Monday, September 17, 2012

Short Stuff: The Etheria Film Festival (and a tiny bit of Fantasia catch-up)

The Etheria Film Festival, a day sci-fi/fantast short films (and a documentary feature) that are all directed by women. It's a sort of spin-off of The Viscera Film Festival, an L.A.-based event that does the same thing for horror, later sending a package of its films on tour. A third festival, "Full Throttle", focusing on action movies created by women, is planned for next year in Austin.

The most important thing you can say about the festival is that it presented good films; the fantasy package, especially, was very strong. Not everything is great - some, honestly, were farily amateurish, while others were quite polished. The subject matter, while featuring predominantly female characters, was not necessarily about women specifically.

There was something interesting about the subject matter chosen for each program, in a different way. The fantasy program, for instance, features a great deal of fairy tale inspiration, parituclarly Little Red Riding Hood (the first and last films of the package are takes on that story, and the second initially looks to be). It's not a story I think I've ever given a lot of thoguht to, but given its basic structure - a young woman targeted by a stalker - it's not surprising that it would resonate more with female storytellers than with me.

The other thing that struck me was how much more seriously fantasy and fairy tales seem to be taken than science fiction. It sort of ticks me off on a certain level - I find sf far more interesting than fantasy - and a bitter, sarcastic part of me thinks it's because most writers are only really interested in the genres' surface trappings, and fantasy is all trappings, while science fiction can have some heft to it. That's not entirely true, but the weight has different varieties. Good science fiction has extrapolated ideas, but the genre itself is too young to really be imbedded deep in a culture the way fantasies and fairy tales are, and the science-fictional ideas that have been around the longest go out of date with later discoveries.

Science fiction has that problem as a genre in general; it's not unique to Etheria. It's just that seeing two programs of films, selected by the same people from a similar pool, makes for an interesting contrast of how the two genres are considered.

Anyway, here's a chance to skip the Horrible Photography and go straight to the rundowns of the packages. Where I can find an official link, they're included. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and a somewhat-fitting bit of Fantasia catch-up: Despite the Gods, in which a fine female filmmaker chronicles another female fantastical filmmaker .

Michele Galgana & Danishka Esterhazy, Hostess Michele Galgana & "The Red Hood" Danishka Esterhazy at Etheria

Michele Galgana leading the Q&A with Danishka Esterhazy, who mentioned that she is working on another fairy-tale-based project, "H&G", which should be ready just around the same time Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters comes out (this one appeared right around the same time as last year's Red Riding Hood feature. Good or lousy luck, depending on your perspective).

Michele Galgana, Alana McNair, Mike Snoonian, Hosts Michele Galgana & Mike Snoonian and "Imminent Danger" filmmaker Alana McNair

Ms. G again, this time joined by All Things Horror's Mike Snoonian to introduce Alana McNair after the sci-fi section. I must admit to liking her film more than loving it, but she was a nice guest.

Etheria: Fantasy Package

Seen 15 September 2012 in Somerville Theatre #4 (Etheria Film Festival, Blu-ray)

So, in order, then:

"She Wolf" (Francesca Reverdito) - The first appearance of Red Riding Hood, although it winds up feeling more like a vague idea than a story. It redistributes the roles of Red, the Woodsman, and the Wolf, but at the end has gone for both cuteness and horror, but hasn't had time to do much with either.

"The Stolen" (Karen Lam) - This has one of the same problems as "She-Wolf" - a "wait, what?" ending - that comes from wanting to use fantasy tropes but not really defining them that well. The movie takes a hard right turn into fantasy, but doesn't have room to show whether this is a good or bad thing. Also, unless you've got actual British people in your cast, don't give your fae characters the accent; you likely can't handle that level of fake.

"The Maiden and the Princess" (Ali Scher) - Exception: When you've got David Anders in the cast. This short, possibly the best of the night, features Anders as a fairy tale narrator in trouble with his superiors (including Julian Sands) for deviating from traditional fairy tale styles , and given one last chance. He can't bear to reinforce rigid gender roles for a little girl who kissed another girl rather than the expected boy on the schoolyard, though, and it leads to a freewheeling story about not being ashamed of who you are. Anders is wonderfully dry and arch throughout, and Scher takes her material just seriously enough to be able to poke fun at it.

"Prita Noire" (Sofia Carrillo) - I saw this one at Fantasia last year, but it's a repeat I don't particularly mind. It's an impressive bit of stop-motion animation of a doll that contains the spirit of its owner's stillborn twin sister (or at least that's one way of looking at it), and while the imagery is often macabre, there is a definite sense of wonder to it.

"The Hunter and the Swan Discuss Their Meeting" (Emily Carmichael) - What starts out as another fairy tale story (though one with an overtly sexy side) takes a turn for the modern fairly quickly, as a literal fairy tale romance hits a snag in the modern world. This one's quick and funny, and does a good job of not digging too far into its mythology.

"Oowie Wanna" (Bridget Paladry) - It's something that you find a reason to say every year or two when watching low-budget indie horror and fantasy, but Karen Black is kind of awesome; She just never stopped working, even when the leading-lady roles dried up, taking quirky parts in smaller films because she liked acting and doesn't just talk the talk about wanting to work with young directors with unique visions. She's got a small part here in a story about a little girl who gets teased for her birthmark and finds a magical land inside a dryer at the laundermat. It's a cute piece with a likable cast, even if you can see the seams.

