Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Worldfest-Houston 2016: Summing Up

This year, I saw twenty-six short films in four sessions over two days.... As always, I enjoyed most of what I saw of Worldfest-Houston. I was sad to miss the animated short film and NASA short film categories, but glad I got to see so much science fiction.

My favorite films from each of the sessions I saw were:

Comedy Shorts

Favorite: The Ballad of Ella Plummhoff, directed by Barbara Kronenberg

Runner-up: Ms. Vanilla, directed by 徐子悅 (Hsu Tsu-yueh)

Sci-Fi Shorts (International)

Favorite: Beautiful Dreamer, directed by David Gaddie

Sci-Fi/Thriller Shorts

Favorite: The Clock Makers Dream, directed by Cashell Horgan

Sci-Fi Shorts #2

Favorite: As You Were by Trevon Matcek

* * * Overall Festival Favorite * * *

The Ballad of Ella Plummhoff, directed by Barbara Kronenberg

Final Thoughts

After three years of watching short films at Worldfest-Houston, I've noticed a few things. The biggest trend is that so many short films deal with grief, or at least loss. In looking back over my write-ups of the 26 short films I saw this year, eight of them were specifically about grief. Another six were about loss (of home, memory, freedom, soul/lifeforce, Earth, or limbs). Only twelve of the films (fewer than half!) didn't fit neatly into one of those two categories, and for a few of those, an argument could be made that they actually did edge in there.

Honestly, I'd like to see a little less of obvious dystopian futures, and a little less about grieving, but I can understand why grief in particular is such a compelling subject for filmmakers.

Looking ahead to next year, it looks like I may not have my usual conflict, so I may get to see even more short film sessions. I hope so!

Read more!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Worldfest-Houston 2016: Sci-Fi Shorts #2

The 49th Annual Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival
Sci-Fi Shorts #2, Sunday, April 17, 2016

This was the last of four short film sessions that I saw at this year's Worldfest-Houston. More sci-fi!

The Roma Project
Director: Harry Keenan
Screenwriter: Evan Scott Russell
Length: 19:37 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: USA
Film's Facebook page

A young man wakes up in a mental institution, and is told he's been in a car accident that killed his mother. He dreams of a woman (it's not clear to me if it's his mother; I assume so but she seems very young) in a meadow with a tattoo on her wrist, and is asked to describe the dream repeatedly. Eventually he realizes something odd is going on, particularly when he sees the tattoo symbol on some hospital, and notices armed guards stationed outside of the room where he meets with the "doctor." [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] Ultimately, the young man learns that he has powerful telekinetic powers, and breaks out with another patient he has befriended. From the tattoo "clue," I inferred that the place had been experimenting on his mother at some point, perhaps while he was in the womb.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with this film, and I thought it was very well-acted, but it didn't tread a lot of new ground so I didn't find it particularly memorable.

Tomorrow's Dream
Director: David Gould
Screenwriter: David Gould
Length: 06:40 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: New Zealand
Film's Facebook page

This piece had a theme that I've now seen a number of times in short films: a man frantically works, to the point of endangering his own life, to find some way, any way, to bring back the (usually tragically killed) love of his life. In Ben Goodger's Anamnesis, a young man uses some kind of alien lifeform to keep replaying the perfect last day; in Ronald Eltanal's Nostalgic, an aging scientist takes an experimental drug that lets him see his now-dead wife, even as it prevents him from forming new memories; and here, a young man invents a time machine to insert his current consciousness into his former self to try to prevent his girlfriend's death.

In spite of the inherent predictability in such a film, I found Tomorrow's Dream refreshing in its relative simplicity and length -- it managed to get an entire relationship and story across in under seven minutes. My husband and I had different interpretations of the young man's ultimate fate, but that was part of the fun. I also liked the relative low-tech of the time machine's appearance.

Targeted Advertising
Director: Mitchell Rose
Screenwriter: Mitchell Rose
Length: 03:54 minutes
Category: Science fiction/Comedy
Country: USA
Film on YouTube

Like Cruxberry, which I saw in an earlier session during this festival, Targeted Advertising does not try to tell a hugely complex story, but instead effectively manages to get across a single concept in under four minutes. The program book calls this "a sci-fi aerial dance-film" in which "spambot drones chase a fleeing populace blasting ads for Viagra, hair loss products, and other exciting values."

