Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Golden Blasters: The National Irish Science Fiction Film Awards

I had such a good time reviewing the Sci-Fi Shorts session at Worldfest-Houston last April that I was thrilled to learn that Shamrokon, the 34th Eurocon (European Science Fiction Convention), would be hosting the National Irish Science Fiction Film Awards, also known as the Golden Blasters. From 40 entries, the program consisted of ten short film finalists, which were screened on Sunday, August 24 for the convention attendees. A jury picked separate winners for Best Film and Best Script (presumably they read the latter ahead of time). And the viewers got to vote for A udience Choice as well. How fun is that? All three awards were then presented at the convention’s closing ceremonies at 6 p.m. the same day.

Overall, these films were of very high quality. An unexpected side benefit for me this time was that I had many friends in attendance so that we could argue over our favorites afterwards. I counted approximately 75 viewers in the audience, and I discussed the films with at least ten other people. I was truly surprised by how varied our reactions were.

At the end of this post I’ll discuss the film festival itself and mention the films that won awards, but for now, here are my reactions to each film, in the order that they were screened. Please note that these descriptions will contain spoilers.

1. Malaise – written and directed by Daniel Beaulieu

This was a very short CGI film about a woman aboard a spaceship who is trying to escape a tentacled monster that has dragged off her male colleague. She gets to the escape pod only to be pulled back by one leg, but manages to fight off the monster with some kind of cutting tool, resulting in blood everywhere. As the escape pod then flies away, the ship begins to break up and the film ends, with perhaps a bit of ambiguity –- did that blood infect her with anything before she got away? The animation was excellent, and I was glad to see the woman save herself. I did view this film, however, as more an audition of technique than a self-contained story. And that’s fine -– I would be willing to hire the animator(s)! Malaise incorporated action, facial expressions, and unique “camera” angles, and its creators can certainly play in the big leagues. I did wonder about the title of the film, though, since "malaise" means discomfort or uneasiness without an easily identifiable cause.

2. The Heebie Jeebies – written and directed by Todd Slawsby

This was an amusing and atmospheric little piece about monsters under the bed. Two siblings clamor for a bedtime story, producing a scary-looking book about the Heebie Jeebies. The mother reluctantly reads the story, and then has to coax the kids to bed. The boy then frightens his younger sister by hiding under her bed, after which he’s lectured by their father about “tempting fate.” The Heebie Jeebies probably aren’t real, says the father, but if they are, then pretending to be them is like inviting them in. A short while later, the father then hides under the little boy’s bed, about which the mother is not happy. The film ends with the entire family sleeping in one bed, while the camera pans down slowly to check if the Heebie Jeebies have accepted that invitation....

This film was really quite funny. There were several “only a kid would say that” lines, and the father’s “uh oh, I’m in the doghouse now” expression after his silly prank is hilarious. In fact, I missed several lines throughout the film because they were drowned out by audience laughter. That made me think about television sitcoms, which are always paced for the laugh response -- we either get the dreaded laugh track, or the reactions of a live studio audience. But now I can’t recall whether films in theaters deliberately try to time comedic lines that carefully. It’s something to think about when scriptwriting, or perhaps, more importantly, when directing. But you might also need a few test viewers so you would know when you will or won’t get the hoped-for laughs.

Favorite small detail in this film: the actual picture book that the mother reads aloud, with an “Olden One Books” logo in the upper corner, very reminiscent of Little Golden Books.

3. Shift – written and directed by James Croke

This was a nifty little film that started with catchy music, showing a man working alone on some mysterious contraption that he fits to his fingers and up his wrists. Meanwhile, the viewer sees newspaper clippings about failed experimental research and discontinued funding, as well as a rat and a bird in the room. Eventually, we learn that this embittered inventor has created a sort of skeletal framework that allows him to jump-shift short distances. At first I was worried he was planning to stalk a woman he watches coming out of an office building, but then we discover his real intention is to rob a bank, using his device to leap/phase through the vault door. There’s no need to give away the entire ending in this review; it’s sufficient to say that this was creative, well-paced, and interesting, and I heard only positive reactions from the audience.

