Friday, September 26, 2014

Authors Anonymous

When I heard about Authors Anonymous starring Kaley Cuoco, I suspected it might be a surprise little charmer of a movie, and it was. The premise is that a writers group becomes the subject of a documentary that begins filming just as one of its members, Hannah (Cuoco), lands first an agent, then a book deal, and then a big movie deal in quick succession. Not surprisingly, the other writers in the group have no idea how to handle Hannah's success, even as she remains down to earth and interested in their honest opinions of her work.

Hannah's fellow writers include the earnest, talented Henry (Chris Klein), who was already infatuated with Hannah but had not yet quite worked up his nerve to ask her out; Tom Clancy-wannabee "John K. Butzen" (Dennis Farina), who refers to himself in the third person at every opportunity; young pretender William, who walks the walk but doesn't actually write anything; Colette Mooney (Teri Polo), who's as highstrung as a racehorse and about as good a writer; and Colette's doting but clueless husband Alan Mooney (Dylan Walsh). Also sneaking in with an adorable cameo role is Tricia Helfer as John K. Butzen's German mail-order fiancee, who eventually hopes to become Mrs. John K. Butzen the Fourth.

What's fun about this movie is that it takes writerly cliches that really are based in reality and exaggerates them to a ridiculously funny degree. But there is still poignancy. Hannah is sweet and we want her to succeed, but it actually is sad that she's hardly read a book in her life. Henry, the one with the real talent, is unsure of himself and stuck in a rut that Hannah helps him out of, even though it's painful for him and not necessarily the path that he's hoping for. And even the obnoxious John K. Butzen, who quickly rushes his crappy Vietnam novel to a Chinese vanity publisher in order to have it come out before Hannah's book, is worthy of pity when he's sitting alone in a hardware store at his first so-called book signing. (One can picture him twenty years later, still insisting that the corrupt publishing industry is why he hasn't made the riches he deserves.) And for me, one of the most touching characters is Sigrid (Tricia Helfer); she really, truly believes in and tries to support John, until she finally has to face reality because he's incapable of doing the same.

The movie's not perfect; it tends to forget the documentary format for long stretches and then clumsily reintroduces it every once in a while. It doesn't have the brilliant biting wit of the black comedy faux documentary Drop Dead Gorgeous, for instance, and there's simply no way anyone would want to make a documentary about such an unproven group of writers anyway. But at the same time, I'm not sure if another format would have worked as well for this movie, because having the characters speak directly to the camera really adds a lot of humor. For instance, Hannah can't remember the word "metaphor" when she's trying to explain that her novel, Sleeping on the Moon, isn't really about people sleeping on the moon, and her mother has to prompt her to remember the name Jane Austen as someone who is doing really well and should "keep it up." Teri Polo is the real comedic standout as Colette, who unsuccessfully pretends to be happy for Hannah while desperately trying to draw attention back to her own presumed brilliance. She has one of the movie's funniest lines; when asked about her favorite writers, she shares that "Joyce Carol Oates has been known to bring me to actual orgasm." Dennis Farina and Dylan Walsh are also spot-on. In fact, there's not a single false note in the acting as far as I'm concerned.

Ultimately, this movie isn't at all realistic, but I didn't care one bit. The over-the-top exaggeration of "those writer types" mixed with just the right amount of sweetness made this movie a lot of fun. This probably went direct to DVD (which I note doesn't even have subtitles in English), but it's absolutely worth seeking out. And it's also worth mentioning that this is the only thing I've seen Kaley Cuoco in other than The Big Bang Theory, which I adore, and at no time did I see her as Penny instead of Hannah. She's also the executive producer on this film, so kudos to her on both counts.

Edited to add: I'm mortified that I'm a writer, this is a movie about writers, and I forgot to mention the person who wrote the movie! His name is David Congalton.
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Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Week

This week I immersed myself in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, starting with the Houston Ballet performance on Saturday, September 6. It was an amazing ballet, about which I'll write much more below. It was so wonderful, in fact, that I immediately wanted to see it again (and not just because I'd had a coughing spell that made me miss fifteen minutes of the first act -- that was just a convenient excuse to go again!). So I went to see it again on Friday, September 12, choosing that night because I wanted to see the same cast. In between the two performances, I also watched the 1999 movie version of this work (starring, among others, Christian Bale, Rupert Everett, Calista Flockhart, Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Stanley Tucci). I also listened to the story contained in the audiobook Shakespeare for Children by Charles and Mary Lamb.

And I have to say, knowing the story as well as I did by the time I saw the second performance really made a difference for me. By the time the two pairs of lovers get to the woods, there is no mistaking what is going on, but during the opening scenes of the ballet, it can be difficult to understand who loves whom, who is indifferent to whom, and who is outright annoyed by whom. This is through no fault of the dancers or choreography, but simply because it's not possible to watch all of them at once, especially when different things are happening on opposite ends of the stage. When I saw it the second time, I caught many things I'd missed the first time around, in large part because I had a better idea what to look for.

