Short Starts

A Work in Progress

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. Let me start by admitting to a slightly misleading headline. Wes Ball is not an Oscar winner. He has no statuette from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. What he does have is a Bronze Medal with a picture of the Oscar statuette on it. That’s right, he’s a third-place winner at the Student Academy Awards. But don’t let the “student” part of this prize, which like the professional Oscars are given by AMPAS, make it any less significant. A lot of great filmmakers have started their careers with this honor, including Robert Zemeckis, Spike Lee, Shane Acker, Jaco Van Dormael, Cary Fukunaga and John Lasseter (twice!). Also, Bob Saget. Provided that The Maze Runner is any good, we can add Ball to the list. He won the medal in 2003 for his seven-minute film A Work in Progress, made the year before as his BFA thesis while at Florida State University. It was honored in the animation category, though it features both computer animation and live-action, the former being used to illustrate a story being told in the real world of the latter by a little girl. The plot is familiar, basic children’s book stuff. A lonely bear goes off in search of friends, which he attempts to make by mimicking different animals. Eric Carle, better known for “The Hungry Caterpillar,” wrote a similar story back […]

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Mr Petrified Forrest

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. Various things can happen to a famous director’s student films. Mostly they wind up hidden from us, sometimes permanently in the case of something intentionally destroyed, other times simply held from being uploaded to YouTube or another video site. It’s not often that a currently successful filmmaker is proud of his or her schoolwork, no matter how much money, passion and talent he or she put into it. That’s a shame, because a lot of these pre-professional shorts (and occasional features) aren’t that bad. Many have won awards, deservedly so. Others helped the student get a foot in the door, which obviously means there was promise there. In very, very rare circumstances, a student film will get distribution, possibly in an altered form. That was the case for Matt Reeves, director of the new sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as well as Cloverfield and Let Me In. Reeves attended the University of Southern California, where he made an award-winning short film titled Mr. Petrified Forrest during the 1991-1992 year. Other now-prominent people who worked on it include J.J. Abrams, who co-produced and composed the scored under the name Jeffrey Abrams and also created a plane crash scene (on his parents’ lawn) that looks like a Max Fischer production of the Lost pilot. Regular Abrams collaborators Bryan Burk and Greg Grunberg were also producers, the latter […]

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Roman Polanski in Two Men and a Wardrobe

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. Today marks both the U.S. theatrical release of Venus and Fur and the 40th anniversary of the U.S. theatrical release of Chinatown. So, let’s just consider it Roman Polanski day. In honor of the occasion, we should just skip his latest (see our review for why) and hold off on watching his 1974 classic for the billionth time. How many of you have seen his early short films? They’re available in proper form on Criterion’s two-disc DVD set for Polanski’s first feature, Knife in the Water, and they can also be found on YouTube. For the latter, there are no English subtitles, but that only matters for one or two that have very minimal dialogue. For the most part, they’re all really “silent” films. Nine shorts are credited to the actor-turned-director through the start of his academic and professional career in the late 1950s and early 1960s. One of these, however, is Rower (aka Bicycle), which was a 1955 student work that went unfinished thanks to an error by the lab. That leaves eight survivors. From 1957 there’s Murder, which is a nice short scene of a man being murdered but there’s no story there, Let’s Break the Ball (aka Break Up the Dance), an exceptional work of editing that’s even more stunning when you learn that it’s partly documentary in that it was shot during an […]

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Michael Keaton Monk

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.  Whatever your feelings are about the new RoboCop remake, there’s no denying that it’s great to see Michael Keaton up on the big screen again with such a prominent role. The actor hasn’t been in a lot of movies over the past decade, and in those he has done he’s mostly played some young starlet’s father. Or he’s merely provided his voice for a few minor Pixar characters. And now in 2014 alone we get to see him stand out in three movies, including RoboCop, next month’s Need for Speed and, best of all, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman, in which he’ll star, reflexively, as a washed-up actor best known for having portrayed a superhero in the movies. If we’re lucky, next in line for Keaton is a return to another one of his most famous characters: Beetlejuice. Imagine if he’d not stuck with Hollywood long enough to work with Tim Burton and deliver his two most iconic performances? He also wouldn’t have gone on to notably play the same FBI character in two unrelated movies (Jackie Brown and Out of Sight), but then again he wouldn’t have done Jack Frost and Multiplicity either — not that he’s not great in the latter, only that he’s too good for how bad it is overall. If Keaton had left acting in 1985, we would still have his hilarious work […]

