Thursday, April 23, 2015

Worldfest-Houston 2015: Summing Up

This year, I saw a total of 32 different short films from five different sessions: Animation/CGI Shorts, Drama Shorts, Family Shorts, Science Fiction Shorts, and Fantasy Shorts. Here is a list of the films that I think are particularly worth seeking out, in alphabetical order by title:

Death and the Robot
Director/Screenwriter Austin Taylor and Screenwriter Alex Thompson
Animated/CGI Shorts

The Devil Goes Down
Director/Screenwriter Nicholas Julius
Family Shorts

Director/Screenwriter Mike Grier and Screenwriters Jason Gallaty and Josh Grier
Animated/CGI Shorts (and Fantasy Shorts)

Director/Screenwriter Alberto Ruiz Rojo
Fantasy Shorts

Director/Screenwriter Ying-Fang Shen
Animated/CGI Shorts

Just Another Dance with My Father
Director Rob J. Greenlea and Screenwriter Diane Musselman
Drama Shorts

The Oceanmaker
Director/Screenwriter: Lucas Martell
Animated/CGI Shorts (and Fantasy Shorts)

Director/Screenwriter Wesley Tippers and Director Daniel Clark
Animated/CGI Shorts

Director/Screenwriter Jay Hubert
Family Shorts

Perfect State
Director/Screenwriter Tim Mackenzie-Smith and Screenwriter Ryan Philpott
Sci-Fi Shorts

And although it's comparing apples to oranges since there is such range of style and topic in this list, my favorite of the 32 films I saw was Flash. I felt it was the perfect example of restraint, of making the film exactly as long as it needed to be and not one moment longer. It also transcended the need for dialogue, which cannot possibly be easy to do. It was just a beautiful film that I wish more people could see.

I also had some other thoughts about the festival in general. First, I think it's a shame that attendance isn't better. A film festival of this size and quality is one of the perks of living in the fourth largest city in the country, so why aren't more people taking advantage of it? It's possible they just don't know about it; nobody I know had heard of this festival until I told them about it. I'd love it in particular if the festival could reach out to science fiction and fantasy fandom groups in the area, and perhaps targeting them with advertising specific to the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Shorts.

Second, I wish there were a little more interaction between the filmmakers and what few non-filmmaker viewers are there. The filmmakers presumably interact with one another at the seminars, the hotel, and the awards events. But although the folks announcing the sessions said a few times that there would be time for Q&A after the films, it didn't happen in any of the five screenings I got to. The theater complex was not overly crowded any of the times I was there, so I would love to see a few tables set up where the filmmakers in attendance would go immediately after their screening session, with their names and film titles on table tents, and be available to talk. Attendance would need to be tackled before this, though, so there would be enough people there to talk to them.

Third, there were so many more films I wish I could have seen. Unfortunately for me, I have a standing conflicting event the first weekend of the festival every year, so I missed a bunch of short film screenings. Also unfortunately, I desperately wanted to see the Comedy Shorts but they were screened directly against the Sci-Fi Shorts.

Fourth, this isn't important, but I find it amusing that it takes two hours for me to watch any given short film session, and then it takes from three to five hours to write about it. Whew!

Finally, I really enjoyed what I saw of this festival. I'm looking forward to next year.
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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Worldfest-Houston 2015: Fantasy Shorts

[Poster from "Flash", Alberto Ruiz Rojo, Director]

The 48th Annual Worldfest-Houston
Fantasy Shorts, Sunday, April 19, 2015

This was the last session of short films I saw at this year's Worldfest-Houston, and the one I had the most issues with, although there was one film I found utterly charming (hint: see the poster above). My main problem was that most of the films were not what I would call fantasy.

To be clear, I didn't mind terribly much that the two films I had already seen in the Animation/CGI Shorts screening, "Dust" and "The Oceanmaker", were actually what I would call science fiction, as was at least one additional film, "Evil Twin". I've been attending the World Science Fiction Convention for over twenty years and have attended the World Fantasy Convention twice, so I know there traditionally is a ton of crossover between the two and that's just fine.

