Star Wars 32, 12 and 0 years later

I saw Star Wars at the Duncan Odeon shortly after it premiered in 1977. I was 12 years old, pretty much the ideal age.

I also saw it in the theater here in Vancouver when the special edition came out in 1997. I was 32 years old.

I watched it again last week.

What follows is the answer to the question: Can a magical film of my youth withstand the critical, nay, cynical eye of adulthood?

The short answer is: mostly yes. The longer answer follows.

I saw Star Wars before it became the most successful movie ever (for the time) and at the age of 12 I was old enough to understand everything but still young enough to be dazzled in the way only a child can. While the 70s are fondly looked back on by film purists, I think it’s important to remember that film has always been a combination of craft and commerce. When the serials of the 30s and 40s were being cranked out, no one was aspiring to high art. Likewise the exploitation flicks of the 60s and 70s were just mindless entertainment designed to titillate and little more.

Star Wars, though, was one of those films that tried both. In the context of the era, it was unheard of — a big budget science fiction movie complete with veteran actors like Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing to lend it credibility. It’s been well-documented how George Lucas drew from many sources for inspiration for the movie and somehow he made it all work. But how does it fare now?

I have the special edition on DVD. This was essentially a test-run of the CGI effects that would drive the Episode I-III prequels, adding extra bits of shiny and re-inserting a few cut scenes. The quality of the transfer is a bit strange — some parts of the film are very vivid while others still appear muddy and with “noise” in the film. While a few effects shots have been cleaned up, others still have the telltale transparent rectangles outlining TIE fighters that shows how they were overlaid on the backgrounds.

As to the additions and extras in the special edition, most don’t hold up and some even detract from the film. The best ones are a few quick shots that make Mos Eisley look like more than just “four overturned cans of paint” (as one critic dubbed the original). The scene with Biggs and Luke chatting before heading out to the Death Star is also a thoughtful inclusion.

However, the background bits with exotic beasts fussing and farting and noisy little drones flying about are distractions that pull your eye away from the focus of the scene. The infamous “Greedo now shoots first” scene undercuts the character arc of Han Solo going from a mercenary out for himself to someone who actually joins the cause. The worst bit, though, is the re-insertion of the scene where Han is confronted by Jabba the Hutt. Not only was most of the scene reworked for the Greedo/Han confrontation, making its insertion gratuitous, Jabba looks like CGI and Han addresses him as if he was a person and not a giant slug. He even ends with, “Jabba, you’re a wonderful human.” This made sense when the scene was shot because Jabba was just some guy in a bad fur coat. Putting the scene back in was the first sign that Lucas’s ear had gone tin on what worked in the world he created.

But what about the rest of the movie, the parts unchanged from 1977?

For the most part, it still works. There is the sense that you are watching events unfold in a universe that is truly unlike ours, one where technology has advanced but is still grimy and gritty and prone to breaking down. The characters are all broadly and clearly delineated. Luke is the farmboy hero who fulfills his destiny, Han is the rogue, Kenobi the wise mentor, Vader the despicable villain and the droids the comic relief. The only real misstep among the cast is Carrie Fisher’s mysteriously appearing and disappearing British accent that seems to activate whenever she’s in a scene with Peter Cushing. Monkey see, monkey do, I guess. Of all the actors, Cushing seems to delight most in his role, coldly putting the leash on Vader (who else would do such a thing in any of the other movies?) or shrugging off the rebels’ chances of actually destroying the Death Star.

Lucas keeps the stakes high throughout — Luke’s guardians aren’t just killed by the stormtroopers, they’re reduced to charred skeletons, the Death Star destroys an entire planet to demonstrate its power — but deftly keeps things moving with lots of action and banter between the main trio as they battle their way through to the final showdown at the Death Star. Yeah, it’s not entirely believable that dozens of stormtroopers could all miss when firing at them but it’s part of the pulp serial fun of the movie. The heroes face impossible odds but somehow overcome them, anyway.

