Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show

Sundance 2008 roundup: The IGMS set

The best and worst of sci-fi, fantasy and horror from this year's Park City lineup

The budgets may not be as big, but every year Sundance has a hefty offering of challenging sci-fi cinema. One of the best films of the last decade, Shane Carruth's Primer, won the festival's Grand Jury Prize in 2004. This year, maybe I just noticed it more or maybe there was an extra emphasis on certain genres, but there was a huge, almost intimidating slate of films that I wanted to write about for IGMS. But with well over 100 films playing - including various competitions - I could only do so much. This means I missed The Broken, George Romero's Diary of the Dead, Donkey Punch, Larry Bishop's Hell Ride and the well-received Half-Life. But for what it's worth, here's a small sample of what Sundance had to offer this year:

Sleep Dealer

Directed by Alex R ivera

Somehow this picked up two awards at the festival - and somehow one of them was for screenwriting. Never mind an interesting concept or two - all that gets lost in Alex Rivera's shoddy execution. It's the near future, and society has moved toward a few specific kinds of virtual reality. People get nodes implanted into their nervous systems and hook up to a global network - many use the technology to buy and sell their own memories. Or in the case of our protagonist, Memo Cruz, you can use it to work jobs overseas - an interesting commentary on the immigration debate.

But what possibilities may have been present in the conceptualization of Sleep Dealer have been lost. The logical and thematic holes are embarrassingly transparent and Rivera's execution behind the camera never brings the sense of urgency that the story seems to require.

Phoebe in Wonderland

Directed by Daniel Barnz

While watching Phoebe in Wonderland, it's hard not to be reminded of all the films that have been influenced by Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland over the last few decades. In fact, during certain sequences - when the mind of our young, mentally troubled heroine is slowly getting detached from reality - director Daniel Barnz even calls to mind Terry Gilliam-esque visual techniques. Unfortunately, the comparison doesn't suit him, or his film. Phoebe in Wonderland features a strong cast and has strong, even thought-provoking intentions, but a sense of monotony sets in early on and rarely wavers. And his upbeat message about kids growing up and fending for themselves is hopelessly trite.

Funny Games

Directed by Michael Haneke

OK, so this one I expected and anticipated all along. Michael Haneke's Funny Games - a very unique twist on sociological and psychological horror - is a remake of his own film, originally released in 1997. This new version was re-crafted essentially shot-for-shot, only with English-speaking actors Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt (in a particularly great performance) and Brady Corbet in the principle roles. But just because we may have seen the original doesn't mean the new version is any less potent.

A vacationing family gets taken hostage by a couple of well-to-do, well-behaved young men - almost too charming for their own good - who proceed to play sadistic games with their captives. For no other reason than mere entertainment, it seems. Aside from being scary and emotionally horrifying in its own right, Funny Games is a pointed critique at the uses of violence in the media - and violence's numbing effects in general. It was especially fun, during the screening, to see which of the audience members understood what they were seeing, and which ones were actually the butt of the joke.

Time Crimes

Directed by Nacho Vigalondo

Time Crimes is one of those films that is completely fascinating on its surface. And I won't say it doesn't bring any of that fascination to its subject matter. The thing is, it just takes a while to get there. Playing with cause-and-effect and time travel in a manner we've seen before, the film opens by creating an eerie mood, as our main character, Hector (Karra Elejalde) peers into the distant woods and thinks he sees . . . something. What he eventually does or does not see leads him along an increasingly treacherous and bloody chase, which leads to him getting sent a few hours back in time.

Like many films before it (the aforementioned Primer among them), Time Crimes intends to deal with the paradoxes of time travel and cause-and-effect, but falls into the horror-movie trap of requiring the main character to be a complete imbecile in order for the storyline to hold up. After that passes, the film settles into a sometimes-clever movie that, despite the possibilities its premise offers, never rises above the level of in-the-moment, horror entertainment.

Advantage (short)

Directed by Sean Byrne

However, the short film that preceded Time Crimes at Sundance was this little gem, Advantage. This horror film - which starts out an innocent romp between two young lovers and ends, well, not-so-innocent - is easily the best short I saw at this year's festival. I don't even want to give too much away - but I will say that the terrifying atmosphere that erupts all-too-suddenly immediately made me a believer in director Sean Byrne's talents. The imagery (and that timing of that imagery) that punctuates the disquieting changes in mood and feeling is nothing short of brilliant.

Reversion

Directed by Mia Trachinger

The New Frontier category is often used to cater to especially experimental films, and Mia Trachinger's Reversion definitely pretends to be that. I say "pretends" because, while making the film, Trachinger could not possibly have experimented with any thought, intellect or unique filmmaking techniques. Yes, it was that bad. The more I've thought of it as time as passed, the more I'm convinced that it is the worst film I have ever seen. I'm a proponent of experimentation and a strong supporter of Sundance in general - but never have I seen a film this incompetent. Reversion is supposedly about a near-future in which genetic mutants exist that have no concept of time. That is, every moment of their lives is "one big mish-mash." It's curious, then, how consistently Trachinger breaks her own rules applied to such characters. For a film that follows characters who don't understand time, Reversion is astoundingly linear. This is one of those special movies that is so bad, I can't even explain how bad it is unless you've seen it. Suffice it to say that it is completely incompetent in every way - cinematically, thematically, scientifically, existentially, intellectually, dramatically, theatrically and experimentally. Maybe you just had to be there.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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