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Quickband presents
Short 7: Utopia (2000)

"I think the 20th century has basically been about preparing humans to think like robots and behave like robots. I think just our consciousness is becoming more robotic."
- Mark Mothersbaugh

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: April 26, 2000

Stars: Richard Belzer
Other Stars: Mark Mothersbaugh
Director: Various, see below

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (language; sexual situations are implied in The Bar Channel and The Remote; full-frontal nudity is present in excerpts of Lars from 1-10. Not for Children.)
Run Time: 01h:08m:19s total
Release Date: February 01, 2000
UPC: 085393694326
Genre: compilation

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B-B-D B+

DVD Review

Short: 7 once again gives us a selection of short subjects, loosely linked by the theme of utopias.

First and clearly best of the lot is a stop-motion animation piece, More, which was Oscar®-nominated and was voted Best Short at the 1999 Sundance festival. This film concerns a humanoid inventor with a literal fire in his belly, who fantasizes about the world once his new invention, Bliss goggles, are available in place of the mere Happy product which keeps the denizens of his world going. The visuals are imaginative and extremely well-executed. The first piece of stop-motion animation shot on 70 mm film, More's textures and clarity are simply amazing. This all-too-short film is quite beautiful, and the music by New Order is nicely wedded to it. Directed by Mark Osborne

Zoltar from Zoron (not Zoran, as the packaging states) was the USC thesis of its director-writer. Zoltar is the identity into which troubled Jimmy, the elder son in a dysfunctional family retreats—retreats so far that he even dresses in an elaborate moon suit and has built a gigantic robot in his back yard. While the emotional hideaway is a sort of utopia, it only sets Jimmy up for an even greater dystopia, since he must endure the cruelty of his compatriots in the junior high. The nightmarish experience is moving, but ultimately unsatisfying. Directed by Erik Paesel.

The Bar Channel is a funny albeit brief fantasy on the possibility of hitting the meet markets through the powers of video. Richard Belzer of Homicide stars in a dual role as two of the users of this system who try in vain to make time with a beautiful patron of the bar. A bonus short, The Remote, by the same director, is also included. It's not clear to me why this wasn't a featured short, since it fits nicely into the utopia theme. The titular remote control grants the user's every wish...but it requires the user to be careful how one phrases things, lest the remote misconstrue those wishes. Neither of these shorts is particularly deep, but they are certainly amusing ways to spend a couple minutes. Directed by Frank Chindino.

The Lion and the Lamb reads like a video version of Revolution No. 9 by the Beatles. A turbulent intercutting of various antisocial interactions filmed in the streets of Montreal, set to a chaotic and percussive score, this short eventually resolves into a meditation on the search for peace. While an admirable goal, the short seems to just wish for such a utopian vision, but makes no suggestions as to how this state might possibly be achieved in this messy world. The video is extremely peculiar, starting in black and white, then resolving into a deeply yellowish color, with the only other color being the red and green of a single hanging stoplight. Directed by Luc Beauchamp.

Image of Korea (misstated as "Images of Korea" on both the box and the menus) is a claymation short running less than two minutes. As the title implies, it is merely a sequence of images showing a bucolic Korea at work and at play through the four seasons. Much of the imagery is charming though crude, but the film is extremely short on narrative of any kind. Instead, we are briefly presented situations (such as some boys naughtily peeking at girls bathing in a stream) and left to make our own judgments. While pretty, the film is ultimately forgettable. The Korean music is interesting and makes good use of the directional capabilities of the 5.1 track. Directed by Young M. Kang.

Amplified Man is a documentary on the parallel evolutions of robots and man, and the impact of technology on human society, as well as vice versa. The film includes several thoughtful observations about consciousness and what constitutes life. This documentary could have easily been much longer and still held our interest. The interviews (including one with Mark Mothersbaugh, formerly leader of Devo) are intercut in an interesting way to move the thought progression forward. The supplemental footage of the robot artist Christian Ristow (1:48) is a nice addition which counterpoints the main piece effectively. Directed by Jonathon Stearns.

