Cotton Wool (2017)

2019 #50a
Nicholas Connor | 38 mins | download (UHD) | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 12A

Cotton Wool

After single mum Rachel (Leanne Best) suffers a debilitating stroke, it marks a massive change for her two kids, stroppy teenager Jennifer (Katie Quinn) and sweet seven-year-old Sam (Max Vento): with no other family and minimal support from the authorities, it’s suddenly up to the kids to care for their mum.

As a closing title card informs us, there are around 243,000 carers under the age of 19 in England and Wales alone, with 22,000 of those under the age of nine. Writer-director Nicholas Connor’s short film seeks to highlight this issue — it’s quite shocking how many young lives are affected by the need to look after other family members because there’s no one else to do it. But the short is also “inspired by their courage”, and so it strikes an optimistic tone about the power of love and the value of family, rather than spending too much time in condemnation of a system that leaves these youngsters largely unsupported.

If you watch things like the BBC’s annual Children in Need telethon, these kind of facts and situations might be familiar — it’s the kind of thing they cover in short documentaries during the evening. Connor’s film differs thanks to the advantages of fictional storytelling: rather than just informing the viewer of facts and statistics, Cotton Wool connects us to the characters and explores the subject from different angles. The new life thrust unasked upon Rachel, Jennifer, and Sam affects them each differently, and Connor uses that to find generality in specificity: rather than tell us about all 243,000 young carers and the people they look after, here are three individuals who each struggle and cope in different ways.

Simply Leanne Best

In particular, the film presents a clear but not heavy-handed difference between the behaviour of the two kids: Jennifer professes that she help around the house, but is really more concerned with escaping out with her mates, with maintaining her own life; Sam, meanwhile, does all that he can to look after his mum. It’s easy to see that Jennifer is ‘in the wrong’, but, again, the film doesn’t go out of its way to condemn her. She’s not a bad person, just conflicted. Her storyline culminates in a teary scene in bed where she talks about admiring everything her mum did for them, which is the nearest the film got to being too on-the-nose for me. Conversely, Sam’s storyline maintains a degree of understatement. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment comes when he has a one-to-one chat with a care worker who notices the spare paraphernalia around Sam’s room. Asked if he wants to be an astronaut when he grows up, Sam instead says he wants to care for his mum.

However, the best performance of the trio comes from Best (pun not intended!) With Rachel physically debilitated after her stroke, Best is stuck with a limited range of speech and movement, but still conveys a wealth of emotion while not at any point letting the effects of her condition slip. The film has won a variety of awards at film festivals around the world, including several of Best’s performance, and it’s well deserved.

It’s a handsomely mounted production all round. I don’t watch many shorts, really, so can’t make a fair comparison, but it doesn’t look cheap or limited in the way you might expect of a low-budget short. There are some very effectively staged moments, in particular the two strokes — the first a handheld, almost scary event seen from Sam’s eye level; the second a trippy, tense nightmare. Much of the film is shot with a sort of hazy beauty by DP Alan C. McLaughlin, and the wintery Yorkshire countryside locations help emphasise the isolation of the family.

Hazy shade of winter

As a calling card for the young writer-director, it could hardly be better. At the risk of making us all despair at the state of our lives, he made this when he was just 17, but it suggests a maturity of approach beyond that. There’s a certain lightness of touch in the storytelling that doesn’t ram home the hardship of the kids’ situation or the juxtaposition of their behaviour, and he refrains from the polemicising you might expect to find in an issue-driven short by a filmmaker of any age.

I’ve avoided mentioning it thus far, but it’s hard not to make comparisons to another recent British short film about a child coping with disability-related adversity in a chilly Northern setting, The Silent Child. That, of course, won an Oscar, and I’d say Cotton Wool is at least its equal.

4 out of 5

More information about Cotton Wool can be found on the director’s website, here.

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The Silent Child (2017)

2018 #57a
Chris Overton | 20 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English & British Sign Language

The Silent Child

Oscar statue2018 Academy Awards
1 nomination — 1 win

Won: Best Live Action Short Film.


