Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Short Fiction - April 2015

Although I'm still reading genre stories the vast majority of the time, a few mainstream stories are finding their way into the mix, such as "The Old Beauty" by Willa Cather and "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I also "read" a podcast story this month, which isn't something I do often but would like to do more in the future.

In any case, here are my favorite stories from April.

Favorite Short Stories read in April 2015

(alphabetical by author)


"Gray Wings" by Karl Bunker

In this story, a woman named Amy is taking part in a human flight race, powered by nanotechnology that has not only given her wings, but also allows her to live off whatever plants she finds and regenerate via sunlight. When she crash lands into a barn in a remote part of the (still) developing world, she's reminded in a very personal way of the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

That description might lead you to believe the story is too simplistic, but it really isn't. It has lovely writing, a solid and original science fiction premise, and characters I cared about. In addition, I think the story spoke to me because that gap is something I think about a lot and incorporate into my own fiction.

"Gray Wings" originally appeared in the April/May 2013 issue of Asimov's, but I read it in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois.


"Lures, Hooks and Tails" by Alan Colston

Did you know that Daily Science Fiction has a button that says "Take me to a random story"? And if you want to stack the deck a little bit, you can check the box that says "top-rated stories only." That's how I came across this story, which was published in 2011.

For me, "Lures, Hooks and Tails" turned out to be a tidy, mild horror story -- well, mild for the reader, but maybe not so much for the main character. A teenage boy encounters an attractive woman on a train, and is intrigued when she tells him that she see things in glass windows. I don't want to give anything else away; why not go read it since it will only take a few minutes? It's well worth it. Just don't get lured (yes, that was on purpose) into repeatedly clicking that random story button, or you could be there for a while!


"Taste the Whip" by Andy Dudak

This story was the first to be published in Diabolical Plots, the webzine created by David Steffen, who also provides the invaluable writing resource called the Submission Grinder.

(SPOILERS AHEAD) In this story, vast sentient spaceships roam the universe, and come to pod gatherings every few millennia. They allow human "systems" to grow inside them, populations that do not know they are living inside spaceships. One such ship, Parvati, has a "revelator" among her human population, or a person who has discovered the nature of its "universe." Parvati is therefore supposed to destroy the population, or at least abandon the humans on a planet somewhere, but instead she longs to submit to their will. This tendency is part of her very identity, and as such I found this to be a unique examination of that inclination, encompassed in an interesting, original premise. Read here.


"Loud as a Murder" by Sarah L. Johnson

Crossed Genres Magazine has taken the art of themed issues to a new level. Each month, they publish three stories based on a theme announced months before, so that writers have time to come up with new and unique ways to interpret the theme.

For the April 2015 issue, that theme was "Silent Communications", and author Sarah L. Johnson blew me away with her creative, moving interpretation of that idea. A gay, high-functioning autistic man who works as a proofreader at home lives for each Tuesday, when Dev, the UPS driver to whom he's strongly attracted, delivers and picks up manuscripts. I don't want to say more and risk ruining the story, which you can read here.


"Listening to It Rain" by Sandra Odell

(SPOILERS AHEAD) This was the free story on QuarterReads this week and I thought it was just lovely. A boy named Ben waits at his favorite fishing spot for his more-than-a-friend Alan to join him, but not all is as it first seems. It turns out that Ben has once again left his grave, discontent to stay buried in the ground while Alan lives on.

This isn't a ghost story, since Ben is moving his physical corpse. It's not a zombie story either. It's a sad love story, and quite powerful for one that's just over 1,000 words. I also like that the title takes on significance as you reach the end of the story. Available here (although after this week you'll have to drop a quarter in the "slot" to read it).


"The Serial Killer's Astronaut Daughter" by Damien Angelica Walters

I really enjoyed this story about a female astronaut on a commercial space station, who is unwillingly thrust into the spotlight when her birth father, whom she has never met, turns out to be a notorious serial killer. The astronaut just wants to do her job, but suddenly her next contract is in jeopardy because of this negative attention -- in a way that would not happen if she were male.

The ending of this story felt just right to me, and that's often the hardest part for an author to get right. I also smiled at the many pop cultural references to the movie Aliens. This story can be found in Strange Horizons here.



