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Cinema 16 - British Short Films
As most fans of the genre know, shorts films typically get little or no respect in the medium. It's not just the lack of a viable outlet or their abridged aspects. Unless you're an established filmmaker with a fanbase desperate to see your earlier works, these mini-movies often act as nothing more than professional portfolios, examples of their talent and artistry, but never really stand-alone entertainment entities. Now, thanks to the efforts of American festivals like Full Frame, and UK producer Luke Morris, these often brilliant cinematic sight-bites are getting some much needed attention. The Cinema 16 series, which currently offers three DVDs worth of short films from Europe, Britain and America, illustrates the innovation and imagination inherent in the format, and functions as a watershed for some of today's most important directors. The British selection offers 16 divergent narratives, covering topics ranging from separation and divorce to an obsessive appreciation of French New Wave films. Together, they tell us more about the United Kingdom's worldview than any sociological treatise, and expose many of the tricks and tendencies relied upon by some future famous filmmakers.
Viewed individually, each one of the 16 films here finds its own set of aesthetic values and argues for/against its overall oeuvre importance. Let's begin with:
About a Girl (10 mins – 2001)
Directed by: Adam Davidson
Synopsis: A young girl daydreams about a life as a member of a singing supergroup.
Review: Unnerving and unforgettable, what starts out as a teenager's typical summer afternoon skylarking turns dark and dour as we learn some secrets that should have been kept hidden. The last minute reveal, closely linked to our heroine's story of an unfortunate puppy, catches us completely off guard, and we initially wonder if what we are seeing is real. When we determine that it is, it reconfigures everything we've seen before. Some may scoff as this disturbing denouement, but it really does delivers a shocking statement about the callous call of modern popular culture – and the extremes some will go to in preservation of their dreams. (Score: ***1/2)
Boy and Bicycle (27 mins – 1958)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Synopsis: After skipping school, a young boy spends his day riding around his hometown, taking in the sights.
Review: Manipulating monochrome images that make countryside Britain into a study in significant contrasts, older brother Ridley puts younger brother Tony through his thespian paces in a wonderfully evocative look at childhood lost. Nothing really outrageous happens during this daylong bicycle trip, but Tony's daydreaming character is about to learn that imagination and exploration can collaborate to teach a young man a grand lesson in maturity. There is a strangely sinister air mixing in with Scott's stellar visuals, something that even the sun and the surf can't completely destroy. It makes a typical travelogue into something much more daring, and delightful. (Score: ***1/2)
Dear Phone (17 mins – 1976)
Directed by: Peter Greenaway
Synopsis: Over screens of written narrative, images of telephones show the connection between the sentiments being expressed, and the modern technological ability to (mis) communicate.
Review: A very odd idea for a movie, Dear Phone has a rather appropriate title. More or less a deliberate dissection of how the telephone has replaced letter writing, and in return, the oral tradition in narrative, Greenaway uses sequences where text fills the screen as a reminder of how formal and artful words can be. He then offers up the deliberately mundane images of the red boxy British phone booth as a means of dehumanizing communication. It all ends up very forced and incredibly indulgent. By the time we get to the fourth or fifth story, we no longer really care, and since the call boxes offer little visual variable, we eventually grown bored. (Score: *1/2)
Doddlebug (3 mins – 1997)
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Synopsis: An angry man tries to kill a seemingly unstoppable insect.
Review: This is a gimmick film, an Escher-esque experiment in narrative twists and visual legerdemain. Once we get the secret – and granted, Nolan does a brilliant job of never giving it away until the end – we snigger to ourselves. But the impact is never as magical as the director intends it to be. This is a perfect example of execution saving a more or less routine idea. (Score: ***)
Eight (13 mins – 1998)
Directed by: Stephen Daldry
Synopsis: A young boy tries to figure out why his newly single mother is off anything football-related.
Review: Narrated with authority by our lead, 8 year old Jack Langan-Evans, this journey into familial discord and juvenile longing is as inventive as it is emotional. Following our half-pint hero around as he explores his environment and opines on the situations around him, director Daldry delivers an incredibly insightful study of how kids consider and calculate things. The ending is simple, yet shattering, as the truth of mother's soccer stigma is finally revealed. It is handled so well that we never expect it – and can't forget it once it arrives. (Score: ****)
Gasman (15 mins – 1997)
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Synopsis: It's Christmas, and a deadbeat dad tries to do his best for his two unhappy families.
