Monday, April 20, 2015

Worldfest-Houston 2015: Drama Shorts (Session 3)

[Poster from "Just Another Dance with My Father", Rob J. Greelea, Director]

The 48th Annual Worldfest-Houston
Drama Shorts (Session 3), Saturday, April 18, 2015

The second of two sessions I saw at Worldfest-Houston yesterday was the third "Drama Shorts" screening, which included five films from three countries.

Director: Brandon Chang
Screenwriter: Brandon Chang
Length: 15:54 minutes
Category: Drama
Country: USA
Film trailer

This film is about a young man named Aaron who is being bullied in school, and who is about to take drastic action -- twice -- when he is interrupted, first by a medical emergency, and then by a word of kindness. I thought this was well acted and it's certainly topical, but I don't know that it covered new ground. (SPOILERS AHEAD) I was left wondering if this is just a temporary reprieve, because as far as we know, Aaron still has the automatic weapon in his possession, and it seems likely he'll be bullied again. I think that was the right choice, as opposed to an unrealistically happy, "it's all okay now" ending.

In terms of the film itself, the only thing that threw me out of the story is that I didn't think there were nearly enough extras to make it believably look like the crowded hallways of a public school. But I understand there would be budget and/or logistical issues, and they did do a very good job with what they had.

Just Another Dance with My Father
Director: Rob J. Greenlea
Screenwriter: Diane Musselman
Length: 17:12 minutes
Category: Drama
Country: USA
Film's Facebook page

I loved this film -- it was easily my favorite of the group. A 30-something woman has a stroke that interrupts her terrific life, and we witness the frustrations and triumphs of her path back towards independence. She has a close relationship with her family, and her father tells the hospital staff that he hopes to dance with her once again at her sister's wedding.

This film did a great job portraying how people do not know how to interact with those who are ill or disabled. Katie's boyfriend tells her, almost angrily, that she has to try harder; before her stroke, there had been an interchange about a race they'd run which nicely foreshadowed that he has little patience for what he considers weakness. Similarly, Katie's co-worker comes to visit her in the hospital and does the typical talking louder/"can she understand me?" thing. Fortunately, her actual family members are much more supportive.

I was a little thrown off by some of the editing choices as the film jumped back and forth between Katie's ongoing recovery and her sister's wedding, but that's a small thing. This film was under twenty minutes long, and I was completely engrossed in Katie's life and her recovery. I took a peek at an interview with the screenwriter, who is herself a speech therapist -- so no wonder this movie was so authentic.

Last Wishes
Director: Herschel Weingrod
Screenwriter: D. Parker Widemire Jr.
Length: 28:51 minutes
Category: Drama
Country: USA
Film website

This was an odd and clever film, and I'll just put the SPOILERS warning right here because it would be hard to discuss this one without talking about the ending. Monsieur and Mrs. Baptiste are an elderly couple living quietly in their home and minding their own business. Monsieur Baptiste gardens every day, but is tormented by two thugs who sit on the garden wall between properties. They verbally taunt and threaten him, and occasionally even throw garbage at him. Mrs. Baptiste wonders if they should call the authorities, but her husband says that this is merely the price they have to pay for living so long. That, and the fact that the couple keeps saying "maybe tonight" to each other, is a little confusing to the viewer at first but it eventually all makes sense.

When Monsieur Baptiste dies, I'm assuming of a heart condition, the two thugs decide the time is right to break into the house looking for silver and jewelry. They climb through an open window, leaving their gun behind in the car because they are familiar enough with the wrong side of the law that they know breaking and entering brings far less severe penalties than armed robbery. Besides, it's just one old woman in there, right?

I'm sure you can guess from my description where this is going. It turns out the old couple are former French Resistance fighters who made their first kills before they were legal adults, and that conveniently open window was an invitation they'd been leaving for weeks for the two thugs to come in and meet them on their own turf. Mrs. Baptiste can handle these two just fine on her own. She shoots each of them non-lethally so she has the opportunity to lecture them on the true meaning of bravery, but she has no intention of letting them off the hook.