The original effects are a mixed bag. The Death Star trench runs hold up decently but there’s a certain wobbleyness to a lot of the others where they still work but just barely. Here, you do need to keep the film in context. Effects-wise, I’d say it holds up worse than, say, The Wizard of Oz. Even the special edition spiffing up only goes so far.

There is also throughout the film an earnest corniness than many today might find off-putting but again, it works in the context of the story. These aren’t just characters, they’re archetypes. Han isn’t just speaking for himself but for every guy who just wants what’s his and to keep his nose out of everything else.

One of the things I most notice now as an adult is how Lucas really isn’t very good with his actors. Those that know their stuff, like Harrison Ford and Cushing, manage just fine but the younger and less experienced actors like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher offer uneven performances than a firmer directorial hand would have made more consistent. In this regard I think Lucas actually got worse in the prequels. Still, the lapses aren’t enough to detract from the film as a whole.

Overall, Star Wars still holds up fine. Its flaws are more apparent now and the special edition adds little of value to the film, but it’s well worth seeing. It’s amazing that over 30 years later so few other films have captured the science fantasy feel that makes Star Wars so appealing, even to where it largely eluded Lucas himself.

Review: 28 Days Later

I saw Shaun of the Dead earlier this year and loved it. I’ve just recently watched 28 Days Later and it’s odd because Shaun, though a comedy, is a more “authentic” zombie experience, inasmuch as a zombie movie can be authentic, anyway. 28 Days Later is rather grim and I enjoyed it (I find Cillian Murphy a strangely mesmerizing presence) but the fast-moving infected in the film never struck me as frightening, more just crazed animals. You almost felt sorry for them — until they got their heads beaten in with baseball bats. This approach to the “enemy” took away from the overall mood of the film but then I realized that director Danny Boyle may have been creating, whether by intention or accident, an homage to The Day of the Triffids. Both stories start the same way — with a patient alone in a hospital after some catastrophic event has struck the world.

Each story then follows the protagonist as he bands with other survivors and ultimately comes into conflict with groups that have differing agendas, so in a way it’s not a zombie movie at all but more of a study in human behavior when people are forced into constant “do or die” situations and there is no longer any established authority to appeal to or seek shelter with.

The “bad boy” military also came off as a bit too convenient for the story and it was interesting to see in the deleted scenes a “radical alternate ending” that imagined the movie going off in a completely different direction with no military present at all (for the record, that ending would very likely have been worse).

It was refreshing to see they also went with a “happy” ending by having Cillian’s character of Jim survive. Several alternate endings were filmed where his character perishes after taking a bullet to the abdomen. Downer endings have become so de rigueur that a happy one almost seems to be bucking the system.

Recommended.

Review: Get Smart (2008 version)

I finally got around to seeing the Get Smart remake that came out last year. I thought it was decent as remakes go and probably more deserving than, say, Starsky & Hutch or The Dukes of Hazzard but it wasn’t nearly as good as the source material.

Steve Carrell wisely chose not to do a full-on Don Adams impression. His portrait of Smart is more of a homage and works fairly well. The rest of the cast was fine but none of the other characters really felt much like the ones in the original series. Anne Hathaway’s Agent 99 comes across as snippy and not very likeable, the Chief, instead of being exasperated most of the time, is portrayed as a brawler, of all things. Weird. But the biggest disappointment had to be the villain, Sigfried. In the TV series he is played completely over the top, complete with outrageous German accent by Bernie Koppell (who gets a cameo here). In the movie he is played without a trace of humor by Terence Stamp, who apparently doesn’t do comedy even when he’s in one. Having a serious villain in a Get Smart movie is missing the point by about as much as you can possibly miss a point.

The plot also tried too hard to be a standard action film and all the derring-do detracted from the comedy (though they did include a few funny bits in some of the sequences). The dopey Bush-like president made the movie already feel dated but the biggest problem was the movie just wasn’t funny enough. I may be strange but that’s how I like my comedies — funny!

