Category Archives: Short

The Critic (1963, Ernest Pintoff)

At just about three minutes of “action,” The Critic is the perfect length. It opens with some abstract animation–black shapes dancing around variously colored backgrounds, as active (versus tranquil) classical music plays. The designs get more complex, but for the first thirty seconds (so fifteen percent of the action), Critic plays it straight. It’s some abstract animation short. Not too complicated, but lively.

And then Mel Brooks asks, “What the hell is this?”

And The Critic starts on its path to sublimity.

For a while, it’s just Brooks talking about the action on screen. Dot moving over here, dot moving over there. Some shapes getting jiggy.

Brooks’s character is a cranky, impatient old Russian guy and we’re hearing his thoughts. It’s perfectly fine. Brooks is funny, it’s not going to go on very long, it’s all good.

Only we’re not hearing his thoughts. Or, more, we are hearing his thoughts. But so are all the other people watching the short film with him.

He’s in a theater, talking out loud. That detail gives The Critic the extra oomph it needs and pushes it up and over. It’s awesome.

Brooks ad-libbed the whole thing too. Apparently, the filmmakers didn’t even show him the short before he recorded.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernest Pintoff; written by Mel Brooks; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Mel Brooks.


RELATED

Advertisements

Niagara Falls (1930, William C. McGann)

Niagara Falls doesn’t have a credited screenwriter, which is a shame as it’d be nice to know who wrote the occasionally rather witty dialogue but also who came up with such a dark short. Not even dark comedy. Just dark.

The short starts with recent newlywed Helen Jerome Eddy preparing for her honeymoon to–you guessed it–Niagara Falls. And then her mom calls and says they’re in financial trouble and isn’t Eddy selfish for going to Niagara Falls when her father needs help. So when husband Bryant Washburn gets home, Eddy gives him the bad news.

They’ll get to Niagara Falls someday though.

The film jumps forward a few years and, once again, Eddy and Washburn are getting ready to go to Niagara Falls. They’ve already got a son, so presumably they were able to consummate the marriage even without their honeymoon (in the first segment it seems like they’re waiting), and they’re bringing him along.

Then there’s another problem. Then there’s another time jump and another problem. All of the action takes place in their living room, with some old age makeup–pretty good old age makeup too–involved. The script’s efficient with the necessary exposition for the time jumps and so on (another reason it’s too bad the writer is uncredited) and the performances are decent. Washburn is fairly unlikable as a newlywed, but gets better as he stops making jokes about being stuck being married. Eddy’s actually best when she’s in the old age makeup.

McGann’s direction is pedestrian, even for a ten minute short–it’s never clear why he changes shots, it’s like there’s an egg timer going off somewhere, though the (also uncredited) editor does all right keeping a flow.

Once Niagara Falls takes its dark turn, it just keeps getting darker. Nothing extreme–not a lot of action–just a quietly despondent view of the human condition. Unfortunately, the dark turn happens in the last segment, when it’s too late to really affect the short’s quality over all. It just makes it peculiar.

Niagara Falls isn’t ever bad. It also isn’t ever good. It’s just weird.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by William C. McGann; director of photography, John Stumar; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Helen Jerome Eddy (Edna) and Bryant Washburn (Bob).


RELATED

Frankenstein (1910, J. Searle Dawley)

In its opening title card, Frankenstein warns it will be a liberal adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel. It’s only going to be sixteen minutes after all.

But Frankenstein hits most of the big events–it opens with Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) leaving for university, where he becomes obsessed with the insane idea of creating life. And so he does. Charles Ogle is the Monster. One of the film’s adaptation choices is to make the Monster as evil from the start. Sure Phillips is horrified by his deed and locks himself in his room to cry about it, but Ogle’s immediate reaction is to try to kill him.

Eventually Ogle tracks Phillips back home, where Phillips is finally ready to tie the knot with Mary Fuller. He’s gotten the create-life-by-throwing-a-couple-different-powders-in-a-cauldron bug out of his system–wild oats seeded–and he’s ready to settle down. But Ogle’s not letting him get away with it.

