There simply aren’t enough compilations like this. Thousands of short films are made every year in every corner of the planet by all types of people with vastly differing stories, budgets, talent and ideology. Once these mini movies are finished maybe a handful of viewers have a chance to see them, and then only once and never again. That, in a word, sucks. How many fledgling Kubricks and Hitchcocks and Argentos have faded into obscurity simply because no one had ever seen their potential? I consider this nothing short of a tragedy. Don’t get me wrong, most shorts are freaking horrible. Give a guy a thousand dollars and a camera and he can do a lot of damage before someone like me stops him. But there are a lot of diamonds in the manure if you’re brave enough to take a peek.
The Small Gauge Trauma compilation attempts to rectify this sad state of affairs by offering 13 shorts in DVD format so that people who’ve never even seen a five minute movie in their lives can finally learn that cinema isn’t just a millionaires club; It’s within the reach of all of us who dare commit to telling a story. I dig that. Besides, this is as close as anyone will ever get to experiencing movie night at Mitch Davis’ place without physically being there. Davis is the Director of International Programming for the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. If you ever go see a movie at this fest and leave the theatre feeling excited, confused, nauseated, intrigued and glad to have seen whatever it is you’ve seen despite the fact that you’ll have nightmares for a month, that was probably Mitch’s pick. He’s got an eye like a falcon for the freaky, yet really cool, stuff and chose every single offering here. Trust me, you’re in good hands.
But enough introductions, onto the reviews:
Spain – 1998 – 15 minutes
Directed by Paco Plaza
Starring: Antonio Duque, Angela Capilla, Beatriz Pena and Martin Balbas
***1/2 out of *****
The short Grandfathers concerns strange happenings in a rest home, which may or not be a rest home, and whose nameless pensioners may or may not be quite human. What they are, we’re left to guess. One valid answer would be “vampire”, but I’m not so sure. I think they’re something much worse.
Using no gore or violence (or even blood for that matter), director Francisco Plaza plays up the discomfort until it reaches a crescendo of such epic proportions that it’ll leave you feeling sick and dizzy. I have no idea if he used professional actors or not, but either way they are incredible. There is a scene where an old man and woman look at a small child with such naked greed and need that it turns your blood to ice. The fact that they’re being playful and kind to the little girl makes it even worse. This is as far removed from the traditional romantic illusion of the vampire as you can get. There are no dark lovers under the full moon, no beauty, no joy, no emo poetic musings, no old gothic castles, no hope, no nubile young women lusting for death; just very old decaying people with a tenacious grip on life for its own sake living an existence of constant misery, sadness and pain. And that, my friends, is a lot scarier than a guy in a cape with a Hungarian accent.
Amor So De Mae (Love from Mother Only)
Brazil – 2003 – 21 minutes – 35 mm
Directed by Dennison Ramalho
Written by Dennison Ramalho and Pai Alex
Starring: Everaldo Pontes, Debora Muniz and Vera Barreto Leite
Extras: Audio commentary by Director Dennison Ramalho and Special Make-up effects artist Andre Kapel
*** out of *****
“My son reeks of woman.”
Filho is a fisherman living with his ancient sickly mother on the coast. She has such an omnipresent power over his life that he has to sneak away in secret with his lover Formosa in the jungle where they have cold unsatisfying sex. We can tell by their urgent mechanical lovemaking and the subsequent afterglow that this is an all-too familiar occurrence. Only this time there’s a twist, Formosa tells Filho that she’s leaving for good unless he can do something about his mother. Both of them have long left behind any pretense of youth and are in the last stretch of middle age. If they keep this up for much longer, their life together now is as good as it’s likely to get.
So as cruel as Formosa’s pronouncement is, it’s not entirely unwarranted. However, this leaves the guy in a hell of spot. It’s not like there are a lot of free retirement homes in Brazil. For Filho to leave his mother is to kill her. Yet if he lets Formosa go, he just dooms himself to die slow along with his mom.
But let’s get on the topic of sex for a moment; I don’t want to make this the focus of the review but it’s so rare to see explicit sex scenes that build character development in a movie that I just had to mention it. People shy away from this sort of stuff out of prudery most of the time. Which is odd, since sex is the one moment where a couple is at it’s most naked emotionally with each other. Thus the ultimate irony is that when directors say that they don’t include such scenes in order to focus on characterization, they’re in fact doing the opposite by being timid and euphemistic with their story. Ramalho has no such problem and good for him.
