Category Archives: Recommended

The Laboratory of Fear (1971, Patrice Leconte)

The Laboratory of Fear is all about expectation. For the short’s eleven minutes, writer and director Leconte wants the audience to expect something. Lots of foreshadowing. Some of it matters, some of it is red herring.

The short opens very documentary-like, with a voice over explaining the modern (for 1971) laboratory. The lab’s so hip they’ve even got a woman scientist (Marianne di Vettimo); better yet, she’s actually good at her job (just ask any of the fellows, says the narrator). Cue opening titles, which end with a disclaimer: don’t expect too much scientific accuracy. So why open with the documentary style? To control the audience’s expectations.

There’s no way to predict, from that opening tag, Fear is actually going to be about lovesick custodian Michel Such going from annoying crush to possibly dangerous stalker. di Vettimo, however, doesn’t seem to notice his escalation. She doesn’t know she’s in the Laboratory of Fear, she just thinks she’s at work, trying to make some silver iodine and getting messed up because Such needs constant attention from her. He even tries to show off for her, sticking his hand in various kinds of dangerous chemicals. Presumably the actor didn’t have to do it, but who knows… di Vettimo is manipulating the spilled mercury by hand without a second thought (because 1971).

The short seems to be a race—will di Vettimo take notice of Such’s possible threat before Such escalates to the point of being dangerous? But the race is yet another of Leconte’s manipulations. The punchline, which is excellent, is as unpredictable as the setup. Though Leconte has been building to the punchline since after the opening titles; should it have been expected? Probably not. Not even if one is familiar with di Vettimo’s experiments, since Fear’s not about the hard science.

Good creeper performance from Such. Decent one from di Vettimo, who doesn’t really get anything to do. Leconte’s direction is fine, save the occasional visual flourishes. They’re to play with expectation too, of course.

Fear’s a competently executed narrative with a nice kicker.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Patrice Leconte; director of photography, Jean Gonnett; edited by Marguerite Renoir; produced by Pierre Braunberger for Les Films de la Pléiade.

Starring Marianne di Vettimo (Clara) and Michel Such (Antoine)


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Baghead (2017, Alberto Corredor)

Baghead ends up feeling a little exploitation-y, even though it’s rather classy. Great production design from Marie Boon—it takes place in a dank pub and then a danker pub cellar—and great photography from John Wade. Hollie Buhagiar’s music is classy too. Corredor isn’t a sensational director (at all)–meaning sensational in the sensationalistic way, not as a dig; his composition is good–and a fantastic Julian Seagar keeps everything even acting-wise.

The short opens with a guy whimpering and getting punched in the face, repeatedly. The shot’s offered without explanation or context and until the opening titles, what seems most important is the guy can’t even get tears out. Crocodile tears. Then, after the opening titles, Oliver Walker shows up, going into the aforementioned dank pub and meeting the aforementioned Seagar. Seagar wants to go home but Walker’s heard he keeps a witch in the basement who can do seances. Seagar warns Walker to go home, warns him he’ll find no solace in the experience, but Walker insists.

Then there’s the scary introduction to the witch (who’s got a bag over her head, hence the title), which Corredor and the crew handle quite well. What doesn’t help is all the bad will towards Walker, who’s not good. He gets better, once the plot twist comes out, but it’s a somewhat problematic better (and a somewhat problematic plot twist). But following that opening, where you’re mostly just wondering if Brett Kavanaugh would even get out real tears if someone repeated struck him in the face? Walker’s just not good enough. Seagar makes up for a lot of it, but Walker’s plum annoying.

And then there’s the twist and all of a sudden, even though Walker’s still a worm, he’s a different kind of worm. There’re some logic holes—like how he’s the first person to surprise Seagar with his specific seance request (is Seagar new? He doesn’t seem new). But it works. The short’s been patient, it turns out; solid production while waiting for the script to do its thing.

The plot twist isn’t not predictable—I was hoping for a similar twist, though less problematic—but it’s effectively done. And Walker’s sufficiently engaging by the end.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Alberto Corredor; written by Lorcan Reilly; director of photography, John Wate; music by Hollie Buhagiar; production designer, Marie Boon; released by Shorts TV.

Starring Oliver Walker (Kevin), Natalie Oliver (Lisa), Tama Phethean (Mike), and Julian Seager (barman).


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The Song of Styrene (1959, Alain Resnais)

The Song of Styrene is gorgeous. The way director Resnais showcases the plastic press-styrene becomes plastic through chemical processes (Song of is an industrial promotional film)—it’s a solitary object, removed from the factory setting and just amazing and new looking. Even when something’s weathered, like the industrial plants, it all looks new. Very futuristic, very clean. When there’s the eventual shots of coal, it’s stunning how much it contrasts with the very clean, very futuristic look of everything else. Coal is elemental, even as the narrator talks about its mysterious origins (Song is from 1959).

