Sunday, 29 June 2008

The Aristocrats - Post-Bizarro

In this post-Bizarro Days world, I thought I'd go on a bit more at length about The Aristocrats - the 2005 documentary by Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza about the dirtiest joke ever - instead of leaving it to my last post.

First of all, it's not just about filthy gags. It's more like a study of different approaches to comedy with the participants being 100 comedians telling the same joke. Well, not exactly the same joke. In this case the joke in question is essentially a framework for improv with the template consisting of:

  • a family walk into an agent's office
  • they proceed to show him their act which consists of the most disgusting foul things you can imagine
  • they finish by telling him what they call themselves

The punchline is the film's title. So by itself, it's not that funny. But it's the unique spin each comedian brings to that middle part of the joke where they create, sometimes on the spot, each part of the family's performance.

Some focus on the scatalogical. Some the sexual. Some both. Others try to "clean it up" a bit while still others push the boundaries of taste completely to the side (Bob Saget - shame on you!). Let me be clear: the movie is filthy. I'm not a big fan of "potty" humour for the sake of it, but I don't mind when it's used intelligently. I still winced during several sections though - particularly those done by some of the lesser comedians who thought that words beginning with hard 'C' sounds were funny in and of themselves. But when the humour is placed within certain contexts and told in inventive ways, it becomes a playground for some of these people. Several comedians describe it as a jazz tune where the musicians riff on the main theme. It's not a perfect analogy, but it works in several ways - the lesser comedians hammering their one trick over and over, the better ones developing the theme as they go not really knowing where it will take them and the great ones bringing shades of subtlety and various surprises along the way.

I re-watched it just a few days ago as somewhat of a tribute to one of those great ones - George Carlin. He gives his own improvised rendition of the joke near the beginning of the film that is simply beautifully told (while also making you kind of sick to your stomach). Carlin's take on the joke in this case is to make the description of the disgusting act sound so completely normal...As Carlin later states, he wanted it to sound like the guy who performs it was relating an everyday experience like fixing a car.

"I love the idea of floating right past it as if this is the most normal and the thing you're most used to doing..."

What I really loved about Carlin in the film is his way of digging into the reasons why the joke is funny as well as his own creative choices:

"You get to play with people's little danger zones..."

"I do like finding out where the line is drawn, deliberately crossing it, bringing some of them with me across the line and having them be happy that I did."

It's great fun to see the different styles of the comedians and how they tackle the wide open possibilities. Some reverse the tone of the middle and end, others change the actual punchline and a few even tell a different joke altogether. They get to play around with their creative styles at the same time as they get to be completely immature and totally filthy - without anything ever being wrong. It's the journey that is so much fun and you can tell the comics are enjoying the hell out of it (especially when you see all the laughter during the closing credits). Not just simply telling the joke but discussing it and the ways other people have done it. Jillette himself states that in the case of this joke, it is the singer not the song.

One of my absolute favourite parts of the entire DVD though, is a short 2 minute extra entitled "For Johnny". Johnny Carson loved the joke and the short contains a brief imitation of what it would have sounded like if Johnny himself did it, but even better is this telling of another of Carson's favourite jokes by Larry Miller (totally clean and safe):

That deadpan expression and the absurdity of the final line just kills me every time. And after having seen The Aristocrats, I have a better understanding of why it tickles my funny bone so much. And for me, that just enhances it.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Bizarro Blog-a-thon: Family Friendly Viewing for Michael Medved

As part of Energetic Eye Theatre's family-friendly Bizarro Blog-a-thon, I thought I would contribute the following...

Michael Medved is a renowned film critic (a truly insightful review of Happy Feet at the link) and an all around common sense kind of guy, so I take pretty much all my viewing cues from him. And he really doesn't back down from calling things like he sees them.

So given that, I thought it was time that I pass along a recommendation to him - you know, to give a little bit back in return for everything he's done. Hopefully something right up his alley. He's a funny guy with a great sense of humour right? So why not a documentary about the world's funniest joke? Some good old-fashioned straight-laced humour for the soul.

