Friday, March 18, 2016

Boston Sci-fi Film Festival 2016 03: Displacement, Skyquake, and Polder

For a festival day on a weekend, Sunday went strangely quick, as there's apparently not much benefit to starting early or doing a late show on Sunday. Which was fine by me; it gave me a chance to head downtown for one of the two movies opening for Chinese New Year early on.

It wound up being a bit of an interesting theme day, as all three movies were sort of self-negating in one way or another, either via time-travel, unreliable narrators, or virtual reality. It's a broad enough application of the theme that one doesn't necessarily notice it as it plays out, but it looks kind of weird in retrospect. Given how the day went outside of the movies' plots, feel free to make self-erasure some sort of theme.

SKYQUAKE filmmaker Sandy Robson (really)

Like this. What the heck happened here? It came off my tablet with nothing from my phone showing that date, so I must have left my phone at home again. Still, the tablet usually takes a good picture despite how ridiculous one feels using it, so why is this picture of Skyquake writer/director/star/several other jobs Sandy Robson so deserving of the "horrible photography" tag? Heck if I know.

He led a pretty good Q&A, though; as a working actor who has been at it for quite some time, he was very comfortable in front of an audience, good at communicating in a way that other first-time directors (even those who have been in the business) often aren't. I it was fairly impressive that he came out here from Vancouver for a world premiere, although I did sort of wonder if there was anything closer to home that he might have gone for, even Slamdance.

It was kind of interesting that he went pretty dark for his first film and the next one he described sounded like an even tougher sell. Sometimes one might expect a guy who had spent a lot of time doing genre TV to go with what he knows, especially when that sort of procedural/fantastic material might sell on top of being a good way to ease oneself into a new job, but Robson went for what he doesn't often get to do instead. There's something amiable in that, even if the film is frustrating for its canceling large chunks of itself out.

One kind of amusing thing was that someone in the audience asked about the sort of streaking effect you could see in the whole picture but most obviously in the titles, only to be told that it was not deliberate but just an artifact of projection. The folks in charge of the festival seemed surprised to hear that this was fairly evident on everything in that room that wasn't a DCP (and the festival isn't alone here; the same effect was visible when I saw Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong at Apple a week or so later, and I think at another screening using a consumer-grade projector). It's a weirdly specific one - columns a few pixels wide displaying what is to their right at regularly spaced vertical intervals - that would probably make more sense to me if I knew more about how projector hardware works.

It was kind of a number that, after everybody noticed that this was going on, Polder made things worse by apparently being steamed from Vimeo at less-than-Blu-ray resolution. It was darn hard to see, and this movie could really have used a little clarity (there were also some adjustments necessary to get picture and subtitles on the screen at the same time). It made me really wish that more of the festival was handled by the venue's great projection staff rather than the festival organizers, although I don't know what they could do with some of the material.

And, somewhere in there, my festival pass vanished despite how it felt I was really careful about knowing where it was at all times. Which seems like a perfectly fitting way to end a day when the film's weren't bad but certainly did manage to pull a variety of vanishing acts.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, digital)

Short-term time travel is the trickiest sort of science fiction to create; it doesn't necessarily have to be a perfect Moebius strip structurally, but any shortcomings in that department must be more than made up in other ways. Displacement makes valiant efforts in both directions, and while not everything comes together, it does okay; at the very least, many science fiction fans will find as much to like add to nitpick.

It starts, as these adventures do, with grad student Cassie Sinclair (Courtney Hope) waking up in an ice bath with her memory fuzzy, and her boyfriend Brian (Christopher Backus) murdered in the hotel suite to which this bathroom is attached. It turns out that all of this is related to some sort of time-travel experiment which has Cassie jumping forward and back on the t-axis, trying to get information from faculty adviser Peter Deckard (Bruce Davison) and friend Josh (Karan Oberoi) while avoiding a mysterious organization represented by Dr. Miles (Sarah Douglas). Visiting Cassie's recently deceased mother (Susan Blakely) might be nice, though.

It's not a requirement that the female protagonist of a time-travel story be named Cassandra or some variation, but it must be almost impossible to resist giving that name to a lady who knows the future but will, sadly, never be believed. That's not the only familiar element to be found in filmmaker Kenneth Mader's script; there's the combination of one person being amnesiac and others being cryptic, and dire warnings all of this will tear the universe asunder if Cassie's activities aren't carefully controlled. There's also, unfortunately, the frustrating tendency to set up a situation that only works if cause-and-effect form a tight loop in one scene and then having Cassie break that sequence in the next.

Full review on EFC.


* * (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, digital)

There are a lot of ways filmmakers can be too clever for their own good, but the most frustrating involve telling the audience, in one way or another, that the thing they've invested their time, money, and emotions on doesn't matter. Sandy Robson doesn't do that explicitly with Skyquake, and would likely argue that everything on-screen is important to the story or telling in some way, but he's made a movie that yanks the rug out from under the viewer a little too completely.

The "Skyquake", we're told, is a phenomenon where loud, strange noises come from a clear sky, though seldom in places where large groups can document it. No, it's usually folks like Adam (Robson), who lives in a cabin some distance away from any neighbors, and a peculiar type besides: Completely shaved, displaying signs of obsessive-compulsive behavior or some similar disorder, spending his days walking around the woods and nights dreaming of a missing boy (Aidan Kokotilo-Moen). His only contact with the outside world aside from the Internet is Grace (Brownen Smith), who delivers his fresh produce and researches the Skyquake mystery when she hears about it from Adam.

Robson is a Vancouver-based actor who has had a guest-starring role on seemingly all of the shows that shoot there, so it's at least a little to be expected that Adam is a chance for him to take center stage as opposed to being subservient to the regular cast. He certainly doesn't disappoint there; as much as Adam is initially defined by his extreme grooming regimen and other obvious visual cues, it's the way Robson pays attention to the smaller details and gives the character a bit of a personality and specific history even before explanations are offered that make the performance memorable. The cast is small, but he doesn't just make it a solo show with grudging acknowledgment of other people; Brownen Smith gets the time to be a multifaceted complement to Adam as Grace.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, digital)

There are likely a great many odd cross-pollinations like Polder that even the most dedicated watchers of world cinema miss because a German art-house adaptation of a Japanese science-fiction novel would appeal to fairly specialized tastes under the best of circumstances, and this one is kind of weird even for that background. I was into it, but I'm usually down for at least half of that equation, and know plenty that aren't. It's worth a look for those feeling adventurous, at least.

Game companies with names like "Neuroo-X" are always trouble, and this case is no exception. Sure, when Marcus (Christoph Bach) and his friends started the company, they were a bunch of hippies with big ideas, but now it's big business and Marcus, their chief engineer, has disappeared on the eve of a major new product launch. The company may proceed anyway, despite the whole "virtual reality that immerses the player so thoroughly that getting out is difficult and/or fatal" problem. They believe the last bit of Marcus's code may be in the hands of his wife Ryuko (Nina Fog), although she's more concerned with their son and actually finding her husband than launching a new gaming system.

There's not a lot more going on than that story-wise, but what there is tends toward the strange and convoluted with plenty of stops along the way to make the viewer question what is real and what is virtual, despite what seemed like simple color-coding. That sort of convolution is not an uncommon feature in Japanese sci-fi - even "light novels" will often include some sort of chart that a reader can use to find where he or she stands at a given moment - and filmmakers Julian M. GrĂ¼nthal & Samuel Schwarz aren't particularly interested in compromising their art for clarity: If the viewer stops paying close attention for a minute or two, she or he can get lost rather quickly.

Full review on EFC.

No comments: