Wednesday 12 November 2014

Present Tense (2013)

Director: Jaz Garewal
Stars: Gabriel Diani and Janet Varney
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2014. Here's an index to my reviews of 2014 films.
I adored Present Tense when it played in the Arizona Shorts selection at this year's Phoenix Film Festival to the degree that I honed in on Tucson-based writer/director Jaz Garewal after the screening to seek his permission for me to screen it myself as part of the Apocalypse Later mini-film festival at LepreCon. The sci-fi audience there loved it too and it got good feedback when I screened it again in my annual round-up at the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival and at a charity event at Oakwood Creative Care. There are a host of reasons why it's easily likeable, especially to a genre crowd, but the most obvious is surely that it's so relentlessly reminiscent while never losing its originality. It takes firm aim at the old sci-fi trope of time travel, shoots it into little pieces by multiplying moments that we've seen in a variety of films or TV shows until it gets flamboyantly out of control, then hauls it carefully back into a neatly clich├ęd touching moment and finally brings it home by happily avoiding a Hollywood ending.

In this, Garewal is less a director and more of a conductor. If each character is an instrument, he allows all of them to play but controls how they do so with panache. I could almost see him as a shadow behind the screen, immediately letting Alex and Cynthia solo with facial expressions over the litany of the priest who is about to marry them, only to let Bryan, the best man, set the tone with a cautionary note and another Alex leap in with the first in a set of themes to duel it out for supremacy like an orchestral tug of war. You see, actor Gabriel Diani, who plays Alex, is all over this film like a rash, because there are a whole bunch of Alexes. The first has come back from the future to plead to his earlier self to not marry Cynthia. A mere moment later, another blips into being to plead with him to marry her after all, and then a third reiterates the message of the first. What's a poor bridegroom-to-be to do? Well, Garewal isn't remotely done and he keeps escalating things until nobody in the audience can fairly claim not to have been overwhelmed.
It was almost an anti-climax when I realised that Garewal had also composed the score. Of course he did, because the whole film is shot like a piece of music, most especially towards the end as the present day Alex plucks at everyone's heartstrings before Garewal wraps it up neatly with a perfect coda. There isn't any reason why I need to delve into the story deeper, except to ditch the musical metaphor and bring in one of an onion because that's what time travel has always meant to me. To reference just one example, it always felt empty to me to have only one terminator come back to chase down Sarah Connor and one freedom fighter come back to keep her safe. It made a lot more sense as the sequels added up and a lot more terminators started battling it out in the present to change the future. Surely, if time travel is ever made a reality (a convoluted sentence if I've ever written one), it would have layers enough to render time no barrier at all, with past and future spilling through the present with abandon. You know, like this.
The acting is capable, Diani and Janet Varney, who plays Cynthia, doing everything needed of them, but the relentless shenanigans of script trump them all, even as Diani progresses from outrageous outfit to outrageous outfit. The first is just a drab, dirty slacker, but the second arrives with an eyepatch and one kickass tricked out futuristic wheelchair, while the third has a futuristic energy source implanted into his belly. Nobody can fail to ride the waves, but it's the genre audience who will truly get this because they will recognise that Garewal isn't merely spearing one convention, he's shredding a whole bunch of them, some being specific films (the slo-mo Guns n' Roses pun from Terminator 2: Judgment Day most obviously referenced), but most being general observations on the genre. I particularly loved the shootout between two sides of a tiny church with nobody able to hit anyone else from a few feet away even with futuristic weapons. I also loved the Time Cops, erm Time Crimes Division, and the cartwheeling escape.

Genre audiences should count down the days before Garewal puts this short online. I'm sure it'll get there in the end, because it was successfully crowdfunded on Kickstarter, where it had the most appropriate $1 pledge of any campaign. For a film that revolves around a time war being unleashed at a wedding, how's this for a promise? 'We'll go back in time and reverse your most embarrassing moment!' Neat, huh? Well, it continues in a fashion that could have been included in the script. 'Because of how time travel works, you won't know that this was done. Think about the most embarrassing moment in your life. Know that, at one point in time, this was actually your second most embarrassing moment, 'cause you gave us a buck, and we changed your life.' No wonder they reached their Kickstarter goal! After all, if they hadn't, they'd have just gone back in time and changed it up until they did, right? I liked Garewal's previous film, BlamBlamBlam, ClickClickClick, but this is a leap forward and I'd love to time travel to see what's next.

Update: Present Tense is available to watch for free on YouTube.

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