The audience clearly liked this movie, and that's not surprising because it's always satisfying to see sadistic little creeps get their comeuppance. I was glad about that too, but I felt this was at least 25% too long, especially while Mrs. Baptiste was lecturing. Her point was made very quickly, so it didn't seem like it needed to go on. The credits also went on for a long time over scenes of Mrs. Baptiste returning to the gardening routine. It was a clever film, but I just had a little trouble connecting to it emotionally. Technically, I thought it was good, with the exception of the lighting in the bedroom scene, which looked a little like sunlight pretending to be lamplight.

Pilato, Pilato...
Director: Roberto Russo
Screenwriter: Roberto Russo
Length: 10:37 minutes
Category: Drama
Country: Spain
Film trailer (Spanish)

This was a short, sad little film about a boy eagerly awaiting the birth of his baby brother. In his family, there is a tradition of tying a bow around something and asking "Pilato" to help find a missing object, so when the parents return home from the hospital after having lost the baby, the boy rushes around looking for his new brother under cushions and behind furniture. He then ties the ribbon himself on the crib bars, with his mother helping him. Part of the prayer is that they will not untie the bow until the missing thing has been found, so presumably it will stay on that crib forever.

This was touching. The little boy reminded me of a dark-haired version of Barry from Close Encounters of the Third Kind -- remember him from so long ago? And there are some lovely mixed live action/animation sequences in which the boy imagines himself on some kind of adventure. However, the film description states that "Jon resorts to magic to complete his quest and finds his brother," and I'm not sure that's the conclusion I came to -- it was difficult to tell exactly what was meant to happen in those sequences, and I think the description of the film was somewhat overwritten for effect. But it was still a beautiful piece of work.

Director: Marco Della Fonte
Screenwriter: Marco Della Fonte
Length: 15 minutes (*)
Category: Drama
Country: UK
Film website

I'm afraid this film didn't quite work for me, and although the program says it was only fifteen minutes long, I think it was actually much longer but I didn't have any way to time it. At the very least, it felt much longer, and I note that we did not get to see the sixth film that was listed for this session -- I have to wonder if it's because this one ran much longer than expected.

In any case, "Reversion" is the story of a married couple about to go on holiday. She suffers from some kind of unspecified mental illness, although OCD is at least a part of it. When the movie begins, the man is packing and the woman has just woken from a bad dream in which she killed the husband. They go on the trip, she broods and refuses to do anything, and she cruelly taunts him about his fear of heights while they are walking on a swaying footbridge over a gorge. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Later she gets drunk and almost jumps off a cliff, and at one point it appears he actually tries to throw her over. When the man returns back to the place they are staying, she pulls a gun and there's a gunshot.

Then the movie "reboots" and the opening sequences play out again, with the roles reversed almost 100% -- the man wakes from a bad dream in which she kills him (that's the only non-reversed part), and they have the exact same conversations as in the original scenes, except flipped. Here's where pacing became an issue for me: the viewer sees within seconds that this reversal has happened, and immediately gets it, but it plays out for several minutes longer than it needs to. It ends again with a gunshot, and I'm not 100% sure who shot who, but I didn't care that much because I didn't like either character. Assuming she was the mentally ill one, I feel as though I should be more compassionate, but she treated other people horribly.

At the very least, this made me think. What if your spouse develops these behaviors after you're married? You did marry for better or worse, after all, but on the other hand, if the person resists their treatment and you suffer from their verbal and psychological abuse, how long can you endure that? Mental illness is not easy for anyone involved, and I don't know what the answers are. No film about mental illness is likely to be "pleasant," so I also don't know what the best way to address such things in film would be, but I'm not sure a lot of people will be receptive to a longer-than-necessary film watching unpleasant people do unpleasant things.

Click here to see my other reviews of Worldfest-Houston short film screenings. Coming next: reviews of Sci Fi Shorts and Fantasy Shorts.

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Worldfest-Houston 2015: Family Shorts

The 48th Annual Worldfest-Houston
Family Shorts, Saturday, April 18, 2015

The first of two sessions I saw at Worldfest-Houston yesterday was "Family Shorts," consisting of seven films ranging in duration from about 5 1/2 minutes to 22 1/2 minutes. The Founder and CEO of Worldfest-Houston, J. Hunter Todd, introduced the session, nothing that the festival received 1,440 short film entries from 33 countries this year. The short film jury chose approximately 200 winners in various categories, 125 of which are being screened at the festival. So every film shown is a prize winner in at least one category, and that high level quality was evident in this grouping.

