Monday, April 7, 2014

Sci-Fi Shorts at Worldfest-Houston 2014

This weekend I attended a very small sliver of the Worldfest-Houston Independent International Film Festival. I only became aware of this event late last week, so I didn’t have time to plan much, but I was able to get to the Sunday matinee screening of five “sci-fi shorts.” Mainly I wanted to see “I Remember the Future”, a short film based on Michael Burstein’s Nebula-nominated short story of the same title.

The session was introduced by one of the festival organizers, who said (if I recall correctly) that some 1400 films had been entered into the festival. There are so many that the festival cannot even screen all of the winners in the various categories.

This Sci-Fi Shorts session consisted of five films:

Anamnesis– Written and directed by Ben Goodger; 24:45 minutes.

Of the five films we saw, this one had the most beautiful cinematography. It never hurts filming on the Scottish coast, but scenery aside, there was some really beautiful camera work and imagery. In this story, a young scientist is experimenting with a memory retrieval technique that lets him relive the day his girlfriend died, because right up until her death, it was the most perfect day. Unsurprisingly, he becomes addicted to the memory. He begins to notice small changes in each iteration, and begins to wonder if he might change things on a larger scale.

I felt that this was very well done, and would have changed only two minor things. The memory recreation was apparently caused or enabled by a meteorite with a slick oily black substance that seemed to be alive. This wasn’t really explored, which I was fine with, but our attention was directed there numerous times. The tar-like substance reminded me of the sentient tar pit that killed Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the way the substance kept bubbling up looked almost muppet-like, for lack of a better term. It’s the only thing that threw me out of the film because it wasn’t integrated into the storyline, and it didn’t have the same polished feel as everything other element. The other extremely minor issue was the pacing. Any time you repeat a scene or imagery several times (which of course makes sense in a story about memory), you risk making the viewer impatient if they decide you've done it one too many times. This had one or even two repeats more than I felt I needed. It certainly wasn’t egregious, but I felt that it kept the film from being as perfect as it might otherwise have been.

Here I’ve written a long paragraph about two minor criticisms, and not nearly enough about how good the film actually was. It was very good. Emotionally powerful, thought-provoking, well-acted, and beautifully filmed.

The Sound of Trains – Written and directed by Travis Champagne and Jordan Bradley; 13 minutes.

This one didn’t quite work for me. Daniel Baldwin plays a rural loner who discovers green slime on his hand while chopping wood, then receives a mysterious visit from two black-suited strangers who warn him that he must not reveal what he’s seen (except he hasn’t really seen anything), or they will return for him.

(SPOILERS AHEAD) He then doesn’t tell anyone what he’s seen, and they return for him anyway.

My problem with this film is that there is nothing fresh or original about the alien abduction scenario, and there’s that huge hole in the plot logic. The main character never tells anyone that something odd happened to him. Heck, he never even sees anyone he can tell. We’re given no reason to care about the character. Also, while I thought grizzly Daniel Baldwin looked and acted the part perfectly, the actors playing the two visitors were trying so hard to be cryptic and mysterious that it was almost funny when it wasn’t meant to be.

Agent Killer: Origins – Written and directed by Cesar Encalada; 15 minutes.

For this film, I could see that the cast and crew put a lot of love and work into it, but there were a variety of problems. Some of these can be explained, I think, by viewing this not as a film but as the prologue to a video game. If that is the intention, some of these problems are certainly understandable. But as a film, it views as though it came from young artists who have spent their lives playing video games without actually reading stories or learning about sophisticated storytelling. Don’t get me wrong; I think a lot of video games have incredible storytelling, but those are the games that go way beyond creating a flashy world and a somewhat contrived background for a single hero (or possibly anti-hero) character. Also, although I feel a little petty bringing it up, multiple grammatical errors in the on-screen opening text, well, they just can’t be allowed to happen. Even the film’s program book description has a problem, describing the Colosius as “a humanitarian xenophobic alien race that has conquered Earth and enslaved humans.” I have to assume they meant humanoid, not humanitarian.

That aside, the film has some impressive special effects. The main character wakes up in some kind of lab or tech facility, knowing that he has to fight his way out. He dispatches a bunch of guards and eventually comes face-to-face with a real adversary, who delivers a lot of trite dialog in an overly dramatic fashion. The fight scene was fairly well choreographed with some nice special effects, particularly the glowing movement under the skin when the two fighters were under stress. Unfortunately, however, much of the fighting sequences came across as derivative of the Matrix movies, particularly when the (not-main-character-so-presumably) bad guy pauses in the middle of the fight to crack his neck to either side a la Agent Smith.

