Sunday, September 2, 2018

Short Fiction - August 2018

Short Fiction - August 2018

I've finally managed to re-start my short fiction reading project, in which I read at least one short work every day and then blog about my favorites each month. In August, I read a total of 39 stories. Without further ado, here are my three favorites of the month.

"Who Will Greet You At Home?" by Leslie Nneka Arimah

Length: 5,602 words
Category: Short story - Fantasy
Where Published: The New Yorker
When Published: 2015-10-26
Illustration by Jeffrey Fisher

This author is new to me. In this story, women fashion babies from materials at hand -- yarn, mud, twigs -- and have their own mothers bless the child into life. Women without mothers, or who do not get along with their mothers, can buy or barter for a blessing in backroom transactions that may literally cost them some of their own joy or empthy. Ogechi has tried again and again to make a baby that can withstand the physical dangers of a hard world, until finally in frustration she does the forbidden, creating a baby made of the hair of many women.

It's a little hard for me to put my finger on why I enjoyed this story so much, especially as it's a bit grim. But I definitely liked the inventiveness of this concept, and the emotions that it evoked. There's a literary element to this piece that makes it right at home in The New Yorker, yet it's more accessible than I find many of that publication's stories to be.

"Your Great Journey" by Ash Harrington

Length: 1,010 words
Category: Short story - Fantasy
Where Published: Daily Science Fiction
When Published: 2018-08-17

Second-person POV is becoming more widespread these days, and that's fine as long as it works within the given story. Here it most certainly does, at least as far as I'm concerned. In this piece, which is just a smidge over a thousand words, "you" have died on your fifteenth birthday, and you feel a little lost as you hang around your house and your grave. Your family and friends can see you, as is the norm in this world, but you're surprised at how uncomfortable they seem to be around you. This is a nicely told story in a small, tight package.

"The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections" by Tina Connolly

Length: 7,845 words
Category: Novelette - Fantasy
Where Published:
When Published: 2018-07-11
Illustrated by Anna & Elena Balbusso

In this beautifully written novelette, Saffron and her husband Danny were reasonably happy as the village bakers, but Danny's talents for infusing his sweet and savory confections with a little something extra make him known to the Regent, who imprisons the couple and forces them to work for him. Not trusting the pair, the Regent prevents them from communicating with one another, and makes Saffron act as his pastry taster lest Danny try to poison him. The sadistic ruler holds lavish dinners for members of his court, alternating courses of normal food with a tasting menu of Danny's creations, each of which evokes specific types of memories, such as the "Rose-Pepper Shortbread of Sweetness Lost."

The story builds at an appropriately slow and thoughtful pace, course by course, as Saffron relives memories and wonders whether Danny is trying to communicate something to her. It's a lovely story, and there are only two things I would change, one small and one not. [Major spoilers ahead] First, the name Danny doesn't fit my idea of this story world. More importantly, I didn't like that Saffron outright said to the Regent that he might enjoy reliving his memories of torturing her sister before having her executed. I felt the Regent would have immediately grown suspicious at Saffron's suggestion. Nonetheless, I found the story imaginative, satisfying, and, as mentioned, beautifully written.

Additional stories read in August 2018:

(alphabetical by author)