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reitman in god we trust

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. It is perhaps a bit odd to celebrate the early work of Jason Reitman on the opening weekend of his first critical failure. Labor Day is not only the Canadian director’s first “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but it’s also his first feature to even drop below 80%. Frankly, given the way the film has been kicked about the calendar since its Toronto International Film Festival debut, it seems as if the various people involved would prefer that we not talk about it at all. And so we won’t! (I haven’t seen it yet, anyway.) Instead let’s take a look back at Reitman’s early shorts and program a half-hour film festival brimming with nostalgia for the early 2000s. He directed six of these before his first feature, 2005’s Thank You for Smoking. Half of that number are available to watch on Vimeo, thanks to character actor and Reitman regular Jeff Witzke. They’re all fast-paced experiments in screenwriting and editing, clever and really quite delightful.

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47 Ronin

This is a special edition of Short Starts, where we look at the past year of disappointing feature debuts from filmmakers who previously wowed us with their short films. Short films can be good calling cards, but they aren’t always the best proof that a filmmaker has the skills to immediately jump into a feature. Especially a big Hollywood production. In recent years, thanks to the combination of the Internet, social media and cheaper tools for making movies on a personal computer, we’ve seen some awesome short films go viral and then get the attention of studio execs and big time producers. The filmmakers, in only a few minutes of screen time, display a lot of talent and imagination and, most importantly, promise. But they’re often handed properties that are too much to handle even for experienced directors, as we saw with Neill Blomkamp’s assignment of Halo as a feature debut. Fortunately, that never happened and instead we got District 9, an extension of his popular short, Alive in Joburg. It’s fitting that Blomkamp disappointed with his sophomore effort (Elysium) in 2013, a year that overall was pretty dismal for directors transitioning from shorts to features. Terrible movies from people who had broken out with acclaimed shorts isn’t anything new. In the past we’ve seen Oscar nominees like Stephen Kessler and Christian E. Christiansen move “up” to Vegas Vacation and The Roommate, respectively. The past year was particularly heavy on the disappointing newcomers, though. 2013 even finished out with what’s possibly […]

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Not Just You Murray

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. Like most filmmakers of his generation, Martin Scorsese went to film school (NYU in his case), and there he made a number of shorts during the course of his training and study. A few of these student films survive, including 1963’s What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?, which may be his earliest use of a narrator telling his life story in the first person. This is the structure he uses once again with his latest feature, The Wolf of Wall Street. But the protagonist of that 50-year-old 9-minute effort (which you can find all over YouTube) bears little similarity with the one Leonardo DiCaprio plays in the new movie. Scorsese’s following student film, 1964’s It’s Not Just You, Murray! (the young director clearly liked punctuated titles at the time), features a few more parallels and even seems like a template for a number of later works, including Goodfellas, Casino and now The Wolf of Wall Street. The fact that It’s Not Just You, Murray! is about gangsters aligns it more with the former two films. But I believe we’re supposed to think of The Wolf of Wall Street as a kind of gangster film — or at least a crime film, which is often the same thing. Where the early short and the very long new feature start off being alike […]

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THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

This week’s Short Starts column was already going to be different by focusing on the first film for a particular story’s adaptation rather than for a director or actor. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit‘s first time on screen was as a short film in 1966 from the team of producer William L. Snyder and director Gene Deitch (Popeye the Sailor). I wouldn’t exactly call it an animated film any more than I’d call a Ken Burns documentary animated. It’s more of a slide show of illustrations, some of them zoomed in on or panned across for some visual stimulation, plus an occasional spot of psychedelic effects. The short was kind of a throwaway work (an “ashcan” production), similar to Roger Corman’s 1994 Fantastic Four film in that it was only made, and in such half-assed fashion, to retain rights to the property. Simply pointing to this curiosity is not enough, though, especially because it was already included on a list of Hobbit adaptations here at FSR last week. But I still want to address it because it’s so fascinating that the same story can be told in about 11 minutes, in the case of the ’66 version, or closer to 11 hours, as could be the case for Peter Jackson‘s Hobbit trilogy (currently the three films are on track to run closer to 9 hours even after the extended releases come out, but down the line maybe a Blu-ray special edition will put it near 11, a la the LOTR trilogy). Both are […]

