This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.
In a few days, The Kings of Summer opens in theaters. One of our favorites out of Sundance this year (where it was titled Toy’s House), the coming-of-age dramedy is filled with big laughs, a huge amount of heart and great performances from a handful of young actors who are all sure to go places. Also on the rise now is director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, a veteran of web and TV work who now enters the big time with this feature directorial debut. In an interview with AFI this year, he declared that this is only the beginning for him with feature filmmaking: “That’s why i’m here. I grew up falling in love with movies and the worlds they created. That’s my priority and that’s where I want to be.”
Fortunately for us short subject lovers, he’s not against continuing non-feature stuff on the side. He admits to enjoying all mediums, including commercials, and wants to do a second season of his Comedy Central show with T.J. Miller, Mash Up. Hopefully he also makes more legitimate short films, because he’s shown a terrific grasp for not just concise storytelling but also an awareness for what sort of running time suits a particular story. Thanks to Vogt-Roberts having a well-stocked Vimeo page, we’re able to see a lot of his prior short and sketch work, and this week I’d like to highlight a handful of favorites that I think prove he’s got a very promising future as one of our best comedic filmmakers, whatever the length of the project.
Mint in Box
This seven-minute short is credited on IMDb as being Vogt-Roberts’ film debut, though it’s also an episode of his early series Memoirs of a Manchild, which stars co-writer Thomas Middleditch (who plays a cop in Kings) as a young man holding on to childhood things. Like Star Wars toys, as we see in this installment involving a first date and a tragic misunderstanding due to unnecessary embarrassment. What could have been an unnecessary rehash of one aspect of The 40-Year-Old Virgin is a funny and sweet and sad little sketch all its own. Mostly because Vogt-Robers executes the gag so well with just the right tone and precise beats from his cast. Right from the start you can see that this filmmaker, while often a co-originator of a story idea yet maybe not the actual writer of the scripts to his films, is the sort of director whose talents make something that’s good on the page even greater on the screen. Two other Memoirs of a Manchild shorts are up on Vimeo, neither as good as this one but still pretty silly.
This was Vogt-Roberts’ most well-known film before Kings, as it was a hit on the 2010 fest circuit, playing Sundance, SXSW and more. The 25-minute short stars regular collaborator on and off screen T.J. Miller opposite Lizzy Caplan with supporting appearances by familiar comedic actors like Tony Hale, Nick Skoll, Whitney Cummings and Maribeth Monroe. Also, we showcased it last fall in a Short Film of the Day post. It’s equal parts hilarious and depressing, and while I want to celebrate the two lead characters as being the most enjoyable drunk couple since Nick and Nora Charles, there’s something sort of wrong about doing so. They’re definitely one of the best such duos, chemistry-wise. And as much as I’d like to see more of them, I appreciate that while it’d be very easy to stretch the plot of this story out another hour or so, it works so ideally in less than half an hour. As you’ll (must) see right now if you haven’t already seen it:
Bad Boys II Men in Black
This is a sketch from Mash Up but works perfectly fine as a micro-short proving that Vogt-Roberts is just as suited to be the next great spoof movie master as he is to be the next Judd Apatow. But he should keep it to this length, because parody works best in condensed form. The reason I like this bit is because it takes the movie mash-up thing and goes further. Anyone could have just done Bad Boys meets Men in Black. Re-mixing two movies together is played out. Throw in a third thing, movie or whatever, and it’s golden. Especially if it’s already a clever bridged-term word game idea like putting together Bad Boys II, Boys II Men and Men in Black together but then it’s visualized almost flawlessly. The only issue I have is that the Men in Black side could be more identifiable as the movie’s duo.
What do you get when you cross Caddyshack with Christopher Guest? Maybe something like this country club-set mockumentary starring Marc Evan Jackson, Carrie Clifford, Al Madrigal, Rob Delaney and members of the comedy group The Blerds (that’s a mash-up of Blog + Nerds, according to their MySpace profile, where Vogt-Roberts seems to have also been nicknamed “JoVoRoBo”). I find this the most up and down as far as hit or miss, but I’m becoming a big fan of Jackson through the director’s work — he’s really great in Kings as one of the parents, husband to Megan Mullally. Plus, it shows us something different from Vogt-Roberts. He definitely has the style down but it could us slightly better writing (I’m now told it was entirely improvised). The mockumentary genre is pretty tired right now, but I’d watch another by him.
Coming-of-Age Movie Supercut
(or an Abridged Version of The Kings of Summer Using Clips From Other Films)
This is a demo “tone reel” for Toy’s House (now The King’s of Summer), apparently made before production began, and basically it’s just a coming-of-age movie supercut that compiles some clips from movies — those he must have thought of during the pre-planning as being influences on the feel of his own feature — for a short version of the story. Don’t worry if you haven’t yet seen The King’s of Summer, as this is just a basic structural framework, no spoilers or anything. But it is particularly interesting to watch afterward, especially if you’re one of the many who have compared Kings to stuff like Stand By Me and Superbad. Both of those are represented in the reel, along with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Mean Creek, Son of Rambow, Millions, Alpha Dog, The Wackness and other great kindred classics of the genre. Oddly enough, watching all the precursors laid out like this doesn’t take away from Kings in the way you might expect, as in how it sounds like it would reveal Vogt-Roberts’ movie to be too derivative. It doesn’t. It just shows that he loves the genre, he’s familiar with great examples of the genre and he wants to emulate rather than just copy the best. I don’t know if other filmmakers do tone reels like this beforehand, but I would really, really love to see more of them.