You see it right there as you walk through the Chinese Theatre’s Photo Gallery, past Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh and Jack Nicholson and right across from glam Marilyn and Jane Russell, with their big money smiles.
Yes, it’s the super-heroes of late 20th Century cinema, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, still reigning supreme in the early 21st Century. (Well, at least Lucas is, and Spielberg has achieved legendary status.) But seeing them here in their youth, they look very human, even ordinary. They in fact look very much like many of the filmmakers whose work fills the slots in the Hollyshorts Festival, and whose dream it is to be the next Spielberg or Lucas. That is, to make quality movies with their individual stamp on them that also do great box office.
Yes, that is the dream, but right now they’d be happy with an agent and a deal memo, or maybe just some positive feedback – anything to give some hope and feed the dream. It’s a very crowded field out there, much more so than in the days when Spielberg and Lucas were achieving their indie cred. And while the need for “content” has never been greater, there are so many talented artists willing to do anything to get their shot, that it’s harder than ever to make an impression, much less to employ their “individual stamp.”
Ironically, since both men started out with independent-spirited movies like The Sugarland Express (Spielberg) and THX1138 (Lucas), it is the blockbuster mentality engendered by their monster hits like Jaws, Indiana Jones and Star Wars that hold the movie industry transfixed and make it more difficult for individual sensibilities to be appreciated – at least until those sensibilities equate with dollars signs, as with Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton.
There was a short dystopian film in the Hollyshorts festival, REAL ARTISTS by Cameo Wood, that had a terrifying twist on this blockbuster obsession.
Based on a short story by renowned sci-fi author Ken Liu and taking place in the near future, it centers around aspiring animator Sophia Baker (Tiffany Hines, pictured here) who dreams of being able to work for Semaphore Animation Studios, famous for turning out one hugely successful film after another. Her obsession is such that – like many fans today – she does her own “fan edit” of Semaphore’s latest release. To her amazement, this results in her being contacted by Semaphore and getting an interview with a top-level executive, played by Tamlyn Tomita, who offers Sophia a job there. A dream come true, right? But then the young animator discovers the “formula” behind the studio’s success, and she has to make a decision. What, after all, is her individual creativity worth?
Of course, most filmmakers don’t have such stark decisions to make. And they know that the best way to get their film noticed is to entice a well-known actor or two to take part. Here is a round-up of several films in the festival that use actors with name recognition, with varying degrees of success.
INGENUE-ISH, Written by John Stamos and Caitlin McHugh, Directed by Stamos – If you were to imagine a 10 minute movie by the “Full-House” actor John Stamos about the trials and tribulations of a 30-something actress, you would probably come pretty close to describing this film. Pretty girl-actress? Check. (Caitlin McHugh, co-writer and John Stamos’s real-life girlfriend.) Bad life-decisions? Check. (She wakes up in the bed of a stranger.) Actor crisis? Check. (She has a big audition, and she hasn’t begun looking over the script.) The piece is tongue-in-cheek and full of charming moments, and the ending has just the right kind of arch humor about the entertainment industry. But in-between there are too many gross/grotesque incidents involving dog poop, as well as an improbable fight between Caitlin McHugh and another actress who is competing with her for the role in question. On the whole, it’s enjoyable, but it tries too hard to be funny and there just isn’t much to it.
HOT WINTER: A FILM BY DICK PIERRE by Jack Henry Robbins – Jack Henry Robbins is the son of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins (who executive-produced this short film). The film is about a climate scientist and all-around genius who talks and acts like a porn star. Stylistically, it certainly shows the influence of his father’s political sense of humor in such films as 2015’s The Brink, as well as various satirical shorts at Funny or Die. This film was awarded BEST COMEDY at Hollyshorts, and I do remember laughing a lot while watching. But after it was over – it melted away faster than an Arctic iceberg. When something is really funny, it stays with me quite a while.
SUPER SEX by Matthew Modine and GETTING ED LAID by Deborah Pearl – It’s one thing to have one film in a festival about trying to help get “Lou Grant” actor Ed Asner laid; it’s something else when there are two, and they were created completely independently of each other. Super Sex by actor Matthew Modine is about and adult brother and sister (Kevin Nealon and Elizabeth Perkins),who are trying to come up with a unique birthday gift for their dad. Their pursuit of said gift leads them to Ruby Modine (Matthew’s daughter), who does not play a choir girl, and that leads to the father played by Ed Asner. In Getting Ed Laid, Ed Asner plays a retired 85 year old professor who is in Tokyo and orders a sexual companion, then suddenly worries about the effect that Viagra may have on his heart. The escort shows up in the person of Jean Smart – quirky and sexy, but very aware that she is a woman of certain age (over 50) – and the two of them have a memorably amusing encounter. Both films are funny and both have their flaws. Modine’s film is all set-up, with only a quick silly joke as a payoff. Deborah Pearl’s film has some unnecessary complications to its setup and overdoes it a bit with the payoff, but it has two great characters, terrific dialogue, and a bewitching sense of humor, where the perils and problems of aging are concerned.
MODERN HOUSES by Matthew Dixon – Calling all Lily Taylor fans – and I know you’re out there! You will definitely want to catch Lily in the role of a cutting-edge architect about to unveil the model for her most ambitious design for a high-profile critic. But something just isn’t right with it… She keeps making small changes, but will it be enough? Perfectionism feeds on itself in this painful drama, which feels like a parable from the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Not always easy to watch, but essential viewing for fans of Lily Taylor and the pursuit of perfection.