(SPOILERS AHEAD) Eventually the main character fights his way out in spite of being stabbed, and ends up on a beach watching spaceships (again, good effects) fly over, then ruminating on what his role in this world should be. This ending voice over goes on for much too long, making clichéd statements and asking clichéd questions.

I have to admit I wonder whether this film was screened in part because its creators were local.[*] I'm guessing that it won an award, perhaps in a technical category. Then, when the festival chooses which award winners to screen, I think they might give a slight edge to local talent, which is understandable and nice for us. So I feel a little harsh by commenting on things that perhaps weren’t the qualities meant to be showcased, and because I’m treating this as a film when it really might have been meant as a video game rather than a film prologue. But I only have the film itself to go on. What I do think is great is that the creator and the crew got out there and created something, and put it out there for the world to see. There were some really nice effects, and yes, the universe they created could certainly make a popular video game. I hope they’ll continue to create, because they have some great potential.

I Remember the Future – Written by Zane Pyper, Klayton Stainer, Michael Burstein; directed by Klayton Stainer; 26:32 minutes.

I about fell over when I realized this movie was shot on location in Melbourne, Australia, because I would have thought it was shot in Brooklyn, and that the two main actors were American. I knew this was based on Michael Burstein’s short story of the same title, and I vaguely remembered Michael saying online at some point that someone had approached him about turning the story into a short film, but I’d missed the fact that it was an Australian film student. I'm not sure which surprised me more: the "Australian" part or the "student" part, because I can definitely say that there was nothing “student” about this film.

The main character, Abe (Reg Gorman) is an old man looking backwards over a long career writing science fiction. Now, however, he’s faced with the onset of dementia, just as his somewhat estranged daughter informs him she is moving to the other side of the country. His tense conversations with his daughter are interspersed with his trips down memory lane, as he envisions scenes and characters from the many worlds he created in his novels. I especially liked that the scenes looked the way he would have imagined them when writing for the pulps, rather than the way a young writer might imagine them now. Abe tells his daughter that he’d always felt like he had a connection to the future, that his ideas weren’t his own but that they were somehow real and he’d simply been able to tune into them. This angers his daughter, because she feels it’s no excuse for having been an emotionally absent father.

I have to confess that I haven’t read the original story, for which I’m glad in a way because I got to see the film completely fresh. The story itself is satisfying, especially to writerly types, and this film was made with skill and loving care. One sequence, showing two of Abe’s space-suited characters exploring an ancient abandoned library with paper, is absolutely stunning. (In fact, my husband wondered in what library it was shot, while I said I assumed it was CGI….) The movie was well-acted, and I loved that Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, who played the daughter, had another role as well. (This actress also played the Hybrid in the new incarnation of Battlestar Galactica.) I did wish a little bit that the father-daughter relationship wasn’t quite so strained, because it felt a bit like a statement that a writer couldn’t create such rich fictional worlds without being emotionally absent to his or her family. I know better than to assume the author was actually making that statement; that's just how it came through my personal lens. While the conclusion was a little more sentimental than I would normally prefer, it felt right for this story and it resulted in a perfect last line, delivered perfectly.

I Remember the Future is the reason I became aware of the festival in the first place, and the reason I went. This one film was worth making the trip across town for just by itself; the fact that I got to see a couple of other really good short films too was icing on the cake.

Oh, and the closing credits were fabulous! They reminded me of the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies.

Where the Red Fox Lies – written and directed by Jeff Ray; 35:56 minutes.

This was a remarkably accomplished film in every aspect: storytelling, visuals, camera work, acting, effects…. A young woman and her new husband drive to an abandoned ranch looking for her younger sister, who disappeared some time before, and who did not surface for their parents' funeral following a mysterious and horrible accident. The older sister resents that the younger one left her to deal with all of the accident's aftermath. The younger sister is clearly suffering from psychological trauma and is unwilling or unable to discuss what's troubling her. Eventually, the problem becomes apparent to all.

If you read the description of the film you'll know what's going on, but I had the advantage of going in blind, so I got to see the plot revealed at the pace the writer/director intended. I hesitate to put any spoilers here; let me just say that it's a great speculative fiction plot. (I say "speculative fiction" because it blends science fiction and horror, while still remaining a moving personal and emotional drama.)

For the most part I felt this film moved at the appropriate pace, but it did sag a tiny bit for me towards the end, such that I stopped paying attention to reflect that the older sister and her husband were a little slower in figuring things out than they might have been. On the other hand, humans are great at denial, so maybe that's what was going on. There is also a gorgeous montage of scenes at the end that goes on a bit longer than it needs to. But this is a very minor nitpick as far as this film goes.