In my mind, the ballet was beautifully cast. I was thrilled to see all three female prinicpals in the leading roles, and thought they each had the right one. Melody Mennite is particularly good at comedic roles (although also a beautiful, romantic dancer), and so made a wonderful Helena. Sara Webb was the lovely Hermia, and Karina Gonzalez transitioned perfectly between Hippolyta and the otherworldly (almost alien) Titania. The ballet underplays Hippolyta's role as Queen of the Amazons, making Hippolyta instead a girlish and reluctant bride-to-be without the overtones of conquest, but considering how much the ballet has to convey in such a short time, I thought this was a wise choice.

Not enough can be said about Connor Walsh as Puck. I sat in the Loge Boxes in the first performance and the balcony the second; I could have kicked myself for forgetting to bring opera glasses both times, but I could see Connor Walsh's comic facial expressions even from the balcony. My husband and I always hope to see him in the lead the nights we attend, because we think he is easily the best male actor in the company, and that doesn't come at the expense of athletic and dancing ability. He is incredibly powerful.

In the other leads roles, Aaron Robison played Theseus and Oberon. Like Karina Gonzalez, he made the transition well, looking alien and freakishly angular as Oberon, but romantic and dreamy by the time he reappears as Theseus in Act II. Linnar Looris conveyed Demetrius' arrogance and self-importance well, and was a great counter to Helena's ludicrous attempts to hang on to him. Ian Casady was appealing as Lysander. James Gotesky, one of my favorite dancers in the company, played Botton, and Christopher Coomer also stood out as Flute, who in turn must play the female role of Thisbe in the play presented by the Mechanicals at the wedding.

The comedic elements of this ballet are terrific. Instead of having to listen to Helena in the play as she literally tells Demetrius that she will be his spaniel, and he can kick and beat her without changing her love for him, we can watch the more lighthearted interpretation in which Helena hangs on Demetrius in a pathetic manner that yet manages to be more funny than sad. By the time Demetrius and Lysander are both fighting for Helena's affections, and poor Hermia is trying to figure out what's going on, it's hysterical. And when Puck finally has to unravel the disaster he's created, his clumsy attempts to physically put the right couples together are laugh-out-loud funny. I don't think this ballet misses a single opportunity for physical comedy.

There were only a few minor things about the production I would have changed. I loved the fairy costumes, but would have liked to see the primary fairy roles (Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Moth) just slightly distinguished in their dress. I'm not sure how they could have done this precisely, because the usual trick of a sash or a ribbon or a slightly different color would not quite have worked with their flesh-colored, slightly metallic skin-tight leotards. There was one point when I could tell that two of these four characters were dancing, but only because I recognized the dancer, Katherine Precourt, and knew her to be in that particular role. (It says something in itself that I could recognize her without opera glasses, from that far away, while in identical costumes with her hair completely covered, but I believe I would recognize her shape and her dancing even if she had a paper bag over her head. She's intense and powerful.)

Similarly, I would have liked to see a tiny bit more to Puck's costume. I wanted something just slightly twiggy or leafy. Puck is a lot different than the fairies, and I wanted that represented a bit more.

I had one moment of disconnect when Demetrius and Helena have their spotlight dance at the wedding, in this case because of the music. I could not tell from the program what piece of music they danced to, and it's possible it was still the main composer (Mendelssohn), but out of nowhere the music for this couple because almost Asian or eastern, and slightly exotic, and somehow completely out of keeping with the comedy of Helena and with the pageantry of the rest of the scene. I have a vague idea that this music was supposed to represent Demetrius' culture or something -- in ballet, you get a lot of prospective grooms, or fathers presenting their daughters as prospective brides, with exhibition dances that clearly represent their particular ethnicity or culture. But I didn't get any hint early in the ballet that this was meant to be the case with either Demetrius or Helena.

I wish I could have also seen the alternate cast, in particular Jessica Collado as Hermia and Emily Bowen as Helena. I'd also love to see how Aaron Robison danced Bottom the Weaver, quite a different role than Thesius/Oberon.

Later this season, Houston Ballet will perform The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet. I'll be brushing up on both works in other media before seeing the ballet performances. The more you put in to Shakespeare, and to ballet, the more you get out of it.