At least that's what I understand The Aristocrats to be. I mean, I haven't really watched it all yet. But I understand it has lively impersonations:

dry humour:

and that lovely Bob Saget from the family-friendly old ABC show Full House. How can you possibly go wrong entertaining young and old with all that?

Be careful with those clips by the way...I expect that with all those hearty guffaws you'll be having at the gentle Reader's Digest humour and with the crowds you may gather, the videos might be considered NOT SAFE FOR WORK.

Enjoy Michael. It's the least I can do. Really.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Worldwide Short Film Festival - Sci-Fi and Award Winners

The final screening I attended during last week's Worldwide Short Film Festival was the Sci-Fi session entitled Out There. It certainly was nice to finally get a thematically consistent set of films in one grouping, but that seems to be an easier task with the Sci-Fi submissions. This year's batch wasn't quite as consistently entertaining as last year's set, but it still provided some great moments and one of my favourite films of the fest.

  • Homework - A man appears trapped in a strange room with no chance of escape. Things get even more odd when a cat is suddenly thrust into the room as well. The two must fight it out for the food that's been dumped in with them until we find out why they've both been imprisoned. Though the twist wasn't overly surprising by the end, it was still pretty satisfying and there was enough humour in the story to keep it entertaining throughout.

  • Primitive Technology - A small band of outcasts rebel against modern technology by stealing people's cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices before smashing them to bits. They recruit a new member who not only buys into their ideas, but becomes reinvigorated after having settled into a rather dull existence. Along with destroying modern technology, they also try to build their own machines out of scrap without the use of electricity - to varying degrees of success. The film has a great deal of energy, so if one gag doesn't quite work another picks up the slack shortly thereafter.

  • Rocket Science - Imagine an animated 50s Sci-Fi film populated with film noir characters who perhaps weren't quite the sharpest tacks in the box. Aliens have landed and it's up to the local police and a visiting scientist to decide what to do. Once you get into the flow of the script, the great lines keep on coming - two of my fave examples: "Don't think Billy. Thinking is for Liberals." and "Some things a man needs to see with his own eyes. Like his new born son or anything that goes into his mouth." The biggest laughs of the fest.

  • Ascension - It seems that all of my choices from the Sci-Fi section this year were comedies. That's not to say that the rest of the set weren't interesting, but none quite grabbed my attention as much as the funny ones. Case in point: "Ascension" follows an innocent neighbourhood guy who stumbles across an alien worshipping cadre hidden in his own building. Their plans require a sacrifice in order that they may be saved before the entire Earth is destroyed. Funny thing is, they may actually be right...

Award winners have been announced (unfortunately I only saw two of them). Both "Manon On The Ashphalt" (Best Live Action Short) and "Boar Attack" (Best Animated Short) are now eligible for Academy Award nominations.

Other award winners:

Friday, 20 June 2008

Worldwide Short Film Festival - Genius Party Beyond

I'm still relatively new to Japanese animation. I haven't strayed too far from the top names of Miyazaki, Takahata and Kon and haven't delved into the multi-part series that take complicated story arcs to new heights. I've seen enough to make me want to delve further, but I've still really only scratched the surface of the volumes of anime that exist - the gorgeous visual representations of nature, the dystopic visions of the future and what I can only guess to be scenes of wandering travels through the charred remains of minds coming apart.

Studio4°C dabbles in all of the above and have put together a couple of anthology films to display their work. Genius Party and Genius Party Beyond are rarely screened outside of Japan, but both were at this year's Worldwide Short Film Festival. I managed to catch the second of them a week ago Thursday and was lucky enough to hear filmmaker Shinichiro Watanabe give some opening remarks. For him, hand drawn animation is still the real true art form and is much preferred to CGI. It's a debatable point, but what isn't in question was his statement that Genius Party Beyond was, to paraphrase, very non-thematic in content. Examine the trailer for proof:

If your first reaction while watching that is "Holy crap!", then you are correct.