If you are ever online -- and you are, if you're reading this -- you will definitely get the point of this film. It was a lot of fun, particularly the ending. You can watch it in its entirety at the link above.

As You Were
Director: Trevon Matcek
Screenwriter: Trevon Matcek
Length: 22:00 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: USA
Film on YouTube

This film is about Johnner, a soldier who returns home with high-tech prosthetic limbs to replace the ones he lost in combat, and finds he has to reconnect not just with himself, but also with his wife, children, and society in general. Because that society has become leery of robots, Johnner has difficulty finding even a simple job, but he eventually finds some balance.

This film was moving, and the acting terrific. I liked the montage of prospective employers thanking the veteran ever so earnestly for his service while clearly hoping he would just get the hell out of their offices. There was one part of the film that didn't quite make sense to me, however: Johnner does finally find a job working with hazardous robotic materials, and wears a hazmat suit while breaking things apart and moving them, but people without protection seem to be standing no more than a few yards away without being in danger. It's just not clear what he's actually doing on this job, so it felt like a convenient excuse to have Johnner flash back on the drone that caused his injuries.

My only other quibble is that I thought the anti-robot graffiti that Johnner encounters while out jogging was a little heavy-handed. Overall, however, I thought this film was very well done. And extra bonus points for the nod to the Terminator franchise. Also while jogging (with a cute bit in which Johnner kicks the soccer ball, inadvertently sending it into next week), he encounters two boys named Kyle and Reese. Yep, I see what you did there....

Silent Night
Director: Nastassja Djalog
Screenwriter: Nastassja Djalog
Length: 11:04 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: Australia

A nurse shows up at the bedside of a woman who has just given birth, swabs the inside of the baby's cheek, and learns that it will die around age fifty of cancer. For that reason, the "system" decides that the baby is unprofitable for society, and the nurse carries out her duty.

After which the nurse goes outside on a break and smokes a cigarette.

Don't get me wrong -- the nurse smoking is not the point of the film; it's window-dressing to show how distressed she is by her job. Movies, and especially short films, use this all the time: if you want the audience to see that a character is stressed, show them smoking a cigarette. But I really had trouble getting past this little detail when we were just told a baby was unprofitable because it would die a half century later of cancer. It seems to me that the possible lung cancer, and almost certain emphysema and heart disease, that this nurse is trying to give herself would be a lot less profitable.

Other than that, this film was quite decent. It's not particularly believable, but it does make the point that far too often, human lives are valued in dollars and cents. [SOME SPOILERS AHEAD] I did like the little touch that people being "released" (for lack of a better word) are given images of happy memories to watch. Initially, I didn't buy the way these images were retrieved from the patient's "identification." For instance, for an older man, his law diploma was fed into a wall slot, and the screen returned actual video of him graduating and receiving an award. For a young boy whose mother has "surrendered" him, the nurse puts a birthday card into the slot, and home-shot video of the birthday party comes up. It took me a while, but then I realized that Facebook can almost do this already, with the diploma, at least. Surely Facebook's algorithms can take the man's name and the school's name, call up any related video that is online (and what isn't online these days?), and perform facial recognition to make sure it got the right material. And this stuff is only going to get more sophisticated.

All in all, this chilling short film was worth watching. That smoking bit really bothered me, but upon reflection it occurs to me that it could be the nurse daring the system to tell her that she's not profitable, a way of dealing with the guilt by flirting with elimination herself. Maybe that's a reach, but if that's what was intended, it changes things for me a bit.

Director: David Victori
Screenwriter: David Victori
Length: 29:00 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: USA
Episode 1 on YouTube
(approx. 9 minutes)

The opening and closing credits for this film make a big deal of the fact that Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender are attached to it, and indeed, this film has impressive special effects and cinematography. But I'm afraid I had significant issues with both the science and the plot.

