Monday, April 7, 2014

Sci-Fi Shorts at Worldfest-Houston 2014

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

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

This Sci-Fi Shorts session consisted of five films:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Unknown said...

Wow Amy, thank you so much for your kind words toward I Remember the Future. I am glad you enjoyed the film. When you get a review like this it truly makes all the hard work worthwhile.

Kind regards
Zané Pyper

Amy Sisson said...

Zané, you're very welcome! I hope lots of other folks will get the chance to see it!

Cathy said...

I Remember the Future - can't wait to see the film in Adelaide. I have it on good authority that the Library scene was filmed in the Melbourne Library. Special permission was granted to enable this to happen. Glad you liked the authenticity :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Amy, thank you so much for your lovely review of Anamnesis! Very happy to hear you liked it!

All the best,
Chiara (producer of Anamnesis)

Amy Sisson said...

Hi Cathy! As a librarian, I really liked that scene. :-)

MChiara Ventura, you are very welcome. It was quite lovely.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for the kind words Amy. I'm so glad you enjoyed the film. (Jeff Ray, writer/director WTRFL)

Amy Sisson said...

Jeff, you're most welcome! (Sorry it took so long to put your comment through -- I was away for a week and forgot to check!)

Peggy said...

Jeff Ray – writer/director of “Where the Red Fox Lies”
is in pre-production for his feature film “Deliver Me From Glory”.
Find more info:

Check out the IndieGoGo campaign, donate if you can and share!
Thank you

His latest music video has a nice write up in Rolling Stone