The creativity and imagination present in all 5 of the films in this particular anthology is quite incredible and indescribable. I couldn't always follow the stories or completely get their intent, but I was pretty much consistently stunned. Here's a rundown of the five different sections of the film:

1. Gala - Walking out of the theatre with Thomas (author of the above linked article on Watanabe), he wondered if perhaps this story was actually supposed to be called Gaia - it would've been much more apropos. The closest of the bunch to the "Miyazaki" style of anime, the story takes place in a world of mostly human characters who have a deep relationship with nature. When a massive oval object crashes to the ground, the community fear and attack it but later come to embrace and help it. But what's the scale of this visit by an unknown object? A lovely film with very expressive use of music.

2. Moondrive - Apparently colonizing the moon may not be such a great idea after all. We'll just screw that place up too. Crashing through the bowels of a run down city on the satellite, a gang of petty thieves are in search of a treasure. Whether they find it or not seems hardly the point. 'Anarchic' would seem to be a tailor made description for the action that takes place in this story and for much of the animation as well - it's a harsher style with more angles and rough edges, but it perfectly suits the story and characters. A bit mixed for me as some of the storyline was amusing and some of it was repetitive.

3. Wanwa The Doggy - Headache inducing. The festival web site states "Words fail utterly" and I suppose that's correct if you were trying to describe the events that the animators were trying to depict. But it's a little boy's dream world, so I guess you should just let it roll over you and see where it takes you. Given that, words don't fail me: "Ugly", "Slap-dash", "A mess", "Who spilled the paint on your cells?", "Is it over yet?".

Oh, and "Headache inducing".

4. Tou Jin Kit - Fortunately , the follow-up film was my favourite. It covers some well trodden ground - a depressing, colourless, Big Brother style future - but it does so in subtle ways and takes its time in setting up one young girl's existence. What are those creatures she's hiding in the dolls? Beats me, but the "police" certainly don't want them and their rainbow paisley patterns to infect society any further. Sharp and detailed animation helped make this the highlight of the anthology for me.

5. Dimension Bomb - I have no idea what I saw here. There were some spectacular moments and images that are unquestionably from highly creative minds (particularly that floating body wandering all over the place), but it all seemed...random. That's not necessarily bad - stream of consciousness style stories can still be entertaining - but while this certainly had its moments, it frankly tired me out...

Strangely enough, there was a vague common thread between all the films - they were all representations of worlds that can currently only exist in our imaginations. The inspiration and creation of those worlds though, can currently only come from a very special subset of imaginations.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Worldwide Short Film Festival - Food & Work

As with my other screenings at this year's Worldwide Short Film Festival, the thematic content of Saturday night's sessions continued to be pretty vague - Watch What You Eat ("these food films are so delicious, we bet you can’t watch just one") and Human Resources ("hard-working dramas and comedies") - but yet again we were treated to a mostly terrific set of films.

Overall, it was probably the most enjoyable batch out of the 6 screenings I saw in all. Partly because of the following two films which are included here in their entirety from YouTube. They are both excellent examples of how animation (hand drawn, stop motion, computer, etc.) can be lively, informative and damn funny.

The opening film of Watch What You Eat was the Austrian Le Grand Content (by Clemens Kogler and Karolina Szmit) - 4 minutes of deluxe chartware that moves in an almost stream of consciousness way between factoids and their oddly relevant (and very funny) conclusions. Pie charts roll over to graphs which rise to bar charts which rotate to arrows which point at other pie charts...One thing I really liked about it was the colour scheme - it sticks to different shades of greens and blues and just flirts with some yellow and purple. And I have to admit that the Austrian accented English narration also adds to the humour of the piece.

My other favourite of the evening was another 4 minute piece that was part of the Human Resources set. Johnny Kelley's Procrastination takes us through a variety of different ways of putting things off. The laughter from the audience acknowledged not only the creative ways the film shows these stalling tactics, but also the recognition of having done most of these things ourselves before. The film totally had me when the unsorted books on the shelves suddenly arranged themselves by colour.