- "Hello Again" by K. Barrett (2018)
- "We Do Not Know What Happened to the Children" by Claire Bartlett (2018)
- "A Suitable Level of Reward" by Lee Battersby (orig. year unknown)
- "The App" by Dustin J. Davis (2018)
- "Timeskip" by Charles de Lint (1989)
- "Dispell" by Preston E. Dennett (2018)
- "The Nearest" by Greg Egan (2018)
- "A Midsummer Night's Abduction" by J.M. Evenson (2018)
- "Your Great Journey" by Ash Harrington (2018)
- "The Privilege of the Happy Ending" by Kij Johnson (2018)
- "The Friendly Beasts" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (2018)
- "A Matter of Perception" by KJ Kabza (2014)
- "One-Sided" by KJ Kabza (2010)
- "Anaphylaxis" by Stephen Kyo Kaczmarek (2018)
- "Final Inspection" by Afalstein JD Kloosterman (2013)
- "The Christening" by D.H. Lawrence (1911)
- "Second Best" by D.H. Lawrence (1914)
- "The Quartermaster's Charge" by Jessica McAdams (2018)
- "Glass Stiletto" by Meagan K. McKinley (2018)
- "Fleeing Gods" by Mary Anne Mohanraj (1997)
- "Time Travel Is a Voodoo Rite" by Grayson Bray Morris (2013)
- "The Sky Blue Ball" by Joyce Carol Oates (1997?)
- "The Nine Bajillion and One Names of God" by Aimee Ogden (2018)
- "The Day the World Broke" by Autumn Owens (2018)
- "Comment Below" by Ciaran Parkes (2018)
- "Quantum Entanglement" by Corie Ralston (2004)
- "Writing for the End of the World" by Karlo Yeager Rodríguez (2018)
- "Our Lady of Sorrows" by Austin Ross (2018)
- "In Our Country" by Jessie Seigel (2018)
- "The Fallen Girl" by Marge Simon (2018)
- "Customer Review: Life of Jesamie Blake 0-39" by Marie Vibbert (2018)
- "The Time Mechanic" by Marie Vibbert (2014)
- "After the First Comes the Last" by Holly Lyn Walrath (2018)
- "Strung" by Xinyi Wang (2017)
- "Final Girl Theory" by A.C. Wise (2011?)
- "Confessions of a Con Girl" by Nick Wolven (2017)
- "Tea for Two" by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (orig. date unknown)

List of the sources from which these stories came:

(alphabetical by anthology title, magazine title, website name, etc.)

- Asimov's
- Clarkesworld
- Curious Fictions
- Daily Science Fiction
- Diabolical Plots
- Every Day Fiction
- Nature Futures
- New Yorker
- Selected Short Stories (collection by D.H. Lawrence)
- Small Avalanches and Other Stories (collection by Joyce Carol Oates)

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Sunday, July 15, 2018

Main Street Theater's "Buyer & Cellar"

Main Street Theater continues to put on a wide range of intriguing shows; the latest, which opened yesterday, is Buyer & Cellar by Jonathan Tolins. In this one-man, one-set, one-act play, a struggling actor named Alex (Doug Atkins) accepts a job maintaining a small faux shopping mall in the basement of (one of) Barbra Streisand's house(s). There he weaves by night and day, a magic web with colors gay .... whoops, sorry, that's Tennyson, not Tolins. There Alex waits, dusting antique dolls and maintaining a frozen yogurt machine in the hopes that the elusive Barbra, his only potential customer, will visit. When she finally does, the two form an unlikely connection, but does Barbra consider Alex a friend, or is he simply an employee whom she uses to alleviate a loneliness to which she barely admit?

This is an odd play. It's ably narrated by Atkins, who reminds the audience at the beginning that the story is fiction and then tells it like it's real. The setting, at least, is based in reality; Streisand's book My Passion for Design, published in 2010, gives a photographic tour of her estate, including the basement "street" with Bee's Doll Shop, an antique clothes shop, a gift shop, and more. Alex relates his encounters with the diva, his own thoughts and insecurities, and his exchanges with his boyfriend Barry, who grows impatient with Alex's tolerance of Barbra's selfish idiosyncrasies.

To be completely honest, I struggled a bit with this play -- not with Atkins' performance or MST's production, but with the play itself. It's laugh-out-loud funny in several places, and its point that successful people are often very lonely and insecure is well taken, but somehow I didn't find it quite funny or quite touching enough to justify itself. I couldn't help wondering: why write a play about this? What is here, other than the novelty of the set-up, that is funnier or more profound than what can be seen in other comedies with similar themes?

It took me a little while to figure out what I was looking for in this piece, but then I recognized that what I wanted was the same funny/moving experience I got from watching the film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. And then I recognized that that was somewhat arrogant of me -- at least, I think arrogant is the word I'm looking for. Buyer and Cellar and Priscilla are not about the same thing, so demanding that one be like the other is unfair.