Still, now that they have the “origin” story out of the way (why do these movies do this? I don’t need to find out how Max became an agent — even the TV series doesn’t show that) I might be interested in watching a follow-up. Even if the cast isn’t as authentic, they are watchable and the potential is there. I give it 6 out of 10 shoe phones.

Review: 2012 or Science is Hard

I saw 2012 tonight and the line-up beforehand was the biggest I’ve seen in awhile. Apparently the end of the world is going to be a big hit.

Rather than a traditional review, I will summarize 2012’s story in convenient list form. Follow the list and you, too, can write a globe-spanning disaster epic!

1. Make a list of great disaster movie scenarios, including:

  • earthquakes
  • volcanic eruptions
  • tidal waves

2. Combine all of the above.
3. Ask yourself, “Is this specific scenario ridiculous?” If the answer is no, make it ridiculous. If the answer is yes, go to 4.
4. Make the scenario even more ridiculous.
5. No one knows science anymore, so it’s okay to make everything up. When a character exclaims “That’s impossible!” cut to the next scene.
6. No one speaks French, either, so feel free to make that up, too.
7. Ramp up the urgency using the old “my calculations were off!” trick
8. Include at least one (1) each of the following:

  • plucky pet that barely makes it
  • noble sacrifice (ideally someone who becomes increasingly sympathetic as the story progresses)
  • wise old person who accepts death with quiet dignity
  • hero who appears to have died but wait — he’s OK!
  • 1-3 plucky kids
  • a sacrificing and decent president
  • 3-5 famous landmarks getting trashed (eg. White House, Sistine Chapel, Washington Monument, etc.)
  • a bad guy who gets his just rewards
  • a bad good guy who learns just what this whole humanity thing is all about

9. Pad out to 2 hours and 38 minutes.
10. Serve and enjoy!

They really took point #4 to heart. Spoilers follow but really, is it possible to spoil a Roland Emmerich film?

It’s not enough to have a colossal sea-going ark imperiled with an imminent collision with any old mountain, it must be Mt. Everest! This is a film that treats the supervolcano in Yellowstone erupting as a side event. You can’t have a tsunami wipe out the White House, you must have it struck by the USS John Kennedy aircraft carrier first — but not before showing the president looking up and literally saying his prayers.

The science was ludicrous, of course. #5 actually happens.

They had a cute Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator doing a news conference in one scene. Too bad Schwarzenegger won’t be governor in 2012 due to term limits. The end of the world comes even sooner for him. For some reason they had the Italian premier decide to stay behind and pray at the Vatican (which, of course, gets destroyed in lavish detail, complete with the oh-so-subtle symbolism of a giant fissure appearing between David and the hand of God in the Sistine Chapel).

But despite all this, I still had a good time. As disaster porn goes, this movie delivered. Everything from collapsing freeways and skyscrapers to capsizing cruise ships and trains shooting through instant new canyons, 2012 had it all. California literally slides into the ocean.

Jon Cusack is a likable actor but he really doesn’t have much of a role here as a good-but-flawed father/husband/writer. His character (and many of the others, really) survive too many implausible situations to count and I guess it’s hard to really figure out how you’d react to the world coming apart. You’d be upset and kind of panicky, maybe. The kids were decent but forgettable and Woody Harrelson hams it up as a radio broadcasting end-of-the-worlder. Despite running over 2.5 hours, the movie surprised me by not feeling so long. It helps that once you start ravaging the planet it’s hard to buy time for touching, quiet moments.

In closing, if you ever want to see a movie that features giraffes and elephants being airlifted by helicopter across the Himalayas, 2012 is the movie for you!