Other stories read in April 2015:

(alphabetical by author)

- "Exit Strategies" by Amy Blakemore
- "Before Breakfast" by Willa Cather
- "The Best Years" by Willa Cather
- "The Old Beauty" by Willa Cather
- "She Just Looks That Way" by Eric Choi
- "Options" by Jack Cooper
- "Things that Matter" by Amanda C. Davis
- "Robo-rotica" by Sarina Dorie
- "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- "The Man Who Murdered Himself" by Nancy Fulda
- "Don't Answer" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
- "Out Shopping in Hyperspace" by Michelle Ann King
- "Veil of Ignorance" by David Barr Kirtley
- "A Midnight Carnival at Sunset" by Terra LeMay
- "The Last Summer" by Ken Liu
- "The Plague" by Ken Liu
- "Grinpa" by Brian K. Lowe
- "Earl Billings and the Angels of the Lord" by James Maxey
- "Fleet" by Sandra McDonald
- "A Heap of Broken Images" by Sunny Moraine
- "Clean Space" by Stephen Myers
- "Cat Got Your Tongue?" by Jason J. Nugent
- "Report on the Testing of PK563217M" by Martin Owton
- "N is for Nevermore Nevermore Land" by Tim Pratt, Jenn Reese, Heather Shaw, and Greg van Eekhout
- "Just Behind the Ear" by Owen Rapine
- "Boneshadow" by Jessica Reisman (podcast)
- "Far" by Dean E.S. Richard
- "Nine Thousand Hours" by Iona Sharma
- "The Velveteen Golem" by David Sklar
- "The Best We Can" by Carrie Vaughn
- "Blue Sand" by Caroline M. Yoachim
- "Bread Babies" by Caroline M. Yoachim
- "Wolfchild" by Steve Zipp
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Monday, April 27, 2015

Imagine Me & You

I don't know how many folks have heard of Imagine Me & You; I certainly can't remember where I came across it, but I've only just watched it for the first time. What you know going in is pretty much represented in the movie poster: Piper Perabo and Lena Headey seem to be attracted to each other, but Piper is obviously getting married. So I was expecting a same-sex romantic comedy, which maybe it is, but it's also more serious than that.

The basic set-up is that Luce (Headey) is a florist in London delivering the flowers to a wedding, although she hasn't yet met the bridal couple because the bride's mother has made all those arrangements. Just as Rachel (Perabo) is walking down the aisle to marry the man who's been her boyfriend and best friend as long as she can remember, she and Luce see each other for the first time and are immediately drawn to each other. Rachel initially chalks it up to a simple connection with a kindred spirit, but before long she realizes it's more than that. Luce, who is openly gay, knows immediately what is happening but doesn't believe in mucking around with other people's relationships.

There's a lot that's both amusing and sweet in this movie, particularly Rachel's much younger sister, "H", who constantly asks questions about why people don't have dessert (or pudding) after breakfast, why the alphabet's in that particular order, and what happens when an irresistible force meets an unmovable object. But the movie is serious too. It would be a lot easier to root for Rachel and Luce if Heck, Rachel's husband, weren't the nicest guy on the planet (and pretty damn cute too). Rachel has no desire to hurt him, and certainly doesn't intend to leave him, but she also has the example of her parents' fairly loveless marriage right there in front of her.

Speaking of parents, I liked the relationship that Rachel has with her father, played by Anthony Head of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, and that Luce has with her mother, played by Sue Johnston. And even the standard shallow best man, Coop (Darren Boyd), is a pretty likeable shallow best man. The real highlights, though, are Boo Jackson as H (she hasn't been in any other film before or since), and the chemistry between Rachel and Luce.

On another note, I've found that one of the best ways to find little-known films that you're likely to like is to watch the previews on the DVDs of other little-known films. I'm pretty sure that's where my next movie review is coming from.
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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Worldfest-Houston 2015: Summing Up

This year, I saw a total of 32 different short films from five different sessions: Animation/CGI Shorts, Drama Shorts, Family Shorts, Science Fiction Shorts, and Fantasy Shorts. Here is a list of the films that I think are particularly worth seeking out, in alphabetical order by title:

Death and the Robot
Director/Screenwriter Austin Taylor and Screenwriter Alex Thompson
Animated/CGI Shorts

The Devil Goes Down
Director/Screenwriter Nicholas Julius
Family Shorts

Dust
Director/Screenwriter Mike Grier and Screenwriters Jason Gallaty and Josh Grier
Animated/CGI Shorts (and Fantasy Shorts)

Flash
Director/Screenwriter Alberto Ruiz Rojo
Fantasy Shorts

Humanexus
Director/Screenwriter Ying-Fang Shen
Animated/CGI Shorts

Just Another Dance with My Father
Director Rob J. Greenlea and Screenwriter Diane Musselman
Drama Shorts

The Oceanmaker
Director/Screenwriter: Lucas Martell
Animated/CGI Shorts (and Fantasy Shorts)

Owned
Director/Screenwriter Wesley Tippers and Director Daniel Clark
Animated/CGI Shorts

Peppermint
Director/Screenwriter Jay Hubert
Family Shorts

Perfect State
Director/Screenwriter Tim Mackenzie-Smith and Screenwriter Ryan Philpott
Sci-Fi Shorts



And although it's comparing apples to oranges since there is such range of style and topic in this list, my favorite of the 32 films I saw was Flash. I felt it was the perfect example of restraint, of making the film exactly as long as it needed to be and not one moment longer. It also transcended the need for dialogue, which cannot possibly be easy to do. It was just a beautiful film that I wish more people could see.