In the end, I'm glad I saw this. It made me think, not just about its own content but about the creation of art, and the act of deciding what art can or should be based upon. I once wrote a fantasy short story about squirrels, for instance, and one friend's reaction was "you're really going to waste magic on squirrels?" Hell, yes! I love squirrels. And judging from the reception that Buyer & Cellar received for its 2013 New York debut, and the number of places it's since been performed around the country, clearly a lot of theater goers find what they're looking for in this play.

Playing July 14 through August 12, 2018; tickets here.

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Main Street Theater's "Daddy Long-Legs"

I've been horribly remiss; I saw Main Street Theater's delightful production of Daddy Long-Legs a few weeks ago, and meant to post about it immediately, but a whole lotta life got in the way, so I'm only just posting now. And that means there are a few more chances to see it before it closes this Sunday (June 17). And it is so worth seeing!

By way of quick background, this version of Daddy Long-Legs stems from a late-2000s production that was co-premiered by three small theater programs before making London and off-Broadway runs. It's based directly on Jean Webster's 1912 novel of the same name, even retaining the one-sided epistolary format. And this is probably the only two-person musical I've ever seen, but if ever there was a property perfect for a two-person musical, this is it.

The plot is simple: an orphan named Jerusha Abbott receives news that she's to be sent to college by a mysterious benefactor, whose only requirement in return is that Jerusha write to him once a month telling him about her experiences. She is not to expect any reply, and will only know her benefactor by the obvious pseudonym of "Mr. Smith." That name is far too pedestrian for the imaginative Jerusha, however, so she dubs him "Daddy Long-Legs" after having caught a glimpse of his elongated shadow in the orphanage's vestibule. Jerusha's letters, spoken and sung in turns by the two actors, give life to Jerusha's social and academic awakening in the most charming way possible. Since much of the letters' text comes directly from the novel, Jerusha's original voice comes shining through.
[Shanae'a Moore as Jerusha Abbott.
Photo by Pin Lim/Forest Photography.]

Seeing this play was truly special for me. I read the novel at least twice as a young adult -- I still own my copy -- and even sought out the tangential sequel about Jerusha's best friend at college, Sallie McBride. Matt Harris Andersen made a fine Jervis Pendleton, and Shanae'a Moore's exquisitely pure voice, combined with just the right amount of girlishness, made for a perfect Jerusha. In fact, after having several of the songs run through my head for days after the show, I broke down and listened to the off-Broadway recording, and I have to say that I preferred Ms. Moore's voice to that of Megan McGinnis.

The other thing that made this experience special was the theater itself. Although this production has such a simple story and small cast, Main Street Theater did not skimp at all on the set, with Jervis's beautifully designed and lighted study in the background, and some movable furniture and props representing Jerusha's surroundings at the forefront. And because this cozy theater is only three rows deep (on three sides of the stage), the audience feels immersed. I happened to be sitting in the front row, and once or twice felt compelled to draw my feet in closer because I didn't want Jerusha tripping over them in her skirts!

I highly, highly recommend this production -- click here for ticket information. And if you want to familiarize yourself with the source material, a public domain e-book is freely available in several formats on Project Gutenberg.

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Friday, May 18, 2018

New Short Story at "Page & Spine": The Chia Pet Brigade

My story "The Chia Pet Brigade" appears today in the online magazine Page & Spine. Although almost all of my published short fiction is science fiction or fantasy, this story just barely skims the surface of the genre pond, and even that little bit may be open to interpretation. Feel free to make up your own mind!

Read this story about a special education teacher named Sandy and her student "brigade" here (free link).

[Please disregard the "read more" link at the end of this post.]

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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Curious Fictions: A New Home for My Stories

Recently I joined the Curious Fictions platform, where invited authors post previously published short fiction to share with a wider audience. The stated purpose of Curious Fictions is "to help more authors make a living on the work they do." While readers can read for free, they are asked to sign up with payment information in the event they choose to "tip" for a story, or subscribe to a particular author or to featured stories. Authors are never charged, and Curious Fiction keeps only 25% of income, divvying up the rest among authors based on an algorithm involving views, likes, and subscriptions.

