Alias Smith and Jones" and "Petticoat Junction," delivers a moody, stylish adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe short story involving an artist so consumed with painting a portrait of his beloved that he doesn't notice her dying until it's far too late. Shot as a silent film, but with orchestral accompaniment, it's a solidly entertaining work. (18 minutes, 29 seconds)
1:42.08 - A Man and His Car (1966), dir. George Lucas
The lion's share of the set is devoted to Lucas, who has three short films included. This slice of cinema verite smacks strongly of Chris Marker's influence, as Lucas wordlessly tracks Peter Brock testing out a race-car. The reliance on natural sound and visual minimalism foreshadows his masterful Electronic Labyrinth. (Seven minutes, 20 seconds)
Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB (1967), dir. George Lucas
Previously available on 2004 THX 1138: The George Lucas Director's Cut double-disc set, this claustrophobic, future-shock short is still worth revisiting. Easily one of the more effective works in this set, Lucas's sophisticated dry run for his eventual feature-length sci-fi drama is a nerve-jangling cinematic exercise. (15 minutes, eight seconds)
Freiheit (1966), dir. George Lucas
A bit heavy-handed, but nevertheless engrossing, this brief short stars Lucas's college roommate, future film director Randal Kleiser, as a bespectacled youth mysteriously gunned down in a field while disembodied voices espouse the virtues of freedom and mankind. (Two minutes, 48 seconds)
The Lift (1972), dir. Robert Zemeckis
Droll, jazzy and subtle, this slice of life takes a surreal turn when an apartment elevator begins to show a mind of its own. Striking an elegiac tone, it's certainly far more serious that a lot of Zemeckis's most well-known work. (Seven minutes, 21 seconds)
A Field of Honor (1973), dir. Robert Zemeckis
Winner of a Student Academy Award, this absurdist comedy follows a recently discharged Vietnam Vet as he leaves a mental institution only to find himself overwhelmed by combat-crazed civilians. (14 minutes, 15 seconds)
Silent Night (year unknown), dir. James Foley, Jr.
Two mental hospital attendants spend Christmas Eve caring for a group of out-there patients, despite disagreeing with each other's methods; dark, meandering and punctuated by plenty of shouting, it's a precursor to Foley's intense, emotionally volatile filmography. (21 minutes, one second)
Proof (1980), dir. Kevin Reynolds
A short that served as inspiration for Reynolds' debut (1984's Fandango), Proof follows a bunch of pals on a road trip, as one of the more timid souls is tricked into skydiving for the first time in his life. Boisterous and made with a rough-hewn energy, it's one of the more engaging works in this set. (23 minutes, 46 seconds)
Perfect Alibi (1989), dir. Steve Sommers
Overly arty and far too wrapped up in being clever, Sommers' short deals with a failed pickpocket trapped in a time loop (a la Groundhog Day) until he can successfully pull off a complicated burglary. Pure '80s cheese, from the costumes to the score. (20 minutes, 17 seconds)
Whatever It Takes (1988), dir. Jon Turteltaub
An amiable lark (like most of Turteltaub's eventual output), this fusion of romantic comedy, drama and musical is a bit odd at times, but impressively ambitious. Starring David Bowe (who also pops up in Shawn Levy's student film), Whatever It Takes focuses on a couple who move to Los Angeles in order to make it in the music biz. (20 minutes, 16 seconds)
Broken Record (year unknown), dir. Shawn Levy
Centered on a pair of teenagers determined to get into the Guinness Book of World Records, this fluffy teen comedy is a bit too long and strained, but has its fleeting charms. (28 minutes, 50 seconds)
The Goodbye Place (1996), dir. Richard Kelly
Stark and eerie, Kelly's haunting black-and-white short closes out the set in a most unsettling way. An abused child is offered escape by a clutch of mysterious strangers who may or may not know where missing children truly disappear to. (Eight minutes, 47 seconds)
All 12 films offered in this two-disc set are presented in 1.33:1 fullscreen transfers of varying quality -- given that each short is a student film and therefore subject to the relaxed standards of collegiate filmmaking, it's safe to say that while most of these look pretty rough, it's also as good as it's gonna get. Flecks, scratches, dirt, washed-out colors and other visual defects abound; whether it's Technicolor or black-and-white, pretty much every flick here looks less than great. Add to this the occasional blockiness and smearing (a result of Fox's idiotic watermarked screener discs) and it made for rough going every now and then. That's not a knock, just a reality that those picking up the DVDs should be aware of; the image may be slightly improved somewhat on the final retail version and should that be the case, I'll amend my review accordingly.
Much like the visuals, the aural end of things is pretty bare-bones. Every film is outfitted with a passable Dolby 1.0 mono track that conveys dialogue, music and sound effects without much in the way of defect. There's the odd bit of distortion and drop-out here and there, but optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided, so you won't miss a second of the action.
A woefully slender job on the bonus materials, Fox. Interviews with three of the directors featured on this set -- Richard Bare (7:59), George Lucas (9:44) and Robert Zemeckis (11:10) -- are the only supplements to be found. Here's my question: Why aren't the other six filmmakers represented? A curious omission and one that holds this release back from being an essential part of any film buff's library.
Reel Talent: First Films by Legendary Directors is a smorgasbord of student films culled from the archives of the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. While it's quite a stretch to call every director included here "legendary" (Shawn Levy and Jon Turteltaub? Really?), this selection of a dozen short films is an uneven but fascinating look at the scrappy origins of many Hollywood power players. As an added bonus, purchasing this set can help fund future Spielbergs: All proceeds benefit USC's School of Cinematic Arts. More substantial supplements would've elevated this set into something special; as it is, it's worth a rental for the curious and a purchase for Zemeckis or Lucas completists. Recommended.