Editor’s Notes: The following article is a part of our coverage for the 13th Annual deadCENTER Film Festival in Oklahoma City. For more information on deadCentre visit http://www.deadcenterfilm.org/ and follow the deadCENTER Film Festival on Twitter at @deadCENTER.
On June 6th I had the opportunity, thanks to Next Projection, to attend the opening night of the deadCenter film festival in downtown Oklahoma City. Due to some schedule conflicts I unfortunately did not get to stay for anymore of what promises to be a stellar festival lineup. The showings were a little sparse on opening night: only one feature length narrative film, one documentary, and two sets of short films. Since I wanted to get the most bang for my (technically nonexistent, since I got a press pass) buck, and since they were showing in the same theater back to back, I saddled up for a night of short film potpourri. In this column I will tackle the first compendium, the comedy shorts.
Before I get to individual reviews, a few words about the total package. (The one I watched. For a few words about the total package writing this article, see my bio.) On the whole this was a very solid compilation of comedy shorts. It offered a nice diversity of type, and most of the films were solid, with a few real standouts. Short comedy can be tricky to pull off; go too far in one direction and you have the SNL syndrome, where you take a single joke premise and beat the life out of it, but swing back too far and you wind up with all premise, no laughter. For the most part these films toed that line quite nicely. Here are individual reviews, posted in order of showing.
The Come Up, Directed by Kirk Sullivan
Surely it is no accident that deadCenter decided to begin and end this collection with its most polished and accessible films. The Come Up hails from Hollywood (it was shot on the Warner Brothers lot) and stars two reasonably recognizable faces, Patrick Adams and Troian Bellisario. The Come Up puts this pedigree to good use as it spins a tight, sharp satire of both the Hollywood system and the films that system produces. A spoof of the action subgenre known only as “Michael Bay presents”, The Come Up follows lowly Production Assistant Adams as he slaves away to be noticed by a big shot producer, whom he hopes will like his script. But when a large sum of money is stolen, he sets out in hot pursuit.
The Come Up is tightly told, with no wasted minutes. Little details in the set up come back in important and hilarious ways by the end. The film sets out to skewer the over the top action of Hollywood films, and does a nice job of it while still providing credible actions scenes in its own right. If I have a complaint about the film, it’s that it feels a little too slick, a little too Hollywood. It lacks the hint of anger that makes for really penetrating satire. Like some young virtuoso pianists, The Come Up is a hell of a player from a technical standpoint, but lacks some of the soul that comes from the wisdom of experience.
Girl Clown, Directed by Beth Spitalny
In many ways Girl Clown was the most ambitious of the comedy shorts here at deadCenter. It has a good five minutes on any of the other films length wise, but it also takes on an ambitious task: condensing the plot of a standard rom com into 15 minutes while also offering a poignant take on isolation and introversion. Thanks to a steady sense of purpose and a great cast, it mostly succeeds.
Crystal Faith Scott, who also wrote the film, stars as a lonely, timid woman living in the city. She makes repeated attempts to speak to others, especially her cute upstairs neighbor, but seems unable to break through her own shyness. She finally stumbles onto an opportunity when she accidentally wins an audition to be a part of a clown casting agency. Though new to her, the act of clownery frees her from herself, giving her confidence and a new perspective on life.
Like its protagonist, Girl Clown is a quiet film, with most of the humor coming around the edges (in other words, it is smile humor rather than belly laughs). It does a nice job of using the rom com formula in shorter form, though it sticks to the template a little too much (the closing “twist” is straight by the book silliness). Still, the film succeeds largely on the strength of Scott, whose expressive face carries the film through its many dialogue free scenes. Her expressions do an especially good job of offering insight into the mind of a woman who wants to interact with the world, but has real trouble doing so.
Stanley Gets Fired, Directed by Matthew Fowler
I really wanted to like Stanley Gets Fired. If nothing else, I cheered for it as the only film in the collection made right here in Oklahoma. Sadly the film falls prey to the aforementioned SNL syndrome, stretching its one joke (Stanley works at an office EVEN THOUGH HE’S A UNICORN) to its uttermost, making the running time seem excessive even at a bare bones 5 minutes. Nothing happens other than the titular event and the immediate aftermath (where Stanley receives solace from a stranger in the park), and there is not much of an attempt to mine humor from the situation. The one bright spot is Noah Nelson as the boss, full of flopsweat and vigor as he goes through the arduous process of firing an employee. Though some of his lines (which were mostly improvised) seem derivative of Office Space and other workplace comedies, the gusto with which he attacks the performance makes it a bright spot in an otherwise pretty dull affair.
Voodoo Child, Directed by Joe Kitaj
The first of several films to explore the pains of growing up, Voodoo Child follows the misadventures of a girl who resorts to desperate measures to attract the guy of her dreams. It’s an amusing enough concept, but the film does not make enough of it. Teen awkwardness aside, there’s little depth of humor here. Don’t mean to be Haitian too hard on the film: it’s competently made and amusing enough, but in the end fairly forgettable.
Yeah Kowalski!, Directed by Evan Roberts
Yeah Kowalski! also dips its toe into the teen awkwardness pool, throwing in issues of both puberty and sexual orientation for an extra shot of angst. Thankfully it works much better than Voodoo Child, and plays as a sort of Freaks and Geeks-lite (which is a very good thing, if you were wondering). The film’s hero, Gabe Kowalski, wants to impress a cute boy at his school who seems to dig guys with armpit hair. Poor Gabe, whose armpits are exactly as smooth as his game is not, glues some of his father’s hair onto his pits. Prospects start looking up, but light gets, shall we say, shed on the true situation at a classmate’s pool party. At the end lessons are learned, hearts are warmed, etc.
