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Friday, 27 February 2015

Playtime Strikes Back (2015)

Director: Adolpho Navarro
Stars: Gracie Dufresne, Zoey Cunningham and Adolpho Navarro
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
This film was a submission to one of the IFP Phoenix film challenges in the 2014-15 season. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014-15 submissions.
The name of Adolpho Navarro didn't show up on my radar until the Phoenix Comicon film challenge last year when his action packed superhero short, Fists in Flight, won top prize. Since then, it keeps cropping up at competition after competition and he's winning a lot of them too, such as this week's A3F 48 hour film challenge. I've discovered that Navarro and N'Raged Media have been making films for a long time and there are a whole slew of them online to check out, so they're a template for other local filmmakers in more ways than one. Another commonality is that these films often feature special effects that would seem to be far more ambitious than would be attempted by anyone in their right mind in a 48 hour film challenge. Isn't it tough enough to write, shoot and score a complete film, edit a trailer and put a poster together, all in 48 hours, without trying to add in special effects? Well, Project Daisy, the Beat the Clock winner last year, incorporated stop motion frickin' animation and Playtime Strikes Back uses puppetry!

And, of course, it uses a lot of puppetry. The story is almost entirely explained in the title, so there's little synopsis needed. Suffice it to say that little Gracie might look sweetness and light but she has a notable streak of brutality, not merely let loose on the deathmatches to which she challenges Ralph on the XBox 360 but also on some of her many soft toys. 'That little beast has a dark side that'll put Vader to shame,' explains the clown on which she vents much of her violence, accompanied with neat slow motion, a neat scream and some neat editing to make it all effective. There's also a raggedy creature hanged from her ceiling fan too, who memorably pleads, 'Please rid me of this harness of death!' Yet some of Gracie's other dolls must either have stuffing for brains or cases of Stockholm syndrome, because they stick up for the little psycho bitch when the clown picks up a knife and pledges bloody revenge. The fight is on with Gracie oblivious in her XBox Live headset and focused on her online carnage.
While the effects make the film viable, it's Gracie Dufresne, who the credits claim is playing herself, who steals the show. She's a natural on camera, her grin utterly appropriate for the circumstances, and she's more than willing to bring the smackdown on that burned and bloodied clown. She also voices Billy, the formerly forgotten dangling doll, though Navarro himself voices the rest. What makes this notable is that instead of merely voice acting over inanimate dolls, he uses an old technique known as Syncro-Vox, first used by Edwin Gillette to allow animals on TV commercials in the 1950s to speak with human mouths. It was popularised on shows from Cambria Productions like Clutch Cargo, Captain Fathom and Space Angel. It saved them a lot of money over regular animation, but I'm pretty sure they didn't work at the speed of Navarro, turning out effective Syncro-Vox work with a greenscreen and software rapidly enough for a film challenge entry. I see him as a mad scientist, doing these things purely because they can't be done.

Of course, the seams have to show eventually in this sort of film, because there are only so many hours in the day to make everything look pristine. Here, they show in the fight between the clown and the doll who sticks up for Gracie; it's great fun, to be sure, with comedic dialogue and decent action, but it's less effective puppetry than elsewhere in the film. Many of the large cast of puppets are of the hand variety and they're worked capably, just like those deemed worthy of the Syncro-Vox treatment, but attempts to manoeuvre the lead puppets through what can only be described as complex fight choreography in the background of Gracie's bedroom while she's playing a deathmatch are just a little too ambitious for this short. I'd say that there are only so many special effects that one man can do with such limitations but I feel sure Navarro would take it as a challenge! I bow to his ambition and his refusal to acknowledge the boundaries others assume. Mostly though, I just enjoy the heck out of how much fun he obviously has.

Playtime Strikes Back can be viewed for free at YouTube.

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