Lady Luck
Director: Jo Lewis
Screenwriters: Jo Lewis; Fay Garrett
Length: 18:25 minutes
Category: Family/Children
Country: UK
Film website

In this film, a family moves into an English country house to improve their lives, but it soon becomes apparent that happiness is not to be found so easily. The father is having difficulty makings ends meet, the mother is tragic and accusatory, and all the little boy wants to do is make his mother happy. He discovers an old rocking-horse toy in a storeroom and soon learns to use it to predict the outcome of horse races, but it turns out that having enough money to be secure is not enough for his mother, who always wants more.

The moment I saw the rocking horse, I wondered if this was the short story "The Rocking Horse Winner", which I read again just a few years ago while taking an online literature course. Sure enough, the end credits noted that this was inspired by that D.H. Lawrence story. The film itself was appropriate creepy, using unusual camera angles to good effect, particularly a shot down through a white metal spiral staircase as the boy worriedly listens to his father on the telephone. The only effect I might have preferred if it were a bit more muted was the house whispering to the boy that it wanted "money," because it came across more as a hiss and less of a whisper. But I did think the film did a very nice job translating this story to the screen.

The Devil Goes Down
Director: Nicholas Julius
Screenwriter: Nicholas Julius
Length: 10:11 minutes
Category: Family/Children
Country: USA
Film trailer

This was my favorite film of the session. I feel a little guilty about that, because it seems to me that comedy almost always has the slight advantage, but this movie surprised me in a couple of ways. A young man is shooting baskets by himself when a slick-looking guy in a red suit shows up and makes a wager: whatever's in the case at his feet against the young man's soul. The young man doesn't look surprised or even concerned by the offer, and agrees. The devil immediately turns into a shorter, tattooed basketball player who has some serious trick moves and some cruel taunts.

Then came the contest. Slow motion and a catchy backbeat were both used to great effect, but the most impressive part was that the wild basketball moves were real, not special effects -- it was like watching a comically evil Harlem Globetrotter at work. I'm not going to give away the ending, but I will say that my initial reservation about the devil, whose personality seemed a little over-the-top, was completely gone by the end of the film. Once I realized where the film was going, I saw that the exaggerated performance fit in perfectly. I also felt that this movie was the exact right length, which is harder to achieve than you might think. It's just too easy for films (or written stories) to go on a bit too long, and this one didn't. And if you get a chance to see it, I promise it will make you laugh.

Director: Jay Hubert
Screenwriter: Jay Hubert
Length: 07:31 minutes
Category: Family/Children
Country: USA
Director's Vimeo page

In "Peppermint", a little girl is helping her father pack the back of a pick-up truck when he reminds her that no, they can't bring Peppermint along. The little girl is distraught, saying that Peppermint is her only friend, and when they can't agree, she decides to run away -- with Peppermint, who turns out to be a rather large cow, in tow. At only seven and a half minutes, the film is short enough that I don't want to say anything else about the plot, but it was a sweet, heartfelt little film that I really loved, with just the right mix of humor and seriousness. The actress, Mara-Catherine Wissinger, was in attendance, and has also appeared as Molly in the Houston "Theatre Under the Stars" production of Annie. I suspect there will be more films in her future.

Director: Zulkifli Salleh
Screenwriter: Lee Chee Tian
Length: 22:47 minutes
Category: Family/Children
Country: Singapore/Malaysia
Film's Facebook page

"Anchovies", from Singapore and Malaysia, begins when a man in a pickup truck, whom everyone addresses as "Uncle," arrives in a small fishing village to show a film on a sheet strung up between two trees. Lat, the son of a fisherman, always enjoys the movies, but this time the horror film involving killer anchovies scares him so much that he runs off halfway through the movie and never wants to go near the sea again. Since his father insists that he "remember his place" and become a fisherman as well, Lat runs away to the city instead.

(Spoilers ahead) Years later, Lat is working at a small eatery in the city, feeling somewhat lost and disconnected, when "Uncle" shows up again, now selling bootleg DVDs out of his truck. Uncle remembers how Lat ran off during the movie that scared him so many years before, and offers to show him the ending that he never saw. In the film, the hero conquers the anchovies, allowing Lat to conquer his own fears, and he is now able to return home to his parents.