THE SON, THE FATHER by Lukas Hassel – I wasn’t familiar before this with the work of Lukas Hassel, who has guest-starred on several TV series and starred in the horror film The Black Room. But judging from his work on this film, where he is a quadruple-threat – writing, directing, producing and playing the father of the main character – he is a talent to be reckoned with. Hassel sums up his film this way: “The events on a young boy’s birthday has consequences far into the future for himself and his family.” Well, yes, but it’s Hassel’s sense of the grotesque that really makes this film stand out, along with the horrifying character of the boy’s mother. There aren’t many American movies that dare to depict a mother in such an irredeemable way, not to mention the pain we see her inflict. And then there is a transitional cut, very bold and memorable, in which Hassel’s father character changes drastically before our eyes. This is a terrifying little film, and Lukas Hassel shows himself unafraid to take chances.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY, written by Casey Cannon and Angeliki Giannakopoulos, directed by Phedon Pappamichael – This powerful 15 minute film features James Brolin in a wonderfully-understated performance as a widower and retired accountant who suddenly starts tying up all the loose ends of his life and totalling up his accounts. What’s going on? What is he planning to do? Frances Fisher turns up in a brilliant cameo as a woman Brolin meets in a bar, but the film plays its card as close to its metaphorical chest as Brolin does until the final revelation, which I found genuinely shocking and completely credible. This film has been another festival darling, and it’s not hard to see why. A memorable performance by Brolin in a different kind of role.
11th HOUR by Jim Sheridan – This is an 11 minute film about 9/11, and it may be the best evocation of that dark day that I’ve seen. It takes place in a Hell’s Kitchen bar run by Salma Hayek’s character and her Irish husband, a police bar where cops are used to coming after their shifts. Now they’ve assembled here, but the atmosphere is tense, the need to lash out at someone is pervasive, as the losses they have suffered is too much to bear. Guns are drawn from holsters, violence is in the air, as an older policeman counsels patience. Then someone unexpected shows up, someone who cuts through all the tension and takes the focus away from revenge. It’s based on a true story, but what makes it stand out and then linger in the memory is the way that Jim Sheridan has framed the narrative, and the enormous shifts in tone that occur organically within such a tight timeline. I was so glad to be able to see this on a large screen, where the larger-than-life events of that day needed that kind of scope for the tragic undertow to be conveyed. I wish more people had that opportunity.
MY NEPHEW EMMETT by Kevin Wilson, Jr. – Just as Jim Sheridan was able to bring alive the events of 9/11 by looking at them from a different perspective, so Kevin Wilson is able to conjure up the events surrounding the killing of Emmett Till by making them personal. This doesn’t feel like history, this doesn’t feel like “significant events” that happened almost 65 years ago. Rather, Kevin Wilson takes us with him into the dust of that Mississippi summer, and the attempts of Emmett’s preacher-uncle and aunt to protect him from the whites who don’t understand Emmett’s big city ways. And just as Jim Sheridan was able to make Salma Hayek an integral part of his ensemble, so Wilson is able to ease Jasmine Guy into his mix as Emmett’s aunt without distracting from the central drama. But it is L.B. Williams as Emmett’s uncle who really makes a claim on our attention, as he battles against forces of hate and malevolence that simply will not be reasoned with. Kevin Wilson won the BEST DIRECTOR prize at Hollyshorts, and again it was well-deserved. There is something so visceral about this short piercing film that you come away feeling the parched dust in your throat and a heaviness in your heart for our cycle of violence.
COMPANION, written by Matt Ferrucci and Nick Mouyiaris, produced by Ferrucci, Mouyiaris and Alain Uy – In addition to the film shorts, there were also several “proof of concept” episodes or fragments presented for TV series. But this was the only one that seemed to me to have both their concept and their execution together, and the only one that I could see finding a place at a studio and in our hearts. In the half-hour comedy series, Michael Marc Friedman would play Nick Foster, a “sober companion” who looks after wealthy clients with a history of abusing drugs, alcohol, whatever. As the Companion team so eloquently puts it: “Basically he’s a babysitter – except the babies are rich assholes who shoot dope and drink their millions away.”
So far they’ve only shot the pilot episode, which was screened at the festival. This has Nick trying to keep disgraced NBA superstar Jay “J Train” Tyrell (Ray Stoney) on the straight and narrow as he attempts to rehabilitate his badly-damaged image and get back into the league. Not easy when Tyrell has five children with six baby mamas (it’s complicated) and now apparently has a 6th child on the way with his wild new girlfriend. The episode had a great flow and was consistently fun and suprising. What made it work so well for me was the chemistry between the actors Friedman and Stoney. Also, it wasn’t written so that Tyrell was simply the fuck-up and Foster his keeper. No, Foster needed something from Tyrell too, and this gave the show a nice balance, and a sense of unpredictability too.
It wasn’t certainly the first show I’ve seen in a while about heterosexual men which explored the bonds of friendship and insecurity in an interesting way. It feels contemporary, fluid and even sexy. I can certainly see guys tuning in who watch sports on TV and spend hours listening to the anchors on ESPN. It has that male vibe, but with a quick wit and a cool eye for all the lies that men tell each other, along with the lies we tell ourselves.
The plan is for Nick to have several different clients, so this would be an anthology series, but with some clients recurring (breakdowns do happen) and others being run into again by chance. I have no idea how that aspect of it will work, but I’d take this series any day over Ballers. What I’ve seen so far has the kind of magic coming off it that I associate with TV success. We’ll see how far they’ll be able to take that. Here’s hoping they’ll be given a decent shot.