Saturday, February 15, 2014

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival days 01 - 03: The Nigerian Frequency, Dust of War, LFO, Animosity, SOS: Save Our Skins, Inverse

It does not bode well for a festival when one of the first questions you receive on walking through the door is whether you are ready for a mess, which is kind of where the "Festival" portion of the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival still is these days - even if it's improving, it still must be said to lag behind the other local festivals on certain counts, let alone other genre festivals that one may have visited. This edition may in fact be the strongest yet, but it's been a difficult climb to get here, and there are still some things that frustrate.

Take the opening night film, The Nigerian Frequency. It's not very good if you're not grading on the sort of curve that gives amateur filmmakers a break, and I generally don't do that - if I've paid the same money for it as I would for a commercial film, I'm going in with similar expectations. It got started a bit early because festival organizer Garen Daly & company couldn't get the shorts that were to accompany it to project, so that means we got to the Q&A a little more quickly:

'The Nigerian Frequency' director Matt Scott

Sorry about the crappy picture; I had just gotten my camera back from Nikon's repair center (sent out before my December vacation in Paris, and yes, I'm a little bitter about that) and I'm still trying to get used to it; everything is blurry on most settings, so I fell back on my phone, which... well, I'll be using the "Horrible Photography" tag here, won't I?

The theater was actually packed, which happens when you shoot a movie ten miles away and everyone brings all their family and friends. You could pretty easily tell that it was that sort of screening; half the questions in the Q&A were in-jokes. Maybe I'm a little grumpy on this count, but I don't know about having this sort of thing as the opening night film. You want the best foot put forward, and I don't know if being able to claim a sell-out for a so-so movie because it was local helps the festival as a whole.

"Dust of War" co-star Bates Wilder

Fortunately, I had the camera figured out at least a little bit more when I got to the micro-cinema on Saturday (there's another shot of the people from the short films, but I'm going to save all those for a separate post at the end of the festival). This here is Bates Wilder, who plays the villain in Dust of War, which I had some hopes for because of the cast, but aside from Gary Graham of Alien Nation and Enterprise fame, most of the familiar names weren't around for very long. Mr. Wilder here mostly teaches acting at one of the local schools, but despite his cheery demeanor here, he was a pretty reasonable choice for this movie's villain above and beyond having had the director as a student.

He mentioned that there were no doubles used in the movie, which is actually fairly impressive, as there are some fights that go on for a while and a car chase sequence where someone could very well have gotten hurt. It doesn't really make for a great movie - it was the first of a series of films seen during the weekend and festival where the filmmaker apparently wasn't too worried about the details, with the decision to have the alpha villains here be "aliens" and the last FX-heavy shot coming about late in production. It kind of boggles my mind that you wouldn't get all that lined up, and it frustrated me, too; I love this genre and want it worthy of respect, which won't happen if people don't sweat the details.

Nobody came to talk about LFO - it is from Sweden, and the filmmakers probably used up their travel budget coming to Austin in the fall. It's worth noting that it was one of the better-looking presentations during the fest, one of I think two movies shown on DCP rather than a DVD or Blu-ray. For all the money theaters have spent to add DCP capability, I'd hope it looked better than consumer media, but it always surprises me just how different formats with roughly the same resolution can be, whether it's Blu-ray being much nicer than what the cable company feeds you for HD or DCP being a quantum leap above that.

"Animosity" director Brendan Steere

Brendan Steere was on hand to do Q&A for Animosity, which turned out pretty well. He mentioned that he was rather fond of Solaris, which made its way into this movie's DNA quite a bit. It kind of became a long one, though, eventually involving a lot of folks who seemed to want to explain to him what was going on in his movie (a thing that happens a lot).

Sunday started out in the Micro again, this time for a set of shorts and SOS: Save Our Skins, which the credits had as a FEARNet original, although it was mainly a UK/Canada co-production. Surprisingly strong.

I actually made a quick detour to the Brattle Theatre after that, because the first of two screenings of Inverse that night had sold out before tickets even went on sale, as another complete crew apparently filled the room. My pass probably would have gotten me a seat, but I actually wanted to see this other thing anyway. I didn't actually register that they were hanging out in the hallway rather than doing the expected Q&A after the 9pm show, which was okay; I found myself liking the movie less and less the more I thought about it while writing the review, so it likely wouldn't have been a fun Q&A.

Then back home to sleep fast before work on Monday. I think I'll definitely be breaking the rest of the festival up into smaller chunks!