Brazil is a very religious country and this is a very religious film. Temptations of the flesh, the reality of Satan, the daily presence of Christ; all of these things are not just belief to most, but are seen as fact. In this light Mother is a film whose horror derives from the realization that the darkness is just a stone’s throw away from the light and that sometimes God crosses his arms and lets you fall into the abyss.
Both leads are excellent. Debora Muniz, who plays Formosa was a porn star in the 70’s and 80’s but you’d never know it because unlike most women who worked in that field she can actually act worth a damn. Everaldo Pontes, who plays Filho, likewise does a lot with a role that requires him to express 90% of his feelings through action rather than words.
“Love from Mother Only” isn’t a perfect film about Catholic Guilt (that honor goes to The Exorcist) yet this has a lot going for it nonetheless; and the more devout you are the scarier this will seem.
The commentary track on this is fucking A-Numbero-Uno AWESOME! It’s more entertaining than the film. Ramahlo has this really intense energetic way of talking and seems like the type of guy who’d make a kick-ass drinking buddy. He provides tons of information about the details of production and Brazillian culture. Where else are you gonna learn that dead snakes preserved in jars of alcohol make a nice macho cocktail for those who think that eating the worm in Tequila is for pussies?
Chambre Jaune (Yellow Room)
Belgium – 2002 – 8 minutes
Still Photography/Digital Video/35mm
Directed by Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Starring: Sandrine Laroche, Lea Capraro and Jean-Michel Vovk
Extras: Audio commentary by Directors Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani.
*** out of *****
An unseen voyeur watches his/her neighbors, takes pictures of them and then finally decides to do more than just look.
Chambre Jaune is all style with no real story, except for the little bit that I’ve mentioned above. However, since it’s essentially an 8 minute long tribute to Giallo, this seems to be the entire point. Also, one can’t fault the style. Directors Cattet and Forzani use still photographs to mimic how the voyeur “sees” the people around him/her, which is a brilliant idea and outdoes even Argento at times in sheer audacity. The only real complaint I have is that the soundtrack doesn’t emulate Giallo as well as the images. Loud blaring electronic music would have done wonders to amp up the tension and relate this work to its influences.
In the commentary, both directors mention their obsession with detail, going so far as doing 30 takes with sub-par equipment until the shot looked perfect. This kind of dedication to the art is why this short achieves so perfectly what it set out to do. Their blood is in this film and they suffered for it. Perhaps it’s terrible of me to admit how happy it makes me that this is so, but I would be lying if I said otherwise. True artists don’t wimp out when things get hard, they forge on. This is why, above all else, that Yellow Room works.
Canada – 2001 – 7 minutes
Written and Directed by Benoit Boucher
Starring: Brad Smith, Phillip Spurrell and Benoit Boucher
Extras: Audio commentary by director Benoit Boucher
***1/2 out of *****
An acid tripping stoner and his ultra violent Russian gun toting buddy accidentally kill their neighbor’s dog Fluffy and then try to make it look as if it was run over by a car.
I am woefully inadequate to explain how totally whacked out this short is. Boucher has created a film comprised entirely with the kind of insane jokes you only come up with by smoking primo weed and hanging around people even more stoned off their shit than you are. Not only that, but he made it so that even people who don’t have cotton mouth and the munchies will laugh too. This is a neat little 7 minutes of unexpected and weird twisted humor.
The commentary is provided by Robot KY-6969 who spends most of his time detailing all the sexual perversions that you can commit with other mechanoids using WD40 rather than talking about anything having to do with Flat-N-Fluffy. It’s basically an extension of the short’s sense of humor and it’s definitely worth a listen.
Argentina – 2004 – 15 minutes
Written and Directed by Salvador Sanz
Starring: Perciavalle Sebastian Ramsey and Lorena Suarez
Extras: Production featurette
**** out of *****
Never mind that awful F.A.K.K. sequel. This is the true successor to the original Heavy Metal movie. Well, I don’t mean that literally, but Gorgons is certainly made with the same kind of style, spirit and gigantic testicles.