And some other noteworthy films from the evening:

  • The Frozen City - Winnipeg has been crowned the Slurpee capital of the world (yes the entire world) 7 years running. This short documentary gives an overview - via snippets of interviews with a variety of Slurpee fans - as to why this is the case. Strangely enough, all this talk about ice cold drinks during the frigid prairie winters seems to make Winnipeg look like an awfully warm place to visit.
  • Key Lime Pie - I was really happy to have another chance to see this great spooky noirish short about a man's craving for Key Lime Pie and the inevitable consequences that follow. I saw this at last year's Toronto After Dark and it was just as good the second time around.
  • Kentucky Kingdom - A fascinating fever dream of events that slides from one thing to another. The faceless people jumping between these fantastical occurrences show surprising emotion as they must interact with things like large creatures made of bugs who cut off your hair. Filmmaker Nancy Jean Tucker described how live action footage was taken of actors to get their movements and then rotoscoping was used and then Flash animation as well.
  • No Coke - The timing in this 7 minute comedy is simply spot on - the reaction shots, the editing, the pauses before characters speak - everything has been distilled to bring out the funniest details in one man's quest for a soda and how a Norwegian hotel clerk confuses matters.
  • Bad Day Good Day Bad Day - I love long tracking shots. So I'm bound to like a single 4 minute sequence with no cuts that moves from a dark brooding miserable noisy day to a joyous lively musically enhanced day. It's well done as the noises and music are timed with the actions and movements of the people and things our hero encounters. Some serious thought was put into getting this to work.
  • Summer Sunday - An incredibly tense story of a devoted father bringing his deaf son to his job as a bridge operator. When a power outage prevents the closure of the bridge, the father has to make an impossible choice. I fully expect that any showing of this film will cause discussion regarding whether he made the "right choice". It's moot though - there can't be a right choice in a situation like this.
  • A Fresh Start (Neuf) - An accountant's chain-smoking wife dotes on him after he severs a finger from his hand. Now down to nine digits, he struggles with moving forward with his life, but perhaps this is just the impetus for him to move beyond a few other issues he's been having. Funny and touching as well.
  • Subservience - Master and Servant done up with claymation. Disturbing.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Monday, 16 June 2008

Worldwide Short Film Festival - Love & Sex

Imagine sifting through thousands of short films...

They're from different countries, of different languages, styles, genres, tone and length. You manage to trim the field down to a couple of hundred after finding the nuggets and the personal favourites you want to share. Now you need to figure out how to present them - how do you package them up into digestable 90 minute screenings for the public?

Considering all that, I can pretty much forgive the programmers at the Worldwide Short Film Festival if perhaps not all the entries in two of Wednesday nights themed programs quite fit exactly - the screenings I've attended have felt more like a random sampling of short films touching every type. Nothing wrong with that though.

Wednesday night's two groupings were called Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me (termed "valentines to the mad things we do for love") and Slap and Tickle (called a "naughty line up of sexy shorts"). With less time to introduce characters, build a story and get your point across, a short film director must make certain decisions within that limitation. Should you sharpen the focus of your film? Use certain filmic conventions as short hand? Use stereotypes where necessary? A decidedly mixed bag (yet overall an entertaining one) saw a wide variety of approaches to answering those questions. Here's a random sampling across those two screenings:

