Monday, April 04, 2016

Boston Sci-fi Film Festival 2016.05: Dual City and shorts

Ugh, is it really almost two months since this festival? Where does the time go?

I was able to collect a replacement pass, although there were moments when I figured that maybe I wouldn't need one, because the folks at the Somerville Theatre pretty much recognize me by now and knew I had one. Still, might as well have everything sorted. It sounded like someone else had dropped one too, so I hope they also got a replacement. The funny thing about this is that you might almost think they were too big to lose - I think mine will just fit in the appointment calendar/scrapbook - but being unwieldy doesn't really help: Since they don't fit into a pocket, or any sort of standard lanyard like I've gotten from other festivals, and, not quite being cardstock, don't feel sturdy enough to just put in any convenient spot (especially during snowy months), there's no good place to keep them. Some folks had laminated theirs and punched a hole, but something more compact and study would really be appreciated in the future.

Anyway, I did Dual City by rushing to the theater after working from home, and kind of wondered why it was playing a 5pm slot. I kind of wonder that about most movies that play that time period, but this was also perhaps the first or second feature from Japan to play the festival part of the event (I forget whether Summer Wars actually wound up paying or not), which is nuts - how do you do a science fiction festival and not have Japan represented? To be fair, everything I've heard is that actually booking Japanese films is really difficult, because the studios want a lot of money and don't really budge on those demands - witness Battle Royale not getting an actual release in the USA until its tenth anniversary, the difficulties even established festivals have in booking Japanese productions, and the way Chinese and Korean movies are getting more day-and-date releases in America while Japanese ones maybe book a single screening or two per city, often dubbed. Fortunately, there is some interesting independent work going on there with an interest in being seen by a wider audience.

Tuesday was technically documentary night, but I headed to the Micro instead, because while I didn't have a lot of particular ingest in the "Pluto Was Dissed" collection, the documentaries for the festival are often kind of brutal by-fans/for-fans/about-fans things, and I swore them off after a previous festival.

That's enough, though. Next up: More carping about projection!

Dual City (Duaru shiti)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival, digital)

I initially started this review by writing about how wonderfully weird Japanese science fiction is, no matter what the medium, but the truth is, Dual City isn't that strange, at least not by those standards. It's mainly just detailed, as befits the middle part of a trilogy, though not so densely so that it can't be enjoyed on its own. That approach doesn't always work, but filmmaker Yokna Hasegawa manage to keep putting new things into the environment at about the same speed she's moving through it, making even the messier bits enjoyable.

In this future Japan, the country has been split in two by a civil war. Yoriko Motegi (Aki Morita) is a nurse in a northern hospital, and has the good fortune to be the last potential hostage during a terrorist attack. Fortunately, the most relatively-sane of her kidnappers makes sure she gets out alive, and convinces her to escape to the south with a crucial bit of intelligence. There, she meets a guerilla cell whose leader Jun (Chieko Misaka) has visions which, combined with the intelligence Yoriko has brought, might allow highly-capable agent Ayumi Takagi (Tomomi Mabuchi) to infiltrate the Nephe Corporation's headquarters and stop their operations which are strangling both North and South.

It's a standard sort of sci-fi melange in some ways, a mix of elements that the filmmakers found cool in other stories, but there's an elegance to how Hasegawa and co-writer Tomohiro Hara choose and sequence them that's appealing: One of the first glimpses we get of Yoriko is her using a coin-operated virtual-reality machine to see her dead daughter, then we learn that Nephe uses corpses from the North to create what is called "" in the South, and then the plans are threatened by one member of the being seduced by a Nephe android. The ideas seem linked, the story moves between them naturally, and the encounters with these strange things move the story along in return. The necessary exposition seems fairly natural, and there's just enough twist on the familiar devices to keep things interesting but not confusing.

Full review on EFC.

"The Man Who Caught a Mermaid"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival: Pluto Was Dissed, digital)

It's not at all unusual for a the first thing you see that fits a theme to feel like the best when that theme keeps getting hammered, especially when that theme is "gotcha!", and you stay to just resent it. I suspect that this one could have done better in that department, though; the tone is such that it might be better off heading in the other direction rather than the way it veers. When something already doesn't seem right, there is not much excitement in it being not right in pretty much the exact way it seems.

The short is at least well-made; director Kaitlin Tinker and her cast have a good handle on the people involved, whether sad-sack fisherman who heads down to the pier every day hoping to catch a mermaid, tolerant wife, or less-accepting townsfolk, making the interactions feel genuine. The mermaid designs are nicely done as well, especially in terms of working with the shoddy surroundings.

"L'encenedor quĂ ntic" ("The Quantum Lighter")

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival: Pluto Was Dissed, digital)

"The Quantum Lighter" may be five minutes of time-paradox gobbledygook, but it's fast, and that counts for something. It's got a cute premise in terms of how it makes unusual use of the Grandfather Paradox, and the fact that it's too convoluted to actually seem like a good plan plays a reasonable part in the climax. It can suffer a bit in a block where too many shorts are going for a last-moment exclamation point, but it's pretty good.

"As They Continue to Fall"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival: Pluto Was Dissed, digital)

Nikhil Bhagat's short film feels like it might feel right at home as a six-page entry in Metal Hurlant or Dark Horse Presents (or whatever your adult-skewing comics anthology of choice is): A halfway-transgressive idea in its drifter who hunts and kills angels, just enough atmosphere and action to present a nice snapshot of what he and writer C. Robert Cargill are going for, and a snappy finish that leaves the viewer wanting more without being unsatisfied.