The fun of Halloween

Tonight I saw the Halloween-appropriate Paranormal Activity. Shot in a cinéma vérité style, this low budget effort featured a good cast and nicely ratcheted up the stakes as said activities became more and more invasive. I have to admit I’m a sucker for the pseudo-documentary style of film-making and I think this one did a solid job of portraying the demon-afflicted couple in a (mostly) believable* manner. Less satisfying were the people occasionally talking (nervously?) amongst themselves in the audience and a number who constantly got up from their seats, perhaps feeling some nausea from the occasionally tipsy camera work. The guy to my left spent most of his time literally on the edge of his seat leaning forward and then glibly said at the end, “I want the last hour and forty minutes of my time back.” You’re not fooling anyone, Mr. Fraidy Cat!

* okay, there were several not-so-believable bits. SPOILERS FOLLOW. LOOK AWAY TO AVOID! Micah and Katie document the manifestations in their home using a big-ass video camera and the film shows them regularly reviewing the footage via a laptop “hooked up by Firewire” as Micah states several times. At one point the couple leaves the house with a Ouija board on the coffee table, with the camera recording it. The planchette busies itself scooting across the board and then bursts into flames. This was not enough to make them think perhaps staying in the house might not be a wise idea. On the final day, Katie insist on staying and says everything will be fine, then goes to sleep with a, I daresay, devilish smile on her face. Apparently Micah never reviewed this clip because I’d get the freak away at that point. But maybe that’s just me.

After the movie we strolled down Davie Street and being the clever lad I am , I quipped about Halloween on Davie — could you tell the difference? There were a surprisingly large number of people in costume, ranging from ultra-basic (cat ears) to elaborately made-up vampires, zombies and overweight cowboys. And fireworks. Lots of fireworks that even as I write this are still exploding somewhere a few houses over. People seem very intent on getting their money’s worth this year. Interestingly, Nic said this kind of tomfoolery isn’t indulged in back east. Maybe they just eat pumpkin poutine instead.

13 books read — scary!

I’ve just finished reading my 13th book this year (scary!), appropriately it was Stephen King’s latest short story collection Just After Sunset. I had read “Stationary Bike” in a previous compilation (and it remains a favorite) but the rest were new to me. As always, some stories resonated more than others, a few seemed more like scenes or mood pieces than stories proper but the highlight for me was the one previously unpublished entry, a story called “N.” that delves into madness (and monsters) in a way that would fit perfectly in the Cthulhu mythos. I’m recommending the collection on the strength of that one alone, though there are several others that are nicely done. If any complaint is to be made it’s that none of the stories are particularly creepy.

Reviews: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot & Third Man Out

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

Last night I went to a staged reading of The Trial of Judas Iscariot, a  joint production with Pound of Flesh Theatre and presented at Pacific Theatre. I’d never been to the venue before at 12th and Hemlock. It’s a converted space in the basement of a church that used to house a swimming pool. Instead of the traditional stage/audience divide, the audience is split into two halves, with the small stage sandwiched in-between. The actors can enter and exit on three sides, two leading them under the audience. The theatre was intimate, which was pleasant enough and also rather warm and stuffy, which was less pleasant.

The Trial is an odd bit of theater and was presented in an equally unusual manner — Ron Reed, the artistic director, came onstage before the show to explain that the actors, who had been working with the script for a scant two and a half days, would be bringing said script onstage with them. Costumes would be minimal or suggested, as would props and scenery. Surprisingly, the performances were for the most part wonderfully tight, with only one notable (and actually funny) pause as one actor suddenly realized she was forgetting a single word and had to pause to find it on the page before continuing.

The play is an abstraction that puts Judas on trial for his betrayal of Jesus and instead of having a historical setting, it is instead presented in the modern day, with figures from the past ranging from Pontius Pilate to Mother Teresa and Freud mingling in a courtroom where the prosecution seems destined for Hell and the defense doesn’t seem squeaky clean, either. The first act rolls along quickly, with some very funny turns by Marcus Youssef as the sycophantic prosecutor, trying to stave off a trip to Hell while proving how Judas deserves to stay there and Michael Kopsa as Satan (“Call me Lou”), who metaphorically shifts forms throughout, from aw shucks nice guy to the one condemning you to an eternity of damnation without a glimmer of delight to be seen.