For me, the point of this film was about the powerful, lasting impressions that stories have upon us, especially when we're young. For many writers, that comes from books, while for filmmakers, it comes from visual storytelling. While I agree completely (I will never forget what Star Wars meant to me as a nine-year-old), I find it extreme that a single film would cause a boy to be estranged from his family for several years, especially because the father and son might have worked through the problem if they had communicated a little more. But that's a fair point too: most problems in the world are caused by the inability of people to communicate with each other. Overall, this was an enjoyable, heartfelt film with some nice touches of humor. I also liked the way that Lat imagined the cartoon anchovies attacking, and the way the horror film within the film was made to look a bit primitive.

Director: Pascal Fontana
Screenwriter: Pascal Fontana
Length: 21:20 minutes
Category: Family/Children/Drama
Country: Puerto Rico
Film's Facebook page

Like "Peppermint", "Aurora" is also about a resourceful little girl finding (or keeping) the companionship she needs. Aurora is abandoned by traffickers or smugglers trying to cross a border; after wandering in a mountainous forest, she finds a cabin and makes herself at home, but then hides when the occupant returns. Eventually Max, who studies reptiles, finds Aurora and feeds her, then goes with her to a children's shelter to ask for help.

(Spoilers ahead) Aurora runs away upon seeing the unfamiliar adults at the shelter, and after looking for her in vain, a dejected Max returns to the cabin and is relieved to find her waiting for him. The viewer is given the impression that these two now understand that they have found each other, and in fact I think we're meant to conclude that Max was actually asking the shelter what he would have to do in order to adopt Aurora.

While the overall story and the little girl in particular were appealing, I did see a few flaws. First, Aurora and her clothes remained incredibly clean for a little girl who'd been wandering in a forest for quite a long time, and second, the film's pacing was noticeably slow. Viewers tend to pick up visual cues quickly, and often become impatient when the point is extended while they're ready to move on to the next development. For instance, when Max comes home the first time and thinks he's heard a noise, he spends a lot of time looking for the source of the noise. Then, once he's settled back down and dismissed it as his imagination, he hears another noise and goes through the whole process again. While it's possible and maybe even likely that it would happen that way in real life, storytelling by its nature is an abbreviated summary of events rather than a recording, and it's not necessary to see the entirety of everything that happens. That said, however, this is still a film very much worth seeing.

The Game/El Juego
Director: Andrea Casaseca
Screenwriters: Andrea Casaseca; Pablo Flores
Length: 05:21 minutes
Category: Family/Children
Country: Spain
Film trailer

In this film, a little girl waits on a playground and is addressed by a woman who suggests playing a game in which the girl follows the painted lines on the playground without stepping off them. When the girl comes to a place where she has to jump to continue, she stops, knowing she might not be able to jump that far. But the woman encourages her to try, and reminds her several times that she can do what she wants in this game. At the end of the game, the camera pulls back and we see that the lines spell out "VIDA," or "life." This is a thoughtful film, and well-executed, but I found the metaphor a little heavy-handed for my personal taste.

Little Questions
Director: Virginia Abramovich
Length: 12:12 minutes
Category: Family/Children
Country: Canada
Film website

The last film of the session, "Little Questions", was actually a documentary. To be fair, it was about children (how they're affected by war), but it was not what viewers might expect in the company of the other films in this category. A little girl named Ana visits both children and adults to ask them how war has affected them, using questions she's written down in a notebook, such as "how did the war start?" and "who were the bad guys?" Her "interviewees" include a former child soldier from Rwanda and her own aunt and uncle, who were Jews in Poland during World War II. The main point of the film is that children have to live with the consequences of wars fought by adults.

One element I liked about this film was the semi-animated way in which Ana's drawings and questions were filmed. Ana also visits a therapist or social worker of some kind who explains that they often ask children who are war refugees to draw pictures when they have difficulty speaking about their experiences. I was not entirely comfortable with the structure of the documentary, though, which in some ways felt more acted and staged than the fictional films in the festival. "Little Questions" seems to want to give the impression that the entire project was the little girl's idea, and while I believe that she certainly might have started asking questions about war, I still would have preferred that the film acknowledge the multiple adults who would have had to play a significant role in creating this project. The documentary does pose important questions and I absolutely believe that the filmmakers were 100% sincere in making it, but I might have preferred a slightly different approach in how the "story" was presented.

