Saturday, March 17, 2018

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2018.06: Before We Vanish & Tangent Room

The initial schedule for this festival is pretty much always the first show at 7pm and the second at 9pm, which is practical in a lot of ways - your typical entry is a lot more likely to be the 85-minute direct-to-video special than the undistributed epic, and the Somerville Theatre doesn't have the 9:30pm slate of movies on weekdays during the winter; it's cold, and no need to keep the box office and concession stand open much longer than necessary.

So, they pushed Tangent Room forward to 9:15 and Before We Vanish back to 6:45, which actually created a little potential for it being a tight squeeze (and people coming in late because the festival's communication isn't always great), but credit where credit is due - I've been commenting for a while that it's kind of ridiculous to have a science fiction film festival without anything from Japan, and there were two this year. Of course, this one was already in some theaters when it played the festival (and apparently some VOD services, but not Amazon), but I got to see the new Kyoshi Kurosawa in a theater, so that's a good evening.

Sanpo suru shinryakusha

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

If and when Before We Vanish makes its way to physical media in the United States, I hope that the companion television series that director Kiyoshi Kurosawa did alongside it will also be made available, not just because it's more from one of Japan's greatest genre filmmakers and because the movie is good enough that I'd like to see it expanded, but because Kurosawa's adaptation of Tomohiro Maekawa's play has a combination of evolving personal stakes and escalating suspense that has recently worked extremely well on that medium, though it's just as impressive how well he makes it work in just over two hours.

Things open innocuously enough, with schoolgirl Akira Tachibana (Yuri Tsunematsu) buying a goldfish and going home to put it in water, but within minutes her mother is frantically trying to escape the house only to be pulled back in and Akira is heading down the street, leaving chaos in her wake. She's not the only one acting strange - writer Shinji Kase (Ryuhei Matsuda) has suddenly seemed to develop retrograde amnesia, which elicits annoyance as much as despair in his wife Narumi (Masami Nagasawa). And when reporter Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa) is trying to get footage of the crime scene at the Tachibana house, he finds another teenager, Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), asking about Akira - not because they're friends, but because they're the vanguard of an imminent alien invasion and have possessed human bodies so that they can learn about the species they're about to exterminate.

The basic meat of this story isn't exactly revolutionary - Kurosawa spends much of the movie with the Kases in a setup that resembles the much-better-than-you'd-expect-from-the-title I Married a Monster from Outer Space right down to the feeling that this is a movie about a woman frustrated with how the man she loved has changed since saying "I do" disguised as an alien-invasion story, although there's a bit of Starman in there as well. It's a nice showcase for Masami Nagasawa, who does a nice job of setting out Narumi's life without Kurosawa and co-writer Sachiko Tanaka having to spell it out, a relatable mix of pride and frustration and love that doesn't always get properly returned. Narumi is as confused and frightened as anyone would be once she knows what's going on, and Nagasawa gets the audience to be right there with her rather than outside, judging.

Full review on EFC

Tangent Room

* * (out of four)
Seen 14 February 2018 in Somerville Theatre #2 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, digital)

I'm not inclined to be terribly harsh where Tangent Room is concerned; it's close to a one-man show behind the scenes, which is an impressive feat for a movie with its level of ambition, and even if it sometimes seems stretched to reach the extreme lower end of what people will consider a feature, filmmaker Björn Engström doesn't go looking for the for the other twenty minutes that would get it to the eighty-five that big festivals and distributors often want. Like a lot of things at this festival, it's an interesting small project that doesn't necessarily fit elsewhere.

Even at that scale, though, it kind of can't avoid feeling like Engström is dinking around a little bit. Tangent Room is the sort of movie that starts off by defining some scientific jargon (in this case, Conformic Cycle Cosmology) and then locks a bunch of people in a room in order to solve a problem. The first bit of trouble is, these characters are paper-thin, and to an extent have to be; they have to be nondescript enough that the audience doesn't notice that there's something weird going on for a while but still leave room for moments when their acting way out of character is a good bit. Unfortunately, that's paired with Engström (via the guy gathering them in this room) being super goddamn cryptic, spending the whole first leg of the movie dancing around what these smart people are supposed to be figuring out, unsatisfactorily working hard to make the door an obstacle, and otherwise putting off the meat of the movie rather than getting to it.

Then, yes, the movie gets fun, as he finally lets out his neat idea and then dives in, building toward something frantic in a way that is both funny and unnerving in equal measure. He likely started with a list of ways he could play with the situation and puts them together in what may not be the most optimal order but is still pretty darn solid. He gives the audience time to realize that they've becomes somewhat untethered from the relatively fixed perspective from which one usually watches movies, and makes that part of what the characters are going through before literalizing it.

It is, once Engström gets there, a pretty neat trick. It's unfortunate that the getting there can diminish one's excitement for it (and there is a point where that one trick starts to lose its appeal), but one clever idea is a lot more than a lot of filmed science fiction musters, even when it's the more abstract variety.

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