Basically, this site is quite the boon for authors. It has the potential to create a small but noticeable passive income stream based on works that were previously published, and considering how low most payments for short fiction are, every little bit helps! The interface also makes it incredibly easy for authors to post stories, and they retain their copyright and the ability to take stories down if they want or need to for any reason.

I definitely would encourage readers and writers to check out Curious Fictions! Authors need to be invited, but can ask for an invitation at the site, or get one from an existing participant (I have a few invites to offer, by the way). I've also been enjoying the site as a reader, and have stumbled upon some truly enjoyable stories I might have missed otherwise. Remember, even though you enter payment information to access the stories, you do not actually need to pay anything unless you choose to do so.

Here's the link to the overall site. I hope you check it out, and enjoy it!

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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Main Street Theater: "Natural Shocks" reading / "Daddy Long-Legs" cast read-through

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of two very different experiences at Main Street Theater. On April 20, I was privileged to attend a reading of Natural Shocks, a one-woman play by Lauren Gunderson. This was a serious play with some deft comedic touches, about a woman waiting out an imminent tornado in her basement, and using the time to share details of her life, and ultimately some secrets, with the audience.

Although Houston's familiarity with hurricanes gives us extra incentive to be aware of natural disasters, or "natural shocks," as Gunderson puts it, there was much more than that to this play. Indeed, since the event was billed as "a national campaign of theater activism against gun violence," the audience knew going in that the play would eventually tie into that theme as well, and it fulfilled that expectation in a clever and emotionally powerful way. The event at Main Street Theater was one of more than 100 readings that took place in 45 states (although the only one that occurred in Texas) on April 20, which Ms. Gunderson had deemed a royalty-free performance day for any theater that wanted to participate. But lest one think we were in for a lecture rather than a performance, that was not the case; Main Street Theater's Shannon Emerick imbued the reading with emotion and dramatic flair, to moving effect. In fact, it was downright entertaining, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.

Switching gears entirely, on April 22, I returned to attend the first cast read-through (and sing-through) of Main Street Theater's upcoming production of Daddy Long-Legs, a two-person musical based not on the 1955 movie starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron, but instead on the original 1912 epistolary novel by Jean Webster. If you haven't encountered this story before, it's about an orphan named Jerusha Abbott, who is sent by an anonymous benefactor to college. The only conditions are that she must write to her patron at least once a month describing her studies and her life at college, and she must not expect replies to her letters. The play consists of Jerusha and her patron, whom she has nicknamed Daddy Long-Legs because all she has seen of him is the elongated shadow he cast during a visit to the orphanage, alternately writing and reading her letters, with Daddy Long-Legs' own thoughts interspersed throughout the narrative.

I was particularly excited to attend this read-through because I read the novel more than once as a young adult, captivated both by the story and by the amateurish yet appealing line drawings by the author depicting Jerusha's activities, surroundings, and classmates. (The novel, including illustrations, is available free in multiple e-book formats on Project Gutenberg.) And based on the read-through, I can tell that this musical, which is suitable for families without being at all childish, maintains the charm of the original material. I look forward to seeing the production in full bloom in May or June (performance information available here).

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I have to say what I've said in other posts about Main Street Theater: if you haven't discovered it for yourself yet, you're missing out! This small theater has "range," much in the same way that talented actors do, and the venue allows a rare theater-going intimacy. I'm so glad I found my way there last winter.

[Note: this post was edited on April 30, 2018 to reflect the correct number of readings and states where they occurred.]

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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Worldfest-Houston 2018: Comedy-Dark / Romantic

The 51st Annual Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival

Comedy-Dark/Romantic Shorts
Saturday, April 21, 2018, 1:00 p.m.

Continuing an April tradition, this past Saturday I attended the first of several short film sessions at Worldfest-Houston, a local-yet-worldwide film festival that's now in its fifty-first year. Worldfest-Houston has just moved to a new theater home: the Cinemark Theatres at Memorial City Mall.

Please note that spoilers may occur in individual reviews, but I'll mark them so readers can skip those parts if they choose.

