Summer Shorts: The Life and Death of a Pumpkin

23-Jul-10 11:00 AM by
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Few actors and directors are talented at multiple genres. Michael Bay, for example, is known for directing explosive action films that lately have not been very good; conversely, James Cameron was as skilled at the character-driven science fiction of Terminator 2 as he was the sappy romance of Titanic.

For this reason and others, it is often effective for a person or team to choose a speciality to focus on and master, building a reputation for quality in their chosen field. But from a creative perspective, such dedication can be boring, and the temptation to flex one's artistic muscles is ever-present. Still, I never expected the creators of the ludicrously funny Star Wars satire series Chad Vader to investigate the horror genre, resulting in the excellent Life and Death of a Pumpkin:

This film won multiple awards at the Chicago Horror Film Festival in October 2006, a timeline that places the short's airing at around the same time Chad Vader made his own debut. I'm guessing Blame Society Productions, the team behind both shows, was at the time experimenting to find their niche and eventually settled on the comedic styles of the imperial day shift manager. But the above short demonstrates their talent at a diverse range of cinematic stylings. The macabre perspective, tremulous voice, and bittersweet climax remind me of another award-winning horror short, Unloved, which has also been featured here on Showbits. Among those qualities is the occasional effort at injecting Blame Society's trademark humor into the pumpkin's monologue, suggesting that the film is not meant to be taken seriously — yet it works whether you view it as as genuine and satirical horror.

Who are some of the actors or directors that you have found to be as effective as Blame Society at crossing genres?

Summer Shorts: There She Is!!

16-Jul-10 11:00 AM by
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Today's summer short is another classic, this one from 2004. It's about finding love not only where it's least expected, but also when it's least desired. Please enjoy There She Is!!

This video by SamBakZa (English translation) is the first in a five-part series. I personally prefer the plot and soundtrack of the second video, "Cake Dance":

This continuation of the first episode shows how quickly a relationship can develop. When a romance is new, its participants feel like they're engaged in something that's never been experienced by anyone alive. They unabashedly dedicate themselves to celebrating this new experience, and "Cake Dance" demonstrates that level of devotion that trumps all societal pressures and norms, and that taboos often become less stigmatic as love becomes more prevalent — all while being a good music video, too.

In that this animated world is populated by bunnies and kitties, it reminds me of Bill Holbrook's Kevin & Kell, supposedly the first ever Web comic about a wolf and a rabbit who meet through an online dating service. I followed the dead tree edition of the strip for some years, and though it effectively focused its humor at Internet geeks, the characters' backstories and plots eventually grew too convoluted for me.

What short videos have you found that celebrate love?

Summer Shorts: Paintballing

09-Jul-10 11:00 AM by
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There are many ways for a film to be creative: plot, characters, presentation, and more. One variation we don't often see is in the medium itself. So far this year, the post popular media for the Summer Shorts films are CGI and live action. We don't often see puppets or classic animation, for example.

Paintballing is a short that could be classic animation but looks more like it was drawn in Microsoft Paint. That crude program is rarely a source of works of art, but this short is both novel and fun:

Choosing an art form that is thematically related to the plot was an inspired choice that is rarely possible with more traditional media. On the other hand, I've been playing too much Worms lately, so maybe I'm biased toward depictions of cute little things blowing each other up.

Summer Shorts: City of Scars

02-Jul-10 11:00 AM by
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The shorts we've watched so far this season have demonstrated the creativity of artists with original intellectual properties. Some actors and directors are just as limitless when applying their talent to their own interpretations of well-known characters. Batman, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939, has undergone many metamorphoses, each time adapting to the times and audience in which the superhero finds himself. One manifestation of the Dark Knight can be found in a recent 40-minute independent film, City of Scars:

For a "short" to carry its plot across 40 minutes requires excellent production values and talent, which this film has in spades. But it does set itself apart from the archetypal Batman in several important ways.

Just as Superman's modus operandi is based on the trust and support of the American people, Batman's power is founded on fear. Most of Gotham has never seen Batman and few believe him to be more than an urban legend, which made his bold appearance in the bar hard to believe. Nor was his fighting style as subtle and elegant as represented in the comic books. Rather than choke a thug with an iron chain, Batman would more likely bust out a martial art that would lay the hood low without little apparent effort.