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adam driver archangel

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. Even though he’s only in the film for a few minutes, Adam Driver is one of the most talked-about actors in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Of course he is, because when he’s on screen you can’t look at anything else. It’s that combination of rugged handsomeness and gigantic freakishness that captures your attention, and a lot of it has to do with our familiarity with him being almost solely from his role on Girls. This year he also got to break out a little more with Frances Ha, but he’s still fairly new to acting, having been a United States Marine just over a decade ago. Really, he’s had a fast rise to a scene stealing bit part in a Best Picture hopeful (and I might actually be referring to last year’s Lincoln, or maybe the previous year’s J. Edgar?), since he only graduated from Julliard in 2009. It was that year that he scored his first screen credit in an episode of The Unusuals. In 2010, he acted in a pilot for an HBO series called The Wonderful Maladys, which wasn’t picked up. But he did wind up on the channel with the movie You Don’t Know Jack, his first feature. Not his first film, though. That would be a short that debuted a few months earlier titled Archangel.

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the small one

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. I can’t actually confirm that Frozen co-director Chris Buck had a hand on The Small One, an animated short released 35 years ago this month. Only his Wikipedia entry connects him to the film, noting that it was uncredited work. And he’s not included in any extended credits to be found for the production, which is known to have involved other new recruits like Henry Selick and Jerry Rees. In one interview, Buck acknowledges that he was a trainee at the studio starting in the summer of 1978 but that his first assignment was as an “in-betweener” for The Fox and the Hound. Well, maybe he still breathed in an area in which Don Bluth and his team were making this little-remembered movie. If it’s not really either his short start or his earliest work for Disney, which he’s worked for on and off over the decades, just skip ahead to another possibility I’m featuring this week. This is still a good time to look at The Small One, regardless. The anniversary of its debut will be December 15th, the date it arrived in theaters attached to a re-release of Pinocchio. The pairing seems a bit strange considering The Small One is about a cute little donkey, whose drawn appearance resembles the jackasses in the 1940 classic, and the latter is the stuff of nightmares. For kids […]

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the burning frears

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.  Many directors are embarrassed of their first film, especially if we count their student productions. That’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to find a lot of “short starts” for this column. As we saw recently with Ridley Scott’s debut, however, the British Film Institute is to be thanked for preserving a number of early works by filmmakers from across the pond. Stephen Frears, whose latest great feature, Philomena, is now in theaters, is another example. The funny thing is that he seems like he’d rather that his first film, made in 1968, was lost and forgotten. Most directors would kill to have started off with something as smart and well-shot as The Burning, yet he claims he was clueless while making it, that it was like “being a baby playing with its own shit.” Frears wasn’t a student when he made the short, and he’d already been gaining experience as an assistant director (or assistant to the director) for such prominent British filmmakers as Lindsay Anderson (who helped Frears edit his film) and Karel Reisz and actor Albert Finney, who co-produced The Burning. The screenplay for the 31-minute film is by author Roland Starke based on his own short story, and its plot concerns a native uprising in South Africa. Similar to Scott’s short start, this one also focuses on a young boy through which we experience […]

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Houseguest

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. First of all, let me disappoint everyone by clarifying that The Houseguest is not technically softcore pornography. It doesn’t even include nudity except for a man’s backside. But it is part of one of the anthologies put out by Playboy in the early 1990s called Inside Out, which are comprised of shorts that are predominantly of a a softcore nature. Alexander Payne, whose latest feature Nebraska is out in limited release today, directed three erotica shorts for the label. The earlier two were co-written by himself and regular collaborator Jim Taylor and one of them appears in the first video in the series while the other is lost or buried. The Houseguest, meanwhile, was scripted by Ken Rudman and appears on Inside Out III. But let’s come back to the film at hand in a moment. Technically, Payne’s short start is a 1985 student film titled Carmen, which is a silent, 18-minute take on Bizet’s opera of the same name updated and set in a gas station. You can find the whole thing on a British DVD from Cinema 16 compiling American shorts, including films by Tim Burton, Todd Solondz, George Lucas and D.A. Pennebaker. And you can watch a very brief clip from this short, showing a mentally challenged cashier being seduced by the title character, after the jump.

