Saturday, February 15, 2020

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2020.02: The Dustwalker, Synchronic, Sea Fever



I'm not going to lie - with a marquee that wide, I'm mildly disappointed that someone didn't go for the entire (original) title of Birds of Prey, but as you can see, there's just too much else going on at the Somerville to put all that up.

Like I said when writing up the first day of the fest, the opening weekend in particular was a pretty impressive schedule. When announcements started, my jaw kind of hit the floor when I saw Synchronic on the list. Dig back through my stuff, and you'll see that Moorhead & Benson are favorites, and this festival landing their newest is, let us say, a bit more than I have sometimes expected. I'll happily hit it again if it plays Fantasia in July, especially if the directors do a Q&A, because theirs are generally great. I'm a fan, and when I heard the folks behind me saying it was "pretty good for an indie film", my initial instinct was to ask them to show more respect.

Which is fun; there aren't a lot of movie-related things that get me feeling that sort of passionate fan energy these days.

I did errands between the first movie of the day and Synchronic and had been back and forth on seeing the last one, with both winding up a little closer to the DTV/VOD/streaming fare that the festival has generally featured. They're an interesting contrast, though - The Dustwalker feels like something that aimed higher than its level of resources and wound up a mess, while Sea Fever worked to its budget and more or less worked, even if it maybe doesn't have as many big swings. I'm not sure which approach is better, in general, although it's long been what we as science fiction/fantasy enthusiasts have had to choose from at the movies.

The Dustwalker

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

The distributors that pick this Australian horror movie up will likely be able to cut a good enough trailer that the people who stream it wonder why it just doesn't click afterwards, even discounting the visual effects that look a few years out of date. Watching it, I noted that it's been a while since I've seen a film struggle so much to string scenes together, leaving one always a bit out of sync. It feels a bit like someone took a prefabricated monsters-from-space movie kit and didn't read the instructions, just tossing the "extra" bits away after gluing the obvious ones together.

It starts with something crashing outside a small town in Western Australia, taking out communications with the outside world and hitting the man who comes to investigate with some sort of red dust. Everyone naturally leans on Joanne Sharp (Jolene Anderson), one of the town's two police officers, to figure out what's going on, even as she and sister Samantha (Stef Dawson), plan to pack up and move to the city. A lot of people have started acting very strange, though, and geologist Angela (Cassandra Magrath) has found some unusual material in a brand new crater.

The audience never gets a look inside that crater (or it was too quick to register with this viewer) which makes one wonder if the production budget was sometimes tighter than anticipated, like there was no money to either render something that could be the melted remains of a spaceship or even commission one from a local sculptor, at least once the visual effects budget was spent on a dust storm and some under-skin motion on the faces of the infected. It doesn't necessarily feel like something director Sandra Sciberras is shooting around, and there are no scenes later where Joanne and Angela refer to anything particularly specific about what they saw, but it's an odd thing to be missing. Add some rough CGI creature effects, and a picture quickly emerges of a movie whose budget was no match for its ambition.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Synchronic

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

The three previous feature films by the directing team of Aaron Moorehead and Justin Benson have earned them a great reputation in sci-fi/horror circles and been the sort of movies that fans build a festival schedule around, but their particular combination of meticulous construction, genre awareness, and emotional tensions has seemingly conspired to keep them from playing to a larger audience. Synchronic seems like a movie that could go wider; it's smart and witty and occasionally exciting without seeming quite so clearly focused on its own intricacy.

It starts with a couple of visitors to New Orleans having a really bad trip when they try new designer drug "Synchronic", and they're not alone - EMTs Steve Denube (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis Dannelly (Jamie Dornan) are finding themselves responding to calls that defy belief more frequently. Getting stuck with a needle at the scene of an overdose has Steve getting some tests that reveal a brain tumor, something he keeps from Dennis, who has problems of his own when his 18-year-old daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) seems to have been at the scene of another overdose and then vanished.

Where things are going, plot-wise, is clear enough that it's fairly easy to forgive the fair amount of shortcuts and coincidences Benson's script employs getting there, although it creates an odd sort of tension: The mechanism they built requires Steve to be empirical in how he approaches his rescue attempt and for the audience to pick up on details even as the situation is generally chaotic. It's ultimately something that the filmmakers manage to make work, and even play into the personalities of the characters: Steve is smart, but sloppy, an armchair scientist at best, so his stumbling and having to guess right without knowing the whole picture is a match for how he deals with his diagnosis and how Dennis approaches his more conventional search and the strain it puts on his marriage. People don't suddenly get super-competent when they've got a mission, and these guys are used to flying by the seat of their pants at their regular job.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Sea Fever

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

Sea Fever isn't fancy, but it's a rock-solid "danger from the deep" movie which does a good job with a lot of things which aren't necessarily exciting: Working around a limited budget for actually showing the monster, getting the cast to build characters around pretty thin specs and having them work as a bit more than cardboard figures, implying all of the backstory that would explain things. It's impressive craft that nobody in the audience would notice unless filmmaker Neasa Hardiman blew it.

It opens with graduate student Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) in her natural environment - a university laboratory, examining samples under strong lights, ignoring the other faculty and students celebrating something or other behind her. Ah, but a scientist needs experience in the field, so she heads to the docks and the Niamh Cinn Oir, whose married operators Gerard (Dougray Scott) and Freya (Connie Nielsen) supplement what a fishing crew can make by renting spots to researchers. She's impressed by the filtration system designed by engineer Omid (Ardanlan Esmaili) and maybe likes the look of Johnny (Jack Hickey) a bit, though other members of the crew (Olwen Fouéré & Elie Bouakaze) are a bit superstitious about her red hair. Of course, it's hard to argue that her hair is what leads Gerard to steer the boat into restricted waterways, or calls forth the creature(s) that attach themselves to the vessel.

It's not entirely unheard-of to but a character like Siobhán at the center of a monster movie, but it's not usually the way things go; it's usually more entertaining to have her feed information or be an eccentric foil the the person of action leading the fight. Choosing to do so shakes a familiar story up in interesting ways, though; Hardiman takes a lot of beats that you expect to see in the Siobhán/Johnny romance and playing them out in how she and Omid respect each other's technical savvy, for instance. It also reframes a lot of the movie as problem-solving, rather than fighting, which requires a bit less in the way of special effects and gives the audience a little more chance to play along.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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