My problem was that the Fantasy Shorts also contained two straight-up horror films. I acknowledge that horror is a genre and an art form as legitimate as any other, but it is a very specific taste, and it shouldn't be included in other categories without warning, because many people find it disturbing. For myself, I don't find it disturbing so much as distasteful. Obviously, then, I won't be an impartial reviewer when it comes to horror films, but at the same time, whether or not something is to my personal taste, I can recognize when character motivations don't add up, or when dialogue is clunky.

To be fair, I understand that slotting all these short films into several two-hour sessions has to be a logistical nightmare. Presumably there were too many horror films to fit into the Horror/Thriller Shorts section. Or it could be that there were two few fantasy shorts, but I note that at least two films from the Family Shorts screening, "Lady Luck" and "The Devil Goes Down", technically could have been called fantasy.

In any case, before I review the films that were shown in the Fantasy Shorts screening, I want to link to my review of the Animation/CGI shorts since I've already written about "Dust" and "The Oceanmaker" there. They were both among my favorites of all the shorts I saw this year.

The Witch
Director: Kreuz Chan
Screenwriters: Kreuz Chan; Elizabeth Eccher
Length: 16:59 minutes
Category: Student/Fantasy/Horror (*)
Country: USA

(*I've been listing the categories as shown in the program guide. I did not think this one was horror at all. I'm speculating, but think the filmmakers get to list what they think their films are, and some of them seem to choose multiple categories, perhaps to increase their chances of winning awards or being screened.)

The program book describes "The Witch" as "a Scottish fairy tale about a girl being discovered as the salvation of the whole world long after the kingdom regards her as a monstrous creature." I'm afraid I found it to be a fairly run-of-the-mill fantasy story about a reluctant hero, although it was refreshing that it was a girl, and that her sister was a strong, active character as well.

(SPOILERS AHEAD) The girl, Flora, is distrusted because she has strange marks on her shoulders, and either she or her sister, from whom she is separated early on, has a partially healed bite mark on her wrist -- I literally can't remember which one it was because the story line was quite muddled. The terms "witch" and "warrior" seemed to be used interchangeably, and the main character is clearly something more than a simple witch, so even the title of this film doesn't make much sense to me. But the main gist is that the younger girl's blood is immune to the bite of some evil creature, so she'll somehow save the world, which didn't look to be in that much danger to begin with.

Although I felt that the film's creators clearly love the fantasy genre, I was bothered by the lack of both originality and realism in this story. For instance, we're told that Flora is apprenticed to a blacksmith, but she's awfully clean, wears awfully pretty clothes, and has perfectly applied eye make-up at all times. She and the actress who played her sister were good in their roles, but at least two other characters were terribly overacted: a resentful woman in the blacksmith's shop, and the man-turned-monster who tries to kill the girl. The overall effect was that the film seemed a little naive and simplistic.

Evil Twin
Director: Christian Pfeil
Screenwriter: Christian Pfeil
Length: 11:44 minutes
Category: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Country: Germany
Film's Facebook page

This film was also a bit confusing. The program says "A group of gangsters get their hands on a teleportation device bringing with it endless possibilities. The groups splits into good and bad. And now the fight begins!" This "plot" is essentially an excuse to have great fight scenes jumping from location to location, giving it a bit of a Matrix feel. It was never clear to me if there were actual sets of twins (I think there were), and whether the gang had always had twins or if they were somehow split into good and bad guy versions of themselves due to the device, or.... To be fair, it appeared that the movie was cut off before the end due to technical difficulties, although I'm not even sure of that.

Good effects, but the story was muddled. Perhaps it would have become clear if we'd seen it to the end, but I'm not completely convinced that would be the case.