It’s not often you see short films screened in prime time slots on the nation’s biggest TV network — and by “not often” I mean “never” — but then it’s not often two former soap stars make a timely and affecting drama that wins an Oscar, either.

Such is the case with The Silent Child, which stars former Hollyoaks actress Rachel Shenton (who also wrote the screenplay) as social worker Joanne, who’s called in to help young deaf girl Libby (Maisie Sly) prepare to start school. Libby’s upper-middle-class parents (Rachel Fielding and Philip York) have clearly done nothing to help the child, too concerned with making her ‘normal’, and that’s left her obviously miserable. As Joanne begins to teach Libby sign language, she comes out of her skin and brightens up. But her mother remains unconvinced this is the right direction for her child, beginning to see Joanne as more of a threat than a help.

There’s a clear social-conscience motivation behind the creation of this film, highlighted by a downbeat ending that’s well calibrated to anger you into wanting change. It’s depressing that this isn’t set 50 years ago, but is the situation today. It seems hard to believe any parents would be so horrid and low-key abusive as Libby’s, but then I bet they voted Tory, so, y’know. Even then, the cold hard stats presented at the end are sobering. The cumulative effect is powerful and worthwhile.

Libby and Joanne

As a film, it’s well made. Director Chris Overton (Shenton’s partner, who also once appeared in Hollyoaks) and his DP Ali Farahani clearly have a good eye: despite the low budget, it’s often attractively shot, with a misty, cold beauty to its countryside locations. Overton has also managed to coax a charming, subtle, and surprisingly nuanced performance from young Maisie Sly. Shenton is also likeable as her well-meaning but hand-tied friend. Some of the supporting performances are a little ropier, but hey, when you’re making a short film for just £10,000, you get what you can. I’ve seen worse.

There are lots of little touches that suggest Shenton and Overton probably want to develop this into a feature film — hints at subplots, that kind of thing — and there’s definitely room for it to grow, too: while it does work as a piece in its own right, this doesn’t feel like the whole story. I’d be surprised if, after the Oscar success and chatter that’s followed (the film was among the top trends on Twitter for the entire night after its BBC One airing), that doesn’t happen. Certainly, it’d be nice to see things turn out a little more hopefully for little Libby.

4 out of 5

The Silent Child is available on BBC iPlayer until 29th April 2018.

An inside out pair of shorts

Pixar’s latest opus, Inside Out, was naturally accompanied by a short film in cinemas. On Blu-ray (out today in the UK), it’s accompanied by two. These are they, reviewed in nice quick drabbles.


Riley’s First Date?
2015 #179a
Josh Cooley | 5 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U / G

In this ‘sequel’ to Inside Out, Riley is going to hang out with a friend… who turns out to be a boy, which sends her mum and dad — and their anthropomorphised emotions — into paroxysms of worry. Is this the 12-year-old’s first date?

The straightforward story is built on clichés of male and female parental reactions to their kid growing up and encountering the opposite sex (mum tries to be cool, dad gets protective), but then it’s only got four minutes so needs that shorthand. Nonetheless, it manages roughly as many laughs as the feature, even if they are easy targets.

4 out of 5


Lava
2015 #179b
James Ford Murphy | 7 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / G

The short that accompanied Inside Out in cinemas is essentially a music video for a folksy ballad about a pair of volcanoes who are in ‘lava’ (read: love) with each other.

It’s quite beautifully animated, with realistic CGI (apart from, you know, singing volcanoes) that eschews stylisation without giving in to the urge to shallowly emphasise its photorealism, but other than that I didn’t much care for it. The story and song — inspired by an underwater volcano that will one day merge with Hawaii — are a little too twee. It’s not really sweet, nor sickly, just kind of uninspiringly quaint.

