Sunday, February 23, 2020

Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival 2020.09: Volition, I Am REN, and Blood Quantum

There were some things I might have wanted to see earlier in the day, but I wasn't really feeling like going out yet, since as was the case the night before, my stomach was in bad shape. I actually would wind up conking out a bit during Volition, enough to not give it a full review, although as I wrote something up on Letterboxd, I did start to wonder to what extent films like this - things with a sci-fi twist to the plotting but no truly original ideas or standout moments - have become filler at festivals like this. It's at least capable enough, which is an improvement over what similar films in previous editions of the festival have offered, but not quite enough to convince me to get a pass and try to see everything again.

I don't think any of the filmmakers who showed up for Q&As when I made it to the festival were local guys, and Piotr Ryczko is no exception, coming here from Poland with his pretty-decent android-in-a-mental-hospital picture, I Am REN. I wish that I liked it a bit more, because it was clearly a very personal film for him - as with Dead Dicks the night before, it was inspired by real-life mental illness in his family - but it wound up being a case of a movie where I think clarity might have served better than ambiguity.

I'm kind of surprised to see that his original novel is available on Amazon in English, and that the cover comes straight from the film despite having apparently been published before it was shot.

The last film of the day was Blood Quantum, which already had a Shudder logo in front of it, and more people stayed than I expected, considering most would be attending the 24-hour marathon scheduled to start at noon on Sunday, and I'd think you'd want all the sleep you can get! Not necessarily the case, and some were apparently up for a festival party afterward.

Me, I walked home, hit the bed, and felt an odd calm in not getting up early and settling in at the Somerville Theatre for the marathon. It's the first time I've skipped it since it took place at the Coolidge something like fifteen years ago, but it kind of lost its charm two years ago when folks started making lame running jokes during a 35mm screening of Close Encounters, and though I came back last year for the promise of greater involvement by the Somerville's Ian Judge and David Kornfeld and more 35mm, but this year's 'thon seemed like a lot of horror I'd seen recently and nothing being promoted as being on film. So, I figured that instead of pushing myself to stay awake, letting my aggravation with audience members who think they're the entertainment rival my excitement at discovering something new or seeing something offbeat, and using a vacation day to try and stay awake until 9pm so I could be to work fresh the next day, I'd catch up with a couple thing I've been meaning to see and use the vacation day on traveling someplace warm.

So that's a wrap on this year's Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, and a lesson not to see movies - which is supposed to be fun! - out of obligation, either because you've been doing it for a long time or because you want the festival to be a bigger deal or it's on awards lists or what.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

It's not a great sign when a time-travel crime movie is this tough for me to stay awake through despite favorable scheduling. This wants to be an intricate puzzle of a movie, setting pieces up and paying off when the plot loops back around, but the curving back on itself never comes off as more clever than obligation, and the picture revealed when you get to the end isn't that interesting. The cast is capable enough and the filmmaking is competent, but only occasionally feels specific.

It's the sort of "neat sci-fi idea that can be done without a lot of visual effects" movie that feels more like the filmmakers asked themselves what sort of movie they could make rather than how to make the movie they had in their head. That sort of film has become the backbone of smaller genre festivals, only now festival-goers have seen the like a few times already, and just doing everything in a professional manner isn't quite enough.

Jestem REN (I Am REN)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

When making a film like I Am REN, it's easy to see two worthy directions for things to go, and awfully tempting to find a way to try both. If you're going to do that, they'd better be equally interesting, or things would have to get more interesting as the film goes on and revelations change perspective. Writer/director Piotr Ryczko, ultimately, doesn't find the best way to put his various ideas together, even though many of them are good enough to keep the movie interesting.

He introduces the audience to the Wirskirska family - father Jan (Marcin Sztabinski), mother Renata (Marta Król), and son Kamil (Olaf Marchwicki), living in relative isolation in a lake house in Poland. One day after Jan goes to work, Renata has a breakdown, and that's when it comes out that Renata is a REN-model android. Such automata are usually decommissioned and replaced after such an incident, but Jan and Kam have a hard time conceiving that, so they go to a compound for treatment - but Renata soon starts to wonder if she can trust her memories.

As straight-ahead science fiction goes, there are a lot of nifty things going on if one takes those elements at face value: The way Renata appears to be seamlessly integrated with that Wiskirska's smart home is a bit of futurism that feels right and also hints at the horror story that this could become if she were to become unstable in a different way, for instance. The idea that someone could be affecting her memory makes her fascinating in terms of both the limitations of an AI's sentience and for how it corresponds to human life in the present, where one can be overwhelmed with false or misleading information with the need to make consequential decisions. There's a fair amount of Asimov's I, Robot in the scenes where Renata visits a pair of therapists, though with a Twenty-First Century view of technology.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Blood Quantum

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 February 2020 in Somerville Theatre #3 (Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, DCP)

Blood Quantum feels less like a movie than what you'd get if you took the pilot to a television series about the zombie apocalypse and edited it together with the first-season finale, and even if it was a good show, that probably wouldn't be the best way to experience it, at least the first time around. There's a big hole in the middle that can't be filled, and just a general feeling that you can't make the story mean something if you don't tell the whole thing from beginning to end.

It begins on the Red Crow Indian Reservation in Québec, where fisherman Gisigu (Stonehorse Lone Goeman) is understandably alarmed when the fish he catches don't stop flopping around after he guts them. He calls his son Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), the sheriff of the Mi'gmaq nation, although without details, so he's got a lot of other things on his plate as well, from picking up son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) and his half-brother Lysol (Kiowa Gordon), who managed to get thrown in jail on the other side of the bridge that connects the reservation to white Canada. Ex-wife Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), a nurse, is also getting a number of strange calls, Joseph's white girlfriend Charlie (Olivia Scriven) is pregnant, and by the end of the day, there's apparently a full-on zombie outbreak, with the twist that the Mi'gmaq appear to be immune. Six months later, the reservation has been fortified, but not everybody is happy about the increasing refugee population.

Expand this to a limited series, or just build the movie so that you're not skipping over all the tension between the big violent moments, and you've got a heck of a satiric hook there as the sort of North American white person who opposes accepting immigrants fleeing violence must depend on the kindness of those they've wronged while the Mi'gmaq must consider all the history between themselves and their neighbors - how do you act when you've gone from little power to a position of strength overnight? It's still there, as are a few potentially interesting bits of world-building, but so much has been elided that it's only at half power.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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