The cast does a great job selling the material and really getting inside the awkwardness of growing up and trying to impress those around you. The plot is fairly by the numbers, but the film excels at capturing the look and feel of the gloomy years of teenagedom. The film also included my favorite line of the night. Gabe’s sassy best friend is pleading with him to come to the pool party. To impress fully on him how lonely she will be without him, she mentions that the popular click will be in attendance: “All the Megans will be there - even Meegan.” It’s a great, underplayed line that captures the movie’s spirit well.
Un Regalo (A Gift), Directed by Paul Avellino
Ah, now we’re talking. With the exception of the last film of the set, Un Regalo was the standout of the night (and I was not alone in this: the audience gasped and laughed right along with me). A simple film in many ways, Un Regalo mines its set up for maximum laughs and shocks. The film straddles the line between gorefest and comedy, but does so with aplomb.
A young girl discovers a mysterious box in her front lawn which contains an amazing sight. She treks across town to show it to a friend, but keeps encountering strangers who want to take her gift from her. Without saying too much, the would be thieves have a very different reaction to peering inside the box. Since the contents of the box are never revealed, they act as a MacGuffin, driving the plot forward while being of little significance themselves. Using a MacGuffin, typically a trope found in thrillers, in the context of a comedy adds depth and mystery to the proceedings. It also highlights one of the film’s themes (yes, this short film has Themes): the way that perspective and motive change our experience in the world. Depending on who is holding the box, the writing on top changes, a clear sign that the experience of viewing the contents differs from person to person.
That the film succeeds as both a mysterious quest and a laugh out loud comedy is a testament to the sure, understated direction and the beautiful turn from Isabelle Luongo as the young girl. She plays the role completely straight, which heightens the effect of the craziness surrounding her. I highly recommend Un Regalo.
Martha!, Directed by Haley Anderson
Martha!, yet another “discontent youth” comedy, has a premise that should be killer. Martha is a student at an ultra strict Catholic school right around the time of the cultural and sexual revolution. Enamored with a boy, she listens to his favorite rock and roll album and finds it pretty heavy - literally, as the experience impregnates her. Unable to face the wrath of her nun teacher, she pins the crime on her crush.
Like I said, a great idea for a film, one rife with comic potential. Unfortunately the film makes very little of it. The story feels rushed and becomes slightly garbled near the end. The humor does not extend very far beyond the basic premise. The characters feel more like caricatures, especially the nun and priest who come straight out of the pages of any warmed over teen account of Catholic school ever written. Much of the film is spent in voiceover narration, which does too much explaining and not enough subverting. The list goes on. Of all the comedy shorts, this one could have done most with some lengthening. A chance to saunter at its own pace and explore some of the odder implications of its situation would have worked wonders for this film, which ultimately fails to live up to its rich potential.
America 101, Directed by Richard Speight, Jr.
America 101 is an odd little film. Its content is quite humorous and often biting, a savage depiction of the American dream and all its shortcomings. The package it arrives in, however, is a bit baffling. It feels more like a commercial than a short film, which works in some ways but not others.
The film follows a character known only as “Our Man”, who narrates what life will be like for you if you follow the American dream. Marriage, divorce, teen pregnancy, credit card debt: all life scenarios are presented as he walks through the action with us. At heart the film presents a darkly cynical take on American life, positing that everyone gets screwed over by the system. Not that this is a bad thing; as a teacher I particularly resonated with the film’s portrayal of the way schools punish good students and reward mediocrity. Since the film consists largely of Our Man speaking directly to the audience, it moves along at a brisk clip, with plenty of throwaway lines and sight gags crammed in. The final reveal, where Our Man is shown to be presenting his dark, profane tirade to a group of young children, adds an extra twist of delicious darkness. Yet as funny as everything is, the film still feels unsettling in its form. Perhaps intentionally, the film seems to ape the feel of commercials (with the scenes of action swirling around a mostly inert central character). This should work better than it actually does, but it’s not enough to drag down an otherwise smart comedy.
It’s Not You, It’s Me, Directed by Matt Spicer
I mentioned at the start that this block of comedy was bookended by two films that felt less independent and more polished than the films they surrounded. It feels a little unfair to compare It’s Not You, It’s Me to a film like Un Regalo, which was clearly made outside the Hollywood system. But It’s Not You uses its advantages in the best possible way, crafting a pitch perfect black comedy that crackles with wit and irony.
The film stars by-these-standards superstars Gillian Jacobs (Britta on Community!) and Fran Kanz (of the Whedonverse!) as a couple who have fallen into a serious rut. He breathes too hard, makes love like a dead trout, and looks at porn when he should be job searching. Finally he pushes her too far, and an altercation leads to his grisly death. The mild mannered Jacobs must dispose of the body, but that leads to certain… complications along the way. It even leads her into love.
Again, the key here is understatement. Like Un Regalo, much of the humor derives from the lack of the character’s response to horrific events. Anyone familiar with Gillian Jacobs knows that she is a brilliant comic actress, and her performance helps It’s Not You, It’s Me execute its great premise nearly flawlessly.