Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Worldfest-Houston 2015: Fantasy Shorts

[Poster from "Flash", Alberto Ruiz Rojo, Director]

The 48th Annual Worldfest-Houston
Fantasy Shorts, Sunday, April 19, 2015

This was the last session of short films I saw at this year's Worldfest-Houston, and the one I had the most issues with, although there was one film I found utterly charming (hint: see the poster above). My main problem was that most of the films were not what I would call fantasy.

To be clear, I didn't mind terribly much that the two films I had already seen in the Animation/CGI Shorts screening, "Dust" and "The Oceanmaker", were actually what I would call science fiction, as was at least one additional film, "Evil Twin". I've been attending the World Science Fiction Convention for over twenty years and have attended the World Fantasy Convention twice, so I know there traditionally is a ton of crossover between the two and that's just fine.

My problem was that the Fantasy Shorts also contained two straight-up horror films. I acknowledge that horror is a genre and an art form as legitimate as any other, but it is a very specific taste, and it shouldn't be included in other categories without warning, because many people find it disturbing. For myself, I don't find it disturbing so much as distasteful. Obviously, then, I won't be an impartial reviewer when it comes to horror films, but at the same time, whether or not something is to my personal taste, I can recognize when character motivations don't add up, or when dialogue is clunky.

To be fair, I understand that slotting all these short films into several two-hour sessions has to be a logistical nightmare. Presumably there were too many horror films to fit into the Horror/Thriller Shorts section. Or it could be that there were two few fantasy shorts, but I note that at least two films from the Family Shorts screening, "Lady Luck" and "The Devil Goes Down", technically could have been called fantasy.

In any case, before I review the films that were shown in the Fantasy Shorts screening, I want to link to my review of the Animation/CGI shorts since I've already written about "Dust" and "The Oceanmaker" there. They were both among my favorites of all the shorts I saw this year.


The Witch
Director: Kreuz Chan
Screenwriters: Kreuz Chan; Elizabeth Eccher
Length: 16:59 minutes
Category: Student/Fantasy/Horror (*)
Country: USA
Trailer

(*I've been listing the categories as shown in the program guide. I did not think this one was horror at all. I'm speculating, but think the filmmakers get to list what they think their films are, and some of them seem to choose multiple categories, perhaps to increase their chances of winning awards or being screened.)

The program book describes "The Witch" as "a Scottish fairy tale about a girl being discovered as the salvation of the whole world long after the kingdom regards her as a monstrous creature." I'm afraid I found it to be a fairly run-of-the-mill fantasy story about a reluctant hero, although it was refreshing that it was a girl, and that her sister was a strong, active character as well.

(SPOILERS AHEAD) The girl, Flora, is distrusted because she has strange marks on her shoulders, and either she or her sister, from whom she is separated early on, has a partially healed bite mark on her wrist -- I literally can't remember which one it was because the story line was quite muddled. The terms "witch" and "warrior" seemed to be used interchangeably, and the main character is clearly something more than a simple witch, so even the title of this film doesn't make much sense to me. But the main gist is that the younger girl's blood is immune to the bite of some evil creature, so she'll somehow save the world, which didn't look to be in that much danger to begin with.

Although I felt that the film's creators clearly love the fantasy genre, I was bothered by the lack of both originality and realism in this story. For instance, we're told that Flora is apprenticed to a blacksmith, but she's awfully clean, wears awfully pretty clothes, and has perfectly applied eye make-up at all times. She and the actress who played her sister were good in their roles, but at least two other characters were terribly overacted: a resentful woman in the blacksmith's shop, and the man-turned-monster who tries to kill the girl. The overall effect was that the film seemed a little naive and simplistic.


Evil Twin
Director: Christian Pfeil
Screenwriter: Christian Pfeil
Length: 11:44 minutes
Category: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Country: Germany
Film's Facebook page

This film was also a bit confusing. The program says "A group of gangsters get their hands on a teleportation device bringing with it endless possibilities. The groups splits into good and bad. And now the fight begins!" This "plot" is essentially an excuse to have great fight scenes jumping from location to location, giving it a bit of a Matrix feel. It was never clear to me if there were actual sets of twins (I think there were), and whether the gang had always had twins or if they were somehow split into good and bad guy versions of themselves due to the device, or.... To be fair, it appeared that the movie was cut off before the end due to technical difficulties, although I'm not even sure of that.

Good effects, but the story was muddled. Perhaps it would have become clear if we'd seen it to the end, but I'm not completely convinced that would be the case.