The auditorium doors had signs warning of extreme vulgar language and that warning is earned. This was stuff that could peel the paint off of Tarantino’s living room, yet it rarely felt gratuitous.

However, I ultimately left disappointed because despite some terrific performances and a strong, even rollicking first act, the second act’s pace slows noticeably as the characters indulge in longer and more serious monologues, all to service The Serious Message being presented about the nature of forgiveness. Eventually it felt like I’d stumbled into the Biblical equivalent of a Very Special Episode of Blossom. I am pretty tired of this kind of inconsistent and indulgent tone in stories, whatever the format, because it feels nakedly manipulative — stringing the audience along with “cheap” laughs in order to hit them with that oh-so-powerful sucker punch later — the Serious Message. There is certainly nothing wrong in exploring serious themes and I love a good drama as much as anyone, but this was less getting-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter and more eating a coconut cream pie only to find a slab of liver at the bottom.

Third Man Out

Third Man Out is a 2005 movie featuring the gay PI Donald Strachey, played by Chad “Yeah, that was me in the hot tub” Allen, who wears the role well. A user review on IMDB sums the film up appropriately as a gay twist on the old Nick and Nora movies. Mixing light banter with a murder mystery and all of it set against the hidden and not-so-hidden gay milieu around Albany, NY, the first installment rolls along smoothly, with plenty o’ beefcake to keep those less interested in whodunnit engaged while dropping in enough red herrings to keep everyone else watching. You could tell it was shot in Vancouver not just because of glimpses of places like Esso stations but also the fact that it was raining in nearly every damn scene. It may be difficult to track down the remaining movies in the series (four total so far) but I shall try!

Review: Inglorious Basterds

Inglorious Basterds is good. If you’re a Tarantino fan you should see it. If you’re not, you should see it, anyway, because it’s a fun ride that doesn’t feel anything like it’s 2 hour and 48 minute running time.

While a lot of the Tarantino trademarks are in place — talky characters, explicit violence — the WWII setting and lengthy subtitled exchanges give the film a texture that sets it apart from the likes of Pulp Fiction or Deathproof. A number of scenes expertly play off the tension of what the characters aren’t saying, pleasant conversation masking the fear of spies being exposed or plots getting unraveled. And how can you not like a movie that introduces Hitler wearing a flowing white cape like some kind of comic super villain?

Brad Pitt is terrific as the smart and calmly sadistic leader of the Basterds, approaching his tasks with a laidback, down home charm — right up until the scalping starts. His scene in the lobby of the theater where he attempts Italian is hilarious, one of the few where the tension and comedy come together.

Without getting into spoiler territory, I had no idea how the final scene was going to play out. There comes a point where the story must turn one way or the other based on historical events and the way Tarantino chooses to go is interesting, to say the least.

A bloody thumbs up.

Reviews: Potter and a pair of 9s

A strangely packed week of movies, as I saw three (!):

District 9: This gorily violent science fiction film starts with a mothership containing a million or so “refugee aliens” parking over Johannesburg, South Africa. Defenseless, the aliens (derisively referred to as prawns) are put into a camp below the ship known as District 9. 20 years later the district is a huge slum and a private military contractor is tasked with moving the aliens to a new camp 200 miles away from the city (and conveniently out of sight). The movie starts with the mass eviction and follows as the head of the eviction plan gets a little closer than he’d like to the aliens and ultimately finds himself sympathetic to their plight.

Shot in a pseudo-documentary style, the movie is brutal, at turns funny and pulls off the neat trick of engaging and holding the viewer when none of the characters initially are even likable. Smart and incisive (especially in its portrayal of the ugly world of private military contractors and their ethics — or lack thereof), the only criticism I have of the film is the way it relies on a few “in the nick of time” moments to keep things moving along but these are quibbles. Highly recommended.