3 out of 5

The Crying of Lot 49 (2007)

2015 #149a
Jeremy Sutheim | 7 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English

After watching Inherent Vice back in August, I was inspired to re-read the only Thomas Pynchon novel I’d ever read, which I’d liked very much and been meaning to take another run at for years. That was, as you might guess, The Crying of Lot 49, a ’60s tale of possible conspiracy and definite paranoia. Reading about it afterwards, I came upon thomaspynchon.com — not an official site, despite the straightforward name — which linked to their series of Wikis on each of his novels; and right at the top of the Crying of Lot 49 one was a subsection entitled “And now… The Movie…”, complete with a YouTube link. So I watched that and now I’m reviewing it because, you know, that’s what I do.

Although details are fairly scarce on the film’s YouTube page, it appears to be a student short, possibly only made for some school project. It adapts the entire novel in just seven minutes, solely through meaningful images and music — there are no actors, no dialogue, no voiceover. A solid knowledge of the book is essential to understand what’s going on and why certain imagery has been chosen; without it, I think the film would come across as utterly meaningless. Even with it, you find yourself grasping back to memories of the novel to work out what you’re being shown and why.

Some images are lifted out of the text wholesale, like representing an approaching city as a circuitboard. In the novel, it’s a memorable visual simile; on screen, its effectiveness is bluntly underlined (you can, literally, see what Pynchon means), though in the context of the film it’s an odd item to just pop up. Most of the rest of the film is more literal, picking out locations and things to show that will (or may) trigger a memory of the appropriate part of the book. That’s where a viewer will get the narrative from — as a film in its own right, it’s unfollowable. As someone in the comments accurately describes it, “This feels like a version of [the novel] done by Microsoft’s Summarize Text feature. It’s all basically there but coherence and cohesion have been thrown out the Windows.”

It’s probably not fair to judge The Crying of Lot 49 by normal moviemaking standards. As a high school project to summarise a novel in a few minutes of video (which it may or may not be), it’s probably alright. Otherwise, though, it’s not worth the seven minutes; not even for die-hard fans of the author and/or novel. It is, you might say, a W.A.S.T.E. of time. #injoke

1 out of 5

The Crying of Lot 49 can be watched on YouTube.

A pair of shorts for summer ³

Time flies: it’s five years since I last did a “pair of shorts for summer” post. But these things linger long in my memory, and so the series (I say “series” — I did two) is revived this year… but only with reposts.

So, we have the two previous “pair of shorts for summer” posts (a pair of pairs!), and the final two archive repost shorts (a new old pair! Or something.) Or, in its own way, 2x2x2 — 2³! I do think these things through y’know (well, sort of).

OK, I agree it’s not really worth getting excited over. But several of the shorts featured are actually very good, so there’s that.

Feast (2014)

2015 #28a
Patrick Osborne | 6 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / G

FeastThis year’s Best Animated Short Oscar winner is a charming little tale of a dog and his owner. I absolutely adored it, though there’s little doubt that it was helped to victory by being produced by Disney and released theatrically alongside Best Animated Film winner Big Hero 6. I haven’t seen any of the other shorts nominees, but you only have to look at clips of The Bigger Picture and learn a little about how it was made to see that it’s a monumental technical achievement, if nothing else. But I’ve not seen it, so perhaps a nomination was reward enough.

Anyway, Feast is the (mostly-)silent story of a stray dog and his adoptive owner, told from the dog’s point of view through their shared meals. The little dog is the man’s faithful companion, particularly for all the wondrous food he provides, but when the man finds love, will our little canine hero be subjected to healthy food for the rest of his life?

Essentially one long montage, Feast is the very model of economical storytelling. With nary a word of dialogue — certainly, none that drive the plot — we quickly learn everything we need to know, see everything the characters are thinking, and follow their decisions and motivations. It’s obviously a slight tale — it’s only six minutes long — But it's empty!but nonetheless packs an emotional punch. Viewers have been known to shed a little tear (though fear not, dear reader: it doesn’t come via a Marley & Me-type ending).

Whether Feast is the greatest or most groundbreaking short on this year’s ballot, I wouldn’t like to say. It is, however, a lovely rendering of a beautiful little story about, truly, man’s best friend.

5 out of 5

Feast is available on the Blu-ray (and DVD, I guess) release of Big Hero 6, out in the UK today.

How Long is a Minute? (2001)

2010 #103a
Simon Pummell | 1 min | DVD | U

60 seconds, naturally, which is also the length of this film. No surprises there.