4. Adagio – written and directed by Christian Doran

This film was about a young man who feels compelled to take one last mission for his “General”, in spite of the fact that he has a young woman who is waiting to start their new life together. Some kind of plague has affected a mining colony on Pluto, and the main character is tasked with delivering blood for transfusions. Because the colony needs the blood as quickly as possible, he must travel at a sustained 3.5 gees for ten days, almost certainly a suicide mission due to the damage his body will sustain.

I should start out by saying that many of my fellow audience members really enjoyed this film due to its compelling storyline. Unfortunately, for me the science in this film was too inaccurate to be overlooked. We’re told that robots become unstable at such high g-forces, but it's my understanding that unmanned spacecraft and their onboard computers can withstand much higher g-forces than humans can. In addition, because the man is having trouble breathing and presumably seeing, it’s unrealistic that he would be able to make accurate course corrections using a manual joystick. Finally, I struggled with the visual of the man's entire face covered with blood while his eyes remained perfectly white, since the thin blood vessels in the eyes should burst long before those in the face.

Specific scientific details aside, my main issue with the story is simply that the man didn’t need to go to Pluto in the first place, meaning that the story was set up to create a compelling but to me artificial emotional dilemma. This type of hero sacrifice is often a powerful storytelling device, but I prefer the reason behind the sacrifice to be more believable.

5. Steadfast Stanley – written and directed by John Kim

In this animated short, a dog named Stanley is left at home while his family takes off in a minivan. Stanley, however, notices that his boy has left one of his sneakers behind, and he’s determined to deliver it. What Stanley doesn’t know, however, is that the city has been overrun by zombies. He tracks the boy and his mother to a pet store, but the mother has unfortunately already been turned. Stanley finds his boy cowering inside the store and returns the sneaker, and the two make a run for it together.

This film was both humorous and touching. The audience laughed aloud more than once, such as when Stanley accidentally steps on a car key fob, setting off the car alarm and effectively summoning every zombie in the immediate vicinity. Several of my companions felt that Stanley and his boy were clearly doomed in the end, but I take a more optimistic view: early on, we see leafleted notices that the city is an evacuation zone, suggesting to me that humans may have been able to set up a safe zone not too far away. My husband also thinks he saw a notice about a “cure” posted early in the film. (Here is where I wish repeated viewings were possible before writing a review!). In any case, in spite of my usual anti-zombie bias, I enjoyed this film and felt it added a little something new to the sub-genre. The animation was also smooth and professional.

Favorite small detail in this film, or it would have been if I had actually seen it: my husband tells me that one of the zombies was wearing a Team Canada hockey jersey. I wish I had noticed that, but then again, my husband is Canadian!

6. Anamnesis – written and directed by Ben Goodger

Of the ten films screened, this is the only one I’ve seen before. It was one of my favorites at Worldfest-Houston, and I thought it held up well to a second viewing. In this story, a young man is conducting research using some kind of alien biological substance that allows him to relive a specific memory over and over. In his case it’s the day that had been perfect up until his beloved tragically drowns. Eventually he notices small differences in the various iterations of the memory, and inevitably begins to wonder if he can change things.

I was surprised to find that several fellow viewers did not like the film nearly as much as my husband and I did. Some remarked that it was too long and too repetitive, and another disliked what she called a “weepy clingy girlfriend” (which she felt we also saw in Adagio). Yet another viewer felt that the imagery was heavy-handed and overly self-conscious. I recognize the basis and validity of these criticisms, but in my mind the film transcended what I felt to be minor flaws. I would have loved slightly tighter editing, especially towards the end, but I found this to be a moving film that was lovely to look at. In addition, Sarah Winter was especially effective (my neighbor in the audience remarked on this as well), with an ability to convey complex emotions by her facial expressions alone.

7. Mouse X – written and directed by Justin Tagg

In Mouse X, a man awakes, disoriented, in an armchair to old-time radio music that quickly fades away. He’s holding a bible in which the pages are marked with dotted lines and X’s. He sees a mouse and then a human-sized mouse hole, where he hides when he realizes someone is about to enter the room. A man wearing laboratory goggles and a cleanroom suit, seeing the now empty chair, drags in another sleeping copy of the main character and deposits him in the chair. The man in the mouse hole observes as the new copy wakes up and does exactly what he did only moments earlier. Before long, there are many copies of the same individual playing out every role in the scenario, including that of the lab-suited "jailor." Desperate to break the cycle, the man tries several doors in the corridor and finally finds something different –- but what?