Sophie Fiennes (sister of Ralph and Joseph) directed Lars from 1-10, an interview with Lars von Trier, the Danish director of Breaking the Waves (1996) and co-founder of the Dogme (Dogma) movement. Much of the film is dedicated to explaining the rules of Dogme and how they are applied. The Dogme movement, which was not something I had previously been aware of, has a set of rules for filmmaking designed to spur creativity by setting somewhat arbitrary limits on both the filmmaker's technique and subject matter. For example, only sounds and music recorded on the set can be used in the film, which must be shot in Academy ratio 35mm film. Genre subject matter is forbidden. The title Lars from 1-10 refers to these ten rules, which during the interview are written on a blackboard at a high cranking speed to retain interest. The makers of this short interview wisely chose to follow the Dogme rules in their presentation. An excerpt from Breaking the Waves (a pre-Dogme work) is however presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The interview is a fascinating look at an artist intentionally imposing limitations on his art for ideological reasons. Unfortunately, we don't get to see enough of The Idiots, one of his Dogme films, to judge for ourselves whether his intention is successful. This interview could have been better if more such material had been provided.

Sam L. Grogg on Utopia is a brief 4-minute interview with the director of the American Film Institute about utopias in film. Grogg only speaks in generalities, however, and this short is essentially surplus. He tells us, for instance, that utopias are in and of themselves uninteresting, because there is no conflict. Only when conflict is introduced and the utopia begins to fall apart can drama ensue.

Superstition is a lengthy nightmarish music video set to latin-flavored jazz music. The film's central obsession is with the image of the alligator, set into motion by the custom of painting Mexican taxi cabs to resemble gators. The film quickly moves from this motif to that of humans morphing into alligators and back again. The CGI effects are generally pretty good, and the gator prostheses are convincing, if a little disgusting. While there may be some higher meaning here, it escapes me. I also fail to see the connection of this video to a utopia. The visuals, however, are compelling. Directed by Everardo and Leopoldo Gout

This volume of Short is rather short; the total running time of the shorts barely totals over one hour. The running times of nearly all of the films are overstated on the package and the menus. As noted below, the disc is jam-packed with extras, but those who don't pay attention to extras may be disappointed by the brevity of the featured material.

The menu design is interesting at first; each section of the magazine (narrative, experimental, documentary, interview and music) is preceded by distorted old TV advertising extolling the utopian benefits promised by purchasing various products. However, it becomes somewhat annoying to have to troll through these segments when accessing each portion of the disc. There does not appear to be a single overall menu which would permit direct access of shorts without going through these segments. The disc does offer the option to play all of the shorts in sequence at once, or to take them one by one from the menus. Taking the all-at-once option makes it easy to miss commentaries and the production notes for each short.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyesyes

Image Transfer Review: Like the content of the shorts, the visual imagery is all over the map. While none of the films are anamorphic, the animation and picture quality in More are absolutely stunning. The picture looks absolutely lifelike which is quite an achievement for stop motion animation. Colors are bright and natural appearing throughout all of the films, with a few exceptions. Lion and the Lamb, as noted above, uses distorted color to heighten the mood, and Lars from 1-10 is shot on video and transferred to film, with all the inherent limitations in the video medium. The two Frank Chindino shorts, The Remote and The Bar Channel, are instances which are also filmed at least in part in video for effect; the resultant soft and somewhat blurry image (and the often highly pixelated and digitalized one in The Remote) are clearly intended by the filmmaker to be distorted thus. Zoltan features both bright colors and deep shadows to good effect, highlighting the polarization between Jimmy's world and ours. Oddly enough, the interview with the American Film Institute director is the one section which appears to use slightly damaged film in spots, as speckles are frequent in the NASA stock footage which appears at the beginning of the interview. Overall, however, the image quality is as good as one could have given the limitations of the source material. More stands out head and shoulders above the rest on this disc.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: All of the shorts in this package are presented in DD 5.1 sound; the commentaries are in DD 2.0. There seems to be something wrong with the 5.1 mix, however. In all of the shorts, the main speaker activity, including dialogue, is coming primarily from the surrounds, and the mains and center have far less to do. This effect was least noticeable in More, which is just set to a musical score, and highly distracting in Zoltan from Zoron, which is heavily dependent on both dialogue and voiceovers. Zoltan and Korea in particular do, however, have some significant directional activity which seems more or less accurately located. Those who have their surrounds set at too high a level will find them completely overpowering throughout this disc. This problem seems to be limited to the shorts themselves; the menu sound is appropriate, as are the commentaries, which makes the differences all the more irritating. The disparity of levels prompted me to recalibrate my audio, but the annoyingly high level of sound in the surrounds remained. Other than the subwoofer very occasionally kicking in, the 5.1 seems to be pretty much wasted here. A mono or stereo soundtrack would have done the job nearly as well. Several shorts have empty audio tracks on them; it seems as if commentaries were expected but not received. On Amplified Man, the sound levels are quite low, and on being turned up prove to be quite noisy and hissy. In all, the sound is by far the weakest part of this issue of Short.