* * *

Cold Storage

Director: Thomas Freundlich
Screenwriters: Thomas Freundlich, Valtteri Raekallio
Length: 8:45 minutes
Category: Comedy
Country: Finland
Link: Trailer

The program book synopsis for this short film calls it "a short dance film that pays homage to the virtuosic physical performances and melancholy comedy of the classic silent screen." Yes, I definitely can see that, in this comedic, dialogue-free piece. In it, an ice fisherman "discovers his prehistoric counterpart frozen in the ice, and thaws him out as his newfound soul brother."

Normally, I would have summarized the plot in my own words, but without having seen the description before I viewed the film, I didn't realize that the thawed man was from prehistoric times. Instead, I assumed that he was simply someone who gotten lost or stranded, and was wearing clothing made of animal skins to survive. I even went so far as to wonder whether the thawed man had actually planned to put himself in "cold storage," and for a brief moment I even thought they were clones of one another. (Here's where having a science fiction mindset has its drawbacks; my brain instinctively looks for overly complex explanations and plot twists where there aren't any.)

All that aside, the film becomes funny and delightful as [SPOILERS AHEAD] the two men share beer after beer (after beer) and engage in a comradely pas de deux to celebrate their newfound brotherhood. When the inevitable morning after arrives, however, only one man remains, exiting the shelter to see a living tusked wooly mammoth in the distance. I was not sure if the shelter had gone back in time, or if the mammoth had somehow survived the eons without humans knowing until now, or ....?

Overall, this is a polished, skillfully made film, which quite frankly would make a terrific beer commercial. (I mean that as a compliment; it's funny and quirky in the way of the best television commercials.) I was a little befuddled by what was meant to have happened, and would have preferred a more obvious narrative, but I still enjoyed this film a great deal.

* * *

17 Years Together
(orig: Braquage Sérénade)

Director: Javier Fesser
Screenwriters: Javier Fesser, Claro García
Length: 15 minutes
Category: Comedy
Country: Spain
Link: Review from

This charming film was my favorite of the session. Walter and Mardelina are domestic employees serving a couple, Pepe and Asun, who are celebrating their 17th wedding anniversary. It also happens to be Mardelina's birthday, but her and Walter's protests about suddenly being required to work on their evening off fall on deaf ears when their employers announce they are hosting a special dinner that evening.

[SPOILERS AHEAD] This film went in a direction I didn't expect. When the guests' arrival is imminent, Asun summons Mardelina to help her mend a dress, and has Mardelina try the dress on so Asun can better adjust it before making the repair. Meanwhile, Walter changes from his regular working clothes to a butler's tuxedo. When the doorbell rings and Mardelina rushes downstairs, still in Asun's dress, I expected her and Walter to see each other, then suddenly decide to walk out on their employers and enjoy their special evening after all. Instead, she opens the door to find their young son and Mardelina's mother on the doorstep, brought there by their employers to surprise them for Mardelina's birthday. Pepe and Asun, now dressed as butler and maid, treat their employees and the guests to a night of being waited on, and apparently consider this gesture to be not only a gift for Mardelina, but also their own anniversary present to one another after 17 years of marriage.

For me, there was only one note in this film that felt slightly off. As was a trend for a number of films in this session, there was more than one "ending," in that the action ended and the film cut to credits, but then came back for at least one more, and sometimes several more, short scenes. (I blame the Marvel Universe for this trend, by the way). At any rate, Pepe and Asun indicate that Mardelina and her family should make themselves at home for the evening, and Mardelina and Walter begin making the same kind of demands that we've heard throughout the film from Pepe and Asun themselves: "Do you expect us to clear our own dishes?!" "Why are you just standing there; you look like you've had a stroke!" and so on. Unsurprisingly, Pepe and Asun looked shocked. And then the movie ends again.

For me, the false note is that we don't get to see Pepe and Asun's dawning realization that they've been mistreating their employees by speaking to them that way even as they plan a wonderful surprise for them. We don't get any sense that a grateful Walter and Mardelina are now comfortable enough to teasingly let their employers know how they often sound -- in other words, Walter and Mardelina don't behave as if they're having a little joke on their employers, but rather that they just automatically fall into this behavior the minute they're in charge for, well, a minute. Played slightly differently, this could have enhanced the film for me, rather than feeling like a not-quite-funny-enough afterthought.

