Thursday, March 15, 2018

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2018.05: Space Detective & Darken

The period from mid-February to mid-April, when I'm seeing and reviewing things from the Boston Sci-Fi and Underground Film Festivals, is not necessarily difficult for me as a guy who likes to see and write about a lot of movies, especially the ones that might not otherwise get a lot of digital ink, but it's one where I maybe think about how to phrase things a bit more. It's potentially more important to make clear to the readers that this movie isn't necessarily a mainstream thing for people used to the production values or clarity of a studio film, just in case someone is reading it later without that context. And, on the other side, a large chunk of the readership is actually likely to be the people who made the film, and 90% of the time, I don't want to just be the guy saying "your movie, by the standards of what people usually see, isn't very good". A lot are just starting out or have spent a long time on this labor of love, and contrary to what some folks think, people who write about film don't want to be dream-squashers.

Which brings us to the first movie of the night, Space Detective. Writer/director/many other things Antonio Liapur (center) and writer/star/many other things Matt Sjafiroeddin (right) joined Leandra Sharron from the festival before and after the film, and, guys, don't take it too hard, but you made the sort of movie where the reference is often the entire joke that I really don't like; I probably should have bailed and headed to Redbones or something, but I figured it was just 73 minutes, so I should see it through. If I were smarter and had watched the previews for the festival, I might have hit the shorts instead, but I don't usually bother before festivals. I will almost certainly never watch the web series based upon the movie that has apparently been ordered.

But, you know what? I admire the heck out of them; they worked on this thing for something like ten years, making it rotoscoped animation so that they could shift all the effort and expense onto themselves. They made the sort of movie that they would want to see, that a lot of the people who come to this festival enjoy, and it looks like they might wind up getting paid a little for it. Good on them.

Anyway, even with the post-film discussion, the whole thing was short enough that there was time to stretch our legs, get a snack, etc., before Darken. That's another case where, while the film isn't likely to be a big mainstream deal - I suspect that if I came upon it on Amazon Prime, I'd probably pass it by, and I don't know that I would necessarily recommend it for someone with an hour and a half to kill but plenty of other options. But it's got some interesting elements - if nothing else, I hope people are looking at the costume designer and thinking of hiring her for bigger things - and you can see enough good work being done to want to see what the folks involved are going to do next.

That's undeniably a backhanded compliment - nobody makes a movie, submits it to film festivals, and looks for distribution thinking "this is something that, in twenty years, will be seen as an interesting early-career step in my evolution to being a great filmmaker." But sometimes that's the vibe a film has, and that's the pool this festival plays in most of the time.

Space Detective

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

If you're into references that are expected to pass as jokes and visuals hyper-stylized enough to hopefully smother the overall cheapness of the production, you might find some charm to Space Detective, but though it's good-natured and outwardly frantic, it's terribly bland. There's not an original science fiction or hard-boiled detective idea to be found in it, and even the execution of it is extremely generic; there's not a line in it that doesn't seem lifted from the most hackneyed version of the story, like the people making it have watched Star Trek and The Big Sleep, loved the trappings, and put no work into figuring out that these things were iconic because there was some thought put into the science-fictional idea or that chewy, sardonic Raymond Chandler narration.

Instead, the filmmakers come up with jokes about how silly this is, or interjecting crude modern stereotypes into these stylized situations. There's sometimes an amusing bit to be found there, or a moment when the animation jumps from being a way to cover up how the folks involved are shooting it in their garage to something that genuinely looks neat, or briefly hits the sweet spot where a mash-up takes on a life of its own. The cast mostly does pretty good, by and large playing the jokes straight.

Folks who enjoy playing spot-the-reference may dig it, but there really nothing there but mentioning better things and coloring over it. It's the sort of film where all of its inspirations are clear, but few seem to have inspired the filmmakers to do something worth seeing on its own.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

There's something almost bizarrely endearing about the limited resources visible for the production of Darken, like the filmmakers looked at their script and the vacated building that they had to shoot in and said, okay, we're just going to do this, and if we do this well enough, the audience will supply the reasons why this all makes sense on their own. In this case, they do just well enough to intrigue.

It opens with two women seemingly banished from a cult before shifting attention to Eve (Bea Santos), a troubled nurse who is there when one of them is found outside a seemingly-abandoned building. She goes in and encounters Mercy (Zoe Belkin) and Karisse (Gabrielle Graham), but soon finds that it's hard to find her way back out, and this "Darken" is supposedly learned by one "Mother Darken", although her priestess Clarity (Christine Horne) has been doing the whole thing where she speaks for Mother without anyone seeing her for a while.

Oftentimes an independent genre movie will distract by something being almost comically subpar, but this one almost has the opposite problem: Everybody in Darken is wearing the sort of fantastic post-apocalyptic couture that you only see in comic books and Mad Max movies in marked contrast to the redressed living rooms and basements around them. It's initially a pretty strange contrast, and I don't think that either writer RJ Lackie or director Audrey Cummings quite manages to do all that they could with it, but there's a metaphor about people with sharp, heroic images of themselves in the midst of a run-down, disappointing world that the movie flirts with, with the self-doubting Eve's conventional attire serving as a contrast and Charity's "Arbiter" Martin (Ari Millen) undergoing a wholesale makeover as his role and attitude changes. This may not necessarily be entirely deliberate as much as a case of costume designer Marissa Schwartz being able to deliver more on a small budget than the rest of the film's crew, but it works even as one notices the incongruity.

Full review on EFC

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