We're also given an unusual look at Batman's counterpart. This Joker acts (or perhaps looks) like a bully, lending the character more anger and menace and less insanity than previous portrayals, such as Andrew Koenig's. Yet this Joker is not new to the role; Paul Molnar has previously played the Clown Prince of Chaos in both Patient J and Batman Legends, in which Kevin Porter again played Batman. Given the above film's ending, it seems this partnership may be at an end.

There is no one right way to define these characters, though, and it's encouraging to see films that are willing to put their own spin on classic icons. What is your favorite version of Batman, either in print or on screen? Does the above version mesh with what you expect from these characters?

Find more Batman films from these artists at Bat in the Sun. For a lighter look at Batman, see Batman's Bad Day and The Interrogator — or even RiffTrax's take on The Dark Knight.

(Hat tip to Showbits contributor GeneD)

Summer Shorts: Kiwi

25-Jun-10 11:00 AM by
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Many animated shorts are either funny (Pigeon: Impossible), dark (Sebastian's Voodoo), or both (The Passenger). Few are what I would describe as poignant, but Kiwi, a four-year-old favorite with currently over 26 million views on YouTube, packs a surprising amount of emotion and subtlety into what at first appears to be yet another cute short:

When I first showed this film to a friend, the meaning of it was completely lost on her — she saw a strange creature nailing trees to a cliff and then jumping. I was sad that she didn't recognize the genius and sadness of the bird's plight. Not everyone is born "normal" and with the full abilities of their peers; even those who do must sometimes come to grips with a sudden loss, as was the case of Daniela García, who Reader's Digest recently profiled. A healthy young woman, she lost all four limbs in a train accident … yet still went on to become a doctor.

Not everyone finds the courage and support they need to deal with such adversity, but they still want to make a difference. I suspect many death wishes arise from a desire to experience a death more meaningful than the preceding life. The titular kiwi knew what it meant to be a bird, but only conceptually; he needed to know it experientially. His dedication to that cause is required an incalculable commitment of time and energy, culminating in his wish at a price even he didn't find too high.

I know it's just an animated short, but I can't help but feel for the kiwi, who died as he didn't live: unconstrained.

Summer Shorts: Pigeon Impossible

18-Jun-10 12:00 PM by
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Toy Story 3 comes out today, but you don't have to patronize the House of Mouse to get an excellent CGI story. Behold Pigeon: Impossible:

This short parody of the spy genre creatively draws on a number of cinematic archetypes. Although it may strain credulity that such an inept agent would be responsible for war-instigating weaponry, such buffoonery is not without precedent — just look at any incarnation of Get Smart. The scene in which the pigeon takes a strafing run at the agent is akin to Hitchcock's North by Northwest, while the enormity of the missile's launch is reminiscent of Fail-Safe and The Iron Giant.

The film is supported by a comprehensive Web site with a blog, podcasts, and merchandise. The first episode of the creator's 19-part behind-the-scenes videos reveals his initial belief that, since Pixar does one 90-minute movie a year, he could produce a six-minute short in a fraction of the time. The reality? Pigeon: Impossible, released on June 25, 2009, took four years to create. (It could be worse; The Passenger took twice that time.)

Whether Lucas Martell created this masterpiece for pleasure or profit, he has an incredible work of art on his hands that will likely lead to a bright future. Such fortune also has precedent: when Victor Navone created "Alien Song" in 1999, it wasn't long before he got snapped up by Pixar to lend his talents to everything from Finding Nemo to WALL•E.

Summer Shorts: Goodbye to the Normals

11-Jun-10 11:00 AM by
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The last two summer shorts were diverse in matter — one a dark animated film, the other an upbeat pilot for a live-action series — but both prompted questions about life and relationships. After such weighty subjects, I thought it timely to consider something more lighthearted. So say hello to Goodbye to the Normals (note: the film ends with a swear word):

This film is four years old, during which time all three actors have had extensive television acting careers. Most of their credits would be unrecognizable to American audiences, save for Magnus (Alfie Field), who just two months ago appeared on an episode of Dr. Who.

