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Short Film Reviews: The Work of Jay Holben

Putting my work out there on the web for the potential consumption by anyone that should happen to stumble across it has opened up new doors. It has allowed me to gain access to films the average person would never see. Such is the case here. I received a DVD collecting a number of short subjects from director Jay Holben. Included were three short films, one very short film, and a couple of commercial spots.

The first place I headed after popping the disk in the drive was the “Additional Materials” area. This section contains the very short film and three commercials. Let’s take a look at these pieces.

  1. Maxim “One Night Stand.” This is a 30-second short for Maxim magazine. The spot employs a series of still images and then animation. As my first taste of Jay, I didn’t find this terribly impressive. It is successful at making any guy want to check out the magazine, but not a good way to judge the man’s ability. Moving along.
  2. Guinness “High Noon.” The story behind this has Jay with some equipment and some free time. He decides to fill that precious time with the production of a commercial. This time it is a 60-second spot for Guinness. It is a clever piece, putting beer bottles into a Wild West style shootout. Of course, the Guinness comes out on top, with the final shot showing the bottle with a smoking bottle opener. The look is grainy and worn, like an old film, and it was backed with the classic music from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. This was fun. Probably the best of the three commercials.
  3. Sharpie “Oops.” Rounding out the commercials is this 30-second entry for the maker of permanent markers. I didn’t find this to be all that outstanding, but that didn’t keep the humor of the situation from sinking in. Let’s set the stage. You’re at a bar waiting for your buddy to come back. A hot woman walks up, whispers in your ear, and proceeds to write her number on your palm. She leaves and your friend returns, handing you a beer. What is the “oops” of the title, you ask? You took the wet beer bottle in the hand with the number, making the number unreadable. Should have used a Sharpie! Again, it was nothing special, but I found the situation humorous, thereby making the commercial effective.
  4. Hunger. This is an interesting piece. It is a horror film that is finished in 60 seconds, including credits. Not enough time to really give a story, but plenty of time to induce the creeps. This was made for, I believe, AMC. There was a series of one-minute horror shorts to air in between classic horror marathons. This was Jay Holben’s submission, and it is pretty darn creepy. A man wakes in the middle of the night. Strange noises are emanating from the shadows. He walks out of his room and finds a man cowering there. He asks him what he’s doing there. He says he’s hungry as he turns his head to look up. He is not alone; our good guy is struck from behind and the two things start to eat him. It ends with a young girl entering the room asking, “Daddy?” What a way to end — the way the two things look up and the look of absolute terror on her small face. On the surface, this has a bit of a cheesy feel to it, but the way it ends will send chills up your spine.

After viewing each of them, I went back to the main menu and watched the meat of the disk, three films ranging from 8 to 20 minutes in length. This is where the real entertainment was to be had.

Descent.
The first short film I viewed also turned out to be my favorite. It has this wonderful build-up of tension leading to a twist that I did not see coming at all. The short opens with a young woman witnessing the brutal murder of her friend. That leads to my only problem, and in a feature it would have been a deal breaker, but in the case of a short subject, I am more readily able to overlook it if what comes next has a satisfying payoff. Fortunately, this film has that payoff. What is the problem? Well, somehow, she is able to get away without being detected; presumably she waited until the murderer left even though a ringing cell phone gave her very presence away. We then jump ahead six weeks. There is no mention of any sort of investigation or anything. I mean, she saw this guy; didn’t she give the police a description? Was there any search for this guy? Again, these questions would have been better answered in a feature length, but here I am able to gloss over, as what comes next is so fantastic.

After the jump forward, we pick up the tale one late workday. Our heroine, Andrea, is leaving the office. While making her, ahem, descent in the elevator, her past has come back to haunt her. She comes face to face with her friend’s murderer. The tension continues to climb as her fear rises. He doesn’t know her, but she knows him. To go into too much more detail would ruin it for all of you who have not yet seen it.

This is an eminently entertaining short. It is to the point, stripping away all of the fluff, leaving behind the essence of the matter. What is the most important thing needed in a short thriller? Suspense. Descent really has a sharp focus on what it plans on doing. It is shot well; it has a dynamic feel to it. The acting is also pretty good; nothing spectacular, but more than effective. Jay Holben has delivered a fine short, and the best one on this disk.