A father trying to cope with his grieving son is on his way to work one day when Earth's gravity sort of turns off. Not all at once, but rather by degrees, so that at first little pebbles and bits of debris float around, then bigger and bigger things. Then, after gravity has somehow turned itself back on and everything has fallen back to the ground again, the father rushes home to check on his son, who has run off to the site where his mother was killed in a car accident. There he finds the man responsible for that accident. Convenient, but I can kind of accept it -- the man says that he thought the gravity phenomenon was a sign of the end times, so perhaps it makes sense that he would return to the scene of his greatest sin.

Aside from the gravity problem, then, I can live with these developments so far. But the gravity is a big issue. Consider the fact that the gravity on Mars is roughly one third of that on Earth. That doesn't mean that pennies and nickels and dimes sitting on the surface of Mars would just start floating because they're lighter than people or cars. Gravity is either one or off, so everything would be equally affected.

Even if I accept for the sake of the story that a gravity anomaly would work like that, however, the father-and-son story also became problematic for me. [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] Just as the father is chasing his son, the phenomenon strikes again. The boy latches on to an antenna tower, but then tells his father he's ready to go find his mother in heaven, and deliberately lets go, floating up and away. Bigger and bigger items start getting pulled up, and the boy goes out of sight completely. And then the switch flips again and everything starts falling. The boy conveniently falls into water (he probably would have been instantly killed from that height anyway) and the father rushes to save him while avoiding falling debris, but the boy is unresponsive. So the father carries him for several minutes until he gets to a place where a handful of people have gathered to help each other if they can, and then performs CPR. If he didn't know CPR it would have been one thing, but he knew it and didn't bother performing it right away! And then it's to no avail -- until the gravity switches off again, which coaxes the water out of the boy's lungs all by itself.

Sigh.... And then the boy wakes up and immediately has the huge emotional, screaming grief breakthrough that's been a long time coming, when actually he should have been brain dead by that point. And the man who killed his mother has also conveniently shown up at this location so they can all get some closure together.

I apologize -- it feels a little unfair that I'm being this nitpicky. But I just don't feel that the two main components of this film, i.e. an implausible science phenomenon and grief, went together naturally. It's fine, of course, to explore grief against any background or scenario, but in my mind that scenario needs to be integrated and at least somewhat plausible.

* * * * *

Click here to see all of my other reviews of Worldfest-Houston short film screenings from this and previous years.

Read more!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Worldfest-Houston 2016: Sci-Fi/Thriller Shorts

The 49th Annual Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival
Sci-Fi/Thriller Shorts, Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Shadow of Dara

Director: Kirill Proskura
Screenwriters: Kirill Proskura, Andy Mihov
Length: 14:15 minutes
Category: Science fiction (listed)
Country: UK
Film's website

I quite liked the first half of this film, in which a group of human rebels enter a virtual reality environment to warn Dara, an imprisoned alien commander, that he's being duped into giving away critical information. The initial set-up is very much like (perhaps even too much like) The Matrix, to the extent that one of the rebels is essentially transmitting herself into the VR to convince the commander that it's not real and he needs to get out. But I really enjoyed the oddball office scenario into which the commander has been put; his "co-workers" keep acting bizarrely and asking him for important numbers, the reason for which is later revealed.

Unfortunately, when the commander does leave the VR environment, the film falls short for me. The alien race that has imprisoned Dara is effectively portrayed, with polished costumes, make-up, and even an invented alien language. But the story becomes a bit muddled and the dialog a bit trite at this point. [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] The rebels are from the future, and are trying to prevent Dara from giving away Earth's coordinates to the aliens, who in the original timeline have destroyed both Earth and Dara's home. Dara inexplicably becomes arrogant and calls himself a god, which I think we're meant to take at least semi-literally. He has no apparent gratitude for the humans who've rescued him, and ultimately the group simply escapes in a pod, while the bad aliens hint darkly that they already have the information they need. This ending made the film feel a bit like a video game prologue; the tiny band of rebels lives to fight another day.