Most fictional intelligent children are saddled with some shortcoming, whether it's a lack of social manners or a tenuous grasp of reality. Magnus is no exception, but at least he doesn't seem to suffer from it, as he instead possesses a clarity of intention and an unfaltering determination. Although I can imagine a child being this precocious, the parents are unbelievable pushovers. Magnus' concern over his lunch's quality may be well-intentioned, but his manner of expression should've earned him a spanking. Of course, that's what makes it so funny, so I'll let it slide.

As an aside, Magnus' choice of destination is curious; being an American, I've had my share of friends who were eager to move out of this country, and few wanting to move to it. I'm curious if the statistics show the number of Americans living abroad has changed disproportionately in the past decade.

If your child was this intent on running away, would you take it as seriously as Magnus' parents did? How would you stop him?

Summer Shorts: My Deaf Family

04-Jun-10 11:00 AM by
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Confession: I follow Sesame Street on Twitter. That may not seem an appropriate pastime for a thirtysomething, but it's hard to resist such clever witticisms as espoused by Cookie Monster: "Me tried fat-free, sugar-free, gluten-free cookie today. Or, as me like to call it: crime against humanity." Big Bird: "There are lots of birds that can’t fly: turkeys, ostriches, penguins, Larry…" and Grover: "It is Frank Oz's birthday. I do not know who he is, but I will try to find out. Wait, what do you mean, there is no 'try'?"

It was in these wanderings that I came across a video of Billy Joel singing to Oscar the Grouch. His song was signed by a woman who looked familiar. Some brief research revealed her to be Marlee Matlin, a deaf actress who has been performing on stage, film, and television since her Hollywood debut in 1986. She was even the star (though a passive one) of a film in my own DVD library, What the Bleep Do We Know?.

After appearing on shows from West Wing to Desperate Housewives to Dancing with the Stars, Ms. Matlin recently struck out on her own by hosting and financing a reality series called My Deaf Family. The only deaf person in her family, Ms. Matlin wanted to bring attention to the lives and obstacles of members of the deaf community and their loved ones. When no network picked up the series, she uploaded the pilot to YouTube:

Although I don't know if this pilot could be extended into a full series, the questions and dilemmas raised by this short segment are substantial. All parents wants what's best for their children, but it's not always clear what that is. For two deaf parents to raise a hearing child can be exceptionally difficult. As Jared indicates in the above video, there are some things Jared can't talk to his parents about, and he had trouble learning how to pronounce words without his parents to teach him. Children in his scenario often have a lisp or other speech impediment, at least until they are mainstreamed into a school where they have teachers and peers. Whatever issues Jared has faced, few of them are likely to arise with his siblings who share their parents' abilities.

That raises a significant question: is deafness a disability, or an identity? Are there moral ramifications to two deaf parents wanting a child who is deaf? We want our children to be strong — but should we want them to have to be strong? The 2005 holiday film The Family Stone has a horrendously awkward scene in which someone asks the mother of a gay man, "You didn't actually hope for a gay son, did you? I mean, life is hard enough when you're normal…" Although this quotation has good intentions, the implication is that there is some physical and emotional "status quo" to which we should be born, and anyone who doesn't fit this archetype is somehow impaired. That's complete hogwash, of course; otherwise we'd see nothing distasteful in the genetically sequenced dystopia that is Gattaca, in which Stephen Hawking would never have existed — or, if he had but with no motivation to develop his mind over his body, might have pursued a fabulous career in the NBA. If deafness and other conditions are limits, they are limits that can be overcome.

Having written this post, I realize that I do want to see more in Ms. Matlin's series, though perhaps with a broader scope. I don't want a Chicken Soup for the Soul television series, but a closer look at the lives and hurdles of people with various mental and physical challenges could prove not only inspiring, but also enlightening. Consider it an adult vehicle for the love and acceptance we were taught to practice as children by Sesame Street.

Is there a network brave enough to pick it up?

(Hat tip to AOL)