Click here to see my other reviews of Worldfest-Houston short film screenings. Also, coming soon: reviews of Drama 3, Sci Fi, and Fantasy Shorts.
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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Worldfest-Houston 2015: Animation/CGI Shorts

The 48th Annual Worldfest-Houston

Animation/CGI Shorts, Monday, April 13, 2015

I've been looking forward to my second Worldfest-Houston ever since I saw the Sci-Fi Shorts there last year. This year, I'm going to try to see a lot more, but it still won't be as much as I want to (in part because two sets of shorts I want to see will be screened against each other on Sunday!).

According to the head of the short film jury, there were over 1,400 short films entered into this year's festival. That's a lot of entries! I love knowing that people are out there creating art and trying to make connections with viewers.

Without further ado, here are my thoughts on tonight's screening of Animation/CGI Shorts.

Director: Ying-Fang Shen
Screenwriter: Ying-Fang Shen
Length: 10:25 minutes
Category: Animation
Country: USA
Film website

I wish I knew the technical terms for different kinds of animation (or that the Worldfest-Houston program book would list such things for the animated films). I'm not sure if I'm correct in this description, but this seemed to me like a stop-motion animation film using two-dimensional paper "puppets" or "cut-outs," as well as more sophisticated graphics as the film went on.

In any case, "Humanexus" presents a history of human communication, from cave paintings and the first alphabets up through the printing press, the Pony Express, telegrams, Morse code, telephones, and, of course, the Internet and personal devices. The film did a terrific job conveying how people were reacting to the technology, with no dialog until the point when the people stopped interacting with each other directly, and the questions "Is this what we want?" and "What do we want?" were repeatedly posed. The scenes then re-wound to a certain point and replayed at a quicker pace, leaving us at a place where we can have both connectivity without losing the personal interaction.

This little film was highly polished and well-designed, and it's not surprising to me that it's won a number of film festival awards according to the film's website. I especially liked the way people were assaulted by and almost buried under e-mail -- I'm sure many of us can relate to that! It even incorporated the concept of cyberbullying, which is pretty darn relevant these days.

Directors: Daniel Clark and Wesley Tippets
Screenwriter: Wesley Tippets
Length: 05:07 minutes
Category: CGI/Student
Country: USA
YouTube "making of" video

This short was adorable, and if this is student work, then the big animation studios certainly have a lot of talent to pull from in the future -- or maybe they should just be worried that their competition is going to get fierce!

In "Owned", an overweight and slovenly video gamer is a bit too ruthless in crushing his unseen online opponents. He's just defeated his latest challenger, a little boy who just wants to have fun, when that boy's baby sister takes over the controls and shows the champion a thing or two. Turns out that teething babies chewing on the game controls sometimes result in hidden powers becoming activated....

This short was full of humor and nerdy jokes, and it was incredibly professional. I didn't realize Brigham Young University had this amazing computer animation program. This film earned the program not only another Student Emmy for their collection, but a Student Academy Award as well.

Death and the Robot
Director: Austin Taylor
Screenwriters: Austin Taylor, Alex Thompson
Length: 11:32 minutes
Category: Animation
Country: USA
Film on YouTube

This was one of my two favorite films of the evening. It reminded me of Wall-E as done by Tim Burton, yet with a style of its own. A female Angel of Death sits lonely in a barren graveyard, while a robot grows and waters flowers in an underground greenhouse, but ultimately they're both moved to venture out of their safe havens and find each other. The robot teaches Death to wear gloves when tending the flowers so as not to kill them with her touch, and he contemplates going back to his greenhouse as his power supply wanes, but can't bring himself to leave his new friend.

I'm not embarrassed to admit that this lovely story made me cry, and the animation was exquisite, especially in how well it portrayed these non-traditional characters' emotions. This one is from the University of North Carolina's School of Filmmaking.

Hanging by a Thread
Director: Catya Plate
Screenwriter: Catya Plate
Length: 09:55 minutes
Category: Animation
Country: USA
Creator's website

I found this film a little harder to relate to, but I absolutely would give it an A+ for originality and creativity. The program description notes that humanity may only be a memory in the future, but three figures from a needlepoint pillow come to life and learn to harvest what's left. We learn that these are the Clothespin Freaks, named Pelvis Catcher, Brain Grabber, and Foot Licker, respectively. They assemble new skeletal creatures out of these particular body parts (pelvic bones, brains, and feet), all the while observed by two birds.