Director: Jamie Oon
Screenwriter: Jamie Oon
Length: 3:53 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: Canada
Film's IMDB page

In this extremely short but effective film, a young woman, wearing a simple white dress in a futuristic white cell of some kind, answers questions and is rewarded with a sweet berry when she gets it right. At first, the questions are mainly about the berries themselves and the young woman has no problem, but when questions such as "what is your purpose" pop up, she becomes confused.

Eventually, we see that on the other side of the one-way touch screen, a woman in a lab coat sits, posing the questions -- and she is identical to the woman in the cell. I took this to mean that the woman in the cell was a clone, and she was being tested to determine whether she could learn and/or gain a moral compass.

I felt this film was exactly the right length -- any longer and it would have become too repetitive. As it was, I found it to be clever and refreshing. I also note that the director and writer was also the film's sole cast member.


Director: Jaime Valdueza
Screenwriter: Jaime Valdueza
Length: 17:00 minutes
Category: Suspense/Thriller
Country: USA

In this film, Jason has been hiding out in a rundown hotel for reasons related to a sensational murder being reported on the news. He reluctantly agrees to accompany his new girlfriend, Lila, to a small get-together at a house out in the sticks, and becomes agitated when one of his hosts takes a photograph that might put him in danger.

[MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] This film had a pretty awesome twist: the audience assumes that Jason is the eyewitness that the reporters say is on the run for his own safety, when in fact he's the murderer. Once the other man at the gathering puts two and two together, Jason kills him, that man's girlfriend, and ultimately Lila.

While I thought this was clever and well-acted, I didn't quite understand why Jason had to kill Lila. The photo of him had already been posted online at that point, so Jason should have just run -- it's not as though he had to silence Lila about his being there since that would already be known. There's a voice-over about trust, so it's possible that in Jason's twisted mind, he believes that Lila has betrayed him even though she really hasn't. I understand more why he killed the other two people, who were more confrontational, but he kills Lila when she's trying to hide from him in the house. His two choices are to kill Lila and have it be known that he's now responsible for three more murders, or to not kill Lila and have it be known that he's now responsible for two more murders. Killing her does nothing to improve his situation.

Unfortunately for the audience, the sound system broke down partway through this film, making it sound like it was being projected underwater, so it's possible I missed something in the voice-over that would shed some light on Jason's motive for killing Lila. In spite of the technical glitch, which was the fault of the theater rather than the film, I enjoyed this one quite a bit. It did a great job building suspense.

Bang Bang Club

Director: Jason Chan, Christian Lee
Screenwriters: Jason Chan, Christian Lee
Length: 19:31 minutes
Category: Suspense/Thriller
Country: USA
Partial film (4:18 minutes) on Vimeo
(listed as Episode 1 of a web series)

I found this film to be action-packed, a bit strange (a good thing), a bit convoluted (not a good thing), and a little too long. In addition, the film's description in the festival program book is not how I understood the film at all. What I saw was this: two young men wearing masks break into a building to shoot a young man at a computer. In flashbacks, we learn that they were recruited by a beautiful young woman who made them believe she was going to kill them, but instead her gun shot "bang bang" stickers onto their foreheads. She also trained them in hand-to-hand combat, rather brutally. At this point, the film felt like a cross between Fight Club, Wanted, and that dormitory game called "Assassin."

[MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] Alas, when the two men shoot the computer guy, they're slow to realize that the gun has actual bullets this time; naturally, they panic and run. They're confronted by two security guards and almost apprehended, but fight their way out. They end up ... somewhere, and paranoia sets in as one man suspects the other one of switching out the gun to frame him (even though they did "rock paper scissors" when deciding which of them would shoot the guy). A big martial arts fight ensues, and we see that the woman and another man are watching them on video, via some very conveniently placed cameras. The woman tries to convince her companion that it's time to stop since there's a live gun in play, but he wants to let things continue. Finally, they remotely play back the footage of the murder and the men fighting, to the men themselves (as if that proves anything), and the woman welcomes them to the Bang Bang Club.

