Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Worldfest-Houston 2017: Sci-Fi Shorts

The 50th Annual Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival

Sci-Fi Shorts
Saturday, April 22, 2017, 3:00 p.m.

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Rebel Scum

Director: Timothy Van Nguyen
Screenwriter: Paul Van Nguyen
Length: 9:07 minutes
Category: Animation/Sci-Fi
Country: Canada
Links: Official film

In this Star Wars fan film, a Rebel pilot is stranded following the battle on Hoth. After destroying an Imperial probe droid, he finds a wounded Stormtrooper and comes up with a way to save himself.

This short film is obviously a true labor of love. In fact, it so accurately recreates the atmosphere of The Empire Strikes Back that I initially wondered if it was using footage from the original movie, but the filmmakers' website says that it was made "over a period of 2 months on the Athabasca Glacier situated on the Columbia icefield in Alberta, Canada." When an AT-AT, aka Imperial Walker, comes into view, the difference in skill level between the original material and this film are slightly more apparent, but the stop-motion animation was still incredibly impressive.

[MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW]

At a scant nine minutes long, this work seemed to be more about the technical challenges than about the actual story. There is a plot, of course; the pilot exchanges his flight suit for the Stormtrooper's snow armor, presumably enabling himself to hitch a ride off-planet with the Empire. But the plot is very slight indeed.

While I don't want to undermine the success of the film's technical execution, two things kept me from fully enjoying the story. First, I knew that the Stormtrooper was a woman the moment I saw her even though her armor was identical to every other Imperial soldier and she was sitting down, so if her gender was intended to be a surprise, it didn't work for me. Second, I didn't believe the Rebel pilot could exchange their apparel so completely out in the bitter cold.

My minor nitpicks notwithstanding, the filmmakers deserve a lot of credit for the amount of work put into this short film.

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Windows

Director: Maru Buendia-Senties
Screenwriter: Maru Buendia-Senties
Length: 13:00 minutes
Category: Sci-Fi
Country: United States
Link: Film's webpage

This little bilingual (English and Spanish) film was a real treat, visually and otherwise. A woman living in an almost-all-white apartment goes jogging before coming back home to work at some unspecified task on a transparent computer display. Her routine rarely varies, although she does take time out to fold colorful origami hot air balloons, which provide not only the apartment's only color, but also it's only non-functional decor. One day she is surprised and pleased to see another woman through her transparent window, but when she tries to locate the other woman's apartment, she keeps ending up back where she started.

I won't spoil this one, but I will say that the story was right up my alley. The visuals, including creative camera angles, striking white-and-color contrasts, and computer graphics, were stunning. The spare dialogue was effective, and even the music was notable, resulting in a lovely short film that proves how much story can be told in a short time. My only quibble is that I felt the third character, shown only briefly, was unnecessary.

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Might

Director: Emil Sallinen
Screenwriter: Emil Sallinen
Length: 8:53 minutes
Category: Sci-Fi
Country: Finland
Link: Film's trailer

In "Might", the viewer is transported back and forth between scenes showing a female rebel entering some kind of tomb or ruin and being captured, and the same female standing with three other condemned prisoners in a futuristic coliseum while a religious overlord addresses the vast crowd that is there to witness the executions.

[MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW]

While I liked the look of this film, I found it a bit difficult to follow what was going on. The program description says that Maryam is a rebel leader who is "set to prove that the god hovering in the sky is a lie." But she is stopped by "a holy warrior that turns out to be her lost father. Soon their lives change as they are about to find out a secret only a god can keep."

Unfortunately, I did not take any of that away from my viewing of the film. While it was obvious that the rebel knew the older male warrior who at first tried to capture her and then took her side, only to be arrested along with her, I'm not sure there was any way the audience could figure out their actual relationship. My initial take on the story before reading the description was that the woman was a tomb raider of some kind, and the place she entered was the ancient ruin of the place where the executions had taken place long before, possibly thousands of years ago. I thought that perhaps the ruins retained some kind of telepathic or empathic energy, making this woman briefly flash back to what had happened to the actual rebel, so that she feels as though she is experiencing it herself even though it happened to someone else long before. I probably went in this mental direction because that's something a Star Trek episode would do, and to be honest, I think it would have been a more interesting story this way.

At any rate, the film looked polished, and gave off the vibe of an interesting video game set-up, but for me the storytelling was a little muddled.

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Amoriph

Director: April Campion
Screenwriter: Greg Beck
Length: 13:41 minutes
Category: Drama/Sci-Fi
Country: United States
Link: Film's IMDB page

This film begins with a PSA announcement stating that contamination in the water supply has led to a pandemic; citizens must therefore seek treatment before it's too late, and be mindful of the boundaries of the protective zones. A doctor in a hospital works frantically on a cure, while a law enforcement or military officer ominously warns him not to do anything he will regret. Without getting into spoilers, I can say that the plot veers towards a somewhat generic dystopian police state story. The specifics of the plague were not terribly clear, in part because the doctor conveniently tells his wife that he doesn't have time to explain any details to her.

Although there were some aspects of the story that showed promise, I was bothered by the fact that the officer was rather clich├ęd, showing up suddenly at various times and somehow knowing that the doctor was defying him. In addition, it bothers me when films show some characters in hazmat suits while other characters at the exact same location wear no protection at all. It always makes me feel as though the hazmat suits are just there to show the audience that the situation is "serious," but that's kind of thrown out the window by leaving other characters completely vulnerable. It's possible the argument could be made that only the workers who have to try and physically restrain an infected patient need suits, but I don't really buy that. In addition, the film ends abruptly with little resolution.

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Alibi

Director: Cameron Burnett
Screenwriter: Cameron Burnett
Length: 33:05 minutes
Category: Drama
Country: United States
Link: Film's IMDB page

Due to technical difficulties, two films scheduled for this session couldn't be screened, and a work titled "Alibi", which was a straight drama piece, was substituted instead. At 33 minutes, it was the longest film in the session, which was unfortunate since it wasn't science fiction. In any case, it was beautifully acted, although I found it a little slow in its pacing and not as engaging as I'd hoped it would be. A young man sleeps with his brother's wife, goes for an early morning walk in a fit of guilt, and stumbles upon a murder scene. Because his alibi would reveal their adultery, he refuses to defend himself because he doesn't want to hurt his brother.

I'm afraid I found the story quite predictable, although that's not to say it wasn't moving. The three leads (Judah McFadden, Lorynn York, and Nate Scholz) were fantastic, and set the acting bar so high that the other, more minor performances suffered a little by comparison. I also thought that this film had a polish to it that was a cut above most of the other film festival works I've seen in the last few years. For instance, it's a small thing, but the sets looked completely natural, rather than staged or self-conscious. Little things do matter.

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My next post will be on Sunday's "Animated / Family Shorts."

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

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