9: This animated post-apocalyptic film features an alternate history where machines built for war turn on their human masters, Terminator-style, wiping out all life. The only “survivors” are nine small burlap dolls who are strangely sentient. The movie follows as they fight to survive against the few remaining machines and ultimately explains how they came to be. Each of the nine is a stereotype — the set-in-his-ways old leader, the cruel, unthinking muscle, the “crazy” guy (voiced by Crispin Glover, naturally) and so on — but by movie’s end the stereotypes are actually explained in a way that works. What may not work for some is the somewhat esoteric ending that veers toward metaphysical, leaving a lot up to the viewer to decide. I actually found myself agreeing with a fairly solid criticism of the ending and yet it didn’t hurt my reaction to the film overall. The world it creates is dazzlingly presented and the machines are a nightmarish blend of mechanical and organic, with spiders, skulls, scissors and sinewy red string leading the way. Any parent taking a young kid to this film probably guaranteed the little bugger having nightmares for a week. :P Recommended.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: (some spoilers follow, if you care about that sort of thing) I have not read the books so I don’t know what’s been left behind in adapting them to the screen, though I understand with each successive novel getting longer, the writers are being more challenged in what to keep in the films to present a coherent story. Since the title mentions a Half-Blood Prince, I figure he’s going to be prominent to the story. Eventually there is a scene where Harry grabs a potion book and the inside cover reveals it is the property of the Half-Blood Prince. A-ha, I think! I wait for an elaboration on this. Late in the movie Snape, waving his wand all nasty-like at Harry, reveals that he is the Half-Blood Prince. And that’s pretty much it. It felt like a major chunk of the story went missing and we got a Quidditch game thrown in instead. Dumbledore’s demise was also telegraphed so blatantly I almost expected to see a bullseye painted on his robes. The least-satisfying Harry Potter movie to date. It’s not horrible, though, and the young cast remains capable and engaging.

Four VQFF reviews

Last week I went to four films at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival and as one might expect, it was a mixed bag (or fruit basket, if you prefer). Below are my reviews.

Ciao

Here’s the description from the VQFF website: “When Jeff’s lifelong best friend Mark dies, he is left in charge of handling Mark’s possessions and tying up loose ends. Through a trail of Mark’s email correspondence, Jeff learns of Mark’s secret online romance with Andrea, a handsome Italian who is scheduled to visit the United States and meet Mark for the first time. With the trip already booked, Andrea decides to come anyway and learn more about his recently departed friend. In the midst of grieving, these two strangers share a single night of intimate conversation, good old American country music and sexual tension that leads to perhaps what is the most tender (yet still steamy) brief encounter ever portrayed in queer cinema.”

And my take: The premise is interesting but the execution is thwarted by stiff acting and a script filled with wooden dialogue and lots of not much happening. There are three main characters: Jeff, his adopted Asian sister and Andrea, the man from Italy. Jeff is an earnest but bland character and Adam Neal Smith’s portrayal isn’t bad per se, he just shows no real emotion until the very end and I suppose it’s meant to be seen as a cathartic release but it falls flat instead. Alessandro Calza fares better, perhaps because he can hide behind the facade of a character handling a non-native language. The sister has some amusing lines but again the acting feels rather wooden. As the tone is consistent across all actors, I wonder if it may have been an issue with the director’s handling of them.

Another negative was not that the film was low budget but that it didn’t acknowledge that and work within its limitations. There is a scene with Jeff and Andrea driving to the cemetery and apparently the production could not afford to have the car towed on a trailer. Instead the camera is placed in the backseat. While Calza is seen in profile while chatting, Smith never looks anywhere except at the road — which is understandable because he is actually driving — but as a result you never see his face for the entire scene. Why not shoot the scene with them walking in the cemetery instead or somehow frame it so you could properly see the actors? There were also a series of long framed shots or tracking shots of the city skyline at night that didn’t serve any purpose but to pad out the film’s length.