Director: Alberto Ruiz Rojo
Screenwriter: Alberto Ruiz Rojo
Length: 7 minutes
Category: Fantasy/Drama
Country: Spain

Yes! To me, this is what the art of short films is all about. This seven-minute film, shot entirely without dialogue, has love, drama, hope, tragedy, and sadness all mixed into one. A man retrieves his strip of photos from a photo booth, and finds that they show him not alone as he actually was, but instead passionately kissing a woman who is unknown to him. Shortly afterward, he spies her on the street and follows her onto the subway. When she sees him, she slowly pulls a strip of photos from her handbag and .... nope, I'm not going to spoil this one!

I was utterly charmed by this film. One of my friends who was with me mentioned that the movie Amélie did something similar; I'm now going to have to finally track that down and watch it. But "Flash" is its own perfect little self-contained story.

Mr. Dentonn
Director: Ivan Villamel Sanchez
Screenwriter: Ivan Villamel Sanchez
Length: 9 minutes
Category: Fantasy/Horror
Country: Spain
Film's Facebook page

This was the first film I thought was straight-up horror. (I mean, look at that poster!) A young woman reads aloud to her little brother from a scary book about a strange creature that paralyzes children with its gaze, stealing their innocence. She then tells him he shouldn't have such a scary book -- but she certainly read a lot of it to him before stopping! Naturally, the creature shows up. They alternately try to fight it and get away.

The movie had an effectively creepy atmosphere and used a nice technique in which the creature's shadowy figure showed in mirrors as it passed, but not in the actual room. The film certainly wasn't bad, just a little on the predictable side.

Directors: Chris Smellin; Robert Smellin
Screenwriters: Chris and Robert Smellin
Length: 15:06 minutes
Category: Fantasy/Horror
Country: Australia

Alas, this is the film I had problems with on so many levels. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Not that I think zombies exist in the real world, but I would still call a movie in which a mother has to hack her zombie child to death a horror movie, not a fantasy (equals magic) film. But pretending for a moment that I had any interest in seeing a zombie horror film when I bought a ticket to Fantasy Shorts, this one's characters behaved so ridiculously that I would have disliked it anyway.

The story begins with a woman in a somewhat ineffectual-looking hazmat suit (open at the throat), a bloody dead rat, and a moving, blood-soaked creature under a sheet on a bed. We then cut to a living room with a man and three women, including the one in the hazmat suit but now with the hood off, sitting around a coffee table looking miserable. The two other women urge the one in the suit to tell them what's going on. She hems and haws and says she has to show them, but they have to promise not to scream or run away, and have to put on hazmat suits too.

Long before that blood-soaked sheet is pulled off to show us what was underneath, I knew it was Patient Zero. Sigh.... The women go to the bedroom where a zombie child is strapped to the bed, yapping at them with the most ear-biting, annoying sound effect possible. I flinched every single time because the sound verged on painful; it was like flinching every time someone hits a nail with a hammer too close to your head. One of the younger women, who are apparently sisters of the boy's mother, immediately removes her hazmat hood and tries to free the boy, but the mother stops her. Yeah, untying the bloody creature would not be my first instinct.

They all end up back in the living room again, and the mother says she needs to ask the two women for help. After which they go into the bedroom, without the hoods on, so the mother can hack the kid up, insisting that she has to do it herself because it's her child. Which means she didn't actually want help. I guess she just wanted them to watch?

But even if she actually had them help her, I have to say that if my child turned into a zombie, I probably wouldn't let my husband sit by on the couch and ask my younger sisters to be the ones to help me. Oh, and before we even get to that climax, we have yet another scene when one of the interchangeable sisters ends up back in the living room again to sit and trade clichés with the father.

Thankfully, at least, the hacking itself is mostly offscreen.

I try to find at least one good thing to say about every film that I watch, but it wasn't easy for this one. I note that inexplicably, the boy's room appeared to be decorated with gruesome artwork of monsters and comic book villains. Are we supposed to infer that his choice of decor has something to do with his fate? The best I can say about this film is that the little boy's make-up looked expertly done.