Flash
Director: Alberto Ruiz Rojo
Screenwriter: Alberto Ruiz Rojo
Length: 7 minutes
Category: Fantasy/Drama
Country: Spain
Trailer

Yes! To me, this is what the art of short films is all about. This seven-minute film, shot entirely without dialogue, has love, drama, hope, tragedy, and sadness all mixed into one. A man retrieves his strip of photos from a photo booth, and finds that they show him not alone as he actually was, but instead passionately kissing a woman who is unknown to him. Shortly afterward, he spies her on the street and follows her onto the subway. When she sees him, she slowly pulls a strip of photos from her handbag and .... nope, I'm not going to spoil this one!

I was utterly charmed by this film. One of my friends who was with me mentioned that the movie Amélie did something similar; I'm now going to have to finally track that down and watch it. But "Flash" is its own perfect little self-contained story.



Mr. Dentonn
Director: Ivan Villamel Sanchez
Screenwriter: Ivan Villamel Sanchez
Length: 9 minutes
Category: Fantasy/Horror
Country: Spain
Film's Facebook page

This was the first film I thought was straight-up horror. (I mean, look at that poster!) A young woman reads aloud to her little brother from a scary book about a strange creature that paralyzes children with its gaze, stealing their innocence. She then tells him he shouldn't have such a scary book -- but she certainly read a lot of it to him before stopping! Naturally, the creature shows up. They alternately try to fight it and get away.

The movie had an effectively creepy atmosphere and used a nice technique in which the creature's shadowy figure showed in mirrors as it passed, but not in the actual room. The film certainly wasn't bad, just a little on the predictable side.



Zero
Directors: Chris Smellin; Robert Smellin
Screenwriters: Chris and Robert Smellin
Length: 15:06 minutes
Category: Fantasy/Horror
Country: Australia
Trailer

Alas, this is the film I had problems with on so many levels. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Not that I think zombies exist in the real world, but I would still call a movie in which a mother has to hack her zombie child to death a horror movie, not a fantasy (equals magic) film. But pretending for a moment that I had any interest in seeing a zombie horror film when I bought a ticket to Fantasy Shorts, this one's characters behaved so ridiculously that I would have disliked it anyway.

The story begins with a woman in a somewhat ineffectual-looking hazmat suit (open at the throat), a bloody dead rat, and a moving, blood-soaked creature under a sheet on a bed. We then cut to a living room with a man and three women, including the one in the hazmat suit but now with the hood off, sitting around a coffee table looking miserable. The two other women urge the one in the suit to tell them what's going on. She hems and haws and says she has to show them, but they have to promise not to scream or run away, and have to put on hazmat suits too.

Long before that blood-soaked sheet is pulled off to show us what was underneath, I knew it was Patient Zero. Sigh.... The women go to the bedroom where a zombie child is strapped to the bed, yapping at them with the most ear-biting, annoying sound effect possible. I flinched every single time because the sound verged on painful; it was like flinching every time someone hits a nail with a hammer too close to your head. One of the younger women, who are apparently sisters of the boy's mother, immediately removes her hazmat hood and tries to free the boy, but the mother stops her. Yeah, untying the bloody creature would not be my first instinct.

They all end up back in the living room again, and the mother says she needs to ask the two women for help. After which they go into the bedroom, without the hoods on, so the mother can hack the kid up, insisting that she has to do it herself because it's her child. Which means she didn't actually want help. I guess she just wanted them to watch?

But even if she actually had them help her, I have to say that if my child turned into a zombie, I probably wouldn't let my husband sit by on the couch and ask my younger sisters to be the ones to help me. Oh, and before we even get to that climax, we have yet another scene when one of the interchangeable sisters ends up back in the living room again to sit and trade clichés with the father.

Thankfully, at least, the hacking itself is mostly offscreen.

I try to find at least one good thing to say about every film that I watch, but it wasn't easy for this one. I note that inexplicably, the boy's room appeared to be decorated with gruesome artwork of monsters and comic book villains. Are we supposed to infer that his choice of decor has something to do with his fate? The best I can say about this film is that the little boy's make-up looked expertly done.

Lest it seem that I would automatically trash any story with zombies in it, I want to mention that I nominated M.R. Carey's novel The Girl with All the Gifts for both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards this year.


*****
Click here to see my other reviews of Worldfest-Houston short film screenings, including Animation/CGI Shorts, Family Shorts, Drama Shorts, and Science Fiction Shorts.

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