The Nigerian Frequency

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2014 in Somerville Theartre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, Blu-ray)

There are some festival experiences, especially at genre festivals, where it's important to consider what one sees on something of a sliding scale. Take things like The Nigerian Frequency, for instance: It's not very good when compared to some of the actual professional works playing alongside it, but it at least has more than a few moments that work, even if the people involved could use a lot more experience under their belts.

It posits the existence of "Friendle™", an online service that supplies conversation and advice from a Max Headroom-style avatar. While it certainly seems buggy and unfinished in its current state, it's apparently popular enough to be used by everyone from unhappy shut-ins to the President of the United States - and causing enough of an issue that a pair of investigators would like a few words with Pinocchio Lingo, the system's hypochondriac creator.

Writer/director Matt Scott and his troupe choose some relatively low-hanging fruit as the objects of their satire, meaning there will be lots of gags about the constant stream of personalized advertising to which internet users are subjected. Digs at how the like of Google and Apple will release technically-still-in-beta software wide are perhaps a little more subtle, while the plot (such as it is) alternate between the idea that supposedly democratic platforms with some very confidential information may well be at the mercy of those willing to pay for a higher level of access and more traditional wild conspiracy theories. These may be easy targets, but that doesn't mean there's no satisfaction in hitting them; a surprising number are played just broadly enough to be quite funny.

Full review at EFC

Dust of War

* * (out of four)
Seen 8 February 2014 in the Somerville Theartre micro-cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DVD)

Even if this hadn't been a festival screening with a car member on hand to confirm that it was more or less the case, I would have suspected that writer/director Andrew Knightlinger didn't have any specific sorry of Apocalypse in mind for his post-apocalyptic action movie. It goes through certain motions ably enough, but is mostly memorable for some recognizable faces in secondary roles.

Things start out in fairly standard fashion - the whole world appears to be a desert (an alien invasion the cause this time around), scattered villages, warlords, etc. Wanderer Abel (Steven Luke) is captured by General Chizum (Bates Wilder) and thrown in a cage with Ton Dixie (Gary Graham) and Ellie (Jordan McFadden), among others. But that's where he needs to be, as he and Room are on a mission to rescue Ellie, since she's important to the aliens and human resistance for some reason or other.

They get out, of course, making their way to a village where Tom's friend Crispus (Tiny Todd) is the leader, and Chizum gives chase... And then the filmmakers pretty much run out of story. This isn't entirely unusual, but it seems rather flagrant here, with characters turning around to attack Chizum without even a second of debating over how the mission was to get Ellie to someplace away from Chizum, and they're about to do the opposite of that. Not that they have exactly been specific about what Ellie's deal is; the characters have called her a "harbinger", which means prophecy, which generally means "just because".

Full review at EFC

LFO: The Movie

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 February 2014 in Somerville Theartre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

Go to enough film festivals catering to niche tastes or dedicated to spotlighting new filmmakers at the very start of their careers, and you will see plenty of movies spot by a small cast and crew in and around one house as they try to build a feature people will want to see out of next to nothing. It's a tough gig, especially if you've got bigger ambitions than a domestic drama. Antonio Tublen manages it pretty well in LFO, which is very much on the odd side but also quite entertaining.

The house it's set in is that of Robert (Patrik Karlson), a sound engineer not quite ready to let go of his late wife Clara (Ahna Rasch). While fiddling around with the equipment in his basement, he discovers as frequency that causes the human body mind to go to a state of extreme relaxation, which has the side effect of making a person extremely - nay, completely - suggestible. And while Robert initially uses this for self- improvement, he soon sets his sights on his pretty new neighbor Linn (Johanna Tschig) and her husband Simon (Per Löfberg). And after testing this on them, who knows what he could do?

Quite a bit, actually; Tublen doesn't waste a lot of time before establishing something closer to amorality in his main character, and quite possibly insanity as well. It's a path that must be tread fairly carefully; making Robert into a simple villain wouldn't be very interesting. Instead, we get a man who is as pathetic as he is potentially powerful, and it soon enough becomes clear that the sorry can go in almost any direction; the ethical constraints that are presumed in most stories may not be absent, but they are unusually weak.

Full review at EFC

Animosity

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 February 2014 in Somerville Theartre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

There are plenty of moments in Animosity that will likely earn a groan the first time through, and maybe even a bit of anger, depending on how much certain frequent genre movie shortcomings stick in one's craw. Hang around, though; there are revelations that make it work on tap, and a reasonably entertaining horror story to boot.