This was a couple of hours well spent. Three of these five films really impressed me with their storytelling and execution. I definitely plan to do some research and see a lot more of the festival next year. In addition to Sci-Fi Shorts, I'd like to try out the Comedy Shorts, which I have to imagine will be a blast. I hope to get together a good-sized group of friends and science fiction enthusiasts next year – more of us need to know about this.

[* I knew this one was local because the person introducing the program mentioned it. It didn't occur to me until writing this to look the rest up and I now have: The Sound of Trains was also local (Spring, TX), and Where the Red Fox Lies was semi-local (Duncanville, up by Dallas)]
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Monday, November 12, 2012

Star Wars: Scoundrels

I haven’t read a Star Wars book in years, but this one sounded like too much fun to pass up: Star Wars: Scoundrels, a novel by fan favorite author Timothy Zahn that essentially stars Han Solo as Danny Ocean in Ocean’s Eleven. Due out in early January 2013, Scoundrels takes place between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, bringing together Han, Chewie, Lando, and a new cast of characters going after a score so big it will solve Han’s little Jabba problem forever, if only they can pull it off.

As is often the case with con/heist stories, at times the plan is so convoluted that I couldn’t quite tell what was going on, but to be honest that didn’t really bother me. I was impressed with Zahn’s ability to give the eight new characters on Han’s temporary “team” disparate enough personalities that I didn’t need to refer to the dramatis personae list at the front of the book – and that’s in addition to the villains, who are equally distinctive. While it didn’t seem entirely natural to watch Han trusting people, having the patience for the long con, and advising people to get some sleep and turn out the lights on the way to bed, this book somehow works just fine. It also doesn’t hurt to have a Star Wars novel with familiar faces, set in this time period instead of decades later, when apparently almost every character has developed Jedi abilities and has temporarily turned to the Dark Side of the Force. I understand additional “standalone” novels in this timeframe are forthcoming.

Minor spoilers below....

There are some slight missteps that might have been caught in editing (and since I read a galley, maybe they still will be). “Chance cubes” are “chance cubes” except for the one time they’re referred to as dice. There’s a reference to “middle grade children” that throws me out of the Star Wars 'verse and back into suburban America, as well as extensive use of dumbwaiters during the heist. While I can buy that alien cultures might invent convenient “elevators” to move food and supplies from one story of a residential building to another, it seems a bit odd that they would also name theirs after mute food service personnel. There’s even a football metaphor. Who knew that in a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away, they not only have Earth sports, but 20th century American sports? As said, these lapses are minor, but they do briefly interrupt the mood, and give the effect of slight carelessness.

On the plus side? There are some fun inside jokes, including an entire scene that pays homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s a funny paragraph in which Han sums up his role in A New Hope as only he can, and an amusing poke at scriptwriters who like to use turbolifts as the ideal spot for heroes to break free from their captors. Heck, I even enjoyed constructing a little chart that might help a writer deal with Chewie’s dialogue, for which there’s apparently a “no direct translation” rule. We never know what he actually says, only that there is a limited number of iterations in which he growls/rumbles/warbles his agreement/assent/question/objection. (To be fair, I think the “no direct translation” rule is probably the right way to go, but the limitations thereof are still amusing.) I liked the use of “kriffing” – not as good as frakking or frelling, but not bad.

And there’s a direct poke at the “who shot first” question – not that it’s really a question, in my opinion. It doesn’t go quite in the direction I’d have chosen, or as far as I’d like, but it’s still cute, and there’s only so much you can sneak through the approval process, I’m sure.

Overall verdict: if you find the shelves upon shelves of Star Wars books at the bookstore too much to contemplate, with their complicated storylines that sometimes seem to be spinning their wheels, this is the book that will let you get back to basics and have a lot of fun while you're doing it. Besides, who can resist that cover?
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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Easing back in with "Recently Read".....

It's been a while since I've posted, although I'm still reading pretty steadily. So instead of one long review, I'm going to ease back in with short notes on some recent reads.

First up, I read the first two delightful books in the series The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place. In the first book, The Mysterious Howling, 15-year-old Penelope Lumley takes her first governess position upon leaving the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females. In the second book, Penelope and the children visit London for the first time. (The cover of the second book is to die for!) I love Penelope's poetic-yet-no-nonsense soul, and the charm of these children who end words in tapered-off howls, such as when they call Ms. Lumley "Lumawoo-oo." These books aren't the slightest bit realistic, and they don't have the amount of closure that I normally want in books, but they're so wonderful that I just don't care.