Although I liked parts of this, I was unfortunately left with too many questions. First, I thought they were welcomed to the Bang Bang Club when the woman first shot them with the stickers. I can accept that maybe that was preliminary, and that this operation is a test or initiation of some kind, but to prove what? That upon learning they actually killed someone, their instinct would be to fight rather than surrender to the authorities? Were the woman and her companion testing them to see if they actually were willing to kill someone? That would be an unsuccessful test, since they didn't know what they were doing. Or is involving them in an actual murder a way to compel them to start working for the club as real assassins whether they want to or not?

And here's the film's description, which I didn't read until after seeing the film: Banks control the world beyond our imaginations. When one bank strips away the livelihood of two young men, they take revenge by joining an elite assassins training group: The Bang Bang Club. Only problem is that the club has links all the way to the highest financial powers of the world and has other plans for them: covert murders and their own demise.

So now I'm completely confused. I didn't see their livelihood being stripped away. This also implies that the two young men knowingly joined an assassins' training group, but the big bad guys have "secret" plans to have the young men, you know, assassinate people. They also don't kill the men, so what's that about their demise? The woman's companion must be the big bad bank guy, but I don't remember finances so much as being mentioned, although I could be mistaken in that regard.

Overall, I guess I felt this just needed a bit more discipline and focus.


Directors: Shannon Kohli, Michelle Brezinski
Screenwriter: Michelle Brezinski
Length: 09:57 minutes
Category: Drama/Thriller
Country: USA

In this film, a woman tries to get her husband back after he dies from the Black Plague in medieval England. [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] I believe what happens is that in her grief, she mistakenly imagines that her husband is still alive, and digs him up. I think it was intentional that for much of the film, the viewer might reasonably assume that the husband is actually a zombie. This was well done, but I didn't really feel engaged by it.

(In a bizarre coincidence, I was looking the the screenwriter's web page and found that her company produced another short film titled "Christmas Crackers" co-starring my brother-in-law, who's an actor up in Vancouver, B.C. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like I can watch it anywhere online.)


Director: Johannes Bachmann
Screenwriter: Johannes Bachmann
Length: 09:15 minutes
Category: Suspense/Thriller (listed); Sci-fi/Thriller (my categorization)
Country: USA

A woman driving alone at night through dark woods hits something and gets out to find out what it was. When a Hummer approaches the scene, she drives away in terror. [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD] Ultimately, we see that this is a time loop of some kind; the woman has hit herself, and it keeps happening over and over. I felt that the look of this piece was very polished, but it was another film that didn't engage me quite as much as I would have liked. I also felt like it was longer than necessary to make the point.

The Clock Makers Dream

Director: Cashell Horgan
Screenwriter: Cashell Horgan
Length: 12:03 minutes
Category: Sci-fi (listed); Sci-fi/Fantasy (my categorization)
Country: Ireland

Last but not least, this was a visually delightful film about a clockmaker who keeps his entire town running, but who loses his desire to do so upon the death of his wife. He tries to build a replacement for her, but ultimately realizes he's been taking the wrong approach.

It's not quite accurate to say that this film was Burton-esque because it had its own unique look, but it inspired a similar sense of strange wonder. The town is populated by creatures with human bodies and animal heads, which looked to be large masks. The clockmaker himself wears a mask of a gray, immobile face with a pointed nose and beard. My favorite was the girl with the giraffe head, whose purpose seemed only to be skipping merrily through the town's streets. There were also some animated sequences.

Although the story itself didn't entirely make sense to me, this was a pure delight to watch. I also realized I knew the narrator's voice, and saw during the credits, which included headshots of the actors, that it was Jared Harris, who played Moriarty opposite Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes. He was a good choice for this.

[This is anal retentive of me, but it really bothers me that the film's title is missing an apostrophe.]

* * * * *

My next post will be on Sunday's "Sci-Fi #2 Shorts" -- stay tuned!

Click here to see all of my other reviews of Worldfest-Houston short film screenings from this and previous years.

Read more!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Worldfest-Houston 2016: Sci-Fi Shorts (International)

The 49th Annual Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival
Sci-Fi Shorts (International), Saturday, April 16, 2016

Before this session began, Worldfest-Houston's Chairman and Founding Director J. Hunter Todd stopped in to welcome the audience. He noted that among the 1,400 short films submitted to this year's competition, over 400 of them were science fictional in some aspect. I'm not surprised; science fiction is well suited to short stories, so why not to short films?