After the Earth has been destroyed by a trio of Gorgon sisters, two survivors of the apocalypse try to hunt down the creatures and kill them in a game of cat and mouse amidst the ruins of a city and its long dead inhabitants, all of which been turned to stone. This is, simply put, a gorgeous looking film. It’s quiet and perfectly paced and the mood drips out of the celluloid like sweat from a fever dream. The voice actors rarely speak above a whisper and this adds to the atmosphere like you wouldn’t believe. Sanz directs with a natural sense of cool and even though things proceed at a languid pace there’s a pervasive energy at work that refuses to let you take your eyes off the screen for an instant. When the ending comes we’re totally satisfied that all clichés have been avoided and discarded.
Also included in the menu for this short is a 2 minute long production featurette that’s insanely informative despite its short length. You almost have to watch it twice since it’s formatted similar to those first couple of minutes in an episode of 24, but this technique allows Director Sanz talks about everything from the mythical origins of the Gorgons to how he tried to bring a European comic book aesthetic to his animation. Nice.
I’ll See You in My Dreams
Portugal – 2004 – 20 minutes
Directed by Miguel Angel Vivas
Written by Filipe Melo and Ivan Vivas
From an idea by Miguel Angel Vivas
Starring: Andelino Tavares, Sao Jose Correia and Sofia Aparicio
Extras: Music video for Moonspell’s “I’ll See You in My Dreams”
*** out of *****
After the living dead have taken over the Earth, survivors in a small village try to keep a semblance of normalcy going on. Lucio, a zombie hunter, wanders around mourning for his deceased wife whose zombiefication only adds to the guilt he feels about her death.
What’s odd is that the first thirty seconds of the film almost make it seem like this is a Peter Jackson gore-O-rama movie like Dead/Alive. Then, the film becomes a lot more somber and thoughtful and we’re left wondering about where those first thirty seconds came from. Despite that little hiccup, and a few more to come as we’ll soon see, Dreams arguably has the most beautiful cinematography and locations of any Living Dead movie ever made and attacks the story of zombies taking over the world from a much more personal intimate angle. This isn’t about running around and fighting flesh eating ghouls, but about how we would feel about those we lost if their reanimated rotting body was still around to fool us into thinking they was still hope that we’d ever be able to have them again. Actor Adelino Tavares plays Lucio with the perfect mix of angst and viciousness. Under his sadness is some very real anger and unresolved feelings about his wife. Shown starkly when he takes a local tavern girl home and has brutal anal sex with her; keeping her face hidden we assume so that he can pretend he’s hurting someone else.
Then about 8 minutes before the end those first thirty seconds come back to haunt us as the Peter Jackson attitude sporadically rears its ugly head again. Now don’t get me wrong. I love Jackson’s A.D.H.D. take on the dead. However, this movie was promising to be so much deeper, and to have it go back and forth like that is a bit inconsistent to say the least. Still, there is a lot more good than bad and if you can take the slight see-saw of the film’s tone (beware the midget zombie) you’ll find much to enjoy. Despite what I said, director Vivas takes himself seriously and the moments of humor seemed added more out of a desire to please the audience than from an artistic standpoint. If he’d had a little more confidence in his abilities and ideas, this could have been excellent instead of just great.
Canada – 2002 – 9 minutes
Written and Directed by Guillaume Fortin
Starring: Marc Latremouille, Margaret McBearty and Anne Nadeau
Extras: Audio commentary by Director Guillaume Fortin, Producer Pierre-Mathieu Fortin and Sound Designer Martin Marier
*** out of ****
One of the more artsy shorts on the DVD. Infinity is a surreal peak inside the mind of an overdosing junkie as the inner archivist in her subconscious tries to keep splicing all her memories together coherently as her brain dies so that her life can flash before her eyes.
It’s a good idea and well executed, a little surreal for my tastes but it’ll satisfy those of you who want something good done in that style. The commentary is also quite in depth for something so short and the views expressed on the use of repeated imagery to either comfort or disturb an audience is something that any filmmaker should know.
Japan – 2000 – 39 minutes
Written and Directed by Tomoya Sato
Starring: Shino Ogihara, Tasuku Yamanouchi, Tomoo Uchiumi, Ryoko Yukami and Toshiya Murase
***1/2 out of *****
In the Peter Straub novel Ghost Story one of the characters makes a rambling incoherent speech with one very apt bit of insight about Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. Calling it “A ghost story in which the ghost never appears.” This is a fitting description for Sato’s work.