I'm not entirely sure what the audience is supposed to take away from this, but the beauty of short films is that they can be vignettes, and they can be experimental. And I did enjoy watching these odd creatures at their odd work.

The Oceanmaker
Director: Lucas Martell
Screenwriter: Lucas Martell
Length: 10:04 minutes
Category: Animation
Country: USA
Studio's website

This film, "The Oceanmaker", was the other of my two favorites of the evening. The program tells us that after the seas have disappeared, "a courageous young female pilot fights against viscious sky pirates for control of the last remaining source of water: the clouds." But as with my other favorite, "Death and the Robot", the story was told so well that no description was necessary to understand exactly what was happening.

The animation, presumably CGI, was gorgeous, with haunting imagery of boat "bones" half-buried in the sand, an aircraft carrier, a lighthouse, and even a half-submerged submarine surrounded by makeshift windmills. The desert, mountains, and clouds were amazing, not to mention the planes. And even that area in which computer animation can so often fall down, human faces, was terrific. I got a sort of steampunk Mad Max feel to this as the pilot tried to seed clouds with her Rainmaker technology, only to be fired upon by the sky pirates who would rather collect the water vapor only for themselves.

This one made me cry too. That's not to say short films have to make me cry to be my favorites; it just happened to work out that way this time.

Luna and Lars
Director: Anna Zlokovic
Screenwriter: Lia Woodward
Length: 08:06 minutes
Category: Animation
Country: USA
Facebook page

In this short, two marionettes come to life and dance together to the music of an old Victrola, until one night when Lars becomes tempted by the mirror he discovers in their attic home.

My favorite aspect of this film was the visual style, and the story reminded me a little of the feature-length animated film Coraline, about those "grass is always greener" alternate worlds. I especially liked Lars and Luna's expressive eyes, which in his case became very creepy indeed.

20Twelve / 20Zwoelf
Director: Christian Stahl
Screenwriters: Madleen Kamrath, Julien Wilkdens, Jens-Henrik Kuiper
Length: 03:34 minutes
Category: CGI
Country: Germany

This film managed to pack quite a wallop for being less than four minutes long. Here's another case where I wish I knew what to call the technique: film of live actors was processed to give it a surreal feel, especially as the people were placed on cartoon streets lined with cartoon buildings.

The story is simple: this alternate modern-day Germany has a new Chancellor who controls all information, but he says it's okay because he just wants everyone to be happy. A young man tries to warn people, but they don't see or hear him. In my mind, this can be viewed as a commentary on not only governmental control of information, but also corporate control.

The Looking Planet
Director: Eric Law Anderson
Screenwriter: Eric Law Anderson
Length: 16:38 minutes
Category: Science Fiction
Country: Brazil/USA
Film's website

This film was extremely sophisticated but a little confusing in parts. Well, not exactly confusing -- we know that one young alien belonging to a group that engineers the universe has his own ideas, which don't necessarily correspond to the laws of physics as we know them. A textual prologue at the beginning of the film indicates that the Earth's moon is so large that we're really our own "double planet" system, something that would very rarely evolve naturally. So I interpreted this to mean that the character, whose name I think was Lufo, was responsible for giving Earth the moon it has.

What wasn't clear to me was exactly what Lufo was doing to the moon. I think he was creating the dark maria (seas) by using his jackhammer-like tool to allow the darker material to come to the moon's surface in various areas, and that he towed the moon to where he wanted it, having foreseen that it would help life on Earth evolve. But I wasn't sure which was the looking planet: the Earth or the moon. And I actually thought that Lufo was a child at first, since it seemed his mother was talking to him as one, but then we see that he is physically as big as the others around him. I also found the characters' vocal inflections strangely flat most of the time. It can be argued that they're aliens so they wouldn't talk like us, but most of their other traits were very, very human.

These are minor quibbles, though; overall the film was visually gorgeous (lots of planetary rings, plus Jupiter, my all-time favorite planet) and quite humorous, but with the message that artistic expression is important no matter who you are.