I also had some other thoughts about the festival in general. First, I think it's a shame that attendance isn't better. A film festival of this size and quality is one of the perks of living in the fourth largest city in the country, so why aren't more people taking advantage of it? It's possible they just don't know about it; nobody I know had heard of this festival until I told them about it. I'd love it in particular if the festival could reach out to science fiction and fantasy fandom groups in the area, and perhaps targeting them with advertising specific to the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Shorts.

Second, I wish there were a little more interaction between the filmmakers and what few non-filmmaker viewers are there. The filmmakers presumably interact with one another at the seminars, the hotel, and the awards events. But although the folks announcing the sessions said a few times that there would be time for Q&A after the films, it didn't happen in any of the five screenings I got to. The theater complex was not overly crowded any of the times I was there, so I would love to see a few tables set up where the filmmakers in attendance would go immediately after their screening session, with their names and film titles on table tents, and be available to talk. Attendance would need to be tackled before this, though, so there would be enough people there to talk to them.

Third, there were so many more films I wish I could have seen. Unfortunately for me, I have a standing conflicting event the first weekend of the festival every year, so I missed a bunch of short film screenings. Also unfortunately, I desperately wanted to see the Comedy Shorts but they were screened directly against the Sci-Fi Shorts.

Fourth, this isn't important, but I find it amusing that it takes two hours for me to watch any given short film session, and then it takes from three to five hours to write about it. Whew!

Finally, I really enjoyed what I saw of this festival. I'm looking forward to next year.
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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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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Worldfest-Houston 2015: Science Fiction Shorts

[Poster from "Prelude to Axanar", Christian Gossett, Director]

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

On Sunday I saw the Sci Fi Shorts screening at the Worldfest-Houston film festival, including "Prelude to Axanar", an independent Star Trek project. Although that film was the first screened of the group, I'm going to talk about it last because it's the one about which I have the most to say. In the meantime, here are the other films from the session.

(I apologize in advance for the long and opinionated nature of this post. If there's anything in the world I feel strongly about, it's science fiction.)


Chryzinium
Director: Rick Lord
Screenwriter: Rick Lord
Length: 26:19 minutes
Category: Science Fiction/Live Action
Country: USA
Film website

In this film, a man has decided not to partake of a drug that extends life spans and reduces disease, but comes with a price attached: your every movement is monitored. Having lost his wife years before, he tries to shield his daughter Madison from the world, which is becoming harder all the time since the few remaining holdouts are apparently not allowed to hold jobs or buy provisions, and instead have to resort to begging, borrowing, or stealing what they need. To make matters worse, Madison's older brother has already gone over to the other side.

This was an interesting enough premise, but the pacing was quite slow, and seemed even slower due a constant background thrumming on the soundtrack. (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD) There's actually an explanation for the thrumming in the end; as the camera pulls away from the shabby house where the man and his daughter live, we see a huge alien spacecraft filling the entire sky. This also explains the strange and dangerous electrical storms that happen without warning.

While I liked the explanation, I felt that the film might have been more effective had we not actually seen what the aliens look like. They visit periodically to leave packets of the drug behind, deliberately appearing to Madison when her father is not there, and it looks like they may be gaining ground with her. Unfortunately, the alien's make-up and special effects looked out of place in this otherwise professional-looking film. The ending view of the spaceship looked amazing, but I couldn't take the actual alien seriously. Viewers have powerful imaginations, and sometimes letting them imagine something is even scarier than showing it to them.



Phoenix
Director: Florian Frerichs
Screenwriter: Florian Frerichs
Length: 12:10 minutes
Category: Science Fiction
Country: Germany
Behind the Scenes/Interviews

In "Phoenix", a "firefighter" burns books, which are forbidden, but an encounter with a young woman makes him rethink his position. This short film was visually beautiful, and it's a good story, but it's also a common one -- weren't they specifically called "firefighters" in Fahrenheit 451 too?