Paranoid.
Next up is something decidedly more experimental. It is an 8-minute short subject based on a poem by Stephen King, called Paranoid: A Chant. The film is a narration that exists solely in the mind of our primary character, a woman holed up in a room, trapped inside her own mind. She has imagined this far and wide reaching conspiracy with her at its center.

There is no narrative, per se. All we are presented with is the ramblings of this woman. Her paranoia has completely consumed her. She has rows of mailing envelopes containing notebooks, all ready to be sent out at a moments notice. What is in these notebooks? Who are they for? What does she know? Who is after her? How did this start? No questions are answered, but plenty are raised. We are merely presented with the contents of her mind. Contents, which do not make sense to us, but to her, it is positively real.

The film is shot in a very active manner. The camera moves around her hotel cell, taken on a tour of what her life has become. There are jump cuts and flashes around as her narration becomes more frenzied. We are shown images of what she believes to be real. Perhaps there is some truth to her rantings. Maybe she isn’t crazy; maybe we are the crazy ones for not believing her. Perhaps we want to believe she is crazy and turn a blind eye to the truth.

I love the look. Paranoid is full of shadows, glowing neon lights, strange men on the streets, and walls covered with notes and photos. There is always something to look at, which makes the whole that much more frustrating. I really wanted to like this, there is so much to like. What really sank it for me was the actress. The contents of her ravings imply someone on the edge of sanity and I was not convinced that she was there. She seemed to be off. I am not quite sure how to explain it other than she just didn’t seem to be the right fit for this. Still, Jay has delivered an interesting experiment. It just needed that one extra push to get it over.

The Night Before.
The last short on the disk is the longest and vastly different from the first two. This is a drama about a trio of boys in a hospital the night before their respective surgeries. There is no horror or thriller aspect to this. It is a stripped down drama concerning the fears they are having and the ways they are dealing with them. Rather than using the time building up tension and atmosphere, the focus is on the characters. Here, Jay shows, more than anything else on this disk, that he is able to get effective performances out of his cast. Not a bad trick, considering his cast is primarily young children, I cannot believe it is easy to get a child to perform well. It seems that with kids, they are either naturals and get it right off the bat, or they are only good at playing roles, like the ubiquitous creepy kid, rather than playing a real child.

We are put into a hospital room containing a couple of young boys who are soon joined by a third. The newcomer is spending his first night in a hospital prior to his first surgery. He is nervous and the two already there do nothing to assuage those fears. Danny is in for what he says is a kidney transplant. He has been through more than his share of surgeries, with the scars to prove it. He uses fear and intimidation with his roomies, scaring them about their own surgeries. Like most bullies, he is using this tactic not so much to scare the others, but to hide his own fears. Night falls, and the kids go to sleep. During the night, things change, and Danny breaks down. He opens up to the new kid, whose ability to listen belies his young age.

The film is touching, something I really wasn’t expecting. We may not be given a particularly interesting looking film, but the dialogue and generally good performances were enough to pick up the slack. The one thing I did not particularly care for was when Danny dropped the f-bomb. I found it to be rather unnecessary and not completely with the character as presented. I have nothing morally against a child saying it, but here it seemed slightly gratuitous.

Wrap up.
Like I mentioned earlier, this hobby certainly has its perks. It is because of this writing that I am able to get to view shorts such as these. It is always interesting to see films, shorts, or otherwise, that I normally would not have access to. This collection of Jay Holben’s work contains some very good stuff. There are interesting shots, compelling stories, and some good performances. He shows that you don’t need a lot of time in order to tell an interesting tale. As for the work I liked the most, I would have to rank Descent at the top, followed by Hunger, if only for the haunting final images. After these two is Paranoid with The Night Before right behind it. Bringing up the rear is the trio of speculation commercials. It is interesting to note that each piece on the disk is preceded by a page of text outlining the background for each. Pretty interesting to get these little bits of background. I have to say, overall, I enjoy the work that he has produced and hope to see more from him in the future. Currently, he is working on his first feature, CamGirls, about girls who spend much of their time in from of Internet webcams.

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  • Bliffle

    I’ve seen “Descent” on PBS a couple times, perhaps on the “Imagemakers” series. It’s in good company there, as there are several good short movies in that series.