L’Ilya is a haunted, haunted film. It reeks of ghosts in every frame, and mournful voices cry out unheard in every silence, except… that this isn’t true, not exactly. The ghosts are nothing more than the images of the living in their final moments and if there are any mournful voices to be heard, it’s just our own echoing back to us. At 39 minutes this stretches the “short” designation, but I am glad it was included. It’s is an amazing piece of work.
Ilya is a video artist who films people’s suicides. She doesn’t encourage them or interfere, she just coolly tapes their final moments for later use in music montages that play in clubs as a backdrop. The bored patrons barely notice. Just another example of real life being re-edited to suck out all the reality and life out of it, transforming something that was once vibrant into a disposable, watered down, bastardized version of itself whose ultimate use is merely as entertainment. Tomoya Sato has crafted a brooding lonely film concerning death and dying that has a morbid curiosity about the reasons for suicide, while at the same time realizing that the answer may not exist. Ilya films her subjects killing themselves with what she pretends is clinical detachment. She asks them why they do it, only to get vague evasive replies at best. Her curiosity gnaws away at her until she begins to lower the barrier that she has erected between herself and the subjects; finally growing so frustrated with each unspoken justification that by the end she must know the answer at all costs.
Ilya is dark and poetic and shares all the characteristics of a J-horror film save for the supernatural. Check the dictionary; you don’t have to be dead to fir the definition of a ghost.
Japan – 1997 – 30 seconds
Directed by Tenkwaku Naniwa
Banana out of *****
I liked it cuz it was good, rox0r!
That probably took me longer to write than it took director Naniwa to film this fucker. Not so much a movie as a practical joke on the audience, Miss Greeny is an amusing way to spend thirty seconds. Rating an 11 on a scale of ten on the WTF factor, this is the cinematic equivalent of waking up in the morning and finding out someone put orange juice in your milk carton and milk in your orange juice carton. You may not get the joke, but somebody somewhere is laughing.
Spain – 2002 – 15 minutes
Written and Directed by Diego Abad
Starring: Diego Puchal, Alex Marti, Emilio Mirasol, Melani Olivares, Cristina Plaza and Bernardo Lopez
Extras: Audio commentary by Director Diego Abad
***1/2 out of *****
A day in the life of a bunch of junkie/stoner friends whose entire existence revolves around drugs, drug raves, drug parties, doing drugs, finding drugs and getting laid because of drugs. It’s the most dynamic and fast paced short on the compilation. It slows down when need be to flesh out its well written cast of characters, and then speeds up never missing a beat. Hell, it even finds time for a slew musical numbers right out of 1982 era new wave music videos.
Ruta comes at you like a hurricane and leaves you sitting among the debris wondering what the hell just happened, but in a good way. I only wish this was a full length movie, unlike a lot of shorts who are just perfect with their compact running time this could be stretched out quite a bit and still keep much of it’s awesomeness.
The commentary is hysterical. Director Abad admits to various slightly illegal acts in order to get the shots he needed and talks about how the DP had some sort of mental breakdown during post production and decided that one scene should be all green and one scene should be oversaturated. Abad just giggles as he recollects this stuff and he seems like a fun down to Earth guy.
UK – 2003 – 10 minutes
Written and Directed by Robert Morgan
Extras: Audio commentary by Director Robert Morgan and Producer Sylvie Bringas + deleted scene with audio commentary.
****1/2 out of *****
Ever since I saw “Cat with Hands” four or five years ago I’ve been a huge fan of Robert Morgan’s work and Separation gives me no reason to change my mind. It’s an absolutely incredible piece about two conjoined twins who have never quite accepted having been surgically separated as kids. They carry the bitterness into adulthood and then slowly learn to accept it in old age as they near death. It’s entirely created using stop motion and Morgan gets more soul and pathos out of his two sad little dolls that play the twins than most real actors can summon after decades of experience.
Using a nightmarish set design of odd machines and leather padding and latent hospital imagery Morgan lets the audience know in no uncertain terms that the adult twins have never left that one place where they were happy as children and that they are still striving to return to it. When one of the twins hatches a bizarre plan for reconstitution you take one look at the huge oversize sewing machine that he’s built and know in your heart that none of this is going to end well.