Even if this weren't such a direct re-telling, there is a much used science fiction trope consisting of: a controlling government that forbids something; a main character who is an enforcer, often turning in one of his or her closest friends; and that same character eventually seeing the light and turning to the other side, thereby becoming a fugitive so that the hunter becomes the hunted. Think Logan's Run, Equilibrium, Minority Report....

Still, it's a good story. But there was something I wondered about: at one point, the main character goes to a safe behind a painting in his home, and opens it to show three books, which (I think) were by Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Stephen Hawking. My question is, did he already have those books before he met the girl? If he did, then his meeting her was much less significant, because the transition had already begun. I wish the film had made clear how long he had had those books.



Nostalgic
Director: Ronald Eltanal
Screenwriter: Ronald Eltanal
Length: 11:11 minutes
Category: Science Fiction
Country: USA
Trailer

The program book describes this story as "An aging scientist must decide whether to continue taking an experimental drug that reconnects him to loved ones in his crumbling past, at the risk of being unable to form new memories." Basically, he takes the drug to be able to "see" his now-dead wife. This film is strikingly similar to "Anamnesis", which I saw at both Worldfest-Houston 2014 and Golden Blasters film festival at the European Science Fiction Convention in Dublin last year.

To be clear, I'm absolutely not suggesting that anything inappropriate happened; there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of short films made each year, and sometimes coincidental similarities will crop up. I do find it amusing that the memories of the dead wife are on the beach, as were the memories of the dead girlfriend in "Anamnesis". I guess it's because there's something about a certain lens focus on a beach scene that makes an otherwise normally attractive woman seem utterly, even painfully beautiful.

I'm not sure if we're meant to conclude at the end that the man did or did not ultimately stop taking the drug, but I liked that he had recorded a message for his grandson.



Perfect State
Director: Tim Mackenzie-Smith
Screenwriters: Ryan Philpott; Tim Mackenzie-Smith
Length: 21:07 minutes
Category: Science Fiction
Country: UK
Trailer

"Perfect State" is another Big Brother/haves-and-have-nots film, but lest that sound like an overly harsh criticism, this one had some unique angles to it and was a lot of fun.

(MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD) In this case, people wear wristbands that show different colors depending on the person's state of employment and the level of their bank accounts. Anyone who goes red is a "pov" (short for poverty, I assume) and can be arrested and forced into service for VitaKorp, which puts people to work doing menial jobs -- and, as we later find out, drugs them to keep them docile. The main character, Neil, is a banker who suddenly finds himself dangerously close to red when he gets fired and his girlfriend cleans out their bank account. Even worse, she and Neil's best friend betray Neil so they can have their 15 minutes of fame on a reality television show; they've tipped off John "Jack" Hunter, whose chases povs down on TV while delivering his trademarked line, "Gotcha!"

One thing I really enjoyed about this movie was the number of layers. We see not only the reality, but the reality television show. Then we see behind those scenes as Hunter's make-up is applied and he is interviewed, all the while insisting that he's not an actor. Then we see behind those scenes when the interviewer talks to a friend or a co-worker about Hunter.

To be sure, this movie's message is a little in-your-face at times, with a slick VitaKorp representative appearing on screens all over London reminding people that this was what they asked for when they contracted out and eliminated social services. But I think on some level, the "in-your-face" nature is part of the message too, because that's what constant advertising and reality television are themselves. In any case, it was a fun film with a message I agreed with (Americans sure seem to hate poor people!), and the actor who played Hunter was terrific.



The Wheel of Time
Director: Kağan Kerimoğlu
Screenwriter: Kağan Kerimoğlu
Length: 11:57 minutes
Category: Student/Science Fiction
Country: Turkey
Trailer


This was another film about government control, which seemed to be the theme of the day. The government has told people they now have immortality, but it secretly murders its citizens, and locks them in houses so they cannot communicate with each other. They have screens that the government turns on remotely when it wants to deliver a message. A hacker attempts to get the information out to the people, and becomes a target.

This film didn't quite work for me, in large part because the villain, presumably a representative of government, was portrayed as a sadistic, violent thug, dressed in a t-shirt and leather jacket. I would have found quiet, understated menace much more effective, like Agent Smith in The Matrix. The film's ending was abrupt and inconclusive, and I was never sure how the title or the use of the ouroborous (a symbol of a serpent or dragon eating its own tail) tied into the story.


Prelude to Axanar
Director: Christian Gossett
Screenwriters: Alec Peters; Christian Gossett
Length: 21:10 minutes
Category: Science Fiction
Country: USA
Film website

This is the film I was most looking forward to in this session, because I'm a rather enthusiastic Star Trek fan; I've had some short stories published in the officially licensed Star Trek anthologies from Pocket Books; I'd not yet seen any of the non-traditionally produced screen versions of Trek, some of which are highly regarded; and I knew this particular project boasts a terrific cast.