You’d think someone might notice how the story of a created plastic whatever going backwards to being coal gas is visibly clean to dirty; there’s not a “look how this dirty rock turns into something beautiful” sentiment either. Song has narration. A lot of narration and narrator Pierre Dux goes from being excited about plastic being pressed to excited by the power of fossil fuels. Song is a very obvious promotion, albeit a visually impressive one.

It’s not an intellectually impressive one. Not even for 1959. Maybe it’s Dux’s narration or Pierre Barbaud’s music. Until the fossil fuel blathering starts, the Barbaud’s music is Song’s biggest problem. It doesn’t not match Resnais, cinematographer Sacha Vierny, and editor Claudine Merlin’s visual charting of an industrial plant, it just doesn’t add anything to the visuals. Resnais, Vierny, and Merlin have it covered. The music and narration are just noise, disingenuous noise.

During that visual survey of plants, tracking the pipes and so on, Song hits its peak, which is something given how cool the opening with the plastics gets. But Song tells the story backwards, which Resnais doesn’t—it’s not like visual sequences play in reverse—and it hurts the potential. For a 1959 energy company promotional video about the wonders of fossil fuel and how it makes everything clean and modern… Song’s pretty good. The visuals engage enough the narration and intent don’t really matter. But it doesn’t transcend that intent. The attention Resnais places on the solitary plastic press doesn’t carry over to the industrial plants; such a feat would be outside the technological capabilities of a 1959 promotional short. But it’s also what Song would need to be anything more. Resnais, Vierny, and Merlin letting loose instead of dancing in place, the script, narration, and music moving the film along instead of the actual filmmaking.

And opening with a Victor Hugo quote about the human condition is, in the end, a little much.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Alain Resnais; written by Raymond Queneau; director of photography, Sacha Vierny; edited by Claudine Merlin and Resnais; music by Pierre Barbaud; produced by Pierre Braunberger; released by Les Films de la Pléiade.

Narrated by Pierre Dux.


Crystal Lake (2016, Jennifer Reeder)

Crystal Lake opens with lead Marcela Okeke packing a suitcase; based on some of what she packs–Aliens and Purple Rain on VHS, the LPs to Tea for the Tillerman and the Muppet Movie soundtrack—the short immediately establishes Okeke as one of the cooler people to ever exist. And then comes the final item—a broken skateboard. Okeke is going to live with relatives because, we soon find out, her father is dying. We also find out her mom died some years before—when Okeke’s character was seven (she’s a teenager now)—and Okeke’s married older sister booted her out. So not a great situation for Okeke.

And not a soft-landing spot either. Her older cousin, Sebastian Summers, is presented a little mysterious and does indeed seem to have some stuff going on but it’s just an insert. Same-ish aged, cool cousin Shea Vaughan-Gabor takes a while to size Okeke up and takes a tough (but real) love approach. But Vaughan-Gabor doesn’t get even the hint of a subplot. She’s got some personality (through wardrobe as well; both Okeke and Vaughan-Gabor wear hijab, but Vaughan-Gabor with a lot of bling). But no story. Other than the tough (but real) love personality trait. It’s not even clear why Vaughan-Gabor is living with Summers, who’s just another cousin.

Okeke’s got this insert subplot about intentional self-preservation, which is really cool but it’s just an insert. As a director, even with the inserts, Reeder has every good idea. Crystal Lake is phenomenally well-made. As a writer, Reeder’s got good intentions for her scenes, but they often sputter out once the exposition gets unnaturally heavy. It doesn’t help neither Okeke or Vaughan-Gabor can do the exposition. There are plenty of natural moments in Lake but zero hint of them—or even memory of them—when there’s exposition. And drama. Reeder, writing, has a problem with the dramatic turns. They’re peculiar disconnects because the filmmaking never wavers; it’s great during the exposition, it’s great during the drama, it’s great during the action, it’s great during the natural moments. Just the writing (and then the acting) go wobbly.

Vaughan-Gabor’s the most impressive performance in the film (she and Okeke are the only two contenders really; Summers’s insert doesn’t have him doing much acting), which is great—when it clicks, it clicks—but the short ends feeling lopsided. After the set up, Okeke becomes second (and even temporarily third) fiddle. It’s still her story, Reeder just doesn’t stick with her to tell it.

Even with wonky exposition dumps, lopsided pacing, and unexplored inserts, Crystal Lake is still more than worth a look. Reeder’s direction is outstanding, the plot is good, the cast is good (often better than good).

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jennifer Reeder; director of photography, Christopher Rejano; edited by Mike Olenick; produced by Penelope Bartlett and Steven Hudosh for Forevering Films.

Starring Marcela Okeke (Ladan), Shea Vaughan-Gabor (Samiyah), Sebastian Summers (Samer), and Kristyn Zoe Wilkerson (Toni).


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