That may not sound like much, but it's pretty close to exactly what one wants to see out of a genre short. I don't mind if I never find out anything about this guy's war with angels or it played out on a larger scale, but I wouldn't exactly mind seeing that happen, either.

"Fabric Cosmos"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival: Pluto Was Dissed, digital)

"Cute" is the first word that comes to mind when you even try to describe "Fabric Cosmos", which presents a wee universe that is home to a kid and a squirrel, animated out of textile scraps and orbiting a cloth flower singularity which is obviously going to start pulling everything in and spinning as the music changes tempo, because that's how short films like this work. It's all about doing it well, putting in small touches that surprise and letting the audience see the technique without breaking the spell. Director Jung Seung-hee does a good job of this, making a film that plays as, well, cute, but without feeling saccharine.

"Made Out of Meat" (2015)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival: Pluto Was Dissed, digital)

This is the second time a short based upon this particular Terry Bisson story has played this particular festival, and there have been other adaptations besides. It's easy to see why; it's a conversation between two people (who may or may not take human form) that lets actors play disgust and incredulity at something usually taken for granted. It's a funny concept that can be done on a budget and usually puts a premium on performance.

Interestingly, director Safiyya Lea and co-star Sophie Francesca go a different direction than usual, pushing the dialogue back to telepathic voice-over and cutting what seems like 150 times in their for minute short, presumably with the intent to hammer home just how alien their disaffected observers are. I'm not exactly sure how effective it is if you don't already know the gag or haven't read the synopsis that that says they are bored aliens crashing an Earth party - it seemed too copy to get the point across to me, but I am old and uncool compared to the filmmakers and their likely audience.

"The Unforgiven"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival: Pluto Was Dissed, digital)

You could paste much of what I said about the block's other angel-related film here and it wouldn't be out of place; "The Unforgiven" works by telling one story in a world that is sketched well enough that others could easily be told in it. Its for an interesting angle of attack, treating guardian angels like undercover cops who must meet in secret locations and burn out from the thankless job of trying to save humans from themselves. The concept and mood are great.

The specifics of this story are a little rough, though. Director Jason Piccioni puts a little too much emphasis on the larger themes rather than making the specific story compelling, and it means the conclusion doesn't quite feel as meaty as intended. It's still a nice take on the subject, at least, one that could really work with more details to grab onto.

"Quest for a Different Outcome"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival: Pluto Was Dissed, digital)

This was the longest in the block at thirty minutes, and that is part of what works against it - even without the extremely literal title, any reasonably observant person will figure out where the movie is going about five minutes in, and from there they will just kind of be waiting it out. That might be okay, but the filmmakers spend most of the plentiful time they have on the super-secret organization recruiting Jeremiah "Jerry" Green rather than on him, despite his decisions being the fulcrum of the plot.

It tries in the second half, when Sarah Nicklin (whom New England genre fans should know and like from roughly a million movies shot in Rhode Island) enters the picture as Jeremiah's girlfriend who has more or less decided to part ways with him. She does yeoman's work in getting the film moving in a more personal direction, although Aaron Shand has a little trouble with Jerry - the story pivots on him having a more extreme personality than he really shows, but if he had that personality, the short would not be a whole lot of fun to watch.

"Requiem for a Robot"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival: Pluto Was Dissed, digital)

There is usually something sort of sarcastic about shorts like "Requiem for a Robot" - assigning sadness and despair to machines creates a sort of overwrought mockery, often being too be treated as more sophisticated because the filmmaker went for that instead of joy. There's a bit of that to this movie, with its consciously cheap-looking bot stumbling about, walking about how it has been abandoned, but director Christoph Rainer somehow managed to come out the other side, giving this thing a genuine sense of despair even as the misery is somewhat comical.

It's a bit of a one-gag short, but that gag is executed well; Rainer and his crew use shots of a city looking run-down or otherwise not at its best in a way that sometimes feels a bit like parody of serious drama but still works, getting both laughs and rueful reactions.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 February 2016 in Somerville Theatre Micro-Cinema (Boston Sci-fi Film Festival: Pluto Was Dissed, digital)

My notes for this movie, paraphrased, say something along the lines of "whiny brat breaks something, drives parents nuts, then makes things worse by cloning himself". I'm guessing that this is not exactly the vibe that the filmmakers were going for, although it is kind of the natural complement to this home-schooled kid who doesn't have a lot of friends making himself a playmate. There's some great material to be mined out of those ideas and the future that gives rise to them - it seems implied that this sort of isolation isn't uncommon - but filmmakers Susanne Aichele and Amanda Mesaikos don't dig into them as deeply as they could. Instead, they sort of get stuck on questions that don't really matter. It's kind of irrelevant which Caleb is the original, and the government only "allowing" one is such a rigid, unexplained regulation that it can only be resolved with a kind of confusing jump forward.

As much as the story could be a bit more fleshed-out, the sort mostly works because the performances do. Mark Frost and Elizabeth Healey make Caleb's parents feel very genuine, with Healey especially showing some strain. Twins James and William Hall are certainly not bad as Caleb(s), giving the character a personality that fits both as a demanding kid and a child who is sweetly incapable of understanding why anyone would have a problem with his or his brother's very existence. Making sure we buy that does a very nice job of papering over any issues the sort might have.

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