I'd expected this would be a short adventure of some kind, but instead it was a "documentary" sponsored by the United Federation of Planets Historical Society. Several key players from the historical battle of Axanar, which apparently was a turning point in the Four Years War between the Klingons and the Federation, are "interviewed" about their memories of events leading up to and during the battle. The interviewees are Klingon Supreme Commander Kharn (Richard Hatch), Admiral Marcus Ramirez (Tony Todd), Captain Sonya Alexander (Kate Vernon), Captain Samuel Travis (J.G. Hertzler), Vulcan Ambassador Soval (Gary Graham, reprising this role from Star Trek: Enterprise), and Captain Kelvar Garth of Izar (Alec Peters).

I was surprised, then, when casting actually turned out to be a bit of an issue for me. I admire Richard Hatch beyond words for the way he embraced the role of Tom Zarek in the new Battlestar Galactica. He had been trying for years to get his own revival of the show off the ground, based on his original character Apollo. So it was a huge disappointment for him when the new version of the show was instead a reboot -- but they offered him a recurring guest role as Zarek, which turned out to be a fairly juicy part but a far cry from the leading role. He was terrific as Zarek.

So when I say that I think Hatch was rather miscast as a Klingon in this iteration of Trek, it has nothing to do with his acting ability. Half the time I think the actors in Klingon roles are chosen primarily for their voices, which are generally booming, aggressive, and distinctive. Hatch's voice, on the other hand, is understated and dignified, and the contrast was especially apparent here because his interview snippets are intercut with everyone else's, including J.G. Hertzler as Captain Travis. This is significant because Hertzler played Martok, one of the best loved Klingon characters with one of the most distinctive voices, on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

In addition, I'm not sure that Alec Peters has the screen presence to carry what I presume is the lead role of Captain Garth, although it is perhaps unfair to say that based just on this short film. But Peters is the creative force behind this entire project; the film's website states that Peters wrote "the story" of "Garth of Izar", who appeared in a single episode of the original series, years ago. He wanted it to look like a real film instead of a fan film, though, so he waited until he could raise some money and bring in an experienced director.

The thing is, it still is a fan film, and to me it feels specifically like a wish fulfillment fan film. Even the fact that Garth is called "Garth of Izar" gives it that "it's about me!" vibe, although for all I know there's a very good reason the character is referred to that way. So although I'm impressed that Peters has been able to put together this huge project, much of which is crowdfunded, I think it was a mistake to cast himself in this role, the same way I think it's almost always a mistake for fiction editors to include their own stories in anthologies they're editing. I think Hatch should have been cast as Garth and someone else should have been cast as the Klingon Supreme Commander. Not Hertzler -- his Klingon voice will always be Martok -- but someone with a more savage, aggressive demeanor than Hatch exhibited.

Casting aside, this film was certainly impressive in its special effects, with many scenes of shipyards in space, debris in the aftermath of battles, and futuristic cityscapes. The only effect I thought fell a little short was when one of the cities was attacked by spaceships; the actual explosions and fire looked superimposed on the scene rather than a part of it.

[A side note to the creators: I caught at least one reference to "Garth and Sonya." In other words, men are called by their last names and women by their first. This is Star Trek, a future in which women are treated equally. The Voyager crew referred to Janeway as Janeway, not as Kate or Katherine. Surely these characters can do the same for Captain Alexander. Maybe it was a mistake giving her a last name that's also a male first name, but that doesn't mean it's okay to refer to her differently than everyone else.]

In the end, there wasn't a lot of story here because this really is a creative way to do an extended trailer. I enjoyed J.G. Hertzler as Travis the most; his delivery of the lines was so natural that it felt like they were unscripted. Tony Todd also gave an effective and rousing speech (he has one of those voices too). I wish the project luck, but I can't say I'm overly excited about it. Part of the issue for me is that I am inherently biased against prequels, because we already know how the story is going to end. That's not to say it's never worth exploring and expanding, but Star Trek: Enterprise was always a little flat for me for the same reason.

*****
Click here to see my other reviews of Worldfest-Houston short film screenings, including Animation/CGI Shorts, Family Shorts, Drama Shorts, and Fantasy Shorts.
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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. (Hmm, I just realized there's a ridiculous number of numbers in that sentence!)


Hurt
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.


Reversion
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.


Peppermint
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.



Anchovies
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.


Aurora
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.


Humanexus
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.


Owned
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
Film

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.


Dust
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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