Some spoilers may occur below.

Director: Anton Outkine
Screenwriter: Anton Outkine
Length: 15:07 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: Russia
Film's website

This short film introduces us to a future military conflict in which we see not the enemy, but a single pair of humans (husband and wife, according to the program book) racing in an overland transport to try and reach the relative safety of their base. As the woman tries to stabilize the man's injuries, they're interrupted by Orbital Command, which demands that the man receive a "CHING" call, or a communication in which his brain and voice are commandeered to relay the information. When the man dies, the woman takes brief comfort in the fact that the person on the other end of the link can still talk through her husband's body, but even that can last only a short time until that man's orbiting craft goes over the horizon and/or he runs out of oxygen himself.

I'm not entirely certain that I understood everything this short film intended to convey, but what I took away from it was that it was about waiting to die, and not having to do it alone, even if the connection you have with another person at that time is only fleeting. I could be reading this entirely wrong, but I did find it effective, and Alena Babenko in the lead role was particularly good.

The Art of Human Salvage
Director: Dempsey Tillman
Screenwriter: Ted Drewberry
Length: 09:30 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: USA
Film's trailer

This film puzzled me, I'm afraid. In a totalitarian future, it's illegal to take photographs "in the shadows." A boy with an Altoid-tin camera is arrested and slated for execution because he's in a sensitive area while taking pictures. The main character, a "salvage officer," simultaneously seems to be the boy's defense advocate and his interrogator; he is spurred on by an overzealous superior who demands that he find out what the boy took pictures of. The boy asks the salvage officer to show him a photo of the latter's dead wife and child, and in return reveals to him -- but not to us -- a photo negative. The salvage officer busts the kid out, and the film ends.

Unfortunately, I found the whole thing fairly frustrating. Edward James Olmos (yes, that Edward James Olmos) appears to offer a few cryptic lines that seemed fairly superfluous considering that we never really found out what was going on. Maybe the supervising officer (a part overacted to an unfortunate degree by Matthew Boylan) was responsible for the salvage officer's wife death? At the end, I had no idea what had happened, and I found it unrealistic that the salvage officer's interrogation of the boy wasn't observed by his superiors, and that they didn't discover where the boy had been hiding the negative under a skin flap.

Planet X
Director: Rohit Gill
Screenwriter: Rohit Gill
Length: 07:03 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: UK
Film's Facebook page

This story is told entirely in news snippets, which is something I've seen in short films now and again. Unfortunately, the basic premise was not one I found easy to accept, scientifically speaking. An unknown planet appears in Earth's sky -- low enough in our atmosphere that commercial planes can fly to it -- and is attached to Earth by a rather thick umbilical cord. For me, the part that's hard to accept is not the appearance of the planet (I'm happy enough to assume a wormhole or something), but rather the fact that the authorities couldn't find where on Earth the huge umbilical cord made contact, especially because our current satellite technology can find very small things these days. In addition, nothing is said on all these news clips about the likely meteorological and/or tidal effects of such a huge object so close to Earth.

At any rate, the actual story is that British politicians seemed determined to force people to emigrate to Planet X, amidst rumors that the umbilical cord is using up Earth's natural resources. I feel as though this was intended to be some kind of statement protesting Britain's immigration policies, and I suspect I agree with much of what was being conveyed, but I found it difficult to extract the message from the somewhat muddled vehicle that this sci-fi premise provided.

El Ladron de Luz / The Light Thief
Director: Eva Daoud
Screenwriter: unknown
Length: 19:02 minutes
Category: Science fiction (listed); Dark Fantasy (my categorization)
Country: Spain
Film's trailer

This was an interesting film. A wan, ill-looking young woman stands outside a restaurant window, forlornly watching as her former lover pursues his latest conquest. We quickly learn that it truly is conquest that the handsome young man is after; he captures each woman's essence or life force in a bottle for his own mysterious purposes. This young woman, however, is determined to get her life back.