Lest it seem that I would automatically trash any story with zombies in it, I want to mention that I nominated M.R. Carey's novel The Girl with All the Gifts for both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards this year.

Click here to see my other reviews of Worldfest-Houston short film screenings, including Animation/CGI Shorts, Family Shorts, Drama Shorts, and Science Fiction Shorts.
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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Worldfest-Houston 2015: Science Fiction Shorts

[Poster from "Prelude to Axanar", Christian Gossett, Director]

The 48th Annual Worldfest-Houston
Science Fiction Shorts, Sunday, April 19, 2015

On Sunday I saw the Sci Fi Shorts screening at the Worldfest-Houston film festival, including "Prelude to Axanar", an independent Star Trek project. Although that film was the first screened of the group, I'm going to talk about it last because it's the one about which I have the most to say. In the meantime, here are the other films from the session.

(I apologize in advance for the long and opinionated nature of this post. If there's anything in the world I feel strongly about, it's science fiction.)

Director: Rick Lord
Screenwriter: Rick Lord
Length: 26:19 minutes
Category: Science Fiction/Live Action
Country: USA
Film website

In this film, a man has decided not to partake of a drug that extends life spans and reduces disease, but comes with a price attached: your every movement is monitored. Having lost his wife years before, he tries to shield his daughter Madison from the world, which is becoming harder all the time since the few remaining holdouts are apparently not allowed to hold jobs or buy provisions, and instead have to resort to begging, borrowing, or stealing what they need. To make matters worse, Madison's older brother has already gone over to the other side.

This was an interesting enough premise, but the pacing was quite slow, and seemed even slower due a constant background thrumming on the soundtrack. (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD) There's actually an explanation for the thrumming in the end; as the camera pulls away from the shabby house where the man and his daughter live, we see a huge alien spacecraft filling the entire sky. This also explains the strange and dangerous electrical storms that happen without warning.

While I liked the explanation, I felt that the film might have been more effective had we not actually seen what the aliens look like. They visit periodically to leave packets of the drug behind, deliberately appearing to Madison when her father is not there, and it looks like they may be gaining ground with her. Unfortunately, the alien's make-up and special effects looked out of place in this otherwise professional-looking film. The ending view of the spaceship looked amazing, but I couldn't take the actual alien seriously. Viewers have powerful imaginations, and sometimes letting them imagine something is even scarier than showing it to them.

Director: Florian Frerichs
Screenwriter: Florian Frerichs
Length: 12:10 minutes
Category: Science Fiction
Country: Germany
Behind the Scenes/Interviews

In "Phoenix", a "firefighter" burns books, which are forbidden, but an encounter with a young woman makes him rethink his position. This short film was visually beautiful, and it's a good story, but it's also a common one -- weren't they specifically called "firefighters" in Fahrenheit 451 too?

Even if this weren't such a direct re-telling, there is a much used science fiction trope consisting of: a controlling government that forbids something; a main character who is an enforcer, often turning in one of his or her closest friends; and that same character eventually seeing the light and turning to the other side, thereby becoming a fugitive so that the hunter becomes the hunted. Think Logan's Run, Equilibrium, Minority Report....

Still, it's a good story. But there was something I wondered about: at one point, the main character goes to a safe behind a painting in his home, and opens it to show three books, which (I think) were by Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Stephen Hawking. My question is, did he already have those books before he met the girl? If he did, then his meeting her was much less significant, because the transition had already begun. I wish the film had made clear how long he had had those books.

Director: Ronald Eltanal
Screenwriter: Ronald Eltanal
Length: 11:11 minutes
Category: Science Fiction
Country: USA

The program book describes this story as "An aging scientist must decide whether to continue taking an experimental drug that reconnects him to loved ones in his crumbling past, at the risk of being unable to form new memories." Basically, he takes the drug to be able to "see" his now-dead wife. This film is strikingly similar to "Anamnesis", which I saw at both Worldfest-Houston 2014 and Golden Blasters film festival at the European Science Fiction Convention in Dublin last year.