  • Closer - An artistic black and white exploration of two naked human bodies wrapped together in rather personal activities. I say 'artistic' because occasionally you weren't really sure what you were looking at...Though complete with a soundtrack of moans and other noises as well as interesting angles and tight shots, it was all very...dull. It never felt sexy, erotic or tantalizing. Perhaps it was those extreme close-ups of those nostrils.
  • Teenage Girl - Perhaps a little long at 17 minutes, but this story of a man obsessed with a teenage girl and how it overcomes him is quite effective. It's a fine example of how film can stage and get across the feelings of someone in certain circumstances or frames of mind.
  • Cursing Hanley - A welcome comedic break from the drama, Hanley has real rough day after being cursed by his ex when he breaks off their wedding plans. Some gags work better than others, but it was consistently amusing. As one of the later shorts proved (in the "Slap and Tickle" group), comedy is difficult to do and can be downright awful when done poorly. The filmmakers in this case seem to have built their comedic skills well.
  • Sigh - My favourite of the group. A great Fats Waller song is the backdrop for some dancing in the aisles of the supermarket between a lonely stock clerk and a lovely young shopper. Some fun choreography and lots of energy by the two leads.
  • Chainsaw - How do a tree cutter, a rodeo bull, a Spanish bullfighter, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner all tie together in a single 20 minute story? I'm not sure they completely do, but there's a number of layers at work in this rotoscope animation tale of a man, his chainsaw and a broken heart. Kinda disturbing too...
  • A Day In The Life Of Richard - What would your life be like if you were a 6 foot penis? Likely not much different than Richard's. A straight arrow of a guy who walks tall and keeps his head up, Richard is used to being treated a bit differently, but still likes to hang with the boys. But will he ever find the perfect mate? This animated tale attempts to find out.
  • Size Matters - Horrible. Just horrible. Taking the premise of a young woman with the world's largest female sex organ, the film makers seem to be desperate to show that they could write for Sex And The City or some other clever adult style comedy. Well they can't. The script is filled with unfunny lines, the acting is weak, the timing is terrible and the editing makes it worse (by dragging scenes out and missing opportunities). Raunchy can certainly be funny and the idea has potential, but if it goes wrong it comes across as juvenile.

  • T-Sex and Daddy, Where Does Chocolate Milk Come From? - Two separate shorts by filmmaker Wade Vroom - both essentially pencil drawings - that are "in and out" and waste no time in grabbing you and delivering the joke. T-Sex has a stick figure couple showing their love to each other (in many different creative manners) while a large Dinosaur tries to get their attention. The second one is exactly what you think it is - a short 30 second demonstration of why a cow may produce chocolate milk.
  • Souvenir - Films that hold their single joke until an end payoff are also tricky business. But when you have great production values, strong performances and good characters you've set the stage for yourself quite nicely. And that's what this film about a young woman's successful quest for sex does. Even the tiny 10 second roles are well cast and done. So by the time the title of the film comes into play, you've been enjoying the story and the delivered payoff is timed perfectly.
  • Bill - Though helped by some good performances (particularly by co-lead Janey Varney and a supporting turn by SNL's Rachel Dratch), this story of a young couple obsessed with the relationship with their friend Bill is a bit overlong (the longest film of the fest that I saw - 32 minutes) and uneven in its comedy. There's some great moments mixed with a few awkward stretched out scenes.

    Note: I had initially mistakenly stated that the terrific Jane Lynch was also in "Bill". Fortunately Producer Neil Evans of "Bill" corrected me - Lynch was in another of the night's films "Love Is Love". I don't know what the hell I was thinking. Apologies.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

It's The Little Things

The other night my cousins came over for a BBQ and as typically happens when we get together conversation turned to the minutiae of movies, TV and music. Nelson brought the discussion around to Looney Tunes and how he used to replay a specific section of an old Bugs cartoon over and over. We talked about the little things in those cartoons that make them so memorable - Daffy shuffling his feet while playing the ukelele, Yosemite Sam's little asides to the camera or even the look on the face of a background character. We laughed over that one sequence in the Bugs cartoon for a good solid 10 minutes or so...

Why yes, we were drinking some refreshing malted beverages at the time. Why do you ask?

Anyway, the next morning, my 7 year old decides to pop in a few Looney Tunes from the DVD sets we have. And the first one he plays just happens to be "High Diving Hare" - the exact episode my cousins and I had talked about the night before.

"One for the money..."

"Two for the show..."

"Three to get ready..."

"And four to GO!"

You can probably guess that it's the "Two for the show" pose that was our favourite. The craned neck, the outstretched palms, the expression on Bugs' face...They didn't have to add those things in, but all these little touches keep these short films fresh and constantly entertaining. I love how my little guy is still finding new things in them (hell, so am I).