Perhaps the highlight of the film came during that “brief encounter”. When Jeff and Andrea started kissing some guy in the audience began applauding loudly, as if this heralded a great moment in gay cinema or something. Definitely the best laugh in the movie. :)

The Coast is Queer

“This year’s local shorts program could have been renamed The Coast is Brave and Outrageous due to the bold and shameless stories, like lisa g’s look at women in Riverview Mental Hospital in the 1940s and Clark Nikolai’s exploration of foreskin ‘docking’.”

My take: This is a collection of 13 shorts. I’ll highlight the ones I found most memorable (for better or for worse). Asylum is a surprisingly sympathetic look at the long-closed Riverview mental facility narrated by a former staff member, ending with a “twist” as a lesbian inmate checks out with one of the female staff, a rather surprising event during the 1940s. Another tale set in the 1940s (1948) is Caught, a silent look at two high school students — one a member of the drama club, the other a Bible group — whose innocent sleepover ends up being not so innocent. This is a wistful and well-shot drama, combining moments of comedy with the crushing pain of a love — and life — denied. Withchrave struck me as a pointless visual exercise, showing “witches” in various states of dress and undress cavorting, smoking and doing “witchy” stuff. Did I need to see a full frontal shot of a nude woman peeing? No, I didn’t. But hey, one more thing to scratch off the list of “things I never planned on seeing but saw anyway”. I guess this film was meant to evoke a feeling of sensuality or something so it’s perhaps not surprising that it didn’t click with me.

Galactic Docking Company was a rather randy but very funny short that combined stock NASA footage (mainly from Mission Control) with dockings involving rockets and love rockets, if you know what I mean. The combination of music and perfectly timed editing showing the reactions of the various NASA engineers made this a bawdy ol’ good time. Swans was essentially penis worship set to music that I found uninteresting despite being a personal fan of the subject. The lowlight of the collection was Cindy Doll. Before the shorts began, a number of directors spoke about their films and the director of Cindy Doll warned that her piece tackled a taboo subject and it might offend or make people uncomfortable. She invited people to discuss the film with her afterward. I correctly pegged it as a take on child abuse before it started. The film consisted of the director naked in a bathtub with the titular Cindy Doll. As the horrors of child abuse were depicted with the doll being stripped and spanked among other things, loud, discordant noises would occasionally blare out for some kind of effect (maybe this was the uncomfortable part the director referenced, as my ears were not experiencing what I would call pleasure). The director would regularly begin pleasuring herself with the doll, looking up at the camera with (guilty?) eyes. Um, symbolism! Maybe. The whole thing came off as self-indulgent twaddle. The only part that offended me was knowing I’d not get back the time I’d spent watching it. Here’s my advice: If you were abused as a child, see a therapist, don’t make a short film about it.

I’ll end with the highlight of the show, Coffee. This was one of the few professionally-shot pieces (several were done specifically for a Super 8 competition or by high school students as part of an anti-homophobia campaign — and those were well-done for what they were). The premise is simple — a lesbian and gay friend are having coffee at a cafe and it quickly becomes apparent that the woman’s recent failed relationship has pushed her off the deep end, as she has become obsessed with Kate Walsh from “Grey’s Anatomy”. The writing is sharp and funny and the two actors deliver their lines with expert timing. It was inspiring enough to make me want to finish “The Famous Polka”. It’s one of 10 different vignettes culled from a longer piece and can be viewed here. Highly recommended.

Otto; Or, Up With Dead People

“Film theorists claim that the zombie genre is a form of social commentary, relevant to our consumerist and apathetic present times. If so, then what comment does Bruce LaBruce make with his gay zombie flick? Attack the heteronormative establishment? Fuck your brains out (then eat them)? Whatever social messages might be gleaned from LaBruce’s work, the Canadian director brings us a perverse and satirical cinematic original.

