Monday, March 07, 2016

Boston Sci-fi Film Festival 2016.02: Embers, Arrowhead, House of Time and Einstein's God Model

It's surprisingly peaceful to forget your phone sometimes, especially when you're spending the day at the movies just a block or two away from where you left it in your apartment. That's what I did on the second day of this festival, although it didn't actually put me or off touch with much - I had my tablet with me and the cable company's WiFi actually works fairly well in the Somerville Theatre, so I could write and look stud fairly well when need be. It just meant that there were few buzzing notifications that distracted me during the movie.

It did mean using the tablets camera during filmmaker Q&As instead of the phone's, and while they're probably exactly the same, I bet I looked like 75% more of a tool.

EMBERS filmmakers at Boston Sci-Fi

That's Embers director Claire Carré and co-writer Charles Spano, who made one of the niftiest small-scale indies in the festival. One thing that came through to a very impressive extent was just how much they researched the subject and made sure that what they depicted on-screen made sense in terms of what we know about memory loss and cases of people being unable to form new memories. It's the sort of thing that many filmmakers would probably be willing to let go, because why weigh down your big idea with anything having to do with neurology, but which probably gave their movie a subconscious level of realism.

They also mentioned that it was kind of an unusual shoot, taking place in three or four distinct locations - outside New York, the area around Gary, Indiana, and Poland. The latter came about kind of late in the game, with it sounding like they weren't going to show any of the film from the perspective of people with long-term memory until they found this great bunker to shoot in. Having those scenes also wound up increasing the amount of effects work done, though, both for the virtual-reality interface to Miranda's computer and when they discovered that what they thought was a simple cello piece was really hard, necessitating a body double. Aside from that, there was also a fair amount of graffiti removal done in other scenes, under the rationale that people who couldn't recall their own names probably wouldn't be tagging.

Very cool folks; here's hoping we see a lot more from them.

EINSTEIN'S GOD MODEL filmmakers at Boston Sci-Fi

Here's some of the cast and crew of Einstein's God Model - co-star Mallory Bordonaro, writer/director Philip T.Johnson, co-star/producer Kenneth Hughes, and producer Craig Dow. It's not really a great movie, but it's a fair bit better than one which had its path to realization (guy loves movies but takes a different career path before putting something together) generally has. Oddly, it's got a release date listed on IMDB, which seems likely to be self-distribution or a VOD release with maybe a theater in someone's hometown.

Looking at these two visits back-to-back from much later, I'm a little more tempted to roll my eyes at the festival's participation-ribbon approach to awards, given that Einstein's God Model won "Best Science" based on name-dropping and is own claims of being based on real science. The Embers folks sure seemed to integrate more research and also showed characters trying to do actual problem-solving, whereas Embers got a "Judges' Commendation".

Next up: Skipping ahead a few days to get a review up before a movie has its one-night theatrical release.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, digital)

The shots of present-day ruins that open Embers are a reminder of sorts that worlds end all the time, on the scale of individual hopes and dreams, though those tiny apocalypses are often part of a greater calamity. That perspective is what makes this particular movie work - it has its one great disaster, but has the curiosity to ponder all of the person-sized ones that result.

Those shots of run-down buildings soon give way to the people inside one as a guy (Jason Ritter) and a girl (Iva Gocheva) awaken with no memory, but they can speak well enough and reason that the matching handkerchiefs tired to their wrists are a symbol that they are meant to be together. Elsewhere, a young boy (Silvan Friedman) wandering alone crosses paths with an older man, at least until they encounter someone whose lack of personal history has him practically feral (Karl Glusman). James Robertson (Tucker Smallwood) is a bit more stable; he literally wrote the book on cognition before the pandemic and has devised systems to keep afloat while trying to train his memory. And in an underground bunker, Miranda (Greta Fernandez) lives with her father (Roberto Cots), regularly quizzed by a computer to make sure that she has not been affected by what happened outside seven years ago, practicing the cello, and bored out of her mind.

Amnesia as an infectious disease is not a particularly new concept, but it's rarely as well thought-out as it is in Embers, even if director Claire Carré and co-writer Charles Spano don't put all their research and backstory on the screen directly. The most intriguing idea in the film, and the one which gives it a hidden foundation, is the implication that many people knew what was coming and made what preparations they could. And while we're trained, to a certain extent, to admire the preparations of Dr. Robertson and Miranda's father for being practical and possibly clever enough to at least partially beat this disease back, the simple step taken by the young couple who guess each other's names every morning seems the most important - they probably couldn't do what those other characters did, but maybe this kept them from becoming like "Chaos" (as the raging man is listed in the credits).

Full review on EFC.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, digital)

Though all independent films have to deal with the realities of building something that can potentially make its investment back, it's a little more obvious for genre films, especially science fiction. Not only does every bit of visual world-building cost, but the safest eventual market (basic cable) restricts the filmmaker by having fairly specific content and length standards. It's hard to tell what boxed Arrowhead in the most, but it leads to a film with decent ideas that can never get behind one and run with it for more than a short stretch.

