Thursday, April 21, 2016

Worldfest-Houston 2016: Sci-Fi/Thriller Shorts

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

A Shadow of Dara

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Bang Bang Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

The Clock Makers Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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