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Dead On Time

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. He’s only directed three films, including the new sci-fi rom-com About Time, but Richard Curtis has been a well-known screenwriter for a few decades. When we think of a Curtis movie, we don’t just consider his popular directorial debut, Love Actually (and nobody here thinks of Pirate Radio, aka The Boat That Rocked). We think of Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. He also wrote The Girl in the Cafe and one of the best episodes of Doctor Who (“Vincent and the Doctor”), and he co-scripted Bridget Jones’s Diary and its sequel, as well as War Horse. Plus he co-created Blackadder and Mr. Bean, both with regular collaborator Rowan Atkinson. Curtis and Atkinson met at Oxford through the famed Experimental Theatre Club before breaking out as members of the legendary Oxford Revue. Quickly they got into radio and TV comedy, and while they were beginning work on the first series of Blackadder (then The Black Adder) they also made their first film together, Dead On Time. Directed by Lyndall Hobbs (who went on to direct Back to the Beach and no films since), it’s a very smart and very funny take on an easy, familiar premise with an easy, familiar endpoint. Atkinson plays a man who is told he has only half an hour to […]

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East River short

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.  We can add this week’s Short Starts selection to last week’s list of Movies to Watch After You’ve Seen 12 Years a Slave. There, I included mention of In My Genes, a documentary about albinos in Africa directed by Lupita Nyong’o, the breakout star of the new Steve James film. Now I’d like to share her only prior film acting gig, an award-winning silent short called East River. It was made by Israel-based writer-director Marc Grey and follows the inter-borough travels of a man (Tommaso Spinelli) who has just arrived in New York City. Nyong’o plays a Brooklyn photographer he encounters and may or may not have a real relationship with. The confusion is more mystifying than frustrating. The simple synopsis that comes with the short offers little help: “An interloper wanders uncommon spaces and fashions deceiving relationships amidst the industrial ruins of Brooklyn.” The plot is not as important as the semi city symphony that arises out of the man’s wandering. In Manhattan he visits Central Park, Times Square, Chinatown, a downtown club. Over the title waterway he bikes over each of the three bridges to get into Brooklyn on different days, and once there he can mostly be spotted in Williamsburg, Gowanus and Red Hook, which is where he spots Nyong’o’s character for the first time.

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boy-and-bicycle

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. It’s not often we see a short film debut by someone of Ridley Scott‘s generation. And even if one does exist and is made available on the Internet, the copy tends to be poor quality. Check out the film school works of Spielberg and Scorsese on YouTube and see what I mean. And those guys seem most likely to have preserved that early amateur stuff, or else embarrassingly kept it hidden away. Scott’s first film, though, still looks amazing after more than 50 years and even transferred to non-HD video. It’s not a total surprise. The 27-minute black and white short, Boy and Bicycle, was ultimately paid for by the British Film Institute, which probably retained a good print. So when it was time to include it on the DVDs for Scott’s first feature, The Duellists, it looked as well-cared for as any classic piece of cinema. Whether we can consider it a classic piece of cinema is something else entirely. Boy and Bicycle is about a boy and, yes, his bike. Played by Ridley’s younger brother, fellow future filmmaker Tony Scott, he’s almost the only character on screen. The parents we hear fighting off camera are Ridley and Tony’s parents and I think the old man at the end is their father. The plot sees the boy playing hooky and navigating the city of Billingham, UK, on […]

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mcqueen_western_deep_02_l

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. Before he started making features, like his new release 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen was a celebrated visual artist known primarily for film installations. His “short start” was 20 years ago with a 10-minute work called Bear, in which he and another black man wrestled in the nude. After that, he made the shorts Five Easy Pieces (1995), Just Above My Head (1996), Exodus (1997) and Deadpan (1997), the last of which involved a recreation of Buster Keaton’s famous falling house facade stunt from Steamboat Bill Jr. You can see an excerpt of that film, with McQueen pulling off the dangerous bit himself, here. While many of his shorts can be seen in the occasional museum exhibit, most are otherwise pretty rare. Meaning not available to be viewed online. There are, however, a few instances of incomplete cellphone captures of his films from their installation projections. You can see parts of Girls, Tricky (2001), the 9/11-inspired Illuminer (2002) and Static (2009), which was made following his feature debut, Hunger. Others, including Charlotte (2004), featuring just an enlargement of Charlotte Rampling‘s eye, and Caribs’ Leap (2002), are only to be seen in stills. Interestingly, the latter is typically screened as a companion to the only film found in full on the web, Western Deep.