Frankenstein has no moving shots. No panning, no scanning. Director Dawley has his one shot and all the action plays out in it. He gets very creative–Ogle getting into the house at the end is particularly effective. Ogle is where Frankenstein comes to life; Phillips is a bit too histrionic. Not if he isn’t supposed to be the hero. If Frankenstein were just a little less forgiving of Phillips and let him get some comeuppance–or just acknowledge he deserves some–Phillips’s histrionics would be fine.

But he gets a pass and so they aren’t.

Ogle’s not the whole show–Searle does good work–but when Ogle arrives, there’s nothing else to Frankenstein. Everything is waiting for the next Monster sighting. Ogle’s demonic looking, with fur and exaggerated extremities. He does come out of a cauldron, after all, in a truly glorious reverse motion effect. Frankenstein has some great editing. Dawley knows how to create tension, both with effects shots and just Ogle shots.

Frankenstein is quite good. Dawley and Ogle create something particular, especially with the slightly weird, slightly technically ambitious finale. It’s one of Dawley’s most liberal adaptation moves but also perfect for the medium.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by J. Searle Dawley; screenplay by Dawley, based on the novel by Mary Shelley; produced by Thomas A. Edison; released by Edison Manufacturing Company.

Starring Augustus Phillips (Frankenstein), Mary Fuller (Elizabeth), and Charles Ogle (The Monster).


RELATED

Captain Voyeur (1969, John Carpenter)

Captain Voyeur starts better than it finishes, which is too bad since it gets better as it goes along. Writer and director Carpenter opens the short with a long tracking shot of some boring workplace. Excellent black and white photography from Joanne Willens (save two shots later on) makes the opening an observation on professional life.

The tracking shot is to get us to nerdy Jerry Cox, alone at a desk, doing his work and peeking on a female coworker. He’s a perv but a harmless enough one. Cox and Carpenter do well with the setup and the action moves to Cox’s apartment. Where he changes into a full mask, a cape, and his dress shoes. And some boxers. He’s Captain Voyeur. There are opening credits throughout the opening, with the final card just after the reveal. So it’s a comedy too.

It’s a comedy shot like a scary movie, because most of the shots are Cox running around outside peeking in windows. When it seems like Cox is just peeking to be peeking, the short has fun with the kinks he sees. Until after the second one and it seems like he doesn’t like what he’s seeing. The next two are jokes–the first a bad, cheap joke, the second a cheap, bad joke–before the finale, where Cox finally finds the window he wants.

Voyeur loses its narrative inventiveness after that second window. It’s still technically strong–Carpenter loves figuring out new establishing shots of windows at night in black and white–through Trace Johnston’s editing is never on par with the rest of it. And there are a couple times Johnston just makes the wrong cut and screws up a scene’s pacing.

It also goes out on a undercooked joke. Carpenter’s clearly got a sense of humor and he’s got the short’s sense of humor, he just doesn’t have the joke writing chops to pull it off. Unless he’s going for absurdist, in which case Voyeur’s terrible.

But it’s not terrible. It’s incredibly well-made and constantly inventive. Its jokes are just too broad and too cheap. Though the jokes being problematic covers the problem with Cox’s physical performance. He’s running around this apartment complex (or dorm), peeking in windows, but in between he’s supposed to have character development. But he doesn’t in the running shots. Because student filmmaking realities. So I guess the broadness of the humor covers that hole?

It’s disappointing. Especially given the excellent opening shot and the nimble changes in mood and tone. It’s like Carpenter gave up trying to show off in the second half and went for cheap witty. Well, except this one composite but it’s not enough to save the *Captain*.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by John Carpenter; director of photography, Joanne Willens; edited by Trace Johnston; produced for the University of Southern California.

Starring Jerry Cox (The Captain).


RELATED