I enjoyed this; the only point on which I was not clear was (SPOILERS AHEAD) how the young man could simultaneously be the predator as well as the victim of a similarly motivated woman, whose conquests numbered in the thousands. Maybe he discovered that with his own essence captured, the only way he could survive would be to turn the tables and start stealing from others. Or maybe it was a supernatural pyramid scheme, where his original "sponsor" also gets some benefit from his captures. Regardless, this is the kind of mild ambiguity that is fun rather than frustrating.

The Surface
Director: Willem Kampenhout
Screenwriters: Willem Kampenhout
Length: 19:59 minutes
Category: Science fiction
Country: USA
Film website

In this post-apocalyptic film, Liz leaves the relative haven of her underground society to seek a remedy for her dying son, knowing only that there are "tainted" (non-human) monsters up on the surface that she will have to avoid. This was quite well done, especially Liz Christensen's acting in the lead role and the exterior post-apocalyptic scenery. There were a few moments when I found some imagery uncomfortably close to familiar sci-fi icons, such as the Borg-like appearance of the Tainted man that Liz encounters, and her own video-game like appearance in a hooded cloak with a staff and glowing orb.

In addition, I wasn't certain why Liz's son's reliance on a battery pack to live wasn't considered un-human by the underground society -- or at least not so problematic that he is driven out or killed. And I admit I wasn't crazy about the contrived countdown on her son's battery life. But overall, I was touched by what Liz learned about the world above, and think this film showed a lot of promise.

Beautiful Dreamer
Director: David Gaddie
Screenwriters: David Gaddie, Steven Kelleher, Ken Liu
Length: 26:00 minutes
Category: Science fiction/Drama
Country: USA
Film trailer

This was my favorite film of the session. A mother with a terminal disease goes into space, taking advantage of relativistic time dilation to stretch out her remaining two years over the entire span of her daughter's lifetime. Because the spaceship presumably travels back and forth between Earth and some distant point, the mother is able to visit her daughter Amy for 24 hours once every seven years.

Contrived? Yes, but since relativistic time dilation actually exists, this is a scenario that could happen. And naturally, the effect of this film is that every viewer is likely to ask him or herself whether they would make the same choice as this mother did. As she says in the film, she gets to experience much less of her daughter's life, but also much more. Is it selfish of her to indulge her desire to see her daughter grow up, even though her daughter will have to mourn her many times instead of once?

As to the film itself, it was very well acted, and I absolutely adored the background special effects showing that this was a future Earth: moving holographic photographs, high-speed monorails, drones flying everywhere. These effects were beautifully integrated without taking over the story. The only effect I didn't like was the choice to show the mother moving through trees, with inexplicable white birds superimposed on the screen, every time she traveled. But this is a minor thing. I also liked the use of red against a primarily gray-tone background in a number of scenes.

Story-wise, I found it predictable that Amy at one point reaches the sullen young adult phase and refuses to speak to her mother, but, well, that's likely what would happen in real life, so I can't truly complain about it. I was unsure why the mother's husband initially seemed very supportive of the mother's choice but disappeared after, I think, two visits. I would assume he would move on in his own life, but I'm not sure why he would refuse to see her at all. Of course it would be painful, especially as he continued to age, but I would have expected they would have thought that through before she made her decision.

In any case, this was very moving, and I'd be surprised if there was a dry eye anywhere in that theater. (And people think science fiction is all about robots and laser beams!)

It wasn't until writing this post that I looked in the catalog and saw Ken Liu's name among the screenwriters for this film. As it happens, Ken is a short story writer whose work I've long admired. You can read the very short story upon which this film is based at Daily Science Fiction. (Incidentally, if you like science fiction in bite-size chunks, Daily Science Fiction is a great place to find just that.

[Edited to add: I just read the story, and I LOVE its economy. It's only 997 words, yet it is the story we saw in the film. The filmmakers did a terrific job adding to it without changing it, especially the nightclub scene. Wow!]

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Click here for my post on this year's "Comedy Shorts." My next post will be on Sunday's "Sci-Fi/Thriller Shorts" -- stay tuned!

In addition, click here to see all of my other reviews of Worldfest-Houston short film screenings from this and previous years.

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