This film, which was 99% dialogue-free, was intricately worked out and very polished. The tone was creepy, like a good episode of The Twilight Zone, and in fact that’s what this film reminded me of. As accomplished as it was, however, I have to admit that I didn’t have much of an emotional reaction to it. But kudos to the creator for an impressive piece of work.

8. Mis-Drop – by Ferand Peek

This is another film that I really need to see again to fully understand what’s going on, because I missed a key element of the story that would have made a difference to my viewing. The story begins with someone paging through computer menus and opening a video file of a rookie mercenary being fitted into a drop suit. The camera is directly on the merc’s face, so all we see for much of the film are the man’s reactions to what he is seeing and hearing. There are some clever exceptions, such as when we see a mechanic’s face reflected in the helmet, and when a comm screen opens up with the dropship pilot’s face. The seasoned mercs tease the rookie for a while over the voice channels, and we learn that he had a fling with the pilot the night before. Finally he drops in to the combat zone where things do not appear to be going well, but it’s very chaotic and difficult to tell what’s happening (which is what I imagine real combat must be like). In the end, we learn that the man is MIA, and the person viewing the video file is searching for a reason to withhold payment to the man’s beneficiaries.

And that was the part I missed. I did get the ending, that the “company” was slimy and was trying to weasel out of payment. But I did not initially understand the film’s opening sequence, with the files labeled as “Forensic Accounting.” Having this bit at both the beginning and end makes it an original framing device for the entire film, as opposed to a bit of novelty at the end, which was how I mistakenly viewed it at first. I still would have had minor issues with the film, as I found it hard to discern the actual dialog amidst all the shouting, and I found the sequences after we left our main character’s first-person POV to look a bit less polished. I also had difficulty caring about the mercs' fate because I didn't know the nature of their mission. But the initial lack of understanding was mine, not the fault of the filmmakers, and I think this film will have wide appeal for fans of first-person shooter games. It even felt a bit like a 4-D theme park attraction (which I mean in a good way), with all the background sound and dialog as well as the first-person visual POV.

9. Waterborne – written by Ryan Coonan & Richard Barcaricchio; directed by Ryan Coonan

The phrase “zombie kangaroos” pretty much says everything you need to know about the plot of this film. Most of my companions got a good laugh from it. It’s a bit of entertainment that does what it set out to do, and there’s a definite audience for it. For me, it was like watching a short version of one of the SyFy Channel’s monster-of-the-week B-movies, which I don’t particularly care for. It’s also, well, zombies. Once again I have to confess to my anti-zombie bias, although in my defense I did finally find a zombie novel recently that I thought was absolutely brilliant. But the reason I thought that book was brilliant was because it offered an interesting and plausible explanation for the phenomenon, and because it added something that felt completely new to the subgenre. Even Steadfast Stanley offered something slightly different with the silly but loyal dog point-of-view. But this film, while it technically offers something new, namely zombie kangaroos, didn’t feel original, and the kangaroo itself looked a bit ridiculous (although no worse than what I’ve seen in SyFy movies while channel surfing). Next week we could have zombie koala bears or zombie armadillos or zombie squirrels, and these still wouldn’t actually add anything to the genre. One of my companions pointed out that zombie storytelling that goes beyond the fluff entertainment level is not about the zombies, but rather about the human response to them, and I completely agree. She, however, was still able to appreciate this particular film for what it was, whereas I had a harder time of it.

10. On/Off – written and directed by Thierry Lorenzi

In On/Off, a woman who seems to be having a panic attack injects herself in the neck with an unknown substance before calming down and donning a spacesuit. Over an intercom, a man directs the woman, whom we learn is named Meredith, to a specific relay on the outside of the space station they inhabit, and before long she begins having hallucinations that are at first pleasing to her. However, she soon begins to panic again, hearing a child’s voice say that he misses her. (Major spoiler alert) Annoyed, the man aboard the station tells Meredith that the child’s voice is from a recording more than eighty years old, and that she needs to remember that she is no longer human, but rather a machine that he is getting tired of recalibrating. The camera then draws back to show a bald female torso suspended in midair by many cables.