To be clear, I'm absolutely not suggesting that anything inappropriate happened; there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of short films made each year, and sometimes coincidental similarities will crop up. I do find it amusing that the memories of the dead wife are on the beach, as were the memories of the dead girlfriend in "Anamnesis". I guess it's because there's something about a certain lens focus on a beach scene that makes an otherwise normally attractive woman seem utterly, even painfully beautiful.

I'm not sure if we're meant to conclude at the end that the man did or did not ultimately stop taking the drug, but I liked that he had recorded a message for his grandson.

Perfect State
Director: Tim Mackenzie-Smith
Screenwriters: Ryan Philpott; Tim Mackenzie-Smith
Length: 21:07 minutes
Category: Science Fiction
Country: UK

"Perfect State" is another Big Brother/haves-and-have-nots film, but lest that sound like an overly harsh criticism, this one had some unique angles to it and was a lot of fun.

(MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD) In this case, people wear wristbands that show different colors depending on the person's state of employment and the level of their bank accounts. Anyone who goes red is a "pov" (short for poverty, I assume) and can be arrested and forced into service for VitaKorp, which puts people to work doing menial jobs -- and, as we later find out, drugs them to keep them docile. The main character, Neil, is a banker who suddenly finds himself dangerously close to red when he gets fired and his girlfriend cleans out their bank account. Even worse, she and Neil's best friend betray Neil so they can have their 15 minutes of fame on a reality television show; they've tipped off John "Jack" Hunter, whose chases povs down on TV while delivering his trademarked line, "Gotcha!"

One thing I really enjoyed about this movie was the number of layers. We see not only the reality, but the reality television show. Then we see behind those scenes as Hunter's make-up is applied and he is interviewed, all the while insisting that he's not an actor. Then we see behind those scenes when the interviewer talks to a friend or a co-worker about Hunter.

To be sure, this movie's message is a little in-your-face at times, with a slick VitaKorp representative appearing on screens all over London reminding people that this was what they asked for when they contracted out and eliminated social services. But I think on some level, the "in-your-face" nature is part of the message too, because that's what constant advertising and reality television are themselves. In any case, it was a fun film with a message I agreed with (Americans sure seem to hate poor people!), and the actor who played Hunter was terrific.

The Wheel of Time
Director: Kağan Kerimoğlu
Screenwriter: Kağan Kerimoğlu
Length: 11:57 minutes
Category: Student/Science Fiction
Country: Turkey

This was another film about government control, which seemed to be the theme of the day. The government has told people they now have immortality, but it secretly murders its citizens, and locks them in houses so they cannot communicate with each other. They have screens that the government turns on remotely when it wants to deliver a message. A hacker attempts to get the information out to the people, and becomes a target.

This film didn't quite work for me, in large part because the villain, presumably a representative of government, was portrayed as a sadistic, violent thug, dressed in a t-shirt and leather jacket. I would have found quiet, understated menace much more effective, like Agent Smith in The Matrix. The film's ending was abrupt and inconclusive, and I was never sure how the title or the use of the ouroborous (a symbol of a serpent or dragon eating its own tail) tied into the story.

Prelude to Axanar
Director: Christian Gossett
Screenwriters: Alec Peters; Christian Gossett
Length: 21:10 minutes
Category: Science Fiction
Country: USA
Film website

This is the film I was most looking forward to in this session, because I'm a rather enthusiastic Star Trek fan; I've had some short stories published in the officially licensed Star Trek anthologies from Pocket Books; I'd not yet seen any of the non-traditionally produced screen versions of Trek, some of which are highly regarded; and I knew this particular project boasts a terrific cast.