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Bedhead 2

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. It’s a sad day for Robert Rodriguez. His latest movie, Machete Kills, is a dud at the box office with his lowest wide-release opening of all time. Yes, even lower than Shorts. But if the Machete sequel is neither good nor popular, that doesn’t mean we can’t spend this weekend enjoying Rodriguez’s other work. Specifically, let’s go back to the beginning and check out his first film. No, not El Mariachi. Before even that landmark low-budget breakout, he made an 8-minute short while a student at the University of Texas called Bedhead. Made in 1990 with an $800 budget and employing his siblings as the cast and other relatives as the crew, Rodriguez co-wrote the script with brother David (also the title character) and friend Bryant Delafosse. He was his own DP, shooting on 16mm with a wind-up camera (and no synch sound), and his own editor, cutting on video, maybe even using the double-VCR system he’d been working with as a kid. He also animated the opening credits sequence. While El Mariachi is better known for being his Hollywood calling card, Rodriguez actually sent around both that and Bedhead, which had the esteem of winning awards at a number of film festivals (Carolina Film Festival, Third Coast Film Festival, Marin County Film and Video Festival and The University of Missouri Fine Arts Competition). And the combo […]

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Reagan_assassination_attempt_montage

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. Brad Furman‘s latest movie, Runner Runner, has been getting terrible reviews. Like really, really terrible. I think we at FSR even just avoided it entirely. That’s a shame because his first two narrative features, The Take and The Lincoln Lawyer, were pretty well received. And prior to that, his shorts were successful, too. His debut is called Fast Forward, and it involves the 1981 shooting of President Reagan. Rather than recreating the incident entirely, Furman takes the familiar TV footage, which millions of us have seen over and over before, and mixes it with peripheral reenactment where necessary for an added fictional component. Using the real material is for good purpose as the point of the film seems to be that the footage — and much of television like it — is confusing in its chaos and maybe not at all what it seems. Is Furman aiming to equate the Reagan assassination attempt with the JFK assassination? Perhaps.  Fast Forward is about a news reporter (David Deblinger) who sees the footage play out on a monitor in his van five minutes before the events actually happen, Final Destination style. After finally realizing what he’s seeing, he rushes out to try to stop the gunman. But the video he’s seen doesn’t offer a clear look at the guy. In the end, I’m not totally sure what ensues. Maybe […]

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rose byrne heaven

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. For the past few weeks I haven’t been able to drive around Los Angeles without seeing Rose Byrne‘s face on every street corner. She’s always screaming, with her eyes and mouth widening by the second. It’s disorienting. And also great marketing from the people behind Insidious: Chapter 2, because that billboard of Byrne holding onto her children for dear life is eye-catching. A part of the credit, of course, must go to Byrne. With both Insidious films she’s been consistently terrorized, and somehow, she manages to keep each horrifying reaction less comical than it should be. Her character can never catch a break in these films. Byrne herself caught a big break in 2007 with FX’s Damages, an undervalued show which rightfully earned her two Golden Globe nominations. Before her work on Damages, Byrne had been acting steadily in supporting roles, including appearances in quality films like Danny Boyle’s sci-fi masterpiece Sunshine, 28 Weeks Later, Adam, Marie Antoinette and the underrated sci-fi thriller Knowing. Not too shabby of a filmography to make a living off of. Then, in 2011 she had a highly successful year when a broad American audience discovered her on the big screen, with both Insidious and Bridesmaids. This year she has been seen in The Place Beyond the Pines, the very funny I Give It a Year and the significantly less funny The Internship. But if you want to see Byrne at the start of her career than look no further than the 1999 short film The Date.

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diesel_1_of_2

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. Many know the origin story of Vin Diesel, how he broke into Hollywood by not only showing true acting talent but also writing and directing his way onto the scene with both a short film and a feature. How the former went to Cannes and (eventually) was seen by none other than Steven Spielberg, who cast the struggling 30-year-old, who was getting by working as a bouncer, for a breakthrough ensemble role in Saving Private Ryan. And how he’s been mostly racing cars and fighting alien creatures on the big screen ever since. But the Riddick star was around for a while before his short start, which is titled Multi-Facial. And not just as an extra in the 1990 Best Picture nominee Awakenings (see those three seconds of fame here). He’d been acting on the stage since a kid and in his teens had begun rapping and breakdancing. His rhyming skills can be heard and seen in two separate songs in Multi-Facial, one on the soundtrack titled “Middleman” and another on screen performance during an audition scene. As for his moves, they were thankfully recorded seemingly only for future embarrassment purposes in 1984. Still going by his given name of Mark Vincent at the time, the 17-year-old appeared in the Sony VHS release Breakin’ in the USA: Break Dancing and Electric Boogie Taught by the Pros. The […]

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