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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