At the length of a TV advert, there are two things that are hard with a 60-second short film: one is making them say or do much in such a brief period of time; the other is reviewing the result. Pummell’s point, more or less, is about how the same length of time can feel like a different length of time at either end of life. The film says it much more eloquently than that sentence.

There’s also a final shot that underscores the concept with the idea of youth having an effect on old age. In the sense of a baby and its effect on its grandmother, that is, not some kind of Benjamin Button-esque fantasy.

Though still as slight as a well-conceived advert, Pummell’s film succeeds by not over-reaching itself. He has a single philosophical thought, conveyed succinctly with a mixture of image and sound. That’s worth 60 seconds, surely.

4 out of 5

How Long is a Minute? can be found on the BFI DVD release of Pummell’s feature, Bodysong, or as one of many one-minute films at stopforaminute.com.

Another pair of shorts for summer

The sunny weekend weather is beginning to fade already, heading for a typically dreary Bank Holiday — not that I’m complaining, personally, but I suppose I’m an aberration. Will that be all the summer we get, I wonder? I doubt I’m so lucky. But just in case it does get sunny again, here’s a pair of shorts! Not that you can wear them.

And yes, I did this joke before. Almost a year ago. But it’s such an outstanding slice of humour I figured it would bear repetition. Probably every year.

As per before, neither of these really have a connection, either to summer or to each other, beyond that I’ve had each review sat to post for a while. Click the title for the full review.

Before Sky Captain, there was this: a six-minute reel, shot, edited and, er, special-effects-ed, by Conran on an amateur basis over four years, demonstrating the production techniques and storyline he had in mind for a feature-length homage/reimagining of ’40s cinema serials.

2010 #40a
Pixels

characters and graphics from old 8-bit computer games escape and run riot over New York City. We’re talking Space Invaders firing on real streets, Tetris blocks crashing onto buildings… For people of A Certain Age it’s an explosion of nostalgia, but everyone can be impressed by the CGI on display.


The World of Tomorrow is available on the DVD and Blu-ray of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Pixels is available free online.

A pair of shorts for summer

Neither of these films, or their reviews, have anything significant to do with summer, but that pun was too good to resist.

I say “good”…

there’s no reason that any story shouldn’t be told in animated form… but sometimes, you have to wonder if it’s the best choice for the job. The Wraith of Cobble Hill is a perfect example for this debate as its modern, urban story seems to clash with the cartoonish style employed to bring it to the screen.

to attempt to describe the plot would be to give too much away, which would be a mistake because this is a beautifully shot (in grainy black & white) and performed tale with a distinct, yet subtle, character arc and an important, but not over-egged, moral message.


Both of these shorts are available on the Cinema16: American Short Films DVD.

The Wraith of Cobble Hill (2005)

2009 #4a
Adam Parrish King | 15 mins | DVD

Animation isn’t a genre, it’s a medium, as Brad Bird would be so keen to tell you. As such, there’s no reason that any story shouldn’t be told in animated form… but sometimes, you have to wonder if it’s the best choice for the job.

The Wraith of Cobble HillThe Wraith of Cobble Hill is a perfect example for this debate as its modern, urban story seems to clash with the cartoonish style employed to bring it to the screen. There are no flights of fantasy, few implausible shots, nothing that couldn’t be achieved in live action even on a low budget. Ultimately the only reason for it being animated is, why shouldn’t it be? Personally, I’m not convinced it works; at the very least, it distracted me enough to consider it.

Otherwise, the story is a bit slow paced and perhaps uncertain of what it wants to say. By the end, ignoring the question of if the right form was chosen, I was unsure what it did say — what had actually happened, what had changed. Without giving away the ending, obviously rather a lot changes for one peripheral character, but for the central character it seems to have minimal impact. Well, he acquires a dog…

In short (sorry), The Wraith of Cobble Hill is nicely animated, though you might wonder why. More importantly, you might wonder what it was trying to say.

2 out of 5

This short is available on the Cinema16: American Short Films DVD.