I'd expected this would be a short adventure of some kind, but instead it was a "documentary" sponsored by the United Federation of Planets Historical Society. Several key players from the historical battle of Axanar, which apparently was a turning point in the Four Years War between the Klingons and the Federation, are "interviewed" about their memories of events leading up to and during the battle. The interviewees are Klingon Supreme Commander Kharn (Richard Hatch), Admiral Marcus Ramirez (Tony Todd), Captain Sonya Alexander (Kate Vernon), Captain Samuel Travis (J.G. Hertzler), Vulcan Ambassador Soval (Gary Graham, reprising this role from Star Trek: Enterprise), and Captain Kelvar Garth of Izar (Alec Peters).

I was surprised, then, when casting actually turned out to be a bit of an issue for me. I admire Richard Hatch beyond words for the way he embraced the role of Tom Zarek in the new Battlestar Galactica. He had been trying for years to get his own revival of the show off the ground, based on his original character Apollo. So it was a huge disappointment for him when the new version of the show was instead a reboot -- but they offered him a recurring guest role as Zarek, which turned out to be a fairly juicy part but a far cry from the leading role. He was terrific as Zarek.

So when I say that I think Hatch was rather miscast as a Klingon in this iteration of Trek, it has nothing to do with his acting ability. Half the time I think the actors in Klingon roles are chosen primarily for their voices, which are generally booming, aggressive, and distinctive. Hatch's voice, on the other hand, is understated and dignified, and the contrast was especially apparent here because his interview snippets are intercut with everyone else's, including J.G. Hertzler as Captain Travis. This is significant because Hertzler played Martok, one of the best loved Klingon characters with one of the most distinctive voices, on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

In addition, I'm not sure that Alec Peters has the screen presence to carry what I presume is the lead role of Captain Garth, although it is perhaps unfair to say that based just on this short film. But Peters is the creative force behind this entire project; the film's website states that Peters wrote "the story" of "Garth of Izar", who appeared in a single episode of the original series, years ago. He wanted it to look like a real film instead of a fan film, though, so he waited until he could raise some money and bring in an experienced director.

The thing is, it still is a fan film, and to me it feels specifically like a wish fulfillment fan film. Even the fact that Garth is called "Garth of Izar" gives it that "it's about me!" vibe, although for all I know there's a very good reason the character is referred to that way. So although I'm impressed that Peters has been able to put together this huge project, much of which is crowdfunded, I think it was a mistake to cast himself in this role, the same way I think it's almost always a mistake for fiction editors to include their own stories in anthologies they're editing. I think Hatch should have been cast as Garth and someone else should have been cast as the Klingon Supreme Commander. Not Hertzler -- his Klingon voice will always be Martok -- but someone with a more savage, aggressive demeanor than Hatch exhibited.

Casting aside, this film was certainly impressive in its special effects, with many scenes of shipyards in space, debris in the aftermath of battles, and futuristic cityscapes. The only effect I thought fell a little short was when one of the cities was attacked by spaceships; the actual explosions and fire looked superimposed on the scene rather than a part of it.

[A side note to the creators: I caught at least one reference to "Garth and Sonya." In other words, men are called by their last names and women by their first. This is Star Trek, a future in which women are treated equally. The Voyager crew referred to Janeway as Janeway, not as Kate or Katherine. Surely these characters can do the same for Captain Alexander. Maybe it was a mistake giving her a last name that's also a male first name, but that doesn't mean it's okay to refer to her differently than everyone else.]

In the end, there wasn't a lot of story here because this really is a creative way to do an extended trailer. I enjoyed J.G. Hertzler as Travis the most; his delivery of the lines was so natural that it felt like they were unscripted. Tony Todd also gave an effective and rousing speech (he has one of those voices too). I wish the project luck, but I can't say I'm overly excited about it. Part of the issue for me is that I am inherently biased against prequels, because we already know how the story is going to end. That's not to say it's never worth exploring and expanding, but Star Trek: Enterprise was always a little flat for me for the same reason.