The thing with every single one of Morgan’s shorts is that he can manipulate mood as if by black magic. There’s one scene where one of the twins sees something hideous and puts his hands over his eyes. Simple shot, but you can’t put it out of your mind. It’s just too terrible and sad. The closing image of the twins’ ideal, or possibly true, form will haunt you a long time.
The audio commentary by Robert Morgan and producer Sylvie Bringas is filled with information about the themes, subtext and symbolism of the short and listening to it really helps appreciate a second viewing even more. There is also a surreal deleted scene with commentary by Morgan, who explains that it was removed for being obtrusive.
UK – 2001 – 5 minutes
Written and Directed by Philip John
Starring: Siwan Morris and Joanne McQuinn
Extras: Audio commentary by Director Philip John
*** out of *****
Sister Lulu is the Edgar Allen Poe-ish tale of a novice nun seeking to escape a convent whose Sister’s demonstrate piety through various acts of creepy masochism. The novice eventually comes to the conclusion that there is no other means of desertion except death and tries to kill herself, but another nun (the Sister Lulu of the title) empathizes with the girl and offers her an alternative. Siwan Morris shows a total fearlessness, diving into the role of the novice nun with a reckless abandon rarely seen these days. I like that in a performer, that ability to go as far as possible for their character and the good of the film. She also uses her Welsh accent’s lilt for maximum effect, making lines that weren’t designed that way sound like Iambic Pentameter.
The only downside here is that the short is a teeny tiny peek into a bigger world and a longer tale; and five minutes simply isn’t enough to do much more than whet our appetites for the whole story. It’s like a quick kiss from a stranger in the dark. You feel it for a long time but it’s frustrating because you don’t have quite enough information to even begin guessing what it was all about. However, Lulu is still really cool, just way too short.
The commentary track is very much in tone with the film. Director John gives a ton of information about his film and then tells a story about a boy and his grandmother that’s almost as creepy as Sister Lulu itself.
UK – 2004 – 7 minutes
Directed by Sam Walker
Written by Timothy Reeves
Starring: Jeremy McNeill, Kevin Hughes, Adele Proctor and Ed Patrick
Extras: Audio commentary by director Sam Walker and writer Timothy Reeves
*** out of *****
A man works on the assembly line at a factory, but oh what they make there…
Tea Break has no story in the traditional sense. It’s a montage of one man working in a human being meat packing plant and details the repetitive droning gruesome job that he performs as he cuts the heads off people, sending the torsos to be slaughtered further down the line, until the film finally closes with a pitch black punchline as a fitting end to this seven minute joke.
A clue to the filmmaker’s sense of humor can be found in the fact the audio commentary is presented in the form of a song. May I be the first to say that while this experiment is quite daring, it doesn’t work as well as hoped? Don’t get me wrong, I thought it was cool but you gotta listen to the thing 4 or 5 times to be sure you got it all. Still, it’s informative enough and it very definitely shows that these guys are warped in a funny kinda way.
When I met Robert Morgan at the Fantasia film festival he mentioned a little footnote that I think you readers would get a kick out of. He knows the guys who made this and supposedly they’ve joked about what a neat prank it would be to create a 2 hour version of this. Just 120 minutes of head chopping. Now that’s something I’d be curious to see people react to! I wouldn’t wanna watch it, I’d go nuts; but I’d wanna be in the theatre when it played, that’s for damn sure.
Is that it? Lemme see here… Yup, that’s it! Whew. [NOTE: Holy crap. This review is probably longer than the scripts for some of the shorts I’ve just reviewed. – J.K.]
Other special features on the DVD include a special introduction by Coffin Joe and Mitch Davis, all the commercials for Fantasia 2005, a trailer for the DVD, and a montage of news footage about the festival. The intros are filmed on video and the quality could be better but it’s Coffin Joe! And Mitch is always a hoot to listen to. The commercials are entertaining in their own right, especially “Jumper”. You’ll probably want to go through all this stuff really quick; but even so none of it feels like filler. It’s all fun.
Without sounding like a broken record, I think this whole compilation is worth buying just to own a DVD copy of the Robert Morgan short. You’ll finally get to see what I’m so excited about and you can think of the other 12 as a bonus to go along with Morgan’s brilliant work.