Review: One of the most painful shorts in the collection, this look at the fallout from divorce is a devastating portrait of responsibility shirked and relationships lost. As our failed father brings his two broods together for a Christmas down at the pub, we slowly realize that these children know nothing of each other's existence, and can't understand why all of them call this man "Dad". The sorrowful screams flowing from one little girl's passionate plea ("Why is SHE on MY daddy's knee???") are heartbreaking. More importantly, Ramsay offers no easy answers and no real resolution. The narrative ends the same way as it started – confusing, and catching us completely off guard. (Score: ****)
Girl Chewing Gum (12 mins – 1976)
Directed by: John Smith
Synopsis: An off-camera filmmaker "directs" the everyday activity in a typical English town.
Review: This is a one-note stunt, an interesting idea for a cinematic observation taken to eventually meaningless extremes. While one can envision a "god" in place of the impassioned filmmaker calling out orders, director Smith never gets his gimmick to transcend its initial invention. Eventually, we grow tired of the concept and slowly tune out. (Score: **)
Home (11 mins – 1998)
Directed by: Standish Lawder
Synopsis: An investigator for the Council uncovers some unusual living conditions during a typical day on the job. Review: Offering a trio of terrific stories, this unusual day in the life of a Council investigator has a couple of cruel clichés to offer. Yet our director always manages to modify them just enough to survive any viewer's well honed skepticism. The first tale, dealing with some devious blind blokes, is really funny, while the second saga has that typical rigor mortis rimshot. The last story is the most interesting, since we spend a great deal of time getting to know our disgruntled squatter. Yet the punchline is problematic, especially when Lawder pulls back, and tries to make it sentimental instead of salacious. (Score: ****)
Joyride (10 mins – 1995)
Directed by: Jim Gillespie
Synopsis: An electrical worker finds himself kidnapped by a couple of psychotic murderers.
Review: An exercise in suspense capped off by a completely gratuitous sick joke, this killer thriller is stylish, simple and expertly realized. The genre gags are plot point pristine, the dread apparent, and the twists handled with logic and skill. It would be interesting to see this material expanded into a longer piece. The 10 minute running time seems to disappear in an instant. (Score: ****)
Inside Out (7 mins – 1999)
Directed by: Tom and Charles Guard
Synopsis: A window dresser and a survey taker try to make contact on a busy London sidewalk. Review: Meet-cute romances rely on elements more obvious than silent film era mugging and fey false starts. While the Guard brothers can't be faulted for trying something unique and different, their bland, faceless leads don't help matters much and we never quite buy the instant attraction element. The ending is also a cheat, since it's more a contrivance of circumstance than of reality. While it does contain a few clever shots, this is one of the lesser offerings in the set. (Score: **)
Je T'aime John Wayne (10 mins – 2000)
Directed by: Toby MacDonald
Synopsis: A young man, completely enamored with French New Wave cinema, tries to live his life via the filmic tenets of Godard, Malle and Truffaut.
Review: Sure, it's obvious, and a bit overdone, but part of the joy in Toby MacDonald's homage to the fabulous foreign films of the '50s and '60s is how accurately he recreates them. There are moments here when you feel you are rewatching Godard's Masculin Feminine or Truffaut's Jules et Jim shot for shot. The black and white cinematography is exquisite, delivering the short's sensational lifts with aesthetic ease. In one of the rare cases in the Cinema 16 set, this film feels too short. It could definitely be expanded to capture more of the New Wave's nuances and still stay within MacDonald's delightful designs. (Score: ****1/2)
The Sheep Thief (24 mins – 1997)
Directed by: Asif Kapadia
Synopsis: A young man, branded a sheep thief by society, falls in with a destitute family picking mangoes to survive.