It opens with a fair chunk of exposition about one general defeating another but being the sort of less-than-magnanimous victor that inspires resistance and imprisons a lot of guys in mining camps. One of them is Kye Cortland (Dan Mor), tech-savvy enough to make himself useful to the guards but loyal to the fugitive General Hatch (Mark Redpath). He escapes, naturally, but winds up stranded in an even more inhospitable planet with young biologist Tarren Hollis (Aleisha Rose). The ship's computer R33F (voice of Shaun Micallef) is sometimes helpful, but this place is as weird as it is dangerous.

That danger comes in a lot of different forms, and there are moments when the viewer will likely wish writer/director Jesse O'Brien had just picked one. As much as "what you might expect except for that one thing" often can keep a science fiction story from being much less creative than it should, not having that singular bit of mystery to focus on (our multiple mysteries that have some sort of connection), O'Brien never gets his story to build to anything or mean anything. The explanations that come at the end don't have much to do with half of what the characters have dealt with, and the challenges don't resonate with their inner conflicts. Nothing is ever pushing in the same direction.

Full review on EFC.

House of Time

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, digital)

Ambiguity is a powerful tool for filmmakers and other storytellers if they can handle the challenges of using the same material to build two opposing narratives at once, and not just because pulling it off is an impressive achievement. It engages audiences' intellects as well as their emotions, gives them something to talk about afterward, and makes things feel more sophisticated than masterfully crafted clarity. The thing to watch out for - and what makes House of Time take a hard fall - is that pursuing ambiguity can lead to paralysis, an unwillingness to do anything that might mark one path as true, making that lack of a definitive answer the entire point rather than a reason to think more about a particular subject.

It doesn't quite present itself as a puzzle from the beginning, but it comes close, quickly introducing the idea that Robert d'Eglantine (Maxime Dambrin) has invited five friends plus associate Elsa Orsic (Julie Judd) to an out-of-the-way country house on 18 May 2014 that he claims was near the site of secret SS experiments during the war that created a sort of wake that would take them back in time 70 years that night. Thinking it just a peculiar party game, the guests dress in period clothing and, sure enough, their mobile phones stop working at the appointed hour. That can be explained, especially since Robert has the resources not only for a hidden signal jammer but the other obstacles that keep them from exploring the world outside. But what of Mathilde Barthélémy (Esther Comar), an injured Resistance operative who shows up soon enough. She readily admits to having been an actress, but would she take a bullet for this sort of role?

Taken on its own, the idea that the five guests (Elsa is there to be a medic of sorts) may either have been transported back to the Second World War or be part of an elaborate and potentially sadistic bit of role-play seems like it could be entertaining and even have a philosophical bent, but for some reason, director Jonathan Helpert and writer Jean Helpert are only willing or able to push things so far. That the question is open due to the lack of knowledge rather than conflicting information isn't a cheat, but it's the less exciting way to make a movie out of the situation. It necessitates the mystery being the source of the movie's tension rather than potentially being surrounded by Nazis or the likelihood that a friend is playing a cruel joke.

Full review on EFC.

Einstein's God Model

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, digital)

There's an atom-thin line between movies that separate themselves from the pack by being prepared with irreverence, eccentric characters, and black comedy and the ones that fail horribly because injecting that sort of thing into something that wants to be at least partially taken seriously is really hard to do, and I'm not quite sure which side Einstein's God Model falls on. There are moments when filmmaker Philip T. Johnson shows the wit to stand out from the large crowd of people building movies out of whatever discarded analog equipment they can find, but not as many as one might like; still, the good bits make it more memorable than a lot of the homebrew sci-fi out there.

After an opening that shows an experiment from a few years back going as badly as they usually do in this sort of prologue, we meet Brayden Taylor (Aaron Graham) and Abbey Lucey (Kirby O'Connell), a young couple sweet and likable enough that Abbey can't be long for this world. Her death seems Brayden into a downward spiral until he eventually discovers a device developed decades ago with the intent of communicating with the dead. The last scientist investigating it is dead, but his protégé Louis Masterbrook (Kenneth Hughes) is eager to insist, and he gets them in touch with Craig Leeham (Brad Norman), a medium who owes his powers to that experiment from the start.

Johnson puts a claim that this is based on "real science" and spends a lot of time name-dropping will-known physicists and inventors throughout the film, especially in a set of opening titles that will definitely amuse some in the audience, but it's likely not that much better than is typical. When you get right down to it, it's basically talking about ghosts and using lab equipment as props rather than religious or spiritual iconography. That's tricky; the best ghost stories work based more on pure emotion than mechanics, and taking a science-fictional approach inverts that, potentially pushing things too far toward procedure compared to feeling, and that's an obstacle that Einstein's God Model occasionally stumbles over, especially at the climax, when the shell game overwhelms the emotional attachment that supposedly enables it.

Full review on EFC.

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