Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2009

Rodriguez on auto-pilot

'Shorts' can't escape its own target audience

Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Jimmy Bennett, Jolie Vanier, Kat Dennings, Trevor Gagnon, Jake Short, Leslie Mann, Jon Cryer, William H. Macy and James Spader
Rated PG / 1 hour, 29 minutes
Opened August 21, 2009
(out of four)

I get it; I really do. Robert Rodriguez likes to make movies for kids. He doesn't have to do it. He's not forced into it by the studios. He enjoys it. In fact, one of his family films - 2005's The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl - was reportedly based on his own son's original idea.

When you see a film like Shorts, you kinda just have to throw up your hands and say, "Well, I'm just not the audience for this movie." The audience, of course, is kids. Exclusively. And that's fine. In fact, by that standard, any star rating is pretty much superfluous.

But it's not just that Rodriguez can do better movies than this - it's that we know he can make better kids' movies than this. The original Spy Kids was a terrific movie by any standard; the pure storytelling and wit could be appreciated by all audiences. Since then, his kiddie fare has dissolved to the point where it seems like he's casually playing down to the material - even while his more adult-oriented filmmaking has improved exponentially. (I would argue that Sin City and Planet Terror are the two best movies of his career.)

Shorts isn't without its charms. There are some great ideas and inventions here. (No one will ever accuse Rodriguez of being unimaginative.) But they're constantly derailed by the film's adolescent sensibility, which it insists on sticking to. (Let me put it this way: There is a giant booger monster.)

I don't know why it traps itself in such a small audience - there are so many films that cross over between young and old (Pixar, for example) that I can't think of a single reason to see Shorts over any number of other family films. No matter what demographic he's going for, Rodriguez is quite simply a more talented filmmaker than this.

Shorts gets its title from its structure, as we get five different episodes - a structural gesture that Rodriguez' friend Quentin Tarantino might appreciate - all involving a magical wishing rock that seems to hop around from place to place and person to person. Everyone wants to get their hands on it (and with seemingly endless possibilities, can you blame them?), but no one can hang on to it.

This is all well and good when it's the good-hearted, friendly children in the neighborhood - namely Toby Thompson (Jimmy Bennett) and his new friend Loogie (Trevoer Gagnon). But then there's Toby's nemeses, the brother-and-sister class bully team of Cole (Devon Gearhart) and Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier). They're the progeny of the neighborhood's resident tycoon (James Marsden), who invented the "Black Box" - a multipurpose item that can transform into anything, from a computer to a baby monitor to a can opener.

Toby's parents - played by Leslie Mann and Jon Cryer - are heading up Mr. Black's creative team as he looks to move the Black Box above and beyond its current capabilities. Just about everyone else in this little suburbia - which seems to exist outside any other area of civilization - works for Mr. Black. After all, his corporate headquarters is right on Toby's block - nestled right in between, I'd say, a two-bedroom starter home and a cozy duplex. But I digress.

When Shorts is enjoyable - which is only in fits and starts - it's due to Rodriguez' creativity. He's always had a boundless energy for wonderfully strange ideas and sight gags, and there are a few on display here that I admire.

But so often, the ideas he generates to set up his set-pieces simply don't measure up - they peter out before they can really turn into anything worthwhile.

I'm not against a filmmaker like Rodriguez spending his time on movies like this - in fact, I'm all for it. I only hope that next time, he gives us a Spy Kids-like effort instead of another dud that might feel more at home in the middle of a Saturday morning TV schedule.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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