Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Boston Sci-fi Film Festival 2016.07: Alienation, The Phoenix Incident, and Mafia: Survival Game

Went out of order on this one, because The Phoenix Incident had a Fathom Events screening on Thursday, so I figured it would make sense to have the review out by then, as that would almost certainly be its biggest release, even if it has a regular release planned. But, no, I get emails from the PR firm handling the film saying it's embargoed. Embargoes are dumb in most situations, but this one seems even more so considering that it was already released on video in the UK (in some form).

But, anyway, enough about that...

First film on the night was Alienated, with producer Princeton Holt and writer/director Brian Ackley. I get into it a fair amount in the review, but their movie really loses me as it goes on, until I found myself really disliking it.

They seemed like nice folks; a little too fond of improv in their movie for my liking, and similarly sort of dismissing the inability to show the art which all the characters were talking about. There was also a sort of rambling talk about independent filmmaking and diversity in the industry.

Here's Keith Arem, director of The Phoenix Incident. Similarly enthusiastic, though an entertainment industry veteran (albeit from the gaming end), so he seemed more accustomed to what amounts to making a presentation. He wound up talking up unconventional distribution and the plans for an integrated app and viral content.

Then, after that, Mafia: Survival Game, which was terrible and had the second-worst projection of the festival to boot. You'd think something with a fair-sized Russian studio behind it would be able to send a DCP, even after the Friday-night debacle, rather than downloading a cruddy file to project on a substandard projector (which, again, is not the fault of the Somerville Theatre projection staff at all)..


* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, digital)

Given the focus of the festival in question, it's not surprising that a fair number of the negative assessments of Alienated were along the lines of it barely being science fiction, but that's letting it off too easily. This movie is a chore to sit through regardless of which genre labels it is tagged with, an improvised mess that never discovers a route around its problems or a way to mask is unpleasantness compelling.

It takes place, mostly, in the home of Nate (George Katt) and Paige (Jen Burry), a couple that has been together long enough to no longer be amused by each others' quirks when not taking the other for granted. Paige is the breadwinner right now, with Nate apparently looking for work in a half-heated fashion, between posting 9/11 conspiracy theories online and working on paintings, one of which was recently given to an ex-girlfriend. It's a point of contention between them even when Paige just wants to take a bath and watch The Michael J. Fox Show after work, even if it's a rerun. Not likely, because Nate saw a UFO earlier and thinks that Paige should be a lot more interested in that.

This kind of soured-relationship movie tends to bring out one of three feelings toward its outcome in a viewer: Either you hope that the couple will work things out because there seems to be something with saving; you sadly hope they break up because, even if there's something appealing in one or both beneath the fighting, it's too far gone or some ingredient was wrong from the start; or you hope that they'll stick together because they are two genuinely miserable people and their staying together not only prevents them from spreading that may to other partners but increases the chance of a double homicide which just gets rid of them altogether. That Alienated falls into the third category is actually kind of impressive; it's easy enough to lose patience with Nate, but especially since Paige at least seems to be showing enough interest in his art for Nate's condescension to make her sympathetic, but Paige's particular flavor of passive aggression eventually becomes wearing as well.

Full review on EFC.

The Phoenix Incident

* * 1/4 (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, DCP)

I think that I vaguely recall the "Phoenix Lights" that give this film its name; at least, there was a feeling of familiarity when the footage appeared which demonstrates that filmmaker Keith Arem has either done a nice job of integrating real-world material or creating something that seems real. That's better than a lot of people making a science fiction story that fits into the real world's shadows manage, but like a lot of sci-fi looking to fit into that niche, it runs into some pretty hard limits on what it can actually accomplish.

If you don't remember the Phoenix Lights, they were a set of unusually synchronized UFOs that appeared in the sky over Phoenix, Arizona, on 13 Match 1997. Less widely-reported, the film posits, is that four young men - Glenn Lauder (Yuri Lowenthal), Ryan Stone (Troy Baker), Jacob Reynolds (Liam O'Brien), and Mitch Adams (Travis Willingham) - out four-wheeling in the desert went missing that night. Police investigations initially focused on Walton S. Grayson (Michael Adamthwaite), a local cultist/hermit, but he was never charged - perhaps because of pressure brought to bear by the Air Force.

Arem presents this as a mock documentary which incorporates a fair amount of found footage, and while this occasionally makes a film unusually compelling and gives the filmmakers an in-story reason for things to be kept hidden and excuses a few other rough edges, it's a style that has some overhead. Here, that includes a fair amount of time spent explaining that Glenn was the sort of X-Games enthusiast who built wearable cameras to capture his tricks because GoPro was not yet a thing in 1997, time spent arguing about turning the camera off, and a fair chunk of material where the unseen filmmakers hear that having your only son disappear without any sort of closure is awful from the people left behind a and get stonewalled by a fair number of bland government functionaries. When they do get information, it's because an informant shot in shadows to preserve his anonymity (something that the structure of this sort of film prevents the audience from carrying about, so it's all window-dressing) is narrating but not showing anything. Even when this sort of thing is made to look authentic enough, as is the case here, it's all material that is honestly not that important but takes up a fair amount of time.

Full review on EFC. (At least, come 6 April 2016)

Mafiya (Mafia: Survival Game)

* (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, digital)

Nearly every time I see a movie based upon a video game, I can't but help but comment about how directly translating that medium's structures and mechanisms to film creates something incredibly awkward. That is nothing, however, compared to watching Mafia: Survival Game slavishly stick to the party card game that inspired it and fundamentally miss what makes something a watchable movie.

It reimagines this game as the most popular television show in the year 2072, where 12 people - some of them prisoners who will be freed if they win - compete for a pot of a million dollars that will be split among the survivors. This is meant quite literally - at the end of every round, the participants vote, and whoever is voted off is sent into a virtual reality simulation of his or her worst fears, and if you die in that... Well, you know.

This is the point where I would normally list out those contestants, but it's very close to pointless, especially since I only managed to get eleven down while taking notes. They have, in theory, been chosen like the contestants on an actual reality show, with clashing personality types and folks with connected backstories, and there are some potentially interesting ideas in there - ballerina Maria (Natalya Rudova) competing against her stalker Ari or one of the prisoners (Artyom Suchkov) being on death row because the oligarchs convinced him to take the fall for a friend's drunk driving - but with twelve of them to cram into 96 minutes, and occasional forays into the control room with the show's creator (Viktor Verzhbitskiy) that certainly feel like Ed Harris's scenes in The Truman Show, there's just not enough time for any of them to be anything but shallow.

Full review on EFC.

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