This film, in French with English subtitles, features an extremely realistic space environment. It’s yet another of the festival’s selections that I would like to see again, because I think that knowing Meredith’s true nature going in may reveal subtle cues cleverly planted by the film’s creators. For instance, one of Meredith’s hallucinations during her breakdown is that she is no longer wearing a spacesuit glove, and her skin is therefore exposed to vacuum, which cannot be true if she is actually human. I think this knowledge will also make me more patient with the film’s pacing, which dragged slightly for me when the hallucinations seemed abstract and random. In any event, I like this film more the longer I think about it, although I still find it disappointing that the Meredith-torso looks too much like a flesh-colored version of the Borg Queen from the movie Star Trek: First Contact. I also didn’t find the robot/AI that didn’t know its own nature to be a terribly original concept, but I thought it was heartfelt and very well executed.


Festival coordinator John Vaughan and jurors Maura McHugh and Michael Carroll presented the awards, with Mr. Vaughan noting that they had received 40 entries. (I’m not certain whether that includes both the films themselves and the written screenplay entries.) Ms. McHugh noted the two honorable mentions in the screenplay category (Once a Hero by Neil Chase and The Almost Dead by Stanley B. Eisenhammer) and then announced that the Golden Blaster for Best Screenplay went to absent winner Benjamin A. Friedman for Borders of the Imagination. She read a charming acceptance speech written by Mr. Friedman, whom she mentioned was eighteen years old. The audience was suitably impressed.

The Golden Blaster for Audience Choice went to Steadfast Stanley, which I did not find surprising. First, the film was touching and funny, and second, most of the other entries garnered much more diverse opinions than this one did. I myself had voted for Anamnesis, because it was the one that moved me the most. We each only got one choice, but had we had more, I would have voted for Shift second and Steadfast Stanley third. I can’t say I’m unhappy that Steadfast Stanley won, though. I will say that while I don’t think the festival needs to add more awards, or even to allow the audience more than one choice, I would have liked knowing which films came in second and third in the audience count.

The juried award for Best Film was then presented to On/Off. I was a little surprised by this at first, but the judges mentioned that this was the one film they realized they kept coming back to in their discussions. I can see why that would be.

As for the festival itself, there were only a few small changes I would have suggested. Audience ballots were not handed out until the end of the screenings, and while I was able to take notes the entire time on a portable keyboard, I heard someone say they wish they had had the ballot ahead of time so they could jot down some notes throughout the screenings. I also would have liked more information about the entries just for my own knowledge after the fact, such as the length of the film, the country of origin, and so on. A page in the convention program book devoted to the Golden Blasters did list the finalists for both the film and screenplay categories, but it only noted the titles and the names of the writers/directors with no additional details. I also would have liked more complete information about the number of film entries versus screenplay entries, and perhaps information about next year’s festival. Space-wise, this would have required at least one or two more pages in the convention program book, or perhaps a simple standalone flyer, and I can understand if expense was a factor.

Overall, I enjoyed this festival even more than Worldfest-Houston. The overall quality of the entries was high, and it was fun to share the experience with a larger, enthusiastic audience. A colleague commented that she would love to see works like these nominated for the Hugo Award in the Dramatic Presentation-Short Form category, and I completely agree. We wondered, though, whether some film festival requirements might keep filmmakers from using YouTube or other venues to make their films widely available before they're entered in those festivals. I know that Worldfest-Houston gives preference to world premiere films when making its screening selections, and at the very least expects entries to be making a Texas premiere. If these kinds of rules are common, that might disqualify films that have already appeared freely online. This is something I need to research a little more since I’m still very new to the film festival experience.

If you haven’t been to a film festival, I urge you to give it a try. The filmmakers and the people who put on the festivals obviously pour their hearts into what they do, and they have a lot to share with us.

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