Audio Transfer Grade: D


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 0 cues and remote access
0 Other Trailer(s)1 Alternate Endings
Production Notes
1 Featurette(s)
5 Feature/Episode commentaries by director of Zolta
Packaging: Snapper
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single
Layers Switch: na

Extra Extras:
  1. The Remote
  2. Additional footage with artist/robot builder Christian Ristow, demonstrating his flame-throwing robot
  3. Slide show for Superstition
  4. "See Food" shorts
  5. Rochambeau short
Extras Review: As in any issue of this DVD magazine, the real meat is in the extras. Volume 7 does not disappoint. While the feature shorts are brief, the extras will keep you busy for a long time indeed. The director commentaries are quite good and informative as always. Erik Paesel is the exception, as he does not have too much interesting to say about his project, and to make matters worse, the production notes merely duplicate tidbits from his commentary. The storyboards for More are intriguing, since they are often little more than scribbles. Clearly, much of this film was in the director's mind; these storyboards can hardly have been effective for getting the visuals across to the rest of the crew.

The alternate ending to Zoltar is not really all that different; some scenes are rearranged and others are longer but the conclusion remains the same. The primary difference is that what was to have been an actuality in the alternate ending is relegated to a dream sequence in the final film. As Paesel ruefully notes, that is symptomatic of a lot of student films: the fantasy scenes of greatest impact end up as dream sequences for one reason or another.

The sound on some of the commentaries is miserable, sounding like they were recorded off the telephone (in particular, Lion and the Lamb and the Sophie Fiennes commentary on Lars from 1-10). This does not add to the appeal, and it comes off as a rather hastily slapped together piece. This also prevents much scene-specific commentary, although the comments could easily have been edited to be scene-specific since the film audio tracks are not audible. The commentaries can be accessed on the fly with the remote, which helps in comparing scenes with commentary, on those occasions where the comments are indeed scene-related.

The slide show for Superstition, amusingly enough, is presented like an actual slide show, complete with noisy slide changes. The pictures, unfortunately, are rather small and difficult to make out, so the funny presentation gets in the way of the substance.

In the aptly-title section called "Junk Drawer," we find "See Food," made up of brief excerpts of a disembodied mouth chewing and then displaying for us a five-course meal. Lovely.

"Rochambeau" is as its title implies a randomly running, endlessly looped game of Rochambeau, (also known as Rock, Paper, Scissors). There is also a slightly-under two-minute film of flames which will gratify the pyromaniacs but merely puzzle the rest of us. In all, the package is chockablock with extras, though of uneven quality. Individual components range from the F in the "Junk Drawer" and the B of the commentaries to Image of Korea and Lars from 1-10.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

In all, another valuable session at film school for an extremely reasonable price. Those not interested in films as art or in the technique of filmmaking probably should look elsewhere. The overly high settings for the surround speakers detracts significantly from the sound design. This disc would be a good candidate for remastering.



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