Movie Review: Three Short Films By Jared Varava
Jared Varava has directed three short comedy films — that he’s claiming at least. I’ll review each one individually, but all of the films share some comoon traits that I want to cover first. I’m also going to write about them in the order they were produced according to Varava’s IMDB page. The first two films, The Fourth and The Shadow Effect, are very similar in a technical manner, with the third film, Bicentennial Curious, featuring a marked stylistic change, even though all films share the same cinematographer, Damian Acevedo. However, all three shorts are very similar thematically.
Each film is about a man on a quest for spiritual purification, but all of whom are predestined to fail. Whether it’s a track & field enthusiast or a lonely recyclables sorter or a director of adult films, these main characters make the mistake of looking outwards for their personal justifications instead of looking inwards. Varava treats his protagonists with the utmost respect. It’s obvious that their intentions are all in the right place and they are, for the most part, men with good hearts. But, we can see that they are misguided souls who are absolutely determined that they are on the right spiritual path. While the audience can clearly see the mistakes these men are making, they are unable to step out of themselves and watch their own actions with us because they are so absorbed in their quests. We can pity them, but we can’t make fun of them — or at least Varava is wise enough not to do that.
Writing the above paragraph, I’m a little worried that someone reading it may get the impression that Varava has made “religious” short films. They are nothing of the sort. These are three fairly, straight-on goofy comedies that can be enjoyed for what’s just on the surface of them. All three films are very nicely produced and extremely funny. I just hope my over-analysis doesn’t take away any of the fun. Anyway, now I’m going to write about each film individually:
The Fourth (2004): This is the story of a three-man relay race team training for a major upcoming event while desperately searching for a fourth man to fill out the team so they can even compete. But the main character is William (Lucas Fleischer), the leader of the team, a man so self-absorbed with winning he forces his pregnant wife to chuck out the gyro she’s eating so he won’t be tempted by the carbs. William is a difficult character. As the scene I just related shows, he’s pretty much an asshole, yet Fleischer gives William enough vulnerability in his self-delusion that he’s actually a sympathetic character. I think getting these very nuanced performances out of his actors is Varava’s greatest strength, and that goes for all three films. Instead of making buffoons out of his characters by letting his actors play them over the top, which would be very easy given the films’ plots, everyone stands out as a real person, which includes the boisterous German antagonists that William and his crew have to contend with.
The Shadow Effect (2006): This was my favorite out of all three shorts and it’s also the most “experimental” of them, in that Varava — and co-director Justin Varava — keeps their main character completely silent through the entire film. It’s a risky move that plays out well. Actor Scoot McNairy is so expressive in the role that you almost don’t notice he doesn’t say one word, even though there’s much dialogue going on around him. Scoot stars as Harold Grey, a recyclables sorter who spends his free time eating cereal and watching tape recorded soap operas. Longing for something more in his sparse existence, Harold is enticed by a TV commercial to sign up for “Shadow Effect” therapy, which encourages patients to improve their own life by imitating, or “shadowing,” a role model. So Harold picks the most interesting person he knows: a suave soap opera character. Nice setup, good gags given the situation and plays well with soap opera conventions, including the fate soapy characters typically end up facing. This is really a stand-out short film.
Bicentennial Curious (2007): Visually, this film differs wildly than its two predecessors. Varava’s first two films have sort of a Wes Anderson deadpan kind of vibe to them, while Bicentennial is shot with a grainy mockumentary look. While the first two films have a very successful style about them, it was nice to see that Varava and cinematographer Acevedo able to mix things up a little bit here, which is apropos for the switch from traditional narrative to mockumentary. That said, this may have been my least favorite of the films — not to say it’s bad, it’s quite good, just not equal to The Shadow Effect — and comes with a very specific complaint. The subject this time is a director of porno films who seeks to elevate his work above the usual porn fare by trying to be as historically accurate as possible, as long as “accurate” means the founding fathers get to have lots and lots of outrageous sex. It’s a great premise and allows for some terrific verbal puns. But I think if you’re going to satirize porn, you’re film doesn’t have to have real sex, but I would have liked some more on-set gags. As is, I think Bicentennial has only one semi-sex scene while the film mostly takes place between scenes with actors and the director just talking directly to the camera. Also, the director character is wonderfully played by Jon Gries, who’s one of those actor you see and think, “Who is that guy?” Which I actually did in real life once when I spotted him eating lunch at Astro Burger on Santa Monica Blvd. in Los Angeles, but most people will recognize him as the nerd who lived in a closet in Real Genius. But he’s a really great actor with a ton of credits and, as always, he’s just as good here.