That said, this still remained my favorite of the films, in part because the actors seemed professional but like real people, if that makes sense.

* * *

The App

Director: Julian Merino
Screenwriter: Julian Merino
Length: 15 minutes
Category: Dark Comedy
Country: Spain
Link: Film's IMDB page

An average middle-aged white-collar worker wakes up next to a stunning blonde younger woman, and we gradually learn that Benito has been making use of an app that tells him what he needs to do to be happy each day. [MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD] The app, it turns out, is what got him a better job, not to mention the affections of a lover who we otherwise might assume would be way out of his league. The only problem is that today the app is telling him to jump off his fourth story balcony, and the app's call-in customer support is less than helpful, simply reminding him that the app has never steered him wrong before.

This is a clever little film, and it definitely has the "dark" element of "dark comedy." In this case, I won't give everything away: the question is whether Benito will or won't continue to put his trust in the app, and what will happen next based on that decision. This film was a close second for my favorite of the session.

* * *

Come Correct

Directors: Alex Russell, Dominic Russell
Screenwriter: Dominic Russell
Length: 11:51 minutes
Category: Comedy
Country: Australia
Link: IMDB page

The program book describes this film as follows: "A loveable Bogan challenges a pompous Bartender to a cocktail duel after he is unfairly evicted." I had to look up the word "bogan," which according to Wikipedia is "Australian slang for a person whose speech, clothing, attitude and behaviour are considered unrefined or unsophisticated." So that makes sense: our bogan in the film goes into a posh nightclub and orders the wrong type of liquor, getting himself kicked out in the process. But then he challenges the bartender to a mix-off, and the cocky barkeep can't refuse. The stakes are high: if the bartender wins, the bogan can never drink alcohol again. If the bogan wins, the bartender can never again mix a cocktail.

This was amusing at times, but ultimately didn't work for me. I think, but haven't been able to confirm, that this short work was parodying some martial art film tropes. Even if that was the case, however, I felt as though it was a little too over the top and, at times, too random, such as when the judge of the contest self-declares himself as worthy of the responsibility because he has (insert booming voice) an EPIC BEARD. It was mildly amusing, but again, felt random.

* * *

(orig: Triunfadores)

Director: Joseba Alfaro
Screenwriters: Joseba Alfaro, Laura Racero
Length: 7:44 minutes
Category: Comedy Dark
Country: Spain
Link: Vimeo trailer

In this film, a young woman in the afterlife pleads for a personality that will make her happier on the next go-round; she wants to be a selfish, superficial person instead of the one who always gives up her seat on the bus. [SPOILERS AHEAD] This "negotiation" takes place with an older woman, an afterlife bureaucrat of sorts, who is just about to grant the young woman's wishes, but instead she concludes that the young woman is simply too hopeless, and that to change her personality would cause a great disturbance in the universe.

This was a cute concept with a meaningful dose of cynicism that I appreciated. It was fine as is, but I couldn't help wondering if it would have worked slightly better for me if it were either a little more tight, perhaps five instead of nearly eight minutes, or if it were slightly expanded to show what kind of requests the already superficial people made. Did they know to keep asking to be jerks, as their best bet to be happy, or would some of them wanted to improve themselves?

* * *

Migrating to Reality

Directors: Roman Kaykov, Miriam Mordukhayev
Screenwriter: Miriam Mordukhayev
Length: 4:28 minutes
Category: Comedy
Country: United States

A young woman named Olga stands in front of a bored casting director, trying to infuse meaning into a Pretty Woman monologue while the director ignores her while shouting into his phone. [SPOILERS AHEAD] To her mortification, her relatives barge into the audition to chastise her, and the director suddenly has the inspiration to build a reality TV show around the threesome. This is a cute, short film, but a lot of the information contained in the program book synopsis didn't come through for me; for instance, I assumed the people were her parents but they apparently were her father and grandmother. The synopsis says that "Olga must now pave her own way to an acting career, all while hashing out countless manipulated scenarios with her family on national television, and walking a tightrope as a young, inexperienced, female minority, trying to work in Hollywood."