Otto is a young neo-Goth loner and pretty hot for a dead guy. Wandering the streets of Berlin, Otto stumbles upon a casting call for a zombie film. After seeing his half-hearted audition, radical lesbian filmmaker Medea Yarn not only becomes convinced that Otto will be the next big underground movie star, but forces the lead actor, Fritz, to take Otto home with him. While Medea and Fritz struggle to finish their film, Otto searches for the human beneath the zombie.”

This was both a send-up and an affectionate (?) homage to zombie movies, gay porn and pretentious art films. Shot in Germany with a local cast, Otto features plenty of gore (mostly disembowelment and entrails, as one would expect in a zombie film), fleeting but explicit sex scenes and at times a hilarious take on the self-styled film auteur personified by Medea as she works to finish her underfunded “masterpiece”, “Up With Dead People”, a film chronicling the rise of gay zombies. Into this comes Otto, who fails to convince the director that he is in fact an actual zombie but gets cast in the lead role, anyway.

The film starts rather slowly and for the first 20 minutes or so felt more like a clumsy homage to art films than anything else but when the various characters intersect it pulls together and the rest of the ride is pretty enjoyable. There’s a graphic scene of zombie penetration that will likely put you off your lunch for a week or so and a sex orgy that is the film-within-a-film’s conclusion also has some very naughty bits that, while enticing, seemed gratuitous in the given context. I found the ending a bit confusing as it strongly suggests Otto is no longer a zombie, then seems to revert him back to a more undead state. As expected, the film’s ending is not exactly happy but appropriate. The actress that played Medea was probably my favorite, if only because she was so appropriately over-the-top with her views on the terrible capitalist society she is part of. She also gives a small girl eating chocolate the what-for in what may have been the film’s funniest moment.

Boycrazy

“Everywhere I go there’s a guy to catch my eye. It makes me kinda crazy, like I’m back in junior high.” Is Corey—the dreamy lead in Boycrazy—singing your song? If so, there are plenty of guys to catch your eye in this lineup of men’s short films.

Serving up the first piece of eye candy is Zak, an underappreciated topless waiter in Dinx. Filmmaker Michael Mew treats us to some homegrown guys, co-starring local drag diva Symone, in his new science fiction romance Q-Case. A chorus line of “show bears” dances in King County. And the quirky musical Boycrazy explores the pros and cons of single life.”

As noted above, this was four short films. Dinx features a cute and short protagonist who seems to suffer a dimensional rift that takes him back to his childhood while still dressed as a topless waiter. Much like that character, this film was cute and short, amusing but not laugh-out-loud funny. Q-Case is a parody of the X-Files with a definite queer twist. Perhaps not surprisingly, the central premise centers around anal probes. This was a solid effort, although the acting of several of the characters was leaning more toward the amateur side. The love interest of the alien/clone handled his part well and reacted perfectly to his precious shoe collection getting vaporized. I admit I also enjoyed the idea of the Mulder character getting a giant black drag queen as his temporary partner and voice of reason. King County is a series of scenes centering around a theater group auditioning actors for movies turned into stage musicals. Among some of the entries: Mommie Dearest, Fame (with bears) and most hilariously, a musical version of Top Gun featuring “butch lesbians” that has Maverick and Goose (or was it Ice?) singing and dancing on the flight deck. The actress playing Maverick looked similar enough to Tom Cruise to be somewhat disturbing. The final and longest piece was Boycrazy, featuring James May, an actor who could be Neil Patrick Harris’s younger brother. This is a musical about dating and relationships (online and otherwise) and is done in a style very similar to Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. The singing is uniformly excellent and the dance numbers, though not flashy, are energetic, as is the film as a whole. I really enjoyed this funny and sometimes insightful look at the trials and tribulations of men dating men — and not just because I have gone through some of my own recently (none set to music, alas).