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DVD: Celebrating AFI (2003)
Film:  Very Good    
DVD Transfer:  Good  
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Vanguard Cinema
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1 (NTSC)

December 23, 2003



Genre: Short Films  
Collection of short films from the AFI archives.  



Directed by:

Screenplay by: various
Music by: various
Produced by: various


Film Length: 109 mins
Process/Ratio: various
Anamorphic DVD: n/a
Languages:  English Dolby Surround 2.0
Special Features :  


Comments :

Since the AFI’s founding in 1967, a number of graduates have gone on to prominent careers in film (some of the elite include director David Lynch, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, art director Andrew M. Cahn), and the institute’s program continues to provide opportunities for newcomers to explore filmmaking through short-form projects.

Prior to 2003, few AFI films made during the past twenty years have been commercially available, and Vanguard’s DVD was probably among the first efforts to release the shorts on home video.

The collection begins with Brian Hecker’s 17 min. Family Attraction (1998), an absurdist flip that has one of eight surviving nuclear families housed in a zoo among the rest of the primates. The presumption is the whole world’s gone polygamous, although why those who choose to remain faithful to one spouse are housed in a glass-walled exhibit is never explained. There’s no backstory to the family’s reason for being an anthropological oddity presented to bug-eyed school kids, but writer/director Hecker has fun paralleling the father’s escape from captivity to that of a zoo animal, quietly approaching an open gate, and eventually bolting from the premises, with a huge gauntlet of gun-toting zoo-keepers and eggheads on his trail.

It’s a surreal gem that’s more of interest for turning man into a hunted animal, and one can see the little nuances Heckler would later apply in his own feature film, Bart Got a Room (2008). Chris Penn gives a nice turn as a dad turned desperate from years of painful boredom and bickering, while Corinne Bohrer is more or less stuck looking miserable in her handful of scenes as the child-swamped missus. Martin Sheen pops up as the President, which is amusing, given he would portray President Bartlet in The West Wing (1999-2006) the following year.

Jonathan Kahn’s The Chilli Con Carne Club (1993) is the oldest and longest of the shorts (running a solid half hour), and like Heckler’s film, it delves into absurdist territory by having a character tumble into a prison for recently dumped or womanizing men. John Philbin plays the Pete stud, recently dumped by Kristy Swanson (still shiny and new after starring in Buffy the Vampire Slayer); Kathleen Wilhoite plays Pete’s office coworker, and Mel Gisbon, still sporting long curly hair from Lethal Weapon 3 (1992), shows up as a cigar-smoking, womanizing con.

The film’s gimmick: each time Pete is willing to try and reconcile with his ex, he’s drop kicked back into the real world; when he fails, he’s thrown like a football back into prison, where his physical injuries and emotional trauma get worse. Like any standard prison film, there’s an old timer who calls Pete “Kid,” and offers all manor of wise words, ultimately helping our hero get the girl, and returning to the world of obnoxious late eighties/early nineties hair and badly cut fabrics.

The most straightforward drama on the DVD is Lily Mariye’s 19 min. The Shangri-la Café (2000), which addresses a Japanese-American family’s plight as they camouflage their heritage by running a Chinese restaurant in a racist Las Vegas suburb during the mid-sixties. The conflicts within the family are nicely articulated by some clean dialogue, particularly when the mother explains to her daughter some of the social evils they’ve had to live with. The performances are uniformly strong, and included in the cast are Joanne Takakashi as the mom, and prolific character actor Sam Anderson as a KKK heavy.

Within its compact 12mins. director Ernst Gossner crafts a decent progression of conflict in Bar Time (2001), wherein a bartender’s closing goes wrong when he serves a traveler, and a young punk slides seconds later with a pistol and nervous trigger finger. The music cues sometimes overstate details Gossner manages to clearly impact with simple close-ups, but the tensions are well choreographed, although the finale seems headed for a sly twist rather than the more simple resolution chosen by Gossner.

Prior to becoming a prolific TV director, Tricia Brock made The Car Kid (2002), derived from Clyde Edgerton’s novel Killer Diller, about a juvenile delinquent who meets up with an autistic kid to play blues music. The short has a solid cast with James Franco as the juvie, Brad Renfro as the blue pianist, and Meat Loaf as the pianist’s protective father. The film’s brief length ultimately harms the story, because Brock was forced to compact the pair’s musical bonding into one scene, as well as end the film abruptly, but there’s great atmosphere within the short, and Brock eventually took a poke at the novel by realizing the story as a feature, Killer Diller, in 2004.

Joanie Read’s Fair Play (2002) closes the collection with a drama about a poor kid who initially steals a baseball glove, but has second thoughts about fleeing the store when the owner and his son are kind to him, and see past his poverty. John Heard plays the too-kind owner, Ed Asner makes a brief appearance as a grumbly golfer, and Cory Parravano manages to carry the 16 min. film, weighing options and choices when a quick steal mandates some secondary thinking about consequences and guilt.

In terms of the source materials, Vanguard is pretty much stuck with a mix of recent digital and older film transfers (Chilli Con Carne and Fair Play are particularly grainy) and even the digital productions seem a bit soft – perhaps due to compressing almost two hours of mostly full screen colour material onto a single layer DVD.

Widescreen productions like Bar Time and Fair Play, and the digitally shot The Shangri-la Café and The Car Kid are nicely photographed and composed, but the digital compression dampens each director’s excellent use real locations.

Worse, the audio levels are all over the place: Family Attraction is ridiculously quiet, whereas the dialogue in Bar Time is virtually unintelligible because of an echoey filter that’s either a technical screw-up, or the film’s director who wanted to give the film a dreamy quality (which is doubtful).

There’s also zero bio notes or any background info on the DVD, let alone the AFI, so those curious about the filmmakers’ careers and the organization are left in the dark. Pity commentary tracks weren’t recorded for this release.

More recent AFI productions are available via Short International’s package release on iTunes.


© 2009 Mark R. Hasan

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