Another recent read was Thicker than Water, the fourth book in Mike Carey's Felix Castor series about a hard-boiled exorcist trying to keep it together while both his personal life and London-in-general continue to detereorate in terms of undead activity. This isn't your standard approach to zombies and werewolves, however; some of them are practically upright citizens, or at least don't particularly want to cause madness and mayhem. In any case, this fourth book bogged down a bit in the middle, and I'd almost made up my mind not to seek out the fifth book, but then this ended on a big reveal and a big bad development, so now I'm going to have to keep on with it. I hope the fifth book has the closure I'm looking for since there is no sign of a sixth book.

Around Christmas, I like to read a few Christmas-related books. This year I tried I Am Half Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley, a Flavia de Luce cozy mystery. I was intrigued by the Tennyson-inspired title, and I thought the feisty 11-year-old heroine might be spunky like Theodosia Throckmorton or Kat Stephenson. And Flavia was spunky, but she was also riddled with contradictions: she's an 11-year-old who plays with explosive chemicals and Bunsen burners, but she still believes in Santa Claus, and her attempts to chemically catch Santa in the act are silly and serve little other purpose than to put Flavia on the roof at a key point in the plot. A big mystery in Flavia's past in hinted at; considering that this is the fourth book in the series, the author is being pretty stingy with information (although to be fair, I haven't read the first three books). My guess (possible spoiler if I'm correct) is simply that Flavia's mother died giving birth to her, or gave up her life in some other way to protect her baby, and this is what causes the sibling tension in the house. It's definitely not enough to keep me interested, I'm afraid.

I can't go into much detail on this next book since I was contracted to write a lengthy essay on it, but I do highly recommend 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami if you're in the mood for something different. At almost 1,000 pages, this is no quick read, but rather a slow yet fascinating examination of an alternate 1984 in Tokyo and how it affects the two main characters.

Finally, a nod to an absolutely adorable picture book that I've already bought for one nephew and plan to buy for another in the future: Shark vs. Train, written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. This book is about two little boys who go to the toybox and pull out a shark and a train, which they then pit against each other in a series of escalating silly contests, like which would be better at jumping off a high dive, which would be better at basketball, and so on. The shark and the train smack talk each other throughout, making this a witty book that parents won't mind reading more than once. Read more!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Totally Joe

Recently I received James Howe's Addie on the Inside to review for VOYA. I had been aware of Howe's Bunnicula series but had never read anything by him. In any case, the front cover of Addie calls the book a "companion" to The Misfits, and then I found out that another book called Totally Joe fit in there somewhere.

Let's just say I like to be thorough! Which naturally means that I felt compelled to start at the beginning with The Misfits. Narrated by Bobby Goodspeed, a thoughtful 12-year-old who is part of the four-member "Gang of Five", The Misfits is a quiet little story about how Bobby learns to speak up, not only for himself but for others. Bobby had been bumbling along with his fellow misfit friends, but finds within himself unexpected strength and leadership qualities. Overall, I quite enjoyed this book, in spite of a few parts that I found a little tedious (such as the word-for-word transcripts that Addie insists on keeping each time the Gang of Five gets together). The ending was unexpectedly moving, however, and pretty much won me over to the series, so I was happy enough to proceed to Totally Joe.

And wow! Just wow. This novel is narrated by Joe Bunch, another of the group's misfits who just happens to be a 12-year-old gay boy (technically, at 12 he's not a teen yet). Joe is working on an English assignment, which is to write, over several months, an "alphabiography" of his life from A to Z. I was initially worried that this book would simply recap the events of The Misfits, but was pleased to find that the plot does actually advance chronologically -- not too far but just enough to satisfy -- from the prior book.

This was an incredibly touching book, and I was very impressed by Howe's ability to significantly change up both the format and voice from The Misfits, yet undeniably retain the spirit of that book. I was particularly moved by trying to imagine what it must be like to be a boy young enough that you still think kissing is gross, yet old and self-aware enough to know that you like boys, not girls. If you don't feel something while reading this book, then in my opinion you just don't feel much at all.

When I finally got to Addie on the Inside, I was surprised to find that it is told entirely in verse, yet another complete change in format and voice. I was skeptical, but now I'm just really impressed with Howe's scope and talent. I won't say more about Addie here since I just submitted my review to VOYA, but suffice it to say that I highly recommend this entire series.

And I can't wait to see what format and previously unexplored depths Howe comes up with for the fourth member of the Gang of Five, Skeezie. Read more!