Director: Mike Grier
Screenwriter: Jason Gallaty, Michael Grier, Josh Grier
Length: 25 minutes
Category: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Country: USA/Japan
YouTube trailer

The last film of the evening was the longest and was mostly live action, so it had the least percentage of animation -- but what animation! In a post-ecological-disaster world, a man trained as a Tracker, or one who studies the balance of nature, abandons his training when his daughter dies. Years later, he is tempted back out from behind the city walls by a profiteering friend who wants his Tracker experience to guide them to the possible source of a plague, which he thinks will make them rich.

Much of the animation in this film consisted of tiny creatures that evolved to feed upon the toxic materials poisoning the waters, as well as insects that look like but clearly aren't butterflies. The size scale increases dramatically as the man nears the source of the plague and has to face it one on one. In my mind, the animation, special effects, and even the general cinematography were on par with the brilliant film Pan's Labyrinth. "Dust" also reminded me of the books The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey and Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, but the story still feels original. Oh, and it was also very well acted, particularly the main character.

This was extremely high quality work that would make a rich feature-length film. "Dust" will be shown again on Sunday April 19 at 3 p.m. as part of the Fantasy Shorts screening. (I personally consider it science fiction rather than fantasy, but I'm sure they had some juggling to do in the schedule.)

Whew! I'm looking forward to seeing lots more short films later this week. For information on Worldfest-Houston, go here. And click here to see my other reviews of Worldfest-Houston short film screenings.
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Monday, April 6, 2015

The House of Yes

I cannot for the life of me remember where I first heard about this movie, or even when it first entered my DVD collection. It came out in 1997, and while it's from Miramax, which isn't exactly a small studio, it definitely has the independent film vibe, in part because it stars Parker Posey, who's all about the indy films.

In this movie, Parker plays Jackie-O, a young woman with mental problems living at home with her mother (Geneviève Bujold) and her younger brother, Anthony (Freddie Prinze, Jr.). Her twin brother, Marty (Josh Hamilton) is coming home from New York City, but unbeknownst to Jackie-O, he's bringing a fiance, Lesly (Tori Spelling). Over the course of one hurricane-filled night, Lesly learns that Jackie-O is not the only person in the family with serious mental issues, and that Jackie-O and Marty have a very unusual relationship for siblings, based in part on their fascination with the JFK assassination. That's not to say they're studying it or trying to figure out if there was a conspiracy; no, they like to re-create the scene, which for some inexplicable reason turns them on.

I had mixed feelings watching this movie again, because I'm more aware now than I used to be that there are real people out there in the world for whom the assassination is still a very personal tragedy. I feel that way about those Darwin Award books too -- assuming the anecdotes are true, somebody actually died, and how must their survivors feel to see their deaths being turned into cocktail party entertainment? So on the one hand, it seems in poor taste to use the JFK assassination for comedy. On the other hand, this is very much a dark comedy, and part of the fascination is that it's hard to believe that these characters could be so screwed up, yet they make you believe it. And it's kind of the point that it's in bad taste to use the assassination for ... well, things other than comedy. This is one sick family.

The entire film is very well acted; even Tori Spelling, whose work I would not normally seek out, was well cast in the role of the sweet, naive, and not very bright Lesly. Geneviève Bujold is positively scary as the mother, Freddie Prinze Jr. somehow manages to be even more creepy than his incestuous older siblings, and of course we all know that Parker Posey can play crazy. I should also note that Rachael Leigh Cook does a nice job playing a younger version of Jackie-O in some flashback sequences. Josh Hamilton as Marty is the least distinct in a way, but that's also appropriate as he's the one family member who is actually trying to escape to Normal-town. Choosing a sweet but unremarkable fiance is part of that plan. Yet it seems he cannot resist Jackie-O once he's back under the same roof with her.

The film is on the short end at only 85 minutes, and it has a tiny cast. IMDB notes that the play was written by Wendy MacLeod and was adapted for the screen by Mark Waters. For such a "little" picture, it sure is memorable. I'll admit that I don't understand the relevance of the movie's title, but perhaps it refers to the fact that Jackie-O is a master manipulator and people, even her scary mother, only seem able to say "yes" to her. In any case, I would definitely recommend this movie to anyone who likes dark comedy.
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