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.

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.

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.

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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