[Top and bottom photos are Aaron Robison as Oberson and Katrina Gonzalez as Titania; middle photo is Linnar Looris as Demetrius and Melody Mennite as Helena. Photos are property of the Houston Ballet].
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Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Tale of Two Art Forms: Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet


Yesterday my husband and I had a great experience, or two great experiences, really, in an amazing juxtaposition. Over lunchtime, we attended a workshop by HGOco, which is “Houston Grand Opera’s unique initiative that connects HGO to the community through meaningful collaboration." A lot of what HGOco does consists of workshops, opera camps, student-only performances, etc., but they also commission works particularly relevant to the local community. Along those lines, in the fall of 2015, HGO will premiere O Columbia, a chamber opera telling the story of the exploring spirit in general and the Columbia shuttle tragedy in particular.

At yesterday’s workshop, we listened to a libretto reading given by professional actors for the material as it exists to date. The entire creative team was in attendance, including librettist Royce Vavrek, composer Gregory Spears, HGOco Music Advisor David Hanlon, and director Kevin Newbury. The purpose of the workshop was for the creative team to get feedback from several opera enthusiasts as well as current and former NASA employees, including at least one astronaut. This allows them to assess whether the piece is moving in the right direction before the work goes further, particularly the musical composition.

For us, it offered an extremely rare opportunity to see the early stages of the creative process in action. I didn't know that the libretto comes before the music, and now that I know, I still can’t imagine the complexities of having to write words that will be sung when you don’t yet know the melody (although of course they have been collaborating throughout the process, so they’re on the same page in that regard), or the difficulty of fitting the music around words while also carrying certain melodic themes throughout the entire work. We've had season tickets to the opera for a few years now, and I know that I will look at productions differently after having seen some of what goes into them.

Without going into further details, I have to say that if you live anywhere in Texas, when the time comes you should make every effort to get to Houston to see O Columbia. (Although you don't have to live in Texas -- there are lots of flights to Houston every day!) It’s going to be an amazing opera, one that’s incredibly personal to anyone even remotely affiliated with NASA or simply interested in human spaceflight. It will be even more personal to those of us who live in Houston, but it’s not limited to that. So remember: Fall 2015. This is going to be really special, and shouldn’t be missed.

By complete coincidence, yesterday evening we also attended a talk presented by the Houston Ballet. Every season, the company puts on three full-length ballets and three mixed repertoire performances. This year, all three full-lengths will be Shakespeare (how fun is that?!), so last night’s Ballet Talk was about interpreting Shakespeare through dance. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but it’s a fascinating topic, because Shakespeare is all about the language, none of which is available in dance. Houston Ballet will be performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and The Taming of the Shrew over the 2014-15 season, and now I can't wait to compare them to the plays. (Tangent: a fun coincidence is that the first opera I ever saw was HGO’s performance of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s really interesting to see the same story as both opera and ballet; I believe the only other story I’ve seen in both forms is Madame Butterfly.)

For this Ballet Talk, the panel of experts consisted of Artistic Director (and choreographer) Stanton Welch, Managing Director Emeritus and ballet historian Cecil C. Conner, Jr., and University of Houston-Clear Lake literature professor Dr. Elizabeth Klett. The talk began with some interesting literary context from Dr. Klett. For instance, who knew that the story was not original to Shakespeare, but came instead from what Dr. Klett said was a "frankly terrible" 1562 poem by Arthur Brooke titled "The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet"? Dr. Klett gave us lots of other interesting tidbits, and was followed by Mr. Conner's overview of various Shakespearean ballets over the years, accompanied by some lovely photographs of famous performances.

My favorite part of the talk, though, was when Stanton Welch spoke about the new Romeo and Juliet he’s creating that will premiere in the spring. He said that while you might expect the artistic process for a new production to begin with the choreography, it’s actually the opposite: you start with the sets (built with models down to opening doors and cloth backdrops) and the costumes and don’t get down to the characters and the choreography until much later. This production's scenery and costumes have been designed by Roberta Guidi di Bagno (go here for a great blog post by Laura Lynch, Houston Ballet Wardrobe Manager, on working with the designer and shopping for fabrics in Rome).

Another thing Mr. Welch discussed was his intention to reestablish many of the play’s minor characters that have been eliminated from most dance productions. Another part of the process is settling on intentions and motivation; he said that in watching several versions of the play, he’s noticed that Mercutio’s famous speech has been played as slightly mad, as humorous, as angry…. Which of those will ultimately fit the version he wants to tell, and how to portray that in dance?

As with the opera workshop, I felt we were getting a look at the creative process in action. Especially when re-creating one of the most performed stories in recent history, how do you keep all that in mind and manage to make it all come together in the end, into a work that has its own personality?

And to think all this time I've thought that simply writing a short story was difficult. It is difficult, to be fair, but I have to admit that I'm amazed at what goes in to these other, extremely complex forms of storytelling. I’m glad there are such talented people out there who are so devoted to these two art forms.


[Costume design sketch by Roberta Guidi di Bagno.]
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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.


AWARD WINNERS

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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