Smile Politely

Proof is in the pudding: Pens to Lens films in review

Last week, I gave you a review of what it was like to attend the Pens to Lens red carpet gala, and proclaimed more than once that the films were good. I feel as though this shouldn’t be in question, because although I’m just learning the who’s-who of the film community in C-U, even I know names like Lukeman, Bechtel, and Kephart… all of whom directed films this year. Of course, people have disagreed with me in the past, so now that all of the shorts are up on youtube, I’ll leave you with some links and some thoughts for each one, and you can decide for yourself.

It was a great choice to open up the K-8 block with The Game of LIFE or Spies, because the laughs were immediate as a pre-teen boy reacted to the news that he wouldn’t be allowed to bring any technology to family game night.  When he’s dealt his career of “Spy”, the film quickly changes tone to an action-flick, but the laughs carry through the entire thing.

With an animation style reminiscent of “School House Rocks!”, Tea Time is an interesting take on King George’s taxation of the colonists.  Visual gags make the already humorous script even better. Money line? “Nailed it.” (You’ll see what I mean):

The laughs continued with The Man Who Was Crazy About Noodles, which was one of the younger-feeling films, but when the authors walked out, it appeared as if all five of them were under eight years old (and most of them closer to six). The film did a great job of presenting the concept in a zany way that didn’t condescend at all. (Pro tip: look at the masthead on the newspaper.)

Farmball used a great mechanic to excuse my disbelief that anything without an opposable thumb could play ball. There were a few lines that felt less like what an actual kid would say, and more what a villain in a movie would say, but imitation is where most artists start. The concept and humor lead me to believe this screenwriting team will only improve with practice.

Midway through the block of younger screenwriters’ films (K-8), things took a more serious turn. The Feeling of Music and Nightmare on Walnut Street both displayed intense emotion in two very different ways, and were sophisticated in the storytelling.  

Music featured Jane Cai as a distracted driver whose resulting accident causes permanent hearing loss that threatens her dreams of being accepted to Julliard. Without a single spoken word, and only a few subtitles interpreting ASL, the audience felt the anguish and frustration of the girl as her esteemed piano teacher dropped her and she had to begin again. 

Nightmare was so frightening that emcee Charlie Hester warned parents to leave if they didn’t feel they could handle it, and I kind of wished I had needed a bathroom break.  As observed by Charlie, this does make the third consecutive year when a film featured a toy come to life to horrific purpose: 2013 had Fluffystein, 2014 had Mr.Snuggles, and 2015 brings possibly the creepiest yet — a doll with one eye not only stuck open but glowing green. As if that weren’t enough, this doll is the harbinger of a woman who is at best a pale, feral, reclusive murder and at worst the undead reincarnation of said same. Either way it proves that kids’ nightmares are just as scary as anything adults can dream up. Duly noted for next year, guys.

Humor and good fonts returned in the second half, with two boys using a pyromanic recipe to create ice cream during summer break. El Oasis apparently raised its prices unreasonably (paletas are good, but $26 for a cone is not cool) in Bob and Oscar’s Epic Quest for Ice Cream. I liked the relatability of being both bored and broke during summer break, as well as setting things on fire for fun.

Puppets saved the day in Secret Agent Squirrel, another young-feeling film. The puppets are beautiful, and adorably suited to the adorable script. Apparently, the answer to “What does the fox say?” is a maniacal laugh. I like that answer better.

CGI and special effects brought the candyland to life in The Friendship Is Gone, where middle-aged men dress up like sweets and talk like fourth-grade girls. It’s slightly disturbing to watch, but also shines a light on the complexity of navigating pre-adolescent female friendships. There are a few gags to keep things light — I’m a fan of the take on meditation.

The stop-motion animated Moose Emergency is the funniest anti-littering PSA I’ve ever seen, and I already told you I wanted to steal the bunny, it was so cute. Note: EMTs do not actually pick up litter, but they will attempt to get the can unstuck from your antler.

The last film of the early afternoon, Just Another Day at the Station was an ambitiously surreal look into customer service that left the audience chuckling with its eerie accuracy. Again, a great choice of placement, because this was honestly my favorite of the bunch. From the cleverness of naming the coffee-drinking protag “Joe” to the Dr. Who nod, to the cameos, I enjoyed this film beginning to end.

I originally reported that the High School films were mostly serious. Actually, these films seemed to alternate between light and dark (or Latte and Black?) starting out, with a rom-com meetcute where a boy doesn’t know that everyone in the café can hear his thoughts during Latte Feelings leading straight into a twisted fairy-tale called Sun Black and the Cannibal Dwarf. It turns out about like you’d expect, complete with a brain-shaped jello-mold. The ending of each gave the audience food for thought, however, making them well worth the watch.

Heaven Forbid paints a father’s hopes for his baby daughter in the bleakest light possible, leaving the audience to wonder if the intercuts were reality or just his imagined fears. A great performance by Eric Beckley, who almost made me wonder if I wouldn’t be better off as a conformist-non-queer-non-artist. It sounds depressing, but it is powerful in its use of irony.

Back on the upswing, Artificial Intelligence, a prequel to the popular videogame Portal, featured fabulous local talent, a great impersonation of GlaDOS, and some excellent puppetry. It also brings up questions of ethics and morality in the name of progress, as well as scientific hubris. Watch to the credits for a fun nod to the original and an original song by A Cool Hand.

The last film in the first half of the second half, titled Better Days managed to be both bleak and hopeful at the same time, portraying a perception of office work that unfortunately doesn’t miss the mark by too much. The adult actors may have found this particular portrayal rather cathartic.

The homestretch brought the heavy-hitters, beginning with the winner of the High School Film Festival, Mary. A modified “quite-contrary” poem voices over a teen girl reflected in a mirror, hoping to see herself despite all the expectations and pressures put upon her, until she is encouraged to choose every single day how she is going to grow.  The simple format and images paired with the pantomimed reflection struck a resonant chord, and the actress is to be applauded for conveying the message without speaking. Unlike the other P2L films, this one was scripted, directed, produced and acted by students, winning a cash prize presented to the director (and author and voiceover artist) Jessie Denning to encourage further film endeavors. Unfortunately, this one is unavailable for viewing, I guess that’s one more reason to go next year.

In Influence and Pressure, an animated robot is part of a psychological experiment, showing that the conflicting messages we send to young adults as they grow up can even make a robot feel pain. I loved the particular images and vocal cues given to the new life as it explored, and I love how the robot given the appearance of choice. The technique of CGI combined with live-action and other film images was gorgeous, and emphasized the message.

Another powerfully emotional piece, It’s All Done and Over With dealt with the ways that losing a house can affect each family member. While life is at its most stressful, the oldest girl needs to have a depth of patience, understanding and willingness to help that reaches far beyond what popular culture would have us a believe a teenager is capable. Have a tissue box handy.

A sophisticated take on a complicated issue, Sunshine shows both perspectives of the women in a family affected by Alzheimer’s. Joi Hoffsommer outperforms anything you’d see on Lifetime, and Lindsey Gates-Markel supports the heck out of her. Aside from the main topics, this film pushes the audience to understand that teenagers definitely understand and do more than most people could imagine. Still have those tissues?

Finally, the last movie used humor more generously than the others, but still managed to address topics of exclusion and being underestimated as problems that girls continuously face, beginning at home. Veronica Bechtel turned rejection to empowerment, becoming both a superior architect and a formidable Viking warrior in What’s the Password?

I had as great a time watching these films as I did making kids feel like superstars. Hopefully, the proof is in the pudding, and we’ll see you next year at Pens to Lens 2016. 

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