While I think it's desirable for short films, and short stories for that matter, to have background details that don't necessarily make it into the final product, I'm not sure if it helps to have this detail spelled out in the synopsis, because it made me aware of how little of this made it into the film. However, in googling the short film, I found a casting call online indicating that this is meant to be the opening scene of a pilot episode for a sitcom. That makes me a little more enthusiastic; I think a sitcom about a reality show could be fun and cute in a recursive kind of way.

* * *

Soybean Oil Errands

Directors: Mooyoung Oh
Screenwriter: Mooyoung Oh
Length: 15 minutes
Category: Dark Comedy
Country: South Korea
Link: Trailer on Vimeo

This film opens with a young man in his underwear, held at gunpoint by the authorities as he mentally reflects that the whole situation was caused by some soybean oil that he was sent on an errand to buy at the store. We then flash back to his encounters with a young woman and her father; both disdain him, calling him a "dickhead" repeatedly and telling him to leave the girl alone. [SPOILERS AHEAD] That evening, the young man comes across a van in which a group of men are attacking the same girl, and rather than just moving along and pretending not to see what is happening, the young man strips, pours the oil on himself, and attacks the group of men, having made himself a strategically slippery target. He then carries the unconscious girl away, only to be discovered next to her in his underwear.

I had mixed feelings about this film. Naturally, I was happy that the young man went to the girl's rescue, but I wasn't necessarily thrilled that she needed that kind of rescue in the first place. Can the viewer safely assume that when she regains consciousness, she'll share the story of his heroics, since she now has cause not to despise him? Or does she still consider him a dickhead?

I also had mixed feelings because the young woman was unnecessarily nasty in her name-calling, but at the same time, recent events have made me more aware that not all women want the kind of puppy dog adoration with which the main character was following her around. Somehow in such stories -- the films Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) and Say Anything (1989) come to mind -- the fact that these young men are quirky and unique and nice is supposed to imply that their interest is pure, yet in reality, they are still lusting after the prettiest girl in their school or their community because of the girl's beauty, which is superficial. As Lea Thompson's character puts it when referring to the portrait Eric Stolz's Keith has painted of her, "What's hanging in that museum, huh? My soul? No, it's my face."

While I admit I feel a little guilty about laying such a burden on this short film, I'm trying to explain why I was not personally charmed by the story, even though I think part of the film's intention was to charm, in a way. But this is just my interpretation, and I suspect others might have a different experience viewing this film.

* * *

My next Worldfest-Houston post will cover Sunday's "Sci Fi Shorts." In the meantime, click here to see my other reviews of Worldfest-Houston short film screenings from previous years.

[Edited to add: For a variety of reasons, I am unable to review the other sessions of short films that I saw. My apologies!]

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Worldfest-Houston 2018 starts tomorrow!

It's time again for Worldfest-Houston, now in its 51st year! Over the next ten days, there will be dozens of feature-length and short films premiering at the festival's new location, the Memorial City Cinemark Theatres. Click here for more info, and don't miss out!

As usual, I'll be reviewing many of the short film selections that will be screened this year, so watch this space. (For reviews of short films I saw during the festival over the last few years, click here.)

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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

A Short Review of a Very Short Story: "Fantasy Nights" by Mary Soon Lee

[Image from Pixabay; used under Creative Commons license CC0 1.0 Universal]

Lately I've made two mistakes: waiting until I have something "big" to talk about before writing a review, and not reading or discussing enough short fiction. Today I'm going to fix that, by posting a 378-word review of a 469-word story.

If you aren't already familiar with Daily Science Fiction, it's a little gem of a short fiction magazine, which every weekday publishes a short story that you can read on the website or have delivered to your inbox. Stories are officially limited to 1,500 words, but most clock in under 1,000, which means that most of these stories take only a scant few moments to read.

Writers already know this, of course, but not all readers may realize just how much story can be packed into so few words. And not just gimmicky stories either (such as a story told in a single tweet), but stories with plot, characters, setting, metaphor, meaning, heart, and soul.

