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.

The Lunch Date (1990)

2009 #9a
Adam Davidson | 10 mins | DVD

Short films are paid minimal attention by most people, but a good one can launch a career. Take this, for example, which won the Short Film Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1990 and the Oscar for Best Live Action Short in 1991. Writer/director Davidson may not have had a significant film career since, but he has directed episodes of Dexter, Deadwood, Grey’s Anatomy, Law & Order, Lie to Me, Lost, Rome, Shark, Six Feet Under, True Blood, and more. Not all great TV, true, but there are some outstanding series in there and it makes for an impressive CV.

If any short were to kick-start a career it would be The Lunch Date. As with many shorts, 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. There’s virtually no dialogue, everything conveyed by what Davidson does (and, importantly, doesn’t) show and the performances, particularly that of Scotty Bloch as the central Lady.

Some of the film’s power rests in a neat twist, cunningly obscured by intelligent blocking and timing of other plot elements. Personally I saw it coming, but that didn’t diminish its point. It’s also worth nothing that none of the twenty-or-so others I was watching with spotted the twist ahead of time and they all seemed to find it even more effective.

Why short films are ignored is a discussion for another time, but The Lunch Date is an outstanding example of why they shouldn’t be.

5 out of 5

The Lunch Date is available on the Cinema16: American Short Films DVD.

In 2013 it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Commentary! The Musical (2008)

2009 26a
Jed Whedon & Joss Whedon | 42 mins | DVD

Commentary! The MusicalCommentary! The Musical falls somewhere between DVD extra, TV episode and short film. Whatever it should be classed as, it’s utter genius.

You’ve surely heard of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the project Joss Whedon created during the infamous US Writers’ Strike. (That in itself you could debate the status of. Three-part miniseries? Short film? Feature film? (At 42 minutes it’s over the Academy’s boundary.) And endlessly on.) Well, on the Dr. Horrible DVD can be found this — an alternate audio track, on which the cast and crew discuss the making of the feature… except it’s all scripted and the majority is sung. Not your traditional audio commentary then.

As an audio commentary, it does little to illuminate the production of Dr Horrible — though, surprisingly, it does do some — but instead focuses its energy on spoofing commentary tracks, DVD extras, and the American film and TV industry in general. Specific targets include the Writers’ Strike and its lack of success, rivalry between lead actors, the importance of ensemble cast members, Asians in US TV and film, the dissection of art by DVD extras, and many more. It’s almost all incredibly funny — inevitably there are a few duff gags and dull songs, although they are uncommonly rare — and it moves at a rate of knots, meaning it rewards multiple listens to pick up every gag. Having already re-listened to a couple of tracks, I can attest to noticing funny lines that I was too busy laughing through before. In a spot of technical impressiveness, the commentary is often surprisingly scene-specific, sometimes even shot-specific. When you consider the effort that must’ve been involved to script and time both songs and spoken dialogue to make this happen, it’s even more impressive.

It’s this careful scripting and the sure-handed attentiveness to theme that marks Commentary! The Musical out as a fictional work in its own right, rather than ‘merely’ a DVD extra, in much the same way that Mystery Science Theater 3000 or the short-lived (and easily forgotten) Rob Brydon series Director’s Commentary are original works. With its well-targeted thematically-appropriate comedy and plentiful gags, it’s pure delight for fans of DVDs, or anyone else with a mind open to the concept.

5 out of 5

Cut (2009)

2009 #20a
Joe Wright | 2 mins | streaming

CutIs Cut an advert or is it a film?

On one hand, websites featuring it always refer to it as a “short film”; it stars film star Keira Knightley; is directed by BAFTA-winner Joe Wright; tells a story in a film (as opposed to advert) style; and is a whole two minutes long.

On the other, it’s paid for by Women’s Aid to front a campaign to raise awareness of domestic violence; it ends with a message to this effect, also featuring no title card or credits; it’s not listed on IMDb; it’s been shown for free among adverts in cinemas and online; it would’ve appeared on TV too if Clearcast hadn’t banned it for being “too violent”; and it’s only two minutes long.

It’s an advert, isn’t it? But it shouldn’t’ve been blocked from TV, which has incensed me enough to pretend it’s a film for the purposes of my little corner of the Internet.

Or half pretend, because purely as a film it isn’t great. It’s well shot by Wright, but some of the dialogue is too on-the-nose to convince and it’s actually slightly padded near the start — so slightly that in anything longer it wouldn’t be noticeable, but when something’s only 125 seconds, every one counts. On the other hand, it tells its story economically, using single shots to establish a lot of detail about characters, their lifestyles and their relationships, aided by Knightley playing a version of herself. In this the length and depth of story chosen are well-balanced.

When the violence comes, it’s moderately brutal. And here’s the rub — it’s arguably not brutal enough to cover the horrid reality of what some people have to suffer. It’s been made suitable to be shown on TV in a slot where people will see it — which, for its aims as an awareness advert, is completely appropriate. In the wake of Clearcast’s stupid ban I was expecting something more severe, which counterintuitively means the violence is more shocking for what it isn’t. Maybe whoever makes the decisions at Clearcast should watch Hostel: Part II before any appeal — or, to be honest, the 12A-rated Dark Knight might suffice.

With a brief running time and an important message to put across, Cut is a 5-out-of-5 advert, if only for the amount of talk and awareness it’s achieved. But I said I was trying to judge it as a film, so I’ll be a little tighter:

4 out of 5

Cut is available to stream for free on YouTube. More information about the campaign’s impact can be found on Wikipedia.