Review: As with any film that explores the myths and superstitions of another culture, The Sheep Thief teaches us more about India and its impoverished rural populace than any number of well-meaning documentaries. Though it has the air of a fable, director Kapadia always keeps the narrative grounded in daily realities. The boy's branding is handled with subtlety and his eventual redemption is tempered by the constant reminder of his crimes. While the finale could have been handled better (the film just sort of stops), this is still a wonderfully evocative look at crime and punishment, Eastern style. (Score: ***1/3)
The Short and Curlies (17 mins – 1987)
Directed by: Mike Leigh
Synopsis: A lonely clerk at the local chemist's finally finds love with a less than settled soulmate. Review: Director Leigh, noted for his careful character studies created out of extension actor improvisations, delivers an interesting look at the typical lonely hearts melodrama. David Thewlis is amazingly odd as a gawky guy who can't seem to say anything without adding a hackneyed joke over the top, and Alison Steadman is a bag of bothersome tics and twitches as a hairdressing dying for a man. In between are Sylvestra La Touzel and Wendy Nottingham. Both play plain Jane gals who fear a future as a spinster. Only one of them takes steps to solve that problem, though the solution is rather repugnant in its interpersonal approach. Not a masterpiece, but definitely worth a look. (Score: ****)
Telling Lies (4 mins – 1984)
Directed by: Simon Ellis
Synopsis: After a drunken night of carousing, a young man wakes up to a series of scathing phone calls. Review: Using animation to illustrate the undercurrents in a series of phone calls, Ellis really doesn't do anything cinematic here. The collection of colored words on black backdrops is primitive at best. No, the stellar element here is the snide asides delivered instead of the dialogue. During several key moments in the conversation, an "alternative" interpretation of the words is offered, and this is what makes this short so much fun. Sadly, the gag and the movie, run out far too quickly. (Score **1/2)
UK Images (6 mins – 1997)
Directed by: Martin Parr
Synopsis: A look at four isolated locales during a typical summer in England.
Review: Striking, but not really significant, this tepid travelogue really offers nothing of major motion picture importance. Like looking at moving postcards, or sitting through some local township's tourist film, Parr paints a portrait of Britain as one big rest stop. From the highland piper to the couple playing miniature golf, we view leisure as laughable. If there is more to this collection of clips, it must be something unique to the UK mindset only. This American only sees the same great unwashed that meander around this nation's highways and byways come holiday time. (Score: **)
Who's Your Favorite Girl? (15 mins - 1999)
Directed by: Adrian J. McDowall
Synopsis: Two Scottish scamps discuss puberty and French kissing as they suddenly start coming of age.
Review: It's a typical 'secrets of sex' teen romp with only the Scottish background (and brash brogue) differentiating the dick jokes. Some of Adrian McDowall's approach is so obvious (the domineering mother) that the finale falls flat. But what's offered in between is inventive and a great deal of fun. As our leads, Ross Wright and Tarek Hamad are like a lowlands comedy team, sparking off each other with wonderful timing and familiarity. This is a director who knows how to capture the way adolescents talk, and his humor hovers somewhere between the sophomoric and the sublime. Too bad the ending has to undermine the otherwise wonderful atmosphere of fun and discovery. (Score: ***1/2)
Even though we are dealing with film made between 1958 and 2001, and with mediums as varied as 16mm and digital video, the overall presentation of Cinema 16 is excellent. Only six of the films are offered in a 1.33:1 image. They are Boy and Bicycle, Doodlebug, Girl Chewing Gum, Telling Lies, UK Images and Who's My Favorite Girl?. All the rest arrive in an anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 transfer, with Joyride going so far as to incorporate a 2.35:1 cinematic framing into the 16x9 dynamic. In general, the colors are flawless, the details crisp, and the black and white photography a masterpiece in monochrome. As for sound, the Dolby Digital Stereo offers a fine selection of hiss, blips, buzz and distortion. Again, this comes from the films themselves, and not the distributor's digital remastering.
Along with a booklet that offers basic information on each film (the American version is much more comprehensive), the highlight here is a collection of commentary tracks. Every director here – and even the occasional cast or crewmember – steps up to defend and/or define their effort. For the most part, these alternate narrative tracks run the gamut from informative to self-congratulatory. Still, for the amount of hands-on advice they provide, and the down to earth perspective of life in the film business given, this supplemental added content is superb. It makes the Cinema 16 collection all that more impressive.
With a high percentage of artistry present, the vast majority of these shorts deserve a chance to be seen. With far more hits than misses, the Cinema 16 presentation of British Short Films easily earns its Highly Recommended rating. One of the consistent comments made by the filmmakers featured is that anyone who wants to get started in making motion pictures should begin by creating shorts. They are favored on the festival circuit, provide proof of your ability as an artist, and argue for your persistence as someone desperate to create. You don't have to start on a big screen blockbuster or a solemn indie drama. The short film format easily encompasses dreams of all shapes and sizes, and as the Cinema 16 presentation shows us, sometimes, these efforts can be more inspiring than the feature length efforts of the directors involved. Because of the accessibility of DVD, the short film is getting more veneration in cinematic circles. Thanks to the efforts of organizations like Cinema 16, we too can celebrate the specialness found in these truncated treasures.
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