But enough build-up: today's DSF story is "Fantasy Nights" by Mary Soon Lee, which I found it to be perfectly lovely and just what I was in the mood for today. Some will likely argue that it's not "story" per se; it's really a series of tiny vignettes linked together like beads on a string. But here's where the reader can be the one to bring "story" to a piece of fiction, for I choose to read "Fantasy Nights" as a search for lust and adventure and finally an enduring love. What's funny, though (no pun intended), is that the author's story comments indicate that much of her efforts were an attempt to write humor. And while there are some very witty plays on words and twists of trope, I found much more than humor here. In fact, what I liked best about the piece was its language and imagery, such as when the hero describes his carnal encounters with a unicorn as having "a taste like iced white wine."

Naturally, I don't want to say too much about a story so short, so I invite you to read "Fantasy Nights" for yourself. In the meantime, I'm going to myself more frequently to just write reviews as I find things I like, instead of waiting for something big and important to say.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Men on Boats

Recently I had the opportunity to see Main Street Theater's production of Men on Boats, a one-set, two-act play by Jaclyn Backhaus that portrays the ten-man Powell expedition that in 1869 traversed the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Only in this case it's a ten-woman expedition -- the characters remain male, but the actors are all female -- and quite frankly, now I don't think I can imagine it any other way. The actual journey was historically significant, of course, but I have trouble believing that its straightforward particulars could capture my attention or imagination to the same degree. For me, Backhaus's method of telling the story becomes part of the story, which seems appropriate at a time when we're finally recognizing that we can't view history without taking into account the cultural problems inherent in doing so. Furthermore, although the play doesn't speak directly to the #metoo movement, in which women have begun demanding more opportunities to be heard, it certainly seems like a timely commentary.

Although several author interviews and theater reviews of this play are available, I've deliberately avoided both so they wouldn't influence my own experience of the work. I have, however, allowed myself to Google images from various productions after seeing MST's version, because I wanted to see how different groups handled the mechanics of boats navigating rapids and waterfalls on a one-set stage. Some productions use boats without bottoms that otherwise look fairly sturdy and complete, others use simple boat-shaped wooden frames, and still others go even more bare-bones -- Main Street Theater, for example, uses what looks like a semi-flexible hula-hoop tubing in an oval-shape that the actors climb (and fall) into and out of, and that "moves" with the river currents with a little help from the actors. Budding actors take note: those pantomime and movement classes are not a waste of time; how else can you make it look so believable that you're going over a waterfall while standing on a wooden floor?

[Celeste Roberts as John Wesley Powell and Candice D'Meza as O.G. Howland]

But back to the main question: why write this play for women actors? For me, the playwright's choice is not just a gimmick or novelty, but a truly original approach that bumps up the play's satiric elements. Yes, those men exhibited courage, loyalty, and dignity under difficult circumstances, but they also had that oh-so-male desire to pee on everything they saw, which in this case meant naming mountains and other landmarks after themselves, even though this fictional version of the expedition leader concedes that the area's native inhabitants were probably perfectly satisfied with their own names for things. To see women acting that way, when it's generally not quite as much in their inherent natures to do so, highlights just how ridiculous those uber-territorial instincts can be.

Another choice I truly enjoyed was the author's use of modern language. While Powell speaks with dramatic formality much of the time, as when "writing" one of the real-life explorer's journal entries, several of the younger characters employ every day slang and mannerisms, such as when Hall (Marissa Castillo) and Hawkins (Lydia Meadows) declare their vessel the entourage's "party boat." Another standout moment is when the expedition's lone Englishman, Frank Goodman (Shannon Emerick), shows no sign of understanding the irony of begging help from two very sarcastic Native Americans, played by Candice D'Meza and Mai Le in a couple of double-duty roles.

In the end, it comes down to choices, and I can't say I disagreed with any of them: the actors' gender, the fact that their costumes neither highlight nor disguise said gender, the modern-day language, the simple yet changeable set that changes from water to land based primarily on lighting.... I also enjoyed MST's individual casting, particularly Celeste Roberts as Major John Wesley Powell. Everything about her bearing said "leader" to me, even while he (she) remained quite human.

Men on Boats has several remaining performances through March 11, 2018. It took me fifteen years in Houston to find my way to Main Street Theater. If you haven't found your way there yet, this would be a great starting point.

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