Gasman (1997)

2008 #76a
Lynne Ramsay | 15 mins | DVD | 15

“Gritty”, “realist” and “indie” are just some of the stock terms that immediately jump to mind when watching this short, which directly enabled Ramsay to make her first feature, Ratcatcher.

Films with such words attached are not automatically to my liking, but Gasman succeeds in using the associated techniques to tell a simple story of complex emotions and meaning for the characters involved. There are times when its documentary-like style is indulgent — the opening goes on too long, for example, and some shots seem deliberately obscure — but it also relates the story effectively and produces a few beautiful views too.

Even cleverer is the use of sound: there’s virtually no dialogue, so the occasional half-heard splashes, often amongst background chatter, are all the more telling. Mostly this is in a subtle fashion, though the key phrase that reveals all is both pretty blunt (though not inordinately so) and repeated an awful lot in a very short space of time.

Gasman is not wholly successful, then, though it does have an interesting story with a strong ending, dialogue-free, that both completes the plot and leaves you wondering what happens next.

4 out of 5

This short is available on the DVD Cinema16: British Short Films, as well as the Criterion Collection and Pathe/Fox releases of Ratcatcher.

Inside-Out (1999)

2008 #66a
Tom & Charles Guard | 7 mins | DVD | 12

This charming little short stars Simon McBurney as a hapless market researcher on a busy London street, failing to get a single passerby to complete his survey — perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is making a market researcher sympathetic. Anyway, he’s quietly observed by a woman, played by Lena Headey (yup, Mrs. Leonidas and the new Sarah Connor [and now Cersei Lannister, of course]), who’s dressing the window of a clothing/department store on the street. She notices his failed attempts, which amuse her; he notices her laughing, and begins to muck around to entertain her.

It’s a simple premise, but one that’s executed with comedic flair and a surprising amount of emotion. The music and lack of dialogue evoke an old-ish French mime comedy, making a nice contrast with the modern-day London setting, but it’s the relationship that silently develops between the two characters that provides the heart around the humour. And the ending, as carefully constructed as any moment of humour in the short, is painfully heartbreaking.

However many times you might want to re-watch this — and I think you would want to — you’ll always wish for the same outcome, and always be let down. It’s a sweet kind of pain and longing that, in spite of that French style, is very British.

4 out of 5

This short is available on the Cinema16: British Short Films DVD, and online free at Total Short Films or YouTube.

Manhatta (1921)

2007 #109a
Paul Strand & Charles Sheeler | 10 mins | download

Another ’20s city film, showing off (as you might guess from the title) parts of New York. The focus appears to be industrial — skyscrapers under construction, finished architecture, tug boats, trains near the docks; the people of the city only crop up at the start and close, and then only in faceless crowds. It’s interspersed with poetic intertitles, which make for an odd contrast.

Once again, I feel that, unless you want to go getting a bit pretentious (and, to be fair, at least some of these films were made for just that), the main interest here is in an historical perspective: it provides another snapshot of a time and place long gone.

2 out of 5

The full short is available on Wikipedia.

Skyscraper Symphony (1929)

2007 #108b
Robert Florey | 9 mins | download

Another ‘city symphony’ film, this time a short one of skyscrapers in New York.

It’s probably hard to ‘appreciate’ this without getting a little pretentious; certainly, it’s much more aimed at creating the feeling of a city, or a visual representation of it, or something like that, than it is with, say, showing pretty views of New York’s buildings. That said, in between the meaningful mucking about, there are some fairly impressive sights to be seen.

2 out of 5

Available on YouTube.

À propos de Nice (1930)

2007 #108a
Jean Vigo | 23 mins | download | U

Short film about the French city of Nice, mixing documentary-style footage of people with shots of the architecture, as well as clearly staged scenes (a man getting sunburnt, for example).

There’s a certain playful edge to it all, not just with content such as a garish parade and crazy dancing, but with amusing tricks (again, the sunburning), camera tomfoolery (for example, moving it to follow the loops of arches at speed; or using slow motion and sped-up shots), and picking out shots of pedestrians apparently for their annoyance at being filmed.

It’s an interesting amalgamation, then: part art, part documentary, part sketch show.

3 out of 5

Four short films

2007 #52a
The End
2005 | Tim Clayton & Rob Crowther | download

A very brief film with a slightly silly, slightly amusing idea at its core. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, but it does lose something in that you can see the end coming almost from the start. Currently available for free at LOVEFiLM.

2 out of 5

2007 #52b
Bus Stop
2004 | Matt Abbiss | download

An animated, somewhat bizarre short about two people waiting at a bus stop. Done in a very simple style with sparse sound, but it’s competently executed and often effective. It has some amusing moments. Not bad, but mainly for people who like this kind of thing anyway. Currently available for free at LOVEFiLM.

2 out of 5

2007 #52c
2005 | Andy Pearson | download

“Some humans in a park act like dogs” is essentially the premise of this film. It’s a decent enough concept for a short really, and is well executed with some nice little moments. Prettily shot in the autumn, too. Currently available for free at LOVEFiLM.

3 out of 5

2007 #52d
Nine 1/2 Minutes
2002 | Josh Appignanesi & Misha Manson-Smith | download

David Tennant (yes, David Tennant!) and Zoe Telford (she’s been in a variety of TV stuff) star in this comedic short about two people on an uncomfortable blind date that lasts just about as long as you might suspect. Genuinely funny for the most part, and easily the most professionally executed of these four shorts, but it does have a somewhat confounding conclusion. Currently available for free at LOVEFiLM.

4 out of 5