Click here to see my other reviews of Worldfest-Houston short film screenings, including Animation/CGI Shorts, Family Shorts, Drama Shorts, and Fantasy Shorts.
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Monday, April 20, 2015

Worldfest-Houston 2015: Drama Shorts (Session 3)

[Poster from "Just Another Dance with My Father", Rob J. Greelea, Director]

The 48th Annual Worldfest-Houston
Drama Shorts (Session 3), Saturday, April 18, 2015

The second of two sessions I saw at Worldfest-Houston yesterday was the third "Drama Shorts" screening, which included five films from three countries. (Hmm, I just realized there's a ridiculous number of numbers in that sentence!)

Director: Brandon Chang
Screenwriter: Brandon Chang
Length: 15:54 minutes
Category: Drama
Country: USA
Film trailer

This film is about a young man named Aaron who is being bullied in school, and who is about to take drastic action -- twice -- when he is interrupted, first by a medical emergency, and then by a word of kindness. I thought this was well acted and it's certainly topical, but I don't know that it covered new ground. (SPOILERS AHEAD) I was left wondering if this is just a temporary reprieve, because as far as we know, Aaron still has the automatic weapon in his possession, and it seems likely he'll be bullied again. I think that was the right choice, as opposed to an unrealistically happy, "it's all okay now" ending.

In terms of the film itself, the only thing that threw me out of the story is that I didn't think there were nearly enough extras to make it believably look like the crowded hallways of a public school. But I understand there would be budget and/or logistical issues, and they did do a very good job with what they had.

Just Another Dance with My Father
Director: Rob J. Greenlea
Screenwriter: Diane Musselman
Length: 17:12 minutes
Category: Drama
Country: USA
Film's Facebook page

I loved this film -- it was easily my favorite of the group. A 30-something woman has a stroke that interrupts her terrific life, and we witness the frustrations and triumphs of her path back towards independence. She has a close relationship with her family, and her father tells the hospital staff that he hopes to dance with her once again at her sister's wedding.

This film did a great job portraying how people do not know how to interact with those who are ill or disabled. Katie's boyfriend tells her, almost angrily, that she has to try harder; before her stroke, there had been an interchange about a race they'd run which nicely foreshadowed that he has little patience for what he considers weakness. Similarly, Katie's co-worker comes to visit her in the hospital and does the typical talking louder/"can she understand me?" thing. Fortunately, her actual family members are much more supportive.

I was a little thrown off by some of the editing choices as the film jumped back and forth between Katie's ongoing recovery and her sister's wedding, but that's a small thing. This film was under twenty minutes long, and I was completely engrossed in Katie's life and her recovery. I took a peek at an interview with the screenwriter, who is herself a speech therapist -- so no wonder this movie was so authentic.

Last Wishes
Director: Herschel Weingrod
Screenwriter: D. Parker Widemire Jr.
Length: 28:51 minutes
Category: Drama
Country: USA
Film website

This was an odd and clever film, and I'll just put the SPOILERS warning right here because it would be hard to discuss this one without talking about the ending. Monsieur and Mrs. Baptiste are an elderly couple living quietly in their home and minding their own business. Monsieur Baptiste gardens every day, but is tormented by two thugs who sit on the garden wall between properties. They verbally taunt and threaten him, and occasionally even throw garbage at him. Mrs. Baptiste wonders if they should call the authorities, but her husband says that this is merely the price they have to pay for living so long. That, and the fact that the couple keeps saying "maybe tonight" to each other, is a little confusing to the viewer at first but it eventually all makes sense.

When Monsieur Baptiste dies, I'm assuming of a heart condition, the two thugs decide the time is right to break into the house looking for silver and jewelry. They climb through an open window, leaving their gun behind in the car because they are familiar enough with the wrong side of the law that they know breaking and entering brings far less severe penalties than armed robbery. Besides, it's just one old woman in there, right?

I'm sure you can guess from my description where this is going. It turns out the old couple are former French Resistance fighters who made their first kills before they were legal adults, and that conveniently open window was an invitation they'd been leaving for weeks for the two thugs to come in and meet them on their own turf. Mrs. Baptiste can handle these two just fine on her own. She shoots each of them non-lethally so she has the opportunity to lecture them on the true meaning of bravery, but she has no intention of letting them off the hook.