After a brief bit involving a chainsaw to let viewers know that this is that type of movie even if it starts slow otherwise, we see Carrie Bonner (Tracy Wilet) and her husband Mike (Marcin Paluch) buying an isolated house in the middle of the woods. You can and almost should just stop there; it almost goes without saying that while Mike is carpooling in to work with his boss Dr. Carl Hampton (Tom Martin), something creepy will distract Carrie from her work scoring a horror movie. Like Tom (Stephan Goldbach), the closest thing they've got to a neighbor. Oh, there's also no cell service and things like the landline and internet haven't been hooked up yet, of course.

It sounds pretty standard-issue, and things only get worse when Mike patronizingly downplays Carrie's worries - even if you don't grumble about it being sexist because it's all but inevitable that her fears will be vindicated in bloody fashion, that inevitability is kind of insulting to the seasoned horror fan in its own way. fortunately, it's not too long before things start to get a little more interesting, and if the scenario that writer/director Brendan Steere comes up with isn't entirely original (during the Q&A, Steere freely volunteered the art-house classic he was strongly inspired by), its unique enough in this context and implemented with enough creativity that the movie can play out in a great many ways, with Steere being both smart and not particularly timid in which ones he chooses.

Full review at EFC

SOS: Save Our Skins

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2014 in the Somerville Theartre micro-cinema (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

Not too many years ago, something like SOS: Save Our Skins might have existed, but in a much different form: Passed around science fiction conventions on progressively blurrier VHS tapes, performed by folks "acting" for the first time (quotation marks necessary), and making self-referential jokes about the low production values because otherwise, they wouldn't even be funny. Today, sci-fi fandom may still be a niche, but it's a large enough one to not only include people with an actual knack for this stuff who have had the chance to hone their chops on internet video series, but to be targeted by folks with a little money. And while SOS may not have as much in the way of resources as, say, Paul, but it's got much more going for it than its ancestors.

It has a similar starting point to Paul: Two English sci-fi fans and longtime friends, Stephan (Chris Hayward) and Ben (Nat Saunders) who have traveled to the States for a convention. When they awaken, though, they find both their hotel and the entire city of New York curiously empty, and while a video on the internet suggests that there may be answers in Toronto, the only people they encounter on the way are a decidedly odd old man (Tom Bolton) and a girl (Hannah Spear) who, while pretty, is smeared with blood, wearing a straightjacket, and repeating "kill!" without saying much else.

Looking through the prior credits of the folks involved, it's clear that while most have yet to really break into mainstream film and television, they've got some practice with this kind of material: Stars and writers Chris Hayward and Nat Saunders have been working as a team, both on various web-based projects and in the writing rooms of various UK sitcoms, while Hannah Spear has had a web series or two of her own, and all seem at least passably familiar with reference-heavy "nerd humor". They even deploy it fairly well; usually going for an actual joke about how these guys act rather than just mentioning a title and hoping for a laugh out of recognition.

Full review at EFC

Inverse

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2014 in Somerville Theartre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

A lot of sci-fi films don't really make a blasted bit of sense, but that's not really the issue with which Inverse grapples. Once all of its cards are on the table, the story seems like a potentially plausible sequence of events, if an extremely unlikely one. The trouble is, it seems to want to be one of those emotional sci-fi movies where the emotional truth makes up for the fuzziness of its plotting, and it winds up too cold for that.

It opens promisingly, with an amnesiac man (Josh Wingate) emerging from a swimming pool and dragging himself into the house, where he is confronted by a number of cards wishing Max's wife Veronica (Alanna Priere) condolences over his death. She, naturally, is freaked out to see him up and around, and while she tells him to stay inside and out of sight while she tries to help figure out what's going on, he's soon assaulted by a ton of contradictory information - whether coming in the form of mysterious phone calls from a guy named Batter (Morlan Higgins), who claims to owe him a favor and know the score, or his own emerging memories of a different woman (Michelle Lawrence) who seems to have nothing in common with Veronica.

Inverse has a number of problems, but in so many cases it seems to boil down to there not being a clear point to what's going on. Sure, the final act spells one facet of it out, but that calls for an emotional investment that never materialized because everyone involved has been so confoundingly cryptic. Explanations of what is going on to set up that situation are eventually offered, but they wind up feeling like nothing more than sets of rules which fall just short of "because the movie would be ten minutes long if someone did something sensible". Indeed, when the inevitable government goons show up, it's a good thing that they are such thorough villains; otherwise we might sympathize with them just for having a clear goal and the will to go after it.

Full review at EFC

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