"Seamstress" (Gracie Otto) - Huh, is she one of the acting Ottos of Australia, or part of the family? At any rate, I like this one; even though it's another that just sort of piles on more weirdness at the end, it's got a nice build-up (the strange we get is different strange than came before), and there's a quiet but funny gag of an old man using increasingly large binoculars to spy on the lady across the street that can go on for a little bit before the audience catches on.

"The Red Hood" (Danishka Esterhazy) - Back at Red Riding Hood again, with the Gradmother an off-screen presense and Esterhazy also deciding to put a modern, liberated, twist on the relationship between Red, the Woodsman, and the Wolf. It's nicely executed, placed in a frontier period and eschewing dialog in favor of first-person narration that actually pushes the fairy-tale feeling away a bit by making it personal rather than universal.

Etheria: Sci-Fi Package

Seen 15 September 2012 in Somerville Theatre #4 (Etheria Film Festival, Blu-ray)

More! As I said above, as much as I am somewhat impressed with the technical execution of these shorts, I've kind of got some issues with how most play with sci-fi surface elements without necessarily showing a real grasp on what made them originally effective.

"Slashed" (Rebecca Thomson) - The idea here is cute enough: A receptionist and the difficult visitor at a clinic hate each other, but the latter is a fan of the "slash fiction" the former writes (the name comes from sexy fan-fiction abbreviated from "Kirk/Spock"). That's a reasonably funny premise, for a short film, and this one kind of slips a bit because Thomson deviates from it more than a short should: The parallels between the main characters and the hero & villain of their favorite TV show get a bit diluted by the weird stealing and an actually pretty funny joke about lying online. oth of those threads are close enough to the main plot to work, even if it's not quite as punchy as it could be.

"Laura Keller, Non-Breeder" (Maureen Perkins) - Hey, it's a familiar genre face in Amber Benson! She's in the middle of a nice little story about a future where overpopulation has led to fertility being governed by a lottery, and as a med-tech who extracts birth-control implants, the strain of being on the front line is starting to wear on her. The short is good enough to be expanded; Perkins does a nice job of poking around the premise without dredging up contradictions, and the story could thrive if fleshed out.

"Imminent Danger" (Alana McNair) - This one's got a goofy premise and dotty characters that make it fun enough, although its world-building tended to be a little too zany for my taste. Not necessarily a bad choice if the idea is to pack as many weird jokes into ten minutes as you can, although I think it trips up a bit at the end by getting a bit too self-aware (a character points out that the main character is acting on silly and selfish motives, but has to go out of character to do so). Cute homemade production design for those that like the goofy sci-fi worlds.

"Undetected" (Kristen Anderson) - For most of its length, this feels like a smoothly-executed if mild take on the redneck-cannibal horror subgenre, but it kind of gets held prisoner by the twist: Anderson and company aiming at what happens in the last couple minutes keeps really clever things from happening before, and upending what the audience assumed doesn't really place them off-balance enough to justify it.

"The Provider" (Brianne Nord-Stewart) - Here, the twist is more in the setting (the film posits a world where Japan retaliated with biological warfare after Hirohsima), but it leads to a story that could take place in any post-apocalyptic setting: Guy finds safe haven, notices it's weird, discovers it's not much of a safe haven at all. Nord-Stewart does a nice job of creating some eerie moments and creepy environments, though.

"Kaboomtown" (Jakqui Schuler) - Here we have science fiction being used for satire; it takes so much time to do paperwork that you can't even do the thing that the paperwork is for! It's stretched and exaggerated to an extreme degree, though, to the point where I foundmyself wondering more what the rationale of it was than appreciating the point being made.

"Volcano Girl" (Ashley Maria) - Things finish up with a fun little superhero story where a heroine in her twenties gets fired and moves back in with her mother and sister. Pretty well-done, nice cast, kind of goofy ending, but that works for it.

Despite the Gods

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 August 2012 in Concordia University Cinema de Seve (Fantasia 2012 Documentaries From the Edge, HD)

There are many warning signs, but when the person hired to get electronic press kit/making-of footage for a movie comes to the producer and asks if she can hang around more and keep her footage because she thinks she may have a feature, it's generally not good for the main production. Sure, it may mean that a masterpiece for the ages is being created, but for the likes of Hisss, a trainwreck is more likely. Despite the Gods isn't the most spectacular cinematic crash-and-burn you'll ever see, but it is both one of the most unusual and one of the most inevitable.

Hisss, initially known as "Nagin", was created with notions of being a crossover hit in both India and the west; its story of a sexy snake demon in the modern world starred Mallika Sherawat and Irrfan Khan (who manages to duck this documentary's cameras), recruited American Jennifer Lynch to write the script and direct, and had Hollywood gore masters KNB doing special-effects makeup. As soon as the cameras roll, things start to go wrong, from a technicians' strike to bad weather to an almost entirely male local crew not working well with a female foreign director. The production stretches out to eight months, an incredibly long time for this sort of picture.

The interesting thing about Despite the Gods is that it doesn't necessarily feel calamitous, but rather more like something that just got stretched out for no definitive reason until so much had been invested in it that it could neither stop nor possibly be a commercial success. It doesn't chronicle a full-scale meltdown like Lost in La Mancha, or feature a singular moment of collapse, but instead shows how many little compromises and sacrifices get made along the way, both to other people and factors completely outside of human control.
Full review at EFC.

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