The audience clearly liked this movie, and that's not surprising because it's always satisfying to see sadistic little creeps get their comeuppance. I was glad about that too, but I felt this was at least 25% too long, especially while Mrs. Baptiste was lecturing. Her point was made very quickly, so it didn't seem like it needed to go on. The credits also went on for a long time over scenes of Mrs. Baptiste returning to the gardening routine. It was a clever film, but I just had a little trouble connecting to it emotionally. Technically, I thought it was good, with the exception of the lighting in the bedroom scene, which looked a little like sunlight pretending to be lamplight.

Pilato, Pilato...
Director: Roberto Russo
Screenwriter: Roberto Russo
Length: 10:37 minutes
Category: Drama
Country: Spain
Film trailer (Spanish)

This was a short, sad little film about a boy eagerly awaiting the birth of his baby brother. In his family, there is a tradition of tying a bow around something and asking "Pilato" to help find a missing object, so when the parents return home from the hospital after having lost the baby, the boy rushes around looking for his new brother under cushions and behind furniture. He then ties the ribbon himself on the crib bars, with his mother helping him. Part of the prayer is that they will not untie the bow until the missing thing has been found, so presumably it will stay on that crib forever.

This was touching. The little boy reminded me of a dark-haired version of Barry from Close Encounters of the Third Kind -- remember him from so long ago? And there are some lovely mixed live action/animation sequences in which the boy imagines himself on some kind of adventure. However, the film description states that "Jon resorts to magic to complete his quest and finds his brother," and I'm not sure that's the conclusion I came to -- it was difficult to tell exactly what was meant to happen in those sequences, and I think the description of the film was somewhat overwritten for effect. But it was still a beautiful piece of work.

Director: Marco Della Fonte
Screenwriter: Marco Della Fonte
Length: 15 minutes (*)
Category: Drama
Country: UK
Film website

I'm afraid this film didn't quite work for me, and although the program says it was only fifteen minutes long, I think it was actually much longer but I didn't have any way to time it. At the very least, it felt much longer, and I note that we did not get to see the sixth film that was listed for this session -- I have to wonder if it's because this one ran much longer than expected.

In any case, "Reversion" is the story of a married couple about to go on holiday. She suffers from some kind of unspecified mental illness, although OCD is at least a part of it. When the movie begins, the man is packing and the woman has just woken from a bad dream in which she killed the husband. They go on the trip, she broods and refuses to do anything, and she cruelly taunts him about his fear of heights while they are walking on a swaying footbridge over a gorge. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Later she gets drunk and almost jumps off a cliff, and at one point it appears he actually tries to throw her over. When the man returns back to the place they are staying, she pulls a gun and there's a gunshot.

Then the movie "reboots" and the opening sequences play out again, with the roles reversed almost 100% -- the man wakes from a bad dream in which she kills him (that's the only non-reversed part), and they have the exact same conversations as in the original scenes, except flipped. Here's where pacing became an issue for me: the viewer sees within seconds that this reversal has happened, and immediately gets it, but it plays out for several minutes longer than it needs to. It ends again with a gunshot, and I'm not 100% sure who shot who, but I didn't care that much because I didn't like either character. Assuming she was the mentally ill one, I feel as though I should be more compassionate, but she treated other people horribly.

At the very least, this made me think. What if your spouse develops these behaviors after you're married? You did marry for better or worse, after all, but on the other hand, if the person resists their treatment and you suffer from their verbal and psychological abuse, how long can you endure that? Mental illness is not easy for anyone involved, and I don't know what the answers are. No film about mental illness is likely to be "pleasant," so I also don't know what the best way to address such things in film would be, but I'm not sure a lot of people will be receptive to a longer-than-necessary film watching unpleasant people do unpleasant things.

Click here to see my other reviews of Worldfest-Houston short film screenings. Coming next: reviews of Sci Fi Shorts and Fantasy Shorts.

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